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 10, 2015

Review: Coriolanus


Ralph Fiennes is Caius Martius, an experienced and successful soldier and general in Rome (which looks an awful lot like modern day Belgrade). He has just fought the Volscians, led by his enemy Aufidius (Gerard Butler). Back home, the now Caius Martius Coriolanus he seems set for a career in politics. However, his attempt to become Consul in the senate hit a few snags. You see, Caius Martius is a pompous prick of a human being who thinks himself well above the people and can’t be arsed when it comes to actually going to talk to the common folk. He’s a soldier, not a diplomat. The people of course, riot, and even those closest to him turn on Caius Martius, including his controlling, militant mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave). Exiled from Rome, the now angry and bitterly disillusioned Caius Martius seeks out his enemy Aufidius for a meeting…and that’s when things get really interesting. Brian Cox plays Menenius, Caius Martius’ most loyal political ally, Jessica Chastain plays Caius Martius’ wife, and a sly James Nesbitt is Caius Martius’ chief political adversary.

 

Although there’s some good acting in debut director Ralph Fiennes’ ferocious 2011 film version of the Shakespeare play, there are serious misgivings I have with it. Firstly, it’s not one of The Bard’s best works, to be honest. There’s nothing profound or frankly very interesting going on here. It’s your typical megalomaniacal military leader getting his comeuppance-type deal. I can’t speak to how original it was in Shakespeare’s day, but since Fiennes and adapter John Logan (“The Last Samurai”, “Sweeney Todd”, “Hugo”, “Rango”) made a choice in either making this film or not, I think I can safely say that they needn’t have really bothered. We get it, Coriolanus is an arrogant, snobby prick and his attitude is going to be his downfall. It’s just too thin, really and I’m not surprised that it’s one of The Bard’s least-staged plays. I get the idea behind it, but perhaps people have been ripping of Shakespeare for so long that the story here seems so obvious and ancient, despite the modern dress.

 

That leads me to the film’s other big problem. Fiennes (who also played the title role on stage a decade or so before) has reappropriated Shakespeare’s Roman story to a modern context, set in what seems to be the middle of the Balkan Wars, in a place that just happens to be called Rome, and where everyone speaks the Bard’s very stylised dialogue. It’s a nice try and I personally don’t have too much trouble deciphering Shakespearean dialogue as others might, but it never quite comes off. You’re left with the feeling that the modern setting detracts more than it adds, and if the film had to be made at all, it probably shouldn’t have been given a modern setting. It certainly doesn’t serve the main character very well. Even in the Belgrade/Rome it’s set in, his stubbornly pompous, anti-PC, arrogant bastard of a character just wouldn’t rise to such a position now. Perhaps it’s supposed to be set in some kind of dictatorship, but the British parliamentary-style the film’s world seems governed by, would suggest otherwise. The political/TV ‘talking heads’ idea was rather clever, but the actors in those roles are unfortunately a bit wooden. It’s all a bit corny, really, though it’s certainly more successful than say “Romeo + Juliet”, Geoffrey Wright’s bogan “Macbeth”, or the disastrous “Titus”.

 

I also didn’t care for the handheld, shaky-cam style of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (“Green Zone”, “The Hurt Locker”, “Captain Phillips”). It’s ugly and unnecessarily shaky. It doesn’t add realism, it adds a distraction in an attempt at synthetic realism. What the film does have, are some terrific performances. Some of the background characters are a tad awkward and forced, and I can’t for the life of me work out who thought American actress Jessica Chastain belonged anywhere near Shakespeare (Why does she have to appear in every movie nowadays?), but pretty much everyone else is up for it. Ralph Fiennes sure does Shakespeare rather brutally and intensely, and that’s true of his absolutely captivating lead performance here. You hang on his every word, and of all the cast members he seems to have the firmest grasp on the language. I don’t especially believe in the modern practise of dumbing down Shakespeare to make it palatable to the hippity hop youth of today, and I certainly can’t stand what Baz Luhrmann did to “Romeo + Juliet”. If you ask me, all you need to do to get people to understand The Bard is find a film version (or even a play, if you’re into that kind of thing) with genuinely excellent performances from actors who know and understand the text. If you’ve got the right actors, the meaning will be conveyed. If it’s not, then that perhaps is more the fault with the person than with The Bard’s text (And believe me, I’m neither a lover nor aficionado of Shakespeare, I simply don’t find him as daunting as others seem to, for the most part). That’s why the 1968 version of “Romeo and Juliet” spoke to me as a teenager in the mid-90s, whereas the Luhrmann version didn’t. Fiennes, in his ferocious performance, conveys the pride and foolish arrogance perfectly so that a) A moron can understand it, and b) The dialogue doesn’t stand out like a sore thumb. Some of the others in the cast aren’t able to do that, but Fiennes certainly pulls it off himself. Also brilliant, and let’s face it, no one will be surprised, is Vanessa Redgrave as Coriolanus’ militant mother. Like Fiennes, the dialogue fits her like a glove, and her character is another in a long line of strong women behind somewhat weaker men. The real surprise for me was one Gerard Butler, who you’d think would be an empty exercise in bluster and brawn. This role requires some depth behind that bluster. Instead of being one-dimensionally loud and macho he’s so bloody persuasive and riveting you wish he were in much more of the film. At 75 minutes too late, he and Fiennes finally meet on screen and it’s captivating and seriously tense stuff. Shakespearean dialogue proves to serve the Spartan Ab Cruncher rather well, I can’t deny. Brian Cox is also solid, if upstaged by most of the others, and James Nesbitt is much more at home here than you might think, giving an enjoyable performance as an opposing politician. Chastain is a bore (partly because her character is one too), and never seems comfortable with the dialogue. Like a lot of non-British actors, she seems to be delivering The Bard’s words without actually understanding them.

 

A nice idea in theory, but the blend of Shakespearean dialogue and modern setting doesn’t quite come off, despite some strong performances. Fiennes, Butler, and Redgrave are captivating, the film less so.

 

Rating: C+

Review: First Blood


Several years after serving, John Rambo (Sly Stallone), a Medal of Honour-receiving Vietnam vet and Green Beret finds out that one of his comrades has died from Agent Orange-induced cancer. He finds himself drifting into the sleepy small town of Hope, Washington (fictional, but it was filmed in the real Hope…in Canada!) when the local sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy) spots him as he drives by. He doesn’t like the long-haired, unshaven look of him and politely tries to get him to drift elsewhere. When it becomes obvious that Rambo (who just wants to be left alone) isn’t going to do this, Teasle sees him as a troublemaker and has him arrested for vagrancy. The subsequent rough treatment by Teasle’s officers, led by the nasty Galt (Jack Starrett) merely serves to inspire extremely traumatic flashbacks for Rambo of his treatment as a POW. He attacks, and runs off into some nearby woods. Teasle and his men (including David Caruso and Chris Mulkey) pursue him, but it quickly becomes clear that the woods are very much Rambo’s kind of terrain, as the seriously troubled former soldier has finally snapped. Richard Crenna plays Col. Trautman, Rambo’s former mentor and the only man he trusts, who attempts to assist Teasle, and the group of state police and National Guardsmen who have turned up to put an end to this situation. In the meantime, he fills Teasle in on just what kind of soldier he is dealing with. Bill McKinney turns up as the representative of the state police.

 

We’ve probably all seen this 1982 Ted Kotcheff (“Wake in Fright”) war-drama, but have you seen it again lately? I have, and I had forgotten just how damn good it is. Co-scripted by star Sly Stallone, this isn’t a ra-ra, Reagan-era, right-wing flag-waver of American military super-awesomeness. That’s either the second or third film you’re thinking of, if that’s what your impression is. What Stallone and co-scripters Michael Kozoll (“The Hard Way”) and William Sackheim (Producer of “Pacific Heights” and co-writer of “The Hard Way”) have focussed on here is the plight of the returning Vietnam veteran, who went away a soon-to-be war hero, and came home to a country that had viewed the Vietnam war on TV and had pretty much changed its tune and in the eyes of many, turned its back on its soldiers. However, more crucially it also deals with genuine criticisms of why American troops were sent there at all, as well as the psychological FX of war on those who were there doing the fighting and killing. Overall it also seems to me to be an example of the idea of the war machine, with Rambo a soldier trained to kill now returning and not knowing where their place is in society. To call this a flag-waving pro-war film is insane, even though Mr. Stallone is a noted right-winger. It’s not a propaganda piece at all. It is, however, an extremely entertaining film that is quite obviously one of the best films of its type, probably even the best.

 

When people try to defend Sly Stallone as a capable actor, “Rocky” and “Cop Land” get a mention, but I reckon you could easily cite this film too. He effectively conveys a troubled guy who just wants to be left alone. He has enough emotional scars to deal with, he doesn’t need some insecure, controlling small-town lawman giving him shit. I strongly and aggressively disagree with Leonard Maltin’s suggestion that Stallone’s final speech is unintelligible. I understood practically every word of it, and it’s the undeniable heart of the film. It’s the scene that explains the message of the whole thing. It’s not as powerful as Bruce Dern seemingly losing control of his own voice for a second in “Coming Home”, but it’s not that far behind, either.

 

Stallone has been surrounded here by a pretty damn rock-solid supporting cast. The standouts are Brian Dennehy (especially), Richard Crenna, and actor-director Jack Starrett (who directed the blaxploitation classic “Cleopatra Jones”, of all things). Brian Dennehy may be one of the best living actors to have not won an Oscar (along with Donald Sutherland). The quality of his films may vary, but you’ll rarely see him fail to do his very best in anything he appears in. So far as one can tell, he just doesn’t phone in performances and he certainly doesn’t fail here. I bet he approached his character here like he was actually the good guy. He is absolutely not playing the good guy here, though you do get the sense that his character can be a good guy…so long as you never cross him. His character Sheriff Teasle is used to having things the way he likes it in his quiet little town, and is actually a controlling prick. Dennehy is a most versatile actor as good at playing the villain as he is a good guy, and he probably called upon both facets to make this character whole. Richard Crenna had been very effective prior to this film (most notably “Wait Until Dark” and “Body Heat”) but this role is probably the role he would be most closely associated with for the rest of his life and career, and only partly due to repeating the performance in two subsequent sequels. As Rambo’s commanding officer and the only person he trusts, Crenna isn’t remotely subtle, but who would want him to be? His opening speech is movie legend, and Crenna delivers it perfectly. Jack Starrett doesn’t have the meatiest of roles in the film, but as the most black-hearted character, he’s definitely unforgettable. Sounding a bit like Rip Torn crossed with Sam Elliott, the gruff-voiced Starrett plays a deputy who is just plain fucking mean. In smaller turns, a young David Caruso is hilarious simply for existing, whilst you’ll also see familiar face Chris Mulkey turn up as Ward, the unfortunate chap assigned the Dickens of a task in getting Rambo fingerprinted, and getting a kick in the nuts for trying to shave him. It’s a real shame that notorious “Deliverance” co-star Bill McKinney has such a nothing role, he’s basically playing the 1982 equivalent of the superfluous lawman character that Charles McGraw played in “The Defiant Ones”. The character simply isn’t needed and gives McKinney nothing to do except stand around a bit. Although he would vastly improve upon it in “Rambo: First Blood Part II”, the music score by Jerry Goldsmith (“Planet of the Apes”, “The Omen”) is rock-solid, and Andrew Laszlo (“The Warriors”, “Poltergeist”) has the fun task of shooting some harsh but gorgeous scenery that proves to be a character itself.

 

To me, the only flaw with the entire film is that in the latter portion of the film, it all goes a bit overboard with the explosions. Rambo’s big drop that he miraculously survives is one thing, but at the climax it just gets a bit out of hand, despite that terrific speech at the end. Also, I have to make special mention of the hideous end theme by Dan Hill, which sounds like warmed over Foreigner.

 

Definitely one of the best films of its type, and certainly one of Sly Stallone’s best films. Often wrongly lumped in with the Reagan-era action flicks that sprouted from it, this one’s got a bit more going on upstairs than mindless, right-wing action movie nonsense. Terrific performances and an overall professional job of filmmaking certainly help.

 

Rating: B+

Friday, October 9, 2015

Review: The Great Mouse Detective


A young female mouse requests the help of famed (and highly eccentric) mouse detective Basil of Baker Street (voiced by Barrie Ingham, and named after…well, you know who) to find her missing toymaker father (voiced by Alan Young, from TV’s “Mr. Ed”). Basil, being a mouse, lives below the premises of a certain other famous detective of Baker Street. The nefarious villain behind the film’s evil plot is quickly revealed to be Basil’s arch-enemy, the diabolical Rattigan (voiced by Vincent Price). Also aiding Basil and the young girl is the kindly Dr. Dawson (voiced by Val Bettin), though the extent of his usefulness here might be a tad questionable.

 

Hardly Disney’s finest hour, you can see why this 1986 animated flick isn’t terribly well-remembered or widely viewed today. The 80s weren’t the greatest time for Disney animation, and although watchable, it’s weirdly lacking in the mystery department. I know this wasn’t based on an Arthur Conan Doyle novel, but I mean, this is still essentially an animated, anthropomorphised Sherlock Holmes movie, yet there’s practically no mystery to it. We know who the villain is right away, and although we don’t really know all the details of what they are nefariously getting up to, when we do find it out, it hardly plays out in mystery-story fashion. That’s a shame, because you’d think Sherlock Holmes would serve better as the inspiration for a fun family film (once you eliminate the seedier elements, of course), than say “Oliver Twist”. Yet, the subsequent “Oliver & Co.” is indeed the superior film. Go figure.

 

I was at first doing double-takes at how alarmingly similarly Basil of Baker Street behaved to Robert Downey Jr.’s subsequent “Sherlock Holmes”. It was uncanny at times. Barrie Ingham makes Basil a really enjoyable character, though this film’s version of Watson is seriously clumsily integrated into the story. Vincent Price’s Moriarty-esque character is closer to his campy Egghead from “Batman” than any of his film work, which although Egghead is one of my least favourite Price turns, is well suited to this. It’s a bit less campy than Egghead, and he’s clearly having a ball here in a role that he was probably born for. I just prefer my Price with a touch more malevolence, I suppose. He does get one hilarious song, however that I loved. Meanwhile, Alan Young (AKA Wilbuuuuurr!) practically Scrooge McDuck’s his wat through a small role here. I loved the incorporation of Basil Rathbone’s voice, clever given Rathbone had died many years before. I also loved the role of bloodhounds used for obvious purposes, and the overall mouse-eye worldview was interesting too.

 

The animation isn’t stellar, but more interesting to look at than the later “Oliver & Co.” at least. Also, does anyone else think the big fiendish plot (notice I said plot, not mystery) here is a bit fucked up for a Disney animated film? I mean, “Return to Oz” was nightmare-inducing enough, and now this? That’s not a complaint in this case, so much as a gobsmacked observation (Seriously hate “Return to Oz”, though. My very first and among my worst-ever cinema-going experiences).

 

It’s a film full of pleasurable little touches and a truly cute central idea, but it doesn’t add up to a solid whole. A cute film that you want to like more than you actually do. A bit disappointing. The directors are Ron Clements & John Musker (“The Little Mermaid”, “Aladdin”, “Hercules”), Burny Mattinson (co-writer of “The Fox and the Hound”, “The Rescuers”, and “Beauty and the Beast”), and Dave Michener (co-screenwriter of “The Fox and the Hound” and “The Rescuers”). Based on a series of novels by Eve Titus, the screenplay is by Roy O. Disney (Yes, Walt’s brother), Vance Gerry (“The Rescuers”, “The Fox and the Hound”), Mel Shaw (“Bambi”, “The Black Cauldron”), and Pete Young (“The Fox and the Hound”, “The Black Cauldron”).

 

Rating: C+

Review: Zombie Shark


Bartender Cassie Steele, her boyfriend (Ross Britz), her younger sister (Sloane Coe), and trashy friend (Becky Andrews) all head out for some fun in the sun, but it all goes to hell when poor Britz finds himself the victim of the title undead shark. Of course, being a movie and all, science is to blame. Ever notice how science is always to blame in movies yet is considered to be the answer for most things in real-life? Movies are weird. Anyway, the shark is the result of a virus created by a well-meaning idiot, er…scientist (Laura Cayouette), and if our protagonists (which includes Roger J. Timber as a goofy resort owner) are to stay alive they must depend on the special security/military guy (Jason London) hired to guard the top-secret science lab. Oh, and did I mention that if you get bitten by a zombie shark you become a zombie too? Well, there’s that to contend with as well.

 

Although it contains a couple of recognisable names in “Degrassi: TNG” alum Cassie Steele and Jason London (the one who got arrested and allegedly crapped himself, not the one who was kidnapped and drugged, that was poor twin brother Jeremy), I wouldn’t bother seeing this SyFy flick from 2015. Like a lot of SyFy films, I find myself wondering if the filmmakers either don’t know how to make a fun ‘bad’ movie (hint: You can’t do it on purpose!) or if they just don’t care. However, people keep watching them, so SyFy will never learn and will continue to churn them out. Yes, the “Sharknado” films have had their moments (especially the underrated third one) but they still aren’t as enjoyable as real bad movies like “Plan 9 From Outer Space” or “The Terror of Tiny Town”.

 

The title monster is terrible CGI, but even worse are the CGI flames so bad that the filmmakers should be embarrassed. Yes, even for a film called “Zombie Shark”. As for the acting, it’s not bad during normal scenes, but whenever someone has to display any major emotion like sadness or anger, for some reason they’re all completely flat. For someone like Ms. Steele, who has been in the industry for a while (and was perfectly fine on “Degrassi”, which of course I’ve never watched…) it’s really disappointing and really bizarre. Laura Cayouette is in a bad acting class all of her own as the scientist. She’s hilarious. As a shark is chewing her damn leg off, she’s talking to someone in a calm and normal voice without registering any pain whatsoever. Was she given any fucking direction at all? Certainly not good direction. Jason London spends the entire film looking like he has mentally checked out and is ready to pack it all in. He barely bothers to give two fucks worth of a performance. Hey, at least you weren’t kidnapped and force-fed crack, and no one believed you even though you were actually telling the truth (Sorry, but I just feel so sorry for Jeremy London. He didn’t deserve anything that happened to him during or after the incident. I hope he’s doing well now). The odd thing? London’s performance ends up being somewhat perversely compelling to watch because he just looks so defeated. The best actor of the bunch proves to be Roger J. Timber as the African-American resort owner. He’s a total dork, and although bordering on Stepin Fetchit at times, he’s a real hoot, intentional I hope. Other than him and London, though, this is a bit hard to get through.

 

I did like that a character gets killed off early whom you would’ve sworn was going to be one of the leads. That was nice, as was a shot of a headless body. Most of the actresses display wonderful, ample cleavage, but we never get to see the goods (not even from the token ‘slutty’ girl), because SyFy haven’t discovered tits yet. Hey, the film’s called “Zombie Shark”, I can afford to be sexist, OK? I mean, what kind of filmmaker has a skinny-dipping scene that doesn’t involve nudity? Misty Talley is the culprit (an editor with her first substantial directing gig), and I’m sure I don’t need to point out the obvious there. I was especially miffed that the boobtastic Steele spends the entire film covered up in a green flannel shirt. Why? Honestly, these SyFy films really are missing the point (The only one that came close to being a true ‘so bad it’s funny’ movie was the hilarious “Ghost Shark”). The disgraceful music score blatantly rips off John Williams’ icon “Jaws” theme, and not amusingly. Calling the shark ‘Bruce’ isn’t funny, either. It’s just lame.

 

This is cheap, mostly unenjoyable schlock by filmmakers who don’t know how to do it right, or don’t really care. At some point one really needs to stop putting cash in SyFy’s wallets. They don’t deserve it if this shit is all they can be bothered giving us. I mean, the budget clearly didn’t afford many zombies or sharks. Scripted by Greg Mitchell, who previously scripted SyFy’s “Snakehead Swamp”, which was a bit better.

 

Rating: C-

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Review: The Gambler (2014)


Mark Wahlberg plays a college English Lit professor, washed-up novelist, and self-destructive gambler. He seems to have a thing for taking big risks…and often losing big. Perhaps he even has an addiction for losing, not just gambling. His debts to rather dangerous people are starting to pile up, however, as he already owes money to a powerful Korean casino owner, and further borrows money from ruthless loan shark Michael Kenneth Williams, as well as another loan shark played by a bald John Goodman. On the side, we also see Wahlberg’s relationships with smart student Brie Larson and promising basketball player Anthony Kelley. Jessica Lange plays Wahlberg’s fed-up, rich mother, Richard Schiff plays an immigrant pawnbroker, George Kennedy is Wahlberg’s dying grandfather, and Andre Braugher plays a work colleague.

 

It’s been so long since I’ve seen the 1974 original that I barely remember it, but this 2014 remake from director Rupert Wyatt (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”) and screenwriter William Monahan (“Kingdom of Heaven”, “The Departed”, “Body of Lies”) is full of terrific performances, even if Mark Wahlberg doesn’t seem the best fit to play an English professor. I mean, have you heard the guy speak? Hardly the most articulate or cunning of linguists. It’s a strong film that I think deserves a better reputation than it seems to have acquired.

 

Boy is the title character in this film a loser. How much so? His gambling game of choice early on is Blackjack, the ultimate loser’s game, next to the roulette wheel. And yes, after winning at Blackjack, Wahlberg’s character indeed heads for the roulette wheel like a giant loser. That’s why the film’s climax doesn’t seem so ridiculous to me. It makes some sense that his character would risk a helluva lot on the most luck-based (and often rigged) gambling game of all. This guy isn’t a gambler, he’s a gambling addict. Although I would have preferred Ben Affleck, Edward Norton, or Matt Damon in the role (Robert Downey Jr. would’ve nailed it earlier in his career, though it might’ve also struck too close to home, ala “Less Than Zero”), Wahlberg’s character here is really interesting. He’s a selfish, yet self-hating addict who acts like kind of a dick to his students, yet he also clearly cares about them. There’s a good person there inside of him, but he’s going down a really bad path with his gambling. Wahlberg may not convince as an academic, but he’s always had a pugnacious, anti-social quality to him on-screen that suits the role of a gambling addict on a self-destructive path.

 

He is also surrounded by a helluva supporting cast, including a very old-looking George Kennedy in a cameo as Wahlberg’s dying, tough old grandfather. He’s such a terrific, long-serving character actor that one wishes we got to spend more time with him here. Brie Larson…I’m in love with you. There. I said it. Go and see her in “Short Term 12” and you’ll understand why I’m obsessed with the actress. She’s so beautiful and in her very first second on screen here, everyone and everything else ceases to exist. She’s steals a lot of scenes in this film by saying very little, yet conveying a lot. That’s talent and star quality, folks (She’s certainly more appealing than gap-toothed Lauren Hutton in the 1974 film). Meanwhile, this may just be Jessica Lange’s best performance since 1982’s “Tootsie”, by virtue of being the first performance she’s given since then where she hasn’t seemingly been playing a drunk Blance DuBois. I have to say, though, that ultimately John Goodman and Michael K. Williams walk off with this film in vivid supporting roles. Williams owns his first scene just by being so damn ice cool. The actor is starting to become a favourite of mine, I must say, and boy is he intimidating in this. Goodman looks disturbingly latter-day Brando in this one, but gives a brilliant character turn somewhere in between Francis L. Sullivan and Herbert Lom (both of whom were in “Night and the City”, another film about a giant loser), but obviously an American version. Williams may be intimidating, but Goodman is downright dominating in his every moment on screen. I’m not sure why Richard Schiff and Andre Braugher have turned up in such nothing roles. It’s always seemed a shame to me that the best supporting actor on “The West Wing” has been taking on so many bit roles in the years since. He and Braugher are much better than that.

 

Some might resist the rather unlikeable lead character, but this is a really good and interesting film that could’ve been even better if it featured more scenes with Goodman, Larson, and Kennedy. So, does anyone know Brie Larson’s number? Help a brother out, OK? 

 

Rating: B-

Review: Ratatouille


Set in France, Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) is a rat who has a nose for fine cuisine and an obvious aptitude for cooking that his father (voiced by Brian Dennehy) and the other rats just don’t get. What he doesn’t have are the size and the hands to make a go of it. He’s a rat, after all, though his hero Gusteau (voiced by Brad Garrett, with an accent) claims ‘anyone can cook’, giving Remy hope. He gets his chance to do his thing when dishwasher and wannabe chef Linguini (voiced by Lou Romano) needs some assistance in recreating an infamous Gusteau soup dish (he works in the late chef’s restaurant) or else he will be fired by new head chef Skinner (Ian Holm). Remy obviously can’t allow himself to be seen by Skinner or the customers, but he agrees to help Linguini out by hiding under his chef hat and telling him what to do, mostly via tugging on his hair. Or something like that. Janeane Garofalo voices pretty female chef Colette, whilst Peter O’Toole’s pomposity and put to good use as the voice of fearsome food critic Anton Ego, who shows up at the least expected times.

 

Director Brad Bird (“The Incredibles”, “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol”) and Pixar strike out with this tedious 2007 animated effort that nonetheless a lot of critics seemed to like. I think you’d have to be a real foodie to get anything from this, and even then all the rodents might just ruin your appetite. Fair’s fair, the rats are ‘prettied’ up as much as possible I guess. In fact, it’s a really nice-looking, well-animated film, possibly the best-looking animated film up to that point. I particularly liked the seeming attention paid to sources of light.

 

That’s the good news. Plot and character-wise I could’ve given two shits about all of this. Food just isn’t my thing. I eat what I like and I eat because I have to. Sure, I watch reality TV cooking contests, but those things have (manufactured) drama. This just didn’t do it for me, with only one rat character with any depth whatsoever. The rest all blend together, whilst the human chef is frankly not terribly likeable or interesting. The drama was clichéd and corny, ‘moral’ stuff (follow your dreams and all that underdog crap) and the film is much more of a drama than a comedy, which is a real miscalculation in my view. When the comedy comes it’s mostly lame slapstick, and not really to my taste. I’m also getting heartily sick of hearing Brad Garrett’s voice in animated movies. The only vocal standout was Peter O’Toole as the snooty critic, and I’m not normally an O’Toole fan. He’s perfect, the film tedious. Meanwhile, the French accents are more fake than on “Allo, ‘Allo”, and isn’t this all just a tad unsanitary? 

 

Some people seem to have really responded to this one, but I was bored. It’s pretty, but boring and at nearly two hours I started to get kinda angry with it. Possibly ‘hangry’. This one just wasn’t for me, and I’d be surprised if kids love it. Its subject seems a tad high-brow to me. The screenplay is by Bird, from a story by Bird along with Jim Capobianco (who worked on the stories for Disney’s “The Lion King” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”) and Jan Pinkava (who was replaced as director early in production).

 

Rating: C

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Review: Hook


Peter Pan, ‘The boy who never grew up’ has indeed grown up into an overworked lawyer (Robin Williams) who never has enough time for his kids. He doesn’t seem to remember his true identity, until a trip to England brings him face to face with an elderly Wendy (Dame Maggie Smith). And then his kids end up being kidnapped by Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman!), forcing Peter to remember, as Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts) takes him to Neverland to rescue the kids. He can’t do this as a mere stuffy lawyer, however. Bob Hoskins plays Hook’s loyal number two Smee, Caroline Goodall plays Peter’s wife, Charlie Korsmo plays one of the kids, Dante Basco plays the leader of the Lost Boys, Arthur Malet plays daffy old Tootles, a young-ish Gwyneth Paltrow plays the young Wendy, Phil Collins plays a police inspector, and David Crosby turns up briefly as a pirate.

 

I read somewhere that Steven Spielberg thinks the problem with this 1991 re-invention of (or sequel to) “Peter Pan” was the art direction, and that the CG of today would’ve solved that issue. No, Steven, the problem with this film is that it was made by a filmmaker clearly more interested in technical elements than story or characters. Basically, the film tries to re-interpret something that was already fantastic and in the process, the magic is lost. The idea of Peter Pan eventually growing up and becoming a workaholic dad is a cute one, but it’s not enough. Spielberg should’ve realised this and decided to simply make the best traditional version of the tale possible. Having the childlike Robin Williams in the lead could’ve really led to something entertaining here if Spielberg allowed for it. He can be the world’s best filmmaker when he wants to be (“Jaws”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “E.T.”, “Schindler’s List”, “War of the Worlds”), but this one’s pretty much of a dud because Spielberg proves myopic at the helm, losing sight of the pixie dust. Williams, meanwhile, looks miserable and it’s not just his character. He clearly sees that this is inferior stuff, and indeed the early portion is sitcom nonsense more indicative of early Ron Howard (“Mr. Mom”, “Working Class Man”/“Gung Ho”) than Spielberg.

 

I’m not gonna deny that the film looks cheap, Spielberg probably has a point there. Although I’m no “Jurassic Park” fan, the technological advance in just the two years between this and that film is staggering. The blue screen work is especially hideous. But to blame everything on the look of the film is to avoid the real problem here: Story. It’s not the conception that’s the major problem. No, the major problem is one of execution. The early scenes technically aren’t that different, just that instead of the children’s father looking a lot like Hook in the Disney version, we get Peter Pan himself as the humourless father character instead. Spielberg puts too much emphasis on the more modern interpretation and scenes prior to Neverland. The pacing of the whole thing is staggeringly slow. Because of the re-interpretation of the story, it’s 40 minutes in and we haven’t even gotten to Neverland yet. Almost two hours in and Peter Panning still hasn’t fully embraced his former self. The only reason why this is called “Hook” is because calling it “Peter Pan” would result in a lawsuit for false advertising. It takes forever to get to see any swash being buckled, and it results in a film that is unlikely to appeal to young or old.

 

Dame Maggie Smith and Bob Hoskins (perfect as Smee) stand out in an otherwise underwhelming cast. Julia Roberts was riding high here and was apparently armed with an ego and drug habit to match at the time (So I’ve read, at least). It was a cute idea in theory to cast her as Tinkerbell, but it doesn’t work. You can hardly see her a lot of the time due to the (forgive me) size of the part, and she’s forced and annoying the rest of the time. I bet she hates looking back at this, her role is just looking and reacting to stuff she can’t see. She did still have an unforced smile at this point in her career, I’ll give her that. It looks painful for her to smile these days. Dustin Hoffman’s Hook isn’t unentertaining, but his Terry-Thomas approach lacks any menace, he’s all bluster and far too short to boot.

 

There’s way too much time spent here with The Lost Boys and their annoying, indecipherable trash talk. What the hell was up with that? And no, I haven’t a clue why David Crosby and Phil Collins are in this in cameos, either (Glenn Close too, apparently). The closest the film gets to magic is the score by John Williams (“Star Wars”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “Superman”), and even he has seen (or heard?) better days. It’s not a terrible film (“Return to Oz” offered up a similar approach to a classic and is a much worse film), just a terribly botched film with no fun. It takes 2 hours and 20 minutes to fail to do what Disney did better in around 90 minutes.

 

A film full of ideas and potential that simply has no sense of awe, wonder, fantasy, adventure, magic, or…fun. This should’ve been perfect, all the elements were there (and some nice use of shadow reminiscent of the Disney version too), but with a director more focussed on art direction, he fails to see that the rest isn’t up to snuff. I’d rather hear Dame Maggie Smith read the original story on audio tape, or watch the 1953 Disney animated classic instead. Based on a story by Jim Hart and Nick Castle (“Escape From New York”, “The Boy Who Could Fly”), the screenplay is by Hart and Carol Scotch Marmo (“Once Around”, “Jurassic Park”). Awesome doorknob, by the way. It’s a hook! I seriously want one!

 

Rating: C

Review: The Arrival


Charlie Sheen plays SETI radio astronomer Zane Zaminski, a workaholic who picks up a short signal from the outer limits. He takes it to his boss Phil Gordian (Ron Silver), who thinks he is nuts and that the signal is too short to mean a damn thing. However, soon Zane finds himself out of a job due to ‘budget cuts’ and his fellow astronomer (played by Richard Schiff) gets taken out even more permanently. He takes up a job as a cable TV repairman, and decides to investigate matters on his own, whilst neglecting his poor girlfriend (Teri Polo). Meanwhile, environmentalist/professor Lindsay Crouse has been noticing an alarming trend in the Earth’s climate, which may be in some way related to Zane’s investigation. Leon Rippy and Buddy Joe Hooker turn up as a couple of ominous-looking men, who always seem to be lurking about.

 

I like a good alien invasion movie, and I like a good B-movie, so this 1996 sleeper from writer-director David Twohy (director of “Pitch Black” and “A Perfect Getaway”, writer of the abysmal Charlie Sheen actioner “Terminal Velocity” and co-writer of “The Fugitive”) hits the spot quite nicely. It was just shitty timing that it was released the same year as “ID4”, which murdered the fuck out of everything at the box-office. To be honest, it holds up better than that blockbuster if you ask me.

 

Charlie Sheen may not look like a Zane Zaminski, but casting him as a super-intense guy who thinks he’s picked up alien radio signals might just be the most amazingly prescient piece of casting of all-time. Watching this film again in 2015, you might not buy him entirely as a radio astronomer, but I had zero problems buying him as a guy who believes in extra-terrestrials (but seems loony to everyone else). Meanwhile, the late and still underrated Ron Silver cast as his oily boss? Could there be better casting? In fact, if anything, Silver is a bit too well-cast, you know the deal with him pretty early on. It’s not a great role, but he plays it well. He was a talented guy and damn he’s missed. Lindsay Crouse and (more briefly) Richard Schiff are also really well-cast, and Leon Rippy’s seedy and intimidating presence is well-used in a small part. Poor Teri Polo gets stuck with the non-understanding romantic partner role, and an unflattering short hairdo to boot. That’s a shame, she’s normally really appealing and a solid actress.

 

It’s an interesting idea for a film, and as I said, it’s kinda up my alley, really. And to be honest, Charlie comes across more rational in this than during his whole Charlie Sheen stage show/crazy meltdown fiasco of recent years. Yes, the role probably should’ve gone to James Spader or Jeff Goldblum, but Sheen (a good actor when he wants to be) makes it work. It’s almost worth it just for the hilarious scene involving some seriously leaky Mexican hotel plumbing. Strangely enough, the scene is also quite tense too, despite the hilarity. There’s also the unnerving visual of someone’s body doing what no human body should be able to do. It’s almost as freaky as the alien dog in the 1978 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. I’m not sure it’s entirely credible, but it looks freaky and just plain wrong to the point of being scary. That sort of thing messes with my head late at night.

 

There’s some rather unfortunate blue-screen work here and there, otherwise, I don’t see much wrong with this one. This is classic alien conspiracy stuff. If you loved “The X-Files” but missed this on initial release, seek it out. It’s really solid and entertaining stuff, if pretty textbook alien invasion movie storytelling. A bit low-key and quietly menacing, it might remind you of the work of John Carpenter (“They Live” has a particularly similar conspiratorial vibe to it, albeit more satirical and goofy). Excellent music score by Arthur Kempel (“Ninja III: The Domination”) is a definite highlight.

 

Rating: B-

Monday, October 5, 2015

Review: Annabelle


Set in the Manson era, Ward Horton and Annabelle Wallis play expectant parents. Wallis collects porcelain dolls, and Horton brings home another one for her collection. It’s bigger than her other dolls, and frankly a whole lot uglier. One night, it appears that something awful is happening next door, and whilst Horton goes to investigate, Wallis is attacked by a crazy cultist woman who grabs the doll. After spending some time in hospital recovering from this frightening incident, Wallis has her baby and comes home. Eventually, though, work sees the family move to a new town. And that’s when spooky stuff really starts happening, and Wallis starts to suspect the ugly frigging doll might be somewhat the cause of it.

 

I was a bit ‘meh’ on “The Conjuring”. It came with a lot of hype, and was mildly effective, but I felt its split narrative deflated a lot of the tension/terror for me. However, that film is a damn masterpiece compared to this completely lifeless, dreary 2014 prequel from director John R. Leonetti, a noted cinematographer (He shot “The Conjuring”, and the superior “Insidious”, and interestingly he also shot “Child’s Play 3”).

 

Right off the bat this is yet another film that just doesn’t understand that if you’re gonna make a movie about a creepy doll, you need to make it look convincing enough as something that at some point in time was seen as appropriate for children. “Child’s Play” got that balance right, but this one fouls it up by giving us a hideous-looking creation that you just don’t buy into from the get-go. The other, ‘normal’ dolls in the film are far creepier despite not being designed to be. That’s not the only thing laid on too thick here, as bringing up the Manson family and having the Mia Farrow-lookalike Annabelle Wallis (Weird coincidence, huh?) attacked by crazies whilst heavily pregnant is just a little too much, really. I did appreciate, however, that the scene was refreshingly bloody, which I wasn’t expecting from a film like this. Oh, and having Wallis actually play a character called Mia does NOT make this “Rosemary’s Baby”, thank you very much. Not even close.

 

Annabelle Wallis and Ward Horton are woefully uninteresting in the leading roles. Completely deprived of charisma or presence, they create the most boring screen couple since “Manhattan Murder Mystery”. They are so boring that Wallis’ pregnant cravings are exactly what you think they’d be: Pickles and mustard. Woah, that’s crazy man! Wallis in particular is so dreary and soft-spoken I was worried she was in a semi-comatose state or something. Speak up, woman! Alfre Woodard is a helluva actress when allowed to be, and she does not need to appear in something like this that wastes her as the token ethnic character who just so happens to be an expert in spooky gobbledegook. Ugh. Really? In 2014? Geez.

 

Even the film’s chief asset ends up ironically sinking the film completely: The cinematography. Shot not by Leonetti himself but James Kniest (in his most notable assignment to date), it looks pretty amazing. Camera movement in particular is outstanding, and really works overtime. Leonetti and Kniest clearly know how to shoot and light a film, it’s a real show-reel in that sense. Unfortunately, it’s the wrong way to shoot and light this particular film. You find yourself constantly noticing the camerawork and lighting and frightfully disinterested in anything else. Sure, the story kinda sucks and the characters are a chore, but the cinematography ends up being the best and worst thing about the film, really (Well, actually, the worst thing is that the doll never does anything in the film! Not one thing!). It just goes to show you that good cinematography can be just as much of a distraction as bad cinematography. But honestly, it’s the only thing worth noting in this dreary, disastrously boring and completely un-terrifying so-called horror film.

 

Mr. Leonetti hasn’t a clue how to direct a horror film and the lead actors are so godawful boring you find yourself yearning for Patrick Wilson. Think about that, people!

 

Rating: D+

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Review: Noah


An intense Russell Crowe plays the title character who believes ‘The Creator’ has sent him nightmarish visions of a catastrophic aquatic disaster, and sees it as his mission to build a giant ark and save two of every animal. But does this include ‘Man’? He receives help from rock creatures, supposedly fallen angels. Meanwhile, in direct opposition to Noah and all things ‘Created’ it seems, is Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) a fierce warrior who just plain doesn’t like the cut of Noah’s jib (He also killed Noah’s father way back when), and tries to turn Noah’s son Ham (Logan Lerman) against him. Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson play Noah’s wife Naameh and Ila, an adopted (and supposedly barren) girl, who both start to think Noah’s getting all moody and OCD on this whole Ark-building/prophecy deal. Sir Anthony Hopkins babbles on around the edges as Noah’s berry-loving grandfather Methuselah.

 

With an apparent non-believer (or at the very least non-practising Jew) at the helm in co-writer/director Darren Aronofsky (“The Wrestler”, “Black Swan”), I had hoped this 2014 film would be more “The Ten Commandments” than “The Passion of the Christ”. I mean, surely no real people of faith believe that the story of Noah’s Ark was literal truth, right? (Otherwise we’d need to get into the debate on whether dinosaurs were on the Ark or not, and when you reach that point it all gets a bit silly, don’t you think?) Unfortunately, one look at the completely out-of-place ‘rock angels’ here and you can’t help but roll your eyes at the alternative we’ve been given. The bloody things even talk! No, Aronofsky hasn’t given us “The Passion”, in fact the film’s best moments are actually the more sombre, darker moments that are more akin to “The Passion”. How’s that for irony? But overall, this has been taken too far into fantasy land for something I’m not a believer in to begin with. Worse than that, it’s dopey fantasy. Very, very dopey. It seems more akin to Ray Harryhausen (“Jason and the Argonauts”) than Cecil B. De Mille, perhaps. It’s an uneven mess that mixes the interesting with the absurd and with the boring.

 

Co-written by Ari Handel (the director’s former college roommate), it won’t please believers too much and I think it’s just too goofy and uneven for the rest of us to buy, either. I thought at the very least Aronofsky would have a clear vision here, but he can’t decide whether he wants to take this seriously or not, and creates a lumpy whole. Although completely silly, the first scene ends up being its own kind of brilliant stupidity in spite of itself. I’m talking about the opening scene being the biggest fantasy movie cliché of all: The son watching his father die at the hands of an evil bastard. I mean, that shit’s right out of both “The Beastmaster” and “Conan the Barbarian” for cryin’ out loud. Funny stuff, but hardly likely to have been intended as such. I’m still mystified as to how Marton Csokas (as Noah’s poor ‘ol dad) manages to maintain employment given he has never once given a performance of any distinction one way or the other.

 

Perhaps the film’s finest asset is Russell Crowe in the lead role. I’ll never get over the appalling “Virtuosity” and “The Quick and the Dead”, and hindsight has shown that Crowe’s turn in “A Beautiful Mind” was overly mannered and wildly overpraised. His revisionist “Robin Hood”…yeah, let’s not even go there. However, when Crowe is on target, he can be a very powerful or at least persuasive, charismatic actor. Unlike his quasi-Scottish in “Robin Hood” that sounded nothing like the English accent he claimed to be aiming for there, Rusty doesn’t even bother to put on an accent for this one. I think that’s for the best. He gives a serious-minded, anguished and overall solid performance. I commend him for treating this material seriously and not condescending to it or going for hammy histrionics. Meanwhile, as much as I love Ray Winstone being his usual Ray Winstone self, his best moments in this film are when he’s just being quietly creepy and insidious. It’s amazing, though, how much more sense his supposedly villainous character makes than the supposed hero, Noah. Noah really is wrong in his thinking in this film, noble as his motives are, whereas Winstone’s Tubal-Cain is correct in his thinking, but evil in his intentions/motives. It’s interesting, actually. It’s a shame then, that Winstone’s rock solid performance is tempered somewhat by the fact that his character is basically on the wrong side of…everything, really, even though as I said, I actually felt he made a lot more sense than he was clearly supposed to.

 

The rest of the cast, however are a fair bit underwhelming. I’m not sure what the hell Sir Anthony Hopkins’ odd performance is all about, really. At times I felt like he was meant to be Gollum, with his ‘precious’ being berries. There’s one scene where the resemblance is uncanny. It’s just a very, very strange performance that doesn’t really aid the film at all. Logan Lerman gives a performance that seems to suggest that he realises what I was thinking: His character isn’t so much conflicted as confusing. His motivation/conflict isn’t well-written at all, and as a result the actor looks lost. Of all the characters on display here as written, his seems the least likely and least entitled to be conflicted about Noah. I just didn’t get it. The women probably fare worst of all, with Oscar-winner (and at one point, the imaginary love of my life) Jennifer Connelly having an almost entirely passive, reactionary role. She’s just ‘The Wife’. It’s the perfect example of a Female Lead being a Supporting Role, and it’s beneath her talents. For her part, Emma Watson plays an interesting role in the least interesting fashion possible.

 

I think it’s pretty brave of Aronofsky to paint Noah in a fairly dark light. It’s an extremely sensitive subject/text for a whole lot of people. Having said that, I bet Mel Gibson loved everything in this movie except maybe the rock monsters. The most interesting thing in this entire film is Noah’s firmly held belief that man has fucked up and deserves to die out. I have no idea if this is expressed at all in the bible (outside of the Garden of Eden story of course), but it sure is interesting and frankly didn’t seem much more harsh than the thinking that went into the whole Adam & Eve deal. I never understood that one, mortality for all future generations seems like far too harsh punishment to me. Fuck you, though, Adam and Eve. Nice one, you selfish pricks on that whole apple thing.

 

The other thing worth praising in this film is its look. It looks incredible, and I didn’t mind the MTV-style editing and time-lapse photography, it actually fit in here, pretentious or not. So kudos to Aronofsky and usual cinematographer Matthew Libatique (“Requiem for a Dream”, “Black Swan”) on that. Demerits, however, for some really lousy CGI I must say. It’s not just the dopey rock angels (though they certainly look mediocre), all of the CGI creatures in the film look dopey and seem out of place. They give a cheesy “Clash of the Titans” vibe in a film that also mixes in brooding intensity and inner turmoil. At times the FX are so bad they gave me bad flashbacks to Stephen Sommers’ awful “The Mummy”. Take the CGI creatures out and you have a better, but still flawed film.

 

Fantastic to look at, and Russell Crowe is ideal in the lead, but this film is all over the shop. It never settles on a tone, and the goofy parts (embellishments to a story that seems plenty goofy enough to those without ‘faith’) just don’t gel with the darker, more intense parts. The cinematography is too good (excellent, really) for this to be a bad film, but by not deciding on just what he wanted this film to be, Aronofsky likely leaves no one satisfied.

 

Rating: C+

Review: Blackboard Jungle


Idealistic but no-nonsense teacher Glenn Ford arrives at an urban high school to take a teaching position. Unfortunately, the school seems mostly populated by disinterested and disaffected youths, if not outright hoodlums like Artie West (Vic Morrow), their sneering leader. Anne Francis plays Ford’s pregnant wife, Sidney Poitier is an intelligent but hardened African-American student whom Ford tries to get through to (he’s no thug, just a smart-arse not looking to do Ford any favours), Louis Calhern plays a cynical teacher who despises the students, Maggie Hayes is the hot teacher who arouses the wrong kind of interest in the students, and Richard Kiley plays a nerdy, ineffectual maths teacher. Among the students are such familiar faces as Rafael Campos, Paul Mazursky, and even Jamie ‘Cpl. Klinger’ Farr, as the class ‘dummy’, so to speak.

 

If you have to see one 50s juvenile delinquent film (or one ‘teacher vs. lower-class teenage gang’ movie for that matter), make it this 1955 film from eclectic writer-director Richard Brooks (“In Cold Blood”, “Elmer Gantry”, “The Professionals”, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”). Some of the dorky hoodlums make this one seem a tad like “To Sir With Love” meets “West Side Story” at times, with all the ‘Daddy-O’ nonsense, but for the most part, it holds up pretty well all things considered.

 

Pioneering in its use of rock music on the soundtrack (Bill Haley’s iconic ‘Rock Around the Clock’ starts us off, becoming a huge hit song), and featuring a typically sturdy lead performance by Glenn Ford, who makes sure this never gets too silly. The wonderful Louis Calhern and a young-ish Sidney Poitier steal their every scene (even if it’s weird to see him play a student five years after he played a doctor in “No Way Out”), whilst Vic Morrow (one of several debutants, he beat out Steve McQueen for the part) overcomes the fact that he’s obviously too old for the part (albeit younger than 28 year-old Poitier) by being the one hoodlum with the necessary gravitas, presence and threat. The others are all dorks. 50s juvenile delinquents in movies for the most part are pretty laughable when viewed today.

 

One thing I really liked about the film is that Poitier’s race is only a minor issue in the film. I love “A Patch of Blue” and “In the Heat of the Night”, don’t get me wrong, but I was glad to see at least one of his films didn’t turn it into the biggest issue of the film. And despite all the ‘Daddy-O’ “West Side Story” hooligan nonsense, Brooks manages to build a genuine sense of unease, especially with Ford having to walk through the crowd of students at one point. Admittedly, you can see what’s going to happen to Richard Kiley the moment he talks about his precious record collection, but Kiley is nonetheless good as a man who would dearly love to teach this kids, if only they cared to learn. Unfortunately, one of the things this film definitely gets across is that these kids just don’t care to learn. It’s probably the one thing in the film that is still sadly most relevant today. 20 years ago or so when I was in high school, it certainly seemed to hold true for many students. The film has dated a bit, but it’s not useless or ineffective.

 

Several of the performances are strong (Ford is especially strong), and the soundtrack/score is pretty good too, if a bit loud. It’s pretty solid stuff from Mr. Brooks, and he earned an Oscar nomination for the screenplay, based on a book by Evan Hunter (a former teacher who loosely based the story on his own experiences teaching in the South Bronx area).

 

Rating: B-