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 17, 2015

Review: Dogfight


Set in 1963, River Phoenix and his fellow marine buddies (Anthony Clark, Richard Panebianco, and Mitchell Whitfield) are partaking in a ‘dogfight’, a bet to see which one of them can bring along the ugliest date. Phoenix eyes mousy, folk music-loving waitress Lili Taylor and brings her to the local bar for the judging. A trip to the ladies’ room sees Taylor informed by another girl (played by E.G. Daily, who ‘wins’ the bet) that she’s part of a bet, as well as the nature of the bet. She is outraged and hurt she lets Phoenix have it, storming out. But unlike his idiot comrades, Phoenix has somewhat of a (guilty) conscience and a heart, and spends the rest of the night making it up to her. He starts to develop feelings for the girl, and begins trying to win her over. Taylor starts to see that there’s more to this young man than an immature dickface who plays unglamorous women for cruel sport. His friends are still complete dicks, though. Meanwhile, when dawn comes, Phoenix and his comrades will be shipping out…to Vietnam.

 

Director Nancy Savoca (in her most significant film to date) and screenwriter Bob Comfort (a former marine) manage to come up with a slightly different war tale with this 1991 flick that starts out seemingly one thing, before becoming something else altogether without any seams showing whatsoever. The film starts out somewhat like a cruel “Biloxi Blues” as these jerk marines make a bet on who can bring along the ugliest date. I mean, it’s absolutely horrible what they are doing for shits and giggles. It’s hilarious, though, that the guy who brings along a guy in drag doesn’t actually win the bet. Priceless. But slowly, just as River Phoenix, full of guilt, tries to make amends with ‘ugly duckling’ waitress Lili Taylor, he also gets to know her and starts to see the person inside…and likes her. Thanks to Taylor’s brilliantly judged, empathetic performance, the audience already loves her. She’ll break your heart even before she gets her own broken. It’s a helluva showcase for the talented actress, one of the best parts she has ever played in a film.

 

The late River Phoenix is just as crucial here, because if say schmuck co-star Mitchell Whitfield were playing the Phoenix part, the whole thing would fail. But because it’s Phoenix, we can see there’s more to this guy than just a cruel prankster like his pals. He really is sorry, and really does start to like Taylor, possibly sooner than he realises it himself. Phoenix’s innate sensitivity and pensiveness as an actor really do help make this one work. He and Taylor are both perfectly cast and make for an engaging pair once the douchebaggery of the opening gives way to something more endearing. Phoenix may get compared to James Dean and Monty Clift a lot, and there’s certainly cause for that here, but I see some young, anti-authoritarian Paul Newman in him here, too.

 

Is it a brilliant film? No, but it’s an unusual and very well-made film that finds a new avenue to explore in a pretty old subject matter of bored marines looking to have a good time. Good looking, and with nice 60s period detail too. Decent supporting cast as well, with a gamely toothless E.G. Daily, young Randy Quaid-ish Anthony Clark, and the somewhat Brando-esque Richard Panebianco particularly standing out. I’m surprised the latter never amounted to anything because, in addition to having that ‘Hey, where have I seen that guy before?’ vibe, he just seems to project that aura of bad boy/pin-up boy thing that normally results in at least a decent career as a heartthrob. Never panned out, though, he vanished into obscurity.

 

Maybe audiences at the time were turned off by the rather cruel ‘bet’, but there’s so much more to this film than that. It really shouldn’t have flopped. It’s actually a genuinely sweet, sensitive romance, with two very fine stars at the centre. Taylor will break your heart, and although she outshines him, the late River Phoenix (Who died at age 23. A fact I still can’t get around to accepting twenty years after his death) has one of his best parts. I do think the hairdos are overdone, though, even for 60s-era ‘ugly ducklings’. I also feel this is a rare film that could stand to be longer. It’s not a film about the Vietnam war, but one does feel it ought to have stretched that segment of the film out considerably, to have it resonate more. The last 15 minutes are jarringly rushed, and help stop this good film from being a great one.

 

Here’s an underrated film that might’ve passed you by. Give it a go, especially if you’re partial to Lili Taylor. The ending is simple, but nonetheless, it actually got to me, perhaps partly due to its simplicity. It’s a beautiful, quietly moving ending to a film that is much sweeter than it initially looks like being.

 

Rating: B-

Review: Fist of Fury


Bruce Lee stars as Chen Zhen, a martial arts student in the 1930s whose master is murdered, resulting in an enraged Lee taking on rival Japanese, who control Shanghai, and beating the crap out of them. Riki Hashimoto plays the leader of the Japanese who tries to pressure the martial arts school to hand over Chen Zhen or else he’ll have the school closed down and everyone arrested. Robert Baker plays Hashimoto’s Russian ally, whilst Paul (Ping Ou) Wei plays a slimy interpreter, as he later would in “Way of the Dragon”.

 

Written and directed by Lo Wei (“The Big Boss”), this 1972 martial-arts flick is far and away Bruce Lee’s best-ever starring vehicle, and probably one of the best martial-arts films ever made. This is the one to see, folks. It kicks arse. It’s the story of Chen Zhen, whose tale would also be told in Jet Li’s “Fist of Legend” and the uneven “Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen” (with a slightly miscast Donnie Yen). This is definitely more indicative of director Lo Wei and Golden Harvest than Bruce Lee, which is to say that it’s a period piece, rather than the more modern-set “Way of the Dragon”, directed by Lee himself. That suits me, as I do enjoy a good old-fashioned martial arts film, they seem more cinematic than some of Lee’s cheaper-looking films like “Way” and “Enter the Dragon”.

 

Things get off to a fine start, with a fun, Ennio Morricone-esque music score and opening credits scene clearly inspired by Sergio Leone. The music goes on to distinguish itself from Morricone, but is still really good. Lee himself impresses early on by taking out nearly as many Japanese as Godzilla in one awesome display of sheer badassery. You can tell Steven Seagal is a Bruce Lee fan, as he’s nearly as infallible on screen. Lee’s Chen Zhen absolutely does NOT fuck around, and he is not someone whom you want to piss off. His speed is also incredible to witness. What impresses me most about Lee here is his acting performance in just his second starring vehicle (after “The Big Boss”, his second-best film), much better than in any of his other films. He’s making a genuine effort to portray a character, rather than merely play an extension of himself, as I feel most of his other performances tend to suffer from. He can act! As terrific as the action is, the story and lead character really do put this one over-the-top and make it truly memorable (So long as you’re not watching a dubbed version. Subtitles are the way to go, guys. Reading is Good!). Riki Hashimoto also stands out as the intimidating-looking Japanese villain of the piece. That guy has mucho presence.

 

This leaves “Enter the Dragon” for dead, let alone the rest of Lee’s filmography. Far and away Bruce Lee’s crowning achievement and one of the best martial arts films you’ll ever see. Amazingly, it’s mostly due to the script, as terrific as the action is. A must-see for action fans, the firing squad freeze-frame ending is absolutely hilarious, too.  

 

Rating: B+

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Review: Rambo: First Blood Part II


Imprisoned for blowing shit up in a small Oregon town in “First Blood”, this sequel has John Rambo (Sly Stallone) approached by old mentor Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna) with an irresistible proposition: Rescuing lost American POWs in Vietnam. Well, hold back there just a second. The mission is actually for Rambo to merely go there, take pictures and then it will be decided if the rescue mission is a go or not. Try telling that to Rambo, though. He has a bit of a problem forgetting that the War was a long time ago. Charles Napier is the suit in charge of the mission, Julia Nickson plays Rambo’s pretty Vietnamese guide, Martin Kove plays an American soldier and pilot, and Steven Berkoff turns up as a nasty commie Russian Lt. Colonel in cahoots with the equally nasty Vietnamese ‘coz…communism?

 

Nowhere near as interesting as its underrated predecessor, this 1985 sequel was directed by George P. Cosmatos (“The Cassandra Crossing” and “Tombstone”) and scripted by star Sly Stallone with a bit of help from James Cameron (director of “The Terminator”, “Aliens” and “True Lies”) and based on a story by Kevin Jarre (the screenwriter of “Glory” and “Tombstone”). It has a lot less to say than “First Blood”, it’s essentially Stallone replaying the Vietnam War singlehandedly and all the bureaucratic nonsense back home. This results in Rambo pretty much winning the war for the USA (‘Do we get to win this time?’ he asks early on), and getting revenge on the a-holes on the American side who were happy to send people to their death. It’s a pretty well-made film, just a film that really only right-wingers will enjoy.

 

The scenes of Rambo stalking his prey are, as last time, the undeniably cool highlight, even if it feels like Rambo has murdered the fuck out of an entire country in this one. He uses a bow and fucking arrow at one point, how can you not love that to some extent? The final fifteen minutes of non-stop action are ricockulous (67 kills in the film in total, as opposed to the one confirmed kill in “First Blood”. Yep.) and definitely memorable, one way or the other. It’s the message behind the action I take issue with. It just isn’t terribly appealing to me, nor in step with my own political persuasion. The first film was excellent, the sequels are all viscerally appealing, but thematically unhelpful.

 

On the plus side here we have one of the best music scores Jerry Goldsmith (“The Omen”, “First Blood”, “Star Trek: First Contact”) ever composed, and one that 80s gamers will recall instantly. Like the title character, it’s iconic. Cinematographer Jack Cardiff (“Black Narcissus”, “The Vikings”) also does an excellent job, aided by some awesome scenery. Cosmatos and Cardiff also seem to share a hard-on for Stallone’s muscles. Not a complaint, just an observation. I’ve seen professional wrestlers with less suspicious physiques than Stallone’s in this one. The film also possibly contains more beads of sweat than any non-porn film in history.

 

Rambo is still an interesting character in this one. He only trusts Trautman, clearly hates pencil-pushing bureaucrats and is still psychologically scarred by the war. However, the difference between this film and the previous one is that this one seems less interested in Rambo the soldier and more interested in Rambo the American icon of military arse-kicking might and awesomeness. In some ways, that’s a reversal of who the character was last time as now Rambo is attempting to restore America’s pride. Last time out, he was a guy who got pushed around too much and had to retaliate. It seems like a reboot, though you can certainly see his motivation for wanting to engage: He’s still scarred by Vietnam, why wouldn’t he want the chance to try and ‘make right’? So the plot works, it’s just not my kind of thing and a tad generic (By the way, Cameron claims he only wrote the ‘action’ and Sly wrote the ‘politics’. I’m not remotely sceptical of that, knowing Stallone’s political leanings, especially in the 80s). Stallone’s performance was better in “First Blood”, but his minimalist turn here is actually a bit underrated as well. If there’s any subtlety here (or anything remotely approaching subtlety), it’s from Stallone the actor, not Stallone the screenwriter. Singapore-born Julia Nickson, however, is howlingly bad. Despite her Asian origins, her pidgin-English performance here is woefully unconvincing and incredibly silly. Better are the unscrupulous trio of Charles Napier, Steven Berkoff, and Martin Kove. Kove doesn’t really play a bad guy as such here, he pretty much has the standard John C. McGinley role of the guy set to be punched really hard in the face at the end by the hero. Kove plays it well, though he probably could’ve played Rambo too, if you ask me. Napier was one of the great unsung character actors of the 80s and 90s, and makes for a terrific heartless bastard who would sell anyone out if need be. Berkoff…is Berkoff as a Russian Lt. Colonel with a German accent. Yep. Berkoff is good as usual, but the role is Reagan-era stupidity aimed at the anti-Russkie yahoos. Sure, this is Berkoff’s only act (he’s the same in everything), but he does it well and like Napier and the returning Richard Crenna, he’s better than the film deserves.

 

If you like your Reagan-era right-wing American action flicks, this one and “Uncommon Valour” are probably the best of the lot, whatever that is worth to you. For me, it’s not my kind of politics, but at least this one’s a damn sight better than John Wayne’s “The Green Berets”. It’s probably more corny than offensive, really and on a technical level it’s pretty well-made. It has a lot less to say than the first one, but it is a sequel after all. Absolutely hideous end credits song ‘Peace in Our Life’ by the one and only Frank Stallone. It ain’t no ‘Far From Over’ that’s for damn sure.

 

Rating: C+

Review: Out of the Furnace


Christian Bale plays a working class Pennsylvania mill worker with a loving girlfriend (Zoe Saldana), and a wayward younger brother (Casey Affleck), whose debts he secretly pays off to bookie Willem Dafoe. Affleck is a troubled war veteran who just can’t seem to keep it together, Bale worries about him. Unfortunately, one drunken drive and a fatal car accident later, and Bale finds himself doing a prison stint. When he gets out, his dad has died, Saldana has left him for a nerdy middle-aged police chief (Forest Whitaker), and Affleck (who has served yet another tour in the Middle East) is in more shit than he was when Bale went to prison. Affleck (who refuses to work at the steel mill) is supposed to be taking dives in bare-knuckle fighting to pay off his debts to Dafoe, but Affleck is a stubborn SOB who just can’t seem to lay down. This earns him the psychopathic ire of intense redneck kingpin Woody Harrelson (who is a mean and violent prick…because), and it’s unlikely that even Dafoe (who also owes money to Harrelson) can help get him out of this terrible mess. Sam Shepard plays the uncle of Bale and Affleck, whilst Tom Bower is an associate of Dafoe’s.

 

Although the basic idea has merit and it’s well-acted across the board, this 2014 crime-drama from director/co-writer Scott Cooper (whose directorial debut was the overrated “Crazy Heart”) doesn’t quite come off. The execution is botched, and it’s mainly the screenplay by Cooper and Brad Ingelsby (the latter of whom later worked on “Run All Night” with Liam Neeson). Casey Affleck’s character, although interesting in many ways, proves stubborn to the point of violent stupidity, and the narrative is horribly choppy (Apparently Cooper largely re-wrote Ingelsby’s original script. One wonders how bad the original was then). The opening 20 minutes in particular are horribly written, the plot just seems to take forever to get started.

 

It’s a real shame, because there’s really something interesting going on in here (faint- though definite- echoes of “The Deer Hunter” but with pulpy, 70s exploitation movie plotting too), but it’s just not done well through no fault of the cast. Woody Harrelson walks off with the whole thing (as is often the case) in an extremely intimidating performance. He’s scary, even if he sounds more like Jeff Bridges than Jeff Bridges does. Bale, meanwhile isn’t my favourite actor but he hasn’t been this good since “American Psycho”. Similarly, Forest Whitaker gives one of his better performances of late, though that’s not saying much. He’s been pretty awful in recent years (“Repo Man” and “The Butler” are two other exceptions), and even here he’s just doing solid character work. Still, one hopes it signals a turnaround for him, because the man does have a lot of talent. Although he’s a little mumbly and seems a bit small for a fighter, Casey Affleck is otherwise very good. This poor man is messed up and one suspects early on that it won’t end well for him. Willem Dafoe is rock-solid in one of his more sympathetic roles, and even then he’s not playing a ‘good guy’ as such, he’s merely nuanced.

 

I must call out DOP Masanobu Takayanagi (“The Grey”) for his uneven work here. At times the handheld camerawork is blurry and not very nice to look at, especially when the camera is on the move. It’s not nearly as noticeable in more static shots (Apparently it was shot on 35mm Kodak film).

 

Although a brilliantly intimidating Woody Harrelson in particular stands out, this film just doesn’t work as well as you’d like. The screenplay is wonky and there’s nothing the actors can do about it. There’s a reason why this went straight to DVD in Australia. It’s just not particularly well-done, though the dead-end, go-nowhere small town Pennsylvania setting is well-conveyed on screen. Horrendous opening dirge by Eddie Vedder, sounding like a really bad Eddie Vedder impersonator (Which now that I think of it, would be a large category, wouldn’t it?). 

 

Rating: C+

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Review: The Man Without a Face


Set in the late 60s, Nick Stahl stars as a sensitive 12 year-old who wishes he knew more about his father, whom his well-meaning but self-absorbed thrice-married mother (Margaret Whitton) refuses to talk about, and who his bitchy older half-sister (Fay Masterson) seems to know more about than she’ll let on too. His younger half-sister (Gaby Hoffmann) is friendly enough, but kind of annoying and not much help. He wants to escape his unhappy home life by going to a military boarding school that his father apparently attended, but having already failed the entrance exam, his mother is reluctant to let him take it again. So Stahl decides to find himself a tutor, and thinks he’s found the perfect one in the facially disfigure, aloof town outcast Mel Gibson. Why this guy? Because he’s a former teacher. At first, Gibson is completely and abruptly against the idea, but seeing that the boy is adamant, he relents and begins teaching him, albeit in a quite harsh and strict manner. Before long, though, a bond forms between the two, which arouses the suspicions of their small community, especially in light of certain rumours about the older man’s past as a teacher. Richard Masur plays Whitton’s latest boyfriend, a dorky hippie professor, and Geoffrey Lewis is the town sheriff.

 

Strange as it may seem given his subsequent directorial efforts and frankly volatile public persona of recent decades, the directorial debut of actor Mel Gibson was this sensitive, literate coming-of-age flick from 1993. Aside from maybe “Tim” and “Forever Young”, there’s nothing in his filmography as actor or director that would suggest this as the kind of thing he’d make his directing debut with. It’s a very interesting choice that just goes to show Mad Mel sure is a complex guy. Crudely, one could call this “The Elephant Man” meets “Dead Poets Society”, but I prefer to simply say that it’s a really damn good movie.

 

Nick Stahl has had an uneven and rather troubled life/career, but gives an excellent lead performance here, especially for an acting debut. He’s an underrated talent, I think. I particularly liked his almost “Wonder Years”-like wry narration, and his family are perfectly annoying, with young Gaby Hoffmann perhaps the most likeable of the bunch. Margaret Whitton probably should’ve had a more fruitful career on screen I think, and this is easily British-born Fay Masterson’s best work as the spiteful older sister. As for Gibson himself, he’s a spot-on casting choice as he’s intimidating, aloof, and mysterious enough, yet with enough innate trustworthiness (on screen at least) to convince with all facets of this character. The facial makeup on him is pretty good, too I must say and at no point does it hamper his performance or restrict him. Special mention must go to Richard Masur, who is hilarious as a rather nerdy hippie Yale professor (!) who tries to ingratiate himself with Stahl to little success. Veteran character actor Geoffrey Lewis is also terrific as the well-meaning town sheriff. 

 

Yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s the “Wonder Years” similarities that have me gravitating towards this one. Some will find the material a tad simplistic, but Gibson never turns into a cuddly Mr. Miyagi or anything, his character had a brittle and anti-social quality, and Stahl’s character is frankly a little prick at times. In addition to its coming of age/nostalgic elements and pro-literature leanings, the film is most strongly an indictment of small town small-mindedness and gossip, and prejudice. It may not be the most original or daring film but it’s a strong film and one of the best-ever debut films from an actor-turned director. Based on a novel by Isabelle Holland, the screenplay is by Malcolm MacRury (who has a cameo near the end). 

 

Rating: B+

Review: Sudden Impact


In this fourth outing, Clint Eastwood is back as hard-arse, non-PC detective Harry Callahan, who after yet another perp walks due to a lack of evidence and after his general refusal to do anything by-the-book pisses off his superiors, is given a vacation. Well, sort of. He is shunted off to a small-town precinct not too far out of San Fran, in order to help investigate a serial killing case. The audience already knows that the killer is a woman, gang-rape victim Sondra Locke (whose sister was also a victim and left pretty much a vegetable as a result), who is killing the gang members (who include a sleazy Paul Drake) one by one, shooting them in the head and…the other head. However, it should be noted that one of the rapists is a butch lesbian played by Audrie Neenan. On the side, we have the small-town police chief (Pat Hingle) treating Harry like crap, and mobster underlings pissed off at Harry for kinda sorta causing nasty a Mafioso (uncredited Michael V. Gazzo) to have a fatal heart attack. Also, Harry actually meets Locke before knowing who she is. Bradford Dillman turns up as an a-hole San Francisco police captain who hates Harry’s methods, and series regular Albert Popwell (who plays different roles in each film) plays Horace, Harry’s one African-American friend, to show he’s totally not racist.

 

By far the nadir of the “Dirty Harry” series, this 1983 flick from director/star Clint Eastwood (“White Hunter, Black Heart”, “Play Misty For Me”, “Million Dollar Baby”) and screenwriter Joseph C. Stinson (the appalling “City Heat”) is cheap, offensive trash. It feels like two terrible vigilante movies awkwardly strung together, and indeed co-writers Charles B. Pierce and Earl E. Smith (the men behind the cult film “The Town That Dreaded Sundown”) apparently had written a separate film for Locke, before Stinson came along and reappropriated it for a Dirty Harry film. The seams show at all times. Part Charles Bronson vigilante movie and part “I Spit on Your Grave”, it’s boring and rambling, a film that is as empty as it is too busy. The film is actually just plain sloppy at times, with seriously misplaced humour (whether it’s the goofy bus scene, the comic relief dog, or the ‘black comedy’ of a hot dog/severed penis joke) that really ought not be here. I also think the Mafioso subplot just clutters things unnecessarily. The film is already two films in one, it didn’t need that distraction as well.

 

Well-shot by Bruce Surtees (“Play Misty For Me”, “Dirty Harry”, “The Shootist”), but this is one-note crap, not helped by two uninspired lead performances. Eastwood spends much of the film wearing shades, and the rest of the film acting like he’s still wearing shades but they’re not helping keep the sun out of his eyes. In other words, he’s half-arsing it. Sondra Locke…doesn’t wear shades at all. She is flagrantly miscast in anything that requires an actress. She has a repellent screen presence and seems about as tough as Shelley Duvall in the first half of “The Shining”. Actress Audrie Neenan is pretty terrible as the mean ‘ol lesbian thug. It amazes me that she actually recovered from this to have quite a respectable career. It’s such an unfortunate character but Neenan’s performance is just too silly. Bradford Dillman gets very little screen time and just regurgitates lines that every preceding ‘cop/bureaucrat who hates Harry’s methods’ has already delivered. Michael V. Gazzo was probably glad not to receive credit, so that maybe no one will notice that he does the worst Michael V. Gazzo impersonation of all-time. Think about that for a second. Paul Drake, meanwhile is terrible as the lead villain, but is actually rather entertaining for some perverse reason. He’s that far over-the-top. There’s not a lot of entertainment here, so I’ll take what I can get, intentional or not. The best (legit) performances probably come from Pat Hingle and Albert Popwell, but neither is around enough to make much of a difference, really.

 

Eastwood is apparently a ‘socially liberal’ Conservative in real-life, but you wouldn’t know it from watching this homophobic, misogynistic and racist film. Yes, the film has an African-American as one of the good guys here (Popwell), but if you don’t think this film is racist…just look at the African-American gang early on. Oh, and Popwell may be a good guy here, but he still suffers from that other stereotype for African-Americans in films (I won’t spoil it for those not in the know). The misogyny is obvious, with Sondra Locke’s lady killer (who uses a phallic symbol for a weapon of course).

 

As for the homophobia? In Clint’s worldview here, apparently lesbians are uncouth loudmouth degenerates who are really just frustrated ugly straight girls. Watch this film and tell me that’s not what he and Stinson are saying. Or better yet, don’t watch the film, it belongs at the bottom of the heap of Eastwood films with “The Eiger Sanction”, “The Rookie”, “City Heat”, and “Tightrope”. It’s like the first two films in the series, only uglier, boring, and completely dumbed-down. At least the first two were well-made, right-wing or not. This one’s only useful if you want to watch someone get a trivia question wrong when they confidently claim that ‘Go Ahead, Make My Day’ came from the first “Dirty Harry”. Well, first of all, it was re-appropriated from a line in “Vice Squad” which was made in 1982, but “Sudden Impact” is the only “Dirty Harry” film to use it. How in the hell was this crap not a Cannon/Golan-Globus film? Composer Lalo Schifrin (“The Cincinnati Kid”, “Cool Hand Luke”, “Bullitt”, “Kelly’s Heroes”) doesn’t have his finest hour here, mixing annoying jazz with hideous disco pop. Final straw is the end credits song ‘This Side of Heaven’ by Roberta Flack, mistakenly under the impression that she’s doing a (bad) Bond theme.

 

Rating: D

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Review: Kalifornia


Journo David Duchovny and his pretentious photographer girlfriend Michelle Forbes plan a road trip to California through Texas and Arkansas, with Duchovny hoping to stop at various destinations that are home to brutal serial murders, his favourite subject. She can take the pictures, he can write the text and hopefully a book will spring forth and make lots of money. Asking for someone to join and share in the travel/petrol expenses, his ad is responded to by Early Grayce (Brad Pitt) an uncouth and seemingly unwashed hick ex-con, who brings his brow-beaten, dopey girlfriend Adele (Juliette Lewis) along for the ride. Forbes’ Carrie is immediately dismissive and derisive of these lower-class hicks (but feels pity for the physically abused Adele), but Early seems to arouse something in Duchovny’s Brian (Early teaches Brian how to shoot a gun, for instance). That’s because what Brian doesn’t know is that Early is a brutal, soulless killer, and he’s gonna give the rather naïve writer one helluva up close and personal story with a real murderer.

 

Almost a good movie, this 1993 serial killer road movie from debutant director Dominic Sena (who went on to the abysmal wank-job “Swordfish”, and his mild best film to date “Season of the Witch”) and screenwriter Tim Metcalfe (“Revenge of the Nerds”, “Fright Night II”, “Bones”, “Haunting in Connecticut”) is certainly miles ahead of Oliver Stone’s appalling “Natural Born Killers” from the following year, and even manages to make that film’s co-star Juliette Lewis less annoying than usual here. Certainly far less annoying than she was in “Natural Born Killers” at any rate.

 

Frankly I think Michelle Forbes has a really unpleasant, cold presence on screen that does not evoke sympathy at all, and it hurts the film. David Duchovny is better and well-cast, but these are rather cold fish, yuppies really, and not of much interest to me as protagonists. I mean just look at Forbes’ hairdo for cryin’ out loud. It screams yuppie abstract artist all day long (Turns out she’s an artsy yuppie photographer, but never mind). I also don’t buy Forbes as someone who would associate with a writer on true crime and serial killers. There’s just no way she’d get romantically involved with someone like that, I’m not even sure he’d earn enough money to keep a woman like her (Then again, yuppies or not, they seem strapped for cash early on, so maybe they’re just pretentious, not necessarily affluent).

 

Most of the reason to see this film is clearly Brad Pitt, giving one of his best-ever performances as the chief antagonist. In fact, Forbes’ best scenes are with him, as there’s an awful lot going on there than meets the eye. As far as I’m concerned this was the first real performance Pitt ever gave, and the last good one until “Se7en”. In fact, with Pitt getting deep inside this animalistic character, it’s the better performance of the two, if nowhere near as good a film as “Se7en” was. Pitt really goes all out with this grotty, bearded redneck masculinity, but with clearly something broken inside. I bet he never showered during filming, either. He just seems like the type, and you can almost smell the grot and the grime. Yuck. He’s filthy, and thanks to Pitt’s excellent performance, fascinating, dangerously unpredictable, and maybe even charismatic (Certainly he is to the Duchovny character). Call me crazy, but I think Pitt was robbed of an Oscar nomination for this terrific, lively turn. Juliette Lewis is an acquired taste to say the least. To me, she always gives variations on the same whiny hick performance in every film, it’s just a matter of whether she’s playing whiny and dumb/naïve hick (this film, “Cape Fear”, “Christmas Vacation”) or whiny and shrieking hellcat hick (“Natural Born Killers”, “Strange Days”). She suits this film and this poor, unfortunate character like no other she has played before. It’s easily her best work. Wow, I actually paid her a compliment, someone should mark that down, it doesn’t happen often. She plays redneck moron convincingly, undoubtedly. She’s such an annoying, pathetic character, though, that you have to wonder if the only reason why Pitt puts up with her is because she does everything he says unquestioningly. He also beats her, so there’s that, too. These two are a perfect pair of white trash, and the most vivid and interesting thing about the film. Special mention must also go to cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (“Pumpkinhead”, “Deep Cover”, “Body Snatchers”), who does one helluva job in the opening scene especially, it’s wonderfully stormy and full of shadow and light. It’s definitely the director’s best-looking film.

 

Just shy of being a good film, but Pitt’s mesmerising performance deserved more attention that it really got, if you ask me. Oh, if only the film’s protagonists grabbed you a bit more, the film could’ve been a real winner. The screenplay is based on a story by Metcalfe and Stephen Levy. An interesting near-miss, but still much more successful in dealing with the media’s fascination with killers than the unwatchable “Natural Born Killers”. Oh, and some 20 odd years later, I still have no freakin’ idea why the title is misspelled. Any thoughts?

 

Rating: C+

Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1


Confined to District 13, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is struggling with the devastating climactic events of the previous film that saw her home bombed and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) basically left for dead. She is persuaded by rebellion leader Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and her advisor Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to feature in propaganda pieces as a symbol, the Mockingjay to unite the people behind the rebellion and against the dictatorial President Snow (Donald Sutherland). When Katniss proves somewhat resistant and stiff, she is shown something that brings the horror all-too close to home for her. Thus a fight for the will of the people is waged, as Peeta turns up on government TV with Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) to try and dissuade the people from taking up arms, shocking Katniss. Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Liam Hemsworth, and Jeffrey Wright all reprise their roles, with Natalie Dormer turning up as the person shooting Katniss’ propaganda pieces.

 

Although a fair way from being a good film, this is the mild best of the “Hunger Games” films thus far. Directed once again by Francis Lawrence (who directed the previous “Hunger Games: Catching Fire”, as well as mediocre films “I Am Legend” and “Constantine”), this 2014 sequel improves over “Catching Fire” (which was much better than the first film) by not just limiting the amount of time devoted to the tedious games themselves but by not featuring any Hunger Games at all. It’s also not as boring or eye-rollingly stupid as the first film, and Katniss proves a tad less miserable and bitchy in this one which definitely helps (though Jennifer Lawrence looks here like she’s about ready to leave this franchise ASAP). That said, I actually found the characters played by Julianne Moore (who is actually terrific) and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman to be far more sympathetic and unselfish than Katniss, which I really don’t think was the intention. Katniss still spends the early portion of the film not thinking about the greater good or about anyone beyond her inner circle, and it does grate somewhat until she starts to wise up and realise the gravity and enormity of the situation she’s actually in. I don’t know if Lawrence is simply far too old for the role or not (I’m assuming Katniss is meant to be in her 20s or so?), but Katniss seems far too old to have such a petulant, selfish attitude.

 

On the downside of things, although overall far more stably shot by Jo Willems (who also shot “Catching Fire”), the night scenes are way too dark and murky. Meanwhile, the film needed a whole lot more Woody Harrelson, who is the series’ most interesting and entertaining character. He’s brilliant here, but not in the film enough to move the needle a whole helluva lot. The late Hoffman (who died with one week of filming left) might play a somewhat interesting character, but he looks distressingly bored here, whilst Donald Sutherland couldn’t phone in his performance any more even if he tried (See what I did there?). He’s a dishearteningly generic villain, but perhaps the text is no help. If you want a proper send-off for Hoffman, you’re better off watching “A Most Wanted Man” or “God’s Pocket” than something like this, which didn’t get a whole lot of use or effort out of the talented actor. I did, however finally begin to enjoy Elizabeth Banks in this, now that her silly character (and performance) has been stripped of most of its artifice and affectedness. There’s a real human being (and a sadness) inside the character of Effie, but it’s taken a long while to get to it. Aussie Liam Hemsworth, meanwhile, finally has his character written into the series after basically sitting on the sidelines twiddling his thumbs for two films. Josh Hutcherson is still an appallingly tedious actor, but his character finally undergoes some interesting developments in this one. Unfortunately, there’s still the idiocy of Stanley Tucci to contend with, a real embarrassment for an otherwise terrific actor.

 

The story this time out is certainly very clichéd, but I’ll give it this: it’s not boring, even if I find the social/political commentary awfully hokey. The complete absence of tedious Hunger Games in this sequel earns the film a slightly higher rating than the previous “Catching Fire”. We’re not talking about good filmmaking here (merely passable at best), but at this rate “Pt. 2” does indeed have a shot at getting there. A long shot, mind you. Based on an adaptation by author Suzanne Collins herself, the screenplay is by Peter Craig (“The Town”) and Danny Strong (“Game Change”, “The Butler”, and an actor on TV’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”). Hey, at least they’re not ripping of “Battle Royale” this time…this one’s closer to “Battle Royale: Requiem”. In fact, it’s better than “Battle Royale: Requiem”, which was a tedious disappointment (Not that it really matters, they’re all derived from “Most Dangerous Game” anyway).

 

Rating: C+

Monday, October 12, 2015

Review: Attack



Set in Belgium in WWII and concerning the infantry company of Capt. Cooney (Eddie Albert), and said soldiers’ growing realisation that their Captain isn’t fit to lead. Most enraged by the situation is Lt. Costa (Jack Palance), who is angered that Cooney didn’t provide the backup he assured Costa was coming during a mission that saw several men killed as a result. Costa believes Cooney is a coward, and indeed he is. Hell, Cooney’s superior Col. Bartlett (Lee Marvin) probably even knows it, but being a lifelong friend of Cooney’s, and wanting to curry favour with Cooney’s important father, he has been looking the other way. Costa decides he’ll give Cooney one more chance. If anyone else in their company dies unnecessarily, Costa will take Cooney out himself! William Smithers plays Lt. Woodruff, who tries to keep the peace between Costa and Cooney, Buddy Ebsen is Costa’s reliable good ‘ol boy right-hand man Sgt. Tolliver, Robert Strauss plays wise-arse Pvt. Bernstein, and Richard Jaeckel plays another Private. Peter Van Eyck appears briefly as a captured German soldier.

 

Before he made the excellent war film “The Dirty Dozen”, director Robert Aldrich (Whose other terrific films include “Flight of the Phoenix”, “Emperor of the North Pole”, and “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte”) made an earlier film about war that is every bit as cynical. Scale-wise, this 1956 film is kind of like what a Sam Fuller version of “The Dirty Dozen” might be like, but its critique of military leaders is definitely all Aldrich. It’s a pretty disgusting display of humanity in some parts of this film, not entirely removed from the later POW film “King Rat”.

 

Eddie Albert has never struck me as much of an actor before, but here he’s a perfect coward (Ironically, he was a war hero in real-life!). If you can stop yourself from thinking of the theme from “Green Acres” for 90 minutes watching the film, he’ll really surprise you. The film really does show how some people just aren’t equipped for war, some aren’t equipped to be leaders of men, and hell, some just don’t know how to man the fuck up. Albert’s character is the very last person who should be in his position, it’s quite scary to ponder actually. If you’ve seen Sidney Lumet’s military prison camp movie “The Hill”, try to imagine the Roy Kinnear character in charge of a platoon, and that gives you an idea of how useless Albert’s character is as a leader. Lee Marvin could just as easily have played the lead role here, but the only thing wrong with him here is that he’s not in the film nearly enough. He’s terrific as the Colonel who knows Albert is useless, but is long-time friends with the man and more importantly, is trying to keep on good terms with Albert’s powerful father. In some ways, he may be even easier to dislike than Albert, who probably can’t help being the way he is. It’s amazing that Marvin could tackle this part, the much more heroic lead in “The Dirty Dozen”, and terrorise Gloria Grahame in “The Big Heat”. A very versatile actor. The lead role is given to Jack Palance, in one of his rare good guy turns. It’s one of his best-ever performances, as a man who has contempt and barely concealed rage for his cowardly superior and frustration that he is allowed to go on as leader of the unit. I had never considered Palance an actor with much range before, but he’s really good here and his narrow but intense eyes nearly burn through the screen.

 

Truth be told, there isn’t a bad performance in the whole film, with the future Jed Clampett Buddy Ebsen the perfect good ‘ol boy soldier, and Robert Strauss also making an impression as the resident wise-arse complainer amongst the soldiers. Those are two pretty familiar stock characters but Ebsen and Strauss do solid jobs nonetheless. It’s a shame that the perfectly cast Peter Van Eyck is gone within five minutes of turning up as a German, as next to Anton Diffring and Gunter Meissner, he’s one of the best at this sort of Nazi baddie part. Look sharp early on for weasely character actor Strother Martin as a soldier, his is just a virtual walk-on, unfortunately.

 

One of the chief assets of the film is the stunning yet stark B&W cinematography by Joseph Biroc (“Forty Guns”, “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte”, “Emperor of the North Pole”). With its bombed-out scenery, it’s a really terrific-looking film for something that probably didn’t cost a whole helluva lot and isn’t one of the more large-scale war films. It’s more in the vicinity of John Sturges’ “Hell is for Heroes” in terms of look and budget. One of the few major debits of the film, in fact the only really detrimental flaw here, is the hideously loud Frank DeVol (“Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte”, “Flight of the Phoenix”, “The Dirty Dozen”) music score. It’s bizarre and at times, sounds really amateurish and out of place. At one point it sounds like a child is banging on random keys of a piano. How did no one notice this before it was viewed by the public? I’d be embarrassed if it was my film.

 

This may be a B-movie in some ways, but it’s a first-rate one that has something to say about people chosen to be leaders of men. There’s also one truly harrowing moment involving a tank that you probably won’t forget anytime soon. Scripted by James Poe (“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, “Last Train From Gun Hill”, “The Bedford Incident”), it’s definitely worth seeking out, especially for war movie buffs, though the U.S. military hated it at the time, for obvious reasons.

 

Rating: B-

Review: Scanners


Stephen Lack stars as Cameron Vale, who discovers he is a ‘Scanner’, someone with extraordinary psychic powers. He is trained to hone these powers by eccentric scientist Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan). The idea is for Vale to infiltrate an underground movement of Scanners, led by the cold-blooded Daryl Revok (Michael Ironside), a murderous Scanner who can make people’s heads explode. Jennifer O’Neill plays Kim, another Scanner who is part of a kind of Scanner think tank. Lawrence Dane plays the clearly untrustworthy head of the organisation Dr. Ruth works for.

 

Of all the films about mentalists or psychics, here’s one of the only ones you really need to see. This 1981 flick from writer-director David Cronenberg (“The Dead Zone”, “The Fly”, “Eastern Promises”, “A Dangerous Method”) has a few wobbly performances here and there, but is for the most part great fun for people who like exploding heads. That’s everyone, right? One of Cronenberg’s best films for sure, if not quite the equal of “The Dead Zone” (the other psychic powers film you need to see, unless you count “Carrie”, which is about telekinesis). Although completely fucked up, it’s not quite as weird as “Videodrome” or some of Cronenberg’s more bizarre work, but it’s definitely a cult item and better than some give it credit for.

 

The story is genuinely interesting, and aside from a few dud performances, it’s a real winner. You certainly can’t tell that the script was mostly written on the fly. Patrick McGoohan is an interesting, idiosyncratic actor and a good choice to play the doctor here. He’s very strange, and has you a bit off-kilter throughout, which is perfect for the film. He’s got a very distinctive voice and he just doesn’t give line readings the way others do. He has his own vibe. I could also easily have seen Donald Pleasence in the role, actually, but McGoohan is rock-solid nonetheless. The show is stolen, however by Canadian character actor extraordinaire Michael Ironside, who gives a wonderfully chilling, Jack Nicholson-esque performance. He’s listed fifth in the credits, but believe me, he’s the guy you’ll remember as the ‘evil’ scanner. Filling out duties as the ‘good’ scanner is the very robotic Stephen Lack, who sure does. He’s a completely bland and uninteresting presence on screen. Jennifer O’Neill, meanwhile, is just OK. Given the mediocrity amongst the rest of the cast (and lead actor Lack), it’s a real shame we couldn’t get a Brad Dourif, Henry Silva, or Meg Foster in here somewhere. Pretty sure Foster’s a scanner for real. What?

 

The film has a synth score by Howard Shore (“Panic Room”, the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy). I’m not always a fan of synth, but in this film it works for sure. Aside from the unforgettable opener with Ironside, there’s a brilliantly insane bit where an unborn child (!) actually tries to ‘scan’ Jennifer O’Neill. Although a tad silly, the gory FX-filled finale is a lot of fun and the FX hold up quite well for a reasonably low-budget Canadian film from 34 years ago.

 

With memorably gory FX, a compelling and slightly silly plot, and a fantastic villainous performance by Michael Ironside, this one’s good bloody fun for people who like exploding heads. The squeamish need not apply, but it’s no single-minded gore-fest, either. One of the best films of its type, undoubtedly, it’s like “X-Men” (or even “The Terminator” when you think about it) but Canadian and with exploding heads. How about a Robert Rodriguez remake with Michael Shannon or Paul Bettany in for Ironside, and Jake Gyllenhaal in for Stephen Lack? Just putting it out there.

 

Rating: B