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 24, 2015

Review: The Equaliser


Denzel Washington plays a guy with a mysterious past as a bad arse, who now lives a ‘normal’ existence working at a hardware/home improvement store (Think Bunnings, if you’re Australian, Home Depot if you’re American). He’s well-liked by colleagues (despite dispensing dietary advice, which would result in a punch to the face from me, you judge-y bastard!), but doesn’t socialise much. One night at a diner he witnesses young prostitute Chloe Grace Moretz getting a little roughed up by her pimp, and he can’t help but act. His violent actions, however, alert the attention of Russian gangsters at the controls of the whole operation, who send out a no-nonsense bad arse of their own (Marton Csokas) to deal with Washington. In roles that seem to have bits and pieces missing (presumably to be found on the cutting room floor) Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo appear briefly as figures from Denzel’s past.

 

No, I will not change the spelling, Americans are wrong. They just are. I was worried that this 2014 big-screen version of the popular Edward Woodward TV show was gonna be another ghastly, horribly manipulative vigilante movie like Tony Scott’s “Man on Fire” which mixed (too much) violence with (too much) sentiment, and was no fun at all. Thankfully, it’s not quite like that, and apparently it’s nothing like the TV show, either (From what I hear it plays more like a loose prequel). Directed by Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”, “Tears of the Sun”, “King Arthur”, “Brooklyn’s Finest”), yes it overstates what a great guy the Denzel Washington character is, to the point that it stretches things to an unworthy two hours.  Yes, like “Man on Fire” it gives us another young girl for Denzel to protect. Thankfully, though, Chloe Grace Moretz’ character is only in the film’s opening and closing and doesn’t really play a huge part here. She is what initially motivates the Denzel character, but is certainly not used in such a horribly manipulative/exploitative way as I was expecting. “Man on Fire” dragged things out, thinking it was some kind of high art, to excuse its ultra-violence. This film is under no such illusion, though I still prefer my vigilante movies much campier and more ‘fun’ than this, or else the ultra-violence stops being ‘fun’. I’m not really a fan of the more contemplative, brooding ones, I’m afraid. Or, I guess I prefer my vigilante movies to be action flicks, not urban dramas. When Denzel picks up a drill as a weapon late in the film (you don’t see much), the film doesn’t revel in the gore like the second half of “Man on Fire”, but it’s certainly violent and brutal at times. I actually thought the use of the drill was rather clever, given Denzel works in a hardware store.

 

Rather than something genuinely nasty like “Man on Fire”, though, this is closer to a Steven Seagal film or something like that. In some ways this actually reminded me of “Death Wish 3” (Denzel helping out his friends and co-workers, for instance) only it doesn’t suck like that film, and Denzel (whose presence, when he’s on song and well-cast simply can’t be matched) actually attempts to give a good performance. Denzel is also playing a more relatable character than in either “Man on Fire” or the “Death Wish” series. Those characters were a bit unstable, mentally or at least emotionally, and I could never really warm to either. The character Denzel plays here used to be a badass of some kind, stopped because his wife asked him to, and now decides to use his skills to get rid of some scumbags who frankly deserve it. I normally find the ‘ordinary person turned vigilante’ thing to be implausible (“The Brave One” immediately springs to mind), so at least this character I was able to believe because he has some training in implementing violence. He’s also likeable enough that you want to spend time with him, without making his violent actions seem implausible to his character- a tricky balance most get wrong.

 

Denzel is probably the key here to why this film isn’t so bad. When it’s his wont, Denzel is one helluva actor and he is much better company here than in “Man on Fire”. He’s the film’s best asset by far. She’s not in the film much but Moretz is pretty decent too, though playing a hooker doesn’t make this one “Taxi Driver”, OK, Mr. Fuqua? It’s still basically a vigilante movie on the B-level, just with a somewhat A-grade cast. It’s easily Antoine Fuqua’s best-looking and least pretentious-looking film to date, which I much appreciated. Cinematographer Mauro Fiore (“The A-Team”, “Avatar”, “Tears of the Sun”) even adopts a bit of ‘black lighting’ at times, which is cool. He really only has one bit of show-boating, and gets away with it: The camera rotates over the tattooed body of Marton Csokas. That was really snazzily done, I must say. It may be average screenwriting, but it’s certainly solid directing without getting too pretentious or distracting. As for Mr. Csokas, who looks like a dyed Russell Crowe here, he’s just OK here…which makes it by far his best performance to date. I kinda liked that he gave his Russian character a somewhat English accent, suggesting an overseas education. Nothing says ‘old-school action movie villain’ like a clipped English accent. The violence is straight up mean and nasty, but like I said this isn’t meant to be taken terribly seriously, it’s basically a straight-up action film, albeit one with not enough action throughout, which is a shame.

 

This isn’t a good film, particularly. It’s really a classed-up latter-day Steven Seagal film (Perhaps Seagal turned the film down because the villains are Russians and Putin is apparently his best buddy), right down to the cameos by Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman, not normally the names you expect to see attached to something like this. Polished but not particularly memorable, it’s certainly more digestible than I was expecting. Fans of vigilante movies will want to bump the rating up considerably, I’m a bit mild on it and it’s way overlong. The screenplay is by Richard Wenk (“16 Blocks”, the remake of “The Mechanic”, “The Expendables 2”).

 

Rating: C+

Review: The Big Boss


Bruce Lee travels from China to Thailand to reunite with relatives. At the suggestion of cousin James Tien, Lee gets a job at the local ice factory (no, not the drug ‘ice’), and quickly learns that screw ups on the job aren’t very well tolerated. He also quickly learns something else: After a couple of family members go missing after having a talk with the ‘manager’, he does a little investigating and uncovers that the ice factory is really just a front for a drug operation. Although Lee has promised his late mother that he will not get into fights, he realises that he must take a stand…and break a few wrists. I mean, ‘Bruce Lee listens to him mum and picks daisies’ wouldn’t make for much of a film, would it?

 

This 1971 martial arts film from writer-director Lo Wei was Bruce Lee’s first starring vehicle, and although not up to the standard of the later “Fist of Fury” (also from Lo Wei), it’s pretty good. To be honest, I think Lee gets rather lost in the shuffle in the film’s first half. He really only comes into his own towards the end in the last 15 minutes of the film. I also have a preference for the fights in “Fist of Fury”, as in this one he’s taking part mostly in all-in rumbles/brawls, rather than his one-versus-many battles in “Fist of Fury”. Having said that, I really liked how uncompromising and nasty the film is when it comes to killing, it’s quite bloody for its time. Lee’s dispatch of the title character is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. Did he just kick a knife into the guy’s chest? How the hell did he do that? Speaking of cool, at one point Lee forces a scene transition with his fucking fist. Brilliant. Bruce Lee, ladies and gentlemen. Also, check out the opening titles design which is oh-so 70s and shows still images of Lee in full flight backed by crazy colours.

 

The story is pretty interesting and it’s actually a much more technically sound film than Lee’s own directorial effort “Way of the Dragon” (which looked pretty cheap) or Robert Clouse’s efforts “Enter the Dragon” and the frankly crude “Game of Death”. The leather couch-whacking sound FX are even louder than normal, and quite ridiculous, but other than that, it’s a pretty well put together film. It’s certainly got a quicker pace than “Way of the Dragon”, which I appreciated. The only thing I didn’t like was a little character inconsistency, with Lee itching to fight one minute but standing back and watching the next. What the hell?

 

The acting standout here isn’t actually Lee, but James Tien as Lee’s cousin, who is also quite a good fighter as we see early on (though clearly not in Lee’s league). He actually gets the usual Bruce Lee deal of looking like a total bad arse taking on about 10 guys at once. But more importantly, Tien’s terrific performance is also the best non-Bruce Lee performance in any Lee film. Sure, that’s somewhat faint praise, but it’s worth noting nonetheless. It’s interesting to ponder what would’ve happened to Lee if he stayed in China at least a while longer working for Lo Wei and Golden Harvest, as his later films in America aren’t nearly as good, and of course that’s where he also prematurely died. Maybe, just maybe we would’ve had Lee around for a while longer. No “Green Hornet”, mind you, but possibly no Chuck Norris either, and I could live with that one (Sorry, Chuck fans. He’s a terrible actor and I have serious disagreements with his off-screen persona too).

 

An entertaining, bloody martial arts film that isn’t the best showcase of Lee’s talents per se, but is a rock-solid film nonetheless and one of his best-made efforts. As with all non-American Lee films, try to find a subtitled version, apparently the dubbing with these things is horrible. Pretty good music score, with several repeated themes like you might find with an Ennio Morricone score (“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”, “Once Upon a Time in the West”, “The Untouchables”).

 

Rating: B-

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Review: Welcome to Woop Woop


Jonathon Schaech is a small-time American hustler who escapes to the Australian outback when the fit hits the shans. He gets tangled up with a loopy chick (Susie Porter) who basically tricks him into staying with her in a weird, seemingly backwards small town of Woop Woop. The town is overseen by her big, burly father (Rod Taylor, in a rare appearance back home late in his career) who makes sure no one ever leaves Woop Woop, else they want to get shot. Maggie Kirkpatrick plays Porter’s flatulent, beer-swilling mother, Dee Smart and a blond Paul Mercurio play other locals, and an almost unrecognisable Richard Moir runs the local radio. Rachel Grifffiths plays Schaech’s girlfriend back in the States, where Tina Louise also has a cameo. Barry Humphries turns up in one scene as a grotesque character much closer to Sir Les than Dame Edna.

 

I wouldn’t want to suggest that the career of Stephan Elliott was completely ended by this 1997 dud (The international flop “Eye of the Beholder” was still to come), but there’s no doubt that the heights of “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” (not my favourite film personally, but a huge hit on all fronts) have never been even closely matched since. Is the film really that bad? Yes, it indeed is, it’s a major miscalculation, something that could very easily have been called “They’re a Crude Mob”.

 

Loosely based on a novel by Douglas Kennedy and scripted by Michael Thomas (“The Hunger”, “Backbeat”, and the wonderful “Ladyhawke”), this plays like a grotesque throwback to the grossly caricatured lows of Barry McKenzie, but filtered through Elliott’s dopey Hollywood musical sensibilities. Or to put it another way, it’s “Wake in Fright” done as a comedy with a song-and-dance bent. Yeah, Elliott actually thought this was a great idea. Unfortunately, he’s comedically tone-deaf and while Ted Kotcheff made valid and necessary points in his examination of boozy ‘ocker’ machismo in “Wake in Fright”, Elliott (who unlike Kotcheff, is actually Australian and should be ashamed), paints Outback Aussies as though they’re from another planet. His own people! He overdoes it so much that it doesn’t even work as a comedy, it’s just grotesque and off-putting. Cultural cringe? More like cultural vomit and defecation. It feels like a film that even in 1997 was two decades out of date to be suitable material. “The Castle” came out the same year and it had laughs and heart. This has Maggie Kirkpatrick farting and saying ‘Fuck me dead!’. In her first scene, no less. It’s just gross, and not remotely amusing, it’s unsuitable material for a comedy, at least one meant to be laughed at by Australians. It’s a fine line between making a point and pissing on your country and expecting us to laugh at it. Elliott has truly crossed that line. I reckon it proves far more damaging to the Aussie character than “Wake in Fright” (a film that was initially rejected by Aussies for perhaps making us see the dark side of out character at the time).

 

The only funny moment in the film comes when the bizarro ocker townsfolk start singing ‘I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair’. It’s so silly and unlikely you just have to laugh. As for the rest…fuck it. Seriously, fuck this movie and fuck Stephan Elliott, too. Rod Taylor is perfectly ornery and intimidating and Susie Porter brings a lot of energy to her role (Her use of the term ‘Abo’ in 1997 was culturally unhelpful and a huge mistake by Elliott in my opinion). Ringer Jonathon Schaech is pretty bland in the lead and Dee Smart’s character is obvious from her first moment on screen. I’m guessing Elliott is a huge “Gilligan’s Island” fan because that’s clearly the only reason why Tina Louise (Ginger!) turns up in a useless cameo at the beginning. Meanwhile, Rachel Griffiths is pretty good at doing American accents, but she sure as shit wasn’t up to the task in 1997. Wow. So bad.

 

The cast try, Elliott tries way too hard. Elements of this aren’t without potential (I liked the local radio station), but Elliott takes things way beyond too far, kills it, runs over it, pisses on it, runs over it again and again. Then shits on it just ‘coz he can. It’s not abysmally done on a technical level, but it’s no surprise the film was rejected then forgotten. Pretty poor and not remotely helpful, culturally. Elliott likely disagrees with me, however, given he has a cameo as a ‘hoon’, where he yells out ‘Give her the pork sword!’. You’ve done such a great service to your country, Mr. Elliott. Bravo, you ignorant bogan!

 

Rating: D+

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Review: The Legend of Drunken Master


Jackie Chan stars as Wong Fei-Hung, exponent of the title kung-fu style, forbidden by his stern father (Ti Lung, less than ten years older than Chan!) because it renders Chan a drunken embarrassment. His father is a doctor, who also runs his own martial arts school, whilst Chan’s more supportive stepmother (Anita Mui) runs a mah-jong racket out of the family home, unbeknownst to Ti Lung. However, as much as his father disapproves of Chan’s fighting, let alone ‘drunk-style’ fighting, Chan will indeed need to rely on his fighting skills to take on a smuggling ring (seemingly headed by a British Ambassador), after he mistakenly picks up the wrong package on a train. Ken Lo (Chan’s real-life bodyguard) plays the fearsome lead henchman, whilst Andy Lau has a cameo as a powerful official who aids Chan and his father at one point.

 

I continue to find Jackie Chan films frustrating, and this 1994 sort-of follow-up to “Drunken Master” is a classic example. I just can’t quite get into the story or even the action scenes when Chan is clearly a clown and acrobat, not a fighter, actor, or storyteller. He’s quite clever at what he does, and I know he’s beloved the world over, but I’ve always been a bit ‘meh’ about him. I respect his love and admiration for Buster Keaton, but I’d rather watch the real deal. Keaton was a genius. Chan is a clown, and not really the funny kind. I didn’t find very much of the comedy particularly funny, as Chan’s facial mugging shits me to no end (The only laugh comes when Chan can’t stop doing drunken boxing against his own father who is trying to get him to stop. Cute). I have to admit, though, that some of the action is really, really well-done. I’d hate to have been a stunt person (or Chan) on this film. It looks fucking dangerous at times. Did he really allow himself to be set on fire like that? I hope there’s some movie trickery afoot there.

 

It’s a pretty action-packed film…once you get past the deadly opening 30 minutes. The title style of martial arts is ridiculous, silly comedy shit that just drove me up the wall (The film is at least 90% comedy). However, the action scenes that don’t involve the ‘drunken’ style of martial arts are fun to watch. Chan’s speed and agility are amazing. As the chief adversary, Ken Lo is truly bad arse, and the legendary Ti Lung is pretty good as Chan’s stern father. Even better is Anita Mui as his feisty mother-in-law, though charismatic Cantopop star/actor Andy Lau is thoroughly wasted in a mere cameo. I was bitterly disappointed by that, as Lau is usually great value. Apparently the director left after a while and took Andy Lau with him, whilst Chan himself directed the rest of the film.

 

Probably a tad below “Armour of God”, the film isn’t bad, but the broad and overdone comedy simply detracts too much. Some of the action is good, but all the clowning about gets seriously annoying very quickly. Yes, Chan’s stunts are dangerous, but they are really only stunts, and adding a comedic element makes you all-too aware of it. It robs the action (and therefore the film itself) of any threat, urgency, or impact whatsoever, though the climax does feature some pretty dangerous-looking stunts involving hot coals. Jackie Chan, you sir are completely insane!

 

It’s no “Thunderbolt”, and is certainly made more skilfully than some of Chan’s films from the late 90s and early 00s, but that’s pretty much all. Fans will probably love it (Many cite it among his best-ever), I’m middling on it, and it’s a real disappointment coming from director Lau Kar-Leung, whose “Eight Diagram Pole Fighter” is still one of the greatest-ever martial-arts films. The screenplay is by Edward Tsang, Tong Man Ming, and Yeun Chieh Chi.

 

Rating: C+

Review: Transcendence


Johnny Depp plays a brilliant A.I. scientist, who along with wife Rebecca Hall is aiming for an A.I. that not only thinks but feels. A group of radical luddites feel threatened by this and (led by Kate Mara) attempt to assassinate him. He isn’t shot dead, but is poisoned to the point where he will slowly die. Being a bit of a mad scientist, Depp’s reaction to this is to focus ruthlessly on his work, and aided by Hall he decides to scan and upload his mind into a computer. Once inside the computer, Depp seems to be gaining enormous power at a rapidly expanding rate. He even manages to come up with nanotechnology to heal people. Unfortunately, as Depp’s army of patched-up people grows, everyone starts to get a little…a lot worried about where this is all headed. Everyone except loyal Hall, that is, who just doesn’t see it. Paul Bettany plays a concerned colleague and family friend who is a little more circumspect about technology, Morgan Freeman plays another scientist, Cillian Murphy plays an FBI agent, Cole Hauser is a military figure, and Clifton Collins Jr. plays one of the guys Depp operates on.

 

Well-respected cinematographer Wally Pfister (Christopher Nolan’s go-to lenser) has assembled a helluva cast for his directorial debut. Johnny Depp is an actor capable of brilliance when it is his wont, I love Rebecca Hall to a slightly unhealthy degree, we all know Morgan Freeman is God, and Paul Bettany is one of the most underrated actors working today. How did this 2014 sci-fi flick fail with both critics and audiences? Well, it becomes pretty apparent once you actually watch the film why the former happened.

 

Scripted by first-timer Jack Paglen, the film feels like the script must’ve been written in the early 90s during the brief VR-craze and given only the barest of technological touch-ups that still have it feeling incredibly old-hat. I mean, this really is another ‘ghost in the machine’ flick. In 2014. Seriously. It’s the kind of film where you hear about someone wanting to end world poverty with new technology, and all you’re thinking is ‘Why wasn’t that the first thing they tried to do with technology?’

 

Johnny Depp was born to play a mad scientist, and I suppose computer geniuses are the modern versions of that, but he won’t win any accolades for his performance in this one. Granted, the role has him stuck in a machine for much of the film’s length, and his mumbly delivery is probably suited to the character, but he gets annoying and monotonous pretty quickly. There’s also the problem that the characters played by Depp and Rebecca Hall for the longest time are being portrayed as though they are the good guys, without even a hint of menace. Instead it’s the hackers led by Kate Mara who are portrayed much more sinisterly for the first ¾ of the film. I don’t think it’s merely the filmmakers trying to throw us off the scent, but poor screenwriting and direction.

 

Normally I have no problem buying into a technological threat-based plot, but Pfister Paglen’s clunky plot, and the cast just didn’t convince me. The fact that this film seems to have been brought to you by Windows 95 doesn’t help. It’s a futuristic fantasy that seems curiously and boringly retro. Hell, after a while it even starts to evoke a 50s ‘Red Scare’ picture for cryin’ out loud. That’s when it’s not covering material done better in 2013’s wonderful “Her”. It’s only after an hour that Depp’s character somewhat crosses an ethical line, but for the most part we so believe that Depp’s motives here are for the greater good that when he does indeed start acting all demonically ‘ghost in the machine’-ish, it’s actually not believable. There’s just not enough hints along the way to lead us there, he never once acts menacingly before that, and whilst it might serve to surprise you, it just doesn’t convince you. That said, once it does become blatantly obvious that Depp is a demonic Max Headroom, Rebecca Hall’s character proves to be a giant boob of the highest order. The only people dumber than her are the writer and director for thinking any of this material was fresh or surprising. Oh, and you can tell that one piece of voiceover from Morgan Freeman only exists ‘coz that’s what Morgan Freeman does in movies. There’s no genuine reason why he had to be the one to deliver that monologue.

 

This is probably better than most films of its type, but most films of its type came out more than a decade ago, and mostly sucked balls. This one just sucks a little bit. Good acting from most of the cast helps, but not nearly enough. I mean, poor Kate Mara is stuck in a character that screams 1997-1999. At best. Cillian Murphy needn’t have bothered showing up, given how little we see of him. A favour to his buddy Pfister? I hope he was well-paid for it then. On the plus side, Paul Bettany gives an excellent performance under the circumstances, and the film looks every bit as stunning as you’d expect from a cinematographer-turned-director. Strangely, Jess Hall is the cinematographer here, not Pfister himself. Hey, if Peter Hyams can do double-duty, why not Pfister?

 

This is “Lawnmower Man 2014” with a touch of Cronenberg’s “The Fly”. Shockingly out of date, and most of the blame must go to Mr. Paglen for a lack of fresh ideas. I guess Mr. Pfister has a lot of loyal friends…or a lot of really incriminating photos, because this distressingly retro sci-fi/thriller just doesn’t cut it. Did anyone read the damn script before signing on?

 

Rating: C-

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Review: Nightcrawler


Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a scavenger/thief who, although socially awkward, has boundless ambition and a motor-mouth. One night he spots an opportunistic freelance TV cameraman (Bill Paxton) doing his thing and cashing in big selling the footage, and a lightbulb goes off in Louis’ head. He buys himself a police scanner and a video camera, and he’s off and running. At first he runs into some trouble for getting in the way of crime/accident scenes and stepping on the toes of the more ‘legitimate’ camera people. But Louis is as persistent as he is ambitious, and eventually he happens upon some juicy footage that no one else has gotten to yet (sometimes before the cops even get there, I might add), taking it to struggling TV news head Nina (Rene Russo). He tries to ingratiate himself into a permanent gig selling footage for her, whilst he also becomes bolder and more unscrupulous in his methods of getting the best footage (And also bolder in his demands of Nina). He also takes on an assistant in young homeless man Rick (Riz Ahmed), who gets thrown into the deep end right away. Just how far is Louis willing to go to get a juicy piece of footage? Far enough that the cops start sniffing around, disapproving of what he’s doing. Possibly even further, though. This guy has no empathy, conscience, or moral compass. That’s not in his intense focus.

 

An excellent directorial debut by writer Dan Gilroy (“Two for the Money”, “The Bourne Legacy”), this sleazy but compelling film from 2014 has echoes of “Taxi Driver”, “15 Minutes”, “Network”, and even “The King of Comedy”. I wouldn’t call the film a comedy or a satire, but there’s some very, very dark humour going on here. I mean the film pretty much focuses on the scummy side of the TMZ/amateur video era of immediate, sensational news footage (that the majority of us have a fascination with, it’s important to remember- guilty as charged right here!), and its chief protagonist is basically a bottom-feeding, amoral sociopath who finds himself a potential career plan out of this era of uncomfortably up-close and exploitative news footage. Ouch. There’s definitely some Travis Bickle in the character of Louis Bloom here, except instead of uprising against the scummy streets, this opportunistic creep grabs a camera and tries to make a living out of shooting the scum and the misery.

 

A seriously zonked-out, almost Nic Cage-like (but with the gift of restraint) Jake Gyllenhaal was clearly robbed of an Oscar nomination here. He uses all of his usual qualities and mannerisms…but for the forces of darkness here. This guy is way too excited, eager, and ruthless. The guy is really sleazy, anti-social and creepy. In Nic Cage’s hands, this creep would be buggin’ out and eating cockroaches, Gyllenhaal keeps it in check. Subtle he isn’t, but he grounds this guy in uncomfortable reality somewhere between Asperger’s and near-serial killer personality. I mean, if Louis weren’t so awkward and nerdy, he might indeed have turned into Travis Bickle from “Taxi Driver” and shooting holes in people’s stomachs. He’s scarily and uncomfortably real, in his best performance since “Donnie Darko”. He gives us a guy who is intensely focussed and driven, but completely soulless. Unnervingly so. The film could’ve easily been called “Skincrawler”, as Gilroy and Gyllenhaal go all-out in showing just how far Bloom is willing to go to get that perfect news footage. He’ll sell anyone out and then some. Meanwhile, Bill Paxton hasn’t been this sleazy since he played a schmuck used car salesman in “True Lies”, only this time he’s not going for laughs. The guy he plays is the textbook definition of bottom-feeder, and Paxton (one of the more versatile actors of the last 30 years or so) is perfectly cast. Rene Russo (who is married to the writer-director, but is a highly underrated and too-rarely seen actress in my view) gives her best performance since what, 1993? Playing a slight, downscale variant on the soulless bitch TV exec Faye Dunaway perfected in “Network”, Russo’s much, much better here than she was in the more comedic (but unfunny) “Showtime” in another TV producer role. Take notice, Hollywood, and give her more roles, damn it. Riz Ahmed makes a strong, sympathetic impression too, in support. You’ll worry about this poor kid, who is only taking the job because he’s desperate and now he’s stuck with this bottom-feeding creep for a boss. Special mention must go to cinematographer Robert Elswit (“Magnolia”, “Good Night and Good Luck”, “The Town”) for some superb low-level lighting. It’s really effective and instead of giving us just one colour, we get lots of colours.

 

Aside from one or two moments where Bloom interferes with crime scenes that strain credibility a tad, this is uncomfortably real. Bloom might be a tad too amoral for some to believe, but he’s not the only one Gilroy is blasting here. He’s pointing the finger at the media, and yes, at you and me too. It hits pretty close to the bone, I think, and at the very least it’ll give you pause next time you see some amateur/freelance news footage and wonder who shot it. Or perhaps it’s best not to even think about it. You’ll want to take about twenty showers after this film, but it’s so well done, certainly better than “15 Minutes”. Powerful stuff. Just be thankful this guy turned to a video camera and not a gun or a knife!

 

Rating: B

Review: Whiplash


Miles Teller plays an aspiring jazz drummer and freshman at a prestigious music school who gets hired by instructor J.K. Simmons to join his exclusive jazz band. At first, Teller is overjoyed, but quickly learns that his instructor is a highly volatile, profanely insulting, ultra-demanding perfectionist. Is he trying to push his students to their limits in the hopes of making them great, or is he just an arsehole whose behaviour might prove to have psychological effects on them? Teller’s unconditionally loving but perhaps less ambitious dad Paul Reiser (in one of his few genuinely solid performances) starts to worry that it is indeed the latter at work here. Meanwhile, Teller plucks up the courage to ask cinema employee Melissa Benoist out on a date, but can he juggle a relationship with his musical pursuits? Chris Mulkey turns up briefly as a relative who doesn’t quite get Teller’s chosen field of study/career (Teller’s arrogant attitude doesn’t much help bridge the gap, either).

 

An unusual, and frankly lumpy mixture of music school drama and “Full Metal Jacket”, this 2014 film from writer-director Damien Chazelle (who based the film on his own short film) is the perfect example of just because something is true to what the filmmaker knows, doesn’t mean the audience will actually believe it. Chazelle apparently based parts of the film on his own experiences as part of a school band, and I’ve heard others suggest that the hardcore, manipulative and abusive teacher played by an Oscar-winning J.K. Simmons is true of many such instructors. Terrific, except Chazelle and Simmons didn’t make me believe it. It’s not just the Simmons character, though. Look at that stupid scene involving a car accident. It’s not only contrived, but it’s completely and utterly ridiculous.

 

Thankfully, Chazelle has, however, delivered a pretty entertaining and very unique take on an old subject. I may not have fully bought the reality of it, but I can’t say I was bored at any point during this almost “Sleuth”-like psychological battle of wills between student and master here (One minute Simmons wants Teller to ‘have fun’, the next minute he’s hurling a cymbal and screaming, etc.) I just don’t understand why it’s being touted as such a terrific film by critics. It’s surface-level entertainment, no more than that because it has been so over-pitched.

 

That’s not to say that it can’t be enjoyed. Simmons’ R. Lee Ermey-esque ranting isn’t organic or believable to me, but I can’t deny it’s a highly entertaining performance on a surface, almost cartoony level. It’s a fine piece of undeniable showboating from the popular character actor. There’s also one scene in the whole film that allows him to show an emotion other than volcanic anger, and although it doesn’t turn the film into greatness, it helps make it a bit better and briefly peek above the surface. I would’ve liked a lot more of that, to be honest, but I’m aware a lot of people really loved this film. I’m not normally a fan of handheld camerawork, particularly when it tries to add an artificial tension to a scene. However, in conjunction with Simmons’ often explosive ranting and the constant percussive jazz soundtrack, it actually adds to the discombobulated and uneasy vibe of the whole film. So kudos to whoever came up with the terrific soundtrack (despite not being a fan of the genre myself) as well as high praise for the superlative editing. It’s a deliberately nerve-wracking film, though I’m still going to gripe about the colour and lighting choices by Chazelle and the film’s cinematographer Sharone Meir (the remake of “Last House on the Left”, “Mean Creek”), who favour the filtered look that you know drives me completely insane.

 

Like with Simmons (highly overrated if you ask me), I’m not normally a Miles Teller fan, I often find him unlikeable on screen. In this film, I must say he’s actually pretty good. Although he’s probably not on the genius level of the character he plays, Teller is apparently an experienced drummer, so that experience probably helped him focus more on the character itself, whereas an actor not at all experienced in music, might’ve gotten tripped up on that or have been forced to get someone else to do all the drumming for them. Teller still trained for the part and has someone visually double for him on screen, but apparently about 40% of what you hear in the film is Teller’s recorded drumming. The fact that he can do all of that and give a genuinely good performance, at the very least shows that he’s more than just the douchebag-y guy from “The Spectacular Now” and “21 & Over”. Maybe I’ve misjudged him, or maybe every actor has their shining moment (Hey, even Nic Cage has an Oscar to his name!). I particularly liked a scene involving a phone conversation where Teller comes to a realisation that he has let a good thing go, and he feels terrible about it. You kinda feel sorry for him, but you also know that he’s an arrogant, overly driven person who brought this upon himself by his obsession with music and careless dismissiveness of anything else. That Teller can play such arrogance without alienating the audience, makes me wish he was able to do that in his previous douchy roles (Douchy seems to be Teller’s thing). Perhaps this is just better material, I dunno. I also need to single out Melissa Benoist, whom I had never heard of before and I hear is going to be pretty big due to a certain comic book-derived TV series. She doesn’t have a lot of screen time here, but she’s got a real down-to-earth beauty and charisma to her. She seems really relatable and I want to see a lot more from her in the future.

 

More entertaining than actually ‘credible’, this film is pretty overpitched, but undeniably entertaining in a gruelling, intense, and deliberately irritating kind of way. I kinda liked it, but boy did this not deserve a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars.

 

Rating: B-

Monday, October 19, 2015

Review: The Men


Marlon Brando plays a WWII soldier paralysed from the waist down due to a shot to the spine. He arrives at a spinal injury ward run by the compassionate yet matter-of-fact doctor Everett Sloane. He has a rough time of it with the other patients at first, as he’s surly and incommunicative and they’re a bit tough on him. He’s clearly not dealing with not only his physical injuries but the psychological toll his injury is taking on him. He won’t even see his loving fiancĂ© Teresa Wright. However, she conspires with Sloane to find a way to get through to him. Jack Webb plays a cynical paraplegic patient who sees himself as a realist.

 

This 1950 Fred Zinnemann (“The Search”, “High Noon”, “From Here to Eternity”) war/drama about wounded/disabled WWII soldiers is no “The Best Years of Our Lives”, but it does have a well-cast Marlon Brando giving one of his least mannered performances in his film debut. Scripted by an Oscar-nominated Carl Foreman (“High Noon”, “Bridge on the River Kwai”, “Smiley Gets a Gun”), there are better films of this type out there (“Born on the 4th of July” and “Coming Home”, in addition to the aforementioned) but it’s got Brando in his debut interestingly paired with the absolutely lovely and warm Teresa Wright. I’m not sure his ‘Method’ and her acting style necessarily mesh totally, but individually they are excellent and together they are at least interesting to watch. He’s well-cast and suitably anguished, she’s absolutely spot-on. There’s also top-notch support from no-nonsense Everett Sloane (one of the greatest character actors in the history of cinema) and an interestingly cynical Jack Webb. Sloane tries his best not to sound like the walking PSA on spinal cord injury that his character clearly is, whilst Webb is wonderfully cynical without being a complete buzzkill. Nice goatee too, Mr. Webb!

 

Yes the film is dated, but being dated isn’t always fatal for a film and there’s still some interesting stuff here. As a paraplegic myself, there’s a nice attention to detail early on with Brando having a leg tremor. I only have a very minor and very occasional one, but other paraplegics have it much worse and will definitely identify with that moment. Although other films about wounded soldiers have been superior, there aren’t nearly enough films about paraplegics in my completely biased view and this is a pretty good, early one.

 

Yes it has dated, but Brando is interestingly natural in his film debut, Teresa Wright is wonderfully warm and sensitive as always, and there’s terrific support from Everett Sloane and Jack Webb. It’s not a great film, but it could’ve been a lot worse in lesser hands than Zinnemann and Foreman. It’s also perhaps the perfect Brando film for people who frankly can’t stand the guy.  

 

Rating: B-

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Review: Rambo III


Sly Stallone once again plays psychologically scarred soldier John J. Rambo, this time going into action in Afghanistan when his mentor Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna) is kidnapped by nasty Russians (led by master thespian Marc de Jonge). He also finds himself among Afghani Freedom Fighters led by the benevolent (and awfully Greek-sounding) Spiros Focas. Yep, the Afghans are noble warriors here. Kurtwood Smith appears in a few scenes as an Embassy official who tries to get Trautman and Rambo’s help, which Rambo initially refuses.

 

The original “First Blood” was a terrific, relatively even-handed post-Vietnam film, but the following two sequels were exclusively profit-driven films with a decidedly more right-wing political agenda. As such, they are far less interesting films for those of us who never worshipped the ground Ronald Reagan walked on. This 1988 third entry into the series from director Peter MacDonald (Van Damme’s unsuccessful “Legionnaire”) and co-writers Sly Stallone and Van Damme collaborator Sheldon Lettich (“Legionnaire”, writer-director of “Wrong Bet” and “The Hard Corps”) looks particularly foolish in a post-9/11 world. ‘Dedicated to the gallant people of Afghanistan’, I bet staunch Republican voter Stallone really regrets Rambo teaming with Afghani Freedom fighters here (The situation’s obviously a little more complicated than that, given the Afghans would basically split into two groups, only one of whom would sprout the Al-Qaeda/Osama Bin Laden) in what may be cinema’s most retroactively ironic motion picture. In some ways it makes the film rather interesting from a cultural perspective, but also kinda useless at the same time (if not bloody dangerous, though to be fair, even James Bond did much the same thing in “The Living Daylights” if I’m not mistaken).

 

Like “First Blood Part II” it’s an extremely good-looking film, and probably a bit better than that film overall. However, it’s also so damn similar that if like me you watch these two films very close together, by the time you get to this one, you’re kind of bored with this franchise. The finale is the most ridiculously machine gun-heavy action set-piece of the 1980s outside of “Predator”, but…hang on, didn’t I say much the same thing about the finale of “Part II”? I believe so. Almost as ridiculous is the opening Thai martial arts scene that would still be funny even if “Hot Shots Part Deux” hadn’t parodied it. That’s not a complaint, by the way. It’s more an observation of how far this series has strayed from the comparative seriousness of “First Blood”. Also, why does Rambo have his hands wrapped up like a Thai boxer when he’s actually stick-fighting?

 

“First Blood” had Brian Dennehy. “Rambo: First Blood Part II” gave us Charles Napier, Steven Berkoff, and Martin Kove. “Rambo III” gives us Marc de Jonge, Spiros Focas (the villain from “The Jewel of the Nile”), and Kurtwood Smith. ‘Nuff said, right? Focas is at least the best actor amongst the Afghan actors (That is to say, he’s not from that part of the world, merely playing an Afghani character). The Omar Sharif-lookalike is at least competent and charismatic. As for the lead villain Marc de Jonge (who?), he’s so nondescript you find yourself wondering if Jurgen Prochnow was busy (Or John Rhys-Davies, who could’ve either played a Russkie or an Afghan. I’m shocked he’s not in here somewhere, he wasn’t very discerning in the 80s). He makes zero impression. Yes, the pesky Russkies are the baddies here the same year that Arnold Schwarzenegger made “Red Heat”. The Cold War was really difficult for Sly to get over it seems, as he made them the villains in two of these films and went on to make “Rocky IV” the following year when Cold War-inspired stories were starting to smell (In fairness, Russia was indeed battling Afghanistan during the time “Rambo III” was being shot. Barely, but still true nonetheless). Kurtwood Smith, meanwhile was never much of an actor, having only two decent performances to his name (the villains in “Robocop” and “Fortress”). The rest of the time he’s frankly an awful actor, though I can’t attest to his work on “That TV Show With Ashton and Mila”. Here he’s typically wooden and instantly forgettable, though at least he’s not playing a villain, as that would’ve been too predictable. Series mainstay Richard Crenna makes his final appearance in a “Rambo” film here and briefly even gets to take up arms. Unfortunately his role is merely a plot point and he is ultimately wasted. Stallone, as was the case in “First Blood” and the subsequent “First Blood Part II” actually gives one of his better performances. It’s just that like the film itself, because this is the third time out (and fairly indistinguishable from the second time out), it’s less interesting to watch. Rambo is a bit of a bore in this one, and why is he once again OK-USA’s go-to defender after being disgusted with the politicians and bureaucrats in the two previous films? Sigh. ‘Coz…Sly like-a the money, that’s why.

 

As was the case previously, the film’s highlight is the music score by Jerry Goldsmith (“Planet of the Apes”, “The Omen”, “First Blood”, “Rambo: First Blood Part II”), which although great, sounds even more than ever like Ennio Morricone’s main theme for “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”. The scenery is once again wonderful, captured by John Stanier (“Oxford Blues”) this time out.

 

There’s some mindless action fun to be had here and there so long as you can accept (or forget about) the politics. Probably not the best idea to watch this right after the previous film, or better yet just watch “First Blood” and skip all of the sequels. There’s not much of merit or distinction going on here in terms of story, though the film is technically well-made. Any film with wrestling legend Terry Funk as a stuntman has to be worth a gander at least once. The trend of terrible end credits songs sort-of continues here with Bill Medley of all people doing a cover version of ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’. It’s not a bad version per se, it’s just that the song sucks to begin with, and what in the hell is Bill Medley doing on this soundtrack anyway?

 

Rating: C+

Review: The Boxtrolls


Set in the town of Cheesebridge, ruled by the pompous aristocrat Lord Portley-Rind (voiced by Jared Harris), who sits around with his cronies being all snooty and sniffing cheeses, wearing their big white hats. Underground, though, live The Boxtrolls, so named because…they’re trolls who wear boxes. Yeah. Among them, though, lives a young boy (voiced by Isaac Hampstead Wright) who goes by the name Eggs…‘coz he wears a box that says ‘Eggs’ on it. Eggs doesn’t actually know he’s human…even though he looks nothing like a Boxtroll and speaks perfect English. Bright boy that one. Anyhoo, the dastardly Archibald Snatcher (voiced by Sir Ben Kingsley) covets a big white hat and sees exterminating all of the Boxtrolls (whom the community have blamed for ‘kidnapping’ Eggs) as his ticket to getting one. Yep, that really is a Holocaust surrogate you’re detecting. In a kids movie. Wow. Snatcher also wants to eat cheese…even though it does very strange and very disgusting things to his face. You really don’t want to know. No, I’m serious, don’t ask.

 

What an odd film to be marketing to children. I must admit this 2014 Graham Annable & Anthony Stacchi was a bit of a head-scratcher for me. It’s stop-motion, it’s a very old-fashioned story about cheese-eating aristocratic villains, and while the film’s title characters might be gremlin-like creatures who wear boxes, they could just as well have been bloody Wombles. Hey, I liked the Wombles as a kid too, but that was about 30 years ago. They could’ve made a traditional cell-animation version of something like this back in the 60s and gotten Robert Morley and Sir Peter Ustinov to voice the aristocratic fops, and you’d probably have the inimitable Roy Kinnear in there somewhere too. That’d actually be better than what we get here. This isn’t old-fashioned and quaintly ‘English’, it’s completely outdated, I think (Not to mention bizarrely similar in story to “Nightbreed”. Am I the only one?). I’m not a child however, nor have I asked any kids whether they like the film or not. So I may very well be wrong here. What matters is whether I liked the film or not. You’d think that it being somewhat old-fashioned and a bit dark would appeal to me (I love me some Roald Dahl darkly comedic childrens’ stories), but I’m afraid I found the film mostly pretty boring and off-putting.

 

I also think the film was a bit scant on details, and certainly logic. How can a boy raised by a bunch of boxtrolls somehow speak and understand English? I know it’s a kids movie and all, but c’mon, that’s just stupid (He’s hilarious in the early scenes when he’s young, though. He’s like a nasty version of the adorable Boo from “Monsters, Inc.”) What the hell are Boxtrolls, anyway? We don’t much know anything about them, I’m afraid. They’re basically the British version of Gremlins, except not nearly as mean-spirited…or entertaining. It’s so lazily done, and the poor introduction into this scenario makes it very hard to get into the story in order to really care about any of it. By the time the details start slowly (and still rather scantly) coming in, I had already checked out, mentally and emotionally. I didn’t care about the story nor the characters, though at least the grotesque cheese-eaters amused me from time to time (and full credit to Sir Ben Kingsley for trying on a different voice/accent than you might expect from him).

 

Who was this aimed at? I can’t imagine the little ones would care about much of it beyond the funny little buggers wearing boxes, and the film gets way too preachy and message-oriented towards the end. So I’m afraid this one was a bit of a misfire, really and I felt both too young and too old to really enjoy it. The stop-motion animation is just OK for its kind (But it ain’t no “Frankenweenie”), though the cobble-stone streets and funny-shaped buildings were interesting, and it was all very shadowy which is nice. But I kept expecting to find out that it was merely an ad for boiled lollies or a box of chocolates or something. Archaic, off-putting, only occasionally funny, and poorly scripted. Sir Ben seems to be having a ball, though, and it’s not the worst film he’s been involved with. Every scene he’s in is entertaining, the rest…isn’t. At all. Based on an Alan Snow novel, the screenplay is by Irena Brignull & Adam Pava.

 

Rating: C