About This Blog

A place to find my reviews not featured on epinions.com or horror-asylum.com, as well as opinions and lists on everything from movies to TV to music. It's all about me! Send hate mail to vegie18th@hotmail.com or just leave a comment beneath the posts. Review grading system assumes C+ is somewhere in the vicinity of a Passing grade or minor fail.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Review: Hercules (2014)


 

Although there are tales of his heroic exploits, Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) is now a haunted mercenary plagued by visions of a violent family tragedy. He and his followers (who include Rufus Sewell and Ian McShane) are offered a gig to protect Thracian ruler John Hurt from an invading army of what are believed to be centaurs. Along the way Hercules and his men also train Hurt’s people (mostly farmers) to defend themselves. However, all is not as it appears. Joseph Fiennes turns up as an effete but evil king, Peter Mullan plays Hurt’s general, and Stephen Peacocke plays a Thracian with a grunge-era hairdo.

 

To say this is the best “Hercules” movie to date is probably to damn the film with faint praise, and it’s been a long time since I saw any of the Steve Reeves films. However, fact is this 2014 Brett Ratner (“Red Dragon”, “After the Sunset”, “Tower Heist”, “X-Men: The Last Stand”) film is certainly better than “The Legend of Hercules”, the Disney animated “Hercules”, TV’s “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys”, and those godawful Lou Ferrigno “Hercules” movies. Scripted by Ryan J. Condal (his first film credit) and Evan Spiliotopolous (writer of a lot of Disney animated direct-to-DVD sequels), it’s based on a Steve Moore graphic novel and proceeds to somewhat de-mythologise Hercules, as a powerful dude yes, but also a person who works within a team and who claims that his exploits have been slightly exaggerated. Since I’ve ragged on previous versions of the tale straying from the course, how do I justify enjoying this one? Well, since it is set after Hercules’ legendary exploits, it manages to get away with it. So it may not be Hercules as I know it, but it’s not really trying to piss on the Hercules we all know and love, either. He’s still a formidable badass, unlike the Disney version that wrongly humbled him. Here he employs the telling of tales by one of his followers as a way of hyping his talents up to prospective employers. That doesn’t mean that there’s no truth to any of his famed exploits…just a lot of BS thrown into the mix for good measure.

 

The opening is fun, if cheesy with decent enough CGI. Dwayne Johnson is ideally cast in the lead, even if he’s better than this. It’s the kind of film that he’s perfect for, yet doesn’t allow him to show himself at his absolute best as an actor, either. The standout is actually Rufus Sewell (a pretty underrated actor, now I think of it) who is enjoying himself immensely, getting away with murder by refusing to take anything remotely seriously. Other performances are varied, with Joseph Fiennes reminding us that he’s still alive as a villain who likes peacocks. Jesus, why not call him Gayus Homoeroticus, while you’re at it? Joseph also reminds us that he’s nowhere near as talented as Ralph (nor is he nearly as good at playing sneering villains). The sometimes brilliant Ian McShane offers up the bare minimum in the hope that presence and authority land him over the line (They don’t). However, character actor Peter Mullan steals his every scene, even if he seems awfully Scottish for a Greek. You wish he were in a lot more of the film. John Hurt, meanwhile obviously never turns a script down, but he surprisingly doesn’t phone it in here like McShane. Having said that, he doesn’t need to do much when he’s got that great voice. Still, Hurt’s good in the part and isn’t just trading on his presence or reputation. Aussie soap actor Steve Peacocke is here too with hideous long hair straight out of 1991.

 

The film isn’t anything great, but it’s actually more fun than expected. You have to laugh at Hercules, inspired by that infamous Greek god Indiana Jones, dispatching an oncoming foe with a single punch. Classic. We also get a pretty cool, if bloodless battle sequence with an especially ferocious, possibly undead army. Boring it ain’t. At the very least it has found a way to do a Roman (or in this case, Greek) epic without actually ripping off “Gladiator”. Take that, “Pompeii”. Thanks to Dante Spinotti (“Last of the Mohicans”, “Heat”, “After the Sunset”), it also mostly looks terrific, with some truly beautiful scenery on display.

 

It’s an interesting idea that the once-mighty Hercules has become a paid mercenary haunted by visions of great violence against his own family that he doesn’t fully remember. It takes things into a slightly dark territory without entirely ruining the mythology nor forgetting to be entertainment. This ain’t a cheap rip-off like Renny Harlin’s “Legend of Hercules”, it’s a fun blockbuster, and that’s pretty much all it’s trying to be. It’s awfully short, though. I was a bit surprised about that, but really the only drawback to this one is some shitty CGI flames and a few lame-arse performances. Otherwise, it’s pretty much as good a “Hercules” movie as you’re gonna get. I’d be a lot more positive about this one if The Rock had made it prior to his strong acting turns in “Snitch” and “Pain & Gain” (Even though it might actually be a better film than at least the former). I guess you could call it a mild recommendation, then.

 

Rating: B-

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Review: Close Encounters of the Third Kind


UFOs appear at various places around the world, including Indiana where Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) has a close encounter while out driving one night. Whilst Roy is haunted by this experience and visions of a strange mound, his wife (Teri Garr) and children are unable to cope with his increasingly disturbed behaviour. More sympathetic to Roy is a young woman (Melinda Dillon) whose toddler son (Cary Guffey) is taken away by aliens one night. Meanwhile, scientist Francois Truffaut and American translator Bob Balaban are investigating various strange phenomena across the globe and seemingly preparing for a rendezvous with whatever is out there trying to communicate with us. Roberts Blossom plays a UFO-obsessive old coot in a small role.

 

I’ve seen this 1977 Steven Spielberg (“E.T. The Extra Terrestrial”, “Jaws”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “Minority Report”) favourite three times now, the second time being the ‘Special Edition’. The first two times I just didn’t get into it, but seeing it again in 2015 I have to admit, I kinda liked it. Not a great deal, but enough to finally give it a good grade instead of an average one. I think Spielberg is the greatest filmmaker around on a good day (On a bad day he’s also the guy who gave us “Jurassic Park”, “A.I.”, “1941”, “The Adventures of Tintin”, and “The Water Horse”), but this isn’t one of his great ones as far as I’m concerned. It’s a good film with moments of greatness. In fact, I think his underrated version of “War of the Worlds” is a vastly superior UFO film.

 

The chief assets here are Richard Dreyfuss, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (“Deliverance”, “The Deer Hunter”, “Blow Out”), and composer John Williams (“Star Wars”, “Jaws”, “Superman”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) who might just steal the show. Personally, I think the infamous musical notes/first contact thing gets overplayed to the point of irritation, but there’s no doubt that the rest of the music score is terrific stuff. As for Zsigmond’s contribution, this is a stunning-looking film with a terrific use of light and shadow throughout. As egotistical as Richard Dreyfuss can sometimes come across in interviews, I’ve always found him one of the more likeable screen presences over the years, and that’s no different here. He’s a terrific choice for a Spielberg surrogate here and it’s his skills as an actor that are ultimately most crucial in getting this one over. He’s instantly relatable, in a terrific performance that is the only thing in the entire film that really makes you feel something. Well, something positive at least. You see, if this film had been about a single guy without kids, it’d be a much, much better film than it is. With a frumpy Teri Garr as the instantly unsympathetic and horribly whiny wife, as well as the annoying kids, it’s much more difficult to like. It’s not Garr’s fault, it’s a horribly written role, but you end up feeling sorrier for the Dreyfuss character for having to put up with these awful, whiny people. That said, Dreyfuss’ best moments in the film are those in which he is acting all obsessed and freaking his family out with his bizarro behaviour. It aggravated me that Garr was so unsympathetic towards him, and the kids were ear-splitting, but Dreyfuss is excellent in these scenes. I also thought Dreyfuss’ first encounter was exceptionally well-done, right down to the eerie silence. Silence, like Richard Dreyfuss, is underrated. I like that the UFO here early on involves blinding lights. It’s simple, effective, and elusive. To me, if UFO’s exist, they will likely be beyond our comprehension in every respect, and so at least in the early scenes we get some of that vagueness where you’re not quite fully understanding what it is. Also this is a rare film where lens flares work for me. It might even be the genesis of the irritating phenomenon.

 

The other scenes that most impressed me in the film were the scenes where Melinda Dillon and a scene-stealing Cary Guffey are being freaked out by the UFO. These rather terrifying and extremely well-staged scenes suggest what this film could’ve and should’ve been. Unfortunately, Spielberg wanted to give us a film about ‘first contact’ that suggests the aliens (who don’t look too dissimilar from “E.T.”, just a different colour) are a 3rd grade primary school band playing the tuba and xylophone. Yeah, that’s got limited appeal to me. I get that not every alien film needs to resort to the whole ‘aliens are hostile and want to take over the planet’ deal, but I think “Mars Attacks!” got it right. Aliens are less likely to be music-lovers and more likely to be snarky dickfaces (or at the very least, be completely beyond our comprehension). I know not all aliens need to be a violent menace, but Spielberg’s alternative simply wasn’t compelling to me. I liked the vagueness early on, but here it annoyed me. Having said that, there are elements to the finale that I liked very, very much. Even with some dated FX, the visuals in the finale to me are far more interesting than the twee musical note stuff. The mothership is truly gorgeous, and yes maybe even awe-inspiring.

 

Overall, though, I think Spielberg really misses out by going global with this and focussing on a bunch of boring shit with Francois Truffaut and the musical note nonsense. 18 minutes is way too long to wait for the main character to show up, in my opinion. Spielberg later did the more expansive alien story much better in “War of the Worlds”, but more to the point “E.T.” is a vastly superior film for being a more intimate one. It’s called Close Encounters, not far-reaching encounters. Yes, the film has spectacle and scope, but the key to the film is Dreyfuss’ character, and much of what is outside of that is unnecessary padding. There’s some truly effectively creepy and scary moments in this film, but Spielberg eschews this in favour a twee ‘first contact’ story that isn’t as interesting as it could’ve been. Dreyfuss is terrific, the film is only slightly above par. Spielberg also scripted and came up with a lot of the visual conceptual work himself. 

 

Rating: B-

Review: SEAL Team Eight: Behind Enemy Lines


Tom Sizemore oversees a team of Navy SEALs (led by the fabulously named Lex Shrapnel. That can’t be a real name, surely!) on an unsanctioned mission in the Congo to stop the sale of weapons-grade uranium. First they must locate a CIA informant played by Aurélie Meriel, who apparently has vital information on the big baddie behind it all. Leroy Gopal turns up as the nasty African warlord also standing in their way.

 

Although IMDb claims this 2014 action flick is part of the “Behind Enemy Lines” franchise, I’m not sure if it’s a direct sequel or merely a spin-off to its own tangentially related “Seal Team Eight” series of films. None of the “Behind Enemy Lines” films have that much in common besides the title (here it’s the subtitle, though) and vaguely similar war movie plotting. What I do know is that Director/cinematographer/co-writer Roel Reine (“The Marine 2”, “Death Race 2”) once again shows that he knows a lot more about directing/photographing a film than he does about casting or choosing a screenplay. Co-scripted by Brendan Cowles and Shane Kuhn (writers of Reine’s OK Satanically-flavoured western “Dead in Tombstone”), this one just doesn’t have anyone to care about, and although the film looks terrific and the action is well-done, the latter really needed to be more visceral and immersive to overcome the film’s shortcomings. Basically, it needed to be “Black Hawk Down”, where the individual characters didn’t matter because Ridley Scott made it in such an immersive way that you felt like you yourself were in the thick of it.

 

It’s not the cheapjack shit I was expecting, just a bit blah in between the gunplay, and Reine does cock up at one point in failing to hide the film’s supposedly surprise villain (poor acting in the role doesn’t help). Also, Tom Sizemore is barely in the film. He’s quite good, but far better utilised in “Company of Heroes”. Here he’s got the military ‘talking head’ role that could just as easily have gone to Dale Dye (veteran technical consultant), Glenn Morshower (TV’s “24”), or Bill Smitrovich (a TV veteran of hard-arse roles). Sizemore does his best and I hope he’ll get some A-grade offers again at some point, but there’s not much he can do here.

 

As you would expect from Reine (except when he’s using shit-grade DV on something like “The Lost Tribe”) the film looks really good, with some of his infamous ‘black lighting’ here and there. Thankfully he doesn’t shoot the entire film that way, ala a Tom Stern (“Million Dollar Baby”). He has a particular way with natural sources of light, like sunlight and moonlight, which I really dug. It’s Reine’s best-looking film to date. I kinda liked that the characters were no-nonsense types who don’t wave the Yankee flag in everyone’s face. Like in “Lone Survivor”, they don’t pat themselves on the back, they just do their damn job. So I liked that, but it still would’ve been nice if any of the characters actually stood out, though. I also have to roll my eyes at this film’s idea of tough guy dialogue; ‘I see your FUBAR and raise you a fugly’. Um, no. Nice try, but FUBAR stands for ‘Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition’ and is quite clearly worse than ‘fugly’ (AKA ‘Fucking Ugly’). That was stupid.

 

One of these days Reine is gonna make a truly worthwhile action film, but for now he’s making films that just hit shy of the mark, and this one’s probably a bit wider than that. Action junkies with a particular fondness for action/operational-oriented warfare will like this better than most. The African Congo locations are also quite different. Look out for the completely rushed, ridiculous sex scene that has absolutely no place in the film. Boinking right in the middle of an op? Really? I don’t think so.

 

Rating: C

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Review: On the Waterfront


Marlon Brando is former promising boxer Terry Malloy, now working on the docks without much in the way of ambition or direction (Or as he memorably puts it, he’s ‘a bum’). His older brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is the legal counsel for local mafia-backed union head Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), and the younger Terry looks up to his older and supposedly wiser brother. Friendly gets Terry to do the odd dirty job, and early on we see him setting up another guy to be roughed up by Johnny’s thugs for being uncooperative (i.e. a ‘stool pigeon’). They kill him, something Terry was unaware would be the case. He subsequently takes care of the deceased’s beloved pigeons atop the apartment building. However, it’s not until he meets and slowly ingratiates himself into the life of the dead man’s young sister (Eva Marie Saint, in her film debut), that Terry starts to think and question what’s going on. Will he take a stand against the bullying Johnny? Tough-talking preacher Father Barry (Karl Malden) has his doubts, but nonetheless tries to get through to Terry too. Fred Gwynne plays one of Johnny’s thugs, Martin Balsam and Leif Erickson are a couple of nosy waterfront crime commission guys who are desperate to find someone willing to take a stand, Nehemiah Persoff has a cameo as a driver, and that’s a young…ish Pat Hingle working at a bar.

 

Although I’m personally more partial to Martin Ritt’s quite similar and criminally underrated “Edge of the City”, this gritty 1954 waterfront drama from director Elia Kazan (“Panic in the Streets”, which was good, “The Arrangement” and “The Last Tycoon”, which were not) has a lot of things going for it, too. It contains one of Marlon Brando’s better performances, but to be honest, he gets acted off the screen by everyone else, even Eva Marie Saint. Looking rather plain, Oscar-winning Saint fits in quite well with the working class surrounds (Princess Grace was originally considered for the part!), and seems a lot more natural than Brando, who is always clearly giving a ‘performance’ in an otherwise gritty, realistic film (The best ‘Method’ actors for me are Monty Clift- one of cinema’s best-ever actors, Robert De Niro and Paul Newman, with the latter two being especially good at not showing their Actor’s Studio trickery in most of their performances, unlike Brando). Yes his acting in the ‘coulda been a contender’ scene is certainly memorable and commendable on a certain level of sheer performance, but I think Rod Steiger’s subtler turn (yes, Rod Steiger and subtle in the same sentence!) gets unfairly forgotten in the scene while everyone raves over Brando’s actory ‘method’ performance. Brando is flashier (and unquestionably gives one of the most influential performances in cinematic history), but Steiger more than holds up his end in the scene (a great scene, without question) and throughout the rest of his role. It’s not a big role, but you won’t be able to take your eyes off Steiger, even when Brando is around.

 

I think Karl Malden and Lee J. Cobb both should’ve won Oscars for their work here, so it’s a shame they pretty much cancelled each other out I guess (Along with Steiger, who was also nominated. Edmond O’Brien won for “The Barefoot Contessa”). I’m not sure a real priest would compare the situation in the film to Christ’s crucifixion (Sounds more like a filmmaker trying to justify something in his own life…just a guess), but Malden truly is a tower of strength and decency here and best of all, he feels like the kind of priest who would be in this situation. There’s something a little grittier, tougher about Malden as an actor that lends itself to the part rather well. His big speechifyin’ moment courtesy of Oscar-winning screenwriter Budd Schulberg (who wrote the story for the excellent “The Harder They Fall”) might seem a tad stagey today (one of a few such moments I might add, which is probably why I prefer the more realistic “Edge of the City”), but it is undeniably stirring, powerful stuff, easily one of the film’s signature moments, nonetheless. It certainly has you sitting up and taking notice. Cobb, as the bullying waterfront boss with the ironic name of Johnny Friendly…is incredible and as usual for Cobb, full of force and bluster (and not empty bluster, mind you!). Like Malden, he’s one of the all-time great character actors and he owns the screen with his every moment on screen. The guy means business and anyone who dares stand up to him better know what the hell they’re doing. The film also has brief appearances by other familiar faces like the inimitable Fred Gwynne, Pat Hingle and Martin Balsam, all in their film debuts. Also worth pointing out is the outstanding Oscar-winning B&W cinematography by Boris Kaufman (“12 Angry Men”, “The Pawnbroker”). It’s as gritty-looking and realistic as you’d expect from a Kazan film, having been filmed on real NY docks, as was Kazan’s wont. The biggest debit is the infuriatingly loud music score by Leonard Bernstein (“On the Town”), which earned an Oscar nomination despite nearly ruining the ‘coulda been a contender’ scene. It’s unnecessary in a film that is already tense and shocking enough on its own. It’s really awful, and at one point even offers up a lame TV cop show musical sting that is way out of place in such a gritty film.  Overkill. I also thought the pigeons were pretty rank symbolism. I mean geez, Mr. Kazan, we already get it, OK?

 

Not a masterpiece, and I prefer the similar “Edge of the City”, but this is undoubtedly a tough, gritty, and surprisingly violent drama with several fine supporting performances, and a solid, if affected one from Oscar-winning Brando. Some people won’t be able to forgive Kazan for being a friendly witness at the anti-commie hearings and will dismiss the film outright for that reason, even today. That’s a shame because there’s a lot to like here, no matter Kazan’s possibly questionable behaviour during that dark time in America (Once again, don’t get me started on the dopey symbolism of the pigeons, however. So stupid). Helluva powerful finale and ending too, though some believe it is too upbeat. Such a shame about that fucking awful music.

 

Rating: B

Review: Showgirls


Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) hitches a ride to Vegas with dreams of becoming a dancer in a chorus line (not “A Chorus Line”, though). After being robbed on her first day in Vegas, she is quickly befriended by seamstress Molly (Gina Ravera), who works for a local Vegas hotel. She ends up getting a gig stripping at a club owned by a total sleaze (Robert Davi, natch). Her dreams are bigger, however, and she is spotted by Cristal (Gina Gershon), the bitchy (but aging) star of the Stardust hotel’s big show, as well as by the entertainment director of the hotel, Zack (Kyle MacLachlan). Both take a keen interest in Nomi, though her relationship with Cristal is often frosty, and Nomi seems to pursue Zack (Cristal’s lover) to get at Cristal’s fragile ego. Soon Nomi’s quest for stardom seems to see her lose her head, as she seems as though she will step over anyone to get what she wants, leaving kind-hearted Molly singularly unimpressed. Glenn Plummer plays a womanising choreographer who has his sights on Nomi, both creatively and sexually. TV veteran Alan Rachins plays the hotel owner, and William Shockley turns up briefly as a preening Vegas entertainer and occasional gang rapist.

 

One prominent Aussie critic (recently retired from the small screen. Hint, hint) seems to think this 1995 Paul Verhoeven (“Flesh + Blood”, “RoboCop”, “Total Recall”, “Basic Instinct”) mega-turkey is severely underrated. A select few seem to want to herald it as a “Rocky Horror”-esque ‘midnight movie classic’, something akin to a modern day “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”, perhaps (A wonderfully entertaining film, by the way. Go check that one out). It’s neither, this is a mostly boring, and pretty terrible film that is more “Valley of the Dolls” than “BVD” and no fun whatsoever. It’s not even sexy, hell by 2015 standards it’s not even terribly explicit. There’s lots of nudity, foul language, and an ugly gang rape scene. Other than that, this is forgettable stuff not worthy of any ‘bad movie classic’ distinction, not ‘so bad it’s funny’ nor an unheralded film of genuine merit, either.

 

Scripted by the notorious Joe Eszterhas (“Basic Instinct”, “Sliver”), the film is full of almost-lesbian scenes that never truly eventuate, which may just be the most annoying thing of all. It actually doesn’t make any sense, suggesting footage was left on the cutting room floor, or perhaps a certain actress wasn’t keen on the girl-on-girl stuff and the filmmakers gave in to her demands and removed most of the content. Seriously, if you watch the film, it plays out so awkwardly on this front that something must have gone wrong. Verhoeven and Eszterhas aren’t prudes by nature, so you’d think they’d totally go there if they could, and co-star Gina Gershon later made the genuinely erotic (and genuinely bloody terrific) “Bound”, so she’s certainly unafraid to venture to the Isle of Lesbos, either. So yeah, you do the maths on that one. It’s not the only time you’ll be seeing holes in the screenplay. One of the film’s biggest problems is actually the character of Nomi (who the hell names their kid Nomi?) as a whole, who lacks depth or sympathy. She is completely unsympathetic, and not just because of the unpleasant, cold manner in which Elizabeth Berkley plays her (It doesn’t help, though). She’s a bitch to everyone, without any provocation. It’s like her default position with everyone is hate until they give you reason to think otherwise. There might be a reason behind all that, but it doesn’t make for a very sympathetic or even interesting protagonist. Getting back to the relationship between Nomi and the Gina Gershon character. At no point in the film could I work out just what her problem with the Gina Gershon character was. Sure, Gershon acted like a queen bitch, but to me it felt like Nomi was the less likeable of the two. Either Nomi is a horrible homophobe (and her early comments to her clearly interested soon-to-be roommate suggest she actually might be somewhat homophobic), or something was left on the cutting room floor, I think, because the relationship here makes no sense on screen, especially when they literally kiss and make up at the end. It plays like really shoddy storytelling, and not just because I’m pissed that there’s so much prick-teasing in the film. If the filmmakers knew what they were doing, this relationship could’ve ended up halfway interesting, instead it ends up half-arsed. She’s even a bitch towards the male characters, again for little to no reason.

 

Speaking of the male characters, this film is whatever the male equivalent of misogynistic is. All of the male characters here are either sleazes or violent scumbags, with no exceptions. That is, except when they’re not. Seriously, Eszterhas’ screenplay has no character consistency whatsoever, as even the sleazy strip club owner played perfectly well by Robert Davi seems warm and cuddly by the end. Was the film edited within an inch of its life before release? Because the character changes are so sudden and inconsistent that it does seem that way. Or else, it really is on Eszterhas’ shoddy writing (Verhoeven has a more than credible track record, and his weakest films are from Eszterhas scripts). Look at the scene where Nomi’s roommate gets mad at her in one scene and storms off, and then in the very next scene all is forgiven. I’ll throw one compliment Eszterhas’ way, though. The film does make the point that Nomi still gets treated like a hooker even after she has hit the ‘big time’. She was warned about that early on by Davi, and it gets proven true. That’s about the only decent bit of consistency/continuity in the whole damn film.

 

Former “Saved by the Bell” co-star Elizabeth Berkley for me was the fourth most likely person on that show for my mind who would turn up in something like this (Tiffani Thiessen would be at the top of the list, then Lark Voorhies, and Screech. OK, Mario Lopez), and she received such a critical drubbing and public ridiculing that it threatened to kill her career. Is she really that terrible? She’s certainly miscast (this is the girl previously known for playing the humourless brainiac on a teen comedy show), wooden, and even if she weren’t miscast, she’s clearly not at a stage in her career where she could pull a role like this off. I don’t know if she’s worth all the scorn and ridicule to be honest (almost all of the blame for this film was heaped squarely on her), but there’s no doubt that at least on evidence here that she has absolutely no idea how to act sexy on screen. For starters, you shouldn’t need to ‘act’ sexy, and Berkley is indeed trying…and failing. Badly. For a film like this, that’s quite clearly a problem. The pool sex scene between Berkley and a very silly Kyle MacLachlan is one of the silliest sex scenes since Madeleine Stowe and Kevin Costner got it on in a moving jeep in “Revenge”, and Berkley is truly laughable acting in it. Honestly, she has no clue what she’s doing, which really makes no sense for her very sexual character.

 

The film does contain a few OK performances (under the very trashy and stupid circumstances), enough to keep it from being the absolute bottom-of-the-barrel. Robert Davi has no problems whatsoever convincing as a sleazy manager who demands blowjobs. That’s very much in his wheelhouse and he does it well enough here. Glenn Plummer is also OK as a wannabe choreographer who thinks admitting that he’s a pants man is somehow noble and excuses his womanising behaviour. Best of all is Gina Gershon, who is the only one having any fun, let alone the only one who clearly realises the Sapphic potential here (that sadly never eventuates all that much despite her best efforts). She’s legitimately good as the bitchy ‘diva’ of the exotic dancing profession. The only legitimately good thing about the entire film, in fact. She also has a great body, though Berkley’s fine enough in that department, too if you like skinny girls I suppose.

 

This is stupid and boring, and its explicitness has dated considerably in 20 years. Yes, the film is 20 years old. Time flies, doesn’t it? The big ‘performance’ scenes are absurd and have absolutely no basis in reality whatsoever. Stripping routines simply don’t get that ostentatious or elaborate, the customers would get restless with all the theatrics. Vegas hotel show dance routines, meanwhile, I wouldn’t imagine are anywhere near as sexually explicit, so either way you look at it, the performances are ridiculously unbelievable. So incredibly dumb. Anyone who thinks this is a comedy is just as deluded as those who think it’s anything resembling a good film, or even good trash. It’s trash alright, but boring trash that was meant to be taken seriously. Just look at that gang rape scene, no comedy/satire or ‘enjoyable trash’ is gonna feature something as nasty and brutal as that (BTW, that’s an absolutely ridiculous and completely unnecessary ‘crunch’ sound effect you’ll hear at one point. Seriously, guys. That’s just so wrong, and it’s totally noticeable too). Sure, the bit with the chimps was meant to be funny (it’s not, though), but the rest? Nope, Verhoeven and Eszterhas were being serious here, and they’ve laid an egg. However, make no mistake, this film is far too boring and bland to be enjoyed on a bad movie level. It doesn’t deserve such a distinction (nor will I dare mention the 1950 classic that a lot of other critics seems to want to bring up. That film has one of the greatest screenplays of all-time and does not deserve to be tarnished by being in any way likened to this film). In fact, it deserves to be forgotten, though that ship has obviously sailed. We’re still talking about it two decades later, after all.

 

Rating: D+

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Review: Crossroads (1986)


Ralph Macchio plays a classical guitar student from Long Island, studying at Julliard. His passion, however, is the blues, which earns him the ire of his teacher (played by Allan Arbus from “Coffy”, of all people). Macchio tracks down whom he believes to be blues legend Willie Brown (Joe Seneca) in a retirement home. He’s hoping to get the old man to tell him about the rumoured long-lost thirteenth song by the even more legendary Robert Johnson. Willie (an old associate of Johnson’s) tells the kid he’ll tell him everything he knows about playing the song, if he’ll bust him out of the old folks home first. And away to Mississippi they go, running into a young runaway girl (Jami Gertz) along the way. Meanwhile, Willie is haunted by old memories about a regretful deal he made with The Devil at the crossroads years ago. Robert Judd and Joe Morton turn up as ‘ol Scratch and his sleazy assistant, whilst Harry Carey Jr. plays a heat-packing bartender, and Steve Vai has a show-stopping guest cameo as a preening rock guitarist at the climax. Tim Russ appears in flashbacks/visions as Robert Johnson himself.

 

It’s a tad simplistic to label this “The Blues Kid”, but this 1986 film does follow a slightly similar trajectory to Ralph Macchio’s biggest hit “The Karate Kid”, which may be hard to remove yourself from. Yet again he’s a young student (this time of the guitar, not karate) being mentored by a wise old veteran, and both films result in a contest/tournament of some sort. However, as much as “The Karate Kid” is the vastly superior film of the two, this kinder, gentler than usual effort from Walter Hill (otherwise known for tough films like “Hard Times”, “The Warriors” and “Extreme Prejudice”) has its merits and deserves to be thought of as its own unique film.

 

As scripted by John Fusco (“Young Guns”, “Young Guns II”, “The Forbidden Kingdom”), it’s also a more fantastical/mystical story than “The Karate Kid”, though not quite in the comic book sense of Hill’s earlier “Streets of Fire”. Invoking the name of blues legend Robert Johnson in its plot, the film’s mythology will be familiar to anyone who has heard The Charlie Daniels Band classic ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia’, and the song of the film’s title (played early on in the film) also factors into things. That tale and the idea of locating Johnson’s rumoured thirteenth song that was never recorded, forms the backbone of the film. Otherwise, it’s essentially a road movie cum mentor-student flick, but when you combine the mythology with the plot you get a pretty unique, rather nostalgic film.

 

Ralph Macchio, now somewhat of a forgotten actor (though I did enjoy his casting as author Joseph Stefano in “Hitchcock”) of the ‘Brat Pack’ generation, is a good choice for the lead here. Other actors of his generation would’ve seemed a bit too ‘preppy’ for the role of a young wannabe bluesman. If you’re gonna have the wise old bluesman taking on a younger apprentice, best make sure the actor cast in the latter role has a bit of a streetwise, working class quality to him. Macchio (who is a better actor than a lot of his contemporaries I could name) has that, as well as a Sal Mineo/Monty Clift sensitivity to him as well. It’s an interesting thing this film brings up about whether a young upstart Long Island white kid from the Julliard School of Music can truly make it as a blues musician. I mean, Eric Clapton is English, yet no one’s gonna question his blues cred, surely. But is Clapton better than the African-American bluesmen that inspired him? Some maybe. The fact that the film even posits this question is enough to cover for the fact that yes, by the end of the film the kid’s probably gonna end up proving himself. I’m surely not spoiling anything for anyone who has ever seen a movie before in their life.

 

Make no mistake, however, the film isn’t lacking in grit or blues-steeped authenticity/affection. I mean, one of the leads admits to having killed a man, for cryin’ out loud, you can’t get much darker than that. The casting of Joe Seneca as Willie Brown is crucial here, and he delivers even more impressively than Macchio. He was formerly a singer and songwriter, and brings to the film the kind of authenticity you just can’t fake. He might not be Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, or even Eric Clapton, but you immediately accept him in the role of the aging bluesman. There’s an interesting dynamic between the two characters in that they are both irritable, and are using each other for their own agenda. They are not cute and cuddly lead characters. I said that Seneca brought an authenticity that’s hard to fake, and the film also features legendary western actor Harry Carey Jr. stealing his one and only scene as the bartender who lets Macchio have a ‘snort’, packs a shotgun and breaks up a potential fight. One of the greats of all-time, folks. He brings a lot of movie history with him, it’s not just heat he’s packin’, it’s also authenticity and history.

 

I’m not sure the more fable-like parts of the film really gel with the rest of the film, tonally, but that’s not to say that there’s anything inauthentic or uninteresting about the fantasy-ish elements on their own (The use of sepia tone for the ‘flashbacks’ is certainly interesting, if a bit pretentious). The late Robert Judd is creepy as hell as ‘ol Scratch and it’s a shame that he died before the film was released. He had never acted before, and seemed quite promising to me. You’ll definitely remember him, and a young Joe Morton is also enjoyable as his number two. The thing most people remember about the film, though, is the awesome supernaturally-tinged ‘battle of the bands’-style finale featuring legendary guitarist Steve Vai. Vai steals the finale with an hilariously preening, ridiculously noodling, Eddie Van Halen-esque display of ‘cock rock’ hard rock axe-shredding. Hard rock/metal is a good choice for the ‘Devil’s music’ here when you think about the reputation of such music (Music I’m definitely a fan of, by the way, although not so much Vai specifically). Vai is a supreme shredder, and I just hope his theatrics here are intentionally over-the-top because he is very, very funny. Which brings me to the music score and soundtrack by Vai and Hill regular Ry Cooder (“The Long Riders”, “Streets of Fire”), which is outstanding. Yes, Macchio (or Cooder and Vai, who play for him) does seem to favour Flamenco-esque inflections to his playing that aren’t strictly blues-oriented, but goddamn the music is awesome. I mean, there’s way more blues in this film than “Blues Brothers 2000”, that’s for damn sure. Also awesome is the shot composition and cinematography by John Bailey (“American Gigolo”, “Light of Day”), paying particular attention to roads as kind of visual motif tying into the title and plot.

 

The film has some grit to it that I appreciated. It’s not sanitised or Disney-esque at all. Yes, it’s a lot lighter than most of Hill’s films, but there’s a bit of darkness here around the edges. One of the supporting characters is essentially Satan, for starters. Somewhat out of place then, is actress Jami Gertz. Never much of a talent, really, she’s supposedly playing a streetwise young runaway here. Unfortunately, Gertz looks too much like a rich girl princess from LA to convince as a hobo (despite apparently being from Chicago), though she sure looks hot not wearing any pants in her first scene. I would’ve cast someone like Mary Stuart Masterson, Lisa Bonet, or Linda Fiorentino, if the latter weren’t perhaps too old at the time (Then again, Macchio played 1984’s oldest teen in “The Karate Kid”, didn’t he?). It’s a shame, because Gertz and the too rushed romance is the one phony element in an otherwise authentic film.

 

Yes, it might’ve been an even better film if made by an African-American filmmaker and with a young African-American lead, but it works pretty well as is because Hill and composer Ry Cooder clearly have a love and affection for the blues. Check it out, especially if you’re a blues fan or a Steve Vai fan.

 

Rating: B-

Review: Very Good Girls


Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen are two best friends on the verge of adulthood enjoying their last summer before college. They’re also virgins. Enter the young man (Boyd Holbrook) who will put a test to their friendship. Ellen Barkin and a dipshit Clark Gregg are Fanning’s parents, whilst politically-minded Richard Dreyfuss and Demi Moore are Olsen’s parents. Peter Sarsgaard is Fanning’s somewhat predatory boss.

 

An attempt to gloss over an inferior script with the casting of some big names (not to mention Gale Ann Hurd as producer), this 2013 female-centric coming-of-age tale from writer-director Naomi Foner (writer of “Running on Empty”, AKA Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s mum in her directorial debut) is awfully blah. The thing is, casting all of these big names merely alerts you to the fact that they’d all be better off doing something more substantial. A distressingly fat Richard Dreyfuss could play ‘political nerd father’ in his sleep (he’s spectacularly embarrassing here, but it’s intentional at least), ditto Peter Sarsgaard as ‘half-hearted sleaze’. Sarsgaard really needs to be careful with the roles he chooses, or else he’ll get typecast for the rest of his career. He’s much, much better than that (Foner is his mother-in-law by the way. Let that one sink in). Demi Moore and Ellen Barkin, meanwhile, are barely even in the film, the latter yet again saddled with a douche for a romantic partner (It could be its own cliché ‘The Ellen Barkin Dipshit Boyfriend Rule’).

 

Even though her coy attitude towards nudity (in films that are clearly requiring it) bothers me, I truly believe Elizabeth Olsen will be big someday. She’s got the acting talent, the looks, and that certain ‘it’ factor that can’t be taught. The two actresses have obvious chemistry (though Olsen is way older than Fanning and it’s obvious), and although not a huge Dakota Fanning fan, here she’s likeable, charismatic and…still blown of the screen by Olsen. I will say one negative thing about Olsen, however: She’s a terrible, terrible singer, and Fanning is a cruel monster for encouraging her. Seriously, she’s a subpar Joni Mitchell and I hate Joni Mitchell to begin with. I might just have to stop liking Olsen on principle now.

 

So yes, the two stars are good and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the idea of a coming-of-age film about teenage girls, especially if it eschews the bland romantic nonsense that is a bit cliché. With such interesting and intelligent actors, I had hoped we’d get a more original, thoughtful film. Unfortunately, the bland romantic nonsense is all the film is really about and it’s simply not good enough. It’s too safe and conventional to warrant such a high-calibre cast, and I’m not surprised that the screenplay was apparently written twenty years ago. There’s something really fucked up about the central conflict here revolving around the idea of one girl sleeping with another girl’s man. ‘I saw him first!’ kinda stuff. Is that what we’re giving young girls in the name of good storytelling now? That’s a fucking Jerry Springer episode! A “Bold and the Beautiful” storyline at best. Hell, the whole thing could’ve been solved easily and quickly if Fanning simply told Olsen what was going on from the start. Then there’d be no movie, you say? I’m failing to see the problem with that.

 

I’m all for female-oriented coming-of-age tales, just not this one. The two stars are good (there’s not a bad performance in it), the film itself isn’t. It’s safe and conventional, and barely has any drama or conflict worth a damn, and what we do get is lame and contrived. “Stand by Me” it ain’t, it’s moderately insulting actually.

 

Rating: C

Monday, November 2, 2015

Review: Rope of Sand


Burt Lancaster stars as an American diamond hunter/guide in South Africa who has a grudge against Paul Henreid, from one of his previous trips to South Africa. Henreid represents the mining company, and is always on the lookout for people trying to smuggle diamonds out of the country. Henreid and mining company owner Claude Rains believes Lancaster is hiding diamonds, and while Henreid would prefer more torturous methods, the sly Rains (who dislikes Henreid, I might add) has a better idea and enlists the aid of Corrine Calvet and her feminine charms to coax the necessary information out of Lancaster. Calvet (whom Henreid has the hots for) naturally falls for the big American stud. Sam Jaffe plays a doctor friend of Lancaster’s, Mike Mazurki is briefly seen trying to smuggle diamonds in an open wound (!), and Peter Lorre plays a talkative barfly aptly named Toady who is forever sticking his nose in Lancaster’s business.

 

Star Burt Lancaster was apparently contractually obligated to appear in this 1949 “Casablanca” wannabe from director William Dieterle (“The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, “Salome”), and pretty much labelled it his worst film. I think the film is OK and would’ve been even better if Mr. Lancaster had bothered to look like he even slightly wanted to be there, even if he didn’t. Do your job, pal. For once, the enormously talented and charismatic Lancaster really does underwhelm here and because he’s the lead actor, it’s quite the problem, even if the woefully inept Corrine Calvet (a terrible actress) is probably the bigger problem.

 

I can kinda understand Lancaster’s reluctance to be here, given this is the sort of thing that should’ve starred Humphrey Bogart, and not just because it’s basically “Casablanca” in Seth Efrikkah (Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, and Peter Lorre turn up in both, of course). Like the earlier film, this is dressed-up B-movie material (albeit not remotely critically-praised), and composer Franz Waxman (“Suspicion”, “My Cousin Rachel”) and the outstanding supporting cast really do dress this one up. Waxman’s score is thunderously good stuff. Top cinematographer Charles B. Lang (“The Big Heat”, “Gunfight at the OK Corral”, “The Last Train From Gun Hill”) doesn’t get too many opportunities to show off, but when he does, the use of shadow is typically gorgeous. The film boasts some of cinema’s all-time greatest character actors. Peter Lorre and old pro Sam Jaffe steal their every scene (Lorre performing the impossible and making Lancaster practically invisible!), though they are unfortunately underused. This is really the Claude Rains and Paul Henreid show, the former is a truly brilliant character actor playing a character you never hate as much as you probably should, whilst Henreid essentially gets to play the villainous Conrad Veidt role from “Casablanca” and does it effortlessly well. Henreid really is versatile, when you consider his far more virtuous characterisation in “Casablanca”. Rains is pretty much playing the same likeable bad guy role he played in “Casablanca”, but the guy is so damn good at it that you don’t mind. I mean, he has more talent in a single arched eyebrow than a lot of actors have in the entirety of their being! So whenever these two great actors are on screen, you’re definitely invested, even if it’s nothing new plot-wise. They’re terrific, the film itself is just OK.

 

With two unimpressive leads and a familiar story, this one ends up just shy of the mark. The supporting cast are terrific for the most part, but this has been done before and better. Lancaster seems seriously uncomfortable in a role better suited to Bogey or Robert Taylor. He gets upstaged by practically everyone else in the cast. Worth a look, but a bit disappointing. The screenplay is by Walter Doniger (“Tokyo Joe”, “Desperate Search”) and John Paxton (“The Cobweb”, “On the Beach”).

 

Rating: C+

Review: Death Wish


NYC architect and family man Paul Kersey’s (Charles Bronson) world and bleeding heart liberal beliefs are shaken to their core when he finds out three muggers (one played by a young Jeff Goldblum!) have killed his wife (Hope Lange) and raped his daughter (in addition to spray painting her bare arse, ‘coz…they can), leaving the latter so traumatised she is rendered vegetative. With no faith in law enforcement, and witnessing crime and filth on every street corner, Kersey’s political views undergo a dramatic shift. He ends up taking up arms and stalking the streets at night to blow away the city’s criminals and thugs. Meanwhile, a dogged police detective (Vincent Gardenia) is alerted to the presence of a ‘vigilante killer’ and attempts to find him and put a stop to his activities. Steven Keats plays Kersey’s well-meaning but weak son-in-law, Stephen Elliott (later to play a humourless authority figure in “Beverly Hills Cop”) plays the police commissioner, whilst you can also spot a young Olympia Dukakis, Paul Dooley, and Christopher Guest all as police officers in cameos. Look out for Sonia ‘Maria’ Manzano from “Sesame Street” as the cashier the thugs pick on early on the film. Yep, Maria was in a “Death Wish” movie, folks.

 

As you are probably already aware, this 1974 Michael Winner (“Death Wish II”, “Lawman”, “The Mechanic”, “The Stone Killer”) vigilante movie isn’t really my thing. The sequels are a lot worse, but at least “Death Wish II” for all its many (many, many, many) flaws didn’t try to intellectualise things too much and most of all, had the main character carry out his ‘justice’ on the specific persons who wronged him. That’s not what Winner and screenwriter Wendell Mayes (“Anatomy of a Murder”, “The Poseidon Adventure”, “The Revengers”) are interested in here. The film essentially focuses on the psychological effects of the situation on Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey character, not just the crime, but what he does in response to it, and how that makes him feel. However, after a while you realise that’s just a means to an end here too, and that ‘end’ is that Winner and Mayes want to stick it to pussy peacenik lefties who want to give criminals a big wet kiss. They pay mere lip service to Kersey’s unconvincing ‘bleeding heart’ liberal character giving ‘excuses’ to young criminals. But once the crime hits home, he supposedly ‘comes to his senses’ about the scummy world he lives in and realises that violence must be met with violence and that all criminals are ‘scum’ who need to be removed (It’s amazing to me that this is a pre-Reagan era film. It’s got right-wing Reagan propaganda all over it). It’s not particularly plausible to me that a mere architect (albeit a surprisingly shredded one, as you’ll see in the opening scene) would be carrying out all this violence, nor is it particularly interesting or entertaining to watch this right-wing vigilante nonsense, especially when the specific crims never get their comeuppance.

 

Others will disagree and find this to be the most intelligent of the series. It’s certainly the most well-made on a technical, that cannot be denied. I just roll my eyes at the politics behind it, and I feel that if you’re gonna do a vigilante film, you need to carry out that ‘justice’ against the specific people who wronged you. The central ‘crime’ isn’t nearly as graphic as you probably recalled last time you saw the film, but when it’s over you can’t help but think ‘They done fucked with the wrong marine, and they’re gonna pay!’. Nope, Jeff Goldblum (in his first and worst-ever performance) and co are never seen again. It’s a bit deflating, really. I get the point, but it just seems pointless. It’s still a pretty nasty scene, by the way, although the seriously goofy performances by young Goldblum and his cronies really does take you out of it a bit (I love the guy, but Goldblum talking ‘jive’ is hilariously bad), as does the worst interior decorating you’ve ever seen in your life. Good thing Mr. Kersey’s an architect, not an interior designer, because that apartment interior is just hideous!

 

This is probably the last time Charles Bronson ever bothered to give an actual performance in a film. It’s not one of his best performances, mind you, but you can tell he’s at least a little invested in the thing. Although I maintain that the film is ultimately more interested in teaching lefties a ‘lesson’, Bronson definitely conveys the horror at his own actions rather well. He’s actually better than Steven Keats as his son-in-law, who is just OK. The best work by far comes from Vincent Gardenia as the cop who enters the film fairly late (after almost 45 minutes of a less than 90 minute film) and takes it with him. It’s a good, showy part for him. I also think the film deals with Bronson’s psychologically haunted daughter much better than in “Death Wish II”. Unfortunately, the film has way too many scenes of Paul Kersey the architect, and all the stuff showing his conflict/inner turmoil is at the expense of pacing. It’s a very, very slow film, and I would’ve definitely excised Stuart Margolin’s walking cliché wannabe cowboy character entirely (He has two different sets of bullhorns on his car for fuck’s sake!). Also, after a while, it gets awfully repetitive once the shooting has started, and since it’s just random thugs we’ve not met prior who are being killed, my giveashit factor isn’t so high. I’ll give them credit for setting up the sequel perfectly. Sickeningly, mind you, but fittingly.

 

Some of the film is interesting, a lot of it is boring, none of it is really my kind of thing. More serious-minded than a lot of other ‘urban justice’ flicks, this is a genre classic that may appeal to you a lot more than it does to me. It’s really about a right-wing ‘tough on crime’ agenda, and if you are like-minded, you’ll ‘enjoy’ the film, for whatever that’s worth. The rest of us, though, find it all a bit hard to take. Reasonably well put together for its type, but limited in entertainment value for me, I’m afraid. The film’s best asset is the very jazzy, very 70s music score by Herbie Hancock (“Action Jackson”). It’s not subtle, but it’s certainly memorable. The film is just OK, though it was a huge hit and obviously struck a chord with the NRA/home protection crowd. Mayes’ screenplay is based on a Brian Garfield novel (“Death Sentence”, “The Last Hard Man”).

 

Rating: C+

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Review: Four Weddings and a Funeral


We follow Charles (Hugh Grant) as he attends several weddings, usually attended by his inner circle of friends and family members. At one such wedding he meets an American named Carrie (Andie MacDowell) and is immediately smitten. Unfortunately, various circumstances see them enter and leave each other’s lives throughout the film without much of a chance to start anything (partly due to Charles being an awkward, reticent git). And then Charles gets an invite to Carrie’s wedding to a boring Scot named Hamish (Corin Redgrave). Charlotte Coleman plays Charles’ flirty flatmate Scarlett, whilst Simon Callow and John Hannah play the gregarious Gareth and good-natured Matthew, who although it isn’t signified in bright neon letters, are a loving couple. Kristin Scott Thomas is Fiona, a bitchy sort who hides a fragility (and longing for Charles) beneath the surface, whilst Anna Chancellor plays Charles’ insecure ex, whom Fiona refers to as ‘Duck Face’. James Fleet and David Bower round out the principal cast as dull but affable rich friend Tom, and Charles’ deaf brother respectively (Bower being deaf in real-life apparently). In smaller turns we get Rowan Atkinson who pops up a couple of times as a comically nervous priest, Jeremy Kemp and Rosalie Crutchley as parents, and an ancient-looking Kenneth Griffith as a cantankerous and possibly loony old wedding guest.

 

If you haven’t seen this 1994 romantic comedy from Mike Newell (“Donnie Brasco”, “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time”) and screenwriter Richard Curtis (writer-director of “Love Actually” and “The Boat That Rocked”) in a while, you may have forgotten just how terrific it is. You might even remember why you loved Wet Wet Wet’s cover of ‘Love is All Around’ before you heard it for the zillionth time and wanted to murder somebody. Seeing it again for the first time in years I felt like I was going back in time to visit some old friends, even though these people aren’t my friends and I don’t like weddings. Or any large social gatherings for that matter. But these characters are just wonderful, and whether you’ve seen the film before or not, you’ll have a great time with them.

 

We start off with what will become a running gag, and something that is in my view one of the funniest (and foul-mouthed) scenes in any movie as our protagonist finds himself running late for a wedding, and not for the last time. It’s the utterance of ‘fuckety fuck!’ that always gets me, and it’s a phrase I’ve used over the years, too. It’s as a comedy that the film fares best, actually. We all got jolly well sick of Hugh Grant after a while, didn’t we? But in this he’s not only a charming, affable fella, but he’s hilariously awkward, too. His perpetual foot-in-mouth and priceless reactions are a tremendous source of humour. He gets one particularly brilliant set piece where he is seated at a wedding dinner at a table surrounded by several of his ex-girlfriends. It’s a bit of a Woody Allen-esque moment, that one. The comic highlight, however, is the great Rowan Atkinson as a nervous novice priest. It’s one of his finest hours, as he completely messes up the formal proceedings. The look on his face when he actually says something right actually had me aching with laughter this time out. Also funny, is the bride at the first wedding, who is hilariously dumb, and the horrid wedding band in the first wedding are brilliantly funny too.

 

James Fleet also scores well as the amusingly thick but well-meaning rich dullard Tom, he steals his every scene. Kristin Scott Thomas is perfectly cast as the acid-tongued, but somewhat fragile Fiona, who quite clearly harbours romantic feelings for Grant’s Charles, but has to be content to watch him pursue the romantic affections of others. Special mention must also go to the late Charlotte Coleman as Charles’ slightly trashy but sweet flatmate Scarlett. She, like Fleet, steals her every scene, and I was absolutely gutted to read that she passed away from a fatal asthma attack in 2001 at the far too young age of 33. Familiar faces pop up all over the place, with the great Kenneth Griffith playing a particularly cranky and absent-minded old man, though veteran character actors Jeremy Kemp (whose scenes were apparently mostly cut from the film) and Rosalie Crutchley (in her last theatrical release) are poorly used as parents in one of the weddings. The heart of the film may belong to John Hannah and an amusingly gregarious Simon Callow as more than just the token gay couple. They come to feel like fully-rounded and much-loved characters.

 

The one thorn among the roses here, and I’m pretty sure if you’ve read this far you probably predicted it, is Andie MacDowell. I know she’s playing the token American and is probably meant to be a tad crass amongst the very proper Britishness on display throughout the rest of the film, but in addition to being an amateurish actress, MacDowell has always had an odd look about her (She has the same problem I have- she’s all top row teeth when she smiles. Is it still insulting if I compare her to myself? More insulting?) and her nasal Southern twang I find really awkward and irritating. Her performance overall feels flat and a bit awkward, and to be honest I don’t think her character is terribly charming, either. It’s not just that she’s had so many sexual partners, that’s fine and actually an amusing scene. The scene where she takes Charles shopping for her wedding dress, however is totally unforgiveable. They’ve already slept together at this point, and it’s just cruel and wrong. It’s a total miscalculation that you’ll read in just about every post 1995 review of the film. I’ve heard Marisa Tomei turned the part down (and still kicks herself for it today apparently), and she would’ve been absolutely perfect. She’s got the charisma, sweetness and acting ability that MacDowell lacks. However, I’m not even sure Tomei could’ve made the character likeable enough to overcome that one awfully misguided scene. It’s weird that a romantic comedy still works wonderfully well when its leading lady (and her character) is a dud, but once again this is a rare romantic comedy that fires more on the comedic front than it does the romantic front anyway. It’s a very, very funny film. Also, the supporting characters are so positively charming, that they help smooth things over too.

 

I’ve liked all three of Richard Curtis’ scripts that I mentioned above, but I think this one stands tallest because it seems to have the right ratio of interesting characters. The latter two films (which he himself directed, which may or may not matter), although very enjoyable, had some characters far more interesting than others.

 

A rather simple idea, but this modern romantic comedy has very little wrong with it. Change the female lead and you’d possibly have a contender to the romantic comedy throne still to this day held by “When Harry Met Sally”. It’s also a very funny comedy, and the characters are a really lovely lot. I don’t much like weddings and I don’t much like people, but it is a continual pleasure to attend these four weddings (not so much the funeral, though!).

 

Rating: A-

Review: Birdman


Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an actor who achieved stardom with the superhero franchise of the title that began twenty years ago (He left the franchise in 1992. Hmmmm). Now past his prime, Riggan is struggling to prove he can do something outside of the genre by mounting a Broadway play based on a Raymond Carver short story, with Riggan acting as writer, director, and star of the production. He has a lot more than just dollars invested in this endeavour. The pressure starts to mount as opening night approaches, with a brilliant actor (Edward Norton) known for being an ego-driven hassle to work with, Riggan’s occasional lover (Andrea Riseborough) who might be pregnant, his estranged daughter (Emma Stone) whose drug habit may not be behind her, a truly vicious theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan) sharpening her claws in anticipation of Riggan’s failure (How dare a movie actor set foot in Broadway! Yeah, not one of the film’s most up-to-date ideas), and Riggan’s own nagging self-doubt, heard in the form of a raspy inner monologue that sounds quite a bit like a certain unnamed tempestuous Welsh actor’s own superhero vocal interpretation. Naomi Watts turns up as Riggan’s loyal actress friend and co-star (and Norton’s girlfriend), Amy Ryan is his ex-wife, and a thankfully beige Zach Galifianakis plays Riggan’s producer and attorney.

 

Clearly an original movie if ever I’ve seen one, this 2014 meta-movie of sorts from director/co-writer Alejandro G. Iñárritu (“21 Grams”, “Babel”) earns points for giving the highly underrated Michael Keaton his best role in decades, and an hilarious performance by a very brave Edward Norton. It’s a wild, crazy, and dynamic piece of filmmaking and storytelling. Too dynamic in terms of the camerawork by Emmanuel Lubezki (the very fine “Gravity” from the previous year), cinematic wankery that calls too much attention to itself and prevents the film from being more than it is. Did we really need that many roaming long shots like a drippy Coldplay music vid or something? Almost as annoying is the constantly percussive, jazzy drum score by Antonio Sanchez that although having a purpose, gets old really fast. I really, really, really like a lot of this. Some of it shits me. I guess that levels out to being a good film instead of a great one.

 

There’s some good digs at the amount of big stars turning up in superhero films these days (i.e. Selling out), with Keaton himself of course being the BEST BATMAN OF ALL-TIME!!! There’s also a brilliant dig at airhead reporters/journos who have no sense of culture beyond tabloid magazines and Instagram. Keaton is excellent here as the star past his prime trying for a career rejuvenation as an actor of substance. I think he’s been better elsewhere in films that show off his quick wit and almost devilish dynamism, but he’s still terrific. It’s interesting, he’s not underplaying it at all, yet it’s not your typical Keaton-esque performance (“Night Shift”, “Beetlejuice”, “The Dream Team”), either. He’s so good here that it makes you even angrier that he phoned it in the same year in the “RoboCop” remake. Edward Norton is pitch-perfect, making me wonder if he’s a really great sport or if he’s just oblivious to the fact that he’s playing what is essentially the public’s perception of him. It’s hilarious that his character already seems to know his lines before reading the script, immediately suggests changes, etc. I think both he and Keaton are award-worthy in this. There’s a lot of irresistible meta-movie/insider winking here, playing like a Woody Allen film at times, with a little less nerdy anxiety and a lot more weirdness. Meanwhile, playing Keaton’s cynical daughter with a drug history agrees very well with Emma Stone, not my favourite actress. It’s her only good performance to date (she was later quite good in Woody Allen’s “Magic in the Moonlight”), and it’s pretty obvious who she’s playing here. Naomi Watts is good too, showing off her versatility, though it’s a shame Andrea Riseborough doesn’t have more scenes.

 

The finale is a bit predictable and cliché, and the film just a tad overrated. The ultimate irony is that I prefer “Batman” (The Keaton/Burton one) to this, but it’s still a pretty good film even if visually and aurally it gave me the shits at times. Worth seeing for the excellent performances, and an absolutely hilarious in-joke lampooning Christian Bale’s ridiculously forced Batman voice. Keaton may just have been robbed of an Oscar here. Hell, he would’ve deserved one for “Clean and Sober” were it not for some stellar acting in other films that year. The director wrote the screenplay with Nicolas Giacobone,  Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo. Amazingly with that many cooks in the kitchen, it’s not a mess. 

 

Rating: B-