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, December 5, 2015

Review: Frantic


Harrison Ford stars as a doctor staying in Paris with his wife (Betty Buckley) whilst attending a convention. They soon realise that they have the wrong suitcase, and quickly alert the airport. He goes to have a shower, the phone rings and his wife answers it, but he can’t hear anything because of the running water. When he gets out, his wife is nowhere to be found. Ford speaks no French, the local authorities don’t seem to be of any use, nor the local embassy (represented by John Mahoney), and so he is left to himself to search. Emmanuelle Seigner plays the owner of the suitcase Ford’s wife picked up, David Huddleston plays a colleague of Ford’s, and Dominique Pinon plays a barfly who tries to help Ford at one point.

 

A lot of people seemed to regard the 2011 Liam Neeson film “Unknown” as an update (or perhaps rip-off) of this 1988 Roman Polanski (“Repulsion”, “Rosemary’s Baby”, “Chinatown”) thriller, but the truth is, both that film and this one owe a lot to ‘The Master’, Sir Alfred Hitchcock. This is pure Hitchcockian thriller goodness, and with an ever-reliable (and ever-relatable) Harrison Ford in the lead, it’s a pretty riveting thriller. Just about everything is top-notch here, right down to the impressive titles design and the typically excellent music score by the great Ennio Morricone (“For a Few Dollars More”, “The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly”, “Once Upon a Time in the West”). It’s a lively score, but it probably won’t please those who disliked his modern flourishes in “The Untouchables” (Crazy people, you are! That soundtrack is a damn masterpiece). You also get typical Polanski touches like a call-back to “Rosemary’s Baby” where Betty Buckley is on the phone seen through a shower glass door (in the earlier film, John Cassavetes was seen on the phone surrounded by a door frame, in the background of the shot). Was Polanski deliberately signifying something conspiratorial through a mere visual reference? Or was I just looking too deeply? It doesn’t matter, because it had me suspicious anyway. There’s also an interesting use of low ceilings that may be Polanski giving a tip of the hat to Orson Welles’ landmark “Citizen Kane”. However, as much as this is a very Hitchcockian thriller (many cite “The Man Who Knew Too Much” as being rather similar, which isn’t inaccurate), there’s only one overtly Hitchcockian moment, a hairy rooftop scene that although not involving “Vertigo”, will certainly have you thinking of that film.

 

Harrison Ford really is excellent here at selling the frustration and confusion (and ever-so slight panic). He may not be Mr. Excitement as an actor (or human being for that matter), but when he’s well-cast and committed, there’s hardly a more reliable presence on screen. He has one scene on the phone to his kid where he has to pretend everything is fine, and it’s some of the best acting he has ever done. It’s a pretty irresistible yarn, you keep watching because you wanna see where it goes and find out if you guessed correctly or not. I must say, I was drawing a blank throughout, and ultimately this film and “Unknown” don’t end up being all that similar in terms of their mystery. David Huddleston and Dominique Pinon end up pretty poorly wasted, though the latter’s one scene is memorable. Although she seems quite a bit older than Ford, Betty Buckley is actually a bit younger than him, interestingly enough. Aside from that, they’re actually a pretty believable couple, which is actually really important under the circumstances.

 

Roman Polanski and Harrison Ford do Hitchcockian thriller. Why has this film seemingly fallen through the cracks over the years? It’s really effective, engrossing stuff made by pros. It’s better than a lot of Hitchcock imitators, it’s not so much underrated as overlooked perhaps. A really easy recommendation, who doesn’t enjoy a good Hitchcockian thriller? Polanski fans won’t even need me to tell them to see this. Polanski co-scripted with Gerard Brach (“Repulsion”, “The Name of the Rose”, “Blueberry”).

 

Rating: B-

Review: A Day at the Races


 

Maureen O’Sullivan owns a sanitarium for rich patients, and when one of her wealthiest patients (played by Margaret Dumont) seems about ready to walk out, O’Sullivan resorts to hiring the old lady’s favourite doctor, Dr. Hackenbush (Groucho Marx), unawares that the good doctor is actually a horse doctor. Throw in a nefarious scheme by a racetrack owner (Douglass Dumbrille) to try and buy the sanitarium to turn it into a casino, plus roles for Harpo and Chico Marx as a jockey and tipster, respectively, and you’ve kinda sorta got a movie. I guess. Allan Jones plays the romantic lead, a nightclub singer who is also racehorse owner.

 

Directed by Sam Wood, this 1937 Marx Brothers comedy impressed me even less than the frankly irritating “A Night at the Opera” (Ironically enough, I much prefer Queen’s “A Night of the Opera” to the just-OK follow-up “A Day at the Races” as well), also directed by the aptly named Wood. Way too long, this once again barely has a plot that The Marx Brothers barely bother paying any attention to. The setup seemed lacking and quite nonsensical to me. For a while, I couldn’t work out whether Margaret Dumont’s character actually knew her own doctor by sight or not, which sounds stupid when you think about it- and it is- but it’s so clumsily done that I honestly wasn’t sure. Also, I still find it weird that no one was sceptical of the guy with the painted on moustache and stupidly exaggerated ‘silly walk’ (Sorry, but the only funny ‘silly walker’ is John Cleese).

 

There’s a lot more music in this one too, or as I call it ‘padding’. A Day at the Races? More like 15 minutes at the races. Having said that, the big quasi Busby-Berkeley song and dance number is at least accomplished enough that I could appreciate it, even as a hater of musicals. That girl must’ve gotten awfully dizzy after all that spinning! Unfortunately, the subsequent ‘comic’ dancing with Groucho was less enjoyable. After that we get Chico playing the damn piano again, followed by a scene of Harpo doing the same, before getting back on the damn harp again, followed three minutes later by Groucho dancing again. Are we sure this one wasn’t meant to be “A Night at the Opera”? Like I said, padding.

 

As I said with the previous film, I get the influence of The Marx Brothers more than I get the appeal of the Marx Brothers themselves. All of Groucho’s scenes are merely setups for his one-liners. It takes you out of the scene because they’re just smart arse lines for the sake of it. Once again Groucho ruins the story by constantly acting above it to the point where he seems a snarky observer to it. Meanwhile, the scene where Chico weasels money out of Groucho on a horse race tip stops the film dead because it’s clearly just a ‘bit’. We’re led to believe that time is ticking, but Chico is piss farting around trying to con Groucho for what feels like an hour. The scene’s also not remotely funny, but then comedy is subjective, I suppose. The scene where ‘doctor’ Groucho is demonstrating his abilities of diagnosis with Chico and Harpo ‘assisting’ him is yet another bit of schtick that ultimately has nothing to do with anything. It’s also an incredibly stupid scene where Harpo eats something awful again for supposed comic value, a glass thermometer this time. Speaking of stupid, why would a doctor have a bottle marked ‘Poison’ in his possession? Huh? As for Chico, I still don’t understand what his supposed comic purpose/talent actually is? To talk-a funny-a like-a this? Um, whatever.

 

The Marx Brothers once again clearly only cared about getting their schtick in here, and paid no attention to plot or character. Well, I care about plot and character, and didn’t find these guys remotely funny anyway. Do any of these people know how to make an actual film? Not from evidence here. Yes, there’s a plot but it’s flimsy and no one here seems to give a shit about sticking to it. I get the anarchic idea of The Marx Brothers, but you can’t just be all anarchy all of the time if you’re actually making a feature film. Sadly, no one seems to have told those involved here. If you’re a Marx Brothers fan, good for you, go ahead and enjoy this film. But I can only report on my own feelings, and I had a miserable time with this one. The screenplay is by the trio of George Oppenheimer (“The Feminine Touch”, “A Yank at Oxford”), Robert Pirosh (The solid “Hell is for Heroes”), and George Seaton (“Miracle on 34th Street”, writer-director of “Airport”).

 

Rating: D

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Review: Under the Skin


Scarlett Johansson plays an alien visitor who takes on the skin of a random human female and sets about picking up Scottish men and luring them to their death. Adam Pearson turns up as a facially-disfigured and lonely young man who looks set to be another of Johansson’s victims.

 

Based on a novel by Michel Faber, this 2014 film from “Sexy Beast” director Jonathan Glazer is the kind of arty-farty, long-take bullshit that normally drives me up the wall or sends me to sleep. This time, though…I really kinda dug it. Kind of an arthouse “Man Who Fell to Earth” with a touch of “Invasion of the Bee Girls”, to say that nothing happens in this film is a bit unfair if you ask me. It’s simple, but not completely uneventful. However, it’s definitely very much a film about visuals, sounds, and mood rather than plot and character.

 

It’s visually and aurally arresting from the opener (a scene of striking metamorphosis), which suggests Mr. Glazer likes his early 70s sci-fi and time-lapse documentaries with Philip Glass scores. It definitely grabs you, pretentious or not. Glazer, actress Scarlett Johansson, and the financiers of the film have really got some giant brass balls for doing this because it’s clearly not a commercial endeavour, and yet it might not be to all arthouse tastes, either. It’s like an arty, minimalist genre film. Or to be blunt, it’s arthouse trash. And that’s a compliment, by the way. I meant what I said when I referenced “Invasion of the Bee Girls”, because the plot really does involve a sexy female alien collecting gentleman callers, and sexily luring them to their demise. Hell, it’s not even a million miles removed from something the late Jesus Franco (“Vampyros Lesbos”) might’ve come up with, albeit with sadly no Sapphic content here. Glazer is definitely to be commended for going to a really dark place as Johansson picks up Adam Pearson, a man with a legitimate genetic condition called Neurofibromatosis that, although a completely different condition, makes him look a little like the kid from “Mask”, just to give you a visual (and not to poke fun in the slightest). This scene could’ve gone horribly, offensively wrong, but Glazer is smart enough to navigate the waters, and the conclusion to the scene provides a bit of shading to Johansson’s character that is not only interesting, but pretty much dictates her eventual fate.

 

Adopting a pretty good English accent and a mop of brown hair that for some reason had me thinking of Maria Schneider or Isabelle Adjani (circa Roman Polanski’s “The Tenant”), Scarlett Johansson is actually quite good here. I’m not a fan of hers in any way at all, but this is so much better in terms of material and performance than the brainless “Lucy”. She’s much less affected, and although her breasts aren’t as large as her push-up bras have led you to believe all these years, she does indeed have a sexy, curvy body that is on display here. I find her an overrated beauty, but I can’t deny her body is sexy as hell in this. Yes, horndogs, you get to see Scarlett Johansson naked in this one, so enjoy!

 

I can see many, many people being turned off by the long, silent takes, but this isn’t a plotless or aimless film. It’s kind of hypnotic, both artistic and trashy, and Scarlett Johansson has never been better, nor sexier. Visually and aurally stunning, it’s not my favourite film of the year, but I bet it’s someone’s favourite and sure to be a cult classic in years to come. Screenplay by Walter Campbell (apparently an advertising guy with his first screenwriting gig) and the director.

 

Rating: B

Review: Shrew’s Nest


Seamstress Montse (Macarena Gomez) is an agoraphobic so badly afflicted that a neighbour supplies her morphine on the hush-hush, to calm her down. Montse has been left to raise pretty younger sister Hermana (Nadia De Santiago) all on her own for most of Hermana’s life, as their parents are long gone (Mum died giving birth to Hermana, dad apparently went off to war sometime later and never came back). Hermana has just turned 18, and the very conservative (and seriously jealous) Montse is having a hard time dealing with the fact that her sister is now becoming a woman, and particularly that men are starting to take notice of her. This rather claustrophobic situation is further intensified when a drunk upstairs neighbour (Hugo Silva) takes a tipsy stumble down the stairs and lands at the sisters’ doorstep. Montse is hesitant, but takes the handsome man in and nurses him back to health (he is unconscious and has a broken leg), but is careful not to divulge that she has a younger, hotter sister living with her. When he insists on going to a hospital, Montse comes up with some lame excuse to keep him in her care (because she’s clearly bordering on Kathy Bates in “Misery”). However, Hermana and the neighbour have briefly met before, and it’s not long before Hermana finds out about his presence in their apartment, and he tries to get her to help him. Just wait until Montse finds out about that, pretty sure it’s not going to sit well with her.

 

Although not badly acted, this 2014 Spanish psychological thriller from debutants Juanafer Andres and writer/co-director Esteban Roel isn’t all that much of a movie. Macarena Gomez has improved significantly as an actress since the first and last time I saw her in Stuart Gordon’s weird but useless “Dagon” from 2001. She’s easily the best thing here, though all of the performances are fine and the film is also well-shot. It’s just not much of a movie, and what there is of it, has already been done to death (and usually a lot better). Although attractively shot, I also think it’s a mistake not to have made the apartment look more cramped, it kind of ruins the claustrophobic feel the filmmakers seem to want to project in regards to the familial relationship at the centre of the film.

 

There’s some nice grisly moments in the second half, but the whole thing is obvious from the start, and although they actually are years apart in age, actress Nadia De Santiago looks much older than she (and her character) is, making things play rather awkwardly. Even though she really is only 24, she just doesn’t look young enough for Gomez to feel old and ugly in comparison. Either that, or Gomez (who is actually a very fine 37) is simply too beautiful and youthful-looking for her part. I just wasn’t convinced, especially when that final twist was delivered. I also have to say that Nadia De Santiago isn’t particularly sympathetic as the younger sister (she’s a bit cold), nor is the uninteresting Silva, which is a bit of an issue. Obviously Gomez isn’t meant to be terribly sympathetic, so it’s on the other two main characters to entice our interest and sympathy, and they just didn’t earn it from me. I think it’s more the characters than the actors, however, as Silva in particular is fine. We just don’t know much about his character except he’s a hopeless drunk.

 

Somewhat well-made, but with a plot as old as the hills and a far too short running time, there’s just not much chance for depth nor is there any originality. More of a sense of claustrophobia, or more emphasis on psychosexual aspects, and this might’ve been better (the latter is merely hinted at). As is, it’s a bit ‘meh’ and another film where the backstory feels like it would’ve made for a far more interesting film. 

 

Rating: C

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Review: Monsters, Inc.


Set in Monstropolis, at an energy facility where monsters work as ‘scarers’ to source the energy of the screams of the children whose closets the monsters emerge from. Our protagonists are big, furry, blue (with a bit of purple) lug ‘Sully’ Sullivan (voiced by John Goodman) who is a top ‘scarer’, and his little, one-eyed, green pal Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal), who works at the same company as a technician. One night, Sully stumbles upon some shenanigans involving jerk rival ‘scarer’ Randall (voiced by Steve Buscemi), who seems to have allowed a ‘contamination’ to occur by accident and is trying to cover it up. That is, a cute little girl (voiced by Mary Gibbs, a real toddler pretty much doing ‘baby-talk’, apparently) has wandered through the portal/doorway between the plant and her bedroom whilst Randall was trying to beat Sully’s scare score, well after clocking-off time. Somehow, poor Sully ends up stuck with the kid, and since it is believed that children are extremely hazardous to monsters, he and Mike have to try and hide the adorable little girl before all hell breaks loose. Yes, the monsters are actually scared of the kids they’re supposed to be scaring. Unfortunately, the toddler has a pesky habit of not staying put…and develops a soft spot for the big, blue guy in particular, calling him ‘kitty’. A subplot sees Mike attempt to woo receptionist Celia (voiced by Jennifer Tilly), but constantly disappointing her as he attempts to help Sully with the child whom they have nicknamed Boo. Baritone-voiced James Coburn plays the factory owner Henry J. Waternoose, who looks like a science experiment melding Jabba the Hutt with a huge crab.

 

For me, the best Pixar effort to date, this 2001 animated buddy movie from co-directors Pete Docter (The overrated “Up”), David Silverman (“The Simpsons Movie”), and Lee Unkrich (“Finding Nemo”, “Toy Story 2”, “Toy Story 3”) has terrific voice casting, and for the most part I think the animation really does hold up well almost 15 years later (1995’s “Toy Story”, for instance, looks like a cheapo screen saver now, fun as the film still is). It’s nowhere near as photorealistic as ILM’s “Rango” from 2011, as the kids in particular, are typically cartoony. However, the attention to texture here really does set it apart from the rest of the pack, along with the prequel “Monsters University”. It’s only in the few snow-set scenes that the animation has dated a bit, looking a tad like something out of a computer game. Those scenes look OK, the rest looks amazing.

 

The other standout thing here is the screenplay by Dan Gerson (“Monsters University”, “Big Hero 6”), from a story by Docter, Jill Culton (director of “Open Season”), Ralph Eggleston (“The Princess and the Frog”), Jeff Pidgeon (the “Toy Story” series), and Andrew Stanton (the “Toy Story” series). The basic plot is actually kind of hilarious, with monsters basically doing menial work as ‘scarers’ to mine human children’s’ screams for their energy source. It’s clever, and actually a little disturbing when you think about it. More importantly, it’s the most consistently amusing and enjoyable Pixar film to date. There aren’t any lulls, and it holds up just as well on repeated viewings. There’s a funny opener with a monster failing a simulated ‘scare’ when the kid being scared ends up scaring him. Cute Ray Harryhausen name-drop with the name of a restaurant, too. I like the rather 60s-era Saul Bass-like titles design too, even if it seems odd for a kids movie from the 00s. Even the end credits are genuinely clever, with outtakes and bloopers featuring a terrific cameo by a certain “Toy Story” character. The characters are also memorable, particularly the central pair of Mike and Sully, who in my view are more memorable and better company than Woody and Buzz Lightyear. Their relationship is terrific and not only well-written but well-acted out in the voice department by Billy Crystal and John Goodman. It’s Crystal and Goodman’s film, really, though I loved that their characters actually match the actors voicing them in terms of size. Whoever came up with that idea was very clever. There’s also sturdy support from the late James Coburn, one of my all-time favourite character actors who offers up a terrific bit of late-career vocal work. Steve Buscemi, meanwhile makes for a perfect envious jerk, Jennifer Tilly is perfectly chosen to voice the impatient girlfriend of Mike, and John Ratzenberger has an hilarious cameo as the Abominable Snowman. Special mention must be made of the human toddler Boo, who is seriously the cutest little thing you’ll ever done see. Mike and Sully may be the stars of the show, but little Boo steals her every scene, and possibly the film.

 

Enjoyable characters, good humour, an interesting plot all combine to make this the standout Pixar animation film for my money. It has yet to be bested.

 

Rating: B

Review: The Infinite Man


Josh McConville stars as a guy who takes his love Hannah Marshall to the same motel they were at a year ago, to celebrate their anniversary and maybe put the spark back into things. Unfortunately, McConville didn’t do any research or book in advance, and they find the place is now abandoned. Whoops. This puts a dampener on his plans to recreate the exact experience of a year ago. Also complicating matters is Marshall’s former Olympian ex-boyfriend (Alex Dimitriades) who has followed them out there. And that’s when things all go to hell. A year later and McConville has apparently stayed at the motel the entire year perfecting a crude time machine so that he can travel back one year and have another crack at it, with a hopefully happier ending. Unfortunately, McConville just ends up complicating things and before long, he’s in a very weird situation where various versions of himself, Marshall, and even Dimitriades are running around the same space. Who knew relationships were so complicated?

 

Everybody raved over “Predestination” as the superior Aussie time-travel story of 2014, but I actually think this effort from writer-director Hugh Sullivan just edges it out (“Predestination” was good, but a disjointed film of two very distinct halves). Yes, it’s another time-travel film where a person interacts with several incarnations of themselves, but Sullivan is one of the rare few to find a way to make it work. You see, this is a very much contained story and world, it’s really only happening to three people, and if anything, it has more in common with “Groundhog Day” and its lead character’s attempts at finally getting it right (Or perhaps a low-budget “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”).

 

Josh McConville (an actor I’m unfamiliar with) is perfect in the lead. The character is a bit of a loser, but given what he’s trying to achieve here, it wouldn’t really work if he were George Clooney, would it? The surprise for me was Alex Dimitriades, not an actor I’m especially fond of, but his supposedly disgraced Olympic Javelin thrower is pretty hilarious, I have to say. The dud in the cast is leading lady Hannah Marshall, who is pretty wooden unfortunately, and it’s an important role. She doesn’t really help you see what’s so special about her that McConville would go to these lengths, though one wonders what she sees in such a loser as well, I guess. She also behaves inconsistently, I couldn’t understand why she was willing to go along with all of this in the first place if she had truly moved on with her life. And why does she never seem remotely surprised by anything? Because Marshall is a wooden actress, that’s why. Other than that, this is one wild and nutty film that gets wilder and nuttier as it goes along.

 

I really don’t think this film leaves any dead butterflies in its wake. It’s more a film about getting stuck in a loop than time-travel per se. Smart, funny, bizarre, and with a main character who is really kind of amusingly pathetic. If it had a better female lead, the film would’ve really been something. As is, I quite liked this one, it’s somewhat of a small film but very clever and interesting. A fine directorial debut by Sullivan, I’ll be interested to see what he comes up with next.

 

Rating: B-

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Review: Into the Night


Insomniac aerospace engineer Jeff Goldblum goes home early from work one day and finds out his wife is having an affair. That night, he drives off to LAX airport (don’t ask why, but co-worker Dan Aykroyd suggests it to him) and is surprised when Michelle Pfeiffer randomly gets into his car and tells him to drive, as four bearded Middle Eastern men are in hot pursuit. He instinctively does as she demands (besides, what else is he gonna do tonight?), and quickly learns that Pfeiffer is an occasional jewel smuggler, and as Goldblum finds out throughout the course of the night, lots of assorted crims and dangerous types are after her, including a British-accented assassin (David Bowie!). Richard Farnsworth plays Pfeiffer’s ex-lover who is married to the cold Vera Miles. The previously bored Goldblum is about to get some excitement in his life for once, if perhaps not the kind he was craving. Other famous cameos include Jim Henson on the phone at a casino, Jonathan Lynn as an English tailor, and Paul Bartel as a doorman, among many others. That’s Michelle’s sister Deedee Pfeiffer in a bit part as a hooker, whilst Kathryn Harrold plays a friend of Pfeiffer’s.

 

A pretty big flop from director John Landis (“The Blues Brothers”, “Trading Places”, “Spies Like Us”), whose films could usually be claimed to be audience favourites, if not critical darlings (“Three Amigos!” springs to mind. Critics hate it, everyone my age loves it). Scripted by co-producer Ron Koslow (the Sharon Stone prison flick “Last Dance”), this 1985 romantic-comedy flick actually isn’t without merit. Its big problem is that it’s got no damn laughs in it, just about. That’s pretty important for a comedy, but if you look to the comedies of say pre-1960, even some of the best weren’t exactly gut-busters. So perhaps Landis was looking to make something more akin to the comedies of old than say “Trading Places” or “The Blues Brothers”. Even then, though, it’s still not a very good film and I can see why it’s not very well-remembered today, despite a lot of familiar faces and names. Let’s just say it’s a good thing “Spies Like Us” came out the same year to remind us that Landis is indeed a good director of comedy. That film is an unheralded classic in my view.

 

Jeff Goldblum is immediately fascinating here simply by being Jeff Goldblum in all his wonderful weirdness. He’s well-cast as an insomniac, and although not a natural comedian per se, he has been very funny in movies before (“The Big Chill”) and since (“Jurassic Park”), so I won’t level any blame at him. His is mostly a reactionary role, and on that level he’s certainly interesting to watch him watch all the craziness going on around him. He and Dan Aykroyd also make for an interesting pair of co-workers early on, so it’s a shame the latter just has a cameo as a favour no doubt, to Landis. There might’ve been something funny to explore in that dynamic, I think. It’s funny when he says ‘I feel weird, like I’m from another planet or something’, not just because the otherworldly Jeff Goldblum (“Earth Girls Are Easy”) is the one saying it in his inimitable delivery, but he’s saying it to Beldar Conehead himself, Dan Aykroyd.

 

The film looks terrific as shot by Robert Paynter (“Superman II”, “An American Werewolf in London”, “Spies Like Us”), who is one of many cameos in the film. It also has a terrific soundtrack, particularly the title song by the legendary B.B. King, which you’ll be humming for days after (The music score is pretty much riffs on that one song). He also does a great version of ‘The Midnight Hour’ over the end credits, too I might add. But like I said, there’s practically no laughs here. There’s one genuinely cute gag where Goldblum spots a girl in a bikini on a film set and tries to act cool by leaning against a brick wall, but it’s a prop and he breaks it and stumbles. Bruce McGill, meanwhile, raises a smile as Michelle Pfeiffer’s ridiculous Elvis impersonator brother. Hell, Pfeiffer’s fine as well, even though she was much better the same year in the underrated “Ladyhawke”. The film is stolen, however, by rock/pop star David Bowie as a very polite, droll villain. He’s terrific and by far the film’s best ‘guest star’.

 

Of the rest (and indeed, the rest of the cast pretty much are only ‘guest stars’), David Cronenberg is well-cast as Goldblum and Aykroyd’s boss, he’s suitably dry and drab. He’s no Sydney Pollack, but a lot better than most directors trying to act, as is “Barbarella” director Roger Vadim as a French kidnapper (“The Big Chill” director Lawrence Kasdan, however, is pathetic as a cop). Fitness guru and serious hard body Jake Steinfeld (AKA The ‘Body By Jake’ guy) also makes an impression, that’s if you’re into guys. Even I’ve got to admit, he has an impressive physique. Richard Farnsworth is always a welcome presence on screen, playing a rather grandfatherly, kindly crook, you wish he was in the film for more than one scene. Greek actress Irene Pappas is actually a lot more believable as a Middle Eastern villainess than you might expect. One of the least effective, and largest roles for the guest stars is Landis himself as one of a gang of Three Stooges-inspired Arab villains. At one point he hits himself in the head with a door as he tries to open it. That’s the level of humour we’re talking about with these silly characters, and it’s annoying, egotistical stuff from the shy and retiring Landis. However, even those scenes aren’t terribly indicative of Landis’ usual brand of filmmaking. The climactic (and rather violent) shootout at the airport is the most Landis-esque thing in the film. So much so that I was surprised army tanks didn’t show up, as everyone and everything else seems to have been employed bar that and the kitchen sink. That’s not a complaint mind you, it’s the most lively part of the whole film, if jarringly violent and noisy compared to the rest.

 

Less a typically chaotic, bombastic and joke-heavy John Landis comedy and more of an older style romantic comedy caper that Landis has shoe-horned a lot of guest star cameos into and a crazy, violent finale. It’s not very good (and you’d have to be a serious film buff like me to know what most of the cameo players even look like, as even I didn’t spot everyone!), but hardly as bad as its reputation appears to be (Critics liked it a bit more than general audiences). It looks and sounds terrific, and is well-acted, but it just isn’t remotely funny enough and this kind of ‘one crazy’ night comedy ala “After Hours” or the later “Date Night” isn’t really my thing. Still, where else are you gonna find Jeff Goldblum, Jim Henson, David Bowie, Irene Pappas, and Carl Perkins in the same damn movie? That’s definitely…something.

 

Rating: C+

Review: These Final Hours


 

The world is set to end after a meteor hit the North Atlantic, but this film focusses solely on Western Australia. We follow James (Nathan Phillips), whose current bed-mate (Jessica De Gouw) is pregnant with a child that will never be brought to term (‘coz, y’know…it’s the End of Days). With 12 hours to go James, being a bit of a dick decides to head off to a rave party to see his girlfriend (Kathryn Beck) and her brother (Daniel Henshall, from “Snowtown”). Basically, he just wants to spend his final hours getting fucked up like a bogan and forget that any of this is going to go down. Along the way, though, he comes across a young girl (Angourie Rice) seemingly being abducted. He rescues the girl, who wants James to reunite her with her father, saying that if they were to ever be separated she was to head for her Aunt’s place. It’s a reasonably long trip, but he decides to oblige, thinking they’ll come across someone else he can hand her off to. Along the way, though, a bond forms. Lynette Curran plays James’ estranged mother, whilst Sarah Snook plays a disturbing young woman apparently looking for her missing daughter.

 

I think the end of the world subgenre of films reached its peak with the highly underrated and moving “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”, but this 2014 Aussie effort from writer-director Zak Hildritch (his debut feature film, I believe) is a surprisingly good effort. It’s not as moving as “Seeking a Friend” nor is it the great film set to revitalise the Aussie film industry, but it’s a good film that might make you feel something and start you thinking about your own life. I was expecting something much cheesier, to be honest, so it was a pleasant surprise.

 

It immediately offers up an impressive, chaotic view of Western Australia dawning on the apocalypse. It feels pretty real, actually. Like “Seeking a Friend”, this film gets it. In this kind of scenario there would be chaos, depression, suicide, selfishness, etc. On that last point, one wonders if people really would go out of their way to help a little girl in this dire situation for everyone, and the film does indeed show off a lot of self-preservation. However, I do believe such selflessness would also exist. The kid is all alone, you can’t just leave her there to fend for herself. Whether the specific character played by Nathan Phillips would do such a thing, I’m not quite as sure. I mean, it’s all well and good to be nice to people, but if the world is ending, surely you have your own peace to make. However, it’s plausible enough that you don’t spend much time questioning it. Maybe helping the little girl is what Phillips needs to make peace before he dies, who knows. I’m not a Nathan Phillips fan (He was an hilarious douchebag in the underrated horror flick “Dying Breed”, though), but he has a kind of bogan boofhead vibe that, although not exactly the kind of guy I’d hang around, provides a welcome break from the usual kind of protagonist you’d find in this sort of thing. Also on point is veteran actress Lynette Curran in a cameo role as Phillips’ bitter and estranged mother. Hers is by far the best performance in the whole film, actually.

 

Unfortunately, the other performances aren’t as impressive, especially the unholy trinity of TV actress Kathryn Beck, Sarah Snook, and a surprisingly awful Daniel Henshall. Beck is a one-note performer who either seems to play bug-eyed, girly-voiced bunny-boilers (a brief stint on “Neighbours”), or bug-eyed, girly-voiced drug addict prisoners (on “Wentworth”). Here she plays Phillips’ bug-eyed, girly-voiced skank girlfriend, and is typically awful. Snook seems to be a bit of a critic’s darling, but here I must say she’s almost as bad as Beck. I know the worldview here is chaotic and maddening, but Snook offers up no subtlety whatsoever. That’s tenfold for Henshall, who was truly frightening as a killer in the disturbing “Snowtown”. Here he has been given free rein to act insanely stupid to the detriment of an otherwise pretty gritty, realistic and powerful film. The rave party is the exact opposite of how I’d spend my final hours, but despite raves being like 15 years out of date in 2014, the film does present an interestingly nuts worldview. These freaks are playing Russian roulette for cryin’ out loud! It’s also a film that offers up the question of what one would do if they fell pregnant just before finding out that the world is going to end before that baby comes to term. Yikes, that’s heavy stuff to ponder.

 

It’s not an easy watch, this one, but that’s not a flaw, it’s really interesting and worthy stuff. One definite flaw with the film is the thing everyone else seems to be praising, the look of it. The cinematography by Bonnie Elliott is ugly. Employing a very artificially brown hue, the film looks positively shit-stained and monochromatic. What a shame, the film deserves a much better visage than what looks like Ms. Elliott has taken a dump and smeared the faecal matter across the camera lens. Yuck.

 

Give this one a go if you’ve been avoiding it. It isn’t brilliant and it looks horrible, but it’s a pretty realistic look at what the End of Days might look like here in Australia. Yes, Americans probably do this sort of thing with a bit more polish, but it gets a lot of things right for what I personally think would happen when Armageddon comes. Shame about some of those performances, because the material is quite potent. Guys, I know we like to rag on our local product, but believe me…this is one of the good ones. Seek it out.

 

Rating: B-

Monday, November 30, 2015

Review: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies


 

Whilst warrior Bard (Luke Evans) takes on the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), dwarf leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) appears to be losing his mind all of a sudden, becoming deeply suspicious of everyone around him and accusing them of taking something called the Arkenstone, found amongst Smaug’s collection of riches. He has himself and the other dwarves (as well as hobbit Bilbo, played by Martin Freeman) holed up inside a mountain. This decision and a refusal to speak with the people of Lake Town and the Elves led by King Thranduil (Lee Pace), causes tensions to boil over into possible military conflict. Meanwhile, an army of orcs is headed in their direction too. Billy Connolly turns up as Dain, Thorin’s not terribly even-tempered cousin.

 

Ultimate proof that this series really ought to have just been turned into one long-ish film, this 2014 third and final film in the trilogy of films based on JRR Tolkien’s book has practically no plot at all. Director Peter Jackson (“Brain Dead”, “The Frighteners”) and co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens (Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” cohorts), and Guillermo Del Toro (director of “Pan’s Labyrinth”, “Hellboy”, and “Pacific Rim”) give us yet another film that with years of hindsight, I think Jackson will be rather embarrassed about (And if you’ve read or viewed the interviews, Jackson is already fessing up to some of reasons for the disappointing output as of late 2015). Worse than “The Desolation of Smaug”, this one gets bogged down for far too long with Thorin’s rather boring descent into madness, making the film awfully static. Sure, it gives the frankly boring Thorin half a personality this time, but it’s just not a very interesting half, not helped by the uninteresting Richard Armitage. Shocking for a final film, there’s just not much story here. You’ve got Thorin’s madness and a big battle sequence, and that’s it, really. I mean, at least the first “Matrix” film was pretty terrific (the second one being a repetitive, empty turd), and Jackson knocked it out of the park three times with “Lord of the Rings”, but these films? Not one worth seeing. Meanwhile, appearances by Galadriel, Saruman, Gandalf, and Elrond only serve to remind you how awesome the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was, whilst seeing Orlando Bloom’s Legolas merely has you perplexed that his character clearly looks older, not younger than he did in the “Lord of the Rings” films. I’m not sure what could’ve been done there, and it’s probably not Bloom’s fault, but it’s undeniably distracting. Speaking of old, can I just point out that the late great Sir Christopher Lee was 92 when this film (his last film, I believe) was released? The man was just amazingly durable.

 

A lot of the film is actually just really shoddy, especially the visuals, a strength of the earlier trilogy but a massive issue in all three films in “The Hobbit” trilogy (in particular the first film). I was immediately struck here by how much it looks like people backed by CGI surrounds, via green screen. And it is, of course (“Lord of the Rings” didn’t use nearly as much CGI, in comparison). It looks so obviously fake, largely because Jackson can’t do these films with the same technology and methods he used for “Lord of the Rings” due to his idiotic obsession with 3D. Years from now, when 3D is once again seen as an outdated fad (hopefully even sooner than that if you ask me), he’s going to feel like a right idiot, not to mention the ridiculously short amount of time he allowed for everyone to work on these three films. In just the opening three minutes, this one comes off as the fakest-looking of the trilogy, like 1991 ‘blue screen’ technology, not 2014 ‘green screen’ technology. Admittedly, Smaug (who appears early here) looks like a special effect from the last few years, and Benedict Cumberbatch is much better this time around too. However, Jackson’s insistence on making all the dwarves look distinct from one another (whether accurate to the text or not), combined with the inability to use ‘Forced Perspective’ in 3D continues to make some of these dwarves look like shrunken full-sized humans (i.e. The make-up job is just piss-poor), or in some cases look like normal-sized humans who are merely kneeling. ‘Forced Perspective’ is cinematic magic, 3D and the tactics Jackson has had to rely on because of it, serve to reveal the puppeteers with their hands up Kermit’s arse. For a fantasy film, that’s fatal because you are completely taken out of the experience. I wasn’t very engaged in this film, certainly not consistently so. One technical aspect that I found distracting that may not have been able to be helped concerns the great Scottish comedian Billy Connolly. It felt like to me that his trademark voice was disembodied from his character, and I found it strangely difficult to locate his character on screen at times. In one scene he looks so smooth and touched up that I feel CGI had to have been heavily involved, rather than makeup. In fact, I’d be surprised if there was very much Connolly on screen at all. However, Mr. Jackson may have had his hands tied, given Connolly’s recent health struggles. Perhaps the makeup and costuming (and maybe even the task of physically performing the part) would’ve been too much for Connolly without some CG aid. So all I’ll say about Mr. Connolly here is that he’s the only person in the entire film who brings any life whatsoever to his portrayal, even if he’s way too recognisable in voice for some people’s comfort. I personally don’t give a shit, I just love the guy and have nothing bad to say about him. There’s definitely way too much reliance on CGI in the big final battle, all that armour makes it far too easy for filmmakers to get lazy and turn on their PCs. It’s poorly done though, which is the problem. It looks pre-“Lord of the Rings” in quality for sure. One thing that is an improvement over the previous two films is Lee Pace’s characterisation of Thranduil, which has a bit more nuance this time out where previously he has seemed far too villainous, due to the somewhat heavy-handed portrayal by Pace. I think he’s gotten it just about right this time. The best thing in the film is the brilliant, Danny Elfman-esque music score by Howard Shore, the closest this film actually gets to replicating anything that worked in the “Lord of the Rings” films.

 

I wasn’t very interested or engaged in this entire trilogy, and that’s certainly the case with this final entry. There’s just not nearly enough story for a trilogy of 2+ hours films, and this time out Jackson seems to be working with barely any story at all (though I’ve heard he left large chunks of this particular part of the story out, focussing mostly on the battle which was apparently only one chapter). Wholly underwhelming and disappointing, you can certainly tell Jackson had less time to work on these films than the earlier trilogy. Can we just pretend that these three films never happened and go watch “Lord of the Rings” again instead? Are we all cool with that?

 

Rating: C

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Review: A Night at the Opera


Plot? Um…I’ll give it a go. Groucho Marx plays Otis B. Driftwood, a supposed promoter, who conspires with Chico Marx’s Fiorello to help a pair of young opera singers and lovers (Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle), at the expense of a pompous opera star Lassparri (Walter Woolf King). Margaret Dumont plays a wealthy old widow and Driftwood’s patroness, who also figures into the plot. Harpo Marx plays Tomasso, the brow-beaten dresser for Lassparri, whilst Sig Rumann plays Gottlieb, owner of the opera company.

 

Buster Keaton, I think was kind of a genius filmmaker and innovator. I’ve enjoyed several of Charlie Chaplin’s films. I’m a fan of Monty Python, Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, author Douglas Adams, “Seinfeld”, Billy Connolly, you name it. My sense of humour is varied. The Marx Brothers, however…I just don’t appreciate one little bit. Oh I can certainly see their influence on subsequent comedians, for sure. Just look at the pantomiming Harpo, who surely must’ve influenced Teller from the popular comic-magician-debunking duo Penn & Teller, among many others. But I personally don’t find any of them remotely funny. If you do, that’s cool, everyone has different tastes, especially in comedy.

 

This is supposedly their best-known and best-loved film, but this 1935 comedy from director Sam Wood (“A Day at the Races”, “Goodbye, Mr Chips”) just didn’t do anything for me, except drive me nucking futs. It’s mostly Groucho, to be honest. I know Chevy Chase is a flippant smart-arse in the “Fletch” movies, but it never really got in the way of telling an actual story, I don’t think. Groucho isn’t even concerned with convincingly playing a character, let alone taking the plot seriously. As a result, there ends up not even really being a plot, that I could tell. Certainly no one was paying attention to it. The character may be named Otis B. Driftwood, but it’s really just Julius Henry Marx playing a character (Groucho) supposedly playing another character (Mr. Driftwood), but really just Groucho playing Groucho. It’s all schtick all the time, wrapped in caricature and it’s incredibly annoying in addition to rarely being funny (At least the “Fletch” movies, particularly the first one, were hilarious). Groucho’s jokes are incredibly glib and flippant to the point where he seems too cool for the film, and it resulted in me being taken out of the experience entirely. He seems like he’s above the film as an outside commentator whilst actually in the film supposedly playing a character. If all Groucho cares about is getting his one-liners in and very few are remotely funny, why should I care about anything? Also, his painted-on moustache is just plain stupid and it’s high time someone called him out on it. As for Harpo, he’s the constantly mugging, child-like silent comedian, whilst Chico’s schtick is to bea the onea who talka witha the funnya accenta, pizza pie mamma mia! Yeah, that shit doesn’t get old fast. And having watched five of their films, believe me when I tell you, they’re all the fucking same. I just don’t understand why the Marx Brothers got into the movie business when they refuse to play actual characters because they are already playing characters: Groucho, Chico, and Harpo. They’re vaudeville comedians, best suited to the stage or television. Putting them in fictional stories with characters is just pointless because they are only interesting in getting their schtick in. Groucho’s so unflappable and glib you want to punch him on the nose.

 

So very little of this was funny to me, though comedy is subjective, so don’t just take my word for it. However, the contract scene made no sense to me whatsoever. Why was that meant to be funny? I’ll admit the bit where Groucho orders room service is funny. The list keeps on growing, and I’m pretty sure Chico orders two hard boiled eggs several times. Another good line from Groucho is ‘He’s half asleep and half-nelson’, referring to a drowsy Harpo grabbing onto a nurse. However, the scene where everyone and their dog keeps piling into their tiny room is so stupidly unbelievable that it isn’t funny. Another scene where Harpo makes a sandwich and includes Groucho’s cigar and Chico’s tie is another example of them trying to be funny through sheer absurdity, as though it’s a joke itself. It’s not. It’s just an idiot pretending to eat a tie for the sake of a cheap laugh that never comes. There’s a lot of those such scenes in Marx Brothers films, and I think the chaos itself is meant to be amusing (Just as Groucho’s flippancy and constantly ruining the reality of a scene is meant to be hilarious), but not to me. If you really want to know just how not on this film’s comedic wavelength I was, I actually thought Kitty Carlisle and the songs were the best thing here. ‘Alone’ is clearly the film’s highlight. If you’ve read any of my reviews, you probably know that me and musicals go together like Vegemite and non-Australian taste buds, so let that one sink in for a minute. At least the singing is accomplished and able to be appreciated by me. Harpo plays the harp at one point, which is lovely, but not funny and would get progressively less lovely when he’d do the same damn thing in subsequent films.

 

This just isn’t my thing. I felt like it was all schtick all of the time, and the schtick was counterproductive to getting invested in the narrative or characters (Apparently director Wood wasn’t an especially humorous man and not one to allow improv. I can only imagine how many headaches the Marx Brothers gave the guy, and in fairness, vice versa). If the humour was actually humorous, I could be forgiving, but I’m afraid I just found it all rage-inducing and frankly rather boring. The songs are OK, there’s a couple of funny moments, but for the most part I wanted to punch my television. With my entire body. I can understand the influence of The Marx Brothers, but to me, those they have influenced are vastly superior to the originators. The screenplay, such as it is, was written by George Kaufman (whose plays served as the basis for earlier Marx Brothers films “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers”) and Morris Ryskind (“The Cocoanuts”, “Animal Crackers”, “Stage Door”), from a story by James K. McGuinness (“Rio Grande”). If you love The Marx Brothers (as many apparently do), good for you, and indeed you will find many positive reviews of their films. This is just my take. I think they pretty much suck.

 

Rating: D+

Review: The Onion Field


Beginning in 1963, this is the real-life story of two cops (John Savage and Ted Danson) who make the decision to pull over a couple of suspicious-looking types (cunning James Woods and na├»ve Franklyn Seales). A gun is pulled by one of the two men, and Savage is ordered to disarm, which he does. They are driven away to a remote onion field where Danson is executed, whilst Savage is able to make his escape. Whilst the two hoodlums (quickly apprehended) drive the legal system insane with their stalling tactics, Savage goes through emotional hell, plagued with guilt over the very obvious mistake he made in dropping his weapon (albeit with Danson’s approval). Ronny Cox shows he was playing authority figures even in 1979, as a police sergeant, whilst Pat Corley is a shonky lawyer representing Seales, Priscilla Pointer is Danson’s mother, and Richard Herd (AKA Wilhelm from “Seinfeld”) plays an angry beat cop who doesn’t take kindly to instructor John De Lancie suggesting the cops made mistakes. Christopher Lloyd and William Sanderson make small but memorable appearances as jailbirds, the former giving legal advice, the latter requesting it of Woods.

 

Although its high point comes at the midway point, and although Franklyn Seales is one of the single worst actors I’ve ever seen, this 1979 true crime story is pretty rock-solid. Directed by Harold Becker (later to direct the excellent “Sea of Love”, as well as “The Boost” and “Taps”), it’s scripted by cop-turned-author Joseph Wambaugh (“The Choirboys”, “The Black Marble”), from his own novel. He’s a former cop, which explains the line of dialogue concerning cops having to pay for their own firearms. Only a cop would think to write in that detail, and I must admit I had no idea.

 

Based on a true story, the first half is really riveting, unnerving stuff, with a score to match by Eumir Deodato. There’s something creepily “In Cold Blood” about the relationship between the two criminals here (there’s a pretty obvious homosexual subtext here, too), so it’s such a shame that one of the actors is infinitely more effective than the other. There’s no getting around the fact that the late Franklyn Seales is just plain terrible here. His deep voice and strange accent (He’s a West Indian-born New Yorker but sounds oddly Cajun to me) that appear to belong to someone else entirely, make him look and sound like a ventriloquist’s dummy. The whole performance, however, is just horribly overwrought, like Robert Blake in “In Cold Blood” turned up to 11, or an entire performance based on John Turturro’s final scene in “Miller’s Crossing”. Hell, I’ll go for the trifecta and suggest that he went to the same acting school as Eric Roberts, but skipped most of the lessons. There’s an awkwardness to him that seems more born out of being ill at ease with the acting profession than playing the character’s uneasiness. Also, for an actor of West Indian descent playing a supposed African-American, I have to say, I found it rather confusing because Seales looks at best Puerto Rican. I was floored when it was revealed his character was meant to be African-American. Perhaps the real guy had light skin like Seales, but if not, it makes for some confusion there. Apparently Seales himself believed that his light skin meant there were limited opportunities for him as an actor. I’d say his shit performance here suggests something else was in his way, but at least here his complexion does seem to stick out like a sore thumb. I hate making a point of it, because it could be taken the wrong way, but he’s the one inauthentic thing (seemingly at least) in an otherwise very convincing, detailed film.

 

By contrast, James Woods and his creepy lack of eyebrows (what’s up with that? He’s had eyebrows in other roles!) deserved an Oscar nomination here. Infinitely more impressive than his Oscar-nominated turn as the Foghorn Leghorn of the KKK in “Ghosts of Mississippi”, he immediately creeps off with the film with a profoundly sleazy performance that truly makes your skin crawl. His character is a real piece of work, throwing Seales under the bus within seconds of the fit hitting the shan, trying to use his parents to get him out of going to the gas chamber, etc. The seriously intelligent actor has no problems convincing you as a guy willing to act as his own attorney. Ted Danson, in his feature film debut also makes a memorable early impression, even if he doesn’t convince as a Scottish-American in the slightest. Playing an easy-going, likeable senior officer to John Savage’s fragile, less experienced cop, he’s instantly likeable. The dynamic wouldn’t work if his character were the one we spent most of the film with, having him leave halfway through somehow hurts more. John Savage seemed in the 70s to be on the verge of really happening as an actor. I’m not sure what happened, but John Savage certainly never really happened (the only thing I really remember him in after this is TV’s “Dark Angel”, which had a great first season and then jumped the shark spectacularly. I don’t remember him in the several Spike Lee films he appeared in, apparently). Still, this is probably the best performance he ever gave, as the traumatised young cop who never seems to get over his one big cock-up on the job. It’s a gut-wrenching turn, you really feel for this poor guy who is suffering from what we now know as PTSD (I’m not sure how long that specific name has been around for). Even if you think, as I do, that he fucked up you can’t help but feel sorry for his descent. It’s heartbreaking. I don’t side with cigar-chompin’ Richard Herd here (I’m not entirely sure where Wambaugh or Becker sit on the issue, and that’s fine with me), but it’s nonetheless clear that Savage is not the bad guy here, and it’s sad that Danson is the one guy who could probably help this guy out, and he’s not around to do so. Meanwhile, the scumbag crims are making a mockery of the legal system. It makes you angry. Special mention must go to Pat Corley here in an amusing cameo as the worst kind of lawyer imaginable.

 

What I really liked about the film is that it shows mistakes on both sides of the fence here. Savage clearly fucked up, Danson to his doom supported him. Woods’ character is smart, but not a genius. Why bother continuing to fire bullets into the one guy already on the ground whilst the other one is getting away? These crims clearly aren’t pros. It’s fair to say that the film reaches the height of tension at that fateful standoff, but the second half of the film certainly has its own merits.

 

If it weren’t for the unrestrained and frankly weird performance by Franklyn Seales, this would be an even better film than it is. As is, it’s still strong stuff and well-written by someone who clearly knows what they’re talking about right down to the finest of details (Even shooting the infamous scene at the real-life onion field from the case!). Woods takes top acting honours as a true scumbag. 

 

Rating: B-