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 26, 2015

Review: We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story


A dinosaur named Rex (voiced by John Goodman) is living in modern day America, when he notices a bluebird named Buster getting picked on. He decides to relate a tale to the bird, of how he managed to turn up where he has. It’s all because of a scientist (fairy? God?) named Captain Neweyes (voiced by Walter Cronkite!), inventor of a contraption that reads kids dreams and makes them come true. The kids apparently want dinosaurs roaming the streets of New York, singing and dancing in parades, and joining the circus. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Neweyes’ evil brother Prof. Screweyes (voiced by Kenneth Mars), inventor of a nightmare-capturing contraption that can turn dinosaurs into monsters. ‘Coz apparently the default setting of a dinosaur is cute and placid. Learning is fun. Screweyes operates a circus and his scheme is to house the scarified dinosaurs under his Big Top. Wouldn’t the cute and cuddly versions be less of a financial risk on his part? Just a thought.

 

I’m not a fan of Steven Spielberg’s ‘other’ dinosaur movie from 1993, but this pitiful effort from Spielberg’s Amblin/Amblimation is flimsy, stupid, and a complete waste of a thankfully short amount of time. Scripted by John Patrick Shanley (screenwriter of “Congo”, writer-director of “Joe vs. The Volcano” and “Doubt”) and directed by Phil Nibbelink (“An American Tail: Fievel Goes West”), Simon Wells (grandson of HG, co-director of “An American Tail: Fievel Goes West”), Dick & Ralph Zondag (mostly animators, though the latter directed another animated film called “Dinosaur”), there’s barely even a movie here and what little there is, is just insulting. In fact, it might just be the worst animated movie I’ve seen since 1940’s overrated “Fantasia” and although he didn’t direct it, it’s probably the most shameful thing Spielberg has ever put his name to. Yes, including “War Horse”.

 

The voice cast is fascinating on paper (Martin Short, Felicity Kendal, Jay Leno, Lisa Simpson, and Julia Child all in the same film?), but only veteran news anchor Walter Cronkite (in his only acting role) really comes off well. He’s perfect, and Kenneth Mars isn’t too bad, either as his polar opposite. The usually ebullient John Goodman in particular sounds bored out of his skull, however, and the rest are completely forgettable. Martin Short, meanwhile, voices a clown and gives a dry run for his Jiminy Glick voice, but simply isn’t given funny material here. As for Yeardley Smith, having her voice a little girl here was a mistake, as she can only do her Lisa Simpson voice. Why? Because that’s pretty much how Yeardley Smith herself speaks!

 

However, it’s not the voice cast one should blame here, it’s mostly Shanley actually, working from a book by Hudson Talbott. It’s a terribly flimsy and stupid story. You’ve got dinosaurs, and how do they get used in this film? They travel to New York, go in a parade, and join the circus. The fuck? I know “Jurassic Park” was pretty clich├ęd, but that is just infantile. That’s great if you’re an infant, and one must remember that family movies do have children in mind, but that doesn’t mean I can’t detail my own reaction to the film, nor do I think films should really only keep the young ‘uns in mind given who usually takes them to the cinema in the bloody first place (I know it’s a semi-relevant rant, but it always annoys me when people say that you can’t criticise a kids movie unless you’re a kid yourself. Ridiculous).

 

The story makes no sense whatsoever. It’s told in flashback by a golf-playing dinosaur (voiced by Goodman), involves some half-explained God/fairy godmother bullshit to start the film, and whilst all of the dinosaurs can talk, they are treated like the reptilian terrors you’d expect by most of the human characters. There’s no consistency whatsoever, and whilst I can buy fantasy (I love fantasy), you need to properly and coherently set-up your fantasy world first. This one tries to have its cake and eat it too. Hell, it doesn’t even tell you its central conceit until about ten minutes in. Given it’s about an old fart who grants kids wishes to have dinosaurs back, I kinda wished I didn’t know. It’s a dreadfully stupid premise, even for something aimed at younger folk. If those wishes were really granted, there’d be no more children left. Or any humans. We’d all get eaten or stomped to death (Hence why the film clumsily attempts to differentiate between how the dinosaurs were in the Prehistoric age, and what they’ve become thanks to Prof. Neweyes’ invention. It’s facile). But even the film’s ending makes no damn sense. It doesn’t explain why the T-Rex is playing golf instead of being with the others, and the story he tells to the little bird (the basis for the entire film) seems to have no bearing on the bird’s situation whatsoever! What the hell? How did they manage to rope in so many big names for this shit? It defies all rational thought.

 

The animation is sub-par, too. The darkened palette later featured in “Fievel Goes West” has been applied here, too, so it must indeed be the Amblimation style. It looks ugly and muted, like someone is pressing too hard with their crayons, especially the dull character animation. The dinosaurs are singularly unappealing, and the darkened palette makes everything look like it’s 4PM. The background animation is just flat, painting-like backgrounds that don’t mesh with the character animation/style at all.  Meanwhile, the dinosaurs are way too small as depicted here. Yes I know why, it’s to have them interact with the kids in the film, but it looks absurd. According to this film, Pterodactyls were the size of a small horse.

 

No, this just won’t do. The whole thing, running under an hour I might add, just has the general vibe of ‘get it done fast’. Maybe 6 year-olds will like it, but even then I’d say only 1993’s 6 year-olds. Hell, even in 1993 I would’ve recommended 1988’s “The Land Before Time” instead (It has a Spielberg connection too, by the way). No idea what the modern equivalent would be, but certainly it’d have to be better than this nonsense. It’s pathetic, from people who really ought to have known better. Weak as piss.

 

Rating: D-

Review: Who Framed Roger Rabbit


Set in Hollywood in the late 1940s, Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is a PI hired by an animation studio to work a case of possible marital infidelity. You see, Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer) is the top star in Toon Town, and he’s worried that his bodacious wife Jessica (voiced by Kathleen Turner) is having an affair. Eddie takes some snaps of Jessica indeed seemingly playing footsie with gag creator Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye). The next day, Acme is found dead and Roger is the numero uno suspect. He swears his innocence, and pleads with toon-hating Eddie to help prove his case before the hideous Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) gets to him. Joanna Cassidy plays Valiant’s loyal but increasingly fed-up waitress girlfriend. Countless cartoon characters across several studios turn up throughout the film in cameos/guest spots.

 

It had been a helluva long time since I last saw this 1988 Robert Zemeckis (“Romancing the Stone”, “Back to the Future”, “Forrest Gump”) blend of live-action detective story and animated comedy, hell it might’ve been the first time I’d seen it since its original release. In that time I must’ve forgotten just how good it is. It probably plays better to me now as a 35 year old than it did the first time at around age 8. That said, even as an 8 year old, I knew that Jessica Rabbit was all kinds of wrong in all the right kind of ways. Sexiest animated character of all-time? Hell yes, and I’m calling it now: She has one of the best entrances in cinematic history. Deal with it. Kathleen Turner is perfect as the voice of Jessica Rabbit. I have no idea why Amy Irving provides a separate singing voice, though. Is Turner really that bad at singing?

 

The blend of detective story and ‘Hollywood insider’ story is jolly good fun, and it’s an absolute must for animation buffs. The best thing is that you can’t really call the blend of animation and live-action dated, because the film isn’t going for Gollum-esque realism. CG animation would be beside the point. This is about 2D cell animation characters interacting with the ‘real’ world. It’s better than “Space Jam”, that’s for damn sure. “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” was pretty good, but I bet even Joe Dante would concede that this film is better. I mean, this film was clearly made by animation buffs. It’s cute that a ‘toon’ killed Bob Hoskins’ brother, but it’s priceless that it dropped a piano on his head! Meanwhile, Roger Rabbit is accused of murdering someone by dropping a safe on their head. Repeated viewings are essential, as you’ll pick new things up each time. For instance, there’s the scene where Roger literally hops onto a soapbox. Brilliant gag there. There’s also the funny recurring gag of tweeting birds circling whenever someone hits their head, straight out of “Looney Tunes” cartoons. My personal favourite was probably the scene where Benny the toon car gets to drive a ‘real’ car at one point. That’s insane…or looney, perhaps. Fans of “Looney Tunes” in particular will love all the references to ACME, especially in the climax.

 

However, the biggest source of fascination here is quite clearly all the cameos by cartoon characters not only from Warner Brothers, but also Disney. Yes, you’ll get to see Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny share a scene together, which is really quite amazing. I’m surprised that the WB characters don’t get short shrift here given Touchstone Pictures is related to Disney (Steven Spielberg’s Amblin also produced). You’ll see a funny cameo by Dumbo, the dancing hippo and brooms from “Fantasia”, a frog who looks a lot like Michigan J. Frog from the classic “Looney Tunes” cartoon ‘One Froggy Evening’, etc. My favourites include; a very funny bit with Daffy and Donald Duck playing duelling pianos (possibly a spoof of Chaplin/Keaton in “Limelight”?), a great cameo by a perfectly cast Betty Boop as a waitress, the always hilarious Droopy as an elevator attendant, and an almost as funny cameo by Tweety Bird. Porky Pig turns up at the end, but look out for the rather sick gag involving a poster with him advertising pork sausages! Yep, this movie’s a little bent. I have no idea what the singing sword is all about, but it’s an hilarious Frank Sinatra-inspired creation nonetheless. Good luck keeping score of all the animated characters who literally burst out at the climax! Personally I think Beaky Buzzard from “Looney Tunes” was a shameful absence, but you’ve got pretty much everyone else you could possibly wish for.

 

I’m sure some will tire of him, but I really liked the title character, memorably voiced by Charles Fleischer. Is Roger annoying? Hell yes, but for some reason I kinda like that. It’s a warped, somewhat dark (or at least not kiddie-oriented) film anyway, so it makes sense that Roger is over-the-top, annoying, and borderline insane. At least he’s not sickeningly sweet, and he’s not a wise-arse carbon copy of Bugs. He’s a unique character. Also terrific is Baby Herman. Although he gets kinda forgotten about for most of the film, he’s one of the film’s early highlights. The best thing about the cute, WB-style opening cartoon is when the director calls cut and you hear Baby Herman talk for real. He sounds like the late Robert Loggia! Funny stuff.

 

On the human side of things, this is one of Bob Hoskins’ best roles, and probably the only time he adopted a convincing American accent. Neither he nor the very fine Joanna Cassidy (one of her best performances too) talk down to the material one bit, which is crucial in our buying it for 90 or so minutes. If it weren’t for his unmistakable voice, it might take you a minute or two to spot Christopher Lloyd as Judge Doom. Although I think giving him weasel sidekicks is way too much of a spoiler, he is also a very memorable part of the film. He makes an immediately creepy impression, in fact he’s one of the creepiest villains you’ll ever find in a film that is fairly family-friendly on the whole. If Jessica Rabbit is scandalously hot for a family film, then Lloyd’s Judge Doom is a little bit scary for the young ‘uns. Lloyd has played many a memorable character over the years, and this is definitely one of his best. A funny thing happened to me watching this film. Like I said, I hadn’t seen this in forever, but as soon as Judge Doom approached the chalkboard, an unpleasant memory and feeling of dread immediately hit me. I knew the squeaky chalk horror that was to await me. People who saw this as kids also seem to recall being horrified by the ‘dip’ scene with the animated shoe. Yikes! Apparently Tim Curry read for the role, but was considered terrifying by Spielberg, Zemeckis, etc. I wish there was recorded evidence of that audition, because holy shit he must’ve been positively Satanic in the role!

 

This is a lot of fun, especially for animation buffs. The only reason you won’t find it in my top 10 for 1988 is because 1988 had a whole lotta great films. This still holds up even today, I’m pleased to say. And Jessica Rabbit….va-va voom! Based on a Gary K. Wolf novel, the screenplay is by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman (co-writers of the OK buddy-cop movie “The Hard Way”).

 

Rating: B

Friday, December 25, 2015

Review: Road House


Patrick Swayze plays Dalton, a top bouncer recruited by Kevin Tighe (cast against type) to clean up his rowdy bar in Jasper, Kansas City (A fictional town, as Jasper is really in Missouri). Unfortunately, the town is ruled with an iron fist by gangster Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara), who has a habit of sending his goons around to mess with establishments who won’t play ball when he tries to extort from them. Dalton (who is into philosophy and Tai-Chi!) doesn’t take kindly to Wesley’s corruption, and further pisses the crime boss off by taking with the pretty doctor (Kelly Lynch) Wesley happens to be sweet on. With Wesley continuing to put the pressure on Dalton, he decides to call in a ringer, his good buddy and fellow bouncer Wade Garrett (Sam Elliott) so they can take Wesley and his gang of goons down and clean up the town. Kathleen Wilhoite plays a bartender, Red West plays a defiant local store owner, Marshall Teague plays Wesley’s karate-kicking chief henchman, Keith David plays a bartender, John Doe and Terry Funk play a couple of sour local thugs who get on the wrong side of Dalton and end up hooking up with Wesley. The Jeff Healey Band perform on screen as the bar band, with Healey himself (in his first and last acting role) playing Dalton’s buddy Cody.

 

Like the later “Point Break”, this is another idiotic actioner…and pretty damn underrated. Sure, “Point Break” is easily the better film, but that one was helmed by Kathy Bigelow, this 1989 actioner is the work of one Rowdy Herrington (OK films like “Jack’s Back” and “Gladiator”), a journeyman, not a visual stylist like Bigelow. It’s good, violent, dumb fun…just don’t try to tell anyone it’s art. You can’t hate this one: It’s got Swayze, Sam Elliott, blues rock, and mullets. What more could you possibly want?

 

Sure, Kevin Tighe’s character feels like parts were left on the cutting room floor, and Kelly Lynch has always been one of the lesser model-actresses (Rene Russo, she ain’t!), but the rest is almost too much fun. Watch the scene where Swayze is doing Tai Chi and tell me that this thing is meant to be taken completely seriously. Don’t get me wrong, Swayze was a pretty serious dude. Rowdy Herrington? Not so serious. The funniest thing in the entire film is the one thing that Herrington probably meant for us to take seriously: A bespectacled Kelly Lynch as a doctor. Yeah…no. But the rest? It’s deliberate cheese, albeit with a side order of folksy authenticity supplied by Red West and ‘Sunshine’ Parker that just can’t be taught. Swayze is Swayze, and you can’t deny he’s got a ton of charisma and what really helped him as an actor was an innate sincerity that always made him appealing on screen. You get some of that even in something like this, as well as enough macho confidence to fake it in the fight scenes. His spin kicks aren’t in the league of Scott Adkins, and it’s pretty obvious that Marshall Teague is a much better fighter than Swayze and Sam Elliott combined. However, Swayze (who was trained in kick-boxing for the film, apparently) doesn’t look too silly, which can’t be said of Mr. Teague, whose denim-on-denim ensemble is just wrong. Also wrong is his attempt at macho one-liners: ‘I used to fuck guys like you in prison!’- WHAT? Are you sure you wanna be admitting that, Mr. Teague? Sam Elliott isn’t in the film until the second half, and even then he’s not in it as much as you’d like. Every film could use a little Sam Elliott, the guy is freaking awesome, as is his greasy, stringy long hair here. It was already a fun film in the first half, but Elliott gives it an extra lift. Like Billy Dee Williams and the late James Coburn, Elliott is just plain cool. The best performance in the entire film probably comes from Ben Gazzara, who seems to be having a whale of a time as the villain, without going too far overboard. It’s one of his best performances of the last 30 years or so, actually. In a film full of ridiculousness, Gazzara’s ‘trophy room’ takes the freaking cake. That’s a lotta dead animals he’s got right there, did he shoot up the local zoo? It’s a shame that the charismatic Keith David gets such a tiny role in this, and unlike Tighe a trip to IMDb does indeed confirm that his role was cut down considerably. That’s a real shame, as the guy has talent and presence. Kathleen Wilhoite isn’t in the film much, either, but she gets the film’s best reaction shot. You’ll know it when you see it, and women in particular will appreciate it. Look out for crazy-arse wrestling legend Terry Funk as an a-hole bouncer who gets booted out by Swayze. His acting is quite a bit better than you might expect. How in the hell did Bill McKinney and Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb miss out on a gig in this?

 

Also deserving a mention is the late, underrated Jeff Healey and his band, who perform on-screen throughout the film. They do a bunch of rock-solid blues rock covers of songs like ‘Roadhouse Blues’ (natch), ‘White Room’, ‘Knock on Wood’ (with co-star Kathleen Wilhoite sharing the vocals), ‘On the Road Again’, etc. Their version of ‘Travellin’ Band’ isn’t a patch on CCR’s, but neither was Def Leppard’s live cover, and I love Def Leppard almost as much as I love CCR. Healey was a talented guy, and sadly missed to this day. The film has also been expertly shot by Dean Cundey (“Halloween”, “The Fog”, “Back to the Future”), whose lighting is particularly nice, as usual.

 

Look, it’s called “Road House”, it’s a Joel Silver (“Lethal Weapon”, “Die Hard”) action movie about bouncers, and it’s directed by a guy named Rowdy. It is what it is, and it ain’t interested in being anything else. I for one, find it a lot of dumb, macho fun. Others may be considerably less amused, just don’t tell me it’s a bad movie. It’s cheesy, not bad. Fuck it, it’s a good movie. There, I said it. Credibility be damned! If you can’t find at least something to enjoy about this movie, then I’m afraid you and I just can’t hang. The screenplay is by Hilary Henkin (“Romeo is Bleeding”) and David Lee Henry (“Out for Justice”, the terrible “8 Million Ways to Die”).

 

Fun Fact: Several of the characters in the film are named after famed real-life figures of the Wild West, such as Dalton (of the Dalton Gang), John Wesley Hardin, Doc Holliday, Pat Garrett, Emmett (one of the famed Dalton gang), and Younger.

 

Rating: B-

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Review: Se7en


Morgan Freeman is NYC police detective Somerset, one week from retirement and extremely jaded. For this last week he is partnered with brash, younger detective Mills (Brad Pitt), whose career is on the rise. They investigate the murder of an obese man force-fed until his stomach exploded. After another body is soon found, Det. Somerset realises the crimes are connected, as the words ‘Greed’ and ‘Gluttony’ are found at both scenes. It would appear a serial killer is at work, using the Seven Deadly Sins as inspiration, and there are obviously five more morally-inspired crimes set to be committed. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Det. Mills’ sweet-natured wife Tracy, R. Lee Ermey plays the police captain, Richard Roundtree plays the city mayor, John C. McGinley plays SWAT team leader ‘California’, Richard Schiff plays a slimeball lawyer, and both a frightened Leland Orser and slimy Michael Massee turn up at the scene of one of the ‘Lust’ murder.

 

Brilliant, gloomy modern day killer-thriller/detective movie from 1995 directed by David Fincher (“Alien3- It’s a good film damnit!, “Fight Club”, “Panic Room”, “The Social Network”, “Gone Girl”). Stunningly disgusting production design, wonderfully oppressive, rainy atmosphere, but most importantly a terrific screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker (“Hideaway”, “Sleepy Hollow”). Walker gives us well-matched characters played by perfectly cast lead actors, and a fascinating, dark story with one helluva sting in its tail. I’m fascinated by serial killer cases in real-life. Not so much the gory details, more the whodunit aspect and all the little peculiarities of the cases. This film definitely taps into that side of me. Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt are immediately perfect here, with Freeman the sage, observant, literate and intelligent veteran detective, and Pitt the cocky, abrasive, impulsive, and not well-read younger detective. Crucially, though, Pitt isn’t obnoxious enough that he loses your sympathy, nor does Freeman come across like a self-satisfied know-it-all. In particular, Pitt’s slightly douchy, talkative character could’ve gone horribly wrong and become either an unlikeable dickhead or an implausible moron. Pitt navigates the waters perfectly. It’s my favourite of his performances to date, just ahead of “The Assassination of Jesse James” and “Kalifornia”. The difference between the two characters is perfectly conveyed: Freeman says only what is necessary, Pitt is an oxygen thief. The progression of their relationship is excellently done, too.

 

The supporting cast is excellent, too, even if only two of them really get enough screen time to resonate. This is easily Gwyneth Paltrow’s best performance to date, she’s genuinely likeable here, which not only helps in making her sympathetic to the audience, but also humanising Pitt’s character as well. It’s amazing that the Gwyneth Paltrow in this who is warm and likeable is the same Gwyneth who can be cold in other films, annoying on the Oscar stage stealing Cate Blanchett’s award, and well…Goop. Need I say more? But she is the only source of warmth and sunlight in this film, and it’s very, very much needed. Without her, this film might feel like stepping too far into the abyss, never to return. Speaking of light, you can’t help but laugh at the uber-macho John C. McGinley and his uber-macho SWAT guys. They’re hilariously dumb jock-types who add a little bit of (perhaps ill-fitting in tone) levity in one memorably scary-funny scene. The only other light moments you’ll get here are Pitt’s ignorance about “Of Human Bondage” and The Marquis de Sade. His pronunciation of the latter is very funny.

 

The other memorable supporting performance here is for the actor playing the killer. Since the film is 20 years old (and it’s not really a film where the audience is invited to guess the culprit I suppose), I could probably name him, but I’ll resist just to be safe. All I’ll say is that with this film and another similar performance the same year, he would soon become the go-to guy for this sort of intelligent, glib evil stuff. The actor can display dispassionate arrogance, malevolence, and sarcasm better than anyone. Here as the high-minded, literate serial killer he’s perfectly disdainful, and sickly amused with himself like the cat that swallowed the canary. But then, even Det. Somerset has a jaded view of the city and society. He criticises the wave of apathy swept across the city as his reason for being glad to be retiring, yet also acknowledges that he no longer has hope for anything better, somewhat apathetic himself.

 

The film’s look is fantastic, with impressive, almost Gothic architecture showing off a very ‘Gotham’ New York (The city isn’t named in the film, but it’s obvious, and Walker apparently based the film partly on his experiences in New York) without quite being Batman’s ‘Gotham’. It’s just realistic enough and just artistic enough to work in this very dark and oppressive thriller where you can almost smell the scum and the muck. It’s really quite visceral, disgustingly visceral. The cinematography by Darius Khondji (“Panic Room”, “Magic in the Moonlight”) is truly excellent, lighting and shot composition are really top-notch. It’s dark without being murky and hard to see, it’s just right, and the rainy look of the film is perfect for such a dark film too. It’s not an action film in the slightest, but Fincher does give us one of the better non-vehicular chases you’re ever likely to see. I will admit that the ‘Lust’ murder is a bit over-the-top (Rob Bottin’s weakest makeup in an otherwise jolly good job by him), but Leland Orser (who seems to turn up in a lot of serial killer films) is affecting, and Michael Massee chillingly dispassionate in their one scene. Getting back to the script, some will see the twist finale coming, but on my first viewing I have to admit I was floored by it. Watching it for maybe the fifth time, I can see some foreshadowing, but only in the moments just prior. It’s a reasonably well-guarded secret. Which ironically leads me to ***** SPOILER TERRITORY ***** It’s actually what John Doe does to Pitt’s character that is the true evil genius here. He plays him like a violin the entire car trip, and the poor guy hasn’t got a clue. It’s a tragic, devastating outcome (though Pitt gives one of the funniest and most-imitated line deliveries in cinematic history- I’m sure you know which one!) that Freeman sees the moment he opens the box but can’t do anything to stop the chain of events Doe has carefully and masterfully put into place. John Doe wins, Pitt is ruined. The End. Fuck. It’s just amazing. ***** END SPOILER *****

 

A model of its type, and it holds up perfectly well 20 years after its initial release. Hell, I think it’s better than the slightly overrated “Silence of the Lambs” even. Direction (Fincher is clearly the best of the music video graduates), writing, production design, and acting are all winners here. It really is that good. It’ll be too dark for some to want to take the journey (Walker would later go a bit too far into the abyss with the whole diseased and seedy side of society thing in the unpleasant “8MM”), but for those willing, it’s pretty fascinating and bleakly powerful stuff. It actually stays with you long afterwards.

 

Rating: A-

Review: Alleluia


Inspired by the real-life American crime case of Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez (AKA The Lonely Hearts Killers) in the 1940s, this story is actually set in present day Belgium. Lola Duenas is a Spanish divorcee and mum living in Belgium. A friend suggests the clearly lonely Duenas try internet dating. This leads to a date with shoe salesman Laurent Lucas, and perhaps because Duenas is lonely and needy, things progress very quickly between the two. Things seem great, until Duenas loans a panicked Lucas money for a business deal. He never returns. Later, Duenas manages to track him down and he immediately fakes a headache, to earn sympathy. Again, because Duenas is lonely and needy, she immediately forgives him and the two take up together again. It’s here, though that Lucas makes a confession: He’s a hustler of women. Rather than kick him to the curb (because she’s lonely and pathetic), Duenas accepts Lucas’ way of earning money (also conveniently overlooking some seriously fucked up behaviour between he and his mother), and even agrees to help him in his con games, posing as his sister. Unfortunately, she can’t handle seeing him with other women, and it’s at this point one realises that there’s more to this woman than simply being middle-aged and lonely. She’s not quite right in the head. At all. And that’s when the killing spree begins.

 

Belgium-French thriller from 2014 directed by Fabrice du Welz (the frankly tedious and ugly-looking “Vinyan”) and co-scripted by Vincent Tavier, is really well-acted but there’s not much of a movie and I didn’t care a whole helluva lot. The two principal characters are pretty fucked up, and I guess we’re meant to be surprised when the most overtly creepy one at the beginning ultimately proves outmatched in craziness, but I was a bit ‘meh’ about it.

 

Klaus Kinski-esque Laurent Lucas was a lot more interesting to me than Spanish actress Lola Duenas. From moment one, this guy was setting off Michael Ironside in “Visiting Hours” or Ted Levine in “Silence of the Lambs” alarm bells (And never trust a person who tries to make a boring job sound historically and philosophically important. Especially if they work in the shoe industry!). Duenas is commendably committed to the role and much better than she was in Almodovar’s dud “I’m So Excited!”. For a while there one finds the character almost unbearably pathetic, but Duenas is pretty impressive. This chick is Jessica Walter levels of uncomfortable batshit crazy.

 

It’s the screenplay here that really sucks. The plot goes nowhere slowly, after a too-quick opening act that makes it seem a tad silly. Since the plot is already old-hat, there’s really only so far the good performances can take it. Having absolutely no relatable characters to latch on to, also does not help. This one just wasn’t for me, despite being based on the kind of true crime story you’d think would be up my alley. Not the way it’s been done here, it’s sorely lacking (and highly fictionalised anyway).

 

Rating: C

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Review: Odd Thomas


Anton Yelchin stars as the title character, who has the ability to see dead people. He can also see vulture-like creatures called bodachs (invisible to everyone else), and wherever bodachs hover, death is on the horizon. Lately he’s been seeing them all over his small town, which means he’s got a helluva lot of work to do if he’s gonna save everybody from an impending disaster. Addison Timlin plays Odd’s supportive girlfriend Stormy, while Willem Dafoe plays the friendly chief of police.

 

Based on a novel (the first in a series) by horror writer Dean R. Koontz (whose “Intensity” made for an impressive mini-series), this 2014 film feels like a supernatural indie comedy-horror flick. Written and directed by the not very indie-friendly Stephen Sommers (“The Mummy”, “Deep Rising”, “The Jungle Book”, “Van Helsing”) it doesn’t quite come off (It was shot in 2011, and, well…there have been issues. Many. It’s a long story), but there’s definitely something here. I think my main problem with it is that the back-story of the title character, or the title character himself is far more interesting than the plot that he has been placed into here. I don’t know whether to blame Koontz or if Sommers has created the plot himself, but it’s all a bit ho-hum. In fact, it kinda feels like the pilot episode to a lukewarm supernaturally-charged TV series, more than anything (For some reason I was thinking of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, or at least the bland first few seasons before Willow decided she preferred the company of other girls and the show became much more dramatic and interesting).

 

At first I was hoping this would be kind of like “Scott Pilgrim’s Sixth Sense”, but it’s mildly diverting at best because the plot never really interested me. A lack of a strong, central villain also hampers the film. It also feels like it needs to be funnier, scarier, sexier…or something more than it is. Having said that, Addison Timlin…goddamn. The girl just oozes star quality in this, even if her role isn’t the greatest. She’s much better here in a supporting role, though than she was in the lead of “The Town That Dreaded Sundown”. I honestly think she’s a role or two away from stardom, and hopefully the future Mrs. Ryan McDonald. Lead Anton Yelchin is fine, if not terribly charismatic as the title character. Hilarious cameo by “Mummy” co-star Arnold Vosloo as a one-armed dead guy from Odd’s past. So random. The film definitely scores points for giving us an unusually sad ending, which I really admired. Also, the “Predator”-esque FX are quite interesting too, though CGI flames are appallingly rendered, which is a shame (The film ran into financial problems during filming, briefly. Maybe costs had to be cut here and there). That said, if you’re expecting a typically shitty, overly CGI Stephen Sommers film, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how light on the computer FX Sommers takes it here, in comparison to “The Mummy” or the even worse “Van Helsing”.

 

Moderately watchable supernatural oddity has some interesting ideas and creepy visuals. For a film that will remind you of a lot of other films (“The Frighteners” and “Ghostbusters”, for instance), it ultimately has its own thing going on. However, you keep waiting for it to get better, but it just keeps staying on a constant level of OK. I liked some of it, hated none of it, but I need a little more than just OK, I’m afraid.

 

Rating: C+

Review: The Incredibles


After being sued by a man he rescued, Bob Parr, AKA Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) gets married to fellow superhero Helen, AKA Elastigirl (voiced by Holly Hunter) and agrees to a life of work-a-day, 9-to-5 normalcy. It’s not just Bob, though, as superheroes all around are finding themselves in similar legal hot water and after a government order, taking off the spandex to find ‘real’ jobs. Cut to 15 years later and Bob and Helen have the American domesticity thing down pat, even siring three kids. Of course the kids are born with special powers including invisibility, super-speed, and well, you need to see baby Jack-Jack’s power for yourself. Bob has been keeping a secret from his family, however. He and former superhero Lucius, AKA Frozone (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) sneak out every night listening to police radar to find people to save and crimes to stop. Bob is contacted one night by a secret government organisation that requests his super-heroic services. However, he soon discovers (but, being a bit dense, not soon enough!) that all is not what it seems at this volcanically-housed superhero HQ and is actually part of a villainous scheme by fanboy turned embittered supervillain Syndrome (voiced by Jason Lee). Meanwhile, Helen uncovers her husband’s recent superhero activities through superhero costume designer Edna Mode (voiced by Brad Bird). 

 

Often referred to as the best Pixar film to date, I’ve finally caught up with this 2004 Brad Bird (“Ratatouille”, the live-action “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol”) animated superhero comedy/family movie after 10-11 years. Yeah…still gonna go ahead and favour “Monsters Inc.”, I’m afraid but it’s certainly way ahead of “Cars”, the bland “Ratatouille”, and the frankly overrated “Up”. I’m also shocked that Pixar haven’t capitalised on the film’s success and delivered the obligatory sequels, as it wouldn’t be hard to come up with workable ideas. I’m sure Bird didn’t want to taint the original, but that wouldn’t necessarily stop the studio itself, surely. I’m not a huge fan of this film as many seem to be, but it’s quite cute, and probably works best as action-adventure than as comedy, where it’s far spottier and mostly confined to the opening 20 minutes.

 

Writer-director Brad Bird (or his voice) himself towers over all as the wonderful cinephile in-joke that is Edna Mode, clearly based on legendary Hollywood costume designer Edith Head. Her ‘no capes’ policy is especially cute. Jason Lee also scores well voicing the chief supervillain of the piece. As the #1 super-fan turned scorned supervillain, he’s hilarious and the source of a lot of the film’s humour, along with Ms. Mode. I’m not sure what Patrick Warburton was doing at the time, but it’s clear that he was born to voice Mr. Incredible. Instead we get “Coach”. Really? OK then, and it’s one of Craig T. Nelson’s finer hours, but still his casting is a bit of a head-scratcher to me. I did like Mr. Incredible’s stupidity, though. It’s amusing that Mr. Incredible’s new employer lives inside a volcano. ‘Coz…y’know, Blofeld. Mr. Incredible may be incredible, but smart and observant he ain’t. He’s kind of a gullible idiot, borderline Homer J. Simpson. I’m afraid I have an allergic reaction to the sound of Holly Hunter’s whishhhling Texashhhh twang, and Samuel L. Jackson’s vocal talents are appallingly wasted. His character needed to be in a lot more of this, though his wife gets the film’s funniest line: ‘Greater good? I am your WIFE! I’m the greatest good you’re ever gonna have!’. I also liked the opening scenes, with a funny interview segment followed by a huge action set piece…to rescue a kitten in a tree. Priceless.

 

The best thing in the entire film is actually the top-notch music score by Michael Giacchino (“Super 8”, “Star Trek”, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”) which is similar to scores by John Barry and the like without ripping them off or directly referencing them (It’s strangely the only Pixar film score up to that point not to earn an Oscar nomination. Insanity!). It’s easy to see that animation has clearly dated since 2004 (something 1995’s “Toy Story” has to contend with even more so), but the design itself is very clever and very familiar to anyone who has watched even one James Bond movie pre-Brosnan. The superhero HQ is really cool-looking, actually. There’s also a nice use of shadow which I always enjoy, and really it’s only the character animation that feels dated, the rest looks terrific.

 

It’s cute, but awfully overlong I must say. Perhaps I arrived too late to the party here, but I honestly don’t see much more here than a fun animated superhero action-adventure with a few decent moments of humour here and there. It’s solid, but I’m afraid it’s a long way from “Monster’s Inc.”, “Toy Story”, “Toy Story 2” (slightly better than the original in my view), and even “Monsters University” in my book.

 

Rating: B-

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Review: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens


***** SPOILER WARNING ***** Best save this review for after you’ve seen the film. I think most of you will have seen it by now, but if you haven’t you can save this for later, and even read one of the many spoiler-free reviews out there on the web if you’re mildly curious. With one exception that I’ll precede with another warning, I really only hint at spoiler-y stuff here, unless you count plot synopsis and basic character mentioning as spoilers. If so (and regardless of that), you’ve been duly warned. On to the review…

 

Set 30 years after “Return of the Jedi”, farm boy turned hero Jedi Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is nowhere to be seen, but is very much sought after by those on the side of good, but also evil. Evil here is represented by the First Order, led by the looming large Supreme Leader Snoke (A motion-captured Andy Serkis), whose number two is the black mask-clad Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who seems somewhat familiar, yet also distinctly his own. Also on the villain side of things is General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), supreme commander of the First Order (i.e. Including Storm Troopers) who tries to curry favour with the Supreme Leader, and the awesomely named Captain Phasma (“Game of Thrones” actress Gwendoline Christie), a Stormtrooper captain. Representing the Resistance here is top fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), who has a map that might lead to the whereabouts of Luke, but runs into some trouble before he return to his base. He is captured by the First Order and about to be tortured by Kylo Ren, when a rogue Storm Trooper surprisingly comes to Poe’s rescue. Although Storm Troopers are designed to forget their pasts and not assigned real names, Poe dubs him Finn (John Boyega), and it appears Finn doesn’t quite have the stomach for being on the Dark Side of the Force. He doesn’t reveal himself as a Storm Trooper, however, claiming instead to be a member of the Resistance. They will soon be joined by feisty young scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), who has come across a droid Poe is looking for (see what I did there?) dubbed BB-8. And that’s where I’m gonna leave the plot, folks. Yayan Ruhian and Iko Uwais play members of an unfriendly gang known as the Kanjiklub, Lupita Nyong’o can be heard as Maz, one of the better CG creatures in the film, and Max von Sydow has a virtual walk-on as Lor San Tekka, a resident of the planet Jakku, who has a piece of the map to give Poe.

 

As I sit here to write this review, having watched this 2015 J.J. Abrams film beginning the new life in the “Star Wars” series, just yesterday midday-ish. Subsequent viewings over the next year or two will probably solidify my views more, as well as help to define this film’s place in my heart (and probable place in my Top 200 films of all-time list, possibly with bad news for the prequels currently still on the list. Not sure yet. Stay tuned), but the short, short version is this: I liked this film. Quite a lot. But please stay and read the rest of the review…aw, you’ll hurt my feelings otherwise.

 

My first impression of the film is that it’s very ‘fan friendly’ entertainment, and although that has a few drawbacks, on the main it proves a positive thing as far as I’m concerned. This is probably the best “Star Wars” film you could hope for in 2015, all things considered, and although I enjoyed the prequels much more than most did, I can’t deny that this film has several strengths over at least “Episode II” and “Episode III”. First and foremost, it obviously has the original trio of Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), and however incredibly briefly Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, looking like a skinnier Oliver Reed in “Gladiator”). The former two actors are in very good form here, performance-wise, and play very believable old-age versions of the characters I grew up with and loved dearly. Although I think it’s best to view any of these new “Star Wars” films as being geared towards today’s generation, there’s no doubt in my mind that it was a masterstroke by J.J. Abrams (director of “Star Trek”, “Star Trek Into Darkness”, “Mission Impossible III”) and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan (writer-director of “Body Heat”, more importantly the screenwriter of “The Empire Strikes Back”) to bring these iconic characters back so that we can see what time has done to them, and see what their place in the “Star Wars” universe is now all these years later. It’s fascinating stuff, and I’ve got to say, every time Han Solo and Leia (I can’t even refer to them by the actors names, despite seeing Harrison Ford in movies all the damn time. He puts on the clothes and…like magic, he’s Han Solo again!) turned up on screen, I had a lump in my throat and felt on the verge of tears. Yes, even during all the action, mayhem and fun, I couldn’t help but feel…something. Nostalgia is certainly a big part of it, but it’s more than that. A deep connection to the characters, and as I said, we’re seeing what they’ve become, and it really kinda got to me. I’m not sure how this aspect is going to fare on subsequent viewings, but on my first go round, it’s the thing that most stuck out to me in a positive way. Ford in particular, is in great form, I haven’t seen him this much fun to watch in decades.

 

The performances overall are probably better than the prequels too (And yes, I’m probably going to be doing a lot of comparisons. It’s called baggage, people!). Yes, the prequels had terrific work by Christopher Lee, Ian McDiarmid, and solid stints by Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor, but Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, and a lot of the minor character players were less impressive, and somewhat stilted (not helped by some pretty rank dialogue, the main criticism I have with the prequels- which I still love, by the way, credibility be damned!). I wasn’t overly fussed with Daisy Ridley, I must say. I’d never heard of her before, but on evidence here she’s a bit stiff and I hope she can improve her thesping skills between now and the next one. She’s a bit bland. I was also bitterly disappointed that Iko Uwais and the awesome Yayan Ruhian from “The Raid” were utterly wasted and ‘jobbed out’ in mere cameos near the beginning. I honestly couldn’t believe Abrams wasted the opportunity for some kick-arse martial arts action, I was really looking forward to it. Instead they carry guns and run a bit. Yep. However, pretty much everyone else impresses here, even if the mere cameo by the great Max von Sydow seems a crying shame, and evidence of a film that was originally likely a whole lot longer. I was particularly impressed by John Boyega and rather surprisingly for me, Adam Driver. As the conflicted, ultimately good-hearted storm trooper Finn, Boyega is charismatic and genuinely likeable on screen. He’s much better company than Ridley’s Rey. The normally goofball Driver seemed like oddball casting to me in the villainous role of Darth Vader fanboy Kylo Ren, and although he’s actually much creepier without the mask, I’ve gotta say he’s quite intimidating and a pretty interesting, layered villain. Some will say that he’s ultimately not very formidable, but I think that’s a bit unfair, all things considered. You’ve got to remember that like Daisy Ridley’s Rey, he’s fairly youthful, and although the First Order are ruling the galaxy, perhaps he’s not quite at his peak power yet. Not every villain has to be Darth Vader or The Emperor, and perhaps The First Order will get to that level by the end of the next entry. ***** DEFINITE SPOILERS HERE ***** Although Kylo Ren looks somewhat done for, I think he’ll be back, and part of the reason why he seems not quite Darth Vader-ish in power is because…well, he’s not. I think because this film is somewhat reboot-ish of the entire franchise, it’s basically giving us a Darth Vader wannabe who at this point in time, is closer to Anakin in “Attack of the Clones” or “Revenge of the Sith”, in pretty much every respect. If Kylo Ren returns, and I believe he will, there will be absolutely no trace of humanity left in him, probably not even any physical trace, either. Giving us more Anakin-like Kylo Ren rather than Darth Vader-inspired Kylo Ren is Abrams’ new spin on an old template. It’s “A New Hope” for a new generation (That does not make this a kids movie, by the way. That’s not the same thing). That same re-boot quality also helps explain why Rey seems so much more advanced in her skills than Luke was in “A New Hope”. Yes, she’s probably going to receive training in the next film, but as this isn’t the same “Star Wars” as before, perhaps after her training she’ll become even more powerful/skilled than Luke ever was. Who knows? I’m willing to wait and see. It really didn’t bother me, folks. I do, however, think Abrams and his co-writers over-egged things a bit by giving Kylo Ren too much connection to characters from the original trilogy. It is a slightly regrettable trend throughout the film (not to mention that the plot quite resembles “A New Hope” at times as well) that also affects the Rey character too, and I hope they don’t go on with it as much in subsequent films. ***** END SPOILER *****

 

In smaller turns, Oscar Isaac is an actor I’ve come to very much like, and although his appearances in this are sporadic, I hope he’s in subsequent films because I think you can always use a genuinely talented actor like him in something like this. I feel like we only get the tip of the iceberg with him here, so I hope he’s in the next one. Domhnall Gleeson will divide audiences for sure, as the sneering Grand Moff Tarkin-esque General Hux. He’s completely over-the-top, giving a real hambone special, and at least on first viewing, I enjoyed him a lot. Although I find her performance a bit Monty Python-esque on “Game of Thrones”, Gwendoline Christie’s voice definitely fits her rather chilling character in this film, I guess her character is kind of a Boba Fett-ish character (See what I did there, by the way? Yeah, proud of that one) in some ways. Like with Isaac’s Poe Dameron, I want to see more from Christie’s Captain Phasma (And see more of Ms. Christie’s actual face next time, perhaps?).

 

I wasn’t really able to focus on the turn given by the normally excellent Andy Serkis as the really humongously huge-looking Supreme Leader Snoke, to be honest. I was far too distracted by the rather unnecessary and not entirely convincing FX job. It’s a shame, because although I actually didn’t think Serkis was particularly memorable in the part, the Emperor-esque character does have some potential. I just hope they do something about the FX next time around, because I wasn’t quite buying it. I know we were seeing a hologram, but it was still a motion-capture CGI job, and not a great one. Also, why motion-capture someone who doesn’t really move much? Da Fuq? Speaking of FX, for the most part it’s actually one of the film’s strengths. It’s a seriously good-looking film that thankfully doesn’t overdose on 1) CGI, or 2) Abrams’ masturbatory fascination with lens flares. Hell, I don’t think I noticed more than one. The CGI in the film is frankly not all that great, but for the most part Abrams has stuck to ‘real’ sets, and makeup instead of computer FX, and the film is very, very much the better for it. Honestly, I found myself at times less focussing on the actors and looking at the scenery or sets and marvelling at the fact that they looked real, like you could actually touch them. That’s not a thing I should have been marvelling at, if you ask me, but we’re way down that rabbit hole of CGI everything now, so a break from ‘tradition’ to an earlier ‘tradition’ made me very happy. As much as I liked the CGI worlds George Lucas created in the prequels (they certainly wowed me at the time), I feel like he felt the need for everything to be CGI, and just as is the case in this film, the inclusion CGI characters in the prequels was not the strong point of those films at all. Having said that, I wasn’t actually entirely enamoured with the droids in this film, despite them not being CGI. I always enjoy C3PO for the most part, but for some reason, having him and R2D2 in this one just rubbed me a bit the wrong way here, they felt unnecessary, maybe even unlikely. It’s always nice to see old friends (I loved seeing Chewbacca, and he’s in it a bit more than you’ve probably heard), but are you telling me droids haven’t advanced by this point? As for the new droid BB-8, he stops short of being Jar-Jar Binks or General Grievous levels of irritation (I especially hated the latter), but such a kid-friendly inclusion seemed a little jarring in what is, although great fun, a relatively dark story. I dunno, I might change my mind on him one day. I just wasn’t overly impressed on first go-round. What I did like, however, was that the film has a whole lot of action, and it isn’t to the detriment of story, really. All of the space battles are particularly top-notch, though some of the light saber duels for me suffered from some slightly under-lit photography by Dan Mindel (“Star Trek Into Darkness”, “The Amazing Spider Man 2”), which is a shame. But on the whole, if it’s typical “Star Wars” action you’re after, you’re gonna get your fill here. I will say, though, that particularly in the first half there was a bit too much repetition in the action. Is it me or was there maybe one too many scenes where characters had to run to a spaceship and get the hell outta Dodge? It certainly seemed that way to me, exciting as it was. Speaking of repetitive, although the music score by John Williams (whose non-“Star Wars” work includes such great films as “Superman”, “Jaws”, and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) is solid, that’s mostly because it sounds so goddamn familiar. It really does play like “Star Wars Soundtrack: Greatest Hits”, with just a few subtle tweaks. That’s fine, the music is good, it suits the action (although one revelatory moment that is already predictable, damn well gets underscored by Williams employing a particular music cue, which is a bit of a shame, albeit understandably irresistible), it’s just a bit too familiar and ultimately you won’t really be humming it afterwards. Even the scores for the prequels were better, perhaps the only thing the prequels have over this film, aside from the late Christopher Lee obviously not being here.

 

On a not-remotely-serious note, I thought it was a real oversight not to play ‘The Imperial March’ over the LucasFilm trademark at the start of the film. Yeah, fuck you George. Still not forgiving you for “The Clone Wars” movie or adding ‘Noooooo!’ to “Return of the Jedi”. I also kinda wish Abrams had found a way to bring Greedo’s grandson into the film so he can walk on and Han just blasts the shit out of him. Yeah, that one’s aimed at you too, George (We owe everything to George with this franchise, undoubtedly, but c’mon, the guy asks for it with his stubbornness sometimes).

 

On first viewing, I felt that this film definitely had more flaws than the original trilogy, and I wasn’t always as on side with the film as I would’ve liked to have been, especially early on as it was finding its feet. However, make no mistake: This is good. Very, good. In time and with subsequent viewings I may grow even fonder of it, and if this is to be to the younger generation what the original trilogy has been for my generation (and backwards), it’s worthy. Although it is a little too reliant on old tropes for my liking, it is nonetheless clearly a film made with genuine love and affection for both the original trilogy and its characters, but also the fans. Yes, George, those people you like to pretend don’t fucking matter (I should also play fair and add my distaste for the flippancy with which J.J. Abrams has treated previous “Star Trek” lore, particularly in his first “Trek” film where he callously seemed to want to wipe the slate clean. He’s clearly a “Star Wars” guy).

 

Although I would argue that it is primarily aimed at today’s youth, there’s enough connective material here to truly invest the fans of the original trilogy. Revisiting this world, revisiting some old characters, meeting some new ones, having fun and thrills and all that good stuff…it felt like home. Maybe home has changed a bit, but it’s still there, you can see it throughout, and damn if I didn’t get a little misty-eyed at times. Whether that nostalgia stays on subsequent viewings or subsequent films I cannot yet say (nor am I yet 100% certain where I would place it in the best-to-worst of “Star Wars” films. That’ll take some reflection), but I am thankful that there’s still the fun and adventure aspect anyway. It’s not quite my “Star Wars”, but I nonetheless embrace it as the probable next best thing we’re likely to get as the franchise moves from my generation to the next. The rating I’m assigning the film today may not be permanent, it might improve on subsequent viewings, so please don’t make too much of that at this stage. I saw the film just under 24 hours ago as I write this.

 

NB: It should be noted that Michael Arndt (“Little Miss Sunshine”, “Toy Story 3”) gets co-screenwriter credit with the director and Kasdan, however, his contribution was apparently meant for a project abandoned by George Lucas, and thus Abrams scrapped it. Why he still remains credit, seems bizarre to me, under those circumstances.

 

Rating: B