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, January 16, 2016

Review: The Slender Thread


Set in a Seattle crisis clinic, Sidney Poitier stars as a university student volunteer at the centre who receives a call just as the more experienced Dr. Coburn (Telly Savalas) has finished for the night. It’s Inge (Anne Bancroft), a woman in a clearly very distressed state who has swallowed some sleeping pills and won’t tell Poitier where she lives. She wants to die, Poitier needs to keep her awake, alive, and talking to either get her to divulge her whereabouts, or stay on the line long enough for the cops (represented by a wasted Ed Asner) to trace the call and track her down. Slowly we begin to learn slivers of Inge’s sad story, and the problems in her marriage to fisherman Steven Hill, from whom she has been keeping a big secret for a long time.

 

Even if it might have dated somewhat, this 1965 film from director Sydney Pollack (“The Scalphunters”, “Tootsie”, “Out of Africa”) still offers interest as an insight into how suicide hotlines/helplines were run back in the 60s. It also gives Anne Bancroft a helluva acting showcase, and when does Sidney Poitier ever phone in a performance (excuse the pun)? Add to that an issue that is not only very important but still very relevant today, and you’ve got yourself a solid, suspenseful film.

 

It’s also sensationally shot in B&W by Loyal Griggs (“Shane”, “The Greatest Story Ever Told”, “The Ten Commandments”), with an aerial assist from time to time by Nelson Tyler (“Tobruk”). They help keep the film from appearing too closed-in and stagey, for what is, at the end of the day, very much a conversation-based film. Far less impressive is the immediately intrusive, jazzy music score by Quincy Jones (“In the Heat of the Night”, “In Cold Blood”). He seems to be trying to steal the film from everyone else by making as much noise as possible, and his cool, jazzy intrusions just don’t mesh with the rather serious themes of the film. It’s a mistake in an otherwise solid, if somewhat simple film.

 

Is there an actor with a better batting average and laidback confidence than Sidney Poitier? He rarely even seems to come across like he’s acting, and in my view must rank in the Top 10 actors of all-time for sure. His role here, in lesser hands could’ve come across as functionary and somewhat passive, but with Poitier gets you inside this guy’s head. This guy isn’t experienced, doesn’t always do what someone in his position is supposed to, and yet he doesn’t seem to realise just how well he is doing. It’s difficult to achieve that sense of humility when it’s obvious to the audience that this guy is rather good at his job, novice or not, and so it’s a testament to Poitier’s talent that he projects that humility in a manner that doesn’t come across as phony. But this is truly Bancroft’s film, she does so much when a lot of the time it’s just her voice she has to work with. This is a sad, weary woman who seems to have all-but given up on life. Steven Hill also nicely contributes as her husband, though he has much less screen time.

 

I think it’s interesting to look at how difficult tracing phone calls was in the 60s, and it helps provide for a very tense, harrowing drama. However, this film’s real strength comes in the performances by calm, cool Sidney Poitier, and especially the sad and world-weary Anne Bancroft. Fans of the actress will not want to miss this, one of her best-ever roles. A basic idea that one is surprised hasn’t been done more often over the years. A fine directorial debut for Pollack, it holds up pretty well today, though obviously tracing phone calls is now quicker and easier. The screenplay is by Stirling Silliphant (“In the Heat of the Night”, “The Poseidon Adventure”, “The Towering Inferno”), from a magazine story by Shana Alexander.

 

Rating: B-

Review: Two Night Stand


After a bad break-up, Analeigh Tipton gets drunk one night and decides to go on an online dating website. From there she interacts with Miles Teller, and before long she’s at his apartment and having a care-free one-night stand with him. Unfortunately, what was supposed to be a night of meaningless sex hits a bit of a roadblock, or in this case snowstorm that forces the duo into the title situation. Now they’re forced to talk and get to know one another. It doesn’t look like it’ll go very well, he’s a bit of a douchy stoner and she’s a bit of a snarky jerk. Jessica Szohr plays Tipton’s roommate, trying to get her out of the apartment for the night so that she can have sex with her boyfriend.

 

I don’t know if it’s been done before, but the basic idea of this 2014 romcom and its very title certainly seemed like an irresistible idea. Written by Mark Hammer (whose only other credit so far is an episode of “Skins”) and directed by debutant Max Nichols (son of Mike), it’s the kind of thing that 10-15 years ago probably would’ve starred Josh Hartnett and Shannyn Sossamon and would’ve been a lot worse. I’m not normally a fan of Miles Teller, but I think he and “America’s Next Top Model” cutie Analeigh Tipton will have a longer shelf life than those two flavours of the month. I know this isn’t Shakespeare, but Tipton (who stole all her few scenes in “Warm Bodies”) proves to be a pretty darn good model-turned-actress and has charisma you just can’t teach. She’s the perfect mixture of Meg Ryan, Mila Kunis and…Mmmm yeah. Yes, that’s a thing. Tipton should be arrested, charged, and convicted of the crime of extreme cuteness. Teller, for his part plays a more palatable character than usual. This guy has his flaws, but is basically well-meaning. Also, his alarm is very funny, I have to admit.

 

As for the film itself, it’s no world beater and has a distinct 2002-2005 vibe, but in terms of modern romantic comedies, it’s certainly more interesting and relatable than most. I thought the way the two characters meet was a bit unbelievable, but it’s where they go from there that is the clever part of the film. Here a one-night stand is forced to continue due to poor weather. It’s cute and clever, and the main characters are just right- annoying enough to get on each other’s’ nerves, but likeable enough for the audience to want to see them get together for good in the end. I could’ve done without the bong-smoking, but I’m aware that I am a buzzkill on drugs and alcohol. And parties. And fun.

 

The leads (particularly Tipton) are far more palatable as a romantic screen couple than those in contemporaries such as “No Strings Attached” (Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman) and “Celeste and Jesse Forever” (Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg). This is a small, clichéd film, but for its type it’s very watchable and likeable. Tipton is incandescent, Teller has been a lot worse.

 

Rating: B-

Friday, January 15, 2016

Review: Interstellar


Set in a future Midwestern America, going through horrific losses of crops and horrible dust storms. Life it seems, is hard for everyone the world over, not just the American Midwest, and it’s predicted to only get worse. The planet itself will likely become uninhabitable for us before long. Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a former NASA test pilot/engineer and widower, now a struggling Midwest farmer trying to raise two kids. His intelligent, but wilful  10 year-old daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) claims ghosts are haunting her room, and when Cooper investigates he notices some very strange dust patterns that appear to be communicating some kind of message. Figuring out that they are co-ordinates, he and young Murph drive off to investigate, leaving teenage son Tom at home with the boy’s realist grandfather John Lithgow. The co-ordinates land Cooper and Murph in a secret NASA base, with NASA having essentially been defunded in these harsh economic times (and with the revelation that the Apollo moon landing missions were all faked, teachers are instructed to dissuade students from having too much ambition!). Cooper finds a friendly face in former mentor Professor Brand (Sir Michael Caine), who informs Cooper that the Earth is in dire straits and something must be done now to save its inhabitants. Prof. Brand invites Cooper to pilot a space mission near Saturn, going through a wormhole (!) into another galaxy, and find the three previous teams sent through the wormhole, and to investigate the findings from three different reports of three different planets said to be possible alternatives for us to live on. Murph is angry and inconsolable that her father is going to leave them, but he promises her he’ll be back. Meanwhile, Cooper is introduced to the rest of the team; co-pilot/researcher Wes Bentley, slightly nervy astrophysicist David Gyasi, and Brand’s astronaut/scientist daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway). Also on board the mission is a robot named TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin). William Devane turns up briefly as one of the NASA officials, Collette Wolfe plays Murph’s concerned teacher, and David Oyelowo is the school principal.

 

Although I might’ve personally preferred the more simplistic story of the previous year’s “Gravity”, this 2014 film from director Christopher Nolan (“Memento”, “Insomnia”, “Inception”) and his co-writer/brother Jonathan isn’t the “Contact” rip-off some are accusing it of being. I’s also not the epic space classic Nolan probably wanted it to be (and others are championing it as), either, but honestly the similarities with that 1997 film are few and trivial. In fact, I think even if you did compare the two films, this one’s probably the better one. If it weren’t for its slightly predictable trajectory, it would’ve been even better.

 

It’s a really fascinating yarn, with a helluva central concept based on social themes that are pretty relevant and interesting. Much more sci-fi oriented than “Gravity” this space film also doubles as a time-travel yarn, and on that level it’s pretty damn clever I must say. It’s set in a fascinating future, seemingly a world in no need of astronauts or NASA (there’s more pressing concerns in need of funding), and indeed Matthew McConaughey’s kids are taught in school that the Apollo moon landings were faked to bankrupt the Soviet Union! So, we’re definitely in the fiction side of sci-fi here, but with environmental and socio-economic themes that one can easily relate to. It’s a pretty terrific premise I have to say, with clever use of actual documentary footage from “Dust Bowl” too, in the framing device. Nolan does an expert job with the space scenes, even if I might prefer those in “Gravity”. What I especially appreciated here was that Nolan has paid attention to the fact that there’s no sound in space, so we get moments of silence. You can’t blame him for wanting to bring in the music score from time to time, but the silences were very much appreciated by me. There you go, space nerds, someone’s finally gotten it right. Now sit back down and shut up, OK? When we do hear sounds, it’s usually to alert the audience to something happening, which is perfectly understandable if you ask me.

 

I was a tad sceptical that, although the film spans many, many years, technology doesn’t appear to have changed much during that time, not that we see at least. However, that’s a minor issue, really. ***** POTENTIAL SPOILERS FROM HERE ON ***** The bigger issue is that Matt Damon keeps having to get fucking rescued all the time. I hope he has compensated everyone for all the time, money and effort spent in trying to rescue the guy in movies. I mean goddamn that guy gets himself in trouble a lot, doesn’t he? There’s a pretty amazing conceptualisation of an alien planet, looking like Mordor crossed with Winterfell during the harshest of winters, but minus the ‘White Walkers’. I was less impressed with the design of the robots in the film (one of whom was voiced by Bill Irwin, but I swear it sounded exactly like William Fichtner). Although I understand the reasoning behind the rather low-tech design of the robots, I think Nolan and his team have gone a little too far to the point where they look like TARDIS. From like a 60s-era “Dr. Who”. It just didn’t seem right to me, even for a NASA that has been forced to go underground.

 

Normally with a split narrative, I tend to find it a bit hard to get invested in either strand. However, Nolan (x2?) has managed to make it work here, it’s very cleverly done. Aside from the predictability, it’s a really good screenplay. As for the performances, Matthew McConaughey is ideal and instantly relatable in the lead, Anne Hathaway is almost impossible to take your eyes off (I believe that’s called charisma personified), the overrated Jessica Chastain is for once well-cast and affecting, and Casey Affleck is similarly affecting. John Lithgow (rather taciturn) and Sir Michael Caine are never bad to have around, and I was glad to see the talented Wes Bentley in a decent film for a change, even if his role was minor. Despite needing to be rescued yet again, Matt Damon (Who is unbilled, hence the spoiler alert, though I knew about him well in advance) is cast in a rather different, darker role for him, and he is very effective in limited time. His first moment on screen is quite heartbreakingly vulnerable. It’s a small moment, but a noticeable and affecting one.

 

Although I don’t really see what the detractors of the film are on about, I can definitely see why some people are very, very enthusiastic about the film. It deals with themes and issues that I and others definitely believe in, but I don’t think this is the “2001: A Space Odyssey” of the modern era, much as Nolan is seemingly aiming for it to be. The ultimately predictable trajectory really does hold it back a little for me, but it’s certainly a very solid science-fiction film with some fascinating ideas and really cleverly conceived in a lot of ways. Hell, even if I saw it coming from a mile away, I still found myself getting a little emotional at the end. It’s a good film, and better than any of Nolan’s overrated Batman movies, but not an especially great film.

 

Rating: B-

Review: Pulp Fiction


Several interwoven stories, some of which are told out of sequence: Bible-quoting Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and pudgy Vincent (John Travolta) are a couple of hitmen for mobster Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). We see them on their latest job, sent to the apartment of nervy Frank Whaley and Phil LaMar. A second story sees Vincent charged with looking in on Marsellus Wallace’s coke addict wife Mia (Uma Thurman), as dinner and dancing turn very, very unpleasant soon enough. In another story, Bruce Willis plays a boxer paid by Marsellus Wallace to take a dive. He refuses, and finds himself a marked man by Wallace. However, a shootout between the two results in them enduring a very, very humiliating and nasty encounter with a couple of hillbilly rapists (one played by Peter Greene), and something/someone called ‘The Gimp’. Eric Stoltz and Rosanna Arquette play a drug dealer and strung-out girlfriend, Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer bookend the film as a couple of romantic robbers, Maria de Madeiros is Willis’ girlfriend, Christopher Walken is seen in flashback as a war buddy of Willis’ father, Harvey Keitel plays a specialised ‘cleaner’, Steve Buscemi cameos as a faux Buddy Holly, and Quentin Tarantino himself turns up as a guy named Jimmy.

 

And here’s where you’re all about to hate me. Well, those of you who aren’t already picketing outside my house. Yes, I see you. Bit unimpressed with those signs, though. Really think you could’ve done better. Hell, some of you can’t even spell for crap. You should really reflect on that. Invest in a dictionary, maybe? Hell, at least take a look on Google for crying out loud…

 

Anyway, I’ve never been a fan of this 1994 flick from Quentin Tarantino (“Reservoir Dogs”, “Jackie Brown”, “Inglourious Basterds”, “Django Unchained”). Parts of it I like, some of the performances are great, but a lot of it I find really unappealing. I’ve seen it several times now, and my view hasn’t changed one bit, even though I’ve really enjoyed most of QT’s subsequent films (“Django Unchained” especially), and have a healthy respect for his first feature directing gig, “Reservoir Dogs”. But this? Meh.

 

The Dick Dale opening credits surf rock music is undoubtedly awesome, but honestly, the opening section loses me and is indicative of my main problem with the whole damn film: The film may not be all talk, but talk is all QT is truly interested in here, and the talk isn’t always interesting to me. Some of it is, a lot isn’t. A lot of it is pretentious crap, and unlike say the “Kill Bill” films, there’s not a lot of other stuff in between the monologues to keep one awake. This time around, even the hip conversations between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson shat me, because unlike the “Kill Bill” films and “Inglourious Basterds”, the majority of these monologues have nothing to do with anything other than QT showing us how cool he thinks we should think he is. The ‘Royale wit’ cheese’ thing is just wannabe hip bullshit banter for the sake of it. It has not aged well, that one. Not all of the dialogue is annoying, but much of it is. I will say, however, that the section of the film featuring the characters of Jules and Vincent does contain what should’ve been 1994’s Best Supporting Actor performance from Samuel L. Jackson. I liked “Ed Wood” and I believe the Academy got it right in awarding “Forrest Gump” with all the awards it won, but Samuel L. Jackson is undeniably brilliant and galvanising here. His righteous sermons are really powerful, and not just coolness for the sake of it, they fit the scenes in which they are delivered. When Samuel L. Jackson is on screen, as would often be the case before and after this film, everyone else is freaking invisible. Amazing actor.

 

On a smaller note, Frank Whaley plays a great wimp, too. As for Mr. Travolta, this may have been a comeback role for him, but for me I think he gets completely outclassed. Which brings me to the segment of the film that has most bugged me over the years and still does. The whole section with Travolta, Uma Thurman, Eric Stoltz, and Rosanna Arquette does absolutely nothing for me. Travolta’s dull, Uma’s performance is too forced and wannabe hip, and it’s a really repellent section of the film. I have zero interest in films about drugs most often than not, and I find heroin particularly repellent and uninteresting. So needless to say (see what I did there? Yes I am literally patting myself on the back. There’s nothing strange about that!) I found all of this boring as hell. There’s nothing cool about heroin. The only good thing in this section of the film, is Urge Overkill’s excellent cover of Neil Diamond’s ‘Girl You’ll Be a Woman Soon’. Otherwise…a yawner for me. And that’s a real problem with the film, it’s a series of stories, uneven stories. Although it’s essentially one story told out of sequence, it really does feel like a series of stories, and a technique QT would make much more cohesive in later films (not to mention Robert Rodriguez in the terrific “Sin City”). Here it feels like a bunch of vignettes. The section of the film dealing with Bruce Willis’ character is similarly uneven, but it does give us the show-stopping cameo monologue by the inimitable Christopher Walken. It’s a legendary monologue, absolutely hilarious and it’s a shame that the rest of the section isn’t nearly as interesting, though Ving Rhames is all presence and bad arse intimidation as Marsellus Wallace. He’s so good here it makes you wonder why QT hasn’t used him since, and it makes you mad that Rhames has been stuck in direct-to-DVD hell of late (I thought his work in “Con Air” and especially “Rosewood” would bring him to new heights). So much presence, charisma, power, and talent…gone to waste. There’s a particularly amusing scene where Rhames and Willis have a shootout (witnessed by Kathy Griffin, whom I didn’t recall seeing previously in my viewing of this film), and then there’s ‘The Gimp’. Boy does this scene seem to come from outer space. Hell, I’m not even sure it makes sense, really. I mean, was Peter Greene’s character really a cop or did he have some kind of uniform fetish going on? It sure is a memorable scene, however, and I bet QT finds it the most hysterically funny bit in the film. On the downside, Bruce Willis is boring and looks bored. Occasionally he looks confused. As his girlfriend, Maria de Madeiros was a flavour of the month, and annoying beyond belief here. That’s not a casting decision that has held up terribly well, I must say, not something one usually says about QT. She and Willis are a pretty uninteresting pair, unfortunately. Speaking of bad decisions by the director, there’s a particularly stupid decision by QT to feature not only back-projection in a car scene, but B&W back-projection in an otherwise colour film. That’s not a cool cinephile gag, it’s idiotic.

 

There’s some genuinely amusing moments, especially that splatter moment. The entrails in Jules’ jheri curl is especially funny and disgusting. But for every amusing moment, there’s a lot of pretentious crap, too (especially from Uma Thurman). Also, as good as QT himself was in “From Dusk ‘Til Dawn” playing a sociopath, he is a terrible actor in most everything else (and completely bollocksed an Aussie accent in “Django Unchained”). In this he’s just OK, but probably should’ve given the role to a genuine actor nonetheless (Weirdest thing? He doesn’t deliver his own damn dialogue very well!). Much better is Harvey Keitel (where has he been in the last five years or so? I barely see him in anything now), in a late cameo that is one of his best performances, I think. He’s probably only behind Jackson and Walken here, in terms of performance quality. Very cool extended cameo, albeit essentially a riff on his Victor the Cleaner in “The Assassin”.

 

Honestly, I just don’t see the masterpiece here, guys. If you do, that’s cool. I wish I could. I feel like this film and “Jackie Brown” are really Tarantino working his way to being a better filmmaker. Sure, “Reservoir Dogs” is a better film than the subsequent two films, but it was also a simpler, lower-budget film if I’m not mistaken. There’s a huge leap in improvement from this film to the “Kill Bill” films, “Inglourious Basterds” is slightly better than that, and “Django Unchained” at the very top, the latter two being quite mature for QT, all things considered. Certainly more ambitious. For me, “Jackie Brown” was a bit of a failed experiment, and this one is just plain uneven. I like some of it, hate some of it, and find myself bored by a lot of it. Overall, I’m unimpressed as I was in 1994. It’s mostly watchable, but very, very spotty I think (offensively overlong at about 2 ½ hours, as well), and occasionally really repellent. QT would probably wear that last one like a badge of honour, though I suppose. Tarantino also scripted, based on stories by him and Roger Avary (“Beowulf”, “The Rules of Attraction”, “Silent Hill”).

 

Rating: C+

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Review: Kill Bill vol. 2


We once again join The Bride (Uma Thurman) on her quest for vengeance against the people who left her for dead at the wedding chapel. In this outing she stalks laconic Budd (Michael Madsen) and cold-blooded Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), before finally tracking down the big boss Bill (David Carradine), who has a nasty surprise in store for her. We also flashback to The Bride’s tutelage in martial arts by the cantankerous, white-bearded Pai Mei (Gordon Liu).

 

The second half of Quentin Tarantino’s ode to martial arts cinema, spaghetti westerns, and other exploitation fare, this 2004 film was at the time his most mature film as far as I’m concerned. I actually agree with his decision to split this story into two halves, because although both are terrific films, this film and “vol. 1” really are stylistically quite different. “Kill Bill vol. 1” was QT’s tribute to Bruce Lee, blaxploitation, and anime, with occasional doses of spaghetti western. This time out, we get something of a Shaw Brothers Shaolin monk movie tribute mixed with spaghetti western. The resulting difference is really in terms of pacing, I think. This one’s more meditative, more of a dialogue-driven revenge saga, whereas the first film really was a blood-spurting action extravaganza, straight-up, fast-paced schlocky revenge saga. I mean, only in this film are you likely to find a climax where the hero and villain engage in a long dialogue (about Superman, no less!), and a short burst of violence, instead of the other way around.

 

We open with a little too much ‘Previously on “Batman”’-type recapping for my liking, but after that, this one’s a winner, with David Carradine’s first appearance playing the pan flute a cute little in-joke for those in the know (“Circle of Iron”, AKA “The Silver Flute”). Also, while I don’t think Samuel L. Jackson’s cameo is particularly necessary, Bo Svenson is amusing as the reverend. The film isn’t as much ‘fun’ as the first film, in the schlocky entertainment sense, but it has different aims. It’s definitely entertaining, but a different kind of entertainment to the first film, hence why I think it was a good decision to make two films out of the story instead of one long one. One need only look at the use in music in this one, as opposed to the first film to see a difference between the two. Here the use of music isn’t just Tarantino being cool for the movie-loving sake of it, it actually fits the spaghetti western vibe of much of the film (there’s a lot of Morricone grabs in this), and matches the rhythm of scenes. The first film did that too, but not as much, and not quite as effectively (Both films use songs by the awesome Isaac Hayes, by the way. Here it’s the funktastic theme from “Three Tough Guys” used in Pai Mei’s initial schooling of The Bride). Make sure you stay for the end credits to hear the absolutely kick-arse ‘Malaguena Salerosa’ by Chingon (featuring Robert Rodriguez). It’s a blistering, Mariachi & electric guitar-flavoured rock song that I still listen to even now.

 

The use of B&W for the flashback scenes, pretentious or not, is effective. David Carradine’s weathered face in particular, looks perfect in B&W. Even more so than in the first film, QT is just as concerned with visual storytelling here as he is with dialogue and plotting. There’s also some bravura camerawork throughout by veteran cinematographer Robert Richardson (“Shine a Light”, “Hugo”, “Django Unchained”), particularly one shot moving from the top of Michael Madsen’s trailer slowly down to the underneath of it where The Bride is hiding. QT has quite clearly grown as a filmmaker by this point, and would only get even better after this film (“Death Proof” excepted).

 

Also, QT once again has assembled an interesting cast who give really solid performances. Yet again, it’s Uma Thurman towering over all here. Let’s face it, there aren’t too many action/exploitation flicks out there that would offer Uma Thurman a gut-wrenching, emotional scene like the one she has here when she finally tracks Bill down and gets the shock of a lifetime. Thurman doesn’t remotely disappoint in her best-ever performance as far as I’m concerned (Also, shout out to her Kiwi stunt double Zoe Bell, who does amazing work on both films and would be one of the only good things about “Death Proof”). David Carradine is rock solid as Bill, fully on show in this one, and quite an interesting, complex villain unlike any you’ve probably come across. As for the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad members, Daryl Hannah gets a bigger showing this outing and it’s her best-ever work. She’s wonderfully cold-blooded and soulless. But let’s face it, outside of these films and “Roxanne”, she’s never shown much talent, so perhaps I’m damning her with faint praise. I love the eyepatch and obvious “Clockwork Orange” close-up, too. She and Thurman have a fun rumble in a trailer, too. I think Michael Madsen is actually even better than Hannah here. In his best performance since the remake of “The Getaway”, his loser-ish, run-down Budd has just enough wiliness and brutality to still be a threat to The Bride. And yet, there’s a hint of resignation and weariness to him. He acknowledges that he has wronged this woman and deserves to die…but since he’s still a prick, he’s not going to make it easy for her, either. It’s a really excellent performance from Madsen, even if one has to admit he’s not got the greatest range as an actor. Perhaps the most fun surprise here is Shaw Brothers veteran Gordon Liu popping up in his second role in these films as Pai Mei, a well-known film from several Shaw Brothers martial arts films (Including “Executioners From Shaolin”, which co-starred Gordon Liu) and Chinese folklore (and sometimes called Pak Mei). However, in QT’s universe, the character is a little wittier and sillier. His introduction via Bill as a cranky old bastard who hates westerners and takes no shit is hilarious, even before Liu himself appears on screen. He’s an absolute hoot, as is Michael Parks in his second role as an acquaintance of Bill’s, a Mexican pimp named Esteban. It’s only a small role, but I think it’s yet again the best-ever work by Parks that I’ve seen. On smaller notes, it’s always great to see veteran B character actor Sid Haig, here as a bartender, though it’s a shame his role isn’t bigger. As for Larry Bishop…no comment. Fuck it, I will comment. He can’t act and he looks like a stupid leathery skunk. There, I feel better now.

 

I referred to the climax earlier, but it really does beg repeating that Tarantino practically gets away with murder by having his action opus end with two long dialogue scenes, and he really does pull it off. It’s some of his best-ever dialogue, as it’s cool and interesting but not just for its own sake. It actually pertains to the characters and their situation. That Superman monologue is really something. Having said that, if I were to nitpick here, I’d have shorn some of this section of its length. Did we really need the dialogue-free bit set to a sleepy rendition of ‘She’s Not There’? I don’t think so.

 

Although not nearly as humorous, jocular, violent, or action-packed as the first film, this one has its own, more methodically-paced pleasures. Thurman is terrific, the supporting cast are more than game, and there’s some really interesting dialogue in this one. Just don’t expect as much action, as this one’s a different beast.

 

Rating: B+

Review: Transformers: Age of Extinction


Set three years after the previous film that left Chicago obliterated. Transformers are now seen as unwelcome on Earth, targeted by CIA Black Ops bigwig Harold Attinger (a ferocious Kelsey Grammer) and his team, who are aided by a Transformer called Lockdown, who acts as a kind of bounty hunter taking out all of the Autobots one by one. Mark Wahlberg stars as Cade Yaeger, a supposed eccentric inventor who turns junk into…stuff. His teenage daughter Nicola Peltz thinks he’s just a bit of a quirky ne’er do well who treats her like some little kid, and she frequently sneaks off to be with her race car driver boyfriend with the suspiciously Irish-sounding Texas twang (played by Colorado-born Jack Reynor, who moved to Ireland at age two). Things get dangerous for Cade when his latest pet project (a busted up truck) turns out to be a rusty old Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen). His well-meaning but nervous pal (a perfectly cast T.J. Miller) calls it in to the government, as one is directed to do so out of patriotism (#Murrica!), and within minutes, Attinger’s goons (led by a no-nonsense Titus Welliver) are on the scene. Cade, his daughter, and the fake Texan petrol-head head on outta there, whilst Optimus Prime rallies the other few remaining Autobots. Stanley Tucci plays Joshua Joyce, a rich tech company guy in league with Attinger. Joyce has managed to develop his own substance dubbed ‘Transformium’ from remnants of fallen Decepticon leader Megatron that allows him to create his very own Transformer, which he calls Galvatron (voiced by veteran voiceover artist Frank Welker). What he doesn’t realise, since he’s an idiot, is that Megatron/Galvatron isn’t able to be controlled.

 

Rejoice, as this 2014 film is the best in the “Transformers” film franchise, to the point where I was surprised to learn at the end that it was yet again directed by Michael Bay (who also directed the similarly noisy and stupid “The Rock”, the obnoxious and stupid “Bad Boys” films, and the slightly more enjoyable but still stupid and noisy “Armageddon”), who made the previous films in the franchise. The downside is, it’s still just a barely watchable film, not one worthy of a wholehearted recommendation from me. I’m not sure we needed a series reboot from the same director, but this series is trending upwards, if it keeps going maybe the next one will be worth seeing.

 

It’s far from perfect, but after four films, Bay and screenwriter Ehren Kruger (who wrote the previous mild best in the series, “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”) have finally realised that the most important characters in the “Transformers” franchise are (get this) the frigging Transformers! Sure, Mark Wahlberg gets far more screen time than any of the Autobots or Decepticons, but at least this time out, we actually get Transformers that we can tell apart, aside from stalwarts Optimus Prime and Bumblebee. If this is meant to be the beginning of a new series of “Transformers” films from Bay (which I’ve read to be the case), he might finally be onto something here. The stuff with the Autobots in this one being outcast by human society is a bit corny, but at least in this film they are taken far more seriously and not annoying, aside from the returning (and idiotic) Brains and the irritating Bumblebee. There’s humour here and there, but it’s not obnoxious, as in previous films (No irritating jive-talking robots or extraneous human comedy relief in this one, thank God), and neither Brains nor Bumblebee are in the film enough to really grate. The Asian warrior stereotype Autobot named Drift (voiced by Ken Watanabe, of course) is a tad on the nose, but cigar-chomping (don’t ask) Hound, wonderfully voiced by John Goodman more than makes up for that. Goodman’s clearly enjoying himself and the character is fun. Damn near stealing the show with him, is veteran voiceover artist Frank Welker, voicing the villainous Galvatron, made up of parts of Decepticon leader Megatron. The films never really got Megatron right, but Welker’s Galvatron manages to have a distinct, expressive voice. Anyone could’ve been voicing Megatron in the previous films, really. Welker (best-known for voicing Fred and Scooby on “Scooby Doo”, and Brain and The Claw on “Inspector Gadget”) is really effective in the role, and you wish he was in more of the film.

 

I’d still prefer an all-Transformers film, but this is probably about as good as we’re gonna get from a man of Bay’s limited talents, and hey, a lot of the human element in the film is pretty decent, too, with one big exception I’ll get to in a minute. The acting highlights here are quite clearly Stanley Tucci and Kelsey Grammer, and that’s probably not a surprise, but perhaps a bit more surprising is the fine work by Titus Welliver. Tucci is good fun as always, here cast as a greedy corporate guy hoping to create his own Transformers, not really realising just what he’s getting himself into. Kelsey Grammer, meanwhile is terrific as the rather villainous, hawkish CIA Black Ops guy. He really goes all out, kind of like a serious version of Sideshow Bob. He’s kinda scary, actually. As for character actor Welliver, he’s perfect as the hardest of hard-arse Black Ops soldiers. Also stealing scenes early on is a very amusing T.J. Miller, and more briefly Thomas Lennon is his usual amusing self as a slimy Chief of Staff to the President (He and Miller provide the only real humour, and it never works against the film or gets annoying). As for leading lady Nicola Peltz, she’s got more range than Megan Fox (But so does a doorknob!), but nonetheless goes to the patented Megan Fox open mouthed pout far too often. And that brings us to the black hole of suckage in the film: Mark Wahlberg. Although he hardly looks old enough to be Peltz’s father (and his maths on when her character was conceived have him way too old to be playing the father of Peltz’s character), that didn’t ultimately bother me. There’s apparently a 24 year age gap between the two actors, so fair enough on that. No, what bothered me is that Mark Wahlberg is cast as a fucking quirky inventor. Does Marky Mark look like Rick Moranis to you? I don’t think so. He doesn’t even look like a university graduate to me. I just couldn’t buy him as someone smart enough to…build stuff. Sorry, but when I think of Mark Wahlberg, engineering doesn’t really come to mind. Others may not have that problem, but I couldn’t get around it (I barely swallowed him as an educator in “The Happening” and “The Gambler”), and his performance is still dull. He’s not as awful as he was in the otherwise fun “Planet of the Apes” re-jig, but I just don’t think this type of film (and certainly not this type of role) is really his thing. He drags the film down single-handedly quite a bit.

 

As for the CGI robots, they look much as they did previously, but a bit improved. More than that, though, the look of the film and the action are vastly improved over at least the first two films. The robot action is especially improved this time out, you’ll have no trouble following it. Other than that, there’s a particularly spectacular, elongated car chase about 40 minutes in through cornfields and onto the streets that is one of the best in years. It’s certainly better than the ridiculous one in Bay’s dopey “The Rock”. There’s some truly awesome cars in this, I must say. There were signs in the previous film of Bay working to make things look prettier and more artistic, and that’s certainly continued here. Does the visual style of Bay and cinematographer Amir Mokri (“Blue Steel”, “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”, “Man of Steel”) get repetitive after a while? Yes, but it’s still good style (I don’t think Bay is the antichrist of filmmakers, just a bit too obsessed with jingoistic imagery and profit-driven for my tastes), and at least there’s very, very minimal shaky-cam. It’s a really crisp-looking film. Yes, there’s too much slow-mo, but at least with slow-mo you won’t get confused by what you’re seeing.

 

Better in every respect than the previous films, albeit only slightly better in every respect. This is nonetheless the series highlight thus far, for whatever it is worth to you. The script is competent, and the film isn’t boring. I nearly liked this one, and I thought going in that it would be easily the worst in the series. That’s low expectations for you. I still think “Pain & Gain” is Bay’s sole solid film to date as director, but this really isn’t bad at all.

 

Rating: C+

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones


Liam Neeson plays an ex-cop (and ex-alcoholic) who quit the force after an unfortunate shootout incident interrupted his midday drinking session. Now he’s an ‘unofficial’ private detective, who is asked by recovering junkie Boyd Holbrook (they meet at an AA meeting!) to meet with his drug trafficker brother (Dan Stevens). Stevens’ wife was kidnapped, and although he coughed up the money, his wife was brutally murdered anyway. He wants to know who these guys are so that he can have them properly dealt with. However, Neeson soon learns that this isn’t the first time these guys (whom we meet very early, played by David Harbour and Adam David Thompson) have done this. And they’re not likely to stop unless they are caught. Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley plays a street kid who sees himself as a young Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe, and assists Neeson from time to time.

 

Written and directed by Scott Frank (whose writing credits include “Little Man Tate”, “Get Shorty”, and “Minority Report”), this 2014 film is less ‘latter-day Liam Neeson gets broody and shoots people full of holes’ movie, and more dour detective story crossed with a crime-thriller. So if you’re getting a bit tired of Neeson doing the troubled vigilante thing, you’ll get a bit of a difference with this one. Based on a novel by Lawrence Block (his novels have previously been turned into such terrible films as “Nightmare Honeymoon” and “8 Million Ways to Die”), Neeson is playing a reformed alcoholic, but not a complete wreck. It’s a good role for him (a character previously played by Jeff Bridges in the aforementioned “8 Million Ways to Die”), even if he’s not entirely convincing as an American. He gives a real weight to things, whilst a Malkovich-voiced David Harbour is particularly creepy as one of the villains. He ends up stealing the film, as these guys are truly repugnant perverts (Some have suggested that they are a gay couple, which might have turned things into regrettable homophobia, but honestly, it’s so vague that I’m gonna let it slide. I barely even noticed anything of that sort).

 

The film also looks fabulous, with gloomy, shadowy, almost Gothic scenery lensed by Mihai Malaimare Jr. (“Youth Without Youth”) looking like it’s right out of a horror film, almost. It’s a pretty good yarn, with Neeson once again giving things a bit of gravitas to lift it. If you’re worried about another Liam Neeson vigilante movie, don’t worry, this one’s more of a detective/killer-thriller flick if anything. Give it a go.

 

Rating: B-

Monday, January 11, 2016

Review: Fifty Shades of Grey


Mousy college student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) fills in for her ill journalist roommate, interviewing rich young hunk businessman Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). Sparks immediately fly, but before they really get involved, Christian has a very specific set criteria for any relationship. He doesn’t ‘do’ relationships in the traditional sense. He just wants sex. No, not love-making. Sex. And not just the usual rumpy-pumpy, either. A carefully laid out (see what I did there?) contract details the very specific sexual acts that Ms. Steele (a virgin, I might add) will be required to engage in, mostly of the S&M variety. Anastasia is initially taken aback by all of this (and upon seeing Christian’s sex dungeon/playroom), but has fallen too far in love with Christian to back out, and agrees to become his ‘submissive’. But can she really handle a relationship with a cold fish who won’t let her in and just wants to tie her up and whip her? Max Martini plays Christian’s loyal chauffeur, Rachel Skarsten is his secretary, and Marcia Gay Harden his mother.

 

Based on an E.L. James novel (which I hear is terrible, I’ve never read it) that was creepily first drafted as “Twilight” Fan-Fic, this 2015 film adaptation by director Sam Taylor-Johnson (the rather interesting John Lennon flick “Nowhere Boy”) and screenwriter Kelly Marcel (co-writer of the excellent “Saving Mr. Banks”), is for the uninitiated like me, pretty much what I was expecting. Alternately boring, stupid, and creepy, it’s S&M for Twi-hards. Think about that for a minute. Why would you want to write about S&M on essentially a teenage (or even tween) level, and why would adults who are into S&M be interested in a seriously soft S&M story? I seriously didn’t get this one at all, and not only because I find S&M rather silly and laughable in and of itself.

 

I don’t know if the book is ‘harder’ (I’ve read that screenwriter Marcel apparently did have to remove a lot of edgier content and wasn’t happy about the final product), but for me the film was truly lost the moment the main character (played by Dakota Johnson, a very slightly better actress than her mother, father, and grandmother) negotiated the terms of the S&M contract, eliminating pretty much all of the things in the contract that (at least to an outsider like me- I swear I’m not into it!) seemed most indicative of S&M. I’m nowhere near an expert on well, anything in the vicinity of this subject, but this seemed closer to “Wild Orchid” or “Sliver” than genuine S&M to me. I mean, at one point he uses an ice cube to turn her on. I’m sorry, that’s not S&M, it’s a 90s direct-to-video softcore titty movie! And then there’s the hardware store scene. Yes, our heroine works in a hardware store. She even talks about ‘inches’ and ‘tools’. Mr. Grey buys rope. I mean, this is “Basic Instinct 2” levels of uncomfortable and embarrassing. It’s a Twi-hard Millennial’s idea of S&M, and this scene alone is perhaps the worst scene of dialogue in any film I’ve seen that wasn’t scripted by Edward D. Wood Jr. It’s not just that scene, though, there are clunkers throughout. The dialogue is porno-trocious: ‘I’d like to bite that lip’ Christian says out of bloody nowhere. And no way would a rich, cultured businessman use the phrase ‘Laters, baby!’. Yes, ‘Laters’, as if that’s an actual word in the English language. Nonsense. Oh, and Johnson’s reaction to having doggystyle sex is hilarious: ‘That was really nice!’. NICE? Really? Honestly, this screen version of Anastasia is about as raunchy as Anna Kendrick (Unless Anna Kendrick is into this kinda thing, I have no idea. She hasn’t said yes to my imaginary marriage proposal yet, either). No one could make a line like ‘I don’t make love. I fuck. Hard!’ not sound like a line from a bad porno, but Jamie Dornan certainly does flop with it. Oh, and he also has to deliver the phrase ‘Ball-twitchingly mad’ at one point too. Yep. And boy is this so not meant to be a comedy. It’s played eye-rollingly straight by all concerned. I’ve gotta say, he’s a pretty terrible choice for the lead, especially when you’ve got the perfectly suitable Max Martini sitting there playing the chauffeur. Dornan is literally a walking menswear billboard. Fuck it, he’s a cardboard cut-out. Johnson might overdo the mousy, adorkable thing, but at least she seems like a live human being. Grey is meant to be cold, not dead. He also has no edge, which is a real killer. I know he’s meant to be alluring, but Dornan has no gravitas or presence. He seems like a boy, really.

 

Getting back to the Twihard thing, the scene where Dornan takes off his shirt is some truly awful “Twilight” ‘female gaze’ bullshit. A film about testing sexual limits really ought to be on a more mature level than this. Teens have limits set for them, after all. Adults aren’t nearly as restricted, but E.L. James clearly just doesn’t have the imagination, I guess (Is spanking really the best you could come up with? Dude, even I know that’s a pretty popular thing amongst non-S&M couples for cryin’ out loud!). I really didn’t buy the Anastasia character, either, and it’s a big problem. It’s a story about an S&M relationship where the girl is a mousy, Plain Jane virgin who is visibly not 100% into the S&M. This just seemed foul to me, and frankly plain weird. Through Johnson’s performance, she suggests in no way whatsoever would her character be into an S&M relationship…and it’s her first sexual relationship? I’m no expert on S&M or relationships in general for that matter, but that seems unrealistic, seriously weird, and truly creepy to me. I don’t have any moral objections to S&M per se, it’s perfectly fine if that’s what people want, and I don’t find it (or this material) inherently misogynistic. After all, Grey himself started out as a submissive in his first S&M experience (he also has serious mother issues, to anyone paying attention), and both the book and the film are helmed by women, with the latter having an obvious female gaze. So it’s not hateful towards women at all. Hell, Grey’s so damn wimpy that even his possessiveness is pathetic. He’s no misogynist (possibly a sociopath), he’s a wimpy cry-baby! But why would Christian Grey want to have an S&M relationship with a virgin who is only (barely) consenting to things because she loves him? Why on Earth would she choose an S&M relationship to be her first sexual relationship? Did E.L. James really have to make Anastasia a virgin? (My guess is ‘Yes, because Anastasia is really Bella Swan, and E.L. James has creepily grafted an S&M relationship onto a teenage romance or vice versa’. But hey, that’s just me answering my own question). I know that the first time Christian and Anastasia are together they make love in the ‘normal’ fashion, but they have still entered into an S&M relationship. It doesn’t make Christian Grey a misogynist, it makes him a narcissist who treats women as sex objects, just that his sex is kinkier and more violent than usual. It’s still creepy behaviour, though.

 

I dunno, this just seemed a bit ‘off’ to me, not to mention absurd, given Grey is open about what he wants from the beginning. Anastasia is a moron. 110 minutes in and she’s still asking Grey (who has already told her he doesn’t ‘do’ relationships) to let her in! Are you an idiot? Five minutes later she’s asking why he would want to punish her. WHAT? You signed the contract an hour ago you moron! He’s using you as a piece of meat. You agreed to it! You shouldn’t have, but you did! He even stated in writing that he wanted to anally fist you, and although you got that stricken from the contract you still decided to enter a relationship with a guy who if he got his way, would like to anally fist you! What’s your problem? And while we’re at it, if you don’t know what a ‘butt plug’ is sweetie, you probably shouldn’t be signing a contract entering into an S&M relationship. Hey, I’m not saying I know what one is, either, but I have no interest in entering into an S&M relationship (And what if Christian were a poor, balding guy who wears board shorts all day, has a Southern accent, a mullet, and no muscles? Yeah. You’d call the cops on him, that’s what). I just had no sympathy for this girl whatsoever, and even less for Christian Grey, who shouldn’t have been doing this with a virgin in the first place.

 

The sex scenes are pretty explicit for a film made during a relatively chaste time in cinema (the MTV editing style ruins things a bit, though), but after 80 minutes, the kinkiest this thing has gotten is a riding crop being implemented. OK, that one counts as S&M, but still…yawn. The fact that you’ve got Beyoncé and Sia on the soundtrack tells you this was never aiming to be a mature film about the subject. It’s a McProduct, aiming to bring in the widest audience possible (And one assumes the novel’s aims were probably similarly profit-driven). The only decent thing in the entire film as far as I’m concerned was the solid performance by Marcia Gay Harden as Christian’s perfectly pleasant mother. Sadly, no one involved in the film seems to care about her, she’s hardly in it.

 

Who wants to watch soft S&M? Not me. Who wants to see an S&M relationship between a cold fish underwear model and a mousy virgin? Absolutely not me. The two main characters were completely incompatible and should never have been written to fall in love with one another, it just isn’t plausible. Laughable, questionable, but…mostly just tedious. This movie had no idea how to be what it was trying to be. I didn’t buy the characters or the situation, and most importantly I just didn’t care. But hey, I’m in no way the target audience for this thing. So maybe I’m the one missing out. If you’re into this sort of thing, good for you. I was pretty unimpressed, however. Rant over.

 

Rating: D+

Review: John Wick


Russian gangster’s dipshit son Iosef (Alfie Allen) takes a liking to the 1969 Mustang of John Wick (Keanu Reeves- who is now in his 50s! Can you believe that? He’s old, and so are you and I!). Wick says it’s not for sale. Dipshit Iosef decides to steal it, have his goons beat Wick up, and kill Wick’s beagle puppy for good measure. Dipshit Iosef done fucked up because a) That puppy was really cute, and was left for Wick by his terminally ill wife (Bridget Moynahan in 8 seconds of useless flashbacks despite prominent billing) as a parting gift as she left this mortal coil, and b) John Wick is a long-retired (but still highly efficient) hired killer for Dipshit Iosef’s gangster father Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), who knows what Dipshit Iosef doesn’t: John Wick is gonna rain down with furious vengeance on those who have killed his poor puppy and taken his sweet arse ride from him. Willem Dafoe plays a fellow hitman with divided loyalties, whilst Adrianne Palicki is much less divided in her loyalties as another hired assassin sent after Wick by Nyqvist. John Leguizamo has a brief role as a guy known to both Wick and Iosef, whilst Ian McShane and David Patrick Kelly play the owner of a strange hotel seemingly reserved for underworld figures (“Lost” co-star Lance Reddick is the head concierge!), and a ‘waste disposal’ man (i.e. the kind of role Harvey Keitel had in “Pulp Fiction” and “The Assassin”).

 

I’m not the biggest fan of vigilante films, as you know. Basically, if it’s “Death Wish” (where the main perpetrators vanish after the first scene because it’s apparently ‘not about revenge’- whatever…) or “The Brave One”, I’m not buying it, I’m not interested. They take themselves too seriously, and they’re just no fun at all. If it’s “Coffy”, or a Steven Seagal action flick (one of the good ones like “Hard to Kill”), then I might just get invested. I’m not interested in vigilante films that take themselves too seriously, because I find the concept of ordinary folk turned vigilante somewhat implausible more often than not. This 2014 film from debut director Chad Stahelski (Keanu Reeves’ stunt double on “The Matrix” films) has a reputation from fans of this kind of thing (and online critics) as being one of the best of late. It’s certainly much more in the fun kind of vigilante movie than the self-serious, unenjoyable “Death Wish” kind. It’s also better than Denzel Washington’s 2014 contribution to the subgenre, “The Equaliser”, which straddled between the two kinds of vigilante movie a little too much for me to really get into it.

 

It’s directed with cool visual style, but also a refreshingly unpretentious, straightforward action movie sensibility (and sharp brutality) that I for one celebrated. It’s certainly better than the lame trailer made it look. It’s just a shame that it stars one Keanu Reeves, who brings absolutely nothing in the way of acting talent or charisma here. I know his character is in a bad way, but Keanu (who has done fine work in “Parenthood”, “The Gift”, and “I Love You to Death”) acts like he doesn’t give a shit, which really does threaten to drag this one down. He gives a truly half-arsed performance that admittedly makes it a little difficult to be truly invested (That loveable puppy helps, though). Thankfully, there’s still lots to like, but Keanu really ought to have at least tried just a little bit.

 

Right off the bat the villains get a big fuck you from me for killing off one of the cutest movie dogs in recent cinema. That shit just pissed me right off within the first 15 minutes. I’d grown attached to it in such a short time. Couldn’t they have just left it at beating the guy up? I mean, it used to be that they’d rape and kill the wife and kidnap the daughter, but these pussies have to go and harm a totally defenceless animal? Modern day movie creeps are such girly men! You can tell right away that this is an action film inspired by an earlier era the moment you see the title character driving a kick-arse Mustang. Steve McQueen, anyone? And since the title character is a former hired killer, it’s much easier to buy him in vigilante mode since he’s not Jodie Foster or a 50ish architect. In one scene, Reeves takes down multiple henchmen at his house with almost as much precision and ease as the agents in “Equilibrium”. That’s some goddamn impressive dispatching right there. He’s no Scott Adkins, Tony Jaa, or Michael Jai White, but Reeves isn’t trying to be, either. You won’t see acrobatic spin-kicks aplenty with John Wick. He uses a gun, a knife, and when need be he employs his fists and feet too, but he does so extremely effectively. It’s like gun-kata mixed with Jiu-jitsu. Reeves is believably brutal and efficient in these scenes. I doubt Reeves is a black-belt in anything (He apparently learned Judo and Jiu-jitsu for the role), but he can certainly convincingly play an on-screen fighter from an action point of view. It’s his thesping (or his lack of effort in thesping, more precisely) that is the issue. Thankfully, he has been surrounded by decent actors, though several of them are underused. The standout is “Game of Thrones” actor Alfie Allen, in the mobster’s reckless dipshit son role (A cliché as old as time, but no doubt a fun one for an actor to play, and always effective in getting the audience riled up to want to see them get their arse handed to them by the hero/anti-hero). He’s no Vincent Cassel in the part (but few are), but you certainly won’t be thinking of poor put-upon Theon Greyjoy at any point. He’s much more interesting than Michael Nyqvist as his cold-hearted father, who is just OK. Willem Dafoe turns up in the strangest of films, and although underused, he’s really good in the film’s most interesting role. He’s a guy with connections to both Reeves and Nyqvist. So does John Leguizamo for that matter, but although he too is good, he’s in the film even less than Dafoe. We also get two curious cameos by Ian McShane (who is all grim-faced presence), and veteran action movie henchman David Patrick Kelly (“The Warriors”, “Commando”, “The Crow”) in an oddball part. He looks about 90 freakin’ years old these days, but his role is one of several weird little touches the film has that make the film more in the vein of “The Punisher” than “Man on Fire” or “Death Wish”, and I appreciated that. If any of you wrestling fans out there have ever wanted to hear ‘Big Sexy’ Kevin Nash put on a Russian accent, here’s your movie, as he plays a big, dumb Russian doorman named Francis. It’s actually not the worst Russian accent you’ll ever hear, so perhaps WWE and WCW missed out on some Cold War ‘heel’ work there at some point.

 

Although it’s not the classic some are heralding, this is definitely the preferable vigilante film of 2014, and closer to being my kind of thing than the more serious-minded ones out there. It’s the best Steven Seagal movie that Seagal never made, though Keanu Reeves half-arses it about as much as Seagal would’ve. Imaginary points off for the fake arse lightning at one point. Why do movies keep doing that? It looks terrible! The film was actually co-directed and co-produced by David Leitch (who also worked as a stuntman on “The Matrix” films), while the screenplay is by Derek Kolstad (whose prior experience has mostly been on Dolph Lundgren movie scripts).

 

Rating: B-

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Review: Kill Bill vol. 1


Uma Thurman plays The Bride, who wakes from a four year coma, gets out of the hospital, and sets about seeking revenge on her former Deadly Viper Assassination Squad cohorts (played by Vivica A. Fox, Daryl Hannah, Lucy Liu, and Michael Madsen) who crashed her wedding and murdered everyone in sight, leaving her for dead. Last on her hit list is former boss Bill (David Carradine), but this first part of the story focuses on her tracking down Vernita Green, AKA Copperhead (Fox), and O-Ren Ishii, AKA Cottonmouth (Liu). Chiaki Kuriyama plays O-Ren’s lethal and sadistic Number Two, GoGo Yubari, who wields a ball and chain! Sonny Chiba plays a legendary Japanese sword maker named Hattori Hanzo, Michael Bowen plays a repugnant hospital orderly who drives the now infamous Pussy Wagon, and Gordon Liu plays Johnny Mo, the leader of the Crazy 88s, O’Ren’s henchmen.

 

And here’s the point at which I started to become kind of a fan of Quentin Tarantino (“Reservoir Dogs”, “Pulp Fiction”, “Jackie Brown”). Boy did it take a long time, but yes in 2003 I finally found a QT film that I not only liked, but really, really liked. No one has a heroin overdose, and the in-jokes and cinephile references are so much the point of the whole thing that they don’t feel in any way inorganically shoe-horned into something. This whole film is QT’s love letter to Bruce Lee flicks and blaxploitation, and in doing this he has himself created a helluva entertaining martial arts film. Basically, it’s a standard revenge tale filtered through exploitation movie history. It’s his most ‘fun’ film to date, though the sequel is perhaps the more ‘mature’ and well-made film (subsequent films “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained” would supplant these two films as his best films to date, but I’d still argue “Kill Bill vol. 1” is more ‘fun’ to watch). Those not appreciative of the kinds of films that have inspired QT here will shrug their shoulders, but honestly, those people are seriously missing out. This is a blast, right from the retro ‘ShawScope’ trademark, and it never really lets up. It’s pure fun cinema for its own sake, but also really well-mounted. For me, the only flaw with the whole film isn’t that it’s been split into two films (They’re both stylistically so different that one long film would seem weird to me), but that QT has once again decided to tell the story out of sequence. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but it does spoil some potential surprises.

 

Early on we get a fun, knock-down, drag-out fight between Uma Thurman (her best-ever work is in these two films) and Vivica A. Fox that is hilariously interrupted by the arrival of a school bus. The school bus, is the quirky QT touch to the typical cinematic fight. You won’t find that in any other fight scene! And it’s indicative of the whole film. Tarantino is showing his obvious love for exploitation films, but isn’t just throwing out references, he’s doing his own thing, too. And unlike previous films, the cinephile stuff seems organic to the film’s world. This is the film where Tarantino finally got all the pieces together, and has refined his cinematic vision. Having said that, spotting the reference/influence/musical cue is certainly a fun game to play here. In fact, there’s so much cinematic (and TV) history brought up here, that even in 2016, I only just realised that Fox plays a character who re-names herself Jeannie Bell, who is of course the star of the “Cleopatra Jones”-wannabe “TNT Jackson” (Though credit where it’s due, “Cleo” never performed a fight while topless. Points to “TNT Jackson” there!). Meanwhile, it’ll go over a lot of people’s heads, but The Bride’s sudden wake from a coma is a nice homage to the terrible Aussie psychic link flick “Patrick”. I was grinning from ear-to-ear when The Bride attempted to make her escape in the wonderfully labelled ‘Pussy Wagon’, and Isaac Hayes’ kick-arse theme song from “Truck Turner” started up. Cool stuff, for those in the know, and not distracting for those not in the know, I’d argue.

 

The film would be a whole lot lesser, however, if it weren’t for the amazingly strong performance by Uma Thurman. I’ve never been a fan, but here she brings a tricky balance of cheesy bad arsery/coolness and genuine emotion/drama, the latter of which you normally wouldn’t find in a martial arts epic. Anyone who thumbs their noses at what QT offers up in these two films, is just being unfair. There’s a real pain and sadness here (just witness her sobbing after awakening from a coma), with what The Bride has gone through, something that only gets more painful and sad as the story picks up in “vol. 2”. What it does is make us sympathise with The Bride very easily, not something one always finds with revenge-minded stories, especially those where the revenge-seeker seems slightly psychopathic in their dispensing of violence. We feel the deep, cellular-level hurt that has been felt by The Bride, and are 100% with her in her quest for revenge.

 

Tarantino shows off in the best way possible by giving each segment of the film its own style/vibe. The most audacious and interesting of these is the back-story of O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), done in anime style, and accompanied by Ennio Morricone music lifted from a spaghetti western called “Days of Vengeance” (I haven’t seen the film, but knew instinctively that it was Morricone music. He’s that iconic. The theme from “Death Rides a Horse” is used later, too). It’s a completely outrageous segment that simply could not have been done in any other form than animation, or else the damn thing would get banned. It’s not hentai, but it is fucking gory as hell. The use of spaghetti western music for a film influenced largely by Eastern movies, is quite clever, really. It’s an East-meets-West kinda film, not to mention that several westerns were actually remakes of Japanese films. Tarantino knows exactly what he’s doing and he does it well. I keep using the word ‘fun’ here, and indeed it’s the sense of fun that I respond to most here. Without it, the violence and other adult content may not be as tolerable, or dare I say ‘fun’. I didn’t get that same sense from “Pulp Fiction” for instance, only in fits and starts. This one’s far more up my movie buff alley.

 

Aside from the anime segment, the action climax is stellar stuff. It’s bloody, and bloody fantastic as QT pays homage to (the frankly awful) “Game of Death” not only in The Bride’s choice of attire, but the series of boss fights, starting with the sociopathic GoGo (Chiaki Kuriyama), then the fantastic Gordon Liu and the Crazy 88s, and the big fight with O-Ren Ishii. It’s an awesome final third, where QT once again plays with stylistics, filming some of it in B&W, some in colour, and some in cool silhouette. It’s not just QT having fun, he’s also varying things up so we don’t get bored. It’s an exploitation film, but a heightened/improved one.

 

I mentioned Uma Thurman’s terrific performance earlier on, but she’s not the only interesting performer here. I might prefer her work in the next film, but Daryl Hannah’s enjoyably cold-blooded turn here is definitely worth singling out. I’m not sure where Michael Bowen has been of late, but he is hilariously sleazy in this as Buck, who rather enjoys coitus of the not terribly consensual kind. Best of all, however, is probably the legendary Sonny Chiba as a legendary sword-maker named Hattori Hanzo. Normally a stoic bad arse, he’s a bit goofy here and an absolute hoot. Meanwhile, that’s the awesome Gordon Liu (star of “36th Chamber of Shaolin” and the awesome “Eight Diagram Pole Fighter”) in the Kato mask as the leader of the Crazy 88s. Like regular Tarantino actor Michael Parks, Liu turns up in a different (and bigger) role in the second film. This film also easily marks dead-eyed Lucy Liu’s best work to date as O-Ren. She’s terrific and sadistically funny.

 

If you deride this film as simple gory pastiche, I think a) You’re already predisposed to thumb your nose at exploitation films to begin with, and b) You’re dismissing the film through stubborn ignorance. This may be an exploitation film, but it’s a bloody well-made one in every respect, and with more emotional resonance involved than most. Sure, compared to “Django” it seems like surface-level entertainment (and hence my belief that “Django” is QT’s best film to date), but it’s a little deeper than many give it credit for. It’s also just a whole lot of ultra-violent fun. Obviously if you don’t like films filtered through cinematic references, you’re not going to like this film, but there’s much more than that to appreciate here. It’s made with obvious skill, well-acted by an entertaining and eclectic cast, and it signified for me an upward turn in Quentin Tarantino’s career (save the anomaly that is “Death Proof”). I dug it.

 

Rating: B+