Sunday, October 20, 2019
You say you like movie reviews?
A GENIUS, TWO FRIENDS, AN A DUPE (1975) Late entry Italian western that was supposed to be a sequel to the excellent MY NAME IS NOBODY. Terence Hill manipulates a cavalry colonel and a pair of old pals from his outlaw days into helping him steal a fortune in government cash. This might be a good movie but the English language version is a mess. Probably because it was never picked up by an American studio for a proper USA release. The editing is choppy and ending obviously truncated. The dubbing is wretched with the voice actor for Hill changing halfway through. Patrick MacGoohan is wasted as his voice is dubbed by someone doing an awful impersonation of him. But Hill displays his always irresistible charm and gets to show off his acrobatic skills. And many of the exteriors were shot here in the USA with plenty of the action taking place with Monument Valley in the background. Klaus Kinski gets the best line. "This town is just one long Sunday afternoon." I will be "borrowing" that one. Ordered a German language version to see if it's a better cut. I WANT to like this movie.
A GENIUS, TWO FRIENDS AND A DUPE/Nobody ist der Größte (1975) An update for those who were concerned. I got ahold of a German Blu-Ray of this Terence Hill Vehicle. I like the German title better; NOBODY IS THE GREATEST. The print was an enormous improvement over the one I reviewed earlier. The abrupt jump cuts are gone and the ending is the full, original ending rather than the "it's over?" close on the print I reviewed earlier. Even the audio is better with truer sounding dubs and richer sounding score. It's still a flawed sequel but a lot more enjoyable with better picture and audio quality.
THE DESERT RATS (1953) Englishman Richard Burton is put in charge of a green company of Aussies in this classic war picture set in North Africa. Their task is the defense of Tobruk which is under siege from Rommel's Afrika Korps. Some terrific action with commando raids and blitzkriegs and forlorn hopes. A solid subplot when Burton finds his former school headmaster (played by the always effective Robert Newton, the man who taught us all how to talk like a pirate) is serving in his new command as a private. James Mason repeats his role as Erwin Rommel from Fox's other war production at the time, THE DESERT FOX. Directed by the always reliable Robert Wise who could successfully direct any genre with economy and style. The guy directed THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and THE SOUND OF MUSIC. That's a varied career!
THANK YOU FOR SMOKING (2005) Aaron Eckhart is Nick Naylor in this slickly produced adaption of Christopher Buckley's dark and biting satiric novel. Naylor is a despised lobbyist for the cigarette industry who is the best at what he does. We watch him as he runs rings around a senator out to nail him, a reporter out to ruin him , an anti-tobacco terrorist group out to kill him (with nicotine) and his own moral compass. Funny and smart and, like all great satire, willing to skewer targets on both side of the argument in cluding washinton and Hollywood. A great cast including Robert Duvall, Sam Elliott, J.K. Simmons and Maria Bello.
Epoch of Murder Madness/AGE OF ASSASSINS (1967) Honestly never thought I'd ever see Tatsuya Nakadai in a comedic role. Here he is the klutzy, geeky target of a gang of assassins. Or is he what he seems? This film appears to be meant as parody but had loads of murder and mayhem and a very good fight in a lunatic asylum at the close. It's very similar in tone to THE PRESIDENT'S ANALYST released the same year. A mix of broad comedy and some seriously creepy concepts about an assassination cult committing random murders in order to control population growth. And the usually very dour Nakadai is surprisingly good in a role that calls for him to channel Jerry Lewis.
SHINJUKU INCIDENT (2009) This one's a serious crime drama from Jackie Chan. No artful kung fu action set pieces but LOTS of fighting. Jackie is an illegal immigrant arriving in Japan to look for his fiance at the height of the immigration crisis in that country in the 1990s. What follows is about the peculiar place that immigrants occupy in what is essentially a closed society. Jackie's character is drawn into a life of crime in order to protect his fellow Chinese and is soon embroiled in a war between two Yakuza clans. An ambitious crime epic with real heart and some shockingly violent sequences. Also, Jackie reminds us that he has real acting chops in a layer, nuanced performance.
CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE (1936) Big budget Hollywood hokum. Ostensibly an Errol Flynn/Olivia deHavilland vehicle, this wildly inaccurate version of the fabled charge and the events leading to it is a wildly entertaining ho-de-ho adventure flick. Occurrences from the Great Sepoy Mutiny (which occurred three years AFTER the charge) are moved to precede the Crimean War and re-cast as part of an uprising in the the Kashmir so as to provide a non-Russian villain to the story. Warners was apparently unconcerned with the box office in Afghanistan. According to this film version, the disastrous assault on the guns at Balaclava was all the fault of Flynn's character where history tells us it was caused by dithering and unclear orders on the part of Lord Raglan. But who cares? This is a period swashbuckler with loads of spectacle and a cast of thousands and the kind of rousing action scenes that Michael Curtiz excelled at. The climactic charge is thrilling and must have taken weeks to film.
GODZILLA KING OF THE MONSTERS (2019) About what I expected going in and, boy, did this one give my audio system a workout. The result of combining Japanese gonzo wackiness with pure Hollywood nonsense. Plot? Really? The world is threatened once again by monsters and a cast of humans runs around acting like they can do something about it. This one follows the usual H'wood framework of focusing on the problems of a few people while the world goes to hell. Here, the principles are an estranged family divided over whether or not allowing the human race to go extinct is in the nest interest of their daughter. H'wood bigwigs LOVE stories about custody battles. Is there loads of destruction? Oh yeah. Do monster's fight? You bet. BUT...the myopic focus on just a handful of people takes a lot away from the whole show. There's little to address the scale of the destruction in both property damage and loss of life. And there's not much time dedicated to just monsters fighting. Much more time is spent showing characters dodging debris and shouting each others names. The classic kaiju movies knew when to get out the way and show the main event; big critters wrestling around downtown. Though the discovery of Godzilla's "home" was inspired.
The cast does what it can with obviously slapped together dialogue. Vera Farmiga is the real villain in this movie but we're expected to think she means well and all is forgiven by the end credits. Kyle Chandler speaks almost entirely in what are meant to be comic understatements of the "Looks like I picked the wrong day to quit smoking" variety. Millie Bobby Brown does shock and awe better than almost anyone in the business but, come on, I can't be the only one who wanted to see her get a little nose bleed before tossing the monsters around like tennis balls. And what's with Ziyi Zhang? Does this woman never age?
Will I be back for Godzilla vs Kong? You know I will.
A MAN CALLED SLEDGE (1970) James Garner's only spaghetti western. Kind of. Though it was shot on lots of familiar sets in Almyra, Spain, the movie features a mostly American cast and was written and directed by Vic Morrow. It's a western heist flick with Garner as a wanted outlaw out to steal a fortune in gold from a vault in a maximum security prison. It's all pretty basic stuff and I'm just fine with that. Loads of fightin' and shootin' and some effective suspense scenes. Garner (who says he hated making this movie) is joined by Dennis Weaver, Claude Akins and John Marley. All the tropes of an Italian western, an amoral protagonist, sweat and a cynicism. The musical score, curiously, tries to ape a traditional H'wood soundtrack right down to an awful song we're subjected to twice in the running time. All in all, a curiosity and not a bad shoot-em-up for a lazy Sunday afternoon.
THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA (2019) Big fan of the Conjuring horror universe and this is a fine entry in the series. Linda Cardellini plays a widow with two kids who have become the focus of a vengeful spirit. It's got all the usual scares and bumps but what makes it enjoyable is the earnest approach and the efforts the filmmakers always take to set the scares in a believable real world environment. The acting is top notch, the set pieces clever and Raymond Cruz is terrific in the role of a defrocked priest. Glad to see this guy get a role where he's not playing a drug thug or convict. And he gets all the laughs.
DAYBREAKERS (2009) Interesting idea that looks like a leftover or delayed project from the 90's. It's ten years after a pandemic has turned mots of the world's population into vampires. But hematologist Ethan Hawke may have found a cure. But will bloodsucking industrialist Sam Neill let him bring it to market? Cool concept that's lumbered with too many competing ideas and subplots. Very comic bookish in the way that every character in the story as a past relationship with the other. And the parallel retro-universe (the kind that was popular for superhero movies until the MCU came along) hurts more than helps. I mean, along with growing fangs and wings, fedoras come back into style? This concept would be worth reviving for a series and probably a better fit.
LEGEND OF WISELY (1987) Popular fictional character Wisely has appeared in hundreds of novels, several movies and two TV series in the Hong Kong market. He's a science fiction novelist who moonlights as an Indiana Jones type adventurer usually tangling with geomancers or aliens or anything else of the X-Files variety. In this outing, Wisely is in search of a mythical dragon pearl that serious magical properties. This flick is a fast-paced actioner set up much like a James Bond movie. The story moves from Nepal to Hong Kong and Egypt. Loads of chases by car and foot, shoot-outs and some excellent kung-fu punch-ups. This is big budget, big production stuff with a wild ending that I didn't see coming.
THE RUINS (2008) Mean-spirited horror flick of the "we're all doomed" variety. A cast of smarter-than-average-for-a-horror-movie young adults go off the tourists route in Mexico and find a Mayan ruin infested with a ferocious species of flora. Good set-up that leads to the kind of "who dies next?" movie the Italians were into in the 1970s. And some very clever and creepy twists. Well produced and well-acted and free of any smarm. Especially refreshing was the dialogue exchanges that went for honesty rather than H'wood polish. The jokes shared by the close-knit cast of character are only for them and their idle chit-chat every bit as vapid as any real conversation you might happen to listen in on. This wasn't bad writing. This was a conscious effort to keep the viewer outside the cast as a witness rather than a participant. (I hope.) That effort makes what comes next all the grimmer.
IN THE TALL GRASS (2019) If I'd known this was a Stephen King story I'd never have watched it. King's usual emotionally empty story with contrivances in place of character. This hour and forty-nine minutes you'll never get back has all the hallmarks of a "spooky place" horror movie. That's a sub-genre where the producers find an existing location they can use for free (WWII bunker, abandoned hotel, sewer tunnels, etc) then write a story around that setting so they can make a flick on the cheap. This time-waster is of that ilk except that, judging from the end credits, Netflix spent a fortune filming actors running around in a field. Despite that it has the all the cheese, murky scenes, murkier plot, vague threat and yanked from the ass ending of those poverty row quickies. The plot, what there is, involves people lost in a field of tall grass that seems to defy the laws of the physical universe but only when it suits the filmmakers' story needs. Why? King's mortal fear of flyover country, I suppose. The 'master' of horror's greatest fear? Stopping for gas in Missouri. What caused this field to be this way? That's never made clear. Make up your own reason. Aliens? Witches? An ancient cult? Sunspots? Someone who should take a break from writing for a decade? The actors struggle valiantly to add scenes to their reel for better projects.
POOLHALL JUNKIES (2002)
Mars Callahan wrote, directed and played the lead in this movie about pool hustlers that borrows tropes from other movies the way rappers sample snippets of hit songs. Having the lead behind the camera AND having written the script is a problem for this flick. The actors (particularly the younger ones) have way too much reverence for the writer's work. Instead of throwing away their lines they pronounce them. And when there's a line the writer was particularly proud of it's repeated again and again. There's scenes lifted in whole from, ROUNDERS, ROCKY and ON THE WATERFRONT. The last is especially egregious as Rod Steiger is in the cast in his final film role. There's way too much screen time devoted to the lead character's brother and his slacker friends. These guys are supposed to provide comedy relief as the sort of horny young guys who populated far too many 80's comedies. There's even a party at one of the gang's parents house! And these precious jokers are not even convincing as Dollar Store Potsies and Ralph Malphs.
The story? You've literally seen it before. Many times. Johnny's good at pool but wants something better from life. His girlfriend expects him to go straight and resents the hold that the pool table has over him. You know what? At this point, make up your own story. Trust me, it'll be better than this one.
There are some amazing pool sequences. The lead actor CAN play pool. Rick Schroeder is here as a hustler and shows he knows how to work a cue as well. Christopher Walken is in the cast to breathe life into the too-few scenes he's in. Chaz Palmentieri embarrasses himself playing a caricature of previous roles.
THUNDERBOLT (1995) Made at the zenith of Jackie Chan's popularity, this one's an uneven mix of martial arts actioner and race car thriller. But who the hell cares? It features some of Chan's most ambitious and, frankly, near-suicidal action set pieces. He's fighting, jumping and falling in scene after harrowing scene. And there seems to be a determined effort to exhibit physical suffering in each of these fights. Nothing cartoonish here. Jackie is thrown around in a suspended mobile home, going zero-G at times. He battles an army of Yakuza thugs in a huge pachinko palace in a marvelously staged sequence. And a wild, extended fight in an automobile junkyard. Chan never played a character that suffered this much abuse in in any other movie. Then the story shifts gears for the third act which is a stock car race in Japan. The entire tone of the movie changes to kind of LE MANS, semi-documentary type flick. But it's all very well done and effective but jarring after the frenetic kick, punch, chase of the rest of the movie. It sounds like I'm complaining, I'm not. Just pointing out some idiosyncrasies. This is an action extravaganza.
GRETA (2018) Taut thriller flawlessly constructed to go from feelings of unease to awkwardness to ominous then straight on to downright creepy. Frances is a well-meaning young girl new to Manhattan who makes the rookie mistake of being kind to an older woman named Greta. The two establish a friendship that goes all wrong when Frances discovers something disturbing about the nice old gal. Neil Jordan brings his usual skill to this Hitchcockian piece that sustains its pull and builds to a satisfying climax. Jordan also knows how to get the very best out of any locale he uses. Here we see New York as a dense pallet of kaleidoscopic colors that perfectly mimics the hues of the city in winter. And Isabelle Huppert is seriously frightening in the title role.
ANNABELLE COMES HOME (2019) The third, and by far the best, in the Annabelle series. This one plays as a greatest hits of the Conjuring universe as most of the action takes place in the home of the Warrens, the married couple and lay exorcists for the Catholic church who are at the core of this franchise. As the title suggests, this movie tells the story about how the demonic Annabelle doll is brought to the Warrens' room of spooky secrets where it can be locked away never to do evil again. But in a kind of HOME ALONE scenario, their daughter is left for the weekend with the babysitter while mom and dad go off to fight Satan. The baby sitter has an inquisitive friend who comes by to visit and, well, you know. This is expertly crafted escapist entertainment and, as in every Conjuring movie, Jesus wins in the end and you're left secure in the knowledge that good will always triumph. What other horror franchise would have Dancing In The Moonlight play over the credits without a trace of irony? Highlights in this one are a preview of the werewolf that will be the center scare in CONJURING 3, a seriously creepy board game and some hints as to what that suit of samurai armor is all about. (Boy, do I want to see THAT movie!) All in all a good time at the movies and the actress playing Judy Warren does an amazing job conveying real dread especially in scenes with no dialogue.
GORGEOUS (1999) Unusual Jackie Chan vehicle. A romantic comedy that was probably a lot funnier to Chinese audiences. The usual action-fueled story is set aside for a meet-cute contrivance. There's a few punch-ups and set pieces but nothing terribly ambitious or new. What does stand out is Jackie's two one-on-one encounters with Bradley James Allan, the first non-Asian member of Jackie Chan's stunt team. Allan is 5'4" and moves like lightning and his stand-off fights with Chan look like actual bouts with both showing off their amazing catalogs of moves and counter-moves. It's all quite stunning but the fight scenes are jammed into the story line by pure contrivance through a very feathery sub-plot about a psychotic business rival.
STAN AND OLLIE (2018) Every review I read on this movie used the word "bittersweet." That sums it up in one word. The events leading up to the final performance of the legendary comedy duo is told with wit, affection and deep irony. Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are flawless as Laurel and Hardy both on stage and off in a sometimes brutally honest look at the pair's relationship. How good are they? Their performances of classic L & H routines made me laugh in all the same places as the originals. There's a lot of love involved in this project and it shows through without ever surrendering to sentimentality. And Shirley Henderson and Nina Arlanda are every bit as funny as the long-suffering wives of the pair.
EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE (2019) Firstly, I love stories about people on the run. Don't we all fantasize about splitting with a sackful of cash and re-inventing ourselves? I know most guys do whether they admit it or not. Secondly, I am an enormous fan of the Breaking Bad series. The good news is, this Netflix offering delivered everything I was looking for. Told in the meticulous, slow-burn style of the TV series, this movie answers the lingering question left by the final episode: what about Jesse? My favorite kind of crime film; all criminals and no cops. Everything that made the series the excellent viewing experience is on display here. Suspense, dread, pathos without sentimentality and a story that never goes where you expect it to. The final showdown scene instantly joins my top scenes of its type in all cinema. Lots of Easter eggs and surprises for BrBa fans. And Robert Forster's final film role.
GO WEST (1940) Minor Marx Brothers entry from MGM that lacks the manic energy and frenetic pace of most of the brothers' best movies. Chico, Harpo and Groucho go way out to the wild frontier to encounter a hoary old chestnut of a plot about land rights and the coming railroad. And that's a fine enough framework for the Marx brand of comedy. The boys come to the rescue for an, of course, attractive young orphan but this movie casts them more in the role of Samaritans than agents of chaos and the story suffers for it. There's some fun with the western genre but not enough actual parody. The close is an extended manic action/chase sequence by horse and rail that leaves an entire train in ruins. This set piece includes a lot of inventive, and dangerous, gags that I strongly suspect were designed by Buster Keaton who was working freelance as an adviser at MGM at that time. It's always great to see these guys but one wishes it was a better crafted outing more fitted to their style and shtick. Best exchange:
GROUCHO: You love your brother, don't you?
CHICO: No, but I'm used to him.
VICTORIA (2015) German film shot in one two-hour continuous shot. A girl from Madrid joins up with four party animals at a club in Berlin. What starts as a night of youthful exuberance ends in violence. Interesting idea that takes a while to get going. The level of acting is quite astounding as everyone is committed to make this crazy idea work. An interesting concept but not one I'd like to see catch on.
BLACK SHEEP (2006) A genetically mutated lamb is released from a lab by misguided animal rights activists and all wool breaks loose. I will stand by my opinion that this is the best ovine horror film ever made in New Zealand. Wild and crazy horror comedy with carnivorous sheep, weresheep and lots of blood and grue. Fast paced and silly but the perfect pallet cleanser between more serious scary fare. Best line? "I'll get you, you baaaaa-stards!"
ANNA (2019) Another sexy chick killing guys by the carload inside an enigmatic espionage framework. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Dumber than RED SPARROW, smarter than ATOMIC BLONDE, Anna is an assassin for the KGB because who could be more effective against an army of killers than a 100 pound former junkie? But it's Luc Besson so you know you're in the hands of a master of action cinema. There's LOADS of gun, plate, fork, fire extinguisher and bottle fights. I think I saw her kill a guy with a croissant. There's even a top-drawer car chase by David Julienne and terrific soundtrack by Eric Serra. The film is also gorgeous thanks to Thierry Arbogast's always brilliant camera work. It won't waste your time and will neither overtax your mind nor insult your intelligence.
GALVESTON (2018) Downbeat crime drama with Ben Foster as a low-level hood who gets double-crossed by his boss (Beau Bridges) and has to go on the run saddled with underage prostitute Elle Fanning and her toddler daughter born out of incest. Are we having fun yet? Certainly absorbing, deeply atmospheric and offering little hope for humanity. I only even found this film because I was looking for movie that starred Mélanie Laurent and ran across this one where she served as director.
THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE (1968) This is not the mostly-fantasized Errol Flynn movie but the in-your-face "war is hell" version directed by Tony Richardson with a top-drawer cast of British actors and cast of thousands. This one more accurately presents the events of that day, building toward the charge with lots of character background stuff and some effective animated sequences by Richard Williams that use the political cartoon style of the period to illustrate the causes of the Crimean War. The film shows the battle of Alma that preceded the charge at Balaclava but did not show the famous Thin Red Line defense by the Campbell Scots nor the charge of the Heavy Brigade led by Lord Scarlett, both occurring just hours before the charge of the six hundred. Terrific historic detail and pitch-perfect period dialogue. Trevor Howard steals the movie as the blustery, lecherous, bounder Lord Cardigan. My only quibble is with presenting the action of the charge in quick edits only. There were many valiant actions that day (earning many Victorian crosses) that would have made effective set pieces and given a greater glimpse into the total chaos that occurred that fateful afternoon.