Monday, August 30, 2021

Reviews everywhere you look!

 

THE LAST MERCENARY (2021)

It’s a Netflix thing.

Jean Claude VanDamme is a former badass on the global stage. He’s forced to come out of hiding and retirement when he discovers he fathered a child decades before and his nerdy, slacker son is in a world of trouble.

The Muscles from Brussels tries farce.

He shouldn’t have gone there, and you shouldn’t watch him do so. VanDamme and a zany cast tries hard for laughs and fails in an epic way.





NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959)

Madison Avenue ad man Cary Grant is in deep trouble when some foreign agents mistake him for the elusive Mr. Kaplan. Things grow more complicated when Cary is implicated in the mirder of a UN diplomat and must rely on the kindness off Eva Marie Saint to escape the law. But is she what she seems? Is anything what it seems?

A pure Hitchcock tour-de-force created while Hitch was supposed to be working on another movie. While collaborating with writer Ernest Lehman on the screenplay for THE WRECK OF THE MARY DEARE, the director grew bored and began making lists of suspense set pieces and challenging Lehman to string hem into a story. The result is this action chase classic while other folks were assigned THE WRECK OF THE MARY DEARE and made an excellent film of it.

The movie is a study in how to start and conclude a story. Cary Grant’s character is introduced in the middle of a hectic day and his personality and life situation are established in a series of scenes that are as witty as they are informative. Within moments of the start time, the everyday goes wrong and we’re into the heart of the cat and mouse game as Cary is thrust from a normal working day into a fight for his life with an enemy that appears to be everywhere.

This is flawless entertainment perfectly assembled by masters of their craft. Humor, action and tons of subtext. Every scene, gesture and line of dialogue is important to the story. I realized with this viewing that the establishment of Cary’s ability to hold liquor early in the film is an important plot element later on. My wife, who watched it with me and has seen it multiple times as well, had never noticed the homoerotic tension between bad guys James Mason and Martin Landau before.

Here we see Hitch playing with time in a way he has never done before. The famous cornfield scene takes an astonishing amount of screen time without dialogue and yet is engrossing every step of the way. To slap a slow-burn sequence into a bullet-paced story like this one without losing the audience took authority and guts. 



THE CONJURING: THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT (2021)

The Warrens are back and participate in an exorcism that goes sideways when the demon jumps to a new victim. Now they have to provide evidence of demonic possession to clear the new victim of homicide charges.

Sadly, this is the weakest entry in the series and the problems all stem from the basic structure of the story. Usually, these movies begin with some kind of paranormal shenanigans plaguing an unwitting family of innocents and, when all else fails, Ed and Lorraine are called in on the case. In this outing we begin with them in the middle of action and the entire story moves forward incited by the events of the opening scene.

Setting the plot up this way deprives the movie of a reintroduction to the Warrens and the re-establishment of their daily life. That’s the element that separates this series from most horror offerings; the depiction of what everyday life is for a pair of lay exorcists. Those scenes of them at home, eating breakfast, scheduling their day, caring for their daughter, ground the stories in a reality that makes the scary stuff all the more impactful. Without them, this seems rushed and somewhat hollow. Lazy writing where things happen only because they’re necessary to propel the thin story forward. In the end credits, the real-life Warrens are seen in clips from a segment of Tom Snyder’s old talk show. The movie would have benefited greatly if this scene were included in the film.

That said, it’s still an enjoyable movie due mostly to some effective scenes and, of course, the all-in performances of Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. The great scenes include the horrifically terrific antics of the young possession victim at the start of the movie and a sly bit of humor as the Warrens convince a lawyer of the reality of demonic possession. I look forward to the next one





 
MOONRAKER (1979)

James Bond uncovers a dastardly plan by billionaire eco-terrorist Drax to make the world a better place by killing almost everyone in it and replacing them with catalog models.

I watched the Fan Edit version of this and it is a vast improvement over the original. If you’re not aware of fanedit.com you need to check it out. Lots of interesting re-edits of movies you’re familiar with.

This re-cut trims almost all of the sillier, goofier, cringe-worthy moments including groan-inducing puns, dopey punchlines and as much of the Jaws and his Swiss Miss gal pal as could be managed without wrecking the continuity. They also replaced some of the music using tracks from earlier Bond films and these provide the starkest example of what even minor changes can accomplish to make a movie more effective.

While this will never be a great Bond flick, the changes emphasize what’s good about it. Michael Lonsdale is perfectly despicable with some great lines. “It’s time to put you out of my misery.” There are some terrific action set-pieces including a boat chase on the Amazon. And the horrific scene in which the bad Bond girl is pursued by Dobermans, a horror movie subject filmed like a perfume ad, is very effective. Overall, the film is wonderfully shot by Jean Tournier and is one of the best-looking entries in the series.

The action climax is obviously an attempt to capture a portion of the audience that crowded theaters to watch STAR WARS wo years before. It very much resembles the end of THUNDERBALL in a lot of ways. 





THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN (2019)

It’s a Netflix thing.

Mel Gibson is tasked with assembling the first Oxford English Dictionary. To help him with what many believe to be an impossible task, he enlists the aide of imprisoned lunatic Sean Penn.

Now, the movie I want to see is a movie about making this movie. Can you imagine Mel and Sean of set? Politically polar opposites and both with reputations as wildmen. They probably had restraining orders in their contracts. Or they got along like thieves. Either way, you know there’s a great story there.

And the story of the creation of the OED is a great story too though you’d never know it from this movie.

It took me a while to figure out why I didn’t enjoy this movie. The performances are excellent, the production is gorgeous, and the period detail is spot on. But the heart of the story is Gibson’s claim is that English is a living language and he stands in conflict with snobby academics who only want “proper” English included. And the filmmakers fail to present this in a compelling way and, by failing in this, show off their own elitism.

The most egregious example is when Mel and other cast members overhear servants speaking to one another in then-current slang. We listen with them but never SEE the servants as if only their words and not their presence are important. Movies are made to show not tell and this scene, a very good muffed by poor storytelling, should have been the opening of the scene. I would have had Mel walking the streets of the city overhearing conversations and coming to the grand realization of the mother tongue as a malleable, mutable thing. Remember the scene in THE 13TH WARRIOR where Antonio Banderas learns the language of his captors?

And ‘splainin’ not showing plagues this movie throughout. What might have worked on stage does not work on the screen. The world of the film is small though its subject is large. This movie would have benefited greatly with direction by Gibson as well. I am told that he provided his own cut to the studio and they rejected it. Sad. 





DIEN BEN PHU (1992)

Dramatic recreation of the final major battle between the Viet Minh and French forces before the French pulled out of Indochina in 1954.

Most history buffs have had cause to think of France’s final act in Vietnam in recent days.

This film divides his attention between the complacent life of colonials and ex-patriates living in Hanoi and the mounting horrors faced by French paratroops and legionnaires. The battle action is presented in a near documentary style that serves as a rare example of the full scale of armed exchanges on film. Not much effort (outside of dialogue exchanges) is made to clarify the various actions as Dien Ben Phu falls, bit by bit, to the commies. What is clear is the size of the operation. This level of realism is greatly aided by the film being shot on the location where it all happened.

The epic climax of the film also had the benefit of the cooperation of the Vietnamese army. I take issue with the accuracy (as opposed to realism) as the Viets are presented as parade ready and fully equipped with weapons, uniforms and gear they would not have had in ’54.  The Viet Minh was the very model of a motley, ragtag army. If the politburo in Ho Chi Minh City really wanted to score propaganda points, they would have presented the Viet Minh as they were, an armed insurrection of poorly armed civilians. It would have made their unlikely victory over the well-trained, well-armed and determined French forces all that more remarkable. But, as we know, reds aren’t very deep thinkers. 





THE LAST WARRIOR/THE SCYTHIAN (2018)

 

Lutobor is a loyal warrior whose wife and child are kidnapped by a roving band of Scythian mercenaries. The ransom to return them alive is the death of his own lord. Will Lutodor betray his oath and murder his master to save his family?

 

The Russians are making some terrific period action flicks and this one is one of the better entries. The locales are as brutal as the action in a story with all the elements of Robert E. Howard tale. Plenty of suspense and plot twists in what is essentially a western set in the steppe. And, boy, does the lead character take a lot of punishment. There’s even a dark ages version of Thunderdome that comes to a gut-wrenching conclusion.

 

Wild stuff.




PREDATOR 2 (1990)

An alien hunter lands in Los Angeles in the middle of bloody drug war. Danny Glover, a cop who just won’t listen, treats this extra-terrestrial invasion as a personal issue. Thing are complicated by the arrival of federal agent Gary Busey and his army of goons dressed in matching Dockers and Members Only jackets.

The most common of commonalities, the unworthy movie sequel. As a follow-up to their 1980’s SF action classic, the Thomas brothers wed their concept to the tired tropes of a rogue cop actioner. Where the original film was a seamless thriller featuring a strong through line, this train wreck is just a string of movie clichés with disjointed action set-pieces mixed in. There are more holes in the plot than actual plot as characters know things they could not know and always show up just at the right moment even if that means being in two places at once.

Doughy, slow-moving Glover is no replacement for Schwarzenegger and leads a cast of stereotypes with wafer-thin characterizations. Bill Paxton is especially embarrassing in an overplayed role as an a-hole cop. Nice to see Kent McCord in a in a big screen role though.

Most disappointing is the flaccid action climax of the movie, featured some astonishingly bad special effects. It’s just no patch on the awesome third act in the first film. And the idea that dad-body Glover could take down a Predator with such ease was ludicrous.

I think, if they were going to go this route with the movie, they should have just gone all-in and cast Chuck Norris in the lead. At least then we would have gotten a memorable mano a xeno fight at the end. 





BLOOD RED SKY (2021)

A Netflix thing.

I really don’t want to get into the plot on this one. I watched it totally cold and I suggest you do the same thing.

That said, this German horror action flick delivers on every level. Intelligently plotted with a well-crafted slow burn opening that perfectly sets up the emotional and technical issues that get this story off the blocks. The suspense and action scenes are seamlessly blocked out and the stakes rise minute by minute as the situation for the main cast goes sideways then corkscrews.

All in all, by the end credits you’ll feel like you watched A MOVIE, if you know what I mean. Solid, earnest, escapist entertainment.

BTW, my wife, who is generally not a fan of the genre, said it was the best movie she’s seen in years.


BABYSITTING (2014)

A receptionist at a comic book company agrees to babysit his boss’ bratty kid overnight in hopes of getting a chance to show off his portfolio. To do this, he has to forego his own birthday party. But his friends are having none of it and bring the party to  the boss’ house. 80’s style party mayhem ensues.

Structured much like the movie THE HANGOVER, we see the story set-up and then jump ahead to the following morning and catch up to what happened in between with the use of found video. The gimmick is so perfectly played that the viewer forgets all about it, giving into curiosity to learn how the chaos at the start of the film came to be.
It’s far superior to THE HANGOVER in every way. I found that movie to be tedious, unfunny and contrived and, worst of all, a complete waste of an excellent premise. Here, maybe because the French excel at just this brand of farce, the results are dazzling. Gags are set up in multiple layers then paid off on, built upon and paid off again. Often, separate extended comedy bits are going on the foreground and background simultaneously. I really had to marvel at how well crafted and timed every reveal, punchline and surprise were set up and exploited. And there are constant suspense elements playing in the background throughout the film that serve to torque up tension. From a missing child to a bunch of rare tropical fish to a very valuable memorial plate, we are kept on edge throughout until each element is hilariously resolved.

This is the work of a comedic trio (Philippe Lacheau, Tarek Boudali and Julien Arruti) who apparently are a franchise in France and produce consistent comic gold in a series of frantic farces like this one. I’ll review the very funny ALIBI.COM soon. 



THE LAST HUNT (1956)

Flat busted Stewart Granger accepts and offer from Robert Taylor to join him on a buffalo hunt. Trouble is, it turns out Taylor is mad, bad and dangerous to know.

This Richard Brooks (THE PROFESSIONALS) written and directed outdoor actioner was part of the trend toward “adult” westerns in the 1950’s. It’s a grim study of human nature that must have come as a shock to audiences for its frank treatment of sexual predation. Equally shocking would have been seeing matinee idol Robert Taylor playing a complete psychotic in a chilling performance.

Taylor was a big star at MGM who carefully groomed his image as a romantic leading man. After WWII, as was true with so many actors, Taylor had to seek different kinds of roles. He made a string of westerns and was very good in them as he transitioned, much like Tom Cruise has in his later career, into an action movie star.

This movie has a lot to recommend it from its hard look at the business of hunting to its rich lot of period detail and some excellent performances with Lloyd Nolan a standout as a grizzled buffalo skinner. A big boon to the film was its access to the national parks to film the actual annual culling of the preserved buffalo herds. For the weak of heart, I have to warn you that the death of the buffalos depicted in the movie were real, not special effects. 



LAWMAN (1971

Burt Lancaster is a lawman who cuts no corners and cuts no slack. When he arrives in the town of Sabbath to arrest seven men implicated in murder, he runs headlong into empire ranch owner Lee J. Cobb.

Part of the trend toward what I call “mean” westerns that begins with THE WILD BUNCH and runs through the early 1970’s. Most probably a reaction to the Italian westerns that were cresting ion popularity at this time.  

This one benefits from the presence of Burt Lancaster and a huge cast of well-recognized character actors like Richard Jordan (in his first role). Robert Duvall, Albert Salmi, Sheree North, John McGiver, Ralph Waite, John Hillerman, Joseph Wiseman and more. Wilfrid Brimley makes his screen debut here playing a corpse!

It’s a good story plainly told, and director Michael Winner eschews his usual excesses to present a story that was actually common in the Old West, the town that wanted law and order but rebels against the man who takes them at their word.

There’s a lot of action but the emphasis here is on human drama and ratcheting up suspense.



 

A QUIET PLACE PART II (2020)

The survivors of the first film abandon their farm to find new sanctuary only to find the alien dominated world an unforgiving place.

That rarity of rarities, the worth movie sequel. This one does what all great sequels so, continue the story, explore the universe the story is set in, stay true to the original characterizations and, mots importantly, does not confuse better with bigger.

Writer/director John Krasinski wisely keeps the scale and tone of this follow-up at the same level as the original. It is truly a second chapter in a bigger story.

The performances are uniformly excellent with Cillian Murphy entirely unrecognizable as a friend who’s not all that happy to see his old neighbors again.

The suspense, as before, is excruciating with a number of multi-layered action set-pieces that are marvelously realized. And, unusual for a sequel, it works as a standalone film with a welcome flashback at the opening to how all of this began. A third film is in pre-production, and I look forward to this is all brought to a conclusion.

Top drawer escapist entertainment.



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