Thursday, December 30, 2010

'Kiss Daddy Goodnight' is a movie to sleep through

Kiss Daddy Goodnight (1987)
Starring: Uma Thurman, Paul Dillon, and Paul Richards
Director: Peter Ily Huemer
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Laura (Thurman) is a teenaged model who augments her meager earnings by picking up wealthy men at gigs and art galleries, drugging them, and then stealing and selling valuable art objects from their homes. It's a nice living until she becomes the love object of a crazy old man (Richards) who will stop at nothing to make her his and his alone.

"Kiss Daddy Goodnight" is one of the dullest movies I've ever sat through. While the characters and acting are appropriate for the film-noir movie the filmmakers were trying to make, the glacial pace and unfocused story is not. It's not until about the halway point that any sort of menace or threat to Laura starts to develope, but what little tension and excietment this generates in the film quickly evaporates when the attention is shifted to the go-nowhere storyline of Laura's small-time thief, wanna-be musician friend's efforts to start a new band. The film would have been slow-moving enough without that pointless, plot, amd it becomes downright glacial in pace when it gets added to the mix.

By the time the film gets focused and gets interesting--in the last 15 or so minutes--most viewers will already have noddded off.

"Kiss Daddy Goodnight" is a film that can safely be ignored by everyone but Uma Thurman fans on the magnitude of the stalker who persues her character in the film; it marks Thurman's first film appearance. I promise you, watching the shadows creep across the sidewalk as the sun moves in the sky is more interesting than this film. It's obscurity is well deserved.

Monday, December 27, 2010

'Hostage': One of Bruce Willis' best

Hostage (2005)
Starring: Bruce Willis, Ben Foster, Jimmy Bennett, and Kevin Pollack
Director: Florent Siri
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

The sad existence of Jake Talley, a burned-out police hostage negotiator (Willis) who has retreated to life as a small-town police chief is jarred when three hapless small-time thugs decide to engage in a little home-invasion/robbery. One of them, Mars (Foster), is a through-and-through psychopath and after he kills one of the town's police officers, the situation evolves into a hostage stand-off, with the home-owner, William Smith (Pollack), and his two children at the mercy of the killer. Unfortunately, Smith has something in his possession that a powerful international cartel of criminals need badly, and they take Talley's family hostage to force him into cooperating with them so they can retrieve their property. Will Talley manage to keep control and save all the hostages?

"Hostage" is a fantastic police thriller that features excellent acting, some really nice camerawork, and a near-flawless pace. I was particularly impressed with the way Smith's secrets are revealed, and then later the way they end up spilling over into Talley's life. Along similar lines, the gradual revealing of the depths of Mars' psychopathy is also expertly played... and his final rampage should earn him the respect of Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers!

The film gets a little far-fetched toward the end--basically, I'm not sure Talley would be able to pull off the final "negotiation", even given the way he has his officers running interference for him--but I don't think it's enough to ruin it. (I was also momentarily miffed that the film ends with no revelation of who or what the distant bad guys that were pulling Smith's strings were all about... but then I decided that it really didn't matter; the story wasn't about them anyway.)

"Hostage" was one of 2005's best thrillers. Check it out if you haven't already.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

'Terror of the Tongs': Yellow Peril ala Hammer

The Terror of the Tongs (aka "Terror of the Hatchet Men") (1961)
Starring: Geoffrey Toone, Christopher Lee, Roger Delgado, and Yvonne Monlaur
Director: Anthony Bushell
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

After his daughter is killed by vicious members of Hong Kong's Red Dragon Tong, Captain Sale (Toone) goes on a rampage intent on destroying his daughter's killer and entirety of the secretive crime syndicate.

"The Terror of the Tong" is a well-made example of an adventure fiction sub-genre that has fallen completely out of favor due to changing climates in geo-politics and cultural attitudes in the West: Yellow Peril Tales. In these stories, mysterious Asian crime figures held entire populations in their power through fear and supposedly mystical abilities... until some two-fisted, stiff-necked Anglo-American hero came along and put a stop to his nefarious ways. The genre was dying its last gasp when I was a kid--relegated mostly to awful Kung Fu movies and comic books where Nick Fury battled the Yellow Claw, Iron Man squared off against The Mandarin, and Shang Chi fought a dogged battle to bring down the criminal empire of his father, Fu Manchu, the most famous and respectable of all Yellow Peril villains.

The Yellow Peril tales grew out of the same impulses that gave birth to the gothic fiction genre--a British discomfort and perhaps even fear of outsiders and their alien culture, and was further fueled by straight-forward racism among Americans--although, frankly, aside from the WW2 years, many Yellow Peril tales actually put Westerners in as bad a light as their Oriental foes. This is especially true of the Fu Manchu tales.

That, however, is not the case with "The Terror of the Tongs". The Chinese gangsters in this picture are vicious psychopaths through-and-through, with no motivations beyond feeding their own sadism and hunger for loot and power. Although evil, Fu Manchu at least believed he was fighting the good fight to restore his people's honor and save them from the corrupting influences of the West.

A curious artifact of film industry standards long gone is the fact that most of the Asian characters in the film are played by Caucasian actors in heavy make-up. It was a long-standing tradition to have whites play these roles in Yellow Peril movies, something which seems a bit odd to many viewers today, and which has been mocked in more recent times with Peter Sellars and Nicolas Cage both taking comedic turns as Fu Manchu.

In this film, Christopher Lee plays Chung King, the head of the Red Dragon Tong. He does a great job sitting around looking sinister and spouting weird sayings and sending out opium- and sex-crazed killers to slay his enemies and terrorize city neighborhoods. Roger Delgado is similarly excellent as a Eurasian who serves as Lee's top lieutenant. Wisely, the director has neither of these actors put on fake accents, instead allowing them to speak the Queen's English perfectly and thus taking advantage of the full capacity of both actors to bombastically sinister.

Meanwhile, on the good side of the equation, we have are treated to some fine performances by Geoffrey Toone, the bullish sea captain who prove that the British stiff upper-lip can be backed up with a strong right hook, and Yvonne Monlaur, another Eurasian character for whom the brave captain opens horizons free from the servitude to the Tong her mixed blood had forced upon her.

None of these characters are exactly complex, but the actors give each of them their all and infuse them with the larger-than-life quality that this sort of story needs to work.

Director Anthony Bushell also tries his best to bring that sense of grandness to the film's sound-stage bound environment, with the Hong Kong docks and neighborhoods being represented by re-dressed standing sets left over from other Hammer productions. While he mostly fails at this, he does manage to draw some very sharp lines between the villains and heroes, and he also manages to work in some of the horror qualities that we've come to know and love from movies like "Curse of Frankenstein".

Unfortunately, that horror was blunted, and remains so to this very day; the DVD edition appears to have been made from a print of the film that has been butchered by censors. There are numerous time when fight scenes or other scenes of violence have been sloppily edited, to the point where even the music soundtrack seems to jerk. The worst example of this is the scene where Tong thugs invade the bedroom of Captain Sales' daughter; there seem to be at least two instances where the scene was too intense for censors, and their cuts have left the scene disjointed and a little confused. (The implication is that the Tong cut off three of the girl's fingers, as is their habit, but as it plays out, she is struggling one moment and completely unconscious a split-second later, with no apparent cause. And yet somehow her ring is dropped on the floor and stained with blood...)

Still, this is a fairly minor blemish, and it's more than made up for with the climax where the down-trodden citizens rise up against the Tong. And, as mentioned, Christopher Lee is quite good in the film. He would later go onto play the grandest of Oriental villains--Fu Manchu--but he is actually better here than he was in the Fu Manchu movies I've seen. (Of course, I've only seen a couple craptacular Harry Towers/Jess Franco ones, so maybe I'm not judging him fairly.)

For more examples of the Yellow Peril genre, click here to read film reviews at Shades of Grey.

Friday, December 17, 2010

'Matchstick Men' is a fun tale of a con man's redemption

Matchstick Men (2003)
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Alison Lohman, Sam Rockwell, Bruce Altman, and Bruce McGill
Director: Ridley Scott
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When professional (and deeply neurotic and obsessive compulsive) con artist Roy (Cage) finds himself connecting with Angela (Lohman), the 14-year-old daughter he never knew he had, he decides to leave behind his life of crime, get a real job, and become a real father. However, when the last job with his partner (Rockwell) goes horribly wrong, Roy finds himself sacrificing far more for fatherhood than he had evern intended.

"Matchstick Men" is part con-artist caper film and part redemption story. It's also a movie that features a twist-ending that makes perfect sense, is genre appropriate, and still manages to surprise viewers. The fact it features a twist ending that actually works makes this a remarkable film in the light of the crap writers and directors have been foisting on us the past couple of decades, but the film is well-acted, beautifully filmed, and the editing techniques used to illustrate Roy's psychological episodes when he's under too much pressure is fabulously creative. The twist isn't the only good thing about the script, as the dialogue is sharp throughout and the characters well-drawn and believable.

Check this one out, if you liked films like "The Sting", or if you enjoy movies that are first-and-foremost about human relationships and that manage to deliver endings that pull off a fate for the the main characters that's holds both happy-sappy and poetic justice qualities.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

And the winners are...

The winners in the Movie411 Blog Awards were announced today. My little blog had been nominated, but it was not among them. In fact, it was utterly crushed in the voting! (But thank you to the dozen or so readers who DID vote for Watching the Detectives. :) )

Congrats to all the winners! Click on the logo to be taken to the awards page and check out all great blogs.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Paycheck: Both the film's title and why it exists

Paycheck (2003)
Starring: Ben Affleck, Uma Thurman, Aaron Eckhart, Paul Giamatti, and Colm Feore
Director: John Woo
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Industrial spy and computer engineer Michael Jennings (Affleck) agrees to work on a project so elaborate and top secret he'll have three entire years "cooked" from his brain by his partner (Giamatti) once he's done. However, instead of a big paycheck, Jennings finds assassins trying to kill him at the other end. Now, he has to recover what he's forgotten before it's too late, piecing together three years with only the minutes of clues.

I think that's a pretty accurate summary of this totally, utterly forgettable movie. I watched just three days ago, and I feel like it's been erased from my mind. I remember Affleck woefully inadequate acting talents being even more clearly on display when playing against real actors like Thurman and Giamatti (even though the latter had limited screen time). I remember a story so messy and full of holes that it resembled a block of swiss cheese being melted in the "brain cooker" device. I also remember John Woo (who once made the so-very-excellent action films "Hard Target" and "Hard Boiled") and feel a bit sad that he's reduced here to aping Hitchcock (in a way that's about as skillful as the way a chimp might mimick a person) and to desperately cramming his "signature visuals" into the film so it feels like he's almost parodying himself.

There's no doubt that everyone involved made this movie for no reason other than its title... they were looking for a paycheck, and they were hoping this messy pile would be forgotten as fast as one of Michael Jennings' special projects. It deserves to be forgotten, because its only saving grace is that it moves so fast that it's not until afterwards the audience fully realizes how awful a movie it is.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Mohammed Mysteries

If Islam is a "religion of peace," then why are there so many stories to report like "Car Bomb: Christmas Jihad in Stockholm"?

This post is part of a Cinema Steve-wide celebration of the mysteries of Islam, the Prophet Mohammed (may peat be upon him) and the death cultists (the Mo-rons) who idolize his image and express their devotion by committing murder and mayhem around the world. (For a bi-weekly dose of worship-ready cartoons, check out Mohammed Mondays at Shades of Gray.)

Friday, December 10, 2010

'Do You Like Hitchcock?'; if your answer is 'yes',
you're better off not seeing this film

Do You Like Hitchcock? (2005)
Starring: Elio Germano, Ivan Morales, Elisabetta Rocchetti, and Chiara Conti
Director: Dario Argento
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A film student (Germano) with voyeuristic tendencies finds his world turning into a real-life mash-up of classic Hitchcock thrillers when the shrewish woman in the apartment across the street is murdered and he suspects her daughter (Rocchetti) made arrangements with another girl to "swap murders"--each of them having perfect alibis for when the person they wanted dead was killed, while they aren't suspects because they have no motive for the murders they did commit.

"Do You Like Hitchcock?" is Dario Argento, after 30 years of disavowing the label "The Italian Hitchcock," demonstrating that he is indeed NOT the Italian Hitchcock and that he is barely capable of emulating Hitchcock.

In fact, I think it's safe to say that if Dario Argento is the Italian Alfred Hitchcock, then Uwe Boll is the German Terence Fisher.

Made for Italian television as the first installment in an eight film series that paid homage to Alfred Hitchcock, "Do You Like Hitchcock?" incorporates and outright lifts elements primarily from Hitchcock thrillers "Rear Window" and "Strangers on a Train". Argento also pays homage to Argento by swiping from his own earlier films, primarily "Deep Red", but there's a bit of "Cat of Nine Tails" in the mix here as well. Unfortunately, Argento is unable to conjure up the energy that crackled through Hitchcock's movies, nor is he capable of creating that easy mix of suspense and humor (if not outright absurdity) that Hitchcock did. When he tries, all he comes up with is an embarrassing and over-long sequence where our hero tries to escape on his scooter after breaking his leg during a peeping-tom adventure gone bad. The only vaguely suspenseful bit in the film comes at the end, when, in "Rear Window" fashion, our hero watches his girl friend risk running head-long into the killer. A roof top encounter that ends with a nod to "Vertigo" is also very nicely done.

I've seen this film referred to both as a "homage" or "sly tribute" to Hitchcock. I suppose it could be considered either. The descriptors I would use are "vapid pastiche"; it's not exactly bad, but it isn't all that good. I might even go so far as to say that Argento seemed more interested in paying homage to himself than Hitchcock, as exemplified by the fact the neighborhood video store was plastered with posters for other Argento movies and the aforementioned echoes of other Argento films in this picture.

As for the technical aspects of the film, the tone is consistent throughout, even if that tone is more drab that thrilling, and the acting seems to be pretty decent. It's hard to tell, because we're dealing with not just the Italian actors but New Zealander (I think) voice actors doing the English dubbing. That crew wasn't the best I've come across, but the screen presence of the leads still shine through.

The script itself is just solid enough that it passes muster as a low-average thriller. It might even have worked a little better if extraneous side characters such as our hero's mother and new boy friend had been excised, and if the writer and director had actually managed to capture that Hitchcock feel, but it's interesting enough.

If you like Hitchcock, you can spend your time better than watching this movie. Allow me to recommend "Charade", which is the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made. Other good choices would be the homages/spoofs "The Girl Who Knew Too Much" from Mario Bava and "High Anxiety" from Mel Brooks, two directors who seemed to have a far better understanding of what made Hitchcock movies work that Argento does. Or, even better, check out some of Hitchcock's great black and white movies you may not have seen, like "Strangers on a Train".

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

'Switchback' is too much back and forth

Switchback (1997)
Starring: Danny Glover, Jared Leto, R. Lee Ermey and Dennis Quaid
Director: Jeb Stuart
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

An aging sheriff (Ermey) must choose between his political future and helping a renegade FBI agent (Quaid) capture an elusive serial killer who has kidnapped his young son. But will they manage to interpert the killer's clues before it's too late?

"Switchback" is one of those films I wish I liked more, but, to be perfectly honest, I think the 5 rating I'm giving it is on the generous side--it's definately a low 5.

The biggest problem with "Switchback" is that it's made up of some very excellent parts that don't really work together due to a poorly thought out plot that was also badly implemented.

There are three stories in the film. Individually, they are faily well done and well acted, but they don't connect effectively.

First, there is the story of a county sheriff who is forced to choose between the spirit of the law and the letter of the law (not to mention right and wrong) on the verge of very tight election. If he makes the moral choice, he is sure to lose his career. R. Lee Ermey gives an excellent and sympathetic performance in this role. The contest between Ermey and his political opponent that gets disrupted by a serial killer apparently wandering through their county would make for a great movie.

Second, there's the story of an odd couple--a retired railroad worker and a dispirited doctor--on a roadtrip to Utah. One of them is a serial killer who is probably going to murder the other one and frame him for his crimes. Danny Glover puts on a good show as the self-destructive railroad worker, while Jared Leto is just bland enough to be believable as the depressed doctor who may or may not be a psychopathic killer. There are some really fun and exciting scenes between these two actors, and, like the story of the sheriff, I could easily see a "The Hitcher"-style movie in this material.

Third, there story of the FBI agent who is chasing the serial killer in the hopes of recovering his kidnapped son. He is following some utterly obscure clues and he is violating all sorts of FBI orders in the process. Dennis Quaid is okay, but he probably gives the weakest performance in the film. It's not entirely Quaid's fault, as he is also dealing with the weakest material--his story is supposed to be the thread that runs through the film and connects the others, but it so weakly done and so poorly thought out that it simply isn't able to do so.

The greatest problem is with the clues that Quaid's character supposedly uses to figure out when and where he will be able to catch the killer. These clues were so obscure that he only found the solution by pure chance... and even then there was one final step to solving the mystery that I can't for the life of me figure out how the killer expected him to reach the proper conclusion, or how he even DID reach the proper conclusion. (If anyone who has seen "Switchback" wold like to impress the world with their intellect and explain the solution to us, please leave a comment!)

"Switchback" is a movie that is NOT greater due to the sum of its parts. It's more like a couple of very good movie ideas that were truncated and butchered into this film and everyone who saw it is poorer as a result.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

'Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow"
is great tribute to 1930s pulp adventures

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)
Starring: Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Angelina Jolie
Director: Kerry Conran
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

It's the 1930s, and America is being menaced by flying giant robots of mysterious origins. When big city ace reporter Polly Perkins (Paltrow) finds herself on the trail of a story that might blow the lid of the secrets of the robots, she is brought back in contact with her old flame, Joe Sullivan (Law), also knows as the mercenary pilot Sky Captain. Together, they must stop the robot attacks before a mad scientist implements his apocalyptic designs on the entire world.

"Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" is a fun movie if you enjoy comic books and light-hearted tales of high adventure. It's a trendmendous movie if you love the old adventure B-movies and serials, like "Bulldog Drummond" and "Flash Gordon" and even "The Shadow Creeps". It's a movie you positively have to see if you happen to have even the slightest effection for any of the above, because this movie captures the very best of all of those and produces a fantastic fantasy version of 1930s America where wise-cracking beat reporters and brave-hearted private armies stand ready to defend the helpless people of the world against mad scientists and fascist menaces.

"Sky Captain" is also a beautiful movie to look at. The visuals are great and the sets (particularly those that are actually backdrops or computer graphics) are gorgeous, and the art-deco world with its "retro" futuristic technology is one that lovers of old-time adventure flicks will have a great time getting lost in. The flying aircraft carrier of the Royal British Navy that our heroes rendezvous with at one point, as well as the lair of the movie's bad guy, are particularly fabulous. The best part of the film's look was the way they captured the "fakeness" of the old-time movies... the cityscapes, the giant robots, the planes, even many of the buildings the characters spend time in, LOOK like models, just as they did in the movies that inspired this one. But it's not "fake" in a bad or cheesy way, it's "fake" in the way it absolutely needs to be if the feel of the movie is to be right.

The same is true of the acting in the film as well. The style of performances, particularly those of Paltrow and Angelina Jolie (who appears as a British military officer in a small but fun role), are also in line with the the acting traditions of the 30s and 40s. Law doesn't quite manage to pull it off, but he's really the only one out of all the players who disappoints; he isn't BAD in his part, he just isn't quite in step with the feel of the rest of the film.

Now, for all my gushing about the look of the movie and the performances of the actors, I do have to fault "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" for not having enough of a script to quite carry the film. At several times during the film, I found myself wishing for a bit more characterizations of Polly, Joe, and even a few of the minor characters; they always managed to work it in during the oldies, so why not here? The "big reveal" about the nature of the threat was also a bit disappointing to me, and I would have liked to have seen that whole climactic sequence on the "secret island" be a bit more coherent and fleshed-out than it turned out to be.

Despite its weak points, "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" is a movie that I highly recommend, and it's one that's a permanent part of my movie collection.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Christmas heist goes wrong

The Ice Harvest (2005)
Starring: John Cusack, Oliver Platt, Billy Bob Thornton, and Connie Neilsen
Director: Harold Ramis
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A mob lawyer and a pornographer (Cusack and Thornton) steal 2 million dollars from the biggest crime-boss in Witchita, Kansas on Christmas Eve. What they hoped would be a few hours of laying low before their flight out of town instead turn into a night of chaos, mistrust, disposing of bodies, and double-crosses.

"The Ice Harvest" manages to walk the line between comedy and the feel of a classic film noir drama. It manages to bring in plenty of laughs (and a nice dollop of slapstick) without causing the film to devolve into a spoof; the characters and the events unfolding remain deadly serious, even if some of the situations that arise are darkly humorous. (I wonder what the car makers thought of the discussion regarding BMWs vs. Lincolns in relation to trunk space for dead bodies.)

The story moves along at a quick pace, with sharp dialogue, seamy sets, and fine performances by all featured actors. Most interesting is the overall blandness with which Cusack plays his by-all-accounts bland lawyer character is that although he is undoubtedly the star of the film, most scenes he shares with other actors have him more or less serving as support for their performances. It's an interesting position for a film's lead actor to be in, and I think it says a lot about Cusack that he is able and willing to play a character who mostly fades into the background when other actors are in the scene.

"The Ice Harvest" is a film I recommend to anyone who enjoys a crime dramas with touches of humor, and to fans of modern film noir.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

'Suicide Kings' succeeds despite iffy start-point

Suicide Kings (1997)
Starring: Christopher Walken, Denis Leary, Henry Thomas, Johnny Galecki, Nathan Dana, Sean Patrick Flanery, and Jay Mohr
Director: Peter O'Fallon
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When Avery (Thomas) convinces some friends (Dana, Galecki, Flanery, Mohr, and Thomas)  to kidnap retired mob boss Charlie Bennett (Walken) in the hopes of forcing him to help locate Avery's kidnapped sister, they Ivy Leaguers quickly find themselves out of their depth. Things prove to be more complicated than even they even appear to begin with when, Charlie's eyes and ears on the street (Leary) discovers that one of the four friends was also involved in the kidnapping of the sister and that an elaborate double-cross may be afoot.

If one can set aside the weak starting point of this film (why would four otherwise intelligent people think it was a good idea to kidnap a violent and powerful mobster?) and some "huh?" moments in character behavior when the film is at its most tense, "Suicide Kings" is very enjoyable movie that skips back and forth over a dividing line between thriller and dark comedy.

While all the the cast does a great job in this character-driven movie, Walken is especially as the sharp-witted and sharp-tongued, always cold-as-ice-and-scheming mobster; Leary is fabulous as a thug with a soft spot for life's down-and-outs (but who otherwise is a remorseless killer; and Galecki is hilarious as an "audience stand-in character", expressing exactly the sort of fear and confusion . The rapid-fire, funny dialogue and the ever-larger questions of who will win the battle of wills going on between the kidnappers and their victim--not to mention who among the characters is the true criminal and who, if any, will walk away alive at the end--make the film even more engrossing.

If the story had been a bit more grounded in something that resembled common sense, this would have been a Seven Star movie. As it is, it's getting Six Stars for being an average "pressure cooker" sort of thriller with comedic overtones, but with some stand-out performances.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Was there a point to 'The American'?

The American (2010)
Starring: George Clooney, Violante Placido, Paolo Bonacelli, Johan Leysen, and Thekla Reuten
Director: Anton Corbijn
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

A freelance assassin and gunsmith (Clooney) finds that he himself may be targeted by assassins. He retreats to a small Italian village where he sets about making one last weapon before retirement... and gradually starts to reconnect with humanity.

This is probably the best-looking, best-acted film that will ever be featured on this blog.

Every single shot is absolutely perfectly composed and gorgeous to look at. George Clooney is better here than even in the films he did for the Coen Brothers. The rest of the cast likewise show themselves to be masters of their craft--they have to, because much of this film is conveyed through body language and subtle facial expressions instead of dialogue. To call this movie "quiet" is almost an understatement... there is barely even soundtrack music.

But for all the good things here, it is lacking one very important element: A story.

As gorgeous as this movie is and as great as the acting was, nothing of any consequence happens in this film. Sure, there's a little action. Sure, there's a gorgeous babe who spends most of her time on screen completely naked. Sure, George Clooney makes a gun for a mysterious hit-woman. But what passes for the plot here adds up to a whole lot of nothing.

Not having a strong plot isn't necessarily a bad thing for a film that is first and foremost a character piece. But what is bad here is that it's a character piece where we never go below the surface of the characters. The actors are giving the script their all, but nothing is brought to light with those performances because the story goes nowhere. Hell, we barely learn anything about their daily lives, other than the most superficial things. (I referred to Clooney as an assassin in my summary, but I'm not convinced that's an accurate description. The preview for the film refers to him as an assassin, there are moments in the film where I believe he's an assassin--especially in the opening sequence--but he seemed more like a master gunsmith who sometimes takes to the front lines to me. Maybe I missed a key exchange?)

Maybe I nodded off during a key moment of the film; as I said, this is very quiet movie... perhaps the most quiet I've ever seen that involves gunplay and killing. I don't think that I did, because the visuals were mostly engaging. However, it's fairly early in the film that it becomes apparent that things are going nowhere... and no matter how beautiful the scenery is, it gets dull watching it when you know there's no point. Heck, even the Big Sex Scene seemed like it went on and on and on and on and on.

I really wish I liked this movie more than I do, but I think the Two Stars may be even too generous a rating. They are being awarded for the great acting and beautiful visuals, because in all other areas, this movie is a complete failure.

Monday, November 22, 2010

'Marked for Death' is a good Seagal movie

Marked for Death (1990)
Starring: Steven Seagal, Keith Davis, and Basil Wallace
Director: Dwight H. Little
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Recently retired DEA undercover agent John Hatcher (Seagal) is drawn into a conflict with a Jamaican drug lord (Wallace) when an old friend (Davis) comes to him for help. But when it appears the drug gang wields true supernatural powers born from voodoo rituals--rituals that are soon targeted at Hatcher and his family--will this "one last job" prove too much for Hatcher to handle?

"Marked for Death" is a fast-paced action film revolving around the usual neigh-invulnerable Steven Seagal kick-ass character. Everything in it is over the top, but it all adds up to great fun and lots of mindless mayhem. If you enjoy your action heroes with a side of late 1980s Batman-esque comic book violence (where criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot, and supernatural occurrences may or may not be clever hoaxes) you're going to get a big kick out of this film as it careens from set-piece fight to set-piece fight, with a few well-staged chase scenes and car crashes in between. The film offers no great surprises for experienced action movie fans, but everything here is competently done.

The cast all do a fine job in their roles, none of which required great range but almost all of which were physically demanding. Stars Keith Davis is decent as the stouthearted sidekick; Basil Davis manages to exude some serious menace as the drug lord voodoo priest, with enough physical presence and charisma that viewers can feel like Seagal's character is in danger of losing the big final battle; and Steven Seagal is still at the top of his game in this film, fit and trim enough to both be believable as a martial arts expert and able to do his own fight scenes and stunts.

If you've never seen some of Seagal's older movies--but have only been subjected to the increasingly bloated version of him that's been lumbering across screens since 1996 forward--you should check out this movie. It's a great example of what those who speak fondly of him and his movies are thinking of when they do so.

Trivia: The 2003 Seagal vehicle "Belly of the Beast" follows almost the exact same plot as this movie, playing out like an incoherent remake of "Marked for Death", complete with Voodoo-wielding villains. Click here to read my review.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

'The Maiden Heist' works because of stars

The Maiden Heist (2009)
Starring: Christopher Walken, Morgan Freeman, William H. Macy, and Marcia Gay Harden
Director: Peter Hewitt
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When the gallery collection they've guarded for countless years is sold to a museum in Denmark, three security guards (Freeman, Macy, and Walken) decide to steal three pieces they have grown deeply attached to.

"The Maiden Heist" presents three of the most talented actors working today in a gentle, well-mannered comedy that's populated with believable characters who embark on an unbelievably complex endeavor: An art heist that involves creating forgeries of three pieces of art and replacing them for the originals. As these three characters bumble their way through their first and last heist, it is the charm and humanity that Walken, Freeman, and Macy imbue them with that make the humor and jokes work.

In fact, without the charm of this movie's stars, it would have fallen completely flat. The strange (and not very bright) character that Macy plays would have been annoying instead of amusing if played by a lesser actor--and as it is, the main joke involving him obsessively getting naked and flexing his muscles in front of his beloved sculpture in the gallery isn't as funny as the filmmakers thought it was, given that they repeat it a couple of times. Similarly, Walken's adventure- and romance-starved security guard would have come across as a jerk if not for his ability to convey that he still loves his wife even while portraying the character as being tired of her and everything else in his life, except for the mystery and adventure that he sees hidden in his favorite painting. And Freeman's male "cat lady" closet artist would have come across as a flaming queen if anyone but an actor of his great skill had been cast in the part. The characters and the script they reside in are elevated spectacularly by the presence of these three great actors.

If you like low-key, character driven comedies and have a taste for heist movies where the heist only works if the amateurs trying to pull it off get very, very lucky, this is a film you should check out. It's better than it's direct-to-DVD pedigree would imply, as it only ended up as such because the original distributor went bankrupt before it was released.

Friday, November 12, 2010

'Stone' should sink like a rock

Stone (2010)
Starring: Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Milla Jovovich, and Francis Conroy
Director: John Curran
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A sociopathic arsonist (Norton) and his wife (Jovovich) set into motion a scheme to manipulate a prison parole officer (De Niro) to secure his release from prison.

Take a half-baked drama inspired by classic film noir pictures, tack on some poorly developed ideas about redemption and the transformitive power of spirituality, and conclude the story with a limp and overly vague montage in an attempt to hide the fact that no one really bothered to come up with a solid story arc or real motivations for any of the characters in the film, and you have "Stone".

I've said many times that a good actor can elevate a bad script, but they seen something to work with. Despite the fact we have three good actors in this film, there's really nothing for any of them to do a whole lot with, other than to speak their lines and hope no one notices the only thing consistent about this film is that it is unrelentingly boring. Every time it looks like it might finally be building some momentum, we're treated to another scene of De Niro driving in his car and listening to Christian talk radio, or a shot of the prison at dawn with Christian talk radio heard on the soundtrack.

There was the potential here for this film to a good old fashioned thriller with De Niro as the man facing destruction after being manipulated into making a bad call, Jovovich as a borderline psycho femme fatale, and Norton as the mastermind behind it all. It could even had possessed a nice twist, as Norton's character finds spiritual redemption but his crazy wife won't stop the plan and the now-desperate parole officer won't believe his new-found good intentions. But the filmmakers here were obviously not content with making a straight-forward potboiler, and they had to throw in a bunch of "deep" material that required far more real character development and just plain characterization than the stereotypes in this get. (Norton and Jovovich are playing to the material; their performances are good but not spectacular or anything we haven't seen them do before. De Niro seems to be giving his part all he can, which is almost a shame because he's better than this movie deserves.)

"Stone" is a film to either rent on DVD, or wait for it to show up on television. It's not worth the bother of going to the theatre, and it's certainly not worth a paid admission.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Something's missing in this movie....

Golden Ninja Invasion (1987)
Starring: Leonard West, Stephanie Burd, Alan Davies, Jerry Brown, Susan Evans, Marshal Lucas, and Eric Lee
Director: Bruce Lambert
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

The nefarious Red Sun gang are looking to expand their empire of fear, vice, and drugs, but they face opposition from a brave cadre of Thai police officers, and the righteous Blue Ninja. But can even the bravest, most pure-hearted of champions of good withstand the onslaught of Mr. Warren and his ninja?!

As you watch "Golden Ninja Invasion", it becomes obvious that there are a couple of things missing in this movie: There's no Golden Ninja, and there's no invasion that takes place by said Golden Ninja, or any other ninja in this film. That list grows when you take into account the poster art featured above, as the film also doesn't feature helicopters buzzing the United States Capitol Building, nor any fiery car crashes. (There are a couple of car chases, but no real crashes.)

What the film features is an incoherent story about a criminal gang are aided by a group of Ninja in their fight against sort of Thai anti-gang unit--one member of which has had his hand replaced by a metal hand that shoots electrical bolts when the plot calls for it--and a handful of uniformed cops. There's also some sort of scientist in possession of top secret documents the gang wants for reasons never explained. As if the movie wasn't confusing enough, a mysterious Mr. Warren is behind the gang and the Ninja, and he is opposed by some ancient martial artist and the powerful Blue Ninja.

The plots upon plots and story lines barely connecting are the result of this being yet another one of those patchwork Ninja films from the 1980s. Like so many others, this movie was created by Chinese filmmakers for sale in the Western market by merging an existing (possibly never distributed) film with a few new scenes featuring Caucasian actors and some guys in ninja outfits doing very silly stuff. What makes this film almost unique in the dozens of these that were foisted upon the world by producers Tomas Tang and Joseph Lai, and directors like Godfrey Ho and whoever was working behind the name "Bruce Lambert" at any given time, is that not only are their ninja in the new footage, but the original film featured ninja as well.

Yes, for reasons that we may never know, since Tomas Tang died in 1996 and "Bruce Lambert" is a anonymous and shadowy figure--people like to claim he's Godfrey Ho, but Ho has stated categorically that he was never credited under that named... dozens of others, but not that one--the good people at Filmark Productions tacked additional ninja scenes onto a film that already featured ninja!

While it's a mystery why this ninja movie needed more ninja, there's no question that the Blue Ninja sequences are integrated a little better into this picture than is often the case in patchwork films like this. For example, Mr. Warren (a character in the new footage) has phone conversations with characters in the old footage, showing that a bit more care was taken in trying to make the pieces fit together here than is often the case. The Blue Ninja material is also hilarious, both unintentionally and intentionally. Absolutely intentional humor revolves around "ninja beans"--magical devices that apparently are only safe when used by ninja--and the general level of stupidity of the average ninja, while there is tons of unintentional humor every time anyone in the Blue Ninja sections opens their mouths and dialogue comes out.

As for the bulk of the film--the original Thai gangster/ninja movie, what it lacks in coherence it makes up for in random violence and mayhem. Fights are constantly breaking out and the audience only knows why about 25% of the time. If these were interesting fights, this might be a good thing, but they are for the most part badly staged, amateurishly filmed, and often marred by bad effects. But one can't help but have a small degree of respect for the attempt to make up for the lack of quality by providing a huge quantity of violence.

If you're looking for one of the better examples of the uniquely 1980s art of Ninja Movie Quilting, "Golden Ninja Invasion" might fit the bill. It might also work nicely for a Bad Movie Night, although the ratio of "just bad" to "so bad its good" is a little on the low side for optimum effectiveness.

The deadliest of blogathons....

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Machine gun weilding girl vs bullies and ninjas!

The Machine Girl (2007)
Starring: Minase Yashiro, Asami, Honoka, Kentaro Shimazu, and Nobuhiro Nishihara
Director: Noboru Iguchi
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When her brother and his best friend are murdered by the spoiled sons of corrupt cops and the local Ninja and Yakuza clans, a high school girl (Yashiro) goes on a gory, revenge-driven murder-spree. After the Yakuza hacks off her left arm, a creative mechanic/gunsmith replace it with a custom-made machinegun, and the mother the brother's friend (Asami) joins her for a final, bloody showdown against Ninja, blood-crazed agents of the Yakuza, and ultimately the queen of the ninja clan and her bully son (Honoka and Nishihara).

"The Machine Girl" has all the prevelant elements of Japanse action films and cartoons crammed into this movie: cute high school girls kicking butt in their school uniforms, Yakuza, Ninja, a quest for righteous revenge, lots of dramatic posing and speechifying before fights can begin... but then it adds almost unimaginable moral bankruptcy, depravity, dismemberment, murder and enough geysers of blood and gore that it will sate the need of even the most hungry gore hound. And it combines all these elements into the funniest send-up of Jap-sploitation films you'll ever see.

This is an insanely gory film. Think "Dead Alive" except with Ninjas and a Japanese high school girl with a machine gun instead of zombies and a nerd with a lawnmower. That's the level of gore this film displays, as well as the level of cartoony-ness. (In fact, this film goes even further than "Dead Alive", as I don't think anything there really compares to the drill-bra mastectomy near the end of this film.)

Yes, this is an incredibly violent movie, but only the most ill socialized adults will mistake anything that happens in this film for reality. There's one scene where our heroines hammer several nails into the head of a Yakuza agent in order to get him to talk, yet he is up and walking around in the next scene. Ami's arm is deep-fried in tempura batter, yet she suffers no burns. Ami gets her arm chopped off, yet she doesn't bleed to death, despite a complete lack of medical attention. (In this movie, loss of blood and limbs only leads to shock and/or death when it's dramatically appropriate.)

This is definitely not a movie to let the younger kids see. It is also not a movie that you should watch if you're at all squeamish when it comes to movie blood or violence on-screen. You might also stay away from nihilism upsets you. I almost stopped the film before it kicked into high gear--just after Ami is almost killed by a crooked cop and his wife for seeking help with bringing her brother's killer to justice--because I found myself thinking, "Wow. What a twisted world this movie exists in... I'm not in the mood for a film with an outlook THIS horrible."

But then Ami went on her first killing spree and once the severed head bobbed to the top in the stew-pot, I was onboard for the rest of the ride.

There's a line between depressing nihilism and stirring (if gory) black comedy. Once "The Machine Girl" crossed that line, it had me laughing and going "eeew!" at the same time. (The only other moment where director/screenwriter Noboru Iguchi almost lost me again was with the final fate of Ami's best friend from school. It's a shocking scene--so I won't go into details and ruin it in case you decide to see the movie--but he went just a little too far for my sensibilities. I think most viewers will feel that way, too.)

If you're looking for a revenge flick with a serious message about an expanding cycle of violence, social responsibility and man's alienation from what makes him human, you need to look elsewhere. While "The Machine Girl" has that, it sort of turns the message inside out and pokes hilarious fun at those sorts of movies. The "expanding cycle of violence" in this movie leads to the creation of the Yakuza-funded, Power Rangers-like Super Mourner Revenge Squad made up of the parents of the Ninja and bullies that Ami and Miki kill. and Ami's alienation from her kinder self gets her an ally in Miki AND a machine gun that shoots enough rounds in a second to cause a human body to evaporate into a fine red mist.

For what is perhaps the goriest movie of the decade just past, as well as a hilarious send-up of Japanese action flicks, check out "The Machine Girl"! Just don't expect to eat dinner while watching it.

The deadliest of blogathons....

Friday, November 5, 2010

Tough guy vs. bratty kids and deadly Ninja!

The Pacifier (2005)
Starring Vin Diesel and Lauren Graham
Director: Adam Shankman
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Vin Diesel stars as Shane Wolfe, the toughest SEAL team commander on active duty. After a botched mission to rescue a scientist who has developed some important new military technoiogy, Lt. Wolfe is assigned to protect the now-dead scientist's five young children from enemy agents still seeking to acquire the missing prototype. What follows is an amusing fish-out-of-water story, as the career SpecOps officer learns about family life, and in turn helps the children through their grief and teaches them alot about discipline and personal responsibility.

This type of story has been told in movies and in Afterschool Specials a hundred times, and "The Pacifier" is an average example of it. It avoids a couple of the most typical cliches of this type of comedy, but it dishes up the rest while even working in typical action movie tropes. (Diesel's fight with the ninjas [yes... the film not only has Navy SEALs, it has ninjas!] and the mini-van car-chase sequences are particularly amusing.)

If you're the overly cynical type, or if you suffer from diabetes, you might want to avoid this film--it will send you into insulin shock. I enjoyed its sweetness, even if there are a couple of plot-holes that bothered me.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Fear is a Ninja Named Bruce!

Ninja the Protector (1986) (aka "Ninja Daredevils")
Starring: Richard Harrison, Warren Chan, and David Bowles
Director: Godfrey Ho
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Interpol officer Jason Hart (Harrison), who is secretly a Ninja Master, brings all his wits, Ninja Magic, and dimwitted fellow Interpol officers to bear against a counterfeiting ring and modeling school that is being operated a cult of Evil Ninjas and their leader, Bruce (Bowles)!

"Ninja the Protector" starts showing its sad low- to no-budget origins early on when snapshots of the actors are used to simulate the "hi-tech" retinal scan the Evil Ninjas must pass before enteriing the Lair of Bruce. They become further evident when a room full of Interpol agents have to pass the same Kodak snapshot of a wanted criminal around the table. (With a budget like that, it's amazing Interpol ever catches anyone!)

This film is another "Frankenninja" movie, where some movie that has nothing to do with ninjas and their nefariousness--and in "Ninja the Protector", they're especially nefarious, as not only are the ninja tricking aspiring models to sign up for overpriced classes, but they're also spreading around counterfeit US dollars--that has been redubbed and intercut with new ninja footage in an attempt to make a unified whole with a new storyline.

This is the best of these kinds of movies I've seen so far. While the plotline about the Interpol agent undercover at the ninja-backed modeling school/counterfeiting ring and his family and romance trouble seemed oddly disconnected from the business with the underfunded and not-too-bright Interpol agents and their ninja leader, there was every indication that the two stories would merge, as it appeared (through some clever dubbing and editing) that all the footage truly had been intended to be part of the same movie from the very beginning.

The illusion starts to fall apart as the film builds toward its climax, however. As the film moves toward its climax, what had appeared to be progressing plot and subplots suddenly fractures into two totally different plots, each which has its own rather sudden and unsatisfying resolutions. Yes, the Evil Ninja Cult and its funny-money distributing modeling school is put out of business for good, but how about Warren and his relationship with Interpol? What about Jason, now that his staff knows he's the Ninja Champion? The film makes no effort to close any of the movies story arcs. It just ends.

Before the film reaches its abrupt ending, it does offer up much unintended hilarity. When I said this was the best of this kind of movie I've seen so far, I'm measuring it against some pretty awful stuff, and I'm not implying it's good, despite its slightly more coherent nature. It's not just the Ninja hijinx that make this movie funny... it's also the completely awful dialogue like, "I like people who are honest and you lied to me earlier, but now you're telling me the truth, so I'll hire you."

(On a sidenote, this film really made me wonder who the intended audience for it was. The story is so lame that no adult can be expected to take it seriously, but I suspect a ten-year-old would love the Ninja Action and would buy into the whole counterfeiter/modeling/ninja thing. Hie might even like the ending. But the film is NOT suitable for ten-year-olds due to sexual content and a particularly unsexy sex-on-the-beach scene. Those elements are completely gratuitous, but they make certain the one group who would love this film won't get to see it. Or are fans of ninjas movies as undescriminating as I'm starting to fear? It seems like a higher percentage of crap was shoveled their way than any other niche audience.)

As far as the Ninja battles go... they're suitably goofy with plenty of pointless acrobatics and posturing. What's even goofier is the camoflage outfit that the Good Ninja wears. (I think this must be some sort of ancient Ninja Rule... I've now seen this ludicrous camo suit in two different movies.) What the battles lack is any sense of excitement, as they're poorly choreographed.

The goofiest Ninja Battle is also the only one that's interesting. It sees the Good Ninja (Jason of Interpol) battle the Evil Ninja (Bruce of the Kewl Underground Lair and the Counterfeiting Modeling School) engage in something like a joust while riding motorcyles. The only thing that would have made that scene better would have been if they'd been riding Kawasaki Ninjas.

(By the way, aspiring screenwriters: I know Bruce Lee was a bad ass. Bruce Campbell is pretty cool, too. But it's always a Bad Thing to name your main villain "Bruce." No one is ever going to take a bad guy named Bruce seriously... particularly not when he's running a modeling school that's a front for a counterfeiting ring that's a front for an Evil Ninja Cult.)

"Ninja the Protector" is not a good movie by any measure, but it is full of unintentional hilarious moments. It will be right at home as part of the line-up for a Bad Movie Night. But that's about all it's good for.

The deadliest of blogathons....

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

'The Man Who Knew Too Much' is an
exception among needless remakes

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1954)
Starring: James Stewart, Doris Day, Brenda de Banzie, Bernard Miles, and Christopher Olsen
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A vacation turns into a nightmare for Dr. Ben McKenna (Stewart) and his wife (Day) after a dying intelligence agent entrusts Ben with information to stop an assassination plot. Before they can notify the police, their son (Olsen) is kidnapped by members of the conspiracy and they are told that if they reveal anything, he will be killed. Not knowing who they can trust, the McKennas try to use the information they have to track the assassins and free their boy.

In my review of the original "The May Who Knew Too Much," (click here to read it at Shades of Gray), I commented that it wasn't Hitchcock's best, but that it was still very good. For that reason, I've avoided the remake, because, even though it was also done by Hitchcock, I assumed it would be a waste of time, because, like so many remakes, it was entirely unnecessary.

However, among the multitudes of unnecessary remakes, the 1954 version of "The Man Who Knew Too Much" is one of the few films that has a number of improvements on the original.

First and foremost of these is the fact that the protagonists in this film are just a pair of ordinary people--well, as ordinary as a successful surgeon and a retired musical star can be--who truly are in way over their heads. In the original version, the couple had a bit of "adventurer" in them and were a little better equipped to deal with the enemy agents they chose to take on, where the McKennas are just an an ordinary couple. Further, where the original film jumped straight into the suspenseful adventure plot, the remake takes time to establish the McKennas as the Everycouple that they are, even to the point where we get to see them bicker about inconsequential things the way married couples will. It's also hard to imagine more perfect casting than James Stewart and Doris Day in these roles... they are the perfect "everyday American couple" in this picture.

The remake also expands on the use of music as a plot device. In both versions of the film, an assassination is performed in time with an orchestral performance where a crash of cymbols is to cover the gunshot. In the remake, however, music is also used to show the close, loving relationship between the McKenna's and their young son, as well as serving as the key to his rescue, in the form of the famous and Academy Award-winning song "What Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera Sera)."

Unfortunately, the remake comes up a little short in the villain department. While they are every bit as insidious as they were in the original--and perhaps even more powerful, as they have the clear backing on a nation in this version--they end up having less of a presence in the film. This is partly due to the fact that they receive less screen time in the remake, but it's mostly because none of them are portrayed by an actor of Peter Lorre's caliber, nor are any of them quite as quirky or as sinister as Lorre's character in the original.

I strongly recommend this film to any fan of James Stewart, Doris Day, and Alfred Hitchcock who hasn't seen it yet--especially if you were staying away from it for the reason I was. It's some of the finest work any of those three worthies did, and it manages to be a superior version of what was already a great movie.

As a little bonus, here are a couple of versions of "What Will Be, Will Be."

First up, is Doris Day's original single recording of the song, with a fan-made video using clips from "The Man Who Knew Too Much". If you've only heard covers, the original version will let you understand why it's still being re-recorded to this day.

And here's a mildly creepy cover of the song by Pink Martini. It was first heard in the pilot episode of "Dead Like Me".

Click here for downloadable MP3 versions at

Monday, October 25, 2010

'Modesty Blaise' is fun, but not much like source

Modesty Blaise (1966)
Starring: Monica Vitti, Terence Stamp, Clive Revill, Dirk Bogarde, Harry Andrews, Michael Craig, and Rosella Falk
Director: Joseph Losey
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Adventuress Modesty Blaise (Vitti) and her sidekick Willie Garvin (Stamp) are lured out of semi-retirement by the British government with a promise of a massive payday if they stop an unknown enemy from interfering with a shipment of diamonds promised to an eccentric Middle Eastern leader (Revill) in exchange for "oil considerations." However, the mysterious opponent is Blaise's old enemy Gabriel (Bogarde)--a crime lord who secretly funds his underground empire with his mother's money--and he's not only familiar with all of Blase's tricks, but he's two steps ahead of everyone.

"Modesty Blaise" is one of those movies I wish I could like more than I do, because there is alot to like about it. First of all, it's got a timeless adventure tale at its heart with the Mid-East/West relationship and how the characters interact as relevant today as in 1966; Modesty and Willie's partnership and how they know each other so well they can predict just about everything the other is going to do is fascinating and completely free of the sexual tension that filmmakers usually insist on tossing into a male/female partnership; the villains manage to be creepy and funny at the same time--not to mention they were ripped off for the James Bond flick "Golden Eye"; and every actor featured puts on an excellent performance.

On the downside, there are many things that the filmmakers included intentionally that undermined by enjoyment of the film. The worst of these were elements of absurdity that made served no story purpose and made no sense no matter how you looked at them, such as the way Modesty Blaise would change hair color and clothes in an instant, sometimes as we watched her on screen and the ridiculous costumes they had her dressed in on a couple of occasions. I suspect the filmmakers thought this added to the lighthearted, goofy tone of the film, but it was actually just stupid and nonsensical.

An unintentional weakness is that the film features some of the absolute worst fight scenes ever put on film. Not only are they badly choreographed and lame--your average SCA members or even nine-year-olds used to playing "Cops and Robbers" in the backyard could have done better jobs--and has stunt doubles so badly matched to the main actors that I'll never mock those who appeared in some of Steven Seagal's movies ever again. There simply isn't a single melee fight that even approaches believeable or exciting in this film, and the only reason the big battle at the end works is that it's played for laughs.

I imagine that hardcore fans of the classic "Modesty Blaise" comic strip by Peter O'Donnel and Jim Holdaway were mighty upset with this goofy movie was released. I imagine many of them get upset today. I can understand that a little bit... I have fond memories of reading those strips and in compilations some 25-30 years ago. However, this is a fun movie, no matter how unserious it is. It could have been a great movie--and there are some great things about it that make it worth seeing even 40 years after its initial release--but the filmmakers went overboard on their silliness and ended up weakening their end product.

I think the film is worth seeing, but it's not necessarily one for which you should pass up for something else that looks interesting.

Friday, October 22, 2010

'After the Sunset' is too full of plot holes

After the Sunset (2004)
Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Woody Harrelson, and Salma Hayek
Director: Brett Ratner
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Jewel thief Max Burdett (Brosnan) retires to the Bahamas with long-time partner Lola (Hayek) after one last big heist. When Stan (Harrelson), an FBI agent they repeatedly humiliated during their respective careers shows up on the island supposedly to stop Max from stealing a valuable gem temporarily on display there, Max's compulsive obsession with thievery boils to the surface and he soon comes out of retirement for one more "one last heist."

After the Sunset could be better than it is. It's got a good cast, it's got a good location, and caper films are always fun. Sadly, the script is one that is so full of holes and inherently contradictory complications that the attentive viewer is left wondering "why did they have to do that when they already had achieved the objective?" and the actors mostly seem to be going through the motion of their parts. Worse, the storyline is pretty much a paint-by-number caper story, with the twists being so commonplace that I almost wish they hadn't done them. (In other words, it might have been a more satisfying film without the genre-dictated twists and double-crosses.)

I did enjoy the interplay between the Brosnan and Harrelson characters (even if I had to suspend my disbelief to a tremendous amount to buy into the way both seemed to accept each other's frendship, or assume that the other had bought into it, so quickly.

I also liked the subplot of the way Lola was revealed as the true professional while Max was a thief due to obsessive-compulsive behavior and supreme narcissism and arrogance; Lola was content to retire with her spoils and work on building the deck for their new house and take tennis lessons, while Max had to keep stealing. It was one part of the film that evoked an emotional response from me (aside from smiling at the funny parts), despite the fact that it was another of the films well-trod cliche elements.

"After the Sunset" could have been a Five or even Six Star movie if just a little more brainpower had been spent working out the problems in the script (and even the many shots of Hayek's ample assets barely contained in skimpy outfits can't make up for those).

Speaking of Salma Hayek, she was one of the "immodest women" featured in the very important, mind-opening "Tectonic Tuesdays" series at Cinema Steve.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The truth apparently lies in a boring place

Where the Truth Lies (2005)
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Colin Firth, Alison Lohman, and David Hayman
Director: Atom Egoyan
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A young journalist specializing in celebrity interviews (Lohman) sets out to uncover the mystery behind the events that broke up the successful 1950s comedy team of Collins & Morris. She discovers an underbelly of the entertainment industry that is even more filthy than she had imagined.

"Where the Truth Lies" has the makings of an excellent mystery in the film noir vein. It's got the story elements--a reporter on a quest, reclusive men of riches and power with dark secrets to hide, betrayal, sex, lust, greed... everything--and it has the shells of some very interesting characters.

But the potential here remains unrealized.

The director seems to be have been more interested in showing off the film's excellent set and costume design (the film is VERY effective at evoking the two different time periods it takes place in--the 1950s and the 1970s) and trying to get as much milage out of titilation and sleaze as possible instead of giving us reasons to care about the film's characters.

The end result is a very hollow feeling movie, and a movie that starts to feel boring and overlong when it should drawing the viewer in with suspenseful anticipation. Because we don't really care about the characters, we are barely interested in the mystery at the film's core at the end than we were at the beginning. By the time it enters into its second half, the dominating feeling is "get on with it!" instead of an anticipation of what happens next.

"Where the Truth Lies" is a very pretty film, but that's not enough to make it worth sitting through. I saw this film while sitting in a hotel room with nothing better to do but watch it, and I kept grabbing books to flip through. Even the hawt lesbian nookie (although gorgeously filmed) was not enough to stave off my growing boredom and irritation with the fact the film wasn't getting to its conclusion.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Batman Double Feature

Batman (1989)
Starring: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, and Kim Basinger
Director: Tim Burton
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Two maniacs are prowling the night of Gotham City. One is the criminal mastermind known as the Joker (Nicholson) and the other is the mysterious crusader against crime known as the Batman (Keaton). Will sexy reporter Vicky Vale (Basinger) survive getting caught in the middle when the two square off?

"Batman" has been praised repeatedly as the best Batman movie ever. While I loved the look of Gotham City, while I got a huge kick out of Nicholson's portrayal of the Joker, while I still reference the "Who are you?"/"I'm Batman" scene--my favorite moment of the movie--I simply can't get on the Great Movie Band Wagon here.

Is it a superior film? You bet. However, it's too inconsistent in both pacing and tone to be great.

Keaton's Bruce Wayne is a non-entity, and his Batman has only slightly more presence. They both have a cool and spooky air about them, but there isn't much personality in either. It's the "wonderful toys" that Batman has that makes him interesting. Adam West's Batman showed more pesonality and spirit than the one we have here... and it's a sorry state of affairs when a show that was made with tongue-in-cheek at every stage of the process has a Batman that's more engaging than a film that's presented as a "serious" attempt at bringing the character to cinematic life. (And even with his "wonderful toys", the Batmobile from the 1960s movie and TV show is still cooler looking. The plane was excellent, though!)

Nicholson's Joker is almost TOO much at some times... or maybe he comes across that way because he's most-often playing against Basinger, an actress of limited talent and range (she doesn't even make a good Scream Queen). I enjoyed his performance, but some brakes really could have been put on him here and there.

The merchandizing tie-ins also cripple the movie. Danny Elfman wrote one of his very finest scores for the film, but instead of letting his sweeping orchestral movements carry the film, we're subjected to Z-grade Prince tunes every so often. And whenever the Purple One plagues us, it's as if the film comes to a screeching halt. (The songs were there to sell one of those obnoxious "Music from and inspired by" CDs.)

"Batman" is a superior adaptation of the DC Comics character to the screen, and it's one of the best of the Batman films from the 1990s (although "Batman Returns" is better). It's entetaining and worth seeing--particularly if you're a big fan of Jack Nicholson--but it's not a Great Movie.

Batman Returns (1992)
Starring: Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Christopher Walken, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Jack Palance
Director: Tim Burton
Eight of Ten Stars

When a corrupt business magnate (Walken) and a physically deformed man who was raised by penguins (DeVito) set about carving up Gotham City, only Batman (Keaton) can stop them. But who is the demented woman in the leather cat outfit (Pfeiffer) and whose side is she on?

"Batman Returns" is a dark and surreal take on Batman that on one hand seems to be inspired by nightmares but on the other hand gets almost as funny as the 1960s film "Batman: The Movie" at times. It's a visually impressive movie with a great cast that give some very fine performances--there even seems to be a little more life in Michael Keaton's Bruce Wayne than there was in the first film where he played Batman.

There is a dream-like-, or perhaps fairy tale-, quality to the entire film, a quality that is enhanced by the origins of the Penguin and Catwoman (Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer), two characters whose appearance and natures in this film are very different than what we're used to from the comic books. Further, their natures are so grotesque that they couldn't really exist anywhere but in a dream.

Even Gotham City feels a little like a dreamscape in many scenes. The film takes place in winter, and it's staged mostly in cool colors. The overall effect is very impressive.

The only complaint I have with "Batman Returns" is the "re-imagining" of Selina Kyle. I've always liked this character the best when she was potrayed as a sneak-thief and adventuress and the mystical origin she is given here--not to mention the fact that she's a complete nutjob--doesn't sit well with me, even if I will grant that Michelle Pfeiffer puts on an excellent show.

The Penguin, on the other hand, is more impressive in this film than he's ever been in any other comic book or movie. The Burton/Devito Penguin is a character that we both feel pity and revulsion for, and, although we know that Batman had to defeat him, we can't help but feel very sad for the end he comes to.

"Batman Returns" was the last Batman movie in the 1990s to get it right. From this point on, they just get worse and worse. But, this film is as praise-worthy as either of the two recent Batman flicks.