Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sherlock Sunday:
Ronald Howard in 'Sherlock Holmes'

Sherlock Holmes (39 half-hour episodes, produced 1954-1955)
Starring: Ronald Howard, Howard Marion Crawford, Archie Duncan and Kenneth Richards
Directors: Steve Previn (25 episodes), Sheldon Reynolds (9 episodes) and Jack Gage (4episodes)
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

From 1954 through 1955, Ronald Howard starred as Sherlock Holmes, with Howard Marion-Crawford as Dr. Watson, in a 39-episode series that was produced in France with a British cast. The half-hour episode were mostly original stories, with some drawing heavily on some of Doyle's original tales (like "The Case of the Red Headed League," and "The French Interpreter," which was almost a straight adaptation of "The Greek Interpreter").

The series is more lighthearted than most Holmes adaptations that don't bill themselves as comedy, with Watson, Holmes and Lestrade taking turns at being the focus of humor, the butt of jokes, and even solving the mysteries at hand.

Ronald Howard's Holmes is a flighty, playful man possessed with an almost juvenile sense of humor. While he is every bit the genius one finds in the Conan Doyle tales, he comes across more like an overgrown child than a man who grows erratic when bored. But he is also probably far more fun to be around than Holmes would have been as he was written by Watson (and portrayed in most other adaptions). In fact, the boyish nature of Holmes as we find him here makes the cluttered rooms at 221B Baker Street seem almost like a clubhouse where he and Watson hang out after school. It's a sense that is enhanced by the good humor and comedy running through nearly every episode.

The comedic touches in the episodes is a nice addition to the Holmes tales, but an even nicer touch is the fact that Watson is repeatedly shown to be smart and capable. On more than on occasion, he even manages to out-do Holmes, primarily because Watson is more down-to-earth and less prone to flights of fancy. Another refreshing aspect to Watson's character is that he more than once stands up to Holmes rather fiercely, refusing to be the brunt of his jokes and on more than one occasion getting Holmes to apologize. In fact, the relationship between Holmes and Watson seems more real in this series than in several other versions, despite the buffoonery and antics.

Another interesting aspect of the series is the way Archie Duncan appears as several different characters throughout. His main role is as Inspector Lestrade, but he also appears as Lestrade's cousin and even one of the villains as the series unfolds.

Like all television series, this one is a mixed bag. Of the 39 episodes produced, a handful are excellent (like "The Case of the Jolly Hangman" where Holmes helps a widow by proving her husband didn't commit suicide, "The Case of the Perfect Husband" where Holmes must save an innocent woman from her psychopathic husband while attempting to prove that he has murdered half a dozen women previously) or "The Case of the Belligerent Ghost" where Watson is repeated assaulted by a dead man), a few are absolutely awful (like "The Case of the Texas Cowgirl" which has a nonsensical plot and a lame mystery, while "The Case of the Thistle Killer" was so weak that Holmes should hang his head in shame for taking so long to solve it), but most are decent little mystery tales. Some have darker tones than others--"The Case of the Perfect Husband" and "The Mother Hubbard Case" are chillers that deal with deadly serial killers, while "The Christmas Pudding" sees Holmes under real threat of death for perhaps the only time in the whole series--but the series can be a great introduction to Sherlock Holmes if you have young kids who are getting into mysteries.

There are a couple of different DVD packages that contain the entire series. I viewed the one issued by Mill Creek. The quality of the source tapes varies from episode to episode, but the sound is generally clear and the picture is only occasionally washed out. It's not perfect, but the three-disk set is very reasonably priced.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

'The Bank Job' is a fine caper flick

The Bank Job (2008)

Starring: Jason Statham, Saffron Burrows, Stephen Campbell Moore, Michael Jibson, Daniel Mays, Richard Lintern, David Suchet, James Faulkner and Gerard Horan
Director: Roger Donaldson
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When a childhood friend (Burrows) approaches smalltime conman Terry Leather (Statham) with the perfect scheme for a bank robbery, he assembles a crew and goes for it. The end result is that they pull off the bigest bank heist in British history... but then find themselves hunted by serious criminals and even the British intelligence agencies.

"The Bank Job" is based on a number of true events that happened in and around 1971, such as the robbery of the Baker Street branch of Lloyd's Bank; the arrest of a murdering drug-dealer and extortionist pimp who hid his operations behind the cloak of a black power movement; the sudden resignation of a number of long-standing members of Parliment; and the quick and extensive purge of entrenched corruption in London's police department. How many of the details of the film are true, and whether all the events depicted as related are truly related we won't have even an inkling of until 2057, as much of the documents relating to the case have been sealed as government secrets until then. Whether the details are accurate or not, the film itself should entertain any fan of caper movies.

At least it should entertain any fan of caper movies once it gets going. The first half hour or so is a bit messy as a whole raft of characters and plotlines are introduced and no seeming connection exists between them; the connections become clear later, but as they are introduced you'll find yourself wondering why we're bothering with them. Some of the characters are actually so minor that I think the film had been stronger if they had been left out entirely in the interest of stream-lining the start of the movie. However, when things coalese and the robbery gets underway, any trying of the viewers patience at the film's beginning is richly atoned for.

"The Bank Job" gets off to a shakey start, but it ends up in a very cool place. It's definately worth checking out.

Friday, January 29, 2010

What is the deadly truth behind 'Charade'?

Charade (1963)
Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, Walter Matthau, James Coburn and George Kennedy
Director: Stanley Donen
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

'Reggie' Lampert (Hepburn), a quirky young American living in Paris, has her world turned upside down when her husband is murdered and she learns that he wasn't all who she believed him to be. Worse, three thugs (including Coburn and Kennedy) are stalking her, insisting that she has the $250,000 that her dead husband stole from them. Only the charming Peter Joshua (Grant) and the mysterious Paris CIA Station Chief (Matthau) can help her... but will they? When a quarter of a million dollars are up for grabs, can anyone be trusted?

For many years, I would catch pieces of "Charade" on television, and I was convinced that it had to one of Alfred Hitchcock's movies--one of his best, in fact. It isn't, of course, but it is a far sight more "Hitchcockian" that the vast majority of films that critics like to apply that label to. Its fast-patter dialogue, its mixture of intrigue, mystery, comedy, and romance is very reminicent of great Hitchcock movies like "The 39 Steps" and "The Lady Vanishes".

Hepburn is as gorgeous and energetic as ever as 'Reggie' Lampert, and her acting skills are on fine display here. Cary Grant is likewise up to form in an excellent performance, even if this film was made during the twilight of his career; his ability to be charming and menacing at the same time comes into play nicely in a couple of scenes here, and keep your eyes open for the moment when he mokcingly mimics Hepburn's "surprised look". (Another very remarkable thing about Grant's part in this movie is the acknowledgement that he is old enough to be her father, and that he initially keeps her at arm's length when she aggressively persues him in a romantic way. 'Reggie' clearly has a thing for older men, but Peter Joshua has enough class to respect their age difference. How many other Hollywood leading men would accept a role like that? Given what is standard fare in movies, not many!)

In addition to great performances by its stars, the film sports a spectacular supporting cast, with George Kennedy as a hulking, hook-handed maniac, and Walter Matthau's quirky American agent being particularly noteworthy, and an intelligently constructed story full of sparkeling dialogue, clever twists, lots of laughs and thrills, and a climactic chase and confrontation that definately makes this "the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made."

Rounding out this perfect package is the score by Henry Mancini. The 'Charade Theme' is perhaps the best tune he ever wrong, and its heard in many different and clever permutations throughout the film.

"Charade" is a true classics, and it's a film that should be required viewing for anyone who thinks they can properly mix comedic and thriller elements in a film. (The blender they show in the beginning of the original 1963 preview for the film is a great analogy... the elements of a romantic comedy and a thriller have been blended together here in a seamless, perfect whole. Movies like this are all too rarely made these days.)

It's also more than worth seeing for an excellent performance by Hepburn, one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the silver screen.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Corpulent Seagal faces 'Black Dawn'

Black Dawn (aka "The Foreigner 2") (2005)
Starring: Steven Seagal, Tamara Davies, Nicholas Davidoff, and Timothy Carhart
Director: Alexander Gruszynski
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

When CIA agent Amanda Stuart (Davies) sees her supposedly dead mentor Jonathan Cold (Seagal) show up with a armsdealer meeting with a crazed Muslim rebel (Davidoff), she knows something very big and very bad is coming down. But little did she know that soon she and Jonathan would be battling both terrorists and renegade CIA agents bent on detonating a nuke in downtown Los Angeles.

"Black Dawn" is absolutely, totally predictable; it's decently acted, with okay stunts, but there's nothing you haven't seen done better elsewhere. What's more, the cast is too small for there to ever be any doubt as to the identitiy of the traitor within the CIA. Then, to add insult to injury, we don't even get treated to decent fight scenes.

I don't know if Seagal is too old or too fat (and I know I'm not one to criticize someone for packing on the pounds come middle-age... I've turned into a true porker over the past five years) or if he may have been sick during the two-week schedule I assume this cheap quickie must have had, but not only were all three of the potential fight scenes over virtually before they started, they were done using stand-ins!

Yes, iconic Akido tough guy Seagal--the guy who in an interview on the DVD of "Black Dawn" talks about how he was in hundreds of fights before he lost one--doesn't do a single one of his fight scenes in this film. In fact, the stand-ins aren't built like Seagal (one doesn't even have similar hair, and we're treated to several seconds of the back of his head!) and there doesn't even seem to be an attempt to match the style he used when he DID do his own fight scenes.

I wonder if "Black Dawn" spells the end of Seagal's career. He's not really much of an actor, and if he can't do his own fight scenes, what's left? Maybe it's time for him to move behind the cameras and let others star in films that he produces? (On the other hand, he could well have been sick. There are several scenes where he seems to be carrying himself strangely, particularly with the way he crosses his arms.)

Sheesh... I seem to be going on about Seagal... but that's because I ran out of things to say about the movie in the second paragraph, and because I think he's done some pretty good action flicks (like "Hard to Kill", "Under Seige", "Half Past Dead" and even "The Foreigner"), and it's a bit sad to see him go out on such a pathetic note, if that is indeed what's happening.

If you want to see a fairly generic, relatively low-budget action flick with some sorry blue-screen shots, you want to pick up "Black Dawn." If you're looking for a good Steven Seagal flick, stay away from this one. You'll be very dissapointed.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sherlock Sunday:
Peter Cushing as Holmes, 2.0

In 1957, Peter Cushing starred as Sherlock Holmes in the first color film featuring the character. It was an adaptation of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" from Hammer Films, and it was sexed up as one would expect a Hammer film to be.

Ten years later, Cushing was tapped to play Holmes again, taking over the part from Douglas Wilmer in the BBC-produced television series "Sherlock Holmes." The third and fourth episodes he appeared in were an adaptation of "The Hound of the Baskervilles," bringing him face-to-face with the ghostly creature of the moores for a second time.

Although believed lost for nearly 20 years, a few episodes have been rediscovered in BBC archives and brought to Region 1 DVDs by American cable network A&E.

These surviving episodes are presented on three DVDs, along with a quirkly Holmes documentary produced by A&E. Peter Cushing once again makes a fine Holmes and these few surviving episodes show that his portrayal of the character got better and better as the show unfolds. He's great in the early shows, but in the last two episodes (on Disc Three of the set, adaptations of "The Sign of Four" and "The Blue Carbuncle") he is absolutely spectacular.

I'm going to be posting reviews in the order the episodes appear in the set.

The Hound of the Baskervilles, Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 (1968)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Nigel Stock and Gary Raymond
Director: Graham Evens
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Sherlock Holmes (Cushing) and Dr. Watson (Stock) are called upon to solve the mystery of a spectral hound that seems to be visiting very real death upon the Baskerville family. Will they solve the mystery before Sir Henry Baskerville (Raymond) joins his forebearers in the most gruesome of fashions?

Although "The Hound of the Baskervilles" is the famous and most-often adapted Sherlock Holmes story, it seems odd choice to lead with in this DVD collection, as the earliest chronological episode included in the set is "A Study in Scarlet" and Cushing/Holmes is absent for the second half of the first episode and about 2/3rds to second part. Most consumers of this set will almost certainly be buying it for Cushing, and even if they weren't, his absense is felt. While Nigel Stock and the rest of the cast are talented and give admirable peformances, they don't have Cushing's presence.

As an adaptation of "The Hound of the Baskervilles," it's as faithful as can be expected and features production values on par with similar BBC productions from the 1960s. It is even better in many areas, as there are no pathetic attempts at day-for-night shots and most of the sets are well-constructed. On the downside, though, there seems to be a timidity against showing violence that goes beyond even typical television avoidance. For example, when Watson tustles with an escaped convict on the moor, all we get to see is the convict preparing to strike and then Watson stumbling backwards the next scene. The blow happened somewhere during the reversal of angles, but we didn't get to see any action. There are two or three instances like that in the film. The hound is also dissapointing. We don't really get to see anything as far as what it looks like.

However, despite not showing us the hound (and barely showing us the characters' reactions to it), the BBC director and editors did get the ending exactly right. It is suspenseful, with Holmes and Watson rushing through the fog along a nearly invisible path through deadly quicksand pits, the hound howling somewhere nearby, and Henry Baskerville walking blindly toward doom.

While the 1950s Hammer adaptation is more exciting and colorful, this version is more in keeping with Doyle's original story. I prefer the Hammer version, but this one is also well done, and Cushing is, once again, absolutely magnificent as Sherlock Holmes.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

'Perfect Stranger' should remain unknown

Perfect Stranger (2007)
Starring: Halle Berry, Giovanni Ribisi, and Bruce Willis
Director: James Foley
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

An investigative reporter (Berry) goes undercover at a top ad agency to prove that its face man Harrison Hill (Willis) murdered her best friend. But can the truth be discoverd when the investigation is mired in hidden agendas?

"Perfect Strangers" is a thriller that is completely devoid of tension, partly because the viewer is never convinced that the supposed murderer is all that dangerous and partly because we're not given a reason to like any of the characters enough to care whether they too get poisoned with an overdose of belladonna.

To add insult to injury, the films lazily written--to the point where every character on screen even sounds alike--and it's got one of those annoying, unnessecary twist-endings that in a desperate attempt to breathe some life and excitement into the film only manages to underscore how haphazard and badly executed it is. (I will grant that it's an ending better supported by what has gone before than in other films, but it's still false, hollow and a bit of a cheat. It's made more of a cheat because of the audience-manipulating flashbacks that appear throughout the film; I despise this movie even more for its refusal to play fair with the viewer and provide ligitimate clues so we can "play along" in solving the mystery at its core and instead feeding us distortions.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Eastwood stars in film with literal cliff-hanger

The Eiger Sanction (1975)
Starring: Clint Eastwood, George Kennedy, Vonetta McGee, Jack Cassidy and Gregory Walcott
Director: Clint Eastwood
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Jonathan Hemlock (Eastwood), an assassin turned college art professor is blackmailed by his former employers to come out of retirement and perform one last "sanction". The problem is the target is one of three mountain climbers that Hemlock has to entrust his life to during a climbing expedition on Mount Eiger.

"The Eiger Sanction" is a slightly below-average thriller that gets a little extra kick from spectacular nature photography and mountaineering footage in the American southwest and Europe. It also benefits from a nice music soundtrack.

The actors all give decent performances, but the story relies on too many far-fetched coincidences to work and a hidden plot that is really rather pointless. It may be there to underscore the corruption of the spy agency that Hemlock was employed by, but it really does seem like they're going about things the hard way.

The film has moments, but overall it's pretty weak. It might be worth catching if you come across it on TV, but it's not worth going out of your way for. (It's one of the films included in the "Clint Eastwood: American Icon" four-movie collection where it's basically inoffensive filler.)

Bullock is damaged cop in 'Murder by Numbers'

Murder By Numbers (2002)
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Ryan Gosling, and Michael Pitt
Director: Barbet Shroeder
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A pair of sociopathic teenagers (Gosling and Pitt) plan and commit the perfect murder, but their carefully made plans threaten to unravel when homicide detective Cassie Merriweather (Bullock), driven by personal demons, refuses to accept the too-pat solution to the case. Will a detective on the brink of a nervous breakdown find the guilty parties behind a perfectly staged crime?

The only really good part about this film is Bullock. The script is rather weak and predictable--I've seen a "Jane Doe" episode on the Hallmark Channel that held more suspense than "Murder By Numbers"--and one is left wondering why the Gosling and Pitt characters seem to be liked by anyone at their school they're so creepy and repulsive. Both also give uninteresting and completely flat performances, although that is the case of everyone in the film, except Bullock.

This movie shows that Bullock really CAN act, as she more than once displays some very subtle emotional shifts with nothing but facial expressions. What's more, she really plays against the kind of character she is usually cast as... Cassie Merriweather may once have been the girl next door, but a terrible secret in her past changed that long ago. It's a shame that the movie she is giving such a fine performance in really isn't all that good.

"Murder By Numbers" is a so-so police procedural mystery flick that isn't much better or worse than your standard made-for-basic-cable movie. It's almost perfectly bland... not so bad to be offensive, but not so good to be noteworthy. Bullock turns in a good performance, but that's the film's only standout element.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Jean-Claude hits the border in 'The Shepherd'

The Shepherd (aka "Border Patrol") (2007)
Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Gary McDonald, Natalie Robb, Scott Adkins, and Stephen Lord
Director: Isaac Florentine
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Jack (Van Damme), a New Orleans cop transplanted to New Mexico and working as a border patrol agent runs headlong into a group of former American Special Forces who have turned to crime and used extreme violence and connections gained in Afghanistan to take control of the drug operations in the area.

"The Shepherd" is a rarity among films starring the big action heroes of the 1980s and 1990s, such as Steven Seagal and Wesley Snipes: This direct-to-DVD action flick is every bit as good as the movies Jean-Claude Van Damme starred in when he was packing them into the multiplexes. Where Wesley Snipes has degenerated to the point where he's a self-parody and Steven Seagal has long gone beyond being an obect of pity to someone who should be ashamed to show his face anywhere, yet along appear in movies, Van Damme appears to still be able to choose good projects to be involved with.

While the film's bad guys are somewhat bland and not terribly smart (how smart can someone be who allies themselves with Afghan drug lords and doesn't take steps to squirrel money away if things go sour?) and the director is a bit too in love with slow-motion scenes (to the point of an obession that almost ruins the film's climax), the script features some neat action and decent martial arts fights scenes, is humorous where it needs to be and deadly serious when appropriate, and moves along at a pace fast enough that you don't have time to think about some of the stupider moments in the film. (The exception being when Jack is tossed in a Mexican prison and forced to participate in an extreme fighting bout.)

All-in-all, Jean-Claude Van Damme's career may have suffered a downturn, but he is still an action star who, like Jackie Chan, is aging gracefully. If you enjoyed him in films like "Hard Target", "Double Impact", or even "Sudden Death", you'll feel a warm wave of nostalgia wash over you as watch this film and discover that the Lionheated-one still has some kick in him!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sherlock Sunday:
Sherlock Holmes meets Jack the Ripper

Murder By Degree (1979)
Starring: Christopher Plummer, James Mason and David Hemmings
Director: Bob Clark
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When a citizens committee hires Sherlock Holmes (Plummer) to apprehend Jack the Ripper, he and Watson (Mason) find themselves in the middle of deadly series of plots and conspiracies to either overthrow or protect the British monarchy.

"Murder By Degree" is a film that should appeal equally to lovers of some of the darker Basil Rathbone Holmes movies, the Ronald Howard-starring television series, and even the Holmes stories themselves. It might even appeal to those who enjoyed the most recent big screen Sherlock Holmes adventure directed by Guy Ritchie. It occupies a point somewhere between the original Doyle stories, the black-and-white Holmes adventures and the Ritchie film, bringing both humor and horror to the table while reminding us that Holmes was just as much a man of action as he was a man of intellect. Like the Ritchie film, Holmes shows here that he can hold his own in a fight if called upon to do so, but unlike the Ritchie film, he doesn't engage in idioctic activities such as entering boxing contests just because.

Christopher Plummer makes a good Holmes, playing the part with an equal mixture of charm and a curious sense of aloofness. The Holmes here is a character who is always slightly apart from those around him, always seeing both sides of an issue and usually expressing a near-equal appreciation for both--at least when there are two sides to an issue. Holmes is in no way a moral relativist and he refuses to accept social norms and attitudes when they are unfair or outright evil. This is also a film where Holmes is confronted with evil and twisted morality so severe that his shell crumbles and we witness him moved to tears. This film presents perhaps the most human version of Sherlock Holmes I've encountered while still maintaining his almost suprahuman powers of deduction and observation.

James Mason likewise makes a decent Watson, even if I feel like he is written as being a little too dense at times. In general, Watson here is the perfect image of a late 19th century British gentleman with all the strengths and weaknesses that infers.

The mystery of the film itself is engaging and the film remains focused on it. Unlike the recent Ritchie movie where all sorts of extraneous nonsense is crammed into the film, this movie tells a Holmes mystery as it should be told. It also delivers some very impressive twists, as Holmes and Watson are drawn so deep into the conspiracies surrounding the Ripper murders that they become targets themselves.

While it drags slightly in a few places, this is a fun and interesting take on Sherlock Holmes that has a little something for every Holmes fan.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

'The Gauntlet' manages to squeeze character
in among non-stop action

The Gauntlet (1977)
Starring: Clint Eastwood and Sondra Locke
Director: Clint Eastwood
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Ben Shockley (Eastwood) is a burned-out Phoenix cop who is sent to Las Vegas to retrieve a reluctant witness Augustina "Gus" Mally (Locke). It seems like another meaningless assignment given to someone who is just counting down to retirement... until the bullets start to fly. Shockley soon learns that he was given this escort duty because his superiors expected him to fail and that he is in the middle of a plot cooked up by corrupt officials at the highest level of Phoenix's government. Shockley finds his spirit again, and, fighting against deceit on both sides of the law, he strikes back and sets in motion explosive plans of his own to deliver "Gus" to the Phoenix courthouse.

"The Gauntlet" is one of my all-time favorite action movies, and my very favorite Clint Eastwood film. He and Locke play fabulously off each other, and the rebirth that Ben Shockley experiences in the film makes him an extremely intriguing character that Eastwood brings to fantastic and believable life.

With non-stop action and just the right amount of humor and tragedy.well-timed plot-twists, villains who actually have mounted a conspiracy that's believable, and an over-the-top finale where an entire police force seems to have been mobilized to execute one lonely man and one lonely woman, "The Gauntlet" fires in perfect rhythm on all cylinders from beginning to end.

It's a classic movie that any lover of action films, cop dramas, and the works of Clint Eastwood needs to see.

[Footnote to Review When Originally Posted in 2005]
"The Gauntlet" actually serves as a nice contrast with the awful remake of "Assault on Precinct 13" from 2005. The two moves share many of the same themes and their main characters share several similar traits. They also both end with a misappropriate of police resources so extreme that the conspirators arrayed against the hero have lost even if they win.

However, "Assault" uses the elements badly and clumsily while "The Gauntlet" brings them all together in perfection. As a result, "Assault" is a dull string of action sequences that don't really result in anything than run-of-the-mill, going-through-the-motions storytelling with cliched and flat characters, and that culminate in what seems like an outrageous reach into the rediculous with the arrival of a helicopter and airborn SWAT officers; while "The Gauntlet" is a series of action scenes that lead to mysteries being solved, characters rediscovering strengths they thought they had lost, and that culminate in what seems like a perfectly acceptable final effort by desperate bad guys hoping to save themselves.

I think examaning these films closely will tell aspiring filmmakers volumes about what it takes to make a proper movie of this kind.

Monday, January 11, 2010

'Untraceable' is worth tracking down

Untraceable (2008)
Starring: Diane Lane, Billy Burke, Colin Hanks, Mary Beth Hurt, and Owen Reilly
Director: Gregory Hoblit
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A genius-level hacker (Reilly) is kidnapping and murdering victims live on a website. The more people who log on, the faster the victims die. As FBI cyber-crime experts (Lane and Hanks) close in onthe killer, he makes them his next targets.

"Untraceable" is a decent thriller in the mold of "The Card Player" (review here) and it had far more in common with that lesser-known thriller than "Silence of the Lambs", which some reviewers compare it to. (I can only, once again, assume that these reviewers don't watch enough movies, or they don't really pay attention to the movies they do watch. The similarities between this film and "Silence of the Lambs" are superficial and comparing the two does neither film justice.)

Although there are few surprises in "Untraceable", the film moves along at a fast pace and keeps the suspense high, despite the fact that most of film involves characters just sitting around. Further, its likeable and talented cast makes sure the viewer feels engaged in the film, and even the most jaded member of the audience will start to be drawn in when the killer sets his sights on the film's heroes. Even better, the film's villain is ultimately a pathetic loser for whom the audience will feel more disgust than respect; it's high time a movie got away from the "kewl bad guy" trend.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sherlock Sunday: Peter Cushing takes his place among the great cinematic Holmses

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Andre Morell, Christopher Lee and Marla Landi
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Sherlock Holmes (Cushing) is retained to find the root of and bring to an end the curse that's been haunting the Baskervilles family for centuries before it claims the family's final male member, Sir Henry Baskervilles (Lee). With Dr. Watson (Morell) at this side, Holmes ventures onto the haunted moor to seperate fact from fiction and legend from the all-too-real killer who lurks there.

The Hammer Films adaptation of "The Hounds of the Baskervilles" is one of the best Sherlock Holmes movies ever made. Peter Cushing is excellent as Holmes (in his first of three appearances as the character, including one in another adaptation of "Hound of the Baskervilles" made as part of a BBC series), Morell is a fine Watson (and he is playing the part in a script that doesn't portray Watson as a bumbling idiot whose only reason for being around is for Holmes to made rude comments about) and the rest of the cast is likewise perfect in their various parts. Christopher Lee even takes a turn as a slightly heroic figure, playing a Henry Baskerville that is nothing like the character in the original novel but interesting and well played nonetheless.

This version may take some rather extreme liberties with the novel here and there--it is a Hammer Film from the late 1950s, so there MUST be a peasant girl with heaving busoms in a lowcut blouse--but Cushing and Morell should definately be near the top of any list of "Great Homes & Watsons of the Movies." It's a must-see for fans of any of the stars or anyone who loves a well-done Sherlock Holmes adaptation. Lovers of director Terence Fisher's other films for Hammer (such as the Frankenstein series) will also definately want to check this one out.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

One of Seagal's best in years is still weak

Urban Justice (aka "Renegade Justice") (2007)

Starring: Steven Seagal, Eddie Griffin, Carmen Serano, and Kirk B.R. Woller
Director: Don E. FauntLeroy
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A violent man with a mysterious past, Simon Ballester (Seagal), moves into the worst area of Los Angeles' gang dominated neighborhoods so he can locate and kill the gangbangers who gunned down his police officer son. As he investigates (kicking copious ass as he goes), he discovers the truth about his son's death was far more than just another random gang shooting.

"Urban Justice" is one of the Steven Seagal's better movies in recent years. He's playing a character whose background and style is suitable to his age and bulk; he's working with a director, fight choreographer, and cinematographer who understand how to set up a scene so it looks like Seagal is actually doing some martial arts-so we avoid the embarrasingly obvious stunt doubles who have made him seem to laughable in recent years; and the script gives him some fairly decent lines to deliver... the way Simon Ballester so calmly and good-humoredly discusses death and violence is both funny and chilling.

However, Seagal's lines and the way fight scenes are filmed are just about the only decent thing about the flickhow to shoot a scene. Everything else is Standard Issue Direct-to-DVD Low-Budget Action Film Cliches, with the villains being of a kind we've so many times before they are uninteresting even after the scope of their evil ways has been revealed. The film also suffers from a problem all-too-common in one written by writers who are lazy or of limited talent--every character sounds like every other character, a grave sin in film-writing where characters are defined to a degree by what they say and how they say it. To make matters worse, the writers here also seemed to be shooting for some sort of record for how many times the word "fuck" was used in a single screenplay. I've no doubt that many people are so inarticulate that they say things like "I'm gonna fuck that fuckin' fuck the fuck up!", but to have an entire city full of them gets tiresome. And it dragged the movie down from a rating of 4 to a rating of 5.

If a little more effort had been put into developing the script's story and giving the actors better lines to say, this film could have risen to the level of the projects Seagal did in his glory days--the director and photgrapher certainly did great jobs, and Segal was better here than he's been in a while.

Maybe, just maybe, he's done embarrassing himself, and we can start enjoying his movies again

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Connery is Bond one last time... and he rules!

Never Say Never Again (1983)
Starring: Sean Connery, Max von Sydow, Barbara Carerra, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Kim Bassinger, Bernie Casey and Alec McCowen
Director: Irvin Kershner
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

An aging James Bond (Connery) returns to field-agent work when SPECTRE's leader Blofeld (Von Sydow) resurfaces and steals two nuclear warheads.

"Never Say Never Again" is one of those rare times when the movie-going public actually came out ahead as a result of a legal battle between producers. This movie came about because of a settlement relating to the film rights to Ian Fleming's James Bond character, and, while it's a remake of "Thunderball" and not part of the official James Bond movie canon, it's actually a pretty good Bond film. At least if you enjoy classic Bond... if you're a fan of the Daniel Craig movies, you might not like it that much.

Connery's final performance as James Bond (a decade after he swore he'd never play the character again) isn't quite up to "Goldfinger" or "Diamonds Are Forever", but it's still quite good. The mix of humor and coldbloodness that marked Connery's Bond, however, is here in full force and it helps the film immensely.

What also helps the film is Max Von Sydow's Blofeld. It's too bad he didn't play the character in a "real" Bond movie, because he is the best Blofeld save Charles Gray.

And there's the gorgeous Barbara Carerra, who plays one of the very best and sexiest femme fatales to appear in any Bond movie. She was an actress I wanted to see more of in this film, in every sense of that phrase.

For a different take on James Bond, you're better off checking out "Never Say Never Again" than those Daniel Craig films, particularly if you're an old coot who enjoyed "Goldfinger", "From Russia With Love" and "Diamonds are Forever".

(The illo in this post was "borrowed" from the Illustrated 007 blog; it was the poster for the Thai release of "Never Say Never Again," and I LOVE those collage-style poster/cover images! Click here to check out more great James Bond-related artwork.;

Monday, January 4, 2010

'Hard Target' is one that's worth hitting

Hard Target (1993)
Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Lance Henriksen, Yancy Butler, Kasi Lemmons, Chuck Pfarrer and Arnold Vosloo
Director: John Woo
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

When a young woman (Butler) hires a Cajun drifter (Van Damme) to help locate her father (Pfarrer) among the homeless of New Orleans, they become the latest targets of a group that organizes human hunts for twisted rich people.

Chance (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and Nat (Yancy Butler) are on the run
from psychopaths who hunt humans on the streets of New Orleans in "Hard Target".

"Hard Target" is one of the very best action films of the 1990s and a high point in the careers of both Jean-Claude Van Damme and Lance Henriksen. The two men give excellent performances--with Van Damme showing great charisma and Henriksen giving his best performance as a bad guy save his role in the 1991 version of "The Pit and the Pendulum".

This is a film with a sharp script and even sharper action sequences. It's a film where the action set pieces--like a very exciting cemetary chase and a fantastic, extended battle in a warehouse--have been copied so many times that I suspect there are filmmakes out there borrowing from third and fourth generation sources with perhaps not having seen the original.

It's also one of the last truly good action films helmed by John Woo; after this point, he became so full of himself as a filmmaker and so wrapped up in "Woo-isms" that he reduced his stylistic signatures to jokes--like the unintentionally funny and completley inexplicable appearance of doves during a fight scene in "Mission Impossible II".

But, whatever ill winds blew across the careers of the principles involved with this picture later, "Hard Target" is an action movie classic.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Sherlock Sunday: The Deadly Necklace

Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962)

Starring: Christopher Lee, Thorley Walters and Hans Söhnker
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

Sherlock Holmes (Lee) and his arch-nemisis Professor Moriarity (Söhnker) matching wits over an Egyptian necklace owned by Cleopatra, as it is stolen, recovered, and restolen.

This 1962 German film, with its two British stars and a British director, has surprisingly little to recommend it. The script is like a reject from the Universal Pictures series starring Basil Rathbone (with everything I don't like about the weaker efforts among those amplified ten-fold here, most notably Watson being portrayed as a bumbling, retarded simpleton), with an unbearably bad score.

It's amazing that a film with so much potential--Christopher Lee as Holmes and Terence Fisher directing... should be a sure winner!--could go so wrong. While Christopher Lee is absolutely right in his opinion that he and Thorley Walters more closely resemble the literary Holmes and Watson than any other on-screen pair, and there's no question that Lee gives a good performance as Holmes, there is very little else that works in this movie.

There are a couple of interesting moments between Holmes and Moriarity (who is played by the appropriately sinister German actor Hans Söhnker), but the downside is that they feel like they belong more in a hard-boiled, pulp fiction detective novel than a Holmes adventure.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

'Firewall' is predictable and run-of-the-mill

Firewall (2005)
Starring: Harrison Ford, Paul Bettany, Virginia Madsen, Mary Lynn Rajskup, and Robert Patrick
Director: Richard Loncraine
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Computer security expert Jack Stansfield (Ford) must help a group of brutal bank robbers help rob the bank he works for if he is to see his family alive again.

"Firewall" is a straight-forward thriller of the "Everyman is blackmailed and threatened by bad guys, until he finally fights back and wins the day"-variety. There's nothing here that hasn't really been done in other films, but it uses its various tropes and plot pieces effectively and it keeps the tension up and the story moving at a fast clip.

The best part about this movie is that it is so straight-forward; it's downright refreshing to watch a movie where the creators don't feel an urge to throw in badly executed and ill-conceived "surprise developments" and "shocking twists."

I recommend "Firewall" if you want to see a good, old-fashioned thriller with a solid cast and a decent (but not overly original) script.

Big city meets big cowboy hat

Coogan's Bluff (1968)
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Susan Clark, Lee J. Cobb, Tisha Sterling and Don Stroud
Director: Donald Siegel
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When an impatient sheriff's deputy from Arizona, Coogan (Eastwood), loses a dangerous prisoner in New York City, he receives a crash course in how things are done Back East.

"Coogan's Bluff" is an amusing detective film crossed with a fish-out-of-water story about a cowboy cop applying tough-guy tactics to a manhunt in ultra-liberal New York. Running gags surrounding stereotypes held by New Yorkers about Westerners (such as everyone in a cowboy hat and boots is from Texas) and Coogan's amazement about how law is enforced in the Big City are all well-deployed and delivered with perfect straight faces and comedic timing by the cast.

The only sour note in this excellent film surrounds Coogan's pseudo love interest. Coogan's a womanizer, so he spends the film trying to bed a bleeding-heart parole officer (who is such a bleeding heart that she lets her clients fondle her breasts during meetings). He eventually gets somewhere with her but instead of "closing the deal", he sneaks a look at her files to get a lead on his escaped prisoner. She is naturally angered by this betrayal, yet at the end of the movie she gives him a loving send-off as he heads back to Arizona. I love macho-fantasies as much as the next guy--if only women would fall into our beds over nothing but our tough ways and country charm!--but in the context of the way these two characters interact throughout the movie, it's an eye-rollingly stupid development that leaves the viewer with a final bad impression of what has otherwise been a pretty decent film.

Fans for the laconic Eastwood from films like "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" will love him in "Coogan's Bluff". They're also likely to love the entire movie... so long as the DVD player is stopped after Cobb meets Eastwood in the park and repeats his explanation to Coogan about how things are done in NYC.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Leave this prisoner locked up

The Prisoner (aka "Island of Fire" and "Jackie Chan is The Prisoner") (1990)
Starring: Andy Lau, Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, and Tony Leung
Director: Chu Yen Ping
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Police detective Andy Lau (Lau) goes deep undercover in Hong Kong's harshest prison in order to root out corruption and discover why men are showing up dead in explosions years after they were supposedly executed by firing squad. Along the way, he disspears from the film in favor of numerous subplots that don't really have anything to do with the main storyline but give co-stars Hung and Chan something to do.

"The Prisoner" is one of those films that feel like several script girls were hurrying through the halls of Golden Harvest's offices one day, collided and dropped loose script pages. They tried to sort them out, but they didn't quite succeed... and director Ping went to work with a script that consisted of pieces of numerous movies. The acting is good, there's some great human drama in the film (the Hung character is particularly interesting, as is the tragedy surrounding Chan's character and his deadly feude with a Triad boss), and the action scenes are fabulous, but the plot is too disjointed and unfocused to engage the viewer. The climax of the film in particular seems ludicrous in the extreme, mostly because it isn't set up properly.

I think the most interesting part of the film is that we get to see Jackie Chan in a different kind of movie that what he is usually featured in. Chan's films are almost always fairly lighthearted, with cartoon-style violence. In "The Prisoner", the violence is grim and deadly, and the only lighthearted parts are dark humor. It's also kinda fun to see him doing the typical Hong Kong action movie routines (blazing two-gun flying leaps) intermingled with his own trademmark fighting style.

Oh, and a note to hardcore Jackie Chan fans... despite his name being above the title, Chan plays a fairly small role in the film. Andy Lau is the star *and* its hero. In fact, near as I can tell, the film is only titled "Jackie Chan's 'The Prisoner' as a marketing ploy, as Chan neither directed, wrote, produced, nor did anything other than act in the film (and even that was reportedly to repay a favor he owed the director).