Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Don't spend your cash on 'Hard Cash'

The vast majority of movies I watch, I come to cold. If I know anything about them, it comes from reading the blurb on the back of the DVD case, or, rarely, a review on another website or a preview on the DVD itself, which I sometimes watch to decide if I'm actually in the mood for the film in question.

Such was the case with "Hard Cash". I'm a fan of Christian Slater, and I am of course familiar with Val Kilmer and Daryl Hannah, but I knew nothing about the film itself. So, after it sat about a month in my review stack, I stuck it in the DVD player to, at the very least, watch any preview of it that might be included.

And I decided that I had to watch the movie right then, because any flick that's got a midget assassin hiding in a toilet bowl can't be all bad (particularly when it's the midget who played Mini-Me).

But, unfortunately, the midget assassin in the toilet was merely indicative of the turd that this movie turned out to be... and I had been suckered by a well-done promo.

Hard Cash (aka "Run for the Money") (2002)
Starring: Christian Slater, Val Kilmer, Sara Downing and Daryl Hannah
Director: Peter Antonijevic
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Thomas (Slater), a clever thief working with a gang of morons who manage to pull off a $1.9 million heist. All Thomas wants is to split the money with his partners and flee to lead a better life with his young daughter and girlfriend (Downing). Unfortunately, Thomas and his gang stole marked money that a crooked, mildly insane FBI agent (Kilmer) had already stolen and was having laundered. Now, Thomas has to pull off an impossible job at the behest of the crooked Fed while trying to keep his own criminal associates from killing him and each other.

I love a good heist movie, I love good action films, I love good crime dramas, and I love good comedies. "Hard Cash", a film with a case of severe attention deficit disorder, tries to be all of the above, but fails to be any of the above. It reminded me of a pale imitation of a Donald Westlake novel, except the jokes weren't all that funny and the stakes didn't seem to higher... only more unbelievable and stupid. Worse, the stunts and chases aren't particularly good (and obviously cheaply made... the filmmakers couldn't even bother to make most of the cars they demolished look like anything but the junkers they were) and the heists weren't very suspenseful. In fact, "Hard Cash" does a great job at remaining 100% Tension Free. (In fact, the "teaser heist" at the very beginning of the movie is more interesting than anything that follows.)

The only halfway decent thing about this film is Christian Slater and the character he plays--even Val Kilmer can quite manage to rise above the awful script and character he has to work with. Slater's character is the only one with even the slightest bit of depth in the film, and he is the only one who seems to be doing any acting. (Okay, so he's the same character he is in most movies he's done--he's Christian Slater!--but at least there's SOME range of emotion in his performance. No one else has that.

Save your hard-earned cash for something better than "Hard Cash".

Monday, March 29, 2010

Witness Jane Tennison's final case

Prime Suspect 7: The Final Act (2006)
Starring: Helen Mirren, Laura Greenwood, and Gary Lewis
Director: Philip Martin
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

As her life is in total melt-down and alcholism is about to claim her once and for all, Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison (Mirren) struggles to close one last case before she retires from the Metropolitan Police force... the case of a 14 year-old girl who vanished on her way to basketball practice.

"The Final Act" is a nice, two-part close to one of the best television crime dramas to ever be created. It presents a decent mystery--one that I solved just ahead of Tennison, so the show plays as fair with the adience as ever--and it continues and concludes the downward spiral that's been Jane Tennison's life for the last 15 years. As she walks away from her collegues on the force in the final shot of the series, there is a sense that maybe she'll rise from rock-bottom, even if the character flaws that have grown deeper over the years are still very much present.

Although it is a bit slower moving than episodes in the early days of the series and not quite as good as the masterful heights reached in the early "Prime Suspect" series, it's still a fantastically acted and artfully written show. Helen Mirren and teenaged actress Laura Greenwood are particularly good in their parts.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

'Police Story' has Jackie Chan at his best

Police Story (1985)
Starring: Jackie Chan and Birgitte Lin
Director: Jackie Chan
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

After Police Sgt. Chan (Chan) busts an infamous crime lord, he is assigned to protect the woman authorities hope will be their chief witness against him (Lin). Chan is soon trapped between the anger of his unwilling charge and the intricate plots of the gangsters.

"Police Story" is, from the very first frame, a raging volcano of action and comedy. The film has a bare minimum of plot and characterization to get in the way of the jokes and impressive fight and/or action scenes... but the action is so impressive that we don't need a whole lot of plot. From a fantastic chase that leaves a shanty-town in ruins through a massive battle that lays waste to a shopping mall, this film is everything Jackie Chan fans love at its most concentrated.

"Police Story" is a must-see for action film fans. The shanty town car chase and bus chase are incredibly impressive. There's nothing like real cars flying through real buildings to make a real action film. No wussy computer graphics in this film!

As of this writing, this classic action film is unavailable for purchase, but it can almost certainly be rented from Netflix and other outlets.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

One of the best movies of 2000s

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Val Kilmer and Michelle Monaghan
Director: Shane Black
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

In "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang," petty thief Harry (Downey) is whisked away to Hollywood when a casting director decides he'll be perfect to play a detective in an upcoming movie. Here, he meets homosexual private detective "Gay" Perry (Kilmer) and, through a chance encounter, is reunited with childhood friend and unfulfilled dream-girl Harmony (Monaghan). The trio soon find themselves (despite their best efforts not to be) involved with mysteries, murders, and mayhem so bizarre that it's as though they've stepped into a classic pulp dime store mystery novel.

"Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" manages to be both a black comedy and a modern take on "film noir," as our reluctant heroes try to sort out the evermore complicated and deadly mystery they have been drawn into. The humor is derived from extremely witty patter that is delivered with great skill by Downey and Kilmer, and from the movie's playful fourth-wall approach to the ever-present narrator so common in this type of film. (More than once, the narrator--Harry--stops the film and comments that he left something and then goes on hilarious, self-deprecating rants about narration, storytelling, and how bad he is at both.) Laughs are also generated by the way the film turns several of the genre's conventions on its head, prime among these being that the hardboiled detective is openly gay.

This movie is fantastic not only because every actor is at the top of their game for every moment they spend on screen, but also because the film manages to keep its tense mystery plot going while being playful with the artifact that is a movie and the narration device. Even the digs at the "typical Hollywood happy ending" that the film gets in at the end, and the final wrap-up by the narrator are executed so flawlessly that they actually work!

Pay attention, all you filmmakers who think you're making clever suspense movies or clever comedies about movie-making and Hollywood... "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" is an incredibly well-done example of how to do both.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Cary Grant heads 'North by Northwest'

North by Northwest (1959)
Starring: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, and James Mason
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

When ad executive Roger Thornhill (Grant) is mistakenly identified by foreign spies as an elusive American agent, he finds himself framed for murder and on the run for his life, hunted by an ever-present foe (Mason) for reasons he doesn't understand. He eventually attempts to turn his situation back on his tormentors and discover the true identity of the spy they've mistaken him for, with the help of enigmatic beauty, Eve Kendell (Saint).

"North by Northwest" is perhaps the greatest thriller ever made, and I think it's quite possibly the very best movie Alfred Hitchcock directed; it's tied with "Young and Innocent" as my favorite Hitchcock film. It's got a fantastic cast--with Grant, as the hapless hero, and Mason. as the ultra-polished, James-Bondian bad guy, Vandamm shining brightest--a perfectly paced script that moves from one complication to another, from one breathtaking chase to another with roller coaster-like ups and downs and whip-lash turns; brilliant camera-work and editing; and one of the most fabulous scores ever written for cinema.

The use of sound in the film is also incredibly impressive. The cropduster scene (perhaps the most famous sequence from any Hitchcock film) is as impactful as it is because of the strategic use of sound (or, more accurately, the use of silence).

Modern filmmakers and writers should study this film carefully. They'll notice that the KISS principle is best when it comes to effective thrillers, and they'll also perhaps see what real witty dialogue sounds like. Lovers of thrillers and spy movies should also seek it out if they haven't seen it yet. It truly is a classic, and it is a movie that deserves to be seen again and again.

'Goldfinger' is Bond at his greatest

Goldfinger (1964)
Starring: Sean Connery, Gert Frobe, and Honor Blackman
Director: Guy Hamilton
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

British secret agent James Bond (Connery) is sent to investigate suspicious dealings of megalomanical billionaire Auric Goldfinger (Frobe). Bond uncovers that Goldfinger is involved in criminal activity on a far grander scale than anyone had suspected in their wildest nightmares.

"Goldfinger" is the James Bond movie that set the standard for all the (good) James Bond movies that followed. It was the first to introduce wild gadgetry and a tongue-in-cheek tone, which took the series and character away from its Ian Fleming roots, but gave the series the elements that have sustained it for over 40 years.

This is also the best James Bond movie so far, and it features one my all-time favorite movie exchanges...

Bond (strapped to a table, while a laserbeam is slowly moving into position to slice him in half): Do you expect me to talk?

Goldfinger (with a laugh, as he walks away): No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die.

It's perhaps the only time in the entire series where the inflappable Mr. Bond was in genuine fear for his life, and Goldfinger still stands as the classiest, coldest Bond villian of them all. He also had the best sidekicks, from pilot Pussy Galore to Oddjob (he of the lethal bowler hat). From the opening titles through the final (and surprising) deadly encounter between Bond and the bad guys, every thing in this film works perfectly. The cast is fabulous, the pacing is flawless, and the John Barry/Monte Norman soundtrack still stands as one of the very best Bond scores.

They keep the gritty, depressing James Bond reboot that has been inflicted upon the movie going public. I'll stick with the classics.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

'The Order' isn't one you need to order

The Order (aka "Jihad Warrior") (2001)
Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Sofia Milos, Sasson Gabai, Vernon Dobtcheff, Ben Cross Brian Thompson and Charlton Heston
Director: Sheldon Lettich
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

An internationally infamous art thief (Van Damme) must team up with an Israeli cop (Milos)--who is presumably infamous for always wearing her uniform buttoned down to the middle of her chest--to rescue his father from the clutches of a crazed religious leader (Thompson) who is bent on bringing about Armageddon.

While watching this film, be as excited as Van Damme and Milos look to be in the picture above. The film has a paper-thin plot with most of the characters being driven by weak motivations (or by nothing but plot dictates and Stupid Character Syndrom), and all the action and fight scenes being ineptly photographed, badly edited and perhaps even under-rehearsed.

The paper-thin plot and weak characters can be forgiven, I suppose, but the inept handling of the fight scenes cannot. With the exception a fight during the heist that opens the film, every fight has a cheap and amateurish feel to it, with too many cuts and close-ups of the action to really seeing what's going on and entirely too much use of slow-motion of Van Damme jumping or kicking. It screams either of an attempt to cover of badly rehearsed fights or of a director and cinematographer who didn't know how to film martial arts action. The many chase scenes are handled pretty well--with the exception of a motorcycle sequence that is filmed and edited so badly that it positively screams, "Look! Stunt Double driving instead of Van Damme!" This ineptitude carries through straight to the big final battle between Van Damme and the religious crazy, bringing the film to a close on a low note that is only made worse at a misfired attempt at a humorous denouement.

For all the films faults, the actors do as good a job as can be expected with the material they are working with. Van Damme is charming and funny while Sofia Milos wears that half-unbuttoned police uniform like few others have ever worn half-unbuttoned police uniforms before. Charlton Heston's extended cameo is badly written, but he does a good job with it and the same is true of supporting cast members Ben Cross and Brian Thompson. Their parts are horribly written, but they are appropriately sinister.

The backdrop of Jerusalem is also interesting, especially the way the film demonstrates during a foot chase how wildly different communities that are hostile to each other exist in very tight quarters, with Van Damme fleeing from secular police to the protection of Hasedic Jews and then finds himself being stared down by hostile Muslims, all over the space of just a few minutes.

That said, the film is a letdown in all areas that really matter when we are sitting down to watch a Jean Claude Van Damme film. It ranks among his weakest efforts to date.

Monday, March 22, 2010

'The Last Boy Scout' is decent Buddy Flick

The Last Boy Scout (1991)
Starring: Bruce Willis, Damon Wayans, Danielle Harris, Noble Willingham, Bruce McGill, and Halle Berry
Director: Tony Scott
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Privvate detective Joe Hallenbeck (Willis) and his partner Mike (McGill) are hired to protect a stripper named Cory (Berry). When Mike is murdered in a car-bombing, and Cory is gunned down in the street, Joe teams up with Corey's boyfriend, a former pro-football player named Dix (Wayans) to uncover the reasons behind the killings. What they discover is that there is deep-seated corruption that infests both local politics and professional sports... and that the deaths of Mike and Corey are only the beginning.

"The Last Boy Scout" is a decent action movie with a script that has better dialogue than most, a superb cast, and a nice selection of subplots that humanize our heroes without slowing down the movie. Fans of the principle stars--Willis and Wayans--will enjoy their performances in this movie. General action fans should find it to their liking as well.

Given the love Hollywood has for sequels, I'm a bit surprised that we didn't get "The Last Boy Scout 2". The end of the film seems to beg for one, and it would be a lot easier to pull off than the sequels to "Die Hard".

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sherlock Sunday: Cushing's Final Bow

The Masks of Death (aka "Sherlock Holmes and the Masks of Death") (1984)
Starring: Peter Cushing, John Mills, Anne Baxter, Anton Diffring and Ray Milland
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

An elderly Holmes (Cushing) and Dr. Watson (Mills) come out of retirement in the years just before the start of WWI to investigate two baffling mysteries that turn out to be related. Old friends also return, and Holmes may even get to have a rematch with The Woman as he tries to solve the mysterious deaths of five unconnected men in London and the disappearance of a German prince from a country estate.

Peter Cushing once again gives an excellent performance as Sherlock Holmes in what I like to pretend is his final role. He was dying even while making this movie, but he did not appear so frail so as to it being obvious, as he did in the few other film appearances he had after this one.

Cushing's Holmes is often gruff and cranky, but he remains charming and likable. John Mills also gives a good performance as his loyal assistant Watson, who is treated far better by both the actor and the script writers than he is in most adaptations; it is very clear in this film that Watson is only a dunce when compared to Sherlock Holmes.

This made-for-TV movie is an excellent Holmes adventure that captures the feel of Conan Doyle's stories like few attempts to bring Holmes to the screen have. It's also a reunion/farewell performance of sorts for actors and crew that were regulars on Hammer and Amicus productions, as it features several actors who were were regulars in those films and is directed by Roy Ward Baker.

"The Masks of Death" is, sadly, not available on DVD and long out of print on VHS. I hope that the Robert Downey Jr Holmes movies will cause whoever owns the rights to this one to release it on DVD.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

'The Ladykillers' will slay you

The Ladykillers (1955)

Starring: Alec Guinness, Katie Johnson, Herbert Lom, Danny Green, Peter Sellers, Cecil Parker, and Jack Warner
Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

The criminal mastermind nicknamed "the Professor" (Guinness) concocts the perfect robbery and perfect get-away plan. He had every angle covered... except for the X-factor of Mrs. Wilberforce (Johnson), a sweet little old lady whom he had cast as an unknowing accomplice, but whose sense of right and wrong and force of will proves to be more than a match for the Professor and his gang of cutthroats.

"The Ladykillers" is a comedy that's very simple in concept--five robbers struggle to avoid discovery and capture when their unwitting dupe becomes wise to their true activities--but its execution is so deft and so clever, and its cast so skilled at their craft that the film ends up as one of the funniest and most unpredictable crime comedies ever filmed.

Some of the humor arises from the fact that a gang of hardbitten criminals get squemish when it comes to harming a little old lady and that she is able to shame them into cooperating with her. However, much more comes from a constant stream of multi-layered sight gags and repeated reversals of audience expectations.

It's no surprise that the Professor and his gang ultimately fail in their dastardly schemes, but even this expected finale ends up being presented with a couple unexpected twists.

With a brilliant script, some very nice photography that takes full advantage of the setting around and atop King's Cross Station, and top-notch performances from a cast of truly great actors--with the interplay Alec Guinnes and Katie Johnson, and Guiness and Herbert Lom being particularly effective and funny--"The Ladykillers" stands as one of the greatest British comedies ever put on film.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Double Feature: The Miss Congeniality Saga

During the early 2000s, Sandra Bullock starred two movies as Gracie Hart, an FBI agent who went undercover as a beauty queen. Like the "Speed" movies in the 1990s, Sandra Bullock starred in one excellent film and then signed up for a sequel that was nowhere near as good. In this post, I review both of the "Miss Congeniality" films.

Miss Congeniality (2000)
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Benjamin Bratt, Michael Cain, Heather Burns, and William Shatner
Director: Donald Petrie
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When an unknown madman threatens a beauty pagent, life-long tomboy FBI Agent Gracie Hart (Bullock) must master all the feminine graces and go undercover as a pageant participant to unmask the killer.

"Miss Congeniality" is a funny fish-out-of-water comedy, with the standard theme of characters who have their preconceived notions of each other (and even themselves) challenged and emerge at the end of the story having learned valuable lessons and gained a deeper understanding of themselves and everyone around them.

In the case of Gracie, she learns to embrace a part of herself that she's denied since she was a girl, and she learns to respect the hopes and dreams of those who might not want the same things she does. It's actually a rather touching transformation that the character undergoes, and it's a testament to Bullock's acting ability that Gracie comes across like a three-dimensional character in a movie that is otherwise populated with outrageous stereotypes and excuses for slapstick comedy. (And speaking of slap-stick, Bullock also displays a great talent for physical comedy in this film.)

Although Bullock is definately the star of the film, she is ably assisted by her co-stars and supporting players, all of whom put in excellent comedic performances (with the exception of Benjamin Bratt, who is the films only straight man... but he fills that role admirable). Bergen and Shatner are particularly fun as a pair of aging pageant organizers, and Caine is fantastic as the beauty expert tapped by the FBI to infuse Gracie with some grace.

"Miss Congeniality" is definately a comedy that's worth seeing.

Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous (2005)
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Regina King, Enrique Murciano, William Shatner, and Heather Burns
Director: John Pasquin
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

In "Miss Congeniality 2", Gracie Hart (Bullock), too famous for fieldwork after her adventure with the beauty pageant, and with slightly more refined manners, is tapped to be the FBI's "celebrity face". With her romantic life coming unglued for reasons she can't understand, she throws herself completely into the life of an empty-headed PR flack. But then two of the friends she made during the pageant caper (Shatner and Burns) are kidnapped, so she flies to Las Vegas in an unauthorized attempt to rescue them.

As much as I loved "Miss Congeniality", I find very little to recommend the sequel. The biggest problem is that everything that made Gracie Hart a likable and sympathetic character in the first film are absent for most of the sequel, because she spends most of the story playing at being someone she is not. It doesn't help matters that her new partner (King) is just plain obnoxious and completely devoid of any interesting character qualities.

With Bullock playing someone who is playing a lame character, we're left with the supporting cast for most of the laughs in the movie. Shatner and Burns (who spend most of the film tied up in a little shack) are very, very funny, and they're worth two of the tomatoes I gave the film. Likewise, Murchiano (best known for deadpan, ultra-serious performances on the crime drama "Without A Trace"), as a nebbish FBI Agent who learns to stand up for himself once Gracie rediscovers who she is, displays some fine comedic talent. However, everyone has limited material to work with, as the story is very flimsy.

I think all the performers do the best with what they have to work with, but it just isn't enough. The film has no heart, but just feels like a string of badly told, fairly tired jokes. Worse, Bullock and the Gracie Hart character are so badly wasted that this film almost makes one forget what was so charming and fun about the original "Miss Congeniality."

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Lundgren looking toward the future?

The Russian Specialist (aka "The Mechanik") (2005)
Starring: Dolph Lundgren and Ben Cross
Director: Dolph Lundgren
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When a retired Russian Special Forces officer (Lundgren) finds himself presented with the opportunity to take revenge against the gangsters who murdered his family, he becomes an unstoppable one-man army that takes no prisoners.

Dolph Lundgren is often mentioned by film snobs in a mocking tone and the same breath as in the stalled-out, over-the-hill action star Steven Seagal. However, "The Russian Specialist" proves that Lundgren is in a class far above Seagal. But this is very unfair to Lundgren, "The Russian Specialist" proves that he has both more talent and sense than Seagal.

Seagal is still making the sort of movies he made when he first started out, despite being fat, old, and apparently crippled (since he doesn't seem to do any of his own fight scenes anymore). Lundgren, on the other hand, seems to be phasing himself out of the "action star" lead roles, acknowledging the passage of time, and moving behind the camera and to less physical parts. It would be a shame if someone with the level of talent that Lundgren shows for directing, acting, and writing embarrasses himself the way Seagal has in his recent movies by not moving on.

Under Lundgren's direction, we have Ben Cross giving one of the best performances I've ever seen him do, and virtually every other cast member gives a performance that's surprisingly natural and completely believable. The muted color-schemes of the film helps underscore the general tone, and the somewhat slow pace of its middle section proves to be the perfect mood-setter for the astonishingly well-staged, bullet-ridden violence extravaganza during the last twenty or so minutes of the flick.

Lovers of action films and those who simply appreciate a well-made movie will like this film almost equally. There might even be a snob or two who might sneer just a little bit less when Lundgren's name comes up.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

'The Devil's Own' is a movie he can keep

The Devil's Own (1997)
Starring: Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A New York cop of Irish background (Ford) becomes host to an IRA terrorist (Pitt) who is the United States to buy weapons.

"The Devil's Own" spends much of its time in an offensive romanticising of a filthy bunch of murderous terrorists. The ONLY thing this movie gets right about Northern Ireland, the IRA, and Americans of Irish heritage is that Americans of Irish heritage either were too stupid or intellectual lazy to see the IRA for what they rea,lly are. (My money's on intellectually lazy... because Americans of Arab background or the Muslim persuasion are as stupid about twisted freaks like Hamas as the Irish-Americans used to be about the IRA.)

While the film does have some nicely done action sequences, there is too much offensive pablum here for me to recommend even watching it for that. (And why couldn't Brad Pitt hold his accent for more than one or two lines? Did he really choose to badmouth the film before it came out because he knew that he sucked worse than the script he was performing?)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

They CAN'T make them like they used to

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)
Starring: Woody Allen, Helen Hunt, Dan Aykroyd, and David Ogden Stiers
Director: Woody Allen
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

An insurance investigator (Allen) becomes an unaware, remote-controlled jewel thief after a clever crook (Stiers) hypnotises him. To clear his name, he turns to a female executive at his firm (Hunt), but the situation only gets worse because she has also been hypnotized by the same crook.

"The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" features a screenplay that might have been written in 1939. The goofy comedy/mystery plot, the patter, the humor, the romantic entanglements, the pacing of the film... it's all a throwback to the period in which the story is set. Unfortunately, the one thing that isn't up to the cinematic period this film is a homage to is the acting.

Don't get me wrong. The acting here is decent enough for a modern movie, but it's not the kind of acting the script and the film needed (never mind that the director and screen writer are the same person). This material calls for talents like John Howard, Heather Angel, Cary Grant, Bud Abbott, and Katharine Hepburn. The problem is, there simply aren't actors like them anymore, although there are a small handful who come close. None are cast in the leads here, however.

"The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" tries to be a movie of the kind they, literally, don't make anymore. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

In the end, it's a film that Woody Allen fans will appreciate (I suspect... I'm not a big fan of his work myself, so it's hard for me to judge), but fans of the lighthearted mysteries from the 1930s and 1940s it's emulates (like me) will be disappointed, as the film is nowhere near as good as the potential in the script.

Monday, March 15, 2010

'Air Force One' features kick butt president

Air Force One (1997)
Starring: Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman, Glenn Close and Grace Marshall
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When the plane carrying the President of the United States (Ford) is hijacked by Russian nationalists who want to force the release of an imprisoned war criminal, the President escapes capture and sets about kicking some terrorist ass.

"Air Force One" is a great little action film that anyone who appreciates an exciting plot featuring terrorists getting whacked in hand-to-hand combat by an unlikely hero and an interesting cast of characters portrayed by talented actors.

Harrison Ford portrays the sort of president that I think every American deep down wishes we could have the helm of our country (but will probably never get) while Gary Oldman chews the scenery to pieces and just about steals the movie as one of the most vicious characters you'll ever love to hate.

All-star cast can't give this movie heart

Lies and Alibis (2006)
Starring: Steve Coogan, Rebecca Romijn, Sam Elliot, Henry Rollins, James Marsden, James Brolin, Selma Blair, and John Leguizamo
Directors: Matt Checkowski and Kurt Mattila
Rating: 5 of 10 Stars

Retired con-man Ray Elliot (Coogan) is running a successful business that establishes alibis and covers for husbands and wives who cheat on their spouses. It is a good life... until one of his clients (Marsden) murders his lover. Ray must find a way to deal with the police, the blackmailers, and even his own past when it comes back to haunt in him the form of eccentric assassin The Mormon (Elliot). To top off the total collapse of Ray's quiet retirement, he may be falling in love with his new executive assistant (Romijn).

"Lies and Alibis" is a light-weight comedy that follows the pattern of all good caper and "Big Con" movies. It's got a collection of fine actors, who each portray quirky characters (with Sam Elliot as the Latter-Day Saint polygamist assassin and his sidekick Henry Rollins; Brolin and Marsden as obnoxious wealthy father and son who make Elliot's The Mormon character look almost like a decent guy, because at least The Mormon seems to have some semblance of honor; and Leguizamo as an innocent bystander who gets caught up in the events, being the most fun to watch. Top-billed stars Coogan and Romijn are okay, and they play well off each other in the scenes they share, but it's the other cast members who make this movie entertaining.

I don't say this very often, but I think this film would have been better served if it had been ten or fifteen minutes longer. The perfect storm of Bad News that forms around Ray and his carefully constructed multi-layered con that ultimately extracts him from it, take so much time to set up that we only skim the surfaces of just about every character in the film. We gain some insight into Ray, but even though he's narrating events constantly, he still keeps most of his secrets from us. (This makes the twist ending to the film and Ray's final exit from his current life, a little bit of a cheat, even if it is set up in plain view as the final 15-20 minutes of the movie unfolds.) Everyone else, however, remain total mysteries, particularly Romijn's character, who is so ill-defined I can't even remember her name.

What we have here is a nicely executed bit of plot machinery, but the film has no heart.

"Lies and Alibis" is like those animatronic displays they used to have at Disneyland (and they may still... it's been 30 years since I've been there)... everything in it comes with perfect timing, but there's no humanity or personality here. Despite good performances by all the actors involved, despite a neatly executed caper and con-game plot, I still felt unsatisfied when the end of the movie came, because there was nothing to get involved with emotionally.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

'Formula 51' doesn't work

Formula 51 (2002)
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Carlyle and Emily Mortimer
Director: Ronny Yu
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Elmo McElroy (Jackson) is a master chemist who has created the ultimate in "designer drugs." After screwing the State-side drug syndicate he had worked for, he dons a kilt and travels to Liverpool, England to sell his formula for $20 million. Here, everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and Elmo finds himself on the run from corrupt cops, dimwitted skinheads, and a mysterious assassin (Mortimer) who is intent on gunning down everyone around Elmo. Can Elmo and his one ally--low-rent hood and soccer fan DeSouza (Carlyle)--find a buyer who stays alive long enough to purchase Formula SoM-51?

"Formula 51" wants to be a crime comedy occupying the ground somewhere between "Snatch" and "Pulp Fiction." Unfortunately, it has a confused, messy script, characters who never rise above stupidly obnoxious or being total cyphers, and virtually every attempt at humor is either tired retreads of too-often-seen gags or simply unfunny. And then there's a fact that Jackson spends the whole movie in a kilt, something that the cast and crew seemed to think was the film's comedic highlight, but which is really just mystifying, slightly dumb, and the source of too many bad attempts at humor. There are a couple of mildly interesting story twists and several scenes with some good acting in them, but the bad far outweighs the good in this movie as it rushes from badly thought-out scene to badly motivated action sequence.

There's enough action in the film to keep the viewer entertained, but there are also too many characters in the film who are so dumb that one wonders how they dress themselves in the morning. And they're not dumb in the way they were in "Pulp Fiction" or "Snatch"... they're dumb in an eye-rolling, "okay, the writer thought this was funny and it might be if I was high or drunk, but in actuality it's just stupid" sort of way. There's also the issue of a subplot involving a corrupt cop so blatantly violent and corrupt that he wouldn't even a believable as a character in a film set in some third-world hellhole, let along England. The actors are all good--with Jackson and Carlyle playing nicely off one another--but the weight of the awful script keeps them from really accomplishing anything worthwhile.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Star-filled Christie adaptation is worth looking into

The Mirror Crack'd (1980)
Starring: Angela Lansbury, Geraldine Chaplin, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor
Director: Guy Hamilton
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When a harmless local from the English village of St. Mary Mead is murdered at a reception held in the honor of visiting Hollywood celebrities (Hudson and Taylor), only the keen mind of spinster detective Miss Marple (Lansbury) can separate the innocent from the guilty and solve a murder mystery with a motive rooted in the hazy past.

"The Mirror Crack'd" in one of the many star-filled Agatha Christie adaptations that were produced during the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties... and this one has enough stars in it that even Carl Sagan would have been astonished. Even the supporting cast is made up of well-established actors, such as Tony Curtis, Kim Novak, Edward Fox, and Charles Gray.

The amazing collection of talent is supported by a well-written script, and the 105-minute running time of this very excellent example of a cozy mystery movie breezes by in what seems like no time. The spoofing of Hollywood stereotypes is well done in the film, with Taylor, Novak, and Curtis being particularly funny.

On the downside I don't think Lansbury made the best Miss Marple, but that's not so much a negative critique of her performance but a reflection of the fact I don't think she's right for the part; Lansbury simply doesn't have the sort of disarming and completely unassuming aura that a Miss Marple must excude. Lansbury isn't bad in the part, she's just miscast and therefore is doing as well as can be expected.

If you like these sorts of movies--be they Christie adaptations or originals--you'll find that "The Mirror Crack'd" is one of the better of its kind. The only truly bad part of the film is the musical soundtrack. I think the composer mistook St. Mary Mead for Chicago, and no one had the heart to tell him.

When Ninja Attack....

Mask of the Ninja (2007)
Starring: Bernice Liuson Sim
Director: Kevin Anderton
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

A Chinese secret agent (Sim), who has studied the ways of the Ninja, sees her skills put to the test when she is beset by enemies on all sides.

"Mask of the Ninja" is a three-minute short that's a hilarious spoof of martial arts movies. The filming and editing is nicely done, and the acting is also very nice. Of course, this is just a three-minute short, but it's so good that it leaves you wishing for more. Plus, it's guarenteed to make you laugh.

Watch the film yourself by clicking below!

A big "Thank You" to Vic Clay (who appears as one of the two bums at the very beginning of the film) for calling this film to my attention.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

An Analytical Double Feature

Analyze This (1998)
Starring: Billy Crystal, Robert De Niro, and Lisa Kudrow
Director: Harold Ramis
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Billy Crystal stars as a successful psychiatrist whose life is turned upside down (not to mention endangered) when a hardboiled mob-boss (Robert deNiro) seeks him out for treatment of depression.

This movie is fun to watch as a spoof on mob films, and the way that Crystal and DeNiro's characters both learn about themselves as a result of their assocation is also a worthwhile element of the film. However, there is just a little too much crammed into the script, so some events seem to move too fast, and some supporting characters don't get enough exposure to bring their roles fully into focus.

Analyze That (2002)
Starring: Billy Crystal, Robert De Niro, and Lisa Kudrow
Director: Harold Ramis
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Billy Crystal, Robert Deniro, and the supporting cast all reprise their roles from Analyze This in this sequel of a rare breed... it's actually funnier than the original!

The story picks up a few years after the end of "Analyze This," as Crystal's character is called upon to cure reformed mob boss Paul Vitti (DeNiro) of an apparent mental breakdown and then help ease him into normal society as a law-abiding citizen. Can a nebbish psychiatrist reform a life-long criminal?

This is less of a mob-spoof than the orignal, and more about Vitti's attempt to extracate himself from his mob life and the interplay between Crystal and Deniro's characters. The film also features some funny self-referencial bits about Hollywood "mob realism" and a nicely done "caper" crime as Vitti seemingly returns to criminal life. On the downside, "Analyze That" suffers from some of the script weaknesses as its precessor--some elements and characters are annoyingly under-developed.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Steven Seagal is... the REAL Iron Chef!

Under Seige (1992)
Starring: Steven Seagal, Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Busey, Colm Meany, and Erika Eleniak
Director: Andrew Davis
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When a US Navy battleship and its nuclear weapons are stolen by terrorists and their ex-CIA leader (Jones), only former Navy SEAL Casey Ryback turned ships' cook (Seagal) to stop them and save the day.

"Under Seige" is a film that I love--and which many cite as Seagal's very best--but the "world's deadliest, crankiest cook" character that he plays here makes me smile every time I consider it.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, because it's played up as a gag in the film, too. All-in-all, this film has a lighter touch than most Seagal movies, even if the action is fast and furious, the violence brutal, and the stakes very high--Ryback is up against crazy people with nukes at their disposal.

"Under Seige" is a fun action film with a clever script, good fight scenes, and appropriately dastardly villains. Tommy Lee Jones is particularly great fun to watch, and he and Seagal have a nice interplay in what scenes they have together.

As many jokes as this film gives rise to, it is one that fans of action movies owe it to themselves to see. It's an excellent film and everyone involved with it was at the top of their game.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

'Last Action Hero' shatters the fourth wall

Last Action Hero (1993)
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charles Dance and Austin O'Brien
Director: John McTiernan
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A young movie fan (O'Brien) crosses over into his favorite movie universe--the non-stop action world of hardboiled cop Jack Slater (Schwarzenegger)--with an enchanted movie ticket. That's all well and good, but when the ultimate evil criminal mastermind of that world, Benedict (Dance) gets hold of the ticket and leaves his film reality for the Real World, real tragedies may unfold.

This movie is unfairly maligned, I think, because it's actually a far deeper film than critics and rank-and-file movie goers give it credit for.

It might be because I'm a writer, but this rates high among my favorite movies of all time--not quite in the Top Ten, bt almost. I love it, because it says alot about the creative process when it shows the film universe through the eyes of the visitor: Everything that was going trhough the writer's head while he was working on the script is included in the world--including talking ducks and other weirdness that never makes it into even the first draft--while commonplace things that every real person must have aren't even present, such as the furniture in Jack Slater's apartment. There is none there, because Slater never goes there in the stories, so the writer never thought about what it contained.

The film's commentary on the life of fictional characters and how casually we writers abuse them also spoke to me, such as when Slater learns that nothing in his world is "real" and then wants to know why anyone would invent a tale so horrible as having him powerless to stop the murder of his own young son... particularly when it's just for the entertainment of others.

There is also one aspect of criticism I hear of this film that indicates that most viewers and critics don't even get the surface of the thing. The Jack Slater Universe the fan crosses into isn't supposed to be a recreation of "Lethal Weapon." It's supposed to be a spoof of it and all action films of that type. I think it was great that Schwarzenegger was willing to lampoon himself and even the entire genre that his career was built on with this film. (And with my interpretation, some of the more outrageous aspects of the film world--such as the mob hit--may actually be like the talking duck... things that will never show up in any actually produced movie).

"Last Action Hero" is a movie that both critics and audiences don't seem to get, because they don't watch it with their brains engaged. Try taking a second look at it, but this time consider that maybe there's something to it that isn't on the marquee.

Monday, March 8, 2010

FBI uses movie dreams in 'The Last Shot'

The Last Shot (2004)

Starring: Matthew Broderick and Alec Baldwin
Director: Jeff Nathanson
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A wanna-be screenwriter/director (Broderick) has all his dreams come true when a movie producer (Baldwin) offers him the movie deal of movie deals. However, the movie production is actually the central part of an elaborate sting operation against the east coast crime families.

"The Last Shot" is an interesting, if uneven and only sporadically funny comedy that is loosely based upon a real life FBI operation where an undercover agent mounted a film production in an attempt to catch mobsters associated with John Gotti. It's not a crime comedy, however, but merely uses the framework to poke fun at Hollywood stereotypes while ultimately delivering a message about how hopes and dreams enrich all our lives.

The film succeeds almost entirely due to the charisma of its two leads, as well as their acting abilities; they pair make an excellent on-screen pair and their presense is enough to get the viewers through the film's slow points. Baldwin has rarely been better than he is in this film, as the calculating undercover agent who finds himself becoming enamoured and inspired by a hapless losers dream of making movies.

This is not a must-see movie, but Broderick and Baldwin's performances, as well as Joan Cusack, Calista Flockhart, and Tony Shalhoub in small but hilarious supporting roles, make it a movie that's nonetheless worth checking out.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Sherlock Sunday: Terror By Night

Terror By Night (1946)
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Alan Mowbray and Dennis Hoey
Director: Roy William Neill
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When the diamond he was hired to protect is stolen and the son of its son is murdered right under the nose of Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone) and Inspector Lestrade (Hoey), as they travel by night train from London to Edinburgh. The great detective must solve a locked-room mystery and recover the diamond before the train reaches its destination to save both his reputation and that of Lestrade. To complicate matters even further, the nefarious Colonel Moran is on the train as well, possibly seeking revenge for Holmes causing the death of his associate, Professor Moriarty.

"Terror By Night" is a nice Holmes adventure that puts all the characters in a sealed environment with the killer and one that still manages to keep the mystery going strong up to the very end, even if there really is only one likely suspect from about halfway through the film (due to the way these things usually work out). However, it you're the kind of viewer like me who likes to play along in solving the case, the film is still entertaining once you've figured out the killer, there is still the question as to how he is going to get away with it.

Although briskly paced and well-acted, the film isn't perfect. I found myself wondering how the various villains on board the train were moving about unseen(something the film never did fully answer) and I further was unclear on why the second murder was committed, as it put Holmes on a direct path to solving the mystery. (Unless that was part of the master plan all along? Let Holmes get a victory that would facilitate his ultimate defeat? I'll have to watch the film again to see if maybe I missed something there.)

Nigel Bruce's Watson continues to be portrayed as just shy of a total idiot, although he has fewer opportunities to behave like a moron here, as he spends most of the film hanging out with an Army buddy who happens to be traveling on the train. Bruce is still the primary comic relief, but fewer jokes are at his character's expense than usual. Similarly, Holmes has fewer opportunities to mistreat Watson. One can actually believe they're friends in this picture.

"Terror By Night" is a fun, fast-paced Holmes adventure that shows why the Basil Rathbone films are celebrated by fans of classic mystery films and Holmes alike. It has nothing to do with the original Doyle tales, but it is a nice use of his characters.

Friday, March 5, 2010

'Day of the Wolves' is a great heist movie

Day of the Wolves (1973)
Starrng: Richard Egan, Jan Murray, Ric Jason, and John Lupton
Director: Ferde Grofé Jr.
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A secretive criminal mastermind (Murray) brings together six violent bandits to rob every bank and payroll office in a small town simultaneously.

"Day of the Wolves" is the perfect example of how do to a low-budget action film or heist movie. It's got an economy of locations, a cast of competent actors working with a polished script under the guidance of a director and technical crew that understood how to get the most out of their limited budget. This is the kind of movie that makes some people nostalgic for the "grindhouse days" even while rolling their eyes at the shoddily made counterparts of today. "Day of the Wolves" may not be award-winning material, but the work of skilled artists is on display at every level in it.

(Yes, some of the beards worn by the movie's gang of armed robbers are plainly fake, but there has to be something to remind us of the film's shoestring budget in a more blatant fashion than the fact that all interior shots are probably some crew or cast member's home or office.)

If you like action movies--particularly if you if you want to see the original versions of what Quentin Tarantino copies with every movie he makes--or if you like well done heist movies, you definitely need to get your hands on a copy of "Day of the Wolves."

(I viewed it as part of the "Mean Guns" DVD collection. It's the odd man out in this collection--it takes place in Arizona, and it features a lone lawman (played by Richard Egan) facing off against heavily armed marauders while the townsfolk cower int their homes, but it's hardly a traditional western as it's set in the 1970s--but it's a movie that adds value to the set, and it's almost worth the purchase price by itself.)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

To-do list unites strangers in 'Underworld'

Underworld (1997)
Starring; Denis Leary, Joe Mantegna, Annabella Sciorra and Larry Bishop
Director: Roger Christian
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Johnny Crown (Leary) is back on the streets after seven years in prison. Armed with a new name and a new outlook on life, he sets about tracking down everyone who had even the slightest involvement with the death of his gang-boss father. Along the way, he picks up the enigmatic Frank Gavilan (Mantegna), and, despite Gavilan's initial insistence that he doesn't know Johnny, their shared history--and shared destiny--is gradually revealed. Will Gavilan be added to the ever-growing number of dead bodies that Johnny is leaving in his wake, or does Gavilan fit somewhere else on Johnny's "Things To Do Tonight" list?

"Underworld" is a strange movie. The back cover on the DVD compares it to "Pulp Fiction" and "The Usual Suspects", but, aside from a never-ending stream of banter and fitting into the general category of a crime film, it resembles neither of those films. In fact, drawing that comparison does the movie a disservice... but given that Johnny Crown's name is misspelled on the back cover, I doubt the copywriter even cared enough to watch the entire movie.

This is a film that is ALMOST good... and although I am giving it a Six rating, it's on the verge of a being a Five. I think that another few passes on the script, or maybe some more work in the editing room, and it could have been a Seven or Eight. That same might also be true if the two main actors were capable of... well, more acting. I enjoy both Leary and Mantegna very much, but both are actors of limited range and neither really stretch themselves here.

Parts of the movie would have made more sense if it had been clearer sooner that Johnny and Frank really HAVE known each other since childhood; as things stand, a number of things seem very baffling, because Frank's assertion of not knowing who Johnny is seems genuine, while Johnny's continued talk about wanting to help Frank and being "the best friend ever" simply come across as so much insane, threatening chatter. (Mantegna being the rock-solid, always down-to-earth guy, and Leary always seeming like he's ready to snap and carve up a bus full of nuns with a knife.

The vagueness of Frank and Johnny's relationship is only part of what makes this film confusing to watch. There are a number of characters whose actions are so extreme that even rampant psychosis can't explain it; if the characters really were as crazy as they come across, they would have been dead long before they appeared on screen in the film. Some of it (like the going-ons at a nightclub called the Blue Danube) feels more like a parody of this sort of film noir/crime drama film than seems right for what surrounds it. Parts of the ending have the same sort of parody feel to them.

The one thing that runs through all of "Underworld" is a strange, dreamlike quality. The randomness with which things happen and the characters move from encounter to encounter, the bizarreness of how just about every character in the film behaves (even bedrock Joe Mantegna... because he's almost too calm and unemotional through everything), and the lack of apparent consequence to anything that happens... it all adds up to a film that has a very unreal quality about it. And that unreal quality ends up making the film worth watching, despite the unevenness in how it treats its subject matter.

I give this film a cautious recommendation. It's not a great movie, but it's worth seeing for the odd sense of dreaminess it manages to invoke throughout. I think it's worth seeing if you like crime dramas or quirky movies of any genre. (It's also worth it if you like Leary's standard schtick.)

As of this writing, "Underworld" is out of print both on DVD and VHS.

Monday, March 1, 2010

John Wayne fails to impress in 'Brannigan'

Brannigan (aka "Joe Battle") (1975)
Starring: John Wayne, Richard Attenborough, Judy Geeson, Mel Ferrer, John Vernon, and Daniel Pilon
Director: Douglas Hickox
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Lone-wolf Chicago police detective Jim Brannigan (Wayne) is sent to England to retrieve his bail-jumping arch-nemesis, mob boss Ben Larkin (Vernon) under an extradition agreement. However, on the very day Brannigan arrives in London, Larkin is kidnapped and held for ransom by a team of highly skilled professional criminals. Brannigan finds himself forced to not only work with detectives from Scotland Yard (Attenborough and Geeson), but also Larkin's slimy attorney (Ferrer) in order to secure the safe return of the criminal-turned-victim. Unfortunately, Brannigan is being stalked by a determined hitman (Pilon) that Larkin hired before being kidnapped, and someone within the ranks of either Scotland Yard or Larkin's gang is playing both sides.

"Brannigan" is a movie with a fabulous cast, witty dialogue, and a fairly decent concept at its heart. It's even a very somewhat clever caper story with the kidnapping and the plot and counter plots surrounding the ransom drops. All of these good traits are squandered on a script that's predictable at every turn (even by 1975 standards, I venture, as some of the "twists" were old for crime dramas by 1940 and others are telegraphed too far in advance) and a film that's overlong and padded with establishing shots that go on for ever and ever (in some cases with bewilderingly dramatic music playing).

It's really a shame, because there was a lot that could have been done with with the very interesting cast of characters here, all being portrayed by top-notch actors. In fact, the British police detectives (Attenborough's Sir Charles and Geeson's Det. Sgt. Jennifer Thatcher) are more interesting than Wayne's Brannigan character. If a little more had been done with Tatcher, Sir Charles--or even with Brannigan's WW2 history in London--this film would have been so much stronger.

In the final analysis, "Brannigan" emerges as a slightly below average police drama that even John Wayne's biggest fans can probably put off seeing.

(Trivia: John Wayne was offered the part of Dirty Harry before it went to Clint Eastwood.)