Friday, April 30, 2010

Could the detective be the killer?

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
Starring: Albert Finney, Martin Balsam, Lauren Bacall, Richard Widmark, Anthony Perkins, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Jean Pierre Cassel, Michael York, Jacqueline Bisset, and Vanessa Redgrave
Director: Sidney Lumet
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

While traveling westward on the Orient Express, celebrated detective Hercule Poirot (Finney) must solve the murder of an unpleasant passenger as the train is halted by a mudslide. The case is complicated by the fact that virtually none of his fellow passengers are telling the truth or are who they appear to be, and that Poirot is apparently the only person without an iron-clad alibi.

"Murder on the Orient Express" is an excellent adaptation of one of Agatha Christie's best mystery tales. It manages to streamline a very complex and tangled scenario while keeping Christie's original narraive mostly intact. It also features an excellent cast giving great performances, with Albert Finney as the Great Detective, Lauren Bacall as an annoying American widow, and John Gielgud as an acid-tongued gentleman's gentleman being particularly noteworthy.

The weakness of the film is that it's slow in getting underway and that when it's finally got a good head of steam going, the mystery is solved and the movie ends. It causes the viewer to swing from a "get on with it!" sensibility to a "wait... that's all?" mindset. I think that if the movie had been more carefully edited, losing perhaps as little as five or ten minutes of running time during its first act, the film would have carried alot more tension.

That's not to say that what's here isn't good... it's very good and it's definately worth seeing for fans of period films and "cozy" mysteries. (On a personal note, the solution to the mystery in this film really creeped me out as a child, and I partially watched it again to see if it had remained as impactful. I didn't have quite the reaction I remember, but it is well delivered.)

Thursday, April 29, 2010

'Infernal Affairs' is an excellent police thriller

Infernal Affairs (2002)
Starring: Andy Lau, Tony Leung, Eric Tsang, and Anthony Wong
Director: Wei Keung Lau
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A mole (Lau) for the Triad criminal gangs has risen to a position of prominance and authority in the Hong Kong police department and has been assigned to the prestigious anti-drug and anti-organized crime taskforce, exactly where his crimeboss master (Tsang) wanted him to be. While taking part in a sting, the mole discovers that the police have a counterpart to him in the Triads--a cop (Leung) who has been undercover for so long that only one person in the police department knows his identity. The undercover cop likewise realizes there is mole in his ranks... and the two men begin an investigative race to unmask and destroy each other to save themselves. Along the way, they must also choose where their real loyalties lie--with the lives they have adopted, or the lives they left behind.

Police dramas don't come much more tense and well-written than this one. The suspense and stakes grow ever-higher as the film unfolds, and Lau and Leung's excellent performances as two men who have lived lies for so long they may have lost track of who they were to begin with, lend even more tension to the story.

Few movies manage to pull off a cat-and-mouse chase story as successfully as this one does, particularly since it's got two mice and each are also the cat. The stars and the supporting cast are all excellent, the action sequences are well done--even if the tensest of moments actually take place with characters sitting at tables or in front of computers--and it's got a couple of twists toward the end that don't feel like the sort of cheats that so many movie makers like to impliment these days.

"Infernal Affairs" is a truly excellent crime-drama. It loses One Star for a couple of stray plot-threads I would have liked to have seen better handled, but that's only a minor annoyance.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The second Bond lives twice

You Only Live Twice (1967)
Starring: Sean Connery, Akiko Wakabayashi, Donald Pleasence, Tetsuro Tamba, Karin Dor, Mie Hama, Desmond Lleweland, and Charles Gray
Director: Lewis Gilbert
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

With the Soviet Union and the United States blaming each other for mysteriously missing space capsules, war between the two superpowers seems imminent. However, British intelligence agent James Bond (Connery) tracks the real culprit behind the vanishing spacecraft to Japan. Here, he teams up with Japanese governmental ninjas (including the sexy Aki (Wakabayashi)) to put a stop to another evil plan set in motion by SPECTRE and Bond's nemesis, Blodfeld (Pleasence).

"You Only Live Twice" was a movie a ahead of its time, insofar as it has something of a 1980s-style action movie feel to it. Some of the action scenes go way over the top, and if you stop and think about them, they don't even make sense as they're unfolding in the movie. Plus, it's got ninjas in their jammies! Who knew such a thing was even allowed to be in movies before 1980?

However, the occasional lapses in logic are of no great consequence, as the film has so much else going for it. Connery gives a fine performance as Bond, composer John Barry turns our yet another excellent score, the film takes advantage of both the natural beauty of Japan as well as some of the myths around its culture, even while tearing others down, and one of the niftiest "secret lair" sets to ever appear in a Bond film.

Another point of interest is this was the first Bond movie where he teams with a female agent who truly is his match (Aki, played by the very lovely Akiko Wakabayashi. It is also the first time where there's a sense that genuine romance may be developing between Bond and woman. Of course, this is also the first manifestation of the "Bond Curse"--any woman he loves is bound to die.

A fun, solid entry in the James Bond series that's worth seeing by fans of 1960s spy films as well as lovers of action movies.

(If you're wondering why I mention the second Bond in this post's title, check out ththis review at "Shades of Gray".)

Monday, April 26, 2010

A political comedy that was dated on release

Silver City (2004)
Starring: Danny Huston, Chris Cooper, Richard Dreyfuss, Maria Bello, Daryl Hannah, and Billy Zane
Director: John Sayles
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A press opportunity and campaign commercial shoot for dimwitted gubernatorial candidate Dickie Pilager (Cooper) is disrupted when a dead body is discovered. Take-no-prisoners campaign manager Chuck Raven (Dreyfuss) hires burned-out-reporter turned private detective Danny O'Brien (Huston) to investigage possible links between the Pilager family and the corpse so he can institute damage control if he needs to. O'Brien uncovers far more than anyone had expected, and he drawn into a high-stakes political conspiracy involving billion dollar real estate development deals and illegal alien smuggling.

That summary of "Silver City" maikes it sound far more interesting than it is. This 2004 movie is so heavy-handed in its political messages (Republicans/Conservaitves ALL bad and evil and corrupt and stupid, Democrats/Liberals ALL good and pure and civic-minded and brilliant); the satire not even approaching clever or insightful, but merely recycled George Bush jokes that were old in 2001; and the mystery that Danny O'Brien investigates is drap and ultimately of a "so what"? variety. (But, it mostly becomes that due to the unrelenting, hackneyed political screeds that passes for the script and plot in this piece of junk.)

This is a film that was stale and dated when it was released in September of 2004, and it's only gotten more-so as George W. Bush's presidency slips away into history. Who could have guessed that so many talented actors could be so blinded by their politics so as to not recognize this film for a piece of garbage when they read the script?

This could have been a decent political thriller with satirical overtones if it hadn't been helmed by what I can only assume are a bunch of frothing fanatics. "Silver City" is the political equivilant of a third-rate drama airing late at night that Christian cable channel--if you're a True Believer, you'll think it's thrilling and funny. If you're even the least bit able to see that politics and politicians is far from a black and white game, and that no one rises to the top by being an idiot, and that no one is pure evil or pure sweetness and light, you will find this film to be a total waste of your time.

The only positive thing I can say about "Silver City" is that the cast all turn in excellent performances. I particuarly enjoyed Danny Huston, Billy Zane, and Daryl Hannah. I might even have liked Chris Cooper if his character had been just a tad more original and better written... but he did what he could with the unfunny crap he was working with.

I think the many glowing and fawning reviews this movie--which stinks worse than the corpse that ruins Dickie Pilager's film shoot--can be used as evidence for right-wingers who like to cry about liberal media bias. Only someone who is so severely brainwashed they're a mind-numbed robot could give this film anything approximating a positive review.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sherlock Sunday:
Moriarty teams with up with the Nazis!

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Lionel Atwill, William Post Jr, Kaaren Verne and Dennis Hoey
Director: Roy William Neill
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone) is charged with rescuing a Swiss scientist (Post) and his revolutionary new bomb-sighting system from the Nazis and bringing him safely to England. However, when the scientist turns out to have too high an opinion of himself and his intelligence, and he falls into the hands of British Nazi agents, Holmes finds himself in race against his old nemesis Professor Moriarty (Atwill) to unlock a coded message that reveals where the prototype of the bomb-sight is hidden.

"Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon" is the second of Universal's "Holmes vs. the Nazis" flick, and it is not only a fun Holmes adventure but a passable espionage thriller. The opening sequence where Holmes outsmarts the Gestapo agents who have crossed into Switzerland to kidnap genius inventor Franz Tobel is a great bit of filmmaker--and the only part of the film that stuck with me from the first time I saw this film at some point in the distant past. (I have no memory of watching this film before, but that opening bit, the revelation of Holmes, and the get-away was all very familiar to me.)

Like many movies of this type, the villains initially benefit from the fact that Holmes' charge may be a genius when it comes to inventing military hardware, but he's otherwise an idiot who ends up in Professor Moriarty's clutches because he had sneak out for a clandestine booty call and because of irrational demands placed on the British security forces regarding the production of his bomb sights. This is what leads to the race to decrypt the code. Apparently, Dr. Tobel is SUCH a genius that he knew the clandestine booty call was a bad idea, so he wrote a code he thought only Holmes would be able to help build his bomb sight should he come to a bad end. Too bad for Tobel that a man almost as part as Holmes is the one who grabbed him.

Speaking of Moriarity, Lionel Atwill gives an excellent performance as Holmes' evil opposite. The script writers also do a nice job of demonstrating his sinister genius by having him and Holmes discover the key to unlocking a particular complicated part of the code only by accident. (I suppose this means that neither are as smart as Tobel gave them credit for... but at least neither Holmes nor Moriarty would sneak out for booty calls while Nazi agents are prowling the streets looking for them.)

In some ways, actually, the film makes Moriarty out to be a bit smarter than Holmes in some ways, but ultimately too crazy to be as effective an evil genius as he might be. Twice during this picture, Holmes places himself completely at Moriarty's mercy, presumably assuming that the evil professor won't just kill him. A pretty stupid thing to do, and one that almost backfires at one point and leads to a more chilling portrayal of Moriarity than I've ever seen. Still, if he had just killed Holmes instead of being duped into killing him slowly (by Holmes playing off Moriarty's ego and sadism), he would have won the day AND the war for his Nazi paymasters.

Then again, if Moariarity had been as smart as Holmes, he wouldn't have teamed up with Nazi losers to begin with... and there wouldn't have been a movie.

"Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon" is a film that you'll enjoy if you get a kick out of old-time thrillers and pulp-fiction style detective tales. Hardcore Holmes fans will probably mostly enjoy the film for it being a sequel of sorts to Doyle's "The Dancing Men" short story, but only if they aren't too annoyed by Holmes and Watson being transplanted to 1940s London instead of 1880s London. (And all of us will have to ignore the goofy looking hair-do on Holmes. I will have to get around to researching that. It is so stupid looking there HAS to be story behind it.)

Saturday, April 24, 2010

'The Hidden' should be found by viewers

The Hidden (1987)
Starring: Michael Nouri, Kyle MacLachlan, Claudia Christian
Director: Jack Sholder
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

There's a serial killer/robber on the loose... he loves fast cars, loud music, and over-the-top violence. A homicide detective (Michael Nouri) manages to end the madman's killing spree, but then ANOTHER equally violent crook pops up. A young, soft-spoken FBI agent (Kyle MacLachlan) appears and reveals that he has been tracking these criminals, claiming that they change identities frequently. The two team up to end the mayhem once and for all.

The killer in the film is actually a disgusting alien criminal that leaps from body to body, and MacLachlan is actually ANOTHER alien who likewise leaps from body to body, but he is a cop, or at the very least a vigilante, who has been tracking the murderous creature across space for many years. 'The Hidden' is the tale of their final confrontation.

The above paragraph does not spoil the film--at this late date in the history of sci-fi/action films, it's exactly the sort of thing that we've come to expect from this sort of film. However, 'The Hidden' delivers all the standard elements with far more skill, grace, and craftsmanship. The performances delivered by the actors are top-notch, the script is tight and the dialogue is sharp and well-done, and the use of all the standard sci-fi and action film elements are extremely well-executed. Even the car chases and other action scenes--which often emerge as the weakest points of movies featuring this mix of elements and set in the modern day--are top-notch and better than several more well-known films of this type. What's more, the scenes and exchanges intended to be funny actually are funny, something else many films of this kind fail to pull off.

Another fantastic aspect of this movie is that the main characters--and even a couple of the minor ones--emerge as fully realized personalities that the viewer can't help but care about. Nouri's tough-as-nails homicide detective with a tranquil home life, and MacLachlan's fish-out-water pretend FBI agent with a tragic past make both a good team as well as an interesting contract (both in the action and humorous portions of the film) and the friendship that develops between them is highly believable. And it makes the movie's denouement both creepy and touching at the same time.

I think this is a film that any lover of sci-fi and/or action movies MUST see. (If you can find it. It's been out of print for a while.)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

James Bond for the tatooed skateboarder crowd

xXx (aka Triple X) (2002)
Starring: Vin Diesel, Samuel L. Jackson, Asia Argento, and Marton Csokas
Director: Rob Cohen
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

After losing several agents attempting to get the goods on a mysterious Russian crime group known as Anarchy 99, NSA honcho Augustus Gibbons (Jackson) decides it's time to fight fire with fire. He recruits extreme sportsman, professional rebel, and underground Internet celebrity Xander Cage (Diesel) into the agency's service and sends him to eastern Europe. After gaining the trust of Yorgi (Csokas), the Russian military officer turned ararchist and crimelord, he discovers that Anarchy 99 is a far more deadly terrorist threat than anyone has imagined even in their worst nightmares.

"xXx" is a James Bond movie for the skateboarding, snowboarding, tongue-piercing, random tatooing, baggy-pants crowd. From Xander's nifty spy-toys through the superweapon that Yorgi is going to unleash on the world, this film follows the step-by-step recipies that every Bond film since "Diamonds Are Forever" has followed. The action has been amped up--it's pretty much non-stop for the two-hour running time of the film--but the major showpiece stunts are pretty much what you'd expect to see in a James Bond film... and the same is true to the climax AND the denoument.

Heck, there's even one element of this film that makes it seem a tiny bit more sensible and believable than most James Bond films: Xander Cage is established as being 100% capable of pulling off crazy stunts with just about any mode of transportation you care to think of. How exactly did James Bond master such skills? (Not that I'm saying "xXx" is realistic, but then I'd never accuse a James Bond movie of that either.)

People who slam this movie like to complain about Vin Diesel's acting. I don't know what their problem is, as I think he does a fine job... considering he doesn't really have to act at all in this film. (The one scene where he does does do some acting--where Yorgi shows himself to be a more psychopathic monster than even the worse Bond foes--he does an okay job, given the character has been established as having nerves of titanium and a large amount of sympathy for "the little guy.") If there's someone that should be slammed for not giving much of a performance, it should be Asia Argento; she's attractive to look at, but she's not much of an actress, if one is to judge her by this film.

All in all, "xXx" succeeds extremely well as being at being a spy-movie in the James Bond mold. Check it out; it's a great deal of fun.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

There is no escaping a violent past....

A History of Violence (2005)
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Peter MacNeill, Stephen MacHattie and Ashton Holmes
Director: David Cronenberg
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Tom (Viggo Mortensen), a small town restaurant owner, becomes a national hero after defending his establishment from vicious armed robbers. This, in turn, brings Tom's secret past back to haunt him, threatening his family and everything he's grown to love.

"A History of Violence" is one of those movies that I recognize is a great piece of work, but one that is so intense that I don't want to watch it again. The acting, the well-crafted script, and the plausable, very realistic characters and situations make it the sort of movie that makes your skin crawl while you watch it. But it's not a fun horror movie creep-out sensation, but rather a chilling reaction to the tale unfolding on film.

If you want a thriller that feels firmly grounded in reality and a movie that will make you think, this is a film you need to check out. Just don't expect to find the sort of mood you're used to in a Will Smith or Harrison Ford vehicle. No one's in the mood for wisecracks after brutally dispatching a fellow human being, and you won't be in the mood to hear one either.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sherlock Sunday:
Holmes against the Nazi Voice of Terror

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Henry Daniell, Thomas Gomez and Reginald Denny
Director: John Rawlins
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

As Hitler's armies devour mainland Europe, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (Rathbone and Bruce) are retained by British Intelligence to stop the activities of Nazi saboteurs being coordinated by the mysterious Voice of Terror in radio broadcasts that hijack the British airwaves once a week. Holmes soon comes to suspect that the broadcasts portent something far more sinister and dangerous than the horrific acts of terrorist... and that the enemy within England itself is more powerful than dreamed of in the worst nightmares.

Loosely based on Conan Doyle's "His Final Bow" (where Holmes came out of retirement to catch a German spy at the beginning of WW1) and the real-life Nazi propaganda broadcasts that overrode BBC signals during the early 1940s, "Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror" is the first of a dozen Holmes movies starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce that transports the Great Detective and his loyal sidekick to modern day England. (Modern-day being the 1940s.)

Holmes' methods receive a slight upgrade--the key to unlocking the mystery behind how the Voice of Terror is able to coordinate the broadcasts and the sabotage involves analyzing different types of broadcast with cutting edge audio equipment--he trades in his deerstalking cap and tweed cape for an fedora and overcoat, and the speed of modern travel and communication also impacts the story, but overall the character of Holmes is as it's found in the pages of Doyle.

Although partly a war-time propaganda movie--the kind that I've lamented aren't made anymore, what with American filmmakers preferring to glorify those who would take away their freedom rather than those who defend it--with the patriotic speeches and dastardly Nazi villains that encompasses, the film sets the tone for most of the Universal efforts that will follow. Holmes is a renegade genius, Watson is a doddering moron that seems like he is going senile (even if he isn't quite as dimwitted here as he seems in later pictures), and the villains are of a stripe that would make even the worst of the worst that inhabited the pages of pulp fiction magazines in the 1930s give them a wide berth. But the stories are exciting and fun, so the bad treatment of Watson can be overlooked... as well as the absolutely rediculous hair style that Holmes sports in these early Universal films. (Transporting Holmes to modern-day was the idea of Basil Rathbone who felt the Victorian era was too old fashioned, so I wonder if he was also the genius behind that awful hair.)

While Watson as a ninny didn't originate with the Rathbone/Bruce pictures--there were hints of it as far back as the Arthur Wontner pictures--but it was these pictures that solidified the approach as "standard." The same is true of Holmes as nearly 100% hands-off as far as physical altercations go; when a brawl breaks out between Nazi agents and Limehouse ruffians hired by Holmes as muscle, you almost get the sense that Holmes is afraid to get in the middle of the fight. The Rathbone Holmes seems like he would never throw a punch but would instead leave it to others even in the most dire of situations, so it is with these films that the idea that a "action-oriented" Holmes isn't truthful to Doyle began.

The strong presence of these somewhat legacies aside in this film doesn't really harm the entertainment value, however. The story is too fast paced for anything but Holmes bad hair to distract from the fun, and excellent performances by the stars and supporting cast only made it that much better.

Basil Rathbone is excellent as always as Sherlock Holmes (even if I will always prefer Peter Cushing's portrayal) and Nigel Bruce is solid as the comic relief, perhaps even moreso than in future sequels as less of the humor is at the expense of his character than will become the norm. Other standout performances are delivered by Henry Daniell (who will return to the series again and again, as a different villainous character almost every time) and Reginald Denny as power-brokers in British Intelligence, either of which could be a double-agent and the Voice of Terror himself. Finally, Evelyn Ankers has a small but important part as a Limehouse bar girl who helps Holmes track the Voice of Terror's main operative for deeply personal reasons.

Universal started the film with a title card that described the character of Sherlock Holmes as timeless, a character that works equally well in his "native world" of late 19th century London or the "modern day" of the 1940s. This film, and the sequels that followed--several of which saw Holmes cross wits with Nazis and their agents--show this to be true. Heck, they even make a person wonder what Holmes might do with the Internet and modern science if he were to be transported to the PRESENT modern day.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

'Maximum Risk' is a safe bet

Maximum Risk (1996)
Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Natasha Henstridge, Zach Grenier and Jean-Hughues Anglade
Director: Ringo Lam
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Alain (Van Damme), a French police detective, learns that he has a twin brother when the brother turns up violently murdered in Nice. Deciding to solve the mysterious death of the brother he never knew, Alain assumes his brother's identity and finds himself in the middle of a tangled conspiracy involving violent Russian mobsters, corrupt FBI agents and his brother's beautiful girlfriend (Henstridge).

"Maximum Risk" is a fast-paced action thriller with a well-written script that's performed by a talented cast. Although it is predictable, the storyline is sensible and action-packed with expertly staged and photographed fight- and chase-scenes scattered evenly throughout the film. (In fact, if I have a complaint, it's that there are too many chase scenes and car crashes in the film. By the time we get to final one, I'd grown tired of watching crashing cars.)

However, the film makes up for this with an ending that's far more intelligent than what actions films usually offer up. Instead of offering a quip and then executing the villains in cold blood, Van Damme's character behaves a little more like the honest and good cop that he's supposed to be... and by letting those who are truly the most evil villains in the film live, he not only subjects them to the humiliation and disgrace of a trail but he also ensures that their partners in crime will suffer similar fates. (This is the exact opposite of the idiotic ending in "Transporter 3" where the bloodlust of the writers actually leads to justice not being served when a main witness against that film's real villains is murdered by the hero in cold blood.)

"Maximum Risk" is a well-crafted action film that, strangely, was deemed a failure when it first appeared in 1996 and is one of the film's that some analysts blame for damaging Van Damme's career. Why that is, I can't figure, because while the film did tank at the US box office, it went on to make more than twice what it cost to make in other countries. A movie as good as this that also ended up more than paying for itself should have helped Van Damme rather than hurt him. (Of course, I far from understand the business of movie making... I just know when I've just watched a good movie.)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Going for the gold with 'Kelly's Heroes'

Kelly's Heroes (1970)
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Donald Sutherland and Caroll O'Connor
Director: Brian G. Hutton
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

When disgraced US Army Lt. Kelly (Eastwood) discovers the location of a cache of Nazi gold, he decides it would make a nice little bonus for himself and his squad. Never mind that the gold is locked in a bank vault, deep within territory still held by the Germans. Never mind the gung-ho general (O'Connor) who is convinced they are intent on winning WW2 by themsevles and that he is following their every move. For Kelly and his men, the gold is what it's all about.

"Kelly's Heroes" is one of my favorite war movies. With a perfect cast, a script that perfectly balances action and humor, a director who fluidly moves between the two and is equally skilled at staging the intimate scenes as he is at those involving tank battles and exploding buildings, and a music score that's flawless, there's virtually nothing wrong with this movie.

The only complaint I have is Sutherland's character. His hippy-esque tank commander character seems terribly out-of-place in a WW2 environment; I thought such characters were annoying when they showed up in Bob Kanigher's "Sgt. Rock of Easy Company" stories, and I think they're just as misplaced here. But, damn it, if Sutherland doesn't give such a great performance, and the character doesn't have such great lines (not to mention crazy ideas) that I can't help but like him. Still, it's a character that dates the movie, and I'm sure he was far funnier to the doobie-smoking audiences in 1970.

Whether you enjoy good war movies or good comedies, I think you'll like "Kelly's Heroes."

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

One of the thousands of stories in the city....

Police Story 2 (1988)
Starring: Jackie Chan and Maggie Cheung
Director: Jackie Chan
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

This direct sequel to the orginal "Police Story" opens with Inspector Jackie Chan (Chan) having been busted down to traffic cop because of the massive property destruction he visited upon Hong Kong's outskirts while busting a large criminal ring. When the system adds insult to injury by letting the crime boss go free, Jackie blows up at his bosses and quits the police force, much to the delight of his girlfriend Mai (Cheung). However, when a mysterious gang of blackmailing bombers start terrorising the city for a 20 million dollar ransom, Jackie's sense of duty (and groveling from the Chief Inspector) bring him back to the force, where he is reinstated as an Inspector and put in charge of capturing the bombers.

This film is vintage Jackie Chan. It's got lots of fast and furious martial arts fight sequences that include lots of props, improvised weapons, and wild stunts. It's got slapstick, both with and without the martial arts. It's got Jackie as a completely honest guy who really doesn't want to fight and who actually never kills anyone. It's got a cute (but whiny) girlfriend who the bad guys probably regret abducting because she's so annoying.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

'Half Past Dead' is enjoyable crap

Half Past Dead (2002)
Starring: Steven Seagal, Ja Rule, Morris Chestnut, Kurupt, Nia Peeples, Bruce Weitz, and Claudia Christian
Director: Don Michael Paul
Steve's Rating: Five of Ten Stars

There are some films that I know are crap, yet I enjoy watching them for one reason or another. "Half Past Dead" is one of those.

In "Half Past Dead", FBI agent Sasha Petrosevitch (Seagal) goes undercover in a brand-new, hi-tech prison and runs afoul a plot to break out a deathrow inmate (Weitz) who knows the location of 200 million dollars of stolen gold.

The story is far-fetched and highly illogical in the way it unfolds, the action sequences thrilling but unrealistic to the point where they become goofy, the dialogue is awful, and the acting is even worse. (Steven Seagal should have done more movies more movies with rappers who are trying to pass themselves off as actors... they make him look like he's delivering an Oscar-worthy performance.)

This is a rediculous action movie any way you look at it, but I have a great time whenever I watch it.

The film will also forever hold a soft spot in my heart, because it was the first time I had a firm visual for what it looks like when some near-human aliens from my long-running "Star Wars Roleplaying Game" campaign gets into a fight. I will never tire of watching the Nia Peeples wire-fu scene for that reason.

"Half Past Dead" is highly recommended if you're looking to add an action film to the line-up of a Bad Movie Night... but it's not good for much else. The Five Rating it's getting is a very low Five.

While this was a better film that "On Deadly Ground", it's still pretty damn awful, and it was another rung in the ladder that brought reduced him to direct-to-DVD stardom. (Seagal likes to blame an FBI investigation, but the blame is found far closer to home than he probably wants to admit.)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sherlock Sunday:
The Case of the Whitechapel Vampire

The Case of the Whitechapel Vampire (2002)
Starring: Matt Frewer, Kenneth Welsh, Shawn Lawrence, Neville Edwards, Isabel Dos Santos, Cary Lawrence and Tom Rack
Director: Rodney Gibbons
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When members of a religious order based in London's Whitechapel District start dying at the hands of what appears to be a vampire, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (Frewer and Welsh) are hired to find the culprit, be it a living psychopath, one of the walking dead, or a vengeful Central American demon-god.

After my luke-warm review of "A Royal Scandal," more than one reader told me that I needed to watch this Matt Frewer-starring Holmes, saying that it was a better movie on every level. And they were right.

Featuring an original story co-scripted by the director, this film is faster paced than "A Royal Scandal", more atmospheric, and, more importantly, it gives both Matt Frewer and Kenneth Welsh much more to work with as actors because it makes far better use of both Holmes and Watson as characters.

In my review of "The Royal Scandal", I put most of the blame for a weak pretrial of Holmes on Matt Frewer when I should have put it on the script, because given more and better material, Frewer does a passable job. Primarily, Frewer gets to portray Holmes looking down his nose at superstitions such as beliefs in spiritualism, vampires, and even God himself. This gives him more of a chance to display different facets of Holmes' character and even to play off Welsh's Watson a bit more than in the previous outing. Frewer's Holmes still isn't as equal to that brought to us by Basil Rathbone or Peter Cushing, but when given good material, he does a better job than either Robert Stephenson or Christopher Plummer did during their outings.

Kenneth Welsh is also redeemed as Watson in this picture. Like Frewer, once he had more to work with, he brought a life to the role that was lacking in "The Royal Scandal". Even better, Watson is written like just the sort of intelligent and capable assistant/friend that someone like Holmes would want to have at his back. In one of my favorite moments in the film, the final scene in fact, Watson even gets the last laugh as far as an on-going discussion about the existence of God and other supernatural beings are concerned, with Holmes being absolute steadfast in his denial of any such poppycock and Watson reserving judgement.

The supporting cast is also more interesting than that featured in "A Royal Scandal" and the "vampire murders" and the person committing them being gruesome and strange enough that the viewer is far less certain than Holmes (and even Watson) that they may indeed be the work of a demon or an undead monster. So well done is the film that you may be wondering right up to the very end where Holmes finds himself locked in a struggle for his very life with the killer.

Whereas I felt "The Royal Scandal" was a film Holmes fans could skip, I recommend this one more strongly. It's more faithful to Doyle and his vision that even some that purport to be faithful adaptations (especially when it comes to Watson's stance on the supernatural. Doyle was a True Believer when it came to spiritualism, so it's fitting that the defacto narrator of Holmes' adventures should at least have an open mind on the subject).

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Churchill targeted in last-ditch Nazi plot

The Eagle Has Landed (1976)
Starring: Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland, Robert Duvall, Donald Pleasance, Jenny Agutter, and Jean Marsh
Director: John Sturges
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

As defeat looks increasily inevitable for Germany, Heinrich Himmler (Pleasance) greenlights a long-shot mission to kidnap Winston Churchill. An elite force of German paratroopers under the command of Colonel Steiner (Caine) infiltrate a village near where Churchill will be taking a vacation, and with the aid of German agents already in place (Sutherland and Marsh), get everything in place for their audacious strike. However, when a series of events cause Steiner's force to be revealed, Steiner takes one last desperate gamble and turns the kidnap mission into one of assassination.

"The Eagle Has Landed" is a great WW2 suspense movie. It's got good acting--even if Sutherland's assumed Irish accent was irritatingly inconsistent--excellent pacing, and characters that for the most part are believable. (The only truly weak aspects of the story involved an insta-romance between Sutherland and Agutter's characters, and a twist at the end that I think the film could have done without.)

If you like WW films and spy thrillers, I think you'll enjoy "The Eagle Has Landed."

Thursday, April 8, 2010

'Angel Cop' hasn't stood the test of time

Angel Cop: The Collection (1994)
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

"Angel Cop" is a six-part animated series (presented either on a single VHS tape or DVD in the release I viewed) that is a gritty, bloody tale of cyborgs and cops in a dark near-future. It's a pretty standard tale from the cyberpunk genre, with main characters of questionable morality who are working for bosses who are corrupt and getting ready to screw everyone, and in the end, pretty much everyone dies.

It could be that "Angel Cop" hasn't weathered the passage of time well, but my main reaction to it was to wish that it had presented SOMETHING original. I'd seen everything in "Angel Cop" elsewhere, and I'd seen it done better.

This is a programme that is passable on every level--decent animation throughout, decent voice-actors, decent storyline--except when it comes to originality. And I suspect the marketeers knew this too, which is why the cover image features the female cop with her motorcycle suit zipped waaaay down to show cleavage and then some. (Sorry guys... she never gets that undressed in the show itself.)

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Dolph Lundgren proves
smoking pot saves lives

Command Performance (2009)
Starring: Dolph Lundgren, Melissa Smith, Hristo Shopov, Dave Legeno and Zahary Baharov
Director: Dolph Lundgren
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Bloodthirsty terrorists take the Russian Premier, his young daughters, and a are taken hostage together with the headlining Britney Spears/Christina Aguilara-like pop star at a charity rock concert. It's up to the pot-smoking drummer (Lundgren) for the opening act to save the day. Good thing he's a man with a violent past and able to pound the crap out of more than just a drum set.

Rarely have I seen one of these aging action icons from the 1980s cast so effectively as in this film. I remarked in my review of "The Russian Specialist" that Lundgren was making a successful transition into life behind the camera, and he takes a further step with this movie, even while starring in it. Although his character is an ass-kicker, it is also a character who is haggard and worn, an aging rocker who looks like someone who's spent too many late nights in too many dive bars; the sexy pop-tartlet even comments that he's not bad for "an old guy."

So, not only does Lundgren appear to realize that he is aging, but he writes/directs parts for himself that acknowledge that fact. I see him helming some good action films in the future, with younger talent doing the butt-kicking.

Speaking of good action films and butt-kicking, that's what we get in "Command Performance." Although it's a little slow in the wind-up and unfolds in a predictable "Die Hard" mold, it's a lot of fun once it gets going. Little touches that are evocative of "Die Hard" in ways that are amusing rather than just copy-catting make the film especially enjoyable if you're a lover of action films, such as the fact that Lundgren's tougher-than-tough drummer avoids getting rounded up or killed by the terrorists because he was in the bathroom smoking a joint.

There's nothing original here and the plotline gets a little muddled when one of the terrorists decide his boss is just a little too crazy to work for and tries to betray him. (Basically, the question arises that if it was as easy to sneak in and out of the auditorium as it appears, why weren't the Russian military infiltrating the place from the get-go?) However, it's good fun in a mindless sort of way, and it shows that Dolph Lundgren still has what it takes, whether he is in front of or behind the camera. He is an example that all those aging action stars laboring in the twilight of their careers should look to.

Monday, April 5, 2010

'Where Eagles Dare' is a great thriller

Nazi Germany was consigned to the ash heap of history exactly 65 years ago this year. I'm celebrating that milestone by posting reviews of movies featuring Nazis getting their asses handed to them across all my blogs for the next few weeks. Here's my take on one of the very best.

Where Eagles Dare (1968)
Starring: Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood, Mary Ure, and Ingrid Pitt
Director: Brian G. Hutton
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

As the war in Europe is on the verge of being decided, an American general with detailed knowledge of Allied plans is captured and brought to an isolated mountain top fortress deep within Nazi-held territory. An American Ranger (Eastwood) joins a commando team led by one of Britain's top intelligent agents (Burton) to make the impossible possible and rescue the general before he breaks under interrogations. However, as the mission is underway, it soon becomes apparentthere is a traitor on theam... and that everyones lives are in danger until he is unmasked.

"Where Eagles Dare" is not only a nicely written spy thriller, it's also one of the very best action movies ever made. It may be over two-and-a-half hours long, but you'll never know it, because once it gets going, it barely pauses to let the viewer catch his breath.

Written by Alistair McClean (whose action-packed novels I loved to read as a kid), this WW2 thriller features twists upon twists that will keep you guessing what will happen next. More than forty years after it was made, the film is still fresh and exciting... and the visual effects even hold up. (The battle on the cable car is every bit as engrossing now as it must have been to audiences in 1968.) The film is made even better by Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood's fine performances. Burton is particuarly excellent, because he brings just enough coldness to the character to put the audience off-guard as the film goes through its various twists.

If you're a fan of action movies, you owe it to yourself to see this film, as it's one of the few true classic of the genre.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Mystery of George Reeves' death explored

Hollywoodland (2006)
Starring: Adrian Brody, Diane Lane, Ben Affleck, and Bob Hoskins
Director: Allen Coulter
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Small-time, sleazy private detective Louis Simo (Brody) gets himself hired by the mother of actor George Reeves (Affleck) to investigate her son's death. In the process, he not only discovers much about Reeves but also learns some things about himself.

"Hollywoodland" sounds like a detective movie, but it isn't. It is actually an examination of its two lead characters--the detective, Simo, and the dead actor, Reeves--who are men with similar strengths and character flaws, despite their vastly different lines of work. Both men want fame and fortune, but neither wants to work terribly hard at it and instead try to get by on their charm and wit.

Mixing fact and fiction--most of the featured characters are based on real-life people--the film tells of the last few years of Reeves' life as Simo investigates the circumstances of his death. In the process, we get to know Reeves, Simo, and the people in their lives. It's actually amazing how the actors, writers, and director managed to make us feel like we know the characters in the film--there is great depth to all but one of the characters (the slutty, younger New Yorker that Reeves trades his sugar-mamma, Toni Mannix, for), and every actor is in top form here.

Particularly great in the film are Lane and Hoskins, who play the Mannixes, a powerful Hollywood couple with a strange relationship. Their final scene together in the film is outstanding.

Also worthy of praise is Affleck... and that's a sentence I thought I would never write. His portrayal of a man with lots of charm but limited work ethic and empathy for others, and who is done in by his own flaws, is well done. He likewise gives us a spectacular final appearance in the film. (There is a scene that plays several times in the fim, a little different each time, as Simo imagines how it might have unfolded as he attempts to reconstruct the final hours of George Reeve's life, and the last time it plays is downright heartbreaking... and that emotion is due to Affleck's performance.)

I'm heaping endless praise on this film, so why am I giving it only a rating of 7? Well, two reasons.

First, the film has a POV problem, as far as the narration goes. How do Simo and the viewers learn what we do about Reeves? Simo doesn't seem to make contact with enough people to gain the sort of in depth knowledge that we are presented with. The answer is that the film is being told from the vantage point of an omniscient narrator, and the last few minutes do seem to give us a definite truth about what happened to Reeves--and if you see a review that says otherwise, know it was written by someone who wasn't paying close attention to the movie--but Simo's role in the story feels too much like he's a proxy for the audience, which means the film's narrative POV isn't omniscient. At least not consistently. This technical problem keeps me from giving the film a high rating.

Second, the film drags a bit. I understand why we need to see Simo's failed marriage and his relationship with his son, and I understand why we need to be introduced to the secretary he's having an affair with, and I also see why we need to get to know some of the agents from the detective firm he once worked with--it is part of the illustration of how Simo and Reeves are alike--but those elements feel like disruptive side-trips from the film's main narrative on a couple of occasions. I found myself getting restless, because as the film should feel like it was building toward its end, it still seemed to be meandering a bit, as Simo started to see what attentive viewers recognized at roughly the halfway mark... that he was on a life-path running parallel to that of the dead actor.

Despite its faults, this is one of the films of the past decade that should have gotten far more attention than it did. If you haven't seen it, you should.

China also made 'crazy Vietnam vet' films

The Long Goodbye (aka "The Head Hunter") (1981)
Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Rosamund Kwan, Philip Chan, Chun Hsiang Ko, and Melvin Wong
Director: Shing Hon Lau
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Andy (Yun-Fat) is an ex-South Vietnamese soldier now working as a hitman for an international crime syndicate and arms-dealers who use a movie studio as its legitimate front. He is himself is marked for death after first assassinating Soviet agents in Kwoloon and then later refusing to kill his investigative reporter girlfriend, Vicky (Kwan).

"The Long Goodbye" is a low-budget crime drama that suffers from a chaotic plot, glacial pacing, useless subplots, indifferent camera and lighting work, and a cast of actors who mostly seem like they'd rather be anywhere else but on the set of this movie.

The film shows a few glimmers of quality and real suspense at the climax, as Andy squares off his one-time boss and a crazed, machete-wielding assassin with Vicky's life at stake. Unfortunately, what's good about the ending is almost ruined by an awful, inconsistent music soundtrack that seems to get worse even as the rest of the film gets better in its closing minutes.

I think that anyone except the world's biggest fans of Chow Yun-Fat or Rosamund Kwan can safely take a pass on this movie, although it is interesting to note that the Chinese made "crazy Vietnam Vet" movies, too.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Diamonds are forever, even if Bond isn't

Another review from when James Bond movies were entertaining.

Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
Starring: Sean Connery, Jill St. John, Jimmy Dean, Charles Gray, Bruce Glover, and Putter Smith
Director: Guy Hamilton

British secret agent James Bond (Connery) impersonates an international diamond smuggler to figure out why a reclusive American business magnate (Dean) is acquiring large amount of diamonds. He soon discovers that his old nemesis Ernst Blofeld (Gray) is lurking in the background.

"Diamonds Are Forever" is another of my favorite Bond movie. It's perhaps the quirkiest of the series, with a level of flip humor that rises almost to the level of some of the later Roger Moore films,and of the series' goofiest chase scenes that sees Bond escaping a research lab in a moon buggy while being pursued by security guards in sedans and on pocket-bikes; yet, the film has a dark center, where a creepy pair of assassins stalking Bond at every turn (the flamboyantly gay couple of Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint, played with great flair by Glover and Smith) and evil mastermind Blofeld can easily commandeer the resources of a financial empire and the United States government in order to threaten the world.

The film also features one of the most likable Bond Girls ever. The almost-never fully clad Tiffany Case (St. John) brings her considerable assets to film with a twinkle of comic relief--and nothing is more amusing and fun to look at than the outfit she shows up in at one point after being told to put on some more clothes.

Much has been written about the film being homophobic, because it features a pair of pyschopathic, flamingly gay--and so polite that they are every etiquette coach's dream--characters. I think this says more about a pathological hysteria present in the ultra-PC crowd than anything that's actually on screen in "Diamonds Are Forever." Having gay villains in a film is homophobic? Does Blofeld admiring Tiffany Case's ass mean the movie-makers fear straight people, too? No, it doesn't. What it means is that some critics are idiots who probably need therapy.

Another strong element of the film its score. It doesn't have the lasting presence that the "Goldfinger" and "From Russia With Love" music had on the series--themes from which keep popping up for the next decade or more, including this one--but John Barry turns in another excellent effort. The theme song is one of the best so far in the entire series, and Barry incorporates the very hummable tune into several different sequences, and sometimes in very creative ways.

A very enjoyable entry in the Bond series that I think gets unfairly dumped on.

Friday, April 2, 2010

'Haunts' is an interesting misfire

Haunts (aka "The Veil") (1977)
Starring: May Britt, Cameron Mitchell, and Aldo Ray
Director: Herb Free
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A young woman (Britt) haunted by dark memories is stalked by a murdering rapist, or is she? The town sheriff (Aldo) thinks she's being hysterical... and just what is it her slovenly uncle (Mitchell) doing with his nights?

"Haunts" is a thriller that attempts to use a mentally unbalanced character to provide the narrative Point of View for the film. It's a clever and laudable idea, but it's not one that the director and writer (one and the same, at least with a co-writing credit on the script) were up to pulling off. The film is a bit too slow in unfolding, and what could have been a truly powerful ending (with some chilling realizations dawning on the part of the attentive viewers) is weakened by it likewise going on for a tad too long and by a last-minute attempt at throwing a possibility of something supernatural into a straight thriller. Once again, we have an ending that's ruined by filmmakers who just didn't know when to quit.

With some judicious editing, this film could actually be quite good, and it's one I wish I liked more. There's alot of misspent potential here, and all the three leads do such a good job that the void of talent embodied by some of the supporting cast is almost not noticeable. (In fact, a scene in a bar featuring two of these talentless actors could be cut almost entirely, and the film would immediately get stronger in several ways--the mystery of the killer's ID would be heightened, and we'd have lost some of the more noxious flab dangling from the work's body.