Monday, May 31, 2010

'Charlie's Death Wish' is low-budget fun

Charlie's Death Wish (2005)
Starring: Phoebe Dollar, Ron Jeremy Hyatt, John Fava, and Marc Knudson
Director: Jeff Leroy
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

After her sister is murdered in prison, young Charlie Durham (Dollar) goes on a killing spree to avenge her, violently dispatching anyone connected to her death. Meanwhile, the police detective assigned to stop and catch her (Hyatt) finds himself in the awkward postion of admiring her handiwork, because she is mostly dispatching people he hates.

"Charlie's Death Wish" is a tongue-in-cheek, low-budget action/comedy that moves along at a pace so brisk that the generally weak acting, poor dialogue, and unfocused script almost become non-issues. For a violent, gory low-budgeter, this is a surprisingly well-done film.

But, it's not exactly good. With the exception of Ron Jeremy Hyatt and John Fava (who play a pair of police detectives on the trail of our vigilante heroine, the acting here is pretty amateurish--and this even includes the star, Phoebe Dollar. Dollar isn't exactly bad, but she doesn't have the skill to carry off scenes where she has to show emotion, such as the one where she is confronted by an obnoxious documentarian (a character who is a cross between Michael Moore and a freak who was once a mainstay of public access TV here in northwestern Washington named Richard Lee, played by Marc Knudson). Dollar can strut about and look sexy or tough. She can also manage menacing. But she can't handle angry, or even sad. At least not yet.

Watching Dollar in this film, there are glimmers of what she could become, acting-wise, if she sticks with it, and I'm sure she does just fine in smaller roles. (Her performance almost feels as if she's a stage actor in front of the camera for the first time--something I know isn't the case

Another problem with the film is the scattered focus of the script. It tries to tackle too many things--being an action film with comedic elements AND attempting to make fun of conspiracy theorist filmmakers AND making fun of the gun-loving subculture in the United States AND making fun of dopeheads and druglords. All of these elements COULD perhaps have been tackled comfortably if the script had gone through a couple more drafts, but as it exists, they are presented in a loosely connected jumble. The antics of the documentarian are particularly annoying, because for most of the film they are unconnected detours from Charlie's murderous rampage.

I've been harping on the film's weak points, but I want to stress that this is actually not a bad little movie. It was clearly made by a crew that understand the limitations of making a movie on a very tight budget, and they understand how to get the most for their special effect dollars and how to use lighting and editing to stretch those even further. What's more, the filmmakers don't waste any time, nor do they pad out the film with overlong establishing shots and other filler material; everything on the screen is there for a reason.

I was also impressed with the model effects in the film. There are two model/blue-screen sequences of the kind that I didn't think were still being used, and I suspect at least 1/4 of the film's budget was consumed by them. First, there is a street scene and exploding building that is incredibly well-done (the flying body and the accompanying scream is guarenteed to make you laugh). Then there's the fiery destruction of the Hollywood sign, another very well-done model effect. These are both very fun moments in the film, and they're also excellently done from a technical standpoint.

"Charlie's Death Wish" may not be on the level of even Jean-Claude Van Damme's latest, but it's worth checking out. (If noting else, it's guarenteed to be funnier than Seagal's latest.)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Bond targeted for death by world's top assassin

The Man With The Golden Gun (1974)
Starring: Roger Moore, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland, Herve Villechaize, Maud Adams, and Clifton James
Director: Guy Hamilton
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When British spy James Bond (Moore) learns someone has hired the world's most expensive assassin to kill him, he decides to take the fight to the shadowy killer. However, Bond soon discovers that Francisco Scaramanga (Lee), his midget partner in murder (Villechaize) and his exotic girlfriend Andrea Anders (Adams) actually have their sights set on a target more lucrative than even Britain's top Code-00 agent.

"The Man With the Golden Gun" is a beautfilly shot film that takes full advantage of the exotic China Sea islands, and in which Christopher Lee gives one of his career's best performances as the megalomaniacal assassin with a game room that matches both his ego and occupation. It's also got a pair of very beautiful women on prominant display in the film (Adams and Ekland), and it's got a story that's closer to being real-world in nature than any Bond since "From Russia With Love" (with the exception of certain elements). It's also got another fabulous score by John Barry.

However, the film is also strangely slow-moving and lethargic-feeling. I can't quite put my finger on why, but "Golden Gun" never seems to quite build up the steam that just about all the other James Bond films do. Even the awful Timothy Dalton entries had more fire in them. And with a great cast like this, and with the director that helmed "Live and Let Die", "Diamonds Are Forever" and the very best Bond movie "Goldfinger", this should have been a great entry in the series.

I suspect it might be a problem with the script. The sense of urgency and danger surrounding Bond's mission seems downplayed throughout the film, not really manifesting itself until the last 45 minutes or so, where in other Bond movies there interlocking mission arcs where each new one is more deadly and expansive than the one that went before.

Whatever the flaw here--and I really can't quite put my finger on it--this is a decent entry in the series, and it's worth seeing if you enjoyed "From Russia With Love". I think this is probably the other Bond movie in the series to which this "Golden Gun" can most closely be compared.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Proirot experiences 'Evil Under the Sun'

Evil Under the Sun (1981)
Starring: Peter Ustinov, Diana Rigg, Jane Birkin, Maggie Smith, Roddy McDowall, and James Mason
Director: Guy Hamilton
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When master detective Hercule Poirot (Ustinov) is hired by an insurance company to trace the path of a phony diamond, the assignment comes with an all-expense-paid trip to an exclusive resort island--just one of those hardships a detective must endure! Soon, however, Proirot finds himself in the midst of a murder myster that he must solve if he is protect his reputation: Famed actress Arlena Marshall (Rigg) is murdered right under his nose, and, while just about everyone on the island had a motive to kill her, everyone also has solid alibis.

"Evil Under the Sun" is another one of those great, all-star Agatha Christie mysteries from the 70s and 80s. I understand from a friend who's read the original book that this is a pretty loose adaptation, but she said that she felt the movie is actually superior to the book.

From Ustinov as Poirot, through McDowall as a effeminate theater critic, the cast gives excellent performances and everyone lives up to their star status, even those in fairly small parts, like James Mason. Diana Rigg and Maggie Smith were particuarly fun to watch, as they go through catty routines with one another. The film also takes full advantage of the gorgeous Mediterranean setting, offering some particularly beautiful shots as the characters move about the island. Another strong point is that the filmmakers actually paid attention to the time period in which the film is set; no 1970s-style hairdos and other silly slip-ups that were common in movies of this type.

One thing that is both a plus and a minus in "Evil Under the Sun" is the soundtrack music. It's all Cole Porter music that's been orchestrated for the film, and sometimes it works--the "Anything Goes" cue for when the hotel guests are frolicking, for example--but other times the orchestration is just too bombastic and intrusive to serve the film properly. At too many times--with a scene where James Mason's character is lurking in some bushes--the music calls attention to itself instead of supporting and enhancing what's unfolding in the film.

"Evil in the Sun" is a fine mystery movie--a great entry in the "cozy" genre--and it's made even better by the fact it plays fair with the audience. (I identified the killer even before all the evidence was presented, based on a scene the character shared with Proirot... and, to me, that makes for the best kind of mystery. I love being able to play along!)

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Sherlock Sunday: Holmes Faces Death

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Arthur Margetson, Hillary Brooke, and Dennis Hoey
Director: Roy William Neill
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone) is summoned to the country by his friend Dr. Watson (Bruce) to solve discover the secrets behind a series of murders at a convalesce home for injured military officers.

The fourth installment of Universal Pictures' "modern day" adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a loose adaptation of Doyle's story "The Musgrave Ritual." It's an effective update of the tale, and it's perhaps the most thrilling of the Universal Holmes I've seem so far. It's certainly the darkest, as it continues to deal with the contemporary (for when the film was made) issues of World War 2. This time, it deals with homefront issues, such as caring for soldiers who return from battle not just with physical injuries but mental damage as well. It's one aspect of the film that gives it staying-power and that makes it just as relevant today as six decades ago.

The film is especially effective in the way it creates the ending. It gives viewers a real sense that Holmes has outsmarted himself for once and that the clever trap he lays to get the otherwise untouchable killer to reveal himself turns into a death trap for Holmes himself. It's a very well-done twist to the story, and twice-welcomed due to the fact that Holmes' bait and trap are so cliched that I feared for what was going to come next when it showed up in the film.

Also worth noting is that the idiotic hairstyle that Holmes sported in the first few movies in this series is gone. The treatment of Watson and other characters is also notably more respectful by Holmes in this film than in several other entries in the picture. Yes, he puts Lestrade down when he's being a bonehead, but he shows more respect for Watson than is average for the series and he doesn't seem like he's constantly trying to prove how superior he is to everyone around him.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

'To Catch a Thief' is one of Hitchcock's best

To Catch a Thief (1955)
Starring: Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, John Williams, and Brigitte Auber
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

Long-retired catburglar and jewel thief John Robie (Grant) teams up with an insurance agent (Williams) to catch a copy-cat thief who has the police hunting him. Robie conceives using a rich American and her massive diamonds as bait for the mystery thief--a mistake, because Robie soon finds that the woman's beautiful, thrill-seeking daughter, Frances (Kelly), wants to catch a thief of her own.

"To Catch a Thief" is a romance film with a mystery plot and some nice action sequences thrown in. It features perhaps the most believable romance featured in any Hitchcock film, as it is one that seems to grow between Grant and Kelly's characters as the story progresses, instead of springing onto the screen from left field as it does in "Notorious", for example.

Grant and Kelly are working with nuanced characters and great dialog in this film--and their bantering is perhaps some of the wittiest that is featured in any of Hitchcock's movies. Their onscreen chemistry was also fabulous, and this, coupled with the gorgeous photography and moody lighting of first the fireworks scene and shortly thereafter the confrontation between Robie and the sexy young heiress after her mother's jewels have vanished, end up creating some of the best-looking scenes in any of Hitchcock's films. (The shot of Frances, her face in shadow while the diamonds around her neck that she is trying to seduce Robie with sparkle brilliantly is pure visual poetry.

This may not be the sort of movie that comes to mind when someone says "Alfred Hitchcock", because while all the elements are there, they are not in the proportions that one expects--there is more romance than drama, and more comedy than suspense--but this is perhaps what makes it such a fantastic movie. Hitchcock made a movie featuring all the elements that are present in just about every movie he made, yet he uses them in ways that makes this movie stand alone.

Although it is more than 50 years since "To Catch A Thief" was released, it remains a fresh and vital picture that is as entertaining today as it was then. It is a film that has stood the test of time, and which is truly deserving of the label "classic."

Thursday, May 20, 2010

'The Kingdom' is more evenhanded
than usual Hollywood fare

The Kingdom (2007)
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Ashraf Barhom, Chris Cooper, Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner, and Ali Suliman
Director: Peter Berg
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Four FBI agents (Foxx, Cooper, Bateman, and Garner) travel to Saudi Arabia where they team with two Saudi police officers (Barhom and Suliman) to stop a deadly terrorist and his followers.

The Hollywood establishment seems obsessed with justifying or even excusing terrorists, and I expected this film to be a reflection of that. So, I went in expecting to hate it. However, I was pleasantly surprised. This movie shows terrorists exactly for the evil, psychopathic cowardly scum that that they are. It has none of the "one man's terrorist is another man's hero" crap that so many American "intellectuals" are so fond peddling.

The film also shows that the 75 years of Saudi Arabian and American governments have allowed the conditions that gave rise to the likes of the movie's "Abu Hamza" and the real-world Osama bin Ladens through their inaction and unwillingness to behave in anything but fashions that are self-serving and self-aggrandizing. In fact, the film has the rather accurate message that the American and Saudi governments are their own worst enemies--the American government being fawning toadies to the Saudis, and the Saudi government behaving like barbaric bullies.

My very favorite aspect of the film was the way the FBI agents and the Saudi state police officers ended up working together once politics and distrust was set aside, showing that good cop are good cop, no matter where in the world they are.

Almost every aspect of the film was very enjoyable, playing like a cross between "CSI: Riyadh" and an action flick, except for the very last minute or so, where we had to have some of the standard issue Hollywood moral equivalency dished out. Fortunately, the dose was not big enough to ruin the film, and it was so ludicrous that no intelligent person could do anything but snicker at it.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

'Taken' is the perfect Magic Daddy fantasy

Taken (2009)
Starring: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen and Arben Bajraktaraj
Director: Pierre Morel
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When his teenaged daughter (Grace) is kidnapped by a white slavery and prostitution ring, a retired CIA wetworks specialist (Neeson) puts all his skills to use to get her back... and to kill those who harmed her.

"Taken" is the feel-good fantasy movie of 2009. It's a movie about a father who is trying to make up for lost time with his nearly-grown daughter--and who manages to not only save her life but to make her fondest dreams come true through a series of coincidences established in the film's first act and resolved in the denouement--but it's also a movie where one man brings down a vicious crime syndicate and exposes police corruption at the very highest levels. I've also rarely seen a film with so many people so richly and obviously deserving of death as the ones dispatched by the hero in this film.

With well-drawn and believable characters and a script that is fast-paced and finely tuned, "Taken" is a must-see for lovers of action films--and for anyone who wants to see some truly scummy bad guys get dispatched by a James Bond-like character who is fighting to save someone he truly loves. Neeson is fantastic in the part of a man who isn't especially violent, but who has no problem with killing bad guys when it comes to it. (There is a particularly neat scene that demonstrates exactly how Neeson's character respects life and tries to protect the innocents: He is in the middle of dispatching the first rung of the white slavery operation, but he takes steps to avoid harming some construction workers who may or may not be innocent bystanders.)

As I post this review, "Taken" is airing on HBO in relatively heavy rotation. If you are a subscriber, check the listings and check out this movie.

(A word of caution for parents: I was surprised to note that the film is only rated PG-13. With the level of violence, drug use, and general plot of the film, I would have assume it was R. You should definitely watch the film before you let your kids at it and decide if you think it's appropriate for them. The MPAA is erratic as ever....)

Monday, May 17, 2010

'Dirty Harry' still stands above the rest

Dirty Harry (1971)
Starring: Clint Eastwood and Andy Robinson
Director: Don Seigel
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

When a madman who calls himself Scorpio (Robinson) sets about to terrorize and extort the city of San Francisco with sniper attacks and kidnappings, only the unorthodox methods of homicide inspector Harry Callahan (Eastwood) can stop him.

"Dirty Harry" stands as one of the greatest police dramas ever made, and the bad guy--the monstrous, utterly insane Scorpio--is so extreme that it even has elements that appeal to lovers of horror films. From the opening shots, the tension in the film keeps building and it doesn't let up until Harry and Scorpio have their final confrontation. Everything in this movie works perfectly, from the casting, to the camera and Foley work, to the great score by Lalo Shafrin (with the eerie "Scorpio Theme" adding a lot to the film).

Eastwood is also great as Harry, a cop who dislikes bureaucracy and who always puts the well-being and rights of crime victims ahead of the criminals that prey on them. And he does it within the boundaries of the law, with no consideration for politics. He's the sort of cop who can only get away with what he does in the fantasy land of movies.

Robinson also makes a fantastic bad guy. Between the actions of the character and the way the actor plays him, even the most hardcore member of the "violence in movies is bad" and "every criminal has rights" has got to be cheering for Harry to give the justice he has earned.

This film lays the foundation for the Dirty Harry sequels that followed, and I think it was just as much the fantasy of a cop who can buck the system and bag in a bad guy who knows how to play it, as it was Eastwood's portrayal of Harry that made the character so popular. (If you watch the movie carefully, you can see the depth that Eastwood brings to Harry's character.)

"Dirty Harry" is well-deserving of its reputation of being a classic. It is a great movie, and while it has been imitated over and over, it's never been matched... even by its own sequels.

Friday, May 14, 2010

'Keeping Mum' is quirky comedy
about murder and family values

Keeping Mum (2006)
Starring: Kristen Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, Rowan Atkinson, Patrick Swayze and Tamsin Egerson
Director:Niall Johnson
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

The new house keeper (Smith) for a distracted country vicar (Atkinson) who is distracted to notice his marriage is failing, starts turning the household around like a real-life Mary Poppins. Unfortunately, she's a homicidal maniac... and that isn't the least of her secrets.

"Keeping Mum" is a dark comedy that's on the predictable side, but it elevated by excellent performances from its stars, most importantly by Rowan Atkinson, who is very different here than other roles you've likely seen him in. Maggie Smith also gives a performance different than what is typical for her--more subdued and restrained.

If you like British humor, and, more importantly, gallow's humor, this is a film worth checking out.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Sean Connery does 'High Noon' in space

Outland (1981)
Starring: Sean Connery, Peter Boyle, Frances Sternhagen, James B. Sikking, and Kika Markham
Director: Peter Hyams
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

When Federal Marshall O'Neill (Connery) arrives at the remote mining colony on Io, it becomes apparent in short order to everyone that there's a "new sheriff in town." However, when vicious drug-smugglers hire assassins to take out O'Neill, he finds himself fighting for his life, alone.

"Outland" is a traditional western that's been transplanted into space... it's "High Noon" on a moon around Jupiter. As such, it's an action-filled morality play that I think just about everyone who loves movies should find something to like about.

It's got a great cast, expert pacing, great sets, and a fantastic score. It's one of those rare films where everthing's perfect. It's also a film that doesn't show up on TV nearly enough.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

'Beverly Hills Cop' is Eddie Murphy's best

Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
Starring: Eddie Murphy, Judge Reinhold, John Ashton, and Ronnie Cox
Director: Martin Brest
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

When an old friend is murdered, pig-headed, rebellious Detroit police detective Axel Foley (Murphy) travels to Los Angeles to investigate on his own time. He, of course, brings much chaos to the otherwise tranquil and by-the-book police department of Berverly Hills.

"Beverly Hills Cop" remains one of the funnest police comedy/action films ever made. The script is perfectly paced and has a perfect balance between action, suspense, and comedy; Eddie Murphy is perhaps better here than in any other movie he's made since, truly shining as the wise-cracking, never-even-heard-of-the-rulebook sort of police officer that would have been kicked off any realworld police force long ago; and Reinhold and Ashton sparkle as a pair of uptight Beverly Hills cops who become infected with Foley's wild ways. The soundtrack, with the nifty "Alex F Theme", is also perfect.

Just about everything in this film had been done before "Beverly Hills Cop" came along, and it's been done hundreds and hundreds of times since... but it's never been done as well as it is here. This is a definate must-see for lovers of light-hearted police movies.

Monday, May 10, 2010

'Triggermen' is fun but unimpressive

Triggermen (2003)
Starring: Neil Morrissey, Adrian Dunbar, Donnie Wahlberg, Michael Rappaport, Claire Forlani, and Pete Postlethwaite
Director: John Bradshaw
Steve's Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Two small-time English thieves (Morrissey and Dunbar) come to Chicago in search of a big score, but instead find themselves mistaken for a pair of hitmen contracted to kill a mob boss who wants to retire (Postlethwaite). They take the payment and intend to run with the cash before they have to make good on the hit... but first they want to live it up a little. Meanwhile, the real killers (Wahlberg and Rappaport) are staying in the same hotel, waiting for their contact to provide them with cash and instructions. The situation becomes even more complicated when one of the assassins (who is also hoping to retire from his life of violent crime) meets and instantly falls in love with a woman (Forlani) who turns out to be the mob boss' daughter. Professional intergrity and mob codes of honor dictate that someone will have to be dead when the confusion and mistaken identies are sorted out.

"Triggermen" is an amusing crime comedy that will appeal first and foremost of fans of Donald Westlake novels and those who enjoy films like "Snatch" and "A Fish Called Wanda." Like in Westlake's best books, we stay involved with the story in "Triggermen" because all the main characters are very likable, despite the fact they're virtually all hardcore criminals, and because of the ever-escalating difficulties some of them find themselves in.

"Triggermen" doesn't bring anything new to this type of movie, but the acting and scripting is good enough to make it a worthwhile film nonetheless. It could even have been a Seven Star film if it had been slightly quicker in its pace. Once all the players in the drama and confusion have been introduced, the film seems to lose its way in a meandering second act.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

'The Black Godfather' is predictable and dated

Black Godfather (1974)
Starring: Rod Perry, Don Chastain, Jimmy Witherspoon, Damu King,and Duncan McLeod
Director: John Evans
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Career criminal JJ (Perry) sets about uniting black hoods and militants under his leadership so he can drive the mafia from the black neighborhoods and take over their criminal rackets in the name of black liberation and money for JJ.

"The Black Godfather" is a 1970s crime drama/action film of the blacksploitation school, with all the stereotypes that implies. Nothing that happens and nothing that is said is any surprise--except perhaps for the drag-queen assassin with the blowgun--and my guess is that you've seen what this film has to offer done better elsewhere. Plus, it's short on drama and action, but long on talkie bits espousing black power, coming from a guy who ultimately is just looking to enrich himself. (At least there's the counterpoint in the form of a thug who truly is devoted to the concept of black empowerment.)

The one thing this movie has going for is is a cast of actors who are better-than-usual for movies of this type and in this budget range. Despite the movie's sluggish pacing and cliched story and characters, these excellent actors manage to keep the viewers engaged. (In fact, I don't think there's anyone who appears in a speaking role who didn't deserve to be in a better movie than this.)

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

'The Tuxedo' is nothing but fun

The Tuxedo (2002)
Starring: Jackie Chan and Jennifer Love Hewitt
Director: Kevin Donovan
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When a super-spy is injured by a car bomb, it's up to a deeply insecure new agent (Hewitt) and his hapless driver (Chan) to use his gadget-filled tuxedo in order to stop a plot to poison all the water in the world.

"The Tuxedo" is a fluffy excursion into fun for fun's sake, a James Bondian-spoof that's lighter than even the lightest Roger Moore-starring entries into that series. It's not a movie you want to think to hard about, but just one to sit back and laugh along with the characters (or laugh at the characters, since Jennifer Love Hewitt's poor character--so eager to prove herself she ends up making mistakes--is the butt of many of the film's jokes). Basically, this is a live-action cartoon with the characters about as deep and the story as complex as that implies.

There's not much to this movie, but what's here is decent enough. Jackie Chan is amusing in his role as a guy who needs to rely on a hi-tech tuxedo laced with micro-computers and biometric to do the stunts and martial arts tricks his characters usually do by themselves. Jennifer Love Hewitt is cute (although occassionally obnoxious) as a young woman who is just a little too desperate to prove herself.

It's necessarily a movie to go out of your way for, but if you're looking for an action/comedy you can watch with younger kids, this film might fit the bill.

'Moonlighting' turns 25

Moonlighting: The Pilot Episode (1985)
Starring: Cybill Shepherd, Bruce Willis and Robert Ellenstein
Director: Robert Butler
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

After she left penniless by a crooked business manager, former model Maddie Hayes (Shepherd) attempts to recoup a little of her lost fortune by liquidating companies she still owns, among them a money-losing detective agency run by David Addison (Willis). Addison tries to persuade her that the detective agency can make money and ends up involving her in a case that involves a broken wristwatch that people are willing to kill to obtain.

This year, it's exactly 25 years since "Moonlighting" debuted on American television, turning Bruce Willis from an obscure struggling actor into a star almost overnight. It was almost a replay of the good fortune Peirce Brosnan enjoyed when his first starring role was in "Remington Steele", a show to which "Moonlighting owes a lot, not surprising given that it was created by one of "Remington Steele"'s co-creators.

Like "Remington Steele," "Moonlighting" tried to evoke the glamor and comedic tone of comedies from the 1930s and 1940s starring the likes of William Powell & Myrna Loy and Cary Grant & Katherine Hepburn.

As far as capturing the look and feel of classic romantic/screwball comedies (while updating it for the 1980s), "Moonlighting" was only occasionally successful at it whereas "Remington Steele" hit every single note with perfect pitch until losing its way at the very end of the series. The biggest strength of the latter series was the fact that Remington Steele and Laura Holt were likable characters played by charming actors,while "Moonlighting"'s was fronted by charming actors playing the very unlikeable David Addison and the shrewish Maddie Hayes.

The personality defects of the lead characters in "Moonlighting" are present from this very first pilot episode. David annoying and obnoxious with very little in the charm department to make up for his behavior, while Maddie spends much of her time bitching for the sake of bitching. As the series wore on, it didn't improve much, making some episodes a little hard to sit through. It doesn't help matters that I don't feel like Willis and Shepherd ever really connect on screen. There simply isn't that Powell/Loy, Grant/Hepburn or Brosnan/Zimbalist chemistry; Willis and Shepherd are good individually, but their pairing does not add up to something great.

This pilot, however, shows that even if "Moonlighting" didn't quite manage to live up to its models, it was still lots of fun when it was its best. Shepherd is pretty and looks great in anything she wears--she actually was a retired model who turned to acting in real life--and Willis is quite funny in the role of David, something he never managed to consistently be in anything else he appeared in; when Willis turned to action films with comedic touches, he saved his career. The plot is a fast-paced and the mystery engaging.

While "Moonlighting" may not have been as good as the films it emulated (or even rival series "Remington Steele") it still ranks among both the best detective shows and the best comedies to grace the small screen. The pilot is a great introduction to the series that even works on its own as a stand-alone movie. It's worth checking out if you missed it Back In the Day.

Monday, May 3, 2010

'High Desert' suffers from low quality

High Desert (1993)
Starring: Edward B. Galinski, Ron Jason, and Alice Davidson
Director: Charles T. Lang
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

The homicidal leader of a motorcycle gang (Galinski) murders a camper and kidnaps his girlfriend (Davidson). Another biker (Jason) steps in with an attempt to rescue her.

"High Desert" is another one of those almost-decent films. It has an unspectacular but serviceable idea at its core that could have led to a Rambo vs. Rambo-type showdown (both the Good Biker and Bad Biker are Vietnam Vets), but instead we get run-time extending and budget-saving long sequences of hikes through a mountain forest, and we get a climax that isn't what it should have been (probably because it would have been too difficult for the amateur actors featured in the film to pull off, and possibly even too time and budget intensive) and that further ends up being unintentionally comic due to some very convenient stray bullets. (BTW, if anyone reading this knows John Kerry, tell him about this movie. He'd love it, because it features exactly the negative stereotype of Vietnam Vets that he helped popularize and that he built his political career on.)

The film is also marred by near-universal bad acting. Galinski, who needs to be the ultimate in meancing biker for this movie to work, seems like just another loudmouth jerk and everyone else comes across as if they're just running lines. The only exception to this is Ron Jason, who manages to get a bit of real acting in here and there. (It's probably no coincidence that he's the only actor involved with this project who has any other film credits whatsoever.)

'Presumed Innocent' is declared mediocre

Presumed Innocent (1990)
Starring: Harrison Ford, Brian Dennehy, Raul Julia, Bonnie Bedelia, John Spencer, and Paul Winfield
Director: Alan Pakula
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

As District Attorney Raymond Horga (Dennehy) fights for his political life, one of his prosecutors is brutally murdered. He assigns his chief deputy, Rusty Sabich (Ford) to investigate the case--an awkward situation for Rusty, as he recently ended an illicit affair with the murder victim. As evidence starts to emerge, Rusty and the homicide detective he is working with (Spencer) develop a theory that the prosecutor was murdered to cover up corruption in the D.A.'s office. However, even stronger evidence emerges that Rusty murdered the woman in a jealous rage, and he is soon arrested and made to stand trial. He hires Sandy Stern (Julia), a Perry Mason-like defense attorney, and together they pick their way through a maze of deceit, political double-dealings, and government corruption. Can even the mighty Sandy Stern find the key evidence to get hard-ass judge Larren Lyttle to dismiss the case against Rusty--particularly when evidence points to the judge possibly being one of the corrupt officials?

"Presumed Innocent" is a so-so courtroom drama, weighed down by a too-slow first act, and a cast that seems almost as if it is sleepwalking through the movie. Ford, Dennehy, and Bedelia seem particuarly listless. Out of the entire cast, only Spencer, Julia, and Winfield seem to display any energy at all--with the latter two being particularly fun in their roles once the movie shifts into the courtroom.

On the upside, "Presumed Innocent" plays fair with the audience as far as the "whodunnit" aspect of the film goes, and I always appreciate a film that's confident enough in its story to do that. The film gives the audience so many clues and hints that I guessed the identity of the murderer and why and how well before the movie gave us the "big revelation"... but that was actually okay, because it does a good job of giving enough alternate suspects that I doubted my conclusion. The ending also played so well that I minded solving the mystery at the beginning of the second act even less.

I'm a tremendous fan of courtroom dramas, and I enjoy watching them. "Presumed Innocent" had just enough problems to knock it down to the low side of average. It's a shame, because it should have been a full-fledged winner.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Sherlock Sunday:
Holmes vs. Nazi Spies in America

Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943)
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Marjorie Lord, Henry Daniell and George Zucco
Director: Roy William Neill
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When a British secret agent vanishes while on a mission to Washington, D.C., the British government sends Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (Rathbone and Bruce) to the United States to uncover what happened to him and to learn if valuable secrets have fallen into the hands of the Nazis.

"Sherlock Holmes in Washington" is the final and best of the Universal "Holmes vs. the Nazis" trilogy of films. It features a well-crafted and suspenseful plot that takes full advantage both of Holmes' legendary deductive powers as well as the modern (early 1940s) setting, with the mystery revolving around missing documents that unbeknownst to heroes and villains alike have been duplicated on microfilm and hidden inside a matchbook that is then passed from character to character and almost lost for good on more than one occassion. The fact that the audience knows exactly where the documents everyone is looking for adds greatly to the suspense (and fun) of the film as it unfolds.

In addition to its expertly constructed plot, the film also features well-written dialogue that is delivered by a cast that are all at the top of their game. Rathbone's Holmes is the best I've ever seen itm Bruce's Watson is comedic but not annoyingly dimwitted, and Daniell and Zucco are excellent as the Nazi secret agents. From the film's opening scenes to the closing anti-fascism remarks from Holmes, this is a film that provides top-notch and classy entertainment. It's a move that fans of Sherlock Holmes and classic crime dramas will enjoy equally. (Heck, even if you're some sort of misguided moron who admires Nazis, you'll enjoy this flick. The ones in this story are smarter than the average bunch, be they fictional or real.)