Wednesday, June 30, 2010

'Our Man Flint' kicks Austin Powers' ass

Our Man Flint (1966)
Starring: James Coburn, Lee J. Cobb, and Gila Golan
Director: Daniel Mann
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When the world is threatened by a mysterious cabal who has the abilit to trigger natural disasters at will, only super-spy Derek Flint (Coburn) can save it. But will even his mastery of karate, fencing, bio-chemistry, world cuisne, and countless dance styles; his trick lighter with 80+ functions and weapons; his complete mastery of all his bodily functions; and his powers of seduction be enough to overcome the sinister briliance and beauty of his female counterpart (Golan)?

"Our Man Flint" is a hilarous spy comedy that derives its laughs from the fact that it's played completely straight (unlike "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery" and its progressively worse sequels, which goes out of their way to be goofy). Flint is an outrageously over-the-top James Bond-type character who can do pretty much everything, and who knows everything, but who is so perfect that he will humbly say that there are many things he doesn't know. His "man-of-peace" attitude (until his friends and acquaintances are threatened), gentlemanly nature combined with his swingin' Sixties lifestyle (with his super-bachelor pad and four live-in girlfriends/personal assistants) make him an even more interesting and funny character.

The storyline is fast-paced, the jokes are funny, and the story is fun, flippant super-spy fare. I think lovers of comedy and James Bond-style spy movies will something to like about "Our Man Flint."

Monday, June 28, 2010

'Find Me Guilty' is an unusual mob movie

Find Me Guilty (2006)
Starring: Vin Diesel, Peter Dinklage, Ron Silver, and Alex Rocco
Director: Sidney Lumet
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When life-long gangster Jackie Dinorsio (Diesel) is offered a chance to escape a 30-year prison sentence by turning state's evidence against his former Lucchesi Crime Family associates, he refuses to turn on those he considers his friends. Instead, he turns the biggest organized crime trial in American history into a vehicle to express his view of family values within the Family.

I like lawyer/court room movies. I like Vin Diesel, and I really liked him in "The Pacifier". I walked into "Find Me Guilty" really wanting to like the movie alot. Unfortunately, I found it a little lacking.

Some critics have complained that the movie turns morality upside down--the mobsters are basically the good guys here (with one exception--mob boss Nick Calabrese, played by Alex Rocco), while the federal prosecutor is a complete rat bastard--but I really didn't mind this aspect of the film, because the character of Jackie Dinorsio is the point of view from which the story is told, and he is truly convinced that all his criminal associates truly are "good fellas." The weakest point in the movie to my mind was the lead prosecutor was portrayed as so over-the-top that he brought down the rest of the movie. (Why did he have prison guards harass and beat up Dinorsio on the night before the Big Final Trial Witness was to appear in court?) Every other lawyer portrayed seemed believable, but the prosecutor did not. (Being that "Find Me Guilty" is based on the real-life 21-month RICO trial of a dozen or so New Jersey mobsters, perhaps the real-life prosecutor really was such a over-dramatic jerk... but he should have been toned down, because he was out of step with the rest of the performances in the film.)

"Find Me Guilty" is definitely Vin Diesel's show, and he manages to truly get the audience to feel sympathy for the wise-cracking Dinorsio, who, in the face of all the facts around him, continue to cling to his notion that there truly is love and respect shared between mobsters. To the very end, Dinorsio hangs onto this idea and continues to espouse it as he mounts a defense of himself and his buddies as his own attorney. In fact, the only friends that Dinorsio seems to have is the lead mob attorney (expertly played by Peter Dinklage) and the presiding judge (Ron Silver) who seems to develop some affection for Dinorsio as the trail unfolds; but Dinorsio never notices. If he does, he doesn't let it show.

There are plenty of chuckles in "Find Me Guilty", but I would have liked for more belly-laughs in the film. I recommend it if you enjoy mob movies or court-room dramas. I don't think it's a great movie, but I think my time watching it was well-spent.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Early Seagal is the Best Seagal

Hard to Kill (aka "Seven Year Storm") (1990)
Starring: Steven Seagal, Kelly Lebrock, Frederick Coffin, Charles Boswell, Branscombe Richmond, and William Sadler
Director: Bruce Malmuth
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Police Detective Mason Storm (Seagal) and his family are gunned by a crooked cops doing the bidding of an even more crooked politician (Sadler). Emerging from a coma after seven years, Storm trains himself back to health with the help of a kindhearted nurse (Le Brock). He then picks up where he left off--going about blowing open the conspiracy that has now elevated cops and politicians to places of great power, while seeking some revenge along the way.

"Hard to Kill" to one of Steven Seagal's best movies, and it's proof that somewhere along the way his career went off the rails. It's a nicely paced, well-written, and well-acted action film that, while a bit goofy at times, is a great ride. Just don't think too hard during one or two sequences.

Seagal and Le Brock both give some of the best performances of their careers, and the supporting cast does a nice job as well. The fight scenes are mostly well done, and the one-liners uttered by Seagal during the film's climactic orgy of revenge, blood, and ass-kicking are more grim than funny... something that I appreciate now that I'm older and wiser. (I also found myself feeling sorry that the beautiful house Storm conveleses in is destroyed--I don't know if that's a sign that I'm getting old, or that accidental exposure to Tinky Winky while working at a PBS affliate turned me gay!)

If you're a fan of action movies, take a look at "Hard to Kill". It's from a time when Steven Seagal appeared in good movies.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Most straight-forward action film ever?

Shoot 'Em Up (2007)
Starring: Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti and Monica Bellucci
Director: Mike Davis
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A mysterious drifter known as Mr. Smith (Owen) inadvertently ends up the protector of a newborn baby who is being hunted by a hoard of violent gunmen, led by a former FBI profiler named Hertz (Giamatti). It's a good thing that Our Hero is a one-man army will skills that James Bond and Jason Bourne would envy, and an imperviousness that only Bugs Bunny can match.

"Shoot 'Em Up" is perhaps one of the most honestly titled and promoted films of all time. It truly is about shooting holes in people, cars, planes... just about anything that appears on screen. It can only be summarized as Frank Miller's "Sin City" graphic novels meet John Woo's "Hardboiled" and collides with Marvel Comics' "The Punisher" as he was portrayed in the mid- to late-1990s.

It is perhaps one of the wildest action movies ever put on screen, and, with the exception of one romantic interlude and sex scene (that itself leads into one of the most outrageous action scenes I've ever seen) the action doesn't stop once it gets going some five seconds into the film. And as the movie spirals further and further into outrageousness, action movie fans will and cheer and not give one whit that the plot linking the cartoony, gory violent set-pieces makes increasingly less sense.

"Shoot 'Em Up" succeeeds due to its great cast, but even more because of its precisely choreographed gunfights that get evermore rediculous--culimating with a shootout that takes place while characters are skydiving. The film is also fun, because it acknowledge its silliness--most evidently when the carrot-chomping hero asks the villian, "What's up, Doc?"--while every actor in the film plays their role with utmost seriousness. (Owen and Giamatti are especially fun, as a pair of characters who emerge as a sort of live-action Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd.)

Another reason the film succeeds are some very odd touches and elements that appear as the film unfolds. Without spoiling too many surprises, I can mention that the first of these is the gunfight that Mr. Smith has with a gang of assassins while helping a woman give birth--as he is snuffing out lives left and right, he is bringing a new one into the world. There's also a recurring theme of gun control and gun safety that keeps cropping up. And there are also some very odd quirks on the part of both Mr. Smith and his foe Mr. Hertz that essentially end up defining them.

If you have a sense of humor, and you like your action movies light on plot and characterizations but heavy with action and heroic good guys and utterly dispicable bad guys, you absolutely must see "Shoot 'Em Up".

Monday, June 21, 2010

'The Heroic Trio' is one of the very best superhero films

The Heroic Trio (1992)
Starring: Maggie Cheung, Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh, Damien Lau, James Pak, and Yee Kwan Yan
Director: Johnny To
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A shadowy evil is abducting babies throughout The City, and three superpowered women--Wonder Woman (Mui), Thief Catcher (Cheung), and Invisible Woman (Yeoh) must settle their differences if anyone will have a chance to stop the monstrous schemes of the Evil Master (Yan). Only the Heroic Trio will be able to save true innocents from being slaughtered.

Now THIS is what a superhero movie should be. Until the "Iron Man" movies came along, this was by far my favorite superhero movie. The sequel ("The Executioners") was a bit of a downer, but this is great entertainment from beginning to end.

"The Heroic Trio" features humor, suspense, drama, and true tragedy. While the characters aren't neccesarily complicated, they are all well developed, and viewers will be moved when the secrets of the lead characters come to light. Plus, the villian of our piece certainly lives up to his name... there are some very upsetting moments involving the kidnapped babies.

The fight scenes are brief, but well-staged. The superheroes and their powers are well presented and well thought-out (even if I'm rather amused by the fact that "Invisible Woman" wears a bright red outfit... when not invisbiel, she's the most visible character in a film where everything else is in muted colors), and the casting is universally perfect. Cheung in particular is great as the comical Thief Catcher, while Yeoh demonstrates her range as an actress with the tragic hero Invisible Woman.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Judges become vigilantes in 'The Star Chamber'

The Star Chamber (1983)
Starring: Michael Douglas, Hal Holbrook, Joe Regalbuto, Don Calfa, James B. Sikking, and Yaphet Kotto
Director: Peter Hyams
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When a Superior Court Judge (Douglas) grows frustrated with the U.S. legal system when he fiinds himself releasing obviously guilty criminals on technicalities, he is invited by his mentor (Holbrook) to join a secret society of judges who have taken it upon themselves to issue death penalties for the vilest of criminals who escape justice in their courts.

"The Star Chamber" is a thriller that will intrigue anyone who's ever shaken their head at the way the American courts seem to be slanted in favor of allowing criminals to, literally in some cases, get away with murder and those who believe firmly that the perfect justice system is the one that lets one hundred guilty men go free to avoid sending that one innocent man to prison. It offers food for thought no matter where you are on the political or philosophical spectrum.

Although it's more than 25 years since its release, the story in "The Star Chamber" is still relevant and vibrant and the film has a very contemporary feel to it. In fact, a lack of references to any what-was-then contemporary real-world situations means this film stands nearly undated. It's an undeservedly obscure thriller--has it ever been on TV?--that features good performances by all cast memebers, a decent script, and good cinematography. It's only serious flaw is that it's somewnat predictable.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

'The Cheap Detective' brings mystery and mirth

The Cheap Detective (1978)
Starring: Peter Falk, Louise Fletcher, Madeline Kahn, Marsha Mason, Eileen Brennan, James Coco, Ann-Margaret, Ferndando Lamas, Dom Deluise, John Houseman, Nicol Williams, Stockard Channing, and Sid Ceaser
Director: Robert Moore
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

The year 1939 is not turning out to be a good one for gumshoe Lou Peckinpaugh (Falk). His partner has been murdered and he's the prime suspect because he's been having an affair with his wife (Mason). But before he can clear his name, he first has to solve the mystery of some missing Albanian diamonds, stop the Nazi consul to Cincinatti (Williams) from destroying the French restraunt being run by the current husband (Lamas) of an old flame (Fletcher), and avoid getting too entangled with overheated vamps (Kahn and Brennan) or his demure secretary (Channing).

"The Cheap Detective" is a spoof of hardboiled detective tales and the film noir pictures from the 1940s and 1950s, and it plays as though the script emerged after someone tossed the movies "The Maltese Falcon" and "Casablanca", a collection of the Complete Works of Dasheil Hammett, and some copies of MAD Magazine into a blender set on high.

The result is a hilarious, but uneven, movie that's loaded with absurd situations, ridiculous puns, and a crazy, chaotic storyline that anticipates comedies like "Airplane" and "The Naked Gun". If you're a fan of those movies, you're bound to enjoy this one. The film starts weak--with a gag involving a killer so efficient his victims don't even fall down when they die stretched so thin in loses all comedy value--and ends with a nonsensical and unfunny scene that seems to exist only to fit in one more cameo, but almost everything between the two badly done bookends is great stuff.

You're also bound to enjoy "The Cheap Detective" if you love the movies and the actors being spoofed. Peter Falk in particular is hilarious with his very effective Humphrey Bogart imitation, but Louise Fletcher's Ingrid Bergman is also great fun, as is Ann-Margaret's generic oversexed femme fatale and Nicol Williams. Much credit also goes, of course, to Neil Simon for the absurd dialogue and even more absurd situations.

Whether you're a fan of classic detective films and the film noir genre, or whether you simply enjoy crazy comedies, I think you'll find something to laugh about in "The Cheap Detective".

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

It takes a real man to drive a pink Cadillac

Pink Cadillac (1989)
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Bernadette Peters, and Timothy Carhart
Director: Buddy Van Horn
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Lou Ann (Peters) gets fed up with her small-time criminal husband (Carhart) after he leaves her holding the bag for a counterfeiting scheme he was involved with--literally, as the bag was full of counterfeit money. She skips bail and takes off with their baby in his vintage pink Cadillac. Unfortunately for Lou Ann, her husband and his partners hid their real money in the Caddy, and they are soon in pursuit. Luckily for Lou Ann, a softhearted skip-tracer (Eastwood) is also on her trail, and he may prove to be the only hope for survival she has.

"Pink Cadillac" is a mostly unfunny comedy with a script that starts out mildly illogical and haphazard and ends in complete nonsensical chaos. It suffers further from having a hero who is arbitrarily goofy (Why does Clint Eastwood's skip-tracer Tommy Nowack habitually dress up in outlandish costumes to catch his prey? It's not something we ever get an answer to, and I don't think the writers knew either.). He's also badly played, something that can rarely be said about Eastwood.

What's more, leading lady Bernadette Peters is more annoying than endearing--which is what the writers were shooting for--and the romance that developes between her and Eastwood feels without any foundation whatsoever. (Yes.. naturally he helps her retreive her baby from the evil white supremist ex-cons of the Brotherhood--it's that kind of movie--but there's no sensible reason for a romance that results in them running off together to evolve.)

The film also sufffers from a distinct lack of apparent threat to the characters. The Black Widow biker gang from "Any Which Way But Loose" and "Any Which Way You Can" seemed more menacing and competent than the moronic Brotherhood, even if the latter are set up to be more vicious and deadly. (Oh... the Black Widow gang was also funnier than the members of the Brotherhood.

Frankly, Clyde the Orangutang (also from "Any Which Way But Loose" and "Any Which Way You Can") out-acted everyone who appeared in this film. It's the worst comedy that Eastwood has appeared in, and it may even be the worst movie he's been in, period. It makes "City Heat" look like a work of pure genius.)

I think even die-hard Eastwood and Peters fans can go without seeing this film. You won't miss anything worthwhile and you'll have two hours of your life to spend in a more productive fashion. (For good Eastwood comedies, check out the the "Any Which Way" films mentioned above.)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

'Warning Shots' is a film that hasn't aged well

Warning Shot (1967)
Starring: David Janssen, Keenan Wynn, Lillian Gish, Stephanie Powers, and George Grizzard
Director: Buzz Kulik
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When police detective Tom Valens (Janssen) shoots someone he believed to be armed and dangerous, but no weapon is found and the dead suspect turns out to be a much-loved, famously philathropic doctor, he finds himself on trial of manslaughter. Already found guilty by public opinion, Valens races against the clock--the start of his trail where he will certainly be found guilty and sent to prison--to figure out what happened to the gun he knows he saw, as well as figure out why such an esteemed person was behaving so suspiciously.

"Warning Shot" is a mildly interesting cross between a detective story and a courtroom drama. It's an interesting enough little story, but it suffers from the fact that the character of Tom Valens never really emerges from the generic "tough, honest cop innocently accused" template. Yeah, he lives off nothing but buttermilk, and he has a troubled marriage, but that's about it. Heck, we gain more insight into the character of the DA hell-bent on railroading Valens than we do into the character we're supposed to sympathize with.

There are certain parts of the film that haven't aged well--such as some "news-footage" included to illustrate how the public is leaping to the conclusion that Valens is some wacked-out, gun-happy cop who just blows people away willhe-nillhe. The inclusion of a stereotypical hippy had me giggling, although the filmmakers most certainly were not looking for that reaction. Overall, though, the film is worth seeing, but it's not particularly great, despite its line-up of great actors.

(As of this writing, "Warning Shots" is out of print, but it can probably be rented from any number of sources.)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The image of Bruce Lee will not be appearing
in tonight's presentation

The Image of Bruce Lee (aka "Storming Attacks") (1978)
Starring: Bruce Li, Chang Leih, John Cheung, Yin-Chieh Han, Bolo Yeun, and Dana Lei
Director: Kuen Yeung
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A pair of Hong Kong police inspectors, Dragon and Wang (Li and Leih), must break the counterfeiting ring of local crimelord Han (Han) before he completes a deal with Japanese organized crime and floods Hong Kong and Japan with fake United States dollars. Bands of Kung Fu fighters wait to beat on them around every corner, however. And a femme fatale (Lei) strips naked every chance she has.

"The Image of Bruce Lee" has a razor thin plot that exists only to get the main characters from one fight scene to the next. Unless you're watching the film because you're interested in staged martial arts fights, you're going to start getting bored after the second or third, because most of them are just like the one that happened a few minutes before. (Only two of the combats are remotely interesting--one where a Japanese gangster (played by Bolo Yeun) takes on a bunch of Chinese hoods while using a pair of handcuffs as a slashing weapon, and another where Bruce Li take on the same gang of thugs a little later and ends up in a battle that seems like an early version of the sort of Prop Fu material that Jackie Chan would make his trademark a few years later. The rest just aren't all that good, even taking into account the period this movie dates from.)

An even bigger problem than the lackluster fight scenes is the fact that what little story we have is as boring as they are. Not only boring, but badly constructed. Li and Leih (Police Inspectors Dragon and "Moustache" Wang) have got to be the very worst inspectors in all of Hong Kong, as they can't tail a suspect without getting spotted and getting into a fight, they can't conduct surveillance without getting spotted and getting into a fight, and they can't ask a suspect to come down to the station without violating all sorts of police procedures and getting into a fight. If played for laughs--and the film's opening scene makes you think that you're actually in for a comedy--these incompetent boobs might have made for amusing viewing, but this film takes itself so seriously that it doesn't even feature the Standard Issue Comic Relief Character that seemed to be a must in films from this period. Although, I suppose the slutty femme fatale from England (whose clothes came off to treat the viewer to some full-frontal nudity whenever the film got really boring) might vaguely fill that slot. But not quite. This is one humorless movie... despite the fact the man bad guy's gimmick is the throw silver coins so hard they embed themselves deeply in wood and might thus presumable kill someone, even if he never shown doing so.)

Actually, the opening scene is probably the best part of the movie. Dragon scales the side of a building to save a man who is about to commit suicide, because he lost his business and reputation because of the counterfeiting ring Dragon will soon be called upon to break. Dragon's attempt ends in a blackly humorous way that didn't set the tone for the film, but should have.

All in all, "The Image of Bruce Lee" is one that you should probably avoid looking at. Of course, it could also be that this is a police comedy/martial arts spoof of the magnitude of "Hot Fuzz" that I just didn't get because I'm not as well-versed in Chinese culture as I am in English. It could be, but I don't think so... I think this is just an ineptly made film.

(By the way, the title is drawn from a single line in the film, when its suggested that Inspector Dragon should become an actor because he looks like Bruce Lee. While I don't think he looks very much like Bruce Lee, Bruce Li DID spend much of his career in Bruceplotation movies. This is not one of those, so I suspect that line was an attempt at levity... that got the film turned into a Bruceploitation movie when it was exported to America. There are no images of Bruce Lee that I noticed anywhere in the film. Although it would have made for a better movie if the gangsters were counterfeiting limited edition Bruce Lee collector plates or some-such.)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Bond is closest to Ian Fleming source
in 'From Russia With Love

From Russia With Love (1963)
Starring: Sean Connery, Daniela Bianchi, Lotte Lenya, and Robert Shaw
Director: Terrence Young
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When British secret agent James Bond (Connery) is dispatched to Turkey to retreieve a Russian defector (Bianchi) and a decoder machine she is willing to surrender to British Intelligence. However, he soon finds himself in a trap contrieved by international criminal cartel SPECTRE and its shadowy leader, Blofeld.

"From Russia With Love" is perhaps the most straight-forward and most realistic spy movie in the entire James Bond series. The film spends its time in spy-vs-spy territory, the gadgetry is kept to a minimum, and even Bond keeps a relatively low profile throughout. There are some nice set-pieces and some amusing one-liners, but they all take place within a framework far more realstic than any other of the classic Bond films.

(I'm loathe to mention this, but "From Russia With Love" is similar in tone and feel to the Timothy Dalton-starring "License to Kill". Both films are free of the comic-book action that is the hallmark of most Bond films... but "From Russia" has a leg up on "License" in that the former movie is actually entertaining.)

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Sherlock Sunday: Wontner in 'The Sign of Four'

The Sign of Four: Sherlock Holmes' Greatest Case (1932)
Starring: Arthur Wontner, Ian Hunter, Isla Bevan, and Graham Soutten
Director: Graham Cutts
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

After Mary Morstan (Bevan) receives a mysterious string of pearls and a mysterious letter requesting a meeting, and is then menaced by a mysterious thug (Soutten), she retains the services of private investigators Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (Wontner and Hunter) for protection and to get some answers. What is brought to light is a tale of greed, decades-old treachery and murder, and a madman seeking revenge.

"The Sign of Four" is one of the most often adapted Holmes tales, with this 1932 film being the third version and the first talkie. It's a fast-moving and at times very chilling mystery film, with a cinematic style that often anticipates techniques that wouldn't come into wide use until the rise of film noir in the late 1940s and the 1950s. These stylstic flourishes help to offset some of the film's acting styles, which are still heavily influenced by what was then the fast-fading silent movies period, giving the film a more modern feel that many of the early talkies lack.

Another strong point of the film is the portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. Not only does Arthur Wotner's Holmes seem as though he was brought to life straight from the pen-and-ink illustrations in "The Strand Magazine," but Holmes here seems more at ease with himself and those around him than the one we most often find in the films. He comes across as a unmatched genius, but he also has a good sense of humor and a compassionate nature and friendly demeanor that makes it easy to understand why Watson admires him. Another aspect I like about this adaptation is the Holmes is shown to be as excellent at physical confrontations as he is with the matching of wits. During the film's climax, Holmes kicks much butt, just like the character that Doyle described in his fiction.

Similarly, Watson is portrayed as an intelligent and useful assistant to Holmes, so there is no difficulty in understanding why the Great Detective keeps him around and relies on him for important tasks. This cannot be said of Watson in several other Holmes adaptatations.

While I generally liked how Watson was handled in the film, one aspect of Ian Hunter's portrayal of Watson I didn't care for was the way he came across like a lecherous pervert whenever he was around Mary Morstan. He is ogling her, pawing her... obviously barely able to keep himself from jumping her right then and there. While I understand that the intent was to portray "love at first sight" between Watson and Mary--who becomes his wife in the Doyle tales--the combination of clunky writing and silent movie-type acting makes one wonder why Mary wasn't beating this disgusting lech (who is also at least twice her age) with his cane and then running screaming from the room.

While the film keeps most of the generalities of the original Doyle tale, there are a number of changes that lend the film to be internally inconsistent and even nonsensical at times. The villain is so over the top and reprehensible that one wonders why his henchmen stick around, or even helped him in the first place; while the fact that the entire stolen treasure seems to be intact when Mary is sent the pearls instead of partially spent as in the original story; and a bizarre bit of comedy involving the neigh-obligatory "Holmes-in-disguise" scene. Some viewers might also be annoyed by the fact the story has been transported from the 1800s to the modern-day period of the 1930s, but it really makes no difference to the overall thrust of the tale.

On balance, though, it's a strong adaptation that is made even stronger by Wontner's excellent portrayal of Holmes. It's well worth checking out.

Friday, June 4, 2010

John Candy is 'Armed and Dangerous'

Armed and Dangerous (1986)
Starring: John Candy, Eugene Levy, Meg Ryan, Robert Loggia and Kenneth McMillan
Director: Mark L. Lester
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A disgraced cop (Candy) and an incompetent lawyer (Levy) become friends after they take jobs as security guards to make ends meet. However, they are soon forced to rely upon each other for survival when they get caught up in the illegal dealings of the security company's owner (Loggia).

"Armed and Dangerous" is a fast-paced action comedy that careens from joke to joke, from screwball set-pieces to car chases with wild abandon. It features a fun collection of cartoony characters played by a cast that's mostly at the top of their game, but the film swerves so rapidly and severely through comedic styles that it gets in its own way and times, giving an impression that the writers and director didn't quite know what kind of movie they wanted to make. In some cases, it even feels like they didn't quite know what they wanted certain charaters to be.

The most obvious example of inconsistencies with the film's characters is in Maggie Cavanaugh, another employee of the security company and the manager's daugther, portrayed by Meg Ryan. In the earliest scenes she's in, she comes across either as ditzy or drunk, but later she apears quite intelligent (and there's no indication that the character hits the sauce to excess). She makes references to a bad marriage, but nothing ever comes of this in the film, nor is there ever any indication how she can afford the very large, very fancy house she lives in. All in all, the character is badly focused and developed, and, while it's most obivous with this character, the same is true of John Candy's Frank Dooley (who is alternatively very smart and very stupid, or very industrious or very lazy).

These lapses in good writing and firm direction detract from the overall cohesion of the film and lead to it being a good comedy as opposed to a great one. With just a little more effort on the part of the writers and the director, this could have been a classic, becauase John Candy and Eugene Levy are as good in this film as they've ever been.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

'Deathtrap' is perfect adaptation of play

Deathtrap (1982)
Starring: Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve, and Dyan Cannon
Director: Sidney Lumet
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Sidney Bruhl (Caine) is a celebrated playwright who is suffering from burnout. If he has too many more failed plays, his career will be over. Fortunately, a solution has just presented itself: A young writer (Reeve) has sent him a brilliant play for comment. All Bruhl has to do is kill the young man and pass his play off as his own, and he'll be on top again. It's a simple enough plan, but as Bruhl sets about executing it, it becomes unclear who is actually trapped in his death trap.

"Death Trap" is playwright Ira Levin's masterpiece. It's a thrilling parlor mystery with such unexpected twists and sudden reversals that you will sit amazed as the story unfolds and you will be kept guessing up until the very end. What's more, the film has moments that are scarier than what is found in most modern horror movies, and funnier than most modern comedies. It's a classic that is as exciting today as it was when it was released three decades ago.

And it could hardly be anything but a masterpiece, as it remains almost totally faithful to Levin's original script, and it is being performed by two very great actors--Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve. The two are spectacular together, playing off one another with great effect. (Interestingly, Caine was in a movie with a very similar plot years earlier--"Sleuth"--where he played the young writer!)

Usually, when I write the words "the film's origin as a stage play is plainly evident", I mean it as a negative. Here, it's very much a postiive. The way most of the play takes place in one room eventually starts to feel like the titular death trap. If you can't see a well-mounted performance of this play, then this film adaptation will forever remain a worthy substitute.