Thursday, September 30, 2010

'Zodiac' is too long, but still worth the time

Zodiac (2007)
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr, Anthony Edwards, Chloë Sevigny, Elias Koteas, and John Carroll Lynch
Director: David Fincher
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A mysterious killer taunts the police and the press with letters while remaining unknown and uncatchable. "Zodiac" tells the story of three men (Downey, Gyllenhaal, and Ruffalo) whose lives were altered and consumed by their attempts to unmask the killer. The tagline here-- "There's more than one way to lose your life to a killer"--is one of the more apt ones to ever be applied to a film.

Based on real-life events, "Zodiac" is a dialogue-driven thriller that keeps a downbeat, tense mood--accented by brief horror sequences as Zodiac commits his murders or moments such as when cartoonist-turned-amateur-slueth Robert Graysmith (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) comes face to face with a man he comes to believe is the Zodiac himself--as it grinds through its nearly three hour running time. While the fillm is entirely too long, it is nonetheless well put together with excellent performances by every member of the cast. (I am mildly troubled by the fact there's a two disk director's cut of this film available. It already began to feel tortourously long as the Zodiac investigation ran around in a swamp of dead ends and I was about ready to give up on it just when Graysmith finally started putting some pieces together and the movie picked up its pace as he zeroed in on the identity of the Zodiac Killer. I shudder to imagine how dull an even longer version of this movie must be.)

"Zodiac" is worth seeing, particularly if you enjoy true-to-life police procedurals and low-key thrillers, but be aware that you'll probably have to set aside an entire evening to do so. I'd be prone to stay away from the extended director's cut, but I admit to not having seen it.)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

'Nurse Betty' features great performances

This review is part of Blogcabin's 30 dAyS oF cRaZy blog-a-thon.

Nurse Betty (2000)
Starring: Renee Zellweger, Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock, Greg Kinnear, Tia Texada, and Crispin Glover
Director: Neil LaBute
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

The shock of witnessing her husband's murder drives Betty (Zellweger) into a fantasy world where she believes she is the first love of her favorite soap opera character. She sets off for California to reunite with him. Meanwhile, two hired killers (Freeman and Rock) are tracking her, intending to eliminate the only witness to their crime and to recover drugs they believe she has stolen.

"Nurse Betty" is a sharply written comedy that delivers a multi layered message about how expectations and dreams drive us forward and shape our actions. Three of the film's major characters are in love with an ideal that has a physical counterpart but really doesn't exist outside their imagination. (Betty is in love with a kindhearted, romantic heart surgeon whose personality is very different from the actor who portrays him; Betty comes to represent the perfect woman to the hit man played by Morgan Freeman who falls in love with her picture as he tracks her westward; and Greg Kinnear comes to view Betty as his ticket to the next stage of his career, as he believes her to be a fantastically talented improv performer instead of a poor woman suffering from a dissociative disorder).

As is often the case when supported by a good script, every actor in this film is at their best. Even Chris Rock, who usually annoys the heck out of me, is funny at the right times and dramatic at the right times.

Of particular note in this stand-out cast is Morgan Freeman. While Freeman is playing the character he seems to play most often--a professional killer who is smarter and a little less psychotic than is typical for members of that profession--he is perhaps better here than any other of the times he's played it. While he usually manages to present a charming and somewhat sympathetic character no matter how amoral he ultimately turns out to be, his character here is one that you will find yourself having real sympathy for when all his hopes and dreams are shattered toward the end of the movie, and he ends up paying a heavy price for his life of violence.

This is one of those movies I sat down to watch with no idea what to suspect--the leads have all appeared in a wide variety of genres--but it was a pleasant surprise. The script is well written with not a single moment wasted, and every performer featured gives a top-notch performance. It's definitely worth checking out by anyone who enjoys a well-crafted romantic comedies. While "Nurse Betty" might not have a storybook ending, every character who deserves a happy ending gets one, and you're guaranteed to be left feeling warm and fuzzy as the end credits roll.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

'Sudden Impact' is weakest Dirty Harry film

Sudden Impact (1983)
Starring: Clint Eastwood and Sondra Locke
Director: Clint Eastwood
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A rape victim (Locke) is taking brutal revenge on her attackers, and SFPD's most rebellious police inspector, Harry Callahan (Eastwood) is trying to catch her.

I once wrote that "Magnum Force" is the weakest link in the "Dirty Harry" cycle. I take it back. That dubious distiction properly goes to "Sudden Impact", a film without any likable characters (with the possible exception of Meathead the Dog); flat performances from most of the actors (even Eastwood); a story that relies waaay too much on coincidence to keep moving (yes, there always needs to be some sort of coincidental convergence of events and characters, but "Sudden Impact" features so many that it's just plain bad writing); and the end is out of step with the way Callahan has been portrayed in previous films, how he is portrayed in the final film in the series... and it's just a bad ending all-around. (Without providing too many spoilers, Harry pretty much abandons any moral high-ground he once may have been able to claim, because as the end credits roll in "Sudden Impact", he's no longer a good cop by any stretch of the imagination.)

To make the experience even worse, Sandra Locke appears to have received a talent-ectomy before filming on "Sudden Impact" began.

I remember liking this movie alot when I saw it as a kid some two decades ago. All I really remembered was the startling final shot of the main bad guy, and the scenes with Meathead. I really should have watched all the "Dirty Harry" movies again before condemning "Magnum Force." It's interesting how tastes change as we grow older.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

'Abraxas': Kirby Homage or Rip-off?

Abraxas: Guardian of the Universe (1990)
Starring: Jesse Ventura, Marjorie Bransfield, and Jim Belushi
Director: Damian Lee
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Anyone out there remember Jack Kirby's "Fourth World"? Maybe the DC Comics' "New Gods"? Well, "Abraxas: Guardian of the Universe," either through coincidence or creative borrowing plays like an unauthorized adaptation of Kirby's "Fourth World" creations.

In "Abraxas," Jesse Ventura stars as the title character, an immortal super cop who pursues Secundus, a rogue member of his ranks, to Earth. The villain uses wonder-tech to impregnate a young woman (Bransfield) with a child who carries within his genetics the secret of the Anti-Life Equation. Abraxas is tasked with killing the child before the Anti-Life Equation is revealed, but, being a heroic sort, he disregards his orders and looks for another way.

"Abraxas" sports many of the standards remembered from the Jack Kirby comics--godlike superbeings who prove the statement "sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," interstellar travel is done through wormholes (the "boom tubes" from the comic); and the characters possess semi-sentient, miniaturized supercomputers that can perform just about any function you can imagine, but which may also nag the possessor when he isn't following the orders of his superiors ("talk boxes" in "Abraxas," "Mother Boxes" in the Kirby comic).

As a standalone movie, "Abraxas" rates Four Stars for being a slow and boring film--the premise could have been so much more exciting. It's a Five Star film if you know Jack Kirby's Fourth World work and pretend this is a third-rate adaptation of it. Decent performances by the actors and some okay dialogue saves it from complete suckage. (There are, however, some really laughable sequences in the film and some truly mind-numbing story continuity issues that should probably cost the film several Tomatoes... but they are so unintentionally funny that one has to admire them. Foremost among these are the fight scene with soundtrack music that must be been licensed from Muzak, followed closely by the scene where a woman gives birth without needing to take pants off.)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Nice concepts, lousy execution

The Chosen One: Legend of the Raven (1998)
Starring: Carmen Electra, Debra Xavier, and Shauna Sand
Director: Lawrence Lanoff
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

"The Chosen: Legend of the Raven" is the story of a young woman (Electra) who is chosen by birthright and circumstance to take up her family mantle (represented by a necklace with mystical powers) to become the Raven fight against an Evil that threatens to swallow the world. The film depicts her transformation and her first battle against said evil, manifested in the Wolf (Xavier).

It's a nice concept with an exceedingly bad execution. The script is very nearly devoid of focus, the acting is almost universally bad (Xavier shows some glimmers of talent, or maybe just carries herself with natural intensity... but this is offset by Carmen Electra's thoroughly wooden and amateurish performance), and the fight scenes are as lame as any ever committed to film. There's not even anything remarkable about the camera work or costuming, and there's no humour to speak of. To top it off, the Raven's enemies seem more pathetic than truly threatening.

The only thing I can think of to recommend this film is that it did manage to hold my attention. Unlike many other poorly made films the creators here at least had a sense of pacing.My advice? Pass on this one unless you're the world's biggest fan of Carmen Electra or Shauna Sand.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Steven Seagal embarrasses himself again

Belly of the Beast (2003)
Starring: Steven Seagal, Byron Mann, Monica Lo, Tom Wu, and Sara Malakul Lane
Director: Tony Ching
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

One-time CIA operative Jake Hopper (Seagal) travels to Thailand to rescue his daughter (Lane) who is being held for ransom by militants. He runs head-long into intrigues involving rogue military officers, corrupt CIA agents, and an evil sorcerer.

"Belly of the Beast" is a paint-by-numbers action flick that borrows and steals from any number of superior films. I'm not sure there's a single frame in it that isn't cribbed from somewhere, except perhaps the bit where a monastery full of Buddhist monks get together to unite their spiritual force and attempt to slay the evil Thai voodoo priest who is targeting their good buddy Jake Hooper with his voodoo dolls and chants. (It also happens to be one of the dumber moments in the movie. I know Buddhism is a big tent, but does it really have room for an entire monastery of monks who violate one of the most basic preciepts of Buddhism, that being "you will not take a human life"?)

Being unoriginal isn't necessarily bad. The recent hit movie "Machete"--which features Steven Seagal in a supporting role as the main villain--owes everything to 1970s blacksploitation films, and it's a great deal of fun. Sometimes, turning off the brain and just watching things explode isn't all that bad.

"Belly of the Beast" had the potential to be a movie like that, but that potential is sapped away by the presence of a weak, overweight, and generally unhealthly looking Steven Seagal. The fact that he is past his physical prime and out of shape--perhaps even ill--is made all the more obvious by the scenes he shares with sidekick Byron Mann. Mann is the young, physically fit actor that Seagal USED to be twenty years ago, and Mann doesn't need stand-ins and creative camera angles to make it look like he is doing his fight scenes, because he actually is doing his fight scenes.

Actually, this film would have been a far-sight more watchable if Mann had been the hero on a quest to free his kidnapped daughter and Seagal being the sidekick recruited out of retirement in a Buddhist monastery. Mann in the lead and Seagal as the sidekick would have fixed this film's worst problems. It might even have made the plot line with the barmaid falling head-over-heels in love with the dashing hero who rescues her believable. (Of course, the different casting would not have allowed broken down old fat guys like me to imagine us in Steven Seagal's shoes... "wow, if he can get a hot chick, then so can I!" Nor would we have been treated to teenaged girls in short-shorts and bikini tops, as any daugther Mann's character might have would be entirely too young for such displays. But I think it would have been a fair trade-off to avoid yet another sad spectacle of Steven Seagal humiliating himself.)

With a new decade upon us, I think maybe that Steven Seagal has FINALLY taken the hard look at himself and his career that he should have taken back in 2000. The role his plays in "Machete" is far more suitable for his physical condition and appearance these days--even if he had to play at being the bad-ass there, too. Maybe now, he will start settling into supporting roles and stop making those of us who liked his films in the early 1990s look upon him with pity.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

'The Contract' is not worth working for

The Contract (2006)
Starring: Morgan Freeman, John Cusack, and Jamie Anderson
Director: Bruce Beresford
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A top assassin (Freeman), stranded in the Washington backwoods, ends up in the custody of Ray (Cusack), a retired police officer who wants to reconnect with and impress his young son (Anderson). Will Ray manage to bring the killer to the authorities, or will the rest of the hit team catch with up him first?

"The Contract" isn't a bad movie, but it isn't exactly a good one, either. The plot is one that's been done a dozen times over, the "twists" are all predictable because they too have been done a dozen times over characters are cliches that only come to life due to the excellent work of the actors portraying them... but even the best actor can make up for the fact that every action the characters take seem dictated by plot needs rather than common sense. It's the sort of film that's worth watching if you come across it late at night on television and can't sleep. It's not worth going out of your way for, though.

The best thing about the film is actually Morgan Freeman. He plays the cold-blooded, practical, and well-spoken sociopath very well... although he's had plenty of practice, given that this is the third or fourth time he's played that character. Freeman is interesting enough of an actor that he manages to make hit man Frank Carden interesting and likable, even if the character is as written is as dull as they come, and he is the villain of the piece; not the main villain, but certainly not a character the viewer is supposed to be as sympathetic toward as we are.

Our sympathies should lie with Ray, the father struggling to keep his son from "going bad" and the struggling to keep everyone alive. Unfortunately, Ray is such a dunderhead--being the main factor that keeps some fairly simple resolutions to the storyline from being enacted, no matter how sensible they might be--and John Cusack plays the part like he's asleep half the time, so Ray ends up feeling like a non-entity, exactly like the troubled single father stereotype he's written as.

Where Freeman seems to give his character life beyond the page, Cusack never seems to rise above the workman-like script. So, with a perceptive man of steel on one hand, and a dimwitted dish rag on the other, it's no wonder that we like Freeman's character over Cusack's. (And, of course, in the end, Freeman's character turns out to be not such a bad guy after all... because hit men are murderers with honor and hearts of gold in the world of movie stereotypes.)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

'Medusa' is a twisted crime drama
full of quirky characters

Medusa (1973)
Starring: George Hamilton, Luciana Paluzzi, Cameron Mitchell, Theodor Rambow, and Takis Kavouras
Direector: Gordon Hessler
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Jeffrey (Hamilton) is a drunken playboy living in Greece and whooping it up like the quintessential Ugly American. However, when word gets out that a last minute change to their father's will might leave Jeffrey and Sarah penniless, Jeffrey's life takes a turn for the serious, as a local mobbed-up casino owner (Mitchell) starts squeezing him to settle his $170K+ debts, and a mysterious strangler starts following him around, killing everyone connected with the rumored will. Is this masked killer real, or simply a figment Jeffrey's cracked mind?

"Medusa" is an offbeat crime drama that, despite an excess of padding in the form of Greeks singing, dancing, throwing plates, and otherwise behaving as though they're in an "Official Production of the Greek Travel and Tourism Department," is a fun and entertaining ride. Its populated by quirky characters, many of whom have an almost classic film-noir sense about them, such as the omni-present, nameless homicide detective (Kavouras) and Mitchell's health-nut gangster. In fact, I think Mitchell may well give the best performance of his career in this film.

Hamilton also gives the best performance I think I've ever seen from him--and while that may sound like I'm damning with faint praise, I'm not. I've always seen him as a comedic actor, and while he certainly plays a goofball here, he plays a dangerous, crazy goofball... and the menace oozes from his glittering smile when the scene calls for it.

In fact, this film was good enough that I almost feel inclined to forgive Gordon Hessler for the awful piece of crap that was "Scream and Scream Again".

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Hitchcock's cold war thriller still works

Torn Curtain (1966)
Starring: Paul Newman, Julie Andrews, Gunther Strack, Wolfgang Keiling, Ludwig Donath and Tamara Touronova
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When Dr. Sarah Sherman (Andrews) discovers her fiance, disaffected American nuclear physist Professor Michael Armstrong (Newman) is hiding something from her, she decides to trail him on a mystery flight to East Berlin. There, she learns is about to defect to East Germany during a showy media conference. But, there is more to Armstrong's defection than mere treason to his country, and Sherman unwittingly puts both herself and him in mortal danger.

"Torn Curtain" is a thriller that turns from spy movie to escape/persuit film fairly early in the story--far earlier than is typical in these sorts of films.

From beginning to end, this film breaks with the conventions of the Cold War spy movies, particularly those made in the 1960s. The lead "spy" is not flashy and he probably has never touched a gun in his life--Armstrong is about as low-key as he could possibly be. Similarly, while the East German secret police are menacing and definately oppressive, none of them are overtly as flamboyantly evil.

The film features the usual good acting, fast-paced story, and skilled use of visual story-telling elements that we expect from a Hitchcock movie, but the production design leaves a little to be desired. Specifically, I wish some more effort had gone into the matte paitings that transport Paul Newman from a Universal soundstage to an art museum in East Berlin; the paintings are obvious and almost embarrasingly bad.

"Torn Curtain" isn't as ignored as some of Hitchcock's early films, but it is one that deserves more attention than it gets. It's a well-done, low-key thriller that fans of Hitchcock should see. Fans of Julie Andrews should seek it out as well, as she's better here than in anything else I've seen her in. (Yes, even "Mary Poppins".)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Adventures of Lemon Drop!

Lemon Drop (2010)
Starring: Ali Larter, Martin Kove, and Erica McIntyre
Director: Traktor
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Lemon Drop (Larter) is a sexy defender of cute animals, and when a pair of kittens are abducted from the pet store that serves as the front for her operation, she swings into immediate action. Clues lead her to a night club, but why would singing sensation Johnny Thunderbird (Kove) want to abduct kittens?

Absolut Vodka has a cute ad campaign going for their lemon flavored vodka, the center piece of which is an online short film that tries to look like one of those discarded drive-in B-movies that show up in less-than-perfect condition in the DVD multi-packs with titles like "Tough Dames" and "Drive-In Movie Classics."

Although it's not a "full-length movie" as banner ads at and elsewhere claim, it is still a cute little spoof. Although I'm usually a Three Olives kinda guy--with chocolate and cherry flavored vodkas being my favorites--I might reward them by giving their product a test next time I'm restocking the liquor cabinet. The jokes are funnier and the performances are better in this little ad are better than in some real movies I've been subjected to in recent years.

You can check out "Lemon Drop" without needing to go anywhere but here. Just click "play" on the imbedded video, below. (For what it's worth, it's strictly a soft-sell ad.)

(For more on Ali Larter and her recurring part in the "Resident Evil" series, click here to visit my Terror Titans blog.)

'High Anxiety' is a Mel Brooks masterpiece

High Anxiety (1977)
Starring: Mel Brooks, Madeline Khan, Harvey Korman, and Cloris Leachman
Director: Mel Brooks
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

When psychiatrist Richard Thorndyke (Brooks) takes a new job as director of the Psychoneurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous, he finds that something is amiss. Before he can take action, he is framed for murder and set on the run. In order to clear his name, he must face his own neurotic condition, "high anxiety."

In "High Anxiety", one of cinema's greatest satirists takes on the works of Alfred Hitchcock, and he does so beautifully. In theory, this should be a movie that doesn't work, because making a satire of a body of work that's already rich in comedy--Hitchcock's movies mostly mix suspense and humor in near equal amounts--but Brooks manages to deliver a film that keeps viewers chuckling, giggling, and issuing full belly laughs in order to clear his name. Fans of Hitchcock will be laughing especially loudly and consistently, as Brooks not only offers spot-on spoofs of some of Hitchcock's most famous scenes, but provides affectionate mockery of many of his most-used stylistic flourishes. (And when Brooks isn't spoofing Hitchcock, he's delivering random insanity, such as Leachman's Nazi nurse character.)

And then there's the catchy tune of the theme song. Some twenty years after first seeing the film, the melody still stuck with me, and now that I've heard it again, it'll probably be in my head for days. (I find myself humming it as I type this review!) It's also nifty how it gets used in Bernard Hermann music score parodies in the film, too.

Lovers of well-done satires should get a big laugh out of this suspense movie spoof, and fans of Hitchcock's work absolutely must see this loving send-up.

For reviews of some of Hitchcock's actual films, click here for the ones I've reviewed at the Shades of Gray blog. (For ones reviewed here, click on the Alfred Hitchcock tag at the bottom of this post.)

You can read reviews of other Mel Brooks films by clicking here to Cinema Steve, the hub for all my review blogs.

Monday, September 6, 2010

'Ninja Heat' is 100% Ninja Free!

Ninja Heat (1978 (?))
Starring: Chan Sheng, Chan Wai Mang, Sze Ming, YuYang, Shan Qu, Tse Yuen, and Fong Lam
Directors: Lo Mar and Leung Siu Chang
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Released after spending six years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, a martial arts expert and his brother take revenge on the men who framed him (not to mention killed his mother, raped his girlfriend, and probably shaved all the hair off his dog).

"Ninja Heat" is a straight-forward revenge flick that follows the two brothers as they track down the men on their "Black List" and beat them to death one by one. The film is so straight forward that it doesn't even bother with the standard twists, including one that seemed so clearly telegraphed I was pleasently surprised when it never materialized.

With a cinematic style that leans heavily on Sergio Leone (of all people), well-choreographed and filmed fight and chase scenes, and more melodrama than I think I've ever experienced crammed into a single movie (EVERY bad guy had a drawn-out death scene, and most got to have flashbacks as they died... seeing their wifes or girlfriends and regretting their lives of crime in their last moments), and a nice music soundtrack with a catchy main theme that, like the look of the film, seems like it belongs in a Sergio Leone movie, I think those who like the low-tech, gritty martial arts features from the late 1970s and early 1980s will enjoy this movie.

It has one problem: There are no Ninja anywhere to be seen in this movie! Maybe "Ninja Heat" refers to the weather that makes so many of the characters in this movie sweat more profusely than a fat man chained on a runaway treadmill?

Or maybe the Ninjas are there, but they're hiding really, REALLY well! (That might make sense. There might be obscure Ninja Secrets that are hidden within this film... it would explain why it's so obscure that it doesn't even have a listing at Internet Movie Database, nor at Rotten Tomatoes. I can't even find any other reviews of the film out there! Could this be the Ninja equivalent of "The DaVinci Code"?!)

If you've seen this movie (it's included in the "Martial Arts 50-Movie Pack" and a few other multipacks) and if you have an idea of what its "aka" may be, I'd love to know. It's not a bad little little movie (even if it is 100% Ninja Free), so it's surprsing to me that it' so completely obscure as far as the Web goes.

(Programming Note: The lack of Ninja in this film will be made up for in November with Nine Days of the Ninja. Mark it on your calendar, and perhaps even consider posting a few reviews of Ninja movies of your own!)

Saturday, September 4, 2010

'Machete' is a well-made exploitation retread

Machete (2010)
Starring: Danny Trejo, Jeff Fahey, Jessica Alba, Robert De Niro, Cheech Marin, Michelle Rodriguez, Don Johnson, Lindsay Lohan, and Steven Seagal
Directors: Ethan Maniquis and Robert Rodriguez
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A former Mexican police officer (Trejo) is betrayed by corrupt superiors to a powerful drug kingpin (Seagal). He ultimately flees to the United States, crossing the border secretly and disappears into the semi-hidden underworld of illegal aliens. Yet, Fate draws him into conflict with the drug lord once again, when a sinister political operative on his pay-roll(Fahey) attempts to make him a patsy in a staged assassination of a state senator whose career is in trouble (Di Nero).

This seems to be the summer of throwbacks. First there was "Predators", the movie that took the "Most Dangerous Game"-hunting aliens back to their jungle roots. Then there was "The Expendables", which set out to recreate the feel of a late 1980s action flick. And now there's "Machete", a film that casts itself in the mold of a 1970s exploitation flicks. While there hasn't really been much new under the sun since circa 1965, I don't know that "hey, we have nothing original to offer!" has ever been quite such a marketing point.

Not that it's necessarily bad, at least in the specific cases of the three films mentioned above. All three succeed quite well at what they set out to do--which was to be entertaining yet not-terribly-original action films. So long as the movies are good, and the audience is warned up front that there's nothing fresh between the main title card and the end credits crawl, I have no issue with them being derivative.

And "Machete" is about as derivative as they come. It's like one of the sleazier blaxploitation flicks where small-time hoods or drug-pushers were glorified and set up as if they were heroic figures, because, in this one particular story, they were actually pitted against bigger scum-bags than they were--more evil criminals and corrupt politicians and cops. (And the only way I could fully root for The Network, the group dedicated to smuggling illegal aliens across the United States border with Mexico and find them crap jobs just one step up from slavery, so a select few might be able to work their way into a decent living, is to ignore the fact that the reason they come into conflict with Steven Seagal's drug kingpin is the detail offered in passing that The Network itself is funded by illegal drug smuggling and the money generated by it.)

As for the acting, it's also in line with what you'd expect in a movie derived from the 1970s exploitation/blaxploitation films. Almost everyone is being overly dramatic and chewing up the scenery to a degree that would have you rolling your eyes if they were doing it in any other kind of movie.

Robert Di Nero, Jeff Fahey, Michelle Rodriguez, and Danny Trejo--even if that last one goes without saying--all give over-the-top performances that are in perfect keeping with the genre. Cheech Marin, Don Johnson (even if I'm not sure I get the "introducing Don Johnson" joke in the credits), and Steven Seagal are also fun to watch, each giving performances of the kind we know they're capable based on some of their best previous work. Heck, the directors even manage to make Seagal look good, even if it's plain to the sharp observer that he isn't doing much in the way of physical activity; he was probably wise in choosing this project over Stallone's as he gets to have a big dramatic final scene. Maybe he'll be smart and trade in the acting for strictly behind-the-scenes functions... we can almost see the old Steven Seagal--the guy who was in "Marked For Death" and "Under Siege"--in the performance he gives here. It would be nice if he would let this stand as his final acting job.

Of the major featured players, only Jessica Alba and Lindsay Lohan disappoint.

Perhaps I can't say that Alba disappoints, because she is as good here as she was the last time I saw her, in "The Love Guru." But she's completely out of place. Alba seems to be the only performer who isn't "playing to the gallery," who isn't going way over the top. Her performance would be far better suited on an episode of "Law & Order" than this film. (Actually, as I think about it, the only time I remember really liking Alba in a part was "Into the Blue". Maybe all the bare flesh addled the brain?)

As for Lohan, she serves no purpose in the film other than to appear as a slutty character that seems to fit right in with the image she's developed over the past few years. It's the sort of part the likes of John Carradine took during the 1970s at the end of his career, parts that were little more than glorified cameos, parts that didn't add anything to the film but merely traded on Carradine's name. The film would have been better without Lohan's character, because it adds nothing except the opportunity for everyone to chuckle at Lohan and perhaps reflect on wasted potential.

The only other problem with the film is uneven, choppy pacing. There are times, usually during or leading up to unimpressive scenes with Lohan and Alba, where the film drags. Sometimes these slow points arise from badly conceived comic relief (such as the two security guards exchanging sage views on Mexican gardeners), and other times they are pointless scenes of expository dialogue that I'm sure the writers and directors believed were "character development" (such as when Alba's I.C.E. agent character finds The Network's headquarters) but whenever they occur, you will start to be very bored and wish that the film would get back to the shootings and stabbings.

Speaking of shooting and stabbings, this is ANOTHER movie that features computer-generated blood-splatter. It even features computer generated bullet impacts--and badly matched bullet impacts at that, as we're shown the top of a church pew get riddled with bullets in one shot, yet no pews are damaged in later ones. The effects are a little less obvious than they were in the low-budget films that pioneered this technique (or in recent big-budget ones like "The Expendables" or "MacGruber"), but you can still tell cartoon gore from old-fashioned syrup-spray.

Bottom line, this is not a perfect movie. Then again, neither were the films it is trying to emulate... even if those old timers could probably have made 20 movies on the budget of this single film. It's worth checking out if you enjoy blaxploitation flicks--because that's what this is exactly like, only with Mexican illegal aliens and others of Mexican descent standing in for the black characters.

Fun Fact: Exactly 20 years ago, Steven Seagal's character beat the hell out of Danny Trejo's character in the opening scene of "Marked For Death". This has been a rematch long in the making.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Why does that 'one last job' never goes well?

The Squeeze (aka "Diamond Thieves", "Gretchko", "The Rip-Off" and "The Heist") (1978)
Starring: Lee Van Cleef, Karen Black, Edward Albert, and Lionel Stander
Director: Antonio Margheriti (or Anthony M. Dawson, depending on source)
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Chris Gretchko (Van Cleef), legendary but long-retired safe cracker comes out of retirement to help the son of an old friend (Albert) who needs to steal some diamonds for German gangsters to extract himself from trouble. He's barely arrived in New York City before the crossing and double-crossing begins and "the simple job" starts spinning out of control.

"The Squeeze" is a pretty straight-forward crime drama, with a couple of surprising twists--surprising because most of the movie is so by the numbers that what might seem like a mild twist in other movies is quite surprising in this one. Still, the script is well-paced, the complications arising on cue, and the revelations of the various double-crosses, lies, and deceptions undertaken by the various characters are all handled well.

The cast are all good, with Van Cleef (cool-beyond-cool, as usual, but in a role that fit his age... he was obviously a sensible actor who didn't try to hang onto the youthful tough guy parts past the due date) and Black (as a studiously ditzy New Yorker who ends up as Van Cleef's helper) being particularly excellent. The film, however, is severely crippled by a soundtrack that is so 1979 and low-budget Italian that it's painful. (There are also, if comments on can be believed, some really badly edited pan-and-scan prints of this one floating around; the version I saw was in excellent shape, and can be found in the Brentwood DVD four-pack "Perfect Heists", along with three other classic heist movies.)

If you can be sure you're not getting a chopped-up print, I think this is a fairly enjoyable film... it's not great, but it's good enough.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

When Harry Met Affirmative Action

The Enforcer (1976)
Starring: Clint Eastwood and Tyne Daly
Director: James Fargo
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

When a terrorist group attempts to blackmail San Francisco with bombings, murders, and ultimately by kidnapping the mayor, even the unorthodox methods of Police Inspector Harry Callahan (Eastwood) might not be enough to overcome both the bad guys and the touchy-feely approach of the "new" San-Fran city government.

In "The Enforcer", the real-world San Francisco finally seems to catch up with Dirty Harry, as he spends as much time fighting against style-over-substance politics as he does tracking down the villains. Although the bad guys here are not up to the standards set by the first two movies--they may be more violent, but they're no where near as sinister--this movie is a vast improvement over "Magnum Force", not only because it actually has a well-focused storyline, but also because the character of Harry comes off as multi-faceted... and, for that matter, a true believer in justice and equality. From his interactions with black militants to his approach to his new female partner (Daly) who has been foisted on him in the name of women's-lib, Harry shows a constant willingness to accept anyone who proves themselves worthy of his trust and respect.

Like previous "Dirty Harry" movies, this film is blessed with excellent camera work and a great cast. In addition, the script is excellent, with the rookie homicide detective who gets promoted just because she's a woman, but who shows she definitely has the chops, being a great character (as well as a source of some of the film's more humorous moments.) What's more, out of all the films in the series, this is the one where Harry Callahan comes across the strongest and most likable. This is why the film has one of the saddest endings I think I've ever seen to a cop drama.

So, despite somewhat weakly realized foes for our gun-toting, morally unbendable homicide detective, "The Enforcer" stands as the second-best film in the "Dirty Harry" series.