Thursday, December 30, 2010

'Kiss Daddy Goodnight' is a movie to sleep through

Kiss Daddy Goodnight (1987)
Starring: Uma Thurman, Paul Dillon, and Paul Richards
Director: Peter Ily Huemer
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Laura (Thurman) is a teenaged model who augments her meager earnings by picking up wealthy men at gigs and art galleries, drugging them, and then stealing and selling valuable art objects from their homes. It's a nice living until she becomes the love object of a crazy old man (Richards) who will stop at nothing to make her his and his alone.

"Kiss Daddy Goodnight" is one of the dullest movies I've ever sat through. While the characters and acting are appropriate for the film-noir movie the filmmakers were trying to make, the glacial pace and unfocused story is not. It's not until about the halway point that any sort of menace or threat to Laura starts to develope, but what little tension and excietment this generates in the film quickly evaporates when the attention is shifted to the go-nowhere storyline of Laura's small-time thief, wanna-be musician friend's efforts to start a new band. The film would have been slow-moving enough without that pointless, plot, amd it becomes downright glacial in pace when it gets added to the mix.

By the time the film gets focused and gets interesting--in the last 15 or so minutes--most viewers will already have noddded off.

"Kiss Daddy Goodnight" is a film that can safely be ignored by everyone but Uma Thurman fans on the magnitude of the stalker who persues her character in the film; it marks Thurman's first film appearance. I promise you, watching the shadows creep across the sidewalk as the sun moves in the sky is more interesting than this film. It's obscurity is well deserved.

Monday, December 27, 2010

'Hostage': One of Bruce Willis' best

Hostage (2005)
Starring: Bruce Willis, Ben Foster, Jimmy Bennett, and Kevin Pollack
Director: Florent Siri
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

The sad existence of Jake Talley, a burned-out police hostage negotiator (Willis) who has retreated to life as a small-town police chief is jarred when three hapless small-time thugs decide to engage in a little home-invasion/robbery. One of them, Mars (Foster), is a through-and-through psychopath and after he kills one of the town's police officers, the situation evolves into a hostage stand-off, with the home-owner, William Smith (Pollack), and his two children at the mercy of the killer. Unfortunately, Smith has something in his possession that a powerful international cartel of criminals need badly, and they take Talley's family hostage to force him into cooperating with them so they can retrieve their property. Will Talley manage to keep control and save all the hostages?

"Hostage" is a fantastic police thriller that features excellent acting, some really nice camerawork, and a near-flawless pace. I was particularly impressed with the way Smith's secrets are revealed, and then later the way they end up spilling over into Talley's life. Along similar lines, the gradual revealing of the depths of Mars' psychopathy is also expertly played... and his final rampage should earn him the respect of Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers!

The film gets a little far-fetched toward the end--basically, I'm not sure Talley would be able to pull off the final "negotiation", even given the way he has his officers running interference for him--but I don't think it's enough to ruin it. (I was also momentarily miffed that the film ends with no revelation of who or what the distant bad guys that were pulling Smith's strings were all about... but then I decided that it really didn't matter; the story wasn't about them anyway.)

"Hostage" was one of 2005's best thrillers. Check it out if you haven't already.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

'Terror of the Tongs': Yellow Peril ala Hammer

The Terror of the Tongs (aka "Terror of the Hatchet Men") (1961)
Starring: Geoffrey Toone, Christopher Lee, Roger Delgado, and Yvonne Monlaur
Director: Anthony Bushell
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

After his daughter is killed by vicious members of Hong Kong's Red Dragon Tong, Captain Sale (Toone) goes on a rampage intent on destroying his daughter's killer and entirety of the secretive crime syndicate.

"The Terror of the Tong" is a well-made example of an adventure fiction sub-genre that has fallen completely out of favor due to changing climates in geo-politics and cultural attitudes in the West: Yellow Peril Tales. In these stories, mysterious Asian crime figures held entire populations in their power through fear and supposedly mystical abilities... until some two-fisted, stiff-necked Anglo-American hero came along and put a stop to his nefarious ways. The genre was dying its last gasp when I was a kid--relegated mostly to awful Kung Fu movies and comic books where Nick Fury battled the Yellow Claw, Iron Man squared off against The Mandarin, and Shang Chi fought a dogged battle to bring down the criminal empire of his father, Fu Manchu, the most famous and respectable of all Yellow Peril villains.

The Yellow Peril tales grew out of the same impulses that gave birth to the gothic fiction genre--a British discomfort and perhaps even fear of outsiders and their alien culture, and was further fueled by straight-forward racism among Americans--although, frankly, aside from the WW2 years, many Yellow Peril tales actually put Westerners in as bad a light as their Oriental foes. This is especially true of the Fu Manchu tales.

That, however, is not the case with "The Terror of the Tongs". The Chinese gangsters in this picture are vicious psychopaths through-and-through, with no motivations beyond feeding their own sadism and hunger for loot and power. Although evil, Fu Manchu at least believed he was fighting the good fight to restore his people's honor and save them from the corrupting influences of the West.

A curious artifact of film industry standards long gone is the fact that most of the Asian characters in the film are played by Caucasian actors in heavy make-up. It was a long-standing tradition to have whites play these roles in Yellow Peril movies, something which seems a bit odd to many viewers today, and which has been mocked in more recent times with Peter Sellars and Nicolas Cage both taking comedic turns as Fu Manchu.

In this film, Christopher Lee plays Chung King, the head of the Red Dragon Tong. He does a great job sitting around looking sinister and spouting weird sayings and sending out opium- and sex-crazed killers to slay his enemies and terrorize city neighborhoods. Roger Delgado is similarly excellent as a Eurasian who serves as Lee's top lieutenant. Wisely, the director has neither of these actors put on fake accents, instead allowing them to speak the Queen's English perfectly and thus taking advantage of the full capacity of both actors to bombastically sinister.

Meanwhile, on the good side of the equation, we have are treated to some fine performances by Geoffrey Toone, the bullish sea captain who prove that the British stiff upper-lip can be backed up with a strong right hook, and Yvonne Monlaur, another Eurasian character for whom the brave captain opens horizons free from the servitude to the Tong her mixed blood had forced upon her.

None of these characters are exactly complex, but the actors give each of them their all and infuse them with the larger-than-life quality that this sort of story needs to work.

Director Anthony Bushell also tries his best to bring that sense of grandness to the film's sound-stage bound environment, with the Hong Kong docks and neighborhoods being represented by re-dressed standing sets left over from other Hammer productions. While he mostly fails at this, he does manage to draw some very sharp lines between the villains and heroes, and he also manages to work in some of the horror qualities that we've come to know and love from movies like "Curse of Frankenstein".

Unfortunately, that horror was blunted, and remains so to this very day; the DVD edition appears to have been made from a print of the film that has been butchered by censors. There are numerous time when fight scenes or other scenes of violence have been sloppily edited, to the point where even the music soundtrack seems to jerk. The worst example of this is the scene where Tong thugs invade the bedroom of Captain Sales' daughter; there seem to be at least two instances where the scene was too intense for censors, and their cuts have left the scene disjointed and a little confused. (The implication is that the Tong cut off three of the girl's fingers, as is their habit, but as it plays out, she is struggling one moment and completely unconscious a split-second later, with no apparent cause. And yet somehow her ring is dropped on the floor and stained with blood...)

Still, this is a fairly minor blemish, and it's more than made up for with the climax where the down-trodden citizens rise up against the Tong. And, as mentioned, Christopher Lee is quite good in the film. He would later go onto play the grandest of Oriental villains--Fu Manchu--but he is actually better here than he was in the Fu Manchu movies I've seen. (Of course, I've only seen a couple craptacular Harry Towers/Jess Franco ones, so maybe I'm not judging him fairly.)

For more examples of the Yellow Peril genre, click here to read film reviews at Shades of Grey.

Friday, December 17, 2010

'Matchstick Men' is a fun tale of a con man's redemption

Matchstick Men (2003)
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Alison Lohman, Sam Rockwell, Bruce Altman, and Bruce McGill
Director: Ridley Scott
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When professional (and deeply neurotic and obsessive compulsive) con artist Roy (Cage) finds himself connecting with Angela (Lohman), the 14-year-old daughter he never knew he had, he decides to leave behind his life of crime, get a real job, and become a real father. However, when the last job with his partner (Rockwell) goes horribly wrong, Roy finds himself sacrificing far more for fatherhood than he had evern intended.

"Matchstick Men" is part con-artist caper film and part redemption story. It's also a movie that features a twist-ending that makes perfect sense, is genre appropriate, and still manages to surprise viewers. The fact it features a twist ending that actually works makes this a remarkable film in the light of the crap writers and directors have been foisting on us the past couple of decades, but the film is well-acted, beautifully filmed, and the editing techniques used to illustrate Roy's psychological episodes when he's under too much pressure is fabulously creative. The twist isn't the only good thing about the script, as the dialogue is sharp throughout and the characters well-drawn and believable.

Check this one out, if you liked films like "The Sting", or if you enjoy movies that are first-and-foremost about human relationships and that manage to deliver endings that pull off a fate for the the main characters that's holds both happy-sappy and poetic justice qualities.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

And the winners are...

The winners in the Movie411 Blog Awards were announced today. My little blog had been nominated, but it was not among them. In fact, it was utterly crushed in the voting! (But thank you to the dozen or so readers who DID vote for Watching the Detectives. :) )

Congrats to all the winners! Click on the logo to be taken to the awards page and check out all great blogs.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Paycheck: Both the film's title and why it exists

Paycheck (2003)
Starring: Ben Affleck, Uma Thurman, Aaron Eckhart, Paul Giamatti, and Colm Feore
Director: John Woo
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Industrial spy and computer engineer Michael Jennings (Affleck) agrees to work on a project so elaborate and top secret he'll have three entire years "cooked" from his brain by his partner (Giamatti) once he's done. However, instead of a big paycheck, Jennings finds assassins trying to kill him at the other end. Now, he has to recover what he's forgotten before it's too late, piecing together three years with only the minutes of clues.

I think that's a pretty accurate summary of this totally, utterly forgettable movie. I watched just three days ago, and I feel like it's been erased from my mind. I remember Affleck woefully inadequate acting talents being even more clearly on display when playing against real actors like Thurman and Giamatti (even though the latter had limited screen time). I remember a story so messy and full of holes that it resembled a block of swiss cheese being melted in the "brain cooker" device. I also remember John Woo (who once made the so-very-excellent action films "Hard Target" and "Hard Boiled") and feel a bit sad that he's reduced here to aping Hitchcock (in a way that's about as skillful as the way a chimp might mimick a person) and to desperately cramming his "signature visuals" into the film so it feels like he's almost parodying himself.

There's no doubt that everyone involved made this movie for no reason other than its title... they were looking for a paycheck, and they were hoping this messy pile would be forgotten as fast as one of Michael Jennings' special projects. It deserves to be forgotten, because its only saving grace is that it moves so fast that it's not until afterwards the audience fully realizes how awful a movie it is.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Mohammed Mysteries

If Islam is a "religion of peace," then why are there so many stories to report like "Car Bomb: Christmas Jihad in Stockholm"?

This post is part of a Cinema Steve-wide celebration of the mysteries of Islam, the Prophet Mohammed (may peat be upon him) and the death cultists (the Mo-rons) who idolize his image and express their devotion by committing murder and mayhem around the world. (For a bi-weekly dose of worship-ready cartoons, check out Mohammed Mondays at Shades of Gray.)

Friday, December 10, 2010

'Do You Like Hitchcock?'; if your answer is 'yes',
you're better off not seeing this film

Do You Like Hitchcock? (2005)
Starring: Elio Germano, Ivan Morales, Elisabetta Rocchetti, and Chiara Conti
Director: Dario Argento
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A film student (Germano) with voyeuristic tendencies finds his world turning into a real-life mash-up of classic Hitchcock thrillers when the shrewish woman in the apartment across the street is murdered and he suspects her daughter (Rocchetti) made arrangements with another girl to "swap murders"--each of them having perfect alibis for when the person they wanted dead was killed, while they aren't suspects because they have no motive for the murders they did commit.

"Do You Like Hitchcock?" is Dario Argento, after 30 years of disavowing the label "The Italian Hitchcock," demonstrating that he is indeed NOT the Italian Hitchcock and that he is barely capable of emulating Hitchcock.

In fact, I think it's safe to say that if Dario Argento is the Italian Alfred Hitchcock, then Uwe Boll is the German Terence Fisher.

Made for Italian television as the first installment in an eight film series that paid homage to Alfred Hitchcock, "Do You Like Hitchcock?" incorporates and outright lifts elements primarily from Hitchcock thrillers "Rear Window" and "Strangers on a Train". Argento also pays homage to Argento by swiping from his own earlier films, primarily "Deep Red", but there's a bit of "Cat of Nine Tails" in the mix here as well. Unfortunately, Argento is unable to conjure up the energy that crackled through Hitchcock's movies, nor is he capable of creating that easy mix of suspense and humor (if not outright absurdity) that Hitchcock did. When he tries, all he comes up with is an embarrassing and over-long sequence where our hero tries to escape on his scooter after breaking his leg during a peeping-tom adventure gone bad. The only vaguely suspenseful bit in the film comes at the end, when, in "Rear Window" fashion, our hero watches his girl friend risk running head-long into the killer. A roof top encounter that ends with a nod to "Vertigo" is also very nicely done.

I've seen this film referred to both as a "homage" or "sly tribute" to Hitchcock. I suppose it could be considered either. The descriptors I would use are "vapid pastiche"; it's not exactly bad, but it isn't all that good. I might even go so far as to say that Argento seemed more interested in paying homage to himself than Hitchcock, as exemplified by the fact the neighborhood video store was plastered with posters for other Argento movies and the aforementioned echoes of other Argento films in this picture.

As for the technical aspects of the film, the tone is consistent throughout, even if that tone is more drab that thrilling, and the acting seems to be pretty decent. It's hard to tell, because we're dealing with not just the Italian actors but New Zealander (I think) voice actors doing the English dubbing. That crew wasn't the best I've come across, but the screen presence of the leads still shine through.

The script itself is just solid enough that it passes muster as a low-average thriller. It might even have worked a little better if extraneous side characters such as our hero's mother and new boy friend had been excised, and if the writer and director had actually managed to capture that Hitchcock feel, but it's interesting enough.

If you like Hitchcock, you can spend your time better than watching this movie. Allow me to recommend "Charade", which is the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made. Other good choices would be the homages/spoofs "The Girl Who Knew Too Much" from Mario Bava and "High Anxiety" from Mel Brooks, two directors who seemed to have a far better understanding of what made Hitchcock movies work that Argento does. Or, even better, check out some of Hitchcock's great black and white movies you may not have seen, like "Strangers on a Train".

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

'Switchback' is too much back and forth

Switchback (1997)
Starring: Danny Glover, Jared Leto, R. Lee Ermey and Dennis Quaid
Director: Jeb Stuart
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

An aging sheriff (Ermey) must choose between his political future and helping a renegade FBI agent (Quaid) capture an elusive serial killer who has kidnapped his young son. But will they manage to interpert the killer's clues before it's too late?

"Switchback" is one of those films I wish I liked more, but, to be perfectly honest, I think the 5 rating I'm giving it is on the generous side--it's definately a low 5.

The biggest problem with "Switchback" is that it's made up of some very excellent parts that don't really work together due to a poorly thought out plot that was also badly implemented.

There are three stories in the film. Individually, they are faily well done and well acted, but they don't connect effectively.

First, there is the story of a county sheriff who is forced to choose between the spirit of the law and the letter of the law (not to mention right and wrong) on the verge of very tight election. If he makes the moral choice, he is sure to lose his career. R. Lee Ermey gives an excellent and sympathetic performance in this role. The contest between Ermey and his political opponent that gets disrupted by a serial killer apparently wandering through their county would make for a great movie.

Second, there's the story of an odd couple--a retired railroad worker and a dispirited doctor--on a roadtrip to Utah. One of them is a serial killer who is probably going to murder the other one and frame him for his crimes. Danny Glover puts on a good show as the self-destructive railroad worker, while Jared Leto is just bland enough to be believable as the depressed doctor who may or may not be a psychopathic killer. There are some really fun and exciting scenes between these two actors, and, like the story of the sheriff, I could easily see a "The Hitcher"-style movie in this material.

Third, there story of the FBI agent who is chasing the serial killer in the hopes of recovering his kidnapped son. He is following some utterly obscure clues and he is violating all sorts of FBI orders in the process. Dennis Quaid is okay, but he probably gives the weakest performance in the film. It's not entirely Quaid's fault, as he is also dealing with the weakest material--his story is supposed to be the thread that runs through the film and connects the others, but it so weakly done and so poorly thought out that it simply isn't able to do so.

The greatest problem is with the clues that Quaid's character supposedly uses to figure out when and where he will be able to catch the killer. These clues were so obscure that he only found the solution by pure chance... and even then there was one final step to solving the mystery that I can't for the life of me figure out how the killer expected him to reach the proper conclusion, or how he even DID reach the proper conclusion. (If anyone who has seen "Switchback" wold like to impress the world with their intellect and explain the solution to us, please leave a comment!)

"Switchback" is a movie that is NOT greater due to the sum of its parts. It's more like a couple of very good movie ideas that were truncated and butchered into this film and everyone who saw it is poorer as a result.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

'Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow"
is great tribute to 1930s pulp adventures

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)
Starring: Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Angelina Jolie
Director: Kerry Conran
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

It's the 1930s, and America is being menaced by flying giant robots of mysterious origins. When big city ace reporter Polly Perkins (Paltrow) finds herself on the trail of a story that might blow the lid of the secrets of the robots, she is brought back in contact with her old flame, Joe Sullivan (Law), also knows as the mercenary pilot Sky Captain. Together, they must stop the robot attacks before a mad scientist implements his apocalyptic designs on the entire world.

"Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" is a fun movie if you enjoy comic books and light-hearted tales of high adventure. It's a trendmendous movie if you love the old adventure B-movies and serials, like "Bulldog Drummond" and "Flash Gordon" and even "The Shadow Creeps". It's a movie you positively have to see if you happen to have even the slightest effection for any of the above, because this movie captures the very best of all of those and produces a fantastic fantasy version of 1930s America where wise-cracking beat reporters and brave-hearted private armies stand ready to defend the helpless people of the world against mad scientists and fascist menaces.

"Sky Captain" is also a beautiful movie to look at. The visuals are great and the sets (particularly those that are actually backdrops or computer graphics) are gorgeous, and the art-deco world with its "retro" futuristic technology is one that lovers of old-time adventure flicks will have a great time getting lost in. The flying aircraft carrier of the Royal British Navy that our heroes rendezvous with at one point, as well as the lair of the movie's bad guy, are particularly fabulous. The best part of the film's look was the way they captured the "fakeness" of the old-time movies... the cityscapes, the giant robots, the planes, even many of the buildings the characters spend time in, LOOK like models, just as they did in the movies that inspired this one. But it's not "fake" in a bad or cheesy way, it's "fake" in the way it absolutely needs to be if the feel of the movie is to be right.

The same is true of the acting in the film as well. The style of performances, particularly those of Paltrow and Angelina Jolie (who appears as a British military officer in a small but fun role), are also in line with the the acting traditions of the 30s and 40s. Law doesn't quite manage to pull it off, but he's really the only one out of all the players who disappoints; he isn't BAD in his part, he just isn't quite in step with the feel of the rest of the film.

Now, for all my gushing about the look of the movie and the performances of the actors, I do have to fault "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" for not having enough of a script to quite carry the film. At several times during the film, I found myself wishing for a bit more characterizations of Polly, Joe, and even a few of the minor characters; they always managed to work it in during the oldies, so why not here? The "big reveal" about the nature of the threat was also a bit disappointing to me, and I would have liked to have seen that whole climactic sequence on the "secret island" be a bit more coherent and fleshed-out than it turned out to be.

Despite its weak points, "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" is a movie that I highly recommend, and it's one that's a permanent part of my movie collection.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Christmas heist goes wrong

The Ice Harvest (2005)
Starring: John Cusack, Oliver Platt, Billy Bob Thornton, and Connie Neilsen
Director: Harold Ramis
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A mob lawyer and a pornographer (Cusack and Thornton) steal 2 million dollars from the biggest crime-boss in Witchita, Kansas on Christmas Eve. What they hoped would be a few hours of laying low before their flight out of town instead turn into a night of chaos, mistrust, disposing of bodies, and double-crosses.

"The Ice Harvest" manages to walk the line between comedy and the feel of a classic film noir drama. It manages to bring in plenty of laughs (and a nice dollop of slapstick) without causing the film to devolve into a spoof; the characters and the events unfolding remain deadly serious, even if some of the situations that arise are darkly humorous. (I wonder what the car makers thought of the discussion regarding BMWs vs. Lincolns in relation to trunk space for dead bodies.)

The story moves along at a quick pace, with sharp dialogue, seamy sets, and fine performances by all featured actors. Most interesting is the overall blandness with which Cusack plays his by-all-accounts bland lawyer character is that although he is undoubtedly the star of the film, most scenes he shares with other actors have him more or less serving as support for their performances. It's an interesting position for a film's lead actor to be in, and I think it says a lot about Cusack that he is able and willing to play a character who mostly fades into the background when other actors are in the scene.

"The Ice Harvest" is a film I recommend to anyone who enjoys a crime dramas with touches of humor, and to fans of modern film noir.