Saturday, December 31, 2005

Review – Cinderella Man

The tale of boxing legend Jim Braddock is one of those stories that just sort of tells itself. And that’s a good thing, because none of our storytellers here is exacting having his or her finest moment. Director Ron Howard probably has the lion’s share of the blame coming. He seems to be trying to create a blend of 21st century big budget Hollywood and sappy Frank Capra triumph-of-the-underdog, and more often than not it doesn’t work. It’s just hard to get behind a gazillion-dollar production about people so poor they can’t pay for utilities or food. However, this still turns out to be a reasonably entertaining movie. You’ll have to be in the mood for one of these sappy things about a washed-up athlete who makes an astounding comeback, but if that itch takes you then this is a solid way to scratch it. Mildly amusing

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Review – The Dukes of Hazzard

Okay, the guilt is on me for renting this when I knew perfectly well what to expect. My only excuse was that I hoped Johnny Knoxville might bring at least some semblance of sarcasm to the production. Instead, the “magic” seems to have worked in reverse, making him as bad as the rest of the movie. And truly bad it was, even worse than my memories of the TV series. Indeed, the only thing that stood out for me amid the general awfulness was the odd handling of the Confederate flag on the roof of the car. Unlike the series – which never seemed to give any thought to the subject – the movie acknowledges that some folks don’t care much for the emblem of the pro-slavery South. I would almost have preferred ignorance or even anti-PC pig-headedness to the attitude here, which had a disturbing “we know it’s wrong but we’re going to do it anyway” feel. Other than that this is exactly what one would expect: the redneck moral equivalent of gangsta rap. Oh, and I never saw the rated version so I can’t say for certain, but my guess is that the main distinction between the theatrical release and the unrated DVD (the version I saw) was the inclusion of a couple of completely superfluous boob shots (and no, they weren’t Jessica Simpson’s). Maybe a drug reference at the end or perhaps a couple of the raunchier jokes. But nothing to write home about. Wish I’d skipped it

Monday, December 26, 2005

Review – Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell

You can tell Yvette Mimieux’s character is possessed by evil spirits, because she pretends to want to have sex with Richard Crenna. The creature of darkness responsible for such monstrous wickedness? A dog. A German shepherd (with lights aimed into his face to give him that spooky red-eye effect) that’s secretly a demonic glow-in-the-dark yappy dog complete with little horns. So the movie is almost completely undone by the cuteness of its supposedly-menacing villains, especially early on when the fluffy shepherd puppy psychically sets the maid on fire. With the fright factor gone, this is just an oh-so-70s production about a suburban family who bring a hell creature into their home. I enjoyed this immensely the first time I saw it, but on recent re-viewing I’m forced to confess that it’s a bit of a stinker. Mildly amusing

Friday, December 23, 2005

Review – The Exorcism of Emily Rose

This might have been a better movie if only its creators had stuck with the horror angle rather than trying to turn the thing into a theology debate. Early on some of the effects are kinda spooky, and if the film-makers had just relied on this strong point they might have come up with something worth watching. But the story swiftly gets bogged down in courtroom drama that plays like the Scopes trial in reverse. The legal wrangling is filled with a legion of holes, but those are easy to ignore compared to the inadequate handling of the alleged battle between facts and faith. Indeed, once the priest is attacked by cats in the middle of the exorcism, the movie has lost any chance of being taken seriously. Later it turns out that poor Emily is possessed by not one but six different demons, including one that was once inside Nero and one that was once inside Judas. In the words of Father Karras from a considerably better exorcism movie, “that’s like claiming you’re Napoleon.” If that’s the best these folks could do, they should have stuck with simple shocks and left more profound thinking to minds that were up to the task. See if desperate

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Review – The Big Easy

When doing a lot of location shooting in New Orleans, film-makers should take care not to let the backdrops overshadow their productions. Of course with acting this mediocre and a script this bad, the movie doesn’t stand a chance. Ellen Barkin wasn’t too bad, but whatever good she managed to do was immediately cancelled by Dennis Quaid’s witless smirking and come-and-go accent. The story was some mish-mash about corruption in the New Orleans police force, which turned out to be just as uninteresting as it sounded to begin with. And the sex scenes … yeech! Beyond the street scenes, the only real entertainment to be found here is a brief cameo by Judge Jim Garrison playing Judge Jim Garrison (several years before JFK). Someone with enough insider knowledge of the city to make such casting and location decisions really should have come up with a movie that did a better job of living up to the subject. Mildly amusing

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Review – The Bad News Bears (2005)

They could have stopped the title after the first two words. The original was a clever production about a pack of misfit kids on a little league team coached by a cynical drunk with a heart of gold. This one’s ostensibly the same thing, but instead of clever it comes across as trite and vile. Part of the problem is that back in the 70s kids that swore and scrapped and otherwise misbehaved were a welcome divergence from the Brady Bunch vision of childhood that dominated the media at the time. Now foul-mouthed brats are a dime a dozen (and even at that price you’re being overcharged). Further, Walter Matthau worked in the coach role in ways Billy Bob Thornton can only dream of. In short, this was yet another entry in the long list of movies that weren’t crying out for a remake to begin with, and certainly didn’t deserve redoing like this. See if desperate

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Review – Biggie and Tupac

If there’s anyone in the whole wide world who could make a documentary about the deaths of Biggie Smalls and Tupak Shakur and not find concrete evidence of a conspiracy, that director would be Nick Broomfield. But of course as usual he isn’t making a documentary about his subject. He’s making a documentary about how righteously indignant he is that nobody will talk to him. Nobody, that is, except for the usual collection of nuts, pathological liars and a handful of other folks with nothing better to do with themselves than waste time with Broomfield. Oh, and he does manage to get into prison to interview Sug Knight toward the end, but by then Nick’s forgotten his title subjects and instead interviews Mr. Death Row about some hyped-up feud with Snoop Dogg. Snore. Indeed, “snore” on the whole movie. Wish I’d skipped it

Review - The Fantastic Four

After decades of planning to make a movie out of the foursome, this is what they come up with. First the good stuff. The effects were okay an a comic-bookish sort of way. And I came into the experience fully expecting to dish out a DRNPA to Jessica Alba. But oddly enough, she dodged the bullet. Part of her luck was that the script didn’t call on her to do a lot of hard-core science-ing. But what she did have to do, she managed to pull off better than I predicted. Now the bad news: that’s pretty much the limit of the good news. I was especially disappointed in the handling of Victor Von Doom. The doctor in the comic books had a certain Eastern European outsider mad genius quality to him. The guy in the movie came across as just another corporate wiener. Overall this was a mid-packer of a Marvel superhero movie, not as bad as The Hulk but most likely not the franchise feature that Spider-Man turned out to be. Mildly amusing

Friday, December 16, 2005

Review – A Christmas Carol (1999)

Worst Dickens ever. I’ve seen this classic tale done by “talents” from Henry Winkler to Mickey Mouse, but honestly I’ve never seen such a parade of mediocre, phoned-in performances from experienced, professional actors. The odd part is that this is one of the few stories that can be overacted with impunity, and yet a cast full of folks with well-established histories of overacting decide to do little more than mumble their lines. Patrick Stewart in particular turns in one of the most lackluster jobs of his career, making his Scrooge almost impossible to feel for. Richard E. Grant also makes a crotchety Cratchet, his bad temper and bad teeth making him authentically English poor but not evocative of much sympathy. The ghosts were all weird as well, though the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come was the worst. He looked like an overblown refugee from Phantasm. As adaptations of Dickens’ novel grow more numerous and more technically sophisticated, it seems they also grow more soulless and dull. Wish I’d skipped it

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Review – The Body Snatcher

Val Lewton produces. Robert Wise directs. Boris Karloff stars. Bela Lugosi even has a small role. The source story was by Robert Louis Stevenson. And the best this team of greats could come up with was this dreary little piece about a med school teacher tormented by his association with a “resurrectionist” who turns out to be a bit too zealous in his procurement tactics. The syrupy-sweet paraplegic child is either an interesting contrast to the cynical world of body snatching or just a dumb cliché, it’s hard to say exactly which. But by the time the movie draws to its “telltale heart” conclusion, there’s no doubt about the weakness of the script. The wanton killing of a small dog also served to knock this one down a peg. See if desperate

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Review – The Big Sleep

I’ve seen this movie three or four times now, and I’ve completely given up trying to figure out what’s going on. Perhaps someday I’ll read the book so I can piece it together at my leisure. But then again, perhaps I won’t. The bewildering twists and turns are part of the pleasure, just like the hard-boiled dialogue and big-city-after-dark settings. Though I suppose The Maltese Falcon is considered the more perfect example of Bogart’s contribution to the film noir genre, in many ways I like this one better. Certainly the chemistry between the leading man and Lauren Bacall was hard to beat. So just as long as you aren’t trying to get it to make sense, this mystery is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Worth seeing

Review – The Eagle Has Landed

This World War Two drama fits quite well with the mid-70s environment that spawned it. The Germans are the heroes, or anti-heroes if you prefer. A team of German paratroopers has been sent to Britain to kidnap Churchill. They’re being aided by an IRA insider (Donald Sutherland, with an Irish accent so bad it’s almost a shame he even bothered to try) and a woman whose family was killed by the English during the Boer war, two folks who seem to have a legitimate reason to want the Prime Minister dead. The plot gets blown when one of the troopers dies trying to rescue a child. In other words, this level of moral ambiguity is a far cry from the days of John Wayne and Audie Murphy. The first time I saw this was when it first came out, and the venue was one of the converted hallways upstairs at the Empire theater. It was hot and stuffy, and it was hard to pay attention to the picture. So it was nice to at least be able to watch it this time through. Mildly amusing

Friday, December 9, 2005

Review – Adaptation

As with Being John Malkovich, this production depends almost entirely on its own quirkiness. The story is standard writer-with-writer’s-block stuff, the story-within-a-story (the book the writer is supposed to be turning into a screenplay) is about a writer with the New Yorker working on a story about an obsessive orchid hunter. There’s a lot of ennui, alienation, et cetera, et cetera. A paragraph-review description can’t help but make the production sound silly, even somewhat masturbatory in a guy-writing-the-screenplay-of-his-own-life way. And in at least some ways this movie is just that. But a simple description sells the movie short, because its charm lies in the little twists and turns, the small visual tricks, the details rather than the bigger picture. I’m not sure that it works for the whole running time, but there’s enough fun here and there to keep it at least close to interesting. Mildly amusing

Thursday, December 8, 2005

Review – Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star

This is the kind of movie that Showtime free preview weekends were made for. Paying for it – however indirectly – would merely add insult to injury. This movie has only two things going for it: an occasional bit of David Spade wit and a scattering of cameos from actual former child stars. The best part was a whole gaggle of these folk performing a “We Are the World” style song during the end credits. The rest is lame situation comedy and/or touchy-feely nonsense about a washed-up actor who pays a real family to help him relive a childhood he never had. See if desperate

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Review – Dragon Seed

What an odd mix of contrary elements. This production is at once laudatory of and condescending to the peasant farmers of China. The first half hour or so is an endless parade of country bumpkin clichés with a fair amount of racist stereotyping (compounded by the fact that almost all the key characters are played by white actors). But once the Japanese soldiers show up to disrupt this rural idyll, this settles into a standard “This is the enemy” propaganda piece from World War Two. The script is stiff and the acting likewise. Katherine Hepburn’s portrayal of a young, idealistic woman is especially disappointing, so rigid that in places she seems to be concentrating so hard on being enigmatic that she actually appears to be blind. Or maybe it was just the eye makeup. Beyond a few interesting dips into socialism, this movie is probably best appreciated as a creature of its time. Mildly amusing

Saturday, December 3, 2005

Review – Apollo 13

As one might expect given the subject matter, this is one of those movies that moves from one calamity to the next. As historical drama, it’s interesting. As storytelling, it’s more than a little tedious. Some of the special effects are fun, particularly the weightless stuff. Overall at least some affection for Hollywood and/or NASA will make this an easier pill to swallow. Verdict: mildly amusing.

Genre: Drama

Subgenre: Thriller
Date reviewed: 

Monday, November 28, 2005

Review – Diamonds Are Forever

With the probable exceptions of Thunderball and its off-brand remake, Never Say Never Again, this is the worst of the Connery Bonds. He’s too old for the part, and would have done better to have stayed gone after You Only Live Twice. As for the story itself, there isn’t much to it. There’s a Howard Hughes-esque character, a rare nod to the real world in a series that lives largely on the strictly imaginary. Beyond that just about the only unique feature is the pair of gay hit men. Oh, and the acrobatic female bodyguards Bambi and Thumper. Beyond that, this will be a necessary experience for anyone trying to watch all the Bond flicks but otherwise can safely be missed. See if desperate

Friday, November 25, 2005

Review – Duck Soup

Though I’m sure this was revolutionary stuff back in 1933, at this point in film history the Marx Brothers are a bit of an acquired taste. They’re good and all, but they take a little getting used to. I was also surprised at how close some of their routines are to the comparatively low-brow Three Stooges. That aside, this is a solid piece of comedy. Sure, a lot of Groucho’s shtick is cliché, but it wouldn’t be cliché now if he hadn’t done it so well and made it so famous back when it was fresh. And Harpo’s physical comedy never gets old. I could spend hours watching the scenes where he and Chico scrap with the lemonade vendor. This production is also notable for its cleverly subtle exploration of themes that Chaplin would take on with a more ham-handed approach later in The Great Dictator. Overall this is a funny if somewhat dated bit of entertainment. Worth seeing

Review – Dead Men Walking

This movie has more puking than movies about puking. Zombie blood barf appears to be the theme of the first half of the production. But once most of the cast finally makes the transition to zombie-dom, it’s mostly straight splatter from there. All you need to know about the plot is that the dreaded zombie virus gets loose in a maximum security prison, transforming prisoners and guards alike into the rampaging undead. For awhile there’s some pretense at dialogue, all whispered in sub-sonic levels in keeping with Asylum’s usual technical standards. But that’s swiftly abandoned in favor of endless gore shots. In a way, the honest embrace of pointless carnage in place of a plot actually made this a slightly better movie than it might otherwise have been. Verdict: see if desperate

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Review - Fever Pitch

The baseball parts of this production aren’t too terrible, but the romance woven through the Red Sox 2004 season isn’t anywhere near as interesting as the game. Of course with a finish like the 2004 baseball season, it was hard for Hollywood to come up with anything to match the drama of “real life.” Even so, this production falls considerably short. Jimmy Fallon does a much better job as an obsessive Sox fan than he does as a romantic lead. And though Drew Barrymore has successfully played the foil to Adam Sandler in the lovable loser / cute girl story line at least twice now, here her performance with Fallon comes across as mailed in. The result is a romantic comedy where the romance doesn’t work at all. See if desperate

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Review – Dominion

Wow, did this one ever end up taking a strange path to the screen. After Paul Shrader’s prequel to The Exorcist didn’t work with test audiences, the studio brought in Renny Harlin to completely re-shoot the movie. And now I guess Warner has decided to recoup some of its losses by DVD’ing the Shrader cut as well. Oddly enough, I think somewhere between these two productions might have been a really good horror movie. Harlin’s version is too stupid to be engaging, but this outing’s too boring to be scary. I really liked the emphasis on the archaeological, especially early on. The script was also reasonably well put-together. On the other hand, the thrills here were few and far between. And the characters were more engaging in the other one. When you do less with your actors than Renny Harlin does, that says nothing good about your picture. Taken together, these two pictures would make an interesting – if somewhat disorienting – double feature. Mildly amusing

Thursday, November 3, 2005

Review –

I didn’t think this was nearly as funny as it was supposed to be. The blurb on Netflix made this sound like a documentary along the lines of Trekkies only about movie buffs rather than Star Trek fans. But the five people trailed during the production of this movie aren’t fans. They’re mentally ill people with obsessive fixations on movies. Though one might argue that fandom in general is a mild form of neurosis, these folks are well past the mild stages. In particular, Roberta is so far gone that she appears to sit on the verge of the “danger to self or others” standard for involuntary commitment. Even her more functional compatriots left jobs, friends, family and any other semblance of normalcy behind long ago in favor of trying to see as many movies as possible. Mocking Star Trek nerds is bad enough, but making fun of sick people sinks to a whole new level. See if desperate

Wednesday, November 2, 2005

Review – Doom

The cut scenes from the game had a better plot. Or at the very least, the plot in the game was clearer and more engaging. Here character motivations are frequently so poorly constructed that it’s hard to believe anyone is doing what they’re doing. Toward the beginning the already-more-or-less-interchangeable Marines get shuffled around so frequently that it’s impossible to keep track of who’s doing what. This problem resolves itself when the monsters start whittling the cast down a bit, but by then it’s already more than a little hard to care about any of the remaining characters. By the end the production breaks down into an extended sequence of first-person-shooter framing followed by that great dark spot endemic to the action movie: the extended hand-to-hand combat sequence. The final result falls well short of the entertainment value of the games (even the old, motion-sickness-inducing versions), and given that the only audience for the movie is probably the game’s fans, I wasn’t exactly surprised to find myself completely alone in the theater just a week or two after the movie’s release. See if desperate

Monday, October 31, 2005

Review – Capote

Here’s the behind-the-scenes story for In Cold Blood, a dramatized, behind-the-scenes peek at Truman Capote’s work with Smith, Hickock and the good folks of Holcomb. Philip Seymour Hoffman does a surprisingly good job in the title role. The self-caricature mannerisms of the flamboyant author alone would have been easy to mimic, but Hoffman brings a much greater depth to the character. The result is one of those movies that leaves you wondering just how much of it is true. The story departs from the book in some small details, but of course Capote doesn’t say anything himself about things like lying to the killers to retain their confidence or ceasing his support of their appeals in order to hasten the end of the story so he can finish his work. I was in the middle (actually closer to the end) of the book when I went to see the movie, and the two made an interesting combination. Worth seeing

Monday, October 24, 2005

Review – City of God

Believe it or not, I actually expected the slums of Rio de Janeiro to be worse than this. Indeed, aside from the drug-related violence, this place didn’t seem all that bad. Of course the violence is overpowering stuff, certainly the focus of this tale about a boy growing up amid brutal gang wars. Based on a true story and filmed on location, this movie nonetheless has a well-produced feel to it. Yeah, you have to read subtitles. But beyond that this is a gangster movie worthy of anything Hollywood has churned out in recent years, made all the better by the absence of sugar coating. Worth seeing

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Review – A Dirty Shame

I’m sorry, John Waters. I really tried with this one. I wanted to see some of the guts it took to make Multiple Maniacs and Pink Flamingos. Certainly there’s some thematic similarity. However, it just doesn’t work. Part of the problem is that society has moved on a bit from the 1960s. While “perverted” sex isn’t openly embraced across the board, as a nation we’ve at least managed to reach a mind-your-own-business accommodation with most of the weird things people like to do behind closed doors. The other problem is that once you’ve gone Hollywood it’s darn difficult to go back. As a result, this comes across as Cecil B. Demented using sex in the place of indie film-making. The joke isn’t the worst one ever told. Waters retains his gift for obscure off-the-rack music, adding his aplomb for library footage to put together some entertaining hallucination montages. But it gets old after awhile. Really old. There’s just a limit to the number of times I want to hear Johnny Knoxville yell “Let’s go sexin’!” within the course of a single movie, or even the course of a single lifetime. Mildly amusing

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Review - Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero

Technically this is an episode of Frontline, but it’s movie-length and certainly worthy of the title “documentary,” so I’m gonna go ahead and review it. Parts of this piece were fascinating, particularly the Sept. 11 footage that many other news outlets have shied away from showing (such as people jumping out of the upper floors of the World Trade Center). Some of the interviews also made for interesting viewing. If nothing else, the film-makers did a solid job of capturing a range of reactions to the tragedy. However, some of the discourse was more than a little weak. I was particularly disappointed by the section on the nature of evil. I thought surely some of the people who had stared such experiences directly in the face would have put at least some thought into the subject, perhaps finding a way to go beyond George Bush’s “Legion of Doom versus the Superfriends” approach to the question. Sadly, most of the subjects came up lacking. But overall this was an interesting if not always enlightening exploration of the interaction between tragedy and religious belief. Mildly amusing

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Review – A Comedy of Terrors

If this isn’t the all-time champion, it’s at least one of the most flagrant cases of movies that squander good casts. Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Basil Rathbone struggle with dialogue so bad it could make an audience get up and leave a dinner theater production. Even Rhubarb the Cat looks like he can’t wait for the director to call “cut” so he can rush back to his trailer, call his agent and scream his lungs out. I suppose this silliness is supposed to be vaguely reminiscent of Poe, but if Poe is fine, fresh French pastry then this is a Twinkie that rolled under a car seat two years ago and has been there ever since. Wish I’d skipped it

Sunday, September 4, 2005

Review – Death 4 Told

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen a low-budget horror movie I actually liked. And though this single effort doesn’t exactly revive my faith in the sub-genre as a whole, it at least stirred a little hope. As implied by the title, this is a set of four vignettes cleverly interwoven without benefit of a bracketing story. The second tale is more than a little mediocre, overshadowed even by the original short version that’s included in the DVD’s special features. However, the first story has the same disregard for complexity that made the Scary Stories series such fun to read. The third and fourth outings are clever enough without being too inspiring. To be sure the director makes plenty of rookie mistakes, especially in the editing process. However, my hat’s off to anyone who can take kisses-of-death like Margot Kidder and Tom Savini and still churn out a reasonably entertaining product. Mildly amusing

Saturday, September 3, 2005

Review – Alexander

Any further complaints from Arlen Specter and Jack Valenti about Oliver Stone playing fast and loose with history? Not this time around? Hmmm. Well, that’s okay. Departures from the historical record aren’t exactly the biggest problem here. That distinction belongs to the script, which is as intensely boring as it is poorly put together. The action bounces back and forth randomly in the time line, with an astounding amount of screen time devoted to go-nowhere speeches. The direction doesn’t help either, as Stone makes copious use of pace killers such as extended shots of Colin Ferrel and the rest of the cast gaping vacantly into space. Stir in a heap of animal violence and this one’s headed for the reject pile. However, the production was plenty expensive, with some of the money going for effects that work well enough (especially compared to the rest of the picture). See if desperate

Sunday, August 7, 2005

Review – Downfall

We first met Traudl Junge in Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, a low-budget documentary in which she tells the fascinating story of her life. Now the story hits the silver screen again, re-done as a big budget dramatic narrative production, a re-enactment of Junge’s memories with the perspectives of other participants thrown in for good measure. The result is as powerful as one would expect a tale to be when it’s set in the Fuhrerbunker in late April and early May 1945. I think this would make an interesting double feature with Gone with the Wind. They’re both really long, but in the end it would be worth it to see the death of American slavery and the death of German Nazism side by side (or at least back to back). At least one of the two countries that produced the two movies appears able to come to grips with the evil of its subject matter. Worth seeing

Review – Chupacabra Terror

At least unlike Bloodthirst this one actually has a Chupacabra. It also has Giancarlo Esposito and John Rhys-Davies, both of whom need to get new agents. The plot here is sort of like Alien redone as an episode of The Love Boat. The monster looks like a cross between one of the monsters from Humanoids from the Deep and a limp head of lettuce. I’m not sure what would attract actual actors to such a production. Perhaps it had something to do with the tropical vacation getaway shooting locations. This might have scored a single star if not for yet another messy, unnecessary slaying of a dog. Wish I’d skipped it

Friday, August 5, 2005

Review – Constantine

Sometimes comic books make a successful jump to the big screen. But step one in the process is almost always an act of translation, figuring out what elements are going to work in a movie and what’s going to have to be left behind. Unfortunately the folks who made this picture decided to haul the whole comic thing into the movie version. The plot. The awkward dialogue. The teen-oriented pseudo-theology. Even many of the camera angles are sharply evocative of comic panels. Also, here’s yet another movie with awful sound mixing, screeching noise intermixed with dialogue so soft I had to turn on the subtitles. And then there’s Keanu Reeves’s almost constant coughing. Just so I don’t seem like I do nothing but gripe, I did like some of the special effects. If they’d been put to a better use as part of a better movie, they might have been downright fun. Mildly amusing

Friday, July 15, 2005

Review – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

I won’t bother comparing this to the original. Standing on its own, this is an exceptionally uneven production. The story works, but many of its elements do not. For example, the children’s characters (except Charlie, of course) were underdeveloped, while far too much time was spent on Willie Wonka. The premise of the tale is that Wonka is a magical creature, sort of an Eyrine for bad little kids and their even-worse parents. Such a figure doesn’t require an extended back story. The flashbacks to Wonka’s youth destroy the mystery that helps make him interesting, not to mention disrupting the flow of the picture. And Burton or Depp or whoever made the decision to play Wonka as Michael Jackson made a bad call, because it served only to make the character creepy – even somewhat disgusting – and drove a wedge between him and the audience who should probably sympathize with him at least a little. On the other hand, the movie had a lot of entertaining highlights as well. I was especially fond of Veruca falling victim to angry squirrels. As a concluding aside, I should note that somehow or another I let myself get talked into going to see this on opening night at the cramped, stuffy, and otherwise generally uncomfortable Southwind theaters in Lawrence, possibly the most unpleasant place and the worst possible time to see this or any other movie. I don’t think the awful surroundings hampered my appreciation of the movie, but viewing conditions didn’t exactly help either. Mildly amusing

Thursday, July 7, 2005

Review – Dark Star

Here we have John Carpenter’s directorial debut, an odd low-budget effort from the late hippie days of 1974. I’ve been told by a couple of Navy vets that being shut up for a long time in the company of men actually is more than a little like this. That largely serves to make me grateful that I never had the experience myself. The atmosphere is good stuff, sort of a bridge between the clean technology of 2001 (which this picture at least in part parodies) and the grubby realms of future sci fi efforts crafted by Dan O’Bannon and Ron Cobb. The story, on the other hand, is uneven. Some of it is clever in a quirky sort of way. But most of it is more silly than anything else, such as the sequence in which O’Bannon spends 15 minutes battling a beach ball with feet. Overall this stirs up some nostalgia for sci fi con screenings back in the early 80s, but beyond that this is probably fairly missable. Mildly amusing

Review – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)

I thought going into this that Spencer Tracy was an odd choice for the bifurcated antihero of this classic tale. But to his credit he does a solid job, only occasionally dipping into the ham on the Hyde side. Lana Turner and Ingrid Bergman do their parts to back him up as the good doctor’s intended and the brute’s lady-of-the-night victim respectively. But my favorite element of this production is the years-before-its-time portrayal of the psycho-sexual aspects of the warring personalities. Of particular note are the hallucination sequences that accompany Jekyll’s early transformations. Tracy frantically whipping two chariot-pulling horses that turn into bare (from shoulders up at least) Turner and Bergman … wow. Mildly amusing

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Review – Don't Look Now

“Don’t Watch Ever” might have been better advice. This Nicholas Roeg supernatural thriller is one of those productions that would be really creepy if it was actually happening to you, but just watching it happen to fictional characters in a movie is merely dull. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie play the parents of a little blonde girl who starts apparently appearing here and there in Venice despite having died some time earlier. Roeg manages to conjure an interesting visual here and there, but they’re no match for the weak script and wooden acting. The sex scene between the leads is especially horrific, easily qualifying as the least stimulating set of visuals since the horny hairy humpin’ hippies that grace the pages of The Joy of Sex. “Don’t look now” is some seriously good advice for that scene! Perhaps by 1973 standards this was an eerie bit of psychological horror, but now it rarely rises above boring. See if desperate

Friday, June 24, 2005

Review – Come and See

This is a hard movie to watch for a handful of reasons. It’s grim and depressing, though of course that’s exactly what you’d expect from a brutally accurate depiction of Nazi atrocities on the Eastern Front in 1943. Occasionally the flow falls victim to Socialist art school conceits. And why are Russian movies so hard on the cows? I think this is a tradition that dates back to Eisenstein’s Strike. No SPCA in the Soviet Union in 1985, I guess. But if you can get past the rough spots, this is an important production. When 30 million people die, someone ought to make a movie about it. And overall this one’s quite good. The nightmare of the village destruction sequence easily rivals anything from Hollywood holocaust movies. Worth seeing

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Review – Assault on Precinct 13 (2004)

At least this didn’t turn out quite as bad as some other recent remakes. However, that’s at least in part because if you’re remaking The Manchurian Candidate you’ve got some serious living up to do. Redoing a mediocre offering from early in John Carpenter’s career, on the other hand, imposes less of a burden. Some of the new twists this time around actually help the plot. For example, in the original the attack by a gang took place in Los Angeles in clear weather. It’s easier to understand why nobody comes to the aid of a besieged police station in Detroit in the middle of a blinding snowstorm when the attacking forces turn out to be crooked cops (sorry about the minor spoiler, but it’s revealed early in the movie as well, not to mention on the DVD box). The acting is uneven, ranging from good work from Lawrence Fishburne to standard stuff from John Leguizamo to sub-par posturing from Ja Rule. Production values are good, and the story keeps moving fairly well. Mildly amusing

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Review – The Boogeyman

Ever since the first Halloween I’ve been waiting for KC and the Sunshine Band to show up on the soundtrack of a movie about the Boogeyman. Skunked again, I’m afraid. But that’s about all I’m afraid of in this tedious borefest about a guy still battling the childhood nightmare that snatched his father 15 years earlier. The filmmakers rely almost exclusively on those bone-jarring assaults of jump cuts that tear by at five or six frames per. The technique has been used to good effect elsewhere, but here there’s little in the way of plot or character to back it up. Compare this to that childhood classic, “The Golden Arm.” The arm works because it’s worked into a story and because the shock is only used once. Watching this movie was a little like spending 90 minutes being grabbed and having “You’ve got it!” shouted in my ear over and over. It gets old after awhile, especially with nothing else there to keep it interesting. See if desperate

Review – Batman Begins

Yeah, eventually. But he sure takes his time doing it. For the longest stretch at the beginning this movie does one of my least favorite tricks: ping-ponging back and forth between three or four different time frames. As much as I dislike this trick in general, my hat’s off for the effort to show not only the murders that first turned young Bruce Wayne against crime but also the trials and training that eventually turned him into a superhero. Once it settles down into a single stream, the plot becomes more of a straightforward good guys vs. bad guys story. This is also one of those productions that features a gaggle of big-name celebrities in supporting roles. But the best part for my money was that Batman was – at least in places – actually scary. This is the first, last and only Caped Crusader that ever left me believing that criminals would be afraid of him. I kinda hope they make a series out of this (when’s the last time you heard me say that about a movie?), but if they do I hope it doesn’t go downhill like the Tim Burton set did. Worth seeing

Review – Alone in the Dark (2005)

In the dark we may be, but alone we ain’t. We’re in here with quite the collection, including Pitch Black, Aliens, X Files, The Relic, The Keep, The Tingler … yes that’s right, The Tingler. Just think what a bargain it is to be able to see little Cliff’s Notes chunks of these and several other pictures all for the price of a single video rental. Everyone involved mails in their performances, even Tara Reid (proud recipient of the Denise Richards Nuclear Physicist award for her role as an archaeologist). The script and direction are weak, and the effects are one step (if that) above PlayStation graphics. Someday someone is going to make a really solid archaeology-based horror movie. Sadly, we’re apparently going to have to wait at least a little longer. At least this wasn’t as bad as the last video-game-based effort from Uwe “House of the Dead” Boll. Maybe next they’ll turn him loose on Frogger. See if desperate

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Review – The Cockettes

Ah, what a magical time the late sixties and early seventies must have been in San Francisco. So magical, indeed, that apparently a number of the interviewees in this documentary don’t seem to remember things all that well. But that doesn’t stop this from being an interesting look at the birth, development and death of the Cockettes. To call the troupe a drag show would be selling it way short, as there was a measure of art and also some famous faces (Alan Ginsberg, Divine, Sylvester) making guest appearances along the way. I was surprised at how well-documented even the early days of the show turned out to be. Especially in the age before consumer video, it’s rare to find something this off-the-wall that has such an extensive visual record. And the footage sure helps, because watching what these folks were doing back in the day is a lot more interesting than listening to them reminisce about it now. If you’ve an interest in the subject or its setting, by all means give this movie a look. Mildly amusing

Friday, June 10, 2005

Review – Darkness

In the wake of The Ring I guess Hollywood has decided to let international directors run riot in the realm of the mid-budget ghost story. Trouble is, there’s more scary in the first ten minutes of The Ring (which itself wasn’t exactly a great paragon of the horror arts) than in the whole running time of this stinker. Indeed, the movie’s half over before anything happens that even appears to have been intended to be frightening, and even then it’s more annoying than anything else. What decent plot elements it picks up along the way are almost entirely “borrowed” from other movies such as The Amityville Horror. It picks up a teeny bit close to the end, but overall … well, one of the occult images associated with our family’s evil-possessed house is the ouroboros. Somehow the image of something biting itself in the ass is all too apt. See if desperate

Review – Days of Heaven

The visuals are the star of this Terrence Malik production. Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Sam Shepard – all young in 1978 – turn in average performances. The passage from Genesis upon which this is loosely based is only ten verses long, and though things are fleshed out a bit with some soap opera twists and turns there still isn’t much of a story to speak of. The dialogue and narrative are also oddly cut, the plot spinning out in fits and starts. However, the look and feel are something else. The open plains of Texas in the late 19-teens give Malick plenty of opportunities to work with cinematography and art direction to produce something that, however dull, is very visually impressive. Mildly amusing

Review – Blade Trinity

Third verse, same as the first. New tricks this time around include a gaggle of gizmos ranging from anti-vampire viruses to iPods. Beyond product placement, however, this is more of that old, familiar, comic book plot and dialogue. If you liked the first two, odds are this one will have the same effect. If you didn’t like them, why are you still bothering with these things? Mildly amusing

Monday, May 30, 2005

Review – Cabaret

I know I’m supposed to be impressed by the Berlin-between-the-wars decadence and/or blown away by the famous musical numbers. But honestly my favorite part of this production was the backdrops. I loved the look and feel of the locations much more than the sad, silly antics of the characters. It didn’t help that the cast was headed up by wooden Michael York and spastic Liza Minelli. I feel bad saying this about the role she’s probably best known for, but she’s at best inconsistent as Sally. Sometimes you can almost feel for the character, but then Minelli slips and out comes her own less-than-endearing personality rather than the part she’s supposed to be playing. To complete the Three Faces of Liza: whenever she starts to sing a solo, out comes Mama. Joel Grey does a solid job in the role that will be forever associated with him, and his performance works at least in part because he blends in so well with the time and the place rather than trying to Hollywood all over everything. A projectionist in Asia once screened The Sound of Music with all the musical numbers cut out. I’d like to see something similar tried here (annoying things just get stuck in my head anyway). And as long as the scissors are out, cut down the leads’ screen time and see what kind of movie can be made out of the subplots that emphasize key elements of this fascinating period in history. Mildly amusing

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Review – Atlantic City

Imagine Willy Loman as a superannuated numbers runner and you’ve got the gist of this critically-acclaimed Louis Malle movie. Burt Lancaster does a yeoman’s job as an old, low-level mobster who gets the chance to pretend to be someone important when he comes by a load of cocaine and the ready cash he makes from selling it. This is one of those twisty little stories in which everyone ends up tied to everyone else. In particular, our “hero” latches on to a oyster-shucking ingénue (Susan Sarandon) who dreams of dealing cards in Monte Carlo. Though Lancaster comes across as a little too old for the mid-life crisis he appears to be having, this is nonetheless an interesting portrait of middle-aged American masculinity. Beyond that, though, there’s an interesting parallel between the man and the city he lives in, both faded, both apparently anxious to relive days that never were. Mildly amusing

Friday, May 6, 2005

Review – The Amityville Horror (2005)

This isn’t Detroit, it’s … well, Detroit might have been a scarier movie. This isn’t horror as much as it’s the Amityville Annoyance. The Lutzes and the sad tale of their possessed house might have made a much better production than this. The book at least had a little potential. Not much, but a little. Even the first movie was scarier. The script is terrible (great priest quote: “Mrs. Lutz, your house frightens me”). The acting is sub-par. But worst of all, the production relies almost entirely on the booga-booga shot for entertainment value. A couple of them sort of work, but for the most part they’re the cinematic equivalent of a handshake with a joy buzzer: as witless as they are unwelcome. Further, the end fell even flatter than the rest of the picture. See if desperate

Saturday, April 9, 2005

Review – Chuck Jones: Extremes and In-Betweens

This is a fairly textbook documentary about the work of animation genius Chuck Jones. Interviewees include fans, celebrity fans, family members, animators and the man himself. If you’ve got an affection for the artist or an interest in how animation developed during Jones’s tenure at Warner, this is a must-see. Those interested in animation technique should also check out the special features section of the DVD. Worth seeing

Friday, March 25, 2005

Review – Akira Kurosawa's Dreams

Normally I’m not a big fan of the bylined title, but in this case it’s more than justified. A collection of supernatural-ish short subjects from a Japanese director is almost automatically going to invite comparison to Kwaidan, but this one’s pure Kurosawa. The second half of the eight tales tend to be a bit on the emotional side, particularly the thickly sentimental finale. For my tastes the first few are more entertaining, especially the fox wedding. However, all the way through the movie retains the director’s wonderful sense of understatement and ambiguity. Worth seeing

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Review – Donnie Darko

When I was 17, I might have really loved this movie. Trouble is, that was 22 years ago. As it was, I thought some of the visuals were interesting. The cast was good. The script was moderately clever in points, but elsewhere it was stuffed full of adolescent anxiety clichés. The end in particular was more than a little disappointing. Overall this was a nice combination of elements, though still I think people (especially mid to late teen boys) with a little more in common with the protagonist really form the core of the intended audience. Mildly amusing

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Review – Collateral

This Tom Cruise / Jamie Foxx vehicle starts with a weak premise and unravels from there. From the outset we’re asked to believe that a professional killer with five marks to slay in the course of an evening is going to waste his time taking a cab, requiring him to terrorize the driver into doing his bidding. There’s some “plans to pin it on the cabbie” excuse, but it’s flimsy stuff. Indeed, this turns out to be one of those annoying, one-track productions in which a constant motion from one tense situation to the next stands in stead of an actual plot. Some of the fight sequences feature some decent choreography (I particularly liked the part where Cruise kills the guys who just got done robbing Foxx). But more often than not even the violence is done in by bad pace and weak editing. Overall this movie earns points for the money they spent on it and not much more. Mildly amusing

Friday, March 18, 2005

Review – Cursed

Someday someone is going to make a genuinely scary werewolf movie. Until that day, the title of this barker remains an apt epitaph for the sub-genre. Step one for ridding ourselves of this evil spell will have to be abandoning the whole John Landis funny-quirky thing. Next, the werewolves are going to have to not look like big teddy bears. And if Wes Craven is going to play any role in the project, he’s going to have to regain some of the sense of timing he once had. Half this movie plays like it’s in fast-forward. And all the way through this picture comes across as an after-school special about the dangers of getting bit by werewolves. Christina Ricci has a few good moments, but even at her best it’s all too easy to recall that she was once on the “serious actress” track instead of killing time in lycanthropic bubblegum like this. Mildly amusing

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Review - The Fall of the Roman Empire

I’m not completely sure the actual Roman Empire took as long as this movie’s running time to collapse. This golden oldie has at least some in common with the more recent epic Gladiator: both center around the death of Marcus Aurelius and the mis-rule of his son Commodus, and both are ultimately over-wrought costume dramas. However, this one’s a little more political and a lot more drawn-out. Christopher Plummer does an interesting job as Commodus, though especially toward the end he comes across more like Caligula than the bad emperor he’s actually supposed to be playing (which is as much the writer’s fault as it is his). Roman pageants from this era in film history are generally a bit too tame for my taste, but that aside this one isn’t too terrible. Mildly amusing

Wednesday, February 2, 2005

Review – Dirty Harry

If you’re a big fan of rogue-cop-with-his-own-brand-of-justice movies, here’s the one that more-or-less invented the genre. Further recommendation: despite being driven largely by simple-minded clichés, this is still an entertaining picture. Acting and script are both good, to the point when even an old die-hard individual rights advocate like me can’t help but cheer for Inspector Calahan as he takes on a psycho loosely based on the Zodiac serial killer. And on top of all this, there are actually subtleties to be found here, such as Calahan’s personal foibles (including a voyeuristic streak). In the realm of vicious cops versus vicious killers, you could do a lot worse. Worth seeing

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Review – Double Indemnity

This noir classic is very much a creature of its time. If nothing else, it’s hard to watch beloved TV dad and Disney regular Fred MacMurray playing a villainous anti-hero. Then there’s the dialogue, no doubt biting and innovative in 1944 but now more than a little cliché. But despite the dating, this is still an entertaining piece of movie-making. We all go into it knowing that the salesman and scheming woman plotting to murder her husband for insurance money are going to come to no good, especially when the plan becomes more complicated than necessary due to the need to kill hubby on a train in order to bring a double-indemnity clause into effect. But even the predictable outcome doesn’t detract from the pleasure of watching Edward G. Robinson as a claim investigator taking the scheme apart piece by piece. Worth seeing

Friday, January 28, 2005

Review – Bowling for Columbine

Michael Moore is mad, but he seems to be having some trouble figuring out exactly what he’s mad about or whom he’s mad at. Americans kill each other with guns, something that seems to peeve Moore to no end (as well it might). But he’s so excited about pinning this on large corporations that he shorts or bypasses altogether a lot of the root causes of violence. At least I didn’t hate this as much as I thought I was going to, except of course for the ambush nagging. And that brings me mindful of the “South Park” summary of American history, in particular the part that theorizes that early European immigrants shot the Indians due to fear, omitting the property aspects of Manifest Destiny. This inspired me to plan a documentary in which someone shows up unannounced at Moore’s home with a camera and a sad photo of Indian children, demanding that the Limbaugh of the Left deed his property over to the people from whom it was stolen. Mildly amusing

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Review – Cat People

Even all these years later it’s downright impressive what can be done with a decent script and a little careful attention to lighting and editing. Even the casting is good, using actors who fit their parts rather than big name stars. This particularly applies to Simone Simon, who really looks like a cat. In fact, she looks like a cute little kitten, which makes it all the more intriguing when it turns out that she’s got a dark, shape-shifting secret tied to her sexuality. Though I guess it was only natural that this movie got lost in overall events in 1942, it now deserves a place in horror movie history. A must-see for any fan of the genre. Worth seeing

Friday, January 21, 2005

Review – Elektra

I guess it’s possible that if you find Jennifer Garner talented and/or alluring, there’s a chance you’ll get a kick out of this production. Though previously unfamiliar with her work (aside from Daredevil, which might best go unconsidered here), I was prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt. She came up well short, her acting downright robotic and her appearance nowhere near fetching enough to make up for her stiff performance. The script didn’t help matters any. Of all the comic books Marvel has turned into movies recently, only The Hulk had a story this uninteresting. My particular favorite part was the villain who could make his extensive collection of animal tattoos come to life and attack people. The character’s name? Tattoo. Sadly most of the rest of the show is on par with this for creativity and entertainment value. See if desperate

Monday, January 17, 2005

Review – The Aviator

All by himself, Howard Hughes almost automatically makes for the subject of an interesting movie. But Martin Scorsese appears to be doing almost everything he can to avoid pulling it off. For openers, he seems to have lost a good deal of his once-impressive sense of timing. As a result, many sequences that I’m sure were intended as a glimpse into Hughes’s manias instead come across as little more than annoying. Further, much of the casting here is all wrong. Leonardo DiCaprio does an acceptable job as the young, enthusiastic protagonist, but by the time 20 years and the strain of mental illness are supposed to have taken their toll on him, the actor no longer has the range to pull it off. And don’t even get me started on Kate Blanchett as Katherine Hepburn. Overall this is a long, expensive production that isn’t bad but could have been a lot better than it was. Mildly amusing

Sunday, January 9, 2005

Review – Confessions of Robert Crumb

Proof – as if it was really necessary – that artists don’t always make the best film-makers, particularly not with themselves as their subjects. Crumb’s rather brief autobiographical piece has some interesting footage but sheds little worthwhile light on his life or work. Further, he comes off looking like kind of a creep. Accurate though that might be, he’s a lot more fun when he communicates with his drawings rather than his mouth. Mildly amusing