Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Johnny English Reborn (2011)

Johnny English may not be Johnny Rotten.

But be warned film fans, there's plenty of dead space in this comedy with Rowan Atkinson. Directed by Oliver Parker, Johnny English Reborn is a sequel to, guess what, Johnny English (2001). I can't comment on the first installment. Based on this effort, I'm not overly anxious to spend the time to view part one.

English (Rowan Atkinson) is a bumbling British secret service agent. Think of him as a cousin to Peter Sellers' inept Insp. Jacques Clouseau.

English bears the weight of an assignment in Mozambique that went terribly wrong. He's doing his time, somewhere in Asia, trying to get back on his game.

When British Intelligence learns a tipster will only confide in English, he's pressed back into service. Turns out there's a plot from a criminal organization dubbed Vortex to kill a senior Chinese leader. Why do these bad guys want this politician dead? I have no idea.

English, being the bumbling idiot that he is, repeatedly misses obvious facts, suspects, etc. etc. His much younger partner, Agent Tucker (Daniel Kaluuya), is the brains in this team.

I'm guessing the target audience here is under 18. But then there's the occasional, and I stress occasional laugh, that an older viewer would likely enjoy. When English is told a colleague is a traitor, he can't believe the suggestion. "He went to Eton," English stammers, a reference to a British school founded in 1440. "You have always fascinated me - clinically," offers Kate Summer, a psychologist on the payroll with British Intelligence. When English appears moments away from being caught before he can nab the bad guys in Switzerland, he realizes in horror: "We're going to die at the hands of the Swiss." These are smart lines. Bravo.

But much of the humour is definitely aimed at the very young set. Enjoy someone getting kicked in the groin? Johnny English Reborn will offer you plenty of opportunities to enjoy this abuse.

A running gag with an elderly killer, Killer Cleaner (Pik Sen Lim), gets some laughs, but the same gag gets a little worn by the time this film ends.

My intelligence report on Johnny English Reborn. More laughs can be found in many other films. Take a pass on this one.

RATING: 5/10

FUN FACTS: Dominic West was a palace guard in Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace.

Pik Sen Lim was Nurse Kwei Kim-Yen in television's Emergency-Ward 10 in the mid-1960s.

That's Gillian Anderson from The X-Files as Atkinson's boss.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Wes Anderson, I've missed you.

His 1998 film, Rushmore , is one of my all-time favourite films.

Follow-ups The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou just didn't do it for me.

But The Grand Budapest Hotel and Moonrise Kingdom are a welcome return to film for a very talented American filmmaker.

Sam (Jared Gilman) is the odd man out with the Khaki Scouts. His troop has set up camp on an island near New England. Sam, cared for by a foster family, isn't making any friends with his peers. He decides to break out - his form of escape offers an early hearty laugh in this 2012 release. Sam's goal is to meet up with Suzy (Kara Hayward), a young girl he met earlier during a production of British composer Benjamin Britten's Noye's Fludde.

Suzy, always outfitted with a pair of binoculars, is on the outs with her family too including parents Mr. and Mrs. Bishop (Bill Murray, Frances McDormand).

Their running away sparks a major search led by the head of the island's police department, Capt. Sharp (Bruce Willis) with Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) at his side. Turns out Sam's foster family doesn't want him back. Institutional care is next with Social Services (Tilda Swinton) dispatched to pick Sam up.

There's so much to enjoy in Anderson's film - a killer soundtrack, great dialogue (Suzy: "I wish I was an orphan. Most of my favourite characters are.", Mr. Bishop: "Our daughter has been abducted by one of those beige lunatics."), intriguing set up of scenes with action in the background to also watch.

What's uncomfortable in Moonrise Kingdom is the romantic side of Sam and Suzy's relationship. These kids are tweens and they're French kissing and sexual touching. That creeps this film fan out.

Anderson and Roman Coppola received an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay.

Overall, there's lots to enjoy and I look forward to watching the background of scenes on a second viewing, but I'll skip through Suzy and Sam's romantic interlude. Gross.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Jason Schwartzman, star of Rushmore, appears as Cousin Eddy in Moonrise Kingdom. He and co-scriptwriter Coppola are cousins.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)

I trust the book is better than this movie.

Robert Louis Stevenson published The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1886.

Several film and television versions of his horror novel have followed including a 2016 effort with Gianni Capaldi and Shawn Paul Piccinino.

The premise of director Victor Fleming's 1941 feature is interesting.

Dr. Henry Jekyll is working on a potion that will eliminate the evil in people and magnify the good.

The British medical community isn't impressed with his work. "Your ideas are not normal," argues Sir Charles Emery (Donald Crisp), father of his better half. Jekyll contends his peers side with the status quo because it what keeps them making money.

"Sometimes we have to gamble," he explains.

Jekyll decides to try the elixir on himself. Instead of being a better person, Jekyll turns into a nasty piece of work. "Can this be evil?" he asks after chugging back his first serving of his concoction. It's about the best scene featuring Jekyll's bad side.

He forgets about his soon-to-be wife, Beatrix Emery (Lana Turner), and sets his sights on good-time tavern worker Ivy Peterson (Ingrid Bergman). Ivy tried to seduce the much nicer Dr. Jekyll after he came to her rescue during a late-night assault. He, mostly, rebuffed her advances then. With this jolt of evil running through his veins, he wants her. His physical transformation when he becomes Mr. Hyde means Ivy doesn't know the two men are, in fact, the same.

Hyde is terribly abusive, keeping her confined to their love nest and verbally and physically abusing her. As Jekyll keeps downing his potent brew, his behaviour worsens and, eventually, he loses control as to when he'll be transformed.

This film works for me for about the first hour. But once Hyde appears, time slows and this film drags. We don't see Jekyll struggling with his decision to opt for evil.

Sitting through this film was a tough go. It took too much work to get scared.

RATING: 4/10

FUN FACTS: The film was nominated for three Academy Awards for cinematography, editing and musical score.

Peter Godfrey, who appears as Dr. Jekyll's butler, only appeared in 13 films between 1933 and 1948. He spent more time directing feature films and television episodes. One of his big screen credits is that hagen girl
with Shirley Temple and Ronald Reagan.

Victor Fleming also directed Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Edge (1997)

Hurray for films that make audiences think.

The Edge is a thinking person's action/adventure film.

This 1997 effort from director Lee Tamahori is straight-forward in its plot.

Very successful businessman Anthony Hopkins (Charles Morse) and his wife, Mickey Morse (Elle Macpherson), arrive at a remote lodge so he can celebrate his birthday and she can model with photographer Robert Green (Alec Baldwin).

Screenwriter David Mamet (The Verdict, The Untouchables) isn't exactly subtle in setting up where The Edge is headed. Lodge boss Styles (L.Q. Jones) mentions how planes can encounter trouble when they fly into the path of migrating birds. Oh, and some bears have a taste for human flesh. Add to the scenario the inkling Charles has that his wife and shooter Bob are having an affair and voila, the stage is set for the rest of this two-hour film.

A float plane carrying Charles and Robert does crash. They, and another survivor, are hunted down by one very large bear. Charles has more pressing concerns, ie. how they'll get back to the lodge without being killed, but still expects Robert wants to kill him so he can be with Mickey.

Charles just isn't rich. He's smart too - and an optimist. Charles remembers what he reads about outdoor survival and what dooms those who die in the bush. The killer bruin (Bart) is a tough cookie. He's big, mean and ready to kill. But Charles isn't about to give up and opts to battle back against the bear.

Beautiful scenery, some healthy tension when Bart is on the prowl and Charles' ingenuity make The Edge a keeper.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: The Edge was the second last screen role for Bart the Bear. The imposing bruin appeared in 17 productions, beginning with Windwalker in 1980. He died in 2000 at age 23.

Television audiences may remember Harold Perrineau from his role as Michael Dawson in Lost.

I didn't know this. Elle Macpherson was Julie Madison in Joel Schumacher's widely panned Batman and Robin.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Interpreter (2005)

Good grief.

The Interpreter goes off the rails - twice - in its last minutes.

How sad this is the last feature helmed by American director Sydney Pollack (Tootsie, Out of Africa). He made some fine films that will stand up well. The Interpreter is best forgotten.

This suspense film has potential.

Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman) has experienced violence in the African country where she lived. She is an interpreter at the United Nations, the only place where she believes real change can happen.

Cue the first head-scratching scene, which becomes even odder when more becomes known later in the film.

Broome returns to work to pick up items she has forgotten - and hears a conversation of a planned assassination of the leader of the country where she once lived.

What's strange here is the United Nations building appears completely empty. Dark corridors, no staff around. Does no one clean this meeting place at night? Security guards keeping an eye on things? The timing is impeccable too for Broome to show up just as nefarious plans are being discussed.

Enter Tobin Keller (Sean Penn), the government agent assigned to probe what Broome reports what she heard. He's skeptical. There is, surprise, surprise, conflict when Broome and Keller meet for the first time.

Keller has just lost his wife. She was having an affair with a man. The pair died in a collision. Broome is mourning the loss of her family to violence back home.

Someone wants Broome dead. That seems a bit odd when she's already reported the planned killing to the authorities. What else is she going to do? Grab a gun and kill the perpetrators themselves?

There's a nice buildup of tension heading into the African leader's speech at the UN. What a shocker it is when a crazy plot twist left this movie fan slack-jawed. I thought the alternate ending offered on the DVD would offer a more plausible finale. No. Incredibly, it's even more far-fetched than the theatrical version.

The Interpreter is a good-looking film, but the late twists in its plot make it unbearable to watch.

RATING: 4/10

FUN FACTS: Earl Cameron, appearing here as Zawanie, was the Prince of Ardentia in Flash Gordon and Katanya in raiders of the lost ark. How many actors can claim to have "Death to Ming" on their resumes?

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

My Cousin Vinny (1992)

I find My Cousin Vinny guilty of the following:

1. too long at 120 minutes;

2. too much swearing;

3. running the same joke into the ground - ties in with first offence;

4. only being occasionally funny.

My memory suggested I enjoyed this film from director Jonathan Lynn upon its release in the early 1990s. I was wrong.

Bill (Ralph Macchio) and Stan (Mitchell Whitfield) are on their way to college when they stop into a corner store in Alabama. They're mistaken for a couple of suspects who robbed the business, and shot a clerk dead, shortly after their departure.

Bill has a cousin, Vinny (Joe Pesci), who's a lawyer. Well, that's true, but it also took this member of the Gambini six years to pass his bar exam. He's never participated in a criminal trial. Vinny is joined by his long-time fiancee, Mona (Marisa Tomei), the brains of the operation.

Vinny's ways don't sit well with Judge Haller (Fred Gwynne), who's hearing the case.

It's hard to believe just how clueless Gambini is about courtroom procedure and decorum when meeting with the judge. Putting his feet up on Haller's desk. Really? Showing up for court without a tie? Surely Gambini isn't that dumb. Or, how about Vinny's continually making snide remarks to Haller, thus being found in contempt of court. How dim is this guy?

Stan begins to lose confidence in Vinny's abilities, prompting him to go with public defender Austin Pendleton (John Gibbons). Too bad he stutters. Is this kind of humour still considered funny in 2015?

But, surprise, surprise, Vinny begins to shine in the courtroom, which is also hard to believe after all the incredibly stupid questions he asks when he interviews witnesses before the case begins.

Now, about those jokes being run into the ground. Vinny can't get a good night's sleep. This fact is repeated over, and over, and over again. The only really funny moment comes with the final reference when he's so tired he sleeps through a riot in jail. That's funny.

I found the best moments in My Cousin Vinny, and unfortunately there's not a lot, comes from subtle humour like that. A restaurant menu reference is funny. Vinny noticing a bar patron with a neck brace, and seeing a potential client, is funny.

Marisa Tomei won an Academy Award for best supporting actress for her work here. I give her top marks for her Bambi speech when Vinny prepares to go hunting with the prosecutor.

Director Jonathan Lynn directed another courtroom comedy, Trial and Error, with Jeff Daniels, Michael Richards and her fourth film role, Charlize Theron, five years later. I'm curious to watch that film again because I think it's funnier than this so-so effort.

RATING: 5/10

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

3:10 to Yuma (1957)

Great film, too bad about the ending.

3:10 To Yuma generates plenty of suspense with a simple premise.

Outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) is taken prisoner in a small town after robbing a stagecoach. Business owner Mr. Butterfield (Robert Emhardt) offers $200 to two men who'll bring him to prison.

Dan Evans (Van Heflin) needs the cash. Badly. Extended drought over three years has hit the farmer hard. The only other person willing to bring Wade to justice is town drunk Alex Potter (Henry Jones).

Wade, and his armed escort, know his men want to free him before he darkens a cell.

The crime boss is the quiet type. He turns the screws on Evans by various means - offering him more cash to let him go, suggesting he'd take better care of his wife and asking why he's continuing with his assignment when others will surely bail when they see what they're up against.

"Don't make it hard on yourself," Wade suggests to Evans.

A good chunk of the film is set in a hotel room where Wade torments Evans as the train arrival nears.

What also gives 3:10 To Yuma an extra kick after so many years is its exploration of people not wanting to get involved. Wade uses Evans' cattle when he robs gold from Butterfield's stagecoach. Evans' boys ask him what he'll do in response. "Not much else I can do."

But when Evans gets a backbone, others try and talk him out of his resolve to deliver Wade to jail. Butterfield, as Wade predicted, doesn't have the stomach to possibly die in a shootout. His wife urges him, "Don't go through with it." Townsfolk recruited to help beef up guards to make sure Wade gets on the train back out. Hey, it's not our fight, they declare.

It's six against one when Evans makes his way from the hotel to the train station. But the film's ending strikes me as a copout, as opposed to a final showdown between Wade and Evans. Too bad.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: 3:10 to Yuma was made 50 years later with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.

The film is based on a short story by Elmore Leonard.

That's Jack Lemmon's future wife, Felicia Farr, who catches Ben Wade's eye as a barkeeper. Loser's Crown, released in 2014, is her first film since That's Life in 1986.

Alex Potter's credits also include Vertigo, Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy, Support Your Local Gunfighter and Support Your Local Sheriff.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Pacific (2010)

This review is a work in progress.

I've now watched nine of the 10 episodes of this HBO mini-series.

The Pacific is not easy viewing. The battle scenes are gripping and repeated attention is paid to the stress combat has on American marines fighting the Japanese enemy on islands such as Peleliu and Pavuvu. Soldiers commit suicide and go insane.

With just a half an episode to watch, the bottom line is this. The Pacific is difficult viewing, but essential watching. To its credit, this series repeatedly focuses on the mental toll the war takes on young Americans. Even veteran Marines crack.

Rami Malek is creepy good as Private Merriell 'Snafu' Shelton, whose initial wariness of new recruit Eugene Sledge (Joseph Mazzello) transforms into a friendship.

The Pacific earned a Golden Globe nomination for best mini-series or movie made for television.

I wouldn't recommend this series for younger audiences because of the graphic violence and some sexuality.

FUN FACTS: Jeremy Podeswa and Timothy Van Patten each directed three episodes of The Pacific. Podeswa is a Canadian, born in Toronto in 1962.

Older viewers may remember Timothy Van Patten acting in television's The White Shadow - Season 1.

Joseph Mazzello, who appears as Private Eugene Sledge, was Tim Murphy in Jurassic Park and The Lost World: Jurassic Park.

Carl Franklin directed one episode, Peleliu Landing. He's worked with Denzel Washington on features Devil in a Blue Dress and Out of Time. Franklin also appeared in an episode of The White Shadow.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)

Hey, did this film help inspire The Muppets Most Wanted ?

Having just watched the most recent Muppets' big screen adventure, I couldn't help buy notice a few similarities between its story and The Muppets Take Manhattan.

The gang has a show. Kermit isn't as keen as Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Rowlf and the rest of the group. He's brow beaten into agreeing to tour Europe in The Muppets Take Manhattan. Kermit is encouraged to bring their show, done as college students, to the Big Apple in The Muppets Take Manhattan.

Poor Kermit is mistaken for a criminal mastermind in The Muppets Most Wanted. Here, he suffers amnesia after getting hit by a taxi. Evil Kermit lookalike speaks with an accent in Most Wanted. Kermit's voice changes a bit after he's struck by a cab and starts working for an advertising firm.

Bad Kermit, aka Constantine, asks Miss Piggy to marry him in Most Wanted. Pig and frog walk down the aisle as part of their Broadway show in Manhattan. Side note: Do Kermit and Miss Piggy really get married in The Muppets Take Manhattan? It sure looks like they tie the knot for real.

The similarities continue.

Kermit is separated from his troupe in Most Wanted when he's shipped off to a Russian gulag. Here, his friends have to leave New York City when their efforts to get on Broadway take more time than expected. "My friends are all gone," says Kermit. "I'm going to get them back. I'm not giving up. The frog is staying."

Celebrity cameos are a mainstay of Muppet movies. The stars don't shine quite as brightly in Manhattan. Watch for Art Carney, James Coco, Dabney Coleman, Gregory Hines, Frances Bergen, John Landis, Linda Lavin, Joan Rivers, Brooke Shields and Elliot Gould.

Most of these brief appearances are not very funny. Rivers has her moments, but her scene goes on a bit too long. I do give full marks to Liza Minelli for her showing up at Sardi's restaurant and noting, with surprise, that her caricature was replaced with Kermit's. Shields gets a funny line in as a customer at a coffee shop where Kermit works while trying to mount his show.

The Muppets Take Manhattan is good fun. There's the usual mantra of follow your dreams - seen here with the song You Can't Take No for an Answer when Kermit tries to sell his musical. Keep an ear ready for some sharp lines.

Art Carney, when he sees his son and Kermit hugging:
"If you two are in love, I don't want to hear about it."
Carney, again, when Kermit sings one of the songs from his show.
"I'm allergic to amphibians singing."
Ad executives when they hire Kermit to work with them:
"We can always use a frog with horse sense."

There's also some neat effects with the Muppets out and about in the Big Apple leading to the popular question: How do they do that?

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Wow. That's Gates McFadden, from Star Trek: The Next Generation, as Dabney Coleman's secretary in her film debut. Cool.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Muppets Most Wanted (2014)

It would help if the Muppets lost their French accent in this film.

There's lots of laughs in Muppets Most Wanted, their latest screen adventure, but boy, does this effort ever drag when Sam the Eagle and Ty Burrell ever show up. More on them in a moment.

Constantine, the world's most dangerous frog, busts out of a Russian gulag. He's a dead ringer for Kermit the Frog. The bad guy's right-hand man, Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), poses as a promoter to lure Kermit and company for a European tour. The plan is for Constantine to switch places with Kermit and use his troupe as pawns to eventually steal the Crown Jewels.

Kermit is hesitant to hit the road, but Dominic manipulates Fozzy, Rolph the Dog, Miss Piggy and the others into pressuring their leader to hit the road. Dominic promises the show's cast can do anything they want. Hey, is this a message about discipline for children in this film?

Kermit is picked up by police and shipped back to Russia. He's in a gulag watched over by commandant Nadya (Tina Fey). "You've got the wrong frog," he protests to no avail.

Meanwhile, the Muppets don't clue in that something's not quite right with Kermit, including his voice and inability to remember the names of most of the show's cast members. Shows become marathons with Miss Piggy opting to sing the hits of Celine Dion while Animal hankers for an extended drum solo. Kermit, so long refusing to commit to marriage with Miss Piggy, is more receptive when Constantine takes his place. He's trying to keep her happy, leading to one of the film's best songs, I'll Get What You Want, a disco effort complete with silver ball and Constantine sporting a white dress shirt and plenty of dry ice.

Sight gags, cameos - kudos to Salma Hayek for teaming up with The Great Gonzo for a running of the bulls bit on stage and physical humour offer lots of laughs.

But the pace deadens when police investigators Sam the Eagle and Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell) show up. Their bits are seldom funny. Napoleon's caricature of a stereotypical French goverment employee are tiresome. This subplot does not work.

Keep a pen and paper handy to track all the celebrity cameos. Didn't I see Ray Liotta in Muppets in Space too? I missed Lady Gaga. I'm no fan of Celine Dion, but her duet with Miss Piggy is a highlight here. Tony Bennett, Sean Combs, Frank Langella, Stanley Tucci, Christop Waltz are also along for the fun.

Wow. Almost 40 years have passed since The Muppets made their first film. Kermit and the gang can still put together a good night's entertainment with Muppets Most Wanted.

RATING: 7.5/10

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Winter's Bone (2010)

Brace yourself for this film.

This four-time Oscar nominated movie is unsettling, full of tension and dread about what happens next. There's little in the way of humour here. Winter's Bone is a stark drama/suspense feature.

Kudos to Jennifer Lawrence for her standout work as Ree, the de facto leader of the house where dad is missing and mom is not able to care for her three children. Lawrence is so many things in this film - defiant, scared, confused.

Her father has skipped a court date. His house was put up for bail. If he doesn't show soon, or Ree can prove he's dead, her family loses their home.

Pops ran with a rough crowd, manufacturing drugs. None of his associates are especially keen to talk about his whereabouts. Ree presses on because she knows losing the home will be devastate her mother and two younger siblings. This family in Missouri family is dirt poor.

Ree gets help from her father's brother, Teardrop (John Hawkes), a coke sniffing sibling with his own past run-ins with the law.

Some of this film's biggest chills come from Dale Dickey,as Merab, wife/partner/girlfriend of Thump Milton (Ronnie Hall). Merab is the kind of character that makes others wary, with the potential for violence ever present.

Winter's Bone received Academy Award nominations for best feature, lead actress, supporting actor and adapted screenplay.

Director Debra Granik has done great work here.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Dale Dickey is in the cast of Iron Man III.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Dead Zone (1983)

Too bad.

The Dead Zone has a lot of potential.

Great cast. Intriguing story. It's based on a book by bestselling author Stephen King. David Cronenberg directs.

For all those strengths, this 1983 release is still a disappointment done in largely by some over-the-top characters, strange behaviour and cramming in too much plot.

Teacher Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is badly hurt in an automobile collision. He's in a coma for five years. The woman he wants to marry, Sarah (Brooke Adams), marries another man. Smith regains consciousness with the ability to see the future of others. He bristles at the suggestion he has a gift. Johnny, for all he's experienced, considers himself cursed.

Scores of people write him looking for help with their own lives. He retreats, refusing to leave his home as he tutors students.
Smith decides to act when he learns a candidate for the American senate, Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), will threaten humanity as he continues to succeed in politics.

Walken is great. There's some nice chemistry between him and Adams. There's some strong support work, especially from Herbert Lom as the doctor trying to help Smith and Sam Sullivan as Johnny's dad.

But a plot about Smith tackling a serial killer and a politician hellbent on destroying the world? Too much. In an interview on a DVD bonus, Cronenberg disagrees with suggestions Stillson is an over-the-top character. David, I disagree. Stillson is hard to take as a realistic character. There's no explanation why Sarah is involved with his political campaign. Is she helping because her husband is a diehard believer? Does she share Stillson's views. We don't know.

It's refreshing to see a film based on a King book with a minimum of blood and gore. Watching Johnny jolt every time he gets a vision is unsettling. But The Dead Zone carries some dead weight that prevents it from being a fine movie.

RATING: 6/10

FOR DISCUSSION: What do you make of the religious imagery in this film? When Johnny wakes up, there's a drawing of Jesus Christ on the wall. When he enters his family's home near the end of the film, a wall plaque reads in part "Christ is the head of this home."

Monday, June 8, 2015

Spartacus (1960)


Director Stanley Kubrick's fifth feature film won four Academy Awards, including best supporting actor for Peter Ustinov, but this 1960 epic didn't dazzle this movie-goer.

Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is a slave in Rome. After working for the Romans on a mountainside, he is purchased and sent to gladiator school. There, he falls for Varinia (Jean Simmons), a sex slave for the gladiator hopefuls.

Spartacus' rebellious streak - he knawed on a Roman guard's leg while carrying rock - rises up again. He leads a rebellion of gladiators. The pushback against Rome picks up speed. Other slaves join the gladiators. Their goal is to reach the ocean and sail back home.

The Roman senate, not keen to see slaves succeed in their freedom quest, seek to stomp out Spartacus and the other rebels.

What's most interesting about this film is Ustinov's role as Batiatus, who purchases slaves. Batiatus is a coward and opportunist. He easily spots chances to make money and make sure when trouble comes up, he's nowhere to be found. Batiatus kisses a lot of backsides to get his way. Nice job, Peter Ustinov!

Spartacus isn't too subtle in contrasting the slave leader's bid for freedom and efforts by his Roman counterpart Crassus (Laurence Olivier) to curtail freedom of Romans as part of his plans to be Roman leader.

The romance between Spartacus and Varinia shows promise when both are captives, but gets bogged down in standard lovey-dovey scenes once they're free.

For a movie about two opposing forces, there's not a lot of time spent fighting in this film. What is interesting is how Kubrick handles large crowd scenes, especially as Roman solders fill a field in preparation for a final showdown with Spartacus and company.

RATING: 6/10

FUN FACTS: Jean Simmons was in Guys and Dolls. She was also a harpist in Caesar and Cleopatra.

Kirk Douglas will celebrate his 100th birthday in 2016.

John Gavin, who appears as Julius Caesar, was Sam Loomis in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.

Spartacus was Charles Laughton's second last feature film.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Anna Meara (1929-2015)

Actress Anna Meara died May 23, 2015.
She appeared in her son Ben Stiller's Zoolander and Night at the Museum [HD].
Meara was also active in television with roles with Rhoda and Archie Bunker's Place.
She was 85.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

I will return

Thanks for visiting my movie blog site.

Family commitments have kept me busy in recent weeks. A vacation is about to start.

I hope reviews will resume in late May. Thank you.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The War Wagon (1967)

I won't go on the warpath praising the virtues of The War Wagon.

This 1967 western from director Burt Kennedy has its moments, but its so-so entertainment at best. For movie fans itching for a western fix, there are much better choices reviewed on this site including My Darling Clementine and The Searchers.

Taw Jackson (John Wayne) is out of prison after three years. Gold baron Mr. Pierce (Bruce Cabot) has taken over Jackson's ranch and the gold on his land. Pierce is also eager to finish Jackson off for good, offering sharp shooter Lomax (Kirk Douglas) a handsome payday if he kills off Jackson.

Jackson isn't planning on dying. He's scheming to rob Pierce's armoured wagon, filled with gold but also protected by a couple of dozen armed men and a rapid firing Gatling gun. Jackson wants Lomax on his team, a small group dedicated to getting the gold for a rich payoff. How big? $500,000. That sure seems like an awful lot of money by 19th century standards.

There's no real tension between Jackson and Lomax, wondering if one will cross the other for more money. That's a missed opportunity to give this film some spark. Instead, they trade the occasional barb and witty lines.

Example: Jackson and Lomax shoot two men who tried to kill them.

Lomax: "Mine hit the ground first."

Jackson: "Mine was taller."

The War Wagon also waits too much time setting up Jackson and Lomax with another member of the team, Levi Walking Bear (Howard Keel!). A group of men take target practice on glass bottles perches on a rock above Walking Bear's head. Again, there's no suggestion he could be killed. Might he not get cut by broken glass flying around? Apparently not. His rescue goes on, and on, and on some more. Yawn.

Add in a young explosives expert, with a taste for heavy alcohol consumption, Billy Hyatt (Robert Walker, Jr.), and an old coot with a young lady as his companion, Wes Fletcher (Keenan Wynn), and the gang is formed.

The actual heist has its moments, including an impressive explosion of a bridge. There's also a nice nod to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre with what happens with the gold Jackson and his crew so desperately want.

Kennedy sets up some very sharp looking scenes. The Mexican countryside is beautiful. But The War Wagon often shoots blanks.

RATING: 6/10

FUN FACTS: Film's production notes are an interesting read. The War Wagon marked Wayne's 162nd movie. Douglas and Wayne filmed advertisements for, and against, Ronald Reagan's bid to become governor of California. Keenan Wynn snagged Leslie Howard's Confederate hat used in Gone with the Wind and wore said headpiece in all his movies.

Director Kennedy, who died in 2001, went on to direct Support Your Local Sheriff! and Support Your Local Gunfighter! with James Garner.

That's Ed Ames singing Ballad of the War Wagon.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Angela Lansbury, I never knew just how good you are in The Manchurian Candidate (Special Edition).

She's sensational in this John Frankenheimer thriller from 1962. Lansbury, who turns 90 in 2015, earned an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress. Patty Duke won for The Miracle Worker.

Lansbury is Mrs. Iselin, the wife of a blowhard senator (James Gregory), who sees communists everywhere he looks in the United States government. Shades of Joe McCarthy, anyone? There's a rare funny scene in this taut work when he asks his wife just how many communists he's supposed to say are in the American government.

The wife has serious ambitions for her husband, leading to the White House. She takes the steamroller approach to politics, flattening anyone in her way.

She controls her adult son, Raymond (Laurence Harvey), a Korean War veteran. It was she who forced him to end a relationship with Jocelyn Jordan (Leslie Parrish), the daughter of political rival Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver). "She won, of course," Raymond tells Marco. "She always does. I could never beat her. I still can't." There's a suggestion she has a sexual relationship with him.

Raymond's problems run far deeper than just a domineering mother.

He and his patrol were ambushed in Korea. He's a puppet of the Russian government, brainwashed and blanking out when he's given an assignment to kill someone. But his comrades are starting to have vivid nightmares of their experiences when they were captured. They're starting to talk. One of Shaw's men is Maj. Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), who works in army intelligence. Army brass suggest he needs a break from service too. A short assignment in public relations fails spectacularly. Marco gets assigned to investigate Shaw.

Shaw is directed to shoot a party's presidential nominee at a certain point in his speech. Marco must stop him.

The Manchurian Candidate (Special Edition) makes for unsettling viewing. Raymond's not a likeable character, even before he's messed up by the Russians. Scenes during the soldiers' captivity is disorienting as perception shifts between what the prisoners see, because they're brainwashed, and what's actually happening.

Janet Leigh doesn't work for me as Sinatra's love interest. I'd argue she could have been cut from the film with no serious detriment.

But that's small beans in what is a very well made film.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: James Gregory was Insp. Frank Luger in television's Barney Miller.

Angela Lansbury was much nicer as Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast.

McGiver appeared as Lord Beasley Waterford in an episode of Gilligan's Island.

Parrish was Carolyn Palamas in an episode of Star Trek, Who Mourns for Adonais? She also appeared in The Giant Spider Invasion.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Thirteen Days (2000)

A frightening Cold War experience makes for a thrilling movie in Roger Donaldson's Thirteen Days (Infinifilm Edition).

This 2000 drama about the Cuban Missile Crisis gets straight to chilling business. An American spy plane captures footage of Russian ballistic missiles being installed in Cuba. If fired, they could reach as far north as Washington. Eighty million Americans could be killed. It's estimated there's 10 to 14 days before they become operational.

President John F. Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) needs to act fast. The first-term Democrat is walking a tightrope. The American military wants to pounce with options of invading Cuba or launching air strikes against the Communist island nation. "The big red dog is digging in our backyard," warns Gen. Curtis LeMay (Kevin Conway). Military brass like him see Kennedy as weak against the Russians.

Kennedy knows any suggestion of military action could force the Soviet Union to launch its nuclear missiles. The world would be destroyed.

A naval blockade of Cuba is suggested. But what if Russian ships disobey? Should that happen, will American ships open fire - against the orders of the American president?

Kennedy is livid when other American actions he doesn't have control over - the testing of a nuclear weapon, a spy plane venturing into Soviet air space - suggest to Russia that the United States if prepared to flex its considerable military muscle. "We can't communicate with the Pentagon," laments Kenny O'Donnell (Kevin Costner), special advisor to the president.

Thirteen Days includes archival footage of CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite detailing developments during the crisis. Donaldson switches to black and white scenes, a move that's distracting.

This critique is a minor caveat. Thirteen Days crackles with tension as Kennedy and his administration spend long hours trying to avert a nuclear war. Steven Culp does fine work as attorney general, and Kennedy's brother, Robert.

Thirteen Days (Infinifilm Edition) is one of the best latter day thrillers this film fan has watched. See this movie.

RATING: 9/10

FUN FACTS: Internet Movie Database reports Donaldson is now involved in pre-production with a third version of Erich Marie Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front. Will this version become the First World War equivalent of Saving Private Ryan for contemporary audiences? The 1930 film version won Oscars for best picture and director. A TV movie, with Richard Thomas and Ernest Borgnine, followed in 1979.

Steven Culp played John F. Kennedy in an episode of television's Perception in 2012.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Das Boot (1981)

Fear the ping.

German U-boats went from predator to prey as the Battle of the Atlantic continued during the Second World War. Allied convoys began to better protected by naval support.

The jobs of German submarine captains such as Henrich Lehmann-Willenbock (Jurgen Prochnow) became that much more challenging - and dangerous. Lehman-Willenbock is an experienced skipper. He's good too, awarded the Iron Cross as we see when the film starts and his crew whoops it up one final night before returning to duty.

Das Boot - The Director's Cut is the submarine film all others must be compared against. Originally shot as a television miniseries, it was released to theatres in 1981. Director Wolfgang Petersen later recut his war drama with a running time of more than three hours.

The crew on this sub spends most of its time doing everything but hunting down Allied targets. They scan the ocean with their binoculars when the sub surfaces. They're foiled by poor weather. They wait for orders.

Physical conditions are tight with little room to move. There's plenty of stress too when their sub is targeted with depth charges. To avoid damage, the sub dives deep with the danger of the vessel imploding due to increased pressure. One of Das Boot's most intense moments come when the crew can hear an Allied destroyer's sonar system searching for them to drop its depth charges.

Lehman-Willenbock seems cynical about the German war leadership. He's frustrated with how the subs are deployed. Some of his crew are close to cracking because of the strain of serving or problems with their girls far away.

My copy, unfortunately, was dubbed. Look for a version with subtitles.

Das Boot is a very good film about the war experience beneath the seas. Its ending is powerful too. Put it alongside Saving Private Ryan
and The Great Escape
as essential Second World War films to watch.

RATING: 9/10

FUN FACTS: Das Boot was nominated for six Academy Awards including best director, sound and editing.

Petersen made the move to Hollywood after this film. His credits included Outbreak and
The NeverEnding Story .

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Lady in White (1988)

A recent visit to a thrift store in Alberta paid off for this film fan.

While visiting my brother, I found The Lady in White in a stack of VHS movies for 50 cents.

I watched this film when it was released in 1988.

My memory is enjoying a spooky film that wasn't filled with blood and guts.

What would I think of this feature film, one of just a few directed by Frank LaLoggia, 27 years later?

Lady in White still stands up fairly well, due largely to the fine work by Lukas Haas as lead character Frankie.

This young lad, locked in his class cloakroom as a prank, sees the ghost of a girl who was murdered a decade ago.

Her spirit is not at rest, until she can be reunited with her mother who killed herself after her death.

Frankie has a clue, a ring he found in a furnace duct he thinks can be tied to the murderer.

There's a few gaping moments in reality in this film. Unfortunately this is one. Why would the suspect wait so many years for a chance to retrieve a key piece of evidence? Were the investigators too dense to search the area at the time for clues?

What's also disappointing about this mystery is just how easy it is to figure out who the killer is. I don't remember much about this film after 27 years, but quickly picked out the killer. I'm usually pretty slow in this department.

A silly subplot about Frankie's grandparents - grandpa wants to smoke, grandma wants him to butt out - keeps reappearing. It's silly and not very funny.

What is creepy about Lady in White is the depiction of a child killer, a rare sight on screen these days. There's a good use of Bing Crosby's take on the Harry Revel and Mack Gordon song, Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?, sung by the dead child, Melissa (Joelle Jacobi).

The use of what appears to be a faux forest and liberal use of a dry ice machine are distracting. The film's finale drags on too long. We get not one, but two false deaths.

Lady in White touches lightly on racial discrimination in the United States in the 1960s, but this too is largely a wasted subplot.

The cast also includes Len Cariou (Thirteen Days ), Katherine Helmond (Cars) and Renata Vanni (Three Coins in the Fountain )

I'm glad I finally found Lady in White. It's pretty expensive to find a copy online. It's good to see creepy efforts, without explicit violence, but Lady in White is marred by numerous weaknesses. Too bad, but great work Lukas Haas.

RATING: 7/10

FUN FACTS: Bruno Kirby appears as a cab driver.

Hey, that's Lucy Lee Flippin as Frankie's teacher. She was Eliza Jane Wilder on television's Little House on the Prairie.

Jared Rushton, the up-to-no-good classmate of Frankie's, was Billy in Big with Tom Hanks.

Lady in White is the only film appearance by Melissa Anne Montgomery. She later appeared in two television movies. That's it.

Has anyone seen the director's cut? I'd be curious to know what's different.

Cheapest copy on Amazon as of this writing in March 2015 - $16.83 US.