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Crazy, Crazier, Craziest, 22 October 2014
5/10

Greetings again from the darkness. A surefire indication that a movie is a must-see for me are the words "based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe" ... no matter how loosely. Then, set the film in a creepy turn of the 20th century insane asylum, and cast Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine and Brendan Gleeson, and consider me exceptionally excited.

From the opening moments, there is a certain nostalgic or throwback feel.It recalls the "B" movie feel of so many from the 40's and 50's that I grew up watching on late night TV. Imagining the production in Black & White rather than color, and picturing Vincent Price as one of the leads, probably give this one more credit than it earns. Despite the stellar cast - also featuring Kate Beckinsale, Jim Sturgess, David Thewlis, and Sinead Cusack - it doesn't manage to generate any real suspense or feeling of danger.

Director Brad Anderson works mostly in television, but has kicked out some films of interest along the way. These include Session 9, Transsiberian, The Call, and especially The Machinist. Here, he has an exceptionally deep and talented cast, yet manages to waste Mr. Caine and Mr. Gleeson with minor roles. Even Ms. Beckinsale is treated as simple eye candy with a stunning wardrobe that defies logic, given the circumstances.

Three characters that deliver some fun are Sophie Kennedy Clark as Millie (the nurse), David Thewlis as the comically named Mickey Finn, and of course Sir Ben Kingsley as Silas Lamb. Kingsley is one of the few actors who can walk the fine line between elegance and madness, and leave us wondering (even if we really know). He thrives on scenery-chewing roles and this one definitely qualifies.

The script avoids any real insight or statement on the cruel treatment of the mentally afflicted from the pre-psychoanalysis days brought on shortly thereafter by Freud. Allowing the inmates to run the asylum does make it clear that insanity comes in many forms with differing degrees. In fact, I would challenge viewers to name one truly sane person in this film. Loosely based on Poe's short story "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether", what the film lacks in tension and terror, it makes up for in production design and nostalgia.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Shelter from the Storm, 19 October 2014
6/10

Greetings again from the darkness. Moments after Bill Murray's Vincent cracks a rare on screen "Chico and the Man" reference, we get our first glimpse of scrawny Oliver (newcomer Jaeden Lieberher), and we immediately know where this story is headed. The fact that we never lose interest is thanks to Mr. Murray, the rest of the cast and writer/director Theodore Melfi (his first feature film).

Though this is ultra-predictable and even strains credulity, we nonetheless connect to Murray's Vincent - a grumpy, drunken, slobby, chain-smoker who has a bond with a pregnant Russian prostitute/stripper. Melissa McCarthy plays Oliver's mom Maggie, who has separated from her philandering husband, and is intent on making a life for her son. It's here where it should be noted that Ms. McCarthy plays the role mostly straight - none of her usual funny-fat moments. Instead, she excels in a scene with an emotional dump on Oliver's principal and teacher (a standout Chris O'Dowd).

Surprisingly, this could even be described as a message movie. Vincent quickly notices that Oliver is lacking street smarts and sets out to correct this. The story reminds us that all people are multi-faceted. The good have their rough edges, and the "bad" likely have a back-story and some redeeming value. Vincent is so cantankerous that it takes a kid as appealing as Oliver to balance the story. Even knowing a feel good ending is coming, we as viewers don't mind being dragged through the sap.

Murray is outstanding, and if the script had a bit more heft, he would probably garner some Oscar consideration. McCarthy deserves notice for going against type, and Naomi Watts flashes some real comedic timing (maybe the biggest surprise of all). O'Dowd has some of the best one-liners in the film, and shows again that he is immensely talented. Terrence Howard seems a bit out of place as a loan shark, but he has limited screen time, as does Ann Dowd as the nursing home director.

Prepare for the feel-bad-then-good ride, culminating in a school auditorium event that reunites the key characters, and allows the child actor to draw a tear or two from the audience. Good times that end with classic Murray over the closing credits.

Fury (2014)
2 out of 9 people found the following review useful:
Killin' Nazis, 18 October 2014
6/10

Greetings again from the darkness. When a filmmaker takes on WWII, he better have something new to say or a new way to show it. Director David Ayer (highly recommend his End of Watch, 2012) literally takes us inside a Sherman tank with its crew of 5 men, including their leader played by Brad Pitt.

Having the tank as a centerpiece brings a level of claustrophobia to the treacherous German war front. The battle scenes are excruciatingly tense, and actually beautifully filmed. This may seem an odd description for a war movie, but bouncing from inside the tank to the German countryside is done with such style that it provides contrast to the brutality and violence of war.

Pitt's crew is made up of Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena and Jon Bernthal (especially good). They are forced to take on a rookie with no tank training ... but he can type 60 words per minute. Logan Lerman plays the rookie and he brings the natural sensitivity we've come to expect from his roles in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Noah. We buy off on the difficult transition since the others have fought campaigns together in Africa, Belgium and France.

What works here are the battle sequences. What doesn't really work are the numerous moments of personal drama injected to help us understand how war can change a man ... no matter how hard he tries to hold on to his humanity. The sequence with the two German women, a piano and fried eggs seems especially drawn out and unbelievable. We understand the point pretty quickly, but the extended sequence becomes quite awkward.

The most interesting question the movie asks is whether a soldier can be so disgusted and sick of war, yet somehow addicted to the action. Mr. Ayers previously wrote U-571 (2000), so he is clearly interested in the mentality of soldiers in a claustrophobic setting. More of this approach would have been welcome here.

Pump (2014)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
No Will, No Way, 15 October 2014
7/10

Greetings again from the darkness. Documentaries with a message are usually most effective when they engage in debate ... share both sides of the argument, if you will. Preaching from a soapbox typically causes the viewer to tune out, and the opportunity is missed. The one exception to this is when the stance is heavily supported with history, facts, data, research and pertinent interviews. Husband and wife co-directors Joshua Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell deliver what amounts to a visual thesis on how to break the big oil monopoly.

Beginning with a colorful montage of beautiful and colorful automobiles, we are quickly reminded of Americans love of their cars which leads to the addiction to oil. The next 90 minutes provides a trek through the key historical events that led to our oil dependency, and ends with a proposal on how to stop it.

The history lesson discusses John D Rockefeller and his Standard Oil monopoly, followed by his political influence to get Prohibition passed. This after Henry Ford called alcohol "the perfect fuel". We then learn of how large companies drove out the trolley system in favor of an interstate freeway system for cars. We re-live the 1973 gas shortage as the Arab countries flexed - or extorted, depending on your take. Jumping to 2008, the surge in oil prices to $147 per barrel is described as the economic earthquake, with the Stock Market crash termed an aftershock. In other words, oil is the foundation of our economy. Today's global market is discussed along with the exponential growth of China's car industry - 15 million cars sold this year. This time-line with specific data leads to the impressive second half of the film ... how to get ourselves out of this mess.

For those who say it's foolish to discuss breaking our dependency on oil because it is used in so many other ways, they are missing the point. The cause is less oil dependency for cars, not a total break from it's use in products such as medicines, clothes, plastics, etc. The filmmakers offer the options of both electric cars and alternative fuel sources.

Elon Musk's Tesla Motors is briefly discussed, with the acknowledgment that battery technology improvement is vital to the future success of electric cars. A more immediate solution comes in the form of alternative fuels - ethanol and methanol. We see the exceptional strides Brazil has made with strong leadership. We see how our current vehicles already have the capability to run on these biofuels, if not for a simple software adjustment built-in by auto-makers. Nine million flex fuel cars on the road now, and many of these owners remain unaware of their options. Why? Because fueling stations are so tough to come by, as only the most independent of stations are not contractually obligated to big oil companies.

The film is exceptionally well researched and the data delivered in an easy to understand format. The Tickell team won the Sundance award for the 2008 documentary Fuel, and their message is even stronger this time out. By the way, Ms. Tickell is a former child actress known as Sam Elliot's daughter in the 1989 Christmas classic Prancer. She and her husband are now renowned environmental activists, and this project is really a call to action ... the choices are available NOW to break the oil monopoly.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Paratrooper Motto, 14 October 2014
6/10

Greetings again from the darkness. By definition, documentaries tell us the story of something that has already happened. The best ones expose a great story, and it usually boils down to how interesting we find the subject. The Canadian Punk duo Death From Above 1979 has a history that is both entertaining and a bit unusual - even within the music industry.

Between 2001 and 2005, the band performed 546 live shows around the world. And then it was over. Bandmates Sebastien Grainger (drums and vocals) and Jesse F Keeler (bass, keyboard, backing vocals) melded their creative flow into an incredibly energetic live experience. They were in perfect sync onstage, and audiences responded.

Filmmaker Eva Michon (Grainger's wife) provides us with interviews from music executives, members of other rock bands, and especially Grainger and Keeler. We learn of their influence, and also witness their conflicting insecurities and musical confidence.

Their first full album "You're a Woman, I'm a Machine" sold 100,000 units in 2004, but the follow-up "The Physical World" wouldn't be released for a decade. The reason for the delay is the crux of this band's story ... they broke up! It seems clear the two band members grew apart creatively, causing a crack in the friendship. They quit speaking, even while on tour. In 2005, they were opening for Nine Inch Nails at Madison Square Garden, and a few weeks later they went their own separate ways.

Grainger finally reached out to Keeler in 2011, and the band reunited with an invitation to play famed music festival Coachella. A surprise show at SXSW in Austin was shut down by the cops after the crowd spun out of control. The video here is the best we see, and certainly more exciting than the actual footage from Coachella.

The reunion just doesn't play well on screen, and it robs the film of it's core moment. The interviews are insightful and the photos and early footage are excellent. All that's lacking is a wow moment. Still, fans of the band will be all over this, while those unfamiliar will find it interesting enough.

3 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
National Security and Crack Cocaine, 12 October 2014
6/10

Greetings again from the darkness. This is one of those true stories that probably works better as a drama than as a documentary. Jeremy Renner brings passion and believability to his role as infamous journalist Gary Webb. This allows us to gain insight into Mr. Webb as a father, husband and man, rather than only as a fiery investigative reporter.

You likely recall Webb's published story from 1996, when his research uncovered the likelihood that cocaine imported into the US was being sold as crack cocaine and the profits were going towards funding arms for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. The kicker being that the CIA was well aware of these activities.

The film presents Webb as an idealist, too naive to comprehend that the story would have ramifications to his employer, his family and his self. The use of actual news footage adds a dose of reality, as does the mention of Ronald Reagan, Oliver North, John Kerry ... and even the role Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky played in outshining the ultimate acknowledgment of Webb's work.

The underlying message here ... beyond the governmental cover-up ... is the lack of a true free press. Of course, this issue remains front and center today, but in this particular instance, it's surprising to see the influence and pressure applied by outside forces. It's further proof that any hope for checks and balances from our news outlets was snuffed out many years ago.

The movie is based on two books: Gary Webb's own "Dark Alliance" and Nick Shou's "Kill the Messenger". The frustration as a viewer is derived from the fragmented presentation brought on by steady stream of new characters who mostly only appear in one or maybe two scenes. The list of known actors is impressive: Rosemary DeWitt, Oliver Platt, Robert Patrick, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael Sheen, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Paz Vega, Barry Pepper, Michael Kenneth Williams, Andy Garcia, Gil Bellows, Lucas Hedges, Richard Schiff, and Ray Liotta. That should help explain what I mean by fragmented.

The story is an important one and the film is worth seeing. It's impossible to not think of All the President's Men while watching. The Grandaddy of crusading journalism continues to produce heirs ... even those that are a black eye for the newspaper industry and our government.

The Judge (2014)
1 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
Hooker in a Hot Tub, 11 October 2014
6/10

Greetings again from the darkness. It's hard to beat a good on screen courtroom drama for tension and conflict. Despite centering around a long time judge accused of manslaughter and being defended by his estranged son, a hotshot defense attorney, this one eschews courtroom action in favor of uncomfortable and explosive family dynamics. And thanks to the acting abilities of Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr, that's a good thing.

Mr. Downey's Iron Man/Tony Stark character has ingrained in movie goers his motor-mouthed smart-aleck persona that fits very well with the lacking-a-conscience defense attorney who only defends the type of white collar criminals who can afford his unmatched courtroom savvy. When Hank (Downey) returns home for the funeral of his mother, we quickly witness the lack of relationship with his demanding-perfection father (Duvall), and the historical details slow-drip for the next couple of hours.

Hank's older brother (Vincent D'Onofrio) was once a promising baseball player whose career was cut short after an automobile accident. Hank's younger brother (Jeremy Strong, who played Lee Harvey Oswald in Parkland) is a mentally handicapped young man attached to his video camera. Hank also (of course) runs into his high school sweetheart (Vera Farmiga) and her daughter (Leighton Meester), as a reminder of what he left behind in his quaint hometown when he chose fortune and big city life.

John Grisham has made a career, actually two (books and movies) about lawyers and courtrooms. As you might imagine, director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers, Fred Claus) doesn't have Grisham's eye and ear for the courtroom, so the script slips into manipulative melodrama during the trial (think Grisham-lite). But the scenes between Duvall and Downey more than make up for the fluffy parts. The kitchen confrontation and the bathroom sequence couldn't be any more different, or any more powerful. One is the exorcism of a parent-child relationship gone bad, and the other is a vivid depiction of old age and disease.

This is old-fashioned mainstream movie-making. It's about relationships and family and personality and life choices. There are no explosions or CGI or car chases. Even the key crime isn't shown. It's also not breaking any new ground, and if not for the acting, could be just another TV movie. A perfect example is Vera Farmiga, who brings an edge to a role that otherwise would be superfluous. Same with Hank's brothers. Both roles are severely underwritten, but D'Onofrio and Strong somehow make them work. Billy Bob Thornton brings an element to an otherwise not-believable role as a slick special prosecutor wearing $1000 suits. Even Dax Sheperd plays his comic relief country attorney in an understated (for him) manner.

Other support work is provided by Ken Howard as the judge, Emma Trembley (Hank's daughter), Balthazar Getty as the deputy with a grudge, Grace Zabriske as the victim's vengeance seeking mother, David Krumholtz as a District Attorney, and Denis O'Hare as Duvall's doctor.

In better hands, the script could have become much sharper and the film much crisper. Prepare for cheese and schmaltz, but it's difficult to imagine more fun than watching Duvall and Downey square off. If you stay for closing credits, you'll hear Willie Nelson wobbly warble through a Coldplay song.

Gone Girl (2014)
1 out of 19 people found the following review useful:
Trust Me in the Morning, 5 October 2014
7/10

Greetings again from the darkness. One of the benefits of seeing so many movies is the ability to readily ascertain whether the appeal is to specific movie-goers (teens, romantics, et al), to mass audiences, or perhaps only to film critics and cinephiles. The downside is that when one of the rare mass appeal thrillers hits theatres, my enjoyment of the twists and surprises tends to suffer. Such is the case with director David Fincher's version of Gillian Flynn's best-selling novel.

Whether or not you are a devotee of Ms. Flynn's novel, you are likely to find guilty pleasure in this pulpy, neo-noir thriller featuring Ben Affleck as the man who may or may not have killed his missing wife (Rosamund Pike). This is less "whodunit" and more "did he do it?". When Nick (Affleck) returns home to discover his wife (Pike) is missing, we hear Amy's voice guiding us through her journal as we go from blossoming romance to crumbling marriage. Nick's perspective is derived from his work with the detectives (Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit).

This story-telling structure is beautifully executed, and when combined with director Fincher's fascination with the dark side of people (The Social Network, Zodiac, Se7en, Fight Club), and the terrific camera work and lighting elevate this from a technical filmmaking standpoint. Watch how Fincher uses lighting and shadows to change the tone of the film as the noose tightens on Affleck's character.

Much has been made of the performances of Affleck and Pike, so I'd prefer to focus on a couple of others. Carrie Coon steals every scene as Nick's twin sister Margot. She is the moral compass of the film, and gives the absolute best performance. Kim Dickens provides the necessary screen presence and wry humor to prevent the stereotypical detective role from emerging. This is a real person working a complicated case. Also of note, is Missi Pyle's obnoxious Nancy Grace style TV reporter clearly attempting to build ratings by guiding the sheep. Lastly, and most surprising, Tyler Perry's slick and slimy headline-grabbing defense attorney provides a punch when the film needs it.

The second half of the film transitions from mystery to anatomy of a scheme, and features one of the most brutal and bloody on screen murders you will ever see. It also provides more excellent support work from Lola Kirke and Brad Holbrook as a couple of trailer park opportunists, and Scoot McNairy and Neil Patrick Harris (against type) as Amy's former lovers.

The wicked fun in this movie is derived mostly from the misdirection and personalities of Nick and Amy. It's nice to see a female lead character with some real scene-chewing, even though I believe many actresses would have been better picks. When I hear talk that it could be best movie of the year, I certainly hope that's off base. This one is at the level of other mainstream thrillers as Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, and it's not difficult to imagine Michael Douglas in the lead, were this 1988. Adding to the fun is the satire and social commentary ... especially on the current trend of media speculation. So enjoy the twists and ask yourself just how much you really know about your spouse.

Where's Hector?, 5 October 2014
4/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Greetings again from the darkness. Don't you feel sorry for the smart, rich doctor with the beautiful and successful wife, luxury apartment and appointment book full of patients, one whom he loudly humiliates for her feelings? We just want Hector to be happy. Or do we? Personally, I didn't give a rip about Hector.

Based on the novel by Francois Lelord, the movie stars Simon Pegg as Hector, a psychiatrist bored with the every day rituals he has set up for himself. A rare two minutes of soul-searching leads Hector to pause his life and embark on a mission to discover the true meaning of happiness. See, Hector believes he can no longer help his patients until he helps himself. My take is that Hector can't help his patients because he isn't even trying ... he is a narcissist and a jerk who can't appreciate the moments that make life grand. My disgust towards people like Hector made his journey much less entertaining and enlightening for me than if the character were someone I cared for.

If all that weren't bad enough, the first person Hector meets on his trip is an obnoxious business man (Stellan Skarsgard) whose key feature is that he is much richer than Hector. The two grown men tour Shanghai and the night is capped with the gift of a prostitute with a heart. This is no spoiler because Hector is the only one who doesn't know she is a prostitute. After this, he hangs out with Tibetan monks and sets up their Skype (of course he does).

Along the way, Hector's OCD traits cause him to maintain a journal filled with self-help one-liners and funny drawings of his sights. His spontaneous travel itinerary and endless budget take him next to "Africa" - quotations for the generic and clichéd approach the film provides. When Hector is imprisoned by rebels, there was glimmer of hope for the movie, but soon enough, a previous favor for a drug lord (Jean Reno) pays dividends.

Somehow the movie has less insight than the similarly themed EAT PRAY LOVE, and certainly less creativity than The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Hector's approach even blatantly borrows from the "Tintin" stories, and makes no apology for doing so. The only moment with any emotional depth comes when Toni Collette lashes out with armchair psychology and tells Hector exactly what he is.

Despite all of the short-comings, I will always pay admission if a movie includes a 3 minute monologue from the great Christopher Plummer, an especially welcome sight here. Simon Pegg, though an incredibly gifted comic actor, is over the top miscast here. His persona is distracting to the point that we never once believe he could be a psychiatrist or that Rosamund Pike would find him appealing. But the single biggest obstacle is that an audience finds it difficult to root for a narcissistic protagonist who believes that there must be some magic potion for happiness ... maybe sweet potato stew.

0 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
The Fish gotta be the Fish, 28 September 2014
6/10

Greetings again from the darkness. While you are likely familiar with slapstick comedy, this latest from director Antoine Fuqua could be described as slapstick action. This fits because the implements of destruction include barbed wire, a power drill, a book (hardcover, of course), a nail gun, and even a corkscrew. Such an unusual assortment takes a bit of edge off the the extremely graphic violence. If the kills weren't so gruesome, we might be tempted to chuckle.

Writer Richard Wenk adapts the story from the terrific TV series which ran from 1985-89. It starred the late, great Edward Woodward as a classy, sophisticated guy who believed in justice for those who needed help against the odds. For the movie, Denzel Washington takes over for Mr. Woodward as Robert "Bob" McCall ... the seemingly normal guy with extraordinary skills used to balance the scales.

McCall lives a quiet life with OCD tendencies. He is a friendly guy liked by his co-workers at the home improvement box store (imagine Clark Kent working at Home Depot), and even mentors an overweight hispanic young man in his quest to pass the security guard test. McCall is also an insomniac who hangs out after hours reading Hemingway at a local diner, passing along words of hope and wisdom to an underage prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz). None of these people have any idea of McCall's previous career with "the company". Our only glimpse of this is a quick visit to the home of characters from his past, played by Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman.

Our villains here are the Russian mob, and it's tough to beat that accent for a juicy villain. David Meunier (Johnny Crowder of "Justified" fame) is our first goon, followed up by the slick and menacing Marton Csokas (The Debt) who has an impressive resume of his own. It would have been interesting to have more screen time together for Csokas and Denzel, but we understand why that's not practical.

Similar to the Bourne movies, the good guy always seems to be a step ahead of the bad, but that has little impact on our ability to find fun in the action. Director Fuqua provides four or five really stylistic shots (including super slo-mo), but also relies on Michael Bay-splosions for one laughable scene at the loading docks. Another missed opportunity is the score. We are slammed with a thumping bass line through much of the movie, rather than utilizing the Stuart Copeland theme from the TV series. Expect McCall to arrange the flatware just so, and continue to dish out justice in at least one sequel.


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