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Heathers (1988)
After "The Breakfast Club" and John Hughes, and before "Clueless" and "Mean Girls," there was "Heathers", 12 September 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

- "The extreme always seems to make an impression."

^ How very true.

In the post-Columbine, post-grunge rock era of 2016, I'm actually quite certain that a film like this could not be made in today's time. The 1988 black comedy "Heathers" (which was released theatrically one year later in 1989) is by far one of the funniest, most vicious satires ever made. I just turned 31 today, and decided to watch the film again as a birthday treat to myself; I first came across "Heathers" when I was in high school, and I remember thinking at the time that it was one of the strangest teen comedies I had ever come across in my life. It was unlike any teen film I'd seen before it. Back then, I did not fully understand the purpose of satire or possess a full grasp of the meaning behind "black comedy" - but I do now.

In other words, I love satire, and "Heathers" has plenty of it (and much, much more).

"Heathers" came out at the tail-end of the '80s, after nearly a full decade of the likes of the late John Hughes (1950-2009), his imitators, and stupid teen gross-out/sex comedies; Cameron Crowe's "Say Anything..." (1989) would finish out the '80s on a good note. But, put simply, the decade was a wasteland of teen comedies; Hughes obviously made the best - and sappiest - of them all. But between "The Breakfast Club" (1985) and "Say Anything...", there was "Heathers."

"Heathers" has its origins in the mind of its screenwriter, Daniel Waters, a former video-store clerk - much like a certain hip indie director who would gain fame in 1992 and who went by the name of Quentin Tarantino - who had written a massive 200-page screenplay that he wanted Stanley Kubrick to direct. Wishful thinking at its best, perhaps, but the then-26-year-old Waters had caught on to something with his script: it was excessive, it was cynical and subversive, it was outrageous (and sure to generate plenty of controversy upon its theatrical release), it didn't take itself all that seriously, it mocked teen conventions (including the hope and idealism that often drives youth-centered social movements), and it was simply unlike anything else that was out there at the time.

Hollywood usually runs away from scripts like this; "Heathers" is very much the definition of a pitch-black comedy that manages to elicit laughs one moment, and then audience members will be kicking themselves the next for doing so. Much like later teen comedies produced in the '90s and 2000s - like "Clueless" (1995) and "Mean Girls" (2004) - and typically centered around teenage girls, the film, in its own unique hipness, invents its own lingo, culture, and style that was bound to be followed by its many like-minded imitators over the next two decades.

Directed by Micheal Lehmann in his directorial debut, "Heathers" centers around a clique of four very wealthy, very popular high school girls at the fictional Westerburg High School in Sherwood, Ohio; all are named Heather - their cruel, vicious leader/"queen bee" Heather Chandler (Kim Walker); the stylish but weak-willed cheerleader Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk); and the bookish follower Heather Duke (Shannon Doherty). There is a fourth "Heather," except that her name is actually Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder, also the story's narrator). Veronica was somehow plucked from relatively obscurity and joined their ranks, and she loathes every minute of it. Sick of her "best friend" Heather Chandler's cruelty to their classmates, she's looking for a way out and fortunately - or unfortunately? - she finds her savior in the newly transplanted, self-styled rebel-with-a-cause Jason "J.D." Dean (the always-cocky Christian Slater, whose character's name is quite possibly a reference to Hollywood icon James Dean, or the late author J.D. Salinger).

From there, Veronica and J.D. carry on something resembling a fling, but get way in over their heads when a prank they play on Heather Chandler goes terribly awry and results in her death - thereby turning her into a martyr of sorts - J.D. conspires to up the ante by launching his own personal crusade against the school's popular elites. Veronica, meanwhile, has to find a way to stop him before it's too late.

If Molly Ringwald was the "teen queen" of the '80s, then Winona Ryder represented the darker underbelly of teen angst; I remember the first time I saw her in "Beetlejuice" (1988) and she probably became my first celebrity crush. I loved her character here and the growing realization of just how far her actions have gone as she also begins to realize how sick and deranged J.D. truly is, and her desperate attempts to try to stop him. I also loved Slater's portrayal of J.D., a self-styled outsider who also hides a dark sociopathy and would arguably become the archetype for troubled teenage outsiders and loners everywhere in the '90s and early 21st century.

"Heathers" is a film that satirizes - viciously so - teen suicide, murder, bullying, cliques, and youth-centered/-driven social activism; but while it treats its subject matter with (dark) humor, it does so with a certain degree of maturity and morality - maybe even a detached sensitivity - that can be very easy to miss by some people. Regardless, in the post-Columbine world of 2016, a film like this simply could not be made in today's time, because it would be considered to be in "bad taste." But "Heathers" is a movie that was made for teenagers. In the words of producer Denise Di Novi, "(Teenagers) see in it what they hate about high school - the tyranny of social groups... They get very clearly that these are their dark fantasies." And that's what "Heathers" is, a black comedy/high school satire that plays out as the perfect realization of their darkest fantasies about the high school experience.

^ In that regard, The Extreme Always Does Seem To Make An Impression.


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"Angie Tribeca" - It's quite amusing, though it's certainly not for everyone..., 6 September 2016

"Angie Tribeca" is a show that I first heard about sometime late last year, and earlier this year I picked up the first-season DVD on a blind buy and after watching it, I find that the show is indeed quite funny and has a quick wit about it - but its humor is certainly not for everyone. But what else do you expect from series creators Steve Carell and his wife Nancy Walls Carell?

Perhaps what initially sparked my interest in "Angie Tribeca" was the fact that it was going to star the delightfully quirky and brilliant Rashida Jones, who, like the show, has a quick wit about her and is a joy to watch anything she's in. (On a personal note, I have to admit that I've had a long-time crush on her, ever since I first saw her a few years ago as Ann Perkins on the now-defunct "Parks and Recreation," as well as in the 2012 romantic comedy "Celeste & Jesse Forever.")

The same comic talents and sharp wit that served Jones so well on "Parks and Recreation" is put to excellent use once again on "Angie Tribeca," the latest bold-faced parody of police procedural cop TV shows and movies, like "Police Squad!" and its "Naked Gun" big-screen counterparts, but seems to take particular delight in mocking more modern TV shows like "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and, especially, "CSI: Miami."

In "Angie Tribeca," Jones plays the titular Angie Tribeca, the dedicated lead detective in the Los Angeles Police Department's "Really Heinous Crimes Unit" (RHCU). She's a brilliant, no-nonsense detective, and Jones is a joy to watch as her character chews up scenery with confidence and deadpan delivery. In the first episode, she's partnered up with Jay Geils (Hayes MacArthur, "J. Geils," get it?) and the two at first don't like each other, but over time they gradually develop a mutual respect.

The other actors playing Tribeca's hilariously incompetent co-workers are acutely aware of the ridiculousness of the whole premise and simply run with it with characteristic straight-faced commitment. There's their hard-nosed superior, Lieutenant Pritikin "Chet" Atkins (Jere Burns), fellow detective Daniel "DJ" Tanner (Deon Coles) and his K9 partner Hoffman, and medical examiner Dr. Monica Scholls (Andree Vermeulen, as "Dr. Scholls," get it?). And Alfred Molina shows up - un-credited, for some reason - in each episode as Dr. Edelweiss, the brilliant chief medical examiner, and who usually shows up with some kind of humorous gag going on. (Just so you know, all the characters on "Angie Tribeca" have ridiculous names that are puns, in-jokes, or references to other characters past and present in pop culture.)

The humor in "Angie Tribeca" isn't for everyone, obviously. Some may find it stupid and juvenile (which is the whole point), and may prefer something that edges closer to satire than out-right parody. I fall into the former, since I did not know going in that "Angie Tribeca" was a straight parody, rather than a police comedy. And usually this brand of comedy and humor does not appeal to me BECAUSE it's so stupid and juvenile, but I took a chance, anyway, and opened myself up to it. And you know what? This show is pretty gosh-darn funny, if you give it the chance.

And "Angie Tribeca" is littered with cameos from Hollywood celebrities/comedy all stars past and present, like Gary Cole ("Office Space"), comedian Jeff Dunham, James Franco, Keegan-Michael Key (of "Key and Peele"), David Koechner, Lisa Kudrow ("Friends"), Bill Murray, Adam Scott (from "Parks and Recreation"), Gene Simmons (of K.I.S.S.), Slash (former lead guitarist for Guns N' Roses and Velvet Revolver), Amy Smart, Danny Trejo, and even - yes, even! - Rashida Jones's real-life parents Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton appear as Angie's parents in this series, too.

"Angie Tribeca" has apparently just concluded its second season, with a third season ordered for next year. Let's see if Steve and Nancy Carell, and the darling Rashida Jones, can keep it going up until then.


Creed (2015)
"Creed" - Passing the torch, 4 September 2016

2015's Ryan Coogler-directed "Creed" is a worthy successor to the legendary "Rocky" sports-drama film series. Like the overall message of the film, it's competently acted and directed well enough that it will surely build its own legacy in time. (I just found out that a sequel is already tentatively set for next year, in the Fall of 2017.)

I had remember hearing a few years after the release of "Rocky Balboa" (2006) that a sequel was in the works, and it turned out the next "Rocky" film would not only be a sequel, but a spin-off, of that legendary film franchise.

"Creed" centers around Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of famed boxer Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), who was killed in a boxing match by Soviet fighter Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) in "Rocky IV" (1985). Adonis never knew his legendary father, and had lived much of his early life not knowing of the great legacy - and potential greatness - that awaited him. He learns of his legacy when Creed's widow Mary Ann Creed (Phylicia Rashad) gets him released from a juvenile detention center when he's a young teenager.

Years later as an adult and talented underground fighter, he then figures that he's ready for his shot at the title. So he quits his job in Los Angeles and heads to Philadelphia to track down his father's rival-turned-close friend Rocky Balboa (Best Supporting Actor-nominee Sylvester Stallone, who rightfully hands over the porch to his much-younger co-star). The aging Balboa is long past his glory days in the ring and has outlived both his wife Adrian (Talia Shire) and best friend Paulie (Burt Young), but reluctantly agrees to train the young Adonis for a title shot against the current undefeated champion, "Pretty" Ricky Conlan (real-life boxer Tony Bellew), an English boxer who stands at 36-0 and has a number of significant physical advantages over the younger Creed.

"Creed" is an excellent film, no question about it. It's a film that got a lot of praise, but was significantly overlooked by the Academy Awards, in my opinion, but let's not get into that. The film is stunningly well-acted and directed. Michael B. Jordan may have just found his signature role in this film. His star has been steadily rising over the years and this may be the film to carry him over the top. He obviously put in a lot of work to get himself into top physical fighting form to be able to carry this film and it shows - he does not disappoint. He knew he that, just like his character in the film, he had a phenomenal legacy to live up to, and he does. His training scenes with Stallone are reminiscent of the training scenes between Stallone and the late Burgess Meredith in the earlier "Rocky" series; and there's also a great supporting character in Johnson's love interest, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a talented nightclub singer who's progressively losing her hearing.

Ryan Coogler - who first broke out on the movie scene with "Fruitvale Station" (2013), which Jordan also starred in, and who also co-wrote the screenplay to "Creed" with Aaron Covington (while sharing a sole story credit) - is another rising star in Hollywood. He certainly has the makings of a young director with a bright future ahead of him; if anyone was to make a movie centering around the character of Apollo Creed (or, more specifically, his descendants), than Coogler was certainly the right choice for the job.

It would be unfair to chide this film for repeating many of the same plot devices that made "Rocky" (1976) such a brilliant underdog story 40 years ago, and whose influence in popular culture is still being felt to this day. That is why we now have "Creed" to carry on the torch.


A cult classic of early '80s adult animation, though it's clearly not for everybody, 29 August 2016

The 1981 Ivan Reitman-/Leonard Mogel-produced, Gerald Potterton-directed "Heavy Metal" is a pure guilty pleasure. Its hard rock/heavy metal soundtrack notwithstanding, it's very much a product of its era, an early '80s adult animated flick that's clearly not for everyone.

The film is based on the French fantasy magazine "Metal Hurlant," which then became "Heavy Metal" when it was licensed in the United States, and specialized in science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories and art that was gratuitous in the areas of graphic violence and sexuality. The film "Heavy Metal" was perfect for its time - 1981 - which was right in the middle of the Hollywood craze for epic science fiction and fantasy stories in the wake of the popularity of "Star Wars" (1977).

"Heavy Metal" is adapted from stories originally published in "Heavy Metal" magazine, as well as original stories made up specifically for the film. Its screenplay was written by Dan Goldberg and Len Blum, and features eight stories set across time and space that were written by Richard Coben, Angus McKie, Dan O'Bannon (the scribe behind "Alien" in 1979), Thomas Warkentin, and Bernie Wrightson; one story was omitted from the film due to time constraints but has since been included as a special feature on VHS and DVD releases.

Events of the film center around Loc-Nar (voice of Percy Rodriguez), an evil green orb that terrorizes a young girl with eight sinister stories of good and evil.

Some of my favorite stories in "Heavy Metal" are:

- "Harry Canyon," where the title character, a cynical New York City cab driver in the year 2031, has a fare to remember when a beautiful young woman gets into his cab one day and she involves him in a lethal intergalactic conspiracy.

- "Den" is pure wish-fulfillment fantasy, where a nerdy 18-year-old is transported to another planet where he becomes a Herculean warrior who must save his dream girl.

- "B-17," a grim horror tale, scared me when I was a kid, and is about a B-17 bomber crew during World War II that is terrorized by zombies.

- "Taarna" is the most ambitious story in "Heavy Metal," and is a sci-fi/fantasy tale that features a beautiful warrior-woman who sets out to avenge her slain civilization. (This story more or less serves to counter the portrayal of women in this film as buxom sex-bombs - though the title character shows ample flesh here, anyway.)

"Heavy Metal," despite being animated, is clearly not for children, and gladly presses the limits of its "R" rating with its graphic violence, sexuality, and nudity; this is animation that was MADE to push boundaries, and satiate the fantasies of its adolescent male target audience. (Additionally, some of the animators had previously worked for Disney, but were glad to be free to draw figures - particularly women - the way they wanted. You obviously can't get that kind of creative freedom at a place like Disney.) But there is just so much here to love in a cheesy nostalgic way, and is a wonderful relic of a much darker, much more cynical time in our history.


P.S.: The soundtrack features music from Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Cheap Trick, Devo, Journey, Nazareth, Sammy Hagar, Steve Nicks and others, and is a perfect background noise to the madness and titillation on the screen.

P.S. #2: This last piece is a bit personal, but I thought that it was a huge omission on the part of the soundtrack staff for this movie to not include anything by Iron Maiden - my favorite heavy metal band. But this may have worked out for the better, since "Heavy Metal" was made in 1981 when they were still with their original lead singer Paul Di'Anno (and before they began recording their best material), who was replaced by the legendary Bruce Dickinson one year later in 1982. So, it's all good, really, but I felt I had to mention that here.

"Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust" (2000) review, 12 August 2016

I first got into Japanese animation (Anime') when I was a freshman in high school 16 years ago. During the summer of 2001, I got swept up in an Anime' binge. "Vampire Hunter D" (1985) and its sequel "Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust" (2000) were amongst some of the earliest Anime' features I ever watched.

"Vampire Hunter D" is a staple of my movie collection, but I haven't seen "Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust" in quite some time. I just got done watching it today. This film is routinely regarded as a superior sequel to the 1985 original, which was an Anime' adaptation of the Japanese sci-fi/horror novel series created by Hideyuki Kikuchi.

One of the reasons for the success - even if the film is uneven in some spots - of "Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust" is due to its director, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, who also directed the classic Anime' films "Ninja Scroll" (1993) (my favorite film from the man) and "Wicked City" (1987), the latter of which was also an adaptation of a work by Hideyuki Kikuchi (which I've also read). Kawajiri is a master Japanese animation craftsman, as well as being notorious in the Anime' industry for making films that were explicit both in terms of extreme violence and sexuality/nudity.

"Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust" has a lot of gory violence in it, but there's no sex in it whatsoever - showing that Kawajiri is exercising some restraint here. This film looks gorgeous, and has a sci-fi, neo-Gothic look and tone to it. Like the first film, the sequel "Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust" combines horror and science fiction with some elements of westerns and supernatural fantasy - though this actually becomes more apparent in this film than its 1985 predecessor.

The film series, like those of the books, is set in the not-too-distant future where supernatural beasts like werewolves, goblins, demons and of course, vampires, rule the land. Humans live in fear of what lurks outside their doors at night, but there's one who fears none of them: D, a half-man, half-vampire hunter known as a "dunpeal" ("dhampir" to the rest of us).

In this film, a beautiful young woman named Charlotte Elbourne is kidnapped from her bedroom one night by the extremely powerful nobleman bloodsucker Meier Link. Charlotte's family offers a massive bounty to bring her back at all costs - alive or dead. So D takes up the offer, but he's not working alone. The notorious Marcus Brothers - Borgoff, Kyle, Nolt, and two hangers-on including the psychic Groove and the orphaned Leila - are also out to collect the bounty, though circumstances force D and at the very least Leila to form an uneasy alliance to stop Link and rescue Charlotte.

This is a sumptuous, gorgeous-looking Gothic Anime' feature. I'm glad that the strong visuals - which remained etched in my mind since I first saw the movie back in high school - still hold up after all these years. In fact, I remember the visuals and some of the set designs as being the strongest visual element from this picture, and the one thing that I remembered most about it. (And upon my viewing today, I thought I realized a visual reference toward the end of the film to Elizabeth Bathory, the so-called "Blood Queen of Hungary.")

Though the film falters in some spots with regard to the action scenes and some of the characters, I still thoroughly enjoyed "Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust."


The Wind Rises, and yet the Sun sets on a master of animation..., 8 August 2016

2013's "The Wind Rises" is a magnificent piece of Japanese animation, or Anime' (for the uninitiated). In what may be one of the rare films of this type, "The Wind Rises" is a unique mix of biopic, historical drama, romance, and fantasy. It tells the story of an enthusiastic dreamer who is able to realize many of his life's greatest ambitions, but unfortunately lives to see his genius and the fruits of his labor later give way to a dawning nightmare.

Thankfully, although the film doesn't descend into pointless political arguments and finger-pointing and questioning the morality of its lead character, "The Wind Rises" does recognize that its central protagonist can feel the winds of change upon him and the moral conflict he will eventually find himself in.

"The Wind Rises" is, of course, the final film of legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki - who wrote and directed the film, which was partially inspired by the 1937 short story "The Wind Has Risen" by Tatsuo Hori and which Miyazaki then adapted into a Manga series - who retired from filmmaking in September of 2013. "The Wind Rises" didn't hit American shores until February of the following year; I had plans to see the film in the theaters, but I unfortunately never got the opportunity. Two years later, I finally got the chance to sit down and watch this fantastical masterpiece of Japanese Anime'.

The film is different from his past masterworks like "Spirited Away" (2001) (my personal favorite Miyazaki film ever), "Princess Mononoke" (1997) or his last film before this one, "Ponyo" (2008). While there is fantasy here, it's mixed in with Japanese history, which may turn away some young viewers and anyone still accustomed to his usual fantasy work. But it's still a brilliant exercise in animated storytelling.

And yet, despite its brilliance, this film did cause a controversy in its native Japan, due to its subject matter - the late Japanese aeronautical engineer Dr. Jiro Horikoshi (June 22, 1903-January 11, 1982), who, of course, was the man who designed and built the much-feared Mitsubishi A6M Zero attack fighter plane, which was used by Japanese kamikaze pilots in World War II. Miyazaki was attacked by the political Right AND Left in Japan for making a film that supposedly glorified war - which does not look good for a nation that is still dealing with the physical and psychological traumas of its wartime aggression and brutality against its enemies 71 years after that war's official conclusion - as well as negative comments he'd made about attempts to revise Japan's 1947 Allied-drafted, post-WWII pacifist constitution.

Miyazaki, of course, is an out-spoken pacifist who condemned his country's actions during World War II (even though Miyazaki was only four-years-old at the time of Japan's surrender in 1945). His film does not glorify war, but it does nonetheless take a very sympathetic view of a complex individual, one who was morally opposed to war and objected to his work being misused for such destructive purposes - as tools of war - but was ultimately powerless to do anything about the reckless and foolish, self-destructive actions of his government and military. But like I said earlier, Miyazaki's film is not a political statement, but a heartfelt portrait of a man striving to live his dreams and create art - which sort of mirrors the fact that "The Wind Rises" was a dream project of Miyazaki himself, who has been a warplane enthusiast since childhood and whose father's company made rudders for the Zero attack fighters during the war.

Idealistic and driven, Jiro Horikoshi (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the English-language version) just wants to design and build airplanes, since his nearsightedness dashes his dreams of ever becoming a pilot. With his close friend Hiro Konjo (voiced by John Krasinski), they set to work building planes to be used by the Japanese Imperial Navy. Jiro's life and work are inter-cut with dreams of his hero, Italian aeronautical engineer Count Giovanni Battista Caproni (voiced by Stanley Tucci), who states that he has never flown a plane in his life, but building them is much better than actually flying them. (Caproni also ominously states that his planes are being used by the military for war purposes, and that many of these planes and their pilots will never come back from their missions.)

Jiro's professional achievements are mirrored by the love and support of his one true love, Nahoko Satomi (voiced by Emily Blunt), whom he first meets in the aftermath of the great 1923 Kanto Earthquake, which devastated Japan and had a terrible effect on its already-struggling economy.

"The Wind Rises" is a fantastic animated film that treats its subject matter with dignity and respect. Like I stated earlier, the film never becomes political, but nonetheless it's filled with foreboding with major events in world history about to unfold. Even for me while watching it, the characters can see that a great change is coming just over the horizon, and for those of us that know world history, Miyazaki places a number of omens in "The Wind Rises" to show that in just a few short years a great and terrible calamity is about to befall the people of Japan (and the rest of the world, for that matter) - World War II.

If "The Wind Rises" truly is the last masterpiece of Hayao Miyazaki, I honestly cannot think of a greater send-off to a living legend. This had all the earmarks of the last work of a master filmmaker and animator - perhaps the ultimate culmination of over four decades of one critically acclaimed animated feature after another.


P.S.: The 1973 song "Hikoki-Gumo" by Yumi Arai, which is featured prominently in the film and theatrical trailer, is simply amazing!

- "All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful" - Dr. Jiro Horikoshi

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A lot of secrecy made it worth the wait, 22 July 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The best thing that can be said about the 2016 J.J. Abrams-produced, Dan Trachtenberg-directed "10 Cloverfield Lane," is that it keeps you guessing. Abrams has described the film as a "blood relative" to the 2008 Abrams-produced, Matt Reeves-directed found-footage monster movie "Cloverfield"; I thought that "Cloverfield" was one of the best, and most innovative, monster movies ever made, and I think its found-footage approach helped to give the film a perspective unique to giant monster movies.

Of course, the only things that "10 Cloverfield Lane" and "Cloverfield" really have in common is the shared name "Cloverfield," and the fact that J.J. Abrams served as a producer on both of the films. But unlike its predecessor, "10 Cloverfield Lane" was not the subject of a huge viral marketing campaign, and in fact very little was done for this film in the way of mass promotion beyond simple film trailers and advertisements and some random Internet chatter. This served to actually benefit the film, in that while "Cloverfield's" intentions became quite clear (both before the film was released, and during the course of the movie itself), "10 Cloverfield Lane" was shrouded in almost complete mystery from the get-go.

That's good, not bad.

The best thing that can be said about "10 Cloverfield Lane," a so-called follow-up to "Cloverfield" and the second in what appears to be a loosely connected anthology, is that the film keeps you guessing about what it's really about for three-fourths of the entire picture. This film is 104 minutes in length, and yet you don't know what's really going on until around 80 minutes in.

That's also very good, not bad.

"10 Cloverfield Lane" is an interesting mix of thriller and post-apocalyptic science fiction and horror. Like in "Cloverfield," the film begins in earnest fashion, opening without a single word of dialogue for about the first four or five minutes. We're introduced to Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who has just left her fiancé following an argument. While driving through the rural back-roads of New Orleans, she gets into a serious car accident when she's distracted by a phone call from her distraught fiancé Ben (voiced by Bradley Cooper, who never actually appears in the film).

She wakes up a time later, handcuffed to a bed in the underground bunker of a paranoid conspiracy theorist and survivalist named Howard (John Goodman). Also there is Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), the young man who helped Howard to build the bunker on & off over the years. Howard explains he rescued Michelle from the accident and allowed Emmett to stay after he forced his way into the bunker. Howard also explains their situation: the country, if not the rest of the world (he isn't sure, as he makes clear), has fallen under chemical or nuclear attack from forces unknown - it could be the Russians, the North Koreans, or it could be Martians. He just doesn't know, and neither do we. The three are forced to live together in his underground bunker if they are to survive - even as it becomes clear that Howard is not who he appears to be and that there is a lot more going on than he seems to be letting known to them.

"10 Cloverfield Lane" is certainly one of the more original sci-fi/thrillers in recent memory. Unlike "Cloverfield," this is a movie that is shot in a third-person narrative, rather than the first film's found-footage hand-held camera style. (At least when watching this film, you won't have to hear people's incessant complaints about the movie inducing vertigo in viewers.) This film is stunningly acted and executed, with John Goodman delivering the most effective performance (and one of his best acting performances ever) of the three leads. John Gallagher, Jr. is also quite sympathetic as Emmett, who is not as dim-witted as he seems and even once had a promising college athletic career ahead of him - but gave it up due to his myopic view of his life and environment. And Mary Elizabeth Winstead - who's no stranger to this genre ("Final Destination 3," "Black Christmas," "The Thing") - as the film's most significant female presence, is very resourceful and quick to think on her feet, which isn't bad since she explains that she often runs away when things get too tough (like after her argument with Ben). But still, she's no helpless screamer; she'll fight like hell and do anything to survive, which becomes clear as time goes along.

All three form an interesting dynamic that makes up the film's emotional core.

It would be unfair to really talk about this film's last 20 minutes, since that is the biggest surprise of all and what people will probably go to "10 Cloverfield Lane" wanting to see the most. The question of whether or not this film has a definitive connection to "Cloverfield" - without giving away any spoilers - also cannot be answered in this review. Trust me, I know. I tried asking the same question to friends who had seen the film already, and they told me what I'm telling anyone who reads anything written here. It's that simple. Sorry.

"10 Cloverfield Lane" was an excellent exercise in tension, atmosphere, and performances.

I wonder what J.J. Abrams has in store for us next in a few years in the "Cloverfield" franchise...


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Moore's great international odyssey, "Where to Invade Next", 15 July 2016

When I first heard that Michael Moore was doing a new movie - his last, "Capitalism: A Love Story," came out in 2009 and focused on the 2007-2008 financial meltdown - to be titled "Where to Invade Next," I thought it was going to be a critique of U.S. foreign policy; the film's not-so-subtle name certainly made it sound like it.

We were all wrong.

Moore's basic premise with this film - that the U.S. has seriously fallen behind in the world despite being A-#1 - goes abroad to Europe and North Africa to seek out new ideas to Make America Great Again. He journeys to Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, and Tunisia and finds some great ideas to bring back to the United States and make our own. But as Moore soon finds out, many of the great ideas put into play in these countries, were originally from the U.S.

Yes, the ideas of paid vacation and maternity leave, universal health-care, equal opportunities for women, treating prison inmates with dignity and respect, treatment for drug users instead of incarceration, workers' rights, no standardized testing, and free college - all concepts used to great effect by foreign nations - were originally ideas conceived here in the United States, for us, by us. So what happened? Moore doesn't dwell on why these ideas of free college or equal opportunities for women were first thought up by Americans but were never fully implemented, or were abolished completely. No, he's singularly concerned with re-appropriating these ideas, reclaiming them as our own, and putting them to work in the U.S.

I suspect personally that a combination of decades upon decades of propaganda, politics, the wealthy elite's control of the U.S. government, the media, and the arrogance, ignorance, and blind complacency amongst the American citizenry prevented these ideas from ever gaining any real traction here in the United States - even though our society can do much better with them. Many of the foreign citizens (and American expatriates) that Moore interviews in "Where to Invade Next" express dismay, bewilderment, disappointment, and - in one instance - out-right anger at the way America treats its citizens (and our acceptance of it without question), while they have it so much better in their countries. (Moore is quick to point out early on that these countries are not paradises on Earth and have their own problems, but in general the people are much happier and complacent with their lives.)

There are parts of "Where to Invade Next" that are down-right hilarious, but there are other segments that are also heartbreaking. For instance, when Moore stops over in Germany, he sees that the country's tumultuous World War II history - the rise of the Third Reich, the Holocaust - are not whitewashed, and that all German schoolchildren are aware of their history as to "Never Forget." (The United States, by comparison, barely ever mentions slavery and, I suspect, even deliberately tries to gloss over the less glamorous parts of our country's history - for whatever reason.) When Moore makes his way to Norway - which in 2011 had experienced the worst instance of mass murder in the country's history when white nationalist Anders Breivik killed 77 people, most of them children, in two separate acts of domestic terrorism - and interviews a man who lost his 17-year-old son in the massacre. The man is clearly grief-stricken and angry, but wishes no ill will upon Breivik, because he doesn't want to "lower himself down to his level."

In general, this movie was all-around brilliant. I was a little disappointed that Moore didn't go to other countries in South America or Asia, but I suppose this was done because he was unable to get the U.S. aircraft carrier he was reportedly hitching a ride on to get him to those countries. Either way, I'm sure we could have learned a lot, if not more, from countries in Asia and South America, too, just as well as Europe. Like many of Moore's past films, I was absorbed into his journey, and I honestly did not want it to end - especially "Where to Invade Next," which I enjoyed immensely. I thought there was so much more that he could acquire from other countries and bring them back to the United States for us to use. But I guess from a movie-making standpoint, that would have been too superfluous, which I understand, but still...

With "Where to Invade Next," Michael Moore has probably crafted his most mainstream feature to date - more so than "Capitalism: A Love Story" or "Fahrenheit 9/11" (2004) - and that's a good thing. (In fact, it's very, very good.) As I commented regarding "Capitalism: A Love Story," it shows that Moore is choosing subjects that affect everyone, rather than what equates to roughly half the American population (and his most ardent supporters). Moore is on-camera a lot in this picture - his past films beginning with "Fahrenheit 9/11" all the way up to "Capitalism: A Love Story" often had him off-camera and he let his subjects do most of the talking. Here, although he's on-camera more, he still lets his interviewees do most of the talking and having them express their thoughts about what's so great about their countries and how they could be of great use in the United States.

And one thing that's noticeably absent from this film are Moore's trademark stunts (i.e., driving around the Capitol in an ice cream truck reading the Patriot Act like in "Fahrenheit 9/11," or taping off Wall Street and branding it a crime scene like in "Capitalism: A Love Story"). Here, I guess the closest thing that comes to a "stunt" is Moore convincing a French elementary school girl to drink a cup of Coca-Cola.

"Where to Invade Next" was a brilliant, hilarious, and occasionally tear-jerking journey to reclaim what's ours - our "real" American Dream(s).


This was an exceptional DC Animated movie!, 18 June 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Brandon Vietti directed the 2010, direct-to-video DC Comics animated feature "Batman: Under the Red Hood," and it is by far one of the best - if not the best - DC Comics animated features that DC has put out over the last decade.

The first DC Comics animated movie to really make an impression on me was "Green Lantern: First Flight" (2009), and later "Wonder Woman" (2009); as an aside, the latter film, along with the live-action TV show from the 1970s that starred Lynda Carter, converted me into a fan of the first female superhero of any historical significance.

Getting back to "Batman: Under the Red Hood," the film, at the time of its release, was just the latest adaptation of the DC Comics superhero created by Bob Kane. Its masterfully written script by Judd Winick re-uses a central plot element from a key "Batman" comic book story from the 1950s ("Detective Comics #168"), as well as borrowing some elements from the 1988 one-shot graphic novel story "Batman: The Killing Joke" by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland; as another aside, "Batman: The Killing Joke" is my favorite "Batman" comic book story of all time.

"Batman: Under the Red Hood" opens with an action sequence that should strike comic book fans as shockingly familiar: the death of Jason Todd (Jensen Ackles), the second Robin, at the hands of The Joker (John DiMaggio). Batman (Bruce Greenwood) is too late to save his young protégé, and five years later the Dark Knight has continued his lone crusade against crime in Gotham City. He is reluctantly aided in his adventures sometimes by Dick Grayson (Neil Patrick Harris), the first Robin, who is now Nightwing.

A mysterious vigilante called the Red Hood soon shows up on the scene, and begins flexing his muscle as he kills criminals left & right at will while apparently trying to establish his own criminal empire. The Red Hood becomes a thorn in the side of resident crime boss Black Mask (Wade Williams), who soon breaks The Joker out of Arkham Asylum in a bid to murder the Red Hood. Batman and Nightwing soon get in on the action, too, but Batman quickly realizes that the Red Hood has a shocking connection to his past. And shockingly enough, The Joker is a wild card figure in all this superhero-vs.-vigilante chaos.

"Batman: Under the Red Hood" was a surprisingly good and gripping animated superhero film. The film's shocking opening sequence will certainly jolt unwary viewers out of any cynicism they may have had going into this picture, and will definitely prove to them that anything can happen in this brisk, 75-minute superhero thriller. Just because this film is rated "PG-13," that does not automatically mean that it's suitable for children. There is some decidedly course language here, as well as some pretty disturbing sights and sounds that should drive home the point that this is exactly how a "Batman" should be told - in any format.

I guess that if there is any real fault to be had with "Batman: Under the Red Hood," it's that the true identity of the Red Hood becomes obvious a little too early in the picture. To me, I was thinking that this connection should have come a little bit later. But it's easy to dismiss since after that point, the movie really picks up and doesn't really stop until its shocking conclusion.

This is one DC animated film you definitely do not want to miss.

P.S.: I've often praised what DC Comics has been able to do with their animated features like this one and their TV shows, like the live-action "Arrow" and "Batman: The Animated Series" from the early 1990s. I honestly don't think they stand much of a chance trying to recreate the DC Universe on the big screen - like what Marvel Comics is doing with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). I think that DC Comics should try their hand at smaller-scale projects, since that is the one area that Marvel has not really tapped into.


Ant-Man (2015)
"Mission: Impossible" + "Ocean's Eleven" + the MCU = "Ant-Man" (2015), 17 June 2016

2015's "Ant-Man" is a superhero movie with a complicated production history that also manages to be an odd mix of superhero action, heist movies, and high-tech spy-thrillers.

Edgar "Shaun of the Dead" Wright and Joe "Attack the Block" Cornish had labored for several years on trying to bring Marvel Comics' size-changing superhero/genius scientist Ant-Man (co-created by Stan Lee, his younger brother Larry Lieber, and the legendary Jack Kirby) to the big screen. They eventually parted ways with Marvel, and Peyton Reed ended directing the final version of the film, with Adam McKay writing the screenplay (that was taken over from Wright and Cornish) that was released theatrically in 2015.

"Ant-Man" is the 12th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and while it's connected to the MCU, it still feels separated from it in some way (sort of like how 2016's "Deadpool" is). And even if "Ant-Man" still feels like an MCU superhero movie, it doesn't exactly follow the typical superhero movie formula that's become so familiar over the years.

Perhaps the biggest change from type is the fact that this movie has a much heavier emphasis on the use of humor (though the film itself is not necessarily parody - but it certainly doesn't take itself very seriously), and the fact that its hero, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd, who also worked on McKay's script), is a criminal who's desperately trying to go straight after doing three years in San Quentin for burglary.

Yes, in the original comics, Lang (who was created by David Michelinie, who wrote my favorite Iron Man story "Iron Man: Demon in a Bottle," and John Byrne), who became the second Ant-Man, was a burglar who pulled off a heist to save his sick daughter and in the process crossed paths with Dr. Henry "Hank" Pym, the first Ant-Man - who then passed off the mantle to Lang.

In the big-budget film adaptation, the aging Dr. Pym (Michael Douglas) has already had his time in the spotlight as the first Ant-Man, who possessed technology that allowed him to change his size and communicate with insects (i.e., ants), and passes the mantle onto Scott Lang after Lang is released from prison. Pym, along with his daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), need Lang's help to pull off yet another daring heist. But this heist is not some simple criminal scheme to get rich off of stolen goods, but is to save the world. (And there is even an appearance from MCU regular Sam Wilson/The Falcon - played by Anthony Mackie - in the middle of the film.)

It turns out that Pym's former protégé Darren Scott (Corey Stoll) is close to replicating Pym's technology, but has militarized it and plans to sell it on the black market in the hopes of making billions off of it. So Lang becomes the second Ant-Man in order to stop Scott, who eventually becomes the super-villain Yellowjacket and who possesses many of the same powers that Lang does.

"Ant-Man" is a movie that I was initially very wary of seeing, based largely on what I was reading in the news about its production history (usually not a good sign, especially when you consider the fact that Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish were once involved), and the fact that it wasn't really focusing on the original Ant-Man. To their credit, Paul Rudd was a suitable lead as Scott Lang. I liked how they portrayed Lang as a criminal trying to go straight, but keeps getting lured back into old habits. I also just liked how the naturally comedic Rudd doesn't take the role all that seriously, which makes him stand out from other notable superhero characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; just watch him in this year's "Captain America: Civil War" (2016) for details.

To my surprise, "Ant-Man" is a surprisingly entertaining superhero entry into the MCU about a zero who becomes an unlikely hero, saves the world, and manages to get the girl in the end.


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