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Thunder Over Reno (2008)
Perhaps Worth a Re-make in the Future
Contains classic, beautiful air-to-air photography at high speed, in clear air and often at magic hour. The linear, obvious and juvenile screenplay was a classic of what high school story writers try to accomplish: Underdog struggles against all odds and eventually triumphs and gets the girl in the bargain. The fundamental question is: Assuming the problem was trying to work to a very low budget, could the company have done better than produce this truly awful picture? Given a child-like screenplay with no human insight evident, the answer is "no." But, given that the screenplay could have been tweaked to replace the cardboard characters with real humans, even with that change there were many other impairments to the success of this film. Other low-budget drama films win awards ("Glengarry Glen Ross," "Old Boy," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," "Reservoir Dogs" and thousands of others). My viewing experience was that the film was not entertaining (an artifact of the infantile story line), very poorly cast or cast hastily and without an ability to audition well, replete with unrealistic dialog (another script problem), some decent acting mixed in with really awful acting, and the most odd hodge-podge ("hotch-potch" as we would say in Yorkshire) of photography and lighting that I have seen outside of no- budget amateur short films. Like another reviewer, I too found that I had to watch this picture in two-minute segments because it was so awful in almost every dimension. The fundamental expectation for a feature film is that the talent will be able to realistically play against one another without obviously reading a mental teleprompter while so doing. Alas, that was not the case here. With a perceptive screenwriter who understands the human condition and some creativity, it might be possible to construct a less-obvious story that would hold the interest of the audience. Then, with a professional casting director, talented director, and professional lighting cinematographer, I could foresee building a project around the beauty of flight from the Reno Air Races coupled with a great story, and it might be possible to produce the next "Top Gun."
My associates are using this picture as one of a number of examples of poor film-making. That is the silver-lining: Every error is a chance to learn and get better.
Finally, I did not appreciate someone, who worked on this picture, reviewing it and giving a score of "9," and then putting in a list of excuses within the review itself. That is a direct conflict of interest.
Love Ranch (2010)
Engaging Story, Well-acted, High-concept Production Values
The film has two sags: One very early on in Act I and another late in Act II. In observing a small private audience that was viewing this film, they were all very much engaged in the drama and the action throughout, but they were nearly lost during the two sags. If it were not for those, the film might have attracted a larger audience.
This is not the story of the Mustang Ranch, per se, but rather the story an ambiguous love triangle. (I am thoroughly aware of the Mustang Ranch story, and know Joe Conforte's attorney and best friend, Virgil Bucchanieri, quite well). For example, the film does not use the gimmick of trying to exaggerate the characters that inhabit the brothel, and resists the temptation of trying to replicate the exotica of the Star Wars bar scene.
The real test for a film with this class of story arc is the degree to which we care about the characters mid-way through Act II. Do we care what happens to them in Act III? I and the other audience members all agreed that we did and we shed the expected tears in a tense moment between the dreamer, played by Joe Pesci, and the determined pragmatist, played by Helen Mirren, in the penultimate scene. None of the central or supporting roles were in any way "cardboard" characters.
The production values were quite high and the number of technical errors were minimal (three errors with production sound that really should have been fixed in post plus a couple of continuity errors). Music was very subtle to the point of vanishing at times. There was no attempt at creating a photographic theme: it was all shot color-balanced at neutral without any exaggerated focus-pulls, odd camera framing or moves (but a lot of crane rentals were involved), Pro-mist filters, or too many magic hour shots. That is, the cinematography did not draw attention away from the drama.
The film resolves unambiguously with a shock ending that is well worth waiting for. My final test of entertainment value is: "Are there any scenes in this film that I will remember and repeat in my mind's eye the next day?" I would say that there are such scenes, and I therefore give this picture a 7 out of 10.
NCIS: Los Angeles (2009)
Baffling, Confused, Un-"readable"
After watching two episodes (in near-agony), I figured out this is really a Starsky and Hutch re-make, not an NCIS-like story structure. The reporting relationship between characters in the NCIS organization is indecipherable. The characters seem to say random things to one another (and sometimes to no-one at all) driven by no motivation whatsoever. There are some peripheral characters with no identified job, role, or purpose except to chat with Starsky & Hutch. Then there is the location, which looks like a tarted-up version of the Roosevelt Hotel lobby in Hollywood, not a professional office building of any kind. Plot elements are obviously concocted, hardly credible and rarely are derived from any personality traits or situations the characters find themselves in. I think the screenwriters must actually work for a shoot-'em-up video game development company instead of a drama production company. This show is a mess.