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Aren't they both defeated?, 4 November 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The Undefeated is a rather pedestrian western, made when the careers of both its male leads were in the doldrums. John Wayne plays the former Yankee soldier turned horse trader who stumbles across Rock Hudson's band of former Confederate soldiers on their way to Mexico at the invitation of Emperor Maximilian. The two men and their respective followers eventually manage to overcome their former enmity and unite against a common enemy – the duplicitous Mexicans and their French allies.

This is an incredibly dull movie given the fact that its story is fairly unusual. Wayne's career was beginning to wind down as he grew older, and although he's more mobile than he would be just a few years later, he still doesn't do a great deal. Hudson's career as a romantic leading man was also coming to an end, and he's badly miscast in the role of a noble Southern gentleman turned soldier. Add to this a fairly anonymous cast and a storyline that lacks any real conflict until the last 10 minutes and you're left with a viewing experience that is as much of a test of endurance as the long journey undertaken by the film's protagonists.

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
The Hit and the Miss..., 4 November 2011

This one isn't what I was expecting at all. Its title conjures up images of some lurid Norman Saunders pulp cover; you know the kind of thing - buxom, provocatively dressed women draped over some weathered guy with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth and a gun in his hand. Instead we get cuddly Forest Whitaker having trouble coming to terms with who he is and what he does, and having his psychological frailty challenged by his final hit – a cute, slightly pathetic young woman (Sherilyn Fenn) who is supposed to be the crack addict mother of an addict baby (who is also on his kill list), but who turns out to be, as I said earlier, just cute and slightly pathetic.

I don't really like movies like this, even though I can see it's reasonably well made, and very well acted by Whitaker and Fenn. It's the dialogue that grates; the way the writer alters the way real people talk so that he can deliver whatever it is he wants to say. It's not a reflection of real life – in fact it's not even an approximation, and so this kind of thing always comes across as pretentious to me. Perhaps it's me. Perhaps my tastes just aren't highbrow enough…

Setup (2011/I)
1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Dud Number Two, 4 November 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Wow – two duds in a row. First Flypaper and then this: how unlucky can one viewer be?

To be fair, this one at least has an unusual plot device in that the bad guy only double-crosses his friends to raise the money to pay for the protection needed to keep his jailbird dad alive in prison. Had a better writer been given an opportunity to explore this predicament from Ryan Philippe's point of view instead of following the well-trodden revenge path we have here the film might have been a whole lot better.

50 Cents (whose worth equates to 27p in the UK) plays one of the fellow diamond robbers left for dead by Philippe. He's actually as dead as a man can be after being shot in the shoulder which – unless the weapon is a bloody great bazooka – isn't actually very dead at all. In fact, after having the bullet plucked from his shoulder by a mate with a pair of tweezers, the wound never bothers 27p again. Then again, his acting range is so limited that he might have been supposed to have been registering immense amounts of pain for all we know.

Anyway, 27p contrives by highly unlikely methods to get himself hauled in front of the Mr Big of whatever city he is in. Mr Big is a shaven-headed Bruce Willis, whose name is plastered all over the publicity for the film but whose screen time amounts to maybe five minutes. Mr Big decides that 27p must obtain $2 million from, erm, well to be honest I'm not really sure who from or why, because it was around about then that I started to lose interest. Willis could do nothing to enliven or improve things – and is singularly unconvincing as a heartless crime lord – and the story just kept repaying my attention by growing increasingly more stupid with each plot twist.

It's really not too difficult to see where it all went wrong: we have here a rap singer (i.e. non-actor) and a screen nice guy (i.e. the opposite of a sadistic killer) directed by a stunt man who also wrote the script. It makes you wonder how they got the finance – after all, you wouldn't pay a dentist to extract your kidney, would you?

Flypaper (2011)
5 out of 12 people found the following review useful:
Failed the JoeytheBrit 90 minute Test, 4 November 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This probably looked quite good on paper – but unfortunately that's where it should have stayed. Patrick Dempsey plays some kind of idiot savant who walks into not one, but two, bank robberies taking place simultaneously. One crew are slick and professional – they wear boiler suits and masks, and each knows exactly what it is they have to do - the other crew are a pair of rednecks nicknamed Peanut and Jelly who haven't really got a clue. As Peanut and Jelly have come to loot the ATMs and the others are after the contents of the vault they each decide to continue with their respective robberies while keeping out of the other group's way.

Added to the mix are the usual hostage types: the aforementioned Dempsey, who possesses superhuman analytical skills but is unravelling fast because he has no medication, an attractive but slightly cool teller, an uptight teller, a creepy security guard, an anal loans officer, an avuncular manager. They each have their part to play as the story crawls towards its confused and poorly thought out conclusion.

One of my rules of thumb about what to expect from a film is its running time: by my reckoning, any film that runs less than 90 minutes is likely to be a dud. It usually means the finished product is a hack job arising from too much unusable material – after all, nobody sets out to make a short feature film. This one clocks in at somewhere around 75 minutes, I think. The plain truth is, this just isn't funny. It contains hardly any laughs. I actually started feeling sorry for the actors on the screen because they have nowhere to hide while the writers and directors get to remain relatively anonymous – if they've got any sense, that is.

Contagion (2011)
1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
A-Cough-oo!, 4 November 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This isn't so much the apocalyptic thriller you might expect from the trailers as an objective and fairly dispassionate contemplation of the likely effects a deadly virus would wreak on a global society which we all now take for granted. Gwyneth Paltrow's the first to go, picking up the plague on a business trip to Macao. She's cheating on her husband, one of the film's few finger-wagging moments which perhaps suggests this era of moral decay, exemplified by a culture of instant self-gratification with little regard for the consequences, is going to result in, well, consequences. It might not have mattered had the world not shrunk so much in the last couple of decades, meaning a virus which might once have been contained in one country or region can now travel around the globe before we even realise it exists.

Matt Damon plays the cuckolded everyman husband of Paltrow who just happens to be immune to the virus, enabling the film to provide one of its constant touchstones. He doesn't really get to do a lot, serving mostly as our eyes as he watches the fabric of society slowly beginning to unravel as the body count rises. Local people start fighting each other for supplies, and start looting; 911 calls are routed to a recorded message which gives options about which aspect of the disease you wish to report rather than receiving emergency calls relating to crime or disaster; mass graves appear as the stock of body bags dwindles; people find their freedom to travel restricted, and are urged to keep a distance of 10 feet.

Most of the film, however, focuses on the search for an effective vaccine. Larry Fishburne heads the team, but is more or less dethroned by Jude Law's opportunistic blogger; Kate Winslet is his down-to-earth colleague, tasked with co-ordinating the treatment of those affected – and who eventually becomes one of its victims. There are others, less important: a woman who is kidnapped by Chinese villagers as she searches for patient zero, and who then disappears for most of the film; Elliott Gould as the university professor who finds the source of a cure.

Contagion provides a chillingly realistic insight into what would happen if a virus threatened to wipe out a substantial proportion of the population, but its decision to take a step back in order to get a global view means that it lacks emotion. Naturally, this means we don't become as immersed in the events taking place as we should, meaning the experience of watching the film is as dispassionate and objective as the manner in which it tells its tale.

0 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Haven't I Seen This Before?, 4 November 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

We've all wished we could go back in time to put right something that we feel was left undone, whether it's to issue that snappy retort we think of half an hour after it's called for or something more significant, like altering that one moment that could have changed our life forever. Well, that's what Coulter Stevens gets to do over and over again as he's zapped into the body of an unassuming teacher in order to attempt to identify the mad bomber aboard a packed passenger train to Chicago in the eight minutes leading up to the explosion.

Stevens is part of a military experiment and the drawback is that he's technically dead with only minor brain activity going on in what's left of his body. We don't find out about this immediately, which is one thing that sets Source Code apart from similar sci-fi tales. Many films would simply have the hunt for the bomber and Stevens' developing relationship with his travelling companion as its main focus, but this one throws in a mystery surrounding Stevens' location whenever he returns from his jaunts on the train – some kind of pod – that slowly overtakes the bombing sub-plot as the main strand of the film. While this definitely adds to the depth of the storyline it's really just there to disguise the fact that the whole bomb-on-a-train bit is a little bit old, a little bit ludicrous, and a little by the numbers.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays the part of Coulter Stevens. He's OK, and seems to slowly be shedding that nervous, almost apologetic expression that seemed to be a permanent feature. All the other roles are secondary, giving none of the actors much to play with. The science of it all wanders off into the kind of techno-babble which sounds both improbable and deliberately designed to confuse us so we don't ask too many awkward questions. It doesn't really detract from the enjoyment of the film - but it still doesn't tell us how the comatose Stevens can see Vera Farmiga via the web-cam on her console…

Revenge (1990/I)
0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
A Cold Dish, 4 November 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Kevin Costner's an Air Force pilot in this one, which is quite handy for director Tony Scott because it means he gets to use up all the leftover aerial shots from Top Gun in the opening five minutes. In fact, that's probably the only reason why Costner's character actually is a fighter pilot because what we see is his last flight before hanging up his joystick. He goes to spend some time in Mexico with old friend Anthony Quinn, a rich but shady businessman with mob and political connections, whose life Costner once saved. Quinn has a bit of a temper – and definitely doesn't like dogs – so he's not the type of guy whose foxy young wife (Madeleine Stowe) you'd want to be diddling behind his back. Oh no, that would be stupid and wrong in all sorts of ways. Kev and Maddie decide to make a run for it once he's done just that, but Quinn's an understandably mistrusting husband who taps his wife's 'phone calls and knows exactly what's going on…

This is one of those glossy Hollywood pics that thinks it's better than it actually is and you can almost imagine the slightly puzzled looks on those involved when they viewed the final print and realised what they had on their hands wasn't the next box office smash but a rambling, slightly pointless melodrama. The biggest problem is Costner and Stowe's characters. There's just no resonance there, and we're never convinced for one second that they're a couple in the heated, hysterical grip of a towering passion that compels them to turn their lives upside down. We don't care what happens to them and have no sympathy for their plight when things turn ugly, because there's not enough back-story to either of them and they share very little sexual chemistry. Stowe wants kids but Quinn feels he's too old, and Costner is bored with flying – and that's about all we're told, which leaves you wondering why it takes nearly two hours to tell its tale.

Anyway, things get a bit better once Quinn has exacted his revenge (and, to be honest, because of the lack of empathy for the lovers that the script generates, you can't help but sort of sympathise with him – especially as he gave Costner every opportunity to call off the elopement). Things still move slowly, but the story opens out and introduces us to a group of new characters who at least provide a diversion while not exactly livening things up much. I'm not quite sure why Costner keeps unexpectedly running into the guys who beat him to a pulp for Quinn. A little bit too coincidental for my liking – and instead of using them to perhaps locate Stowe, who Quinn has scarred and put to work in a whorehouse, he kills them with a savage enthusiasm. He's changed by now, has Costner, gone all stubbly.

Scott goes for a lot of style, but he's only partially successful. The lush, golden hues of the first half of the film are replaced by harsher colours and darkness once Quinn's had his revenge and the hazy interiors of Quinn's mansion replaced by the dull uniformity of hotel rooms and cheap bars. Until the finale, that is, when Stowe is found once more, and the haze returns just in time for a huge, supposedly tear-jerking conclusion that is staggeringly unsuccessful.

1 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Burt Steals the Picture., 4 November 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Earl Holliman is a sergeant in charge of a small group of soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge who discover a wounded woman (Tina Louise) in a snow-covered field. They take her with them to a deserted inn on the local town as they await orders, and inevitable tensions among the soldiers soon arise.

This is a pretty dull affair for the most part. It's really two stories combined: one tells of the growing antipathy between Holliman and one of his men (played by a young Burt Reynolds) as they both get the hots for their sexy guest, unaware that she is actually an undercover agent for the Nazis, while the other focuses on officer Howard Keel's increasingly urgent attempts to persuade his superiors that enemy troops are about to burst through his under-manned defences. Obviously, the familiar triangle is of more interest – but not by much.

The best part – and the best performance – goes to Burt Reynolds as a swaggering, arrogant alpha male with little real regard for his comrades or Holliman, who decides he's going to have himself a little taste of Tina Louise whether she likes it or not. He's the only character in the film who feels even marginally fleshed out, and it's hardly surprising he has no respect for Holliman's Sergeant, who hardly has the mark of a leader about him. None of the men seem particularly impressed by Holliman's character – at one point he tells them to move only to have to repeat himself a moment later when they simply stand around disconsolately – although they do at least pay deference to him, unlike Reynolds. Holliman also behaves like a jealous, lovesick juvenile towards Louise – not something you expect from the film's hero. Had the script bothered to delve further into these insecurities by which Holliman is obviously plagued the human interest element might have been a little more absorbing, but the film just drops this sub-plot completely when the Germans advance.

Tina Louise looks improbably glamorous for her surroundings. As far as I can recall none of the soldiers think to ask her what she was doing there in that field with a bullet inside her, but then they were probably distracted by the tight-fitting sweater they manage to rustle up for her. She's pretty good in the part (and the sweater), but it's difficult to judge whether the feelings she displays for Hoffman are genuine or simply another dead end pursued by the writers.

Howard Keel, obviously on his uppers in comparison to a decade earlier, is in a foul mood throughout. Scowling and shouting, and only briefly lightening up long enough to swig some brandy donated by the local townsfolk before he starts wondering just why they've given liberal quantities of the stuff to every soldier in the town. That one's still a mystery considering they were there to free the townsfolk from the grip of Nazi tyranny.

Anyway, the final battle scenes are pretty intense, and are by far the best part of the film. It's just a shame we have to sit through ninety minutes of turgid drama to get to it…

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
The antithesis of the 50s sex comedy..., 1 November 2011

'Hey Baby, what's happening?' says Steve McQueen at the beginning of this film, instantly establishing his cool credentials. He plays a musician, something of a bohemian, who impregnates sweet Catholic girl Natalie Wood on a one night stand and then must face the consequences when she somehow tracks him down and gives him the news.

In a way, Love with the Proper Stranger is the natural progression from all those slick Hollywood sex comedies of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the flip side of the coin, if you will; the harsh facts of life that must be faced once the champagne sparkle has fizzled out. Except these two aren't Hudson and Day, swish executives or successful dress designers; they're an out of work musician with a casual attitude towards sex, and a struggling shop girl living in a cramped apartment with her overbearing family.

Its heightened sense of realism, aided by authentic street locations, obviously makes Love with the Proper Stranger harder work to watch than those Hudson/Day vehicles, but what was probably considered hard-hitting adult drama back in the early 60s looks a little naïve in these 'enlightened' times. Today, you couldn't make a film out of this story because it wouldn't come across as realistic.

McQueen's performance reflects the tone of the film as it switches from serious social comment to light comedy and back again. It's not a smooth transformation, and at times it's almost as if two different films have been stitched together. That scene in Wood's bright apartment doesn't belong in the same film as the one in the abortionist's empty one. Wood's beauty is mesmerising, and although she gives possibly the best performance of her career that beauty is a barrier she fails to overcome well enough to be believable in the part. Given that she also has to overcome a poorly written scenario that fails to adequately explain why a girl from her background succumbed to a stranger's charms, it's hardly surprising that she doesn't entirely succeed.

Stake Land (2010)
2 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Religion and vampires, 1 November 2011

I can see why my rating for this post-apocalyptic vampire flick is higher than the average; this isn't the type of film that would entertain your average horror fan, even though its subject matter would obviously appeal to them. This is as much a character study of humans under extreme duress as it is a straightforward horror movie.

The story follows a young lad saved from sharing a certain death with his parents at the hands of a feral vampire by a grizzled stranger he calls Mister. The vampires in this film bear more resemblance to Danny Boyle's super-quick zombies than the movie vampires we're used to. Even Nosferatu looks sophisticated compared to these creatures. They're not too bright, but they're very fast and possess near-superhuman strength, which makes them dangerous adversaries. Anyway, the man and boy head for New Eden, a safe refuge that they're not even sure actually exists. By night they barricade themselves against the ravenous vampires that roam the land, and as they travel by day they must avoid the violently brutal religious cult that also terrorises the land and consider the vampires to be God's angels sent to cleanse the earth.

While there are plenty of moments of horror in this film, it tends to aim for a more realistic depiction of what kind of world the place would be if a vampire virus decimated the population. We see only the aftermath of this virus, so the film has a strongly melancholic tone which vies with an oppressive sense of foreboding that refuses to let up. You know these people you meet are going to come to a bad end sooner or later – either before or after the credits roll – and that life will hold little pleasure for them in the future. Their sense of depression and loss is tangible, the constant tension exhausting, and the film puts this across impeccably.

Religion's double-edged sword is brought into clear perspective with the presence of not only its formal, institutionalised form as portrayed by Kelly McGillis, but by the tattooed, habit-wearing religious terrorists who shoot any unfortunates who stumble across their path. We're left in no doubt that this brutal, oppressive religious regime will quickly extinguish conventional religion as humans revert to their basic nature, and become only one step above the vampires they fear.

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