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No Ewoks, No Jar Jar, No Kidding
Note: Even though I checked "might contain spoilers," for the benefit of those who haven't seen this yet (which was me until today), I'm going to try not to give too much away here.
Wow..after 38 long years, they finally got it right. Yes, I know I'm in the minority in that I liked the first Star Wars better than Empire, and to be fair, Empire was also a very good movie. But since then, Star Wars movies had lost their way..introducing those gawd awful little fuzzy muppets in Jedi, and those even worse CGI/cartoon characters in the "prequels"(i.e. Jar Jar Binks, the single worst character in Star Wars history). George Lucas had forgotten (or maybe never really understood) what made the first two Star Wars movies so good. This was painfully evident in the three "prequels," where the story, dialogue, and characters took a backseat to all those dazzling effects and CGI coming out of Skywalker Ranch. In a recent interview Lucas revealed that he saw the Star Wars saga as a soap opera..which sums up nicely why I didn't like the last 3 Star Wars flicks in particular (didn't much care for Jedi either). Behind all those neat special effects, that's exactly what those movies were: Episodes of a bad soap opera, with bad writing and bad acting. Thankfully, JJ Abrams captured..masterfully..what was great about Star Wars in the first place (I was actually concerned about what Abrams would do with Star Wars, since I did NOT like what he did with Star Trek, but boy, does he get it right here).
The Force Awakens not only brings back the familiar characters we already liked (Harrison Ford does an especially good job as the older Han Solo), but the new characters are likable too. The story is the best since the early days as well. I think it's supposed to be set 30 odd years after Jedi. You get glimpses of what has happened since, but you don't get everything..I have a feeling there will be more bits and pieces revealed in the next two installments. But the dark side has re-emerged..personified by the character of the evil..yet conflicted..Kylo Ren (in a terrific performance by Adam Driver..Hayden Christenson should take some notes). The Empire has been replaced by the evil "First Order," and standing in their way is the "Resistance." The First Order has an ultimate weapon even more horrifying than the original Death Star, and they ain't afraid to use it. The young character on the "light" side of the force is Rey, played well by Daisy Ridley. By the end, she's still a bit of a mystery..you're left wondering exactly how she figures into all this. Again, I think we'll get the answers in subsequent movies.
What I loved about the original Star Wars movie was that it was the quintessential illustration of what I believe movies should be..a 2+ hour escape from reality. This latest edition of Star Wars also epitomizes this. Yes, there are a few small plot continuity inconsistencies from the previous flicks. Do yourself a favor and don't worry about them. Just sit back and enjoy.
I'm glad it's back. :-)
The Odd Couple: Pilot (2015)
Been There Done That
This latest version of Neil Simon's classic isn't ALL bad. Matthew Perry is OK portraying Oscar as kind of a Chandler/Oscar hybrid (there's some Chandler in pretty much everything he does, alas), and Thomas Lennon does a credible Felix, playing everyone's favorite neat freak pretty close to Tony Randall's rendition. That's one problem..he's TOO close to Randall (including the bad sinuses). Reboots are most interesting when they do something DIFFERENT with the characters. Otherwise, you get what you get here: an idea that's been done before and done better. There are a couple of new angles, but it's pretty much the same premise. Oscar's a slob living by himself after getting kicked out by his wife, his college friend Felix shows up at his door after his wife throws him out, the two are polar opposites, etc. etc. Instead of being a sportswriter, Oscar is a sports/talk host, which actually makes sense. We also get introduced to Oscar's co workers, friends and neighbors, which is also a bit awkward..there were too many characters introduced too soon. The writing is so-so..a few jokes hit the mark, but most fall flat. When you put it all together, everything just seems forced..like everyone involved is trying too hard. If things don't measurably improve, don't expect this show to last more than half a season.
Road House (1989)
So Bad...and Soooooo Good!
I wonder if Joe Bob Briggs ever reviewed this one. If he didn't, he should have. OK, it's not exactly a monster or slasher flick, but it's every bit as stupid and action packed. I LOVED it!
First, you've got Dalton (Patrick Swayze), a bouncer (OK, technically he's called a "cooler"..a guy who travels from nightclub to nightclub training bar bouncers to deal with various punks who want to cause trouble, but it really doesn't matter). At the start of the movie he's been recruited by a guy named Tilghman (Kevin Tighe) to clean up his little rat hole of a club called the Double Deuce in this equally crappy little town of Jasper, MO (supposedly outside of Kansas City..just how far "outside" they don't say).
Not long after he arrives, Dalton sets out to rid the DD of all kinds of criminal riff raff, and in the process steps on the toes of Brad Wesley, the town kingpin (Ben Gazzara) who's been extorting every business in town and wants to keep things just as they are.
Now you would think that Dalton, upon realizing that Tilghman didn't tell him the whole story about the criminal element of Jasper, would have taken his advance and high-tailed it out of that little dump of a town, right? Wrong! He's befriended some of the locals there, so he sticks around, and has confrontation after confrontation with Wesley's various goons, including his psychotic enforcer named Jimmy. It makes for some great fight scenes, with Dalton and the rest of the bouncers in his charge beating up the punks and sending them on their way (this is a "guy" movie to its very core). Of course all of this is predictably leading up to the final, bloody (it IS rated R) confrontation between Dalton and Wesley.
OK, meanwhile Dalton falls in love with the local doctor (Kelly Lynch) who he meets when she staples together a knife wound from one of his many run-ins. You also meet Dalton's mentor and buddy, Wade Garrett (Sam Elliott in the single coolest role he's ever played). You think Dalton is cool until you meet Garrett. There's a great scene where Garrett ever-so-nonchalantly beats up four guys who were beating up on Dalton behind the DD.
I could get into the stupidity of the story along with all the plot inconsistencies and how unrealistic parts of this movie are, but what would be the fun of that? You get to see guys getting beat up, Patrick Swayze and Sam Elliott being super cool while they're beating guys up, the Jeff Healey Band (the house band at the DD) playing the tunes, and a little gratuitous T&A thrown in for good measure. What more could you possibly want?
If Joe Bob were reviewing this, he'd probably say 6 1/2 breasts (you only get a side shot of Kelly Lynch's). Multiple types of fu. Drive in academy award nominations going out to Marshall Teague (Jimmy) for the line (to Dalton), "I used to f*** guys like you in prison!" (honorable mention for his evil laugh after blowing up Dalton's landlord's house). Also, Julie Michaels (Denise, Wesley's live-in hooker) for (again, to Dalton), "would you be shocked if I said let's go to my place and...f***?
I think I can safely say that Joe Bob would give it four stars out of four, and recommend that you check it out!
Bachelor Party (1984)
THE Funniest Movie I've Ever Seen
I often compare Bachelor Party to the Hangover movies to illustrate the right way and the wrong way to do a raunchy comedy. Then again, the Hangover movies did a lot more box office biz, so what do I know? The Hangover is a crude and raunchy attempt to be funny. Bachelor Party was also crude and raunchy..along with being infinitely more clever and laugh out loud funny. The first time I watched it all the way through I wondered if it was physiologically possible to literally bust a gut from laughing so hard.
Rick Gassko (Tom Hanks, who was never funnier), a wise cracking bus driver for a Catholic school, is about to get married to rich girl Debbie (Tawny Kitaen), and her parents are none too thrilled about it. Neither is her anal-retentive, rich ex boyfriend Cole, who's still obsessed with her (at one point he ultimately offers Rick his new Porsche in exchange for Debbie). Rick's hard partying friends don't much like that their buddy is settling down either. They want to make sure Rick "goes out in style," and throw him the bachelor party to end all bachelor parties at a super swank hotel, complete with hookers. This prospect doesn't sit too well with Debbie, and she forces Rick to promise he won't cheat on her. All kinds of wild stuff ultimately ensues..including an outing to Chippendales (where the gals in his fiancée's bridal shower end up showing up..and the guys subsequently pull a prank on them), a donkey that arrives in disguise, a hilarious exchange with a Hindu pimp, and Cole taking pot shots at Rick with a crossbow from an adjacent hotel.
A number of things work in Bachelor Party, starting with a really funny script (supposedly this was at least partially based on the real life bachelor party of one of the writers). Something else this movie achieved was that it drew me right into what was going on. I actually felt like I was right in the middle of this epic bachelor party with Rick and his wacky friends, for whom depravity and debauchery are virtues. But the centerpiece is Hanks, who took what could have easily been a shallow character and made him three dimensional. Rick shows genuine worry about the prospect of perhaps cheating on his fiancée, and also shows concern over Brad, one of his friends at the party, who believes in better living through chemistry..while at the same time is suicidal over the breakup of his own marriage. But mostly he's an irrepressible wise ass (i.e. picking up the school kids: Sister, you look terrific today! What have you done with your hair? Later, over the bus intercom: Attention passengers, we are now leaving nun central on our journey to hell and beyond. The captain has turned off the no smoking sign, and you may now move about the cabin freely. Thank you for being Catholic, and for choosing the St. Gabriel school bus).
The guys who round out Rick's motley bunch of friends are perfect in their respective parts, particularly Adrian Zmed, who plays Rick's best buddy O'Neil and is damn near as funny as Hanks. The female characters (along with Debbie's father and the aforementioned Cole) are overall a humorless bunch..which makes the guys' antics that much funnier.
Some pretty raunchy and potentially dark stuff happens in this movie, which might have even offended my sensibilities had it been handled wrong, from Brad's suicidal tendencies (which had the potential to not be funny at all) to what happened with the aforementioned donkey. But even the really crude stuff was handled deftly, in a way that left me laughing rather than cringing (conversely the Hangover mostly made me cringe).
Again, it's Hanks' flawless comic timing which ultimately makes this film. There are one or two scenes where I'm sure he improvised dialog. Warning: This movie is raunchy..lotta nudity and graphic sexual references, and definitely deserving of its R rating. And there are elements about it which by today's standards are a bit dated. But this is one funny movie..they don't make 'em like this anymore, alas.
OK, the Premise is Stupid, But..
..I liked this movie anyway. The two main reasons are Kate Beckinsale (this is the movie where I got the crush on her I still have to this day), and Jeremy Piven.
I like John Cusack in just about everything I've seen him in, and he does fine here as Jonathan Trager, who's obsessing over whether he let Sara (Beckinsale), the woman who could be the love of his life, get away from him by letting her talk him into this stupid idea of leaving their future to chance after fate brought them together in the first place. They have a chance meeting at a department store, which leads to an amazing evening. But then Sara wants to leave things to chance by marking their information on a 5 dollar bill and a book and putting both out in circulation (there's also a ridiculous scene where they get on two elevators..if they end up on the same floor, they're supposed to be together). It's like..duh..fate already brought you two together..after that you've got to do some of the work on your own.
Fast forward to a few years later. Jonathan and Sara are both getting married (to different people, naturally), but neither can get that chance meeting out of their minds, and both set out on a last ditch effort to find each other. The lengths that Jonathan in particular goes to, with the help of his best friend Dean (Piven, the straw that stirs the drink in this), make for a couple of priceless scenes, including one with an anal retentive clerk at the department store (Eugene Levy).
Piven is perfect as Dean, who helps Jonathan in his search despite the fact that he thinks his soon-to-be married buddy is off his rocker (what best friends do). Toward the end, when it looks like all is lost, Dean marvels at what Jonathan has gone through to find Sara. He laments about how the passion which Jonathan put into his search is something he let slip away in his own marriage.
It's this, plus the chemistry between Cusack and Beckinsale, that make this movie worth seeing despite the ridiculously silly premise..and predictable ending. Yes, it's a quintessential chick flick..perfect to watch with your spouse or significant other.
Spielberg's Tale of Road Rage Run Amok
Want to know the mark of a good director? See what he does when he has no budget. Steven Spielberg has an incredible body of work, but his well known movies also had lots of cash from the studios behind them. Not so with Duel, one of Spielberg's first projects, which was originally shot as a TV movie (I'm guessing the slight bit of swearing was added later). You notice little things right away, like the camera angle from inside the car as David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is backing out of his garage.
You find out early in the movie, from a conversation with his wife while at the gas station, that Mann is basically a wimp who doesn't handle confrontations well, and is completely henpecked by his wife. He thinks he's heading off to a routine business appointment. Little does he know he's about to get thrust into a nightmare.
Things start innocuously enough when he gets stuck behind an old rusty big rig tanker belching smoke. He passes the rig to get away from the fumes. The rig then passes back by him and cuts in front. It goes back and forth for a while..but ultimately this seems to set off the driver of the big rig (whose face we never see). The big rig deliberately drives slowly when in front of him..then seemingly tries to run Mann off the road when driving behind him. There are various situations where you see the driver of the rig toying with Mann..like when Mann was attempting to call the police from a phone booth at a gas stations in the desert. At first the rig is sitting there..the driver watching..then suddenly it swoops in and runs over everything in site (including the phone booth where Mann was making his call..and some terrariums with rattlers).
The game of cat and mouse goes on for the rest of the movie. Again, with virtually no budget, Spielberg pulls you in and keeps you riveted throughout the movie. When I first saw Duel, as soon as the back and forth started between Mann and the truck I couldn't stop watching. The movie was as frightening as it was riveting. David Mann is someone a lot of us can identify with..a somewhat weak-willed everyman who's suddenly thrust into a situation where he has to fight for his life..against a huge, fearsome, faceless enemy. Spielberg handles all of this masterfully. This is better than Hitchcock.
Spielberg has achieved great fame for his big budget productions, but Duel stands out as my favorite Spielberg movie of them all..which is saying a lot. It's a suspenseful, terrifying thrill ride that never slows down.
Starsky and Hutch: The Fix (1975)
The Girl Was Not Worth It
This is the first of many episodes where Hutch hooks up with the wrong girl. In this case the girl Hutch is in love with is Jeannie, who used to be the girlfriend of a psychotic gangster named Forest (Robert Loggia). She's hiding from him and makes Hutch swear not to tell anyone, not even Starsky, where she's living. Hutch is planning on spending his vacation with her, but before he can get there he's kidnapped by Forest's men at his place. They spend the next few days getting Hutch hooked on heroin, then they cut him off to get him to talk (pretty evil stuff).
Meanwhile, Hutch is late getting back from his vacation and nobody seems to know where he is. You would think that if this girl really cared about Hutch that she would have told, oh, maybe Starsky that Hutch never showed up at her place, right? Ummmm, wrong. She never says anything. Ultimately Hutch breaks from the pain from the withdrawals, and tells Forest where to find Jeannie..and given her inaction after Hutch was a no show at her place, she got what she deserved.
The episode does a good job depicting heroin addiction and David Soul portrays the pain of withdrawals in a way that's all too real. It also shows how tight S&H really are as partners and friends. But it's so unpleasant to watch, and pointlessly so, given how useless this girl is.
It should be no surprise that in a future episode Hutch unknowingly falls for a hooker.
To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)
Brilliant 80s Film Noir
William Friedkin gives film noir a decidedly 80s sensibility in this grim, violent, and at times disturbing story of how far seemingly "good" people will compromise their ethics in chasing criminals..even to the point when their actions result in people getting killed.
William (CSI) Peterson plays Richard Chance, a secret service agent who already plays fast and loose with the rules. His partner is on the trail of a counterfeiter named Masters (Willem Dafoe), and while investigating the building in the middle of nowhere where Masters is cranking out his funny money, he gets killed (two days before he's supposed to retire) by Masters and his goon.
Chance vows to get Masters for murdering his partner, and to do "whatever it takes" to accomplish this. His new younger partner, John Vukovich (John Pankow) doesn't like what he sees when he realizes just how far Chance is willing to go to avenge the death of his former partner..literally becoming just as bad as the man he is pursuing..and in the process forcing Vukovich to compromise his own morals. Vukovich, who ultimately becomes the central character, is stuck in a no-win situation: He can either rat out his partner or end up just as dirty as he is (at this point he's already well on his way).
The performances are good all around. Peterson plays his role as a secret service agent who ultimately becomes unhinged with credibility (he's not wooden at all, despite what some other reviewers seem to think). Dafoe is spot on as his psychotic adversary. He's evil, to be sure, but he never becomes a cartoon character..none of the players here do. Pankow shows genuine fear as the conflicted agent looking for a way out of his dilemma. John Turturo makes the most of his screen time as Carl, a confederate of Masters who gets screwed over and sent to jail..and is pressuring Masters to get him out. Darlanne Fluegel and Debra Freuer play Ruth and Bianca, the women in the lives of Chance and Masters. Their relationships are complicated to say the least. Both men have a hold over them, forcing them to not only act as their lovers but to help them in their schemes.
This movie is not for everyone. It's very violent and bloody in some scenes, even by today's standards. But it's a very well crafted thriller, highlighting the all-too-human failings of the characters involved. Another reviewer pointed out..correctly in my opinion..that in this movie, when people sworn to uphold the law go rogue and compromise their beliefs, bad things happen to them. This contrasts with action movies like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon, where the good guys are celebrated and there are no real repercussions..regardless how many innocent people are endangered (of course, in those movies, nothing that the heroes do ever gets innocent people killed..then again, in To Live and Die in LA there are no real innocents). There's also a car chase sequence which in my opinion not only out-does the legendary car-el train chase in Friedkin's The French Connection, but is second only to the one in Bullitt as the greatest of them all; it ends up on a crowded freeway..AGAINST traffic (talk about an amazing piece of stunt choreography).
Only negative is a couple of scenes that didn't need to be dragged out as long as they were..especially one sequence showing Masters' process of counterfeiting bills. But in general To Live and Die in LA is taut from start to finish.
The King of Cool at his Coolest
Whether tearing around the streets of San Francisco in that Mustang fastback or dealing with slimy politicians, Bullitt is arguably the coolest character Steve McQueen ever played.
A smarmy dirtbag of a politician named Chalmers (played to nasty perfection by Robert Vaughan), calls on Lt. Frank Bullitt and his men to guard a mob witness who has ostensibly run from Chicago and is hiding out in San Francisco, holed up in a hotel near the wharf. During the night, what should be a routine assignment goes horribly wrong, as two hit men get into the room and shotgun both the witness and the officer Bullitt assigned to guard him. The officer, though badly wounded, is out of danger, but the witness is in critical condition and ultimately dies. Fearing that Chalmers will shut down the case, Bullitt, with the help of the doctor, "loses" the witness' body, making Chalmers believe he's still alive so Bullitt can find out who killed him. Bullitt's pursuit of the hit men culminates in that legendary car chase scene through the streets of San Francisco. But as Bullitt continues to investigate, he finds out that not everything is as it seems regarding that witness (among other things, said witness unchained the door and let the killers in himself). Bullitt discovers yet another murder, which leads to the other big chase scene (this one on foot), which takes place at SFO.
This was the first of the "loner rogue cop" movies (a la Dirty Harry) which became the standard during the 70s. But Steve McQueen is much more low key in his performance as Frank Bullitt than Clint Eastwood was as Harry Callahan..there is no "bravado" or sarcasm in McQueen's portrayal. McQueen, often underrated as an actor, is at his best here, saying as much with a look as with any of his (very few) lines. Case and point: When Chalmers reads Bullitt the riot act for failing to protect his witness, Bullitt quietly tells him, "You work your side of the street, and I'll work mine." It's not the line, which is pretty mundane. What makes it so effective is the look of sheer contempt McQueen gives when he delivers it.
Like McQueen, director Peter Yates takes a minimalist approach overall in this movie..even for that famous car chase scene (i.e. once the two vehicles kick it into high gear, the music stops completely..all you hear is the roar of those throaty V8 engines). I will admit that I love a good car chase sequence, and the one in the middle of Bullitt, with two muscle cars flying around those twists and hilly streets in SF at over 100 MPH in places, is still the greatest of them all.
The supporting cast is strong as well. In addition to Vaughan, Simon Oakland does his usual solid job as Bullitt's captain, who despite Bullitt's stunts continues to try and support him. Robert Duvall (with hair!) makes the most of his supporting role as a cab driver. And Jacqueline Bissett shows sensitivity as Bullitt's somewhat naive girlfriend, who gets a rude awakening at one of his crime scenes, discovering that there's a side of her boyfriend..the hard boiled detective who seems unfazed by horrific acts of violence..that she doesn't know and maybe doesn't want to.
There's one negative: In between action sequences the movie does get a bit slow in places (the scene at SF General Hospital in particular didn't need to be dragged out that long). But Bullitt in many ways was truly groundbreaking, and to this day it's probably McQueen's best work overall. Although McQueen doesn't receive any kind of production credit, from the documentary on Bullitt (which is included with the DVD), you can tell he was heavily involved with the production of the movie from start to finish.
Vanishing Point (1971)
Fast Cars and Misfits
I'll admit I wasn't sure quite what to make of this one when I first saw it. I had to view it more than once, and other user reviews actually gave me some insight (thanks everybody). What drew me to Vanishing Point in the first place was that it was a road flick featuring a fast car..and I LOVE movies with fast cars.
The premise at the beginning seems simple enough. Kowalski (Barry Newman) is a speed freak (as in drugs AND driving) who makes his living delivering cars. He's just arrived back in Denver, to the place that employs him, after a delivery, and wants to head right back out on the road again to deliver a Dodge Challenger to San Francisco. His boss pleads with him to get some rest, as does his drug dealer, but Kowalski is determined. He bets his dealer the price of the speed he just bought that he can deliver the car in 15 hours (I figured it up..he would have to average 84.5 MPH with NO stops if he drove in a straight line).
Where the movie gets interesting..and disturbing..is when it gets into WHY Kowalski is so determined to go on this ride. While he's tearing down the roadway in that waaay cool white Challenger, with police hot on his tail, we see flashes of his past, including his time as a war hero in Vietnam, his stint as a police officer who stops his partner from raping a teenage girl they'd picked up; also we see that for a time he raced cars and motorcycles (crashing more than once), and he even spent a period of time as a hippie/counterculture type (where he watched his girlfriend drown in the ocean).
Two dynamics emerge: First, and this was brought up in another review, Kowalski is a guy who couldn't fit in anywhere, be it the "establishment" or the "counterculture." Second, and more important, in the flashbacks we see one bad thing after another happen to him, regardless of what he was doing or who he was with. This is what his life has come down to, and it's as if this pedal-to-the-metal trip to SF, come hell or high water, is all he has left.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the other main player in this, a blind disc jockey who goes by "Super Soul" (Cleavon Little in what may be the finest performance of his career). Super Soul feels an instant connection with Kowalski..calling him "the last American hero" as he races from police on his trek. In between songs he talks to Kowalski over the airwaves as if he can sense what the doomed driver is thinking. In the midst of this a bunch of redneck bullies break into the radio station and give Super Soul a horrific beating, and the movie doesn't really explain why. Maybe it's because they didn't like what Kowalski was doing and Super Soul being sympathetic to him, aggravated by the fact that they already hated Super Soul because he was black.
This movie has been compared, erroneously in my opinion, to Easy Rider. Whereas the latter is clearly a movie centering on the 60s counterculture, Vanishing Point is a character study, both of Kowalski and Super Soul, two misfits..yet both honorable and decent men(perhaps that's what makes them misfits)..who seem doomed to never really belong anywhere. It's also a sort of requiem for the days gone by for fast cars and open roads in America. This is not a pleasant movie..it's dark, depressing and surreal..but interesting. And Kowalski drives one VERY cool..and fast..car.