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MacGyver: The Challenge (1989)
The MacGyver series takes a stand
Once I read an interview or an article about how, about halfway through the MacGyver series, the producers/writers (not sure who was behind it) decided that they had a platform and decided to use it to make some real statements about social issues. The 1980s were drawing to a close (this episode aired in 1989) and while the earlier MacGyver episodes generally positive messages and portrayed MacGyver as a decent citizen of the world, their main focus was our hero's cleverness in using science to overcome obstacles. They showcased fun over weighty social problems.
The Challenge feels like the first episode that really went for it in terms of addressing a real world issue. Although some of it might seem dated, its topic of racism is not. Cuba Gooding Jr. is good as always, and the supporting cast overall is better than usual for a MacGyver episode. Watching it now, at more than twice the age I was when I first saw it, I understand it better than ever, and it holds up. MacGyver's sciencey abilities are incidental to the plot, not the drivers of the story. Kudos to the writers for using their soapbox to spread awareness. If anyone knows where to find contemporary articles about the show's move in a different direction, I'd like to read them again.
Pretty good horse movie for kids
While The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit is not great cinema by any means, it will appeal to horse lovers. I enjoyed it, and if I had seen it as a kid I bet I would have loved it. The horse that plays Aspercel is gorgeous, and there is lots of handsome horseflesh around in general. I miss how movies used to feature horses that looked like what they were meant to be (this movie, the Black Stallion) instead of using another breed or different type and assuming the public wouldn't notice if it didn't look or perform like it ought (Black Beauty, Seabiscuit). Also, the riding looks reasonably realistic and the action is fairly accurate to what hunters and jumpers do (and did then).
The human performances are okay--all about what you'd expect from a 1960s Disney movie with such a goofy premise. Young Kurt Russell is cute as a button and just as likable as he is today.
I found this movie exhilarating. I'm with you, Bill Maher! That said, this film attempts to cover the basic tenets and idiocies of several of the major religions, namely Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam. It also encompasses evangelical/American/born-again-type Jesus-focused religion, which considers itself "Christian" but I have never understood that title, since Catholics revere Jesus also. But anyway...
Maher is a smart man, and I would like to think that he considered the points I feel were left out of the movie and chose not to include them for the sake of condensing the film. However, there are several facts that I think would have made an even stronger case against mass religion in general:
1. Although Maher mentions several times that the Judeo-Christian Bible was written by men, and therefore contains the fallacies of men, he does not bring up the fact that the Bible has been constantly rewritten, translated from language to language, and amended to suit the needs of those in charge of its distribution -- for most of history since Christ, this was the Catholic Church and its founders. And for those of you who don't know, translation is not an exact science. Languages just do not translate word for word, and the accuracy of the translation depends on the skill, vocabulary, and motives of the translator (a human being, don't forget).
2. Catholicism was successful because it incorporated many old religions. Greek and Roman gods are just a few of those who have direct equivalents among the Catholic saints. Mahar discusses the inherent flaw in a monotheistic religion with bunches of demigods, but he does not point out that Catholicism deliberately found supposedly Catholic replacements for the more ancient, household-type gods. Why? Because those who wanted the religion to succeed decided that people would be more likely to convert to it if it weren't too different from what they were used to. Why did these men want the religion to succeed? For the same reasons that people promote religions today: to gain money and power, particularly in the form of influence. Maher reminds us that the story of Jesus Christ included many elements of older heroes or gods, but the film presents this as a matter of fact, not pointing out that Catholicism was built upon the success of these preceding stories and histories. The types of dramas that move the human spirit have not changed over thousands of years--they have simply been retold and reinterpreted.
3. My third point is more of a question. I was raised as a "nouveau" American Catholic, so I feel that I know a little bit about that religion, but I know next to nothing about Islam. However, it is my understanding that Mohammed did not want images of himself used to promote his teachings. Is this why some Muslims get so mad when an image, ridiculing or not, of the prophet is publicized? I wish Maher had included this, as he did talk a lot about the violence specified in the Koran.
This is a terrific film. It is funny and has a great soundtrack. My hat is off to Maher for his nerve in interviewing people who become belligerent when their religion is questioned. I guess it partly comes from being a comedian--one must have guts and a thick skin! The message of the film, however, is not humorous at all. It is truly terrifying to think of all the murder, torture, and oppression that is perpetuated in the name of religion. Why then, is someone who calls himself "Godly" or "religious" considered to be a person with wholesome morals?
Shoot 'Em Up (2007)
Based on the trailer, I assumed this movie would be fun, with Mr. Big Guns Owen tearing everything up--something like "Snakes on a Plane." While the film delivered lots of violence, it was too ridiculous to be enjoyable.
"Shoot 'Em Up" feels like a B-movie ripoff of several action films: "Kill Bill," "Children of Men," "Sin City," "Die Hard," and something like "Underworld." Put them all into a blender with the video game "Max Payne," add some soft pornography (in the form of "Dairy Queen" Monica Bellucci), and you get "Shoot 'Em Up."
Honestly, if it had not been for Clive Owen and Paul Giamatti, I might have walked out. As it was, they were interesting enough on their own to hold me through the really silly stuff-- plus I kept hoping things would improve. This movie is very, very unrealistic, which is not in and of itself a bad recommendation; however, films that ask viewers to suspend disbelief must make up for it in some way. For example, director Tarantino leavens his far-fetched scenes with gore, reminding the audience that violence hurts; captivating visual and audio techniques; variety (he pulls his homages from a vast library of film, whereas Michael Davis, who wrote and directed "Shoot 'Em Up," appears to have plagiarized a much smaller, and therefore more obvious, catalog); and the visceral weight of his stories. Tarantino's characters bleed, hurt, despair, rage, fear--they are human. They fight because they must, not because they have nothing better to do that day.
The lighter moments of Tarantino's films seem natural, not forced, which is important, because humor is the other saving grace of overblown action films. Here again, "Shoot 'Em Up" fails miserably. If the "jokes" in this film are examples of Davis' sense of humor, then he must be the type who tells a joke and, when nobody laughs, points out that he just made a funny. Is the action supposed to be humorous? Smith waltzes through forests of bad guys, shooting at his leisure, and doesn't even get hit himself until about three-quarters of the way through. When he did, I nearly leaped up and cried, "FINALLY!" Smith is also resourceful, a sort of gun-happy MacGyver, who rigs up elaborate traps remarkably quickly. He is never lost, never in doubt of his next step, and he crashes through windows unscathed, with the same aplomb with which he "makes love," or thrusts his bloody carrots through the skulls of others. In short, he is boring, and the movie is boring. A movie based entirely on gunfire (especially wherein the victims' worst disfigurements are blood spots on their clothing) does not make for interesting viewing.
The characters are all wooden, even Hertz. They are too confident, too ready to crack wise, too fearless, and far too uninhibited. I am surprised that Owen and Giamatti participated in this project, although money was probably a factor.
Finally, the lame plot, full of holes, sinks like a leaky boat. Where would Smith find an animatronic baby? Where does he get his money? Is Hertz psychic? What is really in those carrots? The gags fail, the action fails, and the movie fails. It felt like a waste of $9--the only good thing about it was that it was short.
I think that teenaged "Goth" boys will love this movie. Is that a recommendation? Not for me.
"Ratatouille" is Pixar's best film, animation-wise, to date. It is truly remarkable for its visual landscape, and the story is charming. I went to see it with my family, and we all enjoyed it.
The rats, generally viewed as disgusting creatures, are rendered adorable, but not too unrealistic (Disneyfied), on screen. And Paris is recreated with Pixar's amazing animation--the chase across the boats on the Seine is particularly stunning. Scenes with cooking and dancing rats are also enjoyable. This film is worth watching for the quality of animation alone, but the exposition about cookery, the scenery of Paris, the cute characters, and the endearing storyline should provide entertainment for almost everyone.
Hot Fuzz (2007)
If you liked "Shaun of the Dead" or "Spaced," you will love this
I flat-out loved this movie. I was laughing, people around me were laughing--it was an overall great time. Terrific action sequences, which are staged to be over the top, but which end up being more realistic and gut-wrenching than your average Jerry Bruckheimer or Michael Bay film.
The "Shaun of the Dead" team is at it again, and while this film is clearly related to that great zombie flick (mostly in that the characters seem to be progressing--even with awareness sometimes--through a giant video game), it is funny and exciting even if you are not familiar with Wright, Pegg, Frost, and the others. There is a little of everything in here--gore, humor, ass-kicking--they jettisoned the fluff, and kept the FUZZ! Highest recommendation-provided you are looking for a good time.
The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
Smith runs away with it
"The Pursuit of Happiness" is a retelling of poor-boy-makes-good, or what some people like to call "the American dream," but it avoids the pitfalls of a clichéd storyline. Certainly, the audience can feel secure that Chris Gardner, the main character, will succeed in some fashion or else a film would never have been based on his autobiography, but the simple, sentimental score, well-written screenplay, subtle direction and, above all, Will Smith's acting make us strive with Gardner, cry with him, and hurt with him.
Smith is a gifted actor, and this film really showcases his emotional range. His natural rapport with his son is in no way one-sided; Jaden Smith is believable and very charming.
While I do not buy into the idea that a big house, fancy car, oodles of money made never mind how, and a high-stress Wall Street job equal happiness, to focus on the merit of Gardner's capitalist dream would be to miss the heart of the film; Gardner believes that becoming a stockbroker is his key for happiness, and we are here to appreciate his struggle as he claws his way out of the gutter. He doggedly completes his tasks each day, getting knocked down and staggering onward, sometimes taking his immense frustration out on his son, and attempting to keep up appearances so that he can go to the office.
Gardner's tale is like "Die Hard" for the masses; he has to endure being arrested, being evicted, fighting for a bed at the homeless shelter, trying to keep appointments and to study while holding down two full-time jobs with no car, sprinting all over San Francisco, attempting to keep himself and his son clean--it just does not stop. Watch Smith's face during the film--he shows us a man who only just manages to fend off despair. He bleeds and weeps because of the injustice in the world, with disappointment at how his potential has been wasted, with the weight of all his past failures, and with worry for his son. But he clings to the path he has chosen in the belief that it will lead him from this torment. One can actually see the dead look in Smith's eyes, the punch-drunk expression of one who is suffering, who is juggling so many burdens that his mind spills over with the effort, for whom a seemingly minor setback is a Big Deal. Smith gets it, and he makes us get it, too.
Incidentally, were Will Smith not an actor, he could probably have been a stuntman or a professional athlete. He has had running scenes in many of his films to date, and in this movie he looks ready to set a new record for the 400 meters. Smith is a little too fit and energetic for a homeless guy who hardly sleeps and eats in a soup kitchen for much of the movie, but his running and carrying feats illustrate Gardner's bulldog tenacity, and how his own physical power and endurance aided him in achieving his ends.
Smith deserves an Oscar award for his performance in this film. The movie itself is well made overall, but Smith's acting towers over everything. Well done.
Excellent comedy that showcases the weirdness of Americans
For those familiar with Borat from "The Ali G Show" this movie does not break much new ground. After all, the mannerisms of Southerners with delusions of grandeur have served as fodder for him before. But the movie blends fantasy with reality, forming a delightful little saga, peppered with American idiots.
Baron Cohen is one nervy guy. It took serious balls to go through with the rodeo sequence, which took place in southwestern Virginia, particularly after the "pep talk" and appearance advice he received from the rodeo organizer. Baron Cohen's guerrilla approach to the situations depends on his ability to stay in character and to continually step over the line, until his subjects rebel. The genius of his characters--for Ali G and Bruno perform a similar type of provocation--is that he really does nothing but present his small-minded targets with situations that elicit gut reactions from them. Politeness versus political correctness versus true feelings--this is the struggle that Borat's "teachers" face. Some of the Americans are obviously uncomfortable with the racist or otherwise offensive comments of Borat, while others appear only too happy to have found a sympathizer with their own, barely-suppressed prejudice.
For me, the most appalling of all the "targets" were the fraternity brothers. The other audience members in the theater perhaps felt the same, because the laughter that had punctuated the showing of the movie up to that point (and that resumed afterwards) died out. Whether the drunken frat boy too much resembled some of the audience members, or if they were dismayed by the unflattering portrayal of the condoned and even celebrated drunken oaf of American culture, I do not know. I do know that the boorish, white male supremacist opinions of the frat boys, combined with their carefully cultivated, clichéd image (the rich trust fund baby who is too drunk and sloppy to comb his hair, but who opens up a fresh package of Brooks Brothers shirts every week) repelled me more than anything Borat could have done or said. The latest news is that these same frat boys, embarrassed by their own behavior, are suing 20th Century Fox, claiming that they were somehow duped into revealing their latent misogyny and bigotry. Poor, spoiled babies.
This film is funny, provocative, and it will make you think about the differences between "marketed" American culture and "real" American culture. Highest recommendation.
Night of the Comet (1984)
Could use a few more zombies, but lots of campy 80s fun anyway
I saw this movie a couple of times on the Sci-Fi channel when I was a teenager and became obsessed with it. I bought a used VHS copy and it was well worth it. The zombies are cool and fairly scary, but there aren't enough of them. The movie is unconventional in its pacing; the main characters have several long conversations and moments of quiet reflection, which would perhaps be realistic for survivors of the apocalypse (as opposed to the rapid-fire careless behavior, fighting, and fornicating that are the hallmark of most action/horror movies). It is my opinion that the director wanted to focus on the characters' isolation and the juxtaposition of 'normal' life with horror.
All the actors--with the exception of the fat scientist with the glasses and the young girl in the pink bathrobe--are fun and give good performances. I think what really attracted me to this film was the resourcefulness of Regina, who doesn't let a little thing like the end of the world as she knows it get her down. The zombie stockboys are outstanding, especially the lead, Dick Rude.
The music in this movie is so bad that it is kind of hilarious. There is only one 'real' song in it, the ubiquitous "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun' by Cindy Lauper. Most of the rest is standard 80s pop crap--the kind of stuff you might have heard playing late at night on your older brother's radio in 1984--and synth-heavy soundtrack filler. The 'Eyes on You' song in the department store worked well for the scene, but I don't think anyone was too sorry when the stockboy 'turned it off.'
Those who enjoy this movie might like to read an interview with the director, which may be found here: http://www.fast-rewind.com/
The Wild Ride (1960)
Odd modern segments framing original film
I picked this movie up cheap out of a bargain bin. It is a double feature disc with "The Little Shop of Horrors." When I started watching it I was shocked to find that "Velocity," which I knew was circa 1960, started off with a relatively new-looking scene of kids driving dangerously. It seems that Vina Distributor (who put out this double feature edition) or somebody decided to "update" the old teen flick with some footage of more relevant "street punks."
The bad "modern" teen meets a dude in a bar who looks a little like Jack Nicholson but doesn't sound anything like him (I guess Jack has better things to do these days, unlike these cutters) who tells him the story of his young life. THEN we get into "Velocity," which is all that the other reviews here promised.
Jack is so young that one might not recognize him at first. This was only his second role and he was 23 years old in 1960. It is pretty funny and I gave it two stars for the yuks, but it is atrociously dated. The version I have is colorized.
I see on IMDb that "Velocity" is the video title and "The Wild Ride" was the original name of the film. Maybe it was renamed "Velocity" after the bizarre framing segments were added.
An excellent children's movie--thank God they are believably English.
I went into this movie not wanting to like it. I know the Narnia canon from front to back and, after seeing some disappointing changes made for The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, I didn't want my vision of Narnia to be tainted. But the reviews for this film were so strong that I gave in and paid my six dollars to see it. And it was excellent. For once the filmmakers (writers, really) have not taken license with the story but have instead just pared it down a little to make it fit into a timeframe. It was the CGI stuff that put me off in the previews but it didn't look too bad. I mean, occasionally it made me cringe (the fox) but on the whole it was not terribly distracting.
Tilda Swinton, as the witch, steals this movie. She is not a typical Disney villain--she is a bad-ass, and while watching I remembered that, after all, she is Jadis, the warrior goddess from another world, and it seems that the writers remembered that, too. The characters in this film have older memories of Narnia: memories that go beyond the Pevensies' experience. There are enough pointed looks and loaded answers to make sure that we, the audience, are aware of their significance. The costumes and makeup in this movie are outstanding--better than Lord of the Rings, I think. The only thing I found slightly amiss was that, as per Pauline Baynes's illustrations, I had always envisioned the witch as a brunette, but she looks so totally cool otherwise that I am not complaining.
A History of Violence (2005)
Weird, but not thought-provoking
This movie quickly became painful to watch. Not because of graphic shots of bloody corpses or sex scenes, but because it is 1. Not a very engaging story and 2. Filled with terrible acting. Mortensen and Harris are okay, but Harris's role is not that of the main antagonist. He drops out of the movie before long, and the plot drags without him. Most of the supporting cast just plain stinks. The little girl, in particular, is awful. I am willing to be generous where child "actors" are concerned but every time she came on screen I just cringed. The role of the son is one of the more interesting ones and I am afraid it came out rather muddled. I believe the director was going for a poignant image of the forming of a young man's character, as shaped by school bullies and the actions of his main role model, his father. Unfortunately, the son utters lines that perhaps needed to be said to move the story along but did nothing for the development of his character. He just doesn't seem genuine--nothing in this story really does. Maria Bello has received some bad press for this but I don't think she is that bad. If one's part is written and directed middlingly well, then it stands to reason that the character will come across as very average and forgettable. The storytelling is heavy-handed and gratuitous: we have the scene that demonstrates that Stall is a loving, caring father; the scene that demonstrates that he and his wife adore each other; the scene that tells us the townspeople like and respect Stall, etc. I found these scenes to be just a series of clichés, strung together but not adding up to anything. Overall, I found this film hard to get a grip on, and not interesting enough to motivate me.
Sleeping with the Enemy (1991)
I just bought the DVD of this film and was surprised to find that a graphic scene was removed from the early moments. I remember from seeing the movie in previous times (on television) that when Laura and Martin come home from the party, he begins his little "love-making" session. We see from Laura's expression that her husband is really raping her. This scene is not on my DVD; it ends right after Laura drops the bowl of strawberries. Why was the scene taken out for the DVD? Perhaps there are enough other clues to Martin's true nature but it is odd that this scene, which is one of the first to clue the audience in to the menace of the situation, is missing. The implications of Martin's favorite music and the Pavlovian horror it instills in Laura is somewhat cheapened by the deletion of the rape scene. I know that there are sometimes different edits of films when they are released on television, but I would have expected this sex scene to be taken out for TV, and not for the DVD!
Immortel (ad vitam) (2004)
I saw this at an arty cinema that was also showing "Last Days" and some Charlie Chaplin films. Based on the quality of the other features, I decided to give "Immortel" a chance. I nearly walked out of this movie, and I LIKE science-fiction! The story is set in a futuristic New York city, filled with Blade Runner-style sky advertisements and some similar debates about cloning/synthetic humans. Unfortunately, the screenplay was not condensed enough for an hour-and-forty-five-minute movie. Three groups exist in this world: humans, artificial humans, and Egyptian gods. The artificial humans seem to have the upper hand and control the politics of the city. The humans are slaves and are used for eugenics and organ donation. The Egyptian gods have a floating pyramid (modeled on the Great Pyramid of Khufu, and complete with a deteriorated exterior, leaving a smooth "cap" on the pyramid. Wouldn't a floating futuristic pyramid be in perfect condition?). The pyramid rests above the city and nobody on the ground understands what it is or why it's there. I won't bore you with the so-called plot, but there is lots of unnecessary gore and many gross-out scenes. The film, as I said, looks to have been influenced by Blade Runner, and perhaps also by The Fifth Element and The Matrix. At the end of the film credits were listed thank-yous to the United Kingdom, France, and Italy. The film is FRENCH, but uses British actors who don't speak French. Hence, it is obvious that their French dialog has been dubbed. This is a distraction, and I also thought that switching back and forth between real humans and animations quite distracting. It doesn't help that the animations are poor--no better than a video game. Skip this one.
As romantic comedies go, Hitch is as fun as it gets. Will Smith seems incapable of NOT being entertaining, no matter what he is doing. Some critics have panned this film for being predictable and/or clichéd, but why does one go to see a romantic comedy? To have one's mind blown, or to have a laugh at the awkwardness of humans in romantic situations? Hitch may not be exactly groundbreaking, but neither is it boring. Smith is a comic genius--I can't remember seeing an actor so at ease in front of the camera, so ready so mock himself, or so spontaneous in every situation. Eva Mendes is the perfect foil to Smith's overpowering personality--she holds up her end of the duo with pizazz. Chalk Hitch up with The Wedding Singer on the list of recent must-see romantic comedies.
Violent, but dreamy and mesmerizing
Heat is definitely in my top ten favorite movies. While it is imperfect and murky in parts, I gave it nine stars because of what it might have been, and its ambition. I get the feeling that perhaps something went amiss in the editing process, but other than that the movie is perfect. The soundtrack draws you in, until you are drifting in a haze above LA. Heat reminds me in some ways of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner; while BR is darker, the two films share somewhat of the same mood. Best seen on a large screen with surround sound (terrific action sequences, especially the bank robbery).
Blade Runner (1982)
Deep as an urban ocean
Blade Runner is one of those movies you either get or you don't. Some people find it bizarre and disturbing. My father loves this movie and I watched it for the first time with him. Blade Runner is complex and entrancing--the special effects still blow me away. The gritty world created by Scott in this film is so believable that I wanted to become part of it. Many fans of Dick's writing hold the movie up to the book, pointing out "mistakes" and other changes the script makes to Deckard and to the plot, but I think this is an erroneous argument. Scott's film shows us a realistic portrayal of what city life might become, and focuses less on the man vs. machine theme of the book. The two should be enjoyed as separate works, for each is superior in its own way. Scott's Blade Runner is film noir meets sci-fi, and the result is magical. Vangelis' floating, mysterious score doesn't hurt things, either; in fact, without it, I dare to say that the impact of the movie would not be as great.