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Shoot Out At Silver Creek, 26 February 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The last of Dorothy Page's three westerns "Water Rustlers" is ironic in a two ways. First, how do you rustle water? The treacherous villain Robert Weylan (Stanley Price) of the Silver Creek Mining Company dams up the river and diverts it so he can hydraulically mine the terrain. Naturally, this amounts to a major inconvenience for Tim and Shirley Martin who have a cattle ranch as well as their neighbors. Once Weylan drains off the water, the Martins begin to suffer as do their neighbors. When Shirley resorts to the court of law to stop the audacious Weylan, he retaliates by either killing witnesses set to testify or kills them. Meanwhile, Shirley discovers a spy in their midsts, and it is none other than their own foreman Wiley (Warner Richmond) and he grates on Shirley's nerves when he refuses to hire a stranger, Bob Lawson (Dave O'Brien), to ride herd. Shirley fires Wiley and tells him to hightail it and see if Weylan will hire him. Things get worse for Shirley when her father Tim (Ethan Allen) catches a fatal bullet during a shoot-out with three of Weylan's guards at his dam. Two of those three guards are relying on rifles, while the third is firing away with his revolver. Shirley refuses to resort to violence after her dad dies, but the ranchers derive no satisfaction from the courts. At one point, Shirley comes up with the idea to drive their cattle to the other side of the dam, but Weylan thwarts them. He dispatches a bi-plane to stampede the cattle. At the last minute, Shirley comes up with an idea. Her fellow ranchers and she decide to blow up a hill and get their water back. A desperate Weylan saddles up to ride with his desperadoes, and they ride out to prevent Shirley from blowing up the hill. Ironically, during the ensuing gun battle, Weylan takes a slug and falls on the plunger. "Water Rustlers" features Dorothy Page warbling three inconsequential songs and Vincent Barnett provides the comic relief as Shirley's chuck wagon cook.

Great Performances Cannot Salvage This Saga About Guilt, 26 February 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Everybody in writer & director Sean Penn's "The Crossing Guard" deliver fabulous performances, but this pretentious film is a drag to watch. Guilt oozes out of this epic and nothing about it is remotely entertaining. Jack Nicholson is terrific as Freddy Gale, a jewelry store owner and alcoholic who believes that he must exact vengeance on the drunken driver who struck his daughter Emily, but he is far from likable. I'd call this a film rather than a movie because you only need to watch it once to know you seen it one time too many. David Morse is just as good as the drunken driver who served time for vehicular homicide. These two men are filled with guilt, though they finally make up at the end with our protagonist finally visits his daughter's grave. As well made as "The Crossing Guard" is, it is not the kind of movie you want to see for the sake of sheer entertainment. All the technical credits are top-notch and the film never wears out its welcome. John Savage has a brief role near the beginning and then he vanishes. Robin Wright plays John Booth's momentary girlfriend who ends their relationship because she has too much trouble competing with his guilt. Robbie Robertson is good as the husband who replaced Freddy. Richard Bradford and Piper Laurie appear briefly at the beginning as John Booth's parents who come to pick him up at the prison when he gets out. Sean Penn's father Leo has a cameo, too. Skip this one unless you're feeling really terrible and need a purging.

Atrocious Arabian Nights Nonsense with Elvis, 26 February 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Harum Scarum" gives even second-rate Elvis movies a bad name. If you're counting, Harum Scarum" was Elvis' nineteenth opus, coming between "Tickle Me" and "Frankie and Johnny." Reportedly lensed in a mere 18 days, "Harem Scarum" combines routine musical numbers with a pedestrian Arabian Nights adventure. Virtually everything about "Kissin' Cousins" director Gene Nelson's atrocious epic reeks of inconsistency. Not for an instant is anything about it believable. One minute everything is light-hearted nonsense, and then the next minute, everything becomes serious. Only the villain dies, and he perishes in a burst of machine gun fire. Inevitably, Elvis croons some lackluster tunes. This forgettable Sam Katzman produced potboiler unfolds in an imaginary Middle East that has little to do with the real Middle East. Mind you, for the sake of cost-cutting, everything was shot on back-lot MGM soundstages instead of actual locations in the Middle East.

American celebrity superstar Johnny Tyrone (Elvis Presley) has agreed to represent the U.S. State Department on a goodwill tour of the Arab nation of Babalstan. The Ambassador and he have arranged a premiere of his latest cinematic swashbuckling saga "Sands of the Desert," for a well-heeled audience of dignitaries and their dates. These misguided people actually believe that the on-screen Elvis hero is as formidable as the off-screen Elvis. Elvis relies on his considerable karate skills to dispose of a leopard that stands between him and a bound princess in the movie shown them.

Oxford educated scenarist Gerald Drayson Adams had earlier written swashbucklers like "The Golden Horde," "The Desert Hawk," and "The Prince Was A Thief," so he knew all the right tropes to cover. He serves up clichés galore as our handsome, dark-haired hero accepts an invitation from sinister Prince Dragna (Michael Ansara of "Sol Madrid") to enjoy the hospitality of his older brother King Toranshah in Lunarland. Not-surprisingly, his fictional country is surrounded by rock formations know as the Mountains of the Moon. Predictably, U.S. Ambassador McCord (Hugh Sanders of "Mr. 880") is flabbergasted by Prince Dragna's gracious offer. "Johnny, this is a tremendous honor. Do you realize that you're the first American His Majesty, King Toranshah, has ever invited into his kingdom?" Dragna's date Aishah (Fran Jeffries) provides additional information for Johnny's benefit, "When you cross theMountains of the Moon into our country, Mr. Tyronne, you'll be stepping back 2,000 years. You will find the pageantry and beauty almost unbelievable." Strangely enough, the villains in Lunarland carry vintage World War II British sub-machine guns so 20th century smugglers must have penetrated its boundaries.

No sooner has he flown over a rugged range of mountains and ridden on horseback through the wilderness does Johnny find himself drugged by the beautiful Aishah, abducted by the notorious Arab Sinan (a bald-headed Theo Marcuse), chief of a band of Assassins, and forced to assassinate King Toranshah (Phillip Reed) so Prince Dragna can negotiate oil deals. Of course, Elvis falls in love with Toranshah's daughter, the gorgeous Princess Shalimar (former Miss America Mary Ann Mobley), but he entangled himself in local intrigue with a con artist Zacha (Jay Novello) and his band of thieves. Long-time Elvis bodyguard Red West plays one of Sinan's henchmen. Naturally, the girls look sexy, the surroundings brightly lighted, and script about as serious as a comedy. Only the most die-hard Elvis fans will find this palatable, and the King warbles his way through this crap without a shred of credibility.

Bold Mountain!!!, 25 February 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"English Patient" director Anthony Minghella died before his time. Nevertheless, he made one of the more memorable movies about the American Civil War. Adapting Charles Frazier's first novel, writer & director Minghella depicted aspects of the War Between the States that no other film else has ever detailed. First, this epic length war film unfolds with the disastrous Battle of the Crater at Petersburg in 1864. Late in the war, Union troops tunneled beneath Confederate lines and detonated explosives that they had stockpiled in a mine. Indeed, this constituted a daring maneuver, but the Union didn't take into account the consequences of such a plan and they paid dearly for their audacity. Our sympathetic protagonist, Inman (Jude Law of "Alfie"), is one of many Southern soldiers resting in a trench who got the surprise of their lives. Moments before the explosion, a rabbit tears through their trench and not long afterward the charges ignited and blew up the area. The spectacle of the explosion is truly incredible. Afterward, Union troops poured into the crater as they charged Southern lines, but the rebels trapped them in the crater. "Cold Mountain" not only deals with the battlefront, but also it concerns the home front. After Inman and his friends enthusiastically march off to war, some of the most notorious citizens, led by Teague (Ray Winstone of "Beowulf"), establish a Home Guard. The Home Guard has the right to enter anybody's home if they suspect the occupants are housing deserters, and they may even be able to confiscate the property. Teague and his evil henchman, including Boise (Charlie Hunnam of TV's "Sons of Anarchy"), exploit these opportunities for their monetary gain, too.

Aside from these two little seen events, Minghella assembled a strong stellar cast. As Ada Monroe, the refined daughter of the widowed Reverend Monroe (Donald Sutherland of "M.A.S.H."), Nicole Kidman is a young lady who has been raised like an aristocrat in Charleston, South Carolina, and has led an insular life. She doesn't know any practical to do, except play the piano. The Reverend Monroe left Charleston for reasons concerning his declining health. When they arrive in Cold Mountain, Ada meets Inman while his friends and he are erecting Reverend Monroe's church. Ada and Inman mingle now and then, but they never indulge themselves in hugs and kisses until the day that Inman must depart for war. After the opening Petersburg battle, Minghella shifts back and forth between Ada and Inman. Ada's father dies and she struggles to survive on a farm that she knows nothing about until her neighbors send her a laborer, Ruby (Renée Zellweger) who gets everything back in order for Ada and teaches her how to survive. Meantime, Inman leaves a hospital and deserts. He spends most of his time on foot avoiding groups of Home Front horsemen. Along the way, he encounters a hypocritical preacher, Reverend Veasey (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who has impregnated an African-American slave woman and plans to murder her. Inman thwarts the minister's plans and compels him to suffer the wrath of his congregation. Miraculously, Veasey escapes and stumbles across Inman later during his flight. "Cold Mountain" qualifies as first-class from fade-in to fade-out, with a top-notch supporting cast, including Natalie Portman, Jena Malone, Brendan Gleeson, Giovanni Ribisi, Katy Baker, and Lucas Black. No expense appears to have been overlooked by Minghella in this impressive $79-million production that was partially lensed on location in the Carpathian Mountains in Romania. If you consider yourself a Civil War fan, you should enjoy this movie.

Kite (2014)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
A Nerve-Jangling, Raw-Edged Action Thriller, 24 February 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This savage, exciting, low-budget, revenge thriller draws its inspiration from Yasuomi Umetsu's violent Japanese anime actioneers. When you watch this nimble, 89-minute opus, you'll find yourself thinking about super-charged movies that Luc Besson either directed or produced, such as "La Femme Nikita," "Columbiana," and "District B13." Kinetically staged by Ralph Ziman, primarily known for "The Zookeeper" and "Gangster's Paradise: Jerusalema," "Kite" delivers non-action with a minimum of exposition and pulsating soundtrack. A gorgeous-looking teenage girl, Sawa (India Eisley of "Underworld: Awakening"), searches obsessively for the dastard who murdered her parents. She carries out her quest for vengeance with the help of a police officer, Lieutenant Karl Acker (Samuel L. Jackson of "Pulp Fiction"), who knew her mom and dad. He isn't pleased with her audacious vigilantism. Zimon thrusts us into the thick of the action in the opening scene as a despicable Russian, Mikhal Kratsov (Jaco Muller) hauls Sawa into an elevator where he tries to have bang-up sex with her. An elderly woman in the elevator with them complains about their behavior, and Kratsov smashes her glasses. Sawa kicks him in the face. Brandishing a huge looking automatic pistol, she blasts him at point blank range. Although she blows a hole in his hand, she isn't content to let him get off that easily and obliterates his noggin with another shot from her 9 mm. Our heroine stays strung out on a narcotic called Amp, and nothing comes between her and her quarry. When Acker isn't around to watch over her, Oburi (Callan McAuliffe of "The Great Gatsby") shows up and rescues her a couple of times. Oburi is an athletic type who leaps and lunges around in Parkour and always has an appropriate weapon for every occasion. Basically, Sawa masquerades as a hooker to track down the Emir who operates a flesh trafficking ring. Society has broken down since an economic collapse and state security is a joke. Gangs terrorize the streets and abduct children that they sell to an international cartel run by the Emir. Sawa displays no qualms about killing anybody associated with the Emir. The action sequences are impressive and Ziman has a knack for orchestrating some terrific shoot-outs. After watching this sizzling thriller, I want to see how it stacks up with Yasuomi Umetsu's Japanese anime outings. Sawa's adversaries are repugnantly evil to the core. No matter what corner these hellions have her shackled up to, she exhibits resourcefulness galore in a pinch. She slices up her opponents without mercy, whacking off one villain's head, shoving a skewer through another guy's head, and blasting the brains out of a number of rugged looking gunmen. Mind you, Sawa doesn't go unscathed; she takes a multiple beatings along the way and sheds blood. India Eisley makes a sympathetic but take-no-prisoners heroine. Samuel L. Jackson lingers more often than not on the periphery of the bloodshed, but he still makes an important contribution to the narrative. You'll enjoy this lean, mean, slam-bang thriller. "Kite" was lensed on atmospheric locations in South Africa.

The DUFF (2015)
3 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Easy B, 24 February 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The captivating "Pygmalion" comedy "The DUFF" revitalizes the standard-issue, romantic, high school, makeover movie. No, I haven't read Kentucky-native Kody Keplinger's 2010 novel that she wrote while she attended high school. Nevertheless, freshman director Ari Sandel and "Bandslam" scenarist Josh A. Cagan appear to have infused their adaptation of Keplinger's yarn with the wit, charm, and sophistication reminiscent of classics such as John Hughes' "The Breakfast Club" (1985) and Amy Heckerling's "Clueless" (1995). Most makeover comedies are so lame they are mediocre. Prime examples include 1987's "Can't Buy Me Love" and 1999's "She's All That." Moreover, the superlative makeover movie parody "Not Another Teen Movie" (2001) subjected the genre to devastating ridicule. Although "The DUFF" appropriates most of the usual conventions and clichés, the characters emerge as more interesting, the predicaments more stimulating, and the humor more imaginative. While our sympathetic but iconoclastic senior class heroine is negotiating the complex social order maze, "The DUFF" compounds her problems, pitting her against cyber-bullies who exploit the social media technology to insult, humiliate, and destroy her because she represents a threat. No, this frivolous, PG-13 rated, frolic doesn't plumb the appalling depths of "Disconnect" (2012) where callous cyber bullies drove a sensitive teen to commit suicide. Comparatively, our heroine packs considerably more pluck than the unfortunate "Disconnect" protagonist, and she survives everything with which her ruthless adversaries assault her.

Like most teen movies in a high school setting, this clever comedy categorizes its characters by archetypes. "The DUFF" assembles the traditional gallery of crude egotistical jocks, bitchy babe princesses, and oblivious adults--whether they are administrators, instructors, or parents. Sandel and Cagan orchestrate the action around the most prominent high school happening: prom. Of course, graduation constitutes the other landmark event, but prom overshadows graduation. Primarily, prom generates far greater opportunities for dramatic conflict than congregations in caps and gowns. As in most high school sagas, teenagers are searching desperately for their place in the social pecking order. While their parents and peers are manipulating them like marionettes from behind the scenes, these struggling teens have to muster the nerve to assert themselves as individuals and break free of those fetters. All makeover movies, whether good or bad, are ranked by how challenging the obstacle course is, and if the teens can triumph. Naturally, our resourceful heroine achieves her goal, but she has to sidestep the slings and arrows of her treacherous enemies along the way.

The acronym DUFF that doubles as the title for Sandel's first film stands for 'designated ugly fat friend.' If for no other reason, "The DUFF" has carved a niche out for itself in teen makeover movie history because it originated this term. Bianca Piper (Mae Whitman of "The Perks of Being a Wallflower") doesn't live to loiter in the limelight. An honor roll scholar, she writes for the campus newspaper, dresses as if she were homeless, and watches cult horror chillers like Lucio Fulci's "Zombie." Bianca's two best friends are aspiring fashion designer Jess (Skyler Samuels of "Furry Vengeance") and gorgeous but geeky Internet nerd Casey (Bianca A. Santos of "Ouija"), who can do anything with a computer. Not surprisingly, these two dolls are drop-dead gorgeous, while our ugly duckling heroine dresses beneath their status. Bianca's life-long, next door neighbor is football team captain Wesley (Robbie Amell of TV's "The Tomorrow People") who dreams about dating Jess. He approaches Bianca one day to recruit her as his go-between. At this point in her high school career, Bianca has never heard the term DUFF. Moreover, she cringes with surprise and horror at being pigeonholed into such an unflattering category. Wesley explains that DUFFs exist everywhere. At lunch, he points out examples of both guys and girls at lunch taking refuge from the violence.

No sooner has Bianca learned about her deplorable status than she resolves not only to alter her lifestyle but also eliminate her friends. Actually, neither Jess nor Casey has ever taken advantage of Bianca as a DUFF. Nevertheless, our hot-headed heroine doesn't see things objectively enough at the moment. Meantime, resident 'mean girl' drama queen Madison (Bella Thorne of "Blended"), who has had an on-again, off-again relationship with Wesley, has decided to renew their romance. Things come to a boil when Wesley's poor chemistry grades jeopardize his status as captain of the high school football team. Simultaneously, Bianca marvels at the ease with which Wesley navigates the social order. Bianca cuts a deal with Wesley. She will tutor Wesley in chemistry, if he will show her how to attract the attention of her dream guy. Naturally, green-eyed Madison has kept an eye on Wesley and Bianca from afar, and she plots Bianca's demise if she doesn't leave her Wesley alone. Madison's best friend shoots a reality video journal of Madison's life, and Madison assigns her to maintain stealth surveillance on Wesley and Bianca. Ironically, Bianca wasn't trying to seduce Wesley. Instead, Bianca has had a crush on a laid-back, acoustical guitarist, Toby (Nick Eversman of "Wild"), but she cannot utter more than two words when they encounter each other on campus.

Indeed, "The DUFF" is predictable, particularly if you've seen as many teen makeover movies as I have, but top-notch casting, charismatic characters, and suspenseful situations elevate this comedy above the standard stuff. Mae Whitman reminded me of the ultimate 1990's DUFF character: Janeane Garofalo, who co-starred with Uma Thurman in "The Truth About Cats and Dogs." Whitman's fascination with horror movies is also reminiscent of Ellen Page from "Juno." Bianca provides a running, voice-over narration, enlivened with commentary similar to Emma Stone's comments in "Easy A." Happily, Whitman and co-star Robbie Amell generate showers of sparks, and they look like they enjoyed sharing their scenes as teacher and student. The funniest scene depicts Bianca trying on apparel and making out with a mannequin that resembles her dream date Toby. Altogether, "The DUFF qualifies as an easy-B.

Fifty Shades of Blood!!!, 19 February 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Imagine putting the James Bond movies into a cinematic blender with the Austin Powers comedies, and you'll see what British director Matthew Vaughn does with his outlandish movie "Kingsman: The Secret Service." For the record, Vaughn made his first film as a director in 2004 with the murderous mobster melodrama "Layer Cake" (2004) starring Daniel Craig. Three years later he followed up "Layer Cake" with "Stardust." This imaginative Neil Gaiman fantasy romance bore little resemblance to the gritty "Layer Cake." Vaughn didn't come into his own until he adapted Mark Millar's subversive graphic novel "Hit Girl" as the Nicolas Cage actioneer "Kick Ass." This controversial revenge thriller about a dad and daughter who dressed like comic book super-heroes to destroy a dastardly gangster spawned a sequel. Vaughn's biggest success came with the incomparable Marvel Comics "X-Men" prequel "X-Men: First Class" about the costume-clad mutants in their youth during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Vaughn has recycled many of the themes and characters from those movies for his adaptation of Mark Millar's graphic novel "Kingsman: The Secret Service" that features Colin Firth, Michael Caine, and Mark Strong. This uneven but entertaining homage to the James Bond movies provides an overdue departure from the usual formulaic, testosterone laden fare that sacrifices wit and style for realism and gore. Mind you, Vaughn grinds his action gears during the early scenes as he sets up his improbable plot. Happily, he has everything running smoothly for an explosive finale. The big problem that Vaughn had to contend with in launching a new franchise was pairing relatively unknown actor Taron Egerton with veteran actor Colin Firth who rarely plays armed and deadly heroes. Meanwhile, sympathetic heroes and treacherous villains tangle mercilessly in this larger-than-life, hyperbolic espionage escapade that could easily qualify as "50 Shades of Blood" for its sensational number of mind-blowing action scenes. Hundreds of thousands of people perish when an evil megalomaniac plans to solve overpopulation by implanting SIM cards into their heads, controlling their thoughts, and converting their cell phones into improvised explosive devices. "Kingsman: The Secret Service" qualifies as the kind of silly but stout, R-rated saga that might repel squeamish moviegoers.

Matthew Vaughn and his wife Jane Golden, who has collaborated on every film her husband has helmed except "Layer Cake," have adapted Mark Millar's graphic novel with the same audacious abandon that they infused in "Kick Ass." Indeed, they have made some extreme but inspired changes to Millar's narrative. "Kingsman" concerns an independent, international espionage agency hidden behind the façade of an elite tailor's shop on London's Savile Row that operates at the highest level of discretion like "The Man from U.N.C.L.E" television series. This private outfit makes Navy SEALs look like second-rate shrimp. Indeed, if such an ultra-secret organization existed, world peace would be guaranteed. Latter day British knights of the realm with appropriate code-names like Lancelot and Galahad, these dudes cut dashing figures in their globe-trotting missions to preserve peace and solidarity. The cream of their crop, Harry Hart (Colin Firth), ranks as their top agent. He is at his best when he has little more than an umbrella to vanquish the villains. British actor Colin Firth, who plays the impeccably clad protagonist, has been acting since 1984, but he is known largely as a lightweight leading man in romantic comedies like "Mamma Mia!," "Shakespeare in Love," and "Bridget Jones' Diary." In 2007, he ventured out of his comfort zone and played an armor-clad knight in the above-average medieval swashbuckler "The Last Legion." During one of Vaughn's many impressively staged action set-pieces, Firth devastates a hatemongering Westboro-style church congregation in a no-holds-barred, free-for-all fracas.

As "Kingsman" unfolds, Harry Hart's closest comrade, Lancelot (Jack Davenport), dies during a mission but saves Harry's life. Predictably, Harry consoles Lancelot's grieving widow and son. Understandably distraught by her husband's mysterious demise, Michelle Unwin (Samantha Womack of "Breeders") wants nothing to do with Kingsman. Nevertheless, Harry persuades her only son, Eggsy, to accept Lancelot's medal inscribed with a phone number and a code word should he ever require help. Seventeen years later, as an underprivileged teen living in the projects, Eggsy finds himself in deep trouble. Our wild, impulsive hero steals an automobile belonging to a gang of loutish British lads who have been badgering him. Commandeering their vehicle for a joyride, Eggsy careens through congested London traffic, driving the vehicle in reverse, with the police following him nose to nose, as he executes several complicated maneuvers. Vaughn excels with suspenseful scenes like this careening car chase. Later, with nobody to help him, Gary 'Eggys' Unwin (newcomer Taron Egerton) contacts Harry. After Harry gets Eggsy out of the clink, he takes him for a tour of a local tailor's shop that serves as a front for Kingsman. Since he feels guilty about the death of Eggys' dad, Harry helps the lad compete with other candidates for the job-of-a-lifetime as a Kingsman. After surviving the gauntlet of an incredible obstacle course, Eggys stands poised to become a top agent who can match wits and swap fists with either James Bond or Jason Bourne. Unfortunately, our hero commits some interesting mistakes before he can redeem himself in the eyes of the Kingsman and save the world.

Samuel L. Jackson steals the show as goofy looking, Internet billionaire philanthropist Richmond Valentine. Adopting with a quirky lisp, Jackson wears his baseball cap askew like a gangsta. Clearly, Valentine represents Jackson's best performance since "Pulp Fiction." Although the tongue-in-cheek Jackson overshadows handsome Harry Hart and his unusual arsenal of weapons, Valentine's number one henchman--perhaps 'henchm'am would be better--is a gravity-defying dame equipped with razor-sharp, 'Flex-Foot Cheetah' blade feet, who slices up her adversaries like deli meat. Nothing can prepare you for Algerian dancer Sofia Boutella of "StreetDance 2" when she performs her breathtaking acrobatic feats in a variation on Oddjob and his razor sharp bowler hat from the Bond groundbreaker "Goldfinger." Altogether, "Kingsman: The Secret Service" amounts to amusing but polished nonsense.

Seventh Son (2014/I)
0 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Recycled Fantasy Fodder, 10 February 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Oscar-winning actor Jeff Bridges has made many memorable movies. "Thunderbolt & Lightfoot," "Jagged Edge," "The Big Lebowski," "The Fisher King," "Fearless," "Against All Odds," "Men Who Stare at Goats," "Iron Man," "True Grit," and "Crazy Heart" stand out among the more than 60 theatrical features that he has starred in since he started acting back in the 1970s. Bridges' latest outing "Seventh Son" proves that he can make an occasional stinker, too. Making his English-language film debut, Oscar-nominated Russian director Sergey Bodrov, who helmed the 1997 Tolstoy tale "Prisoners of the Mountains," has spared no expense in bringing this sprawling but predictable $95-million, medieval fantasy to the screen. A posse of demon-possessed souls that can turn into voracious supernatural beasts tangle with our venerable hero and his naïve sidekick as the two struggle to vanquish an unforgiving witch. Interestingly, this larger-than-life adaptation of retired English teacher Joseph Delaney's young adult novel "The Spook's Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch," the first of fourteen books in his "Wardstone Chronicles," has generated greater enthusiasm overseas. Chinese and Russian audiences flocked to it. Meantime, American audiences have shunned it, and box office analysts have branded this Universal Pictures release as a flop based on its dismal opening weekend receipts of little more than $7 million.

"Seventh Son" opens as the last of the Falcon Knights, Master John Gregory (Jeff Bridges of "TRON"), locks up the malevolent Queen of Witches, Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore of "The Big Lebowski"), in an oubliette in a remote mountain range. Gregory and Malkin, it seems, once loved each other. Gregory abandoned Malkin for another woman, and the jealous Malkin killed Gregory's wife. Gregory retaliated and imprisoned Malkin for what he thought would be an eternity. Designated as a 'Spook,' Gregory earns his living as a spell-casting, witch-busting, dragon slayer equipped with a flame-throwing staff. He has dedicated himself tirelessly to the destruction of anything supernatural that frightens common folk. Despite Gregory's elaborate precautions, Mother Malkin breaks out of captivity many years later as a result of a centennial lunar event termed 'the Blood Moon.' The Blood Moon revitalizes Malkin's evil powers, enabling this witch to transform into a winged dragon, and flap away to her own mountain-top fortress. Master Gregory and young apprentice William Bradley (Kit Harington of HBO's "Game of Thrones") recapture this diabolical dame with arrows and a silver net. Unfortunately, Malkin kills poor Bradley, and Gregory must recruit a new apprentice. Gregory comes across another 'seventh son of a seventh son,' Tom Ward (Ben Barnes of "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian"), a farm boy living in relative obscurity who slops his father's swine. Tom reminded me of Luke Skywalker when he appears initially in "Star Wars." Anyway, Tom takes advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to escape from a life of drudgery. Surprisingly enough, Tom had visions of his chance encounter before Gregory actually bargained with his dad to apprentice him. Meantime, Tom's doting mother, Mam Ward (Olivia Williams of "Sabotage"), entrusts her son with a unique magical pedant to wear out-of-sight around his neck. While Gregory tutors Tom about witches, Malkin assembles her own culturally diverse posse of sinister shape-shifters. Initially, Malkin enlists the aid of her younger sister Bony Lizzie (Antje Traue of "Pandorum") as well as Bony's pretty niece Alice (Alicia Vikander of "Ex Machina"), who are witches, too. Alice beguiles young Tom and keeps the lad hoodwinked for about three-fourths of the film until he wises up about her treachery. Ultimately, Malkin and her devils lure both Gregory and Tom into her own mountain-top fortress for a fight to the death under a blood red moon.

Essentially, "Seventh Son" suffers from second-rate scripting despite its impressive scribes: "Blood Diamond's" Charles Leavitt, "Eastern Promises'" Steven Knight and "Reign of Fire's" Matt Greenberg. These guys have scrapped most of Delaney's narrative in favor of something more bombastically cinematic but at the same time hopelessly incoherent. Principally, the characters lack depth, dimension, and/or decadence. If you've seen "Season of the Witch" with Nicolas Cage and "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" with Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton, you'll know when to yarn during the formulaic, by-the-numbers, adventures. Mumbling as if with a mouthful of marbles, a bearded Jeff Bridges appears to be imitating not only his own cantankerous "True Grit" character Rooster Cogburn, but also he channels a combination of Alec Guinness' Obi-Wan from the original "Star Wars" and Ian McKellen's Gandalf the Grey from the "Hobbit" movies. Whereas Obi-Wan and Gandalf emerged as flamboyant, Gregory is far from flamboyant. His best scene takes place in a tavern where he wields a cup of ale without spilling a drop to thrash a presumptuous swordsman. Oscar nominated actress Julianne Moore restrains herself as a despicable witch who can morph into an airborne dragon, entwine adversaries with her chain-link tail, and then skewer them without uttering a clever line. Mind you, this description of Moore's character sounds like she could have had a blast indulging herself, but she refuses to chew the scenery. Comparatively, Moore's lavishly attired, red-haired sorceress is nowhere as audacious as Charlize Theron's wicked witch in "Snow White and the Huntsman." Sadly, secondary leads Ben Barnes and Alicia Vikander generate neither charisma as stock characters nor chemistry as an amorous couple. Barnes is about as wooden as Hayden Christensen was in the second "Star Wars" trilogy. Meanwhile, talented thespians like Olivia Williams, Kip Harrington, Djimon Hounsou, and Jason Scott Lee languish on the periphery of this synthetic sword and sorcery saga.

Although it drums up minimal intensity between fade-in and fade-out, "Seventh Son" boasts some lively combat scenes that the 3-D visual effects enhance. "Star Wars" visual effects specialist John Dykstra has created several outlandish CGI monsters, but few are terrifying. The picturesque mountains of British Columbia are as scenic as "Canterbury Tales" production designer Dante Ferretti's sets are spectacular. Unfortunately, "Seventh Son" recycles the usual dungeons and dragon shenanigans with little to distinguish it from its prestigious predecessors.

By the Gun (2014)
Bored "By the Gun", 3 February 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The apathetic R-rated mafia movie "By the Gun" generates minimal velocity, and the foul-mouthed characters don't curse half as much as they should. If you're itching for something like either "Goodfellas" or "Killing Them Softly," you're going to be sorely disappointed. The urban action meanders aimlessly for little more than a half-hour before our handsome but ineffectual hero finds himself face to face with his big contract kill. Sadly, Nick cannot summon the nerve to pull the trigger. Instead, his obnoxious buddy George (Slaine of "The Town") takes care of Nick's business for him. Niccolo Emilio Tortano (Ben Barnes of "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian"), who dreamed about being a 'made man' in the Italian mob, gets his opportunity about 41 minutes into the slow-burn action as his boss Salvatore Vitaglia (Harvey Keitel of "Mean Streets") administers the omerta oath.

Trouble is killing isn't in Nick's blood. Nick's father Vincent wants nothing to do with either him or the mob. Nick also has his eyes on a female bartender, Ali (Leighton Meester of "Country Strong"), and likes to give her flowers. As it turns out, Ali's father is scummy mafia chieftain Tony Matazano (Ritchie Coaster of "Blackhat"), and Nick's friend George takes Tony hostage and beats him within an inch of his life. George threatens to blab off to everybody about what he did for Nick. Tony tells Nicky repeatedly to kill George, and suddenly Nick blows Tony's head off. This prompts Sal to take a contract out of Nick. Indeed, Nick gets to sleep with Ali who abhorred her own father, but by then Nick's days are numbered. When Sal's shooter Jerry (Toby Jones of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier") comes gunning for Nick, he finds Ali alone in bed and ices her. Nick manages to shoot Jerry with the same silenced automatic with which Jerry rubbed out Ali. Finally, Nick musters some guts and goes after Sal.

Sophomore director James Motten of "Trucker" and rookie scenarist Emilio Mauro delay the inevitable for what seems an eternity. More characters bite the dust in the last ten minutes than the previous 100 minutes. Leading man Ben Barnes drums up little charisma. He isn't sympathetic for a mafia protagonist who allows situations to manipulate him. Motton and Mauro deliver a double whammy surprise at fade-out, but it is too late to salvage this mediocre melodrama. The locations appear realistic enough, and the budget seems more than adequate. Nevertheless, "By the Gun" emerges as a forgettable fiasco.

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The Trash Next Door, 31 January 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Jennifer Lopez isn't a bad actress, but she is so miscast so miserably as a high school English teacher in "The Boy Next Door" that not even a seasoned Hollywood helmer like Rob Cohen can salvage this substandard stalker saga. Although he has directed hits like "The Fast and the Furious" and "xXx" as well as above-average epics like "Daylight," "Stealth," and "Alex Cross," Cohen appears appallingly out of his element with this formulaic fiasco. Not only does the tawdry "The Boy Next Door" miscast Lopez, but also it makes Ryan Guzman, John Corbett, and Hill Harper look just as inapt. Whatever Lopez and the other twelve producers on this picture admired about rookie writer Barbara Curry's screenplay must have been either altered or didn't survive the final cut. Although she received an MFA in scriptwriting from UCLA, Curry should have kept her old day job. She spent ten years as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles where she toiled in the Major Violent Crimes Unit and handled federal cases involving murder-for-hire, prison murder, racketeering, arson, kidnapping, and bank robbery. Reportedly, Curry taught criminal procedure at FBI Headquarters in Quantico, Virginia, and pushed for trial advocacy at the U.S Justice Department in Washington, D.C. In time perhaps, Curry might brush up on her storytelling skills and become a better writer. "The Boy Next Door" is neither suspenseful nor surprising, unless you've never seen a single stalker movie. Quite often, our sexy heroine, her oblivious colleagues, and her unsuspecting kin do some really stupid moves that make this movie appear more like a comedy than a drama. The best thing about this predictable pabulum is that it clocks in at a minimal 91 minutes. Meanwhile, "The Boy Next Door" has sold enough tickets to qualify as a "hit." Produced for a paltry $ 4 million, this mediocre crime melodrama has coined more than $20 million at the box office box, an amount sufficient to pay off its budget as well as its advertising.

Lopez plays English teacher Claire Peterson who teaches classic literature, specifically "The Odyssey" and "The Iliad," at a California state public high school. Our heroine looks far too incendiary for her own good. Mind you, I'm not saying high school English teachers cannot look stunning, but Lopez strains credibility with some of her wardrobe. As the action unfolds, Claire has separated from her philandering husband, Garrett Peterson (John Corbett of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding"), who careens around in muscle cars and had an affair with his secretary. Since you never get a glimpse of the other gal, you have to wonder how she compared with Claire. Presumably, Garrett was probably taking advantage of his lowly employee because she was younger than Claire. Meantime, Claire's teenage son, Kevin (Ian Nelson of "The Hunger Games"), suffers from asthma and allergies when bullies aren't badgering him. The senior citizen next door to Claire (Jack Wallace of "Boogie Nights") has just taken in his handsome, but orphaned, 19-year nephew, Noah Sandborn (an improbable 27-year old Ryan Guzman of "Step Up Revolution"), whose own dad died in a mysterious car crash. Hint, hint! Claire encounters this charming Abercrombie & Fitch pin-up boy while she is wrestling with a cranky garage door. One weekend, while Garrett and Kevin are away on a fishing trip, Claire accompanies her best friend and colleague, High School Vice Principal Vicky Lansing (Kristin Chenoweth of "Strange Magic"), on a blind date from Hell. The well-meaning Vicky has set Claire up with a gruff anti-intellectual guy. After she walks out on this loser, our distressed heroine finds herself face to face with charismatic Noah. During a vulnerable moment, Claire abandons her morals as easily as Noah disposes of her lingerie. Lopez displays little more than her shapely thighs while Guzman keeps her breasts discreetly covered with his groping paws. The morning after when he awakens her with orange juice and coffee, Noah cannot imagine why Claire would be racked with recriminations. Complicating matters even more, Noah is a transfer student who has enrolled in classes at the same high school where Claire teaches. Lusting after her, Noah decides to pursue Claire, but she rebuffs his advances. Eventually, Noah turns psychotic. Initially, he hacks into Claire's e-mail account and obtains permission from Principal Edward Warren (Hill Harper of CBS-TV's "CSI: New York") to enroll in her class with her apparent approval. Similarly, Noah befriends Kevin, teaches him how to box, and tries to turn him against Garrett who wants desperately to patch up his marriage with Claire. In a burst of rage, Noah pulverizes one of Kevin's bullies, and Vicky expels Noah. Meantime, Vicky uncovers some disturbing information about Noah, and she finds herself on the wrong end of his rage. Ultimately, Noah horrifies Claire with news that he made a video of their sex act and threatens to expose her! At this point, you're liable to laugh your head hysterically off rather than gnaw your fingernails in dread.

Comparatively, "The Boy Next Door" reminded me of "Fatal Attraction," "Single White Female," "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," "Swimfan," and "Basic Instinct." In a "Cosmopolitan" magazine interview, Curry said she drew inspiration from a real-life incident involving a high school teacher who had seduced one of her underage students. Sadly, the relationship between Claire and Noah, especially their voyeur episodes, is so outrageous that you cannot take the drama seriously. Cohen claims he wanted to craft the ultimate erotic thriller along the lines of those previously mentioned movies, but he embroiders clichés. Some of the action scenes, particularly a runaway car episode, provide only a momentary relief from the Harlequin-like soap opera shenanigans. Cohen generates a modicum of suspense in the tradition of "Rear Window" when Claire searches Noah's man cave for the sex video. Most of the time, however, you'll felt insulted by the idiotic antics of these clueless cretins. "The Boy Next Door" isn't a third as exciting as last year's "No Good Deed."

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