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Cry Danger (1951)
Above=Average, Gritty, Film Noir with a Lush L.A. Setting, 2 September 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Former Academy Award winning editor Robert Parrish cut his teeth as a director on this gritty, hard-broiled, black & white, Dick Powell urban thriller. Powell plays a hard-luck guy fresh out of prison after serving five years of a life term for a $100-thousand dollar robbery. No sooner has Rocky (Dick Powell of "Murder, My Sweet") gotten out of stir courtesy of a lame Marine, Delong (Richard Erdman of "Objective: Burma"), who has provided an alibi about clearing Rocky of a crime that our hero didn't commit. Meantime, a Los Angeles Police Lieutenant, Gus Cobb (Regis Toomey of "The Big Sleep"), tells Rocky that he plans to maintain tabs on him twenty-four/seven until he recovers the stolen loot. Rocky checks in with a shady bookie, Louie Castro (William Conrad of "The Killers"), who gives him $500 to place a bet on a horse that he claims will pay off 18-to-1. Naturally, Rocky demands more money to make up for the $100-thousand that he lost because he went to jail and couldn't hold down his $20-thousand dollar a year job. Everything goes smoothly for Rocky and Castro's long-shot horse pays off. Rocky picks up five grand from another bookie (Hy Averback), but he learns to his chagrin that he was paid off with dough from the robbery.

Cobb pulls Rocky in, and Rocky cannot prove where he got the race horse money. As it turns out, Cobb has been following Rocky so he knows that Castro is lying when Castro tells him that he hasn't seen Rocky. Rocky hooks up with a friend's wife, Mrs. Nancy Morgan (Rhonda Fleming of "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral"), whose husband Danny is up for parole. The villains shoot up a car that they believe is being driven by Rocky, but he isn't behind the wheel when the bullets blast holes in an innocent bystander, Delong's part-time model girlfriend Darlene (Jean Porter of "Bathing Beauty"). Delong winds up in the hospital, and Rocky packs a pistol and goes after Castro. He plays an interesting game of Russian roulette with Castro and convinces him to spill his guts to Cobb. When Castro calls the police, he is actually calling his own henchmen. Rocky calls Castro's bluff and forces him to ring up the police. The cops show up just as Castro's gunsels are coming to his rescue.

"Cry Danger" isn't the best movie that Powell ever made, but this atmospheric RKO release holds its own until the final revelations. Conrad makes a sturdy villain. This complicated movie qualifies as a film noir because the heroine isn't on the level and the heroine is treacherous. She has been lying all-along to our soft-touch protagonist. Of course, Rocky gets away without having to go back to jail, and Cobb collects the loot. Powell and Fleming never generate sparks. Nevertheless, "Cry Danger" has some strong moments, and the Los Angeles setting is terrific. Interestingly enough, future James Bond credits creator Maurice Binder served as an assistant to the producer.

Sinister 2 (2015)
0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Sucks 2, 2 September 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Sadly, "Sinister 2" validates the rule that sequels pale by comparison with their predecessors. Although occasionally atmospheric and marginally creepy, "Sinister 2" won't prompt you to sleep with your lights on, trouble you with nightmares, or send you off to counseling. Of course, if you didn't see the original "Sinister" (2012), you won't know why the latter was so good while the former abysmal. Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, the pair who penned "Sinister," scripted the lackluster sequel. The problem is "Sinister 2" simply isn't half as sinister as the original. Basically, "Sinister" packaged its plot around an anthology of Super 8mm snuff movies that a true-life crime author discovered in the attic of the house that he had bought to revive his declining career. Little did he know that this house was haunted. The cinematic horror in some of those home movies proved bizarre enough to make your skin crawl. Nonetheless, the safety value of modern horror is that everything was depicted with such outrageous abandon that you felt uneasy but never entirely queasy. Now, spectators who don't appreciate horror movies as an art form would probably label "Sinister" and "Sinister 2" both decadent and repellent. Keep in mind that "Citadel" director Ciarán Foy shows us nothing remotely gruesome in this 97-minute, R-rated chiller. Indeed, your imagination fills in the gaps because "Sinister 2" doesn't dare show us what really would happen without running the risk of an NC-17 rating. The snuff movies in "Sinister 2" aren't quite as diabolical. In "Sinister 2," the best of the snuff movies dealt with three helpless humans hanging by their heels like live bait above an alligator infested river. Predictably, a gluttonous gator shows up and snacks on one of the victims. Ultimately, "Sinister 2" suffers because no single character significantly dramatic enough replaces the Ethan Hawke protagonist from the first film.

The "Sinister" boogeyman--a cadaverous ghoul named Bughuul (Nicholas King of "Max Keeble's Big Move")--returns with more unsavory shenanigans. Dressed from head to foot in black, this menacing supernatural demon resembles Tommy Wiseau, and he descends into rural Illinois to wreak havoc on a group of children that lived in and around an old church. These children have established contact with two 9-year old boys, Dylan and Zach Collins (real-life brothers, Robert and Dartanian Sloan), who are hiding out in an old house with their single mom, Courtney Collins (Shannyn Sossamon of "Wristcutters: A Love Story") where she is restoring antique furniture. Courtney has fled from her abusive husband, wealthy local businessman Clint Collins (Lea Coco of "J. Edgar"), and she is struggling to raise their two sons. Clint traumatized his wife, beating up not only Courtney but also hitting young Dylan so hard that he wound up in the emergency room. Later, Courtney convinced a friend who owns the property adjacent to an abandoned church to let them live there until she can find somewhere else to go. She has been running from Clint and dodging Clint's hired hands who have been following her no matter where she went. Meantime, the evil dead children that visit Dylan after dark lure him into the basement of the old house and show him 16mm reels that they have made about their own families that they murdered in cold blood.

Meanwhile, the former deputy sheriff in the original "Sinister" (James Ransome of "Empire State"), who tried to help Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) with his research, has lost his job because he shared confidential information. Now, the ex-deputy has embarked on a crusade to battle Bughuul by burning down the buildings that the ghoul has haunted. He refers to this as breaking the chain of evil. When "Sinister 2" opens, the ex-deputy has been in touch with real estate agents about the house near the church where Courtney has been hiding from her estranged husband. He plans to burn the building down when he encounters Courtney. Courtney and he get acquainted when he spends the night with her at the house. No, they don't forge a romantic relationship. Later, Clint surprises Courtney and the ex-deputy, arriving with the local authorities, in a futile showdown to induce his wife to hand Dylan and Zach over to him. The ex-deputy intervenes on Courtney's behalf, and the local yokels back down. Throughout this marriage squabble, Dylan has been watching murderous home movie reels with the dead children but he hates them. Dylan's brother Zach grows jealous because the dead kids chose Dylan over him. Eventually, the dead kids turn to Zach.

The biggest problem that "Sinister 2" suffers from is the absence of a strong central character, like Ethan Hawke's writer in the original, to dramatically anchor the storyline. Scenarists Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill have entrusted these duties to James Ransome's former deputy sheriff. Nevertheless, Ransome still conducts himself like a weak supporting character rather than a compelling protagonist. Furthermore, Derrickson and Cargill haven't assigned a name to Ransome's character. Moreover, he remains largely ineffectual when he comes to matching fists with Clint and wits with the intimidating Bughuul. Sadly, Bughuul makes what constitutes fleeting appearances as the spectral villain who controls the dead kids. Bughuul terrorizes Ex-Deputy So & So when the latter explores the deconsecrated church where a boy, Milo (Lucas Jade Zumann) murdered his family during a medieval ritual involving the use of live rats trapped beneath buckets strapped atop to several bodies nailed to the sanctuary floor. Fiery coals were heaped atop the buckets so that the heat prompted the rats to gnaw their way to freedom by burrowing through the bodies of the tied down victims. Clearly, implausible plotting and convoluted predicaments are two other problems that afflict this contrived chiller. Inexplicably, Derrickson and Cargill have set their sequel in a corn field where the dead kids terrorize Dylan and Zach, in an obvious homage to the Stephen King thriller "Children of the Corn." Altogether, "Sinister 2" amounts to an uninspired sequel.

Outcast (2014/I)
Above-Average Cage Fighting, 25 August 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Nicolas Cage has made his share of bad movies. Nobody would argue this indisputable fact. Nick Powell's "The Outcast" surpasses Dominic Sena's dreary "Season of the Witch." Like "Season of the Witch," "The Outcast" takes place in the 12th century during The Crusades, and we find our heroes—Gallian (Nicolas Cage) and Jacob (Hayden Christensen of "Takers") are battle fatigued Anglo-Saxon knights crossing swords and crossbows with Moors. Eventually, Jacob goes too far, and Gallian mistakes what he sees as Jacob's sadism is killing women and children.

After this bloody opening sequence, "The Outcast" shifts its narrative to China, where we are treated to malice in the palace. An elderly and dying king (Shi Liang) entrusts his throne to his young, 14-year old son Mei (Ji Ke Jun Yi) over the head of his older son Shing (Andy On). The ruler tells Mei that he is better equipped to usher in an era of peace, while the older has become a sadistic warrior. No sooner has the King given Mei the royal seal and sent him packing with his daughter Lian (Yifei Liu) than Shing shows up with his army. Shing demands that he have a moment with his father, and he murders his father when they are alone and then blames Mei for his demise. Mei and his sister escape from Shing, but they don't get very far before complications force them to walk on foot. At a restaurant, Mei and Lian encounter an opium-addled Jacob who rescues them from Shing's evil henchmen. Hayden Christensen is not one of my favorite actors, but he does an okay job. Christensen usually delivers wooden performances, but the character that he plays has more depth than his standard characters.

Eventually, they head for the mountains and seek refuge in the mountain of the White Ghost. As it turns out, the White Ghost is none other than Gallian, but time has taken a toll on him. He has lost the use of one eye, but he is just as battle savvy as ever. Jacob and the kids join him, and together they fight Sing and his army. Stunt coordinator Nick Powell does a good job of staging several pugnacious action scenes. Of course, the plot is hopelessly formulaic. Nevertheless, gorgeous scenery, thrilling combat scenes, and superb production values compensate just enough to make "The Outcast" a tolerably enjoying yarn. Like "Season of the Witch," Cage dies, but Jacob survives.

2 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
Spies Versus Stoners, 25 August 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Imagine crisscrossing the amnesia, espionage thriller "The Bourne Identity" with the stoner saga "The Pineapple Express," and you've got the nitty-gritty of "Project X" director Nima Nourizadeh's "American Ultra," starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kirsten Stewart, John Leguizamo, and Bill Pullman. Although it remains far from original with its formulaic content, this violent, offbeat, 96-minute, R-rated epic delivers one startling surprise after another, not the least of which is the unusual casting of the loquacious, sissified Eisenberg as a weaponized lethal hero. At the same time, "American Ultra" reunites Eisenberg with his "Adventureland" co-star Kristen Stewart of the "Twilight" franchise. Just as Eisenberg plays rough and tumble with blood on his hands, Stewart isn't far behind as an action heroine, too. While Eisenberg kills in self-defense with considerable qualms, he conducts himself at times as if he were imitating Richard Dean Anderson's Angus MacGuyer, wielding everyday objects with devastating ferocity, when he isn't pondering his mysterious memory lapses like Matt Damon's Jason Bourne. Action thrillers don't make the grade unless the heroes and heroines tangle with challenging adversaries. Bad guys Topher Grace and Walton Goggins are appropriately villainous, and "Independence Day" actor Bill Pullman shows up briefly as their CIA superior. Director Nima Nourizadeh doesn't let the action slacken for a second. Incidentally, the Eisenberg hero doesn't discover his true identity until about halfway through his nimbly staged thriller. Eisenberg has never pulled off anything as physically assertive as "American Ultra" because he lacks the debonair looks of a romantic leading man. Ironically, the fact he doesn't think of himself as an action hero until he finds himself dispatching one heavily armed thug after another makes his performance happily believable. Moviegoers that prefer the indie-styled comedies Eisenberg makes may abhor "American Ultra," while moviegoers who crave melodramatic massacres may loathe Eisenberg's casting.

Shaggy-haired Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg of "Zombieland") works the cash register at a grocery store in the Podunk town of Liman, West Virginia. Mike spends more time behind the register illustrating a graphic novel about a simian in an astronaut outfit called Apollo Ape than ring up customers. Indeed, we rarely see anybody venture into his store. When Mike is neither clerking nor drawing, he gets high on marijuana cigarettes that he rolls by hand for himself and listens to vinyl albums on his turntable. He shares his house with his equally lackluster girlfriend, Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart of "Twilight"), who answers the phone at a bail bonding office. Mike suffers from delusions of paranoia, and he often experiences meltdowns. For years he has struggled to leave Liman, but he finds himself unable to realize his dream without grief and anxiety assailing him. Essentially, Mike is a petty criminal who has gotten into trouble so often in his hometown that the local constabulary know him by his first name and keep an eye peeled for him. Meanwhile, he peeks at an engagement ring that he has gotten for Phoebe and wonders when he should spring the question. Mike purchases his pot from a zany drug dealer named Rose (John Leguizamo of "John Wick") who lives in a psychedelic house. Altogether, Mike doesn't look like he could harm a gnat.

Meantime, at C.I.A headquarters, agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton of the ABC-TV series "Nashville") learns from an anonymous phone call that the top-secret Ultra program that she established to create sleeper agents is about to be liquidated. Victoria's rival at the Agency, smug-minded Adrian Yates (Topher Grace of "Predators"), has decided that the time is ripe to eliminate anybody involved with Ultra. Actually, the Ultra program has been shut down since most of the recruits went insane and died. As it turns out, one recruit survived and surpassed everybody's expectations. Imagine poor Mike's consternation when he wanders out into the parking lot and spots two guys rigging up a bomb to his automobile. Although the two guys are much better built than Mike, our hero kills both of them before they can blink. He uses a spoon to stab one of his assailants in the neck and kill him. Mike has no idea how he has managed to perform such incredible feats. He remembers an oddball woman that entered his store earlier in the evening and spouted some gibberish that puzzled him. Victoria Lasseter was the lady and she was trying to warn poor Mike about his impending doom at the hands of CIA assassins. No sooner does the opposition try to exterminate Mike with extreme prejudice than he surprises them with his impeccable combat skills. At one point, pinned down behind a refrigerator in his kitchen by a barrage of gunfire, Mike slings a skillet above his head, pops off a round at it, and his bullet ricochets, and cuts down the trigger-happy soldier armed with an assault rifle!

Jesse Eisenberg definitely seems out of place in this blood and gore, tongue-in-cheek actioneer. Nevertheless, he handles himself competently in the close-quarters combat scenes. A villain plunges a screwdriver through one of our hero's hands, but Eisenberg clobbers his foe into submission with a hammer. "Justified" villain Walton Goggins has a field day as a psychotic henchman that Yates dispatches to dispose of our unlikely hero. The Goggins character is named Laughter, and Laughter tangles with Eisenberg's Mike repeatedly throughout "American Ultra." Initially, when they confront each other, Mike smashes in Laughter's front teeth. Meantime, Kristen Stewart doesn't lose her cool as level-headed Phoebe. Occasionally, she gets to whip a villain, but she gives another of her typically icy, inexpressive performances. In her best scene, she reprimands Mike for locking up Laughter in a jail cell, but forgetting to retrieve an automatic pistol he left behind. Predictably, Laughter grabs the gun and blasts away at their fleeing backs. Aside from the splendidly orchestrated action scenes that resemble something Asian filmmaker John Woo of "Broken Arrow" might stage, director Nima Nourizadeh keeps surprising us with Eisenberg's audacious heroism and shocking sadism.

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Top-Notch Action Yarn, 10 August 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The latest installment in the "Mission: Impossible" film franchise ranks as one of the best. "Jack Reacher" director Christopher McQuarrie's "Mission: Impossible--Rogue Nation" rivals its superlative predecessor "Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol" with spine-tingling suspense and spectacularly staged set-pieces. Mind you, things haven't always been so good. The initial "Mission: Impossible" movie was arguably exciting enough in its own right, especially when Tom Cruise suspended himself Spider-man style at CIA Headquarters. Nevertheless, the film portrayed one of the most beloved television series characters in such a sacrilegious light that most television "Mission: Impossible" fanatics abhorred it. I grew up watching Peter Graves play Jim Phelps from 1967 to 1973 and again briefly from 1988 to 1990 on the weekly, hour-long, CBS-TV program, and the heretical notion that Phelps could turn traitor constituted blasphemy. Little did it matter that the people who produced "Mission: Impossible" gave Phelps legitimate grounds for his treachery. Comparably, this would be tantamount to turning either Marshal Dillon of "Gunsmoke" into a murderous outlaw or indicting Andy Griffith's Sheriff Andy Taylor for police brutality.

The second entry in the Paramount franchise "Mission Impossible II" emerged as a vast improvement over the original. Unfortunately, the stimulating third installment "Mission Impossible III" made an error almost as egregious as defaming Jim Phelps. Tom Cruise and director J.J. Abrams gave Ethan Hunt a wife to worry about, and that matrimonial madness provided the motive force in its contrived melodrama. The secret agent with a double life and a wife is the stuff of spoofs, and the marriage plot was predictable. Perhaps if they had substituted Hunt's parents (remember them from the 1996 original?) for his wife, the idea might have been more palatable. As swiftly as the franchise got Ethan hitched, it got him just as quickly unhitched with ambiguous details. "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" kept Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) separated from his wife, and he reverted to single status as he had in "Mission Impossible II." Happily, neither Cruise nor his latest collaborators have pulled anything as foolhardy as "Mission Impossible III" with "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation."

Like the best James Bond extravaganzas, "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation" opens with a cliffhanger gambit. Ethan Hunt scrambles atop the wing of a military cargo plane, an Airbus A400M, as it trundles down the runaway for take-off. He slaloms off the wing down to the fuselage and seizes the door handle. Hunt's cyber genius colleague Benjamin Dunn (Simon Pegg of "Shaun of the Dead") struggles to open the door remotely while Hunt clings desperately for dear life as the plane gains altitude. Frantically, Benji opens the wrong door, but eventually opens the right door. Hunt gains access to the cargo hold and spots the pallet of VX-nerve gas missiles. The villains, a band of Chechen separatist fighters, discover Hunt's presence too late, and he deploys the chute on the pallet, so both the missiles and he plunge into the blue. This snappy incident is peripheral to the plot, but it gets this outlandish escapade off on the right foot. Moreover, this tense scene reunites Hunt with not only Benji, but also series regular Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames of "Pulp Fiction") and "Ghost Protocol" addition William Brandt (Jeremy Renner of "The Bourne Legacy").

This time around our heroic quartet wrestles with their worst nightmare: the Syndicate, an enigmatic league of terrorists, alluded to at the end of "Ghost Protocol," that threatens not only to destroy the IMF but also initiate global chaos. Predictably, of course, we know Hunt and company will preserve the status quo. Nevertheless, writer & director Christopher McQuarrie takes everything straight to the brink and then lets it teeter. Earlier "Mission Impossible" movies relied on the plot device of 'disavowing' Ethan Hunt so he wound up as the man in the middle between the good guys and the bad guys. "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation" raises the stakes considerably by ostracizing the entire IMF Agency, with bureaucratic, stuffed-shirt CIA Director Alan Hunley (Alex Baldwin of "The Hunt for Red October") arguing passionately for the IMF's dissolution after the infamous San Francisco incident involving a Russian nuclear missile. Meantime, in London, Hunt stumbles accidentally onto the Syndicate. This shadowy organization consists of thousands of spies who have deserted and are officially listed as dead. Pretty but pugnacious Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson of "The White Queen"), an undercover British Intelligence agent who follows orders from Syndicate honcho Solomon Kane (Sean Harris of "Prometheus") acts as if she is a double agent.

"Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation" delivers everything that we've come to expect from this intrigue-laden, gadget- encumbered franchise. Our resourceful heroes still wear those latex masks that they peel off at dramatic moments to surprise us. As usual, they are required to break into and out of various buildings bristling with sophisticated security safeguards that sometimes challenge them to the point of death. The debonair 53-year old Cruise performs his own perilous stunts, virtually all of them hair-raising, acrobatic accomplishments. He careens a small car around in a maze of narrow city streets with the villains in hot pursuit and then launches himself astride a motorcycle with daredevil gusto. Director Christopher McQuarrie succeeds at making everything doubly difficult for our protagonists, and they embark on an improbable but death-defying gauntlet of obstacles that would stymie lesser souls. Several scenes benefit from gripping tension because one set of heroes execute tasks that prevent another hero from either being captured or killed. Cruise and co-star Rebecca Ferguson team up in several helter-skelter, close quarters, combat scenes that surely required lots of rehearsal. Ferguson displays dazzling dexterity when she clashes with a henchman twice her size who wields a knife far larger than hers. One of the best sequences has Cruise debating which villain to perforate before either assassinates a foreign dignitary during a live opera performance. The fifth globe-trotting "Mission Impossible" foray qualifies as a rapid-fire, white-knuckled, adrenaline-laced, nail-biter with momentum that never slackens and surprises that astonish.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Exciting But Nothing Like the TV Series, 4 August 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The transition that "Mission Impossible" made from the small screen to the big screen ignited considerable controversy. The beloved character that Peter Graves originated on television named Jim Phelps became a treacherous rogue agent that Jon Voight played as a villain in the film that director Brian De Palma helmed. Hardcore "Mission Impossible" fans have never forgiven either Tom Cruise or Brian De Palma for this sacrilege. The first "Mission Impossible" suffers from contrivances galore. Nevertheless, "Mission Impossible" emerges as an exciting, suspenseful nail-biter with three electrifying set-pieces: the opening computer heist debacle at an American embassy, the white-knuckled scene in the vault at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and the chilling train ride sequence as the finale that culminates with a helicopter being dragged by a train through the claustrophobic confines of a tunnel. The CIA vault scene ends up being the best, with the other two are slickly done. The story opens with a brief vignette that features American espionage agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise of "Risky Business") masquerading as an older, mustached man orchestrating a ruse against an enemy agent by convincing his adversary that he has been instrumental in the death of a young woman. As soon as Hunt extracts the information from his disheveled adversary, they incapacitate him, revive the girl, Claire (Emmanuelle Béart of "Don Juan"), who is playing possum and tear down the fake motel. The next thing we know we are introduced to the cinematic incarnation of Jim Phelps, and "Mission Impossible" adheres slavishly to the television formula with IMF chief Phelps receiving the usual briefing from a disc that self-destructs after he is told about his latest mission should he decide to accept it. Phelps relies on his right hand man, Ethan Hunt, to coordinate the operation in Prague. The IMF is supposed to record the pilfering of the CIA's master list of Eastern Europe spies. During the mission, everything goes haywire, and everybody but Hunt dies. Ultimately, we learn that neither Phelps nor his wife Claire died. The Phelps couple staged their own deaths. Naturally, since Hunt is the last man standing, his CIA superior Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny of "Ice Castles") suspects that he may culpable of the crime. The big revelation for Hunt is the discovery that the entire operation was 'a mole hunt' to expose a saboteur. The resourceful Hunt manages to escape from Kittridge when he uses explosive chewing gum to blow up the aquarium restaurant where he met with the CIA chieftain.

Holing up in a Prague safe house, Hunt finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place. Eventually, he smokes out an arms dealer, Max (Vanessa Redgrave of "Blow-Up") who pays him to steal the spy list. Since he cannot call on his former comrades because they are dead, Hunt enticed disavowed computer specialist Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames of "Pulp Fiction") and pilot Franz Krieger (Jean Reno of ""Flyboys") who can fly a helicopter through anything. The theft of top-secret computer documents from Langley ranks as the best scene in "Mission Impossible" with our intrepid hero dangling from a rig in the ceiling to make himself inconspicuous to the vault security gauntlet. Watching Krieger as he uses his muscles to keep Hunt from tripping the security alarms is taut stuff. The exit that they make disguised as firefighters is clever. Like its small screen predecessor, the cinematic "Mission" features spectacles that boast built-in TV cameras, hidden microphones, laptop computers, agents in sophisticated covers, exploding cars, exploding chewing gum, stabbings, gunplay, bodies toppling into a river, etc.

Gang War (1958)
Bronson Versus the Mob, 3 August 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

In director Gene Fowler, Jr.'s "Gang War," tough guy Charles Bronson plays Los Angeles high school math teacher Alan Avery who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Big-time mobster Maxie Mathews (John Doucette of "The Big Heat") has dispatched his second-in-command, Joe Reno (Jack Reynolds of "The Basketball Fix"), and his henchman, Bernard "Axe" Duncan (Ralph Manza of "Get Shorty"), to take care permanently of Slick Connors (Leonard P. Geer) who has since become an informant for the authorities against Maxie. Reno and Bernard trap Slick atop a car and stab him to death. Alan Avery witnesses this brutal mob killing on his way home from picking up a prescription for his wife. Later, the police show up at Alvery's residence where he lives with his pregnant wife, Edie Avery (Gloria Henry), and they hand him his wife's prescription. Avery has no problem with testifying against the mobsters who killed the man. A corrupt cop makes certain that the media knows everything there is to know about Alvery, and the newspaper the following day features a banner headline about Alvery's involvement. Naturally, mob kingpin Maxie Meadows wants to throw a scare into the public-spirited school teacher so he sends his manservant, Chester (Larry Gelbman of "She Demons") a former pugilist over to Alvery's house to soften up the wife and throw a scare into Alvery. The former prizefighter lays into Edie, and Alan comes home to find the tea kettle whistling stridently and his wife dead on the floor. Immediately, Alvery arms himself with an automatic pistol and takes a taxi out to Mathews' residence where he lines up the racketeer in his sights to shoot him. Unfortunately, some uniform policemen intervene and Meadows can do little more than have our hero arrested for trespassing. Part of the reason that Meadows cannot bring bigger charges against Alan is that the sympathetic cops have confiscated Alan's pistol. Meantime, Mathews' mouthpiece, Bryce Barker (Kent Taylor of "Mississippi Gambler"), tries to persuade Alvery to not testify against Mathews. Barker is an interesting character because he has a hearing aid. When he learns about the death of Alvery's daughter, things get out of control for Maxie.

"Gang War" qualifies as an unusual Charles Bronson B-movie because he doesn't get the chance to exact vengeance on the mobsters. Indeed, he totes an automatic pistol, but he never gets a chance to use it. Nevertheless, this doesn't keep Alan from interfering with their plans. Ironically, the mob takes care of Maxie, and Alan doesn't get a chance to burst into the attorney's house with two pistols blazing. Director Gene Fowler doesn't waste a second in telling this little story. John Doucette makes a good villain, and Kent Taylor is even better as attorney with a hearing aid.

Vacation (2015/I)
11 out of 20 people found the following review useful:
Hilarious Hokum!!!, 3 August 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

If you enjoyed the audacious "Hangover" movie trilogy and the two impudent "Horrible Bosses" epics, then you will probably hoot at the reboot of the vintage Chevy Chase comedy "National Lampoon's Vacation." Not only does the new "Vacation" qualify as a remake, but it also serves as a sequel to the four film "National Lampoon's Vacation" franchise. Ed Helms stars as Clark W. Griswold's grown-up son Russell 'Rusty' Griswold. For the record, Anthony Michael Hall played Rusty in "National Lampoon's Vacation" (1983) while different actors have slipped into and out of the same role in the various other "Vacation" inspired sequels. Anyway, Helms plays Rusty as a married man, with a wife, Debbie (sexy Christina Applegate), and two sons, James (Skyler Gisondo) and Kevin Griswold (Steele Stebbins). Comparatively, Clark raised a son and a daughter. The basic premise remains similar despite the 32 year gap between the movies. Oblivious Russell cherishes fond memories of the catastrophic cross-country road-trip that his quixotic father charted for the family and its farcical finale at Walley World. Indeed, much of the same thing occurs again. Co-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein, who wrote both "Horrible Bosses" comedies, have ratcheted up the raunch content considerably for bigger, more brazen laughs that may either alienate or engross audiences depending on individual prudery. Incongruity is the cornerstone of great comedy, and "Vacation" delivers laughs and gags galore that more often than not ridicule the characters with whom we are supposed to identify. Actually, Ed Helms, who endured no end of ignominy in the depraved "Hangover" movies, emerges from "Vacation" looking reasonably respectable. "Thor's" Chris Hemsworth has a field day poking fun at his masculinity. Happily, as if to bestow their seal of approval on this side-splitting sequel, Chevy Chase appears in a cameo as a bed and breakfast owner with Beverly D'Angelo reprising her role as his wife Ellen.

As the action unfolds, Rusty flies passenger jets for a regional airline, Econo-Air, and the plane that he is flying nearly crashes because his elderly co-pilot Harry (David Clennon) has no business in the cockpit. Ironically, Rusty recommended Harry for the position, so it's Rusty's inadvertent fault that Harry is flying. Meantime, Rusty overhears a little boy who aspires to be an aviator. Naturally, Rusty strolls over to speak to the child. No sooner has Rusty started chatting with the family than Harry ascends the jet to a higher altitude. The turbulence that the plane encounters is violent enough to send Rusty sprawling involuntarily toward the mother. Rusty winds up groping the wife's breasts to keep from landing in her lap. An uneasy silence ensues before another bout of turbulence propels him face down onto the little boy while his thumb plunges into the father's mouth. No matter what Rusty does, well-intentioned or otherwise, his actions hasten the worst possible results. For example, like Clark, who got stuck in the original "Vacation" with the metallic pea-green "Wagon Queen Family Truckster," Rusty rents a hideous, baby-blue mini-cruiser christened the "Tartan Prancer." According to Rusty, this vehicle is the "Honda of Albania." Idiotically enough, this outlandish car features four exterior mirrors; the outside rear view mirrors block the front mirrors. During the excursion, Russell discovers a swivel seat control at the worst moment. Later, the vehicle's on-board navigation system scares them when the voice howls directions in native Japanese. Again, like his impractical father Clark, Rusty wants to do more than just motor across America. He wants his family to experience the scenic beauties along the way. They stop at a crowded, Hot Springs National Park, and an unsavory yokel suggests they take advantage of a less traveled road to a private hot springs. Little do our gullible heroes know this local is setting them up for mischief. Moreover, the gorgeous looking hot springs that the Griswolds splash into turns out to be a raw sewage pit.

Murphy's Law governs everything that Griswolds set out to achieve. Nevertheless, each of these encounters is hopelessly hilarious, although you'd hate to find yourself in similar circumstances. A Grand Canyon water-rafting guide (Charlie Day) gets a phone call from his fiancée who decides to dump him. After the Griswolds set out on the river, their suicidal guide alters course for rougher waters that terminate in a waterfall. At another juncture in their journey, Rusty lets Debbie visit her Memphis, Tennessee, college alma mater where he discovers she slept with 30 or more guys before they got married. Of course, anybody who saw the original "Vacation" should remember Christie Brinkley's cinematic debut as a blond in a red convertible Ferrari. Writer/directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein dream up a different spin involving this character.

Sure, "Vacation" is both infantile and scatological, but the fearless cast maintains straight faces throughout the hokum no matter how grotesque things get. All too often in lesser comedies, the cast behaves as if they are in on the jokes. Admirably, neither Ed Helms nor Christine Applegate lets on that either know how hopelessly nonsensical their exploits are. Applegate smears feces onto her face and remarks how abominable it smells until she realizes her folly. Furthermore, our heroes cruise for miles without realizing that pranksters have defaced one side of their Prancer with a humongous phallic symbol. When Rusty and Debbie realize that they have a pornographic image on their car, they spit on their hands and struggle futilely to remove it with vigorous scrubbing motions, groaning emphatically with their exertions. No, you shouldn't take their children to see "Vacation," but the Chevy Chase original had some objectionable scenes that weren't fit for young eyes and delicate minds to witness, too. Clearly, freshman directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein have designed their updated adaptation of "Vacation" at audiences that love to laugh out loud and keep on laughing out loud at blatantly vulgar antics that leave little to the imagination. If you like to laugh hard and often, see "Vacation."

Not One of Chevy's Best, But Not One of His Worst, 3 August 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Chevy Chase plays a depressed air traffic controller who acquires telekinetic powers after glowing green nuclear waste liquid from a tanker truck on the highway splashes out onto him. "Groove Tube" director Ken Shapiro has assembled a quality cast, and the premise generates some amusing moments in this average romantic comedy. The logic between our hero's affliction and the powers that he gets seems fractured. Nuclear waste usually precipitates debilitating diseases rather than spectacular telekinetic powers. The first scene at the air traffic control center is reminiscent of a "Saturday Night Live" skit with everybody preoccupied with other matters than the aircraft they are supervising in the skies above New York City. After Max (Chevy Chase of "Foul Play") gets off duty and heads home, our ill-fated protagonist has to contend with mechanical problems with his car. First, he retracts his moon roof, and the handle comes off in his fist. Second, he then finds himself jammed between trucks, and the truck in front of him is loaded down with caged chickens. Third, chicken feathers swirl onto his windshield, through his moon roof, and onto his face. He tries to remove the feathers from his windshield with washer fluid, but he showers himself with his own water. Clearly, this scene anticipates Max's encounter with the nuclear waste truck. Afterward, he has to deal with the departure of his girlfriend Darcy (Patti D'Arbanville), and this predicament pushes him over the edge into massive depression. One of the funnier moments has Max using his powers when he gets upset about a rival, Barry, has convinced Darcy to go out on a date. While Max and Darcy are arguing over her date with Barry, Max's rage grows to the point that he makes a C-47 ashtray fly around the room. Predictably, Max manages to win Darcy back with his special telekinetic powers. First, he induces a case of nose-bleed on her stuck-up boyfriend, Barry (Mitch Kreindel of "Being There"), to force him to leave the restaurant. Later, he sabotages Barry's opera, making the lead dancer plunge off the stage at one point during his routine. Afterward, once Barry has taken Darcy home, Max steps in and takes Darcy to bed and gives her orgasm after orgasm before admitting that he isn't doing it. The major set-piece takes place as a Victorian beach house where Max and Darcy are invited by an old friend, Brian (Brian Doyle-Murray), who is a decorated Vietnam veteran confined to a wheelchair after an explosion crippled him following a sexual encounter with a Vietnamese woman. As it turns out, the enemy woman left a bomb under his bed after they had sex. Brian meets Max's ex-wife Lorraine (Mary Kay Place) one afternoon while Max is discussing his loss of Darcy with him. Lorraine falls head over heels in love with Brian after they meet at a gay bar where Brian is holding a publicity party for his bestselling self-help author, Mark Winslow (Dabney Coleman of "9 to 5"), who is so conceited that he thinks all women crave him. Coleman excels at being obnoxious and has a funny moment when he bares his butt to seduce Darcy. Darcy doesn't take the bait because she has refocused her sights on Max. At the beach house, Max goes nuts, turns luminous green, and behaves as if he were possessed. He dangles a white mouse in the air and then sniffs all of the white powder that superstitious Dorita (Nell Carter), a Haitian maid from Port Au Prince, has sprinkled around his bed to confine him to the mattress. This is probably the best scene after the opera scene. Darcy struggles to reassure Max on the roof of the beach house that she genuinely is concerned about him. Eventually, Dorita is stricken with the same powers. Abruptly, the film concludes as if Shapiro and co-scenarists Tom Sherohman and Arthur Sellers exhausted their creativity. Dabney Coleman adopts a phony accent that makes him sound funny, and Max subjects Mark's character to one humiliation after another during a dinner table scene. Chase delivers another low-key, laid-back performance where he relies on his deadpan behavior for maximum impact. The cast is charismatic, but the comedy is sporadic. "Modern Problems" boasts several goofy moments, but it isn't the tour-de-force that "The Groove Tube" was. Altogether, "Modern Problems" isn't Chase's best, but neither is it is worst.

A Funny Road Trip From Hell, 30 July 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Although Harold Ramis' R-rated road-trip "National Lampoon's Vacation" is a classic comedy of errors, it doesn't surpass "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation." Indeed, "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" (1989) amounts to the best "Vacation" outing in the four film franchise. For the record, the 2003 sequel "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation 2" was a made-for-television movie, so it doesn't properly belong to the cinematic canon. Ramis' rampantly funny, occasionally ribald farce about a dysfunctional middle-class family's cross-country journey from their suburban home in Chicago, Illinois, to the California-based theme-park Walley World benefits from a charismatic cast, fine performances, and gags galore. Some of the gags were rather racy for their day. The demise of Aunt Edna's dog Dinky and Aunt Edna's own death were probably interpreted as borderline tasteless. Released in 1983, "National Lampoon's Vacation" appears dated now in some respects. Meanwhile, the 2015 reboot with Ed Helms and Christina Applegate makes it look comparably tame. The video games that Clark Griswold's children play with look primitive, too. Nevertheless, any comedy toplining Chevy Chase cannot be a total loss, and this origins saga about the misadventures of the Griswold family will keep you in stitches.

Irony and incongruity figure prominently in this comedy. Everything that can go wrong for the Griswold family does indeed go wrong. The destination that they set out for is Walley World. Of course, nobody at Disney would countenance anything that National Lampoon conjured up. Not only did THE John Hughes of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" fame pen the screenplay, but also the same Hughes wrote the short story that National Lampoon magazine published in its the September 1979 issue. For the record, "Vacation" was Ramis' sophomore effort after "Caddyshack." This also served as Christie Brinkley's cinematic debut; she is cast as an enigmatic blonde who seems to be stalking Clark. Happily, Ramis doesn't shove the comedy down your throat and Beverly De Angelo and Chase maintain straight faces throughout the hilarity. Some genuinely understated moments of mirth occur that you might overlook unless you have scrutinized the film. For example, in an early scene, watch the way Clark 'Sparky' Griswold (Chevy Chase) dries the dishes at home for his wife without washing them. The Griswolds go through Hell literally to get to Walley World. Naturally, when they show up at the world renowned theme park, they discover that it is closed for two weeks, so Clark brandishes a gun and forces the security guard (John Candy) to take them on a roller-coaster ride from Hell.

"National Lampoon's Vacation" consists primarily of a series of incidents strung together as the family travels by station wagon across country. At one point, they pick up a cantankerous relative, Aunt Edna (Imogene Coca of "Under the Yum Yum Tree"), and she dies midway through the journey. The Griswolds are as elated to rid themselves of her (they leave her under an umbrella in a relative's backyard during a downpour) as they are saddened to lose Aunt Edna's pugnacious dog. Indeed, Clark gets pulled over by a grim cop (James Keach of "The Long Riders"), who asks him about the canine leash attached to his rear bumper. Everybody who has seen this vintage comedy should remember Christie Brinkley in the convertible red Ferrari that catches Clark's attention. After several glimpses of each other on the highway, they hook up in a motel swimming pool, but the ecstasy of the moment is ephemeral. Naturally, Clarks' long-suffering wife Ellen (Beverly D'Angelo of "Every Which Way But Loose") forgives him for his flirtatious swimming pool dalliance. Later, she plunges into the pool naked (unlike the more discrete Brinkley), and Clark joins her.

Ramis and Hughes set the tone for this tongue-in-cheek comedy from the start when Clark pulls into the car dealership to pick up his new vehicle. The shady car salesman (Eugene Levy) doesn't have the car that Clark ordered. Clark wanted an Antarctic Blue Super Sports Wagon with a CB and an optional rally fun pack. Instead, he winds up stuck with a Metallic Pea-Green Wagon-Queen Family Truckster that resembles an armored car with the gas cap on the hood. By the time they convince the car dealer that they want their original station wagon back, the dealer has smashed it up. Most of the comedy is standard stuff, and Clark is an eccentric fool. Eddie Bracken, Bryan-Doyle Murray, John Candy, and Eugene Levy make memorable cameos. Nevertheless, the Griswolds are a sympathetic but half-witted family. "National Lampoon's Vacation" is a good comedy, but it isn't strictly a memorable, Hall of Fame epic.

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