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An Amusing But Lightweight Civil War Comedy of Errors, 26 April 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Destry Rides Again" director George Marshall's amusing, lightweight comedy "Advance to the Rear" takes place during the American Civil War, but it uses the war strictly as a backdrop. The issues of slavery and state's rights are never discussed in the Samuel A. Peeples & William Bowers' screenplay based on William Chamberlain's novel "Company of Cowards," and nobody talks about why they joined up to fight the war except in relation to the plot. Like most Civil War movies that occur out west on the frontier, Union and Confederates are concerned with a shipment of gold from the western mines that both sides desperately want. Basically, the story follows the misadventures of a bumbling West Point graduate and his company of misfits that ironically save the day. Peeples & Bowers do a commendable job of foreshadowing narrative action that transpires out west and furnishing the leading men with interesting dialogue. One conversation between superior officer Melvyn Douglas and subordinate officer Glenn Ford establishes the absurdity of war. Composer Randy Spark's provides a first-rate soundtrack bristling with jaunty music that reinforces the film's farcical qualities. The New Christy Minstrels do a splendid job of warbling the title tune "Company of Cowards." The cast is stocked with big names, including Glenn Ford and Melvyn Douglas and familiar faces galore like Alan Hale, Jr, Jim Backus, Whit Bissell, Michael Pate, and James Griffith. The production values for this MGM release are reasonably polished, despite the decision to make Oscar winning Technicolor lenser Milton Krasner shoot this widescreen comic epic in black & white. Krasner's pictorial compositions are a treat for the eye.

Glenn Ford maintains a straight face throughout this nonsense as Captain Jared Heath who is later demoted to lieutenant owing to an unfortunate circumstance over which he had no control but for which is culpable. Life is serene in the spring of 1862 for career officer Colonel Claude Brackenbury (Melvyn Douglas of "Ninotchka") who has his troops fire a barrage from his thirty cannon at the Confederates and they retaliate with thirty blasts from their artillery. This stalemate of sorts concludes abruptly when the overzealous Heath, Sergeant Beauregard Davis, and a couple of other men abduct three Confederate soldiers and bring them back to their camp for interrogation. Colonel Brackenbury is livid with indignation. "Who told you to go out after any prisoners," Brackenbury demands. "Take them back." Brackenbury constantly reminds Heath that he graduated from West Point. "And how many times have I warned you about showing any initiative?" Heath is surprised at Brackenbury's rebuke. "We've got a nice, quiet, well-regulated sector here," Brackenbury explains. "Every morning at six o'clock, the Rebs fire thirty rounds of ammunition at us. Then at six thirty, we fire thirty rounds at them. Their generals are happy and it keeps our generals happy, and nobody much gets hurt. But now you have to go out and capture prisoners and upset the whole status quo. They're not going to like that. It's going to make them mad. Real mad." A confused Heath replies, "If you'll forgive me, Colonel, I thought the purpose of this war was to have both sides mad at each other." The Confederates launch an attack on Brackenbury's men. Heath has to contend with some pretty hopeless soldiers like Private Owen Selous (Andrew Prime) who is afflicted with a perpetual case of hiccups, and Corporal Silas Geary (Jessie Pearson) who explains that something about him drives horses crazy. Heath orders Geary back to the rear to serve as Brackenbury's courier. Later, after Geary receives orders from Brackenbury, the corporal rides off, and Brackenberry's horse follows Geary. Everybody is dumbfounded by Brackenbury's tactics, and they believe that they must retreat and follow their commanding officer.

Predictably, the Union High Command isn't happy with this turn of events. Brackenbury finds himself and his regiment the subject of a court-martial. "I damn well intend to get to the bottom of his miserable fiasco and determine what or who is responsible for an entire regiment turning tail and running before the first shot had even been fired," vows General Willoughby (Jim Backus of "Rebel Without a Cause") as he calls a board of inquiry to order. "That damned horse ran away with me," Brackenbury defends himself. Not even Corporal Geary can convince the fatuous Willoughby that he precipitated the retreat. "Now, my first warm and generous impulse was to have the whole bunch of them taken out and shot at dawn," Willoughby proclaims to his staff, "but President Lincoln has a phobia about mass executions." One of Willoughby's officers suggests they send Brackenbury's men somewhere where the newspapers cannot contact them. Ultimately, they send them so far west that they hope they will never be heard from again. Another officer describes this as "a dirty trick on the Indians." Willoughby recites General Sherman's quote about "War is Hell." Brackenbury takes command of Company Q and heads west by river boat to relieve a detachment of the 11th Cavalry. Company Q contains the worst misfits in the Union Army. These include a kleptomaniac, an arsonist, and a compulsive fist fighter. The same time that they are embarking on their journey, they are joined by prostitutes who are being run out of town by a crowd of wives. One of the women is a Confederate spy, Martha Lou Williams (Stella Stevens), dispatched to keep track of Brackenbury's men because the Confederate High Command suspect that this handpicked force of specialists has something to do with guarding a long awaited shipment of gold. They also send in their own officer, Hugo Zattig (James Griffith) to steal the gold for the same, but they aren't entirely certain of his loyalty. The use of barrel spars to ski into the Confederate camp is imaginative. Griffith makes a sinister villain. This Civil War western isn't as bad as many say it is, and Marshall makes sure that nobody behaves as if they were in a comedy.

Ex Machina (2015)
2 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
One of the Best Android Epics Ever, 25 April 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Nightmares won't afflict you after watching the subtle but suspenseful science fiction fright flick "Ex Machina" about a sentient robot with enough cunning to escape from its laboratory confinement. This cautionary futuristic fable about artificial intelligence dramatizes the quintessential question that all classic robot movies ponder: can man design a robot that is not only conscious of the world around it but also has awareness of itself? In his dazzling directorial debut, British novelist-turned-scribe Alex Garland refuses to overwhelm us with a spectacular "Star Wars" style universe as a setting, but relies rather on the sheer simplicity of a condo lab facility nestled in the middle of a remote mountain paradise. This ultra-literate, atmosphere-laden chiller, with just enough full-frontal female nudity to garner an R-rating, occurs in the near future, not a decade down in the road but right around the corner. Although it is a foregone conclusion that the robot will triumph over her creator and break out of captivity, Garland's staging of the action building up to the escape is as hypnotic as his gifted cast with Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac as the humans and Alicia Vikander and Sonoya Mizuno as the automatons. Sci-fi aficionados should know that Garland has disposed of Isaac Asimov's three rules of robotics for this dystopian tale. At 107 minutes, "Ex Machina" amounts to more of a contemplative, indie-style, art film rather than an obnoxious, ear-splitting, Hollywood blockbuster. Mind you, "Ex Machina" depends on a wealth of computer-generated special effects, but nobody wields plasma pistols or ducks into a time machine. Watching this movie is comparable to being mesmerized by a beady-eyed rattlesnake in an immense glass jar and then wondering what will happen if you put your hand on the glass. Clearly, Garland has seen all the notable robot movies, such as "Metropolis," "Forbidden Planet," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Blade Runner," "Short Circuit," "I, Robot," and "Her," and he is familiar with the formula. Imagine a no-frills version of Steven Spielberg's "Artificial Intelligence" (2001) transpiring entirely in a laboratory setting with two human characters, one more sinister than the other, and you've got the gist of "Ex-Machina."

Garland's film unfolds with a brief prologue in New York City. Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson of "Unbroken") is a nerdy, sandy-haired, 24-year old, Internet programmer who works at a global computer search engine company named BlueBook. Comparatively, the gigantic BlueBook dwarfs Google. Smith wins a lottery inside the company to spend a week with his reclusive CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac of "Sucker Punch"), who lives alone in a secluded research facility. Suffering from a God complex, Nathan seems to be channeling Dr. Frankenstein; indeed, he named his company after Frankenstein's notebooks. He flies Caleb in by helicopter because his laboratory is basically inaccessible. One look at Nathan and you'll know that he is looney. He sports a bushy beard and has his hair buzz-cut to his scalp so it looks like gunpowder. Heavy black horn-rimmed spectacles straddle his nose, and he blurts words like "cool" and "dude" in an effort to sound like an everyday, ordinary geek. We learn during the conversations between Nathan and Caleb that Nathan is a teenage progeny who wrote computer code at age thirteen and now owns the biggest search engine company in the world. Meantime, Nathan implores Caleb to treat him like a pal. Essentially, Nathan has summoned Caleb to participate in a "Turing" test, named after the real-life Alan Turing, the genius whose life was chronicled recently in the World War II movie "The Imitation Game." Nathan has designed a truly sophisticated, female-gendered robot that he calls Ava (Alicia Vikander of "Son of a Gun") and has even endowed her with appropriate genitalia. Nathan wants Caleb to determine if Ava is self aware or merely simulating self-awareness. Ava looks like no other android in cinematic history. She has soft, delicately sculpted distaff facial features with slender human hands while the rest of her body consists of exposed wiring housed in a see-through mesh structure. Bits and pieces of the exposition from this epic make the story really compelling. For example, our mad scientist billionaire has drawn on thought patterns appropriated from data generated by computer search engines. Most search engine corporations content themselves strictly to monetize their information about what consumers want. On the other hand, our wily villain concerns himself with how people search for their needs rather than the needs and then he exploited this information to enable his robot to behave like a human.

It doesn't take impressionable Caleb long to fall in love with Ava, and Nathan is monitoring their every move. He has surveillance cameras planted in every room so that he misses nothing. Ava wants so desperately to get out Nathan's laboratory that she turns Caleb against his boss. Eventually, Caleb learns that Ava represents just another prototype in Nathan's chain of robots. Indeed, Nathan reveals how he plans to download Ava's brain into another automaton and scrap her memories. This seals Nathan's fate as far as Caleb is concerned, and he decides to help Ava find her freedom. Before "Ex Machina" fades out, Caleb and Nathan are no longer friends, and Ava has acquired the upper hand, farther up than even her perceptive creator has imagined. Moreover, Ava has turned Nathan's personal sex robot Kyoko against him; Kyoko enjoys the freedom to roam around Nathan's research condo. When he isn't satisfying his sexual urges with her, Nathan uses her as a personal servant. Most of "Ex Machina" involves apparently monotonous conversations between either Caleb and Nathan or Caleb and Ava. Nevertheless, Garland insinuates enough interesting dialogue into those exchanges to make them more than just loquacious chatter. The performances are robust, with Isaac and Vikander taking top honors respectively as the villainous Nathan and the deceptive Ava. Sonoya Mizuno deserves honorable mention as the mute robot Kyoko who performs the most sensational act. Don't mistake "Ex Machina" for a run-of-the-mill female robot actioneer.

Enemy (2013)
Compelling But Enigmatic, 23 April 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve's "Enemy" is a relentless compelling but enigmatic art film. This low-key thriller about two guys who swap their loves but not their lives is not only a visual treat and a genuine head-scratcher, with an outstanding performance of amazing subtlety from Jake Gyllenhaal in a dual role as a history teacher and a bit player in movies. As a history professor at a university, Adam's life is largely uneventful. He lives to lecture, grade papers, and have bouts of sex with his frustrated girlfriend. Adam's apartment in the urban sprawl of the metropolis where he resides is ultimately a reflection of his life. The premises are barren with only basic creature comforts, and he doesn't have a television. One day one of his co-workers suggests that he see a movie. You see, Adam doesn't care much for movies. Indeed, until his colleague brings up the subject, he had lived without watching a movie. The colleague recommends a film produced locally, and Adam's curiosity is large enough for him to check out the film. At some point, he realizes that the guy cast as the bellhop in this apparent comedy is his doppelganger. Sure, the guy bears an uncanny resemblance to Adam, and this prompts our protagonist to investigate his other. Unlike Adam, his double Anthony lives in a well-furnished apartment with a pregnant wife. Tension arises when Adam calls Anthony but instead gets his wife. It is only a matter of time until the two meet in a motel room. Anthony asks Adam if he has a scar. Adam sees Anthony's scar and realizes that this guy is almost a mirror image of him and he leaves in haste and struggles to resume his life. Ultimately, the two wind up sleeping with each other's girlfriend and wife. Spider imagery appears fleetingly in this interesting film. Villeneuve lets his yarn unfold without hurry and he creates atmosphere galore. Even if "Enemy" is opaque, the film makes you think about its mystery. Clearly, Adam and Anthony are not twins separated at birth. Nicolas Bolduc's cinematography is impeccable. Long after you've watched "Enemy," you will still ponder what it means and its disturbing spider imagery. This film reminded me a lot of Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni. Like Antonioni, Villeneuve doesn't seem caught up in making something obvious and easy to understand. The daunting thing about "Enemy" is that it is so weird it defies comprehension and yet it is some simple and uncluttered that you understand what is happening but you aren't sure why it is happening, much less where it is going. The hopelessly heavy symbolic ending will really weird you out.

Orbison's Cinematic Career Got Tarred and Feathered By This Oater, 22 April 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

As both horse operas and American Civil War movies go, seasoned second-unit director Michael D. Moore's "Fastest Guitar Alive" qualifies as egregiously abominable. This execrable, 87-minute, Sam Katzman produced, comic oater casts vocalist Roy Orbison and Sammy Jackson respectively as Confederate spies Johnny Banner and Steve Menlo. Neither one of them has a Southern accent. They masquerade as two slippery snake oil salesmen and rely on the guise of Dr. Ludwig Long's Magic Elixir traveling medicine show to cover their duplicity. At the same time, two cute gals named the Chestnuts sisters, Sue (Joan Freeman of "Roustabout") and Flo (Maggie Pierce of "Cattle King"), accompany them and perform with Johnny in their song and dance routine. This ruse is reminiscent of undercover Southerner spies Van Johnson and Milburn Stone in "Siege of Red River" (1954) who trundled around inconspicuously in a wagon selling patent medicine as a part of their subterfuge. They sang a song to alert their fellows spies about their presence. Basically, our harmless heroes are acting on orders from Confederate General Wingate to rob the San Francisco Mint. They steal a strongbox stuffed with $150-thousand dollars in gold at gunpoint after Johnny blasts a hole in the wall of the Mint. Nobody dies during the hold-up. Steve explains to the girls traveling with them that they stole the gold because the Confederacy has gone bankrupt. "Quiet Gun" scenarist Robert J. Kent has penned a lackluster plot reminiscent of the superior Errol Flynn & Randolph Scott western "Virginia City" (1940) where the Confederates were under orders to take silver from the Comstock Load and usher it south.

Meantime, Banner packs the title gimmick, a mean guitar that conceals a secret rifle, and he wields it with splendid accuracy. This exotic gadget anticipated the Lee Van Cleef Spaghetti western where William Berger toted a banjo that hid a repeating rifle. Orbison's character pulls this unusual weapon on a inquisitive deputy on the prowl, Rink (Ben Cooper of "Johnny Guitar"), who sneaks into their camp and tries to molest one of the Chestnut sisters. "In case you're interested," Banner warns the obnoxious Rink after he shoots Rink's black hat off the top of his head, "I can kill you with this and play your funeral march at the same time." Meanwhile, suspicious Marshal Max Cooper (John Doucette of "Sons of Katie Elder") saddles up to leave the city by the bay to pursue Johnny and Steve. Their contact man in San Francisco, Charlie (Lyle Bettger of "The Lone Ranger"), who operates a saloon, hits the trail to track them down not long after they hightail it with the gold. Repeatedly, our heroes encounter an Indian war party, but Johnny scares them off with his blazing guitar. Principally, he shoot an Indian chief spear in two and later the chief's ordinary guitar. Incidentally, these Native Americans are far from deadly. They pose no threat to our heroes or heroines. Eventually, when our heroes roll into the town of Prescott, Arizona, they discover that the South has surrendered. The owner of a local saloon the Palace Grand, Stella Witt (Patricia Donahue) persuades Johnny and the Chestnut sisters to perform, and then we learn that she is in cahoots with treacherous Charlie. As it turns out, our heroes decide to return the gold to Fort Marshal now that they know the civil is over. The Indians that chased them in the first half of this sagebrusher show up near the end to distract the people after them. Before they hit the trail to give up the gold, Marshal Cooper agrees to give them safe escort to the fort.

Legendary warbler Roy Orbison cannot act worth a hoot, but he can carry a tune. He sings several colorful songs, but he isn't the least bit convincing as a Southern spy. Of course, Orbison doesn't get much help from a shallow script that exploits the American Civil War for background. Kent's script doesn't develop the characters beyond their initial aims and their apparel. This lame western is nowhere near as enjoyable as Kent's earlier epic "The Quiet Gun" with Forrest Tucker. Just when things are getting interesting, this half-baked western concludes abruptly. Closure is decidedly lacking as our heroes never turn over the gold. Of course, we know that they will, but it's like Katzman quit while he was ahead. Director Michael Moore did his best work as a second unit helmer on hits like "Patton." Orbison never made another movie after this critical and commercial disaster. Reportedly, Elvis turned down this oater. The no frills Warner Archive Collection, made-on-demand, DVD contains only the movie. Production values are a notch above average, but this is strictly a lightweight western without a single killing in it and some veteran 1950s' western villains. Only die-hard Orbison fans need watch this curiosity piece.

The Virginian (2014) (V)
The Seventh Version of "The Virginian", 19 April 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

If you're counting, director Thomas Makowski's straight-to-video western "The Virginian" is the seventh version of Owen Wister's frontier tale that he wrote back in 1902. If you count the NBC-TV show, then it is the seventh. Anyway, this oater is a little different from most of the previous adaptations. In a sense, Makowski's yarn boasts greater realism. Country music superstar Trace Atkins is nothing like Gary Cooper, Joel McCrea, and Bill Pullman who rode the range in earlier horse operas. For example, Atkins wears his hair down and he hates to be called 'Virginian.' Instead, he prefers to be addressed as 'South.' As in the prior versions, the Virginian works the Sunk Creek Ranch owned by the Judge. Other than Trace Atkins, Ron Pearlman is the only seasoned actor in this western. "Lonesome Dove Church" scenarist Bob Thielke has made several alternations to this classic tale. First, the Virginian hates Trampas and constantly tries to convince the Judge to fire him as well convince himself to kill Trampas. Indeed, the most famous line from the novel remains intact. When Trampas tries to call the Virginian a vile name, the eponymous hero says, ""When you call me that, smile!" Second, Judge Henry has changed considerably. Suffice it to say that he has become a villain. Third, the tenderfoot writer who signs on to work as a ranch hand while writing a book about the frontier proves himself a proficient shot with a revolver. Later, he saves the Virginian's life. Some of the dialogue is memorable. Contemporary westerns aren't very good, but "The Virginian" qualifies as an exception to the rule.

Vice (2015/II)
Routine Sci-Fi Thriller with Some Intrigue, 19 April 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The people who made "Vice" must have watched movies like: "Blade Runner," "Westworld," "Universal Soldier," "Groundhog Day," "The Matrix," and "Dark City." "Prince" director Brian Miller and "San Andreas" scenarists Jeremy Passmore of & Andre Fabrizio have cobbled together these epics to create a provocative premise. A sleazy entrepreneur has designed an enclosed complex with cyborgs where humans can live out their wicked dreams. You can rob a bank with impunity. You can rape and murder with impunity. There is no limit to what you can do to live out your mad fantasies. Julian Michaels (Bruce Willis of "Surrogates") markets this asylum of decadence, while a disheveled detective, Metro Police Detective Roy Tedeschi (Thomas Jane of "The Punisher"), wants to shut him down. During their first conversation together, Michaels and Tedeschi explore an interesting theory. Michaels operates the place so people can exorcise their depravity, but Tedeschi argues that it serves only to enable them carry it on out into the real world. The controversy over media violence, whether in movies or videogames, fuels the plot of this interesting but lackluster thriller that threatens to hoist itself on its own petard. Naturally, since this slick sci-fi fantasy takes place in a futuristic society, "Vice" is appropriately dystopian in nature. Kelly (Ambyr Childers of "Gangster Squad") is an android in Michaels' fantasy land. Basically, what Michaels has conjured up is like "Westworld." Kelly is a bar tender who wakes up every morning and lives the same day all over like the people in "Groundhog Day." She is tending bar for the last day before she goes out and experiences the life outside. Before she can start anew, she is strangled by a customer who is enacting a fantasy that involves rape and murder. After each encounter, these androids are reprogrammed for the next day to perform the same routine. While the technician is reprogramming Kelly, something goes awry and he discovers that she has managed to retain memories like the soldiers in "Universal Soldiers." Remember, in "Universal Soldiers," the elite combat team consisted of dead Vietnam G.I.s who were reanimated and revamped, but the Jean Claude Van Damme soldier keep some of his human memories. Detective Tedeschi is on the trail of Kelly after she escapes from the Vice facility, but he doesn't have a clue what he has gotten himself into because he does know that Kelly is a reborn version of an actual world. The engineer who created her, James (Bryan Greenberg of "Bride Wars"), helps her escape, but Tedeschi tracks them down. As it turns out, Kelly is changing herself with each new experience. At one point, Evan explains, "The human experience—it's really the only thing that separates us from machine." Predictably, every move that Tedeschi makes is monitored by the sinister Julian and his machine-gun wielding minions.

"Vice" is a polished potboiler at best with above-average production values that Miller invests in all his films. The cast is good and they aren't required to do much heavy lifting. Thomas Jane differentiates himself from everybody else with his scruffy coiffure. He is an iconoclastic "Dirty Harry" clone. Ambyr Childers is easy on the eyes. Altogether, "Vice" is a painless experience, except for Michael's henchman who couldn't hit the side of a barn with their fully automatic weapons if they were inside the barn!

Good Action Western with Coop in Top Form, 19 April 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Gary Cooper heads a stalwart cast in "Day of the Outlaw" director André De Toth's western "The Springfield Rifle" set on the frontier during the American Civil War. The Union Army needs horses to launch its offensive, but Confederate spies out west are stealing those horses. Desperately, the Yankees want to thwart this Southern espionage with counter-espionage of their own, but high-ranking Federal officials insist that spying is not honorable and refuse to go toe-to-toe with the South with spies. Major Lex Kearney (Gary Cooper of "High Noon") is bringing in a herd of horses when he spots superior numbers of horses thieves. Reluctantly, Lex decides to let the rustlers have the horses, and he is cashiered from the service. After he has a yellow streak painted down his back and his escorted from the army fort, our hero launches his own counter-espionage effort and discovers that the spy who has been stealing their horses is a high-ranking official that nobody would have suspected. Meantime, Lex infiltrates the rustlers and gains their confidence. "Gunsmoke" creator Charles Marquis Warren penned the screenplay that is thoroughly routine, but entertaining nonsense. Cooper is in top form, and the mountainous scenery provides a scenic background for all the hard riding and shooting. David Brian makes a good villain, too!

8 out of 29 people found the following review useful:
Bigger Doesn't Mean Better, 19 April 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

If bigger always guaranteed better, then "Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2" would surpass the original. As it is, this long overdue sequel about a buffoonish, hypoglycemic security guard at an obscure New Jersey shopping mall is neither as funny nor as fresh as its haywire predecessor. "You Again" director Andy Fickman has replaced "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" helmer Steve Carr for this harmless but predictable PG-rated laffer. Aside from either its change of setting or the elimination of two original characters, little has been altered for this lightweight action farce. Anybody who missed the 2009 original should know "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" was a parody of the classic Bruce Willis thriller "Die Hard," with a colorful villain whose identity generated the biggest surprise of the film. Nothing about the identity of the criminal mastermind in "Paul Blart, Mall Cop 2" is surprising. Indeed, we know who he is from the get-go, and actor Neal McDonough struggles to make this colorless mastermind memorable. Original "Blart" scribes Nick Bakay and star Kevin James have complicated the "Die Hard" plot with an elaborate "Ocean's Eleven" heist. In a nod to "The Expendables," the blundering Blart assembles a motley crew of older security guards armed with non-lethal weapons and pits them against a trigger-happy gang of younger adversaries with lethal weapons. Since you know Blart and company cannot fail, this action farce delivers its best laughs with sight gags that have little to do with its formulaic tomfoolery. The best scene in "Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2" has nothing to do with the heist. Our bumbling hero runs afoul of an exotic bird that gives him a royal pecking and sends him packing.

"Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2" opens with our newlywed security guard discovering that his wife Amy (Jayma Mays) wants a divorce after six days of marriage. No sooner has Blart coped with this tragedy than he contends with another devastating disaster. Blart's mom Margaret (Shirley Knight of "Grandma's Boy") sets foot in the street to retrieve the newspaper. Out of nowhere, a milk truck mows down the dear old dame in a crude example of slapstick comedy. Now, the woebegone Blart is despondent because everybody but his teenage daughter has left him. All this occurs during the first quarter hour. Things change for Blart when he receives a letter with an invitation to attend the annual security guard convention in sunny Las Vegas. What our unsuspecting hero doesn't know is that his dutiful daughter, Maya (Raini Rodriguez of "Babysitters Beware"), has just qualified to attend UCLA in California. Wisely, Maya declines to let her distraught dad know about UCLA until she thinks he can handle her departure, too. Meanwhile, Maya and Blart check into the luxurious Wynn Las Vegas hotel and casino; the entire film serves as product placement for the casino. While Maya and Blart unpack in their room, an unscrupulous criminal mastermind, Vincent (Neal McDonough of "Flags of Our Fathers"), plans the crime of the century. Systematically and secretly, Vincent's gang of high-tech hooligans loot the hotel of art treasures on display and replace them with replicas. Inevitably, it is only a matter of time before Blart and Vincent tangle. This dramatic collision takes place because Maya and Blart quarrel about her extracurricular activities at the hotel. She wants to enjoy the sun and fun of Vegas without her domineering dad hovering over her shoulder. Earlier, when they unloaded their luggage, Blart did his best to discourage any chance of a romance between Maya and an attractive valet, Lane (David Henrie of "Grown-Ups 2"), who wanted to help handle their luggage. Anyway, Maya ignores her father and accompanies Lane to a party in the hotel. An anxious Blart tries to contact Maya on her cell phone after she disappears without a word to him. Blart is convinced that Maya has been kidnapped. Reluctantly, Maya tries to return his call, but the party is so noisy that she has to go into another room. Maya walks right in on the nefarious Vincent and his goon squad masquerading as hotel personnel. Predictably, chaos ensues. When Lane follows her, Vincent's hooligans take him hostage, too.

"Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2" confines virtually all its action to the Wynn Las Vegas hotel and resort. Clearly, the filmmakers had the run of the joint because the cast rarely ventures outside to tour any of the other Sin City sights. Most of the scenes that occur inside the hotel look as if director Andy Fickman recreated them on a sound stage so as not to interfere with Wynn's business. Meantime, James and Bakay learned from the first film not to provide their rotund protagonist a romantic interest like Amy. Reportedly, James and Bakay wrote Amy (Jamya Mays) out of the sequel because Mays had scheduling conflicts between her television series "Glee" and "Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2." Sequels that eliminate characters, unless the actors die in real life, sacrifice some of their continuity. Mind you, Mays would have been a welcome addition to the cast. Rather than providing Blart with another drop-dead-gorgeous gal, the writers have him play 'hard-to-get' with a hapless hotel manager, Divina (Daniella Alonso of "The Collector"), who reluctantly finds herself attracted to him. This creates comic conflict between Blart and Divina's jealous boyfriend Eduardo, who happens to be the hotel security chief, and Eduardo tries to upstage the presumptuous Blart. Most of the antics that James indulges in other that careening around for laughs on his Segway involve routine, uninspired slapstick. Aside from his flap with an exotic bird, James' second best scene occurs when he fills in at the last minute as the conference keynote speaker. "If you believe the purpose of life is to help yourself, then your life has no purpose," he proclaims to applause. "Help someone today!" Altogether, "Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2" isn't as hilarious as its witty predecessor, but it is not a total bust.

A Gem of a Horse Opera, 17 April 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Miscegenation/ immorality is the theme of "Stagecoach to Fury" director William F. Claxton's dusty, little, black & white western "The Quiet Gun." This thoroughly conventional oater turns over rocks that most westerns during the 1950s might not have done. Immoral sex sets the plot of this concise oater into motion. Had Claxton and "Cattle Empire" scenarist Eric Norden left out the sex angle, "The Quiet Gun" would have been little more than a standard-issue B-western about land raiders. A well-dressed saloon entrepreneur, John Reilly (Tom Brown) wants the land belonging to a local rancher, Ralph Carpenter (Jim Davis of "Big Jake"), and he conspires with a reptilian gunslinger, Doug Sadler (Lee Van Cleef of "High Noon") to steal Carpenter's land. The city attorney, Steven Hardy (Lewis Martin), is from the east. He is properly outraged by the fact that Carpenter is a married man who is living in sin with a half-breed Indian maiden, Irene (Mara Corday of "The Gauntlet"), while his wife Teresa Carpenter (Kathleen Crowley of "The Phantom Stagecoach") was away.

The impetuous Hardy rides out to Carpenter's ranch to arrest him. Things do not go well for the crusading lawyer. Carpenter kills Hardy when the latter appropriates a rifle. The rifle belonged to livery stable hand Samson (Hank Worden of "The Searchers") who had ridden out with the attorney to Carpenter's ranch. Sheriff Carl Brandon (Forrest Tucker of "Chism") knows Carpenter and tries to take him into custody. He sneaks up on him when Carpenter and Irene are bedded down in the middle of nowhere, but Irene distracts the lawman long enough for Carpenter to escape. By the time that Brandon corners him in the rocks, the town has sent a gang of horsemen out to lynch Carpenter. When Brandon tries to disarm them, they overpower him and knock him unconscious. When he recovers from the beating, the sheriff sees poor Ray dangling inertly from a tree branch. Brandon rides back to town and arrests all the men who participated in hanging Ray Carpenter. The city father intercedes on behalf of the prisoners, but Brandon tricks them into becoming his deputies. He does this was keep them from forcing him to release the lynch mob. Meanwhile, Ray's wife Teresa returns on the stagecoach and learns the awful truth. The judge sentences the lynch mob to three years apiece for their lawlessness. Later, after the trial, Brandon learns from Teresa who went out to her late husband's ranch that Irene has been killed. Brandon charges both Reilly and Sadler for her death. A gunfight on the main street occurs, and Brandon is wounded. Reilly and Sadler are not as lucky; Brandon guns both of them down. The only thing missing from this otherwise impressive little western is the closure of an ending. We see Teresa come out and check on Brandon's welfare. It is really too bad that Claxton and Norden didn't show us what happened after the shoot-out. Naturally, it would seem likely that Brandon and Teresa would be drawn to each other. After dealing with the treacherous town fathers, wouldn't it seem obvious that Brandon might have tossed his badge in the dirt like Gary Cooper did and ride out with Teresa to get her late husband's ranch going? Again, if this otherwise compelling oater suffers from anything it is the lack of an effective ending that would have provided answers for some questions.

Altogether, "The Quiet Gun" (not sure what this enigmatic title refers to) is a diamond in the rough. The black & white photography is stark and the compositions are interesting. I liked it those little realistic touches, such as when Forrest Tucker dismounted from his horse, he loosened the cinch holding the saddle on his horse. Later, when he came back to ride out, he tightened the cinch. In the courtroom scene, you can see one window opened because you know it would be hot in that room.

Corruption in Prison with Cagney and Raft in Top Form, 17 April 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Each Dawn I Die" is a crackerjack, black & white, Warner Brothers' prison yarn expose. The Burbank studio shifted its agenda away from gangster pictures to prison pictures. Rather that lionize mobsters, they tackled the grim conditions in prisons but they relied on gangsters to maintain tension and suspense. The plot is pretty preposterous, not only for the way that our hero James Cagney is railroaded into jail and the unlikely stunt that George Raft pulls to get him out of stir. The violence is staged with such finesse that you know what happens even though you never see the outcome. When a callous prisoner guard dies at the hands of the inmates, we see the primary inmate arm himself with a curved hook. The guard tries to get away from the angry inmates, but he is pulled back into the crowd. You know that he dies and you know how he dies, but you don't see the homicidal act. Meantime, this trim 92-minute melodrama emerges as a stinging indictment of corruption both inside and outside of prison. Cagney is as pugnacious as ever, and the Warner Brothers' stock company is as strong as ever.

When he fails to get the goods on crooked district attorney Jesse Hanley (Thurston Hall), Cagney lands behind bars when the district attorney frames him for manslaughter in a hit & run. When Ross's newspaper refuses to print a retraction, the D.A.'s henchmen abduct Ross, douse him with liquor, and turn him loose in a car. A dazed Cagney collides with another car, and three die in the other automobile. A solemn, forthright judge sentences Cagney to one to twenty years in the pen. Meantime, George Raft is a gangster sent up to serve life. Society is definitely flawed in this scorching melodrama. No sooner does Cagney wind up in prison than he learns the corruption runs from the D.A.'s office to prison. Director William Keighley and scenarists Norman Reilly Raine, Warren Duff, and Charles Perry don't pull any punches. Everybody on Ross' newspaper knows that he was framed, but they haven't got a shred of evidence to substantiate their contention. While Ross is locked up, he intervenes when a treacherous inmate Limpy Julien (Joe Downing) tries to kill 'Hood' Stacey (George Raft), and Stacey promises to help Ross out of his predicament. "No matter how tough it looks or how long it takes," vows Stacy, "I'll get you out." Ross agrees to confess to the Warden John Armstrong (George Bancroft) that he saw Stacy with the incriminating murder weapon. Stacey wants Ross to turn stool pigeon so he will get a trial outside of prison. During the trial, Stacey leaps out of the courtroom from the second floor and lands on a truck with a cushion so he can escape.

Conditions in prison are depicted mighty. Inmates are not allowed to speak unless they are on the exercise yard. A crippled guard, Lang (Willard Robertson), who harbors nothing but contempt for the inmates pits prisoner against prisoner and loves to generate discord amongst them. After Stacy successfully dives out the window to freedom, Lang and a gang of guards beat him up in a futile effort to extract information from him. Armstrong walks in on Lang and his cronies, and he warns him in no uncertain terms of the consequences he will face. "I've told you before I will not tolerate brutality in this penitentiary. I've laid down punishment rules that are fully adequate. And as long as I'm warden, those rules will be obeyed." This is a very important dialogue exchange because it shows that prisons were not flawed institutions. Instead, prison corruption was an aberration created by disgruntled men like the prison guard. Meantime, Ross winds up in solitary confinement, handcuffed to the bars, with no hope. Armstrong visits him in solitary and promises to get him open if he will divulge the truth behind Stacy's jailbreak. A hardened Ross refuses to sing. "You haven't got a thing on me and you're not going to get a word out of me. I know where Stacy lamed to but I'm glad he made it. I'm here on a phony rap and you've no right to keep me here. You've got no right to keep me here. So get this, from now on the rules are off, I'm going to talk when I please and do what I like. I'm going to be as mean and dirty and hard to handle as the worst con in the joint, and I will skull drag any screw who gets in my way."

Meantime, Ross' girlfriend Joyce (Jane Bryan) appeals to Stacey to honor his promise to Ross. At first, Stacey hated Ross because he believed the former newspaperman had double-crossed him by alerting the press about Stacey. Anyway, Stacey tracks down the man who can clear Ross, but to achieve his goal, Stacey must go back to prison. Stacey knows that one of the inmates in the pen participated in the scheme to railroad Ross. The big finale occurs when the inmates orchestrate a jailbreak, but the National Guard shows up to thwart them. Stacey corners the canary, Shake Edwards (Abner Biberman of "The Roaring Twenties" who framed Ross, and Armstrong hears the confession. The National Guard close in and toss in tear gas. Stacey bids Ross goodbye and goes out in a hail of gunfire with Shake. "Each Dawn I Die" is worth watching despite its outlandish premise.

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