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Night of the Ghouls (1959)
Bang that gong!
Night of the Ghouls (or the more appropriately titled Revenge of the Dead) is yet another silly low-budget effort from Edward D. Wood, Jr. The plot deals with the police investigating strange goings on at a secluded house where a phony swami is bilking money out of elderly people hoping to connect with their departed loved ones. The film has many of the elements typical of Wood films, including stock footage, incompetent policemen, poor special effects, and a serious lack of talent and budget. Too bad Lugosi isn't on hand. He could have at least brought some bravado to the Dr. Acula role.
Apparently this is supposed to be some kind of a sequel to Bride of the Monster. It even has Tor Johnson reprising his Lobo role from that film. His burn makeup is actually one of the more impressive elements of this film. But instead of Lugosi as a mad scientist, we get this phony Dr. Acula guy. Kenne Duncan, one of Wood's drinking buddies, is just basically a guy in a suit with a cheap turban on his head. He isn't scary or mystical, he's just kind of an a-hole to everyone around him. True he is theoretically supposed to be a phony, but this setup only allows Wood the freedom to cut even more corners than usual with the production. You say the séance seen looks cheap? Of course it does. The guy performing it is a fake! You get the picture...
A good chunk of this film is actually taken from a previous short film with the police detective walking around a theater in a tuxedo. That explains the ludicrous reason they have him wearing one in this picture! "I was just on my way to the opera when I got your message...." Ha! Some of the biggest chuckles are from: Wood's stock footage not matching up with the movie theme. Criswell, who narrates and also plays a small role, is talking about juvenile delinquency and the footage we see is just of some kids dancing at some kind of 50s malt shop. The bumbling Paul Marco is also back as Officer Kelton. His lines are so terrible, you will fall over laughing! The film's centerpiece is the previously mentioned séance scene. Dr. Acula has some old buzzards on one side of a long table, and some plastic skeletons on the other. We hear an off-screen gong bang several times. A trumpet is lazily hung by a string and it keeps blurting out some off-key notes, randomly. There are a couple of random shots of a guy in black-face mumbling incoherently. Some guy with a sheet over his head randomly dances around as someone plays an old fashioned slide whistle. None of it makes sense. The old buzzards just stare ahead, not reacting to any of it in any way. In other words, this scene is everything we've come to endear about Wood films. There is a nice little plot twist at the end that makes it all worth it. Kind of. Like many wood films, this can only be viewed for novelty effect. Definitely worth a look, but Lugosi would have improved it. He may not have even been alive by the time it was filmed, however. 4 of 10 stars.
A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969)
A classic for Peanuts fans and kids of all ages alike.
This late 60's gem is a terrific showcase for everything there is to love about the Peanuts gang. Many themes and ideas from the legendary comic strip are woven together into this feature length story about Charlie Brown and his world. Unlike the less-successful Snoopy Come Home, this film is a better blend of the emotional highs and lows that a little boy can experience. Snoopy Come Home is almost like an extended wake by comparison.
Much of A Boy Named Charlie Brown deals with him entering a school spelling bee, doing surprisingly well, and then heading to NYC for a national competition. But we also see plenty of other Peanuts themes play out along the way. We see Charlie Brown and his team get demolished in a baseball game, we see Lucy pull the football away when he attempts to kick it, we see Snoopy have some interesting adventures, we see Lucy flirt with Schroeder, Sally flirt with Linus.... all the things we'd expect from a Peanuts strip. And Charlie Brown also cannot fly a kite to save his life. Plenty of funny moments abound. Perhaps my favorite is where Schroeder, who plays catcher for the baseball team, walks out to the pitcher's mound to go over the signs for the days game. He says to Charlie Brown, "One finger will mean the high straight ball, two fingers will mean the low straight ball." Charlie Brown is miffed. "What about my curve? Or my slider..." and other pitches he doesn't really know how to throw. Schroeder simply repeats, "One finger will mean the high straight ball, two fingers will mean the low straight ball." Good Stuff.
Does Charlie Brown win the national spelling bee? Does he finally get to kick the football?? This is a feel-good story, but its still a movie about Charlie Brown. In addition to the funny moments, the film strikes gold with its innovative (for the time) art design, and some truly wonderful musical bits. The instrumental bits actually work much better than Rod Mckuen's lyrical ones. Vince Guaraldi's jazz score is outstanding. The music we hear when Snoopy is skating at Rockefeller Center was used briefly in the 1965 Christmas Special. It still works. And anyone who insists that Charles Schulz didn't believe in God needs to pay attention during Schroeder's piano solo and re-evaluate their thinking on the matter. 9 of 10 stars.
The Boy Next Door (2015)
Basically a Lifetime Network caliber movie with a higher budget.
Why on Earth does Jennifer Lopez waste her time with films like this? She's no Meryl Streep in terms of acting, but she's good enough to make better films that this one. Or Enough, which may have been worse. But not only did she star in this weak vehicle, she is also credited as a producer of it! Lopez is likable, charismatic, and beautiful beyond description, so can't she find better projects?
Lopez plays a high school teacher, trying to raise a teenage son while currently finding herself estranged from her husband. And right at the start of a new school year, this studly-looking kid moves into the house next door, apparently to help an elderly relative about to receive some kind of an organ transplant. Not much becomes of that subplot, and it really does nothing more than establish off the bat that the kid appears saintly. He can fix anything in the house or in the garage. And would you believe he can quote from just about any work of classic literature.... the very thing Lopez teaches?? Small world. The two houses are so close you can almost reach out from one of the many, many windows and touch the one next to it. The kid is always shirtless or even pant less and standing in a window begging her to drool over him. One night after a bottle of wine and a bad blind date, she ends up sleeping with the kid. Naturally she recognizes it as a mistake, but he falls in love. Each detail we learn about the kid reveals him to be more and more dangerous, and less and less believable as a character. Improbable scenes and plot development happen one after another, and basically once you've seen the sex scene, you've seen all there really is to see.
The poor script is only part of the problem. The young man they cast as the title character is twenty-eight. They did try to laughably explain how he had been held back for some emergency, and was now actually nineteen. He doesn't look like a teenager. Not close. Rachel McAdams pulled it off at the same age in Mean Girls. But not this kid. The film actually swerves into an interesting subplot by having the boy next door kind of take Lopez's meek son under his wing, but all of this is shot out the window in an exceptionally tasteless scene. Worst of all is the film's general premise. What is so exciting about a 40- something woman getting it on with a teen - aged student. This kind of thing happens in real life every week these days. With often much younger kids! 3 of 10 stars. The 1993 film The Crush is actually much better... and it really isn't that good.
"If there's one thing worse than a ghost, its a ghost with muscles!"
This episode was a nice way to end the run of Scooby Doo episodes featuring famous, washed-up, or in some cases deceased celebrities. The gang, looking to have some fun after several episodes of chasing ghosts, stop at a run-down carnival run by Van Dyke. Of course, the carnival is haunted and all workers and potential customers have apparently been scared off. Dick literally has to run the entire place himself, setting up plenty of funny scenes where he pretends to be a ticket-taker, a barker, a strong man, a magician, you name it. Van Dyke was born for this story, and he swaps plenty of funny lines with Scooby and the gang.
Who is haunting the carnival? He's a somewhat intimidating muscle- bound ghost painted white. In actuality, he proves to be the former strong man who was thought to have quit, but now is back to scare everyone off so he can of course buy the carnival on the cheap. He naturally spends time chasing Shaggy and Scooby around the park while Dick mostly clowns around with the other kids. There is definitely a certain degree of menace that this ghost exhibits. Notice the crooked smile he flashes as he bends a barbell in half after threatening Van Dyke and the kids after they learn his identity. Some of these celebrity episodes lacked any menace whatsoever. Scooby Doo, Where Are You had a two other creepy carnival episodes, one with the Ghost Clown, and another with an out-of-control robot terrorizing everyone. The episode with Van Dyke goes more for laughs, as you might expect. I guess it would be worth about 8 stars. Certainly better than any episode with the Globetrotters! Glad it was included in the DVD package.
Roller Boogie (1979)
Even Xanadu at least had a good soundtrack!
Roller Boogie lacks good music, and so much more! Were it not for the hotness of Linda Blair and Kimberly Beck, this film would lack any reason to even glance at it. This should be on the bottom 100 list with R.O.T.O.R. and the Kirk Cameron movie. It's amazing some of the things that TCM will slip into their lineup some nights of you stay up late enough. I kind of remember this film from my childhood... back in the days of school-sponsored rollerskating parties, white men with Afros, and Jimmy Carter. After watching most of it as an adult, its hard to believe anyone could have enjoyed it. Even with rollerskating being so hip at that time.
Roller Boogie would like to be Saturday Night Fever, or something along those lines. But it takes talent and so much more to make a lasting film based only a certain popular craze. SNF had the charismatic John Travolta. Roller Boogie has..... some guy who never did anything else as its male lead. SNF had a memorable Bee Gees soundtrack. Xanadu had Olivia Newton-John and ELO for its exceptional soundtrack. Roller Boogie has not one memorable song, and few memorable scenes. Honesty, what was the most memorable scene of Roller Boogie? I'd have to say it was when the kids throw a whole food truck worth of fruit at the bad guy and his henchmen. What else happened? There was another scene where a bunch of stiff old people fall into a swimming pool for no other reason than they probably couldn't think of any other way to end the scene. There is some decent skating, but there had to be. The problem is with how stagy it all looks. A couple characters will be talking in the foreground, and there will be these extras in rainbow-colored clothing doing choreographed skating routines on the sidewalk behind them. Doesn't look authentic at all.
The film was shot in a few weeks, but doesn't end up looking like they spent even that much time on it. Any momentum Linda Blair had in the 1970s pretty much ended with this film. It could have been interesting. It isn't. It should have been fun. It isn't. Roller Boogie might be worse than American Anthem. It's that bad. 2 of 10 stars.
Slick, but wafer-thin, obvious; a disappointment.
Haven't we already had some movies that touched on this kind of would-be journalism? Wasn't there a movie called Paparazzo back in about 2004, or something like that? Didn't Joe Pesci once make something called 'Jimmy Hollywood' back in the early 90s that had a similar theme? True, those movies are not specifically about gruesome crime journalism, but the idea of edgy loners going out and merely showing up with a camera didn't sound too original. I was hoping for more than I got.
That said, Nightcrawler is not going to bore you. It may only make you wish they had done it better. The story deals with an asocial loner (Gyllenhaal) attempting to break into television journalism with nothing more than a camera and a police scanner. Clueless at first, the young man discovers he has good instincts. Then, he finds a ratings-challenged news station that is willing to pay him good money for gory footage of crime and accidents; things the mean streets of L.A. would seem to have a lot of. Within mere moments of screen time, Gyllenhaal has graduated to having a fast sports car, top shelf equipment, and even an assistant. His footage is a potential career saver for TV journalist Rene Russo. But there is competition for this bloody footage (surprisingly little, though) and soon Jake finds himself not only recording the blood, but sometimes thinking he has to cause it as well. He finds himself compelled to sabotage his primary competitor, demand sexual favors from Russo, withhold the identities of multi-murderers, and even sacrifice his partner's life. When will his world come crashing down on him? Or will it?
That little synopsis is more compelling than many of the scenes. The script plays like a first draft, with no major plot twists that you cannot see coming from a mile away. Some possibilities are offered, then left to dry up on the vine. The manner in which Jake films the mass shooting at a swanky home, leads the viewer to expect that he will in fact be a suspect in the crime. It would not surprise me to learn there is a different draft in which they did actually go that route, and some of the shots were set up to move the story in that direction. Alas, Jake is merely accused only of withholding the identities of the killers. A detective threatens him harshly at his apartment about the possibility he could be charged with obstruction and whatnot. NOTHING comes of this scene. Nothing. Gyllenhaal's performance is uneven. In the first half of the film, he seems to be aping Travis Bickle with his asocial honesty and lack of people skills. By the second act, he is a cold know-it-all who talks down to his assistant and the people at the TV station. By the film's final act, he is a slick, slimy pseudo TV producer. It just doesn't seem like he'd morph so quickly. And if this business is so competitive, why is Bill Paxton the only other guy who seems to show up and compete for footage? This coulda, and shoulda been better. 6 of 10 stars.
The Judge (2014)
Good acting, but too long and too much manufactured family angst.
They had it right in terms of casting, anyway. Everyone here seems perfectly cast, even Thornton, who is under-utilized. The performances are rich, and powerful enough to carry this soap opera quite a ways, but ultimately not far enough. Robert Downey Jr. plays a stereotypical hotshot defense attorney who is forced to try to reconcile with his estranged father when dear old dad is accused of manslaughter. Downey's father, played by an increasingly geriatric Robert Duvall, is a no-nonsense small town judge who may or may not have intentionally run down and killed a man with whom he has a troubled history. Did dad do it? And if so, was it intentional? Hard to know, when the old timer's memory is slipping on top of everything else.
The trial takes up a good deal of screen time, and this is a good and bad thing. The good thing is it gives us a furlough from the back and forth family angst between Downey, his father, his brothers, his wife, his ex-girlfriend... you name it. Downey has a lot of issues to work out with a lot of people. The tone of this film is relatively serious, and it definitely attempts to tug at your heart strings. Somehow, a lot of this aspect of the film just seems too forced. How many people in real life are so obstinate that they don't speak to their parents for twenty years? Or their brothers? It just isn't believable. Their constant arguments make a long movie seem longer. The bad thing about the trial is that it winds up being pretty anticlimactic. The verdict is predictable, any anyone hoping for a revelation that will exonerate the old timer will be disappointed. Maybe having things all cleared up by an unexpected technicality such as seen in My Cousin Vinny would have made things worse, though. Overall, it just seems like the trial should have had more of a payoff.
The film also loses points for a subplot involving Downey possibly making out with a girl who is actually a daughter he never knew about. Logically, it seems like she could be none other than his, but the movie seems to chicken out in that respect. The actual revelation of her father's true identity is pretty hard to believe.
There are some good points here, too. Besides the strong acting and casting, the film also makes no bones about the horrors of the advanced stages of cancer. Duvall may never get the chance to put so much of himself into a role ever again. He earned his nomination. Vera Farmiga is also a welcome sight in just about any role. The verdict.... they should have gone for more of a comedic angle. Downey, Duvall,... all of these people could have made it more enjoyable if they just relaxed the film's tone a bit. I don't think Terms of Endearment had so much angst! Watch if you must. 6 of 10 stars.
Warlords of the 21st Century (1982)
Fun film. Exceeded my modest expectations.
Looking for a low-budget diversion packed with plenty of action, some beautiful scenery, and a pretty cool truck, then look no further than this New Zealand film from the early 80s. Though the budget is tiny, and the story seems derivative, there is enough here to hold your interest if you are into post-apocalyptic Mad Max type of stuff. The early 80s produced many, many low-budget films of this type, but nobody else, not even the Gibson franchise had THE BATTLETRUCK!
The plot is familiar enough. We have a "not-so-distant" future where society has basically collapsed. A ham radio broadcast during the opening frames basically sets the table. Cities have collapsed, oil is increasingly scarce, and many people have migrated to the countryside to escape the urban chaos. However, there is no viable law enforcement outside of the cities, and its survival of the fittest. Some have adapted to commune style, ag-based living. Some, like our hero Mr. Hunter have found a way to live independently, using methane-based technology to remain mobile and self-sufficient. And then you have our villain... Mr. Straker. He is some would be military-style tyrannical dictator whose army of twenty or more pillage the countryside. It is they who drive the battletruck, and nobody can dare stand up to it with its weapons and technology. Its a shame this truck belongs to the bad guys, since that only ensures its later demise in a scene very reminiscent to the conclusion of Spielberg's Duel. The acting isn't bad at all. Michael Beck as the anti-hero Hunter plays his character with the kind of stoic toughness and resourcefulness he showed in The Warriors. He does well here. James Wainwright, as the villain steals the show, however. Maybe only the battletruck itself is more memorable. He plays the role with a sadistic overconfidence. An aloofness complete with a twinkle in his eye reminiscent of the late David Carradine. He had the chops to have done more than he did. Anne Mcenroe is better here than she was in The Howling II, but that isn't saying much. She does OK as the damsel in distress. And how about John Ratzenberger? Mostly known for his role on Cheers, think of his film career for a moment. Between 1980 and 1983 he appeared in the following films: Empire Strikes Back, Motel Hell, Reds, Battletruck, Outland, Firefox and Gandhi!! Wow! Who was his agent back then? Did he turn anything down?? Also starring here is the beautiful New Zealand countryside. This area they filmed in kinda looks like Utah in the wintertime. Rugged and pristine. The film is well-paced, and not really preachy in terms of environmentalism, but the message is clear. The human race's dependence on fossil fuels has always led to conflict, and could one day cause a societal collapse. Maybe. Hope it doesn't happen in my lifetime! I don't want the battletruck coming after me! 7 of 10 stars.
A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)
A grim and grizzly departure from mainstream thrillers for Neeson.
It was a mere week ago that I sat through the third, and hopefully final installment of the "Taken" franchise. A film like that with its excessive car chases and dumbed-down PG-13 violence can make a viewer long for a more compelling story of the horrors of true crime. And though A Walk Among the Tombstones seems hardly plausible, it nonetheless doesn't shy from depicting true evil and the sacrifices one has to make in order to defeat it. The end product is an awkwardly paced, but ultimately absorbing thriller, filled with gruesome violence and unsavory characters.
Neeson plays Matt Scudder, a former NYC cop now working as a non-licensed private investigator. His checkered past as a lawman and his battles with alcohol have likely made himself only eligible for under-the-radar freelance work on the fringes of normal society. He would seem like the perfect candidate for the job that a drug dealer recruits him for. It seems two psychopaths have kidnapped the man's wife. But even though he paid them, they still chopped her up! After all, this guy is a drug dealer. Is he going to go running to the cops or FBI? They'd have to learn all about him, and he'd be out of business. After poking around, Neeson learns that these men have killed before, and will no doubt do so again. Apparently they are former DEA agents who know all they need to about potential victims and their families. Things come to a head when these two maniacs grab a Russian gangster's 14 yr old daughter and threaten to slice her up. At this point, the film shifts from psychological thriller to bloody action thriller.
Writer/director Scott Frank scores points with his complex characters and his largely unconventional approach to what could have become Taken 2 1/2 if the studios had stepped in and forced his hand. Though the film is fairly slow in places, if you stick with it, the final 45 minutes or so make a nice finale. There are some elements that seem a little tacked on. The resourceful street kid who befriends Neeson seems like someone from another film, though they found some good uses for him towards the finale. Why did this film have to take place in 1999? Looking back, that seems like a pretty innocuous year. Fears of the upcoming Y2K event are mentioned a couple times early on, and then forgotten. Just like in real life, once it became obvious that there was no real scare to be worried about. The film also plays in some places like a commercial for AA, which isn't the worst idea for product placement I've seen in a film. Go ahead and give this one a look. 7 of 10 stars.
Taken 3 (2014)
A little better than expected.
Every now and then, even The Hound dives into the multiplex with the masses and watches a new mainstream film. Along with recliner seats, you can even get a full meal served to you now. Who knew? Anyway, I had seen the two prior films of this series, and been reasonably entertained. Could a sixty-two year old Liam Neeson pull off another decent action film? How old was Roger Moore when he made A View to a kill?
Well, this time we get more of the same car chases, kung-fuing, and shootouts. This time the car chases aren't as dramatic as they happen on wider American streets rather than the narrow, ziz-zagging streets of Europe. The violence is plentiful, but the PG-13 rating blunts its effectiveness. Gunshot wounds don't even seem to create blood, nor does a slashed throat. About the most disgustingly graphic thing we see is a crazed Russian shooting at Neeson while wearing a pair of tighty-whities. But what can you do? A movie like this cannot be too graphic. You have to accept that going in.
As far as plotting, this time nobody really gets "taken". At least not for very long. Neeson again plays a free-lance secret agent type who may or may not be ready to re-kindle things with his ex-wife. It hardly matters as she is killed off fairly early, and he is framed for her murder. The wife is once again played by Famke Janssen, and I cannot tell if she looks more like Julianna Margulies from The Good Wife, or Renee from Mob Wives. Either way, she won't be around if there is a "Taken 4". Helping Neeson solve the crime and clear his name are his usual gang of former spooks, and his plucky daughter Kim. The film gets a nice boost from veteran actor/director Forest Whitaker as the detective in charge of bringing Neeson to justice. He basically plays the same kind of driven lawman that Tommy Lee Jones played in The Fugitive. That movie is a LOT like this one, by the way. I hadn't seen Don Harvey on the big screen in a long time. Remember him from Casualties of War? And I must say, I haven't heard the term "Spetsnaz" mentioned in any movie since Rambo III in 1988. I'll give the two writers they credited some props for digging that up as back story on their Russian villain.
I guess, give this film a look if you must. It isn't boring and its kind of what you'd expect. If you liked 1 and 2, you'll like this. Taken 3 is being billed is the final episode of this series, but don't buy it. So far, its having a huge opening weekend, and I doubt the studio brass will be able to resist another one. How about someone kidnapping Neeson's new grandchild? Come on! You know some hack writer out there has already started a treatment based on that scenario! I'll give Taken 3 about six stars.