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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.
Too cheap to deliver any major thrills. Kinda creepy in places, though.
Hard to believe this film has been out since 1972 and the first chance I've had to see it was on the El Rey Network one gloomy Saturday afternoon in 2014. Frogs is a low, low budget ecological-minded horror film in which the family of a wealthy polluter is systematically killed off by the wildlife on his swampy estate. The only recognizable star is a young Sam Elliott, many years prior to his Oscar-worthy turn as 'Wade Garrett' in Road House. He plays the hero of this picture, a photographer who specializes in ecology, and tries to suggest that the old man should find a way to coexist with the fauna on his property instead of poisoning them all. Fat chance! In the tradition of all rich white a-holes in most films, this guy has the gall to declare mankind the master of his own world, or something of nature. Even as dead bodies of family members begin turning up while others disappear, the stubborn old codger just doesn't get it.
The animal of the film's title is quite prevalent in this film. LOTS and LOTS of closeups of croaking frogs or piles of frogs slowly gathering and advancing toward the old man's house. I don't recall any frog actually killing someone, certainly not devouring them as the cover art would suggest. The frogs mostly provide eerie background noise. There are plenty of other more dangerous animals on this property. Tarantulas, scorpions, snakes (some venomous, some not), gators, even some kind of monitor lizards who are apparently smart enough to use poison on humans, are all there to terrify the old man's guests. The frogs themselves are perhaps biblical symbolism more than anything else. Who will make it out alive?? Take a wild guess.
Although its cheap, and short on plot, Frogs isn't a total loss. Some of these repetitive shots of so many kinds of creepy-crawlies, do instill a little fear in the viewer. Certainly some uneasiness. Some of the snakes are absolutely real, and of the deadly variety. Saw some authentic cottonmouths and even an eastern diamondback rattler. Handling those animals on a movie set would be pretty dangerous. In addition to all the croaking, the soundtrack also contains a lot of creaky sounds that add to the gloom. Kind of reminded me of the original Chainsaw Massacre in that sense. But this is nowhere near that film in terms of early 70s horror. There is only so much terror you can get from an alligator with its mouth obviously taped shut. Really, guys? You had to use black electrical tape to keep that gator's mouth shut? Way too obvious!! 4 of 10 stars.
Hard Rain (1998)
Great cast, but soggy script.
The premise of Hard Rain is interesting enough. The cast was more than a cut above this level of thriller. The sets were impressive enough. But after the first 45 minutes or so, this film seems to run out of ideas and interesting set pieces. The film draws you in, but it can't quite hold your interest, and by the final twenty minutes, you are left with a bunch of useless posturing by unlikeable characters, and too much random gunfire that misses its targets.
But how about the cast, though? Christian Slater and Minnie Driver were big names back then. Randy Quaid as a crooked Sheriff? Sure. Ed Asner as a grizzled old security guard? Okay, he still needs a paycheck every now and then. Betty White and Richard Dysart as a bickering old couple that refuses to evacuate as the flood waters rise... a nice touch to be sure. But they didn't seem to know what to do with Morgan Freeman. Theoretically, his character is the arch villain, and mastermind of this plot to rob an armored car during a massive flood. But he's just too likable as an actor to make him the bloodthirsty, cynical thief his character needed to be.
The film starts well, and proves the technical skill of its makers from an early point. There are some great stunts and effects here. A chase through a flooded high school on jet skis is really cool, for example. But the film doesn't stay consistent as far as how high the water is between different scenes. How does water rise to the top of a building in one scene, and then in the very next scene, its only up to the top of car roofs in the street outside the building?? Oh, come on! Maybe some parts of this town are at different elevations, you might argue back at me. But we never get any establishing shots that indicate what the rules are. And things like that do matter. At least a little. The cast must have all caught pneumonia making this. They must have been absolutely miserable. The film was a bust at the box office, too. Even basic cable movie channels have avoided it over the years. There are some fun moments, though. Overall its worth about 6 stars.
R.O.T.O.R. revisited a decade later.
It was on a lazy Saturday afternoon in the summer of 2003 when I was introduced to this astoundingly bad film about a robotic policeman going berserk and terrorizing residents of Dallas, TX. Sharing a similar plot, title, and filming locations as 1987's Robocop (a huge hit), ROTOR is about as big a rip-off as you can imagine. Only with a fraction of a fraction of the budget and talent both in front of and behind the camera. Simply put, ROTOR is so incredibly bad, that much of it challenges description. Judging by the preponderance of names in the credits that seem to have more than one function, this seems like an independent project conceived by a small group of local would-be filmmakers. Ed Wood and his associates probably functioned the same way back in the 1950s. The finished product is so bad its hilarious. A few minutes of it are almost guaranteed to brighten even one's darkest days with a much needed chuckle or outright guffaw.
The lack of money, and likely time are apparent from the first moments. An obvious plastic miniature robot doll is used as ROTOR's skeleton, or combat chassis as its referred to in the film, during the opening credits. We see stock footage that doesn't match up with a traffic report, we see day turn to dusk, and then to pitch black within about 15 seconds of screen time during one scene. And all of this happens within the first minute or two. From this point forward, you are under notice that something potentially catastrophic is about to play out on your TV screen.
The cast, as expected, is made up of nobodies. The "hero", named Capt. Barrett Coldyron, is one of those police officer/rancher/scientist/Indian tracker types we can all relate to. He theoretically tells us the story in one big flashback, not forgetting to include things that seriously pad the thin story out to 90 minutes. For example, in one scene we see 45 seconds of screen time wasted when he walks from his front porch to a corralled horse and feeds him a cup of coffee. All while some ridiculous country type music is blaring on the soundtrack. Another minute or more is wasted watching him drive to work while some horrendous drum-machine/synthesizer 80s music is playing. Later on, while their robot invention is busy killing people, we see this guy and a fellow scientist ride up and down escalators and check her into her hotel room. The pacing throughout is terrible. The robot itself is not seen in action until 40 minutes into the film. The acting is uniformly awful, and many of the characters, including the main characters, have their voices dubbed. This leads me to suspect "Richard Gesswein" may not have even been American. He has no other IMDb credits other than those from this film. The late Margaret Trigg, who is the robot's primary prey, is not the worst actress of all time. The writing is so bad, however, that even a good actor would have had trouble with any role here. Lots of scenes with painfully awkward dialog stretched into long conversations are a common symptom of a low budget flick.
Even with all those faults (and there are many, many more) this film still elicits debate. Was any of this supposed to be taken seriously? Obviously there are many attempts at humor with certain one-liners, but none of these generate anything but groans. Having never been a Beach Boys enthusiast, I wasn't initially aware of all the references to their songs and members during the conference room scene. But is that really funny? Maybe just a cute little in-joke, nothing more. There are indeed plenty of laughs to be had here, but they mostly come from the pretentious dialog, cheap set pieces, dumb character names, poor action scenes, and hilariously bad music and songs. For example, you can't tell me that the people who came up with the "Hideway" song didn't think it was great. In their minds, that song is the stuff of Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes. My verdict: This was intended to be a serious, albeit low-budget science fiction film with supposedly funny one-liners thrown in. Watch, and judge for yourself. After all these years, this is still a film I attempt to watch at some point every year. I truly have never seen anything like it!
The Lone Ranger (2013)
Impressive production design. Poor script.
This critic was not about to be swayed by all the negative buzz that helped sink this film last summer. Having been a fan of the Pirates franchise, I just could not believe this creative team could give us a film that would tank so badly..... and then I started watching it. True, a tidal wave of bad publicity can kill a film even before its released, as its makers claim. But Bruckheimer and Co. did not do themselves a favor with this rambling script devoid of humor. Where was all the snappy dialog that made me chuckle through the Pirates movies? Why give us such a wimpy lead as Armie Hammer? He looks the part, but there is nothing terribly dashing or heroic about the character they gave him to play. Depp seems too downbeat, almost as if he's trying too hard NOT to be Jack Sparrow. Hiding under all that make-up only serves to mute his personality and trivialize his Tonto character.
The film's strengths are obvious from the get-go. The production design is outstanding, and the film looks wonderful. The stunt-work and special effects are terrific, too. With such a budget, they almost have to be by default. But what is missing? Why do we the audience not care about this story? First off, this is a very poorly-paced film. It takes its time getting everywhere. There is no reason this thing had to be longer than two hours. The villains are genuinely interesting, but somehow too obvious. Why do we have to travel through so much back story before we get any meaningful confrontations between the good guys and the bad guys? The Lone Ranger's brother seems like a far more interesting character than the Ranger himself, but he isn't around long enough for us to get to know him. Since nothing eventually comes of the implied relationship between the Ranger and his brother's widow, why is her character even needed? I know, I know... demographics.
This film even pauses to revisit some of the oldest Hollywood clichés. The railroad and the U.S. Cavalry are always the bad guys. Indians are always the victim of white man's greed... yadda, yadda, yadda,... there is nothing new here. True or not, these themes have been driven into the ground so long, they are starting to push through the soil in China. At the end of the day, what are we left with? A huge box office flop, for one thing. I haven't noticed as many big budget movies released yet this summer. Perhaps these last two years with so many big-budget bombs has started the industry trending back towards original thought. I'm hopeful that new ideas may one day be allowed to craft themselves into major Hollywood productions like they once did in decades past.... but then I open the entertainment section of my local newspaper and see they have released ANOTHER FREAKING TRANSFORMERS MOVIE. Another Planet of the Apes. Another Godzilla.... another summer of crap. Oh, well. At least Klinton Spilsbury isn't making movies anymore! 5 of 10 stars.
One of the best from this series.
Too bad this one got left off the DVD package. Apparently they couldn't reach an agreement with Tim Conway in terms of fees. But if you can find this one on TV or online somewhere, please give it a look. This time, the gang pulls into Velma's home town on a foggy night and finds the ghost of a once-great athlete is haunting the athletic facilities at her old high school. Oh, and Tim Conway is working as a coach there, too. Hard to say which the gang finds more shocking. Anyway, Conway and the school principal are hoping to save the school by putting on some sort of athletic exhibition to raise funds. But that darn ghost has seemingly scared away all the athletes in the area. The gang soon finds out that Shaggy and Scooby can run faster and jump higher than any athlete once a ghost starts chasing them. And there is a LOT of chasing around in this one.
Tim Conway gets some good quips in, but the funniest part of this episode is all the meaningless bluster of this ghost known as Fireball McPhain. He constantly threatens the gang and refers to himself as the greatest athlete of all time. This from a ghost who can't catch Tim Conway in a foot race. His threats are bellowed out by legendary voice actor John Stephenson who also voices the character of Jay Teller, an obvious red herring. Also on hand is another legend in the voice-over world, Michael Bell. He voices the creepy janitor who naturally warns the kids to leave the premises before the ghost gets them. The action is nearly constant, and the episode is reasonably funny as much as a Scooby Doo episode can be. The animation is a little choppy though, and once again its way too easy to figure out who the villain(s) are. This episode also has one of the worst goofs in series history. When the principal's brother and the janitor are unmasked as being McPhain, they are both wearing his athletic clothing. A few seconds later as they are being placed into squad cars, both men are wearing the same clothing they had worn the rest of the episode; a suit and janitor overalls, respectively! Superman can't change that quickly in a phone booth! Still a fun episode for fans of this series! 8 of 10 stars.