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Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954)
Siegel's first masterpiece and perhaps even his greatest prison film
In a directorial career spanning nearly forty years director Don Siegel developed a reputation for delivering taut, solid films which often betray their low budget and their classification as mere "genre movies." He worked with nearly every major "tough guy" actor of the era, including Robert Mitchum, John Wayne, Lee Marvin, Richard Widmark, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood, whose career and filmmaking style were both deeply impacted by Siegel. He delivered one of the classic sci-fi films with "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," arguably the best Elvis Presley film with "Flaming Star," and pioneered the concept of the made-for-TV movie with "The Killers." Like John Sturges, Budd Boetticher, or Sam Peckinpah (who began his career as a production assistant on this film), Siegel wasn't competing for Oscars but, also like them, he was every bit as talented as most of those who were. If you need convincing just check out "Riot on Cell Block 11."
With solid acting performances from all involved, a fine screenplay and excellent use made of Folsom Prison where it was shot, this film goes down as Siegel's first masterpiece. It's a film that seems at least a decade ahead of it's time given it's themes and how they are handled and when watching one is never in doubt that this is the same director who gave us tough and gritty crime classics like "Dirty Harry" and "Charley Varrick." I'd perhaps even go as far as to say that this is Siegel's greatest prison film, no mean feat for the director of "Escape from Alcatraz." I'm not sure which of the two I'd actually pick, but it is a damn close race.
With all of that said, the movie can be just a tad heavy-handed in some scenes, but the brisk pace more than makes up for that. Frankly I'm a bit shocked that (as of this publication) the movie only has a 7.0 rating on IMDb and 846 ratings. In my opinion it's at least as good as "The Shawshank Redemption," the prison film currently sitting at the top of IMDb's Top 250.
If you are a fan of Siegel or classic crime or prison films in general, I cannot recommend this film highly enough.
Big Driver (2014)
Better than average made-for-TV revenge thriller
As a longtime fan of Stephen King, I was excited upon hearing that his 2010 novella "Big Driver" would be adapted into a film. But even with great source material, an excellent cast headlined by the lovely Maria Bello and a screenplay by the son of the legendary writer Richard Matheson, I was somewhat apprehensive about the fact that it would be airing on the Lifetime network.
As it turns out, I had no real cause to be concerned. This is easily the best King adaptation in at least seven years and one of the better television adaptations of his work. While it's not the masterpiece that Tobe Hooper's 'Salem's Lot is and not as fun 1990's TV version of It, it, quite frankly, beats the hell out of any TV adaptation since 1994's The Stand (not counting Storm of the Century and Rose Red, which are original teleplays by King rather than adaptations of a previous work).
With that said, there is a flaw or two. Some parts may seem a bit random to those who haven't read King's story and the middle section seems a bit rushed. A few very minor subplots not present in the original story have been added and they seem to serve little purpose. The movie would have been better had they cut them and focused a bit more on the details from the novella. Yet for the most part they have remained faithful to King's work and I can't imagine any of his fans being that disappointed. There have been far less faithful films with his name attached.
As for the film itself, it's an edge-of-your seat revenge tale in the vein of Meir Zarchi's I Spit on Your Grave or Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45. While it's not as brutal as those two (or as good, in my opinion), it is quite graphic for a Lifetime movie and does an excellent job of keeping the viewer engaged emotionally. While the production values are typical for this type of project, the writer, director and cast manage to lift the film above the norm. Bello in particular does an outstanding job and I wouldn't be surprised to see her get an Emmy nomination for this one.
The bottom line is that this isn't the best Stephen King movie, but it's better than most of them that have came out over the past decade or so and certainly much better than anything else I've ever seen on Lifetime. I'll admit that I was skeptical going in, but if they can keep up this level of quality I wouldn't mind seeing more of King's work on Lifetime and he certainly has a few others that would fit their programming.
Highly recommended to King fans and those looking for a decent revenge thriller.
The Sacrament (2013)
One of the better found footage films
I'm not normally a fan of the found footage subgenre. Occasionally it works, as in the second half of "Cannibal Holocaust" and "The Blair Witch Project," but all too often it seems to be the domain of filmmakers too lazy or uninspired to exhibit the creativity a low budget requires. The films themselves are usually unwatchable and not only because of the technical shortcomings inherent in the format.
Still, I decided to give "The Sacrament" a try because the director Ti West has made several very interesting- albeit flawed- horror films. While he still hasn't made a great film by my judgment, this one is certainly on par with his previous work and it gives me hope that he does have a masterpiece in him somewhere. The limitations of the found footage genre are thwarted somewhat by having multiple cameras, a plausible reason for filming and some common sense on the part of the characters. The most suspenseful scene in the movie features no camera movement at all.
As others have mentioned, the plot is a fictionalized retelling of a well- documented event, so it's to the credit of West and the cast (especially the very charismatic Gene Jones) that the movie manages to be as entertaining and suspenseful as it is. While this isn't saying much, it is among the best found footage movies I've seen.
I would definitely recommend this as a rental for horror fans or fans of West.
Out of the Blue (1980)
It's a shame that "Easy Rider" has overshadowed everything else Dennis Hopper worked on as a director, because, as brilliant as that film was, I believe this one is even better.
The movie captures the mood of late '70s perfectly, but that's just superficial. Really this is a character study of Cebe (Linda Manz in an Oscar-worthy performance), a character that transcends generations. She isn't the typical Hollywood cardboard cutout of a teenage girl or even the "teenage rebel" stereotype found in so many movies. Indeed, we all knew somebody like her growing up. Hell, we've probably all been her at some point, however briefly.
Like "Easy Rider," this story is ultimately a tragedy. Many of the same themes are evident here (the distrust of authority and the critique of a the young subculture of the day- here it's punks rather than hippies), but where "Easy Rider" was clearly the work of a struggling actor who could still be considered young, this was the work of a middle-aged man who had found success and then managed to throw it away. As a result, it's a very angry film at times. Yet Hopper's own decade of struggles following "Easy Rider" also enabled him to bring a poignancy and depth to the characters that was missing from the earlier film. This isn't the easiest film to watch, but those willing to give it a shot will find it very rewarding.
By 1980, when this was released, this type of film was already out of fashion. The gritty and bleak realism of the Hollywood New Wave of the late '60s and early '70s had given way to flashy blockbusters and schmaltzy dramas clearly made only for Academy voters. As a result, a slice-of-life film like this was never going to find the type of success as "Easy Rider." It's a damn shame, because it should have cemented Hopper's reputation as one of his generation's great filmmakers and put young Ms. Manz on the A-list.
Cold in July (2014)
A must see
Every once in a while I'll think to myself that I should stop watching new movies. As a fan of cinema going back to the silent era and of thrillers in particular, I'll inevitably find myself disappointed with most modern films. CGI is almost always used a crutch to cover for paper-thin plots, poor characterization and uninspired directing and I guess they're hoping we'll be so enamored with the special effects that we won't notice the flaws. It may work for some people, but there's a reason why cinema attendance is declining sharply. Most of us have realized that TV is where it's at these days if we want intelligent, well-written stories made with an adult audience in mind. So, I'll sometimes wonder, why do I bother with movies at all?
The answer to that question lies in the occasional gem like this one, a gritty thriller which hearkens back to the glory days of Don Siegel or Walter Hill. It's not nearly as good as their classics, of course, but not very many films are.
The movie is set in Texas in 1989, a time before iPhones and the internet ruled our lives. The director Jim Mickle (who I was previously unfamiliar with but will definitely be looking into now) and cinematographer Ryan Samul do an excellent job of making this setting come to life with Jeff Grace's musical score complimenting them perfectly. In a way, this movie is almost Tarantino-esque with it's clear nods to the classic crime and action thrillers of the '70s and '80s, but Mickle was wise to show far more restraint than Tarantino ever has, letting the story and the characters speak for themselves rather than burying them under layers of stylization (not that highly stylized films can't be great, but simplicity was the right approach here).
Normally this is where I would briefly describe the plot, but the best way to see this one is going in with no idea of what to expect. Mickle's screenplay (based on a novel by Joe R. Lansdale) is adept at navigating several plot twists, all of which kept me guessing. Very refreshing coming at a time when most films are so predictable.
The other standout element here are the performances of the three leads. Michael C. Hall's Richard Dane is the archetypal noir protagonist: an everyman who gets drawn into danger and violence. Sam Shepard's turn as Russel is played with just the right balance of menace and sympathy. But from the time he shows up a third of the way into the film, it's Don Johnson's pig farmer/private detective Jim Bob Luke who steals the show. After brief scene-stealing turns in "Machete" and "Django Unchained" in recent years, Johnson is finally given a complex character that reminds of us what he's truly capable of. He hasn't lost a single ounce of charisma since his "Miami Vice" days and this is a character I wouldn't mind seeing again at some point.
In short, if you're tired of all the disappointing big-budget CGI fests cluttering our cinemas these days and want something with a bit of depth, a memorable plot, and some brilliant performances, this is a must-see.
The Expendables 3 (2014)
Not worth your time
Like any action fan, I was excited when casting was announced for The Expendables 3. All the guys from the first two movies plus Mel Gibson, Antonio Banderas, Harrison Ford and Robert Davi? Count me in. Even the announcement of a group of young kids didn't deter me too much.
Then when I was finally able to see it, I couldn't have been more disappointed. The cast members we actually want to see aren't there for the majority of the movie and taking their place is the worst group of young actors I've seen in years, including an extremely sexist character played by Ronda Rousey.
And when the old school stars are on screen? Don't expect the movie to redeem itself here either because everything is extremely tame and bloodless. Quick edits, cutaways, awkward angles and dim lighting are constant, all seemingly to hide the established fact that people bleed when they are shot or stabbed.
The two older actors who do get a bit more screen time (in addition to Stallone, of course) are Mel Gibson and Antonio Banderas. Mel is great, as always and can even pull off terrible dialogue such as "I don't give a fart." Unfortunately, Antonio is completely wasted here on a poorly written and annoying character that manages to play against every one of his considerable strengths as an actor.
Some of you may still be thinking that you'll go to see some martial arts action courtesy of Jet Li. If so, prepare to be very disappointed. Mr. Li appears on screen for less than a minute, speaks two lines and doesn't perform a single punch or kick. And that's more than double the screen time Robert Davi gets.
All of this culminates in a final fight between Mr. Stallone and Mr. Gibson lasting exactly one and a half minutes. And just in case you thought the movie can be salvaged by seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Dolph Lundgren, Wesley Snipes, Jason Statham or Antonio Banderas on screen together with Mel Gibson, think again. Mel is never in a scene with any other cast member besides Stallone and the young teens (let's call them the Scooby Gang).
But maybe the story can save this one, right? Wrong. This is a cliché we've seen a thousand times, only here it's stretched out at least a half hour too long and has no memorable action sequences to distract us from the numerous plot holes.
In summary, if you're a fan of any actor here prepare to be disappointed.