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Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
Bond Struggles with the Uncertainty of Middle Age
A real disaster of a flick that clearly reflects the uncertainty and disarray surrounding the franchise at the time. With George Lazenby out of the picture and a small cavalcade of fill-ins dropping off for one reason or another, EON pressed the panic button and brought Sean Connery out of mothballs for a swan song. It's a mistake from the very start. Not only does Connery look unreasonably old for the part, he badly overplays his confidence and worldliness, often coming off as desperate and smarmy. The screen is crowded with gaudy sideshow characters, including a trashy, ditsy leading lady and two villainous hit men who seem far more concerned with excessively elaborate setups than actually doing away with anybody. Even longtime nemesis Blofeld, who may have been the sole beacon of excellence in the equally-forgettable You Only Live Twice, is ruined by an awful recasting, horrendous new personality quirks and a master plan that makes no sense whatsoever. But that's par for the course, really, as the plot at large is peppered with so many dumb jokes and absurd asides that just keeping up with this swerving, goofball storyline is a challenge worthy of MI-6. There's a good car chase midway through the second act (which loses some steam thanks to a similar pursuit, just a few minutes earlier, involving a freaking moon rover) and a few of the gags are so mind-blowingly stupid that I couldn't help but laugh, but otherwise this is a completely insignificant chapter in the character's long, speckled history. Unless you're a dedicated completist, keep your distance.
The Last Man on Earth (1964)
Dark, Bleak and Chilling, It's Hamstrung by the Occasional Eccentricity
An aging Vincent Price takes the lead in this early interpretation of Richard Matheson's dystopian source material, recently mined by Will Smith in I Am Legend. It's a dark, troubling picture that's far more bleak and unflinching than its contemporaries. I don't consider the '60s to be a terribly fertile period for such eerie, subdued science fiction / horror mash-ups, but despite a few off-putting slips this holds up admirably. Price is miscast in the lead, awkwardly overplaying the emotionless, hollow aspects of the central character, even in flashbacks where it's completely inappropriate. He feels out of place as a doting, caring father - often speaking around his daughter like she isn't even in the room - and that tears away some of the natural sympathy of his plight later in the picture. The creatures that constantly plague him are effectively spooky, so long as they keep their mouths closed. A certain ambiance is lost when the shuffling human monster outside the barricaded window knows your name and encourages you to "c'mon out" in the wee hours of the morning. This was a lesson well-learned by George A. Romero, who's admitted the monsters' portrayal in this film directly influenced his beasts in the seminal Night of the Living Dead a few years later. As an exercise in world-building, this is a broad success. It's tangible, vivid and realistic. The plot flails around absurdly at times, though, and the finale is a mish-mashed mess that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. A strong effort that falls puzzlingly short in a number of different ways, it's remarkable in several others.
Chopping Mall (1986)
Gratuitous and Indulgent, in Every Sense of the Word
A fistful of teenaged mall employees hold a drunken after-hours orgy at the end of their shift, just days after the installation of three roving anti-theft robots on the premises. In a typical bit of B-movie magic, the control suite is struck by half a dozen bolts of lightning and the automatons begin indiscriminately slaughtering everything with two legs and a pulse. Did I mention this is a Roger Corman production? Mired in the trappings of every bad direct-to-video slasher to ever burst upon the scene in the 1980s, it's deliciously, laughably awful. Although they produce sounds on par with a blender set to puree every time they're on-screen, these bots are able to routinely sneak up on their unsuspecting prey throughout the film, slinking like cats through the night. They're far from intimidating, with bulky tank treads and tiny little T-Rex arms to spin and clap for no particular purpose, but I suppose the kids' fear of them is somewhat justified after seeing a friend's head turned to mash by a well-placed laser shot. Crammed full of stupid decisions, silly special effects, well-glazed acting and tits, tits, tits, it's got everything you'd expect from the genre and the period... except chopping. These monsters prefer to do their killing with beams of searing pink light.
Everyone is Driven By Something
White-knuckle racing with tons of heart and a raging fire in the pit of its stomach. Like the similarly adrenaline-drenched "Warrior" before it, Rush does an excellent job of evenly pursuing its dual leads, examining both to such lengths that we have ample reason to pull for each in their climactic showdown. Directly inspired by the real men behind the story, its depiction of both personalities, warts and all, is masterful. Ron Howard's always known which strings to tug for maximum emotional impact in his work, but that usually comes at a price: simple, one-dimensional caricatures at the helm. Rush represents an evolution for the director; he no longer shies away from the darker, less desirable elements of his leading man/men, and that strong investment in their development pays dividends at the climax. The pulse-pounding F-1 scenes are gripping and intense - I'd expect no less from today's bombastic Hollywood effects departments - but the real attraction is the race that goes on away from the track, as two dedicated drivers break themselves in half to one-up a lifelong rival. An excellent, impressive blend of moods that touches many nerves.
Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914)
Historical, if Not Hysterical
Charlie Chaplin plays a close approximation of his Tramp character in this quick cut of superficial slapstick with an undercurrent of dark humor. I wasn't aware until after the fact that this was actually the very first feature-length comedy in cinematic history, but in retrospect that explains a lot. In some ways the film is downright visionary, but in many others it clearly isn't quite sure what to do with itself. The plot is barely one-note, cyclical and redundant to the end - the same characters keep getting put in the same situations over and over again - which leads me to believe it was just a case of a single-reel premise stretched over the length of a full flick. Chaplin, still discovering his on-screen sea legs, shows a ton of command and potential, but his performance is often raw and uneven. Mabel Normand is adorable as his on-screen counterpart, a fellow con-artist out to get her cut of the riches Chaplin so gracelessly pursues. A curiosity as a vivid piece of living, breathing history, it doesn't have much up its sleeve and really drags despite a very short runtime.
I Love You, Man (2009)
Occasionally Hilarious, But Tamer Than it Lets On
When a meek, clean-cut realtor (Paul Rudd, in one of his tamer roles) sets out to select a best man for his upcoming nuptials, it suddenly dawns that his list of male friends is uncomfortably short. His subsequent errand into the best friend dating scene reveals no small number of reinforced stereotypes and awkward, queasy miscommunications. Rudd's an identifiable guy here, particularly for the crowd that doesn't buy into Budweiser brand of masculinity, but he's so thoroughly, maddeningly passive that the puns occasionally feel staged. It's funny, with a few genuine laugh-out-loud moments, but also safe like a sitcom given the green light to tinker with a dirty theme or two and actually wrap up its primary storyline. And, considering the wealth of excellent comedians in the supporting cast, that kind of white-washing leads to a mildly wasted opportunity.
This Game, and its Player, is Cut From a Different Cloth
One of several niche-nuzzled documentaries to arrive within a very short period of time. Like "The King of Kong," Ecstasy of Order dedicates itself to an intensely-competitive corner of the video game world, albeit one without as polarizing a figure as Kong's infamous villain, Billy Mitchell. With no exception, each Tetris mega-mind to share this spotlight seems refreshingly earnest, friendly and down-to-Earth. These are guys and girls I wouldn't mind sharing a few beers with over a sticky NES control pad, and it's tough not to sit back, smile, and revel in the moment when they all get together for the very first time, several world records change hands and a spontaneous game of Texas Hold 'Em breaks out. In some ways, I think that's a symptom of the broadly different approaches of the two games: where Donkey Kong is about fire, death and imposition, Tetris is more in line with a timed jigsaw puzzle. It's quiet, inwardly-focused and nuanced, and thus so are its greatest players. Depending on the viewer's mentality, their ultimate enjoyment of the two films may vary appropriately. Sprinkled with a set of widely-varied contenders, more than its share of mysterious intrigue and the pointed quest to crown the world's best player in a first-ever champion's tournament, this is a startlingly arresting subject and a dense display of cerebral gamesmanship. Well worth watching.
Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
A Desolate Blast of Stifling Reality That Touches Several Itchy Nerves
A scathing retroactive commentary on the sins of the FDA and the failures of the US government as the AIDS epidemic was kicking into high gear. Matthew McConaughey (the latest actor to reap rewards for grotesquely altering his appearance) is barely recognizable in the leading role, a rail-thin, homophobic cowboy who contracts the disease at a point in time where it was widely believed that gays were its only victims. The dose of reality he's fed is swift, bitter and thoroughly justified, though that doesn't make it any easier to watch. His journey is an impressive one, if bittersweet, and his emergence from drunkenness and ignorance is a key point. Heartbreakingly vivid, especially in its portrayal of the contradictory lengths the government is willing to go to preserve the interests of its real masters, it deserves credit for refusing to hammer the point until we're all feeling blunt and dulled. I appreciated the ride and agreed with each core message, though naysayers could certainly accuse it of having an agenda.
Inherently Rich and Endearing, Harry's Second Romp Doesn't Really Go Anywhere New
Harry and friends return for a second term, where they're quickly caught up in a long-standing plot to rid the school of so-called "impure" students. Between the celebrated, absurdly deep cast, the charming, nuanced world at large and the constant manipulations of a shadow-clad foil, this picture had an awful lot going for it right out of the gates... so why does it feel like we're just treading water? A large swath of The Chamber of Secrets seems inessential and redundant, which isn't to say it's without merit, just that it could be using this time to fry much larger fish. Did we need to reinforce the idea that Harry's adoptive parents are cruel people? Didn't our hero avoid an attempt on his life on the Quidditch pitch last time around? For that matter, wasn't the entire endgame eerily similar in the preceding installment? Too much time smelling the roses when there's a fire down the block.
Of course, it's not all bad news. The CGI, though still not without the occasional hiccup, has vastly improved since the last picture. That doesn't excuse the force-fed inclusion of an all-digital supporting character, but at least these appearances are kept mercifully short and to-the-point. Although it's the longest installment in the Harry Potter franchise, this chapter skims along at a strict pace and feels much shorter than it actually is. Though seemingly inconsequential as a whole, the plot does drop frequent hints at a darker side of the Hogwarts mythos before, ultimately, allowing such things to continue lurking in obscurity. It shows promise in spades, and will certainly capture the hearts and minds of the younger audiences it's primarily there for, but more demanding viewers will likely find it too thin and sugary for serious digestion.
Seven Psychopaths (2012)
An Ambitious, If Flawed, Gala of Self-Critique
Gleefully dark comedy with a habitual tendency to go meta. That's actually a central point of the plot, which revolves around Colin Farrell's tail-chasing efforts to compose the film's screenplay whilst in the midst of it. We dance around this issue for a bit in the first hour, but once embraced it leads to a number of sharp, bitterly funny conversations and revelations that really help the film stand out as something different. Its jaded, desensitized approach to gruesome violence can be unsettling, but something tells me that's kind of the point. For that matter, so are the simple, shallow characters that pepper the perimeter and the story's rambling, uncertain climax. Farrell is constantly bookended by his cohorts, Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken, who portray two glaringly colorful characters but don't really bring a lot of depth or flavor to the mix. They're each painted with a single stroke, which could again be construed as part of the film's message... but at some point it's natural to question how many times it can fall back on that ready-made excuse. Funny, black hearted and world-weary, but it feels like too much attention is paid to the undercurrents in lieu of the ocean.