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**** = Excellent
*** = Good
** = Fair
* = Poor
BOMB = Worthless
--(Although I personally don't use a '10 star system', I have tried to translate my ratings to accomodate the IMDb system too, for IMDb readers)--
The French Connection (1971)
The French Connection (1971) ***
Throughout my life with movies I have seen excerpts of this highly respected film, but only recently did I devote the time to watching it in its entirety -- twice. The true story of two real New York City cops who exposed one of the biggest drug smuggling rings of all time. Gene Hackman plays bad cop "Popeye" Doyle, while Roy Scheider is his more laid back partner, "Cloudy". Through pure instinct they follow suspicious characters and hit the jackpot when their hunch pays off. The film benefits from a real gritty and dirty vibe that captures what the city was like in the early '70s.
It's a good cop film. My final verdict is that it's one of those movies that was likely much stronger at the time of its release. Not that it doesn't have its moments, but to win FIVE Oscars -- really? I don't see that. Gene Hackman's turn as the loud-mouthed and prejudiced Popeye Doyle is only really an incredible performance when you later factor in through the audio commentary that Hackman in real life is nothing like the obnoxious tough guy he's portraying. William Friedkin's direction is pretty good, but an Academy Award? Roy Scheider's character is underwritten and in the background. The celebrated car chase (or is it a train chase) here is admittedly quite suspenseful, but I prefer the one in THE SEVEN-UPS (1973).
Somewhere in Time (1980)
Somewhere in Time (1980) **1/2
My girlfriend's favorite movie, which she asked me to watch with her. I've since learned that this is an extremely revered cult film with a devoted following. After sitting through it, the reasons "why" frankly perplex me. It's an ordinary film at best, and for die-hard romantics only.
I will say that Christopher Reeve gives one of his better acting performances as Richard Collier, a 1980 playwright who becomes infatuated by a portrait of a beautiful young actress from the early 1900's (Jane Seymour). He is driven by a strong obsession to travel back through time and meet her. Luckily for him, after consulting a professor he discovers that time travel is indeed possible through self-hypnosis (?). So Collier dresses himself in the proper period 1900's attire, makes a home cassette tape of his own voice re-asserting over and over that "this is 1912... it is 1912...1912....", closes his eyes while lying down on the bed, and -- voilà! --- he is transported back to meet his lover.
Well, there's a little more to the circumstances ... such as Collier in the opening of the film being approached in modern times by an elderly woman who gives him a watch and pleads with him: "come back to me" (she's supposed to be the same actress from the past, now nearing her death), which adds to his desire to know more about this woman. But I couldn't get past the ordinary trappings of these events, and - most of all - the unbelievable idea that time traveling is in any way possible simply by hypnotizing oneself! I am very good at suspending my disbelief when it comes to watching movies, but maybe that's if the film overall is working for me. The fact that Richard Matheson, a favorite science fiction writer of mine, came up with this idea is really odd. **1/2 out of ****
Love & Mercy (2014)
Love & Mercy (2014) ***
Though not many will be able to tell by the title, this is a bio film on Brian Wilson, the genius behind The Beach Boys. The feature is well designed by going back and forth from the "young Brian" of the 1960's (Paul Dano) and the "middle-aged Brian" of the 1980's (John Cusack). In the '60s we witness 20-something pop star Wilson starting to develop anxiety disorders and mental psychosis, and he has to deal with an overbearing and abusive father ... yet he is still compelled to take the old surfing sounds of the earlier Beach Boys to a higher level. Inspired by The Beatles' RUBBER SOUL album, Brian delves into more experimental territory and spearheads the unusual PET SOUNDS project which is now thought to be one of most classic and influential albums ever made. When jumping into the '80s we encounter Brian as a frail and troubled shell of a man, and under the unscrupulous control of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who humiliates and dominates him. But Wilson is headed for a road to recovery when he meets Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) who takes an interest in him and sees Dr. Landy for what he really is.
A good film overall, this really succeeds due to the effective performances. Though I liked Dano and Cusack as the young and old Brian (even if Cusack doesn't quite look like Wilson), it was Paul Giamatti's turn as the opportunistic "Dr. Feelgood" which stood out best. The only flaw I found was that I felt perhaps the movie could have done better in showing us just how talented the young Brian was, and how he was able to accomplish so much. As it appears in the story, Brian is so screwed up that it becomes hard to conceive how this individual managed to achieve what he did. I think we needed more of the "creative genius" Wilson in addition to the "troubled" Wilson. *** out of ****
Terminator Genisys (2015)
Terminator Genisys (2015) ***
I had severe doubts that this old worn-out series could be successfully revisited at such a late point in time, but wow was I wrong! This fifth installment for me ranks third best of the franchise, following just after 1 and 2. Not a great movie, but a fun popcorn ride which is all the fans should expect. Arnold Schwarznegger makes a triumphant return to the saga as a protective terminator fondly nicknamed "Pops", and the plot point which explains his reappearance as an elder-looking cyborg was smartly written.
The core of the story: we revisit the original's plan in having the futuristic John Connor (Jason Clarke) sending Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back to 1984, except that this time a mishap alters the events as they first played out in Cameron's THE TERMINATOR. For one thing, Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) has now been awaiting Reese's arrival, and so has her longtime friend and guardian, older T-800, Pops (Arnold). No need to spoil how and why things have drastically shifted ... it's best left to view for yourself... but somehow this idea makes for a workably rebooted jumpstart that mostly delivers all the expected goods. Though one needs to pay close attention, the script offers satisfactory explanations as to why its characters are now thrust into different positions.
Schwarzenegger fits back into his T shoes comfortably; it's like he never left the movies for politics. There are the usual quibbles as in most of today's action free-for-all's -- perhaps too many lingering fight scenes, and an unnecessary surprise at the end (sigh). I thought Emilia Clarke looked too young as Sarah in comparison to the original's Linda Hamilton (though Clarke is up to the performance), and Jai Courtney isn't the greatest physical match for Michael Biehn. But, like I said -- quibbles. This is an entertaining Terminator romp. *** out of ****
Little Fockers (2010)
Little Fockers (2010) **
The third, probably the last, and definitely the least of the "Focker" trilogy. All the principles return, only this time there's no real idea what to do for a story and thus this thing veers all over the place. Despite its title, the script is not really about the offspring of Ben Stiller's loins, either. Robert De Niro's character has a heart attack, and so he begins to think about having Gaylord Focker (Ben Stiller) as his successor. Trouble brews when dad has yet another contrived reason to mistrust his suspicious son-in-law. Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand make very limited appearances as Gaylord's parents. It's not without a very rare chuckle on occasion, but it's a hit and miss-miss sequel that is easily skipped. ** out of ****
Rambo (2008) ***
Living a lonely and quiet existence in Thailand after twenty years, John Rambo is asked by a small group of missionaries to take them by boat to war-torn Burma. Rambo tries to tell them that they can't change anything there, but reluctantly gives into their persuasions. Once the bleeding hearts arrive in savage Burma, they are captured and it's up to Rambo and a team of mercenaries to venture in and save them.
After the original FIRST BLOOD (1982), this is the next best entry in the four-film series. What first stands out after so long is that the 60-year-old Sylvester Stallone (who also directed) was successful in making this work. His John Rambo appears strong if aged, and he is still the same action hero who first appeared on screen 26 years earlier. The plot here is simple, but that's not an issue because the film delivers. It is relentlessly bloody and gory, with body parts and devastation by the truckloads. We really can sense the primitive atrocities taking place in Burma, not only against strangers but even against their own people. I do not ordinarily recommend movies relying so much on sheer blood and guts (and much of the carnage here is rendered via obvious fake-looking CGI effects, I should add), but this action packed Rambo installment succeeds at what it sets out to do. Fortunately, the over-abundance of gore is balanced by Stallone's heart-felt personage of John Rambo. The ending of the film was the perfect way to finalize this series. *** out of ****
First Blood (1982)
First Blood (1982) ***1/2
First and best of the series has former soldier John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) traveling through a small town in the hope of visiting an old army friend. He is spotted by bigoted sheriff Teasel (Brian Dennehy) who promptly escorts him off his turf. When the peaceful Rambo turns around and defiantly starts walking back into the town, Teasel has him arrested. Mocked, mistreated, and beaten at the police station, Rambo snaps with agonized flashbacks of Vietnam, escapes the police, and flees off to the woods where he is pursued by law officials. What they don't realize is that Rambo is a Green Beret, trained for survival and conditioned to endure pain and weather. Teasel and his men have now set Rambo off, and he wages a personal war on them that "they won't believe". Rambo's old commanding officer (Richard Crenna) arrives on the scene to try and calm things before his man goes too far.
This is surely one of Stallone's finest films and characters, and Sly looks his best in FIRST BLOOD. His John Rambo here is someone we can sympathize with, and his balance of calm followed by extreme self-preservation intensity is well realized. This film is smaller and more independent in feel than the sequels which came after it, and this gives it more appeal. Brian Dennehy is quite good as the hateful town sheriff whose prejudice has resulted in Rambo's wrath. Richard Crenna was a last minute substitute for Kirk Douglas (who backed out eventually), and perhaps occasionally appears a tad theatrical in his approach. The ending of the movie contains an emotionally charged speech by Stallone which is often criticized as being incomprehensible, but if you pay close attention you can decipher just about all of it. ***1/2 out of ****
It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) ***1/2
Often and arguably considered "The Greatest Comedy Ever Made", this Stanley Kramer Epic is certainly the biggest. It's a wild and zany free-for-all which runs nearly three hours and boasts the talents of many of the funniest comic actors of the time. It all begins when elderly robber Jimmy Durante crashes his speeding car off the road, and several other motorists stop and reach out to help him. Just before dying, the old man tells them they're entitled to take the $350,000 loot he's stashed in a national park, buried for years "underneath a Big W". At first the eight people at the crash site try to compromise, but ultimately all hell erupts in a greedy "every man and woman for themselves" frenzy.
This sets the crazy pace for several different humorous vignettes, as the participants all race to the park to be the first to get the stolen money: Jonathan Winters is a big lug of a truck driver who gets into a disastrous altercation with two nerdy gas station attendants (Arnold Stang & Marvin Kaplan). Milton Berle is a suffering dweeb of a husband who's controlled by his wife (Dorothy Provine) and his loud-mouthed mother in law (Ethel Merman, perfect here in a suitably irritating comic performance). Dick Shawn is Merman's dimwitted playboy bum of a son. Sid Caesar and Edie Adams are a couple who get locked in a hardware store but can't seem to get out. Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett are two pals forced to fly their own airplane when drunken pilot Jim Backus knocks himself out (Carl Reiner is the air traffic controller). Along the way, other opportunists worm themselves into the chase: Phil Silvers is a gem as a real sleazy snake with eyeglasses and no scruples. Terry-Thomas is a proud Englishman in constant patriotic conflicts with American Milton Berle. Peter Falk and Eddie Anderson are two clueless cab drivers. And observing all of these clashing characters is straight man Spencer Tracy, in the role of the aging Police Captain Culpepper, who has been tracking this case of the stolen money for fifteen years, and is now looking to find a way to retire himself off to Mexico.
On and on the mania goes, with some fun car chases and many gags, some of which work better than others. There are so many other comedians given tiny guest spots here and there, that it's hard to remember them all... but keep on the lookout for cameos by: Don Knotts (as a nervous motorist), Jack Benny, Leo Gorcey, Jerry Lewis, Joe E. Brown, Buster Keaton, and even The Three Stooges. It's not a perfect film, nor in my opinion is it the most drop-dead funniest comedy ever, but I have to love its sheer sense of size, scope, and all-out craziness. The ending is perfect, and probably the best laugh of the show for anyone who's stuck with it through to the end. ***1/2 out of ****
The Seventh Victim (1943)
The Seventh Victim (1943) **1/2
A very young Kim Hunter (in her very first film role) plays the part of Mary, a school girl who learns that her older sister and provider, Jacqueline, has disappeared. This leads the young Mary to Greenwich Village in New York City, in an attempt to find out what happened to her. Along the way she meets three older men who try to assist her: a lawyer, a psychologist, and a writer. In time she discovers that Jacqueline was a member of a cult of devil worshipers who decided to leave the group and must now pay the price for her betrayal.
It's frustrating when beginning a review by trying to assure the reader that you do, in fact, ordinarily appreciate the very type of film you're reviewing, even though you're disappointed by this one. So in this case I will start by saying that I am a fan of Val Lewton's 1940's horror films for RKO, as well as '40s horrors in general. Now that this is out of the way, I'll let you know that I have devoted several viewings to THE SEVENTH VICTIM over the years, and though I always wish I could praise it, it's really too flawed in a number of ways to be considered anything more than an above-average noirish drama, perhaps with a hint of the morbid. The photography, as in all the Lewton thrillers, is foreboding and well done. While this movie was unliked by critics upon its original release, over the decades it has become praised as an early forerunner of future satanic cult horrors such as ROSEMARY'S BABY. As such, I can respect it for paving the way more than I actually feel it was successful in doing it.
I suppose Kim Hunter is adequate at best in her early movie role as the naïve student Mary. There is precious little emotion from her throughout, and indeed just about all the other main characters in the film are equally dire in attitude and under-played. The plot is somewhat muddled. For openers, there is no reason for Mary and the lawyer to suddenly tell one another they've fallen in love towards the end, when all they've done is meet briefly, and share some uninvolved words about trying to locate the woman's missing sister. This feels like it was thrown in simply because it was some kind of expected obligation.
Then we have much confounding nonsense as follows: the suicidal sister Jacqueline is captured by the self-professed "non-violent" cult and brought to their room, and is urged for hours and hours to pick up a glass and drink poison to kill herself for her betrayal, but she keeps resisting ... so they let her go home free (?). And when Jacqueline gets home, what is the first thing she does? Hangs herself anyway! Meanwhile, she has been stalked all the way home (in the classic "Lewton Walk" style) by a knife-wielding hit-man who had exited the cult meeting right along with her (I thought they were "non-violent"?-- and even if they changed their minds, why send her home and have a guy follow her to stab her, instead of knifing her right at the meeting?).
Most disappointing of all is the very end where the good guy confronts the harmless "devil worshipers" on their own turf. (All this time they have consisted of high class types, sitting around as if at a dinner party, dressed to the nines and drinking wine while chatting, more like a lodge meeting, and not doing anything even remotely satanic). All it takes is for the hero to recite a part of The Lord's Prayer, and then the members bow their heads in shame. Very weak. **1/2 out of ****
A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014) ***1/2
I went into the theater with no real familiarity of Seth MacFarlane's previous work (he wrote, directed, and stars in this movie). I just went because I thought Charlize Theron looked delicious in the trailer, and I wouldn't mind a couple of hours of light comedy, if this was done right. So, harboring no prejudice against MacFarlane, I was thoroughly entertained by this very good Western farce, which I consider more or less "BLAZING SADDLES for the 21st Century". Yes, the movie was done right... it had a good amount of funny moments, even if MacFarlane relied too often on typical modern toilet humor and sexual gags. However - he redeemed himself with a script that also offers some strong characterizations and a love story amidst the chuckles.
Seth MacFarlane looks like a misplaced Peter Brady in the role of Albert, a fish out of water living in the Old West of the 1880s, and whose sensibilities are more suited to our own modern world. His troubles adapting to ancient frontier life become even worse when his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) dumps his poor sorry ass and she hooks up with the mustached Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), who is the town's rich and prominent store owner. Taking matters into his own hands, the incompetent Albert desires a gun fight with Foy, but can't shoot to save his life. So when a pretty and experienced cowgirl named Anna (Charlize Theron) arrives in town, she befriends Albert and sets out to teach him how to handle a gun. But Anna has troubles of her own, since she has an estranged jealous husband (Liam Neeson) who's out looking for her, and also happens to be the most feared and dangerous gunslinger of the West.
The cast acquits itself nicely, beginning with MacFarlane and Theron, but also Harris and Neeson as the two villains. Sarah Silverman is perfect as the town whore who'll have casual and sloppy sex with everyone except her own boyfriend. We also get some fun cameos from Gilbert Godfried and Jamie Foxx. If the movie would have toned down the notch on at least some of the obligatory sleaze humor and substituted more clever jokes in their place, this would be perfect. The music and theme song were well done. All I know is, I had a good time at the movies and walked out feeling fine. And that's a rarity for theatrical experiences these days. ***1/2 out of ****