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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)--
Ben (1972) *1/2
In 1971, WILLARD had been a surprise box office hit about a twisted young man and his morbid obsession with harboring an army of rats to do his bidding. So along comes this lukewarm sequel that fails on just about every count.
Starting out promisingly right from the final scene of the first film, a cop and news reporters investigate the grim attic of Willard Stiles, where his dead body lies. Through the finding of Willard's personal diary (a nice plot touch) they discover how he trained a squadron of rats (headed by king rodent "Ben") to kill for him.
From there it's all downhill as we switch over to Danny (Lee Montgomery), a sweet lonely child with a heart condition. He's due for another operation that may even kill him. He lives with his mother and an older sister, Eve (a young Meredith Baxter, pre-FAMILY TIES). A chance encounter with Ben the Rat brings Danny his only true friend, and he entertains his squealing furry buddy with sing-alongs, puppet shows, and toy train rides. Danny even composes a song of tribute to Ben, his friend to the end. At the same time, Ben's nose-twitching comrades are festering around the city, scaring people and trashing whole supermarkets as they scavenge for food. Danny is able to actually converse back and forth with Ben and understand squeak-talk, so he tries to impress upon him that he and his rodent friends can't just do whatever they want, because people don't like that. The police are positively baffled as to how to locate and destroy the rats.
Playing more like a wholesome Walt Disney family flick (in fact, lead child actor Lee Montgomery DID previously star in Disney's THE MILLION DOLLAR DUCK), this is a dull and saccharine affair with every other cardboard adult character being more uninteresting than the next. The best thing going for this is the likably pleasant hit song featured at the end, and recorded by Michael Jackson - it even won a Golden Globe and was nominated as "Best Original Song" at the Academy Awards! The movie, however, earns a Turkey.
*1/2 out of ****
The Ape (1940)
The Ape (1940) **1/2
During the brief 1937-1938 lull in horror film product, Boris Karloff worked for the cheap Monogram Studios, making a series of rather lackluster Mr. Wong detective pictures. When scary movies became in vogue again after the smash hit of SON OF FRANKENSTEIN in 1939, Monogram decided to make Karloff's last contracted movie a horror one.
In THE APE, Boris falls into his comfortable niche of portraying a well-meaning and kindly old doctor. As Dr. Adrian, he is devoting all his time and effort into curing a beautiful wheelchair bound girl of her inability to walk. He has had some success with spinal fluid injections taken from recently deceased people, but finds he requires more and more of the serum to perfect a more permanent cure to end the girl's paralysis. At the same time, a savage gorilla has escaped from a local circus and is wreaking havoc right near the dedicated scientist's laboratory.
Without revealing more details, the plot that is hatched from here on is potentially absurd and unbelievable. Yet, owing largely to Karloff's professional attitude and straight-forward performance, he helps the story rise above its silly premise. Boris is just perfect in his part, neither overacting nor just phoning it in. And this is what makes all the difference.
**1/2 out of ****
The Circle (2017)
The Circle (2017) **1/2
In this updated reworking of "1984", young Mae Holland (Emma Watson from the Harry Potter series) scores a great job working for "The Circle", a social media type of corporation which functions more or less as a cross between Facebook and Apple. The company employees are all too eerily devoted to the workings of the job, which includes harboring all intimate information on each other, and placing tiny cameras practically everywhere in public in order to peer into all citizens' private lives. The two creators of this firm are played by Tom Hanks and Patton Oswalt. Their agenda dictates that privacy is equal to thievery, and that being under constant surveillance keeps people honest. They take Mae under their wing and she eventually works her way up the ladder - she even volunteers to let herself be "transparent", which means she wears a camera constantly (except for bathroom breaks) and allows her whole existence to be screened "live" all around the internet.
That's enough of that. Emma Watson does a good job in her part and feigning her American accent, and since I don't follow Harry Potter I wasn't sure until afterwards if she had faked an English accent for that series, or if it was the other way around for this. However, since I AM a big fan of THE KING OF QUEENS TV sitcom, I had a rougher time buying the comedic geek Spence Olchin (ie; Patton Oswalt) in his serious role. Tom Hanks is a good actor and was really suitably despicable and frighteningly disingenuous. The problem was, there are good ideas here but not the best level of storytelling or plot flow. Some questions, too - such as the very last shot of the movie not making any sense, given the climax that had occurred shortly before it.
At age 55 as of the viewing, the film's privacy invasion theme did at least make me leave the theater quite relieved that I'm as old as I am at this time, and maybe that I wouldn't mind being a little older, even. I grow more and more disgusted at the Facebook/social media/loss of security that abounds all around us these days. Hey, to the all infants and children out there: it's your world now, and you can gladly have it. I wish you all nothing but good luck.
**1/2 out of ****
Voodoo Man (1944)
Voodoo Man (1944) **1/2
The last of nine films that horror icon Bela Lugosi made for the ultra-cheap Monogram studio. It's certainly one of the more intriguing in this series, thanks to a twisted story and a cast of vintage old reliable scare men.
Sneaky gas station owner Nicholas (George Zucco) steers young women down the wrong road whenever they get lost in their automobiles and require directions at his place. After sending them off on their gullible way, he hot tails it to the telephone to alert Dr. Marlowe (Lugosi) that another victim will soon arrive. The doc utilizes his dimwitted henchman Toby (John Carradine) to help kidnap the girls and take them to his basement, so Bela can place them into a trance and use them to restore life to his lovely but brain dead wife. The method is for Lugosi and Zucco to don voodoo garb and chant bizarre rites while Carradine bangs maniacally on a drum, in an effort to transfer the life spirit out of the hypnotized victims and into the doc's unresponsive spouse.
Sounds like a hoot, does it not? This film got an extra boost around the time of this writing due to a wonderful newly restored Blu-ray release from Olive Films. Looking way better than ever before or than it probably deserves, this is a slight hour of absurd fun. Lugosi is restrained and has some emotional moments when caring for his wife's well being, and it is such a laugh to see Shakespearean veteran Carradine making an utter buffoon out of himself. How did he do it? Lord knows they couldn't afford to pay him enough. **1/2 out of ****.
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). *** out of ****
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 ****