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Judge Dredd (1995)
Not What It Was Supposed To Be
JUDGE DREDD was meant to be the summer blockbuster of 1995. The fusion of Stallone asskick and the newly hot comic book genre was supposed to be irresistible to audiences. Visions of a franchise a la BATMAN danced in the minds of studio execs.
Instead, JUDGE DREDD went down as one of the biggest disappointments of the year, a huge critical and commercial flop and another skid stain in the descent of Stallone's career. And it's easy to see why.
JUDGE DREDD is loud and contrived. It is poorly edited with a guaranteed cliché every ten minutes. It flows with as much ease as a sandpaper Slip 'N Slide. While it cost $70M, huge dollars back in '95, today it looks like something you'd see on the CW.
Stallone, his pupils blanketed by icy blue contacts, alternates between so-so and apathetic in his titular performance. He does, however, spew his ridiculous dialogue with the zeal of a man falsely convinced the words will become catchphrases. (How could he not see the folly in a line like, "I should have taken care of you myself -- personally"? Well, what exactly can you take care of yourself but not personally?).
The supporting crew is no aid. Armand Assante, our evil-for-the-sake-of-being-evil villain, is given surprisingly little to do except cackle like a Saturday morning cartoon baddie. Diane Lane looks like she's trying but never fits into the nonsensical mishmash. Comic relief Rob Schneider serves up exactly one laugh ("We don't have time for this" he disgustingly remarks as Stallone unclothes a judge to pilfer his uniform) and is generally annoying otherwise.
The whole thing is overseen by Englishman Danny Cannon, then an inexperienced director in his mid-20s who was inexplicably handed the keys to this wreck. The action sequences -- of which there are actually few -- are not Cannon's strength. He seems confused and over his head, not knowing quite what to do other than shout "Action!" on random, pointless explosions and trite fighting sequences. One suspects there must be a director's cut of this film floating around somewhere that makes far more sense than what made it into theatres.
But I'm convinced that the biggest reason JUDGE DREDD was an unexpected failure is its appearance and source material. With his gold-armor-covered spandex and very plasticy helmet, Stallone looks like Captain Power, the hero of the 1980s TV show at which children fire their light-sensing guns. Sure it's a faithful replication of the comic-book Judge Dredd, but who cares? Judge Dredd was (and still is) such an obscure character that to think his name recognition would draw bums into theatre seats is naïve to the point of absurdness.
Who didn't want to like this movie? Stallone, despite his many poor career decisions (this being perhaps the worst... and that's saying something!), is a great action hero. But this is just a mismatch for him, and I can't imagine he was pleased with how it turned out. The final verdict: mindlessly mediocre.
The Three Stooges (2012)
Three Unwise Men
By the time this film came out, I had not watched an original Three Stooges short in about 18 years. I did not remember the original Stooges being overly hilarious or ingenious and was not sure a PG-rated update would rewrite my recollections.
But THE THREE STOOGES proved to be an amusing-enough ride. And we have the performances of the new Moe (Chris Diamantopoulos), the new Larry (Sean Hayes) and the new Curly (Will Sasso) to thank for that. With obvious affection for the original actors, and some obvious voice training, the new trio illustrate the subtle genius of the Stooges' shtick. For some reason, if done just the right way, whacking a guy in the head with a sledgehammer can still be chuckle-inducing in 2013.
Directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly borrowed a page from THE BRADY BRUNCH MOVIE by injecting the Stooges into contemporary times. The approach works particularly well here since even the original Stooges never quite grasped the realities of the world of the 1930s, '40s and '50s that they encountered. The Stooges here are charmingly "pure of heart, dim of wit," to quote the new Larry.
Just like the original Stooges shorts, THE THREE STOOGES is cohesively imperfect. One scene, involving peeing babies, attempts a gentle form of gross-out humor that feels just plain awkward. The Stooges' famous shtick -- the nose pinching, head bopping, toe crunching and hair yanking -- is at times gut-busting but wears a little thin as the hour-mark of this brief film approaches.
If you hated the original Stooges, you will hate this movie. If you sort of liked them, you will sort of like this movie. If you loved them, you will find this to be a touching monument to those pioneers of comedy. Supposedly there will be a sequel, so we probably haven't seen the last of these guys just yet.
Bullet to the Head (2012)
Stallone's first non-franchise effort in over a decade is made (somewhat) notable only by the 60-something's presence. Here he's Jimmy Bobo, a colorless, humorless hit man partnering with a somehow less likable good-guy cop (Sung Kang) to stay alive and avenge a fellow hit man's death.
"Bullet to the Head", titled in the leave-nothing-to-the-imagination tradition of "Snakes on a Plane" and "Hobo with a Shotgun", has a certain '80s action feel to it. With uninspired, unimaginative filmography, the film looks like it takes place within a five-block radius. And one struggles to conceive of where the $55-million budget went. Sometimes you have to remind yourself that you're watching a 2013 theatrical release and not an 11 o'clock movie on basic cable.
Not that that's always a terrible thing. If a film starring a rapidly aging 67-year-old action star doesn't have nostalgia going for it, it's in deep trouble. Watching Stallone kick ass again is actually enjoyable, though not as enjoyable as it should be for all of its axe-wielding wonder.
The weak link is not Stallone, though. Nor is it Kang. It is minor-character-turned-chief-villain Keegan (Jason Momoa). His character is never properly fleshed out, his motivations made clear. Instead he is presented as some mystical being, made of evil and honor, and his overtaking of his bosses at the climax is beyoned contrived.
Another 10 minutes or so of screen time would have solved a lot of the problems with "Bullet to the Head", but it would have also created a whole other problem in making the film too long for all but the Stallone diehards to bear.
House of Saddam (2008)
The Man Behind the Monster
Next to Hitler or Stalin, no modern figure has been as vilified as Saddam Hussein. And with the Iraqi despot's atrocities so well known and oft-repeated, it becomes easy to forget that there was a flesh-and-bones man behind the monster.
What makes HOUSE OF SADDAM so compelling is its humanization of the title character. Yigal Naor delivers a subdued brilliance as Saddam, developing the character over a 27-year elapsed period that begins with his ascension to power and ends with his hanging. Naor brings Saddam to the screen without bias. He's as convincing with Saddam the caring family man as he is with Saddam the cold-hearted executioner.
Producers of this four-hour miniseries faced the same challenge as those who have brought other notable world figures to film: what hits the screen and what stays on the cutting room floor? The choice here was to shed light on a quartet of important eras in Saddam's life: his rise to power, his war with Iran, his invasion of Kuwait and his evasion of US forces after the fall of his government. This approach is not perfect - it would have been fascinating to see the final chapter focus more on the process that led to Saddam's fall - but it works well nevertheless.
A rich back story, with emphasis on unstable sons Uday (an amazing Philip Arditti) and Qusay (Mounir Margoum), helps flesh out the story of a complex man in a complex situation. At times the film feels like THE SOPRANOS, with loyalties constantly questioned and bullets planted in the heads of recusants. Given that there is so much about Saddam we will never know, some dramatic license was taken, but none of it screams of pure fiction.
HOUSE OF SADDAM sheds important light on a man whose impact on the world was as devastating as it was profound. With no political agenda, it makes for irresistible viewing.
Seddok, l'erede di Satana (1960)
Under normal circumstances, a film with plot elements that include a mad scientist, a disfigured stripper and a hideous monster would be good for some cheesy fun. Unfortunately, ATOM AGE VAMPIRE takes this promising recipe and bakes up one horrid piece of celluloid. The mad scientist in question rescues the disfigured stripper, restoring her beauty with treatments using (gasp!) the glands of murdered women. Oh, and he can also turn himself into a Halloween-costume-looking monster. There is a little bit of creativity here, but this film is so incredibly boring it must be considered a major accomplishment to make it through all 70-some minutes. If you're in the mood for this type of movie, stick with THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS or PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE.
Leave It To "Weird Al"...
Leave it to musical parody genius "Weird Al" Yankovic to come up with this wildly crazy and funny send-up. Yankovic is George Newman, a likable enough guy who just hasn't quite gotten his act together. Then out of the blue he and bud David Bowe are given the chance to turn around a low-rent local TV station. Humorously (and predictably) the ratings go through the roof with odd creations like "Conan the Librarian", "Raul's Wild Kingdom" and "Stanley Spadowski's Playhouse", the latter complete with a pre-Seinfeld Michael Richards playing a Kramer-like goofball.
Yankovic is terrific in this, his starring debut, and shows a natural knack for a wide range of comedy that he should really bring to the big screen more often. The film is ripe with memorable parodies and great visuals (Richards pulls a foot-long booger from his nose and Yankovic is flattened into a pancake during a RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK parody). Some of the humor is stupid, like the sight of Conan the Librarian chopping an overdue-book holder in half; while some of it you may have to watch twice to catch or fully appreciate.
In a lot of ways, UHF is like one of Yankovic's songs. You can watch it time and time again and still laugh, even if you're not always sure why.
The Marine (2006)
There are some circumstances under which you would find THE MARINE an amazing film. Some of them include:
a) You can't get enough straight-to-DVD Dolph Lundgren.
b) You're a pyromaniac 11-year-old boy riddled with ADD.
c) You found COMMANDO to be "a bit too deep."
Unless you fit into one of these categories, steer clear of this awfully written/executed star debut for pro wrestler John Cena. Here the big guy is a Marine who doesn't know what to do with himself after his discharge. After his wife is kidnapped at a gas station, his training comes in quite handy as he tracks down the gang of thugs holding her in the woods.
Cena is actually not all that bad. He can hardly be blamed for the crapulescence that is THE MARINE; there is much blame to go around. The writers deserve special shame for a cliché ridden script that attempts to get us through the slow spots with one pointless explosion and/or shooting after another. Robert Patrick returns to the screen as a villain, but the talent he showed in T2 is overshadowed by the one-dimensional evil his character displays. Anthony Ray Parker, as one of the thugs, embarrasses himself with tired "black guy" dialog that tries so hard to be funny and timely but fails oh-so miserably.
I didn't know that John Cena was a wrestler before I rented THE MARINE. I guess that's the only thing that really makes sense here. Cena attracts a certain kind of viewer, one with no time for things like plot, direction or creativity. They won't be disappointed. It's not "the worst piece of crap" ever, as one IMDb reviewer called it, but there's certainly no reason anyone should ever view it again.
Home of the Brave (2006)
Back From Battle
Released at a time when America isn't entirely comfortable with fictitious depictions of a very real war, HOME OF THE BRAVE was a dreadful commercial failure. And while it lacks the substance of the great war dramas of our time, it is nevertheless intriguing.
The film draws the viewer in early on, with a group of American reservists assigned to a dangerous humanitarian mission in Baghdad. As their convoy is ambushed and put under fire, we share in their confusion and terror as bullets zing by and child-detonated roadside bombs maim. But the real challenge for the soldiers comes when they must readjust to their civilian lives. Suddenly, the world is a different place.
Where HOME OF THE BRAVE succeeds most is in conveying the utter isolation soldiers feel when they return to a society that doesn't understand them, that can't understand them. It lifts the courageous exterior of these men and women and exposes their very human reactions to what they have seen and done. This is a fascinating and important component of war that films often fail to adequately explore.
The film is also wise to avoid a position on the war. We see and hear the good and the bad of this battle, with all the characters ultimately forced to do what we all must, for or against: accept the war as it is.
Born Yesterday (1993)
It's Not The Original, But...
You can never recreate a classic, but that's no reason to dismiss BORN YESTERDAY.
The lead trio of Melanie Griffith, John Goodman and Don Johnson are terrific as they update the classic play/film about a dizty blonde who unleashes her untapped brain power under the tutelage of a newspaper reporter. Goodman in particular is outstanding, drawing our hatred and sympathy with ease as the bribing workaholic fervently amassing a fortune when money is far from his main problem. It's impossible to recall him ever being this effective or adding so much to a film.
All things considered, however, this is Griffith's film. True, she's no June Holliday, and this is certainly not the 1950 landmark picture. But our sexy star is not out of her league in bringing Billie Dawn to color, ably growing as her once-vacant head is filled with knowledge and free thought. Laugh-out-loud comedy is not necessarily her forte, but she can elicit a chuckle here or there when called upon. Her chemistry with tutor-turned-fiancé Johnson doesn't exactly set the screen on fire, yet the pair remain fun to watch.
When it comes to BORN YESTERDAY, the best advice has already been given: stick with the original. That said, if you wind up catching this remake and judge it on its own merits, you'll be pleasantly entertained. It's a harmless, if unspectacular effort.
Black Dragons (1942)
None of the critics have much good to say about it, but BLACK DRAGONS is a much better-than-expected attempt at an entirely new genre: flag-waving horror.
Bela Lugosi is a mysterious man who mysteriously shows up at a renowned doctor's home, soon after which his guests start mysteriously being murdered. Could it be that they had something to hide? Could there be more to them than meets the eye? What initially fails to make much sense is creatively sorted out in a wonderfully fun B-movie manner.
BLACK DRAGONS was made during the Second World War and it shows, quite painfully at times. The use of the term "Japs" will catch some contemporary viewers off guard, but it's really not that bad when you put it into the proper context. The film is clumsily patriotic, and more silly fun than scary or thrilling. Lugosi is an absolute treat, covering up murders and turning on the "Who, me?" act with ease.
It's not a classic, but BLACK DRAGONS is a good, tidy black and white B-film with a certain watch-it-late-at-night appeal. Director William Nigh had a knack for turning poverty row pictures into something special. Some of his other efforts include DOOMED TO DIE and THE FATAL HOUR with another horror icon, Boris Karloff.