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Bone Tomahawk (2015)
Odd but interesting.
7 December 2015
Film is an unusual combination of Western and horror, with the heroes tangling with a macabre tribe of cannibalistic native Americans (a fictional creation).

Writer/Director S. Craig Zahler is to be commended both for his unique story and the way he was able to interest some notable actors to star in it under his own direction. Certainly the result is a rather odd cup of tea, not necessarily to the tastes of a broad audience, but there is a lot here to like or at least admire. Zahler's dialogue is deliberately idiosyncratic, with its formal cadences and unusual vocabulary choices, but it's in service to a rather plodding 'quest' storyline that builds to a rushed (albeit gruesome) finale.

Along the way there are a few false steps. It's not a very suspenseful trek that the heroes make to rescue the townspeople abducted by the cannibals; the riding scenes (then walking after their horses are stolen) and bivouacs play out one after the other with little sense of pacing. In fact, their main function seems to be to pad out the film's running time.

By the time the cannibals' lair has been discovered, the ensuing violence happens in discrete bursts of action with no build-up to a climax. Little enlightenment about the tribe, its origin and intentions, including whether there are enough survivors to remain a threat, is provided either visually or verbally.

Performances by the cast, especially Kurt Russell as the sheriff and Richard Jenkins as his deputy, are an asset. However, Matthew Fox's character proves somewhat enigmatic and wooden. And Patrick Wilson, as the injured husband seeking to rescue his kidnapped wife, is okay but has done much more compelling work elsewhere.

A couple of other minuses are the flat cinematography of mundane Southern California desert locations, and Zahler's apparent disinterest in close-ups. But the cannibals are pretty scary, and there's one spectacular prosthetic makeup effect like nothing I've ever seen.

Overall, Zahler shows considerable promise as an off-the-beaten-path type of filmmaker, and viewers will probably want to keep an eye out for his next project.
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Gonzo early 80's horror flick with a WTF plot.
3 September 2015
I agree with many points made by fellow commentators. This was one of director Philippe Mora's best efforts: atmospheric, grisly and featuring an extraordinary cast of slumming actors. The makeup transformation effects by the Burman studio are quite well done. BUT...

Why isn't this called The BUG Within? This poor kid doesn't turn into a beast - he turns into a gosh-darn GIANT CICADA! WTF? Where did that come from? There's no explanation in the script, and according to those who've read the source novel, it's completely different from the original story. I remember seeing this at a United Artists screening in Los Angeles back in 1982. My buddy Mike and I were big horror fans, and after the screening let out we kept asking each other, "But why did he turn into a BUG?" Neither of us could come up with an answer then and obviously, even after all these years and with all these discussions on IMDb, no one else has either.

Screenwriter Tom Holland probably could however. Certainly he's proved himself a talent in the horror genre, with his terrific script for the first Psycho sequel and subsequent work on the first Child's Play and his directorial debut, Fright Night.

Philippe Mora has had a more checkered career. A strong visual stylist, he's struggled with poor choice of material such as the infamous sequel Howling III: The Marsupials.

The Bug - sorry, BEAST Within is definitely worth a look for horror buffs, but when you watch the big transformation scene two-thirds of the way through, I guarantee you'll be scratching your head afterwards. The makeup FX are pretty cool though.
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Solar Crisis (1990)
Lame duck sci-fi movie should have spent more on the script.
23 February 2014
There are already a lot of spot-on reviews here about this failed attempt at big-budget space adventure from the 90's. I won't bother adding to commentary about the performances, but I would like to point out the absurdity of one of the plot points covered elsewhere.

The bad guy, Teague (somnambulantly played by the usually exceptional Peter Boyle), doesn't just have a STUPID motivation for his evil plan - to cause the failure of the spaceship Helios' mission to the sun, so that he can sell lots of stockpiled foodstuffs and make a fortune - he has a NONEXISTENT motivation! Because the Helios' mission, whether it succeeds or fails, DOESN'T AFFECT HIS PLAN. He doesn't believe that the 'mega-flare' (ha ha) will happen; he's just exploiting the current parched conditions of Earth's biosphere. Even if the Helios succeeds in dropping the antimatter bomb into Section 17 (ha ha) of the sun and thereby prompts a megaflare in the opposite direction - away from the Earth - it wouldn't change conditions on Earth. So it literally doesn't matter to him whether the Helios mission takes place or not.

As this storyline is based on a Japanese novel, I wonder if the author thought about this, or if it was strictly an invention of the two screenwriters, Joe Gannon and Tedi Sarafian (the director's son, working under a pseudonym). Either way, it's idiotic.

Don't waste your time on this movie. The competent model work and VFX by Richard Edlund's company are not sufficient compensation.
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John Carter (2012)
Opulent but dull.
16 March 2012
OK, somewhere between the gushers' and the haters' comments is the reality that this isn't a bad movie. Just not a good one.

Clearly the filmmakers loved their source material and tried their best to do it justice. There's plenty of stunning design work, superbly-rendered CGI and overall high production values. Disney might have spent a dismaying quarter of a billion dollars on this hoped-for 'tentpole' entertainment, but at least the money is on the screen.

The actors are decent too, within the confines of the trite dialogue and genre conventions that don't really clarify the plot. As the titular hero, Taylor Kitsch is especially effective as a man of action with a troubled past and not a lot of excess body fat.

The problem is that it's all been done and seen before. When Edgar Rice Burroughs first dreamed of Barsoom, his notions of flying machines held aloft by sunlight, warring tribes fighting with swords and rayguns, and beautiful princesses with combat skills were innovative and helped establish the nascent genre of science fiction and 'planetary romance.' But that was back in 1912, and there's been a lot of plundering of his ideas over the decades since. People like George Lucas and James Cameron readily acknowledge their creative debts to Burroughs and his contemporaries.

The result is that there's absolutely nothing new in this elaborate cinematic construct. All the gorgeous detail and VFX gloss are mere window dressing to a tired tale of swashbuckling, monsters, and battling hordes.

And come on -- not only do modern schoolchildren know that Mars is an arid world with virtually no atmosphere, but a good number probably also are aware that its gravity is about 40% of Earth's. So why is John Carter able to leap HUNDREDS of feet into the air, or swing a giant boulder and chain like a yo-yo? The filmmakers provide no explanation for this idiocy.

I will let them off for the truncated and ridiculous title, though. That smacks of a gutless studio marketing decision.
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Screamers (1995)
Competent but underwhelming sci-fi actioner.
8 December 2010
Good example of squeezing every cent of value out of found locations and minimal but well-executed special effects. Peter Weller doesn't do much more than act tough as the beleaguered commander of a down-to-the-dregs military outpost on a ruined planet, but he's good enough to keep interest in the narrative.

Mechanical effects of the 'screamers' -- autonomous killer robots which mainly burrow through the ground -- are well-done, and there's some nifty stop-motion work by the Chiodo brothers showcasing a small reptilian version that stalks some of the heroes inside a building.

The science is disappointing for a film set in 2078 on a planet ('Sirius 6B') in another solar system. As the level of technology would demand faster-than-light spaceship drives, as well as robotics that allow machines to self-replicate and even evolve into perfectly counterfeit human forms, there's little evidence of it. No doubt that's due to budgetary limitations. But what's more risible is the made-up mineral being mined there, something called 'berynium', that's supposed to be 'the solution to Earth's energy problem' but has become terribly radioactive(?). Why wasn't it radioactive when they first started digging it up? And what kind of preventative treatment could be contained in the reddish cigarettes everyone smokes? How could its ingredients possibly protect every cell in the human body from the constant bombardment of ionizing radiation? That's just dumb.

The film's not a time-waster, and it's certainly not just a time-killer. Its plot moves well, and there's some bleakly effective cinematography of the wastelands and bombed out industrial structures. Unfortunately a romance between Weller and a female soldier seems trite as well as unlikely, and the story's ending is anticlimactic and dragged out for too long. Many questions about the war and the Screamers remain unanswered.
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Grim and pointless.
1 February 2010
The only reason I can think of for this film being made is that apparently it's based on some obscure video game, so the producers must have figured there was some kind of built-in audience out there somewhere. Although it delivers the requisite splatter for an R-rated sci-fi/horror flick, and the visual effects are competent, there is absolutely no characterization, no humor, and the action is numbingly repetitive. But I suppose if you're up for a 90-minute slog through darkness and gore and minimal dialogue, you might enjoy it.

The most dispiriting aspect of the film is its sheer ugliness. There's not much of interest to look at other than the regular splashes of blood. Most scenes are just too dark to make out any detail. Costumes and weapons are generic. All of the mutants look the same: bald, scarred, each with a big pointed bony spike in place of one arm. They're savage and quick but not really scary.

And worst of all: this is another in the seemingly endless modern canon of inexplicably monochrome films that look to have been digitally photographed against green screen, with CG sets and backgrounds added in post production. I hate to have to point out the obvious to these modern filmmakers but THE HUMAN EYE DOESN'T SEE THINGS THIS WAY. We're not dogs. We have color vision, and in reasonable lighting we can see the actual colors of everything around us. The world does not appear grey/brown like in the latest HARRY POTTER installment; nor blue like in the UNDERWORLD series, nor sepia like the new BOOK OF ELI. Please, can somebody besides James Cameron buck this trend?. The sad thing is that cinematographers shoot movies in beautiful rich color, then watch as the director or producers or whoever drain the imagery of color in post production. It's a waste, and makes absolutely zero sense.
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Slow but intermittently fascinating.
18 May 2009
Forgive the mundane US title, a poor substitute for the original but problematic DOPPELGANGER. This 1969 British science-fiction drama finds producers Gerry and Sylvia Anderson striving to rise above the kiddie-oriented marionette spectaculars ('Fireball XL-5', 'Thunderbirds') with which they'd achieved TV success. Though based upon a scientifically ludicrous premise, its solid acting and imaginative effects make it well worth a look for fans of cinematic sci-fi.

Okay, most school kids who've learned something about space and astronomy know that the orbits of the planets are not circular but elliptical, which renders the notion of a hidden planet on the opposite side of the sun pretty silly. But once we're over that, the storyline does provide some good old-fashioned space adventure, nifty hardware, and not a little 'Twilight Zone'-type eeriness.

When it first came out, my younger brother and I saw this as part of a sci-fi double bill, most likely paired with a Japanese monster movie. The latter was quickly forgotten, but this one made an impression. I especially remember the poetic spaceflight sequence, with its psychedelic visuals and dreamlike music. And we both loved the excellent miniatures by Derek Meddings (famous for his James Bond work), particularly the giant, Saturn 5-like multistage rocket and launching pad, and the futuristic hoverjet that brings American astronaut Roy Thinnes to the Eurosec space facility in Portugal.

Other cool gadgets (an Anderson staple): fake eyeball camera used by spy Herbert Lom; heart-lung-kidney machine that enables the astronauts' hibernation on their trip beyond the sun; ultra-streamlined motor vehicles of the year 2069; and so on. Anderson may not have had a Kubrick '2001' budget, but he squeezed every penny's worth of value out of meticulous production design, costumes, and model work.

Get past the slow first half-hour, and the narrative gains momentum and emotional weight on its way to a sobering and thought-provoking conclusion.
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Sunshine (2007)
Some nice visuals but a muddled plot.
5 September 2008
Danny Boyle's film aspires to '2001'-like transcendence but ultimately disappoints with a confusing final third and some too-gimmicky direction.

It's not just that the fairly linear, science-driven plot abruptly shifts into a horror flick scenario -- this might've still provided an appropriately tense, countdown-to-zero finale. But Boyle unwisely overlays the action with such blurry cinematography and choppy editing that it becomes virtually impossible to follow.

The cast is fine, doing their best with underwritten roles, but it would also have been helpful if screenwriter Alex Garland had provided a bit more back story, e.g., why is the sun expiring, how were the two solar expeditions put together, what has life become like back on earth, etc.

Also -- and this may seem like a minor complaint to some -- if you're taking pains to be scientifically accurate, and indeed, deliberately following in the footsteps of Kubrick and Clarke, it would behoove you to give an explanation for the ship's artificial gravity. I've read that earlier concepts included a centrifuge section, or alternately, that the bomb's payload was so massive it provided adequate gravitational pull, but neither is mentioned. Disappointingly, then, 40 years of advancing space technology and knowledge have not led to better VFX or increased verisimilitude.

The filmmakers' efforts here are appreciated, but it's a shame they fall short of the mark.
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Very unsuccessful sequel.
4 December 2007
Jean Shepherd, Bob Clark, and the entire cast and crew seem to be trying really hard with this latecomer sequel to "A Christmas Story" but it just doesn't work.

Now granted, it would be tough for anyone to follow in the footsteps of the beloved characters portrayed so memorably by Darren McGavin (as The Old Man) and Peter Billingsley (as Ralphie) in the original, but the efforts here by Charles Grodin and Kieran Culkin, respectively, are disappointingly feeble. Culkin can be dismissed as merely bland; he's just not much of an actor. Grodin, however, is more problematic. Never the warmest of actors, his skill at playing low-key supporting characters who specialize in dryly delivered asides is unparalleled. But here he's simultaneously trying to pay a tribute to McGavin and convincingly portray a bigger-than-life 'man's man'; in both cases he's not only unconvincing, but actually looks uncomfortable.

Despite the ploddingly episodic script and casting weaknesses, praise should go, once again, to the production design and costuming, nostalgically evoking a bygone era. For some people that may be enough. But overall this a depressing example of filmmakers going to the well once too often.
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26 September 2007
Let me start off by giving credit where it's due: Gene Kelly and company put a lot of lovely female pulchritude in this one. Not a skinny babe in the bunch. That's a big plus for us dirty old men.

However, the script itself is not only misogynistic -- every female character is treated as an object, not a person -- but mostly unfunny. Part of the problem is miscasting. The two male roles should've been reversed: Matthau as the cynical smoothie, and Morse as the naif. Neither actor here is showcased to his best advantage.

The cameos are pretty lame too, with comedy greats like Lucille Ball and Jack Benny largely wasted. The best one has Carl Reiner, who's funny as always in a mainly physical comedy role, but the ending of the sketch is weak.

The dumbest aspect of the whole enterprise is the central notion of Matthau wanting to cheat on his incredibly gorgeous, hot-to-trot wife, played by knockout Inger Stevens. After an eyeful of her I spent the whole rest of the movie muttering to myself about what an idiot he was.

As a time capsule of the 'Swinging Sixties' this might provide some nostalgic amusement. But there are much better sex comedies from the period. Check out Jack Lemmon in HOW TO MURDER YOUR WIFE.
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Barbarella (1968)
Jane in her sex-kitten phase.
23 August 2007
This is a very silly movie, less science fiction than cheesy fantasy erotica. A youthful and lovely Jane Fonda (long before her Anti-War Activist and Oscar-Winning Actress phases) stars as the title heroine, dispatched by the President of Earth to find a renegade scientist in the distant star system of Tau Ceti.

It's an enjoyably campy romp if you're into that sort of thing. The new DVD release features a pristine print of vivid primary colors that showcases the imaginatively bizarre sets and costumes. Unfortunately there are also some poor opticals and inferior mattework and rear-projection, particularly in the unconvincing depiction of an 'Angel' (played by John Phillip Law of GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD) in flight.

But even as a movie you can laugh at, there are some undeniable pleasures. Fonda is quite fetching in a somewhat exploitative role, Milo O'Shea is properly deranged as the scientist turned evil, and Law stays dignified despite wearing a sort of floppy diaper.

The score is typical 1960's pop, with some catchy brass lines and dopey lyrics sung by Bob Crewe and his singers. Best of all is the opening scene, when Fonda does a zero-g striptease while removing her spacesuit. It's technically beautifully done, with no visible wires, Fonda gyrating slowly while she peels off the suit, her hair floating around her face as she smiles beatifically. I watched it four times in a row. That scene, not the whole movie; once was enough.
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Once more unto the breach.
6 June 2007
Following upon such previous works as PATHS OF GLORY and DR. STRANGELOVE, Stanley Kubrick again turned his scrutiny to the follies of war in FULL METAL JACKET, based on Gustav Hasford's autobiographical Vietnam War novel "The Short Timers". This 1987 drama, featuring a talented non-star cast headed by Matthew Modine, did lukewarm box office in the wake of more grandiose and/or traditional entertainments like APOCALYPSE NOW and PLATOON. But time has been kind to Kubrick's second-to-last film, and to my mind at least, it shines more icily brilliant with each viewing.

The film consists of two parts: Marine Corps basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina, where we meet our hero, Private 'Joker' (Modine) and his fellow recruits; and the second, longer section set in Vietnam, chiefly involving the 1968 Tet Offensive.

The early scenes are both harrowing and blackly humorous, with a riveting performance by neophyte Lee Ermey (an actual former Marine drill instructor who was originally hired as a technical adviser) as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, who focuses most of his object lessons on the unfortunate Private 'Pyle.' The latter is played by a young Vincent D'Onofrio (of "Law and Order").

Kubrick's trademark clinical eye is in evidence here, with deep focus compositions that reveal in unflinching detail the dehumanization process of basic training, ostensibly designed to mold from these callow youths the killers desired by the military brass. That the sequence of incidents escalates to a blackly ironic but inevitable conclusion does not diminish its horrific fascination.

The story then leaps forward in time to Joker's adventures as a reporter for "Stars and Stripes" in Vietnam. Most of the action follows Joker and wet-behind-the-ears colleague 'Rafterman'(Kevyn Major Howard), as they travel "in country" with the former's buddy 'Cowboy' (played by Arliss Howard from the opening sequence) and his squad on a reconnaissance mission into the bombed-out city of Hue. There death again rears its head, more randomly this time, and Joker and the other Marines must do what they have to to stay alive.

The ending has Joker and his comrades, M-16's at the ready, singing the "Mickey Mouse Club" song while marching into the dark and uncertain future. They are alive. They are not afraid.

It's a disquieting tale, but its truths seem simple and clear. Kubrick may have had a jaundiced view of the human condition, but there's no doubt he believed in man's ability to survive in dire straits.
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Four Friends (1981)
Colorless, corny melodrama of the 1960's.
24 January 2006
Screenwriter Steve Tesich's sophomore effort (following upon the wildly overpraised BREAKING AWAY) is a compendium of clichés, coincidence, and dour melodrama. Perhaps he lived some of this; if so, I'm sorry to say he was inexplicably unable to dramatize any of it convincingly.

In fairness, he's not helped much here by Arthur Penn, a talented director who's done remarkable work in the past (BONNIE AND CLYDE, LITTLE BIG MAN), but fails to inject any energy or verisimilitude into Tesich's narrative.

The cast struggles as best they can but are saddled with weak motivation and dialogue. Sympathies should be reserved particularly for Craig Wasson, whose morose performance presages the impending quick fade of his leading man career, as well as the embarrassingly untethered Jodi Thelen, miscast as the film's extremely unlikely 'femme fatale.'

It all seems longer than it is, and any points made are heavy-handed and obvious. See Arthur Penn's earlier take on the subject of the 60's, the droll and elegiac ALICE'S RESTAURANT; it's everything this one isn't.
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A real trial to sit through.
10 August 2005
I saw this many years ago when it first came out. I had previously enjoyed BILLY JACK for what it was, an interesting little action picture with a leftist political conscience. So I thought I knew what to expect with this one.

But nothing prepared me for the sheer, mind-boggling bombast of auteur Tom Laughlin's magnum opus. The simplistic political ideas he espouses in this example of wretched excess make Michael Moore and Leni Reifenstahl look like amateurs.

You know the old joke about how you have to get the mule's attention by first clobbering him over the head with a two-by-four? Well, Laughlin feels the necessity to pound that poor mule right into the ground with a pile driver until it's in a hole so deep you can see China on the other side. Subtlety, ambiguity, ambivalence, even the possibility of their being two sides to any issue are concepts that have no place in his universe.

If you're the type who believes that the world is a place of Black and White, Good and Evil, with zero shading between, then you may be able to stomach this film. But let all others beware.
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Revolution (1985)
5 August 2005
I'm all for the idea of a grand epic of the American Revolutionary War. This ain't it. (And for that matter, neither was the Emmerich/Devlin/Gibson THE PATRIOT. But I digress.)

I saw this film at a publicity screening at the old MGM Studios (now Sony) just before it came out. The audience had high expectations for this expensive period piece, written by veteran Robert Dillon, directed by the esteemed Hugh Hudson (of CHARIOTS OF FIRE fame), and starring Al Pacino.

But it didn't take long for people to start squirming in their seats, whispering derisive comments about Pacino's horribly misconceived accent -- he was supposed to be an American frontiersman of Scottish ancestry(!) -- and that of Nastassja Kinski, who was supposed to be recently emigrated from England(!!). Then the story started and it all went downhill fast.

Motivations were muddled, dialogue was atrocious, events had no historical or political context. What there was of a plot lurched forward on absurd coincidence; by the second or third time that alleged lovers Pacino and Kinski stumbled into each other it had become a bad joke. Donald Sutherland gave an unhinged performance as a British officer/pederast. His accent was all over the map too. I guess there weren't any English actors available.

Lots of people left. Those who stayed tried to stifle giggles, then openly guffawed. I stuck it out -- I figured that at least the battle scenes might be good. I was wrong. Inexplicably, Hudson chose to film them with hand-held cameras, not even Steadicam, the jerkiness giving a misplaced newsreel 'authenticity' which ruined the sense of scale.

There was a semi-famous TV reviewer in the audience a few rows ahead of me: (the late) Gary Franklin of Channel 7 Eyewitness News. I could tell he was peeved by the behavior of the rest of us. And sure enough, on his TV segment the next day he gave the film a '10' on his notorious 'Franklin Scale of 1 to 10', while remarking churlishly about the louts who'd disrupted the screening the night before, who clearly didn't know art when they saw it. What a buffoon.

After this disaster, Pacino didn't star in another film for almost 4 years. Hugh Hudson's career never recovered. You can't say I didn't warn you.
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What movies can be, and are all too rarely.
2 August 2005
Magnificent production (along with its immediate sequel THE FOUR MUSKETEERS) is well-nigh as perfect an entertainment as you will find. Seldom have the ingredients of an international blockbuster come together with such perfect skill and success (and never mind the brouhaha surrounding the Salkinds' allegedly duplicitous decision to release their production as two separate films!). Both movies provide adequate individual story lines on their own -- with the first being perhaps funnier, and the second more compelling and somber -- but there's no doubt that as a single four-hour saga this expert adaptation of Alexander Dumas' classic tale can't be beat.

For an 'all-star' cast, the actors seem pretty comfortable in their roles and there's not much showboating. (But there are definitely scene-stealers in the persons of Spike Milligan as Raquel Welch's better-part-of-valor husband, Monsieur Bonancieux, and director Richard Lester's favorite, Roy Kinnear, as Planchet, D'Artagnan's loyal manservant.) The Musketeers themselves are brought to vivid life by some real pros: a glowering Oliver Reed as Athos, dashing Richard Chamberlain as Aramis, and comic stalwart Frank Finlay as the blowhard Porthos. Not to mention the breezy way very young -- and very fit! -- Michael York pulls off D'Artagnan's metamorphosis from country bumpkin to skilled swordsman with an appealing mix of athleticism and charm. Also a pleasure are the villains, with smooth understated treachery personified by Christopher Lee as Rochefort and Faye Dunaway as the beautiful but deadly Milady de Winter. Even Charlton Heston, in a rare non-heroic turn, shows subtlety and nuance as the conniving Cardinal Richelieu.

I've always considered Lester an above-average talent who was often -- like many directors -- saddled with mediocre material, but this is where I think he was able to do his most completely realized work. After all, Dumas' story, here masterfully laid out in George MacDonald Fraser's humor-laced script, contains just about every kind of action, romance and intrigue known to fiction.

And the great thing is, Lester excels at all of them. His action blocking is superb, the swordfights and battle choreography done with exhilarating pace and realism. Many of these set pieces contain skillfully-timed slapstick gags that not only work in context but are truly funny to boot. Suspense is well-wrought throughout. Even the dialogue scenes convey volumes of information without ever being dull.

Obviously Lester's many collaborators contributed their own magic as well. Locations in Spain stand in beautifully for France and England. The overall production design is rich and detailed, full of wonderful bits such as the friar's blessing of the cannons, a Jules Verne-esqe submersible, and a canine chess game. Michel Legrand's music score is so exceptional in part one that Lalo Schifrin's work in part two can only suffer in comparison, but even that's a minor quibble. Overall, these two movies are a total delight that should be in every DVD library. (Make sure to get the Anchor Bay edition.)
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Dumb and loud.
23 February 2005
Leaden adventure fantasy features a bulky, badly-toupeed, unconvincingly intrepid Sean Connery leading a cast of young unknowns pretending to be heroes from 19th century literature.

Okay, I didn't read the comic books, but I've always had a high regard for writer Alan Moore ever since WATCHMEN. So I admit this is an intriguing concept, teaming Allan Quatermain (Connery) with An Invisible Man (apparently they couldn't clear the rights to Wells' 'The'), Dorian Gray, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Captain Nemo, Mina Harker from "Dracula," and even Tom Sawyer (whom I understand is not in the comic books but was added to appeal to American audiences). Lots of possibilities here. There's even a villain from Arthur Conan Doyle, Moriarty (but alas not his nemesis).

Unfortunately this film wallows in overblown action sequences in lieu of plot and an overuse of CGI that runs the gamut from good to shoddy. Production design by Carol Spier (frequent collaborator with David Cronenberg) is occasionally endearing but too often rendered ludicrous by sheer extravagant scale -- wait till you lay eyes on Nemo's gargantuan submarine Nautilus. Also, for a story set in 1899, anachronisms abound: automatic weapons, ballistic missiles, a car that could compete at Indy, etc.

'Based on a comic book' is often a a handicap to overcome, at least in the perception of those in the audience who are not fans. What the filmmakers have done here is cater to the 'kid factor'; you know, the way a 10-year-old boy would think it was COOOOL if, for example, when Dr. Jekyll drinks his potion, he doesn't just become an evil, lust-filled alter ego; no, he turns into the INCREDIBLE HULK! And Mina Harker can morph into a ferocious BAT-MONSTER at will! And the bad guy looks like DOCTOR DOOM! And Nemo kicks butt like JACKIE CHAN! And fruity Dorian Gray is invulnerable to bullets and swords kinda like SUPERMAN! And did you know that you can drive a submarine the size of the nuclear aircraft carrier Nimitz beneath the streets of Venice, Italy? COOOLLLL!!!!!

It's as dumb as it sounds.
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French Kiss (1995)
Phony as a three-dollar bill.
8 November 2004
The premise is ridiculous, the characters unbelievable, the dialogue trite, and the ending absurd.

Believe me, I'm a fan of Kevin Kline, but watching him do a Pepe Le Pew accent for 2 hours as a supposed Frenchman is not nearly as amusing as it sounds.

For her part, Meg Ryan is once again as perky and adorable as a (take your pick): kewpie doll, baby, puppy, kitten, whatever you happen to think is the cutest creature on earth. She also bears not the slightest resemblance to a real human being.

This movie strikes me as an opportunity seized by buddies Lawrence Kasdan and Kline to vacation in Paris and the south of France while being well-paid for it. So I can't really blame them.
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Traffic (2000)
The 'War on Drugs' is unwinnable.
31 May 2004
Steven Soderburgh demonstrates his mastery of the film medium with this sprawling, multi-character and plotline expose of American law enforcement's mammoth, endless campaign against illegal drugs. Three distinct story arcs and numerous characters are expertly woven into a compelling narrative that scores its points without attempting to wrap everything up into a neat package. The real world is messy and often ambiguous, and this film does a good job of reflecting it.

Screenwriter Stephen Gaghan has said that his research revealed one common denominator among those on the front lines of this 'war' and that is despair. Supplies can be interdicted with the proper application of force (and funding), but the underlying problem of a society's demand for mood-altering substances is rarely acknowledged and even more rarely addressed adequately. There may be those out there who can make the case that we're winning this war but clearly these filmmakers would beg to differ.

Benicio del Toro won a well-deserved Oscar for his portrayal of a conflicted Mexican policeman, but many others in the cast are equally impressive. Highest compliments go to Erika Christensen as the high school over-achiever who's also an addict; Michael Douglas as her father, a judge appointed to the position of federal drug czar who gets a hard lesson in the way drug abuse can insinuate itself into any stratum of society; and Don Cheadle as an undercover cop whose efforts -- and those of his comrades -- all too often lead to naught. In the latter section, Catherine Zeta-Jones gives a good, non-hysterical portrait of a trophy wife who learns more about greed and ruthlessness, and herself, than she could have imagined.

Soderburgh's cinematography (he operates his own camera) differentiates the three intertwining story lines with stylistic precision: yellow/overexposed hand-held camera-work in Mexico (del Toro and the Federales' assault on the Tijuana cartel); predominantly blue tones/dark interiors in Ohio and Washington, DC (the judge and his daughter); and warm sunny tones in San Diego and La Jolla (Cheadle and his team's bust of Miguel Ferrer and their stakeout of kingpin Steven Bauer's estate). It's not just a gimmick; it works.

This is an adult film. It entertains but makes you think, without preaching. Soderburgh, Gaghan, et al know there are no easy answers.
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The trilogy ends in a whimper.
4 May 2004
Overproduced nonsense that jaw-droppingly destroys fans' faith in the creative abilities of the mysterious Wachowski brothers.

After the brilliance of their original conception as featured in the first film, they're continued the storyline (in RELOADED and this one) with lots more money and effects and absolutely nothing else of creative interest. Once again you will find yourself immersed in a green-lit CG universe of rain, squibs, wire-removal kung fu, and robotic acting, but we've seen it all before. It was cool the first time. Now it's merely repetitive.

The ending of REVOLUTIONS is probably the worst wrap-up to a trilogy in cinema history. What exactly did Neo accomplish? Did he free the humans? No. Did he destroy the Matrix? No. Did he conquer the evil machines? No. Did he learn his true nature and fulfill his destiny? No. The list of failures goes on and on.

I'll treasure my DVD of the original MATRIX, but won't bother buying either of these lame so-called sequels. They shouldn't even be mentioned in the same breath.
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Reign of Fire (2002)
A snuffed-out match.
29 March 2004
Well-produced actioner is a major disappointment.

It seemed as if the writers came up with a great premise but didn't know what to do with it. Some letdown in the storytelling may have been budget-driven -- particularly the really interesting part about how the dragons destroyed human civilization, which is brushed over here with a feeble voice-over and newspaper headline montage -- but the action builds to a climax that profoundly fails to produce excitement or satisfaction. One arrow and BOOM! It's over.

And here's a question: How the hell did the dragons reproduce? In the opening sequence we see the release of the male dragon from a cavern under London. Okay, he's loose now, and presumably randy as all get out after a millennia-long sleep. So where are all the girl dragons? Did they just materialize out of thin air? Hmm, I guess they left something out.

The dragon effects are excellent but nothing new, really, following upon DRAGONSLAYER from over 20 years ago.
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Will make you forget that wimpy TV Hawkeye.
24 November 2003
Policier specialist Michael Mann steps way off his usual beaten path with this adaptation of that hoary old James Fenimore Cooper tale of frontiersmen, Indians, Redcoats and the French -- the latter back when they knew how to fight.

Chameleonic actor Daniel Day Lewis is totally convincing as Hawkeye, tracker, warrior, and adopted white son of Chingagchook, last of the Mohicans tribe. Along with adoptive brother, Uncas, the three are swept into the French and Indian war of 1757, treading lightly between the antagonists: French and Hurons on one side, British and colonials on the other, each faction potentially treacherous and deadly.

Mann doesn't waste time on exposition or character development; he just hurls us into the fast-paced, brutal action and the effect is like snagging the tail of a galloping racehorse and trying to hang on to the finish line. Madeline Stowe and Jodhi May, as sisters of the British major Munro, provide love interest for Hawkeye and Uncas, respectively. Steven Waddington is another Redcoat officer infatuated with Stowe, and he too shines as a 'bad guy' who's more complex than he at first seems. But the movie's almost stolen by Wes Studi as Magua, a Huron warrior who's allied himself with the French solely as a means to avenge himself on the white man. He's as mesmerizing and lethal as a cobra.

Technical qualities are exemplary, with special mention to the magnificent scenery of old-growth forestlands and mountains in North Carolina, and a superb score by Trevor Jones, with an assist by Randy Edelman.

Mann might not be the first guy you'd think of to stage an 18th-century period action/adventure/romance. But after seeing what he does here, no one can fail to be impressed by his range and bravura. This is a must-own.
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Nice and easy does it.
14 November 2003
A true sleeper; a heartfelt drama with an odd title that isn't really 'about' any one thing, but ends up more truthful about life than most higher-profile Hollywood product.

It's a movie that's rather slow and low-key, but stick with it. There are many wonderful moments along the way, both funny and poignant, conveyed with remarkable verisimilitude by a skilled cast. We've grown accustomed to the excellence of Jessica Lange, convincing here as a recent widow trying to make a new life for herself and her boys, but she's ably supported by Arliss Howard, Joan Cusack, and especially Chris O'Donnell and Charlie Korsmo, who play her sons.

Director Paul Brickman hasn't made many films but this is surely his best; he also collaborated on its quietly-observed, slice-of life script with Barbara Benedek (THE BIG CHILL). Thomas Newman's spare, haunting score reveals why he's one of the finest film composers working today.

Also, despite other user comments, this is not a 'tearjerker.' MEN DON'T LEAVE comes by its emotional impact honestly, with restraint and subtlety. Other filmmakers could learn a thing or two from Lange, Brickman et al. Highly recommended.
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Born Free (1966)
Enjoyable true-life adventure.
27 October 2003
Esteemed producer Carl Foreman's name is on this modestly enjoyable family film, and his trademark attention to storytelling and production values ensure that this is a considerable cut above other such G-rated fare from the 60's. Based on Joy Adamson's bestselling book, it tells the true story of how the wife of a game warden in Kenya raises Elsa, an orphaned lion cub, then has to face the difficult task of training the adult lioness to return to the wild.

Pacing is stolid, the photography of authentic African locales impressive (with the exception of a couple of poorly-integrated stock shots of attacking lions), and John Barry's Oscar-winning score is memorable if a bit overblown. The acting by real-life spouses Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers is excellent. Interaction of the lion cubs, and later, the star feline Elsa, with the human actors is often remarkable. Recommended for kids over 8 and their parents, who won't be bored.
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A minor effort from some top talents.
14 October 2003
John Frankenheimer's drama of itinerant skydivers intersecting with small town doldrums is heavy on atmosphere but frustratingly ambiguous in its storytelling.

Not having read James Drought's source novel, it's hard to say just what went wrong here. Perhaps in an attempt to avoid conventional melodramatics, adapter William Hanley's script was kept as low-key and naturalistic as possible, to the extent that all of the silences and unspoken words end up conveying practically nothing of the characters' motivations beyond a kind of inchoate yearning. Usually I'm all for scripts that don't shout and scream, that rather rely on subtlety and restraint, but this one is so elliptical that its own best intentions are undermined. The ending seems flat and pointless. Yes, a death has occurred, but has anyone in the story really changed?

It's particularly frustrating given the talent involved. Stars Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, with support from younger players like Scott Wilson, Gene Hackman, and Bonnie Bedelia, give strong and convincing portrayals. Add to that some remarkable aerial photography of skydiving derring-do -- plus a love scene which features the beautiful Ms. Kerr's bare breasts -- and you probably won't feel you've wasted 2 hours. But if only there were more.

Not a 'lost treasure' of Frankenheimer's, Lancaster's and Kerr's careers, but an intriguing, minor footnote.
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