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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.
Spontaneous Combustion (1990)
Loses Its Way
It's not so much that SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION had little potential. Indeed the under-explored title phenomenon is quite intriguing and, for at least the opening half, this Tobe Hooper effort promises to entertain in a way only cheesy '90s horror can. But somewhere between Brad Dourif's on-again-off-again performance and the overly intricate plot, this would-be thriller loses its way.
Dourif, featured here before his built-in horror fan base had accumulated, is average guy Sam. Of course average guys don't stay average for long in horror movies, so after a well-done origin outline, we see Sam's various body parts start to ignite. Soon he's igniting other people, too, much to the consternation of gal pal Lisa, played unmemorably by Cynthia Bain.
While the title of the film implies a fire-happy monster on the loose, director Hooper opted to make Sam an unwilling killer. This approach gives the film an added human depth it would otherwise lack, but it also prevents us from truly fearing the human flamethrower. We're left wondering whether this would have worked better as a straight-up villain-versus-everyone effort ala NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.
SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION is a pretty nominal effort when all is said and done. It will carry added appeal for Dourif's fans and those who can't get enough 1990s horror, be it good, bad or in between, but only on a slow night.
What Might Have Been...
What might have made for a pretty good thriller becomes increasingly marred by painful clichés and a lack of solid direction in FLIGHTPLAN. Jodie Foster is Kyle Pratt, a recently-widowed mother whose daughter goes missing on an international flight. Worse yet, no one can actually remember seeing the little girl (Marlene Lawston) on the plane. Soon the panicked mom is scouring the aircraft, determined to find out where her daughter is and what sort of conspiracy placed her there.
While FLIGHTPLAN tries hard to avoid being just another trouble-in-the-skies thriller, it doesn't quite succeed. Director Robert Schwentke's film gently grabs you early on but starts to lose you with all manner of contrivances. The kicker is the air marshal, Carson, played by a numb-looking Peter Sarsgaard. Toward the end his let-me-explain-how-it-was-all-done dialog sounds like something out of the mouth of a 1950s comic book villain.
Yet FLIGHTPLAN is never painfully bad in an "is this over yet?" kind of way. Schwentke provides decent pacing and makes the most out of his claustrophobic setting. Foster is a suitably perturbed presence as the stressed-out mom. And there is some genuine originality on display. But Schwentke fails to bring all the elements together in a supercharged package. His directorial abilities are definitely a work in progress. Hopefully he will learn from his mistakes in FLIGHTPLAN.
Class Action (1991)
A Compelling, Unheralded Gem
This subdued courtroom drama starts out like an extended episode of L.A. LAW but quickly reveals itself as the unheralded gem it is. Gene Hackman is as solid as ever as a fervent lawyer battling an auto giant accused of manufacturing a faulty model. The twist is that his rival attorney just happens to be his self-reliant daughter, played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.
CLASS ACTION is not a flashy, fill-up-the-screen-every-minute kind of film. But it is a quite compelling effort. The courtroom storyline is captivating, with director Michael Apted expertly showing the case and its various twists and turns from both sides. Anyone who was glued to the set anytime L.A. LAW came on be in heaven.
Then there's the family dynamic. Hackman and Mastrantonio are convincing as the father and daughter. He seems to know everything and she wants to prove that he does not. They begin the film miles apart in their relationship and it seems a tense court case will further drive in the wedge between them. It's a plot line that works well and helps elevate the film.
All Through the Night (1942)
Fun, Not Flawless
It's no longer as impressive as it was upon its release nearly 70 years ago, but ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT holds up fairly well as a curious blend of mystery, action, comedy and flag-waving.
Humphrey Bogart leads a rag-tag bunch of Manhattan gamblers who take on as their patriotic duty a battle against Nazis who hope to paint the city red with their despicable brand of hate. Amid inexplicable murders and wild chases, including a climactic showdown on an explosives-packed boat, Bogey and his boys aren't about to let the enemy take hold of the mother land.
ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT is not widely considered a classic, and with reason. Though it boasts an impressive cast (Bogey, Peter Lorre and Conrad Veidt are at the top of their game), lively dialog and good action sequences, the film suffers from some faults. For one, it doesn't always allow you to take a breath or two to absorb everything you've just taken in. It's one big block of non-stop, which might not be so bad were the plot less intricate. The film is also a touch overlong, running out of material before the end credits, and at times suffers from a lack of clear direction.
But for those faults, there's no denying this movie's appeal. It's like an early '40s action blockbuster, the heroic wise cracks notwithstanding. The passage of time has rendered the anti-Nazi theme, complete with an ax cutting through a Hitler portrait, amusing yet still strangely patriotism-inducing. Reviewers have noted how much fun ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT is, and it's hard to argue that point. Still, with a few tweaks this is one would-be classic that would have more firmly stood the test of time.
Biased But Intriguing
Despite its preaching and relative lack of balance, BATTLEGROUND: 21 DAYS ON THE EMPIRE'S EDGE ranks as one of the best post-war Iraq documentaries.
With crisp footage and unfiltered comments from Iraqis and the soldiers occupying their country, it offers an intriguing close-up look at the immediate aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion. We hear accusations of abuse from tribal leaders, hypothesizing servicemen and many of the familiar allegations against the true nature of the conflict. We tour sprawling army bases and neighborhoods left devastated. Binding it all together is a long-awaited trip home by Farhan al Bayati, an Iraqi forced to flee years earlier or face the wrath of Saddam Hussein. Farhan's return is certainly compelling and gives the audience a unique perspective into the situation.
But for all its assets, one should not consider BATTLEGROUND the unbiased portrait its creators appear to claim it to be. Indeed the synopsis of the film on the official website of its distributer, Guerrilla News Network, makes mention of this "Middle Eastern quagmire." The decision that this is a quagmire has already been made by the producers, and it shows in their production. That's too bad, because documentaries like this work best without an agenda.
4: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
Battle Against Mediocrity
Not even the world's greatest superheroes can defeat the mediocrity of FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER.
This time around, our heroes are little bit older, a little bit wiser but still coming to grips with their incredible powers. Reed Richards, aka Mr. Fantastic (Ioan Gruffudd) is about to finally marry Sue Storm, aka the Invisible Woman (Jessica Alba). But then, as it inevitably does in these kinds of movies, all heck breaks loose. It seems some mysterious force -- the Silver Surfer, we soon learn -- is gradually draining the Earth of its life.
The plot is suitably comic-book-like, but RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER becomes increasingly mired in a string of CGI-reliant action scenes that are as dizzying as they are fake-looking. Whereas most films have the viewer anxiously waiting for the next injection of action, this one has us wishing director Tim Story would instead flesh out the less-flashy, human angles. In any event, some of the story doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense. While many superhero films can get away with that, it hurts this effort more than it would most simply because the film hasn't much else going for it.
Perhaps the film's biggest asset -- literally and figuratively -- is Michael Chiklis as The Thing, a lovable lug made of craggy, orange rock. As he was in the 2005 original, he is a sheer delight, particularly when forced to endure the mischief of Johnny Storm, aka the Human Torch (Chris Evans). Chiklis flawlessly captures a comic book character in a way few other actors ever have.
As a long-time fan of these four fantastically odd heroes, I wanted to like RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER as much as anyone. I gave it many chances to redeem itself. It did not. It's quite a disappointment.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)
Honest And Well-Made
GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER is one of those movies considered controversial at the time of its release but is today quite tame. But that has minimal impact on its entertainment value as an impeccable cast brings to life a tale whose central message is timeless.
Katharine Houghton is a pretty young blonde who has just brought home the man of her dreams -- widower doctor Sidney Poitier. The fact that the good doctor is an African American is of no consequence to Houghton, nor should it be to her progressive parents, portrayed memorably by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. But when confronted by the unexpected situation, the parents find their open-mindedness put to the test.
GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER is based on a stage play, and the film certainly has the feel of live theater, right down to the top-notch dialog. Though as lighthearted as the subject matter will allow, the movie is surprisingly emotional on a visceral level. The viewers are constantly asked what they would do and how they would react. One's heart goes out to Poitier, who is once again masterful as a dignified black man in a largely intolerant society.
As mentioned, this Stanley Kramer drama is tame... maybe a little too tame. The film doesn't shy away from the racial tensions of the time or the immense bigotry the happy couple will surely face. But nor does it face those issues as directly or forcefully as it should have. We never see the naive Houghton have to stand by her man outside of the safe four walls of home. Exploring this angle would have been a meaningful addition.
Nevertheless, GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER remains a stimulating mid-tier classic. It's an honest, well-made film mature that filmgoers should enjoy.
Runaway Jury (2003)
Be Entertained... But Disappointed
John Grisham probably wasn't entirely happy with this adaptation of his intriguing novel, and chances are you won't, either. John Cusack stars as Nick Easter, a cunning young juror trying to bribe both the defense and the prosecution in a high-profile case against a gun manufacturer.
RUNAWAY JURY starts out quite strong, and those who haven't read the book are lured into the clever, original plot with all its turns. But some how, some way, the film gradually loses its footing. It's as if all the interesting twists are used up in the first hour, forcing the writers to pad the remainder with drawn-out scenes and contrived dialog (a scene where the simplistically pure Dustin Hoffman and the simplistically evil Gene Hackman meet in the men's room stands out in particular).
RUNAWAY JURY also commits a near unforgivable flaw for fictitious entertainment: it's too damn preachy. Once again, and in typical Hollywood fashion, guns and those who make them are portrayed as a type of grotesque venom stuck to the bottom of your shoe. Indeed viewers who believe criminals, not firearm makers, are responsible for gun crime, are treated as something of a parasite, best exemplified by a raving juror played a gruff Cliff Curtis.
In the end, RUNAWAY JURY is a film that is difficult to critique. It certainly has more right with it than wrong, but the negative aspects somehow disproportionately consume the final product. Some will absolutely love it, others may absolutely hate it, but most will probably be entertained yet disappointed at the same time.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
This Sequel Triumphs
Not even the most fastidious of contemporary filmgoers can refute the eternal brilliance of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, one of the silver screen's all-time classics and rightful possessor of a Top 200 place at IMDb.
This sharp 1935 triumph is first and foremost a visual treat, with wonderfully inspired makeup and sets vividly beaming across our screens in glorious black and white; in fact, it is difficult to invoke another film where these two aspects have contributed so much. The use of more sets also gives the movie less of the stationary feel the original had. The sights create a decidedly creepy yet fun atmosphere as only old horror films can.
But the makeup artists and set designers aren't alone in earning praise. Everyone involved with BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN did the unthinkable, particularly by 1930s standards, by improving upon what came before. This starts with star Boris Karloff (whose name actually appears in the credits, unlike the original, where he was secretively identified with a string of question marks.) As the monster stitched together from human remains in the original, Karloff conveyed as much raw emotion as possible from behind heavy rubber makeup. Here he's every bit as good, and the addition of limited dialog makes him even more of a pleasure to watch. The supporting cast, including Colin Clive (Dr. Frankenstein) and Ernest Thesiger (Dr. Pretorious), don't miss a beat, and clearly had the right feel for the type of entertainment being created.
And what can be said about legendary director James Whale? Universal's removing of his artistic shackles probably made the film what it is. In keeping with the more polished effort of this sequel compared to its predecessor, Whale outdid himself. His guidance ensured the finished product was smart and smooth, making the most out of the considerable talent surrounding him. He knew where the picture should go and exactly how it would get there.
If there's one quibble some fans might have with BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, it is that the title character is barely present. Indeed Elsa Lanchester's skunk-striped monster does not appear until about the final two minutes, dashing hopes of a lengthy interaction between she and her male counterpart. But like many great directors before and (mainly) after him, Whale knew that the fun was in the build-up, not the execution. It would have been interesting, to say the least, to see more of the two together, but this by no means diminishes the film.
It's been said before, but it deserves to be said again. BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is quite possibly the most stark example of a sequel outshining the original. It is a truly remarkable effort.
The Compleat Al (1985)
Fans Won't Be Disappointed
If you think "Weird Al" Yankovic is hilarious, you won't be disappointed by THE COMPLEAT AL. Not only does this rare mockumentary feature many of Yankovic's more memorable videos ("Like A Surgeon" and "I Love Rocky Road" among them), but they are inter-spliced with funny vignettes supposedly highlighting the parodist's rise to fame. Yankovic is not for all tastes, but his humor is harmless and imaginative enough that even non-fans will at least be lightly amused. Die-hard fans will love it not only for its content, but also for its relatively early look into Yankovic's now nearly three decade career. Suitable for all ages, kiddies will no doubt love the funny visuals.
Long Before Terrorism Was On Our Minds...
Long before terrorism was on the minds of most Americans, NIGHTHAWKS tackled the thorny topic. Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams are decoy cops -- that is, they venture into rough neighborhoods to bait muggers and other forms of scum -- assigned to track down the cold and calculating Rutger Hauer. It seems the devious mastermind has landed in the media capital of the world, New York City, to try and regain his place among the terrorist elite.
Although it's a fairly decent action/suspense effort, NIGHTHAWKS is difficult to recommend unconditionally. The performances are certainly solid; in fact, it's hard to remember Stallone, here sporting a thin beard, being so effective outside of boxing trunks. The action is crisp and exhilarating, with one pursuit through subterranean New York deserving of a place in the Chase Hall of Fame. The story is original and much of the plot intriguing. And Hauer, in his American film debut, is a suitably hateful villain, with his motives all to familiar to contemporary audiences.
Yet NIGHTHAWKS is not quite as good as the sum of its parts. Even though the film starts out with a bang -- literally -- there's somehow too much build-up and not enough execution. The movie has not aged particularly well, and despite its 1981 release date has the feel of a '70s period piece. And as good as Hauer is, his character is a little too incredible to believe as he pulls off massive acts of terror with little or no sponsorship; what should take a team of experts is accomplished by one man wanted by countless law enforcement agencies.
In the end, NIGHTHAWKS is a movie you're bound to like -- either a little bit or a lot. Considering the high ratio of garbage that has and will continue to spew out of Hollywood, I guess that's not such a bad thing.
Strong, Original, Entertaining
Tagged by many critics as overly predictable despite trying to be the complete opposite, BASIC is nevertheless a strong, original and entertaining film.
The cast, from big names John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson to lesser-knowns Connie Nielsen and Taye Diggs, ably unravels the mystery surrounding the disappearance of a reviled army sergeant during a hardcore training outing. The episode is recounted in as many ways by as many witnesses, an interesting method that has worked so well in other films such as COURAGE UNDER FIRE. It may all seem confusing at first, but gifted director John McTiernan gradually weaves everything together, though perhaps not as seamlessly as one would ideally prefer.
BASIC is not without its flaws, but they are not as glaring as one might think from professional reviews, or even many of the comments on this website. Its originality is welcome at a time when so many films follow the same cookie-cutter formula.
Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)
One jab constantly hurtled at the "Friday the 13th" series is that all of them are the same. Fans of the franchise know that's not true, though there's no denying this first sequel is as close to a remake of the original as you'll find. But for all the similarities to its predecessor, "Friday the 13th Part 2" is a surprisingly good horror film that, dare I say it, improves upon what it followed.
"Friday the 13th Part 2" is, obviously, where the iconic Jason got his first real start. And it was a humble start. Not the mindless zombie of the latter films, the Jason here lives in a cobbled-together shack in the middle of the woods, his mom's decapitated head on candle-lit display. This look into the inner sanctuary of Jason is quite fascinating, and probably tells us more about his personality than anything that has come since. Here he's not so much evil, but a deranged loner out to avenge his beloved mother's murder.
And Jason gets that chance when a fresh crop of horny teens prepare to open a new camp not far from his old stomping grounds at Camp Crystal Lake. Consisting of another group of no-names, these would-be counselors are surprisingly well-defined and real. Director Steve Miner, who would go on to direct "Part III," had said he wanted to give his characters more depth and ensure the film had strength even without Jason's presence. In that he succeeded. In too many horror films, the audience is left impatiently waiting for the killer to show up. Here, the story is engaging enough that the build-up is not a chore.
The movie does liven up, of course, once Jason arrives. Miner chose to take the "less is more" approach to horror, with Mr. Voorhees making relatively few appearances. This generally works well, though a bit more Jason wouldn't have hurt. Jason's "bag over the head" get-up can't hold a candle to the hockey mask that would follow, but it does serve its purpose of cloaking the killer in an aura of mystery and, more importantly, building the suspense for the moment when it finally does come off.
"Friday the 13th Part 2" is not all that scary or thrilling, but it is a fun little horror film that should please those for whom it was intended.
The Good And The Bad
First the bad news. VIRTUOSITY has some of the most painfully predictable plot elements to come out of any theatrical release of the 1990s. Denzel Washington's Parker Barnes, hired to track down a virtual villain let loose in the real world, is, surprise, himself an ex-cop. The villain in question, Russell Crowe's SID 6.7, is a composite of dozens of murderers, including, surprise, the killer of Barnes' wife and daughter. And you just know as soon as you see the young daughter of Barnes' sidekick that he'll have to save her from a diabolical plot concocted by SID (which he does). Moreover, the special effects are surprisingly straight-to-DVD-like, even by 1995 standards. And Crowe's over-the-top bad guy is just too much at times, though perhaps that was the point.
But there are some good things to be said about VIRTUOSITY. Washington's performance is nearly the saving grace the film needs, even though our star sometimes seems to be asking the same question as the audience: What is he doing in a picture like this? VIRTUOSITY also has a fun cat-and-mouse quality, and despite some absurdities and aforementioned clichés, the imaginative storyline sporadically catches our imagination. If nothing else, it certainly marks a departure for Washington, who has played the good cop countless times in his career. Director Brett Leonard keeps things moving at a reasonable pace, though the film sometimes feels a bit too much like THE LAWNMOWER MAN, his highly disappointing entry from three years prior.
VIRTUOSITY is not a completely lost cause, but it is stunningly average considering the talent involved. Sci-fi fans will probably appreciate it more than most.
Back to the Future Part II (1989)
Hits The Ground Running
BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II hits the ground running like few films as our heroes thrust themselves into 2015. It's a visual treat as teen time traveler Marty McFly (a distinctly non-teen Michael J. Fox) defies gravity on his hoverboard, encounters futuristic marvels and, in a memorable few moments, visits a retro '80s cafe. The fun spirit of the original lives on. The film takes a darker turn, however, with Marty forced to alter history to prevent the rise of family nemesis Biff Tannen. Suddenly Marty's dodging bullets and leaping from buildings instead of jamming on the guitar (though he finds time to do that, too).
This film is quite different from the others in the popular trilogy, but it is also, a number of ways, superior to what came before and (particularly) what came after. It benefits immensely from a wildly imaginative script. Rather than rehashing the original, as so many sequels do, director Robert Zemeckis ingeniously intertwined the two films by having the characters literally revisit the events of the first entry. BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II is complex, to be sure, but not so complex so as to detract from the viewer's enjoyment. It is a thinking person's time travel adventure, one with enough to satisfy multiple viewings.
Most other areas of the film hold up well. The Oscar-nominated special effects, as touched on earlier, remain superb nearly two decades later. And because it was made before the rise of CGI, the effects and stunts have a homegrown appeal that is increasingly difficult to find today. Fox is strong in the lead, but Christopher Lloyd's eccentric Doc Brown again nearly steals the show. And Zemeckis' immense directorial talents are on full display as he knows just when to pick up the action and when to give us a chance to absorb all we've just seen.