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Zookeeper (2011)
8/10
Fun, heartwarming dramedy with Kevin James, Rosario Dawson and... talking animals
18 June 2018
RELEASED IN 2011 and directed by Frank Coraci, "Zookeeper" is a dramedy/fantasy/romance starring Kevin James as a (you guessed it) zookeeper in Boston who enlists the aid of the zoo's animals in his attempt to win the affections of model Stephanie (Leslie Bibb) or, maybe, fellow zoo-worker Kate (Rosario Dawson).

This amusing and heartwarming movie succeeds where "Doctor Dolittle" (1998) barely gets by. It's also more relevant to adults in light of the romantic shenanigans, albeit still family friendly. Everything hinges on whether or not the movie can pull off the animals as (talking) characters while keeping you invested in the drama. And it does, incredibly. I actually found myself caring about one of the animals in particular. As always, James makes for a likable every-guy protagonist. And Dawson is winsome.

THE FILM RUNS 1 hour, 42 minutes and was shot in Franklin Park Zoo & Boston, Massachusetts, as well as Central Park, Manhattan (for the bike race). WRITERS: Jay Scherick, David Ronn, Kevin James, etc.

GRADE: B+/A-
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4/10
Like a 90's Lifetime movie with Alyssa Milano and softcore
17 June 2018
RELEASED IN 1995 and directed by Anne Goursaud, "Embrace of the Vampire" is an erotic drama/romance about a college freshman (Alyssa Milano) who is haunted and seduced by a vampire (Martin Kemp), which transforms her from virginal to darkly sultry.

I thought this was going to be a 90's version of "Twilight" (2008), but the production quality is of the Lifetime movie level with an emphasis on erotica (softcore). Alyssa obviously wanted to shed her chaste kid-star image from Who's the Boss and she does so as she's shown top nude and almost naked on several occasions (I should specify that no one's genitals are ever shown). Some dreamlike sequences are awkwardly hedonistic and mere excuses for erotic semi-nudity. The film starts weak with an inferior rip-off of the Dracula's three brides' seduction of Jonathan Harker in "Bram Stoker's Dracula" (1992).

As far as the story goes, I like the coming-of-age at college element with Harold Pruett playing the likable beau and Jordan Ladd the prissy biyatch. Charlotte Lewis is on hand as a photographer who's interested in something more than merely photographing Milano's character. Meanwhile Jennifer Tilly has a small role as an oversexed pub patron. So there's some good in this movie that makes it worthwhile but, for me, the good is canceled out by the semi-porn elements.

THE MOVIE RUNS 1 hour, 32 minutes and was shot at Shattuck-St. Mary's School (a college-prep boarding school) in Faribault, Minnesota.

GRADE: C-
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7/10
Big, dumb, fun action flick in Russia dies hard to entertain
17 June 2018
RELEASED IN 2013 and directed by John Moore, "A Good Day to Die Hard" is the Third of (currently) five installments in the Die Hard series. In this one John McClane (Bruce Willis) travels to Moscow to aid his unruly son, Jack (Jai Courtney), only to discover that Jack is an undercover agent. Father & son team-up to stop a nuclear weapons heist. Sebastian Koch is on hand as a focal point in the heist.

The Die Hard flicks fill the bill if you're in the mood for big, dumb, fun action thrills. Don't get me wrong because a lot of work goes into making these kinds of films and it takes talent & genius to pull them off. I mean "dumb" in the sense that the focus is on unbelievable action rather than deeper themes beyond "genuinely good people may be flawed and somewhat profane, but they're courageous and never give up in the face of evil." Thankfully, this installment throws in some entertaining father/son character development in between the wild action sequences. McClane's daughter also appears for good measure (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).

The story isn't quite as engaging as "Live Free or Die Hard" (2007), but it was good enough and the action scenes are out of this world, including a long vehicle chase in Moscow in the opening act. Director Moore ups the ante with quick-editing for this one. Some parts are eye-rolling absurd, but everything's done with a quasi-realistic tone, which sorta helps the viewer go along with the ridiculousness rather than tune out.

The Die Hard flicks are the natural progeny of over-the-top films like 1977's "The Gauntlet" where the action scenes are so overdone they're cartoony, but entertaining. There's a thin line that filmmakers must tread with these kinds of blockbusters because they can easily fall into overKILL, like 2001's "The Mummy Returns." Thankfully, "A Good Day to Die Hard" pretty much evades that ditch by giving us entertaining protagonists & antagonists, amusing one-liners, worthy bits of character development and a compelling comic booky story. Speaking of the story, one of the highlights is the infamous Russian location of the final act. Another highlight is hottie raven-haired Yuliya Snigir.

THE MOVIE RUNS 1 hour, 38 minutes and was shot in Budapest, Hungary, with the Chernobyl scenes done at Old Soviet Air Force Base, Kiskunlacháza, Hungary, along with establishing shots of Moscow. WRITERS: Skip Woods.

GRADE: B/B- (6.5/10)
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Kangaroo Jack (2003)
5/10
Fun adventure in the Outback
16 June 2018
RELEASED IN 2003 and directed by David McNally, "Kangaroo Jack" is a family-friendly adventure/comedy about two Brooklyn friends (Jerry O'Connell and Anthony Anderson) who are commissioned by a mob boss (Christopher Walken) to deliver $50,000 to a shady character in the Outback. The operation goes awry when a kangaroo inadvertently runs off with one of the guys' jacket... and the money. Michael Shannon is on hand as a mob heavy.

This is a likable, amusing adventure flick with the typical eye-rolling kid humor (e.g. fart jokes). It's fun, harmless hokum highlighted by spectacular Australian cinematography and the beautiful Estella Warren as an Outback preservationist. The humorous camaraderie of the protagonists is another highpoint. But the story isn't as compelling as I hoped it would be and the camera never really captures Estella's beauty beyond her lovely face and pulchritude.

THE FILM RUNS 1 hour, 29 minutes and was shot in Australia and Brooklyn with reshoots done in Los Angeles.

GRADE: C+
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Fools Rush In (1997)
6/10
Amusing romcom in the Vegas area with Salma Hayek and Matthew Perry
15 June 2018
RELEASED IN 1997 and directed by Andy Tennant, "Fools Rush In" is a romantic dramedy about a casual night of passion between a successful New Yorker (Matthew Perry) and a Mexican immigrant (Salma Hayek), but they learn that love is more than a Vegas marriage & an Elvis impersonator when dealing with conflicting families and traditions.

This is a generally amusing "chick flick" focusing on Gringo/Latino relations, albeit formulaic. Some jokes fall flat, but they're well intended. Perry makes for a likable male protagonist while Salma Hayek is winsome in her physical prime; and Suzanne Snyder in secondary role is nothing to sneeze at. Meanwhile Jon Tenney appears as the protagonist's best friend. The Las Vegas area locations are picturesque.

THE MOVIE RUNS 1 hour, 49 minutes and was shot in Nevada/Arizona (Las Vegas, Henderson, Hoover Dam, Lake Mead and Grand Canyon) and Rancho de las Golondrinas, New Mexico (standing in for central Mexico).

GRADE: B-/C+
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4/10
Trace Adkins is a kick-axx Westerner, but this low-budget Western is substandard
14 June 2018
RELEASED IN 2016 and directed by Terry Miles, "Stagecoach: The Texas Jack Story" stars Trace Adkins as a former stagecoach robber who turns over a new leaf and marries, but feels forced to turn back to outlawry when a one-eyed marshal tries to apprehend him (Judd Nelson). Kim Coates and Claude Duhamel are on hand as his gang members.

Adkins makes for an iconic Westerner, as witnessed in "Traded" (2016) and "Hickok" (2017). The difference between "Stagecoach: The Texas Jack Story" and those two is (1.) Adkins plays the main protagonist and (2.) it's noticeably inferior in overall filmmaking, even though it cost approximately the same amount to make. In other words, as low-budget as "Traded" and "Hickok" were, they worked quite well as made-for-TV (or direct-to-video) Westerns, all things considered. "Stagecoach: The Texas Jack Story" is almost amateurish by comparison.

Nevertheless, it has some points of interest for those who don't mind slipshod productions: Adkins is a likable protagonist; the one-eyed marshal was the dope-smoking rebel in "The Breakfast Club" (1985); Michelle Harrison is stunning as the protagonist's redheaded wife, Laura Lee; Helena Marie plays Bonnie, a striking tall blonde deputy with a penchant for killing; the British Columbia locations are effective; and there's a quality moral about not trusting people of dubious character, particularly LIARS.

THE FILM RUNS 1 hour, 30 minutes and was shot in British Columbia (Mission and Maple Ridge). WRITERS: Dan Benamor and Matt Williams.

GRADE: C/C-
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6/10
Rob Zombie's comic book non-horror take on "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre"
13 June 2018
RELEASED IN 2003 (but shot in 2000) and written/directed by Rob Zombie, "House of 1000 Corpses" is a horror/black comedy about two young couples who inadvertently visit a house of demented serial killers in backwoods Texas.

A critic summed the movie up as "a ridiculous horror comedy, but with extremely annoying villains." It was inspired by (or rips off) "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (1974) and combines it with the cartoonish horror comedy of "Evil Dead II" (1987) while throwing in a little "The Funhouse" (1981).

The entire first act, including the amusing prologue that introduces Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), is very entertaining, but the over-the-top approach starts to get dull by the middle of the picture with the overdone events at the demented Firefly abode. The last act gets so cartoonish that I thought maybe the main protagonist (Erin Daniels) was experiencing a nightmare. The fantastical elements strip away any vestige of horror that was hardly there in the first two acts, which were too zany to take as serious horror. As such, I can't see anyone older than 7 finding this movie "disturbing." Still, the film pulsates with colorful pizazz and characters, not to mention a quality score/soundtrack.

Sheri Moon Zombie is effective in her role as Baby Firefly. I liked her voice and didn't mind her laugh (which many criticize), but she's a little too thin for my tastes. Daniels works pretty well as the main protagonist. But, considering Zombie's resources (e.g. the five captive cheerleaders), the flick sorta drops the ball in the female department.

The film sat on the shelf so long because Universal feared a NC-17 rating. Lions Gate eventually picked it up, but it was cut & edited in an attempt to achieve an R-rating. The original version was 16 minutes longer.

THE MOVIE RUNS 1 hour, 29 minutes and was shot in Southern Cal (Chicken Ranch Backlot, Universal Studios; Palmdale; Santa Clarita; and Saugus).

GRADE: B-/C+
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Black Panther (2018)
6/10
Overrated due to political correctness; it's noble and has its points of interest, but it's also kinda meh
12 June 2018
RELEASED IN 2018 and directed by Ryan Coogler, "Black Panther" details events when T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) takes over kingship of the hidden African nation Wakanda after his father passes (John Kani). The kingdom is technologically advanced due to its secret resource Vibranium, a priceless, almost magical metal. Unfortunately, T'Challa's reign is challenged by an angry American former-black ops soldier, Erik "Killmonger" (Michael B. Jordan).

With its black director and mostly black cast (with a couple of token white dudes), "Black Panther" was overhyped and overrated upon release. Critics were apparently afraid of being called "racist" by liberal fascists if they dared to be honest and say anything negative (rolling my eyes). The movie's likable and certainly has its points of interest, but the characters are rather dull, except for Killmonger, and the story isn't all that involving. It's basically a mediocre superhero movie that has some blatant Bond-isms and is set apart by its primarily black cast and African locale. It fails to rise to the entertainment level of even "Ant-Man" (2015).

Still, it's respectfully noble and the story provokes interesting questions, like isolationism vs. internationalism and African-American culture vs. Native African culture. But there's some eye-rolling bits, like when Shuri (Letitia Wright) calls CIA agent Ross (Martin Freeman) a "colonizer," which isn't even accurate. Maybe it was supposed to be a joke.

The waterfall fight between the Black Panther and Killmonger was an homage to the first issue of The Black Panther series in Jungle Action: Issue #6, September, 1973. At the end of that comic's story T'Challa and Erik fight at the top of a waterfall culminating with Killmonger throwing Black Panther over the cliff. This issue was the beginning of the "Panther's Rage" storyline by Don McGregor (featuring artists Billy Graham, Rich Buckler and Gil Kane), which ran for over two years in 13 issues of Jungle Action #6-18 and 209 pages, including the Epilogue. Many consider it the first graphic novel. Of course, this wasn't the first appearance of the Black Panther (who debuted in 1966), but it was the first issue where he was the starring character.

And it was this series that provided the intriguing exposition on T'Challa, Wakanda and its citizens, visitors & enemies. It's a travesty that McGregor, who created the characters of Killmonger & W'Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) and conceived this exposition, wasn't acknowledged in this movie; shameful.

THE FILM RUNS 2 hours, 14 minutes and was shot in Georgia (Atlanta, Fayetteville), South Korea (Busan) and Iguazú Waterfalls, Argentina. Ironically, nothing was shot in Africa. WRITERS: Coogler and Joe Robert Cole (and, uncredited, Don McGregor).

GRADE: B-
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5/10
Odd blending of Hollywoodized soap opera and Sam Peckinpah-ish nihilistic slaughter
11 June 2018
RELEASED IN 1970 and directed by Lewis Gilbert, "The Adventurers" chronicles the life of Dax Xenos (Bekim Fehmiu) who, as a little boy in 1945, witnesses the violent deaths of his mother & sister during a revolution in the fictional South American country Corteguay. Much later, as an ambassador's son in Rome, he's an emotionally cold playboy who marries solely for wealth (Candice Bergen), but he's haunted by Corteguay and maintains relations with the dubious dictator (Alan Badel). Ernest Borgnine plays Dax' spiritual guardian, Fat Cat.

The movie's based on Harold Robbins' book of the same title, which was loosely based on the real-life Porfirio Rubirosa, an oft-married wealthy playboy, diplomat and polo player who had a relationship with the dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo.

"The Adventurers" is a curious amalgamation of Hollywood soap opera (e.g. 1967's "Valley of the Dolls") and Italo-Western-like slaughter with a Euro-robot as the leading man. The movie vacillates between starving children in South America, disco-a-go-go fashion shows in Rome or New York, machine-gun massacres, hedonistic sex romps and the disingenuous courting of rich women. It's basically a wannabe "Doctor Zhivago" (1965), but lacking that iconic picture's surreal and compelling artistry.

The spectacularly engineered battle sequences were created by the James Bond stunt-genius Bob Simmons, featuring hundreds of real men (played by actual Columbian militants), real tanks, real trains and real planes, all getting blown to pieces before your very eyes with absolutely no CGI.

The above reveals many points of interest, but I was well into the second half of the almost-3-hour flick when I realized that none of the characters interested me, particularly the protagonist. I'm not sure if the problem was the script, the story or the actor (Fehmiu), but the drama came across consistently flat. Another problem is the women. While there are several notables besides Bergen (Olivia de Havilland, Leigh Taylor-Young, Delia Boccardo, Jaclyn Smith, etc.) the camera either never captures their beauty or they're too anorexic to fascinate in the first place.

On the positive side, the action-packed conclusion is gripping and the message is timeless: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

THE FILM RUNS 2 hours, 57 minutes and was shot in Colombia (Cartagena & Bogota), Puerto Rico, Italy (Rome & Venice) and New York City.

GRADE: C
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4/10
Too-campy, Christphobic Sothern Gothic fantasy about "casters" aka witches
10 June 2018
RELEASED IN 2013 and directed by Richard LaGravenese, "Beautiful Creatures" chronicles events in a small town in rural South Carolina where a college-minded high schooler (Alden Ehrenreich) becomes infatuated by a mysterious new girl (Jeremy Irons) who recently moved in with her eccentric uncle (Jeremy Irons) at his creepy Antebellum mansion. He learns that they are "casters," immortals with magical powers; and that an evil relative (Emma Thompson) wants Lena for the darkness.

The director wrote the script based on the first of four young adult books of "The Caster Chronicles" by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. Fans of the book, however, say it's one of the most unfaithful book-to-screen adaptions. Since I've never read any of these books this was irrelevant to me.

There's nothing wrong with the production as far as sets, costumes, cast, music goes. It cost $60 million and looks it. The Southern Gothic air is to die for and the first act is intriguing. Unfortunately, the tone is semi-campy where several of the characters are overly cartoonish. It's reminiscent of comic booky Stephen King flicks (e.g. "Silver Bullet" and "Needful Things"), but a notch or two more exaggerated.

The first half is also encumbered by an overtly anti-Christian slant. I don't have a problem with movies that depict the evils of fundamentalist legalism, like in "The Mist" (2007), but here the stereotypes are so overdone they don't ring true, not to mention there's no positive depiction of believers to compare with the negative ones (like in "The Mist"). According to this movie, ALL Christians are hateful, rash, judgmental, condemning bigots. Lazy writers love stereotypes because they don't have to write interesting complex characters.

Take Lena's first day at school where two girls automatically assume she's "satanic" merely because she lives at the eerie plantation; they then proceed to openly pray for her. It's so overdone, cartoony and eye-rolling it takes the viewer right out of the movie. This doesn't even reflect reality in the modern world anyway: Even in a backwater town in the USA it's more likely that a devout Christian would be persecuted by mocking unbelievers and nominal Christians rather than vice versa. Another thoroughly unrealistic element is how all the top community leaders are ee-vil fundies who GO TO THE SAME CHUCH. Why Sure!

To be fair, the second half halfheartedly tries to make up for this by briefly revealing a more positive Christian character and having the pastor give a worthy mini-sermon on sacrifice, but it's too little too late after misrepresenting and offending half of the viewership.

Another problem is how the two protagonists suck face too much. The girl's only 15. I'm not saying mid-teenagers don't make-out, but (again) it's so overdone it's eye-rolling.

For a better executed and entertaining fantasy/horror flick based on a young adult book series, check out "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant" (2009).

THE MOVIE RUNS 2 hours, 4 minutes and was shot entirely in Louisiana (Covington, Madisonville, Batchelor, St. Francisville and New Orleans).

GRADE: C/C- (4.5/10)
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5/10
Silly car chase flick with loads of stars and... Catherine Bach
9 June 2018
RELEASED IN 1983 and directed by Hal Needham, "Cannonball Run II" is a car chase comedy about a second Cannonball Run race from the West Coast to the East Coast. The teams include JJ & Victor (Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise), Blake and Fenderbaum (Dean Martin & Sammy Davis Jr.) with other teams involving Jackie Chan & Richard Kiel in a submersible Mitsubishi Starion and Mel Tillis & Tony Danza accompanied by an orangutan. There are at least a dozen other notable co-stars in various roles: Jamie Farr, Telly Savalas, Sid Caesar, Tim Conway, Foster Brooks, Ricardo Montalban , Charles Nelson Reilly, Don Knotts, etc.

This is a fun turn-off-your-brain flick with an incredible all-star cast that's worth the price of admission. Unfortunately, the script needed a rewrite with better jokes but the producers obviously didn't want to blow the money. As it is, too much of the humor falls flat, but "Cannonball Run II" is still leagues better than comparable junk like "Smokey and the Bandit Part 3" (1983). And there's a worthwhile sequence where Dom does an amusing Brando impersonation.

Moreover, the movie scores good marks on the female front with Catherine Bach jaw-dropping in form-fitting blue spandex during the first half, teamed with her Amazonian-ish partner Susan Anton (who's no slouch in the beauty department). Bach's buttocks looks like it was sculptured by God Himself. In addition, there's Marilu Henner and Shirley MacLaine, who catch a ride with JJ & Victor, masquerading as nuns before revealing their real identities. Maclaine was 48 during shooting but still had a great figure.

THE FILM RUNS 1 hour, 48 minutes and was shot in Nevada (Las Vegas, Henderson), Arizona (Tucson, Bisbee) and California (Redondo Beach).

GRADE: C
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3/10
Easily the least (and most silly) of the Good Ol' Boy series, but has the most car thrills
8 June 2018
RELEASED IN 1983 and directed by Dick Lowry, "Smokey and the Bandit Part 3" is a car chase comedy about Big Enos and Little Enos (Pat McCormick & Paul Williams) betting Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason) that he can't drive from Miami to the Enos ranch in Texas in a short period of time. The Sheriff is joined by his dimwitted hunk of a son (Mike Henry). Meanwhile Cledus "Snowman" Snow (Jerry Reed) takes the place of The Bandit, teaming up with a woman who just quit her job at a used car lot (Colleen Camp).

Burt Reynolds and Sally Field are absent in this third entry of the Good Ol' Boy series, except for Burt having a glorified cameo at the end. Gleason takes the lead with Mike Henry's support. The latter is so effective in his inane role that you completely forget that he played a serious Tarzan in three movies from 1966-1968, not to mention the formidable corrupt Sheriff in "Rio Lobo" (1970). At 46 during shooting, you'll observe that he certainly kept in shape.

Car chase comedies like this are meant for leaving your brain at the door and having fun, but this inferior sequel makes me want to up my rating for the original "Smokey and the Bandit" (1977). There's an amateurish vibe, particularly with the writing and editing, which prevents it from attaining even the low level of "Cannonball Run 2" (1984). Still, it's the most action-packed (and goofy) entry in the series and it has its points of silly amusement.

Colleen Camp is serviceable essentially replacing Field on the female front, although not enough is done with her. If you're not familiar with Colleen, she played the Indian playmate in "Apocalypse Now" (1979) and the hot French maid in "Clue" (1985). Anyway, this segment arguably features the best women in the periphery. Faith Minton is on hand as a 6'1" Amazonian who takes a liking to the Sheriff.

THE MOVIE RUNS 1 hour, 25 minutes and was shot entirely in Florida (Fort Lauderdale, Miami Beach, Key Biscayne, Ocala, Clearwater and Miami).

GRADE: C-/D+ (3.5/10)
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F*&% the Prom (2017)
5/10
Campy teen flick not as bad as detractors say
7 June 2018
RELEASED IN 2017 and directed by Benny Fine, "F the Prom" is a campy high school dramedy about two inseparable neighbor-friends, Cole (Joel Courtney) and Maddy (Danielle Campbell), who separate when they enter high school wherein Cole is relentlessly teased while Maddy becomes the most popular girl. When they reunite two and a half years later, they scheme to destroy the Prom (the ultimate teen popularity contest) teamed with a ragtag gang of outcasts.

There are a lot of 1 Star votes (out of 10) of this movie on IMDb, which is absurd. While this may be a low-budget teen flick, it's not THAT bad. Many of these critics lament how unrealistic the movie is, which is ridiculous in light of its campy tone. It would be like criticizing the 60's Batman TV show for being unrealistic. In other words, there's a lot of silliness and exaggerations in "F the Prom," but it's intentional. Underneath it all, the movie reflects several real-life issues, mostly pertaining to popularity and the drive to be liked. Others argue that the point is elusive and characters contradict themselves. No, the point(s) are obvious and some characters change their minds because they're fickle teens.

This is a solid low-budget high school flick, but it's a little too talky for my tastes. And I guess the staple "gay" character is here to stay at this juncture, but the movie wins points for boldly illustrating that even gays have their cliques and shun those who don't conform.

Campbell and Madelaine Petsch are solid on the female front, but the director could've showcased their beauty better (and I'm not talking about nudity). Meg DeLacy is intelligent & winsome as Stuft (aka City) and has a beautiful face, but needs to gain some curves.

THE FILM RUNS 1 hour, 32 minutes and was shot in Southern Cal. WRITERS: The Fine Brothers and Molly Prather.

GRADE: C
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7/10
A teen joins a freak circus where he encounters a war between vampires
6 June 2018
RELEASED IN 2009 and directed by Marco Brambilla, "Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant" is a fantasy/horror/comedy about a teen (Chris Massoglia) who is compelled to join a circus of freaks where he becomes (you guessed it) the assistant of a vampire (John C. Reilly) and learns of a war between two classes of vampires. Josh Hutcherson is on hand as his best friend while Michael Cerveris plays the mysterious Mr. Tiny. Ray Stevenson is formidable as a vampiric heavy.

After the mega-hit of "Twilight" (2008), producers naturally thought that another young adult book series involving vampires might be profitable. As such, this movie is based on the opening trilogy of the 12-book series "Cirque du Freak: The Saga of Darren Shan" by Darren Shan (pen name of Darren O'Shaughnessy). It mostly focuses on the first book with uber-fans of the books complaining about deviations. In any case, the film wasn't a hit at the box office (costing $40 million and making back $39 million worldwide with $14 million of that made in North America). Regardless, I much prefer it to "Twilight."

For some reason I always enjoy stories that center around life in circuses and carnivals. The excellent "Water for Elephants" (2011) is a good example. While that movie was decidedly realistic, "The Vampire's Assistant" is obviously rooted in fantasy.

The first act is a low-key introduction to the two teen friends, their situation in life, and their intriguing visit to the Cirque Du Freak, which in English means The Freak Circus. The film improves in the second act with the excellent character of Larten Crepsley moving to the spotlight. Reilly is commanding and fascinating in the role. The third act is also really good, centering on the war between the vampires and the vampanese. The plot is involved enough without being too complex and the movie is impressively imaginative on practically every front.

Salma Hayek stands out in the female department as one of the performers with a lame talent. But the creators don't really take advantage of her presence. In other words, don't expect anything like Salma's mind-blowing sequence in "From Dusk till Dawn" (1996). The striking Jane Krakowski is on hand, but her role is very small. Winsome Jessica Carlson plays Rebecca, a potential babe for the protagonist, I guess; she was only 15 during shooting and looks it.

THE FILM RUNS 1 hour, 49 minutes and was shot in Louisiana (New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Folsom) and Los Angeles with studio work done in Universal City.

GRADE: B
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Deathgasm (2015)
7/10
Amusing, thoroughly tacky horror/parody of metal music
5 June 2018
RELEASED IN 2015 and written & directed by Jason Lei Howden, "Deathgasm" is a horror/comedy about a group of teens in Auckland, New Zealand, who start an extreme metal band named Deathgasm and inadvertently unleash dark forces that possess the nearby populace.

"Deathgasm" combines elements of "Evil Dead II" (1987), "Trick or Treat" (1986) and "Braindead" aka "Dead Alive" (1992). Amidst the sometimes profane and tasteless happenings, there are moments of masterful hilarity (e.g. the Peter Criss joke and the black metal photo op in the woods), including black comedy, naturally.

Numerous seminal bands are acknowledged throughout, some of which are worthy of the recognition and some not so worthy: Death, Judas Priest, Bathory, Slayer, GWAR, Cannibal Crap, ad nauseam. (Even Def Leppard is noted, which some might find odd, but it reveals the open mindedness of Howden; besides, they were definitely a metal band during their first few albums, albeit not extreme metal). Florida's Trivium is curiously referenced throughout the flick, which tells me they're a big hit in New Zealand ('cause they ain't all that big in the USA, although they're certainly a formidable metal act).

The band's name, Deathgasm, is presumably an homage to Wargasm and Death or Death Angel. The main protagonist, Brodie (Milo Cawthorne), looks like a cross between a young Alice Cooper and Keith Deen, the vocalist of Holy Terror (R.I.P.) while his buddy, Zakk (James Blake), resembles a pasty version of Conan the Barbarian. Kimberley Crossman is cute, curvy and formidable as the blonde babe, but the camera rarely zeroes-in on her beauty, unfortunately.

There's the stereotypical myth that Christianity and Christians are opposed to metal, but Black Sabbath started the genre and they had overtly pro-Christian songs, like "After Forever" and "War Pigs." If you doubt that, just read the lyrics. Or how about the ending of "Hallowed Be Thy Name"? Not to mention that there are scores of kick-axx metal bands that have espoused biblical themes in a positive sense, like Cage, Trouble, Megadeth, W.A.S.P., Saint, Tourniquet, Bride, Saviour Machine, Living Sacrifice, Antestor, Zao, Seventh Angel, Theocracy, Barnabas, Believer, Overkill, Deadly Blessing, Avenged Sevenfold and (of course) Stryper. Notice, by the way, that I didn't say they were all "Christian bands," just that they have all blatantly espoused biblical themes on occasion. Needless to say, the idea that metal is intrinsically anti-God is laughable. Get real. Christianity has been part of the genre since day one.

The accents are kinda thick so you might want to use the subtitles if you live outside of New Zealand and Australia.

THE MOVIE RUNS 1 hour, 26 minutes and was shot entirely in west Auckland. The soundtrack features several New Zealand bands unknown outside of the local scene.

GRADE: B
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4/10
The cuss-oriented squabbles of lowlife crooks for 99 minutes (and no women)
4 June 2018
RELEASED IN 1992 and written/directed by Quentin Tarantino, "Reservoir Dogs" is a crime drama/thriller about a diamond heist gone disastrously wrong in Los Angeles wherein the surviving thugs bicker back-and-forth in a warehouse about which of their members is a police informant. The main thieves are played by Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi, Michael Madsen and Chris Penn while Lawrence Tierney appears as the old salt mastermind.

This was Tarantino's first feature film, costing only $1,200,000, and it has quirky glimmerings of future greatness, as seen in "Pulp Fiction" (1994), "Jackie Brown" (1997), "Kill Bill" (2003/2004), "Inglourious Basterds" (2009) and "Django Unchained" (2012), but "Reservoir" didn't work for me. It's hampered by a low-budget vibe, which I can handle, but not the uninteresting lowlife characters, their self-made conundrum, their interminably dull dialogue and the one-dimensional setting where about 80% of the story takes place in an old warehouse, not to mention no females in the main cast.

Still, it's interesting to observe Tarantino's first serious stab at filmmaking and it has its moments of genuine entertainment. It's a lesson on humble beginnings, which shows potential while not being up to snuff.

THE FILM RUNS 1 hour, 39 minutes and was shot in Los Angeles & Burbank.

GRADE: C-
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5/10
Poor little (crazy) rich girl with Benicio Del Toro and Christopher Walken
4 June 2018
RELEASED IN 1997 and directed by Marco Brambilla, "Excess Baggage" stars Alicia Silverstone as an eccentric 18 year-old in the Seattle area who fakes her own kidnapping to get her unloving father's attention. She develops a relationship with an odd car thief (Benicio Del Toro) while her father enlists the even stranger "Uncle Ray" (Christopher Walken) to find her.

Alicia was 19 during shooting and a rising young superstar after a string of popular roles: A pubescent tease in "The Crush" (1993), a popular Beverly Hills adolescent in "Clueless" (1995), a wannabe Nancy Drew in "True Crime" (1995) and a hot superheroine in "Batman & Robin" (1997). "Excess Baggage" was Silverstone's first movie after a pricey production deal with Columbia and it was strongly rumored that she clashed with director Brambilla. Originally slated for release in the Fall of 1996, it was pushed back to late the next Summer.

The movie starts confident & strong and could be likened to contemporaneous quirky flicks like "Buffalo '66" (1998). It regrettably fizzles out in the second half but, nevertheless, Alicia was in her physical prime with alluring curves. Unfortunately, she's stuck with one basic outfit the entire film (form-fitting black pants). Much more could've and should've been done with her. On the other side of the gender spectrum, Del Toro is notable as the mumbling eccentric while Walken is intriguing and entertaining as a former CIA assassin who basically raised Emily (Silverstone) and is concerned about his employer's aloofness.

THE FILM RUNS 101 minutes and was shot in British Columbia (Vancouver, Victoria & Britannia Beach) and Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta. WRITERS: Max D. Adams plus Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais.

GRADE: C+
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8/10
Fast-paced surveillance-oriented action/thriller with Will Smith, Gene Hackman and Jon Voight
2 June 2018
RELEASED IN 1998 and directed by Tony Scott, "Enemy of the State" is an action/crime/thriller starring Will Smith as a DC lawyer who unknowingly apprehends evidence of a serious crime involving a formidable politician (Jon Voight) and is subsequently targeted by his NSA goons (Jack Black, Seth Green, etc.) and heavies (Scott Caan, Jake Busey, etc.). He ultimately partners with an ex-NSA surveillance curmudgeon (Gene Hackman).

The quick-editing is akin to other popular action flicks of the era, like "Armageddon" (1998), but it's done expertly and there are enough lulls in the relentless action and character-developing moments to prevent it from being overkill. The surveillance element and Hackman bring to mind Coppola's "The Conversation" (1974), but the story moves way faster, has more thrills and the characters are more interesting.

Lisa Bonet (Jason Momoa's babe) is stunning as the protagonist's secret connection and former woman-on-the-side while Regina King is capable as the wife. There are several teases of ravishing women on the periphery.

This is a gripping, action-packed thriller that has quality characters and is entertaining throughout. The creators took the time & effort to throw in inspired little gems, like "Baby" the friendly orange & white cat (I have a cat just like him). Smith and Hackman have great conflict-habituated but respectful camaraderie.

THE MOVIE RUNS 2 hours, 12 minutes and was shot in Baltimore & Phoenix, Maryland; Washington DC; and Southern Cal (L.A., West Hollywood and Pasadena). WRITER: David Marconi.

GRADE: A-
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7/10
"You can't handle the truth!"
1 June 2018
RELEASED IN 1992 and directed by Rob Reiner, "A Few Good Men" is a military drama about a smart-axx young Navy Lawyer (Tom Cruise) who's never seen a courtroom because he lazily arranges plea bargains. Perhaps this is why he's assigned to defending two young Marines stationed at Guantanamo Bay who are accused of murdering a fellow Marine. They maintain that they were ordered to enact a "Code Red," which took an unforeseen turn. Demi Moore and Kevin Pollak co-star as the lawyer's partners while Kevin Bacon heads the prosecution and Jack Nicholson plays the arrogant commanding officer of Guantanamo. J.T. Walsh is on hand as the Colonel's weak subordinate.

The movie does a good job of depicting the honor code of hardcore Marines, particularly in the sequence where Lance Cpl. Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison) refuses to confess to something he didn't do in order to get a minor sentence. The characters are well written and casted, e.g. Kaffee (Cruise) and his penchant for baseball. The story is dialog-driven and maintains your attention without action/thrills.

Nicholson is commanding and intimidating as the pompous colonel. Kaffee discovers his talent as a courtroom lawyer and realizes that the only way to take him down is to use his egotism against him. Other than the cringe-inducing "A Ten Hut" scene at the end, this is a gripping drama.

THE FILM RUNS 2 hours, 18 minutes and was shot entirely in Southern Cal (Point Mugu, Crystal Cove, etc.) and Washington DC. WRITERS: Aaron Sorkin (play) and Aaron Sorkin (screenplay).

GRADE: B+
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Hudson Hawk (1991)
5/10
Sincere comedy caper sort of lost in translation
30 May 2018
RELEASED IN 1991 and directed by Michael Lehmann, "Hudson Hawk" stars Bruce Willis as the titular expert cat burglar who has just been released from prison and intends on going straight, but he's blackmailed by the eccentric Mayflower couple (Richard E. Grant & Sandra Bernhard) into stealing works of Leonardo da Vinci for a gold-making machine that will destroy the world's economy. Danny Aiello plays Hawk's partner and Andie MacDowell his maybe babe. James Coburn is on hand as a top CIA agent.

The film advertises right out of the gate that it's a goofy comedy, a parody of caper/spy flicks. The creators & cast bend over backwards to amuse the audience, but there are too few lulls to catch your breath. It's an almost constant barrage of over-the-top camp and comedy. I laughed several times, but too often I didn't. Still, it's a likable albeit curious throwaway comedy and should especially be worthwhile for fans of the cast. It cost an incredible $65 million (no doubt due to the costly globetrotting) and understandably flopped at the box office.

THE MOVIE RUNS 1 hour, 40 minutes and was shot in California, New York, New Jersey, Italy, Vatican City, Hungary and London. WRITERS: Story by Bruce Willis & Robert Kraft; screenplay by Steven E. de Souza & Daniel Waters.

GRADE: C
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7/10
Cindy Carol is the best of the three Gidgets, plus several Rome attractions
29 May 2018
RELEASED IN 1963 and directed by Paul Wendkos, "Gidget goes to Rome" chronicles events when Gidget (Cindy Carol) visits Rome with two girlfriends along with Moondoggie (James Darren) and two of his buds, but the group has to enlist the services of Judge's eccentric aunt as a chaperone (Jessie Royce Landis). While Moondoggie becomes infatuated with a beautiful guide (Danielle De Metz) Gidget finds herself drawn to a suave writer, who's much older (Cesare Danova).

Gidget is 18 years-old and freshly graduated from high school in this film, which means the events take place about two years after the events in the original 1959 movie. Cindy Carol was 18 during filming and makes for a superior substitute for Sandra Dee than Deborah Walley did in 1961's "Gidget goes Hawaiian." Deborah was charming enough, but her hair & eyes didn't fit, plus she tended to have weak & whiney facial expressions, which detracted from what Gidget was all about as established in the first film, i.e. a precocious, tomboyish teen who was more interested in surfing and insightful exchange than kissy-kissy, although she was interested in that too; it just wasn't her first & only priority.

Honestly, Carol is my favorite of the three actresses to play Gidget in the three theatrical movies, followed by Dee. Unlike Dee, Carol has womanly curves, which are on display from the get-go at the Malibu beach, as well as in a later scene at a Rome fashion show. Like Dee, she's also all-around kinetic and winsome. The head-turning De Metz also scores well on the feminine front, not to mention the amusing Trudi Ames (Libby) and redhead Noreen Corcoran (Lucy).

Another plus is how the story naturally takes advantage of numerous tourist attractions in Rome. As such, the viewer gets his/her own tour of "the eternal city." While the theme lacks the potent subtexts of the original movie, it's still worthy: Get out and see the world when you have the opportunity and get cultured from every angle.

THE MOVIE RUNS 1 hour, 44 minutes and was shot in Southern Cal and Rome. WRITERS: Ruth Brooks Flippen, Katherine Albert & Dale Eunson.

GRADE: B
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6/10
Fun early 60's beach flick; lacks the depths of the first film
29 May 2018
RELEASED IN 1961 and directed by Paul Wendkos, "Gidget goes Hawaiian" chronicles events when Gidget (Deborah Walley) breaks up with Moondoggie (James Darren) and goes to Hawaii with her parents. By the time Moondoggie eventually shows up, Gidget is making time with a celebrity singer/dancer (Michael Callan) and soon has a rep as an "easy" girl.

Walley has better curves than Sandra Dee in the original 1959 movie and she's generally fine as the new Gidget, but her annoying facial expressions paint a (seemingly) weaker, whinier protagonist. Dee was underdeveloped at 16 when "Gidget" was shot, but there was something precious, dynamic and strong about her version of Gidget; moreover, the way the surf dudes cherished her was heartwarming.

This sequel comes up with its own group of five guys and five girls in Hawaii. The first half is entertaining as a fun early 60's beach drama, but the second half devolves into zany "mistaken situation" shenanigans (think Three's Company). Thankfully, this is made up by a commentary on the destructiveness of low-life gossip/slander.

Miscellaneous observations: The beautiful Vicki Trickett is a highlight as Abby, which is contrasted by her two-faced, ignoble character. Trickett was 22 during shooting while Walley was 19. Callan has a remarkable song & dance sequence with a couple of masked females. The guy who plays Gidget's dad (Carl Reiner) is reminiscent of Nicolas Cage. There's an amusing bit on the Hawaiian moo moo dress, which is actually spelled muumuu or mu'umu'u.

THE MOVIE RUNS 1 hour, 41 minutes and was shot in Malibu, California; Honolulu, O'ahu, Hawaii; and 90 Mile Beach, Northland, New Zealand. WRITERS: Ruth Brooks Flippen & Frederick Kohner.

GRADE: B-
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Gidget (1959)
8/10
The first beach flick with surprising mindfood minus the goofiness
27 May 2018
Warning: Spoilers
RELEASED IN 1959 and directed by Paul Wendkos, "Gidget" is a beach drama about a 16 year-old tomboyish girl (Sandra Dee) who gravitates toward a group of surfing males in Southern Cal, specifically Malibu. Kahuna (Cliff Robertson), a surf "bum" and leader of the group, becomes her figurative big brother as she tries to attract the attentions of Kahuna's mentee, Moondoggie (James Darren).

The film is iconic and influential, leading to two sequels and a TV series, not to mention scores of 60's beach flicks, most inferior because they lack the depth and went the zany route. Dee was only 16 during shooting, but seemed more mature than her years and is remarkably strong as the petite protagonist. She's a combo of youthful energy, honesty and unexpected insight & understanding. The film scores high marks in the female department in general with curvy Yvonne Craig (aka Batgirl) notable in the first act, but there are several others in the periphery.

The movie's iconic because it's about way more than girl-meets-boy frolics, although there's some of that. For instance, Kahuna says "Who says so?" in response to how we 'have' to live our lives. Later, he recognizes "everything has a price" or, put differently, everything has a tradeoff. He desperately seeks total freedom, but realizes it doesn't really exist in our present world, but he instinctively seeks it. His epiphany leads to an important decision.

Then there's Moondoggie who admires Kahuna and intends on following in his footsteps as an alternative to his staunch father's more conventional path to status. Yet it's still about status for Moondoggie and not a lifestyle choice for its own sake, as it supposedly is with Kahuna.

What happens to Flyboy (the pet bird) sets up a weighty conversation between Kahuna and Gidget, which offers insights about Kahuna's past, including his time in the Korean War and how it affected him. Perhaps he was working out a case of PTSD. Five years of dropping out of mainstream life and living on the beach was what he needed to get it out of his system and, by the end of the movie, he seems back for the attack. Steve Jobs, founder of Apple computers, had a chapter in his life of living on the street and doing drugs, asking the big questions, etc. He now says it was an instrumental part of his life.

Even the whole Kahuna almost having sex with the under-aged Gidget was ballsy for 1959. Kahuna genuinely didn't intend to, and actually wanted to teach Gidge a lesson, but he wasn't above doing it since he was a little drunk and she was sorta insisting. Shortly later, Moondoggie reprimands Kahuna for it.

THE MOVIE RUNS 1 hour, 35 minutes and was shot in Leo Carrillo State Beach, Malibu, California. WRITERS: Frederick Kohner (novel) and Gabrielle Upton (screenplay).

GRADE: A-
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Shag (I) (1989)
7/10
Youths having fun at Myrtle Beach in 1963
27 May 2018
RELEASED IN 1989 and directed by Zelda Barron, "Shag" is a teen drama about four girls freshly graduated from high school taking a vacation weekend at Myrtle Beach in 1963. There's the senator's daughter, Luanne (Page Hannah); the engaged or encaged Carson (Phoebe Cates); the wannabe Hollywood starlet Malaina (Bridget Fonda); and the thinks-she's-still-fat-but-she's-not Pudge (Annabeth Gish).

The movie plays like a melding of "American Graffiti" (1973), "Dirty Dancing" (1987) and "Mystic Pizza" (1988). It's far superior to the overrated "American Graffiti" and lacks the idiot subplot of "Dirty Dancing" (see my reviews of both for details).

The script thrusts the four girls into the weekend festivities at Myrtle Beach as quickly as possible wherein the story splits into several vignettes that intertwine. The weekend highpoints include: A beauty contest on the beach, a wild house party at the senator's vacation home (unbeknownst to him, of course) and a shag dance contest. Thematically, the flick tries to advocate the wise middle ground between life-stifling legalism and foolish libertinism.

Some have called this a "chick flick" and I can see why since the focus is on the four girls, but there's just as much here for dudes to relate. For instance, there are several voluptuous cuties on display, both in the main cast and in the periphery. Kudos to the director for his excellent eye for women. Bridget Fonda is particularly showcased in all her glory with her white bikini scenes being a highlight. She was 23 when the film was shot in 1987. There are also several prominent guys in the cast: Harley (Tyrone Power Jr.), Buzz (Robert Rusler), Chip (Scott Coffey), Jimmy Valentine (Jeff Yagher) and, to a lesser extent, the manager (Paul Lieber) and Big Bob (Jay Baker).

Lastly, the movie features a great period soundtrack with excellent cuts like "Stay" by The Voltage Brothers, performed (lip-synced) at The Pavilion.

THE FILM RUNS 1 hour, 38 minutes and was shot entirely in South Carolina (Georgetown, Myrtle Beach & Florence). WRITERS: Lanier Laney, Terry Sweeney & Robin Swicord.

GRADE: B+
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7/10
Low-key road trip with "Elvis" about grief, wonder, healing and love
26 May 2018
RELEASED IN 1998 and directed by David Winkler, "Finding Graceland" is a drama about a peculiar drifter claiming to be Elvis (Harvey Keitel) who catches a ride with a grief-stricken young man (Johnathon Schaech) and travel from the Southwest to Memphis to make the anniversary of the real Elvis' death, August 16th. Along the way they run into a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Bridget Fonda).

The best thing about this film is the intriguing eccentricity of the 'Elvis' character. It takes Burn (Schaech) a long time to catch a grip with him, as it does the viewer: Does 'Elvis' REALLY believe he's Elvis or is he a con? If he's a con, why does he throw money on the floor like it's worthless to him? How could he possibly know the minutia about Elvis that he does? If he's a drifter, where does he get the kind of cash he can just throw around at whim? True, he may get gigs as an impersonator, but do they seriously pay enough to have his attitude? The answers are there if you reflect on the data.

In addition, the road trip element is entertaining and Bridget was in her prime at 33-34. But it's the characters and the potent themes of grief, wonder, healing and love that win the day. I can see how some would roll their eyes at the hinted fantasy elements, but I found the film touching and heartwarming.

THE MOVIE RUNS 1 hour, 37 minutes and was shot in Hollywood & Tunica, Mississippi; Memphis, Tennessee; and some spots in the Southwest. WRITERS: Jason Horwitch and David Winkler.

GRADE: B+
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