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Cutaway (2000 TV Movie)
6/10
Skydiving flick with Stephen Baldwin and Tom Berenger
2 January 2020
A U.S. Customs agent (Stephen Baldwin) goes undercover to join a skydiving team in Miami to bust a drug-smuggling ring. The squad is headed by a strong, but morally suspicious leader (Tom Berenger) and his somewhat sinister right-hand man (Dennis Rodman). Maxine Bahns, Ron Silver and Casper Van Dien are also on hand.

"Cutaway" (2000) is a skydiving crime thriller that cost $9 million and debuted on TV in the USA, but straight-to-video elsewhere. It features spectacular skydiving sequences supplemented by stock footage. Airplanes are ubiquitous, but only as means of transport.

If you want skydiving action "Cutaway" delivers the goods. It helps that Baldwin is a likable protagonist and Berenger has his typical edgy charisma. Bahns doesn't do much for me on the female front, but she's a'right. Stunningly statuesque Cat Stone has a bit part. While Van Dien's role is small, this movie upped my respect for him. He previously struck me as a pretty boy type, but he's totally kick axx here.

The film runs 1 hour, 44 minutes, and was shot in the Miami area, Florida (Miami-Dade County & Opa Locka), and Fort Bragg, NC.

GRADE: B-
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Lawn Dogs (1997)
6/10
Great plot, cast & locations, but problematic execution
2 January 2020
An athletic 21 year-old groundskeeper (Sam Rockwell) lives in a ramshackle trailer in the woods near a gated community and mows the lawns of its wealthy but morally bankrupt occupants. A perceptive 10 year-old girl (Mischa Barton) is drawn to his genuineness because she discerns the hypocrisy of her parents (Christopher McDonald & Kathleen Quinlan) and the fakeness of her new community. But can an unconventional friendship like this last in such a scenario? Bruce McGill plays the security guy at the complex.

"Lawn Dogs" (1997) is a drama with a satirical edge that has everything necessary for a great movie, but then fumbles a bit in execution. For instance, the key sequences where Trent (Rockwell) and Devon (Mischa) start to develop a friendship feel forced. The script needed tweaked with maybe some ad-libbing, but SOMETHING needed done to make these important scenes work better. As it is they're at best serviceable and at worst unconvincing.

If you can get past that serious flaw (and a couple cavils), there's a lot of good here, even a little greatness. One critic denounced the film on the grounds that it didn't know what its message was. Really? It has three main points and they come across loud and clear, but I'm not going to give 'em away and spoil it for viewers.

The movie runs 1 hour, 41 minutes, and was shot in Prospect, Kentucky, and the surrounding area (just northeast of Louisville, by the Ohio River).

GRADE: B-
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Awakenings (1990)
5/10
A 'hospital film' with Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, based on a true story
1 January 2020
A shy doctor (Robin Williams) gets a job at a Bronx hospital in 1969 where he attends to several patients in a catatonic state after the encephalitis epidemic of 1917-28. He experiments with a new drug that offers the hope of reviving them. Robert De Niro plays his key patient, Julie Kavner his nurse and John Heard his supervisor. Penelope Ann Miller is also on hand as a potential romantic interest.

"Awakenings" (1990) is based on Oliver Sacks' 1973 memoir of the same name, which chronicled the true event that occurred the summer of '69. Being a hospital movie about ailing people trying to recover puts it in the same camp as "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975) and "Instinct" (1999), but it's not as compelling.

There's just not enough human interest beyond the viewer being sympathetic toward the patients' plight and wanting them to get well. It's also marred by some blatant predictableness, like Leonard's name on the bench and the "cup of coffee" aspect. Still, this is a tale that needed to be told and I'm not sorry I watched it. It's just vastly overrated.

The film runs 2 hours and was shot in Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens, New York City.

GRADE: C+
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Sling Blade (1996)
6/10
When a murderer is the likable protagonist, mmm-hmm
31 December 2019
A simple, slow, seemingly pensive man (Billy Bob Thornton) is released from a mental hospital in central Arkansas after 30 years and gets a job fixing lawnmowers. He makes friends with a boy & his mother (Natalie Canerday) and they let him live in their garage, but the mother's abusive boyfriend presents a problem (Dwight Yoakam). John Ritter is on hand as the mother's gay best friend.

"Sling Blade" (1996) is a small town drama with a memorable central character (if I didn't know beforehand that Thornton played the role, I wouldn't have recognized him). The characters and their situations smack of real life while the unhurried story is interesting enough. There are well-done moments of meditation and revelation, as well as touching ones.

It's a tad overlong, however, and the politically correct glorification of Vaughan (Ritter) is eye-rolling. Karl (Thornton) observes that "The Bible says two men ought not lay together. But I don't reckon the Good Lord would send anybody like you to Hades." Yet his opining doesn't mean much since he candidly acknowledges elsewhere that he doesn't understand a lot of the Scriptures, not to mention his foolish predilection for murder to solve mundane problems. He should stick to fixing lawnmowers and eating them French fried potaters, mmm-hmm.

The film runs 2 hours, 15 minutes, and was shot in Benton & nearby Haskell, Arkansas, which are about 20-30 minutes southwest of Little Rock.

GRADE: B-
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8/10
"O, what a tangled web we weave..."
30 December 2019
Two brothers (Drew Roy and Shane Coffey) and a girl (Haley Webb) in Alaska concoct a survivalist hoax to make easy money, but things don't go according to plan. Cary Elwes plays the sheriff, the girl's father, while Jason Momoa is on hand as an intimidating redneck.

"Sugar Mountain" (2016) is a drama/thriller in the mold of "A Perfect Plan" (1998), but with the setting & budget of "Into the Grizzly Maze" (2015) and "Uphold the Dark" (2018). Some armchair critics have called the plot ridiculous, but it isn't; it's very believable. Look no further than Frederick Cook's fake 1908 conquest of Mount McKinley (now Denali) or the Colorado "balloon boy" hoax in 2009.

If you like any of those above three movies you'll like this one. The less I say the better. My title blurb tells all.

Anna Hutchison stands out on the female front, although her role is peripheral. Melora Walters is also on hand; you might remember her as George Costanza's date in the Seinfeld episode "The Hamptons." She was also the girl in the notorious kitchen scene in "Cold Mountain" (2003).

The movie runs 1 hour, 46 minutes, and was shot in the Seward, Alaska, region.

GRADE: B+/A-
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7/10
Unique 50's Western takes place in coastal Mexico and the volcanic interior
30 December 2019
A desperate woman (Susan Hayward) hires three gringos and a Mexican to help save her husband (Hugh Marlowe) trapped in a gold mine several days away in the volcanic jungles of Mexico. The men she enlists are played by Gary Cooper, Richard Widmark, Cameron Mitchell and Víctor Manuel Mendoza. Rita Moreno has a memorable bit part singing a song at a saloon.

"Garden of Evil" (1954) is an unusual 50's Western in that it takes place completely in former Aztecan areas of Mexico. The sceneries of the coast, jungles, deserts and (authentic) volcanic zones are magnificent and augmented by Bernard Herrmann's score, which was his only one for a feature-length Western. The movie was remade as "Find a Place to Die" 24 years later, one of the few truly worthwhile Spaghetti Westerns due to its somber tone and quality characters rather than caricatures typical of Italo Westerns.

This is basically a trail movie (the Western version of a road movie) in that a lot of the story consists of a small group traveling the imposing wilderness, similar to "The Train Robbers" (1973), but with jungle footage.

The film runs 1 hour, 40 minutes, and was shot in Mexico as follows: The "colonial town" of Tepatzlan; the jungle areas alongside the Los Concheros River near Acapulco; Parícutin Mountain, which was surrounded by black volcanic sands; and the village of Guanajuato; meanwhile interior scenes were shot at Churubusco Studios in Mexico City.

GRADE: B
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Lawman (1971)
8/10
"Do you know what a lawman is? He's a killer of men"
28 December 2019
A grim marshal (Burt Lancaster) enters the town of Sabbath to apprehend the cattlemen guilty of accidently killing a man during a rowdy celebration while passing through his town. But the lawman finds resistance from everyone because the perpetrators work for the cattle baron (Lee J. Cobb) who "owns" the town and its sheriff (Robert Ryan). Sheree North plays his old flame while Robert Duvall, Robert Jordan, Albert Salmi and Ralph Waite are on hand as the cattlemen.

"Lawman" (1971) explores the nature of law & justice in the context of the Old West and compels the viewer to choose sides. The days of the Wild West are over and civilization has arrived, which means there are legal consequences to unruly behavior that results in unintentional death. The townsfolk want the matter swept under the rug and everyone simply paid off by the rich baron. However, lucre isn't what interests Maddox (Lancaster), but rather fulfilling his responsibility and ultimately justice.

The plot was lifted from "Man with the Gun" (1955) and is also similar to "Last Train from Gun Hill" (1959), but with the tone of contemporary Westerns like "Firecreek" (1968) and "Valdez is Coming" (1971).

While this is mostly a town-bound Western, it wisely features several scenes in the spectacular surrounding Southwest wilderness, including a nice waterfall sequence. This plus the superlative cast and heavy theme make "Lawman" an obscure standout. By the way, I'm wholly on the side of Maddox for the simple reasoning: Those who play and wreak havoc have to pay regardless of the social status of their employer.

The movie runs 1 hour, 39 minutes, and was shot in Durango, Mexico, and points nearby (Sierra de Organos, Sombrerete, Zacatecas; and three areas of Sonora).

GRADE: A-
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6/10
Comic book "men on a mission" WW2 adventure with a great cast and lots of action
27 December 2019
Major Mallory and Sgt. Miller (Robert Shaw and Edward Fox) from "The Guns of Navarone" (1961) are commissioned to Yugoslavia to find & eliminate the German spy who tried to sabotage their mission at Navarone (Franco Nero). To get there, they have to join with an American unit on a covert mission to blow up a bridge. Harrison Ford plays the leader of the operation while Carl Weathers plays a sergeant escaping the MPs, a last minute addition. Barbara Bach and Richard Kiel show up later.

"Force 10 from Navarone" (1978) is the McDonalds equivalent of the first movie. This doesn't mean it's necessarily bad (after all, McDonalds ain't bad), just that it lacks the class of its predecessor and trades it in for cartoonish writing and loads of action. It's sort of a mixture of the first film with "Where Eagles Dare" (1968) and "Hornets' Nest" (1970), but with a wildly comic book tone à la "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981), albeit less goofy and not as proficient. The cast is great, though, and the locations are to die for. It's just that the writing is glaringly juvenile.

FYI: This was Robert Shaw's second to last movie; he died of a heart attack three months before release at the too-young age of 51.

The film runs 1 hour, 58 minutes, and was mostly shot in the former Yugoslavia (e.g. Durdevica Tara Bridge on Tara River, Montenegro; and Jablanica Dam, Jablanicko Lake, Bosnia and Herzegovina).

GRADE: B-
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6/10
It has its points of interest, but any 60's Bond flick is a better choice
26 December 2019
When an ad executive in Manhattan (Gary Cooper) is mistaken for a government agent by a foreign spy & his cronies (James Mason, et al.) he finds himself a fugitive traveling by train to Chicago wherein he meets a woman that seems to have his favor (Eva Marie Saint). After a curious encounter with a crop dusting plane everything culminates at Mount Rushmore, South Dakota.

"North by Northwest" (1959) is an adventure/thriller by Hitchcock with a huge reputation. It obviously influenced the James Bond flicks of the 60s, which started three years later with "Dr. No" (1962), but it's very toned down by comparison because the hero in this case is not a trained spy. It's entertaining to a point, but also seriously overrated due to some glaring problems...

Jessie Royce Landis plays the protagonist's mother when she was only a little over 7 years older than Cooper and it's too obvious; the story drags too much at this point (when he's hanging out with his mother); his chance meeting with a key character on the train (Saint) is too coincidental; their make-out sessions are premature, unconvincing and painfully dull; what happens to the plane is stupefying; the crop dusting encounter supposedly takes place in rural Indiana when it's clear that it's nowhere within a thousand miles of Indiana (actually it was shot at the southern end of Central Valley, California, outside of Bakersfield); speaking of which, the geography is too noticeably disingenuous: e.g. during the drunk driving episode there are no cliffs like that on Long Island (it was actually shot at Potrero Valley, Thousand Oaks, CA, and obviously so).

Still, there's enough good here to enjoy if you favor Hitchcock & the cast and don't mind quaint movies.

The film runs 2 hours, 15 minutes (unnecessarily overlong).

GRADE: B-/C+
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The Jericho Mile (1979 TV Movie)
6/10
Run until the walls come tumblin' down
25 December 2019
A loner at Folsom State Penitentiary (Peter Strauss) gains attention when it's discovered that he can run a mile in less than four minutes. Officials naturally try to see if they can enter him in the Olympics. The cast includes Brian Dennehy, Geoffrey Lewis, Richard Lawson, Roger E. Mosley and Ed Lauter.

"The Jericho Mile" (1979) is a prison movie meshed with sports flick. It's notable as Michael Mann's first movie wherein he was limited by TV constraints, yet it shows his potential and explains why he moved on to greatness, e.g. "The Last of the Mohicans" (1992).

Being made-for-TV, profanity is replaced by wannabe edgy jive talk, which can be unintentionally amusing. If you can roll with that, this is a worthwhile serious story about great talent being trapped in a cage, not to mention the brotherhood of humanity regardless of skin color. I could relate to Strauss' character and I imagine a lot of other viewers can too.

The movie runs 1 hour, 37 minutes, and was shot at Folsom State Penitentiary, Represa, California, about an hour northeast of Sacramento. Several of the peripheral cast members were prisoners at Folsom and do a commendable job.

GRADE: B-
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6/10
Ghostly happenings in northern Vermont with Ford & Pfeiffer
24 December 2019
A couple living on Lake Champlain (Harrison Ford & Michelle Pfeiffer) face the empty nest syndrome as the wife experiences increasingly spectral happenings. Diana Scarwid, James Remar and Miranda Otto have peripheral roles.

"What Lies Beneath" (2000) is a Hitchcockian drama/mystery with a bit o' horror. It starts by borrowing from "Rear Window" (1954), but thankfully veers from there. At a little past the hour mark I was starting to get restless. The story was progressing too slowly with too many doors inexplicably opening. I suppose it didn't help that Pfeiffer doesn't trip my trigger, although she's serviceable (I wouldn't say I DON'T like her); and Harrison's character seems unjustifiably gruff and impatient.

However, the Upstate Vermont/ New York locations are fabulous and a mysterious mood is effectively established. The way things pan out is unexpected, unless you saw the trailer first, which outrageously spoils it. The concluding F/X sequence is beautiful in a ghostly way and satisfyingly brings closure. What didn't make sense earlier is elucidated. At the end of the day, the movie's underwhelming, but not altogether unworthy if you're in the mode for a flick of this sort.

The film runs 2 hours, 10 minutes, and was shot in the Lake Champlain region of Vermont/New York (Burlington, D.A.R. State Park, Waterbury & Westport) with other stuff done in Southern Cal (Los Angeles, Playa Vista & Culver City).

GRADE: C+/B-
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The Matrix (1999)
7/10
Brainy, entertaining and iconic, but too cool
23 December 2019
When a Big City computer hacker (Keanu Reeves) feels something is intrinsically wrong with reality, a woman with superhuman abilities (Carrie-Anne Moss) informs him that a mysterious man named Morpheus has the answers (Laurence Fishburne). But he has to escape the "agents" who are pursuing him (e.g. Hugo Weaving) to get to Morpheus. At which point his world is turned upside down and inside out. Marcus Chong and Joe Pantoliano are also on hand.

"The Matrix" (1999) is a cerebral sci-fi/action film that mixes elements of the first two Terminator flicks (1984/1991) with martial arts action and a basic concept that hails back to "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" (1979) and no doubt further.

To put this intricate movie together and make it entertaining took genius, so I give credit to the Waschowski Brothers, um, I mean sisters (rolling my eyes). The casting is great and Carrie-Anne is stunning throughout (I usually don't like short hair on women, but she's an exception). For me, though, the Waschowskis made it too comic booky. The posturing characters in their slick black outfits & sunglasses scream "Yeah, right." And the Messiah angle is old hat.

The film runs 2 hours, 16 minutes, and was shot in Sydney, Australia, with some exterior scenes done in Nashville and San Francisco.

GRADE: B
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Gattaca (1997)
6/10
The eugenics-obsessed future in 40s/50s noir
22 December 2019
Several decades in the future liberal eugenics is normal and discrimination is practiced to distinguish "valids" from "in-valids," the latter conceived by natural means and therefore more susceptible to genetic defects. Vincent (Ethan Hawke) is an in-valid who assumes the identity of a disabled valid (Jude Law) in order to fulfill his dream of space travel. Uma Thurman and Gore Vidal are also on hand.

"Gattaca" (1997) is a sci-fi drama "tech noir," which combines futuristic science-fiction with 40s/50s noir. It's not just the suits & hats, the cars look like 50s/60s coupes, but whine because they're electric. It's similar in this respect to "Dark City" (1998), but more dramatic. Imagine if "Dick Tracy" (1990) was a somber space-age sci-fi and you'd have a pretty good idea.

The film flopped at the box office while critics generally praised it. It plays better if you have an interest in eugenics and the philosophies thereof. For me, it's decent, but too low-key. I prefer "Dark City" if I'm going to watch a film of this sort.

The movie runs 1 hour, 46 minutes, and was shot in Southern Cal: Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael; Otis College of Art and Design; CLA Building on the campus of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona; the spillway of the Sepulveda Dam; outside The Forum in Inglewood; and Kramer Junction Solar Electric Generating Station.

GRADE: B-
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6/10
Lacks heart, but there are highlights and the compelling last act features a nice plot turn
21 December 2019
A vengeful Los Angeles fireman (Arnold Schwarzenegger) goes to the jungles of Colombia to apprehend a terrorist (Cliff Curtis) where he meets the man's dissenting wife (Francesca Neri) & their son. An angry CIA agent (Elias Koteas) also travels to Colombia to join with paramilitary allies to take down the same man. When the two teams learn of a planned terrorist attack at Union Station, Washington DC, they return to the USA.

"Collateral Damage" (2002) is an action/adventure originally set to be released a few weeks after 9/11, but due to that tragedy it was set back four months wherein an anti-CIA subplot was removed, as well as a plane hijacking. What we are left with is a by-the-numbers film with a couple of highlights that perks up in the final act with an unexpected twist.

There's a spectacular waterfall sequence shot in southeastern Mexico, which takes place near the beginning of the second act. Another highlight occurs at the end of the second act where the movie drives home the problem with military attacks and the eventual revenge of the enemies: One nation's military attacks a paramilitary organization wherein innocent civilians are killed, which is considered "collateral damage," and so the paramilitarists attack the nation in question with more "collateral damage." Who's right and who's wrong? And where does it end?

The film runs 1 hour, 48 minutes, and was shot in Los Angeles & Burbank, California; Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico (standing in for Colombia); Union Station, Washington DC; and New York City .

GRADE: C+/B-
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6/10
The nanny from hell in the Seattle area
19 December 2019
A well-to-do couple in the Puget Sound region (Matt McCoy & Annabella Sciorra) hires a nanny not knowing that she has axes to grind (Rebecca De Mornay). Ernie Hudson plays a mentally challenged laborer while Julianne Moore is on hand as the wife's best friend.

"The Hand that Rocks the Cradle" (1992) is a drama/thriller in the mold of contemporary flicks like "The Stepfather" (1987) and "The Crush" (1993). The events even take place in the same area as those. While it's the least of these, it's not far off in overall quality.

It has a bit of a Lifetime movie vibe and the serviceable Sciorra doesn't trip my trigger while De Mornay's character is a turn-off because she's obviously nutzoid. Meanwhile Moore superbly plays a biyatch while McCoy is ineffectual as the hubby. The locations are fabulous, however.

The movie runs 1 hour, 50 minutes, and was shot in Seattle, Tacoma and Issaquah, Washington.

GRADE: B-/C+
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7/10
Entertaining but tragic road flick with Sarandon and Davis
18 December 2019
Two women from Arkansas (Susan Sarandon & Geena Davis) become fugitives and travel through the Southwest pursued by authorities (Harvey Keitel & Stephen Tobolowsky). Brad Pitt plays a cowboy drifter while Michael Madsen and Christopher McDonald are on hand as the beau and hubby of the women.

"Thelma & Louise" (1991) is an iconic crime drama/road movie spiced with a few thrills. It's entertaining, but not really empowering for females, unless making rash, stupid decisions and ruining your life is empowering. It's amusing, dramatic and scenic, yet ultimately tragic.

Sarandon was 41 during shooting while Davis was ten years younger. Both look great, but their characters are a bit of a turn-off during the opening reel, especially the ditzy Thelma (Davis), yet they win sympathy as the movie progresses.

The film runs 2 hours, 10 minutes, and was shot in Southern Cal and Utah, as well as Bedrock, Colorado.

GRADE: B
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The Last Drop (2006)
6/10
Wannabe "Where Eagles Dare" mixed with a little "Kelly's Heroes"
17 December 2019
During Operation Market Garden in German-occupied Holland (September, 1944), one small unit consisting of several Brits & one Canadian pilot (Billy Zane) vie for a cache of priceless art stolen from Berlin, but a couple Germans have the same idea (Karel Roden and Alexander Skarsgård). Laurence Fox plays a Nazi tasked with protecting the loot by the SS while Michael Madsen has a small role as an American Colonel.

A UK production, "The Last Drop" (2006) is a WW2 'B' flick that borrows the basic premise of "Where Eagles Dare" (1968), albeit minus the castle, and meshes it with the heist element of "Kelly's Heroes" (1970), as well as a bit of the humor (just a bit). Unfortunately, it's nowhere near as compelling or entertaining, yet it's not as bad as some reviews would suggest. Everyone whines about how "low-budget" it is but, while not of "blockbuster" caliber, it ain't no Syfy production. And it scores pretty well on the female front.

On the downside the plot is complicated with too many players, not to mention the accents make the mumbled dialogue only half intelligible to non-Brits with, regrettably, no option for English subtitles on the disc.

The movie runs 1 hour, 43 minutes, and was shot in Bucharest, Romania.

GRADE: C+/B-
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Frankenstein (2004– )
7/10
The most faithful version of Mary Shelley's classic gothic horror novel
15 December 2019
A Hallmark production, "Frankenstein" (2004) is the most literary faithful filmic version of the oft-done tragedy. Luke Goss looks more like the novel's depiction of the creature (with long black hair and white teeth) than Boris Karloff in the Universal classics or Robert De Niro in the 1994 version, but he's also too handsome in a dark gothic way, resembling Type O Negative's Peter Steele. The creature in the 1994 version didn't have hair and was a more gruesome depiction, which fits Victor's description of the creature in the book as "hideous" (then, again, Victor was extremely biased against his creation).

While this rendition and the 1994 one are the most faithful to Shelley's book, they each omit parts and change certain things. For instance, both omit Victor's traveling to Scotland and, later, Ireland, which was a good call. Actually, I think both versions improve the story in different ways. When Victor and the creature finally meet and have a discussion in the high country, this one has them meet at a ruined castle, which is an excellent deviation. The 1994 version has them talk at a remote glacial dwelling, which is closer to what occurs in the novel.

My favorite part is when the monster finds sanctuary with the rural family, unbeknownst to them. It helps the viewer get to know the creature and have compassion on his plight. In the book and the 1994 version all sympathy is pretty much lost eventually while this rendition paints the creature more sympathetically. The locket sequence is lame though, but that was a weak point of the novel as well.

Alec Newman is intense and brooding as Victor Frankenstein and I could relate to his work obsessions carried out in his nightgown (or whatever). Any problems with the flick are due to translating a convoluted 19th century gothic horror classic to modern cinema.

With almost an hour more to play with compared to the 1994 version, this one has the luxury of taking its time and is the better for it IMHO. The 1994 movie, by contrast, is overly manic and melodramatic because it tried to cram too much into two hours.

The film runs 2 hours, 56 minutes, and was shot in Slovakia and Norway.

GRADE: B+
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Joker (2019)
8/10
Not fun, but absorbing, artistic and tragic
15 December 2019
A mentally troubled middle-aged clown (Joaquin Phoenix) who lives with his mother (Frances Conroy) in Gotham City goes from not good to worse when he finally realizes his true identity. Robert DeNiro plays a talk show host and Zazie Beetz the friendly girl down the hall. Brett Cullen is on hand as Thomas Wayne, Bruce's rich father.

"Joker" (2019) is an arty, slow-burn character study of the popular DC Comics' villain, but it's more of a psychological crime drama/thriller and tragedy than a superhero flick (or, in this case, supervillain). The movie's captivating from the get-go and practically everything works for a broodingly superb cinematic experience.

There are several amusing bits, but this ain't a fun flick. It's heavy and tragic. But what's the message? Simply that this is how a quirky man who wanted to make people laugh became The Joker. He's a little reminiscent of the clown in Steve Gerber's "Night of the Laughing Dead" in Man-Thing #5 (1974).

The movie runs 2 hours, 2 minutes, and was shot in New York City (Bronx, Harlem, Manhattan) and nearby New Jersey (Jersey City & Newark).

GRADE: A-/A
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Bronco Billy (1980)
8/10
Amusing Eastwood dramedy about a Wild West Show with a good cast
13 December 2019
A small, struggling Wild West Show consisting of several misfits travels through Montana & Idaho wherein they stumble upon a haughty heiress (Sondra Locke) whom the honest owner (Clint Eastwood) hires as his assistant in the show.

"Bronco Billy" (1980) is an Eastwood dramedy in the manner of "Every Which Way But Loose" (1978), but with maybe less goofiness in the side characters. While not as successful at the box office, it's every bit as good in its likable, low-key amusing way. The movie's about redemption and pursuing your dreams, persevering through challenges and acquiring spiritual (true) family.

The movie scores pretty well on the female front with Locke, Tessa Richarde (Mitzi Fritts) and Cha Cha Sandoval-McMahon, aka Tanya Russell (Doris Duke).

There's an interesting sequence involving Billy acquiescing to the posturing Sheriff where you have to read between the lines. It was a matter of stroking the Sheriff's ego and letting him believe what he wanted to believe in order to achieve what Billy wanted. Let the cop have his dreamworld, Billy seems to think. This principle is taught in the now-ancient (but still relevant) hit book "How to Win Friends and Influence People": Human beings in general, and especially authority figures, WANT to feel important and respected; it's a basic human desire. When pulled over, too many people needlessly argue with the officer and treat him/her with disrespect, which inevitably lands them an expensive ticket or worse. A little bit of humility & respect (reasonable kowtowing) saves a lot of unnecessary hassles and helps acquire what you want. Sometimes it's wise to eat humble pie; the gains are worth it.

The film runs 1 hour, 56 minutes, and was shot in the Boise, Idaho, area, but also Ontario, Oregon.

GRADE: A-
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Lake Fear (2014)
3/10
"Pig Man, Pig Man!"
13 December 2019
Four girls seek to spend a weekend at a mysterious cabin in the woods in Texas when all hell breaks loose (no, seriously).

"Lake Fear" (2014), aka "Cypress Creek," starts as a potentially worthwhile low-budget cabin-in-the-woods Indie with notable opening credits, a serviceable cast of females and an outstanding metal track, but 9 minutes in it becomes clear that this is a micro-budget flick. This would be okay, but the idea of an actual script is abandoned shortly after the teens arrive at the cabin in exchange for a tedious hour of horror F/X and creepy film techniques, which are well done, but useless when there's no attempt to offer an interesting STORY. It doesn't help that the guy who plays Remington is a lousy "actor."

The flick comes across as if the cast & crew of "The Evil Dead" (1981) dropped acid, threw out the script, and just screwed around with scary visuals & gore at a remote cabin; and then tried to make it work in the editing room. It's so utterly dull that I would leave the room to go to the bathroom or get something from the kitchen without caring about pausing it (something I never do). The fact that there are currently two sequels is incredible.

The movie runs 1 hour, 21 minutes, and was shot in Dallas, Texas.

GRADE: D
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6/10
Solid return of the franchise after 16 years, highlighted by Liam Neeson
11 December 2019
A Jedi Knight & his apprentice (Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor) escape a blockade with their new Gungan friend, Jar Jar Binks, and the handmaiden of Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman). Upon damaging their vessel, they find sanctuary on a planet where they meet a slave boy, a gifted pilot and engineer, who may be the prophesied "Chosen One." Meanwhile, the supposedly extinct Sith resurface, including Darth Maul (Ray Park).

"Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace" (1999) is the fourth Star Wars film and the first of the prequel trilogy, followed by "Attack of the Clones" (2002) and "Return of the Sith" (2005). It marked writer/director George Lucas' return to the popular franchise after 16 years, the previous film being "Return of the Jedi" (1983).

Star Wars is fantasy packaged as science-fiction or "space fantasy" whereas Star Trek is dramatic science-fiction in a space-travel context. I've always preferred the latter because it's more adult-oriented, but I don't mind a Star Wars flick now and then and "The Phantom Menace" is entertaining enough.

There's a new cast of characters along with a young version of Obi-Wan Kenobi and R2D2, C-3PO, Yoda and Jabba. Liam Neeson stands tall as the no-nonsense Qui-Gon Jinn, McGregor is solid and Portman is attractive at the young age of 17. Also notable is Hugh Quarshie as Captain Panaka.

I didn't mind the loathed Jar Jar Binks and I enjoyed the wondrous underwater sequence and the thrilling podrace in the first half (even though the mother allowing her son to enter the life-and-death contest is unlikely, not to mention the Jedi knights condoning it). Unfortunately the climax comes down to the clichéd "big battle sequence" and it's predictable who's gonna die in the corresponding duel. Yawn. Still, "The Phantom Menace" is all-around entertaining if you have a taste for Star Wars.

The film runs 2 hours, 16 minutes.

GRADE: B-/B
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Open Windows (2014)
5/10
Innovative and interesting to a point, but convoluted and ultimately unsatisfying
10 December 2019
Elijah Wood stars as a geeky fan of an actress (Sasha Grey) who accepts an opportunity to spy on her via his laptop when he is swiftly pulled into a deadly cat-and-mouse with a sinister hacker.

Written & directed by Nacho Vigalondo, "Open Windows" (2010) is a crime thriller revolving around computer hacking. I give credit to Vigalondo for the incredible skills it would take to conceive this story and put the film together, but it's annoyingly complex with some "Why sure!" plot turns. Yet Wood works well as the protagonist and the alluring Grey has looks that kill.

The movie runs 1 hour, 40 minutes, and was shot in Madrid, Spain, and Spiderwood Studios, Austin, Texas.

GRADE: C
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5/10
A really good romcom marred by profane crudeness
9 December 2019
A TSA worker at the Pittsburgh Airport (Jay Baruchel) starts a relationship with a woman many consider to be a perfect 10 (Alice Eve), which surprises his friends and family. Can the relationship survive their pestering?

"She's Out of My League" (2010) is a surprisingly well-written, well-casted romcom that's entertaining throughout, but it's ruined for me by a little too much gross or profane (non)humor and I can't in good conscience give it a higher grade. This is unfortunate because the flick didn't need to stoop to that low-level.

But if you can stomach the needlessly gross bodily fluid & raunchy 'humor' of "There's Something about Mary" (1998), "The Girl Next Door" (2004) and "Forgetting Sarah Marshal" (2008) you might like it more than me.

The film runs 1 hour, 44 minutes, and was shot in the Pittsburgh area.

GRADE: C
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5/10
One of the lesser Vietnam flicks of its era, but has some positives
8 December 2019
A Lieutenant fresh out of West Point (Michael Dudikoff) is assigned to command a platoon at a remote outpost in the jungles of Binh Dinh province, Vietnam. His cynical men don't respect him until he returns after being wounded and has a little more wisdom at jungle warfare.

"Platoon Leader" (1988) was based on the memoir by James R. McDonough and mixes the plot of "The Green Berets" (1968) with style more akin to "Platoon" (1986). But this is noticeably low-budget by comparison and typical of 80's Dudikoff or Chuck Norris flicks. (Think of the contemporaneous "Braddock: Missing in Action III" by the same director, Aaron Norris, Chuck's brother).

Despite some dubious acting and a story that coulda been more compelling, there are worthwhile elements (like a couple of unique pieces on the soundtrack) and even some moving moments. Dudikoff is effective in the titular role as is Robert F. Lyons as the more-experienced NCO.

The film runs 1 hour, 36 minutes, and was shot on a farm in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, which is a decent stand-in for Southeast Asia.

GRADE: C
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