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The Substitute (1996)
Completely Over The Top But Certainly Watchable
No one is ever going to mistake this for a great movie. But, then again, it doesn't have to be great, it just has to do what it sets out to do and it does that reasonably well. From the basic plot you expect another of those movies about a gang and drug infested high school being turned around by a no-nonsense newcomer. Admittedly, that would be pretty ho-hum; it's been done a lot. There's some of that in "The Substitute," but there's a lot more than that - which both helps and hurts the movie. Essentially, the guy who sets out to deal with the troublemakers (Shale, played by Tom Berenger) is actually a mercenary soldier who decides to stick it to the gangs after his teacher girlfriend gets hurt by them. So he poses as a teacher and gets into the school (unbeknownst to anyone there) as her substitute, where he starts to take stock of the situation.
On the plus side, that gives a bit of a fresh feel to the story, and Berenger was OK in the role. It starts off a little bit slow but picks up the pace and the final confrontation between Shale and his men and the gang is a pretty good battle. It's quite violent, but there is a lot of action and the story never gets boring. Shale is a hero you can relate to. He's no superman; he definitely has vulnerabilities. On the minus side, the movie really is over the top - especially that last confrontation, coming replete with hand grenades and rocket launchers - and it has a bit of a cheap feel to it.
Overall, it's a time waster - and an effective one. It holds your attention in a mindless sort of way. There's not a single thing about it that's believable, but that's OK. It passes the time. (5/10)
The Haunting (1999)
Silly Rather Than Scary
To be perfectly honest, I wasn't really expecting this movie to be particularly frightening. Any kind of horror movie - in this case a haunted house movie - works better through the environment it creates. This version of The Haunting - a remake of a 1963 original - fails abysmally on that count. The environment didn't work to create any chills or fear. The house was frankly too much - it was too big; there was too much in it. The special effects (which I suppose were intended to create fear) consisted of ridiculous looking creepy creatures for lack of a better way to describe them. They were disappointing. And because they were so front and centre little was left to the imagination. There were no chills - everything was in your face, which isn't the way to approach telling this kind of story. The story was kind of muddled, revolving around a psychologist who lures a group of people to this big mansion (not knowing that it's haunted) on the pretext of doing a sleep study but whose real intention is to conduct a study on fear and how people respond to it. Incidentally, he should have stuck to the sleep study because this did put me to sleep for a little bit (maybe 10 minutes?) at right about the halfway point. Maybe I missed something. I'm not sure. I couldn't be bothered going back to check.
Not having great faith in a remake, I chose to watch this largely because of the strength of the cast. I'm not a big fan of Owen Wilson - and I find him as irritating as I usually do. But Wilson aside, I've generally liked the work of Liam Neesom and Catherine Zeta-Jones and Lily Taylor. But they couldn;t save this. Taylor was probably the best of them (and was the central character) but Neesom and Zeta-Jones seemed to struggle with the admittedly weak dialogue they were given.
It's a very disappointing movie that ultimately comes across as silly rather than scary and that doesn't do justice to the original. (2/10)
The 5th Wave (2016)
A Ho Hum Alien Invasion Story For Kids
Chloe Grace Moretz was all right in this. I start by saying that because I desperately want to say something positive. She was all right as Cassie - a high school student who gets caught up in an alien invasion and is separated from her little brother after her parents are killed. If the story had revolved around Cassie and her search for her brother through this threatening environment then the movie might have been passable. Not great, but passable - much like Moretz's performance. Not great, but definitely passable. But, truthfully, the bulk of the movie is just plain silly. It starts by fairly quickly recounting the first three "waves" of the alien invasion - aliens knock out all power on earth, then cause natural disasters, then unleash a plague. The fourth wave (to avoid a spoiler I won't describe it) is then unleashed and an army of children gets recruited to defend earth and humanity from the coming fifth wave. That's about it - except for the unnecessary and unconvincing romantic subplot that Cassie gets involved in. That's the story.
It's weak in almost every aspect that counts. Let's face it. Alien invasion movies are a dime a dozen. If one is going to go to the effort of making an alien invasion movie then there has to be some hook to catch the viewer with; something to make the movie stand out from the rest of the genre. But Moretz's passable performance aside, nothing and no one else stood out for me. There was precious little action until the last half hour or so and even then the action was unconvincing. Special effects are low quality. There's an attempt at a plot twist but the "secret" that gets revealed really didn't cause me any great surprise. Overall I thought the movie had a cartoonish, comic book-type quality to it that made its almost two hour runtime mind-numbing. It seems definitely targetted mostly toward the high school/teenage viewer, and is in fact based on a trilogy of young adult novels - meaning that there actually could be two more movies coming out, although after three years there mercifully doesn't seem to be any move in that direction. My own feeling is that anyone looking for a more sophisticated type of science fiction is likely going to be disappointed in this. (2/10)
Good Cast And Excellent Use Of Setting Makes A Decent Action/Suspense Movie
There was a lot about Transsiberian that I really liked. First was the setting. The movie captured what I would imagine to be the bleakness of the Siberian landscape wonderfully. The setting was both barren and beautiful at the same time and it added to the atmosphere of the movie. The in train scenes also worked very well. The train was cramped, uncomfortable, outdated - kind of what I would expect a Russian train on the Transsiberian route to be. That setting also worked well to add to the feel of the movie The story was dramatic, and the action was pretty intense. It's not a movie that will ever cause you to lose interest; my attention never wandered. There are also some pretty effective plot twists, so that what you expect the story to be isn't actually what it turns out to be.
The primary weakness of the movie for me is that it fails in the believability scale almost from the start. I was lost, for example, by the idea that Communist China would apparently welcome a church group to do some sort of mission work. Christianity (and all religion) is pretty tightly controlled by China. The government wouldn't likely let a Christian mission group into the country. So I rolled me eyes a little bit at that. And, while the twists and turns are effective in making this movie unpredictable as I said above, they also detract a bit from the movie's credibility. I also found the movie a little bit slow to really get rolling, and as a result probably a little bit too long.
The cast was fine. It's a good cast - Woody Harrelson, Ben Kingsley, Emily Mortimer and Kate Mara are all in this. I wasn't familar with Eduardo Noriega but thought he played his role of Carlos well. Harrelson's character, to be honest, came across at times as just too earnest - every now and then there was kind of a "golly gee" quality to him that grated on me a bit. But overall the performances were fine. There's one particularly difficult to watch torture scene played out against Mara's character of Abby that the squeamish might want to avoid.
This certainly isn't a bad movie to watch. I wouldn't say it reaches the hieghts of greatness, but it's a decent action/suspense movie that, while it has its flaws, likely won't disappoint. (6/10)
One Of The Dullest Movies I Have Ever Seen
Five astronauts on the first journey to Mars crashland on the red planet and have to try to find a way to survive, with no hope of a rescue mission from earth reaching them for over two years. You'd think that there would be some decent dramatic tension that comes from that premise (even if the whole premise has been done many times over.) And yet - this movie is just lacking in virtually everything that makes a movie worth watching. I generally find that a film has to have something to catch my attention in the first 10 minutes or so. I'm not saying it has to give the whole story away - but something interesting has to happen to convince me that something even more interesting is going to happen. The first 10 minutes of this movie are horrible. It's supposedly a news anchor sharing news about the mission. But it's dry, and everything is spoken with no passion; no emotion. There's a dullness to this; a deadness right from the start that the movie never really pulls itself out of. The situation is a tense one, to be sure, but you really wouldn't pick up on that from the lifeless performances. Difficult decisions have to be made, and while there's some angst about that it all seems to come together well enough. We get a journey across the bleak Martian landscape that was just that - pretty bleak - and the only interesting thing in the entire movie (seriously - the ONLY interesting thing) is what gets discovered in the cave. But it's a long and tedious journey to get there. I suppose you have to give a point or so to the movie for Luca's decision that the best way for he and Jenny to wait out their deaths back on the ship is to spend their last few hours making out - a suggestion that Jenny thankfully declines with a memorable line that I'll leave for potential viewers to discover if they can make it that far through the movie.
But really, for the most part this is a train wreck from beginning to end. It's a Spanish movie and the dubbing into English wasn't that well done. The scenes on the ship at times reminded me of one of those old 1950's sci-fi space travel movies. The ship didn't seem particularly advanced. I suppose if you like movies that can help you relate to the story being told, watching this does make you feel a bit stranded and desperate. (2/10)
Beneath the Leaves (2019)
It Starts Strong But Disappoints InThe End
I suppose this is kinda/sorta interesting for having both Mira and Paul Sorvino (daughter/father in real life) among the stars - although Paul had little to do except sit behind a desk as a police captain who seemed a bit past his prime. But beyond that there wasn't really all that much that appealed to me. Actually, my first thought as I was watching this was that the police force in Julian seemed a bit strange. The start of the movie was strong. Two abused children (a brother and sister) manage to take down their abuser. But to some extent that strong start gets lost and we end up in a confusing mish-mash of a story that starts to revolve around four "brothers" (one of whom was a police officer partnered with Mira's Detective Shotwell) who were raised by the same foster mother who were themselves held captive as children and tormented by an abuser. The abuser escapes from prison and starts looking for them.
The story seems to wander a lot and frankly it goes a few places that it didn't need to go. To me, it just wasted its relatively promising opening and faded away into a movie that ultimately isn't going to be very memorable. There are a few suspenseful moments - and a lot of focus on the lasting effects of the trauma the boys (and especially Shotwell's partner) suffered as children - but it just never seems able to establish itself and pick up any real momentum. In the end it was a disappointment. (3/10)
Much Funnier Than I Was Expecting
It's a stupid movie with a stupid premise - but, strangely enough, it works pretty well. The ludicrous story revolves around Frank (played by Andrew McCarthy) who goes into the hospital to donate a kidney to his brother in law, only to have the doctor remove the - um - wrong organ. He then has to fight some pretty funny fights as he tries to convince the hospital to reverse the procedure. Yes - medically the movie is nonsense, but this isn't a medical drama. It's just a stupid comedy that is at times very funny. The conversation between Frank and the doctor who performed the accidental gender re-assignment surgery on him is a comedy gem of misunderstandings and had me in stitches, and there were other scenes in the movie that had me laughing out loud - which doesn't often happen. It features interesting characters who are given interesting names (there seems to be some sort of tribute going on to movies of the 1930's since there were character names taken from at least "The Wizard Of Oz" and "Mutiny On The Bounty.")
Is it a great movie? Will it be considered a classic? I'd say not. It's crude at times and pretty typically National Lampoon material and it has a definite low budget feel to it. Some of the performances are less than outstanding. A masterpiece it is not. But for some mindless entertainment it actually works. (7/10)
A Cheap Jaws Knock-Off
"Jaws" had come out a couple of years before and was a huge box office hit - and it spawned all sorts of knock-offs using essentially the same plot: some sort of dangerous creature on the loose combined with a greedy resort owner who won't take warnings seriously. This one centres around particularly vicious piranha who get released by accident by a couple of teenagers out for a hike who discover a government research facility that's breeding these little bloodthirsty critters. It proceeds pretty much as you'd expect. The performances are barely passable, the special effects range from sorta-kinda ok to really, really bad and the story really doesn't add much that's fresh to the genre. There are a few fairly well known folk (or folk who would become well known) involved with this. Joe Dante directed, John Sayles was one of the writers, and there are a few familiar cast members such as Bradford Dillman, Keenan Wynn and Richard Deacon. But there's not really much story-wise to commend this.
I'm a little bit surprised that this movie gets the rating that it does. I suppose some might regard it as a bit of a cult classic. Or it appeals to a certain demographic because - like most cheap horror movies of the 70's - it does feature a lot of good looks at young womens' boobs. I can't really think of much else to explain why it would be rated this highly. For myself, I put it down as a 2/10.
A Gritty And Realistic Portrayal Of Elton's Early Life But A Bit Too Heavy On The Fantasy Bits
Given that Elton John was himself involved in the production of this film as one of the Executive Producers, I have to say that it's a courageous and at times painfully honest portrayal of Elton's early life. It pulls no punches, depicting the troubled home life he had as a young boy (and especially his troubled relationship with his father) along with his descent into booze, drugs and sex as his career took off, along with the abuse he endured in some of his early relationships. There's certainly nothing sugar coated. On the other hand, the movie portrays Elton as a prodigy, apparently destined for musical greatness from early in life. It seems a reasonable depiction of Elton's early life, set as a sort of rock opera at times, as everything is placed among various songs Elton is famous for. I thought the choreography was good, and Taron Egerton did a fantastic job of portraying Elton - surely no easy task when the man you're portraying is also the Executive Producer of the movie you're playing him in. So kudos to Egerton and to most of the rest of the cast who did a fine job and portrayed their characters believably.
I thought, however, that the movie did go a little overboard in paying homage to Elton's music. At times this becomes little more than a musical with some dance routines thrown in for good measure. At times it's a bit of of fantasy, and perhaps because of that and because the movie tried so desperately to fit the story of Elton's life with Elton's music (it's a little bit like "Mamma Mia" in that respect except that the story is true) it at times seemed a bit disjointed. The most obvious recent comparison one might make for "Rocketman" would be "Bohemian Rhapsody," which told the story of Freddie Mercury and Queen, and also pulled few punches in offering us a glimpse into Mercury's life. On balance, I'd have to say that I preferred "Bohemian Rhapsody," which is a little surprising to me since I actually prefer Elton John's music to Queen's. But that movie flowed better and was markedly better paced than "Rocketman."
But saying that I preferred "Bohemian Rhapsody" is not the same as saying that I disliked "Rocketman." It's a very good movie - often enjoyable (if you're a fan of Elton John's music) and often quite heavy as the more troublesome aspects of Elton's life are portrayed. And it really is worth watching for Taron Egerton, who actually performed most of Elton's songs and did very well with them. And the movie does end on a high note, highlighting (through captions and pictures) Elton's life since he overcame his various demons and addictions. (7/10)
An American Crime (2007)
Definitely Not For The Faint Of Heart
This movie is powerful - but be warned: it's also extremely disturbing and heart-rending. It's the true (and reasonably accurate from what I've been able to figure out) story of the murder of the horrific abuse and murder of 16year old Sylvia Likens in October of 1965 in Indianapolis by a woman named Gertrude Baniszewski. Hired to care for Sylvia and her younger sister Jenny by their parents, who were carnival workers and were often out of town, Gertrude (for reasons never made particularly clear - and perhaps they simply weren't clear) descended into a pattern of abuse directed particularly toward Sylvia. Eventually the circle of abuse widened as first Gertrude's own children became abusers and then neighbourhood teenagers were invited into the circle and became accomplices as Sylvia's last few weeks of life because a literal nightmare. She was starved, beaten, burned, tied up, sexually tortured. As hard as it is to say this, her eventual death must have been a relief to her if only because it represented an escape to her. Ellen Page I thought put on an excellent performance as Sylvia, and Catherine Keener (who portrayed Gertrude) was nominated for both a Golden Globe and a Primetime Emmy for her performance.
For all of the abuse depicted (and if you read the actual details of the case you'll see that the movie - as horrific as it is - doesn't even come close to re-enacting the depravity that was inflicted upon Sylvia) in many ways what I found most disturbing about the story (including the real details of the case) was the fact that (1) neighbourhood teenagers so easily got pulled into sharing in inflicting abuse on Sylvia (which says something awful about human nature) and (2) that there were adults who suspected that something bad was happening in the Baniszewski house but who never bothered to report their suspicions. Again, that's not a very positive depiction of human nature. This really is a movie that causes you to ponder what human beings are capable of and why anyone would choose to be involved in something like this. The movie depicts what went on in the Baniszewski house and breaks that up with periodic flashes to the courtroom as testimony is offered at the trial following Sylvia's death and it leaves us with an account of what happened in the end to all of the various people involved.
I found this to be a very good and very thought-provoking movie, but even as watered down as some of the abuse scenes are, I think this would be a difficult movie for some people to watch. But it does raise a lot of very troubling questions about what human beings are capable of. (8/10)
It Gets Progressively Weirder As It Moves Along
I watched this because of Natalie Portman. I'm a fan of hers and have generally enjoyed her work, but found "Annihilation" to be one of her weaker films. The entire cast, in fact, left something to be desired - to me at least. It's largely an all female cast, following five "soldier-scientists" on a mission into a state park to investigate a strange phenomenon known as "The Shimmer" which seems to be gradually expanding and swallowing up everything it encounters. But the five women seemed to have little chemistry with each other. Portman's "Lena" is the central character. Her husband was sent on a previous expedition to investigate "The Shimmer" and was presumed to have been lost, only to mysteriously re-appear a year later without explanation. So Lena volunteers to go on the next expedition. The first hour or so wasn't bad as it established the basic mystery, but as we went deeper into "The Shimmer" with the team, the movie became weirder to the point of being just plain weird by the end.
"The Shimmer" causes plants and animals to mutate and seems to act as some sort of mirror or prism as it reflects what it discovers back by creating new - and often dangerous - forms of life. We see (until the last 20 minutes or so) mostly mutated (or mirrored?) animals. They're created by CGI and frankly I thought the CGI effects left a lot to be desired.
Although we do find out essentially how "The Shimmer" works, its origins and its purpose are left largely unresolved - which was perhaps deliberate. Maybe there simply was no explanation. It was just a mysterious phenomenon that will never be understood. But the lack of explanation and then the open-ended ending left me with a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. It was yet another example of a movie (and, more correctly, movie-makers) that simply seem to presume that a sequel will be coming regardless of the critical response.
If a sequel does appear, I personally won't be watching it. I found this disappointing in the end and - after that first hour of establishing the mystery - largely unfocused and often barely coherent. (3/10)
The Recall (2017)
A Dull Alien Invasion Movie Of No Value
My first reaction after watching "The Recall" was that Wesley Snipes must be getting pretty desperate to have been involved in this. I'm not a huge fan of Snipes. I've enjoyed some of his stuff, and some of it I haven't. But his presence in this did make me believe that this would at least be a decent action-oriented story. Believe me when I say it's not. There isn't much in the way of action and Snipes (the only cast member whose name I recognize) is mostly in the background, supporting (if you can use that word) a bunch of unknowns, who really could have desperately used some support. Snipes hasn't really done a great deal lately, and maybe this is the reason he agreed to take this turkey on.
The story revolves around five young people who head off to a cabin in the woods for Labour Day weekend. But when they arrive they find themselves caught up in the middle of an alien invasion. But I was never clear on what exactly the reason was for the aliens to arrive. Clearly they'd been to earth before and kidnapped a few people. Now they're here to kidnap a few more. But to what end? The aliens aren't really invading. They kidnap a few people, do something to them on their ship (although exactly what wasn't made clear, it seems that they're somehow enhancing those they've kidnapped) and then they leave. There's a hint that maybe this has something to do with the history of human evolution, but no real explanation of what the motives of the aliens are - unless it's just some sort of lab experiment to them, which is possible. As the story notes, we do that to "lesser" species all the time. Perhaps. But there's not really that much excitement in this film; nothing to really capture your attention. Even the scenes on board the alien ship, once the young folk are all kidnapped, are pretty dull and bland.
So there was nothing exceptionally noteworthy about any of this. Basically, it's a disappointment that should be quickly forgotten, since there are countless alien invasion movies that are better and more exciting than this. (3/10)
Hold the Dark (2018)
A Long And Ponderous Anti-Thriller
To give credit where credit is due, director Jeremy Saulnier uses the darkness of an Alaskan winter and the loneliness of the Alaskan wilderness to very good effect to create a sense of bleakness and emptiness. The truly unfortunate thing is that aside from that I can't think of anything about this that's redeeming. It's long and ponderous. The pacing is terrible; the story is a muddle that really just left me baffled. It starts as the search for a missing child. Bailey has apparently been taken by wolves in a remote Alaskan town, and his mother (Riley Keogh) hires a hunter (Jeffrey Wright) to track down the wolf and kill it. But the story eventually morphs into a murder mystery - but one with no real explanation that I could figure out. In addition to its mostly long and ponderous story there are some moments of graphic violence thrown in - but they don't really add much to the story except making it even more confusing (if that's possible.) I have to confess that when this came to a merciful (if completely unsatisfying) end I was relieved, and regretted that I had wasted two hours of my life with it. "Hold The Dark" is billed as a thriller, but to be perfectly honest I'd say it's the very epitome of an anti-thriller! (2/10)
A Rather Dull Organized Crime Story
There's an attempt here to give us a flavour of the life of John Gotti - the Teflon Don; the real-life godfather; the head of the Gambino crime family in New York City. It centres around a visit by John Jr. to his father in prison, as Gotti is dying of cancer and Junior is cutting a deal with prosecutors to serve his time and then get out of the life. And as that encounter progresses, the story of Gotti's "career" and its impact on his real family is revealed as he rose to head of the family.
To be blunt, this isn't a great movie. It paints a picture of life in organized crime, but to me it seemed poorly put together, with no real flow or over-arching narrative; things just being thrown together sometimes with little rhyme or reason. There isn't really much in the way of character development. We get the point that we're watching movie about a bunch of mobsters, but I can't honestly say that I found myself caring much about anyone. The lead role was played by John Travolta. His performance was, I thought, uneven. And the truth is that the movie didn't really hold my attention. There were times when it became little more than background noise because, frankly, it just wasn't that interesting. It desperately needed better pacing, and a better flow to the story. (3/10)
How It Ends (2018)
This Is How It Ends? Seriously?
Seriously - this is how it ends? Seriously? This Netflix movie has the dumbest, most unfulfilling, most meaningless and even most infuriating ending I think I've ever come across in a movie. It's literally impossible to explain with any degree of satisfaction how it ends, because - well - it really doesn't end. It stops, but it doesn't end. Was the title supposed to be some sort of cute play on how it was actually going to end? Was there thought put into this? Was the non-existent end supposed to - in some way - be intelligent and thought-provoking? Or did absolutely everyone involved in putting this thing together just get collectively bored and say - "OK. What the hell. We're done. Time for a snack." It felt like the latter.
What a letdown. I had actually been enjoying this movie. It was very effectively mysterious. You knew from the start that it was going to be. The opening caption was "Chicago: 5:33 am." Not 5:30 or 6:00, but specifically 5:33. I'm being a bit silly with that, but 5:33 tells you right off - something's happening. And something did happen. After a brief introduction relating a tense visit by Will to his in-laws in Chicago, we get right into it. Will is talking to his wife Sam in Seattle on the phone. And something happens there. There's a sound. She's obviously terrified. The line suddenly goes dead. It's quickly revealed that all contact with the west coast has been lost. Then power goes out - apparently everywhere. There's no communication, no satellites, no GPS. Nothing. The military appears. Panic builds, chaos ensues. And Will and his father in law Tom decide that they're going to have to drive to Seattle to find Sam. And in an increasingly panic-stricken and lawless nation that journey is going to be a challenge.
I was really enjoying the story. And then something happened. I'm not sure what it was but I pin it pretty much to the point when Tom dies. Tom was played by Forest Whitaker. I've always liked Whitaker, although never really thought of him as someone who could carry a movie. But it all fell apart when his character died. I honestly didn't feel that any of the rest of the cast had truly stood out, but this had been mysterious and interesting and even at times exciting, but with the death of Tom it descended to just plain silly. And it kept getting worse. Right up to that ending that wasn't an ending. That ending that explained absolutely nothing. That ending that wasn't intelligent or thought-provoking but that honestly just seemed truly lazy on the part of everyone involved with this.
Seriously - this is how it ends? I'm going to give this a 5/10, only because I had been enjoying this. But the last half hour or so gets about a minus 40.
Hijacked: Flight 285 (1996)
Remember That This Is A TV Movie And Set Your Expectations Accordingly
Do keep in mind that this isn't a big budget Hollywood production. It was a made for TV movie intended to give a couple of hours of entertainment while you sit on the couch watching the tube in the days before Netflix and Amazon, etc. It needs to be judged by that standard. And looked at it in that way, it's passable. It's reasonably suspenseful, although not especially original. It's another hijack movie that depends on all sorts of things: somehow the prisoner being escorted on a commercial flight managed to get word out to his accomplices of exactly which flight he was going to be on. And it depends on the FBI agents guarding him being complete dunces who seem far too easily overcome. But you have to accept all that or you won't have a movie. Somehow the hijackers have to take over the plane, after all. So - OK. I thought the performances here were just a little bit bland - there seemed to be surprisingly little emotion from those portraying the passengers, who you'd think would be a little more panicky at the presence of three hijackers, all of whom have guns and one of whom has a bomb? But there's intrigue in how this is all going to play out that was sufficiently interesting to keep me watching.
Now, I've found that every TV movie of this type has some sort of sub-theme going on. Here, there were a whole lot of variations on what you might call the complexities of male-female relationships. One of the passengers has a tense relationship with his wife. The head FBI agent on the ground has a complicated relationship with the female hostage negotiator. The leader of the hijackers has his lover among his accomplices, and she's a little too kind for his tastes every now and then. The female pilot and male co-pilot of the plane are former lovers who find sharing the cockpit a bit awkward. There was just a lot of this - and it was very noticeable and even a little bit funny.
I didn't find this to be a bad movie; I didn't feel at all as if I had wasted my time by watching it. (6/10)
And Then There Were None (1945)
Why Didn't They Just All Stay Together?
It was Lombard I believe (a little over halfway through the movie) who alluded to something that I'd been thinking of from the very beginning. I don't remember his exact words but it was something along the lines of people only getting killed when they're alone with someone, so as long as you stay in threes you'll be fine. Exactly. So, almost from the start (or at least as soon as it was figured out that the killer had to be one of the original group of ten) - why not just stay together as a group? Always? For the entire weekend? Why keep separating to go to their separate bedrooms for the night, where they' be alone and at the mercy of the killer. Was it modesty? Because there were both men and women? Sleep on the couch. Sleep on the floor. But stay together. There's a murderer among you! As long as you stay together you'll be safe. But it took more than half the movie for one of the characters to figure that out, and even then - they (or what was left of "the") didn't do it!
The movie is based on the Agatha Christie novel of the same name. To be honest I read a lot - but I tend toward non-fiction (history, biographies) so I've never read the novel. The basic plot has 10 complete strangers being invited by a U.N. Owen to spend the weekend in a big house on a mysterious and deserted island off the English coast. Once they arrive and start to get to know each other it becomes clear that each of them have something shady in their past, and it also becomes clear that someone wants to make them pay for their past misdeeds. So one by one they get picked off, with the murders living out a nursery rhyme about "Ten Little Indians." Incidentally - that was a "nursery rhyme"? Seriously? Setting aside the obvious racism (which, I concede, wouldn't have been a huge issue in 1945) that's not the sort of ditty I'd want my kids singing. Oh well. Different times.
There is a decent enough mystery here. One can keep guessing, but there's really nothing in particular that I saw that gave away who the murderer was. It did at times feel like I was watching a game of "Clue" being played out. It's not a fancy movie. I'd assume that there weren't many "fancy" movies made in England in 1945, with England just coming out of World War II, but this one would have filled the time of the war weary population. The cast was sometimes guilty of over-acting. The very first death scene (portrayed by Mischa Auer) was actually funny as he stumbled around, apparently poisoned by something. I felt sorry for the butler (Richard Haydn) who was still expected to get breakfast and dinner even after his wife fell victim to the killer. The famous old "stiff upper lip" of the British, I guess.
This was all right, but I'd personally say that I think it's a bit over-rated. (5/10)
Bone Tomahawk (2015)
Whatever This Was Supposed To Be - It Was Bad
From this movie's description I expected it to be a sort of western-horror hybrid. That could be enjoyable enough, so I settled in to watch it. But it wasn't really that horrific, and for long parts of the script it seems to be trying to be a sort of dry comedy with an element of mystery. Basically it's a bizarre hybrid of a whole lot of different genres that really didn't work together all that well.
The movie started out strong enough, with a rather brutal murder depicted and, with one of the murderers being then killed himself by an arrow shot from somewhere by someone, you get the impression that there's going to be a lot of action in this. But then it settles down. It really settles. The remaining murderer is put in jail, tended to by a female doctor and guarded by a deputy - and then all three mysteriously disappear. Told by a local native man about a mysterious tribe of cannibals he calls "troglodytes," the sheriff sets out with a small posse to find them and bring them home.
And then we settle in for a marathon of nothing much happening. So little happened in fact that I literally fell asleep for a good 20 minutes - and I watched this in the middle of the afternoon. It does pick up in the last half hour or so when the posse finally encounters the troglodytes, and at that point the movie actually becomes graphically and at times unpleasantly violent as the posse and the troglodytes square off with each other.
"Bone Tomahawk" has a reasonably well known but certainly not A-list of actors (headed by Kurt Russell as the sheriff.) Sometimes they seem to be trying valiantly to make this work, but there are also scenes when they seem to realize it's a lost cause, and for the most part they're burdened with a script full of inanities. Once this was over I did go back and watch the 20 minutes or so that I fell asleep for. It didn't help. (2/10)
Tiger House (2015)
Not Horrible, But It Really Made No Impression On Me
First, let's be honest. Home invasion movies are a dime a dozen. "Tiger House" is yet another one. A wealthy family (mom, stepdad and son) is taken prisoner in order to force them to hand over a huge amount of money. In order to stand out in such a crowded genre, there has to be something truly unique. In this case, the idea was that the hero would be the the girlfriend of the son. Mom didn't like her, because she wasn't high class enough, but she's actually spending the night at the house (her and her boyfriend's secret, of course) when the invasion begins. She hides, and becomes the only hope the family has for escape as she gradually starts to do battle with the intruders.
That's the movie, basically. I can't really say that it made a huge impression on me, though. It was all right. It seemed to me that there were a lot of plotholes involved - a lot that didn't make a great deal of sense - and as the movie came to its end there was a plot twist that was completely unexpected - but it actually came across as so silly that I laughed out loud when it was revealed.
I guess the most important thing to say about this movie is that, indeed, it made very little impression on me. It didn't manage to stand out. It was quite OK. Definitely not horrible, but also nothing memorable. I'd rate it as a very mediocre 4/10.
This Would Have Been A Better Horror Movie Without The Supernatural Angle
At first, I thought this was going to be a kind of a rehash of M. Night Shyamalan's "The Village." It does sound very similar: a group of people living at the edge of a forest in primitive conditions start to believe that there's something in the woods out to get them. In this case, they believe there's a witch, or even the devil. But, although this has more of a supernatural element than Shyamalan's movie, in some respects it also has a more authentic feeling.
This movie really is set in the 17th century. An apparently strict Puritan family, recently arrived at a plantation colony in the New World from England, is banished from the colony because of their religious beliefs. They take up residence in a clearing, with only themselves for company and without the protection of the colony, and with the dark and mysterious forest right beside them, and tragedies start to befall them almost immediately - beginning with the death of the infant son. The family seems divided into various alliances, for lack of a better word: mother and father, older brother and sister, and younger brother and sister. All of them are impacted by the baby's death in a variety of ways, but it's the eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) who becomes the target. She had been caring for the baby when it disappeared. Gradually, as things continue to spiral downhill for the family, Thomasin is suspected of having made a deal with the devil; of being a witch - with results that are ultimately tragic.
There is an authentic feel to this. There were fears of witches in the early-mid 17th century, and especially in New England. There were isolated families, in a strange new land, not knowing for sure what lurked in the forests that weren't very far away. Many were hyper-religious. They were inclined to see Satan at work when hardship befell them. They did turn on each other - many of the "witch" accusations that were made in the era were started by children making up stories that got out of hand because the adults took them seriously. So I actually could buy into this story. I actually could feel sympathy for poor Thomasin as the accusations against her from her own family spiralled out of control. And the performances in this from everyone really were very good. In addition to the sympathy I felt for Thomasin, I was intrigued by the character of William, the father (played by Ralph Ineson.) Yes, he was a strict and hyper-religious Puritan, obsessed with sin and fearful (or at least uncertain about) his eternal fate. But there was also a strangely compassionate nature about William. He did love his family - often very tenderly, kind of turning the traditional stereotype of the strict Puritan father on its head. It was a very good performance. I thought that director Robert Eggers also did a very good job. The movie was filmed in a very isolated location in northern Ontario, and Eggers used the location to great advantage, right down to using only natural lighting, which added to the atmosphere of the movie. He also insisted on using English actors, supposedly so that the accents would be authentic - notwithstanding the fact that the English of the early 17th century probably had a different sound than a modern English accent.
And yet, ultimately this disappointed me. The story does, in fact, go for a supernatural ending, as Thomasin, who emerges as the last survivor of the family after killing her own mother while her mother was trying to kill her, does in fact make a deal with the devil (who's represented in the movie by a black goat the family has named Black Phillip.) Ultimately, she ends up joining a coven of witches deep in the forest, with the last scene showing all of them levitating. Perhaps this may seem strange, but I thought that last scene weakened the worth of this as a horror movie. For me, the actions and thoughts of real human beings are far more chilling than supernatural silliness, and the horror of this movie was really the slow buildup of paranoia as we watched the family turn on each other, blaming each other for things that could well have just been natural tragedies. No devil or witches needed, in other words. The ending came across as just silly to me, and detracted from rather than summing up everything that had come before.
But that last scene aside, I can't deny that I enjoyed this movie. It was a reasonable look (the ending notwithstanding) at something that could very well have happened in that era and in that context. (6/10)
Bridge to the Sun (1961)
Very Interesting Romance That Offers A Glimpse At The Japanese Perspective On World War II
Carroll Baker and James Shigeta star as "Terry" and Gwen Terasaki in this true story (based on Gwen's memoir) of an inter-racial marriage between a Japanese diplomat and a young American woman during the period from the mid-1930's to the post-World War II era. It was a very interesting movie that deals with the concepts of foreign races and cultures from two perspectives - which is somewhat unique. I would think that in 1961, when this film was made, it may have been a bit controversial. Inter-racial marriage was still a very controversial subject in America, and the story of an American woman who chose to go to Japan with her husband at the outbreak of the war probably would have been somewhat shocking to audiences who could easily still remember Pearl Harbor and the war with Japan.
The movie can basically be divided into two halves. The first deals with Gwen and Terry's life in America. Meeting at a reception at the Japanese Embassy, they quickly fall in love. Gwen is from Tennessee; her family is none to happy at the prospect of her marrying a Japanese man, although to be honest the reaction seems to be a subdued one. More is made of the difficulty of Gwen being accepted by the Japanese - including her being summoned to the Embassy to meet the Ambassador, who asks her not to marry Terry. But they do marry, and Terry returns with her to Japan afterward. The culture chock for Gwen is more profound, as she suddenly has to deal with the subordinate place of women in the society, and with Terry's change in behaviour - as he seems desperate to fit back into Japanese society. After being re-posted to the Embassy in Washington, Terry is sent back to Japan with the outbreak of the war, and Gwen (and their new daughter Mariko) go with him, with both having to face suspicion and downright anti-Americanism as the war continues and as Japan is increasingly subjected to American bombing.
This struck me as a courageous film. Even to this day there aren't a lot of films that really try to give a Japanese perspective on the war and on the Japanese attitude to America and Americans during the war. In fact, the most interesting thing about this movie is that it's set in Japan during World War II and presents what comes across as an accurate portrayal of what life must have been like in that environment, especially for an American woman who would have been looked on with suspicion for that very reason. In fact, one mechanism that director Etienne Perier used well were the sideways glances of the Japanese people at Gwen - a mixture of curiosity and contempt. They were usually in the background and not that noticeable, but if you did notice them they made a powerful point. This was a good performance from Baker. She had been known mostly for glamorous, sexy roles to this point (and would continue mostly in that vein afterward) but she did a good job in this dramatic role. Shigeta (known mostly for guest starring roles on TV) was also very effective in his role. It was a very early role for him, and it represented a very serious role at a time when serious roles (without stereotypes) for Asian actors were relatively scarce. I thought Baker and Shigeta worked well together and were very convincing in portraying the Terasaki's love story.
It's a well made movie, combining politics, racism, war and a love story all in one. (8/10)
From the Dark (2014)
It Manages To Hit Pretty Much Every Cliche In The Book
Within the opening 20 minutes or so, "From The Dark" already manages to hit basically every cliche that the horror genre has to offer. A farmer makes a gruesome discovery and then we shift back 20 hours in time to learn what led up to his discovery. Check. A young couple are on a road trip. Check. They get lost, but the boyfriend (who's driving) won't admit that he's lost and refuses every effort of his girlfriend (and the GPS) to get him back on track. Check. The car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Check. The sunlight is fading. Check. They discover an abandoned farmhouse. Check. There's a full moon. Check. And, of course, there's some sort of mysterious creature hidden in the darkness that's out to get them. Check. Cliches galore! Cliches abound!
The creature was somewhat mysterious. Point for that. What was it? Where did it come from? Early in the movie it has a ghostly kind of appearance, but it clearly takes physical form and its outline in the light reminded me a bit of the vampire in "Nosferatu." Does it possess people? Or is this some sort of infection that turns people into - well - the creature? That was never really explained. What we did learn was that the creature couldn't be around light. That's a little different from the norm. Usually you hide in the darkness to be safe. The young couple in this had to hide in the light to be safe. The atmosphere and use of the abandoned farmhouse set was done reasonably well. When all is said and done - even if you can overlook to overuse of cliche situations - this just fails as a horror movie. It's not particularly original, nor is it particularly frightening. A little bit mysterious perhaps, but that's about it. It has a very limited cast - essentially just the actors portraying the young couple - Stephen Cromwell and Niamh Algar. She was better than he was, but there was really no discernible chemistry between them and their relationship didn't come across as authentic to me. (3/10)
The Eichmann Show (2015)
They Listen ... Because Of You
Ostensibly, this film is a recounting of the television broadcast of the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann - the Nazi who was one of the major figures of the Holocaust and who was kidnapped by the Mossad in Argentina 15 years after the end of World War II and returned to Israel to face trial. And while we do learn a lot about the trial and about the Holocaust through actual footage of the trial, which included films of what went on at the concentration camps (and be forewarned - the footage is more than sobering; it is a horrific depiction of the depths to which humanity can plunge) I really found this to be more about the internal struggles of the director of the television broadcast - Leo Hurwitz. Hurwitz was a well regarded Jewish director who had been blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee - and so, frankly, he was familiar with the tactics of fascism. Given the opportunity for redemption in a sense by producer William Fruchtman's (also Jewish) offer to produce the coverage of the trial, we find Hurwitz often more interested in satisfying his own obsession with needing to understand Eichmann - not just what he did but why he did it, as he explained. Fruchtman is not unsympathetic to Hurwitz, and he understands the importance of the coverage of the trial, but as a producer he's also distracted by the need to maintain ratings, and by threats being made against he and his family for even being involved with the project. The two often butt heads as their competing roles and personal agendas collide over and over again.
I don't want to say that I enjoyed this movie. This is not a movie to be "enjoyed." It's a very dark film at times and includes footage that is - as I said above - quite horrific in nature, and it deals with what is certainly the prime example of how inhumane humanity can actually be. With Hurwitz's background (having been blacklisted) it also makes the point that in some ways fascism lies not very deep beneath the soil - a point very relevant to this day and age, when the tactics of fascism are being used increasingly openly by many politicians in the Western world. So there's a powerful (if somewhat understated) lesson here; a plea to be vigilant, to protect the rights of those who are often cast as the enemy and therefore treated as less than human. But if it isn't a movie to be "enjoyed" I would say that it's an admirable movie in many ways. Some of the backroom scenes, as Hurwitz has his camera operators change shots, etc. are somewhat dry - but add, I suppose, to the inherent tension in the movie played out between Hurwitz and Fruchtman - is this just a television show, or is it a search for understanding?
I thought the performances from Martin Freeman as Fruchtman and Anthony LaPaglia as Hurwitz were very good. No more than that - and I mean that not as a criticism. It's just that, like Hurwitz, I became as interested in the archival footage of Eichmann's unemotional demeanour and expression as he was confronted with the ugly truths of the Holocaust as I was with the stories of Hurwitz and Fruchtman.
One non-footage scene that really stood out for me was a conversation between Hurwitz and Mrs. Landau (Rebecca Front) - who owned the small hotel in Jerusalem where Hurwitz stayed during the trial. Mrs. Landau was a Holocaust survivor, and one night at dinner she and Hurwitz spoke. She recounted that once the war was over no one - even in Israel - wanted to hear the stories of the Holocaust. But then she told him that now she heard people speaking about it - because they had been watching the trial. "They listened ... because of you." Hurwitz had thought he had failed because he hadn't "explained" Eichmann. That conversation (near the end of the movie) seemed to change his perspective and make him realize the importance of what he was doing.
This may not be an "enjoyable" movie. But it is a fine and admirable film. (8/10)
An Original Way To Look At Gang Warfare And Street Violence In Chicago
To start, one has to give Spike Lee an "A" for originality. Who would have thought of a movie dealing with the problem of gang violence in Chicago through an adaptation of an ancient Greek comedy (Lysistrate by Aristophanes)? Simply because of that, this piqued my curiosity when I first heard about it and long before I had seen it. Now, I readily confess that I am nothing even close to an authority on ancient Greek comedies - and while I've heard of Aristophanes I had never heard of Lysistrate until now. So I guess you could say that I learned something from this. And it's a very fresh and original take on a very serious contemporary problem. I obviously can't comment on how good the adaptation is because of my lack of knowledge about the original, so my comments are restricted to the actual movie.
I wanted to watch this because I'm somewhat familiar with Chicago. I'm not a native and I'm not even an American. But for a few weeks every summer for a few years I lived in Chicago, while I pursued a doctoral degree. The neighbourhood of Hyde Park to be precise. I remember the first year I was there. The university gave us newbies a "security briefing." Hyde Park was pretty safe, we were told. Two police forces (Chicago and University of Chicago) patrolling and emergency phones all over. Still - don't go out alone after dark and even during the day don't walk alone beyond the boundaries of Hyde Park. Too dangerous, we were told. It seemed like a bit of a siege mentality. I ignored the second piece of advice a few times to walk to Garfield Station on the Red Line to travel downtown. I never felt in danger - but once out of Hyde Park there was a different feel. A little grittier; a little tougher. I wasn't afraid, but I was more observant of my surroundings on those walks. And outside Hyde Park Union Church one year was a massive banner with the names of all the children who'd been murdered - over what period of time I don't remember. It was very sobering. Still, I came to love Chicago for many reasons. So I wanted to see this.
It revolves around the murder of a little 7 year old girl named Patti, caught in the crossfire of a gang shooting. For me, the movie was connected by three very powerful scenes. The first was when Patti's mother showed up at the murder scene but couldn't cross the police lines to run to her dead daughter's body. The second in the middle of the movie was the sermon preached by Father Mike at Patty's funeral. It was powerful and raw and captivating. The third was near the end, with the mothers of murdered children confronting Chi-Raq. Those were all scenes that you couldn't take your eyes off. But somehow what came between those scenes was less than stellar. Yes - it's those scenes that provide the connection with Lysistrate. To try to force Chicago's gangs to stop the killing, their women refuse to have sex with them. (In Lysistrate, Greek women refuse sex with their husbands as punishment for them fighting in the Peloponnesian War.) The content between Patti's death and funeral was not bad as the "sex strike" takes shape. But what came between the funeral and the confrontation of Chi-Raq with the mothers sometimes just seemed to descend into plain silliness not worthy of the truly serious tone of the movie.
And though based on a Greek comedy, this is a very serious movie. Gang warfare, children being murdered, women's empowerment, political corruption - they're all at the heart of this. It's sometimes strangely funny, but it's never light comedy fare. It also features some really good performances. Teyonnah Paris was great (and very sexy) as Lysistrate, who organizes the sex strike, and Nick Cannon was pretty good as her rapper-gangster boyfriend Chi-Raq, who is the leader of one of the warring gangs. Samuel L. Jackson did a decent enough job of moving the story along as Dolmedes - the narrator. And a real stand-out (to me) was John Cusack as Father Mike - the priest of the neighbourhood church who preached that powerful funeral sermon. Cusack nailed that sermon. He was absolutely perfect.
I can see that this wouldn't be appealing to everyone. And it is a bit uneven - those three really powerful scenes, with the in between material just not as strong. But it's a gutsy movie with an original way of approaching a very serious issue. (7/10)
Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Not The Classic "Horror" Movie You Might Expect - More Of A Psychological Mystery
This movie is a classic, and 50 years old, and yet strangely enough I had never watched it until now. And, to be honest, it wasn't really what I was expecting it to be. I had the impression that "Rosemary's Baby" was more of a straight horror/thriller type of movie. Instead what I found was more of a suspense/mystery type of story. I didn't find there to be anything particularly frightening in it. It was more mysterious, and for me the question hanging over the whole story was whether any of what Rosemary came to believe was real or if it was just a figment of her imagination. I'll give credit to Roman Polanski, who both directed this and wrote the screenplay - there are plenty of scenes and events in this movie that add to that uncertainty. Things happened or would be said that maybe at first seemed innocent, but as they added up I could see how they began to appear suspicious to Rosemary. But there's also enough going on that causes you to think - "No - this is just Rosemary's imagination going wild." So, although I have to confess that at first I was struggling with this just a bit (probably because it was so unlike what I was expecting) after a while I became quite fixed on the story. Once you're into it (even if you have to struggle a bit with the beginning) you have to see it through to the end. And I will say this about the ending (which I won't give away) - I don't think the resolution was as clear as some make it out to be. I was still left thinking that what was happening could be real - or maybe was still in Rosemary's mind. If I could hazard a guess I'd say that the intent was that what Rosemary believed turned out to be true, but it just wasn't crystal clear to me.
I had mixed reactions to the performances in this. No one really came across to me as outstanding - this in spite of the fact that Ruth Gordon won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Minnie Castevet - Rosemary and Guy's annoying neighbour. I truly did find the character annoying - which perhaps does say that Gordon pulled off the part perfectly, but my reaction to the character perhaps clouded my appreciation of Gordon's performance. I would say that if you wanted to make a movie that in some way features Satan, you could do worse than simply have a young couple move in to a new place who then have to put up with Minnie and Roman as their neighbours. "Neighbours From Hell" you could call it, even without a supernatural angle! As for Mia Farrow as Rosemary - she grew on me over the course of the picture. At first she seemed a bit wooden for lack of a better word, but I thought she did a good job of portraying Rosemary's "evolution" as she begins to suspect that something evil was going on.
This was OK. Once I adjusted my expectations of it - after realizing that it wasn't going to be the traditional horror movie I was expecting - it managed to draw me in. I would say that I think it's perhaps a little bit over-rated, and if you are looking for a traditional horror/thriller type of movie, this is going to be a disappointment. It doesn't have many traditional frights involved with it and it's a little bit slow paced at times. It's a psychological thriller at best; more akin to a mystery than anything. As long as you keep that in mind, it's enjoyable enough. But don't expect to be scared out of your wits, or even to jump or be particularly startled by anything. (7/10)