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Carlito's Way (1993)
A somewhat overlooked gem from de Palma & Pacino
16 August 2019
When it comes to crime dramas starring Al Pacino and directed by Brian de Palma, the first film that naturally comes to mind is "Scarface". Released in 1983, "Scarface" is arguably the definitive gangster movie of the 80's, so the attention that it gets isn't undeserved. However, what a lot of people don't know (or have forgotten) is that de Palma & Pacino teamed up again ten years later for a markedly different gangster movie.

"Carlito's Way" features a more world-weary Pacino as a recently released convict who just wants to put his past behind him and fly straight long enough to retire to a comfortable but not extravagant lifestyle. Unfortunately, it isn't long before his acquaintances drag him back into the world of crime. Reluctantly bound by loyalty, Carlito's carefully laid plans start to unravel and it seems that he'll be lucky just to get out alive.

In the lead role we have Al Pacino, just one year removed from his long-overdue Best Actor Oscar win for "Scent of a Woman". He shows some bluster in the opening courthouse scene but, for the most part, his performance is nicely subdued. Pacino serves as the film's anchor and much of its success is directly attributable to him. That being said, there are a few standout performances in support, most notably Sean Penn's uncharacteristic portrayal of Carlito's lawyer and close friend, Dave Kleinfeld. Penn got a Golden Globe nomination for his efforts and so did Penelope Ann Miller as the romantic interest, though I found her to be a bit of a weak link. Meanwhile, John Leguizamo stole some scenes in a smaller role and Viggo Mortensen made a memorable appearance as well.

As you might expect, de Palma's direction is expertly handled, particularly when it comes to the showstopping chase scene that occurs late in the movie. Although not as flashy as "Scarface", there are some nicely executed artistic flourishes from time to time. In fact, the movie has nice production values from top to bottom, so it's a bit surprising that it got a lukewarm critical reception at the time of its release.

Despite the movie's initial tepid response it has endured to become a cult classic. It will probably always be overshadowed by "Scarface" but it's a worthy gangster movie that's more thoughtful than most of its brethren. I will say, though, that the way the movie starts at (or, rather, near) the end and flashes back seems like it would rob the movie of some of its suspense. In retrospect, I see what the filmmakers had in mind but I wonder what first time viewers will think of it.
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Exploring an Enigma
11 August 2019
Norwegian director Morten Tyldum's English-language debut "The Imitation Game" is the type of movie that seems custom built for awards recognition. This classy historical drama explores the life and contributions of a man whose impact would not be acknowledged until many years after his tragic & untimely death. That man was Alan Turing, a mathematician who played a key role in breaking Germany's "Enigma" code during World War II.

The screenplay is loosely based on a biography of Turing and, from what I understand, it isn't shy about bending the truth for dramatic effect. Personally, I don't find this to be a problem because the story is compellingly told and none of the fabrications or exaggerations strike me as being unreasonable in the name of entertainment. If you're only interested in stringent historical accuracy then you probably shouldn't be watching movies to begin with. That being said, for what it's worth, the screenplay was rewarded with an Oscar, which was surprisingly the only major award that the film received.

The cast is comprised of a fine group of British thespians, with Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role. Cumberbatch is always good but this might be his best performance to date. Also notable was Keira Knightley in an Oscar-nominated supporting role. The rest of the cast is a model of professionalism and features the likes of Mark Strong, Matthew Goode & Charles Dance.

From a production standpoint, the movie does an excellent job of recreating its period setting, from sets to costuming. Morten Tyldum's direction is nicely handled and the movie also sports a score from Alexandre Desplat (one of two Oscar-nominated scores from Desplat in that particular year). Overall, certainly a prestige picture whose individual components all show considerable care and attention.

Although "Birdman" & "The Grand Budapest Hotel" hogged most of the awards recognition for 2014, I think that "The Imitation Game" is right up there with them. Sure, it may play fast and loose with the facts but it sheds light on an important subject, all the while giving us a fresh perspective on World War II. I certainly don't have any reservations in recommending it, though you've been warned about what I feel are justified liberties taken with the truth for dramatic effect.
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The Beginning of the End(game)
6 August 2019
Unless you've been living under a rock for the past decade or so you might have heard of a little production company by the name of Marvel Studios. Creating motion picture adaptations of Marvel Comics properties, they've had a surprisingly consistent track record for delivering satisfying big budget superhero entertainment. The fact that they also managed to tie everything together into a cohesive shared universe is something that frankly hadn't been seen to that extent in movies before. All of the care that went into these productions culminated in 2018's "Avengers: Infinity War" and its direct sequel, 2019's "Avengers: Endgame". Together they proved to be a fitting capper to Marvel's journey that began with "Iron Man" in 2008.

First of all, it's important to recognize that this movie is part one of a two part story. I didn't realize this when I originally watched the movie, so I was somewhat disappointed that the story wasn't brought to a resolution. Later on, when rewatching the movie ahead of the concluding chapter, I got a better appreciation of what the movie was meant to be.

As had been hinted at for years, "Infinity War" finally marked the entrance of Thanos into the Marvel universe as a major villain. He seeks to acquire the six Infinity Stones, which will make him powerful enough to restore balance to the universe... by laying half of it to waste. Naturally, our heroes the Avengers aren't about to just let that happen. However, Thanos's power increases with the acquisition of each new stone, so stopping him becomes a race against time.

For a movie that's the culmination of 19 previous films, a memorable villain was a must. Luckily, Josh Brolin's portrayal of Thanos is one of the most memorable in the Marvel canon. No doubt much of the credit goes to the original creator of the character (Jim Starlin) but the fact is that Thanos gives the impression that he's someone who could give the Avengers a run for their money. In fact, he's such a formidable foe that the threat of defeat is more palpable than in any previous Marvel movie. That his motivations are also interesting from a philosophical point of view is another point in the movie's favour.

Having a compelling villain is of course a crucial element in any superhero movie but in this case the sheer scale of the undertaking is impressive in and of itself. Featuring a star-studded cast of Marvel veterans in the various heroic roles, it's amazing that the producers managed to keep the shared universe alive this long just to be able to put this movie together in the first place. That they managed to keep the movie from collapsing under the weight of its stars is another testament to their commitment to quality. Despite a fairly hefty two and a half hour runtime, the movie is nicely paced and gives a reasonable amount of screentime to all involved. My only real complaint is that the final act's impact is somewhat muted by the utter improbability that certain characters will be gone for good since they already had sequels in the pipeline. Surely they could have stuck to characters whose fate was less certain?

"Infinity War" may not be the type of movie I'd watch for awards-worthy work on either side of the camera but as a feat of production I think that it and its (superior) sequel are nearly unparalleled. It makes me wonder if "Endgame" might be shown some love at the next Oscars ceremony. I mean, "Black Panther" was nominated for Best PIcture and that was arguably more about cultural impact than the actual merits of the production (though I wouldn't have argued if Michael B. Jordan was nominated). In any case, Marvel fans don't need any convincing to watch this movie. For others, this probably isn't the best starting point.
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Brick (2005)
A stylish throwback to a bygone era of filmmaking
1 July 2019
Rian Johnson's directorial debut has a simple but ingenious concept: What if you set a hard-boiled detective story in a modern high school? Retain the core structure, archetypal characters and colorful slang but instead of the protagonist being a world-weary gumshoe make him a teenage loner. This alteration turns out to be surprisingly effective in the hands of Johnson, who shows an obvious affinity for the genre.

In this case, our 'detective' is Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a high school student who at the beginning of the movie finds his ex-girlfriend dead. Suspecting murder, he delves into her recent past in an attempt to identify whoever's responsible. Along the way, we meet a varied cast of characters, from stooges to femme fatales, never knowing who can be trusted.

Rian Johnson's script revels in its use of the standard hard-boiled template. Core elements are given new life by being transplanted to a high school setting but what's really surprising is how well the material fits. For instance, high schoolers speaking in half-comprehensible slang is certainly nothing out of the ordinary. That being said, those who aren't familiar with hard-boiled detective stories and/or film noir probably won't get the most out of these references. Of course, since this is basically a detective story, the mystery at the heart of the movie is perhaps the most important element. The plot's twists and turns keep the movie interesting while winding towards a memorable conclusion. However, the fact that the story is characteristically convoluted may turn off some viewers.

The cast is decent but not great, which isn't too surprising given the miniscule budget. Joseph Gordon-Levitt basically carried the movie in one of his earliest breakout roles following "3rd Rock from the Sun". Lukas Haas was also highly memorable as the local drug kingpin. Besides that, there isn't a whole lot worth mentioning, though it was nice to see Richard Roundtree ("Shaft") in a small role.

Visually, the movie looks better than its budget would suggest. That being said, it isn't slick by any means, which actually suits the movie just fine. As a debut, it's an impressive effort. The music, by Rian's cousin Nathan Johnson, is reminiscent of film noir and I found it to be serviceable but nothing more.

Overall, "Brick" is a very interesting movie with its unique take on the mystery genre. The production may have been restricted somewhat by its low budget but the work of Johnson, Gordon-Levitt & Haas elevated it considerably. I'm certain that this movie won't be for everyone but for fans of hard-boiled fiction or film noirs this is a must see.
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Backdraft (1991)
A decent blockbuster from Ron Howard
24 June 2019
Ron Howard's "Backdraft" is a true blockbuster in the 90's mold. Star-studded and full of spectacle, it did good business in 1991 while garnering mildly positive reviews. It was apparently remembered fondly enough to warrant a straight-to-video sequel earlier this year which, to it's credit, at least brought back William Baldwin & Donald Sutherland.

As for the original movie, the story is set in Chicago and it focuses on a pair of firefighting brothers (Kurt Russell & William Baldwin). The older brother is a seasoned vet while the younger brother is a rookie who has previously tried and failed at other professions. The two butt heads repeatedly as they work towards bringing an arsonist to justice.

There's plenty of action here but also a strong mystery angle as well. This provides a welcome change of pace when it kicks in about an hour into the movie. Generally, the script is pretty overwrought most of the time with the story often veering into melodrama and action movie clichés. However, the plot is fairly satisfying in the end, with a twist that's better executed than most.

Arguably the movie's biggest asset is its nicely assembled cast. Aside from Russell & Baldwin as the aforementioned brothers, a critical role belongs to Robert De Niro as an arson investigator. He unsurprisingly delivered the movie's best performance, despite the role being fairly limited. Donald Sutherland also makes a memorable appearance as an incarcerated pyromaniac. Other notable supporting players include Scott Glenn, Rebecca De Mornay, Jennifer Jason Leigh & the always dependable character actor J.T. Walsh. As for Russell & Baldwin, I wouldn't call this one of my favourite Kurt Russell roles but William Baldwin was surprisingly capable, considering that his career never really developed like his older brother Alec's.

The other strong point of the movie is the visual effects and stunt work. It must have been an insurance nightmare to achieve these kinds of visuals in the days before widespread CGI. There's no substitute for the real thing when dealing with fire, so the results speak for themselves. The movie justifiably landed a few Oscar nominations for both its visual effects and sound, which demonstrates the expertise that went into the technical aspects of the production. Overall, Ron Howard's direction is quite capable with a mix of dramatic scenes and multiple action setpieces. I will say, though, that the bookending songs by Bruce Hornsby & the Range haven't aged too well in my opinion. They're no "The Way It Is", that's for sure.

In the end, "Backdraft" is a bit overblown at 2 hours and 17 minutes. The producers were probably aiming for something a bit more intimate than "The Towering Inferno" but they ended up falling into some of the same traps anyway. So, I wouldn't count this among Howard's best but it's still worth watching, particularly given relatively small number of worthwhile firefighter movies.
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Gremlins (1984)
A pretty good kid-friendly monster movie
1 June 2019
To many who grew up in the 1980's (like I did), Joe Dante's "Gremlins" was (and perhaps still is) a particular favourite. It was produced by Steven Spielberg at a time when he was practically the King Midas of Hollywood. Although "Gremlins" may not have quite the polish of Spielberg's own directorial efforts, it remains an entertaining movie more than 30 years later.

The basic premise of the movie is this: A young man is given a strange, exotic pet by his father, along with three rules to be strictly adhered to. Predictably, those rules aren't followed and mayhem ensues. In a broad sense, the movie takes some of its cues from the monster movies of a bygone era but the titular creatures are actually pretty unique. Sure, some elements of the plot don't really make a lot of sense but this isn't really a movie that's meant to be taken seriously.

The movie's approach is definitely more comedic than horrific but the creatures are still fairly menacing, particularly for younger viewers. Naturally, the special effects are starting to show their age but they're not too bad overall. Although I'm not in the target demographic for this type of movie anymore I'd have to say that it's a very good example of its type. I mean, how many successful family friendly horror movies can you think of?

The cast is pretty decent, considering. Zach Galligan is just fine as our hero, Billy. He's likable and we can relate to him, much like how we can relate to his failed inventor father, played by Hoyt Axton. The gorgeous Phoebe Cates is also here as the requisite love interest, not to mention giving the movie's single most memorable line reading. Lastly, a couple of standouts in support are Dick Miller & Judge Reinhold.

From a technical standpoint, the movie is nicely assembled but not really exceptional. Joe Dante's direction is competent and the movie generally looks decent, including the aforementioned special effects. Jerry Goldsmith's score has some memorable themes but the sound is very much of the 80's, which isn't really to my liking.

Overall, "Gremlins" isn't exactly a masterpiece but it is a worthwhile piece of fantasy/horror that delivers where it counts most: entertainment value. It will probably help if you're viewing this movie through nostalgic eyes but it's hard to deny that there's just something special about this movie. In short, "Gremlins" still captures the imagination.
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Tarantino does mystery with western trappings
25 May 2019
Following 2012's "Django Unchained", Quentin Tarantino once again returned to the American west for his next feature, "The Hateful Eight". With a title reminiscent of "The Magnificent Seven", you might expect a rip-roaring yarn chock full of action. However, the movie actually owes much more to mystery novels by the likes of Agatha Christie than it does to traditional Hollywood westerns. The narrative even follows a literary structure which includes some narration from Tarantino himself.

The titular eight are a group of nefarious individuals brought together in a cabin by a snowstorm. Two of the most prominent of these are a bounty hunter and his notorious prisoner who carries a price of $10,000 on her head. It isn't long before suspicions arise that one or more of the others might have a stake in seeing that this prisoner doesn't get brought to justice. There are shades of John Carpenter's "The Thing" in this setup, which probably isn't just a coincidence.

Despite being more of a mystery than a western, "The Hateful Eight" is nevertheless a more traditional Hollywood depiction of the west than "Django Unchained". That being said, the snowbound setting and the strong mystery angle give the movie a unique flavour. I can't really think of any other western quite like this. Tarantino's script has his trademark mix of violence and impeccable dialogue which in this case is in service of a well constructed mystery plot. The movie is dialogue heavy due to the confined setting limiting the amount of action taking place but it does move along fairly briskly. Still, the extended length (nearly three hours) will likely try the patience of some viewers.

As always, the casting is excellent. Several vets from past Tarantino movies returned here including Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, Walton Goggins and Bruce Dern. That's a great starting point and then you throw in Jennifer Jason Leigh, who ended up getting an Oscar nomination for what is arguably the movie's most memorable performance. To me, the movie harks back to "Reservoir Dogs" by having a relatively small cast strutting their stuff in a confined setting.

Tarantino's direction is flawless, as usual. That being said, he somewhat confusingly decided to go through the considerable effort of using 70mm photography for this picture, which was mostly wasted on an interior set. That approach would have been better suited to "Django Unchained", which had more varied environments. Be that as it may, the visuals are consistently attractive. However, they're overshadowed by Ennio Morricone's moody score, which is one of the movie's strongest points (and also the winner of an Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA).

Ultimately, "The Hateful Eight" doesn't quite stack up to Tarantino's best efforts but it's still a good movie. It contains some interesting commentary on race relations along with a subversion of typical feminist tropes whereby in this case we're treated to a strong female villain instead of a hero. I'm not sure how well it stands up to repeated viewings because of the whole mystery angle but it's intricate enough that you probably won't remember all the twists and turns of the plot.
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Tarantino goes west
25 May 2019
"Django Unchained" was noted director Quentin Tarantino's long anticipated foray into the western genre. As with 2009's "Inglourious Basterds", Tarantino took a decidedly revisionist approach to the subject matter. As a result, the movie is inspired as much by spaghetti western & exploitation movies as it is by traditional Hollywood westerns.

The titular Django (Jamie Foxx) is a freed slave in the Antebellum South who teams up with a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) to track down and rescue his wife (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of a wealthy plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). That's the plot in a nutshell but at two hours and 45 minutes, the movie ends up covering a lot of ground. Throughout that time there are several memorable episodes demonstrating Tarantino's knack for plotting and dialogue. It should also be noted that Tarantino's script earned him an Oscar (not to mention a Golden Globe & a BAFTA), so that should give some indication of its merit.

Of course, a script is only as good as the actors that bring it to life. Luckily, in this case, the cast is exceptional. First and foremost are two supporting players - Christoph Waltz & Leonardo DiCaprio. Waltz earned his second Oscar (both for roles in Tarantino films) with his magnetic portrayal of charming bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz. Running a close second was Leonardo DiCaprio, as the also charming but equally malicious plantation owner Calvin J. Candie. It was a rare villainous turn for DiCaprio and one or his most memorable performances in a career studded with memorable performances. If star Jamie Foxx was outshone by these two actors it was only because he was merely very good rather than outstanding. The rest of the cast continued this level of excellence since even minor roles were filled with talented individuals. The movie brought together the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Don Johnson, Jonah Hill, Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, Michael Parks, Bruce Dern and, in a cameo role, the original Django himself, Franco Nero. What's not to like?

There isn't much to complain about on the technical side, either. Tarantino can always be counted on for top-notch direction but a western presents its own set of challenges. Thankfully, the production design was very nicely handled, as was the costuming, though neither received any awards recognition. The soundtrack & score was also quite interesting, with its re-use of the theme from the 1966 movie "Django" along with some unique choices like Jim Croce's "I Got a Name" and "Freedom" by Richie Havens. If I have one complaint it's that I found that there were a few narrative quirks in the editing, which were probably unnecessary and/or out of place in a mostly traditional western.

Ultimately, "Django Unchained" is pretty much what we've come to expect from Tarantino. Unapologetically violent, intricately plotted, well acted and artistically presented while remaining accessible. In my opinion, it ranks among Tarantino's most memorable. Of course, if you just don't like his style then this probably isn't the movie to convert you.
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Creepshow (1982)
An enjoyable anthology inspired by 1950's horror comics
21 January 2019
George Romero's "Creepshow" was one of the earliest Stephen King adaptations to hit the big screen and to this day it remains one of the better ones. Following the now-classic adaptations of the novels "Carrie" & "The Shining", this movie was a bit of a departure in that it presented a series of five standalone stories. A couple of them had previously appeared in print form while three were newly written for this project. The common thread between the stories was their source of inspiration: the often lurid horror comics of the pre-Comics Code Authority 1950's.

For those unfamiliar with the comics of E.C. and their competitors, their stories were chock full of dark comedy and twist endings imbued with a sense of poetic justice. King's stories are a pretty good approximation of this approach and, as a result, the movie has a lighter feel than "Carrie" or "The Shining". To be sure, as with any anthology film, the stories aren't uniform in quality but even the worst of them aren't all that bad, just a bit slight or predictable.

The cast differs from segment to segment and is studded with a number of recognizable actors and actresses. Some of the standouts include Leslie Neilsen (cast against type as a bad guy), Hal Holbrook & E.G. Marshall. The movie also features early appearances by Ted Danson & Ed Harris, plus Stephen King himself. All in all, I'd say that the cast is better than average for a horror movie, particularly one with a comedic bent.

Horror veteran George Romero obviously had an affinity for this type of material, as is illustrated by some of the directorial choices that took their cues from the comics. While I probably could have done without some of the more garish visual touches I can't really complain about his direction overall. The gruesome special effects by Tom Savini are, of course, another crucial element in the movie's look.

While I suspect that the movie's approach & format isn't likely to appeal to everyone, "Creepshow" is a quality homage to the horror comics that Romero & King grew up with. If you're a fan of the "Tales From the Crypt" television show then this will be right up your alley. Others, such as those looking for something a bit more serious, will probably be less receptive.
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Crimson Peak (2015)
Not what I expected but I've come to appreciate it
1 January 2019
Guillermo del Toro's "Crimson Peak" is very much a throwback to a bygone era of horror fiction. At first glance, the movie appears to be a standard haunted house tale like countless others that we've seen through the years. However, upon closer inspection the story's true inspiration turns out to be the archetypal gothic romances that laid the foundation for much of the horror fiction that has since followed. Successful examples of this approach in Hollywood are few and far between, with the likes of "Rebecca" (1940) & "Dragonwyck" (1946) being among the few that spring to mind.

To be sure, there are indeed horrific elements in "Crimson Peak" but I would hesitate to classify it as an out-and-out horror movie. del Toro is obviously familiar with the basic ingredients of a gothic romance and he wields them expertly in crafting his own story. While you might have a point in saying that that the formula is extremely derivative, it is nevertheless a formula that works. It basically wouldn't be gothic romance without a vulnerable heroine, a dashing but mysterious suitor and an ancestral home whose hauntings are both literal and figurative.

Given the somewhat rigid guidelines of gothic romance, del Toro's script is actually more intricate than it might seem at first. The movie is full of metaphors, many of them visual. This imbues life into material whose presentation could have been routine in the hands of another director. In particular, the use of colour in the film is especially striking.

Of course, a script like this needs actors/actresses who are up to the task of bringing it to life. Mia Wasikowska is suitably delicate for the role of the young lady who becomes ensnared in a perilous situation. Tom Hiddleston & Jessica Chastain have the juiciest roles and neither of them disappoint in supplying an air of subtle menace. Charlie Hunnam's performance is a bit below these three in my estimation but he still makes a serviceable counterpoint to Hiddleston. The supporting cast is similarly satisfactory but ultimately nothing to write home about.

del Toro's direction is well handled, as always. The beautiful visuals do not come at the expense of generating & sustaining suspense. The visual effects are a bit too grotesque for my taste but others may feel differently. The sets & costumes are also exquisite. Overall, the movie shows meticulous attention to detail in virtually every area of the production.

All of that being said, "Crimson Peak" definitely isn't a movie for everyone. If you're looking for horror then you might not find enough of it. If you're looking for romance then you might be turned off by the horrific trappings. To be honest, while I admired del Toro's craft the first time I watched this movie, the story felt a bit weak. It was only upon rewatching it that I was able to appreciate the intricacies of the presentation and appreciate it for what it is rather than what I initially expected it to be.
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Suspiria (1977)
Not perfect but uniquely memorable
10 November 2018
Dario Argento's "Suspiria" is routinely listed as one of the best horror movies of all time. Recently, a remake by "Call Me By Your Name" director Luca Guadagnino has brought it renewed attention more than forty years after its initial release. I haven't seen the remake so I can't compare the two but I suspect that it would be difficult to recreate the appeal of the original. Not that Argento's "Suspiria" is without its faults but it just seems to work in spite of them.

The story concerns a young American woman who enrolls at a prestigious German ballet academy and finds herself embroiled in a mystery connected with a series of grisly murders. I'm not sure if it's by design or not but the plot is generally fairly vague with only faint hints of what is actually going on and who's behind it. Sometimes the movie seems vaguely dream-like which may just be a side-effect of the script not being as tightly constructed as it could be. Whatever the case, the script by Argento and his then-girlfriend Daria Nicolodi is a serviceable enough framework for the movie.

As I see it, it seems that Argento put more emphasis on the visuals than the narrative. That's not such a bad thing, though, since the visuals are probably some of the best that you're likely to encounter in a horror movie. The movie's saturated colour palette creates images that are both beautiful and chilling. The soundtrack by Goblin (with input by Argento) is also pretty effective in establishing mood.

The acting is a bit of a mixed bag, though; some of which comes down to the dubbing. Foreign actors/actresses being shoddily overdubbed by English speakers is to be expected in a movie like this but lead actress Jessica Harper didn't have that excuse to fall back on. Most of her line deliveries seem pretty wooden, especially when compared to accomplished vets like Alida Valli and Joan Bennett. Overall, the cast is acceptable but nothing more.

In the end, though, the movie somehow works in spite of its flaws. The sumptuous visuals are clearly the major draw but even the movie's deficiencies in the script & acting departments often give the movie a somewhat surreal feel (which almost makes me wonder if it was intentional). Supposedly the story was inspired by dark fairy tales but I'm not really sure that I buy into that. Ultimately, I do think that "Suspiria" is worth watching but I would caution viewers to expect to have to take the good with the bad.
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Well, it's definitely unique
23 October 2018
I feel pretty confident in saying that "Swiss Army Man" has a premise that you haven't seen in any other movie. In this day and age, that's saying something in and of itself. Whether that's enough to carry an entire movie is another story.

The premise here is that a lonely & hopeless man stranded on a deserted island more or less befriends a corpse that washes up on shore. While trying to make their way back to civilization the two bond. The living guy teaches the dead one about life and the dead guy functions as sort of a human version of a Swiss Army knife. To say that the premise is off the wall is an understatement. Yet, there does seem to be a metaphorical underpinning to this relationship, though it's one that you'll have to infer for yourself since the filmmakers don't dwell on it. Of course, it's possible that it could all just be pure fantasy with little deeper meaning, though I doubt it.

Considering that almost all of the movie's runtime is focused on just two individuals, this is a movie that demands a lot from its actors. Paul Dano especially, since his character is actually alive. You might think that Daniel Radcliffe would have limited opportunities for expression since he plays a corpse but the role is more interesting than you might think. Strange as it may sound, Dano & Radcliffe actually have good chemistry together and you buy into their friendship as a result. The rest of the small cast is mostly undistinguished, though it does include Mary Elizabeth Winstead in a small but pivotal role.

Stylistically, the movie is nicely done, though it does have its eccentricities. Mostly, it's quirky in roughly the same way that other so-called 'quirky' movies are quirky. The music reflects this and just the general visual style (cinematography, editing, etc...). It's arguably a case of style over substance, though I do think that there is some substance at the bottom of this movie if you care to give some thought to what you're watching.

While I wouldn't go out of my way to recommend this movie it's definitely worth watching for someone who thinks they've seen it all. Even then, their reaction could just as easily be to hate it rather than love it. Personally, I think that the meaning of the story might be a bit too obscure for most viewers (at least as far as I've interpreted it) but it's told with enough panache to save the movie from being weird without being entertaining.
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Not a classic but a welcome return to Middle Earth
23 October 2018
For those who aren't aware, the Hobbit movies are the prequels to the tremendously successful "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. While the original trilogy was based on a massive three-volume novel, the novel upon which the Hobbit movies are based is comparatively slim. Nevertheless, the studios involved managed to stretch this content out to three films spanning a combined total of 462 minutes. The term "cash grab" definitely comes to mind.

That being said, with "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson returning to helm this trilogy, the endeavour wasn't purely motivated by profit. Jackson treats Tolkien's source material with respect and his intentions probably had more to do with fleshing out the story than with artificially inflating the overall runtime. Really, the studios would have been foolish to place arbitrary restrictions on what was pretty much a guaranteed hit. Still, I can't help but wonder if a more condensed version of the story would've yielded better results.

In any case, this time around the hero of the story is Bilbo Baggins, who (like Frodo in "The Lord of the Rings") is a rather reserved Hobbit who has adventure thrust upon him. In this chapter of the story, he's called upon to act as a burglar for a group of dwarves who are trying to reclaim their ancestral mountain home from the clutches of a vicious dragon. Naturally, Bilbo is reluctant to accept at first but he eventually relents and joins the group on their quest.

Apart from Peter Jackson, there are some other welcome links to the original trilogy. Chief among those is Ian McKellen, who reprised his Oscar-nominated role as Gandalf. That wasn't all, though. Other returning cast members included Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving & Christopher Lee. Having all of these familiar faces around really helps to establish the movie as an extension of the ones that preceded it. The new cast members are numerous, though I don't really think that there are too many standouts. I will say, however, that Martin Freeman makes a very good Bilbo Baggins, so at least the movie has that going for it.

With Jackson in the director's chair again you pretty much know what to expect. The movie unsurprisingly has a very familiar feel, which is a good thing. This extends to areas of the production like screenwriting, cinematography & music, all of which were at least partially handled by returning crew members. Basically, if you liked the epic feel of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy then here's more of the same. There's a bit more of a lighthearted feel this time around, though, which probably isn't surprising considering that "The Hobbit" was technically written for children. Be that as it may, this movie adaptation is serious enough when the plot requires it.

All in all, this first Hobbit movie is a pretty good bridge from the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. I certainly wouldn't call it a classic but it is a worthwhile and enjoyable return to the same world. These movies definitely turned out a lot better than the Star Wars prequels, though that isn't really saying much. Like the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, I think that the middle entry is the weakest but the beginning & final chapters make the overall effort worth it.
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The Rock (1996)
Probably Michael Bay's best movie
20 October 2018
These days, Michael Bay's name is synonymous with big budget action movies that are long on explosions and short on story. While that isn't an entirely fair characterization of his directorial output, it does ring true to a certain degree. "The Rock" was just his second feature film and, looking back, it's arguably his best.

The story concerns an imminent chemical weapons attack on San Francisco by a rogue group of military personnel. The bad guys are holed up on Alcatraz with a group of tourists held hostage. The government has hatched a scheme to break in to Alcatraz with the aid of a British spy who has been jailed for 30 years. You see, this man has quite a distinction: He's the only man to successfully break out of Alcatraz. Naturally, he can't do it on his own, so a group of Navy Seals accompanies him along with an expert on chemical weapons.

The high concept plot is a step in the right direction since the movie has a decent hook to separate it from countless other action movies. What's more, the movie's villains are even treated somewhat sympathetically, which is a welcome surprise. Sure, the movie may get a bit silly and/or unbelievable at times but the core plot is an interesting one that certainly ought to satisfy any action fan.

As with most Jerry Bruckheimer productions, the cast is one of the movie's strong points. Screen legend Sean Connery is the obvious headliner in what amounts to his last great action role while Nicolas Cage followed up his Oscar-winning turn in "Leaving Las Vegas" with his performance here. After all these years, I'm still not sure if I buy Cage as an action hero but he's an interesting choice, at least. In any case, for my money, it's Ed Harris in the 'bad guy' role who steals the show. Regardless, they were all given fine support by a nicely assembled group of supporting actors that included John Spencer, David Morse, William Forsythe, Michael Biehn, John C. McGinley and others.

Again, since this is a Jerry Bruckheimer production, you know that the production values are going to be up to snuff. He and producing partner Don Simpson had brought to the screen the likes of "Top Gun" & "Crimson Tide", so this movie was right up their alley. Even Michael Bay's direction wasn't as frenetic here as we've since come to expect. Sure, the movie goes over the top at times but, as far as big budget action movies go, "The Rock" is one of the last notable successes before traditional stories like this started getting completely overshadowed by fantasy & science fiction.

All in all, "The Rock" is a pretty good action movie. It's got plenty of spectacle but it doesn't forget to tell an engaging story as well. Even though it may not hold the same charm for me now that it did back when I was a teen, it still stands out as an above average action movie in the traditional mold.
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Self-awareness only takes this sequel so far
15 October 2018
Very early on in "22 Jump Street", the guys are basically told to do the same thing as the last time since that's their best chance for success. While it's nice to see the screenwriters basically admitting that they're following the template of the first movie, it still leaves us with a sequel that's more or less trying to recreate the success of its predecessor. On one hand, using the same framework opens the door to variations but, at the same time, it's hard to avoid a sense of 'been there, done that'. Then again, the entire premise of the series is inherently limited, so there's only so much that you can do with it.

After going undercover at a high school in the first movie, the duo take the next logical step and go undercover at a college. Once again trying to infiltrate a drug ring, the story obviously feels similar to the first movie. Where the differences lie is mainly in the interactions between Jenko & Schmidt. This time around, Jenko is the one who fits in better, which ultimately creates friction between the two. In the end, I'm not sure that the story is different enough from the first movie but it should please fans looking for more of the same. Probably the only area where the movie improved upon its predecessor was in the action department.

As for the cast, Channing Tatum & Jonah Hill are of course back again and they're just as good together as they were the first time around. Ice Cube & Nick Offerman make welcome return appearances as well. Joining them is the always reliable Peter Stormare as the requisite bad guy along with Jillian Bell, Amber Stevens West & Wyatt Russell. Not a bad group but probably not quite up to the standard of the first movie. There is, however, a nice surprise appearance by Queen Latifah.

In terms of production values, the movie can't be faulted. With the original directors returning, the quality didn't dip as is often the case with sequels. In fact, a larger budget enabled them to add more spectacle to the mix and they were able to accomplish this without overshadowing the movie's comedic core.

Even though I enjoyed the movie I was nevertheless left with a feeling that it wasn't entirely necessary. I appreciate the self-aware approach to producing a sequel but, in the end, the result was still fairly formulaic and predictable in spite of that. While the excellent end credits sequence just about single-handedly justified the existence of the movie, I'm not sure what it says about a movie when the end credits is the best part.
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Surprisingly effective for a reboot of a TV show
13 October 2018
Generally speaking, you'd be right to be skeptical about the quality of a reboot of a largely forgotten TV show from the 1980's. Personally, I've never even seen the original show, let alone remember it fondly. Then again, perhaps it's this unfamiliarity that makes the movie seem somewhat unique. Also, treating the premise with a much more a comedic touch helps to counteract its inherent implausibility.

For those unaware of the movie's premise, it's that a pair of young cops (Channing Tatum & Jonah Hill) are given an undercover assignment at a local high school with the goal of taking down a drug ring. It's a simple set-up but, as I said before, one that's fairly unique. Played straight, this probably wouldn't work but when treated as an action comedy there's loads of potential. What particularly makes the movie work is its self-referential style that plays with movie conventions. That being said, even while sending up cop movie cliches, the movie still functions as an entertaining crime movie.

Much of the credit goes to the two seemingly mismatched leads - Channing Tatum & Jonah Hill. Tatum is, of course, the more stereotypical choice to play a cop but he actually shows an unexpected flair for comedy as well. Jonah Hill's comedic chops are well known but, most importantly, he & Tatum have excellent chemistry together. This doesn't just apply to the comedic side of the movie, either. The relationship between the two characters is a driving force throughout the entire movie. Apart from the leads, there's some notable talent in supporting roles as well. Future Oscar winner Brie Larson plays a prominent role, as does Dave Franco. Ice Cube, Nick Offerman & Rob Riggle are among the supporting players that strengthen the movie's comedic punch. Lastly, there's a unexpected cameo appearance that's too good to spoil.

Directors Phil Lord & Christopher Miller did a nice job in their live action debut, having previously directed the animated movie "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" and the short-lived (but memorable) TV show "Clone High". The movie doesn't show any signs of inexperience. Instead, it shows a keen grasp of comedy along with enough technique to lend credibility to the parodies of buddy cop movies. The music is also nicely done with a score by Devo vet Mark Mothersbaugh supplemented by a well chosen soundtrack.

All in all, "21 Jump Street" is a surprisingly good comedy, especially when compared to other TV show adaptations (like the similarly styled "Baywatch"). Energetic direction, a self-referential tone and a pair of engaging leads make the movie work both as a comedy and a buddy cop movie. The sequel is also a worthwhile effort in the same vein, although in that case the self-reference struggles a bit to overcome the sense of 'been there, done that'.
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Con Air (1997)
Entertaining for the most part but also ridiculous at times
10 May 2018
"Con Air" is a typical Jerry Bruckheimer production of the mid to late 90's, more or less along the same lines as "The Rock" & "Armageddon". Featuring undemanding action executed by a nicely assembled cast, it's the type of movie that's designed for popcorn munching enjoyment rather than garnering prestigious awards. While that approach can often lead to a fairly hollow & trivial experience, in this case the unique premise sets "Con Air" apart from countless other routine action flicks.

The story revolves around a flight containing some of the nation's most notorious criminals who are on their way to a new maximum security detention center. Little do the authorities know that they've plotted to take over the plane and use it to transport themselves to freedom. Luckily for the good guys, a recent parolee who just happens to be a highly decorated Army Ranger is also on board and he's not too keen on letting these guys have their way.

The premise may be fairly high concept but it's an intriguing one. I'd have to say that screenwriter Scott Rosenberg put together a pretty clever plot, even though the last act goes all out in terms of action and, as a result, strays into ludicrousness. There's also quite a bit of memorable dialogue, which is helped immensely by the excellent cast. Nicolas Cage & John Cusack are better than average as the good guys but in my opinion it's the bad guys who really stand out. John Malkovich is always worth watching and here he gives perhaps the movie's best performance as the main villain, Cyrus "The Virus" Grissom. His criminal brethren include the likes of Ving Rhames, Danny Trejo, Steve Buscemi, Dave Chappelle & M.C. Gainey. That's an impressive group in and of itself and it's supplemented by a few other standouts like Colm Meaney & Mykelti Williamson.

The movie's production values are up to snuff as well, which is no surprise considering that this was a summer blockbuster. The movie garnered an Oscar nomination for its sound along with one for the original song "How Do I Live" by Trisha Yearwood. In general, the movie shows the trademark quality of a Jerry Bruckheimer production.

Overall, I think that the movie delivers the goods for most of its running time but I find that the extended finale goes a bit too over the top. I can understand why they'd want to go out with a bang but I found the earlier stages to be more intricately plotted than a typical action movie and, as a result, more rewarding. In any case, the movie is worth watching for having a pretty nifty premise along with some entertaining performances from a nicely assembled cast.
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Tremors (1990)
An entertaining throwback to 1950's monster movies
8 May 2018
Believe it or not, there have been six "Tremors" movies to date, with the latest one being released just this year. There was also a short-lived TV series and a recent reboot (starring Kevin Bacon) that unfortunately seems to have stalled at the pilot stage. Not too bad for what was essentially the modern equivalent of a B movie. While the ongoing series may be a case of diminishing returns, the original movie is still entertaining after almost thirty years.

The story takes place in the sleepy town of Perfection, Nevada. A couple of handymen, Val (Kevin Bacon) & Earl (Fred Ward), decide that they've finally had enough of their dead-end jobs and decide to skip town. However, their attempts to leave are sidetracked by strange occurrences that appear to be linked to some sort of underground creatures. Before long, they figure out exactly what they're up against and the tiny population of Perfection is forced to fight for their survival.

The premise may be a fairly simple one but the core idea is pretty neat. Having creatures lurking underground provides a great foundation for suspense. In fact, the movie plays almost like "Jaws" on land. There's a bit of scientific background given for the creatures but their origin is wisely left up to the viewer. More than anything, I'd say that the movie is nicely reminiscent of 1950's monster movies like "Them!"

From a visual standpoint, the movie is surprisingly well done. In a movie like this, the special effects can make or break the entire movie. I'm glad to say that the practical effects are expertly handled and still look good even today. While not everything is completely convincing, there's some very impressive work here for a modestly budgeted horror movie.

The cast is also one of the movie's strengths. Kevin Bacon & Fred Ward made a good team and "Family Ties" star Michael Gross nearly stole the show as survivalist Burt Gummer. The movie also marked the film debut of Reba McEntire and she fit in well alongside Michael Gross. Lead actress Finn Carter may not be known for much else but she didn't seem out of place here by any means.

Ultimately, "Tremors" proves itself to be an affectionate homage to monster movies of a bygone era. It's got lots of suspense but also a healthy dose of humour. Add in nifty special effects and an engaging cast and you've got an entertaining popcorn movie that's likely to appeal to more than just horror fans.
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Inside "The Room"
6 May 2018
If you've never experienced the pain & pleasure of Tommy Wiseau's disasterpiece "The Room", that is a situation that definitely must be remedied before watching "The Disaster Artist". "The Room" isn't just a bad movie; it's one of the worst movies of all time (but still not nearly as bad as "Manos: The Hands of Fate"). At the center of it all stands Tommy Wiseau, the writer/director/producer whose passion project became a classic for all of the wrong reasons. Baffling movie-making decisions combined with an eccentric persona and a mysterious background made Tommy a fascinating subject for a movie but what really propels "The Disaster Artist" is the examination of the friendship between Wiseau & "The Room" co-star Greg Sestero. These were two men who went to Hollywood with little more than a dream and ended up becoming part of a movie that is likely to outlive many of the award winners from the same timeframe.

The movie begins in 1998 when Greg (Dave Franco) & Tommy (James Franco) first meet at an acting class. Greg, who is struggling, admires Tommy's fearlessness and, before long, they end up heading to Hollywood together in an attempt to break into the movie business. Although initially disheartened by their lack of success, they decide to make their own movie and, thus, "The Room" is born. As expected, there's a fair amount of time devoted to the making of "The Room" but what's surprising is the drama that Tommy & Greg's sometimes strained friendship brings to the picture.

Bringing Tommy & Greg to life were brothers James & Dave Franco, respectively. The Tommy role was the more challenging of the two and James Franco ended up landing a Golden Globe for his performance. I think he definitely immersed himself in the part and if he doesn't look or sound quite like Tommy (frankly, who does?) he definitely has the spirit of the character down pat. Dave Franco also doesn't really look or sound all that much like Greg Sestero but, again, I think that he got the spirit of the character right, which is what really matters. The supporting cast features a number of familiar faces, sometimes in what amount to cameo roles. Seth Rogen might be the most prominent member of the supporting cast and he provides a few laughs, as usual.

The movie was directed by James Franco who, surprisingly (to me, at least), already had several directorial credits to his name. This has definitely been his most high profile project to date, though. I think he did a good job, though nothing about the direction stands out in my mind as being particularly exceptional in retrospect. Musically, the movie features a handful of well-chosen cuts from around the time period of the movie. Needless to say, the movie's production values are several notches above those of "The Room".

Overall, "The Disaster Artist" is a well done comedy-drama with a unique story. Although objectively much better than "The Room", it most likely won't prove to be as memorable in the long run. That being said, I do think that the screenwriters deserved their Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Lastly, it goes without saying that this movie will be enjoyed more by viewers who are already familiar with "The Room".
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A good superhero movie but overrated
3 March 2018
Back when I originally saw "The Dark Knight" it was still in theatres and the hype was intense. Users on this site had made it the highest rated movie of all time and professional critics were also giving it high marks. I had been let down a bit after the hype for "Batman Begins" a few years earlier, so I was wary of the same thing happening again. Ultimately, there's no doubt that my reaction at the time was negatively influenced by the hype. Basically, I thought that the movie was merely decent and far from perfect. Having just rewatched the movie a decade later, my opinion has softened somewhat.

The movie picks up not too long after the events of "Batman Begins". As teased in the final scene of that movie, the focal villain this time around is the Joker, arguably Batman's most recognizable foe. With Batman cleaning up the streets of Gotham City, mob bosses are finding their iron grip on the populace loosening as others are becoming defiant as well, including the popular new District Attorney, Harvey Dent. Recognizing their vulnerable position, the Joker offers to rid them of Batman... for a price.

The script by Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan is a cut above most superhero movies. It's intricately plotted and has more dramatic heft than you might expect. Supposedly it was mainly inspired by the comic book stories "The Killing Joke" and "The Long Halloween", both top notch sources. Personally, I'm not sure that I'm completely on board with the Nolans' interpretation of the Joker but that may just be personal preference. I think you'd be hard-pressed to argue that it's not a vivid portrayal, regardless of whether or not it matches any preconceived notions that you may have about the character. However, as I see it, the script is not without its faults from a narrative perspective. At two and a half hours, the movie seems a bit bloated, which often happens in superhero movies when multiple villains are in the mix. Maybe some or most of the Two-Face storyline should have been left for the final chapter in the series. Also, I think that the movie was hampered a bit by its PG-13 rating, since the Nolans were broaching some themes with the Joker that could've benefited from less restraint. Lastly, the realistic tone of the film sometimes doesn't work so well when dealing with characters that are, let's face it, fairly outlandish.

When talking about the cast, it's hard to be objective about Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker, considering that he died about six months before the movie opened. No doubt this was one of the things that got everyone talking about the movie. In retrospect, even though I don't necessarily agree with this characterization of the Joker, I'd have to admit that Ledger contributed a standout performance in the role. When you consider that he posthumously won an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA for this performance, its pretty clear that it was something special. Granted, awards voters likely wouldn't have been so generous in bestowing acting awards on a superhero movie if Ledger was still alive but that shouldn't take away from his transformation here. It's a completely different performance for him and is as impressive, in its own way, as his previous Oscar-nominated performance in "Brokeback Mountain".

Apart from Ledger, the bulk of the cast was made up of returnees from the first movie. Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman & Morgan Freeman were all up to their usual standards here. Meanwhile, Maggie Gyllenhaal took over the Rachel Dawes role from Katie Holmes and I think that it was a change for the better. The other notable new addition was Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent. I'd say that he's got the right look for the part but I was never a big fan of his acting in general. The large supporting cast features some recognizable faces as well, including Eric Roberts and, in small roles, Cillian Murphy, Anthony Michael Hall & William Fichtner. Overall, not a bad cast at all.

From a visual standpoint, the movie looks quite good. Director Christopher Nolan decided to shoot some of the scenes in IMAX format and the results were stunning. The action setpieces were also nicely handled. If I have one complaint about the visuals it's that the CGI for Two-Face isn't quite convincing, which makes me wonder if they could have done any better with makeup/prosthetics. The score by James Newton Howard & Hans Zimmer is also well done, with my preference being for Zimmer's tense Joker themes.

As of this writing, "The Dark Knight" sits at #4 in IMDb's top rated movies list. While I certainly believe that the movie has merit, I don't think that it belongs anywhere near that lofty perch. So, I would advise you to watch it with tempered expectations or else you may find yourself reacting overly negatively towards it as a result, as I initially did.
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An above average stoner/crime comedy
28 February 2018
"Pineapple Express" is one of those comedies where a regular guy gets swept up into a situation he can't handle simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Here, the regular guy is Dale Denton (Seth Rogen), a lowly process server who witnesses a murder. Soon, he finds himself on the run with his weed dealer (James Franco), who is also connected to the murder by association. Fleeing hitmen & corrupt police officers, the pair naturally proceed to get into various comedic situations throughout the course of the movie.

An important part of any comedy is the cast and this one's pretty good. Seth Rogen contributes a performance that's typical for him, which is all that's really needed here since he's a quintessential 'regular guy'. James Franco's performance is more idiosyncratic and resulted in a Golden Globe nomination. Personally, I give the edge to Franco but, most importantly, the two have good chemistry together. The supporting cast is nicely assembled as well, featuring very funny individuals like Danny McBride & Craig Robinson alongside seasoned vets like Gary Cole & Ed Begley Jr.

The story's an entertaining one, blending elements of stoner & crime comedies in a pretty novel way. The script was written by Rogen & Evan Goldberg, who'd previously collaborated a year earlier on the standout comedy "Superbad". They did a good job of blending action & comedy here, so that the movie feels loose at times but still has momentum. I'm not sure that it's really all that memorable of a plot in the end but it does consistently hold your attention once it gets going.

From a technical standpoint, "Pineapple Express" is well executed but not particularly exceptional. David Gordon Green's direction seems to be more focused on performance rather than crafting clever visuals, which is an approach that works well for the movie. The music generally doesn't stand out, either, though it was kind of cool for them to get Huey Lewis & the News to perform the theme song.

Overall, "Pineapple Express" may not be a comedy for the ages but it is a worthwhile comedy that doesn't just recycle cliches and situations from other, better movies. Given the premise, you might expect a lowbrow stoner comedy but the movie actually has a keen sense of humour that goes beyond mere silliness. While this brand of comedy still may not suit all tastes, I think that the movie will certainly appeal to fans of Rogen & Franco at the very least.
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A step in the right direction after the prequel trilogy
22 February 2018
Unless you've been living under a rock for the past 40 years you may have heard of a little movie franchise called 'Star Wars'. After being thrilled by the original trilogy, fans had to wait more than a decade to be cruelly disappointed by an underwhelming trilogy of prequels. However, following LucasFilm's acquisition by Disney, the stage was set for a new group of filmmakers to take a crack at extending the storyline. Whether the results would be worthy of the title of 'Star Wars' was anybody's guess.

J.J. Abrams was given the daunting task of resuming the series where George Lucas had left off. It seemed like a promising idea since only a few years earlier Abrams had managed to breathe new life into the rival 'Star Trek' franchise. Stars from the original trilogy reprising their iconic roles also boded well for the direction of the series.

The story picks up three decades after the end of the original trilogy, at a time when the Jedi have all but disappeared and a new oppressive power has risen from the ashes of the Empire. Not a bad setup, particularly when the absence & imminent reintroduction of Luke Skywalker propels the story. However, there does seem to be a bit of a 'been there, done that' feel to the story, as if it's too close to the original at times. Bringing in 'Empire Strikes Back' & 'Return of the Jedi' screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan was a wise choice if they wanted to give the movie a similar flavour to its predecessors but it also made it more obvious how close the characters and plot are to those of the original trilogy. They're fine on their own but it's inevitable to compare them to the iconic originals, with which they couldn't possibly hope to compete.

As far as the cast goes, it's pretty good. Having Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill & Carrie Fisher back gave the movie legitimacy and it was good to see Anthony Daniels & Peter Mayhew again as well. Of the newcomers, Adam Driver is the clear standout as conflicted villain Kylo Ren, who draws more than a little inspiration from Darth Vader. Relative unknowns Daisy Ridley & John Boyega were appealing as the main heroes of the movie and they at least offered a different spin on past archetypes used in the series. The supporting cast is peppered with recognizable actors & actresses but I wouldn't say that any of their performances rival their best work, which isn't to say that their performances aren't satisfactory.

From a visual standpoint, the movie represents an improvement over the relentlessly CGI-infused prequel trilogy. A concerted effort was made to utilize practical effects whenever possible and I think that it benefited the movie's overall feel. There's a welcome similarity to the original trilogy and even the more ambitious special effects are generally fluid and believable. J. J. Abrams's direction is likewise ably handled and John Williams was really the only acceptable choice to provide a score.

Overall, "The Force Awakens" is a nicely executed sci-fi/action movie that puts the 'Star Wars' series back on track and leaves you wanting to continue the story with "The Last Jedi". I don't anticipate it becoming as well-loved as any of the entries in the original trilogy but it's a noble achievement in its own right. The prequel trilogy may have left a bad taste in the mouths of a lot of fans (personally, I think that only the last chapter was really worthwhile) but they shouldn't have any fear that they would be better off avoiding this continuation of the story.
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Departs from the "Die Hard" formula but not altogether unsuccessfully
11 February 2018
The "Die Hard" series is one of the most popular in the action movie genre over the last 30 years. 1995's "Die Hard with a Vengeance" is the middle entry out of five movies to date. The first movie set the template and the second didn't stray far from the original premise but I guess they felt that they had to change things up for the third entry.

This time around, NYPD detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) is once again the focal character but he's joined by Samuel L. Jackson as another guy who's basically in the wrong place at the wrong time. As a result, rather than McClane being more or less on his own like we're used to, the movie feels more like a buddy cop movie. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though, and there are certainly a lot worse buddies you could have than Samuel L. Jackson. However, in my mind, this departure makes the movie seem a little less like a "Die Hard" movie.

Despite this change, the movie still calls back to the original by featuring a storyline that pits McClane against Simon Gruber (Jeremy Irons), the brother of original villain Hans Gruber. Past Oscar-winner Irons makes a memorable villain in his own right but he'd be hard-pressed to top Alan Rickman's iconic performance. In fact, both Irons & Jackson prove to be excellent additions to the cast but, that being said, I did find it a bit disappointing that Willis was the only returnee from the first two movies. Again, this is something that I felt made this movie seem less like a continuation of "Die Hard" and more like something else entirely that someone went out of their way to fashion into a "Die Hard" movie.

Perhaps I'm being unduly harsh on the moviemakers for trying something a bit different here. Taken on it's own merits, "Die Hard with a Vengeance" is a perfectly serviceable action movie, above average even. My only real complaints with the plot are that the villain's scheme is preposterously intricate and the final showdown is over the top. These don't ruin a movie that is essentially well made overall. Of course, when you're dealing with a sequel it's only natural to compare with the original and that comparison is rarely ever favorable for the sequel. Altogether, "Die Hard with a Vengeance" is a pretty good action movie and if it isn't as good as what came before it, it's at least better than what came after.
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Die Hard 2 (1990)
A worthwhile follow-up to the action classic
1 February 2018
The original "Die Hard" is an essential action movie that ranks among the very best in the genre. At this point, we've seen four sequels of somewhat varied quality. For my money, the most successful of these is "Die Hard 2". I like that it stays closest to the spirit of the first movie, although others may be hoping for a bit more variety.

This time around, the events of the movie once again take place on Christmas Eve. Defying the odds, detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) once again finds himself having to almost single-handedly take down a team of terrorists who have placed his wife in immediate danger (along with several others). This time, instead of being trapped in an inaccessible skyscraper, the would-be victims of terrorism are now trapped aboard passenger planes that are unable to land and are rapidly running out of fuel. With these kinds of similarities, I'm glad that the movie goes so far as to have John McClane ask himself how this sort of thing can happen to the same guy twice. That kind of self-awareness makes it easy to forgive the movie's disregard of plausibility in the pursuit of entertainment value.

Thankfully, they took more than just inspiration for the plot from the first movie. Willis is back, of course, but so are Bonnie Bedelia & William Atherton, plus (in a cameo appearance) Reginald VelJohnson. There's some good interplay between Bedelia & Atherton that livens up the scenes aboard the plane. At ground level, some of the notable supporting actors are Dennis Franz, John Amos & William Sadler. All in all, a nicely assembled cast that does justice to the compelling script by returning screenwriter Stephen E. de Souza.

Director Renny Harlin got his chance when John McTiernan declined to return and I'd say that he did a perfectly capable job in his place. The film moves at a brisk pace with no shortage of action. The climactic showdown may be a bit over the top but not quite so much when compared to later entries in the series. Another returnee worth mentioning is Michael Kamen, who once again provided a unique musical score.

Although it certainly isn't the most original movie of all time, "Die Hard 2" does a good job of providing thrills in the same vein as its predecessor. Subsequent sequels strayed further from the original template and, in my opinion, lacked the intangible qualities that made "Die Hard" stand out among a sea of action movies in the first place. While "Die Hard With a Vengeance" has its moments, "Die Hard 2" has always been (and is likely to remain) my favourite of the sequels.
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Proof that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction
16 January 2018
Milos Forman's "Man on the Moon" is a biopic of famed entertainer Andy Kaufman, who was a unique individual to say the least. Usually classified as a comedian, Kaufman's antics were the sort that defy easy categorization. He pushed the boundaries of comedy, often challenging audiences with material that was just as likely to result in jeers, boredom and/or discomfort rather than laughter.

In the movie, Jim Carrey plays Andy with total commitment, which is amply demonstrated in this year's feature length documentary "Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond". He was denied an Oscar nomination for his efforts but he did snag his second consecutive Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy (having won the previous year for "The Truman Show"). Leaving aside awards recognition, Carrey seemed to capture the spirit of Kaufman's inspired lunacy in what is probably one of his best (semi-) dramatic performances. The supporting cast is also quite intriguing, not the least for including several individuals playing themselves, such as wrestler Jerry Lawler, talk show host David Letterman, "Saturday Night Live" creator Lorne Michaels and most of the cast of "Taxi". Other notables (not playing themselves) include Danny DeVito, Paul Giamatti and Courtney Love. Overall, it's a nicely assembled cast that did Andy proud.

Being based on a true story, the movie's plot probably won't hold too many surprises for die-hard Kaufman fans but others should find it quite interesting. Some of it seems hard to believe but from what I've read it seems that the movie hewed fairly close to the actual events. In fact, even the staging of some scenes closely matches the original television broadcasts. Credit is undoubtedly due to Milos Forman and his crew for bringing the movie to life with keen attention to detail in its period setting. Naturally, with two-time Oscar-winner Forman at the helm, the movie is in good hands from a visual standpoint but the audio department also benefits from a soundtrack that was largely composed by Rock and Roll Hall of Famers R.E.M. This of course includes their classic song that supplied the film with its title.

Ultimately, though, "Man in the Moon" is, like its subject, unlikely to appeal to everyone. Kaufman's antics could sometimes stretch the definition of 'entertainment' but that's what made him so unique. I can see why he didn't consider himself a comedian, which might be a bit of a problem for viewers checking out this movie with an expectation of something resembling mainstream comedy. Personally, I find the movie to be entertaining and memorable both because of and despite its eccentricities.
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