Aylmer

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Reviews

Blade Runner
(1982)

Excellent opening, effects, and production design undercut by blah characters.
This film, much like 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY, has vexed me ever since childhood. I think one has to be over 40 to really appreciate what this movie has to offer, but it comes off as so narratively bland and straight-forward that I can't help but feel disappointed with every cut (and there are many).

The opening couldn't be better. We get thrust into this dark horrible world of an overpopulated dystopian metropolis where it never seems to stop raining, advertisements bombard the populace, and flashing lights periodically invade every nook and cranny. The universe building and the special effects to accomplish it go off the chart in a way few other science fiction movies can achieve. On top of that, the world seems so realistic and lived-in that it's fascinating just to watch the people walk around and the cars float amongst the buildings.

However, the plot lacks anything resembling a twist and just goes through the motions on autopilot. It's possibly a victim of the short story not supporting a full feature film, but even then there's a lot of good stuff in Philip K. Dick's original novella that got unfortunately cut. In some respects, I'll say that the recent late sequel works better as a narrative, but even that film has a lot of issues in other areas. For one, effects are no longer the awe inspiring show-stopper that they were back when this film was made.

Blade Runner maintains some additional interest in that its villain and friends come off far more sympathetic than the hero. A lot gets left to the imagination, such as the fate of a few of the side characters. However, it spends too much time on the very dry relationship between a wooden Harrison Ford and a wooden Sean Young (though it works for her character). The two actually seem (from their tone and body language) to despise each other which doesn't really give us a lot to root for with them building a forbidden love. We also lose much sense of conflict with the hero "sort of" tasked with killing his own lover but he doesn't seem too pressured, either internally or from his superiors. It's an inhuman world but the movie needed a little more of a human heart to fully engage.

A groundbreaking film in terms of world building and (like ALIEN and TERMINATOR) I'd love to see more films set in this universe, with the caveat that each film doesn't just follow the exact same formula as sequels tend to do.

Battlefield America
(2012)

laughably pathetic
I remember IMDB heavily promoting this film over the week or two before its release with full-page ads loading up all over the place for this movie before you could see anything else. Obviously the production put all their resources into advertising as the final product looks hilariously cheap.

Looking for an enjoyably bad time at the movies, I saw this movie in the theater with a friend on opening night in Universal City, CA and the only other group in the theater was the family of one of the little boys who starred in the movie. I'm pretty sure a few of them left before the movie was even over.

Oh my lord was this film hilariously uninspired. It wasn't quite at THE ROOM levels of bizarre awkwardness, but nothing in the film worked. On the plus side, I can say a lot of the kids put in some decent acting considering their inexperience, but the writer/director didn't put much care into injecting any emotion into the proceedings. It's as though he watched THE MIGHTY DUCKS (or any other number of underdog sports movies) and just copied the formula with inner city youth street dancing.

Technically the movie looked and sounded like a professional movie, but contained zero in the way of innovation or imagination. A real turkey.

Django Unchained
(2012)

Tarantino's most kinetic movie but could have been stronger
This has long been a difficult film for me to assess, much less form a coherent review over. On one hand it's a hilarious homage to 1970's Blaxploitation Westerns (namely the first three of Fred Williamson's career) and movies covering slavery (think DRUM and MANDINGO rather than ROOTS), all filtered through Tarantino's sensibilities with lots and lots of movie references and fun roles written for his friends. The casting of his films works a lot like the casting of Rob Zombie movies with lots of fun little cameos that also serve to distract. Jaime Fox, on the whole, performs his character with a lot of pathos and charisma (and I'm glad they ended up casting him over Will Smith), but I think his portrayal has a lot to do with why I can't quite love this movie and think it needed another actor.

I think I would have liked this movie a lot more had Django been written as a more likeable of a character. As it, he's just this ultimate warrior with an excellent aim and learning abilities right out of the gate. It would have been a lot more interesting to see him grow and make some mistakes along the way, but I feel that Tarantino simply didn't really have the courage to do so.

Yes, Tarantino is normally a very courageous writer and knows how to play with conventions and give us villains we love. Here, since he's handling extremely sensitive subject matter, he unfortunately pulls back by turning the protagonist into such a flawless white knight, in the figurative sense. He compensates by amping up the violence considerably over his past films, but these days that doesn't really mean much. The real hero of the film would be Chrisoph Waltz who carries everything on his shoulders.

The movie stumbles, though, with Waltz's overly elaborate plan to save Django's wife and some of the strange decisions the characters have to make in order for the plot to flow from there. It ends up delivering an action packed fourth act, but this all happens way too late in the movie and, narratively, didn't really need to be there at all.

If you ask me, the narrative thrust falls off around the Regulator attack, about 45 minutes into the movie, leaving the movie to meander trying to find what it's going to be about. Is it going to be about forming a career, saving a woman, or getting revenge? If it was going to do all three, wouldn't it have been better to co-mingle the missions rather than hit each one so linearly?

All in all a great-looking and well-acted movie. Samuel L. Jackson particularly shines as the real villain of the film in a very surprising part for him, but it speaks to his strength as an actor. He's largely why I'd label this as one of Tarantino's most rewatchable and interesting films, but also his most frustrating.

Army of the Dead
(2021)

So very, very tired...
Back in 2000, it seemed like the zombie genre was desperately in need of revival after a long absence from the screen. After DEAD ALIVE there really wasn't a quality zombie movie up until 28 DAYS LATER, after which there was a veritable explosion of zombie movies including Snyder's breakout hit, the remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD. Here he returns to (very) familiar territory but serves up a couple neat things like a zombie tiger, reproducing zombies, and a zombie clever enough to know that only head-shots are fatal and act accordingly.

Other than that, this film feels like it's running on fumes throughout. It's better than WORLD WAR Z but suffers from a lot of the same issues. Characters behave idiotically, zombies behave with inconsistent intelligence and ill-defined rules for the universe, and the neat ideas end up being underused. The sets and effects are top notch but it's all largely obscured by the ugly photography with a lot of distracting super-shallow depth of field like that of a first year photography student.

All this would be forgivable had this film contained any interesting or likeable characters. There's very little twist on who is good, who is going to survive, etc. That isn't telegraphed from the start. I suppose you could label the lack of any twists a twist in itself, as I was expecting the film to be a lot more surprising than what I ended up getting. It almost felt like a parody at times but by the end felt more like another tired attempt to set up an extended universe populated by plenty of similarly uninspired sequels.

Most egregiously, the main character's useless daughter hangs around throughout and wears off her welcome within 3 minutes. The film frequently ceases any sense of urgency and action to delve into some painfully uninteresting canned drama between her and her father which could all be edited out. I could also have done without the on-the-nose moralizing about a few of the more reprehensible characters just so that their obvious deaths would be more cathartic when extended. All in all, it felt like a music video rehashing of ALIENS and even features a few of the same lines of dialog.

Deliria
(1987)

Sloppy but stylish horror thriller
Michele Soavi's first time out as solo director after years of assisting Lamberto Bava, Dario Argento, and Aristide Massaccesi all during their prime horror years, comes off very wobbly at times but holds together far better than most other late 80's Italian horror. Compared to Soavi's later films, this comes off as pretty crude, but it's probably the classiest thing to come out of Massaccesi's low budget Filmirage Pictures, which specialized in cheaply-made horror and erotic films throughout the 80's. Compared to their later stuff like TROLL 2, GHOST HOUSE, and BEYOND DARKNESS, it's high art and shocking to see such good performances drawn out of actors who usually put in pretty pedestrian work. David Brandon particularly shines, certainly a step above playing the bad guy in an 'Ator' movie. It's a shame that he didn't go on to be a bigger star.

While the directorial flourishes, tight script, and good performances (barring a very obviously dubbed Piero Vida sporting Robert Sommer's voice) elevate the film, it's brought down a few pegs by awfully amateurish camera work and less than convincing gore effects. A lot of the actors (including a guy who looks a lot like Sting) seem to have trouble playing dead and the setting of everyone locked in a theater is a tad contrived, but hey, at least the film tries to do something different with the genre. It's a lot lower key than the similarly set DEMONS (which Soavi also worked on) but manages to do more with less. I'd wager that all the faults of the film can be blamed on a rushed production schedule owing to a low budget vs. An ambitious first-time filmmaker.

Soavi as a director was something of a creative sponge, soaking up the talent of all he worked with. You can see a marked increase in his quality after working with Terry Gilliam. A lot of Gilliam's sensibilities found their way into his subsequent films, especially his crown jewel DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE. I'd certainly recommend going through his films, and this is obviously the best place to start. As it is, STAGEFRIGHT is far better than most anything Massaccesi could have hoped to direct; it's a pity that he didn't pony up more money for it.

Easy Targets
(2021)

There's a Beast of War Enemy at The Gates with Combat Shock
A group of G. I.'s get cut off in the middle of Vietnam and gradually start to lose their sanity while embroiled in a series of sniper battles.

While the acting gets a little wobbly at times, there's a few bang-up action sequences on display, particularly a drawn out battle at the very start with a lot of impressive pyrotechnics for a relatively low budget movie. How do I know this was low budget? Well, mainly the costume design for the Vietcong seems a bit off. There isn't one character wearing sandals and black pajamas or the iconic cone-shaped hats that real V. C. would wear. Instead they're almost all dressed in very American earthtones that would work much better as camo in Southern California than South Vietnam. There isn't any depiction of Vietnamese civilian life, as even a stroll through a populated village would have helped increase the scope tremendously. Then when we get to Los Angeles post war to see one of the men deal with PTSD, about 75% of it is relegated to a dingy apartment as he struggles to reconcile his inner demons with civilian life.

Complaints aside, I'm impressed that they got as much authentic military equipment and bloody squibs together as they did. The film also comes complete with a lot of touching moments of humanity seen lacking in a lot of newer war movies. There's weight to the deaths, sadness to the suicidal spiral, and a few very beautifully composed shots sprinkled in. Some of the best performances come from a few of the actors playing V. C. who even sport a few conversations in authentic Vietnamese.

Battlestar Galactica: Gun on Ice Planet Zero: Part II
(1978)
Episode 7, Season 1

One of the better episodes but nearly drowns in cliches
If you love Cylons then this two-parter will whet your appetite. Unfortunately we're exposed to so much footage of them (including 40% recycled content) that they start to wear out their welcome. It's neat to see a "head Cylon" kinda akin to a Cyber Leader on Doctor Who, and there's really little to separate the Cylons from the Cybermen if you look at them closely, aside from the cool red eye. I had misremembered this episode to feature some elaborate under-the-ice set with neat aliens that helped the humans in their quest to destroy a gun, but unfortunately I was thinking of the Cryons in "Attack of the Cybermen". Instead, it's a diverting episode with some good effects here and there (the crashing viper effects still hold up extremely well) marred by way too many recycled shots and cliches.

Neat supporting cast including Richard Lynch, Dan O'Herlihy, and Britt Eckland (who is pretty much wasted). Lynch of course gets to be a sniveling traitor and it would have been neat to see him return as a recurring villain but no such luck. Boxey uselessly tags along on the mission and the writers obviously didn't know what to do with him so he gets stuck in the "kid's room" for almost the entire second half. I did recognize the ice gun charging up sound effect from Disney's THE BLACK HOLE which actually came out the year after this episode aired, strangely enough. Get used to that whole gun firing sequence as they re-use the footage at least 4 times, along with most of the usual space combat shots we've come to know and love by this point in the series.

Still it's better than most of the original BSG episodes (with the first, the last, and the "Living Legend" episodes reigning supreme), and interesting seeing them try something more ambitious than usual. The clone subplot is corny though and could easily have been dropped, especially because their efforts to make several actors look like clones of each other looks ridiculously fake (where can I buy one of those Britt masks?).

Overlord
(2018)

Where's the realism in my Nazi zombie movie?
While the film has good lighting and production design, things unravel quickly once you start to notice how ridiculously implausible so much of the film is. From the start, we're introduced to an airborne invasion of Normandy (keep in mind that the film is named after the operation) that happens during broad daylight and finally lands in the dead of night. Anyone with an elementary education would know that there weren't any daytime air drops on June 6th. On top of that we have strangely colorblind casting (which, though applaudable in concept, doesn't make sense in historical films) and characters having too long of hair and behaving too much like 21st century people rather than anyone out of the 1940's. What also kills me is the poor weapons handling on display, especially by the actors playing Germans. Only actors would fire full automatic from the hip when trying to hit targets at a distance. Oh yes, and apparently automatic parachutes that require hooking onto a line to deploy can also be manually opened after tumbling for 30 seconds.

We're also introduced to our plot armored tough female character (so smart that she's able to immediately know how to turn on and operate a flamethrower upon encountering one) in a manner almost identical to RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II, but with a hidden language knowledge reveal taken right out of the original INGLORIOUS BASTARDS. Does this pay off? Does her immediate chemistry with one of the soldiers go anywhere? Will you still care?

I was most perplexed by the relaxed attitude of the German occupied town so close to the Normandy landing zone. Wouldn't the Germans be a little more alerted to allied soldiers in the town considering all the parachutes and shooting all around? Why don't they ever feel compelled to investigate the French house with paper thin walls from which shouting and the multiple gunshots seem to eminate?

I guess you could accept this as a cartoon version of World War 2 right out of "Hogan's Heroes" or a Castle Wolfenstein game. Granted, the film would have done better had it leaned into the videogame route and just gone over the top and comedic with the violence. As it is, it tried to be shocking and horrific but in that regard it plays all its cards way too soon and doesn't pay off with anything. We never get to see the zombies fully run amuck and only really get to them in the last 1/3 of the movie. Lastly, though I can see why Kurt Russell's son was cast in a part that his dad would have shined in, he completely lacks his any of his father's charisma, delivery, or screen presence.

Overlord is little more than an immediately forgettable dud. Watch SHOCK TROOPS or FRANKENSTEIN'S ARMY instead.

Baphomet
(2021)

Bizarre low budget horror movie with sacrifices, demons, and a possessed shark?
At just over an hour, this film's pace is a little too brisk for its own good. I could have used a little more development on the evil cult, especially with some more personality to some of the members. It's cool to see 80's Italian exploitation star Giovanni Lombardo Radice in an American movie and in a decently large part as the main antagonist. I got a kick out of hearing Radice's actual voice and thick accent and whiney demeanor, which serves to make him somewhat of a sympathetic (or just straight-up pathetic) figure rather than the all-powerful mage I'm sure they were going for.

Horror fans will also notice Chromeskull himself Nick Principe in sort of a thankless role as one of the cultists who gets in one good scene toward the end. I'm pretty sure a lot was left on the cutting room floor in favor of making this an action movie, which is unfortunate because its strongest scenes are the ones high in creep factor.

The first half of the film builds some decent tension, but unwravels a bit when it slips into action-exploitation territory toward the end. When the shooting starts, the realism and scares drop to off the chart, but the film is just so gonzo (people get killed by dynamite, snakes, sharks, and random eyeball explosions!) that it didn't lose my interest. There's an interesting twist I've not seen in any other movie, namely an upside-down take on PET SEMETARY. I'll grant it that the movie is very unpredictable as it doesn't really follow the usual conventions and a has a few hilarious out-of-nowhere moments.

Sure Dani Filth is kinda wasted and some of the acting is a little flat (the lead girl Rebecca Weaver is okay when she's speaking lines, but looks bored and unsure of what to do with herself when other people are talking). However, the film kinda works as a throwback to Lucio Fulci / Lamberto Bava type flicks from the 80's and features a better musical score than usual. I was surprised they didn't go the hard rock route and feature a bunch of Cradle of Filth songs and torture porn.

Maximum Risk
(1996)

Van Damme's first un-interesting movie
While SUDDEN DEATH was merely a serviceable DIE HARD clone, this film cemented Van Damme's decline from the powerhouse stardom he enjoyed in the early 90's. Unfortunately this film set the blueprint for what was to come; uninspired plot involving assassins after some important document that requires Van Damme to go overseas with another Hong Kong director brought in to breathe life into the tired surroundings. This formula would rinse and repeat for most of the next decade with the budgets for Van Damme's films getting smaller and smaller.

The one thing here of note would be his pairing with sexy starlet Henstridge, fresh off her career defining role in SPECIES. The two of them have a decent chemistry, but as usual for female characters in these sorts of films, she's a pretty underwritten stock character. It's a little creepy too to see him fill in for his deceased brother and allow the two of them to get as far as 3rd base before he tells her that her actual fiance is dead and that he's just an identical twin. Then, in a move very similar to the widow of the current president's deceased son, she immediately decides to keep it "all in the family" for her next beau.

The action scenes come off mostly pretty well though the last act stands as being particularly uninspired, especially as the two end baddies don't represent much of a threat to the hero. This isn't a particularly "big" movie with the spectacle or grit of his earlier films but moves at a decently quick pace. Sure the logic of how a French policeman can skip to NYC and get away with all kinds of extrajudicial killings never really gets resolved, but then again the movie shows about as much interest in logic as it does in the continuity of how many belongings Van Damme has on him at any point in the film and where he's storing them.

Worth a watch on a rainy day afternoon, but to skip it won't detract from your life in the slightest.

El Cid
(1961)

Excellent soundtrack and cinematography though about 30 minutes too long
Heston and Loren certainly exude plenty of mutual chemistry in this love story that never quite delves into its history lesson potential as much as it ought to. The narrative leans heavily on their starcrossed relationship with a rather pointless sojourn later in the film in which the two become homeless prior to their being brought in to the heroic defense of Granada against the Moors.

In my mind, this film opens and closes very strongly owing to sumptuous visuals of the Spanish countryside, perfect use of framing and composition, spectacular costume design, and all set to the rousing themes from Miklos Rosza. Those of you who saw THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD will certainly recognize a good chunk of the musical cues as it encapsulates much of the same style (an adventurous, sweeping, middle eastern hue).

I especially loved the scenes with the Moors done in an old fashioned way with Herbert Lom's Ben Yussuf presented as something of the Bin Laden of his day. It lacks depth but that sort of cultural insensitivity adds to the charm of these older films. The initial siege of Granada (actually filmed at the well-preserved port town of Peniscola) also comes as a highlight as we get to see the morale of the besieged garrison collapse among starvation and hoarding of the food among the top commanders.

Unfortunately a few of the battle scenes suffer from being far too brief and chaotic, much like Mann's other epics THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE and SPARTACUS (which he directed a good portion of). The main climactic showdown in particular suffers from lack of detail but Rosza's score and the sheer majesty created around it help paper over a lot of the flaws. The twist could certainly have gone a step farther had they gone a little further with it (say, if the moors shot a few arrows into a certain character before fleeing in terror) because it feels much like the film WIZARDS in depicting army effectiveness drastically shifting immediately due to some form of propaganda (or lack thereof). A little nuance in this area would have helped make things feel a little more realistic and added to the drama.

Overall I wish the film had been a little shorter and cut out some of the romance and beefed up the action, but we can't have it all with a 60 year old film, can we? As it is, this is so far the finest film to depict the wars between the Christians and Moors in medieval Spain and stands as one of the best epics of its day.

Nightcrawler
(2014)

Hilarious Satire
As someone who has both worked in the local news media and on many low budget guerrilla film sets, I found this movie markedly funnier than most comedies. For the most part, it gets the universe pretty correctly in that the media is not concerned with the facts so much as it is in painting a narrative. In the movie, it's to promote an agenda that may come off as a little old fashioned by today's commonly seen sensibilities. The news director many times tells him to bring only stories that further their agenda so he adjusts and ignores a lot of real news to focus on what makes the most money.

I've always sort-of liked Jake Gyllenhaal but this movie cemented him as the De Niro of our time. He's the best anti-hero since Travis Bickle as an ice-cold fake-smiling sociopath who finally finds his calling when he gets a stolen camera in his hands. Everything about the artificiality and unscrupulous nature of his character along with his gaunt, hungry appearance encapsulate the soullessness of the media. We never find out anything about his backstory so he remains something of a enigmatic specter, but at the same time very human. We have all encountered many personalities like him in the media and entertainment industry as it acts as a flame which draws in the lost soul moths who will do anything to feel important. I particularly loved his negotiating speech at the critical moment of the film where he rants for about 3 minutes straight about what he wants the studio to provide him without relenting and barely blinking. It's a spellbinding combination of acting and writing that reminds me of why I love cinema.

On top of all that, I really love the look and tone to the film. It's set largely in the streets of LA at night reminiscent of such other one-word titles as DRIVE, COLLATERAL, and HEAT, but shot in a very clean, saturated style. There's no obvious attempts at comedy, but the biting satire and ways in which absurdity play a part of the proceedings make the film tremendously entertaining with what could be called subtle dark humor. It's a shame that the film ends when it does as I could have loved to watch another 2 hours of it. It leaves you hungry for a sequel though I'm sure it would never live up to the promise and tarnish this film's status as something of a minor miracle. Even the stuff that usually gets goofy in movies like this (changing and hiding the names of brands and editing software, etc.) never gets in the way of things here. I really wish there were more movies like this. This may be the best film of its (albeit, sad) decade, up there with SICARIO.

The Adjustment Bureau
(2011)

Chick-flick Inception Matrix
Matt Damon and Emily Blunt give good performances in this rather hollow love story sci fi movie in which the two have to face down some giant conspiracy getting in the way of their love. Considering its premise of presenting an underground cabal of guardian angels (?) steering humanity in certain directions, it feels rather low-stakes throughout. The universe of the film bends and weaves to acomodate the plot for the characters to the point where there's no tension whatsoever.

There are scenes in which the film really shines, such as when Damon walks into a room he shouldn't and sees his boss getting mind-wiped, along with Terence Stamp's intriguing (albeit ethnocentric) speech on human history. However, the movie revolves more than anything on the romance between Damon and Blunt, and while the two have chemistry, it's just not believable that such a beautiful woman with no perceivable character flaws would be so eager to go back to a guy she spent only a few hours with months and years after he ditches her. The decision-making the second time around comes off as hilariously preposterous, with her resistant to cave into his persistence for all of 1 minute.

While a movie with this sort of plot could easily feel bleak, dark, and violent, the makers decided to go the sunny route and keep everything brightly lit, nobody gets hurt, nobody uses dirty words, and nobody ever really seems that scared of anything. It's a film that could have invested in and created a lot of drama and thrills but instead just feels like lightweight fluff. Fast-moving and inoffensive but completely forgettable, Adjustment Bureau makes for a good date movie but not much else.

Drum
(1976)

High entertainment value politically incorrect 70's exploitation film
Compare and contrast a film like this to 12 YEARS A SLAVE or even DJANGO UNCHAINED and you'll see the startling shift in cinema over the past 45 years. Back then in the Blaxploitation era, studios were just waking up to the value of catering to African American audiences as well as others curious about other kinds of stories than their own. The 70's also gave us the Mondo genre of fake documentaries including the surprisingly good GOODBYE UNCLE TOM created more as a shock piece. It did however give us an era of renewed interest in the history of American slavery though mainly for exploitation vs. educational purposes. The resulting films would vary widely in quality all the way from the groundbreaking "Roots" miniseries to films such as this which celebrated the grit and sleaze just as much as they shamed it.

Steve Carver certainly graduated from the Roger Corman school of film-making, not letting 5 minutes go by without nudity, violence, or lots of severe uncouth language that would result in the actors being cancelled and de-platformed off of social media today. Just imagine if John Colicos or Warren Oates were alive and on Twitter today? Then we'd get a window into all kinds of their political opinions until someone dug up one of their many hilariously profane and socially unacceptable lines from this film and used it against them.

The modern media landscape makes the fact that films like this even exist even more refreshing in an age where GONE WITH THE WIND comes with a disclaimer at the start. There's absolutely nothing heavy-handed in its message and it tells a simple story about the tough life of a slave who had to cope with the fact that he lived in relative luxury as a house servant vs. many of his peers in the fields. Ken Norton's performance comes off as stilted, awkward, and lacking in range in many scenes but it gives his character a likable everyman quality. Yaphet Kotto of course acts circles around him, as does Warren Oates, and Carver manages to get us to like them as well. This is no easy feat in a film dealing with such dark subject matter. Things move along pretty quickly at the start and finish and ultimately deliver a lot more action and violence than expected.

My main complaints are that DRUM lulls and loses focus through the center portion and there's a lot of obvious goofs in the editing such as the re-use certain shots and several characters who die multiple times. The body doubles used for Kotto and Norton during a punishment scene don't quite match them either, with Kotto suddenly in much better shape and Norton in far worse. Watch for one of the best knife fights of the 70's where we really get a good sense of how sharp the blade is, plus some surprisingly realistic depictions of 1850's fashion and architecture. Sure the sets looks like sets but they allow for some interesting staging and fight choreography.

Overall I'd give this one a strong recommendation for fans of 70's shock cinema, grindhouse, and exploitation up there with something like HELL UP IN HARLEM or THE RISE AND FALL OF IDI AMIN. The ending especially brings us 10 minutes of outrageous insanity up there with the best of Tarantino (who certainly watched this and kept much of it in mind for DJANGO UNCHAINED).

VFW
(2019)

Equal parts homage, parody, and lazy filmmaking
VFW is a frustrating film. Granted, it's about exactly what would happen if you handed me $300,000 and an action script but it suffers from a few shortcomings. Let's talk about some of the good here first:

1) The music! It's synth wave at its purest form hearkening to the best of Mitch Murder, Perturbator, Lazerhawk, Night Stop, and the like. I think the general 80's throw-back aesthetic and sound design really can work here and there (see HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN or the first half of MANDY) and has a lot of promise in it.

2) The casting of so many 70' & 80's tough guys in sort of a "dream team" that doesn't disappoint. When a young guy walks into the bar and joins them, alarm bells were going off in my head that this movie was going to revolve around him and that Williamson, Kove, DPK, and Sadler were just going to disappear into minor cameo roles. Luckily they're all given fairly meaty parts though only Lang and DPK really put much effort into believable delivery. The two of them really sell it as the reliable character actors that they are, further cementing in their legacies even when acting in this lower-tier B-movie stuff. We get minimal stunt doubles and get to see these septuagenarians actually get to throw their weight around one last time, for better or worse.

3) Generally it takes itself fairly seriously. There's plenty of violence, gore, and suffering to go around pretty much as you'd hope for and expect. It moves at a fairly quick pace and doesn't descend into goofy lunacy like we've seen in a number of Robert Rodriguez films, including PLANET TERROR which arguably started this whole niche of the throwback genre in the first place.

And now the bad:

1) Hideous cinematography. While the well-intentioned color scheme reminds you of something out of a Mario Bava or John Carpenter movie, it lacks in any kind of vividness. Many shots suffer from muddy under-exposed look and amateurish color correction. You could argue that it's meant to make this film feel more 70's grindhouse but just comes off as flat and lazy. At the very least they could have tried to separate the characters from the background better with keylights and backlighting, but instead it feels and looks inconsistent and dull. Camera placement also suffers heavily from boring staging and never properly establishing the geography of the two locations that we get.

2) Pedestrian directing. There's a lot of posing and hanging out from the actors but not a high degree of consistency or tension created. I am guessing the director had about as big a crush on the main "bad girl" actress as I did, probably to the point where he was reluctant to call her out on some of her awkward line delivery. She does have some good moments such as the "are you ready to die... old... MAN!" but unfortunately needed to get reigned in a little more. She's 100% more effective than the actual lead villain though. Since they put so much effort into rounding up the geriatric tough guys of yesteryear, would it be too much to ask for them to get an actual tough guy to play the villain?

3) Things are not helped either by the generally banal dialog and total lack of characterization. We know we're in big trouble early on when all the characters get together in a bar and start bantering with each other. It becomes clear that this banter is going to be the only window into each character that we're going to get as they become stock Vietnam vet cliches. Fred Williamson's character especially gets totally wasted as he's there but we have no idea what he wants or who he is. That goes for most of them, making us see them not as characters but as the actors that they are, and it gets confusing when they call each other by their non-actor names.

4) Unfortunately the universe of the film makes no sense. We're introduced to the city they're in as a dystopian lawless hellscape but a young soldier walks into the VFW fresh off of a deployment in his modern fatigues. If the U.S. government is still powerful enough to project force overseas, why would it allow warzones within its borders? Or is this some kind of vague social commentary on cities like Chicago with a murder rate higher than Afghanistan? It would have helped to throw a news report on the TV at the beginning instead of some vintage exercise video. That probably would have been asking too much.

If this sounds like your thing, go ahead and give it a go, but be aware that it's exactly what you assume it's going to be from looking at the poster.

The War of the Worlds
(1953)

Weird childhood favorite that holds up well in the effects / directing department.
I just viewed the new Criterion Blu-ray of this film and was amazed to see them so artfully take out the wires and clean things up but otherwise leave the film as it is. I'm very happy that they didn't go all George Lucas on it or even drastically remix the sound effects as they do on many, many releases of older movies.

I also noticed for the first time a lot of strangeness to this movie that I hadn't been as aware of over the years. First off is Henry Brandon (I had no idea he was in this) as the cop who drives around town with his siren on in reaction to a power outage. He then picks up the sheriff and protagonist to go to the meteor crash site to investigate. When they get there and see three silhouettes where three men used to be (a wonderfully creepy scene by the way), an alien periscope/laser points at them. Through some hilarious editing, Brandon gets into his car, shifts into Reverse, and then moves to abandon his two friends who were standing right next to him. His arc has to be one of the funniest and weirdest in the film, but as Tommy Wiseau would say, "it's a real human moment".

Other weirdness comes in the last 1/3 of the movie involving the general giving a demonstration on a chalk board that makes no sense at all. I have to have seen this movie over 100 times and I still don't understand what all the cones mean that he's drawing (some kind of top-down map?) especially after he starts coloring in with a second piece of chalk. Perhaps it's my OCD showing but I just don't get it. Similarly, the scene where everyone points an alien camera at themselves just to look at themselves adds absolutely nothing to the film. The only thing I can gather (and have heard in various trivia) is that it was merely an excuse to try out a wide angle lens, which was a recent invention at the time.

Otherwise this film holds up very well and moves at a wonderfully brisk pace... perhaps TOO brisk especially around the ending. It does certainly leave you hungry for more in terms of "what happened after that?" which would have been nice to know watching the 80's TV show that sets itself up as a sequel. As all the other reviews mention, the special effects here were way ahead of its time and in a lot of shots it's not obvious to me where the matte painting / forced perspective / models are added in at all, and I work in VFX. When effects and directing were this effective in movies this old, it's doubly impressive to me considering the relatively primitive technology they had to work with.

This may be the best 50's science fiction movie, certainly up there with THEM, FORBIDDEN PLANET, and THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL.

The Gladiator
(1986)

Family-friendly vigilante
A deranged (and easily identifiable) 70's muscle car goes on a killing spree, so the brother of a victim (Ken Wahl) decides to build his own Death Truck (with sheets of steel, grill protector, and a spear-gun) to bring vigilante justice to the streets at night. Will he catch the killer?

The poster and the plot summary sound like "can't lose" kind of idea. Anyone familiar with the end of THE EXTERMINATOR 2 or the real-life rampage by Marvin Heemeyer will see some comfortable familiarity in the scenario of a guy souping up his truck to exact righteous vengeance upon the wicked. Unfortunately this film squanders the premise largely out of adherence to the TV standards of the time.

For one, it's extremely cheap and lacking in any of the cold, calculating style of Ferrara's other 80's films. Additionally the script presents plenty of problems that make the premise seem much more ridiculous than it had to be. The movie takes great pains to make Ken Wahl's descent into vigilantism gradual and emotionally realistic, yet stretches credulity many times as he would not be able to get away with it so long and not be able to hide it from his friends and lover (Nancy Allen) who know him, know about his dead brother, and know about his fancy truck. Yes "The Gladiator" as he calls himself becomes something of a celebrity with the cops not-so-hot on his trail, but he puts effort into to trying to get people to pull over and adhere to a citizen's arrest rather than hurting or killing anyone. This leaves dozens of witnesses who could easily see his license plate, but it doesn't come to anything.

Personally I think the film would have been a lot better had they decided to make it more realistic, give us some tension with the authorities closing their net around him, or else to just gone all-out with the violence and mayhem. We could have seen Wahl start as a noble do-gooder turn into a monster just as bad as the one who created him. The film hints at this but never delivers. As it is, THE GLADIATOR unfortunately stands as an extremely unsatisfying yet fascinating window into the forgotten realm of 80's TV movies aimed at adults but safe enough for kids.

La mala ordina
(1972)

Great cast and stylish directing though the film never lives up to its promising premise
The opening of this film indicates that we're going to follow a couple of hard-nosed American hitmen on a trip to Milan to murder a pimp. There's a lot of intrigue right away as we wonder what's this pimp done to earn the wrath of a New York crime boss and how are these two assassins going to find their way around Italy. On top of that, Woody Strode and Henry Silva are a perfect match for each other in terms of attitude, charisma, and macho screen presence. It feels like this movie is going to be a fun ride.

Unfortunately, once they get to Italy, the two simply hang around a hotel and a nightclub for nearly the entire movie. Writer DiLeo thought it would be a better idea of focusing the bulk of the movie around the pimp (played well by Mario Adorf) as he runs afoul of the local mob and goes on a killing and slapping spree. The hit men only re-emerge for the climax in a junk yard that really needed some better gore when a particular character gets killed off in a way that should be a real show-stopper.

Upon first viewing 20+ years ago, I had to admit I was mightily disappointed with the waste of potential. I was also let down by Silva's character coming off as a bit of a reckless hedonist when it would have been much more fun to see him and Strode unemotionally and brutally work their way around Milan to get to their target. You can see where Tarantino was inspired with PULP FICTION as well as any number of crime films featuring a "salt and pepper" team. Silva and Strode had good enough chemistry to be cast together again in several other films though most were far worse than this one.

On the plus side, there's many beautiful actresses on display and rampant nudity among them. Adolfo Celi as the mob boss has a great scene where he fearlessly stares down the barrel of a gun and most of the dubbing fits pretty good for an Italian crime movie of the era. The musical score by Armando Trovajoli, though dated and simplistic, is as much of a funky ear-worm as you'll ever hear and will never forget even decades after watching this film.

Overall it's a fast-paced action film with many good sides to it, but you'd be better off sticking with a Castellari or Umberto Lenzi movie for a more satisfying eurocrime experience. DiLeo did much better with MILANO CALIBRO 9 made around the same time.

The Midnight Sky
(2020)

Under-baked scifi you've likely already seen
This one looked intriguing as a combination of the old German sci fi drama OPERATION GANYMED (several astronauts returning from a mission to find a destroyed Earth) and a touch of AD ASTRA and GRAVITY jumping from one crisis after another with some slow emotional pondering here and there. Well, even with the niftiest effects in the world, it managed to be an even less fulfilling experience than any of those films, owing to the film frustratingly dragging out explaining anything about what is going on until so late in the film that you won't even care any more.

Clooney directs with suitable gusto and most of the performances are at least okay (if a little generic). The film has basically no sense of humor nor much of a sense of tragedy either as it strains credulity on many occasions. The most ridiculous instance for me had to be when a character is submerged in frozen arctic water only to come out and put a coat on and be fine. Anyone who has lived in the Arctic will tell you that simply falling in the water and getting out can be a death sentence, even with a warm-up shelter and fresh dry clothes at the ready.

There's a few mystery threads that get answered toward the movie, one of which (involving an identity of a character) will be absolutely spoiled by the captions if you watch with them on. Another big twist makes so little sense it'll make you wonder if the whole movie was just a hallucination (and no, it's not supposed to be that kind of movie).

It's a shame that so much work looks like it went into the production but almost nothing went into the (at-first intriguing) script. I wouldn't be surprised if half the movie was made up as they went along.

Doctor Sleep
(2019)

Doctor Woke
I have to first point out that this film is extremely well-crafted and mostly well-acted and almost all of its issues lie in its scripting and casting.

This film does to THE SHINING what 2010 did to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in that it takes a pretty slow-going and obtuse first film and significantly spells things out and dumbs things down to bring us more action and more spelled out events. This is both good and bad, depending on your perspective as I found THE SHINING to be a bit plodding anyway. It did however succeed in bringing us a heavy creep factor because it had a single location, sparing use of superpowers and supernatural, and a unity of vision throughout. The tone here shifts from scene to scene, seeming like a mystery one moment, a vampire movie the next, and then an action movie the next... then back to horror. I appreciate the variety of experiences here but to me it feels unfocused and too bent on crowd-pleasing. At 3 hours in length, it does feel like they crammed in way too much for it to ever really breathe.

It's also a lot like Marvel's recent LOGAN movie in that it follows a tired, world-wearing superhero who befriends and may possibly "pass the torch" to a young girl who is even more powerful than he is. What LOGAN had that this movie doesn't, was a significant degree of tension. Never once do we feel that the lady in the hat poses a significant threat to the heroes and they get involved in trying to stop her and her vampire posse purely by choice. The little girl is much too powerful, confident, and easily shakes off whatever setbacks come her way. She doesn't feel like a real person and (dare I say it?) a bit of a Mary Sue.

The heavy emphasis on diversity in casting becomes distracting, especially in the vampire gang with equal representation of seemingly all creeds and ethnic groups among them. It's as though the diversity and inclusion police were standing off-screen checking off boxes all through the casting process... which you'll either admire or loathe depending on your level of wokeness.

That said, as far as late sequels go, it doesn't tread too heavily on the original film (which I never really cared for anyway) and squeezes most of the annoying fan service into the beginning and end. Much like with the scenes from THE ROOM in THE DISASTER ARTIST, a lot of the fun comes in seeing how closely they're able to re-enact scenes from the original movie. There's some pretty successful laughs sprinkled out often coming from Ewen McGregor's conversation with imaginary friends even with people around him.

The Paper
(1994)

Good performances, though not as gripping nor funny as it could have been
This film sort of disappeared much like the similarly themed Clint Eastwood film TRUE CRIME from the public consciousness though both remain startlingly relevant to the ongoing racialized crime reporting system in America. What both films didn't anticipate is much of a sense of the social outrage in how things can become inverted in the public eye when the police get video'd making arrests that go bad. Both these films cover innocent black suspects wrongfully arrested but both at different stages of their incarceration. Both films center more on a crusading reporter on a search for justice against a time table while facing a major flaw in their life (Eastwood cheating on his wife vs. Keaton's workoholism) vs the actual crime.

Compared with TRUE CRIME, THE PAPER is a decidedly lighter weight affair. Keaton's approach to his character comes off as aloof as usual and many of his coworkers (domineering Glenn Close and sloppy Randy Quaid) feel a little more on the verge of cartoon characters. Robert Duvall pops by with some engaging scene stealing as Keaton's boss (much like James Woods in TRUE CRIME) but he ultimately doesn't lead to much with his side plot. The story also relies heavily on some strange coincidences to propel its plot. What makes it slightly superior though I think is that it has a little more of a sense of realism and immediacy. Things get goofy and unwravel near the ending, but not quite the degree that TRUE CRIME does. Here they do so in the name of comedy, but none of it lands I think because vast stretches of the film go by with no humor at all. It's basically Ron Howard's version of a Robert Altman movie.

All in all, I'd say give this one a look for the performances and as a window into the fading world of newspaper editing. Unfortunately it's merely a 'good' film when it really could have been great.

Night of the Living Dead
(1990)

average and disappointingly tame remake
Despite the cast and crew appearing as though they had a lot of fun, a drastically larger budget, and much better acting and effects than the original, this remake just doesn't quite pack the same punch. Tom Savini's direction is fine, but the script has a lot of frustrating shortcomings that he can't quite overcome. Some scares (such as the hand falling down the stairs) come off as ludicrously contrived, and overall there's just a feeling that the film missed a lot of opportunities to turn the story into something bigger and deeper.

When I first saw this film in the 90's, I think the biggest letdown was the lack of gore and strict adherence to its R-rating. It's a remarkably tame zombie movie considering it was made well after DAY OF THE DEAD and RE-ANIMATOR and would have benefited from going all-out like DEAD ALIVE. There are a couple standout scenes such as when Patricia Tallman demonstrates how to kill a zombie on a live specimen, but with FX maestro Savini at the helm we certainly expected a lot more.

A major nuisance (or bonus, depending on your point of view) in the film is its constant winking at fans of the original. Some of these winks come extremely heavy-handed such as the shot of the bloody trowel. Depending on the mood you're in, you'll either chuckle or roll your eyes.

It's certainly a more professional film than the original but not shocking, scary, gory, or funny enough to separate itself from the crowd. Though competently made, it's about as average as a movie can be. Kudos to stunt-woman Tallman though for a rare turn as a leading lady, and especially Tony Todd for out-acting everything in sight. It's a shame that both never would quite escape from C-movie hell more recent years.

Absolute Power
(1997)

What could have been a taught political thriller devolves into superhero movie
Despite a somewhat less-than-convincing rape scene near the start, this film sets up a gripping plot pretty quickly. Eastwood puts in a solid performance, assembled a motley crew of recognizable faces, and directs with a little more style than usual (even throwing in a lot of De Palma-ish touches like split diopter shots here and there). Unfortunately the narrative begins to fall apart when Eastwood's character turns out to be some master of disguise who would put even James Bond to shame. He seems to so effortlessly glide in and out of whereever he wants to go that you would have no idea he was the most wanted man in America with no less than 3 separate parties out for his blood!

Yes the problems with this movie are nearly all the script's fault. There's plenty of goofiness later on and bizarre coincidences (such as how a sniper gets foiled) but the characters mostly feel like real people. Overall it's a shame that the movie doesn't quite deliver on its promising premise. Hackman, playing a corrupt president, is barely in it. The scene where he dances with his chief of staff while trading pivotal dialog in front of hundreds of spectators undermines the film's serious tone by being so damn goofy. Also a little too much is left to the audience's imagination, such as how Eastwood's character pulls off some of his infiltrations as well as (strangely enough) the final showdown with the film's central antagonist. Show, don't tell, remember?

Star Trek: The Galileo Seven
(1967)
Episode 16, Season 1

Spock vs. Everyone Else vs. Caveman Planet
When I was 8 years old on a family road trip, we popped in at a museum in Clovis, New Mexico. I remember nothing of the museum aside from their two giant spear props from this episode near an exhibit emphasizing the importance of the Folsom Point, which was an important discovery placing the earlier population of North America. It added a lot of weight to the viewing experience of this particularly creepy episode while home sick from school one day.

Years later at a restaurant I remember accidentally making eye contact with an elderly gentleman across the room. We nodded at each other and that was that. Then the next day at a nearby Chiller Theater convention I saw the man again sitting at a table with displays of all the movies he was in. Lo and behold, he was Don Marshall, who here was the largest thorn in Spock's side. We had a 15 minute conversation about the episode and he was as friendly as could be, saying that he had a blast working on Star Trek with nothing but good things to say about it, despite the rushed 6 day shooting schedule.

The first season of Star Trek served up a wonderfully uneven mishmash of tonal shifts and crazy ideas. A lot of these early episodes (along with THE MAN TRAP, THE CORBOMITE MANEUVER, NAKED TIME, etc.) felt more like a horror-show than a sci fi show, and the bombastic music certainly added to the chill factor. With this episode, a few crewmembers of the Enterprise get marooned in their most hostile planet yet, populated by mist and spear-wielding giant furry primates as one of Star Trek's most well-realized one-time threats. The atmosphere serves this episode well and I really wish they'd made more like it seasons 2-3.

The downside of this episode for me has to be the tiresome infighting between Spock and the others. Some of his decisions, like leaving the lone crewman to guard a valley, make little sense. The other crew's actions don't either, such as their need to bury dead comrades when under direct threat, or Kirk's decision at the start to send his chief engineer and ship's doctor to chart some random nebula. All in all this episode stands as a classic and for anyone interested in seeing the props from it, be sure to pop in the museum in Clovis.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
(2014)

The Problem Show, which started good but slowly de-evolved into repetitive and preachy hysterics
I used to love John Oliver and found his show at first as the most worthy successor to The Daily Show, which splintered apart shortly after the departure of Jon Stewart into several similar, lesser shows. Each show has a similar formula with a lot of news stories read off and comedic commentary offered as well. Jon's show would often revolve around a major highlight expose which would serve to educate us audience members about some sort of major problem in society, be it recycling, pollution, corruption, politics, etc.

Recently he's lost his studio audience so no longer playing to literal laughs and just preaches, Keith Olberman-style, in front of an empty grey wall. I am sure this minimalist approach is making some political statement about how much they've pared back in solidarity with the lockdown, etc. but it just serves to reveal how heinously un-funny this show has gradually become. Not only do I catch myself not laughing at all, but often switching off in sheer frustration in favor of someone more sensible like Tim Pool, Tucker Carlson or David Ruben. They're not exactly comedians, but I find myself at least chuckling here and there.

Oliver's staff has obviously gone "full woke" to push a fully Leftist and anti-Trump agenda that would make even Bernie Sanders blush. Literally anything Trump or the Republicans do, Oliver pounces on them and I think with a lot of dangerous results because he's quick to report opinions on unfolding events as though they were facts. Sources get cherry-picked and inconvenient facts go ignored in favor of sensationalizing issues and stirring the audience up even further. I wonder if people watch this to get angry, get educated, or be entertained by the jokes? The humor of the show relies on targeting conservatives for their assumed idiocy and leans heavily on tired sexualized gimmicks which present Oliver as being attracted to everything. It's gotten very old quick.

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