Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Top 10 Lists: 1995

1995 wasn't the best year for film, lots and lots of fairly bland to terrible films but there were still some pretty good films released.

10. Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight

I always liked the TV series and the feature film is just as good.  Great gory f/x, a fun story (can't go wrong with demons laying siege to a motel) and a great hammy performance from Billy Zane make this one hell of a fun ride.

9. Casino

Not as good as Goodfellas, but to be honest that's not even close to being a criticism.  Scorsese puts together another fantastic piece of filmmaking in this tale of just how seedy Las Vegas used to be.  And given that's it's still a little seedy, well.  Typically solid work from Robert DeNiro, good work from Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone does a hell of a job.  It's a little long but still a damn fine movie.

8. Braveheart

Not sure about this winning Best Picture that year but it's still a rousing bit of entertainment.  Sure the historical stuff is a little shaky (and by shaky I mean B.S.) but Mel Gibson directs it well enough and the action is very well done.

7. Heat

Michael Mann does a fine job of constructing this epic cop drama which pits acting heavyweights Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro against each other.  Al is the cop (in a really, really, really hammy performance), Robert is the crook and the one scene they have together is damn good.  The rest of the cast is good too with a ton of character actors and names.  It's quite engrossing.

6. Desperado

A fine follow-up (and partial remake) to El Mariachi, Robert Rodriguez's Desperado is a wonderfully inventive action film with good work from Antonio Banderas, Steve Buscemi and Cheech Marin and Salma Hayek; some nicely creative action scenes and great work from Rodriguez who as usual did more or less everything except the catering on the movie.  It's not an absolute classic, but then again 1995 wasn't a classic year for film.

5. Die Hard with a Vengeance

The third Die Hard film is also the last good entry in the franchise.  Set in New York, Bruce Willis is back as McClane and this time Jeremy Irons is threatening to blow up various part of the city.  Samuel L. Jackson is fun as Willis' sidekick (though the one scene where they argue about race comes off as a little forced) and while it doesn't really have the feel of a Die Hard film, it's still a solid action movie.

4. The Usual Suspects

While I'm not the biggest fan of his more recent work, Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects is a fun puzzle box of a movie with an outstanding cast and a fun twist.  Even today it still works pretty well.

3. Get Shorty

The best adaptation of an Elmore Leonard film, this is just plain fun with a really good cast, especially John Travolta right in the middle of his comeback and the late Dennis Farina as a rival wiseguy.  Get Shorty is an entertaining satire of the film industry, crime and show business in general.  It's a real winner.

2. In the Mouth of Madness

I wrote about this recently so I won't get too deep into things again but this is really the last great John Carpenter film.  Creepy, well made and well acted, it still sends a shiver up my spine whenever I watch it.

1. Goldeneye

After a six year hiatus, 007 was back, now played by Pierce Brosnan.  The end result was quite good with some great action, nice performances and in general it;s a great reinvention of Bond.  I'll tackle this one more in depth at some point.  The bottom line is that for me, this is the best film of 1995.

 Honorable Mentions:

A fascinating film, Oliver Stone's Nixon paints a vivid portrait of the man with a great Anthony Hopkins performance.  The rest of the cast is good too.

A really solid thriller from David Fincher with great work from Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman and some really nasty f/x work from Rob Bottin.

The film that really should have gotten Best Picture that year, this is Ron Howard's best film.  Great work from the entire cast and that fact that it is based on stuff that really happened makes it even more compelling.

This one is just plain fun as Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman go up against one another in a tense submarine thriller that is maybe the most character based thing Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer ever produced.

Guilty Pleasures: 

 Stallone had two movies come out this year and while neither of them was especially great, I do get a kick out of them.  Assassins is a fitfully entertaining Richard Donner film that would have benefited from being about twenty minutes shorter but you still get some nice action here and there as well as a wonderfully over the top Antonio Banderas as the bad guy.

I think I might be one of the only people who enjoyed this film.  Take away the nitpicking about costumes and you get a perfectly acceptable Stallone action film.

Finally, this is one of the most enjoyably silly adventure films I've seen in some time with a fun Tim Curry performance, some great f/x from Stan Winston and... Well, that;s about it really but it's still worth seeing at least once.

And that's 1995.  A year of some hits, a lot of misses and even more films that were just sort of there.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

My Favorite Era: Dreamscape (1984)

Dreamscape is something of a forgotten gem as when most folks think of a movie from 1984 involving dreams, they generally go right to A Nightmare on Elm StreetDreamscape is more of a science fiction conspiracy thriller with some horror elements as Dennis Quaid plays Alex, a young man with psychic abilities who is enlisted by scientist Paul Novotny (Max von Sydow) to take part in a research program ostensibly intended to help with diagnosing and curing sleep disorders.

The program has been hijacked by shady government guy Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer) and it eventually turns into a plot to kill the president (Eddie Albert) who has been having horrific nightmares about the end of the world.

The two main things that make the film work are the clever screenplay (co-written by genre fave Chuck Russell) and the outstanding cast.  The story is a wonderfully constructed bit of business with likable leads, some truly scary dream sequences (love the snakeman and zombie designs by Craig Reardon and David Miller) and a decently put together conspiracy that has the advantage of having David Patrick Kelly as a psychotic dream assassin.

Performances are all pretty solid.  Dennis Quaid is an actor I've always enjoyed and he brings a cocky charm that makes Alex instantly likable.  Kate Capshaw and Max von Sydow are good as the scientists and Plummer and Kelly make for agreeably slimy villains.  Eddie Albert is also good as the president.

The real highlights of the film are the dream sequences.  Vividly out together, they range from a scary house with a monster inside to a train going through an apocalyptic wasteland with irradiated zombies to something as simple as a skyscraper.  All are wonderfully realized with some pretty good (though admittedly dated) f/x.

Overall, Dreamscape is a highly enjoyable little thriller from director Joseph Ruben (who also did the first Stepfather movie) with good acting, nice f/x and some real good scares here and there.  It's a real gem that is worth owning.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Top 10 Lists: 1974

I'm starting to get towards the end of the My Favorite Era series and as a sort of epilogue to it, I will be going through my top ten films for each of the years covered as well as honorable mentions and guilty pleasures.  That's a ways off though so I'll also be covering 1995 to the present as well as some other years I particularly enjoy.

We begin with 1974, right in the middle of the big 70's boom in quality film making.

10. The Street Fighter

A grindhouse classic, this is a gritty, stunningly violent martial arts flick starring Sonny Chiba as Terry, a martial arts mercenary ostensibly hired to kidnap a millionaire's daughter, who ends up going against the Yakuza.  Brutal, exciting and pretty nasty, this is one of the best martial arts films of the year.

9. Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell

One of two Hammer productions on the list, this is the last in their series of Frankenstein movies starring Peter Cushing as the doctor, this one takes place in an insane asylum where Frankenstein has conned his way into having the run of the place.  He gets a new assistant and creates a new creature (a rather dumb looking thing played by future Darth Vader David Prowse) and while it ends rather predictably, Cushing is outstanding as usual and the end result is a fine piece of Gothic horror.

8. Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter

Even as the end drew near for Hammer, they still managed a few out and out classics.  A precursor to the Blade movies, this stars Horst Janson as a vampire slayer and also features Caroline Munro in a supporting role.  A clever, witty script and some good action help this stand out from the rest of the films Hammer was churning out around the time.

7. Mr. Majestyk
I've written about this one elsewhere on the blog but it's still one of Bronson's best films.  Bronson plays a simple watermelon farmer who runs afoul of a rather psychotic mobster and has to fight for his life.  Based on a script by Elmore Leonard (he also wrote a novel based on his script), it's an enjoyable low key thriller.

6. Murder on the Orient Express

A thoroughly entertaining adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel, this sports an all-star cast led by Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot, top notch direction from Sidney Lumet and a surprisingly light pace considering its length.  It also sparked a mini revival of Christie adaptations with huge casts of stars.  One of the best of the 70's.

5. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

One of the best horror films of all time, this iconic bit of terror from Tobe Hooper is well shot and almost unbearably tense (no gore though which just makes it even more awesome) with an iconic villain in Leatherface and quite simply one of the best poster taglines you are likely to find.

4. Chinatown

I'm not the biggest Roman Polanski fan out there (I find most of his films have crappy endings after decent starts) but this wonderfully shot bit of film noir is an outstanding detective story with a wonderful performance from Jack Nicholson that probably should have landed him an Oscar that year.  It also has good support from Faye Dunaway and John Huston and still has a nice bit of potency today.

3. Truck Turner

The best action film of the year stars Isaac Hayes as a bounty hunter who goes up against pimp Yaphet Kotto in a red hot blast of action.  Great action, good acting (especially Nichelle Nichols as a foul-mouthed madame) and a nice sense of style makes for one hell of a fun ride.

2. The Godfather Part II
Even though it's not as good as the first one, this is still a magnificently shot and acted gangster drama with dynamite turns from Al Pacino and Diane Keaton.  Robert DeNiro and John Cazale are also superb and while the film does run a bit long, it's still a master class on acting.

1. Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein

I gotta give the top spot to these two.  If there was ever a banner year for Mel Brooks, 1974 was it.  Two films, two absolute classics.  Hell, Coppola made two movies the same year and neither one of them is as good.  The Godfather Part II is great but The Conversation is a little too arty for its own good.

Richard Pryor co-wrote this wonderfully politically incorrect western spoof with Cleavon Little as a Sheriff brought in to clean up a small town.  He gets great comic support from Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, Madeline Khan and many others.  This is a true classic comedy.

Incredibly, this film is even better with Gene Wilder as the doctor and Peter Boyle as the creature.  The film is chock full of hysterically funny moments and it even manages to make me like a Teri Garr performance!  Wilder is great, Brooks uses a lot of his regulars (Khan is back, Cloris Leachman is memorably great and Marty Feldman is funny as hell) and the end result is simply the best film of the year.

Honorable Mentions:

 The Longest Yard is one of Burt Reynold's best films, a football comedy with some serious stuff thrown in as Reynolds plays a former star player who ends up in prison and gets into a game between the guards and the prisoners.  It's pretty funny for the most part and has some fantastic football sequences.

 A solid Pam Grier action film, this has the lovely Ms. Grier as a one-woman army who goes up against some typically scummy villains with her fists, guns, barstools and a small airplane.  It's not high art, but it's damn fine exploitation cinema.

Guilty Pleasures:
 This is actually a fairly crummy mad scientist movie livened up by Donald Pleasence as said mad doc.  Well, there's that and a Venus Flytrap man that is pretty memorable but really, Pleasence is the only reason to seek this one out.

 I wrote about this recently so I won't get back into it but needless to say, as bad as it can be, it's still fairly entertaining.

1974 was quite the year for movies with a wide variety of releases and quality entries in every single genre.  It was probably the last truly typical 70's-esque year for film until Jaws came around the next year and changed everything.

Friday, November 8, 2013

My Favorite Era: The Star Wars Trilogy (1977-1983)

It's post #250!  To celebrate, let's go to a galaxy far, far away.

The Star Wars Trilogy (1977-1983)

Needless to say, these three films speak for themselves so relating the plots is an exercise in wasted time.  I love all three movies and agree with all the accolades they have received over the years.  So, for this mega review we'll be sticking to favorite moments, jokes and odd little tidbits that probably only I find funny.

We've got the original theatrical cuts and six and a quarter hours of stuff to wade through, let's take an affectionate, irreverent closer look.

Star Wars (1977)

  • To date, I think the total kill count for Imperial Stormtroopers is still around the six in the first five minutes of this movie and maybe about ten or so over the course of the rest of the trilogy.
  • The thing I love about all of these films is the realization that between the two droids, R2-D2 is the real brains of the operation, held back only by the back he can't frigging talk.
  • I like to think that the Jawas capturing C-3PO went something like this: They drive up and begin to get out but he just gets into their sandcrawler as they all just look at each other in shock, probably muttering something along the lines of "Jesus, why can't they all be this easy?"
  • I don't know why but for some reason I've always gotten a chuckle out of there being just one really tall Jawa wandering around.
  • I love how this film retroactively makes some of the stuff in the prequels make sense.  Darth Vader started out a whiny little bitch?  Guess what?  It's in the genes!  Christ, Luke is the kind of kid I would have mercilessly mocked in school, and I was one of the nice kids!  Come to think of it, R2 kind of screws with Luke to begin with if you think about it.
  • Not sure why everyone makes a big deal out of the blue milk.  You get a carton of the regular and leave it out for a few  months, same thing.  Though to be fair, I would hate to see what Luke's aunt had to milk to get that stuff.
  • Thanks to the version of the movie I had recorded off of TV, every time I see the first scene with the sand people I think of the song "Looking out for Number One".  I think it was in a car commercial or something.
  • Interesting to note that in the first half hour, we see three indigenous sets on Tattooine: farmers, tall scavengers and short scavengers.  Hmm, maybe Lucas has always been sort of a twit.
  • Alec Guinness displays the prototypical motto for English performers: No matter how much you think the script stinks, do your best.  If nothing else, he makes the inherently goofy Jedi philosophical stuff sound at least halfway reasonable.
  • Not sure which is easier to break into several pieces, the old Kenner C-3PO action figure or the character in the movies.
  • Not for nothing, but it has to be said that Mark Hamill plays grief more subtly and effectively than Hayden Christiansen.
  • Ever wonder how many kids tried the Jedi mind trick on their parents as a way to get out of trouble?
  • Gotta love the Stuart Freeborn creature designs, along with early Rick Baker stuff.
  • Always loved how Harrison Ford goes bug-eyed at the sight of danger.  Just one of the many things that makes him so great.
  • Peter Cushing: when you need pure evil in the most gaunt, skinny package imaginable.  God, he was awesome!
  • Naturally, the score by John Williams is great, as it is in the other movies.
  • Always got a laugh out of Chewbacca roaring at the little droid in the hallway.  It's the shrug and exhaling afterwards that makes it.  Sort of a "Well, I needed that.  Let's get moving" sort of thing.
  • I like to think the real name of the thing in the garbage chute was "Plot Element" before Lucas put in one of his patented names that sounds cool when you're a kid, and then is just silly later on.
  • Based on the performance of the average Stormtrooper, and given that a slightly fey droid can outwit them, I'd say you don't even need to use a Jedi mind trick on them.  Pointing in one direction and running in the other should do just fine.
  • Related to that, not sure Obi Wan really needed to use The Force to distract from his shutting down the tractor beam.
  • The powers of quality filmmaking: when I was a kid, the brief bit where the blade of Ben's lightsaber is suddenly just the dowel they were using while shooting the scene was interpreted by my young brain as the guy's sword shorting out.  Of course, the MAD Magazine parody also helped in that regard.
  • Sometimes grief counseling takes the form of blowing the living shit out of enemy starships.  Beats paying a shrink.
  • The Death Star and the Millennium Falcon: Two of the coolest things from my childhood and also two toys I was never able to afford.  It's a wonder this didn't start me swearing at age eight.
  • Based on this film, would it be fair to say that the Y-Wing fighter is sort of the Joe Estevez of the Rebel fleet?  Memorable, but you really prefer the X-Wing because it's cooler.
  • The story of Wedge: Denis Lawson probably owes quite a bit to this series.  Sort of funny how a relatively minor character can become one of the more popular ones just by sheer virtue of not getting his ship blown up in every single major battle.  No wonder there are entire novels dedicated to the guy.
  • Funny thing to me about the medal scene at the end is how it's shot so that you never notice just how damn short Carrie Fisher is.  Oh, and I'm pretty sure Chewbacca is roaring "What about my damn medal, you jerks?" at the end.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

  • Add the Tauntaun to the list of cool things I was never able to get the toy for.  There was a huge one in a Toys r Us that practically made me drool like a St. Bernard.  Granted in the film they seem about as unable to survive on the planet as the rebels but still!
  • Same goes for the Imperial Walkers.
  • The Wampa always was a cool thing to me when I was a kid.  One of the things Lucas did right with the special editions of these films was to let us see the damn thing in all its glory.
  • Gotta say that as great the entire movie is, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher really steal the show.  Their chemistry is really entertaining.  Han's reactions to the constant issues with his ship are great too.
  • The Imperial March: the unofficial theme song for lousy bosses and supervisors for 33 years.
  • The Force Choke is great for multitasking, apparently.
  • This is really where the series turned into an action franchise.  The snow battle is one of the best action sequences I've ever seen, as is the later stuff in the asteroid field.
  • I've come to believe the one thing worse than rush hour traffic in Los Angeles is trying to land on Dagobah.
  • Sure it's really a test of patience (sort of like the chores in The Karate Kid being the guy;s first lesson), but you have to wonder how the hell Yoda arrived at "Crazy little scavenging asshole" as a means of testing Luke's patience.  Granted, he did have plenty of time to think up stuff.  I sort of want to know the ideas he rejected.
  • And just for the sake of covering everything, yeah, Frank Oz is frigging brilliant.
  • I love that Yoda is apparently a lousy cook if Luke's reaction to his efforts are anything to go by.
  • Based on the logistics of it all, I'm really glad we never saw just how Han and company got into that space slug thing.
  • I've always loved how the stuff with Luke and Yoda is essentially the first half of every single kung fu movie.
  • Is it weird that these days Boba Fett reminds me a lot of Dwight Howard's run with the Lakers last season?  Lots of hype but in the end sort of a letdown.  Although in all fairness, I'm pretty sure Mr. Howard would be able to take a blind guy with a stick.
  • Love Yoda's wide-eyed look as Luke begins to lift the ship.  It's like he's thinking "Holy crap, the dolt is gonna do it first time out!"
  • Another great thing about this movie is the ability of the actors to have great chemistry with inanimate objects.  Luke and R2; Luke and Yoda, Chewbacca and C-3PO after he;ls been shot to pieces.  The last one is even more impressive as it's a guy in a suit doing mime while a puppeteer operates a  dismembered droid.
  • Always thought it was cool that the lighting for the final shot of Yoda in this film is nearly identical to the lighting for him in the next one.
  • Always enjoyed Billy Dee Williams as Lando.
  • As always, James Earl Jones is the voice of Darth Vader.  Having heard original production audio with David Prowse delivering the lines, I can say that it doesn't really work.
  • The carbon freezing scene still manages to have an emotional effect on me.
  • The epic duel with Vader and Luke is still one of my favorite sword fights of all time.  It's just great how each segment is a little different.  The stuff in the freezing chamber is sort of a feeling out period, the stuff in the middle is a little more lopsided as Vader gets more shots in and the last stage is basically Vader (love the huge scale difference when he leaps in front of Luke) hammering Luke with our hero trying like hell to just survive.  It's a real showstopper.
  • I used to have those audio storybooks where a popular film would be turned into a record/storybook combo and of course, the Star Wars films were among the ones I had.  I bring this up here because the guy doing Vader in the Empire Strikes Back one must have had a throat infection if his line readings were anything to go by.
  • The escape from Cloud City is a lot of fun, it gives a rather dark movie a nice rousing ending while still retaining the cliffhanger aspect that makes it so memorable.
  • Vader's reaction to the escape is nice too.
  • Always found it funny that Lando is wearing Han's vest in the last scene.
Return of the Jedi (1983)

  • The re-release of this film in 1985 is the first time I ever saw a movie in the theater.  Needless to say, this got me hoked on the action figures and it was just a snowball effect from there on in.
  • Of all the Darth Vader entrances, I think the one here might be my favorite.  Just the image of him coming through the steam is utterly cool to me.
  • The first forty minutes or so of the film are possibly my favorite in the entire franchise.
  • The stuff in Jabba's palace is a gift from above for a creature feature fan like me.  Jabba is fantastic as are all the other creatures infesting the palace.
  • Still have no idea what the point of torturing a droid with hot steel is.  Makes a nice segue to the musical number though.
  • That musical number is still quite the catchy tune.  Great way to foreshadow the Rancor as well.
  • I always found it amusing just how little of the plan C-3PO was let in on.  Outside of going to the palace and getting in it seems like Luke thought "I don't have time to argue with this guy, got other stuff to do."  It carries through to the rest of the movie as well which makes it even better.
  • How can you hate a movie that has some sort of frog monster snapping up a terrified creature as a transition between interior scenes?
  • Always found it funny how the translation for "Jedi mind trick" in Jabba's native tongue is... "Jedi mind trick."  Well, Lawrence Kasdan can't do everything, I guess.  Maybe that was a Lucas idea.
  • The most impressive thing about that brass bikini Leia is sporting?  They managed somehow to make 5'1 Carrie Fisher look leggy.  That's damn impressive costume design in my book!
  • I still think the Rancor is one of the coolest creatures designs of the 80's is not all time.  The little bit with the keeper weeping over it is also great.
  • The transition from the palace to outside has always been something I enjoyed.  If you're in a dark enough room, the change should be enough to actually make you wince and back up a little.  Not to come off as a masochist or anything.
  • The Sarlacc sequence is a great action beat.  We learn that a blind Harrison Ford can still kick your ass, even in other galaxies a garroting is a valid way to off a gangster and of course, the best way to escape trouble is to just blow it up real good.
  • Ian McDiarmid is fantastic as The Emperor, as one would expect.  It takes quite a bit to out-evil Darth Vader but he does it.
  •  I like to imagine that after learning Leia is his sister, Luke thought about that kiss she gave him in the last movie and just threw up in the bog for about five minutes.
  • I can also see him muttering to himself about being a Jedi but still not being able to land on Dagobah without breaking his damn ship.
  • Have to mention the record/storybook thing again because there is a version (just the sound from the film without a storybook) where Yoda's voice is slowed down to the point where I thought something was wrong with my record player when I listened to it as a kid.
  • That record was pretty good though, nice sound with the audio taken directly from the film.
  • Not sure how anyone can be shocked at the names Lucas threw out in the prequels when this one has the Mon Calamari. Jesus, the design is cool but the name is a real sort of "We're pressed for time damn it, think of something" decision.
  • Always dug the interiors of the second Death Star.  Like the first one only better.
  • I've always gotten a kick out of the loud grunts of exertion Harrison Ford lets out whenever he;s in a fist fight.  It's right up there with Roger Moore's groaning in some of his James Bond films and Arnold Schwarzenegger's grunting.  Always felt it added a little something to his Everyman action guy persona and here it makes sense as he's trying to toss around guys in heavy armor.
  • Love the speeder bike chase, just utterly cool and still looks pretty good today.
  • Of all the vehicle toys out there when I  was a kid, I had the speeder bike, the Tie Fighter Vader used in the first film and the B-Wing fighter.  In spite of all this, I had a relatively happy childhood.  First two were cool though (the B-Wing is cool looking and the toy was big but it doesn't do a hell of a lot in the film).  Is it obvious I'm still bummed I never got an X-Wing?
  • I'm not afraid to say it, I don't really mind the Ewoks that much.  Are there one or two moments with them that don't work?  Yeah, but they work in the context of the story the filmmakers are trying to tell.  Yeah, they are kind of childish and a fairly obvious shot at an easy action figure.  Guess what?  The whole franchise was always marketed towards kids!  And as far as the action figure thing goes, pretty much every movie had them.  Alien had them for crying out loud!
  • Apparently The Force must be used for knowledge, defense and levitating your droid when just having him talk you out of being eaten by a bunch of three foot tall bear creatures doesn't work.
  • Nice dramatic beat with Luke and Leia.  Hamill and Fisher are actually pretty decent actors.  Odd that they can rise above the rather bad Lucas dialogue and yet Ewan MacGregor and Natalie Portman struggled.
  • I always loved the green lightsaber, it just seemed so much cooler than the blue one Luke was using before.
  • The space battle stuff is simply mind blowing, even today.  The sight of all those Tie fighters flying at the screen is still one of the best visual effects in cinema.  I'd say it even tops the stuff in Revenge of the Sith's first twenty minutes.
  • The fighting down on Endor is fun as well, gotta love seeing the bad guys get theirs from basic technology.  I also get a kick out of Chewbacca getting behind the cont5rols of a walker and just blasting everything in his path.
  • The filmmakers were very smart to not try and top the lightsaber duel from the first one, instead making it more of an emotional duel than a physical one.  The finale where Luke loses it is a wonderfully done bit of filmmaking.
  • I also have to give a ton of credit to the performers in the Ewok suits.  Couldn't have been an easy day at work and you actually get a few really, really good bits of acting here and there, especially from Warwick Davis as Wicket and Debbie Lee Carrington as the one Ewok grieving over the dead one.  Both have had pretty solid careers since.
  • Really, the last thirty minutes of the film are just pure, concentrated awesome.
  • The only true fault I can find is that a few of the actors (Harrison Ford and Billy Dee Williams to be specific) don't have a hell of a lot to do.  Still, it's not that big a thing as Ford has some fun moments and Williams gets to be the one to blow up the frigging Death Star after all!
  • Oddly enough, the bit where The Emperor blasts Luke with the Force lightning reminds of me of an old appliance store called The Federated Group that was around in the 80's.  Probably because one time in there I was distracted by that scene in one of the many TV demo models on display.
  • The filmmakers do find a way to top the trench battle though, the race through the innards of the Death Star is just fantastic.
This was quite the epic article so I'll keep the wrap up short.  The original trilogy is just fantastic and iconic.  Forget whatever the prequels did right or wrong, forget the incessant changes Lucas liked to indulge in, the first three are still fantastic movies.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

My Favorite Era: Tremors (1990)

I love a good monster movie and Tremors is just that.  A nice throwback to those old 50's monster movies, this has a bunch of folks who live out in a small desert town being menaced by gigantic underground worms attracted by sound vibrations.

Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward play Val and Earl, two handymen aching to leave the small desert town (by small, I mean 14 residents, most of whom get eaten over the course of the film)  of Perfection, Nevada.  The cute seismology student (Finn Carter) in the area begins noticing strange things and on their way out of town, Val and Earl find a local guy up an electrical tower, dead.  A few more folks get eaten and before you know it, naming the town Perfection comes off as even more ironic than it already was.

Two things make this a great film.  First off is the cast and the eccentric characters they play.  Bacon and Ward are solid as the leads with an easygoing sense of comic timing.  Finn Carter is pretty good as the seismology student and Victor Wong is fun as usual as the owner of the general store.

Best of all are Michael Gross and Reba McEntire as the Gummers, a married couple of survivalists who are just funny as hell.  Gross walks away with the movie (and the franchise, to be fair) with his funny performance and the best scene of the film has the Gummers facing off against a giant worm using most of their huge arsenal.  It's quite entertaining.

The creatures are also cool, huge ugly things that are hard as hell to kill.  Any good monster movie has to have something unique that the viewer hasn't seen before and in this case, the filmmakers knocked it out of the park.  Another  cool thing is that we never find out exactly what the hell the things are or where they came from.  It adds a nice little bit of mystery as all we get is speculation.  At the end of the day, the film knows it's not that important.

Tremors is just simple, unpretentious fun with a good cast, great monsters and a fantastic pace.  It's really one of the better monster movies of the last twenty five years.  First sequel is pretty good too.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

My Favorite Era: Lone Wolf McQuade (1983)

This is a reworking of a piece I did for The Agony Booth a few years ago.

Lone Wolf McQuade is the first film where everything fell in place for a good Chuck Norris film.  Previous films had come close like Forced Vengeance but for the most part, his early stuff was marred by bad pacing.  Here though, it's pretty much all action all the time to the point where this, along with Invasion U.S.A. serve as the best Chuck Norris films ever made.

Essentially a modern day western, it stars Chuck as Texas Ranger J.J. McQuade, the toughest son of a gun you are ever likely to meet.  He is a loner in every sense of the term and, of course, he is the best Ranger in the entire state.

The great thing about this film is how bat shit insane it is willing to be at times for the sake of entertainment.  We get tons of action, some tender moments here and there, a wheelchair bound dwarf crime boss, gratuitous Barbara Carrera and David Carradine as the bad guy.  Let's take a closer look.
  • An interesting note to begin with: if the rights to this film weren't tied up with Orion Pictures (does MGM still have the rights to their films or did they have to do a yard sale again?), Walker: Texas Ranger would have been McQuade: Texas Ranger.
  • Also, I strongly recommend not watching this film on a really hot day.  You will be in danger of getting heatstroke.  Being set in Texas, it does a wonderful job of showing just how face-peelingly hot it can get down there.  I don't even want to imagine the BO coming off the cast and crew at the end of a day's shooting.
  • The opening of the film is pretty cool as within seconds, we are looking at Chuck Norris in all of of his unshaven glory.  This was the first film he rocked the beard in and the look is accentuated by a fine layer of dirt and sweat.  This may in fact have the most sweat in any movie rated PG.
  • Incidentally, it's amazing this film ended up with a PG rating,  Hell, the amount of violence plus two f-bombs should have guaranteed it.  Not sure what happened there.
  • Adding to the coolness factor is the overall spaghetti western feel the entire movie has.  Director Steve Carver (who also did An Eye for An Eye with Norris) does fine work here, keeping the pace as blistering as the heat and never letting things slow down.
  • McQuade is observing a bunch of horse thieves from a mountain top and I love how for a brief couple of moments you're not entirely sure when the film is taking place.  It's just neat.
  • The horse thieves are set upon by a bunch of State Police officers who prove to be about as good catching and detaining criminals as Chuck Norris is at acting.  He ends up saving them (one of whom is Kayo, played by Robert Beltran) in a wonderfully Eastwood-esque bit of business where he stoically ignores rifle shots at his feet and proceeds to mow down a few goons with a machine gun.
  • The lead bandit is especially amusing, it would seem the actor watched every single old western he could find with a Mexican bandit and just turned the overacting up to eleven.
  • I love McQuade's truck, a dirty beat up hulk that also happens to have a supercharger built in.  It's so awesome that I called it Mega Truck in my original article.
  • Unintentionally hilarious is how much Kayo gushes over McQuade.  Not just after he guy saves his life, he's still going at it after being assigned as the guy's partner, ditched and tracked our hero to his ramshackle looking house.
  • I get a kick out of R.G. Armstrong and L.Q. Jones as McQuade's boss and best friend who has just retired respectively.  Both are good actors and they play their parts well.
  • David Carradine is fun as Wilkes, our scummy bad guy for the evening.  He's cool, evil and of course knows karate.  He makes for a fun Norris opponent, though Chuck said one time that Carradine was a good a martial artist as he is an actor.
  • You gotta love a guy known as a lone wolf who has a wolf as a pet.  Sure, they couldn't get the thing to snarl so when it does so as Kayo approaches, it just looks like a happy dog but still!
  • As with any proper Norris film, there is a family aspect that is shoehorned in which makes his films even more funny since he can't portray sincere emotion to save his life.  Unusually, it actually works as Dana Kimmell (Friday the 13th Part 3 survivor) turns in a likable performance as McQuade's daughter and he seems to be on good terms with his ex.
  • Actually, he may be on too good terms since there is so much affection between the two that it makes our hero look like a bit of a dope for not being with his family.
  • Barbara Carrera isn't too bad as Lola, Wilkes' associate.  She's not really good as an actress but she's easy on the eyes and she has one moment in the film that is pricelessly funny, though not for the right reasons.
  • Now is as good a time as any to mention crime boss Falcon.  Falcon is played by little person character actor Dan Frishman who was on Night Court for a few years.  He's quite memorable here, hamming it up like there's no tomorrow and rolling around in his motorized wheelchair while laughing like a loon.  It gets in the way once or twice but it's still an entertaining piece of acting.
  • The relationship stuff with McQuade and Lola is great for all the wrong reasons.  Carver finds a way around having two crappy actors though by having their love scene be done in overblown slow motion while Lola holds a gushing water hose (she came to McQuade's house to clean it up and they end up making out).  It's quite the sequence and is one of the funnier things in any of Chuck Norris' films.
  • After McQuade's daughter is seriously injured and her boyfriend is killed, McQuade is of course ready to take out the bad guys with extreme prejudice.  Joining him are Kayo and federal officer Jackson, played by B-action star Leon Isaac Kennedy.  He's pretty much Steve James on downers.
  • I love that McQuade's office is almost as much of a mess as his house.  The cleaning lady at the station must open the door and mutter to herself "Screw it, let him clean it up himself if he wants an office."
  • Character actor William Sanderson has a small role as a weaselly little slimeball McQuade captures and has his recently retired buddy watch.,  And yes, both of these guys end up dead in short order.  The action scene where Snow is caught is really good with some great vehicle stun work.  Hell, all the action here is top notch.
  • Snow reveals Wilkes is working for Falcon, stealing weapons and selling them across the border in Mexico.
  • McQuade's scene with Falcon is quite entertaining as Frishman just hams it up like there;s no tomorrow as he indicates he and Wilkes aren't in business together before exiting his office via a false wall.  He follows this up by telling McQuade his buddies are doomed (no speakers either, the man's voice is just that damn loud) with more insane laughter, naturally.
  • Stuff like that is why I love this movie.  Though to be honest, it's got nothing on hoe weird Walker: Texas Ranger got in the second half of its run.  There was one episode where the bad guys were foiled by a nun opening a door to let the dun (referred to as God's light) in.
  • Not sure we really needed Wilkes to kill the wolf but it's an over the top 80's action film so there you go.
  • I love that the hospital McQuade's daughter is at is Eastwood Hospital.
  • Great bit when after a bit of gunplay, Wilkes captures McQuade and buries him under the dirt in his truck.  In one of the classic moments in action cinema, McQuade gets out of this by pouring a beer over his head and gunning the motor, driving the truck out of the grave before killing two gunmen.  It's so awesome that my description barely does it justice.
  • I love how McQuade's reaction to a hand injury sustained during his time as a prisoner prompts him to destroy his training area like he's The Incredible Hulk.  It's just hilarious, complete with a little pathos as he looks at his pet's empty food dish and then thinks of Lola before the scene ends.  It's way above Norris' acting abilities and that just makes it better.
  • The final battle in Mexico to kill the bad guys and save the daughter is great as we get some shooting and some kicking followed up by not one, but two showdowns with Norris and Carradine.  Interestingly enough, Carradine had it written into his contract that he couldn't lose a martial arts fight on screen.  Fortunately, he had no problem being blown up with a hand grenade in a shack full of weapons and explosives.
Lone Wolf McQuade is my favorite Chuck Norris movie.  It's got great action, great pacing and some beautiful locations that really enhance the film.  It's right up there with Invasion U.S.A.  A real classic.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

My Favorite Era: 1941 (1979)

As I said in the American Ninja 2 piece, not all the films in this series are necessarily good.  In the case of our subject today, it can be said the final result is horrendously crappy in fact.  Bloated, undisciplined and somewhat baffling, Steven Spielberg's 1941 is an impressive disaster of a movie.

Written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis  (who would later collaborate on the much better Back to the Future movies) along with help from John Milius, it's based in part on an actual crisis that swept over Los Angeles in the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  The film follows several groups of people from the army to civilians as they basically panic for two hours and twenty six minutes.  We get an all-star cast, a good score from John Williams and, well, noise.  Lots and lots of noise.  Let's take a closer look.
  • Before we start, I just have to say the best thing about this movie is the DVD.  A direct port of the laserdisc edition, it has an awesome documentary on the making of the film that doesn't pull any punches.  Hell, there's even a selection of crummy reviews from the time the film came out you can look at!
  • Also, the main reason I wanted to put this in the series is because I figure if I'm gonna talk about some of Steven Spielberg's best films, I might as well examine the worst of them all, with the exception of The Lost World.
  • To the film itself, just so I'm starting things off on a positive note, the main title theme John Williams composed is quite good, a nice little military march that is certainly more rousing than anything else in the movie.
  • I do like the funny Jaws spoof that opens the film with the same woman (Susan Backlinie) and the same location only this time is it a Japanese sub manned by Toshiro Mifune and Christopher Lee that surprises her.
  • Not for nothing, but at the very least this film should get credit for getting Toshiro Mifune and Christopher Lee on screen together.  And yes, I am trying like hell to find nice things to say here.
  • The cast is really good here (that's not the same thing as the cast doing good work though) with a mix of Spielberg regulars, Animal House and SCTV vets and some notable character actors.  There isn't really what I would call a main character as everything is just drowned out by noise and wackiness.  Still, a few like John Belushi and Robert Stack manages to turn in amusing bits here and there with Stack acting as the straight man and Belushi basically just being funny by sheer force of will.  Others like Dan Aykroyd and John Candy just sort of get swallowed up by the whole thing.
  • Tim Matheson and Nancy Allen are okay as a horny general's aide and reporter respectively, though frankly Matheson is basically just doing his Animal House character in a uniform.
  • The stuff with Ned Beatty and his family is not as good, ditto for the stuff with the USO dance and ensuing riot.  The plots just never come together in a way that is watchable.  This film is just fascinatingly bad.
  • John Belushi is very funny as a pilot, however.  As much as Spielberg botched this film, he was smart to let Belushi just be funny.  Most of the time he is just flying around in his plane and each time he finds a way to be at the very least, amusing.  Actually, he's barely in the film but damn it all I need to find something here!  This thing is nearly two and a half damn hours long!
  • Slim Pickens has a relatively amusing part as a guy named Hollis Wood who is captured by Mifune's crew (they are looking for Hollywood, them's the jokes here).  Really, the only funny bit comes when he swallows a compass he has that the crew wants (their own compass is broken) and Lee orders him in German to "Shit or die" as he tries to crap the thing out.  I never said the humor was deep, did I?
  •  I do get a chuckle out of Mifune's sub commander gravely expressing a desire to "blow the shit out of something big".  He just gives the line reading such weight and gravitas.  The guy was a hell of an actor.
  • The USO stuff goes on for too long, there is far to much mayhem and chaos to really settle in and enjoy things.
  • Warren Oates is pretty funny as a crazy general.
  • The air combat stuff is actually pretty good, one of the few times the unrestrained mayhem of the film sort of works a little bit.
  • The end credits are just as loud as the rest of the film with shots of the cast members screaming and periodic explosions punctuating the credits as they roll.  Sound and fury signifying nothing, well at least they fit with the rest of the film.
The film just has way too many characters and not enough focus.  It's well made and all but as much as I love the guy, Spielberg doesn't do wacky comedy well.  Still, there's something insidiously watchable about the film.  It's just fascinating to see so much talent wasted in such a bad movie.

Monday, November 4, 2013

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

The sixth 007 epic is unique for a few reasons.  First off, it was the debut for a new actor in the role, Australian model George Lazenby making his acting debut.  Second, it was really the last time an entire Fleming novel would be adapted as later movies would use the title and some story elements.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service is a really, really fantastic entry in the series with good acting (Lazenby does pretty well for himself all things considered), some amazing action and a killer score from John Barry.  It's a fun, pacy thrill ride.  Let's take a closer look.
  • This film was actually a pretty big risk in many ways.  Not only were they replacing Sean Connery, more or less the biggest star in the world at the time to the point where he was identified as Bond, they were also doing a more scaled down, down to earth story.  Though to be fair, scaled down and more down to earth have different definitions when applied to this franchise.  It essentially means the explosions are a little smaller and the plot is a little less out there.
  • As with the intro of Timothy Dalton, Lazenby is given a really nice movie star intro, we only see bits and pieces of the man in a nice nod to Dr. No until it's time for him to deliver his introductory line.  It's a well done bit of business and I have to say that there are few better ways to intro your new Bond than to have him rescue Diana Rigg from a suicide attempt and then promptly get into a huge fist fight with a couple of goons.
  • The action here and in the rest of the movie are top notch.  John Glen did the editing for this one as well as some later films before directing and adding to that, former editor for the first few films Peter Hunt is at the helm for this outing.  He guides the film along quite nicely, keeping things moving for the entire 142 minute running time which until Skyfall was the longest a Bond film had been.
  • While the main title sequence has a great title tune, I always felt it was a little amusing just how hard the film pounded it into your head that Lazenby was the new Bond.  I know Connery was iconic thanks to the role but it seems like they went all out must in case there were a few boobs who weren't going to go for it.   Still, the clips from the previous five films are nice to see and I especially like the touch of not having Connery appear in any of them.
  •  Lazenby, as I said, makes a pretty damn good Bond, even more so when you stop to think that he had never really acted before.  Sure, he's basically doing Connery's shtick but that;s understandable given the circumstances.  He's charming enough, handles the action quite well and even though he doesn't knock the humorous aspects out of the ballpark, they never really revolve around him enough to make this a deal breaker.
  • Really, the only thing holding him back is a lack of experience and if he had stuck around for a few more films, I'm sure that would have been taken care of.  Damn shame he didn't.
  • Diana Rigg does very good work as Tracy, our troubled Bond Girl for the evening.  Best known for her role as Emma Peel on the Avengers TV show, she has a surprisingly tough role as far as things go.  She has to be cool, vulnerable, tough, sexy, romantic and even cool, and all in one bit of acting.  I'm probably not doing her enough justice, she does a hell of a job!
  • The plot of the film is nicely set up as the first third of the film is Bond and Tracy interacting with her mobster father Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti) getting involved as well as a potential father-in-law.  I really like how this subplot plays out as Bond basically uses the guy to get to SPECTRE chief Blofeld who got away in the last film and is back for more here.  The romantic stuff is set aside for the middle of the film as Bond goes to Switzerland after the bad guy but eventually, Tracy comes back into the picture and it all dovetails rather nicely to a tragic, yet satisfying conclusion.  It follows the novel pretty closely.
  • Ferzetti is quite good, giving an easygoing and charming performance.
  • Also good is Telly Savalas as Blofeld.  An unconventional choice for the role (I'd imagine the two main reasons for him getting were the role were star power and a lack of hair), he nevertheless is a nicely imposing villain and his obligatory exposition scenes are nicely done.  He also unintentionally gives the audience a little throwback to Donald Pleasence's performance as the character.  In the previous film, Blofeld takes a throwing star to the wrist before he escapes.  A creative fellow (such as myself, he said as humbly as possible) could deduce there was some nerve damage as Savalas had a rather noticeably withered index finger on his left hand.  Yeah, it's a stretch but what the hell?
  • Really, the only flaw the film has is the romantic montage that comes up about thirty five minutes into the film.  I'm fine with giving Bond a little more depth but it's a little too sappy for my tastes.  Still, it does lead to a wonderfully tense scene as Bond breaks into a lawyer's office to get info on a lead Draco has given him.  The film even keeps the romance angle alive with Tracy telling her father she loves Bond but he does not love here, and to give it time.  It's a nice bit, especially since she will be out of the film for better part of the next hour.
  • I like the little bit where Bond just casually reads an issue of Playboy while the safe cracking machine (the only gadget in the film) he is using works on a safe.  The payoff of him stealing the centerfold is an amusing capper to the scene.
  • The main bulk of the plot in Switzerland unfolds quite nicely with Bond posing as a genealogy expert who is supposed to meet with Blofeld in order to verify his claim to a barony.  It's a quite amusing little entry point as Bond ends up at an isolated resort (ostensibly a clinic for allergies) where Blofeld is actually planning to brainwash a bunch of beautiful women and have them distribute a virus that will destroy the ecosystems of the major world powers.  As goofy as that sounds, the film never lets it get out of hand, leaving most of it to Blofeld talking about what will happen.  It keeps the film's tone in check, though there are one or two little moments that nearly don't work.
  • The film is at its best here as Bond sneaks out of his room and roams around the resort, bedding a few girls here and there and discovering Blofeld's plan.  After the plot has been explained, we get a nice long stretch of suspense and action as Bond escapes from a prison cell, is nearly taken out by a cable car and finally escapes the resort in a fantastic ski chase.  There's also a nice fight in a shed full of bells that's quite well done.
  • I like how Tracy is brought back into the film, she rescues Bond as he tries to evade SPECTRE guards in a village nearby.  After a good car chase complete with Rigg throwing out some fun one-liners, we get the culminating of the romance subplot as Bond finally falls in love with Tracy and asks her to marry him in a nicely understated bit that doesn't feel forced.  I like that it is only after she saves his life that he falls for her, a nice touch.
  • The plot lines are melded into one after another good ski chase that sees Tracy being captured and Bond rescuing her in a nice "storming the fortress" sequence as Draco and his men assist Bond in obliterating the resort with heliuco0pter, explosives and machine guns.,  Especially fun is Bond;s entrance into the fray, sliding into the battle on his belly, firing a machine gun.  Also great is the bit where Rigg suddenly goes into "Emma Peel" mode to kick the crap out of a bad guy.
  • The bobsled showdown with Bond and Blofeld is another great action scene with a fantastic ending.
  • The wedding ending is quite well done, not too sappy but effective.  The tragic end to the film works well as Tracy is killed by Blofeld as he and his henchwoman pass them on the side of the road.  It's a daring move considering the series but it's what happens in the book and in both cases, it's quite effective.  No foreshadowing (even if you read the book, I'd imagine you would guess they wouldn't end the film like that), just a solid gut punch of en ending.
 On Her Majesty's Secret Service is a great film, nicely paced and acted with some great action and only one or two little moments that don't quite work.  Overall, it's quite simply one of the best films in the series.

About Me

I've been a huge fan of action, horror and comedy for as long as I can remember.