Friday, February 21, 2014

The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox (1976)

Synopsis: Hmm... charming card-sharp travels across the Old West with beautiful-yet-scheming dame who keeps stealing his dough.... oh my God, it’s a low-rent version of Maverick!

Blurb From the VHS Jacket: “Goldie Hawn and George Segal star in this rough and tumble comedy that bounces from San Francisco’s Barbary Coast to the wilderness of Utah.”

What Did I Learn?: If you have $40,000 in cash sitting in your hotel room, you might want to keep your eyes on it at all times, especially if you bring a prostitute in for a nightcap.

Really?: The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox isn’t meant to be taken all that seriously, so maybe I can overlook Dirtwater and his horse surviving several gunshots, and a few other scenes, but still: 1) how many times do we have to hear that awful “don’t touch my plums” song? 2) I had a hard time believing Dirtwater could keep getting away with cheating at poker when he has a bad habit of dropping cards, and 3) somehow, we’re supposed to believe that Goldie’s character really, really, really wants to become the seventh wife of a strict-but-wealthy Mormon tycoon? Come on...

Rating: Like McClintock!, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Support Your Local Sheriff, Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull's History Lesson, the aforementioned Maverick, and a number of other movies, The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox is an example of a rare, and probably extinct breed of movie: a Western Comedy. Unfortunately, Duchess-and-Dirtwater doesn’t work as either genre, and it’s pretty bad, overall.  

Sure, there are some beautiful location scenes, and both Segal and Hawn do their best with the script, yet there’s no really no chemistry between them (their lovable horse, Blackjack, often steals the movie), their characters aren’t terribly likeable, the jokes mostly fall flat, and the ending is quite lacklustre. I cannot recommend this movie. 4.5/10 stars.

Would It Work For a Bad Movie Night?: Take a drink every time Goldie badly fakes a foreign accent.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Smile (1975)

Synopsis: Empty, hypocritical, selfish and shallow middle-aged turds find meaning in their lives... by judging a collection of empty, hypocritical, selfish and shallow teenage girls.

Blurb From the VHS Jacket: “What really happens in the beauty pageant dressing rooms? Find out when Melanie Griffith (Best Actress nominee, Working Girl, 1988) struts her stuff in this darkly funny comedy set in the behind-the scenes world of one of America’s most popular pastimes.”

What Did I Learn?: Guys, if the requirement for joining the local small-town men’s club is to kiss the ass of a dead chicken (stuffed with what I hope was whipped cream), you’re much, much better off to ditch those losers and make some new friends.

You Might Like This Movie If: You agree that it's best to Keep Smiling...

Really?: 1) See “What Did I Learn?”... I’m still creeped out by the scene. 2) Smile is a biting satire of 1970s middle class America, so I can overlook a number of things (Andy shooting his wife, and she refuses to press charges because she’s concerned it could impact the pageant, for instance) but holy shit – this is NOT a Melanie Griffith movie! (See “Blurb From the VHS Jacket”) She has a few scenes as one of the contestants, but that’s it. Barbara Feldon (best remembered as Agent 99 on Get Smart) should have received second billing on the VHS jacket.

Rating: Directed by Michael Ritchie, Smile is a cleverly-written (although only sometimes-funny) darkly comic look at the world of small-time beauty pageants. Bruce Dern is wonderfully oily as Big Bob, and it’s great to see Feldon, who pretty much disappeared after Get Smart. Smile drags in places, and the script could have used some fine-tuning, but it’s a nice companion film to Little Miss Sunshine. 7/10 stars.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Crossover/Mr. Patman (1980)


Synopsis: Macho, merciful male medic misunderstands macabre murders, misplaces marbles. 

Blurb From the VHS Jacket: “Crossover is a film about love and lust, life and death, sanity and madness. James Coburn (The Great Escape, Midway) stars as John Patman, and extraordinary male nurse who works the late shift in a psychiatric ward of a modern hospital.”

What Did I Learn?: Apparently, BMWs are “shitboxes” that can’t take a Vancouver winter.

Really?: 1) So wait – Patman delivers an electro-shock to one of the doctors, and he isn’t immediately fired and criminally charged? 2) I had a hard time believing Patman’s landlady would become jealous of his relationship with Nurse Peabody (Kate Nelligan) when she’s a married woman. 3) So... he’s nuts? That’s it? What was that jazz about another patient years earlier, and the case of mistaken identity in the morgue? What the fuck was that all about?

Rating: I really wanted to like Crossover (also known as Mr. Patman) a lot more than I did. The film has a wonderfully creepy atmosphere, and both Coburn and Nelligan do their best with the material, but alas – the script doesn’t make a lot of sense, the dialogue is uninspired, and I just didn’t buy the premise of the story: Patman seems a little too well-adjusted to simply snap. 6/10 stars.



Monday, February 17, 2014

The Conversation (1974)

Synopsis: Slimy, secretive snoop sells surveillance scoop, suffers serious psychological setback.

Blurb From the VHS Jacket: “Francis Ford Coppola’s provoking mystery-drama explores the morality of privacy and stars Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, expert surveillance man. A routine wire-tapping job turns into a modern nightmare as Harry hears something disturbing in his recording of a young couple in a park.”

What Did I Learn?: If a surveillance expert offers you a free pen, politely decline.

You Might Like This Movie If: You're glad this is just a work of fiction.

Really?: So wait – couldn’t Harry tell Amy (Teri Garr in an early role) some bullshit story about his job, or at least give her the broad outlines but not reveal anything specific, rather than simply clam up? And why couldn’t he invite her over to his place –there’s nothing there!

Rating: The Conversation is a good film, but not a particularly entertaining one; it’s mostly a character-driven drama about a wire-tapper who suffers from paralyzing guilt when he realizes his work could lead to a murder or two. This might be Hackman’s finest performance, but there are long stretches when not much happens, and we never really get to know (let alone like) Harry Caul. Check it out if you’re in the mood for something slow-moving and creepy. Oh – Harrison Ford has a pre-Star Wars role. 7.5/10 stars.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Auto Focus (2002)

Please click the link to read my review of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.
Synopsis: Likeable-but-bad actor stars in semi-offensive sitcom, gets into homemade porn, turns into greasy scumbag and croaks in low-rent motel.

Blurb From the VHS Jacket: “Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) became well known as the star of the hit comedy series ‘Hogan’s Heroes.’ With an abundance of fame, wealth, and success, Crane drove headfirst into the darker, destructive side of the celebrity lifestyle. He eventually teamed up with a video technician (Willem Dafoe) who helped him to systematically document his copious sexploits with beautiful young women.”

What Did I Learn?: According to shallow, self-absorbed perverts, a day without sex is a day wasted.

You Might Like This Movie If: You've always enjoyed watching Hogan's Heroes.

Really?: Auto Focus is based on the real-life story of Crane, so it might not be entirely fair for me to judge it on this basis. Still, I guess I’m shocked that a guy who banked on his natural likeability wouldn’t take a hint from his agent and countless others about the reputation he was developing, and its impact upon his career. At the very least, you would think he might keep his sexcapades on the down-low, and keep the photos and home videos well-hidden.

Rating: I’m a bit perplexed about why Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper gave Auto Focus “two thumbs up, way up!” as a review. Sure, it’s a competently made biopic (although the surreal moment when Crane somehow steps into a scene from Hogan’s Heroes is just plain weird, and doesn’t fit the rest of the film) and Kinnear delivers a masterful performance as Crane, but I kept asking myself: “why do I give a shit?” Crane was basically a self-destructive sleaze without any depth or self-understanding, and after awhile, Auto Focus gets a bit tedious. 6/10 stars.


Adaptation (2002)

This film also would have been perfect for my salute to Nicolas Cage films last March – it’s one of his finest performances.

Synopsis: It’s a movie about orchids... and writing... and rolling around in a Florida swamp... and... well, it really defies description.

Blurb From the VHS Jacket: “Director Spike Jonze delivers a stunningly original comedy that seamlessly blends fictional characters and situations with the lives of real people: obsessive orchid hunter John Laroche (Chris Cooper), New Yorker journalist Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), Hollywood screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage), and his twin brother Donald (also Cage).”

What Did I Learn?: Lemme see....aside from learning a whole lot of stuff about orchids: 1) You are what you love, not what loves you, 2) Flowers for Algernon is not about flowers, 3) Adaptation is a profound process, 4) The last act makes a film, 5) Sometimes bad things happen and darkness descends, 6) Change is not a choice, and 7) The only idea more overused than serial killers is multiple personality.

You Might Like This Movie If: You don't take yourself too seriously.

Really?: Adaptation is based on a bizarre script that somehow imagines a trendy, upper-middle class New Yorker journalist as a drug-snorting killer, so maybe it’s unfair to judge it on this basis. Still, I had a bit of trouble believing a veteran screenwriter like Charlie wouldn’t have a healthy respect for deadlines, and wouldn’t produce something for his agent, even if it wasn’t that great.

Rating: Without a doubt, Adaptation is not only one of the weirdest, but also one of the smartest and most compelling movies I’ve ever seen – its creativity brings to mind Waking Life, even though the two are very different films. Highly recommended. 10/10 stars.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Red Rock West (1993)

Dang - this would have been perfect for my salute to Nicolas Cage movies back in March!

Synopsis: Dennis Hopper portrays larger-than-life whackjob killer in small-town America. Oh wait – that’s the synopsis for Blue Velvet... and River’s Edge, come to think of it.

Blurb From the DVD Jacket: “The quirkiest thriller since Blood Simple, RED ROCK WEST stars Nicholas Cage, Dennis Hopper and Lara Flynn Boyle in an offbeat mystery about an average guy who is mistaken for a professional hit-man.” [Hmm... interesting how the marketing team misspelled Cage's first name. It's "Nicolas", not "Nicholas"]

What Did I Learn?: 1) It isn’t lucky to pee on the toilet seat, even if somebody else has already done so. 2) Getting married does strange things to people.

Really?: You know, it seems as though Michael (Cage) has any number of opportunities to leave Red Rock West, and... he keeps coming back. At the very least, couldn’t he have dumped the farmhand off outside the hospital and then taken off? Wouldn’t anyone know that if you leave a man at the hospital and tell the orderlies that you hit him with your car, that they’re going to call the cops?

Rating: Red Rock West is the story of a strangely honest drifter who arrives in a small, Western town and discovers more twists than a Chubby Checker concert! It’s a bit contrived at times, but Red Rock West is a fun, action-packed thriller that’s good for an evening’s entertainment. 8/10 stars.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Basketball Diaries (1995)

Basketball Movie #4

Hmm...this would have been perfect for my salute to Addiction movies in 2011.

Synopsis: It’s like that very special episode of Welcome Back Kotter when Vinnie, Epstein, Washington and Horshack snort heroin, prostitute themselves, steal a car, beat up and rob an old lady, throw a drug dealer off the roof of a building, and resist sexual advances from the basketball coach.

Blurb From the VHS Jacket: “Provocative and gripping. The Basketball Diaries is based on a raw, from-the-gut autobiography  that chronicles Jim Carroll’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) adolescent years as a Catholic high school basketball star. His stark and exhilarating experiences with drugs, crime, sex and violence offer a vividly authentic account of a rebellious teenager growing up in New York.”

What Did I Learn?: If all of your drugs are mixed together in a single Ziploc bag and you can’t tell the uppers from the downers, it might be a good idea to start over with a fresh supply.

You Might Like This Movie If: You'll watch anything that involves a diary.

Really?: 1) I didn’t know that teenagers could just up-and-quit high school. Wouldn’t their parents have something to say about that? 2) So wait – the creepy guy in the bus station pays Jim for the privilege of allowing him to provide Jim with a blowjob? 3) I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t jump into a river that’s basically used as an open sewer, but maybe I’m just not that adventurous. 4) I’m not too sure why Jim is so desperate to spend the night at his mother’s place near the end – couldn’t he have gone back to Reggie’s?

Rating: The Basketball Diaries is an edgy, and highly disturbing look at the downward spiral of heroin addiction. The film features a number of good performances, including Lorraine Bracco and Mark Wahlberg, but DiCaprio does a superb job of portraying Jim, a troubled addict who can transform from innocent little boy to scary street thug on a dime. The Basketball Diaries is a very good film, but it becomes increasingly difficult to sympathize with Jim by the end. 8.5/10 stars.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Hoop Dreams (1994)

Basketball Movie #3

Synopsis: It’s three hours of: high school basketball is a sleazy, soul-destroying business that chews up, and spits out young athletes, puts unnecessary pressure on struggling families, and corrupts post-secondary education. But Go Chargers! And... Go Commandos!

Blurb From the VHS Jacket: “They have nothing – except talent and a dream – and in this tough Chicago neighbourhood, dreams are all they can count on HOOP DREAMS is the critically acclaimed true-life story of Arthur Agree and William Gates and the unforgettable five year experience that turns them into men.”

What Did I Learn?: I really hate to sound like an academic snob, but Mineral Area College in Park Hills, Missouri sure looked like a dump in the early 1990s.

Really?: Hoops Dreams is a documentary, so it’s hard to critique this film’s credibility. I’ll just say that I’m shocked that an upper-middle class Catholic high school wouldn’t forgive the unpaid tuition debts the Agee family obviously can’t afford (especially since their lives are being filmed, and this could lead to a lot of bad PR), or that a coach at the school would simply respond “write ‘em off” whenever one of the players spoke about his family troubles.

Rating: The late Roger Ebert called Hoop Dreams one of the best movies he had ever seen. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but it is very good. Although Hoop Dreams is three hours in length, it never seems to drag because the people onscreen are compelling and all-too-real. And even if you don’t like basketball, this movie provides an honest, non-sensationalized look at life in inner city black America. It’s also an opportunity to step back into the relatively recent past: the famous Cabrini Green housing project, where William Gates grew up, was torn down shortly after Hoop Dreams was released. Highly recommended. 9/10 stars.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Blue Chips (1994)

Basketball Movie #2

Synopsis: Have you ever wanted to see The Program remade with basketball instead of football driving the action? If so, this is your movie.

Blurb From the VHS Jacket: “Championship winning coach Pete Bell (Nick Nolte) runs the cleanest program in collegiate basketball. But when he finds himself on the brink of his first losing season, Bell decides he must make a risky trade to protect his job: under-the-table dollars for talent.”

What Did I Learn?: In rural Indiana, First Baptists don’t think much of those Southern Baptists.

You Might Like This Movie If: You believe Shaquille O’Neal is a genius who can do anything. [Wait - did Shaq simply stand in front a blue screen to film this video?]

Really?: 1) So wait – Bell has the three new guys arrive at a team practice dressed in their street clothes, and they completely annihilate the current team. Gee, I’m sure that would do wonders for morale. 2) Maybe I can suspend my sense of disbelief about Shaq being some sort of intellectual diamond-in-the-rough who simply needs to read the right books, but gee – one would think that a middle-aged man with debts and responsibilities wouldn’t simply throw his career away at the end of a big game. One would think Bell would reconcile himself to the fact that college basketball is a dirty biz, he made a choice to live and work in that world, and he’s stuck. 3) Gee, doesn’t Happy (J.T. Walsh, once again playing the villain), the team’s alumni booster, have a valid point when he says the schools “owe these kids”, considering they make a zillion dollars from basketball?

Rating: Blue Chips is an entertaining, but quickly forgettable look at the sleazy world of college basketball. Most of the film centers around Nolte – he’s either coaching, recruiting, bullshitting the parents or his ex-wife, breaking the rules, or feeling guilty about it; while Shaquille O’Neal is front-and-center in the marketing materials, including the VHS jacket, he doesn’t have that much screen time, and oh – his character isn’t greedy like the others. Blue Chips could have been a better film with fewer cameos from sports celebrities, a bit more subtlety and a re-written ending. 6.5/10 stars.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

He Got Game (1998)

Basketball Movie # 1 (Please click the links to read my reviews of Coach Carter and Hoosiers)

Synopsis: Hmm... killer gets out of the slammer and attempts to re-connect with underprivileged teenaged son who hates his guts. It’s basically South Central meets Hoop Dreams.

Blurb From the VHS Jacket: “With promises of a reduced sentence, Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington) is granted temporary release from state prison in order to persuade the nation’s top college basketball recruit... his estranged son Jesus (Ray Allen of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks)... to play ball for the Governor’s alma mater!”

What Did I Learn?: If you name your son “Jesus”, and it isn’t pronounced “Hey Zeus”, there’s a pretty good chance he’s going to get teased about it in school.

You Might Like This Movie If: You love anyone who's got game.

Really?: So wait – Jesus winds up going to the Governor’s alma mater, and the Gov nevertheless reneges on his deal with Jake? Um... considering Jesus Shuttlesworth is supposedly the coolest guy on the planet, what happens if he raises a stink about the betrayal of his old man? Jesus and Jake have nothing to lose by going public.

Rating: I’m not a big Spike Lee fan (although Clockers was quite good), so it’s no surprise that He Got Game left me somewhat cold. It is beautifully filmed, and Denzel Washington gives a magnificent performance as a deeply troubled man who is attempting to put his life back together, but the film has several problems: 1) the sub-plot involving Milla Jovovich as a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold seems tacked-on and somewhat pointless, 2) the storyline seems to veer uneasily between a sneering satire of college basketball recruitment (mostly when Washington is off-screen) and the melodrama of Jake attempting to rebuild his family ties, and 3) Ray Allen just can’t act. Some of the scenes of Allen interacting with talented actors like Washington or Rosario Dawson are just painful. 5.5/10 stars.


The Replacements (2000)

Oops – I meant to have this review ready for February 2nd (this year’s Superbowl) but I was a little sidetracked with other concerns. Unfortunately, I don’t have any other football-related movies in my collection, so instead, I will review four basketball-related films. In the meantime, please click the links to read my reviews of: Friday Night Lights, North Dallas Forty,  Semi-Tough, Any Given Sunday, The Program, The Longest Yard, and All the Right Moves.

Synopsis: There’s nothing’s funnier than scab football!

Blurb From the VHS Jacket: “Yesterday they were a bunch of blue-collar guys. But now things are different. These are the glory days – the days they fill in for striking pro players and become The Replacements.”

What Did I Learn?: Pain heals...chicks dig scars...glory lasts forever... oh, and it’s a really bad idea to eat an entire jar of pickled eggs right before a football game.

Really?: 1) So wait – the team’s quarterback decides to cross the picket line, and Falco (Keanu Reeves) has to go home? Why wouldn’t Coach McGinty keep him on as a backup? 2) It’s funny how the anti-union message of this film is rather muddled... sure, it’s ridiculous for millionaires to go on strike, but aren’t the owners also greedy multi-millionaires? And the best argument for huge salaries: football is a violent game, and careers are often cut short by debilitating injuries, is never once articulated. 3) Let me understand... the new guys bond with each other during a jailhouse musical number when everyone sings, and line-dances to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”? Jesus, who wrote this movie? 4) So, Ray Smith is on loan to the team from the local prison? Um.... I’m pretty sure he would be sent back there immediately after the barroom brawl.

Rating: The Replacements isn’t exactly a “bad” movie, but it wallows in mediocrity and comes perilously close. The film is poorly-written, predictable, formulaic, by-the-numbers junk; Hackman never gets an opportunity to act, and mostly looks bored, and nearly every scene is overpowered either by the manipulative musical score, or by dozens of Jock Jams we’ve heard a million times before. I cannot recommend this movie. 5/10 stars.


Saturday, February 1, 2014

Tequila Sunrise (1998)

(Yeesh - that is one beat-up VHS jacket!) 

Synopsis: Amiable, family-man drug dealer matches wits with super-cool cop... between courses at an upscale Italian eatery? 

Blurb From the VHS Jacket: “Mac McKussic may have quit the business of drug dealing. But – inside and outside the law – the business won’t quit him.” 

What Did I Learn?: Apparently, pre-teen boys can’t get enough angel hair pasta. 

Really?: 1) I realize the title of the movie is Tequila Sunrise, but I had a bit of trouble believing McKussic (Gibson) – a veteran drug-smuggler, would actually drink those awful things. He seems like more of a beer, or single-malt scotch kind of guy. 2) Ok, I really don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I can’t help myself from wondering how a drug kingpin could fool a high-ranking DEA agent for about a decade... wouldn’t dude ever go through official channels with Mexico City? Wouldn’t he be a little bit suspicious when an entire team of Federales sail to LA in a yacht?

Rating: Tequila Sunrise starts out quite well with Gibson and Russell on opposite sides of a failed drug bust, and then... both of them start flirting with Michelle Pfeiffer over Caesar salad and calamari. Amazingly, much of the film takes place in the restaurant, and while Gibson, Russell and Pfeiffer share some great chemistry, the action slows considerably (i.e. not much actually happens), and doesn’t heat up again until the third act. Tequila Sunrise is a good film that could have been better. 7/10 stars.