Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)

Let’s Rob a Jewelry Store Movie #1 (Please click the link to read my review of Reservoir Dogs
Please click the links to read my reviews of a few other Sidney Lumet movies, including: Night Falls on Manhattan, Q&A, The Morning After, The Verdict, Network, Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico. 
Synopsis: Botched burglary breaks bonds between broke, boneheaded brothers. 
Blurb From the DVD Jacket: “Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman is Andy, an overextended payroll executive who lures his younger brother, Hank (Ethan Hawke), into a larcenous scheme: the pair will rob a suburban mom-and-pop jewelry store that appears to be the quintessential easy target.” 
What Did I Learn?: 1) Heaven is a nice place to stay. 2) “Sorry” ain’t gonna pay the bills. 3) The thing about real estate accounting is that you can… add down the page or across the page and everything works out. Everyday, everything adds up. The… total is always the sum of its parts. It's, uh, clean. It's clear. Neat, absolute.
Really?: 1) So, um….where are the cops in this movie? Wouldn't they canvass the area, check out the local car rental agencies, and interview the dead man's girlfriend? 2) Wouldn't Justin have a bit more security in his apartment than a single pistol, considering it contains thousands of dollars in cash and heroin? I man, nobody ever robs drug dealers, do they
Rating: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is an emotionally-powerful, and incredibly haunting movie that works both as a crime thriller and as a melodrama. BTDKYD isn’t an easy film to watch - especially near the end, when Andy’s and Hank’s lives begin to unravel, but it’s filled with knockout performances, especially from Hoffman and Albert Finney. Oh, and watch for Michael Shannon (best remembered as the looney Nelson Van Alden on Boardwalk Empire) in a small but memorable role. Highly recommended. 9/10 stars.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Chef (2014)

Please click the link to read my review of another film about the love of good food, Big Night
Synopsis: It’s basically a very, very upbeat version of The Van, as well as a two-hour ad for Twitter. 
Blurb From the DVD Jacket: “Jon Favreau (writer, director, producer) leads a hilarious all-star cast including Sofia Vergara, Scarlett Johansson, John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, Robert Downey Jr. and young actor Emjay Anthony in this deliciously entertaining comedy about starting from scratch.” 
What Did I Learn?: 1) Don’t EVER attempt to send a private message via Twitter. 2) Apparently, social media marketing is super-easy, and can be mastered by small children. 
Really?: 1) Ok, I realize Carl was once an up-and-coming chef, but now he’s broke and overweight, and he somehow managed to romance women who look like Sofia Vergara and Scarlett Johansson? That seems awfully Hollywood to me. (Speaking of Johansson, her character isn’t in this movie for very long, even though it’s suggested that she and Carl have feelings for each other. What happened to that relationship?) 2) Funny how all of the in-fighting between Carl, Martin (Leguizamo), and Carl’s son (Anthony) takes place before they set off for Los Angeles, so they generally get along swimmingly on the road. 
Rating: Chef is a warm, somewhat-funny, and highly-enjoyable comedy about a talented-but-bored chef who rediscovers his purpose, and reconnects with his ex-wife and son by opening a food truck and getting back to basics. It’s a nice little film, even though Downey’s cameo doesn’t really fit, and there’s no conflict in the the third act (see: “Really?”), so Carl seems to move from one triumph to another. 8/10 stars.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Melinda and Melinda (2004)

Please click the links to read my reviews of a few other Woody Allen movies, including Manhattan Murder Mystery, Deconstructing Harry, Radio Days, Hollywood Ending, Sweet and Lowdown, and Bullets Over Broadway. 
Synopsis: Have you ever wanted to watch the same dreadfully dull story involving rich-and-pretentious New Yorkers unfold not once, but twice? Have I got a movie for you! 
Blurb From the DVD Jacket: “Legendary writer/director Woody Allen tells a woman’s story twice - once as a comedy, once as a drama.” 
What Did I Learn?: 1) Apparently, men find women in casual clothing to be much sexier than women in formal or business attire. 2) Everybody who is anybody has a place in the Hamptons. 3) Living is messy. 4) Life has a malicious way of dealing with great potential. 5) Life is all networking. 6) The essence of life isn’t tragic; it’s comic. 7) Life is manageable enough if you keep your hopes modest. The minute you allow yourself sweet dreams you run the risk of them crashing down.
Really?: So, the entire premise of this movie is a friendly debate between two educated playwrights on the superiority of tragedy over comedy, and vice-versa? Isn’t that akin to arguing that the accelerator on a car is more important than its brakes? 
Rating: I wanted to like Melinda and Melinda, yet after an hour of Will Ferrell’s distracting Woody Allen impression, I desperately wished for this turkey to end. None of the characters presented are even remotely likeable, let alone interesting, and the “comedy” presented really falls flat. I cannot recommend this movie. 4/10 stars.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Uncommon Valor (1983)

Coming Back From Vietnam Movie #10 (please click the links to read my reviews of two other Ted Kotcheff films: North Dallas Forty, and Switching Channels) 
Synopsis: It’s like a 105-minute episode of The A-Team, except our heroes use four-letter words, and people actually get iced when the plastique explodes. 
Blurb From the VHS Jacket: “Gene Hackman portrays Colonel Jason Rhodes, a man obsessed, in this powerful, action-packed adventure.” 
What Did I Learn?: 1) You don’t ever quit, not when it’s for real! 2) Most human problems can be solved by an appropriate charge of high explosives.
Really?: 1) Funny how the only team members who don’t return from the mission are the ones without wives and families waiting for them back home. 2) Am I wrong in thinking it highly unlikely the Vietnamese/Laotians would keep (and feed) American POWs so long after the end of the war? I mean, in this movie, they’re so emaciated that they probably wouldn’t be much use as farm labour, and returning them after so many years would be a public relations disaster for everyone involved. 3) So, wait - the men get their weapons impounded by Thai officials (tipped off by the CIA), so they use their bonus money to buy WWII-era guns, and attempt the mission on the cheap? Wouldn’t it be a much better idea to contact Macgregor for more dough? 
Rating: Uncommon Valor owes a lot to The Dirty Dozen, as well as other mercenary-themed films such as The Wild Geese and The Dogs of War, but it’s also a highly-compelling action-thriller with some nice performances from an impressive cast. This might be an overly-generous review, but Uncommon Valor is one of my favourite go-to films, and it’s definitely worth checking out if you haven’t already seen it on television. Highly recommended. 9/10 stars.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Rolling Thunder (1977)

Coming Back From Vietnam Movie # 9 (Click the link to read my review of Space Cowboys, another film that starred William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones).
Synopsis: Bad dudes mess with the wrong guy, who now wants payback. That's right - it would have been perfect for my 2011 tribute to Revenge movies
Blurb From the VHS Jacket: “When Major Charles Rane (William Devane) comes home to Texas after 8 years in a POW camp, he is given a true hero’s welcome - and a couple of things he hadn’t counted on.” 
What Did I Learn?: 1) Gents, if a band of brigands threaten to shove your hand into a garburator if you don’t hand over a bag of silver dollars, give them the bag! 2) “You learn to love the rope. That's how you beat 'em. That's how you beat people who torture you. You learn to love 'em. Then they don't know you're beatin' ‘em."
Really?: 1) Ok, I realize that Fat Ed, Texan, Automatic Slim and Lopez aren’t exactly the sharpest tools in the shed, but wouldn’t their big plan - assault and rob a local hero who was awarded a few prizes on television - likely result in a huge law enforcement backlash? Wouldn’t it be far simpler (and less risky) to just knock over a liquor store? 2) Gee, Dabney Coleman isn’t given much to do as Rane’s psychologist, is he? 
Rating: Written by Paul Schrader, Rolling Thunder is a worthy companion to Taxi Driver, his other 1970s film about a troubled Vietnam vet who goes off on a violent rampage. Rolling Thunder is gritty, and rather disturbing at times, but it’s also a highly-entertaining action-thriller. 8/10 stars.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Distant Thunder (1988)

Coming Back From Vietnam Movie #8
Synopsis: If you ever wanted to see the Karate Kid get slapped around by the dad from Harry and the Hendersons, this is totally your movie. 
Blurb From the VHS Jacket: “A handful of emotionally-scarred Vietnam vets hide out in Washington’s rain forest, living as if the fighting might erupt at any time. One day it did…” 
What Did I Learn?: It’s a really bad idea to tell a mentally-unstable former Navy Seal to go fuck himself. Just sayin’… 
Really?: 1) So wait, Mark (John Lithgow) and Jack (Ralph Macchio in a role where he isn’t given much to do) don’t even meet until the movie is at least half-way over? And then another vet suddenly turns psychotic, and the film becomes an action-thriller in the third act? 2) Funny how Jack has never known his father, yet he somehow wakes up in local hospital knowing his Dad is about to ‘kiss a train’, and he knows exactly where to find Mark without driving all over unfamiliar territory.  
Rating: I have to give Distant Thunder a bit of a mixed review. While I have never been a huge John Lithgow fan (he was quite good as the Trinity killer in the third season of Dexter, however), he delivers a touching, and highly believable performance as Mark Lambert, a troubled man who somehow finds the courage to reach out to his estranged family for help. The film more-or-less works as a character-driven drama until the last half hour when the plot veers off into a strange direction (see: “Really?”) and we’re treated to a highly contrived reconciliation between father and son. 6.5/10 stars.

Some Kind of Hero (1982)

Coming Back From Vietnam Movie #7
Synopsis: Hilarity ensues when America’s worst soldier gets screwed over by the North Vietnamese, the US Army, his unfaithful wife, a local nursing home, and some really dishonest gangsters. 
Blurb From the DVD Jacket: “Corporal Eddie Keller just spend six years as a prisoner of war. Now he's coming home.” 
What Did I Learn?: If you’re experiencing money problems, and the government isn’t forking over the cash it owes you, your best course of action is to rob a bank. 
Really?: 1a) The hooker with a heart of gold…man, that’s original. 1b) Can anyone explain why Toni remains so loyal to Eddie? I mean, he’s flat broke, and he certainly doesn’t treat her all that well. 2a) Um….wasn’t Richard Pryor a little old to play a combat soldier in 1981? 2b) So, Eddie is a Corporal, meaning he must have received a promotion from the rank of Private, and yet he acts like a complete idiot when the bullets start flying? 3) Hold on…why would the gangsters bring any money to their meeting with Eddie if their plan is to simply steal his already-stolen bonds and kill him? 4) Funny how the first 20-30 minutes have almost nothing to do with the rest of the picture. I mean, Eddie spent six years in captivity, yet he’s pretty well-adjusted (psychologically speaking) after he’s released. 
Rating: Pryor’s brand of foul-mouthed slapstick humour mixes uneasily with far more serious themes in Some Kind of Hero, a very disjointed comedy-drama about a nice guy who can’t seem to catch a break, even after he’s released from the Hanoi Hilton. The film has a lot of problems, but Pryor’s character is oddly likeable, and I loved the scene where a very nervous Eddie attempts to rob a bank and only succeeds in wetting his pants and humiliating himself - I couldn’t stop laughing for at least ten minutes. 6/10 stars.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Welcome Home (1989)

Coming Back From Vietnam Movie #6
Synopsis: It’s basically The Return of Martin Guerre with a few minutes from Missing in Action
Blurb From the VHS Jacket: “In 1970, Air Force pilot Jake Robbins’ plane was shot down over Cambodia. The US Military identified a body as Jake’s and sent it home for burial. Ever since, Jake’s family as struggled to rebuild their lives without him… The Army would like Jake Robbins to remain a dead hero. But now, 17 years after his family buried him in a hero’s grave, Jake Robbins shows up on their doorstep - alive. Welcome Home. 
What Did I Learn?: Apparently, the official U.S. Air Force policy, when confronted with a former Prisoner of War who was previously presumed to be killed in action, is to provide him with phony identification papers and a duffel bag full of cash, and tell him to keep a low profile.
Really?: 1) The first 15 minutes of the movie are a bit difficult to swallow. Jake is comatose from a high fever in Thailand, yet he wakes up in a V.A. hospital in the US. How did they know he was American, let alone an Air Force pilot, and why would American officials take him back to the US without at least vetting him? 2) The offscreen death of Jake’s Cambodian wife is rather convenient, isn’t it? 3) See: “What Did I Learn?” (Seriously, how long do the military brass think Jake can live in his hometown without creating a media frenzy?) 4) So, Jake is supposed to be what, 35 years old? Wasn't Kris Kristopherson a little past his prime for that role in the late 1980s? 
Rating: I have to give Welcome Home a bit of a mixed review. On the one hand, I was genuinely moved by the quiet dignity of Kristopherson’s portrayal of Jake Robbins, and it’s tough not to feel a lump in one’s throat during the scene when he meets his father again after such a long absence. On the other hand, the movie’s script has a few obvious problems (see: “Really?” and “What Did I Learn?”), but its biggest is that it doesn’t really know where to go after Jake reunites with his long-lost wife, and meets her new family. I also have to deduct at least one star for an absolutely awful theme song performed by Willie Nelson, and co-written by Henry Mancini. 6.5/10 stars.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Coming Home (1978)

Coming Back From Vietnam Movie #5 
Synopsis: It’s basically Born on the Fourth of July, except Ron Kovic ruins a marriage. 
Blurb From the VHS Jacket: “Perhaps the most powerful and moving film ever made about the shattering aftermath of the Vietnam War, Coming Home earned eight Academy Award nominations and three Oscars: Best Actress for Jane Fonda’s ‘unforgettable portrait’ (Judith Crist), Best Actor for Jon Voight’s ‘dazzling performance’ (Rex Reed) and Best Screenplay.” 
What Did I Learn?: 1) Tiger balm makes you feel cool. 2) The Marine Corps builds body, mind and spirit. 3) Gents, if you’ve been away from your wife for a long time, and she fixes you an intimate dinner-and-cocktails welcome home get-together with a couple of close friends, it’s a really bad idea to invite a few of your drinking buddies over for free booze that night. 
Really?: Um, isn’t Bruce Dern’s hair a little long for a Marine Captain? 
Rating: Coming Home is a powerful anti-war drama (it’s also a searing indictment of the overcrowded, and underfunded V.A. hospitals that treated Vietnam vets) that earned three Oscars: Best Actress for Fonda, Best Actor for Voight, and Best Screenplay. Both leads deliver strong performances, but in my opinion, Dern steals the movie with his memorable portrayal of a decent-yet-troubled officer who can’t come to grips with the savagery he saw in combat. Oh, the film also boasts a kick-ass 1960s soundtrack. Highly recommended. 9/10 stars.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Rambo III (1988)

Coming Back From Vietnam Movie #4 
Synopsis: Rambo teams up with the Taliban to expel the infidel invaders from Afghanistan. Wait, WTF? 
Blurb From the DVD Jacket: “This intense, heart-pounding adventure boasts unrelenting action and suspense from start to finish.” 
What Did I Learn?: 1) Rambo has fired a few shots, and he’s not a tourist. 2) God has mercy; Rambo doesn’t. 3) “May God deliver us from the venom of the Cobra, teeth of the tiger, and the vengeance of the Afghan” can be loosely translated to mean ‘Afghans don’t take any shit.’ 
You Might Like This Movie If: You know the Soviets made a really, really big mistake when they got bogged down in Afghanistan. Oh, wait… 
Really?: 1) So, Rambo is extremely talented at Afghan polo, even though he’s never once played it, and he’s up against men who have spent their entire lives on horseback? 2) Hey, what happened to Kurtwood Smith’s character? He’s onscreen for maybe ten minutes, and then disappears….and he has fourth billing! 3) Wait - Colonel Zaysen (Marc de Jonge) spends most of the movie torturing Trautman (Richard Crenna), and then the two aren’t given another face-to-face encounter after Trautman escapes. I’m pretty sure viewers want to see Trautman beat the crap out of Zaysen in hand-to-hand combat, not blow up his helicopter gunship. 
Rating: Much like The Living Daylights, Rambo III seems more than a little dated in the post-Cold War / post-9/11 world, but that’s really the beginning of its problems. The film is simplistic, cartoonish, and predictable. And while Rambo III has important things to say about the Red Army’s conduct during the 1979-89 war in Afghanistan, its dialogue often descends into outright editorializing. I cannot recommend this movie. 4.5/10 stars. 
Would it Work For a Bad Movie Night?: Maybe. Take a drink any time any time Rambo kills somebody, or does something cool with that badass knife.

Rambo First Blood Part II (1985)

Coming Back From Vietnam Movie #3 (This would have been perfect for my tribute to Revenge films a few years ago) 
Synopsis: Sylvester Stallone single-handedly wipes out most of Communist Vietnam’s peacetime army and an entire company of Soviet commandos. 
What Did I Learn?: 1) Apparently, it’s impossible to hit anything with a machine-gun. (Oh wait - I think I learned that from Where Eagles Dare). 2) Ok, I realize Rambo is essentially indestructible when it comes to bullets and explosions, but there’s a scene of him up to his neck in run-off water from a pig stye, and he’s bleeding. I guess he doesn’t have to worry about an e-coli infection. 3) Was it really necessary to use an exploding arrowhead to finish off that sadistic Vietnamese Colonel? 
You Might Like This Movie If: You want to see the film that inspired this parody....and this parody....and this parody... and this parody....and this parody
Really?: Um…. see “Synopsis” and “What Did I Learn?” 
Rating: Rambo: First Blood Part II is a fun and exciting 1980s action flick that’s marred by highly unbelievable combat sequences and a nearly cartoonish third act. Still, I love the moment when Rambo leans into the Soviet microphone and informs Murdoch he should prepare himself for a world of pain. 6/10 stars.

First Blood (1982)

Coming Back From Vietnam Movie #2
Synopsis: Drifter with mysteriously large knife runs afoul of America’s worst police force and destroys small town. 
What Did I Learn?: 1. When John Rambo tells you to let it go, you LET. IT. GO! 2) Rambo can eat things that would make a billy goat puke. 
Really?: 1) Um….just how much punishment can Rambo endure, exactly? I mean, the man falls off a cliff, smacks into some fir tree branches, seriously cuts his hand, and he just keeps going! 2) It’s funny how Rambo is the protagonist in this movie, yet he doesn't have that many lines, and we see a lot more of Brian Dennehy’s bull-headed sheriff. 
Rating: First Blood is easily the best of Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo films, as it features a somewhat-believable plot, a three-dimensional (and strangely sympathetic) villain in Dennehy’s character, and a serious theme: the very real discrimination that many Vietnam vets felt after they returned to the United States. Moreover, it’s a compelling action-thriller. Watch for David Caruso as the only deputy sheriff with any common sense. 8/10 stars.

In Country (1989)

Coming Back From Vietnam Movie #1 
Longtime readers of this blog may remember the time I reviewed a dozen Vietnam War movies in August, 2012. In January of this year, I added another four reviews, and promised to provide commentary on a related genre: films about the aftermath of the war, and the men who came home from Vietnam. Generally speaking, these movies can be divided into two categories: dramas about emotionally messed-up former soldiers attempting to reconnect with their families and friends in small town America, and action-adventure flicks about veterans who want some payback. Interestingly, Rolling Thunder falls into both categories. 
Synopsis: Overconfident child of the 1980s discovers the Vietnam War was like... totally uncool and grody to the max! 
Blurb From the VHS Jacket: “At 17 Samantha Hughes of Hopewell, Kentucky, is pretty, energetic, headstrong… and curious about the father she never knew.” 
What Did I Learn?: Apparently, the Vietnamese jungle looks a lot like the forest outside of Hopewell Kentucky. (Oh wait, I think I learned that from The Green Berets
Really?: 1) See: “What Did I Learn?” 2) So, how does Emmet (Bruce Willis) actually support himself? Everyone urges him to take a job at the local tire plant, but he never gets around to doing so, and he always seems to have money for booze and smokes. 3) Am I alone in thinking that tryst between Samantha (Emily Lloyd) and Tom (John Terry) - a man who served with her dad in Vietnam, was a little on the creepy side? 
Rating: In Country, is a very slow-moving (it takes a looooong time to get started), but warm, funny, and ultimately touching character-driven look at a young woman who desperately wants to learn more about the father she never knew, and his final, tragic days. 7/10 stars. 

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Eastern Promises (2007)

Hmm….I could have reviewed this for my tribute to British gangster films. 
Synopsis: The Russian mob is baaaaaaad news. 
Blurb From the DVD Jacket: “Viggo Mortensen and Academy Award nominee Naomi Watts star in this electrifying thriller from critically acclaimed director David Cronenberg (A History of Violence).”
What Did I Learn?: Apparently, the City of London consists entirely of Russians and Chechens. 
Really?: 1) Wait, Anna (Watts) only learns about the attack on Nikolai (Mortensen) because some orderlies happen to wheel him past her as she’s walking through her hospital? Boy, that’s a coinky-dink! 2) If I discovered the local mob boss raped a young girl, I wouldn’t drive over to his place of business just to yell obscenities at his henchmen. 3) Speaking of the boss (Armin Mueller-Stahl), doesn’t he have more important things to do than taste the borscht, and organize birthday parties at a Russian restaurant? 4) Ok, I realize the demographics of London have certainly changed, but it’s strange that this movie takes place in London, and yet aside from Anna’s mom, we don’t meet any Brits. 
Rating: If you ever wanted to learn more about post-Soviet gangsters, Eastern Promises is a good place to start. The film has a creepy, and suspenseful ambiance - lots of dimly-lit rooms and long shadows - and I really liked the interplay between the Anna the idealist and Nikolai, the strangely sympathetic criminal. You never really know where he stands until the very end, which makes him interesting. The biggest problem with Eastern Promises, however, is that it’s nearly all ambiance and build-up, so it doesn’t really go anywhere. The ending is a bit of a disappointment. 7/10 stars.

In Good Company (2004)

Synopsis: It’s basically two hours of Topher Grace finding creative ways to drive Dennis Quaid batshit crazy until the old guy finally snaps. 
Blurb From the DVD Jacket: “Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid) is a loving husband, caring father and star ad executive. But now, life is putting him through the ultimate test.” 
What Did I Learn?: The secret to a good marriage is the following: “You just pick the right one to be in the foxhole with, and then when you're outside of the foxhole you keep your dick in your pants.” 
Really?: 1) I’m pretty sure that “we’re letting you go” is a commonly-understood euphemism for “you’re fired.” 2) Wait…Dan punches his boss in a crowded restaurant, and then embarrasses the big cheese (Malcolm McDowell in a nice cameo as Teddy K) with some very embarrassing (albeit valid) questions at a company pep rally, and he somehow has a job (and isn’t in jail) at the end of the day? 3) So, the company gets bought out, and everything goes back to the way it was before all of the cutbacks? That’s convenient. 
Rating: In Good Company is a funny and charming film that somehow manages to work as both a romantic comedy and as a satire of corporate culture. While the story is told from Dan’s perspective, Carter (Grace) is portrayed sympathetically, and it’s hard not to like the guy even when he’s forced to terminate most of the magazine’s workforce. My only complaint is the movie’s third act, which is a bit hard to swallow (see: “Really?”) 7.5/10 stars.