Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Sisters


















I've been a huge fan of both Amy Poehler and Tina Fey since they were first on Saturday Night Live. My love for them has only grown as they went on to their own respective sitcoms on NBC, 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation. While their first cinematic collaboration, Baby Mama didn't quite work for me, this second outing more that makes up for it with the very funny Sisters

Maura Ellis (played by Amy Poehler) is notified by her parents (played by James Brolin and Dianne Wiest) that they are selling their house and need her and her sister Kate (played by Tina Fey) to come and clean out their rooms so the house can be sold. Begrudgingly, the two sisters return home, unhappy to see their childhood home being sold off. With the rest of the house packed up and just their room left to go through, the two girls have the place to themselves as they start going through a lifetime of items, including their old journals. With a wave of nostalgia, Kate proposes that they have one last blowout party to celebrate. Maura agrees on the condition that for once Kate remains sober so that Maura can "let her freak flag fly." Kate begrudgingly agrees and the two set out to throw the Party to end all parties in their childhood home. What starts off as a rather tame gathering continues to escalate until becoming an all out rager that will likely rival some of cinema's all time rager party movies. 

There was a lot to enjoy in Sisters and much of it has to do with the two characters played by Poehler and Fey. Maura is a recently divorced woman who is trying to move on with her life but is perhaps not certain how to do it. Kate on the other hand is in a state of arrested development, irresponsible and frequently unemployed and homeless, crashing on a friend's pull out couch. Her daughter is frequently missing, staying with friends and trying to avoid her mother. She has the trickier character her, playing someone who could be completely unlikable in the wrong hands, but Fey manages to pull it off, creating a character that you genuinely want to see get their act together. Plus, it's fun to see Fey play against type as the bad girl of sorts. Maura on the other hand has lived a much more sheltered and well-behaved life and always did what she felt she was supposed to. Much of the joy of the film is seeing her finally cut loose and start living a little.

Overall, I thought Sisters was an amusing and funny comedy and one that wasn't overwhelmed with raunchy humor as so many comedies are these days, which was a refreshing change. At the center of it we have two strong performances from two of the funniest ladies working today proving once again what a dynamite comedy duo they are. It's nothing groundbreaking, but fans of Fey and Poehler will have a good time with it.        

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York

















It's kind of surprising how much of Home Alone 2 works despite more or less shamelessly rehashing the original film and just swapping out the location. Hell, it even has a better cast. Of course, I also have to laugh at the title because, when you think about it, this time nobody's home.

It's one year later and the McCallister family is once again getting ready to travel during the holidays. This time they are headed to Miami and Kevin (played by Macaulay Culkin) is less than thrilled at the prospect of spending Christmas in a tropical climate and I have to agree. Fully aware of what happened the year prior, Kevin's mother Kate (played by Catherine O'Hara) makes sure Kevin doesn't get left behind this time. Things go south when Kevin gets separated from his family as they run to their gate. Kevin winds up following a stranger onto the wrong flight and winds up in New York while his family lands in Miami. However, Kevin finds himself surprisingly resourceful, managing to get a cab into the city and securing a reservation at the Plaza Hotel using his father's credit card (complete with a gratuitous cameo from then owner and current Presidential "candidate" Donald Trump). The ruse works for the most part, except for the suspicions of the hotel concierge Mr. Hector (played by Tim Curry). From there, Kevin tours the city, makes a stop at a large toy store, runs into a scary bird lady in Central Park (played by Brenda Fricker), who of course later turns out to not be so scary and eventually crosses paths with the newly escaped Harry (played Joe Pesci) and Marv (played by Daniel Stern). In a moment of ill-advised monologuing, the two professional gluttons for punishment divulge to young Kevin their intentions to rob the toy store at midnight on Christmas Eve. Kevin knows the owner of the store, Mr. Duncan (played by Eddie Bracken) was planning to donate all the proceeds for the day to the local Children's Hospital. Deciding it's up to him to stop the two nitwit crooks, Kevin breaks into his Uncle Rob's under renovation Brownstone and sets up another series of elaborate traps to teach these two another much needed Christmas lesson. 

Home Alone 2  is a pretty lazy sequel for the most part, shamelessly rehashing the original film from beginning to end, but everything is just bigger. Which makes sense since they clearly had more money this time around. But yet, I don't hate it. Maybe its just the nostalgia talking, but I still laughed all the way through this film. It's the little things that work for me. Eddie Bracken as the kindly toy store owner, Brenda Fricker as the bird lady in Central Park and the friendship that develops between her and Kevin. The comedic MVP for me though is Tim Curry. He takes his relatively small role and plays up every moment with gusto. In particular there is a moment towards the end where he is being rather condescending towards Kate and her desire to go out in the city to look for Kevin and she just slaps him across the face. He then immediately changes his tune, telling her to bundle up and then proceeds to look like he's about to cry. It cracks me up every time I watch it. And then there is Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. They gave big performances in the first film because they were sure no one would see it. Here, they let loose even more because they both know they are basically in a live action cartoon. Especially Daniel Stern, who gives a very funny performance as Marv. I even feel sympathy for poor Marv, because after this film's set of traps, he should have died ten times over. The traps are certainly much more severe this time around too, with electrocutions, crushing head blows, fire and explosions come left, right and center. Granted, these two guys by all means have it coming, but there is a level of cruelty this time around that is a little disturbing to my now adult sensibilities.

Overall, revisiting Home Alone 2  has become all too clear one of those more of the same Hollywood sequels. It's no mystery why 95% of the cast and crew bailed after this entry and I hate to break it to you faithful readers but this is where I stop too. I have seen parts of Home Alone 3 and it is excruciating to watch. Nor do I have any desire to watch the two TV movie sequels either because I'm sure they are even worse. Nope, two is plenty for me. The two from my youth that I can rewatch and enjoy with my rose tinted nostalgia glasses and that is just fine with me.  

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Home Alone













It's hard to believe it's been 25 years since Home Alone  came out. Sure, I saw it in the theater as a kid, as did any other kid at the time. But to be reminded of that fact as a now 34 year old man is a bit staggering and only serves to remind me of how old I really am. So, naturally, I look back on the film with a certain degree of nostalgia. But at the same time I have some mixed feelings about the film. On one hand it is a very entertaining, funny, and heartwarming film. But at the same time it also wrecked the career of John Hughes. After this film came out and was a monster hit, that was all Hollywood wanted from the guy. More slapstick and pratfalls, leaving behind the more thoughtful and heartfelt films he had made prior to it in his career. 

The plot of the film is well known by now. Kevin McCallister (played by Macaulay Culkin) is accidentally left home alone when his large family, as well as another horde of relatives, have to leave home in a hurry to travel to Paris for Christmas vacation. When his mother, Kate (played by Catherine O'Hara), realizes her mistake, she struggles to get home to her son. Meanwhile, Kevin has to deal with living on his own and taking care of himself for the first time in his life. He does a remarkably good job of it, even taking on chores such as shopping or laundry. But he also finds joys in things he was previously denied such as enjoying junk food, watching R-rated movies and staying up late to watch The Tonight Show. Things take a turn when he discovers his home is being targeted by two bumbling burglers, Harry (played by Joe Pesci) and Marv (played by Daniel Stern). Determined to protect his house from the intruders, he sets up several elaborate booby traps to try and fend them off in a climactic showdown between Kevin and the two robbers.

I used to have whole sections of this movie memorized. I absolutely loved it as a kid, as did most kids my age. There is so much wish fulfillment in this movie for young kids, it's crazy. We all wanted to ride a toboggan down the steps and out the front door or zip line from the roof to our tree house (if we had a tree house, which I didn't growing up. But my brother and I did try to ride the sled down the steps but the front door wasn't positioned right, much to our disappointment). And what kid wouldn't love to throw two crooks through the trials and tribulations of some rather clever (and rather cruel) booby traps that pummel, burn and maim the two gluttons for punishment, all played for the laugh and delight of the audience? I'll admit I was still laughing this time around, if wincing in pain as well. I suppose life experience would add a layer or two to these scenes from when I was a kid. 

Macaulay Culkin gave a star making performance in the film and was quite adorable and endearing, even if he did mug for the camera a bit much in the film. In fact, the entire film was inspired by a scene in a prior film Culkin made with John Hughes, Uncle Buck. In that film, there is a scene where Culkin is left home alone with his sister and repeatedly question's Buck's girlfriend, who was sent to babysit, through the mail slot before letting her in. It's a fantastic scene and easy to see the genesis of this film in that moment. 

This film also, for better or worse, established the directing career of Chris Columbus. He had been a screenwriter prior and made his directing debut with Adventures of Babysitting, but this was his first big hit. John Hughes wrote the script while also producing the film as well. Prior to this, he was best known for surprisingly heartfelt and thoughtful teen films such as Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, as well as adult fare such as Planes, Trains and Automobiles and She's Having a Baby. After this film that all changed as his films shifted more towards set-ups for physical comedy, mainly of the pain inflicting slapstick sort, continuing on with two sequels to this film that he wrote, as well as his rendition of Dennis the Menace and it's lowest point being Baby's Day Out, where in which the tyke inflicting all the pain is an infant. To see someone who made so many great films lower himself to such a point is frankly depressing.   

Still, there is a lot of nostalgia in Home Alone for me. It has a lot of heart to it as well as all the pratfalls and slapstick that dominated the later entries and at the center of it is a rather endearing performance by Macaulay Culkin, as well as an equally great one by Catherine O'Hara as his mom desperately trying to get home to her son. It has rightfully gone on to become a holiday favorite and rightly so. Even so, 25 years later, I still can't believe he didn't take even one bite of that macaroni and cheese dinner before he ran off to fight the burglars.   

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens










The first new Star Wars movie with the original cast in 32 years has finally arrived, along with a host of wonderful new characters to add to the mix. There is a lot of nostalgia in seeing Han Solo and Chewie flying the Millennium Falcon again. Seeing Leia, now a General, commanding the Resistance. Hearing the iconic Star Wars themes once again. All of it was perfect Star Wars nirvana for the entire running time of two hours and sixteen minutes. As a service to my fellow Star Wars fans, I will try to abstain from any big spoilers. If you want to go in completely fresh as I did and know absolutely nothing, I'll meet you back here after the movie.

Time has passed since Return of the Jedi. Luke Skywalker (played by Mark Hamill) has disappeared and the stories about the events of the original trilogy have become the stuff of legend. Rising from the ashes of the Empire is a new group of baddies called The First Order, led by Supreme Leader Snoke (played by Andy Serkis) and his second in command, the temperamental dark side Jedi Kylo Ren (played by Adam Driver). Kylo Ren is searching for a map that reveals the location of Luke Skywalker. Also looking for it is the Resistance's top pilot Poe Dameron (played by Oscar Issac). Poe is able to retrieve it first, but Kylo Ren is not far behind. Poe stashes the map in his droid, the adorable BB-8, before being captured by Ren. Meanwhile, one of the storm troopers accompanying Ren, Finn (played by John Boyega), is on his first mission and horrified by the actions of The First Order. He helps Poe escape and in the process of trying to head back to retrieve BB-8, they wind up crashing and are separated on a desert planet. It is there that Finn crosses paths with local scavenger Rey (played by Daisy Ridley) and the droid she recently discovered, BB-8. With the Order in hot pursuit, the two of them escape in a ship they steal which turns out to be none other than the Millennium Falcon. After getting away from their pursuers, Rey and Finn are picked up by a freighter ship piloted by none other than Han Solo (played by Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (played by Peter Mayhew). Thrilled to once again have his ship back, Han and Chewie join up with Rey and Finn to take the map and BB-8 back to the resistance and General Leia (played by Carrie Fisher). 

From it's opening moments, The Force Awakens recaptures the spirit of the original trilogy perfectly. I felt chills as the familiar blue text announcing "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..." came on the screen, followed by the iconic theme music and opening scroll. From there unfolds everything I had hoped for in what the new Star Wars movie should be. The above plot summary is the very broad strokes. Within the film is a rich story filled with both our beloved characters such as Han, Leia, Chewie and Luke (although the latter takes his sweet time showing up. As the film went on, I kept thinking, Where the hell is Luke Skywalker?!). Also mixed in are several new characters which fit in quite well that I quickly found myself really liking. From Rey, the young scavenger who is starting to get her first taste of the Force who the future of the Jedis may lie with. Finn is quite an intriguing character as well and isn't something we have seen before: a Storm Trooper who rejects the Empire and joins the resistance. Poe was another cool addition as well and I'm excited with seeing where this goes with the next two films with all three new characters. On the other side of the force, we have a new baddie in Kylo Ren, who is determined to pick up where Vader left off, but may or may not be up to the task. Adam Driver does a great job portraying him and creating a conflicted character with a few surprises hidden in his backstory that I will not spoil here. And of course, Harrison, Carrie and Mark pick up their characters perfectly, but it's good to know the future of the series is in good hands.

In addition to directing the film, JJ Abrams also co-wrote the film with Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt. It is nice to have Kasdan back, having worked on the original trilogy of films in addition to this one. Abrams and company go to great pains to create a film that matches up with the original trilogy as much as possible while also being it's own film and they pull it off wonderfully with a film that in every sense feels like a proper Star Wars film right down to the iconic John Williams score. 

Overall, The Force Awakens is everything I hoped the new Star Wars film would be. It manages to effortlessly shake off the stench of the sub-par prequels to show what a true Star Wars film should be. This film hits the ground running and never lets up. It's fantastic entertainment and I imagine the fans of the series will be very, very pleased. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Clue
















There's a rule in my house. Every so often I will find myself home at night, completely and utterly stumped at what I want to watch. Nothing really seems that appealing. This led to the development of a rule, When in doubt watch Clue. It hasn't let me down yet. It invariably leads to a one man quote-a-thon as I recite the movie back right along with it. I could watch this movie a hundred times and not get sick of it. In fact, I'm pretty sure I have. Now, in the month of December, the comedy gem is celebrating it's 30th anniversary yet it remains just as timeless and entertaining as ever. With an all star cast of comedy legends, it remains the funniest movie ever based on a board game.

In New England at the height of the McCarthy era, six strangers gather at an isolated house on a stormy night. They each received a letter inviting them to come and that they were each to be known by a pseudonym. The group includes Col. Mustard (played by Martin Mull), Mrs. White (played by Madeline Kahn), Miss Scarlett (played by Leslie Ann Warren), Professor Plum (played by Christopher Lloyd), Mrs. Peacock (played by Ellen Burstyn) and Mr. Green (played by Michael McKean). Overseeing the group is the house's butler, Wadsworth (played by Tim Curry), with assistance from the house's maid, Yvette (played by Colleen Camp). There is also a mystery host, Mr. Boddy (played by Lee Ving). After dinner it is revealed that each guest there is being blackmailed and that the mystery guest, Mr. Boddy is their blackmailer. Wadsworth reveals he has locked all the doors and refuses to unlock them until the matter is resolved. Things take an unexpected turn when Mr. Boddy gives a package to each of the other guests, which are revealed to be the iconic Clue weapons: a revolver, a candlestick, a lead pipe, rope, a dagger, and a wrench. He states the only way to resolve the matter is for one of the guests to kill Wadsworth and shuts off the lights to the room. The plan backfires and Mr. Boddy is the one who winds up dead. Each guest claims they didn't do it, which leads to a madcap search for answers as they try to figure out who did it, where and with what weapon.

Even today, the idea of making a movie out of a board game seems rather crazy. But, if you were going to do it, making one out of Clue would be the one I would choose. Making it a comedy was a novel touch while getting some the best comedic talents of all time to star in it made it even better. Jonathan Lynn directed the movie and wrote the screenplay as well, from a story he developed with John Landis. The result is easily one of the wittiest and most quotable movies I have ever seen. The dialogue, in true farce fashion, comes fast and furious, so much so it's near impossible to catch everything the first time around. The entire cast brings their A-game to the material, which isn't hard since the script is so much fun. The two stand outs for me though are Madeline Kahn, who brings such a coolness to Mrs. White, who has been widowed at least twice, pretty much steals the show whether she is explaining the fates of her first two husbands or explaining the rage she felt towards another individual. The other stand out is Tim Curry, who for the bulk of the movie acts as a sort of ringleader for this six person circus of mayhem, until we get to the end where in which he reveals the solution to the mystery. This kicks off a marathon of a monologue as he takes the rest of the cast through the night's events in breakneck fashion. It's a brilliant moment of comedic acting and it still blows me away to this day.   

The film's design captures the famous setup of the board game, with all the familiar rooms present and accounted for down to the parquet floor design resembling the squares of the board game. It also has the nonsensical secret passageways that make no structural sense in context of the rest of the house. Of course, this is all part of the charm of the film and it's commentary on the nonsense of both the whodunit and farce genres. In no way is this more evident than in the film's multiple endings. When originally released theatrically, the film had one of three endings, a gimmick designed to entice audience members to see the film multiple times. Instead, it turned them off and no one went, resulting in the film bombing at the box office. When released on home video, all three endings play one right after the other, with a simple title card breaking up the separate endings. This format plays much better with audiences and may have been more successful if it had been released this way theatrically. Anyway, to make a long story short (too late!), the multiple endings show just how interchangeable the solution to any given whodunit could be. There always multiple suspects with valid motives and anyone of them could have done it. The fact that this can easily be swapped out for another pokes fun at this trope of the genre. There is even a running gag throughout the endings with one character saying one thing still didn't make sense with another replying, "One thing?!"

Clue has gained a second life over the last thirty years, becoming a cult classic almost on the same level as another Tim Curry film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and has been embraced by the same audience with shadow casts giving Clue the same treatment. There have also been midnight screening quote-a-thons where the audience is encouraged to quote the movie along with it. The film has long been a favorite of mine since I was a kid and is certainly one that rewards rewatching. For a mystery, that is quite an accomplishment. But then again, as the film makes it perfectly clear, the ending is inconsequential. All the fun is in getting there. Although, to be fair the endings are pretty funny too.   

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Krampus


















The idea of a Christmas set horror film is by no means a new idea. From the likes of Black Christmas, Silent Night, Deadly Night, Gremlins, Santa's Slay and the "All Through the House" segment of Tales from the Crypt (as well as the episode from the TV series of the same name), there is enough holiday themed horror to sate the thirst of even the most hardened gore hound. So, to see the makers of Trick 'R Treat take a spin at some festive scares with the legend of Krampus, I can only say bring it on. 

Max (played by Emjay Anthony) is having a rough Christmas. There is a growing distance between his parents Tom and Sarah (played by Adam Scott and Toni Collette). His house has been invaded by his obnoxious Aunt and Uncle Linda and Howard (played by Alison Tolman and David Koechner), their Aunt Dorothy (played by Conchata Ferrell), and assorted cousins. When his cousins find his letter to Santa and read it aloud at the dinner table, Max is humiliated. He snatches it back and runs off. In a fit of rage, he tears up the letter and tosses it out the window, shocked to see the pieces fly up into the sky rather than fall to the ground. Just then a blizzard rolls in and shortly after the power to the entire town is knocked out. Only Tom's German speaking mother, Omi (played by Krista Stadler), knows what is going on: Krampus is coming. She instructs her family to keep the fire in the fireplace hot as the family hunkers down, waiting for the storm to break. 

It's not long before Krampus and his minions show up. And these minions are not the cute and adorable yellow ones. They are demented forms of a Jack in the Box, Teddy Bear, Christmas Angel and Gingerbread men (the latter of which are both strangely adorable and terrifying). Luckily, Uncle Howard is packing heat and the guns come out as the family tries to fend off the monsters until they can come up with a plan to get to safety. In the meantime, this fractured and dysfunctional family starts to rebuild their ties in the midst of the supernatural crisis.  

I was actually pleasantly surprised by Krampus. While it doesn't reinvent the wheel, I kept wondering how it was all going to turn out, especially as the family members started getting picked off, including the kids, which surprised me. As we got towards the end I started to see where it was going, but for a long stretch it did keep me wondering. The film also has a sharp sense of humor running through it which helped ease some of the tension. The film was well directed by Michael Dougherty, who created a great sense of atmosphere of a holiday wonderland slowly dismantled by festive ghouls. The film takes a sharp stab at a consumer driven Christmas from the opening scene at a local department store filled with shoppers run amok for the latest sale. The stop motion animated flashback as the grandmother relates the tale of Krampus to her family was a nice touch too, a throwback to those old holiday specials by way of Tim Burton. 

The film is well cast, with Adam Scott leading the group as the typical suburban Dad who impresses his far more redneck brother-in-law as he steps up to protect his family. Toni Collette manages to capture what most mothers must feel like during the holidays, stressed out and trying their best to make everything picture perfect. Alison Tolman does well as her sister and long suffering wife, trying her best to keep the peace between both sides of the family. Both women were great as they step up as well to protect their children.  

Overall, Krampus fits nicely in with the holiday themed horror films of past. Will it ever be as well revered as say Black Christmas or Gremlins? It's hard to say but it does pack a wallop all of it's own with some unique creature design and some fantastic effects. At the same time, it has a wicked sense of humor and a certain playfulness to it that makes it hard to take it quite so seriously. And despite all the monsters and mayhem, deep down it is a genuine Christmas movie, playing out like a sort of demented It's a Wonderful Life as Krampus blows into town and helps this family rediscover what is really important. Besides, I just can't dislike a movie that has a character exclaim, "I just got my ass kicked by Christmas cookies!"  

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Over the Top












I have a confession to make that I need to get off my chest. It's something that has been bugging me for a little while, ever since I re-watched all the Rocky movies and started revisiting some more Stallone films. What did I pick to follow the Rocky series? Why, of course the cinematic ode to the "sport" of Arm Wrestling Over the Top. Here's where the confession comes in, I actually love this movie. Yes, it's absolutely terrible but it falls squarely in the guilty pleasure category. 

Lincoln Hawk (played by Sylvester Stallone) is a long haul trucker who has been seperated from his wife Christina (played by Susan Blakely) for the past ten years and subsequently has not seen his son, Michael (played by David Mendenhall) at all in that time. It's alluded that Christina didn't want him around during that time, but now that she is deathly ill with plot-contrivanceitis (the movie is annoyingly vague on her actual illness), she has changed her tune and decided Michael should get to know his father. So, she asks Lincoln to pick him up from Military School and have the two drive cross country in Lincoln's semi to see her before her surgery. The kid is understandably perplexed to see this strange man before him and be told that he is his father. He asks for some ID and Lincoln provides him with a wedding picture of him and Christine, which I'm pretty sure is not considered a legal form of ID in most states. Nonetheless, the two hit the road in Lincoln's semi truck, but almost immediately Michael demands Lincoln pull over, at which point Michael jumps out and runs across four lanes of traffic, nearly causing a huge pile up. However, Lincoln scoops him up and they are back on their way after he calms the kid down. I guess in 1987 a kid jumping out of a semi truck and booking it across traffic to get away from said truck was not a cause for concern as no one questions what is happening, nor does it appear the police are notified. Meanwhile, Michael's grandfather Jason Cutler (played by Robert Loggia) is bound and determined to keep Michael away from his father, who he considers to be a no-good loser.

As they make their way cross country, the ice between Lincoln and Michael begins to melt as the two begin to bond. Upon stopping at a truck stop, Lincoln is recognized and challenged to an arm wrestling match for some quick cash to Michael's surprise. He discovers that his dad earns extra money competing in arm wrestling matches and plans to enter the championships in Las Vegas. These sorts of events actually happen, by the way. I looked it up, proving once again that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Lincoln even begins to teach his son to hustle arm wrestling, encouraging him to challenge some local kids that look and act like stereotypical 80's bullies. They best Michael easily, but after some words of encouragement from Lincoln, he returns for a rematch and bests them easily, although improbably. They finally reach their destination and arrive at the hospital Christina is at where they discover to their horror that Christina passed away during surgery. Michael is understandably angry at his father, pointing out they could have made it in time if they didn't waste their time doing things like hanging out in truck stops and teaching him to hustle. To be fair, the kid has a point. Michael returns to live with his grandfather, who will not allow Lincoln to see his son. Determined to regain custody of Michael, Lincoln decides to bet it all on the Las Vegas Arm Wrestling tournament with a grand prize of $100,000 and a brand new long haul semi truck (how convenient!), which he intends to use to set up his own trucking business and build a life for him and Michael. Needless to say, the outcome is pretty obvious.

There is so much that is so gloriously wrong with Over the Top, it's hard to know where to start. The film is directed by the legendary schlock meister Menahem Golan, who co-owned the Cannon Film company that produced mainly B grade action movies, including much of Chuck Norris' films (it is also the subject of a fascinating documentary, Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films.) This was clearly intended to be his attempt at making a serious and heartwarming film because everything played so straight faced. There is supposed to be suspense and excitement during the arm wrestling matches but I can't help but bust out laughing watching it. Any attempts to make the act of arm wrestling seem epic or impressive fall flat as the actors grunt as sweat literally drips from their bodies, glistening under the lights of the arena. Who knew arm wrestling was so physically taxing? There are occasional moments that come across as endearingly cute between Lincoln and Michael, such as a moment when Lincoln teaches Michael how to drive the truck. The thing is the plot of the film, which was written by Oscar winner Stirling Silliphant and Oscar nominee Sylvester Stallone no less, is pretty tired and worn not to mention underwritten. For example, when Michael asks Lincoln why he left him and his mother, Lincoln just responds he had his reasons and it's left at that. The mother is killed off so quickly that we are robbed of any sort of reunion or dramatic moments between her and Lincoln that could shed some light on what happened or explain her sudden change of heart. There is also a rather blatant continuity error where everyone, including Lincoln himself, keep messing up his last name, alternating between Hawk and Hawks depending on the scene. You'd think they would have had that figured out before they started shooting. Then there is some laughably ridiculous plot points, although no more ridiculous then when Michael is going through his mother's things and finds ten years worth of letters Lincoln had sent that his mother kept from him. Overjoyed to find out his father always really loved him after all, he sneaks out of his grandfather's mansion and steals his grandfather's pick up truck. He proceeds to drive it near perfectly all the way to the airport (which he actually knows how to get to!), ditches the truck and manages to catch the next plane to Las Vegas. This kid is twelve. Never has a movie been so aptly titled.    

But yet, despite all this silliness, I can't help but love it. Stallone was paid a then record 12 million dollars to star in the film and eventually gave in, deciding no one would see it. The fact that this film has a cult following almost thirty years later just goes to show how forever film really is. In all fairness, Stallone does his best to make it work and gives a suitably charming performance, especially for a character that in all likelihood we should absolutely despise for basically being a deadbeat father for ten years and the movie does little to prove that presumption wrong. But yet, for some reason I liked the guy and his scenes with David Mendenhall. The film is also scored with a wonderfully cheesy Giorgio Moroder soundtrack largely made up of rock songs performed by such notables as Kenny Loggins, Sammy Hagar, and Asia. I can't help but love it and am not ashamed to say I do own the soundtrack. The songs do help the film, giving it a certain lighter tone than perhaps the film should have had.   

Overall, Over the Top falls squarely in the so bad it's good guilty pleasure category. It's impossible to take seriously, no matter how much it wants you to. It doesn't reach the epic levels of badness as something like The Room, but it's pretty ridiculous in it's own right with staggeringly bad storytelling from a couple writers who really should know better and a director more concerned with style than substance not helping much either. It's a movie that under any other circumstances I should absolutely hate, but somehow it all gels together for me as a movie that is entertaining in ways that are impossible to achieve intentionally. It has it's own undeniable charms despite all of it's faults. So yes, with a pang of guilt and perhaps embarrassment, I freely admit I do indeed actually love this movie. 

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Creed
















Now with the seventh and most recent installment of the Rocky series, Creed, the series brings in some fresh blood to the mix creating a potent and moving film that stands toe to toe with the original. That's right, you heard me. Creed is the best Rocky movie since the first one. 

Adonis Johnson has had a rough life with a father who died before he was born and a mother who died when he was young. He bounced from foster home to foster home until he wound up in Juvenile Detention. It is there that he is found by Mary Ann Creed (played by Phylicia Rashad) who offers to take the young man in for you see Adonis is actually the illegitimate son of the late Apollo Creed. We then jump ahead as an adult Adonis (played by Michael B. Jordan) is trying to find his place in the world, working an office job in Los Angeles and fighting in Boxing Matches in Tijuana, Mexico. But he feels the call of the ring and wants to fight professionally so he decides to quit his job and try to get a trainer. When he can't get a trainer in LA, he hops the next plane to Philadelphia. His plan is to look up his Dad's old friend and former rival Rocky Balboa (played by Sylvester Stallone), which he finds right where we left him working at his restaurant, Adrian's. Rocky is understandably hesitant to train Adonis, remembering all too well what happened to his father. But through the boy's persistence, he eventually agrees. 

Meanwhile, Adonis meets a young woman living in the apartment below him, Bianca (played by Tessa Thompson). She's a spiky up and coming musician and sparks fly between the two almost immediately. As Adonis and Rocky train, Adonis gets the chance to fight another local fighter. It's just before that fight that the manager of the other fighter figures out who Adonis really is and before long the press has caught wind as well. This catches the attention of the manager of Liverpool boxer "Pretty" Ricky Conlan (played by Tony Bellew). Sensing an opportunity, he proposes a fight between Adonis and Conlan. Unsure if he's ready for it, Adonis decides to think it over. While training, Rocky falls ill and is rushed to the hospital. It's revealed that he has Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma and it is recommended he start chemo immediately. Rocky turns him down, stating the chemo didn't save Adrian. Adonis finds the pamphlets and confronts Rocky, refusing to accept that Rocky just wants to give up. He makes a deal with Rocky that he will fight if he does. Rocky begins taking chemo treatments as he trains Adonis by his side, practicing his punches and running up and down the hospital stairwells. The two must both prepare themselves to face the fights of their lives.

Creed was directed by Ryan Coogler as well as written by him along with Aaron Covington, marking the first film in the Rocky series not written by Stallone himself. By centering the story on Adonis, they found a way to inject some new life into both the series as a whole and into Rocky Balboa himself. This film was a passion project for Coogler, who had to coax Stallone into agreeing to take part, who was reportedly as hesitant to take on the project as Rocky was to take on Adonis. Thank god he said yes though because Stallone gives the performance of his career with this film. By this point, Rocky has lost both his wife and his best friend Paulie and just content with shuffling along doing his thing when Adonis shows up in his life, shaking up his entire world. Michael B. Jordan likewise does a great turn as Adonis, who does a great job showing the inner turmoil and conflict in the troubled young man. He develops a strong father-son dynamic with Rocky as the story goes on, even eventually moving in with Rocky, sleeping in Paulie's old room. Tessa Thompson rounds out the trio nicely as the strong willed, fiercely independent Bianca. Her relationship with Adonis nicely mirrors Rocky and Adrian's in the first film. It was a nice touch for Bianca to be the polar opposite of the Adrian we first meet in the original film. Likewise, it's nice to see Phylicia Rashad turn up as Apollo's widow Mary Ann. She does wonders with a disappointingly small role. 

This film strikes just the right note, keeping the overly nostalgic temptations to a minimum, focusing instead on telling it's own story. There are nods here and there (we finally found out who won the rematch at the end of Rocky III!) and the traditional Rocky theme does kick in at a critical moment of the climactic fight (not gonna lie, I teared up hearing it). Creed wins with flying colors, ranking as the best in the series since the original.      

Rocky Balboa
















Now this is more like it. Realizing he didn't want to close the book on the Rocky saga with Rocky V, and who would want to on that low note, Stallone crafted the perfect swan song for Philly's favorite fighter. With deep sentiment, we get to see one last fight in the ring with Rocky Balboa

It's sixteen years since the previous film and a lot has changed for Rocky (played by Sylvester Stallone). His beloved Adrian has passed on after losing a battle with cancer. He owns a Philadelphia restaurant named in her honor and spends his evenings regaling his guests with stories of the good old days. He's also trying to reconnect with his son, Robert (played by Milo Ventimiglia), as the two have grown apart over the years. Looking to find something to do, Rocky applies to get licensed again as a Boxer, figuring he'll try his hand at some local fights. When ESPN runs a computer simulation pitting former champ Rocky against current Heavyweight Champion Mason "The Line" Dixon (played by Antonio Tarver) and the computer states Rocky would win, some boxing promoters get the wild idea to stage an exhibition match to see how it would play for real. Rocky accepts the challenge and once again begins training for the big match. After an argument with Robert, who has found it hard living in his father's shadow, he reconciles with his father and leaves his job to help him train for the fight.  

This film goes a long way in righting a lot of the wrongs with the previous film. It does a much better job of bringing Rocky back to his roots without taking him all the way back to square one. This was the only Rocky sequel not to open with a recap of the previous film, so the desire to distance itself from Rocky V is clear from the get go. There's a lot of growth for Rocky as well as he tries to figure out how to live his life now that the love of his life is gone. Paulie (played by Burt Young) is still hanging around but other than that Rocky is pretty much flying solo running his restaurant, which as we see by the sign had been in operation for a good ten years or so. His relationship with his son, Robert, provides a lot of the heart of the film as Rocky tries to reconnect with him, wondering why Robert doesn't come around anymore. Stallone, who once again writes and directs, gives the film perhaps it's most well rounded opponent in Mason "The Line" Dixon since Apollo Creed. He too has his own problems with his managers not setting him up with any real opposition but rather people he can easily beat. A big part of the reason Dixon accepts the fight is to prove that he can go toe to toe with a real fighter. It's a refreshing change of pace after the rather cartoonish villains of Rocky III and Rocky IV

This was supposed to be the wrap up film for the Rocky series and as such, I feel it was quite successful. As I was re-watching it for this review for the first time since it came out nine years ago, I was surprised at how emotional I became towards the end of the film. There is something so endearing about the character of Rocky Balboa that I can't help but love and seeing how much people love the character as well, captured so well in the scene when he exits the arena for the last time as a boxer with the whole crowd chanting his name, I couldn't help but tear up a little. Yes, it's sentimental, but I don't care. 

Friday, November 27, 2015

Rocky V















After taking Rocky about as far as he can go as a Boxing champion, I can understand why Stallone made the choices he did with Rocky V. The only problem is I don't think anyone, myself included, wanted to see the guy lose, which is exactly what happened in more ways than one.

The fifth film picks up right where the fourth one left off with Rocky (played by Sylvester Stallone) defeating Ivan Drago and returning to the US. It is revealed that the fight with Drago left Rocky with brain damage and as a result can never fight again (considering the pummeling he took in Rocky IV, this should come as no surprise). To add insult to injury, through some poor management by Paulie (played by Burt Young), Rocky's accountant managed to obtain Power of Attorney over the Balboa financials and a few bad investments later, they are now bankrupt. Forced to sell off his assets, Rocky, Adrian (played by Talia Shire), Rocky Jr. (played by Sage Stallone) and Paulie move back to the neighborhood. Rocky even pulls out his old hat and leather coat to mark the occasion and make his regression complete. Left with few options, Rocky re-opens Mickey's gym and begins training other boxers. One in particular, Tommy Gunn (played by Tommy Morrison), repeatedly asks Rocky to train him to be a World Champion Boxer until Rocky eventually agrees. Things start off well but as Tommy begins to win fights and rise in the rankings due to Rocky's tutelage, he attracts the attention of slimy promoter George Washington Duke (played by Robert Gant), who is basically Don King if he got a haircut. Under Duke's influence, Tommy quickly changes from hungry kid to ungrateful punk who leaves Rocky behind for greener pastures. However, when the press takes him to task for turning his back on the beloved Rocky Balboa, Tommy decides he wants a shot at the former Heavyweight champion for a one on one fight of his own. 

After having Rocky basically end the Cold War in the previous film, I can understand wanting to take the old lug down a few notches and make a more grounded film. The problem with this is that none of it really works. After seeing Rocky grow and even mature over the last couple films, it's disheartening to seem him regress back to his old bum routine from the first two films, not to mention at times annoying. Likewise, Paulie is back on the sauce and becoming about as unpleasant as he was in the first film as well, which is a shame because he was downright lovable in Rocky III and Rocky IVMeanwhile, Tommy is a bit of a selfish brat right from the get go, which everyone but Rocky sees but Rocky keeps training him anyway. He even lets Tommy wear the Apollo Creed trunks that Apollo wore in the first film and Rocky wore when he fought both Clubber Lang and Ivan Drago despite not even coming close to having earned that right. Perhaps the most disheartening thing is seeing Rocky neglect his own son in favor of Tommy, which seems so uncharacteristic for someone who previously stated that the birth of Rocky Jr. was one of the best things that ever happened to him. The whole thing is such a depressing and mismanaged slog of a film. The street fight between Rocky and Tommy at the end was a nice change of pace for the series. The closing scene between Rocky and Rocky Jr. was also sweet, especially since it was between real life father and son and even more poignant since Sage's untimely passing in 2012. But there is a lot of cloying, annoying and questionable plotting to get through to get to that point. It almost doesn't seem worth it.   

Overall, Rocky V is the unquestionable dud of the series. I can understand the desire to take things back to basics and if it had been handled well, it could've been a winner. As it is the film just falters for much of it's run time, which is a shame because the potential was there.  

Rocky IV
















Before we get into the review itself, I feel the need to make a blanket statement covering all plot points in this film: I swear to God, I am not making this up. Welcome to Rocky IV.

This film, much like the previous sequel, picks up right where the last film left off recapping Rocky (played by Sylvester Stallone) defeating Clubber Lang as well as the private rematch between Rocky and Apollo Creed (played by Carl Weathers), although annoyingly it still doesn't divulge the outcome of the latter fight. We then jump ahead some time as Russian boxer Ivan Drago (played by Dolph Lundgren) has traveled to America to challenge any worthy opponents to demonstrate the superior strength of the Soviet Union. Apollo Creed accepts the challenge, expecting it to be a silly exhibition match, striding in dressed like Uncle Sam to a live performance by James Brown. Apollo's hubris is his downfall as he takes a beating so severe he dies in the ring within two rounds. Feeling responsible for not ending the match sooner, Rocky challenges Drago to a fight, determined to beat him in retribution for killing Apollo. Adrian (played by Talia Shire) pleads with Rocky not to go through with it, but Rocky leaves to train in Russia ahead of a Christmas Day face off with Drago. 

There's something funny about Rocky IV in the way it's plotting is so amped up, so over the top and so preposterous that I should hate it, but yet somehow I can't. With a thumping soundtrack that includes Survivor's Burning Heart and John Cafferty's Hearts on Fire, this entry is just a brisk popcorn movie that doesn't overstay it's welcome. Once again Sylvester Stallone wrote and directed the film in addition to starring in it and you can kind of get the feeling he was running out of ideas this time out. The movie is padded out with not one, not two but three montages, one largely made up of flashbacks to the previous three films that is meant to be Rocky thinking back on his past with Apollo and resolving to fight Drago, but the sheer length of it comes across more like the cinematic equivalent of a clip show. Then we get two training montages that while exhilarating and inspiring to an extent, you still get the feeling that we're padding the running time. Then there are moments that are so completely nonsensical, no more so than Paulie's birthday party where Rocky gives him a full sized, completely automated robot, with full artificial intelligence capabilities (although kudos to Paulie (played by Burt Young) for being able to reprogram it with a seductive female voice). The entire final fight is equally ridiculous, from Rocky being able to go the distance with Drago despite nearly falling just after fighting Apollo and Clubber Lang, suddenly he's strong enough to take repeated punches to the head from the superhuman Drago, who's punches are rated to be double that of what he was getting from Apollo? I'm calling bullshit movie. Then, on top of that, somehow he manages to turn the tide of the audience to where they are all chanting, "Rocky! Rocky! Rocky!" So, in essence, Rocky Balboa has ended the Cold War.     

But yet there is something irresistible about the film. It's cinematic junk food for sure and it knows it. It is no longer trying to recreate the sentimentality of the previous films, but rather giving itself over entirely to the 80's action movie mindset and in that regard it actually kind of works. With a thumping good soundtrack and slick direction, the movie is plenty of fun, with Paulie along as the comic relief. The scenery is nice and the Russian setting for the bulk of the film makes for a nice change of pace for the series (even though it's really Utah). The movie has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer as it barrels through it's plot at record speed. But while it's entertaining, it doesn't have the same weight as the previous films and is therefore less satisfying overall.  

Overall, Rocky IV is without a doubt the most ridiculous entry in the series of films. It throws any sense of plausibility out the window and embraces it's popcorn movie mentality. On that level, despite all odds, it actually kind of works. When you look at it with any sort of depth, it's a rather preposterous hour and a half of cinema, but at least it's never boring. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Rocky III
















I have a soft spot for Rocky III. It takes everything from the first two movies and then takes it up another notch with Rocky facing his biggest adversary yet with some unexpected help from an old rival. It adds some interesting twists to the familiar story line and expands on the relationship between Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed.

After winning the rematch at the end of previous film, Rocky (played by Sylvester Stallone) has become an international sensation as the new title holder of the World Heavyweight Boxing Champion. He manages to defend the title over several more fights, attracting the attention of up and coming boxer Clubber Lang (played by Mr. T). Clubber challenges Rocky to a fight during a dedication ceremony for a bronze statue of Rocky at the stop of the famous Philadelphia Museum of Art steps. Rocky initially declines, intending to announce his retirement from boxing at the ceremony. He hastily reconsiders and accepts when Clubber Lang starts taunting Adrian (played by Talia Shire) instead. However, tragedy strikes right before the fight and a distracted Rocky is easily defeated by Clubber Lang. Once he recovers, Rocky gets a visit from Apollo Creed (played by Carl Weathers), who offers to train Rocky for a rematch with Lang. With the help of Apollo, Rocky trains harder than ever and is determined to regain his title once again.

This time around, the story is very much centered on Rocky and Apollo as it takes their story in a new direction away from being rivals and very much becoming friends, which I really loved as both Stallone and Weathers find new dimensions to their well known characters. Unfortunately, in the process Adrian gets a bit of the short shrift as Adrian is relegated to standing around either cheering on Rocky or looking concerned, aside from one scene where she manages to get Rocky to pull himself together and quit feeling sorry for himself. The film also marks the screen debut of Mr. T playing Clubber Lang, a disappointingly one-note character. Yeah, he's a worthy adversary that is stronger and meaner than any other opponent that Rocky has faced before, but that's all he is. After Apollo Creed in the first two movies where he was a developed and three dimensional character, Clubber exists just to well, club Rocky and disrupt his world. He doesn't seem to exist beyond that clear cut plot line. While he certainly is intimidating, I just wish there had been a bit more to his character at the same time. On the other hand, remember when I said Burgess Meredith stole the show in Rocky II? Well, I think Burt Young was taking notes because he steals the show this time around as Paulie. From the opening scene onward, where Paulie has fallen off the wagon again and has to get bailed out by Rocky only to admit how jealous he's become of Rocky's success, it was the first time in the series that I really liked his character. From that moment on, he becomes part of Rocky's team and just quietly manages to steal every scene he's in. 

Stallone, in addition to acting in the film, also returns to write and direct the film and does craft and all together stronger film than the previous film, with many of the pacing issues fixed this time around.    

Overall, Rocky III is a decent installment in the series. I appreciated the growing friendship between Rocky and Apollo that gave the film it's heart. Originally, this was supposed to be the closing chapter of the series, and fittingly has the best ending, or at least my favorite of the series.  

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Rocky II















I suppose the plot of Rocky II was the most obvious one of the series, the rematch between Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed after the split decision result at the end of the first movie, but boy does it take it's sweet time getting there.

The sequel picks up essentially right where the first film ended, with a recap of the fight between Rocky (played by Sylvester Stallone) and Apollo (played by Carl Weathers) at the end of the first film. As the two are wheeled into the hospital, the press start asking them questions about the fight. Apollo breaks his promise of there being no rematch in record time when the press challenges his performance. Rocky turns down the offer as time passes. Rocky tries to trade on his notoriety by doing some commercials, but discovers he can't act and has difficulty reading the cue cards due to an injury to his right eye from the fight. Rocky proposes to Adrian (played by Talia Shire) and she accepts. The two buy a house together and before long they have a baby on the way. Rocky is having difficulty finding a way to support his new family and thinking of returning to fighting despite his promise to Adrian not to. Meanwhile, Apollo is getting hate mail claiming the fight was fixed, only fueling his desire for a rematch. Rocky finally accepts the challenge and with the help of Mickey (played by Burgess Meredith) he trains harder than ever with the goal of defeating Apollo in the ring.

There is a lot to like about Rocky II. Seeing the continuing romance of Rocky and Adrian was very cute and heartwarming. Seeing Rocky trying to build a life for his new family and hitting roadblock after roadblock was heartrending. Of course the training sequences were inspiring and awesome, especially with the admittingly corny but still awesome scene where Rocky runs through the streets of Philadelphia only to have some of the neighborhood kids start running with him, only to turn into a full on mob by the time he gets to the iconic Philadelphia Museum of Art steps. I know it's cheesy as hell, but it's still one of my favorite scenes in the movie. The climactic fight is also quite epic, even if the ending isn't exactly a huge surprise. While all the performances are good this time out as well, I have to give special mention to Burgess Meredith this time around. I swear, while everyone else wasn't looking he just picked up the movie and walked off with it. Every time he showed up on screen, I perked up a little as he interjected a little extra life into the film.     

The real problem with Rocky II, and it's not enough to ruin the movie by any means, is that is takes forever to get going. The front end of the movie is burdened with scene after scene of Rocky marrying Adrian, blowing through the money he got the from the fight, trying to find work, etc. All of this is important and everything, but it also gets a bit repetitive and drags things out when the audience really wants the plot to get going. We know the rematch is going to happen. There's no suspense there, it's why we bought the ticket. Like I said, it's not enough to ruin the film, but the pacing is a bit off and the beginning is more drawn out than it needs to be.

Overall, Rocky II wasn't quite as good as the first film. Sequels rarely are, but it is still a strong follow-up to the original film. It's not a perfect film, but it is a frequently entertaining one, especially any time Burgess Meredith is on screen. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Rocky



















There is a certain amount of life imitating art when it comes to talking about the first Rocky film. Written by Sylvester Stallone with the clear idea he would star in it, the movie was eventually greenlit by United Artists begrudgingly agreeing to let Stallone star with the proviso they make it on a smaller budget. This little film would wind up winning three Oscars, including Best Picture, and catapult Stallone into super-stardom, as well as launch a film franchise that is about to release it's seventh installment (although tragically it's not called Rocky VII: Adrian's Revenge no matter how badly me and my fellow Simpsons fans wanted that to happen).

Rocky Balboa (played by Sylvester Stallone), a bit of a loner, socially awkward and gets by fighting the odd boxing match and working as an enforcer for a local loan shark. He spends time around his Philadelphia neighborhood with his friend Paulie (played by Burt Young). He has his eyes on Paulie's shy sister Adrian (played by Talia Shire) who works at the local pet store. Much of the rest of the neighborhood thinks he's a bit of a bum. Meanwhile, World Heavyweight Champion Apollo Creed (played by Carl Weathers) has announced he plans to hold a fight in Philadelphia as part of the Bi-Centennial. However, with five weeks before the fight, he is informed his scheduled opponent is injured and a replacement needs to be found. He decides spice things up and give a local contender a chance. He settles on Rocky, liking his moniker of "The Italian Stallion" and figuring he will be an easy fight. Rocky is surprised by the offer and accepts. Local trainer Mickey Goldmill (played by Burgess Meredith) offers to train him, which Rocky accepts. Using whatever he can to get in shape, either punching meat carcasses at Paulie's work, climbing the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art or using old bricks in the place of hand weights. As the fight approaches, Rocky starts to get nervous, but is determined to go the distance with Apollo to prove himself to everyone.

There is something about this movie that I just can't help but love it and I think a lot of that centers around the main character. Stallone has taken a lot of heat over the years over his acting talent (or as some claim, lack thereof), but he crafts a character that is so unabashedly lovable. Yeah, he's a bit of a slob and a definite underdog, but beyond that beats a heart of gold and you just can't help but root for the guy. Talia Shire likewise gave a good performance that had an arc similar to Rocky's, as their relationship deepens, she comes more and more out of her shell, culminating in a powerful scene when she finally stands up to her alcoholic brother Paulie, who lives with her and takes advantage of her. Burgess Meredith likewise gives a great performance as the surly trainer Mickey who isn't afraid to tell it like it is, such as an early scene when he tells Rocky he's wasting his potential. I also have to single out Bill Conti's epic and iconic score for the film. All these years later, it's still being heard. Most recently it was used in a Best Buy commercial and all that accomplished was making me want to watch Rocky again, hence here we are.

Overall, Rocky laid the groundwork for a series of films that are still going today with the soon to be released Creed. While it is a fantastic film in it's own right, did it deserve the Best Picture award? On a ballot that includes All the President's Men, Network, and Taxi Driver, even I have my doubts. But I kind of like that it did. It has a certain odd symmetry with the film itself. The underdog rising to the challenge and taking the prize.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Young Sherlock Holmes

My first introductions to the Sherlock Holmes canon were the Jeremy Brett series and this film, Young Sherlock Holmes. Of the two, this film was that one that I responded to more, which makes sense since I was a kid at the time. Before I unintentionally raise the ire of others, I must state I have come to appreciate both equally now. 

While it is well documented in the Conan Doyle stories that Holmes and Watson first met as adults, this film portrays them meeting as young men at a British boarding school and their first adventure together. Really, it does make sense that Holmes and Watson met and became friends as kids because everything about their friendship and adventures together felt like the adventures of two guys who never really grew up. No wonder they appeal to me, since I never really did either. 

Anyway, this film focuses on the meeting of Holmes (played by Nicholas Rowe) and Watson (played by Alan Cox) at a boarding school in Victorian London and their first adventure together. Watson's previous school had closed due to the lack of funds and he transferred to the new school in the middle of the term. The two quickly become friends as Watson becomes quite enamored of the unique and intriguing Holmes. Rounding out the group is a young girl at the school, Elizabeth (played by Sophie Ward). She is the niece of the former headmaster, Rupert Waxflatter (played by Nigel Stock), who has taken residence in the school's attic and works on various inventions. He has also become a mentor of sorts to Holmes. Elizabeth, being the only girl at the otherwise all boys school, gets plenty of affection from the other boys, but is only interested in Sherlock.

Meanwhile, throughout London there have been a series of seemingly unrelated accidental deaths. Sherlock's interest is piqued when he notices newspaper clipping relating them among Waxflatter's papers in addition to Waxflatter getting a strange visitor and being rushed out the door. Seeing there is a connection between them and his mentor, and perhaps fearing that his mentor may be on the hit list, Sherlock and Watson begin to investigate. They discover that prior to their deaths, each victim had been shot with a poisoned dart from a blowpipe. This poison causes intense nightmare like hallucinations, which caused each victim to inadvertently cause their own death as they tried to escape said hallucinations. Holmes and Watson, along with Elizabeth investigate further to try and find out why these people were killed, who did it and how it all connects together, which leads to quite the adventure.

The film was directed by Barry Levinson from a script by Chris Columbus and produced by Steven Spielberg. This film fits in quite nicely among the other Spielberg produced films of the era concerning young boys having adventures, while also playing to Sherlock Holmes fans as well. Nicholas Rowe is wonderful as Sherlock, showing a younger and more inexperienced Holmes. He already has his finely tuned intellect, but the rest of his well known persona is still in flux and the adventure he has would come to greatly impact how he is as an adult. Alan Cox is likewise a great Watson, showing how he grows as well over the course of their first case together, from a slightly weak willed young man to a far more courageous one by the end, even going so far as saving Sherlock during the climax. Sophie Ward does well, creating an intriguing character that you can see why she could be the only woman Sherlock loved, while also being a strong character on her own and not one content to sit on the sidelines. The film also has some fantastic special effects. The stand out is one of the earliest uses of pure computer animation in a feature film, a stained glass knight come to life in one victim's hallucination, and animated by Pixar no less, in one of the first cinematic uses of CGI. 

Perhaps the most curious thing about this movie is certain parallels I couldn't help but draw, even as I was starting to read the books the films were based on before they were even films, to the Harry Potter films, especially the first two or so. I'm sure it's unintentional, but there are distinct similarities between the two. The trio of characters match up remarkably well, Harry/Sherlock, Ron/Watson, Hermoine/Elizabeth, then the other characters such as the school's resident knob Dudley/Draco, Waxflatter/Dumbledore (I can go further, but that would lead to spoilers). I found myself drawing these parallels when I first read the books because really this movie was my cultural touchstone for British Boarding School life. You can probably imagine my bemusement when it was announced Chris Columbus was going to direct the movies, given that he wrote the screenplay for this one (whether or not that eventually turned out to be a good or bad thing is the subject of another review that I will no doubt get to...eventually). 

Overall, Young Sherlock Holmes remains one of my all time favorite movies. It's by no means perfect (the voice over narration from an Older Watson can get to be a bit much at times), but it is a consistently entertaining film anchored by a trio of engaging performances, and certainly one that got me into Sherlock Holmes. So, there is that at least.   

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Mr. Holmes
















There have been many different incarnations and tales of Sherlock Holmes over the years, with countless adaptations led by many different actors. The majority of them were taken directly from the stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle. While most of them focused on Holmes during his time at Baker Street (or his youth, in the supremely enjoyable Young Sherlock Holmes), his later years had never really been explored. Mr. Holmes accomplishes this quite wonderfully and exquisitely. 

Sherlock Holmes (played by Ian McKellen) has long since retired from the detective business and living a quiet life in the English Countryside a few years after the end of World War II. He is looked after by Mrs. Munro (played by Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (played by Milo Parker). Mrs. Munro tries her best to tolerate Sherlock's eccentricities whereas her son looks upon him with a sort of hero worship. Sherlock is getting on with age and dealing with the slow loss of his once sharp intellect. He is trying to write an account of his last case he took and the woman at the center of it, a story previously documented incorrectly by the late John Watson. His aim is to correct the story, if only he could remember it. Prodding him along is young Roger and the two make an unlikely pair as Roger helps jog the old detective's memory so he can put the one case that still haunts him behind him once and for all. 

I must say Ian McKellen gives a fantastic performance as Sherlock Holmes, both at the older man and as the younger Sherlock as we see in flashbacks. He captures both handsomely, giving his own unique take on the character. He has plenty to work with as well, as we see Sherlock as a much older man than we are used to, trying to keep his mind sharp through various methods. In fact, there is a subplot, told in flashbacks, as Holmes travels to Japan to recover a rare plant that grows there, the prickly ash. He believes extracts from the plant will help stave off the early signs of dementia. He also finds himself re-evaluating the choices he made in his life. Before, he always believed his work and his intellect would be enough to make a satisfactory life for himself. Now, nearing the end of his life, he finds that may not be true any more. Laura Linney is equally wonderful as Mrs. Munro, who is contemplating a career change and taking up a friend's job offer in another town. She fears she will no longer be able to manage and assist Mr. Holmes as he continues to age, while also potentially providing a better life for her son. Roger meanwhile is quite content to remain where he is, spending time with Sherlock and helping him look after his beehives he keeps on the property. It is the unlikely friendship between Sherlock and Roger that provides the heart and emotional backbone of the story.  

Bill Condon directed the film, mounting a handsome and charming production. The script was written by Jeffrey Hatcher from Mitch Cullin's novel A Slight Trick of the Mind. Unlike other Sherlock Holmes tales, this one is light on adventure but is rather a tender and moving tale focused much more on Holmes himself. The film also makes some fun nods to previous incarnations of Holmes, such as addressing the deer stalker hat as an invention of Watson. They also cast Nicholas Rowe, who played Sherlock in Young Sherlock Holmes, as an on-screen Sherlock Holmes in a movie Holmes sees in a theatre in London. I thought it was a nice touch and a nod to both Young Sherlock Holmes as well as the Basil Rathbone films that they take delight in poking a little fun at. 

Overall, Mr. Holmes is a fantastic and well done look into the later life of Sherlock Holmes. I think any true fan of the famous consulting detective would enjoy it immensely. I certainly did.     

Monday, November 9, 2015

Bond-a-thon: Spectre















2015 has been a banner year for spy films, with a total of four big budget films coming out. All four were good and very different. From the hyper-violent and outrageous (but also kinda brilliant) Kingsman: The Secret Service to the comedic Spy and the latest installment of the Mission: Impossible series. But the main event was always Spectre, the latest installment in the James Bond series. How does it stack up with the previous 23 films? Well, it's pretty decent for the most part, but I do have a few criticisms.

The film opens in a rather spectacular fashion with an impressive tracking shot as we follow James Bond (played by Daniel Craig) through the Day of the Dead festivities in Mexico City, following him through one long tracking shot through the festival, up into a hotel and then onto the roof, where he takes his place to attempt to assassinate Marco Sciarra (played by Alessandro Cremona), a known terrorist. While listening into their conversation, he discovers they are planning to blow up a Mexico City stadium. Bond is discovered and in the ensuing firefight, the bomb destined for the stadium is detonated, taking out the building they were in and part of the one Bond is on as well. Bond then pursues Sciarra, who survived the explosion, and in the ensuing fight is able to steal Sciarra's ring inscribed with a symbol of an octopus before killing him.  Upon his return to London, Bond is placed on indefinite leave by M (played by Ralph Fiennes). Bond ignores M's decision, steals Q's prototype Aston Martin DB10 and travels to Rome to attend Sciarra's funeral and talk to his widow. Sciarra's widow is terrified and tells Bond of the mysterious criminal organization her husband belonged to called SPECTRE. Using Sciarra's ring, James infiltrates their meeting. To his surprise, his presence is discovered and pointed out by the leader of the organization, Franz Oberhauser (played by Christoph Waltz). Narrowly escaping with his life, he finds himself in a car chase with Mr. Hinx (played by Dave Bautista) through the streets of Rome, with Bond narrowly escaping.

Using the information he overheard from the meeting, Bond tracks down Mr. White (played by Jesper Christensen), an MI6 fugitive and former member of Quantum which was a subsidiary of SPECTRE. Mr. White, who is slowly dying of thallium poisoning, directs Bond to his daughter Madeline Swann (played by Lea Seydoux), who can show him to a hotel in Morocco called Le American, where he will find everything he needs to learn about SPECTRE and it's leader on the condition that Bond protects her from SPECTRE. Bond locates Swann working at a private clinic in the Austrian Alps, a place that no doubt reminded saavy Bond fans such as myself of Piz Gloria the clinic setting of much of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Anyway, after eluding SPECTRE goons at the clinic, Bond and Swann escape to Morocco. Once there, Bond is able to retrieve the documents to help him track down SPECTRE's base and it's leader. Bond and Swann join together to journey to SPECTRE's headquarters and take them down for good.

There is a lot I liked about Spectre. For starters, the full reset of the Bond series is now seemingly complete with this entry. We have the gunbarrel opening at the front of the movie again (where it belongs, dammit!). We have M back in his old office. We have Q and Moneypenny back as well and finally we have the infamous SPECTRE criminal organization and his chief baddie Blofeld back. Yes, I said it and it's not much of a spoiler since most called it from the start. Christoph Waltz is playing Ernst Stavro Blofeld, aka Franz Oberhauser, and he's just as magnificent as you can imagine. Any complaints I have are at the fault of the writing, not his performance. In fact, I would've been pissed if he hadn't been Blofeld. The movie is called Spectre for crying out loud! Daniel Craig, despite his genuine grouchiness towards the role of late, is actually quite good as Bond once again. He is even allowed to have some fun with the role this time out. The car chase between him and Mr. Hinx being a memorable standout as Bond tries to figure out all the DB10's added features. Sam Mendes once again imbues the film with plenty of style and substance, staging some genuinely memorable action sequences in the process. I appreciated the nods to previous Bond films as well, notably the nods to On Her Majesty's Secret Service I mentioned earlier and the smashy smashy fight on the train recalling both the iconic one between Bond and Grant in From Russia with Love as well as the one between Bond and Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me (the Bond filmmakers sure do love their trains).   

However, some of the writing is a bit spotty this time around. In particular there is a plot point concerning Blofeld that I won't spoil but is so obviously a half baked attempt to have continuity between all the Daniel Craig Bond films, which is notable for a series that until the Craig films seemed to carry a motto of continuity be damned! I mean, there were occasionally returning characters, sometimes even played by the same actor. But that was about as far as it went. I'd be fine with it if this was all planned from the start, but it so clearly was not and the movie kind of starts to fall apart as a result. It's not enough to destroy the movie, but it is a glaring flaw in the writing that is hard to ignore. Likewise, Judi Dench is sorely missed as M. She brought so much to the role and her absence is felt this time around. Ralph Fiennes has a tough act to follow, but thus far he's doing well with that he's given.

Overall, Spectre is a decent Bond film. It's not one of the best, but still plenty entertaining. I just wish they had thought through some of the plot points better. It's nice to see the series returning to the classic sensibilities of the Bond series and see the mainstays make their triumphant returns. I'll admit it, I can't wait to see what comes next, because as always James Bond will return.