Machete Kills – Review

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25Star

by Bret W.

The Grindhouse style of movie making is now part of the public lexicon, particularly since the 2007 release of the tandem Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino homages, Planet Terror and Death Proof, respectively.  The writing style is pulp, the violence is gratuitous, the innuendo is suggestive and titillating, and the film is intentionally grainy.  If a filmmaker had been attempting to make a serious film and ended up with one of these (which happened often in the 1970s, a fact that Tarantino/Rodriguez exploit), the result would have been disastrously bad.  Still, there is something endearing about some of these Grindhouse films of yesteryear, that make them enjoyable to watch, even if they are technically flawed.

Machete Kills is Rodriguez’ latest foray into the genre, and the second in his opus Mexploitation trinity.  Danny Trejo, who is much too ugly and short for a leading man, has long been Rodriguez’ go-to guy for hardcore bad motor-scooter Mexicans, and he pulls off the anti-James Bond with aplomb.  One would have to assume that Trejo relishes playing this character in particular, but also the stereotype in general, as he does it so well.  I first became enamored of Trejo’s menacing screen presence in the 1995 Rodriguez film, Desperado, which featured Trejo as a throwing-knife-wielding assassin with no perceivable emotion or moral code.  Since then I have seen him in other Rodriguez films, including Spy Kids where he plays, go figure, “Uncle Machete,” and he has never disappointed.

Which brings us to Machete numero dos.  Trejo plays the Mexican federale-for-hire who, as with many of these vengeance-begets-violence films, loses his partner in a gun-bust gone bad.  He is then saved from execution by the president of the United States (played effortlessly by Charlie Sheen, billed as Carlos Estevez) who offers Machete a clean slate and U.S. citizenship in return for finding and killing a Mexican terrorist named Mendez who is threatening to nuke Washington D.C.  When Machete finds Mendez (Demian Bichir), he finds a multiple-personality former secret agent who goes from being psychotic to sensitive and back again.  The controls to the nuclear missile are hard-wired to Mendez’s heart, and if he is killed, the nuke will immediately launch.  Immediately, Machete’s mission shifts from assassination to preservation, as he must get Mendez back to the United States alive – this after Mendez himself offers a $20 million bounty on both of their heads.

One of my favorite plot twists in Machete Kills is the introduction of a new character, El Cameleon, a shape-shifting assassin who changes faces (and is played by four different headline actors – Walt Goggins; Cuba Gooding, Jr.; Lady Gaga; and Antonio Banderas) whenever anyone has seen his/her face (even though the person who sees him/her usually ends up dead).  The addition of El Cameleon as antagonist helps propel the plot along and introduces chaos at points where the action seems contrived and predictable.  Also shining is the performance of Sofia Vergara as Desdemona, the crazy killer madame who is bent on Machete’s destruction for personal reasons, and Mel Gibson as Voz, the evil genius with a Star Wars fixation and doomsday aspirations.

Just like the first film, Machete Kills is packed with explosions, gun violence, action, explosions, sexy women, cheesy one-liners, and explosions.  Did I mention explosions?  There are a lot of explosions.  The film appeals to my baser nature, and definitely does not disappoint fans of the first Machete, or fans of Robert Rodriguez’s films in general.  That said, as much as I loved the film, I couldn’t bring myself to give it more than two and a half stars.  I would definitely see it again and will probably get the DVD when it is available.  And I also look forward to the next installment, which has been teased as “Machete Kills Again… In Space.”

Buy from Amazon: DVD / Blu-ray

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A Clockwork Orange — Review

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4Star

by Bret W.

This review was originally published to the now-defunct website The People’s Reviews in September 2000.

Straight on the heels of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick has released a film that goes completely the other way in the manner of a glimpse into the future. Where 2001 showed the future to be serene and peaceful (albeit complex and dark in the incident portrayed), A Clockwork Orange shows a future where the youth are interested only in the Ultra-Violent. A homeless man says it all, when he speaks of the conquest of other planets in space and how men don’t care about the state of lawlessness the Earth has lapsed into.

The central character is Alexander Delarge, or Alex, who is the leader of a band of hoodlums who spend their nights terrorizing the local population, destroying property, stealing cars, and clashing with other bands of hoodlums. The members of his gang, however, find his methods tiresome and desire larger returns for their work. He squashes this brief mutiny only to be betrayed by the mutineers, and finds himself serving time in prison for murdering a woman.

At the prison, he learns of a medical procedure that is being tested that is supposed to get prisoners out of jail quicker. He volunteers for the process, which is a conditioned-response training that makes him ill when he views acts of violence. After two weeks he is released back into the world of violence from which he can no longer defend himself, and ends up more pathetic than the least of his victims.

While A Clockwork Orange is a social commentary on the perils of mind control, it is also a tale of violence in a world gone very wrong. Kubrick’s powerful imagery and shocking use of color, coupled with Malcolm McDowell’s tremendous no-holds-barred portrayal of the most ultra-violent Alex, team up to make this one of the most high-impact films of all time. Even by today’s standards, this is an extremely nasty and violent film which leaves a lasting image in the viewer’s brain. It’s almost frightening to think of the mind that could dream up such violence, let alone visualize it for the big screen.

The video in the Kubrick Collection is released in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1, which means that you get a letterbox effect but one that is not as severe as with 70mm Panavision (1.87:1 aspect ratio). Even if you do not like widescreen editions, it’s very unobtrusive, and still shows the panorama of the widescreen cinema shot. What you lose is a thin line at the top and bottom of the screen, and what you gain is the breathtaking art in Kubrick’s talented eye. You also lose the pan-and-scan video view, which can be very annoying even to those who dislike the widescreen video format.

Regardless, those who haven’t seen A Clockwork Orange would do very well to see it. Fans of Kubrick, as well as fans of Tarantino and Rodriguez, will love this film. I place it in my all-time top ten list of films.

Edward Scissorhands – Review

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3Star

by Bret W.

Tim Burton is one of my favorite directors.  I love what he’s done for American pop icons such as Batman and Pee-Wee Herman over the years.  In Edward Scissorhands, he stretches his chops in a typically Burtonesque world, somewhere between reality and nightmare, to bring us a new twist on an old story (Beauty and the Beast).

But there are many differences between this story and its fairy tale counterpart.  The Beast was a prince cursed by a witch to become a horrible creature.  Edward was conceived out of love by an eccentric inventor and candymaker.  Belle, the beauty in Beauty and the Beast, was held captive in the Beast’s castle.  Edward was taken out of his castle and held as a willing captive in the home of the girl he loved.  But no matter how you slice it (sorry, I couldn’t resist!), Edward Scissorhands is a beautiful and warm love story and a heartwarming and disturbing film about human nature.

As I said before, I’m very fond of Tim Burton and the films he makes.  He teams up well with composer Danny Elfman.  Danny’s twisted and nightmarish melodies help to cast an eerie shadow on the film, and Burton’s direction and cinematography does the rest to make this a very moving film.  The cast is very good, with Johnny Depp in the title role, fair Wynonna Ryder as the object of his affection, and  Anthony Michael Hall is very convincing as the bullying boyfriend who turns the town against Edward.  Great supporting efforts by Alan Arkin, whom I like in everything he does, and Dianne Wiest, along with the entire cast of characters from the little village at the foot of the castle grounds.  And what can one say about Vincent Price in his final role?  He’s spooky just to look at, and perfect in the role of the inventor who brings Edward to life.

Again, much should be said about Burton’s eye for detail.  The costuming and the set architecture cast a very 70’s look on the town, although it was still apparent that the time frame was supposed to be modern.  Later, when Wynonna was telling the story to her grandchildren, the effect was even more convincing.  Burton has a flair for the macabre, and this is definitely one of his darker films.

All around, I have to say that Edward Scissorhands is a very good film and a very entertaining one at that.  All the elements combine to make it an excellent story-telling.  A new twist on an old story indeed, Edward Scisorhands is a film worth watching again and again.

 

 

The Siege – Review

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3Star

by Bret W.

This review was originally published to the now-defunct website The People’s Reviews in October 2000.

It’s every American’s worst nightmare: terrorism hits at home, and it hits hard.  When we are witness to these acts of violence in other countries, even when they are done to Americans, we can still displace some of the fear and feelings of being violated in the knowledge that these acts were still very far away.  But anyone who was alive and conscious at the time remembers the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, and of the federal building in Oklahoma City, and suddenly we weren’t so safe anymore.

The Siege is a movie that preys on this feeling of inadequacy, the fear that we are only a breath away from unnatural and uncalled for death.  In the film, we see a portrayal of the frustration at being impotent against the unseen threat, a threat that is very real and very close.  It’s unsure to FBI Agent Anthony Hubbard and his Lebanese partner Frank Haddad why these attacks are occurring, but they know that there must be some reason.  Enter the CIA agent who seems to know more than she’s letting on, including what her real name is – she introduces herself as Elise, but is later introduced as Sharon.  Suddenly the film is thrown into a three-way conflict: Palestinians vs. USA; FBI vs. Palestinians; FBI vs. CIA.  As the attacks continue with no apparent progress being made by the US agencies, the president calls for martial law in New York and sends the Army to secure Brooklyn and begin a systematic search for the terrorist cells.

Again, it’s the filmmakers preying on the audience’s greatest fears – martial law and domestic terrorism – that propel this film beyond that of a normal action or techno-thriller film.  The realism is incredible, and the believability factor is high, which makes this an even more disturbing and frightening film.  We see fear and paranoia striking at the hearts of well-intentioned Americans who turn their backs on the premise of the freedom they so greatly value, to bring the witch-hunt to a violent end no matter what the cost.  We find it hard to believe that any Americans could be so cruel, that we may mimic the actions of the Nazi’s in WWII Germany who herded the Jewish population by the millions into concentration camps.  Here, the US Army herds the Palestinian population of Brooklyn into a similar camp and, although there was no mass-extermination, treated the inmates with the same degree of disdain that the Germans did the Jews.

It’s frightening because it is so real, and the realism was aided greatly by the fine performances of the entire cast, particularly Benning, Washington, and Willis.  It’s a very topical and timely film that shows us what could happen, and what we as Americans should never let happen … and yet, it’s a film that shows more than the desperation of a nation with its back to the wall.  Excellent action and a gripping storyline make it a film that’s as enjoyable to watch as it is socially conscious.

Jesus’ Son – Review

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3Star
by Bret W.

In this dark and seedy vision of drug abuse in the Seventies, director Alison Maclean shows us a glimpse into one man’s life. It’s a life of turmoil, chaos and shadows, and one which even the cleanest of us can identify with in some twisted sort of way.

Billy Crudup portrays the young man who is referred to only as FH (initials for a very discouraging name…the second word is “Head”). His life mirrors the moniker he has earned for himself. He drifts along with no direction, one petty crime following another, feeding his increasing hunger for drugs and alcohol. The cast of characters his life touches is as undesirable as he is. Michelle is the woman he seems to fall in love with. Wayne is a friend he helps to vandalize his own home for the copper wiring so that they can buy the drugs that will kill Wayne. Georgie is the orderly at the hospital where FH works, who steals prescription drugs to feed his own habit. When an overwhelming tragedy hits FH’s life, he begins to turn his life around, first by getting clean, and later by finding redemption in the compassion he finds in himself for others that he once shunned. FH’s life, once a descent into despair and death, in the end becomes his own rebirth into another more promising one.

While the film remains dark throughout, and while Maclean paints a disturbing picture of this young man’s life, Jesus’ Son is beautiful in its brutal frankness. The images are not pretty, and the situations the characters get themselves into make our skin crawl. Yet there is always the promise of something better, and the hope that we feel that this person will someday come into his own is rewarded in the end as he walks proudly and happily into the sunset, a poetic end to a circular story. It’s a fascinating tale, filled with dark humor and brimming with sardonic angst. The acting, while mechanical at times, was also shot throughout with flashes of brilliance. Billy Crudup gives his all to the part of FH, and the supporting cast is also quite good, with standout cameo’s from Dennis Leary, Holly Hunter, and Dennis Hopper. I enjoyed the film thoroughly.

Now, all that having been said, let me tell you a little story.

I came home from work one day in the fall of 1998, and there’s this squirly little guy with a megaphone telling me I can’t park my car on the street in front of my apartment. Now, I’m thinking, who the heck is this guy? So I called the police. They verified that they had every right, because they were filming a movie in our little town of Pitman, NJ. I got very excited, and I moved my car. They kept us up until at least 4:00 AM with their lights and loud bustle, but we didn’t care. Our town was going to be in a movie! Later we found out that this film was called Jesus’ Son, and that Dennis Hopper and Holly Hunter were in it. Even more exciting! They only filmed the one night, but we waited with baited anticipation until the film was released. Then we watched it very carefully, thinking one night of filming was probably only going to equate to a minute or two on the screen. We watched. We scrutinized. Then the credits started rolling, and it hit us.

Pitman ended up on the cutting room floor.

Star Trek Insurrection – Review

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25Star

 

by Bret W.

When it comes to rock music, there are two types of listeners: those who love Elvis and those who love The Beatles.  Consequently, in the realm of science fiction film, there are two basic types of audience: those who love the Star Wars films and those who love Star Trek.  I happen to be one of the latter type.   In this offering, Commander Data seems to suffer from a general malfunction which causes him to reveal his presence to the Ba’ku, the populus of a planet that the Federation is monitoring in secret.  He breaks the Federation’s Prime Directive, which is specifically set up in the strictest of terms to prevent interference with the natural growth of a planet’s lifeforms.  In other words, those who are pre-warp capability in their scientific advancement are not to be helped in their quest for the stars.

Captain Picard arrives with his crew to examine Data and to find out why he malfunctioned.  It turns out that Data had experienced an event which caused his logic circuits to malfunction.  He had discovered the true reason that the planet was under surveillance by the Federation and another contingency, the So’na.  It turns out that the Federation is helping the So’na to secretly remove the Ba’ku from the planet so that it can be inhabited instead by the So’na.  Picard is given strict orders by the commanding admiral to comply with the So’na and proceed with the plan, but Picard instead takes the Ba’ku away from their village so that they may hide in the mountains.  The ensuing battle between the So’na and Ba’ku and its outcome will decide Picard’s fate in the Federation fleet.

The effects were, as usual, spectacular.  The folks who did the special effects and computer animation for these Star Trek films are extremely skilled and excel in making the effects look real.  However, the story falls a little flat by Star Trek standards.  Although it follows the formula of bringing the protagonist to the brink of destruction, with no apparent way out, and turning the tables at the end with some mental end-run, I couldn’t help but feel that it was merely an extended episode of Star Trek: Next Generation.  The difference in the first six Star Trek films and the following few, is that there was a ten year absence between the last TV episode and the next Star Trek movie, while the Next Generation cast had barely finished the cake from their wrap party before Generations was released in the theaters.  Plus, without the driving influence of creator Gene Roddenberry, the stories in the films were becoming mundane.  I enjoyed First Contact immensely, but was a little disappointed in the rudimentary storyline of Insurrection.

The Stepford Wives – Review

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3Star

by Bret W.

This review was originally published to the now-defunct website The People’s Reviews in 2000.

The Stepford Wives, for the uninitiated, is a strangely fluid tale of a utopic suburban society.  The tale itself is masterfully authored by the prince of this genre, Ira Levin, who also penned such classics as Rosemary’s Baby and This Perfect Day.

When Joanna and Walter Eberhart move from New York City to the small village of Stepford, it’s like a dream come true.  The community enjoys low taxes, perfect air, great schools, a booming electronics industry, and a near absence of crime.  Joanna quickly befriends two other women in town, Bobbie and Charmaine.  When her husband joins the town’s Men’s group, she decides that they ought to form a Women’s group as well.  However, she and her two friends discover that there is something just a little odd about the women in Stepford.  These women seem to have a strange euphoric love affair with house work and pleasing their men with no thought to themselves.  When Charmaine hangs her tennis outfit up for a long flowing dress and a mop, and when Bobbie all but becomes a poster girl for Hoover, Joanne finds herself the target of the Men’s group’s diabolical plan, to which she discovers the truth only just a little too late.

The Stepford Wives was a chilling and very timely film, made in an era of bra-burning and the ERA movement (or at least at the tail end of the bulk of the movement).  By today’s standards, it’s campy and unbelievable  but could effectively be redone in a more high-tech and suspenseful fashion.  In fact, this film is strangely devoid of any suspense whatsoever, except at the end.  It seems like we, the audience, know what’s happening long before Joanna figures it out, and by then it’s just a matter of watching her fall into the trap. The story itself is frightening and very real, along the lines of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the anti-horror music score just serves to make the film that much more unsettling.  This film is a classic and a must-see for anyone who enjoys any good film.

L.A. Story – Review

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4Star

by Bret W.

L.A. Story has a dreamlike quality to it that makes it one of the most beautiful and magical love stories ever put to film.  Deeply intense in its visual splendor, timely in its comedy, rich in its romance, L.A. Story is, in my opinion, one of the finest films ever made, which seats it firmly in my top ten list of favorite films.

Harris Tellemacher is the Wacky Weatherman for an L.A. TV station, but is disillusioned with his life.  A Ph.D. in Arts and Humanities has failed to put him in the station that he feels he deserves.  Everything around him is false and contrite, including his relationship with his girlfriend of three years.  Then he meets Sarah, a journalist from London who is writing a story about L.A., and his entire life is turned upside down.  He goes on a date with SanDeE, a girl from a clothing shop, then breaks up with his girlfriend when he finds out that she’s been cheating on him with his agent.

His new freedom from his relationship gives him reason to approach Sarah, the woman he feels he cannot be without.  Through a series of blunderings it appears that they are never to be, but in the end, love and the weather conquer all.

I’ve always said that I’m not a huge fan of romance films, and yet it seems there are quite a few in my top ten.  L.A. Story is surreal at times, flowing in like the tide, crashing like a wave on the beach, flickering like a candle, roaring like a fire.  It’s passionate and tender.  It’s also immensely funny, with some of the jabs that Steve Martin takes at life in L.A.  He paints the city as a pretentious place where everyone is too important to be anywhere on time, where no one can walk to destinations no matter how close they are, where above all else, appearance is the most important thing and must be upheld at all times.

Speckled with an array of stars, L.A. Story is a film that is greater than the sum of its parts.  The comedy is extremely funny, the romance is deeply touching, the imagery is awe-inspiring, even the music lends a soft lyrical quality to the film.  Put these things together and you have one of the greatest romance/comedies of all time.  I highly recommend it to anyone who has never seen it, and even to those who have.

Pitch Black – Review

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3Star

 

by Bret W.

As an avid fan of both Sci-Fi and Horror films, I was really pleased with Pitch Black, a scrumptious film which incorporates all my favorite elements of a good film: story (always story first!  Remember that!), direction, acting, cinematography, music, and of course, the big budget.  Well, I don’t know about the budget of this film, but the rest of the elements are definitely there, and it at least gave the illusion of a big budget if it didn’t have one.

First of all, it featured Vin Diesel as Riddick, an escaped convict who’s been captured and is being transported back to prison by a bounty hunter.  Now, Vin Diesel had certainly made his mark.  He impressed Steven Spielberg enough to be cast in Saving Private Ryan (1998) as Private Adrian Caparzo, giving one of the most heart-wrenching and convincing death scenes I’d ever seen.  In Pitch Black, his character is darker and much more evil.  He serves as the antangonist and the narrator, as well as the hero.  The depth of his character is explored fully in his acting, and I’m sure he’ll get much more work out of this role as well as his Private Ryan appearance.

The story goes like this: a passenger space ship flies through the tail of a rogue comet, which throws it off course and causes it to crash land on a planet that seemingly has no night.  With three suns, two on one side and one on the other, it’s never dark.  The survivors discover the presence of underground beings who are vicious predators, swarming like piranha, but unable to face the light of day.  However, their safety in the daylight is about to expire, because once every 22 years (and, coincidentally, today is that day) the planets and suns align in such a way that it casts the entire planet into darkness.  Riddick, the murderer, suddenly becomes the pseudo-leader of the group because of his ability to see so well in the dark, having spent most of his life in subterranean prisons.  But the fear of sudden and irrevocable death from the darkness soon turns the survivors against themselves as they begin to get picked off one by one.

This film works on so many levels.  As a survival film, it fills the audience with a sense of hope that the survivors may make it off the planet alive.  As a Sci-Fi film, the technology and special effects are both believable and very realistic.  The computer animation sequences with the ship and the crash landing especially grip the audience from the start.  As an action film, its tense and hectic pace keeps the film flowing from start to finish.  And as a horror film, it’s every bit as scary as my favorite Sci-Fi/Horror film, Alien.  The filming is innovative, with the use of different colors setting the mood of the film so perfectly.  Really, I was not expecting it to be as good a film as it was, but I was duly impressed.  It’s definitely one I’d like to see again.

The Client – Review

 

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3Star

by Bret W.

The much-anticipated follow up to John Grisham’s The Firm and The Pelican Brief was also a much-anticipated film on the heels of the two previous films.  Rumor has it that Grisham sold the rights to his next book before it was even finished.  The Client stands alone in its own right, being the rarest of all films: the film that follows the book almost to the letter.

The Client begins with the suicide of a prominent Mafia lawyer.  As he is trying to kill himself, a young boy is trying to save his life.  However, the lawyer grabs the boy and decides to take him down with him.  He confesses to the boy why he is trying to kill himself, that his employer had killed a Louisiana senator and that the lawyer knew where the body was.  Before he could kill the boy, however, the boy escapes.

Enter the US District Attorney with even higher political aspirations.  Convinced that the boy knows where the body is, he starts hounding the boy and trying to get the information out of him.  The boy recruits the help of a lawyer named Reggie Love who, while not a prominent lawyer, is willing to work very hard to make sure the boy’s rights are observed at all times.  Meanwhile, the Mafia send a warning to the boy that if he should tell what he knows, that his family and he would be killed.  To seal the deal, they burn down his trailer.  As with the previous two Grisham novels, the pace rises to a fever pitch until the end when it seems sure that there is no way out for the hero, who then slips the bonds and quickly makes his getaway.

The acting is fine throughout, with standout performances by Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones.  When she gets him on the ropes in their first meeting, it’s a pretty comical situation, and although it’s rare to see Jones squirm like that, he did it like the lowest of worms.  The supporting cast was also very good, but these two stars shone above the rest.

As a fan of Grisham’s first three books, I found the fourth book fairly rudimentary.   However, the movie was exciting and gripping from beginning to end, and as I said before followed the story almost word for word.  And even though I was disappointed in the book, the movie excited me.  Taken as an entity all to itself, it was an extremely riveting and suspenseful film, even though the ending was pure Hollywood.  It was almost as if Grisham knew that this book was going to be a film and wrote it that way.  Regardless, it’s a tremendous film, thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish.  I give it my full recommendation.