Category Archives: Movie Review

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Movie Review – Frankenweenie

Category : Movie Review

Director: Tim Burton

Starring: Charlie Tahan, Winona Ryder, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara

Year: 2012

After the success of The Nightmare Before Christmas in 1993 and The Corpse Bride in 2005, Tim Burton penned another spooky tale as part of the same, twisted universe, 2012’s Frankenweenie.  His gift for the creepy but lovable tale cannot be overstated, and he’s given cinematic treasures to both children and adults alike, so we should all be eternally grateful.  Burton has a vision, that’s for sure, and count me as a critic who absolutely adores it, from Edward Scissorhands to Big Fish, either writing or directing, I just can’t get enough.  Frankenweenie is a fun take on the old premise of bringing something back to life, but it also combines with the classic monster movies of the past, forming something funny and frightening in turns; what more could you ask for.

Victor loves his dog Sparky, and he also loves filming him as the lead in his home-made monster movies that only his parents have seen.  Victor does everything with Sparky, but he doesn’t have many other friends, and he’d much rather be in the attic creating something unusual than outside playing baseball with the neighborhood kids.  One day, after compromising with his father, Victor finds himself participating in sports, but the idyllic day is destroyed when Sparky is hit by a car.  Grief-stricken and heart-sick, Victor becomes desperate to bring his pet back, and when he learns about the lightning that hits his town with strange frequency, a brilliant yet gruesome idea develops.  Victor will use the cover of a science project to conduct experiments on the body of his dog, zapping potential life back into Sparky without a thought toward what might happen if it works.

I recently watched The Nightmare Before Christmas with my kids, and I’d say they liked it slightly better than Frankenweenie.  It’s less dark, less scary, less morbid in general perhaps, but I don’t think think that stopped them from enjoying this film, it just shows that you don’t need frightening action to sell a plot, you just need an original idea.  Anyway, Frankenweenie takes the Frankenstein’s Monster premise to a new level, adding in some kooky characters, and hiring Danny Elfman again to do the music, a great choice.  It also honors the old creature features of the past, something I applaud; Dracula, the Werewolf, the Mummy, Godzilla, the Creature from the Black Lagoon.  It’s a party of terror, but not a terrible party, so good job all around.  I’d say I also enjoyed Nightmare more than Franken, and I probably prefer Coraline too, if we’re looking at stop-motion animation.  But this movie is pure, dark, mortuary entertainment, and you don’t see that done well every day.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Movie Review – Good Time

Category : Movie Review

Director: Benny & Josh Safdie

Starring: Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Year: 2017

Good Time is a combination of Drive, Victoria, The Rover, Training Day, and Trainspotting, an unpredictable, inner-city adventure that definitely won’t have a happy ending.  When I saw the trailer, I called the film an indie lovechild of The Rover and Drive that I couldn’t wait to meet, and it didn’t disappoint in the least.  Good Time is a realistic crime drama that relies on a quick pace and a smart use of character placement to push the story forward, while also keeping in mind the underlying emotion beneath the plot; the love between two separated brothers.  It’s this base that makes the film feel real, along with a slew of desperate people who make terrible decisions at the worst possible times.  You can’t help but watch though, you’re forced to rubber-neck, and in the end you’re very glad you did.

Connie Nikas has one priority and that’s his brother Nick, who is mentally handicapped.  He doesn’t want him to go for therapy, he doesn’t want him in some home, he wants to take care of Nick himself, providing for him in whatever way is necessary.  Connie isn’t exactly an upstanding citizen, and he uses Nick as his wingman in a back robbery, a heist that of course goes terribly wrong.  Nick is caught, Connie gets away, but he can’t live with himself for leaving his brother behind.  And when bailing the kid out isn’t an option because he doesn’t have the money, he’ll resort to less sane options.  So begins a night in the city of pure adrenaline and dumb luck, with the outcome up in the air, although we all know that the dice are always loaded.

Robert Pattinson is so talented it blows me away.  I know he’s the emo guy from Twilight, but I’ve successfully stayed away from that franchise, so I’ve never had to watch him act below himself.  I’ve only seen him succeed: Bel Ami, The Rover, Life, The Lost City of Z.  He’s simply great, and I hope everyone is starting to see that as he ages and as he makes better choices.  Pattinson is the star of Good Time and he relishes every moment, developing a cool character who is both smart and stupid at the same time.  I loved watching Connie create lies on the spot time and time again, it was a very enjoyable part of the movie, and Pattinson played it to perfection.  The music is so awesome throughout and it never stops, the pace is always fast except for a bit of a lull in the middle, the beginning and the end both featuring the brother Nick are incredibly deep, giving another level to the drama that is entirely separate from the crime side.  If you’ve seen and liked any combination of those movies I mentioned at the beginning, give this one a chance; I think you’ll dig it.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Movie Review – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Category : Movie Review

Director: Martin McDonagh

Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell

Year: 2017

Three Billboards is an early Oscar favorite, and I’m not really sure why.  It does boast a solid cast and a darkly entertaining, off-beat plot, so perhaps critics were primed to like it.  Audiences don’t seem to be on board, or just not watching, since the ratings numbers are quite low, even though the ratings themselves seen to be across-the-board high.  I guess everyone is due one film a year that the majority love and you just can’t fathom the praise, and Three Billboards must be mine, because as much as I wanted to enjoy it, I simply didn’t.  McDormand is great, the story is as wacky as it is frustrating, but I just kept ticking off negatives as I watched, without noticing enough positives to offset my dislike.

When Mildred Hayes’ daughter is killed, her world understandably crumbles, and she desires justice over all things.  But the police can’t find the killer, and months pass without an arrest being made, a fact that Mildred won’t accept.  So she does something about it, something rash, something bound to piss off the entire populace of her small town, specifically its law enforcement.  She rents three billboards, puts a bold message across the group, and waits for a response.  Well, a response is swift, as Police Chief Willoughby himself is named on the billboards, a man both the townsfolk and his fellow officers adore.  He is at a loss for how to solve the case, how to console this grieving mother, and how to do his job while dealing with a personal tragedy that makes things all the more complicated.

First the positives, because I’m not here to tear this film to shreds, I just don’t think it works in the ways that others think it does, and I don’t know why it’s still an Oscar frontrunner.  McDormand was great as the distraught mother, because she focused that pain and crafted it into sharp anger, something that I think happens often in a situation like this.  You move on, you crumple, or you get mad, and this character gets mad, something I appreciated seeing on screen.  Rockwell was probably even better, tremendous even, and could potentially see a Best Supporting nomination.  Also, something that really struck me as important was the way each character in the film was both good and bad, right and wrong, flawed but trying.  That felt very honest, that heroes aren’t obvious and villains don’t wear signs.

But that’s about it; what I didn’t like outweighed what I did.  Other than McDormand, the roles were more like cameos, which made no sense to me.  Woody Harrelson, Caleb Landry Jones, Kerry Condon, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes; I wanted someone to step up and show me some raw acting talent, but ever character was written as a side piece, making it impossible to make an impact on the outcome of the film.  When they did have a chance to speak up, the dialogue was awful, with a flippant use of emotion and no rhythm to the conversations whatsoever.  And this might sound odd, because I’m no prig, but they cussed too much.  Or, perhaps more accurately, they cussed too wrong, overusing and unnaturally using words like ‘cunt’ until it felt like they thought you’d think it was cool.  But it wasn’t, nothing about the style the film was done in was cool, or even respectable, and I’m not sure what director Martin McDonahg, who doesn’t have a ton of experience, was thinking.

My rating: ☆ ☆

 

 


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Movie Review – Wonder Wheel

Category : Movie Review

Director: Woody Allen

Starring: Kate Winslet, Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple, Jim Belushi

Year: 2017

Since 1988, Woody Allen has directed one movie per year, no more and no less.  In 1987 he did two, and in 1981, 1976, 1974, & 1970 he didn’t do any; otherwise the streak reaches back to 1969.  One feature every year, one shot at his patented style, one chance to impress audiences, and among the long list of his films are a handful of excellent ones, with a few that could be called all-time greats.  Putting any controversy about Allen aside (understanding that there are some that say that’s not possible, and I completely get that), he’s one of my favorite directors, based solely on his original, artistic, neurotic work, and I enjoy each year debating whether or not he’s still got it.  It’s been more miss than hit lately, or at least “meh” more than “yeah!”, as Woody tries to find an actor to replace himself as he ages.  This time around, he places the heavy mantle of his legacy and persona around the neck of a woman who is more than strong enough to bear the weight.

Coney Island in the 1950s was a slumping playground, an NYC getaway that had seen better days.  The patrons still came in the summer to eat hot dogs at Nathan’s and to get some sun on the beach, but not in their usual waves, and for the people who worked the pier, scratching by was status quo.  Humpty ran the carousel, his wife Ginny worked at a seafood restaurant, and her son Richie was a pyromaniac, so life wasn’t all cotton candy.  When Humpty’s daughter Carolina walked in looking for a place to lay low from her mobster husband, things got both better and worse in turns, especially when she and Ginny fell for the same sweet-talking lifeguard, an aspiring playwright named Mickey, creating a love triangle amid the hustling barkers and the ever-glowing lights.

Allen used to do his own movies, playing the nervous, chatty, over-thinking and over-wrought New Yorker to a tee, that’s part of the reason he has had so much success.  They say write what you know, and so he wrote parts for himself, created a version of himself, directed himself, watching himself as the praise rolled in.  Since he got older, he’s been trying to find a replacement.  Jesse Eisenberg seemed manageable, but in Wonder Wheel Allen casts a woman to play the hectic lead, and that was probably the best decision in the film.  Winslet was great as Ginny, with her worries and her headaches, a little hard to appreciate at the beginning but she grows on you by the end.  The men were the let-downs, Timberlake and Belushi, as both are only passable actors.  The movie reads like a stage performance, which is fine, and some of the shots with their unique use of color are just gorgeous.  But ultimately, the film feels like an under-rehearsed play with a star lead actress but not much else, a story that’s both mediocre and hard to care about.  Wonder Wheel had some early Oscar buzz, and it’s absolutely fine, there’s nothing specifically horrible about it.  I just don’t think it matches up with the best of 2017, and I don’t think we’ll hear much more about it.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Movie Review – Last Flag Flying

Category : Movie Review

Director: Richard Linklater

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Steve Carell

Year: 2017

Richard Linklater stretches a little too far outside of his comfort zone, and the result is that Last Flag Flying turns into an odd combination of Little Miss Sunshine and Going in Style, an emotional road trip where death is a constant companion.  What he does right is add in a ton of morbid humor to lighten the load and to highlight the intensity of the topic he attempts to share with us.  What he does wrong is leave out any real reason for audiences to dive into the hell that his characters have gone through and are currently going through, leaving us outside while these three men deal with problems deep within.  It’s as if we were invited to the viewing but not the funeral, like distant acquaintances instead of close friends.

Soon after his wife dies of cancer, Doc Shepard receives more terrible news; his son was killed while serving overseas in the Marine Corps.  Doc is a veteran himself, Navy, doing his duty in Vietnam with thousands of other American boys, none of who knew what they hell they were doing there.  All these years later, Doc has to bury his son, but he doesn’t have the family and friends he needs to help him with the difficult, emotional task.  So he looks up two old friends from his days in ‘Nam, hoping that they will be there to hold him up when it gets really tough.  Sal owns a bar, drinks too much, lives recklessly, but is fiercely loyal and honest.  Mueller has left his dark days behind him, became a preacher, lives by God’s will now.  The trio of old friends will go on a road trip to complete the sad task, but will have to confront the past head on while they travel.

I like Linklater, I just don’t think he was the right director for this film.  Apparently there are more stories written by the same author whose book this movie is based on, and one of them was turned into a film starring Jack Nicholson.  If Linklater was inspired by that and wanted to give us more/a more modern take, he failed to breathe life into the tale, and it generally fell flat.  There was nothing terrible about the film, I actually liked it, but there is definitely nothing to love.  The plot is dialogue-driven, and the actors pull off their long, deep conversations about the past and death and the Corps and getting old.  But there isn’t a compelling reason to keep listening once the point is made.  Cranston is the entertaining jerk, Fishburne is the guy with the morals, and Carell is a bit of a straight man, but it works, and there’s one excellent, funny scene that feels completely honest that won be over for a moment, though the moment was fleeting.  Overall, Last Flag Flying is a bit of a disappointment, at least based on talent and theme involved, settling for good when it probably should have been great.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Movie Review – I, Tonya

Category : Movie Review

Director: Craig Gillespie

Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney

Year: 2017

Joining the list of the Bonkers Best of 2017 (Get Out, Mother!, Split, A Cure For Wellness, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) is I, Tonya, a film that’s insane for an entirely different reason.  This is a true story, or at least the closest to the truth that we are ever likely to get, that point being clearly made at the beginning of the movie before audiences embark on a ride that’s not just wild but pure lunacy.  Some of us grew up during the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan/Michelle Kwan/Oksana Bauil days, and we know this story well, at least what we saw on TV.  This film attempts to piece together the most probable bits from the events and weave them together to made something resembling a coherent time line, a practice that might simply be impossible.  So here it is, the Tonya Tale, served to us with a slice of humble pie as dessert, for when we realize that we might not know the whole story after all.

Tonya grew up as redneck trash in Oregon, skinning rabbits and fixing trucks with her daddy, abused emotionally and physically by her mother, with the constant reminder that she was nobody, would never be somebody, and might as well not exist.  Tonya did have one God-given talent though, and that was skating.  She was magic on the ice, but that hobby took money, and she would never fit in with the little rich girls no matter how fast she twirled.  Sewing homemade outfits out of scraps, Tonya and her mother LaVona spent every penny and every minute fighting to enter the skating world, and eventually it was forced to notice her.  But a serious of terrible choices would lead to a horrific decision, and Tonya’s life would go from crappy to criminal, as her husband, Jeff Gillooly, put in motion an infamous attack that we still remember today.

I, Tonya is almost done in a Big Short style, with some asides to the camera and some assurances that, yeah, this really did happen.  It’s almost unbelievable, but we lived it, we saw it, and the truth has unraveled over time until it has formed itself into the mysterious weave it is now.  What actually went down, how the people involved really feel, we may never know, but this film does a hell of a job piecing the puzzle together in a way that’s both powerful and eye-opening.  It never claims to know the entire truth, but it does shed some light on Tonya specifically, and that part of the movie was phenomenal.  At first I wondered why they were painting this criminal as a character we ought to empathize with, but by the end I got it, and credit to Margot Robbie for making that happen.  She looks nothing like Harding, she always seems 10 years older than what she is supposed to be in any given scene, but she pulls off an extremely wacky role, so she deserves some applause.  The real show stoppers were Sebastian Stan as Jeff Gillooly and Paul Walter Hauser as Shawn Ecckhardt, the pair of them stealing the limelight, providing the laughs, and also succeeding in portraying complete psychopaths.  That’s the film in a nutshell; you laugh but you also gasp, especially when it hits you that this is real life, that this happened.  Don’t count it completely out of Academy Awards consideration; it’s strong enough in multiple categories to deserve a nomination.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Movie Review – Lady Bird

Category : Movie Review

Director: Greta Gerwig

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Beanie Feldstein

Year: 2017

Greta Gerwig has been the offbeat, indie, New York apartment, Noah Baumbach, self-deprecating It Girl for years, to the point that at 34 she was starting to feel a little old.  She’s dabbled in co-writing, even co-directing 9 year ago, but it’s apparent that her artistic vision has always been directed by men, and the result has always been something that isn’t completely authentic.  Well, is it 2017 or is it 2017, and is this the time that women step into lead roles/jobs/positions or not?  There has been a modern sweep of feminism through our country, thanks in part to Trump, as much as it pains many of us to give him any sort of credit whatsoever, and the time to ride the wave is now.  Gerwig steps up, writes on her own, directs on her own, creates a mother/daughter narrative, and makes Lady Bird completely about herself.  What shouldn’t be surprising is that it all works to perfection, and what she made for us is nothing short of the best movie of the year.

Christine McPherson is tired of being poor and ordinary in Sacramento, of walking past mansions and wishing she had a different life.  So she adopts the name ‘Lady Bird’, refuses to answer to anything else, and demands that someone pay her some goddamned attention for once.  As her senior year begins, she tours local colleges with her mother, but sets her sights on east coast schools that she probably doesn’t have the grades to get into.  She auditions for the theatre production with her best friend, but really can’t sing strongly enough to get a great part.  She dates a cute boy named Danny, but he won’t touch her boobs, even though she tells him that he can.  Things just don’t work out the way Lady Bird concocts them inside her mind, and she’s getting tired of always getting the short end of the stick.  For once she wants more than her share; is that really too much to ask?

Write what you know, right?  It’s simple advice, but it makes complete sense, and Gerwig follows it to absolute success here.  She is from Sacramento, she graduated in 2002, her mother was a nurse, her father was a computer guy, she went to a Catholic high school, she attended college in New York; Lady Bird is her story, and you can’t get any more real than that.  The emotional connection was apparent from the very beginning and it never dissipated, the true story element woven within fiction was a beautiful thing to see.  Gerwig isn’t exactly an amateur, she’s been around a long time, but this was the first time she stepped completely out on her own, and I can’t be happier that she did.  I’m not the only one, critics have gone insane over this movie; it’s setting records on Rotten Tomatoes and currently has a 9.4/10 on IMDb.  What’s great is that it’s not all hype; this film is the real deal.

The first scene is pictured above, Lady Bird sleeping in a hotel bed with her mother, and I can’t think of a more perfect way to start things off.  It shows the reality of the situation (that they don’t have a ton of money), it shows the bond that these characters have (even though Lady Bird will jump out of a moving car in about 5 minutes), and it’s a wonderful metaphor for the beginning of motherhood.  From that shot on, I was hooked.  Saoirse Ronan has been hit or miss her entire, young career, vacillating between being American and Irish, but she’s coming into her own and we’re the ones reaping the benefits.  Grand Budapest, Brooklyn, Lady Bird; keep ’em coming, Ronan.  The supporting cast was incredible as well, creating these magical, individual roles that can somehow remind everyone of their own hometown: Metcalf, Feldstein, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Odeya Rush, Timothee Chalamet, Stephen Henderson.  And the dialogue wasn’t just funny, it was hilarious, tinged with nostalgic sadness that made it all the more meaningful.  I’ve been all about the “bonkers” films of 2017 when considering the best of the year, they are just so on point right now: Get Out, Mother!, Split, A Cure For Wellness, The Killing of a Sacred Deer.  But Lady Bird rises to the top as a coming-of-age drama that does everything right, a quietly amazing and stunningly simple piece of homage to where we come from that will pierce you where it hurts the most.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Movie Review – Gifted

Category : Movie Review

Director: Marc Webb

Starring: Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan

Year: 2017

In a weird way I mean this as a compliment; Gifted is only one step up from a Hallmark movie.  But that step is a big, important one, and it does change the tenor of the label.  Basically, Gifted is like a Hallmark movie in set up, delivery, and conclusion, but not in talent level, and therein lies the difference.  Captain America takes a break from his busy schedule to play a single dad, and he gets it mostly right, which is another big reason that the film works at all.  Because, again, it probably shouldn’t, given the recipe that it follows, a path that we’ve mistakenly stumbled down before.  But we trepidatiously return for more, we are tempted this time by a seemingly capable cast, and in the end we are surprisingly rewarded by something slightly better than it really ought to have been.

Frank Adler has been taking care of his niece Mary since her mother died and she left the girl in his care.  He ran away from his problems in Boston to the Gulf shores of Florida where, instead of using his advanced intellect for something useful, he fixes boats and asks for nothing more out of life.  Brains run in the family, and Mary is no exception; now that she’s in school she’s very quickly showing that she’s smarter than everyone there.  Actually, she’s a genius like her mom, and her teachers want her to attend a special gifted program.  So does her grandmother, Evelyn, a woman who now enters the picture and demands that she be given more access to Mary, and if Frank won’t give that to her she’ll demand it in court.  Mary and her father figure are torn apart as the adults in the room try to make all the decisions, a scenario that never ends as perfectly as it is planned.

This film is definitely sappy, but in a good way, like pure maple syrup; you know it’s not great for you but at least it’s much better than that gooey fake stuff in the bottles shaped like an angular building or a round lady.  That’s why I call this movie Hallmark, because it has that level of sugar and tells a very similar tale, but thank god it comes out stronger by the end.  Chris Evans has really come into his own, and he’s proving that he’s not just a handsome face.  Mckenna Grace is an adorable kid, and hopefully her talent pans out, because it looks wonderfully promising.  Lindsay Duncan is a veteran, so she’s fine, and Octavia Spencer plays the nice lady next door who loves Mary unconditionally, so try to pretend that doesn’t float your boat.  The big flaw is Jenny Slate as the love interest, kinda, it’s hard to explain.  I just know she isn’t good and doesn’t fit, which it really the only major problem.  Otherwise, the movie is forgivably cheesy and actually really smartly written, with many moments throughout the dialogue that impressed me with either wit or placement.  Watch Gifted for a fairly easy evening with a predictably tear-jerky story and you won’t be disappointed.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Movie Review – Battle of the Sexes

Category : Movie Review

Director: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris

Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell

Year: 2017

Little Miss Sunshine was a big deal for both budding directors Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris and for comedic actor Steve Carell, a chance to show that they were more than audiences assumed.  For the directorial duo, it was an opportunity to move past music videos, and for Carell, the moment to prove that he was more than The Office and The 40-Year-Old Virgin.  I think it’s safe to say that all emerged from that film having earned our respect with a tremendous display of talent, the team meeting up again for Battle of the Sexes and looking for the same success.  The new ingredient is Emma Stone, who recently had her own breakthrough with Birdman, which opened the door to La La Land, which led to stardom, and the rest is soon to be history.  Here, all involved work incredibly hard to bring audiences a believable portrayal of a fascinating moment not just in sports, but in equality, and if you’ll forgive the pun, they aced it.

This is the true story of the historic male/female tennis match that proved to the nation that the chauvinistic ways of the old world were dying out, that women were here to compete, and that you had better get out of the way if you didn’t want to, quite literally, get served.  Billie Jean King was the best women’s tennis player in the world, and she had just spearheaded a new league, one that didn’t pay the ladies far less than the gentlemen because of antiquated ideas of gender superiority.  Bobby Riggs was a former #1 in the sport himself, some years back, but had turned into more of a showman, a gambler, and a hustler.  The two would meet in an epic match between the sexes with a ton to prove.  For Bobby, it was a chance to make a quick buck and to make women look bad at the same time, a win-win.  For Billie Jean, it meant much more, and she was determined to show exactly that on the court in front of the entire country.

Stay with me for a second; I’m really hard on Emma Watson.  I think she’s proven, over her recent performances post-Potter, that she isn’t a great actress.  She’s undeniably lovable and captivating, but her talent doesn’t match how good we want her to be, which is honestly a shame.  Emma Stone, apart from sharing the same first name, shares the ability to draw audiences to her; basically, she’s special and we can see it.  But the difference is that Stone has the chops to back it up, and she continues to prove that with every role.  She dominates the screen as King in this film, leaving all others in the dust, including her talented co-star and a pair of strong directors.  She, along with an incredibly important true story, is the reason to see this picture.  Otherwise, it’s a bit overlong, a bit over-dramatic, and the supporting cast in no way supports anything, failing to do their jobs because they simply aren’t good enough.  Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Fred Armisen, Martha MacIsaac, Austin Stowell; I’ve liked some of these actors in other movies, but here they’re basically minor leaguers playing and losing in the majors.  Watch for Stone’s incredible performance, for Carell’s entertaining one, and for a bit of tennis lore that means far more.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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DVD Review – Attack Force Z

Category : Movie Review

Director: Tim Burstall

Starring: Mel Gibson, Sam Neill, John Phillip Law

Year: 1981

I’m not sure what I was possibly counting on from an Australian WWII movie made in the early 80s and starring a 25-year-old who was otherwise busy playing Max Rockatansky, but Attack Force Z didn’t live up to whatever limited expectations I had, heading the complete opposite direction toward utter disappointment.  I heard Mel and Sam, I saw Pacific war theater, I felt like the film might have a legitimate shot, but I never stopped to wonder why I hadn’t come across its title before, or why so few others had either in the past 36 years.  The answer is simple; this isn’t a good movie, and although you could call it a vehicle for a couple stars, I wonder if they’d risk having their names attached to it by doing the same.

The Movie

World War II wages on, and the Australians conduct a guerilla war behind enemy lines with the Japanese.  The special unit is called Zed, ‘Z’ for us Americans, and its mission is simple; covertly maneuver among the shipping lanes of the Empire of Japan, report all movement back to headquarters, and sabotage whenever possible.  Sink ships, kill lookouts, discover plans; Z was in charge of the secret operations and dirty work that lent itself to high casualty rates and brutal close encounters.  This film is a summary of their duty, a fictional account of what it was like to be a member of Special Unit Z, to fight in the jungles of the Pacific islands far from your friends and too close to your enemies.

Dropped off near land by a submarine and paddling the rest of the way in canvas canoes, a small group of Australian, British, and Dutch soldiers begin a dangerous mission among a peaceful people, but deep in the heart of Japanese territory.  Their goal is to find the wreckage of a downed airplane, discover what happened to the men aboard, and either rescue or kill them; no loose ends to divulge important secrets.  The idea is to sneak in unseen, to remain invisible, to find the plane, and then to escape before enemy forces even know Z was on the island.  But you know what they say about best-laid plans, and in wartime, no maneuver goes as imagined, and no rescue costs no lives.

Mel Gibson was just starting out as an actor and making a name for himself as Mad Max when he filmed this movie, a side project that didn’t become anything more than a memory, and a bad one at that.  Sam Neill makes an appearance as well, having not yet become the star that we know him as today.  And also, JP Law pops up, a man you might recognize from Barbarella, where he played an angel who didn’t make love because angels are love.  Anyway, that’s the highlight of the film, the trio of actors that you’ve seen do better in other roles, because you sure aren’t going to see them do anything impressive here.  It’s not really their fault, they weren’t given much to work work, and they definitely didn’t create anything on their own, the result of which was plain, and sad, to see.

Attack Force Z is an awful adaptation of the American commando genre, a cross between John Wayne who came before and John Rambo who would come after, a weird mix that wasn’t fun to watch or cool to see.  I don’t know exactly how Australians do their war movies, but this felt like a reach from the start, like an attempt to put something on film that never needed to be there and probably couldn’t work.  It’s a great true story, this brigade, fascinating stuff, and maybe Mel Gibson should reanimate the idea now that’s he’s a director, but Tim Burstall definitely wasn’t the man for the job.  The movie is boring, amateur, more a skit than real cinema,  and never convinced audiences to buy in or to even pretend that we care.  This isn’t a hidden gem, unfortunately, just a rock with the smallest amount of shine necessary to catch your eye.

The Blu-ray

Video – With an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 (1080p Widescreen), the video quality of the Blu-ray disc is fairly terrible.  This 80s flick did not transfer well, especially in low-light situations, and the movie is consistently grainy throughout.  Of course we all understand the year that this movie was filmed, we can’t be too hard on it, but visually it just isn’t appealing.

Audio – The Blu-ray was done in English Dual Mono, with an option of English subtitles.  That’s it as far as the audio, and there isn’t really much to remark upon here other than an awful soundtrack that always seemed to be playing the wrong music at the worst times.

Extras – There are only a few special features on the disc.  The Z-Men Debriefed is a 27-minute, behind-the-scenes segment with some background on the movie.  A Theatrical Trailer is available.  And there is also an Image Gallery.

Final Thoughts

Skip It.  Sometimes you stumble across something wonderful when you dive into an actor’s filmography, but that’s isn’t the case with Attack Force Z, a war movie that seems a copy rather than an original, a drama that leaves all the emotion at the door.  It was nice to see these actors in younger roles, and one piece of trivia from the featurette that amused me was that Sam Neill worked in movies but wasn’t an actor, until people told him he was so handsome he ought to give it a try.  That actually explains him as a professional pretty well, and you know, he’d eventually get into the groove, some of his work as he ages is the best I’ve ever seen from him.  But back to the movie; you are probably best avoiding it.  The video is poor, the audio is nothing, the extras are few; don’t look for technical marvels here.  And don’t expect an overlooked classic either; search for that elsewhere.

☆ – Content

☆ – Video

☆ ☆ – Audio

☆ ☆ – Extras

☆ – Replay