Documentary Review: Spielberg (2017)

Release Date: October 5th, 2017 (New York Film Festival)
Directed by: Susan Lacy
Cast: Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Richard Dreyfuss, John Williams, J.J. Abrams, James Brolin, Bob Balaban, Tom Hanks, Drew Barrymore, Peter Coyote, Leonardo DiCaprio, Harrison Ford, Oprah Winfrey, Frank Marshall, Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Robert Zemeckis, Cate Blanchett, Holly Hunter, Dustin Hoffman, Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tom Cruise, Eric Bana, Daniel Craig

HBO Documentary Films, Pentimento Productions, 147 Minutes

Review:

This was a pretty stellar documentary for fans of not just Steven Spielberg but filmmaking and film history in general.

It reminded me a lot of the 2001 documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures, in that this spent a lot of time breaking down most of the key movies in Spielberg’s oeuvre.

Every segment here was rich, detailed and featured interviews with some major directors, actors and producers. But the film also gets into Spielberg’s personal life and how real life experiences influenced his movies.

This was a lengthy documentary, just as the Kubrick one was and rightfully so. In fact, this could have been the length of a ten part, two hour apiece Ken Burns documentary and I still would have been fully engaged.

Spielberg’s career has been long and full of at least a dozen classic films that will be remembered forever. Each segment could’ve been it’s own documentary film and it actually kind of sucks that a few films were mentioned but not given as much detail, most notably A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, the Jurassic Park sequels and some of his production work like Back to the Future.

Still, this is pretty thorough and there is so much to unpack and take away from this. It is one of the best documentaries on a filmmaker’s life and career.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: other documentaries on specific directors but this reminded me a lot of Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures.

Film Review: Solomon Kane (2009)

Release Date: September 16th, 2009 (TIFF)
Directed by: Michael J. Bassett
Written by: Michael J. Bassett
Based on: characters by Robert E. Howard
Music by: Klaus Badelt
Cast: James Purefoy, Max von Sydow, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Pete Postlethwaite, Mackenzie Crook, Alice Krige

Davis Films, Czech Anglo Productions , Wandering Star Pictures, Metropolitan Filmexport, Optimum Releasing, 104 Minutes

Review:

“If I kill you, I am bound for hell. It is a price I shall gladly pay.” – Solomon Kane

At times, this felt like two different films. I liked a lot of the stuff in this movie but it had issues with pacing and tonal shifts.

Still, this had some real badass moments and I loved the character design between Solomon Kane and the two big villains, Malachi and the Masked Rider.

The opening ten minutes or so of this film were great and got me excited for what was to come. However, after the intense and fantastic opening, things slowed to a crawl for quite awhile. The energy didn’t really pick back up until the Masked Rider appeared and started doing some evil shit. Man, he just looked sinister and cool as hell, almost like a powerful Sith thrown into a Robert E. Howard story.

Malachi also added a lot to the picture and was a nice antagonist for Solomon Kane, a hero that walks the line with one foot in Hell and the other on the side of God.

The ghouls were also pretty cool and provided a lot of intense moments, as did the ghosts in the mirrors and the big demon beast in the big finale.

I thought that the cinematography was good and the film is very well shot. It looks great, even in the moments were CGI is very prevalent.

I just wish that the film wasn’t bogged down by some of its inconsistencies.

Every part in the picture was well acted, though and that certainly boosted the overall quality of the film. James Purefoy was perfection as Solomon Kane and even if he’s not a widely known star, I can’t think of a bigger one that would’ve pulled off the character as well as he did. Frankly, I wish this had done better because I would’ve liked to have seen him return to the role for other movies. And maybe it’s not too late but it’s been almost a decade since this came out and I haven’t heard anything about a follow up. It’ll probably be rebooted sometime in the future.

I wasn’t sure what to expect before watching this. On one hand I was pleasantly surprised and on the other, I was bored for half the film. But the positives definitely outweigh the negatives.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: other films featuring Robert E. Howard heroes: all the Conan movies, Kull the ConquerorRed Sonja and other sword and sorcery films.

Film Review: City Limits (1984)

Release Date: October, 1984 (Chicago International Film Festival)
Directed by: Aaron Lipstadt
Written by: Don Opper
Music by: Mitchell Froom
Cast: Darrell Larson, John Stockwell, Kim Cattrall, Rae Dawn Chong, John Diehl, Don Opper, Pamela Ludwig, Tony Plana, Dean Devlin, James Earl Jones, Kane Hodder

Film Ventures International (FVI), Island Alive, Sho Films, Atlantic Releasing, 86 Minutes

Review:

“If you kill me, someone just like me – or worse – will become my replacement. I am inevitable!” – Carver

How the hell did James Earl Jones fall so low that they got him to agree to be in this movie just a year after Return of the Jedi? Sure, he bounced back but I can’t imagine many actors bouncing back after this film. Maybe he just had the benefit of no one seeing this.

This also had Kim Cattrall and Rae Dawn Chong but this was before either of them got more famous going into the late ’80s. It also features John Diehl, a guy I loved on Miami Vice until they ruined the show by killing him off, and a small role for Kane Hodder, who would become the longest running Jason Voorhees actor just a few years later.

City Limits was written by Don Keith Opper, who also has a small role in the film. He didn’t write a very good script here but he would follow this up with the Critters film series, which has had some longevity over the years since the first one came out and it even spawned a new television series just this year.

This is a post-apocalyptic film, one of probably hundreds in an era where these things were being made faster than McDonald’s can print Monopoly game pieces. It’s a genre and formula I like but this is like most of those films, unfortunately, a boring, bland dud that borrows so heavily from other places that it doesn’t have an identity of its own.

City Limits was featured on Mystery Science Theater and for good reason. It’s also probably one of the MST3K films that featured a pretty well known cast. It’s a film rife with material for riffing though.

As bad and vanilla as this is, it’s certainly not the worse that the post-apocalyptic genre has to offer. It’s pure ’80s, low budget, sci-fi schlock but it’s a bit endearing because of that. However, City Limits will probably only be enjoyed by people that are into that sort of thing.

Rating: 3.5/10
Pairs well with: other early to mid ’80s post-apocalyptic schlock.

Film Review: Aquaman (2018)

Release Date: November 26th, 2018 (London premiere)
Directed by: James Wan
Written by: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, Will Beall, Geoff Johns, James Wan
Based on: Aquaman by Paul Norris, Mort Weisinger
Music by: Rupert Gregson-Williams
Cast: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Nicole Kidman, Temuera Morrison, Djimon Hounsou, Julie Andrews (voice), John Rhys-Davies (voice)

Warner Bros. Pictures, DC Films, The Safran Company, Cruel and Unusual Films, Mad Ghost Productions, 143 Minutes

Review:

“You think you’re unworthy to lead because you’re of two different worlds? But that is exactly why you are worthy!” – Mera

People talked this movie up quite a bit when it came out but I didn’t see it in the theater because the holidays are busy for me and this is not a Tolkien movie.

But I had high hopes as several people I tend to trust told me that I’d like it. Well, they were wrong. I mean, I didn’t hate it and if you are comparing this to the other DCEU films, it’s actually the second best. However, that’s not a high threshold to try and beat.

First off, I like Jason Mamoa and I like Jason Mamoa in this movie. However, he’s basically playing Jason Mamoa and not Arthur Curry a.k.a. Aquaman. Well, at least not how Aquaman has been written for decades. And couldn’t he have gone blonde? He could’ve kept the long hair and beard, as Aquaman has had that look before but I guess Arnold Schwarzenegger did a good job of once playing Conan without brunette locks.

But the thing is, he doesn’t feel like Aquaman and he really just feels like a badass buff dude with similar powers to Aquaman.

I thought that Amber Heard was pretty on point as Mera, though. She needs a bit more confidence if she’s to be the tough as nails future queen but this was a good start, assuming they make more of these, which they probably will.

Most importantly, though, Mamoa and Heard had damn good chemistry and that’s what had to carry this movie and it was certainly a strength when everything else around it felt like aquatic Candyland.

Other than a handful of good actors, mainly Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, Dolph Lundgren, Patrick Wilson and Temuera Morrison, the rest of the film was pretty lackluster and underwhelming.

It had action, it was fun for the most part, but a lot of the film felt too dragged out once you got to the middle. It had really good pacing for about 45 minutes but then the plot just seemed to be a mixture of different genres and this didn’t have a clear identity as to what it was. Some of these genre twists seemed like they were more in conflict with the film as a whole than being a collection of interesting ingredients there to make the dish taste better.

I didn’t like how Black Manta was handled and he’s just sort of a henchman and an afterthought in this film. He’s much more badass than that. Read Dan Abnett’s first few story arcs on his run of the Aquman comic. There, Black Manta was a dangerous terrorist that had Aquaman and Atlantis in the palm of his hand. I know that they introduced him in this film to build him up for later but I just don’t feel like they did it effectively and it’ll be hard to take him seriously as the big baddie when he was just portrayed as Mr. Laserface and then get knocked down a cliff. Plus, with his helmet on, the effect they used on his voice mixed with the actor’s line delivery, reminded me of Dark Helmet from Spaceballs.

Patrick Wilson was pretty good as the Ocean Master but the way he was written was confusing. He’s willing to do pure evil to maintain his throne but he doesn’t seem to commit to the bit and he just sort of accepts his fate when his mom shows up and tells him to love his brother.

This film is an example of something being fun and entertaining but not being good and not being something that I particularly like. I don’t think I’ll ever watch it again and that goes for all the films in the DCEU. But that also doesn’t mean that I won’t watch the sequel, I probably will but I doubt I’ll see that one in the theater either.

Rating: 5.75/10
Pairs well with: other recent DC Comics movies within the same shared universe.

Film Review: Border Incident (1949)

Also known as: Border Patrol, Wetbacks (working titles)
Release Date: October 28th, 1949
Directed by: Anthony Mann
Written by: John C. Higgins, George Zuckerman
Music by: Andre Previn
Cast: Ricardo Montalban, George Murphy, Howard Da Silva, James Mitchell, Charles McGraw

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 94 Minutes

Review:

“What is cheaper than time, señor? Everybody has the same amount.” – Zopilote

This isn’t my favorite film-noir by Anthony Mann but it is still a quality film that rivals his other ones.

A very young Ricardo Montalban is the star here, and man, he shines like a supernova and really carries this badass movie on his shoulders.

What’s unique about this, is that it takes place on the Mexican border and was mostly filmed in the wilderness in the desert areas of Southern California and the northern portion of the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. The location shooting made this majestic and added some gravitas to the already heavy and serious proceedings.

The plot is about a gang that smuggles Mexican farm workers across the border into California. The gang ends up killing the immigrants, which leads to federal investigators going undercover to destroy the gang. With typical noir twists, the agents end up having to fight the gang leader for their own survival.

Montalban and George Murphy were both superb as the agents seeking justice, while Howard Da Silva was a perfect, sinister heavy, out for their blood.

The film is certainly intense and it has a gritty realism to it, even for its time, where many big studio motion pictures had a lot of visual luster and prestige. But Mann was perfect at achieving his vision in a time where his stylistic choices weren’t common.

Border Incident has stupendous cinematography and lighting. Mann was a master of mise-en-scène and this motion picture is just further proof of that. The use of natural lighting was especially impressive in the outdoor scenes. Mann knew how to manufacture doom and gloom, visually.

I really liked this film and I believe that is the last of Mann’s noir pictures for me to review. That’s kind of sad and I put this one off for awhile because of that.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: other Anthony Mann film-noir pictures: T-Men, Desperate, He Walked by Night, Raw Deal and Side Street.

Film Review: American Splendor (2003)

Release Date: January 20th, 2003 (Sundance)
Directed by: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini
Written by: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini
Based on: American Splendor and Our Cancer Year by Harvey Pekar
Music by: Mark Suozzo
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, Judah Friedlander, James Urbaniak, Donal Logue, Molly Shannon, Josh Hutcherson, Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, Toby Radloff

Good Machine, Dark Horse Entertainment, Fine Line Features, HBO Films, 101 Minutes

Review:

“Why does everything in my life have to be such a complicated disaster?” – Joyce Brabner

Even though I grew up burying my head in comic books, I wasn’t really aware of Harvey Pekar until my late ’20s. Initially, his comic book style wasn’t something I sought out. I was more into superhero comics and sword and sorcery style fantasy epics.

However, I would say that I found Pekar (and Robert Crumb) at the right time in my life. Both men’s work captivated me and spoke to me in a very human but amusing way. Crumb was attractive to my deviant sensibilities, while Pekar spoke to that cynical observational part of myself that’s always watching and analyzing the shit show around me.

I’ve seen a lot of Pekar in interviews and things over the years and I’ve got to say that Paul Giamatti’s performance as Harvey Pekar is fantastic. While he might not exactly look like Harvey, which is actually joked about within this film in a fourth wall breaking critique by Pekar himself, Giamatti just captured the right type of charm and charisma and did this role justice.

Additionally, Judah Friedlander was absolutely spectacular as Pekar’s best bud Toby Radloff. Friedlander was so good, in fact, that even though I saw his name in the credits, I didn’t realize that it was him playing Toby until really late in the film.

All the other performances are also great. Especially Hope Davis as Joyce, Harvey’s wife, and James Urbaniak, who played Robert Crumb in a few key scenes.

The film covers the important parts of Pekar’s adult life quite well. It’s a film that has a lot of time pass in its 101 minutes but nothing feels rushed and every scene seems pretty vital, as the narrative hits the points it needs to in showcasing what was most important.

For someone that’s a professional creative and pretty grumpy on most days, it was easy for me to relate to Pekar and this film. It was a moving picture that tells a sweet story, even if the main character isn’t someone that would be likable by most people on a first impression.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: Crumb and Basquiat.

Documentary Review: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

Release Date: January 19th, 2018 (Sundance)
Directed by: Morgan Neville
Music by: Jonathan Kirkscey

Tremolo Productions, Focus Features, 93 Minutes

Review:

This was a highly lauded documentary when it came out at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. I heard about it almost immediately but I didn’t get to see it till now, as it is streaming through HBO, which I happen to have at the moment.

I grew up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood but then, what kid in America didn’t? But because of this, I always felt close to Fred Rogers. I mean, he was a part of my daily life during my developmental years and I continued to see him often, as younger kids in my family also grew up watching the show.

It was really nice seeing this, as it does take a real intimate look at the show and Fred Rogers, the man. This does a great job of being both a biography film of Rogers personal life, as well as a behind the scenes look at the show’s development, production and legacy.

I learned a lot about Rogers and who the man was. I, like most people, always wondered if he was a character or if he was just being himself. Now I have no doubts that the man we all grew up with was the authentic Fred Rogers.

The documentary gives a lot of speaking time for several people from Rogers’ professional and personal lives. All of them had nothing but love and admiration and while that may make the skeptic wonder as to whether this was just some sort of puff piece or not, I think that Rogers truly touched everyone around him.

I love showbiz documentaries but this was a rare gem in that it delved into a part of showbiz that isn’t really examined.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: other recent biographical documentaries featured on HBO.