Film Review: Shaft (2000)

Also known as: Shaft Returns (working title)
Release Date: June 16th, 2000
Directed by: John Singleton
Written by: John Singleton, Shane Salerno, Richard Price
Based on: Shaft by Ernest Tidyman
Music by: David Arnold
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Vanessa Williams, Jeffrey Wright, Christian Bale, Dan Hedaya, Busta Rhymes, Toni Collette, Richard Roundtree, Lynne Thigpen, Pat Hingle, Mekhi Phifer, Elizabeth Banks, Gordon Parks, Andre Royo, Issac Hayes (uncredited), Lawrence Taylor (cameo)

Scott Rudin Productions, New Deal Productions, Paramount Pictures, 99 Minutes

Review:

“Golf is phat… Tiger Wooo, Tiger Wooo, I like him.” – Peoples Hernandez

While I did dig this when it came out in 2000, I hadn’t seen it since then. I’ve gotta say, it hasn’t aged well at all.

This film feels like a relic and it feels like it is about five years older than it is. It had more cheesy, ’90s action flavor than it did the ’70s blaxploitation aesthetic it was trying to recapture and homage.

Shaft, the 2000 version, is just a mundane, boring movie that surprisingly had a good director and an incredible cast that couldn’t keep this ship afloat. It’s a sinker and a stinker.

I guess, despite initially enjoying it, there just wasn’t enough beyond one viewing that ever really made me want to revisit this. And I only did so now because I haven’t reviewed it and also because I wanted to revisit it to re-familiarize myself with Sam Jackson’s incarnation of Shaft before watching the 2019 version, which is now streaming on HBO.

Overall, Jackson was the perfect choice for a modern Shaft. I also liked seeing Jeffrey Wright and Christian Bale in this, as the villains. However, despite the awesomeness that was Wright’s Dominican accent, everything just feels pedestrian and dry.

There are no real surprises in the film and it plays out quite sloppily. It’s a clunky story with a few subplots that all seem forced and unnecessary. In fact, the movie is overly complicated and it feels like it is more into showcasing yuppie racism than it is at telling a good plot or making you care about any of the characters in any way that is deeper than just surface level. It certainly needs more character development than plot layers. The movie gets lost within itself and if you don’t care about anyone, what’s the point?

It’s not a poorly acted film but it is poorly written and directed. John Singleton has proved, specifically before this, that he is capable of so much more.

I guess this is okay if you go into it as just a mindless 99 minute action romp but it’s nowhere near as cool as it thinks it is and it pales in comparison to the original film it wanted so hard to be.

Rating: 5.25/10
Pairs well with: the other films in the Shaft franchise, as well as late ’90s/’00s Samuel Jackson action movies.

Film Review: Freeway (1996)

Release Date: January, 1996 (Sundance)
Directed by: Matthew Bright
Written by: Matthew Bright
Music by: Danny Elfman
Cast: Kiefer Sutherland, Reese Witherspoon, Wolfgang Bodison, Dan Hedaya, Amanda Plummer, Brooke Shields, Michael T. Weiss, Bokeem Woodbine, Guillermo Diaz, Brittany Murphy, Conchata Ferrell

The Kushner-Locke Company, August Entertainment, Davis-Films, 104 Minutes (uncut), 102 Minutes (cut)

Review:

“Holy shit! Look who got beaten with the ugly stick! Is that you, Bob? I can’t believe such a teeny weeny little gun made such a big mess out of someone! You are so ugly, Bob! And, hey, I heard you have one of those big poop bags that’s like attached to where the shit comes out the side, you’re just a big old shitbag ain’t you, Bob! You just think of me every time you empty that motherfucking thing, motherfucker!” – Vanessa Lutz

Freeway is a batshit crazy movie. I’m not a massive fan of it as many others are and honestly, I wasn’t even sure what to think about it when it came out back in 1996. I was in high school at the time but I found it hard to grasp, as it feels more like a sequence of ideas wedged into a singular film. It also has a disjointed tone and a weird narrative structure.

I never hated the film but it wasn’t my cup of tea when it came out. I’m able to enjoy it more now but that’s also because an extra two and a half decades of life experience and film watching has made me more open to experimental and nontraditional filmmaking.

I mostly liked the film now, seeing it for the first time since it hit VHS. I never had much urge to revisit it but I figured I’d check it out because it’s been so long and my tastes have changed. Plus, I like Reese Witherspoon when she’s not in romantic comedies and I’ve always dug Kiefer Sutherland.

Additionally, this boasts a strong cast that wouldn’t have meant as much to me as a teenager. We’ve got Dan Hedaya, Brooke Shields, Bokeem Woodbine, Guillermo Diaz, Brittany Murphy and Conchata Ferrell.

The story is a modern retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. It’s vastly different, though, as Witherspoon plays a trashy teen brought up by a speed addicted prostitute and pedophile stepfather. She’s essentially Little Red Riding Hood while Kiefer Sutherland plays the Big Bad Wolf, trying to hunt her down on the way to grandma’s house. The Wolf in this case is a famous (and still at large) Interstate serial killer.

Along the way, Sutherland’s Bob picks up Witherspoon’s Vanessa, after the car she stole broke down. They spend some time together but things get weird as the trip rolls on. Eventually, Vanessa discovers that Bob is the I-5 Killer. She is able to escape and puts several bullets into him. Vanessa ends up getting arrested and Bob survives, although he is severely disfigured.

In the second half of the movie, Vanessa is locked up in juvenile jail while the media makes Bob out to be a victim and heroic survivor. Vanessa eventually escapes juvie and makes her way to her grandma’s house where Bob is waiting for her, disguised as her grandma in bed ala the Big Bad Wolf.

While the film is tapping into the famous Brothers Grimm story, it definitely takes tremendous liberties and only seems to channel Little Red Riding Hood where it is convenient. In a lot of ways, the films plot is all over the place. It’s not hard to follow but it doesn’t follow any sort of structure. Frankly, there really isn’t a three act structure, either. You can break it out into four parts. I’m also not saying that this is a bad thing as it makes for a film that isn’t formulaic or predictable and in some regard, that’s refreshing. I’m actually glad that I forgot most of the plot details over the years since first seeing this.

Furthermore, Reese Witherspoon and Kiefer Sutherland are both tremendous in this. Witherspoon, in only her fifth film, shows that she’s got real chops. Sutherland also brings his A-game and he’s so nuts in this that he really makes the movie better than it should have been on paper. He does crazy well and this may be the most bonkers role he’s ever played.

I’ve also got to point out the musical score by Danny Elfman. I dug the hell out of it and it’s one of the most unique Elfman scores of all-time. While it has the Elfman aesthetic, it’s different and unusual enough that had I not seen his name in the credits, I might not have realized it was him.

Freeway is nowhere near a perfect film but it’s a damn interesting one that’s carried by two solid performances and a story that takes you on an unexpected and wild journey.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: it’s sequel, as well as two other ’90s Reese Witherspoon movies: S.F.W. and Fear.

Film Review: Alien: Resurrection (1997)

Also known as: Alien 4 (working title)
Release Date: November 6th, 1997 (Paris premiere)
Directed by: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Written by: Joss Whedon
Based on: Charcaters created by Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shusett
Music by: John Frizzell
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder, Michael Wincott, Dan Hedaya, Brad Dourif, Ron Perlman, Gary Dourdan, Kim Flowers, Raymond Cruz, Dominique Pinon, Leland Orser

Brandywine Productions, 20th Century Fox, 109 Minutes, 116 Minutes (Special Edition)

Review:

“[voiceover] My mommy always said there were no monsters. No real ones. But there are.” – Ripley

Alien: Resurrection is a film that shouldn’t have been made. At least not in its existing form. Ripley died but they bring Weaver back as some sort of clone made from her DNA that conveniently has her memories and is basically Ripley. It’s a terrible f’n attempt at keeping the franchise’s star at the forefront instead of just moving in a new direction, which was needed but didn’t happen until 2012’s Prometheus.

For the most part, this is a terrible film that at least has some good actors and a few cool bits in it. The stuff featuring Brad Dourif and his xenomorph captives is pretty well done. I also liked the look of the standard xenomorphs in this chapter.

People everywhere love Joss Whedon like he’s some sort of golden boy. Well, he wrote this script and the story and this is one of the prime examples I give when battling it out with Whedon fanboys. Did he have a few good ideas, sure. However, even the good ideas were pretty unrefined and made this feel more like a fan fiction fantasy than anything that fits cohesively within the already established Alien mythos.

The Ripley stuff was just dumb, the human/xenomorph hybrid was strange and bizarre and not in a good way and the whole tale just seemed like a pointless side story in some pocket of the Alien universe where I just didn’t care about a single character or their mission, even if Earth itself was in imminent danger.

It’s hard to believe that I didn’t care about anyone. I like Weaver, Ryder, Perlman, Dourif and Wincott a lot. They have all done things that have spoke to me and had me invested in their characters. I don’t in any way blame them, I blame Whedon’s weak script and the director, who was the first in the franchise that I am not even remotely familiar with. Okay, upon checking he did Amélie but that was after this and I haven’t seen it in a long time, so I can’t judge it. I kind of liked it back in 2001 or so, though.

Alien: Resurrection is an example of a major studio turning a property into their whore that has to keep turning tricks to keep making the pimp money.

The underwater sequence was kind of cool, so I do give this film some props for that. Usually underwater stuff comes off as terrible. But then, maybe this film should’ve focused on its strength and taken place entirely underwater. I’m being facetious, that would’ve been shitty.

Rating: 5/10
Pairs well with: Other films in the Alien franchise but this one is one of the weakest.

Film Review: The Hunger (1983)

Release Date: April 29th, 1983 (US), May 10th, 1983 (Cannes)
Directed by: Tony Scott
Written by: Ivan Davis, Michael Thomas
Based on: The Hunger by Whitley Strieber
Music by: Howard Blake, Denny Jaeger, Michel Rubini
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, Susan Sarandon, Cliff De Young, Beth Ehlers, Dan Hedaya, Willem Dafoe (bit part), Bauhaus

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 97 Minutes

Review:

“You’ll be back. You’ll be back. When the hunger hurts so much it knows no reason! Then you’ll need to feed. And then you need me to to show you how.” – Miriam Blaylock

The Hunger is pretty well regarded by vampire aficionados and a lot of the goth kids I knew in high school and in my twenties. It’s a pretty cool and interesting film and considering that it has David Bowie in it, there is already an added magical element that he brings to everything he does.

The main star of the film however is Catherine Deneuve, who plays the vampire Miriam Blaylock. This is a character that resonated with a lot of vampire fiction lovers and for good reason. She was different, as were the vampires of the film. Here, they are explained through science instead of being simple supernatural creatures that we just accept for the fantasy element surrounding their historical representation in fiction.

Also, this film deals with issues that weren’t really seen in vampire fiction at the time. Here, we see killers that have to deal with the challenge of finding their victims, dealing with dead bodies and having to keep their ancient secret on top of the stresses of modern life and better science.

Deneuve was convincing and stellar as Miriam and her scenes with Bowie, who played her aging mortal lover, as well as Susan Sarandon, the new apple of her eye, were all pretty damn good. The film is slow, at times, but its pacing kind of works to its advantage and really, it isn’t a very long film to begin with.

The style and cinematography have a very strong neo-noir aesthetic. I’m not sure if that was intentional but the narrative has a classic noir aspect to it, as well. There is a femme fatale, twists and turns, some lover trickery and heinous crimes being committed. Is there such a thing as a goth-noir?

The beginning of the film is heavily accented and the tone set by the performance of the band Bauhaus, who do their most recognizable hit “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”. It’s a very fitting way to kick this film off, as it gives homage to the king of classic cinematic vampires while referencing his death and telling you that you are now getting into something new in vampire fiction.

I like The Hunger but not as much as its hardcore fans. I get and understand their appreciation for it but it is far from being the greatest cinematic representation of vampires. Maybe in 1983 it was a refreshing take but I’d much rather watch Neil Jordan’s Interview With A Vampire, which I feel has been more influential on vampire cinema, fiction and culture.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: Interview With a Vampire and for Bowie fans: The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Film Review: Commando (1985)

Release Date: October 4th, 1985
Directed by: Mark L. Lester
Written by: Steven E. de Souza, Jeph Loeb, Matthew Weisman
Music by: James Horner
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rae Dawn Chong, Alyssa Milano, Vernon Wells, James Olson, David Patrick Kelly, Bill Duke, Dan Hedaya, Bill Paxton, Drew Snyder

Silver Pictures, 20th Century Fox, 90 Minutes

Review:

“These guys eat too much red meat!” – Cindy

Commando is the quintessential 80s Schwarzenegger flick. This is the standard bearer for any motion picture featuring Arnie, where he isn’t a Terminator or a barbarian. It is straight up action with the right balance of Arnold’s style of comedic delivery. I mean, you could really even make the argument that this is a comedy – not to take away from the fact that it is balls to the wall bad ass.

Arnold Schwarzenegger plays John Matrix, a swollen and hard manly man that is a purebred killing machine. However, Matrix loves his daughter, the very young Alyssa Milano – before she was every 80s boy’s crush on the sitcom Who’s the Boss?

Matrix’s home is attacked and his daughter is kidnapped by bad men that have ties to his past. The bad men want Matrix to carry out an assassination. However, Matrix doesn’t take any shit whatsoever and he evades the bad guys and starts picking them off, one by one, in a race against time to save his daughter before the baddies discover that he didn’t carry out his mission.

What we get with this film is a big beefy charming bad ass with great one-liners and an arsenal that would make the Punisher weep in shame. In fact, just about everything in this movie explodes. Even Rae Dawn Chong, his cutesy fish out of water sidekick, gets to fire a rocket launcher a few times.

This movie also has a plethora of great actors. The evil and very homoerotic Bennett is played by Australian heavy Vernon Wells, probably most known as Wez from Mad Max 2 a.k.a. The Road Warrior and a parody of Wez in John Hughes’ Weird Science. You also have Bill Duke, who got to star alongside Schwarzenegger as Mac in Predator. Then there is the always enjoyable David Patrick Kelly, the leader of the bad guys in The Warriors and known for his time on Twin Peaks. The cast also includes Dan Hedaya, a guy who never gets enough props, and a small role by a young Bill Paxton.

Commando has just about everything you want in an 80s action flick without a lot of the stuff you don’t want. It isn’t an artistic masterpiece, per se. That is, unless you consider an intense crescendo of exploding buildings and flying bodies to be fine art: I friggin’ do. If that’s the case, this is true art in a classical sense that rivals the Sistine Chapel. Director Mark L. Lester is Michael-friggin’-angelo and Arnold is Adam reaching out to touch the finger of God.

The film is also only ninety minutes, so a bunch of boring character development and filler doesn’t get in the way of Schwarzenegger waving his peen around like a lasso trying to capture the hearts of 80s action fans.

The plot is simple, that is all you need to blow up an island fortress. Movies today try to get overly complicated and seem to have a guilty conscious about gratuitously shooting bullet holes in everything and everyone. Commando doesn’t have time for that horse shit. It throws its dick on the table and says, “Yeah, let’s fuckin’ rage!”

Commando was the perfect template for all Schwarzenegger movies going forward. Predator took it and added in a bad ass alien killer. The rest of his movies fell a bit short and tried to fill up the running time with annoying things like plot and character development.

If you watch Commando and you don’t have a fun time, we probably can’t be friends. Growing up in the 80s, this is one of the greatest things that ever happened to me that didn’t involve Harrison Ford or ninjas. It is actually a good thing that this didn’t have Harrison Ford or ninjas because it would have literally shattered the Earth’s crust with its intensity and the weight of its gargantuan gravitas.

Rating: 9/10

Film Review: Blood Simple. (1984)

Release Date: Septhember 7th, 1984 (Toronto International Film Festival)
Directed by: Joel Coen
Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Music by: Carter Burwell
Cast: John Getz, Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya, Samm-Art Williams, M. Emmet Walsh

River Road Productions, Foxton Entertainment, Circle Films, USA Films, 96 Minutes

Review:

“Gimme a call whenever you wanna cut off my head. I can always crawl around without it.” – Private Detective Visser

I was glad to find this streaming on The Criterion Channel, which I have access to through my FilmStruck subscription. It’s a pretty stellar service and worth the price tag if you are really a film lover.

Blood Simple. is the debut motion picture of the Coen Brothers. While the brothers would go on to be real auteurs, they had to start somewhere and in all honesty, Blood Simple. is a fantastic movie for a debut.

The picture is a visual delight and really encompasses the feel of a neo-noir film. It is dark but the color palate is still vibrant and vivid. The use of lighting and contrast is near perfect and this is a film that has aged exceptionally well. It really matches the Coen style that would become more and more famous with each new release in their always growing oeuvre.

Frances McDormand, a Coen regular and wife of Joel, makes her film debut and she knocks it out of the park. It’s pretty incredible that she got to start her career with something so well written, directed and featuring spectacular cinematography. McDormand’s acting matches the quality of the film, top to bottom, and is a testament to how good she is, even when lacking the experience that would eventually lead to several awards for her craft.

The film also stars John Getz, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh and Samm-Art Williams. Each actor brought their A-game to their roles and this is one of the best acted films of 1984, which was an iconic year in cinema history. While the film didn’t get a wide release until 1985, it spent 1984 winning over critics and audiences on the film festival circuit.

Blood Simple. was funded by a trailer that the Coen Brothers made in an effort to do just that. The film had a $1.5 million dollar budget and it makes the most of what it had, financially. Ultimately, it birthed the career of one of Hollywood’s greatest creative duos. Without Blood Simple., the world may have never gotten Fargo, The Big LebowskiO Brother, Where Art Thou?No Country For Old Men and a slew of other true classics.

The plot is well structured and has a lot of layers to it. Essentially, a woman cheats on her husband, he hires a killer, the killer tries to play both sides against one another to his advantage, everyone reacts on instinct and makes things worse due to a lot miscommunication and deception. The ending is a perfect exclamation point on the story.

Blood Simple. might not be as well known as the Coens other films but it was a launching pad for their great work that is still top notch, decades later.

Rating: 7.5/10

Film Review: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)

Release Date: August 15th, 1984
Directed by: W.D. Richter
Written by: Earl Mac Rauch
Music by: Michael Boddicker
Cast: Peter Weller, Ellen Barkin, John Lithgow, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Lloyd, Lewis Smith, Rosalind Cash, Robert Ito, Pepe Serna, Ronald Lacey, Matt Clark, Clancy Brown, Vincent Schiavelli, Jonathan Banks, Dan Hedaya, Jessie Lawrence Ferguson

Sherwood Productions, 20th Century Fox, MGM Home Entertainment, 102 Minutes

adventures_of_buckaroo_banzaiReview:

There was a time when I absolutely loved this motion picture. That time was when I was six years-old and had discovered Buckaroo Banzai at the video store. It was cool, hip, full of aliens and weird sci-fi shit and it was full of 1980s cliches and tropes. And although I am pretty much a sucker for nostalgia, the movie just doesn’t bring me back to that awesome place like other films from the era do. It hasn’t aged well and even though it has some charm, it’s kind of just stupid and mostly boring.

Watching this now, at 38 years-old, was fairly disappointing. I expected to feel pleased and to really enjoy this picture like I do when I revisit Spielberg or Dante films. Hell, I recently watched The Wraith and Maximum Overdrive and still loved them despite their flaws. Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension is just incredibly dated and the stuff that made it cool were done much better in other films. In fact, it isn’t a fresh set of ideas, it is an amalgamation of many things and frankly, it’s a mess because of it.

I can see now, why this film wasn’t a success even though the studio thought it was going to be a huge hit. The film, in its end credits, even mentions the name of the sequel that never came to be. It was supposed to kick off a franchise but that didn’t happen.

It is not for lack of talent though. This film stars Peter Weller and he’s backed up by Jeff Goldblum, John Lithgow, Christopher Lloyd, Ellen Barkin, Clancy Brown, Pepe Serna, Jonathan Banks, Vincent Schiavelli, Ronald Lacey and a slew of others. This was also before most of those names hit it big. The casting director must have had an amazing eye for talent. Had this been released a few years later, with the same cast, Disney may have eventually bought the franchise in an effort to produce a third trilogy and endless spinoffs.

I’m not going to say that Buckaroo Banzai isn’t a fun movie, it is. It has some charm, it is fairly witty but it isn’t a classic and certainly isn’t a must see, unless you are trying to view the entire filmography of one of its many stars.

In my mind, this was a much better movie than what I watched. Memory is tricky like that. Besides, I don’t think I’ve watched this since it was on TV late at night in my teen years.

Rating: 6.5/10