Death Wish 4: The Crackdown-1987

Death Wish 4: The Crackdown-1987

Director-J. Lee Thompson

Starring Charles Bronson, Kay Lenz

Scott’s Review #1,319

Reviewed November 29, 2022

Grade: C+

I have an interesting relationship with the Death Wish films. Besides the first and maybe its follow-up, they pretty much suck, and that’s being kind.

They possess a machismo and right-wing, pro-National Rifle Association stance that’s just not my cup of tea.

To make matters worse, poor acting, stagey action sequences, an explosive overuse of smokey ammunition, and endless cliches riddle the screen throughout nearly every scene.

Sure there’s usually some heartwarming romantic moment or a justification for the killings but the series is solidly amateurish.

With my nose to the grindstone I somehow, someway, plodded through all five of the Charles Bronson film series installments and lived to tell.

I refuse to see the tepidly reviewed unrelated 2018 incarnation starring Brice Willis.

But, the funny thing is with all the cinematic negatives the Death Wish films are fun in a campy, silly way. Hardly high art, they instead provide the viewer with fluff and a quick ninety-minute experience in shoot ’em-up revenge-seeking bloodletting.

With Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987) the filmmakers cleverly leverage the 1980s excess with a witty subtitle channeling the crack epidemic of the day set against the backdrop of lusty Los Angeles and the drug carnage seeping over the United States border from neighboring countries.

Some thirty-five years later the premise is dated to say nothing of riddled with stereotypes but at the time the plot must have seemed downright modern.

Paul Kersey (Bronson), who is no stranger to vigilante justice, is pulled back into the underworld of gritty Los Angeles when the daughter of his new girlfriend, Karen (Kay Lenz), dies after an overdose of crack cocaine.

Intent on dishing out a healthy dose of vigilante justice, he goes after the drug lord who ultimately supplied the crack, apparently forgetting to focus on the social issue of why the young girl was taking drugs in the first place.

The First lady Nancy Reagan’s famous anti-drug slogan, ‘just say no’ fell on deaf ears.

As he hunts down the kingpin’s henchmen, Paul starts taking out a large part of the city’s drug-dealing population on a violent killing spree while posing as a dimwitted bartender.

The acting is laughably bad from Bronson on down to the bit players.

My favorite bad scene is when an interracial couple squabbles on their way out to dinner from the luxurious highrise apartment they inhabit.

As she sits in the limo brooding and cursing her mate who forgot something from the apartment, he is suddenly hurled from his penthouse onto the limo as she shrieks with anguish, after wishing him dead only seconds prior.

Director, J. Lee Thompson, well past his prime in the late 1980s forgot to tell his actors to add a bit of humor to the horrendous line delivery.

Or, he might have just phoned the whole thing in himself.

The film is by the numbers and one attempt at a twist toward the end is an inspired effort. A pivotal character is shockingly killed and it ain’t Paul who meets his maker either.

I didn’t see this surprise coming.

Nonetheless, despite the myriad of bad qualities contained within Death Wish 4: The Crackdown, the bad guys do get their just desserts which are delightful to witness.

Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987) is best served up on a rainy afternoon when the viewer can munch on popcorn and lazily escape the day away with solid cinema trash.

Minority Report-2002

Minority Report-2002

Director-Steven Spielberg

Starring Tom Cruise, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton

Scott’s Review #1,318

Reviewed November 27, 2022

Grade: B+

If you study his body of film work, the fascinating thing about acclaimed director Steven Spielberg is the growth and groundbreaking cross-genre categorization of many of his films.

Traversing blockbuster popcorn films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. the Extra-terrestrial (1982) to heavy drama with the 1993 masterpiece Schindler’s List, the man can do it all.

With 2002’s Minority Report, he bravely delves into science-fiction territory with a crime thriller and action tint. The film is tough to follow and mostly reminds me of Inception (2010), a Christopher Nolan vehicle influenced by this film.

Despite the cerebral tone, Minority Report is a fascinating study of futuristic crime-fighting styles with enough twists and turns to keep me engaged though I confess at times having no real idea what was going on plot-wise.

The casting of Tom Cruise is a major win. Who better to carry a film like this except maybe Bruce Willis though Cruise is a better actor. Nonetheless, he is believable as a crime chief with a slick edge and a wicked smile.

Unsure whether or not to trust him he remains at the heart of the success of the film.

Based on a story by science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, ‘Minority Report’ contains a perfect premise to bring to the big screen. Set in Washington D.C. in 2054, police are now intelligent enough to utilize a psychic technology to arrest and convict murderers before they commit their crimes.

The setup is fabulous and rife with possibility.

Cruise plays Chief John Anderton, the head of this Precrime unit, and is himself accused of the future murder of a man he hasn’t even met. Following an audit, it is predicted that in thirty-six hours, Anderton will kill a man who is a stranger to Anderton.

Anderton flees, prompting a manhunt led by Witwer (Colin Farrell).

It is revealed that Anderton joined the Precrime program after his son was kidnapped and never found. He is depressed, withdrawn, and addicted to hard drugs, and his wife Lara (Kathryn Morris) has since left him.

But is this all a setup and are others involved in the conspiracy?

The plot goes way off the rails in terms of explanation or logic but the fun is in trying to put the never-ending puzzle pieces together. Truthfully, after a while, I simply gave up this approach and enjoyed the visual eye candy and terrific futuristic style.

I rarely am a proponent of visuals over storytelling but the intelligence of the sequences and the thrilling nature of the acting assured me there was something there. I just wasn’t completely getting it.

Since it’s directed by Spielberg I was confident that the complexities I was being served were not shit. I was comforted by this knowledge and my enjoyment escalated.

Enough props can’t be handed out for Cruise’s dynamic performance parlayed by the coldness and harshness of the overall tone of the film.

Many of Spielberg’s films are heartwarming but this was not to be found in Minority Report (2002) and I liked it even more for that reason.

Spielberg gets another win by suckering me into a cinematic world that he magically can create. This time with perplexities and perhaps even some influence from the Matrix (1999) movies.

Oscar Nominations: Best Sound Editing

Rocky II-1979

Rocky II-1979

Director-Sylvester Stallone

Starring-Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Carl Weathers

Scott’s Review #1,317

Reviewed November 24, 2022

Grade: B+

Rocky II (1979) is a terrific sequel and entertaining sports film. It doesn’t recreate the wheel or challenge cinematic artistic freedom or expression or anything like that. But, it knows what it wants to achieve and gets there in fine fashion.

It’s a straight-ahead vehicle that capitalizes on the enormous critical and commercial success of Rocky (1976) and enthralls with a winning final climax- in the squared boxing circle naturally.

The film is a crowd-pleaser through and through and the powers that even let boorish actor Stallone, notoriously difficult, take the director’s reigns (yikes!).

The actor even writes the screenplay for the film.

Events begin immediately following the first Rocky film which is a wise decision. Cocky world champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) has defeated working-class Philadelphia boxer Rocky Balboa (Stallone) in the closest of battles with both men requiring medical attention.

Despite vowing not to engage in a rematch, Rocky’s Cinderella story has caught the national sports media’s attention, and he now has the opportunity to capitalize on his sudden fame. Creed arrogantly prods his newfound nemesis into getting back into the ring.

Plagued with financial problems and a pregnant wife Rocky is goaded out of retirement and back into the ring for the fight of his life.

Supporting players Talia Shire (Adrian), Burgess Meredith (Mickey), and Burt Young (Paulie) return to the fold which provides excellent continuity and familiarity, another key to Rocky II’s success.

Additionally, Shire, Meredith, and Young are such top-quality actors that they enhance Stallone’s performance.

Rocky is unquestionably the best role of Stallone’s long career. Never known for great acting chops, he won the lottery with this iconic role and does quite well with him on the second time out.

The character is impossible not to root for and the Italian Stallion’s charisma shines across the big screen. Who doesn’t like an underdog especially when all he cares about is the timid Adrian (another underdog)?

His ‘Yo, Adrian, I did it!’ is legendary.

I’ll never cease being enamored with Shire’s portrayal of Adrian as compared to her other iconic role of Connie Corleone in The Godfather films. Adrian and Connie are like night and day which is a big part of the fun of viewing them both.

Of course, the setup of Rocky II is contrived and the storyline dictated. We know the final thirty minutes or so will showcase the bloody rematch between Rocky and Creed and we the audience salivates thirstily as the fight approaches.

There exists some trivial plot about Adrian giving birth to their son (named Rocky Jr. obviously) and slipping into a coma only to be resurrected by determination and giving her blessing for Rocky to fight but we all know what’s coming.

Like clockwork, the final fight arrives! As the men slug it out through fifteen brutal, sweaty rounds, the editing is fantastic. The sequence feels like a retread because it sort of is but it still provides an enthralling and bombastic finale.

Fans will not be disappointed.

Sure, Rocky II suffers from a saccharine romance and a predictable ending but it’s also a feast for the eyes and the ultimate sports match-up.

Compared to Rocky (1976) the film is a letdown despite carefully keeping the Philadelphia underdog, blue-collar elements that made the original such a hit.

Subsequent sequels would parlay into nationalistic, patriotic nonsense using the Cold War as a prop but Rocky II (1979) remains all-American and robust in spirit and climax.

Top Gun: Maverick-2022

Top Gun: Maverick-2022

Director-Joseph Kosinski

Starring Tom Cruise, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly

Scott’s Review #1,316

Reviewed November 23, 2022

Grade: B

I made the mistake of watching Top Gun: Maverick (2022) in the worst possible forum imaginable- inside an airplane at 35,000 feet! And I wasn’t inside the cockpit either, which would have fulfilled the appropriate thrills and perhaps even elicited terror.

Being chastised repeatedly for not seeing the film on the biggest movie theater screen imaginable, I watched this offering on the plane primarily out of curiosity to see what all the fuss was about.

In a nutshell, I thought the visuals and action/adventure sequences up in the sky were second to none. The use of sound and cinematography successfully provided the peril and anticipation of the events of the film.

Even on a teenie tiny screen with earbuds I could sense and appreciate the bombastic trimmings.

To bury myself even further, I hadn’t even seen the original Top Gun made in 1986. Of course, I was familiar with the popular soundtrack featuring the enormous Kenny Loggins hit, ‘Danger Zone, which is reprised in the new film, and the syrupy ballad, ‘Take My Breath Away by Berlin.

I guess I felt I knew the predictable story enough not to bother viewing the film.

So, I’ll chalk this review up to lessons learned but I can still provide a critical opinion as I asked myself repeatedly over the two hours and eleven minutes running time why people love Top Gun: Maverick so much and why it was such a box-office hit.

But in the end, I’m glad it was because in 2022 we desperately need butts in movie theater seats.

After more than thirty years of service as one of the Navy’s top aviators, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) pushes the envelope and challenges his superiors as a courageous test pilot. This subsequently hinders his chances of advancing up the ranks of status.

When he finds himself training a group of All-American-looking Top Gun graduates for a specialized mission, Maverick encounters Lt. Bradley Bradshaw (Miles Teller), call sign: “Rooster,” the son of Maverick’s late friend and Radar Intercept Officer Lt. Nick Bradshaw, aka “Goose”.

Rooster blames Maverick for his father’s death.

Facing an uncertain future and confronting the ghosts of his past, Maverick is drawn into a confrontation with his own deepest fears, culminating in a mission that demands the ultimate sacrifice from those who will be chosen to fly it.

This summary equates to a limited story with plenty of flaws but Top Gun: Maverick is about entertainment first and foremost. A cohesive and edgy story is not to be found.

Let’s get the storyline woes out of the way in short order.

I was disappointed that superb actress Jennifer Connelly (if anyone has missed her wonderful turn in 2006’s Little Children check it out asap) was reduced to playing Penny Benjamin, a girlfriend who owns a dive bar role.

I mean Connelly looks amazing but she has no deep story to speak of. She flirts with, sleeps with, and hopes to live happily ever after with him. A single Mom, her daughter frets that Maverick will break her heart.

It’s the romantic angle of the story but quite banal and uninteresting.

The ‘recruits’ are written as one-dimensional. There is rivalry and teamwork to be had but they are all so good-looking that it’s tough not to see a lack of realism.

Finally, Jon Hamm suffers through an uninteresting role as the heavy. Cast as Vice Admiral Simpson, he doesn’t like Maverick and that’s about all there is to his part.

The same can be said for Ed Harris and his role.

On the upside, Cruise has a wonderfully emotional scene that reminds audiences how good an actor he is. He says a teary goodbye to his long-time friend Kazansky (Val Kilmer) and it’s a beautifully written, rich scene that I adored.

Top Gun: Maverick (2022) fails in the story department but I realize the main draw is Cruise the action star. The film wins as a loud, thrilling, summer, popcorn visual and sensory treat, and thankfully it was an enormous success.

Tár-2022

Tár-2022

Director-Todd Field

Starring-Cate Blanchett, Nina Hoss, Noémie Merlant

Scott’s Review #1,315

Reviewed November 18, 2022

Grade: A

Tár (2022) is a brilliant film that truly belongs to Cate Blanchett. I cannot picture any other actress in this role but her.

I can pretty much watch any film that she appears in with my favorite being her self-titled role in Carol (2015). But Tár is a close second.

In Tár, again in the title role, she plays a brilliant woman that the audience admires but slowly finds pieces of her personality tarnished and brittle, under the surface. As the film goes on her character’s psyche is peeled back more, like an onion.

This lofty praise of Blanchett is in no way meant to diminish the rest of Tár because it revels in grandiose riches. The pacing, musical score, and other acting performances are to be championed.

When I found out that Todd Field was directing Tár my spirits began to soar.

After all, he directed In the Bedroom (2001) and Little Children (2006), two tremendous films with a quiet, small-town, setting brimming with secrets and scandals which slowly rise to the surface.

The subdued locales are scrapped in favor of Berlin, a busy, behemoth of a city in Germany. Some of the events take place in New York City so there is a large, cosmopolitan vibe. The luminous settings are encompassed by a cold, grey, stark quality.

Tár requires the viewer’s absolute patience to get the biggest bang for the buck. It can be tough to follow with very long sequences but the Field/Blanchett combination makes the film culminate in a muddy and dazzling conclusion.

Blanchett plays Lydia Tár, the groundbreaking conductor of a major German Orchestra. We meet Tár at the height of her career, in high demand, as she’s preparing both a book launch and a much-anticipated live performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.

What could go wrong? In Lydia’s case, just about everything.

Over a few weeks, her life begins to unravel. The result is an examination of power and its effect on those who have it and those who don’t.

The timely #MeToo movement is in top form.

The gender flip is also quite interesting since typically it’s males who have and abuse the power, but Lydia is a female and a lesbian.

I spent a good part of Tár feeling perplexed, anxious, and compelled. It’s a slow burn but I always knew, with Field in the director’s seat, that a big payoff awaited me. I happily jumped into his arms and waited for the shit to hit the fan.

The key to Tár is that many of the events have happened off-screen and before the current events of the film. There is a mysterious, suicidal, former student of Lydia’s in the mix. She sends desperate, pleading, emails to Lydia and her assistant.

We wonder how the former student ties into the events.

Lydia relies on Francesca (Noémie Merlant), her attentive personal assistant, and Sharon (Nina Hoss), her sickly wife, and concertmaster for just about everything.

Soon, a new and gifted Russian cellist named Olga (Sophie Kauer) arrives on the scene. With Lydia smitten, how will Olga fit in with the other women?

Francesca, Sharon, and Olga are three pivotal female characters and each actress is exceptional in the role.

Tár reminds me of both Whiplash (2014) and Black Swan (2010) for different reasons. It envelops the world of classical music like Whiplash did for jazz and Black Swan did for the ballet world.

All three films could be watched close together and more similarities could be noticed.

Tár is a film that can be owned and watched again to piece together the jagged puzzle pieces. It’s a rare moment in the modern film where one can be re-watched.

Since it contains music, the orchestra and maestro sequences are wonderfully constructed so the coldness of the events mirrors the song choices.

Stark and boiling over with gems like mystique, uncertainty, and sophistication, Tár (2022) rejuvenates modern film with a bleak yet thought-provoking story of a powerful woman.

It’s a film that engrosses and thrills.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Director-Todd Field, Best Lead Performance-Cate Blanchett, Best Supporting Performance-Nina Hoss, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing

The Witches-2020

The Witches-2020

Director-Robert Zemeckis

Starring Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer

Scott’s Review #1,314

Reviewed November 16, 2022

Grade: B

A remake of the 1990 film starring Anjelica Huston, The Witches (2020) sometimes delivers the goods and occasionally derails off the tracks into campy, over-the-top, wackadoo.

Mostly, on the part of star Anne Hathaway who plays an evil and powerful witch.

But, regardless of what this adult thinks, it will please, surprise, and fascinate youngsters who see it. There’s a comforting and vital message of friendship and family roots ingrained in the story which is a nice touch.

In 1968, seven-year-old orphan Charlie Hansen (Jahzir Bruno) travels from Chicago to Alabama to live with his grandmother, Agatha (Octavia Spencer), after his parents are killed in a car accident.

After he is approached by a dastardly witch in a grocery store they flee to a seaside resort to avoid the child-hating witches. Agatha has a troubled past with the witches who long ago turned her best friend into a chicken.

When the two arrive at their hotel, they find a coven with villainous plans. They are accompanied by a mouse named Daisy and an English boy named Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick).

I much prefer the first half of The Witches to the last.

The wonderful and caring relationship between Agatha and Charlie is a beautiful dynamic. When she envelops him with love and southern cooking in her cozy home, understanding the trauma he has endured, it is heartwarming and genuine.

Spencer is terrific in any role she plays, of course, but her calm and stoic demeanor when paired against the witches is lovely. She is prepared for trouble and sneaks to a back room where she keeps crystals, and other anti-witch weaponry.

But the relationship with the little boy is darling and top-notch. I wish they would have just stayed at home and nurtured their relationship with Daisy and Bruno.

The weakest section of the film involves the witches themselves. As they flock to the hotel for a convention to plot the destruction of children everywhere, they appear more silly than scary, especially when they remove their wigs and reveal bald, scabby heads.

Director, Robert Zemeckis must have given Hathaway free range to ham it up because she certainly does just that.

I’m a fan of hers so it’s not a personal knock but she teeters toward ridiculous pretty quickly. I get the need to make a children’s film villain colorful, memorable, and loud but there is no restraint, causing the character to feel more silly than terrifying.

On the plus side, Hathaway must have had a ball letting loose and leaving all constraints on the sidelines.

Inevitably, the kids are changed into cute mice and must convince their loved ones that they are themselves while figuring out how to change back to human children.

Not much is different from the 1990 version besides a tweak here and there and the story is the same but I think I prefer the original by a hair.

Huston beats Hathaway in a comparison.

Some inconsistencies emerge like how Agatha can afford to stay in a grandiose hotel. She knows someone connected to the hotel but the who’s and why’s aren’t clear.

It’s never explained what happened to Agatha’s friend who wound up as a chicken and I wanted more from Stanley Tucci than an uninteresting hotel manager role with little to do.

But, the action sequences are adventurous and energetic and it’s fun cheering the turning of the Grand High Witch (Hathaway) into a rat.

I wanted more of the homespun love between Agatha and Charlie and the simple southern town that felt so lovely and welcoming, but The Witches (2020) provides family fun entertainment that many can enjoy.