10 to Midnight by Matt Wedge – February 14, 2011 –
Obviously, I have an affection for Cannon films. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t bother taking part in this column. But their attempts to cash in on popular genres and knockoffs of bigger budgeted fare led to far more misses than hits. You can understand why I expected a film that plugged Charles Bronson into a Dirty Harry-esque scenario would be nothing more than Paul Kersey from the Death Wish films with a badge. But 10 to Midnight defies expectations, delivering a solid procedural with surprising twists and grounded, believable characters.
Barfly by D. B. Bates – January 31, 2011 –
It’s a small story focused on only a handful of characters, but Schroeder was absolutely the right choice to direct. Working with Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller (probably best known for shooting most of Jim Jarmusch’s films), Schroeder — like Bukowski’s writing — finds the beauty and poetry in the dive bars where much of the film’s action takes place. Every moment set in or around a bar looks like an Edward Hopper painting, giving otherwise dingy locales such glamor that would drive even the world’s biggest teetotaler to start drinking, just to be a part of it.
Bloodsport by D. B. Bates – February 4, 2011 –
Bloodsport ostensibly exists to dramatize the real-life exploits of martial artist Frank Dux (played in the film by Jean-Claude Van Damme), but it actually exists to show us 70 minutes of martial-arts fighting with 15 minutes of filler like plot and characters. As a stunt sequence delivery system, it succeeds admirably. As a film, it doesn’t quite hang together the way it should.
Braddock: Missing in Action III by D. B. Bates – December 31, 2010 –
The similarities between the three Missing in Action films made me feel like I’d witnessed the evolution of art (if one can call a Chuck Norris trilogy art). Remember that the production sequence went two, one, three. In that order, each film gets successively better as it moves away from wanton, meaningless violence and closer to something like a resonant emotional core. In Missing in Action (the “second” film made), Braddock’s guilt fuels his vengeance. In Braddock…, screenwriter Norris and longtime collaborator James Bruner give him a wife and child — something worth fighting for.
Breakin’ by D. B. Bates – June 25, 2010 –
Ultimately, nothing matters but the dancing. If you like break-dancing (I don’t), you’ll love this movie. The choreography is great, the dance sequences are well-shot (especially compared to the amateurish blocking during normal scenes), and the soundtrack is annoyingly toe-tapping.
Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo by D. B. Bates – June 25, 2010 –
Sequels are all about raising the stakes, and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo does exactly that. In fact, it’s virtually identical to the first Breakin’, only with a sillier plot and crazier dance sequences. It also retains its predecessor’s sense of pure glee, preventing the movie from feeling like the crass cash-in it actually is.
Cobra by Matt Wedge – January 21, 2011 –
Judging from the view of early 2011, it may be hard to believe, but in the late ’70s through the early ’80s, it was still possible for critics to take Sylvester Stallone seriously. Films like Rocky and First Blood were commercial and critical successes that found him taking on scripting duties, tailoring characters to fit his limited acting range. Yes, he had his share of misfires (F.I.S.T., Nighthawks), but at least they were ambitious misfires. But by the time 1986’s Cobra rolled around, Stallone had squandered any good will that the critical community had for him. The increasingly awful Rocky and Rambo sequels had made him box office gold and a critical punching bag. In other words, he was a perfect fit for the Cannon Group.
Cyborg by D. B. Bates – February 11, 2011 –
Not much happens during what screenwriters call “the second act,” which is kind of a problem, especially for a film this short. It’s relentlessly, almost nauseatingly violent (allegedly, Pyun had to cut nearly fifteen minutes to avoid an X rating, and what remains is still pretty nasty), more than any other Van Damme movie. Part of that comes from the queasy, post-apocalyptic environs; perhaps because it was rendered so cheaply, the world Pyun creates actually looks like many parts of this country right now, making it all too believable that poverty and despair can crush us. The bulk of the nastiness, however, comes from unnecessary flourishes like Gibson’s razor-tipped shoes, which allow him to slit throats while high-kicking. I suppose it’s effective, but not in an enjoyable way.
Death Wish 2 by D. B. Bates – November 5, 2010 –
The only possible way to enjoy the Death Wish films is to imagine they take place in an alternate universe where the paranoid fever dreams of the elderly have all come true. They’re the relentlessly cynical antidote to Cannon’s Breakin’ films, which paint Los Angeles slums with the sunniest possible brush. However, even the elderly’s paranoia can go too far, which is why Death Wish 2 feels like an exercise in depravity rather than a satisfying revenge thriller.
Death Wish 3 by D. B. Bates – November 10, 2010 –
Death Wish 3 might be the most insane, spectacular action film ever made. The film trims the “fat” of the first two (such as Paul Kersey’s attempts to balance a normal life with frequent vigilante killings) and amps up the film’s universe to a degree so over-the-top, not even John Waters would be bold enough to go there. The result is a gloriously violent, laughably absurd, but undeniably entertaining masterpiece of action filmmaking. Yes, it’s stupid and silly and cheesy and inconceivable, but for its chosen genre, it’s one of the high water marks.
Death Wish 4: The Crackdown by D. B. Bates – November 17, 2010 –
Left with no way to top the inspired lunacy of Death Wish 3, the Cannon Group decided to shake up the formula with the fourth entry. Gone is the pattern of Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) getting exposed to some sort of personal tragedy that leads to him surveying the creep-infested streets of an urban blight zone and then killing everyone in his sight. Instead, Death Wish 4: The Crackdown unspools more like a Grand Theft Auto game than a traditional Death Wish film, driven by imaginative action set-piece vignettes that build to a moderately compelling overall story.
Death Wish 5: The Face of Death by D. B. Bates – November 24, 2010 –
Death Wish 5 keeps the stakes frustratingly low and, with the exception of “Flakes,” entirely free of the imagination that made the other films so entertaining. Paul finds himself up against a handful of ineffectual, nonthreatening goons, all of whom he dispatches with dismaying apathy. In all of the previous films, Bronson (sometimes single-handedly) made the films work by never forgetting Paul is as wounded and vulnerable as he is angry and intelligent. Here, Bronson’s apparent disinterest in the film (allegedly, he demanded a higher salary than usual in the hopes that they wouldn’t make the film; his gamble paid off financially but not creatively) carries over to Paul, which is a huge detriment.
Delta Force 2: The Colombian Connection by D. B. Bates – December 6, 2010 –
Yes, the Cannon Group is back in all its silly glory. After last week’s viewing of the surprisingly good The Delta Force, which may be as close as Menahem Golan ever got to a real passion project, it’s time for the absurd cash-in of a sequel: Delta Force 2: The Colombian Connection, alternately known as Delta Force 2: Operation Stranglehold, even though neither title makes sense in the context of the film (it takes place in San Carlos, a fictional South American country; neither “Colombia” nor “Operation Stranglehold” are ever mentioned in the film).
The by D. B. Bates – December 1, 2010 –
The Delta Force opens with a poorly staged, poorly edited sequence inspired by the real Delta Force’s failed 1980 mission to rescue the American hostages in Iran. I figured I’d be in for a silly, entertaining ride on par with Death Wish 3. A funny thing happened, though: The movie started to get good. Like, legitimately good, not just fun or mindlessly entertaining. In fact, if not for all that distracting crap with Chuck Norris, this could have been a very suspenseful successor to the Airport franchise.
Fool for Love by Hanna Soltys – August 27, 2010 –
Love is a theme everything and everyone can touch. In Fool for Love, we see various forms of love from sibling, to parental, to lover, to oneself. And through each form, viewers see how love makes fools out of all of us.
Grace Quigley by D. B. Bates – January 19, 2011 –
I’d love to know how the pitch for Grace Quigley went. It has one of the craziest plots I’ve ever seen in a film, and I sure love seeking out crazy movies. To hear a description of its story is to wonder how the hell such a movie got made. I wish I had an answer, but the film drifted into obscurity (despite being Katharine Hepburn’s last starring role) and thus, not much information is available. Maybe the mere presence of Hepburn and Nick Nolte made it a go picture.
Invasion U.S.A. by Matt Wedge – June 25, 2010 –
This one is strictly for hardcore Norris fans. Anyone looking for a cheesy good time will be disappointed by the dour tone and lack of creative mayhem on display.
Kickboxer by D. B. Bates – February 16, 2011 –
And then there’s Kickboxer, a film that defies Van Damme’s budding persona and pretty much everything anyone thought they knew about action heroes. It’s not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but it proved two things that made me respect Van Damme more than I ever thought I would: He takes risks, and he’s a better actor than his often confused franglais lets on. As Kurt Sloane, he allows himself to start the film as a petrified coward who slowly transforms into a master martial artist. He exhibits a much wider emotional rainbow than Bloodsport and Cyborg suggested he could, up to and including an incredibly silly dance sequence in which his goofy grin and disco splits win him the hearts of local women.
King Lear by D. B. Bates – January 12, 2011 –
I’ve seen many, many, many bad movies over the years, but this is the first one I’ve seen that seemed intentional. Usually, bad movies happen on accident — even the notoriously reviled Manos, the Hands of Fate started its production with the hope of making a good movie. Here, Godard simply does whatever the hell he wants, whatever pops into his head at any given time, and trust me when I say the things popping into his head during its production couldn’t fill up a haiku, much less a feature film.
Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects by D. B. Bates – February 23, 2011 –
Some might laugh at the depiction of Japanese culture here, but it’s no less silly or over-the-top than the portrayal of American culture. The movie works for two main reasons. First, as is often the case with Bronson’s late-period work, Nebenzal and director J. Lee Thompson create a crazy world that’s consistent within its own set of strange rules. In my review of Death Wish 2, I described it as “a paranoid fever dream where all the fears of the elderly have come true.” That about sums it up.
Lifeforce by Matt Wedge – December 17, 2010 –
Lifeforce is one of the first films that the Cannon Group rolled the dice on with a big budget. As with most of their grasping attempts to hit it big, their roll came up snake eyes. With a budget reported in excess of twenty-five million dollars, Tobe Hooper’s adaptation of Colin Wilson’s novel The Space Vampires is a sprawling, messy epic with moments of startling horror interspersed with silly plot twists, and characters acting in bizarre ways that somehow make sense when filtered through Hooper’s oddball view of the world.
Link by Matt Wedge – August 20, 2010 –
It shouldn’t work. That is the thought that kept going through my head while watching Link. Super-intelligent, evil primates are the stuff of cheesy Michael Crichton-inspired adventures like Congo. They have no purpose being featured in an oddly engrossing, tongue-in-cheek indie thriller. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
Love Streams by D. B. Bates – January 7, 2011 –
John Cassavetes did not make easy films to watch, and Love Streams is no exception. Like most of Cassavetes’s work, the film has very little in the way of plot and more than enough in the way of brutal, intense character study. Despite a slightly higher budget than he normally worked with (thought not by much — Cannon Films was not known for busting the budget on anything, especially not a challenging art film), it retains the rawness of his earlier, self-financed work. It’s the sort of movie that will make virtually anyone watching it disappointed in humanity, but that’s only because it’s so easy to believe characters like this exist in reality.
Missing in Action by D. B. Bates – December 15, 2010 –
Despite the film’s simplicity, I find myself on the cusp of recommending it. It lacks the campy appeal of more mindlessly entertaining Cannon fodder, though it contains the typical displays of raw, testosterone-fueled machismo often mischaracterized as homoeroticism (and with good reason — in particular, Braddock’s attempts to wrench a knife from the hands of a potential assassin could easily be mistaken for a completely different act that would have warranted an X rating). Really, it’s a sterling example of how much goodwill an effective opening can have on a film.
Missing in Action 2: The Beginning by D. B. Bates – December 20, 2010 –
But this film’s problems run deeper than a lack of strong characters. Plenty of action movies — especially those made by the Cannon Group — work with stereotypes more than actual characters, and they can still be fun and entertaining. Like the wave of torture porn currently infesting multiplexes, the film lingers on tawdry shock moments (up to and including a slow-motion closeup of a character getting shot in the head) that don’t add up to anything more meaningful. The film tries to use these moments to show Yin as a vile monster and illustrate the risk involved in Braddock escaping, but there are simply too many of them and they’re all too grim and exploitative to have any real artistic merit.
Murphy’s Law by D. B. Bates – September 26, 2011 –
Bronson plays Jack Murphy, an alcoholic robbery-homicide detective whose wife has just left him. In a bizarre twist, Jan (Angel Tompkins) has left Murphy in order to live out her dream of stripping (she calls it “dancing”). Murphy has a habit of sitting in the back of her club, getting hammered, taunting Jan, and then following her back to her apartment to peep while she makes love with other men. Seriously.
New Year’s Evil by Matt Wedge – October 15, 2010 –
The results are as inept and artless as can be expected. Disappointingly, they are not inept in an entertaining manner. New Year’s Evil ends up being one of the most lifeless, dull films that the Cannon Group ever stamped their name on.
Pirates by D. B. Bates – September 17, 2010 –
The possibility for laughs exist in these bizarre bits of business, but laughter never comes. This long opening scene exists solely to introduce Red as a comically unpleasant, gold-obsessed monster. I give Polanski some credit for never trying to redeem this character’s faults, but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed spending time with Red or any other character in this film.
Runaway Train by Matt Wedge – July 23, 2010 –
Runaway Train is typical of Cannon fare in that it was obviously done on the cheap — just check out the unconvincing matte painting used for an establishing shot of the penitentiary. Also, like most of their action films, it seems to glory in its own brand of ultra-violence. But there’s something else going on here that really surprised me. Namely, despite the graphic violence and near-constant profanity, it felt a lot like the old Warner Brothers crime melodramas of the ’30s and early ’40s. The story of an angry criminal on the run from the law, it honestly wouldn’t take much tweaking of the characters to see James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in the lead roles, as opposed to the less impressive duo of Jon Voight and Eric Roberts.
Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley,
The by D. B. Bates – July 11, 2011 –
The film’s writer, executive producer, and longtime champion, A. Martin Zweiback, took me up on that. As you may have seen, he sent me a videotape of the “writer’s cut,” which filled me simultaneously with fear and hope. Hope, because I believed a good film could come from the botched version I saw; fear, because, based on what I had seen, I didn’t know what could be done with the existing footage to substantially improve it.
To my great pleasure, The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley — Zweiback’s cut — is, indeed, the great film I wished Grace Quigley could have been.