The Prisoner (1955) review-A real hidden gem

Thanks to the advent of social media and the YouTube comments section, words like “worst” or “epic” have really lost their meaning in the current pop culture discourse, based on how frequently they’re used online.

“Obscure” should be added that list as well, since I’ve seen people use this term to describe properties that are decidedly not hard to track down and consume.

Rule of thumb: if you can watch a movie or tv show on a multi-billion dollar streaming platform, then chances are it’s not the entertainment equivalent of finding the Dead Sea Scrolls.

But I think calling Peter Glenville’s The Prisoner (1955) “obscure” is a pretty safe bet, since the film doesn’t even show up immediately when you type it into IMDB’s search bar.

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But if you’re lucky enough to own a copy of Mill Creek Entertainment’s “5 Classic War Films” DVD pack like myself, then you should definitely give this thought-provoking drama a look.

In terms of plot, Sir Alec Guinness stars as a nameless Cardinal accused of high treason by a nameless interrogator (Jack Hawkins) following the events of World War II.

Even though the country remains nameless as well, the basic conceit is that the Hawkins represents the kind of Eastern European government that traded in the fascistic boot heel of the Nazis for some form of Communist authoritarianism after the conflict subsided.

As such, Hawkins’ intentions to force Guinness to confess to trumped up charges are made clear from the very start, and a compelling battle of wills between the two men ensues for the next 90 minutes.

Obviously, the film’s biggest draw is the back-and-forth between Guinness and Hawkins; two classically trained actors who are experts at conveying complex emotions through looks and body language alone.

And they don’t disappoint here, since the film remains a compelling watch even though half of the runtime is just the two men talking in a room.

The conversations that take places between the two is almost akin to a well-choreographed fight scene, with plenty of unexpected verbal jabs and parries to keep the audience on their toes.

Guinness is especially impressive in his role as the nameless Cardinal, since he’s willing to undertake a rather unflattering transformation from a dignified man of the cloth to an emotionally shattered shell of his former self.

For mainstream audiences who are used to seeing Guinness take on mentor roles like Obi-Wan Kenobi, it might be a little upsetting to watch him undergo such psychological torture that reduces him to a nervous, groveling wreck by the film’s end.

But putting in such a raw, unfiltered performance definitely left a big impression on me, and Guinness should be applauded for taking this kind of risk.

Similar to other stage plays turned into films like Frost/Nixon and Glengarry Glen Ross, The Prisoner also benefits from a script that’s was polished way ahead of time, which gave director Peter Glenville the opportunity to focus most of his energy on filling in the gaps.

While some filmmakers might have just let Bridget Boland’s dialogue speak for itself, he decided to give this story a full cinematic treatment anyway, with plenty of gorgeous cinematography to serve as the backdrop.

Some of these shots even display elements of German Expressionism, since he uses harsh shadows, moody lighting, and gothic architecture to highlight the oppressive nature of Guinness’ captivity.

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And even though most the action takes place indoors, Glenville does his best to keep the audience’s attention through utilizing strategic blocking and dynamic camera movements.

However, not every decision the director made for this screen adaptation is a winner, since he decided to include this time-wasting subplot featuring one of Guinness’ guards, who is having an affair with a married woman.ThePrisoner2

I’m not sure if this subplot was included in the original play, but it seems like something a clueless producer lobbied to include in film to appeal to a larger audience, even though it’s cliched and has next to no bearing on the overall story.

The Prisoners’ ambiguous setting also threw me off during my initial viewing, since I went in blind and spent way too much time trying to figure out which European country this was supposed to take place in.

But after doing my research, the film was much easier to digest with a second viewing and it gave me the opportunity to pick up on the smaller nuances of Guinness and Hawkins’ performances.

And at the end of the day, the mere presence of these two acting heavyweights gives the filmmakers a pretty solid foundation to work with from the outset, with Boland’s tight script and Glenville’s smart directing elevating the story beyond just being a stage play put to film.

This movie’s obscure status might make it a little difficult to track down, but it’s definitely worth making a couple clicks on Amazon to order a Blu-Ray copy.

Just make sure you order the right version of The Prisoner, unless you’re in the market for some high definition pornography or old school British sci-fi.

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Verdict:

8/10

Corner store companion:

Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (because Guinness and Hawkins are the acting equivalent of putting chocolate and peanut butter together)

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Fun facts:

-Release date: April 19, 1955 (UK), December 11, 1955 (US)

-While the film’s setting remains ambiguous, Guinness’ character is based on real-life cardinals Aloysius Viktor Stepinac and József Mindszenty, who underwent similar show trials in Croatia and Hungary, respectively.

-According to TV Guide, this film was banned from both the Venice and Cannes film festival for being “anti-Catholic” and “anti-Communist.” However, residents of Ireland slapped it with a “pro-Communist” label.

-Two years after The Prisoner was released, Hawkins and Guinness would go on to star in The Bridge on the River Kwai, although the pair wouldn’t share any scenes together. However, the two would be reunited on screen in 1962 for director David Lean’s next big epic Lawrence of Arabia.

The Prisoner would go on to be nominated for five BAFTA awards for acting (Hawkins and Guinness), script writing (Boland) and best overall film (from Britain or any other source).

-The obscurity of Peter Glenville’s The Prisoner might have something to do with the fact that there are more famous pop culture properties with the same name, including a 1967 British science fiction series starring Patrick McGoohan.

Perfect Stranger (2007) review-Hitchcock for wine moms

The jury’s still out on whether or not Halle Berry is a recipient of the Oscar curse.

Even though she’s remained a household name to this day, Berry never really lived up to her potential after winning the Academy Award for Best Actress for Monster’s Ball (2001).

Rather than using that momentum to further her career as a critical darling, Berry starred in a series of bonafide clunkers instead, including Die Another Day (2002), Gothika (2003), and Catwoman (2004).

That last film even netted Berry a Razzie for Worst Actress, which she famously accepted in person with her Oscar in tow.

While Perfect Stranger (2007) is a few years removed from this famous losing streak it carries that same stench of failure, boasting piss poor box office returns and an even more dismal critical reception (10% on Rotten Tomatoes).

And while I don’t think this psychological thriller is that bad, it’s still crushingly stupid and something that definitely won’t be brought up in any of Berry’s future sit-down interviews with Oprah.

In terms of plot, Berry stars as crusading journalist Rowena Price who decides to investigate wealthy businessman Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis) after her childhood friend (who was having an affair with Hill) turns up dead.

To find the real killer, Rowena goes undercover at Hill’s ad agency and even adopts an online persona to try and seduce him on two fronts.

It’s hard to talk about Perfect Stranger without veering off into the realm of spoilers, since the film’s biggest weakness is it over reliance a ludicrous plot twist that’s meant to prop up the entirety of the story.

Sticking to just the acting for just a minute, Berry’s performance as the movie’s lead is very hit and miss. She’s perfectly serviceable in scenes involving tense intrigue or flirty conversations over drinks. But whenever she’s called upon to deliver a line that’s above a dull roar, Berry can’t help but go over the top and chew up the scenery like she’s headlining a Lifetime Movie.

Thankfully, Giovanni Ribisi picks up the slack in the acting department, since he does a much better job of finding a happy medium between those two conflict tones in a supporting role as Rowena’s closest confidant and secret stalker.

Willis is also surprisingly decent at playing the sinister ad executive, although that’s probably because his dialogue is kept to a minimum.

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On the directing side, James Foley does a good job of emphasizing the lurid subject matter, making sure to crowd the screen with bold colours in every scene involving explicit sex and violence.

And screenwriters Jon Bokenkamp and Todd Komarnicki should be given some credit for trying to tell a story about losing one’s identity in the digital age way before the explosion of social media.

But that’s about as far as I’ll go to praise the writing, since the film’s plot is one long Shaggy Dog story.

While each individual story development isn’t too outlandish, for this kind of trashy thriller anyway, it’s all built on a foundation of sand.

Without going into specific details, the revelation of the killer’s identity and their overarching motivation comes completely out of nowhere and resembles something the producers put together at the last minute to artificially throw savvy moviegoers off the scent.

In fact, according to IMDB, the filmmakers shot three different endings for this movie, each with a different character as the killer, which means the revelation was designed to be a gimmick rather than an organic conclusion.

Unlike a good movie twist, there’s no breadcrumb trail to follow up on after the fact that puts everything in the proper context. Instead, all the audience is left with is a wet fart of a climax that’s meant to shock but not make any sense.

It’s the kind of bad ending that taints the rest of the film, even the parts that are relatively enjoyable.

Suffice it to say, Perfect Stranger is not a modern answer to the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Hell, it’s not even on the same level as 2000s M. Night Shyamalan.

It’s basically Hitchcock for wine-moms, where well-crafted suspense and intrigue is replaced by hammy acting, cheap titillation, and soap opera style plot progression.

On that level, this thriller is worth watching just for the fun of picking apart its non-sensical plots threads.

Halle Berry completionists also might want to give this film a look, although their time is probably better spent watching B*A*P*S for the 20th time.

Verdict:

5/10

Corner store companion:

Kinder Surprise (because it’s an appealing shell containing a crappy surprise)

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Fun facts:

-Release date: April 13, 2007

-Budget: $60,795,000

-Box office gross: $23,984,949 (US), $73, 090, 611 (worldwide)

-Film critic Richard Roper ranked Perfect Stranger as his 10th worst film of 2007, right behind Rush Hour 3 and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.

-This movie was originally supposed to be set in New Orleans, but the script was re-written to take place in New York City after Hurricane Katrina hit during pre-production.

-Unexpected cameo: model Heidi Klum pops up briefly during a Victoria’s Secret party that is being thrown by Willis’ fictional ad agency.

-After helming Perfect Stranger, James Foley would go on to direct TV for the next decade, including episodes of Hannibal, Billions and House of Cards. He returned to the world of feature films with a vengeance in 2017-18 by directing the second and third entry in the cinematic Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy (Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed).

The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) review-Christopher Lee deserved a better send-off as the Count

Besides Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee is probably the most prolific actor to ever don Count Dracula’s cape on the silver screen.

This is no easy feat, since the Prince of Darkness has been portrayed in over 200 films by some of the industry’s most respected thespians, like Gary Oldman, Klaus Kinski, and Frank Langella.

But from 1958 to 1973, Hammer Studios turned Lee into a horror icon by casting him as the main antagonist in their revival Dracula series that took the character into new and interesting directions.

This is definitely true for The Satanic Rites of Dracula, the last film in the series to feature Lee, since the story revolves around a morbid cult helping the Count carry out his evil deeds in 1970s London.

Luckily, the descendent of Dracula’s old foe Van Helsing (played by Peter Cushing for the fourth time) catches wind of these malicious machinations and teams up with a group of government agents to stop this undead fiend once and for all.

Full disclosure, I haven’t watched any of the other Hammer Dracula films starring Lee, since my horror DVD 12-pack only came bundled with this single entry.

But based on what I’ve been able to glean from online critics like James Rolfe, the series’ continuity is all over the place and doesn’t really make sense anyway.

All you need to know is that Dracula is skulking around modern day London and most of the older films’ gothic sets and atmosphere have been replaced with cheap on-location shooting.

For some reason, the filmmakers also decided to try and modernize this story by imbuing it with period appropriate funk music, which makes it sound like Shaft is going to jump out of the shadows at any moment and kick vampire ass.

The movie’s tone in general is all over the place, switching from scenes involving satanic cults and human sacrifice to dry exchanges between government agents that resemble a John le Carré spy novel.

Based on this description, you might be fooled into thinking that The Satanic Rites of Dracula is a fascinating mess of a film that keeps you hooked based on how off-the-wall some of its ideas and concepts are.

While this does happen occasionally, the movie is mostly a giant bore that barely features Lee in any meaningful way.

Dracula himself doesn’t show up until half-an-hour into the film and takes up less than 20 minutes of total screen time.

While this is apparently par for the course when it comes this series, critics like Rolfe said that previous entries at least made up for the lack of Dracula by providing some interesting performances, eerie atmosphere, and impressive gore effects.

Satanic Rites really doesn’t bring any of that to the table with its bland main characters, goofy score, and tepid use of bloodshed.

The most compelling thing about the film is Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, since he at least tries to take this bonkers material serious. Sadly, he isn’t given that much to do, since 90% of his dialogue consists of dolling out exposition.

The movie’s plot also really starts to go off the rails in its second half when Van Helsing discovers that [SPOILERS] Dracula is planning to wipe out humanity by developing a new strain of the bubonic plague. How he would be able survive in a world without human blood to feast on I have no idea.

The writers try to salvage this idiotic turn by suggesting that Dracula wants to die himself and take the world down with hum. However, that doesn’t explain why he spends so much of film’s running time turning pretty English girls into his vampire brides instead of focusing on his plan to commit mass genocide.

The last nail in this film’s coffin is its insulting finale, where [SPOILERS] Dracula meets his end by walking into a hawthorn bush.

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Obviously, the people over at Hammer were running out of ways to kill Lee at the end of every movie, so I guess they came up with some bullshit about how vampires are vulnerable to the crown of thorns that Jesus wore on the cross.

So yeah, not a great way for Lee to cap off his iconic run as Dracula.

Even though the actor revealed in later interviews that he grew less and less fond of playing the character as time went on, there’s no denying that he injected some new blood into Bram Stoker’s original creation.

Not only was Lee one of the first actors to portray the Count in vivid Technicolor, but horror movie fans also got to see this classic character inflict new levels of gratuitous violence on his victims thanks to Hammer’s famously schlock-heavy approach to filmmaking.

Sadly, that initial spark of creativity is completing lacking in Satanic Rites, which ends this franchise with a dull whimper rather than a deafening bang.

But luckily, I don’t think this film hurt Lee’s legacy in the long run, since he would go on to portray a litany of other iconic movie villains until his death in June 2015 at the age of 93. And that’s on top of his decorated military service and amazing run as a heavy metal recording artist.

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So yeah, I don’t think he gave this movie a second thought after he collected his paycheck … and that’s about all it deserves.

Verdict:

3/10

Corner store companion:

Glade scented candles (because they provide better gothic atmosphere than the movie itself)

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Fun facts:

-Release date: November 3, 1973 (West Germany), January 13, 1974 (UK), October 1978 (US)

-Box office gross: ₤223,450

-Alternative title: Dracula Is Alive and Well and Living in London

-While Hammer produced nine films in their revival Dracula series, Christopher Lee only appeared in seven of them. However, the second and ninth films in the franchise, The Brides of Dracula (1960) and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974), still feature Peter Cushing as Van Helsing.

Satanic Rites wasn’t the last time Lee would be cast as Dracula, since he donned the cape one last time in the 1976 French comedy Dracula and Son.

-Before he played Dracula for the first time in 1958, Lee also got the opportunity to portray Frankenstein’s monster in Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein from 1957. Lee’s run as the creature only lasted one movie, since the remaining six films in the franchise focused on the adventures of Baron Victor Frankenstein, played by Cushing.

-Musical highlight: “Massacre of the Saxons” by Christopher Lee (this song has nothing to do with the movie, I just wanted to remind everyone that Lee recorded a series of heavy metal albums when he was in his late-80s and early-90s).

You Light Up My Life (1977) review- Why you should give this film (and the song) a second chance

Movies don’t always stick into the popular consciousness the way their directors would like them to. Some films, for example, are only remembered for one particular thing, whether it’s a standout scene or a single iconic performance.

You Light Up My Life is an obvious victim of this phenomenon, since many people forget that it was even a movie in the first place.

Instead, most people associate this film with its title track, which was one of the biggest hit songs of 1977, staying at the #1 position in the Billboard charts for an unprecedented, at the time, 10 consecutive weeks.

Not only did this single’s popularity make Debby Boone a star, but the following year it also netted director/composer Joseph Brooks an Oscar for Best Original Song, giving him a lot of credibility in the eyes of Hollywood elites (albeit temporarily).

Meanwhile, the original 1977 film that spawned this track is definitely not remembered as a classic, judging by its low rating on sites like Rotten Tomatoes (20%) and IMDB (4.6).

And even though the song initially fared well in the eyes of the public, its stock has severely diminished with time. In fact, if you Google “You Light Up My Life” right now you’ll find a bunch of modern culture critics writing about how it is one of the worst songs of the 1970s.

This overwhelmingly negative critical consensus on both fronts definitely came as a big surprise to me, since I found this film to be a charming romantic drama and the song to be an absolute show stealer.

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The story proper follows Laurie Robinson (Didi Conn), a working artist in Los Angeles who bounces around different commercial auditions and comedy acting gigs at the behest of her overbearing showbiz father (Joe Silver). However, her true passion lies with composing music and she even gets the opportunity to showcase this talent when she meets an established director (Michael Zaslow) by chance.

Laurie’s personal life is also put in jeopardy when she starts to develop feelings for this director, which complicates her impending marriage to another man.

Now, I’ll admit, there’s a lot of melodrama packed into this movie, especially when the run time is a slim 90 minutes. But Conn’s lead performance as Laurie really holds everything together, since she carries this entire movie on her back almost single-handedly.

It’s hard to put into words how endearing and likable she is on screen, as her character goes from audition to audition, facing rejection and failure at almost every turn. Conn’s optimistic personality and lack of cynicism really makes her a captivating underdog to watch, someone who also isn’t afraid to show cracks in that sunny demeanor when things get really rough.

Her relationship with Joe Silver is also a pivotal part of the movie’s appeal.

While Silver’s showbiz dad is totally ignorant of his daughter’s real interests, he isn’t trying to be malicious or exploit his only child for financial gain. Instead, he pushes her in a certain direction out of a genuine belief that stand-up comedy is her real passion, even though that’s mostly projection on his part.

The warm back-and-forth between Conn and Silver comes across as being very authentic and makes you believe that the actors would carry out these same conversations once the cameras stopped rolling.

In fact, most of the characters and dialogue in the movie comes across as very naturalistic, to the point where I almost thought I was watching a slice-of-life drama in the same vein as a Richard Linklater or Cameron Crowe film.

But I know what you’re asking: “What about the title song? Isn’t it awful and derail the entire movie?”

Actually, no. I would actually argue that the title track works on many levels and is one of the film’s biggest highlights.

 

From a filmmaking point of view, this uplifting number comes in at just the right point in the story, when Laurie desperately needs a win and finally gets the chance to showcase her singing and song writing ability in front of some Hollywood big wigs.

This exulted feeling is hammered home by the way the scene is shot, since it is all presented to the audience in a single take with fluid, sweeping camera movements.

And even though Conn obvious isn’t providing her own singing voice, she still acts the hell out of this moment, since her body language and facial expressions perfectly match the pipped in vocals.

(Plus, if Rami Malek can win an Oscar for lip syncing, why should I hold back praise for another quality pantomime performance?)

On a musical level, it’s important to point out that the movie version of “You Light Up My Life” is different than the Debby Boone rendition most people are familiar with.

The track was originally performed by classically trained opera singer Kasey Cisyk, whose powerful, uplifting voice effortlessly elevates the admittedly simple lyrics and makes them sound profound.

Boone’s performance is pretty bland and lifeless by comparison, which is part of the reason why, I imagine, this song has garnered such a bad reputation in the intervening 40 years.

I also feel like the instrumental accompaniment in the movie version of the song is alot stronger, especially the string section, but that could just be my imagination.

And even if you don’t like Cisyk’s version of the “You Light Up My Life,” the film is sprinkled with a handful of other catchy numbers, with “Do You Have a Piano” being another standout.

That’s not to suggest that every song is used appropriately.

The director has a bad habit of artificially squeezing his original music into scenes just to pad out the run time, like whenever Conn has to drive from one location to another.

Plus, not every track is a winner, with the dreary “California Daydreams” coming across as a bad Simon and Garfunkel rip-off.

In terms of filmmaking weaknesses, I would be remiss not to mention that You Light Up My Life occasionally veers off into the realm of a sappy soap opera, with some cheesy lines and plot contrivances that really strain the realm of believability.

But at its core, this movie still has a beating heart and the director is obviously very passionate about showcasing the struggle one must endure to make it in the entertainment industry.

The filmmakers in general do good job of blending the music with the overarching narrative, so movie-goers who have re-watched the recent A Star is Born remake for the 15th time might get a kick out of this story too.

I know that singing You Light Up My Life’s praises won’t win me any critic brownie points, since the movie has fallen into relative obscurity and the song has garnered a pretty unshakable reputation as being seven shades of uncool.

But every now and then I’m in the mood for some romantic fluff, especially if the lead performance is strong and the soundtrack adds an extra layer of intrigue.

For everyone else, just make sure you go in with an open mind and don’t buy into the anti-hype that’s built up around this song (and the movie that bears its name) for the last four decades.

Verdict:

8/10

Corner store companion:

White Wonder Bread (because it’s bland but emotionally satisfying)

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Fun facts:

-If you’re wondering why director Joseph Brooks didn’t use the Kasey Cisyk version of “You Light Up My Life” for radio play it’s because he is a giant piece of shit. According to Cisyk’s second husband Ed Rakowicz, Brooks made improper advances towards the young singer and became angry when she rejected him. The director went on to hire then newcomer Debby Boone to re-record the song and even instructed her to replicate Cisyk’s performance as closely as possible.

-Even though her rendition of “You Light Up My Life” is (arguably) inferior to Cisyk’s version, Boone’s career took off like a rocket after it hit the airwaves. Not only did the single earn her an Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Original Song, but she also won a Grammy for Best New Artist in 1977 and Song of the Year in 1978.

-Brooks’ monstrous behavior with Cisyk was only the tip of the iceberg. In June 2009 he was arrested for raping or sexually assaulting over 10 different women after his assistant lured them to his Manhattan apartment. Brooks committed suicide on May 22, 2011 before he could be tried for 91 counts of rape, sexual abuse, criminal sexual act, assault, and other charges.

Star Trek scholars cite Michael Zaslow, who plays the director Didi Conn falls for, as being the franchise’s first-ever “red shirt” or expendable crew member that perishes during a planetary expedition. During the Original Series’ first official episode titled “The Man Trap,” Zaslow’s character, crewmember Darnell, famously met his end after being seduced and killed by a shape-shifting alien.

-You can watch the entire movie on YouTube for free (with Spanish subtitles) here:

True Believer (1989) review- A compelling legal thriller if you can get past James Woods’ awful ponytail

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my lifetime of consuming media it’s that people never tire of legal dramas.

Whether it’s watching old re-runs of Law & Order or listening to the latest true crime podcast, the public’s appetite for seeking out some form of justice in a cruel and uncaring world is seemingly bottomless.

Even though it was released in theatres thirty years ago, Joseph Ruben’s True Believer still scratches that itch through presenting a compelling mystery and a trio of rock-solid performances that give its courtroom proceedings even more dramatic weight.

James Woods stars as brilliant lawyer Eddie Dodd, who’s become so disillusioned with the legal system over the years that he’s gone from defending civil rights activists in the 60s to bailing out scummy drug dealers in the 80s.

[insert lame boomer joke about how those two are the same thing]

However, Dodd starts to regain some of his lost mojo after he reluctantly takes on the case of Shu Kai Kim, a man who is currently in jail for a gangland murder that he (according to his family) didn’t commit.

True Believer is by no means a ground breaking story, since it doesn’t radically deviate from the legal drama tropes that were old hat even when the film came out back in 1989.

Even if you’ve haven’t seen a second of this movie, rest assured that legal loopholes will be exploited, surprise witnesses will be conjured out of thin air and objections will be overruled in increasingly dramatic fashion.

However, Cape Fear scribe Wesley Strick makes those clichés a lot more digestible thanks to his tight script, which does a great job of gradually revealing clues and plot information without feeling forced or contrived.

It also helps that Woods and his plucky legal clerk (played by a pre-arc reactor Robert Downey Jr.) have great chemistry and are talented enough to make this overly complicated jargon sound compelling.

You also can’t ask for a better villain than Kurtwood Smith, especially since he plays a smarmy, elitist district attorney who is diametrically opposed to Woods’ champion of the downtrodden in every conceivable fashion.

The only weak link in the cast is Yuji Okumoto as Shu Kai Kim, who isn’t given nearly enough screen time to provide any insight into what it’s like being falsely accused of murder.

Instead, he becomes more of a plot device than an actual character, which is very disappointing since so much of the movie’s tension is built up around his well-being.

And since we’re talking about negatives, I don’t know who thought it was a good idea to saddle Woods with wearing this terrible wig that makes him look like your frumpy, middle-aged aunt.

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I know the ponytail is supposed to serve as a tribute to iconic civil rights attorney Tony Serra, who inspired Woods’ character, but that rug just kept taking me out of the story, especially when it is “complimented” by a big purple scrunchie.

Luckily, Woods was able to win me back with his very heartfelt performance, which straddles the line between the sleazy, underhandedness of Saul Goodman and the moral righteousness of Atticus Finch.

It’s also hilarious when you consider that Eddie Dodd’s lefty politics are completely at odds with Woods’ actual world view. In fact, I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that the actor would probably blast someone like Dodd as a “cuck” on his Twitter.

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All that aside, if you aren’t sick to death of true crime content by this point then you should definitely give True Believer a watch.

It won’t set your world on fire, and you may even roll your eyes at the use of some well-worn tropes, but its potent mix of efficient storytelling and magnetic performances is perfect for the aspiring legal crusader in all of us.

That being said, Woods’ wig is still super gross, so I have to deduct points from this movie’s final score because of that alone.

Sorry. I don’t make the rules.

Verdict:

8/10

Corner store companion:

Fritos Hoops (because it’s an acquired taste, but very satisfying once you get to the bottom of it)

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Fun facts:

-Release date: Feb. 17, 1989

-Box officer gross: $8.7 million

-The plot of True Believer is loosely based on the real-life case of Chol Soo Lee, a Korean American who was wrongly convicted of a gangland killing in 1973 San Francisco. Not only did Chol Soo inspire the film’s character played by Yuji Okumoto, but his real-life attorney Tony Serra (mentioned above) also served as the main inspiration for James Woods’ eccentric lead performance.

-In a season five episode of The Simpsons titled “Homer and Apu” guest star James Woods, playing himself, namedrops True Believer during his job interview to become the temporary manager of the Kwick-E-Mart.

– This film was popular enough to inspire a short-lived television spin-off in 1991 called Eddie Dodd, which starred Treat Williams in the title role. The show only lasted six episodes before it was cancelled by ABC.

True Believer was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Award in the “Best Motion Picture” category back in 1990 (based on the strength of Wesley Strick’s screenplay). It eventually lost out to Daniel Waters’ work on the dark teen comedy Heathers.

-Musical highlight: “All Along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix (the song marks a major turning point in the story when Dodd decides to stop being cynical and return to his roots are a moral crusader).

Beethoven’s Big Break (2008) review- Beethoven hits the reset button

As a true blue 90s kid, I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t dipped my toe into the Beethoven cinematic universe until now (I was always more of an Air Bud fan).

Thankfully, Beethoven’s Big Break, the sixth in the series, was specifically designed for newbies like me, since it serves as a complete reboot of the franchise.

For those of you who don’t know, the Beethoven films follow the exploits of the titular St. Bernard, whose big frame and even bigger appetite constantly gets him into trouble.

While the first five Beethoven movies centered around the dog’s adventures with the fictional Newton family, this 2008 entry throws all previous continuity out the window and starts from scratch.

This time around, Beethoven is taken in by struggling animal trainer and single dad Eddie (Jonathan Silverman), who attempts to turn the canine into a movie star.

However, as Eddie tries to control Beethoven’s diva-like behavior on set, he also has to worry about 1) spending enough time with his son Billy and 2) warding off an evil animal trainer who is trying to kidnap the dog and hold him for ransom.

Now, before I nitpick this family movie like some asshole critic, let me just say that Beethoven’s Big Break is a pretty harmless affair.

At no point during the film’s runtime did I raise my eyebrows at some off-colour joke or weird moral that the writers tried to smuggle into the script. Instead, most of the movie is chock-full of broad slapstick and clear-cut messages about the importance of family, which is probably good enough for its target audience (i.e., young kids).

Unfortunately, the parents who will be forced to watch this alongside their children won’t find a lot to engage with, unless they were big fans of the original Beethoven films from back in the early 90s.

This is because the filmmakers use this movie’s status as a reboot to blatantly recycle a lot of old gags from the early films, including the famous scene where Beethoven shakes a bunch of muck all over the protagonist’s bedroom.

While this element could be written off as a J.J. Abrams style tribute, the writers also get lazy when it comes to the film’s antagonist, whose villainous scheme and bumbling henchmen are directly lifted from the 1992 original.

And let’s not even get into the tired single dad drama that permeates most of the movie, with Eddie constantly grappling with the idea of accepting a new family member after his wife’s untimely death.

The one fresh idea that Beethoven’s Big Break brings to the table is its meta-commentary.

Since a lot of the story revolves around film production many of the jokes are aimed at making fun of how notoriously difficult animals are to work with in Hollywood.

The writers are even bold enough to take some subtle jabs at the franchise’s legacy as a vehicle for using a paper-thin plot to string together a bunch of outrageous sight gags.

This mostly comes to play with the story’s love interest, who is constantly asked to re-write the in-universe movie script on a near daily basis (even though the director favours Beethoven’s spontaneous shenanigans on set anyway).

But that kind of clever genre introspection will probably fly over the heads of the movie’s target demographic, and is only interesting to hopeless adult movie geeks like myself.

At the end of the day, all you need to do to deliver the goods in a movie like this is to showcase plenty of cute animals and some cheeky slapstick, and Beethoven’s Big Break succeeds in that regard.

I just wish that the gags were more creative and the filmmakers didn’t rely on distractingly bad CGI animal doubles for some of the more elaborate set pieces.

But again, take my criticism with a grain of salt, because there’s only so much room in my jaded heart for 90s film franchises staring dogs.

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Verdict:

5/10

Corner store companion:

Lay’s Classic potato chips (because you get what you pay for, but not much else).

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Fun facts:

-Release date: Dec. 30, 2008 (straight-to-video).

-As right now, there are eight official Beethoven films, with the last entry (Beethoven’s Treasure Trail) having been released back in 2014.

-While the first two films in the franchise (Beethoven and Beethoven’s 2nd) were theatrical releases in 1992 and 1993, respectively, the rest have been straight-to-video affairs.

-On top of eight feature films, Beethoven even spawned a cartoon series in 1994-95 that lasted 26 episodes.

-Big chunks of Beethoven’s Big Break was filmed in and around Universal Studios Florida.

-Surprise cameo: Despite getting pretty sizable billing, the “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Millan only shows up for a few brief scenes to give some sage advice on animal training.

-The film’s end credits are littered with parody film posters that call back to classic Hollywood movies, like: Frisky Business, Raiders of the Lost Bark, Close Encounters of the Third K9, Drool Hand Luke and The Gradumutt.

-Musical highlight: “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony” by Ludwig Van Beethoven (the song that inspires one of the main characters to give the lovable dog his name).

Another Midnight Run (1994) review-Flagrant false advertising

You ever buy some frozen food based solely on the strength of the brand name or box art, and it turns out to be some bland, goopy piece of shit? That is what’s it’s like watching Another Midnight Run.

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This made-for-TV movie bills itself as an continuation of the original Midnight Run, a 1988 action-comedy that gained a lot of traction from critics at the time thanks to its potent mix of exciting car chases and sharp dialogue.

It also didn’t hurt that this original project starred Robert De Niro, who injected street-smart bounty hunter Jack Walsh with a lot of edge and gravitas, qualities that would have been neglected by a lesser actor.

However, pretty much all of those elements are missing from this 1994 pseudo-sequel, which retains the names of some of the principle characters from the 1988 original but none of its charm.

That being said, the film does at least mimic the basic structure of its predecessor, since it finds Walsh being hired by a bail bondsman (again) to transport a pair of criminals from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Of course, Walsh’s captors (married con artists played by Jeffrey Tambor and Cathy Moriarty) are always trying to give him the slip every step of the way and go into business for themselves.

But after that promising set-up, it doesn’t take long before the filmmakers reveal that they don’t have any new ideas and are content with poorly rehashing old elements from the original film.

Strike one against Another Midnight Run is the fact that they replaced Robert De Niro with Christopher McDonald in the role of Jack Walsh.

No offense to the future Shooter McGavin, but he leans way too much on buffoonish comedy to play a convincing world-weary bounty hunter and comes across like he’s playing a parody version of the character on Saturday Night Live.

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It also doesn’t help that the screenwriter makes him out to be a complete idiot, who is constantly outsmarted by his captors.

Sure, De Niro’s Jack Walsh was a screw-up as well, but he at least displayed a basic level of competence and quick thinking that helped him get out of sticky situations.

In Another Midnight Run, McDonald can barely tie his shoes without fucking up, let alone keep a pair of career con artists in check.

At one point, the married couple successfully distract their captor by convincing him that a nearby bar patron is giving him the bedroom eyes, which he completely falls for like horny 14-year old.

And without a likable protagonist to anchor the narrative, or any supporting performances on par with Charles Grodin from the 1988 original, the rest of the movie completely falls apart.

Strike two against the film is that it’s hampered by a restrictive TV budget, which means it can’t come close to replicating the intricately staged action sequences that made the original film so memorable.

All Another Midnight Run can offer up in terms of excitement are scenes of McDonald falling into some trash cans or mildly jogging through an airport.

While this downgrade is to be expected when a property makes the transition from film to television, Another Midnight Run doesn’t even have a good script or likable characters to fall back on.

All it can provide in exchange is lame comedy and annoying characters that you wish would just drive off a cliff so the movie could end.

The third and final strike that sends Another Midnight Run back to the figurative dugout is that it comes across as being a big pile of wasted potential.

A motivated director and screenwriter could have used this opportunity to think outside the box and expand on the Jack Walsh character.

Maybe they could have explored his past as a police officer in Chicago or shown us his first stint as a bounty hunter after resigning from the force. You know, typical origin story type stuff that people can’t get enough of.

Instead, the filmmakers decided to play it safe and replicate the basic structure of the original, albeit without any of sharp wit or fun that made it so successful six years ago.

I know most of this rundown is just me bitching about how this made-for-TV sequel pales in comparison to the original film, but the filmmakers definitely invite this criticism.

The only reason Universal greenlit this project in the first place (as well as the two other made-for-TV sequels released in the same year) is because they wanted to cash in on a recognizable name that was still worth something in the mid-90s.

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But rather than putting in the work to remind people why this property was valuable in the first place, all they did was slap the name Midnight Run onto an otherwise generic, low-energy road trip comedy and hope that nobody notices the difference.

And while the film did manage to siphon a couple chuckles out of me here and there, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being grifted by the same kind of con artists and trickster characters that make up two-thirds of the cast.

Verdict:

3/10

Corner store companion:

Blue Water Seafoods’ Pacific Pink Salmon (because it promises quality but delivers a sub-standard product instead)

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Fun facts:

-Original air date: Feb. 6, 1994.

Another Midnight Run was followed be another two made-for-TV sequels in the same year: Midnight Runaround and Midnight Run For Your Life. All three films were produced for Universal Television’s “Action Pack” block that aired from 1994 to 2001.

-While the “Action Pack” line produced a lot of duds, like Knight Rider 2020 and Cleopatra 2525, Universal also debuted some landmark 90s television under this umbrella. Not only did they introduce the world to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules through a series of TV movies, but the spin-off Xena: Warrior Princess proved to be even more popular and still has a cult following to this day.