grandmaPaul Weitz, USA, 2015, 79 min.

Grandma is a movie good in every way except for being great. This low-key tale of a grandmother attempting to help her granddaughter is simple and sweet but maybe a bit too simple to stick around. Which probably explains it’s short running time.

That is not an outright criticism. There is a place in the film world for pleasant, competent diversions. Grandma is one of these, but made more interesting than your average indie by Lily Tomlin’s fun performance and one stand out sequence.

Elle Reid (Lily Tomlin) is an aging poet, past her prime in both writing and romance, in the midst of breaking up with a younger woman for reasons yet unknown. Her granddaughter (Julie Garner) arrives, sheepishly requesting money for an abortion. Elle doesn’t have it but knows a few places they might be able to get it.

Off they go on a journey through Elle’s present and past. The requisite lessons are learned during the way, but writer/director Paul Weitz is smart enough to not belabor the points. He largely stays out of the way and lets the actors (mostly Lily Tomlin) carry the film.

But that lack of style and substance is what makes the film feel very straightforward. Everything works well but overall the film is nothing new. Pleasant, but a bit pedestrian.

Lily Tomlin has been praised, and deservedly so. Elle is a great character. Rambunctious and in your face with concealed vulnerability. Without her, and without her stellar scene with Sam Elliot, the film would be forgettable.

That scene is easily the highlight. It stands out among the other simpler scenes and makes them feel paper-thin in comparison. I found myself enjoying the journey, and after seeing that scene, yearning for something more.

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Deadly Friend

DeadlyFriendWes Craven, USA, 1986, 91 min.

Deadly Friend has a tumultuous production history. Wes Craven wanted to make a psychological thriller and the studio wanted to up the horror and gore to capitalize on the Wes Craven brand. What results is some of both and not enough of either.

Based on the novel Friend by Diana Henstell, this is story of wiz-kid Paul who has invented artificial intelligence in the brain of his friendly robot BB. BB looks like a 1980’s robot but can do everything from fighting off a group of thugs to playing basketball.

Paul has moved to a new town with his mother and quickly makes friends with the local paperboy and the girl next door. The latter he also quickly falls in love with. But there is a problem: her father. He’s an abusive drunk who doesn’t even let her leave the house let along visit with friends.

Things get worse and worse for Paul and everyone around him until events occur that cause him to have to perform outrageous scientific feats in order to save the women he loves. Morality be damned!

His mad-doctor plan works, or so it seems. What follows in the third act is a a monster movie of sorts and contains one of best gore effects of the film. You’ll know it when you see it.

The direction of the film is a bit spotty. There are some great sequences but overall it is a bit devoid of style. Probably a result of the behind-the-scenes tug of war. Props to Kristy Swanson in her first role who did a great job with this strange material.

Overall this a fun movie full of potential that was never quite realized. It’s entertaining in a quirky dated way. If the idea of watching an 80’s film that has the above robot in it appeals to you, then you won’t be disappointed.

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Manuel on the Island of Wonders

manoel03Raoul Ruiz, Portugal, 1984, 152 min.

NOTE: This review was written 11 years ago (please forgive the amateur trappings), but the film still sticks with me this day.

This Portuguese mini-series is extremely rare. There was a translated version shown on Australian TV only once. If you can, try to find a copy of this broadcast. It’s worth it.

This three episode series comprises the adventures of a young boy. They each play out like a fairy tale. The mood is very light and dreamy. The stories are great and very unique. The first two episodes are fairly straight forward, but the third is quite hard to understand. It doesn’t really matter though, because the mood and the visuals are what makes the them so good.

Its hard to describe… the series is not action oriented, but it is fast paced. It left me with the feeling that, even though I had just watched it, I had heard these stories as a child and were remembering them years later. This is definitely worthwhile. If you ever get a chance to see Manuel on the Island of Wonders, do it. It’s a shame to let this series fade into oblivion.

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dopeRick Famuyiwa, USA, 2015, 103 min.

Dope is a packed film. So much happens that the film seems to switch scripts or even genres every few minutes. But it works because of the unique energy pulsing through it from beginning to end. In it’s music, it’s characters, and its performances, Dope separates itself from the rest of the pack and delivers something fresh.

The star of the film is Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a nerdy highschooler in the present day projects of LA. He does well at school, wants to get into Harvard, is obsessed with 9’0s hip-hop music and fashion, and is in a band with his two best friends (Kiersey Clemons and Tony Revolori).

We see Malcolm navigating the thin line of his day to day: avoiding getting his sneakers stolen, trying to find the safest way home through the streets after school, trying to avoid the local drug-dealers, trying to catch the eye of a certain girl he is smitten with, and balancing all that with the pressures of applying to college.

The opening scenes establishing this world, the characters, and the tone are great. Then the first part of the plot kicks in when Malcolm gets a hold of a bag of drugs, through no fault of his own. Everyone wants it, and Malcolm and his friends try to somehow get cleanly out of this sticky situation.

The plots takes many twists and turns from there, veering off into comedy, action, and drama. There is computer hacking, drug binges, sexual escapades, musical numbers, coming of age, car chases and shootouts. All of which are awkwardly transitioned in and out of but somehow seem to work.

It’s a mess of a movie, but what it has going for it makes everything come together. That energy, that music, and especially those characters. The direction is solid and full of spirit. Famuyiwa knows how to use music, guide performances, and even more important, project a unique vision up on the screen. He even pulled off some Spike Lee touches without it seeming like a ripoff: the surreal scene on the bus, and the epic breaking of the fourth all speech are classic Spike.

But even with that, Dope is a unique film full of great scenes, great music, and ever batter characters. It’s exciting, it’s different, and I left the theater full of admiration and with a smile on my face.

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The Terminator

TerminatorJames Cameron, USA, 1984, 107 min.

There are some things that make a film stand the test of time. A good concept, memorable scenes, a sure-hand in the director’s chair, and a solid script. Not to mention everything else that goes into making a good film (acting, music, production, etc.)

The Terminator has all of the above, with the addition of being James Cameron’s first real directorial effort. It’s a debut that heralds the arrival of one of our best action directors and a film that shows Cameron knew the important things about movies right out of the gate.

I won’t reiterate the story. We all know the cool pulpy sci-fi concept of the relentless robot sent back in time to kill the mother of John Connor (the man destined to win a war against the robots in the future), and the human sent back in time to protect her. Put into the right hands, it turns into a great story with atmosphere, action and quiet moments of drama.

I do want to talk about how well-structured the film is. That is something Cameron does so well. A clear set-up that hooks from the beginning, and set-peice upon set-peice building up the climax. Events lead into each other in a believable way so we are never led astray and are always engaged. The guy really knows what makes movies exciting, and he’s shown it time and time again.

And I haven’t even talked about one of the films greatest strengths: the casting of real-life cyborg Arnold Schwarzenegger. He is perfectly suited for the role of a menacing and unstoppable killing machine.

I gush, but the film isn’t perfect. The latex face Schwarzenegger wears at some points is distracting. The heroes think they have won, only to be mistaken, just one too many times. And I could do without Sarah Conner’s final one-liner. But those are quibbles in an otherwise solid, memorable and exciting film.

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