Film Review: The Last Dragon (1985)

Also known as: Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon
Release Date: March 22nd, 1985
Directed by: Michael Schultz
Written by: Louis Venosta
Music by: Bruce Miller, Misha Segal
Cast: Taimak, Julius J. Carry III, Chris Murney, Leo O’Brien, Faith Prince, Glen Eaton, Vanity, Mike Starr, Ernie Reyes Jr., Keshia Knight Pulliam, Jim Moody, Esther Marrow, Chazz Palminteri, William H. Macy, Carl Anthony Payne II, Ron Van Clief (uncredited)

Motown Productions, TriStar Pictures, 107 Minutes

Review:

“I’m gonna get you, Leroy, because I am the Shogun! I will not rest until everybody knows the Shogun is the master!” – Sho’nuff

The Last Dragon is a weird enigma and frankly, there is nothing else quite like it.

The story is about a boy named Leroy and how he becomes a kung fu master. His friends and students call him Bruce Leroy and there is a good amount of old Bruce Lee movie footage thrown into the picture for good measure. Between this and No Retreat, No Surrender, Bruceploitation was still alive and well more than a decade after the man’s death.

Leroy draws the ire of an evil kung fu badass named Sho’Nuff, who is played by the immensely awesome Julius Carry, who I would become a lifelong fan of after his role on the underappreciated television series, Brisco County, Jr. In fact, regardless of Carry being the badass bad guy, I love this movie mostly because of him and the very young Ernie Reyes Jr.

The two main stars of the picture are Taimak as Bruce Leroy and the ’80s pop star Vanity as Laura, who was essentially like an old school MTV VJ. You also get small roles from William H. Macy, Chazz Palminteri, Mike Starr and two of The Cosby Show‘s kids: Keshia Knight Pulliam and Carl Anthony Payne II. Legit martial arts star Ron Van Clief handled the fight choreography and had a small uncredited role.

While this isn’t a musical, it is a film that is very music heavy. One of the villains is an evil music producer that wants his girlfriend to become a massive star. In fact, I thought her song was pretty good within the context of the movie but Vanity seemed to be completely disinterested in it, which made the villain lash out and become even more villainous. Honestly, the bad song wasn’t really that different than most of the mid-’80s pop that fills the movie. Had she just played the music video, she could have saved herself and her friends a lot of stress.

The thing that makes The Last Dragon so unique is that it is a weird mix of kung fu, ’80s music, teen comedy and is a visual explosion of over the top ’80s style. The film almost feels like a fantasy that takes place in a world similar to ours but much cooler, where everything is accented by neon lights and chrome.

The Last Dragon is a pretty cool experience but it feels pretty dated. It probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea in the modern era but for fans of ’80s cheese, it’s a nice cornucopia of ’80s style, music and humor. Plus, it is just a cool movie that’s a whole lot of fun.

Film Review: The Black Dahlia (2006)

Release Date: August 9th, 2006 (Tokyo premiere)
Directed by: Brian De Palma
Written by: Josh Friedman
Based on: The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy
Music by: Mark Isham
Cast: Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Mia Kirshner, Mike Starr, Fiona Shaw, Patrick Fischler, Rose McGowan, Troy Evans, Pepe Serna

Davis Films, Millennium Films, Nu Image, Signature Pictures, Universal Pictures, 120 Minutes

Review:

“She looks like that dead girl! How sick are you?” – Kay Lake

For a modern noir picture with a cast this star studded, The Black Dahlia was a real disappointment. It had some positives but it mostly falls flat and is an example of style over substance.

This is not a good example of the work Brian De Palma can do. He is one of the best directors of his generation but this really misses its mark, which is unfortunate, as the subject matter is great and the talent he was able to get in this picture was impressive.

Josh Hartnett is the main star of the picture but his role feels pretty weak. I don’t feel like it is Hartnett’s fault, I feel like it is the direction of De Palma and the emotionless script. However, Hillary Swank, who is more talented than this film is able to show, is kind of just in this movie. It doesn’t really matter that it is her.

Although, everyone else does seem to work with the material. I thought that Aaron Eckhart and Scarlett Johansson were really good in their scenes and Patrick Fischler, a guy who is in everything but doesn’t get the notoriety he should, knocked his scenes out of the park. You also get to see Mike Starr and Troy Evans, two guys who do a lot of cop type roles but always bring their best to the table.

The real scene stealer however, is Mia Kirshner, an actress I’ve been mesmerized by since first seeing her in The Crow: City of Angels, a film where she was the only positive other than the murderous psycho biker played by Iggy Pop. Kirshner truly owns her role in this picture and it may have been the best she’s ever been. She’s really the only character in the film that you feel any emotion for. Honestly, it’s been eleven years since this came out and she should have gotten more prestigious roles but maybe her work was overshadowed by this being such a lackluster film.

Now, despite the overall film falling short, the visuals are top notch. The cinematography is unquestionably superb. Everything within the film feels true and authentic, even the bizarre K.D. Lang performance that pops up in the middle of the movie.

The narrative and the big reveal at the end were all pretty poorly strung together, though. It just made the film too bizarre and frankly, pretty fucking stupid and just really annoying after sitting through this two hour mess.

Typically, I like the work of Brian De Palma. This one just misses its mark.

Film Review: Ed Wood (1994)

Release Date: September 23rd, 1994 (New York Film Festival)
Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
Based on: Nightmare of Ecstasy by Rudolph Grey
Music by: Howard Shore
Cast: Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Jeffrey Jones, Bill Murray, Lisa Marie, Max Casella, George “The Animal” Steele, Juliet Landau, Ned Bellamy, Mike Starr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Korla Pandit, G.D. Spradlin

Touchstone Pictures, Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, 127 Minutes

Review:

“Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?” – Orson Welles

Ed Wood is a magnificent film. It is also the greatest thing Tim Burton has ever directed, which says a lot considering his massive body of work. I have also never enjoyed Johnny Depp and Martin Landau more. Additionally, the film features one of the best roles of Bill Murray’s career.

Shot in black and white, to mimic the time that Edward D. Wood Jr. lived in and the films he made, Ed Wood boasts some fantastic cinematography. It doesn’t just feel like a period piece shot in black and white as a gimmick, it actually has warmth, depth and is a character itself, within the film. It gives the movie a perfect tone and it is also matches up to the actual filmmaking work of Ed Wood, the director. When we see scenes being filmed for Plan 9 From Outer SpaceBride of the Monster and Glen or Glenda?, Tim Burton’s sets and visual tone match those films pretty flawlessly.

Martin Landau won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Ed Wood, as horror legend Bela Lugosi. It was a fantastic performance and the best of Landau’s storied career. While it was great seeing him recognized and this film as well, I feel like it was deserving of other nominations. It did also win for makeup, the only other category it was nominated for.

Everyone in the cast, top to bottom, gave some of the best performances of their careers. Johnny Depp was absolutely captivating and charismatic as the title character. He brought real life to the legendary persona of Wood. He connected with the audience, as well as long-time Wood fans and gave an exciting identity and character to the maestro of bad cinema. He was sympathetic and you wanted nothing more than for Wood to succeed, despite the odds being stacked against him and the limitations of his abilities. Depp’s Wood had passion and heart.

Bill Murray plays Wood’s friend, a transvestite wanting to be transsexual named Bunny Breckinridge. Breckinridge was a collaborator with Wood and played a role in his most famous film Plan 9 From Outer Space. Murray did a fine job with the part, committed to Bunny’s flamboyant personality and strong desire to become a woman. This is my favorite of Murray’s more serious roles. Granted, he still brings an element of comedy but this is the first real dramatic role I remember seeing him play. He had panache and delivered his dialogue brilliantly.

Jeffrey Jones was a perfect casting choice for the psychic conman Criswell. He looked the part, acted the part and conveyed him as a real showman. Sarah Jessica Parker and Patricia Arquette both did good as the leading ladies: Parker for the first half of the film, Arquette for the latter. For the role of Tor Johnson, there really was no better choice than George “The Animal” Steele. Lisa Marie was a good Vampira and Max Casella was a nice addition to the cast, as he is a really good actor that I feel is still underutilized. Lastly, Juliet Landau plays a small role but she really nails it. She was quirky, smart and pretty mesmerizing.

Ed Wood is a film about imagination and creation. It is also about passion. While this is a very romanticized version of the director’s life and work, it makes one want to be a dreamer and to follow those dreams, despite the world standing in the way. It also shows Wood’s struggles with his identity and who he is and how it should be okay to embrace who you are and not be scrutinized for it. While Wood wasn’t a great filmmaker, he was still a man ahead of his time. Ed Wood, the man, shows that you can have artistic and creative brilliance, even if it isn’t executed in the best way. He is a hero for those with a creative intelligence that have a hard time cultivating it into something spectacular.

This is a great period piece and a stupendous showbiz biopic. It was some of the best work of every talented person involved in the picture. Ed Wood is a true classic and a perfect homage to the man, his life and his work. And frankly, it is one of my favorite films of all-time.