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: Juice (1992)

Also known as: Angel Town 2 (Europe video title)
Release Date: January 17th, 1992
Directed by: Ernest R. Dickerson
Written by: Ernest R. Dickerson, Gerard Brown
Music by: Hank Shocklee and The Bomb Squad
Cast: Omar Epps, Tupac Shakur, Jermaine Hopkins, Khalil Kain, Cindy Herron, Vincent Laresca, Samuel L. Jackson, George O. Gore II, Fab 5 Freddy, Doctor Dre, Ed Lover, Donald Faison, Oran “Juice” Jones, Special Ed, EPMD (Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith)

Island World, Paramount Pictures, 95 Minutes

Review:

“You gotta snap some collars and let them motherfuckers know you here to take them out anytime you feel like it! You gotta get the ground beneath your feet, partner, get the wind behind your back and go out in a blaze if you got to! Otherwise you ain’t shit! You might as well be dead your damn self!” – Bishop

Any film that opens with a Rakim song is going to get me pumped up. Juice opens up with the best Rakim song, so I was hooked right away.

Truth be told, this was a favorite film of mine during my middle school years. It came out at the very beginning of the black film movement that happened in the ’90s. This, along with New Jack CityBoyz N The Hood and Menace II Society made a huge cultural impact and for good reason.

Watching it now, I do notice some of the weaknesses of the film, which weren’t as apparent in my younger days.

A big part of the narrative towards the end of the movie has to do with how the gun crazy Bishop (Shakur) is pinning his killings and crimes on his ex-best friend Q (Epps). While Bishop gets his just desserts and Q survives, it’s left unknown what the outcome really was. Was Q in trouble? Would he still be punished for these crimes? Or would his other friend Steel, who survived an attempt on his life, be able to save his friend. While Steel mentions that Bishop is setting up Q to a nurse that is their friend, you don’t know if he survives his trip to the ER. I guess it is to be assumed that it worked out okay but after Bishop’s death, the film ends abruptly.

Another issue I have with the narrative, is that it doesn’t really develop Bishop’s power trip enough. Sure, having a gun is power but it is pretty one-dimensional in how it is handled. Also, the group of friends, who skip school and steal records, still feel like decent kids. The plot shifting to them all of a sudden deciding to rob a corner store just happens out of nowhere.

Still, shaky narrative aside, the film is an adrenaline rush, especially over the course of the last act.

It is well acted by all important parties in the film. Epps and Shakur are pretty exceptional and both men were incredibly young in this. In fact, this was what brought Tupac into the mainstream for most people. He was given an opportunity, ran with it and did great.

The film is very stylistic and represents early ’90s east coast hip-hop well. There are also cameos from several known rappers and hip-hop personalities besides Tupac: Queen Latifah, Treach, Special Ed, EPMD and from Yo! MTV Raps, Ed Lover, Doctor Dre and Fab 5 Freddy. You also get to see Samuel Jackson in an early role, just before he broke out as a star in 1994’s Pulp Fiction.

I also love that they focused a lot on Q’s quest to make it as a respected DJ in the super competitive New York City landscape. The movie does a good job of showcasing what DJ battles were like at the time, when DJs still mixed manually and didn’t have computers and gadgets to make their lives infinitely easier.

Juice is gritty and has a strong feeling of realism to it. Plus, it has a lot of energy and a great soundtrack.

Film Review: Sixteen Candles (1984)

Release Date: May 4th, 1984
Directed by: John Hughes
Written by: John Hughes
Music by: Ira Newborn
Cast: Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Michael Schoeffling, Paul Dooley, Justin Henry, Gedde Watanabe, Billie Bird, John Cusack, Joan Cusack, Jami Gertz, Brian Doyle-Murray, Zelda Rubinstein

Universal Pictures, 93 Minutes

Review:

“Can I borrow your underpants for 10 minutes?” – The Geek

This was the movie that put John Hughes on the map and made him one of the most prolific directors and writers of the ’80s and ’90s. While not my favorite Hughes film, it still has some charm, resonates today and set the stage for his better films that would follow.

One thing Hughes was really good at doing was tapping into the teenage psyche and making it relatable to audiences of any age. In a way, his approach makes his films feel timeless, even if they are bogged down in ’80s cliches and tropes. While his films may feel like a cultural time capsule they still feel genuine and his characters still feel authentic.

While the teen comedy genre was already booming by the time that Sixteen Candles came out, it was this film that created some of the tropes that became synonymous with the style. While Fast Times at Ridgemont High predates it by two years and set the stage, it was a much more serious film at its core. Sixteen Candles keeps things fairly lighthearted and it also doesn’t delve into the teen sex comedy well as deeply as most of the similar films of the time like Private SchoolThe Last American Virgin, etc.

This was really Molly Ringwald’s breakout performance. She had appeared in a few films and was on the early episodes of the sitcom The Facts of Life but it was here that she became a major bankable star in the ’80s.

This film also helped Anthony Michael Hall become a household name, even though he had already done National Lampoon’s Vacation, by this point. He would be a pivotal part in two more of Hughes’ teen films: The Breakfast Club and Weird Science.

It’s worth noting that the sibling duo of John and Joan Cusack also had roles here.

Sixteen Candles was a great foundation that Hughes used to propel his career forward, thus giving us several great pictures. Without this movie, Hollywood in the ’80s and what became known as teen comedies, would be very different. Hell, everything today could still just be Porky’s and Meatballs clones.

Film Review: Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead (1991)

Release Date: June 7th, 1991
Directed by: Stephen Herek
Written by: Neil Landau, Tara Ison
Music by: David Newman
Cast: Christina Applegate, Joanna Cassidy, Keith Coogan, John Getz, Josh Charles, David Duchovny, Kimmy Robertson, Danielle Harris

HBO Pictures, Outlaw Productions, Warner Bros., 102 Minutes

Review:

“I’m right on top of that Rose.” – Sue Ellen “Swell” Crandell

I had the rare opportunity of revisiting this film on the big screen. Okay, not in a theater per se, but on a large silver sheet stretched between two large trees at my friend’s makeshift movie theater in his backyard in the woods.

This was a pretty good vehicle for Christina Applegate, who was huge at the time for playing the slutty teenage daughter of Al Bundy on Fox’s television hit Married… with Children. This was Applegate’s attempt at breaking out and as being seen as someone other than a slutty daughter on a sitcom.

Here, she plays a much smarter and resourceful character and this is ultimately, a coming of age story. Applegate shines, as does the rest of the young cast, who had great chemistry and felt like actual siblings.

I’ve always liked Keith Coogan but Kenny is my favorite role he’s ever played. Also, horror icon Danielle Harris, pretty fresh off of Halloween 4 and Halloween 5, plays the youngest sister of the five children here. We also get to see Joanna Cassidy, David Duchovny and Kimmy Robertson in supporting roles.

Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead is a comedy where you have to suspend some disbelief because the premise sees a babysitter die, the kids stuff her into a trunk and drop her body off at a cemetery – this way they can have their summer to themselves. This really is kind of a black comedy at its core, even if the darkness is buried in colorful teen comedy candy.

I can’t honestly say that this is a great film but I still love it to this day and, at least for me, it’s had some staying power. Maybe I was always attracted to it because of it’s dark narrative underbelly. But I think that the real reason this film has stuck with me for over a quarter of a century is that everyone in it works so well together. Plus, Christina Applegate is kind of a badass in this and it forever changed how I perceived her.

This is a film that was underappreciated and underrated at the time it came out. Most people have probably forgotten about it, all these years later. But for some reason, I still pop it into the DVD player every few years.

Film Review: Fright Night, Part 2 (1988)

Release Date: December 8th, 1988 (Australia)
Directed by: Tommy Lee Wallace
Written by: Tommy Lee Wallace, Tim Metcalfe, Miguel Tejada-Flores
Based on: characters created by Tom Holland
Music by: Brad Fiedel
Cast: William Ragsdale, Roddy McDowall, Traci Lind, Julie Carmen, Jon Gries, Brian Thompson, Merritt Butrick

New Century/Vista, TriStar Pictures, 104 Minutes

Review:

“It was a performance.” – Charley Brewster, “She cast no reflection!” – Peter Vincent

You know that old sentiment that sequels are never as good as the original? Well, it’s not entirely true, as many sequels have eclipsed their predecessors. However, Fright Night, Part 2 is not one of those.

While it is great to see Roddy McDowall and William Ragsdale reunite, as vampire hunting friends, the film has a massive void from all the other characters who aren’t here. Granted, Chris Sarandon’s Jerry Dandrige is dead and we have a new vampire threat in this chapter but Amanda Bearse is sorely missed, as is Stephen Geoffreys, whose Evil Ed died but reappears in a tease at the end of the first movie.

We do get the additions of Jonathan Gries, a guy I love in everything, and Brian Thompson, one of the most intimidating heavies of the ’80s and ’90s. Plus, Traci Lind is really good, even if she isn’t Bearse, and Julie Carmen is absolutely alluring as Dandrige’s ancient vampire sister, seeking revenge for the events of the first film.

Sadly, this film is pretty damn boring. It has a few good momnets, here and there, but none of them really make up for the overall film being unable to even muster up just a little bit of the magic they had in the first picture. The only time you really feel anything, is when McDowall and Ragsdale are together but even then, it feels like a cheap imitation of the first movie. However, that vampire bowling sequence is fairly amusing.

Fright Night, Part 2 is neither bad nor good. It just sort of exists and isn’t all that memorable. It’s a highly sought after film, as it has been out of print for awhile but I’ve still got an old copy.

If you haven’t seen this sequel but have been dying to because you’re a fan of the first film, just be prepared that it isn’t the lightning in a bottle that was the original Fright Night. You also shouldn’t pay a lot of money just to get your hands on a rare copy of it.

Film Review: The Babysitter (2017)

Release Date: October 13th, 2017
Directed by: McG
Written by: Brian Duffield
Music by: Douglas Pipes
Cast: Samara Weaving, Judah Lewis, Hana Mae Lee, Robbie Amell, Bella Thorne, Leslie Bibb, Ken Marino

Boies / Schiller Film Group Production, Wonderland Sound and Vision, Netflix, 85 Minutes

Review:

“Three out of four people got an STD; I got two people’s blood on me! You do the math! I got AIDS! I know I got AIDS!” – John

McG has never made a film that I have liked. Still, a lot of time has passed since I watched a McG movie and I like comedy horror films, so I gave this a fair shot. However, just as McG is a stupid douchebaggy name, The Babysitter is kind of a stupid douchebaggy movie.

The problem however isn’t the actors or even the script, it is solely the director and his creative decisions. With McG pictures in the past, it was the same thing. All the things he ultimately controls, are shit.

The quick music video style editing is annoying and sloppy. While he started as a music video director, there is a big difference in trying to convey a story over four minutes than there is when it’s a feature length film. McG seems to embrace the style that got him his earliest work, even though it isn’t beneficial to the medium he works in now. Nobody wants a ninety minute music video with fast cuts, overly stylized camera movement and funky graphics sprouting up on the screen. Well, some people do I guess, like those who gave this a “thumbs up” on Netflix.

I can’t fault the cast, though. In fact, most of the actors were really good.

I especially liked Samara Weaving, who has impressed me between her performance here and her small but sweet role in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. She was likable and hot and even when you realized that she was a psycho Satan worshiping serial killer, it only makes her presence in this film, that much cooler. And really, I mostly liked the story. It was the execution of it that was the problem.

Robbie Amell and Bella Thorne are also pretty good but their screen time was limited to just a few good scenes, as Weaving and the young Judah Lewis were really at the forefront.

Also, despite Weaving giving a good performance, her “too cool” character was presented a bit over the top and it just didn’t feel believable. Something felt off about her being the hot and cool babysitter that was really into nerdy shit with her BFF, a twelve year-old boy. I attribute this to a combination of the direction, the editing, the dialogue and the overall writing.

All the comedy elements tried really hard to generate laughs but the vast majority of it missed the point, came off as forced, seemed overly hokey and was really just derivative schlock. The character of John had some funny lines but I’ve heard just about the same shit from a dozen other characters that did it better.

At least this wasn’t a boring movie and it was over pretty quickly.

So the question is, does The Babysitter need to be run through the Cinespiria Shitometer? Why, yes it does! And the results read, “Type 5 Stool: Soft blobs with clear cut edges (passed easily).” Seems about right, as it was shitty but it did pass pretty easily.

Film Review: Lady Bird (2017)

Release Date: September 1st, 2017 (Telluride Film Festival)
Directed by: Greta Gerwig
Written by: Greta Gerwig
Music by: Jon Brion
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Lois Smith

Scott Rudin Productions, Management 360, IAC Films, A24, 93 Minutes

Review:

“I hate California, I want to go to the east coast. I want to go where culture is like, New York, or Connecticut or New Hampshire.” – Lady Bird

Coming of age dramedies aren’t too uncommon and frankly, most of them are incredibly predictable and derivative. While I can’t say that Lady Bird doesn’t follow suit, it is the characters and the talent that brings them to life that sets this apart from the average bear.

Having seen this film and getting to know the character of Lady Bird, I can’t think of a single actress that could have done what Saoirse Ronan did with the part. She brought her A-game to the table and delivered one of her best performances to date. She was natural and likable and it is hard to not feel an emotional attachment to her and her struggles, as she wanted more than what she had and felt trapped in her small world.

The relationship between Lady Bird and her mother felt real and that was due to a great script, Ronan’s abilities and the incredible performance by Laurie Metcalf, who I have loved ever since she was Aunt Jackie on Roseanne and because she is an actress that is far more deserving of bigger and better roles than what she typically gets. I mean, Metcalf has never been better and I hope that this leads to some sort of recognition for her contribution to the film and to the industry she’s worked in for decades. I really hope that this opens up some new doors for her, as well.

The movie also features Lucas Hedges, who has been busy with this film and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. He’s a good young actor that has been getting some good work. Here, he has the challenge of playing an Irish Catholic teen from a large, very religious family that has to hide the fact that he’s gay. He’s young, distraught and there’s a moment where he really shows how good of an actor he is and gives me hope that I’ll get to enjoy his work for years to come.

Ultimately, the premise and the story aren’t wholly original but the personal touch by Greta Gerwig’s script and direction add some authenticity to the picture. The film feels real and just because it treads territory that we’ve seen in other films doesn’t mean that there isn’t a real purpose or story to enjoy.

Besides, even if we’ve watched films like this before, everyone’s coming of age experience is different. I don’t know how Gerwig’s teenage years played out for her but this certainly feels like it comes from real experiences and is an homage to her past and the people who were there, at the time, that had some sort of strong affect on her.

I really liked Lady Bird and it is one of my favorite movies of the year. While I haven’t seen a whole lot of Gerwig in front of the camera, I do hope that we get to see more of her behind it.