Thursday, July 23, 2020

DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (1939)





The town of Bottleneck is under the thumb of land-grabbers Brian Donlevy and Marlene Dietrich. The citizens’ only hope is the arrival of the legendary town-tamer Jimmy Stewart. But this legend doesn’t even pack a gun because he might get hurt! The town’s savior is a daisy! Or is he?
This is the first great western comedy of the sound era and provides the model for all that would come after. Even BLAZING SADDLES borrows from it with Madeline Kahn’s classic send-up of Dietrich’s dance-hall singer and the marvelous I’m Tired number.
This is seamless entertainment with a clever script that remembers to provide a strong plot, high stakes real heart, and some fine suspense moments as a foundation for the comedy. See, back in this period of film making, as much attention was paid to the structure of comedies as it was to dramas. All of this is under the sure hand of the prolific and versatile director George Marshall and he gets top drawer performances from everyone.


James Stewart was just starting to build his career after his standout performance in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and here, he’s at his most laconic and assured. This film would be his first in what would be a long association with Universal starring in some of the best westerns of the era.
Marlene Dietrich is somewhat of a revelation here. If you’re familiar with her ice-cold femme fatale roles you’ll probably be surprised by her playful approach to this role and how much fun she appears to be having playing it. She’s also featured in three song interludes that are the only worthwhile scenes of their type in any western I can think of. Memorable performances of Little Joe, You’ve Got That Look and the classic See What the Boys in The Back Room Will Have are all weaved organically into the story and each is memorable for its own reasons. Every time I watch this movie my wife remarks that Dietrich can’t sing. Maybe not. But she could sure sell a song.


The rest of the cast, except for Brian Donlevy in the best heavy role of his career, is populated by comic actors at the top of their game. Charles Winninger, as the former town drunk and now mock sheriff, is fussy and energetic and endearing as Stewart’s only friend in town. Una Merkel is a fireball as Dietrich’s frontier woman foil and opponent in the wildest saloon fight ever put in film. Mischa Auer is funny as well as pathetic as a Russian immigrant who dreams of being a cowboy. And Billy Gilbert never fails to get a laugh with bits and doubletakes as the saloon’s barkeep. Jack Carson is on hand, playing his patented braggart character, as a trigger-happy rancher. And Lillian Yarbo gets off some great one-liners as Dietrich’s “gives as good as she gets” maid.
The plot, as I mentioned, could serve as the spine for a dramatic western but still plays its own riffs off the standard cowboy action flick. There’s loads of twists and surprises and, of course, the usual shoot-outs and fights. But all serves to provide a hammock for the humor to rest on. And it is mostly humor rather than comedy. This movie never strays into parody, satire or pastiche. The stakes of the drama are very real and there are tragic, even heartbreaking losses along the way.


Sparkling dialogue and a pace that never lets up propels this one along from start to finish. There’s one well-crafted scene after another and you’ll simply never see another ensemble cast that meshes as well as this one does.

It’s not hard to see why this movie, even with the stiff competition of all the other now-classic releases of 1939, was an enormous box office hit that helped establish Jimmy Stewart as a star and re-invigorated the career of Marlene Dietrich. It’s a shining example of the very best Hollywood had to offer in its golden era. 



Sunday, July 19, 2020

1917



The plot is simplicity itself. It’s the Spring of 1917 and two English tommies are assigned to cross no man’s land in search of a unit preparing to launch a disastrous attack on the German trenches. The two soldiers must deliver orders calling off the attack in order to save the lives of 1600 men. To make matters even more imperative, one of the messengers has a brother in the regiment due to storm into a Heinie trap.
What do we have here, at its heart? It’s the last ten minutes of Gallipoli stretched to over two hours. And, trust me, you’ll wish you’d simply re-watched Peter Weir’s superior film rather than this poke in the eye .
This is director Sam Mendes first screenplay and it shows. Typical of Dreamworks productions, it’s all hollow emotions, contrivance and gimmickry. It’s a “a show.” This is the horrors of war as a theme park attraction. From the conceit of shooting the entire film in one “continuous” shot to the utter lack of any effort to give the lead character a personality.
First off, the idea of making this an uninterrupted experience in real time (except where it’s inconvenient) may be a terrific technical achievement but, mostly, it only serves to remind us that we’re watching a movie. And, as the film goes on, the events portrayed have an increasing condensed feel to them as if the filmmakers were trying to cram more elements than the running time would allow. If you’ve ever wondered what a film editor does, the lack of one here should be an epiphany for you.
In the extras, I watched as they showed how they had dry runs with the characters walking the ground as they read their lines in order to time each scene in order to make certain they didn’t run out of set before the scene was over. Does that strike anyone else as a wrongheaded approach to cinematography? It brought to mind the Monty Python bit where the actor judges the difficulty of each Shakespeare role by how many words he has to speak.


And there’s the lead character. I understand that the character is meant to be an everyman. But that doesn’t mean he needs to be written as a cipher. The character comes off as an empty vessel with none of the elements needed to make him an individual. Yes, he represents all soldiers and any soldier. But he fails to have any life beyond what we see in the running time. There’s passing mention that he was at the Somme and impacted by that horrific experience. The only other reference to his life beyond this story comes at the very end in the film’s most effective scene. Like I said, I get why they approached the character this way, but they needed to put more thought into building this guy into someone memorable.
That brings me to the dialogue which is, except for one sequence, uniformly awful. Much like that other over-rated war movie travesty, Saving Private Ryan, the characters in this movie cannot stop reminding us of the plot. Is it really that hard to remember? Find the Yorks or they’re all gonna die. But the dialogue reminds us over and over again of the mission, the stakes and the ticking clock. And when the dialogue does depart from exposition it’s all vapid exchanges where silence might have served better. Most ludicrous is the less-experienced of the pair telling an involved anecdote while the two wander through no man’s land fully exposed from all directions. More disappointing is the supposedly war-weary and enemy-wary of the two doesn’t tell him to shut the hell up and watch their sight lines for movement. In that way, this dialogue might have a served a purpose. Instead, it’s just tiresome.
And, the dialogue itself needed a serious write-through by someone more interested in the richness of period dialogue. The anachronisms in the phrasing and word usage are constant. People simply did not drop F-bombs with the frequency and application that these characters use. A serious, “is there a better way to say this?” session should have been held to try and breathe some life into the exchanges here. But I guess the script doctor was out. Or perhaps there aren’t any good fixers left in Hollywood.


In addition to tedium, clichés populate the film, multiplying like rabbits as the story grinds on. Of course, the soldier runs into a pretty French girl about his age. How else are they going to get a female into the trailer? And how about a few touches of diversity to please the media critics? So we see a solitary Indian soldier and a solitary black soldier serving with otherwise all-white units. This is something that would never have happened in the Great War where regiments were comprised by men all form the same town, often from the same factory or coal mine. The Indian is even wearing a turban! Why not just have the soldier run into an Indian unit? Now that would have been interesting.
Further tired bits include having the character jump into a fast-moving stream to separate him from pursuit. This was a hoary gag long before Butch and Sundance jumped from that cliff to escape a posse. But William Goldman knew that and used it as the basis of one of that movie’s most memorable, and funny, scenes. Here, it serves as a convenience only and moves the film from the contrived to the ludicrous.
Also, in order to serve the stream-of-consciousness conceit of the film, the main character fails to hear an entire convoy of trucks pulling up within fifty yards of him. And, in the height of preposterousness, the entire column just so happens to come to a halt right where he is apparently ignoring them in a French farmyard.
In the end, it all kind of, literally, limps along until the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too climax.
All of that said, it is worth seeing once as a triumph of set design and costuming. You know, all those things you’re not supposed to notice while watching a movie. It really is an astounding achievement mercifully free of any CGI for the large part. The cinematography is marvelous as well and required quite a feat of engineering to accomplish in places. But, again, the kind of thing you pick up on in a second or third viewing. But here I was distracted from the story by the details. I was looking at the frame rather than the picture.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Great Questions From A Novice Writer





These are from Deanna Harrison who’s thinking of becoming a professional writer and, from the nature of her questions, it’s obvious that she’s put a lot of thought into it. I like the questions a lot and I’m pretty find of my answers as well. Deanna has given me her kind permission to reproduce the Q&A right here. Maybe this will help others looking to jump into fictioneering.

1. How do you stop switching tenses?

Well, you decide whether your story takes place in the present or the past and try to remain aware of that as you write. If you mess up, you can fix it in re-write. If you miss it there have other people proofread it for you for mistakes. Rewriting is the key! Get to love rewriting.


2. If you had the choice between publishing yourself or an agency/company which would you choose?

The e-book goldrush is over unless you have oodles of money for marketing. If not, you need to go with the publisher. That DOESN’T mean you shouldn’t self-publish first to establish copyright and get the attention of a publisher.

3. Do you start creating a character or world-building first?

I start with the character and a vague notion of the setting. But not every writer works that way.

4. Do you know if right away a story will become multiple books or do you write it and decide it after it's published?

I decide before I start writing. I know before I begin if it’s the first in a series or a one-off.

5. I know it is OK to skip around writing different chapters. That way you can meet a set quota you give yourself. But what if it's too far ahead in the story?

You absolutely should skip around if it keeps your momentum going. You can’t go too far ahead because you can always rewrite. As long as you’re making progress, keep writing.


6. How do you know when not to write say, said, mumbled, or other forms of explaining emotions in a sentence. 

Depends on the book and my intended audience. I usually stick with just “said” or “asked.” When I write westerns, I run the gamut; declared, bemoaned, cried, bellowed. The audience for those seem to prefer it that way.
But, for the most part, the emotion of your characters should come out in dialogue or at least be implied. I use physical gestures sometimes to convey unspoken emotions.

“I’m not frightened at all,” she said, her knuckles white where she twisted the hem of her apron.


7. Do you know of any good sites to help lookup words/items that you don't know but can describe them to get its name? 

I often just Google similar words and see what I can find. And read, read, read. Stock up the memory holes with new words and phrases. A writer collects words the same way a sound effects technician collects sounds.  I’m always stunned at the number of words I can recall while writing that I didn’t even know that I knew.



Monday, February 17, 2020

Holy Moley! More movie reviews!



ROLE MODELS (2008) Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott as two guys who work pushing an energy drink on kids as part of an anti-drug program have a run in with the law and are given hundreds of hours of community service. This takes the form of a kind of big brother organization run by former addict Jane Lynch. Scott's kid is a hyperactive brat with a foul mouth while Rudd's is a withdrawn teen who's into LARPing (role-playing medieval combat with foam weapons) played by the McLovin kid from SUPER BAD. What results is a fast-paced rude comedy that winds up having a good heart without resorting to sentiment. The cast is good and Rudd is at his most acerbic from a script he had a hand in writing. It's grand, silly fun.

Image may contain: 2 people, outdoor

TIGER OF BENGHAL and THE INDIAN TOMB (1959) Really one movie in two chapters. Iconic director Fritz Lang's epic pulp adventure filmed on location in India is a return to the kind of serials that made him an international sensation in the silent era. A German architect takes a contract with a rajah to provide renovations to an island palace in the Ganges. What the hero discovers is a complex series of tunnels and caves that lead to a vast secret temple where beautiful Debra Paget dances and nefarious plans are plotted. All fun, ho-de-ho romp with tigers and chases and fights and betrayals and I'm betting an inspiration for INDIANA JONES and THE TEMPLE OF DOOM. Recently released in a gorgeous transfer on Blu-Ray.

Image may contain: 1 person, outdoor

SPARTAN (2004) Val Kilmer is a high level fixer in the middle of a hunt for the missing daughter of the president. David Mamet takes a plot that could have been turned into a quick-play melodrama and gives us a story with spooky suspense sequences that resonate with the darkest paranoia and some sharp observations about the self-appointed elite who make up the rules as they go along. Mamet's usual touch with the dialogue which, I'm learning, is a love-it-or-hate it proposition to film-lovers. The most remarkable thing about this film for me is the way that it consciously avoids as much exposition as possible, often at the risk of losing the audience. But he maintains and emotional through-line that carries us forward even while we're still figuring out what's going on. The effect is unsettling and, I suspect, that was Mamet's intention.

Image may contain: 1 person, sitting and outdoor


THE THIN RED LINE (1998) The lives and experiences of members of a US Army battalion tasked with taking key positions from the Japanese on Guadalcanal in 1942. The story presents conflicts between the officers as well as taking us right onto the ground with the forward combat units. Despite the size of the ensemble cast, director Terrence Malick presents each of their stories in an indelible way, making us feel their fear, rage, frustration and sense of their own fleeting mortality. An unblinking portrait of men in war that is superior in every way to SAVING PRIVATE RYAN which came out the same year. Most notably, Malick gets across the chaotic horror of war without indulging in horror movie gore effects. He also allows his actors to impart their feelings with dialogue that runs counter to their intents and emotions and, often, no dialogue at all. A scene where we see the Dash Mihok's metamorphosis from terrified grunt to war hero play out on his face in one continuous take is astounding to watch.
I reviewed this movie shortly after it was released back on my old website and quickly found out that people either love it or hate it. There's just no middle ground here. I agree it's a bit heady and appears pretentious at times. But each time I watch it I understand Malick's intentions more. The narration provided at times by various cast members reads as though from letters home and is read with a solemnity that I find befitting. These men were risking, and giving, their lives and they had every right to wax philosophical now and then. And they did have these thoughts and express them in this way. Thinking you might die at any moment has a way of making you contemplate the infinite and man's place in nature and what the hell it's all about

Image may contain: 1 person, crowd, ocean, outdoor and water




IF I WERE KING (1938) François Villon is a thief and poet in 15th Century Paris. When he's captured for stealing from the king's storehouse, he brought before Louis XI himself. But the wily king plays a cruel jest on Villon and gives him a title and promotes him to royal chamberlain to teach the vagabond that it's not so easy to be a part f the ruling class.
Ronald Colman at his most charming meaning you'll see the most charming actor on the planet at the top of his game. Basil Rathbone appears to be having the time of his life as King Louis, playing him as a cackling, conniving, half-mad monarch. Terrific sets and a huge cast of extras all serve to enhance a fast-paced, witty script by Preston Sturges. And there's one prime example of how Hollywood could get across sexual heat back in the day while the principles kept all their clothes and, this being a period adventure, that means LOTS of clothes.

Image may contain: 9 people, people standing

MESRINE: KILLER INSTINCT (2008)
A combination of gangster thriller and portrait that follows a disaffected sociopath from his army service in Algeria to a crime career with the Paris underworld. Along the way he leaves lives in ruin and begins his own career as, essentially, the subject of a decades long international manhunt.
Vincent Cassel as legendary gangster and bank robber Jacque Mesrine (Meh-REEN) who robbed his way across two continents in the 1960s and escaped from prison on numerous occasions even a remote maximum security facility in Canada.
Based on Mesrine's own bestselling book (written while he was on the lam), director Jean-François Richet creates a crime epic quite unlike any other. It moves swiftly though the late 50's to the early 70's portraying Mesrine's impulsive crime antics and often reckless behavior in one action set piece after another. I will always maintain that the French make the best crime dramas and this one is top drawer all the way.

Image may contain: 2 people

MESRINE: PUBLIC ENEMY NUMBER ONE (2008) The direct sequel, a second part really, to the previous Mesrine film. This one continues the story into the 1970's and the inevitable end of Mesrine's career in the streets of Paris; coldly executed by a police task force. No spoiler there, the first film begins with his death.
This film details the decline of Jacques Mesrine as he becomes more and more brash and, to his detriment, plays at being a member of the far left at a time when the Baader-Meinhof gang and Red Brigade were plaguing Europe. Escaping from yet another maximum security facility, Mesrine's former good luck flees him and he engages in one disastrous robbery or kidnapping after another as he simultaneously embraces his own mythic status by pursuing media attention.
Like all great gangster films, a cautionary tale about hubris.

Image may contain: 1 person, standing and outdoor

DANGER CLOSE (2019) In August 1966 a company of Aussie soldiers on a shoot-and-scoot mission near Long Tan in South Vietnam encounter a large force of combined NVA and Viet Cong that will outnumber them twenty-to-one. Unable to withdraw the hundred or so soldiers hold their scattered positions throughout the day taking heavy casualties but managing to punish their attackers who "just won't take a hint."
An exceptional war film that goes right into my favorites pile. Loaded with action, excruciating suspense and real emotional weight, this well-crafted war story makes the complex actions of that day crystal clear and the sacrifice of the men palpable. The large ensemble cast is introduced by vivid to make them memorable. One stand-out performance is a Kiwi artilleryman who, without a scrap of expository dialogue, informs us of his fears and conflicts.
Highly recommend for those who like their military action believable and raw.

Image may contain: 1 person, outdoor

THE COURIER (2019) In a lifetime of watching dumb action movies, this is the dumbest one I've ever seen. And as a writer, I've spent my career primarily writing action stories. To write an action story you have to create events to drive the action forward and build suspense and tension. Your hero has to face challenges that he overcomes through guile, skill or just plain strength of spirit. This movie eschews all of that to just make shit happen.This shit happens then this shit happens. If the heroine needs to find a knife or gun, there's one conveniently lying on the floor by her. If she needs to cut the electricity to foil the bad guys, ta-da! there's a circuit breaker box right there. If the story requires that the lights come on, they simply do with no rhyme, reason or cause. Countless times in this movie the heroine is only saved because the bad guy's gun has run out of bullets. Even, at times, after firing only three shots or, as apparently happens to a character arriving on the scene for the first time, carrying around a gun that was never loaded at all! A .50 caliber sniper shot from 2000 feet pierces a bulletproof vest to nearly gut a character. But when the same rifle takes the heroine in the leg from under fifty feet she just hobbles for a bit until she's walked it off and it's never referenced again. There's a fight scene in NAKED GUN where Frank Drebin throws a towel into the face of a hit-man who then clutches the towel and screams as though he can't get it off his face. That's the level of inanity we're looking at here but it's not played for laughs. HOW dumb is this movie? A character quotes Joe Biden on ballistics. Yep.
I could go on and mention how the movie jumps for no reason from New York to Washington DC to London and sometimes characters appear to be in two different cities at the same time.
And the dialogue! It really felt as though they wrote every action movie cliche ("I'm your worst nightmare.") on a slip of paper, put them in a hat, and had the actors read them in whatever order they were pulled out. You could not write a worse script using Mad-Libs.
Oh, and Gary Oldman really needs to be ashamed of himself. It looks like they hired him for two days to just wander around an apartment getting into people's personal space and shouting at them. The brilliant actor of SID & NANCY and IMMORTAL BELOVED reduced to picking up a quick check to be in dreck like this.
My theory on this movie was it was written by:
1) An AI program right after a Windows update.
2) Hunter Biden
3) That room full of monkeys and typewriters we're always hearing about.


Image may contain: 1 person

TIN CUP (1996) Kevin Costner is a washed up golf pro giving lessons at a rundown driving range co-owned with his former caddy Cheech Marin. When challenged by old rival Don Johnson, he decides to enter the U.S. Open with the help of his therapist played by Rene Russo. But will the has-been's old hang-ups and serious OCD problems stand between him and the title?
Ron Shelton's best film by far is an often very funny romantic comedy with all the best tropes of a great sports film. It brings us into the world of professional golf (which I could care less about) in away that keeps us up to speed and makes us care. That's really skilled writing as the cast never stops to explain what's going on and leaves it to us to catch up with them. The actors are adept at comedy enough to make their lines work even when we're not sure of the terms they're using or references they're making. And the depiction of the agony of defeat at the climax of the film is truly agonizing. Costner and Russo have a real chemistry that makes the heart of the movie work. But it's Costner and Marin's bromance that really clicks.

Image may contain: 10 people, including Jason Johnson, people smiling, people standing and outdoor

NAKED GUN (1988) Something inspired me to check this favorite out again. I vividly recall seeing this in a theater with
Flint Henry
and the pair of coming close to wetting out pants at the "season highlights reel" sequence.
The Zucker Brothers bring their Mad Magazine approach to comedy to the cop movie genre in this feature coming off their terrific but short-lived POLICE SQUAD TV series. Their shotgun style fires gag after gag at us, relying on our common familiarity with the cliches of crime thrillers as a source of laughs.
The plot? Ricardo Montleban is an LA business man helping a terrorist organization in their attempt to assassinate Queen Elizabeth. Leslie Nielson is madcap earnest in the lead role as Frank Drebin but it's his partner George Kennedy who steals ever scene he's in. And who knew Priscilla Presley could be funny.
The marvelously constructed extended climax at a baseball game was clearly inspired by the Red Skelton classic WHISTLING IN BROOKLYN but the Zuckers take it even further in a series of mishaps, gags, parody and wild action. And Montleban's death remains my favorite in all movie history. "My father went the same way."

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, outdoor

HERCULES (2014) Peplum or "sword and sandal" movies have to be the most forgiving genre in cinema. All that's really required to make a decent movie of this type is a muscular cast, at least one torture scene, scantily clad women and loads of bloody violence. This entry checks all those boxes along with the addition of some welcome humor.
The Rock was born to play the mythic son of Zeus but packs on forty pounds of fresh muscle anyway. The rest of the cast offers fine support, chief among them Ian McShane as a seer who doesn't always get it quite right. The idea of having Herc's legend propped up by a lot of PR provided by his nephew is a clever one that offers up some surprises. And the battle sequences are well blocked out, extended and fierce. It's a gorgeous looking production with just enough real drama, high stakes and rising action to make it a durable actioner worth re-visiting.

Image may contain: 1 person, outdoor

LOGAN LUCKY (2017) Two West Virginia brothers (Channing Tatum and Adam Driver) plan a complex heist of a Charlotte speedway on NASCAR race day. But they need the help of legendary explosives expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) who, inconveniently is in state prison.
A classic heist comedy that keeps moving from frame one to the end credits. It has a lot of heart without any sloppy sentiment and has some dialogue touches you'll probably miss the first time around. The suspense is high and the humor Dixie deadpan with Daniel Craig clearly relishing his role in a transformational role that is astonishing.
Steven Soderbergh at the top of his form in a movie that's witty, endearing and full to the brim with dozens of great comic performances including Dwight Yoakum, Riley Keough and Seth MacFarlane.

Image may contain: 2 people, people sitting

BETWEEN HEAVEN AND HELL (1956) A troubled young soldier (Robert Wagner) who can't get over the loss of three of his pals to friendly fire is assigned to a remote outpost commanded by a manically sadistic officer. (Broderick Crawford)
GIs returning from service in WWII demanded a different kind of war movie, one that reflected their own experiences in service and in combat. This an early entry into the spate of more cynical war dramas that Hollywood would turn out into the mid-60's until the WWII adventure flick, like THE DIRTY DOZEN and WHERE EAGLES DARE, took over the genre.
The oddly structured series of flashbacks to inform us of Wagner's past turn out to be quite effective as an understanding of the main character's emotional state is at the heart of this movie. The only thing that mars the movie is the too-pristine scenes of Wagner's marriage to Terry Moore. Too many of those scenes look like they were trimmed form a Sandra Dee movie. But they're out of the way quickly and we're solidly into the war action.
Wagner is surprisingly strong in the lead as I've always considered him a lightweight. Broderick Crawford is honestly scary in as accurate a portrayal of a personality disorder as you're likely to find. And it's fun seeing Buddy Ebsen give a another fine performance in a straight-up dramatic role.

Image may contain: 1 person, child and outdoor

DAYLIGHT'S END (2016) What you'd get if you re-imagined I AM LEGEND as a men's action paperback series from the 1980's. Not an instant classic by any means but certainly a fun entry in the post apocalypse vampire pandemic sub-genre. Think STAKELAND with a LOT more gun porn. The cast is good and the dialogue is cringe-free though the plot borrows heavily from ROAD WARRIOR. But the body count is huge and the action fast moving and bloody. And it sure looks like EVERY dime is up on the screen. It's free on Amazon prime currently.

Image may contain: 4 people

SHOCK WAVE (2017) Andy Lau, as Hong Kong's greatest bomb disposal expert, is targeted by a sadistic international criminal who will hold hundreds hostage in order to free his brother from prison. Or does he have a more insidious plot in mind. Much of the action, and there's a CRAP-TON of action here, centers on a cross-harbor tunnel that the bad guy has wired with a half-ton of C-4.
The kind of gonzo shoot-em-up epic that Hong Kong filmmakers have excelled at since the 80s. Big stakes and a huge cast lead to a blistering extended action climax that you might want to rewind and watch all over again to catch what you missed the first time.


Image may contain: one or more people

THE LAST LEGION (2007) As I mentioned in a previous interview, peplum is a genre with a low bar. It's a bar that this big-budget extravaganza manages to slide under. This story, that proposes to put the legend of King Arthur into a historical perspective, has lots of action but no blood, no scantily clad babes and not a single torture scene. It's a movie that gets worse with each viewing and I can attest to that as I've seen it several times only because I forget how bad it is.
The genesis of the movie is more interesting than the movie itself especially from a writer's point of view.
Italian novelist Valerio Manfredi was invited to contribute a screen treatment for a movie that proposed to put the legend of King Arthur into a historical perspective. His concepts were rejected and the producers went on to make the godawful KING ARTHUR (2004). Frustrated that his ideas were not used (boy, I know THAT feeling) Manfredi went home and wrote an excellent novel based on his treatment called The Last Legion. In his novel he imagined that the last of the Caesars, a young boy, must flee to Britain in the company of an old philosopher and a cohort of brave soldiers, taking along with him the sword of Julius Caesar. Great book, rousing story and intelligently written. The producers who purchased the film rights tossed out everything but the core of the novel to make a bloodless, senseless, witless, box checker action movie that probably had Manfredi crying into the wads of cash I hope they paid him to turn his peplum to pablum.

Image may contain: 2 people, outdoor

KISS AND TELL (1945) Hyperactive and overly dramatic teen Corliss Archer gets herself in trouble when, by covering up the secret marriage of her brother to the girl next door, she leads the whole town in believing she's pregnant! Based on a play, this comedy picks up steam midway through when Corliss' "secret" goes public. Solid comedic performances by all in the kind of prototypical teen comedy that was gaining in popularity as WWII was winding down. This one's a bit more risque than most of the entries in this genre. Make that A LOT more risque with "air force" jokes passing overhead like a flight of B-17s.
Shirley Temple would play Corliss in two films during the, let's face it, jailbait phase that took up the end of her movie career. And she's marvelous at firing off the fast patter loaded with malapropisms along with that range of facial expressions that were so effective when she was the world's number one child star taking on a sly aspect when she plays a scheming adolescent.
Corliss Archer proved popular enough on film to spawn a radio show in which she was played by Janet Waldo who most of you will recall as Judy Jetson.

Image may contain: 2 people, people standing, child and outdoor

RUNNING WITH THE DEVIL (2019) Nic Cage still manages to surprise. I sail into what feels like my weekly Cage movie with zero expectations only to find this serious crime drama with a real mean streak at the heart of it. Ostensibly, the film portrays a cocaine deal from both ends. We meet the buyers, smugglers and distributors while, at the same time, seeing the entire process of making the yayo from picking the leaves through processing and the chain of delivery from Colombia to the Canadian border. Not really a lot of surprises but the whole deal is slickly made and fast-paced with high production values and top drawer acting throughout. Looking for a solid crime drama that doesn't look away when things get ugly? Check this one out. It was partly produced by Redbox so I'm assuming it's not on any streaming service yet.

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling

LUCKY DAY (2019) Now for a not-so-serious crime film. Luke Bracy is fresh out of the pen and eager to re-start his life with his wife, Nina Doberev, and adorable daughter. But his happiness is marred by the arrival of Crispin Glover as a kind of pantomime Chigurh. Not much more plot than that in this bloody Roger Avary pastiche. It's fun enough and moves along at a brisk pace. But what might have been an excruciating extended suspense scene at the climax is diluted by all the surreal silliness that proceeded it. Avary waits until way too late in the story to ask us to care about the principles. What I want to know is how they controlled Glover for a shoot this long and complex. Perhaps he's finally found the proper balance for his meds. Like I said, it's fun enough in a Tarantino Lite vein and Dobrev is cute as a basket of cartoon puppies.

Image may contain: 1 person, outdoor


Symphonie pour un massacre/THE CORRUPT (1963) Five hoods pool their resources to go in on a big heroin deal. But thieves fall out when one of the syndicate members decides he'd rather have it all. But he finds that murder is a hard habit to break. Fine, slow-burn French crime flick in the vein of Jean-Pierre Melville. A well-crafted thriller.

Image may contain: 3 people, people standing, people sitting, people playing musical instruments and indoor

BRICE de NICE (2005) Brice Agostini is a slacker who lives to surf, or so he'd have you believe. He makes his home on a stretch of the French Riviera that's only visited by surfable waves every thirty years or so. When his rich daddy goes to jail for money laundering, Brice is left homeless, moneyless and, as always, clueless until he's dared into a big surfing competition. Wacky, monumentally silly comedy only made possible by the apparently bottomless charm of Jean Dujardin. It's hard to think of an actor with a range as broad as Dujardin. Romantic leads, goofy comic foil, noir protagonist and period dramas. The guy does it all with authority and aplomb like a talent straight out of Hollywood's golden age. Here he is asked to carry a movie on his back as he's lumbered with pretty weak material that he somehow manages to make work playing a character who could have worn out his welcome in act one. It's all fun in the sun and a perfectly good time waster and, apparently, a big enough hit to spawn two sequels.


Image may contain: 1 person, closeup


Mais où est donc passée la 7ème compagnie?/NOW WHERE DID THE 7th COMPANY GET TO? (1973) The fall of France in 1940 might seem like an unlikely subject for a comedy but Jean Lefebvre and a cast of talented comic actors make this story, of a small group of soldiers cut off from their unit as the Germans invade, an amusing romp. It's the kind of slow-burn comedy that the French make so well but picks up speed when the lads commandeer a German half-track and cause havoc behind the lines in their haphazard attempt to reach Paris. Some very funny scenes and a few that might have been a lot funnier if the only subtitles I could find weren't so awful.

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing and outdoor

BROKEN LANCE (1954) Spencer Tracy is the scion of a frontier dynasty in a fine example of the kind of empire western Hollywood seemed to be in love with in the 1950's. This sub-genre spawned TV shows like Bonanza, Big Valley and High Chaparral. Most of the drama comes from the differences between his four sons played by Robert Wagner, Richard Widmark, Hugh O'Brien and Earl Holliman. When the old man dies the siblings go to war with one another as their true natures are revealed. Big, Cinemascope entertainment and, while not a classic like THE BIG COUNTRY or THE FURIES, it's a worthy entry in the genre.

Image may contain: 4 people, people standing and hat

La Grande Vadrouille/DON'T LOOK NOW, WE'RE GETTING SHOT AT (1966) The four man crew of a British bomber gets shot down over Paris and must turn to some, often reluctant, French folks for help in escaping the Germans. A lavishly mounted wide-screen production teaming Terry-Thomas and Louis de Funès in an international production that I assume was popular in the UK and on the continent. It certainly deserved to be as it's a very funny and often suspenseful chase film with some terrific extended comedy scenes. Funès is perfect as a fussy, stuck-up symphony conductor dragooned into the underground and Thomas is in his element as a veddy English RAF pilot sporting his most outrageous mustache ever. (he's forced to trim it early in the film.) Some exciting and dangerous chase scenes including one between a farm lorry full of pumpkins and a gang of Nazis on motorcycles.

Image may contain: 3 people, people smiling

THE EAGLE HAS LANDED (1976) One good movie about Nazis getting their asses kicked deserves another. Adventure/Espionage flick as a team of German commandos is sent to kidnap Winston Churchill as a direct result of a Hitler rant. A sleepy English town is turned into a battlefield as the plan comes part early and US Rangers come to the rescue. Loads of actors get to strut in jackboots including Michael Caine, Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasance. Donald Sutherland plays an Irishman again to the dismay of Celts everywhere. Larry Hagman goes over the top as the over-eager commander of the Rangers and Treat Williams is effective on one of his earliest roles. It's loads of fun and features loads of great details for us WWII geeks. Someone went wild with the costuming budget for the Germans and we see a lot of outfits we don't often see in off-the-rack productions. The extended action sequence at the end is exciting and features, what I believes, are the first new gun sound effects recorded in ages. The M1s actually sound like M1s and we're even treated to an M2 in one sequence.

Image may contain: 1 person, standing

OBLIVION (2013) The Earth is in its death throes following the destruction of the Moon and subsequent invasion by aliens. Though mankind won the war they lost the planet and have fled to a moon of Saturn leaving behind a skeleton force of paramilitary technicians to maintain the giant fusion reactors that create power for the far flung colony. Or is any of that true?
Solid SF action-thriller with a keeps-you-guessing plot and some suspenseful action set pieces. Tom Cruise is excellent on all counts in a story that has real heart but never descends to manipulative Speilbergian sentiment. The pacing is perfection as the story takes it's time to draw us and divert us from the questions both we and Cruise should be asking ourselves. Some marvelous effects are used effectively in the movie without ever calling attention to themselves.


Image may contain: 1 person, cloud, sky, ocean, outdoor, nature and water


Le gendarme de Saint-Tropez (1964) A persnickety by-the-books receives a transfer to the French Riviera where he and his daughter manage to fumble their way into the attention of a gang of criminals using Saint.-Tropez as their base. Louis de Funès leads a cast of comic actors in something like a VERY Gallic, VERY 60's version of the Police Academy movies. One highlight is Louis leading his squad to arrest a beach filled with nudists who, somehow, always manage to be fully dressed when the cops arrive. Extremely popular in France, it was only the first in a long string of sequels.

Image may contain: 2 people, people standing, ocean, outdoor and water

MYSTERY ROAD (2013) The murder of a young girl brings an Aborigine cop back to the outback town he grew up in. While the local cops treat it as a forgettable tragedy, Aaron Pederson sees it as part of a greater conspiracy of silence. His seemingly laconic approach to the investigation lulls both suspects and his fellow lawmen into complacency until they realize the hometown town boy is getting close to the truth.
The locations are stunning, even alien, and the movie features one of the best, and most accurate, gun battles ever put in film.
Pederson has become one of my favorite performers for this and its sequel GOLDSTONE as well as his work in TV series like THE CODE and JACK IRISH. This movie eventually spawned an excellent TV series starring Pederson and Judy Davis.
He's terrific in these slow-burn crime stories and a real presence on the screen playing the badass with a wounded heart.

Image may contain: 1 person, hat and beard

THE DETECTIVE (1968) Frank Sinatra is a NYPD homicide detective, the best on the force. The story follows him into the gay underground of the city in a search for a killer that ultimately leads him to the heart of corruption.
Released the same year as Universal's MADIGAN, this Gordon Douglas-directed cop drama attempts with greater success what the Richard Widmark film tried to do. Dealing with, for the time, edgy material such as homosexuality and police corruption, this Sinatra vehicle is not presented as a normal crime drama. It uses flashbacks and a deconstructed plot structure to create a portrait of Sinatra's character. An interesting movie that's rewarding despite it's over-ambitious efforts that lead to some slow spots in act one when all we want is to see the mystery solved. But the "solution" to the whodunnit is only the start of what is effectively a sea change in H'wood's approach to this kind of material. This movie, probably due primarily to Old Blue Eyes' chutzpah and start power, really pushes the envelope hard for the kind of material that was normally censored in American films. It tries very hard to approach the material as realistically as possible.
Two interesting asides: This was based on a novel by Roderick Thorpe. The sequel would provide the basis for DIE HARD (1988).
And this film was influential in more ways than one. As far as I can determine, this is the first appearance of what would be become a stock cop drama cliche; the prostitute being booked as part of the background color in the detective squad room.

Image may contain: one or more people