Tuesday, March 26, 2019


Watched two movies last night. The first was SWAT: UNDER SIEGE (2017) What a police action movie made by the SyFy Channel might look like. Stars Michael Jai White and possibly a first cousin to Aaron Eckhart. Acting is one-note, zero character development, ludicrous action and a plot ripped wholesale from Assault on Precinct 13. The villain looked like a guy who should have a YouTube channel about choosing the proper tie. I knew I was in trouble when half the SWAT team looked like pro-wrestlers and the other half looked like swimsuit models, petite division.

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The second movie I watched could not possibly be more different from the first. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (2017) also takes a common action movie plot (the flawed knight on a noble quest) and elevates it to a kind of tone poem that contemplates the toll violence takes on the soul. This movie is told almost entirely visually. There's barely any exposition in the story and much must be inferred by watching gestures and reactions. Much of the action happens either off screen or is presented once-removed, which gave me the feeling of being more a witness than a viewer. I have to say, Joaquin Phoenix continues to pick interesting roles for himself. Weird coincidence that both movies I watched had precisely the same running time but this one raced by at warp speed despite its decidedly deliberate pace.

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MILE 22 (2018) Another high-octane shoot 'em up from director Peter Berg. A geo-political thriller that manages to avoid politics. The bulk of the movie is an extended series of firefights and chases with loads of attention to detail and a high body count. Berg manages to make his set-action pieces fresh and suspenseful. A fight in an embassy infirmary is particularly blistering. If I had any complaints it would be that the 'shock' ending didn't even come as a mild surprise.

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THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (2018) The Coen brothers bring us six bleak tales of the Old West often tinged with their particular, perverse brand of humor. The stories range from pure pastiche to ironic humor to just plain mean or dour. The language, settings and characters are indelible. And, because it's a kind of candy sampler of the western genre, there's ones you'll like and ones maybe you won't. There's bittersweet and outright bitter. And all feature the Coens' keen understanding of human nature in all its facets light and dark. I won't go into the stories themselves suffice it to say that it's been a very long time since I've seen actual cowboy and Indian action without the usual tedious equivocations or aspersions. And that action is epic and suspenseful as well as unforgettable.

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I owe whoever recommended GREEN ROOM (2015) to me a big thank you. Terrific survival horror story told in a deliberately paced way that makes the mad proceedings all the more believable. When I tried to describe the plot to someone else it sounded idiotic. But this movie is all about presentation. Top notch acting by all, including Patrick Stewart in his most un-Picard role ever. I'm going to be paying a lot more attention to this director, Jeremy Saulnier.

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HOLD THE DARK (2018) Another Jeremy Saulnier movie and another solid effort. I vow NEVER to watch a trailer for one of this guy's movies. Going in clueless is the best approach. The always remarkable Jeffery Wright leads a dark-as-a-moonless-night story of redemption and revenge that doesn't take ANY turn you'd expect. Even the reliable cliches of this kind of a story are kicked in the head and dropped down a well. Incredible cinematography and a deliberate pace that leaves you feeling like you've just watched A MOVIE. One funny thing though, an R&B Christmas song is played over the end credits so, naturally, NETFLIX suggested a dozen Hallmark type Christmas movies I might want to watch next.

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LE CONVOI/FAST CONVOY (2016) No one makes a better straight-up crime film than the French. This movie is no exception. 24 hours in the lives of a pack of smugglers driving dope from Malaga, Spain to the French border. Car chases, foot chases, punch-ups and some of the most pathetically realistic shoot-outs I've ever seen. All in the course of multiple character studies laced with pathos, humor and insight into the criminal mind.

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 singe en hiver/A MONKEY IN WINTER (1962) Belmondo is teamed with acting legend Jean Gabin for a gentle character comedy about two strangers who find common ground in a young man's heartache and an old man's nostalgia. Both men are excellent in their comic roles and have a real chemistry between them. The closest comparison I can make is a Gallic version of an Ealing comedy.

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¡Viva la muerte... tua!/DON'T TURN THE OTHER CHEEK (1971) Spaghetti western comedy with the usual cynicism, misogyny and casual attitude toward death to be expected in this sub-genre. Franco Nero, Eli Wallach and Lynn Redgrave play it light even as the bodies fall everywhere. Unusual for an Italian western in that it has a large role for a woman. Redgrave plays an Irish revolutionary journalist and has her share of action including a comic scene where she beats the crap out of a pair of federales. No real surprises and suffers from the kind of haphazard editing that plagued even the better mounted productions in this era. But it's fun nonetheless and Wallach is entertaining as yet another of his amoral Mexican rascals.

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FORT DOBBS (1958) The first of three Clint Walker westerns directed by Gordon Douglas. All were made as quick-play second features to capitalize on Walker's popularity on TV's Cheyenne. Despite this low bar, each one is an excellent example of the outdoor adventure "big sky" western. This one is a fast-paced story with Clint as a wanted murderer who takes on the responsibility of protecting ranch widow Virginia Mayo and her young son Richard Eyer (INVISIBLE BOY) as they escape from a Comanche war party. Complicating things is gunrunner Brian Kieth playing an amoral creep with designs on the widow. Great stunts and robust direction set against Utah's Little Monument Valley. Walker plays the part with his usual authority. Mayo is always good in these kinds of roles and, as she often did, performs many of her own stunts. Kieth is always entertaining. Fine script by Burt Kennedy and Douglas' usual sure hand behind the camera.

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GOLD OF THE SEVEN SAINTS (1961) The final Clint Walker/Gordon Douglas collaboration. Clint is teamed with Roger Moore (with an Irish brogue!) as a pair of buddies trying to bring a load of gold to market despite being stalked by a gang of greedy claimjumpers. Director Douglas excelled at sustaining suspense over long range chases taking place over days rather than minutes. The always engaging Chill Wills is along for the ride and Gene Evans is properly venal as the honcho of the pursuing posse of owlhoots. Walker and Moore had a real chemistry and appear to be enjoying themselves. A terrific screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Douglas at his best. An overlooked gem of a western.

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BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018) Some ideas that were probably more interesting on paper than on the screen. It all had the feel of warmed over Tarentino which is already warmed over grindhouse and as your mom told you, never re-heat junk food a second time if you don't want to get sick. 
Jon Hamm is great in a really lousy role that is more contrivance than anything else. Why, if he's an undercover FBI agent does he work so hard to draw attention to himself? And why, if he had to choose a persona for his cover would it be an offensive southern racist stereotype? Cynthia Erivo is wasted as a one-note character who's only here to play the movie's single example of innocence. Chris Hemsworth does his best Brad Pitt impersonation but without the slyness or surprise that Pitt always brings to these kind of roles. It all takes a long time to get where it's going and, in the end goes nowhere in particular with a conclusion that is mawkishly sentimental after two hours of bitter cynicism. Jeff Bridges is, as always, amazing. But it's not enough to make this worthwhile.

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HALLS OF MONTEZUMA (1951) Effective war drama that's helped in a big way by the full cooperation of the USMC. The scale of the production is enormous as a background against the intimate portraits of the members of a squad tasked with finding enemy rocket batteries on Okinawa. Richard Boone is solid in his film debut. Richard Widmark leads a fine cast that includes Karl Malden, Jack Webb, Jack Palance and (real life war hero) Neville Brand. Lewis Milestone directs with a sure hand and his usual excellent portrayals of men in war with all their flaws, fears and virtues.  

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