Le chant du loup/CALL OF THE WOLF (2019) Netflix’ French productions are the main reason I keep their service. This flick is an excellent current-day, post-Cold War thriller focusing on an audio warfare analyst who uncovers what may be a nefarious Russian plot to upset the balance of underwater military power. Ah, but it all goes much deeper than that. The rarity of rarities these days, the movie with a story that goes in unexpected directions and provides real surprises. Part detective story and part submarine action thriller, this one scores on all counts. The nerdy hero is relatable and sympathetic, and his personal story drives the narrative. The submarine action is superb. The screenplay was either written by a silent service vet or someone who really did their homework. The actors are all excellent working off a lean script and without any of the melodrama you so often find in this kind of movie. The final act is edge of your seat stuff.
HUNTER/KILLER (2018) Next to Jane Austen adaptations, submarine movies are my wife’s favorite film genre. So, naturally, this one was a must-see. And I have to say it was far better than I anticipated. Imagine a very earnest mash-up of G.I. Joe and Tom Clancy and you come close. A dual mission between a squad of Navy SEALs and a U.S. nuclear submarine move to quash a coup meant to topple the Russian government and throw the world into chaos. Who expected a movie where we’d be rootin’ for Putin? But the pace is good, the effects generally excellent and the action, both on land and sea, suspenseful if not entirely believable. And there’s one scene that seems to be in all these movies that I’m glad they skipped in this one. That shot of everyone in the war room cheering when the good guys win like it’s the Stanley Cup finals. “We averted global nuclear war! High five!” I hate those scenes. They always look disingenuous and I very much doubt that this ever happened in a war room. Heavy sighs of relief and maybe someone quietly puking in a corner would be more realistic, to my mind. Solid cast with Gary Oldman wasted once again in a “My God, man! Do you realize what you’re saying?” role.
MORTAL ENGINES (2018) What would the makers of movies like this be doing now if they didn't have the original Star Wars movies to steal plot elements from. I assume this eye-candy loaded mess was taken from some YA novel. It has that feel. Massive coincidences, a small cast out to save the world, everyone knows each other (or is related to each other) and everyone is an orphan. Not one, NOT ONE, original story idea in its entire running time. And you'll NEVER guess, SWEAR TO GOD, you'll NEVER guess how the heroine and the villain are related! Go on, guess. A million technicians and CGI artists worked hard to bring this ludicrous pile of poop together. The plot? You know the plot if you've seen the trailer. All the world's cities are on massive tank treads and ripping around the globe gobbling each other up for some reason that's never made clear beyond "We're running out of fuel!" Here's an idea, keep your city in one place instead of powering up your massive engines to take the city of London off-roading every day and night. That just might cut down your fuel consumption. Maybe it's all an allegory for socialism. Probably not as its daring message for the world is "War is bad."
Watch the worst 80s SF movie you can find instead of this one. At least it'll be shorter.
A VIEW TO A KILL (1985) For a long time this was the only James Bond movie I'd never seen. After the ridiculous travesty of OCTOPUSSY, I elected to wait out the franchise until Roger Moore was gone. Every participant on this one was phoning it in. Moore is way too old for the part and his dalliances with younger women becoming creepy. Christopher Walken appeared to be lost, for the most part. Tanya Roberts plays the most useless Bond girl ever. Only Grace Jones seems to be having any fun. The story crawls along at a snail's pace and is almost entirely absent of any signature Bond elements. No cool car or gadgets and his snappy one-liners are beyond vapid. The action scenes are contrived, poorly blocked out and often confusing. And Walken's world-domination scheme seems to have been partly lifted from Auric Goldfinger and not terribly well thought out. But, at least I've seen them all.
I AM MOTHER (2019) Netflix might just be the home of the best filmed SF. Spooky, suspenseful story of a robot raising a child from birth in the years following the end of the human race. Or is it? I won't go into the plot except to say that it has its share of surprises. It's thought provoking without telling the viewer what to think. Superbly acted and stylishly made. Solid hard science fiction entertainment.
THE WOLVERINE (2013) My youngest knows I don't like the X-Men movies (or the X-Men in general) but suggested I might like this one. He was a wrong. A predictable, humorless mess with events you can anticipate before they happen and dialogue before it's spoken. Feathery or confusing motivations for the entire cast and by-the-numbers action scenes including a frankly embarrassing extended fight atop a bullet train. Very little in this movie makes sense and no one acts or reacts to anything like a normal human being would and characters spend a lot of time feeling sorry for themselves. In other words, the perfect X-Men story.
TROUBLE IN STORE (1953) Brit comic Norman Wisdom plays his signature hyperactive simpleton in a movie that follows his usual formula. He's a lowly stockboy at a massive London department store. He's in love with a sales clerk in the music department but she's been wooed by a hood who leads a gang set on robbing the store on the big sale day. Margaret Rutherford is here as well playing the world's most ambitious shoplifter. It's all silly with a plot that serves to set up comic set-pieces for Wisdom to perform his athletic antics that always leave a path of destruction behind him.
ONE GOOD TURN (1954) Another Norman Wisdom comedy with a plot that's light as a feather. Once again, he's smitten with a woman way out of his league though this movie deals with that more realistically than usual. Norman is a minder and jack-of-all-trades at a London orphanage. Yes, there's cute little po-faced orphans under foot everywhere. Once again, all the story events serve to set up wild slapstick scenes. The highlight of these is Norman being mistaken for an orchestra conductor and creating an epic level of havoc.
MURDER MYSTERY (2019) Hey, it's an Adam Sandler comedy so I knew what I was getting into, but Jennifer Aniston, right? It's a fun, breezy affair with some funny scenes and good chemistry between the leads. But, for my money, Aniston is ALL chemistry and always finds a way to make every role work. The rest of the cast plays it with the same light tone and sense of fun. BUT...this effort could have been more than just forgettable fluff with a bit more craft applied on the writing end. What the story needed was more set-up for the two leads. Sandler is a New York cop. We know this because we're told this. We needed a scene of him BEING a cop, to establish visually all the things we learn about him later. Aniston's interest in murder mysteries needed to be set up WAY earlier in the movie and been made more a part of the story than it is. Once again, everything we learn about her character is told to us through dialogue. Someone needs to sit down and watch some old Jean Arthur movies.
HELL IS FOR HEROES (1962) Taut war movie programmer effectively directed by Don Siegel with a script by WWII vet Robert Pirosh who wrote the war movie classic BATTLEGROUND as well as the pilot of the Combat! TV series. Fess Parker commands a platoon left out on the ass-end of a defensive line to hold their ground against a German advance. Steve McQueen plays a busted sergeant who seems to have a death wish. Lots of other young actors in the cast like Nick Adams, Bob Newhart and Bobby Darin. Trivia note: This is the movie that was on screen in the theater in which Lee Harvey Oswald tried to hide after assassinating John F. Kennedy in November 1963.
ATTACK (1956) Real, grown-up war drama featuring a cast of real-life WWII combat vets including Lee Marvin and Jack Palance. Eddie Albert plays a coward here but, in reality, was a decorated war hero for saving the lives of dozens of marines on Tarawa. "Mr. Douglas, I salute you!" An infantry platoon is put at the point of the spear and betrayed again and again by their craven commander. But Jack Palance isn't having it anymore and crawls through a combat hell to see his own brand of justice done. Excellent moral quandary drama set against the backdrop of war. Shot at MGM's extensive WWII Europe back lot familiar to viewers of Combat!
NAKED AMONG WOLVES (2015) In the final weeks of the war in Europe, the plans of Buchenwald inmates to resist their annihilation at the hands of their brutal SS guards are complicated by the arrival of an unregistered Jewish child. This movie presents a full range of the best and worst in human behavior from the highest heroism to the most base self-interest. All wrapped up in a story of excruciating suspense and the highest stakes imaginable. More than a historically accurate portrayal of life in a concentration camp, this movie contemplates the values of civilization and how fragile a construct it is.
HIGHWAY PATROLMAN (1991) Made in Mexico, directed by an Englishman and financed by a Japanese film company. Alex Cox says that this is his best film and I have to agree. The story of a young highway cop in Northern Mexico seems barely to be a story at all and that's the beauty of it. There's all the beats and arcs and acts of a story but they're deftly concealed as a series of seemingly random events so that the viewer *experiences* what happens rather than be led along by contrivance. Excellently acted on a shoestring budget and some of the most realistically portrayed gunfights ever put in film. By no means a "feel good" movie but a sly piece of guerrilla film-making by a director who think is most of the time off his rocker. The screenwriter would go on to work on NARCOS and QUEEN OF THE SOUTH.
FRIGHT NIGHT (2011) I was never terribly fond of the 1985 original and didn't expect much from this re-make. I was wrong. Veteran Buffy writer Marti Noxon infuses the original with loads of energy and fun while trimming away the hoke and contrivance of the original. Colin Farrell carries off his role to perfection, playing the closeted vampire with a brand of quirk and charm all his own. David Tennant is a standout as a cheesy Las Vegas magician who turns out to be a real vampire hunter. The tone is excellent throughout and the horror and comedic scenes are equally effective. Not an easy task. That is a fine line Ms. Noxon walked here.
THE BOOGEYMAN WILL GET YOU (1942) Not sure what this was meant to be. Kind of like a Bob Hope or Abbott and Costello movie sans the comedians. Boris Karloff is a doddering mad scientist who means well and Peter Lorre is the local sheriff/ justice of the peace/insurance agent/and loan officer in a lightly toasted (one can't really call it 'dark') comedy. It's virtually plot-less and mostly just silly with the two leads looking like they're having fun spoofing their usual typecast roles. Lorre gets the most laughs with his constantly shifting moral compass, hair-trigger irritability and the Siamese kitten he keeps in his coat pocket for some never explained reason.
T-34 (2018) Russian WWII action flick that goes a little too Hollywood for my tastes. Some fine tank action that would have been better with less CGI. But a solid plot about Soviet POWs who are to be used as target practice for the Panzers until they find some ammo and turn the game into a live fire exercise. The Russians have been making some very good war films of late but I always expect them to be more bloodthirsty than they are. Still, a good actioner with loads of period weaponry for geeks like me to ogle.
Boulevard du Rhum/RUM RUNNERS (1971) Brigitte Bardot and Lino Ventura in a period action comedy set in the 1920s. Ventura smuggles liquor to the rocky shores of Florida(!) and Bardot is a silent film star that he falls for. Might have been a successful romp but Ventura, a fine actor, has no touch for broad comedy. And beyond her usual wit and charm, Bardot is given little to do except keep an army of wardrobe people and hairdressers busy. Imagine this film with Belmondo in the lead. He had the talent for farce as well as the physicality to pull off the action set pieces with panache. Why were these two film legends never paired in anything? The most fun comes from the movies-within-a-movie featuring Bebe as a jungle princess!