Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The March of Reviews!

GROSS POINTE BLANK (1997) I think I've finally figured out what this movie is. It's a comment on, and reaction to, 80's teen flicks. It's ten years later and professional killer John Cusack (who made his share of horny teenager movies) comes home for his high school reunion and a more personal reunion with jilted love Minnie Driver. It's all light escapist fare in director George Armitage's hands. But Dan Ackroyd appears to be having more fun than anyone else as a rival hitman looking to form a union for button men.

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IRON ANGELS/FIGHTING MADAM (1987) The Hong King action flick phenomenon of the 1980s was bookended by John Woo "bullet ballets" and Girls With Guns flicks like this one. Moon Lee and Elaine Lui are the Iron Angels in an absurdist mash-up of Charlie's Angels, Miami Vice and James Bond. The action never lets up in a movie packed with chases, fights, traps, escapes and rescues. And scene after scene of the girls machine-gunning, hand grenading, chopping, stabbing and bludgeoning an endless horde of henchmen who fly through the air propelled by slugs and shrapnel and kicks. And Yukari Oshima is the villain here and, boy, she just LOVES being bad! And it's all done in a frenetic (but always clear) pace that leaves you breathless. Yes, it's all very silly but it's meant to be pure escapism. And this movie, and ones like it, were a huge inspiration for me when I was writing superhero comics. I "borrowed" a gag from this movie for an early issue of Robin.

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TOY STORY 3 (2010) Is there a more consistently maintained franchise in all of cinema history? Each sequel is worthy and builds on the last film and the continuity is flawless. One senses there are complete backstories for every toy and character, a deeper, richer universe than what we can see on the screen. And that's true, the creators of Toy Story have created a complex back history for this series. Like the rest of the Toy Story movies, this entry explores some heavy themes and gets quite dark at times. For my money, the best Pixar films are usually the edgiest releases of any given year. Here, Woody and the gang have to decide between freedom and security, between individualism and servitude. The risks are real and existential. The characters face actual destruction. The suspense scenes are taut and exciting. And the humor, as always, works. Even the one-liners click as they're perfectly suited to the character speaking them. No interchangeable dialogue here. And the pop reference gags are subtle and throwaway. My oldest son and I caught the My Neighbor Totoro gag for the first time re-watching it last night. I hear good things about TOY STORY 4 and will be checking it out.

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HAMBURGER HILL (1987) A straight-up war drama about an ill-fated, hard fighting Airborne unit tasked with taking a position held by NVA troops in the summer of 1969. Director John Irvin's approach is to get right down there in the mud and show the monotony, frustration and brutality of this fight. Some really heartbreaking scenes, the most horrific of which is a "friendly fire" incident. A cast of mostly TV actors do excellent work with Steven Weber a stand-out as a redneck sergeant who's been too long in the bad bush. The first time I saw this movie was on its opening weekend. Some jerk in the audience mocked the scene pictured below and a Vietnam vet stood up to shout at the guy," You don't know! You weren't there! You weren't there!" Seated next to me was my father-in-law who is a WWII combat vet who saw lots of action in Italy. During a particularly intense and frightening combat scene that vet left the theater. My father-in-law wasn't far behind him and never returned to his seat. That's as much a testament to the level of realism this movie portrays as I can imagine.

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STUKAS (1941) I find it surprising that the Third Reich produced only 20 propaganda war films. Hollywood was churning them out at a rate of one a week after Pearl Harbor. This movie presents the story of three fighter squadrons of Stuka pilots during the invasion of France. The movie was unexpectedly bloodless. While GIs and Marines in American flicks were killing Axis hordes by the bushel, here we see Frenchmen running away but none actually dying. Perhaps because they were looking for the French to capitulate and cooperate. The movie does end with a chilling scene of Stukas flying across the Channel while the pilots sing about pounding England to dust. For the most part the movie is episodic with no clear through-line. The characters are shallow and spout lines about the glory of dying in battle for the Fatherland. What this movie really needed was some of those Jewish film-makers who fled to Warners and Paramount and MGM when Hitler came to power.

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THE SQUARE PEG (1958) Norman Wisdom in a WWII service comedy. What took them so long? Here Norman is an annoying workman employed by a building council that borders on an army base. he makes such a pest of himself that the Tommies draft him so they can send him to France to be rid of him. But Norman boards the wrong plane and winds up part of a commando mission deep behind German lines. This time, Honor Blackman (Miss Pussy Galore) plays the out-of-his-league love interest. Has a very funny scene in which a hysterically panicking Norman thinks that paratroopers going for a jump are falling out of the plane because someone left the door open.

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HOUSE OF GAMES (1987) David Mamet's directorial debut from his own screenplay. That this is a first film is plain to see. Mamet understands how film works and know just where to put the camera but apparently directed his actors as though they were on stage rather than on film. The archness of the always-difficult Mamet dialogue plays stilted on the ear. Joe Mantegna and J.T. Walsh manage it but Lindsay Crouse and the rest of the cast are left to their own devices as Mamet was probably more concerned with his actual words getting across than their place in the story. A common enough rookie move. But none of that gets in the way of the endlessly engaging story he's set up about a woman who thinks she understands herself and the world until she's drawn into the shadow world of a crew of conmen. Mamet creates his own reality here and it's irresistible once Crouse steps out of the cab across the street from the House of Games.

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THE LINEUP (1958) This one starts as a pretty straight forward cops-and-robbers, "just the facts, ma'am" brand of police drama but, with the arrival of Eli Wallach as a psychopathic mob errand boy it all amps to eleven. Don Siegel directs and, as he always does, takes full advantage of real locales as backdrops for the action. Stirling Silliphant's script tries to wax philosophical but Siegel doesn't let any of that get in the way of the action. A truly chilling climax followed by an exciting car chase along the still-uncompleted San Francisco freeway. This movie deserves to be better known.

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BREAKDOWN (1997) Tight little thriller with Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan as a couple crossing the Utah desert only to run into a situation straight out Hitchcock. Quinlan goes missing but no one will believe Kurt. He soon learns that he can trust no one as he delves deeper into a mystery set at remote diners and truck stops. Well-crafted and perfectly paced to keep the viewer engaged enough to forgive the increasingly improbable action in the third act. Plenty of twists and surprises and a satisfying conclusion. And, if the movies have taught us anything it's never to trust a character played by J.T. Walsh.

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THE NIGHT COMES FOR US (2018) Indonesian action flick. You know what you're in for. Beautifully shot and astonishingly staged. This is well-crafted action entertainment. But, when it's all over and the splattered blood is congealing it's an empty exercise. Unlike the classic Hong Kong style action flicks of the past, this movie takes place entirely in its own world. EVERYONE in the movie is an opponent. There are literally no other humans depicted in the film that are not criminals or their victims. The streets and buildings and sidewalks are empty of any humanity other than the crash dummy cast. I always find this troubling and have a hard time engaging in a story that is this far removed from any world I recognize. The story? A fabled hitman cannot kill a little girl and is determined to save her life even if it costs him everything. (SPOILER: It does.) There ARE some absolutely stunning sequences in this and it's worthwhile just for that. But, if they'd only injected some heart into the story I might want to watch it again.

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THE WRECKING CREW (2008) You've heard their music but never knew their names. Denny Tedesco made this documentary both as a history of the great 60's session men as well as a tribute to his dad, legendary guitarist Tommy Tedesco. Ever hear the Bonanza theme? The Green Acres theme? The amazing guitar work on songs by the Beach Boys or The Association? That was Tommy. Through interviews and archival video and audio we enter the world of these hardworking heroes (and heroines) who were behind hundreds and hundreds of top ten hits, commercial jingles, movie soundtracks and TV theme songs. I'm not any kind of of musician but, for some reason, I LOVE stories about the old recording studios. I could write 5000 words reviewing this movie but you really need to see it for yourself. Read the book as well. There are so many great stories and snippets and goosebumps moments as you learn the secrets of the sounds that, especially if you're a boomer, are as familiar as the sound of your mother's voice. I wish it was ten hours long.

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