JAR CITY (2006) Absolutely the bleakest police procedural movie I've ever seen. No surprise it's from Iceland. What looks to be a random murder during a home invasion becomes a tangled web of lies, corruption and deceit going back generations. This is the mystery genre stripped of any illusions, glamour or even a sense of justice. There is one funny scene toward the end and one that we've probably always wanted to see in a movie like this.
Tense, terse and honest. But don't expect to be uplifted.
THE GOOD GUYS AND THE BAD GUYS (1969) A pretty darned good western that could have been a whole lot better. Robert Mitchum is a town tamer marshal being forced out to pasture by a town eager to present itself as progressive. But an outlaw gang is looking to rob the town's bank and remind the townsfolk that this is still the wild west. The movie suffers from not being able to settle on a consistent tone. I'm guessing that this was originally a straight-up action western that the producers insisted be "improved" with a few comedy scenes. The mayor character, played by Martin Balsam, looks to have had his role in the story expanded upon to provide some "funny" scenes. Probably due to the surprise success of SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF earlier that year. Another problem the movie has is that the bad guys, led by David Carradine phoning it in, don't seem terribly threatening so there's no real urgency built up over their impending raid on the town. Another blight on the film is a wretched theme song with lyrics that sound like they came from a junior high school literary magazine and sung in that tremolo folk song style that was passe long before this movie came out. The song re-appears throughout the movie to sing at us about what we can see for ourselves on the screen. But, as always, George Kennedy looks to be having the time of his life as a bad guy trying to prove he's reformed.
BABY-FACE NELSON (1957) A cheaply-made quickie meant to cash in on the renewed interest in Depression Era hoodlums. It's remarkable mostly for the all-in performance by Mickey Rooney. Rooney was the consummate performer and really invests himself in the role of the sociopath killer driven by lust and the lure of easy money. Veteran director Don Siegel does what he can here and there's all his usual touches like interesting locales and nice little character moments. But he's hampered by an obviously minuscule budget and, probably, a two-week shooting schedule. Carolyn Jones as Nelson's loyal gal pal, Leo Gordon as John Dillinger and Elisha Cook Jr. as Homer vanMeter. Interesting trivia, Cedric Hardwicke and Jack Elam asked Siegel to allow them to switch roles. And so we have Elam as the fastidious mastermind of the gang and Hardwicke REALLY slumming it as an alcoholic and lecherous quack who treats the gang's bullet wounds.
THE EMPEROR OF PARIS (2018) Vincent Cassel is terrific as Francois Vidocq, the legendary criminal turned detective who was the scourge of the Paris underworld during the reign of Napoleon. The movie is a sumptuously mounted period piece loaded with sword fights, fist fights, knife duels and loads of flintlock pistols being discharged into the hearts of cutpurses, highwaymen and blackguards of all varieties. It has a dour mood that fits this earnest portrayal of what had to be a complicated man who, in real life, is often cited as the inspiration of many literary detectives including Sherlock Holmes. Though, in typical French crime fashion, a lot of Vidocq's detecting takes the form of beating evidence out of suspects.
BIG KILL (2018) Not a terrible western but not a pretty darn good western either. I'd say it falls in the "okay" range if you had time to kill on a Saturday afternoon. It's certainly earnest enough but could have used about thirty minutes cut from it. It's ostensibly a buddy western with two pals deciding to throw in with a city slicker to save a town from a gang of corrupt killers. There's very little development beyond that and the movie wastes too much running time on irrelevant relationships and that gives the viewer the opportunity to question why everyone is doing what they're doing. There's also ZERO surprises in the plot line and no effort to provide any nuance to the genre. It's further marred by a simply awful soundtrack that borrows liberally from Elmer Bernstein and Ennio Morricone and improves on neither. It's so overwrought and intrusive that it turns what could have been effective scenes into parody. Though, my Stetson's off to the filmmakers for trying to make a straight-up western.
GIRL SHY (1924) It's not hard to understand the international appeal of Harold Lloyd's movie output. He was a genuinely appealing personality with an amazing gift for acting and comedic timing. He was also willing to literally risk his life to thrill his audience. Lloyd plays his usual affable nobody who is terrified of women. Despite this, he's written an imagined memoir of his many romantic conquests that he seeks to get published in the big city. This leads to a seamlessly constructed series of sustained comedy scenes, each one better than the last leading to a wild chase through the streets of LA and into Beverley Hills with Lloyd very nearly ,killing himself atop trolleys, motorcycles, fire engines, on horseback and driving horse-drawn wagons. My favorite scenes has him trying to hide a Pomeranian from a train conductor. It is sheer genius and wrings every possibility from this simple scenario all while his meet-cute with the film's lading lady is going on. Perfectly crafted, timeless, entertainment.
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT (2000) It's hard to imagine this movie being made today. Samuel L. Jackson is the commander of a USMC TRAP team sent to relieve an American embassy in Yemen. Things go wrong and "innocent" civilians are caught ion the crossfire. Weaselly wonks in Washington seek to make an example of Jackson by having him tired for murder. The beleaguered Marine calls on Tommy Lee Jones, a friend whose life he saved in 'Nam to be his defense attorney. Part military and political thriller, part courtroom drama and ALL an indictment of the deep state and it's powers to railroad anyone and evidence be damned. Director William Friedkin keeps things going from a script based on a story by James Webb who, at the time was a sitting US senator. Jones and Jackson are great as their usual powerhouse selves and Jackson is very effective in one of the last of the roles where he doesn't simply utilize his SLJ persona.
MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY (1993) This movie slyly pulls you into what seems like just another Woody Allen movie about privileged Upper West Side denizens eating at trendy restaurants and complaining about their doormen. But the plot line slowly emerges with wife Diane Keaton suspecting that their boring next door neighbor may have murdered his wife. What follows is a comedic caper film with Keaton using this "case" as an outlet for a personal adventure and Woody reluctantly tagging along only because he's afraid his wife is having a dalliance with an old friend played by Alan Alda. The by-play between Woody and Diane is marvelous as always. But what really makes this movie work is that the stakes are actually very high for the couple as they immerse themselves in a complex web of murder and deceit. Woody shoots some suspense scenes that are edge of your seat because they grow organically out of the plot and occur only after you've become attached to the characters. But, because this is a Woody Allen film, the characters fear the risk of embarrassment even more than they do being killed. And this movie craftily draws us in to share those same fears. This really is a terrific example of how to construct a comedy with real consequences that make the funny scenes that much funnier. The secret is simple, Allen built a workable crime thriller then threw his characters into it. This movie could easily have worked as a straight-up crime drama. Favorite line: "Save some crazy for menopause!"
THE MAN WHO KILLED HITLER THEN THE BIGFOOT (2018) This oddity is deserving of my respect if only because of the high regard in which I hold earnestness in creative work. And this movie is ALL earnestness. A ridiculous premise is treated with the all the gravitas of a heavy drama, There's never a wink or a nudge to the audience as this certainly strange movie works its way from one ludicrous plot device to another all the while drawing us into the world of its characters with a degree of heart not found in most "serious" films let alone in genre pictures. And there's never any manipulation or cheap moves. The story builds and informs in an anti-structure style that lines up its reveals for the best effect. The filmmaker is either a savant or a genius. I guess his second feature will tell us which. The cast is wonderful. Sam Elliott carries the movie on his back and the actor playing his younger self does a solid job. Personal favorites Larry Miller and Ron Livingston are on hand as well.
VIY (2014) A weird movie in the way that only the Russians can make a weird movie. 17th Century cartographer Jason Flemying arrives in a Cossack village to find it lives in fear of a demon haunted church. It all moves along at a herky-jerky pace and is sometimes confusing as scenes are told from the subjective viewpoints of different characters. But it's loaded with eye candy and wild effects scenes, some of which are quite nightmarish. It's all fascinating if uneven. Apparently, a sequel is on the way with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan in the cast.
ACTION IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC (1943) Was there ever a movie more aptly titled? Rousing war era propaganda that's also a fine tribute to the merchant marines who risked their lives in U-boat infested waters to keep the Allies in Europe supplied. Bogart is the first mate on a liberty ship and Raymond Massey the skipper. The first 30 minutes feature are harrowing and horrific as a German submarine stalks Bogie and crew. The final hour is a suspenseful cat and mouse game between a huge convoy and a wolfpack of nazi subs. Loaded to the top with those great Warners character actors including the great Alan Hale providing some priceless lines and stealing every scene he's in.
MALEFIQUE (2002) We don't usually associate the French with great horror movies but this seriously creepy entry proves he exception to the rule. Four cellmates discover a strange diary hidden in the wall of their cell and decipher its secrets at their peril. One wild supernatural event after another puts them all at peril but they're willing to risk the dangers for a chance to escape. Most of the movie takes place in their cell and you can really feel the walls closing in an effective, disturbing film with an unforgettable ending.
HANSEL AND GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS (2013) When I saw Will Ferrell's name in the list of executive producers I knew what I was in for. This excellent premise for an action film is squandered on a pure-D dumb and repetitive programmer that shows the touch of many producers' (idiots') hands. Every branch on the cliche tree is struck as this by-the-numbers effort plummets into mediocrity. Loaded with dialogue needlessly peppered with f-bombs for cheap laughs with the cast doing their best to instill some life into the proceedings to little avail. The movie's efforts to be clever (Hansel is a diabetic from all that candy he ate as a kid) feels like desperation. Loads of anachronisms, explosions and automatic fire in a period film made for an audience who slept through history class. Famke Jansen seems to be the only one having fun playing the lead evil witch.
BLOOD OF REVENGE (1965) Period yakuza drama set in 1920s Osaka. The assassination of a clan leader leads the next godfather on a mission to take the family business legit. But the vile leader of a rival clan isn't about to let that happen. Throw in star-crossed lovers, betrayals and matters of honor and heat to a rolling boil for a bloody frenetic climax of flashing swords and daggers. Beautifully photographed and well acted, this move is more drama than action but delivers the goods in the end.
Tengu-tô/BLOOD END (1969) Tatsuya Nakadai, my second favorite chambara actor after Mifune, stars as Sentaro, a peasant who is banished from his village and trains with a sword in order to exact revenge. Set in 1864 during a time of open rebellion against the shogunate, it's a cautionary tale about allying with men who proclaim their nobility too loudly. Complicated and often exploding into bloody violence, this story effectively depicts the turmoil in a society caught in a painful period of transition from the feudal to the modern. In the end there's no one to root for but Nakadai who, once again, a victim of forces more powerful than he can control.
Fleur d'oseille/SORREL FLOWER (1967) French crime caper with a tres stealable plot. A bank robber dies leaving the location of the loot from his latest heist a mystery. But maybe his girl knows. Or maybe not? Mireille Darc has to go on the run taking her newborn son along with the law and two different gangs on her tail. Who has the dough? Does anyone know? Engaging throughout and casually violent in a bloodless way. And there's touches of Gallic humor with running gags and a purely comedy relief character. Unlike American films in this period there's no "funny" music to "help" put the humor across. One of the things I like about this movie is the way Darc's character becomes more and more attached to her child over the course of the film. It's subtly done with no contrived cathartic moment. She goes from uncaring moll to loving, defensive mommy in a gradual, organic progression. Pure nonsense but well-crafted nonsense.
BUGSY (1991) Warren Beatty gives a kinetic, though probably wholly inaccurate, portrayal of gangster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel. This movie covers the WWII period up to the mob's creation of Las Vegas as a mecca of sin in the desert. Sumptuously photographed and presenting this story with far more glamour than any reality could hope to match up to. It's pure Hollywood hokum that sometimes veers into pastiche and, in one scene, parody. This is the heavy lasagna of the gangster epic turned into a souffle. But it's enjoyable nonetheless and loaded up with a swell cast including Harvey Keitel as Mickey Cohen and Ben Kingsley as Meyer Lansky. Annette Bening appears to be having the time of her life channeling Barbara Stanwyck as Virginia Hill, the celebrity plaything who would be Siegel's downfall.
I recently promised my wife we'd watch The Godfather together as she's never seen it. She came into the room while I was watching this and said, "You're not watching The Godfather without me, are you?" I said, "No. I WANT to be watching The Godfather but I'm watching THIS instead." That about sums up Bugsy.
HERE ALONE (2016) I put this one off because the description on Netflix made it sound ho-hum. But it's an effective zombie drama with enough of the thriller elements of the genre to make it work as a horror movie. Zero budget but with solid production values and uniformly excellent acting. An anti-structure story line that works dramatically, high stakes and rising action make this worth your time if you like the genre. Hey, Netflix, hire better writers to make your copy.
THE 'BURBS (1989) Remember when comedy movies had plots? Tom Hanks is having a staycation to take a break from the stress at work when Rick Ducommon, his idle stooge neighbor, convinces him that the new people next door are up to no good. What ensues is twists and turns and rising action and stakes as the nosy neighbors turn detective leading to one disaster after another. Bruce Dern and Wendy Schaal are a treasure as a miss-matched couple across the way. Carrie Fisher is at her most acerbic as Hanks' wife. Corey Feldman, Gale Gordon, Brother Theodore and Henry Gibson also on hand doing terrific character actor work.
Tom Hanks plays his loveable, explosive, put-upon everyman persona, the character that endeared him to audiences the world over. I think we all miss that guy since Hanks has decided to pretend to be a tough guy or do a series of really awful impersonations of American icons. Please, Tom, one more time before you start playing charming grandpas, give us that guy who loses his shit just at the right/wrong moment. You owe us that.
Also, for me, this is Joe Dante's best film. It's his only pure comedy (outside of a genre) and is very funny. Much of that is due to him resisting the customary "jokey" jokes he populates even his earnest efforts with. He lets the humor work as written and performed.
And, one more thing, an amazing score by Jerry Goldsmith in which he pulls out all the stops to reference classic movie soundtracks by himself and others.
LES BARBOUZES/THE GREAT SPY CHASE (1964) A titled arms dealer dies leaving the secret of a new nuclear weapons equation in the hands of his pretty young widow played by Mirelle Darc. Patriotic spy Lino Ventura is sent to secure the secret for la belle France. But a bunch of commie agents, and a REALLY pushy American are trying to get the MacGuffin for themselves. Think RONIN redone as a 60's Peter Sellers movie. Funny in parts with LOADS of action and an enormous body count for a comedy. It even features a not-bad martial arts fight. This is 1964 and those kinds of fight scenes were rare in movies and, even more rarely well done. Check out the AWFUL karate scene in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE for an example. Loads of Reds bite the dust and the movie gets a lot of laughs out of the anti-American sentiment that ran high in DeGaulle's France. One thing I found amusing, the American agent's bodyguard dresses like Steve McQueen from Wanted Dead Or Alive even down to the mare's leg worn in a holster.
PAS DE PROBLEME!/NO PROBLEM! (1975) A wounded criminal dies in Miou Miou's apartment and she picks up some poor schlub at a bar to help her move the corpse. This leads to a very French farce set as a road picture with cuckolds, mistresses, marital troubles, liaisons and rendezvouses with all the hiding in closets and awkward encounters you'd expect. The movie opens with an extended car chase by the Rene Julliene team with some amazing stunt driving. The rest is the kind of movie my mom used to call "cute." Think of a Doris Day movie with lots more nudity.
Razzia Sur La Chnouf (1955) The great Jean Gabin is gangster who returns to France after a long stay in the USA and becomes embroiled in the growing heroin trade. I'm sure this movie was probably shocking in its time with a frank look at the ravages of drugs on a society. Builds to a violent climax and surprise ending. Lino Ventura in an early role as a soulless gunhand.
DANGER WITHIN (1959) Classic POW drama with a find cast of British actors playing captives in an Italian prison camp. The usual gamesmanship between those who wish to escape and the commandant. This time it's a sadistic second-in-command who is willing to give the Tommies just enough rope to hang themselves. There's more than a touch of post-war cynicism present here with not all the chaps as eager to leave as the escape committee would like. Soldiers returning from WWII to the UK had a different attitude than the Yanks did. A majority of the Brits felt that they had been poorly led which lead to a sea change in the political culture in the 50's and a general distrust of authority overall. This movie presents the frankest portrayal of the kind of internecine politics that occurred within the wire. That makes it more drama than thriller though it has edge of your seat moments too.
THE CURVE (1998) This low budget outing is like Patricia Highsmith wrote and episode of Beverly Hills 90210. A pair of senior year college students learn of clause in their school's by-laws that award a 4.0 grade average to the roommates of any student who commits suicide. This leads to a web of deceit, abuse and murder but who's the spider and who's the fly? Matthew Lillard in an early role as a hyperactive psychopath. Keri Russel shows some of the chops she later used to full effect in The Americans. Engaging enough but the cast of characters is loathsome.
La Valise/MAN IN THE TRUNK (1973) An Israeli spy seeks the help of the French secret service to smuggle him out of Libya. Their solution is to put him in a large steamer trunk with diplomatic tags and ship him to Paris. Of course, everything that could go wrong does. It's all complicated by both the Israeli and his French secret agent escort become smitten with Mireille Darc, an entertainer they meet at a hotel in Tripoli. It's French farce but somehow subdued. The director Georges Lautner was very prolific and therefore popular in France, I assume. I've watched a number of his films now and they're all amusing but his sense of comedy takes some getting used to. This effort is the most uneven that I've watched. I blame the political hotbed it's set in. The script takes far too many pains not to offend anyone to work as satire.
Le Magnifique/THE MAGNIFICENT ONE (1973) Jean-Paul Belmondo and Philippe DeBroca team once again for another frothy action comedy. This time Belmondo is a pulp writer of a series of ludicrous spy adventures featuring a macho chauvinist superman named Bob St.Claire. But when he falls for his upstairs neighbor Jacqueline Bisset (who wouldn't?) he begins to insert his private life into his stories with disastrous results. The movie is divided between Belmondo's life as a writer and the adventures of his fictional hero also played by Belmondo. Both parts are a lot of fun. A frantic, fast-moving farce with some wry commentary on the life of a writer. And the James Bond satire scenes predict the kind of humor we'd see a few years later from the Zucker brothers. My favorite scene has Belmondo going to ask his editor for an advance. The editor explains that money is tight and sales of the books barely cover expenses. Smash cut to a crowded car on the Paris Metro where EVERYONE is reading a Bob St. Claire paperback.
BLIND FURY (1989) I recalled enjoying this movie but not precisely why. Obviously inspired by the Zatoichi samurai film series. They even include a gambling sequence. This is pure 80's action craziness as blind Vietnam vet Rutger Hauer goes to visit his old army pal only to find his buddy is in deep trouble with a crooked Vegas casino owner. Every trope of this period of action flick is on hand. The wise-ass kid in peril, a small army of bad guys, takeaway lines, overwrought musical score with techno stings, and an extended action close with loads of bloodletting in an exotic locale. It moves along at a good clip and the action scenes are expertly blocked out. Hauer invests himself in the role with his usual charm and the bad guys are fun with Tex Cobb and Sho Kusugi among them.
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