LEAVE NO TRACE (2018) Ben Foster is amazing, as always, as a disassociated vet living a reclusive life in a public park with his daughter until the authorities discover them and attempt to reform their lives. A heartbreaking story told with minimal dialogue and zero pathos. Here's a movie that makes you think without telling you what to think and one of those rare films that steps back to offer a snapshot of our time. I took some stuff away from it that I'm not sure were the filmmakers intentions, perhaps there is a deeper point they're making here about where we stand as a society. Whatever their aim, they caused me to reevaluate and that's always a good thing. Thomasin McKenzie is equal to Ben Foster's performance in every way, allowing us to see into her emotional changes with her eyes and body language alone.
ANGRY RED PLANET (1959) Cheapjack product from American/International by sometimes good Ib Melchior and always schlocky Sid Pink. A cast of B-List actors heads to Mars in what looks like a storeroom with a porthole. On the planet they encounter a giant amoeba and the film's iconic rat/possum/crab/spider monster. Exteriors on Mars are shot through the process of CINEMAGIC created by comic book and trading card entrepreneur Norman Maurer. The process is just leaving the lens wide open and tinting the scenes in red, to hide the wretched sets and rushed background paintings. All the dialogue is right on the money (that's a bad thing) and attempts to explain all the effects that weren't allowed by the budget. I'm glad I saw it because I've always been curious about it. It might have gone down a lot better with a few drinks and a room full of friends.
ALITA BATTLE ANGEL (2019) Adapted from a classic manga and run through the usual YA novel storytelling tropes, this is one big eye-candy assault built on a sturdy framework of discovery and revenge. Not a whole lot new here for long-time fans of SF. But then, we're not the audience for this. Loads and loads of action with the cast doing their best to make it work though the James Cameron touches are apparent in some painful dialogue right out of an 80s action flick (and not of the good ones). It's fun and surprisingly violent but of the bloodless variety that's allowable to get a PG-13 rating.
THE GIANT CLAW (1957) A UFO reported by an civilian aviation engineer turns out to be an impossibly large bird "as big as a battleship" that continues on to threaten all life on Earth. What might have been a passable big creature programmer is utterly undermined by the title monster who turns out to be a cartoonish buzzard that would have been more at home in a Muppet movie than a monster movie. Even funnier than the big goggle-eyed turkey are the reactions the cast have to it. Mara Corday's gasp of horror at seeing this googly party puppet leering at her from a slide show image made me laugh out loud. It really makes you wonder at the level (or lack) of embarrassment that producers of this brand of crap must have felt. I mean, at some point, they had to show it to the studio and distributors. Seriously, for fourteen bucks, some papier mache and a glimpse at a comic book, they could have come up with something better than this.
CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961) Hammer's only lycanthropic effort as far as I know. After this tedious effort it's not hard to imagine why. Oliver Reed's iconic werewolf make-up is the only thing worth remembering about this tiresome exercise that spends nearly 80% of its running time telling the origin of the werewolf before we ever see a glimpse of his bad furry self. Most stories like this at least treat us to a werewolf attack at the beginning to get things rolling. This movie opts for a genesis involving an abusive nobleman, a beggar, rape, a mute serving girl and...hey, what was the name of this movie? Oliver Reed has a face made for playing a werewolf and would have killed in a transition scene but, alas, there's not one in the entire movie. And they should have hired a stuntman for the later scenes. Oliver might have been game but he doesn't appear to have been particularly athletic (or sober) enough to impart the feral qualities of a wolf leaping around the rooftops of a Castilian village. A damn shame really and missed opportunity. They had a good cast, excellent sets and a fantastic make-up design and then just chose to punt.
GILDERSLEEVE'S GHOST (1944) Characters from the super popular radio show The Great Gildersleeve, in one of four movie versions. This one is set in the ever-sturdy haunted house framework so often used for comedies in the 30's and 40's. Is there a classic comedian who DIDN'T spend the night in a creepy old mansion filled with spooks, monsters and killers? This time out, Gildy and his entire cast spend a stormy night in a house populated by mad scientists, a sometimes-invisible chorus girl and multiple gorillas (one real and two faux apes). The laughs come steady especially if you're already familiar with the characters. And, for me, any movie with folks running around in gorilla costumes (the more obvious the better) is a must-see. Nicodemus Stewart, an African-American comic actor with a long career, gets a lot of screen time as Chauncy the chauffeur and every moment is welcome. I know we're supposed to look back with scorn on black actors in these "feets don't leave me now" roles but I have to recognize that this man worked hard for every laugh and is charming, likable, and effective in extended comic sequences. His character was not a Gildersleeve regular and an addition to the movie but the director knew gold when he saw it and just let the camera roll.
GO TELL THE SPARTANS (1978) Solid war flick set in Vietnam in 1964, a period not often covered in Nam era movies. Burt Lancaster is fine form as a passed-over major assigned the thankless task of creating defensive positions in VC-infested areas. Vets will no doubt find a lot of to scoff at here. I know I had a problem with a firebase set at the base of a hill with thick jungle growth right up to the perimeter wire. But, as an actioner is serves its purpose and has loads of the peculiar brand of cynicism that movie-makers can't resist putting in movies about the Vietnam conflict. I have to say though that the cynicism works both ways in this one allowing you to make up your own mind.Cast of fine character actors like Marc Singer, Craig Wasson and Jonathan Goldsmith, better know as The Most Interesting Man In The World.
L'emmerdeur /A PAIN IN THE ASS (1973) Lino Ventura is a hitman preparing to assassinate a witness in a corruption trial from a hotel room window. But in the room next to his, suicidal cuckold Jacques Brel is doing everything possible to ruin a perfectly planned murder. Slow burn comedy that comes together perfectly for its final act. Ventura finds his comedy niche here getting most of the laughs without the use of dialogue beyond long-suffering sighs. Was remade in 1981 as a Jack Lemmon/Walter Matthau vehicle with less success.
Il était une fois un flic/FLIC STORY (1972) Dedicated bachelor and tough-guy detective Michael Constantin poses as husband to Mireille Darc and father to her nine-year-old boy in an attempt to find millions in missing heroin. A classic Georges Lautner comedy crime with easy laughs, breezy plot and enough action to keep things moving briskly. Some cleverly constructed scenes and a lot of humor at the expense of Americans.
THE ABOMINABLE DR PHIBES (1971) Weird and wonderful horror pastiche and one of Vincent Price's best vehicles. Anton Phibes seeks to murder the doctors responsible for his wife's untimely death using methods borrowed from the plagues of Egypt. Droll English humor drier than the banks of the Thames at low tide. Inventive art deco sets with clockwork musicians, secret chambers, glass floors and ghastly traps. Price appears to be having the time of his life as the deadpan Phibes. A pity this franchise went no farther than two entries.
Quelques messieurs trop tranquilles/SOME TOO QUIET GENTLEMEN (1973) A television piece about a sleepy rural French village in need of tourists draws a band of hippies to set up camp on the grounds of a nearby castle. Culture clashes ensue and are soon complicated by the murder of a local man. But the villagers and the "beatniks" join forces to get to the bottom of a mystery involving a treasure hidden in the local graveyard. A bit muddled plot-wise (as you have probably already surmised) but still a lot of fun in the vein of most Georges Lautner comedies. It features a comic Rene Jullienne car chase and all ends in a shoot-out. Miou Miou has a small role for all you Miou Miou fans. And the best running gag, about a bus full of singing children, made me laugh every single time.
ANIMAL CRACKERS (1930) Adapted from a stage review of the same name, this is the Marx Brother's second feature film and I think it's probably an accurate representation of the theater production. All the rat-a-tat pacing and practiced chemistry of the boys (all four this time) is on display. Chico and Harpo adapt to film with seemingly no effort. But it's fascinating to watch Groucho attempting to maintain the stream-of-consciousness ad-lib style he used on stage but now in a different medium. Even in the clutches he regains control with asides the audience as everyone around him tries to keep up. The plot is a wafer thin hammock about stolen art and fraudulent paintings that allows the boys to bounce around the opulent sets making their particular brand of mayhem.
A BETTER TOMORROW (1986) The movie that jump-started the HK action movie explosion of the 80's and 90's. John Woo builds an Asian gangster epic on a Hollywood model, borrowing a sturdy plot formula that goes back to Cagney and Bogart as well as segues and editing styles not normally associated with Hong Kong productions at the time. Add to that mix the chaos-fueled shootouts that would become a signature of the genre and change forever the way that action scenes are shot. It's a modern tragedy with loads and heart displayed along with the buckets of blood spilled. And this would be the breakout film for Chow Yun Fat that would eventually turn him into an international star. A pity that H'wood never allowed him much of a chance to show his full range in productions here.
FRONTIER MARSHAL (1939) A wholly inaccurate but robust western second feature concerning the events in Tombstone that led to the gunfight in the O.K. Corral. Randolph Scott as Wyatt and Caesar Romero as Doc in a fun oater outing with all the trappings of dance hall girls, saloon fights, shoot-outs stage hold-ups and chases through the California desert. It's a richly realized picture with loads of period detail and a large cast of extras all under the expert guise of programmer king Sol Wurzel who always knew how to get every dime up on the screen. And it features the Fox back lot town set in its full glory and all the trimmings. My second favorite back lot town set (after Columbia's) with its wide streets, varied building and the main drag that ran down a slope. Also, Lon Chaney and Ward Bond in small roles.
Ne nous fâchons pas/LET'S NOT GET ANGRY (1966) Lino Ventura as a mobster who's left the life only to agree to do one small favor for some former cronies. This leads him and former partner-in-crime Michael Constantin to become guardian angels for sad sack Jean Lefebvre who has British mobsters (dressed as mods!) looking to kill him. Classic Georges Lautner caper comedy and Ventura getting ever more comfortable in his slow-burn comedic personality. Loads of preposterous 60's style action and Mireille Darc brings her charm to bear as the forlorn wife of the intended victim.
BANDOLERO! (1968) This one falls into the "pretty darn good" category of westerns. Outlaw Dean Martin is set to hang until brother James Stewart shows up as the hangman! What follows is a chase down into Mexico with Raquel Welch as a hostage and a posse led by George Kennedy. Violent action against the sky stuff with a blood soaked ending. But it's all made unremarkable by unimaginative or indifferent direction by Andrew V. MacLagen who never really graduated from being a TV director. But the cast is strong and it all moves along briskly. And Dean Martin's love for being in westerns is obvious.
ACE IN THE HOLE (1951) Billy Wilder turns his understanding of life in America loose on the cynicism inherent on the world of journalism. Kirk Douglas is an ambitious heel who risks the life of a man trapped in a cave in order to write the Big Story that will return him to a desk at a major paper. He turns one man's tragedy into a literal circus as thousands arrive to be on the scene of his breaking story. This is seamless and thoughtful film making that challenges the hold that media has on the public. What I like about it is that, in the end, it shows that all of the abuses and exploitation come from the hucksters and power brokers. The examples of the gullible public are portrayed, in the end, as misled but good-hearted and caring. It also happens to be engrossing entertainment that engages from beginning to end.
FINAL DESTINATION (2000) This first entry in the highly successful horror franchise started life as a rejected episode for THE X FILES. While boarding a jet for a flight to France with classmates, a teenager has a vision of the plane exploding in mid-air. He has a panic attack that results in a fight that ends with several students and a teacher getting ejected from the flight and, you betcha, the plane explodes in mid-air. Now, having cheated Death, the survivors are stalked by the grim reaper in the order in which they should have died. Smart, creepy entertainment that uses telegraphing to a degree never before seen in cinema. The villain of the piece is never seen, never personified except as a fleeting, shapeless shadow. And you'll never hear Rocky Mountain High in the same way again.
These movies are like salted peanuts to me, so I'll probably wind up watching the rest of them before Halloween.
TOY STORY 4 (2019) A fine and worthy final act for this franchise. The theme isn't quite as deep as previous entries but still resonates with a story about leaving your comfort zone and moving on with life. The toys' new owner comes back from her first day at kindergarten with a new "friend" made from a spork, pipe cleaner and modeling clay. Forky suffers from an existential crisis that sends the cast into their most wide-ranging and free-wheeling adventure of all. Loads of great gags, running jokes and Easter eggs abound in a chase story that carries a lot of fun new characters along in its wake. And there's an astounding antique store environment that must have taken a year to construct virtually. And Ducky and Bunny (Key and Peele) have a series of imagined adventures that are inspired to say the least.
On aura tout vu/NOW WE'VE SEEN IT ALL (1976) Wannabe film director Pierre Richard sells his friend's "sensitive and tasteful" political allegory screenplay to a porno producer. His decision to sell out is challenged by his girlfriend Miou Miou who is (perhaps) willing to sacrifice her own dignity to show him the error of his ways. What follows is French farce cast against the tectonic cultural shifts of the 70's.
FINAL DESTINATION 2 (2003) Ali Larter's back to lay down the new ground rules for this sequel that features a horrific chain reaction highway accident rather than a plane crash. Not as tightly constructed as the first film and it appears that the lion share of the budget went into the opening crash sequence. Still, it all moves along at a raid clip as Death stalks a new cast of young adults. This one builds on the first movie and sets in stone all the gimmicks, red herrings and visceral surprises that are the hallmarks of this franchise.
FINAL DESTINATION 3 (2006) The writer and director of the first film return for more of the same. The formula remains in place with death stalking Mary Elizabeth Winstead this time following a spectacular roller coaster accident. This time out, the filmmakers invest a lot in the emotional toll taken on the surviving characters which draws us into their lives and makes them far more sympathetic than the usual horror movie stereotypes. Excepting, of course, the pair of Valley girl hotties. No sense breaking EVERY rule. A by-product of this effort to provide more development is that the deaths seem all that more sadistic.
FINAL DESTINATION 5 (2011) Salted peanuts, I tell you! Except for #4 which is like one of those shriveled, pasty peanuts that make you regret not looking in the shell first. That said, 5 restores the franchise's appeal as well as its budget as an epic bridge collapse leads to a half dozen young adults (and their boss David Koechner) are stalked by death in offices, factory floors and, eventually, by each other. The end twist is a honey.
IN CHINA THEY EAT DOGS (1999) Wild, freewheeling and brutal Danish crime movie with a dark streak of humor throughout. A bank loan officer seeks the solution to a moral quandary with the help of his psychopathic estranged brother played to perfection by Kim Bodnia. Events quickly spin out of control as one bad decision after another lead to a cascade of rising catastrophe that can only end in a bloodbath. the immediate, cinema verite approach makes this an in-your-face experience that provides one ghastly surprise after another.
ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944) The film version of the enormously successful play directed with the sure comic hand of Frank Capra and a cast led by Cary Grant at his most kinetic and aided by a flawless cast of character actors including Jack Carson, James Gleason, Edward Everett Horton and Peter Lorre. Priscilla Lane is equal to the task of keeping up with Cary's antics and Raymond Massey is excellent despite being given the unenviable task of filling in for Boris Karloff who broke records in this role on stage. Very funny and marvelously constructed comedy that's not afraid to go dark (even scary) when needed. It mostly takes place on the same massive set for the most part but never feels stagy or contrived.
WAG THE DOG (1997) This movie seems quaint now that we're all witnesses to the blatant media manipulation that's all around us 24/7. Eleven days before an election the sitting president sexually molests a Girl Scout and his team calls in a fixer who then hires a Hollywood producer to create a phony war to distract the media. The idea that only the president's staff would be conducting a disinformation campaign looks naive in the current political climate. Still, it's shocking that a movie this specific to the antics of the Clinton administration even got made. It's also the first time a clear connection between Washington and Hollywood is portrayed. And the film still works as a parody and a parable. The highlight of the film is Dustin Hoffman's bravura performance portraying, essentially, Robert Evans, the powerhouse movie producer. It's also the height of irony that Robert DeNiro plays the fixer, a man who creates fictions to protect his masters. And co-writer David Mamet's touches are evident everywhere. "Surest thing you know."
KONTROLL (2003) A Hungarian film set entirely in Bucharest's subway system. Ostensibly, it's about ticket checkers who board the trains making passengers show their tickets or passes and the adventures they have performing that, apparently dangerous, task. Loads of subplots about a murderer pushing people onto the tracks, a narcoleptic ticket checker, a mysterious girl in a bear costume who acts a kind of guardian angel for commuters and the hunt for a prankster named Bootsie. At the core is a character who lives 24/7 in the tunnels and on the platforms and his struggle to return the surface and a normal life. At time scary, at others frightening and often touching but always absorbing. I'm gonna have to look for other films by this director.
ROUGHSHOD (1941) A pretty good western starring Robert Sterling as a rancher travelling with his kid brother when they come across a wagon load of "dancehall girls" stranded in the wilderness. The rest of the story is a "boy meets girl" affair with background tension provided by John Ireland leading a trio of killers seeking to settle a score with Sterling. Ireland always made for a good amoral creep. Not an action oater by any means but more concerned with character relationships and how the relationship between the lead and Gloria Grahame will work out. Mostly shot in exteriors in the Sierras and loads of vivid period detail and senses that the filmmakers were going strong for verisimilitude as well as a more "adult" approach to the genre. An interesting attempt that makes me curious about how audiences at the time responded to it.
THE KING (2019) A Netflix production that encapsulates and adapts the plots all three of Shakespeare's Henry plays into one epic story. It's an ambitious idea and works as a period epic if not as a history. The production is an adaption of an existing work not an attempt to dramatize actual history. Just as the Bard did, this movie truncates and simplifies the history of the time while keeping the gist of the events. That said, it's rich in period detail and features the best depiction of the battle of Agincourt ever put in film. And I have to respect the writers for even attempting to re-write the Crispin's Day speech. They maintain the feel of the famous pep talk but give it a more immediate, top-of-my-head feel that makes it more dramatically in line with this production. It's never going to make anyone forget the original but it's a damned good effort.
BANDIDO! (1956) I'm a sucker for any story set in revolutionary Mexico. This one is a solid action entry with Robert Mitchum as a cynical,wise-talking gringo with a suitcase full of hand grenades looking to deal for a hidden cache of arms to the highest bidder. Gilbert Roland gives his usual bravura performance as a revolutionary leader and Ursula Thiess is wooden as the love interest. Richard Fleischer directs with his usual sure hand and eye for action set pieces.
CASINO (1995) With THE IRISHMAN coming to Netflix in a few weeks I had an itch to check out Scorcese's last good gangster epic. (Yes, I said "good.") This story of the mob's final days of calling all the shots in Vegas pales next to GOODFELLAS. But then, so do most gangster flicks. This dark and dour tale of excess and its consequences runs down the same rails as every other mobster bio but who cares? We watch these movies like folks used to gather around the campfire to hear about the last great hunt. The familiarity of the gangster movie, like the western, is its main attraction. Sure, we all know where it's going but HOW it gets there is the treat. Robert DeNiro is the mob's choice to run the Tangiers but things get complicated when Joe Pesci shows up like a jackal to the waterhole. Bobby's problems only worsen when he falls for a bundle of damaged goods played by Sharon Stone. It all ends brutally for some and bittersweet for others. And I love seeing Don Rickles in a sizable dramatic role with only a fleeting glimpse of his "Hey, dummy" persona.
HOW I LIVE NOW (2013) I thought this was typical young adult stuff going in but was quickly corrected of that by this movie's unflinching approach to the material. American teen Daisy arrives in rural England to stay with cousins just in time for some kind of violent insurrection to break out. The cause and causes are never made clear and all to the better in this unsettling story of escape and survival. Not an outright thriller but there's still plenty of suspense in a story filled with characters you learn to care deeply about. Despite the young cast, this is a very grown-up film with some marvelous performances.
GUN FURY (1953) Pretty darn good western. Solid, fast-paced script by Irving Wallace and Roy Huggins (the creator of Maverick). Rock Hudson gives a placeholder performance in the lead as a rancher whose bride (Donna Reed) is taken hostage by an outlaw gang heading for Mexico. The gang is populated by a trio of our favorite desperadoes, Lee Marvin, Leo Gordon and Neville Brand. Lots of action set against Little Monument Valley and Columbia's great western sets, Director Raoul Walsh is a sure hand at the action stuff and those scenes are all solid. A fine programmer western.
LIVING WITH YOURSELF (2019) Intriguing series from Netflix with two performers I always enjoy watching. Paul Rudd visits a spa on the recommendation of a co-worker only to discover that their treatment involves making a "better" cloned replacement for him. What follows is a story that wrings very possibility from a high concept in a way I haven't seen since GROUNDHOG DAY. Rudd's performance is quite astounding in both parts and plays each version of his character with subtle nuances that put the story over the top. Aisling Bea is her usual excellent self as his very confused and conflicted wife. The chemistry between the two (or three?) leads to scenes that are funny, touching and, sometimes, chilling. This series is a high wire act tonally and both the writing and direction are up to the task. The 30 minute (and shorter) episodes fly by.
ULZANA'S RAID (1972) A detachment of cavalry are ordered to pursue a band of Apaches who have jumped the reservation to go on a raid. The unit is led by an inexperienced officer played by Bruce Davidson and aided by grizzled sergeant Richard Jaeckel and even more grizzled scout Burt Lancaster. The movie is a portrait of a small unit action against a determined enemy. I'd bet my last peso that critics at the time saw it as an allegory for the Vietnam "conflict." But it's actually a fine boots and saddles western that clearly and accurately shows the kind of chess game these outfits had to play with a tough resourceful people who called the high desert home. It's also an unblinking portrayal of the kind of behavior that earned the Apache their fearsome reputation and the kind of cold calculus that was required to merely survive encounters with them. A solid cast under the direction of Robert Aldrich. If I have any complaints it's the kind of "house" look that Universal movies had in this period. The studio was consumed with making certain that their theatrical features would "read" well on TV screens and insisted that scenes be over-lit, free of dust and subtle color gradations and the action kept to the center of the screen. Further marring the movie is a "house" musical score by Frank DeVol that's jaunty when it should be filled with foreboding. Someone at Universal sure LOVED harmonicas. They needed one of the Jerrys (Goldsmith or Fielding) on this one.
NEVADA SMITH (1966) Classic big screen action-against-the-sky western starring Steve McQueen as a young man who matures to manhood on the vengeance trail, hunting down the three men who murdered his parents. His journey takes him to a cowtown, a chain gang in the Louisiana bayous and the gold fields of California in a relentless hunt for the men who did him wrong. A great cast that includes Brian Keith, Arthur Kennedy, Paul Fix, Suzanne Pleshette, Karl Malden and other western stalwarts. Henry Hathaway keeps things moving with some solid action set pieces My favorite is the knife fight in the cow pen. And the use of the natural scenery is perfection giving this movie a true sense of scale. And McQueen is McQueen, looking like he was born to perform all the tasks and stunts asked of him. The dude rode a horse with the same level of skill he brought to driving race cars. Gorgeous cinematography by Lucien Ballard and a rousing, iconic musical score by Alfred Newman.
TARZAN FINDS A SON! (1939) One of the best of the Weissmuller Tarzans and the introduction of Johnny Sheffield as Boy. I adored this movie when I was a kid and, upon re-watching it, it's not hard to see why. This movie packs a lot into a tight eighty-eight minutes. Doomed safaris, dangerous natives, animal attacks, chases, a plane crash and, of course, swimming sequences shot in Silver Springs, Florida. But what puts the movie over as absorbing entertainment is its string emotional through-line. Maureen O'Sullivan's (as Jane) conflicted emotions over surrendering Boy to his actual relatives provides the heart as well as many of the complications and conflicts that are created directly by her actions. The action is big and the production earnest and I'm sure audiences at the time were thrilled. And, as always, Cheeta is genius in every scene.
MERRILL'S MARAUDERS (1962) Jeff Chandler leads a special force of soldiers into the Burmese jungle to thwart an offensive by the Japanese army. He's aided by a cast of Warner Brothers contract players on hiatus from their various western TV series. Ty Hardin, Will Hutchins and Peter Brown are solid along with Claude Akins and others. The Philippine locations accurately portray the harsh conditions of the Burmese jungles and swamps. Directed by Sam Fuller whose special touch at this kind of material is evident everywhere. He had a real feel (drawn from his own experiences) for the emotional and physical toll combat takes on soldiers and this is exhibited in several touching scenes. It's a war action flick all the way but takes time to show the bleakness and confusion of the battlefield.
TARZAN AND HIS MATE (1934) The last pre-code Tarzan movie goes all out to challenge the censors including amped up violence, racy dialogue and Maureen O'Sullivan swimming in the nude. All the goodies you expect in a Weissmuller Tarzan flick, a nefarious safari up to no good, nasty cannibals and a return trip to the elephant's graveyard. The great apes appear for the last time in the MGM version and the new, permanent. Cheeta is introduced for the first time and makes a big impression. Loads of brutal action and tons of suspenseful moments. And Neil Hamilton (TV's Commissioner Gordon) as Jane's old flame. And I'd love to know where all those lions and elephants at the climax came from. I'm guessing those scenes were shot here in Florida using animal on hiatus from a circus or two.
CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN (1955) Using some highly suspect science, a gangster and a mad scientist (never a good combination) team up to create undead hitmen they control by radio waves sent to an atomic receiver installed in the brains of their zombie slaves. Using this complex method they use automation to put hard working murderers out of a job. But The Authorities are soon onto their dastardly plot and sit around offices discussing how incredible it all is. At the time this might have seen like a creepy concept, I guess. Mostly it comes off as a cheesy programmer that takes too long to get going.
THREE VIOLENT PEOPLE (1956) Consistently reliable director Rudolph Maté helms this muy macho western starring bull-headed Texas rancher Charlton Heston who falls for newcomer Anne Baxter. But it's only a matter of time before he finds out his blushing bride is a former "dancehall girl" fresh out of Nawlins. Loads of action with carpetbaggers out to steal everyone's land in the post-war Lone Star state. Great cast with Gilbert Roland as the gran vaquero with five sons (including Robert Blake and Jamie Farr!) and Tom Tryon as Chuck's bitter, one-armed brother. Heston is great in the role he always plays best; the judgmental son of a bitch. Excellent example of the big screen "empire" brand of western.
MAN WITHOUT A STAR (1955) One of my personal favorites in the western genre and for good reason. A time capsule example of a sprawling, big screen 1950's western. Kirk Douglas is a wandering cowhand with loads of savvy and tons of charm that hides a dark nature. He rolls into a cowtown to wind up in the middle of a range war between Jeanne Crain, an opportunist from the East and a gaggle of "honest" ranchers. From the Frankie Laine theme song to the saloon fights, shoot-outs, stampedes and smoldering glances through the trail dust. Mostly shot outdoors with an eye for period detail and big vistas shot by Robert Surtees and directed by the sure hand of King Vidor from a Borden Chase screenplay that's flawlessly paced and packed with breezy dialogue exchanges. But this is Kirk's show from beginning to end and we see both sides of his usual persona; the irrepressible scamp as well as the man who's dangerous to know.
And, in what seems at first glance to be a near-parody performance, Douglas plays the role with an authority that makes what he's doing look easy. But the role is a challenging one as he has to shift tones throughout the film and never in a direct arc. He performs this task without ever letting you see the gears changing. We even get to see him sing and play the banjo and, surprise, he's great in that scene too and it helps that his breaking into song plays a part in advancing the story rather than interrupting it.
The bad guy does not disappoint either as the trail boss of the Texans who ride in at the second act is played by Richard Boone.
This movie is sheer entertainment from beginning to end as a collection of Hollywood legends come together to make a great example of a crowd-pleasing oater.
THE TREASURE OF RUBY HILLS (1955) This one was made the same year as the western in my previous review and practically its polar opposite. This no-budget western from Allied Artists looks to have been churned out to play as an afternoon movie on television. Zachery Scott, who almost exclusively played bad guys, takes a pay cut to be the hero for once. The results are lackluster in a back-lot western with way too much plot crammed into its hour and nine minutes running time. Ostensibly a range war movie though we never see any range or any cattle. And there's so many characters with conflicting motives that much of the dialogue in the third act has the actors reminding one another of characters' names as well as the plot. The highlight of the film is the "hero" watching from concealment as two gangs try to massacre one another. The movie also features some of the fattest cowboys ever to appear on film. The only noteworthy performance in the whole deal is by Lee Van Cleef playing the kind of smirky gunfighter that he practically patented.
THE PROFESSIONALS (1966) If you're looking for a he-man adventure story with loads of action look no farther. Lee Marvin (at the start of a hell of a roll in his career after his Academy Award win) joins with Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan and Woody Strode as a perfectly cast quartet of mercenaries hired by an oil millionaire to retrieve his kidnapped wife from the fortress of a Mexican bandit. But all is not what it seems. Claudia Cardinale as the woman worth every penny of a 100K ransom and Jack Palance as the man who took her.
This is epic stuff, flawlessly photographed with an intelligent, witty script by director Richard Brooks. The entire cast is in top form in a story loaded with twists and turns, exciting action set-pieces and nail-biting suspense moments.
The story is also told with an economy that's to be admired. The film opens with four sequences that introduce us to the characters and inform us of the kind of men they are. Time elapsed? Two and a half minutes! The rest of the story moves ahead with a deliberate authority that doesn't waste a single scene. There's always something going on from bits of period detail, character touches, humor to establishing the environment and conditions.
THE MEG (2018) Jason Statham leads a team that checks all the diversity boxes to hunt down a prehistoric shark off the coast of China. Well constructed, eye-candy, summertime blockbuster stuff and it's just fine when viewed that way. The movie follows the time-tested formula of the hero who needs to redeem himself by confronting the very thing that sent him to ruin. That happens to be a giant shark. Rising action, "surprises" that most will see coming, a cast of potential chum who all die on schedule and a big, crazy close. It's put together with professional skill but little passion or inventiveness or even one line of original dialogue. That's not to say it's not all fun, just not great fun.
DON'T GO NEAR THE WATER (1957) From the end of WWII until the release of M.A.S.H. (1970), service comedies were a reliable moneymaker on TV and at the movies with the high water mark being MISTER ROBERTS (1955). This forgettable programmer is not one of the better ones. The story features Glenn Ford as a sailor in a US Navy PR unit stationed well behind the front lines in the Pacific. I suppose that all sorts of hi-jinks, ironic comments on military life and farcical situations with female service members in the source material was seen as good grist for a comedy. The result is an unfunny movie indifferently directed with a cast trying hard but with little to do but smirk, mug and wink at a series of vague innuendos. The movie is episodic to the degree that it never actually seems to get started.
Les pétroleuses/THE LEGEND OF FRENCHIE KING (1971) Very silly western pastiche from France that owes more to Lucky Luke than it does to John Ford. Brigitte Bardot is the leader of an all-female outlaw gang who come upon the dead to land holding oil. Claudia Cardinale is a rancher who wants the land for herself and her brothers. What follows is a near-plotless series of encounters between the two leads with gunfights, fistfights and lots and lots of clothes being ripped. Adding to the weirdness is Michael J. Pollard as the town marshal and the only English speaking member of the cast. The conceit here is that the town was founded and populated by Frenchmen. Hence the outdoor seating at the saloon!
GUNFIGHTERS (1947) Randolph Scott is done with all the challenges to his fast gun status and hangs up his Colts to re-start his life in ranching. But he soon runs into a murder mystery and is tempted to strap on the six-guns and dispense some frontier justice. A time-tested plot line this time adapted form a Zane Grey novel. It all results in an okay western that goes through the motions and has a few clever 1940's style dialogue exchanges. Lookalike female leads do NOT help in a story that's just too damned complicated for its short running time. Scott is stalwart, sardonic and tough as always in a western that has the look of a Roy Rogers programmer without the singing but with loads of colorful costumes and an apparently endless selection of neck scarves. It's a Columbia feature but, sadly, does not take place in that studio's awesome western back lot town.
GENTLEMEN BRONCOS (2009) After the box-office bomb NACHO LIBRE, writer-director Jared Hess returns to material closer to his sleeper hit NAPOLEON DYNAMITE. Benjamin is an introverted nerd who has his SF novel stolen by uber nerd Chevalier and seeks justice. If the movie had hewed closer to the brief synopsis I provided here it might have been a moneymaker. Hess gets us interested in the story and then takes off on tangents that come off as padding. This episodic approach was perfectly suited to Napoleon Dynamite which was more of a portrait than a narrative. But here, he has a compelling story of heartbreak and injustice and only uses it to link a series of what are essentially vignettes that do little to advance things along. I'm not a strong adherent to three act structure myself but I do no better than to have your second act take up 75% of your story. The main character's pain is so palpable, he's just so damned put upon, that the story demands that the wrongs he suffers create actions on his part that are stymied again and again so that the payoff at the very end of the film is all that much sweeter. Everyone in the cast is all in for the quirky, awkward pace of the film and Jermain Clement is everyone's nightmare version of the egotistical auteur who plagiarizes the hero's novel. And Sam Rockwell appears to be having the time of his life portraying Bronco in the various imagined versions of THE YEAST LORDS; the novel in question. More story, less quirk could have made this a modest box office success and an enduring cult classic.
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