Sunday, September 27, 2020

MOVIE REVIEW BONANZA

 DOOMSDAY (2008) Scotland is walled off for the second time in history to contain a virulent plague pandemic. Thirty years later, the same disease shows up in London and Rhona Mitra is sent over the wall to find a cure in what has become a lawless land ruled by cannibalistic gangs.

This action (and cruelty) packed apocalyptic thriller would be well at home in the pages of 2000AD. Borrowing liberally from other sources like 28 DAYS LATER, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and ROAD WARRIOR, Neil Marshal cobbles together a mean yet fun action thriller that I'll bet anything was from an idea he had in film school.

While engaging enough, it all feels a bit hollow as the motivations of the bad guy David O'Hara seem unclear. It also stretches credulity that any civilized society could fall quite this far in a single generation. But it has its moments. " If you're hungry, have a piece of your friend."



THEY ONLY KILL THEIR MASTERS (1972)
A doberman pinscher is the main suspect in the murder of a local woman until chief of police James Garner uncovers evidence pointing to a man rather than man's best friend.
Solid whodunnit loaded with "shock" elements that are now common even in children's programming. A kind of sexual mores time capsule with Garner trying on his Jim Rockford persona. He's ably abetted by a gang of TV and movie regulars like Arthur O'Connell, Chris Connolly, Ann Rutherford, Hal Holbrook, Harry Guardino and even Art Metrano! Kathrine Ross is on board as the love interest and it all goes by easy and breezy with dashes of humor, action and a pretty decent car chase.



DANGER WITHIN (1959)
British prisoners in an Italian POW camp must devise a way to escape before the Germans arrive to take over. Standing in their way is a sadistic camp commandant and a traitor hiding among them.
This movie works as a kind of dry-run for THE GREAT ESCAPE which would be released four years later. Drawing it's inspiration from real-life events, it portrays a lot of the same kind of events as the later film and contains touches of humor as the Sturges version did. But this one is a pure suspense, programmer, part murder mystery, part boy's own adventure.
Richard Todd and Richard Attenborough lead a cast of familiar Brit actors in this fast-paced story that draws you in with a kind of locked room whodunnit leading to a nail-biting escape sequence. Ripping stuff.




SAVAGE GUNS (1961)
Drifter Richard Basehart wanders into a battle between ranchers in Sonora, Mexico and is forced to choose sides.
Standard western actioner with the historical significance of being the first western filmed in Almeria, Spain where hundreds of Euro-westerns would be filmed over the next decade and a half. The print I watched was terrible but I imagine the movie would be far more enjoyable given a decent transfer. There's loads of action and fights in a tight running time though the story comes to frequent screaming halts for what we, as kids, called "kissin' scenes." Some of these are rather creepy as Basehart is a good twenty or more years older than his teenage love interest. The movie also offers a twist I rarely see in action flicks; a change in villains halfway through.
Miring the whole thing down is having Basehart in the lead. He's a fine actor and does his best here. But he's no one's idea of a western hero and lacks the physicality and the appearance of an iconic gunslinger. And his theater trained voice sounds unnatural coupled with Randolph Scott style dialogue. It doesn't help that he's one of the shorter members of the cast. I have to wonder why they didn't cast him as the troubled ranch owner played by Don Taylor and cast either Taylor or Alex Nicol (also in the cast as a vile, cowardly gunhand) in the lead.



DANGER: DIABOLIK (1968)
John Phillip Law as the supercriminal Diabolik and Marisa Mell as Eva, his always faithful lover and partner-in-crime. Diabolik plagues the police of Europe with a series of daring heists.
Never been a big Mario Bava fan but this one is fun to watch as a time capsule of 1960's Euro cinema. The action is wild and the heists as unworkable as they are insane. But that's part of the fun as the movie leans hard on its comic book roots for pacing, sets and action. The filmmakers also liberally borrow from James Bond and the 1966 Batman. Adolfo Celli (Largo from THUNDERBALL) is along as a vile mafioso. And Terry-Thomas has two memorable cameos doing what he does best, wheedle and bluster. The Ennio Morricone score is not one of his best with a horrid theme song meant to mimic a James Bond song over a cheapjack imitation of a Maurice Binder Bond credit sequence.




TOO MANY CROOKS (1959)
Crooked businessman and all-around bounder Terry-Thomas sees a way out of his troubles when his wife is kidnapped. All he has to do is not pay the ransom and he's rid of her. But he doesn't count on the ineptitude of abductors or his wife's desire for revenge.
Fast-paced comedy with an ensemble cast that delivers frequent laughs. Of course, Terry-Thomas is the the lead in his patented egotistical cad role delivered with his usual oiliness and always impeccable timing. Brit comedy treasure George Cole is here as Fingers, the spineless leader of the gang. A classic English comedy in a period where Peter Sellers, Ian Carmichael and others were in top form.
If you think this plot sounds awfully similar to the 1986 feature RUTHLESS PEOPLE, you're not far off the mark. That movie lifts the plot of this Brit comedy wholesale and without credit.




HOME SWEET HOMICIDE (1946) When their next-door neighbor is murdered, three precocious kids, inspired by their mystery novelist mom, try to find the killer themselves.
A close adaption of the popular novel by prolific mystery writer Craig Rice (actually Georgiana Craig) made into a brisk and breezy entertainment with the help of a terrific cast. Randolph Scott is his usual manly self playing a homicide detective with as much authority as he did a cowboy. He is more than ably abetted by James Gleason as his partner. Gleason is one of those "oh, THAT guy" character actors who specialized in playing put-upon policemen and sarcastic New Yawkers in well over a hundred features.
The three kids are the core of the film and carry the story with ease. Peggy Ann Carter and Connie Marshall are the older sisters and are perfectly suited to the kind of overly-articulate smartypants characters that typified the portrayal of adolescent girls in the 40's. But Dean Stockwell (yeah, the guy from QUANTUM LEAP and BLUE VELVET) steals the show as the pesky little brother.




SWING HIGH, SWING LOW (1937) You can find it on YouTube.
Soldier Fred MacMurray meets down-on-her-luck Carole Lombard on his last day of service on the Panama Canal. But will Fred put aside his drinking and gambling ways so their whirlwind romance can last a lifetime?
A more classic example of the kind of boy-meets-girl film made in the 1930s would be hard to find. Snappy dialogue enhanced by easygoing MacMurray and the irresistible Lombard. Sure, it's corny and schmaltzy but the performances, including a cameo from Anthony Quinn, and the very real depth of the pathos help make it all work. MacMurray in particular excels in the third act as he descends into a drunken depression. And, if you are familiar with this genre, as movie audiences in the Thirties were, you know there's no guarantee of a happy ending.
I've seen any number of these kind of "romance" movies only to be shocked by a downbeat ending. Robert Montgomery specialized in playing charming rogues in stories that started out breezy and light before gradually descending into degradation, illness or death.
Sidenote: Unfortunately, this movie is in public domain. That means you can find crappy copies of it all over the internet. That also means that Paramount probably has no interest in ever restoring it. A pity.



YOUNG WALLANDER (2020) It's on Netflix.
This six part series is a reboot of Henning Mankell's extremely popular Kurt Wallander police mysteries.
I am a huge fan of both Swedish-produced series featuring this character and was looking forward to seeing this. I guess I'll just have to be happy with the original TV movies because this fails on almost every point.
The first, and biggest problem, is setting this "origin" story in present day. It should have been set in the 60's or 80's to match wither of the original series' timelines. There's an excellent BBC series called ENDEAVOUR featuring the early years of Inspector Morse that is properly set in early 60's Oxford. In this series we're left to imagine this rookie cop growing up to fight crime in some imaginary future.
I suppose this decision was made to make the production less expensive and, mostly, to allow for all the diversity the law will allow. Diversity and political correctness are the main point of this exercise as the agenda-driven storyline strives to present an alternate version of Sweden that Swedes would probably not recognize. That might explain way, oddly, the production is shot in English and there is not even a Swedish language option offered by Netflix. Turkish? Yes. Swedish? No.
All of that might be excusable if the story was worthwhile. But what we get is a sloppily constructed "mystery" cobbled together from coincidence, contrivance, convenience and clues a blind man could find but no one sees but the hero. In fact, this story is constructed much like a Scooby Doo mystery. You know, the kind of plot where there's only one possible suspect and you know who the villain is the very first time they appear in the story. It's that obvious and that bad.


THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO LITTLE (1997)
Garrulous Bill Murray shows up in London on his birthday to surprise his brother Peter Gallagher hours before a dinner party that Gallagher needs to go well in order to advance his career. Desperate to get rid of his goofy big brother, Gallagher buys Murray tickets to a street theater "experience" that goes disastrously wrong as Murray becomes embroiled in a real, deadly game of spies that he believes to be all "part of the act."
Basically, this is Bill Murray and company recreating the kind of comedy that Bob Hope specialized in, the hapless boob thrown into a dangerous situation that only bluster will help him escape from. The twist on this one is Murray's total obliviousness to the constant danger that he's in as well as the reaction of the cast of killers and a knaves to his outrageous (and seemingly fearless) behavior.
It all ramps up quite nicely with Murray and co-conspirator Joanne Whalley escaping from one cliffhanger scenario after another all with Bill thinking he's in an elaborate improv. Lots of funny scenes with Murray unleashed to play his ugly American character, a more witless, version of his John Winger role in STRIPES.




ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO (1953)
Tough, by-the-book cavalry captain William Holden faces a double threat from the Confederate prisoners in his charge and the Mescalero Apaches on the loose all around the remote Fort Bravo.
Manly, cavalry western ably directed by Jon Sturges with enough action, intrigue and romance to keep you engaged until the suspenseful standoff that takes up much of the film's third act.
It's solid boots and saddle stuff with outnumbered troopers and relentless Apaches all spiced up with the presence of captive rebels always ready to make trouble for the damn Yankees.
My only peeve is with costuming. There was this kind of standard outfit for US Cavalry troopers in Hollywood productions throughout the 50s that bears no relation to how troopers dressed in the period. It always looks too clean, too fussy, too tailored and too uniform with the white gloves and those big, silly, white Stetsons.




BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017)
A replicant blade runner, while on a hunt, comes across a mystery that made lead to a tectonic shift in the development of artificial lifeforms.
I was reluctant to watch this as I felt it was the most unnecessary sequel since THE ODD COUPLE 2. I was half right. The story, much like the original film, is a classic Los Angeles private eye story transposed to a dystopic alternate future. Unlike the original, there's really nothing new here storywise.
The film is, like a replicant, is attractive and interesting on the surface but ultimately soulless. That said, what's on the surface has a lot to recommend it. The performances are excellent with Ryan Gosling investing himself totally in the role of K, a replicant with a sense of duty and perhaps more going on behind his deadman eyes. This guy can do a whole lot while appearing to do very little. It's always clear what's on his mind even without dialogue and that includes some deeply emotional moments of loss, anger and frustration. Harrison Ford also offers his best performance in many years as the older, "open-ended lifespan, Deckard.
The revelation here though is the performance of Sylvia Hoeks as Luv, a replicant who turns out to be way more than a personal experience. She steals every scene she's in as a hyper-efficient operative for a powerful oligarch. Hoeks plays the role like a petulant child trapped in an adult body and the results are often frightening.
The other star of the film is, of course, the visuals. Roger Deakins cinematographer combined with what looks to be a natural technological evolution from the first film. Often stunning, sometimes imponderable and always utterly convincing. The incredible work of the set and production designers elevate what would have been a ho-hum story to a fascinating visit to a parallel world.
On a side note, I have to wonder when this script was written. It snows in LA in this future and every area beyond the vast urban blight is turned over to agriculture and massive solar farms. It looks like the fantasy future promoted by radical environmentalists in the 80's. You know, back when global cooling was a concern.




PARADISE ALLEY (1978)
Cosmo Carboni seeks fame and fortune for himself and his two brothers in New York's Lower East Side just after WWII. This leads him to urge his slow-witted little brother into the nasty world of all-in wrestling.
This is Sylvester Stallone's sophomore effort as a writer/director and the follow-up to his "overnight" success with ROCKY. Like many second films from creators, this one has a large degree of the self-indulgence allowed by big studios hoping to catch lightning in a bottle a second time.
Unlike so many of those "I got this idea in film school" projects, this one has plenty of heart and an earnest desire to entertain. It is certainly a movie rich in period detail, diverse characters and a mix of humor and pathos that converges at the end for a suspenseful climax.
Sly casts himself as a brash fast-talking wiseass with a gift for gab and a slippery set of morals. In other words, the polar opposite of Rocky Balboa. Not hard to see that his idea was not to get typecast as a stolid macho palooka. And he certainly succeeds. His Cosmo is a charming opportunist who never sees the consequences of his actions until he finally understands that others are paying the price for his scheming.
The story owes its inspiration to Damon Runyon and the earlier Dead End Kids movies. There's a reference to the Bogart classic ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT. The whole film has that feel of a Warner Brothers back alley drama. And that atmosphere is bolstered by shooting on location in Manhattan and planting the camera to catch the parts of the skyline that were unchanged from the 1940's. Though this was a Universal film there's not a single scene shot at that studio's well-known city street backlot. I can hear Sly digging his heels in and refusing to shoot any of the film on those familiar sets. Good choice.
This movie failed to find an audience at the time and the reasons are obvious. After the phenomenal success of ROCKY, audiences weren't ready to accept Sly as a conniving user. He would never play a character this morally compromised again. Another reason this suffered at the box office is, that while entertaining throughout, the movie waits far too long to introduce its through story of the "little" brother entering the wrestling game.




REBELLES (2019)
Former beauty pagent winner turned stripper Cécile de France returns home to Boulogne-sur-Mer to escape a failed relationship. She takes a job at a fish cannery where trouble ensues involving a castrated corpse and a bag stuffed with Euros.
Fast-paced. funny and suspenseful, this first feature from director Allan Mauduit is an entertaining, and violent, farce from beginning to end. Shot with an attention to detail and a fine cast of actors playing the comedy with a straight face. And, unlike most American attempts at this kind of comedy, it manages to present a lowbrow comedy without resorting to scatological tangents for cheap laughs.




HIS KIND OF WOMAN (1951)
Robert Mitchum is a gambler wooed down to an exclusive island resort off the Mexican coast with a promise of easy cash. But his benefactors have a sinister fate for him that Mitchum must uncover if he means to survive his paid vacation.
This is one of those movies where the backstory of the film is as rich as what you'll see on screen. Apparently, the director lost interest in this project halfway through and walked off. I guess Mitchum agreed with him that the story was a dud and took over the production as writer and director. The actors worked from handwritten re-writes by Bob that turned the entire third act climax into an extended, multi-layer action sequence. The movie's running time went over two hours with these editions in a time when a programmer like this would usually clock in at less than ninety minutes.
The results are a cinematic tour de force as the movie takes a screaming turn halfway through its running time when Mitch cranks everything up to eleven. The action is divided between Mitchum trapped on a yacht with a murderous gangster Raymond Burr and an ex-Nazi doctor(!) and Vincent Price(!) on shore in a gun battle with goon Charles McGraw and a small army of hoods. Price steals the second half of the film as Mitchum unleashes him to play, with all his gusto, a ham actor with a tenuous hold on reality. Both parts of the action are terrific but the standout is Mitchum's solo battle in the claustrophobic confines below decks which is filmed with real verve and edge of the chair suspense.
This film also features what I think is Jane Russell's best performance. The actress often came off somewhat wooden. But here she's charming, funny and more nuanced than we're used to seeing her.
The movie is a Howard Hughes production which may explain its genesis and wild production history.




BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL (2017)
A ronin samurai is cursed with eternal life when a witch's spell inhabits his body with mystical worms who refuse to allow their host to die.
Takashi Miike's gonzo samurai chop-fest starts with a one-against-all sword battle and never lets up after that with multiple fights, attacks, chases, betrayals and confrontations leading to a climatic two-against-all sword battle. There's honestly not much more plot than that.
While it delivers on action, the film fails to deliver on story. One major problem is putting the best fight in the film at the beginning in which the hero kills HUNDREDS of armed men and survives. And this is BEFORE he becomes unkillable. It's hard to work up any real tension or concern after that. A young girl seeking revenge is inserted into the story to give us someone to care about but, while she's certainly placed in danger, there's not a lot of effort made to make us believe she's in actual jeopardy.
Not to say that, as an action film, this isn't a treat. My only qualm is that it could have been a lot more than a simple progression of blade clashes.




Le gendarme se marie/THE TROOPS GET MARRIED (1968)
Louis De Funès is a by-the-book cop in the resort town of San Tropez. When the mobs of vacationers descend on the town at the beginning of summer the widow of a police colonel is among them and the attraction between widower Louis and widow Claude Gensac is immediate. But how will Louis' teenage daughter react?
The second sequel in this popular series of farces about bumbling flics in the Riviera. It all moves briskly with the funniest scenes involving Louis' reaction to the unanticipated changes brought to his life with his whirlwind romance with the elegant Gensac.




PANIC IN YEAR ZERO (1962)
Ray Milland is on a camping vacation with his wife and kids when Los Angeles (and much of the rest of the world) comes under attack with atomic weapons. He and his, now post-nuclear, family must now survive in a new world where it's every man for himself.
Made at the absolute zenith of the nuclear war scare, this movie portrayed what was literally on everyone's mind at the time. With the Cuban missile crisis still in the headlines, there wasn't anyone not thinking about what might very well lie ahead for civilization.
The movie is low budget and seems very dated now though many of the situations are still effective. In its day it must have been a shocker with stolid Hollywood actor Ray Milland and teen idol Frankie Avalon beating and gunning down their fellow citizens to get what they need to survive. A double-bill cheapie, this movie nonetheless is groundbreaking as it mines the zeitgeist to create the first survivalist drama long before the zombies took over the genre.




THE EAGLE (2009)
The Ninth Legion vanishes in the wilds of the northern reaches of the British Isles. Twenty years later, the son of the commander of the Ninth arrives in Britain to find the lost eagle standard and clear his father's name.
A more serious approach to the sword and scandal genre with kudos for period accuracy on weaponry and armor and attitudes. Though I think they took some liberties with the "Seal people." I don't think the ancient Celts were quite THAT much like native Americans. Here they are more akin to the Apache than any Irishman or Scot I've ever met.
It's brisk adventure stuff with a lot of suspenseful moments. Sadly, for me, the best part of the film was the beginning with two very well blocked out and exciting legions on barbarian action scenes.
Based on the excellent novel The Eagle Of The Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, this film seems to suffer from producer tinkering at the end but that doesn't spoil what is, essentially, a rousing period melodrama.



THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1970)
In what is presented as the "real" story of Sherlock Holmes, the consulting detective and Dr. Watson embark from London to Scotland to solve a mystery involving silent monks, a troupe of acrobatic midgets and the Loch Ness monster!
Billy Wilder created this gorgeously produced pastiche that really needed to be MORE of a pastiche rather than less. The actors are excellent and the welcome touches of humor dry. The major flaw of the film is in its structure. Wheil Wilder captures the tone and pace of a classic Holmes tale to perfection, he makes the mistake of solving the mystery too early in the film and then fails to add the complications, surprises and action that myself (and probably everyone else watching) expected to see. With a properly wild and hair-raising climax, this film would have been a classic. I can't believe I'm saying this, But this move would have been helped immensely by a Blake Edwards kind of conclusion.




THE BIG STEAL (1949)
Robert Mitchum is both the hunted and the hunter down in Mexico. Falsely accused of stealing an army payroll, he's after the real crook. But William Bendix is on his trail and won't stop until Mitchum is dead and the payroll returned.
Don Siegel delivers another taut programmer in a tidy 71 minutes. As always, Siegel takes full advantage of location shooting with Vera Cruz and the Yucatan making for a compelling background for this cat and mouse story peppered with chases, fights, shoot-outs and some great wise-ass badinage between Mitchum and leading lady Jane Greer. Mitch made a string of these second bill films (often with Jane Russell) for RKO in this period and they are uniformly excellent.



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