Monday, September 28, 2020

You want Movie Reviews?

 CRAWL (2019)

It's on Amazon Prime, folks.

A young girl braves a Cat-5 hurricane to look for her dad. She not only finds him, alive but injured, in the crawl space under their house but a hungry gator swept in by the storm surge.
This is a creature feature with ALL the goodies. A cast you grow to care about, a scary threat, rising stakes, a ticking clock and touches of very dark humor. It packs loads of edge-of-seat moments into a tidy 89 minutes and smart writing. In my book,this one rises to the top of the sub-genre of dangerous critter horror flicks.




FARMAGEDDON (2020)

You can watch this on Netflix.
Shaun the Sheep has his hooves full when a runaway alien arrives on the farm with the government close on its heels.
I'm an enormous fan of Aardman Productions in, in particular, their clay animation efforts over their CGI work. This one is a solid outing with plenty of funny moments in a tight running time. All the barnyard characters are here and given time in the story. It's silly, fast-paced and has a heart without resorting to sentiment. And there's lots of references to SF classics the best of which is a nod to Dr Who.
And, as always, the miniature sets and cast of characters are jaw-dropping both in detail and inspiration.




IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON (2019)

Identical crimes occurring nine years apart set a Philadelphia cop on a hunt for a murderer who may already be dead.
After a promising start this slickly produced SF thriller goes swiftly off the rails in a series of imponderables and nonsensical events. It basically takes the premise of THE TWELVE MONKEYS and combines it with a two-part story arc I wrote in Detective Comics
(#s 714-715) and then throws in a truckload of coincidence and contrivance all strung together with the weak cheese of sentiment and ambiguity. You'll be asking yourself the same question I did before it's over. Someone needed to go to time travel school or perhaps asked Bob Gale or myself to explain to them how these stories work.
It's on Netflix.




THE CAMERAMAN (1928)

Buster Keaton falls for the pretty receptionist at a newsreel company and becomes determined to win her love by filming a scoop.
This amazing entry by Keaton would prove to be his ultimate undoing. This is the first movie produced under his contract with MGM and, though it was critically and commercially successful, they would not allow Keaton to have his own film unit as he had as an independent. Instead, they consigned him to roles in forgettable comedies in which he still shined even though they mostly were churned-out programmers.
Despite that bittersweet history, this movie belongs near the top of the list of Keaton's many great features. The romance angle works and the string of comedy set-pieces and dangerous stunts are all top-drawer Buster. The classic Tong war sequence alone is worth seeing this for as well as the astonishing boat accident sequence at the end of the film. Buster is ably abetted, and ultimately redeemed by Josephine, the hardest working monkey in cinema history.




SPITE MARRIAGE (1929)

A pants presser borrows his clients' clothes to attend Broadway shows night after night to worship a lead actress. When she's jilted by her boyfriend she marries her biggest fan in order to make the guy jealous and, in the ensuing mayhem, the pants presser does his best to win her hand for real.
Buster Keaton's last silent feature and second film made under his regrettable MGM contract. There's some fine moments with Buster's impeccable timing and gag sense on display. But here, he's just a contract player and not in full charge of the production as he was when he was an indie. The studio even barred him from doing some of the more dangerous stunts himself. A real trooper, he does his best. But, while watchable and often funny, is not prime Buster.
MGM would call Buster back after firing him (for reasons that could have provided the plot line for a classic Keaton comedy) to re-work some of the bits from this movie for the Marx Brothers' A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. As Keaton said, the hardest part of a Marx Brothers production was getting all three brothers in the same place at the same time. He would also help with the remake of this movie as the Red Skelton vehicle I DOOD IT. Keaton would continue to work un-credited on Skelton movies throughout that comic's MGM contract. The two had a mutual affinity with Red recognizing Buster's genius and Buster believing that Red was the best comic actor working.




SAMURAI MARATHON (2019)

An opponent of the shogun's policies toward foreigners proposes a 36 mile race to test the mettle and dedication of his loyal samurai retainers. When this news reaches Edo castle, the shogun decides to take advantage of the situation and send a crew of assassins disguised as bandits.
The most unusual chambara film I've ever seen as it doesn't follow any of the usual plot forms of the genre yet still checks all the boxes to be a thrilling sword drama.
Simply gorgeous scenery throughout and a cast that delivers in a tapestry of interwoven sub-plots and character arcs that all serve to propel the story forward.




THE RIDER (2017)

A rodeo rider suffers a severe head trauma on a bronc ride. Now he must adjust to a new life in which the things he loves most might kill him.
Mike Baron recommended (read: strongly insisted) that I watch this movie and I'm glad he did. This movie is astonishing and I do not use that term lightly. Writer and director Chloé Zhao met the principals in this movie and, after hearing their story, cast them to play themselves in the story of bronc rider Brady Jandreau and the path he follows after a life-altering tragedy. There was no other way to make a movie like this. You could never teach an actor to do what these characters do. In the film's most incredible sequence we watch Jandreau break a wild horse over the course of a day. I mean we literally watch him tame a recalcitrant, dangerous beast that's ten times his weight over the course of a long day. Until you've seen it you cannot imagine the poignancy of this scene as well as the real skills on display.
Despite its genesis and use of a real-life cast, the movie never feels like a documentary. It plays out as a drama and the acting, especially Jandreau, is uniformly effective and, at times, heartbreaking. The script is subtle, the dialogue natural and, I suspect, often improvised. It's all a rare and moving experience as these folks let us into their lives to share their pain, love and inspiration.




HARPER (1966)

Private detective Lew Harper is hired to find a missing millionaire who may, or may not, have been kidnapped.
A fine LA-based PI mystery ala Raymond Chandler that's elevated to superior entertainment by Paul Newman's quirky, charming and dry portrayal of Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer. (the name was changed at the request of Newman as his three previous hits began with the letter H) He's supported by Lauren Bacall, Robert Wagner, Pamela Tiffin, Strother Martin and Robert Webber as various California lowlifes. Wagner in particular, often given lightweight roles, turns in an effective performance that, in many ways, twits the kind of roles he was always typecast in. Of course, William Goldman's sharp script helps immensely with plenty of wonderfully constructed scenes and a series of top drawer wiseguy lines deliveed with perfection by Newman. This is good stuff and an admirable entry into the genre painlessly updated for the 60's.




THE DROWNING POOL (1975)

Lew Archer is hired by an old flame to come to New Orleans to look for her missing husband. What he uncovers is an ugly conspiracy of conflicting lowlifes out to ruin one another.
That rarity of rarities, the worthy cinema sequel. I remember this movie getting trashed bty critics upon its release but, for the life of me, I can't see why. Paul Newman is just as tough, cool and funny in this outing as he was in the original film. He's aided here by three top screenwriters, Tracy Keenan Wynn, Lorenzao Semple Jr. and Walter Hill, who manage to maintain the level of quailty establ;ished by William Goldman. Once again, a strong cast of 'nawlins bottomfeeders with Richard Jaekel, Tony Franciosa, Murray Hamilton, Andy Robinson and a young Melanie Griffith.
The movie also features a perfectly constructed extended suspense scenario for the climax of the film. It's nail-biting stuff drawn out to a excruciating degree and ending with a satisfactory conclusion. It's a sequence that needs to be better known.
Best exchange:
Mavis: It's not nice to look up lady's dresses.
Lew Harper: Everyone's got to look somewhere.




TWILIGHT (1998)

It's on Amazon Prime.
Paul Newman is a private eye reduced to living as a guest in the house of a Hollywood power couple. His insatiable curiosity leads him from an easy bagman job to re-opening a cold case that might just bring his whole world crashing down.
A few of here on FB recommended this one and I appreciate it. I never saw this film and had entirely forgotten about it. Though the character has a different name, this could easily be Lew Harper from Newman's earlier films. Just like those movies,. the cast is strong, the dialogue sharp and the mystery baffling. A solid private eye thriller that fits Newman like the pink shirt that causes so many problems in the story.




AGENTS SECRET (2004)

Vincent Cassel and Monica Belucci are spies on a dangerous mission for the French secret service. They're tasked with sinking a ship in a Moroccan port that's loaded with arms bound for an African civil war. Their success leads to one betrayal after another and each mjust do what they must to survive.
Slick, violent entertainment that draws you in and keeps you. Both leads are tragic figures but never descend to whining or sentiment. Some well done suspense scenes and any number of surprises as things go from bad to worse to très, très mauvais in very short order.




THE PLAGUES OF BRESLAU (2019)

It's on Netflix.
A serial killer, inspired by a tactic used by Frederik Barbarossa to bring the city of Breslau to heel, is on a six day murder spree. They're killing some of the city's highest and lowest citizens through arcane torture methods while the police race to find a commonality between the victims to avert further bloodshed.
Think of it as a Polish version of SE7EN. It's dour, nasty and quite gross in places. This might be the most burnt-out cast of cops I've ever seen in a movie and I really hope this movie is not an accurate representation of the national mood of Poland. I mean, these folks are damaged.
The plot rolls out (play on words intended as you'll see if you watch the film) with quite a few surprises and some major stings in its tail. But I have to warn you, it just gets grimmer as it races for the finish line. Another intended play on words. Sorry.




HANNIBAL BROOKS (1969)

Prisoner of war Oliver Brooks is tasked with taking a zoo elephant to safety from allied bombing raids. Instead, he plans to cross the Alps to Switzerland and freedom.
And oddball movie that works against all conventional wisdom. What would be produced as a family film today is a violent war flick with a big body count and "adult" situations. I think this is the only time I've ever seen Oliver Reed play someone affable and he makes it work. He still looks like a guy who could beat someone to death with a beer bottle but is managing to hold it in. Michael C. Pollard is cast as the gung-ho war lover making one wonder if the two leads didn't switch roles somewhere along the way. It's a fun flick with some real suspense moments and the amazing backdrop of Bavaria and the Alps. And I think that elephant really did come to like Oliver Reed. They share a real chemistry.




THE WRONG MISSY (2020)

It's on Netflix.
David Spade is a lonely guy who accidentally invites the psycho girl he met on a blind date to a corporate retreat in Hawaii. Mayhem ensues.
Okay, it's late and you're looking for something to watch. A dumb comedy would fit the bill, right? But not THIS dumb!
A mercifully short excursion into scatology in which no one manages to garner sympathy let alone laughs. There's little effort at a story and zero effort at making anything these characters do make sense. So, though it's obviously intended as a comedy of embarrassment, the only one embarrassed will be you for watching this kind of crap.
I guess we can blame the Farrelley brothers for introducing this brand of cringe comedy. But the Farrelley's always remembered to have an actual plot in their movies. Rising stakes, real suspense, three-dimensional characters and lots of heart. Here we have one contrivance after another peppered with obscenities, moral bankruptcy and perversion for cheap laughs all because the filmmakers are at least wise enough to know that their base material is weak.




GENERATION WAR (2013)

It's on Amazon Prime.
A three-part series that follows five young Berliners through the horrors of war from 1941-1945.
While this was all familiar territory to me I think many viewers will find this series as instructive as it is disturbing. It's a warts and all view of the war from the German perspective. Heartbreaking and often terrifying. Like any good war drama, the best and worst of humanity are on display here. Mostly the worst though.
The battle scenes are expertly staged and suspenseful. The production is densely detailed and painstakingly accurate which was a kick for an ordnance geek like me. The cast is simply terrific throughout especially at portraying the physical toll their horrific experiences have taken on them.
And I'm willing to excuse the Dickensian liberties they take with coincidence because this story is as much an allegory as it is a straight-up narrative.
My wife asked me why the Germans would produce something that placed them is so negative a light. I can only answer that perhaps the Germans think it's important that they tell their own story. In any case, I have to admire the honesty. If nothing else, this effort is further evidence that we should know and remember our histories, the good and the bad.




THE ROYAL TENNENBAUMS (2001)

The scion of a family of child prodigies becomes estranged from his wife and children for 22 years. But, stone broke and homeless, he schemes to work his way back into their home and hearts.
This is Wes Anderson's third film and the one that firmly sets in place the template he uses to this day. Like this and every movie to come after it in his oeuvre, this is like an issue of a New Yorker magazine come to life complete with the cartoons. The characters are quirky and the humor droll. As in his later work, set direction is as important as the storyline here.
It's intermittently funny. But when it is funny it's very funny. Mostly thanks to the performance of Gene Hackman who, honest to God, can make even the most difficult material his own. Check out his bang-on performance in David Mamet's HEIST. Hackman's delivery makes Mamet's mannered dialogue sound natural.
Anderson regulars Owen and Luke Wilson and Bill Murray are along for a story of oddball individuals' mawkish attempts to make their family work.
I enjoyed this a lot more upon a second viewing. But, as my wife said before she left the room halfway through, "This is the kind of movie you have to be in the mood for." That's the keenest summation of Anderson's work I've ever heard.




THE WILD GEESE (1978)

A team of mercenaries is hired by some industrialists to rescue the leader of an African nation from captivity. Doublecrosses and betrayals leave them to fight their way out or die trying.
After a painfully slow beginning, the movie picks up speed once the cast is on the ground in Africa. There's lots of action from there on but marred by indifferent direction by Andrew McLagen. Still, it's a decent enough shoot-em-up but I couldn't help thinking I'd rather be watching DOGS OF WAR again which is a much better version of practically same story. The same actor plays the imprisoned African leader in both!




TRANSPECOS (2016)

It's on Amazon Prime.
Three border agents find themselves targets of a powerful drug cartel and must use their wits to find their way out of what appears to be inevitable doom.
Well acted by a small cast and filmed entirely outdoors, this drama ratchets the tension to the breaking point in a tidy 86 minutes. The stakes are high and the characters perfectly delineated as everything goes from bad to worse and then to hell.




DRUGSTORE COWBOY (1989)

You can see it on Amazon Prime.
Matt Dillon and Kelly Lynch are junkies in 1970's Seattle making their way along by stealing from pharmacies until their fortune runs out.
This portrait of drug addicts from Gus VanSant rings true on every level and provides a voyeuristic look into the half-life of the habitual user. The result is sometimes tragic and often darkly humorous though, after seeing this film several times, I'm not sure if VanSant intended so many of thses scenes to be funny. The cast of four addicts lives by luck and their limited wits to supply themselves with pills and dope while eluding the law. Their sole purpose in life is stealing dope and taking dope. The Dillon character attacks this purpose with a level of obsession and dedication that, if applied to any other venture, would have made him an actual success in life. Instead, he's a cowardly predator, parasitic vermin in the wainscoting of society, taking what he needs and only thinking of himself. There's a reason they tell recorvering addicts to take it "one day at a time." It's because that's the lifestyle they're accustomed to.
The late night, pointless conversations and cheap philosophizing in the film bring to life the Raymond Chandler quote that inspired the title of this movie, "Those drugstore cowboys have all the answers."
The cast is excellent including real-life junkie poet laureate William S. Burroughs in a small but pivotal role.




A SERIOUS MAN (2009)

I'm not going into the plot of this movie as it would lead to countless spoilers. Suffice it to say that it's about a college professor facing a serious mid-life crisis not of his own making that forces him into a moral quandary with devastating consequences.
While the above sounds about as exciting as popping bubble wrap, it's a Coen brothers film and, in my opinion, those boys mine gold every time.
This is one of those Coens that I didn't really get at first viewing. That's sometimes he case for me with their work. I didn't understand their intention with THE BIG LEBOWSKI until my second viewing. BARTON FINK took three. I was pleased that I got INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS the first time.
The cast here is perfection and, while there's many funny scenes in the film, it's all leavened by the sense of rising dread established in the opening scene which, oddly, is funny in itself.




THE LAST VALLEY (1971)

The horrors of plague and war pass by a remote Alpine valley until the arrival of Michael Caine and a ragtag band of mercenaries looking to escape the battlefield.
Movies about the Thirty Years war are rare. I can't think of a single other example that touches on this era. I bet the Swedes made a few as Gustavus Adolphus, the boy king, is a national hero there.
James Clavell wrote and directed this dour historical drama that's a bit uneven and hardly a swashbuckler. Clavell's disdain for the human race, so often on display in his novels, is present here in a cast fo venal, violent and petty characters reduced to no other motive than survival. And interesting, if ultimately unpleasant, movie.




MARLOWE (1969)

Private eye James Garner refuses a missing persons case but that doesn't quell his curiosity about a runaway from the heartland and just why no one wants him to find the kid.
Based on Raymond Chandler's THE LITTLE SISTER, Sterling Silliphant's script retains the complicated plot and colorful gab of the original Phil Marlowe stories. Garner fits the role like a glove playing an even more world weary version of his Rockford persona.
I enjoyed this recent viewing more than the previous times I've seen this. Maybe I've gotten over my aversion to Chandler stories not done in period.
Bruce Lee famously makes a brief but memorable appearance leading to a frankly ludicrous exit scene for him. Carroll O'Connor gets a chance to remind us what a terrific actor he was before he turned to playing caricatures. And Ken Tobey's always welcome presence in a small role that offers him a few great moments.





THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963)

The Germans put all their "rotten eggs in one basket" in a prison camp built to keep a small army of escape artists inside the wire.
I've lost count how many times I've seen this movie since the first time at a Saturday matinee on its initial release. The movie established Steve McQueen as a superstar and launched James Garner's movie career.
This is top drawer entertainment providing one indelibly classic scene after another. Plenty of suspense, action and humor all delivered with verve and heart.
I did more reading on this production before viewing it and was not surprised to learn that a dozen screenwriters worked on this often working on set to create scenes. Director John Sturges even shut down filimng for two weeks while new scenes for McQueen's character could be written. The end result is clear as the obvious through-story fo the escape serves as a foundation for what are, essentially, a series of vignettes. Most times, this kind of creative process film is a total disaster. But here, it served to create a classic piece of entertainment that works juts as well today as it did for a couple hundred screaming kids at the Waverly Theater .
Side note: This movie led to countless skinned knees as every kid I know ran home for the theater to try and recreate McQueen's motorcycle stunt on their Schwinn. It also affected my choice of baseball gloves as I wanted one just like Virgil Hilts.




THE BIG HEAT (1953)

Glenn Ford is a homicide cop with a low tolerance for crooks and corruption. When his latest case brings violence to his family's home he hands in his badge to take down a criminal conspuracy all on his own.
Fritz Lang directs from a lean script by Sideney Boehm based on the William McGivern which is, far as I know, the first rogue cop story on film. At least it presents the tropes we've all come to be familiar with over time.
Ford is solid as always and brings real depth to what could have been a one-dimensional role. Lee Marvin gets his first big bad guy role and delivers big on every level. What a crumb he plays! But it's Gloria Grahame who is the real standout here as the sometimes ditzy sometimes vulnerable galpal to Marvin's gangster.
Everything about this movie clicks from the fast pace, effective performances, suspenseful action and crowd-pleasing ending. And Lang's usual attention to detail and supporting characters is on display here. His subtle hand is everywhere in the way the camera moves to the small moments that lift what might have a standard police thriller to classic status.




THE MAN ON THE ROOF (1976)

Someone has a vendetta against the police. This someone owns a stockpile of weapons and a strong desire for revenge. But can a team of detectives work out the pieces before he strikes again.
Based on a Martin Beck novel, this Swedish police procedural perfectly captures the pace and tone of these world-renowned mysteries. The opening murder is brutal and leads into a slow burn, meticulously portrayed investigation and finally to a standout stand-off between a rooftop sniper and a police force caught unprepared for this suspect's level of violence. The extended action scene that climaxes the film is edge of the seat stuff presented without histrionics or melodrama.
I only wish they'd continued through the series with sequels. I'd love to see a good adaption of ROSEANNA or THE LOCKED ROOM.










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