Friday, April 16, 2021


RONIN (1998)
With the Cold War at an end, a band of former operatives accept employment from a terrorist organization to steal an object of great value from some underworld arms dealers.
This is seriously superior entertainment and trhe kind of grown-up action film we don't see much these days. Especially from Hollywood.
John Frankenheimer applies his prodigious talents to a script ghost-written by David Mamet and the results are a throwback Euro-style thriller with lots of muscle. Robert Deniro leads an international cast that includes Sean Bean, Jean Reno and Stellan Skarsgard in a story loaded with great action set pieces, chases, gun battles and lean dialogue.
And, don't even try to argue, this film features the last great cinema car chase. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it has the last THREE great car chases.

Paul Newman is a cop working toward retirement in the worst precinct in the NYPD.
This one was produced with the high-minded idea of ripping the lid off the truth behind urban decay. The result is a plot-less exploitation movie with a whole lot of grindhouse elements. The intention here is to show how much our cities had degraded over the years but hesistates to place blame on poor city management. The odd thing is that the movie doesn't even begin to plumb the depths that the South Bronx had sunk to in this era. The entire area looked like Berlin after WWII and almost every trace of an organized civilzation had vanished as the city's leaders had simply given up on the borough.
A good cast with Paul Newman, Ken Wahl, Rachel Ticotino and Pam Grier is wasted on a film created to shock Phil Donahue.

Échappement libre/BACKFIRE (1964)
Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg are hired to smuggle a sports car loaded with gold from Barcelona to Beirut. But along the way Belmondo decides to take the car for himself and starts a chase across Europe as he stays one step ahead of the syndicate that hired him.
Light, crime caper flick with Belmondo teams once again with Seberg after their success in BREATHLESS. JP is his usual charming self as an overbearing hood with grand ideas and few answers. Seberg is cool and calculating as she plays both sides against the middle. It's a slow-burn movie with the suspense rising slowly. Great locales and a few solid car chases.

ASHFALL (2019)
A super-volcano on the North Korea/China border blows its top and threatens to bring the entire Korean peninsula to ruin. The only hope is a team of demolition experts who must slip into the hermit kingdom and plant a nuclear device that will prevent a final, devastating eruption.
A disaster flick/desperate mission mash-up that's pure popcorn. The usual disaster movie tropes including a woman in late term pregnancy and bickering among the scientists and military leaders. But there's plenty of action and effects are great even if the film goes full gonzo at the climax leaving plot holes in its wake all the way to the end credits. Also some welcome humor.

THE DROP (2014)
Tom Hardy appears to be just a guy who works behind the bar at a neighborhood joint in Brooklyn. But he hides a secret sorrow. His life turns sadder when the bar is robbed leading to a cascading series of events that cannot end well for anyone.
Mike Baron wanted me to see this movie so bad he sent me his DVD. And I'm glad he did. This is my kind of crime story. Lean and terse with all the rising acrion, suspense and stakes that I look for in a stoy like this. In addition, it has the kind of cathartic climax that I like most in stories; one that shines a whole new light on what I've just watched and creates instant flashbacks in the viewer's mind for a grand "ah-hah!" moment.
Hardy, as always, vanishes into his role. This was also James Gandolfini's last film role. Man, I miss that guy. And Noomi Rapace, the most abused woman in cinema history, continues her unbroken string of roles playing sad, sad women trying to escape their past. Someone needs to write a light comedy for her and Jennifer Carpenter.

Someone kidnapped Gina Carano's son. Bad idea. Then they try to kill her at the drop off. Worse idea.
Like a lot of folks, I suppose, I'm checking out Gina Carano's backlist of movies I missed. So far, I haven't been disappointed. This outdoor crime thriller is solid entertainment with a great opening and some no-nonsense action scenes. It manages to avoid a whole list of action movie cliches and features some great moments and excellent performances including an unrecognizable Richard Dreyfuss.
On a personal note, at the start of the film Carano is driving a 1998 Suburban. That's what I drive. Her model was even in the same color as mine! Weird to see "my" car in a car chase.

Diamant 13/DIAMOND 13 (2009)
Detective Gerard Depardieu looks into the murder of his former partner only to uncover a police conspiracy that reaches into the highest levels of the gendarmerie.
The name Olivier Marchal on a police thriller is a guarantee of superior entertainment and here Marchal provides the screenplay as well as playing a major role. Suspenseful, cynical and brutally violent with all the intrigue, betrayals, twists, chases and action anyone looks for in this genre. No one does this genre better than the French.

Jodie Foster and her daughter move into a pricey townhouse on the upper west side of Manhattan. What they don't know is that their new home is already the target of home invaders.
Seamless entertainment provided by director David Fincher channeling Hitchcock even down to Howard Shore's Hermannesque music score. David Koepp is credited with the screenplay but I seriously doubt the final shooting script was his as the movie is free of the clunky plotting and pointless dramatic complications always found in his work.
The deadly chess game played between Foster and the burglars is brilliantly presented and leads to a number of hold-your-breath moments. I've lost count of how many times I've watched this movie and I see something new each time. This time I paid more attention to the performances to see how much of each character's emotional background is put across without words.
The behind the scenes on this movie fascinate me. Originally cast with Nicole Kidman until Kidman had to bow out due to an injury. Kidman is a tall woman, Foster is not. Much of the movie had to be literally re-scaled for the smaller Foster including changes to sets and props and the recasting of Raoul with the more diminutive Dwight Yoakum who tussles with Foster at the climax.

Frigate captain Russell Crowe is tasked with pursuing the Acheron, a Yankee-rigged man-of-war crewed by French freebooters and stopping them before they reach the islands of the South Pacific.
It's sad commentary on the state of film that this movie did not earn enough to require a sequel while we got more PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN entries than anyone asked for.
This one is top drawer, grown-up entertainment with a terrific cast and lovingly directed by Peter Weir. The action is fierce and brutal and the story is moved along with a half dozen solid character arcs leading to a thrilling climax. The attention to period detail is astounding and the tactics of the Age of Sail are presented so that even nautical novices can understand them.
When I saw this at a theater I watched more than one couple where the husband leans close to mansplain what was going on. Plenty of sailors or Patrick O'Brien fans in the audience that night.

Jake Gyllenhaal is an undefeated light heavyweight champ and on top of the world until a personal tragedy takes everything he loves away and he must start from the bottom to fight his way back to the title.
Thanks to Mike Baron for insisting I watch this.
Boxing movies, like westerns and reggae songs, are essentially all the same. But it's the nuances that separates a great boxing movie from a so-so one.
Stripped of it's nuances, this plot could have served as the basis of a Wallace Beery or Victor McLagen movie from the 1930s. It follows closely the advice given to Barton Fink on how to write a "wrestling picture."
And NONE of that is a bad thing. The movie has so much heart and so many amazing performances that I enjoyed the experience even though I knew where it would all lead. And it's one of the most granular films in the genre I've ever seen, showing us details of the boxing game that are informative as well as fascinating. Even the training sequences and inevitable montage sequence were educational and added to my understanding of the film's climax.
Fine, earnest entertainment in the old school Hollywood model.

After rave reviews for his latest play, Barton Fink is invited out to Hollywood and offered a contract to write movies. He is offered a shot at a wrestling picture but is soon stymied as to how to proceed.
Joel and Ethan Coen's movie about writer's block was written while they were suffering their own block while writing MILLER'S CROSSING. It is, to my mind, the most accurate movie about the life of a writer ever made.
John Turturro, as Fink, is the embodiment of the kind of writer every writer fears himself to be deep inside. He is filled equally with hubris and anxiety. Even as it's revealed that he is a writer of limited talent and scope, he is confident of his role in society to "bring theater to the masses" even while looking down his nose at movies. The scenes in which he ignores the obviously troubled John Goodman's assurances of "I could tell you stories" are painful to watch. This guy has his head so far up his own ass he can't see what's going on around him. There's not a writer who ever lived that didn't have moments where they thought, fretted, they were Barton Fink.
In addition to diving deep into the "life of the mind," the movie is also hysterically funny in every scene where Fink runs into the powerbrokers of old Hollywood. Michael Lerner as the psychotic head of the studio. Judy Davis as the "secretary" to writer John Mahoney (playing a character based on William Faulkner). And, most of all, Tony Shaloub as the producer saddled with newcomer Fink. I could watch Shaloub's scenes on a loop once a day, every day. And there's John Goodman in his most endearing, and frightening, role as the insurance salesman who befriends Barton in his hour of doubt.

Audace colpo dei soliti ignoti/FIASCO IN MILAN (1959)
Vittorio Gassman and his crew of bumbling crooks are recruited by a self-described criminal mastermind to heist 80 million Lira from a cash transfer in Milan. Nothing goes as it should.
Light and breezy crime caper with a cast of well-drawn comic foils spinning through their own sub-plots as the movie moves through the paces of a heist story. A number of laugh-out-loud sequences with Gassman scoring most of them. Clever. cute and fast paced with the silliest strip tease sequence I've ever seen.

Jake Gyllenhaal is an opportunistic grifter who changes from selling stolen recyclables to video journalism. Already a sociopath, his deep dive into turning other people's tragedy into money and power turns him into an unfeeling monster willing to do anything to get the footage he needs.
I generally stay away from movies with a journalist as the protagonist unless I know he's going to be portrayed as a total scumbag. ACE IN THE HOLE comes immediately to mind. No problem here. Gyllenhaal's Lou Bloom is a monster in human guise. But, as is the point of this story, he is a welcome monster in the cutthroat world of journalism. The movie is dark and seedy and will give you the serious creeps. It's also fast-paced and fascinating and Gyllenhaal scores another amazing performance.
Another flick heartily recommended to me by Mike Baron. Keep 'em coming!

Viking Kirk Douglas and slave Tony Curtis are half-brothers and even their daddy, Ernest Borgnine, doesn't know their relation. With the capture of princess Janet Leigh the tensions between the two half-siblings reach a fever pitch resulting in treachery, intrigue and war.
It's hard to estimate the impact this movie had on me as a little boy watching it on the Sunday Night Movie all those years ago. This grand Hollywood entertainment, produced by Douglas, still holds up just fine. The full-on gusto performances of the entire cast, an intelligent script. location filming shot by Jack Cardiff and an unusual attention to period accuracy make this superior entertainment.
Douglas is at the top of his form as the vile but heroic Einar. Curtis, never at his best in period roles, is very effective as the slave Erik. And Janet Leigh manages to be more than an ornamentation in a very strong performance as the always-in-jeopardy Morgana. But it's Borgnine, as Ragnar, who owns this movie. Even through a wooly beard, we can read his every thought and feel his rages, sorrows and joys. And he has one of the most memorable death scenes in cinema history.
And, despite its age and all that has come since, that vertigo-inducing sword fight atop the castle keep is just as effective today as it was when the film was released.

Popeye Doyle pursues Frog One to Marseilles only to be used as bait by the French police. But Popeye never knows how to leave well enough alone.
That rarest of cinema rarities, the worthy sequel.
While not the equal of the 1971 original, the movie does not make the mistake of so many follow-up films. It is not in any way a near-remake of the first film It's an excellent police thriller of its own and stands up well on its own merits.
The tone, look and pacing of the Friedkin film are perfectly matched by director John Frankenheimer. The writing is sharp and the action solid. But the key to all of this is hackman's stellar performance, in particular the scenes where he must go cold turkey after three weeks as a heroin addict, a condition forced on him by abductors. Hackman is never better than when taking on a character as complex as this and then telling us a story from that character's point of view. His vain attempt to explain who Whitey Ford is heartbreaking and breathtaking at the same time. Ever want to see an actor 1000% committed to a role? Hackman's always that.

RIO BRAVO (1959)
John Wayne arrests the brother of a powerful rancher and all hell breaks loose.
Despite what a certain comic book artist I know will tell you, RIO BRAVO is easily in the top five of great American westerns. I know that many feel that EL DORADO (a near-remake of this film) is superior. And while the later film is excellent in its own right, RIO BRAVO stands taller.
This was made by Howard Hawks after a five year hiatus from filmmaking. He returned to the US from a long stay in Europe to find that television had taken over as America's entertainment medium of choice. He realized that he'd need to change how he worked to concentrate on drawing audiences to theaters to watch his films. What he determined was that Americans were being exposed, thanks to their obsessive TV watching, to more live and filmed story content than ever before. It would take more than story to bring them from their homes to buy tickets. So he and old H'wood hands Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett worked to fashion a movie that emphasized experience over plot.
The result is a classic Hawks "hang-out" flick. Thank you to whoever gifted me with that accurate descriptor for so much of Hawks' work. We spend a few days with the Duke, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan as they deal with one challenge after another to their authority and the peace of the town they guard.
There's laughs and romance and suspense along the way and it all seems to just "happen" without contrivance or hurry, growing out of the relationship between these men of common cause. The dialogue is, as always ion a Hawks feature, witty, sharp and delivered in a casual manner that makes it seem like improv. More impressive are the scenes without dialogue. The opening sequence in which we learn all we need to know about the two main characters even though not a word is spoken between them. The scene where Dean Martin convinces us, with a change in his facial expression alone and the simple gesture that follows that his courage is restored.
And, yes, Ricky Nelson is not a very good actor. But anyone who was watching TV at the time knew that this was the charm of he and his brother Dave. They were family members drafted into acting and there was always a degree of wry amusement behind their eyes at being seen as TV stars. That quality always made them the funniest characters on their parents' show, delivering their gag lines as if they were outsiders commenting on the absurdity of it all. The writers of the show learned to lean into that. That same wary delight is what makes Nelson's performance work here.
This is Hawks' last great film and is top drawer in every respect. Don't let anyone convince you otherwise.

Danny and Peachy, soldiers of fortune and scoundrels of the first order, take off through the Hindu Kush for the back of beyond with the idea of making themselves kings. Or, more to the point, as rich as kings.
This John Huston adaptation of the classic Rudyard Kipling story was twenty years in the realizing, Originally written to be cast with Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart, Huston found more and suitable replacements in Sean Connery and Michael Caine.
This is adventure on a grand scale, deliberately paced and shot in a way that we share Danny and Peachy's sense of discovery as they explore a part of the world no westerner has ever seen.
The pair are obviously having the time of their lives, though Connery looks a bit rattled in the extras over the eight foot fall he has to take at the film's climax.
Much of the supporting cast was derived from Moroccan locals including the high priest who was over 100 years old at the time of filming.
A simply terrific story, wonderful performances and plenty of humor, suspense and action.

Mains armées/ARMED HANDS (2012)
A national police officer is on the trail of a massive smuggling operation involving military ordnance stolen by a Serbian mob. These guns are finding their way into France to spark a crime wave. He enlisted the aid of his daughter, a Parisian narcotics detective.
This is an excellent policier with some unforeseen twists, rapid pace and plenty of action including gunfights and foot and car chases. The movie remarkably free of exposition. We learn a lot of what's going on by inference or casual asides. That's invisible writing, mon frère. And it's one of the aspects of this thriller that keeps it consistently engaging.

Alan Ladd is a gunrunner offering a planeload of machine guns and ammo to a beleaguered raj along the northwest frontier. But local bureaucrat Charles Boyer abhors violence and won't let Ladd do business even as the bandit tribes close in.
A script by Jo Swerling that provides Ladd with some great snarky tough guy lines as well as building a believable romance between him and co-star Deborah Kerr. Solid direction by Charles Vidor who torques up the tension as the situation quickly slides from bad to worse over the course of the picture and Ladd evolves from heel to hero.
This movie is probably most famous for its closing scene, a daring choice at the time for what is, essentially, a studio programmer.

Currently free on Amazon Prime.
Rail workers in Tsavo are being plagued by a pair of male lions who seem intent on stopping construction of a vital bridge. Val Kilmer is sent to sort things out but soon realizes he's over his head and must call upon the talents of professional hunter Michael Douglas.
This is big African adventure stuff based on the true story of the lions of Tsavo and, as the movie claims, even the most incredible parts of this story actually happened. A solid script by William Goldman and sure direction by Stephen Hopkins make this one a rewatchable classic. Add to that one of Jerry Goldsmith's best scores and you have yourself a fine movie night.
The ensemble cast is excellent and Kilmer does himself credit by playing an Irishman without resorting to a faux brogue. The lion sequences use old school process shots as well as trained lions and are all the more effective for it. Part horror movie and part safari adventure. I only wonder what took Hollywood so long. What a flick this would have made for someone like Errol Flynn!

HANG 'EM HIGH (1968)
Clint Eastwood is falsely accused of rustling and strung up by a lynch mob. They really should have stuck around to make sure he was dead. Clint survives to take on a marshal badge so he can hunt the vigilantes down under the cover of the law.
This standard fare western actually improves with age. It's kind of a snapshot of the shifting morals of the late 60's and the start (along with THE WILD BUNCH and others released the same year) of the trend toward "mean" westerns that would dominate the genre into the 70's.
It's action packed and often suspenseful and notable for being packed with great character actors and contract players with Bruce Dern, Bob Steele, Charles McGraw, Alan Hale Jr, Ed Begley, Pat Hingle, Ben Johnson, Dennis Hopper, L.Q. Jones and a busload more including the actress who used to play Howard Sprague's girlfriend on Mayberry RFD as a prostitute!
This is the first film made under Clint's Malpaso banner and he appears to have had a lot of control over the production. He hired Ted Post to direct. Post was his most frequent director on the Rawhide TV series and Clint, famously, did a lot of overtime on that show learning filmmaking from all involved including set designers, cameramen, wranglers and stuntmen. Proof of his eagerness to learn everyone's job is in the series itself. In the series' second unit footage Clint's character, Rowdy Yates, is the only main cast member seen roping strays and bulldogging herds along with the stunt riders. I imagine he hired Post to direct as a payback for mentoring him. This was Post's first theatrical feature.

When a big city newspaper mistakenly reports a scandal involving spoiled heiress Myrna Loy a five million dollar libel suit ensues. To save the paper, editor Spencer Tracy hires legal sharpie William Powell to compromise Loy in order to embarrass her into canceling her legal action. But to make the gag work, Powell must marry Tracy's fiancé Jean Harlow. Get all that? You will.
This one belongs on anyone's list of the best Hollywood screwball comedies. It has a wonderful premise that pays off over and over again as the four personalities clash and compromise then clash again. It's a seamless romantic comedy as well with all the "will they or won't they?" aspects required of an effective cinema love rack. Loads of sparkling dialogue and exchanges and William Powell gets to show off his abilities as a physical comic with a hysterical scene of him ineptly pretending to be an expert fly fisher. Four of the biggest star of their era in a movie worthy of them all.

Newlyweds Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert set out for the wilderness in the early days of the Revolution. They are soon caught up in the events of the war with their lives and livelihood at stake when the Iroquois go on the warpath at the urging of the redcoats.
What a year for movies 1939 was! And this is juts another fine example of the kind of quality entertainment Hollywood was capable of in their golden era. John Ford brings his talents to bear on this story and the results are magnificent. Ford was a keen storyteller who knew how to balance the epic elements of a tale like this with the more personal aspects of the characters involved.
An earnest effort to remain historically accurate to the period elevates this to a true period drama rather than a simple action picture. The cast is great with Colbert and Edna May Oliver standouts as the kind of tough-as-nails women who help bring civilization to the frontier.
A recent restoration from a technicolor master prints really brings this grand feature new life. Some of the shots, using natural sunlight, or the lack of it, are stunning.

The former bodyguard of the king goes into hiding to protect the king's daughter from foreign invaders and enemies within the court. Years later, as he is losing his eyesight, the swordsman is called upon once more to save the princess from a terrible fate.
Badass Korean actioner that remembers to have a story and plenty of heart. The action is terrific and eschews the more frenetic methods of most recent swordfight flicks. The core situation moves from bad to worse to unthinkable as all as the stakes rise higher and higher as do the stacks of bodies. Excellent performances throughout and an ensemble cast of characters that you learn to care about. Oh, and some truly despicable bad guys. The villains in K-dramas seem to break into two groups; a-holes from China or a-holes from Japan depending on the period.

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