Sunday, October 3, 2021

 

MALIGNANT (2021)

A young woman is psychically bonded to a mysterious killer responsible for a spate of brutal murders. Or is the connection between them closer than that?

I won’t spoil the reveal in this film except to say that this latest James Wan horror flick explores a subject that’s rich with scary potential.

Though slickly made, this movie didn’t work for me the way Wan’s CONJURING franchise does. And for the same reason that most recent horror fare falls short for me. I need to feel like the spooky stuff is happening in a world I can relate to. There’s a reason why THE EXORCIST is one of the most frightening films ever made. William Friedkin made every effort to make it all seem real even to filming sequences in a pseudo-documentary style.

From the opening sequence on, this movie occurs mostly in a claustrophobic and surreal world that seems to be inhabited only by the core cast. There seems to be no extras in the cast. Events occur in an environment in which only the principle characters seem to be present. In fact, the movie’s first scenes take place in gothic edifice of a hospital set on a cliffside on a stormy night. Firstly, who puts a hospital at very edge of a rocky precipice miles from any community? And why are they doing medical procedures in the middle of the night with the full surgical staff on hand? This entire sequence would have been far more effective set in daylight in a well-lit hospital environment instead of a place that looks like Castle Frankenstein. Horror, like humor, needs the contrast of and stablished normality to work.

Sill, it’s all engaging enough if not particularly fear-inducing and the climactic actions scene is something straight out of the wilder horror flicks of the 1970’s. 





CONVOY 48 (2019)

Soviets build a rail line and run trains into besieged Leningrad despite constant attacks from the German army.

This one’s on Amazon Prime.

A solid war drama with lots of heart and rising consequences. Loads of historical detail went into this one as we follow two female music students as they volunteer to be “conductors” on a new rail line. What they wind up doing is joining a lumberjack crew to cut down trees for a bridge that will run across a frozen lake. The work’s not done and we see them drafted into being signalmen and even stokers for trains running a gauntlet to bring needed food and ammo to their besieged comrades.

Patriotic and nationalistic as all these recent Russian WWII epics are but with a clear-eyed view to the abuses of the Stalin regime.

If you like action movies set n trains (I happen to love them) then this is for you. Loads of fascinating detail of how to run a wartime railroad as well suspense, action and romance. 




FREAKY (2020)

Vince Vaughn is a masked serial killer who, by some unexplained mystical means, switches bodies with a withdrawn teenaged girl.

A horror/pastiche/parody/teen comedy without a single original thought in its head. This movie doesn’t just insult your intelligence, it assumes you have no intelligence whatsoever.

The filmmakers mash up body switch comedies like FREAKY FRIDAY and 18 AGAIN with standard slasher film fare without adding anything special, surprising, or even mildly amusing to the mix. The characters here aren’t cardboard, they’d wet tissue paper and check all the boxes. The main character is friends with the only African-American girl and gay boy at school. All the other kids are white, privileged and hateful bigots. The only teacher portrayed in the film (despite the fact that much of the action occurs at school) is a ridiculous one-note character filled with male chauvinist rage.

And there are no real character arcs in the film as nothing about the motives of any of them are given any screen time. The black girl is sassy. The gay boy is a campy caricature. The jocks are all venal brutes. The mean girls are just…mean. Alan Ruck is given the odious task of portraying the teacher who singles out the lead character for abuse for no reason than this is required to set up is comeuppance.

Do all kids these days use language like Wall Street brokers? I think not. But every character here draws from the same lexicon of foul, profane and scatological terms and phrases as if they were written by someone with no idea how people outside their social circle talk.

The action is entirely predictable down to the final frame.

Vaughn manages to elicit a few laughs as he channels a teenaged girl. Not worth enduring this mess.




RIFIFI IN PARIS (1966)

Jean Gabin is a gangster struggling to keep his place in the Paris underworld despite pressure from an international consortium of mobsters from Italy, Germany and the USA.

Not to be confused with the classic RIFIFI (1955), this is a pretty tepid crime thriller that might have seemed more exciting when it was released. Gert Froebe, fresh from playing Auric Goldfinger is good in a role as smuggler and George Raft shows up as the American capo intent on muscling Gabin out. French audiences must have dug seeing one of their iconic gangster actors on screen with Raft who made himself famous by playing mafia types as well as being real-life friends with Bugsy Siegel. They even have him idly flipping a coin, one of his signature gimmicks.

Oh, and Mireille D’arc is on hand but purely ornamental in a role as a grasping B-girl. 



BAD COMPANY (1995)

Lawrence Fishburne is cut loose from the CIA only to be hired by a private firm that specializes in dirty tricks and corporate espionage run by Frank Langella. Ellen Barkin is another of the company’s employees with ambitious plans that involve Fishburne and coldblooded murder.

Twisty, turny political thriller that’s slickly produced and exists in a world of movie reality. That’s not such a bad thing. It all has the same vibe as THE USUAL SUSPECTS and other movies in the “what the hell’s going on?” sub-genre of suspense films. It’s all engaging enough and features a terrific, understated score by Carter Burwell.



 

STAGE FRIGHT (1950)

Theatrical sensation Marlene Dietrich murders her husband and manages to pin it on schmo Richard Todd. But Jane Wyman is smitten with Todd and offers to get the goods on Dietrich. Things get more complicated as Wyman learns there’s much more to all this messy situation than she supposed.

A minor Hitchcock effort that’s entertaining, nonetheless. Wyman is cute and funny, even more so by playing her role entirely straight. She’s teamed with the always engaging Alistair Sim as her eccentric father. Dietrich is creepy as the murderess. IT’s not at all hard to imagine her bludgeoning a guy to death.  And Hitch has one of his better cameos halfway through the running time.

It's all fun but I sense it was a contractual obligation for the director as he seems more interested in creating complex camera effects than in the actual goings on within the story. It was no secret that Hitch found icy blondes attractive. Perhaps Marlene was a bit too icy for him.



 

MARGIN CALL (2011)

At a huge Wall Street investment firm, a risk assessor uncovers a trend in recent trades that will bankrupt the company unless something drastic is done and quickly. The solution the company’s managers come up with might just end in ruin.

This is, basically, the story of Lehman Brothers, the first and only Wall Street firm to fall when the housing bubble burst in 2008. The writing here is so damn skilled that I marvel at it each time I watch this movie and I’ve watched a half dozen times. They take a difficult topic, high finance and risk analysis and turn it into a nail-biting, ticking clock suspense thriller with no car chases, shoot-outs, or any physical peril at all. In fact, no one even raises their voice.

I’m no math genius, and like 90% of the population, have little understanding of how this stuff works. But the writers manage to inform the viewer of the import, magnitude, and danger of what’s happening to this company as the mortgage-backed securities fiasco begins to spin out of control. This is more entertaining and more informative than THE BIG SHORT, a film that covers the same territory but purports to the last word on the subject while only telling half the story.

In addition to the writing, a fine cast hits just the right tone of suppressed fear, defeat, and cynicism. Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore and Kevin Spacey are all excellent and bring what might have been very dry subject matter to life. Stanley Tucci, in particular, is a stand-out in a small but pivotal role.

There’s also quite a bit of contemplation about the nature of finances, capitalism and how economics effect society for the good and the bad. The filmmakers present these issues for the viewer to think about them but never instruct on what to think about them.

This is masterfully crafted, grown-up entertainment from beginning to end.





THE DUEL AT SILVER CREEK (1952)

 Audie Murphy takes on a badge in order to hunt down the claim jumpers that killed that his dad. Sheriff Steve McNally takes him on as a deputy even though Adie gives him cause for concern with his quick temper and faster gun.

 A fine, fast-paced western actioner directed with his usual skill by Don Siegel. Even restricted to filming a backlot western, Siegel still mages to ick the best locations and most effective angles for his shots. He makes the familiar Universal western town set seem new even to jaded western fans like myself.

Murphy is, as always, intense and utterly believable in the action scenes. McNally does well here even though he’s a bit too urban and 50’s contemporary for a period role. Faith Domergue appears to be having a good time as a bad girl femme fatale playing all sides against the middle. And Lee Marvin is here in a small role that allows us to see him square off, briefly, against Murphy in a saloon scene.

All in all, a darned good western filmed with authority and verve.





ARISE MY LOVE (1940)

 Ray Milland is a soldier of fortune waiting to be executed by firing squad by fascists in Spain until he’s rescued by eager newspaperwoman Claudette Colbert arrives and, pretending to be his wide, secures a pardon. This event weds the pair to each other first by fate and then by a growing affection for one another that turns to love in the shadows of a looming world war.

In any other hands this might have been a mawkish, overly-sentimental bit of pre-war propaganda. But in the skilled hands of screenwriters Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder and director Mitchell Leisen, it’s a bright, funny, often moving bit of pre-war propaganda.

Milland is at his best here, witty and charming with a bit of the devil in him. Colbert is, as always, funny and winning. The movie is loaded with “air force” jokes meant to go over the heads of children (and probably the studio censors) that make the growing relationship between the leads all the more believable.

There’s plenty of suspense and action (particularly at the beginning) as well as some somber and foreboding scenes about the future of the United States in the years to come. This film was made before Pearl Harbor but accurately predicts that Americans would be drawn into the European conflict. The movie is trying to sway minds as, at the time this was released, it was an election year and the country was divided between going to war and remaining neutral. 


THE STRONGHOLD (2021)

 Just dropped on Netflix.

 A trio of cops in Marseilles come up with an unorthodox strategy for taking down a violent drug gang holed up in a fortress-like high-rise. The fall-out of the epic bust will take them beyond the limits of their personal codes of justice.

 I’ve said it before and stand by it, when it comes to police dramas, no one comes close to French filmmakers. And this one delivers on all of that par excellence. This exciting cop story, based on a true story, is one of the best crime movies I’ve seen in years. We’re made to deeply care about the cast which makes the suspense all the more excruciating. And IT is edge-your-set stuff in so many scenes. The massive raid sequence is riveting and perfectly staged. There’s also some keen character development, welcome moments of humor and real drama presented without sentiment.

 In addition to be a solid crime actioner, the movie also explores the moral tightrope between law and justice and the dangers of doing your job too well in a bureaucracy set up to preserve mediocrity and the status quo.

 I can’t recommend this highly enough. Great entertainment.




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