Saturday, October 9, 2021

DR. WHIZZER!

A rare instance of me penciling, inking and lettering comics. 

This appeared in an issue of Frisbee World back during the Frisbee craze of the 70's. 





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.




Monday, August 30, 2021

Reviews everywhere you look!

 

THE LAST MERCENARY (2021)

It’s a Netflix thing.

Jean Claude VanDamme is a former badass on the global stage. He’s forced to come out of hiding and retirement when he discovers he fathered a child decades before and his nerdy, slacker son is in a world of trouble.

The Muscles from Brussels tries farce.

He shouldn’t have gone there, and you shouldn’t watch him do so. VanDamme and a zany cast tries hard for laughs and fails in an epic way.





NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959)

Madison Avenue ad man Cary Grant is in deep trouble when some foreign agents mistake him for the elusive Mr. Kaplan. Things grow more complicated when Cary is implicated in the mirder of a UN diplomat and must rely on the kindness off Eva Marie Saint to escape the law. But is she what she seems? Is anything what it seems?

A pure Hitchcock tour-de-force created while Hitch was supposed to be working on another movie. While collaborating with writer Ernest Lehman on the screenplay for THE WRECK OF THE MARY DEARE, the director grew bored and began making lists of suspense set pieces and challenging Lehman to string hem into a story. The result is this action chase classic while other folks were assigned THE WRECK OF THE MARY DEARE and made an excellent film of it.

The movie is a study in how to start and conclude a story. Cary Grant’s character is introduced in the middle of a hectic day and his personality and life situation are established in a series of scenes that are as witty as they are informative. Within moments of the start time, the everyday goes wrong and we’re into the heart of the cat and mouse game as Cary is thrust from a normal working day into a fight for his life with an enemy that appears to be everywhere.

This is flawless entertainment perfectly assembled by masters of their craft. Humor, action and tons of subtext. Every scene, gesture and line of dialogue is important to the story. I realized with this viewing that the establishment of Cary’s ability to hold liquor early in the film is an important plot element later on. My wife, who watched it with me and has seen it multiple times as well, had never noticed the homoerotic tension between bad guys James Mason and Martin Landau before.

Here we see Hitch playing with time in a way he has never done before. The famous cornfield scene takes an astonishing amount of screen time without dialogue and yet is engrossing every step of the way. To slap a slow-burn sequence into a bullet-paced story like this one without losing the audience took authority and guts. 



THE CONJURING: THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT (2021)

The Warrens are back and participate in an exorcism that goes sideways when the demon jumps to a new victim. Now they have to provide evidence of demonic possession to clear the new victim of homicide charges.

Sadly, this is the weakest entry in the series and the problems all stem from the basic structure of the story. Usually, these movies begin with some kind of paranormal shenanigans plaguing an unwitting family of innocents and, when all else fails, Ed and Lorraine are called in on the case. In this outing we begin with them in the middle of action and the entire story moves forward incited by the events of the opening scene.

Setting the plot up this way deprives the movie of a reintroduction to the Warrens and the re-establishment of their daily life. That’s the element that separates this series from most horror offerings; the depiction of what everyday life is for a pair of lay exorcists. Those scenes of them at home, eating breakfast, scheduling their day, caring for their daughter, ground the stories in a reality that makes the scary stuff all the more impactful. Without them, this seems rushed and somewhat hollow. Lazy writing where things happen only because they’re necessary to propel the thin story forward. In the end credits, the real-life Warrens are seen in clips from a segment of Tom Snyder’s old talk show. The movie would have benefited greatly if this scene were included in the film.

That said, it’s still an enjoyable movie due mostly to some effective scenes and, of course, the all-in performances of Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. The great scenes include the horrifically terrific antics of the young possession victim at the start of the movie and a sly bit of humor as the Warrens convince a lawyer of the reality of demonic possession. I look forward to the next one





 
MOONRAKER (1979)

James Bond uncovers a dastardly plan by billionaire eco-terrorist Drax to make the world a better place by killing almost everyone in it and replacing them with catalog models.

I watched the Fan Edit version of this and it is a vast improvement over the original. If you’re not aware of fanedit.com you need to check it out. Lots of interesting re-edits of movies you’re familiar with.

This re-cut trims almost all of the sillier, goofier, cringe-worthy moments including groan-inducing puns, dopey punchlines and as much of the Jaws and his Swiss Miss gal pal as could be managed without wrecking the continuity. They also replaced some of the music using tracks from earlier Bond films and these provide the starkest example of what even minor changes can accomplish to make a movie more effective.

While this will never be a great Bond flick, the changes emphasize what’s good about it. Michael Lonsdale is perfectly despicable with some great lines. “It’s time to put you out of my misery.” There are some terrific action set-pieces including a boat chase on the Amazon. And the horrific scene in which the bad Bond girl is pursued by Dobermans, a horror movie subject filmed like a perfume ad, is very effective. Overall, the film is wonderfully shot by Jean Tournier and is one of the best-looking entries in the series.

The action climax is obviously an attempt to capture a portion of the audience that crowded theaters to watch STAR WARS wo years before. It very much resembles the end of THUNDERBALL in a lot of ways. 





THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN (2019)

It’s a Netflix thing.

Mel Gibson is tasked with assembling the first Oxford English Dictionary. To help him with what many believe to be an impossible task, he enlists the aide of imprisoned lunatic Sean Penn.

Now, the movie I want to see is a movie about making this movie. Can you imagine Mel and Sean of set? Politically polar opposites and both with reputations as wildmen. They probably had restraining orders in their contracts. Or they got along like thieves. Either way, you know there’s a great story there.

And the story of the creation of the OED is a great story too though you’d never know it from this movie.

It took me a while to figure out why I didn’t enjoy this movie. The performances are excellent, the production is gorgeous, and the period detail is spot on. But the heart of the story is Gibson’s claim is that English is a living language and he stands in conflict with snobby academics who only want “proper” English included. And the filmmakers fail to present this in a compelling way and, by failing in this, show off their own elitism.

The most egregious example is when Mel and other cast members overhear servants speaking to one another in then-current slang. We listen with them but never SEE the servants as if only their words and not their presence are important. Movies are made to show not tell and this scene, a very good muffed by poor storytelling, should have been the opening of the scene. I would have had Mel walking the streets of the city overhearing conversations and coming to the grand realization of the mother tongue as a malleable, mutable thing. Remember the scene in THE 13TH WARRIOR where Antonio Banderas learns the language of his captors?

And ‘splainin’ not showing plagues this movie throughout. What might have worked on stage does not work on the screen. The world of the film is small though its subject is large. This movie would have benefited greatly with direction by Gibson as well. I am told that he provided his own cut to the studio and they rejected it. Sad. 





DIEN BEN PHU (1992)

Dramatic recreation of the final major battle between the Viet Minh and French forces before the French pulled out of Indochina in 1954.

Most history buffs have had cause to think of France’s final act in Vietnam in recent days.

This film divides his attention between the complacent life of colonials and ex-patriates living in Hanoi and the mounting horrors faced by French paratroops and legionnaires. The battle action is presented in a near documentary style that serves as a rare example of the full scale of armed exchanges on film. Not much effort (outside of dialogue exchanges) is made to clarify the various actions as Dien Ben Phu falls, bit by bit, to the commies. What is clear is the size of the operation. This level of realism is greatly aided by the film being shot on the location where it all happened.

The epic climax of the film also had the benefit of the cooperation of the Vietnamese army. I take issue with the accuracy (as opposed to realism) as the Viets are presented as parade ready and fully equipped with weapons, uniforms and gear they would not have had in ’54.  The Viet Minh was the very model of a motley, ragtag army. If the politburo in Ho Chi Minh City really wanted to score propaganda points, they would have presented the Viet Minh as they were, an armed insurrection of poorly armed civilians. It would have made their unlikely victory over the well-trained, well-armed and determined French forces all that more remarkable. But, as we know, reds aren’t very deep thinkers. 





THE LAST WARRIOR/THE SCYTHIAN (2018)

 

Lutobor is a loyal warrior whose wife and child are kidnapped by a roving band of Scythian mercenaries. The ransom to return them alive is the death of his own lord. Will Lutodor betray his oath and murder his master to save his family?

 

The Russians are making some terrific period action flicks and this one is one of the better entries. The locales are as brutal as the action in a story with all the elements of Robert E. Howard tale. Plenty of suspense and plot twists in what is essentially a western set in the steppe. And, boy, does the lead character take a lot of punishment. There’s even a dark ages version of Thunderdome that comes to a gut-wrenching conclusion.

 

Wild stuff.




PREDATOR 2 (1990)

An alien hunter lands in Los Angeles in the middle of bloody drug war. Danny Glover, a cop who just won’t listen, treats this extra-terrestrial invasion as a personal issue. Thing are complicated by the arrival of federal agent Gary Busey and his army of goons dressed in matching Dockers and Members Only jackets.

The most common of commonalities, the unworthy movie sequel. As a follow-up to their 1980’s SF action classic, the Thomas brothers wed their concept to the tired tropes of a rogue cop actioner. Where the original film was a seamless thriller featuring a strong through line, this train wreck is just a string of movie clich├ęs with disjointed action set-pieces mixed in. There are more holes in the plot than actual plot as characters know things they could not know and always show up just at the right moment even if that means being in two places at once.

Doughy, slow-moving Glover is no replacement for Schwarzenegger and leads a cast of stereotypes with wafer-thin characterizations. Bill Paxton is especially embarrassing in an overplayed role as an a-hole cop. Nice to see Kent McCord in a in a big screen role though.

Most disappointing is the flaccid action climax of the movie, featured some astonishingly bad special effects. It’s just no patch on the awesome third act in the first film. And the idea that dad-body Glover could take down a Predator with such ease was ludicrous.

I think, if they were going to go this route with the movie, they should have just gone all-in and cast Chuck Norris in the lead. At least then we would have gotten a memorable mano a xeno fight at the end. 





BLOOD RED SKY (2021)

A Netflix thing.

I really don’t want to get into the plot on this one. I watched it totally cold and I suggest you do the same thing.

That said, this German horror action flick delivers on every level. Intelligently plotted with a well-crafted slow burn opening that perfectly sets up the emotional and technical issues that get this story off the blocks. The suspense and action scenes are seamlessly blocked out and the stakes rise minute by minute as the situation for the main cast goes sideways then corkscrews.

All in all, by the end credits you’ll feel like you watched A MOVIE, if you know what I mean. Solid, earnest, escapist entertainment.

BTW, my wife, who is generally not a fan of the genre, said it was the best movie she’s seen in years.


BABYSITTING (2014)

A receptionist at a comic book company agrees to babysit his boss’ bratty kid overnight in hopes of getting a chance to show off his portfolio. To do this, he has to forego his own birthday party. But his friends are having none of it and bring the party to  the boss’ house. 80’s style party mayhem ensues.

Structured much like the movie THE HANGOVER, we see the story set-up and then jump ahead to the following morning and catch up to what happened in between with the use of found video. The gimmick is so perfectly played that the viewer forgets all about it, giving into curiosity to learn how the chaos at the start of the film came to be.
It’s far superior to THE HANGOVER in every way. I found that movie to be tedious, unfunny and contrived and, worst of all, a complete waste of an excellent premise. Here, maybe because the French excel at just this brand of farce, the results are dazzling. Gags are set up in multiple layers then paid off on, built upon and paid off again. Often, separate extended comedy bits are going on the foreground and background simultaneously. I really had to marvel at how well crafted and timed every reveal, punchline and surprise were set up and exploited. And there are constant suspense elements playing in the background throughout the film that serve to torque up tension. From a missing child to a bunch of rare tropical fish to a very valuable memorial plate, we are kept on edge throughout until each element is hilariously resolved.

This is the work of a comedic trio (Philippe Lacheau, Tarek Boudali and Julien Arruti) who apparently are a franchise in France and produce consistent comic gold in a series of frantic farces like this one. I’ll review the very funny ALIBI.COM soon. 



THE LAST HUNT (1956)

Flat busted Stewart Granger accepts and offer from Robert Taylor to join him on a buffalo hunt. Trouble is, it turns out Taylor is mad, bad and dangerous to know.

This Richard Brooks (THE PROFESSIONALS) written and directed outdoor actioner was part of the trend toward “adult” westerns in the 1950’s. It’s a grim study of human nature that must have come as a shock to audiences for its frank treatment of sexual predation. Equally shocking would have been seeing matinee idol Robert Taylor playing a complete psychotic in a chilling performance.

Taylor was a big star at MGM who carefully groomed his image as a romantic leading man. After WWII, as was true with so many actors, Taylor had to seek different kinds of roles. He made a string of westerns and was very good in them as he transitioned, much like Tom Cruise has in his later career, into an action movie star.

This movie has a lot to recommend it from its hard look at the business of hunting to its rich lot of period detail and some excellent performances with Lloyd Nolan a standout as a grizzled buffalo skinner. A big boon to the film was its access to the national parks to film the actual annual culling of the preserved buffalo herds. For the weak of heart, I have to warn you that the death of the buffalos depicted in the movie were real, not special effects. 



LAWMAN (1971

Burt Lancaster is a lawman who cuts no corners and cuts no slack. When he arrives in the town of Sabbath to arrest seven men implicated in murder, he runs headlong into empire ranch owner Lee J. Cobb.

Part of the trend toward what I call “mean” westerns that begins with THE WILD BUNCH and runs through the early 1970’s. Most probably a reaction to the Italian westerns that were cresting ion popularity at this time.  

This one benefits from the presence of Burt Lancaster and a huge cast of well-recognized character actors like Richard Jordan (in his first role). Robert Duvall, Albert Salmi, Sheree North, John McGiver, Ralph Waite, John Hillerman, Joseph Wiseman and more. Wilfrid Brimley makes his screen debut here playing a corpse!

It’s a good story plainly told, and director Michael Winner eschews his usual excesses to present a story that was actually common in the Old West, the town that wanted law and order but rebels against the man who takes them at their word.

There’s a lot of action but the emphasis here is on human drama and ratcheting up suspense.



 

A QUIET PLACE PART II (2020)

The survivors of the first film abandon their farm to find new sanctuary only to find the alien dominated world an unforgiving place.

That rarity of rarities, the worth movie sequel. This one does what all great sequels so, continue the story, explore the universe the story is set in, stay true to the original characterizations and, mots importantly, does not confuse better with bigger.

Writer/director John Krasinski wisely keeps the scale and tone of this follow-up at the same level as the original. It is truly a second chapter in a bigger story.

The performances are uniformly excellent with Cillian Murphy entirely unrecognizable as a friend who’s not all that happy to see his old neighbors again.

The suspense, as before, is excruciating with a number of multi-layered action set-pieces that are marvelously realized. And, unusual for a sequel, it works as a standalone film with a welcome flashback at the opening to how all of this began. A third film is in pre-production, and I look forward to this is all brought to a conclusion.

Top drawer escapist entertainment.



Saturday, July 31, 2021

From the vault.

Back when I still had dreams of being a comic book double threat, writer AND artist, I turned out hundreds of pages of art. This is some of my output from the 1970's. Note a strong Tezuka influence on a few of them. 


























Monday, July 26, 2021

A strongbox full of reviews!

THEY WERE EXPENDABLE (1945)
John Wayne and Robert Montgomery command a PT boat squadron that proves its worth in the early days of WWII.
As the war went on, Hollywood made a concerted effort to move away from the kind of rah-rah, American superman movies made specifically to drum up support for the war effort. They began to produce more serious fare that presented the grimmer side of the struggle to an audience fully aware of the costs of the conflict. Movies like OBJECTIVE BURMA and LIFEBOAT offered more realistic portrayals of the horrors, frustrations and setbacks of the global conflict.
There's simply no better example of this turn toward authenticity than THEY WERE EXPENDABLE. John Ford's tale, scripted by Navy veteran Spig Wead is a devastating story of sacrifice and loss in the first days of the war when America suffered one humiliating defeat after another the outcome of the war was very much in doubt.
John Wayne's performance is excellent and well nuanced in what might have been a one-dimensional role. You can see him being worn down as the film goes on, much of this due to Ford's frankly cruel goading of him for not enlisting. "Papa" Ford would openly berate the Duke, unfairly comparing him to co-star Montgomery who had served in combat. This is certainly the source of the cold fury that hides beneath the veneer of exhaustion that weighs on Wayne in the film's final act.
Robert Montgomery gives his usual excellent performance. An actor who's largely forgotten now, Montgomery was a major star in Hollywood with an incredible range that made him effective in dramas as well as screwball farces. Here he shows off that range in a restrained performance in which what is unsaid says so much more than the spoken dialogue.
The cinematography by Joseph H. August is nothing short of astounding. His use of natural lighting particularly in the third act is highly effective in conveying the mood of resignation and despair. The backdrop of a tropical paradise in a story of such misery and deprivation serves to heighten the gravity of each scene.
Absolutely one of John Ford's best films and, for my money, one of the ten best war movies ever made.





HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940) 

Rosalind Russell is a newspaperwoman who's anxious to leave the employ of Cary Grant, her former editor and ex-husband. But Cary is willing to do anything (and I mean ANYTHING) to keep her on the paper and in his life.

Howard Hawk's remake of the popular play and movie THE FRONT PAGE makes the ingenious change of making the principles a divorced couple instead of a pair of contentious men. What ensues is both a hilarious battle of the exes as well as a cynical comic take on journalism that is as true today as it was in 1940. 


Terrific comedy set pieces and stand out comedy performances throughout. But the movie also asks some hard questions and the laughs are built upon a solid dramatic framework. To my mind, other than pure farces of the Marx Brothers variety, every great comedy has a plot that would have been just as effective as a straight drama. 

Grant turns on his signature charm to such a degree that he makes us forget what a lowdown heel his character actually is. Russell is more than a match for him, keeping up punch-for-punch in one snappy exchange after another. In fact, Russell hired writers on the outside to arm her with comebacks to Grant's frequent off-the-cuff adlibs. Grant caught on early and caught her referencing a cheat sheet and said, "What do you have for us today?" 

And she needed the ammunition as all of her scenes were in the style Hawks created, the rapid fire ensemble scenes where everyone is talking over everyone else but we never miss anything that's being said. Those scenes required deft writing and endless rehearsals to get right. They are the dialogue equivalent of an Astaire and Rogers dance routine. 

The cast is filled with Columbia stock players with Billy Gilbert a standout as a bewildered civil servant. 

BTW, I watched this on a recent Criterion disc. At last, this movie that's been in public domain for decades gets a great restoration. It's never looked or sounded so good as it does now. 





THE YAKUZA (1974)
As a favor to a friend, Robert Mitchum returns to Japan and re-opens old wounds while stirring up trouble amongst local gangsters. 
This is a fine, maturely presented action flick scripted by Robert Towne and Paul Schrader. Sidney Pollack directs with a sure eye and lots of earnest respect for the genre he's working in. 
It's a fine mash-up of film noir sensibilities and the requirements of a good yakuza movie. Mitchum enters a world he thinks he understands only to have the tatami mat pulled out from under him again and again.  Takakura Ken, in a role he made his own in a long series of Japanese crime movies, is awesome in the role of a ronin who must bear a world of sorrow on his shoulders. 
The climactic battle delivers bigtime with lots of twists and turns. The blocking and pacing show a keen understanding of what makes yakuza and chambara movies click. And it's kind of nice to see a movie where the characters are tough but not superhuman. 

Solid performances throughout and the kind of hardboiled, unforgiving story you'd expect form the screenwriters who brought us CHINATOWN and TAXI DRIVER. 





RADIN!/ PENNY PINCHER (2016)

Dany Boon is an obsessive-compulsive cheapskate who aggravates everyone he encounters. Even love cannot overcome his manic thriftiness until his life is turned on its head with the arrival of a teenage daughter he didn’t know he had. See, years before, he insisted on using an expired condom and…

Another winner for French comic icon Danny Boon. His portrayal of a series of flawed men with fraying psyches hits comedy gold once again in this grand farce with one awkward moment after another leading to a surprise turnaround in the story that is emotional without being sentimental hogwash. These films are unabashed feel-good comedies and always crafted for laughs without forgetting the need for heart and a cohesive plotline. Not sue if this one is up on Amazon Prime but a few of Boon’s other films are and worth checking out if you’re looking for witty, bright entertainment.




RIDE A CROOKED TRAIL (1958)

Audie Murphy’s on the run from the law. When the marshal pursuing him meets with an accident, Audie takes on the lawman’s identity. The ruse works fine until he’s drafted as the next town’s new sheriff by judge Walter Matthau. That’s gonna put a crimp in Audie’s plans to rob the town’s bank.

Dandy action-suspense film with Murphy playing a heel pushed by circumstances (a needy orphan, a stray mutt and pretty Gia Scala) to turn over a new leaf. Henry Silva is his usual creepy self as the leader of a rival gang out to take down the bank before Audie can. Most remarkable about this movie is Walter Matthau as a shotgun toting judge who rules the town by his own mercurial set of laws. Matthau appears to be having a great time hamming it up as a western character. It’s shame he gave up being in cowboy movies for urban comedies. 



PATTON (1970)

A warts-and-all bio-pic of the legendary Army general of WWII. We join George Patton as he takes over command of an armored division in North Africa and follow him as he does as much fighting with the media and politicians as he does with the Nazis.

Francis Ford Coppola’s summation of Patton’s WWII years finds all of the highlights as well as the controversies of this man “born in the wrong century.” The film is, if anything, more relevant today than when released with his depiction of the power of the media to drive events and the craven politicians only too willing to bow to them.

The contradictions of Old Blood and Guts are shown here as well, the man’s love of armed conflict and his military ambitions cast against his deep devotion to the soldiers serving under him even as he pushed them to the limit in Sicily and France.

 

George C. Scott, a figure almost as rebellious and anachronistic as the man he was playing, fully inhabits his subject to a remarkable degree with an indelible performance. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is sometimes grand and sometimes haunting and provides the perfect background for this epic story of triumph and loss.

 

If I have one quibble it’s the inaccuracy of some of the armored vehicles in the film, particularly on the German side with US issue armor disguised with Wehrmacht symbols and paint jobs. How did a movie like KELLY’S HEROES (which I love) get it so right and this movie so often gets it wrong? Perhaps they should have shot the movie in Eastern Europe instead of Spain.





DEEP COVER (1992)

Lawrence Fishburne is chosen by an ambitious DEA agent to go undercover in the Los Angeles drug trade. But he is soon left to wonder which side he’s on.

A crime thriller as well as a commentary on the corruption on both sides of the law. Fishburne delivers as always, and Jeff Goldblum manages to rise above being miscast as a drug dealer with dreams of empire. Clarence Williams III is given the thankless job of playing the rather heavy-handed moral conscience the film and the scenes between him and Fishburne were better played when Patrick O’Brien and James Cagney were in the roles in another era.   

Some of the elements are dated now but it’s still an interesting time capsule of the days when crack was king. 


Ni pour, ni contre/NEITHER FOR OR AGAINST (2003)

A young woman working as a stringer for a Paris news station accepts and offer form a gang to tape one of their heists. An accessory to the crime, she must either find her place in the gang in order to prevent them eliminating her as a weak link.

A heist movie with a very different twist and take. Part thriller, part character study. No one explores the amoral world of career criminals like the French, and this is a worthy entry in the genre filled with plenty of surprises and nail-biting suspense. I enjoyed trying to “read” the main character and really enjoyed the reveals as they came.






VON RYAN’S EXPRESS (1965)

Frank Sinatra is shot down and placed in an Italian POW camp where is, upon his arrival, the highest-ranking officer. With the Italian surrender the men make a bid for escape, hi-jacking a train for a daring rush to the Swiss border.

Big budget actioner that was part of a run of WWII adventure thrillers and this one holds up as one of the better efforts. Sinatra leads a mostly British cast in a grand entertainment filled with action and suspense. The studio was so high on this flick they planned a sequel. But Old Blue Eyes suggested a new ending for the movie that quashed that idea.

Sinatra is just fine in the lead as the brash, opinionated Ryan. I’m always surprised at how physical Sinatra was willing to get in roles and this one is no exception. He was no young chicken when he made this one, but he always appears game to minor stunts and such. Trevor Howard bristles and struts as only he can and is a terrific foil for Sinatra. Look for James Brolin in a small role and comic actor Vito Scotti as the put-upon train engineer. 




DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT (1995)

Count Dracula leases an English estate and begins pestering local women with nighttime visits.

 Late entry Mel Brooks parody that’s largely ignored but is actually one of his stronger efforts. It’s not the instant classic that YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is but is every bit as earnest in its approach. The interior sets for Castle Dracula are lovingly recreated from the Bela Lugosi version. And I believe that the choice to shoot this one in color was made so that the Hammer vampire films could be included in the fun. And this one looks very much like a Hammer entry from costuming to sets to acting styles.

Leslie Nielson, fully indulging his second career as a comic actor, appears to be having fun as the count. Mel Brooks is on hand for his usual shtick-filler performance as Van Helsing. Amy Yasbeck does a good job in the kind of role Madeline Kahn usually occupied. And Peter MacNicol steals every scene he’s in as the pitiable Renfield.

Every vampire trope is sent up from crosses, to garlic to an inspired mirror sequence. 





LARCENY (1948)

 Conman John Payne poses as the buddy of a war widow’s dead husband as part of a con to steal money intended for a war memorial. But maybe this heel has a soul as he begins to have feelings for his mark.

Neat little thriller with loads of snappy, hard-boiled patter. The exchanges between Payne and goodtime gal Shelley Winters are particularly ripe. And Dan Duryea is here as the bete noire and there’s no one better. Duryea plays the heavy you feel his presence in every scenes, even the ones he’s not in!




BIG JAKE (1971)

A ruthless outlaw gang led by Richard Boone kidnaps John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara’s grandson. Not a good idea.

A late-entry action western for John Wayne and one senses an attempt to join the swing toward the more mean-spirited genre entries of the period like THE WILD BUNCH or the spaghettis. It even has a screenplay by Harry Julian Fink who penned MAJOR DUNDEE and created Dirty Harry Callahan. But old school director George Sherman is not up to the demands of the story or in tune with the mood required. The set-pieces of light comedy seem misplaced and unwelcome with no effort to make them a more organic part of the story. The action is clumsily staged and flaccid. There’s a very ho-hum approach to the movie’s violence resulting in a muted feeling of suspense in scenes that should have been nail-biters.

The movie only really comes alive in the exchanges between Boone and Wayne with both men obviously relishing their scenes together.

 All-in-all, a decent shoot ‘em up with John Wayne playing John Wayne and some interesting juxtapositions of the modern world intruding on the old west.  But I think this would have been a far better movie as Burt Lancaster vehicle shot by a Euro-western crew.



 

Polizioto Sprint/HIGHWAY RACER (1977)

 A hot shot cop sees himself as a one-man crimebuster intent on bringing to justice a gang of fast-driving bank robbers. He’s willing to risk it all, the love of his life and his partner’s safety, to take down his quarry.

 A pretty standard Italian cop action flick that’s pretty much a car chase flick.  It’s helped along bigtime with the help of the Remy Jullienne stunt team providing some spectacular car crashes and trick driving. There’s also some welcome humor (rare in Italian crime movies) at the beginning that serves to set up the tragedy that motivates the action in the last acts. The movie took a standard cop movie trope and really infused it with some emotional weight.

 Fun stuff with tough cops and tougher criminals and plenty of gear-jamming pursuits.