Monday, August 5, 2019

Let's go to the movie reviews!

Une affaire d'├ętat/STATE AFFAIRS (2009) Taking a break from westerns, this taut French policier crosses over into international intrigue as homicide cops stumble on a series of murders related to a secret arms deal. Three stories spin around each other and come together without contrivance to create a web of corruption, deception, betrayal as tough cops encounter the worst of the deep state. Violent and suspenseful and free of melodrama.

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THE BIRDS (1963) For me, this film is a cinema marvel on so many levels. Hitchcock borrows a trick he used in PSYCHO by beginning the movie as one kind of story and then taking everything on a surreal, horrific turn. This movie has 32 minutes of set-up time before the horror element that defines it is even hinted at. But the set-up is so sublimely shot and perfectly crafted that we're entirely engaged in the story of Tippi Hedron and Rod Taylor's meet-cute and haltingly budding romance by the time that first damn gull comes along to stir things up.
Hitch had a way of showing an idyllic yet entirely familiar version of America. The charming fishing village of Bodega Bay is a travelogue dream and yet loaded with little details that make it all so real and cozy. And the scene where he denizens of the Tides Diner discuss what might be happening to them is as deft a portrayal of the contrasts and nuances of the American character as you will find anywhere.
And when things get nuts they get nuts all the way. I'm sure Hitch was trying to outdo Psycho's shower scene with the telephone booth sequence but it's all just too mad which is perfect for this story. This and the scene with Tippi in the upper room are sheer nightmare fuel.
The most amazing thing is that, while the marketing for this film used a level of exploitation that P.T. Barnum would have admired, there is zero of that element in the film itself. The story is presented earnestly and without hysterics. Hitch does everything to draw you into his reality and keep you there. He's not interested in sheer shock value for shock's sake. he wants to make you uneasy and keep you that way.
A large part of that is entire absence of a musical soundtrack. There's nothing to distract from the natural soundscape.
The movie is also free of any of the usual tropes found in this kind of high concept horror. No one has answers. No one knows what's going on or where it leads. The characters ask some of the same questions we're asking but there are no answers. It's the introduction of a new reality and replaces the world we knew before.
And from the technical standpoint the movie is nothing short of jaw-dropping. The effects are state of the art and intelligently applied. Animation, puppets, miniatures and some of the most successful process shots ever put on film. And where the effects are not up to the task, Hitch uses pacing and editing to keep us from thinking about all that.
Weirdly, and I'd love to hear what others say, but TREMORS is probably the only other movie I can think of that is structured like this movie. A movie that successfully begins as one thing and ends like a different movie. Yes, almost every horror movie sets up its cast's background and motivations but how many of those set-ups are good enough that they might have carried a whole movie? I don't know about you, but I would have been happy just to watch the misadventures of Val and Earl in the big city.

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THE LIQUIDATOR (1965) This is one confounding mess of a movie. Obviously produced to cash in on Bondmania, it's hard to figure out what the producers had in mind beyond that. Rod Taylor, for no believable reason that I can determine, is recruited as an assassin for British intelligence. While he loves the lifestyle of hot cars and hotter chicks, he has no interest in killing anyone and subcontracts it out! When captured by enemy spies he doesn't even engineer his own escape! And in the "exciting" climax the un-piloted jet bomber he's trapped in lands itself! He's the passive-aggressive hero of the ages! Zero thrills, surprises, charm or even common sense. Things just seem to happen in scene after scene with no through-line, rising action or even consequence. A complete waste of everyone's time except for Jill St. John who seems to have been created expressly to take up room in half-assed movies like this. I mean, she had to be somewhere, right?

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TOWER OF LONDON (1939) Boris Karloff is the royal executioner in the turbulent times at the end of Plantagenet rule in England. He's in thrall to Basil Rathbone who's in line for the throne and has plans to kill everyone in the way. Dark little medieval epic with a horror tone throughout. Highly unusual, because these kinds of movies were either romances or swashbucklers. Here is history as Grand Guignol, a grotesque. And it's effective entertainment with one vile betrayal after another and some still-shocking scenes of murder along with two ambitious set piece battle scenes. Saw this when I was a tot one afternoon and the final battle left a deep impression on me as it attempted to show the sheer bloody chaos and brutality of war in this period. And this is Karloff's most frightening role for my money.

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SOLDIER IN THE RAIN (1963) The kind of quickie programmer that the studios were producing to fill the content needed to fill the networks' new primetime movie shows. The unlikely pairing of Jackie Gleason and Steve McQueen works like a charm. Gleason is a master sergeant in the peacetime Army with a fiefdom of his own. He is worshiped by McQueen here playing a dimmer version of Virgil Hilts. It's a comedy that gets more and more serious over time. Effective and touching and often quite funny. Tuesday Weld also appears in one of her dippier ingenue roles, and that's pretty damn dippy.

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OSS 117: CAIRO, NEST OF SPIES (2006) When I saw this a few years ago I knew this was a parody of an existing series of movies from the 60's. I really enjoyed it without being familiar with the source material. Since then, I've seen all five of the movies featuring secret agent Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath and that enhanced this re-viewing enormously. Not only is this flick a funny send-up of the spy genre but also faithfully recreates the tone, tropes and charm of the original movies. Jean Dujardin is comic perfection as the culturally oblivious, womanizing, casually violent La Bath and makes every scene a treat. The movie is also loaded with the kind of puns and running gags that are always so much a part of any French comedy. And, if you find chickens to be funny, prepare to laugh. My particular weakness is any comedy with a parrot.

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TOM HORN (1980) One of my top ten westerns of all time. The tragic final days of an actual western legend. Steve McQueen fully invests the role of a hard man at the end of a hard life. As period authentic a western as you will ever see down to every last detail. Slim Pickens gives another one of his awesome performances. A former rodeo clown, stuntman and "sidekick" character, Pickens has had more indelible screen moments than other actors with mantles full of awards. A spare script written with authority and resonance.

As depicted in the film, Horn was hung by a mechanical device because no man wanted to be remembered as the one who pulled the lever on a national hero. In real life, Horn sang the hymn Life Is Like A Mountain Railroad to keep the crowd occupied until he dropped.

REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958) This hurry-up sequel to the previous year's surprise hit CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN doesn't seem rushed at all. If anything, it's a more mature, better-paced effort and seems to consciously try and make the horror genre grow up a bit. It all moves along deliberately as the Baron, up to his old tricks, uses his assistant as a guinea pig in a brain transplant experiment that, of course, goes horribly awry. Rare in this series if films that the plot is much more about the Baron than his "monster."

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THE GAUNTLET (1977) I always considered this flick one of Eastwood's minor efforts. Saw it a couple of times in theaters and a couple more on cable. But not since then. I was pleasantly surprised at well it's held up and what a tight little (if preposterous bordering on surreal) thriller it is. It has a real grindhouse feel to it as well as a sleaze factor out of the men's sweat paperbacks that were popular at the time. Clint is a burnt out, alcoholic cop dispatched to Vegas to bring back Sondra Locke, the foul-mouthed and combative star witness in a mob trial. But the fix is in and both sides of the law are gunning for the pair. Some crazed action romps and sheer exploitation scenes are tied together with some really sharp exchanges of dialogue (excepting Bill McKinney's SUPER creepy local cop) and wry characterization. It all adds up to a fine story of the little guy versus the power-brokers.
What I will NEVER understand is why Eastwood didn't make ALL his burnt-out cops movies into Dirty Harry vehicles. With minor re-writes, this film, TIGHTROPE and THE ROOKIE could all have had Detective Callahan in the lead and all been better than the actual Harry sequels. As sequels they'd have done 20% more box office easy.

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GANGSTERS (2002) Mean and furious French policier about cops going deep undercover to expose corruption in the department. At times wildly violent and others tautly dramatic as the game plays out to see who is who and who's on the take. From master of the genre Olivier Marchal. Stars Richard Anconina and Anne Parillaud.

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4L/4 LATAS (2019) This Netflix production provides further truth that the service's foreign production are 
the most rewarding one son their slate. Two old pals take the daughter of one of their comrades across the Sahara in a vintage rally car to see her father one last time. That rare movie, these days, that encompasses a broad spectrum of human emotion. Deeply moving in some places and hilariously funny in others. And there's plenty of suspense moments entirely free of melodrama. The scenery is astonishing and the wry commentary on culture and custom is a welcome aspect. Jean Reno and Hovik Keuchkerian as the old buddies and Susana Abaitua excellent in a challenging role as the daughter driven enough to accompany them.

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WHEN EIGHT BELLS TOLL (1971) This has my vote for the best rainy Sunday afternoon movie ever made. Anthony Hopkins is an intelligence officer in the Royal Navy assigned to find the fate of a number of freight ships that have disappeared off the Scottish coast. An Alistair MacLean story with all the usual goodies. Gruesome murders, wild action set pieces, cynical heroes and one betrayal and reveal after another. Hopkins is perfection as an educated thug with remarkable talent for disposing of bad guys. He's so casually homicidal that I laughed out loud a few times. Fast-paced and loaded with great characters and all coming to a satisfying, bullet-riddled conclusion. And Robert Morley is funny as Hopkins' fussy superior and the two have a great chemistry in the scenes they share.

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THE UNDYING MONSTER/THE HAMMOND MYSTERY (1942) Whoever suggested I watch this movie raise your hand! I couldn't imagine a werewolf movie that I had never heard of or seen. One of the movies made by Fox out of their horror division. A fun, effective, haunted house mystery with a fine cast playing with full earnestness as they try to get to the bottom a family curse that had bodies piling up everywhere. Darryl Zanuck wanted to cash in on Universal's success with the monster genre but this is no knock-off. It's done in the more brisk, more plot-heavy style of Fox productions at the time with a welcome addition of humor among all the spooky goings-on. And it wasn't until the climax of the film that I realize that I had seen it. That final scene of the werewolf and his fate was seared on my seven-year-old brain.

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HALLOWEEN (2018) Or Granny Get Your Gun. This self-proclaimed only "true" sequel to the 1978 original is the only one in the franchise to successfully recreate the feel of the original. Random brutality and a relentless pace. A good story plainly told. Nothing groundbreaking or special here. Just a well-crafted slasher thriller with an ending that left me happy I'd seen it. And I loved Jamie Lee's choice of a Henry Big Steel.

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THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017) What starts as one of those "one brave woman stands up against injustice" movies goes way deeper into the life and soul of a small town suffering from too many years spent in the wayside. No one is without blame and no one is beyond redemption. The story sets up its stereotypes like a Lifetime movie and then allows the characters to breathe and expose both their better angels and their personal demons. Tense, often very funny and at times, wise, this movie runs the gamut of human emotions with wit, style and authority. And one remarkable performance after another.

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THE STRANGE DOOR (1951) Based on a Robert Louis Stephenson story about a wastrel who is offered sanctuary in a nobleman's home only to deeply regret it. Weird goings on, a torture chamber and a beautiful niece imprisoned in a gilded cage. What's the secret of the old mill? Who is the howling madman in the cellars? Yeah, that kind of story. An effective programmer that moves along briskly with a terrific and rousing set piece at the conclusion. Charles Laughton relishes his role as the grudge-holding, psychotic nobleman and Boris Karloff as a creepy retainer with questionable loyalties,

DESPERATE (1947) Fine noir entry driven by energetic direction from Anthony Mann. Nice guy WWII vet Steve Brodie is roped into being the wheelman in a fur heist. When he crosses the gang he must go on the run with his wife, played by pretty Audrey Long. Highlighted by some smart dialogue and a few unexpected twists that goose everything along. Raymond Burr plays yet another in a string of sociopathic gangsters and provides all the film's menace. Shot with economy and verve.

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SHADE (2003) The poker movie genre isn't a big one but is marked with a number of classics. This tension fueled mini-epic is a worthy contender with a fine cast and a smart script full of surprises and turns. The stakes are life and death as Gabriel Byrne enlists card mechanic Stuart Townsend to take down some million dollar players that include legendary card shark Sylvester Stallone. Along with the cons, scams, shifting loyalties and outright betrayals there's some good, suspenseful card play presented with a clarity even a new fish could follow.

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HEATSTROKE (2014) One of my boys picked this up at a Dollar Store and I gave it a whirl. Interesting story of a zoologist who takes his new girlfriend and pouty teenage daughter out to photograph hyenas in the wild. It all goes sideways when they run into a crew of poachers headed up by Peter Stormare, the last guy you ever want to run into in the desert or on a bowling alley parking lot. Shot with zero exploitation or the usual tropes that variations of the The Most Dangerous Game like this indulge in. The filmmakers tried playing it like a straight-up drama and, for the most part, that works. The scenes with hyenas are chilling.

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EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014) The only movie I can think of known more readily by its slug line, Live. Die, Repeat. I enjoyed this the first time around and, for some reason had an itch to see it again. I'm glad I did. Like BATTLE FOR LOS ANGELES (2011) this is an unapologetic SF action flick with no real deep message to impart. Earth is invaded by some kind of hivemind that sends out an army of whirling squiggly things to take over Europe. Tom Cruise plays his charming cad once again and is excellent, as always. This one has a concept as high as the sky as reluctant soldier Tom is infected with some kind of quantum goop and must live the same horrific day over and over again, dying countless times as his learning curve takes him closer to a way to end the invasion. Loads of action, an engaging plot line and, by the end, some real heart. This is one of those eminently re-watchable popcorn flicks. Pity that it failed to perform better at the box office.

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MR 73 (2008) Dour French Police drama from Olivier Marchal. Daniel Auteuil as a burnt-out, drunken cop with more than his share of tragedy in his life. He's kicked off a case involved a particularly vile serial killer but refuses, against all order to let go. A parallel story concerns another serial killer about to be paroled by the authorities and the young pregnant woman who fears for her life upon his release. Suspenseful and, at times, truly frightening. This is not a feel-good cop thriller but more a study of a man willing to give everything to see justice done.

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THE ROOKIE (1990) Clint Eastwood teams with Charlie Sheen for a preposterous police actioner ala the LETHAL WEAPON series. There's some great concepts for action set pieces here but Clint's second unit guy Buddy Lee Hooker was never terribly innovative so they come off flat. It's all the by the numbers but satisfying enough as a tough guy flick, I suppose. My oldest son, who is a walking encyclopedia on cinema, told me that this was supposed to be a Dirty Harry sequel that Clint would do in exchange for the getting WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART financed by Warners. He agreed to do the movie but not as a Harry entry. Still better than THE DEAD POOL.

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WHIPLASH (1948) An attempt to give Warners contract player Dane Clark a starring vehicle. A mix of melodrama and boxing picture. Often categorized as noir but doesn't fit the genre. Aspiring painter Clark is drawn into the world of professional boxing when he falls for the wife of a gangster. It makes more sense when you watch it. Swings for the fences with a mix of pathos, bathos, sinister intentions, and some scenes of wise guy humor. It all makes for fine entertainment with some terrific exchanges thanks to veteran screenwriter Harriet Frank Jr.

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MAKE MINE MINK (1960) A fun, frothy comedy and fine vehicle for Terry-Thomas as a retired army officer who organizes the female boarders in his building into a gang who heist furs from high end clothing stores with military (im)precision. Best line is when when one of the ladies is teaching a young girl in a low cut blouse how to curtsy. She informs Terry that she's helping the debutante with her coming out. Terry responds with, "She appears to be half-way out already."

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TUEURS (2017) Part prison escape flick, part heist movie, part conspiracy thriller and all packed into less than ninety minutes. A gang of professional thieves have a daring cash depository robbery hi-jacked by the deep state who use the crime to cover up the murder of a judge. The gang has nowhere to run and every gun turned against them. I've said it before, no one does this kind of flick better than the French. One shocking surprise after another as truth's last hope lies in the hands of a thief.

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TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE (2012) Why do so many sports movies get greenlit when they're so rarely profitable? Because most studio heads wish they owned a major league sports team. This is the closest they can get. 
In any case, this is a fun, and at times actually suspenseful, little drama. Clint Eastwood is a scout for the Atlanta Braves and he's losing his sight. Daughter Amy Adams risks her career at a law firm to accompany to scout out a hot prospect. Along the way they work out the issues from their past. Sounds like a snore-fest but it's much better than that. An engaging drama with a real father/daughter chemistry between Eastwood and Adams. Loads of sub-plots and a fine cast with Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Robert Patrick and Matthew Lillard.
This movie telegraphs like crazy but it's okay because anticipating the upcoming conflicts and resolution is part of the fun. And the concluding scenes are the sweetest schadenfreude.

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SEMI-TOUGH (1977) Dan Jenkins' novel is turned into a sly romantic comedy that's set in the world of professional football but is more a commentary on the kind of motivational and self-help movements so popular in the 70's and 80's. Everyone's looking for answers but Miami Dolphin Burt Reynolds is only looking for love. But the object of his affection, Jill Clayburgh, daughter of the Dolphins' owner, is engaged to Burt's best buddy played by Kris Kristofferson. 
In the hands of director Michael Ritchie, it all becomes a voyeuristic look into the lives of the three principles with Ritchie's always keen eye for the American personality. Robert Altman always gets hailed for this kind of filmmaking but Ritchie was always better at it, making his points subtly but with perfect clarity. I always find Altman muddled.
A very funny movie with everyone having a great time and some priceless dialogue including the movie's funniest line which would get me banned from Facebook.

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