Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Giddyap for movie reviews!

DABAANG (2010) Salman Khan is the toughest (and most crooked) cop in Uttar Pradesh in this full-on Bollywood action comedy. There's epic fights, gun battles, explosions and dizzying dance numbers. Khan is a huge star in India and it's not hard to see why. He's the very picture of an action movie star but is equally adept at being silly when it's called for. Though it's largely satirical, there's an underlying story about what it means to be part of a family that's quite touching and winds up fueling the bloody ending. Corruption must be a source of constant frustration with Indian movie audiences as it's so often the subject in their movies. Here the protagonist takes bribes from criminals to build the family nest egg but remains the hero because the politicians he opposes are openly murdering people to gain power. The movie is a lot of fun and gorgeously shot and Khan appears to be having the time of his life as he shoots, kicks, punches and dances his way into your heart.

DUCK SOUP (1933) I'm not alone in considering this to be the Marx Brothers best film. It's free of the usual romantic sub-plot the studio always wanted to lumber their movies with. The musical numbers are all Marx-centric and funny. And, while Chico and Harpo were indeed accomplished instrumentalists, their scenes featuring harp and piano solos always slowed their films down and those are absent here. Instead we have some of the best byplay between Groucho and Margaret Dumont. The trial of Chico for spying with Ming the Merciless as his interrogator! "I sold the code and two pairs of plans!" The marvelous, and often imitated, mirror sequence with Groucho and Harpo. It all ends with the madcap battle sequence with Groucho changing costumes faster than Jean Harlow. And so many great comebacks, zingers, and word play.
GROUCHO: Three men and one woman are trapped in a building! Send help at once! If you can't send help, send two more women!

CRIMINAL (2016) High concept, high octane action thriller with Kevin Costner as a dangerous sociopath selected as the subject for an experimental surgery that transfers the memories of another man into his brain. What's at stake? Only world peace. This had the potential of being a major dog but is turned into a fine piece of crowd-pleasing entertainment with a relentless pace, lots of ups and downs, and a cast who are all-in. Costner approaches his role with a degree of gusto that's in contrast to his usual laconic screen persona and it works. He is, at all times, scary and pitiable simultaneously. It helps that the movie has a deep tragedy at its heart that causes one to care for the fate of the characters involved. Some exciting car action (free of CGI) and believable gun battles help lift this one over the top of the usual thriller offerings.

THE BLACK WINDMILL (1974) Taut, lean, espionage thriller starring Michael Caine as an MI6 officer whose son is kidnapped in exchange for a cache of diamonds in the custody of her Majesty's Secret Service. Directed with no nonsense by Don Seigel from a seamless script that cranks the tension up without melodrama or hysterics. Caine is terrific in this kind of role playing a man who has to keep it together during a stressful time. Shot with a fluid camera that makes the action seem immediate and cinematography by Ousama Rawi using a dense palette of colors that really brings the film to life. Seigel's hand is apparent in the editing process as well with exciting chases and a claustrophobic gun battle at the climax.

THE HOLCROFT COVENANT (1985) Unlike the last movie I reviewed, Michael Caine is hopelessly miscast in a movie that is a total mess from beginning to end. It's almost impossible to believe that this was directed by the same guy who made THE TRAIN and RONIN. It's a flaccid thriller based on a crap novel about a cabal of Nazis who've hidden billions in cash for their heirs. Caine runs and sweats and jumps and shoots and all to no purpose that I could discern. Caine is supposed to be a wiseass making arch remarks at the times of greatest danger. This comes off as unfunny and forced every single time. And I lost count of all the times he had a gun pulled on him. Characters produce handguns out of thin air in the same way Bugs Bunny always has a stick of dynamite handy. The last instance made me laugh out loud as it was just so predictably telegraphed. Painful dialogue, tedious characters and a story that chases its tail until everyone is dead so that the movie can mercifully conclude. A brave cast does their best with simply awful material.

THE ADVENTURES OF BULLWHIP GRIFFIN (1967) Always wanted to see this and, thanks to Disney Plus, I could. Roddy MacDowell is a devoted butler to a Boston Brahman family. When the scion dies leaving the family destitute, grandson Bryan Russell (in his last role before retiring from acting) sneaks away to the California gold fields with the butler and his older sister, Suzanne Pleshette, following.
It looks like Disney's idea was to do a comedy western ala the box office smash CAT BALLOU. If so, they failed on an epic scale. The mood is too arch to ever feel like more than a silly pastiche. For some reason, satires of great grandpa's favorite kind of entertainment (stage melodramas and dime novels) was a trend in H'wood movies at this time. And, as usual, Disney is late in the game with a half-hearted effort that might have been decent family entertainment if it weren't for all the "touches" the studio could never resist adding in post-production.
A typical house musical score intrudes on the action calling attention to itself. While underscoring every action with a vamp of horns, tinkle of keys or clash of a cowbell works for Mickey and Donald here it only reminds you that you're watching a mechanically produced fiction. Add to that all the goofy sound effects, silly animations, painfully on-the-nose choral narration, sped-up action and special effects flourishes and whatever fun might have been had here is dead on arrival.
And the songs are so awful that one wishes the lyricist had been beaten over the head with his won rhyming dictionary. But God bless Suzanne Pleshette who brings charm and verve to her two numbers sung as a dance hall chanteuse and in her own voice too.
MacDowell is charming as always but not for one second do we believe that he's enamored of Pleshette's character. And Karl Malden has the time of his life as the indefatigable villain, appearing in lots of different guises and making the most of his comedic opportunities.
It's a shame really. This is a well-mounted production shot on Disney's extensive western back lot (including the Zorro hacienda) and features the one thing that Disney always got right; period detail. Costuming, weaponry, tools and transportation are all richly realized and add much to the proceedings as does the vast array of "characters" serving in minor roles and as extras.
One more thing: before the movie begins on D+ there's a notice that it's been edited for content. The only edit I could spot was the word "Chinaman" edited to "_____man" on two occasions when Karl Malden is in coolie get-up.

GUN CRAZY (1950) This one is considered to be an American noir classic and often makes it onto any list of top film noir movies. I hate to say this, I really do, but this movie's time has passed. Except for a snapshot of quaint ideas about psychology at the time, this flick hasn't aged well. I'm sure it it was shocking in its day. The scenes where a camera is mounted in the back seat as the two leads are casing banks or on the run are still vivid, exciting and, if anything, more exciting as the years go by. But the rest of the film is sadly dated with all the usual scenes of authority figures moralizing, a mawkish scene in a nightclub to promote the movie's signature song ("Mad About You" Get it?) and a protracted manhunt through the wilderness. Still worth viewing but, if you've never seen it before, don't expect it to live up to its reputation.

THE FIRST KING (2019) The legend of Romulus and Rhemus retold as the bloodiest, muddiest peplum ever made. And this is one peplum that could have used more pep. The opening, with harrowing flash flood and the two brothers forced into combat with one another as part of a sacrifice to a vestal, is exciting and makes us believe we're in for a bloody good time. But from there the movie literally wanders down to the Tiber in its own sweet time with the brothers philosophizing about the will the gods and their place in history. These two guys, a pair of shepherds, have an awfully inflated opinion of themselves that only gets more bloated as it moves along from one scene of witless violence to another.
And unless you're a Roman history buff, the significance of a lot of what goes on will be meaningless. I for one was disappointed that only one of the Velians was wearing a wolfshead even though they are referred to as "the wolfsheads" by the characters in the story. And the Alabans suddenly have horses at the end of the movie where they had none before. And the horses are decidedly not the size and breed anyone on the Italian peninsula would have had almost three thousand years ago. One character also carries a gladius sword. Way too soon for that.
An unusual production that deserves credit for trying. And the decision to have all the dialogue in Latin was an interesting choice.

THE INDIAN FIGHTER (1955) Kirk Douglas as famed frontiersman tasked with leading a wagon train through Indian country. His fatal decision to take a detour to visit an Indian maid (the absolutely gorgeous Elsa Martinelli of the Paisano Sioux) doom the settlers and a nearby cavalry fort. The Indians have been stirred up by a pair of whiskey traders played by Walter Matthau and Lon Chaney.
An early CinemaScope picture with all the long, lingering, warped, pan shots of that format's typical features. Untypical of those early 'scope efforts is director Andre DeToth's use of multiple camera angles and (for CinemaScope) fluid edits. DeToth seemed to be able to master any new format thrown at him. He was was also the director of the first 3D movie.
It's all exciting, manly stuff with loads of amazing Oregon scenery and enough knife fights and shoot-em-up for the boys and enough shots of a barely clothed Martinelli for the dads.

FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (1964) I know, as a boomer nerd, it's sacrilege to say this, but I've never been much of a Ray Harryhausen fan. Even as a kid, while I loved the monster scenes, I didn't care much for the characters or stories. The mythic movies about Sinbad or Jason were just excuses for "Hey, look at that!" effects scenes that interrupted rather than carried the story. And when the "wow" scene was over the movies would return to tedious, predictable stories loaded with ham actors. But this flick, based on the H.G. Wells novel, is the exception. Here, Harryhausen does more than stop action and has to create an entire panorama of effects shots, matte paintings, pyrotechnics and miniatures that is fully integrated into the story. For sheer scale and inventiveness, this is his best work by far.
After a terrific start, the finding of a Union Jack on the lunar surface by the "first" astronauts to land there, the movie drops into idle for the rest the first act. Pointless Victorian folderol involving chicanery with the deed to a house, a temperamental furnace and a lover's spat have the story spinning its wheels all in a contrived effort to get Martha Hyer aboard the moon capsule. While watching it I thought of a half dozen better ideas involving Russian spies, irate Luddite neighbors or Her Majesty's Secret Service.
But, once the trip to the Moon begins the movie picks up speed and doesn't let up until the end. We're treated to a sub-lunar labyrinth of tunnels, a civilization of insectoid Moon people, giant caterpillars, cave-ins, mysterious alien science and action set pieces in a world of sheer wonder. This is a special effects tour-de-force.
This movie should have been a classic. It should be better remembered. And if it wasn't for the silly Disney movie type opening act, it would probably be as well regarded as George Pal's TIME MACHINE and WAR OF THE WORLDS.

THE FRESHMAN (1925) Harold Lloyd in a rambunctious college comedy about a young man with an unrealistic idea of what life in higher education is about. He's a clueless nerd so determined to be the Big Man on Campus that he becomes the butt of a joke known to all but him when he's told he made the football team when he's only the waterboy. Lloyd if charming, funny and sympathetic as he always he is. He's aided by his most frequent co-star, comic actress Jobyna Ralston who is, as she always was, sweet, long-suffering and knowing.
Lloyd stays on the ground for this one but is not out of danger as the football action is rough and tumble and a lot of the stunts look every bit as dangerous as dangling from high ledges or racing a horse-drawn trolley. In one scene, the teams practice dummy breaks and Harold volunteers to replace it getting tackled over and over again in a scene that had to have left him bruised head to toe.
The football game climax is rousing and suspenseful and a marvelous job of recreating the random events of sports. Nothing surreal or silly is added to the action other than Lloyd's superhuman ability to take punishment and conceal his athleticism as epic klutziness. The man was his own special effect.
The version I watched was a restoration by the National Film Archive and it looks wonderful with the timing corrected, contrast and clarity restored and tinting done to perfection. For once, tax dollars well spent.

TIGER HOUSE (2015) Taut little home invasion thriller from South Africa. Teenager Kaya Scodelario slips into her boyfriend's house to hook up and becomes the monkey wrench in the gears for a quintet of brutal thugs who arrive in the dead of night. Unusual for flicks like this, the heroine's skills are explained in a way that isn't contrived or forced. A thoughtful hide and seek story filled to the brim with suspenseful moments, satisfying turnarounds and a few nasty twists. My only quibble is that, from my understanding, most private homes in SA (with its Mad Max level crime rates) are virtual fortresses but this home seems like a sitting duck.

THE ODD ANGRY SHOT (1979) A year in the life of an Aussie serving in Vietnam. More a portrait than an action flick with only a few actual exchanges with the enemy. We see the unit come together and build bonds of trust through long period of monotony interrupted by moments of terror. An astonishing amount of Fosters is downed in miserable conditions. There's not much to say about the story as it's merely a series of episodes showing the mates fighting, fornicating and getting plastered. Through it all we see a story of heart, disillusionment and loss. Most memorable is the bittersweet homecoming that closes the film.

L'aventure, c'est l'aventure/MONEY, MONEY,MONEY (1972) Claude LeLouch directs this crime farce about a gang of crooks (including Lino Ventura and Jacques Brel) determine that the real money is in politics. They begin robbing, kidnapping and hi-jacking in the name of the revolution and extort cash from Marxists, Maoists and terrorists in return for serving the cause. Though definitely a comedy, and it DOES get silly, this movie has something on its mind that resonates today as the world of ideologies and the world of money are intermingled more than ever. LeLouch directs in a laid-back "we'll get there" style and I suspect that much of the cast's shenanigans were improvised. But it's all fun with lots of clever tangents taken and a real sense of a camaraderie among the five leads.

Bleak Australian revenge story that starts out mean and wends its way down the vengeance highway all the way to outright brutal. We don't learn much about the protagonist other than he's single-minded and very good with tools. But we do follow him through every step of his planned payback on the men who raped and murdered his daughter as well as anyone even remotely involved. He has a long list that gets longer as he makes new enemies along the way. The story wisely eschews an "origin" for the character and, instead, we join him as he's well into his rampage. If you like seeing bad guys suffer (REALLY suffer) at the hands of a believable guy who's no kind of superhero then check this out. It's firmly in the Jeremy Saulnier or Craig Zahler zone of film-making.

THE WICKED LADY (1983) Faye Dunaway as a brazen schemer in 17th Century England. Highwaymen, chases, strumpets, rogues, capering, drunkenness and fights abound including a coach whip fight between Dunaway and Marina Sirtis. Lady Skelton betrays her husband and any shred of decency as she robs, murders and rogers her way across the lush landscape of Old Blighty. What might have been a classic in the hands of Richard Lester or Tony Richardson becomes a kind of grindhouse Henry Fielding in the hands of Michael Winner. Not too surprising as this was produced by Cannon and thus is loaded with pointless and protracted sex scenes and gratuitous nudity. Beautifully lensed by Jack Cardiff, the whole affair has a the subtlety of a Chuck Norris movie. A fine cast of British thespians do their best while Dunaway overacts shamelessly, mugging and eye-rolling and leering for the back benches.

OSCAR (1991) What a surprise this turned out to be! I've long heard this movie maligned and never had any interest in seeing it. A favorable review by Sean Burnham here on FB made me want to check it out and I'm glad I did.
Sylvester Stallone is a depression era gangster having the most eventful morning of his life in this expertly crafted homage to classic Hollywood comedies. Mistaken identities, multiple matching suitcases and a web of lies lead from one epic complication to another. By the deathbed of his father (played by Kirk Douglas!) Sly vows to fly straight. But a wayward daughter and crooked accountant may make going legit impossible.
An assemblage of comic actors are here to help Sly make this movie a charming, and often very funny, farce. The dialogue exchanges are marvelous and everyone seems to be having the time of their lives. Martin Ferraro and Harry Shearer stand out as the Finucci Brothers as does Kurtwood Smith in the kind of role James Gleason was famous for back in the day. The cast even includes Eddie Bracken who starred in a few of these kinds of flicks back in the 40s.

ICE STATION ZEBRA (1968) Alistair MacLean's cold war thriller gets a big screen, epic treatment. A Soviet satellite, with film of a sensitive nature on board, falls out of orbit over the North Pole. A US submarine races under the icecap for the titular outpost with one or more traitors aboard.
Rock Hudson is stolid in the role of the sub skipper. Patrick McGoohan plays his usual acerbic, cryptic spy character. Ernie Borgnine has a ball playing a gregarious Russkie. And Jim Brown is badass as a hard-nosed USMC captain.
The story takes its time getting to the station but, for me anyway, the details of life aboard a nuclear sub are engaging and the actors verbal sparring keeps the tension taut.
If you're familiar with MacLean then you know what to expect; a story fraught with physical danger and continuous betrayals and reversals of fortune. The submarine effects are consistently impressive where the aircraft sequences are not. But it's good, rainy Sunday afternoon adventure stuff.
Two asides on this one. The movie features an entirely male cast. There's not one female cast member seen or even mentioned. At this point, H'wood had moved past the demands that there always be a woman in the story in order to draw the ladies ton the box office, operating under the theory that women wanted to see movies about other women. This led to ludicrous lengths taken to include actresses in the casts of war flicks, SF movies and westerns primarily aimed at a male audience in the hopes that sticking Martha Hyer or Debra Paget on the poster might make Mom or Sis want to see the movie too.
Also, in his final days, this was Howard Hughes' favorite movie. He had his own 70mm print and would have it screened almost daily for months on end. I have a personal theory of what he was so enamored of this movie. The story mirrors his own personal adventure thwarting the commies. If you've never heard of the vessel Glomar Explorer, look it up. It's right out of a MacLean or Cussler novel and actually happened.

NAKED ALIBI (1954) Sterling Hayden is a cop so convinced of Gene Barry's guilt in a series of police killings that he follows Barry to a seedy town on the Mexican border. Gloria Grahame is the femme fatale you hired when you couldn't afford Ida Lupino and she's in great form here alternatively tough and vulnerable. A fine film noir that moves along at a good clip.The best part for me is having Chuck Connors as Hayden's sidekick. Who wouldn't have loved a series of flicks with these two paired as badass detectives?

I AM SARTANA, YOUR ANGEL OF DEATH (1969) Gianni Garko is Sartana, the best dressed of all the spaghetti western anti-heroes. he's a gunfighter and a gambler and settles his differences with a deck of cards or his weird little revolver he wears in a vest pocket. In this first film of the series, someone has stolen Sartana's identity to commit a bank robbery and our hero won't be satisfied until that guy, his gang, his family and anyone else standing in range is gunned down, trampled or blown up. Lots of gunplay, punch-ups and sweaty guys trash-talking each other in smoky bar rooms. Klaus Kinski is along to set the sleazy bar for the rest of the bad guys.

BORDERLAND (2007) Effective no-budget thriller about three high school pals who run into trouble with a Santeria cult south of the border. Not for the squeamish as it adds heavy horror elements to what is ostensibly a crime thriller. Well acted and crafted with skill to put, I suspect, every dime of the budget o the screen.

BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE (1958) The first of five westerns that Randolph Scott produced for Columbia with director Budd Boetticher and writer Burt Kennedy. I only recently learned that this was based on one of a series of paperback novels about Tom Buchanan. I had a chance to read a couple and they're quite good. The novels were the result of Gold Medal assigning writer William Ard to re-write his own hard-boiled crime novels as westerns under the pen name Jonas Ward. Anyhow, Scott is an aimless drifter who gets onto trouble in a border town and is just ornery enough to stick around to see justice done. The original crime tropes of the novels show through the western plot with shifts in loyalty, a criminal conspiracy and a corrupt town beyond the reach of redemption. Scott plays his wry, wise-ass persona in this one in contrast to the more dour, world-weary gunfighter he would play in his next four films.

RIDICULE (1996) A movie that leaves the viewer with a lot to think about. In the French court of the Age of Reason, intellectual discourse gives way to sophistry and word play. Wit is valued over substance and mockery becomes a deadly art form leading to ruined lives, murder and suicide. Does any of this sound familiar? This amazingly prescient film shows the irony of an informed populace consumed with the desire to have the last word at the cost of civil discourse and the open exchange of ideas. Gorgeously photographed with the keen eye for detail that marks most French period pieces.

Spasti Leningrad/BATTLE OF LENINGRAD (2019) Moving, suspenseful war movie about the evacuation of the populace of Leningrad via barges towed across Lake Ladoga as well as the soldiers and civilians tasked with covering the retreat. Grim and fatalistic as all Russian war movies tend to be but populated with a cast of characters to care about. The effects are uniformly excellent and the action scenes well staged. And, like most Russian movies about WWII, this story presents the downside of Soviet society while exalting the personal courage of the people. The original Russian title, Saving Leningrad, is more accurate as this movie doesn't present an overview of the German siege of 1941.

IF YOU MEET SARTANA...PRAY FOR YOUR DEATH (1968) Two businessmen and a Mexican general are playing a shell game with a shipment of gold and Gianni Garko as Sartana puts himself into the mix along with wild cards William Berger and Klaus Kinski. This is the first of the five film series featuring the cool breeze clotheshorse that is Sartana, a mysterious gunman who favors a four-shot (or is it five?) custom pistol he keeps in his vest pocket. This one features one betrayal after another as the bodies pile up in the streets. It's all the sweating, grunting and wholesale slaughter you need in a B-grade macaroni western.

THE TIME MACHINE (2002) The classic H.G. Wells story gets the Dreamworks treatment which means it's lumbered with an unnecessary emotional arc, mawkish and obvious attempts at humor and dull action set pieces in place of any kind of real suspense. Guy Pearce is wasted in a vapid version of this SF classic that won't replace the far better George Pal version of 1960. The original film, like the novel, remains thought-provoking and inventive. This movie reveals the blinkered worldview of its creators. The hero's vantage of the future of the world is literally only what he can see from an alley in Manhattan. What he can see there is that everyone in the future of 2030 will ride bicycles and uniformly ignore advertisements shouting at them from the sides of buildings. The dystopic far future he finds himself marooned in is the result of an attempt to mine the Moon for minerals. Exactly how that leads to the human race mutating into two distinct branches is unclear and the resolution of the movie is simply awful. Forgettable tripe.

Faites sauter la banque/LET'S ROB THE BANK (1964) Popular French comic actor Louis de Funès is a store owner cheated of his life's savings by an unscrupulous banker. His solution is to dig a tunnel from the basement of his sporting goods store into the vault if the bank across the street. He enlists his wife and kids who turn it into a family project. Of course complications ensue with funny and suspenseful results. It's all fun and breezy and not to be taken at all seriously. Funès' appeal is easy to understand as he plays the put-upon everyman deriving laughs with impeccable timing, subtle facial expressions and kinetic body language. And, from a writing standpoint, I have to admire how they resolved all of the conflicts and problems in as neat a way as possible.

GUN BROTHERS (1956) Buster Crabbe and Neville Brand are brothers in this no-budget western programmer that's pretty darned good. Buster is fresh out of the cavalry and ready to join his brother in a Wyoming cattle venture. But Neville's more of a rustler than a rancher and Buster is torn between family loyalty and the law. Some solid suspense moments and top drawer acting for a mostly set-bound cheapie. Michael Ansara is despicable as a villain and Slim Pickens is along as well. All under the sure hand of TV and movie vet Sidney Salkow.

6 UNDERGROUND (2019) I don't know where to begin on this Netflix collaboration with Michael Bay. Ryan Reynolds, playing exactly the same character he always plays, is a billionaire who fakes his own death to form a small unit of talented operatives who have also all faked their own deaths. Why? So no one can go after the loved ones they leave behind. Not a bad idea except that they make absolutely no effort to hide their identities and the bad guys who are the subject of their first mission determine who they are early on. This is just the start of a series of the confounding and consternating elements that populate this noisy, frantic and inane exercise in distraction.
The objective of this elite unit is regime change because of a fictional dictator's poison gas attack on his own people. This is based on the widely de-bunked story about gas attacks in Syria. Our heroes also falsely believe that regime change is always for the best even though there's ZERO reason to believe that the "democratic" leader they seek to install will be any better than the louse they're ousting. If the last hundred years has taught us anything it's that regime change (with the exception of ending the Third Reich and Imperial Japan) almost always leads to worse.
Aside from all that, this movie relentlessly treats us to one fast-cut action sequence after another with a shocking disregard for collateral damage. The good guys in this film are responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths as they lead chases and instigate firefights in heavily populated areas. All for the greater good I suppose. Or maybe because they're just too-cool-for-school, gun-toting, thrill-seeking sociopaths.
All is accompanied by dialogue loaded with pop culture references when it's not simply lifting lines wholesale from other movies. It's as if it was written using Facebook posts. Maybe it was.
It's all exhausting rather than exhilarating and populated by characters I couldn't get engaged in. Partly because they're written as ciphers and partly because they're cartoon characters who suffer mortal injuries only to pop up seconds later to perform astonishing feats of athleticism. Hard to take any of it seriously enough to invest emotion in.
Worst of all is the total waste of Mélanie Laurent in a role as a gunslinging badass that deserved to be in a much better movie than this.
I don't think I've ever seen so much money, so much time and so much talent wasted on so little.

LIGHTNING JACK (1994) Paul Hogan uses the last five minutes of his fame to make a western written by himself. I have to say I admire him for that. Why not shoot for that dream project in the twilight of your popularity? And he apparently financed it through a kind of early crowdfunding by selling shares in the movie. Goo on ya, mate. What he produces is a fun western adventure with a light touch and good action scenes. Fellow Aussie Simon Wincer directs with his usual skills for the genre on display. Cuba Gooding Jr. makes the most of his role as a mute sidekick and manages a few laughs. And Roger Daltry has a cameo as a vile gunfighter.

DRAGNET (1987) The movie that launched the (mostly) regrettable tradition of big screen adaptions of well-known television series. A mixed-bag of comedy moments with little effort to create any kind of plot. Dan Ackroyd indulges himself in an imitation of Jack Webb and Tom Hanks whoops, yelps and hollers as a character created only to snark at every opportunity. It's only fitfully funny and wears out its welcome quickly and seems presented with no real point of view on anything. It's not parody or pastiche or any other discernible form of comedy other than a loosely joined series of gags leading to the least exciting gun battle ever put on film. It would be a year before NAKED GUN would show how this kind of movie should be done.

MR. MOTO'S GAMBLE (1938) Peter Lorre as the detective/adventurer Moto finds himself embroiled in a murder mystery committed during a heavyweight championship bout. Always a fun series and this one is no exception. Fast paced sleuthing stuff with clever twists, snappy dialogue and quite a few laughs. And this one is a crossover with the appearance of Charlie Chan's number one son (played by Keye Luke) as one of Moto's students. Also features Ward Bond as a boxer and Slapsy Maxie Rosenbloom providing comedy relief. I've been informed that this was actually intended as a Charlie Chan movie but re-written for Lorre when regular Chan actor Warner Oland became ill. 

SARTANA'S HERE...TRADE YOUR PISTOL FOR A COFFIN (1970) Third entry in the official series (there were dozens of unauthorized knock-offs). Once again, Sartana (this time played by George Hilton) is after a shipment of gold that's never where it's rumored to be. The usual huge bodycount, traitorous females, scheming businessmen and vile bandits. The odd addition here is a character named Sabata. Not the "man with the gunsight eyes" played by Lee Van Cleef but a fey mama's boy who favors a pink and white outfit and rides with a parasol over his head. I guess naming him for the uber-macho Van Cleef character is a kind of inside joke.

THE DUCHESS AND THE DIRTWATER FOX (1976) I'm always wary of movies with "cute" titles like this and this one proves the rule. George Segal is a crooked gambler and Goldie Hawn is a scheming prostitute in this comedy western that relies on the tee-hee variety of sex jokes and the brittle chemistry of the leads to carry it along. I really don't miss the days when H'wood had a real fascination with whores. Back in the 70's, an actress wasn't considered "serious" until they'd played a sex worker. Anyway, this mess of a chase story has a few moments but is marred by coincidences, chance and the characters' often unwarranted change of heart. And, like way too many westerns following that Newman/Redford thing, this one is lumbered with a syrupy pop song played over a romantic interlude. Lemon Drops, Lollipops and Sunbeams sung by Bobby Vinton. That saccharine enough for you?

Les tontons flingueurs/MONSIEUR GANGSTER (1963) This one has the kind of solid concept that makes me wonder why it never got an American remake. Gangster Lino Ventura is asked by a dying pal to take over the his rackets and to watch over his wild child teenage daughter. Of course, every leader in the gang is itching to take over the top spot and willing to kill their way to the head of the table. It's all far too French for me and bumps along at an uncertain pace brightened up by some funny comedy set pieces. Ventura is, of course, perfect in his patented put-upon tough guy role and comic actor Jean Lefebvre is really growing on me.

ROMMEL (2017) German-produced TV movie about the final seven months of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's life. From the failed defense of the French beaches to his frustrations with other members of the general staff and, finally, his entanglement with the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler. Well done within the confines of a television budget with the benefit of using the actual locations. It explains with clarity, and a palpable sense of dread, Rommel's part in the Valkyrie conspiracy and what a too-clever-by-half effort that was.

MR. MOTO'S LAST WARNING (1939) Moto is deep undercover in Port Said to uncover a plot by "a certain foreign power" to destroy the French Mediterranean fleet and close the Suez Canal! What the indefatigable crime-fighter runs up against is a dastardly spy ring ruin by the un-funniest ventriloquist ever. One narrow escape after another as Moto out-wits, out-moves and out-judos the bad guys in the service of international law and order. George Sanders and John Carradine are along as heavies.

THE TWO-HEADED SPY (1958) Cracking good spy drama with Jack Hawkins as a British agent operating as a general in the Wehrmacht supply chain. It's the largely exaggerated true story of Alec Scotland who was embedded with the German army for decades. There's plenty of tense moments as Hawkins risks exposure every second of every day. Features one of the most brutal torture scenes I can recall; made all the worse for leaving the details up to one's own imagination. Donald Pleasance is is usual creepy self in a small role and a very young Michael Caine in a blink-and-you'll-miss-him appearance.

PURPLE NOON (1960) Rene Clement adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's first Tom Ripley novel knows when to get out of the way and let the story tell itself. For those unfamiliar with the series of novels, Tom Ripley is an ex-pat American who seems free of any kind of moral compass and is willing to commit almost any crime, on the spur of the moment, that might benefit him. He's like a predator, with only his own survival in mind, let loose on civilization. Alain Delon is pitch perfect as Ripley and wisely plays him without a hint through facial expressions or body language of what a sociopath monster Ripley is. We see him through his actions only. Set against gorgeous scenery which only makes what happens all the more shocking.

THE ONE (2001) It's Jet Li versus Jet Li in this sci-fi punch-up dealing with parallel universes. The gag is that evil Jet grows stronger with each of the alternate dimension versions of himself he kills. His aim is to become the only one of himself and thus gain the powers of a god. He kills nerd Jets and preppie Jets and even a blonde Jet named Sven! He runs into trouble when he shows up in our dimension and meets his match in nice-guy cop Jet. Lots of explosions and iffy wire effects along with a few really good Jet vs Jet fights. Kind of a Dollar Store Terminator movie from Glen Morgan and James Wong that I'm willing to bet started life as an X-Files episode like their far-more successful FINAL DESTINATION franchise. Added bonus" Jason Statham with hair!

WOMAN CHASES MAN (1937) Adorable Miriam Hopkins is looking for work and has set her sights high. She wants to be the lead architect on a housing project dreamed up by Charles Winninger. Trouble is that the family fortune needed to finish the project is in a trust held by Winninger's tightwad son played by Joel McCrea, Breezy and fun with a uniformly fine cast. I have to wonder if Preston Sturges did and script doctoring here because so much of a dialogue has his ring. All-in-all and excellent screwball comedy that deserves to be better known.

IRMA LA DOUCE (1963) Jack Lemmon is a Paris cop who loses his badge and becomes a pimp who becomes enamored with prostitute Shirley MacLaine. This passed for light entertainment in the early 60's. I have never understood Hollywood's fascination with hookers as subject matter for movies. I watch movies from the world over and nowhere but in American cinema will you find these Cinderella fables about whores. These are fantasies about "sex workers" that take place in a world free of sexually transmitted disease, drugs, violence and abuse. It confounds me how Billy Wilder could make something this misguided after making a film that more maturely contemplates the shifting sexual mores of the time two years earlier. THE APARTMENT also starring Lemmon and MacClaine. The film is shot as a kind of musical comedy without the music with characters prancing around in bright costumes against a a drab (and actually filthy) background. The comedy is forced, the scenes go on too long and everyone appears to be straining with the thin material.

Mort d'un pourr/DEATH OF A CORRUPT MAN (1977) Alain Delon in a violent political thriller involving a stolen file detailing corruption at the highest levels of the French government. Alain is on the run as well as trying to protect Ornella Muti from murderers with orders to find the file and kill anyone who's seen it. Good stuff with some great car and truck stunts by Reme Juiienne. This one's a departure from director Georges Lautner and a far cry from the kind of caper comedies he was making prior to this. Also features Klaus Kinski doing his creepy thing and Lautner regular Mirielle Darc as Delon's girlfriend.

ABSOLUTE POWER (1997) Professional burglar Clint Eastwood is the unintended witness to a high crime committed by a public official and he becomes the target of the Secret Service, the DC police and a hired killer. Clint directs this film version of David Baldacci's potboiler novel with a smart script by William Goldman. Told without melodrama or unnecessary action scenes and a top drawer cast that includes Gene Hackman, Laura Linney, Scot Glen, Judy Davis and Ed Harris.
I was admiring the dialogue touches sprinkled throughout and recognized Goldman "reversal" style before being reminded that this was his screenplay in the end credits.

Gloria Russell: Bill, I need you to examine her.
Bill Burton: I'm no gynecologist.
Gloria Russell: I just made you one!

TARZAN AND THE SHE-DEVIL (1953) Lex Barker's final swing on the vine as Tarzan fits right into the formula of all the previous films in the series. Ivory poachers turned slavers led by Monique Van Vooren (the she-devil of the title) invades Tarzan's jungle and you know he's not having any of that. He gets especially irritated when he thinks Jane has died when their tree-house is burned to the ground by the bad guys. That's an element borrowed from an early Burroughs novel. We get everything we want in a Tarzan movie, fights, chimpanzee high-jinks, elephant stampedes and Tarzan establishing himself once again as fictions baddest badass. Van Vooren is aided by henchmen Raymond Burr and Tom Conway and. curiously, a tribe of white Africans who look like they might have taken the wrong turn at Albuquerque.

ONCE UPON A HONEYMOON (1943) Cary Grant is a reporter covering Europe as Nazism is on the rise and the German army is on the march. He falls for American golddigger Ginger Rogers who doesn't realize that her titles fiance, Walter Slezak, is a closet Hitler-lover. What follows is part romantic comedy, part spy thriller and all war propaganda. But it's entertaining propaganda with a witty script, charming cast and some real suspense moments. My favorite is Rogers in disguise as a hotel maid in order to give two stormtroopers the slip. She's running a sweeper over the rug on her way out and is determined not to miss a spot even if it means the bad guys have to lift their jackboots to let her by. A nice little bit of improv there, Miss Rogers.

THE HORIZONTAL LIEUTENANT (1960) Another example of the once-popular and now extinct service comedy. This time it's Jim Hutton who's transferred to a remote island to hunt for a Japanese hold-out. He has to leave behind a cushy posting on Hawaii where he's been dating Army nurse Paula Prentiss. Talk about sacrificing for the war effort. There's the usual bumbling officers and 4-F reject characters. Charles McGraw, tough guy actor, gets some choice lines as the gruff base commander and Jim Backus is his always-reliable country club nitwit. But the funniest scenes go to Yoshio Yoda (Fuji from McHALE'S NAVY) as a womanizing Nisei soldier. When I was a kid we loved Fuji and here he gives further examples of why. His comedic timing is impeccable and he totally nails the role of the sometimes-clueless, sometimes-brilliant outlier character. This movie also teams Hutton and Prentiss once again and it's not hard to see why. Both being tall and slender they make a cute couple and have such a real on-screen chemistry that audiences assumed they were married in real life.

A VERY HONORABLE GUY (1934) Joe E. Brown is 'Feet' Samuels, a gambler and Broadway loafer in this adaption of a Damon Runyon story. Feet enters into a deal to sell his brain to science with a thirty day deadline underwritten by a loan shark that our hero is in debt to. Everything that could go wrong (and right) happens in a story that has real suspense and high stakes that would have worked in a dramatic thriller. Through the 1930's Joe E. Brown was the Warner Brothers' big comedy star. His very American character, a boastful rube with a good heart and tireless ambition, endeared him to audiences in these well-plotted comedy features. In every instance these short features, running a little more than a hour, had solid and engaging storylines for Brown to riff off of.

ZODIAC (2007) David Fincher's telling of the true crime story of the Zodiac killer who terrorized California for two decades becomes a crime epic in the director's careful hands. We go along with cops and newspaper reporters who struggle to uncover the identity of the infuriating and frustrating serial killer. The first time I saw this movie I didn't care for it. I was driven to return to it after enjoying Fincher's work on the excellent Netflix series Mindhunters. I didn't fully see the through story here until my second viewing the other night. The movie is an earnest telling of the enduring mystery of the murderer who was just as likely to lie as to kill. The movie is populated by marvelous, restrained performances by Jake Gyllenhal, Robert Downey Jr, Donal Logue and Mark Ruffalo. The period detail is uniformly excellent and there's even touches of humor (cop humor) in the story that are not out of place. Now I'm curious about the director's cut.

MADIGAN (1968) Richard Widmark is Dan Madigan, a tough New York cop who doesn't play by the rules. Henry Fonda is his former precinct captain now police commander. Widmark and his partner (Harry Guardino) have their guns stolen by a thug and spend the rest of the movie trying to find them. As plot lines go, this one is pretty lame. It's gussied up by pointless sub-plots about adultery and NYPD politics.
A failed attempt to make a realistic cop drama and a genre that had run out of steam on the big screen in the mid-50s. Shot on location (in a whiter New York City than I've ever seen) with side trips to the always-unconvincing Universal backlot. In fact, this looks very much like typical output from the studio at the time; scenes too "hot" and TV-friendly frame compositions and a simply awful over-dramatic musical score. Don Siegel, who made better policiers before this and would after, is lumbered with a screenplay that betrays its fiction-by-the-pound potboiler novel roots. Hard to believe that this came out the same year as BULLITT and we'd have to wait three more years for THE FRENCH CONNECTION.

TIMECRIMES (2007) In this Spanish SF film an everyday schmo finds himself trapped in the loops of a time paradox when he travels to the next day only to discover that he was the cause of the events that happened the day before. Twisty, turny, creepy, mind-bending and entirely engaging slow-boil thriller that will keep you working out the puzzle long after the end credits roll.

DRAGONSLAYER (1981) Serfs travel far to hire a wizard to relieve them of the dragon that plagues their manor. But they have to be satisfied with the work of his young apprentice who is soon at odds with those in the kingdom who prefer the status quo of appeasing the dragon in exchange for an uneasy peace. How rare is a fantasy movie set in a fully realized historical context? This movie takes great pains to make this world of wizards and dragons as believable as possible and efforts are impressive. Excellent acting throughout, including Ralph Richardson in a marvelous turn as the aging sorcerer. There's also, for the time, amazing effects sequences using a new type of stop-motion animation call "go-motion" in which every other frame is blurred in order to lose the strobing effect that so often mars these kinds of scenes. The dragon of the title is indeed awesome and very scary at times leading to some terrific suspense moments.
I saw this one at a special preview and went on cold knowing nit a single thing about it. We weren't even allowed to see the movie's poster or know the cast or genre. Always a great way to see a movie; zero expectations and you get in free. This particular experience was an unexpectedly pleasant surprise.

RAMBO: LAST BLOOD (2019) John Rambo takes on a human trafficking cartel. I could end the review here but I won't. This is a pure action film wedded to a kind of reverse horror film where we're rooting for the slasher. Lean, dour, bleak and nasty, this movie delivers everything Rambo fans expect and then some. And, thankfully, it does not end in one of those protracted one-on-one fights in which we're supposed to worry if the good guy will win or not. Nope. Rambo just effing punishes these creeps for a good twenty minutes. Hurts so good.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019) To discuss the plot of this film to any significant degree would taint the experience of anyone who hasn’t seen it. Suffice it to say that this story of the Manson family and the Summer of Love in 1969 California is the feel-good movie of the year. Quentin Tarantino had a lot to make up to me after the abomination that was THE HATEFUL 8. Well, the crazy son-of-a-bitch did it with what is, despite the inevitable descent into glorious exploitation trash, his most mature film. On the surface it’s the director’s most self-indulgent film making it perhaps the most self-indulgent movie in cinema history. But as I revel in the same lowbrow pop culture morass that he does, I will forgive him all day long. And when someone panders to themselves to such a painstaking degree, we can all take it as his gift to all of us. For all of that, he shows real restraint in scenes that would have been cheapened by the tricks and tropes he used in his previous grand grindhouse homage efforts. Scenes of Sharon Tate privately basking in her “moment” in the movie biz are presented without foreboding or telegraphing. Yet, a visit to the Spahn movie ranch stands up there with the Bates Motel or Dracula’s castle for rising suspense and that sweet “get out of there!” feeling. I will say no more about story.
From a sheer technical aspect this movie is a marvel. The OCD-precise recreation of Hollywood in August of 1969 deserves applause all on its own. A massive physical and artistic effort as it’s done with an absolute minimum of CGI as are all of the stunt effects. The whole movie is seen through candy-colored lenses but never devolves into a delirium. Even an acid trip is only seen in the body language of the actor experiencing it. This is end of the 60’s as a nostalgia trip free of melancholy, overdoses, sexual abuse and disease and all of that is made crystal clear by the astonishing conclusion of this magnum opus.

THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX (2018) A space-based experiment to create an alternate energy for a fuel-starved Earth goes awry and creates a melding of two parallel worlds. It's a decent enough SF flick with an okay cast, some suspenseful moments and one very clever death scene. And as much as I love Chris O'Dowd, his role as comic relief manages to defuse any building tension the story might have had. The movie has a weird history as it started out as a movie called GOD PARTICLE until someone decided to wedge it into the Cloverfield franchise. The opposite of what they did with THE QUIET PLACE last year. It was also meant to be released theatrically but Parmaount decided to offer it to Netflix instead where it remains to this day.

THE TRAIN (1964) A network of rail workers do all they can to stop a train full of France's greatest paintings stolen by the Nazis from reaching Germany in the days before the fall of Paris. Burt Lancaster leads a mostly French cast in an epic thriller loaded with suspense moments and indelible characters. And Burt is here doing most of his own stunts and some of them look quite dangerous. IS there a safe way to fall off a moving train?
The details of how they use their expertise at running (and stopping) trains is as fascinating as it is inventive including a few incredible, full scale locomotive collisions. John Frankenheimer directs from a terse, lean script and chooses to shoot the movie in black and white which only adds to the immediacy of what we're experiencing. I think is the last new-release "A" picture not shot in color that I saw in a theater until PAPER MOON.

THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) A New York vice cop with a nose for wrongdoing uncovers an international conspiracy to ship a load of heroin into New York in the 1960s.
It's hard to overestimate the effect this movie had on how crime films would be made in the USA going forward. It literally changed everything about how police and criminals were portrayed in every thriller that followed on the big and little screen.
Director William Friedkin put himself on the map by basing his film on a true story with a punchy, script by Ernest Tidyman and borrowing the storytelling style of French auteur Jean-Pierre Melville. A "French" connection in more ways than one.
Popeye and Cloudy are unlike any other cops Americans had seen in their movies. These guys were slobs. They drank and smoked and cursed and fooled around. They would bend the rules when they had too. They were casually racist and abrasive and jealous of their arrest rates. They were also dogged and courageous and fixated on putting hoods in a cell or a grave, whichever worked best.
DIRTY HARRY would be released two months later providing further incentive for the explosion of cops in movies and on TV that pretty much continues to this day.
The movie is loaded with memorable scenes including one of the most thrilling car chases ever put on film; a combination of brilliant editing and a totally unauthorized early morning spin down Stillwell Avenue that resulted in at least one very real car crash with an unwitting driver.

PRIMAL (2019) Does Nicholas Cage ever sleep? His latest is an action film with the kind of contrived plot that has kept B movie producers in greenbacks for decades. Nick's a "bring 'em back alive" kind of hunter who deals in selling endangered species. (boo! hiss!) He's got a rare, and VERY pissed off, albino jaguar in his collection this time. He boards a cargo ship with his latest payload only to find out that US Marshals and their charge, a dangerous psychopath, will be passengers as well. Well, you know what happens next, right? Things move swiftly and pretty much by the numbers but the locale is interesting and the feral animals loose in an enclosed environment offer a change from the usual bullets and fists scenario. And, surprise, Nick turns out to be a good guy after all. (yay!) If that came as a spoiler to you I wish you a happy birthday as you were born yesterday. Late yesterday. It's all fun in a rainy Saturday afternoon way and yet another mile in Nic Cage's apparent personal marathon to appear in more movies than anyone who ever lived. Oh, and Kevin Durand is effective as the killing machine bad guy competing with the jaguar for a body count.

DARK OF THE SUN (1968) Rod Taylor and Jim Brown are mercenaries tasked with taking a train across war-torn Congo to rescue refugees. Cinematographer Jack Cardiff presents a sometimes shockingly brutal action-adventure that is like a 1960's men's "sweat" magazine brought to life. Apparently it was intended to be even more violent but was severely trimmed before release and that chop job shows in some rough edits in spots. Still, it's exciting and fast-paced and suspenseful with some stand-out action set pieces and the world's toughest Toyota.
Sidenote: I've seen this movie a dozen times and only learned yesterday that it was shot in Jamaica standing in for West Africa.

THE DOGS OF WAR (1980) Christopher Walken assembles a team of fellow mercenaries to cause a regime change in a West African hellhole. I was lucky enough to catch it on the big screen on its release and it's has been an annual re-watch for me since it came out on VHS. Deliberately paced and free of the usual action movie fare of cute lines and contrived violence. It spends a lot of time on the more mundane aspects of this kind of extra-legal military action and I loved every minute of those scenes set in London, Paris and Valencia as the team assembles the weaponry needed and the transport to reach their target. Walken is an unusual choice for a lead role like this and that's a lot of what makes the film work, makes it feel more believable since he's not some god-like former wrestler. And the musical score is effective and haunting at times. My only regret? Ed O'Neill's character begs off of the big mission. You can see him back seat right in the photo below in the opening sequence.

100 RIFLES (1969) Burt Reynolds is a half-breed Yaqui Indian who uses the funds from a bank robbery to buy rifles for his people. Jim Brown is the lawman sent to bring him back over the Mexican border. And Raquel Welch is a firebrand revolutionary seeking revenge for the hanging of her father. Fernando Lamas is the sadistic federale general who chases them all over the desert to get the titular rifles back.
An okay western shot in Spain that should have been better given its pedigree. Directed by Tom Gries but far inferior to his previous western WILL PENNY (1967) with a screenplay by veteran western writer Clair Huffaker. It's fun enough but the attempt to create a bromance between Reynolds and Brown falls flat. Much was made at the time of the interracial sex scene between Brown Welch (rating the cover of Life magazine which even seemed odd at the time for a quick-play actioner) but it's just the typical obligatory montage that appeared in every exploitation flick once the ratings system was in place.
There's LOADS of violent action but much it falls flat as the scenes lack any real cohesion, suspense or sense of rising action. They're each shot Grand Guignol style. A machete to the head here. A bullet to the guts here.
Trivia note: John Wayne's most frequent stand-in was brought in to double for Brown but would have to do it in a wig and blackface. Reynolds objected to this and refused to work unless they found a black stuntman which the studio made Burt pay for.


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