Saturday, May 21, 2022

#2,757. Phenomena (1985) - Dario Argento 4-Pack

 





Dario Argento’s Phenomena gets off to a fast start: distracted while taking pictures of the gorgeous landscape, a 14-year-old Danish tourist (played by Argento’s daughter, Fiore) misses the bus back to town. To escape the cold, she makes her way to an abandoned house. There, she is attacked by a scissors-wielding maniac, who chases her into the woods before cornering the poor girl in a cavern and finishing her off.

The surroundings are undoubtedly beautiful (portions of the movie were shot on-location in Switzerland), yet this initial sequence stays with you because it is simultaneously tense and violent (Argento utilizes a bit of slow-motion that is especially vicious), with Goblin’s incredible musical score setting the perfect tone.

It is a great opening, and as we’ll soon discover it’s just one of many such memorable scenes scattered throughout this superb horror film.

Several months after the above events, teenager Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connolly), the daughter of a famous American actor, travels to Switzerland to attend the prestigious Richard Wagner Academy for Girls. She befriends her roommate Sophie (Federica Mastroianni), but Jennifer quickly finds herself at odds with the school’s Headmistress (Dalila Di Lazzarro), and her unique ability to “communicate” with insects makes the new arrival an outcast among her classmates.

When Sophie is murdered by a killer targeting teen girls (the very same who attacked the tourist in the opening scene), Jennifer joins forces with Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasance), a local Entomologist who is convinced her unique connection to the insect world may hold the key to tracking down this psychopath.

Argento’s flair for visuals is evident throughout Phenomena. Aside from the masterfully-shot opening, there’s an amazing sequence involving thousands of flies (which come to Jennifer’s aid as her classmates tease her), and a late underwater sequence is especially breathtaking. As a sharp contrast to its stunning imagery, Phenomena tells a brutal story of murder and mutilation (the killer likes to collect body parts), and the last half hour of the movie (by which point the killer’s identity has been revealed) will have you one the edge of your seat.

The performances are a mixed bag; Pleasance is quite good (right down to his Scottish accent), as is Daria Nicolodi (who was married to Argento but divorced him around the time this movie was made) who plays Frau Bruckner, the Headmistress’s assistant. The rest of the cast, however - including Jennifer Connolly - is only so-so (though I quite liked Professor MacGregor’s chimpanzee, Inga, which becomes an important part of the story).

In addition to the lackluster performances, the narrative gets a bit confusing at times (Jennifer’s sleepwalking incident is jarring, to say the least), but in the end, Phenomena’s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses, and the finale is so bizarre that it’s sure to linger in your mind well after the movie is over.
Rating: 8 out of 10








Thursday, May 19, 2022

#2,756. Suspiria (1977) - Dario Argento 4-Pack

 





In 2020, Collider put together a list of the greatest horror movie soundtracks of all-time. It featured a few obvious choices, like the music for John Carpenter’s Halloween and Bernard Herrmann’s iconic Psycho score.

Yet another predictable entry was the soundtrack for Dario Argento’s Suspiria, composed and performed by the Italian band Goblin. There are moments in this 1977 film that will shake you, and Goblin’s music features prominently in pretty much all of them.

Now, it may seem a bit strange to start off this review talking about the music. Yes, Goblin’s score is the stuff of legend, but Suspiria, in and of itself, is considered by many to be Argento’s masterpiece, not to mention one of the greatest horror films ever made. While I may not fully agree with such assertions, I also cannot bring myself to dismiss them outright; Suspiria is, indeed, a horror masterpiece, but it’s the film’s stylistic elements – the set design, cinematography, gore effects, and, yes, the music - that make it so.

The first entry in Argento’s Three Mothers trilogy (which also includes 1980’s Inferno and the dreadful 2007 film Mother of Tears), Suspiria stars Jessica Harper as Suzy Bannion, an American dancer who travels to Germany to study ballet at the prestigious Tanz Dance Academy.

Though turned away when she first arrives - at which point she also witnesses the hasty departure of another student, Pat Hingle (Eva Axen), who flees the academy and runs into the nearby woods – Suzy is eventually accepted into the fold. She meets the school’s lead instructor Miss Tanner (Alida Valli), is introduced to the Headmistress Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett), and befriends fellow student Sarah (Stefania Casini), with whom she will become quite close.

But as Suzy eventually discovers, there’s more to the Tanz Academy than meets the eye. In fact, this well-respected school may just be a front for a coven of witches!

Argento’s artistic sensibilities, as well as his flair for visuals, are on full display throughout Suspiria. In an early scene, Pat Hingle, the student who ran from the Academy when Suzy first arrived, rushes to an apartment complex to seek refuge with a friend. Soon after her arrival, Pat is attacked by an unknown assailant, who drags her onto a balcony and stabs her repeatedly, going so far as to slice Pat’s chest open and puncture her still-beating heart! The sequence ends with Pat, a cord wrapped around her neck, breaking through a stain-glassed ceiling and plummeting until the cord reaches its end, and she is left dangling in mid-air. It is a thrilling, vibrant, yet ultimately horrifying introduction to the world of Suspiria, and it’s Argento’s eye for visuals as well the pulsating, nerve-racking Goblin score that makes this sequence so unforgettable.

Along with praising Argento (who co-wrote the screenplay with Daria Nicolodi, inspired in part by the 1845 Thomas de Quincey essay Suspira de Profundis), kudos must also be given to production designer Giuseppe Bassan (the red walls that line the upper floors of the dance academy are a sight to behold) and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli (the camera glides in an almost effortless fashion throughout the movie, capturing the film’s many colorful set pieces while simultaneously enhancing the story’s supernatural elements). Their work, as well as Argento’s stylistic approach (even something as simple as Suzy walking out of the airport into a rainstorm, the wind lifting her hair as she does so, has a sense of dread about it), proved much more interesting than the story itself.

And if Suspiria has one downfall, it is that: its story is never quite as interesting as what we’re seeing. There’s a lot to love about Suspiria, but it’s tale of witches, covens, and secret societies isn’t one of the film’s strongest elements.

Still, if you want to see Argento at the height of his creativity, Suspiria is a great place to start.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10








Tuesday, May 17, 2022

#2,755. Deep Red (1975) - Dario Argento 4-Pack

 





Whenever I think of Dario Argento’s 1975 giallo Deep Red, there’s one scene in particular that pops into my head. Occurring late in the film, it’s a sequence in which Professor Giordani (Glauco Mauri) is alone in his study. Suddenly, a creepy mechanized doll, the size of a small child, comes walking through the door towards him. The doll sports a sinister grin, and approaches at a hurried pace. Frightened, Giordani grabs a fireplace poker and smashes in the doll’s head. His relief at ridding himself of this threatening toy is only short-lived, however, and Giordani soon meets a violent, terrible end at the hands of the real killer.

It is, as I mentioned above, a memorable moment from a classic horror film, but seen in context with the rest of the movie it makes little sense. The doll serves no real purpose, except to possibly distract Giordani while the killer gets into position. But even this explanation feels like a stretch (from where the killer finally strikes, it’s doubtful he/she could have gotten there without Giordani seeing them). And yet the scene works as Argento intended, unnerving us almost as much as the intended victim, Giordani.

This is what separates Deep Red from its director’s earlier Animal Trilogy (Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Cat O’ Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet). Like those films, this 1975 horror / thriller is undoubtedly a giallo, but one in which story and plot take a back seat to cinematic style.

Prior to his run-in with the doll, Giordani had been assisting the film’s lead character, British jazz musician Mark Daly (David Hemmings), who witnessed the murder of his neighbor, psychic Helga Ulmann (Macha Meril). The first on the scene after Helga is killed, Mark immediately calls the police, yet by the time they get there he is convinced one of the pictures that was hanging in Helga’s apartment when he first arrived has since disappeared. Unfortunately, he cannot recall which picture, or what image it contained.

Teaming up with reporter Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi), Mark spends the remainder of the movie trying to connect the dots, hoping to somehow remember the missing picture, which he believes might hold the key to revealing the killer’s identity.

It’s a standard giallo storyline, and actually has quite a bit in common with Argento’s first foray into the subgenre, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. In addition, there are POV shots (from the killer’s perspective) scattered throughout the movie, and a central mystery that grows more perplexing as the story unfolds.

And yet Deep Red is more than a giallo; it is an exercise in style, with Argento utilizing sweeping camera movements, long shots (several early street scenes featuring Mark and his musician friend Carlo, played by Gabriele Lavia, are shot from a distance away), and moments of extreme violence (an author, played by Giuliana Calandra, meets a particularly gruesome end in a tub of scolding hot water). There is also an extended, expertly shot sequence in which Mark investigates an abandoned house, where he makes several startling discoveries.

Other themes and subtexts are featured throughout Deep Red as well, including the “battle of the sexes” that develops between Marc and Gianna Brezzi; along with a humorous scene in which Gianna challenges Mark to an arm-wrestling match, there’s the even funnier recurring image of Mark in the broken passenger’s seat of Gianna’s car, which, because it has collapsed onto the floor, makes him look like a child whenever they’re driving down the road. Argento also makes great use of the film’s superb musical score, composed by the band Goblin, whose work would reach legendary status in the director’s next film, 1977’s Suspiria.

More than anything, though, Deep Red is a bridge between the Argento of old - the master of the giallo - and the Argento yet to come, whose subsequent movies such as Suspiria, Opera, and Phenomena put the emphasis more on spectacle than narrative.

But Deep Red did more than just straddle the line between Argento’s distinct personalities. With its engaging central mystery combined with a plethora of cinematic bells and whistles, it ultimately proved to be the best of its director’s two worlds.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10









Sunday, May 15, 2022

#2,754. The Cat O' Nine Tails (1971) - Dario Argento 4-Pack

 





Dario Argento’s follow-up to Bird With The Crystal Plumage, The Cat O’ Nine Tails is a giallo with plenty of style that also features one hell of an intriguing mystery.

Reporter Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus) joins forces with blind man Franco Arno (Karl Malden) to try and solve a string of recent killings, all of which seem to be connected, in one way or another, to a nearby genetic research institute.

Unfortunately, there are very few clues and a growing list of suspects, including Professor Terzi (Tino Carraro), the head of the institute, and even Terzi’s daughter Anna (Catherine Spaak). But as Giordani and Arno close in on the truth, the elusive killer turns his attention to them, going so far as to kidnap Arno’s young niece Lori (Cinzia De Carolis), threatening to kill her if the two amateur sleuths don’t back off.

As he did with Bird With the Crystal Plumage, Argento infuses The Cat O’ Nine Tails with style to spare; throughout the movie, we’re treated to a series of POV shots – from the killer’s perspective – that build both the tension (we know the minute we’re seeing through the killer’s eyes that something terrible is about to happen) and the overall mystery (as one potential suspect after another is polished off, we cannot help but wonder whose eyes it is we’re actually peering through). And while The Cat O’ Nine Tails is far from Argento’s most violent film (it’s not nearly as bloody as Suspiria, Deep Red, or Phenomena), a few of the kills are fairly brutal, including one set on a train station platform.

As for the tension, it reaches a fever pitch in a sequence where Giordani and Arno break into a cemetery crypt late one night, only to be surprised by the killer. Yet as good as this scene is, it’s outdone by the film’s superior rooftop climax. Argento even stages one hell of a car chase, when Anna, driving Giordani’s car, attempts to elude the police!

It’s in the story department, however, where The Cat O’ Nine Tails truly excels, building its central mystery piece by piece, with shady characters (all of whom seem to have something to hide) and plenty of false leads, resulting in a payoff that’s both surprising and entirely satisfying.

Bird With the Crystal Plumage may, indeed, be Argento’s best giallo, but I rank The Cat O’ Nine Tails right up there alongside it.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10









Friday, May 13, 2022

#2,753. The Shootist (1976) - John Wayne in the 1970s

 





1976’s The Shootist is notable because it features John Wayne’s final movie role, and is quite fitting in that the legendary actor plays an aging western gunman who discovers he is dying of cancer (Wayne himself was suffering from cancer when the film was shot).

Wayne stars as J.B. Books, who recently learned he has terminal cancer. Advised to take it easy by his good friend Doctor Hostetler (James Stewart), Books settles in Carson City, Nevada, renting a room from recent widow Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall), who lives with her son Gillom (Ron Howard) and several other tenants.

Though Bond is none too happy to discover she has a famous gunfighter living under her roof, Gillom quickly befriends Books, and does what he can to help the dying legend with his final wish: to go out in a blaze of glory!

The opening images of The Shootist are just about perfect: a western landscape, in stunning black and white. Using footage from previous John Wayne movies like Red River and Rio Bravo, director Don Siegel gives us his lead character’s backstory (narrated by Ron Howard), establishing Books’ reputation as a shootist. From there, we discover right off the bat that J.B. Books is still a force to be reckoned with when he out-draws a potential thief!

Lauren Bacall and Ron Howard are both superb as the mother and son who welcome Books into their home. Also solid in support are some of Wayne’s co-stars from his Hollywood heyday; James Stewart, who starred alongside Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, plays Doc Hostetler, who has the unenviable task of confirming a previous diagnosis that his pal Books is dying. Harry Morgan, who appeared alongside Wayne in a key scene in How the West Was Won, plays Carson City’s marshal, who isn’t exactly heartbroken to discover his newest “citizen” is critically ill (Morgan’s glee at Books’ misfortune borders on comedy). In addition, there’s Richard Boone (The Alamo) as a former adversary of Books’ who is itching to be the one to end his life; and John Carradine (Stagecoach) as an opportunistic undertaker.

But The Shootist is all about John Wayne, and he is outstanding in the lead role, delivering an understated performance as a man past his prime who nonetheless commands respect, and maintains his strength and dignity throughout; he kicks the ass (literally) of an exploitative reporter (Rick Lenz) who wants to write an expose of his life, and the scenes in which he and Bacall’s character butt heads, only to develop a mutual respect for one another, are a definite highlight.

Bacall was nominated for a BAFTA award as Best Lead Actress, while Ron Howard received a nod from the Golden Globes for his supporting role in the film. Both nominations were well-deserved, but The Shootist is John Wayne’s movie, and he delivers a performance that ranks right up there with his turns in Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and The Searchers as one of his best.

How fitting that in his final performance, Wayne played a man very much like himself: an icon from a bygone era who knows the end is coming, and is going to go out on his own terms. The Shootist is a movie to treasure.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10









Wednesday, May 11, 2022

#2,752. Brannigan (1975) - John Wayne in the 1970s

 





Both McQ and Brannigan were John Wayne’s take on the Dirty Harry persona; a no-nonsense cop who isn’t above exacting a little vigilante justice to bring the bad guys to their knees (Wayne reportedly turned down the lead role in Dirty Harry, a decision he came to regret). And don’t let the fact that he was in his mid-to-late 60s at the time throw you: these are two solid crime movies, both featuring gritty performances by their iconic leading man.

Chicago policeman Jim Brannigan (Wayne) is sent to London to fetch notorious American gangster Ben Larkin (John Vernon), who, with the help of his lawyer Mel Fields (Mel Ferrer), has been hiding out there. Shortly after Brannigan arrives in London, however, Larkin is kidnapped by a pair of goons, who demand a huge ransom for his return.

Teaming up with Commander Sir Charles Swann (Richard Attenborough) of Scotland Yard, Brannigan does what he can to track down the kidnappers and retrieve the missing gangster, all the while dodging a killer (Daniel Pilon) hired by Larkin, who is bound and determined to ensure that Brannigan never gets out of London alive.

As it was with McQ a year earlier, Wayne is a force to be reckoned with in Brannigan. In the opening scene, he confronts a Chicago-based counterfeiter, relying on less-than-legal tactics to coerce information out of him, and when in London Brannigan consistently butts heads with Commander Swann, who objects to the fact that his American counterpart is always packing a gun.

The London setting is also used to great effect, and added an intriguing “fish out of water” element to the story (how ironic that one of the last movies John Wayne, the most American of actors, appeared in was set almost entirely in Jolly Old England). There’s also a great car chase scene that concludes on a partially raised London Bridge (it’s my favorite sequence in the movie).

Along with Wayne’s tough-as-nails title character, Vernon delivers a strong performance as the gangster on the run, while Judy Geeson also shines as Detective Sergeant Jennifer Thatcher, who acts as Brannigan’s partner while he’s in the UK.

Throughout his long and storied career, John Wayne made only two significant cop films, both of in the waning years of his life. And while McQ is undoubtedly the better action film, Brannigan, which also boasts a handful of genuinely funny moments (the best being a barroom fight sequence in which both Brannigan and Swann duke it out with the drunken patrons), is the more entertaining of the two.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10









Monday, May 9, 2022

#2,751. McQ (1974) - John Wayne in the 1970s

 





I admit I was a little nervous going into 1974’s McQ, a crime / action film starring John Wayne. Wayne was in his mid-60s when he made this movie, and while he had settled into the role of the aging cowboy quite nicely through the late ‘60s and early ‘70s (True Grit, Chisum, The Train Robbers), playing an active-duty police detective who tracks down killers and dope pushers was something else entirely.

Well, I’m happy to report that my fears were unfounded; not only does Wayne do a fine job as the title character, but director John Sturges was also up to the task, telling a damn good story while at the same time delivering a handful of genuine thrills.

When his partner Stan Boyle (William Bryant) is gunned down late one night, Detective Lon McQ (Wayne) makes it his mission to find those responsible. Unfortunately, his superior, Captain Kosterman (Eddie Albert), refuses to let him investigate Boyle’s murder, at which point McQ resigns from the force and joins with Private Eye Pinky Farrell (David Huddleston) so that he can carry out his own investigation.

McQ is convinced that local businessman and suspected drug dealer Manny Santiago (Al Lettieri) is behind Stan’s killing, and supported by Boyle’s widow Lois (Diana Muldaur), McQ gets down to business, coercing information out of his usual contacts while at the same time keeping a close eye on Santiago and his associates.

But there’s more to this case than meets the eye, and as McQ will soon discover, a few crooked cops may be mixed up in it as well!

Even in his ‘60s, Wayne had a commanding screen presence, and it served him well throughout McQ; I fully believed he was not only an active-duty police detective, but also the best man on the whole damn force, and if anyone could get to the bottom of Boyle’s murder it was Wayne’s McQ. Even those scenes in which he mixes it up with the bad guys are effective (upon learning that Boyle was dead, McQ corners Santiago in a restaurant men’s room and pummels him).

Yet as good as Wayne is in the lead role, the real star of McQ is director John Sturges. No stranger to action or excitement (he previously helmed such classics as Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Magnificent Seven, and The Great Escape), Sturges keeps the story moving along at a brisk pace and even delivers not one but two nerve-racking car chases (the first, in which McQ tracks a laundry van he believes is carrying $2 million in stolen drugs, is damn intense, and while I wouldn’t quite put it on par with the chases in Bullitt or The French Connection, it’s not far off either).

Also impressive is the film’s script (written by Lawrence Roman, it features a few clever twists and turns along the way) as well as the supporting cast; along with those already mentioned above, Colleen Dewhurst plays Myra, a drug addict who cozies up to our hero, and Julie Adams appears briefly as McQ’s ex-wife.

Having spent the majority of his film career playing cowboys and soldiers, John Wayne settled into the role of a police detective nicely, and his star power, coupled with Sturges’ penchant for staging quality action scenes, did its part to make McQ a damn fine motion picture.
Rating: 8 out of 10









Saturday, May 7, 2022

#2,750. The Train Robbers (1973) - John Wayne in the 1970s

 





Writer / director Burt Kennedy’s 1973 western The Train Robbers has a lot going for it. The supporting cast - which includes Ben Johnson (The Wild Bunch, The Last Picture Show), Rod Taylor (The Time Machine, The Birds), Ann Margret (Bye Bye Birdie, Carnal Knowledge) and Christopher George (Graduation Day, Pieces) - is stellar, as are the locales (most of the movie was shot on-location in Mexico). There are also some pretty nifty action scenes, punctuated by a dynamite-fueled finale that damn near destroys an entire town.

But this is all just window-dressing, because from the first minute to the last, The Train Robbers belongs to John Wayne.

Lane (Wayne), a former officer in the Union Army, agrees to help the widowed Mrs. Lowe (Ann Margret) retrieve half a million dollars in gold that her late husband and nine of his associates stole from the railroad years earlier. Hoping to clear her husband’s name and make a better life for her son, Mrs. Lowe intends to return the gold to the railroad and claim the $50,000 reward, which she will then turn over to Lane and his associates - namely Jesse (Johnson), Grady (Taylor), Calhoun (George), and Ben (singer Bobby Vinton) - as payment for their services.

Unfortunately, some of the bandits who helped Mrs. Lowe’s husband rob that train are still alive, and want their share of the gold. In addition, a mysterious stranger (Ricardo Montalban) has been keeping an eye on Lane, Mrs. Lowe, and the others, following them all the way into Mexico (which is where the late Mr. Lowe stashed the gold).

Story-wise, the set-up for this 1973 western is fairly basic, with the good guys (Lane, Mrs. Lowe, etc) on one side and the bad guys (who never so much as speak) on the other. But while it’s story may seem a tad rudimentary, The Train Robbers remains engaging throughout thanks to star John Wayne, who plays Lane as a man of unwavering principles. He rejects the idea of keeping the gold once they’ve retrieved it, and is a gentleman at every turn in his dealings with pretty widow Mrs. Lowe, even when she hints that she’d like to be more than friends once the ordeal is over (“I have a saddle that’s older than you”, he says when rebuffing her advance).

In addition, Lane is always on top of things, and knows exactly what needs to be done to get the gold and avoid the gunslingers on their tail. Initially, he and Christopher George’s Calhoun don’t hit it off. Lane is convinced that the younger gunman is too hot-headed (Calhoun, who only just met Lane. challenges his orders on several occasions). Before long, however, Calhoun comes to respect Lane, and like Jesse and Grady, who have ridden with Lane for years, he realizes their best chance of survival is doing exactly what the big guy says! Having made a career out of playing strong-willed, savvy characters, Wayne is perfectly at home as the lead in The Train Robbers, and he commands the screen from start to finish.

Both Ben Johnson and (especially) Rod Taylor are excellent as Lane’s old army buddies, as is Ann-Margret as the alluring widow who isn’t afraid to pick up a gun when the need arises. In addition, there’s a story twist right at the end that made me laugh out loud (in fact, once it was revealed, I was kinda pissed that the movie was over). But it’s Wayne, and Wayne alone, who carries The Train Robbers to another level, taking what would have otherwise been a routine western and transforming into a grand adventure.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10









Thursday, May 5, 2022

#2,749. The Cowboys (1972) - John Wayne in the 1970s


 




With its sweeping panoramas, larger-than-life star, and a rousing score by John Williams (Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark), director Mark Rydell’s 1972 western The Cowboys has the look and feel of a Hollywood epic. And while its story may seem implausible on paper, by the time the ending rolls around you’ll have bought into it hook, line, and sinker.

Montana cattle man Wil Anderson (John Wayne) is left in the lurch when his hired hands get “gold fever” and abandon him right before his big drive. Spurred on by his friend Anse Peterson (Slim Pickens), Anderson recruits some local schoolboys to work as drovers on his 400-mile trek across the rugged wilderness. Though skeptical at first, Anderson soon discovers that the youngsters, including Slim (Robert Carradine), Cimarron (A. Martinez), Stuttering Bob (Sean Kelly), and a mess of others, are eager to prove their worth, and feel they are more than ready to help him take his cattle to market.

Soon after the arrival of company cook Jebediah Nightlinger (Roscoe Lee Browne), Anderson and his “cowboys” set out, not realizing that former jail bird Asa Watts (Bruce Dern) and his cronies, who intend to swipe the entire herd out from under them, are following close behind.

The Cowboys is, at times, an exciting western, and features an amazing performance by Bruce Dern, whose Asa Watts is one of the most loathsome characters ever to pollute the silver screen (Dern said as late as 2015 that he still receives hate mail for his role in this movie). Yet what makes The Cowboys a truly unforgettable motion picture is the relationship that develops between Wayne’s Anderson and the inexperienced schoolboys he hires to accompany him on his months-long journey.

Though he occasionally loses his patience (a scene where he berates Stuttering Bob seems especially harsh), Anderson takes on the role of father figure throughout the movie, ultimately transforming a group of awkward kids into self-reliant young men. Wayne is superb in the lead role, as is Roscoe Lee Browne as the cook who is just as much a mentor to the boys as their employer. And while the last act of The Cowboys has moments that’ll damn near break your heart, the final 20 minutes are as satisfying as they come, and will have you cheering out loud.

The Cowboys is an amazing motion picture.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10








Tuesday, May 3, 2022

#2,748. Rio Lobo (1970) - John Wayne in the 1970s

 





Rio Lobo marked the fifth and final time Howard Hawks directed John Wayne, and while this 1970 film isn’t nearly as strong as some of their previous collaborations (Red River, Rio Bravo), both actor and director nonetheless do their part to make it a fun watch.

Union officer Col. Cord McNally (Wayne) is determined to track down a pair of traitors who passed along information to the Confederates, resulting in a gold heist that caused the death of a very good friend.

With the war over, McNally and his former enemy, Confederate Captain Pierre Cordona (Jorge Rivero), head to the small Texas town of Rio Lobo, where they believe the traitors might be hiding out. Instead, they find an entire community gripped by fear, victimized by a wealthy yet mysterious land baron and his corrupt sheriff (Mike Henry).

Still hopeful they will find the traitors nearby, McNally and Cordona also take some time out to help the locals, including Shasta Delaney (Jennifer O’Neill), whose business partner was gunned down by one of the sheriff’s deputies; and Cordona’s former Confederate pal Sgt. Tuscarora Phillips (Christopher Mitchum), who along with his father (Jack Elam) is being forced off his land.

At times, Rio Lobo comes across as lighthearted fare, and even gets a little silly; Jack Elam’s drunken escapades, though over-the-top, still manage to generate some laughs, but the ill-conceived “romance” that develops (far too quickly) between Cordona and Shasta never goes anywhere, and results in a few awkward moments.

As for John Wayne, he’s… well, John Wayne! The legendary actor has played characters like McNally dozens of (if not a hundred) times over the course of his career, so he gives us exactly what we expect from him: a strong, brave, honest lead character who never backs down from a fight.

Not to be outdone, the director of Rio Lobo – equally as legendary as its star – kicks things off with a tremendously staged sequence, i.e. a train heist carried out during the waning days of the Civil War by Capt. Cordova, Sgt. Phillips, and the rest of their unit, who ride off with a small fortune in gold, only to be chased by Col. McNally and the rest of the Union army. This sequence, as well as the final shoot-out between the good guys and the bad, proved that, even in his mid 70s, Hawks could still bring us to the edge of our seats.

So, even if Rio Lobo isn’t the best Hawks / Wayne collaboration, getting a chance to see these two powerhouses team up one last time, and generate a little Hollywood magic in the process, is reason enough to see it.
Rating: 7 out of 10








Sunday, May 1, 2022

#2,747. Chisum (1970) - John Wayne in the 1970s

 





In his review of Rio Lobo, Roger Ebert, critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, called that 1970 Howard Hawks movie “a John Wayne Western”, and lamented the fact that audiences hadn’t seen one of those in a few years. In fact, he asserted that, along with a few other movies, director Andrew V. McLaglen’s Chisum (also a 1970 western) “didn’t quite understand the mythic nature of the Wayne character, and so we got a lot of scenery and very little chemistry”.

I agree with Mr. Ebert, but only to a point.

Chisum is, indeed, unlike many John Wayne Westerns in that the Duke, despite playing the title role of John Chisum, is ultimately a secondary character. But while he may not be front and center the entire time, his Chisum, with his no-nonsense approach, frontier heroism, and determination to see that justice is done regardless of the odds stacked against him, is a John Wayne character through and through.

John Chisum (Wayne), the most powerful cattle rancher in Lincoln County, New Mexico, is none too happy that entrepreneur L.G. Murphy (Forrest Tucker) has been taking over businesses in the area. Joining forces with fellow cattle baron Henry Tunstall (Patric Knowles), Chisum does what he can to prevent the unscrupulous Murphy from gaining a foothold in the territory.

But it’s going to take more than diplomacy to maintain the peace, and when Murphy hires notorious gunman Jess Evans (Richard Jaeckel) to protect his interests, Chisum and Tunstall turn to Billy “The Kid” Bonney (Geoffrey Duell) and Pat Garrett (Glenn Corbett) for their help in what will likely develop into an all-out war.

Many of the characters in Chisum are based on real-life individuals; Chisum, Turnstall, and Murphy were the catalysts of what became known as the Lincoln County War (which started in 1878), a conflict in which Billy the Kid (at the time a protégé of Henry Tunstall’s), Pat Garrett, and many others fought and died. Even Chisum’s niece Sallie, played here by Pamela McMyer, left her mark on history (the real Sallie kept a journal detailing her relationship with both Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett).

Yet despite its depiction of actual events, Chisum is every bit a Hollywood western, complete with drama, action (the final shoot-out is intense), even romance (Sallie falls in love with Billy the Kid, much to her uncle’s dismay). The performances are first-rate, especially Duell’s turn as “The Kid”, who, for a change, is on the right side of the law. In addition to those already mentioned, Christopher George is strong as Dan Nodeen, a bounty hunter with a personal grudge against The Kid, and Andrew Prine is effective as Easterner Alexander McSween, who accepts a job with Murphy only to quit so he can work for Chisum and Turnstall instead.

As for John Wayne, he may not have been the focal point of Chisum (I’d bet money Geoffrey Duell’s Billy the Kid has more screen time), but the legendary actor definitely makes his presence known; his various confrontations with Tucker’s Murphy are among the film’s most memorable scenes.

A thrilling, engaging take on a key moment in American history, Chisum is a western that fans of the genre won’t want to miss.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10









Friday, April 29, 2022

#2,746. Greenland (2020) - 21st Century Disaster Movies Triple Feature

 





The sudden appearance of a new comet, which is projected to pass as close to earth as any celestial body in recorded history, kicks off a chain of cataclysmic events in director Ric Roman Waugh’s Greenland, a 2020 movie that proves to be more of a human drama than an apocalyptic disaster film.

The whole world is watching as the newly-discovered Clarke comet flies past earth, so close that it will be visible in the daytime sky.

Our first indication that there’s more to this comet than a colorful display comes when Atlanta-based engineer John Garrity (Gerald Butler) receives a mysterious voice message from the United States Department of Homeland Security, informing him that he, his estranged wife Allison (Morena Baccarin), and their young son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) have been selected for emergency sheltering, and must report to a nearby Air Force base by 9:45 pm. John ignores this message, only to realize its significance when a piece of the Clarke comet slams into Florida, destroying most of the state.

As news reports come across that fragments of Clarke will continue to pound the globe - including debris so large it could cause an extinction-level event - John and family drive to their designated rendezvous point, only to be turned away when it’s discovered that Nathan suffers from diabetes (the military has been instructed to reject anyone with an illness).

Separated from his family in the ensuing chaos (the base is stormed by thousands of panic-stricken citizens), John must travel to the home of Allison’s father (John Glenn) to reunite with her and Nathan, all the while thinking of a way to get his family to Canada, where a plane will carry any survivors who make it that far to a military bunker in Greenland mere hours before the comet is scheduled to hit.

The Clarke comet and the devastation it causes (ranging from small bits of debris that crash to earth to the destruction of entire cities) is merely the backdrop for Greenland; this is the story of a man who has made mistakes in the past (we eventually discover John’s infidelity led to his current marital woes with Allison), yet is determined to do whatever he must to get his family to safety. Along the way, John and Alison meet up with all sorts of people, from those ready to help (John learns about the Canadian plane from Colin, played by Andrew Byron Bachelor, who was traveling there himself and invites John to join him) to the desperate few out to save their own skins (when they first arrived at the Air Force base, John, Allison, and Nathan were issued wristbands by the military, identifying them as chosen survivors. After they are turned away, these wristbands make them prime targets for anyone desperate enough to steal them and try their luck at another base).

The cast is strong, with Butler and Baccarin doing a fine job as the motivated couple fighting the clock to make their way to safety. Yet it was young Roger Dale Floyd as Nathan who impressed me the most, giving a performance every bit as good as the film’s more experienced actors. And while the focus of Greenland is placed squarely on its characters, there are some decent action sequences as well (especially impressive is the scene in which a shower of molten debris hits a highway in upstate New York).

Alas, the key ingredient that is lacking in Greenland is suspense; there was never a moment when I felt John Garrity and his family wouldn’t survive, and do so together, regardless of the circumstances (there’s even a brief section of the film where all three are separated from each other).

On a technical level, Greenland is a well-made film, with a good cast, effects that work as intended, and a story of global devastation that is never dull. But it is also far more predictable than a movie of this nature should be.
Rating: 6.5 out of 10









Wednesday, April 27, 2022

#2,745. The Quake (2018) - 21st Century Disaster Movies Triple Feature

 





A sequel to 2015’s The Wave, we once again join the Elkjord family, which, three years after the catastrophic tsunami, has fallen on hard times.

Blaming himself for not saving more people when the wave hit, Kristian (Kristoffer Joner) has moved back to Geiranger, and dedicates his time to researching other potential disasters, in the hopes of preventing the additional loss of lives. His estranged wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp), who now works at the prestigious Radisson Blu Hotel, and their two kids, Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) and Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande), live in a small apartment in Oslo, waiting for the day Kristian decides to return to them.

That day may come sooner than expected; Kristian receives word that a colleague of his, geologist Konrad Lindblom, was killed while investigating the Oslofjord Tunnel.

Fearing his colleague may have discovered a fault somehow connected to the tunnel, Kristian pays a visit to Lindblom’s house, where the late researcher’s adult daughter Marit (Kathrine Thorborg Johansen) is busy planning her father’s funeral and getting his affairs in order. She lets Kristian have a look at Lindblom’s research, which includes a map of recent seismic activity, and he makes a frightening discovery: a major earthquake, strong enough to level Oslo, may be days away from striking!

Armed with this information, Kristian tries to warn Lindblom’s former supervisor, Johannes Løberg (Stig R. Amdan), that he should start thinking about evacuating the city, while also telling Inud and the kids to get out of Oslo as soon as possible. But much like what happened in Geiranger three years ago, nobody is prepared when the crippling earthquake finally hits.

As it was with The Wave, The Quake spends more time on its central characters than it does the disaster, and because we know them well enough, we’re just as invested in their plight this time around. As played by Joner, Kristian is a shell of his former self, a geologist who felt he missed an opportunity to save his neighbors three years earlier and has been beating himself up about it ever since, despite the reassurances of his family (and everyone else) that he was not to blame. We see just how far he’s fallen when, early on, young Julia visits him for a week in Geiranger, only to be sent home the day after her arrival by Kristian, who is in no state of mind to have company. We care about the Elkjord clan, all of whom are played by the same actors from The Wave, and we also sympathize with Marid, who was alienated from her workaholic father and teams up with Kristian to see for herself what he was trying to accomplish in his final days.

Of course, it’s the later scenes in The Quake that will take your breath away; the sight of the earthquake rolling into Oslo is impressive enough, but pales in comparison to the devastation it causes, especially to the Radisson Blu, where Kristian, Inud, Marit and Julia are trapped. There are some nail-biting moments scattered throughout the final act of The Quake, and plenty of drama as well.

The Quake is both a solid sequel to The Wave and a strong disaster film in its own right, and I recommend you watch both of these superb movies as soon as you can.
Rating: 8 out of 10









Monday, April 25, 2022

#2,744. The Wave (2015) - 21st Century Disaster Movies Triple Feature

 





Rolf Uthaug’s The Wave opens with a slideshow of images depicting the aftermaths of real-life tsunamis, which had destroyed several small Norwegian towns (the tsunamis were caused by rockslides). It happened first in 1905, killing 60 people, and again 29 years later in the village of Tafjord, during which 40 lost their lives.

The first disaster film ever produced in Norway, The Wave manages to pull us in during these early moments by reminding us the chaos we are about to witness can - and actually did - happen, giving this 2015 film a step-up on Roland Emmerich and company, whose The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 boasted million-dollar special effects and about $1.75 worth of believability.

Having recently accepted a new job with an oil company, geologist Kristian Elkjord (Kristoffer Joner) spends his last days in the small coastal town of Geiranger saying goodbye to co-workers and packing up his family’s belongings. When it’s time to leave, Kristian, along with his teenage son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) and young daughter Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande), heads to the docks to hop the ferry, while his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp), who works the desk at Geiranger’s swankiest hotel, will finish out her last few days on the job before joining them.

But a recent development concerning a nearby mountain, which could very well signal the beginning of a major rockslide, weighs heavy with Kristian, and causes him to make quick detour to beg his old boss Arvid (Fridtjov Såheim) to put emergency protocols into place. Unfortunately, it’s too little too late; an enormous rockslide crashes into the surrounding fjord, sending a wall of water some 260 feet (80 meters) high barreling towards Geiranger, giving Kristian, Idun, and the kids – as well as everyone in town – exactly 10 minutes to reach higher ground.

The special effects generated by Uthaug and his team for The Wave, most notably the tsunami that threatens to wipe the town of Geiranger off the map, are damned effective (we get to see this tsunami, in all its destructive glory, several times before it makes landfall). Yet the reason we’re so terrified of this giant wave is only in part due to computer-generated wizardry; by the time the disaster hits, Uthaug has ensured we’re fully invested in his main characters. Thanks to the performances delivered by Joner, Dahl Torp, and the kids (especially young Edith Haagenrud-Sande), the Elkjord family is as likable as they come, and we hope and pray that, when the water finally recedes, all will still be alive.

Hollywood, and especially Mr. Emmerich, could learn a little something from The Wave: It’s possible to make a special effects-laden disaster film without sacrificing story and character development in the process.
Rating: 8 out of 10








Saturday, April 23, 2022

#2,743. The Blade (1995) - Quentin Tarantino Recommends

 





When listing his favorite movies released since 1992 (notable because that’s the year he himself became a director thanks to Reservoir Dogs), Quentin Tarantino mentioned - among others - 1995’s The Blade, which he called a “martial arts extravaganza”.

Directed with gusto by Tsui Hark, The Blade is an explosive, crisply edited, action-packed motion picture, and I loved every minute of it!

Siu Ling (Song Lei), whose father (Austin Wai) owns and operates a world-class sword-making facility, has fallen in love with two of her dad’s employees: Ding On (Wehzhuo Zhao), who was orphaned as a child when his own father was murdered, and Ti Dao (Moses Chan), whose temper occasionally lands both himself and good friend Ding On in hot water.

Ding On is eventually chosen to be the new master of the sword factory, a decision that does not sit well with Ti Dao or the other employees. Having no desire to become the next boss, Ding On instead sets out to track down his father’s killer, a tattooed assassin known only as The Falcon (Xiong Xinxin). But a run-in with some bandits results in Ding On losing a portion of his right arm, and as he attempts to overcome his disability by teaching himself martial arts, Siu Ling and Ti Dao set out to find Ding On and convince him to return home with them.

Ding On, however, is set in his ways, and will either get his revenge or die in the process.

A remake of the Shaw Brothers’ 1967 classic The One Armed Swordsman, The Blade has style to spare; the fight scenes are exhilarating, with Hark pulling out all the stops, relying on sharp angles and frenzied editing to get our collective pulses pounding.

Just as impressive is how Hark generates this same level of energy when the action slows down; he lets his creative juices flow throughout The Blade, even during those scenes designed to flesh out its characters. A later sequence, where Ti Dao captures a prostitute (played superbly by Valerie Chow) he claims to have saved, only to anger Siu Ling later that same evening (she catches him having sex with the prostitute), is just as vigorously paced as the film’s epic finale, a confrontation between Ding On and the Falcon you’ll have to see to believe.

Crammed with style and vivacity, The Blade is, indeed, a wild ride, and once it’s over you’ll be dying to hop on again!
Rating: 9.5 out of 10









Thursday, April 21, 2022

#2,742. Love and a .45 (1994) - Quentin Tarantino Recommends

 





Quentin Tarantino is on-record as being a fan of writer / director C.M. Talkington, the creative mind behind the 1994 crime / comedy Love and a .45. Tarantino has even gone so far as to call Talkington – on numerous occasions – his “Favorite imitator”.

While it’s true that the dialogue in Love and a .45 has a very “Tarantino-esque” feel to it, and the film’s penchant for over-the-top characters and sudden violence calls to mind Pulp Fiction, Talkington (who speaks very highly of Tarantino) denies his movie was in any way inspired by the Academy-Award winning filmmaker. “I finished the first draft of Love and a .45 in 1990 or ‘91”, Talkington told Slate magazine back in 2015, “and then I finished the second draft in, like 1992”.

In fact, Tarantino and Talkington first met each other at the 1994 Stockholm Film Festival, which was screening both Pulp Fiction and Love and a .45!

Petty crook Wally Watts (Gil Bellows) is in love with girlfriend Starlene Cheatham (Renee Zellweger), and intends to propose to her in the very near future. His plans are put on the back-burner, however, when he agrees to help his buddy Billy Mack Black (Rory Cochrane) rob a convenience store. The robbery is a total bust, and to make matters worse, Billy shoots the high-as-a-kite cashier (Charlotte Ross), killing her outright.

After a violent confrontation with a hard-nosed Sheriff, Wally and Starlene hit the road, stopping off to visit Starlene’s hippie parents (Ann Wedgeworth and Peter Fonda) before hightailing it to Mexico.

But with loan sharks Dinosaur Bob (Jeffrey Combs) and Creepy Cody (Jace Alexander) - as well as a pissed off Billy Mack - hot on their trail, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether the lovers will actually get their “happily ever after” ending or not.

The cast of Love and a .45 is excellent; Bellows and Zellweger (in an early screen role) are pitch-perfect as the central characters, and Jeffrey Combs lights up the screen as the totally unhinged Dinosaur Bob (a scene in which he tortures Billy Mack with a tattoo needle is tough to watch), yet it’s Ann Wedgeworth (as Starlene’s oversexed mom) and Peter Fonda (as her mute, crippled father) who steal the show.

Talkington’s dialogue, often sharp and witty, is also a highpoint (Wally’s give-and-take with a half-crazed Billy Mack in a breakfast café is as tense as they come), and the violence, often sudden, is appropriately brutal. There are some laugh-out-loud moments as well, like when Wally and Starlene stop off at a Justice of the Peace (played by Jack Nance) to get hitched, then spend their first moments as husband and wife tying the Justice to a chair so that he won’t alert the authorities!

Whether C.M. Talkington is a Tarantino imitator or not, one thing is certain: Love and a .45 is a fun, funny, highly-charged motion picture, and I recommend it.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10









Tuesday, April 19, 2022

#2,741. Hooper (1978) - Quentin Tarantino Recommends

 





Quentin Tarantino has stated that his chief inspiration for the characters of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth (played, respectively, by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt) in 2019’s Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood was the long-time partnership between actor Burt Reynolds and his good friend, stuntman-turned-filmmaker Hal Needham.

Needham, who was Reynolds’ stunt double in such early ‘70s movies as White Lightning and Gator, went on to direct some very popular action-comedies, most starring his good buddy Burt. So it’s only fitting that their second collaboration as actor and director, after the 1977 Box-Office smash Smokey and the Bandit, would be Hooper, a movie in which Burt plays… a Hollywood stuntman!

Sonny Hooper (Reynolds) is believed by many to be the best working stuntman in all of Tinseltown. His reputation as the greatest is threatened, however, with the arrival of young hotshot Delmore Shidski (Jan-Michael Vincent), who Sonny nicknames “Ski”.

Ski, it seems, is willing to take risks, performing stunts that have never been attempted before. As for Sonny, both his girlfriend Gwen (Sally Field) and his best buddy Cully (James Best) are pushing him to retire. But when Ski suggests that he and Sonny attempt a long-distance car jump for their new movie, one that will shatter the previous record, Sonny jumps at the opportunity to be part of it, despite the fact that one more injury might just put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life!

Like Smokey and the Bandit before it, Hooper is fun with a capital “F”, an action / comedy that doesn’t skimp on either. Reynolds is as charismatic and lovable as ever playing the cocky Hooper, a guy who knows his best days are behind him but wants to show his new young colleague why he’s still top dog, and some of the stunts his character performs throughout the movie are, indeed, exciting. In an early scene, he has to zip line over a city street while carrying a dog!

In addition to Reynolds, Hooper boasts a talented supporting cast. Jan-Michael Vincent, Sally Field, and James Best are superb, as are Robert Klein (as egotistical director Roger Deal), Brian Keith (Jocko, a former stuntman and Gwen’s father), John Marley (producer Max Burns), Alfie Wise (as Roger Deal’s diminutive assistant), and Adam West (as himself, the star of the movie in production). Also turning up in a cameo is football great Terry Bradshaw as an off-duty cop who mixes it up with Sonny during a barroom brawl.

As for the final stunt, the car jump across a collapsed bridge, it is phenomenal, not to mention nerve-racking as hell; Sonny was told by his doctors that his back can’t take another concussion, brining an added level of tension to the entire sequence.

Needham and Reynolds would go on to make several more movies together, including Smokey and the Bandit II, The Cannonball Run (a personal favorite of mine) and Stroker Ace (which is abysmal), but their first two collaborations as actor and director - Smokey and the Bandit and Hooper - would be their best.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10









Sunday, April 17, 2022

#2,740. Family Enforcer (1976) - Quentin Tarantino Recommends

 





In the fall of 2019, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino – filmmakers extraordinaire and master cinephiles – got together at the Director’s Guild of America to shoot the breeze, and over the course of that conversation one of the many titles they discussed was the 1976 crime film Family Enforcer (originally released as The Death Collector). According to Scorsese, Robert De Niro caught this movie on television in the late 1970s, and was so impressed by one of its co-stars that he called Scorsese and recommended they consider him for a role in their upcoming film.

That movie was Raging Bull, and the actor was Joe Pesci.

Written and directed by Ralph De Vito (his only credit on both counts), Family Enforcer takes us inside the crime syndicate of Northern New Jersey. Fresh out of prison, Jerry Bolanti (Joseph Cortese) is looking for a job, and asks his old boss, wiseguy Tony Ladavia (Lou Criscuolo), to send a little work his way.

So, Tony asks Jerry to collect some outstanding debts, including over $26,000 that Bernie Feldshuh (Frank Vincent) owes Herb Greene (Jack Ramage), an associate of Tony’s. But the very night Jerry collects this debt, he’s shot and badly wounded by one of Feldshuh’s henchmen, kicking off a war between Jerry and Feldshuh that won’t end until one of them is dead.

While still recovering from his wounds, Jerry, at Tony’s urging, helps his two friends Joe (Joe Pesci) and Serge (Bobby Alto) steal $40,000 from a local supermarket. This, too, ends badly, causing Tony to wonder if Jerry is unlucky or playing him for a sap.

While discussing this film, Tarantino told Scorsese that, after seeing Family Enforcer, his first reaction was “Wow, this is like an exploitation version of Mean Streets”, and that is exactly the vibe it gives off. Focusing more on its characters than plot or story, Family Enforcer offers viewers a glimpse of mob life from the inside, and does so wonderfully. Joseph Cortese delivers a solid performance as Jerry, whose short fuse and no-fear approach to his job often lands him in hot water, but it’s getting to see Scorsese regulars Joe Pesci and Frank Vincent at the start of their careers that makes this one a winner (Vincent also landed a role in Raging Bull thanks to this movie, and you can see traces of Goodfellas Billy Batts in his portrayal of Bernie Feldshuh).

Much like Scorsese did with Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and Casino, writer / director De Vito mixes some humor in as well; one scene in particular, where a character passes gas in a car, had me laughing out loud.

I’m an unapologetic fan of mob movies, and Family Enforcer proved to be a pleasant surprise.
Rating: 8 out of 10









Friday, April 15, 2022

#2,739. Five Element Ninjas (1982) - Quentin Tarantino Recommends

 





One of the most prolific directors of Hong Kong cinema, Cheh Chang turned out a number of classic films for the Shaw Brothers, most notably the excellent Five Deadly Venoms in 1978. Standing alongside that movie is 1982’s Five Element Ninjas, an action-packed martial arts extravaganza filled to its breaking point with fight scenes and a whole lot of blood and gore.

Set hundreds of years in the past (possibly during Hong Kong’s Huan Dynasty of the 13th century), Five Element Ninjas kicks off with a showdown between two rival martial arts schools. Chief Hong (Chan Shen) and his understudies challenge the students of Yuan Zeng (Kwan Fung) for the right to call themselves kung-fu masters. Hong’s star pupil, a Japanese Samurai, is eventually defeated by Liang Zhi Sheng (Lo Meng), but before the Samurai commits suicide (for the dishonor of losing) he informs Yuan Zeng that a highly-skilled ninja named Kenbuchi Mudou (Michael Chan) will avenge his death.

Sure enough, Yuan Zeng soon after receives a challenge from the Element Ninjas - five teams personally trained by Mudou whose fighters rely on the elements of Gold, Wood, Water, Fire, and Earth to defeat their enemies. When his best pupils are killed by the Element Ninjas, Yuan Zeng and his two remaining students, Liang Zhi Sheng (Lo Mang) and Tian Hao (Cheng Tien Chi), prepare themselves for the inevitable attack.

To gain the upper hand, Mudou sends Senji (Chen Pei-Shi), a beautiful female spy, to infiltrate Yuan Zeng’s school. Winning the trust of Liang Zhi Sheng, Senji gathers enough information to help Mudou defeat Yuan Zeng and his followers. Ambushing the school late one night, Mudou delivers a crushing blow. Only Tian Hao escapes, and seeks the help of a former master and three new “brothers” to avenge Yuan Zeng and defeat Mudou’ s Element Ninjas once and for all.

Five Element Ninjas tells a good story, and features some strong characterizations; initially sent to spy on the Yuan facility, Senji (played superbly by Chen Pei-Shi) instead falls in love with Tian Hao, who will eventually use her feelings for him to his advantage. But it’s the fight scenes that make this movie so much fun.

The highlights, of course, are the battles featuring Mudou’s five element teams, who use everything from gold umbrellas to fire to take out their opponents. The deadliest of the five, however, is the Earth crew, which hides underground, jutting swords upwards when an opponent steps over them, piercing everything from legs to lower regions. The violence is tangible throughout Five Element Ninjas, yet it’s the last act, when Tian Hao and his new brothers take the fight to the Element teams, that the movie becomes a total gorefest, with blood and body parts flying in every direction.

Ranking alongside The Five Deadly Venoms as one of the best Shaw Brothers films I’ve ever seen, Five Element Ninjas is, from start to finish, a bloody good time!
Rating: 9 out of 10








Wednesday, April 13, 2022

#2,738. Red Sun (1971) - Quentin Tarantino Recommends

 





Like The 5-Man Army, Red Sun was one of several runners-up on Quentin Tarantino’s Top 20 Favorite Spaghetti Westerns list. Directed by Terence Young (who also helmed Dr. No and From Russia with Love), Red Sun boasts some exciting action scenes, a solid revenge story, and the gorgeous settings we’ve come to expect from a European western (this 1971 film was a French-Italian co-production).

Yet what really blew me away about Red Sun was its amazing cast of international stars, all of whom deliver top-notch performances.

It’s the latter part of the 19th century, and a train carrying a few dozen passengers, $400,000 in cash, and the Japanese Ambassador to the United States (Tetsu Nakamura) is held up by outlaws Link Stuart (Charles Bronson), Gauche Kink (Alain Delon), and their band of cutthroats. After stealing the cash and robbing the passengers, Gauche swipes a gold-crusted samurai sword from the Ambassador - one intended as a gift for the President of the United States - then tries to bump off Link so he can keep the money for himself.

Desperate to retrieve the sword, the Ambassador orders his only remaining Samurai guard, Kuroda (Toshiro Mifune), to accompany Link as he searches for Gauche and the money he’s owed. Though not exactly thrilled with this arrangement, Link eventually realizes that having a highly-skilled samurai around can be quite handy, especially when the two try to draw Gauche out of hiding by kidnapping his beautiful girlfriend Cristina (Ursula Andress) and dragging her off to an abandoned mission.

But along with the dangerous Gauche and the high-spirited Cristina, Link and Kuroda must also contend with an entire tribe of Comanche warriors that is out for blood!

With renowned French cinematographer Henri Alekan (1946’s Beauty and the Beast, Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire) on board as the Director of Photography, Red Sun is, indeed, a beautiful motion picture that takes full advantage of its picturesque setting; the movie was shot on-location in Spain, in many of the same areas Leone used for The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West. In addition, Red Sun has plenty of action. The train robbery, which takes up the opening 20 minutes of the film, is damn thrilling, and features everything from dynamite to a showdown with a cavalry platoon.

Still, no amount of scenery or action will draw attention away from this film’s all-star cast. Bronson delivers his typical bad-ass performance, and is also pretty funny as the wise-cracking Link (especially during his initial scenes with Mifune’s character). Having already played his share of Samurai (Rashomon, The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo), Toshiro Mifune is also perfectly cast as the warrior living by a code of honor, a trait that eventually wins him the respect of his outlaw companion.

Throw in Alain Delon (equal parts suave and ornery as Gauche, the film’s villain), Ursula Andress (absolutely alluring as the cantankerous prostitute who is in love with a bastard), and Capucine (1963’s The Pink Panther) as the Madame of the brothel where Cristina works, and you have an international cast that ranks right up there with Once Upon a Time in the West as one of the best ever assembled for a European western.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10









Monday, April 11, 2022

#2,737. The Strawberry Statement (1970) - Quentin Tarantino Recommends

 





1970’s The Strawberry Statement is a dated film, but it’s dated in the same way that The Graduate or Easy Rider are dated; the styles, situations, and values may make it a time capsule of a bygone era, but the film itself features enough heart and (especially) style to engage a modern audience.

A young Bruce Davison stars as Simon, a college student (at an unspecified San Francisco-based university) and a member of the school’s rowing team. Unlike other kids, Simon isn’t politically-minded. That is, until his roommate brings home a pretty yet radicalized co-ed, who informs Simon that a group of students plan to occupy the office of the University’s President. They are protesting a planned gymnasium that the school intends to build in an African-American community, without the consent of the locals.

At first seeing this sit-in as nothing more than a way to meet girls, Simon joins the protestors, who have taken over the entire administration building. Simon does make a few new friends, including the organizer, Elliot (Bob Balaban), and he even falls in love with the revolutionary-minded Linda (Kim Darby). But as Simon gets deeper into the movement, he finds himself agreeing with their cause, and is soon willing to risk his future to help these “radicals” achieve their goals.

As directed by Stuart Hagmann (who was making his feature film debut), The Strawberry Statement is a visually exciting movie, with plenty of jump cuts, spinning cameras, and rapid close-ups. At times, these stylistic choices can be a distraction (especially in the final sequence, when the students and police square off against each other), but for the most part they generate a tangible energy.

The cast does a nice job as well. Davison is convincing as Simon, the apolitical lead character who eventually joins the cause, while Darby, Balaban, Bud Cort (as Simon’s buddy), George MacLeod (as a jock who has a change of heart) and James Coco (in a brief but funny cameo as a grocer) are solid in support. Another strength of The Strawberry Statement is its soundtrack, which features music by Thunderclap Newman (Something in the Air), Crosby, Stills and Nash (several tunes, including Suite: Judy Blue Eyes), Neil Young (Down By the River) and even John Lennon (Give Peace a Chance, which features prominently in the movie’s final scene).

Even if modern audiences have a hard time identifying with aspects of The Strawberry Statement, the film’s kinetic style, its performances, the great music, and the dramatic finale will likely win them over.
Rating: 7 out of 10









Saturday, April 9, 2022

#2,736. The 5-Man Army (1969) - Quentin Tarantino Recommends

 





It was, I believe, back in 2015 when Quentin Tarantino put together a list of his 20 favorite Spaghetti Westerns. There were some obvious titles on there; Tarantino has always been a big proponent of Sergio Leone, and the legendary director has three movies in the top 5 (Once Upon a Time in the West came in 5th, For a Few Dollars More was second, and Tarantino’s numero uno favorite Spaghetti Western is The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly). Also making the cut were Django (at #3), Navajo Joe (#9), The Great Silence (#14) and Giulio Petroni’s very underrated 1968 film Tepepa (#17).

But he didn’t stop at 20. In fact, Tarantino added a whole bunch of honorable mentions as well. Fulci’s Four of the Apocalypse got a nod, as did They Call Me Trinity and its sequel, Trinity Is Still My Name. Another of the titles that made this addendum was Don Taylor’s 1969 western The 5-Man Army, which is notable (in part) because its screenplay was co-written by none other than Dario Argento, a year before he directed his breakout Giallo The Bird With the Crystal Plumage.

Mexico, 1914. The Dutchman (Peter Graves), a former officer in the United States Army and a well-known bandit, is putting together a team to rob a train carrying a half million in gold. Hired by revolutionaries who intend to use that gold to finance their rebellion, The Dutchman enlists the help of three old comrades: Augustus (James Daly), a munitions expert; Mesito (Bud Spencer), whose brute strength is second to none; and Samurai (Tetsuro Tamba), who speaks softly and carries a lethal sword. Also joining the team is young Luis (Nino Castelnuova), a petty crook.

After preventing the military execution of revolutionary leader Esteban (Caludio Gora), the five get down to business, putting their plan together while also steering clear of the Mexican army, which would like nothing more than to squash the revolution before it picks up steam.

But if they do manage to pull off what seems like an impossible heist, will The Dutchman and the others turn the gold over as promised, or will they keep it for themselves?

The first half of The 5-Man Army is dedicated (for the most part) to building its main characters, and we the audience discover why each member of the Dutchman’s posse is absolutely vital to the mission at hand. Bud Spencer’s Mesito is a tower of strength, and loves to mix it up, taking on anyone foolhardy enough to challenge him. He gleefully kicks some ass during the chaos resulting from Esteban’s rescue as his colleagues hurry the wounded revolutionary into hiding. Augustus is given ample opportunity to put his dynamite skills to practice, and a scene in which The Samurai bursts in on some Mexican soldiers, swinging his sword wildly, is cool as hell, and gives the film a temporary martial arts vibe (Tetsuro Tamba’s skills are beyond impressive). The glue that holds the team together is The Dutchman, played to perfection by Peter Graves, a man of action as well as intelligence.

That said, there is plenty of excitement throughout The 5-Man Army as well, to the point that we’re not sure if the final act, where the Dutchman and the others put their plan into motion, will feel anticlimactic in comparison. Fortunately, it doesn’t. In fact, this entire end sequence is amazing, with tension, intrigue, and plenty of thrills. It’s also one of the most ingenious heists I’ve seen in a while (I was on the edge of my seat throughout).

While it may not seem as big an honor to be one of 21 movies Tarantino included as an afterthought, I can tell you that The 5-Man Army is, indeed, a worthy addition to any list, not to mention one hell of a great Spaghetti Western.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10