Monday, May 30, 2022

#2,761. The Frozen Ground (2013) - Winter Horror 4-Pack


Based on the true story of an Alaskan serial killer, 2013’s The Frozen Ground is a by-the-numbers motion picture that, thanks to the fine performances turned in by its cast, manages to rise above the mediocrity of other “by-the-numbers” movies.

A badly decomposed body turns up in the Alaskan wilderness, and police Sgt. Jack Holcombe (Nicolas Cage) is assigned to the case. Though he has already handed in his two-week notice (he accepted a job in the private sector), Holcombe becomes obsessed with tracking down the killer, and is soon convinced that Robert Hansen (John Cusack) - a well-respected husband, father, and businessman - is actually a monster who is raping and murdering young girls.

The case against Hansen is strengthened with the discovery of Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens), a teenage prostitute and the only girl to survive her encounter with him. But will Cindy agree to testify before this alleged serial killer strikes again?

Despite being inspired by actual events, The Frozen Ground features some familiar cinematic tropes, from the relationship that develops between Jack and Cindy (to gain her trust, Jack tells Cindy about his sister, who was killed years earlier by a drunk driver) to the way the film evolves into a police procedural, with Jack and his fellow officers searching frantically for concrete evidence to put Hansen away for good. In addition, there’s a late sequence set on the mean streets of Anchorage, where both Jack and Hansen are frantically searching for Cindy, that, though admittedly tense, felt as if it might have been lifted straight out of an episode of Law and Order.

Still despite writer / director Scott Walker’s familiar approach to the material, The Frozen Ground remains a highly effective thriller thanks in large part to its all-star cast. Cage is solid as the detective determined to bring a killer to justice, and John Cusack shifts between warm, loving family man and cold-blooded killer with the greatest of ease, delivering a performance that’s guaranteed to give you nightmares; the extended scene in which he kidnaps Debbie Peters (Gia Mantegne) and murders her in a secluded area proves to be the film’s most chilling sequence.

Rising above them all, however, is Vanessa Hudgens as Cindy, a girl who has spent most of her life on the streets and was lucky enough to escape from Hansel before he could finish her off. The movie opens moments after Cindy slipped away from her abductor, and in this scene as well as all the others, Hudgens shows incredible range, convincingly portraying a confused young woman whose survival instincts are in direct conflict with her desire to see Hansen locked away for good (a few times throughout the movie, Cindy returns to the “safety” of her pimp Clate, played by rapper 50 Cent). It is a tremendous performance, and those scenes in which her Cindy is featured - whether it be dancing for cash at a strip club or helping Jack with his investigation - are the best in the entire film.

That’s not to suggest that The Frozen Ground is nothing more than a showcase for its talented cast; even those moments that feel formulaic work as intended (director Walker and his crew generate plenty of genuine tension throughout), and the cold, barren Alaskan landscape proves the perfect setting for this dark, disturbing tale. So, while The Frozen Ground may not be the most original film ever produced, it still manages, more often than not, to drag us to the edge of our seats.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Saturday, May 28, 2022

#2,760. The Grey (2011) - Winter Horror 4-Pack


Director Joe Carnahan’s The Grey is an intense, disturbing, nail-biting tale of survival in the harsh Alaskan wilderness.

No, check that… it’s several survival stories wrapped into one, with each new twist, each new danger as thrilling as the last.

John Ottway (Liam Neeson) works as a marksman for an Alaskan-based oil company, utilizing his skills as a hunter and sharpshooter to ensure that no wolves attack the drillers in the field.

When a plane carrying him and other oil workers crashes in the snowy wilderness, Ottway gathers up the survivors - including Diaz (Frank Grillo), Talget (Dermot Mulroney), Flannery (Joe Anderson), Hendrick (Dallas Roberts), and Burke (Nonso Anozie) - and convinces them to build a fire before they all freeze to death.

Believing that no help is coming for them, Ottway tells the group they have to make their way south. But the trek won’t be an easy one; along with the ice and cold, the survivors are being stalked by a ferocious pack of wolves, which seems intent on picking them off one at a time!

The Grey is a movie that rarely stops to take a breath, challenging viewers to keep up as its characters face one deadly threat after another, never quite sure what new peril is waiting around the bend. The plane crash, which is as nerve-racking as they come, sets the stage perfectly, with very few surviving this initial ordeal (there’s a particularly moving scene in which Ottway explains to a badly-injured colleague, played by James Badge Dale, that he is going to die, then stays with the man, comforting him in his final moments). The harsh conditions come into play as well, with blizzards, sub-zero temperatures, and not a hint of civilization on the horizon.

The real threat, however, are the wolves, which are attacking the survivors not for food, but to protect their territory. At times the wolf attacks are both sudden and fierce, yet the scenes in which the creatures are out of sight, howling in the distance, are just as terrifying. Even when we don’t see them, we know these wolves are there, and the survivors cannot let their guard down for a second.

Neeson is superb as Ottway, the only man strong enough to lead these workers to safety while at the same time dealing with a heartbreak of his own (in early scenes, Ottway is penning a letter to his lost love, played in flashbacks by Anne Openshaw), and Mulroney, Grillo, and the others are solid in support, with director Carnahan infusing each and every character with a distinct personality (Mulroney’s Talget relates a sweet story about his young daughter, who he hopes to see again one day).

Yet it’s the battle between man and wolf that makes The Grey an unforgettable motion picture, and I am forever changed by the experience of watching it. Much like that early scene in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s The Revenant made me fear bears, The Grey now has me scared shitless of wolves!
Rating: 9 out of 10

Thursday, May 26, 2022

#2,759. Wind Chill (2007) - Winter Horror 4-Pack


Director Gregory Jacobs Wind Chill is in a way a frustrating horror movie; there are a handful of creepy scenes, and the set-up isn’t without potential. But in the end, it all seemed far too routine, and it failed to distinguish itself from other run-of-the-mill supernatural films.

A college student (Emily Blunt) is looking for a ride home for the holidays, and on the college’s bulleting board spots a leaflet offering a lift to anyone heading to Delaware. She decides to take a chance and answer the ad, and eventually discovers that the driver (Ashton Holmes) offering the ride is in her same Philosophy class.

With a snowstorm approaching, the two hit the road, and after a brief stop at a small gas station / convenience store, the driver veers off the highway onto a back road, promising the student that it’s a shortcut. But a near-accident leaves them stranded in a snow bank, and as the student is busy trying to figure out why the driver knows so much about her personal life, the two realize they are trapped in a bizarre supernatural world, where ghostly visions and the spirit of a corrupt highway patrolman (Martin Donovan), who died 50 years ago along this same stretch of road, make the sub-zero temperatures seem even colder.

Produced by (among others) Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney, Wind Chill starts off as a psychological thriller, with Emily Blunt’s bitchy-as-hell college student (she’s really unlikable early on) fearing that she may have hitched a ride with a stalker (he somehow knew that she wears glasses, which she has never done in public).

This storyline, which never really picks up any steam, eventually gives way to supernatural elements, and it’s at this point Wind Chill offers up a few decent scares; the student’s run-in with a guy she spots walking through the snow is especially creepy. But while the psychological cat-and-mouse game between the student and the driver (nobody has a name in this movie) is left underexplored, the ghosts and specters roaming the woods are given a bit too much screen time, and as a result they eventually lose their effectiveness (even the big reveal at the end, when we witness a flashback to the tragedy that kicked off these ethereal events, proved to be a story twist we’ve seen before).

Wind Chill isn’t without its strong points. The performances are good (especially Blunt, who we don’t like at first but eventually warm up to); the central mystery of the haunted woods is, for a while, intriguing; and as mentioned above there are moments scattered throughout that will have your heart pounding. Unfortunately, it’s all too familiar, and even at a scant 90 minutes Wind Chill feels too long, wearing out its welcome well before the end credits roll.
Rating: 5 out of 10

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

#2,758. The Last Winter (2006) - Winter Horror 4-Pack


Larry Fessenden is no stranger to genre fans. As an actor, he’s appeared in such memorable films as We Are Still Here, The Dead Don’t Die, and I Sell the Dead. But Fessenden’s contributions behind the camera are just as impressive. Over the years he’s been a producer (Stake Land, The Innkeepers) as well as a director, writer, editor (he handled all three of these tasks for “N is for Nexus’, one of the shorts featured in 2014’s ABC’s of Death 2) and even cinematographer (he worked the camera for 2016’s Stray Bullets, which was directed by his son Jack).

For 2006’s The Last Winter, Fessenden served as director, co-writer, editor, and even plays a small role (as Foster, an ill-fated executive). Set in the Arctic Circle, The Last Winter is a smartly written, expertly acted horror film that also manages to say a little something about the effects of global warming.

The North Corporation, an American oil company, has sent a team into the Arctic Circle to research the possibility of drilling in the area.

The team’s leader, Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman), is anxious to get things rolling, but is opposed by environmentalist James Hoffman (James LeGros), who believes the rising temperatures may be releasing “sour gas” (which contains hydrogen sulfide) into the air. Hoffman is concerned that this gas might cause hallucinations to crop up among the team, and could even lead to insanity. His fears are strengthened when Maxwell (Zach Gilford), the youngest of the group, disappears for an entire day, then returns saying he “saw something” in the snow.

Still, despite Hoffman’s warnings, Pollack pushes forward, and demands that the environmentalist allow them to move heavy equipment into the area. But Maxwell won’t be the only one to see strange things in the snow, leaving Hoffman and the others to eventually wonder if any of them will get out of this barren wasteland alive.

Ron Perlman delivers a bravura performance as Pollack, the boisterous leader who wants nothing more than to start drilling, and it’s to the actor’s credit that, even when we don’t agree with his actions, we understand his motivations and even kinda like him (when he first arrives, Pollack gets everyone outside to play an impromptu game of football). LeGros is also quite good as Hoffman, the voice of reason, and the scenes in which his character and Pollack butt heads are among the film’s most compelling.

Rounding out the excellent cast are Zach Gilford as the troubled Maxwell; Connie Britton as Abby, Pollack’s former flame who is now romantically involved with Hoffman (causing even greater friction between the two men); Kevin Corrigan as Motor, the substance-abusing mechanic; Jamie Harrold as Elliot, Hoffman’s nosebleed-prone assistant; and Pato Hoffmann as Lee, a native Alaskan who believes the troubles are being caused by a Wendigo, an evil spirit that possesses humans and causes them to act out violently.

Along with the performances, The Last Winter is beautifully shot, capturing the stark, frozen landscape in a way that only adds to the overall tension, and there are even supernatural elements introduced in the form of ghostly animals that appear from time to time, stampeding across the snow. Though we’re never quite sure if these spirits are real or simply hallucinations, the scenes in which they are featured are among the most compelling in the entire film.

Throw in a pretty convincing plane crash, some decent make-up effects (one deceased team member loses his eyes to some hungry ravens), and a final 10 minutes you won’t soon forget, and you have a horror film that does more than simply deliver a message on global warming.
Rating: 8 out of 10

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 film 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 at the time).

Wayne is 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 was with 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’ just 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 as the lead, delivering an understated performance as a man past his prime who nonetheless commands respect, and maintains strength and dignity throughout. In one very fun scene, Books kicks the ass (literally) of an exploitative reporter (Rick Lenz) who wants to write an expose of his life; and the moments when 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.

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 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've 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 (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 it 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, a 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 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.

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 rustle the entire herd away from 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 that, as recently as 2015, 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 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 with fear, victimized by a wealthy yet mysterious land baron and his corrupt sheriff (Mike Henry).

Still hopeful they will find the traitors, 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 feels lighthearted, 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 times (if not a hundred) 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, they 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 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 demeanor, frontier heroism, and determination to see that justice is carried out regardless of the odds, 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 buying up 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 is going to take more than diplomacy to keep 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 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 1878 Lincoln County War, 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 reliance 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 will definitely enjoy.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10