Saturday, September 23, 2023

#2,928. The Big Racket (1976) - 70s Euro Crime Triple Feature


When writing about Enzo G. Castellari’s 1976 crime movie The Big Racket, Italian critic Morando Morandini said:

It’s a fascist film. It’s a vile film. It’s an idiot film”.

A strong reaction, certainly, but then The Big Racket is the kind of movie that will elicit such a response.

There are scenes that hit you like a ton of bricks, moments so disturbing they will stay with you for days. And the criminals in The Big Racket are detestable. Think of the worst gang of thugs and lowlifes in any movie you’ve seen, and chances are they won’t hold a candle to the villains in this film.

And yet, despite its harsh and gritty approach, Castellari directs The Big Racket with gusto, and even some panache, making it a whole lot more than your run-of-the-mill violent crime flick.

Gangs roam the streets of a small neighborhood in Rome, extorting “protection” money from shop owners and businessmen, often demanding sizable payments they cannot afford. If these merchants don’t cough up the cash, they are beaten and their businesses are destroyed. Detective Palmieri (Fabio Testi) has been trying to rid the area of this vermin for years, only to find that the victims are scared, and never willing to press charges.

Then, restaurant owner Luigi (Renzo Palmer) decides he’s had enough, and agrees to cooperate with Palmieri. The criminals respond by kidnapping Luigi’s daughter and raping her.

When his superiors, who fear he’s become too emotionally attached to the case, prevent Palmieri from getting involved any further, the disgruntled cop rounds up a few equally pissed cohorts, including Luigi; small-time crook Pepe (Vincent Gardenia); and champion sharpshooter Gianni Rossetti (Orso Maria Guerrini), whose own wife, Anna (Anna Zinnemann), also suffered the cruel abuse of the gangs. Employing their own brand of vigilante justice, they take the fight to the crooks, hoping to end this reign of terror once and for all.

The Big Racket is a violent film. It is unflinching. The rape of Luigi’s daughter is tough to watch, but there is another scene later in the film (with Gianni and his wife) that is tougher.

Castellari also borrows heavily from earlier films such as Dirty Harry and Death Wish, which favored vigilantism over law and order. Yet by the time Detective Palmieri puts his team together (making the final act of The Big Racket a kind of Dirty Harry meets Castellari’s own 1978 film The Inglorious Bastards), we the audience are one with their cause, and happily put our own morality on the backburner. We are cheering the vigilantes on because the criminals in this film are loathsome (a tribute to the actors and actress who play them). We hate this scum, and cannot wait to see each and every one get their just desserts.

We know we shouldn’t feel that way, but we do. Castellari has pulled the strings perfectly, and we go where he leads us, accepting that, yes, the final showdown happens exactly how it needs to happen.

Part of the reason Castellari pulls this off is that he infuses The Big Racket with tons of style. Amidst all the carnage and ugliness are some impressively staged sequences, chief among them an early encounter between Palmieri and the crooks, in which the thugs destroy Palmieri’s car while he’s still inside it, then roll it down a hill. Shooting half of this sequence from the car’s interior, we watch as Fabio Testi (doing his own stunt work) tumbles over and over again in a rolling vehicle. It is as awe-inspiring as it is terrifying. There are even a few moments of beauty, like a brief scene in which Palmieri, recovering from the wounds, strolls along a beach as the setting sun illuminates the sky.

Employing these as well as slow-motion, and combining it all with convincing violence (I couldn’t count the number of squibs used during the shootouts); impressive locations (one scene is set in the Roman Forum); and an over-the-top, often comedic performance by Vincent Gardenia, whose Pepe is the sole likable crook in the entire movie, Castellari manages to make the terrible and grotesque more palpable.

And when you watch The Big Racket, you will realize this was no small accomplishment.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, September 16, 2023

#2,927. Killer Cop (1975) - 70s Euro Crime Triple Feature


The Italian title for Luciano Ercoli’s 1975 Euro-crime film is La polizia ha le mani legate, which translates in English to The Police Have Their Hands Tied. In my opinion, that is a lot better, and certainly a more appropriate description of the movie, than calling the film Killer Cop. Why they named it Killer Cop in America is beyond me. It is not only misleading, but also a disservice to what is a tense, intriguing crime thriller.

The police do, indeed, have their hands tied throughout Killer Cop. While searching the hotel room of an international drug dealer, inspector Matteo Rolandi (Claudio Cassinelli) of the Milan police is caught in the middle of a terrorist attack; a bomb, hidden inside a suitcase, explodes in the hotel’s lobby.

The young political activist who planted the bomb, a guy we later find out is named Franco (Bruno Zanin), tried to retrieve the suitcase before it exploded, and even warned everyone to run just before it went off. That’s because Franco realized, at the last minute, that he accidentally planted a much larger explosive than originally intended. Feeling guilty, the young man (who lost his glasses while attempting to get the suitcase back) hops a bus and rides it for a few stops.

When he gets off the bus, Franco writes an apology on a newspaper and leaves it in a nearby phone booth. Unfortunately for Franco, Police Inspector Balsamo (Franco Fabrizi) was also on this bus, and, noticing the young man’s nervous disposition, retrieves the newspaper, reads it, and immediately gives chase. Franco escapes, but not before Balsami gets a good look at him.

As the only person who can identify the bomber, Balsami is placed in protective custody, and takes up residence at the home of Armando Di Federico (Arthur Kennedy), the gov’t official put in charge of investigating the bombing. Unfortunately, Franco’s associates still get to Balsami, and he is gunned down.

Anxious to find out who is behind both the bombing and Balsami’s assassination, Inspector Rolandi, though not assigned to the case, does a little investigating of his own, all as Franco and his associates, Rocco (Paolo Poiret) and Falena (Valeria D’Obici), are somehow staying one step ahead of the law.

What Rolandi and Di Federico don’t know, however, is that there are greater forces at work, and a few individuals very close to them, government employees like themselves, might know more than they are letting on.

Along with acting as a time capsule of the socio-political climate in Italy the mid-‘70s, Killer Cop was also inspired by true events, specifically the 1969 Piazza Fontana bombing in Milan. This brings a chilling sort of realism to the film, and sets the stage for what will prove to be an involving and very cool procedural, both from the perspectives of the law and the lawbreakers.

We watch as Rolandi ignores protocol to get a look at some important evidence in police storage, then enlists the help of a number of opticians, figuring that Franco, who is near blind without his glasses, will try to get a new pair at some point. We also sit in with Di Federico as he wrestles with both the country’s Information bureau (who are demanding to be included in the investigation) and his own conscience (for not better protecting his star witness, Balsami).

But director Ercoli also brings us into the world of the bomber, Franco, and his compatriots, who run into a little trouble of their own when they attempt to flee Milan. Ercoli and writer Gianfranco Gallgarich ensure that both sides of this story are given ample screen time before merging into one in the final act.

I also loved how Ercoli referenced other well-known crime films throughout Killer Cop. The killing of Balsami, from the area where he’s gunned down to the fact he was shot in the back, felt like an homage to the shooting of Don Corleone in 1972’s The Godfather (both occur while the intended victim was shopping for fruit at a streetside stand). Also, late in the film, there’s a scene where Rolandi is chasing down Papaya (Sara Sperati), an informant who purposefully misled him. Suddenly, a shot rings out. The way Ercoli frames this incident, then follows the gunman into the subway, reminded me of a similar moment (or two moments together) from William Freidkin’s award-winning The French Connection.

These cinematic tributes aside, this is a first-rate thriller with chases and gunplay aplenty, and will keep you poised on the edge of your seat.

Even as you’re asking yourself why the hell did they call it Killer Cop?!?
Rating 8.5 out of 10

Saturday, September 9, 2023

#2,926. Caliber 9 (1972) - 70s Euro Crime Triple Feature


Forget limiting it to the Euro-crime subgenre; Fernando Di Leo’s Caliber 9 is one of the best crime films I’ve seen, period! From its sharply edited pre-title sequence, which features a money drop gone wrong, to its tense, surprise-filled finale, Caliber 9 is a smart, edgy, highly entertaining thriller.

Former Milanese gangster Ugo Piazzi (Gastone Moschin) has just been released from prison. Moments after he hits the streets, Ugo is approached by former associate Rocco (Mario Adorf), who works for a powerful American crime boss (played here by Lionel Standler). Both Rocco and “The Americano” are convinced it was Ugo who made off with the money that went missing (in the pre-title sequence), then got himself arrested to throw them off his track.

Ugo claims he is innocent, though very few people believe him, including his former flame Nelly (Barbara Bouchet). Feeling the heat, Ugo asks for help from his old friend Chino (Phillippe Leroy), the sole remaining capo of the elderly Don Vincenzo (Ivo Garrini). But Chino refuses.

To keep an eye on Ugo, “The Americano” brings him back into the fold and orders him to work alongside Rocco, carrying out odd jobs. Everyone believes Ugo will eventually try to retrieve the money, but he insists that he is only sticking around to clear his name, and track down the real thief.

The entire cast of Caliber 9 is nothing short of amazing. Gastone Moschin, who that same year would play the ill-fated Don Fanucci in The Godfather Part II, is enigmatic as hell in the role of Ugo, leaving everyone, including the audience, in the dark as to whether or not he's the one that stole the mob’s money. Mario Adorf’s Rocco is the perfect counterbalance to Moschin, a flamboyant, violent gangster who harasses Ugo every chance he gets.

Also on Ugo’s back is Milan’s Police Commissioner, played by Frank Wolff, who, despite his distaste for the criminal underworld, tries to cut a deal with Ugo, offering him protection and even money in exchange for information. Rounding out the cast are the lovely Bouchet as Ugo’s go-go dancer girlfriend and Lionel Standler as the “Americano”, the most influential man in Milan.

Yet what truly impressed me about Caliber 9 was its pacing. DiLeo keeps the film moving along briskly, with one well-directed scene after another. This is especially true of the pre-title opening. It contains no dialogue whatsoever, and even though, at the outset, we haven’t the foggiest idea what is going on, or who the characters are, DiLeo shoots it with such precision and style that we eventually figure it out. Topping this, however, and every other great scene in this movie, is the twisting, turning final act, which features one grab-you-by-the-throat surprise after another.

Take all of the above, and throw in an intelligent story (the film gets its title from a collection of short tales by Giorgio Scerbanenco), and you have one hell of a motion picture. Caliber 9 is a Euro-crime masterpiece.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Saturday, September 2, 2023

#2,925. All American High Revisited (2014) - Documentaries Double Feature


If you need a smile, or a pick-me-up, then you’ll want to check out director Keva Rosenfeld’s All American High Revisited. It is an incredibly fun documentary.

Released in 1987, Rosenfeld’s original film, simply titled All American High, followed the senior class of Torrance High School in Los Angeles as they navigated their way through the 1983-’84 school year, from the first day of class all the way to graduation. The cameras were there to capture it all, from classes and assemblies to student elections and the Senior Prom. And, of course, the parties, which could get a little rowdy. One party host went so far as to charge admission, to ensure he’d have enough money to repair any damages caused by the revelers.

We meet a few key members of the class of ’84, but our guide for this journey is Finnish exchange student Rikki Rauhala. As an outsider to American customs, Rauhala offers some fascinating insights, on cheerleaders (after attending a football game, Rauhala admits she had only seen cheerleaders in the movies or on TV, never in person); her friends putting their education second to having a good time (she talks about this often); and even her classmates’ hang-ups about sex. Rauhala mentions at one point that she had two boyfriends that year, including one who took her to the Senior prom. Both relationships ended when the boys were slow to act, and too shy to make a move.

Along with being a time capsule of life in the mid-1980s (I was a freshman in ’83-’84, and to see that era alive again, from the fashion to the music, was very, very cool), All American High is an expose of teen culture at that time, as seen through the eyes of someone (Rikki) who had only just joined it.

But as good as All American High is, it’s the Revisited part of the movie that really blew me away!

Thirty years after shooting the movie, in 2014, Rosenfeld reconnected with Rauhala as well as a few other members of the Torrance Class of ’84. At that point, Rauhala was living in Karjaa, Finland (which a graphic informs us is 5,602 miles from Torrance High). She was married and the mother of three children, including a daughter who was herself about to graduate.

We also reconnect with William, who we met briefly when he offered insight into a mock wedding ceremony, a class project the students had to complete, which was designed to teach them about relationships and how best to handle any issues that might arise later in life. Sporting a pair of sunglasses, the 1984 William talked of how he wasn’t impressed with the mock weddings. Looking at that footage 30 years later, William, now a contractor, quipped that he is almost positive the reason he was wearing sunglasses during that interview was that he was high!

This later Revisited segment (which takes up the final half hour of the movie) also contains a clip from a (then) recent public screening of All American High, which played on a double bill with Fast Times at Ridgemont High. While on-stage for a Q & A with Amy Heckerling (Director of Fast Times), Rosenfeld asked the crowd if anyone from that Torrance class was in attendance, and was thrilled when a good number of people stood up!

The highlight of the Revisited sequence, though, was sitting down with Rauhala and her family in Finland as they watched the movie. With her kids playfully taunting her, Rauhala got to see her teenage self again, and even remarks that it seems like it all could have all happened “six months ago”. To see the look on her face, the emotion in her eyes, was priceless.

All American High Revisited is one of those movies, one of those experiences, that reminds me why I so love the cinema.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Saturday, August 26, 2023

#2,924. Streetwise (1984) - Documentaries Double Feature


In an early scene from Martin Bell’s extraordinary 1984 documentary Streetwise, which follows a group of kids living on the streets of Seattle, we’re treated to a montage set to a blues-infused rendition of the classic children’s song “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic” (performed by Baby Gramps). It shows a bunch of kids hanging out, laughing, and generally enjoying each other’s company.

At this point, we haven’t met many of the youngsters who will be featured in the movie. Yet we sense, during this musical aside, that there is a certain irony in the choice of song, that what is about to transpire over the next 90-some minutes will be anything but a picnic.

Sure enough, Streetwise isn’t so much a “picnic” as it is a gut punch, focusing on kids who, because of their troubled home lives, choose to live on the streets.

Bell and his team shine a light on a fair number of these children, many of whom have begged, stolen, or prostituted themselves to get by. Inspired by the 1983 Life Magazine article “Streets of the Lost”, Streetwise introduces us to Rat, a young teen who has teamed up with the much older Jack. Rat mentions, several times, how important it is to have someone watching your back, and he trusts Jack completely. The two have a strong friendship. They live in an abandoned hotel, and search for food in restaurant dumpsters. Rat explains that, to make this dumpster buffet work, you have to have regular dumpsters, which he calls “regs”, so that you know what food is fresh and what isn’t. He and Jack also run a scam on a pizza shop, ordering a pizza from a pay phone that they will never buy. In an hour or so, that pizza will make its way to the dumpster, at which point they’ll grab it.

Of all the youngsters featured in Streetwise, Rat has the keenest survival instincts. It is interesting to note that he is also one of the only kids whose family or caretakers we never meet (unlike many of the others, Rat’s family is hundreds of miles away, in Sacramento).

Also featured prominently in Streetwise is Erin, nicknamed “Tiny”. Early on, Tiny visits a doctor, afraid she may have contracted a venereal disease. Tiny turns tricks for a living (like many of the other girls who prostitute themselves, Tiny calls her customers “dates”). Tiny admits she has had venereal diseases before, and also tells the doctor she may be pregnant (because one “date” refused to wear a condom). The doctor then asks when her last menstrual cycle was, and Tiny says she had her second one a few weeks ago. When the doctor asks her to clarify, Tiny said she got her first ever period a month earlier. That is because Tiny is only 14 years old.

Tiny spends a lot of time on the streets, yet she does share a home with Pat, her alcoholic mother. Pat, who knows of her daughter’s prostitution but calls it a “phase”, has re-married, and has been beaten by her new husband (who, at the time the movie was shot, was sitting in jail). Tiny does not like her stepfather. Nor does another young girl, Patti, who, in a heart-wrenching scene, argues with her mother about being “abused” by her “pervert” of a stepdad.

Then there is DeWayne, who begs for change. DeWayne is 16, yet looks much younger. During a doctor’s visit, he is told his adenoids and tonsils are inflamed, and are contributing to his stunted growth. DeWayne’s only relative is his father, who is in prison. In one very difficult scene, DeWayne visits his dad, who, after chastising his son for smoking dope and biting his fingernails, says he loves him, and that DeWayne is all he has left in the world.

Other kids are featured as well, including Roberta, who is on her way to becoming a prostitute, and Lulu, a self-proclaimed lesbian who does what she can to defend her fellow youths. At one point, Lulu drags a vagrant back to a girl he felt up as he walked past her, and forces him to apologize. Lulu is tough as nails, and we see her tenacity time and again throughout the movie.

We come to know her and the rest of these kids quite well, and director Bell does a fine job bringing us into their world. It is never pleasant. In fact, it is terrifying. As tough as some of these kids are, they are still only kids, and face real danger on the streets.

Before the movie is over, tragedy will strike one of these youngsters. So, when Streetwise ends with the same song that kicked it off, “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic”, it is more than ironic this time.

Now, it is heartbreaking.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, August 19, 2023

#2,923. The Nightshifter (2018) - Random Musings


I first came across Dennison Ramalho’s The Nightshifter in late 2019, when I was compiling that year’s Top 10 horror movies list. The premise blew me away, and I was floored by how strongly the film started.

Stenio (Daniel De Oliveira) works the night shift in a Brazilian morgue. But more than just assist on autopsies and clean up the ensuing mess, Stenio can also communicate with the cadavers!

Not their spirits… the bodies themselves, some of whom don’t even realize they are dead.

It is a gift he has possessed for some time, and he uses it to help the recently deceased. One guy, who was stabbed to death in a bar while arguing the latest football match, begs Stenio to alert his family. He doesn’t want to be buried in a pauper’s grave.

Stenio helps him. He seems like a good guy.

When Stenio heads home, he is treated like shit by his wife Odete (Fabiula Nascimento), who complains he smells of formaldehyde and doesn’t make enough money. She is relentlessly nasty towards him, to the point that not even their kids Edson (Caua Martins) and Cica (Annalara Prates) have any respect for poor Stenio.

Then, one day at the morgue, Stenio works on the body of a guy he knew, who informs him from he other side that Odete is having an affair behind his back, sleeping with shop owner Jaime (Marco Ricca).

It’s then that Stenio does something very, very bad.

Using information he obtained days earlier from the corpse of a gang member, Stenio convinces the dead gangster’s brother, and the leader of said gang, that Jaime was responsible for his late bro’s demise.

This kicks off a chain of events that will also affect Stenio and his family, and it’s at this point Stenio finds himself tormented by an angry spirit, which will stop at nothing to make his life a living hell.

When I first watched The Nightshifter, I felt that the film’s second half, when Stenio is dealing with the vengeful spectre, wasn’t as interesting as what came before. Whereas the beginning was creative and engaging as hell, the movie falls into more traditional territory as it goes along. By the time that initial viewing in late 2019 was over, I decided The Nightshifter deserved a place on my list, but down around the #7 or #8 slot.

Then something happened.

For days I could not stop thinking about this movie. I kept turning it over and over in my head. So, I had to watch it again, and while the last half still felt routine, it worked better this second time because of the situation (aside from the haunting) that Stenio found himself in, something I now realized was more terrifying than an angry ghost coming after him.

Just after the tragedy brought on by Stenio’s actions, the corpses that communicate with him in the morgue start treating him differently. They inform Stenio, in no uncertain terms, that he has misused the special gift he was given, taking information from the dead and using it for revenge. Because of this, he is a marked man on the “other side”, a cursed individual, and retribution is waiting to unleash its fury on him in the afterlife.

The pissed-off spirit that messes with Stenio and his kids, as well as Lara (Bianca Comparato), Jaime’s twentysomething daughter, is nasty, and would kill the children just to torment Stenio. Yet as bad as this situation is, we the viewer know that our lead character has an even worse fate waiting for him, and it’s one he can never escape. What’s more… it’s a reckoning that will stretch on for eternity! Stenio will suffer for his misdeeds… for the rest of time!

It’s kind of like the Freddy Krueger effect. I touched on in my write-up of 1984’s The Nightmare on Elm Street, where I said Freddy was perhaps the scariest of the ‘80s slasher villains because you could not outrun him, you could not outlast him. Keep out of the woods, and Jason Voorhees won’t get you (at least not until he went to Manhattan). But you will fall asleep at some point. You cannot stay awake forever. Which means Freddy need only wait you out… you will go to him.

It’s the same for poor Stenio. One day, he will die. Even if he lasts another 70 years, death is inevitable. And he will face the terrible wrath he has brought upon himself.

Though I was still underwhelmed by some of the movie’s more mundane scare scenes, Stenio’s fate hit me harder the second time around. He has something terrible hanging over his head, making his situation seem totally hopeless.

To his credit, he does not despair. He now lives to protect Lara and his kids. But even that won’t save him in the end. Stenio is doomed.

After that second viewing, The Nightshifter shot all the way up to the top of my list. It was, and remains, the best horror film I saw in 2019.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, August 12, 2023

#2,922. Scare Me (2020) - Random Musings


One main set.

Two (briefly three) characters telling scary stories.

Writer / director Josh Ruben took a minimalist approach to Scare Me, a film that would have worked just as well as a stage play. And yet it’s a top-notch horror outing. Listening to its characters as they attempt to frighten one another with various tales of the macabre not only generates tension, but also makes this 2020 movie one of the most unique horror anthologies of all-time.

Hoping for a little peace and quiet as he pens his first book (a werewolf story), wannabe writer Fred (played by Ruben himself) sets up shop in a remote cabin. To clear his mind when writer’s block sets in, Fred goes for a walk, during which he meets Fanny (Aya Cash), who is staying in the cabin right across from his. It turns out Fanny is also a writer. In fact, she’s the author of Venus, a best-selling horror novel.

When a storm knocks out the power, Fanny pays Fred a visit, and during their conversation she challenges Fred to try and scare her with his werewolf story.

Thus begins a night filled with one frightening tale after another, with Fred and Fanny – separately and in collaboration - spinning yarns of terror, each more nerve-racking than the last.

For a movie like Scare Me to work, the actors had to be on top of their game, and both Ruben and Cash were up to the challenge. Ruben plays Fred as a bit of a sad sack, a guy trying to turn his life around who is more than a little threatened by Fanny’s success. Cash is even better as the brash, confident Fanny. She spots Fred’s insecurities right out of the gate and goes to work on him, offering unsolicited advice as he acts out moments from his werewolf story. There is a tension between the two that remains tangible throughout, but they feed off of it, and use it to generate even scarier stories.

It's a dialogue-heavy film, obviously, but director Ruben utilizes lighting, sound effects, and occasionally even props to give the stories a little life. As Fred ascends a staircase while relating his Werewolf opus, we see not his shadow on the wall, but that of a hulking werewolf. When it comes to the stories themselves, my favorite is one about a Troll that lives in the walls of an office building, tormenting the staff of an Edible Arrangements company.

A third character is eventually introduced: Carlo (Chris Redd), a pizza delivery guy who also loves scary stories. Carlo is a big fan of Venus, and his constant praise of Fanny only adds to Fred’s anxieties. Redd is hilarious in the part, and during his short visit somehow steals the movie from Ruben and Cash. Also good in a couple of brief appearances (at the beginning and the end) is Rebecca Drysedale as Bettina, Fred’s overly talkative driver who also fancies herself a writer.

A funny, sometimes spooky, always fascinating horror / comedy, Scare Me did, indeed, scare me at times, and for a movie that is mostly dialogue, that’s a hell of an accomplishment.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, August 5, 2023

#2,921. Dark Glasses (2022) - Random Musings


The DVD for 2022’s Dark Glasses features a quote on the cover by CBR, who called the movie “A return to form for Master of Horror Dario Argento”.

Statements like this always make me nervous.

What, precisely, would mark a “return to form”? At his height, Argento was, indeed, a master of the genre. His 1970 movie Bird with the Crystal Plumage laid the groundwork for all giallos to follow, and he continued to wow us with Deep Red, Suspiria, and Phenomena, just to name a few.

Then, he started to cool a little before losing his touch entirely in the 21st century. I was not a fan of his 2005 TV movie Do You Like Hitchcock?, and found 2007’s Mother of Tears (the third entry in his Mothers trilogy after Suspiria and Inferno) positively dismal. And while I never really paid much attention to his more recent work (I did not see 2012’s Dracula 3D, and from what I hear, I didn’t miss much), I’ve been led to believe, from several reliable sources, that Dark Glasses is his first in a while that was worth checking out.

But would it be a return to form, as the quote says, a film on par with his ‘70s and ‘80s output, or is it just better when compared to Mother of Tears and Dracula 3D?

It’s kind of like the M. Night Shyamalan phenomenon. Shyamalan set the world on fire with The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and, yes, I’ll throw The Village in there as well because I did like that film. But his downward trend started with Lady in the Water, went even quicker downhill with the ridiculous The Happening, and before you knew it, Shyamalan couldn’t do anything right (The Last Airbender and After Earth were roundly dismissed by audiences and critic alike). When he turned out The Visit in 2015, I got excited. Finally, a Shyamalan movie to celebrate!

I was cautious in my review of that film, saying the jury was still out if he was “back”, but in fairness I did call The Visit a “return to form” for Shyamalan. So, I guess my real question was, would Dark Glasses be Argento’s The Visit?

It very nearly is, and that alone makes it noteworthy.

After being pursued through the streets of Rome by a killer in a white van (a chase that caused her to crash into another vehicle), call girl Diana (Ilenia Pastorelli) suffers a hemorrhage that robs her of her eyesight. Counseled and re-trained by therapist Rita (Asia Argento), who helps her deal with her new disability, Diana next seeks out young Chin (Xinyu Zhang), whose parents died in the same crash that cost her her vision.

At first reluctant to talk to the woman indirectly responsible for his parents’ deaths, Chin eventually warms up to Diana, to the point that he runs away from the orphanage to live with her.

But the killer has not forgotten Diana, and remains as determined as ever to finish her off once and for all.

From the start, Dark Glasses feels more like an ‘80s slasher than a classic giallo, in part because there’s never any mystery as to the killer’s identity. We know who it is almost immediately. And the kills are gory enough to fit neatly into the slasher subgenre, especially the first victim, whose garroted throat splits further apart with each breath she takes.

Argento also succeeds in generating tension throughout. A showdown between two policemen and the killer, who surprises them on a darkened street in front of Diana’s house, is fairly intense, as is the film’s extended finale, when Diana and Chin are running for their lives at night through a forest (and, keeping with classic Italian WTF cinema - a la the tarantulas in The Beyond - the two encounter one of nature’s gnarliest creatures in a bizarre, cringe-inducing scene).

The problem I had with Dark Glasses is the end of the final act. The chase through the woods drags on far too long, and especially baffling is why the killer, who up to that point took a “kill first, ask questions later” approach to his victims, suddenly unleashes an “evil genius” style exposition, prolonging a sequence that, at any other point in the movie, would have been over within seconds. Not only does it seem out of place with the killer’s modus operandi, it also mutes his effectiveness (he generated real dread whenever he turned up prior).

On the whole, though, Dark Glasses did impress me. So, if The Visit was Shyamalan’s return to form, I guess Dark Glasses, for the time being, should hold that same distinction for Argento.
Rating: 7 out of 10

Saturday, July 29, 2023

#2,920. Ride the Pink Horse (1947) - Random Musings


Some of the most fascinating cinematic discoveries I’ve made the past few years have been film noirs (or is it films noir?). Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place. Delmer Daves’ Dark Passage. Ace in the Hole by Billy Wilder, and the John Stahl technicolor marvel Leave Her to Heaven. And that’s not the half of it. There have been plenty of others, movies that opened my eyes to an entire era, a style of filmmaking and storytelling that, when done right, can be hypnotic.

And now I can add Ride the Pink Horse to this already impressive list.

Directed by and starring Robert Montgomery, Ride the Pink Horse opens with its lead character, Gagin (Montgomery), stepping off a bus into the small New Mexico town of San Pablo. A yearly festival, which draws large crowds to the area, is set to begin that very night, but this isn’t what’s brought Gagin to San Pablo. He is there to see Frank Hugo (Fred Clark). Gagin, a WWII veteran with a less-than-friendly demeanor, has something he thinks Hugo wants and might pay handsomely to get.

In short, Gagin intends to blackmail the powerful Hugo, who was a VIP in Washington during the war. FBI Agent Bill Retz (Art Smith) intercepts Gagin before his meeting with Hugo, and tells him that the feds have been building a case against Hugo for years. Without knowing the particulars of his visit, Retz tries to coerce Gagin into cooperating him, but to no avail. Not even Hugo’s pretty, seemingly sympathetic girlfriend Marjorie (Andrea King) can convince Gagin to leave well enough alone, or at least protect himself from Hugo’s hired guns.

In fact, the only people who truly help Gagin out of a few tough spots are locals of San Pablo, including the young Pila (Wanda Hendrix), who sensed Gagin was in danger the moment she met him; and Pancho (Thomas Gomez), who operates a child’s merry-go-round and gives Gagin a place to stay when every hotel in town is booked solid.

And if he’s to have any chance of leaving San Pablo alive, Gagin may need even more help from his two new friends.

Montgomery delivers a solid performance as the cocky, no-nonsense Gagin, a guy we don’t particularly like in the first act. He is rude to Pila even when she helps him, and knocks out Hugo’s personal secretary Jonathan (Richard Gaines) when he tells the rude and obnoxious Gagin that Mr. Hugo is not in his hotel room, and that he cannot wait for him there. In the opening scenes, we aren’t even sure if Gagin is the hero or the villain of Ride the Pink Horse, and Montgomery’s approach to the role is what keeps us guessing.

But it’s Robert Montgomery’s work behind the camera that is even more spellbinding.

The film’s first scene, where Gagin arrives at the San Pablo bus depot, is an uninterrupted shot that runs for several minutes, in which we see him pull a gun from his luggage, place a piece of paper in a locker, then hide the locker’s key somewhere in the depot before walking out into the streets. The film will feature several flawlessly executed long takes, designed to either build the mystery (why is Gagin there?) or the tension (which becomes even more intense once we discover the reason for his visit).

Kudos also to both Hendrix and Gomez as the locals who do what they can to protect a stranger that, truth be told, didn’t give a damn about either one when he first met them. As for the story, it has enough twists and turns to keep us tuned in, and features one hell of a nerve-racking ending.

Ride the Pink Horse, like many of the film noirs (films noir) I mentioned above, is brilliant through and through. Don’t miss it.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Saturday, July 22, 2023

#2,919. Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) - Random Musings


In the grand tradition of Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show), 1999’s Drop Dead Gorgeous is a mockumentary about a small-town beauty pageant that everyone in this particular community believes is the biggest event of the year.

A documentary crew has just arrived in Mount Rose, Minnesota, to make a film about the town’s American Teen Princess Pageant. The host of the event, Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley), herself a former Teen Princess, is hard at work organizing the competition. This year’s pageant is particularly special to Gladys because her daughter, Becky (Denise Richards), now 17, is eligible to compete. Everyone in Mount Rose is convinced the pageant will be fixed, and that Becky, whose father (Sam McMurray) also owns the most lucrative business in town, is a shoe-in to be the next Teen Princess.

But she will have some competition this year. Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst), who is the nicest, most popular girl in school, is the local favorite, and dreams of following in the footsteps of her hero, news broadcaster Diane Sawyer, who also got her start winning a beauty pageant. Then there’s Leslie Miller (Amy Adams), a cheerleader who isn’t shy about showing off her body (especially to her boyfriend, the captain of the wrestling team). With such a wide range of lovely and popular young women, it's anyone’s guess as to who will be the winner.

That is, until some unfortunate “accidents” befall a number of contestants. Apparently, someone in Mount Rose is willing to go to great lengths, possibly even murder, to ensure their choice will be crowned this year’s Teen Princess!

Like Guest has done in his best movies (and even a few of his marginal ones), director Michael Patrick Jann and screenwriter Lona Williams make the bizarre characters of Drop Dead Gorgeous seem perfectly normal. Amber intends to do a tap routine during the pageant’s talent section, and practices while at work, dancing around as she applies make-up to the recently deceased at the local funeral home. Becky is a driven young woman who is also president of the local gun club, a position she recently inherited when the previous president (and pageant contestant) Tammy (Brooke Elise Bushman) was killed in a mysterious tractor explosion. Each and every character has their quirks. Amber lives in a trailer park with her mother Annette (Ellen Barkin), a beer-swilling chain smoker who does her neighbor’s hair on the side. When Annette walks in on the documentary crew interviewing Amber, she gives her daughter some advice: “If they ask you to take your top off, make sure you get the money first”.

Kirstie Alley is perfectly cast as the pageant’s organizer, Gladys, a woman who loves Jesus and America, and isn’t afraid to put down anyone who doesn’t. Equally good in supporting roles are Mindy Sterling as Iris, Gladys’s assistant; Matt Malloy as one of the judges, doing his best to hide his pedophilic tendencies; and Allison Janney as Annette’s oversexed best friend.

Each and every character in Drop Dead Gorgeous is quirky, some to the point of being disturbing (especially Natt Malloy), and all have that “Minnesota Nice” persona, talking as if they would have been right at home in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. Yet as strange as everyone in Mount Rose seems, and as funny a black comedy as Drop Dead Gorgeous is (things get especially dark once the pageant is underway), the audience does, much like with Guest’s films, form a genuine connection with its characters as the story progresses.

We know it is all played for laughs, and the movie gets plenty of them (a visual gag involving an explosion, a beer can, and Annette Atkins’ hand proved hysterical). But there is a humanity here as well, and I think it comes through in both the writing and the performances. You will definitely laugh at Drop Dead Gorgeous, but you may also shed a tear or two.
Rating: 8 out of 10

Saturday, July 15, 2023

#2,918. Six String Samurai (1998) - Random Musings


The setting is an alternate timeline of U.S. history, a post-apocalyptic American West left decimated when the country was bombed and invaded by the Russians in 1957. In this new society, the city of Las Vegas, renamed “Lost Vegas”, stands as the nation’s cultural center.

Or its new capital. Or maybe it’s just the only metropolitan area that remains. We’re never quite sure.

Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll who was also crowned the King of Lost Vegas, an honor he held for the last 40 years, has died, and a call goes out for a new king to take his place.

Directed by Lance Mungia, Six String Samurai is a highly stylized version of The Buddy Holly Story nestled within a world that is a cross between 1979’s The Warriors, every Mad Max movie ever made, and Japan’s Lone Wolf and Cub series.

OK, it’s a lot less The Buddy Holly Story than it is the other three, but the lead character, played by Jeffrey Falcon (who co-wrote the script with Mungia), is unmistakably based on Holly, the singer / songwriter who, before his untimely death in 1959, hit the rock charts with such early classics as “That’ll Be the Day”, “Maybe Baby” and “Peggy Sue”.

After rescuing a boy (Justin McGuire) whose mother was killed by marauders, Buddy, armed with a guitar that doubles as a sheath for his samurai sword, sets off for Lost Vegas to claim his place as the city’s next King. The boy, now alone, follows Buddy, and try as he might, the rocker / warrior can’t seem to shake the youngster.

Six String Samurai is a fast, frantic, funny movie that admittedly suffers on occasion from so-so action sequences. I wasn’t always a fan of how Buddy’s fights were shot, and even less of a fan of their haphazard editing. More than once, these showdowns, which should have been the film’s most exciting, felt less energetic than the rest of the movie.

Still, there’s a ton of imagination on display here, with Falcon giving off an Eastwood / Man with No Name vibe as Buddy; and the movie is jam-packed with characters and locales that are as engaging as they are unpredictable. You never quite know what is going to happen next in this movie. Every time our hero enters another territory, he is besieged by new, often more dangerous enemies, the deadliest being Death in a Top Hat (Stephane Gauger) and his band of heavy metal rockers, who are hot on Buddy’s trail throughout the film. To make matters worse, Buddy is constantly rescuing the boy from one predicament after another. Though, to be fair, sometimes it’s the boy who is doing the rescuing!

A western / action / comedy / sci-fi / adventure, Six String Samurai is never boring. Not for a minute. It is clever, it is hip, and I really enjoyed it
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Saturday, July 8, 2023

#2,917. Murder Weapon (1989) - Linnea Quigley Triple Feature


Linnea Quigley both produced and starred in 1989’s Murder Weapon, the bafflingly silly story of two mafia princesses, Dawn (Quigley) and Amy (Karen Russell), who, after being released from a psychiatric ward for committing a murder years earlier, throw a party and invite all of their former boyfriends.

And from the looks of it, the two got around.

Among the attendees are Kevin (Stephen steward), Eric (Michael Jacobs Jr.), Cary (Allen First), and Billy (Richard Sebastian), as well as a handful of others. At first, things seem to be going well for the guys, a few of whom even rekindle their romance with the recovering beauties. Things go south quickly, however, when someone goes on a killing spree.

A horror / thriller directed by David DeCoteau (credited, as he was in Deadly Embrace, as Ellen Cabot), Murder Weapon gets off to a decent start, a flashback to when Dawn walked in on Amy having sex with her boyfriend. Not wanting to be left out, Dawn lured the unsuspecting guy into the shower, where she stabbed him to death with a kitchen knife, the very killing that put both girls in an asylum.

The film also does a fine job presenting the girls’ psychiatric sessions. Dawn is under the care of Dr. Gram (Lenny Rose), who proves something of a deviant himself, while Amy talks things over with the wise Dr. Randolph (Lyle Waggoner, who gets top billing). These sessions have an almost dreamlike quality to them, and both actresses are strong in what prove to be dialogue-heavy scenes.

Things get a bit… strange, however, once the party with the former boyfriends begins. At least 7-8 guys turn up, all of whom have a history with one of the girls, yet there is never any animosity between them. And none question why they are there in the first place! It just seems a little too bizarre of a guest list not to have raised any suspicions.

As expected, both Russell and especially Quigley spend a fair amount of time in the raw, and the kill scenes range from clunky to pretty damn impressive (there’s one in a basement with an axe that is especially gruesome). Also, in a fun nod to Quigley’s Nightmare Sisters, her co-stars from that film, Michelle Bauer and Brinke Stevens, appear briefly via a clip from the movie, which some of the guys are watching on TV as their fellow guests are getting lucky with the girls.

Ultimately, Murder Weapon proved more entertaining, or at least more interesting, than its synopsis would lead you to believe. It’s not a masterpiece, or at times even a good movie, but it’s far from a waste of 81 minutes.
Rating: 6 out of 10

Saturday, July 1, 2023

#2,916. Night of the Demons (1988) - Linnea Quigley Triple Feature


When it comes to horror films set during the Halloween season, a number of great titles leap immediately to mind. There’s John Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece Halloween and its plethora of sequels and remakes (yes, even Halloween III: Season of the Witch). And in 1981, we were treated to both Hell Night and the exceptional TV movie Dark Night of the Scarecrow.

The new millennium has kept the seasonal ball rolling with Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses, Trick ‘r’ Treat from 2007, and, more recently, The Houses October Built and Hell House LLC.

Another title that deserves its place of honor among the October elite is director Kevin Tenney’s 1988 classic Night of the Demons. A low-budget horror film (it reportedly cost $1.2 million to produce), Night of the Demons is an amazingly entertaining fright flick, and with its awesome make-up effects and some truly memorable scenes, it’s no mystery why the film has achieved cult status.

It’s Halloween night, and teen recluse Angela (Amelia Kinkade), with the help of her promiscuous friend Suzanne (Linnea Quigley), is throwing a party for a few of her classmates. The venue is Hull House, an abandoned mortuary in the middle of nowhere that, according to legend, has a rather ominous history.

Among those attending Angela’s party are Judy (Cathy Podewell) and her new boyfriend Jay (Lance Fenton); their friends Max (Philip Tanzini) and Frannie (Jill Terashita); and Helen (Allison Barron), Rodger (Alvin Alexis), and the obnoxious Stooge (Hal Havins). Rounding out the attendees is Judy’s former boyfriend Sal (Billy Gallo), who crashes the festivities.

Along with the music, food, and booze, Angela thinks it would be a hoot if they held a séance to contact the spirits that supposedly roam the grounds of Hull House. But instead of conjuring up a few innocent ghosts, she and the others awaken an evil force that, before the night is out, will possess more than one of the revelers, and slaughter a few others.

Written by Joe Augustyn, Night of the Demons is an absolute blast, a fright flick that moves along at a brisk pace (especially once the demons make their presence known) and features a number of awesome jump scares. Tenney and his crew make the most of their limited funds; Hull House, with its dark rooms, decaying hallways, and the odd abandoned coffin, is one creepy locale, and the creature effects are outstanding (especially the possessed teens, whose yellow eyes and sharp teeth are the stuff of nightmares).

As for the performances, most range from decent to mediocre, with Amelia Kinkade stealing the show as Angela, who at one point even wows us with her dance moves (my favorite scene in the movie).

So, while 1978’s Halloween may be the granddaddy of them all, Night of the Demons should also be required viewing for horror fans once October rolls around.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, June 24, 2023

#2,915. Deadly Embrace (1989) - Linnea Quigley Triple Feature


It features scream queens Linnea Quigley (Graduation Day, Silent Night Deadly Night) and Michelle Bauer (Nightmare Sisters, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers), but 1989’s Deadly Embrace is not a horror film. This straight-to-video foray directed by David DeCoteau (credited as Ellen Cabot) is instead billed as a drama / thriller.

Well, I got news for you. It isn’t much of a thriller either!

Now a suspect in a double homicide, Chris (Ken Abraham) recounts, via flashback, the events that led to his tragic state of affairs. Hired by wealthy businessman Stewart Moreland (Jan-Michael Vincent) to be his live-in errand boy, Chris soon caught the eye of Moreland’s neglected wife Charlotte (Mindi Miller).

It seems that Moreland had fallen in love with his secretary Dede (Ruth Collins), and intended to divorce Charlotte the first chance he got. Moreland’s lawyer, Evan Weiss (Jack Carter), advised against the split, telling Moreland the unpleasant news that, because he didn’t have Charlotte sign a pre-nuptial agreement, she would be entitled to half his estate once the divorce was finalized.

As Moreland plotted for a way to prevent his wife from capitalizing on their faltering marriage, Charlotte was busy seducing Chris, who is himself in love with his longtime girlfriend, wannabe actress Michelle (Quigley).

It wasn’t long before Chris succumbed to Charlotte’s advances, and everything came to a head when Michelle visited Chris for a few days, causing a jealous Charlotte to take matters into her own hands.

Staying true to form, both Quigley and Bauer (who appears only in fantasy sequences as the “Female Spirit of Sex”) bare it all several times throughout Deadly Embrace, and even Miller (billed here as Ty Randolph) sheds her clothes a few times. The sex scenes are, indeed, erotic, and well-handled by Decoteau. Which is to the movie’s benefit, seeing as half of it is nothing but sex scenes!

As a thriller, though, Deadly Embrace is dead on arrival. Jan-Michael Vincent is limited to a handful of scenes, and his plans to somehow trap his wife, forcing her into an affair with Chris so he can cut her off without a cent, go nowhere (he seems even more inept when you consider the two are already having an affair under his nose). More effective, if only slightly, are the scenes with Miller as the jealous Charlotte, plotting for a way to break up Chris and Michelle so he will be hers. Charlotte even sets up a video camera outside of Chris’s room, shooting through a two-way mirror, that captures their sexual escapades.

It doesn’t hurt that Miller also delivers the film’s best performance, and is convincing as both the heartbroken wife and the alluring temptress. But even with her, the story falters and never truly develops into anything close to a suspenseful thriller.

Skin and sex are the selling points of Deadly Embrace, and with Miller, Quigley, and Bauer in the cast, that would have been enough to draw attention back in 1989. But all three have appeared in better films, both before and after. I recommend seeking them out instead.
Rating: 4.5 out of 10

Saturday, June 17, 2023

#2,914. Old Boyfriends (1979) - John Belushi Double Feature


Old Boyfriends has quite a pedigree. With a script co-written by Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and his brother Leonard, this 1979 film also marked the sole directorial effort of Joan Tewkesbury, longtime collaborator of Robert Altman’s. Tewkesbury was script supervisor on the excellent McCabe & Mrs. Miller before penning the screenplays for Thieves Like Us and Nashville.

And true to form, Old Boyfriends features characteristics of both a gritty Paul Schrader film and a star-studded Robert Altman picture.

California psychologist Dianne Cruise (Talia Shire) goes on a road trip to reconnect with the boyfriends of her past, starting with college sweetheart Jeff Turin (Richard Jordan), who directs commercials for a living. Before long, Dianne and Jeff have rekindled their romance, but just when things seem to be getting serious between the two, Dianne sneaks away and hits the road again.

This time, she is seeking out high school boyfriend Eric Katz (John Belushi), owner of a formal wear business who doubles as a lounge singer. From there, Dianne heads to a small town in Michigan to reunite with her grade school boyfriend, only to be informed by his younger brother Wayne (Keith Carradine) that her old flame was killed a decade earlier in Vietnam.

Dianne learns from the boys’ mother (Bethel Leslie) that, ever since his older brother’s death, Wayne has withdrawn from the world. Dianne offers to help Wayne any way she can, but is she in the right state of mind to take on such a challenge?

Following a cryptic opening scene, in which a car careens out of control and smashes into a concrete wall (an event that isn’t explained until late in the film), we join Dianne already on her journey, and though she is clearly the lead of Old Boyfriends, Shire plays the character very close to the vest, making her an enigma whose motivations remain a mystery through much of the movie.

Why is she seeking out her former boyfriends?  My initial thought, especially during her rendezvous with Jeff, was that Dianne wanted to see if any sparks remained between she and them, but when she abandons Jeff (wonderfully played by Richard Jordan), with whom she had, indeed, become romantically involved again, to instead visit Eric, a guy who humiliated her in high school, Dianne’s reasons, indeed her very mental state, become suspect.

Jeff, not wanting to lose Dianne again, hires a private investigator, played by Buck Henry, to track her down. It is only through Jeff’s delving into Dianne’s life (scenes that are crosscut with those of Dianne on the road) that we understand her motives.

Like many of Schrader’s films, Old Boyfriends treads into some dark territory, including revenge and mental illness, and does so in a way that can, at times, be jarring. That said, I feel it was Tewkesbury’s collaborations with Robert Altman that had the biggest impact on this movie, namely the film’s all-star cast, and how every single performer gets their moment in the sun, regardless of how small the part. Buck Henry’s single scene as the investigator proves more than a simple cameo; he flirts with his secretary (Brenda King), leading us to believe their relationship goes well beyond business. Also turning up briefly are Gerrit Graham (as a hapless actor in one of Jeff’s commercials), John Houseman (as a stuffy psychiatrist), and P.J. Soles, playing a very small but significant part towards the end of the movie. Even John Belushi’s Eric, easily the film’s most loathsome character, gets to belt out a few tunes, including Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock, which Belushi would also sing a year later in The Blues Brothers.

An occasionally bleak film with a perplexing lead that also works as a vehicle for its ensemble cast, Old Boyfriends proved a fascinating merger of Schrader and Altman, and is a movie well worth checking out.
Rating: 8 out of 10

Saturday, June 10, 2023

#2,913. Goin' South (1978) - John Belushi Double Feature


Jack Nicholson both starred in and directed the 1978 comedy / western Goin’ South, and surrounded himself with a hell of a cast. Too bad he didn’t know what to do with them.

Standing on the gallows, moments away from being hanged as a horse thief, Henry Moon (Nicholson) is “claimed” by Julia Tate (Mary Steenbergen), who intends to make the outlaw her husband. Since the Civil War killed off most of the men in this Texas border town, a law has been on the books saying that any convict whose crimes fall short of murder could be chosen by - and immediately married to - a single woman. The situation doesn’t sit well with Deputy Towfield (Christopher Lloyd), who not only wanted to see Moon swing, but also had his eye on Julia!

Grateful that she saved him from hanging, and smitten with her beauty, Moon believes he’s entered into the perfect arrangement. But Julia has other plans. Instead of wedded bliss, Moon is put to work in a potential gold mine that sits on his new wife’s property, and what’s more, is ordered to sleep in the barn. It’s Julia’s hope that they will strike gold before Mr. Polty (Gerald H. Reynolds), a top man with the railroad, runs her off her land.

Undeterred, Moon continues to put the moves on Julia, but the reappearance of his old gang (Jeff Morris, Danny DeVito, Veronica Cartwright and Tracey Walter), as well as a surprising turn of events, may ruin any chance he has of actually winning the heart of his new bride.

In addition to the actors listed above, John Belushi, fresh off his career-making role in Animal House, appears as Hector, a Mexican deputy; while Richard Bradford (as the sheriff), Ed Begley Jr. (as a former criminal who was also “saved” by marriage), and even Lin Shaye (as one of the ladies who showed interest in Moon before Julia did) turn up in minor roles.

It’s a fabulous collection of stars, but Goin’ South wasn’t the finest hour for any of them. Nicholson plays Moon far too broadly, and we understand why Julia seldom looks at him as anything more than a hired hand. He never once feels like a romantic lead, which makes the scenes in which Julia does cozy up to him unconvincing. Steenbergen, making her screen debut as the virginal Julia, fares slightly better (though as mentioned, she and Nicholson have no chemistry), while Lloyd’s hot-headed sheriff and Cartwright’s curly-haired outlaw steal their respective scenes (Cartwright plays Hermine, Moon’s former love interest, who is none too pleased he has shacked up with Julia). Alas, both DeVito and Belushi get little screen time, and are wasted in what could have otherwise been interesting roles. The issue with the characters filters down to the story as well, which never gels, feeling more like some interesting yet unrelated vignettes strung together haphazardly.

I don’t mean to dismiss Goin’ South completely. There are some good moments in the movie, including the hanging fiasco at the beginning as well as a fun scene in which Moon and Towfield sit down in a bar to have a chat. The setting is also pretty cool (the film was shot on-location in Durango, Mexico), and while their relationship mostly falls flat, Nicholson and Steenbergen don’t fumble it entirely (they have a few good scenes together in the mine, including one that begins with a freak hail storm).

But with this cast, and Nicholson at the helm, I was hoping for a lot more.
Rating: 5.5 out of 10

Saturday, June 3, 2023

#2,912. Miracle Mile (1988) - Thrillers of the '80s and '90s


What an intense experience Miracle Mile is! What a gloriously exciting and captivating motion picture! I am late to the party; this is the first time I’ve seen writer / director Steve De Jarnatt’s 1988 tale of love set against a coming apocalypse, and it blew me away!

While touring the La Brea Tar Pits, Harry (Anthony Edwards) meets Julie (Mare Winningham), and it isn’t long before the two are deeply in love.

One night, the power goes out at Harry’s hotel, and because his alarm never went off, he over-sleeps and misses his third date with Julie. Despite it being almost 4 am, Harry rushes to the coffee shop where Julie works, only to find she has gone home.

But fate is about to rear its ugly head. Stepping outside to call Julie from a phone booth to explain what happened, Harry is surprised when the phone suddenly rings, and he decides to answer it. The voice on the other end, believing he is talking to his father, claims to be a soldier in a North Dakota Nuclear silo, and starts shouting that the country is at war. The missiles have been launched, and Los Angeles has about an hour before it will be obliterated.

Not sure whether to believe the call or not, Harry tells the late-night patrons of the coffee shop, one of whom is Landa (Denise Crosby), who has connections in Washington D.C. Making a few calls on her mobile phone, Landa corroborates that something is, indeed, going down (many government officials have already left the country), and arranges for everyone in the coffee shop to get out of town on a private jet.

Desperate to save Julie and her grandparents (John Agar and Lou Hancock), Harry breaks away from the group and heads for Julie’s apartment. Landa has a helicopter, filled with life-sustaining supplies, set to land on top of the Mutual Benefit building. Realizing the clock is ticking, Harry’s plan is to get Julie and her grandparents to that building before 5 am so they can hitch a ride to the airport and fly to safety.

And thus begins one of the most nerve-racking thrillers I have seen in some time.

Armed with a gun belonging to Fred (Robert DoQui), the coffee shop’s owner, Harry flags down a car and threatens to shoot unless the driver, Wilson (Mykelti Williamson), takes him first to Julie, then the helicopter landing pad. Of course, once Harry tells Wilson why he’s so anxious to get out of L.A., Wilson says he has to save his sister, and eventually leaves Harry in the lurch (but not before a jaw-dropping confrontation between the two and a couple of unsuspecting cops at a gas station).

Aided by Tangerine Dream’s incredibly effective score, Miracle Mile gets more intense with each passing scene, and will have you poised on the edge of your seat for the duration. There were moments I was literally yelling at my screen, telling Harry to get a move on.

And my guess is your reaction will be about the same. Though it supposedly plays out in real-time, far too much transpires in the 45-50 minutes before the shit hits the fan, and we simply don’t believe everything could have happened within that allotted time.

But while the believable passage of time may not be the film’s strongest suit, it is also its only weakness. Edwards and Winningham generate tons of chemistry, and we fully believe their love story, which means we’re as invested in seeing them stay together as the characters themselves. Throw in about a half-dozen “WTF” moments, some deep drama, and a final act you won’t soon forget, and you have a motion picture that, even with the Cold War now over, will frighten the hell out of you!
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, May 27, 2023

#2,911. Stripped to Kill (1987) - Thrillers of the '80s and '90s


When you see Roger Corman’s name attached to a movie titled Stripped to Kill, you have a pretty good idea what to expect. Yet even by the legendary producer’s standards, this 1987 film has a lot of nudity! I didn’t pull out a stopwatch, but I’m guessing more than a third of its runtime is dedicated to watching strippers strut their stuff.

To investigate the recent murder of a stripper named Angel (Michelle Foreman), detective Cody Sheehan (Kay Lenz) goes undercover, posing as Sunny, an amateur stripper. Cody lands a job at the Rock Bottom, a dingy dive owned and operated by Ray (Normal Fell). The dead girl worked at this very club, and before long another of the Rock Bottom’s dancers is also murdered.

As Cody’s partner, Heneman (Greg Evigan), continues the investigation on the outside, with suspicions falling on “Mr. Pocket” (Peter Scranton), one of the club’s creepy regulars, Cody befriends Roxanne (Pia Kamakahi), Angel’s lover, who herself may be hiding a secret or two.

Kay Lenz delivers an exceptional performance as the undercover cop turned stripper, as does Evigan as her partner. The two have a definite chemistry, even if the film has no idea how to handle their relationship (they go from antagonistic one minute to cozy and familiar the next). There is an underlying sexual energy between the two that occasionally rises to the surface, only to retreat again for no real reason.

The dancers at the Rock Bottom, including Athena Worthey as Zeena, Caryle Byron as Cinnamon, and Debbie Nassar as Dazzle, are also quite good, both when on-stage (their acts are damn creative) and backstage, while Pia Kamakahi shines in what proves to be a very difficult role. As for the violence, Stripped to Kill isn’t overly bloody, but the killings it does show are fairly intense, especially Angel’s (she is pushed off a bridge, and as she lays bleeding on the concrete the killer douses her with gasoline).

Unfortunately, the film’s story is often forced into the background by the strip routines. We get one during the opening credits, and at what seems like 5-minute intervals from that point forward. Even the tense finale, when Cody is on the run from the killer, has a few moments with a stripper edited into it.

Flashy and sexy, Stripped to Kill has its charms (from an ‘80s perspective, anyway. Audience members with modern sensibilities will likely cringe at some of what transpires). I recommend a viewing, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself wondering if you are watching a crime / thriller or a strip show that occasionally pauses to try and tell a story.
Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Saturday, May 20, 2023

#2,910. Heroes for Sale (1933) - The Films of William A. Wellman


I thought I had William Wellman’s Heroes for Sale pegged in its opening scenes, which are set during World War I. Soldier Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess) is ordered by his superior and good friend (in both civilian life and the trenches) Roger Winston (Gordon Westcott) to accompany him, as well as a few other troops, on what appears to be a suicide mission: an assault on a German machine gun nest.

Tom and Roger are to lead the frontal assault, but once they crawl into no-man’s land, Roger chickens out and refuses to budge from the safety of their foxhole.

Left on his own, Tom moves forward, destroys the machine gun with a grenade, and even manages to take a German prisoner. Unfortunately, while returning to the foxhole, Tom is shot in the back. A wounded Tom tosses the prisoner in next to Roger, informs his friend that he’s a goner, and tells Roger to make sure the prisoner is delivered to their commanding officer.

Though ashamed of his cowardice, Roger is declared a hero. Roger knows it was his now-deceased friend who is the true hero, yet takes the credit for it anyway.

But, miracle of miracles, Tom is not dead! The bullet lodged in his back, he is taken prisoner by the German Army, who put him in a hospital tent, where his wound is treated. When, some time later, the armistice is signed, Tom is returned to the U.S. front lines. On a boat home, Tom meets Roger, who is surprised his pal is still alive, and confesses everything. No matter, says Tom, and tells Roger to continue playing the hero.

Back in their home town, Roger, son of a prestigious banker (Berton Churchill), is given a hero’s welcome, while Tom has a cozy but affectionate reunion with his widowed mother (Margaret Seddon). But Tom received more than a wound in the back during the war; the German doctor who treated him also informed Tom that there is still metal shrapnel very close to his spinal cord, and gave him a bottle of morphine to ease the pain. Now working in the very bank controlled by Roger and his father, Tom has developed a Morphine addiction, which is affecting his job performance. Though Roger pleads for his buddy once the addiction is made public, his father fires Tom and reports him to the authorities, who lock Tom away in an asylum for treatment.

This entire ordeal had me thinking about another film released that same year, Gold Diggers of 1933, specifically the musical number “Remember My Forgotten Man”, in which Joan Blondell relates the plight of the returning soldier, and how America seems to have forgotten their sacrifices. With its opening scenes, and a title like Heroes for Sale, I figured this is exactly the topic Wellman’s movie was going to tackle as well.

Boy, was I wrong!

This is not a movie about society ignoring veterans of World War I, or at least it's not entirely about that. Tom not only recovers from his morphine addiction, but also moves to Chicago and takes an apartment above a soup kitchen operated by Mary Dennis (Aline MacMahon) and her kindly father (Charles Grapewin, aka Dorothy’s Uncle Henry in 1939's The Wizard of Oz). Tom also meets and falls in love with fellow tenant Mary (Loretta Young), who gets Tom a job at the laundry service where she works.

Tom quickly becomes a star employee and moves up the ranks, even helping the laundry's owner Mr. Gibson (Grant Mitchell) automate his service using an invention developed by his neighbor Max (Robert Barrat), a self-proclaimed Communist sympathizer.

I don’t want to go any further into the film’s plot… I feel I may have revealed too much already. But rest assured that all of the above happens before the movie’s halfway point!

Heroes for Sale is, indeed, about veterans returning home, but it is also about capitalism and greed. It is about drug addiction, wrongful imprisonment, workers riots, the Red Scare (decades before McCarthy), and, eventually, the great depression. It is a movie about America, a glimpse at 14-15 years of a man’s life, and how a changing country affected him, both for the better and the worse. As Tom, the protagonist forced to endure all the turmoil, Richard Barthelmess delivers a strong performance. We feel his defeats, we cheer for his successes, and the actor’s work is a big reason why.

But the real stars of Heroes for Sale are director William Wellman and writers Robert Lord and William Mizner, who have seemingly done the impossible. They made a film that plays like a big-screen epic, a snapshot of American history every bit as grand as How the West Was Won or Saving Private Ryan, and squeezed it into a motion picture that runs for only 76 God-damn minutes!
Rating: 9.5 out of 10