Saturday, December 16, 2023

#2,940. Darkroom (1989) - Thrillers of the '80s and '90s


After years away, Janet (Jill Pierce) has returned home for what she hopes will be a quiet weekend with her family. Joined eventually by her boyfriend, professional photographer Steve (Jeff Arbaugh), Janet enjoys the time she spends with her widowed mom Nora (Elizabeth Ince), her grandfather (John O’Connor), younger sister Cindy (Sara Lee Wade), and cousins Perry (Aarin Tiech) and Mark (Allen Lieberman). The only one missing from this little reunion is her sister Paula (Abigail Lenz), a free-spirit who has been dating George (Timothy Hicks), a local outcast who lives in a trailer by the river.

When Paula doesn’t return home that first night, Janet, Steve, and Cindy assure a worried Nora that they will stop by George’s trailer and bring her back. Instead, they find Paula’s lifeless, blood-soaked body tied to George’s bed, kicking off a chain of events in which more than one person in this normally peaceful community will meet a grisly end.

Produced by low-budget master Nico Mastorakis and directed by Terrence O’Hara, 1989’s Darkroom features moments that harken back to the slashers of the decade’s early years. The opening sequence, in which a young couple is butchered in their home with an ax, certainly gives off slasher vibes, and there’s a scene involving a car and a machete that would have been at home in any Friday the 13th movie.

Ultimately, though, Darkroom is more a mystery / thriller, with plenty of red herrings to keep us guessing, for the better part of an hour, as to which of its character is the actual killer. The story also crosses from time to time into dark territory, and because we grow to like Janet’s family, we feel the loss whenever something terrible happens to them.

Shot primarily on a remote orange grove in Southern California, Darkroom also successfully conveys its characters’ feelings of isolation, especially when they are unable to report Paula’s death because the phones are out, and the nearest town is 20 miles away.

The film occasionally suffers from some of the weaknesses you’re likely to find in many low-budget movies, including performances that range from very good (Jeff Arbaugh is particularly strong) to borderline terrible. And when it came time to finally reveal of the killer’s identity, I had already figured it out. Though to be fair, I only put two-and-two together about 3-4 minutes before the movie itself spilled the beans, and there were moments when I was convinced that two other characters, ultimately innocent, were committing these murders. So, as a mystery, Darkroom works (even if said reveal shines a light on some gaping plot holes that are never satisfied).

Where Darkroom really impressed me, though, was in the last act. The movie continues a full half-hour after the killer’s identity is divulged, and these last scenes are among the film’s most intense, and most heartbreaking. So even if Darkroom isn’t perfect (and it certainly isn’t), it’s far from a total loss, and is worth a watch.
Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Saturday, December 9, 2023

#2,939. Busting (1974) - Elliott Gould in the 1970's Triple Feature


Director Peter Hyams has been on my radar for some time. It’s an admiration that stretches back to 1984, when our next-door neighbor took my brother and I to see 2010: The Year We Make Contact. Being kids, neither of us understood it, but our neighbor explained the complexities of 2001: A Space Odyssey and its new sequel, how both related the story of a superior alien race helping earth along its evolutionary path. He told it all in such a way that he had me jonesing to finally sit down and watch 2001: A Space Odyssey in its entirety (which I did, not long after, and I loved it).

Over the next few decades, I would stumble upon more of Hyams’ movies. Outland. Capricorn One. Films I wanted to see before I even knew he had directed them. And yet, when his name flashed on the screen, I was even more excited to watch them. Not all of Hyams’ movies resonated with me. I thought 1997’s The Relic was interesting but flawed, as was 2005’s The Sound of Thunder. But he did turn out what, for me, was Jean-Claude Van Damme’s best film: Timecop.

Hyams made his big-screen directorial debut with the 1974 action / crime / comedy Busting, about a couple of Los Angeles vice squad detectives trying to make a difference. I had never seen this movie before today, but now rank it as one of Peter Hyams’ absolute best.

Also written by Hyams, Busting stars Elliott Gould and Robert Blake as Keneely and Farrel (respectively), two wise-ass vice detectives who, as the movie opens, are following a high-end prostitute (played by Cornelia Sharpe) as she makes her rounds. Posing as a potential John, Keneely busts her. But it turns out this hooker has some friends in very high places, and is back on the street the next day.

Frustrated, the two cops launch an informal investigation, and discover that Carl Rizzo (Allen Garfield), a well-respected councilman, is actually the area’s top crime boss. Dabbling in everything from strip clubs to narcotics, and with the police in his back pocket, Rizzo feels invincible. Of course, that only makes Keneely and Farrel more anxious than ever to take him down.

Gould and Blake shine as the perfectly matched detectives, two guys who are good at their job, yet never seem to take it seriously, and seldom play by the rules. While busting the prostitute played by Sharpe in her apartment, they ask for her appointment book. When she pretends not to have one, they begin a “search”, by breaking up the place, shattering lamps and pushing books onto the floor until she coughs it up. It’s a funny scene, made doubly so by the two stars, who play off each other wonderfully.

More than a comedy, however, Busting works as a thrilling crime drama, and has some truly spectacular action sequences. While searching the residence of one of Rizzo’s known accomplices, Keneely and Farrel happen upon a drug swap. Shots are fired, and a chase ensues, which eventually makes its way to a crowded farmer’s market. As terrified patrons hide behind vegetable stands and counters, the two detectives play a game of cat and mouse with the three criminals, all five with their guns drawn, firing at anything that moves. It is a tense scene, made doubly so by Hyams’ crisp direction.

Along with the two leads, Allen Garfield is at his absolute best as the slimy Rizzo, a guy so incredibly confident that you can’t help but admire him a little, and well-known character actors like Sid Haig (as Rizzo’s top henchman), Michael Lerner (as the proprietor of an adult book store / brothel), and Antonio Fargas (as a crossdresser in a gay bar) also shine in brief but memorable roles.

A movie that strikes the perfect balance between comedy and drama, with plenty of thrills thrown into the mix, Busting is one of my favorite cinematic discoveries in years.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, December 2, 2023

#2,938. Get Over It (2001) - Kirsten Dunst Film Festival


High school athlete Berke Landers (Ben Foster) discovers his longtime girlfriend Allison (Melissa Sagemiller) has fallen in love with drama student Bentley Scrumfeld (Shane West). So, Berke decides to try out for the school play, hoping to land the lead in an upcoming musical production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If he succeeds, he will star opposite Allison and, if all goes well, win her back.

There’s one problem, though: Berke can neither sing nor act!

To help him prepare, he turns to Kelly Woods (Kirsten Dunst), the younger sister of his best friend Felix (Colin Hanks). Kelly does what she can to assist Berke, all the while harboring a secret crush on him.

Will Berke win back the woman of his dreams, or should he just Get Over It?

Director Tommy O’Haver’s Get Over It has an amazingly strong cast. Along with those already mentioned, there’s Martin Short, who is very funny as Dr. Desmond Forrest Oates, the frantic director of the upcoming play. Short gets some of the film’s biggest laughs (especially towards the end, while watching his opus as he sits with the audience). Swoosie Kurtz and Ed Begley Jr. are also good as Berke’s far-too-supportive parents, and future superstars Zoe Saldana, Mila Kunis, and Carmen Electra turn up in supporting roles.

Get Over It also features real-life musicians Sisqo (as Dennis, one of Berke’s friends), Vitamin C (as herself), and Coolio (as himself).

Even with such a stellar cast, Ben Foster stands out as Berke, displaying a certain charm as a romantic lead while also getting some laughs of his own. But it isn’t long before you’ll want to slap the hell out of his character for not realizing Kelly is the right girl for him, and Kirsten Dunst is the reason why.

I always felt that Dunst, especially during this time period, was an underappreciated actress. She achieved a level of fame (and rightly so) playing Mary Jane in Sam Raimi’s Spider Man trilogy, but was also great in Drop Dead Gorgeous, Dick, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Marie Antionette. In Get Over It, her Kelly is such a sweetheart that you develop a crush on her almost immediately, and you can’t understand why Berke doesn't. Granted, it’s his best friend’s kid sister, but still…

Get Over It is a stylishly directed romantic comedy with some great songs (Dunst herself gets in on the act, making her big-screen singing debut with “Dream Of Me”) and genuine laughs. But even with so many talented individuals surrounding her, it's Kirsten Dunst who steals the show.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Saturday, November 25, 2023

#2,937. SpaceCamp (1986) - Random Musings


In my review of 1987’s Project X, I said how the final scene of that movie was “so outlandish that you could only find it in a Hollywood movie”. But as I pointed out, Project X was a Hollywood movie. “And because we like the characters”, I continued, “it wins us over, no matter how over-the-top or unlikely its grand finale might be”.

With 1986’s SpaceCamp, a family adventure directed by Harry Winer, we know after seeing the trailer that the film’s entire premise is going to be outlandish, unlikely, and over-the-top.

And, yes, it is also a Hollywood movie.

Still, I went in wondering if I could overlook its ridiculous story, or if I’d instead be rolling my eyes throughout SpaceCamp.

Set at an actual facility in Huntsville, Alabama, the film is about five kids and their incredible experience during a summer at Space Camp. Wise-ass Kevin (Tate Donovan) never wanted to go to Space Camp in the first place, but agreed to do so after his dad bought him a new jeep. Kathryn (Lea Thompson) dreams of being the first female commander of a shuttle mission, and takes the training very seriously. As does Rudy (Larry B. Scott), who gets teased at school because he loves science. Tish (Kelly Preston) is your typical teenager with one exception: she has a photographic memory, and can remember everything she’s ever read; while 12-year-old Max (Joaquin Phoenix, billed here as “Leaf Phoenix”, making his big-screen debut) is a Star Wars afficionado who longs to experience space travel.

Their instructor is astronaut Andie Bergstrom (Kate Capshaw), who laments the fact that, unlike her husband, NASA specialist Zach (Tom Skerritt), she has never been to outer space.

Initially, the group has trouble working as a team, and young Max finds his only real friend is a malfunctioning robot named Jinx (voiced by Frank Welker), which takes everything it hears literally.

One night, after being chastised by Kevin, Max runs away crying, saying to himself he wishes he could live in space. Jinx overhears this, and the next day, when all five students and Andie board the Space Shuttle to experience a test firing of the rocket boosters, Jinx arranges it with the NASA computer to force an error that will result in Max and the others being launched into space!

Stuck in orbit with a group of frightened kids and cut off from NASA (because it was a test launch, long-range communications had not been installed), Andie must do her best to pilot the shuttle and bring everyone home safely.

Crazy, right?

Hard to swallow? Of course.

To make matters worse, SpaceCamp was also the victim of terrible timing. It was released to theaters less than six months after the 1986 Challenger tragedy, when that shuttle exploded soon after lift-off, killing everyone aboard (including school teacher / observer Christa McAuliffe). With accusations that the movie was trying to capitalize on the tragedy (it was actually written and shot well before the disaster), SpaceCamp proved a box-office flop.

But that was then. How does SpaceCamp hold up today?

Yeah, I did roll my eyes a few times, and the first half of the movie, devoted to building the characters and their relationship to one another, is as routine as they come. No surprise that the five kids, with their differing personalities, worked poorly together during their training, making mistakes and constantly bickering with one another (which begs the question: why was their team, and not one of the other half-dozen or so, chosen to sit in on the shuttle's firing test?).

Once in outer space, though, I forgot my initial “yeah, right” reaction to this amazing turn of events, and found myself actually getting into the movie! Writers Clifford Green and Casey T. Mitchell concoct a number of tense moments - from lack of oxygen to missing their window for re-entry - that keep the viewer biting their nails throughout. Yes, far-fetched things happen in space as well, but by that point I was invested, and wasn’t worrying about how preposterous it all seemed. Hell, there were times the tension was so unbearable I found myself talking to the screen!

All this, plus another rousing score by the great John Williams, made SpaceCamp a lot more fun than I ever expected.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Saturday, November 18, 2023

#2,936. Hot Pursuit (1987) - John Cusack in the '80s Triple Feature


It says more about me than it does the movie, but I would love to go on the adventure that Dan Bartlett (John Cusack) experiences in 1987’s Hot Pursuit!

After failing his mid-term in chemistry, Dan has to tell his girlfriend Lori (Wendy Gazelle) that he’ll have to stay behind to make up the test, and won’t be able to join her and her family on the resort Island of Laguna Del Mar for Spring Break. But when the teacher (Joseph E. Foster) cuts him a break at the last minute, Dan hops in a cab and races to the airport, hoping to catch Lori, her parents (Monte Markham, Shelley Fabares), and Lori’s younger sister Ginger (Dah-ve Chodan) before their plane takes off.

He misses them by a couple of minutes, tops!

So, Dan books another flight to a nearby island, where he’ll catch a taxi and eventually join Lori on what will surely be a dream vacation.

But fate intervenes, and Dan finds himself tagging along with a trio of helpful locals (Keith David, Paul Bates, Ursaline Bryant) before joining renegade tugboat Captain MacLaren (Robert Loggia), who, it turns out, is after the very same Yacht Lori and her family are currently cruising on… only for very different reasons than Dan’s.

By 1987, John Cusack was already an established star, and while he plays Dan a bit too manic at times, he’s as likable as ever in Hot Pursuit. The comedy comes by way of his misadventures, though many of the tight spots that Cusack’s Dan finds himself in are of his own doing, and not the fault of those trying to help him. When their jeep gets stuck in a swamp, Dan leaves Keith David and the others to set out on his own, only to realize soon after that he would have caught up with Lori had he stayed with them.

The film’s romantic aspects work just as well thanks to Cusack and Gazelle, who have good chemistry as the young lovers, and the locations featured throughout the movie are as gorgeous as they come (with Ixtapa, Mexico standing in for the Caribbean).

The real fun of Hot Pursuit, though, is Dan’s adventurous journey to reach Lori. There’s never any chance that he’ll fail in his attempt. We realize early on, by the tone of the film, that this 1987 comedy isn’t the type of movie that’s going to disappoint its audience in the end. Even the sticky situation that Lori and her family get into, when they butt heads with a group of pirates (two of whom are played by real-life father and son Jerry and Ben Stiller), never feels as much of a threat as it might in another movie.

So, while Hot Pursuit is short on genuine suspense (save one exciting sequence when Dan and Capt. MacLaren are sailing through a hurricane), it is a non-stop good time all the same, with Cusack proving yet again why he was one of the ‘80s most appealing stars.
Rating: 8 out of 10

Saturday, November 11, 2023

#2,935. Better Off Dead (1985) - John Cusack in the '80s Triple Feature


While director Savage Steve Holland and star John Cusack were in the process of making One Crazy Summer, which marked their second collaboration, Cusack broke away for a few hours to finally check out the first film they did together: 1984’s Better Off Dead.

And the actor was not happy with what he saw. In fact, it is rumored he walked out before it was over.

Worked into a frenzy, Cusack approached Holland and (according to the director) told him Better Off Deadwas the worst thing I have ever seen”. The enraged star then told Holland “I will never trust you as a director ever again, so don’t speak to me”.



And more than a bit unfair, because while Better Off Dead doesn’t always work, Holland and his team gave it their all, throwing everything at us but the kitchen sink and putting a madcap spin on what could have easily been another run-of-the-mill ‘80s romantic comedy.

Lane Myers (Cusack) is crushed. Not only did he miss out on making the high school ski team, but his girlfriend of six months, Beth (Amanda Wyss), broke up with him to instead date Roy Stalin (Aaron Dozier), the obnoxious captain of that very team. Neither of Lane’s parents (David Ogden Stiers and Kim Darby) seem sympathetic to his plight, so the heartbroken teen decides to kill himself.

Try as he might, though, Lane can’t finish the job. So, his good friend Charles (Curtis Armstrong) offers another possible solution: beat Roy in a downhill race on the K-12, the most dangerous slope in Northern California, and win back Beth.

The only problem is… Lane never seems to win at anything! That is, until he meets Monique (Diane Franklin), the French foreign exchange student who recently moved in with his neighbor Mrs. Smith (Laura Waterbury) and her portly teenage son Ricky (Dan Schneider). With Monique’s help, Lane may have a chance to recapture Beth’s heart.

That’s the main thrust of the story, but only scratches the surface as to the insanity thrown our way during Better Off Dead’s 97 minutes. Lane, who bought a ’67 Camaro but can’t get it running, drives the family’s station wagon to school every day, and during the trip is usually challenged to a drag race by two Japanese brothers (Yuji Okumoto and Brian Imada), one of whom speaks no English while the other only talks like his favorite sportscaster: Howard Cosell!

Curtis Armstrong, so good as Booger in Revenge of the Nerds, has his moments as Lane’s drug-obsessed best friend, Charles. At one point, looking for the ultimate high, Charles even tries snorting snow! Also funny is the sequence where Lane, coerced by his father, gets a job at Pig Burgers, a disgusting fast-food joint. While making the burgers, Lane fantasizes that he is Dr. Frankenstein, and even brings one of the burgers to life! This leads to a very entertaining stop-motion segment, in which the “live burger” performs a song.

And let’s not forget Johnny the paperboy (Demian Slade), who harasses Lane throughout the film, demanding his two-dollar fee for the newspaper subscription. I also got a kick out of the side story featuring Lane’s always-silent younger brother Badger (Scooter Stevens), who, unbeknownst to everyone, is a scientific genius. Holland keeps the energy high throughout Better off Dead, hitting us with one insane scene after another.

Of course, along with the “hits”, there are a few misses. I thought Stiers and Darby were wasted as Lane’s oblivious parents; Dad’s “war” with the paperboy to keep his garage windows safe from flying newspapers never really goes anywhere, while Darby’s schtick as the goofy mom who can’t cook gets old quick.

Also, the initial plight of Monique, the cute exchange student, came off as… creepy. Turns out Mrs. Smith only signed up to sponsor Monique so she could date her son Ricky (played by regular Holland collaborator Dan Schneider). And the minute we are introduced to Monique, we know in which direction the film’s story will go.

Then there is the exaggerated Roy Stalin, who is such an over-the-top blowhard that we have no idea what Beth, or any other girl, could possibly see in him.

As for Cusack, he’s good as the oft-pathetic Lane, though I wouldn’t rank it as one of his best performances. In fact, I had more fun with the film’s supporting characters than I did Lane.

Cusack has softened his stance on Better Off Dead over the years. In a 2013 online Reddit chat, he said he didn’t hate making Better Off Dead, just that it could have been better, adding “But I think that about all my films“. He closed by saying he has “nothing against the film” and is glad people “love it still”.

And despite its weaknesses, there is definitely a lot here to love!
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Saturday, November 4, 2023

#2,934. The Sure Thing (1985) - John Cusack in the '80s Triple Feature


Rob Reiner followed up his comedic masterpiece This is Spinal Tap (which was also his big-screen directorial debut) with 1985’s The Sure Thing, a romantic comedy starring John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga.

And with it, Reiner proved he was in Hollywood to stay. The Sure Thing is an absolute delight.

College Freshman Walter “Gib” Gibson (Cusack) has lost his touch with the ladies. Even his attempt to seduce his pretty but uptight classmate, Alison (Zuniga), ends in disaster. With Christmas break approaching, things are looking bleak for poor Gib.

But his luck may soon be changing. His best friend from high school, Lance (Anthony Edwards), tells Gib that he has set him up with a “Sure Thing”, a girl who loves sex as much as Gib needs it. And what’s more, she’s gorgeous (Nicolette Sheridan). All Gib has to do is make his way from New England to L.A. before this “Sure Thing” heads home for the holidays.

So, Gib hitches a ride with Gary (Tim Robbins) and Mary Ann (Lisa Jane Persky), who had posted a flyer on the campus bulletin board looking for people to join them as they drive out west.

To Gib’s dismay, only one other passenger will be tagging along: Alison, who is heading to UCLA to visit her boyfriend (Boyd Gaines).

Still reeling from their experience together, Gib and Alison bicker the whole time, until Gary and Mary Ann have had enough, and abandon them on a deserted road in the Midwest. Left on their own, Gib and Alison must team up if they’re to have any chance of making it to Southern California. The trip will be tough, even perilous, but through it all, they find they might be able to teach each other a thing or two about life.

John Cusack is hilarious as Gib, an outgoing, charismatic guy who knows how to have a good time. In fact, if The Sure Thing has one weakness, it’s that we don’t believe for a second that a guy like Cusack’s Gib would have any trouble with the ladies. Cusack oozes charisma in this part, and if we the audience see that, wouldn’t the girls at his school?

No matter, though, because Cusack owns this role, and he and Zuniga - also excellent as the smart but mousy and uptight Alison - are wonderful together. And it is how Reiner and screenwriters Steve Bloom and Jonathan Roberts handle the duo’s journey to California, slowly bringing them together, that makes The Sure Thing an excellent romantic comedy.

Reiner would follow up The Sure Thing with one amazing movie after another, a string of hits including Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, and his adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery. Now that’s a hell of a stretch! Quite often, The Sure Thing gets overlooked when people discuss Reiner’s early filmography, and that’s a shame. The Sure Thing deserves its place alongside all these films, and showed the world that Reiner, Cusack, and Zuniga had bright futures ahead of them.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, October 28, 2023

#2,933. Citizen Gangster (2011) - Double Feature of Off the Beaten Path Gangster Films


I knew nothing about the real Edwin Boyd going into 2011’s Citizen Gangster. A veteran of World War II who had dreams of becoming an actor, Boyd, a Canadian, found it difficult to adjust to life after the war, and turned to robbing banks to support his wife and two children.

Boyd was eventually captured and imprisoned, but joined forces with several fellow inmates and managed to escape. Once loose, Boyd and his new pals started robbing banks, and the media, anxious to give their audience a glimmer of hope in desperate times, turned Edwin Boyd and his cohorts into folk heroes.

Written and directed by Nathan Morlando, who actually befriended the real Edwin Boyd, Citizen Gangster sets out to tell Boyd’s story, and aside from some sections that feel a bit rushed, the movie has enough going for it that it accomplishes just that.

As Citizen Gangster opens, Edwin Boyd (Scott Speedman) iss working as a bus driver in Toronto. To make ends meet, his wife Doreen (Kelly Reilly) takes in washing while also keeping an eye on the couple’s two children. Tired of his job, and frustrated that his acting career isn’t going anywhere, Boyd abruptly quits and, painting his face with his wife’s make-up, robs his first bank.

Then another...

...And another.

At first, he tells Doreen that he landed a lucrative acting gig, but she discovers the truth right about the same time that the police, led by ace Detective David Rhys (William Mapother), catch Boyd in the act.

In prison, Boyd meets both Lenny Jackson (Kevin Durand), a fellow war veteran who lost a foot in a railway accident; and Willie (Brendan Fletcher), aka “The Clown”. Together, the three saw their way through the cell bars, climb the wall, and are met on the other side by Jackson’s buddy Val Kosak (Joseph Cross), who drives them to a safe place where they can lay low.

But they don’t “lay low” for very long!

Soon, Boyd and his new “gang” are back at it, robbing banks and stealing more money that any of them have ever seen before. Along with Lenny’s fiancé Ann (Melanie Scrofano) and Kozak’s mistress Mary Mitchell (Charlotte Sullivan), the “Boyd Gang” makes quite a name for itself, and all are portrayed as folk heroes in the media.

Despite Doreen’s repeated requests that he give up his life of crime, Edwin Boyd presses on. But how long will he and the others stay one step ahead of the law, which is doing everything in its power to bring them to justice?

Shot on-location in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Citizen Gangster, with its snowy landscapes, feels every bit a Canadian film, and Morlando and company do a fine job recreating the time period (early 1950s), when Boyd and associates carried out their misdeeds. The performances are all solid, led by Speedman’s charismatic portrayal of Edwin Boyd, who robs banks with style and panache (he seems to be putting on a show with each and every heist). Reilly is also good as Boyd’s long-suffering wife, though the scenes with the two of them together, after Boyd turns to a life of crime, are my least favorite in the movie. It’s not the actors’ fault; their relationship, as portrayed on-screen, felt too predictable, hitting all the beats you would expect, to the point I stopped caring about them as a couple.

Also good in support is Brian Cox, who plays Boyd’s father Glover, a retired cop! But my favorite turn in the entire film is Kevin Durand as Lenny Jackson, Boyd’s very angry associate. We recognize right away that Lenny may be a loose cannon (which proves to be the case at a key moment in the film), yet we also like the guy, who has overcome a lot of adversity and truly loves his fiancé. In one of the film’s best scenes, the gang takes off for Montreal so that Lenny and Ann can get married. Durand was so impressive that, even in those scenes when Speedman’s Boyd is nowhere to be found, his Lenny Jackson carries the movie, and we never once miss Edwin.

Speedman and Durand, along with Fletcher, Cross, and Sullivan, bring a substantial energy to their scenes together, and like Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, we find ourselves rooting for the bad guys, hoping they will somehow get away with it and live happily ever after.

As I mentioned above, some scenes in Citizen Gangster feel rushed, starting with Boyd’s initial crime spree and his escape from prison, all of which play out like an accelerated “origin story”, simply to get us as quickly as possible to the scenes with Boyd’s gang. But since those later moments are my favorite in the movie, I guess I can’t complain.

Despite its flaws, Citizen Gangster is a strong crime film that sheds light on an historical figure who, before this movie, I never even knew existed.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Saturday, October 21, 2023

#2,932. The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960) - Double Feature of Off the Beaten Path Gangster Films


Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond was spawned in the 1920’s -
An era of incredible violence

This is the way it happened”.

Budd Boetticher, who helmed some of the finest westerns of the 1950’s (7 Men From Now, The Tall T) brings his patented style to the gangster genre with 1960’s The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond.

And what a gangster movie it is!

Inspired by true events, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond opens soon after its title character - a professional thief played by Ray Danton - and his sickly brother / partner-in-crime Eddie (Warren Oates) move to New York City. Their first robbery, a well-executed jewelry heist pulled off with the unwitting help of dance instructor Alice Scott (Karen Steele), lands Legs in prison.

A few years later, when he’s scheduled to appear before the parole board, Legs somehow convinces Alice, still reeling from being duped years earlier, to get him a job as a dancer (being employed will give him a better chance at parole). Legs is released, and for a while he and Alice perform regularly at a New York night club.

One evening, while he and Alice are dancing, Legs recognizes infamous gambler / underworld figure Arnold Rothstein (Robert Lowery) in the crowd. His mind spinning, Legs leaves Alice and, with Eddie in tow, tries to land a job as Rothstein’s new bodyguard.

Thus begins Legs’ rocky climb to the top of the New York underworld, and he never lets anything, not even being shot, damper his ambitions to be the mob’s Numero Uno.

Ray Danton is ruthless as hell as Jack “Legs” Diamond, a criminal who will do whatever is necessary, and step on anyone, to get what he wants. After breaking poor Alice’s heart (twice), he sets his sights on Arnold Rothstein’s main squeeze, Monica (Elaine Stewart), seducing her, then telling Rothstein all about the affair. The only person Legs truly cares about is Eddie, but even that relationship becomes a burden after a while.

By the end of the film, I was convinced Danton’s Legs Diamond was among the most heartless, vindictive gangsters I had even seen portrayed on film. I put him right up there with Cagney in The Public Enemy, Pacino in Scarface, and Joe Pesci in both Goodfellas and Casino. Also keep an eye out for a young Dyan Cannon, making her big-screen debut as Dixie, yet another moll who falls for Legs.

Along with Danton’s fiery performance, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond is expertly directed by Boetticher, who keeps the story moving along at a brisk pace. The film seldom slows down, and for a movie made in 1960, it is surprisingly violent.

For me, Budd Boetticher was always one of the best at directing westerns. He still holds that distinction. But with The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, he proved genre didn’t matter. Budd Boetticher was a great director… period!
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Saturday, October 14, 2023

#2,931. The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) - Double Feature of '60s British War Films


Inspired by the 1854 poem written by Alfred Lord Tennyson, which detailed a battle during the Crimean War in which the British Light Brigade was routed by Russian troops, Tony Richardson’s 1968 film is the third cinematic version of this story (the first, a silent film, was released in 1912. This was followed by Warner Bros. 1936 movie, directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Errol Flynn).

With a tale so deeply rooted in the past, there are moments in ‘68s The Charge of the Light Brigade that feel stale. But it’s in the telling that Richardson sets his film apart, even falling back on humor occasionally to recreate what is an otherwise very somber historical event.

The film opens in the days before the outbreak of the Crimean War (when Russia invaded Turkey, threatening to cut off Great Britain from its interests in India). Capt. Louis Nolan (David Hemmings) of the British Cavalry has just returned to England from abroad, and is reunited with his close friend, fellow officer Capt. William Morris (Mark Burns). He even attends Morris’ wedding to the lovely Clarissa (Vanessa Redgrave). Over the coming weeks, the three are inseparable, and as a result of their time together, Clarissa develops a crush on her new husband’s friend, amorous feelings that are returned by Nolan.

But Nolan is having issues of his own with their commanding officer, Lord Cardigan (Trevor Howard), the haughty, old-school Cavalry man who distrusts Nolan and does what he can to make the Captain’s life miserable.

Nolan appeals to Lord Raglan (John Gielgud), head of the Army, to intervene on his behalf, but Raglan has his hands full when news breaks that Russia has invaded Turkey. England is at war!

With Lord Lucan (Harry Andrews), Lord Cardigan’s brother-in-law as well as his sworn enemy, appointed General of the Cavalry, and Cardigan himself heading up the Light Brigade, the troops set sail for the Crimea, where they hope to recapture the strategically important city of Sevastopol.

Lord Raglan and his aides put together a plan of action, but it becomes obvious to Nolan, Morris, and many of the younger troops that their battle-hardened superiors are out of touch with modern warfare, and are leading them to disaster.

Much of what transpires in the opening hour or so of The Charge of the Light Brigade is interesting but cliché. The love triangle involving Nolan, Morris, and Clarissa is nothing new, and isn’t given the time to really come alive. It feels crowbarred in, and, ultimately, unnecessary.

Also standard to many movies of this ilk are the showdowns between Nolan and Lord Cardigan (played to perfection by Trevor Howard), clearly designed by Lord Cardigan to knock the smart and experienced Nolan down a peg or two (the “Black Bottle” affair with Lord Cardigan is something that really happened, though Nolan, himself an actual historical figure, was not the solider involved).

That said, the second half of The Charge of the Light Brigade comes alive in a big, big way!

Along with the battle scenes, which are exciting, Richardson inserts a number of animated sequences into the mix. They are in the style of old-time patriotic cartoons, designed to praise the British military and demean its enemies. We get a taste of said animation right off the bat, during the opening credits, and it starts the movie off in entertaining fashion. Yes, these cartoons are jingoistic and over-the-top, but you get the feeling they are there to make us laugh as much as move the story forward (the frequency of these animated sequences increases once the war is in full swing).

Richardson and screenwriters Charles Wood and John Osborne also set their sights on the inept commanders of the British army. Gielgud plays Lord Raglan as a kindly but senile officer whose decisions rarely make sense. The night before the big battle, Raglan ignores information supplied by a Russian defector, who warned of a surprise attack the next day. Raglan's reasons for doing so? Because this “spy” is a traitor with no honor! On top of this, Lord Cardigan and Lord Lucan allow their family squabble to interfere with their military relationship, bickering even when the enemy is approaching.

It all comes to a head in the film's final scene, after the battle is already lost, as the elderly Commanders sit on their horses, passing the blame for this disaster to each other. The images Richardson intersperses as the Generals argue and point fingers might make you laugh, but they more than likely will bring a tear to your eye.

An historic battle told in a very ‘60s style, The Charge of the Light Brigade, especially in the last hour, kind of blew me away.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Saturday, October 7, 2023

#2,930. How I Won the War (1967) - Double Feature of '60s British War Films


John Lennon gets second billing in the 1967 WWII comedy How I Won the War, which is a notable appearance for the late musician because it features him in what is his only non-musical role. Name recognition, especially in the late ‘60s, was reason enough for director Richard Lester and his team to put Lennon so high up the cast list, and almost every poster for the film (including the cover of a recent Blu-Ray release) has Lennon front and center.

But Lennon’s role was not big enough to warrant his being so high up in the credits. Only the film’s star, Michael Crawford, is listed higher. Crawford plays the overly-enthusiastic, unbelievably naïve Lt. Goodbody, commanding officer of a ragtag troop sent on suicide missions first to the deserts of North Africa, then the heart of Germany.

Lennon, as a soldier named Gripweed, has his moments, but personally I would have put him at maybe 5th or 6th on the cast list, certainly behind Roy Kinnear, whose Clapper is perpetually worried that his wife back home is being romanced by butchers and insurance salesmen. Lee Montague as Sgt. Transom, the unit's lone skilled soldier, also has a bigger role than Lennon. He is forever trying to clean up Goodbody’s mistakes, and seriously considers, on several occasions, shooting his commanding officer himself.

As far as the comedy goes, Jack MacGowran’s insane Juniper, who first acts like a vaudeville entertainer (even attempting ventriloquism just before a key battle), then transforms into a gung-ho, war-loving General, gets the most laughs. 

The story is simple enough: Goodbody, fresh out of officer’s training, where he failed to impress his mentor, General Grapple (Michael Hordern), is assigned to command what might be the most inept platoon of the Second World War. Try as he might to gain their respect with pep talks and promises of glory, Goodbody only manages to alienate his men.

Things go from bad to worse when they find themselves wandering the deserts of North Africa, searching for a battle they cannot find. Even the discovery of a Nazi oasis, with all the water they can drink, ends badly (after capturing the oasis via one of the film’s funniest scenes, Goodbody orders his men to build a Cricket field, then forces them to play for hours under the burning sun).

But I’m getting ahead of myself here, because most of what transpires in How I Won the War is told in flashback. As the movie opens, Goodbody is separated from his men and captured by the Germans. He is interrogated by Nazi officer Oldebog (Karl Michael Volger), who has orders from High Command to destroy what is the last bridge over the Rhine, thus cutting Berlin off from the invading Allied forces.

Goodbody develops a friendship with Oldebog, finding in him a fellow soldier with whom he can finally communicate. So, Goodbody gives his name, rank, and serial number, then proceeds to regale Oldebog with his platoon’s exploits since they entered the war!

Like he did three years earlier with A Hard Day’s Night, director Richard Lester brings style to spare to How I Won the War. Characters break the fourth wall, talking directly to the audience; and stock footage of actual battle scenes are incorporated into the film’s staged skirmishes, often jarringly so (the battles themselves seldom match the selected stock footage, though I believe that was a deliberate choice made by Lester). There are times when the characters even let it slip that they know it’s all just a movie!

Billed as a war / comedy, How I Won the War is also an effective fantasy, with settings that seldom make sense for a WWII movie (the oasis is especially strange), and characters who talk openly of their disdain for their commanding officer, and flee from battle the moment shots rings out. This was all designed, of course, by Lester and company, a grand statement of sorts on war and the effect (or lack of effect) it has on the common soldier.

But scenes are strung together in a confusing manner. With so many jumps back and forth in the timeline, we often ask ourselves “Where are we now?”. Even more jarring is that, whenever one character is shot dead, they are replaced by a “Toy Soldier”, decked out entirely in green or red and with a stocking over their face. There were times when How I Won the War frustrated me, and my attention waned as a result.

Yet there are also very effective scenes throughout, especially in the final act. Lester incorporates more intense, more realistic battle sequences into the film’s goofier skirmishes. One character, killed by a stray bullet from a dropped rifle, is also shown as dying with honor during the battle of Alamein, a correlation, no doubt, between the absurdity and the heroics of warfare. The man is just as dead in both scenarios. In one, he is a brave soldier, shot in the head, his body lying against the treads of a German tank. In the other, he is a victim of hilariously bad luck. Which is reality, and which is fantasy? We don’t know, and I’m not sure we’re supposed to know.

In the last half hour of How I Won the War, Lester finally hits his stride, blending the surreal with the all-too-real while driving home his points about war, commanding officers, and enemy combatants. The confusion I felt early on gave way to a genuine admiration for the film, and I laughed a little when, during the grand finale, the title How I Won the War proved more than one soldier’s boastful bravado.

With nods to movies such as Lawrence of Arabia (the theme from which plays as the troops stumble around the North African desert) and Bridge on the River Kwai (a key moment from that movie is parodied to perfection during the oasis raid), How I Won the War both reaches for and lovingly mocks grand, sprawling war epics, all the while keeping its tongue firmly planted in its cheek.

As for Lennon, he does, as I said, have his moments in the movie, and proved himself an able actor even when not strumming a guitar.

But don’t let the ads fool you; there’s a lot more to How I Won the War than John Lennon!
Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Saturday, September 30, 2023

#2,929. 3:15 (1986) - Random Musings


The title of this 1986 film is also what everything in the movie builds towards: the big showdown at 3:15 pm. And director Larry Gross manages to generate just enough tension throughout to drag us, scene by scene, to the edge of our seats until that moment the clock tells us it is finally time for shit to go down!

When a street fight with a rival gang ends in tragedy, Jeff Hannah (Adam Baldwin) decides enough is enough, and tells his best friend Cinco (Danny De La Paz), leader of the Cobras, that he’s leaving the gang for good.

A year passes, and Jeff has turned his life around. A star basketball player for Lincoln High, he’s also fallen in love with pretty classmate Sherry (Deborah Foreman). But the Cobras still run the school, shaking down kids for money and peddling drugs in the halls and bathrooms.

In an effort to rid his school of Cinco and the other Cobras, Principal Horner (Rene Auberjonois) works closely with Detective Moran (Ed Lauter) of the local precinct to arrange a police raid, in the hopes of catching the Cobras with enough drugs on them to put them away for good.

While running from the cops, Cinco asks his old pall Jeff to help him, but Jeff refuses. Arrested and dragged off to jail, an angry Cinco vows revenge on his old buddy. Jeff takes Cinco’s threats in stride, until Cinco and the other cobras are back on the streets, released due to “insufficient evidence”.

Cinco is as determined as ever to make an example of his former pal, and tells Jeff to meet him on school grounds at 3:15 that afternoon. Though he promised Sherry he wouldn’t fight anymore, Jeff has no choice but to stand up to Cinco, even if doing so may cost him his life.

Subtitled The Moment of Truth, 3:15 boasts good performances by both Baldwin (likable as the former gang thug turned jock) and Foreman (as the girl who loves him). Both are upstaged time and again, however, by De La Paz as the vindictive and violent Cinco. De La Paz may have less screen time than his co-stars, and occasionally walks a fine line between genuine intensity and over-the-top bravado (especially in the final act), but there’s no denying the movie is better when his Cinco is front and center.

3:15 also features a solid, rock-heavy soundtrack; and a few early action scenes, including the gang battle that causes the rift between Jeff and Cinco and the police raid on Lincoln High, get the audience’s adrenaline pumping right out of the gate.

But like High Noon before it, what makes 3:15 so good is the build-up to the inevitable showdown between the hero and villain, a final battle that everyone in school knows is coming. Try as he might to forget Cinco is out to get him, Jeff is reminded at damn near every turn, by damn near everybody in school, including former girlfriend (and Cinco’s new squeeze) Lora (Wendy Barry); his basketball teammates Chris (Scott McGinnis) and Jim (John Scott Clough); and Principal Horner himself, who figures, one way or another, this will end Cinco’s reign of terror at Lincoln High (if Jeff wins, Cinco loses his position of power. If he kills Jeff, Cinco will finally be locked up for good). Jeff even gets some friendly advice from Whisperer (a young Mario Van Peebles), leader of a rival school gang, who is looking to take over once Cinco and the Cobras are out.

Jeff has promised Sherry he will not fight, but as 3:15 pm draws closer, pretty much everyone, characters and audience alike, know it’s a promise he cannot keep. Nobody lets poor Jeff forget what will eventually go down, and by focusing so intently on his dilemma, we feel, even share his building concern, to the point that, when 3:15 finally rolls around, it’s almost a relief. The suspense is over.

And what does go down at 3:15 was worth all the hype leading up to it!
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

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


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 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


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 communicate with the cadavers!

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

It is a gift he's had 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 doesn't make enough money and always smells of formaldehyde. She is relentlessly nasty, 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 has been having an affair with local shop owner Jaime (Marco Ricca).

It’s at this point 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. He wasn't, of course, but Stenio is pissed, and wants to get back at Jamie for screwing Odete.

This kicks off a chain of events that will affect Stenio and his family, and it’s at this point Stenio is tormented by an angry spirit, which is bound and determined 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 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, the corpses that communicate with him in the morgue start treating him differently. They inform Stenio, in no uncertain terms, that he misused this special gift he was given, taking information from the dead and using it to exact revenge. Because of this, he is now 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 awaiting 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 (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.

I was still underwhelmed by some of the movie’s more mundane scare scenes, but Stenio’s ultimate 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 to the top of my list. It was, and remains, the best horror film I saw in 2019.
Rating: 9 out of 10