Saturday, April 29, 2023

#2,907. The Long Ships (1964) - Quentin Tarantino Recommends


Inspired by the success of 1958’s The Vikings, and with Jack Cardiff, the cinematographer of that earlier classic, assuming directing duties, producer Irving Allen’s The Long Ships is one of the damnedest epics I have ever seen.

Shot in Yugoslavia on the cheap, the film nonetheless has the feel of a big-budget adventure, with quite a cast to support it. But there are moments of comedic chaos tossed into the mix that feel more like Benny Hill than Ben-Hur!

Loosely based on a best-selling Swedish novel of the same name, The Long Ships centers on a Viking named Rolfe (Richard Widmark), who is not above lying and cheating to get what he wants. After losing his ship and entire crew in a storm, he is rescued by monks, who nurse him back to health. While there, he is reminded of a fable from his childhood, about a solid-gold bell several stories high, one so big and so loud, it was dubbed the “Mother of Voices”. What’s more, Rolfe discovers that the fable might be more than a tall story.

Unable to return North, he attempts to impress the local Muslims in a Moorish city with stories about the bell, only to draw the attention of King Aly Mansuh (Sidney Poitier), who has made it his life’s goal to find and possess the bell. He holds Rolfe prisoner, demanding he reveal the location of the bell.

Rolfe manages to escape and somehow swim home. He is chastised by his father Krok (Oscar Homolka) for losing his boat and crew, especially since Krok recently put all his money into building a funeral ship for King Harald (Clifford Evans), only to be swindled during the negotiation (the King paid exactly two gold pieces for it).

Convincing both his father and younger brother Orm (Russ Tamblyn) that the bell is real, Rolfe devises a plan to steal the King’s funeral boat, kidnap his daughter, Princess Gerda (Beba Loncar), and, with a hastily-raised crew, sail off in search of the fabled bell.

Alas, their journey carries them into Moorish territory, where Rolfe once again encounters Aly Mansuh. Despite the protests of his main wife Aminah (Rosanna Schiaffino), Mansuh is as determined as ever to locate the bell, and will use Rolfe and his Viking crew to find it.

That’s a pretty involved, even wild story right there, but that’s not the half of it! There are a handful of well-staged battle scenes (one set on a beach is especially exciting); a few storms at sea (not the greatest miniature effects, if I’m being honest, but far from the worst); a wild Viking party with plenty of ale and scantily-clad serving wenches; and a scene in which Rolfe’s Viking crew assaults King Mansuh’s harem! This last sequence is especially bizarre and over-the-top, with comedy so broad it reminded me of the Busby Berkeley-inspired fight scene at the end of Blazing Saddles!

If The Long Ships has one problem, this is it. Tonally, it is all over the place. Widmark plays Rolfe in a light-hearted manner, proving him a liar, a swindler, and a con artist every chance he gets, only to get deadly serious in a pretty intense scene, where he is breaking a “curse” that has frightened his crew. Sidney Poitier and Russ Tamblyn seem to be taking it seriously, while Oskar Homolka’s turn as Krok was played almost entirely for laughs (especially prevalent in the final act).

That said, I had a lot of fun watching The Long Ships, and enjoyed how many times the movie surprised the hell out of me. Seriously, I don’t know how they got away with some of this in 1964!
Rating: 7 out of 10

Saturday, April 22, 2023

#2,906. Trancers (1984) - Quentin Tarantino Recommends


Charles Band, the creative force behind Full Moon Productions (Puppet Master, Subspecies), has, throughout his career, conjured up some fascinating cinematic worlds, and nowhere was this talent more evident than in his sci-fi action movie Trancers, which Band himself directed.

This 1984 film opens in the future, the year 2247. Trooper Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson) has been on a one-man crusade to wipe out “Trancers”, beings who look like you and I, but are under the control of a ruthless criminal named Whistler, who is intent on taking over “new” Los Angeles (the old city flooded long ago, and is now submerged in the Pacific Ocean).

Deth assumed he had killed Whistler some time back, and quit the force so he could continue to hunt the remaining Trancers (one of whom murdered Deth’s wife). But he is informed by his old boss, Chief McNulty (Art LaFleur), that Whistler survived, and has traveled “down the line”, back to 1985, where he intends to wipe out the ancestors of the current city’s ruling council (played by Richard Herd and Anne Seymour), thus preventing them from ever being born. Ordered to protect Whistler’s intended victims at all cost, Deth is sent to 1985 as well.

And here is where the movie reveals a very cool concept, one of the most fascinating I have ever seen in a time travel film. In order to exist in 1985, Deth must inhabit the body of one of his own ancestors, taking over their consciousness to carry out his mission!

His particular ancestor is a photographer, and with the help of some cool gadgets beamed to him from the future, Deth teams up with his however-many-great-granddaddy’s teenage girlfriend Leena (Helen Hunt) to track down the council’s ancestors and protect them.

But it won’t be easy: Whistler’s ancestor, and the man whose consciousness he now controls, is well-respected L.A. police detective Weisling (Michael Stefani)!

As I said, that’s one of the coolest time travel concepts I’ve ever seen, yet it’s just one of several attributes that make Trancers such a fun movie. Thomerson is perfectly cast as the tough-as-nails Deth, a throwback to the grizzled lawmen of film noir with a bit of Dirty Harry thrown in for good measure (he takes some pretty extreme measures right off the bat to ensure Whistler will never return to the future). Helen Hunt is also quite good as Leena, who, once she realizes what is actually going on, becomes Deth’s perfect ally / love interest.

Along with the way the film handles leaping through time, the Trancers themselves (who, once their identity is blown, look and act like zombies that can talk and even reason) are formidable foes. The opening scene, a surprisingly violent showdown between Deth and a Trancer set inside a 23rd century diner, is matched only by a 20th century battle in a shopping mall (it’s as funny as it is tense). Then there’s Deth’s wristwatch, which can slow down time, stretching one second for everyone else into 10 seconds for him. The world still moves at a regular pace, but Deth’s actions are sped up, allowing him to escape a dangerous situation, but only once (the watch disintegrates after use). The pace of Trancers is also perfect, with its 76-minute runtime feeling half that long.

From the sci-fi complexities of Dollman to the bad-ass fantasy of Doctor Mordrid, Band and his team know how to create an engaging world, then flesh it out with interesting characters and a damn fine story. Trancers is his masterpiece.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Saturday, April 15, 2023

#2,905. Rough Night in Jericho (1967) - Quentin Tarantino Recommends


Dean Martin is a total prick in director Arnold Laven’s 1967 western Rough Night in Jericho.

Starring as Alex Flood, a former lawman who has set himself up as the boss of the town of Jericho, Martin plays against type, and is downright ruthless in the film. It’s to his credit, though, that, even when we hate what his character is doing, the famous crooner still brings enough charisma to the part that we can’t take our eyes off of him.

Backed by his hired guns, including Yarbrough (Slim Pickens), Flood rules Jericho with an iron fist, and prides himself on owning 51% of damn near every business in town.

Fed up with Flood’s reign of terror, longtime resident Molly (Jean Simmons) writes to retired sheriff Ben Hickman (John McIntire) and his former deputy Dolan (George Peppard), asking for their help. Unfortunately, Hickman is shot and injured (by Flood) on his way to Jericho, leaving Dolan to assess the situation on his own.

Unlike Hickman, Dolan doesn’t seem interested in taking on Flood or bringing down his empire. But when he falls for Molly (who is also a former lover of Flood’s), the callous deputy may just change his mind.

While it has the look and feel of a classic Hollywood western, Rough Night in Jericho is a lot more violent than many of its predecessors. In the opening scene, before he ever says a word, we watch Flood ambush the stagecoach carrying Ben Hickman to town, shooting the unsuspecting lawman in the leg from a few hundred yards away.

Immediately after this, Yarbrough informs Flood (who just arrived back in Jericho) that one of their hired guns was killed by a shop owner. The merchant did it in self-defense (the gunman was roughing him up at the time), but Flood and his men march on the jail anyway, where the shopkeeper is being held, and demand that deputy Jace (Don Galloway) turn him over. When Jace refuses, Flood orders one of his lackeys to climb onto the roof with some dynamite, and tells the deputy he will blow the jailhouse sky high. Jace backs down, and the store owner is lynched.

It’s a brutal opening few scenes, but the violence only escalates from there. At one point, Dolan and Yarbrough get into a fistfight that is positively vicious; and one poor guy even gets a shotgun blast to the face… at close range!

I’m not going to say that Dean Martin gives his strongest performance as Alex Flood. There are times he seems to be phoning it in. Still, his character is the film’s most interesting. We may not like him (we don’t, actually), but damned if he isn’t a lot of fun to watch. A scene in which Flood and Dolan are playing cards is especially engaging.

Peppard and Simmons fare better, delivering solid performances. Simmons is especially outstanding as the iron-willed Molly, a widow who isn’t afraid to stand up to Flood. She was the only one, in fact, who tried to prevent the shopkeeper’s lynching. Slim Pickens is also good as Yarbrough, Flood’s second-in-command and a guy who is pretty handy with a bullwhip, while McIntire is appropriately grizzled as the aged lawman trying to help Jericho out of a jam.

A movie with the look and feel of a 1950s western that takes a very late ‘60s approach to its story, Rough Night in Jericho is a winner through and through.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Saturday, April 8, 2023

#2,904. The President's Analyst - 1967 Comedies Triple Feature


This film has not been made
with the consent or cooperation
of the Federal Bureau of
Regulations (F.B.R.) or the Central
Enquiries Agency (C.E.A.). An
resemblance to persons living
or dead is purely coincidental.
And so forth and so on.

James Coburn could do it all, from action-packed westerns (The Magnificent Seven) to war films (The Great Escape), even the occasional hard-hitting drama (he won his only Academy Award for 1997’s Affliction, in which he played Nick Nolte’s alcoholic father).

Writer / director Theodore Flicker’s The President’s Analyst gave Coburn a chance to stretch his talents across multiple genres, including comedy, action, thriller, even sci-fi. In a career brimming with roles in fascinating movies, The President’s Analyst may just be Coburn’s crowning achievement.

Without realizing it, psychiatrist Sidney Schaefer (Coburn) is being considered for a very important job. A recent patient of his, Don Masters (Godfrey Cambridge) is, in reality, an agent for the United States Central Enquiries Agency, and has been tasked with determining whether or not Sidney is the right man to serve as analyst for the President of the United States!

Despite the apprehension of Henry Lux (Walter Burke), director of the Federal Bureau of Regulations, Sidney is recommended for the job, and before long is living in a spacious house in Georgetown with his live-in girlfriend Nan (Joan Delaney).

Sidney quickly discovers, however, that being the analyst of the most important man in the free world has its drawbacks. Because of the President’s busy schedule, Sidney must be available 24-7, and often is called 3-4 times a day. Also, because the F.B.R. has declared him a possible security risk (because he talks in his sleep), Nan is moved out of the house and put up in a nearby hotel, to prevent her from overhearing potentially “sensitive” information about the President.

Alone and deprived of sleep, Sidney’s paranoia grows, and he believes he sees agents following him at every turn.

Anxious to quit but unable to do so, Sidney does the next best thing: posing as a government employee, he convinces a “typical American family” touring the White House that the President is interested in their opinions regarding his performance, and that he should accompany them home to conduct the interview. So, Sidney hops in a car with Wynn Quantrill (William Daniels), his wife Jeff (Joan Darling), and their son Bing (Sheldon Collins), who live in New Jersey!

The minute he is out of town, agents from all around the world, including Soviet spy Kropotkin (Severn Darden), travel to the U.S. with instructions to abduct Sidney and find out everything he knows about the President. To make matters worse, Lux instructs his F.B.R. team that Sidney is now a security threat, and must be killed.

To prevent this from happening, the C.E.A. tasks Agent Masters with finding the good doctor before anyone else and returning him safely to Washington D.C.

The President’s Analyst starts simply enough, with an overjoyed Sidney relishing the news that he has been chosen to help the President work out his personal issues. In these early scenes, Coburn plays it straight, giving the impression he is every bit the professional psychiatrist. Once the paranoia sets in, however, his performance becomes more manic, as does the pace of the movie. X  By the time he’s a wanted man, both he and the story take some very sharp turns. While exiting a downtown Chinese restaurant, Sidney is saved from several enemy agents by the Quantrills (Wynn is a self-professed liberal who carries a handgun, Jeff is a karate student).

To escape, Sidney hitches a ride with a band of musical hippies led by the “Old Wrangler” (Barry McGuire). In what might be the film’s funniest moment, Sidney, decked out in hippie attire, is strolling through an open field with Old Wrangler and a pretty brunette known as Snow White (Jill Banner), not realizing he has been tracked to that location by several foreign spies. Lucky for him, these agents spend more time fighting each other than they do trying to apprehend their target. As the camera pulls back, Sidney, Snow White, and Old Wrangler are walking away, the bodies of a handful of spies littering the ground behind them.

Coburn is superb, playing subdued and strung out equally well, while both Godfrey Cambridge and Severn Darden do a fine job as the agents on Sidney’s trail. In an interesting twist, Masters and Kropotkin, despite the hostilities between their two countries, are close friends, and make a friendly wager with one another as to which will find Sidney first.

While the middle act of The President’s Analyst, starting when Sidney runs away, gets kinda crazy, it’s nothing compared to the unbridled chaos of the final third of the movie, when even the Phone Company wants to get their hands on Sidney! A comedy with a touch of James Bond thrown in, The President’s Analyst is inspired lunacy.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, April 1, 2023

#2,903. Who's Minding the Mint? (1967) - 1967 Comedies Triple Feature


Director Howard Morris assembled an all-star cast for Who’s Minding the Mint?. Along with Milton Berle and Dorothy Provine (who four years earlier played husband and wife in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World), the film featured Rat Pack regular Joey Bishop; the underrated Jack Gilford (he was great in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum); Hollywood veteran Walter Brennan; Victor Buono; Jamie Farr; and Gilligan himself, Bob Denver.

Quite a comedic line-up there, right? So, imagine my surprise when I discovered that the star of the movie was... Jim Hutton!

That’s no slam on Hutton’s abilities. He was quite good in Peckinpah’s Major Dundee as well as the 1973 TV horror film Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. But as the headliner for a supporting cast like this? I feared he may have been out of his element.

But I was wrong. Hutton holds his own as Harry Lucas, a selfish “live for today” playboy who works for the U.S. Treasury in Washington D.C., and makes a mistake that, if uncovered, could land him in prison.

While disposing of some terrible fudge that lovestruck co-worker Verna (Provine) made for him, Harry accidentally destroys $50,000 in newly minted bills! His boss, Samson Link (David J. Stewart), already doesn’t trust Harry, and is sure he has been doctoring the books and swiping gobs of cash. But Harry is innocent of any wrongdoing… until now!

Desperate to replace the money, Harry comes up with a scheme to break into the building at night through the sewer system and have his old friend Pop (Brennan), a former printer for the Treasury, run him off $50k in cash so he can replace the money and keep his job.

Of course, they’re going to need some help to pull it off, specifically from safecracker and former convict Dugan (Gilford), who is the only one that can open the safe where the currency plates are stored. One slight hitch, however: after 10 years of working a noisy prison metal press, poor Dugan is practically deaf!

So, it's off to a pawn shop owned by Luther (Berle) to pick up a used hearing aid. A natural con man, Luther gets wind of the scheme and demands to be cut in. Also recruited to help are Ralph (Bishop), a compulsive gambler who knows the sewers; a former sea captain (Buono) to build them a boat (the sewers get pretty deep in that area of D.C.); and ice cream truck driver Willie (Denver), who must distract Imogene (Jackie Joseph), a busybody living in an apartment overlooking the manhole where they will enter the sewers.

But just as it all seems to be coming together, Harry’s partners, who initially agreed to help for $2,000 apiece, decide they want more.

How much more? A million each!

His back against the wall, Harry has no choice but to give in, and hopes that Verna, who also agreed to help him out of this pickle, won’t turn them in when Pop starts running off more $100 bills than she was promised.

He may not get as many laughs as his co-stars, but Hutton makes for a likable lead. We want to see Harry get out of this jam, and feel for him when his partners prove greedier than he ever imagined.

That said, he is outshined at almost every turn by the supporting cast. The standouts are Berle as the shifty Luther, the ringleader who convinces the others they deserve more than $2,000; Gilford as the hearing-impaired crook whose loud “whispers” almost give the caper away on more than one occasion; and Buono, whose over-the-top accent should have gotten old after a while, but instead managed to make his character more endearing.

As for the comedy, it is not side-splitting stuff, but the movie has its moments. Most of which are in the final act, when the break-in is in full swing. A subplot involving Pop’s very pregnant dog, who he brings along so he does not miss the birth, results in some tensely funny scenes when the pooch wanders off.

Though not as laugh-out-loud funny as other ‘60s star-studded comedies like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Who’s Minding the Mint? is pleasantly entertaining, and a movie that, even if it doesn’t linger long in your memory, you’ll be happy you watched.
Rating: 7 out of 10