Monday, September 17, 2018

Fool's Views (9/1 – 9/15)

Friends, Ro-Mans (of the Robot Monster variety), Countrymen, lend me your steers….

It’s funny what having a little spare time, i.e. only working one job (upending governments in GVT’s production of Julius Caesar) instead of 12, can do for a person’s viewing habits and enthusiasms. Managed to pack in a wealth of Views over the course of the past couple weeks, and we’ve still got the rest of September to go before we dive headlong into this year’s installment of the October Horror Movie Challenge!

Many thanks to the Lewisburg Public Library for providing ample viewing material on DVD, inspiring several unexpected trends (didn’t know it was going to be Western Week until it was) and the opportunity for both revisits and virgin voyages alike. Ditto my castmates with their high-tech streaming capabilities, and similar horror inclinations. Always more fun with a crowd!

As always, feel free to leave your two cents worth – we’ll make sure you get some change back.



The Belko Experiment (2016) d. McLean, Greg (USA) (1st viewing)

Despite never really being more than a variation on Battle Royale (the classic J-horror that almost certainly inspired The Hunger Games), this high-concept gore-fest delivers exactly what the premise promises: 80 office workers are trapped in an armored high-rise and instructed to kill one another by a mysterious voice over the intercom. If they refuse, a small detonator implanted in their brains eliminates them from the playing field. Social experiments don’t come much bloodier than this, and the cast (which includes Tony Goldwyn, John C. McGinley, John Gallagher Jr., Adria Arjona, Michael Rooker, and Sean Gunn) are more than happy to get their collective hands dirty. Written by James Gunn (yes, the Guardians of the Galaxy guy returns to his horror roots!) and directed with panache by McLean (Wolf Creek, Rogue).

Deadfall Trail (2009) d. Roze (USA) (1st viewing)

Found on a discarded 8-pack of horror flicks, this barely qualifies since it’s much more a low-budget survival drama following three young bucks who go off into the wilderness proving ground together and run up against challenges from the elements and each other. I will give credit to the fine cinematography, which captures the natural rugged beauty, and the performances from our three leads (Shane Dean, Cavin Gray, Slade Hall) are all fine. It’s a noble independent effort that could have used a bit more time in the screenwriting percolator is all.

Ghost Ship (2002) d. Beck, Steve (USA) (2nd viewing)

A young girl (Emily Browning, six years from playing Babydoll in SuckerPunch) witnesses a horrific accident on board a luxury ocean liner, a show-stopping opening set-piece of bloodletting that this Dark Castle effort never quite matches again. Flashing forward a few decades to Gabriel Byrne’s salvage crew being enticed into tracking down the floating tombstone, the stage is set for our intrepid scavengers to encounter all manner of bizarre and macabre imagery, much of it ultimately lethal to their existence. The ensemble is capable enough (Juliana Margulies, Desmond Harrington, Ron Eldard, Karl Urban, Isaiah Washington, with the very fetching Francesca Rettondini providing the sexiest sequences) while the CG f/x and script (by Mark Hanlon and John Pogue) fall on the lazy side. Director Beck helmed the (slightly) superior Thir13een Ghosts the year before.

He Never Died (2015) d. Krawczyk, Jason (USA) (2nd viewing)

Watched this for a second time with a group of folks and it holds up just dandy. More supernatural dark comedy than full-blooded horror flick, Henry Rollins (who also exec-produced) is perfection as an immortal so completely over his own existence, yet consistently caught up in trouble with hoodlums and thugs and forgotten offspring. Steven Ogg and Jordan Todosey offer fantastic support respectively as a small-time kingpin and a wayward wild child, while Kate Greenhouse’s frustrated and eternally nonplussed waitress steals our hearts with her every stifled exhalation of hope. Kudos to writer/director Krawczyk for creating memorable characters and banal situations for them to richly inhabit.

The Song of Solomon (2017) d. Biro, Stephen (USA) (1st viewing)


Strait-Jacket (1964) d. Castle, William (USA) (4th viewing)

The casting of aging starlet Joan Crawford, hot off the success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, proved to be one of William Castle’s finest gimmicks, and the grand dame gives it her all as a recently released axe murderess trying to reintegrate herself into society and into now-grown daughter Diane Baker’s life. Watching Crawford go bananas in high style does lend the film a camp appeal, but Robert Bloch’s script keeps a lid on the melodrama and Castle surrounds his star with a fine ensemble, including Baker, George Kennedy and Mitchell Cox.

Newly available on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory, and while I haven’t yet had a chance to dig through the extras, there’s a three-way commentary with Steve Haberman, David J. Schow, and Constantine Nasr that I’m itching to give a listen to, alongside an “Ax-swinging Screen Test,” a making-of doc entitled “Battle Ax,” “On the Road with Joan Crawford” (with publicist Richard Kahn), and “Joan Had Me Fired,” an interview with Ann Helm who was originally cast in Baker’s role before being given the boot by her tempestuous co-star. Sounds like our S!F folks have done themselves proud again.


Black Hawk Down (2001) d. Scott, Ridley (USA) (2nd viewing)

I remembered seeing this in the cinema and being overwhelmed by the extraordinary and immersive sound design, to the point of not remembering anything else. This time I was able to track the story and the characters with more clarity and appreciate the blend of drama and technique, plus identifying all those now-familiar faces helped. (Hello, li'l Tom Hardy.) Arguably the last great film Scott has directed. Fun seeing Ron Eldard show up in this and then Ghost Ship, although probably less fun for Ron.

Grease 2 (1982) d. Birch, Patricia (USA) (1st viewing)

Birch, who served as choreographer for the original 1978 smash hit starring Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta, landed in the director’s chair for the sequel, but without a finished script or a hit Broadway show’s worth of musical numbers from which to draw. The undeniably dodgy results are equal parts enthusiasm and desperation, with a fresh-faced cast of rising hopefuls singing and dancing their hearts out to sub-par tunes and lyrics. There is a certain charm to the proceedings, much like watching a high school musical where effort counts for something, even if it never approaches the polish and pizzazz of the original. Notable for being Michelle Pfeiffer’s first leading role (and might have been her last if not for her sexy turn in Brian De Palma’s Scarface the following year). 1980s hunk Adrian Zmed plays our lead Greaser, given solid support by Christopher MacDonald (Thelma & Louise, Happy Gilmore), while screen veterans Connie Stevens, Eve Arden, Tab Hunter, Sid Caesar, Dody Goodman, and Didi Conn (reprising her “Frenchy” character) shore up the sometimes wobbly foundations.

The Mosquito Coast (1986) d. Weir, Peter (USA) (2nd viewing)

I recalled being less-than-taken with this on its initial release, but I couldn't be sure if that was my true memory or if it was the less-than-stellar critical acclaim permeating my memory. Upon revisit, I certainly appreciated what Weir and star Harrison Ford (re-teaming after their success on 1985’s Witness) were going for – an uncompromising vision of an uncompromising man's vision – but it does make for a tough sit at times since Ford’s fanatical inventor character proves so thoroughly unlikable by the end.

The Professional (1994) d. Besson, Luc (France) (3rd viewing)

Putting the focus on Jean Reno’s laconic hit man (“cleaner”) character from 1990’s La Femme Nikita (and changing the name from Viktor to Leon), writer/director Besson serves up one of his finest efforts to date, effortlessly combining scenes of breathtaking action and high opera melodramatics (courtesy of hysterical baddie cop Gary Oldman). But it is the unusual and tender love story between the utilitarian-minded hired killer and his world-weary orphaned neighbor (an 11-year-old Natalie Portman, making her screen debut) that elevates this B-movie premise to cult classic.

Revolution (1985) d. Hudson, Hugh (UK) (1st viewing)

Roundly dismissed by critics and ignored by audiences during its theatrical run, this infamously messy and unglamorous view of the British/American conflict stalled the once-hot careers of both director Hudson (Chariots of Fire, Greystoke) and star Al Pacino (who didn’t work again until 1989’s Sea of Love). Looking at it 30 years later, it’s easy to see why audiences didn’t respond to an ambivalent view of armed conflict (this was the age of Rambo and Missing in Action, after all) or to Pacino’s contemporary presence – and inexplicable accent – in a costume drama. By no means a forgotten classic, and the re-edited “Revolution Revisited” home video release feels a little desperate in its attempt to please (adding pages of narration to support the muddy, bloody imagery), but it’s not the Heaven’s Gate-level train wreck I was expecting. (Then again, neither was Heaven's Gate.)

Team America: World Police (2004) d. Parker, Trey (USA) (3rd viewing)

When I first saw his and Matt Stone’s send-up of Joel Silver/Jerry Bruckheimer/Michael Bay action flicks – as realized through the Chiodo Brothers’ brilliant supermarionation – I proclaimed that writer/director Parker was one of the unsung musical theatre geniuses of our age who would never receive the recognition he deserves because he chose to celebrate his subversive gifts through the artistry of cut-out animation on South Park. What a difference a decade and a certain Tony-winning musical (The Book of Mormon) can make. Revisiting, I still find it (almost) as funny as SP: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, managing to make mock of everyone from Matt Damon and Alec Baldwin to Kim Jong-il and the cast of Rent. Silly and stupid, witty and wild, rude and raunchy with puppet gore and puppet sex and puppet puke galore, this ain’t your grampa’s Thunderbirds episode.


Broken Arrow (1950) d. Daves, Delmer (USA) (1st viewing)

James Stewart delivers his stalwart best attempting to establish a tenuous peace treaty with Cochise (Oscar-nominated Jeff Chandler) to allow the U.S. mail to go through. Simply and effectively presented moral fable, impressive for its thoughtful and sympathetic presentation of the Native Americans.

Duel in the Sun (1946) d. Vidor, King (USA) (1st viewing)

Gregory Peck plays a bad, bad man with eyes for “half-breed” Jennifer Jones in this steamy, overblown melodrama of a divided family within a divided Texas. Lionel Barrymore scowls and harangues from his wheelchair, while Joseph Cotton and Lillian Gish present the more sensible and sensitive side.

Flaming Star (1960) d. Siegel, Don (USA) (1st viewing)

Elvis only breaks out the guitar for one song (in the first scene, no less), and then settles down for a surprisingly solid and complex view of loyalties and racism on the frontier plains. The King is in fine dramatic form here, with Barbara Eden, Steve Forrest, Delores Del Rio, John McIntire, and Richard Jaeckel rounding out a fine cast overseen by Siegel (Dirty Harry).

Hombre (1967) d. Ritt, Martin (USA) (1st viewing)

As a white man raised by Apaches who returns to “civilized life” to claim a boarding house owned by his biological father, Paul Newman doesn’t offer a wide emotional palette but he more than makes up for it in sheer screen presence. During an ill-fated stagecoach ride, Richard Boone’s thief sets his eye on Fredric March’s embezzled cash and has no qualms about eliminating witnesses, forcing Newman to become a reluctant and ruthless guardian of the other passengers.

Lonesome Dove (1989) d. Wincer, Simon (USA) (1st viewing)

Figured it was finally time to sit down with the epic, critically acclaimed and universally beloved miniseries event that sparked a dozen spin-offs and sequels. I was not disappointed. Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones split the Emmy votes (James Woods walked off with top honors for My Name is Bill W.), leading a fantastic ensemble of players and hundreds of horses and cattle across the plains, bringing Larry McMurtry’s extraordinary tapestry of flawed and flinty characters to vivid life. Fun fact: McMurtry originally wrote the story as a screenplay, but when no one picked it up, he turned it into a novel… which subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize.

The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968) d. Rafkin, Alan (USA) (1st viewing)

Remake of the Bob Hope vehicle The Paleface (which I just stumbled across a few weeks ago), with Don Knotts as the tenderfoot dentist roped into assisting Barbara Rhodes’ undercover outlaw trying to discover who is selling guns to the “savages.” Like the original, it’s hardly PC in its portrayal of Native Americans, which is something viewers need to accept (and forgive) in order to enjoy the light comedy offered, but it’s no more offensive than any number of classic Westerns. ‘Tis a quandary.

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) d. Eastwood, Clint (USA) (2nd viewing)

While not his first Western in the director’s chair (that would be 1973’s High Plains Drifter, a personal favorite of mine), this is perhaps Squint’s most accomplished effort in the genre until Unforgiven (1992). Well-paced tale of one man’s quest for vengeance against the Union troops that murdered his family in Missouri during the Civil War, ultimately assembling a new family as he presses south into Texas. Chief Dan George, Will Sampson, and Geraldine Keams offer three-dimensional portraits of Native Americans, with Sondra Locke and Paula Trueman memorable as Kansas settlers fallen on hard times. Sterling character actors John Vernon, Bill McKinney, Sam Bottoms, Matt Clarke, Frank Schoefield, Doug McGrath, Charles Tyner, Joyce Jameson, Len Lesser, William O’Connell, and Royal Dano round out the field.


Rain Man (1988) d. Levinson, Barry (USA) (6th viewing)

Tom Cruise was already a bona-fide movie star at this point, but here was the evidence he could hold his own in the dramatic arena. Co-star Dustin Hoffman might have won the Oscar playing autistic savant Raymond Babbitt, peppering his speech with now-iconic phrasings of “12 minutes to Wapner,” “Definitely,” and “yeah,” among others, but it’s brother Charlie’s emotional journey that we follow, from callow selfish entrepreneur to empathetic human being and Cruise delivers big time. Trivia: Hoffman was originally approached to play Charlie, with Bill Murray to play Raymond, but when Hoffman decided to switch roles, Murray passed and the rest is history.

Vanilla Sky (2001) d. Crowe, Cameron (USA) (2nd viewing)

Cruise reunited with his Jerry Maguire director (for which he received his second Best Actor Oscar nomination) for this remake – or “remix” as Crowe prefers – of Alejandro Amenabar’s 1997 psychological thriller Open Your Eyes. Unfortunately, the star seems a little out of his element, his flashy rich publisher character trapped behind facial prosthetics and/or prosthetic make-ups following a devastating car accident, and Crowe’s free-form script is less the original’s precision-timed puzzle box and more a bunch of puzzle pieces spilled on a tabletop to be sorted. Penelope Cruz (who plays the same “Sofia” character in both films) is exotic effervescence exemplified while Cameron Diaz sizzles as Cruise’s sometime lover whose million-dollar smile and razor-sharp claws protect her surprisingly vulnerable heart.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014) d. Liman, Doug (USA) (2nd viewing)

Another fun high-concept time-travel piece that failed to find its target summer audience despite the presence of A-list stars (Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton) and Liman in his whiz-bang wheelhouse. Some blamed the supremely forgettable title (from the graphic novel source material), which was subsequently replaced by its “Live. Die. Repeat.” tagline for home video. Happily, it seems to have steadily earned a growing reputation ever since, which is good news since Cruise is absolutely terrific here, showing off considerable comic timing and vulnerability while playing against his natural supercool (a trait that has served him well in the latter Mission: Impossible installments), and badass Blunt matches him step for step. Fans will also enjoy watching the special features of Tom Cruise and Co. working and developing the futuristic battle suits; likewise, reading the background intel, comparisons between the film and the manga, and time-loop theories (on the IMDb trivia page) should prove equally enlightening and entertaining.

2017 Totals to date: 175 films, 114 1st time views, 64 horror, 21 cinema


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