Friday, November 27, 2015



William O'Neil (Sean Connery) is the new Marshall in town.  His wife and child are unhappy in such a dank hellhole, but it's a living. O'Neil wonders why local mine workers are seemingly flipping out and taking their own lives.  The other so-called lawmen and the miners' company are unconcerned as it "happens every so often".  O'Neil begins digging and with the help of cranky physician Dr. Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen) discovers the deceased have significant levels of a particular amphetamine in their blood.  A drug that allows many hours of nonstop, tireless work for Conglomerates Amalgamated.  It explains why Mark Sheppard (Peter Boyle), general manager boasts this his franchise has broken company productivity records and that everyone has received bonus checks.  But the cost is the sanity and eventually the lives of the laborers.

O'Neil sets out to nail Sheppard.  The Marshall intercepts and destroys a large shipment of the vital drug.  C.A. will not have its profitability interrupted.  The second half of 1981's OUTLAND will largely resemble the 1952 Western HIGH NOON.   But the newer film is, in fact, a science fiction opus, set in a titanium mining outpost on Io, one of Jupiter's moons.  Aside from the setting and technology, and that characters need specialized helmets to breathe out of doors, this age old tale of corporate greed and the expendability of Man could've been set in any terrestrial locale.

ALIEN, released a few years earlier and to which OUTLAND has often been compared, was another sci-fi thriller with similar themes. Why should we think that mankind would behave any differently in space? That for all of the advancement of tech we would still be the same selfish, sin-ridden corruptibles, lacking honor, bravery, and even a shred of human decency?  Everyone except the new Marshall, cut of a rare cloth, and er, "not of this world".  Intellect may foster much advancement in the future, when deep space is colonized and is a viable destination, but morality, writer/director Peter Hyams argues, will not follow in kind.

All interesting thematically, but is OUTLAND exemplary science fiction, or at least a decent movie? More the latter, and far less thoughtful than SOLARIS, BLADE RUNNER, or several others of the genre.  Despite a somewhat sluggish pace at times, I think OUTLAND is a pretty good, solid bit of entertainment, with generally impressive special effects.  Especially with its technology,  new in its day, that allows actors to convincingly move around miniatures.  Movies like this live and die on effects, like it or not, and OUTLAND still looks pretty good.  Sci-fi geeks will have plenty to stare at.

But the script is a bit simplistic.  Things wrap up a bit too easily, too.  Like so many films, the ideas are better than the development of them. For me, the character development in OUTLAND isn't entirely satisfactory, but for this story, I guess it was enough.  The actors are appropriately sullen, though Sternhagen livens things up with her crotchety manner.  Quite thankfully, she wasn't turned into a love interest.   Hyams, director of BUSTING, CAPRICORN ONE, RUNNING SCARED, 2010, and several others, does his usual servicable job and gets to stage another chase scene.

I mentioned the slow pace.  I actually really love deliberate science fiction dramas, all the more time to immerse oneself in the themes, to discern subtext.  I would've preferred more from OUTLAND than simply obvious homages to Westerns.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

"Killer" Cranberry Sauce

Growing up, I was never a fan of cranberry sauce.  This is probably because my parents, for all of their otherwise homemade cooking, always bought that stuff that came in a can.  Maroon goop that retained the can's shape in the serving bowl and appeared like some weird flavor of gelatin. 

My wife has been creating the antidote for about fourteen years, dating back to when she was a graduate student in Monterey.  We found a recipe similar to the one below and my feelings for this famous side dish are forever changed.  The above pic was taken a few years ago in our kitchen, moments before the little buggers began to pop.

You may need to experiment with the amount of sugar.

  • 1 large orange (juice and peel)
  • 1-1/2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated ginger
  • 4 cups fresh cranberries*
  • 1/2 cup (2 oz.) toasted pecan pieces

Grate the orange peel and add to a pot with the sugar and ginger. Add the juice from the orange into the pot and simmer over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved. Add cranberries and cook 3 to 5 minutes until the skins pop open. Mash berries with spoon or fork until of desired consistency. Add pecans. Serve warm or chilled.
*Fresh, frozen cranberries can be substituted for fresh.

Sunday, November 22, 2015


1980's ffolkes, aka NORTH SEA HIJACK, is the sort of old fashioned adventure that just isn't seen anymore.  Pity.  We could use some.  These days (and for quite some time now) hijack pictures get bogged down with advanced technology and tiresome political rants from the villains, to say nothing of computer generated action scenes that are guaranteed to remove the viewer from any immediacy in the plot.

ffolkes proudly has none of that.  The hijack of a Norwegian supply ship bound for expensive North Sea oil rigs is engineered by a group of men posing as reporters, led by Kramer (Anthony Perkins), who have no agenda other than getting rich.  Many viewers have stated that the later DIE HARD takes several cues from this film.  One of those might be that the ultimate goal of its hijackers in the 1988 actioner  - who put up a ruse with long winded demands for asylum for their compadres - is the same. 

What is not the same is ffolkes' scarcity of large scale action scenes.  There are no real scuffles in the movie until near the end, in fact, when counter terrorist Rufus Excalibur ffolkes (Roger Moore) scales the ship with his commando team to foil the plans of the bad guys.  It hardly matters, as the film is so entertaining and involving that interruptions for periodic fisticuffs or shootouts would've seemed a real intrusion to the quiet engagement the film creates.

Mr. ffolkes is a precise, eccentric, and supremely arrogant fellow who subjects his men to endless drills and dry insults.  When Admiral Brinson (James Mason) asks if he is the sort who finishes the London Times crossword in ten minutes, his quarry is insulted, curtly replying it has never taken him ten minutes.    ffolkes can afford to be abrupt - his steel trap mind constantly strategizes methods to thwart both evil plots and inept, if well meaning, efforts to quell them.   He drinks heavily, fancies cats and detests females, all of which provide mileage for Moore's highly amusing performance, one of his finest.  His explanation for his misogyny is wryly funny.  How his fellow cast reacts to his brazen demeanor only adds to the fun.   He's clearly enjoying the change of pace from his usual suave, womanizing characters such as Simon Templar and James Bond.   It's safe to say that ffolkes is a better film than most of Moore's outings as 007, and apparently the actor agreed.

ffolkes is a perfect matinee for those seeking comfortable escapism that does not require acute wits or a strong stomach on the part of its audience for enjoyment.  Michael J. Lewis' typically majestic late '70s European scoring perfectly compliments the scenario.   It's the sort of film you could've watched with your grandmother without concern for offensive content, though she may have blushed when one of the henchman complained that he was "freezing (his) balls off" while standing guard on a chilly ship's deck.

Thursday, November 19, 2015


Long time fans of Ian Fleming's James Bond character may have felt their hearts warm upon learning that the latest outing would be named SPECTRE.  Ah, the memories of 1960s era 007, with a dapper yet rough hewn Sean Connery battling a bald scarfaced maniac villain called Blofeld and his organization, from which this new film gets its name. "SPECTRE" was an acronym for Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, though the current movie makes no effort to distinguish this.  Then again, the actions speak for themselves.  Even so, would this 21st century take be reverent to the old school?

Yes. SPECTRE in fact works in similar ways to the current Peanuts movie in its efforts to blend the old with the new.  To give the diehards the old fashioned derring do while maintaining a contemporary setting.  A timely one in which the MI6's merger with a privately funded intelligence service threatens the existence of the 00 section, deemed to be a stone age relic by a weasely government/corporate head called "C" (Andrew Scott).  C seeks to have Britain join several other nations in a joint surveillance alliance.  One remarked by a character to be scary enough for George Orwell.

Daniel Craig suits up for a fourth (final?) go round as 007, still mourning the death of his superior, M, previously portrayed by Dame Judy Dench.  Ralph Fiennes plays the new Head of Secret Intelligence, locked in a power struggle with C, and perhaps forced to suspend Bond from action after a rather eventful "holiday" in Mexico City (and a great opening sequence) that becomes "an international incident".  Unlike the teaser openings in some previous Bonds, this one is relevant to the story.  As James pulls a curious ring from a dead assassin's finger, he notes the inscription of an octopus that will be familiar to 007 philes.

SPECTRE moves entertainingly and confidently under Sam Mendes' direction, his second in the series.  The film globe trots among snowy and dusty locales, parades a few inevitable bed mates for the super agent, and often segues into an action scene when dialogue threatens to eat up too much screen time.  In other words, business as usual.  Some viewers find SPECTRE a pace or two backward with its willingness to embrace lengthy fight scenes and a plot riddled with holes, but I found it struck just the right tone.  Not exactly light (as in a Roger Moore entry), but less gloomy than in the previous SKYFALL, which I liked quite a bit but felt was over praised.

SPECTRE willingly lifts ideas from the Eon adventures of old, with its moving train scuffles, car gadgetry, large, silent bad guy minions, and even a scene where 007 is strapped to table/chair and threatened with torture.  A few dry wisecracks.  Blofeld's patented fluffy kitty is also seen.  Specific nods to the heart of what made the original films so engaging.  You might carp that there are one too many helicopter scrapes, though.

The "Bond girl" this time is Dr. Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux),  a psychologist who is the daughter of a former Bond nemesis, and she exhibits the sort of sexiness and feistiness ala Pussy Galore and others.  Monica Belluci, advertised as the oldest Bond girl in the series, only gets two early scenes.  She isn't given much to do, and that's too bad.  Had her character been developed with some sort of weary wisdom (she is the widow of an assassin Bond has killed) we could've had a more interesting partner for 007.  Maybe a throwback to Barbara Bach's XXX in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME or Countess Tracy (Diana Rigg) in ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE.

A well cast Christoph Waltz assumes the role of the central villain, one revealed to have deep ties with James Bond.   He also is given limited screen time, mainly late in the movie, but delivers a fairly even performance, minus lip smacking.  Critics again may wince at plot developments as Blofeld leads our heroes to his clandestine lair (another 007 cliche), but I couldn't be concerned with such myopia.  I was having too much fun.  SPECTRE is an immensely satisfying trip.  Even during the dependably cheesy, retro opening titles sequence, refreshing to see these days.  Real shame about that theme song, though.

Postscript: To those bitching that SPECTRE's plot and villain remind them of the AUSTIN POWERS movies: what did you geniuses think Mike Myers and company were spoofing in the first place? Go watch a Sean Connery Bond, namely THUNDERBALL.

Monday, November 16, 2015


The exploits of nineteenth century lawyer/doctor/mercenary William Walker have gone before the cameras twice: 1969's BURN!, directed by THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS' Gillo Pontecorvo and starring Marlon Brando (and yet unseen by yours truly) and 1987's WALKER, helmed by Alex Cox, whose previous credits were SID & NANCY and REPO MAN.  Walker's story, his colorful life and demeanor was a perfect conduit through which leftist Cox could channel his anger at American involvement in Nicaragua during the mid-'80s.  Just as Altman let his invective (and freak flag) fly against Vietnam with the Korean War-set MASH, Cox set out to prove that things hadn't really changed in over a century in relations between the U.S. and Central America.

Cox and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer could've struck out on many a path with this project.  Play it serious? Go for laughs? Temper their film with a bit of both? The men (like Altman before them) obviously had great affection and pity for the plight of soldiers and villagers who were often collateral damage in the wake of American policy.  Of meglomaniacal boys in men's bodies who viewed people as chess pieces.  Consider Cornelius Vanderbilt, played here by Peter Boyle.  In an effort to protect his profitable shipping route, the American tycoon hires Walker, with the help of a rag tag collection of fighters, to take over the government of Nicaragua. Vanderbilt is portrayed, perhaps accurately, as a petulant buffoon, who, in a moment representative of the sort of humor in WALKER, expels a loud fart as punctuation to his statement, "I get what I want!".

Walker (Ed Harris) is not drawn any more favorably.  His apparent insanity is visible almost immediately upon arrival in his new land.  He always marches ahead of his men, untouched by the bullets of Nicaraguans who won't go quietly.  While his lackey mercenaries suffer and bleed, Walker finds and plays a piano. Later, after surviving an assassination attempt, he steals the mistress of the President and later has him shot.   And this is before he really goes off the deep end.  You can read the history of Walker, of what a madman he was, and the filmmakers want you to draw parallels between him and Oliver North, who at the time of WALKER's shoot was helping to subsidize (from the sale of arms to Iran) Contra forces attempting to undermine President Daniel Ortega in the name of democracy.  A big scandal.  Those who lived through those days will remember the televised hearings.  Footage of Reagan era news clips are included for emphasis during the end titles.

While I can understand why Cox chose to make such an oddball biography - the subject clearly merits it- it's obvious that the reach for surreality got the better of him.  This movie is a real mess. The early scenes promise something far better than what finally comes.  Goofy sight gags sit uncomfortably with more serious observations of exploitation and insanity.  The choice to use anachronisms (automobiles, computers, Time magazine) also comes off as desperate, too cheeky.  The film gets weirder and weirder as Walker's behavior grows more irrational, but things careen way out of control.  Having the supporting players (such as character actor Rene Auberjoinois) overract is also a dubious touch.  WALKER, by the time the helicopter touches down, has lost any credibility as a political and social cry. 

The film has its defenders, just as other troublesome, unclassifiable works like FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS do.  Criterion does another impressive job, and their selection of this certainly fits with what would be considered "important".  I just wish the film resembled DR. STRANGELOVE rather than ISHTAR.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

La Grange

From Live at Daryl's House.  Z.Z. Top guitarist Billy Gibbons plays his old band's classic with Daryl Hall and a tight ensemble.  Tempo slowed down, with some nice Hammond B action.....

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Peanuts Movie

It is with pleasure and relief that I can report that THE PEANUTS MOVIE, released last Friday, is a true delight.  A very welcome return to the sort of children's entertainment that is minus the currently fashionable cynicism and vernacular.   This was in marked contrast to the parade of trailers for upcoming kiddie pics we saw beforehand - each animated feature filled with characters spouting phrases along the lines of "shut the front door" or whatever other slang people are using these days.  Caustic attitudes that render talking animals as little more than parrots of the Generation X and Y adults who created them.

Charles Schulz's beloved sixty plus year old comic strip truly is timeless in its messages of longsuffering and pull up your bootstraps optimism, as timeless as his characters themselves who are forever in the first grade. A re-imagining of the Peanuts gang's personalities and attitudes would've been deadly, and that seems to be the trend with many remakes and rehashes anymore.  But the gang behind the camera (including producers/screenwriters Craig and Brian Schulz, the orignator's son and grandson) don't make the opposite mistake of having their wonderful creations exist in a stale landscape, either.

The eye filling computer animation (I did not see this in 3-D) nicely retains the hand drawn eyes, mouths, and other features with which fans are so familiar.  Director Steve Martino and his team even deftly insert some two dimensional images torn from the old comics, T.V. specials, and movies.  It perfectly assimilates the old with the new.   While some viewers may object to the liberal use of the pop song "Better When I'm Dancing" by Meghan Trainor, it's bouncy and bright and suits the good spirits of this movie.

THE PEANUTS MOVIE is akin to a "Greatest Hits" of the Peanuts world.  The plot incorporates all of the usual characters, with much of the plot following Charlie Brown's super crush on the Red-Haired Girl (eagle eyed viewers will catch her real name on a test score report), who's just moved across the street.  The kite eating tree, Snoopy's red baron fantasies (which are surprisingly intense and get a lot of screen time), the "wah wah" sound when adults speak,  Linus and his blanket, Schroeder and his piano (along with the latters' unrequited love from Sally and Lucy), and many other classic bits are all there.  For awhile it seems as if the film is just a collection of skits, but isn't it always really just about Everyman Chuck and his often in vain efforts just to get a little respect?  To have things not be a total disaster?  Who among you can't relate to that? As usual, lots of lessons are learned along the way, and the melancholia usually seen in a Peanuts special or movie is not as prevalent here.

But that does not mean the film has been tailored for our hypersensitive, P.C. world.  Lucy is still a snotty little brat, for one.  Sally comes off a bit selfish.  But it's all good, ultimately warm hearted fun.  And cute (you knew I'd say that).  Not a home run, necessarily, but a worthy big screen outing, the kids' first in 35 years.   I grew up watching those and everything Peanuts, so I was very eager to see the new movie and hopeful to be writing a favorable review.   I even teared up a little when a bit of Vince Guaraldi's indescribably emotional piano filled the soundtrack.  Though nothing like the tears I shed as a kid each time I watched SNOOPY, COME HOME.