Wednesday, February 26, 2014


I've always felt that Walter Hill was one of the most underrated of film directors. Even in his heyday, when he created tough, memorable films like THE WARRIORS and THE LONG RIDERS, to say nothing of the box office smash 48 HRS., he was never given his proper due as a meticulous stylist of the action genre. Such a sure hand, so many interesting choices. Rarely for nuances but rather the movies were like great rock songs that burned from the first note. His films from 1975 through 1984 are his best, the most representative of his talent, from the bare knuckle brawling of HARD TIMES to the neon glitter of STREETS OF FIRE. In between was a forgotten sleeper called SOUTHERN COMFORT, a tale of National Guardsmen who learn the hard ways of Cajun country.

1992's TRESPASS has some similarities to that film.  Of foreigners attempting to navigate a wilderness while attempting to save their hides. Bill Paxton and William Sanderson play regular joe firemen named Vince and Don who nightly cry into their beers over their sad lots. But luck seems to turn when they happen upon a map that indicates that a cache of gold is hidden in an old church. Maybe they should've considered the foreshadowing that this map was given to them by a man they could not save in a burning house.

The gig seems cut and dry. The church is now abandoned, with only a squatter elderly drunk to be found. Then a group of thugs (lead by Ice-T playing a character named King James) shows up and wastes one of their enemies, an incident accidentally witnessed by Vince and Don.  Now marked for death themselves, our heroes kidnap King James' younger brother and take him hostage. Leverage.   Meanwhile, the treasure hunt continues. How long will it take the gang to figure out why the 2 luckless white guys are holding court?

As the story, unimpressively scripted by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, unfolds, the desperation mounts. The profanity and body count grows. Any potential for tension is eroded by the facts that:

1. Vince and Don are not too bright and all around dullards.
2. There are multiple unintentional laughs.
3. Ice-T, usually so entertaining, is disappointing here.
4. The subplot involving the camcorder (echoing the then recent events of the L.A. riots and Rodney King) is heavy handed.
5. The ending is telegraphed from early on in the film.

But Hill's punchy style is just right for TRESPASS. He knows how to stage action. His pace is brisk. If you seek undemanding action fare, this film will fit that bill.

There isn't a single female in the movie, which is just as well, as (as we've covered) the director rarely knows what to do with them anyway. TRESPASS has more than a passing similarity to TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, but, yeah, you know the rest. I also noted a few nods to the original 1976 version of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, a compact drama which would be a much better waste of your time.

But damned if TRESPASS wouldn't make a swell video game!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Oh, Harold....

I just learned that actor/writer/director Harold Ramis died. He was 69.  When some notables pass, I think "how sad." With others, such as James Gandolfini or Philip Seymour Hoffman, it's like a kick in the gut. Ramis' work was hugely appreciated by me in my formative years (and well beyond). He was the reliably bespectacled nerd in STRIPES and the GHOSTBUSTERS films. He directed CADDYSHACK and later, GROUNDHOG DAY. He was a co-writer on NATIONAL LAMPOON'S ANIMAL HOUSE. Ramis had in fact worked with the Lampoon organization on their radio and stage revues years earlier.

I remember reading about Ramis and John Belushi in Bob Woodward's ultra inflammatory bio of the latter, Wired. They had worked together for many years. Both were native Chicagoans.  During a party in the late '70s Belushi, exhausted and intoxicated, fell on Ramis' lap and exclaimed, "Oh Harold..." As if he were consulting with an old friend and mentor. What should I do now?

While the heirs to the "slob comedy" throne of recent years (Judd Apatow et al) don't exactly light my fire, they have undeniably been inspired by all those anarchic yukfests of decades ago. The "young, dangerous comedy" spawned from the Lampoon, Lemmings, and Saturday Night Live.  I expect some heartfelt tributes in the days to come.

I would also like to have a break from having to write these eulogies for at least a little while, please.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Uncontrollable Urge

In honor of the passing of guitarist/keyboardist Bob Casale last week.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Side Effects

Somewhat Indirect Spoilers

Director Steven Soderbergh's alleged cinematic swan song, 2013's SIDE EFFECTS, was most certainly not the film I was expecting. Hoped for? I had fairly low expectations for what appeared to be another "Is this reality or not?" drama/thriller. Is it all in his/her head? Particularly as the plot involves having the lead character falls under the influence of pharmaceuticals - here, a popular (fictional) antidepressant called Ablixa. The trailers made it appear to be at least a wannabe neo-Hitchcockian drama, maybe something along the lines of MARNIE with a few doses of JACOB'S LADDER.

I should've paid more attention to the press notes: Soderbergh was going for a different feel, one that evoked crime thrillers like JAGGED EDGE. But also the films of Adrian Lyne, who in fact directed JACOB'S LADDER. But there is no discernible supernatural element to SIDE EFFECTS, or psychosis drama ala Robert Altman's IMAGES. What we in fact get is half a movie that examines, with some realism, the difficulties of depression, and another half that is content with plot twists that occur every 10 minutes or so.

Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is reunited after 4 years with her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) who had been jailed for insider trading. But Emily is still depressed, resorting to a few attempts at suicide. Psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) is assigned for her care and after some trial and error prescribes what seems to be the right drug: Ablixa. The side effect of sleepwalking seems to be of minor concern, until....

No, I will not divulge.  But I will say the movie changes its spots, its playbook quite dramatically, transforming into something else.  I was disheartened. The film had deliberately unfolded, building a tense psychological drama with nicely drawn performances. But then came the second half of SIDE EFFECTS.  Once I realized the path it was now taking, once I adjusted to it,  it kinda worked in a tawdry mystery sorta way. But geez, I was expecting more from Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns.  They abandon the psychological angle, the discomforting early moments and go for the cheese. Easy double-cross melodrama I'd seen too many times.  It lets viewers off the hook and gives them cheap thrills. I was actually reminded of FINAL ANALYSIS and BASIC INSTINCT by the closing scenes, which prominently feature an aged looking Catherine Zeta Jones as Emily's former shrink.  Things become increasingly preposterous.

I mention the shades of Hitchcock, and they are there in the form of Law's character, a prototypical "hero" who finds himself the accused, then must elude everyone while he finds the truth to clear his name.

Throughout the film, there are some knowing jabs at the pharmaceutical industry, scenes with drug reps as they candidly discuss the business. I'd like to see a film that examines the lifespan of a blockbuster drug that within five years is mentioned in attorney's advertisements as they shill for plaintiffs for mega class action suits.

I don't really believe that Soderbergh has hung up his bullhorn for good. I've been puzzled by many of the projects he's chosen, but am usually impressed by his skills. He likes what you might call "novelty" films. I'd almost rather see him bow out with one of his stunts than a high gloss schizophrenic drama/thriller that after, hmm, final analysis offers precious little.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Killers (1946)

In 2003, Criterion released 2 filmed adaptations of Ernest Hemingway's short story "The Killers" in one cool set.  Here is the older....

(the review of the newer version can be found at The Killers (1964))

The stage is set as well as I have ever seen in a noir. Perhaps for any film. The opening moments of director Robert Siodmak's THE KILLERS from 1946 follow a pair of tough talking hitmen named Al and Max as they intimidate proprieter and customer alike in a diner in a non-descript town. They're looking for a guy named Ole Anderson aka "The Swede" who works at the gas station across the way. Their words are terse and clipped, much like the style of the Hemingway story upon which this film is based.  As menacingly played by Charles McGraw and William Conrad, the killers of the title announce with rapid fire dialogue the sort of story we're to witness, a mean tale about to unfold in language that is of the streets yet clinical, and heartless. A brutal poetry. Full of portent.  In the next scene, they track down their target in a dingy room; Anderson makes no effort to escape and is gunned down. As if Swede (Burt Lancaster, in his feature debut) had resigned his fate and was even expecting them.  His expression recalled for me a line Clint Eastwood uttered in a movie, "We all got it comin', kid."

Insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmund O'Brien), hired to find Swede's beneficiary, wonders why. Why the guy didn't flee and what lead him to such squalor. In the process he becomes fascinated and obsessed with this curious scenario, asking his patient boss for extra time to go far beyond the scope of his job to play detective. THE KILLERS features a gallery of colorful players who figure into the plot, beginning with Lieutenant Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene), an old friend of Swede's, and a group of petty criminals with nicknames like Blinky (Jeff Corey) and Dum Dum (Jack Lambert). Their ringleader Colfax (Alfred Dekker, excellent) has more than a passing acquaintance with Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner), for whom Swede falls in a multitude of ways.

Directors Richard Brooks and John Huston are two of the screenwriters (along with Anthony Veiller) for THE KILLERS, and the lines they give their characters crackle from those opening sequences straight on to fadeout. Each bit of speech giving punctuation to a serpentine crime drama that rings like hot ammo. Their plotting is sharp. This is a flashback laden story, each character recalling the Swede with sad faces, as if they are barely surprised to learn of what became of him. He coulda been a contender, a boxer with talent until he broke his hand. What else can a has-been fighter do but turn to the other side of the law? Especially when there is a dame to woo?

Gardner blows smoke, drapes herself over beds, crosses her legs, and beguiles everyone; she is one of the best femme fatales to ever burn up the screen. She does the duplicitous temptress with a vengeance, though never overdoing things, edging into camp.  I'm sure Linda Fiorentino studied her closely for her own memorably wicked portrayal in THE LAST SEDUCTION. 

Miklos Rosza's score perfectly accompanies and even accentuates the action. Fans of a certain Jack Webb series may recognize a familiar element to it.

Siodmak directs several masterful moments, including a restaurant sequence which gives viewers a perfect scorecard for each character: Kitty tries to hide stolen earrings in a bowl of soup, Lubinsky catches on, and Swede takes the rap. It's left to Reardon to piece together the final plot/scheme. By the time we reach the final scene on the staircase nearly every character in the story is revealed to be a victim in one way or another. Perhaps THE KILLERS (and Hemingway) were arguing such a metaphor for Life Itself? Is it indeed pointless to run when the shadows of an Al and Max darken your door?

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Dear Mr. Hoffman

I've been thinking on your tragic passing for several days now. Film clips a traffic jam in my brain. There have been both puff pieces and erudite articles analyzing the hell of drug addiction. Discourse on personal responsiblity. A variety of responses from fans and non-fans. Overwhelming, really.

I never met you but imagined what a meeting would be like. Maybe you would've been shy and modest. Self-deprecating. I was around many actors in my 20s and for the myriad of personas I saw a similar trait among them - a proclivity for the mercurial. Unpredictable. I also had some professors in grad school like that but never mind.  If I caught you on the wrong day perhaps you would've dressed me down. We've all heard the stories of celebrity meetings, those times when an autograph request is met with derision. It hurts, but many of us don't know what it's like to be hounded by the press. How would I respond after a long day of press junkets and difficult directors? After all, you did work with Mike Nichols a few times.

You seemed like a complex person. Your performances were, to me, near flawless. My first awareness of you was in SCENT OF A WOMAN, where you played a prankster collegiate. The eventual target of Al Pacino's famous speech. That character, in some oblique way, seemed akin to Scotty J., that sad child you played in BOOGIE NIGHTS, still my favorite PT Anderson film and one of your best turns. You and Anderson did some amazing work, right up to THE MASTER. I was looking forward to more collaborations.

I cite many of the films others have: ALMOST FAMOUS, MAGNOLIA, CAPOTE, DOUBT. I was highly amused by your smug portrayal in THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY; I often imitated Freddie's measured, growly snobbery ("Who wears a corduroy jacket in Italy?"). I recently saw your nice work in OWNING MAHOWNY, the true story of a gambling addict. You were natural, you had a gift, but you worked at it, honed it with the attention any craftsman would. I was and am pissed that you left, sir. I am frustrated that I can't understand why. I am blessed to have never suffered the sort of addiction that snuffs a life. I can't begin to reconcile it. I don't know what else to say. I hope you have found eternal peace.

And I still love this clip.........

Rest in Peace.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

For All Mankind

As I listened to Brian Eno's transcendent orchestrations during 1989's documentary FOR ALL MANKIND, I kept thinking how much better GRAVITY would've been with them rather than the droning aural sludge with which it is cursed. I am one of the few who hasn't given a standing O to the current Oscar nominee, as you can read in my previous review. GRAVITY follows the plight of a novice astronaut as she struggles to survive in deep space, staying ahead of a collision of space junk. Yes, OK, that's a simplistic synopsis but distilled to its essence the film is really all about that, an adventure film, despite this illusion that it has Deeper Meaning. When folks argue, I like to refer them to a quote from LIFE OF PI, the one where the father tells the son that the love he sees in a wild tiger's eyes is merely his own emotion reflected back at him.  

I'm not here to bash GRAVITY, but rather tell you of how enthralled I was while watching FOR ALL MANKIND. I have had a lifelong fascination with NASA and the Space Program, regrettably never having made the drive up the Florida coast to see a launch. The 80 minute film from director Al Reinert is a painstaking edit of countless hours of footage from several Apollo and Gemini missions from the late 1960s and early 70s. We begin on the ground, then inside the capsule, eventually weightless above Earth's atmosphere. There are cuts to Mission Control in Houston, with several sometimes worried looking men in short sleeve dress shirts and ties communicating with the likes of Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Michael Collins. Those clips and names will be familiar to fans of Ron Howard's APOLLO 13, the 1995 drama with Tom Hanks and company.  Right down to the snapshot of the makeshift C02 filter the men threw together under great time constraint.

The narration throughout the film is culled from mission recordings and various interviews with the astronauts, explaining the unexplainable glory of viewing Earth, "floating in a blackness beyond perception".  Seeing fires in the Sahara desert as tiny dots on the blue sphere. That sunrise. There are also the familiar anti-gravity jokes, as food floats away and waste disposal is explained. Clips taken on the moon are breathtaking, even the ones we've seen so many times. One astronaut wonders what would occur if there was a tear in his spacesuit.

The effect is mesmerizing. It works in ways perhaps a traditional narrative (or documentary with an agenda) just couldn't. It celebrates the science and the art of the mission, the unity forged among those watching back on Earth. FOR ALL MANKIND is a must for NASA aficienados, and may well even convert some who aren't.  Just see it. You could wait for the next TCM airing or get your hands on the Criterion disc. Then, purchase Eno's  Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks, the 1983 album from which most of the score is used. You may actually go beyond the infinite yourself.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Black Sunday

BLACK SUNDAY is one of several '70s pictures that seemed to exist mainly to showcase creative ways for people to die. More specifically, it was part of a long cycle of movies in the disaster genre in which large groups of the innocent and the not so much faced peril that either came from nature (THE SWARM), man's inability to cope with natural elements in a supposedly secure vessel (THE POSEIDEN ADVENTURE, THE TOWERING INFERNO, the AIRPORT movies), or terrorist plots. BLACK SUNDAY is of the latter, sharing its often disreputable genre with things like ROLLERCOASTER and TWO-MINUTE WARNING, which like our film of interest featured a football stadium filled with fresh meat for the offing on the other side of a psychopath's scope.

But unlike most of the other films, 1977's BLACK SUNDAY is a mostly top-notch thriller. Besides the expected exciting chases and tense meetings, director John Frankenheimer's film takes another '70s film cliché, the shellshocked Vietnam vet gone amok, and makes him a believable, multidimensional human. Also unlike the other disaster pics, it does not sport an all-star cast you would otherwise see on Match Game or The Love Boat.  Instead, we have Bruce Dern in a knockout performance as Michael Lander, a former P.O.W. whose years of mental and physical torture lead him to join forces with Palestinian militants in a ghoulish plot to detonate the Goodyear Blimp over the Super Bowl in Miami.  Revenge.  What better place to make such a point? All those grinning Americans who spit on him when he returned from the jungle, doomed to be impaled with thousands of steel darts released from the underside of the very blimp he ordinarily pilots to film NFL matchups. The sort of plot I seriously doubt you would see in any post 9/11 film that isn't a documentary.

That is just one aspect that makes BLACK SUNDAY worth seeing. The retro interest (for those who dig '70s cinema) carries the film to the end, but the novelty of the storyline makes this feel like a true relic. Who would dare make a film like this after the unspeakable horrors that occurred at the World Trade Center and elsewhere on that September day in 2001? Has enough time passed to make such an enterprise feasible? Unlikely, in my opinion. Part of why BLACK SUNDAY works is imagining how this doomsday scenario sent shivers through 1970s viewers. Could never happen here, they thought.  This spectacle of a movie must have been impressive on the big screen. Especially the last half hour, with its nail biting, expertly photographed aerial chase and eventual Moment of Truth, when the nose of the blimp begins its decent into the Orange Bowl.

And about that. What should have been the most visually stunning moments of the movie unfortunately are undone by some seriously shoddy special effects. I've read differing accounts as to why the filmmakers really, um, dropped the ball on this but whatever the truth, the matted shots (and the editing choices) are almost as bad as many of the "B" movies of its era. This is really a shame.

But don't let that prevent you from watching BLACK SUNDAY. For a popcorn movie, it is more thoughtful than expected. In between the scenes that deliver the goods (a tense beach chase/shootout) are really poignant moments such as Lander's recollection of his time in 'Nam and of a photo of his wife she sent him that contained had a curious shadow. He tearfully explains his obsession over the photo, his terrible moment of realization of the identity of that shadow. A bravura moment, one among many for Dern.

I also liked a quiet scene with Israeli Intelligence Agent Kabakov (Robert Shaw), crushed all at once by the guilt of a career of ruthless methods, how he essentially created the young Palestinian terrorist, Dahlia (Marthe Keller) who is working with Lander. These are elements that separate this film from the other big budget fests.

But the key moment? When Kabakov visits good ol' Joe Robbie in Miami and tells him of the impending danger, that the Super Bowl may well have to be cancelled.

"Cancel the Super Bowl? That's like cancelling Christmas!"