Movie Reviews 558 – Paths of Glory (1957)

May 26, 2023

Perhaps it’s understandable that Paths of Glory escaped my viewing until now. While I’d heard of it many times in the past and even knew it was one of Stanley Kubrick’s early directorial efforts, it never got the acclaim that his later works did so I instinctively shelved it as some middle-of-the-road film to watch someday. But as is the case with many acclaimed artists, they become victims to their own fame in that some of their oeuvres, fantastic on their own merits, become overshadowed by the masterpieces.

What I had categorized as some ‘simple’ World War One trench drama turned out to be much deeper and layered than I erroneously supposed. Moreover, and perhaps unsurprisingly in retrospect, even this early film in his career delivered some of the nuanced imaginative cinematographic imagery Kubrick was renowned for. Honestly, this movie should be right up there with A Clockwork Orange, Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Shining.

A prolonged offensive battle to take a German stronghold has French troops led by Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) hopelessly pinned in a stalemate. His troops are outnumbered, outgunned and without any support to proceed with their mission to take the “Anthill”. While casualties both physical and mental are high, the men respect Dax who is making the best that he can of a dire situation.

Dax’s commanding officer, Brigadier General Mireau (George Macready) is no less cognizant of the predicament they are in and is equally level headed and doing his best.That is until the high command and Major General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) propose that Mireau storm the Anthill with the scant resources at hand. Mireau, knowing full well it would be a futile and suicidal mission puts his foot down at first, but has an about-face when a promotion is dangled before him. He then orders Dax to have his men storm the enemy and not only deny them the option to retreat but at one point tries to order his own men be shelled lest they try to turn back.

With the inevitable failure and a need for the army to save face by laying the blame on someone, Dax is ordered to have 3 men selected for a court-martial military trial, and a conviction that would have the men shot. Dax, a lawyer by profession once again does his best at a clearly prejudiced mock trial.

The movie is a tour de force that depicts Monty Pythonesque insanity but without the humor, yet both surprising and shocking. At the same time there is a sense of surrealism to it all.There are a number of subplots that delve into a number of facets among the relationships and characteristics of the soldiers themselves, equally poignant and sometimes as absurd as the main plot.

I found this to be one of Douglas’ best performances in his storied career (Saturn 3 not withstanding of course). Some will also appreciate the inclusion of Richard Anderson (of The Six Million Dollar Man fame) as the prosecuting attorney.

What can I say? It’s pure Kubrick so don’t make the mistake I did. And with that I think I’ll dust off that Barry Lyndon DVD that was gathering dust next to this one. I don’t want to make the same mistake again.

Movie Reviews 557 – The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

May 18, 2023

On her last sea voyage and with greedy owners cutting nautical corners to get the ocean liner to the scrapyards, the top-heavy SS Poseidon cruises towards Greece full of revellers celebrating New Years eve as it is battered by an enormous tidal wave. Within moments the bridge is wiped out and the ship capsizes, slowly rotating until it is completely upside down.

While many credit the movie Airport as starting the trend of disaster movies in the 70s, it was producer Irwin Allen who firmly took the reins and presided over the genre starting with The Poseidon Adventure. Having graduated from low budget television and his slew of science fiction hits (Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Time Tunnel and my personal favorite Land of the Giants) Allen doubled down the calamity angle with a big budget and an all-star cast.

Inside the overturned main ballroom the survivors begin to access the situation. While the ship’s purser adamantly orders everyone to stay in place hoping that a rescue is on the way, a rebellious preacher (Gene Hackman) decides to lead a small group towards the ‘bottom’ of the ship, now the highest point and what he believes will be the easiest location for any rescue mission. His entourage includes a hard boiled cop now married to an former street gal (Ernest Borgnine and Stella Stevens), an elderly Jewish couple on their way to visit their grandchild for the first time (Jack Alberson and Shelley Winters), a lonely bachelor (Red Buttons), a smart aleck kid and his teenage sister, the singer of the band entertaining the party goers, and an injured waiter (Roddy McDowall).

The troupe faces one obstacle after another, including strife amongst themselves, doubt about the direction they are headed, all aside from the physical impediments of navigating passages that are upside down. Each character has their own challenges, the preacher’s being God and faith itself.

As corny as it all sounds, the film works when combining superb special effects, detailed movie sets, environmental hurdles, and some of the best acting ever delivered by the notable cast. A cast that despite being enticed by paychecks awaiting them, dared to participate with a premise that could have sunk (pun intended) their careers. Instead it cemented Hackman as an A-lister and revived the careers of some of the older stars, even delivering an Oscar nomination for Winters, the bravest of all, allowing her girth to be mocked in the script and to be one of the burdens to overcome in the plot. Interestingly, while the score by John Williams was also nominated, it was the Best Original Song Oscar for “The Morning After” that won and turned out to be a fairly big contemporary hit as well. 

In short, the movie itself ushered in a tidal wave of disaster movies, and a tsunami of box office dollars to match.

I have the 2006 remake Poseidon that starred Richard Dreyfus and Kurt Russel sitting on my shelves. But even with that star power I don’t think I’ll be “bowled over” when I get around to watching it. 

Movie Reviews 556 – The New York Ripper (1982)

May 12, 2023

Did giallo master Lucio Fulci have some unholy fascination or reverence for ducks? Just as in Don’t Torture a Duckling which he lensed a decade earlier, The New York Ripper (original Italian title: Lo squartatore di New York) manifests the waterfowl, or at least the bird’s vocal emanations in this case. Using the giallo staple of only seeing a slasher’s gloved hands as they wield their weapon of choice, the only attribute we can attach to a serial murderer is his taunting, quacking voice. Think of Donald Duck making cheeky phone calls.

The case begins for bedraggled detective Lt. Williams (Jack Hedley) with the discovery of a severed hand in a park across New York city’s Hudson river. In the following days more girls are murdered with few clues other than the duck-voiced phone calls, some to Williams himself. Williams finally gets a break when one of the intended victims manages to escape, the failed attempt leading the police to believe that the suspect has one hand missing two fingers. 

The narrative introduces several characters to the mystery including a psychologist to aide in the hunt (Paolo Malco), a nymphomaniac woman (Alexandra Delli Colli) whose equally disturbed husband (Cosimo Cinieri) has more interest in listening to tapes of her moaning as she pleasures herself than actually having sex with her, and the eight fingered man himself (Howard Ross). 

With plenty of red herrings adding complexity to the chase, the charm of the film (if you want to call it that) lies in the gritty settings of the decadence of 42nd Street including a live sex show, sadomasochism aplenty, and old fashioned police work. Speaking of which, director Fulci himself has a small role as the chief of police. 

In case you were wondering, in the end Williams does ‘quack’ the case.

My Blue Underground Blu Ray included a nice interview with Zora Kerova, the equivalent of a giallo ‘scream queen’, who revisits her career. Aside from her experience with Fulci here as one of the victims and the girl in the notorious live sex show, she discussed working on other such films including Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox and Bruno Mattei’s Amazonia.

Movie Reviews 555 – Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

May 5, 2023

While I did not do any research into the matter, I suspect that book burning has been around almost as long as there have been books to burn. While the early eras of book production may have been sparser in terms of books available, I would imagine the religious fanaticism, despotic rulers and barbaric cultures at the time resulted in more than a few folios going up in smoke. The contemporary era of book burning would single out Nazi Germany as the culprit rekindling (pun intended) the practice which ties in nicely to this review of the adaptation of Fahrenheit 451.

These fascist pyres were perfect fodder for science fiction master Ray Bradbury’s novel, the title referring to the temperature at which paper combusts in flames, adapted here by avant garde French director François Truffaut in this, his only mainstream film.

In a dystopian future in which firemen set fires instead of putting them out, all literature, be they books, pamphlets or newspapers are targets of a society continually under the watchful eye for the aforementioned contraband. One such fireman, Montag (Oskar Werner) is a model worker even looking forward to a promotion to appease his blissfully obedient wife Linda (Julie Christie). A chance encounter with his neighbor Clarisse (also Julie Christie who plays dual roles in the film) while coming home from work one day elicits a line of questioning that intrigues Montag and soon has him not only reading books but devouring them as a rabid bibliophile.

Knowing all too well how one hides books and having access to an ample supply that he pilfers while performing his job Montag would be ideally suited to be one of the many outcasts that clandestinely preserves and reads the illicit texts. But eventually both he and Clarisse find themselves on the run, and seek out a literary haven.

While not without faults, the film immediately distinguishes itself with an unconventional  oral recitation of the opening credits. The acting, perhaps purposely stoic, also takes some blame for what should be a better film. But there is more than enough to warrant a view of this science fiction classic beyond the great premise and what there is of a plot. The Nazi symbolism is as clear as the blonde haired, blue eyed casting and there are other interesting bits to the decor, sets, props (take notice of all the different vintage phones for instance). 

While it was way too long ago for me to recall my reading it while in high school, I do remember loving the story and elevating it to the top of my Bradbury reading pleasure at the time. I distinctly recall having to stay ..The era of VHS tapes allowed me to finally watch the film but that too was nothing but a foggy memory.

As is often the case when posting these reviews, I learned that the film has since been remade. Also as is often the case (and the reason I don’t know about the remakes), the reviews and ratings leave something to be desired. This is perhaps the very best example in which I can say that you may be happy just “Reading” the original novel.

Movie Reviews 554 – The Children’s Hour (1961)

April 28, 2023

While both Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn have stunning film repertoires to their credits, somehow The Children’s Hour slipped under my radar all these years. I point that out since I now consider this film one of the finest in each of their respective careers.

Based on a Lillian Hellman novel, the story about two women running a private boarding school for young girls takes on a dark narrative when one of the girls, the manipulative brat of the pack, exaggerates what another girl witnessed. The root of the problem begins when Martha (MacLaine) has an argument with her aunt Lily (Miriam Hopkins), a has-been former stage actress lodging at the school and ostensibly helping out. While arguing, Lily throws an accusation that Martha’s relationship with Karen (Hepburn) is ‘unnatural’ given the considerable closeness of the two women. Unfortunately this accusation is overheard by Rosalie, one of the students (Veronica Cartwright) who herself got caught stealing by Mary (Karen Balkin), another student.

Mary is the school bully, ever in trouble for lying and other nefarious deeds. It is while being punished by Karen when she hears about Lily’s accusation. Hating the school and looking for a way out of her own troubles she nonchalantly mentions the reputed incident to her doting and gullible mother Amelia (Fay Bainter). Rosalie is forced to back up Mary’s exaggerated spin on the events lest Mary reveal her own sticky fingers. Shocked, Amelia not only removes Mary from the school but informs the other parents who all take the same action. Karen and Martha, already maintaining the school on a strained budget, suddenly find themselves alone without explanation from any of the parents until one father finally tells them. Complicating matters is Karen’s fiance, the local town doctor (James Garner) who had been urging her to finally pick a date for the wedding, which she did just before the furor began.

Before the dust is settled lives on both sides of the affair are more than just damaged. There is a court case (mentioned but not part of the film) against the women, a shuttered school, and not one but two big confessions.

A few niggling plot points aside, this was a riveting film from beginning to shocking end backed up not only by the aforementioned lead performances, but that of the entire cast. My only wish was that Cartwright and Balkin had switched roles as Veronica was (and still is) the far superior actress.

Perhaps it’s just coincidence but I thought it odd not recalling reading or hearing about this film in the many cinema media sources I frequent. How could I have missed such a lauded film? I suspect this one was kept under the wraps to a degree from many outlets due to the then controversial subject matter. Even more puzzling is that the muted chatter on the film seems to have been developed over time as the film did receive some Oscar nominations upon release, sadly neither MacLaine or Hepburn being honoured, but that same year Hepburn was nominated for Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Movie Reviews 553 – Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979)

April 21, 2023

I admit coming a bit late to Ramones fandom but that can be somewhat attributed to the fact that I never got around to watching Rock ‘n’ Roll High School until now. Part post pubescent teenage hijinx and part promotional ‘music video’ for the seminal-punk rock group The Ramones, this film had a lot of surprises in store for me, all good ones.

Even before the opening credits rolled I spotted the acting duo of Mary Woronov and Paul Bartel from Eating Raoul which was a sign of great silly things to come. Then as the actual credits rolled I noted that scream queen P. J. Soles (co-star in the original Halloween and Carrie films) was the lead. This was going to be good, even in a bad-good kind of way. The biggest surprise is that Clint Howard, usually relegated to two minute cameos, not only has a bona fide role in this film but an outrageously hilarious one.

The premise is neither original nor anything to write home about, being a rehash of a kid who does everything in her powers to attend a concert of a popular band (The Ramones) appearing locally. This one has Riff (Soles) but being thwarted every step of the way by the evil rock hating, straight-laced school principal Togar (Woronov). Riff’s goal is not only to attend the show, but to present the boys with her own punkish music compositions. While she and her friend Kate (Dey Young) manage to get tons of tickets to the show, even doling them out freely to the other kids at school, their own tickets are confiscated by Togar.  While Riff pins her hopes on winning replacement tickets to the show through a radio show contest, Kate, desperate to get a date with a simple minded jock (Vince Van Patten) turns to the entrepreneurial school problem solver (Howard) who has a Tardis dimensioned office in the foggy weed smoke boys room.

While some of the gags contain a mix of the clichés such as constant pranking the geeky freshman, others go overboard and are both innovative and genuinely funny. There’s an exploding mice motif, a Rock-o-Meter and even flying gymnasts to name just a few. Principal Togar even has her own ‘henchmen’ in the guise of two high school monitors that are her eyes, ears and ‘muscle’ when needed. Bartel is the goody-two-shoes teacher who ends up being the turncoat, siding with the kids after acquiring the musical beat. And of course we have the Ramones themselves, Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Marky who actually have a few lines when they aren’t rocking the joint. Even football fans will be delighted by the fact that the school in question is the Vince Lombardi High School and not only use pictures of the famed Green Bay Packers coach, but also make a few of his photographs a running gag.

B-movie stalwart Dick Miller makes an appearance but it’s nothing more than a cameo despite the star credit billing. When the soundtrack is not beating out Ramones tunes we get to enjoy a few other classics by the likes of Chuck Berry, Alice Cooper, The  Velvet Underground, Devo and even Paul McCartney, the last included as an homage given the fact that the Ramones got their name because of Paul. (Too long a story so Google it if you’re curious.)

Speaking of ‘Google’, while I have not seen the sequel Rock ‘n’ Roll High School Forever, a few keyboard clicks on the internet highway quickly led me to the conclusion that the less said, the better.

As a final note before I Gabba-Gabba-Hey outta here, I wanted to note that the fantastic poster art for the film was created by celebrated comic artist William Stout, yet another kudo for the film.

Movie Reviews 552 -Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

April 13, 2023

When a movie begins with a dark suited, one-armed man getting off a train arriving unannounced and unknown to all the inhabitants of a speck-sized small town in the middle of nowhere, you know there’s going to be trouble. Odds would dictate that the very man would be the source of the problems ahead but in Bad Day at Black Rock nothing could be further from the truth.

John J. Macreedy, the man in question (Spencer Tracy), disembarks and is met with immediate hostility when he inquires as to how one can get to a place called Adobe Flats and the whereabouts of a man named Komoko. Suddenly the clearly vacant hotel tries to tell him they are full up and nobody is willing to give him a ride, at least at first. Macreedy finds himself at odds with just about everyone and all fingers point to a man named Smith (Robert Ryan) who seems to have run of the place, even the sheriff (Dean Jagger) reluctant to interfere. 

With Smith’s gang of Hollywood strongmen that include Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin to contend with Macreedy can only count on the hotelier’s sister (Anne Francis) and town mortician /doctor (Walter Brennan) to see him through his quest. But Macreedy’s quest is as big a mystery to viewers as it is to the men opposing him who don’t know why he is there themselves but know that he must be stopped.

The pieces eventually all fall into place but this is as unconventional a mystery as they get. The plot goes into unexpected areas and even once everything is clear there are more surprises. The stakes are high and we know someone (or more) will die but even those end up being unexpected. By the end a promise has been fulfilled and a crime is solved.

I confess that until the last year or so I’d never even heard of this film and yet it came up again and again in various online interactions and feeds, and then again multiple times in my podcast queue. Like Macreedy I felt I had a mission of my own and that was to watch this film. A Bad Day at Black Rock will be a good day for anyone watching it. And this time you heard it from me.

Mr. Mercedes – Stephen King (2014)

April 7, 2023

While many authors divide their writing across multiple genres, for many the secondary outlet tends toward mystery and thrillers. Notably, science fiction authors Frederic Brown, Isaac Asimov, and Leigh Brackett in particular had more than a modicum of success when it came to breaching those categories. When it comes to horror scribes however there seems to be less cross-pollination but I was delighted to learn that Stephen King gave it a stab (pun intended) with Mr. Mercedes.

Mr.Mercedes is in fact the first of a trilogy of books centered on retired detective Bill Hodges. The novel begins with a massacre of innocent victims in line for a job fair when a stolen Mercedes purposely plows them down. Now years later, Hodges who is still haunted by his failure to apprehend the killer finds himself succumbing to the tedium of job withdrawal when he suddenly receives a taunting letter from the killer. 

Reinvigorated, Hodges establishes online contact with the anonymous executioner who seems to be just as interested in tormenting the former cop as the detective is in solving his one gapping career hole. Leveraging the computer savvy of Jerome his handy-man and lawn ‘boy’ Hodges embarks on a trail that will cross paths with the family of the woman whose car was stolen to commit the crime, later guilt driven to suicide. Hodges and his nemesis play a game of cat and mouse, exchanging online messages and taunts, but the perpetrator has bigger, deadlier plans for all of them.

While this is a pure detective story in every sense, the maniacal killer’s action and thoughts do delve into the horrific, if not horror realm. His deviant behavior goes a long way back and goes beyond the urge to do harm to others, even encroaching an incestuous relationship. On the other hand Hodges character remains fixated on crime solving using his vast experience and not being burdened by following laws himself. There is a brief heartwarming, romance interlude but even that aspect is a cooperative one intent on finding the killer.

I can’t say I enjoyed this novel as much as I have enjoyed many other King stories, but it is a solid book to be sure and I think I will pick up the others in the series, Finders Keepers and  End of Watch at some point. This is certainly a different King for those expecting his usual rural Maine settings and the horror/supernatural tinges although there were a few brief references to some of his classics (Christine and It being two). I’d sum this one up as two characters playing mind games for the majority of the plot. A Tête-a-tête with loads of goading and coaxing.

I should point out that the trilogy was also adapted into a TV series although I don’t know how good (or bad) those may be. What I can say is that I was sadly disappointed with the adaptation of 11/22/63 so I will probably stick to the books.

Movie Reviews 551 – Downfall (2004)

March 31, 2023

The remarkable film Downfall is (sadly) more renowned because of an Internet meme than for the dramatic merits of the film itself. The movie documents the last few days of the Third Reich, notably the events that took place in Hitler’s bunker (the Führerbunker ) as allied armies closed in on him and ending the Nazi conquest segment of the second World War. Perhaps a victim of its own success, Bruno Ganz‘s superb portrayal of the bombastic Führer includes one particular tirade (shown below) in which he lashes out at his generals, pointing fingers at all military echelons as the realization sets in that defeat is imminent and the end is nigh. That scene was subsequently adopted as an Internet meme where the subtitles were changed to suggest that Hitler was discussing other, totally unrelated manor and in a comical vein. In a short time the meme had variations which mocked specific technologies, current events and even other memes.

The endless slew of those amusing videos, while funny when taken into context, sadly overshadowed the film itself but at the same time it did have one minor silver lining in that people (myself included) were curious about the source of the video, especially the superb Hitler impersonation, warranting a viewing of the film. I eventually got the Bluray so that I could see it myself, and was thankful that I did.

The script for Downfall (original German title Der Untergang) was cullled from numerous sources including some memoires of those who were there. While the veracity may remain questionable as we cannot verify that the omissions or recollections were changed to avoid some degree of complicity or guilt from those accounts, the main source appears to have been from Hitler’s very own personal secretary, Traudi Junge, someone who needn’t worry of serious reprisal. In fact the film begins and ends with a short snippet of Junge being briefly interviewed. While the film does not concentrate entirely on Traudi (Alexandra Maria Lara) certain scenes do depict what she and the other secretaries experienced.

The core narrative captures the perspectives of many characters present those final days but Hitler takes center stage. Aside from Traudi, others personages include Eva Braun, Joseph Goebbels and his wife, as well as other officers and civilians. These perspectives identify those who wholeheartedly believed in the superiority of the Reich and Hitler’s ever growing disillusioned view of the state of the war, as well as the many who knew the truth and the inevitable fate in store for them. Among the latter were those that accepted their lost cause and put on a brave face while others who tried to make a last minute escape. Interestingly the film depicts a number of individuals not only overtly defying Hitler in those last hours but bringing to light that they defied many other orders in the past, doing so on both humanitarian grounds or simply opposition to futile military tactics.

Even though most of the film is set within the confines of the ‘bunker’ there are a number of scenes set immediately outdoors in the neighboring streets and buildings where street battles were ongoing with advancing Russian forces . In those we find the many children hastily recruited to the war effort and manning the battlements, starkly contrasting to Goebbels’ cherubic children singing patriotic songs to Hitler and the others sheltered in the bunker. Another side story culled from a memoir and used in the film is that of SS doctor Schenck (Christian Berkel) who could have escaped but opts to provide medical aid to the large number of injured and dying in the area, witnessing crude amputations and operations with rustic tools as bombardments pound the facilities.

The greatest takeaway from the film is the stark surrealism of the situation and the dichotomy between acceptance and denial, Eva holding an impromptu party while just a few steps away  deserters, including civilians are being shot.

While there has never been a shortage of war movies this film certainly offers a unique point of view. Everyone watching knows the ending of the story but I found it was mesmerizing to watch, presenting an important lesson that needs to be revisited every so often. Consider it as a warning to the many even today who disregard the signs of how such dictatorships emerge.

Movie Reviews 550 – The Dead Zone (1983)

March 23, 2023

There are some films that I consider as having scored a trifecta of sorts in that the combination of director, writer and star(s) all have a proven (if not perfect) track record and having that pedigree alone makes the movie a ‘must see’, sight unseen. While not a guarantee that the group effort will be a resounding success (De Palma’s take on The Bonfire of the Vanities and Micheal Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate being examples of failed synergies) at least the odds are favorable. In the case of the adaptation of Stephen King‘s The Dead Zone starring Christopher Walken and helmed by David Cronenberg, the ‘ingredients’ manifested in one of those ‘sum is greater than the individual parts’ movies.

Living an idyllic vanilla life indicative of his name, Johnny Smith’s (Walken) life is put on hold after a horrific road accident has him in a coma for a few years. While the physical disabilities and lost time were bad enough the greatest impact is finding out that his beloved Sarah (Brooke Adams) had moved on with her life and married another.

The sting of the accident does not end there though as Johnny discovers that he has acquired the ability to see into the future of people’s lives when making contact with a handshake or grasp. This power, which he discovers is not an inalterable future, can be both a curse and a blessing. While he manages to convince someone to change course that saves the lives of people he is also faced with the prospect of whether he should change the future when faced with a ghastly vision after a tactile encounter with an evil man (Martin Sheen) whose destiny has apocalyptic consequences. He is literally faced with the equivalent question of “If you had the chance to kill Hitler in his youth, would you do it?”

The fact that the aforementioned trio have had such successful careers that this is not one of their very best should not dissuade anyone. It’s a great film which only takes a backseat to veritable masterpieces by comparison.

The film’s production has a few other notable aspects aside from the threesome in question, not the least of which was renowned Debra Hill being hired as producer. Perhaps ironically she was hired by Dino De Laurentiis who acquired the rights to the story after an earlier false start. 

Aside from the novel itself I know that there is a well received TV series to add the Zone creds, but I’m saving watching that for a later day.

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