The Godfather – Mario Puzo (1969)

November 26, 2021

The saga of the Corleone crime Family was a huge hit long before director Francis Ford Coppola brought the story to the big screen and giving us one of the most memorable movies of all time. The Godfather was in fact a best selling novel by Mario Puzo for over a year after being published in 1969, and it was that success that led to the movie adaptation. The novel, like the later film, hit a nerve as it recounts the rise of Don Vito Corleone who arrives in America just before the depression with not much more than the clothes on his back and from that meager beginning goes on to establish one of the biggest crime families in the country.

While many readers will already be familiar with the story as laid out in the film if you have not already watched it I highly recommend that you do at some point as it is a masterpiece on it’s own. As is usually the case when a film is adapted from a novel, there are differences but I must say that the adaptation was remarkably faithful to the main plot, in many cases dialog taken verbatim. This is not that surprising as the screenplay was written by Puzo collaborating with Coppola, but it is also a testament to the greatness of the novel.

Through an act of self-preservation a young Vito executes the local thug in New York city’s Little Italy and suddenly finds that the respect he is shown thereafter accords him with power of his own.He begins to have friends and acquaintances visit him to see if he can solve other ‘problems’ in return for ‘favors’. Extending his small olive oil business into other ‘interests’ he slowly creates an empire of his own, a Family among the other Families in the city.

Exhibiting cunning logic, business savoir faire and even a surprise rigid set of moral boundaries in all his endeavours Vito becomes a highly respected crime lord in an underworld whose arms extend across the country and even other parts of the world. Ruthless when necessary, his reputation hinges on his honour which earns him the respect of friends and foe alike.

The core of the Don’s world is his Family, both in the sense of biological lineage and those who form his business empire, however the two are highly intertwined. The one exception is his youngest son Micheal, a decorated war hero who has made it a point to stay out of the family business, a decision supported by the Don who has noble aspirations for Micheal to someday become a reputable doctor, lawyer or even politician. 

When a young and ambitious mobster tries to have the Families of New York engage in the lucrative and burgeoning narcotics market, Don Vito objects, resulting in him being ambushed and shot. With the Don out of commision the reigns of the Corleone clan and the need to avenge the attempted assassination falls to Vito’s eldest boy Sonny and the Families’ consigliere Tom Hagen. The only way to get close to their target however is to engage Micheal who is deemed a safe liaison given his clean image and non-involvement in any illegal activity. Sent as emissary to a reconciliation meeting, Micheal takes care of the matter, but also igniting a gang war that will have far reaching effects including having him hide in Sicily near the hometown of his father. The need to shelter Michael also has him abruptly cut off communication with his longtime girlfriend Kay.

Once the dust has settled, thanks to Don Vito himself who has managed to end the war, Michael is able to return to New York. The ‘new’ Michael is suddenly thrust into his true calling as the successor head of the Corleone Family. With his control firmly established, Michael sets the course for an even greater vision for the family. There are debts to settle, new ventures, unfinished business and a rekindled relationship with Kay.

As I mentioned, most of what is in the film is here in the novel and there are no omissions or disparities of note although there are some small changes. What the novel does bring are entire sequences that have been left out of the film, understandably so in my opinion. The small role of teen idol singer Johnny Fontane is vastly expanded here with not only his career, but his wife and best friend Nino Valenti who is also enamored by the Don. Another character is Lucy Mancini, maid of honour of the Don’s daughter Connie and Sonny’s mistress who eventually settles in Las Vegas where third son Fredo has been shuffled to. Lucy even strikes up a relationship with a doctor serving Fredo’s Casinos and that doctor later ties in with the Fontane-Valenti story arc. The role of Luca Brasi, a minor character in the film is expanded here not so much as an active character but one whose savage reputation is brought up in discussions a number of times. Lastly there is a short but fascinating segment of the novel dealing with the Bocchicchio family, who are not really underworld active participants but whose roles are solely confined to being willing ‘hostages’ employed as negotiators with warring families. 

Despite being well acquainted with the film to say the least, I did not find reading the familiar passages boring in any way. On the contrary, I found that peering into the mindset of the characters such as the thought process behind the climactic massacre was especially riveting. 

A highly recommended read for both those who have seen the film, or to the inexcusable few that have not. This is not an offer that can’t be refused, but one that shouldn’t be.

Movie Reviews 498 – The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)

November 19, 2021

You won’t find it in any official dictionary as the legitimacy of the malady is disputed, however Wikipedia cites this definition for Stendhal syndrome thus:

Stendhal syndrome, Stendhal's syndrome or Florence syndrome is a psychosomatic condition involving rapid heartbeat, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations, allegedly occurring when individuals become exposed to objects, artworks, or phenomena of great beauty and antiquity.

Given the art centric core of the disorder Dario Argento was ideally suited to direct The Stendhal Syndrome having injected many of the finer arts in previous films. Infusing art galleries as a backdrop in his very first film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, he later went on to include music as a theme in Profondo Rosso, and most notably ballet in his masterpiece Suspiria. Known for exploiting vibrant colours the giallo director dared to break new ground for The Stendhal Syndrome in more than one manner. On the positive side was authorizing special effects specialist Sergio Stivaletti to use CGI, then still a rarity, to many of the scenes, especially those related to actual artwork within the film. On the more controversial side of things, Dario dared to direct his own daughter and star Asia Argento, in not one but two rape scenes.

Asia plays Anna Manni, a young woman who succumbs to the art around her in a Venice museum, waking up not even knowing who she is. After a bit of time and a few clues she comes to the realization that she is in fact a cop on the trail of a serial killer, but one that she encountered in real life and now terrorizes her in her dreams, and after she begins tracking him, in life as well. A psychiatrist diagnoses her affliction as Stendhal Syndrome but the effects go way beyond her fainting spells. Whether it is the case itself or the impact of being exposed to art, Anna undergoes an array of changes that includes adoption of an androgynous look, self mutilation and other sudden characteristic traits. 

The film is rife with all forms of art from classical renaissance to surrealism pieces, some which play a part of the story like a Rembrandt that turns into a portal to other classical oeuvres such as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Carravaggio’s Medusa momentarily glimpsed. Speaking of maestros, Ennio Morricone scored the film however I must admit that in that regard the resulting accompaniment did not hit the same high mark as the visual arts.

While this giallo is partly a whodunit and chase mystery, the fantasy and horror aspects that take precedence and bestow the real charm of the film. I suspected the truth of the reveal that comes at the end early on there but there are a few red herrings and interesting characters that managed to keep me slightly doubtful and intrigued. 

While this film has been reissued and given the royal treatment with deluxe editions over the years, my DVD was issued by the legendary low budget Troma films. This odd pairing came about by Argento’s frustration of having his films reprehensibly edited by some of the big name production companies and distributors. This edition does include a few interviews with Argento, one by Troma’s own Lloyd Kaufman, and those very interviews make note of Argento’s disdain for interference and unsolicited editing.

Movie Reviews 497 – The Snake Pit (1948)

November 12, 2021

One could be forgiven in assuming that The Snake Pit is a horror movie given the forlorn reptilian title. While not really a horror film per se, there are certainly horrific circumstances depicted in this story of one woman’s psychological trauma that lands her in an insane asylum. There have in fact been a number of horror films in which the unsavoury aspects of institutionalization in sanatoriums have been addressed. In fact a mere two years before this release Val Lewton’s 1946 production of Bedlam starring Boris Karloff had audiences experiencing living within barred walls. But those films tended to supplement the drama by committing victims against their will by unscrupulous family members, evil physicians or administrators, and more often than not they were just as sane as your or I.

The film begins with Virginia (Olivia de Havilland) thinking rather odd thoughts as she sits on an outdoor bench in a park-like setting. Something is clearly amiss and as she tries to sort it out she and all those around her, all women, are rounded up to enter a building. A reporter by trade, she immediately concludes that she is entering a prison undercover to research a story she is working on. She is of course in a mental institution and living out a fantasy of sorts, making adjustments such as believing one of the doctors is the warden. While some faces are familiar she does not recognize her own husband Mark (Robert Cunningham) who has come for a visit.

From there the film becomes one big flashback retracing how Virginia, seemingly mentally distressed her entire life, came to meet and marry Mark, but whose continued delusions and an episode in which five months are suddenly wiped from her memory had her ultimately committed. As her sanity fluctuates between lucid moments and utter delusion she makes inroads towards normality only to have setbacks. Aside from her husband is one especially caring doctor (Leo Genn) who persists in getting to the bottom of her psychosis, hoping to cure her once and for all.

The film is largely told from Virginia’s point of view which not only allows us to live through her experience but also obscures the reason for her rambling mind, keeping that as a mystery to be solved. There are some hints such as her fixation on lighting other people’s cigarettes with one particular lighter having significance, and an incident as a child involving a doll. Other flashbacks reveal a dysfunctional family growing up, and being somewhat neglected by her parents (fans of Gilligan’s Island will instantly recognize Virginia’s mother as Nathalie Schafer who played Mrs. Howell on the show.) Adding to the plot and mystery is Virginia’s one sided romantic infatuation with her doctor.

The fascination with the film is of course cemented in Virginia’s treatment and the inner operation of such asylums. Virginia is subjected to now archaic therapy methods including electro shock treatments and to a degree the use hypnotism. There are also little things such a ward numbering being proportional to the degree of psychosis and how probable a patient is to being cured and released which is used to portray the contrasting treatment and conditions as Virginia herself is shuffled up and down the ward scale. As factual treatment and conditions at the time, being in ward 33, the worst, her conditions are barbaric to say the least. While the evidence is a bit sketchy the film, very popular upon release, is reputed to have had an impact on the medical establishment and resulted in changes to psychiatric institutions and treatment.

As a film that can be enjoyed as a mystery, or one purely to be viewed for the glimpse of institutionalization, I should add that the movie is not entirely glum and in fact contains a few light comedy sequences that I don’t want to spoil here. I’d go so far as to call it a Noir classic without the usual perils of guns and dark characters. The darkness here is purely neglected and misunderstanding of mental illness but that can be just as dark as a weapon being pointed.

Model Build: Wolfman’s Wagon

November 3, 2021

While I was keenly aware of all the classic Aurora monster model kits as a kid, I did not realize until much later that Aurora also produced a number of wacky vehicle kits featuring some of those same monsters. In all, there were six monster vehicle kits; the Frankenstein Flivver, the Godzilla Go Cart, Dracula’s Dragster. King Kong’s Thronester, the Mummy’s Chariot and last but not least, Wolfman’s Wagon. Thankfully the popularity of these and the fact that the molds have survived was enough to have Polar Lights issue re-pops a number of years ago. Better yet, I found a local seller that had five of them (all but Godzilla) and so I managed to get my hands on them for a reasonable price.

As luck would have it I came across a number of builders who have recently tackled the Wolfman Wagon and like that in the Model Car Minion channel documented their build on Youtube so I decided to start with this one myself.

For a paint scheme I opted for a green car as I made the motor block red and wanted it to stand out, foregoing the suggested red car chassis as per the box art. The car, silver parts and skin tone on the wolfman body were all airbrushed while the rest was hand painted in a variety of acrylics (some cheap dollar store and some tubes). The plastic in this kit seemed to reject glueing with my standard Tamiya Ultra Thin so I was forced to use CA glue.

Looking at the parts and fittings the first obvious area of concern was a severe droop in one half of the vehicle chassis that I would have to fix. I was able to get most of the droop out of the part cautiously using a heat gun, but it took multiple tries. While I was successful, I suspect this deformity and my remedy did lead to another problem later on, namely getting the motor to fit in position. The motor is supposed to slide and ‘clip’ over a partial floor that is part of the chassis, but at the same time the large air intake must fit between the front window opening. Even after sanding the elevated sprue on the floor and the edges of the gap in the motor base which cover the raised floor I had a lot of trouble before it would snap in. Although I thought my fix to the droop parts ended up being fairly straight and horizontal, perhaps raising the top a bit higher and lowering the floor a bit more would have helped. The only other fitting issue was a gaping foot seam, but putty easily took care of that.

Droopy chassis
Gaping foot

While the build was relatively straightforward I do like to include a few mods and alterations although with the high degree of zaniness already in the design I was fairly limited. The main mod I wanted to make (and which was suggested by the Model Minion’s build) was a much larger billiard ‘8 ball’ gear shift knob. The original model knob is woefully too small to fit into Wolfie’s open right palm so I wanted a replacement that would look like a natural fit. Unfortunately, scrambling through my stock of odds & ends, parts bins, and scouring the household for an appropriately sized ball I couldn’t find anything suitable. The only option I had was to make my own which I did by shaping a crude papier-mâché ball and then using Bondo filler to sculpt it into a sphere. This was a lot harderthan it seems and took many repetitive fill and sand iterations before I got a decent but still far from perfect sphere, but in the end the new 1.5 cm diameter ball was a near perfect fit for the hand. I was able to use a number 8 spare decal from my recent Francis Foul Weird-oh model in which I opted to create an entirely different backboard thus saving all the decals there.

With no decals provided in the kit I added my own “Aurora” logo license plate. Just a colour laser printed sheet that I carefully measured out in InkScape and then stuck on with some Mod Podge.

I wasn’t too keen on the face mold as it had this odd skewed left eye that was also noticeably larger than the right eye. I resisted the temptation to try to resculpt it and just went ahead with the painting hoping that it would not look as bad once done. In the end it was not as prominent as I feared.

Before priming and painting I pre-glued the entire upper body and hands to the pants and feet, so essentially the entire figure. It would have been nice to keep the torso separate from the pants as it would have made painting easier, but unfortunately the upper pants are part of the torso and I like to putty up all seams prior to painting, but it wasn’t as hard to paint afterwards.I liked the fact that the kit comes with five rats and painted them various shades of brown and one black. My only regret was that I did not make at least one of them gray.

A nice fun kit. Looking forward to getting on with the others in the set before too long. And with a bit of luck finding that elusive Godzilla Go Kart to have a complete set.

Movie Reviews 496 – Uptown Saturday Night (1974)

October 29, 2021

For most of Hollywood history African Americans were relegated to minor token and cliché characters: the butlers, the maids, and the downtrodden. Not until the sixties did productions begin to give their stories along with a few black actors a fair shake. By the end of the decade Sidney Poitier not only broke barriers but stood at the forefront as one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars. The newfound box office potential lay the foundations for the era of blaxploitation films that followed the blockbuster release of Shaft, movies that featured all black casts but mostly focused on seedy ghettos and grim violence. Some such as Cleopatra Jones, and Coffy brought the girls into the spotlight, but the storylines and settings were pretty much the same. 

As blaxploitation began to wane in popularity by the mid-seventies there was a surprising last gasp at creating a more family friendly and favourable view of African American family life, work and ethics. Not surprisingly these films, beginning with Uptown Saturday Night, came at the hands of Poitier who directed the film and his then equally irreproachable good friend Bill Cosby. Vilified today for the shocking revelation and conviction on dozens of drugged rapes, Cosby at that time nurtured a squeaky clean image that began with his Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids

Saturday morning cartoon espousing moral values before peaking with creation of The Cosby Show, depicting a sugar coated, idyllic black family.

Happily married working class stiffs Steve Jackson (Poitier), an ironworker, and his cabby buddy Wardell (Cosby) decide to leave their wives behind one night to sneak out of the house and treat themselves to a visit to Madame Zenobia’s, the trendiest club in town. In order to get into the swanky high class establishment, Wardell creates a fake letter establishing the men as operators in the diamond business. The ruse works and soon the men are eye gazing and mingling with the snazzy dressed crowd. Madame Zenobia herself (Lee Chamberlin) welcomes the men and teases them with an invitation to enter the room behind a red door for even more surprising delights. Behind the door the boys find a room full of gambling tables and are urged to partake in the activities or leave. Between the two they have just enough money to get in on some action in a game or craps and ride a winning streak. Unfortunately before they can make off with the night’s winnings the establishment is held up at gunpoint by masked men who take the money, jewelry and everyone’s wallets. 

Initially taking his lousy luck in stride, it isn’t until the next day that Steve realizes the real impact of the robbery. That shock comes as he reads out the winning numbers for fifty-thousand dollars in the local lottery, numbers that he plays regularly and for which he has the winning ticket, or at least had as it was in his ill fated stolen wallet. The men decide to pursue the perpetrators to get the ticket back, but unable to even report the crime to authorities they soon find that they have to go about the matter alone and do whatever it takes.

Their pursuit does indeed take them to strange places. A scam artist posing as a private detective (Richard Pryor), the office of their local congressman (Roscoe Lee Browne), and a number of local bars where they interact with sleazy characters like Geechie Dan (Harry Belafonte), Silky Slim (Calvin Lockhart) and Little Seymour (Harold Nicholas). Finding themselves embroiled in a turf war Steve and Wardell concoct a story that promises the feuding gang leaders a fortune in diamonds based on the fraudulent letter, all while simply trying to get their hands on the seemingly innocuous wallet.

The all star cast is a veritable who’s who of African American entertainers of the era and even some from days of yore such Nicholas of the famed dancing Nicholas Brothers. Even Flip Wilson makes a cameo as a preacher whose congregation becomes unwitting cooperators in the duo’s plans. I have to admit Cosby really steals the show and reputedly (from the interview with the writer in the extra features on my DVD) a lot of his dialogue was improvised. While some of the slapstick is a bit outdated, the retro 70s chic, and funky styles really brought back memories as I had watched this the summer it was released.

While not really a series director Poitier made two other films teaming himself with Cosby and while they do technically play different characters the three films are often considered collectively. My DVD is the dual DVD set that features both Uptown Saturday Night and 1977’s A Piece of the Action, oddly the third and last one made. Sadly missing from my collection is the second installment, Let’s Do it Again from 1975, but I do hope to ‘do it again’ myself and see that one soon.

Movie Reviews 495 – The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)

October 22, 2021

Not to be confused with some European survivalist travelogue, The Cars That Ate Paris is actually the first film by noted director Peter Weir from down under and has at least one kangaroo scene to prove it. But it wasn’t the promise of seeing wild wallabies that made me seek out this film.

I was already a huge fan of science fiction literature and movies long before Star Wars came along and vaulted the genre to mainstream. Aside from the bevy of knock off movies that quickly followed there was a similar burst of non-prose science fiction books in stores. While my library shelves already had a number of books related to science fiction and horror movies I could never resist picking up new (or old) ones that came my way. One such new book was the generically titled Sci-Fi Now by Alan Frank. Focusing specifically on the previous decade (1968-1978 given the publication date), it included the expected array of now classic science fiction productions within the respective time period. Also among the pages I was surprised to learn of many others released in the preceding decade that were completely new and intriguing to me. Titles such as The Bed Sitting Room, THX-1138, No Blade of Grass, Solaris and The Final Programme were curiosities that I added to my list of films to keep an eye out for and which I have mostly caught up on since. But one of the most puzzling new titles was The Cars That Ate Paris accompanied by an image of a spiked Volkswagen Beetle that was a cross of something you would find in Death Race 2000 or Mad Max. As eye-catching as that single image was and which I later found in other such books, the movie itself proved to be much more elusive, and only this past week I was able to finally give these cars a test drive. 

Perhaps not so shocking is the fact that the imagery for the movie was a bit misleading and the cars do not ‘eat Paris’ in any of the filmed segments. It should also be noted that the Paris in question is not the ‘gay Paree’ French capital that first comes to mind. It isn’t even Paris, Texas the Dallas suburb (and coincidentally another movie entirely). You have to go down a bit lower on the list of other Paris’ for the right one. Down under that is. Remember what I said about that kangaroo scene?

This movie falls within the group of stories in which something odd is happening in a small isolated town that all the locals aim to keep a secret from the rest of the world. When Arthur (Terry Camilleri) has the misfortune of being in a car accident near the town, he is at first devastated to learn that his brother has died. Psychologically scarred and unable to drive after being responsible for the death of another in a car accident long ago, he accepts the mayor’s offer to stay in rural Paris and is even offered the job of doctor’s assistant.

While most of the townsfolk are kind and go out of their way to make Arthur feel welcome, there are a few oddities that he notices. To begin with there seems to be a disproportionately high number of patients in a veggitative state at the hospital, ‘veggies’ as they are called. When Arthur refuses to return to work at the hospital the town council quickly decides to honour him with the status of town Parking supervisor. That suddenly puts him into conflict with the gang of belligerent youths who not only scoff at parking regulations but drive heavily modified car mashup contraptions. And then there are the inordinate amount of accidents that seem to only happen to out of town visitors. Accidents that make most of the town people salivate.

Paris’ dirty little secret is that they ‘facilitate’ vehicle accidents and then pick their victims clean of parts to be sold for a tidy profit. If they should be so unlucky as to have survivors the doctor takes care of them with an unorthodox (but highly effective) surgical implement: the business end of handheld drill.

The Cars That Ate Paris (also released as “The Cars That Eat People” and even simply “Cars”) is a fun little movie although it does slip gears from time to time. While it does deliver on the promised mechanical monstrosities in a few cool derby-like chases and crashes headlining the ‘spiky’ Volks as the star attraction, those really only show up for the grand finale when everything breaks loose. Arthur is a sympathetic character but aside from the villainous mayor most of the other characters, and a lot of the logic ‘driving’ the narrative, are as flat as a punctured tire. So in all fairness instead of giving a definitive recommendation I’ll just advise you to ride this one out yourselves and decide on your own.

Lemons Never Lie – Richard Stark (1971)

October 15, 2021

I have to confess that I’d never heard of author Richard Stark (nom de plume of Donald Westlake) or this particular novel, Lemons Never Lie, before acquiring it. The two things that appealed to me was the fact that the cover art implied it was going to be a very ‘Noirish’ tale and that this was from the ‘Hard Case Crime’ series of books from which I’ve greatly enjoyed three Stephen King efforts in that genre. Hard to go wrong, right? Well, there are a few things you should know about the book before jumping to some conclusions as I did.

Whie Stark seems to have been a very prolific author best known for a series of two dozen crime novels featuring a character simply called ‘Parker’ this novel is in fact from a separate spinoff series from the Parker stories. While it is a crime story per se, it is not a mystery in the least. Crimes are perpetrated, mostly heists, but the focus is not on planning, executing and getting away with particular jobs.

Alan Grofield is a savvy part-time pro con man whose only concern is earning enough dough to hold the next season of plays with his wife at his converted barn theater. His luck varies from job to job but it is his refusal to join a caper planned by Andy Myers, a daring but reckless amateur that leads to trouble. Alan and a fellow conman Dan Leach turn their backs on Andy’s offer to hold up a brewery for their payroll, and Andy takes it personally. As luck would have it (‘luck’ or the lack thereof being a repetitive theme throughout the novel) the men are in Vegas and Dan comes into a small fortune at the casino tables right after the testy meeting with Andy. Unfortunately Andy and one of his goons, already resentful at the men for bailing on their proposed escapade, roll the men for the money, being sure to deliver a few lumps along the way. This begins an ever escalating tit-for-tat hunt between Dan and Andy which Dan eventually loses at the cost of his life. Partially as a matter of self preservation and partly upholding a code of honor, Alan knows that the game won’t end until he gets Andy, but for that to happen, Alan will have to have a plan of his own.

Grofield is an interesting character to say the least but the lackluster plot never really achieves suspense. Playing out as a cat and mouse game with alternating chaser/chasee roles for Alan and Andy, each is out for revenge at one point or another. Pitting polar opposite demeanours, Alan being methodical and precise against the imprudent and knee-jerk reacting Andy, is entertaining, but only to a point. The story also fails to deliver on any truly witty maneuvering on the part of Alan, his moves owing as much to coincidence and happenstance. In the end, while I managed to plow through the novel enjoying some of the drama, this was not the page turner or clever intrigue story I hoped it would be.

I was hoping for a bit more not only from the book itself but as an assessment for the entire line of Hard Case books as a whole. While I loved the Stephen King novels (The Colorado Kid, Joyland, and most recently, Later) what I wanted to know was how the other books in the series fared in anticipation of reading more from this genre. I was particularly interested in this Hard Case book as, unlike the King ones, this is a reprint of a much older novel. I had hoped some long lost ‘gem’ was being given a second chance but from my assessment here and other reviews this is hardly one of the better books from this author. So based on this one, the jury is still out.

Perusing other Hard Case titles out there I now see there is quite an eclectic mix of old and new titles, some from acclaimed authors and others that have yet to make their mark. I will probably give a few more books a read in the future but I’m not as optimistic as I was before reading this one. Interestingly I see that there are now Hard Case titles being published as monthly comics from Titan publishing. I may get some of those as well but only if they are eventually released as complete stories in graphic novel format.

Movie Reviews 494 – Near Dark (1987)

October 8, 2021

The year 1987 was a great year for vampire movies, The Lost Boys being the cream of the crop when it came to bedtime blood suckers. For the longest time I’ve heard quite a lot of praise being lavished on Near Dark, another vampire flick that year which was directed by Kathryn Bigelow who until recently was the only woman to win the academy award for best director (for The Hurt Locker) but better known to genre fans for films such as Strange Days.

Despite the rumbling cheers I could never seem to get my hands on a DVD and when I finally did, Anchor Bay’s 2 disc deluxe box, it was a region 2 PAL format which I could not play on any of my media players. Only recently being able to hook myself up with a compatible player I was finally able to sink my fangs into the film to see how it fares. I was not disappointed.

Taking an outdoor breather at a bar late one evening, farmboy Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) notices Mae (Jenny Wright) and offers her a ride home. Taking a detour to show her his prized horse he fails to notice her comments that the light from a faraway star will take thousands of years before it arrives here but that she will ‘be here when it arrives’, but he is surprised to see the horse go into a frenzy when near her. The amorous evening ends with an inexplicable race to get her home before dawn, but not before a kiss that includes a bite to the neck.

As dawn arrives we find Caleb staggering back home, dragging himself through the crops, slowly beginning to feel the effects of the sun’s rays on his now vampiric constitution. As his worried father (Tim Thomerson) and sister look on, a bedraggled RV careens across the field and scoops him up. Inside a confused Caleb finds Mae and her disheveled coven ‘family’. It takes a while to understand that he is now a vampire and somewhat adopted within a group that is constantly on the run. But some of his new found clan aren’t sure of his worthiness.

The patriarchal leader Jesse (Lance Henriksen) is particularly hesitant and insistent that Caleb prove himself while wild Severen (Bill Paxton) enjoys taunting their new member. The group is rounded out by Jesse’s better half, the milfy punkish ‘mother’ figure (Jenette Goldstein) and Homer (Joshua John Miller) a multi-centenarian stuck in the body of a young boy. For Caleb to remain with the clan he has to ‘hunt’ his own victims, something he is hesitant to do. After a particularly bloody siege, one in which Caleb proved to be the surprising savior, the group find refuge in a hotel. Unfortunately it happens to be the same one as Caleb’s father and sister are staying as they continue the search for him.

With an eerily similar plot to The Lost Boys, comparisons are inevitable. While not as visually tantalizing there are more than enough chases, brawls and carnage for horror fans to enjoy. Hendricksen sporting a deep scarred face is absolutely haunting delivering a crazed performance that contrasts with his more usual sombre roles. Paxton’s over the top bad boy persona is always an inch away from riling someone, whether it be Caleb or mortals. The entire ‘family’ relishes their nightly blood hunts, having fun toying their victims first. Even the cosmic music score by Tangerine Dream is comparable, if not quite equally memorable, to that of the ‘Boys’.

I’m not going to say that the film is better than The Lost Boys, which clearly remains superior in my mind. But I can’t help thinking that Near Dark unfairly suffers due recognition because of the unfortunate coincidental plot and release date. It stands on its own and is well worth a watch.

Movie Reviews 493 – 12 Angry Men (1957)

October 1, 2021

Courtroom dramas have always been a staple of cinema but 12 Angry Men is a classic film that unfolds exclusively in the backroom as a jury deliberates the testimony of a trial. At stake is the fate of a young man accused of murder. 

The facts as presented in the trial paint a picture of an open and shut case with all the purported evidence pointing a guilty finger at the 18 year old accused. The young man has a few blemishes on his record, there is a witness that saw him fleeing the scene and most significant of all is one witness who claims to have seen the the actual act of murder. The accused does not have a solid alibi, initially not even being able to recall details of the movie he claims to have seen alone at a cinema at the time the murder took place. And then there is the murder weapon, a knife that the accused admits to have had a similar looking one but which he lost at some point.

With these bleak facts and testimony before them a dozen random men from all walks of life convene in a dank meeting room after sitting through the trial. Almost as soon as a jury foreman is selected a request to have a verdict vote is called for, so confident are some that they will be able to end discussion before it begins. But when that vote is taken one lone juror, juror number 8 (Henry Fonda), surprises them all with a “Not guilty” vote, shocking most of his fellow jurors. Building his argument on minor inconsistencies at first, he begins to sow the seeds of doubt in his fellow jurors.

While Fonda is pivotal to the ensuing debate on the ‘facts’ of the case, it is his motley peers that succumb to his arguments like pins being bowled over. Soon those who’ve sided with him are bringing up assertions of their own. But can they convince the enraged determination of juror number 3 (Lee J. Cobb) who can’t understand his wavering associates, much less acknowledge the possible innocence of the suspect.

Direct by Sidney Lumet the ensemble of jurors represent a multitude of social classes, demeanors, intellects, ages and backgrounds and acted superbly but some of the finest ‘character’ actors of the time including, Ed Begley, Martin Balsam, Jack Warden, Jack Klugman, John Fiedler, and E. G. Marshall. Often referred to by their assigned numbers rather than their names, they are like watching the pieces of a chess match, each being played by bringing their respective perspectives into the game. While ‘facts’ are debated on the surface, bigotry, poverty, patriotism, ageism, ignorance, and indifference are all just as much under consideration.

Filmed entirely in one room from beginning to end, the scope is larger than what it appears to be. The film presents both an acclamation and a condemnation of the justice system. Justice prevails but only because one juror was willing to question and put up resistance to the mob mentality before him. A sometimes chilling, sometimes heart wrenching example of one man making a difference.

Movie Reviews 492 – Comic Book Villains (2002)

September 24, 2021

I love comics just as much as I love movies so it would only be natural for me to have a special fondness for films that are comic related. By that I don’t mean the current trend of lavish, CGI overloaded glittering Marvel or DC superheroes (which honestly I have less and less interest in) but rather those that deal with comics as subject matter or in which comics are a backdrop. 

The low budget comedy Comic Book Villains falls right into that category and hits a number of comic chords as it deals with the fanaticism of collectors and the sometimes insanely obsessive spell that they and dealers fall under. Much like an old comic that may be tattered and ragged around the edges with rusty staples, the contents are what matter and to be appreciated for what they are, which is the case for the film.

When a customer of a comic store slyly lets it be known that a longtime, older comic collector in town recently passed away, it piques the interest of shop owner Raymond (Donal Logue). While hesitant that there may really be anything of value, he cannot pass up on the possibility. Initially rebuffed by the mother of the deceased who now hoards the comics as a reminder of her lost son, she caves in and allows him a few brief minutes to view the material. What Ray discovers is that the collection is the mother lode of pristine, golden age vintage comics and worth a fortune. Monetary reasons aside, the mere fact that he can be associated with such a find is topmost in his mind. Without a penny to his name to even make an offer and a crumbling comic shop to add to his woes, Ray begins scheming to get his hands on the treasure. 

Across town, rival comic shop owner Norman (Michael Rapaport) also hears of the collection. While he has some resources at his disposal his problem is convincing wife Judy (Natasha Lyonne) to invest in the find. He manages to convince her by giving her a copy of the annual Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide – the ‘bible’ of sorts when it comes to such matters – which she peruses as bedtime reading. Before the night is over dollar signs are floating in her dreams and she joins her husband on his quest to acquire the trove.

Standing in the middle of all this is Mrs. Cresswell (Eileen Brennan), the bereaved mother who has no intention of selling the “Funny Books” to anyone. While Ray, Norman and Judy try to win over Cresswell by helping her out with errands, favours and friendly chit-chat, it is young Archie (DJ Qualls), one of Ray’s friends, with whom she strikes a bond as they discuss life and a surprising shared interest in Spain.

As the war between the comic shop owners escalates, Cresswell’s continued refusal to part with the comics leads to Ray taking drastic action and enlisting the services of small-time hood and former high-school nemesis Carter (Cary Elwes) to steal the stash. Carter however is no comic neophyte himself and has plans of his own.

This film has bits that will please everyone. The comic aficionados will appreciate the geek  banter relating to legendary creators, titles, character origins and even some of the revered historic collections that have been unearthed in the past. The comical (as in funny) aspects are served up nicely by the juxtaposition of the exaggerated stereotypical greasy haired Ray and Norman and his wife who are in it for the money, also all too common albeit arguably a necessary evil of the industry. Those not interested in comics will enjoy the underlying poignant story that is actually a damnation of comic collecting, one of two of the surprises we find as the film ends. 

A laudable “stop and smell the roses” moral tale hidden within the multi-layered back stabbing nature that is the world of comics. (Rated 8.4 for those CGC comic rating obsessed!)

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