Category Archives: Movies

Across 110th Street (1972) A (Very) Belated Review

The history of cinema is littered with films that have done extremely well and in time been forgotten. Or, conversely, did poorly upon their initial release only to be re-evaluated over time and are now considered classics. There’s a swath that did mediocre/poor business and are justifiably -or not- forgotten today, just as there are those that were smashes upon their initial release and are viewed as classics to this day.

Then there are those films that are by and large forgotten today but deserve to be remembered.

Having just seen Across 110th Street, the 1972 feature starring Anthony Quinn, Yaphet Kotto, and Anthony Franciosa, I feel this is a film that deserves to be re-discovered by audiences today.

Here’s the movie’s trailer:

Way back in the stone age of the later half of the 1970’s, my family had a (gasp) betamax machine. Don’t remember the old betamax tapes? Here you go…

Wait, Why Was Sony Still Creating New Betamax Tapes? - CINEMABLEND

These tapes were smaller than VHS tapes, which came a little later, and were a video technology that VHS supplanted.

But in those days and while we were living in South America, families that hailed from the U.S. and were living there would trade betamax tapes among each other. These families would tape TV shows or movies or whatever they could find and bring them to South America and, over time, we’d get a hold of copies of copies (or original copies!). It was a way to entertain ourselves and see things that were in English versus the television shows/channels there which were all in Spanish.

Back then I very distinctly recall we had a copy of Across 110th Street but I never bothered (for whatever reason) to see the film.

So when it showed up on TCM and with memories of having -but not watching the film- waaaaaaay back then in my mind, I decided to record it (using the newfangled betamax of today, the DVR!) and, a couple of days ago, sat down and watched it.

Wow.

First though: I’m kinda glad I didn’t see the film way back when I originally could have, assuming the copy we had was the uncut/theatrical version of the film. I suspect it was, but its also possible it was recorded off TV and might have been a cut up version of the film. Having said that, considering much of what happens in the film, I can’t even begin to imagine a “TV” version of Across 110th Street.

For this film is very much an adult feature, a movie that takes a cold eye on Harlem of the early 1970’s and of the mob and crime and police corruption and decaying neighborhoods and hopeless (often African American) citizens… and presents it all in an unflinching -though at times pulpy- manner.

It is the pulp elements that keep the movie from being, say, another French Connection but I’d argue the film is damn near that work and -this is high praise indeed!- some of the earlier works of Martin Scorcese.

The movie’s plot goes like this: A small group of Italian mobsters get together with some African American hoods to count out their take for the past week or perhaps month.

While counting the dough, a car parks beside the building they’re in and two African Americans in police uniforms exit the vehicle while the wheelman remains in the car, waiting.

These bogus officers barge into the room where the money is counted intent on robbing. There is a nervous energy and you can tell things are about to go to hell… all that’s needed is a spark.

Then it happens. The suitcase full of money falls to the floor and one of the African American hoods reaches for his pistol. He, along with all the other hoods/mobsters in the room are machine gunned down and our two thieves beat it out of there with most of the money.

When they reach their escape vehicle, they are confronted by two real police officers, both of which they kill as well before making their getaway.

What follows are three stories: The police and their search for the murderous thieves in the form of the young and idealistic Lt. Pope (Yaphet Kotto) and the man he is about to supplant, the veteran, racist, and at times violent -yet paradoxically at times very tender- Captain Matelli (Anthony Quinn).

On the other side you have both the Italian and African American Mob under the cruel overview of Nick D’Salvio (Anthony Franciosa) also searching for the murderers/thieves.

Then you have the murderers/thieves themselves, who are, incredibly enough, presented as three dimensional people whose despair is palpable even if the methods they use to try to rise up from their lowly status are not.

Across 110th Street manages to present almost all the major characters well. We understand Lt. Pope’s indignation with Captain Matelli yet also understand Matelli’s impatience with Pope’s idealism. We wonder if maybe when Matelli first joined the force he was not unlike Pope but a lifetime of service in these means streets made him the hardened man he is. But, as I mentioned, he’s not all sharp edges: In an early scene we see Matelli vouch for what are clearly a transvestite’s boyfriend and later on he gives, from his own pocket, money to the wife of one of the thieves, even as we learn he takes kickbacks and is not below beating suspects to get confessions.

Nick D’ Salvio is also a curious character. He’s a younger mobster, one that we infer is not considered among the elites and is put in charge of getting the stolen money back and make sure those responsible pay dearly for daring to rob from the mob. In his first appearance, he looks nervous and unsure and, later on, appears to overcompensate in trying to look like a fearsome mobster/enforcer. However, when he first meets the Harlem mob, they all but laugh in his face.

Then there are the criminals themselves. Their boss, at first presented as a stone cold killer, is revealed to be a man who is desperately poor and is cursed with thinking about where he and his girlfriend’s life is going. In one particularly poignant scene, where he justifies his cruel actions, he tells her that she has to frequent the bars where she works dealing with propositions. One day, he tells her, they may be so desperate for money that she’ll have to accept those propositions and effectively sleep for money.

Across 110th Street is violent and foul mouthed and shows us a dog-eat-dog world where no one is an angel and where the mob and the murdering thieves and the police are all tarnished by their environment and the city.

The movie’s title refers to the point where Harlem begins, the “other side of the tracks” so to speak, and the place they are imprisoned in their own way.

The film moves like lightning and there is virtually no fat to be found, though there does seem to be at least one sequence that was cut. We go from the mob finding the first of the thieves/murderers, beating him, then taking him away to Pope and Matelli in a screaming ambulance headed to the hospital with the severely injured man, who is on the verge of death, trying to get him to tell them who were the others in on the theft and murder.

It’s a weird, abrupt cut and I wonder if maybe they filmed the police finding the man and getting the ambulance to take him but the whole thing might have been too bloody in the end to use.

Regardless, Across 110th Street builds as it goes along, the tension increasing as we get to know the characters and feel sympathy for some and growing anger towards others, culminating in a climax involving all three factions along with more violence and death.

If you haven’t seen it, Across 110th Street is very much worth your while, a top notch crime drama that fits in well with some of the better New York-centric crime dramas of that era.

Highly recommended.

Toxic Fandom: Justice League, Star Wars, etc. etc. …

So yesterday I posted about the news, released several days ago, that Warner Brothers decided to allow director Zack Snyder the opportunity to complete his version of Justice League for release next year on HBOMax, the new streaming service which I can all but guarantee you will see a big bump in clientele thanks to this news.

In the end, folks, its about money, and releasing the so-called Snyder Cut of Justice League will most certainly bring in people.

However, the release of this news has provoked a few to take a look at what they call the “toxic” nature of fandom.

Over at Vanityfair.com, Joanna Robinson explores this topic in particular in this fascinating article:

Is releasing the Snyder Cut of Justice League a victory for Toxic Fandoms?

As someone who is a fan of Batman v. Superman and am quite curious to see Snyder’s version of Justice League, I nonetheless am intrigued with the notion of “toxic” fandom.

Though I’m interested in seeing Justice League, I’m far from a Snyder “Uber” fan. I’ve seen a grand total of two of his films to date: Dawn of the Dead and Batman v. Superman. I’m very aware of his other films yet the most I’ve seen of his other works is maybe 20 or so of the last minutes of Man of Steel that I caught while it was airing on TV and perhaps 10 or so minutes (Probably something in the middle of the film) of 300 when it was also on TV.

Having said that, I’m well aware of some of the more toxic fandom out there but, having said that, it is on both sides.

The Vanityfair.com article points out that there are some Snyder fans who were very nasty online and the author is right: There are some really toxic elements out there who were proponents of the “Snyder Cut” of Justice League.

But let us be fair: There were also a vast swath of very toxic anti-Snyder elements out there who already poisoned the well against Snyder and his works from before BvS was released. There were many who felt Snyder “didn’t get” Superman at all, and that his Man of Steel was terrible and his portrayal of Superman as willing to kill -he does so in the movie’s climax- was very much off character. These same anti-Snyder elements were already geared up and lambasting BvS well before it was actually released.

Once the movie was released, I distinctly recall the uproar -some of which follows to today!- lambasting the film and all things Snyder… as if he were some asshole that ran over their beloved pet.

It was because of this that Snyder and Warners tried to make peace with these people -and critics- when Justice League was being made and they were invited to see the movie in process and see clips from it.

And the darkest elements of this toxic fandom openly were happy when Snyder left Justice League… even though he did so because his adopted daughter committed suicide.

Not everyone was like that.

Thankfully!

I recall one person online (don’t know his/her real name) who was about anti-Snyder and his works as you could get, but when the news came out that he was dropping out of the Justice League movie because of his daughter’s suicide, he had nothing but sympathy to offer the director. His opinion of Snyder’s films didn’t change, but he wished him the best in what was surely a very difficult time.

I’ve been around for an awful long time now and have seen so many incarnations and adaptations of these characters that, frankly, it doesn’t bother me to see a Zack Snyder “take” on Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman. Hell, I’ve seen enough bad versions of the characters over time that I feel its something of a waste of time getting to up in arms about them.

Much as I love the Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve Superman movie (Indeed, it remains my all time favorite superhero film of all time!), what followed simply wasn’t as good… and some of the later stuff was downright terrible.

I like Superman II, both the theatrical cut and the “Donner Cut”, but as time goes by I realize the film is much more flawed than first impressions made me feel. I sometimes wonder whether Donner, had he not been fired, would have made Superman II as good as the first. I feel, unfortunately, that Superman was lightning-in-a-bottle good. I feel that even if Donner had completed Superman II, it would never have been quite as good as the first… at least IMHO.

Then came Superman III and IV, both of which I consider total failures. In fact, I consider Superman IV, which was co-written by Christopher Reeve himself, the series’s nadir, a film so godawful its tough to watch period.

But, much as I dislike Superman IV, I can’t “hate” on the talents involved in the production. It didn’t work, for me, at all, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.

Those that love Snyder’s works love his works. Those that hate them hate them.

But to get so involved in some of the darker online nastiness seems a spectacular waste of time.

I’m glad, personally, that enough fans -those with kinder intentions- did get Warners to agree to finish up Snyder’s version of Justice League but let’s be clear here: They did this because they realized there was money to be made and, because of the HBOMax service, it was a perfect way to present the movie and build interest/sell that product.

It’s a win-win situation for Warners: They get to look like the good guy to those who want to see this version of the film (like me) and they also get to bring in clients for their HBOMax.

Over at Disney, they have faced similar fan/audience reactions with their Star Wars films, especially the new trilogy. There were plenty of people who had a nasty reaction to The Last Jedi and some of the misogyny was startling. So too was the case with the all-female remake of Ghostbusters.

This is entertainment, folks. If it doesn’t work for you, instead of wasting energy hurling invectives, maybe look for something else out there you’ll like instead.

There are plenty of good books, films, and TV shows to wile away your time with.

And if you’re going to ask for a “director’s” cut of any film, do so like the better elements of the Snyder’s Cut folks did: Press but don’t be thoroughly obnoxious about it (though some of them were over the line) and use your online presence for other goods, as well. The Snyder Cut petition served as a way to collect funds for anti-suicide groups, and even those who hate Snyder’s works the most have to acknowledge at least in that respect something good came out of it.

Right?

Zack Snyder’s Justice League… a Go!

Hard to believe its been three years since the release of Justice League in 2017.

The film, a direct sequel to director Zack Snyder’s controversial Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) was, to say the least, fraught in controversy.

Many people went ballistic at the release of BvS, feeling Zack Snyder’s vision of both Batman and Superman were wrong. Batman and Superman kill!, many lamented, though the characters had done so in previous movies (and, in the case of TV shows, Superman did indeed do so) without much of a shrug.

I suppose it was the way it was presented which people didn’t like. Superman shouldn’t be so dark and grim. Batman shouldn’t be nearly psychotic.

I’ve made my opinion of the film pretty clear over time: I happen to very much love BvS, though I would quickly add its the Extended Cut of the film that I would recommend anyone interested in seeing the film watch rather than the truncated, cut up Theatrical Cut which Warners (I strongly suspect) forced into being released.

Regardless, there were plenty of people who were not eager to see Mr. Snyder return to the characters. Warners was understandably nervous: They were putting in big money to make the Justice League film and the last thing they wanted was for the fans to (ahem) murder the product via the internet before it was released.

So there was a meet and greet arranged during the making of the film for fans and journalists to see what was in the works, along with some early footage. Mr. Snyder wanted to show the film would be -I suppose- lighter in tone than the more grim BvS.

It seemed to work, too, as the general feeling seemed to be positive about the film’s tone and direction this time around.

Then, tragedy. Zack Snyder’s adopted daughter committed suicide and, as Mr. Snyder was about to do some re-shoots, he dropped out of the project to grieve. Warners wound up hiring Josh Whedon, best known for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the first two Avengers films, to come in and “complete” the project.

The inference was that he would do a little bit of work here and there, but when JL was finally released to theaters, audiences -and those who were fans of Mr. Snyder’s DC work- knew this film was about as far from a Snyder film as was possible. The tone was far more “comic”, the threats far less… threatening.

While I personally didn’t hate the film, I felt that it was almost like a 1970s cartoon version of the Justice League. It seemed like it was created to not offend, to not be dark at all. To give audiences a few chuckles and, hopefully, a few thrills. Batman was no longer dark and dangerous… he was essentially the butt of jokes. There were a lot of jokes, some of which were quite good but there was almost no sense of danger and little sense of suspense.

The film, IMHO, was a Frankenstein’s monster: Neither Snyder’s nor Whedon’s. I can’t get upset by Whedon’s work as I’m quite certain he did what the studio told him to do and he was likely very rushed all the way. The movie was scheduled to be released at a certain date and despite the tragedy involving Mr. Snyder, Warners was determined to release the film on the originally scheduled release date.

The film didn’t do terribly well at the box office, especially considering the fact that this was the first film to feature so many DC heroes all together.

However, almost immediately those who were fans of BvS suspected there was an alternate cut out there, a Snyder Cut of the film, and they wanted to see it.

There were those who scoffed at that notion, too. Whatever Snyder did, it was likely so incomplete that there was no way a full feature film could be made of it. There were those who didn’t care one way or another: They were more than happy to never see Snyder’s work on any more DC heroes.

Me?

I suspected there was enough material out there for a “Snyder Cut” of the film to be made. After all, director Richard Donner was fired from Superman II having only completed some 60% of that film by his own admission, yet they were able to cobble enough material together to release the “Donner Cut” of Superman II.

All indications were that Snyder had finished all principle photography of Justice League and was only intent on finishing a few extra reshoots before he left the project.

So, already it seemed like there was more of a “complete” Justice League out there versus the Donner Cut of Superman II.

But…

It further seemed to be the case that the film likely needed extensive special effect work, and that meant plenty of money to invest in the project, something it seemed Warners might be unlikely to consider.

The fans of Mr. Snyder, to their credit, began a movement which, today, seems to have born fruit: They have tweeted and posted (and raised funds for suicide prevention charities) to finally get the people at Warners interested in revisiting Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

Borys Kit at The Hollywood Reporter offers this intriguing article concerning the announcement made some three or so days ago that the Zack Snyder version of Justice League will be released via HBO Max next year, though the format is yet to be determined, and that Warners has given Mr. Snyder a budget between 20 and 30 million to finish it up:

Zack Snyder’s 20 Million Plus Justice League Cut Plans Revealed

Considering how much I liked BvS, I’m certainly on the side interested in seeing Mr. Snyder’s version of the film.

However, I’m also a realist.

It could be… not all that good. Hell, it could wind up being something fairly mediocre or worse, and all that fan effort and devotion might mean we will get to see a so-so film.

However, it is also quite possible we get something in line with BvS. I know some people shudder at that possibility, but, as I said before, I liked the film and if this work is like it, I suspect I will be happy with what is eventually released.

As with so many things, we will see!

5 Card Stud (1968) A (Ante Up!) Review

Sheesh… am I in some kind of And Then There Were None loop here?

A few days back I saw the mini-series based on the famous Agatha Christie novel (you can read that review here), then yesterday I wrote a review of the 1985 movie Clue, which I realized was a comedic take on that same novel (you can read that review here), and last night I saw the 1968 film 5 Card Stud which, while not an obvious adaptation on Agatha Christie’s novel, sure seemed to have been shaped by it… to a degree.

Here’s the movie’s trailer:

The movie’s plot goes like this: One night in a small town in the wild west, a group of gamblers, including Dean Martin’s Van Morgan and Roddy McDowall’s Nick Evers, are playing a game of (I’ll give you three guesses) 5 card stud.

Van Morgan takes a breather and while he’s gone, the others continue their game. During that time, Nick Evers realizes the out-of-towner who is playing with the regulars is cheating. In a rage, he and the others grab the man and head out to lynch him.

Van Morgan returns to find the group of plays has just left and is aghast that they’re going to lynch the man.

He rides after them and arrives just as they’re preparing the rope to hang the unfortunate man. He tries to talk the lynch mob down but Nick Evers, revealed to be a nihilistic hot-head, knocks Van Morgan out and the unfortunate out-of-towner is lynched.

The lynch mob retreats back to the town, bringing along with them the unconscious Van Morgan. They unceremoniously dump him near the bar he lives in and where the out-of-towner played his very last game.

He’s taken to his room to recover and, the next day, the lynching is discovered by the law.

The 5 card stud players, including Van Morgan, keep quiet about whodunnit and Van Morgan, after confronting and knocking out Nick Evers, decides he no longer wants to live in this town and departs.

Once gone, a preacher (Robert Mitchum, in what amounts to a extended cameo, even though he’s listed as the movie’s co-star) arrives in town and sets up his parish.

Soon after, one of the poker players is found dead.

Then another…

Van Morgan reads about the killings and returns to town and the mystery of who is killing the card players …er… plays out.

(Yes, ladies and gentlemen, there you have your And Then There Were None similarities!)

So 5 Card Stud is essentially a wild west murder mystery. The screenplay, by Marguerite Roberts was adapted from a novel by Ray Gaulden is full of interesting bits of dialogue. Ms. Roberts, it should be noted, was a long standing Hollywood screenwriter. Her first work was Sailor’s Luck from all the way back in 1933 and she immediately followed up the screenplay for this film with that of the original John Wayne version of True Grit.

In fact, as I was watching the film I found myself more often intrigued with the at times quite meaty dialogue versus the at times very pulpy murder mystery.

Roddy McDowall’s Nick Evers, in particular, is a well developed character. As I mentioned above, he’s a nihilist, someone whose philosophy seems to be to burn it all down. And Roddy McDowall, who himself had a very long career as an actor, seems on the surface an odd choice for this role yet he nails it, becoming a truly hissable villain in the process.

But…

The limitations of the story and its pulpy nature do limit just how good this film is. There is a romance -two actually- linked to Dean Martin’s Van Morgan that don’t really add all that much to the story proper and seem like deviations meant to fill up time. Not, by the way, that the romantic love interests, played by Marguerite Roberts and the lovely (and tragic, in real life) Inger Stevens are anything less than very professional and charismatic in their roles.

I suppose the problem lies in the fact that it became only too obvious too soon who the murderer was and, as a viewer, I was left with a plot that seemed only too obvious play out despite some great characterizations and dialogue.

Still, 5 Card Stud is not a terrible film but instead a movie that is limited by its plot and tries hard to break through and become something more.

There’s nothing wrong with the attempt, even if the ultimate result is something only a little more than above average.

If I were giving stars, I’d give 5 Card Stud 2 and 1/2 stars out of 4.

Take of that what you will!

Clue (1985) a (Criminally) Belated Review

The obligatory saw this a very long time ago, haven’t seen it since, decided to give it a try again spiel pertains to my having seen this film yesterday.

Most people have some idea about this film, but if you don’t, here’s the trailer:

The movie, of course, was based on the popular board game…

ESCAPE THE ROOM — JEMA

Clue, the movie, involves a host of characters who are called together and given -again like the board game- “code” names. Then, we have a murder and quite suddenly we’re in a comedic whodunnit.

It seems so strange/coincidental that I just saw the TV mini-series And Then There Were None (you can read my review of it here) which itself was based on the famous Agatha Christie novel of the same name and the very next movie I happen to see is a comedic take on that very same novel!

It’s effectively almost the identical setup: These shady guests are called to a mansion (versus an island), they’re “locked in” and can’t get out, and then someone is killed. Then another, and there is urgency (obviously!) in finding the killer before another person is next.

But, as I said, Clue is a comedy and it features a powerhouse cast of very fine comedic actors who were in their prime in that era.

Tim Curry easily has the showiest role as Wadsworth, the butler. His deliveries are often frantic and quite humorous. It’s fair to say he looked like he was having a blast here.

We also have present as the principle suspects Elileen Brennan (Mrs. Peacock), Madeline Kahn (Mrs. White), Christopher Lloyd (Professor Plum), Michael McKean (Mr. Green), Martin Mull (Colonel Mustard), and Lesley Ann Warren (Miss Scarlett). Lee Ving is Mr. Body (you can just guess his limited role!) while Collen Camp is the vivacious Yvette (the very fetching maid) and Kellye Nakahara is the cook.

So, we have a total of 10 original individuals in the mansion at the start of the story, exactly the amount present in And Then There Were None, and not moments after they’re all introduced to each other it is revealed why they are there… and that, my friends, leads to murder.

For some reason, Clue has been re-discovered by many lately and I’m seeing posts about it on Reddit. There, people talk glowingly about what a classic the film is and how hilarious it is and…

…well…

I didn’t share that sentiment.

Mind you, up until yesterday I had only seen the film likely when it first reached home video (I don’t recall seeing it in a theater). My recollection of it was that it wasn’t a terrible work but neither was it necessarily a great one.

In fact, the clearest memory I had of the film’s original release back in the stone age was that they made three different endings to the film and, depending on which theater you went to, you’d see one of those three endings. The studios perhaps hoped people would very much like the film and head out to different theaters in the hopes of seeing the other endings, a rather unique way to promote a film, if I do say so myself!

Once the film’s theatrical run was done and the movie was eventually released to home video, the three endings were stitched together so home viewers could see them all. Personally, I felt the “final” ending was the best of the lot while the other two were merely OK.

Thing is: Neither of the three versions make a whit of sense, though I would quickly grant you the movie is a comedy so maybe I should lighten up about the nonsensical nature, no?

I guess.

Still, having seen all those glowing comments about this now 35 year old (gulp) film had me curious and that’s why when the wife put it on (yep, it wasn’t me), I decided to go for the ride and see if my mind could be changed.

Sometimes that happens: You see a film and don’t like it all that much originally but when you return to it years later, you’re pleasantly surprised to find it was better than you remembered.

…alas…

Seeing Clue again, I wound up having the same -perhaps even identical- opinion about the film I had when I first saw it : Clue is a sporadically funny decent enough comedy that, frankly, isn’t all that spectacular when all is said and done.

Sure, Tim Curry is at times quite hilarious. Sure, I always like to see Madeline Kahn in comedic roles. Sure Collen Camp was the prettiest damn woman I’ve ever seen in a skimpy French Maid outfit and sure it was fun to see Martin Mull and Michael McKean and Christopher Lloyd and Eileen Brennan and Lesley Ann Warren ham it up…

…but the reality is that for the most part these wonderful actors were called upon to do little more than mug while gunshots were fired, chandeliers fell, and heavy bodies were moved from room to room. It wasn’t terribly “high” comedy, and it wasn’t all that clever.

I know, I know.

That’s obviously just my opinion and to those on Reddit and other places that love the film: I’m glad you do!

I truly wish I could share the sentiment, but I simply don’t.

Clue is a decent little time killer and, to me, not all that much more.

Too bad.

And Then There Were None (2015) A (Mildly) Belated Review

The late writer Agatha Christie is rightfully considered one of the premiere dames of the murder mystery. In her very long writing career, she created two classic detective characters, the Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot and the fussy Miss Marple as well as a slew of fascinating novels, short stories, and plays.

But if you were to stand back and rank entire œuvrer, there are two novels in particular which it seems almost everyone knows: The Hercule Poirot mystery Murder on the Orient Express and the standalone 1939 novel And Then There Were None.

There are many, myself included, who would point to And Then There Were None as Agatha Christie’s best overall novel. The plot is simple yet incredibly intriguing: A group of 8 individuals are invited to Indian Island under different -and they soon realize false- pretenses. There they find two servants, a butler and cook, bringing the total number of people on this distant, wind-swept island to 10.

And that night, they are each accused of different murders.

And that night, the first of them dies.

Followed by another.

Then another.

The original novel when released had the absolutely terrible name Ten Little Niggers, after the minstrel song. This was very soon changed, both in the title and in the book proper, to Ten Little Indians (not all that much better an alternative!) and settling on And Then There Were None, but the novel retained the Indian motif, with the island the group was on was called Indian Island.

There have been many adaptations of this book, the first being made in 1945…

That movie, IMHO, was delightful but they did change the novel’s rather grim tone and ending to make a much more pleasant “Hollywood” ending.

There have been other adaptations of the novel over the years and in 2015 the BBC made a mini-series adaptation, which is the focus of this review. Here’s the mini-series’ trailer:

I picked this up a while back and, like so many things, had it filed away and ready to be seen when I had the time. Over the course of two nights, the family and I watched it, and it was a most curious experience.

First off, the mini-series wisely decided to get rid of the “Indian” motif. Indian Island becomes Soldier Island, and the “Ten Little Indians” poem/song which is the basis for the mystery is changed to “Ten Little Soldiers”, to further remove the original source material from its unfortunate racial overtones.

Watching the series, I was struck by how… dull… the opening was. In fact, it was so laid back that I wondered if it would be any good at all.

However, once the characters were on (ahem) Soldier Island and the murders started, things hummed along. I was totally entranced with the rest of the first part of the series (originally the series was released in 3 one hour parts, but the version I was two parts, each 1 and 1/2 hour long).

After finishing that first part, I was more than eager to watch the second/concluding chapter. I thought it was so damn good, perhaps the very best adaptation of the book I’d seen.

Alas…

Yeah, the second part, IMHO, was something of a let down.

To be fair, it wasn’t a total disaster, but clearly the screenwriter decided to ventured into new and different areas. There was sex. There was a weird drug sequence. Neither was found in the original novel and, frankly, it didn’t fit in with the movie proper IMHO.

Worse, the ending, which I always felt was the strongest element of the novel (I’ll get to that soon, I’m re-reading the book right now and will offer a review of it presently), was botched in the mini-series.

So my ultimate review of this mini-series goes like this: Starts slow, turns really great, but then ends in a murky, not quite satisfying fashion, IMHO.

It is not the worst adaptation I’ve seen of a novel (in general), but considering how good the story was presented for a while, it hurts to see the screenplay side-roads taken which hurt the overall product.

Still, I’d offer a mild recommendation. The acting is good, the cinematography/scenario is excellent -I absolutely loved Soldier Island’s presentation- and the production in general is first rate.

If only they had stuck with the novel a little more closely and hadn’t gone off on more modernistic -and sadly silly- tangents.

Ah well, it is what it is.

Swing Time (1936)… Yikes…!

Whenever I present a review of a film, optimally I like to see the whole thing or as very close to the whole thing as I can.

This should be an obvious statement!

There are times, however, when I catch a film when its halfway through its run time (or a little more) and wind up watching the whole thing but don’t write about it because, frankly, since I’ve only seen a part of it it feels wrong to give it a “full” review.

The other day I was flipping through the various channels and they were showing the 1936 film Swing Time. I saw the film once before, in a film class I took as an elective back in the stone age and during my very early college years.

I recalled very little of the film, frankly. See, though I love most film genres, film musicals don’t really do all that much for me. That’s not to say I don’t find some of them enjoyable (I liked, for instance, Grease).

Anyway, when we were about to see Swing Time, I recall our teacher say that this is considered one of the very best Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers pairings. The film was directed by George Stevens, who would go on to direct such classics as Gunga Din, A Place In The Sun, Shane, Giant, etc., but, frankly, I recalled very little about the film other than my teacher’s statement.

So when I spotted it on, I was curious. I kept it on and caught some of the early minutes.

The film was, I must admit, quite charming in its early going. Astaire is elegant and Ginger Rogers is quite lovely and when they dance, they move so smoothly. There is plenty of chemistry between them and, given the Depression era these films were originally released in, it much have been quite a relief to get out of the negatives one faced on a daily basis and lose yourself -if only for an hour and a half- in a movie featuring such lovely people having such a lovely time.

I was enjoying the film quite a bit even if it was corny (at least according to these more jaded eyes). I was enjoying it.

And then came the Bojangles of Harlem number…

Le… yikes…!

What this clip doesn’t show is Fred Astaire applying his blackface right before the number.

As he was doing it, I thought to myself: “Is that… is that what I think it is…?!”

Yup, it sure was.

The dance number itself was, like the rest of what I saw in the film, entertaining and beautiful and exciting and Astaire sure does seem to walk on air…

…but…

…blackface…?!?

Holy cow I had completely forgotten that was in the film (again, when I first saw it years ago, none of it really stuck with me at all).

I suppose this is another of those examples of things that were permissible and, indeed, deemed quite entertaining way back when but today…

Yeah, this just doesn’t fly.

At all.

And with good reason!

I shook my head and shut the film off after this… I simply didn’t have the time to finish it up, and I was left wondering how many other famous/well known films like this one have similar sequences. How many musicals from this era (and this was one of the bigger eras for musicals) feature such numbers?

I suspect there are many.

I know, for example, that the first “talkie” film was the 1927 feature The Jazz Singer. The concluding number was Al Jolson singing Mammy while looking like this…

Yikes indeed.

Murder By Death (1976) A (Criminally) Belated Review

I saw the 1976 Neil Simon written comedy Murder By Death once, perhaps twice, a very, very long time ago but it stuck with me. When I saw it on sale at VUDU, I had to pick it up and, yesterday, I had a bit of time to spare and watched it again.

Here’s the movie’s trailer:

Murder by Death is a parody of the popular literary detectives of the past and features a very star studded cast in all the key roles.

In this film you have David Niven and Maggie Smith playing Dick and Dora Charlston (a parody of Nick and Nora Charles from Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Thin Man and subsequently made into a delightful film series featuring William Powell and Myrna Loy). Peter Falk is Sam Diamond, a parody of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon and is accompanied by his right hand “dame”, Tess Skeffington (Eileen Brennan).

James Coco plays Belgian detective Milo Perrier, an obvious parody of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, who is accompanied by his driver Marcel (James Cromwell in his movie debut) while Elsa Lanchester plays Jessica Marbles, a parody of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple who is accompanied by her nurse (Estelle Winwood).

Finally, Peter Sellers plays Sidney Wang, a parody, I’m guessing (I’m not as familiar with the character!) of Charlie Chan, who is accompanied by adopted son Willie Wang (Richard Narita).

The plot: Eccentric millionaire Lionel Twain (Truman Capote, delivering quite well!) invites the most famous detectives of all time to his mansion to solve a murder that will be committed at the stroke of midnight. The person who solves the murder wins one million dollars. If no one solves the crime, however, it will stain the reputation of these world famous detectives.

Meanwhile, the Butler (Alec Guiness), who is blind, has to deal with the new cook (Nancy Walker) who is deaf and can neither speak nor read.

What could possibly go wrong?!

The movie plays out as one would think a Neil Simon feature would: It feels like a filmed Broadway play, with a diverse set of characters running back and forth from room to room in an at times frantic way. The situations are at times quite hilarious and reminded me of what we would see four years later with the movie Airplane!: A star studded farce where silliness is the order of the day.

However…

While the movie plays out like an Airplane!-like dark mansion/murder/detective film, the humor is far less sharp and perhaps a little too gentle, at least when looked at now. There are some more edgy jokes (one involving Dick Charlston’s possible infidelity and Sam Diamond’s possible homosexuality) that are brought up but… again, its pretty gentle stuff by today’s standards of humor.

Still, seeing such a large and fascinating cast come together for a pretty good -if not always great- comedy winds up being a damn fun time.

Recommended!

By the way, when the film aired on TV, they re-inserted four clips into the film but they weren’t put back into the digital copy I have. The quality of the clips isn’t terrific and, truly only two of them -Willie Wang finding a clue and the last guest arrives after everything is over- are most worthwhile, IMHO. Those two clips are the last two presented.

Sorry for the murky quality of the scenes, but this seems to be the best you’re going to find them at this point.

Here they are!

Under The Silver Lake (2018) a (Mildly) Belated Review

Back in 2001 the film Donnie Darko, directed by Richard Kelly and starring Jake Gyllenhaal was released. It didn’t do much business but when it came to home video, the film met a far more pleasant fate: It became a cult classic and suddenly Richard Kelly’s near forgotten work was met with considerable acclaim.

It was deserved: Donnie Darko is a film that carried a lovely nostalgic bent which appealed to older (cough) viewers who lived through the 1980’s, when that film took place. But its themes regarding high school alienation struck a cord with younger viewers as well.

Flush with a new found success, Mr. Kelly parlayed that success in the creation of Southland Tales, a movie that… wasn’t very good.

In fact, its rare that I start seeing a film and have to shut it off, but Southland Tales was a film that, frankly, gave me a headache.

Self-indulgent seems almost too good a term to describe it.

Mr. Kelly’s subsequent career folded rather quickly. He re-edited Donnie Darko, creating a “director’s cut” which though I haven’t seen, have heard was nowhere near as good a film as the original theatrical version. His next film, 2009’s The Box, was met with both audience and critical scorn, and Mr. Kelly hasn’t been heard or seen since and for the past ten long years.

I point all this out because there are parallels -and significant differences- between Mr. Kelly’s career trajectory and writer/director David Robert Mitchell.

Mr. Mitchell’s big hit, 2014’s It Follows, is a damn good horror film, IMHO, confidently directed by Mr. Mitchell and incredibly tense and frightening.

Flush with success, Mr. Mitchell would follow up that film with Under The Silver Lake, a film which, like Mr. Kelly’s Southland Tales, was clearly an indulgence on Mr. Mitchell’s part, a film that likely would never have been made had Mr. Mitchell, like Mr. Kelly, had the clout to get investors to try his oddball project.

But, unlike Southland Tales, I found Under The Silver Lake (lets abbreviate it to USL) a far better work overall, though that doesn’t excuse some of its indulgences.

USL involves slacker/deadbeat Sam (Andrew Garfield) who lives in an apartment building in Hollywood and is about to be evicted from his apartment. He doesn’t take that -or just about anything- too terribly seriously. He has an actress girl friend who shows up for sex and watches an older -but not elderly- woman in an apartment opposite his who takes care of a bunch of parrots… while topless.

Then one day he spots a beautiful blonde (Riley Keough) bathing in the apartment building’s pool and is smitten by her. That night he bumps into her and spends a time in her apartment watching an old movie (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Marilyn Monroe, if memory serves) and as things get a little heated, her roommate and a few other oddball characters show up and Sam has to leave.

The next day, his neighbor’s apartment is completely cleaned out and the neighbor is gone.

This strange occurrence arouses the interest of Sam, who begins to investigate what happened to his neighbor, and in the course of the movie uncovers many of the secrets of La La Land.

USL is a film that one cannot view literally. Most of what we see and experience through Sam is symbolic and, sometimes, incredibly absurd. Sometimes, its so absurd as to be laughable… but not necessarily in a good way.

But unlike (once again) Southland Tales, USL presents us with more food for thought than the former film ever did, including some sequences (one involving an old Songwriter and another featuring Sam dancing in a club to What’s The Frequency Kenneth, the REM song) that are quite striking..

Having said all that, the movie does feel like a “light” or not quite successful version of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. We get the whole Hollywood is a meat grinder storyline but with more absurd -again not in a necessarily good way- sequences than we should.

Still, when USL is good, its damn good but that doesn’t excuse the excesses or long runtime (the film clocks in at nearly 2 hours and 30 minutes and could have been trimmed down, IMHO, by at least a half hour without injuring the quality of the work).

USL, like Southland Tales, was hardly a hit. A24, the studio that released it and released such works as The VVitch, The Lighthouse, Hereditary, and Midsommar, appear to have lost faith in the movie when it was originally scheduled to be released and after a disastrous playing in Cannes a few years back. It was ultimately put out without much fanfare and doesn’t appear to have a BluRay release (I picked up a digital copy of it through VUDU when they were having a sale on A24 features).

In conclusion, USL is an odd bird of a film, self-indulgent and silly/stupid at times but at other times quite striking and thought provoking. I can only offer a mild recommendation, however, because the film is so strange it is just as likely to turn viewers off as it is to engage your interest.

For me, it was the later, but I won’t pretend to say the film works all the time.

Still, if you’re feeling adventurous, you could do much worse than spend time Under the Silver Lake.

The Quiet Earth (1985) a (End of The World) Review

The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door … (Fredric Brown, Knock)

Now that everyone smart is observing not only distancing from others but self-isolation, there have been several posts I’ve noticed focused on pandemic/end of the world films.

Some usual subjects rear their heads: Outbreak, Contagion, The Last Man on Earth, Omega Man, etc. etc.

Not too many talk about -or are even aware of- the 1985 New Zealand import The Quiet Earth. Here’s the movie’s trailer:

I was vaguely aware of the film but had not seen it. When it was on sale a while back over at VUDU, I picked up the digital copy of it but, like a lot of things I buy, I simply didn’t have the time to see it.

Yesterday, I resolved to do so.

What I found in the early going of the film kinda blew my mind, but it was mostly because of what was presented:

We start with a man named Zac Hobson (played well by Bruno Lawrence) lying nude in bed. He eventually wakes up, gets dressed, eats breakfast, and heads out…

…only to find there is no one out there.

At all.

The country outside the big city is intact with its buildings and gas stations, yet cars lie abandoned. Some have crashed, as if the occupants of the cars were in their vehicles one moment then disappeared and the vehicles, moving on inertia, continued until they crashed.

In one of the more fascinating scenes (and MILD SPOILERS) he finds a warehouse in flames and, upon investigating, discovers the wreck of a large airliner. He finds among the mangled remains seats which have seatbelts still tied together, as if the passengers were there… until they weren’t, and the pilot flew the craft, until they were gone as well, and the plane simply crashed (Random thought: I wonder if that chilling airliner crash sequence in Knowing -pretty much the only really great scene in that otherwise not so good Nicholas Cage film- was inspired by this sequence in The Quiet Earth?).

Eventually Zac makes his way to his work, which involves some high-tech energy experimentation station, and it is there we get the first hints as to what may have happened and why in an otherwise perfectly normal looking world he seems to be the only one there.

Seems to be being the operative word.

The Quiet Earth is divided into three segments, the first of which is Zac being all alone. The second act is like the second sentence on that short-short story by Fredric Brown I pasted at the start of this review.

Without giving too much away, Zac finds he isn’t totally alone.

The third act involves… well… I shouldn’t spoil everything, should I?

I stated that what I found in the early going of the film kinda blew my mind. Let me explain: When you write fiction, you come up with plenty of ideas and concepts you feel are promising in pursuing.

Alas, there are only so many hours in the day and when I commit to a story which may eventually become a novel, the commitment is damned serious. Sometimes, ideas come to you that sound promising but lead you -eventually or right away- to a dead end.

The opening minutes of The Quiet Earth very much resembled a story concept I was toying with a few years back but eventually left behind (no pun intended… or was it?!) because I had a hard time thinking of something clever or interesting to follow up the first act with.

The Quiet Earth, to some degree, also seems to have a little difficulty with what follows the first act. After seeing the film I was curious what others thought (I’m always curious to read people’s reactions to things) and there were many who felt the film starts off excellently but the subsequent second and thirds acts are weaker and more by the numbers.

I dunno.

As someone who grappled with a similar story idea and came up empty (another pun?! I’m full of them today!) I appreciate what the creative team came up with.

The Quiet Earth, while perhaps no lost uber-classic of science fiction is nonetheless a fascinating exploration into the idea of someone mysteriously awakening to find the world they knew is gone.

If the second and third acts aren’t quite as strong as the first -and I won’t argue that!- I nonetheless found them intriguing.

Even more intriguing was the film’s end, which is mysterious, fascinating, and ambiguous. Unfortunately, and like the iconic image at the end of the original Planet of the Apes, the visuals of that scene have made their way to the film’s poster and promotions, even the trailer presented above.

I suppose its inevitable but still, kinda silly to ruin what should have been a shocking -and intriguing- surprise.

A word of caution: The Quiet Earth is an old film, 35 years old this year, and is thus yet another of those films that today’s audiences might find move a little too slowly.

If, however, you can get past that and allow yourself to be immersed in this work, there is plenty to get out of it.

Recommended.