Tag Archives: Movie Reviews

The Bourne a) Supremacy (2004) and b) Ultimatum (2007) A (Belated!) Review Two-Fer

It’s been a while since I’ve seen the Matt Damon starring Bourne films. In fact, the very last time I saw and thought much about those films was circa 2016-ish, when the fourth of the Damon starring Bourne films -but fifth of the “Bourne” films as there was the 2012 Jeremy Renner The Bourne Legacy– was released.

(For those interested, here’s my review of the 2012 The Bourne Legacy and here’s my review of Matt Damon’s last Bourne film, 2016’s Jason Bourne)

What perhaps is most memorable about those original three Bourne films (other than the fact that they were, SPOILERS regarding this particular review, pretty damned good) is that they seemed to revitalize the whole spy genre. When the first of the Bourne films, The Bourne Identity, was released in 2002, the last of the Pierce Brosnan Bond films, Die Another Day, was also released. While that franchise seemed to be on the rocks -if memory serves there was even talk this last Brosnan Bond film might also be the very last Bond film made- The Bourne Identity seemed fresh and new, exciting and action packed… something the last few Brosnan Bond films lacked… at least IMHO.

Over the July 4th weekend and over on the SyFy (I still have trouble writing this title) they had a movie marathon which included the Bourne films. I missed The Bourne Identity (indeed, I don’t know if they showed that one at all) but I did wind up catching The Bourne Supremacy, the second Bourne film and the first to feature director Paul Greengrass (who would direct the rest of the Matt Damon/Bourne films) and was intrigued, after all these years, to revisit this film world.

The Bourne Supremacy, unfortunately, starts with the death of a character who was very prominent in The Bourne Identity. This character’s death, which nowadays would be classified as a classic “fridging” of a character , is probably the one big negative against the film.

(I was delighted to discover the term “fridging” was coined by the great comic book writer Gail Simone and refers to a Green Lantern story which featured the then Green Lantern, Kyle Rayner, discovering his murdered girlfriend left behind in a… refrigerator…!)

However, the film moves like lightning from that moment on, showing the grieving Bourne going after the people responsible for that killing as he also tries to remember things about his past.

For those unaware, that’s the big “hook” of the Bourne films and what distinguishes them from your average Bondian spy flicks: Jason Bourne is an amnesiac spy/assassin and he is trying to pierce together his past while dealing with those who are responsible for that past. These people, it turns out, want to keep the fact that the U.S. had an assassination Black Ops program going kept very secret.

So the first film has our hero losing his memory and discovering he was a top secret U.S. assassin.

The Bourne Supremacy has our hero trying to lead a “normal” life but he’s brought back into the thick of things because of the death of the character I mentioned above.

The plot winds up being somewhat a repeat of the original Bourne story -and, indeed, this is one of the main weaknesses, IMHO, of the Bourne films, but I’ll get into that in a moment- with Bourne playing cat and mouse with the bad guys while dealing with the “agency” which doesn’t know what he’s up to but fear the worst from him, as well as the memories he’s trying to get back while also dealing with a villainous assassin (in this movie’s case, played by the underappreciated Karl Urban) who is an equal to Bourne.

In the end, I loved The Bourne Supremacy despite the character that was “fridged” and thought the action sequences and the movie’s ending, in particular, was incredibly touching.

For there is one other element about the Matt Damon Bourne films I really love: While he was trained to be an assassin and, indeed, was one until he lost his memories, the post-amnesiac Bourne is a man who loathes killing and feels particularly guilty about his hand in the assassinations he did commit in the past. The Bourne Supremacy is ultimately a film about Jason Bourne coming to terms with his first sanction and making amends for it.

Very much recommended.

After seeing The Bourne Supremacy, I was all in and wanted to see The Bourne Ultimatum. Released a mere three years after The Bourne Supremacy and in 2007, The Bourne Ultimatum seemed like it was originally intended to be the conclusion to the Bourne saga.

Like the previous Bourne films, the plot is very much the same (see, I told you I’d get back to the whole “repeating” of plots): 1) You have an amnesiac Bourne seeking to get back his memories while you have 2) the “agency” trying to stop him and at least one of the people in the agency having a hidden -deadly- agenda. The agency fears Bourne may be either trying to get revenge/kill them all or expose their “evil”. And finally, you have 3) an assassin sent after Bourne who is essentially the man’s equal (in the first film the assassin was played by Clive Owen, the second featured the already mentioned Karl Urban).

So in The Bourne Ultimatum we have Bourne drawn into the work of a reporter who has uncovered the whole “Bourne” saga and this draws Bourne -and the agency, who wants to silence him- in. The two collide and the action explodes and the action -and intrigue- leads to the place where “Jason Bourne” was originally created.

What I liked the most -and found the most clever- about The Bourne Ultimatum is that they took The Bourne Supremacy’s ending and reworked it brilliantly within the context of this third film. I also liked the fact that they seemed to realize the films’ plots were reworked over and over again and that, with this third film, it was time to wrap things up.

As I mentioned in the previous reviews, I recall that Matt Damon himelf, upon the release of The Bourne Ultimatum, made a tongue-in-cheek yet very honest assessment that the films were essentially the same, plot-wise.

In spite of this and IMHO, both The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum are films that reach the same pinnacle and both are incredibly entertaining and know exactly what they’re up to and deliver the thrills and excitement in a wonderful way.

Both films are highly recommended and, I have to admit, I’m now interested in pulling out my copy of The Bourne Identity and seeing where the whole thing began.

But…

I have to admit after watching these two terrific films, I can’t help but remember what came afterwards. If you’ve clicked on the links to my reviews of The Bourne Legacy and Jason Bourne, you’ll read how I enjoyed the films well enough but felt neither was terribly spectacular.

If anything, they seemed to be far weaker retreads of these first three films which, as I mentioned before, were themselves repeating storylines, even if they managed to do so pretty damn effectively.

The Bourne films were a shot in the arm to the spy/action genre and when Bond returned with Daniel Craig with 2006’s Casino Royale, it was all too clear that the Bourne films had influenced those films and provided them a direction the Bond films sadly lacked by the end of the Pierce Brosnan run.

What is so sad, to me, is that the Bourne films wound up being short lived. The franchise, great as it was for those first three films released between 2002 and 2007, seemed burnt out by the time Jason Bourne rolled out in 2016. Meanwhile, the Bond franchise continues, perhaps stronger than ever.

Still, for a brief five year period, there were three terrific non-Bond spy films released which, even now, remain exciting, intriguing, and worth revisiting.

I’m glad I did.

Now I gotta find the time to see The Bourne Identity

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.

Had I seen this film back then, when I was perhaps between 10-13 years old, it would have certainly done a number on me!

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 hopelessness (for the most part African American) citizens bear… 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 close to that work and -this is high praise indeed!- it even predates 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. The source of the dough is never spelled out, but one can imagine its for drugs or prostitution or gambling or “protection” or maybe all the above… and more!

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 robbery. 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 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 bogus cops/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 while 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, which at times slows the investigation. Nonetheless, we wonder if maybe when Matelli first joined the force he was not unlike Pope but after a lifetime of service in these means streets, he became the hardened man he currently is. 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. Considering he’s presented as a racist bigot, its interesting he helps out a transvestite -we are talking about 1972 here- and further helps out the widow of the wife of one of the thieves, who had a hand in killing two very real police officers.

Nick D’ Salvio is also a curious character. He’s a relatively young mobster and we infer from the opening minutes that the older Mafia members consider him a foot soldier. They show something of a disdain for him and put him in charge of getting the stolen money because they can’t be bothered to dirty their hands. Perhaps, too, the money isn’t as important to them as making sure those responsible pay dearly for daring to rob from the mob. In his first appearance, he looks nervous and unsure and, later on, overcompensates in trying to look like a fearsome mobster/enforcer.

The more veteran African American mobsters see through his veneer and, while they agree to do his bidding, show considerable disdain for him and even laugh in his face while eventually plotting to do him in.

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 cursed with thinking about where he and his girlfriend’s life is going. In one particularly poignant scene, where he justifies his theft/murders, he reminds his girlfriend that she has to frequent the bars where she works constantly dealing with crude propositions. One day, he says, when they get so desperate for money, he fears he will tell her to accept these propositions and sleep for money just so they can get by.

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 and aren’t really all that different from each other.

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 all 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 -we assume- really work him over to Pope and Matelli in a ambulance hurrying to the hospital with the severely injured and on the verge of dying thief/murderer. They try in vain to get him to tell them who were the others in on that theft but we never know how it is they got him and got to the ambulance.

It’s a weird, abrupt scene shift 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 (what the mob did to him is pretty gruesome) 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.

POSTSCRIPT: I didn’t mention it but several of the actors, most notably Yaphet Kotto, would go on from this movie to appear in the first Roger Moore James Bond film, Live and Let Die. I saw at least two, maybe three familiar faces among the many characters presented in the film and Mr. Kotto, of course, would be the most familiar as he would play the Bond villain Kananga.

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!

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.

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 Kennel Murder Case (1933) an (Outrageously) Belated Review

Enough of Corona for at least a minute or two, OK?

So we got home from our trip to Costco and Target (read about that exciting affair here!), got home, put everything away, and after eating lunch I’m alone in the living room and flipping through channels and on TCM they’re about to start up The Kennel Murder Case, a 1933 film that marked the last time William Powell played the suave detective Philo Vance.

It was the role of Philo Vance, which William Powell first played in 1929’s The Canary Murder Case, that would elevate him to a leading protagonist star status. But the year after the release of The Kennel Murder Case Mr. Powell would play detective Nick Charles opposite the wonderful Myna Loy in The Thin Man and that proved to be it for Philo Vance for him.

Frankly, it was the right choice.

For in watching the film -which, by the way, was very entertaining though the murder mystery is unintentionally hilarious in its twisty-turny resolution- was like watching the far superior The Thin Man but without the one missing -and sorely missed!- extra element… Myna Loy

56 Best THIN MAN. images | William powell, Myrna loy, Thin man movies
Myrna Loy and William Powell in The Thin Man

Myrna Loy and William Powell had such a lovely on-screen chemistry and this -along with a clever script based on the classic novel by Dashiell Hammett- made The Thin Man an absolute stone cold classic and helped propel the series of films which followed featuring their characters.

But without Ms. Loy…

…well, she’s missed, let’s just put it that way.

Still, The Kennel Murder Case is a diverting movie which not only features a typically suave performance from Powell but also good turns by Mary Astor (though compared to her sterling role she’d play a few years later in The Maltese Falcon her character as written is rather one note), Helen Vinson, and Eugene Pallete (quite funny as the Detective just a step -or two!- behind Vance).

The story involves a literal locked room mystery and seven people who all had good reason for wanting the victim offed.

But, as I said above, the eventual reveal of whodunnit and why are so incredibly complicated and silly that they almost ruin all the delightful stuff that came before. Without giving too much away it involves the victim being essentially a “walking dead man” for a bit so he could move on his own from a downstairs room to an upstairs room, where he passed and…

…sheesh, I’m getting a headache thinking about all that!

Still, the film is breezy and fun and, as a bonus, directed by the incredibly underrated (and/or unknown, which is a shame) Michael Curtiz, who would go on to direct a little unknown film by the name of Casablanca (yes, that Casablanca) among many other pretty terrific works.

So if you’re tuning in to TCM one night and you see The Kennel Murder Case on the docket and you’re a fan of William Powell… and who wouldn’t be?… you could do much worse than spend some time with Philo Vance solving a locked room murder mystery!

Fuzz (1972) a (wildly) belated review

I saw the movie Fuzz only once before, a very, very long time ago and, once again, today (free time and all…!).

I saw the whole thing before. I had to have, because I recalled elements of the film from the beginning, middle, and end. Thing is, I couldn’t recall the movie’s plot too well and though I recognized this scene or that scene, the movie as a whole was rather “new” to me.

At least with regards to the story told.

Based on the Ed McBain (ie Evan Hunter) 87th Precinct novels, Fuzz has a screenplay by Mr. Hunter along with a pretty impressive cast for the time.

Playing Detective Steve Carolla is Burt Reynolds, in the movie he did quite literally right before he hit the stratosphere with Deliverance (also 1972). We’ve also got Rachel Welch as Detective Eileen McHenry, Tom Skerritt as Detective Burt King, and Jack Weston as Detective Meyer Meyer.

As the big bad, “The Deaf Man”, we’ve got none other than Yul Brynner as the mastermind extortionist/killer/blackmailer whose set his criminal sights on getting a fat payoff by scaring the city’s big politicians into giving him lots of money for not killing them.

Here’s the movie’s trailer:

As should be pretty clear from the trailer, the film is often played for laughs, presenting us with a police department which is barely functional as such, with a host of screw-ups and oddballs that in many ways seem patterned after the same oddballs and screwups we saw two years before in the movie version of M.A.S.H. Its worth noting that movie featured one Tom Skerritt in it as well.

The laughs, alas, are often forced, as in the case of Corolla and Meyers inexplicably dressing as nuns while engaged in a stake off in a park (yeah, a set of nuns that look suspiciously like two men in a park will gather no attention whatsoever, amiright?!). Worse, after that part is over, they keep the costumes on for the interrogation of the suspect once they’re back at the station! I guess they had no change of clothing?

I can’t help but think the director thought it hysterical to have Burt Reynolds dressed up as a nun and therefore kept the joke going for longer than it probably should have.

There are no less than five stories -probably more if I were to dissect things more fully- going on. The biggest involves the “Deaf Man”, and for the most part the others wind up folding into each other by the movies climax.

Well, most of them.

The story involving Rachel Welch’s McHenry winds up being something of a strange one. She’s new to the station and was brought in to serve as bait to catch a rapist. In the meantime, she has to put up with boorish, sexist attitudes of others (I must say, seeing this sort of stuff today is rather uncomfortable) while trying to do her job. Eventually she’s romanced by Skerritt’s Detective King but her story winds up concluding well before the film’s actual conclusion.

Reading up on the film, I found that Rachel Welch refused to do any scenes with Burt Reynolds. The two co-starred in 100 Rifles in 1969 and, apparently, she developed a dislike of Mr. Reynolds. There is a grand total of one scene where the two characters are in the same vicinity/room, but they never exchange dialogue and I wonder if the actors were even there filming at the same time (I don’t believe they’re ever in the same frame together, though I could be wrong).

Even worse, Ms. Welch’s role is so minor -she reportedly worked a grand total of 9 days on this film, which amounts to an extended cameo- that it could have been cut from the film without really affecting the main story. In fact, if she had been cut from the film it might have helped to focus more on the “Deaf Man” and what he was up to. Regardless, her story within the film abruptly ends when (MINOR SPOILERS) she captures, singlehandedly, the rapist and that’s pretty much that. She’s not involved in the movie’s main climax at all and essentially disappears while the movie still has some 15 or so minutes left!

Still, when viewed as an artifact from another era, Fuzz does offer some interesting oddities.

It’s rather refreshing the way they attempted, for example, to show that a station filled with “professionals” whose job it is to capture criminals succeed in spite of everything they do. The movie’s message is humorously cynical: Sometimes its just dumb luck that allows you to succeed rather than brains or dedication.

Fuzz isn’t a great film nor do I feel it will be rediscovered at some future point as a lost classic, but it is competently done with good acting by the principles and enough stuff happening to keep your interest, even if when all is said and done it might not amount to all that much.

Recommended for fans of 1970’s era crime dramas and fans of either Burt Reynolds, Rachel Welch, or Yul Brynner.

Others, beware!

The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018) a (Mildly) Belated Review

Have to say, I wasn’t particularly interested in catching this film. I suppose there was nothing outwardly wrong with the concept: Two rather ditzy American women, Audrey (Mila Kunis) and her best friend Morgan (Kate McKinnon) become involved in Audrey’s ex-boyfriend’s affairs… completely against their wishes.

See, the boyfriend is -I’ll give you no more than three guesses here- a spy.

Not only that, he hid some kinda McGuffin in Audrey’s place and the girls have to get themselves to Europe to deliver the item while avoiding assassins, other agents, and double-agents.

Again, it certainly could have been a decent film, but I was not terribly impressed by the trailers…

When your film is supposed to be a comedy and you mostly see mayhem and stunts/explosions/shootings, one can’t help but wonder if maybe the humorous elements weren’t all that strong, no?

Regardless, I had a few spare minutes and the wife and I were watching anything in particular and the film was on the DVR, yadda yadda, so we put it on and…

…it wasn’t quite as bad as I feared it would be.

Having said that, I can’t say it was terrific either.

Mila Kunis does well as the semi-depressed Audrey, the woman whose boyfriend, she comes to find, is a spy. He’s dumped her (hence the movie’s cryptic title), and with her 30th birthday, is pretty much falling into a funk. Enter her friend Morgan, who is determined to get her friend out of her sadness.

I usually love Kate McKinnon’s antics. She’s a terrific comedian and often plays these types of “wacky” characters quite well. However, this time around she wasn’t given quite as much good material to work with as I was hoping. While she does have some very funny scenes, my disappointment in how her character was ultimately handled is best described by the movie’s climax, where the writer really strains any adequate justification for her character being on a trapeze (!) in a Cirque Du Solei situation.

I mean, that should have been funny but given the film’s penchant for showing some very brutal -and sometimes quite bloody- deaths, it felt too much to have her quite literally going out on such a limb, regardless of how “wacky” she is.

Having said all that (redux), the film was not that bad.

The plot might have been by the numbers but it moved along nicely and while ultimately Ms. McKinnon may not have been used to her full potential she was used well enough and, along with Ms. Kunis’ “straight (wo)man”, made for an engaging fish out of water team.

Further, Sam Heughan proved interesting in the role of Sebastian, a MI-6 agent who may -or may not- have the girls’ interests at heart.

There’s one more element I really loved about the film and, alas, they showed entirely too little of her: Gillian Anderson (that’s right, Scully from X-Files, among many other things!) was delightful in her three or so scenes as Wendy, the head of MI-6 (or whatever agency is after what the girls have). Gillian Anderson does so much with so little screen time and I truly didn’t think she had it in her to do deadpan comedy like she did!

In sum and after weighing the positives and negatives, I offer a mild recommendation to The Spy Who Dumped Me. Yeah, there are better comedies out there and, yeah, they maybe could have done better with Kate McKinnon, but in the end the film was far from a bust and did have several very funny scenes.

You could do far worse on a slow, rainy day.

Birds Of Prey (2020), A (Almost) Right On Time Review!

Release a couple of weeks ago and, sadly, underperforming at the box office, Birds of Prey: And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (the full title of the work, though it is my understanding Warners has decided to cut it down) features -you wouldn’t guess it in a million years- the further adventures of one Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, doing essentially a Looney Tunes-esq character).

First seen in the abysmally written, yet oddly decent -if only for the strong cast/acting- Suicide Squad (2016), Harley is this time around done with her boyfriend, the Joker, and we see what happens next.

It ain’t pretty, at least as far as Harley is concerned!

For the underworld has given Harley pleeeennnntty of space to do her wacky stuff because of her association with the Joker, who is feared throughout Gotham’s criminal underworld.

But when word gets out she is no longer tied to him, the restraints are off and Harley has to deal with plenty of aggravated criminals who want their piece of flesh.

The movie is presented mostly through Harley’s viewpoint, and as such we get a non-linear story, showing elements from the past, then future, then coming back to the past, building up a story that, incredibly, maintains its coherence through the ending.

As a writer myself, color me very impressed!

Yes, the storytelling is messy. Yes, it is at times very much non-linear. But that totally makes sense given the story is mostly told through a near-crazy character’s point of view.

And best of all, it does come together by the end and that is quite a writing feat, whether one comes away liking the story or not.

I happened to like the story, as well.

During the course of the film, we meet up with several other comic book characters. On the “bad guy” side we have Ewan McGregor’s charming -and unhinged- Roman Sionis, aka The Black Mask. His right hand man is the fearsome -and murderous- Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). Early in the film Harley gets in their way and, once untethered from the Joker, is forced to do their bidding… or else.

On the “good guy” (though that term is relative!) side we have a quartet of characters, young pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), police detective Rene Montoya (Rosie Perez), Helena Bertinelli/The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Dinah Lance/The Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell).

The latter three characters wind up being the “Birds of Prey” of the title, and the movie serves as essentially an “origin” story for them as well as a story that documents Harley Quinn’s “emancipation” from the Joker while finding her path in the mean streets of Gotham City.

The film was at times very funny and it was interesting to see how the various characters interacted and, eventually, were forced to get together to take on both Sionis and Zsasz.

The movie’s standouts, other than Margot Robbie as Harley, are McGregor’s Sionis and Winstead’s sullen Huntress. But, truthfully, just about everyone carried their weight and the film proved to be a very pleasant surprise.

So if you’ve decided not to see the film because you’re all Jokered out (I think the movie may be underperforming because it did come out so soon after the release and success of the Joker film) and feel this movie is more of the same, it isn’t.

The Joker appears for only a few seconds at the very beginning of the film and only in an animated form. His shadow may linger over the initial proceedings, but this is all about the gals, and they’re a hoot to watch.

Recommended.