CHANDLER’S TRAILERS- Short Bits for Emerging Cinephiles and a Better America

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Being where Chandler Swain Reviews imparts the wisdom of the universe upon the underdeveloped nation of Cinephilia by dispensing choice nuggets of knowledge collected  from endless hours in the dark, chasing shadows of light.
“Airport 1975”  (1974) This entirely unnecessary second chapter to the “Airport” tetralogy is not a sequel in the technical sense of the word-  there is not a returning character or cast member save for George Kennedy’s Joe Patroni who seems to be suffering from some form of wasted performance Hell  -but is actually a shameless retread of 1960″The Crowded Sky”, especially apparent since the same two actors (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. and Dana Andrews) play the pilots of colliding aircraft in both films. Karen Black plays airline stewardess Nancy Pryor whose role it will be to pilot the damaged 747 after the cockpit crew is either killed or disabled by a direct hit with a private Beechcraft plane and to provide the film with its signature visual legacy of a widescreen Black making almost obscenely licentious oral invitations during some of the climactic moments of the film. The object of her infatuations, and thus the probable hero of the drama is Charlton Heston’s Alan Murdock, a character with so much swagger he literally squirts testosterone off of the screen, though this disaster drama is saddled with a peril even greater than that of ineffective air traffic control and that is a screenp lay by Don Ingalls of stunning ineptitude; it actually makes the paint by numbers script for the parent “Airport” seem to have the complexity of ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’. Despite the predictability bred into the disaster formula (any character played by a semi-retired “Golden Age” thespian, B-movie hanger-on or slumming box-office attraction is fair game for a strategically placed game of roulette with the Grim Reaper), what is completely unexpected is the level of amateurism in both dramatic presentation and performance: the entire roster of endangered passengers, each defined in such stereotypical casts that they might just as easily be substituted with a printed placard (“Singing Nun!”, “Sick Child!!”, “Alcoholic!!!”) in their assigned seat without fear of diminishing audience empathy as there has probably never been a roster so inarticulate in expressing their human value than this bunch of exhausted performers (Gloria Swanson fails to be convincing and she’s playing Gloria Swanson, but at least she’s not so embarrassing as former”Planet of the Apes” Nova, Linda Harrison who under the guise of Augusta Summerland proves that her best vocal quality was the earlier film’s required mutism.). Jack Smight’s inert direction (which simulates air flight by rocking the camera in the plane’s interior, which only increases the urge to nap between crises) creates the excitement expected of cancelled TV pilots, though at least the dreadfully mediocre television composer John Cacavas  doesn’t disappoint, by delivering the expected dreadfully mediocre television score. 
 
“Altered States”  (1980) Appropriately hysterical Ken Russell treatment of a rather phlegmatic Paddy Chayefsky novel which blatantly steals concepts from both Basil Dearden’s “The Mind Benders” and the original “The Outer Limits”. William Hurt makes a startling film debut as a scientist obsessed with unraveling the mysteries of Life without bothering to emotionally engage in it- not exactly an original concept (The “love conquers all” finale doesn’t work in either novel or film.) -through the combination of hallucinogenic drugs and isolation tank to regress the mind back to its more primordial state is a fizzy conception, just the proper distance away from sheer absurdism to temporarily disengage the more logical tips of the brain hungry for solid nonsensical SF fun; a scenario which affords Russell the opportunity to indulge in his signature visual outrageousness (admittedly there is far too much Russellian religious imagery without a corresponding contextual foundation) while faithfully adhering to the dialogue of Chayefsky. Russell’s method of welding the two elements is simple, and curiously successful: to speed up the line delivery (thus relieving the audience of its extremely pedantic nature) and create a sensation of obsessively driven energy that propels the most eye rolling of scientific theorems with the gee-whiz momentum of top-notch Republic serial. Hurt’s performance is that of scientist as whirling dervish; for an artist whose performance persona may usually be categorized as introspectively passive, his hyper-hyperactive turn here makes James Cagney in “One, Two, Three” resemble Rip Van Winkle.
 
 “Back to School”  (1986)  If there is anything to the comparison of a musical vocalist and a stand-up comedian, certainly there is the matter of an equal sense of internal rhythm and cadence of delivery in defining one’s signatory style. For a case in point, one need look no further than Mr. Rodney Dangerfield, who is the living embodiment of a comedic scat jazz singer, a quality which informs his leading presence in the scattered and undisciplined but often very funny “Back to School”, a film which gently celebrates know-how, perseverance and “smarts”, though not necessarily of the institutionally acquired variety (the irony of the title is only one of the film’s many subtle jests). Dangerfield plays Thornton Melon (shortened from Meloni) who has amassed a fortune with his chain of Tall & Fat clothing stores (what are the odds that this will initiate a spate of fat jokes?) but is nonetheless demonstrably dismissed as unworthy by those outside his sphere of influence (rather than the have and have-nots, the film’s universe seems wisely divided between those who are able to have fun and those who are not), though most succumb to his raucously achieved charm, as Dangerfield-  despite his initially vulgar idiosyncrasies  -is a real pussycat; not because he believes he can buy friends and influence (except for one telling sequence where he gains admission to the college by greasing the hands of the not-so-idealistic school’s Dean Martin [Ned Beatty]), but because he truly likes people and he’s simply enjoying himself. The college is hilariously depicted as being staffed with the typical mix of self-amused faculty (instantly recognizable to anyone within shouting distance of a university campus) incapable of impressing any usable skills into their student’s minds, most prominently the gruff business professor Dr. Phillip Barbay (a perfectly unctuous Paxton Whitehead), whose entire course consists of the dispersal of perfectly useless theory; Professor Terguson (Sam Kinison), to whom every exchange with a student is an excuse for primal screaming; and Thornton’s eventual love interest, English literature professor, Dr. Diane Turner (the wonderfully daffy Sally Kellerman) who seems giddily imbued with the Byronic spirit of flower child ecstasy as she spends most of her free time hopscotching between ersatz rival paramours Barbay and Melon. Despite the free-wheeling spoofing of higher education, culture (there’s a priceless moment involving novelist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.), big business and class antagonisms, the film is essentially a rather sappy father and son story at the core, and therein lies the eventual and inescapable Achilles Heel film, as whenever the plot veers in an extremely (pointedly) funny direction, it feels the need to return to a sentimental root of a father’s love for a child. This might have actually worked to bring some welcome emotional resonance to the movie, except that the film’s casting makes a major blunder in the presence of the ever dreary Keith Gordon as son Jason, whose robotic line readings create a feeling of emotional vacancy and-  certainly  -insincerity, which uproot the best efforts of Dangerfield’s sweaty but rather endearing performance. (The prominence of Gordon is also a slap in the face considering it sidelines a perfectly loopy turn by Robert Downey, Jr. as Jason’s roommate Derek Lutz, who one cannot imagine hanging out with such a soggy noodle as Jason.) Burt Young is underused as Thornton’s loyal diver/associate Lou, and the film flags toward the end when it turns its attention to a protracted diving competition which, in the end, has little meaning to what is going on (none actually; it’s clear the roomful of screenwriters were at a loss to find an ending to the story), as Thornton takes center stage in what should be a demonstrable victory for his son.
 
“Batman Returns” (1992) Tim Burton’s second film outing exploring Gotham City’s Caped Crusader is once again long on annoying guest villains and short on the main character. Though cheerfully absent of the destructive narcissism of a particular Nicholson, the film is a seamless continuation of the first film’s few strengths but an escalation of it’s more gratingly unnecessary flaws. In this installment, Batman is faced with two different costumed foes: a mutant Penguin and Catwoman; played respectively by a typically scene chewing (and drooling) Danny DeVito and a sumptuously playful Michele Pfeiffer. Again, Gotham City seems suspiciously underpopulated, as if the film’s budget didn’t extend beyond needlessly busy art direction to suit Burton’s (by now) tiresome visual scheme. It all begins well until the forced mechanics of cartoon villainy undercut the deliberate solemnity of the portrayal of the film’s hero. Michael Keaton’s haunted portrayal is in direct conflict with the hyperkinetic rhythms of Burton’s more infantile sensibilities, more in service of camp than drama. (Though Pfeiffer’s unleashed sexiness plays with this dichotemy and works wonders as far as she is allowed to go.) DeVito, as actor, is a one-man wrecking crew; more Louis DePalma than worthy adversary, and Christopher Walken’s unique flakiness fails him on this occasion as he seems content to allow his mopish wig to do the bulk of the heavy lifting. Outside of Keaton and the large scale budget, there is actually little to distinguish Burton’s vision from the dramatic ambitions of the tongue-in-cheek television program, with one important exception: the program was a lot more entertaining.
 
  “Boys From Brazil, The”  (1978) Beware actors who protest their image too much. In the case of Franklin J. Schaffner’s “The Boys From Brazil”, the thespian in question is none other than venerable good guy Gregory Peck who makes a career backflip to the darker regions of human nature by tackling the role of nefarious Nazi Doctor Josef Mengele, a turn of dramatic ambitions that Peck seems to relish, yet is sadly inadequate to the task. Not that he’s assisted by surrounding cast of scenery munching screen Aryans including an odd turn by the usually reliable James Mason who plays his Nazi conspirator as a tourist of Key West club spots. The film follows the plot of Ira Levin’s source novel fairly closely, though Levin’s signature finales with evil seemingly emerging triumphant is obscured in no small part by a terribly staged final confrontation and the ruinous, multiplied non-presence of newcomer Jeremy Black, perhaps the worst motion picture discovery since Smell-O-Vision, though equally odoriferous. This mineral deposit impersonating an actor has been generously granted the opportunity to fail in several roles, each distinguished by a different accent, none of which resembles a legitimately recognized echo of human speech. The multinational production, handsomely photographed by Henri Decaë- who makes effective use of Schaffner’s talent in depicting geographic surroundings as character -follows Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman (based on Simon Wiesenthal) as he follows clues which slowly unravel a plot decades in the making, involving- at this point in the narrative -the seemingly random murders of 94 older men. The far-fetched premise (this is certainly a thriller with immense SF overtones) works better in novel form than in this film as the conspirators are not depicted with a sufficient air of competence or discipline (and remember, these are supposed to be Nazis) to enact such a complex global operation; as a matter of fact, tantrums and demonstrations of infantile hysteria seem to be the rule of the day. However, as Lieberman, Laurence Olivier seems to fly in the opposite direction, portraying the elderly hunter of war criminals as a flighty, slightly doddering pixie, a seemingly odd choice for the role until it is revealed at significant moments in the film, that such a harmless exterior is merely a necessary pose, concealing the ferocious avenger underneath. The highlight of the film is a meeting between Lieberman and a former concentration camp matron Frieda Maloney, (wonderfully played by Uta Hagen) a duel of antagonism exploding into deadly recrimination and unleashing Lieberman’s dragon within (It would be illogical for a man to be able to focus a life into a singular pursuit of justice without a vertebrate of steel.) and an indication of the level of tension the film could have and should have had throughout to have been successful. However, on the plus side ,there is excellent support from the estimable Lilli Palmer as Ezra’s sister Esther and a winning melodious score of Straussian exuberance by the gifted Jerry Goldsmith.
 
“Breakheart Pass”  (1975)  This aberration in the Alistair MacLean canon moves the author’s signatory plot twists, secret identities and hidden motives to the Old West in “Breakheart Pass”, a film plagued with the very fact that it does feature what is, by this time, a very discernible and overly familiar formula whose narrative “surprises” are more easily calculable to anyone who has seen more than a few of his previous books  find screen life. When a train traveling to remote Fort Humboldt, armed with medicine to combat an outbreak of diphtheria, encounters a series of unexplained killings-  including the mass death of two carloads full of soldiers  -it is left to the mental acumen of captured arsonist and murderer John Deakin (Charles Bronson) to unravel just what is transpiring; all the while accompanied by less concerned fellow travelers including the Governor (Richard Crenna), an Army major (Ed Lauter) and a sheriff (Ben Johnson)! Per usual in a film version of a MacLean novel, the good guys are easily identifiable (no matter how decorous the masquerade) by the prominence of billing, thus Deakin will be assured a placement on the side of the angels as his name rises above the title. Unfortunately, this also indicates a rather mystery crushing supposition as to who will add to the cadaver pile, with the more highly billed actors achieving a far greater lifespan than lesser featured players. It all leads to a fairly insubstantial climax pitting the good versus the bad-  abetted by villains who are identifiable by their unruly facial hair, and a tribe of Indians who give new meaning to falling off the horses en masse and on cue at the report of a firearm  -in which the entire affair seeks and fails to find a clever way to wrap up what up to that point has been a fairly engaging examples of a musical chairs whodunit. Most of the credit for this can fall to director Tom Gries’ appreciable skill and proven comfort with the Western milieu, as well as a solidly entertaining performance by Bronson, who seems amused by even the creakiest of plot contrivances and who seems to fully enjoy his rather eclectic casting in the traditional, non-vigilante heroic mold. Jill Ireland has little to do  but to act pretty and bewildered, both of which she manages as this fairly defines, without  any danger of exceeding, the boundaries of her acting limitations. 
 
 “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia”  (1974) About as personal a cinematic statement that has even been made, revealing the psychological dichotomy of a contemporary cultural figure between their personal obsessions and how they find resistant expression with their public artistic works. Peckinpah’s simplistic road trip film is a minefield of contradictions and explosions of impulses run disastrously awry.  As Benny, the director’s intentional alter ego, Warren Oates delivers an astonishing chameleon’s performance that reeks of sweat and nihilism; in the  inescapable realization that your entire existence is a vast dead end. Uncomfortable, violent and outwardly gratuitous, (it truly isn’t, but Peckinpah’s controversial  aesthetic often obscures the path to more patient considerations of his more contemplative points of interest) it is certainly the last (and most valuable) word the director would direct against constant charges of a misogynistic string running through his work (nonsense) and how his conflicted attitudes toward women might encompass a wellspring that both nourishes and emasculates his masculine ethic; a source of both desire and fear.  An important film, if Peckinpah is to be seriously considered as a relevant voice of modern American cinema.
 
“Carrie”  (1976)  Brian De Palma’s film version of Stephen King’s novel is a bit of a mess, with hysterical directorial gimmicks flying in all directions, as if her were a film student showing off to a professor on all of the techniques he’d mastered. Unfortunately, empty technique serves no one, least of all the characters as moments which should close into delicate areas of adolescent angst are suddenly undone by undercranked cameras and  distracting camera moves more consistent with Ken Russell at his most self-indulgent. For all of the bad acting on board (and it is legion beginning with John Travolta, Nancy Allen, Sidney Lassick and P.J. Soles, all of whom have done far superior work elsewhere), the saving grace of the film is the startling, heartbreaking performance of Sissy Spacek as the hermetic outsider Carrie White who simultaneously experiences her first menstrual period and flexing of telekinetic powers on the same day. This is a traditional horror trope, combining female sexuality with supernatural power and not particularly developed here except as an excuse for the prerequisite climactic bloodletting; though the impact of the Prom in Flames sequence is completely undone by the overindulgent use of one of De Palma’s favorite useless effects: split screen. Still, the film is worth wading through all of the mire to experience a real performance: Spacek’s Carrie White is a labyrinth of suppressed anxieties, consistently denying the self-destructive force of her  emerging force of will (symbolized by her new powers) in a violent cascade she is powerless to control (or considering her extended pseudo-catatonic appearance, may not even be consciously aware she is causing). It’s a brilliant portrayal, and even the “surprise” ending transfers the unending anxiety of teen trauma to another more sympathetic character at the finale, with a pathetically ineffective comforting- “it’ll be alright” -when, in fact, the point of the film is that it never was and never will be.
 
 
 
Cash on Demand”   (1961) That most pleasant of rarities: a genuine movie sleeper. Peter Cushing and André
Morell play at increasingly clever cat-and-mouse intrigue in this miniature version of “A Christmas Carol” (the general theme of holiday redemption is borrowed from Dickens, but the plot invention is entirely the doing of  Jacques Gillies’ 1960 BBC teleplay, “The Gold Inside”,  for the short-lived  series Theatre 70) in which an unfeeling martinet of a bank manager, Mr. Fordyce is forced to confront the isolation of his life when visited one morning by a dapper gentleman, Col. Hepburn who claims to be on an inspectional tour from the bank’s insurer’s home office. To say more would be to reveal the delicious twists and turns of this expertly realized little chamber piece of suspense. Peter Cushing, as Fordyce, takes full advantage of being able to stretch his considerable acting range, so often moribund by the constrictions of formula horror films and Morell, a fine stage actor (and the finest of the Quatermass portrayers as seen in the 1959 BBC broadcast of “Quatermass and the Pit”) is a formidable opponent as the charming but ruthless Hepburn. With fine supporting performances, headed by the always welcome Richard Vernon, Quetin Lawrence’s refined but energetic direction (he also directed the television version which also starred Morell and Vernon, reprising their television roles here), this is a premium example of the variety of Hammer films produced outside of their more popular horror vehicles, most virtually forgotten today but many, such as this, certainly worthy of  major rediscovery.
 
“Cat Ballou”  (1965)  “Cat Ballou” is the story of a ballad, or more precisely, the back story of what gives substance to that ballad. (It is entertainingly performed, intermittently, by Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye, though needlessly interrupting the progression of the narrative at several key points.) In doing so, it is neither overtly dramatic nor appreciably folksy in that frontier Americana brand of dispensing exaggerated truth which emboldens a disproportionately mythic sense of history, especially in matters pertaining to the Wild West. That this film rests comfortably in that time and place (though entirely fictional in basis) and that it tells its story in a rambunctiously comic manner (too often cascading into the realm of buffoonery) is a matter of serendipitous fortune as the western, as a genre, was long overdue for a good dose of parodistic self-effacement-  especially with the dour emergence of the 1950’s psycho-dramatic “adult” westerns of Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher which, despite their undeniable qualities (and they are many)  -as the genre seemed to cascade into an immersive portentousness of Shakespearean proportions (often including direct adaptations of the Bard such as the “King Lear” influence on “Broken Lance” or “Othello” on “Jubal”) that threatened to suffocate the genre with a sudden rush of overreaching self-importance. What a savvy western comedy might have attempted by 1965 is a clever and systematic deconstruction playing with those genre elements which have been exploited through such overuse as to have assumed a posture of defiant classicism in a desperate move to assert a falsely conceived  of irrelevance. The genre was, and never has been, irrelevant: merely barraged with a myopic assault of leading critical voices (most of whom if given the opportunity for genuine candor would lay little natural attraction to the genre in the first place) who declared the genre dead despite the simultaneous excitement over a new revisionist phase “introduced” by Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch”, despite the fact that film was merely a more pronounced rung on the western evolutionary stepladder. What, instead, we get is a rather listless revenge tale mixed with tired poppy dog courting and a lukewarm recipe of rib poking hijinks mixed with low pratfalls, none of which is used able to build any comic momentum; a fatally lethargic script by Walter Newman and Frank Pierson (from Roy Chanslor’s novel) that telegraphs every joke with the easy assurance of a small child who believes he’s clever and won’t stop tugging at your sleeve to prove it.  However, as a compensation for genuine wit, the film is wrapped in an equally wretched saccharine cuteness that becomes especially cloying when obvious avenues of humor are left unexplored. It’s constructed with a lazy man’s idea of a narrative with a creative edge derived from episodic television as opposed to more complex cinematic ambitions (the jokes are overly set up and explained as if the audience had never seen a movie before). Primary among the sugary performance weaknesses is the unfortunate Jane Fonda who continues to find no successful path to comedic ability; her one bullet in her arsenal is to set her face into a wide-eyed “Oh gosh!” look of amazement that is supposed to be endearing but is merely an amateurishly lax technique at play (she overused the same tactic in “Barbarella” to a cosmically obnoxious excess). The talented Michael Callan is waylaid by a penchant for dopiness masquerading as charm and his scenes with Fonda have zero romantic chemistry (making the final scene between the two a impractical climactic misfire) as his character is clearly more in love with himself than anyone else on the screen. Only Lee Marvin shines in a dual role of sibling gunfighters-  the only actor who seems in on the joke  -seeming to have a glorious time (and thus, irresistible) mocking his own impressively hewn macho screen image and lighting the path to a direction the film might have taken if anyone else involved in the had bothered to notice.
 
“Challenge for Robin Hood, A” (1967) Is there anything more enervating than a swashbuckler without the swash and a hero more reminiscent of a tax accountant than a legendary crusading archer? A case in point is Barrie Ingham’s  dull appearance (equipped with anachronistic 1960’s British mod haircut) as that most rambunctious of English legends, Robin Hood, in a film so wrongheaded that when his united band of men (here appearing more meandering than merry) decide on costuming to blend in with the splendor of Sherwood Forest, Robin continues to wear a red outfit (and not Will Scarlett?) which would be noticeable by Stevie Wonder at a thousand paces. This inattention to the most obvious details was possibly palmed off as revisionism but can be more accurately summed up as sleepwalking through a frustratingly ho-hum assembly line production. There are variables as to past renderings of the Robin Hood mythology- Friar Tuck, Maid Marian, Sheriff of Nottingham, et al. -but rather than building on what has already been enacted ad infinitum, “A Challenge for Robin Hood” grinds along doubly saddled with a stiff-necked parcel of rogues comprised of the most tepidly stilted, uncharismatic and unromantic cast imaginable-  the chasteness of the enterprise is such that the characters might have all been sprayed with Lysol before the cameras began rolling -whose lack of dramatic success could only be equaled by a staged reading of the script by the McLaughlin Group. The chief villain, Sir Roger de Courtenay, is played with a prissy impertinence by Peter Blythe; less the menacing ne’er-do-well than an unctuous brat in need of a good spanking. Gay Hamilton’s Lady Marian is pretty but pallid, and James Hayter’s overly cute rendition of Friar Tuck includes such an excessive amount of eye rolling, it is unclear whether he intends to reincarnate the spirit of Eddie Cantor or is simply trying to knock the world off its axis. Arthur Grant’s cinematography provides an appropriately colorful canvas on which to hang the still lives director C.M. Pennington-Richards mistakes for rousing action sequences; far too often do Robin and his cohorts stand about, wasting time congratulating themselves on their ingenuity that even the most incompetent of foes could surely use the occasion to regroup to defeat them. This is the first action-adventure film in which self-aggrandizement has been offered as a suitable substitution for physical derring-do. 
 
“Deadly Mantis, The” (1957) Nathan Juran’s giant insect film is a monumentally foolish piece of work even compared to the low standards set by science fiction films of the 1950’s. Not only that, it’s a cheat. The entire first ten minutes of the picture is comprised of stock footage with a duly authoritative narrator informing the viewer about the military alert systems guarding the Western Hemisphere-  none of which have anything to do with the film, especially when a good can of bug spray would have worked wonders  -with later episodes of action, including an Eskimo village attack using extensive footage from Arnold Fanck’s 1933 “S.O.S. Eisberg”, willfully padded with the assistance of inappropriate and ill-matched file materials. The actual story is a desperate conglomeration of random ideas, concepts and outright thievery, showcasing the alarming poverty of imagination coursing through the Hollywood Dream Factory in regard to a film genre of untapped limitless possibilities: there are so many plot points in “The Deadly Mantis” that are suspiciously similar to Eugène Lourié’s “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms”, that producer William Alland should have been paying Ray Bradbury for creative royalties. There is a volcanic eruption in the Southern Hemisphere which according to the immutable laws of Cheap B-Movie Physics will result in the releasing of a giant ice-encased praying mantis in the North Pole, which will naturally travel down to nest in New York City’s Manhattan Tunnel by way of Washington D.C. (Someone at the Universal story department is clearly in need of an atlas.), inevitably making a pass at the film’s resident ingenue, who in this case may be scarier than the eponymous macropterous beastie. Naturally, the world will fall to this predatory menace (note all resuscitated prehistoric creature tend to be far larger than the  laws of nature would permit- not to mention  ignored bane of all SF films, the infamous Square-Cube Law  -and then purely out of dramatic necessity since the filmmakers don’t want the monsters to look puny next to the skyscrapers they inevitably terrorize) without the stock trio of characters; one who will get the inevitable girl, and one who will look amused at the romantic dance when attention might be better spent killing the creature that is eating bus drivers. The trio to whom the fate of the world, or at least the world which is dramatized in this film, is reliant on for its survival is strictly by-the-numbers: the military man (Craig Stevens, as starched as his uniform), the scientist (William Hopper who, at least, looks like he’s enjoying himself) and the girl (an entirely unsatisfactory Alix Talton) whose function is to scream on cue and act coy until the square jawed hero plants the inevitable smooch at the fade out. As with all such monumental creatures of filmdom, the mantis seems completely immune to the effects of military weaponry, including artillery, though when brushing against airplanes it does seem to fall apart enough to provide giant props for the scientist to show off to an amazed but predictably disbelieving military authority. The mantis amusingly climbs the Washington Monument in a bit of homoerotic subtext that is all too obviously unintended within such a drearily humorless production, but the climactic assault on the mantis in a tunnel is reasonably well-staged and realistically rendered, though a thought occurs that instead of asphyxiating the monster into permanent slumber with with gas grenades, a quicker solution might have been to show him this film.
 
“Deadly Trackers, The”  (1973)  On the cheaper end of the post-revisionist western there is Barry Shear’s “The Deadly Trackers”, a film whose ultimate lack of originality and technical finesse is at least compensated for by a blessed absence of the buddy-buddy vaudeville in vogue within the genre since the woeful example of the overrated “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. Not that there’s much to smile about in the film’s opening triumph of nihilism (introduced with extraordinarily clumsy expository still shots and obvious studio overdubs) in which villainous outlaw leader Frank Brand (Rod Taylor, in an effectively convincing reversal of screen image which demands a better showcase) mercilessly kills the wife and son of anti-gun pacifist sheriff Sean Kilpatrick  (Richard Harris) who, true to formula form, naturally finds his own inner killer which fuels a violent and somewhat ill-conceived pursuit across the Mexican border in order to systematically exterminate Brand and his entire outfit, thus demonstrating the reactive irony in which a good man’s baser instincts will be naturally activated by personal tragedy. The razor’s edge between good and evil impulses is hardly a new conception and may be effectively explored (“The Naked Spur”) though there is little of the thematic curiosity necessary for such a worthwhile journey evident in the script by Lukas Heller (based on initial writing and production work by Samuel Fuller), which harmfully shortcuts any evident moral conflict within Kilpatrick (Harris, uncharacteristically, fails to bring a corresponding explosively tormented fire to his role) to the point where his initial placid pacifism might be interpreted as simply a heretofore unchallenged weakness (or more interestingly, hypocrisy) of character. Certainly the tenuous partnership between the sheriff and Mexican police officer Gutierrez (played with surprising depth by unlikely cast Italian-American Al Lettieri) provides Kilpatrick a platform to reveal the demons within the man, but the film is more interested in sadistic killings and tortures which outside of fitting the film comfortably into Harris’ quirky early 1970’s string of increasingly masochistic western portraits, brings no new light to a particularly darkly pessimistic period of westerns. The tired nature of the film can only be mirrored by the blatant usage of stock musical scoring including an excess of cues from Jerry Fielding’s work for “The Wild Bunch”; a reminder of better cinema the film can ill afford. 
 
“Devil’s Brigade, The”  (1968)  The true story of the formation and initial campaigns of the U.S. Army First Special Forces is given “The Dirty Dozen” treatment in triplicate in Andrew V. McLaglen’s “The Devil’s Brigade”; the kind of film in which it appears that victory over Nazi Germany was achieved, not by superior firepower or stratagems, but by having far more colorful characters within the ranks than the enemy. Important details of the transformation of both men and material are not glossed over but simply ignored, beginning with  an early episode depicting the training camp as a dessicated ghostly shell suddenly made respectable by an order to the unit’s conveniently resident scrounger to “start hustling”, as if that were an adequate shortcut to practical metamorphosis. More problematic is the question of the men, separated equally between a disciplined, seasoned group of Canadian soldiers and the American contingent which seems to be the scrapings of every available jail cell and barroom floor; a rather unnatural standard for formulating a mythic fighting force, but an virtual guarantee for the inclusion of prankish hijinks and crude antagonism among the ranks which is supposed to fill the vacuum left by the absence of more substantial material with what emerges as an action movie version of low service comedy. There is far too much screen time given to the enlisted ranks involving the antics of Richard Jaeckel and Claude Akins (though a sudden appearance by Jeremy Slate confronting the latter buffoon is exactly the kind of material the film needs to give momentum to the otherwise tepid rendering of the training process, and the movie momentarily comes alive) and too little insight into what turns disparate men into a superior, unified fighting force. Carroll O’Connor’s bizarre performance as Gen. Maxwell Hunter- a portrait of glib bureaucratic buffoonery only light steps away from his later unbridled appearance in Brian G. Hutton’s “Kelly’s Heroes” -doesn’t help cement the intention of tone, though there is the expected solid work of William Holden as the Forces’ commanding officer Col. Robert Frederick and a sneakily intense turn by Cliff Robertson as Canadian Maj. Alan Crown to provide what should be a firm foundation in what ultimately turns out to be a wasted opportunity. The climactic assault on Monte la Difensa, a mountainous Nazi stronghold in the Italian Campaign, builds to a satisfying gritty intensity that is both excitingly rendered and heartbreaking-  the cost and human waste of war is made appreciably clear without undue proselytizing  -though one can only imagine the impact the film might have had had it been populated by fully developed characters who might engage the viewer’s empathy rather than a collection of cardboard movie stereotypes. A pity.
 
“Dial M for Murder”  (1954) In a posh London flat, suave ex-tennis pro Tony Wendrice (Ray Milland) is planning to murder Margot (Grace Kelly), his rich but adulterous wife who is cheating on him with American mystery writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), by ensnaring a sleazy ex-schoolmate named Swann (Anthony Dawson) to do the task by trapping him in a blackmail scheme.  Alfred Hitchcock’s film of Frederick (“Wait Until Dark”) Knotts hit mystery play is necessarily stage bound, even more so than the director’s previous stab at cinematically challenging the Proscenium Arch in “Rope”. At least in that film, Hitchcock had his camera gliding elegantly about the rather cavernous apartment setting in a mock dance of death with the film’s amoral protagonists, whereas here he seems to be crippled by the stagnant nature of the material along with the cumbersome burden of filming in 3-D which, again, given the limited nature of the setting does not afford a great variety of interesting opportunities for spatial effects; there are only so many compositions one can render with lamps and vases placed conspicuously in front of the actors. In fact, the situation becomes so visually limited that at one point the camera actually (for no good reason) is suspended from the ceiling (a bat’s P.O.V.?) harmfully distracting attention away from important expository dialogue explaining what is going to occur. The film is overstuffed with exposition. the narrative stuttering along in an interminably repetitive fashion; we are told what will happen, what is happening, what could have happened and what did happen. Never has an acclaimed mystery been so bogged down with plot synopsis substituting for character development. Which leaves it to the individual personalities of the performers to shine through all of the needlessly labyrinthine dialogue to afford the audience with some reason to care about any of this. Ray Milland is splendid as Tony, a classic Hitchcock villain who actually retains more audience empathy by simply being the most lively performer in the room; both Cummings and the glacial Kelly emerging as far less charming and actually quite irritatingly unsympathetic characters. Dawson is appropriately oily as the duplicitous Swann and John Williams strikes appropriately. amusing chords as the investigating Inspector Hubbard (both actors appeared in the original Broadway production). The film comes alive only briefly during the “murder” scene- which is not only simply but extremely effectively staged but contains the only full and imaginative use of 3-D in the entire film -and in certain brief instances of plot deviation which require the suave but morally bankrupt Tony to cleverly and instantaneously change gears to devise updates on his increasingly complicated criminal enterprise. Hitchcock is not able to find a compensation for the visual and visceral climax of the film occurring in the middle of the film (the “murder” scene again) nor is he able to bolster the rather weak ending-  unaided by the damagingly distancing performances of both Kelly and Cummings -which not only feels anticlimactic, but also emotionally unsatisfying.
 
“Final Countdown, The” (1980) Films that deal with time travel walk a fragile path as they must conform to the rigid book of history while at the same time, advancing a narrative while configuring the actions of modern day figures to not irretrievably alter that past. Clever films, such as Nicholas Meyer’s 1979 “Time After Time” manage to do just that, especially in it’s last moment interpolating of a “modern” character into what is a historically documented figure. Time travel stories directed at the future have a far easier time with this paradoxical conundrum, though oddly they tend to most often emerge as cautionary tales, as in H.G. Wells’ own The Time Machine. However, to make a time travel film which by its very nature demands history altering action by the characters is both interesting and foolhardy.”The Final Countdown” is a time travel drama which mixes the world of speculative alternate history in the service of exploiting the national blister still irritable from the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The film assumes that a modern American aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Nimitz, might suddenly appear within striking distance of the advancing Japanese fleet a day before the attack, with the resulting drama following a debate between the ships officers-  Captain Matthew Yelland (Kirk Douglas), Commander Dan Thurman (an underused Ron O’Neal) and Commander Richard Owens (James Farentino), as well as a civilian observer, Warren Lasky (Martin Sheen) who is a representative of a shadowy Mr. Tideman, whose company built and helped design the ship  -as to what course of action would be deemed appropriate, armed as they are with a foreknowledge of events to come. For a film concerned with the inexorable flow of time and the consequences of the most incidental actions, the script is far too heavily burdened with the necessity of coincidence to achieve its goals, however slim they may turn out to be. For entire lengthy segments, director Don Taylor- whose tepid craftsmanship goes extra lengths into making this film feel like an extended minor made-for-television film -stops the narrative dead in its tracks for a visual tour of Naval avaiation and its support components. The audience is privvy to far too many sequences of jets taking off (the editing in these scenes is often choppy and intrusive), jets landing, jets being serviced, jets being armed; all to the crashing martial music of John Scott who seems to be working overtime in a feverish aural assault that attempts to convince you something more than a facsimile recruitment campaign is unfolding. The producers clearly feel the need to show off the full military cooperation afforded the production by featuring endless shots of the jets soaring through the skies while the central problem posed by the film’s time travel premise lays to the side abandoned. The presence of a modern warship capable of destroying the entire invading force and perhaps ending a war before it starts is a premise which demands a resolution (otherwise, why bring it up in the first place?) more dedicated to the speculative complexity of the situation than an intention to act (the eventual reasoning of Capt. Yelland is quite persuasive) which is undone by another of the gimmicky shortcuts of coincidence which end up trivializing not only the entire situation but any of the film’s philosophical arguments. The film ultimately places more value in the inevitability of events as being fixed in time rather than in the ingenuity of its four screenwriters to resolve their own premise with anything more potent than a shoulder shrug and a weak ‘Twilight Zone’ twist which has little to do with the film’s grander historic possibilities than advancing to the forefront the suggested love story emerging between Owens and a rescued 1941 civilian Laurel Scott (Katharine Ross); a poor substitution for a promised clash between juxtaposed historical forces.  In the end, the script simply has the unexplained time warp (a dumbly imagined whirlpool that looks like the liquid spiral from an immense solarized garbage disposal, courtesy of James Bond title designer Maurice Binder) make a timely revisitation just when the film finally decides to move in a particular direction, nullifying the necessity of ,not only each and every character in the film, but the almost fetishistic attention to detail with all of that shiny military hardware that is lovingly caressed by the camera in a bizarre ritualistic dance of jingoism that turns out to wear no clothes.
 
“Final Destination”  (2000)  An ersatz slasher film in which the usual faceless and unstoppable knife wielder is replaced by a sadistically merciless Grim Reaper with a predilection toward Rube Goldberg-like execution schematics, “Final Destination” presents a situation wherein a high school group (mercifully bereft of the usual shallowly brainless horndogs, these characters are happily ordinary and thus subject to far more comfortable sympathies) miss a field trip flight to France- due to circumstances involving a panicked reaction to precognitive visions  -which almost immediately explodes during takeoff; the premise which constitutes the rest of the film presumes that Death is not one to be lightly cheated, and so pursues the unlucky survivors with a dedication to unnaturally complicated deaths which often verge on the ludicrously ridiculous. “Final Destination” is also a stylistically schizophrenic film, which initially imbues the smallest of trivial details with palpable menace; every scene magnified as a portent of horrible inevitability. It is this fatalistic inevitability that saturates the opening exposition of the story with a dread that curiously dissipates once the bodies start to pile up (disappointingly veering from eeriness to far less impressive shock effects), so distractedly fixated does the film become over the nuts and bolts cleverness of its homicidal set-ups. There is inevitable suspense generated in situations where characters must somehow survive such occasions of supernatural deck stacking, though the film becomes a bit depressing when it becomes clear that fate holds a casino-like “house” advantage toward characters whose only function is to portray clay pigeons. However, the film is made with a general level of skill and polish that is refreshing in the serial death genre, acted with a pleasing if unchallenging professionalism and even effectively scored with sensibly restrained but chilly musical cues that breathe a cold hand on the back of the neck, until the absurdity of the plot overpowers whatever aesthetic accomplishment the filmmakers have mustered.
 
“First Blood”  (1982)  Ked Kotcheff’s “First Blood” shows considerable alterations from David Morrell’s trashy source novel of the same name, the majority of the most significant alterations conceding to the bloodlust of the marketable action movie audience in which matters of personal honor are superseded by a Rockyesque root-for-the-underdog drama, probably not coincidental since the screenplay was co-written by perpetual movie underdog Sylvester Stallone. However, after enduring a barrage of post-Vietnam era films portraying the American soldier as an uncontrollable psychopath unable to readjust to the either demonstrably caustic or apathetic civilian mindset, it is hardly a prescription of compensation to depict the same Vietnam vet as responding to that same arrogant dismissiveness by becoming an uncontrollable killing machine; antithetical toward an advancement in our understanding of the psychic damage done to hundreds of thousands, but certainly useful in reducing a national tragedy into a venue for the basest of gladiatorial huzzahs complete with bombastic scoring that is designed to stir the audience into a frenzy. The protagonist of “First Blood”, ex-Special Service soldier John Rambo (Stallone), is presented as a man fated to an unending chain of societal abuse and dislocation, until circumstances warrant that he is unable to respond by any means but through a violent retaliatory instinct instilled in him by the American military, especially by his commanding officer Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna), who arrives on the scene like the proverbial cavalry, not to diffuse the situation, but to regularly remind Brian Dennehy’s bullying sheriff (whose unmerited abuse of Rambo stupidly instigated the situation in the first place) that the combined forces of state and local police and militia will be no match against this one man armed with a knife and makeshift poncho. (The cinematic fantasy image of the invincible super-soldier-  or super-cop  -never explains the continuance of war or crime when such dynamos are capable of single-handedly mopping up the enemy within minutes.) Kotcheff makes effective use of the mountainous landscapes which infuse several of the action sequences with an abstractive eeriness; a primeval setting worthy of “Deliverance” but equally lacking in the cumulative depth of thematic resonance- far more disturbing in that earlier, more qualitatively sourced film  -but nonetheless eventually damaging to the film’s existent theme. The film is uninspired in its construction but damnably effective if one’s appetite is limited to a film version of being continuously punched in the face: the shallow pool of ideas (there is only one direction for the film to move and it’s not pretty) apparently able to stymie the filmmakers as the movie ends with an anticlimactic assault on empty convenience stores, neon fixtures and telephone poles (a wittier film would have used this as an attack on the symbols of soulless capitalism, but here it’s just an excuse for more gunfire) and an eleventh hour monologue by Rambo that may well crudely articulate the frustration of the Vietnam vet, but is unfortunately garbled by Stallone’s delivery.
 
“Gilda Live” (1980) Prominently emblazoned on the poster advertising “Gilda Live” is the curious assertion that “Things like this can only happen in the movies”, a rather bizarre statement for a film which is a shameful compendium of lukewarm leftover material previously presented- with obvious alterations -on broadcast television. Collecting a number of characters she made famous on the “Saturday Night Live” television show, original cast member Gilda Radner follows fellow alumni Chevy Chase, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd to the big screen in this concert film which replicates her 1979 one-woman stage show “Gilda Radner: Live From New York” during its run at the Colonial Theater in Boston, though instead of making the broad leap to the cinema with material which might challenge the young comedienne out of the comfort zone of already proven, repetitive presentations of characters, the material is very familiar territory to veteran watchers of those early years of “SNL” with the venerable staples of her comedic repertoire- Roseanne Roseannadanna, Emily Litella, Judy Miller, Lisa Looper et al., though what proved funny on initial broadcast, and more so in the live stage performance, becomes tiresome and strained on the third go-round, the film coming across as a crassly mercenary attempt to suck the well dry of an experience that was already on a screen only smaller, and free. There are a few funny moments, but the translation from live stage to film seems to knock the energy out of the performances, and it doesn’t help that Mike Nichols, no stranger to stage or film, should find himself unable to capture the physical comedy properly (the framing always seem askew and distracted) with an abundance of odd shots of feet recurring throughout the skits which either indicate a midget as camera operator or an ill-placed homage to Buñuel’s favored fetishistic obsession.
 
 
 “Give ’em Hell, Harry!”  (1975) Essentially a filmed (actually videotaped and transferred to film) performance of the one-man play by Samuel Gallu, with James Whitmore delivering a winning, engaging performance as President Harry S. Truman, harmoniously directed by Steve Binder following the stage direction of Peter H. Hunt. For such a limiting, unremarkable (in cinematic terms) visual event, the film accomplished a great deal: not only documenting a distinguished theatrical performance, but emphasizing the usefulness of recording the efforts of one cultural form with the tools of another. This came in the midst of the ambitious Ely Landau American Film Theatre experiment (a separate cultural effort linked to this film by artistic intention), which ended as a commercial failure, yet fortified the synergistic possibilities between the legitimate stage and the cinema. Unfortunately, this experiment came to a conclusion just at the dawning of the blockbuster (with the Summer of “Jaws”), thus ending the atmosphere for such eclectic, artistically challenging enterprises on a nationally released scale. Binder’s film, while often technologically crude in it’s recording technology, is blessed with the attraction of a magnetic central performance and a written script which enlightens, illuminates and, most of all, entertains. It may not be much to look at, but a great deal of fuel can be added to the critical debate of form versus content with a viewing of this film.
 
“Godzilla” (1998)  The Americanized version of Toho’s “Gojira” franchise is about nothing if not large, gaudy set-pieces. There are dozens of scenes, each involving catastrophic property damage, noisy weaponry and variable special effects, all topped off with a dollop of some truly execrable screenwriting and stereotypically boobish cartoon cutouts substituting as recognizable human characters. In other words: a typical Roland Emmerich blockbuster. The basic premise of a large behemoth running amok in a modern city is hardly a new concept unless we ignore the 1925 silent feature “The Lost World”,or 1933’s “King Kong” or 1953’s “The Beast From 20.000 Fathoms” or any number of Harryhausen features, or…well, you get the idea. In this version, the great creature from Ishiro Honda’s 1955 Japanese epic is reduced, if not in size then in stature. Each is a product of incautious nuclear testing, but where the original film (itself reduced in reputation by a disgraceful, increasingly infantile progression of kiddie matinee sequels) is a cautionary allegory on the misuse of science beyond Man’s nature to control wrapped in the trappings of a noirish mystery while neatly defining the emerging kaiju genre, Emmercih’s version is about CRASH, BANG, BOOM! The laziness of the film’s reconception is staggering, not helped by an entirely inappropriate Matthew Broderick in the lead (Was Ralph Macchio unavailable?) and a roster of Valley Girl wannabees, Ebert and Siskel clones (Was this meant to be funny or genuinely as annoying as it is?) and the usual cloddish soldier types. (Why would an operation of this magnitude be left in the hands of a Sergeant? Just asking.) that make you wonder if the screenwriters had ever met another human being? The helicopter pursuits are ludicrous, adhering to neither the laws of physics (they buzz around like mosquitoes) and are insanely bunched together, amid model work that suggest every building in New York is at least fifty stories tall. Key question: How did Animal and Audrey simply stroll back into Manhattan through a subway tunnel when there was a major point made earlier that all access tunnels had been sealed?
 
  “Godzilla” (2014)  There is a harrowing momemt very early on in Gareth Edwards’ busy butempty Americanized version of Toho perennial “Godzilla” in which the horror of a critical failure in a nuclear facility is made heartbreakingly personal when the wife of a plant supervisor is condemned to quickly die from radiation exposure during a reactor breach; their final moments of intimate contact separated by the closing windows of security doors, suddenly closing all past and future  in a matter of seconds. That the scene is given its emotional weight from the participation of the exquisite Juliette Binoche (her prominently billed role is in actuality an extended cameo) who in a few brief scenes manages to convey a humanity that when cut off is deeply felt, which becomes problematic for the rest of the film as paradoxically, this early introductory infusion of intense emotions makes the subsequent flat human element seem more threadbare and  cynically manipulative in a noxiously Spielbergian manner (you lose count of how many children in peril are forced to the forefront for no good reason).  Nothing in the rest of the film, with its endless panoramic visions of cities laid waste and countless, faceless extras scattered about ruins (many probably digitally generated for that very special human empathy Hollywood seems to have lost the ability to comprehend) The problem with the newest incarnation of the atomic lizard is that outside of the opening sequence, the film is seen through the blandly inexpressive eyes of actors who are portraying mere spectators to the plot (what there is of it, and would actually pale in comparison to something as trivial as “Godzilla Vs. the Smog Monster”) rather than pro-active participants. In the end, no actions by the humans make a bit of difference to the plot, nor (more critically) do they seem have that intention. Instead, there is a series of muddy and indifferently shot kaiju battle sequences (the original “Gojira” contained nighttime sequences which contribute to the noir-like quality to the film, whereas the proliferation of modern monster films obscured by darkness, fog, rain and shaky cameras seems designed to merely frustrate viewers and to disguise any seams in the effects work, which is variable at best) that feature the title behemoth with the far more prominent MUTOs (an acroynic pair of monsters who resemble a hybrid breeding of the bugs from “Starship Troopers” with a Scottish deer hound, but a definite- and unnecessary  -nod to the parade of silly stompers of Tokyo over the decades), fights that are distinguished by their utter lack of distinction: after a while, one gutted cityscape looks like another, nor does the largely generically doughy cast (the talented Sally Hawkins and Ken Watanabe are wasted in inert roles which give little to do except to stare apprehensively) leave little impression to distinguish themselves from the pixelated surroundings.  Still, with all of the misapplied effort and resource onscreen, who would have imagined that the most magical special effect would be a French actress’ smile?
 
 
“Great Gatsby, The”  (1974) Opulent but inert rendering of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, Jack Clayton’s  film is a Cliff Notes version of the book, substituting glistening dampness in Mia Farrow’s Klieg lamp orbs instead of finding a useful cinematic translation to Fitzgerald’s artfully understated text. Robert Redford plays the eponymous Jay Gatsby as mannequin lashed with constrictive girdles; he is so physically stiff it becomes a question whether he found no center of the character to base a performance on, or if he’s suffering from a feature length episode of paralytic stage fright. Farrow is simply disastrously miscast as Daisy Buchanan, her trademark tremulous waif-like persona as foreign to an object of tragically misapplied romantic longing as the desire of a thirsty man to drink a glass of dust.   No one is helped by the crudity of Francis Coppola’s thumb-in-the-eye level of screenplay adaptation which submerge Fitzgerald’s fragile ironies with unnecessary allusions to rougher elements more apropos to his  own “The Godfather” films than anything important in the source novel. Clayton, who has demonstrated  sensitivity,  finesse and gentility in past productions acts as tour guide through a waxworks of poseurs and gargoyles (Karen Black is particularly offensive) without eliciting one moment of the tragic poetry the novel is built on. Sam Waterston is nicely cast in the most important role of Nick Carroway, who no filmmaker has yet to realize provides the most important interpretive  perspective to the tale’s themes; it’s really his story. In the interest of truth in advertising, the film would be more appropriately titled “The Less Than Mediocre Gatsby”.
 
“Guilt Trip, The”  (2012)  If there is a gap of attitudinal understanding (more like a chasm if Hollywood is to be believed) between parents and their adult children, one must wonder what influence the movies have played in both defining and enthusiastically championing such generational rifts. Certainly the parent was traditionally seen as the ultimate harbinger of wisdom and guidance during the Production Code era, where the Biblical Commandment “Honor Thy Mother and Father” was scrupulously adhered to in spirit-  with the novelty exception of comically inclined [the “Blondie” series] portrayals or portraits of exaggerated familial eccentricity [“You Can’t Take It With You”]  -whereas in more contemporary times (no doubt given the illusion of credibility by an accelerated tendency toward unrelenting parental incompetence tolerated by far more clever [read: unconscionably bratty one-liner machines] progeny on television sitcoms) an antithetical antagonism has become the media depicted norm. More often than not, contrivance is the rule of the day in order to maintain and perpetuate this insulting model of ageist disfunction which presumes that anyone of a later generation must be a doddering idiot unequipped with the slightest filter for creating embarrassing public interactions. This formula is put to strenuous testing in Anne Fletcher’s “The Guilt Trip” in which the parental character fluctuates between caring mom and social gargoyle. When organic chemist Andy Brewster (Seth Rogan, well cast for once) inexplicably invites his mother Joyce (Barbra Streisand, who, it seems, has finally surrendered to roles more suitable for Molly Picon)) on his cross-country road trip across America-  in which he is attempting to sell his “revolutionary” new cleaning product ScioClean (as if such vegetable-based products didn’t already exist) to national retail chains  -predictable tensions ensue which form what are supposed to  be hilariously heartrending moments in the pair’s loving but tumultuous relationship; all of which seems solely predicated on the immediate needs of the script for alternating episodes of gags and gagging. The contrivance of the situations in Dan Fogelman’s script is so blatantly forced in its attempts at emotional manipulation, it is difficult not to feel empathetically manhandled, especially during those sweetly funny moments that actually work (usually with the addition of a character uninvested in the son-mother dynamic: a resourceful stripper who easily fixes their car with her shoe, a dashing stranger {Brett Cullen} who assists Joyce in a bizarre bout of marathon eating), as these scene show what kind of goofy Americana road picture (think “The World’s Fastest Indian”) this might have been with a much better script. The film is ultimately disappointing as the unlikely pairing of Rogan and Streisand does elicit a pleasant chemistry during the few rare quiet moments but is largely wasted when the script becomes more interested in shamelessly bullying the audience into activating the tear ducts.
 
 “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral”  (1957)  John Sturges’ rousing “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” could never be confused with an historical study aid; the film is structured as an illustrative compliment to the ballad form, here colorfully vocalized by Frankie Laine, and commensurate with the said form, the story is related as an inflated tale of mythic heroics. However, as an unashamed piece of pure Hollywood hokum, there is much to recommend. Burt Lancaster portrays frontier legend Wyatt Earp as a puritanical figure of almost demonically possessed dimensions; his unwavering morality seems to exaggerate the actor’s signature physical rigidity (no one moved as gracefully while remaining as physically robotic as Lancaster) to the point where the lawman gives the impression of being unequipped with knees and elbows. As conceived, Earp’s job would appear psychologically incomplete unless he was able to clean up the entire West of all purveyors of lawlessness; which means just about everyone without the name Earp. This brand of core piety might be difficult to bear were he not complimented with initial irritant and later close friend, Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas). Douglas’ irresistible performance (seldom has an actor seemed to enjoy himself this much in a western) creates a splendid counterpoint of personalities and performances; while Lancaster’s Earp seems poised to pose for a coin, Douglas’ Holliday is on the prowl, moving with the agility of a jungle cat toying with a mouse (he slams back those endless shots of whiskey like a cobra striking its prey), and this dichotomy of screen presence creates a comic tension in the film that is explosively entertaining: it’s like watching two vaudevillians in perfect synchronization. The remainder of the cast, while not a weak performance exists in the film, are less interestingly drawn and thus the supporting players are prone to be forgettable (this may also be due to the fact that scenarist Leon Uris reserves all of the best lines for Holliday), as few are given the opportunity to prove their importance in the storyline; especially noticeable in a romantic subplot which goes nowhere and needlessly slows down the otherwise brisk pace of the film. “Guns of the Magnificent Seven”  (1969)  It begins with the unmistakable fanfare of  a burst from the Elmer Bernstein theme music, and there the problems begin in a film which relies entirely on the goodwill generated from a different film and continuously reminds you of that earlier effort by inserting memorable musical cues from the 1960 original over new scenes which only make one nostalgic for those better moments and actors. This is the third go around for the central character of hired gun cum mercenary Chris, originated in John Sturges’ “The Magnificent Seven” and continued in “Return of the Seven”, in which the character-  now played by George Kennedy  -leads a new incarnation of the traditional band of seven. The Paul Wendko’s western “Guns of the Magnificent Seven”, is a film which, in accordance with the proliferation of both American financed, Spanish lensed adventures and the continued popularity of the Italian spaghetti western, is mostly set in and concerns the Mexican peasantry against the unjust forces of repressive militarism: the ever-popular Zapata film which joins both American efforts as “100 Rifles” and “El Condor” and Italian efforts Sergio Corbuicci’s “The Mercenary” and, more pointedly, his 1970 “Companeros”, to which Wendkos’ film seems to have given major inspiration.  To those familiar with the Sturges original (presuming a momentary disregard for the obvious debt to the original original source, Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai”), the film quickly runs through the usual violent expository set-up before moving into the introduction of Chris and sidekick du jour, in this case a horse thief named Keno (Monte Markham), who will become the first in Chris’ band of what will prove to be colorful though problematic recruits in a mission to free a surprisingly passive revolutionary leader Quintero (Fernando Rey, who plays a remarkably similar role in “Companeros”). None of the recruits seems particularly trustworthy nor skilled as opposed to the original Seven, nor are the numerous echoes of the original film (James Whitmore is saddled with an adoring child, much like Charles Bronson’s character, though in this case it serves little function except to excuse the blatant sentimentality of the ending) present with any particular service to this edition, though none of the actual variations have a particularly positive impact on the film. Kennedy himself is far too much a softy for his Chris to prove a very inspiring nor formidable leader of such a diverse group of misfits, which leaves the bulk of the energetic speechifying to the most unconvincing member of the group, the inexperienced young Mexican Max (Reni Santoni), who proves-  against all odds, or perhaps merely through convenient contrivance  -to instill the fiery voice of revolution within the surrounding rebels who, like the cavalry, swoop in at the eleventh hour to save the Seven’s hides. Not only does this undercut the need for Chris and his bunch (and thus, the film), but it also makes the character of  irrelevant. After all, if all it takes is a few words from Max to invest fighting spirit, who needs Quintero who spends the entire film looking pensive and whose only visible accomplishment in the Revolutionary cause is to manage to avoid becoming sweaty in the desert while wearing a three-piece suit?
 
  “Hitchcock” (2012)  Stephen Rebello’s tidy little book ‘Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of “Psycho”‘ is the type of bookshelf filler which sits precariously between industry gossip and inner sanctum rubbernecking and so it should come as no great surprise that a film finding its basis in such a work might be filled with a richness of technical detail while also proffering a smattering of personal detail by which a reasonably able filmmaker might offer a tantalizing bouillabaisse into the elusive process of turning pulp into pulp art. Unfortunately, such expectations are dashed by the film’s unnecessary turn (no doubt to stoke the flames of invisible controversies) into the realm of soda pop psychology and the degree in which the script by John J. McLaughlin is willing to peel away any evidence of cinematic intelligence from its eponymous subject and completely hand it over to another.  “Hitchcock” manages the overdue elevation of the unfairly overlooked contributions of the talented and resourceful Alma Reville to the Hitchcockian canon, but at the cost of stripping the director of any indication of  his own creative “genius” with the exception of making pithy quips at social occasions. Instead, the film obsessively focuses on Hitchcock’s predilection toward forming and controlling the ideal ‘Hitchcock Blonde’ and a completely unwarranted and intrusive recurring dreamscape in which the director enjoys an emotionally symbiotic relationship with serial killer (and Norman Bates model) Ed Gein (Michael Wincott). Indeed, there is an almost mean-spirited feminist flavor of comeuppance in the way the film manhandles the boys- all of whom are represented as cowardly, cuckolding, neurotic, immature and inept  -while reserving an excess of praise to the indomitable professionalism and poise of every woman in the frame. Of the cast both Helen Mirren and Danny Huston as Hitckcock’s wife and creative confidant Alma Reville and writer Whitfield Cook have the easier task of crafting performances which don’t rely on a mimicking of public figures-  though the fabrication of near-adultery between the two is a burden which neither serves the character of Alma nor the central backdrop of the film well at all  -thus escaping the inevitable and nasty business of waxworks comparisons (Yes, Scarlett Johansson looks like Janet Leigh from behind, but what is that chin prosthetic-  the make-up work is quite wretched  -which makes Hopkins’ Hitchcock often resemble the Elephant Man?) that are distracting to the business at hand; though James D’Arcy’s surprisingly brief turn as Anthony Perkins is both wittily unbalanced-  he appears as a walking facial tic  -and sympathetic. Unfortunately, the invaluable participation of screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio) is summarily dismissed as a result of one of Hitch’s bad jokes. Even those with only a casual knowledge of the making of “Psycho” will find nothing new to mine here, so what exactly is the purpose of the film?  “Hitchcock” ends up skirting the workmanlike process of creating a film from conception to premiere, but fudges on a much larger, more interesting subject: it ignores the artistry.
 
“House on Haunted Hill”  (1999)  William Malone’s “House on Haunted Hill”  is a reworking of the William Castle 1959 spook house thriller which is mainly notable as starring the memorable Vincent Price and by its use of theatrical gimmickry with Emergo-  a system whereby a skeleton would go flying over the audience at inopportune moments  -though, despite its cult status, the original film is not very good, a fact born out by even the most liberal scrutiny:  in other words, the ideal kind of film which might serve a reasonable candidate for a remake if one were so inclined. What becomes immediately apparent in the remake is that it takes the fullest advantage of the intervening liberalization of  sensory shock (thanks Dolby Stereo) and gratuitous violence, while becoming less reliant on the all important sense of dread which informs the greatest of horror films, while one might achieve the same level of shock if another audience patron’s suddenly claps their hands loudly behind your head: it may momentarily make you jump, but there’s no pretense of artistry in the action.  Five strangers with no apparent connection are invited (with the promise of a million dollars each for suffering through the evening) to celebrate the birthday of the shrewish wife (Famke Janssen) of eccentric millionaire theme park designer Steven Price (Geoffrey Rush clearly channeling the moustache if not the courtly gentility of Vincent Price), whose specialty seems to be producing needlessly elaborate roller coasters whose thrills are ridiculously designed to only fool patrons for a single use. That the identities of the guests and reason for their actually being invited to this exclusive soiree seem fairly superfluous (there is a brief explanation tossed out which doesn’t merit close inspection) which  is consistent with the general rule of such films in that the only purpose they serve is for the amusement of the audience in seeing them picked off one at a time; the cinematic version of pulling wings from a fly. That the “house” of the title is actually not a house at all but a former mental hospital with a gruesomely depicted background (which leaves little to the imagination as to what level of violent extremity the film is willing to pursue) is meant to explain the existence of a murderous-  and apparently timeless  -presence of a dark evil so powerful it absorbs the body and soul of any available victim though seems to be stymied by a thin layer of plaster wall. Once collected, the guests and their bickering hosts are sealed in the house/hospital and subjected to a series of torturous death throes with nary a member of the group considering the possibility of not wandering off by themselves a legitimate survival tactic. The film might be easily dismissed as generic horror fodder were it not for the performances of Janssen, Chris Kattan (as the owner of the property who seems to have far too much unknowable knowledge about the omniscience of the building’s evil but not enough to prevent the gathering in the first place) and especially Geoffrey Rush, who until he is withered by the limiting demands of the script’s formula, manages to make the mangy dialogue sound almost graced by genuine wit.
 
“How to Make a Monster”   (1958) This  not very mysterious murder mystery is a sort-of sequel to both “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” and the subsequent “I Was a Teenage Frankenstein” in that it features the monsters of the two referenced pictures (and “Teenage Frankenstein” star Gary Conway), though the relevance to the specific creatures is rather dishonestly stretched to capitalize on the popularity of the earlier movies, as the focus of the story is actually centered on obnoxiously long-winded studio make-up artist Pete Dumond (played with caustic self-aggrandizement bu Robert H. Harris) whose reaction to his firing is to suddenly develop an hypnotic cosmetic foundation which renders actors into willing instruments of death. The fact that Pete commits one of the homicides himself, in a meaningless disguise meant to illustrate his craft, only demonstrates how unnecessary the elaborate disguises and the need for murderous confederates are, except to give the illusion of complexity to a very meager story. Clumsy dialogue pointlessly extends the most minor plot points, while Herbert L. Strock’s painfully slow direction gives the escalating body count all of the urgency of an afternoon nap; extending the dramatic inertia even further with irrelevant padding including puzzling footage of a studio tour group which has nothing to do with the film, and entirely extraneous and shabbily executed musical number (which looks as though it could have used a great deal more rehearsal time) featuring the forgettable John Ashley. 
 
“Hyde Park on Hudson”  (2012) There are some films which require volumes to plumb the depths of meaning, the layers of artistry; while the quality (or lack thereof) of others is easily dissembled with the brevity of a footnote. “Hyde Park on Hudson” is of the latter variety, a film devised of such an incomprehensible level of badness one might best accompany the footnote with a covering heavy sock and an Odor Eater. In a move which prizes eccentricity (no matter how preposterously conceived) over fidelity to historical truth-  or even a modicum of dramatic logic  -Richard Nelson’s crazy quilt of a screenplay defines the figures involved in an important international meeting-  King George VI (the first sitting British monarch to visit the United States), Queen Elizabeth and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Bill Murray proving that much, if not all of his reputation as a budding dramatic actor is the result of sycophantic groveling by late nite talk show hosts) -as caricature of editorial cartoon grotesques: either as limp-minded  emotionally feeble aristocrats or a sexually predatory Mama’s boy (FDR’s personality profile-  as presented  -rather resembles a Norman Bates with wheelchair and cigarette holder) who just happen to be the heads of state empowered to resist history’s greatest push to fascist rule. The fact that the film is fueled primarily by letters between Roosevelt and his distant cousin and secretive romantic partner Daisy Suckley (a dull  Laura Linney) and her diaries may explain a trivialization of the proceeding to a certain level of gooey autumnal women’s romance, but there is no excusing the literally blasphemous bad SNL sketch level of degradation to which all of the characters are subjected, nor does it explain how the crucial centerpieces of the drama- those between FDR and George IV and the king and his wife  -are to be taken as anything more than as shabby fantasy enactments showing the limits of the screenwriter’s imagination as Suckley is no where in evidence on these occasions nor does there appear to be an honest consideration of adhering to any fidelity to history as the film continuously takes convenient detours into the shallow end of sleazy melodramatic flummery. There is simply no center to this Roger Michell production on which this confused amalgam of comedy and drama might find a thematic focus; the plot threads breezily floating about as gossamer thin suggestions of a narrative which appear and disappear without apparent rhyme or reason, often treading inconsistent ground on what has previously transpired, but all of it weightless and without consequence. “Hyde Park on Hudson” would have you believe that the events of state buried within the layers of personal dysfunction helped shape an alliance which would eventually lead to wartime victory, but if the filmmakers would have you believe real life were anything like depicted in their movie, we’d all be speaking German today.
 
“Istanbul” (1957)  Joseph Pevney’s “romantic” “adventure” starring a prematurely haggard Errol Flynn takes little time in revealing its immediate dramatic problems when an early cabaret scene featuring the dynamically engaging Nat King Cole is clearly going to be the highlight of the film. No where else within this cobbled together reconstruction of formula parts from “Casablanca” (it’s actually an unnecessary remake of 1947’s “Singapore”) and lesser intervening imitations, is there an equal sense of emotional fire or performance chemistry. Certainly the intended sparks between suspected jewel smuggler Flynn and the antiseptic studio import Hopeful-of-the-Month Cornell Borchers (who has to win the prize for the all-time worst name for an actress in the short history of cinema) produces nary a damp flint’s spark; an unsurprising result as Flynn eyes seem to light up only on those occasions when he is picking up a drink, while Borchers seems to be an unfortunate amalgam of a low-grade imitation of Ingrid Bergman combined with the chilled sexlessness of Julie Andrews (Her amnesiac condition suggests she might also have forgotten how to act like an engaged human being.). Flynn’s James Brennan is a pilot whose sense of adventure is expressed in the actor’s signature cavalier attitude, which might  carry more weight if he didn’t look so puffily ravaged by years of cumulative self-abuse. There are  extended flashback sequences which dispel any of the film’s later assertions that Brennan is anything but a stand-up guy and so there aren’t even the shadier edges to which the Rick Blaine formula might be applied. The film takes great pains to occasionally show off some picturesque angles of the intriguing title city, though the uncomfortable impression left is that such generic material could have been more thriftily served through a bit of creative fakery of any corner of the Universal backlot. Werner Klemperer breathes some much needed life into the proceedings as your standard seedy criminal type who find high employment in these types of low-grade global “adventures”, though the recurring forced humor (so reminiscent of the first “tourism” pseudo-comedy of Hitchcock’s remake of “The Man Who Knew Too Much”) and neither Leif Erickson nor Peggy Knudsen (both game but no cigar) can bring life to their listlesly written domestic squabbling. “Istanbul” manages to be something that none of Flynn’s earlier Warner Brothers efforts were, despite their variable quality in critical retrospection: dull.
 
“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”  (2014)  The problem with the rebooting of a franchise is that it presumes both an interest by an already built-in audience (those who patronized the initial film efforts) to follow a new incarnation that is non-linear to the stories already told, and that it demands a not altogether fair (to that same audience) abandonment of all the information assimilated from prior incarnations; a virtual slap in the face to the viewer that they have been callously seduced into wasting a great deal of their time. Director Kenneth Branagh’s energetic espionage thriller “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”, the latest reboot, this time involving Tom Clancy’s eponymous CIA operative, unfolds like a cheap but satisfying (to a point) pulp novel: full of brutish energy, stupidly breathless action and not a minimum of narrative illogic-  a modern version of an abridged Republic serial  -though the chasm of continuity between Branagh’s film, which presumes to chronicle the recruitment and initial mission of Jack Ryan in the Intelligence fold, and previous chapters in the series may be generously considered contradictory, beginning with undercutting prior assertions beginning with “The Hunt for Red October” that character was strictly an analyst and not a field operative prior to that movie’s specific mission. However, the myriad background points which are altered from that original film might be partially excused by the fact that this fresh take on the character is executed with a surprising buoyancy that manages to place Ryan’s career in a sensible post 9/11 context, though the eventual plot-  involving a secretive manipulation and collapse of American currency brought on by the distraction of a coordinated terrorist event  -harkens back to Cold War motivational tensions rather than more contemporaneous geopolitical crises, and the film is most successful when it pauses long enough for the characters to delineate these intractable philosophical schisms in several sharply directed, performed and written scenes in which even simple dinner conversation is riddled with multiple layers of mutual obfuscation. That the film necessarily indulges in an initial amount of background exposition sufficient to introduce the principle characters of the story-  Ryan (Chris Pine), his girlfriend Cathy (Keira Knightley), his CIA recruiter and section chief Tom Harper (Kevin Costner, more authoritative and relaxed than he’s been in years) and his Russian nemesis Viktor Cherevin (Branagh)  -naturally whets out appetite for continued development of these same characters (especially since a reboot suggests more films to follow) that eventually gets swallowed in the later half of the film when the mechanics of the modern thriller take over and submerge the actors in an overabundance of action on top of action (thus the allusion to Republic serials where the whole point of any chapter is merely to set-up the cliffhanger) during which the movie loses its intended signatory identity with Clancy’s agent and might just as easily be replaced with Jason Bourne. Unaccountably, the one character given no expository attention is the important sleeper operative to whom the responsibility of carrying out the terrorist operation itself; an unfortunate gap in the procedural balance of the story in which the main characters are inevitably given less an antagonist to pursue than a B-movie type: the face of modern global terror is reduced to a virtually faceless, emotionless killing machine reminiscent not of Ludlum’s Jason, but of his namesake from Camp Crystal Lake.
 
“Junior Bonner” (1972) Extremely methodical rhythms give definition to this modern day western concerned with rodeo riders and the continued closing of the West; here taking the form of an interruption of tradition (especially familial) as opposed to already suffocating geographic restrictions. Steve McQueen brings a patient nobility to his role as the torch bearer of the Bonner family (his parents ably played by Ida Lupino and Robert Preston) profession in the rodeo circuit, whereas his sibling, played by Joe Don Baker (who depending on the role, is either a welcome presence, or an obnoxious distraction- here conceding to the latter circumstance) is all bull-in-the-china-shop gracelessness as someone who would rather bulldoze the old homestead rather than actually ride a bull. Peckinpah would appear to have something in mind of a more meditative (rather than his usual violence as metaphor trademark) intent, but is seriously hampered by a script that simply lacks a third act; allowing the film to devolve into an extended (and supposedly comic) barroom brawl that seems to go on for days, and featuring a few flashes of his use of slow motion violence that under such absurdly meaningless circumstances, reduces his signature technical mastery to a case of self-deprecation.
 
“Last Embrace” (1979)  Such is the continuous flow of discontented comment expressed about what constitutes a “bad” film (nobly assisted by a film industry which strains to give a new voice to every emergent theory on a weekly basis) that when a movie of such undeniable awfulness alights on a theater screen, the eager (though tired) critical cutlery will emerge to begin the latest seminar of dissection or, in extreme cases, prior commentary might be brought to its knees with the emergence of an altogether unprecedented level of offense.  When it is uncertain as to whether or not a thriller is intended as a parody, its a fairly good indication things aren’t working out as planned. Jonathan Demme’s “Last Embrace” is a spy movie by made film makers with the delicate touch of an arcade claw machine; the acting is atrocious, the writing sub-literate and the entire production is enveloped in a hazy murk of incomprehensibility that give new meaning to the phrase “you’ve got to be kidding”. The film opens with an assassination in a foreign cafe that is so drearily shot and enacted, you just know its going to be a long…long…long evening. Imponderables pile on top of improbabilities as secret agent Roy Scheider (its one of those kind of movies so uninvolving its easier just to remember the actor’s names than the characters) spends an inordinate amount of time fussing over lipstick tubes with coded messages rather than advancing the plot- even an extended incident of a nervous breakdown after the assassination, a plot point one might normally think important under the circumstances, is given blink-and-you’ll-miss-it attention -and so there are an accumulation of bizarre scenes with the likes of Mandy Patinkin, Christopher Walken and Charles Napier which presumably are supposed to be contributory but only serve to clutter the frame. Janet Margolin delivers what can only be identified as the first truly schizophrenic performance in film history (perhaps in the spirit of unified channeling, she’s referring to her role in “David and Lisa”) or was Demme shooting two different films simultaneously and mixing the footage in editing.? Even the formidable Niagara Falls comes off badly, neither beauteous nor menacing (for both see Henry Hathaway’s “Hitchcock” film “Niagara”) but like the rest of the film: simply all wet.
 
“Logan’s Run”  (1976)  If Michael Anderson’s film of “Logan’s Run” is an admittedly reduced version of the source novel by William F. Nolan and  George Clayton Johnson, it is neither the bastardization of a deep work (Whose reputation has grown by unread but presumed leaps and bounds ever since the release of the film.), nor does it render the slim points of the novel meaningless; rather it is a typical middle-ground effort by Hollywood to encapsulate even the most meager of SF literature’s intellectual content by way of a transmutation (always wholly ineffective but if anything is certain is that movie studios never-  ever  -learn lessons) of ideas into grandiose production design which is intended to single-handedly impart the concept of a legitimate back story onto an undeveloped sociopolitical developmental evolution simply by stylistic grandiosity of it’s architecture. If, however, the first shots of said film comprise several patently phoney miniatures, are the minute dimensions of the film’s ambitions given an equally presumptive editorial evaluation?  Dystopian futurism is mixed with hedonism and not a small chaser of ageism in a not particularly well developed story of a domed post-apocalyptic society in which the population is entirely comprised of people under the age of thirty (and an apparent homogeneous ethnicity)after which they must undergo a ceremony known as Carousel (a sort of anti-gravitational microwave in which the participants ascend and burst into sparks to the amusement of the gathered audience), during which a promised chance of Renewal is in the offering. (There is symbolism associative with religious parallels scattered throughout the film, but none are developed.) The authoritative Sandmen (a name carried from the novel but rendered meaningless with the removal of the original method of death- voluntary euthanasia by toxic gas) enforce the smooth operation of the status quo and pursue and kill “runners”: those whose time is up but attempt to elude being turned into human sparklers. Naturally, from the title of the film, the predominant Sandman (for the purposes of the story, anyway), Logan 5 (Michael York) has his Timeclock (the imbedded crystal in every citizen’s palm which signals their vintage, but probably also makes it difficult to grip a ball, which may explain the absence of sports in a society engineered exclusively for recreational pleasure) altered by the inevitable computer which controls everything (just who builds these things anyway?) in order for him to infiltrate a suspected organization of killjoys who resist fiery execution and assist runners to a mythical place called Sanctuary. Logan is assisted in this quest by rebel Jessica 6 (Jenny Agutter), who despite her early suspicions too easily becomes a good sport in Logan’s suddenly frantic self-interested escape (he is uncertain as to whether his compromised time allowance will be restored) and soon falls into a predictable pattern of standard SF movie eye candy. What is extraordinary about the film is its almost unashamed absence of ideas. What is the purpose of constructing an entire futuristic civilization (actually shot in various Texas shopping malls and lobbies, and looking every bit of it) with the requisite structural anomalies, only in the service of a dopey story that is easily wrapped up with a fistfight and a few explosions? (The film presents the usual puzzling inconsistencies, such as: if the entire society is designed for mindless pleasure (except for the Sandmen whose job could actually be regarded as a recreational activity for violence-prone bullies), just who maintains all of the endless miles of dripping pipes and conduits we see during Logan’s run? Richard Jordan adds a welcome edge to his role of fellow Sandman Francis 7, and there is a goofy, if overly cute performance by Peter Ustinov as the “Old Man” who lives in the ruins of the Capitol Senate Chamber with thousands of cats, but what’s it all for? The film fails to even think through the logical consequences of its own actions: in the end, Logan “saves” the population of the city from itself (though no one was asking him to in the first place) and opens their future to a bright new world, but one can only imagine that when these clueless, vacant citizens wake up the next morning and, thanks to Logan, they angrily find that they now have to fend for themselves, our favorite Sandman will discover a new incentive to run.
 
“Lost in Space”  (1998)  Nostalgia often bathes a rosy patina upon material, which by way of sentiment or initial exposure during a more innocent and impressionable age (i.e. we were too young to know any better), finds a contented foothold in the back alleys of the memory, paying little heed to the caveat that all that glitters in the mind’s eye is usually fool’s gold. A case in point being Stephen Hopkins’ film of the 1960’s television perennial “Lost in Space”, itself an updated hybrid of the beloved Johann Wyss novel ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’ by that purveyor of  taste and nuance, Irwin Allen. The film follows the same basic premise of the TV series-  the stranding of a familial crew on a deep space mission, floundering in uncharted cosmic waters  -though, to be sure, there are the expected updates to make the film feel more hip and contemporary; the kind of contextual tweaks which almost ensure that no one will find enjoyment between the opening credits and the closing, and wildly inappropriate hip-hop arrangements. First of all, the mission is one of desperation: the Jupiter II (What happened to Jupiter I?) is being sent on a mission to the only charted planet discovered to be habitable to human life, a fortunate circumstance since pollution and overuse of Earth’s resources have rendered the Big Blue Marble uninhabitable, though the ship’s mission to reach the distant planet Alpha Prime so that Prof. John Robinson (William Hurt) may lead in the construction of a companion hypergate (a huge mechanical donut in space through which one travels for immediate arrival on the other end) would seem to be more practical if his ship were manned by actual engineers and construction crews with equipment as opposed to his caustic, whining brood who spend much of the journey in an interstellar version of kicking the front seat of the car, though in this case, a uselessly spacious and empty flying saucer. The dysfunction of the family is supposed to provide the fractious multi-generational edge favored by filmmakers completely ill at ease with their basic material (Scorsese went over the cliff with such domestic discord in his tasteless, Max Cady as Freddy Krueger version of “Cape Fear”): when honestly developed drama won’t suffice, bring in the generic disharmony. (This reignites the argument against a family-based voyage which is intended to save the planet as a crew enjoying a more stable mental environment would surely be preferable in something as minor as saving Earth’s population, than a brood of bitchy kids.) With the addition of the combative relationship between the ever-oily  would-be saboteur Dr. Smith (here played with effortless, and therefore rather tiresome, fifty degrees of duplicitous irony by Gary Oldman) and the irritable hotshot pilot Don West (Matt LeBlanc, who speaks as if every syllable were wrapped in peanut butter), the human crew is launched, encountering the usual weekend road trip perils of alien spacecrafts, time bubbles, mechanical spiders, a cartoony CGI alien which is inserted every time the real-life actors aren’t irritating enough, earthquakes, berserk robots and a problematic path directly into the Sun; though the incredibly maze-like structure of contrary timelines devised by scenarist Akiva Goldsman puts all of this aside for a collection of the most insipidly rendered portraits of romantic gamesmanship (between West and the cold as a carp elder Robinson daughter Judy [Heather Graham]) ever put on film: if this is a representation of the human contribution to galactic homesteading, perhaps the far reaches are better off with the spiders and the kaleidoscopic cartoon monkeys. “Lost in Space” is the kind of expensive, cluttered and pointless (it was certainly designed with deliberation to disappoint any fan of the original, so who was this for anyway?) assembly line fodder that makes your teeth hurt from the necessity of reflex wincing-  to quote the original Dr. Smith (one last flash of nostalgia before cultural rigor mortis sets in): “The pain, the pain.”
 
 “Love Story”  (1970)  “Love Story” is a tearjerker of a romantic film that intends to be nothing less or more than a tearjerker romantic film (even the title is more than a little generic, and entirely characteristic of the film’s formulaic leanings), to the point that the deadly fate in store for the female half of the featured couple is revealed in the opening moments, so as to not waste a moment in the audience exercising anticipatory squeezings of the tear ducts. The early announcement that the girl in question was “twenty-five, beautiful and loved me” is all well and good as an epiteph, yet the introduction smacks of callously manipulative chicanery, as we are asked to share in the mourning for a character we have yet to meet. When we finally meet Oliver Barrett IV (Ryan O’Neal) and Jennifer Cavalleri (Ali MacGraw), the reasons for the opening salvo of tragic exhaltation expressed in a vacuum is made eminently clear as the pair is a match made in someone’s cynical idea of heaven: both are snobby, rude, obnoxious and satisfied with their own superiority, usually expressed in a playfully argumentative banter that is meant to express charm, but only make one long for the good old days of genuine wit and charm (not to mention a magical brand of affection) expressed by the likes of William Powell and Myrna Loy. That this throughly unlikable duo will be the guides into a emotional whirlwind of callow romance and premature death leads to a distracting mental guessing game (are they supposed to be this off-putting or are they simply horrible actors?), perhaps explaining the need for Francis Lai’s syrupy score to be ladled on with a large shovel every time the director Arthur Hiller feels the need for an artificial emergency insertion of something resembling intimate human connections. (Lai’s previous successful excursions in Euro-romance with “Un homme et une femme” and “Vivre pour vivre” might make him seem ideal for such a plummy assignment, but even a lively tunesmith can’t make excrement smell any sweeter.) The romance is swift and littered with painful sarcasm, with a pronounced disdain for old power and money (despite the fact these unfortunate waifs attend the evidentlyless-than-reputable Harvard and Radcliffe), and with a teeth-grinding attitude toward the older generation that is either expressed as contempt (Oliver toward his family) or insulting condescension (Jennifer and Oliver toward her father); an obvious nod to the then-current youth revolution, though the political content of the film’s world is nil, nor does anyone seem to notice that as a modern couple (they marry in a nondenominational, personalized ceremony) Oliver is entirely comfortable with his little woman surrendering all plans for her own career to do laundry and dust the hovel. Jennifer’s imminent demise, caused by an unexplained movie disease which seems to beautify the patient as they near the Grim Reaper, is overshadowed in Erich Segal’s successful novelization of his script, though the film excludes a final reconcilliation scene which seemed to be the climatic tear factory the entire film is working toward, though the emotions spontaneously and surprisingly expressed in that scene were felt to be inappropriate to a film that celebrates stubborn shallowness over cathartic sincerity. A crying shame. 
 
 “Mackenna’s Gold” (1969) Marshal Sam Mackenna (Gregory Peck) is kidnapped by long-time nemesis John Colorado (Omar Sharif) and his gang who believe the lawman is privy to the location of a spectacularly rich lode of gold in J. Lee Thompson’s misguided attempt at reconciling western legend with  encroaching modern western sensibilities, “Mackenna’s Gold”. Part treasure hunt, part cowboys vs. Indians vs. cavalry adventure, part caper, part romantic triangle, the film attempts many guises, but callously emerges as a weak representation of a colossal tall tale unraveled by the incohesive sum of its parts. It’s an epic that feels small, not in an intimate way but in a failure to make any of the characters feel larger than life; the shoddy writing make you feel claustrophobic (quite an accomplishment for a film which mostly takes place in endless panoramic vistas) as you follow the reprehensible group of moral homunculi whose obsessive lust for the legendary Lost Adams Gold becomes an all-encompassing excuse for brutality and cruelty on behalf of the filmmakers. At one point the film introduces a large group of townsfolk who promise to add texture to the enterprise,  especially when all are played by actors of talent and reputation-  Burgess Meredith, Lee J. Cobb, Eli Wallach, Edward G. Robinson and Anthony Quayle  -but they are,  for no particular reason, as blithely (and violently) disposed of as quickly as they are needlessly introduced, with only the later addition of an oily cavalry sergeant named Tibbs (no relation that other film authority, nor no reason to call this deficient murderer MISTER) played with uncharacteristically wobbly center of performance by Telly Savalas, as if  he couldn’t make head nor tails of the role. The film never quite makes up its mind if we’re supposed to laugh along with the bloody antics of the gang or be revolted by the unceasing backstabbing and double-crossing among comrades in lawlessness. If the unrelieved  gee whiz attitude toward butchery weren’t enough of a caveat, the film cheats on its climax by stopping the action dead in its tracks by reverting to still shots of the events, a staggeringly deflating exercise in empty visual novelty, as if it were ever an advisable course of action to suddenly reduce a 70mm production to an appreciation of the art of daguerreotypes? For a large scale production, the technical aspects of the film are appallingly shoddy looking-  much of the time the actors look as if they’re riding horses in the world’s cheapest looking process shots, while the special effects work (encompassing the entirety of the film’s advertised action highlights) is so incompetent it requires the assistance of suddenly frenetic editing to obscure whatever is supposed to be happening with the stuffed dolls, paint-by-numbers matte work and Tinkertoy miniatures. There are occasional intrusions of pretentiously sober narration by Victor Jory or reprises of José Feliciano singing a teeth-achingly annoying ballad about Old Turkey Buzzards attempting to imply the film has either Southwestern historical or cultural significance (it is, after all, loosely based on genuine Western lore), but even the many passing references to the sacred spiritual side of Apache life are illustrated in actual application by an arrow, hatchet or lance through the back.
 
“MacKintosh Man, The” (1973) One of the problems of being a major figure of a cultural form is that you’re expected to produce major works commensurate with your public status. John Huston’s spy thriller “The MacKintosh Man” puts new meaning in the term “cold war”: it’s one of the most antiseptic of espionage stories, with every character a cipher- and not for the sake of useful deception, but strictly of shallow conception -and a narrative which, at first, seems to withhold just enough information in every scene to engage a natural hunger of curiosity to see what will develop next, until it becomes clear (as one might suspect from the opening scene, if you’ve seen more than a handful of these kind of films) that it’s simply the same damned mole hunt, only played with far less conviction than ever before. (The finale signals a reversal of attitude in the film’s hero, Reardon- a British Intelligence agent played by Paul Newman, an odd bit of casting that is certainly the film’s greatest mystery -that renders meaningless everything that has come before, though irony is certainly beyond this film’s functioning intentions.) The film is brimming with possibilities of narrative density- dozens of possibly interesting characters are introduced only to be immediately forgotten -with even the eponymous MacKintosh expiring off-camera with the briefest of mentions. The script by Walter Hill is evident of the lean, spare style for which he is known, only this particular work is lean to the point of emaciation: there is no reason to care about anything that occurs, a feeling obviously shared by Huston who clearly saw this an occasion for a quick paycheck in his Irish backyard with a brief visit to Malta. Newman seems bored by the proceedings (you would have thought he would have learned a lesson from “Torn Curtain”- the film is actually reminiscent of one of Hitchcock’s colossal failures, but without the set pieces to occasionally be distracting), while icy, amateurish Dominique Sanda speaks her lines as if phonetically memorized: a brief quiet exchange between her Miss Smith and Newman’s Reardon is one of the most embarrassingly awkward recorded on film, their indescribable lack of chemistry finding an antidote to every moment of sexual tension generated in the spy genre since the inception of James Bond. Even the formidable James Mason is left with nothing to do but to ooze so much unctuous insincerity as the chief villain (it’s obvious he’s guilty of something from the first minutes of the film), he’d personally keep the industry of arrest warrant applications busy for weeks. Not that it matters, but the entire convoluted plot to introduce “the MacKintosh man” into a position to expose the counterspies makes no sense as British Intelligence wouldn’t possibly be aware of any specific plot to conduct a narratively significant jailbreak nor would they have any reason to suspect the bad guys would include their man in the plans.
 
“Mademoiselle Chambon”  (2009)  Stephané Brizé’s film of “Mademoiselle Chambon” reemphasizes the modern French cinema’s penchant- when not straining to copy the manufactured style of Hollywood’s blatantly commercial anti-style -toward emotional understatement; his characters seemingly communicate very little (dialogue is sparse but what there is is trenchant) except through the silent gestures, glances and even breaths drawn during the most emotionally addled of situations. Though ostensibly about adultery, the film brims with a sense of decency  that is quite unexpected; these are all good people- indeed, there is not a hint of malicious action throughout the entire film, but there is a great deal of pain- and not from the characters you would expect. Jean (Vincent Lindon) is a construction worker who is invited to speak at his young son’s classroom about his career by his son’s teacher Veronique Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain) and is later invited to her apartment to replace a pair of faulty windows. The initial scenes of Jean’s marriage are uniformly harmonious, betraying no sense of  domestic discontent, and he is also depicted as a patient and generous caregiver to his elderly father and even in the initial encounters between Jean and Miss Chambon, there is no indication of a desire for romantic or sexual solace. However, there are nervous tensions, which later blossom into shyly awkward expressions of friendship and later into tentaive romantic hungers; this especially during a key scene in which Jean is emotionally overwhelmed (though barely outwardly noticeable in keeping with the film’s extremely methodical tactfulness in emotional expression) by the playing of a classical music piece which unlocks hidden dimensions in the man. This is a film about the expression of emotions outside of the usual cinema artifice, concerning characters to whom their own feelings are as puzzling and confusing (often terrifying) in their inability to control. Graceful, subtle, for discerning filmgoers with the willingness to let a film wash over them instead of expecting the usual sensory assault and featuring impeccable performances by Vincent Lindon as Jean, Sandrine Kiberlain as the eponymous Mademoiselle Chambon, Aure Atilka as Jean’s wife Ann-Marie and Jean-Marc Thibault as Jean’s father.
 
 “Magnum Force”  (1973)  The adventures of San Francisco Police Inspector Harry Callahan continue in Ted Post’s “Magnum Force”; a film in which the enthusiasm for gratuitous bloodshed and mayhem actually rises appreciably from the standard set by Don Siegel’s 1971 “Dirty Harry”, along with a contradictory message against vigilantiism which seems in direct contrast to the startlingly high kill count of Eastwood’s homicide investigator.  Mobsters and other ne’er-do-wells who escape prosecution and punishment by the “system” are being systematically executed by rogue motocycle cops whose abilities seem to extend beyond skillful marksmanship (which is irrelevant considering most of the murders are committed at point blank range) into invisibility since some of the killings take place unnoticed within full view of heavily trafficked streets or bystanders. The film slowly relates the series of mysterious assassinations while simultaneously demonstrating Callahan’s unwavering campaign of crime deterence by way of  high velocity lead through vital organs, which inevitably leads to a crisis confrontation of philosophical gradation that the film is not intelligent enough to directly address and with Callahan dismissing the villain’s presumption that the Inspector is seated on an identical moral plateau with a casual comment about being “misjudged”. Were this so, the film has ample opportunity to demonstrate the differences in rationale, however, “Magnum Force” has nothing so lofty as the prudent, judicious (not to mention lawful) prosecution of law enforcement on its mind. Instead, the film’s disgracefully confused sense of justice is merely an excuse for the depiction of callously employed violent death, with Harry used as a sort of executioner/ringmaster to whom every murder is an occassion for a glib quip: in one particularly tasteless (and mean spirited) scene, Callahan comments on the vicious murder of a hooker who is forced to drink drain cleaner, with the aside “it shows a certain sense of style”. The film is so insatiably bloodthirsty it fails to notice the difference between right and wrong, yet it’s certain to achieve its bastardly goal of whipping the audience into a frenzy with the each successive scene of slaughter. As a police procedural, the film is a washout, without even rudimentary investigative steps honored by, not only Callahan, but an entire city police department whose methodology seems to be to arrive after Harry has splattered everyone’s brains all over the sidewalk. Callahan seems particularly dense-  a development which belies his fairly keen instincts from the first film  -to the point of finding himself ensnared by the ringleader of the assassins despite the fact it’s fairly evident that the only one who could have leaked vital information was the only outsider he has confided in. The fine theatrical actor Hal Holbrook plays Harry’s superior in an odiously conceived role that wastes his talents, makes little sense, but cynically ends the film with a tiresome bang.
 
 “Man of Steel”  (2013)  Director Zach Snyder attempts to address some serious problems with the Superman mythos that have generally been conveniently ignored for eighty years, and for that “Man of Steel” deserves attention beyond the usual fan-based hyperbole surrounding every new comic book epic. Beyond his status as one of the original superhero characters in popular American culture, the character known alternately as Superman (Henry Cavill) and Clark Kent is a continuous template of American values as adopted by the ultimate immigrant traveler: his story is that of one whose individual powers are that of the most invincible force on the planet, yet held in well-tempered check through an upbringing rich in the simple human values (cue in Truth, Justice and the American Way) instilled by his adoptive parents, Kansas farmers Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane), though-  in keeping with the Richard Donner original  -the guiding hand of Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is also prevalent, though in the case of “Man of Steel”, this aspect of the story suffers from an extreme excess. (It’s hard to take the constant whining about the population of Krypton being extinct when the film features far more of them running about than Earthlings. The Kryptonians in this film are like obnoxious dinner guests who just won’t go home.) A few key figures of the usual suspects are present- mainly Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Perry White (Laurence Fishburne)  -but the general focus is a tale of separation; of a surrender of one’s cultural roots in the establishment of an assimilation into an entirely foreign environment. That Superman represents both an outsider seeking commonality with a potentially disposable populace while simultaneously acting as selfless protectorate to that same society is one of the universal appeals of the character, which has undergone generational passage by similarly empowered and costumed “heroes”, many (if not most) who fulfill their destinies armed with equal amounts of personal problems, aggressive neuroses and general feelings of societal dislocation. Superman, among almost all comic book heroes (though Wonder Woman may be comparable) has remained-  despite his necessary initial cultural and parental separation  -for lack of a better phrase:  extremely well-balanced. Much of the enormous appeal of Superman throughout the years has been his relative behavioral normalcy when not engaged in saving the planet from enemies both galactic and Lex Lutherian. He is the Everyman of Supermen, though certainly guided by far stricter guidelines of personal conduct that would the average person equipped with equally destructive powers. It is also this normalcy which naturally makes Superman just a tad dull next to the more flamboyant personalities of Batman (especially in his modern incarnations where he is often temperamentally inseparable from those he pursues) and the bevy of Marvel muscle which seems equally engaged in petty squabbling and flashes on manic ego rather than getting to the action at hand. Where Superman is quick with the active response, other costumed heroes are busier with the rapid repartee. “Man of Steel” begins with the birth of the Kryptonian Kal-El and almost slavishly details every aspect of political mismanagement and philosophical tensions festering between the opposing factions of the planet’s ruling figures. It attempts far too much introspective backlog that is intended to give General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his minions their motivation to invade and destroy when they eventually escape imprisonment in the Phantom Zone and travel to Earth, but it’s merely a pretext for a grand slaughter to which the better part of the second half of the film is dedicated. In actuality, there is relatively little plot in the film; seldom has a major motion picture relied so heavily on the audience’s familiarity with the details of the characters to enable such an abbreviated form of narrative shorthand, and once Kal-El is jettisoned to Earth, the film bounces back and forth in time as if it were a Steven Soderbergh project, though the film eventually skims over the highlights of Clark Kent’s formative years in an extremely abbreviated Cliff Notes version of events, all of which lead to Superman’s public exposure commensurate with the arrival of the Phantom Zone fugitives. The key difference in this version of the story is that Lois Lane is aware of Superman’s Earthly identity early on in the film, a development which is surprisingly harmless to the dynamics of their relationship (though rushed, their pairing is built on a more satisfying friendship/trust foundation rather than the usual whirlwind romantic attachment of past films) leading to an affectingly meaningful transition in the film’s final scene. However, to get to that finale, the better half of the last hour is taken with an immensely drawn out contest of fisticuffs between Superman and Zod, a battle which literally decimates the city of Metropolis (and emphasizes once and for all that the only important people on the planet-  according to Hollywood  -are those who sport spandex), but ends with the military authority and the Kryptonian finding a common ground, an understanding which is certainly charitable considering the hundreds of thousands who certainly must have died as a result of this epic clash. Interestingly, there is nary a sense of a resulting brouhaha over this apocalyptic ruin (those at the Daily Planet don’t even acknowledge the news value of events outside of their own personal; safety), which brings to light one of the more problematic issues with the cinematic superhero adaptation in general, and that is the disposable nature of innocent citizens in the wake of the personal interests of the “heroes”: necessary to the antics of any empowered costumed figure is a certain level of dramatically picturesque destruction which would logically result in the injury or death of any number of random people, a circumstance which is never directly addressed in the comic book movie genre (though Superman does reserve a questionable moment of anguish over the body of a most unlikely source of sympathy), whose emphasis on the proper bon mot delivered after every blow precludes such minor issues as the protector of the mortal population being squashed through the efforts of that protection. “Man of Steel” ends with a feel-good moment that relies on tunnel vision and a carefully curtailed memory: there are smiles all around the room as long as you don’t look out at the smoking crater that was Metropolis.
 
“Outbreak” (1995)  What starts as a biological bug-on-the-loose thriller, à la “The Andromeda Strain”, quickly turns into a predictable chase drama with the menacing virus eventually playing second banana to stereotypical authority figures who insist on behaving badly. Director Wolfgang Petersen has proven a proclivity, in the past, for transforming action-based materials into intense and interesting films, when the script used has a basis in characters which enrich and are enriched by the story being told- “Das Boot” and “In the Line of Fire” being prime examples. However, with “Outbreak”, Petersen is crippled by an unimaginative piece of Hollywood formula writing- by Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool -at its most predictably banal. The film follows the efforts of a team of scientists led by Colonel Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman) and Robby Keough (Rene Russo), to isolate and (miraculously) eradicate a terrifying new viral strain that has emerged in a sleepy California town by way of an infected monkey from Zaire, with the critical nature of the situation emphasized by the wearisome, obvious trickery of intensified editing rhythms and overly busy scoring attempting to ratchet the suspense through the sheer percussive use of noise.  However, the true culprit in bringing the film to its knees, is the continued misplaced perception of Hollywood that in order to strike an empathetic connection with the audience, it is advisable to supplant the featured conditions of urgency- in this case, possible global extinction -with (supposedly) endearing petting banter. In the case of “Outbreak”, the forced pseudo-romantic dialogue is excused by making Sam and Robby ex-spouses, as if a biological world threat is an appropriate backdrop to resuscitate the age of sparkling seductive patter, thus assuming that graphic depictions of festering, hemorrhaging lesions are a natural path to an updated version of “The Awful Truth”. Awkwardly, the film’s true antagonist is not a biological agent capable of reducing the human race to a viscous puddle, but the, by now, overly familiar nemesis: the government, or more specifically- secretive military authority which seems to have a transfixing hold over the government. Needless to say, that by the time the film degenerates into a dual race against the clock between stopping an obliterating bombing of the infected town and an extended helicopter chase (also peppered with misplaced humor), the fate of a possibly infected world has become secondary to Hollywood’s continuous attack on the military, which is almost always portrayed as the natural enemy of free people, if not an outright roster of jack booted psychopathic power mongers willing to slaughter the very people they’re intended to protect to further their own unexplained aims. Beyond this continued brand of anti-authoritarian slander, the film follows another narrative distraction in Sam seeking a cure for the virus in time to save Robby who has incautiously pricked herself with an infected needle; the latest in an unlikely series of reckless incidents in which the entire core of his research team has, at some point in the film,  stupidly exposed themselves to the disease, which presumably makes for more affecting vignettes of death- since the agonized throes of headline actors are far more sympathetic than those of mere extras -but the personalization of the threat actually dilutes the threat of global endangerment with which the film is supposed to be concerned. After all, its difficult to maintain the originally intended suspense, if the film pursues an elitism in which the only important people are those whose names appear above the title. The impressively collected cast (also including Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey and Cuba Gooding, Jr.) is wasted on stock roles which border on the perfunctory: most abused is the perpetually underrated, often splendid Donald Sutherland  who plays the role of the willfully anti-civilian General McClintock as so one-dimensionally inhuman (a far cry from his memorable work as Soviet Colonel Vikhail Fetisov in “Citizen X” ) that his role could be a continuation of his soulless pod man in finale of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, though admittedly there is little wiggle room for him in the lazily written role.
 
“Pacific Rim”  (2013)  With “Pacific Rim” Guillermo del Toro makes another attempt at convincing the stubborn that his reputation as an important international director is a stature entirely unmerited. This blending of kaiju and mecha genres is nothing more than”Inframan” only with much more expensive special effects set pieces, though to be honest, after an hour or so of the darkness/rain/mist impaired battle scenes, complete with frenetic editing that assures further obscuring of the image, the clarity of the simplistic and crude effects in that film would be a welcome respite from yet another modern example of action sequence as illegible precursor to a migraine. With the emergence of a stream of kaiju attacking major cities from an inter-dimensional portal located in an underwater tectonic plate breach. Mankind has answered with the construction of “our own monsters”: the jaeger, a group of gigantic robots operated on a twin pilot system of sharing a controlling consciousness (known as “drifting”), winning the initial battle with their mutant foe until the subterranean invaders begin to actually anticipate and offensively strategize against the carelessly complacent humans. If “Pacific Rim” is about anything, it certainly isn’t about human beings who come in second- make that fourth after the jaeger, the kaiju and the breakable cities themselves  -in the list of priorities, with just enough time between one rock ’em sock ’em encounter after another to bring up some basic problems with the entirety of the genre: for instance, just how are the devastated cities in pristine condition in an extremely short period of time so that they might be demolished anew with the latest encounter? And if the military and scientists agree as to the entry point of the kaiju, why no station monitoring jaeger to take care of the problem at the point of emergence rather than waiting until they stomp a country’s entire coastline? And if the human race can only be saved with the assistance of two low-comic scientists, an eccentric comic book criminal and a pair of emotionally damaged pilots (played generically by Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi) who would form the story’s romantic pairing if such limited emotional content weren’t beyond the attention span of a film aimed at the eight-year-old schoolboy mentality, the perhaps it’s time that human race checks out. The film exploits the insatiable appetite of the video obsessed portion of the audience to whom human contact is kept a safe joystick’s distance away. In fact, “Pacific Rim” is exactly that, the world’s largest video game, only devoid of the participatory element by which such empty vessels of entertainment thrive: it’s noisy, violent, flashy and entirely without intellectual content nor committing a moment’s attention to revealing a molecule of human truth. If one takes Orson Welles’ quote to heart, that “a movie studio is the best toy a boy ever had” then Guillermo del Toro extends the notion one step further by making it a playpen in which the infant delights in throwing his toys.
 
“Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins” (1985) Based on the popular The Destroyer series of pulpy adventure novels by Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy, in which an ex-cop’s death is faked in order to train him as a secret assassin working for the ultrasecret (and diminutive) agency CURE, this Guy Hamilton production predictably shows the origins of the contentious father-son relationship between the newly recruited assassin Remo Williams (Fred Ward) and his elderly Korean mentor Chiun (Joel Grey in surprisingly convincing cosmetic alteration but in an unsurprising fine performance mode), who claims to be the last master of the secret art of Sinanju, an ancient mind/body discipline from which all other forms of  martial arts are but weaker derivations. The screenplay by James Bond familiar Christopher Wood gets the heart of the relationship right, and there is an amusing undercurrent of warmth exchanged between Remo and Chiun which is continually masqueraded with an antagonistic by-play that makes light pretense of a cool surface professionalism barely concealing a comically squabbling domesticity which is sensibly emphasized rather than the book series’ casually brutal level of violence. Ward and Grey display a great chemistry together and while the film is focused on their personal interplay, it finds an identity of its own among the forest of spy, superspy and rogue cop series that is both refreshing and entertaining. But, as soon as the obligatory “mission” kicks in the film quickly falls into a formulaic staleness that reeks of the prolonged death knell of the Bond series under the Roger Moore years. The film betrays a cardinal rule of creative filmmaking, which is: make your villains interesting. Unfortunately, with the exception of Remo, Chiun and the two remaining CURE characters, veteran agent MacCleary  (J.A. Preston) and agency chief Harold Smith (Wilford Brimley), there isn’t a well conceived or interesting character in the lot, with further damage inflicted by the casting of actors (Charles Cioffi, George Coe) who bring with them the dramatic spark of an insurance adjustment. Worst of all is the antiseptic archness of Kate Mulgrew who as a suspicious Army Major makes the concept of femininity as obscure as quantum mechanics. Remo’s initial mission is to expose and eliminate the dully named George Grove (Cioffi) a crooked arms manufacturer who is soaking the government of millions by developing weaponry that simply doesn’t work; a plot line that does not cry out for a specialized covert killer who can dodge bullets and run on the surface of water, when a simple investigative audit would shut the enterprise down. There is an exciting and very well-staged encounter between Remo and a gang of Grove’s thugs in the restoration scaffolding around the Statue of Liberty which holds promise for an equally spectacular and imaginative climax which never emerges (imagine if Hamilton had ended “Goldfinger” before the siege on Fort Knox) but a mere face-to-face confrontation which renders all of the virtually supernatural disciplines unnecessary and resulting in the film limping to an rather abrupt end with the promise of new adventures while from the story level the series already seems to have run out of gas.
 
“Replacement Killers, The”   (1998)  While, in theory,  imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, in the world of cinema it is more often a sign of the slavish pursuit of capitalizing on what has been proven lucrative by way of popular reception. Even a whiff of originality in a financially successful film is bound to be quickly consigned to the wasteland of premature irrelevance by a tidal wave of mercenary reproduction which in the unfortunate but inevitable evolutionary backhand of increasing cinematic mimeography leads successive efforts to even greater timidity (or sloth thereof) of formula, or in certain cases, an exaggeration of style leading to unseemly aesthetic caricature (the Italian spaghetti western, or, in a more apropos example, the Hong Kong action thriller). In the case of Antoine Fuqua’s “The Replacement Killers” the mimicry is boldly and professionally executed, but it is an example of wasted craftsmanship on a film which extends a hyperactive energy to the most insignificant gesture which can be used to propel any scene along, yet remain entirely bereft of meaning. The film is entirely all sheen and gloss (the arrival of the two replacement assassins is staged with such a heavy hand toward achieving a sense of Eurotrash coolness that the actors might as well have placards around their necks announcing “Hired Killer”); visual texture without the slightest comprehending glance toward a human connection, this despite the film’s best efforts to place the burden of an existential crisis on its antihero John Lee (Chow Yun-fat, in an American film debut which is strong in presence but weak in charm), a curiously unexplored late-in-the-game moral pause which is drowned out by the excess of carnage inserted every five minutes or so to distract from the fact that the paper thin plot would collapse on itself with even the slightest of charitably casual inspections, especially in the absurd manner in which Lee’s grudging confederate, document forger Meg Coburn   (Mira Sorvino) is continuously arrested and released without charge despite the clear evidence of dozens of bodies (not to mention a treasure trove of documentation outlining her illicit vocation) that litter her path simply as the most ridiculous of connective threads to explain her active participation (her talents in weaponry seem to come and go as directed by the needs of the story, though she is depicted as so fiercely deadly, it dilutes what all of the hoopla is about as to why Lee’s internecine abilities are held in such awed esteem) in a continuous series of increasingly tiresome blazing gun battles included merely for their own sake.  The fine actor-  years removed from the glories of “Das Boot”  -Jurgen Prochnow is slumming as one of those arch villains whose annoyingly loquacious manner is amplified with the forced and unfortunate pseudo-literate witticisms he is smirkingly asked to convey.
 
 
 
“Serpent, Le” (1972) (U.S. title: “Night Flight From Moscow”) With “Le Serpent”, director Henri Verneuil manages the neat trick of creating a spy drama without drama, an espionage thriller without thrills, a covert mystery without mystery. Assembling an impressive cast of international performers, Verneuil seems to have required his actors to deliver some of the most limp work of their respective careers, with Yul Brynner and Michel Bouquet emerging as particularly lifeless. A confused (as opposed to confusing) story of a Soviet defector (Brynner) whose claims of wishing to reveal vital information to the Americans is immediately suspect, yet a series of purges against the accused double agents which are meant to resemble suicides are so obviously manipulated (thus bungling their intended misdirection) that one wonders how slow America’s intelligence services really are. Events are depicted in a disconnected manner in which we never meet important characters and vital scenes are briefly referenced (if at all) that are essential to connect what presumably is intended as the narrative. Instead of advancing the plot in any coherent fashion, Verneuil stops any momentum cold with endless briefings of travelogue footage of Mayday parades and the Kremlin (mixed with cringe inducing mismatched footage inserting the tired Brynner), along with occasional informational voiceover narration that generates all of the excitement of an insurance actuarial slideshow. Dirk Bogarde wanders about with enough hammy tics to make a neon sign over his head announcing “TRAITOR”  unnecessary, but Henry Fonda seems to be having a grand time picking up a paycheck for the accomplishment of out performing everyone else in the film by the simple ability of walking through the set with purpose.
 
“Sessions, The”  (2012)  “The Sessions” is a small, unassuming film which  has all of the ingredients people used to go to the movies for: a compelling story filled with intelligent, appealing characters who are written with a real ear for how people talk when they actually have something interesting to say, and acted by an ensemble whose collective excellence may actually make you forget there are actors on the screen (except for the briefest appearance by Rhea Perlman which is far too Rhea Perlman for comfort), elevating the audience to that blissful state where one enters into a cinematic illusion of real life. That the film is also handicapped (so to speak) with a subject (sex and the handicapped) that will likely repel at first mention a great portion of its potential audience is a shame, for though the film leans toward the sexually graphic, in language and idea more than actual explicit carnal action-  though there is a extensive nudity that is necessary and not exploitative, for once  -it is funny (not vulgar), romantic, sensitive and heartfelt (oddly enough, a description that will probably turn away another substantial chunk of the film’s audience).  Muscularly paralyzed from the neck down since childhood due to complications with polio, Berkeley-based poet Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) is despondent when his  a budding relationship with his caregiver Amanda (Annika Marks) abruptly evaporates, frustrating both his longing to share romantic feelings with a woman as well as engaging in the fulfillment of sexual intimacy. Seeking counsel from his priest Father Brendan (William H. Macy), who acts as his theoretical wing man (much pleasure may be derived from this odd juxtaposition of celebrate priest supporting the virginal parishioner in his attainment of sexual experience as one senses an equal freeing of Brendan’s inhibitions about sexuality versus the more restrictive aspects of his canonical regulations) Mark proceeds with a plan to contact a professional sex surrogate, Cheryl Cohen-Green (Helen Hunt). This relationship (limited to six sessions by contractual agreement) proceeds slowly as Cheryl must break through barriers more in Mark’s psychology than in his physical limitations (and inexperience), and in the process an extraordinary thing happens: the film subtly records a therapeutic metamorphosis within every character in Mark’s circle actively involved in his elevated acquaintance and growing comfort with physical intimacy: Mark’s tentative flowering by literal deflowering seems to trigger a complimentary emotional self-awareness which extends to the film itself with the embracing of a startlingly insightful and mature perspective (maddeningly rare in the American cinema) in which sexual activity is actually considered as a connective expression-  rather than as an excuse for sweaty exploitative moaning or cheap, sniggery humor in coarse films that are actually intimidated by sex  -of caring for another in the most emotionally bare, and thus vulnerable and trusting manner. In “The Sessions” sex is treated respectfully but not remotely, seriously but not humorlessly. Hawkes and Hunt are flawless in difficult roles that succeed in believability while never succumbing to the easy temptation for mawkish sentimentality.
 
To read Mark O’Brien’s original article ‘On Seeing a Sex Surrogate’ as published in The Sun magazine, click the following link to: http://thesunmagazine.org/issues/174/on_seeing_a_sex_surrogate
 
 “Seven-Ups. The”  (1973) The third film of Philip D’Antoni’s “chase trilogy” features Roy Scheider as the head of an independent, elite police squad which only goes after criminals who would be punished with seven years or more. Lacking the structural foundation of either novel or nonfiction book which the first two features of the trilogy were based on, the over complicated plot of an informant using information to set up an elaborate syndicate targeted kidnapping scheme omits the presence of the detectives for far too long a period, yielding scant compensation with a Richard Lynch performance that reaches for the balcony in clichés of villainy. A spectacular chase scene, every bit the equal of the first two films, doesn’t compensate for the generally sluggish pacing or inattention to investigative detail. Despite it’s deficiencies, it ends with a powerhouse final scene, well played by Scheider and Tony Lo Bianco.
 
“Smashing Time” (1967)  “Smashing Time” is a perfect example of a movie whose failure is evident  from its belief in it’s own terminal cuteness; an affliction suffered by any film which features either an onscreen crowd or audience  shown to be having a far greater time than the paying audience in the theater, or, as in this case, a cast who is so convinced of the entertainment value of its own eccentricity that it works itself into a hyperactive froth, strenuously shaking the viewer with the same ceaselessly annoying demands of a three-year-old kicking the dining table leg for attention that becomes both exhausting and a bit nauseating in the eventual vulgarity of its tastelessness.  Intended as a free wheeling comic jab at the pretentiously moddish fishbowl that was known as 1960’s Swinging London, this reunion of the director of the distinguished “Girl With Green Eyes” Desmond Davis and its two female leads, the talented Rita Tushingham and more than a bit tedious Lynn Redgrave find themselves light years away from Edna O’Brien territory in this story of two girls who travel to London to become great successes, manage to do so in ways only possible in completely contrived bad movie ways, and then decide that they prefer the simple life; borrowing the fundamental dramatic arc from several hundred previous hoary rags-to-riches melodramas from “What Price Hollywood?” to”The Goddess” with the addition of pie in the face slapstick (in this case, aerosol spray as well as an interminable custard bombardment)) unworthy of the lowliest Blake Edwards comedy (an excavation no sane filmmaker would attempt) and the breathless demeaning of its cast in the service of a script that in comparison would make the most witless of burlesque comics sound like Bertrand Russell. Davis has no feel for the material with his depressingly amateur night mimicking of the Richard Lester style while mistaking speed for energy and kinetically obscuring editing for speed. To say that Tushingham as Brenda , a waiflike perpetual victim of easily foreseeable mishaps, and Redgrave as Yvonne, a blowsy neon clothed fatted chipmunk with a helium breath. are intended to be a comic team reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy is a pretension as absurd as assuming the Three Stooges are competent to play at the Old Vic in “King Lear”.  Tushingham is merely embarrassing especially when displaying no talent for forced slapstick while Redgrave is both offensive and unintelligible. The film is filmed in that dreadful pseudo-hip-cum-psychodelic style favored by young filmmakers of the day who haven’t a clue how to shoot a scene except to quick cut and spasmodically jerk the zoom lens until the audience is in need of Dramamine. Hardly smashing, but certainly dreadful.
 
“St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, The”  (1967) Roger Corman’s first generously budgeted studio project is a gangster film densely populated with characters to the point where one may need the aid of a scorecard to keep track of the multiple story threads which will eventually converge into the eponymous 1929 mass execution of seven members of Chicago gangster George “Bugs” Moran’s North Side Gang by Al Capone’s Chicago Outfit. Corman’s ease with the more polished resources and finely appointed production values is in evidence, and he pushes the film with an spirited momentum that captures the energy of the city. There is solid work from Ralph Meeker as Moran (who, if the Fates would have allowed for lucidity, would have made a better Capone), Bruce Dern, Joseph Campanella and Mickey Deems, though Corman has less success with a high proportion of his actors, many of whom seem to feel the need to italicize every line and gesture with a neon sign that cries out “look at me, I’m acting!” Chief among the offenders is Jason Robards- entirely miscast as Al Capone -whose over-the-top hysterics almost make the ham-fisted caricatures of gangsterism embodied by George Segal and Harold J. Stone seem like models of minimalism by comparison. There is also an almost cartoonish excess of violence in the film (though the action sequences are well staged) which undercuts the public outrage notated by the omnipresent narration (the voice of Paul Frees is instantaneously recognizable to anyone who has seen more than six movies) which initiated bringing the Chicago battleground of Capone’s thuggery to a close. The amount of slaughter in the film actually dwarfs the culminating massacre, especially where this particular action is situated away from open public innocents, often caught in the explosive crossfires of earlier intense gun battles (the infamous attempt on Capone at the Hawthorne Inn Hotel is teeth-rattling), thus rendering the intended set piece entirely anticlimactic. The narration contributes to the pseudo-documentary flavor of the film, which is generally faithful to the events of history, though there are often marked disparities in the screenplay’s (written by Howard Browne, who visited much of the same material previously on television’s Playhouse 90) struggle between history lesson and less successful human drama, the latter demonstrated by the amount of time diverted in following the movements of Peter Gusenberg (George Segal), so much so that at certain points in the film it could be mistaken as a biographical film of that North Side Gang contract killer rather than of a larger portrait of organized crime warfare. There is an unwarranted concession for the need to “sex up” the film with extended episodes featuring Gusenberg and his wife Myrtle (Jean Hale) in an extended sequence of domestic violence with the unfortunate actress dressed only in undergarments. The reasons for this diversion away from the film’s pattern of brief vignettes highlighting events which will lead to the climax (there are far too many incidents, too many characters and in far too vast a time frame to achieve anything but a surface understanding of the complexities of the history of Chicago gang warfare) seems to be an impractical attempt to bring a particular figure to the forefront in order to bring a focus to events (which in many ways it does achieve) and to give the audience a fixed figure to follow, although certainly Gusenberg is not a character with which the viewer could generate empathy: his ultimate execution leaves no emotional response behind at all. The script also plays around with timelines, many times using the killing of a gang member as a source of a recollected flashback, and while this does afford the director the opportunity to include many important incidents within its actual linear narrative time frame, it has the effect of making events appear as if they occurred in a far more compressed  period and removing much of the background context of negotiations (none are indicated in the film) between rival gangs and the rampant influence brokering among city, state and national authorities, necessary for the gangs to rule the streets almost unchecked. As a docudrama, “The St.Valentine’s Day Massacre” is not entirely successful  (we learn almost nothing about Moran by the end of the film), nor does it have the visceral charge of a truly superior gangster epic (there is no character to whom even a questionable  investment of empathy is merited), yet the collision of two half-hearted halves merge into a bizarrely exploitative and almost disturbingly entertaining hybrid suspended between tastelessness and moral self-righteousness. The audience may be dragged down into the gutter while enjoying the cruelty of ceaseless bloodletting, but is equally allowed to enjoy the satisfaction of seeing everyone involved in the carnage get their comeuppance. The Production Code lives on in the eye of the beholder.
 
 
“Star Trek: The Motion Picture”  (1979)  The great surprise of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” is the complete lack of control which veteran director Robert Wise seems to hold over the entire enterprise. Wise’s prior contributions to the SF genre, the groundbreaking 1951 “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and the tense 1971 adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel “The Andromeda Strain” attained a measure of success above mere craftsmanship in no small part due to the richness of the genre material which allowed the director a wider expanse of negotiating the more seemingly inflexible genre elements: in “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, there is a distinct theologic subtext in the allegorical parallel between the essentially pacifist space visitor Klaatu and Jesus Christ, whereas in “The Andromeda Strain” the possibility of the usual doomsday mass hysteria involving a human extincting entity is sensibly presented as a retrained but nonetheless absorbing mystery procedural, with the microbial menace substituting for the usual suspects in one of Wise’s early, grittily impressive noirish efforts. Unfortunately, for both the director and the audience, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” offers no such opportunities for an expansively  creative presentation beyond the stultifyingly banality of a kitchen sink space opera pseudo-adventure in which the principle characters spend most of the film’s duration staring dumbly at a large television screen. The long delayed cinematic version of the cult television program, “S.T.: T.M.P.” does have the advantage of the participation of the entire primary  series cast,  a circumstance which allows a comfortable viewing transition from one medium to another, but the film is also saddled with the participation of the entire primary series cast, which mires the film in the trivializing expectations of the the series’ fans: a fact which explains the tired reappearance of familiar episode material recycled in a transparent attempt to offer up a juvenille light show resplendant with abstractive cosmic constructions that defy logical design or utility, yet strains for a startling reach into metaphysics which is desperately beyond its philosophically simple-minded vision. For a film whose running credo is “To boldly go where no Man has gone before”, it’s rather ironic that the story the film chooses to tell is tepid rather than bold, suspiciously familiar rather than where no scriptwriter has pondered before. The film’s creaky osmosis of the TV episodes “The Doomsday Machine” and “The Changeling” fails to even generate a modicum of the series’ signature character interaction, instead directing its attention to a celebration of dull mechanics, such as when the Enterprise is sent from dry dock to face the massive mysteriuous neon cotton candy cloud which is in a direct path to Earth, there doesn’t seem to be a particularly palpable sense of urgency since the film sidesteps the presumed menace for unconscionably protracted periods-  endless, actually  -while William Shatner’s Captain Kirk stares adoringly (though in the context of his pedestrian performance, one might interpret anything resembling passion as an afterthought) at his iconic ship while Jerry Goldsmith’s music booms at a Dolby enhanced volume sufficient to make your teeth rattle, though Goldsmith’s score is the sole feature of genuine emotive accomplishment in the film- including a hauntingly simple romantic theme played prior to the main credits  -which demonstrates the ability of a gifted composer to supercede the more popular trend toward bombastic martial excess which has become de rigueur since John Williams’ introduction of imitation Korngold to an increasingly infantile genre.
 
“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (2007) If Johnny Depp lacks the particular furnace-in-the-belly manic projection of a Len Cariou from the original Broadway production, he still projects an admirable ferocity (it helps that his rogue’s gallery of prior roles has given his an audience familiarity with what otherwise be seen as broadly theatrical cosmetic application; a make-up that goes miles in disguising the actor’s rather pasty and unprepossessing androgyny) that is almost revelatory in one of the leading figures of his generation of film actors who are less convincing in depicting realistic mature adults than genre fantasy figures. Depp headlines in the role of the wrongly imprisoned Todd, who uses his skills in barbering as a means to exact a particularly bloody vengeance on, not just the corrupt judge (Alan Rickman) who falsely incarcerated him, raped his wife and stole his child as his own ward, but on humanity at large. In concert with the equally (one would have to be) insane Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter, in an inexplicable example of miscasting by way of nepotism) his victims are disposed of by handily baking them into popular meat pies, as Todd slashes his way to an unhinged revenge that eventually causes him to destroy the thing he claims to have loved the most. It’s also a musical. The Hugh Wheeler-Stephen Sondheim original has been retained as far as Grand Guignol sprays of blood (though there is far too much of this), but the greater allegorical subtext of an industrialized London consuming humanity has been jettisoned to entertain director Tim Burton’s unchecked appetite for style for its own sake, therefore, there are swooping zooms and dizzying visual spirals galore (a brief fantasy beachfront sequence is ruinously more Pee Wee Herman than penny dreadful), but the glee by which he depicts the escalating carnage- including a tiresome running gag of corpses slamming onto the basement floor in ever-escalating sickening crunches -serves to undermine the escalation of madness and horror by, instead,  (It’s a visual approximation of the disastrously nuance-free performance of Jack Nicholson in “The Shining”.) going for the proverbial jugular from the first frame of the credits. Once the film begins at fever pitch, Burton gives his story arc no where to go except to repeat more of the same. Despite the inherent savage wit of many of Sondheim’s lyrics, this is a vehicle appropriated from grand tragedy to grand buffoonery, made all the more obvious by the talented but out-of-her-depth Helena Bonham Carter (whose cackling one-note shrieking vocalizations are further obscured by a truly horrible sound mix which renders Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics gone with the windbag) and the cavorting of the supremely untalented Sacha Baron Cohen whose now predictable attempted one-man hijacking of the film makes one weepily nostalgic for the days of the vaudeville hook. (Or, in keeping with the film’s Grand Guignol flavor, the guillotine.)
 
“Third Secret, The” (1964) Charles Crichton’s polished direction, with a particularly fine use of widescreen composition to emphasize the chess-like movement and positioning of characters within the frame, is featured in a complexly structured film in which the conventions of a murder mystery are used as a rather interesting dismantling of the conventions of the psychodrama, engaging in troubling ruminations on the ethics and consequences of the breaching of boundaries of confidentiality regardless of the motive; presenting a situation where legitimate moral goals are blurred with personal needs which in themselves are scrutinized with often less than palatable results. When a prominent psychiatric analyst  Dr. Leo Witset (Peter Copley) is found mortally shot and an official coroner’s pronouncement of suicide announced, transplanted American broadcast journalist Alex Stedman (Stephen Boyd) investigates the death at the insistence of the doctor’s young daughter Cathy (Pamela Franklin). That Stedman is a patient of the deceased is a source of volatile consternation, his frustration and feelings of helpless frustration exploding in a not particularly convincing scene that obscures his investigation between a legitimate search for the truth (figuring in the mystery of the “third secret”) and his own need for psychological comfort. Stedman’s motivation is repeatedly asserted as  protecting the “reputation” of the deceased doctor, though it is clear that the greater imperative is a personal need for psychic validation of his own belief in Witset’s analytical credibility; a personal preoccupation that ironically blinds Stedman to the same truths which victimized the good doctor. Cathy, an unnaturally intuitive girl, is able to play on Stedman’s own internal crisis regarding his reaction to Witset’s death (he treats the reported suicide as a personal betrayal, as do all of his patients) to break his initial resistance in pursuing her assertions of her father’s murder and begin a systematic intrusion into Witset’s patient list, resulting in tragic results. In the use of his professional journalistic skills, Stedman ascension to eventual surrogate analyst (not to mention father figure to Cathy) provides the film with one of a many fascinating layers of thematic development, both metaphorical and literal, culminating in a finale both surprisingly logical but heartrending in its surrender to the fact that sometimes despair remains inconsolable. Boyd is consistently interesting in what is certainly the most complexly conceived role of his career, ably supported by an impressive short roster of supporting actors including Jack Hawkins (whose entreaties for decency from Stedman are heartbreaking), Diane Cilento and Richard Attenborough, though it is young Pamela Franklin who is the most impressive, delivering a mature and densely nuanced performance suggesting a suspiciously seasoned thespian within her youthful exterior. The script by producer Robert L. Joseph is both intelligent and articulate in a way which happily nourishes the grey cells and is smart enough never to be overtly revelatory in the most intimate secrets of its characters; leaving much to excitingly stimulating speculation. Mention should also be made of the handsome black and white cinematography of Douglas Slocombe as well as the sensitive musical scoring Richard Arnell of which turns lightly dissonant tonality into a fragile cry for help.
 
“Two-Minute Warning”  (1976)  Larry Peerce’s “Two-Minute Warning” is a textbook demonstration of the thriller done wrong and a vivid example of the type of creatively milquetoast filmmaking which infected Universal during the 1970’s under the tutelage of the Lew Wasserman talent-agent-as-creative-artist mentality: generic all-star dramas (if the term “all-star” were devoid of all meaning except to indicate “somewhat familiar faces”) which reduced the subject of the project-  be it disaster epic, swashbuckler, crime drama, war or biography  -to an assembly line Ross Hunter-like blandness of television-level artifice that felt particularly untouched by cinematic inspiration. This sniper at a football game drama begins with endless and quite meaningless shots of the L.A. Coliseum which will become the focus of the spectacle; none of which impart any useful information in terms of understanding the tactical difficulties specific to this location in removing the upcoming assassin from his perch; it’s all decorative window dressing, existing with the excuse to introduce the story’s setting, but merely providing a numbing visual filler intended to stretch an already threadbare premise to feature length. It’s a clumsily staged film which elevates the impatience of the viewer with its relentless affectation of depicting half of the action through the killer’s point of view, a quite meaningless and trivializing gimmick since there is no intention in making the killer’s identity central to the plot (It’s not like the face will be climatically revealed to gasps of “you see, I told you it was Bea Arthur!”) nor to provide him with a motivational factor. He is simply shooting because in the grand scheme of 1970’s disaster cinema, earthquakes, floods, fires, airline disasters, bombings, shark attacks and tidal waves had already come and gone, with the most lingering casualty seeming to be the desire for cinematic originality. Peerce’s film is stillborn of credibility almost from the start: beginning with a cruelly random sniper shooting from a hotel window (just to let you know the film means business) and continuing with with a gambler being held suspended by the ankles from a different high rise hotel location, giving the distinct impression that despite the inevitable turn of the narrative, it is probably best to avoid checking into downtown L.A. lodgings at all costs. Neither of these incidents seeming to be noticed by passersby, the police nor even room service. And are the patrons of football games truly this dreary? It is evident from the complete lack of psychological context to the assassin’s motives (despite the inordinate amount of time with shots of his wrists or his feet) that the burden of audience attention should be on the subsidiary figures of the piece (heretofore known as “the sitting ducks”), but is there any reason that none of the film’s characters have more depth than a random bystander in a “Dragnet” episode? The purpose of the threatened spectators (Jack Klugman, David Janssen, Walter Pidgeon, Beau Bridges, etc.) is to be targeted for an instant kill, the purpose of the police (Charlton Heston, John Cassavetes) to stop him, and it is the purpose of the audience to pay to see this film and to obliterate any moral dilemma arising from the withering of an art form which excuses such an irredeemably pointless slaughter as a means to popular entertainment.
 
“Wagons East”  (1994) John Candy’s final film (he died during the shooting) is a western comedy which will inevitably lead to comparisons to Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles”, an inexplicably overrated effort (but couldn’t that literally define all of his films?) which for some accountable reason has become the industry standard for hilarity (it’s not). “Wagons East” is, as the title indicates, a wagon train story in reverse, involving a diverse group of disgruntled and disappointed settlers who have decided to return to the civilized East; the humor deriving from both specific parodies of genre tropes and the melding of genre types with a 1990’s hipster attitude (Richard Lewis looks and acts as if he’s just stepped off of an NYC comedy club stage). The film introduces its central characters wittily and energetically but the film lags precipitously as soon as the wagon train begins (Candy seems adrift during the film, given less than nothing as a character to play, except for one blink-of-an-eye throwaway homage to “Cat Ballou” in which he’s found sleeping on his similarly nodding horse) saddled with a script that is stingy of genuine wit, and directed at a fatigued pace that strains for further momentum. Among the frivolously wasted farceurs, only the talented John C. McGinley, as a gay bookseller with hidden abilities, makes a memorable impression. 
 
“Warning Sign”  (1985)  Being a mixture of prior infectious germs on the loose scenarios from “The Satan Bug” to “The Andromeda Strain” to  George C. Scott’s virtually forgotten “Rage” (whose more intimate, low-key exploration of a public crisis is an approach that would certainly have yielded interesting results here) to “The Crazies”, with a bit of “Night of the Living Dead” thrown in for familiarity’s sake, “Warning Sign” is a meant to be a harrowing crisis drama concerning a carelessly released deadly contagion into the atmosphere of biological research lab  which masquerades to the outside world as an agricultural research facility when naturally it is engaged in covert  germ warfare development (according to the movies such facilities are so numerous they outnumber McDonalds). Since the endangered are limited to the employees of the research building, this affords the opportunity for the local hayseeds to storm the castle with the contemporary version of torches and pitchforks straight out of a Universal Frankenstein film, that is until the arrival of local sheriff  Cal Morse (Sam Waterston) who, by virtue of the kind of convenient career coincidences found all too frequently in uninspired formula movies, is married to the plant’s security officer Joanie (a tremulous Kathleen Quinlan) and is able to stop the townsfolk in their track with attitude and a bit of foot stomping. The arrival of a military team headed by Major Connolly (Yaphet Kotto) should only make it obvious to everyone that the situation is not about the claimed yeast infection. The script by Matthew Robbins and director Hal Barwood can’t decide if it wants to be a SF thriller, a horror film (the infected fall inert then briefly revive as homicidal maniacs) or a rather treacly political statement (Jeffrey DeMunn’s Dr. Dan Fairchild is a former researcher with a grand collection of cynical comments saved since his departure), but in the end settles for the same tired siege mentality (this suggests the project might have been in better hands with a director like John Carpenter who has played with this narrative strategy to far better effect in both “Assault on Precinct 13” and “The Thing”) with the usual split second rescues, miracle developments of a weapon of victory (in this case a spur of the moment antitoxin) and woman in distress that speaks of a willingness of the filmmakers to copy overdrawn genre tropes rather than making a genuinely smart thriller where the entrapped employees (they’re all scientists, after all) must use their intelligence against the clock. Instead, what we get are a stale series of rants, some foaming at the mouth and a great deal of fire axe swinging. Despite a premise which should have enjoyed a suspense driving linear focus against the clock, director Barwood seems to lose track of  large portions of his overpopulated cast for uncomfortably lengthy  periods of time and the narrative itself emerges as a raggedy collection of jolt-the-viewer scenes which fail to excite due to their very predictability. Now, thrillers without genuine thrills are an epidemic from Hollywood which could really use one of those miracle movie cures.
 
 “Where Eagles Dare”  (1969)  There is not a poetic, contemplative, emotional nor genuinely human moment in ‘Where Eagles Dare”. It’s a damnably dirty dumbbell of a film, unashamedly made to excite the senses of undiscriminating viewers to whom empty, noisy and unceasing explosions, gun battles and general mayhem are acceptable substitutions for intelligence, artistry and clarity. It’s a film that shouldn’t work at any level: supremely silly, illogical and preposterous. Yet, work it does, if one doesn’t resist viewing it through a primitively visceral lens; on a level that brings the film back to reflect one of the original elemental pleasures of the cinema: the excitement of the cliffhanger with its calculatedly frequent perils and subsequent escapes; though admittedly often through means of shameless misdirection and more than a small amount of narrative flim flammery. Director Brian G. Hutton’s movie plays like a hyperactive serial with all of the boring recapitulation scenes excised and the chapter climaxes ramped up and italicized. Novelist Alistair MacLean, who wrote the screenplay (and the simultaneous novelized version of the script), contributes his circuitous brand of storytelling chicanery in which duplicity, deception and deceit go hand in hand with breathless, and often, absurdly improbable action sequences. It’s the kind of film in which imposters make as little effort as possible disguise their origins (never once does Richard Burton, pretending to be a double/triple/oh the Hell with it agent ever attempt a masking of his classically trained Welsh enunciation, though this does put a wistful air of rakishness on some of the dumber lines), nor do critical characters once ask an obvious question which would unravel a massively complex plan that could only succeed if one had a crystal ball to foresee every unpredictable circumstance. With all deference to director Hutton, who manages to keep the keep the film zipping along at such a pace you barely have time to register how preposterous the whole thing is, for an action film-  and there is so much of this, extravagantly staged, that the audience becomes numb to the ceaseless barrage of “thrills”  -the climax is actually a MacLean specialty: a battle of wits between Burton’s Maj. Smith and a room filled with smarty-pants German officers, in which the deceitful nature of his mission is revealed, which, structurally, arrives far too early. The remainder of the film- now bereft of any hint of complexity that might divert from the blunt repetitious stupidity of the prolonged escape sequences (including a crackerjack cable car sequence whose thrills are extinguished when the characters find themselves boxed into a fatal corner, resolved by the most credibility shattering of methods), dulls the common sense side of the brain. Ron Goodwin, provides some welcome, witty sonic zip with an enthusiastic score; all Teutonic brass and rat-a-tat percussion.
 
“Wind and the Lion, The” (1975) Rousing, old-fashioned desert adventure with Sean Connery a surprisingly effective Berber despite his Scottish Accent. Based on a true incident of international abduction,  the real-life kidnap victim has been transformed from an older man into winsome Candice Bergen who provides spunk and a pleasing trace of romantic undercurrent. Brian Keith is outstanding as President Theodore Roosevelt playing opposite number to the desert pirate in a global chess game more concerned with the spirit of adventure than practical politics. The whole thing is played with a charming modicum of tongue in cheek, with echoes of Peckinpah machismo by way of Boy’s Life. Interestingly, we realize, by the end, that we have seen the entire adventure through the eyes of the children who gaze enraptured from the sidelines. The vibrant and colorful Jerry Goldsmith score is one of his best.
 
“X-Men”  (2000)  Bryan Singer’s “X-Men”is in many ways not your usual comic book adaptation: first of all, it dispenses-  for the most part  -with those annoying origin stories (except for a brief, powerful vignette demonstrating the genesis of the hatred toward nonmutants within a young boy who will mature to become arch-villain Magneto [Ian MacKellen]) which occupy far too much time in such features; here the audience is plunged into a story midstream, though the events are skillfully relayed so that the momentum of the early scenes manage to impart a continuous flow of revealing bits of character which disavow the need for the usual grueling term of marathon expositional explanations. In these early scenes, actions do ingeniously reflect character. Singer rather wisely expresses enough respect for his audience to assume that those familiar with the comic are sufficiently on top of the situation, and armed with an apparently rare understanding (in Hollywood anyway) that the comic book formulas are almost preternaturally limited in (Westerns are said to be based on only six or seven different narrative threads, whereas comics might be charitable granted two) imaginative scope, and that novices will be intelligent enough to follow a rather uncomplicated narrative of good against bad. (As opposed to the grinding fidelity to origins that most films of this type which strain to have an unmerited Dostoevskian density-  as if the screenwriters suddenly become self-conscious about working on something seen as possibly “non-literary” as a comic book adaptation.) Secondly, in keeping with the earlier days of the so-called Marvel Universe, the story often seems less interested in getting to the action than in taking time to explore the peculiar anxieties and societal inhibitions which seem to come with having super powers (the film, it turns out, will ultimately find itself based around a philosophical schism between two contentious mutant factions), making supernal characters refreshingly flawed and vulnerable, though inevitably the creaky mechanics of comic book formula thinking and any character development rather clumsily concedes to the expedient inclusion of (and eventual surrender to) noisy action sequences. However, the film also fails to elevate the material from a problem particular to the modern comic book superhero genre, and that it that no matter the situation, no matter the exoticism of the abilities and powers harnessed by both heroes and villains, the end result is a disappointing fist fight barely distinguishable from any chapter of a Republic serial, albeit accented with heightened visual effects and production values. The film evolves with such a typically biased perspective (despite the fiery Senatorial rhetoric which is clearly meant to mirror an uncomfortable mix of McCarthyism and fascism, and the aforementioned Nazi persecution in which the genesis of understandable paranoid defensiveness is formed, neither given sufficient ponderable weight by Professor Charles Xavier’s [Patrick Stewart] or his followers) the X-Men are never given the occasion to express the opinion that even in some minor form that Magneto’s sense of injustice might be warranted, with only his extreme retaliatory methodology being questionable. So, the film is saddled with Xavier’s pendantic humanist observations which weigh heavily on idealism without a corresponding foundation in practicality considering the potentially genocidal stratagems seriously considered by the nonmutant powers that be; blindsiding the “heroes” of the story to a continuing existence in a world where their very survival may be problematic. With this, there is a seriously missed opportunity in the film to create this truly interesting and deeply etched balance of explored moral justifications, which-  at least  -would elevate the conflict beyond the usual stale hero vs. arch-villain scenario. “X-Men” also continues the unfortunate tradition of saddling a supposedly brilliant criminal mastermind with an oafish sidekick; in this case the unfortunate snarling muscle known as Sabretooth (Tyler Mane) whose only function seems to be fang baring and providing an ill-advised comic relief against which McKellen practices a succession of exasperative sighs. 
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5 Responses to CHANDLER’S TRAILERS- Short Bits for Emerging Cinephiles and a Better America

  1. Pingback: Chandler’s Trailers: “Where Eagles Dare” (1969) | CHANDLER SWAIN REVIEWS

  2. Your reviews are great. A bit … uh … long … but good. Witty, funny, and astute. Just … long.

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