Usually, I end up watching olde-tymey movies and more recent ones about evenly, but recently, I’ve been in the mood for more modern ones, so I’ve been skipping the older ones. I’m still watching them, just not as quickly. So you’ll have to wait for that post, as I once again revisit in some cases and visit for the first time in other cases some movies released from the day of my birth to the present. Let’s jump in!
The Front (1976). This is an unusual movie for several reasons. Woody Allen is the main character, but he didn’t write or direct it, one of the few times he appeared in a movie without doing either (as far as I can tell, it’s only happened two other times where he’s actually playing a character and not himself in a cameo). Allen said he wanted to do the movie because he thought it was important – it’s about the blacklist, and it was released only a year after the House Un-American Activities Committee was abolished (we think of it as a 1950s thing, but it lasted longer than that). The director and writer, Martin Ritt and Walter Bernstein, were both blacklisted, as was co-star Zero Mostel and several other cast members. Allen plays a loser cashier whose friend, Michael Murphy, is a blacklisted writer. He comes to Allen with a scheme whereby he’ll write scripts, Allen will submit them under his own name, and take 10% of the payment. Allen thinks this is a good deal, and he’s soon doing it for two other writers, as well. Of course he becomes a big star, romances the script editor at the network (Andrea Marcovicci in her feature film debut after a few years starring on television), and befriends Mostel, who is being pressured by the network and the dude they use to ferret out Commies to name names. It’s not a comedy, despite the presence of Allen and Mostel, although there are funny parts. Mostel plays the pathetic clownish character quite well, as he’s torn between his conscience and his desire for money, and Allen becomes increasingly obnoxious about his own writing skills (he doesn’t have any, which is why it’s funny), even as he draws the attention of the FBI and the HUAC. It’s a pretty good movie, and while it doesn’t end terribly happily, it does end hopefully (Jim MacQuarrie recently wrote about the television show Hollywood, which changes history, and while Bernstein and Ritt don’t go that far, they seem to express things that weren’t really done in real life just to give the blacklisted people some satisfaction). It does a good job showing both the ridiculousness of the Communist witch hunt and the horrible effects it actually had. And Allen is only 13 years older than Marcovicci (and they made her look older than her age, which was 27/28), so it’s not too creepy that they fall in love!
Wolfen (1981). This is Michael Wadleigh’s only non-documentary, non-Woodstock-related movie, and he was fired from it in post-production. It’s too bad, because it’s a neat horror movie, and somehow Wadleigh and casting director Cis Corman put a great cast together, even though the cast didn’t have a lot of experience. Albert Finney, looking younger than his 44 years and in his first real role since Murder on the Orient Express in 1974, is a cop on some sort of leave (he drinks too much, but there’s more than that), and he’s called back in because a wealthy New York real estate magnate, his wife, and their bodyguard are killed and almost ripped apart. He teams up with Diane Venora, in her film debut (she was 27/28 during filming), playing a psychologist who … works for the security company that the real estate guy employed? I think? Anyway, Finney is buds with the medical examiner, played by Gregory Hines in one of his early roles, and eventually they get advice from Tom Noonan, also early in his career and who is surprisingly not playing a creep (he’s weird, but not creepy). Meanwhile, Edward James Olmos, at 32/33 and with a bunch of TV guest-starring roles behind him, shows up as an Indian who knows something about what’s going on. It’s a tense movie, with a lot of use of a first-person viewpoint of the killer, which is cool the first few times but becomes annoying. It was fairly new technology (if you haven’t seen Wolfen, Predator used it some years later, so think of that, or just see the clip below), so I get that they wanted to use it, but it’s still annoying. Finney is good, Venora is good until the very end, when she screams a bit too much (she seems tougher than that throughout, but I guess they needed a damsel in distress), the special effects are good (and not overused – it’s a slightly gory movie, but not too bad), and we get some interesting thoughts about modern society. This is pre-gentrification New York, and the script does a little with whether gentrification will cost a city its soul, but maybe save it at the same time? A lot of filming was done in the South Bronx, and it’s tragic to see how little they had to dress the “sets” (the church is fake, though – it was built for the movie and then burned). This is a surprisingly interesting and thoughtful horror movie, with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo by Reginal VelJohnson!
The House on Sorority Row (1982). TCM really ought to change their name, because they show a lot of movies that are just straight trash, but I don’t care, because they’re awesome. They show schlocky horror movies occasionally, so I figured I’d sit down and check out The House on Sorority Row, which is about seven girls who kind-of, sort-of accidentally kill their house mother (they want to scare her because she’s a big jerk, but they also kind of want to kill her, so who knows if it was deliberate or not?). They wrap the body in towels and throw it in their never-used pool (a very deliberate riff on Diabolique), but later, it’s gone!!!!! They hold a party on the last night of the year (which the house mother forbade), and the girls start getting killed. It’s actually kind of clever, because we don’t know if the house mother didn’t actually die, or if it’s her ghost or something, or something else. The killer uses the house mother’s cane, which has to be the greatest cane in existence, because the end is sharpened to a point that can penetrate skin, the handle is a bird, the tail of which is so pointy that it can kill, and the cane itself never snaps in two despite many chances for its victims to do so. Now that’s a cane! Anyway, it’s all quite gory, in an early-1980s/low-budget way, with one girl’s head ending up in a toilet and another one getting a bird tail in the eye, and the “final girl” is obvious from the beginning, but that’s okay too. Not many of the actors are recognizable – Kate McNeil, who plays Katherine, has had a decent career guest-starring in television shows, and Eileen Davidson, who plays Vicki, has been doing the soap opera thing for most of her career; the most famous actor here is probably Harley Jane Kozak, playing Diane, who was in When Harry Met Sally …, Parenthood, and Arachnophobia. The movie has a bit of a sense of humor – it pokes some fun at how snooty sorority girls can be – and Wes Craven ripped it off a bit in Scream, so there’s that. Plus, the band that plays at the party is called 4 Out of 5 Doctors. That’s a great frickin’ name. It’s only 90 minutes, so if you’ve never seen it, it’s fun to check out! (Man, the trailer to this movie is weird. They really didn’t know how to make good trailers yet in the 1980s, did they?)
Quigley Down Under (1990). What an odd movie. It’s a Western set in Australia, which isn’t too odd (Ned Kelly was Australian, after all!), but it’s still bizarre. Alan Rickman, chewing the scenery as only Alan Rickman can, hires Tom Selleck, a sharpshooter from Wyoming, to come to Western Australia so he can kill Aborigines for Rickman. Selleck is having none of this, so Rickman’s goons beat him up and dump him in the desert with an American prostitute, played by Laura San Giacomo, to die. Of course they don’t, and we ultimately get an old-fashioned showdown at the ranch. It’s a boilerplate “modern” Western, in other words, with the Aborigines standing in for Indians. It doesn’t make a ton of sense – Rickman says the Aborigines know to stay out of rifle range, which is why he need Selleck’s amazing long-range skills, but more than once we see his thugs killing Aborigines up close. Rickman claims that the government lets him handle the Aborigine problem himself (indicating a laissez-faire attitude), but he can’t just kill Selleck early in the movie when he has him at his mercy, instead dumping him in the desert where he could conceivably live? There’s a good bit of comedy in the movie, but it stems from a horribly traumatic event in San Giacomo’s past and seems weirdly inappropriate (this is also evident in the score, which isn’t bad but is a bit too light-hearted at times). However … it’s still an entertaining movie. Selleck has always had natural charm, and he has good chemistry with San Giacomo, who is a very underrated actor (especially a comedic one). Rickman is Rickman, and he gives a weird twist to his character by having him be really enthusiastic about the “Old West,” to the point where it’s almost child-like, which adds a crooked dimension to his evil. Ben Mendelsohn is in this movie, too, which is hilarious, as he’s baby-faced (he was 20/21 when the movie was filmed) and red-headed and looking nothing like the beat-down-by-life dude we all know and love these days. The scenes with the Aborigines are pretty good, too – they never speak English, and while they are shown as basically kind, they’re not idealized to a ridiculous degree as many Indians are in Westerns from the past 30-40 years or so. They’re just trying to live their lives. The scenery is gorgeous, too, although the geography makes no sense whatsoever (it was made by an Australian director, so ignorance isn’t an excuse). This is a nice, old-school Western – we learn nothing about Selleck’s or Rickman’s past, the subplot about San Giacomo’s trauma is resolved in what seems to be too trite a way, and the violence is harsh but not too brutal. And Selleck doesn’t try to sell us on reverse mortgages, so that’s something!
Virtuosity (1995). My wife and I saw this in the theater, but she swears she has no memory of it at all. That’s just how great it is!
I have a soft spot for this stupid movie, in which ex-cop, now convict Denzel Washington is used to test a virtual reality killer so real cops can learn from the program, but when the VR killer becomes a real boy, only Denzel can stop him! Man, the mid-1990s, when the internet and virtual reality were all shiny and new, really gave us some weird movies. Part of the reason why I first saw this movie was because Denzel is good in pretty much everything, and he manages to sell his backstory – his wife and daughter were kidnapped by a political terrorist, but when Denzel went to rescue them, he accidentally set off the bomb that killed them and then accidentally murdered a reporter and cameraman who were interviewing the dude – pretty well, and he’s always just intense enough to make him compelling without being too bleak. Another reason we saw this was because the VR killer – known as Sid 6.7 – is played by Russell Crowe, and while it’s not his first American movie or even his first big American movie (The Quick and the Dead came out a year earlier), he was still largely unknown in the States, but we had seen him as a skinhead in Romper Stomper (1992), which is a pretty good movie, and in Proof (1991) with Hugo Weaving and Geneviève Picot, in which he’s tremendous and which is itself a tremendous movie. So we were already Crowe fans, and he has a blast in this movie. The reasons why he becomes “real” are idiotic and inconsequential, and once he’s out, he has a grand old time, and the movie actually makes relatively interesting points about media culture while Sid is blasting his way through slightly-futuristic Los Angeles (the movie is set in 1999, and there’s nothing really different about it except the police force is privatized). The cast is fun – Kelly Lynch does her “I’m competent AND hot” thing (Denzel put the kibosh on a romance because he thought an interracial kiss would hurt the box office – man, I’m so glad racism was defeated in 1967!), Louise Fletcher shows up as the head of the company running the police, William Fichtner and William Forsythe play basically the same characters they always do – scumbag twat for the former, calm veteran presence for the latter, and little 9-year-old Kaley Cuoco makes her film debut after some television spots. Good for her! Anyway, it’s a dumb movie, but it’s goofy and entertaining, and Crowe wears the hell out of that purple suit!
The Peacemaker (1997). I’d never seen this entire movie, so I figured I’d give it a whirl, and it’s an interesting failure. It’s Mimi Leder’s first feature film, and while she never became a big movie director, she’s had quite a nice career in television, and you can kind of see why she’d be better on the small screen, as this movie is shot with almost no flair – it just gets the job done. The story is boilerplate as hell – a bitter Russian general steals nuclear warheads, one of which ends up with a Serb who hates the West for selling weapons to the Balkan ethnicities so they can kill each other better (as if they wouldn’t find a way to kill each other already, as they’ve hated each other for centuries), so he plans to detonate it in New York. When you have a boilerplate plot, you need good actors to pull it off, and here’s where the movie is fascinating. This is Clooney’s last movie before Out of Sight, which proved he could be a big star (Batman and Robin, sadly, does not count), and while Soderbergh was able to tease that kind of crooked charm that has made Clooney the megawatt actor he is, Leder gets it from him a bit, and you can see how he took off eventually, something he hadn’t quite done yet (in movies, that is – ER proved that he could be a big TV star … although, of course, I liked him better in E/R – hey, remember that show?). Soderbergh added to that charm a kind of hard luck, which is lacking here, so perhaps that’s why it doesn’t quite work here. Clooney did tap into a dark side on this movie far more disturbing than the cartoonish dark side he brought to From Dusk ’til Dawn, so there’s that, too. Kidman was probably a bigger star than Clooney at this point (despite that, she gets second billing, certainly not because she’s a woman, right?), as she does nice work here, although this doesn’t show her off as much as some movies leading up to it did (Kidman had Dead Calm, Flirting, Malice, and To Die For on her resumé by 1997, and that’s quite a quartet of great movies and great acting jobs). She and Clooney have pretty good chemistry (not as good as Clooney and Lopez, but better than Clooney and Roberts), and Leder doesn’t push any romance on them, which is good (there’s a hint at the end, but it’s after New York is safe), but they work pretty well together. It’s a nice action movie – nothing great, but not a bad way to spend two hours.
Last Knights (2015). This movie is basically 47 Ronin set in a medieval fantasy world, but because it was filmed in the Czech Republic, the sets are spectacular. There’s also a really diverse main cast, despite the hero being a regular white dude – in this instance, Clive Owen. His master is Morgan Freeman, however, and he’s married to Shohreh Aghdashloo, who’s given almost nothing to do and isn’t in the movie all that much, which is a waste of Shohreh Aghdashloo, if you ask me. Cliff Curtis is Owen’s right-hand man, the main villain is played by Askel Hennie, his right-hand man is played by Tsuyoshi Ihara, and the emperor is played by Payman Maadi. That’s a black dude married to an Iranian woman, a Maori playing the second-level good guy, a Norwegian dude as the bad guy, a Japanese dude as his second, and an Iranian emperor. That’s diverse casting! It’s a decent movie – the world these people inhabit is well realized, and Owen gives a good performance as the dude whose master is unjustly executed and he begins to spiral into drunkenness. Of course he’s there for the finale, where the “ronin” get revenge, but it’s not a bad way that he gets there. And the final act, the assault on a supposedly impregnable fortress, is pretty great. It’s mystifying to me why Owen has never become a bigger star (and he’s 55, so it’s probably not going to happen for him), as he has such good intensity on screen. He’s good in this, as is most of the cast. It’s a nice action adventure, in other words. Nothing wrong with that!
Rampage (2018). Rampage is ridiculous, but unlike another special-effects extravaganza lower in this post, it knows it’s ridiculous, and it has a lot of fun with it. I will watch Dwayne Johnson movies until he stops making movies, because he’s so much fun – he has a great screen presence, he seems to know exactly how dumb his movies are but he himself takes them seriously, which makes them even more fun to watch, and it’s just neat to see him flexing all over the place. This movie is based on a video game, I guess, but so many movies are like video games these day that how can you tell? So there’s an evil corporation doing gene splicing in space (because what they’re doing has been outlawed on Earth), but of course one of the experiments destroys the space station and three samples fall to Earth, infecting an alligator, a wolf, and a gorilla that Mr. the Rock happens to know. Because of course he does. They all becomes monstrous, and the evil corporation wants them, so they get lured to Chicago, where there is much mayhem. Johnson is awesome, Naomie Harris is fine as the scientist who helped develop the gene splicing stuff but got fired because she had a conscience, Jeffrey Dean Morgan hams it up as an agent of a Shadowy Government Organization who likes being a cowboy, and Malin Akerman absolutely kills as the co-owner of the evil corporation (the co-owner is her hapless brother). Akerman is what you would get if you tried to design Ilsa, the She-Wolf of the SS in a laboratory, and she tears into the evil role with considerable relish. The effects are fine, the story makes no sense, Joe Manganiello is surprisingly wasted, and the gorilla likes giving the Rock the finger. It’s just that kind of movie!
Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019). The sequel to 2014’s Godzilla movie isn’t bad, per se, but it isn’t as much fun as Rampage, say, because it takes itself so very, very seriously. It’s all about environmental disaster and how to save the planet and Vera Farmiga being evil but then not being evil and Kyle Chandler and Farmiga being sad because their son died in the first movie and Millie Bobby Brown as their surviving child being cranky in general before doing a total teenager thing and, you know, saving the world. The presence of Ghidorah, which can create its own weather, means that a lot of the movie takes place in a driving rain, and while we can see what’s going on, it’s still gloomy. Basically, an extreme environmentalist group wants to wake up the monsters so that they can “prune” humanity a bit and we can all live in harmony again. What they don’t know is that Ghidorah is actually an alien, and instead of providing balance, it just wants to destroy humanity, and Godzilla’s the only thing that can stop it! So there’s a crap-ton of monster fighting, from Godzilla versus Ghidorah the first time, Rodan versus Ghidorah, and finally Rodan and Ghidorah versus Mothra and Godzilla. Everyone tries hard – Chandler, Farmiga, Brown, Ken Watanabe, Ziyi Zhang (in a stunning dual role!), Thomas Middleditch, Sally Hawkins, Aisha Hinds, O’Shea Jackson, and David Strathairn all give it their best, but the movie could have used a Dwayne Johnson type to puncture the seriousness a bit. It’s still okay, I guess, and the fights are pretty cool, but Charles Dance is completely wasted as the leader of the eco-terrorist group (it appears he’ll be in the sequel, so maybe he’ll have more to do in that), and wasting Charles Dance has to be some sort of capital offense, right?
Knives Out (2019). This movie got rave reviews, and it was one of those ones that we would have liked to see in the theaters if we ever went to movies anymore. But we waited, and now it’s out, and we can check it out. It was … good, I guess. We enjoyed it, but it was still, for me, the tiniest bit disappointing. The way people were talking about it, I thought it would be the most dazzling mind-bender ever, but it wasn’t even close. Yes, my expectations were high, but, I mean, we know who did it very shortly into the movie, and even though we think there’s a twist coming, when it does come, it’s pretty obvious, as the only other character who got any significant screen time and who seemed somewhat sympathetic turns out to be … the villain! I mean, I guess the twist about the crime itself is fine, but not that great, and I kept waiting for there to be more – either the victim isn’t dead, or the person we think is innocent really isn’t, or someone completely unrelated really did it … but nothing. Now, it’s a fun movie – James Bond is fun as hell (and how stupid do you have to be these days to take the Bond role, as Craig looks miserable in every Bond movie and like he’s having a blast in literally everything else he does), Captain America is nice and smarmy, Ana de Armas is, frankly, terrific, Jamie Lee Curtis and Don Johnson and Michael Sheen are also having a blast, Toni Collette is downright weird, and Noah Segan as Trooper Wagner is the secret comedy weapon in the flick. It’s beautiful to look at, and it zips along nicely, and I suppose having a movie that doesn’t pretend to be anything but a good old-fashioned whodunit (or howdunit, given that we know the “who” so early) is fine, but I don’t know – it just seems like it should be something more. It’s not bad, and is in fact rather good, but I would caution anyone who hasn’t seen it yet to temper your expectations. Maybe that way you’ll be pleasantly surprised!
Maybe you’ll find something you haven’t seen and want to watch it in this we-still-should-be-social-distancing time. Have fun!