Oh, I’ve watched some more “recent” movies, and you can bet I’m going to write about them!
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). I had seen the remake (which is pretty good), but never the original, so I checked it out recently, and it’s also pretty good! I think I like Matthau a bit more than Washington as Garber, because Matthau had a bit of a sense of humor (which isn’t really needed, but isn’t the worst thing in the world), plus he feels a bit more world-weary than Washington (in yet another example of people aging better now than they used to, Washington was about a year older than Matthau was when they both played Garber). Travolta is fun as the slightly unhinged bad guy, but Shaw is just such an underrated actor, and he brings good menace to the situation. Balsam plays the role of the disgruntled motorman a bit better than Guzmán; he’s alive longer, so that’s not surprising. And as fun as the remake is, filmmakers of the 21st century just cannot replicate the grunginess of New York in the 1970s, when things were really going to shit. The original just looks better, because it’s not in crystal-clear high-definition video, so everything just looks like it’s falling apart, and the mayor’s issues with paying a measly $1 million ransom feel real. The cast is fun, too – Hector Elizondo relatively early in his career; Jerry Stiller, looking exactly like Frank Costanza; and Earl Hindman, who would go on to play Tim Allen’s half-seen neighbor, as the fourth criminal. It’s just a good, solid, clever thriller … back when an aging Walter Matthau could actually star in an action movie and nobody would think it weird!
The Spiral Staircase (1975). This is a disappointing thriller, unfortunately, because it’s not a bad set-up, but it just doesn’t work as well as the idea. Jacqueline Bisset stars as a woman who has become incapable of speech thanks to a trauma in her past (I won’t spoil it, but it is a bit ridiculous even though it’s supposed to be, well, traumatic … and the only video clip I could find spoils it, so watch at your own risk!). Her doctor, with whom she’s having an affair, is going to send her to a clinic in the morning, so she’s spending the night in a mansion owned by either her uncle or her grandmother (it’s unclear, but it’s probably the dude), who uses the mansion to run executive training seminars. Said uncle is played by Christopher Plummer, who, at about 46 years old when the movie was filmed, is still at the height of his prettiness (Bisset was 30 or so during filming, and is, of course, gorgeous, but that’s kind of axiomatic). The problem is that there’s a serial killer stalking people with disabilities, and Bisset counts because of her speech problem, which shouldn’t count because she can speak, she just has a mental block about it. Anyway, her grandmother is old and sickly, there’s a prickly nurse taking care of her, there’s a caretaker who’s not terribly good at his job, his wife is the housekeeper, who’s also not terribly good at her job, Plummer has a secretary whom he digs but who digs Plummer’s rakish brother, who shows up unannounced to cause trouble. And there’s a violent storm keeping everybody basically trapped at the mansion. Of course the killer shows up! It’s not too hard to figure out who’s killing people, and it could have been a bit more of a psychological drama, but director Peter Collinson wanted to keep it more of a thriller, I guess, because he doesn’t really get into the psychology too much. The pacing of the movie is weird – it takes a long time to get going, but then it rushes to the end, and the early parts, which could be doing more with the psychological stuff, is taken up with the caretaker and housekeeper being inept, the secretary canoodling with the brother, and the police shooting an unarmed man on Plummer’s property and nobody caring all that much about it (the caretaker let the dude – a local drunk – sleep one off in their barn, and the cops thought he might be the serial killer, and he makes no threatening moves toward them, he just runs away, but they shoot him anyway, and nobody cares). Bisset’s character, unfortunately, acts like an idiot far too often, and Bisset herself isn’t quite good enough to pull off not talking for most of the movie (she says a few words, mostly in flashback), as it requires her to emote in other ways, and she’s not great at it. Plummer chews the scenery quite nicely, Gayle Hunnicutt does a decent job as his secretary, and I guess John Philip Law does a nice job as the brother, because he’s kind of a douchebag (unless Law was just a douchebag in real life). The premise breaks down a bit because some people are killed who don’t have disabilities, as they’re just in the way, and that doesn’t track with the killer’s M.O., but logic be damned! Anyway, it’s kind of a lousy movie, but it actually looks pretty nice – some nice deep focus shots and Dutch angles to heighten the tension – and it’s not boring, so that’s good. Still, kind of forgettable. Oh well!
Magic (1978). This is a strange movie, largely forgotten because it came out about a week after Halloween, which has had a huge cultural impact, although this movie did well at the box office. It’s strange because it’s stacked with talent for a kind of weird horror/psychological thriller movie, and it makes you wonder why all these talented people were drawn to it. William Goldman (already a two-time Oscar winner!) wrote the screenplay, based on his own novel, and Richard Attenborough (soon to win two Oscars for Gandhi, which he was working on at this time) directed it and Joseph Levine produced it (Levine never won an Oscar, but he produced such movies as The Graduate, The Lion in Winter, and A Bridge Too Far). Anthony Hopkins hadn’t even been nominated yet, but he had been in several “Oscar-type” movies and it was probably only a matter of time before he won one (it did take another 15 years, of course). Burgess Meredith was coming off nominations for Best Supporting Actor in both 1976 and 1977, and Ann-Margret had also been nominated twice in the 1970s. Sheesh! It’s certainly not a bad movie, it’s just a bit weird that it attracted all this talent, as it’s a creepy thriller. Hopkins plays a magician who has no confidence on stage until he brings a ventriloquist’s dummy into his act, which makes him a hot commodity. When Meredith – who plays his agent – is about to get him a network deal, he freaks out and heads to his old home in the Catskills, where he hooks up with Ann-Margret, a girl he had a crush on back in the day but who ended up marrying a local loser (played well by perpetual guest star Ed Lauter). Unfortunately, something is seriously wrong with Hopkins, and people start dying. It’s one of those movies that hints at something supernatural while playing it close to the vest, so it could just be a rational thing that we want to be more supernatural. Hopkins chews the scenery a bit, and one wonders if Gene Wilder, who was originally supposed to get the role, would have done better with it. Ann-Margret is luminous as always (and underrated, as she does a very good job), Meredith is fun, and Lauter does a good job. Hopkins dominates, though, and while he’s a bit much, it’s still a pretty good performance of someone breaking down as their reality crumbles around them. It’s not a great movie, but it is pretty entertaining, and there’s nothing wrong with that!
Foxes (1980). Fast Times at Ridgemont High came out a few years after this, and everyone praises that for its verisimilitude, but I wonder why this movie falls through the cracks. It’s not as good as Fast Times, certainly, but it feels a bit rawer (which is saying something, given Fast Times‘s abortion plot), and the performances are as good. It’s a messy, unfocused movie, but that’s part of its charm, actually, as it feels like the way a teenager might experience the world, all stimulus and no repose. And both movies have Robert Romanus in them, so there you go! Jodie Foster is the “mother hen” of a group of four friends trying to navigate life in late-1970s Los Angeles (the San Fernando Valley, to be more specific), and things aren’t going well. Her absentee father is a band promoter who’s always on the road (to be fair, he does seem to love his daughter, but still), and her mother, played quite well by Sally Kellerman, has gone back to school to improve her life but can’t help jumping into bed with inappropriate men. Cherie Currie (yes, the lead singer of the Runaways) is the most screwed-up of the four, as she’s deep into drugs and alcohol and her father wants to institutionalize her (that her father’s a cop doesn’t help). Currie and Foster have a good relationship in the movie, while the other two girls, Marilyn Kagan (in her first movie) and Kandice Stroh (in her first credited role) aren’t as important or as good as actors. Kagan does hook up with Randy Quaid in a weird subplot that ends very weirdly (Kagan is supposed to be 16 in the movie, while Quaid is much older, but in real life, he was only a year older than she), but they don’t have much else to do. Scott Baio, years before he went nuts, actually does a nice job as one of the boys who digs Currie and doesn’t want to see her go down a bad road. Laura Dern shows up in her first credited role, Lois Smith is Kagan’s “cool” mom, and the gang goes to an Angel concert, where the band plays a few songs. It benefits, as does Pelham One Two Three, by the grunginess of the Seventies, and while it’s not a great movie, it’s not a bad one, either. It’s also Adrian Lyne’s first movie, and sometime between this and Flashdance, his next movie, he decided to go for glitz above all, and it worked out pretty well for him, as this movie is not like much he’s done since. Anyway, it’s kind of interesting, if you’re in the mood for gritty teen drama!
Warning Sign (1985). I don’t know why this has this generic title – I guess the events of the movie are supposed to warn us to stop mucking with genes? I guess. It’s still not a great title.
Anyway, this is a fun quasi-horror movie that takes place in a lab in Utah, where a company is supposedly working on ways to boost agriculture but is really working on germ warfare, because of course they are. It starts quickly, as a virus is released very early on and head of security Kathleen Quinlan shuts the facility down, locking almost everyone inside. She’s able to be in contact with her husband, local sheriff Sam Waterston, and she tells him a bit about what’s happening before the government, represented by a grumpy Yaphet Kotto, swoop in and take command. The virus that accidentally got out seems to kill everyone, but it really turns them into rage zombies – they’re still coherent, they just get really, really angry quickly, and they don’t stop until they’re destroyed the object of their rage, which is usually other people. The government planned to infect an enemy army so they’d turn on each other, which is, sadly, a not unrealistic thing for a government to try to come up with. It’s a race against time, as Quinlan remains unaffected by the virus as everyone around her succumbs, while Waterston and Jeffery DeMunn, who’s a scientist who used to work at the facility but left in disgust, try to break in and concoct a new antidote, as the one they had didn’t work. It’s not a bad movie – it’s tense, and while we think all the principals will get out alive, we can never be sure, and the basic premise is all too plausible. It gets a bit silly toward the end, as some of the characters seem to get plot armor, while the townspeople revolt against the government blockade of the facility and try to break in, which, come on, would definitely lead to the soldiers mowing them all down with machine-gun fire, but they simply allow it to happen. A few people actually did get out, and they’re quarantined, but it seems like that would be a bigger thing and it’s not. Quinlan is the real hero of the movie, as she’s in the shit and she has to resist the raging rage zombies for the longest amount of time, and she does a good job with the role. Waterston and DeMunn are fine, Kotto is fine, Richard Dysart as the head scientist/zombie has fun with being a zombie, and G.W. Bailey as the bureaucrat who tries to convince Quinlan that nothing’s wrong is quite good (when I used to watch The Closer and Major Crimes on TNT, I couldn’t figure out where I had seen Bailey before, but when I saw him in this movie and his hair wasn’t white and shorter, I remembered – he’s the uptight dick from Police Academy!). So this is a pretty good movie – some of it’s kind of dumb, but overall, not a bad horror/thriller.
Deadly Friend (1986). Wes Craven wanted to do a kind of weird, tragic love story between teenagers, but the studio, wanting him to stay in the same vein as his previous movie and breakout hit (something about bad dreams on a tree-lined street?), forced him to butcher it, turning it into a rather silly horror movie with a really, really stupid ending (the famous line by the screenwriter is that when the head of studio wants it, you don’t say no, but that means the ending is unbelievably stupid). It’s too bad, because even with the changes, it’s not a terrible movie, and you can even see Craven’s vision struggling to get out. Matthew Labyorteaux (otherwise known as that annoying black-haired neighbor kid from Little House on the Prairie) is a genius teenager who moves to a town to attend the university there because he built a robot with a highly functioning A.I. component. He meets Kristy Swanson, his next door neighbor, and they start digging each other. Those two and Michael Sharrett, another friend, get up to teenage hijinks, with the robot helping out, until one neighbor, Anne Ramsey, blows the robot apart with her shotgun when the kids sneak onto her property at Halloween and ring her doorbell. So sad! Then Swanson gets killed, as her abusive father hits her one night and knocks her down the stairs. What’s a love-struck teen to do? Why, implant the computer chip from his robot into Swanson, thereby reviving her! Of course, we know that before it was blowed the fuck up, the robot had begun showing signs of … well, psychopathy, I suppose, although maybe it’s just rage at people who pick on its creator, and Swanson, acting like a robot (it sounds a bit ridiculous, but Swanson actually does a decent job of it), begins thinking that maybe she should seek revenge on some people she vaguely remembers abusing her or her boyfriend. Oh dear. You can see Craven’s original idea in here, as he wanted to show that “adults can be the real monsters!!!!” Swanson’s abusive father, obviously, as well as Ramsey, but it got subsumed into a gory horror movie (this is the movie with the … famous? death by basketball scene). Unfortunately, in doing this, the studio turned Labyorteaux’s character into an idiot, as he still clings to Swanson’s resurrection even after it’s clear there’s something very, very wrong with her programming. The final scene, especially, is stupid, as one would think the cops wouldn’t let Labyorteaux anywhere near Swanson, and possibly even have him in jail. The romance is downplayed, too, which is a shame, because Swanson and Labyorteaux have some nice chemistry, so had it played out a bit more, we might have actually believed he’d go this nutty over a girl. Labyorteaux isn’t the best actor in the world (neither is Swanson, for that matter), but he does a decent job playing the slightly nerdy dude, but his shift to somewhat obsessed mad scientist (Teen Doc Frankenstein, essentially) is a bit of a bridge too far (in some weird trivia, this is Labyorteaux’s final theatrical film – he’s done some television, but mostly he moved to voice work for animation and video games). And … as an older person, I can’t hate Ramsey too much and don’t think she deserved her fate. She very clearly doesn’t want anyone on her property, which is absolutely her right, and she only has a gate with a lock, not anything deadly. The robot hucks the basketball onto her property and she’s a jerk for not returning it, but, I mean, come on – it’s a basketball. Deal with it, kids. Then, they trespass on her property, and she shoots the robot, which she tells over and over again to stop coming toward her. Labyorteaux is upset because the robot was learning like a person, but Ramsey didn’t know that, and so what, anyway? It’s illegally on her property and she tells it to stop, and Labyorteaux and the other kids are too scared to stop her, anyway (they’re hiding like chumps). If Labyorteaux had just come out, apologized profusely, and gotten the robot off her property, all the death later could have been avoided. But he’s a stupid punk kid. Poor Anne Ramsey, just wanting to live her best life alone!
Thunderheart (1992). Michael Apted was an interesting director, as he switched from fictional narrative to documentaries very easily, and he was pretty good at both. At the same time he was making this movie, he was making Incident at Oglala, one of my favorite documentaries, which is about essentially the same thing. The doc was more focused on Leonard Peltier, and so, in this movie, he ranges a bit further afield to encompass more topics relevant to American Indians in the 1970s (the movie is set in 1992, but a lot of the topics began to bubble up in Native communities in the Seventies). Val Kilmer plays an FBI agent with Indian blood in his family tree, so they send him to South Dakota to team up with Sam Shepard to investigate a murder on the reservation. Because it’s that kind of movie, the suspect, played brashly by John Trudell (Trudell lived his life brashly, so it’s not surprising he acted that way in this movie), is obviously not the killer, and Kilmer begins to realize that Shepard and the tribal police, led by Fred Ward, have a vested interest in not pursuing the case. He meets an activist played by Sheila Tousey, who tells him things he doesn’t really want to hear, and Graham Greene (if it’s the 1990s and there’s an Indian in your movie, chances are it was Graham Greene!) helps Kilmer understand his Indian heritage. It’s a bit silly at times, but it’s also very earnest, and sincerity will get you far even if it’s a bit silly. It’s also a good thriller, as Apted does use actual events that did happen on reservations to create the plot, even bringing in the Wounded Knee massacre late in the movie, and it’s depressing to think about how the U.S. government has treated the Natives (at one point, Shepard calls them “conquered people,” which is true, but that doesn’t mean we have to keep being dicks to them). Kilmer does a good job as the straight-laced agent who doesn’t want to get involved in the Indians’ issues, but can’t help himself because he realizes that things are wrong on the rez, and the cast is, in general, quite good. I saw this in the theater when it came out, and it was fun to watch it again.
The Misfits (2021). Hey, look – it’s a Renny Harlin movie! Whattayaknow? Good for him!
Harlin has made some decent action movies in the past, and this is a heist movie, and I love a good heist movie, but sadly, this is not a good heist movie. It’s far too short, and apparently it went through a lot of developmental hell on its way to finished product, and it feels like it. We take far too long putting the team together and far too little with the heist, which goes off far too easily. It’s frustrating. It’s a bit too jokey, too, and while I don’t mind if a movie like this is humorous, it’s a bit too humorous, so the tone is off. It can’t decide which character is most important, either – I mean, it’s obviously Pierce Brosnan, who plays a thief recruited by a group of do-gooders to steal a terrorist’s gold – but Brosnan’s part is strange, as he feels almost secondary for a good part of the early minutes of the movie, and even when it’s clear he’s trying to rebuild a relationship with his daughter, they don’t get to share enough screen time to make that worthwhile. Nick Cannon – who does a decent job even though his comedic schtick makes it seem like he’s in a different movie sometimes – narrates the movie, telling us all about how he and some other people decided to steal from bad people and give back to the victims – they’re Robin Hoods, in other words. It’s not a bad set-up, but we never learn very much about him or his fellow good-guy thieves before it becomes clear that Brosnan’s thief – who doesn’t care about redemption and whom they sort-of blackmail into helping them – is the main focus. Rami Jaber, Jamie Chung, and Mike Angelo are the other thieves, and they seem fun but we never get enough about them. (Angelo is using an Anglicized name – he’s a Thai pop star who transitioned to films and this is his first American movie, and he’s somewhat charismatic but doesn’t have enough to do.) They’re stealing gold that’s stored in a private prison run by Tim Roth in a fictional Middle Eastern country (which was originally supposed to be Qatar, but part of the developmental hell of the movie changed that), and Roth wants to kill Brosnan because Brosnan banged his wife, so there’s that. (Roth is also criminally underused in this movie – if you have Roth, why are you neutering him so much? Let the man chew the scenery!) The heist seems to go far too easily for it taking place in a privately run prison in a country ruled by a dictatorship (this is where the humor falls a bit flat – it seems like the government uses torture quite a bit, and too many characters joke about it), and the twists are far too obvious. It’s just a frustrating movie, because Harlin knows how to make a stylish movie, and the cast is pretty good, but either Harlin just couldn’t pull it together or there was too much outside interference, and it’s just a bit of a mess. It’s short – just a bit over 90 minutes – so if you’re a big fan of Roth, say, and you just have to see this movie, it won’t take up too much of your time!
Last Night in Soho (2021). I like Edgar Wright and think he makes entertaining movies, but I’m not sure if drama is where he should be playing. It’s not as if this is a bad movie, but like Baby Driver, his previous feature, there’s something missing from it, and I’m not sure if Wright has what it takes to see a drama through. With his comedies, his cheeky “I’m cooler than you are” attitude (I don’t know if he’s like that personally, but it’s a vibe I get from his movies) comes off as self-deprecating, a bit, which makes it work, but it doesn’t seem to work in his dramas. Still, this is a good thriller until it falls apart a bit at the end (mysteries are hard to write, people!), with good performances and cool sets and a nifty vibe. Thomasin McKenzie, who plays a young lady in London for the first time for college, does a decent job here, although she’s a bit out of her depth going up against Anya Taylor-Joy, Diana Rigg, and Terence Stamp. She moves into an attic in Soho and begins having visions of the Sixties, when Taylor-Joy arrived in London and wanted to be a star. Taylor-Joy gets involved with a deliciously smarmy Matt Smith, and things begin to go bad for her in the most clichéd way possible, and McKenzie eventually sees Taylor-Joy get murdered, so she tries to solve the crime. Rigg is fun as McKenzie’s no-nonsense landlady, and Stamp is doing his thing as the gruff jerk who knows more about McKenzie, it seems, than he should, but the plot becomes a bit obvious as we go on, and McKenzie acts dumber and dumber. The problem with the story is that early on, it’s established that McKenzie has had mental problems in the past, but that gets swept under the carpet as we go on, because it’s clear the thing she’s experiencing actually happened. But how does she know it all? She knows about Taylor-Joy because she … dreams about it? Extremely specifically? And when things start to affect her waking life, isn’t that cause for concern? Nope, not according to Wright! Plus, it’s another of those mysteries that could easily be cleared up if McKenzie asked one or two simple questions instead of acting like a fool, but nope, she acts like a fool. Still, it’s very stylish, the acting is good, the on-location shooting is superb, the practical effects are neat (very little is CGI, apparently, when Taylor-Joy and McKenzie share the screen), and it’s entertaining. Just don’t prod at it too much!
Amsterdam (2022). In my long, empty movie-going days when we had younger children and babysitters were few and far between, I fell away from seeing David O. Russell movies, even though his first three movies – Spanking the Monkey, Flirting With Disaster, and Three Kings – are brilliant. Since then, I’ve only seen American Hustle, and that wasn’t in the theater. So I was looking forward to Amsterdam, his latest, and … it’s pretty good. Not great, but pretty good. Christian Bale is a Jewish doctor who was attached to an all-black unit in World War I, and he befriends John David Washington and they save each other’s lives. After the war, they live in Amsterdam with Margot Robbie, a nurse they met in the war, and she and Washington fall in love. Bale returns to the States, but later, in the early 1930s, he’s reunited with Washington when Washington asks him to perform an autopsy on the general who championed the unit, whose daughter thinks he was murdered. They establish that it was murder, which just gets them involved in a sinister conspiracy that involves, of course, Margot Robbie, who’s back in the States as well. I don’t want to give too much away, because although it’s very, very loosely based on fact, it’s fun to discover exactly what’s going on (if you’re FotB Jeff Nettleton, you can probably guess what’s going on, as one of his favorite Americans is the basis for a character in this movie!). Bale is quite good, as he usually is, and Robbie is wonderfully weird, but Washington feels a bit inert, which is strange. Washington is a decent enough actor, but in this movie, for some reason, he seems too subdued, and I don’t know why. It makes him have less chemistry with Robbie, which is too bad. The cast is stacked (Ed Begley Jr.! Taylor Swift! Timothy Olyphant! Andrea Riseborough! Zoe Saldana! Rami Malek! Mike Myers! Michael Shannon!), and the plot is interesting, but it feels a bit meandering, and not in a good way. Like Soho, it just feels like something is missing, and it’s hard to put my finger on it. It’s not the plot, like in Soho, because the plot works, but maybe in the lack of focus? Maybe it’s just Washington sucking all the energy out of his scenes? I don’t know. Still, Russell knows how to make an entertaining movie, and this looks great, and it’s fun to watch all these actors turned loose. Still …
There you go – movies, movies, and more movies! How many will you see based on my wildly insightful reviews? All of them? None of them? Oh, the possibilities!