Sunday, October 23, 2016


“Giant Gila Monster” director Ray Kellogg’s low-budget creature feature “The Killer Shrews” is a claustrophobic saga that grossed almost nine times its budget and has become a public domain masterpiece.  “Creation of the Humanoids” scenarist Jay Simms spend most of his career writing episode for television series such as “Laramie,” “The Rifleman,” “Rawhide,” “Have Gun, Will Travel,” “Laredo,” and “Gunsmoke.”  Before he graduated to less science-fiction, horror-oriented material, he wrote this chiller, and he must have been channeling H.G. Wells’ “The Island of Doctor Moreau” to some extent. James Best portrays the hero in this shoe-string budget thriller, and Ken Curtis—who produced the film—cast himself as a drunken scientist.  Aside from some footage of a boat on the ocean and scenes inside a scientist compound, “The Killer Shrews” (** OUT OF ****) could have been shot anywhere on its reported $123-thousand budget.  Best and Curtis give the best performances hands down, while everybody else looks a little embarrassed by all the baloney that they try to make sound believable.  According to the Internet Movie Database, the full-sized shrews were played by coon dogs, and the close-ups of the shrews were puppets. Wikipedia points out that “The Killer Shrews” was lensed in Dallas, Texas.

An isolated island in the middle of the ocean is the setting for this science-fiction/horror movie where a team of scientists have been conducting experiments on tiny animals called shrews.  The most outlandish aspect of this movie is the reason that prompted Dr. Marlowe Craigis (Baruch Lumet of “The Pawnbroker”) to embark on his privately funded research.  He intends to shrink humans to half our current size so he can ease world hunger.  Craigis figures that when the human race is that reduced physically in size, people consume less and lengthen the Earth’s food supply. Inexplicably, their science project gets out of hand.  By the time that Captain Thorne Sherman and his first-mate ‘Rook' Griswold (Judge Henry Dupree of “My Dog, Buddy”) arrive with supplies, the shrews have grown to the size of dogs.  Dr. Craigis explains that shrews must eat their bodyweight in anything alive to survive.  The first half of “The Killer Shrews” is spend with Craigis delivering a plethora of expository information about these devilish critters.  One of Craigis’ scientist, Jerry Farrell (Ken Curtis of “The Searchers”), is particularly upset by this point by the escape of some shrews.  Furthermore, his lack of vigilance regarding the escaped shrews has prompted Dr. Craigis’ gorgeous daughter, Ann (Ingrid Goude of “Never Steal Anything Small”), to call off her engagement with Farrell.  A hurricane batters the island, and Thorne decides to stay in the compound with the scientists after Ann reveals everything about the murderous mutants. This doesn’t suit Farrell because he thinks that Thorne is making moves of his former finance. 

About 20 minutes into the action, Thorne’s first mate encounters the ravenous shrews.  He runs in panic and struggles to climb a tree to elude the hungry beasts, but several of them leap at him and kill him.  Meanwhile, three other starving shrews dig under the gates to the stable and eat a helpless horse, and then they start searching for a point of entry to the compound.  One shrew gains access to the compound when a shutter on a window is damaged by the high winds.  The animal slips in, and Thorne and Craigis’ hired help Mario (Alfredo de Soto of “The Big Steal”) confront the beastly thing in the basement where the food is stored.  The dog-like creature with huge fangs bites Mario, and the handy man dies from poison that was put out on the island long ago to diminish the population.  Not only did the poison fail to work, but the shrews have absorbed into their system with suffering any ill effects.  Thorne and Jerry trudge through the woods to the shore.  Thorne whistles up Rook who is supposed to be aboard the yacht.  Rook is nowhere to be found until Thorne stumbles onto his remains.  Earlier, the jealous Farrell threatened to kill Thorne since he kept making eyes at Ann.  Thorne disarmed Farrell.  After they find Rook’s empty revolver, Thorne and Farrell hear the hunger shrews approaching.  They charge back to the compound.  Farrell arrives before Thorne and tries to lock Thorne out of the compound to prevent more the shrews from invading the premises.  Thorne scales the wall and beats up the frantic Farrell.  Bristling with rage, Thorne almost dumps Farrell’s unconscious body over the wall.  At the last moment, he relents to everybody’s relief.  No sooner than everybody believes they are out of harm’s way than they realize that more shrews have sneaked into the compound.  Ann is poised to make coffee when she opens a door to another room, and a shrew dashes out. The animal attacks Dr. Radford Baines (producer Gordon McLendon), and he perishes from the poison in the animal’s bit. However, he survives long enough to type out every symptom of his behavior before he keels over.  Thorne guns down the shrew.

Thorne, Ann, Farrell, and Dr. Craigis evacuate themselves from the house portion of the compound after the shrews tear apart the plaster and burrow into the adobe. Farrell appropriates the automatic shotgun that Thorne pitched over the wall before he scaled it.  They find some drums later enough to each of them to crawl into and duck-walk across open ground to the shore.  Farrell refuses to join them and climbs atop the roof as the shrews assemble for the final feast.  Thorne uses a torch to cut oblong viewing holes in the drums.  They lash three drums together and remotely open the patio gate.  The shrews scramble in and tear at the view slots while our heroes laboriously make their way across uneven terrain to the shore.  Believe it or not, a sequel entitled “Return of the Killer Shrews” was released in 2012, and James Best reprised his role as Thorne.

Sunday, September 25, 2016


“Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua’s bloodless, bullet-riddled remake of the classic western “The Magnificent Seven” (1960) lacks both its prestigious predecessor’s ultra-cool pugnacity under fire and its complex character development.  Nevertheless, while it doesn’t eclipse the first-class Yul Brynner & Steve McQueen shoot’em up, neither does the new “Seven” embarrass itself as some remakes such as “Ben-Hur.”  Loaded for bear, with a triple-digit body count, and rawhide performances by Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, and Ethan Hawke, Fuqua’s “Magnificent Seven” (*** OUT OF ****) qualifies as an entertaining, above-average, horse opera.  Shunning a scene-for-scene rehash of the original, “True Detective” scenarist Nic Pizzolatto and “Expendables 2” scribe Richard Wenk have shifted the setting from Mexico to America, as well as created fresh characters in no way related to anybody else in the three earlier “Magnificent Seven” sequels.  Interestingly, in changing the physical setting, Fuqua’s film resembles the short-lived CBS-TV series “The Magnificent Seven” (1998-2000) where the seven defended a frontier town against outsiders. Similarly, in both the television show and Fuqua’s version, a woman is responsible for recruiting the seven.  For the record, director John Sturges’ “The Magnificent Seven” was itself a remake of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s landmark film. If retooling a samurai saga as a sagebrusher sounds bizarre, consider this: Sergio Leone’s groundbreaking Spaghetti western “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964) with Clint Eastwood was a remake of another Kurosawa samurai slash’em-up “Yojimbo” (1961) again with ToshirĂ´ Mifune.  Furthermore, later in 1964, American director Martin Ritt adapted yet another Kurosawa yarn “Rashomon” (1950) into the Paul Newman & William Shatner western “The Outrage.” Incidentally, science fiction aficionados should know that George Lucas has said that Kurosawa’s film “The Hidden Fortress” (1958), served as inspiration for his own historic “Star Wars” franchise. 

The original “Magnificent Seven” took place in Mexico.  Seven mercenaries who were down on their luck accepted a gold eagle--$20--for six weeks to safeguard a destitute farming village from the depredations of marauding banditos.  Calvera and his bandits would strike during harvest, but leave the farmers with adequate food to survive until they returned to plunder anew.  The “Magnificent Seven” reboot relocates the action to a traditional American western town.  Malignant capitalist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard of “Black Mass”) plans to buy up all the property in the town of Rose Creek to mine gold.  As the story unfolds, Bogue visits the townspeople at their church where they have assembled to settle this intolerable predicament.  The mustache-twirling Bogue offers them $20 each for their land parcels.  Furthermore, he stipulates that they have three weeks either to accommodate him or suffer the dire consequences.  Were this miserly offer not insulting enough for the settlers, Bogue draws first blood and shoots some of them in cold blood.  Bogue’s Native American sidekick derives special relish from burying his hatchet in the back of a fleeing woman.  Bogue blasts one dissenter, Matthew Cullen (Matt Bomer of “The Nice Guys”), at point blank range without a qualm. After grieving over her husband, Emma Cullen (Jennifer Lawrence lookalike Hayley Bennett of “Hardcore Henry”) approaches bounty hunter Sam Chisolm and implores him to help her fellow townspeople thwart Bogue’s ambitions. “Sir,” she addresses Sam. “I have a proposition. We're decent people being driven from our homes. Slaughtered in cold blood.” Decked out head to toe in black on a black horse, Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington of “Unstoppable”) queries Emma: “So you seek revenge?” The widow replies,” I seek righteousness. But I'll take revenge.”

Sam recruits a nimble cardsharp, Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt of “Guardians of the Galaxy”), who cannot seem to avoid trouble or its consequences.  Clearly, Pratt’s character is forged in the mold of Steve McQueen’s character. These two spout a similar story about a hombre who jumped off a hotel roof. As the gent plunged past each window, spectators heard him say: “So far, so good.”  Fuqua gets more mileage out of this story than the John Sturges film imagined.  Fuqua appropriates one of original villain’s best lines for Bogue, who philosophically ponders the fate of the townspeople. “If God had not wanted them sheared, he would have not made them sheep.”  This seven amounts to a rugged multicultural outfit: an Asian gunslinger Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee of “Terminator Genisys”) wields knife with deadly grace; a lethal Comanche archer (newcomer Martin Sensmeier) never misses; a flinty Hispanic pistolero Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo of “Term Life”) displays enviable marksmanship skills, a Grizzly Adams mountain man Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio of “Full Metal Jacket”) likes to work in close with a hatchet, and a former Confederate sniper Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke of “The Purge”) struggles to conceal the nerve that he has lost.   Robicheaux combines the characters of Lee and Harry Luck from the original film, while Billy Rocks is the James Coburn character.       

Some abhor remakes more than sequels.  I saw “The Magnificent Seven” during its initial theatrical release in 1960, and I’ve seen it so many times since I can recite its many quotable lines, savor the slap and draw six-gun scene, and hum the evocative Elmer Bernstein title theme.  Happily, as the end credits roll, Fuqua cues Bernstein’s two-time Oscar nominated orchestral score.  Leathery tough “Magnificent Seven” fanatics will applaud this homage.  Hollywood had been pondering a remake of the Sturges’ western for almost decade.  Initially, the thought of such a remake filled me with dread.  Anybody who suffered through the abysmal remake of “Ben-Hur” (2016) knows the kind of blasphemy that can occur when a remake goes sideways.  The Charlton Heston version of “Ben-Hur” has withstood the ravages of time and nothing Hollywood can conjure up will surpass it. Fortunately, while it doesn’t contain as much clever, incisive dialogue as its predecessor, “The Magnificent Seven” remake isn’t the disaster I feared.  Indeed, Fuqua’s ensemble shootout ranks as one of the best westerns since the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit.”  Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke stand out in a gifted cast. Peter Sarsgaard scores as a repulsive villain, but he doesn’t boast the cutthroat humor that the original “Magnificent Seven” villain Calvera (played by Eli Wallach) had.  Nonetheless, what Sarsgaard’s villain lacks in dimension, he compensates for with murder.  Altogether, despite some idiotic comic relief, the remake of “The Magnificent Seven” is worth saddling up to see.

Friday, August 26, 2016


Anybody who saw British director Michael Winner's top-notch 1972 nail-biting killer-thriller "The Mechanic" with Charles Bronson cast as a stoic, steely-eyed assassin who makes murder look like an accident knows no remake could ever do it justice. Mind you, tough-guy Jason Statham makes "Con-Air" director Simon West's rehash of this classic action epic tolerable. Statham possesses an iconic presence that filmmakers have been grooming since he made his debut in writer & director Guy Ritchie's outstanding crime opus "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" in 1998. French producer Luc Besson catapulted the actor to widespread prominence with the larger-than-life "The Transporter" franchise. Meantime, if the best action movies must top each other, then "The Mechanic" has Statham running in place. Although it occurs in a believable physical environment, "The Mechanic" is just too conventional to be more than average. You don't see Statham perform any stunts here that he hasn't done far better in either his "Transporter" trilogy or his outlandish "Crank" movies. Credit Simon West for maintaining the momentum throughout this contemporary actioneer and staging each scene with a classy look. Nevertheless, the surprises, complications, and villains induce yawns more often than alarms.

As R-rated thrillers go, "The Mechanic" (** OUT OF ****) seems incredibly subdued compared with genuine R-rated exercises in blood, gore and murder like the recent crime epic "The Punisher." "16 Blocks" scenarist Richard Wenk has changed substantially the content and context of the original in his update. Lewis John Carlino, who penned the original, shares screen credit with Wenk, but it is difficult to determine if more than the Carlino basics were retained. A straightforward, scene-for-scene rehash of the original "Mechanic" would have been less-than-inspired but more than adequate. Apparently, West and Wenk wanted to improve on the original and thus dispense with everything that made it so unforgettable.  Unlike the tragic 1972 ending, the "Mechanic" remake boasts an upbeat ending so that a sequel could ensue. Furthermore, this revenge melodrama provides more deception that makes our hero appear somewhat stupid when you think about it because the villains take advantage of him in a way that would never have occurred in the Bronson classic. Moreover, unlike Bronson and co-star Jan-Michael Vincent, Statham and Ben Foster kindle little charisma as mentor and apprentice.

Arthur Bishop (Jason Statham of "The Expendables") is a reclusive killer who performs hits for a mysterious corporation. He is the best in the business, and the first scene demonstrates his expertise. Bishop penetrates the premises of a Colombian drug lord. Scores of heavily armed brutes patrol the place. Nevertheless, our protagonist kills the
drug lord right under their collective noses. Moreover, Bishop makes it appear as if drug lord drowned. This is probably as slick as "The Mechanic" remake gets, and our anti-heroic hero makes good his escape by swimming away under the dead drug dealer. The guards think nothing unusual as they watch their wiry boss perform a slow crawl across the pool. The next thing they know is their boss has curled up dead in the water. They sound the alarm, but Bishop is far away. Bishop meets his mentor, Harry McKenna (Donald Sutherland of "The Eagle Has Landed"), who cruises around in a wheelchair. Harry brings Bishop a package of greenbacks as payment. Bishop and harry have a history, and Harry is the closest to a friend that Arthur has. When Arthur isn't knocking off people, he listens to vinyl Schubert recordings on a turntable, tinkers with his fashionable Jaguar, and checks his e-mail on his Apple. Occasionally, he goes out for a drink and enjoys the company of a well-paid prostitute. Incidentally, Arthur lives in a sumptuous residence in a remote bayou outside of New Orleans. Life for Arthur, as
far as everything goes, couldn't be better until he learns that Harry has been selling out his colleagues to the tune of $50 million. Harry's partner, Dean (Tony Goldwyn of "Ghost"), contacts Arthur and shows him a sheaf of gory photos.

Naturally, Arthur has to think about this contract. A life-long friend, Harry has been there for him. Harry loves Arthur like a son. Harry has a son, Steve (Ben Foster of "3:10 to Yuma"), but he hates him. Anyway, Arthur decides to ice Harry, if for no other reason than Harry will suffer less. Ingeniously, Arthur makes Harry's death look like a carjacking. Eventually, Steve drifts into the picture, and revenge dominates his thinking. Arthur intervenes to keep Steve from killing an innocent criminal and decides to train Steve as an assassin. Dean doesn't think that this is one of Arthur's better ideas. Arthur teaches Steve the rules of killing, but Steve isn't as cautious and careful. Rather than kill a child molesting thug without fanfare, Steve decides to beat the man to death. Steve survives, but he looks like he ran into a bull dozer. As Steve learns more and more, he moves in with Arthur. One day Steve discovers his father's nickel-plated automatic
pistol in Arthur's storage tubs and plots his mentor's demise. Before he can carry out the hit, Arthur and he must leave for Chicago to murder a religious cult figure with a controversial background. Indeed, nothing goes right for them, and they escape by the skin of their teeth.

Director Simon West doesn't rely on high tech gadgetry. He keeps most of violence pretty down to earth. The shoot-out scenes are staged without excessive blood and gore, and West lets nothing get in the fairly straight-f0rward storyline. West and Wenk do insert an occasional surprise. The best concerns cramming a teenage girl's fingers down a garbage disposal in a sink. Not surprisingly, Arthur Bishop comes off looking immaculate compared with his murderous colleagues as well as his wicked victims. The Charles Bronson character in the original worked for the Italian mafia. Altogether, "The
Mechanic" is primarily a nuts and bolts melodrama with little to distinguish it outside Jason Statham's tight-lipped performance and Ben Foster's maniacal energy as a wannabe killer.