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Saturday, January 30, 2016

FILM REVIEW OF ''RIDE ALONG" (2014)

Stand-up comic Kevin Hart cracks me up. The 5-ft. 2-in., bantamweight African-American comedian reminds me of Chris Tucker stuck in a hole two-feet deep. Hart's hyperactive loquacity, colossal impertinence, and contagious energy make him riotously funny. He could stand around and do nothing, and he would still be hilarious. "Think Like A Man" director Tim Story casts the charismatic Hart as a wacky wannabe cop cooped up in a car with Ice Cube's stoic Atlanta Police Detective in "Ride Along" (**1/2 OUT OF ****), a standard-issue, odd couple, buddy comedy with shoot-outs and explosions. A veteran cop with anger management issues, Ice Cube scowls and grimaces throughout "Ride Along" as he did in "21 Jump Street." Cube's character is obsessed with arresting an enigmatic criminal mastermind known only as Omar, but his obnoxious superior keeps reprimanding him about his rogue behavior. Story and four writers, including "Sorority Boys" scripter Greg Coolidge, newcomer Jason Mantzoukas, and "R.I.P.D" co-scribes Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, have recycled dutifully every cliché from those 1980s era police procedurals. They set up at least one gag early in the action and pay it off during the finale. Another inevitable gag involving a video gamers' microphone headset is so obviously set-up that you'd have to miss it with a trip to the concession counter or elsewhere, to overlook it. Actors John Leguizamo, Bruce McGill, Bryan Callen, and Laurence Fishburne grace this predictable, but energetic potboiler with their illustrious presence. If you've seen cop movies like "Rush Hour," "Fuzz," "48 HRS," "Training Day," and "Paul Blart, Mall Cop," you know what to expect at every turn. "Ride Along" sticks to the formula with slavish zeal, but the camaraderie between Kevin Hart and Ice Cube as polar opposites overshadows the film's sophomoric shenanigans.

Ben Barber (Kevin Hart of "Grudge Match") works as a security guard at an Atlanta area high school where he does his best to keep some of the kids in class and off the streets. Ben has a live-in girlfriend, Angela Payton (Tika Sumpter of "Sparkle"), who happens to be the sister of tough-as-nails Atlanta detective James Payton. Make no mistake; the bad-tempered Payton has nothing but contempt for the upstart Barber. He doesn't understand what Angela sees in the runt. Barber wants to marry Angela, but he feels compelled to obtain James' blessing. Imagine Barber's surprise when he learns that he has been accepted into the police academy. Barber approaches Payton with his news, and Payton challenges our pint-sized protagonist to a 'ride along' to measure his mettle. Naturally, Barber takes advantage of this opportunity and gets to don a windbreaker with POLICE stenciled across the back. Meantime, Payton gets the dispatcher to send him every annoying call so he can disillusion Barber and get on with his life. Everybody that Barber encounters winds up intimidating him, particularly Benjamin "Lil P-Nut" Flores Jr., who upstages Hart during a one-on-one scene on a basketball court. Barber is struggling to learn the whereabouts of the kid's big brother, but "Lil-P Nut" thwarts him at every turn. During the ride along, Barber contends with a gang of motorcycle riders, specifically one who appears to be a woman with some physical characteristics of a man. Eventually, after our hero learns that Payton has been trying to break his spirit with harmless but annoying incidents, he rebounds and finds himself deep in Payton's business. A scene at an Atlanta strip club puts Ben in the line of fire. Later, our heroes manage to draw out the elusive Mr. Big behind an arms deal, and all Hell breaks looses with a revelation that weights heavily on Payton. Of course, the villains target Payton's sister, and "Ride Along" shifts to the dependable damsel-in-distress subplot. By the time all the dust has settled, our two heroes have a different opinion of each other and are more amenable to each other.

Basically, "Ride Along" whittles Kevin Hart down to size before it converts him into a force to be reckoned with by the bad guys. This movie even makes video gamers look useful for something because they can differentiate between the sounds of a variety of submachine guns. Our hero employs this bit of knowledge to good effect in helping Payton capture a world class villain. Before this 99 minute opus is over, our heroes have redeemed themselves suitably enough in each other's eyes to emerge as friends, despite an amusing cook-out segment during the end credits. "Ride Along" is pretty dull when Hart isn't going full-tilt with his motor-mouth slapstick. Director Tim Story, who helmed "Taxi" and the original, live-action "Fantastic Four" franchise with Jessica Alba, maintains headlong momentum that doesn't relent and provides enough shoot-outs and tough-talking showdowns to make "Ride Along" tolerable when Hart isn't sparring with Ice Cube. Ultimately, everything boils down to Kevin Hart and Ice Cube. These two thespians have a blast playing off each other, so much so that "Ride Along" has topped the box office charts three weeks in a row. The film coined $154-million off a $25 million budget. Unfortunately, "Ride Along" qualifies as superior compared with its superficial Miami-set sequel with no surprises.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

FILM REVIEW OF ''STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS'' (2015)

Apparently, "Star Trek" and "Star Trek into Darkness" director J.J. Abrams adopted the strategy 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it' for Disney's revival of George Lucas' "Star War" franchise. "Star Wars: The
Force Awakens" (*** OUT OF ****) qualifies as an uninspired but entertaining science fiction/fantasy saga with spectacular CGI special effects. Unfortunately, it suffers from half-baked villains and a shamelessly derivative script. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt must have cherry-picked their favorite scenes and characters from earlier "Star Wars" epics, retooled them for this reboot, and then placed them in similar order to comply with the formula. Originally, George Lucas hired Kasdan to rewrite "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi," while Arndt wrote "The Hunger Games 2: Catching Fire" and "Toy Story 3." Despite this gifted talent, Abrams and company don't awaken as much as recycle the Force. "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" duplicates the formulaic narrative of the original trilogy without a flaw, but Abrams cannot conjure up Lucas' buoyant spirit of feel-good spontaneity. Nevertheless, unless you're a nit-picky franchise aficionado, you'll have four reasons to appreciate this melodramatic franchise reboot from the House of Mouse. First, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is a full-fledged sequel instead of a prequel. (Mind you, the prequels weren't entirely ponderous, and each chronicled Anakin Skywalker's walk on the dark side.) Second, Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Luke Skywalker return after a 32-year hiatus. Mind you, C3P0 and R2-D2 are back, but they linger on the periphery. A new droid designated BB-8 replaces R2-D2 as comic relief. Third, Harrison Ford gives one of his strongest performances as Han Solo. You'll enjoy his shenanigans with the 'rathars,' tentacled, carnivorous, alien predators aboard his spaceship. Abrams confines Carrie Fisher to the sidelines, while Mark Hamill appears at the last minute. London-born Daisy Ridley, whose character draws on both Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, is the fourth reason you'll want to see the seventh movie again. You won't take your eyes off this scrappy waif until Solo emerges to challenge her dominance. "Attack the Block" actor John Boyega plays the most interesting new character but his character appears to be given the short-shrift, Combat fighter pilot Oscar Isaac of "The Bourne Legacy" emulates Han Solo with his daredevil aerial skills. At the least, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" amounts to a swiftly plotted, larger-than-life, crowd-pleasing space opera with dialogue that propels the plot.

The fourth sequel unfolds on the desolate, sun-scorched planet of
Jakku. A lone girl named Rey (Daisy Ridley of "Scrawl") survives by
scavenging parts from a crashed Empire starship. She lives alone in the
desert. Eventually, Rey rescues an adorable little droid BB-8 from
another native scavenger. BB-8 is an insufferably scene-stealer.
Meantime, the infamous First Order regime has risen from the ashes of
the defeated Empire. These imperialist minded maniacs are no different
from their draconian predecessors. They've been scouring the galaxy
like bloodhounds for the last surviving Jedi knight, Luke Skywalker
(Mark Hamill of "Kingsman: The Secret Service"), and they've finally
located a lead on Jakku. Simultaneously, the rebel Resistance, led by
Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), has dispatched a pilot, Poe Dameron
(Oscar Isaac of "Ex Machina"), to retrieve information from Lor San
Tekka (Max von Sydow of "The Exorcist") about Luke's whereabouts. No
sooner has San Tekka confided in Poe than the First Order, led by
wannabe Dark Vader lookalike Kylo Ren (Adam Driver of "Lincoln"),
arrives with squads of Stormtroopers. One of those armor-clad soldiers,
FN-2187 (John Boyega), suffers a crisis of conscience and deserts from
the ranks when he is ordered to massacre innocents. FN-2187's superior,
Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie of "The Zero Theorem"), keeps him
under close scrutiny because he refused to fire his blaster. Although
the First Order rounded up Poe, FN-2187 sticks around long enough to
rescue him. He pretends to take him at gunpoint into the hanger. They
steal a TIE fighter but crash on Jakku. Eventually, a lost and
wandering FN-2187 befriends Rey. When maurading Stormtroopers invade
Jakku, our heroes stumble accidentally onto Han Solo's long, lost
Millennium Falcon and steal it to escape. Han intercepts them while
engaged on a mission to deliver exotic but carnivorous alien wildlife.

Despite a fresh crop of new characters, including Rey, Finn, Poe
Dameron, Kylo Ren, and Snoke, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" imitates
virtually everything in the six previous entries as well as the title.
Han Solo's cliffhanger confrontation and the finale with the new Death
Star situated in a planet recalls the original. Helmer J.J. Abrams
directs with slick but soulless efficiency. Rarely does he let the
breathless momentum abate. When the momentum does slacken, however, you
realize that this is just a glossy facsimile. Of course, unless you
have seen the first six films, you may not recognize the rampant
similarities since you'll be too swept up in the whirlwind of heroics.
Happily, Rey emerges as a tenacious but sympathetic female version of
Luke. The charismatic Ridley radiates personality galore, and casting
her as the no-nonsense heroine was a stroke of genius. She shares two
scenes with Luke's old lightsaber, and she wields it with surprising
familiarity the second time. It should be obvious that Rey is Luke's
daughter, but we'll have to wait for Rian Johnson's "Star Wars: Chapter
VIII" to confirm this matter. Rey makes a greater impression on-screen
than either Finn or Poe. Finn and Poe received some of Han Solo's
attributes. Finn cannot tolerate the amoral regimen of a Stormtrooper,
and Poe rivals Han's superior skills as a pilot without his mercenary
impulses. Kylo Ren resembles Anakin Skywalker, but Ren emerges as far
more murderous. Although Kylo Ren is every bit as dastardly as Darth
Vader behind the helmet, he doesn't dredge up adequate dread to match
him as an adversary. Meanwhile, the holographic Snoke pales by
comparison with the evil Emperor. Altogether, "Star Wars: The Force
Awakens" doesn't depart from the classic formula, but provides a few
surprises, like Daisy Ridley.

FILM REVIEW OF ''TUMBLEWEED" (1953)



Audie Murphy finds himself in desperate trouble in “Land Raiders” director Nathan Juran’s exciting western “Tumbleweed” (*** OUT OF ****) when he tangles with hostile Yaqui Indians and treacherous whites.  What sets this Murphy horse opera apart is “Red Mountain” scenarist John Meredyth Lucas’ audacious screenplay based on Kenneth Perkins’ novel "Three Were Renegades."  Murphy gets himself mired deeper into danger to clear himself as this adventurous 79-minute oater winds down to its finale.  Initially, our resourceful hero displays benevolence when he comes to the aid of a wounded Yaqui brave in the desert.  Apparently, an unknown white gunman shot the Yaqui in the left shoulder and left him for dead.  Jim Harvey (Audie Murphy of “The Kid from Texas”) digs a bullet out of Tigre (Eugene Iglesias of “Apache Rifles”), the son of Yaqui chieftain Aguila (Ralph Moody of “Reprisal!”) who abhors whites with a passion.  At one point, a hateful Tigre tries to stab Harvey, but our hero manages to deflect this futile effort.  After saving Tigre’s life, our hero accepts a job as a guide for a group of pioneers.  At first, when he meets Harvey in the town of Mile High, wagon train master Seth Blanden (Ross Elliot of “Never So Few”) thinks Harvey is too young to provide them with adequate guidance.  Attractive Laura Saunders (Lori Nelson) is the sister-in-law traveling with relatives.  She likes the sight of Harvey, but Seth’s wife Sarah (Madge Meredith of “Trail Street”) disapproves of a drifter like Harvey.  Sarah wanted Laura to marry Seth’s brother Lam (Russell Johnson of “Gilligan’s Island”) because he is a stable individual. Harvey does a good job as a guide until the Yaquis box them in and try to burn their wagons.  Harvey sends the two women into hiding, and then he rides under a white flag of truce to parley with Aguila.  As it turns out, Aguila doesn’t believe that his son would befriend a white man.  The Yaqui chief ties Jim down between two spears and promises to carve his eyelids so he can watch the sun burn out his vision at dawn.  Tigre’s mother (Belle Mitchell of “Soylent Green”) lets Jim escape.  Afterward, Jim catches a ride back into the town of Borax.  He discovers that he is a persona non grata because the Yaquis scalped and killed the men, but the two women and a baby in the wagon train survived.

Ironically, Sheriff Murchoree (Chill Wills of “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid”) keeps the townspeople from lynching Harvey when he shows up in town and generates controversy with his unaccounted for presence.  The citizens have a noose around Harvey’s neck and they have Murchoree crowded, so he cannot get to Harvey until one of his deputies, Marv (Lee Van Cleef of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”), armed with a Winchester intervenes, and Murchoree can extract his six-gun from his shoulder holster.  Murchoree puts Harvey into protective custody.  Later, during the night, Tigre breaks into the jail where Harvey is being held, stabs the guard that Murchoree left in charge, and the Yaqui explains that the guards were going to let the townspeople into lynch him.  Not long afterward, they are pursued by the townspeople and Tigre takes a bullet and dies.  Before the Yaqui dies, he informs Harvey that a white man had a hand into the massacre.  Eventually, a posse pursues Harvey.  Meantime, he finds himself afoot again when his horse goes lame.  Initially, he tries to steal a horse from a rancher, Nick Buckley (Roy Roberts of “Kid Galahad”), but Buckley’s ranch hand catches him before he can.  Harvey meets Buckley and his wife Louella (K.T. Stevens of “Vice Squad”) and explains his awful predicament.  Buckley takes sympathy on him and loads him calls the decrepit looking horse called ‘Tumbleweed.’ An incredulous Harvey is surprised when the animal displays amazing mountain sense and enables him to elude the posse.  At one point, when Harvey is about to die of thirst, ‘Tumbleweed’ scrapes a hole into the dirt that yields water.  Murchoree catches up with Harvey, but he is dying from thirst, too, when our hero finds him.  Strangely enough, Harvey wants to find Aguila because he is the only man who can clear him.  The revelation as to the identity of the white man who worked with the Indians is a surprise.  Our hero and the villain battle it out with their fists and the fight progresses from the desert floor up atop a mountain where the villain tries to crush Harvey with a rock.  

Lee Van Cleef has a bigger than usual role and he isn’t a slimy villain like he was during his usual 1950s westerns.  “Tumbleweed” qualifies not only as an above-average Audie Murphy oater but a welcome departure from his more straightforward routine sagebrushers.
 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

FILM REVIEW OF ''STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS" (2015)

Apparently, “Star Trek” and “Star Trek into Darkness” director J.J. Abrams adopted the strategy ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ for Disney’s revival of George Lucas’ “Star War” franchise.  “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (*** OUT OF ****) qualifies as an uninspired but entertaining science fiction/fantasy saga with spectacular CGI special effects. Unfortunately, it suffers from half-baked villains and a shamelessly derivative script. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt must have cherry-picked their favorite scenes and characters from earlier “Star Wars” epics, retooled them for this reboot, and then placed them in similar order to comform with the formula. Originally, Lucas hired Kasdan to rewrite “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi,” while Arndt wrote “The Hunger Games 2: Catching Fire” and “Toy Story 3.”  Despite this gifted talent, Abrams and company don’t awaken as much as recycle the Force. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” duplicates the formulaic narrative of the original trilogy with nary a flaw, but Abrams cannot conjure up Lucas’ buoyant spirit of feel-good spontaneity.  Nevertheless, unless you’re a nitpicky franchise aficionado, you’ll have four reasons to welcome this melodramatic franchise reboot from the House of Mouse.  First, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is a full-fledged sequel instead of a prequel.  (Mind you, the prequels weren’t entirely ponderous, and each chronicled Anakin Skywalker’s walk on the dark side.) Second, Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Luke Skywalker return after a 32-year hiatus.  Mind you, C3P0 and R2-D2 are back, but they linger on the periphery.  A new droid designated BB-8 replaces R2-D2 as comic relief.  Third, Harrison Ford gives one of his strongest performances as Han Solo.  You’ll enjoy his shenanigans with the ‘rathars,’ tentacled, carnivorous, alien predators that he is transporting aboard his spaceship.  Abrams confines Carrie Fisher to the sidelines, while Mark Hamill appears at the last minute. London-born Daisy Ridley, whose character draws on both Luke and Leia, is the fourth reason you’ll want to see the seventh movie again.  You won’t take your eyes off this scrappy waif until Solo emerges to challenge her dominance.  Meantime, “Attack the Block” actor John Boyega plays the most interesting new character, but his character appears to be given the short-shrift. Combat fighter pilot Oscar Isaac of “The Bourne Legacy” emulates Han Solo with his daredevil aerial skills. At the least, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” amounts to a swiftly plotted, larger-than-life, crowd-pleasing space opera with dialogue that propels the plot.
 
The third sequel unfolds on the desolate, sun-scorched planet of Jakku. A single girl named Rey (Daisy Ridley of “Scrawl”) survives by scavenging parts from a crashed Empire starship. She lives alone in the desert. Eventually, Rey rescues an adorable little droid BB-8 from another native scavenger.  BB-8 is an insufferable scene-stealer.  Meantime, the infamous First Order regime has risen from the ashes of the defeated Empire.  These imperialist minded maniacs are no different from their draconian predecessors.  They’ve been scouring the galaxy like bloodhounds for the last surviving Jedi knight, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill of “Kingsman: The Secret Service”), and they’ve finally located a lead on Jakku.  Simultaneously, the rebel Resistance, led by Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), has dispatched a pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac of “Ex Machina”), to retrieve information from Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow of “The Exorcist”) about Luke’s whereabouts.  No sooner has San Tekka confided in Poe than the First Order, led by wannabe Dark Vader lookalike Kylo Ren (Adam Driver of “Lincoln”), arrives with squads of Stormtroopers.  One of those armor-clad soldiers, FN-2187 (John Boyega), suffers a crisis of conscience and deserts when he is ordered to massacre innocents.  FN-2187’s superior, Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie of “The Zero Theorem”), keeps him under close scrutiny because he refused to fire his blaster. Although the First Order has rounded up Poe, FN-2187 sticks around long enough to rescue Poe. He pretends to take Poe at gunpoint into the hanger. They steal a TIE fighter but crash on Jakku. Eventually, a lost and wandering FN-2187 befriends Rey.  When marauding Stormtroopers invade Jakku, our heroes stumble accidentally onto Han Solo’s long, lost Millennium Falcon and steal it to escape.  Han intercepts them while engaged on a mission to deliver exotic but carnivorous alien wildlife.
 
Despite a fresh crop of new characters, including Rey, Finn, Poe Dameron, Kylo Ren, and Snoke, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” imitates virtually everything in the six previous entries as well as the title.  Han Solo’s cliffhanger confrontation and the finale with the new Death Star situated in a planet recalls the original.  Helmer J.J. Abrams directs with slick but soulless efficiency.  Rarely does he let the breathless momentum abate.  When the momentum does slacken, however, you realize that this is just a glossy facsimile.  Of course, unless you have seen the first six films, you may not recognize the rampant similarities since you’ll be too swept up in the whirlwind of heroics.  Happily, Rey emerges as a tenacious but sympathetic female version of Luke.  The charismatic Ridley radiates personality galore, and casting her as the no-nonsense heroine was a stroke of genius. She shares two scenes with Luke’s old lightsaber, and she wields it with surprising familiarity the second time.  It should be obvious that Rey is Luke’s daughter, but we’ll have to wait for Rian Johnson’s “Star Wars: Chapter VIII” to confirm this matter.  Rey makes a greater impression on-screen than either Finn or Poe.  Finn and Poe received some of Han Solo’s attributes.  Finn cannot tolerate the amoral regimen of a Stormtrooper, and Poe rivals Han’s superior skills as a pilot without his mercenary impulses.  Kylo Ren resembles Anakin Skywalker, but Ren emerges as far more murderous.  Although Kylo Ren is every bit as dastardly as Darth Vader behind the helmet, he doesn’t dredge up adequate dread to match him as an adversary. Meanwhile, Ren’s superior Snoke pales by comparison with the evil Emperor.  Altogether, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” doesn’t depart from the classic formula and provides a few surprises, like Daisy Ridley

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

FILM REVIEW OF ''SOL MADRID" (1968)



You've never seen David McCallum play a more anti-heroic character than he does in director Brian G. Hutton's above-average narcotics thriller "Sol Madrid." McCallum stars as the eponymous protagonist who works undercover for Interpol and lives to bust illegal drug dealers. Indeed, he believes that he shouldn't have to abide by the rules because the bad guys don't. The biggest heroin dealer of them all here is Emil Dietrich. "Dirty Dozen" psycho Telly Savalas is charming as the cigarette-smoking villain who lives high, wide, and handsome in his estate in sunny Acapulco, Mexico. Initially, our hero doesn't have his sights set on the urbane Dietrich. He learns from his Interpol superior that the mistress of a Mafioso kingpin, Dano Villanova (Rip Torn of "Men in Black"), has left him. Moreover, the man with a computerized mind who knows everything about the Mafia's accounts, Harry Mitchell (Pat Hingle of "Hang'em High") has fled from the Mafia, too. At first, Sol's mission is to find Mitchell and persuade him to testify against the Mafia. Stacey Woodward (Stella Stevens of "The Ballad of Cable Hogue"), joined Mitchell for $250-thousand dollars. but she didn't accompnay him to Mexico. Sol Madrid breaks into Woodward's bedroom, surprises her, confiscates her loot, and they head off to see Dietrich and his guest Mitchell. Madrid works his way into Dietrich's confidence when he manages to smuggle heroin into California by means of an oil pipeline. The Interpol agent reels in Dietrich afterward for $25 million. Meanwhile, another Interpol agent working undercover in Acapulco is a smiling dude known as Jalisco (Ricardo Montalban of "Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan"), and he works as a cabbie when he isn't crusading for law and order. Eventually, Madrid is able to persuade Dietrich to sell him heroin on the premises of his house, something that Dietrich had never done before. During the big bust scene, our hero gets into a fight with the villain, and you can guess who survives the confrontation. Sol Madrid emerges as one of those cops who doesn't take prisoners and he isn't afraid of anything. Eventually, he is able to rescue Stacey from the mitts of the mafia. Once the evil Villanova ferrets Stacey out, he incarcerates her in a cabin and gets her hooked on heroin.

What sets "Sol Madrid" (*** OUT OF ****) apart from all of McCallum's other films is the savagery of his character. He exposes a double-agent in one scene and shoots the man at point blank range without a qualm and lets him fall down and die. Later, he tangles with a well-dressed Mafioso and drowns the dastard face down in a muddy pool in Mexico. I don't think that I've ever seen David McCallum play a character as brutal of Sol Madrid, and he displays no remorse for his murderous behavior. "Sol Madrid" was released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer a year before Hutton made history with Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood in the explosive World War II thriller "Where Eagles Dare." Hutton's next film was "Kelly's Heroes. If you want to see David McCallum as you have never seen him before, check out "Sol Madrid."

Monday, January 4, 2016

FILM REVIEW OF "THE HATEFUL EIGHT" (2015)

The world emerges as a hostile, inhospitable setting in writer & director Quentin Tarantino’s second western “The Hateful Eight” (**** OUT OF ****), and everybody but the innocent bystanders winds up getting what they deserve.  Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Walton Goggins, and Channing Tatum seem never at a loss for words in this consistently entertaining but abrasively self-indulgent horse opera.  Like a typical Tarantino tale, “The Hateful Eight” wallows in blood-splattered carnage, punctuated by gunfire, and intensified by politically incorrect subject matter laden with scatological, R-rated profanity.  Set in a sprawling mosaic of snow-swept Wyoming mountains, this suspenseful bounty hunters versus outlaws western  methodically unfolds like a claustrophobic but chatty Agatha Christie drawing-room murder-mystery.  Predictably, Tarantino shoots the works with both surprises and shocks that keep this static outing interesting as well as melodramatic.  A suspicious bounty hunter escorts a homicidal dame with a $10-thousand dollar reward on her head for a date with the gallows.  During his journey, the bounty hunter encounters various gunmen and takes refuge with them in a remote stagecoach relay station during a freezing blizzard.  The predominantly all-male cast is nothing short of exceptional, but this doesn’t eclipse Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance as a slimy villain.  Now, if you’re not an ardent connoisseur of all things Tarantino, you may find yourself exiting the premises before the film reaches its midpoint. 

Scruffy, loud-mouthed, bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell of “Tombstone”) has chartered a private stagecoach to transport his prisoner, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh of “Backdraft”), to the town of Red Rock.  He is taking Daisy in alive to watch her hang for her crimes.  Unlike most bounty hunters, Ruth prefers to show up with his prisoners alive rather than dead.  Along the trail, Ruth runs into another bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson of “Pulp Fiction”), who is smoking his pipe perched atop a stack of three frozen corpses.  Major Warren gunned down these three guys for the collective $8-thousand dollar bounty on their heads.  Unlike Ruth, Warren takes no chances and shows up with his desperadoes dead rather than alive.  Major Warren explains that his horse fell dead during the trip across the mountains, and he inquires if Ruth will give him a lift.  Reluctantly, Ruth allows Warren to climb aboard.  Before Warren can enter the stagecoach, Ruth orders him to surrender his two six-shooters to the coachman, O.B Jackson (James Parks of “Machete”), for safekeeping.  Later, another man stranded on foot, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins of “Cowboys & Aliens”), who claims to be the sheriff of Red Rock flags them down.  When Ruth demands to see his badge, Mannix explains that he was riding to Red Rock when his horse stepped into a gopher hole and he had to shoot it.  Initially, Ruth refuses to believe Mannix. Mannix explains that Red Rock recently lost their sheriff and that he is replacing him.  Since he hasn’t gotten to Red Rock yet, he doesn’t have a badge.  Furthermore, Mannix argues that Warren and the coach driver will serve as witnesses to testify against Ruth if Mannix is found frozen dead in the snow because Ruth wouldn’t oblige him. Glumly, Ruth lets Mannix join them.  Before he lets Mannix aboard, Ruth strikes up an uneasy alliance with Warren.  Ruth lets Warren reclaim his revolvers and promises to protect him if Warren will watch over him, too.  An infamous Confederate marauder, Mannix is wary of Major Warren who is an ex-Union cavalryman with his own notorious reputation.  According to Mannix, Warren burned down a Confederate prison camp to escape from it.  During the conflagration, more than forty young Confederate recruits died.  CSA President Jefferson Davis put a bounty on Warren’s head and Federal authorities drummed him out of the cavalry. 

Basically, the three men aboard the stagecoach remain deeply suspicious about each other despite any deals they may have forged.  Eventually, the stagecoach arrives at a lonely relay station called Minnie Haberdashery where six horse stagecoach teams are changed while the passengers rest and refresh themselves.  Warren is surprised to learn that Minnie and her family not only have left the relay station in the hands of a Mexican, Bob (Demián Bichir of “Savages”), but also have gone to visit friends.  Meantime, Ruth ushers Daisy inside at gunpoint and interrogates the three guests about their identities and destinations.  He learns that an Englishman, Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth of “Reservoir Dogs”), is a hangman in route to Red Rock.  The other man, a drover back from a cattle drive, Joe Gage (Michael Madsen of “Die Another Day”), is heading to see his mother on the far side of Red Rock.  Ruth disarms both men, dismantles their revolvers, and sends O.B. into the freezing storm to dump their firearms in the nearby outhouse.  The other guest, elderly Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern of “The Cowboys”), doesn’t own a gun.  Nevertheless, Ruth doesn’t trust any of them, and he keeps Daisy attached to a chain around his wrist.  Meantime, Warren doesn’t believe Mexican Bob’s story about Minnie, but he doesn’t have enough evidence to call him a liar.  Unquestionably, the scenes in the stagecoach station constitute the best part of this western.
 
Kurt Russell blusters through his role as John Ruth, giving a variation on the John Wayne performance that he gave for John Carpenter in “Big Trouble in Little China.”  He plays a character who is far friendlier than the Stuntman Mike villain he played in Tarantino’s “Death Proof” (1986). Samuel L. Jackson is at the top of his game as the controversial Major Warren.  He dresses like the Lee Van Cleef character Colonel Douglas Mortimer did in Sergio Leone’s second Clint Eastwood movie “For a Few Dollars More.”  Channing Tatum appears near the end as a French pistolero who keeps the bullet loops on his holstered pair of revolvers stuffed with lead.  The character that Jennifer Jason Leigh plays hasn’t a shred of decency, and John Ruth doesn’t treat her with diplomacy.  At one point, he smashes out her front teeth after she gets him riled. “The Hateful Eight” clocks in at 168 minutes.  Essentially, Tarantino takes his own sweet time setting up the situation and developing the characters.  He gives each of the eight a chance to showcase themselves once the blizzard confines everybody to the stagecoach station with nowhere else to go.  During the second half, we learn a lot about these characters.  Whether they are wounded or killed, you probably won’t shed a tear for any of them.  If you’re looking for role models, you won’t find them.  These guys and especially the girl are all dastards. Nevertheless, die-hard Tarantino fans will find it in their hearts to forgive him for the elongated running time, applaud his spontaneous, slam-bang violence, and chuckle at his ghoulish gallery of gruesome characters.  Indeed, Tarantino’s eighth feature film lives up to its title, and some parts of it are more hateful than other parts.  Compared with Tarantino’s previous seven epics, this gritty, gimlet-eyed western resembles “Reservoir Dogs” with its Spartan number of settings.  Major Warren’s story about General Smithers’ son sounds like a reversal of what happened to Marsellus Wallace in “Pulp Fiction.” This scene is probably going to make some southern males cringe for its “Deliverance” subject matter. In fact, the director has said that not only he was influenced by Sergio Corbucci’s Spaghetti westerns, but also the cult science fiction horror movie “The Thing” that starred Kurt Russell.  Altogether “The Hateful Eight” qualifies as Tarantino’s best since “Jackie Brown.”

Friday, January 1, 2016

FILM REVIEW OF ''RIDER ON A DEAD HORSE" (1962)



Herbert L. Strock directed enough episodes of television shows like “Cheyenne,” “Sugarfoot,” “Bonanza,” “Maverick,” “Colt. 45,” and “Bronco” to know his way around westerns.  The low-budget oater “Rider on a Dead Horse,” (*** OUT OF ****) starring John Vivyan, Bruce Gordon, Kevin Hagen, and Lisa Lu, is an ironic, entertaining, black & white sagebrusher about avaricious prospectors, savage Apaches, a cunning bounty hunter, and a desperate Asian woman who wants to go to San Francisco.  Some critics have compared it with a Spaghetti western because the villain shoots first and doesn’t ask questions afterwards.  One of characters is a bounty hunter without compunctions.  The action occurs largely in stark, rugged, inhospitable terrain like Euro-westerns in Spain, and greed is a pervasive theme as it is in Italian westerns.  The title tune is rather lame.  Frank V. Phillips’ cinematography is crisp, clear, and evocative.  Like Strock, Phillips confined himself primarily to television shows for the most part of his career.  He lensed his share of western television shows, too.  Lucy Lu plays an English speaking girl from Canton who claims that he knows how to handle men.  She has been living out west for three years.  A current of racism courses through this western.

The two gritty prospectors—Barney Senn (Bruce Gordon of “The Buccaneer”) and Adam Hayden (John Vivyan of “Imitation of Life”)--are pretty handy with their six-shooters. Barney is particularly good with his revolver.  After he pays off their African-American partner, Sam Taylor (Charles Lampkin of “Twilight of Honor”), Barney brandishes his Colt’s revolver and shoots Sam in the back without a qualm as the unsuspecting African-American rides away with two bags of gold.  Barney doesn’t display a shred of remorse for murdering poor old Sam in cold blood.  This western draws its grim title from its title sequence that depicts Sam’s corpse clinging to its horse as the steed gallops throughout the credits before gravity detaches Sam’s body from the animal.  Afterward, a cautious Hayden inquires if he is next.  Barney seats his six-gun in his holster and reminds Hayden that he would be lost without Hayden.  “Why I couldn’t go ten miles in this broken country without getting lost.”  They carry out forty pounds of gold a piece.  Hayden and Barney break camp.  Hayden explains that Apaches have been watching them since they came out to prospect for gold.  He points out smoke signals rising from mountain tops between them.  Hayden recommends that they strip everything that they can live without to stay ahead of the savages.  They unload their rifles and smash them.  I didn’t think that was very smart.  Not only do these hombres shatter their long guns, but they also turn their horses loose and set off on foot to the town of Lost River.  

Later, greed gets the best of them during their journey to evade the Apaches.  They tangle with each other in a tough fistfight when they spot Sam’s horse.  The fistfight is imaginatively staged with perspectives from each man’s point of view during the slugfest.  After their fight, Barney wings Hayden, leaves him for dead, and rides off to town.  A thirsty, woebegone Hayden stumbles through the desert and encounters a friendly Asian girl, Ming (Lucy Lu of “One-Eyed Jacks”), at a railway work camp.  She is an entertainer.  She nurses him back to health because Hayden assures her that he has money.  Ming wants half of Hayden’s money.  She tells him that her name means ‘Perfect Flower.’  Meantime, murderous Barney cuts a deal with Jake Fry (Kevin Hagen of “Gunsmoke in Tucson”), a bounty hunter of sorts, to help him capture Hayden and see him strung up.  Barney double-crosses Hayden, frames him for Sam’s death, and tells Jake that Hayden has a thousand dollars on his head.  Jake decides to set out in pursuit of Hayden.  Hayden tells Ming, “A man with a gun is all the law he needs.”  Reluctantly, Hayden agrees to buy Ming a ticket for San Francisco.  What sets Ming apart from most women in westerns is her ability to stand up for herself and take what she wants.   Before Ming and Hayden set off for Lost River, Hayden demands that she return his firearm.  What Hayden doesn’t know is that Ming has removed the bullets from his gun.

As they are trudging through desert, Hayden sneaks up on Jake and gets the drop on him.  Unfortunately, Hayden discovers that he is packing a pistol without bullets, and Jake—“just a business man”—takes Hayden into custody.  Ming knows that money is the only thing that “impresses” Jake.  Hayden explains that they extracted $200-thousand out of their gold mine and Barney back-shot Sam.  Jake cuts another deal with Hayden and decides to ride out after Barney and the gold with dynamite as their secret weapon to use against the Apaches.  At the same time, he lights a fuse to a stick of dynamite that will blast Hayden to death.  Resourcefully, Hayden manages to defuse the TNT and reconfigure it to blast open his cell block door.  When Ming tries to stab Jake, the bounty hunter forces her to leave, and she finds Hayden who has escaped from Frye’s calaboose.  Hayden gets the drop again on Frye and leaves him with one bullet but enough dynamite to blow half of the Apaches off the mountain.

“Rider on a Dead Horse” reminded me of existentialist westerns like Budd Boetticher’s Randolph Scott oaters and Monte Hellman’s two Jack Nicholson horse operas.  The finale is reminiscent of “Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”  “Silver River” scenarist Stephen Longstreet derived his savvy screenplay from James Edmiston’s story who wrote the westerns “Day of Fury” and “Four Fast Guns.”  The dialogue is serviceable and sometimes clever. Uneasy alliances between men and women who don’t trust each other shift back and forth throughout this gritty western that turns out to far better than you’d think.