SYNCHRONIC (2020)

October 23, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Innovative filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are frequent collaborators, as evidenced by such films as SPRING (2014) and THE ENDLESS (2017). Their films teeter between science-fiction, horror, fantasy, and personal drama, and this latest easily slides into the mind-bending and time-warping space they excel in … and all without the mega-budget we’ve come to expect from such films (I’m looking at you INCEPTION).

The film opens on a couple sharing a motel room and what appears to be an acid trip. Strange hallucinations hit them both. We soon flip to an emergency call performed by best buddy New Orleans paramedics Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan). Their overdose victim is located in a setting where something is just a bit off, and “Time is a lie” is written on the wall. When Steve and Dennis are called to the motel of the first scene, we all start to understand something bizarre is happening.

Dennis is married to his wife Tara (Katie Aselton), who has recently given birth, and their headstrong 18 year-old daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) lives with them. Steve’s days consist of one-night stands, more booze than any person should ingest, and time with his loyal dog Hawking (an obvious reference to the elements of time at play here). Dennis is bored and Steve is a mess, and things get worse when Steve is diagnosed with a brain tumor by his pineal gland, and Dennis’s daughter Brianna disappears.

A clue to the increasingly bizarre overdose and death scenes that Steve and Dennis run into is the “Synchronic” packaging. It’s a synthetic/designer drug that has dramatic and lethal effects, and a packet was found where Brianna was last seen. Steve decides to test the drug in an effort to “bring back” his friend’s daughter. As Steve videos his 7 minute trips to the past, and then kindly spells out everything he discovers, we viewers are spoon fed the details that would typically require some effort. Beyond the reference to Stephen Hawking, we also get plugs for French composer Claude Debussy and a rare James Bond- Charlie Sheen joke.

Time travel has long been a fun topic for movies, and the ideas behind this one are quite promising. The only downsides are that it too obviously guides us through what’s happening, and the trips back in time aren’t as structured or interesting as we would hope … although the idea of having the past be in the identical spot as the future is terrific. Benson and Moorhead are ambitious and creative filmmakers, and their shot at appealing to mainstream audiences is appreciated, as is the atmosphere and camera work. However, many of us would rather a bit more be left to our imagination.

watch the trailer


MEMORIES OF MURDER (2003, South Korea)

October 19, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Between 1986 and 1991, 10 women were raped and brutally murdered in the province of Gyeong-gi outside Seoul. Considered South Korea’s first serial killer case, the crime went unsolved until 2019. The case was the inspiration for writer-director Bong Joon Ho’s second feature film, as was Kwang-rim Kim’s play, “Come to See Me”. Director Bong Joon Ho co-wrote the screenplay with Sung-bo Shim, and of course, went on to win an Oscar for PARASITE (2019), in addition to providing other popular features such as OKJA (2017), SNOWPIERCER (2013), and THE HOST (2006). This early film can be compared to David Fincher’s ZODIAC (2007), although this one is a blend of murder mystery, crime thriller, black comedy, and political commentary.

Kang-ho Song (PARASITE) stars as Park, a local detective called to the scene of the first victim. Almost immediately we can tell Park and the police force are borderline incompetent. Park is convinced he has “Shaman eyes” and can identify the guilty party simply by looking at them. Of course, this is ridiculous and is proven so on a few occasions. Park’s partner, Detective Cho (Roe-ha Kim), is a hothead who takes a heavy-handed approach to interrogation (though he later experiences true karma). When a second victim is discovered, a more seasoned professional, Detective Seo (Sang Kyung-Kim), arrives from Seoul. In contrast to Park’s gut-feeling approach, Seo puts faith in evidence, proclaiming, “Documents never lie”. These two detectives are at the core of the story and we watch as each evolves.

The film begins on October 23, 1986 as the body of the first victim is found. We witness how the crime scene is immediately corrupted by both cops and local kids. This is also our indoctrination to how the filmmaker is treating this much differently than most crime dramas. A stream of suspects Park refers to as “punks” are paraded through the station, but true chaos ensues at the scene of the second body. We can’t help but be relieved when a professional, big city detective arrives. Bits of evidence are slowly assembled – red clothes, rainy nights, a song on the radio – each may play a role in the actions of the killer. Frustration builds as more murders occur and the detectives are unable to pin down the perpetrator.

The mental and physical toll that detectives endure with such a case are on full display. The obsession with finding the murderer never ends and the fantastic ending proves that even a career change doesn’t erase the failure. We are inundated with crime thrillers these days, but it’s difficult to grasp how this masterpiece was put together by a director whose career was just getting started. Certainly today we recognize the brilliance of Bong Joon Ho, but this was 17 years ago! It plays as a time capsule of South Korea socially and politically in 1986, and it works on that level every bit as much as a crime thriller. Cinematographer Hyung Koo Kim (THE HOST) balances the crime scenes with the police station, as well as the telling facial expressions of the characters. Last year’s solving of these horrific crimes pushed this classic into release, and it’s well worth a watch.

watch the trailer

 


ALL ROADS LEAD TO PEARLA (2020)

September 24, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Rural, small town America forms an appealing backdrop for filmmakers due to the great divide: those who are desperate to “shake the dust off” and head for greener grass, and those who can’t imagine any other way of life. In his first feature length film, writer-director-editor-producer Van Ditthavong seizes on the small town atmosphere to create a sense of danger that complements the above-mentioned divide.

Alex MacNicoll stars as Brandon, a high school wrestler in non-stop training mode – replete with nose bleeds, early morning runs, and the quest to cut weight. Brandon lives in a trailer with his mother (Morgana Shaw) who has never gotten over the death of Brandon’s beloved brother. She’s an aggressive griever and takes out her anger on Brandon, leaving him squarely in the “can’t wait to get out of this town” mode. Brandon and Ellie (Paige McGarvin), the local grocery checker, are attracted to each other, yet, despite her warning, Brandon falls for the wicked charms of the mysterious bad girl Pearla (Addison Timlin, FALLEN). Naïve Brandon knows nothing of the town’s criminal underbelly, but Pearla is connected to the psychotic Oz (Dash Mihok, “Ray Donovan”), who is part of it.

Mihok seems to revel in playing the deranged Oz. He expertly balances his scenes as a vicious mask-wearing, gun-toting thug with his small town country-bumpkin mentality … one who spells bidet, “b-a-d-a-y”. Somehow in a town this small, almost no one is who they appear to be. This certainly includes Coach Baker (played by Nick Chinlund, who you’ll likely recall from CON AIR), the motivating wrestling coach with a dark side. Also in the ‘bad guy’ mix are Cowboy Loy (Corin Nemac) who is after revenge on Pearla, and shop owner Mamo (Tina Parker), who seems to control the local crime element, or at least tries to – “Nobody steals from me”.

Brandon’s English class covers a pertinent passage from Orwell’s “1984”, and his big dream involves saving enough money to drive his truck to El Paso for a job on an oil rig. There is some similarity in tone to the Coen Brothers’ classic BLOOD SIMPLE (1984), but of course, Mr. Ditthavong is not yet at that level as a filmmaker. However, for a low budget film that sometimes mixes up day and night, it benefits from nice performances and an atmosphere of dread. The entertainment value is such that I look forward to more projects from the cast and Van Ditthavong.

watch the trailer:


THE NEST (2020)

September 17, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. I’m not sure how to officially protest, but this is writer-director Sean Durkin’s first feature film since the excellent and thought-provoking MARCY MARTHA MAY MARLENE in 2011.  Okay, he directed a TV mini-series (“Southcliffe”) in that span, but there really should be some kind of ordinance mandating (or at least pleading with) Mr. Durkin to share his art more frequently. His approach is not conventional, and it challenges the eye and mind. The story doesn’t move at the pace we’ve come to expect, and the characters – though quite believable – don’t always act the way we expect.

Jude Law stars as Rory O’Hara, a business man with big dreams … dreams far bigger than his work ethic. Carrie Coon (“Fargo”, GONE GIRL) co-stars as his wife Allison. This husband and wife couldn’t be more different. Where Rory is the big-talking blow-hard who, Allison is the down-to-earth horse trainer. Oona Roche plays teenage daughter Samantha, and Charlie Shotwell (CAPTAIN FANTASTIC, 2016) is the younger Benjamin. Durkin does a nice job with the family set-up in the first few minutes of the film. We get a sense of each, as well as the family dynamics. There is a great shot of Rory sitting idly at his desk, and soon after he wakes up Allison with a cup of coffee and the announcement that they need to move to London.

The film is set in the 1980’s (the Reagan-Thatcher era), and Rory’s desperation to prove his business acumen is on full display when he meets his old (now new again) boss Arthur (Michael Culkin). Rory is a social climber, intent on keeping up with the Joneses (or whatever they’re called in London), and he’s referred to as “Old British – New American”. He takes it as a compliment, but we soon witness Rory as little more than a fast-talking salesman. A restaurant scene featuring Allison, Rory, and his co-worker Steve (Adeel Akhtar) is brilliantly played, as Rory’s professional life begins to unravel at a pace matching that of his family life.

We see each of the family members cut loose in their own way, in an attempt to deal with the strain. Timid Benjamin lashes out at school. Samantha throws a wild bash at the family home. Allison guzzles gin and lets go on the dance floor. Speaking of the family home – it’s an old mansion that is the loudest symbol of Rory’s stretch to impress. The film seems to tease us a couple of time in regards to possible paranormal activity within the home, but that’s simply Durkin’s misdirection. The only thing rotten or haunted is the make-up of the family. Their domestic dysfunction is horror in its own right.

Rory’s delusions of grandeur and worshipping of money are finally thrown back in his face during a tremendous scene of Taxicab philosophy. When asked what he does for a living, Rory answers, “I pretend to be rich”, in what may be his only moment of clarity. Jude Law is superb as the charming guy we don’t really like, and Carrie Coon goes toe-to-toe as his polar opposite, and she’s exceptional. Mr. Durkin and cinematographer Matyas Erdely (SON OF SAUL, 2015) keep us off balance with the fascinating shots within the mansion, and startling close-ups that make a point. There is certainly no abundance of light, but this isn’t the type of family that the spotlight tends to find. It’s likely to be a divisive film not embraced by mainstream audiences, but adored by those who crave projects that are creative and different. It played Sundance prior to the pandemic, and now we have to hope we aren’t forced to wait another 9 years for the next Sean Durkin film. Although I will I have to.

In theaters and VOD September 18, 2020

watch the trailer:


RENT-A-PAL (2020)

September 10, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Everybody loves somebody sometime.” So sang the great Dean Martin. But what about the exception that proves the rule? Writer-director Jon Stevenson (in his directorial debut) offers up David, a 40 year old lonely heart, who is a full time caregiver for his dementia-afflicted mother. In between cleaning up after his mother and spoon-feeding her meals, David dreams of finding a soul mate.

Brian Landis Folkins stars as David, and he delivers a terrific performance in one of the strangest roles of the year. He manages to make David a guy we care about, despite his being … well … not the most exciting or charismatic dude you’ve met. Does it help that he doesn’t have a job and lives on his mother’s social security? No?  How about the fact that he lives in her basement? Still not impressed? Well, the film takes place around 1990, and David is a member of Video Rendezvous, a VHS dating service – the Match.com of 30 years ago. Getting hopeful for David?  Well you should know he has had zero matches. Poor guy.

One of Mr. Folkins best scenes occurs when we see him filming his personal video for the dating service. Well, it’s his re-do … and then a re-do of his re-do. That’s pretty much how David’s life goes. Later, while rummaging through the VHS tapes bargain bin, he stumbles upon one titled “Rent-A-Pal”. At home, he pops it into the VCR and just like that – Andy (played by Wil Wheaton, STAND BY ME) appears on screen, and over a few days, David and Andy form an odd bond – maybe the strongest bond you’ve seen between a person and a character on screen talking directly to the camera/person watching. Andy is chummy and charismatic, and also a bit creepy. In fact, some of this reminded me of the Mark Duplass movie CREEP.

We witness David deal with the disappointment of each day. He finds some joy when his mother (Kathleen Brady) is reciting Cary Grant’s dialogue in HIS GIRL FRIDAY, and suddenly things look up when he has a match with Lisa (Amy Rutledge). Their first date is at Skate Land, and features the awkward chemistry of two lonely hearts, rather than one. They seem to like each other, though it may just be they are each excited to be noticed by anyone.

Since the film is billed as a thriller, we know things will go sideways at some point. However, even if you figure out where it’s headed, the path it takes may catch you off guard. As the bond between David and Andy crumbles, we witness David’s descent into madness. Whereas his connection to Lisa should have made his life better, his extended loneliness has pushed him to the brink, and he struggles to distinguish between fantasy and reality. The final 10-15 minutes turn very dark (and feel a bit rushed), and are kinda sad to watch. Director Stevenson has ensured a bleak feeling through most of the film with a washed out color palette. The only signs of brightness are the Skate Land sign, the receptionist’s jacket, and Andy’s glowing face on the TV. The performances are fun to watch, and Stevenson’s debut is a keeper. “So long, Pal.”

IFC will release this in select theaters and On Demand September 11, 2020

watch the trailer:


GET DUKED! (2020)

August 27, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. In this time of pandemic, we may not yet have a cure for the virus, but music video director Ninian Doff serves up his first feature film as a vaccine for those who have been stuck in the house for too long. It’s really a mash-up of comedy-horror-thriller-buddy film, with a dash or two of hip-hop and social satire. Mr. Doff also wrote the screenplay, and the film originally played SXSW under the title, “Boyz in the Wood.”

Three friends/delinquents from school are on the verge of expulsion, and their punishment is being sent on the Duke of Edinburg adventure, a program established in 1956 with the objective of getting kids out of the city and into the country. Dean Gibson (played by Rian Gordon) is the leader of the trio, while DJ Beatroot (Viraj Duneja) dreams of becoming a star hip-hop artist, and Duncan (Lewis Gribben) mostly creates chaos at every turn. They are joined on the trip by their personality opposite, Ian (Samuel Bottomley), a home-schooled boy who actually volunteered for the trip in hopes of padding his university application.

The Scottish Highlands serve as the life-sized game board where the boys take their wilderness trek. Substitute teacher Mr. Carlyle (Jonathan Aris) hands them a map and takes a picture of the group in front of a bulletin board filled with missing kid flyers. That’s just a taste of the humor that awaits. Ian is the only one treating the journey seriously, while the other three are wise-cracking, experimenting with drugs, and putting up with DJ Beatroot’s meanderings about his music “career”. At first, the boys are oblivious to the fact that they are being stalked (or hunted) by a couple of elites played by the always entertaining Eddie Izzard as The Duke, and his partner in crime (literally), Georgie Glen as The Duchess.

Simultaneous to this Highlands’ action, we are treated to a look inside the police station where Sergeant Morag (Kate Dickie) and PC Hamish (Kevin Guthrie) generate some laughs with their excitement over hip-hop terrorist zombies in their area. They find this significantly more intriguing than “the bread thief” which was previously the number one crime to solve. At times, it’s difficult to know which group is the most talented at bumbling – the boys, the rich hunters, or the police.

The Duke of Edinburg award is earned by combining “Teamwork, Orienteering, and Foraging.” For this group of boys, it also involves drugs, hip-hop, and staying alive. Director Doff infuses a zany absurdity to the action, and with some of the set ups, he perhaps could have even gone further – although the bits on rabbit pellets and a fork as a weapon are to be admired. One of the songs drags on a bit too long, but mostly the creativity is fun to watch, as is the collision of teenage group dynamics, the generational clash, and the social commentary. The film is in the mode of some of Edgar Wright’s best work, so if that’s your style, you’ll find this a treat.

Available August 28, 2020 on Amazon Prime

watch the trailer:


UNHINGED (2020)

August 25, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. A phone call from her divorce attorney awakens Rachel. She’s already running late for work and for dropping her son Kyle at school. Her estranged husband is being ruthless in the negotiations, while her mother’s health is deteriorating. Her hairdressing gig is falling apart, and the financial strain is becoming too much. Rachel is having what most of us would agree is a bad day. But when she lays on her horn at the truck in front of her at a signal light, the man confronts her. She refuses to apologize for not offering up “a courtesy tap”, and the man’s demeanor immediately shifts as he spouts, “I don’t even think you really know what a bad day is.”

Thanks to the prologue, we see the man in the truck (Russell Crowe) pop some pills, break into a house, severely beat a man, and proceed to set the house on fire. This human wrecking ball is the same man Rachel (Caren Pistorius) refuses to apologize to. Her morning has been hectic and stressful, but his has been disastrous. Her bad day is about to get much worse. Imagine if “Mayhem” from the Allstate commercials was in a bad mood and ready to seek vengeance. Crowe plays the menacing man in a menacing truck.

Director Derrick Borte (THE JONESES, 2009) and writer Carl Ellsworth (the underrated horror thriller RED EYE, 2005 and DISTURBIA, 2007) have created an extremely volatile dangerous cat and mouse between Rachel and The Man. As he proceeds to destroy those in her life, she fights to save her son by using her wits. During the film, we see some vicious acts of violence and some spectacular car crashes. There is also a lesson about cell phones – the remarkable handheld computers that we run our lives from – in a battle of convenience versus security risk.

Over the opening credits we see and hear a montage of road rage episodes of real people “losing it”, and the corresponding commentary. It sets the stage, but not for what our initial impressions tell us. While a statement is made about de-funding or under-funding the police, the filmmakers avoid turning this into a giant political agenda. Instead, it’s a good old fashioned manic-thriller in the vein of Spielberg’s underrated DUEL (1971), THE HITCHER (1986), and FALLING DOWN (1993). Extreme stress can generate anger which results in a loss of control, and that’s what we witness here in extreme form.

20 years ago Russell Crowe won the Oscar for GLADIATOR, and his current bloated face and body are picture perfect for a man who has slipped over the edge. Two scenes allow him to flash some of that extraordinary talent: the initial interaction with Rachel and son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman), and then again in the diner with Rachel’s attorney played by Jimmi Simpson (“Westworld”). Caren Pistorius holds her own as the frantic, perpetually late mother, but that’s not surprising given her excellent work in the underrated SLOW WEST (2015). Keep Shelly in Athens offers up a nice remake of “Don’t Fear the Reaper”, as we are reminded to always keep an eye on your candy cane scissors.

This was the first film to open wide in theatres since the pandemic began.

watch the trailer:


DELIVERANCE (1972) revisited

August 22, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is the next entry in my “Revisited” series, where I re-watch and then write about (not a traditional review) a classic movie. “City Slickers” could have been an apt name for this 1972 film, though it would have forced a new title for Billy Crystal’s 1991 comedy. DELIVERANCE was directed by John Boorman, and the script was adapted from James Dickey’s 1970 novel by the writer himself. Many have referred to this as a man-against-nature film, and it certainly works as an adventure tale; however, I find the psychological elements just as fascinating – the primal instincts and the personal transformations.

Those nine notes are every bit as iconic as the JAWS theme. “Dueling Banjos” always sends a chill up my spine, as I recall certain scenes from the film that are forever etched into my memory. We don’t even have to wait long to hear the song. It’s the first real sequence after the opening credits which feature only the banter of four buddies animatedly discussing their weekend canoe trip down the Cahulawassee River before a dam is built and the area flooded for a hydro-electric plant. During the banter, in a bit of foreshadowing, we hear Ned Beatty’s character ask, “Are there any hillbillies” where they are headed. The first glimpse of the four men occurs as they stop for gas and interact with the locals.

The personalities of each are quickly established. Lewis (Burt Reynolds) is the alpha male, and the one pushing the group to take the trip. Ed (Jon Voight) is Lewis’ friend who wants to be like him, though he lacks the confidence. Bobby (Ned Beatty) is an insurance salesman, who looks down on the locals and would rather be playing golf. Drew (Ronny Cox) is a nice guy, and the one who connects musically for the guitar and banjo picking with the local boy (Billy Redden) perched on the porch. It’s a fun, yet unsettling, scene to watch as the two pick away on their instruments. Their smiles end abruptly when the boy turns away in disgust as Drew tries to shake his hand. It’s not the last time the outsiders will be rebuffed.

 These are suburban men, settled in life, being pushed outside their comfort zone by wannbe-adventurer Lewis, who is the epitome of 1970’s machismo. His angry proclamation that “they’re drowning a river” is followed up with “because it’s there”, as an answer to why they are taking the trip. Lewis’ life vest flaunting his arms and chest, and his aggressive oratory (including the ironic, “You can’t judge people by the way they look, Chubby”) contrast with the conservative dress and mannerisms of the other men: Ed smoking a pipe, Drew strumming a guitar, and Bobby’s squishy body. For the first half of the film, Reynolds mesmerizes as the cocky Lewis.

As the men make their way down the river, they experience the sudden adrenaline rush that Lewis promised. Shooting the rapids on the river is truly man-against-nature, and the adventure that director Boorman and writer Dickey want us to initially believe is at the heart of the story. One of the key exchanges occurs at the campsight that night as Lewis acknowledges Ed’s “nice life, nice job, nice wife, nice kids”, and then asks him directly, “Why do you come on these trips with me, Ed?” It’s clear Ed is happy with his life, but he desperately wants to feel the power of being a survivalist and “real man”. It’s because of this exchange, that we find Ed’s hunting trip and face-to-face with a deer the next morning so gut-wrenching.

The second day finds some truly peaceful times with nature, and some stunning camera work and shots of nature courtesy of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmund. It’s in these shots where we “get it” – the appeal of becoming one with nature. Of course, it’s once things seem so right, that things go so wrong. A drastic shift occurs. Ed and Bobby are confronted by local hillbillies in the most despicable way. Fear fills the screen and our minds. The menacing mountain men are played by Herbert “Cowboy” Coward (not really an actor) and Billy McKinney (whom you’ll recognize from FIRST BLOOD, THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, and many other roles). Still today, the sequence is terrifying and difficult to watch, and it’s when “squeal like a pig” entered our lexicon, while “He got a real purdy mouth” became seared into our brain.

Immediately following the nightmare sequence with the hillbillies, comes one of those psychological exchanges that elevate the film to greatness. Four frantic and desperate men debating “the law”, when in actuality, they are debating self-preservation. The close-up of Ned Beatty’s face says as much as any line of dialogue, and, as is often the case, a moral dilemma is resolved by choosing the path of least resistance. The day presents more horror, as Lewis and Drew meet with disaster, while Ed’s transformation takes place. It should be noted that the film’s budget was so tight, the actors performed their own stunts – including Jon Voight’s tense (and impressive) climb up the face of the rock cliff.

Director John Boorman was a 5-time Oscar nominee, including HOPE AND GLORY (1987). He also helmed one of my sleeper favorites, THE EMERALD FOREST (1985), as well as coming right out of the gate with his first feature (and cult favorite) POINT BLANK (1967), starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson. Writer James Dickey wrote the 1970 novel and adapted his own novel for the screen. He was a novelist, poet, and college professor, as well as being named U.S. Poet Laureate. My favorite Dickey quote is, “The poet is one who, because he cannot love, imagines what it would be like if he could.”

For Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox, it was their feature film debut. Mr. Beatty had a 40 year acting career (he retired in 2013), and notched an Oscar nomination for NETWORK (1976), while seemingly appearing in most every movie in the 1970’s and 1980’s. He may be best remembered as Lex Luthor’s bumbling henchman in SUPERMAN (1978) and SUPERMAN II (1978), and kids today would recognize his voice as Lotso in TOY STORY 3 (2010). He also became good friends with Burt Reynolds, and was cast in many of Reynolds’ later films. His career allowed him to play a widely diverse roster of characters, and one of his often-forgotten best was in THE BIG EASY (1986). Mr. Cox is approaching a 50 year acting career, and he is also a talented singer-songwriter. His best known roles are as the Police Lieutenant in BEVERLY HILLS COP (1984) and BEVERLY HILLS COP II (1987), and as a corporate executive in both ROBOCOP (1987) and TOTAL RECALL (1990). In addition to his many movie roles, Cox appeared in numerous TV series throughout the years, and one of my favorites was a small town family drama entitled “Apple’s Way”, which ran for two seasons, 1974-75.

Jon Voight is an actor every movie lover is familiar with. As he approaches his 60th year in the business, the highly decorated actor has been nominated for four Oscars, winning for COMING HOME (1978), starring opposite Jane Fonda. His other nominations were for playing a gigolo in MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969), a bad guy in the thriller RUNAWAY TRAIN (1985), and as Howard Cosell in ALI (2001). More recently he has been recognized for his stellar work in the superb cable TV series “Ray Donovan”. His daughter is Oscar winner Angelina Jolie, and Mr. Voight has had such memorable roles as boxer Billy Flynn in THE CHAMP (1979), Jim Phelps in MISSON: IMPOSSIBLE (1996), a sleazy hunter in ANACONDA (1997), and President Franklin Roosevelt in PEARL HARBOR (2001). And of course, we must mention the classic Jon (“John”) Voight episode of “Seinfeld.” JAWS fans might be surprised to know that he turned down the Hooper role that ultimately went to Richard Dreyfuss.

A remarkable 60 year career ended when Burt Reynolds passed away in 2018. Reynolds was a star running back for Florida State University before an injury ended his pro aspirations and caused him to pursue acting. For an extended period of time in the 1970’s and 1980’s, Reynolds was the biggest box office draw among actors. Some of his most popular films during the streak included: THE LONGEST YARD (1974), the SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT franchise (1977, 1980, 1983), SEMI-TOUGH (1977), SHARKY’S MACHINE (1981), THE CANNONBALL RUN (1981) and II (1984), and THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS (1982). Most of these films played off of Reynolds’ extraordinary charm and good looks (and iconic cackle), while he often strutted tongue-in-cheek as he worked extensively with a close group of friends. He later experienced some personal relationship issues, financial difficulties, and extreme health scares. Although he continued to work during the late 80s and early 90s, it was his excellent supporting work in STRIPTEASE (1996) and BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997) that really vaulted him back into the Hollywood scene. The latter of those two movies nabbed him the only Oscar nomination of his career. Reynolds continued to work right up until the end of his life, spanning a career of almost 200 credits (TV and movies). Some of you fellow old-timers out there might recall Reynolds’ first recurring role was as Quint in “Gunsmoke”, the longest running TV series until eclipsed by “The Simpsons” (and by “Law and Order” in seasons, though it has about 150 fewer episodes). In DELIVERANCE, Reynolds’ Lewis is “a man’s man” – the kind of guy the other suburban dads aspired to. His on screen magnetism is obvious, and stardom followed. Reynolds spent most of his adult life in front of a camera – either movies, TV, paparazzi, or talk shows. And lest we forget, though he claimed to have tried, Reynolds became the first male centerfold for “Cosmopolitan” magazine in 1972, the same year this movie hit. That smirk, cigar and bear rug created quite a sensation at the time – brilliant marketing from editor Helen Gurley Brown.

While the Cahulawassee River is fictional, the filming location was most decidedly real. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmund captured the stunning beauty of Tallulah Gorge and the Chatooga River in northeastern Georgia. His camera work leaves no doubt as to nature’s double edge sword of beauty and danger. Mr. Zsigmund was a 4 time Oscar nominee, winning the award for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977). He was also responsible for THE DEER HUNTER (1978), HEAVEN’S GATE (1980), THE TWO JAKES (1990), and THE BLACK DAHLIA (2006). Editor Tom Priestley received his only Oscar nomination for his work on this film. Mr. Priestley also served as Editor on THE GREAT GATSBY (1974), TESS (1979), and 1984 (1984), and is the son of English writer John Boynton Priestley.

 Ned Beatty’s wife and John Boorman’s son have brief appearances as Ed’s family, and writer James Dickey has a small but key role as the hulking Sheriff of Aintry, who doesn’t buy the men’s recap of events. Reynolds dominates the screen for the first half of the movie, and Mr. Beatty shines in his degradation, but it’s Voight’s transformation into a semblance of Lewis that proves most remarkable. Rarely have primal instincts and survival mode been more effectively presented on the silver screen than in this film. This “guys’ weekend” turned nightmare received 3 Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editor), but this was the same year that CABARET beat out THE GODFATHER in a couple of categories, so DELIVERANCE took home no awards … although we will always have those 9 notes.

*Note: “Dueling Banjos” was credited to Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandel, but there was a lawsuit filed by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, who wrote “Feudin’ Banjos” in 1955.

As a bonus for reading this far, here is a short video of Steve Martin and Kermit the Frog performing “Dueling Banjos”:

 

And here is the original 1972 trailer:


CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) revisited

July 26, 2020

Greetings again from the darkness. This is another addition to my “revisited” series where I re-watch and then write about a classic movie. Why are “creature features” so appealing, and why was Universal so good at producing these movies that mesmerized me during childhood (and yes, still to this day)? The Universal Monsters of the 1930’s and 1940’s included such classics as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man, and The Phantom of the Opera. Many cinematic iterations of these characters/creatures exist including sequels, remakes and contemporary re-boots, and there is something magical about the mystique and legend and lore behind each of the monsters. By the 1950’s, Universal was looking to revive the genre.

William Alland is credited with the idea for CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. It’s a twist on the 1740 fantasy classic “Beauty and the Beast” from French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. Mr. Alland is the film’s Producer, and years earlier he played reporter Jerry Thompson in Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE (1941). Maurice Zimm is credited with the story, and the screenplay was co-written by Harry Essex (IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, a Ray Bradbury story) and Arthur A Ross (an Oscar winner for BRUBAKER, 1980).

Quite similar to KING KONG, the story from Edgar Wallace and Merian Cooper, this movie follows a scientific expedition down the Amazon River where a prehistoric “Gill-man” (half man, half amphibian) is discovered and captured. The creature seems enraptured by Kay, the fiancé of one of the scientists – much like Kong was drawn to Ann Darrow. There is the expected battle between science and commerce: the value of marine life research vs the chance to make a pot of money. The feuding scientists also have to remain focused on the ongoing concern for the safety of those on the expedition … especially Kay.

Jack Arnold is remembered today as one of the great sci-fi movie directors of the 50’s. His work included THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957), IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953) TARANTULA (1955), and the excellent Audie Murphy western NO NAME ON THE BULLET (1959). He also directed many episodes of some of the top TV shows of the1950’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. For this one, he deserves a great deal of credit for generating sympathy for the creature, by positioning him, not as the villain, but rather as the victim of a home invasion by the humans. Director Arnold also does a nice job early on of teasing us with footprints and fossils, and letting us hear about the legend, prior to actually seeing the creature.

 For a movie that spends most of its time on a small boat named Rita, the cast is deep and talented. Richard Carlson (LITTLE FOXES, 1941) plays David Reed, the scientist engaged to Kay. Mr. Carlson dreamed of being a playwright, and had many guest starring roles on TV; however, “I Led 3 Lives” was his only starring role in a successful series. It was reportedly Lee Harvey Oswald’s favorite show. Co-starring here was Julie Adams (billed as Julia at the time) as Kay Lawrence, personal favorite of both David and creature. In the film she is stalked by the creature, even while she’s out for a leisurely swim in the Amazon (not recommended). Ms. Adams was a favorite on the cult movie circuit, and she died in 2019 at age 92. Having been crowned Miss Little Rock at age 19, she acted regularly into her 80’s, and even had a role at age 91, the year before she passed.

Richard Denning plays Mark Williams, the money man behind the expedition, and David’s boss and nemesis. He’s the one who sees dollar signs while capturing the creature. Mr. Denning served on a submarine in the US Navy during WWII. He starred with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER (1957), and then in the late 1960’s took an acting job as Governor on the original “Hawaii Five-0”, since he already lived in Hawaii. Mr. Denning’s wife, actress Evelyn Ankers, was known as “Queen of the Screamers” for her work as damsel in distress in many thrillers in the 1940’s (Wolfman, Frankenstein, Dracula movies).

Other cast members include familiar face Whit Bissell as Dr. Thompson. Mr. Bissell was a frequently working character actor from 1940 -1984 in TV and movies. He had over 300 credits, including I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF (1958) with Michael Landon. Nestor Paiva plays Lucas, the Captain of the Rita, as a kind of Walter Brennan type. Mr. Paiva also appeared in more than 300 projects, and his wife was once employed as personal secretary to Howard Hughes. Antonio Moreno plays Carl Maia. Mr. Moreno had a huge career from 1912 to 1959, and was a rival of Rudolph Valentino for many “Latin lover” roles. The film’s narrator, Art Gilmore, became known for his narration and voice acting in shows such as “Dragnet”, “The Waltons”, “Adam-12”, “The Red Skelton Hour”, “The Roy Rogers Show”, and many more.

Of course everyone who watches the movie wants to know more about the creature. Well, two actors were involved. Ben Chapman, who was a Marine during the Korean War, played the creature on land, while Ricou Browning played the Gill-man we see in the water. Mr. Browning was also the co-creator of the popular TV series “Flipper” (1964-67), and directed the iconic underwater scenes in the James Bond classic THUNDERBALL (1965). Also involved here were a young Henry Mancini as uncredited composer and cinematographer William E Snyder. Mr. Mancini was a 4 time Oscar winner best known for his iconic “Pink Panther” theme, and Mr. Snyder achieved 3 Oscar nominations

 Director Arnold insisted on shooting the film in 3-D, despite its low budget, and over the years, it became quite a cult classic (with its’ own festivals). There is even a scandal associated with the film. For many years, Hollywood make-up legend Bud Westmore took credit for the design of the creature. It took more than 50 years, but Mallory O’Meara’s book, “The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Millicent Patrick”, finally allowed Ms. Patrick (pictured, left) to receive due credit for her design work. Sequels to the film included: REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955), and THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956), but it was perhaps director Guillermo del Toro’s stunning THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017) winning the Oscar for Best Picture, that brought CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON back into prominence. This allowed a new generation of movie lovers to behold the classic sequence of the creature’s synchronized swimming just below Kay in the murky Amazon water. What a sight!

watch the original trailer:


AMULET (2020)

July 24, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Horror films tend to serve up relatively simple plot points so that viewers are controlled by emotions rather than deep thinking. The exceptions typically use multiple story lines and atmosphere to build up suspense that often ends with a twist or surprise ending. You might recognize Ramola Garai as an actress from SUFFRAGETTE (2015) or the TV series “The Hour”, and this is her first feature film as writer-director. She definitely chose the latter plot path, and the result is likely a film that will be divisive amongst the horror crowd.

Tomaz (Alec Secereanu, GOD’S OWN COUNTRY) is a former soldier with such a horrid case of PTSD that he must bind his own hands when he sleeps. He’s now homeless and adrift, merely surviving day-to-day. We see flashbacks to his time as a soldier working a checkpoint deep in the forest. The war is never identified, but one day he decides to help a frantic woman (Angelika Papoulia) rather than shoot her (as we assume his orders dictate). This story and their time together pop up periodically through the movie to the point where we start to believe we have an understanding of Tomaz’s background.

While squatting with other homeless folks, the building where they sleep catches fire, and soon after Tomaz is taken in by Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton), a caring nun who gives him a purpose – helping out a woman who is dealing with a sick, elderly mother. Magda (Carla Juri, BLADE RUNNER 2049 seems withdrawn and initially not particularly happy that Tomaz is living in her house. And, oh my, that house. Dilapidated is too kind as a description. So in addition to a bed, and Magda’s cooking, Tomaz begins repairing the house. And while you may have your own renovation stories to tell, did you ever pull an albino bat out of the toilet? Tomaz has.

Magda does not allow Tomaz to see her mother. He (and we) only hear the confrontations and see the bite marks on Magda’s arms. Clearly something is amiss. The flashbacks to Tomaz as a soldier with Miriam make for a stark contrast between the forest and Magda’s creepy house. It’s in the forest where Tomaz finds the titular amulet buried. If you’ve always thought of an amulet as a good luck charm, your definition will likely change.

It’s interesting to watch the shifts in the relationship between Tomaz and Magda, culminating with a night out dancing, where she reminds us a bit of Elaine Benis at the company party … although Magda’s is a pure emotional release, rather than a comedic effect. As you might expect, the film is at its best when Imelda Staunton is on screen. Unfortunately, these moments are too rare. The “old school” gothic graphics for the opening credits do make for a terrific stage-setter. While Magda’s locked-away mother provides some mystery, the tension of the story never really matches the creepy atmosphere of the house. Ms. Garai includes some excellent moments of horror images, but the deliberately slow pace doesn’t deliver a satisfying payoff.

Available OnDemand July 24, 2020

watch the trailer: