Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Loveless

With The Loveless (1981), Kathryn Bigelow makes her feature-length directorial debut (co-directing alongside Monty Montgomery), and Willem Dafoe gets his first credited screen performance as the leader of an outlaw biker gang, but historical significance aside, the movie falls flat. It is an interesting early work from a director who would go on to have a great career but doesn't have much else going for it.

The Loveless plays like an update of The Wild One with Dafoe in the Marlon Brando role. Vance (Dafoe) is on his way to Daytona for the races when he stops at a diner in a small town, and before long, the rest of his gang turns up, including Davis (Robert Gordon, who created the movie's engaging rockabilly soundtrack) and Sportster Debby (Tina L'Hotsky).

Because one motorcycle needs repair, the gang kills time in the town, which creates some tension and excitement among the locals. Vance meets and becomes attracted to Telena (Marin Kanter), a brash teenager whose father Tarver (J. Don Ferguson) is the town big shot and who doesn't like it when some motorcycle punk tries to have what is his.

I read a piece somewhere describing The Loveless as "The Wild One as directed by Terrence Malik," and it's an apt comparison. The film moves slowly, deliberately, and Bigelow and Montgomery deploy a lot of long, static, and occasionally unconventional shots that give the movie almost a dream-like feel at times.

For example, in the opening scenes, Vance stops to assist a woman with a flat tire. The shot holds the woman and her car in the foreground, and in the background, we see Vance drive a distance away then slowly turn around and come back. This shot creates some tension. We don't know Vance at this point, and we don't know what he has in mind as he approaches. What he does establishes his character: he replaces the tire and then takes all her money and forces a kiss on her.

Later, when Vance enters a diner, the movie holds a long, high angle shot of the diner as he approaches the counter, buys cigarettes, and walks into a corner booth away from everyone else. The man is an outsider everywhere he goes.

Not a lot of plot happens in The Loveless, nor is it an action movie. There's a lot of standing around, characters silently staring at each other with significant glances, and I failed to catch the intended meaning of much of it. Certain details are brought up and never mentioned again, or they don't go anywhere. Some of those long takes feel too long, and I kept waiting for scenes to move on.

Characters are opaque, and that makes it hard to understand why they do what they do. Between a gang of bikers with Swastikas tattooed on their hands and a bunched of bigoted rednecks, there's no one to root for, which makes it difficult to become invested in how the movie plays out.

I've seen Dafoe in so many creepy psycho roles it's a pleasant surprise to see him in this young, brooding rebel role. With slicked-back hair and decked out in all black leather, he makes a cool impression and holds our attention. No surprise he's the best thing about the movie.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Songs the Lord Taught Us

The Cramps: the rockabilly band from Hell.

It's fitting I cover their debut full-length album Songs the Lord Taught Us right after reviewing ...And Justice for All. If Metallica sounded like a band trying to make an impression, the Cramps sound like they don't give a damn what anybody thinks of them. Metallica played fast and complex arrangements with social justice themes.

The Cramps play simple, old-fashioned rock tunes at their own pace. They got a song called "Strychnine," about the joys of drinking, well, strychnine. "Some folks like water. Some folks like wine, but I like a taste of straight strychnine. You may think it's funny that I like this stuff, but once you've tried it, you can't get enough."

Led by the husband-and-wife duo of singer Lux Interior and guitarist Poison Ivy Rorschach, the Cramps played punk rock with a garage band feel. Compared to the polished pop sensibilities of the Ramones or the thrashing, almost metallic onslaught of Iggy Pop, the Cramps had a country twang feel, a little more laid back but still kind of dangerous, like they might attack you from the stage at any moment.

The Cramps' style is minimalist. They don't bombard the listener with a wall of sound, and the production is sparse and rough. There is no bass guitar in the mix, the drumming by Nick Knox is direct and restrained, and while an organ turns up, it's only used on the song "Fever," the closer.

Songs the Lord Taught Us sounds like the kind of music that plays in a last-chance dive bar on the edge of a desert or maybe some backwoods bayou. There's an undercurrent of menace throughout the album, whether the songs are fast ("TV Set," "Garbageman") or slow ("I Was a Teenage Werewolf"), and Lux's sneering, coiled vocals are a big part of that.

The guitar work of Ivy and Bryan Gregory sounds like the kind of thing Elvis would have backing him the 1950s but filtered through a garage band amp, and the combination works strong. They doesn't shred; their style is more deliberate and poised.

Lyrically, the Cramps display a love of horror movies and sleazy sex romps, sometimes within the same song. As "What's Behind the Mask" goes, "Please, baby, please please give me one quick glance. Now how come I can't see your face when I see what's in your pants? Is it a skin condition or an extra eye? Surgical incision? I keep wonderin' why."

The music celebrates being outsiders, being away from the squeaky clean mainstream. The Cramps feel raw and real.

Terminator Genisys

At one point, Arnold Schwarzenegger's outdated cyborg protector asks, "Why do you hold on to something you must let go?" Is that Arnold asking why this franchise continues long past its expiration?

Terminator Genisys (2015) tries to do what the recent Star Trek reboot did: a reboot/side story in an alternate timeline to the original timeline of the series. Start things anew with a clean slate. Acknowledge the original while moving forward in a new direction.

You know what? I don't care. I just don't care. If Skynet wins in this timeline, so what? Anything that happens in this movie can be disregarded and never mentioned again in any future movies, sort of like how this one undoes the work of its predecessors, the good and the bad.

Maybe movie franchises shouldn't be trotted out indefinitely, and studios should learn to leave well enough alone. Terminator 2 wrapped everything up perfectly, and to get around that, the filmmakers have to come up with convoluted, nonsensical, and flat out boring explanations and new angles to justify keeping this series alive.

Genisys pretends to offer new story elements but mostly regurgitates old scenarios. Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) gets sent back in time to protect Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), the mother of future Resistance leader John Connor (Jason Clarke), after Skynet sends a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back to 1984 to kill her before he's born.

Except, now Reese is behind the 8-ball. Sarah and a reprogrammed, older Terminator she calls Pops (Arnold) save him from a T-1000 (Byung-hun Lee). As she explains, the 1984 Reese was sent to no longer exists, and now Sarah, raised by Pops since a Terminator killed her parents, is determined to destroy Skynet before it becomes active, but Reese is having flashbacks to a life he never lived, and there's a forward time travel trip to 2017, and then John Connor turns up in person but now he's been taken over by the machines (a twist revealed in every preview despite said twist taking place well over an hour into the movie), and...

I really don't care.

I'll give Genisys this: it's better than Terminator Salvation. Not saying much, but it is. The opening scenes showing the future war between humans and machines is better than anything in Salvation, and Connor actually seems like a leader this time around instead of a brooding, meathead action hero.

And it's a nice idea that Arnold's Terminator is older and out of date as it deals with mechanical issues. The movie does nothing with this, but it gives Arnold a few funny lines. And the helicopter chase near ain't half bad. Nothing groundbreaking, but it had some life to it.

But everything else is a washout. The plot gets so bent out of shape justifying the time travel stuff that it never gets going. Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese spend so much time having to explain things they never emerge as interesting characters. Sarah's closeness to Pops is a rerun of the relationship between John and the T-800 in T2.

Again, we devote a movie to trying to stop Skynet before it goes active, which has been done twice already, and again, the fearsome, unstoppable killing machines of the first two movies have been watered down and are nowhere as frightening or threatening this time around.

Somehow, the movie roped J.K. Simmons into this mess. As a young cop in 1984, he witnessed some Terminator action and devoted his career to investigating time-traveling robots to the point he becomes an ally in 2017. If only he could have been the main character, and I'm only half-joking. Sadly, the franchise has become a total joke.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

...And Justice for All

During an uncertain time, Metallica created their most ambitious album to date but couldn't resist sabotaging themselves.

...And Justice for All arrived as Metallica and heavy metal faced turbulent times. Beloved bassist Cliff Burton died when the band's tour bus crashed in 1987, leading the grieving survivors to recruit Jason Newsted. Pop and glam metal continued to dominate the charts while thrash acts, including Metallica, received next to no radio airtime even as they gathered rabid followings. Meanwhile, a new band from Seattle would soon shake up the music world.

With this turmoil within and without the band, Metallica pushed their thrash sound in a more complicated and progressive direction. On ...And Justice for All, the boys sound like musicians confident in their abilities and anxious to prove themselves.

The songs are longer and more technically sophisticated, filled with multiple parts and changes in time signature. The title tracks goes nearly ten minutes as does the (mostly instrumental) "To Live is to Die." The former feels overlong and repetitive, but the latter, a tribute to Burton, works beautifully. It begins and ends with a tender acoustic guitar before getting heavy and distorted while maintaining a melancholy feel; the solo sounds like tears falling.

The most memorable song is "One," based on the anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun about a World War I soldier trapped in his crippled, senseless body. It's frightening and heartbreaking. The band alternates between slow, melodic parts and frantic, intense thrashing moments that perfectly reflect the sorrow and anger war inspires.

"Harvester of Sorrow" and "Dyer's Eve" are aggressive songs throughout their running lengths. They are the shortest songs on the album (the only ones under six minutes) and play like angry bursts. "Harvester of Sorrow" is a slower, mid-tempo track, more deliberate and pulsing, but "Dyer's Eve," the closer, is a wild explosion to the finish line.

...And Justice for All also finds Metallica exploring deeper themes. I already mentioned the anti-war "One" and the title track, which is about how money corrupts justice and truth. "Dyer's Eve" is about family and religious hypocrisy. The opening "Blackened" is about the horrors of nuclear war and the devastation it wreaks on the planet. "Eye of the Beholder" is about hiding truth and attacking free will. Metallica had a lot on their minds.

All this is very good and more, but ...And Justice for All doesn't quite reach the heights of Master of Puppets or Ride the Lightning. The production is weak, thin and dry, and as a result, some of the songs lack the bite you know they should have. "The Frayed Ends of Sanity" starts great (using the chant of the Wicked Witch's guard from The Wizard of Oz), but the rest of the song is rather forgettable as is "The Shortest Straw," which lives up to its name by the least interesting song on the album.

Worst of all, Newsted's bass lines are almost completely inaudible (reportedly the other members' idea of hazing the new guy), which makes for a frustrating listen. Musically, Metallica sounds sophisticated, but apparently, they still needed to grow up some.

James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett play a great guitar tandem, and Hetfield's in fine voice, his trademark bark full of righteous fury and venom but capable of getting quiet and sorrowful at the right moments. Lars Ulrich's drumming is fine but nothing really noteworthy, and sometimes, he drowns out the others. I wish I could judge Newsted's contributions.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Terminator Salvation

With that title, Terminator Salvation (2009) seems to promise to save the franchise. Reaction to Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines wasn't so hot (although box office returns were solid), and by taking the franchise to the future to depict the war between humans and machines, which has always been in the background of the series, the movie could offer what fans have long wanted while simultaneously getting things back on course.

Ugh! With the movie that Salvation ended up being, T3 doesn't look so bad anymore, does it? Christian Bale proves to be the least interesting John Connor to date, the depictions of the post-nuclear future are drab, and Sam Worthington is no Arnie, lacking the charisma and presence that made Arnold Schwarzenegger memorable.

There are a few small details I liked. I liked how Resistance command headquarters itself in a submarine, and Anton Yelchin makes for a good, young Kyle Reese. Moon Bloodgood plays a promising new character: a female fighter pilot. All the previous glimpses of the future war showed the humans as infantry or riding in trucks.

I wanted more insight into the war, the tactics, the overall battle plans. James Cameron would have had a field day exploring this stuff. We get little of that.

The movie opens in the present. Marcus Wright (Worthington), a Death Row convict, signs his body away to Cyberdyne. In 2018, as the war rages between humans and machines, Wright wakes up out of stasis, confused about what's going on and where he is. He meets up with the teenaged Kyle Reese (Yelchin), who fills him in.

Meanwhile, John Connor (Bale) battles the machines. His superiors (including Michael Ironside) plan a final strike against Skynet, but Connor thinks something is up and wants them to reconsider. He becomes really concerned when he learns Skynet has a hit list of targets. Connor is second; Reese is first.

The first two Terminators (and even parts of the third) presented a future that was the stuff of nightmares. The post-nuclear wasteland was always night as hundreds of Terminators and mammoth machines hunted down the ragtag humans. Skulls covered the ground, builds and vehicles lay in waste, and everything looked smoky and dirty.

A lot of Salvation occurs during the day, and except for a few brief scenes in the remains of Los Angeles, the world doesn't look too bad. The humans don't resemble post-apocalyptic survivors so much as folks just driving around desert roads. They're never shown hunting for food, warmth, safety from radiation fallout, etc. Bale and other fighters seem to be in great shape, have clean teeth, and don't seem to inconvenienced by the apocalypse in terms of personal hygiene and fitness.

Even the action scenes don't feel like Terminator action scenes. When the giant robot begins picking people up with massive claws, it resembles Transformers. The vehicle chases (on wide open, desert roads) belong in a Fast and Furious sequel.

The Terminators themselves are watered down to blasphemous levels. Remember Arnold's introduction in the original. He rips out a man's heart. This is what he will do if he gets close to Sarah Connor, so the whole movie keeps her away from him.

Here? The Terminators grab their human targets and throw them around at first, giving them a chance to run away, fight back, or think some of other course of action. You'd think the machines would know how to snap a neck when they get their hands on John Connor. For machines built and programmed to do one thing, they are horribly inefficient at killing.

So much doesn't make sense or goes unexplained. Skynet's big plan of the movie is to kidnap Kyle Reese, knowing the half-human hybrid Wright will lead Connor right to them in a rescue attempt, so they can kill him. If they know who Reese is, i.e. John' Connor's father, why didn't they just kill him when they had him in captivity.

Skynet, the ruthless AI that decided in a microsecond to eliminate humanity, captures lots of people and keeps them alive for reasons never explained. In the first movie, Reese explained some humans were kept alive to process the bodies, but nothing like that is suggested here. Skynet is rather clean and sterile.

I also don't know why they care so much about Connor for that matter. Ultimately, he's just a guy. He's just some guy in the Resistance, not its leader who inspired humanity to fight back. I don't see how killing him at any point would have altered things. Bale, looking rather bored, is a monotone, empty-headed action star who occasionally speaks on a radio al a FDR's fireside chats. I don't know why anyone listens to him. He does nothing to demonstrate he's a leader of men.

Edward Furlong and Nick Stahl did heroic things, but they weren't typical action movie heroes. They kept the character human, a normal person confronted with a great burden and a greater destiny. Indeed, Bale's interpretation runs counter to everything the character stood for.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

General consensus states Terminator 2: Judgment Day is better than The Terminator, although the original has its fans, including me, who prefer it. Most fans of the series, including me, agree the first two are masterpieces of the genre.

That brings us to Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), the first movie of the franchise to lack either writer/director James Cameron or star Linda Hamilton. Their absence weighs on the film. Most fans agree, compared to the first two, Terminator 3 is a step down, the point at which the Hollywood machine finally sank its talons in the series and turned it into just another formulaic cash cow.

That said, I don't dislike Terminator 3. I do enjoy it compared to what followed and feel it has merit. If the first two were home runs, part three is a base hit; it could have served as the jumping off point for an intriguing new direction in the series. Alas, that was scuttled, but that's a discussion for Terminator: Salvation.

John Connor (Nich Stahl) is grown and living off the grid. No ID, no records, no ways for the machines to track him if they try to kill him again. But wasn't judgment day averted?

Nope. As a new T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) explains, he and his mother only delayed it. The nuclear war, the rise of Skynet is destined to happen. That undercuts the theme of T2, that there is no fate but what we make for ourselves.

Since Skynet could no longer track John Connor (Sarah had died of leukemia in the interim but she leaves a John a most useful inheritance), the machines go after his future cohorts, sending a new Terminator, the T-X (Kristanna Loken), which has similar abilities to the T-1000 but also looks like a hot chick, so advantage T-X.  One of her targets is Kate Brewster (Claire Daines), a veterinarian who will become John's future wife, we're told.

Kate's father (David Andrews) is a general, in charge of the new Skynet program. If John and Kate can reach him before the T-X does, they might be able to convince him to not activate Skynet, which will instantly ignite nuclear war.

T3 is the movie I don't think anyone wanted to make or see. We had already seen the robot assassins from the future targeting people in the present twice. Third time is one time too many.

If there had to be another Terminator movie, it should have been set in the future. Everyone wanted to see a full-scale war movie between the humans and machines duking it out in the future wasteland for control of the planet. The brief glimpses we had in the first two movies promised so much, and we wanted more of that. At least, I wanted more of that.

T2 all but prevented that future from occurring, so now we have to explain why it will still happen. As a result, T3 feels like a placeholder, an extended prologue before we get to the movie we really want. If T3 were a football player, we'd call it a "bridge quarterback."

The other problem: predestined character arcs. T2 nicely avoided this trap, but here, it becomes formula. Characters only do stuff because they're supposed to do it. In T2, Sarah, John, and Dyson made choices, challenged and averted fate. Everything in T3, by contrast, is pre-ordained and thus less interesting. There's a lot of convenient plotting and coincidental encounters.

There's a lot of special effects, but where T2 was groundbreaking, the computer generated imagery feels routine and old hat. T2 still looks cool. T3 already looks dated.

With all that working against T3, I do admire parts of it greatly and think it works reasonably well. Director Jonathan Mostow is no James Cameron, but he gives us some neat action scenes and keeps things moving. There's a vehicle chase involving a crane, a fire truck, and police cruisers that is a wonderfully executed demolition derby of destruction. A lot of stuff blows up nicely.

Arnold is Arnold. He looks good and has some nice moments and funny lines, but there is a tired feeling, a sense he's going through the usual paces.

There is a nice character angle for John Connor. He questions his future role as the savior of the human race, questioning why he has to be the leader. He's vulnerable, unsure of himself. Think about it: he's the one who has to save the world. How would you handle that burden?

Kate is a promising new character. Similar to Sarah Connor when we first met her, she finds her whole world about to fall apart, except she has a much smaller time window to cope. But when push comes to shove, she can handle herself and fight when she has to.

But all this gets back to T3's fundamental problem: so much rehash of angles we've already explored.  There are few new wrinkles that could have been explored more, particularly the T-X's powers, but they feel shortchanged. We're stuck following a plot we've already seen.

Things pick up near the end. We witness the birth of Skynet, and enough works here to keep the franchise alive and mostly vibrant. The movie ends on a daring note of nuclear destruction that sets up future sequels that could have built on what was established here. As a sequel, it's inferior. As a new beginning, it's not too bad.

Alas, alas, alas.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

I present Arnold Schwarzenegger at his peak as the Terminator franchise graduates from nitty, gritty low-budget action thriller to full-blown, action epic.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) flips the script of the original Terminator. Once again, Skynet has sent an assassin back in time to the present to eliminate future resistance leader John Connor, and once again, the human resistance sends back a protector.

This time, a reprogrammed T-800 model Terminator (Arnold), identical to the original, is sent back to protect John, here 12 years old and something of a juvenile delinquent (Edward Furlong). The machines have sent a T-1000 (Robert Patrick), a more advanced Terminator with the ability to alter its appearance. (The first part of the movie does a nice job of building mystery by not revealing Arnold is the good guy this time. Shame all the trailers spoiled that twist).

Still around is John's mother Sarah (Linda Hamilton), locked away in a mental institution, scarred by the nightmarish future she knows is coming but also determined to avert it. Instead of the bewildered, vulnerable young waitress of the original, she has become tougher, hardened and prepared for whatever threat might be out there.

Plot-wise, there's not much difference fundamentally between the movies. The T-1000 pursues John and Sarah as the T-800 protects them. The big difference occurs in the character department. As he spends time with John and Sarah, the T-800 develops a better understanding of human nature. He becomes aware of emotions, and John grows close to him. This is both humorous - John tries to get him to act less like a "dweeb" and talk the way a normal person would - and poignant - when the T-800 finally understands why people cry.

The scary characterization is Sarah's. She becomes like a Terminator: ruthless, efficient, and emotionless. John and the T-800 rescue her from the institution just as the T-1000 arrives to kill her. John refused to abandon her there; she scolds him for putting himself at risk because "he's too important" and "I can take care of myself." The child's love for his mother is disregarded.

More disturbingly, she adopts the M.O. of a Terminator. She resolves to kill someone to stop the future from happening. That someone is Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), the Cyberdyne researcher most responsible for the creation of Skynet. She attacks him in his home, in front of his wife and child, but at the moment of truth, she can't bring herself to pull the trigger. She's not a killer.

This sets up the new direction of the movie as our heroes recruit Dyson to stop the creation of Skynet and prevent that future from occurring. No fate but what we make.

Terminator 2 is not as scary as its predecessor. It's less dark and shadowy and has more scenes set in daylight, although the T-1000 is a wonderful villain. His shapeshifting abilities, fondness for using his hands as blades, and a wonderfully creepy performance by Patrick give the film a paranoid and intense vibe. One example: as our heroes escape via elevator, the T-1000 stabs at them through the roof. Where will the blade appear next?

No, this is an action epic through and through. The T-800 is ordered by John not to kill anyone because "it's wrong," but that doesn't mean Arnold doesn't kick all kinds of ass. Everything is bigger and bolder. Instead of a chase between a pickup truck and a motorcycle, we get a motorcycle and a semi-truck and later a helicopter and a police van. It's action done on a huge, practical scale that doesn't lose its human interest.

Terminator 2 was also groundbreaking for its use of computer-generated imagery. It doesn't overwhelm the picture: it adds and enhances it, doing things we've never seen before. The effects to create the T-1000 and to illustrate its constantly changing form are incredible.

There is so much unforgettable imagery in this movie: the T-1000's "split" face, Arnold with the minigun, the future war. T2 contains my favorite use of slow motion. Sarah, escaping the institution, runs to an elevator. We've seen how much of a fighter she is now and how determined she's become, but when the T-800 steps through the door, she freezes in her tracks for the first time, falling backward. The timing, the music, the performances, perfect. Sarah's past has just walked back into her life.

The film also contains more humor, especially in the relationship between John and the T-800. John learns early on the machine has been ordered to obey his command, and you find me a 12-year-old who wouldn't enjoy having their own personal pet robot.

This would have been the perfect film to end the series on. Everything that needed to be said was said, and honestly, there's only so much you can do with time traveling killbots from the future. To be fair, a whole movie set in the future war sounded awesome for the longest time, but that's a disappointment we call Terminator Salvation.

The Terminator

Ah, the good old days, when I looked forward to a new Terminator movie. Or a new James Cameron movie for that matter.

Strip away the legacy that followed, forget the pop culture baggage, ignore the subpar sequels, and examine The Terminator (1984) on its own terms. What you find is a lean, mean thrill machine, packed with nightmarish imagery, an intriguing apocalyptic story, an iconic and star-making performance by Arnold Schwarzenegger, and enough humanity to offer hope for the future.

On with the plot. Before the series got overly convoluted (the hazard of time travel stories), The Terminator's narrative is comparatively straightforward. From a post-apocalyptic future, two figures arrive in our present. The first is a robotic assassin known as a Terminator (Arnold), sent back to eliminate Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) before she gives birth to a son who will lead the human resistance against the future's machine overlords.

The resistance managed to send back a lone warrior, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn). He must seek out and protect Sarah before the Terminator can find her.

Let me emphasize one thing about the original Terminator. It is frightening. It is genuinely scary. Arnold's brand of cheesy, self-aware humor made his career, but when I watch him here, I don't see Arnold. I see a ruthless, relentless, emotionless killing machine. Even the iconic "I'll be back" moment - the first time he does so in a movie - is followed by his driving a truck over a police officer.

Darkly funny? Sure. Shocking and intense? You bet.

The Terminator is a dark film, thematically and visually. Except for a few brief scenes, most of the movie is set at night, and the future is depicted as a post-nuclear wasteland, mountains of wreckage, crumbled buildings, filth, and inhuman, monstrous machines. Who can forget the image of the machines driving over the piles of skulls? The robots resemble metallic skeletons more than C-3PO and are the stuff of nightmares.

The present is not much better: dark, lonely streets; imposing industrial yards; street punks. Early on, Reese encounters a homeless guy; in the future, everyone lives like the homeless guy, desperate, hungry, cold, miserable, dirty. The future has already started to impose its nature on the present, even before nuclear war.

Even the action scenes are as terrifying as they are exciting, particularly the police station shootout, which I have discussed elsewhere. The scene is shot and edited for maximum impact, and when you see the Terminator mow down dozens of police officers, unfazed as bullets bounce off him, you'll believe he is unstoppable.

Credit must also be given to Brad Fiedel for the great music, especially the main theme - it sounds epic and industrial - and to Stan Winston for the special effects that went into creating the Terminator. Yes, there are times when it's obviously a rubber puppet or animation, but on a lower budgeted movie like this, that's forgivable. In the moment, I don't care.

I can't discuss The Terminator without mentioning Arnold. Talk about hitting it out of the park with casting. Arnold's strength as an actor is to take would-be limitations - thick accent, bulky physique, etc. - and turn them into assets. He convinces as an unstoppable cyborg, from his mannerisms to how he carries himself to the cadence of his speech. It is scary, when he pursues his target, and at times, yes, funny, when this machine with no grasp of human emotion or behavior applies and encounters ice cold logic.

Take his introduction. He appears naked and accosts a trio of punks (including Bill Paxton and Brian Thompson). The scene starts out kind of goofy as the machine doesn't grasp these guys or appreciate the situation. Then, Arnold rips out someone's heart. Damn. This scene could have been a disaster and soured the villain from the start, but instead, it makes for an unforgettable entrance for all the right reasons.

Thursday, December 14, 2017


Bastards is probably my favorite latter-day Motörhead album.

Following 1916 and March or Die, albums in which the band strove for more commercial success - ballads, major studio labels, guest appearances by Slash and Ozzy Osbourne, etc. - Bastards finds Lemmy saying "Fuck it" and crafting some of Motörhead's loudest, most aggressive tunes. They show no mercy and hardly ever slow down.

The best known song is probably "Born to Raise Hell," which appeared on the soundtrack for Airheads, and I confess, it's the reason I sought out the album. Thankfully, Bastards has plenty of strong songs. The first five tracks - "On Your Feet or On Your Knees," "Burner," "Death or Glory," "I am the Sword," and "Born to Raise Hell"- pummel the listener into submission, a barrage one thrasher after the other. Hold on or get out of the way.

Other songs are similarly loud and fast, including "Liar," "Bad Woman" (which includes some backing piano that gives a boogie woogie touch to the heavy metal distortion), and the awesome and epic closer "Devils." Even the slower "I'm Your Man" is a brash, swaggering number, so self-assured and confident. It practically bounces and struts.

The anomaly of the album is track number six, "Don't Let Daddy Kiss Me." It's also intense but in a different way. It's a sad, acoustic ballad about a young girl trapped in an abusive relationship, sexually abused regularly by her father. It is a rare Motörhead song I'd call heartbreaking, evoking shame, guilt, and fear. Lemmy growls and croaks on the other songs, but here, he sings with sorrow and restrained anger.

Bastards has two guitarists on it, Phil Campbell and Würzel, giving the music a fuller, heavier sound without sacrificing speed. More than anything, Motörhead sounds fired up and pissed off, creating an overlooked classic in the process.

Friday, December 8, 2017


I read somewhere (Rolling Stone? AllMusic?) that the surprising thing about AC/DC isn't that they write great riffs; it's how many great riffs they write.

Take any song off their album Powerage. You will find not only a great main guitar riff that drives the whole song, but even the intros, bridges, fillers, and outros, aspects of a songs many bands give less attention to, have memorable, cutting hooks. Angus and Malcolm Young seem to be tossing them off with ease, and their energy is infectious.

Powerage arrived just before AC/DC got real hot with the likes of Highway to Hell and Back in Black, and it kind of got overlooked. Since then, it has gained status among fans. I remember seeing Brian Johnson on That Metal Show calling it the best of the Bon Scott-era albums, and I read somewhere else that it's apparently Keith Richards' favorite AC/DC album.

Powerage has two things going for it that keep me coming back to it. One, no real hits to speak of or at least no songs that are played ad nauseum on the radio, so it always feels fresh when I listen to it. Two, while very much an AC/DC album and encased in their style, it finds the boys stretching their creative muscles and pushing their sound in unexpected directions.

Some songs have a start-stop rhythm; "Kick in the Teeth" alternates back-and-forth between Bon Scott's vocals and the music, like a call-and-response. Others, such as "Riff Raff" and "Up to My Neck in You," once they erupt, blaze ahead and never slow down. Then, there's "Gone Shootin'," about a love lost to heroin, that plays slow and bluesy, almost ballad-like.

The band also throws in a few curveballs. The opener, "Rock n Roll Damnation," a precursor to "Highway to Hell," includes clapping and maracas. "Sin City" gives a bass solo to the debuting Cliff Williams, and honestly, I can't think of another AC/DC song with one.

AC/DC plays as well as they have on this album, and the production by Harry Vanda and George Young highlights their gritty charm. But the real strength is Bon Scott. To hear this man sing on this album is to hear true rock n roll: the blue collar desperation on "Down Payment Blues," the scorned lover on "Gimme a Bullet," the cocky free wheeler in "Sin City," the rebel of "What's Next to the Moon," the charming rogue throughout. 

This guy was the real deal. He shrieks and howls but on a dime can get smooth and sly, and his lyrics offer what I've heard described as "gutter-level poetry." It may be sleazy and kind of raunchy, but you can't help but be impressed by his turn of phrase and wordsmith skills.

I'm living in a nightmare
She's looking like a wet dream
I got myself a Cadillac
But I can't afford the gasoline
I got holes in my shoes
And I'm way overdue
Down payment blues

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Excitable Boy

Sometimes, the crowd gets it right.

Excitable Boy proved to be Warren Zevon's best-selling album, but far from being a bland, mainstream cash-in, the album captures Warren Zevon at his creative best. His rebellious attitude, dark sense of humor, and ability to tell a story through song can be found throughout the album.

"Werewolves of London," probably Zevon's most famous song, appears here, and it's not even the best song on the album. Don't get me wrong; it's a great song, but I'm more partial to "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner," the brooding tale of a murdered Norwegian mercenary who hunts down the comrade who betrayed him, and the title track, which, despite its peppy piano and upbeat melody, might be Zevon's darkest and most outrageous tune that you still can't help but laugh at even as its main character descends into insanity

Just as fun, but not as dark, is "Lawyers, Guns and Money," the closing track. It's a big, booming finale about a young gambler who gets caught up in the espionage game because of, what else, a woman. "I went home with a waitress the way I always do. How was I to know she was with the Russians, too?"

Elsewhere, Zevon demonstrates nostalgia on the opening number, "Johnny Strikes Up the Band," a fitting warm up for the album; tenderness on the appropriately titled "Tenderness on the Block;" and loss on the historical "Veracruz," about a family who loses everything when the American navy bombs their city.

Musically, the band plays great, smooth, polished, and driven by Zevon's excellent piano work, which goes from fast and jaunty to slow and emotion-filled. Occasionally, other instruments are highlighted, including the explosive guitar solo on "Werewolves of London" and the funky bass opening on "Nighttime in the Switching Yard."

Overall, it's a cohesive album, built on melodic hooks and irresistible harmony. Zevon recruits dozens of backing musicians and singers to perform with him, and he shapes them to his iconic pop-rock style that combines humor and heartbreak, making for a unified and satisfactory album.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Diamond Dogs

Ziggy Stardust might be my favorite David Bowie album, but Diamond Dogs contains my absolute favorite David Bowie song.

I love "Rebel Rebel." Love it. That guitar riff is one of the most awesome sounds I've ever heard, a strutting, swaggering piece of glam rock that flaunts itself so proudly and defiantly.

The lyrics have a gender-bender thing going on ("You've got your mother in a whirl. She's not sure if you're a boy or a girl.") , and the driving beat resembles something the Rolling Stones might have done, but Bowie gives it his own larger-than-life touch. If there's another song that better defines Bowie's appeal in the genre, I don't know it.

Diamond Dogs emerged from Bowie's attempts to make a musical based off George Orwell's 1984 but abandoned those plans when the Orwell estate denied him permission. That said, elements of the original idea remain in the songs "1984"  and "Big Brother."

Other songs contain a nightmarish, almost fantastical bend, including the title track, which introduces the Bowie persona Halloween Jack, a "real cool cat" who lives on top of Manhattan Chase and meets a girl with a featureless face, and references Todd Browning's classic horror film Freaks. The song begins with the declaration, "This ain't rock n roll. This is genocide."

"Future Legends," the opening track, begins the album with a building, ominous synthesizer as the lyrics describe the post-apocalyptic Hunger City, which contains "fleas the sizes of rats and rats the size of cats" where the humans "peoploids" are like dogs.

"Rebel Rebel," "Diamond Dogs," and even "1984" have upbeat tempos, and they flat out rock. They contain a defiant spirit, and "1984" even has a funky, disco feel. Other songs have a more mellow, slower-paced feel. Listening to the "Sweet Thing," "Candidate," and "Sweet Thing (Reprise)," I feel like I'm in a beatnik coffeehouse, listening to a poet in sunglasses share a political statement through verse. The backing saxophone and piano tracks adds to the jazzy atmosphere.

Diamond Dogs might be Bowie's darkest, most political album. There's no tenderness or moving gestures like there is on "Space Oddity" or Ziggy Stardust's "Rock n Roll Suicide." The exception may be "Rock n Roll With Me," which, despite its title, is a slower song that offers more of a quiet reprieve than an exciting release.

I don't know if I'd describe it as angry but the music and lyrics cast a cynical eye on a world that has become something monstrously inhuman. The closing track, "Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family," ends the album on a spiraling note of gleeful madness.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Please Murder Me!

Raymond Burr is most famous for having played master criminal defense attorney Perry Mason in the long-running TV show of the same name in the 1950s and many TV movies in the 1980s. He took the toughest cases, defending wrongfully accused clients while implicating the real villains.

Please Murder Me! (1956) predates Burr's run as Perry Mason, and his role feels almost like a test run. His final plan to expose the villain of the film, while not exactly getting her to confess on the stand, is especially clever and well orchestrated, if rather morbid and self-punitive.

It's also fitting this is a film noir, since Burr played many villains in the genre, including the sleazy, psychotic P.I. in Pitfall. He also played the murderer in Rear Window, which came out a couple years prior. The whole question of Rear Window was did he or didn't he kill his wife. Now, Burr is asking whether the woman he loves is a murderess.

Burr plays lawyer Craig Carlson. He has fallen in love with Myra (Angela Lansbury), who is married to his friend Joe Leeds (Dick Foran). Joe even saved his life on Iwo Jima, so Craig, ever upstanding and honest, goes right to him at the start of the movie and tells him the truth.

Joe, understandably, does not take the news well, leading to a confrontation on a dark and stormy night between Joe and Myra that ends with Myra shooting and killing him. We do not see the incident, only the point at which Joe slams the door shut. We hear an off-screen shot.

Myra argues he tried to kill her and she fired in self defense. At the trial, Craig acts as her counsel. He wins her acquittal by revealing his love for her during his closing defense (which might be grounds for a mistrial or at least an ethics investigation by the state bar association, but never mind). But soon, he uncovers new evidence and becomes convinced she's played him for the fool.

Please Murder Me! opens like Double Indemnity with Craig, alone in his office, his face hidden in the shadows to the point he looks headless, talking into a tape recorder. As he explains that he will soon be dead, the movie flashes back to show the events he's talking about.

Craig is more noble than we typically see in heroes of film noir. He is honest and believes in the rule of law, but his motivations are familiar. He falls in love with the wrong woman, and when he unwittingly aids an injustice, he becomes wracked with guilt. Myra can't get charged for Joe's murder again because of double jeopardy, but knowing Myra murdered once, he decides he will get her to murder again. In the tradition of the genre, Craig believes both guilty parties must be punished, and so, he plans his own doom.

Please Murder Me! is just over 70 minutes, but even then, it moves slowly. At times, it feels like an episode of a TV show stretched past its running length, and while director Peter Godfrey has a few nice visuals (like the slanted camera angles on the reporters in the newsroom or Joe, clad in a drenched coat and hat looms over Myra as she sits on a bed), other images are rather drab and static. Sometimes, the narrative is rather perfunctory, especially in the courtroom.

The movie picks up steam once Craig begins his plan to bring down Myra. It's where things get twisted and juicy. Please Murder Me! is worth checking out just for this sequence, but it's a shame it couldn't either get to it sooner or make the lead up more compelling.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Asphalt Jungle

There's no honor among thieves and the only luck is bad in director John Huston's heist picture The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Huston, who helped launched the film noir genre with The Maltese Falcon, strips away the glamor and heroism that even a Sam Spade would have provided, leaving behind a bunch of desperate, unlikeable, and irredeemable lowlifes. 

The title proves appropriate. In this unnamed city (apparently within driving distance of Cleveland), as members of the criminal underground plot a jewelry heist with the efficiency and acumen of businessmen, the streets resemble nothing if not an urban wasteland, the strong prey on the weak, corruption runs rampant, and good remains all but helpless in the face of overwhelming evil.

The men responsible for the robbery are easy to describe. Erwin "Doc" Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) is the mastermind with the plan, Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern) is the lawyer who invests in the scheme, Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) is the "hooligan" needed for muscle, Louie Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) is the safecracker, Gus (James Whitmore) is the getaway driver, and Cobby (Marc Lawrence) is the bookie who links them all up.

The plan proves simple to execute. It's the aftermath that proves difficult as the group encounters double crosses, a police manhunt, unexpected developments, paranoia, and just plain bad luck.

The hallmarks of film noir are here: the shadows, the fedoras, the trench coats, the cynicism, the bleakness, the seedy underbelly locations, the hypocrisy of the rich and powerful, and an ending that feels less like the triumph of justice and more like the inevitability of fate. No one - good or bad - gets away from destiny.

While we watch the heist play out in more or less real time and it is a splendid sequence, The Asphalt Jungle devotes more time before and afterward, establishing the characters, illustrating their motives, and depicting their home lives. There's no femme fatale leading them on, but we meet a few wives and girlfriends.

Ciavelli is married and has an infant son, Dix has a girl (Jean Hagen) who would do anything for him, and Emmerich has an infirm wife (Dorothy Tree) and a mistress who calls him uncle (Marilyn Monroe).

There's little excitement but a lot of tension. The movie lacks shootouts and chases, focusing more on the waiting game. The heist plays not as a thrilling caper but a nerve-wracking job where every step has to go right. It's a process, step-by-step.

The Asphalt Jungle explores the criminal underground, how it comes together and operates, including some of its more mundane aspects. It is populated with all sorts of creeps and thugs, but the movie does not present them as larger-than-life characters. They are all fairly ordinary people who make their living in crime, trying to survive one way or another in this uncivilized, cruel world.

Just like animals.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Kiss Me Deadly

Oh my god. Oh my god. I can't believe it. It's so shocking. Beyond comprehension. Impossible.

Cloris Leachman was once young. I just assumed she sprouted out of the ground as Frau Blücher and ran with it. Seeing her playing a terrified, vulnerable young woman is jarring.

Say what you will about Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade, but they are sweethearts next to Mike Hammer, at least how he's presented in Kiss Me Deadly (1955). All three are hard-boiled private eyes of film noir, but while Marlowe and Spade possess inner moral codes, Hammer is a thug, a jerk with a heart of gold, minus the heart of gold.

As played by Ralph Meeker in director Robert Aldrich's adaptation of the Mickey Spillane novel, Hammer is an especially sleazy detective. Plenty of these private dicks work divorce cases, but Hammer sends his "secretary" Velda (Maxine Cooper) to seduce the husbands. Meanwhile, he works over the wives, so he can get paid twice for the same job.

Hammer is also brutal, beating people up and charging his way through the movie like a rampaging bull. Cops warn him away, but naturally, he refuses to listen. His vanity and narcissism not only put friends in danger, they threatens the world.

I'm getting ahead of myself. Kiss Me Deadly opens with Hammer nearly running over Christina (Leachman) one night on a lonely stretch of highway. She's desperate, scared, and wearing only a trench coat. She just broke out of a psychiatric institution, but at a key moment, Hammer shields her from the police.

Soon after, the two are run off the road by another car. Christina is tortured to death while Hammer barely survives, and he becomes obsessed with digging up the truth about who killed her and why. Christina apparently had knowledge of something dangerous, and soon, another potential victim, Christina's roommate Lilly (Gaby Rodgers), is threatened for what she may know. The results are... nuclear.

Kiss Me Deadly matches the brutality of its detective. When goons torture Christina, we don't see what they do (we never see more than her bare feet), but we hear her blood-curling screams. Whatever they did, it was not pretty. Later, Nick (Nick Dennis), a jovial, fast-talking Greek mechanic who helps Hammer,  ends up crushed under a car for his trouble.

Hammer makes a point of being angry that they killed Nick, but when he finds Nick's brother clutching the dead man's hand, the only part of him not trapped under the vehicle, Hammer coldly offers no condolences or emotion. He seems more angry that the villains killed his friend than he is sorry over losing him.

Hammer conducts his fair share of torture, both physical and emotional, and he seems to enjoy it. He beats up a coroner for a piece of evidence, he smashes a prized vinyl record belonging to a witness, and he takes advantage of Velda. She loves him; he uses her, and she knows it. When he comes to her, she knows it's because he's in trouble, but she's happy because he needs her. The more you think about it, the more you realize it's a twisted, almost sadomasochistic relationship.

Kiss Me Deadly, in a way, deconstructs the film noir detective. Not only is Hammer a brute, he's also not especially bright. His actions lead the villains right to the last thing we want them to get their hands on. If he had just listened, if he had just stayed out of the way...

Several common aspects of film noir nestle their way into Kiss Me Deadly. Obviously, the protagonist's sins get him into trouble, but there's also the cruel hand of fate. It's dumb luck that Hammer was driving along the road when he ran into Christina, setting into motion his entire involvement in the plot. His flawed, hard-boiled nature keeps him going, though, and nearly destroys everything.

The nuclear MacGuffin reflects the anxiety of the day. As the Cold War dawned, the world became a dark, scary place, full of doom and despair, and now, we hold in our hand the instrument of our demise, engineered by own hand.

And of course, there's plenty of shadows, dark corners, and slanted camera angles that reflect how warped and threatening this world has become.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Murder, My Sweet

Film noir's most iconic detective makes his debut in Murder, My Sweet (1944), one of the first great entries in the genre.

There had been previous Raymond Chandler adaptations, but Murder, My Sweet (1944) marks the first appearance of Phillip Marlowe, Chandler's most famous character and the archetype for the hard-boiled detective of film noir. A tough private eye with a penchant for hard-drinking and wisecracks, Marlowe frequently gets in over his head and threatened by the scumbags he associates with, but he's no dope and he possesses an inner moral code.

Those traits are celebrated at length in Murder, My Sweet, which is based off Chandler's Farewell My Lovely. The film opens in a dark interrogation room where under a hot light the police grill a blindfolded Marlowe (Dick Powell) about a couple of murders.

This sets up the bulk of the movie as Marlowe explains, via flashback, how hulking Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) hired him to locate his girl Velma, whom he has not seen in eight years after a stint in the joint. Marlowe also gets involved with some business involving a stolen jade necklace and other assorted characters: Marriott (Douglas Walton), who hires Marlowe to accompany him to a payoff; Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor), the owner of the missing necklace; Mr. Grayle (Miles Mander), Helen's much older, wealthy husband; and Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley), much concerned about her father and resentful toward his young wife.

The plot's complicated and sometimes hard to keep track of. I've seen the movie a few times and read the book, and I confess I can't always keep track of the various comings and goings. But the plot ain't important in film noir; it's secondary to the tone, style, and dialogue, and it's in those elements, Murder, My Sweet soars with flying colors.

Directed by Edward Dmytryk, Murder, My Sweet is a gorgeously shot film filled with the kind of style that makes film noir so deliciously cool. The shadows are deep and many, cigarette smokes wisps around imposing and seductive faces, and the contrast between light and dark is fully accentuated. At times, the interplay between lights and shadows is almost a conflict itself.

Dmytryk also throws in him some surreal touches that suggest unworldly danger, such as Malloy's first appearance in which he appears like a ghost reflected in a window by the flashing lights from outside. Later, a drugged and beaten Marlowe hallucinates and has horrific visions, including one in which he flees a man with a large syringe through a series of hard-to-open doors.

In the face of threatening conspiracies, double crosses, and constant danger, Marlow retains his sardonic demeanor. He's never at a loss for words. Asked by the police how he feels, he responds, "Like a duck in a shooting gallery." His voiceover narration, another genre hallmark, is filled with wry observations ("She was a gal who'd take a drink, if she had to knock you down to get the bottle.") and hardboiled descriptions:

"I caught the blackjack right behind my ear. A black pool opened up at my feet. I dived in. It had no bottom. I felt pretty good - like an amputated leg." I can't recall if that's prose straight from Chandler, but it sounds like it, feels like it.

And that's what it's all about. Murder, My Sweet looks and feels film noir down to its core. It's got everything that makes the genre irresistible. Essential viewing.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Old Soldiers Never Die

Since I'm in a reminiscent mood, I decided to share this short story I wrote in high school. It ran in Janus, the school literary magazine. Click the title below to read it if you're interested.

"Old Soldiers Never Die"

I like the story and how it plays out, but I confess I can't bring myself to read it all the way through without cringing at a lot of it. I think I've improved a lot as a writer since then.

The story began as an English class project. We read One Hundred Years of Solitude, and I had the idea of a prisoner held in captivity during some unnamed country's civil war. Every time he was scheduled to be executed, the other side captured the prison, decided our protagonist wasn't loyal enough, and started the whole process to kill him over again. Back and forth, back and forth without end. I meant it as a satirical, absurdist anti-war piece.

Obviously, that's not how the final story turned out. The final story incorporates an element of magical realism, which tied it in better with Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel, and is a more somber, haunting piece. Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory also inspired me some, especially with the execution scene.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Tinker Lab: Paper Circuits

Here's another video I made for the library. I'm trying to be Igor.

Bookmark Bonanza

This is the most recent video announcement I made to promote an upcoming program at the library I work at.

For all the years I've been writing this blog and taking shots at other movies, the shoe's on the other foot now.


Detour (1945) gives us a narrator who is either the biggest sap in the world or a liar trying to rationalize every crime he's committed. Take your pick.

Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, Detour is a crude, pulpy piece of film noir about a man who compounds one mistake after another and makes it worse by getting involved with the genre's most iconic archetype, the femme fatale, and this one is especially heartless, if we take our narrator's word for it.

The sap is Al Roberts (Tom Neal), a New York piano player whose girl leaves for Hollywood. He hitchhikes to join her, and he's picked up by a bookie named Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), who soon after dies on a lonely stretch of Arizona highway one night during the middle of a rainstorm.  How does he die? Roberts, driving while Haskell sleeps, pulls over to pull the top on the convertible. When Roberts opens the passenger door, Haskell slumps out of the car, smashing his head on a rock.

The cops would never believe Roberts didn't kill Haskell, he tells us. I can accept that reasoning. After all, I don't believe Roberts didn't kill Haskell, and I watched the death scene. I especially don't believe it when Roberts decides not only to hide the body but to take Haskell's money, identification, and car. Convenient for a broke, hungry hitchhiker, wouldn't you say?

Is the movie cheating, showing us something that didn't happen the way it tells us it happen? Not necessarily. Film noir brought a psychological element to the B-move crime picture; warped psyches and distorted points of view reflected in the environment. The world of film noir is a dark one, a nightmarish realm of despair and shadows, and so it is in Detour.

Everything we see that happens in Detour occurs from Roberts' perspective. His words are so full of woe-is-me, blaming fate and luck of the draw on his predicament. He doesn't sound like a man trying to convince others; he sounds like he's trying to convince himself.

That would explain Vera (Ann Savage), the femme fatale. Before he died, Haskell told of a woman he picked up who clawed his hand, and we see the scratches. After he takes Haskell's identity, Roberts picks up a hitchhiker, who lo and behold, is the same woman Haskell warned about, and she knows Roberts ain't Haskell.

Vera betrays no vulnerability or tenderness, unlike some other dames of the genre. She is ruthless and cutting. She blackmails Roberts, keeping him close like a "Siamese twin" and reminding him she's the boss. She initiates everything once she enters the pictures, constantly insults and belittles Roberts, and he meekly, weakly, pathetically goes along with everything she says. I swear, officer. It wasn't my fault. It was all her idea!

Detour was a so-called "Poverty Row" picture, one of those cheaply made B-movies studios churned out in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Detour certainly looks the part: it's not even 70 minutes long, limited locations, lots of closeups, shadows and fogs to hide sparse city streets, hamfisted narrations to cover plot details, and cars with the driver on the wrong side (Ulmer reportedly flipped the negative of the film in those places, so they aren't meant to be English automobiles).

But the movie doesn't feel cheap. It's about people down in the skids, and it hunkers down there with them. It's not glamorous, and it ain't pretty, but Detour gets the job done.

Friday, November 10, 2017


When a married man strays on a film, you know there will be Hell to pay. (I wish I could say the same held true in real life, but in real life, it seems philandering men only end up as elected officials.)

Dealing in adultery and blackmail, Pitfall (1948) follows John Forbes (Dick Powell), an insurance executive with a loving wife, Sue (Jane Wyatt), and young son, Tommy (Jimmy Hunt), who begins an affair with Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott), a model he meets investigating a case.

Convenient for Forbes: Mona's boyfriend Smiley (Byron Barr) is in prison. Not so convenient: the P.I. he worked with on the case, MacDonald (Raymond Burr), has the hots for Mona, too. MacDonald is also a bit deranged, and Smiley might be released soon.

Pitfall plays less like a thriller and more as a character-driven melodrama with two sets of love triangles (but since two of the figures appear in both sets, maybe it's a love rhombus). It has the visual and story hallmarks of film noir: the dark shadows, the Venetian blinds, the troubled protagonist in over his head, the femme fatale, the sleazy detective, the snappy and cynical dialogue, and the world view shaken to its core by immorality and corruption.

Film noir often deals with the scummy, underbelly of high society, but Pitfall gives us a lead with a seemingly happy if banal middle-class home life that becomes threatened through his actions. As the film opens, Forbes is admittedly bored; he feels confined, stuck with the same old routine. When he meets Mona, showing up at her apartment to retrieve items purchased with embezzled money, he ends up spending the day with her: going out for a drink and riding her prized speedboat.

Forbes finds his affair with Mona liberating, but since this is film noir, we know it will eventually go south for him. As he struggles to keep his affair secret from his family, Forbes descends into shame and guilt. His home, so brightly lit and cozy at the start, becomes a literal den of shadows when a certain cuckold turns up to looking to confront him. He thought he could keep these aspects of his life separate, but they come crashing together.

Plot-wise, Pitfall moves straightforward. There aren't really unexpected twists and turns and no last-minute revelation that pulls the rug out from under us; the suspense stems from how these characters will react when they confront the truth. We the audience know the dirty secret early on, and we wonder what the likes of Smiley and MacDonald will do with the knowledge of Forbes and Mona. We also wonder how Sue will react if and when she finds out.

Director Andre DeToth directs in an efficient, workman manner; he keeps things moving without having to pump in artificial action or chases, trusting his actors to get the points across. The nominal climax, a burst violence at the Forbes home, is merely a prelude to the real fireworks: Forbes, seemingly in the clear, finally breaks down and confesses to Sue. As he walks the streets in shame that night, Forbes' whole world has come crashing down.

That sets up a scene at the district attorney's office, ending on a final, sad irony. One person is dead, another may also die, which will determine the fate of a third, and the D.A. notes the wrong person is behind bars.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Ash vs Evil Dead

We've come a long way from a small cabin in the woods, but now, we're going home. Come get some.

The Evil Dead, made in 1981 on a shoestring budget by a bunch of kids, blossomed from its origins as a grueling exercise in gory, claustrophobic terror to the splatter comedy of Evil Dead 2 to the rousing slapstick adventure of Army of Darkness. Sam Raimi became one of the biggest directors in Hollywood, making Oscar-caliber movies such as A Simple Plan and some superhero thing (That was kind of successful, wasn't it?).

But an unseen force called him back.

Rumors of another Evil Dead directed by Raimi with the immortal Bruce Campbell starring as series hero Ash circulated for years. We got a few video games and a couple of comic books over the years but no movie. In 2013, Raimi and company produced a fairly well-received remake of Evil Dead, minus Ash, and it appeared any further exploits of our beloved chainsaw-toting, one-liner-spouting hero were off the table.

Say hello to the twenty-first century.

Twenty-three years after the character's last cinematic outing, Bruce Campbell returns as Ash Williams, the man who when his hand became possessed by demons, chopped it off and affixed a chainsaw over the bloody stump. Ash is back and in a television series for Starz. Campbell and Raimi (who directs the opening episode) serve as executive producers with their longtime partner Rob Tapert and Craig DiGregorio.

Season 1, which ran 2015-2016, picks up thirty-years after Ash first battled the Deadites, and he hasn't done much since, slumming in a trailer park and picking up random bar floozies. Then, weird stuff starts happening. Demonic phantoms appear, and folks become possessed. The evil presence Ash encountered long ago in the cabin has returned and found him. How?

Well, Ash brought a prostitute home, and under the influence of marijuana, he read from the Necronomicon Ex Mortis, the Book of the Dead. Hey, he may be the hero, but Ash isn't always bright, OK.

And just say no to drugs. You never know when you might accidentally call forth evil spirits.

The Deadites have been summoned, hungry for fresh souls to devour, and all Hell breaks loose as they possess people, transforming them into hideous, blood-thirsty zombies. Teaming up with his fellow Value Stop department store employees Pablo (Ray Santiago) and Kelly (Dana DeLorenzo), Ash must confront the demons of his past (both figurative and literal) and find a way to stop this unholy apocalypse from spreading.

The first two Evil Dead movies take place in one setting, a small cabin in the woods. Army of Darkness expanded the scope to that of a Ray Haryhausen epic, with armies clashing, stop-motion skeletons filling the screen, and an epic quest across the land.

By contrast, Ash vs Evil Dead becomes a road trip, complete with classic rock songs on the soundtrack, including Deep Purple, Alice Cooper, The Stooges, and The Allman Brothers. Ash and company hit the road, and each episode has its own little adventure: a trip to an occult book dealer to translate the Necronomicon, a stop at Kelly's parents' house after her supposedly dead mother (Mimi Rogers) turns up alive, a visit to Pablo's shaman uncle (Hemky Madera), an encounter with the Michigan Militia, and a few other pit stops that don't end well.

Others pursue them. State trooper Amanda Fisher (Jill Marie Jones), who shot her undead partner, wants to find Ash, convinced he's responsible for all the atrocities she's witnessed (she's not entirely wrong).

Amanda is assisted by Ruby (Lucy Lawless). Her motives are hidden, but Ruby has knowledge of both Ash and the Deadites. In fact, she has a useful tool to track our hero: his own severed hand, which points in his direction.

Ash vs Evil Dead crosses the splatter comedy of Evil Dead 2 with the mythologizing of Army of Darkness. Blood, slime, drool, and other unnameable fluids fly across the screen and drench our characters. Limbs are lopped, guts are spilled, flesh is flayed, and it's so over-the-top, it becomes funny. Yeah, it's plenty disgusting, but you'll giggle before you barf. When Ash leaps through his trailer, his trusty chainsaw landing in place for him to carve up a monster, you'll cheer.

Pablo, raised by his uncle to accept the supernatural, believes Ash to be "El Jefe," the savior who will save the world from great evil. Ash, ever so reluctantly, takes on the mantle, even as he continues to look for opportunities to shirk the responsibility. He also tries to get Pablo and Kelly to leave him, convinced anyone he cares about ends up dead. The expanded TV format gives the series more than plot development and characterization than we've seen in any of the movies.

Ash is no longer in his prime. He's older, out of shape, and still doesn't think things through. Still, he's the Ash we know and love: a coward and a jerk able to kick ass and offer a cool quip while doing it. Campbell slides back into the role perfectly, and it's fun to see him reprise it.

The new characters are a mixed bag. Ruby is appropriately mysterious, and Kelly keeps things relatively grounded as the most normal person present. Pablo has his moments, but he's a little too dopey. Amanda has the thankless task of being behind everyone else and always playing catch up; the story works better in its own self-contained world, and elements like police just take away from the stuff we want to see.

The series draws heavily on nostalgia. There a few callbacks to the original movies but never to the point they become distracting. The show also takes advantages of all the advances in special effects technology (and presumably a higher budget) to give us some out-there sequences and scenes.

We get new scenarios with the Deadites, including a beast in the flesh (summoned by the gang so they can question him), exorcisms, and possessed people pretending to be normal. Deadites fly around and climb walls, and even the Necronomicon shows off new tricks. And yes, the unseen force, the series' trademark, chasing after people, hurtling after them, returns. The camera swoops, dives, and spins as expected.

I had given up Raimi and Campbell returning to Evil Dead in such a capacity, and in fact, I had decided I didn't want any more Ash adventures, convinced any return would be a cheap, cynical cash-in unable to capture the magic of the original run.

I'm glad to say I was wrong. The franchise is alive, strong as ever, and packed with everything that makes Evil Dead, well, groovy.