Category Archives: Film

The Hand (1981)

The Hand Movie Poster

Release Date: April 24, 1981
Starring: Michael Caine, Andrea Marcovicci, Annie McEnroe, Bruce McGill, Rosemary Murphy, Mara Hobel
Written and Directed by Oliver Stone based on the novel The Lizard’s Tail by Marc Brandel

The horror genre is one that I seem to have under-represented in my film reviews and retrospectives over the years.  Nothing against the genre itself, I’ve just never felt the need to revisit any of the classics later in life, particularly slasher films.  Sure they were fun to watch the first time around, but for every Halloween and Friday the 13th, I preferred more psychological/supernatural films like Poltergeist.  But there was something about Oliver Stone’s 1981 film The Hand starring Michael Caine that grabbed me (no pun intended, I swear!) when I saw it was available for rent on Amazon this past weekend.  I vaguely remember watching it on cable in he early 80s, and over time I’ve associated The Hand with one of Michael Caine’s more questionable films.  But this time around I was interested to see if the overall film matched the level of talent associated with the production, namely Michael Caine’s acting, Oliver Stone’s direction and James Horner’s score.

Jonathan Lansdale (played by Michael Caine) is a successful cartoonist of the daily newspaper comic strip Mandro, a Conan the Barbarian style character.  He lives a quiet life in Vermont with his wife Anne (Andrea Marcovicci) and daughter Lizzie (Mara Hobel), but their life is too tranquil for Anne, who pushes Jonathan for a move to New York City.  He suspect she has other motives for the move, and when she drives him to the post office to mail the week’s Mandro comic strips to the syndicate she admits to him that her preference is that he stays in Vermont while she pursues her interests in New York.  An argument ensues and in the heat of emotion Anne makes an ill-timed attempt to pass a slow moving truck on a blind curve.  A car speeds towards them in the oncoming lane, but they are unable to merge back behind the truck due to an impatient driver behind them.  Jonathan sticks his arm out the passenger side window to get the driver to slow down and let them merge back behind the truck, but their car sideswipes the truck, severing Jonathan’s drawing hand.

Their attempt to find the severed hand in a field proves fruitless and Jonathan must make due with a prosthetic, his drawing career over.  Despite his inability to draw, Jonathan takes the change better than expected.  Late one night, unable to sleep, Jonathan sits at his drawing desk trying to draw Mandro with his left hand.  His concentration is broken when his cat goes berserk and jumps through a pane of glass.  Jonathan sees something busting in a pile of wood but takes it as something harmless.  In an act of closure, Jonathan visits the scene of the accident and walks through the field where his severed hand would have landed.  He finds his gold signet ring but not the remains of his hand, which is alive and hiding in the tall grass watching Jonathan.

For the moment Anne seems recommitted to him and they move to a SoHo loft in Manhattan.  When Jonathan meets with his agent Karen (Rosemary Murphy) to discuss the future of Mandro, she suggests taking on another artist to draw the strip while Jonathan continues to plot and write it.  He resists the idea at first, and tells her about an offer he received to teach at a community college in California.  Karen is skeptical, not only because she wants the strip to continue but because she knows once he is back on his feet Anne will leave him.  She’s become more involved in a New Age type group, and her yoga instructor/counselor Bill (Nicholas Hormann) takes up more time in her life to Jonathan’s suspicion.  With every moment of anger or emotional pain, he begins to have hallucinations and dreams of his severed hand.

The sample strips by the new artist don’t meet Jonathan’s standards for Mandro.  When he complains to Anne that his plot and script for the samples were completely ignored by the new artist, she encourages him to give up some of the creative control in order to have income so they can survive past the end of the year.  When Jonathan meets with Karen and new artist  David Maddow (Charles Fleischer) to voice his disapproval, he’s surprised to hear that Karen actually agrees with David’s ideas to make Mandro more accessible to a contemporary audience.  When she opens the portfolio to edit the sample strips, they find them splashed with black ink supposedly in an act of sabotage.  They accuse Jonathan but he suspects his daughter ruined the panels.  Returning home, Jonathan is accosted by a belligerent homeless man (played by the film’s writer/director Oliver Stone), but while he encounter is over as quickly as it started, Jonathan’s severed hand follows the homeless man into an alley and strangles him to death.

He tells Anne that he is canceling Mandro rather than have his creation changed.  It’s unlikely Karen will work with him again so he decides to take the teaching position to Anne’s disappointment.  He makes the move to California with the belief that Anne will follow him there with Lizzie soon after.  Jonathan moves into a run down cabin owned by the college and quickly strikes up a friendship with philosophy teacher Brian Ferguson (played by Bruce McGill).  When Jonathan begins to question Anne’s intention to reunite, his slow descent begins.  In the middle of one night as he gets up to investigate a strange sound, he finds his signet ring, lost after their move to Manhattan, placed in the center of his pillow.

On his first day of classes he realizes that most of his students are simply there for an easy grade rather than an interest in cartooning.  One student, townie Stella Roche (played by Annie McEnroe) catches his eye.  One night, she stops by his cabin to drop off her sketch book which quickly leads to a sexual encounter.  After she leaves, he looks through Stella’s sketchbook of amateurish drawings and finds a highly detailed sketch of her nude with a severed hand that was clearly not drawn by her.  The drawing is in his style and the signature at the bottom of the page is his own, but he has no recollection of drawing it when grading her work.  Over beers at the local bar, Brian tells Jonathan that the unconscious is capable of anything, and it’s possible he’s blacking out and his prosthetic hand  is receiving impulses to draw from his brain.  As Jonathan’s emotional state spirals downward, he becomes more suspicious of his blackouts, even sequestering himself one night to protect Stella.  But despite his efforts, his severed hand has followed him to California and continues to strike the people around him.

No spoilers here.  Oliver Stone’s The Hand is an entertaining film that I would recommend, though it is classified as a horror film almost in spite of itself.  It falls short as a horror film (slasher film fans will be disappointed at the lack of gore and sparse action), but makes up for it by hitting the right notes with drama, character development and a strong cast.   It’s also brought down by the lack of quality special effects (even by early 80’s standards the special effects for the severed hand and the bloody accident sequence are relatively crude, though masked effectively by Richard Marks’ editing) and the distracting choice to film several sequences involving the severed hand in black and white.  While Jonathan’s severed hand is supposed to be the focal point of the film, Stone’s screenplay short changes the audience by keeping its screen time a minimum, making its role in the story ambiguous and it’s “payoff” moments in the film lacking weight.  But overall The Hand is still a solid film as a psychological thriller, elevated even more by Caine’s performance.

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Movies For Memorial Day 2016

With Memorial Day coming up on Monday May 30th, I would like to thank all military veterans and active members of the armed forces for their service and sacrifice.

Some of my earliest movie memories are of watching old combat films from the 40’s and 50’s on a black and white TV on Saturday afternoons at my grandparents house.  They were mostly lower budget films and I’ve forgotten many of their titles, but those Saturday afternoon films on TV made the combat movie one of my favorite film genres.

Every year I check the TV listings and streaming services for the best military themed films to watch over Memorial Day Weekend.  Turner Classics always has a solid lineup of feature films, but Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu have a great selection of feature films and documentaries as well.  Here are some highlights:

On Turner Classic Movies (All Times Eastern):

Saturday May 28th:

11:15 AM: The Flying Leathernecks (1951)
1:00 PM: They Were Expendable (1945)
8:00 PM: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
11:00 PM: A Bridge Too Far (1977)

Sunday May 29th:

3:00 PM: Mister Roberts (1955)
8:00 PM: Glory (1989)
10:15 PM: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Monday May 30:

3:30 AM: The Big Parade (1925)
9:00 AM: Sergeant York (1941)
2:15 PM: The Great Escape (1963)

Netflix:

Restrepo (2010)
We Were Soldiers (2002)
The Longest Day (1962)
Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
The Enemy Below (1957)
Brothers In War (2014)
Unsung Heroes: The Story of America’s Female Patriots (2014)
Honor Flight (2012)
World War II In Colour (2009)
Ken Burns: The War (2007)
Ken Burns: The Civil War (1990)
Twelve O’Clock High (1949)
Von Ryan’s Express (1965)

Amazon Prime:

Band of Brothers (2001)
Ken Burns: The Civil War (1990)
The World At War (1973)
Taking Chance (2009)
The Longest Day (1962)
Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
Twelve O’Clock High (1949)
The Tuskegee Airmen (1995)
Rescue Dawn (2006)
When Trumpets Fade (1998)
The Man Left Behind (2012)
The Enemy Below (1957)
Von Ryan’s Express (1965)

Hulu:

Medal of Honor: The History (2014)
War Stories with Oliver North (2001)
A Time for Honor (2002)

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The Last Chase (1981)

The Last Chase Poster

Release Date: April 1981
Starring: Lee Majors, Chris Makepeace, Burgess Meredith, Diane D’Aquila, George Touliatos, Ben Gordon, Alexandra Stewart
Directed by Martyn Burke; Written by C.R. O’Christopher, Roy Moore and Martyn Burke

I’ve always been a fan of dystopian films with classics like Blade Runner, Red Dawn, 12 Monkeys, Escape From New York, The Road Warrior and Children of Men topping my list of favorites.  I’ve enjoyed many other examples of the genre over the years, but when Martyn Burke’s The Last Chase fell on to my cinematic radar recently, my faint memories of this 1981 film may have pre-qualified it for the “guilty pleasure” category.  I’d been a fan of Lee Majors since The Six Million Dollar Man aired on TV in the 70’s, and I remember enjoying The Last Chase enough to watch it repeatedly back when it was in heavy rotation on cable TV, but I knew going into this latest screening that my memory of the film may not live up to the reality of how it would hold up 35 years later.  So I went into The Last Chase for a fun ride and a little nostalgia but surprisingly, despite the film’s age and several dated elements, I found the film very engaging today.

The film begins with a Porsche race car pulling up to a racetrack, out of gas. Former racer Frank Hart (Lee Majors) tries to fill up his car, but the pumps are locked. The track is abandoned save for Fetch, an old track employee, who tells Hart there’s no more gas to be had and other basic supplies are starting to run low. Hart breaks open the pump, siphons out what little gas he can get for his station wagon and tows his racer home, the only driver on the empty highway.  All cars have been made illegal and had to be turned into the government a week earlier. But Hart is in no hurry to obey any orders.

Harts career ended in the 80’s after losing control in a race that led to a fatal accident between two fellow drivers. An epidemic from an unknown source struck the U.S. and Hart’s wife and son succumbed. Field hospitals are overcrowded, oil supplies have been cut off, and Martial Law is in effect to control a population still suffering from the epidemic. But as Hart says in his opening monologue, “those of us that survived learned to cope with changes.”

Twenty years later Hart works as a spokesman pushing propaganda for the mass transit authority of now auto-less Boston, living a quiet life among the obedient workers in a totalitarian system that runs counter to his personal nature and the America he knew. He’s been surveilled by the government for his difficulty adjusting to the new system and is brought in for questioning by local authorities. His non-conformist attitude doesn’t earn him any points with high level bureaucrat Santana (played by Diane D’Aquila) who doesn’t have patience for a free spirit stuck in the old days. His scavenging car parts from confiscation yards and several accrued offenses makes him automatically scheduled for a hearing and possible sentence to a rehabilitation center, the system’s new name for prison. When faced with this threat, Hart coolly replies, “Lady, you’ve too goddamn many laws.”

Adding to Santana’s frustrations, her department’s computer system is hacked by prep school student Ring (played by Chris Makepeace). Ring is also an outsider that has trouble conforming to the social hierarchy of his school. He is ostracized and bullied by his fellow students but gets even by using his expertise in chemistry to set off homemade explosives on campus. When he’s not causing mayhem on campus, he sneaks away to a computer he has hidden in the attic of his dorm to hack into the government grid.

Back home, as Hart replays the video of his racing accident just to see a clip of his late wife, a broadcast from Radio Free California (an independent “free” territory) breaks into the TV feed, telling citizens that the residents of California have “returned to the land” and to their machines to escape from the oppressive regime that now controls America. This inspires Hart to break out the race car that’s been buried in pieces under his garage, working at the transportation authority by day and assembling it at night with one week to go before his trial.

Fed up with the propaganda he’s been forced to feed young audiences (“like a reformed sinner preaching to the congregation”) and the system that put him there, Hart turns tide during a speech to a group of prep school students and extols the virtues of cars, freedom and private ownership. His impromptu speech catches the attention of Ring, who sends Hart a direct message to his home that he is not alone. Hart is subsequently suspended from his position at the transportation authority with jail time very likely for his offense.

That night, as Hart looks over an old road atlas in his home, he catches Ring breaking in. When the police show up moments later, Hart assumes it’s to arrest him for his imminent trial, but they’re actually trying to track down the runaway Ring, who’s third attempt at hacking Santana’s department computer was traced back to his boarding school.  Hart covers for Ring and the police leave, but he makes a critical error when he benignly tells the officers he was waiting for his family to come home. When Santana reviews the police report moments later, she catches this irregularity and orders the police back to Hart’s home to arrest him.

With the police pounding on his door, Hart fires up the racer to hit the road to Free California, but Ring jammed the garage door opener to strong arm Hart into taking him along. Desperate to get out before the police can stop him, Hart agrees to let Ring join him on the escape. The police set up a barricade blocking Hart’s route on the outskirts of Boston, but he outflanks them by taking a long unused hidden tunnel out of the city and the police golf carts can’t catch him.

Word of Hart’s escape in an illegal race car quickly reaches Washington, and Hawkins (played by George Touliatos) is dispatched to oversee how Santana’s bureau handles his capture. Calm and collected with an eerie confidence, Hawkins draws on his old school experience and quickly begins calling the shots over the unprepared Santana. She naively believes that they will easily capture Hart once the car runs out of gas. But Hawkins politely explains that the car will not run out of gas because all old gas stations have underground tanks in which there are two to three inches of gasoline the internal pumps could not reach. With a special pump (which was established in the opening scene of the film) Hart would be able to siphon enough gas for the 3000 mile race to California.

Hawkins tasks Santana’s assistant Morely (played by Ben Gordon) with tracking down former Korean and Vietnam War jet pilot J.G. Williams to convince him to fly again in an attempt at neutralizing Hart.  Morely finds Williams (played by Burgess Meredith) in a modest apartment divorced, depressed and drinking.  A former highly decorated Air Force pilot still stinging from the abuse he received upon his return from Vietnam, Williams’ skepticism is heightened with the words “Your government needs you.” But Morely’s offer to have him fly a jet fighter again makes him put down his whiskey bottle and return to active duty for the first time in over forty years. After restoring an old F-86 jet fighter, Williams takes to the skies and the chase is on.

No spoilers here. I revisited The Last Chase as a result of the faint memory of watching it several times on cable TV around 1982-1983. There was nothing specific to the film or its message that drew me to it recently, just simple curiosity.  The film’s message of “eco-totalitarianism” and the loss of individual freedom was lost on me back then, it was simply a chase film to me.  While some might judge the film today as ham-fisted propaganda (its message would resonate loudly today with a Libertarian audience), as a dystopian film it works to solid effect.  The computers were crude by today’s standards, but they were used to good enough effect in the film because the idea behind what they were capable of (local police camera surveillance, satellite surveillance) are more believable today vs. 1981 because of the extent to which we now have surveillance technology in use. Ironically, even with the dated representation of Santana’s surveillance system, today’s audience would be more accepting of this story element.

Lee Majors vs. Burgess Meredith.  Race car vs. jet fighter.  Liberty vs. totalitarianism.  I’m glad I rediscovered The Last Chase.  The film’s opening scenes are a little clunky, especially with the unnecessary voice over, and there are a couple of scenes where a fair amount of suspension of disbelief is necessary.  But 35 years later I still enjoyed the film and have a greater appreciation for the story and the cast (Diane D’Aquila and George Touliatos are particularly good).  It’s easy to unfairly judge the film on some of the more dated elements, but overall The Last Chase is a fun ride.

 

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Movies For Memorial Day 2015

With Memorial Day coming up on Monday May 25th, I’d like to take this moment to thank all veterans and active members of the armed forces for their service and sacrifice.

The combat film has always been one of my favorite cinematic genres, with Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One, and of course Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan ranking highly among my all time favorite films.  Memorial Day Weekend in my home also includes a screening of the amazing Band of Brothers.  

Every year I check the TV listings, Netflix and Amazon Instant Video for the best military themed films and documentaries to watch over the holiday weekend.  As always, Turner Classic Movies has several classics in their lineup this weekend.  Amazon Instant Video has an elaborate selection, but unfortunately few of those titles are available on Amazon Prime (though you can never go wrong with Band of Brothers, The Civil War, and Patton).  Netflix doesn’t have as many feature film options as Amazon Instant Video, but has a good selection of documentaries.  Here are some highlights:

On Turner Classic Movies (all times Eastern):

Saturday 5/23:

6:00 AM – Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)
5:30 PM – Twelve O’Clock High (1949)
10:30 PM – Glory (1989)
12:45 AM – The Horse Soldiers (1959)

Sunday 5/24:

6:00 AM – Sahara (1943)
12:00 PM – The Story of G.I. Joe (1945)
2:00 PM – Bataan (1943)
6:00 PM – The Steel Helmet (1951)

Monday 5/25:

6:45 AM – The Green Berets (1968)
8:00 PM – Battleground (1949)
10:15 PM – Patton (1970)

Netflix (Streaming):

Wings (1927)
The Longest Day (1962)
Patton (1970)
Twelve O’Clock High (1949)
The War: A Ken Burns Film (2007)
The Civil War (1990)
The First World War From Above (2010)
Vietnam in HD (2011)

Amazon Instant Video:

Band of Brothers (2001)*
The Pacific (2010)*
Medal of Honor (2008)*
The War: A Ken Burns Film (2007)*
The Civil War (1990)*
American Sniper (2014)
Lone Survivor (2013)
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Gallipoli (1981)
All Quiet On the Western Front (1930)
Sergeant York (1941)
The Fighting 69th (1940)
Patton (1970)*
The Big Red One (1980)
Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
The Great Escape (1963)
The Longest Day (1962)
We Were Soldiers (2002)
The Green Berets (1968)
Glory (1989)
The Steel Helmet (1951)
* = Available on Amazon Prime

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Warriors Five (1962)

Warriors Five movie Poster

Release Date: September 28, 1962
Starring: Jack Palance, Giovanna Ralli, Serge Reggiani, Folco Lulli, Venantino Vanantini, Franco Balducci, Miha Baloh
Directed by Leopoldo Savona; Screenplay by Gino De Santis, Ugo Pirro, Leopoldo Savona

One of my favorite genres of cinema has always been the combat film, primarily the films set in World War II such as The Big Red One, Sahara, and Saving Private Ryan.

It started for me back in the late 70’s, when Saturday afternoons would include at least one or two black and white combat films from the 40s and 50s on the local channels here in New York.  Most of them were set in the Pacific, with plots that usually involved a group of grizzly soldiers on a mission or defending their ground against impossible odds.  I must have watched hundreds of those now forgotten films back then, and while I don’t remember most of the titles, I still have a soft spot for the B combat films.

So when I was browsing the selection of films on Amazon Prime this past week, one that stood out was the 1962 World War II film Warrior’s Five starring Jack Palance.  American paratrooper Jack (played by Palance), on a mission to blow up a bridge, has been captured behind enemy lines in German occupied Italy and is held by the Italians in a military prison north of Naples.  He doesn’t crack under their interrogation and is about to be transferred to the Germans (and a more intense methods of interrogation) when they receive word that Italy has signed an unconditional surrender to the Allies.  As the Italian prisoners storm out of the prison, the commandant simply opens the gate and lets Jack walk free.

A group of five Italian prisoners, led by the sticky fingered Sergeant Marzi (Folco Lulli) plan to make their way to Naples and the protection of the Americans.  They ditch their uniforms and hawk a stolen cannon to for a few lire and second hand suits to start their journey.

But despite the armistice, the German army still controls the area.  And as Jack heads to his radio and weapons stash to relay his position to the American army, Marzi and his four Italian cohorts (Alberto, Libero, Conti and Sansone) fight the crowd at the local railroad station and hop a train to Naples and the protection of the Allied soldiers.  Shortly after the the train pulls out of the station, a group of women led by the strong willed and not shy about it Italia (played by Giovanna Ralli) use their charm stop the train in the middle of the countryside and hitch a ride.  It seems like it will be an uneventful journey, until one of the women convinces the conductor to stop the train along a vineyard so the starving passengers can eat the grapes.  As they tear apart a poor family’s vineyard, three armed German soldiers appear.  Despite being armed with machine guns, the scared young German soldiers are overpowered by the mob and killed.

When a squad of German soldiers discovers the dead bodies, they set a trap for the train at the upcoming railway station and arrest all of the passengers.  Marzi anticipates the trap, and the five Italian prisoners and Italia sneak away through a tunnel.  While resting at a stream, they spot one of Jack’s empty ration cans and track him down.  Along their way to the American line they reach a minefield with two dead paratroopers.  Marzi and Alberto brave the minefield to scavenge their supplies, but the fragile Conti has had enough and runs off to his hometown.

Jack, Italia and the remaining four warriors hole up at a nearby farm.  Jack recruits Alberto (and pays Marzi) to help him blow up the Galliano bridge to slow down the German drive toward the allies at Anzio.  But when they learn that Conti’s hometown of Altano is being held hostage by German soldiers hell bent on finding the American behind their lines, even if it means killing innocent local men, Jack, Alberto, Marzi, Libero and Sansone take their guns in an attempt to liberate Altano.

Some versions of the movie poster have a grindhouse quality with actress Giovanna Ralli taking up more space than lead actor Jack Palance, which takes away from the fact that Warriors Five is less an action film than a drama about the effect of World War II on the Italian population.  With a steely eyed leading man (Palance), strong willed leading lady and a small band of vagabonds in a war torn country, this is exactly the type of movie Quentin Tarantino would have remade.  Thankfully he didn’t, because it’s the simplicity of Warrior’s Five that makes this an enjoyable film (as was the original Inglorious Bastards), and a remake wouldn’t have had the grit, only caricature.

Warriors Five isn’t a classic, but the story still packs a punch with the human drama of life in German occupied Italy and the gravity of the warriors’ impromptu mission.  The film’s score is a bit uneven, and at times unable to successfully transition between the dramatic and the lighthearted.  Despite the low budget, director Leopoldo Savona utilizes a strong cast and the Italian countryside to create a hard hitting war drama that balances action with empathy for the disillusioned Italian prisoners of war randomly brought together for a noble cause in their war ravaged homeland.

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Runaway Train (1985)

Runaway Train Movie Poster

Release Date: December 6, 1985
Starring: John Voight, Eric Roberts, Rebecca DeMornay, John P. Ryan, Kenneth McMillan, T.K. Carter, Kyle T. Heffner
Directed by Andrey Konchalovskiey; Screenplay by Djordje Milicevic, Paul Zindel and Edward Bunker based on a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa

Some movies are meant to be watched during the winter months.  John Carpenter’s classic 1982 horror film The Thing is the first one that comes to mind.  And with a snowstorm working its way through New York last night, I was looking for a film that suited my environment.  One that stuck out on Netflix was the 1985 drama Runaway Train starring Jon Voight (Midnight Cowboy, Coming Home), Eric Roberts (Star 80, The Pope of Greenwich Village) and Rebecca DeMornay (Risky Business, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle).  Here’s a film that I vividly remember not seeing when it was released in theaters and subsequently on cable back in the 80’s.  I still don’t understand why I let this movie slip through the cracks since it had the elements of a hard hitting drama and a solid cast that would have been more than enough to get me to screen it at least once back then.  Luckily for me it’s currently available on both Netflix and Amazon Prime, so better late than never.

The story begins at Alaska’s maximum security Stonehaven Prison, where according to assistant warden Ranken (played by John P. Ryan) the average sentence is 22 years.  Ranken has a particularly sadistic streak for hardened inmate Manny Manheim (Voight), keeping him welded shut in his cell for three years after several previous escape attempts.  When Ranken is ordered by a Federal court to allow him out of his cell, Manny makes the most of the opportunity and plans a new escape with his brother Jonah.  Ranken fully expects Manny to make another attempt over the wall, and welcomes the opportunity so he can finally take Manny out permanently.  During a prison boxing match, an inmate attacks Manny with a knife as Ranken stands in the rafters with a guard ready to shoot, but Manny sees through his game and eggs Ranken on to take his best shot.  Jonah is injured defending Manny and ends up in the prison hospital, unable to make the escape.

Fellow inmate and former boxer Buck McGeehy (Eric Roberts) helps Manny slip by the guards by hiding him in a laundry cart, and decides to join Manny in his escape.  From the outset, the older, wiser Manny has to deal with the raw, impulsive Buck.  They work their way out the prison through the sewer, but it’s the dead of winter and they have to run several miles to a rail depot in order to hop a train to freedom.  While raiding an employee locker room for warmer clothes, Buck leaves his prison shirt (with inmate number) behind.  While this oversight is more than enough to get Ranken on their tails, they have another twist of fate in store for them.  Manny picks the best looking train of the lot, and they hop on to the rear car to hide.  But as the train departs, the conductor suffers a fatal heart attack, leaving Manny and Buck completely unaware they are on a death ride.

The railroad company’s dispatch office is notified of the runaway train and dispatchers Frank Barstow (Kyle T. Heffner) and Dave Prince (T.K. Carter) attempt to stop the train through their computer system.  But the brakes have burned off and the train, which has just collided with the caboose of an oncoming train, is accelerating toward a chemical plant.  They are ordered by company representative Eddie McDonald (played by Kenneth McMillan) to derail the train, unaware that anyone is on board.  As the train approaches the derailment point, someone on board sounds the horn and the company is forced to get the train back on the main railroad line.  Sara (Rebecca deMornay), a railroad employee, was napping on the train and woke up to realize the conductor had overridden the brake system and they are on course for a collision.  But danger also lurks behind them as Ranken is hot on Manny and Buck’s trail.

No spoilers here.  This is a great movie and deserved the acclaim it received, particularly the Academy Award nominations for Voight (Best Actor) and Roberts (Best Supporting Actor).  Voight brings out his inner Charles Bronson as Manny, and the dynamic between his character and Roberts’ Buck is the glue that binds the action sequences so the film isn’t just a non-stop adrenaline rush.  Manny not only keeps Buck in check from the moment they escape Stonehaven, but also tries to beat some sense into him so he doesn’t get caught later on down the road.  This monologue is the perfect example of the generation gap between them:

The supporting cast also makes the film more than an action movie.  Kenneth McMillan (Ragtime, The Pope of Greenwich Village), one of my favorite character actors of all time, is fun to watch as the stressed out company representative Eddie MacDonald; Rebecca DeMornay’s character Sara is a departure from her more famous roles in Risky Business and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and holds her own against two escaped convicts; but John P. Ryan’s performance as Ranken stole the movie and added a hunter/hunted dynamic to the story that reminds the audience of the danger that is waiting for Manny and Buck even if they make it off the train alive.  Concidentally, the scenes of Ranken giving chase reminded me of the character Kraven the Hunter from The Amazing Spider-Man comic books.

I definitely won’t let another 30 years go by before enjoying Runaway Train again, and will include it on my list of winter films going forward.

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Star Wars VII: A Fan’s Hope

This week’s release of the teaser trailer of J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens brought back a feeling of excitement I haven’t felt as a Star Wars fan since the early 80’s.  There’s something about the years between 1977 and 1983 that gave the fans of the franchise a sense of anticipation that didn’t include the skepticism and disappointment we received with George Lucas’s prequels.  In the years leading up to The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, there was always the sense of optimism for an upcoming sequel, as if we knew all along that the next film would be even better than the last.  At no point did we ever walk into the theater thinking we would walk out disappointed, like man fans did between the years of 1999 and 2005.

I was skeptical when J.J. Abrams was named director of Star Wars VII.  Don’t get me wrong, he’s a very talented director and I thoroughly enjoyed his reboot of Star Trek.  But as much as I was relieved that George Lucas wouldn’t be adding another layer of disappointment to the franchise, I was concerned at how a director that grew up a fan of the Star Wars franchise might either go fanboy and rehash what he loved about the original films (much like Bryan Singer’s homage to Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie with 2006’s Superman Returns) or try to make it his own by deviating too much from the original canon.  The jury is still out on The Force Awakens until December 2015, but after seeing the first teaser trailer this week I’m feeling that sense of optimism that’s been missing for 30 years.

And it started with the opening shot.

John Boyega as a stormtrooper on what looks like Tatooine gives me hope that the stormtroopers in The Force Awakens are no longer clones.  Growing up watching the original trilogy and reading Marvel’s Star Wars comics throughout the 80’s, I always saw the stormtroopers as recruits from throughout the galaxy.  Abrams including a storyline in The Force Awakens from the perspective of a stormtrooper is a fantastic plot device that will add a dimension that was never seen in a previous Star Wars film: a level of humanity to the footsoldiers of the Empire rather than showing them as the soulless clones that were really no more than blaster fodder.

Lawrence Kasdan’s involvement in the script gave me hope that the story (and especially the dialogue) will be an improvement over the prequels.  I’ve always felt that his screenplay with Leigh Brackett made The Empire Strikes Back the best of all the Star Wars films.  His a familiar voice is what is needed the most now that Luke, Han and Leia are (finally!) back.

I’ve always been more of a fan of the old school special effects techniques that were used in the original Star Wars films (models, matte paintings that were actually painted, etc.), and the over use of CGI over the last 15 years has tended to detach me from a story since the effects and digital matte paintings look more like video games than realistic settings.  In my opinion, the old models of the Death Star, AT-ATs, etc. that were photographed (on film) for the original trilogy still look better.  But seeing the X-Wing Fighters and the Millenium Falcon (finally!) streaking across the screen again made me forget my usual rant against the overuse of CGI, and I intend to go into my screening of The Force Awakens with an open mind to enjoy it for what it is.

But there was something else about the sequences shown in the teaser trailer that gave me a sense of comfort and even nostalgia: the sound effects.  Anthony Daniels’ C3-PO and Kenny Baker’s R2-D2 were the characters that bridged all six of the previous films together.  John Williams’ musical scores were the foundation of each film that (especially the during the prequels) brought back the emotions we felt the first time we watched Episode IV.  But watching the teaser trailer made me realize how much the sound effects have also bound the films together over the last 34 years.  We instantly recognize the sound of a lightsaber firing up, and the beautiful simplicity of the the sound of a blaster shot.  X-Wings and TIE Fighters have that familiar scream as they streak across the screen.  It’s not just the characters, effects and the universe created by George Lucas that brings us back to the theaters with each sequel, it’s also the sense of familiarity and nostalgia that brings us back.  It doesn’t matter how disappointed many fans were with the prequels (myself included), we keep coming back because we want more Star Wars.  And Abrams’s trailer for The Force Awakens brought back the same feeling and excitement I had as 11 year old kid in 1983 waiting on line for Return of the Jedi.

I’m in.

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The Summer of ’84: Red Dawn

Fante’s Inferno celebrates summer moviegoing with a look back at the films of the Summer of 1984.

Red Dawn

Red Dawn Movie Poster

Release Date: August 10, 1984

Starring Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Powers Booth, Harry Dean Stanton, Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson, Jennifer Grey, Darren Dalton, Brad Savage, Doug Toby

Directed by John Milius; Screenplay by Kevin Reynolds and John Milius

John Milius’ 1984 action/war drama Red Dawn is a movie that I’ve enjoyed on many occasions since I first saw it on cable TV back in the mid-80’s.  I was too young to see it during its theatrical release, and I was probably more interested in the non-action films like Gremlins, Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom that wonderful summer.  Despite missing it in theaters back in 1984, Red Dawn is one of those films that I stop and watch every time I come across it on TV regardless of how far into the movie it is.  Each screening leads to a new discovery for me, whether it’s the impact from a line of dialogue, a nuance of a performance or a hidden gag by director John Milius.  Many scenes in Red Dawn still stand out for me as some of my cinematic favorites, and the film ranks very high on my personal list of favorite war films.

It’s an peaceful small town morning in Calumet, Colorado.  Jed Eckert (Patrick Swayze) drops off his brother Matt (Charlie Sheen in his first film role) and friend Arturo (Doug Toby) at the local high school before heading off to his job at the town gas station.  History teacher Mr. Teasdale (Frank MacRae) gives a lecture on Genghis Khan (complete with a drawing of the Mongol overlord that is actually a caricature of director John Milius – a nod to his passion project to produce and direct a film on Genghis Khan), but his lesson is interrupted when paratroopers mysteriously drop in behind the school.  No sooner than he steps out of the building to find out what is going on, he is shot by a Russian soldier and it’s clear to everyone that Calumet is under attack.  Bullets rain on the school and RPGs blow up a school bus as the students try to escape.  Jed’s truck roars into the school parking lot and grabs Matt, Arturo and three other students Robert (C. Thomas Howell), Danny (Brad Savage) and Daryl (Darren Dalton) as the Soviet and Cuban armies take over the town.  They drive to Robert’s father’s sporting goods store and stock up on food, guns and supplies before hiding out in the mountains.

Their plan is to hold out in the mountains until it’s safe to return to Calumet.  After a month, the boys are low on food and have to take the risk of going back into town.  They walk through the aftermath of an American defeat and realize how desperate the situation has become.  Soviet tanks roam the streets, martial law has been imposed, books are burned, and Alexander Nevsky plays in the local cinema (with free admission).  They learn that Jed’s father and many other men of Calumet have been deemed too dangerous and have been sent to a re-education camp located at the town drive in where they are beaten and bombarded with Soviet propaganda.

On their way back to the mountains they stop at the home of Mr. Mason (played by Ben Johnson) and learn that Calumet is now part of Occupied Territory and that Robert’s father was killed for aiding them.  He gives them a radio and asks Jed to take his granddaughters Erika (Lea Thompson) and Toni (Jennifer Grey) with them.  But their mountain hideout is soon exposed when they kill three soldiers that found them by accident.  Cuban Colonel Bella (Ron O’Neal) steps up activity in the mountains and orders retaliation.  The sight of their fathers death by firing squad forces the teenagers to take the offensive and use the invaders own weapons against them.  They start a guerrilla war against the Soviet and Cuban occupiers, and with each small victory they let their enemy know who they are: the Wolverines.  Downed Air Forced Lieutenant Colonel Tanner (in a great performance by Powers Booth) joins them and gets them up to speed on the state of the war:

Red Dawn shouldn’t be categorized as simply an action film.  I’ve always seen it as a war drama with a solid script and carried by a strong cast.  The action scenes are just as hard hitting today as they were 30 years ago, and the dramatic scenes are more emotionally powerful than I remembered from previous screenings, with Patrick Swayze’s performance standing out the most.  Milius and Reynolds crafted a story that stresses the importance of family bonds, members of a community sticking together in challenging times, and fighting to persevere.  Ric Waite’s cinematography captures the beauty of the heartland and the home the Wolverines are fighting for, and Basil Poledouris’ strong, emotionally uplifting score sets the tone throughout the film.

Over the last three decades, every screening of this film was always met with enthusiasm among me and my friends.  But  a recent screening of the fantastic documentary Milius opened my eyes to some of the harsh criticisms of  Red Dawn upon its release, and the effect it subsequently had on director John Milius’ career.  If anything, I have an even greater appreciation of Red Dawn and John Milius for bringing it to the screen.  Sure some of his messages might be a little less than subtle and the viewer needs a certain amount of suspension of disbelief that a group of teenagers can take on the Soviet and Cuban armies.  But at the end of the day, Red Dawn is a fun ride and a great “What If?” story of a dystopian America at the dawn of World War III.

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The Summer of ’84: Ghostbusters

Fante’s Inferno celebrates summer movie going with a look back at the films of the Summer of 1984.

Ghostbusters

Ghostbusters Movie Poster

Release Date: June 8, 1984

Directed by Ivan Reitman; Screenplay by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis

Starring Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis, Ernie Hudson, William Atherton, Annie Potts

For the three years that I’ve been writing my retrospectives on the films of the Summers of 1982, 1983 and now 1984, whether it’s the summer’s biggest blockbuster or one of the smaller hidden gems, there’s always been that one film in each year’s summer lineup that I look forward to reviewing the most.  The Summer of ’84 had a very strong lineup of high grossing crowd pleasers (particularly Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins), but the film that stands out the most from that summer is Ivan Reitman’s classic supernatural comedy Ghostbusters.

When I first saw Ghostbusters on the Summer of ’84’s lineup, my first thought was “How the heck has it been thirty years?!” (a sentiment shared by many of my friends).  It doesn’t feel like that much time has passed because countless screenings of Ghostbusters over the years have kept it fresh in my mind.  I’ve seen the film more times than any other released during the Summer of ’84 and I still quote some of the more memorable lines (say “Don’t cross the streams” to anyone over 40 and they’ll immediately get the Ghostbusters reference).

The film begins with a librarian experiencing an encounter with a ghost in the New York Public Library.  Dr. Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) drags Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) from his shady student research experiment to investigate the occurrence with Dr. Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis).  They encounter the ghost first hand, and return to their office at Columbia University to find their equipment being removed and their funding cut off due to questionable research and dubious results.  Confronted with the prospect of never working in academia again and having to find work in the private sector, Venkman proposes they strike out on their own and start a company dedicated to catching ghosts.  Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) contacts the Ghostbusters when she opens her refrigerator and finds another dimension and a demonic dog.  Smitten, Venkman takes a personal interest in her case.  After a slow start, business picks up with a high level of paranormal activity in New York City, but they’re shut down by the EPA for unlicensed equipment and the ectoplasm hits the fan.

The last time I saw Ghostbusters was during the pre-CGI era and its effects were still pretty cutting edge.  Going into this week’s screening I had to prepare myself that the effects of Ghostbusters, while amazing back in the 80’s, would look dated by today’s standards.  Watching Ghostbusters again this week I realized my reservations were unfounded.  The film is just as enjoyable today because it’s the story and the cast that make this movie great.  The effects are secondary to Aykroyd and Ramis’s script, Reitman’s direction and a talented cast.  Bill Murray is the anchor of the Ghostbusters as Dr. Peter Venkman but the rest of the cast doesn’t take the back seat, with each actor elevating the comedy by adding their own genius: the everyman quality of Dan Aykroyd’s Dr. Ray Stantz, the late, great Harold Ramis’ deadpan Dr. Igon Spengler, to the supporting characters played by Sigourney Weaver as the Ghostbusters client and Venkman’s love interest Dana Barrett, her dorky accountant neighbor Louis played by Rick Moranis, Ernie Hudson as their newhire Winston Zeddmore, and William Atherton as the arrogant EPA bureaucrat Walter Peck.

I remember watching Ghostbusters in the theater back in June of 1984.  It opened the same weekend as Joe Dante’s Gremlins, which is surprising considering even with that direct competition and their neck and neck battle for the weekend box office ($13.6 million for Ghostbusters to $12.5 million for Gremlins) Ghostbusters still grossed over $200 million as the top grossing film of the summer and the #2 grossing film of 1984. It’s easy to see why both films were favorites of my generation, they’re both fun movies that were perfect for summer.  But in the long run I understand why Ghostbusters would prevail as the more popular film because it was more accessible to an adult audience, while Gremlins feels like more of a guilty pleasure.

I may have seen Gremlins in the theater first, but that didn’t take away from the enjoyment of watching Ghostbusters that wonderful summer.  One thing I enjoyed the most when I revisited Ghostbusters this week was that I was able to pick up on a number of one-liners that would have been over my head at age 12.  I also enjoyed the fact that for the first time since June 1984 I was able to see Ghostbusters as it was meant to be seen in letterbox format rather than the pan and scan version that was on cable TV and home video for over 20 years.  I was able to overlook the dated special effects because despite the supernatural/paranormal aspect of the story, the movie wasn’t as heavy on the visual effects as I thought.  Had the film been shot today (or rather, when the reboot is filmed in the next couple of years), CGI would have dominated the screen and at the end of the day would only look fake.  In spite of CGI’s ability to create a whole world out of a green screen shot, in many cases it only ends up being a distraction rather than a seamless effect because it just doesn’t look “right.”

On that note I have to say it was quite refreshing to see New York City as it was in 1984.  The establishing shot of New York Public Library at the beginning of the film is hidden by scaffolding because maintenance work was actually being done on the facade at that time.  If shot today the scaffolding would have been magically removed by CGI and a majority of the cityscape would have been painted in.  I loved just seeing New York as it was shot on a hard negative, particularly that every corner of Manhattan you saw in Ghostbusters wasn’t dominated by a bank, pharmacy or Starbucks.

I guess the main purpose of my revisiting Ghostbusters this week wasn’t to see if it still holds up 30 years later, because every screening of this classic comedy has been equally enjoyable for me over the years.   What I really found myself thinking more than anything was the lost opportunity to get four comedic geniuses back together for a third installment of one of the great comedies of the 80’s.  Murray, Ramis, Aykroyd and Reitman are at the top of their games for Ghostbusters, which makes the fact that they’ll never all be in Ghostbusters 3 all the more heartbreaking for fans of the first two.  There’s been talk of Bridesmaids director Paul Feig in discussions for a reboot of Ghostbusters, possibly with an all female cast.  As funny as that film might be, and as much money as it might gross, it wouldn’t provide the same sense of anticipation of a sequel or the nostalgia of the joy of watching the first two Ghostbusters films.  In my humble opinion the Ghostbusters are Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson.  Without them and Ivan Reitman, a reboot just doesn’t have the soul of a beloved original.  And without them, who you gonna call?

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Thoughts on Marvel Studios’ 2017-2019 Releases

With Marvel Studios’ July 18th announcement of their 2017-2019 movie release dates, speculation has begun over which Marvel characters will have their movie projects greenlit as Phase 2 moves into Phase 3.  The last two years I hoped that characters like Doctor Strange, Daredevil and Luke Cage would get their shot on the big screen, and with Netflix’s upcoming production of five Marvel original series (Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Jessica Jones, The Defenders) and the Doctor Strange Easter Egg in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, slowly but surely my favorite characters will get their TV or cinematic due.

So with over 5,000 characters in the Marvel Universe, will Marvel Studios fill the majority of their TBD slots with the more popular characters, or go the Guardians of the Galaxy route with the lesser known heroes/super teams?  Here’s my latest wish list for the 2017-2019 Marvel Studios slate:

Alien Legion

Alien Legion Cover

When Marvel’s creator owned line Epic Comics published Alien Legion #1 in 1984 (written by Carl Potts and Alan Zelenetz with art by Frank Cirocco and Terry Austin), this diverse group of “footsloggers and soldiers of fortune,” a Foreign Legion set in space, got me hooked.  I was fortunate to find a page of original art from Alien Legion #4, and it’s a prized piece in my art collection.  Hopefully this title will get the movie treatment.

Micronauts

Micronauts 3 Cover

Another title I enjoyed during it’s early run and that I’ve come to appreciate even more 30 plus years later.  Based on a line of toys from the 70’s, Marvel Comics published the first volume of comics until the mid-80’s.  I recently re-read the first five issues written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by Michael Golden and couldn’t stop thinking about how well it would translate on film.  J.J. Abrams is attached to a feature film adaptation with Paramount, but the screenwriters have said the film version would be different from the comic book.  (sigh)

Howard the Duck

Howard The Duck Cover

Hear me out on this one.  Even though those of us over a certain age still cringe at the memory of the terrible  Howard the Duck film produced by George Lucas in 1986, Howard still deserves a reboot based on a great comic book run.  News on Howard the Duck’s cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy is a great first step in that direction (is Marvel Studios testing the waters with audience response a la the Doctor Strange reference in Winter Soldier?).  Advances in CGI aside, the time is right to revisit Steve Gerber and Val Mayerick’s creation on film and hopefully it will be more in line with the original comic book.

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