Category Archives: Reviews

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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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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The Films of the Summer of 1984

For the last two years my retrospectives on the films of the Summers of 1982 and 1983 allowed me to revisit some of the best fantasy and sci-fi films of the 80’s and enjoy them on a new level as a 40 something.  In some cases I would approach a film with a sense of trepidation, wondering if you truly can go back and enjoy an old favorite on the same level 30 years later.  At the end of each series, I learned that many of these films withstand the test of time and sometimes you really can go back.

I truly thought each “Summer Of” retrospective would be the last.  After The Summer of ’82 I didn’t think there could be another lineup of summer films that could compare to Blade Runner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Road Warrior, Conan the Barbarian, Poltergeist, The Thing, TRON and E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial.  It was a magical summer for fans of fantasy and sci-fi films and there hasn’t been another like it.  But I had enjoyed writing that retrospective so much that I had gone through withdrawal and for the next year hoped for another opportunity to revisit a summer’s worth of films.  That void was filled with my retrospective on The Summer of ’83 which included a lineup of films that have been personal favorites of mine for over 30 years.  Even as I closed out that series, I didn’t think I would have an opportunity to write another “Summer Of.”

Then I saw the lineup for the films of the Summer of ’84 and realized another retrospective was possible.

The Summer of ’82 was about a lineup of the best fantasy and sci-fi films of the decade (Blade Runner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Conan the Barbarian).  The Summer of ’83 was about a lineup of my personal favorites (WarGames, Fire and Ice).  The Summer of 1984 was still heavy on the adventure and sci-fi films, including some of the most crowd pleasing films of the decade as well as a few cult favorites:

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (5/23/84)
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (6/1/84)
Ghostbusters (6/8/84)
Gremlins (6/8/84)
Conan the Destroyer (6/29/84)
The Last Starfighter (7/13/84)
Red Dawn (8/10/84)

Once I saw this list, I knew I had to revisit them again.

I’m taking these retrospectives year by year, but if the films of the Summer of ’85 etc. bring out the same sense of nostalgia for my original movie-going experiences, I’ll keep them coming.

 

 

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Thoughts on Captain America: The Winter Soldier (SPOILERS)

Captain America The Winter Soldier Poster

Starring Chris Evans (Steve Rogers/Captain America), Scarlett Johanssen (Black Widow), Anthony Mackie (Falcon), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury), Robert Redford (Alexander Pierce), Cobie Smulders (Maria Hill), Sebastian Stan (The Winter Soldier)

Directed by Joe Russo and Anthony Russo; Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley; Captain America was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby

With each major comic themed film that’s been released over the last year, I couldn’t help but think about when the tide would turn and the genre’s popularity might start to wane.  But with over $400 million in worldwide box office since it’s April 4th opening weekend, Captain America: The Winter Soldier proves the comic book film is still popular among U.S. and international audiences.

Anyone who knows me knows that Captain America is one of my all time favorite comic book characters (see The Captain America Project in my previous posts), so The Winter Soldier is one of the films I’ve been looking forward to the  most this year.  The character really is timeless, with each generation of creators since Joe Simon and Jack Kirby creating stories of pure comic book fantasy (The Silver Age Avengers comic books) and weaving issues and events of the last 70 years into storylines to keep Cap relevant over the years (World War II, Communism, distrust of government in the 70’s, the post 9/11 world).  During the film’s opening weekend I caught a screening of Captain America: The Winter Soldier with two of my amazing friends (I’ll call them Wonder Woman and Phoenix), and the movie didn’t disappoint.

SPOILERS BELOW

Positives:

Chris Evans as Captain America

Steve Rogers doesn’t lose his soul or his hope for America when Project Insight and Pierce’s true motives are exposed.  As a man out of his time with 70 lost years to make up, he retains his ideals and moral compass without being jaded or effected by the modern era.  The fish-out-of-water element of his character doesn’t overpower the story, and it’s his introduction to the returned veterans in Sam Wilson’s support group that provides Cap with a sense of familiarity in a complicated world.

The Winter Soldier

I have to admit, when it was first announced this sequel would focus on the return of Bucky Barnes (played by Sebastian Stan) as HYDRA’s walking death machine The Winter Soldier, my first reaction was mixed.  Writer Ed Brubaker and artist Steve Epting crafted an amazing run with The Winter Soldier in the Captain America comic book, but there was a part of me that was put off by the “resurrection” of Bucky Barnes.  In my opinion, Bucky was one of the Marvel characters (along with Peter Parker/Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben and Gwen Stacy) that should not have been brought back from the dead.  But after seeing the film, I’m sold on bringing Bucky back.

Anthony Mackie as Falcon 

Falcon/Sam Wilson brought me back to the Bronze Age Cap/Falcon stories I grew up with, and actor Anthony Mackie was great in the role.  Sam Wilson was more than Cap’s wingman (sorry for the pun), he’s a leader that holds his own.  His backstory as an Air Force veteran of the War on Terror was the perfect origin for a contemporary Falcon, and his empathy for Steve Rogers as a veteran struggling with a return to normalcy is the backbone of their friendship.

Robert Reford as Alexander Pierce

Going into the film it was Robert Redford’s performance as S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Anthony Pierce that I was looking forward to the most.  This inspired casting elevated Winter Soldier from a high octane comic book/superhero film to an engaging political thriller.  Redford’s portrayal of Pierce and his true motives for Project Insight within S.H.I.E.L.D. was reminiscent of the ambiguous government characters in Alan Pakula’s conspiracy films of the 70’s.  Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley referenced the classic films Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View as influences on their story.

Easter Eggs

I won’t name all of them because the fun is in discovering them.  But one name dropped in the film got me thinking about the future of Marvel’s films: Stephen Strange.   I’ve been saying Doctor Strange was deserving of his own feature film for years.  Let’s hope it’s sooner rather than later.

Different tone from Captain America: The First Avenger

The first film (directed by Joe Johnston) had a look and feel that showed direct inspiration from the pages of the comic books.  Winter Soldier had less of this tone, but I felt it was appropriate for this film.  To me it was representative of how comic book stories have evolved over the last seventy years.  First Avenger was the Golden/Silver Age comic book, but Winter Soldier was the modern age comic book.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier is more than a comic book film, it’s an action film/political thriller with comic book characters.

Negatives:

For me, there weren’t any.

When I first read that part of the story was influenced  by current events, particularly a government “kill list,” I was concerned the film would be too heavily focused on the idea of government as evil/untrustworthy and possibly insert a sucker punch or two.  But I was happy to see the film did not take that route and instead showed the honorable, patriotic members of S.H.I.E.L.D. putting their lives on the line (with many making the ultimate sacrifice) to fight a HYDRA infiltration of their organization.  Great job by writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley and directors Joe and Anthony Russo.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a solid film with equal parts adrenaline and emotion that raises the bar for comic book movies as Marvel Studios works toward The Avengers: Age of Ultron in 2015.  Last week Marvel announced that Captain America 3 will be slated for May 6, 2016, the same weekend as Zack Snyder’s Superman/Batman film.  We’ll see who blinks.

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Comic Book Review: World War Mob #1

World War Mob

Release Date 1/8/14

Written and Created by Vito Delsante; Art by Giancarlo Caracuzzo

Published by New Paradigm Studios

Currently available on Amazon; available on Comixology 1/29/14

When my brother and I started collecting comics back in the 70’s, our early collection included titles such as G.I. Combat, Sgt. Rock and Weird War Tales.  Those titles made up half of our comic book purchases each month, and we enjoyed them as much as any superhero comic back then.

It was around that time that we took our first family trip to Italy, which included a visit to the Abbey of Monte Cassino, one of the hard fought battlegrounds during the Italian campaign of World War II and a stone’s throw from our family’s hometown.  Over the years we’ve heard countless stories from our relatives who lived through the war in Italy during those years.

And so began our interest, if not obsession, with World War II.

In recent years I picked up as many war themed comics as I could find, but in my opinion there still weren’t enough.  Then I picked up a copy of Vito Delsante and Giancarlo Caracuzzo’s World War Mob #1 (of a four issue mini-series).  When I saw the cover  with Benito Mussolini in the crosshairs (by artist Mike Manomivibul), I was intrigued.  When I finished the first issue, I was hooked. 

World War Mob Page 1

World War Mob #1
Written by Vito Delsante; Art by Giancarlo Caracuzzo
Published by New Paradigm Studios

The story begins in New York City’s Lower East Side in 1932.  A teenage Vincenzo Di Greco works his way up from street gang leader  protecting his turf to footsoldier for mobster Lucky Luciano.  He’s got a heart of stone and isn’t afraid to shed blood when necessary, which makes him, in his own words, a good soldier.  Delsante’s words and dialogue bring out the fire in Di Greco’s heart, and artist Giancarlo Caracuzzo’s doesn’t hold back when representing Di Greco’s neighborhood and his bloody handywork in World War Mob’s beautifully drawn and watercolored pages.

World War Mob Panel

World War Mob #1
Written by Vito Delsante; Art by Giancarlo Caracuzzo
Published by New Paradigm Studios

Cut to December of 1944.  Di Greco, now a captain in the U.S. Army, leads a squad through the snow of the Ardennes against the German army.  He’s not afraid to “bring the fight to them” as his squad takes out a German gun post.  Two months later, while on leave for some R&R in Sicily, he’s handed a note that leads him to an empty bar and face to face with New York mobster Meyer Lansky flanked by two GI’s as his personal security detail.

World War Mob Panel B

World War Mob #1
Written by Vito Delsante; Art by Giancarlo Caracuzzo
Published by New Paradigm Studios

Lansky gets to the point: Lucky Luciano wants Benito Mussolini assassinated and he’s in Sicily to recruit Vincent.  As they speak, four other representatives of the Five Families have traveled to Europe to recruit the other soldiers that will take part in the mission, one from each family.  Vincent looks over the list of his fellow recruits and spots a name from his past: Victor Santi of the Mangano crime family.  They have a history, and now they’ll be forced to work together to assassinate il Duce against incredible odds.  They’ve been given their orders (kill Mussolini or don’t come home), but they have to figure out a plan on the fly.  Their first problem: they’ll need to go AWOL to carry out the mission.

Reviews of World War Mob will make their share of comparisons with mafia/war movie combinations like Goodfellas meets The Dirty Dozen or comparable movies of those genres, but those comparisons are unnecessary because World War Mob is a great comic book with a story that stands on its own.  My only disappointment is that World War Mob is a four issue mini-series and I wish it was ongoing.  Once I finished the last panel of the last page, I started counting the weeks to the next issue.  Can’t wait for issue #2.

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