Showing posts with label thriller. Show all posts
Showing posts with label thriller. Show all posts

May 21, 2020

THE KILLER OF DOLLS (1975)


The Killer of Dolls is probably the quirkiest and most bizarre catalog release I’ve seen in years. Though a Spanish production and directed by Miguel Madrid (under alias Michael Skaife), it shares a lot in common with the Italian giallo, right down to the era in which it was made, its style and techniques, and even its reliance on creepy doll imagery. Some folks more learned on the subject wouldn’t quite label it as a giallo, as it’s just different enough to warrant its label as more of a psychological thriller/slasher, but the similarities are definitely there.

One thing that makes the film stand out from its giallo colleagues is that the film’s killer is also its main character. There is no “twist” ending, nor is there a last-act moment that shockingly reveals the killer’s identity. The killer is…Paul (David Rocha), who is very psychologically unhinged, so much that he will literally walk into a dream sequence where things get super crazy before walking right back out again. His mental unrest derives from his domineering mother, who began raising him as a girl after the death of his young sister, and as you can imagine, it’s definitely warped his relationship to women. Paul’s world around him is very skewed, and his walking hallucinations involve people being transposed as mannequins, or vice versa, leaving him to wonder what’s real and what isn’t. 


David Rocha offers a very strong leading performance in an admittedly bizarre concept for a film, and director Madrid is intent on making The Killer of Dolls (also known as Killing of the Dolls) as unique as possible, right down to the random musical number at the beginning of the third act where its participants dance and move like mannequins. It’s actually stranger than I’m making it sound, if you can believe it. There are several murder sequences throughout, and while they may be viewed as graphic, none of them border on the kinds of uncomfortable murder sequences found in Italian gialli or the exploitation films of signori like Joe D’Amato or Bruno Mattei. Fellow Spanish director Jesús Franco’s The Killer of Dolls, for instance, shares similarities in plot and style, even treading the same water with its look at family abuse and dysfunction, but whereas Bloody Moon goes for pulpy thrills, The Killer of Dolls vies for substance, getting deep into Paul’s mangled psyche. 

The Killer of Dolls is now on Blu-ray from Mondo Macabre.

May 9, 2020

WALKING OUT (2017)

 

The father/son bond is one of film’s most explored relationships, more so than mother/ daughter/anyone else, and that’s because men are hard headed and stubborn and create a lot of their own problems. That’s hard-wired into our DNA. A father wants his son to find his way in life, whether it’s being exactly like him or nothing like him. And a son, likewise, wants to find his own way and prove to his father that he can do it. When this relationship is portrayed on-screen, it can be powerful because men are rarely given the opportunity to look vulnerable.

The way Walking Out handles it is one of the more unique approaches, in that even though Father (Bomer) and Son (Wiggins) are estranged, they are not strangers. There is a mutual love there. The son, David, might show trepidation for spending a trip in the frigid wilderness hunting with his gruff father, but it’s not the kind of conflict where that’s the last place he wants to be and therefore he’ll be a total brat about it. Meanwhile, the father, Cal, still holds a grudge against David’s mother for having left him, which may or may not be leaking out in the way he treats his son. Cal, as played by Bomer, very finely treads that line between being a likable character and one whom you wish would treat his son better. He’s hard on David in a way that’s likely (and hopefully) beyond the way fathers generally treat their sons. Cal doesn’t have a passive bone in his body, and if there’s a way he can educate his son on the fineries of hunting, but which almost always extends to life in general, he will do so — even if in the form of shaming him. Despite this, there is love there between them, and it’s a love that grows as the two end up depending on each other to escape the wintry wilderness alive — Cal with his knowledge, and David with his strength.


For 95% of the time, Bomer and Wiggins are the only characters on screen, and both of them give great performances, with Bomer’s loving but prickly Cal being a tough balancing act. Bill Pullman appears in flashback sequences as Cal’s own father, managing to echo a similarly gruff but loving exterior he would soon pass onto his son.

Walking Out is gorgeously shot, mostly on location in the woods and mountains of Montana.  It’s one of those films shot in the cold that makes you feel the cold, so between that and the harshness that Cal and David endure, it makes for a bleak and grueling watch at times — but by design. It’s not one of those films that’s designed to make its audience feel like they’ve experienced a thrilling adventure, but more like an emotional awakening. By its end, yes, it doesn’t offer the kind of ultimate experience that the father/son bonding film usually offers, but, sadly, it might be one that sometimes echoes closer to reality.

Apr 6, 2020

THE 15:17 TO PARIS (2017)


I’ve yet to see every film Clint Eastwood made as a director, yet I’m still confident when I say that The 15:17 to Paris is his absolute worst yet. For the last decade, he has been on a downward slope, receiving partially undue accolades for his adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River (which doesn’t hold up) and lots of ironic praise for his addition to the unsubtle “racism is bad” sub-genre with Gran Torino. If you know the filmmaker, especially in his most recent years, you know he has a penchant for maudlin dialogue and “naturalistic” characterization, neither of which transport well to the screen. Even his musical scores tend to be sparse piano or acoustic guitar pinged or plucked at random; they’re about as lifeless as the last decade of his directorial work. The minute you hear the same kind of no-pulse piano-coustic during the opening scene of The 15:17 to Paris, you should be surprised to note that Eastwood didn’t actually score this one himself, instead farming out the duties to Christian Jacob, to whom Eastwood likely said, “do the same kind of boring, rote stuff I normally do.”

With The 15:17 to Paris, Eastwood decided to try his hand at atypical casting, not just in casting the three real heroes from the Paris train attack (Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler) to play themselves, but in also casting actors known primarily for comedies in dramatic supporting roles. Jenna Fischer (The Office) and Judy Greer (Arrested Development) play a couple of mothers, Thomas Lennon (Reno 911) a high school principal, Tony Hale (Veep) a beaten down gym teacher, and — wait for it — Jaleel White as yet another teacher. (Yes, TV’s Steve Urkel.) Why? Who honestly the fuck knows, and I’d be very curious to know why Eastwood would cast such a throwaway pop culture figure in such a small role, and who does absolutely nothing of note.


As for our hero trio — and nothing against them, because they’re not professional actors — they can’t act. They try, and the minute they begin, it’s terrible, and you groan, because you know you’re going to be spending much of the film with them.

And speaking of an entire film, since the pictorialized terrorist encounter amounts to nothing more than 20 minutes tops, that means the remainder of the running time has to be filled with…something else. And that’s what you get. The trio as kids, the trio as older kids, the trio on vacation, stints in the military, and not a single of their moments is interesting. Eastwood seems to be vying for Boyhood meets Before Sunrise meets United 93 and, impressively, he botches all three. The 15:17 to Paris might as well be called Three Mini Biographies of Those Three Guys Who Eventually Took The 15:17 to Paris and Did Some Heroics.

No one would ever argue that what these three men did wasn’t brave. They intervened in a terrorist plot, subdued a would-be murderer, and saved lives. Did they deserve a movie about their efforts? I’m not sure — maybe — though not every single heroic act warrants a 90+ minute dramatization. But I do know they deserved one much better than the one they got.



Dec 31, 2019

NEW YEAR'S WATCHING: ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (2005)


Remakes of John Carpenter’s films so far haven’t really yielded anything considered a total success in that they were both critically and commercially successful. Even though Rob Zombie’s awful Halloween remake somehow has its defenders, the 2005 remake of The Fog is universally derided, and rightfully so (though both made obscene money at the box office). Meanwhile, the maiden voyage of the Carpenter remake trend was 2005’s Assault on Precinct 13, directed by French filmmaker Jean-François Richet (the similarly underrated Blood Father with Mel Gibson) and boasting a pretty excellent cast of Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, Gabriel Byrne, Brian Dennehy, Maria Bello, Drea de Matteo, John Leguizamo, and lots more recognizable faces. It came and left theaters quickly, doing moderately well with critics, who apparently were the only ones who saw the thing, which is a shame, because—remake of a beloved cult film or not—it’s pretty damn entertaining.


Like any good remake should do, Assault on Precinct 13 takes the basic concept of the original, maintaining the setting, the characters, and the siege-like component, and throws it all into a blender along with some shake-ups to the story. This time, instead of gang members descending on a decommissioned police precinct, it’s a horde of corrupt cops trying to assassinate gang leader Marion Bishop (Fishburne), who has done his fair share of dirty dealings with those cops and has the power to put them away for good—if he survives New Year’s Eve and testifies against them in court. (Bishop was the name of the hero in the original, played by Austin Stoker; though Fishburne steps into the villain role, it’s without the name “Napoleon Wilson,” which I guess didn’t sound as bad-ass thirty years later.)  Naturally, once the corrupt cops descend on the police station, which lacks any kind of communication lines since the place is no longer “on duty,” and with a blinding New Year’s Eve snowstorm isolating them even further, the precinct’s cops and crooks must band together if they want to survive the night.

The screenplay was handled by James DeMonaco, who had just written the very successful hostage thriller The Negotiator with Samuel L. Jackson and then-beloved Kevin Spacey. Interestingly, DeMonaco would become a force ten years later in Hollywood alongside Blumhouse by writing and directing the Purge series, which DeMonaco had said from the very beginning was inspired by Carpenter and his penchant for siege and anti-order films. Obviously, the original Assault on Precinct 13 was a very low budget affair bordering on grindhouse cinema, made by an unknown and untested director (who in typical Carpenter style also wrote, edited, and scored the film) and starred a cast of unknown or obscure actors. Meanwhile, 2005’s remake is big, glossy, and made with as much spectacle as director Richet can get away with while remaining faithful to the claustrophobic setting. Carpenter has admitted over the years that the original Assault on Precinct 13 was a loose remake/combination of Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead, referring to it nearly as a zombie movie, and the redux maintains that same kind of claustrophobic environment where hope for rescue dwindles by the hour.


Appropriately, Richet and DeMonaco are very aware of Carpenter’s overall career as a horror director, even though he’d wandered away from that genre several times to make action-thrillers (Escape from New York), comedies (Memoirs of an Invisible Man), dramas (Elvis), and, as Carpenter likes to put it, “girly movies” (Starman). Because of this, even though this Assault on Precinct 13 is still well within the action-thriller genre, it unfolds almost like a slasher movie, in that several members of its ensemble cast are picked off one by one in violent ways, with many of them not being characters (or actors) you’d ever expect to see bite the big one.  

Ethan Hawke jumps from genre to genre as well, never hanging his hat too long in any one place, though he seldom played the role of action hero even in his youth. Besides the terrible Getaway and the obscure but decent 24 Hours to LiveAssault on Precinct 13 sees Hawke in a rare full-on popcorn action role and you can tell he’s having fun with material that doesn’t require as much psychological pathos as the parts he ordinarily likes to play. (He was phenomenal in last year’s First Reformed, for example.)  Like the geekiest of directors, Hawke respects and enjoys different kinds of films, and he puts in a laudable amount of effort to make his character of Sgt. Jake Roenick more than just your typical apprehensive hero.  As for Fishburne as the “bad guy,” well, as most actors will tell you, it’s always much more fun to play the villain, and he knows it, and he does it well. Fishburne’s intensity and swagger has always cast an intimidating pallor over many of his roles, even when playing the good guy, so it’s not exactly necessary to suspend disbelief when seeing him in this kind of role. 


Carpenter has been sly over the years when asked for his opinions on remakes of his films, saying that though the remakes were based on his movies, those remakes belong to other filmmakers and it wouldn’t be his place to comment. (Me thinks this was mostly his way of having to avoid publicly calling Rob Zombie’s Halloween a piece of shit considering they were friends, even though he basically did that very same thing later on.) Still, Carpenter had kind things to say about Assault on Precinct 13, saying in an interview, “I thought it was terrific. I thought the cast was sensational. I just loved it.” 

He’s not the only one.

Nov 26, 2019

THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE (1974)


To lean on an overused expression, they really don’t make films like The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three anymore. The remake from 1998 with Vincent D’Onofrio, and the other remake from 2009 with Denzel Washington and John Travolta and directed by Tony Scott, proved that with ease. Because the uniqueness of the original is very much a product of the time in which it was made.

As has already been proven, the future has a bad memory. Over time, individuals who were once prominent actors, or filmmakers, slip into the ether. Names like Walter Matthau or Robert Shaw, celebrated during their time, may or may not survive the pop culture purge that’s currently in progress with the generation just below our own. Names like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, who died young, beautiful, and tragically, will always live on, while some of their colleagues will become trivia in board games and movie theater screens just before the ads for Hyundai. For some, those names are already forgotten, but for those who still remember, it might still come as a surprise that Walter Matthau, best remembered for his lifelong friendship and multiple on-screen couplings with Jack Lemmon, did his fair share of roles in the 1970s where he played kind of a badass. Not Schwarzenegger or Stallone levels of badass, mind you, but a different kind of badass. With his roles in The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three, or Charley Varrick, or The Laughing Policeman, the lanky and limber Matthau exuded that 1970s version of a badass without the egocentricity of ridiculous musculature or an array of militaristic weapons. Matthau could be a badass only with a look, or a wry smile, or a perfectly timed cutting remark. His resistance to authority, his disdain for bureaucracy, and his insistence on always getting his man made him a less showy but just as effective “action” hero.

As for the villain (well, the lead villain), Robert Shaw’s menacing, icy, and subtly funny take on Mr. Blue (yep, Tarantino steals from all over) is a perfect foil to Matthau’s Lt. Zachary Garber. He is very much no-nonsense, at times treating the hostages in his subway car with more respect than his fellow heisters (brought to life by the likes of Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, and yes, Earl Hindman, aka Tim Taylor’s neighbor, Wilson, in nine years of Home Improvement). When one uses the term effortlessly cool for actors from this era, the names Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood come to mind, but Robert Shaw out-cooled them all. Perhaps best remembered as Quint from JAWS, followed by his villainous turns in The Sting and From Russia with Love, his untimely death at 51 is one of the worst tragedies to befall the art of cinema, as it robbed us from so many more potentially great roles from the underrated British actor.


Two strong lead actors aside, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three’s greatest strength is its screenplay, based on the novel by John Godey (Johnny Handsome) and adapted by Peter Stone (Charade; 1776). Channeling Die Hard before Die Hard existed, the majority of Matthau and Shaw’s scenes together are shared via radio between the New York City subway operations hub and the taken train car, and despite this, the men manage to show a tremendous rapport, anyway. Helping this is the cracking, sharp-witted dialogue, which comes off as both cinematic and realistic at the same time. Add to that a slice of political incorrectness (it’s true—in previous eras, it was okay to laugh at the things that made us different) and a ground-zero look at how different facets of city culture react to a terrorist event (topical!), and the end result is The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three—one of the only times domestic terrorism was fun.

Director Joseph Sargent (White Lightning; JAWS: The Revenge) matches the thrills with the laughs, presenting an old-fashioned good time with one of the best, ironic, and expertly executed endings of all time. And to forgive another overused expression, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three’s DNA lives, breathes, and bleeds New York – to the point where the city is not just another character but the main character. In fact (move over, Spike Lee), The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three just might be the most New York film ever, from the emphasis on local actors for bit parts, to bigger-than-life New York attitudes, to iconic city geography, and to how ably Sargent captures the city, warts and all. The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three takes place in several not-so-glamorous environments. Much of the film, understandably, is subterranean, spent in gritty and dank locations like malfunctioning train cars or subway tunnels and platforms, but this only adds to the film’s appeal. Having set The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three in any other city would have stripped away its identity, its wryness, and most importantly, its sense of humor.


Much of The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three is dialogue driven, but composer David Shire’s musical score complements the subtler and less bombastic moments outside of scenes of gunplay or car chases. (Shire has amusingly described his earlier attempts at scoring The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three as “bad Lalo Schifrin” and “bad flute jazz.”) Scenes set underground on the subway tunnels or platforms benefit from echo and station ambience, exuding the New Yorkness of New York, and working perfectly alongside Sargent’s intent to make this a New York story.

The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three is a classic of the genre, the sub-genre, or however you want to catalog it. It exists in a simpler time, both historically and cinematically, when all you needed for something to go so wrong was a handful of homegrown men with a plan, and all you needed to right that wrong was someone on the opposite end of the radio to ensure those men never reach the last stop.