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The Devil Rides Out (1968)
Lee's favorite Hammer film
The Devil Rides Out, also known as The Devil's Bride (although there isn't much riding, and the bride's a minor character at best) is an above-average devil-worshipper movie, with the twist of the eminent Christopher Lee playing the good guy. It's appropriately menacing and worthwhile.
Lee plays the Duc de Richleau (good name), who, along with Rex van Ryn (played by Leon Greene) is the ward of a certain Simon Aron (Patrick Mower). Rex and the Duc drop by Simon's pad (it's 1968, after all), only to discover that Simon's throwing a party with 12 of his friends, all of whom seem a bit shady. One of the friends is Tanith Carlisle (Nike Arrighi), who catches ol' Rex's eye.
The Duc suspects that Simon has been recruited to join a Satan-worshipping cult (hence 13 at the party), and luckily for all of us, he knows a little of the black magic himself. So it's a race to save the soul of Simon and of, naturally, Tanith from the evil clutches of the high priest, Mocata. Mocata is played by Charles Gray, who later would appear as Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever and as The Criminologist in the cult classic Rocky Horror Picture Show, and he has a truly nefarious glare that he makes frequent use of. Lee, of course, also played a Bond villain - in The Man with the Golden Gun. Nice coincidence.
There's sacrifices, mutilation, possession, kidnapping, mind control, astral projection. Hey, for a lesser-known Hammer film, it's a pretty impressive production. For the first half of the movie, at least one person steadfastly doesn't believe in devil worshippers, but in the second half everyone's cool with the idea. They'd even buy into time travel or midget giraffes dealing Ecstasy. Wacky and weird, just not zany.
Ahí va el diablo (2012)
Here Comes the Devil, despite an unwieldy title, is appropriately creepy and tense, allowing viewers to immerse themselves in the plight of a couple that temporarily loses its two children while visiting Tijuana - only to find that the kids are now exhibiting some peculiar behavior.
Felix (Francisco Barreiro) and Sol (Laura Caro), after a day of sightseeing, allow their kids Adolfo and Sara to hike up a hill and do some exploring while their weary parents wait in a gas-station parking lot. The parents fall asleep, and when they awake it's almost dark with no sign of the kids. The police are called, but because of the lack of light the search is put off until the morning. Felix and Sol blame each other and themselves and argue, suffering a sleepless night.
The next morning, though, good news: Adolfo and Sara have been found. They're returned to their parents, but it soon becomes clear that the children have changed. They're largely uncommunicative with their parents but have seemingly formed a stronger bond with each other. Around this time, Sol discovers some oddities about her daughter's entry into puberty and becomes quite suspicious.
There's a lot of atmosphere here and not an overwhelming amount of dialog (it's in Spanish, with subtitles), both of which I consider pluses. What's up with the kids? Is someone or something controlling them? Probably. Are they in danger? Very likely. Sol becomes more frantic with each revelation, and when she discovers someone who may have been on the hill with the children - she suspects molestation - she and Felix take matters into their own hands to resolve the issue. But do they have the right guy?
Caro, our protagonist, is aces high, and Barreiro is a fine match as the husband who just wants to put all of this madness behind them and be thankful his innocent children are back safe. Something's sure amiss with Adolfo and Sara, but each step down the winding rabbit hole leads further into utter madness. It's probably more serious than even molestation. Here Comes the Devil is just straight up frightening.
PS: I've seen this film compared favorably with Peter Weir's 1975 classic Picnic at Hanging Rock, and I have to agree.
Panic in the Streets (1950)
Another prime Cold War thriller
With the Cold War kicking into gear, this movie in a way, like the Body Snatchers movies that followed it focuses on the chaos of panic, here brought about by a deadly disease, a plague. Tense and at times terrifying, Panic in the Streets is electric gold as far as the genre is concerned. It's tightly written, although viewed through the glass of 2013 a little simplistic at times (see below), and expertly acted.
It all starts when a man is smuggled onto a boat that docks in New Orleans. The man then visits a poker game with his cousin and winds up winning a lot of money from a gangster named Blackie (Jack Palance, in his debut). When the man, rather than risk his winnings to give Blackie a chance to win them back, takes off, he's cornered by Blackie and his henchmen, then shot to death and dragged into the river, where he's discovered the next morning.
But when the coroner examines the body, he finds something suspicious. Yes, a bullet ended the man's life, but he was already dying. Enter Health Inspector Clint Reed (Richard Widmark), who immediately recognizes the disease as pneumonic plague, which and I don't know this to be scientific fact is extremely contagious. Reed must find the man's cousin, the Patient Zero, before he can unwittingly pass the illness which is fatal along to the rest of the city, even the world.
He's teamed up with crusty police chief Tom Warren (Paul Douglas), who's not sure the doctor's right but is smart enough to follow orders anyway, however reluctantly. It doesn't take long for him to be convinced that there is cause for panic and that the city as a whole must be quietly quarantined, if plausible.
The chemistry between Douglas and Widmark drives the script. Palance is a terrific menace, as he would go on to be in countless movies. Zero Mostel is on hand as one of his henchmen; Barbara Bel Geddes plays Reed's wife. The men are in a race against time, figuring they have less than 48 hours to find their Patient Zero. Warren's police work and Douglas' medical knowledge help them retrace the smuggled man's footsteps and those of the newly infected as well.
If I'm going to gripe about anything, it's the ease with which Reed eradicates the disease. What's that, you say? You may have encountered the sick man? Here, we'll inoculate you, all better. Not sure that's how inoculation works, really, but I'll suspend disbelief for this movie on the grounds that it was a lot of fun to watch.
Duel in the Sun (1946)
When racism was okay in movies...
Let me tell you about a funny little movie. In 1946, producer David O. Selznick had the on-paper great idea to make a quasi-sequel to his big hit Gone with the Wind, another sprawling Western with intrigue, love, and gorgeous vistas and women. So he set out to make what would become Duel in the Sun, about an orphaned "half-breed" (the film's words), who is left in the care of her father's long-ago love on a giant cattle ranch in Texas in the 1800s. She's immediately drawn to each of the sons of the cattle baron who rules the land (Lionel Barrymore) the intelligent, kind Jesse (Joseph Cotten) and his brawling, sneering brother Lewt (Gregory Peck). Danger surely will follow.
It was a movie that effectively ended Selznick's career as a producer, as the unheard-of budget of $2 million ballooned to $8 million, and even though there were Oscar nominations, the movie didn't fare too well at the box office, with most of the gross coming from rentals later in the century. Selznick was a known micromanager, going through as many as seven (!) directors for the film, including himself, before King Vidor stepped in and somehow made it work. Sort of.
Aside from the main plot of poor Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones, who later married Selznick, no coincidence there) and her loves and her (naturally) Spanish passion, there is a subplot about how the US government is trying to build its railroad across the country, but Senator McCanles (Barrymore) will be doggoned if he'll let them there Yankees run through his huge, huge, huge holdings.
One look at the posters and other artwork for this movie and you'd think you were in for a romance film, something based on a Harlequin book. Jones on her back, hand raised to protect herself both from the glare of the sun and the actions of the man before her, Peck. And maybe you'd think that with such a great cast (including Lillian Gish, Herbert Marshall, Walter Huston, and Butterfly McQueen) and such a beautiful setting, it might be worthwhile. After all, "duel" is right there in the title, so surely there's action. Oh, boy.
There's hardly any. Almost every scene in which Jones appears ends with her storming off or crying out in desperation, hand held to forehead. Her character isn't shown as a strong role model, she's shown as fiesty, which is code for "not knowing her place as a plaything"; Pearl is played with by Lewt, for the most part, so naturally she's fond of him. Aren't most women in favor of the bad boy? Ahead of its time, Duel in the Sun talks quite a bit about sex without really mentioning it.
Aside from the morally debatable issues with Pearl's character as a woman, there's the relentless racism. Every pejorative you can think of for Native American is tossed out there and then laughed off. That's in addition to the stereotyping of Mexicans as people who just can't control their temper. It doesn't take long for it to get old and a little sickening. Pearl's not permitted to be her own person, just one who's owned.
To top it off, this almost could have worked were it not for Jones' performance (although Oscar nominated). She vamps it up in the campiest way possible; perhaps she thought she was doing a soap-opera stint. Her acting is laughable nearly the entire way through. Cotten makes a terrific good guy, and Peck is commanding as the amoral, takes-what-he-wants Lewt. Lionel Barrymore, of course, plays the senator just like he would play mean Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life, which is to say much like he played many of his one-dimensional characters. Gish is a sweet delight as always.
Oh, and the duel? Yes, it happens, and yes it happens in the sun on the side of a mountain, no less, but perhaps not between the two people you'd expect. Still, every moment of the so-called duel is excruciating to watch; you want them to hurry up and get on with it already. How long can high noon last? Rhetorical question.
Duel in the Sun is a dated movie that's way too long, sells it characters short, stars a miscast heroine, and never tugs at any heartstrings like it wishes it could. Understandably, it was nicknamed Lust in the Dust during production, prompting a parody movie decades later. I don't know if moviegoers in 1946 thought they were watching something cutting edge, but this is one dated relic.
The Major and the Minor (1942)
Timely and yet can't be remade
The Major and the Minor is the kind of movie that holds up very, very well and yet could never be made today. Know why? Because it's about a grown woman who pretends to be 12 years old (!) in order to pay only half fare to get home from NYC to Ohio and falls for a grown man along the way. That may sound innocent enough, but of course the grown man finds himself falling for the grown woman whom he believes is 12 years old. In hindsight, that's a little creepy.
But here, it's not. This movie is hilarious. This was Billy Wilder's first movie as a director, and the faith placed in him by the studio and the movie's stars, Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland paid off handsomely. It's hard to believe now, but Wilder had already earned three Oscar nominations for writing before directing a single film. He wound up with a pretty decent career.
Rogers plays Sue Applegate, a young lady trying to make a living in New York. Frustrated after a year in the big city, she decides to head back home; trouble is, the train fare has gone up by about $5, and our gal Sue doesn't have enough. So she gets this funny idea she'll dress like a kid, complete with pigtails and a balloon, and pay only half fare. Sue's plans hit a major snag when she's found out by the conductor, and she hides in the compartment of one Major Kirby (Milland). Hilarity ensues when Kirby's fiancé finds Sue known as Su-Su with her betrothed, but soon all of that is cleared up and "Su-Su" must spend a few days with her friend the Major.
Shenanigans ensue, as you might expect. The movie is witty and delightful, with some zingers zooming almost faster than one can process them. Rogers and Milland are at the top of their comedic game, too. Among the talented supporting cast are Robert Benchley ("My only regret is that I have but one wife to give for my country"), Diana Lynn as the fiancé's sister, and Rogers' own mother Lela, playing, yes, her mother.
Balderdash as history
Recently I saw Errol Flynn's classic They Died with Their Boots On, a highly fictionalized (and romanticized) account of Custer's Last Stand. How inaccurate was it? I'm not entirely sure, but I don't think all of the soldiers died with their boots on.
The story follows George Armstrong Custer (Flynn, but of course) from his arrival at West Point to his inevitable fall at Little Big Horn. Custer's portrayed as an excellent horseman and swordsman but also the very worst cadet to come out of West Point, a man who somehow fails upward in his Army career. He has his very own archenemy in the person of Ned Sharp (Arthur Kennedy), who tries to stymie Custer at every turn. The brass doesn't like him, but when war breaks out, off to Washington he goes.
Funny thing about that war aka The War Between the States, or the War against Yankee Aggression there's an interesting scene at West Point where the announcement of war has been made to the cadets and officers. Then those present who oppose the Union are actually given the choice to withdraw. Now, I don't profess to be an expert in the war, but if those officers and soldiers are specifically saying they're willing to take up arms against the government, why wouldn't they be arrested on the spot? The Army sure was lenient back then.
Custer blusters (ha!) his way into a meeting and friendship with General Winfield Scott (Sydney Greenstreet), who gets the young lieutenant his own regiment. Custer then distinguishes himself in battle by essentially charging into a fray rather than retreating. This somehow works, thus making everyone feel better about promoting him.
Now, this being a big-budget movie, there is of course a love interest for Custer, in the person of Elizabeth Bacon, played by Olivia de Havilland. Elizabeth is in the movie essentially to help move the plot along (Custer stands her up when he has to rush off to Washington as ordered, but rest easy, they reconcile quickly). Her father (Gene Lockhart) serves as a snooty foil, at least until Custer makes general. But hey, Flynn and de Havilland have their trademark terrific chemistry, and this was their final film together, so that works.
The battle scenes are well staged and exciting to watch, even as we know their outcome. Despite all of the goofs factual and otherwise that plague this film, it's still an enjoyable Flynn vehicle, and he's very good in it.
Fiend Without a Face (1958)
Definitely a bit underrated
Fiend without a Face is a little better than the title would suggest, as long as you have low standards. It's about an invisible menace terrorizing a military base and surrounding town in Canada, and it stars Marshall Thompson, late of First Man into Space.
Thompson plays Major Cummings, who's in charge of a nuclear-powered program run at the base, a program intended to enhance surveillance techniques and allow the U.S. to spy on the Soviets at a greater range. The trouble is that even when maximum nuclear power is exerted, the images returned by the spy plane soon fades.
At the same time, the locals are a mite anxious about having a nuclear program nearby (some things never change). The constant takeoffs and landings of the various aircraft scares the cows, annoys farmers, and so on. And then a bunch of cows winds up dead, and no one can figure out why. The carnage is only beginning, though soon prominent citizens and soldiers alike are meeting their demise, with their brains apparently I am not making this up sucked out of their skulls through two holes in the back of the head.
Oh, and there's a love interest. There has to be. How could our hero save the day if there were no love interest? Here she's played by Kim Parker, for whom movie this was undoubtedly a career highlight.
So this is a low-budget, 1950s monster movie. Except you can't see the monsters, hence the "without a face" part. They're like Predator, if Predator was merely a brain and a spinal cord and kind of shuffled on the ground like an inch worm. Still, when these monsters are invisible, they're effectively scary, which is a nice respite from the low-budget effects.
The Hill (1965)
Not really a war film, but...
The Hill is a brutal film to watch. It stars a (relatively) young Sean Connery as he attempts to avoid being typecast as James Bond and features recognizable British actors in support. It's a psychological thriller set in a prison camp for court-martialed British soldiers, a rugged, terrifying camp run by a ruthless sergeant-major, played by Harry Andrews.
Connery is Joe Roberts, in the klink for slugging a superior officer after refusing to (re)enter the field of battle (his squad was hopelessly outnumbered and outflanked; see also Paths of Glory). Roberts is tossed in a cell with fellow cons George Stevens (Alfred Lynch), Jacko King (Ossie Davis), Monty Bartlett (Roy Kinnear), and Jock McGrath (Jack Watson), who alternately resent and respect Roberts' actions.
The hill of the title is a steep, sandy incline in the middle of the Sahara, where the camp's located. Convicts are tasked with double-timing it up one side and down the other, carrying a loaded backpack and their kit, or duffel bag. And then back again. The hill is used as a way for RSM Wilson (Andrews) to break them, to make them into real soldiers again.
Trouble arises when Wilson's second in command, Staff Sergeant Williams (Ian Hendry) badgers one of the convicts so relentlessly that the man dies, thus kicking the battle of wits between prisoner and gatekeeper to an entirely new level. And this is where we really begin to see the unvarnished war of man versus man, as Wilson and Williams strain to break not only Roberts but also his cellmates.
Connery is really fantastic as the strong-willed Roberts, and Wilson who played plenty of authoritarian, stiff-backed British characters, is his equal. It's good to see Connery in a movie that transcends his sex appeal and his association with a certain superspy. Filmed in stark black and white (as black and white tends to be), The Hill is near the apex of psychological war films.
22 Jump Street (2014)
Come for the witty banter! Stay for the post-credits!
Yes! 22 Jump Street is even better than the original movie. Or the TV show, for that matter. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum have terrific chemistry, perhaps the best in comic cop movies since some guys named Gibson and Glover (over and over) were roaming the streets of LA. The laughs come fast and furious and are generally not of a PG nature, although apparently that was of no concern to the family of four behind me in the theater.
Officers Jenko (Tatum) and Schmidt (Hill) are now enrolled in college, trying to nail down the source of a new designer drug (again) that's overtaking the campus. They remain in their high-school guises from the first film, mismatched brothers. Their handler, Captain Dickson (Ice Cube), is sort of glad to see the boys again, since their previous success resulted in a huge budget increase. Which he exploits to the hilt. (I wonder if he ever did get that shark tank.)
Anyway, Jenko and Schmidt try to find out where the new drug WHYPHY ("Work hard - why? Play hard - why?) is coming from. Their only lead is a photo of one student buying it from another, with one of the students later winding up dead. Jenko pals around with the jocks, which include possible suspects Zook (Wyatt Russell, Kurt's son) and Rooster (Jimmy Tatro), while Schmidt falls into the boho scene, meeting cute with Maya (Amber Stevens), to whom he develops a kind of liking.
For those of us who thought that the title sounded pretty lame, well, it's better than "21 Jump Street 2," right? And of course, this film being as self-aware as a film can be, there's a reason - Jump Street HQ is now located across the street from the old place, since the Koreans wanted their church back. Makes sense.
Much of the plot does indeed follow that of the first film, but as Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman) tells them, the boys should handle this case the same way they handled the high-school one. It's what the brass wants! But the taking-down-the-bad-guys plot is only window dressing for the real problem, the conflict between the partners as they discover that they've become more different than they were in "high school." Is it possible that they'll need to go their separate ways in order to finish this case? Will this be the last case? Well, no, that's not likely. But the first one is possible. Remember, in 21 Jump Street, somehow Schmidt was the cool guy and Jenko was the schlub who had to hang out with the AV guys (who, naturally saved the day). This time, not so much - Jenko is a BMOC, what with the being strong and apparently immune to alcohol and such. Schmidt is now the one with some doubts about their partnership, and that's the real story behind the story. He can't follow in Jenko's path, or even walk alongside him, because people like the jocks don't want him around. And suddenly Jenko sees his partner as a hindrance, someone preventing him from his true calling - football player.
Much mirth is made of the similarities between the duo's partnership and a full-blown emotional relationship. At one point they even visit a psych professor (well, it's to get info about a patient who had taken WHYPHY, but still) and wind up revealing more of their feelings than they may have intended.
It's hard to imagine better casting for the roles of Jenko and Schmidt. Tatum and Hill appear to have been working together for decades, honing an act to impeccable heights, so good is their banter. But the fun doesn't stop with them - Ice Cube is a terror as a father and a cop, Rob Riggle and Dave Franco happily reprise their roles from 21 Jump Street (the movie), there's another cameo of a veteran of the "old" TV show, and both Amber Stevens and Jillian Bell (playing Maya's roommate) are killer good. Also on hand is the usually oily Peter Stormare as, surprise, the bad guy.
For whatever reason, I'm much more inclined to laugh out loud at a movie while at home than when I'm at the theater, but I couldn't stop laughing (or giggling, possibly when Jenko and Schmidt inadvertently take some of the designer drug). The movie was that funny. 22 Jump Street is definitely as good as the first, and for my money it's a step up.
I got something in my eye...and my heart
The Odd Life of Timothy Green is a beautiful, sweet story of a childless couple who reap the benefits - and unintended consequences - of wish fulfillment. It's framed as a fantasy, but it is leavened with dollops of honesty, education, and wonder.
Jim (Joel Edgerton) and Cindy (Jennifer Garner) Green have been trying, trying, trying to have a baby. Their fertility doctor informs them that despite all of their efforts, the couple simply cannot conceive. Devastated, Cindy wants them to accept the facts and just move on, but Jim cannot let go. His coping mechanism is for each of them to write some attribute that they believe their child would have had (based on themselves) on pieces of notepaper, put the papers into a wooden box, and bury the box in the backyard garden. This they do, and during a highly unusual thunderstorm that night, they discover an unusual young boy in their house, muddy and wet - and with leaves on his lower legs.
His name is Timothy, and he calls Jim and Cindy "Mom" and "Dad." At first, Jim and Cindy believe young Timothy to be a runaway - but the leaves on his legs and the big hole in their garden lead them to suspect otherwise. And so, after so much time spent anxiously wishing for a baby of their own, the couple is now thrust full speed into the realm of parenthood. And I do mean full speed, for the very next morning various family members arrive for an outdoor party that apparently our two adults have forgotten all about.
Through Timothy, we meet the gang. Jim's dad Big Jim (David Morse) is the sort of smug, arrogant guy that most people take an instant dislike to; conversely, Cindy's Aunt Mel (Lois Smith) and Uncle Bub (M. Emmet Walsh) are the very picture of a lovely older couple. Then there's Cindy's sister Brenda (Rosemarie DeWitt) and her husband Franklin (Ron Livingston), who happens to be Jim's boss at the local pencil-manufacturing plant. Brenda and Franklin famously natter on about their overachieving three-kid brood, something that consistently rankles Cindy.
Timothy's effect on everyone around him is noticeable. Much like Pollyanna, the glad girl, Timothy seems to make everyone happy, even the cranky sorts like Big Jim. But yes, he is a bit of an oddity, and poor Jim and Cindy are torn between raising a so-called normal child and allowing Timothy to be himself. That does sound treacly, like an Afterschool Special. But somehow, it's not. We don't know where Timothy came from. We don't know why he has leaves on his legs and what they may signify. Those things aren't important to this story, because this is really a tale about not having all of the answers and doing the best anyway. In other words, it's about making mistakes and learning from them.
The movie also provides such a great perspective on being a parent (and I say this as a non-parent); Jim and Cindy are bewildered, beset by the ghosts of parents past and present. They try too hard, as one might expect from new parents. Never is this more evident than when Timothy finds himself on the school's soccer team (coached by rapper Common). Yes, they become soccer parents. And Timothy is not some savior who magically makes everything come out just grand. He knows who or what he is, but he is not infallible. In fact, there are many, many things he doesn't know (for example, how to swim).
I really appreciated the ending. Yes, it's sad and bittersweet, but it's so packed with emotion that the effect is very powerful indeed. Garner and Dianne Wiest, who plays Cindy's boss, are both excellent, and young CJ Adams (seen in the most recent Godzilla adaptation) is stunning.