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"Nuthin' comes with a guarantee", 21 May 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Let me get this straight. You sleep with a woman twice, and soon after, discover the body of a man she has killed. Because you love her, or think you do, you surreptitiously clean the kill site, lug the bleeding corpse into the backseat of your car, and drive it out to a field in the middle of nowhere. To your surprise, you discover the victim isn't quite dead, so you bury him alive, to his muffled screams.

Er, OK, such is the logic in the uber-talented Coen brothers' first feature film. This neo-noir has some intriguing characters, and some interesting plot twists, but it devolves into a manipulative creep show by the end, relying on conventional story elements to bring a strong story to a mediocre close.

I did enjoy most of the casting here. M. Emmett Walsh is compelling as leering private eye Visser. And Dan Hedaya is scary as Marty, an abusive bar owner enraged by his wife's philandering. I also liked Sam Getz as the saloon employee who cuckolds his boss. What I couldn't fathom was the choice of Frances McDormand as Marty's wife. At times she seems to sleep-walk through her lines, and there is minimal chemistry with Getz's character (could this be reflective of the fact that Ms. McDormand went on to marry co-director Joel Coen?) This talented actress later performed exquisitely in such films as "Fargo" and "Olive Kittridge," but one doesn't get a glimpse of her potential here. (Getz was one good-looking and hunky guy when this was made. I liked the way his part was written prior to Marty's shooting, but the manner in which he performed, post-burial, and his disjointed dialogue with the wife, did not hang together for me at all.)

There are some very scary scenes in "Blood Simple." I'll admit that I was terrified as Getz chauffeured the "body" down that lonely road, dragged his shovel across the asphalt, and heaved spadefuls of earth in gloom of his headlights.

However, I felt let down by the over-the-top TV-movie-like ending to this tale. Not for a minute did I buy Visser's last words.

Despite these reservations, the Coen brothers' promise makes itself clear in this film. "Blood Simple" has its strengths and is worth a view.

CODA: "Nuthin' comes with a guarantee. Now, I don't care if you're the pope of Rome, president of the United States, or Man of the Year. Something can always go wrong..."

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Highly entertaining, 19 May 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I was tremendously surprised at how good this was, but how can you lose with a stranger-than-fiction story like this?

It was only two years ago that Joyce Mitchell, as this movie would have us believe, smuggled all manner of tools and equipment into an Upstate New York prison, enabling two convicted murderers -- one a sadistic dismemberer and the other a guy who used a car to run over a cop -- to escape for a three-week tramp through the woods near Canada before one was killed in a shoot-out with police and the other was captured near the border.

This film portrays Joyce Mitchell (Penelope Ann Miller) as a woman who is "too nice" -- bored out of her gourd with her husband, Lyle (Daniel Roebuck), and all-too-vulnerable to being manipulated by con artists with an agenda.

The performances here are excellent: Miller is great as a dowdy housefrau who supervises a sewing shop at the prison, in which two of her wards are wiry and suave cop killer David Sweat (Joe Anderson) and Richard Matt, played with crude intensity by Myk Watford. The inmates need tools to break out and Joyce seems to become putty in their hands after some romantic repartee and furtive glances.

A mere gloss of a fingertip is enough to set afire the heart of Joyce, who is shown early in the film listening to a bodice-ripping romance novel through earphones while going through he motions of a conversation with her husband. It isn't long before she is exchanging contraband notes of ardor with Sweat. Joyce believes every word, and the exchange gives Sweat something to do and occasionally laugh about.

When suspicions about the pair lead to Sweat being removed from the shop, the more macho and intensely sexual Matt takes over as in- house romeo. Sweat and Matt, next-door neighbors who communicate through knocks on their cell walls, string Joyce along with promises of a life together in Mexico, which is ironic, since their prison practically straddles the border with Canada. But the easily suggestible Joyce eats this fantasy up, to the point of getting a book to study Spanish and trying out a few phrases on the seemingly Latino Matt.

Along the way, this film seems to use Joyce's husband Lyle for comic relief, portraying him as a paternally nurturing straight arrow who goes off on riffs about such topics as phrases including the names of foreign countries (i.e., Dutch treat, Mexican jumping beans). Roebuck is hilarious in this role, providing a stunning foil to dour and tremulous Joyce, whose conscience catches up with her in the end. She ditches a plan to drug her husband and show up with a getaway car, winding up in a hospital ER instead, swooning from possible cardiac symptoms.

In the end, Joyce switches places with the inmates, earning a sentence of seven years behind bars. We witness a shocking scene in the prison visiting room, in which Lyle is holding Joyce's hands and talking her ear off, unsurprisingly making the best of a bad situation. In Joy's imagination, she is downing margaritas in Mexico with her two lovers as a mariachi band plays on.

Where will the romance-craving Joyce go from here? One shudders to think. Matt was killed in a shootout with cops and Sweat got off with just a bullet in the back before being welcomed into a new correctional facility.

This is an excellent production on all counts -- from the casting and acting through to the psychological implications.

(I've read that the escape cost the taxpayers $23 million. But, thankfully, no innocent lives contributed to that toll.)

Fargo (1996)
A sad, scary, funny epic, 17 May 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I'd have never believed a movie could be terrifying and funny at the same time but the Coen brothers pull it off exquisitely here.

I had seen this movie years ago, but would not have believed how deeply I'd be affected on a reviewing at 60 years of age.

This movie creates terror by showing terrible things happening to people who are good and decent. Their misfortunes occur because of the fatal flaws of an ordinary man, or because they're in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I hadn't planned on the intense sadness of this film. Innocent wife Jean Lundegaard suffers a horrific kidnapping and is held in the most brutal of conditions -- exhaling visible air through her head mask in the unheated cabin where she is bound and held captive. Her son Scotty is left at home, holding a stuffed animal, as he worries about the fate of his mom. He has less than nothing to sustain him because the only person there is his quiveringly pathetic father, Jerry (William H. Macy, in the role of a lifetime).

The casting and ensemble work here could not be better. Macy perfectly embodies a calculating loser who is a jumble of nerves and bumbling insecurity. Here is a portrait of a man who cannot face his problems, so he sacrifices everything he loves in a desperate bid for salvation. Like the mythological Jupiter, he gorges on his own.

Frances McDormand absolutely shines as the pregnant police chief of Brainert, home place of Paul Bunyan. This "film blanc" set against the snows of North Dakota turns the conventions of film noir on their head as we see that her homey chitchat belies detective work that would put a hard-boiled Bogie to shame. She is luminescently perfect in an unforgettable part.

The criminals, played by Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare, are a shocking and appalling wonder to behold. In an homage to "Psycho," a highway cop points his flashlight into the death car and all hell breaks loose. (Oh, the tragedy of the godforsaken rubber-necker!) And Herve Presnell is amazing as Jean's blustering father, dripping contempt for the quivering Jerry in his every gesture and word. His parking-lot finale is shattering. How great that he gets off that jaw shot!

As if anything else were required, a wonderful melody serves as the haunting theme throughout this production.

I absolutely loved that the brilliant police chief gets a few minutes of private time with the loathsome Stormare character as he rides in the back of her paddy wagon.

"There's more to life than a little money," she tells him. "Don't you know that?" Hear, hear! A lesson for us all.

Good profile of a musical original, 14 May 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Informative documentary that brings out the uniqueness of an American treasure.

Jimi grew up poor in Seattle and showed special musical talent from a young age. We learn here that he could often be shy and lack confidence but took on another personality as soon as he hit the stage.

Old friends and associates speak very thoughtfully and affectionately of a man who seemed to have few passions other than music and women. Seemingly, all he had to do was whisper in a groupie's ear and she belonged to him. Among the talking heads who are quoted here, Paul McCartney speaks exceptionally thoughtfully of Jimi; it's quite interesting to hear one master of his craft discuss another.

There are lots of good film clips here that portray a soft-spoken, friendly person with the likes of Dick Cavett and a wildly dressed performance artist on stage who wasn't above playing with his teeth and spewing lighter fluid to set his guitar on fire.

It's terribly sad that Jim died from a drug overdose at the way- young age of 27.

Dark Paradise (2016) (TV)
Starts good but goes way downhill, 13 May 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"For a Lifetime movie, this is unusually good," I thought during the first half-hour of this LMN flick.

The script seemed unusually fresh, although the plot line was characteristically outlandish as I entered the world of Tamara (Boti Bliss), who shows charm and generosity after learning that she has inherited $8.3 million from her estranged, jailbird father.

The wry repartee with her two equally beautiful and winsome best friends, as well as the gorgeous Hawaii beachfront villa to which she flies them, delight. It's fun to observe Tamara's instant combustion with Dario (Antonio Sabato, Jr.), an Italian hunk who takes people out on yacht excursions.

Unfortunately, the second half of the movie rapidly deteriorates, as we contend with a story line that is highly derivative (i.e., "Night of the Hunter") and inane.

LMN script writers must have a requirement written into their contracts that movie plots must go over-the-top and beat the viewer over the head with outlandishness. I hated the hackneyed and intelligence-insulting climax. It's too bad, because Bliss and her gal pals turn in some admirable ensemble work early on. (Hope they can still use this on their resumes!)

Mention should be made of the Wikipedia entry of Sabato, an ex- Calvin Klein underwear model and bona-fide Italy native who also happens to be the grandson of a Holocaust survivor. He has also announced his candidacy for Congress against the Democratic incumbent in his California district. You go, guy!

"I lost part of my humanity", 11 May 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Drones -- they don't sound so bad. After all, they kill terrorists without risking our own soldiers' lives, right?

Well, that's partly true, perhaps. Here we learn the dark side of these airborne predators as described by several service members who felt compelled to speak out.

A message here is that bomb strikes from 10,000 feet have the potential to kill not only the target but innocent civilians nearby.

"How is it possible to know who lives and who died?" one asks.

Drone technology is out of the box and no one seems to think it will fall into disuse. But it's important for US citizens to realize what's being perpetrated on their dime.

One of the service members sought to become a massage therapist following her service: "In learning to heal other people, maybe I could heal myself as well," she says.

A drone pilot's cockpit can be an office somewhere far from the strike zone, but she can still come away from the experience with post-traumatic stress disorder. We learn here that it can be hard to find psychological help afterward due to official restrictions on talking about aspects of one's military work.

A very sad picture emerges from this documentary, in which President Obama is shown defending drone strikes as a legitimate approach post 9/11.

Unpleasant, 11 May 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I couldn't see the entertainment value of this dreary film about a con artist who terrorizes two kids.

Robert Mitchum is indeed threatening as Powell, who pulls the wool over some naive country folk as he targets $10,000 hidden by his ex- cellmate from prison.

The film does a good job of showing how a sociopath can wheedle his way into people's good graces, a reminder of the truism that looks can deceive. And, indeed, it offers what is surely one of the eeriest scenes in film when we observe a dead Shelley Winters's experience of Powell's lethality.

However, I found it unbearable to view Powell enjoying unfettered power over a young boy and girl once their father has been hung and their mother slain in her bed.

I had to stop watching this early. I'm a big Robert Mitchum fan but this repellent role was too much for me.

Onibaba (1964)
Man as beast, 9 May 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The mother-in-law (Nobuko Otowa) and wife (Jitsuko Yoshimura) of a dead, conscripted soldier struggle to fill their stomachs in war- torn medieval Japan. The strife has made it impossible to farm, and their only way to eat is to ambush lost or disoriented samurai, kill them, and sell their goods to an underworld lord.

Director Kaneto Shindo plunges us into a dog-eat-dog world in which life has zero value -- only stuff that can be bartered counts for anything.

The female leads in this film turn in stunning performances. We observe the gradual descent into desperation of Otowa as Yoshimura finds momentary succor in sex with crude neighbor Hachi (Kei Sato).

The story transpires in a sea of undulating, seven-foot-high susuki fronds that are photographed to look like a sea. We delight in an unusual score that is partly, and unexpectedly, jazz-punctuated.

The scene is assuredly another place and time -- or is it, really? This movie provides a commentary on the savage egocentricity of man. Literally or figuratively, he'll even kill his own to satisfy his hunger.

Behold Yoshimura gnash at her skewer of grilled dog -- and weep!

Disposable people world, 1 May 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This first feature film of German director Werner Fassbinder isn't easy to watch but it offers glimmerings of the talent that was to follow later in the wunderkind's short-lived career.

This film is slow-moving and plodding at times. Why, for example, must we watch each of a bunch of gangsters lay out their blankets for the night and splash their faces clean from a communal basin? There is also the most bizarre and useless stare-shot at the mug of the well- dressed killer Bruno (Ulli Lommel). And how 'bout the extended victory stroll of the three killers down a country road? The scene goes on and on and on. Johanna draws on a cigarette and Fassbinder kicks at something in the road. And yet we are glued to the screen.

We also glean some of the intriguing interactions between resonantly laconic characters for which Fassbinder justifiably became famous later in his career. Observe, with amazement, the scene Franz (Fassbinder), having returned from a day out in the underworld, exchanging a few words with the woman he says he loves - - the prostitute Johanna (Hanna Schygulla), whom he pimps. (Thence the film's intriguing title?)

He asks about her day, the way a husband might, then takes most of her earnings before tossing her a bill to keep for herself -- whereupon she casually asks when they might move into a nicer apartment and get married. Come again? No, er yes -- welcome to the universe of Fassbinder!

It's clear this was a low-budget production, but that's part of its charm. Bruno's puny murder weapon looks like a toy; the crime syndicate's torturer wears a gun holster that looks something like hand-stitched lingerie. But this is all part of the fun.

"Was I ever alone in bed?" Franz sneers to an interrogating cop.

Werner: you are too cool!!!!

Never more relevant, 1 May 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

In an age when not a minute goes by without someone checking a laptop or a phone, this movie doesn't just resonate -- it roars.

Man has become slave to the machine, which has the power to devour him. People matter little in a world in which the dollar reigns.

The Little Tramp is you and me -- the soul who has been battered by life. He's made a lot of mistakes and can never quite pull off a success, but his heart remains intact. Who else would offer to go to jail for a waif caught stealing some bread? Charlie Chaplin coruscates as a man whose soul has not been killed by the crassness around him. Paulette Goddard creates a memorable foil as the resilient "gamin" in his life.

Only toward the end does her confidence flag.

"Buck up," the Tramp tells her. "Never say die. We'll get along." This charming film has many funny bits, and its ending is classic and timeless. Not as brilliant as "City Lights," but I'm glad I saw it!

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