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Island from Hell, 23 October 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Giant Gila Monster" director Ray Kellogg's low-budget creature feature "The Killer Shrews" is a claustrophobic saga that grossed almost nine times its budget and has become a public domain masterpiece. "Creation of the Humanoids" scenarist Jay Simms spend most of his career writing episode for television series such as "Laramie," "The Rifleman," "Rawhide," "Have Gun, Will Travel," "Laredo," and "Gunsmoke." Before he graduated to less science-fiction, horror-oriented material, he wrote this chiller, and he must have been channeling H.G. Wells' "The Island of Doctor Moreau" to some extent. James Best portrays the hero in this shoe-string budget thriller, and Ken Curtis—who produced the film—cast himself as a drunken scientist. Aside from some footage of a boat on the ocean and scenes inside a scientist compound, "The Killer Shrews" could have been shot anywhere on its reported $123-thousand budget. Best and Curtis give the best performances hands down, while everybody else looks a little embarrassed by all the baloney that they try to make sound believable. According to the Internet Movie Database, the full-sized shrews were played by coon dogs, and the close-ups of the shrews were puppets. Wikipedia points out that "The Killer Shrews" was lensed in Dallas, Texas.

An isolated island in the middle of the ocean is the setting for this science-fiction/horror movie where a team of scientists have been conducting experiments on tiny animals called shrews. The most outlandish aspect of this movie is the reason that prompted Dr. Marlowe Craigis (Baruch Lumet of "The Pawnbroker") to embark on his privately funded research. He intends to shrink humans to half our current size so he can ease world hunger. Craigis figures that when the human race is that reduced physically in size, people consume less and lengthen the Earth's food supply. Inexplicably, their science project gets out of hand. By the time that Captain Thorne Sherman and his first-mate 'Rook' Griswold (Judge Henry Dupree of "My Dog, Buddy") arrive with supplies, the shrews have grown to the size of dogs. Dr. Craigis explains that shrews must eat their body weight in anything alive to survive. The first half of "The Killer Shrews" is spend with Craigis delivering a plethora of expository information about these devilish critters. One of Craigis' scientist, Jerry Farrell (Ken Curtis of "The Searchers"), is particularly upset by this point by the escape of some shrews. Furthermore, his lack of vigilance regarding the escaped shrews has prompted Dr. Craigis' gorgeous daughter, Ann (Ingrid Goude of "Never Steal Anything Small"), to call off her engagement with Farrell. A hurricane batters the island, and Thorne decides to stay in the compound with the scientists after Ann reveals everything about the murderous mutants. This doesn't suit Farrell because he thinks that Thorne is making moves of his former finance.

About 20 minutes into the action, Thorne's first mate encounters the ravenous shrews. He runs in panic and struggles to climb a tree to elude the hungry beasts, but several of them leap at him and kill him. Meanwhile, three other starving shrews dig under the gates to the stable and eat a helpless horse, and then they start searching for a point of entry to the compound. One shrew gains access to the compound when a shutter on a window is damaged by the high winds. The animal slips in, and Thorne and Craigis' hired help Mario (Alfredo de Soto of "The Big Steal") confront the beastly thing in the basement where the food is stored. The dog-like creature with huge fangs bites Mario, and the handy man dies from poison that was put out on the island long ago to diminish the population. Not only did the poison fail to work, but the shrews have absorbed into their system with suffering any ill effects. Thorne and Jerry trudge through the woods to the shore. Thorne whistles up Rook who is supposed to be aboard the yacht. Rook is nowhere to be found until Thorne stumbles onto his remains. Earlier, the jealous Farrell threatened to kill Thorne since he kept making eyes at Ann. Thorne disarmed Farrell. After they find Rook's empty revolver, Thorne and Farrell hear the hunger shrews approaching. They charge back to the compound. Farrell arrives before Thorne and tries to lock Thorne out of the compound to prevent more the shrews from invading the premises. Thorne scales the wall and beats up the frantic Farrell. Bristling with rage, Thorne almost dumps Farrell's unconscious body over the wall. At the last moment, he relents to everybody's relief. No sooner than everybody believes they are out of harm's way than they realize that more shrews have sneaked into the compound. Ann is poised to make coffee when she opens a door to another room, and a shrew dashes out. The animal attacks Dr. Radford Baines (producer Gordon McLendon), and he perishes from the poison in the animal's bit. However, he survives long enough to type out every symptom of his behavior before he keels over. Thorne guns down the shrew.

Thorne, Ann, Farrell, and Dr. Craigis evacuate themselves from the house portion of the compound after the shrews tear apart the plaster and burrow into the adobe. Farrell appropriates the automatic shotgun that Thorne pitched over the wall before he scaled it. They find some drums later enough to each of them to crawl into and duck-walk across open ground to the shore. Farrell refuses to join them and climbs atop the roof as the shrews assemble for the final feast. Thorne uses a torch to cut oblong viewing holes in the drums. They lash three drums together and remotely open the patio gate. The shrews scramble in and tear at the view slots while our heroes laboriously make their way across uneven terrain to the shore. Believe it or not, a sequel entitled "Return of the Killer Shrews" was released in 2012, and James Best reprised his role as Thorne.

Lively Little European Western, 21 October 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Gunfight at High Noon" director Rafael Romero Marchent's "Dead Men Don't Count" reached the screen with its plot about the advent of a railroad in Arizona that Sergio Leone's "Once Upon A Time in the West" would handle with greater artistry. This trigger-happy Chorizo-Spaghetti Western has all the earmarks of the genre. The ruthless but cultured villain is forcing landowners to sell out or suffer the consequences. Actually, whether they sell out or not is immaterial. The villain's henchmen gun them down in cold blood and let the vultures clean up the mess. Our two heroic bounty hunting heroes, Frad Dalton (Anthony Steffan of "A Stranger in Paso Bravo") and his best friend Johnny (Mark Damon of "House of Usher"), ride into the town of Blackstone, but the last thing that they imagined would that they will become embroiled in this mayhem. Earlier, before they rode into Blackstone, the hunters displayed their virtuosity with their six-guns and wipe out an entire gang of desperadoes in a crumbling Gothic church. Marchent stages with gun down with style. It seems that the big man in charge of the town, Steve Rogers (Luis Induni) is behind all these murders. At one point, he dispatches his pistoleros and they kill the father, son, and daughter after they have signed the document. Meantime, those happy-go-luck bounty hunters are sworn in as the town's temporary lawmen when full-time lawman, Sheriff Bob Watson (Piero Lulli of "My Name is Nobody"), vanishes. Eventually, Rogers orders the deaths of our heroes, but they blast the earth out from under their adversaries.

Bus Driver (2016)
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Low-Budget But Entertaining "Rambo" Clone, 21 October 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Co-scenarist & director Brian Herzlinger has fashioned a low-budget but entertaining, B-movie thriller about a school bus driver who has to contend with a hysterical teacher, several delinquent students, and an army of meth-making desperadoes. "The Bus Driver" could use a new sound mix because it is sometimes difficult to understand what the characters are saying. Nevertheless, the set-up and the resolution are fun from start to finish, and the eponymous bus driver turns out to be a Rambo type. He learn at the end that he was an Army Colonel when his former commanding officer (Robert Forster of "Jackie Brown") appears in a cameo to reason with him about putting on his uniform again. Mind you, we're never told what prompted him to hang up his uniform. The combat sequences are appropriately gritty, and our unshaven hero Joe Smythe (Steve Daron of "Hidden Assets") has his work cut out for him as he tangles with thuggish villains led by a tenacious dame, Dylan (Holly Elissa of "Alien Incursion"), who refuses to let a bus driver dictate terms to her. Okay, some of the acting is amateurish, but this isn't a bad melodrama. When it looks like our heroes have gotten away from Dylan's dastards, they discover to their chagrin that they have miscounted and left of the students behind. Smythe refuses to leave one of the them behind because he wouldn't have abandoned a wounded or dead soldier on the battlefield. Meantime, Dylan has little respect for Smythe despite the warning that her brutish second-in-command, Jace (Michael Bailey Smith), gives her about their adversary. Smythe drives back to the trailer, where they ran into trouble in the first place and later found a horde of meth, and has a showdown with the ruffians. The first surprise near the end fade takes place when the whining school teacher careens back onto the property in a VW bug and smashes into Jace, hurling him through the wall of a building. The special effects involving bogus blood and make-up are solid. Dyland makes a formidable villainess. She and Smythe go after each other in a bravura wrap as the school bus lurches into a railway crossing. Smythe slams Dylan face first into the gear shift and kills her that way. Naturally, a locomotive pulling a lot of freight cars accelerating onto the scene, and Smythe barely gets off the bus before the train crashes into the school. This is a pretty good scene because the filmmakers show Smythe in the same shot as the train piles into the vehicle. Clocking in at 76 lean minutes, Herzlinger doesn't malinger and the action unfolds with predictable swiftness. In spite of its budgetary limitations, "The Bus Driver" rates a cool little movie.

Max Steel (2016)
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Terrible, Terrible, Terrible!!!, 20 October 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The superficial teenage science-fiction superhero saga "Max Steel" belongs at the bottom of a scrap heap. The Mattel Toy Company created its 'turbo-charged' children's action figure back in 1997, and the company promoted this toy as the protagonist in an animated television series in 2000. Later, they produced nine direct-to-video Max Steel movies, and eventually launched another series on the Disney Channel in 2013. Not surprisingly, Mattel developed this big-screen feature as an 'origins' epic with an inevitable franchise to follow. Unfortunately for Mattel, "Max Steel" melted down during its first weekend in theatrical release. This generic, 92-minute, PG-13 rated opus coined less than three million dollars in box office receipts at over two-thousand screens across the country. You'd think that Mattel would have shown greater creativity for their potential franchise. Instead, "Sorority Row" director Stewart Hendler and "Thor: The Dark World" scenarist Christopher Yost have cribbed shamelessly from Marvel's first live-action "Iron Man" movie with Robert Downey Jr., for the bulk of their imitative plot. The formula is so synthetic that "Max Steel" sacrifices any sense of narrative spontaneity. In short, no surprises enhance this movie. You know that Andy Garcia is the villain long before he slips into his own sinister, bad guy, outfit. Afterward, Garcia's villain goes toe-to-toe with our sixteen-year-old, high school hero who is the son of a scientist that apparently died when a tornado struck his laboratory and killed him. Little about the Max Steel hero is singular. He has been forged from the crucible of countless other heroes right down to his widowed, single mom who only wants to shield him from any form of adversity. Naturally, Max has the typical, standard-issue girlfriend so no doubts are raised about his status quo heterosexuality. Finally, like every teen movie protagonist, Max performs his heroic feats—contending with enigmatic alien invaders that use the weather as their arsenal of weapons-- with the aid of a sidekick. In this instance, the sidekick isn't a loyal canine, but a one-eyed extra-terrestrial robot named Steel that classifies itself as "parasitic, silicon-based lifeform" and resembles an airborne crab.

Max McGrath (Ben Winchell of "The Last of Robin Hood") is a theoretically interesting teenager. Here is a kid who knows nothing about his late father and has even less of an idea where he fits into the general scheme of things. Although teenagers find themselves struggling to deal with their emotions and their goals after the onset of puberty, Max experiences even greater trials and tribulations. He has the mysterious ability to generate his own source of energy that can make electronic appliances malfunction for no apparent reason. He can blow fuses with his fingertips, shut down smartphones, and trigger vending machines to catapult their inventory. Meanwhile, Max's caring and conscientious mother, Molly (Maria Bello of "Coyote Ugly"), has contributed to his sense of confusion. She has been moving Max around from one town to another because she fears the aliens that killed her husband will target her son. As the plot unfolds, Molly takes Max back to their hometown where her husband, Jim McGrath (Mike Doyle of "Green Lantern"), perished under puzzling circumstances. Worse, she evades Max's questions about Jim. Invariably, Molly introduces Max to his late father's partner, Dr. Miles Edwards (Andy Garcia of "Ghostbusters"), who admired Jim. Molly thinks Dr. Edwards may help Max understand what happens. Little does she realize that Edwards is the last man with whom Max should associate. As it turns out, Edwards has defected to the murderous aliens that killed Max's father and he wants to exploit Max.

Eventually, Max encounters Steel, and the two take a while to bond, because Max doesn't totally trust this wisecracking alien drone. Of course, it is only a matter of time before Steel convinces Max they would make an invincible team if they worked together. Max and Steel smash the lock on the gate of the deserted N-tek factory where Max's father died and prowl the property. In the privacy of this factory, the two discover that they are capable of some rather extraordinary feats when they combine their strengths. Max acquires super-strength, with energy radiating from his body, beneath head-to-toe body armor that enables him to soar like Iron Man. Technically, the title character emerges when Max and Steel cooperate with each other to fight aliens that take the form of tornadoes. Chiefly, director Stewart Hendler and scenarist Christopher Yost use Steel (voiced by Josh Brener of "The Internship") as comic relief to offset their largely leaden hero who lacks a sense of humor. Meanwhile, Max has a habit of making an absolute buffoon out of himself that endears him to his brunette girlfriend, Sofia Martinez (Ana Villafañe of "Magic City Memoirs'), who isn't sure what to make of his strange behavior. The first few times that they cross each other's paths, Max is pedaling a bicycle and desperately trying to avoid from colliding with Sofia who knocks around in a huge jeep that she restored with her father.

Apparently, Mattel cast Ben Winchell because the tall, clean-cut, young actor bears a striking resemblance to "Superman" star Henry Cavill. Sadly, Winchell lacks Cavil's charisma. The filmmakers don't give Winchell adequate opportunities to display his superhero skills or suit. Maria Bello and Andy Garcia deliver strong performances respectively as Max's mom and Max's nemesis. The best thing about "Max Steel" is the seamless way the special effects have been integrated into the second-rate shenanigans during the latter half of the action. Nevertheless, little else distinguishes this uninspired superhero spectacle. Ultimately, "Max Steel" neither surprises us with its clichéd, predictable plot nor attracts us to its cardboard characters. Concluding the film with a whimper, Mattel hints at the possibility of a sequel, but the toy maker doesn't provide a cliffhanger ending to whet our appetite for such a prospect. Consequently, most people who see "Max Steel" will probably catch it when it appears on home video rather than in theaters.

Above-Averate Cold War Heist Caper in Berlin, 17 October 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Mark Robson's European military heist caper "A Prize of Gold" casts Richard Widmark as a U. S. Air Force sergeant with a little larceny on his mind. Since I have not read Max Catto's novel, I cannot say with any certainty how slavishly scenarists Robert Buchner of "Dodge City" and John Paxton of "Murder, My Sweet" adhered to the printed page. Nevertheless, Robson, Buchner and Paxton generate considerable suspense as the story unfolds. The filmmakers do an excellent job of setting up the situation and the setting. The first-class cast looks believable and nobody delivers a bad performance. Lenser Tom Moore, who went on the shoot "Goldfinger" and "Diamonds Are Forever," always has his cameras in the right place. Bill Lewthwaite cuts the action together smoothly, and Robson orchestrates the events in such a manner that "A Prize of Gold" never wears out its welcome. Mind you, the first half of the film moves rather slowly but Buchner and Paxton have a lot of exposition to cover. Altogether, producers Irving Allen and Albert R. Broccoli haven't skimped on anything, and the productions values look more than sufficient.

As the film unfolds, a firm is cleaning out a Berlin canal during the Cold War occupation and find $16-million in Nazi gold bullion. The British and the Americans fly it out in different planes to London with armed British and American personal aboard. As conniving Joe Lawrence, Widmark is a selfish individual who gets away with everything wielding blackmail against his commanding officer, Major Bracken (Alan Gifford of "Town Without Pity") who is guilty of marital infidelity. Initially, the trouble for Joe starts when he shows off his new digs to a British NCO, Sergeant Roger Morris (George Cole of "My Brother's Keeper"), and leaves his jeep unattended so that a wayward German youth can steal it. Sergeant Lawrence and Sergeant Morris catch hand-holds and foot-holds on either side of the cab of a truck and the vehicle careens away in hot pursuit of the impetuous youth. The youth crashes Joe's jeep and breaks an axle. He flees from the scene of the wreck, and Lawrence chases him to an out-of-the-way building that is being utilized as a school for orphan German children. Lawrence nabs the youth and confronts Maria (Mai Zetterling of "The Lost People") who serves as their teacher. No sooner has Joe seen her than he becomes infatuated with her. She warns him to stay away, and then Joe meets a wealthy German businessman, Fischer (Eric Pohlmann of "Lust for Life"), who informs Joe that he is a persona non grata. It doesn't take Joe long to behave like a Galahad and rough up Fisher and send the old leech packing, much to Maria's chagrin. Of course, Maria was only using him as a way to pay their passage—her fellow teachers and students—to Rio de Janeiro. Now, Joe is hopelessly in love with Maria and no longer acts like his own selfish personality. They tool around Berlin during the lighter moments of this melodrama in a bizarre German car known as the Messerschmitt KR175 that seats two people one behind the other and looks like the compartment of an airplane. Ironically, if he hadn't gotten romantic over Maria, he might have spared himself a lot of trouble.

Sergeant Morris tries to entice Joe to join him on a deal to steal a plane load of gold and vanish. Joe sees this as a neat way to compensate for his interference with Fischer and Maria and get her and the children to Brazil. Morris brings in a relative, Uncle Dan (Joseph Tomalty of "Moby Dick"), and Uncle Dan arranges a meeting with a retired criminal, Stratton (Donald Wolffit of "Becket"), who wants to have anything to do with them. Nevertheless, greed destroys the better part of Stratton's discretion, and he tags along. He introduces them to a former British flier, Brian Hammell (Nigel Patrick of "The League of Gentlemen"), who agrees to fly the C-47 for a fourth of the loot to an obscure landing field no longer used by the Air Ministry.

Reluctantly, Joe and Morris accept him against their better judgment. Before they know it, flight schedules are changed, and the last flight of gold is poised to be flown out of Berlin. Joe scrambles to alert everybody, and he persuades Major Bracken into letting him fly with the shipment on the pretext that a woman is involved. Joe engineers it so Brian boards the C-47 just as it is about to take off against the wishes of the suspicious pilot. Brian is a flippant sort of fellow, and he turns out to be trigger-happy. After Joe convinces the pilot to allow him to stay aboard, the C-47 takes off once it has picked up a crate of fragile china. Not long after they enter English airspace, Joe and Morris compel the two pilots to leave the flight deck and Brian takes over. During a brief scuffle when one of the crew tries to knock Joe out, Brian wounds the crew member. Brian lands them, and Uncle Dan and Stratton flash the lights on their cars so he will know where to land. Despite his struggles to stay out of the heist, Stratton finds himself up to his ears in the heist. Once they have trucked the gold into London, Joe and Morris have second thoughts and decide to turn themselves over to the authorities. Stratton, who car was burned at the airport, agrees to get out of sight, and he pays all passage costs for Maria and company to Brazil. Brian kills Morris, but he isn't so fortunate with Joe.

"A Prize of Gold" is clearly a crime-does-not pay caper, and Joe admits his guilt, but gets to see Maria and the kids off at the airport.

Intelligent But Loquacious Home Invasion Thriller, 16 October 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

William Holden plays a troubled prison inmate in Rudolph Maté's claustrophobic thriller "The Dark Past" who takes a college professor and his guests hostage after he breaks out of stir. This represents one of the few examples of Holden cast as a villain but taking top billing over his heroic co-star Lee J. Cobb. Instead of Holden as the hero, Cobb is hero, a shrewd but open-minded police psychiatrist who relies on his fearless intelligence to get himself out of a dangerous predicament. The liberal minded "Dark Past" isn't so much a 'crime doesn't pay' movie as much as it is 'crime can be prevented' movie. Unfortunately, more dialogue than shooting occurs here, but the psychological process of unraveling a murderer's mind compensates for the talkative script. The villains' lack of vigilance, particularly on the part of the henchmen, is what gets them in hot water.

A compassionate police psychiatrist, Dr. Andrew Collins (Lee J. Cobb of "Lawman"), attends the morning line-up of offenders at the police station. He takes an interest in an embittered 18-year old criminal, John Larrapoe (Harry Harvey Jr.), who has been arrested for armed robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, and resisting arrest. Collins wants to intervene in Larrapoe's behalf because he thinks that the youth doesn't know the way the system works. He wants to send Larrapoe to the psychiatric ward of the county hospital for observation. Initially, the arresting officer, Williams (Robert B. Williams), who wears a bandage on his right temple where Larrapoe struck him when he resisted arrest, doesn't agree with Collins' recommendation. "Don't expect me to make that kind of recommendation in my report to the D. A.," Williams states. "There is nothing wrong with Larrapoe that a good stretch at hard labor won't cure," the detective argues. "He's a bad boy, mean all over." Collins refuses to give up on Larrapoe. "I don't want us hardening him into a hopeless criminal. He's young, something can be done for him while he is young. He's a sick boy, mentally and emotionally." Williams follows Collins into his office and Collins fills Williams in on his experience with a criminal named Al Walker (William Holden of "Born Yesterday") when he was a professor of psychiatry at a small university near the Canadian border. Thus concludes the first act of this melodrama.

Collins plans to spend the weekend in the country. Collins owns a cabin by a lake and he takes his wife, Ruth (Lois Maxwell, who played the first Miss Moneypenny in the James Bond franchise) and his son Bobby (Robert Hyatt) with him. Bobby yearns to go hunting and fishing. Meanwhile, Walker has mysteriously broken out of prison. We know from the get-go that Walker is a ruthless felon because he displays no qualms about gunning down Warden Benson (Selmer Jackson) in cold blood after they set him a foot. Indeed, the exposition during a radio broadcast lets us know that Walker shot and killed two guards during his prison breakout. Anyway, they are heading to the lake where they are supposed to catch a ride in a boat with an accomplice. Although they have found an abandoned shack to hide out in until the boat arrives, Walker wants to take advantage of Collins and his guests. Walker believes that his accomplices and he can lay low with less chance of discovery by the police if they wait it out with Collins and company. The midpoint of this drama concerns a question and answer conversation between Collins and Walker (William Holden) about a recurring nightmare that has plagued the lawbreaker entire life. "I don't kill sick people," Dr. Andrew Collins informs Al Walker, "I cure them." Although it is officially a remake of Charles Vidor's "Blind Alley" (1939), "The Dark Past" reminded me of the home invasion thriller "The Desperate Hours" where Humphrey Bogart broke into Frederic March's house and held his family and him at gunpoint. Collins is a pretty cool customer as he psychoanalyzes the reluctant Walker. At one point, the exasperated Walker thrusts a revolver into Collins' stomach when he cannot understand the professor's line of questioning. Walker suffers from a nightmare that involves an abusive father and rain.

Maté and scenarists Philip MacDonald, Michael Blankfort, and Albert Duffy keep the principals cooped up for about an hour in a loquacious yarn. For the record, "The Dark Past" is an adaptation of the James Warwick's play "Blind Alley." "A little understanding and guidance," Collins observes, "maybe we can salvage some of this waste." The problem with 'The Dark Past" is that Walker lets Collins get the upper hand and prevents him from killing ever again. William Holden is miscast as the murderous escaped convict, but Lee J. Cobb is quietly convincing as the assertive psychiatrist. Otherwise, the rest of the cast is credible. Nevertheless, Collins' ability to undermine Walker after he cures him seems far-fetched, given Walker's homicidal nature. On the whole, "The Dark Past" is an interesting, if somewhat fanciful yarn.

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Girl On The Wrong Track, 16 October 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Paula Hawkins' runaway bestseller "The Girl on the Train" may have been an exciting, suspenseful, murder-mystery to peruse, but the adaptation by "Help" director Tate Taylor and "Secretary" scenarist Erin Cressida Wilson is a tedious tale to watch. Memorable murder mysteries must contain a large enough selection of characters that could have committed the murder so the dastard's identity isn't initially obvious. "The Girl on the Train" features only one character who possibly could have committed the crime. The other two characters that Taylor and Wilson offer as red herrings to lead us astray aren't nearly sinister enough to pass muster. Taylor and Wilson don't allow the other two apparent suspects an adequate amount of screen time to fully establish their incriminating credentials. Indeed, a pair of first-rate sleuths like either Jessica Fletcher of "Murder, She Wrote" or Agatha Christie's Mrs. Jane Marple could have solved the case long before the filmmakers unveiled the killer's identity. Predictably, Taylor and Wilson implicate the heroine from the start. Rarely, however, rarely does the heroine turn out to be a villain in a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster, especially when the protagonist is portrayed as a raving drunk. Were this simple violation of murder-mystery melodramas not enough to derail "The Girl on the Train," the next worst thing is the characters numbing lack of appeal. The heroine is depicted as such a passive victim that she inspires either little sympathy or respect. Furthermore, she struggles to follow in the footsteps of Jessica and Jane but with far less success. Typically, the murderer turns out to be the least suspicious person. This is far from the case with "The Girl on the Train." The villain is so evident from the get-go that you'll leave this atmospheric R-rated thriller wondering why the filmmakers wasted so much time—112 minutes—to unravel the whodunit.

Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt of "The Devil Wear Prada") doesn't fool anybody with her deplorable behavior. She divides her time between chugging vodka from a water bottle and cruising on a commuter train to and from Manhattan. Incidentally, the filmmakers have uprooted British author Paula Hawkins's yarn and transplanted it from England to America. Once upon a time, poor little Rachel was married to an uptight, conservative businessman, Tom Watson (Justin Theroux of "Mulholland Drive"), but fate foiled their plans to forge a family. Rachel desperately wanted to be a mommy, but she was crushed when she couldn't get pregnant. Ultimately, Rachel divorced Tom and walked away with enough alimony to pay for vodka galore to plunge herself into the sinkhole of alcoholism but also to afford rent with a roommate. Not long after her divorce, Rachel lost her job at a public relations firm because she had crawled into the bottle.

As the action unfolds, Rachel confides in us that she loves to fantasize about the residents that she watches as he rides back and forth to New York City. If you've ever ridden a train and observed the inhabitants that live along the railway, you'd know how easy it is to adopt her perspective. One day our heroine spots a happily married woman in the arms of a man who isn't her husband! Later, she learns that this happily married lady has been brutally murdered. The individual who killed her literally stomped the life out of her lovely face and left her to rot in the wilderness. Meanwhile, our heroine visits the murdered woman's husband, Scott (Luke Evans of "Dracula Untold"), because she thinks that she knows the murderer's identity. Eventually, veteran N.Y.P.D. Detective Riley (Allison Janney of television's "Mom"), shows up to question Rachel about the disappearance of Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett of "Hardcore Henry") but Riley gets nowhere. Riley knows enough about the disreputable Rachel to know that she cannot be trusted to provide any suitable information. Furthermore, she knows Rachel has incriminated herself enough that she could be the murderer. We learn that Rachel abhors Tom because he married another woman, and they were able to have a gorgeous little one. In fact, Tom is so affluent that not only does his second wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson of "Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation"), not have to work for a living, but he has also furnished her with a nanny. Meanwhile, another presumably happily married woman, Megan Hipwell yearns to get pregnant and flings herself in front of anybody willing to accommodate her. Megan cannot tolerate Scott's jealous, manipulative shenanigans, and she seeks solace in the arms of her psychiatrist, Dr. Kamal Abdic (Edgar Ramírez of "Point Break"), but he holds her at arm's length.

One of the problems with "The Girl on the Train" is the incomprehensible way that director Tate Taylor and scenarist Erin Cressida Wilson tell their tale. They scramble the chronology of the events so thoroughly that you wind up confused by the various flashbacks. Furthermore, the filmmakers indulge in the abusive psychological practice of gaslighting like the author. This occurs when one character convinces another that the latter is guilty of everything in the world despite their inherent innocence. Our misguided heroine learns one day on her train rides that she has been pumped full of misinformation about herself. The revelation stuns her as much as it will stun those who haven't devoured the Hawkins bestseller. Anybody who craves a good mystery knows from the start that the author will endeavor to mislead them. Nevertheless, the gaslighting gimmick is one of the lowest forms of misinformation because neither the victim nor the spectator has any idea that they have been misguided until it is too late. Ultimately, the villain exposes himself, and nothing about this revelation is surprising. The heroine exonerates herself of all the chaos that she has created for herself when she vanquishes the villain, but the triumph seems rather hollow. Altogether, "The Girl on the Train" qualifies as a potboiler that denies us little sense of gratification in the villain's demise.

Underground Zombies Unite, 15 October 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Mortal Combat" director Paul W.S. Anderson's first entry in the "Resident Evil" franchise is basically a low-budget zombie munch-fest based on the popular Capcom video game that spawned the series. This $ 30-million horror chiller relies on several narrative devices to fuel its adrenalin-laced antics. First, the heroine suffers from amnesia as she struggles to remember what she was doing in the ultra-secret, high-tech, subterranean laboratory of the Umbrella Corporation where scientists have been conducting research and development on experimental viruses for military usage. Second, from the moment that the rescue team arrives and collects Alice (Milla Jovovich of "The Fifth Element"), Matt (Eric Mabius of "Cruel Intentions"), and Spence (James Purefoy of "Solomon Kane"), they have an hour to penetrate the Hive, carry out their mission, and exit the complex before it seals itself shut. Third, the entire experience occurs in a claustrophobic setting that accentuates the suspense after our heroes encounter a zombie horde. Everybody earning a paycheck in the Hive dies when a traitor smashes a lethal t-virus container that shuts down the facility and winds up spreading death. Fourth, the ravenous undead are not the only adversaries that our heroes must contend with; zombie Dobermanns threaten them as well as a mysteriously mutated monster with a long, elastic tongue and razor-sharp claws that can penetrate a train. Believe it or not, Anderson displays some discretion in some of the greatest gut-churning scenes. When a group is trapped inside an elevator, one woman squeezes her head through an opening and realizes too late as do her companions that she is going to be decapitated when the elevator goes upward and smashes her head. The audience, especially those that have played the Capcom game, know that you have to put a bullet in a zombie's head to kill it. Unfortunately, our stalwart heroes aren't privy to this life-saving information. Eventually, the supercomputer that regulates the Hive and takes the holographic form of an adolescent female becomes another of our heroes' adversaries.

As the plot unfolds, Alice regains her memory in bits and pieces and realizes that she was the individual who had decided to expose the Umbrella Corporation. All of the laboratory technicians in the Hive perish tragically through no fault of their own because one mysterious individual sabotaged the Hive. These employees come back to life as zombies that live only to eat. These zombies are traditional "Night of the Living Dead" shambling walkers. The close quarters inside the Hive as well as the booby-traps that our heroes must navigate to avoid constitutes a primary form of suspense. At one point, our desperate heroes clamber atop the air condition ducts dangling by wires from the ceiling to escape the zombies milling about beneath them. One of the more memorable scenes takes place before this one when the rescue team arrives in a hallway that has been booby-trapped with the equivalent of a cheese grater made up of lasers to slice up the rescue team as they scramble to avoid them. Our heroine Alice—dressed in a skimpy red dress—contends with hunger Dobermanns in one of the strongest scenes in the film. Just when she thinks that she had taken care of these menacing dogs, she runs into others. Before long, even these canines mutilate undead dogs and attack Milia, but she knows how to contend with them.

"Resident Evil" gets the franchise off to a fitting start when our hero arrives by train.

Thoroughly Routine Dillinger Biography, 15 October 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Godzilla" director Terry Q. Morse's "Young Dillinger" concerns the notorious Depression Era bank robber who held up over twenty banks and eventually resorted to a plastic surgeon to alter his looks. Nick Adams, who claimed more fame as a former Confederate soldier in the television series "The Rebel," stars as Dillinger, while Robert Conrad co-stars as 'Pretty Boy' Floyd. Scenarists Arthur Hoerl and Donald Zimbalist use the facts about Dillinger's life to shape this biography. Incidentally, Hoerl penned the screenplay for the pot-smoking sagas "Reefer Madness" and "Wild Weed," and Zimbalist wrote the 'stories' for "Taffy and the Jungle Hunter" and "Valley of the Dragons." Apparently, the only reason that Dillinger became a desperado is because his girlfriend prompted him to rip off her father so they could get enough money and get married.

Their minimal adherence to the facts must have provided them with some guidance in their depiction of Dillinger. Early on, after Dillinger robs his girlfriend's father of an undisclosed sum of money from a vault, the girlfriend's father (Ted Knight) pleads with the young man to take the rap on his own and leave his daughter, Elaine (Mary Ann Mobley of "Girl Happy") out of the equation. The father promises that the judge will show lenience on Dillinger at sentencing. Of course, Dillinger receives no lenience and he gets sent up for 5 to 20 years. At another point, for example, Floyd contacts a dubious scholar named Professor Hoffman (Victor Buono), presumably loosely based on the real-life character Herman Lamm—an ex-Prussian soldier who pioneered a technique for robbing banks—and the gang uses Hoffman's plan to waylay an armored car, but not without consequences. Dillinger is wounded during the subsequent shootout. Dillinger is the brains behind the operation and 'Pretty Boy,' 'Baby Face' Nelson, and Homer Van Meter make up his gang of desperadoes. These miscreants did run with Dillinger. Later, Dillinger has a surgeon, Dr. Wilson (John Hoyt of "Spartacus") alter his facial appearance, but Wilson doesn't do a very good job. Dillinger screams at him that his face is the same, and he kills the surgeon. Dillinger disposes of Wilson by strapping him into a wheel chair and plunging the wheel chair into a lake. Anybody who has seen Richard Widmark's landmark scene in "Kiss of Death" may feel that "Young Dillinger" drew inspiration from the Henry Hathaway crime film. As if to make this surgeon appear even unscrupulous, the filmmakers show Wilson assaulting Elaine watching her as she undresses before he barges in on her. The big scene that Morse concludes this gangster epic on is the infamous gun battle at a hunting lodge Little Bohemia. 'Baby Face' and 'Pretty Boy' are mowed down by the authorities but Dillinger manages to elude them. The studio inserts a Bible verse as Dillinger blasts away with his Thompson sub-machine gun: "They have sown the wind—and they will reap the whirlwind." (Hosea viii, 7.)

The film wraps up with a standard-issue 'crime doesn't pay' epilogue: "This picture is respectfully dedicated to the men and women who devote their lives to the endless tasks of law enforcement, guarding our persons, our rights and our safety . . . They alone are the curb against crime and lawlessness recurring in each generation, as in its day it spawned the Nelsons, the Floyds, the Dillingers who dreamed of crime as an easy path to wealth and pleasure . . . Through the diligence and duty of those who enforce the law these law-breakers awoke to the truth that crime never pays." Make no mistake, Morse and his writers depict Dillinger as an unsavory customer that nobody would emulate. Nothing about him is remotely charismatic. Johnny Depp would play a more sympathetic Dillinger in "Public Enemies." Furthermore, aside from the real-life criminals that it portrays, the Hoerl and Zimbalist script doesn't identify Melvin Purvis or J. Edgar Hoover or any of Dillinger's other accomplices. Clocking in at 102 minutes, Morse doesn't let "Young Dillinger" wear out its cinematic welcome. Despite its low budget B-picture trappings (most of it looks like it was shot at the pseudo North Carolina set where "The Andy Griffith" show was set), ace lenser Stanley Cortez of "The Night of the Hunter" makes the action look more than routine. Some of Cortez's pictorial compositions are stunning, such as the encounter between Dillinger and a couple of mobsters in a freight elevator. Unfortunately, most of the sequences are photographed as if time were a factor than artistry. The conversations among the principles are filmed in medium shots from a flat angle, with few glamorous close-ups. Nevertheless, Morse stages the action scenes with some gusto, and his years as an editor enliven those scenes with exciting cross-cutting. The cast contains many familiar faces in bit parts. "Young Dillinger" qualifies as a strictly routine crime yarn with little insight into the major felons.

I Am Wrath (2016)
I Am Wig!!!, 14 October 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

John Travolta does his imitation of Charles Bronson in "Eraser" director Chuck Russell's political crime melodrama "I Am Wrath," and this formulaic revenge epic bristles with moments of spontaneity. The worst thing about this derivative fodder is the ghastly toupee that Travolta sports. This obvious hair-piece resembles something made out of latex that you'd find in a Halloween costume store. Had Travolta interacted with it, scratched, brushed it, or ran a hand over it, so it might have looked realistic. Sadly, he doesn't do anything to diminish the impact of that unsightly rug. It just clutches his head like a rubber chicken, and no matter what he does, this frightful thing detracts from an otherwise meaningful performance. Meantime, this "Death Wish" knock-off hasn't got a single, original trope in it. You've seen this movie a million times. Nevertheless, Russell manages to generate enough gusto that you forget about the wig and enjoy the hair-raising violence. Christopher Meloni co-stars with Travolta, and the former "Law and Order" star looks like he belongs in his trigger-happy role as the protagonist's friend from the past who cuts hair in his own barber shop. The plot concerns a crooked politician's efforts to cover up corruption.

Vivian Hill (an older but still sexy looking Rebecca de Mornay of "Risky Business") is married to an automobile engineer, Stanley Hill (John Travolta of "Pulp Fiction"), and she picks him up at the airport. As they are about to depart in this SUV from the lonesome parking garage, Stanley notices that the driver's rear wheel is pancake flat and prepares to change the tire. Out of seeming nowhere, a thug with a tattoo on his face appears and appeals to them for a small loan. Stanley refuses to accommodate this stranger. The next thing that we know, another assailant surprises Stanley, clobbers him, sends him sprawling to the pavement with a bleeding cut on his forehead and then starts killing him. The first thug, Charley (Luis Da Silva Jr of "21 Jump Street"), stabs Vivian and kills her. Stanley struggles to save her, but she is dead. The thugs roll away in a Monte Carlo. Later, Stanley identifies Charley in a police line-up, but he watches incredulously as uniformed cops release him. As it turns out, Charley and his hooligans were paid to kill Vivian, and Stanley has to pry the information out of a reluctant Charley during a gunfight in a night club later in the movie. It seems that Ohio Governor Merserve (Patrick St. Esprit of "Independence Day: Resurgence") had hired Vivian to serve as a researcher on his staff, but she failed to crunch numbers to the governor's satisfaction. Facing the possibility that she might expose him, Merserve uses a drug dealer, Lemi K (Paul Sloan of "The Scorpion King") to eliminate her. It seems, too, that Lemi has a blackmail video that he is holding over Merserve. Now, Stanley is so grief-stricken that he slams his elbow through the sheet rock at the back of a closet and drags out a satchel that contains firearms, passports, and various denominations of cash. He phones his own buddy from his black operations days, Dennis (Christopher Meloni of "Man of Steel"), and they track down Lemi K's thugs and turn them into dead men.

As interesting as it sounds, "I Am Wrath" qualifies as an old-fashioned, vengeance-is-mine thriller that benefits from some cool gunfights, but suffers from deplorable scripting. The first problem is why did the Columbus, Ohio, Police Department bring in Charley and put him in the line-up. Well, of course, the answer is: it's a movie. This entire scene is designed to horrify us as much as the hero who has just seen his wife die. Later, when they track him down to a crowded night club, our heroes display marksmanship that rivals The Lone Ranger. Literally, no innocent bystanders are wounded during this brief foray. Eventually, Lemi K is angry about the treatment of his crew and the loss of a drug shipment, and he comes down heavy on the two detectives that worked the case. Detective Gibson (Sam Trammel of "True Blood") and Detective Walker (Asante Jones) find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Ultimately, Governor Meserve finds himself entirely inconvenienced when Stanley storms into his home and the fireworks fly.

Russell has done far better work than "I Am Wrath," but he manages to keep things going forward despite several unconvincing scenes and this 91-minute, R-rated opus doesn't wear out its welcome. "Pulp Fiction" lenser Andrzej Sekula does a good job of concealing the low-budget. According to IMDb.COM, William Friedkin and star Nicolas Cage were originally attached to make this generic thriller.

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