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Lechuguilla (pronounced Lech-ah-GEE-ah) [caver]
I write film scripts and IMDb film reviews.
The Seven-Ups (1973)
Of Thugs And Mobsters
A kidnapping, a spooky carwash, grungy locations, and a long car chase all figure into this cop film about an elite group of NYC policemen, known as the "seven-ups", who pursue criminals whose crimes warrant prison time of seven years and up.
The script seems perfunctory and indifferent, with too many villains, and not enough differentiation between them. It's hard to tell who's doing what to whom. The only clarity is in the lead detective named "Buddy" (Roy Scheider) and a couple of his detective partners. Beyond that, most of the other characters seem to blur into each other. Some are organized mobsters; others are just freelance thugs, at odds with each other.
At the plot's midpoint, the director introduces what is arguably the big highlight of the film, an urban car chase that goes on for an incredible nine minutes. Complete with screeching tires that never go flat despite tearing into objects and automobiles, the chase has Buddy pursuing a couple of thugs at unrealistically high speeds. The reason for such a lengthy chase is not clear, but the POV shots from inside the cars make for an interestingly vicarious ride.
On-location filming is terrific, and by far the best element. Cinematography is acceptable; colors are muted. This film contains very long scenes, which give depth to the characters, but also slows the film's pace. Acting is average. Roy Scheider would not have been my choice to play the role of Buddy. The casting problem with the villains relates more to script problems than to the actors. Intermittent background music is interestingly eerie.
The best that can be said of this somewhat dull movie is that it does evoke a specific place and time in American history, the late 60s and early 70s in urban America. The grit and roughness of the characters and locales convey a heightened realism that's not possible with current CGI effects. Apart from that, "The Seven-Ups" is a fairly formulaic story about big city cops and robbers.
Fahrenheit 451 (1966)
Almost but not quite as boring as Tarkovsky's "Solaris" (1972), Fahrenheit 451 is a trial to sit through. Dialogue races along at half the speed of light, and it's helped not at all by thick accents.
Characters are superficial, cold, and impersonal; I couldn't identify with any of them; maybe that was Director Truffaut's point; so be it, but they might as well have been stick figures. They are almost constantly in motion; their movements are annoyingly hyper. And given excessive dialogue, I can envision a script that must have been a thousand pages. The plot, because it is so simple, is highly repetitive. Yes, we get the point. In the future, a totalitarian regime will burn books to keep citizens from independent thinking.
Truffaut seemed to think this underlying theme offers some radical vision of the future. Actually, it doesn't. The Nazis, under Hitler, burned huge numbers of books in bonfires in the 1930s. So much for the science fiction theme.
As with most so-called "sci-fi" films, this one has aged poorly. What may have seemed so inventive and futuristic to some viewers in 1966 looks appallingly stodgy, fifty years later. What we have here is a film that tries to be daring and shocking, yet its underlying theme is culturally chronic. And the look and feel of the film reeks of old-fashioned 1960s James Bond.
I find "Fahrenheit 451" perfunctory, uninspiring, dull, tedious, and dry. Except for the poor sound quality and difficult accents, it fits perfectly into the stereotypical image of a cheap American made-for-TV movie of the week. At least the run-time renders it less pretentious than "Solaris" (1972).
The Atomic Cafe (1982)
The Military Industrial Complex
The decades following the 1950s bring to America considerable historical perspective of a prior era characterized by extreme fear and suspicion of Soviet Russia. Accompanied by patriotic hillbilly songs from the 40s and 50s, retro video clips comprise almost all of the visuals in this documentary about America's response to the Cold War. And what a response it was, as demonstrated by two overarching themes.
The first theme was one of hypocrisy. Government and military propaganda devices tried to reassure people that America was a peace loving country, yet one that needed to be prepared for war. Says one clip: "Our object is not aggression; we need not become militaristic, but ..." Another spouts: "This is the destructive power we pray God we will never be called upon to hurl at any nation, but ...". And yet another: "All the world knows we Americans are constructive, not destructive, however ..." Yes, there's always a "but" after sanctimonious feel-good babble.
A second theme was paranoia. Quite humorous are the responses to the prospect of a nuclear attack. The bomb shelter craze; the silly "duck and cover" instructions that schoolchildren received; those ominous air-raid sirens; those hideous gas masks. It was all a cultural fad of fear, promulgated by a military industrial complex that craved war.
Throughout this era of hypocrisy and paranoia, the distraction of consumerism dominated peoples' lives, egged on of course by the same military industrial complex. A traditional nuclear family and spending money became encouraged values, to counter those evil Russians.
In one segment, a man with great earnestness intones: "It gives me a great deal of satisfaction to represent two outstanding shopping centers ... concrete expressions of the practical idealism that built America ...; you'll find beautiful stores ... and of course plenty of free parking for all the cars that we Capitalists seem to acquire. Who can help but contrast the beautiful ... settings of the Arcadia Shopping hub ... with what you'd find under Communism".
Americans had valid reasons to fear and repel Hitler and similar dictators. But post WWII, the military industrial complex used the experience of WWII to manipulate a fragile and misinformed American public. Without any narration whatsoever, "The Atomic Café", with skillful editing, uses the voices from that era to convey a cultural subtext that, in retrospect, reeks of deception and sanctimony.
Lady of Burlesque (1943)
Cheap And Tawdry
It's a good thing Barbara Stanwyck graduated to better scripts. Had she remained in films like this she would never have become a star. Hubbub and chaotic backstage drama in a NYC burlesque theater set the stage, so to speak, for a backstage murder.
Stanwyck plays Dixie Daisy, a slightly sleazy performer who sings and dances to an audience composed mostly of salivating old men. Dixie's female backup performers are young, curvaceous, bawdy "dames" who wear over-sized hats. The theater's backstage milieu looks and sounds as mocking and caustic as one would expect for such an ignoble place. And amid this baseness a murderer lurks.
The script is talky and the pace seems rushed. Despite the tacky superficiality of the characters, they all seem troubled and hurting at a deeper level. The plot moves along quickly with occasional stage performances interspersed with interpersonal relations, not the least of which is a budding romance between Dixie and comic Biff Brannigan (Michael O'Shea). The film's tone abruptly changes, at the midpoint plot turn, from snappy and light to serious and subdued once the murder occurs. The whodunit mystery is interesting, and the identity of the killer was quite a surprise to me.
B&W cinematography is adequate if ever so slightly blurry. Sound quality in the copy I watched was better than most films from that era. Prod design appears cheap and minimal. Casting is acceptable except for Stanwyck, who looks too old for the role of Dixie. Yet there's almost no better actress, regardless of what role she happens to be playing. Those lady's hats, enormous and grandiose, add interest to the visuals.
"Lady Of Burlesque" presents us with a 1940s theater setting that looks and sounds cheap and tawdry. But the murder mystery element adds depth and interest that ups what would otherwise be my negative opinion of this film. And despite being poorly cast, Barbara Stanwyck slaps on considerable value that only she could have provided in that film era.
Presumed Innocent (1990)
Deep Themes To Ponder
This is one of those films that has a terrific, spellbinding ending, but to grasp the significance of that ending, the viewer must endure a slow, plodding, two-hour story that slowly builds suspense with subtleties and tedious detail.
Rusty Sabich (Harrison Ford) is a smart prosecuting attorney who comes under suspicion in the murder of an attractive female colleague. The first half builds the back-story, establishes the main characters, and sets up appropriate red herrings. The second half is set mostly in the courtroom, where a trial plays out in interesting ways. Near the end, we think we know the solution to the mystery, but we are in for a surprise twist, one which I never saw coming.
The script presents us with a legal dilemma, one that's fascinating to ponder because it is so bizarre. In so doing, the film has great thematic depth. But the slow, plodding plot seems tedious, with long scene-takes and considerable dialogue. Most scenes are set indoors. Characters trend stereotyped upper-middle class. The tone is serious and intense.
Production values are generally good, with excellent prod design and effective though dimly lit visuals. Background music is annoyingly elevator-style that amplifies the plot's lethargy. Casting is acceptable except for Harrison Ford, with his never changing facial expression and monotone voice that's tantamount to Chinese water torture. Almost any other actor would have been preferable. I enjoyed the performances of Raul Julia in the role of Sabich's lawyer and Paul Winfield in the role of the Judge.
Despite a slow plot and the casting of Harrison Ford, I recommend this film, with its deep legal themes and terrific ending. The plot is very subtle, a characteristic which one doesn't see much of in current films.
Gorky Park (1983)
Cold And Aloof
The film's premise infers an interesting question: could the murder of three presumably innocent young people be connected in some way to the secrets of the Russian KGB? A high-level Russian policeman named Renko (William Hurt) sets out to answer that question. Plotted as a semi-police procedural, "Gorky Park" belongs in the murder mystery genre, yet it's also something of a political thriller. Interestingly, the underlying theme relates to freedom, political and otherwise.
Probably the best element is the overall production. What a well-made film, with attention to detail in costumes, production design, sound quality, and editing. Color cinematography is professionally done, as well. Consistent with Western perception of Moscow, colors trend a grayish, low-contrast look. The background music gives viewers a murder mystery feel at the outset, which continues intermittently throughout the film.
The big problem is the script. Though the premise is intriguing, the plot is rambling and confusing. Part of the confusion for me was the difficulty in understanding the significance of all the Russian characters. They all seemed to blend in together; as an American, I found that their names did not help differentiate them.
Further, all the characters were as cold as the ice the three victims were initially skating on at Gorky Park. Even Renko came across as aloof and emotionally cold most of the time.
I suspect a European audience would like this film a lot better than Americans. Since most of the story was set in Moscow, the entire film seemed cold and bleak, not just the characters, but also the weather, the outdoor scenes, and the mostly drab interiors. Overall, "Gorky Park" conveys a good premise but a weak script. And the cold, aloof look and feel was a bit much for me.
When the Bough Breaks (1994)
Some Good Suspense
Up until near the end this film held my attention. There's plenty of suspense. Set in Houston, the story involves a hotshot young investigator named Audrey Macleah (Ally Walker) assigned to assist police Captain Swaggert (Martin Sheen) in a grisly case of severed hands.
The plot plays out in segments corresponding to dates, beginning on July 4th and spans a period of about two weeks. During this time, Macleah interviews a young boy in a mental ward, chases a prospective child killer, and ends up in a spooky old house that contains some spooky surprises. This thriller genre film sports foreboding background sounds and music to enhance the scary visuals.
Unfortunately, the ending collapses into a pile of unresolved issues and an incoherent resolution that left me confused. It's like the scriptwriter knew exactly where he wanted to take the story, but then near the end got his pages all mixed up, or lost, and used pages from another script to complete this one. Baffling.
The casting and performance of Walker is also baffling. She comes across as jittery and abrasive, in marked contrast to Sheen who gives a convincingly realistic performance. But maybe Walker's problem relates more to the Director's style. The film exhibits good production design and color cinematography. Amplified sound effects convey an appropriate immediacy to scenes.
Despite the script's loose ends and poor ending, "When The Bough Breaks" is still worth a one-time watch due to superb suspense through most of the film.
The Midnight Warning (1932)
Interesting Premise, Very Poor Production Values
Someone is firing a gun into a hotel suite to frighten guests. But who, and why? You'll never guess the "why" part. Set almost entirely indoors, "Midnight Warning" could easily be a stage play. Which isn't altogether bad. Though the script is indeed somewhat talky, there is a secondary mystery that gives the story thematic depth.
The script is not well written. An inspector that can read suspects' lips expedites the plot but his talent isn't believable as used here. The good guys always manage to be at the right place at the right time, a time-worn cliché. And as the plot proceeds, some of the male characters blend together, so they don't stand out well as unique or interesting. The morgue sequence near the end is just downright tacky.
Yet despite the script's overall poor quality, the story's underlying premise is effective, as the ending dialogue communicates a twist that puts the entire story into perspective. I had never before seen such a plot twist.
The worst element is the film's production. B&W cinematography is awful. The visuals are so dark there were scenes that I couldn't distinguish characters from a solid black background; all I could see were their white shirts. Annoying splotches appear in a few scenes, suggesting inferior film stock. And the crackling and static that overlaid the dialogue rendered poor sound quality. Of course one needs to take into account the inferior technology that existed in those early days of film-making. Production design, film direction, and acting are below average.
The underlying premise of "Midnight Warning" is thought provoking and interesting. But viewers will need to lower their expectations due to a substandard plot and dreadful production values.
Jurassic World (2015)
Those Lovable Dinosaurs
It's more tolerable than most blockbuster films, but only because the dinosaurs, however digital, still make effective characters. Not so with the humans who come across as stereotyped and annoying. I didn't know some of the human characters' names until the end credits. The human cast probably exceeds a thousand. Then there are at least a billion extras, nameless human chumps eager to tell their grandchildren they were once in a Spielberg movie.
And though not directed by him, this is, after all, a Steven Spielberg movie. That's all you really need to know, as in: action is more important than characters, plot, dialogue, casting, or acting. But, hey, the production design is good. And visual effects are really spectacular. Mostly, the film aims to please a 12 to 24 year old, easily wowed, viewer demographic.
Of all the irritations here, which include a predictable Disney-style plot, none is more annoying than the loud background music. It's a manipulative and insulting device, to remind us that the film aims to be epic in scope and costly in budget. Which is made worse by the film's run-time. At least 15 to 20 minutes could have been shaved off, mostly in the second half repetitive action.
But the dinos are still lovable. Of course, that's cinematic manipulation, too, to get us to care for and relate to these nonexistent creatures. Ever since I watched "Walking With Dinosaurs", I have enjoyed researching these prehistoric beings. "Jurassic World", with all its Steven Spielberg cinematic faults, gives us plenty of them, and for me that makes this blockbuster at least tolerable.
The Night Stalker (1972)
Supernatural Theme Is Disappointing
Narrated by eager-beaver newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin), "The Night Stalker" is Kolchak's account of his involvement in the murder cases of multiple young women in Las Vegas. His narration style is that of a diary of major events, even citing the date and time of day. The script consists of a talky first half wherein a lot of the scenes take place in meetings and one-on-one chat between Kolchak and his co-workers. Action picks up in the second half after the villain has been identified.
There are several major problems here. First, Kolchak is not an especially likable guy. He's arrogant, cocky, egocentric, superior, and dominates discussions. Second, the ghoulish theme I found boring. I would have much preferred a standard whodunit with multiple suspects. The film does contain suspense, especially in the second half, but by that time the viewer already knows who the killer is.
In addition, the script makes use of the old standby cliché whereby the lone hero solves the case and in the process makes the paid cops look inept. Also, there's no real point to the "Gail Foster" character (Carol Lynley), though Lynley does a nice job in the role.
Production design, color cinematography, and editing are acceptable if a bit uninspiring. But that's to be expected, I suppose, given that this is a TV movie. Background music is jazzy in a 1960s sort of way, except for appropriately creepy sounds during the fairly suspenseful second half. Casting is fair. Actors Oakland, Meeker, Smith, and Akins have a similar look and tend to blend into a single character. Overall acting is average.
"The Night Stalker" (1972) is a cinematic vehicle for Darren McGavin. The film will appeal more to horror fans than fans of whodunit murder mysteries. Since an explanation by logic is not possible in a supernatural theme story, I just could not relate to it. Though by no means a bad movie, I find nothing special about it.