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Thursday, December 28, 2017

FILM REVIEW OF ''SCORCHING FURY" (1952)



Rick Freers’ “Scorching Fury” (** OUT OF ****) has been described as one of “the worst westerns of the 40's and 50's.”  Indeed, this 63-minute, B-movie suffers from a bare-bones budget, and a cast of little known actors and actresses.  Nevertheless, several factors distinguish it as an oater worth watching if you crave westerns.  First, the filmmakers have lensed the action primarily on location without any reliance on obvious back projection.  You’ll see a few scenes set in the typical western town.  Phyllis Coates of the 1950’s era “Adventures of Superman” television series makes a cameo in the Tucson scene. Later, two scenes take place in a sheriff’s office and a bank. Meantime, everything else happens in the wide-open spaces. Second, if you pay attention to the dialogue, co-scribes James Craig and Richard Devon cover all the traditional themes of a horse opera.  They do a competent job of parceling out the exposition among the various characters, most of it conveyed during the campfire scenes. The theme of friendship is discussed in some detail since the two heroes were friends to start out but have drifted apart in their quest to capture the villain.  Commenting about the villain’s lack of qualms about resorting to violence, one character observes, “With that .45 in his hand, he was a tall piece of lightning.” Third, although the characters are sketchy, the actors breathe a modicum of humanity into them.  Interestingly, Richard Devon made his cinematic debut here as a good guy in a white hat who went on to portray low-down, no-account skunks in “3:10 to Yuma” and “The Comancheros.” Fifth, Freers generates some suspense by concealing the identity of the villain until the climactic showdown.  The only thing that we do know about Ward Canepa is he wears spurs the jingle, is a southpaw with a six-shooter, and has on stripped britches.  The chief shortcoming of this western is the obligatory cavalry versus the Indians subplot, with footage that looks like it might have been appropriated from another bigger budget sagebrusher.  Ironically, the heroes, the passengers, and the villains are never aware of the tribe on a rampage because the cavalry repulses them.  Furthermore, no mention in made about then in the dialogue among the passengers.  Initially, Freers cross-cuts between a lone Indian eavesdropping on the passengers around a campfire to it appear that the Indian is near them, but we never see the Indian and the passenger’s campfire in the same shot. 

“Scorching Fury” is a traditional law & order western with a surprise or two.  A gang of outlaws with bandanas over their faces waylay a stagecoach in the middle of nowhere.  Not only do these outlaws clean out the strongbox, but they also take anything of value from the passengers. Were this not enough, they cut the team of four horses loose and stampede them. A fourth horseman appears and blasts holes into a water barrel kept in the boot of the coach.  The quartet of bandits leave the passengers unarmed, without water, and on foot.  The passengers consist of Mrs. Harrison (Audrey Dineen of “Medic”), singer Cara Emmons (Peggy Nelson of “Camilla”), her guitar-playing accompanist, Lockwin (Eddie McLean of “Riders of the Pony Express”), and a young couple Drew (Allen Windsor of “The Purple Gang”) and Louise Macurda (one-time only actress Twyla Paxton), and they follow the advice of a deputy sheriff, Kirk Flamer (Richard Devon of “Magnum Force”), who was riding with them to Boone City, California. They set out to find a suitable camp site for the evening. When the musician suggests that they walk to the nearest stagecoach substation, Drew points out that it lies about 15 miles away.  While the passengers are making the best of a bad predicament, Kirk gets chummy with Cara and recounts the events that occurred in Tucson when his old friend Clint Rust (William Leslie of “The Horse Soldiers”) and he rode into town on a jackass.  Later, the two men decided to visit Adobe Wells where Clint’s uncle was the town sheriff, Sheriff J.D. (Rory Mallinson of “Dark Passage”), and he persuaded them to serve as deputies along with a third person, Ward Canepa (Sherwood Price of “Ice Station Zebra”), who was extremely proficient with firearms. J.D. assigned each of them to ride shotgun on different stagecoaches to thwart a recent crime wave of hold-ups.  The coach that Ward was dispatched to guard never arrived at its destination.  Eventually, J.D., Clint, and Kirk locate it.  They find the driver is dead and the gold shipment gone.  Worse, Kirk shows J.D. and Clint a deputy sheriff’s badge that he found beneath the driver’s body.  Clearly, the badge incriminates Ward Canepa as an outlaw.  Kirk and Clint ride separate trails to track down Ward.  Unfortunately, Clint’s uncle tries to foil a daylight bank robbery, but he doesn’t know Ward is hiding behind the front door.  Ward shoots J.D. six times and then laughs maniacally.  

Clint quits his job as a deputy and plans to exact personal revenge.  Ward catches him out in the open and shoots his horse, forcing Clint afoot.  Eventually, Clint finds Kirk and company. Kirk tries to convince his friend to pin his badge back and stick to the letter of the law.  Ward infiltrates the campsite, but the musician wounds him in the shoulder.  Despite his wound, Ward maintains in control of the situation and challenges Clint to a duel.  A ritualistic, count-to-ten, face-to-face showdown ensues.  Sure, the production values are nothing to brag about, but “Scorching Fury” isn’t as abysmal as some critics contend.  Indeed, it reminded me of the rugged succession of westerns that Budd Boetticher would direct with Randolph Scott in largely mountainous locales with Burt Kennedy’s atmospheric dialogue.  The title refers to the way Clint feels about Ward as much as the situation that Kirk and the stagecoach passengers find themselves in after they have been abandoned without water in the desert.

Monday, December 25, 2017

FILM REVIEW OF "BRIGHT" (2017)

Clearly, Netflix wants to go toe-to-toe with Hollywood, and they are challenging it with their own provocative, slam-bang, $90-million, pulp-fantasy-thriller “Bright” (*** OUT OF ****), toplining Will Smith and Joel Edgerton as a rare pair of LAPD beat cops.  Although Smith plays a human, Edgerton is cast as an Orc!  Essentially, “Suicide Squad” director David Ayer has taken his superb police procedural “End of Watch” (2012) and retooled it as something like director Graham Baker’s “Alien Nation” (1988) with the fantastic beings from Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” franchise.  Clocking in close two hours, “Bright” conjures up non-stop action, nail-gnawing suspense, unbearable tension, complete with surprises and revelations galore.  Smith is as charismatic as ever, but he isn’t mimicking his “Bad Boys” character Mike Lowery, a role that he plans to reprise in two forthcoming sequels: “Bad Boys Forever” and “Bad Boys 4.”  As veteran patrolman Daryl Ward, he is mired up to his neck in devastating debt, and his chief aim in life is to survive long enough to get his pension.  Meantime, Ward finds himself in a predicament like nothing any policeman has confronted.  The world of “Bright” is as gritty, violent, and racially charged as 21st century America, but this imaginative epic takes place in an alternate universe where far-fetched creatures, such as Orcs, Fairies, Elves, and others have been co-existing with humans since the dawn of time.  Were it not for these extraordinary characters, “Bright” would amount to little more than another foray in urban crime.  Sadly, this inventive hokum suffers from two shortcomings.  First, predictable plotting undermines the outcome because Ayer and “Victor Frankenstein” scenarist Max Landis paint themselves into a corner. Second, the filmmakers provide only the most basic backstory about this bizarre new world.  Meantime, the original “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” actress Noomi Rapace keeps things exciting as a demonic elf who tries to ice our heroes, while Edgar Ramirez is equally as tenacious as another kind of Elf with a badge. 

Patrolman Daryl Ward (Will Smith) isn’t ecstatic about having an Orc as his partner.  In the alternate universe of “Bright,” Orcs are savage, toothsome creatures who resemble a a synthesis of olive-skinned albinos and ghoulish vampire of the 1922 silent horror classic “Nosferatu.”  Basically, Orcs are blue-collar, bottom-feeders who stick together inseparably and rank beneath the most woebegone ethnic groups ravaged by poverty and racism.  Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton of “Smokin’ Aces”) is a typical Orc, and his fellow Orcs display nothing but contempt for him.  Since they have no use for him, Nick has no use for them.  Indeed, Nick has always dreamed of wearing a badge.  Imagine his surprise when his dream comes true, and the LAPD hires him on the grounds of diversity.  Meantime, Daryl is desperately trying to hold onto his job.  Unfortunately, riding with Nick is no bargain as Daryl discovers when out of nowhere a shotgun-wielding Orc blasts him with a shotgun.  Fortunately, Daryl survives, but he isn’t happy that he must resume riding with Nick.  Ward’s irate fellow police officers heap endless criticism on him for tolerating Nick. They argue that he should charge Nick for incompetency, so the LAPD will fire the rookie.  Daryl’s fellow officers fear that if Nick proves himself as a valuable contribution to the force, more Orcs will follow.

Word has spread like wildfire around Los Angeles about a virulent league of Elves known as the Inferni. Moreover, these Elves have been toiling to resurrect a renowned ‘Dark Lord’ warrior to subjugate mankind.  Legend has it the Inferni can with a magical wand deemed "a nuclear weapon that grants wishes." The Inferni are ranked as ‘bright’ because they can wield this wand.  Furthermore, accounts claim there may even be some humans who can brandish it.  Meanwhile, anybody else who dares to touch it is doomed to incinerate themselves before they can realize their dreams.  Daryl and Nick stumble onto a wand one evening in a hood when they respond to a shooting and find themselves in the middle of a supernatural showdown.  They help a renegade young Elf, Tikka (Lucy Fry of “Mr. Church”), who has slain another Inferni with that deadly incandescent wand.  Dumbfounded by these circumstances, Daryl summons his watch commander, Sergeant Ching (Margaret Cho of “One Missed Call”), and his fellow patrolmen, to make sense out of this uncanny situation.  No sooner have they arrived than the police see the wand as an answer to all their troubles.  Furthermore, they conspire to kill Daryl and Nick, so nobody will know how they acquired the wand.  Daryl turns the tables on them, then Nick and he realize they are now being stalked by a more formidable Inferni, Leilah (Noomi Rapace), who wants the wand and is prepared to kill anybody who gets in her way.  Indeed, Leilah is ten times more powerful than Tikka, and Leilah’s posse is pretty much indestructible, too.  If Daryl and Nick don’t have their hands full enough, they must contend with a crippled gangsta, Poison (Enrique Murciano of “Collateral Beauty”), who needs the wand, so he can walk again.  Poison rules an army of trigger-happy, machine-gun toting thugs.  Adding to the complications is another Elf, Kandomere (Edgar Ramirez of “Point Break”), a government agent who supervises a Federal Magic Task Force that wants the mysterious wand, too.

Director David Ayer rarely lets our embattled buddy cops catch their collective breath as they run a gauntlet consisting of the ruthless Inferni, Poison’s homicidal hellions, and corrupt LAPD officers.  Before everything works out for them, Daryl and Nick must dodge barrages of bullets and discover that the wand can resurrect the dead.  Ayer intersperses the careening car chases, harrowing shootouts, and high-octane explosions with plenty of exposition, so we learn little by little the amazing powers of the wand and the various characteristics of the heroes and villains. “Bright” delivers more than enough wattage to keep audiences enthralled before its obligatory feelgood ending

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

FILM REVIEW OF "WONDER" (2017)

Hollywood loves to recycle the same old same old, lest we forget some stories are universal to every generation.  “Perks of a Wall Flower” director Stephen Chbosky’s family-friendly feature “Wonder” (*** OUT OF ****), about a ten-year old lad with facial deformities, reminds us that physical looks aren’t everything.  Movies about people with malformed faces have been around since the days of silent movies.  Mind you, this genre of films can be divided into two kinds: those where the disfigured folks have their looks surgically reconstructed and those who endure their abnormality without the benefit of change.  Twenty-nine versions of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” about an ugly soul lurking in a church, have been released harkening as far as 1909.  At least ten versions of the venerable “Phantom of the Opera” have been produced, as early as 1916.  Joan Crawford made “A Woman’s Face” (1941) where she regained her good looks through surgery, and Mickey Rourke recovered his looks in the crime thriller “Johnny Handsome” (1989).  Director David Lynch’s celebrated saga “The Elephant Man” (1980), a plea for tolerance for the less fortunate, ranks as probably most distinguished.  This biographical, 19th century London, England, epic depicted the travails of a horrifically disfigured adult male, John Merrick, who was an otherwise wonderful person.  Reconstructive surgery wasn’t an option for Merrick.  Later, director Peter Bogdanovich’s “Mask” (1985) dealt with real-life, twentieth-century teen Rocky Dennis afflicted with craniodiaphyseal dysplasia from birth that made his face appear misshapen and bloated like a caricature.  “The Elephant Man” and “Mask” were far more graphic than “Wonder,” but each reflected the shock that occurred when normal people reacted to abnormal people.  Typically, when we see somebody who doesn’t blend in with the rest of us, we tend to alienate and ridicule them.  We treat them like circus freaks.  Although it boasts a happy ending, “Wonder” doesn’t conclude with our protagonist emerging from surgery with a new face.  He had to endure twenty-seven surgeries to look the way he does.

The charismatic hero of “Wonder” suffers from a rare hereditary genetic disorder known as Treacher Collins syndrome.  The ears, eyes, cheekbones, and chin are deformed, and it ranges from mild to severe. Indeed, August Pullman (Jacob Tremblay of “Room”) wears a plastic astronaut’s helmet in public to conceal his countenance as his parents.  Auggie’s doting mom Isabel (Julia Roberts of “Erin Brockovich”) has been schooling him at home.  Now, she can no longer adequately tutor him, because she lacks the experience to teach him about his favorite subject—science.  Reluctantly, Nate Pullman (Owen Wilson of “No Escape”) and she enroll him at Beecher Prep School, but they do so with great trepidation.  Isobel fears what lies ahead for her son as she watches him enter the school.  “Dear God,” she pleads to herself, “please let them be nice to him.” Auggie has a face that resembles something a demented plastic surgeon assembled from spare parts that didn’t match.  Nevertheless, despite his horrific appearance, Auggie is just another pre-teen who shares the same dreams and joys of any normal youngster.  “Wonder” reminds us that just because all of us aren’t stamped from the same mould is no reason to estrange those with differences. Initially, when Auggie’s parents brought him to Beecher, the compassionate headmaster, Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin of “The Princess Bride”), recruited three students of Auggie’s age to give him a tour. 

No sooner has Auggie settled into his fifth-grade class than he becomes the object of derision. “What’s the deal with your face?” one cruel student inquires. “Darth HIDEOUS,” sneers another classmate, while one more compares Auggie with Freddy Krueger.  Things reach crisis proportions when Auggie’s teacher discovers a classroom photo that Auggie has been digitally deleted from the picture.  A note on the back of the photograph reads ugly people aren’t allowed in the picture.  Gradually, Auggie makes friends, but his first and closest pal Jack Will (Noah Jupe of “Suburbicon”) unwittingly betrays him during a Halloween carnival.  Jack confides in his obnoxious classmates that were he Auggie he would hang himself.  Auggie overhears Jack because our young hero isn’t wearing his astronaut outfit as he had planned but came instead as a “Scream” demon.  Jack regrets his treachery. Courageously, Auggie perseveres despite Jack’s duplicity.  The gauntlet of insults that Auggie runs strengthens his resolve.  After Mr. Tushman discovers the culprits who made the youngster’s life an ordeal, things turn one-hundred-eighty degrees for Auggie.  Predictably, Auggie triumphs over his worst adversaries and emerges as the most popular student.

Director Stephen Chbosky and scenarists Steve Conrad of “The Pursuit of Happyness” and Jack Thorne of “A Long Way Down” adapted R.J. Palacio’s bestselling novel.  According to Palacio’s website, she served as “an art director and book jacket designer, designing covers for countless well-known and not so well-known writers in every genre of fiction and nonfiction.”  She had spent twenty years putting off writing her first novel until she realized she could dawdle no more.  Ironically, she didn’t create the cover for her own novel as she had for some many other authors!  The filmmakers have adhered faithfully to Palacio’s basic premise.  We shouldn’t isolate others simply because they don’t mirror our own image.  “Wonder” scrutinizes the dreadful consequences of bullying.  Ultimately, Chbosby and company pull their punches with their saccharine treatment of the subject matter.  Fortunately, “Wonder” doesn’t degenerate entirely into a sermonizing after-school special because Auggie has a self-depreciating sense of humor.  The sticks and stones our young hero endures during his anguish transforms him into a resilient person instead of a hopeless cry-baby who capitulates in the face of a crisis.  Jacob Tremblay delivers a sensitive, low-key performance beneath the layers of prosthetic make-up that he sports throughout this 113-minute, PG-rated, feel-good feature.  Happily, Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson restrain themselves, too.  Sure, “Wonder” will tug at your heart-strings, but only those with glacial indifference to this little fellow’s labors will leave the theater with a dry eye.

FILM REVIEW OF ''SIX BULLETS TO HELL" (2017)



The people who produced the half-baked horse opera “Six Bullets to Hell” (* OUT OF ****) craved the Spaghetti Westerns that stampeded across Techniscope screens in cinemas during the 1960s and the 1970s.  This routine shoot’em up about revenge musters a few memorable moments as a grief-stricken husband rides out to slaughter the dastards who raped and murdered his pregnant wife.  Actually, this twelve of December, straight-to-video release imitates the first part of Giulio Petroni’s “Death Rides a Horse” (1967), co-starring Lee Van Cleef and John Phillip Law, and the last half of Sergio Leone’s “For A Few Dollars More” with a town shootout.  Not only have the producers acquired cues from composer Ennio Morricone’s “The Big Gundown” (1966) soundtrack, but they have also staged their frontier fracas on the hallowed earth of Almeria, Spain, where Sergio Leone made his landmark Clint Eastwood “Dollars” trilogy.  Clearly, “Six Bullets to Hell” constituted a labor of love for co-scripters and co-directors Tanner Beard and Russell Quinn Cummings. As a long-time Spaghetti western enthusiast, I applaud their lofty ambitions.  Indeed, they had their hearts in the right place, but their heads were stuck somewhere else.  

 This scrappy simulation of a Spaghetti Western on a skeletal budget is more often embarrassing for its kitschy quality.  Characterization in “Six Bullets to Hell” is confined to the appearance and wardrobe of each person.  The most memorable is the chief villain who totes a Winchester repeating rifle in a leather saddle scabbard strapped across his back.  The dialogue is undistinguished, too. None of the cast look like they belong in a period piece.  Happily, the corny dubbing smooths out some performances.  One of the major shortcomings for avid Spaghetti western fans is the lackluster sound effects used for gunshots.  Tanner & Cummings should have replicated the cacophonous Spaghetti western gunshots instead of the bland sounds on hand.  Practically all sound in Spaghetti westerns was done during post-production, particularly the thudding hoofbeats of the horses and the mechanical sounds of revolvers as their hammers were either cocked or the cylinders twirled like roulette wheels.  Lenser Olivier Merckx loves to shoot into the sun for an artistic flare effect, but these starbursts soon become tedious.  He foregoes filters for exterior shots filmed within a room, so the outside light amounts to an impenetrable glare.

A gang of unsavory desperadoes shows up at a ramshackle ranch in the middle of nowhere.  A pregnant lady, Grace Rogers (Magda Rodriguez of “The Riddle”), has been left her alone without so much as a shotgun, while her husband has ridden off to town for supplies.  Bobby Durango (Tanner Beard) and his pistoleros rape and kill Grace for fun. Later, Durango strings up one of his own men, Nino (Nacho Di├íz), who refused to participate in the rape.  Imagine the shock that Grace’s husband Billy Rogers (Crispian Belfrage of “Doc West”) experiences when he returns to the ranch and finds Nino swinging at the end of a noose.  Afterward, Billy discovers his murdered wife strewn lifelessly in bed.  No, the filmmakers shrink from showing the savagery that Grace must have endured at their hands.  Before they left the ranch, Durango blasted her in the belly without a qualm, and left her sprawled in a pool of blood.  Naturally, grief overwhelms Billy when he stares at his dead spouse.  He hauls Nino’s corpse back to town.  Sheriff Morris (Russell Quinn Cummings) takes Nino off his hands, and Billy finds himself the recipient of bounty on Nino.  Earlier in the action, the filmmakers indulged in a bit of foreshadowing.  Briefly, Sheriff Morris and his sidekick deputy had discussed Billy’s lethal marksmanship skills with a gun.  

Our hero digs a holstered Colt’s revolver out a hope chest where he had relegated it after he quit his job as a lawman and decided to settle down.  This moment evokes memories of the Spanish-lensed western sequel “Return of the Seven” (1966) when Chico pulled his trusty six-gun out of a chest.  Decked out in black, Billy hits the vengeance trail, while Durango’s unruly gang disintegrates. They object to the way that he splits their ill-gotten gains.  Bobby appropriates half of everything, and they get to divide the rest.  The best scene occurs when our grim hero confronts one of his wife’s rapists in a saloon and guns him down in cold blood.  Shortly before the rapist dies at Billy’s hand, he protests that he is not armed.  Neither was my wife replies our steely-eyed hero and then repeatedly fills him full of lead.  This is as about as close as Tanner & Cummings come to depicting the amoral violence of the Spaghetti Western.  Another beef that dyed-in-the-wood Spaghetti fans will have with this movie is the lazy way the gunshot-riddled extras expire.  They don’t hurl their hands high up and pirouette before crashing into a tangled heap.  Instead, they fall down without any flair.  
“Six Bullets to Hell” also pays tribute to the original “Magnificent Seven.”  The first time we see Durango and his dastards, they loot a church and find next to nothing in the poor box.  The priest informs them that the congregation has stashed the bulk of their savings in a nearby bank.  Nevertheless, the bad guys take the few pennies in the poor box, just as Calvera’s bandits bragged about in the opening scene of “The Magnificent Seven.”  Sadly, the primary actors don’t look rugged enough to convince us that they are capable of their heinous acts that they perpetrate.  Crispan Belfrage looks like a sad sack version of a hero.  In fact, nobody in this western can act worth a plug nickel.  Some of the cast don’t know how to handle firearms.  A bare-bones valentine to the genre, “Six Bullets to Hell” makes some of the worst Spaghetti westerns look like masterpieces.  Altogether, as gratifying an homage as it is to Spaghetti westerns, “Six Bullets to Hell” qualifies as lame from start to finish.