Saturday, March 29, 2014

Netflix'd :: Clearing Out the Instant Que :: The Only Good Bug Is a Dead Bug in Shinji Aramaki's Starship Troopers: Invasion (2012)

As for what happens next, Would you like to more? Well, Citizen, then do your part and give Starship Troopers: Invasion a spin as soon as possible to find out. Look, I know heeding my highly volatile film enthusiasm is kinda like dealing with an errant puppy when it comes to recommendations, in that malicious intent is never intended, and it could be considered adorable in some circles, but, in the end, I still missed the paper and the carpet is now soiled. However, when dealing with an animated movie from Japan that fetishizes the merging of men and women, rubber, and machine into the ultimate killing machines, with lots of cartoon boobies, mindless violence, dismemberment, animated nookie, giant robot chainsaws, big damn arachnids, and Johnny F@cking Rico -- make that General Johnny F@cking Rico, all compressed into a giant cheeseball of Oo-RAH! awesome stoopidity, then, I say, What's not to love? In other words: C'mon, you apes. You wanna live forever?!?

Starship Troopers: Invasion (2012) Sola Digital Arts :: Stage 6 Films :: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment / EP: Edward Neumeier, Casper Van Dien / P: Joseph Chou / D: Shinji Aramaki / W: Flint Dille, Robert A. Heinlein (novel) / M: Tetsuya Takahashi / S: Luci Christian, David Matranga, Justin Doran, David Wald, Emily Neves

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Recommendations :: A Baker's Dozen of What I've Been Watching that You Should Watch, Too, or Avoid at Your Own Peril.

Set against the carnage and chaos of the amphibious landings at Salerno, Italy, Lewis Milestone's World War II mini-epic, A Walk in the Sun (1945), follows an infantry platoon that takes the initiative to complete their mission after all of their officers have been killed. More of a character study and a crackerjack lesson in acting chemistry, each member of the outfit gets their own, well, moment in the sun -- with special shout-outs to Norman Lloyd (as the platoon's cynical prophet), Herbert Rudley (as the lead non-com who cracks), and Dana Andrews (who keeps them moving forward no matter what the cost). Also agitating the gravel are John Ireland, Lloyd Bridges, and the three-punch combo of Richard Conte, George Tyne and Steve Brodie as the machine-gun squad, who burn through Harry Brown and Robert Rossen's screenplay that just crackles with nearly Hawksian levels of camaraderie and banter as the action constantly escalates and deflates with each objective passed until the day is won.

In Berberian Sound Studio (2012), Toby Jones plays a nebbish sound engineer who is hired to supervise the foley work and sound-mixing for an Italian horror movie (-- and judging by the wardrobe and equipment, I'd say this takes place sometime between 1968 and 1975). Coming from the world of English travelogues and nature documentaries, our hero is quite unprepared for the violent and explicit Argento-esque witch-burner he must finish nor the clash of culture with his new bosses and co-workers. Fair warning, this is one of those 'is it real or is this just a manifestation of our protagonist's decent into madness' kinda things. The end result of which is a mind-blowing build up of such staggering proportions the ending can't help but generate some frustrations and consternation. Regardless, Jones is a pleasure to watch and the plot he is plugged into is a fascinating behind the scenes look at the sleight-of-hand sound-booth end of the movie-making process.

When people ask why Robert Ryan is my favorite actor, I usually just tell them to watch The Set-Up (1949) as the answer. I guarantee those who follow through on this challenge will watch riveted as a crooked manager takes a payoff from a local hood to throw a bout; but he makes the mistake of not telling his (not over the hill but we can see it from here) boxer about the fix to keep more of the dough (only the trainer is in on it with him.) Stoker (Ryan), the boxer in question, is keenley aware the end of his career is coming with nothing to show for it and is terrified by his future prospects where punching and getting punched is the only thing he knows how to do. He's also in the middle of a marital implosion with his wife (Totter), who can no longer sit around and watch her husband's brains be scrambled even further when he refuses to quit. What happens next is fairly predictable, but, oh, children, the execution by director Robert Wise and everyone else involved is simply amaze-balls.

Ever have one of those days where it feels like you're ready to fight the good fight only to wind up tripping over your own intestines before expiring? If so, have I got a movie for you! Super Ninjas (1982), which began life as Five Element Ninja, hits you right upside the head with a whole loaf of Shaw Brothers kung-fu whackadoodlery. Try to get your head around this: A Chinese sensei's martial artists beat a rival Japanese warlord's samurai. Samurai sends word to his brother, leader of an elite cadre of ninja, who possess the power of the elements (earth, wood, wind, water, and fire), before committing hari kari. Super Ninja and his brood wipe out the sensei and his men quite spectacularly, leaving one lone survivor to learn the skills he needs to be a Super-Dooper Ninja to exact his revenge, which he does, even more spectacularly. Now, I'm not the biggest fan of HK films, finding them to be a tad exhausting in the lather, rinse, repeat of their interchangeable plots, but this one is just so nucking futz. Staggeringly so. This display of eye-popping action, hilarious dubbing, grue, dismemberment, wire-fu, fists 'o' fury, and mad ninja gopher skills, had me Ctrl-Alt-Deleting my brain too many times to count. Truly amazing.

On the closing night of a theatrical production of 'Murder in the Dark', two escaped prisoners take refuge in the theater, are discovered backstage, and spend the rest of the performance terrorizing the cast, forcing them to finish the show to clear the audience so they can make their escape. Things go awry and, basically, once a character dies onstage, they meet the same fate off. The Last Night (1983) is an obscure, British, direct to video slasher movie -- so rare I am unable to unearth any kind of art for it. (Poster, video box, nada.) Not surprising, because the film kinda stinks, which is too bad because the premise is rather clever and in more capable hands might've really been something. Kind of amazing how this thing presciently predicts Michael Haneke's Funny Games in some aspects, but, again, the whole thing is wasted in the execution, which, somewhat mercifully, doesn't even break an hour of run time.

Now, turns out there's a reason why The Last Night was so short. Apparently, it was part of a direct to video anthology, coupled with director Michael J. Murphy's other short feature, Invitation to Hell (1983), which proves just as bad -- nah, probably a little worse, actually, but just as mercifully short. Here, the worst friend in the world invites her BFF to a Halloween party only to wind up Rosemary's Baby'd. I think. Truthfully, the audio was so hot and distorted on the copy I watched I had no idea what anyone was saying, and so, I got to make up my own plot, which found our trapped heroine moving through a series of beaus, looking for The Children's Rainy Day Book of Ipecacs for the right recipe for the perfect 'Killer Shew' to banish BeelzeDud before she becomes the devil's incubator. Passable gore effects and a kick'n Bride of Frankenstein costume, beyond that -- *bleaugh*.

Until Do You Like Hitchcock?, Cat O' Nine Tails (1971) was probably Dario Argento's most conventional thriller. The title comes from our mismatched trio of sleuths, a reporter (James Franciscus), a blind crossword puzzle-maker with an ear for intrigue (Karl Malden), and the puzzle-maker's young niece (Carolis), who chase around nine elusive leads to solve a string of murders plaguing a genetic research company. Franciscus and Malden are great together and deserved a franchise. And aside from a few traditional Red Herrings, our team faithfully efforts to unravel the clues, seemingly always one step behind the guilty, putting themselves in danger, and unmask the killer -- even though the killer's chromosomal motivation has long been disproved as junk science. Yeah. This round, Argento seemed more focused on the look of the film, which is gorgeous, and some wild editing techniques, giving us the normal feast for the eyes while not making our brains hurt as the plot pretzels itself like it did in Tenebre or Deep Red, proving once again that sometimes less is more.

When an American diplomat is captured by the Viet Cong and taken into Laos for his eventual transfer to China(?), the CIA recruits The Devil's Advocates -- a quintet of surly Hell's Angels rejects, to get him back because of ... because of ... hrrrrmmmmm ... well, because of reasons. Apparently, most of these bikers are ex-servicemen, and after fleshing out their characters a bit, they Megaforce-ize their scooters and, soon enough, all hell breaks loose as this *ahem* 'clandestine mission' has all the sneaky subtlety of Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. But! Things go south when they try to bust the prisoner out of the camp. Turns out the diplomat doesn't want to be rescued due to more of these 'reasons' as the film gets even dumber when we switch gears from gung-ho Fillipinosploitation action flick and director Jack Starrett brings out the clown-hammer of morality and mercilessly beats his production senseless until it's an anti-war screed. Again, The Losers (1970) is dumber than a bag of hammers; the mission and motivations make no sense whatsoever, but the sheer audacity of it, coupled with a fantastic cast -- William Smith, Adam Roarke, Paul Koslo, and Bernie Williams (the captain from Starsky and Hutch), and some incredible action set-pieces, makes this an exceptionally good time.

Dear Penthouse Magazine, I didn't think this could happen to me. I was a lonely prospector with a dubious treasure map, lost in the deserts of Mexico, with my talking mule, Toby. There I was, desperate, out of water, when suddenly, there appeared an oasis inhabited with six nubile nymphs who cavorted around on some playground equipment cleverly disguised as trees, shrubs and vines. And they were totally starkers! Well, except for their naughty naughty bits. Much sun-bathing, rain dancing and general interpretive hip-shaking ensued. Despite all of this booberific temptation, much to the chagrin of Toby, who, turns out, really has a talent for puns and double entendre, my hunt for the treasure continued in spite of all this bumpin' and grinding. And just when I thought I'd found the buried treasure, turns out I hadn't. Toby swears this was all a mirage, but who can say for sure. Yup, that about sums up Adam and Six Eves (1962) alrighty.

A Tragedy at Midnight (1942) is a fast-paced crackerjack of a mystery, where John Howard and Margaret Lindsay star as Nick and Nora Knockoff who, waitaminute ... That's not right. Oh, yeah, they star as Greg and Beth Sherman, married super-sleuths at large. See, he's the star of a radio program who solves current crimes and makes the police look the fool. But now he's the prime suspect when the body of a woman winds up in their bedroom. Now, the plot to find out who the victim is and whodunit is a little cock-eyed in this due to 15 minutes being excised out the print currently circulating around Amazon and Netflix, which completely omits several important clues; like the bedroom the couple was sleeping in not being their own. (Apparently, it's the TV print Republic chopped up for syndication.) It definitely is The Thin Man lite, but our stars spark the chemistry set and have this thing cooking with gas. Plus, there's an added bonus of Keye Luke as a proto-Kato, who is always around to get our couple out of jam and break out his kung-fu whenever needed.

Here we have Bob Clark's speculative take on what would've happened if Arthur Conan Doyle's master sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, had been pitted against Jack the Ripper. What I appreciated about Murder by Decree (1979) the most is the conspiratorial angle as to why the stymied police refuse to bring Holmes and Watson into the investigation in the first place as the trail of the killer leads to the monarchy. How? Well, I don't want to spoil it, because the onion-peeling is a lot of fun. And Christopher Plummer and James Mason are just great as the two-punch combo of Holmes and Watson. And yet, something was rubbing me wrong. And then it finally hit me: being plugged into this kind of historical tale, especially this one, means our dynamic duo is destined for failure. Basically, if you like your Sherlock Holmes a day late and dollar short, here's your movie.

Based on the Nurse Adams mysteries of Mary Roberts Rinehart, the cinematic adaptation of Miss Pinkerton (1932) results in a bizarre mash-up of an old dark house mystery, a police procedural, and a screwball comedy of errors. When a nurse (Joan Blondell) is loaned out to the police department to keep an eye on the sickly eye-witness to a suspicious death at a secluded mansion, she conspires with the detective in charge (George Brent) to keep her eyes and ears open in a hope someone in the house will slip up and reveal what really happened. Was it suicide? Or was it murder? Or was it a suicide staged to look like a murder as part of an insurance scam? The answer to that is a bit of a slog as the action is a bit too repetitive in spots, with too many auxiliary Red Herrings who almost spoils the soup, and the mystery that unfolds makes no sense whatsoever. But! The film proves highly entertaining anyway thanks to Blondell's gung-ho efforts.

When the U.S. and the Soviet Union unwittingly detonate two of the largest atomic bombs yet simultaneously, the planet's orbit is altered, leaving the Earth circling ever closer to the sun with each passing day. Told through the eyes of a couple of newspaper reporters (Edward Judd and Leo McKern), whose investigations into the strange weather phenomenon, horrific global climate shift, and an unexpected eclipse, uncover a truth no one wants to hear. And once that's sussed out, the only thing left to do is report on the collapse of civilization as we know it while the world withers and melts away and what's left of mankind clings onto the hope of one final, desperate act to correct what they most probably and irrevocably broke. Does it work? Maaaaybeeee ... I think The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1962) is probably Val Guest's most under-appreciated film. Perhaps it's a little too sobering for some but what I always appreciated about it most was not only do you get a crackerjack of a sci-fi doomsday scenario but it's also one of the most accurate portrayals of a newspaper organization covering said crisis that I've seen in film. (18 years insider experience, so there. *thhbbttthh*) Also, Janet Munro goes topless. Great, great stuff. 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Favorites :: Pulp Covers :: G.G. Fickling's Honey West Novels (1957-1974)

"I first thought of Marilyn Monroe, and then I thought of  
Mike Hammer and decided to put the two together..."

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx -- G.G. Flicking











Monday, March 10, 2014

Favorites :: Character Spotlight :: When Nerves of Steele Fatigue and Finally Snap in William Wellman's The Story of G.I. Joe (1945)

There's a moment in George Clooney's The Monuments Men (2014), a World War II tale of a special squad efforting to preserve and rescue what's left of Europe's art treasures from the plundering Nazis, where Bill Murray and Bob Balaban's characters are stuck in the Ardennes at Christmas time. And as the Battle of the Bulge rumbles all around them, Murray receives a recording from home, alas, with no way to listen to it. His friend comes through, though, playing the record over the PA system for the whole encampment to hear. I admit, I teared up a bit during this scene, as Murray's daughter's Christmas Carol echoed through the woods and the ears of those so far away from home, but, I know I was also crying a bit for the stirred up memories of Sgt. Warnicki from William Wellman's The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), too, who also received a similar record, which holds the voice of his infant son whom he's never heard speak.

On the surface, The Story of G.I. Joe is an autobiographical look at famed war correspondent, Ernie Pyle. But just like with his books and essays, the film is not about Pyle, per see, but about Pyle serving as a witness to those men fighting the good fight -- not the where and the why, necessarily, but the frustrations and the 'hurry up and waiting' punctuated by sudden and terrible outbursts of violence and terror of the who. Here, the reporter follows one particular outfit from their disastrous baptism of fire at the Kasserine Pass in North Africa to the invasion of Italy that is loosely based on his Pulitzer Prize winning piece on the death of Captain Waskow and the impact it had on his men. 

Burgess Meridith is just great as the lyrical Pyle, who tries to personalize and put a face on the 'gravel agitators' in his columns for those back home; as is Robert Mitchum as the rapidly promoted Captain Walker. But the film is stolen out from under them both by Freddie Steele's Sgt. Warnicki and his quest for a working phonograph, whose comical build up leaves the viewer a bit unprepared for the truly brutal and heart-rending climax of this plot thread at the foot of Monte Cassino, where he finally gets it working, hears his son's greeting, and the months of accumulated fatigue and grueling combat finally pushes one man over the edge. 

The resulting dust-up as his comrades try to contain him from taking the hill by himself proves just as harrowing, with Warnicki beaten into the mud, a reverse-engineered take on civilization as he devolves back into the ooze that sprung us all. Kudos to Steele for pulling off the detonation of this emotional time-bomb so effectively, which is even more amazing when you consider he wasn't even an actor.

Born Frederick Earle Burgett, at the age of 14, Steele took up boxing as a profession and, after a decade of bouts, 'The Tacoma Thumper' was recognized as the middle-weight champion of the world from 1936-1938, compiling a record of 125-5, knocking out almost half of his opponents in the process. Steele's fighting career came to a premature end due to a series of auto accidents and other accumulated injuries and health issues. However, his celebrity status in the ring found him mixing in several Hollywood circles as well -- most notably, John Wayne's.

Known for his hard-hitting and fast footwork, Steele broke into showbiz when his feet doubled for Errol Flynn's in the fight scenes for Raoul Walsh's Gentlemen Jim (1942). Several bit parts followed, including a few for Preston Sturges, who gave him his first credited role in Hail the Conquering Hero (1944). He was absolutely hilarious in that, but Steele seemingly got his big break with Wellman's World War II epic as the hickish, tobacco-spitting, and tough of as nails, Warnicki. He bore the facade of a simpleton, with unsuspected depth, character and courage. Mitchum's Walker might've been the brains of the outfit, but Warnicki was the glue. And it should be noted that it was his mental collapse that rallies the outfit long enough to achieve the victory that had been eluding them for weeks.

It's amazing stuff that might've been fumbled in some other hands -- and it almost was. Remember, Wellman was a pilot who served in the Air-Corps during World War I and he hated the infantry, and therefore, refused all overtures from producer Lester Cowan flat until he spent some time with Pyle and learned how much the G.I.s truly revered him. (Pyle was so influential he campaigned for and succeeded in getting Congress to authorize extra combat pay for those serving in the front lines.) The only other non-combatant similarly adored was cartoonist Bill Mauldin, another Pulitzer winner, whose Willy and Joe strips were quite popular for their honesty, irreverence, and the resulting ire drawn from the brass for the same (-- scenes and scenarios which were pilfered mercilessly for this film). And to add even more authenticity, the army allowed United Artists the use of many veterans from North Africa, Sicily, and the Italian campaigns as extras as they were transferred to the Pacific theater of operations. Sadly, most of these men were later killed in action on Okinawa, including Pyle, who was killed not long after the film wrapped. His last words were asking another soldier if he was okay before a bullet struck him down.

Along with his books and columns, The Story of G.I. Joe makes for a fine memorial for Pyle. It also served as Mitchum's big breakthrough movie, landing him his only Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He lost to James Dunn for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I've seen them both. Loved them both. But, Mitchum was robbed. And frankly, Steele was better than both of them that year anyway.

Alas, unlike Mitchum, this breakout performance did little to advance Steele's acting career. His piercing eyes and chiseled features were offset by a flattened nose that resulted in a nasally, almost cartoonish rasp of a voice that would've never allowed him leading man status; but the potential for a rock-solid character actor was there, evidenced by a couple of memorable performances in albeit minor roles. I especially liked him as the failed voice of reason for Raymond Burr's gang of hoods in Desperate (1947) and as part of a remarkable one-two punch combo as the muscle for bad guy Peter Lorre in The Black Angel (1946). His last film was Lewis Selier's steamy film noir, Whiplash (1948). After which, he gave up on acting and moved back home to Washington, where he opened a saloon in Westport with his wife, Helen, which they ran together until he suffered a debilitating stroke in 1980. Steele passed away four years later.

Perhaps it was just the right role molded for just the right person, but Sgt. Warnicki is one of my favorite characters from my second favorite war film -- the favorite being Wellman's Battleground; a truly great film in the same vein, who also saw one of its character actors robbed of an Oscar statuette. (All apologies to Dean Jaeger, but James Whitmore was ah-mazing as Sgt. Kinnie.) No matter what picture or genre, Wellman always had a thing for camaraderie, making this genre almost tailor made for his sensibilities. Like Pyle, he was less interested about why they were fighting but who was doing the fighting and the dynamics of who you were fighting with. Rousing, inspiring, heart-wrenching, and perhaps most important of all, credible, which guys like Freddie Steele brought to the table in spades. And I can't recommend his performance and this film enough.

Other Points of Interest:

The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) Lester Cowan Productions :: United Artists / P: Lester Cowan / AP: David Hall / D: William A. Wellman / W: Leopold Atlas, Guy Endore, Philip Stevenson, Ben Bengal, Ernie Pyle (novels) / C: Russell Metty / E: Albrecht Joseph / M: Louis Applebaum, Ann Ronell / S: Burgess Meredith, Robert Mitchum, Freddie Steele, Wally Cassell, Jimmy Lloyd
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