A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: January, 2015

“The Deadly Bees” (1966)

"The Deadly Bees" poster


It’s funny how fast the fear goes away when movies try to magnify something that renders many folks skittish. For instance, a regular spider scooting across the kitchen floor is enough to have the most stout of heart shrieking like a 1930s society matron, yet a giant spider is more often than not cause for snickers and derision (you hear that, Will Smith?). Just because the presence of whatever skeeves out viewers has been increased, it doesn’t mean they’ll be doubly unsettled, a problem that 1966’s The Deadly Bees suffers tenfold due to the mundane manner in which it tries jacking up its stakes. The film was a bit of an experiment for England’s Amicus Productions, an attempt to break from their famed line of anthology horror films and see how they fare at tackling a less fantastic, somewhat more plausible form of terror. Fans of vintage British chillers might have fun searching The Deadly Bees for appearances from their favorite character actors of the era, but those desiring an engaging “when animals attack” experience will only find a whole mess of smoke being blown up their hindquarters.

The life of a singing superstar is murder for Vickie Robbins (Suzanna Leigh). Constant concerts and recording sessions have run her ragged, culminating in her collapsing from exhaustion during a TV appearance. No more bubblegum pop for her — the doctor prescribes plenty of rest, and he knows the perfect place for her to get it. Vicki is sent to Seagull Island, an isolated hamlet where she’ll relax at the home of farmer Ralph Hargrove (Guy Doleman). Much to the consternation of his wife (Catherine Finn), Hargrove forgoes most of his regular chores in favor of tending to his bees, a fascination that strikes Vicki as especially intense and peculiar. She witnesses several strange goings-on after getting to the farm, not the least of which is the sudden arrival of a killer bee swarm that aggressively attack anything in their path. The little winged demons seem to be especially focused on the Hargrove residence, causing mayhem and death with every appearance. Fearing for her life, Vicki consults another bee enthusiast (Frank Finlay) living on the island, but will she get to the bottom of what evil is afoot before she’s stung into silence?

The Deadly Bees is credited as the first — if not the first — thriller to feature those that buzz as the primary threat. It’s not the most illustrious of genres, what with made-for-TV pulsepounders and Irwin Allen disaster flicks being included in its ranks, and as it turns out, the one that inspired them all isn’t in any better shape itself. The Deadly Bees is more than just a silly little creature feature; a perfect storm of calamities and inconsistencies has converged upon this flick, determined to suppress any part of it that might turn out to be legitimately entertaining. From a technical standpoint, the film is in seriously poor shape, with the abundance of obvious soundstage sets, bulky plastic bugs, and poorly-superimposed swarms of winged doom that curb-stomp one’s suspension of disbelief. The script is in an equally sorry state, as it features the dimmest cast of characters you’ve ever seen wandering around and trying to play catch up with the most transparent mystery ever devised. The plot just barely puts forth an effort to conceal its “shocking” truth, leaving those moments designed to arouse suspicion and make the requisite red herring look as guilty as possible filled with people acting hilariously bitter for no good reason.

Further dragging The Deadly Bees down into the dregs of killer animal cinema is the fact that so few of its characters, be they good or bad, exude a strong personality. Leigh tries her hardest to give a sympathetic performance, but the screenplay (co-penned by Psycho author Robert Bloch, who disowned the final film) undermines her at every single turn. She gets absolutely nothing to do but cower, look confused, or some combination of both. I know she’s intended to be a blank slate to some degree, so that viewers can insert themselves into the flick and vicariously experience the scares, but this thing takes it way too far, drawing Vicki so thinly that we can’t be bothered to care about her making it out alive or even if she just gets the rest she needs. As far as Finlay and Doleman go as the film’s resident bee aficionados, both act so overtly creepy that after it’s revealed which one is innocent and which is a madman (the least confounding quandary in movie history), not even the good guy feels all that appealing. Surprisingly, one of the few bright spots is Finn’s turn as Hargrove’s chain-smoking wife, who dedicates her screen time to dishing up belly laugh-inducing degrees of resentment and anger. It’s also fun to see Hammer and Amicus veteran Michael Ripper turn up, this time playing a bartender/sleuth who investigates the bee killings himself.

But despite the woeful grades it receives in nearly every department, I really can’t muster up too much hatred for The Deadly Bees. Maybe having grown up watching the film get deservedly chided on “Mystery Science Theater 3000” has endeared it to me in some weird way, but it’s 80-something minutes of stupid that goes down easily and never becomes offensively awful. Outside of British horror completists, The Deadly Bees won’t hold a lot of value for too many people, a forgettable thriller that most of society won’t think twice about swatting away.

“Pork Chop Hill” (1959)

"Pork Chop Hill" poster


1959’s Pork Chop Hill is a bridge linking two different eras of war pictures. Prior to its release, the image of the genre (barring the typical exceptions) was one best described as propaganda for a good cause, films made to entertain as much as to inspire audiences to enlist or help out some other way. These stories came packaged with tragedy and devastation, of course, but one can only watch them now and see just how much of the horrible reality was left off the screen. But Pork Chop Hill aims to change that, expanding its scope to surround the bombast found in rah-rah combat features of the time with a feeling of despair more relatable to those viewers who experienced action firsthand. It’s a balance that plays out remarkably well in the movie’s favor, resulting in a wise and well-rounded narrative that holds out for hope while acknowledging the hell that war is.

Pork Chop Hill takes place during the waning days of the Korean War. Peace talks are underway in Panmunjom, with American forces working around the clock to negotiate a truce with the armies of North Korea and Communist China. Some say the conflict is just about over, but tell that to Lt. Joe Clemons (Gregory Peck). He’s in command of a unit on the front lines that hasn’t known a moment’s peace in ages, with resources depleting and more troops perishing on the battlefield each day. Another blow is dealt when word gets out that the Chinese have captured Pork Chop Hill, an outpost that, aside from housing a bunker or two, holds no tactical value to the enemy. Because of this, Clemons’ superiors are hesitant to send reinforcements and have more lives potentially lost, but the lieutenant has other ideas. Knowing that Uncle Sam will ultimately lose face if they’re beaten over the fate of one lousy little hill, Clemons leads the charge to seize Pork Chop back, taking it upon himself to see that the men under him possess the morale to put up what may be their final fight.

It was only fitting that Pork Chop Hill be helmed by Lewis Milestone. As the director of 1930’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Milestone knew a thing or two about war cinema, having helped shape and popularize a formula from scores of genre installments to follow would borrow inspiration. But with Pork Chop Hill, he’s much more concentrated on acquainting the audience with the feeling of being trapped on the battlefield instead of acknowledging any melodramatic clichés they’d gotten used to. There is a large cast of characters, but we don’t get to know them for long before the conflict that takes up the lion’s share of the running time goes into effect. Our glimpses at what subplots do emerge are fleeting at best, since establishing a “you are there” atmosphere is of greater precedence to Milestone than awarding every character their moment in the sun, regardless of how expendable they ultimately are. Some soldiers crack jokes, some display cowardice, and some wander about the hill in a daze, each contributing to a mosaic of reactions that tells us everything we need to know about how differently war impacts certain people. You don’t even come away from the movie recalling most of their names, yet the experience is harrowing all the same, between the constant artillery barrages and psychological taunts issued by an enemy broadcaster (Viraj Amonsin). The setting comes across as very authentic, and the editing does an amazing job of distracting you from the fact that the film consists mostly of the same continuous battle.

Of course, Pork Chop Hill needs something to keep things focused, a moral compass to look to and prevent the proceedings from drowning in hopeless despair. Fortunately, the picture has just that, in the form of Peck’s Lt. Clemons. As the story’s events unfold, we see him run absolutely ragged, at his wit’s end from having to deal with the bureaucratic heel-dragging delaying the support he needs to putting on a brave face for those exhausted troops searching for a reason to continue. It’d be easy to put Clemons on a pedestal and let a couple monologues do all the necessary spirit-lifting (which an actor of Peck’s incredible stature could do in his sleep), but Pork Chop Hill is more respectful than that. The picture allows this character to be a human being, letting us see his thought process at work as he tries convincing himself that his mission has a shot at success before he can honestly tell his men the same thing. Peck’s performance is a true stunner, and he’s backed up by an expansive cast of familiar faces with various degrees of screen exposure. The likes of Martin Landau and Harry Dean Stanton show up only for a brief moment or two, while others (including Woody Strode and Robert Blake) are fortunate enough to have their characters featured just a little more prominently than others. The shared sense of camaraderie and fatigue really comes through, and while the flick still has a few traces of Hollywood gloss hanging around, not one condescending note is struck during its 99 minutes.

Pork Chop Hill ranks alongside Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet as one of the greatest movies about the Korean War (a conflict depicted far less frequently on the screen than others). It has an intelligent head on its shoulders, one that enables it to hope for the best in dark times while keeping realistic, to bring the horrors of battle to the screen without coming off as oppressive, and to depict the enemy as calculating without painting them as soulless monsters. Pork Chop Hill isn’t pro-war or anti-war but rather simply about war, matter-of-fact in its presentation of the subject of combat but more than able to whip up a compelling story with the material it has.

(Pork Chop Hill is now available on Blu-ray from Olive Films.)

“Over the Top” (1987)

"Over the Top" poster


I’ve always been confounded by the power that Sylvester Stallone wielded in the ’80s. That he became a movie star isn’t what’s confusing — Rocky Balboa is the ultimate heroic schmoe, so of course he clicked with audiences — but rather that his influence soared to such towering heights. Here was a guy who had enough pull to get nearly any cast or crew member who rubbed him the wrong way fired and finagle writing credits on productions where the extent of his involvement is still debated. But one of the most unbelievable factoids yet is that in 1987, the makers of Over the Top saw Stallone as so hot of a commodity, they allocated almost half of the film’s $25 million budget just to hire him to play the lead. The rest is the stuff of cult cinema legend, as repeat cable airings and countless tapes adorning video store shelves have ensured that this flick and its bizarre premise remain in the public consciousness long after its initial release. Truth be told, however, Over the Top isn’t terribly far off from being a legitimately well-made drama, but it lapses into abject goofiness far too many times, courtesy of its inability to provide the story with even the most basic building blocks.

Stallone plays ultra-buff truck driver Lincoln Hawk — or “Hawks,” depending on whether or not the writers were drifting off at the keyboard during a particular scene. He’s led a solitary life for a long time, but all that changes when his ex-wife (Susan Blakely) calls on him for a favor. On the eve of undergoing heart surgery, she asks that Lincoln pick up their son Michael (David Mendenhall) from military school and spend some quality time together as they drive to visit her. Not having seen one another in ten years, their reunion is rocky to say the least, considering Lincoln’s old father-in-law (Robert Loggia) has done everything in his power to distance the two. But father and son soon start warming up to each other, especially after the former introduces his progeny to his greatest passion: arm wrestling. Lincoln is one of the best there is, and he’s got his sights set on winning a new big rig in an upcoming Las Vegas tournament. But as Lincoln’s bond with Michael strengthens, the more his former pops-in-law becomes determined to drive them apart for good.

Over the Top is unquestionably one of the most frustrating films I’ve ever dealt with. It didn’t whip me into a Tazmanian Devil-style conniption of anger and spittle, but that it spends its 90-something minutes shrugging its way through scenes that beg to be fleshed out with the simplest of exposition is a source of constant aggravation. You get a general idea of what beats the story wants to convey, but it fails to fill the gaps with the sort of background information that really wouldn’t have taken much effort to invent. What drove Lincoln to abandon his family, yet still maintain what seems to be a pleasant relationship with his ex? Why does Loggia’s character harbor such hatred towards Lincoln and dedicate what must be hundreds of thousands of dollars to getting him out of the picture? How come Michael is so furious with his father for leaving him and his mom, yet all is forgiven after seeing him win one arm wrestling match? Over the Top knows where it wants to go, but it doesn’t want to put the work into making it all connect; “just because” is this movie’s mantra, a piss-poor excuse used to hand-wave away any and all matters of motivation. The many instances of high emotion the film presents are completely unearned, making it look as though the cast is reciting from a rough outline of the plot rather than a fully-realized screenplay.

But as its defenders (or at least those who ironically worship the ground it walks on) will tell you, story isn’t why they love watching Over the Top, and I can see where they’re coming from. The film’s pacing is so swift and its events so strange in nature, it all does a pretty decent job of distracting you from how it doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the narrative. Watching Over the Top is like cracking into a time capsule that preserved a moment in history you’re not even sure existed, so seeing director Menahem Golan (of Golan-Globus infamy) try to get the audience all excited at the notion of peering behind the arm wrestling circuit’s curtain is a strangely interesting novelty. If nothing, the movie’s final act attempts to apologize for all the half-baked family drama that came before it by bringing you a solid half-hour of insanity once Lincoln makes it to the Vegas tournament, a cavalcade of bearded musclemen slapping each other, guzzling motor oil, and eating cigars that’s endlessly amusing. But outside of this, Stallone himself is, oddly enough, the closest we get to finding something honestly good about this flick. It’s weird saying this about a vehicle that features him screaming and drenched in sweat, but this has some of the best acting Stallone’s ever done, with his primarily shy affectation suggesting deeper levels to Lincoln that the script couldn’t bother itself with exploring.

Over the Top isn’t a good movie by a longshot, but boy, is it ever an entertaining one. Though I seldom buy into the “so bad, it’s good” philosophy, this is definitely an exception, a sloppily-assembled production that nevertheless teems with liveliness and always has a reason to make you doubt the mental condition of those who bankrolled it up its sleeve. To say that Over the Top is a mess would be doing it a kindness, but there’s enough hilarious machismo and Kenny Loggins music running rampant to leave you not minding so much.

“Boy Meets Girl” (2014)

"Boy Meets Girl" poster


When concerns of the heart are on the line, there’s no such thing as “normal.” Contrary to what one force or another has been dictating for eons, there is no formula for a happy ending, no guidelines to explain how or why we develop such deep affection towards those we do. That cinema has by and large shied away from depicting the complicated path romance can be (especially in this day and age) is truly disheartening, and it’s for this reason — if no other — that I’m grateful something like Boy Meets Girl has come to pick up the slack. Not only does the film display great bravery in incorporating such seldom-addressed themes as gender identity and sexual orientation, it does so with a sense of positivity. Boy Meets Girl‘s characters encounter unusual challenges but aren’t defined by them, with the movie regarding its players like anyone else in a love story with woes to work through. Unfortunately, a great attitude is just about all this picture has to go on, as a stilted screenplay and a few too many broad performances end up holding this back from being the bold game-changer it falls agonizingly short of becoming.

Ricky (Michelle Hendley) is a small-town girl with big dreams. Though she has the company and steadfast support of her sarcastic best friend Robby (Michael Welch), she still yearns to flee from her rural confines, further her dreams of becoming a clothes designer, and settle down into a serious relationship. The lack of suitable suitors in her hometown has made that last part a tad tricky for Ricky, but there’s something else that makes a girl in her situation unique. Ricky is a transgender woman, born male but having figured out the person she was meant to be early on in her life. But just as she’s begun lamenting the shortage of good guys in her area, into her workplace walks Francesca (Alexandra Turshen) to throw things for a bigger loop still. A local rich girl, Francesca instantly strikes up a friendship with Ricky, one that evolves into something more even after the latter reveals her background. But as the two explore their respective strange new feelings, there are obstacles lurking on the horizon that threaten to drive a wedge in their budding romance, from Francesca’s bigoted Marine fiancé (Michael Galante) to Robby’s own unrequited crush on his best pal.

What struck me first and foremost about Boy Meets Girl was its optimism. Although we’re given glimpses into Ricky’s struggles over coming to terms with her identity, the bulk of the story takes place long after she’s become confident with who she is. Even the most well-intentioned narratives would likely depict her awakening as a living hell, so it’s a relief to see not only our protagonist so at ease with herself but those around her, to boot. Only one major character harbors any legitimate hostility towards Ricky, and even then, it’s for personal reasons that are touched upon as the flick approaches its climax. It’s this accepting, non-judgmental demeanor that helps Boy Meets Girl come across as a more interesting picture in the end, as it treats Ricky just like any other lovelorn heroine who’s ever tried to figure out which end is up. First-time actress Hendley does a terrific job of balancing out her role with equal parts vulnerability and self-assurance, making sure we see the wounded soul who’s behind her quips and comebacks. In short, Ricky is a very well-rounded character, and because writer/director Eric Shaeffer (If Lucy Fell) doesn’t position her sexuality as something to pity or gawk at, the audience is more apt to hitch a ride and follow along on her crazy journey.

How disappointing it is, then, to do so, only to find that Hendley and the part she plays are among the few aspects of Boy Meets Girl that feel genuine. Don’t get me wrong, it’s clear that Schaeffer only had the utmost respect for the story and nailed the welcoming tone he was aiming for, but that doesn’t stop the dialogue from coming off as forced and created solely so that he might further his points, rather than sound like actual conversations people would have. While the frank discussions about sex that Ricky and Robby engage in are intended to be as awkward as they are revelatory, Boy Meets Girl excels in the former while leaving the latter in the dust, with the lion’s share of the lines bearing all the signs of a writer who let their enthusiasm towards exploring a fresh subject get in the way of crafting speech that seems authentic to the ears. Not helping matters is the proclivity of certain performers to hurl themselves into their roles with full-on Southern belle accents, as some of the picture’s most tender and emotional moments are nearly ruined by actors whose cartoonish turns don’t jibe with the understanding vibe Schaeffer establishes. Thankfully, this doesn’t really apply to the principal cast; again, Hendley is terrific, Turshen overcomes a few off notes to find the heart in her character, and Welch does a fine job of not overselling the “best friend who obviously has a thing for the main girl” archetype.

I can’t say that Boy Meets Girl was a success, but I sure am glad it got made. For all the congratulations Hollywood tends to (often literally) award itself for paying fleeting attention to a “serious” story that’s not meant to rake in a $100 million opening weekend, that one film did so and at least made an effort to treat its characters like actual people was refreshing to see. While the final product might be riddled with the sort of moments a good rewrite or two could wash away, Boy Meets Girl will — with any luck — turn heads and help more flicks that share its modern mindset reach the public eye.

“Monster in a Box” (1992)

"Monster in a Box" poster


Spalding Gray defied all perceptions of what constituted a gripping storyteller. A white, verbose, vaguely upper-crust New Englander may not have seemed like the fellow to turn to for a riveting yarn, but monologue-based pictures like Gray’s Anatomy and Swimming to Cambodia put this notion to rest. With witty embellishments and heartbreaking reality dealt out in equal doses, Gray told tales that had you clinging to his every, impeccably-arranged word. Sandwiched in between the aforementioned features was 1992’s Monster in a Box, a performance piece inspired by the success he found after Cambodia‘s release clashing with his efforts to write a novel based upon his youth. Like any proper follow-up, this supplies more of the same style of cinema that came before it but sneaks a number of tweaks into the mix, upping the score in terms of content and visual tricks employed to help set the mood. Not only is Monster in a Box is as funny and engaging as its brothers, it’s in several ways the most personal and revealing of the whole bunch.

The year is 1987. Unleashed into theaters was Swimming to Cambodia, a film in which actor/writer/performance artist Spalding Gray spoke at length about — among many other experiences — the time he spent on the set of the Vietnam drama The Killing Fields. The movie was a surprise hit, and Gray soon found himself motivated to start work on “Impossible Vacation,” a novel about a young man’s inability to escape life with his mother (a situation not unlike one the author was stuck in once upon a time). However, the fates had other plans in store for old Spalding, designs that dragged him both unwillingly and of his own volition away from concentrating on the book. HBO recruited him for a documentary involving alien abductees. An arts grant came through and allowed him to put together a theatrical project about Los Angeles residents who had nothing to do with show business. Broadway came calling and begged him to play the lead role in a new production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” But strangely, the more Gray’s time was taken up by other distractions, the more “Impossible Vacation” ballooned in length, transforming into a massive tome that thrust all manner of neuroses (new and old) to the surface.

Directed by Kurt & Courtney‘s Nick Broomfield, Monster in a Box borrows many of its cues from Swimming to Cambodia. As was the conceit in that film, this one consists of Gray performing before a live audience, one whose reactions are sometimes audible but mostly (and thankfully) remain silent, so as not to derail the mood of the moment. Minimal props are incorporated, save for a handful of backdrops, Gray’s signature desk, and the towering draft of his beast of a novel perched to the side. This time, however, Broomfield opts to heighten the atmosphere with a touch of theatrical bombast, from shaking the camera about as our subject describes enduring an earthquake to using glaring lights and tight close-ups as he recounts when his hypochondriac streak convinced him he was suffering AIDS symptoms. It never becomes a full-blown production like Steven Soderbergh would make out of Gray’s Anatomy, but Monster in a Box strikes an effective balance, nicely reflecting the tenuous grasp on reality Gray has as he tells us of his travels. His is a journey that goes from health-obsessed Hollyweird to an insufferably-quaint writer’s colony, from old Broadway to a Russian film festival, where a translator has a doozy of a time summarizing Cambodia.

But as teeming with entertaining anecdotes as it undeniably is, there’s a darkness to Monster in a Box that leaves it a well-rounded and haunting experience. This becomes doubly evident when viewing the film over ten years after Gray took his own life, seeing him reopen old wounds in the process of writing his book and becoming once more just like his protagonist, unable to rid himself of the past and its horrors. The ending proves particularly profound, capping off nearly an hour and a half of chiefly laughter with the enigmatic image of a man who’s right back where he started, having to relive prior traumas while being denied the chance to truly exorcise them. Gray’s delivery does a marvelous job of playing on the humor and hurt in all of the circumstances he presents, hooking you with the outrageousness of his latest digression but leaving you pondering its deeper implications. Long story short, Gray more than confirms his status as a consummate wordsmith here, as his observations are bathed in wit, his knack for self-deprecation ranking at Woody Allen-esque levels, and his sheer ability to simply relate his goings-on in a fascinating fashion utterly palpable.

Though I’m certain the market clamoring for monologue-driven feature films is a niche one, Monster in a Box still comes in at the head of its class. Having revisited it for the first time in ages, I found myself just as enthralled as I was long ago, with my eyes glued to the screen, my ears at attention, and — saccharine as it is to say so — my soul touched. An hour and a half seems hardly suitable for a man you could seemingly listen to forever, but it’s a comfort to find that the amazing and bittersweet Monster in a Box doesn’t waste a single moment of its star attraction’s time.

“The Girl Hunters” (1963)

"The Girl Hunters" poster


Though not often practiced, I can see the logic in casting an author in a filmed adaptation of their work. I’m not talking about Stephen King making cameos in the innumerable (and insufferable) mini-series he inspired but rather a writer taking on the main role, filling the shoes of an iconic character who brought him/her fame and fortune in the first place. This rare opportunity was bestowed upon Mickey Spillane, who was called upon to play his popular tough guy private eye Mike Hammer in 1963’s thriller The Girl Hunters. With his stocky build and intimate understanding of his anti-hero’s inner workings, it’d make sense to give him a shot as one of the fiercest flatfoots in literature…if only his acting weren’t as wrinkled as Hammer’s trusty trenchcoat. As a straight detective noir, The Girl Hunters is nothing to write home about, and its average assemblage of thugs blasting up dark alleyways isn’t exactly helped by Spillane’s sub-par chops as a performer. It’s not enough to ruin the flick, but in the back of your mind, seeing a guy unable to inject a whole lot of passion into the very words he helped write never ceases to bug the hell out of you.

As our story opens, Mike Hammer is in a sorry state. He abandoned the gumshoe racket years ago, having carved out a new home in the bottom of a bottle ever since the disappearance of his beloved secretary/paramour, Velda. But as it turns out, the past ain’t through with Hammer, as the cops haul him out of the latest gutter he’s passed out into and thrust him onto a new case with some old ties. It appears as though an undercover federal agent has beckoned him to his deathbed, claiming that not only is Velda alive but that the assassin who struck him down is coming after her next. Rejuvenated with the possibility of seeing his gal Friday again, Hammer sobers up and hits the streets, searching for any clue to her whereabouts in hopes of spiriting her out of harm’s way. Our man’s investigation takes him from skeezy dive bars to the sprawling mansion of a dead politician’s wife (Shirley Eaton), racing to stay one step ahead of an internationally-feared killer codenamed the Dragon. The closer Hammer gets to finding Velda, the more he discovers just what’s at stake and how determined certain forces are to silence him for good if he kicks over the wrong rocks.

While certain aspects are quick to press the autopilot switch, one department in which The Girl Hunters really puts the pedal to the metal is mood. From the moment you hear the first note of the film’s forlorn jazz score, you’re instantly immersed within its somber atmosphere. Despite the surplus of locations Hammer’s quest takes him to, he can never shake that claustrophobic feeling, what with all the crowded bars he visits and seemingly every alleyway another chance for a hired gun to pop up and pop him off. Director Roy Rowland (Hit the Deck) pulls this off beautifully with the help of tight framing and perfect lighting, using whatever illumination that does pierce the inky black nightscapes as a spotlight shining directly on Hammer. When it comes to visuals, The Girl Hunters couldn’t be in better shape, and yet once it dives into the procedural side of the story, its grasp over one’s attention slowly but surely loosens. The plot isn’t necessarily inept, it’s just nothing we haven’t seen before and executed in a more exciting manner, to boot. It tries shaking up the standard detective thriller grind by introducing elements of espionage and secret government organizations, but at its center, it’s simply another narrative clothesline upon which the picture hangs a succession of thugs for Hammer to rough up and bullets to dodge.

It could also be that The Girl Hunters leans an awful lot on Hammer’s dedication to Velda to provide the meat of the story, and Spillane’s iffy performance makes it a pretty tough sell. As I mentioned earlier, he has the ideal look for Mike Hammer down pat — broad shoulders, square jaw, fearsome glare — yet his dialogue delivery remains equally flat and monotonous from scene to scene. Maybe it wouldn’t stand out so much, were it not for the fact that the actors surrounding him are doing such great jobs themselves, nicely fulfilling various noir archetypes while Spillane looks as if it’s a triumph just to tell someone to buzz off in one go. You could say that he’s playing Hammer as an everyman cutting through the crap while everyone else is acting up the clichés viewers expect out of movies of this type, but that still doesn’t excuse all the scenes where he couldn’t sound less concerned over the potential of the woman whose disappearance drove him to drink being alive after all. But again, we at least have a sturdy ensemble ready to reenact well-worn private eye tropes to the best of their abilities. Eaton fares well as the wild card who’s all too eager to woo Hammer off the trail, Lloyd Nolan is terrific as the G-man wise enough to mostly stay out of the gumshoe’s way, and real-life columnist Hy Gardner plays himself in a fun little cameo as a go-between Hammer turns to when there’s dirt that needs to be dug up.

Because of its unique casting, I’m sure The Girl Hunters will enjoy cult success amongst hard-boiled crime fans, and in all honesty, it’s really not that bad of a flick. But for as fantastic as its look is, it’s the ho-hum nature of the story and Spillane’s overly-grizzled performance that make it almost all for naught. For something that had as much involvement with the guy who created one of the toughest mothers in detective fiction as it did, that The Girl Hunters packs such a meager punch is a bummer.


“Pete Kelly’s Blues” (1955)

"Pete Kelly's Blues" poster


Jack Webb was a hardass among hardasses. His tenure as Sgt. Joe Friday on “Dragnet” is the stuff of television legend for a reason, as perfect of an example of the law’s unshakability when faced with society’s scummiest that you could ever wish for. But this stern small-screen persona afforded viewers too few glimpses at a different side of Webb, one that nurtured a lifelong love of jazz music. This admiration for the medium even extended into Webb’s day job, resulting in a short-lived radio program titled Pete Kelly’s Blues that spun off into a feature film in 1955. This was his chance at showing something personal to an audience that had grown accustomed to him as a poker-faced policeman, but unfortunately, a reputation that’s tricky to evade is just one of the issues that comes to plague this project. Pete Kelly’s Blues feels as though we’re joining a story already in progress, having gathered an ensemble of characters who sure seem like they’re worth rooting for but leaving out the part as to why we should.

The time is 1927. The place is Kansas City, Missouri. The age of jazz, Prohibition, and speakeasies is in full swing, and Pete Kelly (Webb) is right in the middle of it all. Long ago, a chance dice game won him a cornet and set him on a path that eventually crowned him the leader of Pete Kelly’s Big 7 band (comprised of eight other members, of course). They’re a small-time bunch that’s happy to be playing pizzerias and gin joints, until the criminal kind arrives to put a damper on their good times. Gang boss Fran McCarg (Edmond O’Brien) has moved into town and wants a piece of what meager action the band gets, a demand Pete begrudgingly accepts for the safety of his friends. But thanks to the actions of his hot-headed drummer (Martin Milner), war breaks out between the two factions, as shots fire, bodies fall, and the band becomes more indebted to McCarg than before. All Pete wants is to live a normal life with rich party girl Ivy (Janet Leigh) at his side, but the more of a stranglehold McCarg puts on his pals — eventually forcing them to take on his alcoholic moll (Peggy Lee) as a singer — the more he’s pushed to the edge and forced to resort to deadly means to protect them.

It seems to be that Pete Kelly’s Blues breezes through what likely would’ve made for a stronger story during the beginning credits. We open on a sequence that traces a cornet’s path from falling out of a hearse in New Orleans to a young Pete picking it up as he returns from World War I, a nice visual metaphor for how music endures long after those who practiced it have passed away. Now the main plot about getting out from under the thumbs of gangsters is all well and good (especially with Richard L. Breen’s screenplay supplying some immaculately-composed one-liners), but skimping out on what might’ve been a rich back story seriously hinders Pete Kelly’s Blues in the long run. We aren’t told a whole lot about our hero, be it what inspired him to lead a life dedicated to jazz or what other things he may have experienced that caused him to cave in so quickly to McCarg’s orders. Pete isn’t an enigma as much as he is a blank slate, someone who exists just so things can happen to him and who’s our protagonist by virtue of having his name in the title. Webb narrates the proceedings as his character and gives the impression that he’s been through a lot in his time, but we’re never privy to just what that is, why McCarg is so bent on bullying his band, or why Ivy’s carrying such a torch for him.

Plus, try as one might, Webb’s own performance in Pete Kelly’s Blues makes it hard to move past the all-encompassing shadow of Joe Friday. Pete’s really kind of a square without much personality to spare, and with the multitude of sarcastic quips he throws in the direction of various characters, that anyone would rally so strongly behind him becomes a sizable pill to swallow. Webb knows how to sell these zingers when it counts, and his real life interest in jazz ensures that he looks like he knows his way around a hunk of brass, but the film is at a loss when it comes to reasons for cheering him on. O’Brien is similarly shortchanged as a generic thug (a subplot’s efforts to cast suspicion on whether or not he ordered a particular character’s hit prove confusing and fruitless), as is Leigh, who does a fine job of acting but whose character has zero motivation to fawn over Pete. On the other hand, Lee fares well in her Oscar-nominated performance, Lee Marvin lends solid support as one of Pete’s bandmates/confidantes, and in terms of setting the mood where sound and sight are concerned, Webb (who also directs here) couldn’t be more on the ball. The soundtrack is an incredible combination of instrumental pieces and melancholy ballads (some belted by Ella Fitzgerald in a small cameo), and the period production design perfectly evokes the mood of a ’20s watering hole, with just a hint of stylish exaggeration.

I’d crack wise about how Pete Kelly’s Blues hits all the wrong notes, but it’s more as if there’s an entire sheet of music missing in action. There’s nothing wrong with the main premise itself; it’s just that our investment in it is so minor, one spends more time mentally filling in the blanks instead of being involved in what’s actually taking place. Pete Kelly’s Blues looks great and sounds great, but while its soul is perfectly in tune, its form is all over the map.

(Pete Kelly’s Blues is available to purchase on Blu-ray through the Warner Archive Collection.)

“Transcendence” (2014)

"Transcendence" poster


Any film that dabbles in speculative science fiction needs to provide a convincing world for its far-out ideas to inhabit. For instance, while not every little detail about the recent Snowpiercer holds up under scrutiny, the movie feels almost completely legit, thanks in large part to the sheer confidence it shows in its concepts and mythology. 2014’s Transcendence is another flick that dreams big, and in terms of reflecting in its visuals the cold logic practiced by some its characters, it’s a success…the only trouble being that the audience couldn’t be any less bothered to care. You see, while the look and feel of a picture are important in validating a story in the viewer’s eyes, it’s the passion with which it’s told that makes them stay, how compellingly it brings certain issues to light or argues in favor of a particular stance. But while Transcendence gets off to an admirable start, introducing a premise rife with potential to strand people at an ethical crossroads, it hasn’t an ounce of gumption to see it through, sitting there unengaged in itself or with anyone watching it.

Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is standing on the verge of a technological breakthrough. Scientists have dreamed of creating the most sophisticated artificial intelligence in history, but this guy is just about done, determined to merge man and machine in order to help the world grow in knowledge like never before. Unfortunately, this doesn’t sit well with an anti-tech terrorist group, one that attacks Will and leaves him quickly dying of radiation poisoning. With no other way of preserving his life, Will’s wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and friend/colleague Max (Paul Bettany) make him a part of his own last experiment by uploading his consciousness into the AI with which he was tinkering. While the doc’s physical body passes on, his mind appears to survive the transfer, much to Evelyn’s relief — and Max’s suspicion. The fact that what claims to be the soul of his dearly departed pal has displayed a newfound urge to absorb as much information as possible and start shaping society as he sees fit has him more than a little freaked, although Evelyn refuses to see anything wrong. But as the digitized Will puts into motion plans to take over an entire town to further his goals, will Evelyn realize the danger afoot before it’s too late?

The cutesy critic thing to say is that Transcendence feels like it was assembled by a computer, but I can think of no more appropriate analogy for the vibe this film gives off. Its structure is clinical to a fault, with scenes comprised of the bare minimum of info needed to move the plot along. Need to establish a romantic bond between Will and Evelyn? A few brief moments of small talk should do the trick. How about showing us Will and Max’s friendship? Why, having them do more than just say they’re buddies would be a waste of time. I’m not sure whether the screenplay or the editor is more at fault in this department, but in any case, Transcendence moves at a very erratic pace and rarely allows a sense of humanity to pierce its many stone-faced exchanges of techno-babble. Though the film bases itself on a morally gray premise that could easily make for a thought-provoking techno-thriller, it doesn’t make an especially strong or interesting case for either side of the debate at its core. The story does much ruminating on whether or not it’s worth securing the planet’s survival at the cost of mankind’s free will, but the movie’s refusal to explore the many avenues of ambiguity involved with this issue leave it floundering. Viewers are challenged on no level whatsoever, so instead of being left torn up inside by a plot that pits emotions versus logic, we end up yawning at an inert trainwreck that equates drama with people making monotone speeches whilst surrounded by an awful lot of computer monitors.

Further reducing Transcendence to a narrative shambles is the total inability of its incredible cast to make something meaningful out of the material. If there were any draw to the flick other than what was at one point a promising story, it was Depp getting to play the most subdued role he’s had since the early 2000s. But while the man’s detractors can praise the heavens that he’s not playing a ghoul caked in pancake make-up for once, we still have to deal with the fact that Will is a totally emotionless and banal character. This might have meant something if the script played around more with the idea of how much Will is actually in the machine, but again, we don’t know nearly enough about him beforehand for any such suspense to blossom, nor does Depp make any clever attempts to blur the distinction. The remaining players are similarly affected, with Evelyn’s devotion to Will coming across as dense and Max receiving very little motivation to eventually join forces with the very people who put his friend six feet under in the first place. Hall and Bettany give decent performances, but that still leaves an entire ensemble that gets jack-all to do but stand around looking serious/puzzled. Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman, and more are on hand, seemingly to give the film an air of grater importance just by hanging around, a practice that backfires once you realize what little their parts amount to.

Transcendence was the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, a man best known as Christopher Nolan’s long-time cinematographer. It’s too bad their association didn’t yield a similar deftness at blending escapist entertainment with high-concept ideas for the former, because while this picture does indeed look like a million bucks, it’s all a glossy shell surrounding a hollow and toothless thematic core. Transcendence has already garnered a reputation as one of the greatest duds in recent memory, and while it’s far from an utter travesty, that so much talent was assembled to create something this dull and empty is a sizable bummer, indeed.