Martin Teller's Movie Reviews

I watch movies, I write some crap

  • Recent Posts

  • Categories

  • Archives

  • Meta

Noir-vember 2015: Revolt in the Big House

Posted by martinteller on November 14, 2015

They’ve finally managed to make a charge stick against big-time baddie Lou Gannon (Gene Evans), and he’s sent up to the pen for 20 years. But he doesn’t intend to stay there long. He teams up with the reigning bully in the prison yard, Ed “Bugsy” Kyle (Timothy Carey) and they start smuggling in gun parts. But when one of their crew gets a bad case of nerves, they look for a replacement. Enter Lou’s cellmate, Rudy Hernandez (Robert Blake), a naive kid who unwillingly drove the getaway car during a liquor store robbery. Rudy’s got a good chance of getting out in three years… until Lou hatches a plot involving Capt. Starkey (Walter Barnes), the racist head guard. A plot that makes Rudy a little more angry, and a little more desperate.

You may have already guessed why I wanted to see this picture. I’m a big fan of Tim Carey, who never fails to command the screen with his huge, often bizarre, performances. Here he’s once again pulling focus every chance he gets, all lunatic sneers and Brando mumbles. There’s just no holding this guy down, and my biggest complaint is that there’s not enough of him in the movie. Blake playing a Hispanic character may raise an eyebrow or two, but he does it with admirable sensitivity and restraint… a slight accent, not cartoonish enough to be truly offensive. As for Evans, he’s fine but didn’t do a lot for me. He’s good enough for a secondary role, but doesn’t have the stuff for a lead.

The film is routine jailbreak stuff, nothing you haven’t seen in earlier, better pictures like CrashoutBrute Force or Riot in Cell Block 11. But the familiar can still be enjoyable, and neither the script nor the direction (R.G. Springsteen, primarily a Western director) falters in any major way. And the film pulls off a neat trick with its bookend scenes. The widescreen cinematography is fine, although the sets definitely look pretty cheap.

Unlikely to top anyone’s list of great prison movies, but an all-around decent flick and an enjoyable way to kill 80 minutes. Rating: Good (75)


Posted in Movie Reviews | Leave a Comment »

Noir-vember 2015: No Man’s Woman

Posted by martinteller on November 12, 2015

Carolyn Grant (Marie Windsor) owns an art gallery. A lot of people would like to see her dead. First there’s her husband Harlow (John Archer). They’ve been separated for two years, but Carolyn won’t grant him a divorce unless he pays an exorbitant settlement. Then there’s Louise (Nancy Gates), the woman Harlow wants to marry, and Harlow’s father (Douglas Wood), who can’t stand to see his son’s happiness being held captive. Not to mention Carolyn’s assistant Betty Allen (Jil Jarmyn) and her beau Dick Sawyer (Richard Crane), who have been torn apart by Carolyn’s eff0rts to seduce Dick. And don’t forget Wayne Vincent (Patric Knowles), the art critic who she’s been dating, but only to use him for the free publicity. Yeah, a lot of people would like to see Carolyn Grant dead. So who killed her?

I guess you can call that a spoiler, since the murder happens more than halfway through the 69-minute film. But it’s given away by the few other reviews on the internet and pretty much by the film’s own poster. Besides, once the killing occurs, you could probably shut the movie off. All the best stuff is Windsor being awful and manipulative. It’s similar to (but not as fantastic as) her role in The Killing, a real snake of a woman. As a Marie Windsor fan, I lapped it up.

Unfortunately, after that it becomes a ho-hum whodunit, with Archer taking on the role of detective… doing the work that you’d think the cops would be doing, but they seem content to let him do all the footwork. The answer to the mystery is neither satisfying nor unsatisfying. It just is what it is, and who cares because the one great character is gone. None of the technical aspects are worth mentioning, and for noir atmosphere there’s not much to chew on. Almost every scene takes place in bright sunshine or a well-lit interior. There’s some good dialogue, but it dries up once Carolyn is out of the picture. Rating: Fair (62)


Posted in Movie Reviews | Leave a Comment »

Noir-vember 2015: The Face Behind the Mask

Posted by martinteller on November 10, 2015

Janos Szabo (Peter Lorre) is a wide-eyed Hungarian watchmaker newly arrived in New York City. He’s full of dreams, hoping to earn enough to bring over his fianceé. On his first day, things are already looking bright. He makes a friend, police detective Jim O’Hara (Don Beddoe). He finds a reasonable place to live, a resident hotel. And he gets a job, washing dishes in the hotel cafe. But that night, a fire rages, and Janos’s face is horribly disfigured. No one will look at him or talk to him, much less give him a job. At his most destitute, he meets the genial Dinky (George E. Stone), a two-bit chiseler. Dinky coaxes him into a life of crime, and armed with his mechanical skills and a prosthetic mask, “Johnny” becomes rich. Rich and hardened. But then he meets Helen (Evelyn Keyes), a girl who sees the real Janos… despite her blindness.

I’m giving this a “good” rating, but it’s on the edge of meh. This is an early noir, coming right between two important Peter Lorre pictures: Stranger on the Third Floor (considered by many to be the first noir) and The Maltese Falcon (generally regarded as the first “major” noir, and undeniably a landmark of the genre). This one isn’t nearly as impressive or memorable as either, but it’s elevated by Lorre’s performance. He can play ruthless with a chilling edge and he can play earnest with endearing charm, and here he gets to do both. He’s fully engaging as both the naive, lovable Janos and the cold, quick-tempered Johnny.

The movie runs a lean 68 minutes. I probably gave away too much of the plot, but that’s what happens when you don’t introduce the leading lady until halfway through the film. The story doesn’t pack many surprises, but it is abnormally bleak for the time. The ending is really dour, although a couple of the details are pretty contrived or farfetched. It just felt like something was missing from this film. The performances are all fine (I especially liked Stone) and the cinematography is fine. I think it just needed a bit more fleshing out to be effective. More development of the Keyes character and her relationship with Janos. Less suddenness in the ups and downs of the story.

For a 1941 film, this is an unusually cynical look at the promise of the “American Dream”, and fans of Lorre will find much to enjoy. It just doesn’t quite come together. The script needs work. Rating: Good (71)


Posted in Movie Reviews | Leave a Comment »

Noir-vember 2015: Larceny

Posted by martinteller on November 8, 2015

A pack of con artists, led by Silky Randall (Dan Duryea), has a new fix in mind. Silky wants to fleece Deb Clark (Joan Caulfield), a wealthy Californian war widow, into sinking a bunch of money into a war memorial… a youth center that will never actually be built. He sends his man Rick (John Payne) to win her over. But Silky has a weakness: his girl Tory (Shelley Winters). Rick’s been seeing Tory on the sly, and Silky’s suspicions are raised. He plans to send Tory to Havana while Rick’s putting in the fix in Mission City. But Tory’s got a mind of her own, and threatens to gum up the works for everyone.

My viewing habits have changed lately, to put it mildly. Movies are no longer the priority they once were for me, and what was once a 40-to-50 per month habit has trickled down to 2 or 3. But I couldn’t let a November pass without trying to squeeze in a few noirs. It just wouldn’t feel right.

This one, directed by George Sherman, was a random pick from my watchlist. I had no idea what to expect, but what I got was a solid genre piece. The opening scene tries to establish our con men as masters of their craft, but it’s unconvincing. The way they try to keep their mark from running to the cops doesn’t hold much water. Beyond that first stumble, however, I have no major complaints. Caulfield is bland, but that’s to be expected from the good girl role. Although one would hope for more Duryea, he’s in good form during relatively brief screen time. One doesn’t often see him in the boss role, but I like how he handles it, with an edgy caution.

The best scenes, however, are those between Payne and Winters. There’s something about Shelley Winters in a noir that pushes all the right buttons. Her hard-boiled delivery of the script’s best line is the star of the show. Payne doesn’t match her intensity (nor should he try), but he helps keep things moving, fielding her zingers with a hardened weariness. And while Payne isn’t the first person you’d think of when you try to imagine a ladykiller (every gal he comes near seems to fall for him), he sells it well enough to make it believable.

Common noir themes are present and accounted for: postwar cynicism, the corrupt taking advantage of the well-meaning, honor (and lack thereof) among thieves. Like I said, it’s a solid entry in the genre. It could use bolder cinematography, better music and a few more interesting angles to really shine, but the script is good and it’s worth watching for Winters alone. Good fun. Rating: Good (77)


Posted in Movie Reviews | Leave a Comment »

Across 110th Street

Posted by martinteller on October 31, 2015

Three hoods have a plan. Ringleader Jim Harris (Paul Benjamin), an ex-con with no prospects and a bad case of epilepsy, recruits sidekick Joe Logart (Ed Bernard) and freewheeling wheelman Henry Jackson (Antonio Fargas) to steal $300,000 from the mob. But things go awry (don’t they always?) and they leave 7 bodies in their wake, including two police officers. Now they’re wanted by the mob — led by the boss’s son-in-law, Nick (Anthony Franciosa) — and the cops, especially aging Capt. Mitelli (Anthony Quinn) and the up-and-coming Lt. Pope (Yaphet Kotto).

An appropriate film to watch on the eve of Noir-vember. Barry Shear’s blaxploitation cop drama is drenched in noir style, and noir cynicism. There are corrupt cops and virtuous cops and cops just walking a beat. There are criminals from the desperate to the kingpin. There are the innocent bystanders and long-suffering wives and lovers, collateral damage in the urban struggle for dominance, status, control. And goddamn if Franciosa isn’t channeling Burt Lancaster.

I’m just gonna namedrop a bunch of movie titles here, because that’s often how I process films. First there’s the parade of recognizable faces. Benjamin’s is unforgettable and I instantly thought “Hey, it’s ML from Do the Right Thing!”.  Fargas as well has a distinctive face, I probably know him best from I’m Gonna Get You Sucka. There’s Burt Young from the Rocky franchise in a very small role, and Charles McGregor from Blazing Saddles. A couple others I recognized too. And there’s Quinn, whose simmering brutality recalls La Strada, and Kotto, flashing forward to Agent Mosely in Midnight Run.

Various other movies came to mind while watching. The racial politics of In the Heat of the Night and No Way Out (the Poitier/Widmark one, not the Costner one). The central scenario — cops and criminals on the same manhunt — is vaguely reminiscent of M. Criminals hiding out of course brings to mind any number of noirs, but in particular I thought of The Burglar when Jim is talking about his tropical dreams. Benjamin’s performance at the end made me think of Jack Palance in Panic in the Streets. But enough of that. In the end, Across 110th Street is its own movie and just listing other movies do not a review make.

A lot of the thematic content is familiar territory, and to some degree the film traffics in well-worn clichés. But not in an overly tiresome manner. While I wouldn’t say it feels fresh, it does feel real. Characters are given more depth than you might expect. Some of them are mere archetypes and stereotypes, but others are given a little more meat on their bones. Pope’s struggle to be taken seriously as a cop, paralleled nicely by Nick’s struggle to be taken seriously as a gangster. Mitelli faced with being nudged into retirement. Harris battling his affliction as well as his bitterness about a society that has no place for him. Which one makes his lip tremble so? Probably both.

In 1992, a CD came out called Pimps, Players and Private Eyes. At that point in my life I’d never seen a blaxploitation film, but as a fan of soul & funk (especially Curtis Mayfield) I picked it up. The compilation leads off with one of its best and most memorable songs, Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street”. It’s a passionate, anthemic tune that kicks off the movie. None of the other music in the film lives up to it, but it’s pretty decent. Likewise, cinematographer Jack Priestly pulls off some good shots… and a few great ones, especially when emphasizing power relationships.

Ultimately, I wasn’t enthralled by the movie. Perhaps a bit too nihilistic for my tastes, without much of a point of view beyond “everything is terrible”. Which is a very noir sentiment, but this is a shade more depressing than the cynicism of noir. Maybe the execution needs a little more panache, a solid hook, or some sparkling dialogue. But it’s a solid watch, and one of the better examples of the blaxploitation genre that I’ve seen. Rating: Very Good (80)


Posted in Movie Reviews | Leave a Comment »

Spirited Away (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on October 3, 2015

I didn’t buy the Blu-Ray editions of Princess Mononoke or Kiki’s Delivery Service because they don’t include literal translations of the original Japanese dialogue.  They have the Japanese soundtrack as an option, but the only subtitles are for Disney’s English dub, which I find very irritating.  Hopefully one day they’ll get it right.  However, for this movie, a more faithful translation was included.  Nonetheless, I started watching it (my first viewing in 12 years) with the English dub.  Many anime fans find this an acceptable — even preferable — practice, arguing that 1) it allows you to concentrate more on the visuals and 2) technically, the original dialogue is a dub, too.  But after 15 minutes, it just didn’t feel right.  I had to switch to the Japanese audio and translation.  I want to have an experience as close to the original as I can attain, and I find many of Disney’s choices questionable, even damaging.  I watched a featurette about the dubbing process afterwards, and there was a moment near the end where they make Chihiro say to Haku: “I knew you were good!”.  That’s such an un-Miyazaki line.  He never boils the world down to “good” and “evil”.  It’s one of the things I love about his work.  But of course Disney has to dumb everything down.  Sigh.

Having made that decision, I was able to enjoy the film properly.  Usually when we say something along the lines of “it feels like they were making it up as they along”, it’s meant as a negative.  It implies the writer is lazy and just throwing stuff out there to see what sticks.  Spirited Away feels like it’s being made up as it goes along.  The rules of this universe come off as arbitrary or spontaneous.  You could even say certain elements are “weird for the sake of being weird”.  But it still works.  It still enchants.  Because like the Japanese offspring of The Wizard of Oz and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (both of which seem like clear inspirations) the story remains grounded through its little girl protagonist.  The challenge Chihiro faces is understanding how this society functions or what different beings are capable of, but it’s also a question of maintaining her basic humanity in this environment.  It’s her compassion and decency that allows her to persevere, and keeps her in the heart of the viewer.

The animation, of course, is breathtaking.  Miyazaki’s fanciful imagination is brought to life exquisitely, with each supernatural element behaving just as you would expect it to.  The amount of detail is stunning, and the orchestrated movements must have taken staggering work to plan and execute.  And Joe Hisaishi’s score is gorgeous, bringing a sweet melancholy that is absolutely appropriate.  The emotional moments connect, and when Chihiro cries in despair, it’s genuinely touching.  For all the bizarre randomness of the proceedings, Spirited Away holds your attention because of this realistic character and her capacity for kindness.  Rating: Great (91)


Posted in Movie Reviews | 4 Comments »

Deux jours, une nuit (Two Days, One Night)

Posted by martinteller on September 17, 2015

This movie had extra relevance to me.  I was laid off from my job last month.  It came at a particularly bad time.  After I got the call, I wept.  It’s actually the third job in a row that I’ve been laid off from (over a span of 15 years, so not too tragic), not through any apparent fault of my own.  It’s because business is down, or because some larger corporation took over and made changes.  You know how it is… “it isn’t you, it’s us”.  It’s impersonal.  The Dardennes have put their protagonist in a more personal scenario (one that frankly seems a bit unlikely, but who knows how they do things in Belgium).

In my last job, I couldn’t have gone around to my fellow employees and asked them to give up their bonuses to save my job.  I worked remotely, from home.  Most of them I never met.  The ones I worked closest with never saw me face-to-face.  Why should they care about me?  And unlike Sandra (Marion Cotillard, who is spot-on perfect), my welfare wasn’t really at stake.  I made good money and would surely find a decent job before long (which I did), and my wife makes good money… we wouldn’t suffer.

Likewise, if the shoe was on the other foot, I can easily say I’d vote for Sandra.  But what if my family was struggling?  What if that bonus made a huge difference in our well-being?  Things are rarely so cut-and-dry in the Dardennesiverse.  Ethical questions have many facets, and as always, the brothers do a thorough job of exploring them from every angle.  The film’s structure — a series of conversations/confrontations with Sandra’s co-workers — help to ensure that.

I’ve realized I often have a soft spot for directors who work in a distinctive idiom and/or milieu. Ming-liang Tsai, Aki Kaurismaki, and Wes Anderson come to mind.  The Dardennes and their moral dilemmas are appealing to me, as is their no-frills style.  The performances they elicit are particularly honest, and the characters are rarely simple sketches.  And then there’s the focus on the working class.  While watching this, I thought of Woody Allen.  Because one of the things that puts me off about Allen’s movies even the ones I like) is that he so often focuses on highly-paid professionals, or artists & academics who are (often inexplicably) wealthy.  The realities of needing to work to survive seem to be completely alien to him, and irrelevant to his stories.  The blue collar world of the Dardennes is much more grounded and relatable… even though my own salary puts me in the upper-middle class.  Their stories feel far more worthwhile, and certainly more enlightening about the human spirit.

There is a Big Moment in the third act of the film.  It’s jarringly out of place, and although it doesn’t really do any harm, it definitely doesn’t help anything.  It’s just completely unnecessary and I was stunned that the Dardennes would go there.  And then it’s followed up by a minor character making a Huge Life Decision, which only compounds the problem.  If it wasn’t for this issue (and the mildly implausible premise), this film might be up there with their best work.  Instead, I rank it as one of their weakest, only above Lorna’s Silence.  But for these guys, that’s not saying much.  It’s still a riveting film, with excellent performances and a great ending.  Rating: Very Good (84)


Posted in Movie Reviews | Leave a Comment »

Night and the City (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on September 14, 2015

It’s been three weeks since I’ve written a movie review.  Life’s been pretty hectic around here.  We sold a house and bought a house and now we’re preparing to rent out another house.  I was unexpectedly laid off, and we had to redo our mortgage financing in a mad, frustrating flurry of paperwork.  We’ve relocated ourselves and our six pets and tried to adjust to our new surroundings.  This morning I dropped Carrie off at the airport because she’s out of town on business, and then there was a frenzied dash of nervous activity as I tried to get her the cell phone she accidentally left behind.  And THEN I had to start my first day at my new job, which is neither a great job nor a terrible job and I have a lot of mixed feelings about it.  It’s been a long month, and a long day.  All I wanted to do when I got home was chill out with a movie.

When I finally got around to that (I had to catch up with the internet first, priorities you know) I turned out all the lights and popped in the new Blu-Ray of this fantastic noir.  It’s been about five years since I last saw it, but it had really stuck with me, largely because of Richard Widmark’s indelible performance.  Harry Fabian is unforgettable because of his sheer will to make something out of nothing.  He truly has nothing but ideas, he’s a dreamer who dreams big.  But he’s like a cancer, everything he touches turns to hell.  In the end, pretty much no one has what they want.

What is it about Fabian that poisons the well?  Is he any less honorable or scrupulous than the underworld figures he deals with?  I think not, but the problem with Fabian is that he’s too hungry.  It makes him impatient, and the only way he knows to success is a shortcut.  Heavies like Nosseross and Kristo have clearly clawed their way to the top of the heap, they’ve got the faces and the swagger to show that they’ve earned what they’ve got.  Maybe the way they earned it wasn’t exactly fair and/or square, but they put the work and the time in.  Fabian tries to weasel his way up, and not only does he pay the price, but his reckless fast track leaves a lot of collateral damage behind him.  In the end, even his idea of a noble sacrifice looks like a bull in a china shop.  Which just leaves a lot of shattered pottery and a severely lacerated bull.

Maybe when the drudgery of my 9-to-5 is getting me down, I’ll think about Harry Fabian and feel lucky for what I’ve got.  Rating: Great (90)


Posted in Movie Reviews | Leave a Comment »

The Muppet Christmas Carol

Posted by martinteller on August 23, 2015

I didn’t have any reason to be wary of this rendition of the classic Dickens tale… until the opening credits rolled and I saw “Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge”.  Hold the phone.  This is The Muppet Christmas Carol, right?  Why would I want the lead character, the most prominent character BY FAR, to be anything but a Muppet?  No offense to the esteemed Mr. Caine, but this is not what I signed up for.  I want a Muppet Christmas Carol, goddammit, not a Michael Caine plus incidental Muppets Christmas Carol.  Kermit the Frog should be Scrooge, not Bob Cratchit.  And Miss Piggy (my favorite) is barely present as Bob’s wife Emily.  Humbug!

Once this disappointment wore off, however, I quite enjoyed this.  Even more than the revered Alastair Sim version.  And really, the credit belongs to Caine.  His Scrooge is the most convincing I’ve seen.  In the early scenes, you can tell he had a solid belief in his way of doing things, he’s not just an evil bastard.  And his transformation feels right, more right than Sim’s at least.  The problem I’ve always had with this story is that the message shouldn’t be “don’t be a dick or you’ll die unloved” but that’s how it usually comes off.  This version doesn’t play it that way.  Scrooge is already sufficiently moved by the past and the present, the future is just the final nail in the coffin (so to speak).  I always thought the message of the story would be sweeter if Future came before Present… Scrooge’s transformation shouldn’t be about fear.  The way this rendition unfolds, it works as is.

I also enjoyed the clever device of Gonzo as Dickens, narrating from within the story.  It’s not only a new twist on an old tale, but it gives the movie the comedic elements one expects from a Muppet production.  It’s unfortunately a little short on jokes on the whole, because it’s not a scenario that easily lends itself to humor.  I wasn’t especially taken with the songs, either.  They were all fine, but none stick with me.  Also some of the special effects haven’t aged well, though I must say the production design is impressive.  I liked the German Expressionist touches of Christmas Future.

It’s not exactly what you expect from a Muppet movie, but it’s an effective telling of a familiar tale.  Rating: Good (77)


Posted in Movie Reviews | Leave a Comment »


Posted by martinteller on August 11, 2015

Based on a true story (but don’t ask me how much of it is faithful to the actual events).  Alex Michaeletos plays a South African boy named Xan who adopts a lost cheetah cub.  He names the cub “Duma” and bonds with the animal, but his father (Campbell Scott) reminds him that Duma must return to the wild before he gets too old to assimilate.  Then the father dies of an illness, and Xan’s mother (Hope Davis) wants to put Duma in the hands of a nature preserve.  Insistent on fulfilling his father’s wishes, Xan runs away into the wild with the cheetah, and encounters a wandering figure named Ripkuna (Eamonn Walker).

It’s not hard to spot a running theme throughout Carroll Ballard’s directorial career.  His 1979 feature debut (what most, including myself, consider his masterpiece) The Black Stallion concerns a young boy and his bond with a wild horse.  In 1983, Never Cry Wolf told the story of a man and his bond with wild wolves. 1996’s Fly Away Home is about a young girl and her bond with wild geese.  And so in 2005, Ballard again returns to explore the relationship between humans and the animals they grow attached to.

It’s something he’s really good at.  His movies are never about trying to make the animals more human.  Always he — and the characters he puts before us — respect the wildness of these creatures, demonstrating how an animal and a human can love each other, but there is always an otherness that divides them.  Xan respects Duma’s innate need to be a cheetah, and Duma appears to enjoy Xan’s company for the time being.  The recognition of the inherent gulf between their species does not make their mutual affection any less touching.

However, Ballard’s films show a steady decline in quality.  The photography is stunningly beautiful as always, there is genuine joy in the bond between Xan and Duma, and genuine thrills in their adventures with Ripkuna.  Fine performances from Walker and Michaeletos.  But the narrative feels all too episodic, making it feel like a collection of anecdotes rather than a developing story with an arc.  Out of one scrape, into another, this happened and then that happened.  Ticking off the beats of the plot.  Enjoyable, but less stirring than Ballard’s previous works.  Rating: Good (72)


Posted in Movie Reviews | 3 Comments »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 444 other followers