Just an update on my posting schedule. I took advantage of the long weekend to work on some more reviews. I just got in some new films and I will also be reviewing a few more of my favorites. Coming up on the list:
Judgement at Nuremburg (1961)
A story about the prosecution of some especially monstrous criminals, specifically the war crimes trials of Nazi and German army leadership after World War 2.
To Catch a Thief (1955)
Classic Hitchcock at the height of his abilities. A charming cat burglar caper film starring Cary Grant and the radiant Grace Kelly.
Weekend at Bernies (1989)
80’s comedy classic about two guys and a stiff named Bernie. Not the most sophisticated humor, but a classic for fans of dark comedy.
High and Low (1963)
A detective procedural from Japan. Intense and brooding kidnapping story set in post-war Japan.Directed by Akira Kurosawa and starring Toshiro Mifune.
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
A classic dark comedy directed by Frank Capra in which a soon to be married bachelor (Cary Grant) finds out his sweet aunts are really serial killers.
Today I will be reviewing an all-time favorite of mine. 12 Angry Men depicts the deliberations of 12 jurors as they deliberate over a first degree murder trial. A young man is accused of the brutal stabbing murder of his own father. At first all of the jurors vote for conviction except one, Juror number 8 (Henry Fonda). At first even he thinks the kid might be guilty, but he just doesn’t want to vote for a death sentence without thinking over the case and the evidence. The other jurors aren’t particularly happy about this, several making that loudly known. But as they go over the evidence, inconsistencies start to add up and they begin to realize that there might actually be something more important at stake than missed baseball games and cold dinners.
12 Angry Men is a drama where a man’s life hangs in the balance and his fate is decided by 12 strangers who never actually leave a small meeting room for the entirety of the movie. No one is killed or injured, there are no car chases, the only showdowns are verbal. We never actually see the accused inmate and we only see brief glimpses of anyone besides the jurors and we don’t even know most of their names. Yet the movie weaves a spell over its audience and leaves you absolutely spellbound through to the end.
A standout is the great Henry Fonda playing his favorite role, an everyman just asking questions.
The rest of the jury pool is filled with veteran character actors such as John Fiedler, Ed Begley and Martin Balsam. All of the men bring their own personalities and prejudices. A few we see right away, a bullying type, a stockbroker who just wants it to be over, a former street tough. We the viewers know none of these people going into the movie, but their stories and their personalities unfold naturally and they come to vivid life. The conflicts that unfold in the film are true to the personalities and character traits of these men. All of them saw the same evidence, but their life experiences and internal prejudices cause them to interpret it in vastly different ways.
Director Sidney Lumet makes effective use of optical effects such as when the jury first exits the courtroom. A shot of the nervous defendant slowly dissolves into the jury room. The camera follows the men as they debate the case and makes you feel like you’re in the room with them.
The soundtrack is both rich and spartan. For the most part, there is no background music, just a few mournful chords played at key points in the film. Instead we hear a rich range of sounds in the jury room and the surrounding streets. Cars passing by, the rustle of papers, even the men shifting in their seats. Most important is the wonderfully natural, overlapping dialog. The conversations ebb and flow organically as the film progresses.
In my opinion, this film should be required viewing in high school social studies class. A beautifully shot portrayal of one of the most important but most misunderstood of our civic duties.
Verdict: 4.5 Gavels out of 5
Gripping cinema, one of the few absolute “must see” films in my list.
A mad doctor exacts his revenge on the killers of his beloved wife!
Dr. Phibes (pronounced fibes) is a doctor of music, a virtuoso organ player, a brilliant, self-taught mechanical engineer and biblical scholar. He’s also dangerously insane and crippled by an automobile accident that scarred him and robbed him of his voice.
Set in the 1930s, the film opens with a lavish dance scene. A beautiful woman and hooded man waltz through the ballroom of a grand house while mechanical musicians play on. The film quickly changes moods as the first murder is committed. A cage full of vampire bats (really harmless fox bats) is lowered into a sleeping man’s room.
Death by bat is one of the more prosaic murders in this weird little film. They get progressively more inventive and even cartoonish as Scotland Yard attempts to get to the bottom of the mystery. Dr. Phibes and his mysterious assistant keep the police guessing as the attacks continue. I can’t really say more without giving away a good portion of the film.
It’s really hard to put into words just how bug house crazy this film is. From the beginning, The Abominable Dr. Phibes was intended as a campy sendup of detective films and mad scientist capers. Vincent Price films of the era have a well-deserved reputation for being oddities, but this one truly takes the prize. While the good guys are in the picture and there is sort of a story related to them; the whole thing revolves around Vincent Price’s Dr. Phibes. He really is the antihero of this film and completely dominates the story.
The film is bright and colorful with surprisingly high production values, lavish sets, costumes and elaborate stunts abound in the film. Kooky killings are interspersed with elaborate dancing and musical numbers straight out of the golden age of musicals. The best way to describe it might be a James Bond film crossed with a Broadway musical.
The acting is good, with veterans such as Joseph Cotton, Vincent Price and Peter Jeffrey being standouts. Also notable is the lovely Virginia North as Phibes’ assistant. Due to his character’s injuries, Price spends a large portion of the film masked and bandaged, his voice pre-recorded and dubbed in without his lips moving. In spite of this handicap, he still dominates every scene he is in.
The first time I saw this film was at a Fright Night event at the local movie theater. I remember spending a good portion of the run time with my mouth open at the sheer craziness on the screen. The plot really makes very little sense, but it doesn’t matter due to the madcap craziness going on.
Verdict: 3.5 Gavels out of 5
If you’re a fan of the crazy, the kooky and the kitschy; Then Dr. Phibes is the film for you. Truly a cult classic. Available on DVD as a set with its sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again.
Stoker Thompson is a wreck. A nearly washed up 35 year old boxer who has lost so many fights even his girlfriend tells him to take a dive. His manager is so sure that he’ll lose that he arranges for Stoker’s next fight to be thrown, without telling Stoker about it. This fight is against up and coming fighter Tiger Nelson. The only problem is, Stoker Thompson is determined to go out with a bang and has other ideas about his next fight. What will happen to him if he manages to win?
The Setup was one of several films made in the late ’40s and early ’50s that showed the corrupt, seedy underbelly of professional boxing. Mobster fixed fights, tomato matches (fights against wildly mismatched opponents) and corrupt judging were so common that the entire sport was at risk of collapse.
This film does not pull any punches about how nasty the boxing world was at the time. Frequently run by gangsters, boxing clubs were stocked with aging journeyman boxers who were routinely set up as punching bags to build up the reputations of the new generation of champions. The inmates of these clubs often had no choice, with few useful skills beyond fighting. Often these matches were preordained so that even if one of these guys thought he had a chance, it was made known that he would take a dive, or else. Or else usually meaning at least a savage beating and broken bones or at worst, a cement grave at the bottom of a river. If a palooka was a good boy and took his beating and made the champ look good, he would get paid out as the loser of one of these ginned up title bouts.
If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because a certain movie made in the 1970s resurrected these themes and storyline. A little film known as Rocky hit on these same elements with spectacular success. Underdog against the champ, little guy against the world. You can see that this film was an influence on the Rocky crew.
The film was based on a poem by Joseph Moncure March. A few things were changed, such as the protagonists name, his race and a few seedier elements of his personal life and eventual fate. The film does retain the run down savagery of the poem and also shows the battered nobility of a little guy that refuses to give in.
Visually, this is a boxing film through and through. The film starts with the clang of a boxing bell and a pair of fighters spar as the credits roll. The film is well shot, with type of dynamic energy unique to this type of sports film. The cuts and camera angles are extremely effective at showing the speed and brutality of a boxing match. Showing the reactions of the crowd as well as the fighters from multiple angles with rapid cutting between multiple cameras. The choreography is well done and actually manages to look like an actual boxing match (not always the case with these films.)
Verdict: 3.5 Gavels out of 5
I’m not normally a sports film fan, but this one is really well done. Good camera work and lighting with an effective cast. The dark and pessimistic storyline fits well with the film noir aesthetics.
Robert Kraft is the new director of the Immortal Hills Cemetery. During an introductory tour by groundskeeper McKee, he is shown an elaborate map of the grounds. Detailed enough that it even shows occupied plots with black pins and plots that are reserved with white pins. The weirdness starts when Kraft accidentally puts black pins in the map for a young couple who reserved a plot. They soon turn up dead. Naturally this gives everyone involved a bad case of the creeps, but it is dismissed as a coincidence. He couldn’t really be adding to the cemetery’s inmates simply by changing a pin? Kraft gets the idea to try another pin with similar results. Is the map killing people? Is Kraft going insane? Or is there some other dark force at work?
I bury The Living is a bit of a surprise. I first came across it in the bargain section of the old video rental shop in my hometown. I’ve always loved low budget horror, crime and scifi films and rented it expecting a low budget zombie film or some other kind of schlock film. What I got was a well made little psychological suspense film. The film starts slow, but builds nicely as Kraft begins to wonder if the map really does affect who lives and who dies.
The camera work is surprisingly good, high quality cuts and fades and well-lit, with good lighting and contrast in both the indoors and outdoors scenes. The music is low key but effective, just odd enough to let you know it’s there and to set up the proper mood. A large part of the film is shot in what appears to be an actual cemetery which gives the film even more of a creepy feel. The film really does a good job of building a sense of dread and foreboding.
It’s a shame that this quirky little film didn’t get the attention it deserved when it was released. It lasted for a while on the drive-in circuit, only to be rediscovered during the VHS home video revolution when virtually anything was released to VHS.
Verdict: 3.5 Gavels out of 5
Good little psychological thriller/mystery cleverly disguised as a B picture horror film. If you like creepy psychological drama, give this one a try. Since it’s out of copyright I Bury The Living is available on archive.org
Someone said to me once that Hell is empty and all the devils are here…
Detective Chief Inspector Luther is a very angry man. Angry enough to let a suspect dangle over a chasm like hole in a factory catwalk to get information out of him. In fact, this is our first introduction to him in the first episode. He paces back and forth as if in an interrogation room as the man desperately tries to keep his grip. What comes next is even more shocking.
Yes, he actually lets him fall!
Luther is a BBC1 television series in the same vein as A Touch Of Frost or George Gently. Dedicated but rundown coppers holding the line against a wave of diabolical monsters threatening the towns they live in.
Like many of his fellow TV coppers, DCI John Luther has a genius IQ with a limitless memory for facts and powerful observational skills. Unlike most of them, he doesn’t have control of his emotions. Frequently lashing out at co-workers, suspects and his family. He is often his own worst enemy.
Idris Elba as DCI John Luther, chews through the scenery like some fire breathing primeval monster. Criminals and co-workers alike fear him and consider him to be dangerously unstable. Indeed, the first few episodes it seems like almost anything will set him off. As the show progresses we start to see the why and the how of what makes Luther tick. We also realize that he is quite capable of bending rules and even breaking the law when he feels it is necessary to stop a threat.
The threats range from child molesters, terrorists and sociopathic gangsters and drug gangs. I can’t really go into detail without dropping spoilers, but the villains are every bit as capable and dangerous as Luther is. Professor Moriarty, Al Capone and Charles Manson would feel right at home with this bunch.
Overall, this is a very dark show with very few clear divisions between good and evil. Sometimes good people have to do evil things to get results and sometimes bad people will do something good for reasons of their own. All of the characters have their own values and beliefs that are more complicated than simple binary responses.
Idris Elba is spectacular in this role, perfectly portraying a man teetering on the knife edge of complete breakdown.
The only actor that even comes close to matching his intensity is Ruth Wilson, who plays Alice Morgan, a dangerously brilliant killer. Sometimes a friend, sometimes an enemy of Luther’s who enjoys taunting him when he can’t solve a particularly tricky murder. Their cat and mouse relationship is a frequent element in the show.
Also good is Bollywood star Indira Varma as his unfaithful and frustrated wife, Zoe.
Like most BBC productions, this one has top shelf acting and production values, combined with a gritty realism. The camera work is top notch, showing the worn and rundown world.
American directors could pick up some tips from their English neighbors on how to create dystopian visions in film. This show, while set in a modern English rust belt, is actually darker and more dystopian than some so-called future worlds I’ve seen in recent films produced here.
Luther’s world is a bizarre amalgam of total surveillance state, combined with overworked and sometimes incompetent bureaucracy. Creating a bizarre nation state that is almost omniscient about detecting crime, but seemingly helpless to stop it.
DCI Luther is one of the few who steps into the line of fire, quite literally at some points. It’s this courage that redeems his more negative qualities. The same passion that makes him a dangerous powder keg, also gives him the drive to go that one step further in pursuing his idea of justice. He always seems to be one step away from self-destructing in one way or another.
Verdict: 4 Gavels out of 5
If you like your police dramas served with extra drama; Luther will not disappoint. Powerful performances and diabolical villains make for an intense show. Luther is currently (5-23-16) streaming on Netflix.
A young party girl is pulled into a life crime by the Demon Herb Marijuana!!!
Burma “Blondie” Roberts is an ordinary teenager getting into the kind of mischief people her age have always been into. Sneaking away to parties and trying to evade her parents’ control. While at a beach party, she is offered a Marijuana laced cigarette and this starts her downward slide into drug abuse, arrest and eventual rise as a major drug pusher.
Marijuana is another Dwain Esper special. He specialized in picking up such sleazy classics as Reefer Madness, How To Undress In Front Of Your Husband and Sex Maniac. Packaging them together and showing them in low rent venues. Since these schlock films had minimal budgets and were basically low grade smut disguised as educational features. They were extremely popular and profitable. These kind of roadshow productions continued until the weakening of the Hays Code in the late ’50s and ’60s.
The film starts with a rolling wall of text that would impress George Lucas. Everything you ever wanted to know about the Demon Herb Marijuana is burned into your irises in 72 point text. It finally switches over to some kind of hep-cat dance club.
Pretty soon the action shifts to a beach side house where a couple of shady looking characters (Pencil mustaches seemed to be a dead giveaway for bad guys in the mid 1930s.) offer everyone some herbal refreshment. This soon leads to necking, petting and skinny dipping. While the bad guys cackle about how easy it is to hook teenagers. Burma’s brush with the drug soon leads to all kinds of naughtiness through the film and ends with her abandoning her out of wedlock child.
Compared to Reefer Madness, this one loses the preacher segments and is a little more risqué. It’s also not as much fun. Marijuana lacks Reefer Madness’ goofy comedic element and just seems sleazy and low budget by comparison. What it shares with that film, is the berserk, over the top implication that any exposure to illicit narcotics will inevitably turn you into a dangerous criminal ready for the mugshot books on the first toke.
If anything, this kind of stuff tends to backfire on the people using it as an anti-drug campaign. The scorched earth approach isn’t unique to shockudrama films like this and once kids realize they aren’t going to spontaneously combust from smoking the demon herb; it usually discredits anything else the anti-drug campaign has to say.
The only analogy I can think of to describe the approach of these kinds of films involves the using of tactical nuclear weapons to rid a building of mice.
Verdict: 1 Gavel out of 5
Not as amusing as Reefer Madness, looks like an attempt at comedy. Too bad they were actually serious. Slightly risque, poorly shot, poorly lit and poorly acted. Available on Youtube and Archive.org but not recommended.