Gene Wilder 1933-2016

Gene Wilder 1933-2016

The world just lost one of it’s greatest comedians. While not really connected with the kind of films I review here, Gene Wilder has always been a favorite actor of mine.

Whether playing the nearly narcoleptic gunfighter, The Waco Kid in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles.

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Or the hilariously demented Dr. Frankenstein (Pronounced Fronk-En-Steen please) in young Dr. Frankenstein, which he co-wrote with Mel Brooks. Gene Wilder had a distinctive and unique presence.

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The wild, curly blond hair, intense blue eyes and a voice that could shift from a quiet almost hypnotic whisper into a manic, shouting fit in seconds, made him a unique and distinctive actor. He was also a talented singer and dancer, who could lampoon a Broadway number and make it look better than the original.

The film that most defines Wilder to many in my generation is Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The film really shows his range, from song and dance numbers, pratfalls, manic energy and moments of quiet intensity. Willy Wonka shows the full range of his considerable talents.

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Goodbye Gene Wilder, you’ll be truly missed.

Bosch (2014 TV Series)

Bosch (2014 TV Series)

Opening Statement

 

I felt something stirring inside that had been absent for a long time. A small tug toward the darkness I one time knew so well.

 

Review

 

I’ve made no secret of my admiration for the high quality mystery and detective programs that English studios have released over the years. Shows like A Touch of Frost, Wallander, Luther and Sherlock are some of the best shows of their genre. While there are excellent programs like The Shield and Person of Interest, most American programming seems to be stuck in the CSI rut for the last 15 years.

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This is why Bosch is such a pleasant surprise. A relatively unheralded new show from new kid in town, Amazon Studios, released for their streaming service. In my opinion, Bosch is one of the best police procedural show to come out of the US in years.

 

The show roughly follows the chronology of the books by Michael Connelly, but moves the timeline up about 20 years. Instead of being a Vietnam veteran and a cop in the 1990s. Bosch is now a veteran of Desert Storm and Afghanistan and the show is set in 2014. An interesting tidbit from the books is that Bosch is the half-brother of lawyer Mickey Haller (The Lincoln Lawyer, also by Connelly). Now that would be a crossover if they could pull it off.

 

Harry Bosch is a very dark character with a strong neo-noir vibe. His mother was a prostitute who was murdered by a serial killer. He joined the military and served in the Army Special Forces, first in the 90s then re-upped after 9/11. He then joined the LAPD and serves as a Robbery Homicide detective. The character is famously difficult to work with and isn’t afraid to openly defy the rules if he thinks they are getting in the way of an arrest. He also has the strong sense of personal justice and honor that many famous characters of the genre possess.

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Lead actor Titus Welliver does a good job of portraying this darkness, playing the character as an intense and suspicious loner with an intense, unsettling glare. You definitely get the feeling that he is a dangerous man.

 

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Harry Bosch, don’t get him mad.

Jamie Hector plays his partner, Detective Jerry Edgar, who is his polar opposite. Intelligent and relatively optimistic for a veteran police officer. He helps balance out Bosch’s more dangerous moods and helps keep him out of trouble with their superiors.

 

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Det. Edgar, not thrilled to be out messing up his clothes.

Another standout is veteran character actor Lance Reddick as Deputy Chief Irving, Bosch’s superior and sometimes antagonist. While Bosch is primarily interested in catching criminals, Irving also has the Mayor, city council and the public to answer to and must often balance their disparate requirements with the need to enforce the law. Naturally, this puts him on Bosch’s bad side repeatedly.

 

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Deputy Chief Irving, as much politician as cop.

Unlike many American shows where the hero can defy the rules at will. This one shows the consequences of Bosch’s more spectacular violations of the LAPD’s rules. A major thread in the first few episodes involves him being sued after a confrontation with a suspect goes wrong.

 

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Trouble for Bosch.

Another difference from most American shows is that Bosch is shot on location, specifically Los Angeles, CA and makes the city a starring character. The combination of 21st century neon lit skyscrapers and dark, dangerous streets, gives the city a Blade Runner-esque look.

 

An essential element to the Bosch series of books is the author’s intimate knowledge of the area, from the Angel’s Flight cars, to the bluffs, to the cultural and social differences between LA, Hollywood and the many outlying areas. The camera work is spectacular and really brings the diverse city to life.The shows intro is a spectacular kaleidoscope view of images from LA streets.

 

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LA’s famous Angel’s Flight. It plays a significant part in a later Bosch Story.

 

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A frame from the show’s intro.

The entire show is steeped in a neo-noir aesthetic. From the dark, conflicted characters to the grim night shots and the moody jazz soundtrack. Fans of the film noir genre will find a lot to like here.

 

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Plenty of scenes like this in the series.

One more note, the show is rated TV-MA and they mean it. Connelly’s books rarely shy away from the rough, realistic language of the streets and police, this show doesn’t either. The violence is about at the level of most of the CSI-ish shows. The themes of the show are very mature and not recommended for anyone under 18. The bad guys shown in this one are truly the worst of the worst. Vicious serial predators, rapists and child abusers are frequent opponents of Bosch and the LAPD.

 

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Rainard Waites, you’ll learn to hate this scumbag. “I don’t know how the body ended up in my van, honest. I was framed.”

Verdict 4 Gavels out of 5 An impressive show from Amazon’s new streaming service. Dark, gritty and fairly faithful to the source material. The show features impressive visuals, engaging characters and intelligent storylines. Fans of British detective series such as Luther or A Touch of Frost will love this one.

Coming soon

Coming soon

Hello everyone,

I just wanted to give an update on what reviews I am currently working on.

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The first one up will be a modern show from Amazon of all places. Bosch, is a kind of neo-noir detective mystery based on a famous series of novels. The show follows the adventures of the very unconventional detective Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch. As much a thorn in the side of his superiors as he is to the criminals he chases. Harry tries his best to navigate the smoke and mirrors politics of modern police politics while trying to capture a deadly serial killer.

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Next up is the 1938 drama Sinners In Paradise, about a group of survivors marooned on an island in a seaplane crash. Many of them have secrets and issues with each other. They also have a neighbor, the reclusive Mr. Taylor, who has a boat but refuses to rescue them. In fact he wants nothing to do with them. While they try to convince him to help, the group must band together to survive.

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Finally is the oddly titled, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, a 1946 drama with a dynamite cast including Barbara Stanwyck, Lizabeth Scott and Kirk Douglas. The film is the story of a ruthless domineering woman who is the wife of the District Attorney, and a deadly secret she’s been keeping.

 

 

Detour (1945)

Detour (1945)

Opening Statement

That’s life. Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.

Review

 

Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is a down on his luck piano player from New York, who’s trying to get to LA and his girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake). Hitchhiking your way across the country is tough and Al thinks he’s hit the jackpot when gambler Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald) picks him up and offers to drive him all the way to LA.

 

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Al and Sue during happier times.
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The mysterious Charles Haskell.

Unfortunately for Al, he seems to have the worst luck I’ve ever seen in a  film. When Haskell dies under suspicious circumstances, Al decides the only way to avoid being arrested and charged by the police, is to take Haskell’s car and identity and ditch the vehicle further down the road.

 

This initial run of bad luck is compounded when he picks up hitchhiker “Vera”, who had ridden with Haskell earlier and knows Al ain’t him. She uses this knowledge as leverage to force Al into a series of schemes involving Haskell’s murky past. Will Al be able to break free from the dangerous and intelligent Vera before it’s too late?

 

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Vera.
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The trap is sprung.

Detour is famous as one of the quintessential film noir B-movies. Shot for about $100,000 in 28 days with a minimal cast and sets. Many shots are location shots on what is now Highway 14 between Mojave and Lancaster California. Still a desolate spot today, it’s used to great effect in the film.

 

The budget was so low on this one that the 1941 Lincoln used in the film is actually Director Edgar G. Ulmer’s personal car. This low budget is also seen in certain scenes where the film is reversed rather than reshot to show travel in opposite directions (most obviously it looks like the cars are right hand drive, English style in some scenes.)

 

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Gee, shouldn’t the steering wheel be on the other side?

The film was ruthlessly cut down to a little over an hour (standard B movie length) from a much longer shooting time. The editing is extremely effective in this one and there is not a lot of wasted time or filler. Directors of some modern, bloated 2 hour+ extravaganzas would do well to study this film. It starts slowly and builds to an intense pace towards the end. All without being obviously rushed.

 

The best part of the film is the interaction between the two leads and the interesting way certain Hollywood clichés are turned on their heads. One critic described the pair as “a woman who can only sneer and a man who can only pout.” That is a pretty good description of the interaction between Al and Vera. A nice reversal of the usual roles in suspense films.

 

This time the woman is the one in complete control and the man is helpless against her superior knowledge of crime and its various skills. Al is basically a complete rube acting out of fear and going by the seat of his pants. Vera is obviously an experienced, if small time criminal and grifter and she sees a fat pigeon in poor Al.

 

Any time it looks like he might escape her control, she reminds him of what will happen if she informs the police of his activities. No misdemeanor charge, that’s for sure, the rope or the gas chamber are frequently mentioned.

 

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Al vs Vera, round 12.

Supposedly stars Ann Savage and Tom Neal couldn’t stand each other and I think some of that wore off in some of the scenes. The tension crackles, especially later in the film when, trapped together in an apartment, they pace like trapped animals, slinging increasingly vicious insults at each other.

 

While Neal is good, the film is definitely Savage’s show. Despite not appearing until half way into the film, she dominates all of the scenes she is in as the ruthless and controlling Vera. A standout performance as one of the nastiest bad girls of film noir.

 

The film has a haunting melancholy feeling to it, you figure out pretty early on that there won’t be any happy endings in this one. The large amount of monologue by Al, combined with the spare sets and minimal cast give the film a nightmare feel. Especially as the tension ratchets up towards the end,

 

Verdict 4 Gavels out of 5 Impressive film noir, shot on an incredibly tight budget. Detour does more with its $100,000 than many A list films costing many times that. Good camera and lighting combined with tight editing and an impressive performance from Ann Savage make this one an iconic example of the film noir style.

Jason Bourne (2016)

Jason Bourne (2016)

Opening Statement

The Bourne Redundancy

Review

I’ve been working overtime on a project at work and needed a break, so I decided to visit the local megaplex and check out the new Jason Bourne film. Sort of a semi-reboot after an attempt at a focus change in The Bourne Legacy (why call it a Jason Bourne film if there is no Bourne to film. The current crew seems to  The new film is an interesting mish mash of plotlines from the original novel, the previous films and seemingly whatever else the production company had lying around.

Jason Bourne Generic Action Scene Robert Odierna Criminal Reviews

The franchise has evolved so far beyond the original novels that the only things recognizable are the name Jason Bourne and the sinister Project Treadstone that created him. The plot has evolved from cold war cat and mouse games between the KGB and CIAs respective proxies to a post 9-11 panopticon super surveillance state in the west. The mighty Russian intelligence agencies are not even mentioned and terrorists like the original Jackal in the novels are absent as well.

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The surveillance state

The problem with putting all of your literary eggs in this particular basket is that it has been done so many times before. From the Sneakers “no more secrets” super decrypter in the ’90s film, to modern productions like the excellent Person of Interest and the recent Bond and Mission Impossible franchises.

This makes Bourne’s plot seem like an also ran right out of the gate. This issue combined with the laughable lack of realism regarding surveillance, computer hacking and computers in general are my main issues with the film. Seriously, this one makes Goldeneye seem like a computer science class! If I started in on the errors I could probably fill another post. Fortunately the good people at Ars Technica have done that for me.

Ars Technica Jason Bourne Review

On the plus side there are some decent performances and the film never really drags after a slow ’90s cybercrime opening, if anything it could have used a few more slow scenes to decompress. After the first 15 minutes, the entire run time is punctuated by frenzied chases, tense confrontations and bone crushing fight scenes, at times a sensory overload of Michael Bay proportions. The cinematography and lighting, while good suffer from a bad case of shaken camera syndrome, especially during fight scenes.

The performances are decent to excellent, Matt Damon is his usual 5’10” block of vanilla ice cream; stoic, nonthreatening and blandly likeable as human weapon Jason Bourne.

Jason Bourne Matt Damon Robert Odierna Criminal Reviews

Tommy Lee Jones puts in his usual good performance as the lizard like and menacing CIA director hunting Bourne.

Jason Bourne Tommy Lee Jones Robert Odierna Criminal Reviews

Indie darling Alicia Vikander is decent, but overshadowed by Jones who she shares most of her scenes with.

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Vincent Cassel seems wasted as the assassin stalking Bourne, despite attempts to connect his backstory to Bourne’s he just comes off as a generic hitman.

Film Title: Jason Bourne

While the action sequences suffer from shaken camera syndrome, they are well choreographed, which is good because they take up a significant part of the film. The final car chase is a distinct standout, excellent pacing and an interesting mismatch as Bourne chases a monstrous armored police tactical truck that makes his pursuing charger look like a hotwheels toy. The collisions have nicely visceral feel to them, something missing from most modern films. The two vehicles blaze a path of destruction through some of the nicer parts of Las Vegas in a climactic showdown. Honestly, this is one of the best chase scenes I’ve seen in years and nicely snaps the film out of it’s blandness. I just wish there were a few more scenes like this.

Jason Bourne Car Chase Scene Robert Odierna Criminal Reviews

Verdict 2.5 Gavels out of 5 Decent but not stellar summer blockbuster fare, bland and by the books spy novel plot coupled with massive action movie set pieces. Redeemed by good performances and a spectacular chase scene.

Terror In The Haunted House AKA My World Dies Screaming (1958)

Terror In The Haunted House AKA My World Dies Screaming (1958)

Opening Statement
Did I go up the stairs this time, doctor?

 

Review

 

Sheila Wayne is an American expat living in Switzerland. Newly married and heading off to a new life in Florida. Things seem perfect, except for a recurring nightmare she suffers from. In her dreams she approaches a creepy old house that she knows is the source of some kind of evil. Numerous doctor visits are unable to determine the cause of the dream.

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I’m not nuts, honest doctor.
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Do all movie psychiatrists come equipped with Freudian facial hair?

To her terror, the new house her husband is taking her to is the exact house in her nightmare. Will she figure out what’s really going on before it’s too late?

 

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Get used to this folks. Every 10 minutes or so, SCREEEECH!!! Her co-star looks like he can barely control himself from laughing.

Mostly set and shot in Florida, this film is a typical example of the lower budget films of the era. All of the usual issues with low budget film come into play. Shots switching from day to night to day. Indifferent sound work. Shaky camera work, sloppy cuts and poor editing are all on display. Parts of the film are narrated to reduce the number of actors and mask the lack of effects budget.

 

Like many of its low budget brethren, Terror In The Haunted House makes use of gimmick marketing to try to improve its appeal. This film was the first attempt at what Hollywood called Psychorama. A type of subliminal messaging, where single frames of images are inserted into the film at certain points to invoke a particular response. Theoretically the audience would not see the images but would react to them with the emotions desired by the director.

 

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Psycho-Rama in action. Marketing in the 50s seemed to demand adding “Rama” “Vision” or “Luxe” to the end of any new piece of entertainment terminology.

Personally I found Psychorama to be more distracting than effective. Despite the claim that you can’t see these single frames, I was able to make them out multiple times and they do little more than distract, once you know what’s going on.

 

While this could have been an interesting little suspense number, the film has a problem deciding what genre it is. Is it a horror film, psychological suspense, haunted house film? All three apparently, and it doesn’t really do any of them very well.

 

Verdict 1.5 Gavels out of 5 The film tries to be too many things at once. Too slow paced and talky to be a horror movie, not paranormal enough for a ghost story and the goofy gimmicks destroy any psychological suspense once you know what’s going on. Only recommended for hardened hecklers of bad films.