No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Hardcore’ (1979)

Paul Schrader’s 1979 film “Hardcore” is one I have been meaning to watch for years. Many of my film friends have sung its praises, and I have been a big fan of Schrader’s work both as a screenwriter (“Taxi Driver”) and as a director (“First Reformed” and “Patty Hearst” among others). Regardless, this quickly became one of the many films I kept promising myself I would watch but never got around to it. But then one evening, I saw it was playing at the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles, and I realized the time had come to finally give it a look. Besides, this might be my only chance to see it on the silver screen.

“Hardcore” opens up on Christmas in Grand Rapids, Michigan to the tune of Susan Raye’s “Precious Memories.” Schrader quickly settles us into the peaceful and family-oriented environment which looks to be filled with church-going people who love and fear God in equal measure. You just might mistake it for the average Norman Rockwell painting which often gave us images that were all too wholesome to be believed. Everything looks to be together on the same page while singing faith-based songs and sharing in traditional ceremonies without question. Of course, it’s scenes like these that make me wonder when the cracks in this atmosphere will begin to show.

The main character of this piece is Jake Van Dorn (played by George C. Scott), a well-to-do businessman with strong religious beliefs. Originally, this part almost went to Warren Beatty, but as great an actor as Beatty, he would have been wrong. Scott is perfectly cast as he has the face of someone with deeply held beliefs to where questioning them could be hazardous to your health. Eventually, you know these beliefs will be tested in the extreme as the title “Hardcore” refers to more than the sexuality on display here.

Jake’s peaceful existence becomes undone when his daughter Kristen (Ilah Davis) goes missing while on a church-sponsored trip in California. He enlists the help of the police, but after seeing all the photos on the wall of missing children, some of who still haven’t been found in years, he decides to hire a private investigator named Andy Mast (Peter Boyle) to dig a little deeper. But what Andy finds is something Jake never could have expected nor be the least prepared to deal with.

Watching Jake view a porno film in which his daughter Kristen is having sex with two men is an unnerving scene as Scott portrays a deep shock and grief which illustrates the living nightmare any parent would be thrilled to avoid. While it threatens to contain, as Ralph Garman and Kevin Smith would call it, “exquisite acting,” and the scene has become an infamous meme for many, I am curious as to what depths Scott dug to capture such an unforgettable moment of devastation. Such a scene is impossible to erase from the memory once it is viewed, and it comes to inform the relentlessness and anger he will come to experience up to the movie’s end.

From there, Jake ventures into the seedy underworld of Los Angeles, or the one which existed back in the 1970s. Like “Taxi Driver’s” Travis Bickle, he is “God’s Lonely Man” as he ventures into a place he does not belong. His brother-in-law tells him early on that God is testing him, and it is clearly the case as ventures deeper and deeper into the city’s sleazy subculture where there are an endless number of sex shopkeepers, adult theaters, and massage parlors that do more for their clients than a simple rub down. At one point, he even disguises himself as a pornography producer in an increasingly desperate effort to find his daughter, and I kept wondering if and when he might give in to temptation.

“Hardcore” was Schrader’s second film as a director, following his brilliant debut with “Blue Collar.” As with “Blue Collar,” he had quite the time wrangling his cast. Scott was said to have not gotten along with Schrader, and at one point promised the director he would finish the film only if he vowed never to direct another motion picture ever again. Well, we know Schrader promised Scott just that to get him back on set, but thank God the filmmaker never followed through on his word. This is just as well as we still had other films like “American Gigolo,” “Cat People,” “Light Sleeper” and “Affliction” to look forward to.

Indeed, this is a film that could have been upstaged by its behind-the-scenes drama which, in addition to Scott’s behavior, included an ending forced on Schrader by the studio. Indeed, the ending is “Hardcore’s” biggest flaw as it doesn’t jibe well with all which came before it, and it feels lazily staged with a shootout that feels tacked on above all else. It is thanks to Scott’s performance in the final moments that I am willing to forgive the conclusion as he keeps it from ringing completely hollow.

Still, I think “Hardcore” is a triumph for Schrader as it allows him to dig deep into themes he has explored in his many works such as the conflict between man and immorality. Moreover, there is authenticity on display here which would be hard to find today as Schrader managed to gain access to real-life sex houses and adult theaters to where there is no doubt we are dealing with the real thing and not just some cheap set. Certain sticky stains on the windows make this abundantly clear by the way.

Looking at the credits, Schrader had quite the crew to work with. The film was executive produced by John Milius who remains one of the best screenwriters ever, the score was by Jack Nitzsche who helps add even more of a lurid feeling to the sights Jake is forced to take in, and the cinematography was by Michael Chapman who performed visual wonders on both “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull.” Seriously, the color palette Chapman uses here aids the story considerably, and I cannot help but believe it greatly influenced the later works of Gaspar Noe and Benoit Debie.

I enjoyed Peter Boyle’s performance as private detective Andy Mast as he makes this character look all too comfortable in a city that thrives on decadence than what might appear on the surface. Even as Andy gives in to his baser needs and desires, he knows how the story is going to end and makes very few apologies for who he is. While the ending feels a bit too similar to the one from “Chinatown,” Boyle makes it work as his dialogue rings very true in a cynical and sad way.

But another performance worth singling out here is Season Hubley’s as Niki, a prostitute and part-time adult actress who aids Jake in his search. The scenes she has with Scott represent the best “Hardcore” has to offer as their dialogue regarding both sex and religion illustrates their differences and similarities in ways only Schrader could have pulled off. She fully inhabits this character to where I never doubted how much of a survivor Niki was and will continue to long after the end credits have finished.

Like William Friedkin’s “Cruising,” “Hardcore” is a journey into a subculture that no longer exists in today’s world. These days, it is much easier to gain access to pornography through the internet, and it makes me wonder how Jake would deal with a similar situation in today’s world. Things would be a bit easier to trace, and that’s even though some lost children might forever stay lost (please feel free to prove me wrong on this). As devoutly religious as Jake is, I imagine in a time where the world wide web and cell phones control our lives more than ever, he would most likely be more isolated and closed off from those around him than ever before.

“Hardcore” is indeed classic Paul Schrader even with its inescapable flaws, and I have no doubt “8MM,” the 1999 film directed by the late Joel Schumacher and written by Andrew Kevin Walker, would not have existed without it. “8MM” also pales in comparison to it by the way. I look at movies like these and wonder why studios won’t leave the filmmakers alone in making them. You know how dark the material was when you started funding the project, right? So why insult everyone’s intelligence by trying to make things a little less dark?

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Singin’ in the Rain’ Movie and 4K/Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent, Tony Farinella.

Even though “Singin’ in the Rain” is celebrating its 70th anniversary with this 4K release, in my 36 years on this planet, I have yet to see it until now. I was familiar with a few of the songs from the film, as they are part of cinema history, but I never sat down to view it from start to finish.  It’s better late than never!  That is the beauty of film: even if you think you have seen all of the classics out there, there is always one that slips through the cracks from time-to-time.  “Singin’ in the Rain” is one of the best 4K releases of this year so far with its vivid colors, lifelike images, and crystal-clear picture.  It is truly a treat to enjoy.

The film stars Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood, a Hollywood stuntman and hoofer.  He is quite popular in silent films and lives by the motto, “Dignity. Always dignity.”  It’s appropriate for his performance in this film, as it’s dignified and classy.  You can’t keep your eyes off him whether he is dancing, singing, or acting.  He has the “it” factor on screen in this film. He was also the co-director on the film along with Stanley Donen. Don’s leading lady, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) is the complete opposite of him as she’s superficial, selfish and rude throughout their time together.  Monumental Pictures, the studio behind Lockwood and Lamont, tries to put out this image of the two of them together as a happy couple in order to better increase the gate on their films together.

Don, on the other hand, sees right through Lina and tries to distance himself from her as much as possible. Don’s best friend is Cosmo Brown, played brilliantly by Donald O’Connor. He’s always there to listen, come up with ideas for Don and support him.  He understands why Don has to get as far away as possible from Lina at times.  It causes him to jump into the car of Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), a stage actress who doesn’t think too highly of the movies Don Lockwood is putting out there.  She is there to tell him the truth about exactly what she thinks of him, which opens up Don’s eyes, as he’s used to people telling him how great he is all the time. He sees she is talented and smart, and he quickly takes a liking to her.

With the success of “The Jazz Singer,” talking pictures are becoming more and more popular in Hollywood.  This puts Lamont and Lockwood in a position where they have to learn a new way of doing things. Don is a natural and is also willing to put in the work to adapt to the new way of Hollywood.  Lina, on the other hand, has a voice which is rough on the ears.  However, people are used to seeing the two of them in films together.  Because of this, Cosmo comes up with the idea of dubbing over Lina’s lines with Kathy’s voice in an upcoming musical.  This idea is spawned after the public laughs at a screening when they hear Lina’s voice and mistakes throughout one of their films.

Kathy and Don start to become closer and closer, which does not make Lina happy at all.  She is still unwilling to see her flaws or work on her craft to get better.  Kathy, on the other hand, is immensely skilled and talented.  I must admit I am not the biggest fan of musicals as it’s not one of my favorite genres.  The beauty of “Singin’ in the Rain” and why it’s a classic is the fact they know when to have music and dancing, but also know when to focus on the actors and give them the space they need to act and develop their characters.  When the musical numbers hit, they are out of this world.  The songs are memorable, and they will stay in your head after the film is over.  That is huge in a musical.

The dancing is also top-notch and terrific. There are certain scenes where they keep the camera on the actors dancing, and my eyes were glued to their movements and the poetry in which they were moving.  It was truly something to behold.  The amount of work, preparation, and time it took to pull this off is why people are still interested in watching this movie 70 years later.  It holds up incredibly well.  I’ve always been a fan of old-Hollywood.  The 50’s created some of the most iconic movies, and “Singin’ in the Rain” is up there.  I’m just disappointed it took me this long to check it out.  Now, I want to watch it again and again.

For me, the two stand-outs in the film are Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds.  Kelly has an effortless charm and is so darn likable.  He’s the perfect actor for this role.  Reynolds is elegant and pure class in her role.  As an audience member, I was really rooting for them to end up together. Of course, the “Singin’ in the Rain” moment is one even I was familiar with, even though I hadn’t seen the film.  It’s a gorgeous scene to watch and it just put a big smile on my face.  This film has it all: humor, romance, heart, love and great, great music. People will still be talking about “Singin’ in the Rain” 70 years from now.

* * * * out of * * * *

4K Info: “Singin’ in the Rain” is released on a two-disc combo pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment. It has a running time of 103 minutes and is rated G.  It comes with the 4K, Blu-ray and a digital code as well.

4K/Blu-ray Info: The film is released in 2160p High Definition, and it’s leading the way as one of the best 4K releases of 2022.  The film might be 70-years-old, but it looks incredible. With high dynamic range, you see every color come to life on screen.  This is a visual feast for the eyes.  As mentioned earlier, this film was made for 4K.  It is a huge improvement over the previous releases.

The Blu-ray comes in 1080p High Definition. The 4K comes with the following audio formats: DTS-HD MA: English 5.1, English Mono, Dolby Digital: French and Spanish. Subtitles are in English, French and Spanish. For the Blu-ray, it comes on DTS-HD MA: English 5.1 and Dolby Digital: French and Spanish. The subtitles are also in English, French, and Spanish.

Special Features:

Commentary by Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, Cyd Charisse, Kathleen Freeman, Stanley Donen, Betty Camden, Adolph Green, Baz Lurhmann and Rudy Behlmer

“Singin’ in the Rain:” Raining on a New Generation Documentary

Theatrical Trailer

Should You Buy It?

If you are a hardcore physical media collector like yours truly, this one is a no-brainer.  If you have seen the film before and don’t own it, it’s an even bigger no-brainer.  The one disappointment I always bring up with some of these 4K releases is they are still using previously released special features.  I know it’s a 70-year-old film, but I still think you can add a modern-day special feature with new interviews from film historians and actors to the 4K release instead of just recycling the old ones.  For the price point and the look of the film, Warner Brothers has knocked it out of the park with this 4K release.  It’s simply mesmerizing.  As far as the film itself, it’s one of the greatest of all-time for a reason.  If you own a 4K TV and player, this is the movie you need to buy right now.  You won’t be able to take your eyes off the screen.  This one comes highly recommended!

**Disclaimer** I received a 4K/Blu-ray copy of this film from Warner Brothers to review for free.  The opinions and statements in the review are mine and mine alone.

‘A Clockwork Orange’ Movie and 4K/Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent, Tony Farinella.

As a film lover and someone who considers themselves well-versed in the world of cinema, I’m sad to report this was my first-time watching “A Clockwork Orange.” I feel like no matter how many films you have seen, there are usually a dozen or so that have just slipped through the cracks. This is the 50th anniversary of this Stanley Kubrick classic and, as a first-time viewer, I can’t imagine the impact it had on viewers when it first came out. I know from reading up on it, it was quite controversial and misunderstood, but it ended up gaining a cult following. After watching it last night, I can’t wait to watch it again.  Kubrick is truly a genius when it comes to cinema. There is always so much happening in his films, but everything is happening for a specific purpose.

The first forty-five minutes or so of “A Clockwork Orange” are a little out there and a little frustrating from a narrative perspective. The film is set in a dystopian Britain where a group of young gang members run around terrorizing anyone who gets in their path. For example, when they run into a homeless man, they beat him up simply because they find it amusing and comical.  In another instance, they go out of their way to create chaos and havoc for a writer and his wife by attacking them in the middle of the night.  One night, this group of four young men takes it too far when one of their members, Alex (Malcolm McDowell) ends up killing a wealthy woman. His three fellow gang members leave him behind, the police catch him, and he is sentenced to fourteen years in prison.

The early part of “A Clockwork Orange” is not necessarily hard to watch as I’m used to movie violence, and it takes a lot to upset me or really get under my skin.  It’s more so that Alex and his “droogs” are unpleasant to spend time with, which I would venture to guess was Kubrick’s intent as a filmmaker. This film is based on the novel by Anthony Burgess. I think they could have trimmed out some of their antics in the film as, at times, it’s beating the audience over the head with violence and becomes repetitive and dull.  However, when Alex is sent to prison, it is when the film becomes really, really interesting and takes off.

After being well-behaved in prison for two years, Alex hears about this experiment which allows someone to be cured almost instantly of their bad thoughts and impulses. They start to think and behave without any lust or violence.  The experiment exposes them to footage of violence, rape, and other heinous acts.  When they see this footage, they start to become sick.  Because of this, if they ever have the urge to misbehave again, it is quickly stopped because of how they feel after the aversion therapy.  The prison chaplain tries to warn Alex against it by telling him the good should come from inside of him and the choices he makes.

What happens from there makes for an incredibly thrilling and intense final act. The beauty of a Kubrick film is the details all around you that are happening in a scene.  For example, when Alex returns home, the way his house is shot is gorgeous.  Kubrick is never afraid to use colors and lots of them. He knows the beauty of imagery, color and scenery, and it makes the scenes much more effective. There is also his use of music.  I don’t think I’ll ever be able to listen to “Singing in the Rain” or anything from Beethoven again without thinking of this film. There is a purpose for everything in his films from a visual and audio standpoint.

I could go on and on about “A Clockwork Orange.”  The best praise I could give the film is that I want to watch it again and again.  Kubrick was a true visionary of cinema.  This film also has a lot to say about politics, drugs (think of the milk featured here), violence, sex, karma and so much more.  After I woke up today to write this review, the film was still in my head.  His films really stay with you and mess with your head in the best possible way.  On 4K, the brightness is taken to a whole new level.  I know I’m stating the obvious here, but Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” is a masterpiece. I absolutely loved this film.  It’s a great reminder of how great movies will always stand the test of time, no matter when they were released.

* * * * out of * * * *

4K/Blu-Ray Info: “A Clockwork Orange” is released on a 4K/Blu-ray combo pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment. It comes with the 4K, Blu-ray, and also a digital copy of the film as well. It has a running time of 137 minutes and is rated R.

Video Info: The 4K of the film comes in 2160p Ultra High Definition with a ratio of 16×9 1.66:1.  If any film ever deserved the 4K treatment, it is “A Clockwork Orange.” I plan on watching the Blu-ray of the film at some point, but the high dynamic range and the colors are on full-display with the 4K.  The film is mesmerizing to watch on 4K. This is the reason why more and more people are getting 4K TV’s and players for films like this. They were made for 4K.  There is no other way to watch it at home. The Blu-ray of the film comes in 1080p High Definition with a ratio of 16×9 1.66:1.

Audio Info: The audio for the film is presented in DTS-HD MA: English 5.1, Dolby Digital: English, French and Spanish. Subtitles are in English, French, and Spanish as well. This applies to both the 4K and Blu-ray discs.

Special Features:

Commentary by Malcolm McDowell and Nick Redman

Still Tickin’: The Return of Clockwork Orange [2000 Channel 4 Documentary]

Great Bolshy Yarblockos! Making A Clockwork Orange

Turning Like Clockwork

Malcolm McDowell Looks Back

O Lucky Malcolm!

Should You Buy It?

According to the press release, the special features are the same released on the previous Blu-ray of the film, which is a bit of a bummer.  One would have hoped they would have done an updated version of the special features, especially with it being the 50th anniversary of this film.  If you haven’t seen “A Clockwork Orange” before, you are missing out! I can vouch for that.  This one is a no-brainer to add to your collection for the film itself and the visual aspects of 4K. 

This film is going to stay with me for a long, long time, and I get to watch it again on Blu-ray and 4K.  I can even watch it on my iPad because of the digital copy which comes with this combo pack.  However, as Spike Lee says, do the right thing and watch it on 4K. There will never be another director like Kubrick.  Kudos as well to Warner Brothers for their recent upgrades of classic films like “A Clockwork Orange” and “The Shawshank Redemption.” They are on a roll lately!

**Disclaimer** I received a Blu-ray copy of this film from Warner Brothers to review for free.  The opinions and statements in the review are mine and mine alone.

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘When a Stranger Calls’ (1979)

The original “When a Stranger Calls” from 1979 is a horror movie I am tempted to say I have seen many times already. This is because the scenes with Carol Kane playing a babysitter who is menaced by an anonymous caller who taunts her endlessly as he constantly asks if she has checked on the kids are scenes I have watched from time to time. It’s those scenes which keep getting presented on shows which celebrate the scariest horror movie moments, and it was featured in the documentary “Terror in the Aisles.” Even Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson paid homage to it in the “Scream” movies, and they did to such a powerful effect. Those scenes were enough to frighten me to my very core as being alone in the house was always deeply frightening to me when I was young, and the sound of silence can make things seem even more unnerving as it can get punctured at any given second.

Truth is, I never watched “When a Stranger Calls” until now. I finally took the time to watch it when I found it was available to stream on Amazon Prime. Like many movies I watch on this particular streaming service, I figured I would just watch it for a few minutes and then turn it off, perhaps hoping to watch the rest of it later. But in the end, I found myself watching it to its brutal conclusion, and this proved to be for better and, especially, for worse.

“When a Stranger Calls” starts off with Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) arriving at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Mandrakis (Carmen Argenziano and Rutanya Alda) to babysit their children while they are at a party. Everything starts off fine with Jill relaxing at the residence and speaking with her friend about the latest gossip at school. But while working on school assignments, she starts receiving phone calls from a man who keeps asking her if she has checked on the children. As the calls keep coming at her with the volume of each ring getting increasingly louder, Jill hears the man saying he wants her blood all over his body. To her credit, she does the smart thing by calling the police who attempt to trace these calls to their source. Of course, then they discover that the caller is actually inside the house…

The opening 12 minutes of “When a Stranger Calls” have long since become iconic as it does provide audiences with one of the most terrifying scenes in a horror film, and it does so without any blood or gore. Director Fred Walton does a brilliant job of setting up this babysitter in a normal home environment which is no different from the ones we have lived in, and the silence of them when the stereo isn’t on and playing the top 40 hits proves to be quite deafening. With scenes like these, we are reminded of how what we don’t see proves to be more infinitely terrifying than what we do.

But therein lies the problem with this film, it peaks too soon. Once Jill’s horrifying predicament comes to an end as she runs straight into private investigator John Clifford (Charles Durning), the story then moves to a number of years later when John is obsessively pursuing the man on the other end of the phone line, Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley) who has just escaped the insane asylum he was committed to. What results from there is frustratingly dull as “When a Stranger Calls” wastes fine actors in a movie which looked to promise so much more than it ends up giving.

It really sucks to say this as this film features a very talented cast who do give the material their all despite it being so lackluster. Durning gives us a fully realized character who is ever so obsessed about capturing the man who laid waste to a family in the worst way possible. Beckley, who died six months after the film’s premiere, does a strong job of inhabiting such an insane and unstable character in Curt to where I never caught him overacting. We also have Colleen Dewhurst on board as Tracy Fuller, a person who comes into contact with Curt in a rather ambivalent fashion, but once she does, things become far too predictable.

“When a Stranger Calls” does eventually return to Jill’s life years later when she is married and has children of her own, and this does result in a much-needed increase in suspense and tension as we are reminded of the hell she went through. We even get one highly effective jump scare, but it all leads to a conclusion which proved to be deeply unsatisfying.

When it comes to Kane, she is the best thing this movie has to offer. She has long since proven to be a tremendous comedic talent in movies like “Annie Hall” and “The Princess Bride, the TV shows “Taxi” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” and she was fearless in her portrayal of one of John Munch’s ex-wives on “Homicide: Life on the Street.” Here, she goes from playing a young student and babysitter to a woman still dealing with the trauma and guilt over a horrific event. Kane looks like an ordinary person here which helps to make her terrifying ordeal feel even more real, and she inhabits Jill with an unshakeable fear as the phone rings louder and louder and the calls get more and more threatening. Her performance is tremendous as she made me feel Jill’s fear and desperation throughout.

Now as much as I try to view a movie for what it’s trying to be instead of what I want it to be, I cannot help but think of how much better it could have been. Frankly, I think it should have focused more on Jill and how she deals with all she has been through. It could have been something along the lines of David Gordon Green’s “Halloween” reboot which catches up with Laurie Strode 40 years after her near-death encounter with Michael Myers. This would have been more enthralling as Kane is so good here, and watching her trying to process all she has been through is far more interesting than following a cop obsessed with catching a killer.

It also would have helped if Curt had been kept in the shadows, like the alien in “Alien,” the thought of him proves to be more haunting than his appearance. Some people want to see the monster right away, but like the anonymous truck driver in “Joy Ride,” a strange voice can be far more unnerving. The fact the filmmakers give Curt a face within the first half hour just killed much of the suspense and terror they thought this movie would have.

Having finally watched the original “When a Stranger Calls,” I can see why it still resonates strongly with horror fans, as those first 12 minutes are truly terrifying. While the rest of it doesn’t hold up, the opening has long since enshrined the movie as a classic scary flick in the eyes of many. It even got a sequel, albeit a made for cable one, in 1993 with “When a Stranger Calls Back,” and both Kane and Durning returned to reprise their roles. And yes, there was an inevitable remake of it back in 2006, but judging from its trailers, the thing looks like a Noxzema commercial disguised as a horror flick.  

But seriously folks, 12 great minutes does not a good movie make, and this one had the potential to much better than it was. The more I think about “When a Stranger Calls,” the more a certain question comes to mind; Is this film a cinematic example of premature ejaculation? Seriously, I’m asking for a friend.

* * out of * * * *  

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Dr. No’

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008 when I was way behind on my 007 watchlist. RIP Sean Connery.

I keep hearing over and over telling me Sean Connery was the best James Bond and still is. And yet after all these years and so many 007 movies later, I have only seen a few of the ones starring Connery. Until yesterday, the only ones I had seen all the way through were “From Russia With Love” which remains one of my favorite Bond movies ever, and the rogue Bond “Never Say Never Again” which brought Connery back to the role for the first time since “Diamonds Are Forever.” The James Bond I really got weaned on as a kid was Roger Moore who played the character like a flamboyant playboy who got caught up in events he looked as though he had no business getting caught in. Nevertheless, Moore managed to get the job done even as the franchise started to descend into parody.

Yesterday, New Beverly Cinema, my favorite movie theater in Los Angeles, had a double feature of the first two Bond movies ever made: “Dr. No” & “From Russia With Love.” I had seen bits and pieces of “Dr. No” previously, but never the whole way through. Watching it today, this 007 adventure seems like an average Bond with the megalomaniac villain bent on world domination. I was starting to get sick of this in the last few films which starred Pierce Brosnan as Ian Fleming’s famous spy. Every once in a while, I like to see Bond go head to head with a villain who is not looking for an infinite level of power, but instead one whom he just wants revenge over like in “License to Kill.”

It helps, however, to keep in mind what action movies were like before James Bond came along. Compared to “Dr. No,” they were nowhere as gritty. Shooting female characters in a film was not allowed back in 1962, and this Bond quickly did away with this unwritten law. There was a lot more going on than just your average good guy here. While it might appear to be something of an average film for those seeing it today, “Dr. No” was in many ways a groundbreaking film which led to a franchise which has lasted longer than so many others.

OK, I am in agreement, nobody played James Bond better than Connery, and this is even though I consider Daniel Craig to be a very close second. His very first appearance as 007 in “Dr. No” was truly brilliant as you could see him at the card playing table, but you did not see his face until he uttered one of the most famous lines in cinematic history:

“Bond. James Bond.”

My dad is always telling me what made Connery so great in playing Bond is that he was so believable in how he could romance a woman one second, and then slap her when she was holding back information from him. There was a raw danger which Connery brought to this iconic character, and he set the bar almost impossibly high for the others who inhabited Bond after him. When he lets a driver take him to his destination, even though he knows this driver is up to no good, shows how quickly Bond can change from being suave and debonair to lethal and dangerous in a heartbeat. Connery’s Bond kept his cool and managed to get his way in the end. The bad guys think they have him cornered, but this is what he wants them to think.

It is endlessly interesting to see how the Bond movies have evolved since “Dr. No.” It remains the only 007 film to not have a pre-titles scene which the others are famous for having. It just goes right into the gun barrel opening in which Bond shoots right at us. The titles look cheesy today as “Dr. No” and “007” are put everywhere on the silver screen. It was the first of many opening credits sequences designed by Maurice Binder, and this one remains the most disjointed of the bunch. It goes from the unforgettable Monty Norman theme we all know to three men superimposed over the credits to the tune of “Three Blind Mice.” The audience at the New Beverly laughed at this part, and I couldn’t help but laugh myself. Things have changed a lot since “Dr. No” came out.

Seeing Bond flirt for the first time with Miss Moneypenny (the late Lois Maxwell) here makes me miss the banter these two characters have had from one film to the next. Miss Moneypenny was not in “Casino Royale,” and I have no idea if we will ever see her again in the future. But seeing these characters here for the first time reminded me of how great and fun their banter was until M made her buzz Bond in for his next assignment. Just when things got interesting between the two, business comes to obliterate pleasure.

In “Dr. No,” Bond actually gets to bed several different ladies instead of just one. Connery makes seduction look so easy to pull off. The fact such seduction is not this easy in real life is utterly frustrating. This lucky bastard of an Oscar winning actor had quite a selection before he came to meet the first Bond woman ever, Honey Rider (Ursula Andress), whose entrance in a flesh colored bikini is still one for the ages. This also marked the first time Bond actually sang, and he has not sung since. I can’t help but wonder if this was a good or bad thing. Then again, I can’t quite picture Timothy Dalton singing “Thunderball.” As for Brosnan, I never want to hear him sing again after “Mamma Mia.”

One of Bond’s first death-defying moments involved a tarantula, and just typing out this particular spider’s description sends shivers down my spine! UGGH! This may have been why I never bothered to watch “Dr. No” earlier in my life. Those damn things creep me out like nothing else. Seriously, get that creature away from me! Easily one of the scariest moments in any Bond movie, the tension escalates so quickly to where the rest of this movie can never quite match it. Still, it wouldn’t be the last time we saw spiders in a Bond movie. My brother covered my eyes during one scene in “Octopussy” which included them. I think it is just as well that he did.

Watching “Dr. No” was fun, and it is an excellent Bond movie in many ways. Time has not been exactly kind to it though. We can see the green screen being used, so we have to snicker some. The pace is a lot more leisurely, and no Bond movie can move so slowly these days. Norman’s Bond theme is played endlessly here to where we threaten to get sick of it. But decades later, it is impossible to tire of this theme as it is to tire of John Carpenter’s theme to “Halloween.”

The print New Beverly Cinema had of “Dr. No” was in peak condition, and it was a recent printing down for the occasion of United Artists’ 90th anniversary. It was great to see it on the big screen all the way through instead of just on television. From here, the Bond series had nowhere to go but up. The formula was more or less perfected with “From Russia With Love,” and the producers did not mess with this formula until after “Die Another Day.” I enjoyed “Dr. No,” and I love how it paved the way for many more exciting adventures with this British spy. May there be many more in the years to come.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘The Killing Fields’

I remember renting this film from Netflix a few years ago and telling my friends what I was about to watch. I got a good dose of jaws dropping open and many of the same responses:

“Oh, that’s a fun one!”

“Go into it with a strong stomach. There are scenes in it that will pulverize you!”

“Not a fun movie!”

I remember hearing a lot about “The Killing Fields” when it was first released back in 1984, but it took me until recently to finally sit down and watch it all the way through. From a distance, it looks like another in a long line of movies about the Vietnam War and of the terrible damage it left in its wake. But in actuality, it takes place in Cambodia when the country is in the midst of a civil war with the Khmer Rouge regime; a result of the Vietnam War spilling over the country’s borders. It is based on the memoirs of award-winning American journalist Sydney Schanberg who was a correspondent for The New York Times, and of how he spent years reporting the endless fighting and bombing which took place in Cambodia and Laos. Along with photographers Jon Swain (Julian Sands) and Al Rockoff (John Malkovich), he works to capture the reality of this horrific situation as it escalates into something far worse, and before the United States military can sanitize what is being presented for public consumption.

But as much as “The Killing Fields” is about what happened in this conflict, it is really at its heart a story of friendship between Sydney and his translator, Cambodian journalist Dith Pran. Together, they work to get to the unvarnished proof of the situation and risk their lives in many instances. In the process of escaping Southeast Asia with their lives, Schanberg helps Pran’s family escape, but as the Americans get ready to leave, they are forced to give up Pran as the new regime wants all Cambodian citizens to be returned to them. This leads to a guilt ridden Schanberg spending as much time as possible searching for Pran through humanitarian services and government officials. While he does so, we watch Pran being subjected to forced labor under the “Year Zero” policy the Khmer Rouge initiated to destroy the past and start a new future.

The scene where Dith Pran stumbles upon the corpses left to rot in the Cambodian fields is where the movie gets its name, and these images will never leave my mind. In that moment, director Roland Joffé captures the vicious and evil nature of Pol Pot, Cambodia’s answer to Adolf Hitler. What happened in these fields is no different from what the Nazi’s had done to the Jews during World War II. But what’s even worse is this same kind of ethnic cleansing is still being exacted in different parts of the world today. Some might foolishly think the events of “The Killing Fields” have no real relevance to what we are suffering through today, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, with this movie, we get depressing proof of how history repeats itself.

What gives “The Killing Fields” even more emotional heft is that Haing S. Ngor, who plays Dith Pran, went through the same ordeal as did his real-life counterpart. It is impossible to watch Ngor here without knowing he shared a horrifyingly similar experience as he had to convince the soldiers he was an uneducated peasant. Had they realized Dith was really an intellectual and a reporter, he would have been killed right on the spot. Ngor was not a professional actor when he got cast, so he doesn’t act as much as provide an undeniably human face of what Cambodians were forced to endure when the Khmer Rouge came to town, and he gives what is undoubtedly one of the bravest performances I have ever see. Forget the Oscar; Ngor should have received the Purple Heart!

But as great as Ngor is, let’s not leave out the other actors whose work is every bit as good. Sam Waterston plays Sidney Schanberg, and this was long before he got involved in that long-running show with the overbearing “chung CHUNG” sound. Waterston does exceptional work capturing Schanberg’s relentless quest for truth and presenting it for all the world to see. Throughout, we see him stubbornly pursue whatever sources are available to him regardless of how it puts his life and the lives of those close to him in constant mortal danger. This later leads to a deep sense of guilt as he encouraged Dith Pran to stay with him even though he was at greater risk than anyone else in his circle. Waterston captures the complexities of a reporter who sees the importance of getting at the heart of a story as well as the large cost which becomes all too difficult to deal with.

In addition, we have John Malkovich in one of his earliest roles, and we see the unrelenting intensity he brings to Al Rockoff as he quickly recovers from an explosion which goes off right next him. Almost immediately, Malkovich jumps right back up to take as many photos as possible. Julian Sands also has one of his earliest roles here as fellow photographer Jon Swain, and this was long before he got stuck in those “Warlock” movies. Plus, you have Craig T. Nelson on board as Major Reeves, the face of the military officials who work to cover up American mistakes while maintaining whatever control they have left over an increasingly chaotic situation.

And then there is the late Spalding Gray who co-stars as the U.S. Consul, and his experience of making “The Killing Fields” ended up inspiring his one-man monologue “Swimming to Cambodia.” Hence, another career was born thanks to this movie which led to many more immensely entertaining monologues performed by him until he left us ever so tragically.

Looking back, it’s surprising to see “The Killing Fields” marked the feature film directorial debut of Roland Joffé. From watching this, I figured he had been directing motion pictures already for decades. Nothing on display here ever feels like it was staged or overly rehearsed. Joffé makes you feel like you are watching a very in-depth documentary which no one else could have pulled off, and that is saying a lot.

Joffe was also aided greatly by Director of Photography Chris Menges, who won an Oscar for his work here, as he captures a land and a time which is anything but sentimental. Composer Mike Oldfield, best known for composing and performing “Tubular Bells,” also provides an original sounding film score which heightens the horror and unrelenting chaos consuming Cambodia and those unlucky enough to be stuck there.

All these years later, “The Killing Fields” remains an immensely powerful cinematic achievement, and I wonder if people still think about it as much as they did back in the 80’s. Ngor, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar (I was rooting for Pat Morita who was nominated for “The Karate Kid“), was murdered during a robbery in downtown Los Angeles outside his home in Chinatown. Knowing he survived the horrific fate which consumed and destroyed the lives of many Cambodians only to have his life cruelly ended in such an utterly senseless crime makes watching this film today seem all the more tragic.

As for Joffé, he went on to direct “The Mission” with Robert DeNiro and Jeremy Irons which received critical acclaim. But then he helmed the dreadfully miscalculated adaptation of “The Scarlet Letter” which changed the end of the book and added more sex to it for all the wrong reasons. Then he went on to direct “Captivity,” a movie so blatantly unwatchable I turned it off after less than 20 minutes. You look at “The Killing Fields” and then at “Captivity,” and you wonder what the heck happened to this guy.

I am really glad I finally took the time to watch “The Killing Fields” long after its original release in 1984. Even if its Best Picture montage give away the film’s ending, it did not take away from the experience of watching it. This proved to be not just a great directorial debut, but a great collaboration of artists who completely sucked you into the reality of a place and time many of us would never want to experience up close. So many years later, this is a cinematic masterpiece which forces you to experience what people go through. There’s no way to come out of “The Killing Fields” without being deeply affected by it.

I desperately tried to resist using this cliché, but I have to say it; they don’t make movies like this anymore. With Hollywood’s constant obsession with comic book and superhero movies, let alone the latest unnecessary remake, you have to wonder if we will ever see a movie like “The Killing Fields” ever again.

* * * * out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘The Grey Fox’

I remember when this film came out in 1982. I was a big fan of movie review shows like “At the Movies” back then, and the scene where Bill Miner tells an unsuspecting passenger about how he used to rob stagecoaches always stayed with me. As a result, when the opportunity came to watch “The Grey Fox,” which Kino Lorber has just re-released in a new 4K restoration, I jumped at the chance. The question was, do I put this film in the “No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now” category of this website, or in the one known as “Underseen Movies” as it has been said the film only grossed $5 million worldwide. Well, considering how I remember when it was first released 38 years ago, I think the former category makes the most sense.

“The Grey Fox” stars Richard Farnsworth as Bill Miner, a stagecoach robber who eventually became known as “The Gentleman Bandit” after masterminding 26 robberies and for originating the command, “Hands Up!” As the film opens, Bill is being released from San Quentin Prison after a 33-year prison sentence, and he is also heading straight into the 20th Century, a period in time which he may not be the least bit prepared for.

Bill seems to get off to a nice start as he takes a train ride where a fellow passenger shows him a device which peels apples very quickly, and he seems amiable even when he tells this passenger how he once robbed stagecoaches. But while his sister gives him the warmest of welcomes, her husband, well aware of his past crimes, is not quick to show Bill the same kind of welcome. Bill is eager to show him he is worthy of his attention, and the next day he begins a new job which has him shucking oysters.

Things look to be going okay, but then Bill sits down in a movie theater which is playing “The Great Train Robbery,” the classic film which is especially famous for a scene where an actor shot his gun right at the camera. As we look at Bill’s face, we see a passion arise in him to where he becomes intent on resuming his previous career sooner than later. His sister begs him to stay, but he tells her, “I have ambitions in me that just won’t quit.”

Most films from the 1980’s take their sweet time in showing their main character start off being released from prison and adjusting to life as a civilian before giving up and returning to a life of a crime. Back then, you did not need to speed everything along to get to the good stuff, and learning of a character’s history and experiences proved to be rewarding in a way which added to the cinematic experience. Of course, as time went on, filmmakers are obligated to move through the story at a rapid pace even if we do not have time to catch our breath. What is interesting here is how the filmmakers of “The Grey Fox” do not hesitate to move past Bill’s attempts to live as a peaceful civilian in very quickly in order to see him return to his previous occupation as a robber. If there were any other 80’s films which pulled off such a feat, I have yet to watch them.

In many ways, “The Grey Fox” is an anti-western along the lines of Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” as Bill’s exploits are not as spectacular as this genre may suggest. His initial efforts to rob trains of their valuables proves to be unsuccessful as he is confronting by those who are not quick to give up anything without a fight. While his exploits may have made him infamous in the past, he is now living in an age which is far more eager to stop crime than celebrate it. As a result, he flees to Canada to see if he can have more success there as his passion for adventure usurps most other desires in his life.

“The Grey Fox” was directed by Phillip Borsos who had previously found tremendous critical acclaim in Canada with his short films “Nails,” “Spartree” and “Cooperage.” “The Grey Fox” marked his feature film directorial debut, and it proved to be a resounding triumph as he created a wonderful character study of a man trying to survive in a time he is not fully prepared to live in as he goes back to what made him famous, or infamous, in the first place. Along with cinematographer Frank Tidy, he perfectly captures the beauty of the Canadian wilderness which anyone can get lost in, and serves to illustrate how isolated Bill has been over the years. I have yet to view this film on the silver screen as the world is still in the grips of the Coronavirus (COVID-19), but I do hope the day will come when I can.

Borsos would go on to direct “The Mean Season” which starred Kurt Russell, and anything with Kurt Russell in it has got to be worth seeing. His last film was “Far from Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog,” an innocent adventure film which came out at a time when younger audiences were starting to get more cynical about the family movies being released in theaters. I remember when an English teacher I had in college remarked at how the film’s trailer was playing and of her observing teenagers a couple of rows ahead of her who remarked at how it looked “lame.” She would go on to say how our generation was being mediatized to where we had been forever robbed of our innocence.

What a shame Borsos’ life got cut short at the far too young age of 41 following a battle with acute myeloblastic leukemia. He still had a lot to give to us from behind the camera.

But let’s be honest, the real star of “The Grey Fox” is indeed Richard Farnsworth who is unforgettable to where it makes perfect sense why he was cast as “The Gentleman Bandit.” Having started out as a stuntman who later became an actor and appeared in movies such as “Gone with The Wind,” “Red River” and “The Wild One,” he had already been working in show business for years when he got this role. Vincent Canby was correct in describing “Farnsworth” as being “remarkably appealing with a face the camera adores.” The actor, who passed away back in 2000 after a painful battle with cancer, certainly had a face which had life written all over it, and it is the kind of face Hollywood does not value as much as it used to.

Farnsworth creates a lived-in portrait of a man who is famous for being a robber, but who ended up spending more time behind bars than he did robbing stagecoaches. From start to finish, he nails the complexities of Bill Miner who proved to be a genuine, thoughtful, gentleman-like, loving, and at times quite the dangerous individual. And those eyes of Farnsworth’s are beautifully indeed as he lets us into his soul to show a life still yearning for adventure and a connection with someone which can possibly give him something to live for other than robbing trains.

The actor also has some terrific scenes opposite Jackie Burroughs who portrays feminist photographer Katherine Flynn. They have instant chemistry together, and their dialogue feels real, genuine and not the least bit manipulative. When the truth of who Bill is comes to the surface, we can see in Burroughs’ eyes how Katherine cannot simply tear herself away from him. Bill is one of the more unique individuals she could ever hope to meet, and Katherine knows she will likely never meet someone like him ever again, so why stop things there?

Well, it took me almost 40 years to sit down and watch “The Grey Fox” after that movie clip I saw on “At the Movies” was forever burned into my conscious mind. I think it is safe to say it was well worth the wait. Lord knows I would never have appreciated it on the same level when I was 7 years old, so it’s nice to catch up with it now long after my view of movies had evolved to another level. It is a beautiful relic which deserves to be embraced by a new generation of film buffs. I do hope you take the time to see it whether in a theater or by virtual cinema. With this new 4K restoration, it is now more beautiful than ever.

* * * * out of * * * *

Please click here to visit “The Grey Fox” page at the Kino Lorber website.

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: Bonnie and Clyde

I went into “Bonnie and Clyde” with the same mind set I had when I sat down to watch Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” I figured the passing of time dilute the immense power it possessed upon its initial release. Plus, already knowing the basic story, I felt I was more than prepared for the movie’s most controversial elements to where I did not think I would come out of it particularly disturbed.

But in the end, none of that mattered. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” still is an extremely unsettling horror film, but “Bonnie and Clyde” isn’t far off in the shocking department. It’s a brilliant character piece which follows the exploits of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker as they make their way across America robbing banks, and of the people they pick up on their journey. It was also one of the first films to come out of the New Hollywood era in how it portrayed sex and violence in a much more visceral fashion. More than 40 years later, it still packs a powerful wallop, and nothing has taken away from its accomplishments.

Yes, this is another one of those movies “based on a true story,” a major pet peeve of mine as this term typically signals another real-life story undone by clichés and Hollywood formulaic conventions. This term, however, is not seen in the opening credits which is a major plus. Instead, we are presented with snapshots of the title characters which, while from a time long since past, feel very vivid. By introducing these two infamous people in this fashion, we are already drawn into their reality without questioning it much. I wish more movies today would try this tactic more often as it has me believing I am about to watch something out of the ordinary.

“Bonnie and Clyde” jumps right into the action as we come upon Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) listlessly resting in bed and clearly bored with her life as a waitress. When she suddenly spots the mischievous Clyde (Warren Beatty) trying to steal her mother’s car, she is immediately smitten and jumps right out of the house to join him. While in town, Clyde tells her he robs banks, and she questions just how serious he is. Clyde ends up proving it to her by robbing a store across the street, and he proudly shows off the loot he absconded with. From there, these two are on the run and crazy in love with one another.

What is shown onscreen likely doesn’t resemble complete historical accuracy, but Arthur Penn’s true aim was to present a more romanticized version of these two individuals who were as passionate as they were dangerous. The story takes place in the middle of the Great Depression when families lost much of what they owned, and criminals were treated like celebrities. This becomes apparent when Bonnie and Clyde hide out at an abandoned farmhouse when its owner comes by for one last look. It turns out the bank took his farm from him heartlessly, and the two bank robbers no longer see him as a threat but as someone who was thoughtlessly wronged. When they tell him they rob banks, the farmer sees them like they are coming to the rescue of folks like him. Now does any of this remind you of anything we are going through in this day and age?

But don’t mistake the romanticism of “Bonnie and Clyde” as being the same as glamorizing the criminal lifestyle. While Beatty and Dunaway look fabulous in their costumes, which quickly became fashion statements of the time, the violence shown here is harsh in its senseless brutality. The movie marked the first time a character got shot at and killed all in the same frame, and even today it is still shocking to watch.

This brings me to another big accomplishment of this classic film; the screenplay makes us empathize with these characters. Brilliantly written by David Newman and Robert Benton, with Robert Towne on board as a special consultant), the screenplay sucks us completely into the lives of these criminals to where we don’t get much of a perspective outside it. Now in real life we have the common sense not to be around these people, but the appeal of being so close to those who are considered famous is more enticing than we ever care to admit. Bonnie and Clyde are criminals, but we are seduced by their desire to lead a life that unrestrained by legal boundaries and filled with a strong desire to feel alive. Seriously, this devilish desire exists in all of us as everyone has a dark side.

With Beatty, I have long since gotten so used to seeing him as one of Hollywood’s elder statesmen. But watching him as Clyde wiped this image away from my consciousness for two hours, and I was instantly reminded of what a great and charismatic actor he was and still is. He must have had the time of his life playing this gleefully law-breaking criminal because it shows in his face throughout. Beatty inhabits Clyde with a wild abandon, fully accepting of the path this character has taken in life with little to no remorse.

Watching Faye Dunaway as Bonnie, it’s easy to see why this movie turned her into such a big star. Now I don’t just mean her first scene where she stands naked in front of her bedroom window as she stares seductively down at Beatty. What struck me was how she brought a fantastically crazed energy to Bonnie as she fearlessly takes this character through a throng of deeply felt emotions. Whether she is in sheer ecstasy or utter frustration over her circumstances, she fully inhabits Bonnie to where it’s impossible to catch her acting.

“Bonnie and Clyde” also marked one first movie roles for the great Gene Hackman who plays Clyde’s never-do-well brother, Buck. It’s immensely entertaining to watch him imbue Buck with such a combustible lifeforce, and it makes me miss his work on the big screen all the more. Seriously, he deserves a better cinematic swan song than “Welcome to Mooseport.”

I remember Michael Pollard from “Tango & Cash” in which he lent Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell his state-of-the-art van which they, unsurprisingly, destroy. As getaway driver C.W. Moss, I can’t help but wonder if he got typecast as a car expert or mechanic on the basis of his performance here. Whatever the case, I loved how he got all sucked into the fame this bank robbing duo were obsessed with, and the look of fear and confusion on his face when things go horribly wrong reflects our own. Like him, we slowly realize just how deep into the muck we have gotten ourselves into.

Estelle Parsons, who plays Buck’s wife, Blanche, won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance. Regardless, I have to say though I was with Bonnie in wanting to shut Blanche the hell up because she was constantly yelling throughout the whole film, and I can only take so much of that. Still, you have to admire just how far Parsons went with her character. If Blanche and Buck ever had a son, it would have looked and sounded a lot like Bill Paxton’s character of Hudson from “Aliens.”

“Bonnie and Clyde” also marked the film debut of Gene Wilder, and he gives the movie some of its funniest moments as Eugene Grizzard. When the gang steals his car, Eugene promises his girlfriend he will tear them apart. Of course, things don’t go quite as planned, and watching Wilder’s expressions throughout reminds us of what a brilliant comedian and actor he was.

Arthur Penn was not just looking to make an average gangster movie, nor was he showing violence for the sake of it. Even back in the 1960’s, there were already several movies like this one, and he had to find a way to make it stand out from the pack. By giving us the combustible elements of sex and violence, he made “Bonnie and Clyde” a true classic for the ages. There are never really and good or bad guys to root for or against here, and by its viciously bloody conclusion, we are emotionally drained at all we have witnessed. Whether or not you feel justice was served, you still can’t escape the feeling of loss presented here.

This movie certainly has had a huge influence on many other movies I deeply admire like Tony Scott’s “True Romance,” Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers,” David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart,” or even Ridley Scott’s “Thelma & Louise.” The combination of sex and violence remains a potent one in some of the best films ever made, and I would like to think “Bonnie and Clyde” was the first one to make this clear to audiences.

I apologize for taking way too long to sit down and watch this one, but in retrospect, it was well worth the wait.

* * * * out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Damien – Omen II’

Damien Omen II poster

Now here’s a sequel which I have avoided watching for far too long. Richard Donner’s “The Omen” was a classic horror movie that dealt with the antichrist coming back to the land of the living in the form of a young boy named Damien. When Damien stared right into the camera at “The Omen’s” conclusion, it was the perfect climax as evil was not vanquished like it is in most movies, and we were left unnerved as nothing could stop him it seemed. As a result, the thought of doing a sequel seemed pointless as there was no way you could top the last scene.

But we all know that things didn’t stop there, and in 1978 we got “Damien: Omen II” which had us catching up with Damien seven years after the events of the original. Like many sequels, it pales in comparison to the original, but it still has its moments which kept me gripped to my seat even though its conclusion was never in doubt.

Damien Thorn (played here by Jonathan Scott-Taylor) has since been adopted by his powerful uncle Richard Thorn (William Holden) and his wife Ann (Lee Grant), and he is one of the top students at a military academy. Whereas Harvey Spencer Stephens, who played Damien in the original “Omen,” portrayed the antichrist as being pretty well aware of who he was in the large scheme of things, Scott-Taylor portrays him as a pre-pubescent boy who has yet to discover the deadly powers he possesses and of what he is destined to do. Still, he does gives off great Kubrickian glares throughout which lets us know he is not one to be messed with.

In some ways “Damien: Omen II” feels like a missed opportunity as the story could have been a beautifully twisted take on the typical coming-of-age movie where we go on a journey with a young character struggling through adolescence to where he finally becomes comfortable with who he is. When Damien finds out he is indeed the Antichrist and runs out of the school in sheer panic, this seemed promising because it felt like the filmmakers were not out to make him the typical one-dimensional villain. However, it didn’t take him long to accept his newfound identity, and soon after he’s like, “Okay that’s cool, I’m an evil mofo. I can live with that.”

It would have been more interesting if Damien would have struggled with this more throughout the movie to where his transition to accepting his true identity would be all the more understandable and terrifying. It could have been like when Anakin Skywalker turned to the dark side in those “Star Wars” prequels, but with better dialogue.

Still, “Damien: Omen II” does have a lot of good things about it, and horror fans will definitely get a huge kick out of the merciless killings displayed in gory detail for their benefit. One lady gets attacked by crows and has her eyes torn out, one guy gets smashed between two train cars, one guy falls into the icy water during a hockey game and is carried away by the current, and a doctor becomes the victim of an elevator accident which outdoes David Warner’s decapitation in the first “Omen.” Watching these killings gives the viewer quite the visceral punch, and if this is what you’re looking for here, you won’t be disappointed.

William Holden is well cast as Richard Thorn, the wealthy industrialist who looks to have all the power in the world. It’s interesting to note Holden turned down the role Gregory Peck had in “The Omen” because he didn’t want to do a movie about the devil, so he must have been kicking himself silly when it came out and was a huge hit. Well, Holden makes up for the missed opportunity by playing a man who thinks he has control over everything but soon finds this couldn’t be further from the truth. He is also paired with the great Lee Grant who plays his wife Ann, someone whose overprotectiveness of Damien becomes very clear as the movie goes on.

It’s also great to see actors like Lance Henriksen, who is great in everything he appears in, as Damien’s commanding officer Sergeant Neff. Like any good leader, Neff knows how to bring out the best in his soldiers, but what he brings out of Damien is something we can’t agree is his best (not that it matters to either of them). “Damien: Omen II” also marked the film debut of the late Meshach Taylor who plays the character with the most memorable and vicious death sequence this sequel has to offer. While it might sound like I’m giving something away, trust me when I say that you will see his demise coming from a mile away. You just won’t be able to guess how he will die.

Of course, this is the kind of horror movie where most of the characters act idiotically. Those who learn that Damien is the Antichrist either get killed off quickly or come across as raving lunatics the main characters are quick to dismiss. Then again, it’s hard to present your evidence to anyone in a rational manner when you’re dealing with something so evil. It’s not like you can just go up to someone and say, “Uh dude? Your son is the devil and you may want to consider killing him. Just saying.”

“Damien: Omen II” was directed by Don Taylor as Donner was busy making “Superman.” Taylor started out in show business as an actor and gave memorable performances in “Stalag 17,” the original “Father of the Bride” and “The Naked City.” As time went on he transitioned to directing and helmed movies such as “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” and “Tom Sawyer.” He had a tough act to follow as “The Omen” was a benchmark in the horror genre, but for the most part he fares well in putting together a sequel which fares better than others of its ilk. There are some good jump scares, some wonderfully gory deaths, and he keeps us watching as Damien throttles through adolescence with a confidence you can’t help but be unsettled by.

But after all these years, it’s safe to say the biggest star of “The Omen” franchise is the late Jerry Goldsmith. He won an Oscar for his score to the first film, and his score for “Damien: Omen II” proves to be every bit as unforgettable as what came before. The chorus of voices singing “Ave Satani” keeps you on edge as his music makes you fully aware something really bad is about to happen. There are few other film scores out there which can you fill you with such dread as this one does.

It’s astonishing I waited so ridiculously long to watch “Damien: Omen II” after having been so enthralled with “The Omen” when I first saw it, but I guess I didn’t want to spoil the experience. But its first sequel proves to be better than many give it credit for, and it eventually proved to be the only good sequel in a franchise which got too big for its own good. “Omen III: The Final Conflict” proved to be anticlimactic despite it starring Sam Neill, “Omen IV: The Awakening” was inescapably awful, “The Omen” remake in 2006 reminded us why shot-for-shot remakes are largely unnecessary, and the A&E television series “Damien” did not fare well critically. At the same time, the ongoing mission to make “The Omen” relevant in this day and age reminds me of what John Carpenter once said in regards to “Halloween’s” Michael Myers, “Evil never dies.”

On top of that, the “Omen” movies remind me of the lyrics from my favorite Iron Maiden song:

“Woe to you, oh earth and sea

For the Devil sends the beast with wrath

Because he knows the time is short

Let him who hath understanding

Reckon the number of the beast

For it is a human number

Its number is six hundred and sixty-six.”

* * * out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Super Fly’ (1972)

Super Fly 1972 poster

With the remake about to be released, it was time to check out “Super Fly,” the 1972 blaxploitation crime drama which is considered one of the biggest classics of the genre. I have been aware of this film’s existence for years, and the photo on its VHS cover of Ron O’Neal holding a gun and looking ever so cool in his white suit and pants has been burned into my memory for decades. But like many movies I perused at local video stores, all of which have since vanished, I never got around to watching it until now.

While I certainly understand why “Super Fly” is long considered a classic blaxploitation film, it is not necessarily a great movie. On one hand the signs of its low budget are very much on display throughout to where I was reminded of what John Carpenter once said about the rule of making independent movies: “Shoot as little film as possible and make it as long as you can.” But on the other, it presents us with a New York time which no longer exists in modern day America, and the gritty realism of the city streets is on display throughout to where the movie’s existence is especially important as you can only fake this kind of realism in today’s cinematic world.

Ron O’Neal plays Youngblood Priest, an African-American drug dealer who enjoys a luxurious lifestyle in Harlem, New York. He got the name Priest because of the cross he wears around his neck. While this cross may or may not reflect his belief in God or any religious deity, a closer inspection reveals that the tip of the cross is fashioned in the shape of a spoon, and this allows him to do lines of cocaine whenever he needs a hit. In addition to his high-class apartment, the kind which would fetch at least a million in today’s New York real estate market, he also has a dedicated girlfriend in Georgia (Sheila Frazier), a white girl mistress named Cynthia (Polly Niles), the best set of clothes any man would be lucky to own and wear at the time, and he drives around town in a 1971 customized Cadillac Eldorado. Looking at Priest is to be convinced this is a man who has a lot of power and confidence you would be foolish to question, and this is something he does not have to spell out to anyone in words.

But as successful as Priest is, he yearns for a life outside of the underground drug business. This, of course, leads to him to plan one last “big score” which he believes will allow him to retire and go straight, but those of us who have watched countless gangster movies know this last big score will be the one fraught with the most danger. It gets to where there I expected the one scene where Priest just shakes his head as if to say to himself, “I should have gotten out of the life sooner, and now it’s too late.” Still, Priest is much smarter than his friends and foes realize, and we watch as he plots his way to his biggest drug deal ever, and then attempt to stay one step of everyone else who wants to do him in.

It has been said that the screenplay for “Super Fly” was only 45 pages long, and this is why we get exposed to so many shots of people walking, driving and talking in restaurants. This is the kind of film editing you would never see today as everything needs to move at a fast pace. This ends up dragging the movie down a bit as certain moments play themselves out for much longer than is necessary. Still, it allows us to take a look back at the New York that was before it, for better or worse, was cleaned up to where much of the state if unaffordable to live in. This helps to make up for other scenes which are staged rather pathetically, especially one in which a character gets hit by a car.

O’Neal immediately comes across as the personification of cool from the first moment he appears onscreen. He was in his 30’s when starred in “Super Fly,” but his face has the look of a man who has seen a lot in life up to that point, and this makes his performance as Priest feel all the more powerful and authentic. I never got the feeling he was trying to glamourize Priest’s lifestyle, and he was not afraid to make this character a rough and unlikable dude at times. He simply portrays Priest as a man who makes his way through life the only way he knows how, and his methods as you can imagine are not always morally sound.

As for the rest of the cast, their performances range from okay to pretty good. Charles McGregor, who was released from prison before “Super Fly” began filming, has some good moments as Fat Freddie, and Carl Lee, who plays Eddie, has a strong scene in which he tells Priest if it wasn’t for him, he would have overdosed. This line of dialogue would later prove to be tragically ironic as Lee became a heroin addict, and he died of a drug overdose back in 1986.

When “Super Fly” was released, many African-Americans were said to have been displeased with the way the movie glamourized people like themselves as drug dealers and pimps, but it resonated deeply with others who saw the movie as an example of how to rise up in the American class system. Does this movie glamourize the lifestyles of drug dealers? Well, perhaps it does, but the scary truth is there is always an allure to a life like this as it affords us a wealth which constantly seems out of our reach. Still, it should be noted how we never really see Priest enjoying himself much in the movie. While he has many things a person would want in life, we see right from the start how he has long since tired of his role in society to where it is believable and understandable why he yearns to do something legitimate for a change.

For those who think “Super Fly” provides audiences with a rather ambiguous look at the world of drugs and drug dealing back in the 1970’s, you need to take the time to listen Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack to it which, by the way, is one of the best of its kind ever. An exhilarating fusion of soul and funk music, Mayfield also provided lyrics which were very socially aware and took an even closer look at drugs and poverty in society. When you read the lyrics of the song “Freddie’s Dead,” you can see the evidence of this very clearly:

“Everybody’s misused him

Ripped him up and abused him

Another junkie plan

Pushing dope for the man

A terrible blow

But that’s how it goes

A Freddie’s on the corner now

If you want to be a junkie, wow

Remember Freddie’s dead

We’re all built up with progress

But sometimes I must confess

We can deal with rockets and dreams

But reality, what does it mean

Ain’t nothing said

‘Cause Freddie’s dead.”

Looking at this, it is no wonder the soundtrack ended up making more money than the movie itself, and the movie did make a huge profit.

So “Super Fly” may not be an example of great filmmaking, but it should be noted how its production succeeded in offering advances for African-Americans. The city of Harlem went out of its way to back the movie financially, and many black businesses helped with production costs. Furthermore, the majority of the crew were in fact African-American, something which was very rare at this time in cinema. Taking all this into account makes “Super Fly” all the more enjoyable as it was a movie made with passion and respect as the filmmakers sought to tell it like it is. Despite its glaring flaws, it is a very cool movie to experience, and I am glad I finally got the chance to check it out, especially before I went out to see the remake.

* * * out of * * * *