Film Review: Family Plot (1976)

Also known as: Alfred Hitchcock’s 53rd Film, Deceit, Deception, Missing Heir (working titles)
Release Date: March 21st, 1976 (Filmex)
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Ernest Lehman
Based on: The Rainbird Pattern by Victor Canning
Music by: John Williams
Cast: Karen Black, Bruce Dern, Barbara Harris, William Devane, Ed Lauter

Universal Pictures, 121 Minutes

Review:

“[to Fran] We’re gonna have to kill these two ourselves.” – Arthur Adamson

Family Plot has the distinction of being Alfred Hitchcock’s last film. It also proves that even in old age, the director was a true auteur that never lost his mojo. This is an engaging and entertaining motion picture that while it isn’t Hitchcock’s best, probably deserves more recognition than it has gotten over the years.

The plot is about one giant misunderstanding. Unfortunately for the nice duo, it becomes a big mess, as the other duo locked in this cat and mouse game aren’t nice people and in fact are pretty evil and dangerous.

Barbara Harris plays a fake psychic that swindles rich old ladies out of their money. She partners up with a crafty cab driver played by Bruce Dern. The two of them are given a job that will reward them with $10,000 upon completion. That job is to find a long lost heir to a family fortune and return him to the fold. What they don’t know is that this heir is a career criminal and conman. The conman thinks that he is being pursued by the duo because of something heinous from his past. The heir is teamed up with a often times reluctant accomplice played by Karen Black. The film becomes a chase where the mostly good guys keep finding themselves in over their heads and the bad guys are running in fear of what these do-gooders may have on them.

The plot is well structured and executed marvelously for the most part. My only real complaint about the film is that it seems a bit too drawn out. Hitchcock loved a two hour-plus running time and frankly, this could have been 100 minutes and been just as good.

I loved seeing a younger Ed Lauter in the movie and with Bruce Dern and Karen Black, this just has a really cool cast. The fact that these actors also got to work with Hitchcock is kind of impressive. Not because they aren’t capable, they certainly are, but because it’s a teaming of great talents from different generations.

Speaking of which, it was also really neat that John Williams got to score a Hitchcock picture. Two different artists that defined two different generations in very different ways came together and made something that worked to benefit both parties. Williams score here isn’t anywhere as well known as those that he’d do for George Lucas and Steven Spielberg but it enhanced the overall experience of Hitchcock’s Family Plot and gave it some life it might not have had with a less capable composer.

I really enjoyed Family Plot. I wasn’t sure what to expect but it exceeded any expectations I could have had, even if I knew more about it before diving in.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: A lot of Alfred Hitchcock’s later work from the late ’60s into the ’70s.

Film Review: The Shadow (1994)

Release Date: July 1st, 1994
Directed by: Russell Mulcahy
Written by: David Koepp
Based on: The Shadow by Walter B. Gibson
Music by: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: Alec Baldwin, Penelope Ann Miller, John Lone, Peter Boyle, Ian McKellen, Jonathan Winters, Tim Curry, James Hong, Al Leong, Frank Welker (voice)

Bregman/Baer Productions, Universal Pictures, 108 Minutes

Review:

“I’ll be there… around every corner… in every empty room… as inevitable as your guilty conscience…” – The Shadow

The Shadow wasn’t shy about what it was trying to be. It was Universal’s answer to Warner Bros. massive success with Batman and Disney’s pretty popular Dick Tracy. It is almost like a blend of the two and I guess The Shadow was the right property to adapt at the time, if you wanted to marry both of those other franchises into one thing. Granted, it also throws in some Asian mysticism but ninjas and Oriental magic were pretty popular back then too.

I wouldn’t call the finished product a big success though. This film pretty much bombed, critics didn’t like it and it felt like it was trying too hard to be those other things that it wasn’t. It’s sad because The Shadow could have actually been a really great movie. It has so many things working for it that you almost have to try to make it not work.

Granted, this film is far from terrible and I like it quite a bit more than I dislike it. It’s just that those bad elements really held this motion picture back.

For starters, Alec Baldwin was boring as hell as the Shadow. He was dry, tried to come off as overly manly and sexy and it just felt silly. His Bela Lugosi illuminated eye trick when he was using his psychic shtick just didn’t work and I’m a huge fan of that method when used correctly. But maybe that only worked well in old black and white Universal Monsters pictures. His weird facial prosthetics also didn’t work for me and just made him look strange.

I also didn’t like John Lone as the villain, who is essentially a resurrected Genghis Khan. At least I think he was, his explanation was kind of weird and confusing. He kind of sounded like Tommy Wiseau with a little Asian flourish to his accent.

I did like the rest of the cast. Penelope Ann Miller was alluring as hell, Ian McKellen was delightful and Tim Curry stole the show, as he always does.

I also liked the score by Jerry Goldsmith. It was made to sound a lot like Danny Elfman’s scores for Batman and Dick Tracy but it wasn’t a total ripoff, it had a very strong Goldsmith vibe to it.

The look of the film was nice but it really was just an amalgamation of Tim Burton’s Gotham City and The City from Dick Tracy. It was actually New York and had the iconic landmarks but the night shots used sweeping cameras weaving around building’s ala Burton’s Batman and featured gargoyles with waterfalls coming out of their mouths and other things that didn’t seem very 1930s New York.

The film did its best to be exciting but it just wasn’t. It was as bland as Baldwin’s performance and to be honest, unlike similar films of the era, I never had the urge to go back and watch this until now. I have seen Batman and Dick Tracy and even The Rocketeer a few dozen times.

Although watching it now, I really liked the sequence during the final showdown in the hall of mirrors. It was a bit hokey but it still looked beautiful and was the best visual moment in the picture.

The Shadow isn’t a complete waste of a film. It’s less than two hours and is a decent time killer, especially if you’ve never seen it and are a fan of similar pictures and 1930s style.

Rating: 6.25/10
Pairs well with: The two films it borrows heavily from: 1989’s Batman and 1990’s Dick Tracy.

Comic Review: American Flagg! – Definitive Collection

American Flagg is considered a classic and a masterpiece by many comic book aficionados since it was running regularly in the 1980s. I never read it back then, I was pretty much only concerned with G.I. JoeStar Wars and superhero comics at the time. It was also much more adult than what I was ready for back when I was in elementary school.

I did finally pick this up, after Comixology had it up for free for Unlimited subscribers. I’ve heard only good things and thought that it was an experience that was long overdue.

Sadly, it didn’t resonate with me. Maybe it’s because it feels like a relic of that ’80s era and it doesn’t work outside of that time, other than being nostalgia for those who loved it back then.

I will say that the writing is pretty good and that the artwork is better than what was the standard, at the time. I like the character design, use of color and the tone of it. I just couldn’t get into the narrative despite the writing being mature and better than what I used to read back in the ’80s.

With those who I’ve talked to about it, this is often times compared to Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s work on Robocop, as well as the original Robocop film. It may even have hints of Blade Runner. While those are all things I like, I just couldn’t get enthusiastic about American Flagg, which actually disappointed me.

I wanted to like it at more than just a visual level. I just felt that the characters were too generic and simple but then again, maybe that’s the point, as they live in a superficial, entertainment obsessed society. Still, it didn’t make for an interesting read, as it was difficult to feel a connection to any of the main characters.

I liked the talking cat though.

Rating: 5/10
Pairs well with: Has similar themes to Robocop and Watchmen.

Film Review: Suddenly (1954)

Release Date: October 7th, 1954
Directed by: Lewis Allen
Written by: Richard Sale
Based on: Active Duty by Richard Sale
Music by: David Raksin
Cast: Frank Sinatra, Sterling Hayden, Nancy Gates

Libra Productions, United Artists, 75 Minutes

Review:

“I’m not an actor, bustin’ my leg on a stage so I can yell ‘down with the tyrants’. If Booth wasn’t such a ham he might’ve made it.” – John Baron

This film was pretty heavy stuff for 1954. While there had been films about presidential assassinations before this one, never had their been one that took place in modern times. And on top of that, Frank Sinatra plays the man gunning for the President.

The film sees a widowed mother, her young son, her father-in-law and a cop that has the hots for her, held hostage in her home, as a gangster and his men are planning to use the home’s vantage point to stage a presidential assassination.

Sinatra plays a scumbag and there are no bones about it. I feel like it was probably hard to accept him in this role, given the time and for the fact that he was such a lovable icon. Still, his performance is solid and he carries himself well. He brought some gravitas and machismo to the screen and was unrelenting as this sinister killer.

Sterling Hayden plays the cop trapped with the mad man in the house. He is a good foil to Sinatra and their dialogue exchanges are engaging and serve to paint Sinatra’s John Baron as something darker than what you first assume. He’s a man with a screwed up history and a vendetta.

Nancy Gates plays the mother and she really is the heart and soul of the picture, even if she feels overshadowed and outnumbered by the men in the film. She has this likable sweetness and it is easy to understand her concerns, as the mother of a small child who has been threatened to be killed if any of the adults try to play hero.

Suddenly is well shot, well acted and has held up quite nicely.

The film ended up being at the center of some major controversy, however. When JFK was assassinated in 1963, it was said that Lee Harvey Oswald was inspired by this film. While that wasn’t necessarily true, Frank Sinatra was deeply upset about it, as he was close friends to the real-life president. It’s said that Sinatra pleaded with the studio to pull the film from circulation and that he tried to buy up all the prints in an effort to destroy them. This also wasn’t true but Sinatra did have some regrets about playing a part in this movie. And regardless of the true story or not, this film has very strong similarities to that dark day in American history and sort of foreshadowed it.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: The Manchurian Candidate, another Sinatra film with similar themes.

Film Review: Men at Work (1990)

Also known as: Clear Intent, Pop 65 (working titles)
Release Date: August 24th, 1990
Directed by: Emilio Estevez
Written by: Emilio Estevez
Music by: Stewart Copeland
Cast: Charlie Sheen, Emilio Estevez, Keith David, Leslie Hope, Darrell Larson, Dean Cameron, John Getz, Sy Richardson

Epic Productions, Triumph Releasing Corporation, 98 Minutes

Review:

“There are several sacred things in this world that you don’t ever mess with. One of them happens to be another man’s fries. Now, you remember that, and you will live a long and healthy life.” – Louis

Men at Work was both directed and written by Emilio Estevez. Originally, he had planned to call it Clear Intenet and says that he came up with the idea in the mid-’80s while filming St. Elmo’s Fire. Originally, Estevez wanted it to star himself and another Brat Pack member, Judd Nelson. He also claims that John Hughes was interested in producing it. Charlie Sheen asked to be in the film after reading his brother’s script and feeling like he needed to do a comedy after a string of more serious roles. Estevez, who was busy and filming Young Guns II while editing this picture, wanted to see this pet project through.

While the critical reception was mostly negative to mixed, at the time of the film’s release, it did please fans of Estevez and Sheen and has gone on to be a cult favorite comedy of its era.

It certainly isn’t a classic or a great film but it is charming and amusing. Both brothers have charisma, they are great when together on screen and the addition of Keith David, Dean Cameron and John Getz gave this film a lot of fun characters to play with.

The plot sees two garbage men get caught up in the drama surrounding the murder of a city councilman. There is an evil capitalist type, played by Getz, who is illegally dumping chemicals into the waterways around this coastal Los Angeles suburb. The brothers, who are just friends in the film, run into a bunch of zany characters that get strung along for the ride as well. But none of them are as entertaining as Keith David, who is, let’s be honest, stupendous in everything he does. And frankly, this is one of my favortie David roles of all-time, right alongside They Live… obviously.

Yes, this is a goofy, stupid comedy but that’s its appeal. Estevez didn’t write the funniest or most engaging script but he was able to give us something that worked, was true to the actors involved and felt pretty organic.

The ’80s and ’90s had a lot of dumb buddy comedies. Some of them had cops, some of them had slackers in over their head but it was a really fun genre for a long time. Men at Work just adds to it in a good way.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: Young Guns, as the brothers Sheen are united there too. Also, Tango & Cash, the Stakeout movies and Dragnet.

Film Review: Branded to Kill (1967)

Also known as: Koroshi no rakuin (Japanese)
Release Date: June 15th, 1967 (Japan)
Directed by: Seijun Suzuki
Written by: Hachiro Guryu
Music by: Naozumi Yamamoto
Cast: Joe Shishido, Koji Nanbara, Annu Mari, Mariko Ogawa, Hiroshi Minami

Nikkatsu, 98 Minutes

Review:

“This is how Number 1 works: first he exhausts you, and then he kills you.” – Number 1

While I have only seen a handful of Seijun Suzuki’s motion pictures, he has become one of my favorite directors of all-time. Between this and Tokyo Drifter alone, he has proven to me that he is a true auteur with an incredible eye, an enchanting style and impeccable craftsmanship.

I thought Tokyo Drifter was one of the coolest, if not the coolest, movies I have ever seen. Branded to Kill is nearly as cool and just as perfect as Tokyo Drifter.

Suzuki has a way of taking something pretty standard like a Yakuza picture and making it much more interesting than it needs to be. But that is also why his films are so unique and incredible and not just forgettable chapters in a massive genre of Japanese cinema.

The bizarreness of this film can’t be understated. The main character is an assassin for hire and is ranked Number 3. He is in a battle with the other ranked assassins throughout the film but is specifically being targeted by Number 1. He also has a fetish that sees him obsessively inhaling the aromas of freshly boiled rice.

The movie is mostly a series of assassin battles playing out, as these killers try to outwit and survive one another. The story also has strong film-noir elements in its visual style, use of a femme fatale and constant twists and turns. It is one of the most artistically sound Japanese neo-noirs of all-time, right alongside Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter.

It is easy to see where some other noteworthy auteur directors were influenced and inspired by Suzuki’s work here. The film almost has some David Lynch qualities too it, decades before Lynch really emerged and crafted his own interesting oeuvre. It would also influence John Woo, Chan-wook Park, Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino.

Interestingly enough, this film made no money upon its release and Suzuki was fired for making films that “…make no sense and no money.” Suzuki successfully sued the studio and caused a major controversy within the Japanese film industry, which resulted in him being blacklisted. He didn’t make another film for ten years and became a sort of counterculture hero. Because of this, he became recognized as an artist with something more to say than just a standard director pumping out low budget gangster movies for a paycheck.

Nowadays, this film is heralded as an incredible body of work and even has its own Criterion Collection edition.

Over thirty years later, Suzuki filmed Pistol Opera for Nikkatsu, the studio he had the falling out with. That film was a loose sequel to this one.

Rating: 9.75/10
Pairs well with: Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter, as well as some of his other films: Youth of the Beast, Pistol Opera and Gate of Flesh.

Comic Review: Fatale – Book One: Death Chases Me

Ed Brubaker is one of the most prolific creators in comic book history. His work has been everywhere but there is something extra special about his personal work. While he’s penned stories for DC and Marvel for years, whenever he puts something out on his own, it’s a real treat for comic book fans.

Being that I also love film-noir and Lovecraftian horror, seeing those two things come together in a Brubaker story is really exciting stuff for me. Now this series has been out for a little while but I didn’t get my hands on it till just recently when Comixology was having a sale on Brubaker stuff.

Man, I’m really glad I picked this up, as it was a cool experience and maybe my favorite indie series alongside B. Clay Moore’s Hawaiian Dick, which also took noir, supernatural elements and mixed in a Tiki vibe.

Fatale is almost standard noir but it has a dark, gritty horror twist with some H.P. Lovecraft flavor. This comic series goes places that others don’t and it’s uniqueness is refreshing.

This first story arc, there are five total, introduces us to this strange world. We meet Josephine, a seemingly standard femme fatale. However, we learn that she is apparently immortal and that there are some dark forces at work that she is involved in. It seems that every man she comes in contact with has their lives ruined in some way. She has this magical ability that hypnotizes men into obsessing over her, even if she wants them to or not. She is pursued by a violent cult that worships cosmic gods. Jo has some sort of relation to these gods.

This story arc takes place in the 1950s but other stories happen at different points in time.

The stories of Brubaker backed by artistic mastery of Sean Phillips is just such a great fit, especially with the visual and tonal aesthetic of this series. They collaborated on other projects, all of which were critically acclaimed: SleeperCriminal and Incognito. I’m sure I’ll read through them after I get through the five volumes of Fatale.

I really liked this book and I look forward to what’s next. This story served as a solid introduction to a world I had no idea I wanted until I jumped into it.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: The other volumes in the Fatale series. Also, B. Clay Moore’s Hawaiian Dick series, as both share a lot of similarities with noir and the supernatural.