Film Review: The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

Also known as: The Difference, The Persuader (both working titles)
Release Date: March 23rd, 1953 (Boston premiere)
Directed by: Ida Lupino
Written by: Ida Lupino, Collier Young
Music by: Leith Stevens
Cast: Edmond O’Brien, Frank Lovejoy, William Talman

The Filmakers Inc., RKO Radio Pictures, 71 Minutes

Review:

“You stink, Myers! You smell! Just like your clothes! Sure, you’ll make it to Guaymas, but they’ll catch up with you and put you out of your misery. You haven’t got a chance. You haven’t got a thing except that gun! You’d better hang onto it because without it, you’re finished! ” – Roy Collins

The Hitch-Hiker has the distinction of being the only classic film-noir directed by a woman. That woman was Ida Lupino, who went from being a very good actress to a pretty great director in a time when women weren’t often found behind the camera.

The movie is based on the crime spree of murderer Billy Cook, a psychotic who murdered six people on a 22 day rampage between Missouri and California that started the day before New Year’s Eve in 1950.

The character based off of Cook is renamed Emmett Myers and is played by William Talman in what is his most iconic role other than his 212 episode stint on Perry Mason as District Attorney Hamilton Burger. He is a sadistic killer and like a cat, likes to play with his victims before putting them down. In this film, we see him breakdown his captives over time.

In the story, two nice fishermen pickup a hitchhiker, Myers, and the rest is history. Myers bosses them around, plays games with them that force them into mortal danger and really doesn’t have much use for them other than his own amusement over their emasculation. This is a pretty deep movie for its time and it does things that weren’t common in motion pictures in the early 1950s. Being that this was directed by a woman is more intriguing. But it certainly wasn’t a statement about breaking men down in general, as the two who were victimized were nice, innocent people and it was the evil psychotic that pushed them to the limit. This was actually a film that tried to show what it was like to be held against your will by a psycho nut with a gun.

The acting and chemistry between the three leads was stellar and Lupino pulled great performances out of Talman, Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy. There were a few other characters in the movie but these three were the focal point and had to put this production on their backs.

The Hitch-Hiker is a darker and much better film than I expected it to be. It shows how well versed and comfortable Lupino was as a director in a male dominated industry. She lead her male cast towards creating something that was much better than a run of the mill film-noir.

Comic Review: The Savage Dragon, Vol. 1: Baptism of Fire

I recently watched a documentary about the formation of Image Comics in the early 1990s. It was a company that I immediately aligned myself with as a fan, as every artist that I loved at Marvel left and went independent in an effort to buck the system and make more money, all while having the creative freedom to do whatever the hell they wanted.

Erik Larsen left his cushy job at Marvel, working hard on the top Spider-Man titles, and brought his creation The Savage Dragon to Image. In fact, this series was so huge and successful upon its debut that it has had a long lasting effect, being only one of two of Image’s launch titles that continued to be published from its 1992 debut all the way into the 2010s. The other title was Todd McFarlane’s Spawn.

I actually haven’t read The Savage Dragon since the ’90s but I stuck with it for several years until later high school social responsibilities monopolized my schedule. Plus, I got burnt out on comics for awhile, even though I was once an aspiring comic book artist. I think I just picked up on how bad a lot of the ’90s comic book tropes were and when I did read comics, I was more driven to check out all the older classics that were readily available in my comic shop or in trade paperbacks in bookstores.

While The Savage Dragon is still cool, it does fall victim to some of these unavoidable tropes, just as the other Image Comics titles did. It has clunky, uninspiring writing, bad dialogue and some pretty awful character designs, especially where the villains are concerned. I think a lot of artists, whether they realized it or not, were taking creative cues from comic book wunderkind Rob Liefeld in how he loved big odd-looking guns, cyber body parts, metal masked villains with huge capes and well… just about everything that became synonymous with ’90s comics. In this first chapter of The Savage Dragon saga, I don’t know if Larsen even knew where he was going or if this was just more about experimentation.

Dragon is a cool hero and I’m happy that Larsen didn’t try to answer the mysteries of his past too soon. This collection covers his original four issue miniseries before he would go on to have an ongoing series. Enough is established here to get you interested in the characters and situations but there really isn’t much of a traditional story arc in this limited series’ narrative structure. It serves as a four-part origin story with just enough origin to get things rolling but certainly not the whole backstory of how Dragon came to be Dragon.

While I did like my experience in revisiting the earliest Dragon story arc, I’ll have to get back into the longer running series in order to get a real feel for the character and Larsen’s larger vision.

Ranking the Films of Nicolas Winding Refn

Nicolas Winding Refn is one of my favorite directors, right now. He still has many years ahead of him but he’s made some pretty amazing films. In fact, I think Bronson is my favorite film in the last decade. Although, he will have many more films for many years to come, this is a ranking of what he’s done so far.

1. Bronson
2. Drive
3. Only God Forgives
4. Pusher
5. I’m The Angel of Death: Pusher III
6. With Blood On My Hands: Pusher II
7. Valhalla Rising
8. Neon Demon
9. Bleeder
10. Fear X

Documentary Review: The Two Escobars (2010)

Release Date: June 22nd, 2010
Directed by: Jeff Zimbalist, Michael Zimbalist
Music by: Michael Furjanic

All Rise Films, ESPN Films, 104 Minutes

Review:

*written in 2014.

The Two Escobars is one of my favorite installments of the original run of ESPN’s 30 For 30 series. I actually ranked it number two on an older website I ran.

This documentary follows the lives of Colombian soccer legend Andrés Escobar and Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. The men were not related by blood but were related in their pride of Colombia and their lifelong love of soccer.

Both rose up from nothing and became forces in Colombia; one gained power through creating a massive criminal empire, the other gained admiration through becoming one of the greatest soccer players in the world. Both men gained respect; one through fear and one through competition. With two powerful forces within the same borders, they had to cross paths. This film is about that fascinating story.

Production-wise, this was a great documentary and one of the best ESPN has released in their 36 year history. The story was well-constructed and like most of the 30 For 30 films, the editing and interviews were exceptional. While a lot of films in this series cover a multitude of topics and stories, this is far and away the best story the series has told after the Nelson Mandela/Rugby film The 16th Man.

This documentary is on Netflix (well it was when I originally reviewed this). I would beseech any sports documentary fan, especially soccer fans, to check this out.

Film Review: Tangerine (2015)

Release Date: January 23rd, 2015 (Sundance)
Directed by: Sean Baker
Written by: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Music by: Matthew Smith (supervisor)
Cast: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karren Karagulian, Mickey O’Hagan, Alla Tumanian, James Ransone, Clu Gulager

Duplass Brothers Productions, Through Films, Magnolia Pictures, 88 Minutes

Review:

“Bitch, you know I don’t do downers, bitch. You know I’m an upper ho.” – Sin-Dee

I didn’t know much about Sean Baker until after I had experienced his most recent film and my favorite of 2017, The Florida Project. I read about some of his previous work and Tangerine was a film that was pretty highly regarded. I checked out the trailer and read about how it was made and I had to check it out for myself. I’m glad that I did.

For a film shot on a cell phone, it looks fantastic. Baker used three iPhone 5S smartphones to capture everything. He filmed while using an app called FiLMIC Pro, which helps to control focus, aperture and color temperature while capturing video at higher bit-rates than the iPhone’s standard. Baker also used an anamorphic adapter to capture video in a widescreen format. The smoothness of the shots were achieved by using Tiffen’s Steadicam Smoothee. This prevented the film from having that standard shaky-cam effect made famous by found footage movies. In post-production, Baker used Final Cut Pro for editing and Da Vinci Resolve to correct the contrast and color saturation of what he filmed.

The movie had a budget of $100,000 but due to what they saved on cameras and equipment, most of the budget went to businesses who allowed them to use their locations for the film, as well as to extras who were needed in certain scenes.

Tangerine is nearly fully populated by actors with very little to no experience and is made to feel genuine and authentic, as if you just stepped into these characters’ lives for a day. The only known actor in this film is Clu Gulager, who is in one scene as a taxicab customer.

The plot all happens in one day and on Christmas Eve. For the most part, the film focuses on Sin-Dee Rella, a transgender sex worker in Hollywood. She has just gotten out of prison and while sharing a doughnut with her best friend, another transgender sex worker named Alexandra, she learns that her pimp boyfriend cheated on her with a cisgender woman. Sin-Dee immediately loses her cool and goes off in search of this woman with just the knowledge that her name starts with “D”.

The film also showcases a day in the life of Armenian cab driver Razmik. He seems like a decent guy but as the plot unfolds, we learn that he’s into transgender prostitutes and that he also has a wife and a very small child at home. Eventually, Razmik’s story crosses over with Alexandra and eventually Sin-Dee’s story.

The last act of the film is a big crescendo where all these characters’ issues collide in the doughnut shop where it all started. This isn’t a film that’s really shooting for a positive outcome for anyone but is instead a real character study and just a small sample of these people’s lives.

Between this and The Florida Project, Sean Baker has really cemented himself as one of the best contemporary filmmakers that makes character study films. The fact that both of Baker’s films have been pretty much snubbed, in my opinion, by the Academy, except for Dafoe’s performance in The Florida Project, is pretty upsetting. This film, along with The Florida Project, should have had several nominations and both movies are better than many of the films that received Best Picture of the Year nominations for 2015 and 2017.

Film Review: Repo Man (1984)

Release Date: February, 1984 (Berlin Film Festival)
Directed by: Alex Cox
Written by: Alex Cox
Music by: Tito Larriva, Steven Hufsteter, Iggy Pop (theme)
Cast: Harry Dean Stanton, Emilio Estevez, Tracey Walter, Olivia Barash, Sy Richardson, Susan Barnes, Fox Harris, Miguel Sandoval, Vonetta McGee, Helen Martin, The Circle Jerks

Edge City, Universal Pictures, 92 Minutes

Review:

“Some weird fuckin’ shit, eh, Bud?” – Otto

I don’t know what it is about this movie that makes it so f’n cool but it is unequivocally, one of the coolest movies ever made.

I mean, it has Harry Dean Stanton in it, who is one of the coolest actors that ever lived. It also has Emilio Estevez entering the height of his career during his years in the Brat Pack. It’s also a unique film that when looking at it within the context of the time it came out, had to have been a real artistic curveball. Frankly, I can see where many films that came out after this got some of their inspiration or just outright thievery.

It feels like it could be a David Lynch picture but it makes more sense and doesn’t get lost in its weirdness like many of Lynch’s pictures do. It also isn’t relying on its surreal dreamlike quality to propel the picture forward. It has a pretty easy to follow story where the strange bits just enhance the experience and don’t distract from the narrative.

Emilio Estevez put in a good performance as a punk rock kid fired from his menial job only to stumble into the repo man profession. His mentor is played by Stanton and the two immediately have a great chemistry that makes you care about their developing friendship. 1984 was a great year for Stanton between this and Paris, Texas.

The film also has small roles for Tracey Walter, who is a damn fine character actor that always brings something special to every role, and Vonetta McGee, best known for her roles in blaxploitation films in the 1970s.

Repo Man is a sort of punk rock fairy tale that feels like it is in a post-apocalyptic dystopian future but it really just takes place in what was modern Los Angeles in 1984. It’s a surrealist, absurdist fantasy that sees a bunch of strange people chasing after an old Chevy Malibu that has some really bizarre cargo in its trunk. The car changes hands a lot and and as the story progresses Estevez’s Otto gets in deeper and deeper where he is fending off his old punk rock gang and a government agency led by a woman with a metal hand.

If you were able to take punk rock and a science fiction B-movie, add in some comedy and smash them together, you’d get this film but even then, this is much better than the sum of its parts. This is a film that many have tried to knock off and failed and at first glance, Repo Man might be a turn off due to the shoddy nature of most of its imitators. But this is the real deal original and this is the reason why a legion of young filmmakers started making similar works in tone and style.

In truth, this is a hard film to describe and even to review. It’s unique and I don’t say that lightly. But it’s a beautiful picture in how it’s orchestrated, acted and directed. The cinematography and lighting are pretty stellar too and certain scenes almost remind me of some of Wim Wenders’ work from that same era. That makes sense though, as the cinematographer was Robby Müller, who worked with Wenders a lot and his work on The American Friend and Paris, Texas have a similar color palate to this picture.

If you’ve never seen Repo Man, you’ve done yourself a disservice. It’s cool, badass and colorful in all the right ways. Plus, it kicks off with a theme song by Iggy Pop.

Film Review: Racket Girls (1951)

Also known as: Blonde Pickup, Pin Down Girls, Wrestling Racket Girls
Release Date: 1951
Directed by: Robert C. Dertano
Written by: Robert C. Dertano
Cast: Peaches Page, Timothy Farrell, Clara Mortenson, Rita Martinez

Arena Productions, Screen Classics, 70 Minutes, 68 Minutes (DVD cut)

Review:

“And don’t forget about me. I’m Joe.” – Joe the Jockey, “Hi, Joe. You’re cute.” – Peaches, “I get it – anything that is small is cute. Well, that’s me.” – Joe the Jockey, “Don’t you know? Good things come in small packages” – Peaches, “[openly staring at Peaches’ breasts] Not to my way of thinking.” – Joe the Jockey

This was put out by Screen Classics and producer George Weiss, the man that distributed the earliest Ed Wood films. Therefore, you know this is of a similar quality. Well, it is missing the charm of Wood, so without that, it’s just a really awful motion picture that was destined to be lampooned on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Like many of Weiss’ productions, this was released multiple times, in multiple small markets with multiple titles. This wasn’t uncommon for crappy indie pictures back in the ’50s, especially those that feel like they are some sort of proto-grindhouse feature albeit lacking the sort of skin and violence those movies would shovel into run-down theaters during their peak in the ’70s.

The plot revolves around some lady wrestlers in the ’50s. There are some unconvincing mobster types that try to use the women’s wrestling federation as a cover for their illegal schemes. The crime boss is in over his head and has to evade meddling police and bigger mobsters that he owes money to. I guess this is technically film-noir but it’s as low as a noir can get and then, even lower.

And if you must watch a noir picture with some wrestling in it, might I suggest Jules Dassin’s Night and the City, which is actually a damn fine film and has real wrestling legend Stanislaus Zbyszko in a key role.

This film could be the worst wrestling themed film ever made and that’s saying a lot if you’ve ever seen Grunt!Ready to Rumble or No Holds Barred. I actually love No Holds Barred in spite of its awfulness. But really, this makes Grunt! look like Citizen Kane.

Even if this had El Santo in it, it couldn’t have been salvaged. It’s an exceptionally shitty film to the point that I feel great distress over the poor film stock that had to have this movie burnt into its very soul. If Argentina can’t cry for Evita, they should shed those tears for the poor film stock that was permanently disfigured by Racket Girls.

Without a shadow of a doubt, this turd covered turkey is going into the Cinespiria Shitometer. The results read, “Type 3 Stool: Like a sausage but with cracks on its surface.”