Book Review: ‘The Battle of Alberta – The Historic Rivalry Between the Edmonton Oilers & Calgary Flames’ by Mark Spector

*written in 2015.

Hockey history always makes for good reading. Reading about historic rivalries is even better.

The Battle of Alberta is a fantastic book for the hockey historian or just fans of the sport. It gives a broad view of the storied rivalry between the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames during a time when the Oilers were a dynasty lead by Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier while the Calgary Flames had a great team that went on to win their own Stanley Cup in the middle of Edmonton’s dynasty run. Considering that they both share the same province in Canada, the stakes were very high.

While the rivalry still exists to this day, neither team has really had the glory that they did during the era covered in this book.

This rivalry engulfed Alberta and it wasn’t just played out for bragging rights in the province, it was played out for international bragging rights.

Mark Spector gives a detailed recap of all the events, the characters and the stories that made this rivalry one of the best in sports history. At times, it seems to jump around a bit too much but there isn’t anything that doesn’t add more color to the tale. Actually, some of the smaller tidbits could have been expanded more but then this book would have swelled well beyond its 270 pages or so.

As an American who didn’t have enough access to this rivalry as a young kid, it was a thoroughly enjoyable read. It added a lot of depth to the things I already knew about each team and that era in the NHL.

Old time hockey was still alive and well in Alberta in the 1980s and this book captures it like lightning in a bottle.

And with the Oilers and the Flames coming up again in the NHL, maybe we will see this feud turn into something exceptional once again.

Film Review: The Killers (1946)

Also known as: Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers, A Man Alone
Release Date: August 28th, 1946
Directed by: Robert Siodmak
Written by: Richard Brooks, Anthony Veiller, John Huston (uncredited)
Based on: Scribners Magazine short story The Killers by Ernest Hemingway
Music by: Miklós Rózsa
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Ava Garner, Edmond O’Brien, Sam Levene

Mark Hellinger Productions, Universal Pictures, 103 Minutes

Review:

“If there’s one thing in this world I hate, it’s a double-crossing dame.” – Big Jim Colfax

In the 1940s, Robert Siodmak made some of the most memorable film-noir motion pictures. The Killers is considered to not just be one of Siodmak’s best but one of the best films of the noir style and of the decade.

The Killers is really high up on a lot of the noir lists I have looked at from top critics, blogs, books and magazines. I thoroughly enjoyed it but I wouldn’t say that it was my favorite Siodmak noir, as of now, that honor goes to Criss Cross. However, I still haven’t seen Phantom Lady or The Dark Mirror yet.

I have enjoyed Siodmak’s work for a long time but as a kid it was primarily in the form of Son of Dracula and The Crimson Pirate. I was much more into horror and swashbuckling back then but my experience with those films had me enthused when I realized that the guy who directed both of those films, had a handful of noir movies wedged between them.

This film stars Burt Lancaster, a regular of Siodmak. This was also his debut on the big screen and for a first time performance, Lancaster knocks it out of the park. He was teamed with film-noir regulars Edmond O’Brien and Sam Levene. However, it was his scenes with the elegant and fascinating Ava Gardner that helped to set this guy’s career on a long and fruitful career that saw four Academy Award nominations and a win for his part in Elmer Gantry.

The Killers is based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway. However, the Hemingway story only really comprises the first twenty minutes or so of the movie, which shows the contract killers arrive and murder Burt Lancaster’s “Swede” Anderson. Where the film begins to follow Edmond O’Brien’s Jim Reardon, as he investigates the murder, the plot is wholly original and works as an expansion on Hemingway’s story. It was said, by Hemingway’s biographer, that The Killers “was the first film from any of his works that Ernest could genuinely admire.” John Huston, also an accomplished film-noir director, contributed to the script. He wasn’t originally credited for his contribution due to his contract with rival studio, Warner Bros.

With crime dramas running rampant in the 1940s, this is one that wasn’t a cliché on celluloid. While I love film-noir and I honestly have a hard time trying to find truly bad ones, sometimes the rehash of tropes, over and over and over again, can get mundane. The Killers, like Siodmak’s Criss Cross, is one of the films that lifts the cinematic style to a higher level. Plus, with a score composed by Miklós Rózsa, you can expect a lot of energy, excitement and a real soul within the film.

I love The Killers, it is hard to deny its greatness between the solid direction, iconic performances and its pristine look.

Film Review: Night and the City (1950)

Release Date: June 9th, 1950 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Jules Dassin
Written by: Austin Dempster, William E. Watts
Based on: Night and the City by Gerald Kersh
Music by: Franz Waxman
Cast: Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Herbert Lom, Stanislaus Zbyszko, Mike Mazurki

20th Century Fox, 96 Minutes

Review:

“Harry. Harry. You could have been anything. Anything. You had brains… ambition. You worked harder than any 10 men. But the wrong things. Always the wrong things… ” – Mary Bristol

I was glad that I got to catch this on a recent episode of TCM’s Noir Alley. I wasn’t really familiar with Jules Dassin’s work until recently, while delving deep into the vast ocean that is film-noir.

This film, among the seemingly endless noir-scape, stands out, stands strong and hell, it’s got professional wrestling in it: giving Mike Mazurki a character close to who he actually was and providing a great role for wrestling legend (and former world champion) Stanislaus Zbyszko of the famous Zbyszko wrestling family.

The film primarily stars Richard Widmark and man is he a friggin’ entertaining weasel in this. He is also accompanied by one of the queens of film-noir, Gene Tierney. Unfortunately, she isn’t in this film as much as I would have liked because she is truly an enchantress of the silver screen.

Night and the City follows Widmark’s Harry Fabian, a hustling con man type that is always looking for a way to get to the top, regardless of who he has to screw over in the process. Obviously, he’s a man in over his head, barking up all the wrong trees while digging his own eventual grave. When he starts a scheme involving professional wrestlers, he is in deeper water than he can even fathom.

The film takes place in London and was filmed there due to director Jules Dassin moving to the UK after being blacklisted over communist fears. His career still flourished, even if he had to escape Hollywood and Night and the City is a great example of how the director didn’t miss a beat, despite his misfortune during the McCarthy era witch hunts.

Widmark’s performance is tremendous as he traverses through all the twists and turns in the film’s plot. He has a charm and an insane enthusiasm that almost feels like the gangster version of the comic book Joker before he fell into that vat of acid. Hell, he could have been a great Jack Napier and Joker had they made a Batman film in the 1950s with a serious tone.

The highlight of this film for me was seeing the two wrestling legends square off: Mazurki and Zbyszko. Their physical fight in the film was pretty damn realistic and grueling as hell to witness. It was well shot, well executed and certainly effective.

The cinematography was handled by Max Greene, who had a lot of experience with his work on dozens of films before this. His visuals were accompanied by the great music of Franz Waxman. With Dassin’s direction, we had a Holy Trinity of cinematic masters combining their best efforts on a film that should probably be better remembered than it is, at least outside of film-noir fan circles.

Film Review: 99 River Street (1953)

Also known as: Crosstown (original title)
Release Date: August 21st, 1953 (Los Angeles premiere)
Directed by: Phil Karlson
Written by: Robert Smith, George Zuckerman
Music by: Arthur Lange, Emil Newman
Cast: John Payne, Evelyn Keyes, Brad Dexter, Frank Faylen, Peggie Castle

Edward Small Productions, United Artists, 83 Minutes

Review:

“There are worse things than murder. You can kill someone an inch at a time.” – Ernie Driscoll

It’s Noirvember, so I’ve been watching a ton of these movies. The experience has been fun and hasn’t waned on me yet. Most noir films, at least the ones that have survived long enough to make it to a digital format, are all pretty decent. There’s only been a few real duds this past month, where I usually encounter a lot of bad films as I work my way through different genres and eras.

99 River Street, originally released as Crosstown, is another better than decent film in the noir style. It isn’t a classic but it was helmed by Phil Karlson, a guy that was a much better than average film-noir director.

The movie stars John Payne, who just feels like a legitimate badass, despite getting walloped a bit too much in the final slugfest of the film. I mean, Payne’s Ernie Driscoll was a famous boxer. I get the storyline about his bad eye costing him his career but an accomplished boxer can beat the crap out of some thug, even if he just has one eye.

Driscoll’s wife is played by Peggie Castle, who played her role well, especially when she became a standard blonde bombshell femme fatale that betrays him. She was absolutely gorgeous in this and I’m not quite sure why she wasn’t more prominent in noir films but this did come out towards the end of noir’s run in popularity. Castle did find a home as a regular guest star on several notable television shows while being heralded as “the other woman” in several B-movies of her day.

The female lead, however, is played by Evelyn Keyes. She comes into the story, as a friend of Driscoll’s and through all the drama and danger, becomes something more. She was energetic, charismatic and entertaining in this role, where she plays a blossoming actress within the film.

To summarize the plot, an ex-boxer has a mean wife. He discovers that she’s fooling around with some two-bit thug. She plans to runaway with the criminal but ultimately, the criminal kills her because he’s evil and the morality code of the day couldn’t let seedy women go unpunished. All the while, the boxer starts paling around with the actress, one thing leads to another and the boxer and the thug have to go head-to-head.

The story was okay but it felt disjointed at times with all the jumping around. The part where Driscoll goes to help his actress friend deal with a man she accidentally kills turns into a big gag and it sort of distracts from the overall narrative and sticks out like an ugly sore thumb in the middle of the movie.

Apart from the lack of narrative fluidity, the film was still fairly entertaining and I enjoyed the characters.

Documentary Review: ESPN 30 For 30 – Soccer Stories – Short Films (2014)

Release Date: April 22nd, 2014 – May 6th, 2014 (run of six short episodes)
Directed by: various
Music by: various
Narrated by: Ryan Van Ness III (4 episodes)

ESPN Films, 6 Episodes, 30 Minutes (per episode)

Review:

*written in 2014.

ESPN returned with their 30 For 30 series this year. This season was strictly about soccer and saw two feature films and six half hour episodes dedicated to the sport. The first feature film Hillsborough is reviewed here. The second film White, Blue and White will be reviewed after I see it. This review here is for the series of six half hour-long episodes that were wedged between the two feature length bookends.

I thought that this series was really well done and covered a diverse set of stories even though they were all from within the soccer world.

There was an episode about Diego Maradona’s performance at the 1986 World Cup, which showed the superstar from every angle on and off the field. There was an episode about the Chilean military coup in the early 1970s and how it affected their national soccer team in the World Cup in 1974. Another episode dealt with a terrorist attack in Northern Ireland on fans of the Irish national team, which lead to a ceasefire by both opposing paramilitary groups involved in the long term conflict. Mané Garrincha, Brazil’s legend was featured in an episode that focused on his legendary status as well as his struggles. Brett Ratner directed an episode about the Jules Rimet Trophy and how it has an insane story that involves Nazis, crime and going missing. The last episode of the six short stories was about goalie Moacir Barbosa and how he went from being a Brazilian soccer hero to a pariah after he allowed a game-winning goal by Uruguay. That goal won Uruguay the World Cup in 1950.

Every chapter of this series was great. All were well shot, well edited and the subjects interviewed were compelling in every episode. Each director in this series made an interesting film. The varying degree of subjects kept it fresh and engaging. The only complaint I have of this series, is that each episode would have benefited more if they were each at least an hour in length or more. They did feel a bit rushed and too condensed.

Documentary Review: Hillsborough (2014)

Release Date: April 15th, 2014
Directed by: Daniel Gordon
Music by: Tim Atack, Joel Beckerman
Narrated by: Ryan Van Ness III

ESPN Films, BBC, 121 Minutes

Review:

*written in 2014.

Hillsborough is a film that kicked off a new series of 30 For 30 on ESPN. It is the first part in the Soccer Stories run, which were released over the last few months in order to build for the World Cup, which itself just started a few hours ago. I plan on reviewing the whole series in its complete form but since this part stands out as a film, where the other parts are half hour episodes, I felt it deserving of its own review.

This film told the story of the Hillsborough disaster, which happened on April 15th, 1989 in Sheffield, England. For those who don’t know, this tragedy happened during a game between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest and saw the death of 96 people who were crushed to death in the standing room only pens of the stadium. Following the tragedy, families of the victims have been seeking justice for decades but been denied it.

Hillsborough gives a pretty solid rundown of everything that happened leading up to the tragedy and everything that happened during and after, painting a very clear picture of what actually went down years after media spin and corruption tried to weave a different story.

The film was beautifully edited and presented, the interviews were conducted very well and I felt like the people involved, who had been victimized by this disaster were able to get some form of closure and peace by being able to be involved in this project while getting out their individual stories.

As a film, it was one of the best 30 For 30 chapters ever produced. It’s a definite must see for fans of the ongoing ESPN series or fans of real football (or soccer as we Americans call it).

Documentary Review: The Last Gladiators (2011)

Release Date: September 9th, 2011 (TIFF)
Directed by: Alex Gibney
Music by: David Kahne

Locomotion Pictures, 94 Minutes

Review:

*written in 2014.

I just recently came across a hockey documentary on Netflix’s streaming service called The Last Gladiators. The film was about some of the biggest goons in the NHL during the 80s. The film covered several players but primarily focused on Chris “Knuckles” Nilan, who mostly played for the Montreal Canadiens and won a Stanley Cup with them in 1986.

Nilan is one of the toughest guys to ever play the game and didn’t care if he was facing another tough guy or someone towering over him. He appeared to have no fear and was willing to scrap with anyone on the ice that got in his team’s way. He was a dominant enforcer and built up one hell of a reputation in an era where fighting wasn’t as controlled and stifled by the rules as it is now.

The director Alex Gibney, who won an Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side, does a pretty good job of painting a clear picture of hockey culture and the role of an enforcer that the uninitiated can follow. It starts like a highlight reel of classic fights while the backstory is laid out and finishes up with a tragic story that is still incomplete, leaving you with a sense of hope for the main attraction of the film, Chris Nilan.

I wouldn’t call this a great sports documentary but I would say that it was thoroughly engaging and did a proper job of showcasing goon culture respectfully. Especially in an era where more and more busybody know-it-all idiots are calling for a ban to fighting in hockey.