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Crime/Mystery

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Dirty Harry was a film so conservative, Paul Newman gave it a hard pass. But not without cementing the franchise by recommending Clint Eastwood for the role.  Eastwood plays the iconic Inspector Harry Callahan, and when San Francisco is terrorized by a serial killer (the Scorpio, rather than the Zodiac), it turns to Harry to save its ass. Unfortunately, every time Harry gets near the crazed nut, some liberal judge or pencil-pushing, ass-covering bureaucrat is obstructing his simple moral code and his massive .44 Magnum. Finally, he just has to go rogue and takes matters into his own hands. After he finishes the job, a disgusted Callahan tosses his badge in the bay.

Except, the movie was wildly popular.

So . . . tin star retrieved.

It took the talents of a young John Milius to pull Callahan back from the ranks of the fascist in the follow-up, Magnum Force, where the bad guys are actually cops, an execution squad working at the behest of seeming pencil-pushing, ass-covering bureaucrat Hal Holbrook (in fact, Holbrook is the mastermind of a new form of vigilante justice). In the second film, Callahan is still our cynical, equal opportunity bigot who loathes the politics, regulations and political correctness of the city. But he can’t quite get on board with a Star Chamber. As much as  he detests the system, he figures it’s better than any alternative.

In The Enforcer, Callahan is back to his conservative roots, and stuck with an affirmative action partner, Tyne Daley. In Dirty Harry, his partner was Hispanic and in Magnum Force, African-American, but one never got the impression they hadn’t earned their stripes. Daley, on the other hand, is introduced as someone who has never made a collar (felony or misdemeanor), a quota baby straight out of . . . . grrrrrr . . . . Personnel.

Worse, an officious woman from the mayor’s office – likely, straight out of a precursor to the Office of Diversity and Inclusion – is present at Daley’s interview, one conducted by Callahan.  Daley fails, miserably, but the fix is in and she’s given the gig.

After she importunes Harry to give her a chance, things start off rocky. On her first day, she almost gets her head blown off by a hand-held rocket launcher, almost loses her lunch during an autopsy, and unwittingly runs around half of San Francisco with a bomb. But she’s got moxie. And with a band of the most brutal hippies having just kidnapped the feckless “pay them!” mayor, you’re going to need Tyne Daley’s moxie.

The Enforcer is more of the same but smartly done. You get the satisfying back-and-forth between Harry and the government weasels:

Capt. McKay: That’s it Callahan, you just got yourself a sixty-day suspension.

Harry: Make it ninety!

Capt. McKay: A hundred-and-eighty, and give me your star.

Harry: (Giving Capt. Mckay his badge) Here’s a seven-point suppository, Captain!

Capt. Mckay: What did you say?!

Harry: I said stick it in your ass!

You also get a lot of gunplay, a jazzy Jerry Fielding score, some inspired action sequences, and numerous chases through eclectic, weird and grimy 1970s San Francisco. But it is Daley as the earnest sidekick who just wants to earn her stripes who elevates the picture.  She’s winning, sympathetic and you root for her, the first time a character from the corrupt system makes you say, “C’mon, Harry.  Lighten up.” When she meets Harry’s standards (she blows two of the bad guys away and to one, she says “You laugh at me mister, and I’ll shoot you where you stand”), you cheer.

Because how could you not?  Punk.

 

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My father took me to The Eagle Has Landed in 1976, and I of course loved it.   John Sturges (The Great Escape) can make a solid  war picture and this one was smart, cynical, compelling and the last one he directed.

As I watched it again last weekend, I imagined this script landing on some hotshot Hollywood moguls’ desk today.

First pages, not so bad.  The war is going poorly for the Nazis and they are looking into a plan to kidnap Churchill. 

Okay, so far so good.

The plan is dropped on an armless  Nazi with an eye patch.  No, not Tom, Cruise as Von Stauffenberg in Valkyrie.  That film is 30 years and a Bryan Singer sex scandal away.

This armless, eyeless Nazi is played by Robert Duvall.  And whoa!  In what he thought was a moment of whim on the part of Hitler, it turns out that the plan is feasible and the game is afoot.

So feasible that Duvall scours the records for the perfect German unit to take on the task of posing as a Polish outfit in a northern English town until Churchill arrives, when he can be snatched.  Who does he find?

Michael Caine, and his close-knit commandos, who have been kicking ass and becoming more and more embittered on the Eastern front.

But Duvall needs more; he needs two boots on the ground in the little town before the “Polish” troops arrive.  Enter . . . Donald Sutherland, an Irishman who hates the English so much he’s in league with the Nazis.

Okay.  It seems like a lot of money to be throwing at the bad guys. 

Who is the hero?

Larry Hagman?  J.R EWING?

Well, no, but Hagman does play the American commander on the ground in the quaint English town.  He’s no hero.  He’s more like John Larroquette in Stripes, a martinet wannabe who craves combat badly.  Hagman is incompetent, Caine’s men repel his frontal assault with ease, and he dies in such an ignominious manner, it’s almost comic.

Oh good.  There’s a young Treat Williams and Jeff Conaway.  Good looking American GIs who . . . . hmmmmmm, these guys have no lines!  They barely even register!!

Wait, are you telling me . . . . the leads are all Nazis!!???

Yup.

In 1976, this is how Hollywood got past this inconvenient cast.  First, they made Duvall erudite and resigned, as well as armless and eyeless, and they had him present the opportunity to grab Churchill as an opportunity to sue for peace.

As for Caine, as he and his men are shipped back from the Eastern Front, they meet an SS unit rounding  up Jews at a railroad junction.  Out of sheer frustration, Caine assaults the SS commander, assists in the escape attempt of a Jewish woman, and for his troubles his men are all cashiered and consigned to tasks that will eventually result in all their deaths.  Did Caine revolt because he was torn over the Holocaust?  Well, no.  In his own words, “I have nothing for or against Jews, personally. But I’ve seen too many men die for cause, to watch a young girl be killed for sport!”

Okay.  Good enough for the Bicentennial.

And Sutherland?  Well, he’s humanized because his beef is about Ireland, not that icky master race stuff, and he’s quick with a drink and the brogue and he’s so charming, Jenny Agutter falls in love with him instantly (really, the weakest part of the picture because he’s too old for her, it’s too immediate, and what she does for her “love” is so extreme it just doesn’t pass the smell test).

Solid flick, clearly of its time.  Triggerocity at about an 8 out of 10. On Amazon.

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Alan Pakula’s sexual thriller is still a little jarring in its frankness, even today.  In the age of “sex tape as career move”, very little can astound or shock, but Jane Fonda’s electric and vulnerable turn as a call girl hunted by a killer gives the viewer entrée not only into the precariousness of her world, but in her own vulnerability.  She plays Bree Daniels, a struggling actress who considers her sexual exchanges mini-dramas, where she gets control, something she clearly needs desperately, even if it is self-destructive.  When we see her in action, she’s powerful and pitiable, all the while exhibiting how effective and alluring a good call girl can be.

Daniels is saved on more than one occasion by a laconic John Klute (Donald Sutherland), a police officer turned p.i. who is investigating the disappearance of a businessman who may or may not be her stalker.  Naturally, they develop a relationship.

Pakula (The Parallax View, All the President’s Men) has a keen eye for the shadows and menace in otherwise humdrum, pedestrian environs.  He also has great patience, which results in very understated, moving scenes, such as when Fonda flips through the catalogue of homicide photos of dead prostitutes, and her character and the viewer see her face in all of them.  The scenes where Fonda attempts to seduce Sutherland in order to establish control are similarly subtle, and Pakula places you directly in the dilemma of not wanting to be played but being enticed all the same.

There are problems.  Fonda is so good (she won Best Actress) I thought the scenes of her in therapy were unnecessary.  She’s strong in them, but she’s better expressing her foibles and fears in the context of the story.   As the detective, Sutherland runs into the opposite problem.  He is fully unexplored, a quiet mechanism for Fonda’s growth and nothing more.  I  wanted to know more about him.  Not tons, but something.

Still, this a very strong picture that holds up well, especially given the subject matter.

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First time feature writer/director Bart Layton’s true story of four Kentucky college kids who decide to steal rare books from the archives of Transylvania University is a gem.  At root, it’s a heist picture, but this is no Oceans 4.  Layton hilariously juxtaposes the theft in the minds of the boys with the much less smooth, cool and seamless aborted and actual boosts.  Layton also captures the ennui and disassociation of the kids, which has them yearning not so much for the money but for an authentic experience, a stamp.  He does not sugarcoat their selfishness, or make “woe to the disaffected suburban affluent” excuses.  Instead, he makes what seems rather incredible understandable, if perplexing.

Layton’s approach is phlegmatic and innovative without being showy.  His vision of the inertia and isolation of the boys melds perfectly with their amenability to the caper.  He films their surroundings darkly, sparsely and uninviting.  While everyone else seems to be communing just fine, they are off-kilter, uncomfortable.

I can’t believe Layton doesn’t have a promising future in Hollywood.  I only hope he isn’t immediately jammed into The Avengers: Super Mega-Explosion.  My only nit is the failure to properly account for the motivations of two of the four conspirators, most egregiously, with the last addition to the group.  The short-shrift given the characters was noticeable and a little distracting.

The film owes a debt to Richard Linklater’s Bernie in its use of interviews of the actual participants, but rather than high comic recollections from the would-be thieves and gentle reproaches from their family and friends, he captures the criminals as reflective, remorseful and even grasping to explain how they got to their deed.  As for the families, they are disheartened and confused, not enamored of their band of merry kids now that time has passed.

Layton saves his best interview for last, that of the librarian who is most directly and viscerally affected by the robbery.  You can interpret her state of mind in many ways, but she has been affected by the experience, and in what is the film’s best message, her pain seems permanently etched on the faces of the quartet.

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The first half of this Tarantinoesque Key Largo is pretty good.  Four strangers (Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo and Dakota Johnson) show up at a past-its-prime, resort hotel in the Nevada/California mountains, the kind of place where Sammy, Judy and Frank might have swung back in the day.  They all have a story, which we learn in flashbacks, some of which are more compelling than others.  Their destinies collide explosively.

I was worried the film would be too kitschy and cool, too mannered, but it manages to keep a lid on it for long enough to be engaging.  Other problems keep it from being unequivocally good.  For one, Dakota Johnson barely even registers.  She’s undeniably attractive but as a shotgun-toting Alabaman on the run from her better looking Charles Manson (Chris Hemsworth), she’s as convincing as Melania Trump.   Worse, Hemsworth tries to chew scenery, but the best he can do is ape Val Kilmer in The Doors (I guess all Svengalis from the late 60s had that lizard lope).  To cement his powers of persuasion, we get a flashback to Hemsworth preaching to his hippie flock, and let’s just say, he’s more Jim Nabors than Jones or Morrison.

Erivo is very good, but she’s a singer as a character and in real life.  Writer-director Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods) feels compelled to have her perpetually employing the pipes, an unnecessary distraction.

On HBO.  Fine if you got nothing else going on.

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A solid, slow potboiler of a crime caper, Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn are cops suspended for excessive force (caught on IPhone) who, beleaguered by low pay and lack of support, decide to pull a heist of a heist. Their decision runs them smack into Tory Kittles, just out of prison and enlisted to be a wheelman, in over his head as a contractor for brutal thieves.

The film is expertly paced, if languorous, and engrossing.  Director-writer S. Craig Zahler can draw out the eating of an egg salad sandwich, the preparation for a bank job, and the tailing of a getaway vehicle with an exactitude and care that sucks you in to all three events.

The picture is also literate, sometimes too much so as the characters have a lot of time to jabber on stake out. There are some machismo clunkers as the officers weigh the morality of the endeavor, the unfairness of their lot and the contours of loyalty. But there’s mostly good in the script, particularly between Kittles and the boyhood friend (Michael Jai White) who hooked him into the heist as they reminisce and try and work themselves out of what becomes a hellish jam.  Zahler has a nice touch handling the easy banter of his characters.

The film has been slagged for its portrayal of allegedly racist characters and themes, which to your average movie reviewer means that the Gibson and Vaughn characters do not parrot ACLU pamphlets in discussion of their milieu or the tenor of the times.  I sense Zahler is in for the David Mamet treatment.

The criticism is a joke but what are you gonna’ do?  These folks are the types who lauded The Wire but likely understood none of it and are the progeny of Pauline “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken” Kael.

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What to make of this film?  It starts off medium cool, with Vince Vaughn playing a rigid, introverted ex-addict and drug dealer trying to stay on the straight-and-arrow.  His temper is volcanic yet weirdly controlled – when he wants to kill his cheating wife (Jennifer Carpenter), he distances himself from her, maintaining an almost chivalric honoring of her being, and then dismantles her car with his bare hands.  He then comes into the house and they have a believably fruitful and mature discussion about where their relationship is headed.

When circumstances force him back into dealing, things go south, and he has to do a stretch in prison, leaving the pregnant Carpenter and their unborn daughter behind.  And then shit gets nuts, as the film shifts from sober prison fare to gonzo 70s grindhouse slaughter-fest.  Vaughn is transferred from a medium security facility, where he meets his mentor and  counselor in what threatens to be a film about his therapeutic journey from there on out, to a maximum security haunted house run by Don Johnson, a cheroot chewing warden straight out of the most lurid of comic books.

The dissonance is jarring, but it doesn’t turn you off.  You stay on the ride, happily, as it gets crazier and crazier.

Vaughn is really quite good, but people forget that before he took on the comic galoot character, he was trotted out as a believable villain (Psycho, Domestic Disturbance).  He has done mainly straight drama of late, from the execrably written Season 2 of True Detective to the stock sergeant in Hacksaw Ridge to the recent Dragged Across Concrete (written and directed by the writer-director of this picture,  S. Craig Zahler).  Here, he’s in total command and damn chilling.

Zahler knows what he’s doing behind the camera, but one wonders – to what end? I hope he rises above his pulpy material before he gets lost in it.

Currently on Amazon.