Criminal Court (1946)

criminal court featured 1050px

A hot-shot criminal attorney Steve Barnes (Tom Conway) running for DA finds himself in possession of some incriminating surveillance footage of local gangster Vic Wright (Robert Armstrong); that his beautiful girlfriend Georgia (Martha O’Driscoll) has just taken a job at the mobster’s club seems of little consequence to him. The night, after a particularly shocking example of the courtroom shenanigans Barnes is famous for, Barnes makes plans to show the footage to potential political donors. But the gangster gets wind of this footage and calls Steve to, er, discuss the situation, which turns out to be a bad idea: Wright ends up dead, mostly accidentally, at Steve’s hand, but Georgia gets nabbed for the murder. Criminal Court (1946) is a tight little noir-ish film directed by Robert Wise, who had just left his (artistically) lucrative partnership with producer Val Lewton. Wise had gone from editing some of the best films in the world to directing some amazing little Lewton B-movie horror flicks, but at this point in his career, he was directing what I will politely refer to as “filler.” The first of these programmers was A Game of Death (1945), a remake of the pre-Code adventure-thriller classic The Most Dangerous Game (1932). It was so sloppy and cheaply made that footage from the 1932 original was used without anyone realizing that Noble Johnson, who had been cast in Game of Death, also appeared in the borrowed 1932 footage as another character. Wise, or at least his circumstances, improved with … Continue reading

Hell on Wheels: Roller Boogie (1979) and the Slow Death of Disco

roller boogie featured 1050px

In a world where parks are full of small, evenly spaced groups of people all wearing skin-tight clothing in bright primary colors, where everyone is required by law to blow dry their hair and wear lip gloss, one recreational sport reigns supreme: roller disco. Voluptuous young Terry Barkley (Linda Blair) is a musical genius — a flautist, the sexiest of all orchestra members — but secretly yearns to become a bohemian roller skater, spending her days gliding up and down Venice Beach in Lurex leotards. There’s just one catch: she doesn’t know how to skate. Within moments of parking her luxury car at a local teen hotspot, she catches the eye of master skater Bobby James (Jim Bray, 1970s roller skating champion). They meet, clash, flirt, clash a little more, and just as they decide they like each other, find themselves having to rescue Jammer Delaney (character great Sean McClory), the owner of the local roller rink. He’s being harassed by a gangster-shaped group of mean dudes, so the only solution, of course, is for Bobby and Terry to win the local roller skating competition. Roller Boogie (1979) is one of the most famous of the several roller disco films and shows that sprung up as the 1970s wound down. The movie was released just one month after the similar Romeo-and-Juliet-plus-skates film Skatetown, U.S.A. had bombed at the box office, though producer Irwin Yablans insisted that his film would not fail like Skatetown had. Roller Boogie would “take the world … Continue reading

King of the Gypsies (1978)

king of the gypsies featured

The scene is set at a gypsy camp in the 1940s, as Zharko Stepanowicz (Sterling Hayden in one of his late-career mandatory beard roles), self-proclaimed King of the Gypsies, demands to be given young Rose (Tiffany Bogart), as he’s already paid $4,000 for her so she can marry his son Groffo (Mark Vahanian). Rose’s parents object and the elder of the clan demands King Zharko leave without either a refund or the girl. But Zharko and his wife Queen Rachel (Shelley Winters) grab the little girl anyway and take off with her. Years pass, and Rose (now Susan Sarandon) and Groffo (Judd Hirsch) are married, with a young son and another baby on the way. Rose is an expert grifter, a fortune teller on the make and a thief, while Groffo is a useless, violent alcoholic. Their son Dave (Eric Roberts) runs off when young, never goes to school, though when older manages to get a job as a singer, as well as a nice girlfriend (Annette O’Toole). Still, he hopes to pursue the proverbial American Dream, and believes that his life as a gypsy has held him back. But after a few years, his grandfather King Zharko tells him that he’s essentially terminal, and he wants to pass on the title of King of the Gypsies to Dave, bypassing Groffo. When Dave inherits the symbolic title, Groffo, his own father, comes after him, as well as his young sister (Brooke Shields) and the rest of the family, and Dave’s … Continue reading

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker (2014)

outrageous sophie tucker featured 1050px

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker ★★★✫✫ Director: William Gazecki Menemsha Films (Official Site) 96 Minutes Release: July 24, 2015 (limited) – Sophie Tucker was fabulous, flashy and a born entertainer. A true rags-to-riches story, she started out in Vaudeville in the early 1900s; by the early 1920s, the extraordinary Tucker was a major singing star. Known for her big, jazzy voice, bawdy songs and outrageous fashions, Sophie was exactly as she was billed: The Last of the Red Hot Mamas. She wowed audiences in the United States as well as overseas for over five decades, and though she may have come across as tough and worldly, she also had a natural, easygoing way about her, and could call dozens, perhaps hundreds, of fellow celebrities as friends. Though she is largely forgotten today, William Gazecki’s newest documentary, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker, is sure to raise interest in her once again. Filled with tons of photos and newspaper clippings, Outrageous also features interviews with Tony Bennett, Shecky Greene, Carol Channing, Bruce Vilanch, Barbara Walters and more, along with a few relatives and family friends. Some radio and screen appearances made it to the film, as do a few archival audio interviews, but for the most part, Sophie’s own voice is missing here, which is as disappointing as it is perplexing. Far too much time in Outrageous is spent with producers and biographers Lloyd and Susan Eckart, and their moralizing, errors and lack of professionalism hinder the film in a major way. They make … Continue reading

Wolfen (1981): Now on Blu-ray from Warner Archive

wolfen featured from phoenix cinema showing

Burned-out police detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) gets reluctantly called in to investigate the murder of high-profile millionaire Christopher van der Veer (Max M. Brown) in Wolfen, the 1981 sociopolitical horror film directed by Michael Wadleigh. Van der Veer, his wife Pauline (Anne Marie Pohtamo), and their driver Harrison (Jeffery V. Thompson) were found sliced to death in a public park, but police coroner Whittington (Gregory Hines) knows almost immediately that the weapon wasn’t metal. Wilson tosses around a few ideas about synthetic or plastic weapons and ritualized killings, before more dead people start turning up with similar wounds. They’re found all over New York City, however, from all socioeconomic walks of life; as one policeman says, they can’t possibly be connected, because “it’s a big jump from the South Bronx to Wall Street.” But they are connected, says Whittington, because all the victims’ bodies have unidentified hair or fur on them. A trip to local zoologist and wolf lover Ferguson (Tom Noonan) gives Wilson and Whittington their final clue: the fur is lupine, but wolves have been extinct in New York for decades. Still, there are radical elements in New York that would have wanted to take down van der Veer, who owned companies on every continent and had disrupted holy grounds and burial sites many times; as an investigator wryly noted, he was not exactly a friend to all nations. Most recently, he had been planning on developing an area of the South Bronx, coincidentally — or not … Continue reading

Creep (2014)

creep featured 1050px

Creep ★★★★½ / ★★★★★ Director: Patrick Brice The Orchard 80 Minutes Release: June 23, 2015 on iTunes / July 14, 2015 on Netflix – On his way to a thousand-dollar-a-day gig, young filmmaker Aaron (Patrick Brice) turns his camera on himself, perhaps out of excitement for the job, or maybe a little nervousness. His destination is a private residence: a nice vacation home near Lake Gregory, albeit an isolated one with an absent owner, some inconvenient stairs and an axe embedded into a stump that causes Aaron’s imagination to stray, if only for a moment. When Josef (Mark Duplass), the guy who hired him, arrives, it’s with a very literal bang, as he slams on Aaron’s car and hollers, because he thinks it’s kind of funny. Josef takes poor interpersonal skills to a whole new level in Creep, a low-budget comedy-horror film written by Brice and Duplass. A heady mix of cringe comedy, psychological thriller and irreverent pokes at all your favorite modern horror tropes, Creep is one of the most unique indies of the last few years, but its pitch-black humor is not for everyone. It is, however, a rare and refreshing example of a comedy that never condescends. Creep asks its audience to trust it, to let it toy with them the way the two lone actors on screen toy with each other, and the result is well worth the discomfort. That discomfort begins very quickly in Creep. Josef reveals early on that he’s terminally ill and has … Continue reading

Once a Thief (1965)

once a thief featured

Ralph Nelson’s jazzy, hard-boiled noir Once a Thief stars Alain Delon as Italian (!) immigrant Eddie Pedak with a criminal past who’s just trying to go straight, but his gangster brother Walter (Jack Palance) keeps dragging him back into the fold. Opening with the cold-blooded killing of grocery store owner Lisa Wing (an uncredited actress), we discover her husband (also uncredited) has seen the killer, and his description catches the attention of Inspector Mike Vido (Van Heflin). Seems Vido knows exactly the kind of car Eddie drives, the kind of coats he wears, and the kind of bullets that come from his gun, because one of those bullets was dug out of his gut a few years prior. When the bullet that killed Lisa Wing matches the bullet that shot Vido, he goes after Eddie. But Eddie is being framed by his brother as incentive to get him back into the game for one last million-dollar heist. Eddie resists at first, but he loses his job when Vido drags him off for questioning. Then his wife Kristine (Ann-Margret) has to go to work as a waitress at a bar to make ends meet, and Eddie starts feeling all the testosterone draining out of his body, what with having to rinse off dishes while she’s working and all, so he drags Kristine from her job, essentially sexually assaults her and beats her up in front of all the patrons, then tells Walter he’ll do the big heist after all.   As … Continue reading

June Bride (1948)

june bride featured 1050px

Carey Jackson (Robert Montgomery), foreign correspondent for a huge magazine conglomo, has found himself in his employer Carlton Towne’s leather-lined office (“Must be like living in a wallet”), about to be fired. The company is closing their Vienna office because of post-war censorship, but there’s no work for him back home, either. At the last minute, Towne (Jerome Cowan) offers Carey a job with their women’s magazine Home Life. But this is June Bride, a 1948 Warner Bros. romantic comedy, so there’s a little snag with this plan: Home Life’s editor Linda Gilman (Bette Davis) is not only exceedingly difficult to work with, but Carey’s former flame. She’s so tough, in fact, that Carey maneuvers himself into a $200.00 per month raise, just for doing Towne the favor of telling Linda that Cary is her new columnist, so Towne doesn’t have to do it himself. And just as predicted, Linda loathes the idea of working with Carey, while Carey is both smooth and hostile to her, in hopes of keeping his job. “I’m gay, I’m lovable, and I have nice teeth,” Carey says. “What more do you want?” – Linda’s having none of it.   Carey of course makes moves on Linda immediately, slipping into her apartment after a dinner out and turning off all the lights, because dumping her without saying a word three years prior is a total turn-on, you know. She knocks him down; he’s lucky he landed on his padded butt on her padded couch.   … Continue reading

Spenser: For Hire Season Two on DVD

spenser for hire promo featured

After years languishing in greymarket DVDs, the 1980s private detective series Spenser: For Hire finally got an official release from Warner Archive in 2014. Just a few weeks ago, Warner released Spenser: For Hire: The Complete Second Season on DVD, with the third season surely arriving soon. Featuring Robert Urich as the titular detective, Spenser: For Hire was based on the novels by Robert B. Parker. Fans of the novels often weren’t fans of the show, primarily because a one-hour episode couldn’t even begin to cover the kind of detail and nuance a full-length novel could. Still, the character of Spenser on screen was a compelling one: a former police officer turned private eye who enjoys cooking and literature and boxing in his spare time, and who comes to the aid of people that would frequently fall through the cracks of the system. In a genre where tough-talking, hard-drinking womanizers with iffy pasts reigned, Spenser was a breath of fresh air. But the show didn’t feature as many wet, neon-lit streets as the public wanted — nay, demanded — in the 1980s, and the show only lasted three seasons. The second season is arguably the best, though the credits reveal a big, and still controversial, cast change: the addition of Carolyn McCormick as Rita Fiore, a new assistant district attorney. Gone is Susan Silverman (Barbara Stock) from the first season, at least for now. Also gone is the old fire station Spenser had for an apartment last season; the building … Continue reading

The Babushkas of Chernobyl (2015)

babushkas of chernobyl featured

The Babushkas of Chernobyl ★★★★✫ Directors: Anne Bogart and Holly Morris Official Site 71 Minutes Premieres at the Los Angeles Film Festival, June 10 through 18, 2015 – With beautiful, classically framed scenery that highlights the healthy appearance of a land that is in reality riddled with invisible dangers, The Babushkas of Chernobyl takes us into the lives of the last few women still living in what’s known as the Exclusion Zone. A large area of the Ukraine heavily affected by radiation from the Chernobyl disaster, the Exclusion Zone is, at least officially, abandoned; unofficially, after the disaster, many people returned to the only place that they had ever called home. Now, all that remain are tiny villages of those who sneaked back illegally, nearly 100 people combined, and almost all women. With the bare minimum of science brought into the story, The Babushkas of Chernobyl retains what some would call innocence, and what others would call denial. But what becomes clear very early on in this documentary, from the directorial team of Anne Bogart and Holly Morris, is that in asking the babushkas to leave their homes, they were being asked to give up too much. In the late 1980s, there were nearly 2,500 returnees, including Hanna Zavorotnya and her family, featured a few years ago in this in-depth article at The Telegraph; it was Hanna who infamously told officials who tried to prevent them from living in the Zone, “Shoot us and dig the grave; otherwise, we’re staying.” … Continue reading