Category Archives: Film Review

Martin Scorsese’s BOXCAR BERTHA

BOXCAR BERTHA is not only an aesthetic precursor to Martin Scorsese’s seminal picture, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST but also a thematic one. It is equal parts a love story between the lead, Barbara Hershey, and man, David Carradine but also Scorsese’s most Americana film that encompasses the life of the 1930s through craps games, bank robberies, and our heroes riding the rails.

The film is very low budget and not as polished as those of us who have followed Scorsese’s career are used to. It’s rough and hard, playing less like a Scorsese picture and more like a less tuned version of BADLANDS or some early Malick movie that time forgot; yet the film plays more like an exploitation than something whimsical.

Boxcar Bertha

In typical Scorsese fashion, he has his core ensemble of actors who would again appear in later works, Hershey, Carradine, Barry Primus, Harry Northrup, and Victor Argo. And naturally, the film features a cameo by Scorsese himself. Bernie Casey is also featured in an excellent turn, who brutishly rounds out the gang.

In the film’s less than ninety minute runtime, a lot of ground gets covered, and the plot devices and the pacing is slightly out of sync but works towards the film’s advantage. Through it’s exploration of sex and violence, this was the first “studio” film where Scorsese honed his skills as one of cinema’s most important auteurs.

Hershey gives a marvelous performance as a young woman who accidentally gets ensnared in a fight between the railroad and its workers, becoming the eye of Carradine’s storm. Big Bill Shelley is his name, and busting up the railroad is his game. Carradine is such a magnificent bastard in the film, and wonderfully chews each scene he is in. John Carradine, his father, gets a very fun, albeit, brief role as the railroad tycoon determined to bring Big Bill Shelley down. And of course, Scorsese gives us one scene between the two.

Boxcar Bertha Carradine Hershey

It is not Scorsese’s most important film, nor by any means is the film a masterwork. It plays like a thesis film he’s making as so he can graduate and blossom into the filmmaker he is known for today. It is sexy and dangerous, it is rough around the edges, and has such a grandiose ending; one that is one so striking and powerful, both thematically and practically made, that any serious viewer of film cannot help but absolutely admire how audacious it is.

BOXCAR BERTHA is available on blu ray from Twilight Time and to stream on Amazon Prime.

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Peter Weir’s Witness

Witness is one of those films that in the hands of a less inspired director could have turned out to be pretty run of the mill thriller stuff, but they gave the script to Peter Weir, and he’s made a career out of films that could be called just about anything but run of the mill. This is essentially a fairly grounded tale of big city detective Harrison Ford undercover in Amish country to protect a young boy (Lukas Haas) who accidentally saw a cabal of corrupt cops murder someone in cold blood. It’s a fish out of water tale, it’s got budding romance, hot blooded action and even some comedy here and there. But there’s also this lyrical, esoteric atmosphere Weir brings to every project that really makes it something special. There’s a danger present in the Amish community, or rather the threat of such as seen in the long grass of the fields or sensed on the fringes of their village where the tree line looms. There’s a blessed calm as Ford learns the ways and customs of these folk and gets close with the daughter (Kelly McGillis) of one of their elders (Jan Rubes, a scene stealer) but alongside that there’s this restless, inexorable foreboding that these evil officers of the law could turn up at anytime and turn the calmness into a storm to follow. They eventually do, of course, and are played by the fearsome likes of Josef Sommer and Danny Glover, arriving like phantoms to herald a showdown of stealth and gun violence that is Western to its core but still stings with the grit of an urban cop flick. I love this film not so much for the story or script (both of which are just fine) but for the *feeling* it evokes, the ambience spun onscreen by Weir and composer Maurice Jarre, whose work here is ecstatically beautiful. There’s an extended sequence where we see the Amish folk building a barn and it’s a simple enough task, but something about the dutiful way Weir films it coupled with an almost grandiose passage of Jarre’s music makes it come alive in a way that not many scenes of its nature do in film. And always, lurking in the background, is the fear that danger is on its way, a sustained distillation of unease that helps to make this a gorgeous, effective thriller and all round great film.

-Nate Hill

Phillip Noyce and Harrison Ford’s Jack Ryan: Patriot Games and Clear & Present Danger

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan has had a few iterations over the decades, the last two of which were sadly lukewarm efforts, but for my money Harrison Ford and Philip Noyce gave the best version with the explosive double feature of Patriot Games and Clear & Present Danger. Star studded across the board, gifted with long runtimes, huge budgets and intelligent scripts, these are two enduring espionage films that I always have a place for on my DVD shelf and always tune in to if I come across them on TV. Ford is a heroic presence in cinema, and although his actions as Ryan are violently intrepid, he gives the character an unsure edge and resounding vulnerability that is always compelling and offsets the intrigue as great character work. This guy is an analyst after all, not a field agent and the portrayal should reflect that.

Patriot Games kicks off with Ryan in a brutal personal war against a rogue faction of the IRA, a tense conflict that reaps collateral damage on both sides. The two constant characters who ground both Ford and Ryan are his boss and mentor Greer (James Earl Jones) and his wife Cathy (Anne Archer), they keep him humble, human and sympathetic amongst all the chaos and political intrigue. Sean Bean is scary good here as Miller, renegade Irish operative whose plans are foiled early on by Jack, prompting him to swear bloody revenge on his whole family in a courtroom scene that is as chilling as Bean has ever been. Paranoia sets in as countless attempts are made against his and his families life, and even reassuring words from an IRA honcho (Richard Harris) who denounces Miller can’t set Ryan at ease. Only the eventual confrontation puts an end to it, which we get in a spectacular nocturnal speedboat chase across a Maryland harbour. The talent includes Thora Birch as Jack’s daughter, J.E. Freeman, Patrick Bergin, James Fox, Polly Walker, Bob Gunton and a young Samuel L. Jackson.

Clear & Present Danger sees the headstrong US President (Donald Moffat, never one to not devour dialogue like a good steak) declares war on marauding cartels from South America, another conflict that Ryan gets thrown into headlong both on location and back on the home front. Their leader (Miguel Sandoval) is a hotheaded moron, but the real danger lurks in Felix Cortez (Joaquim De Almeida, a spectacularly nasty villain), advisor, assassin and deadly power behind the throne who has ideas of his own. This entry is slightly more epic and action centric but the homeland espionage is played up too, particularly in the corrupt actions of two impossibly sleazy suits back in Washington played by Henry Czerny and Harris Yulin. They are so good in their roles they almost steal the film, especially Czerny as the ultimate prick and absolute last person you’d want making decisions for their country. Ford is less seething than he was in the very personal conflict of Patriot Games, but no less resourceful and violent when he needs to be. Willem Dafoe fills the boots of John Clark, a Clancy staple character and ruthless tactical agent who sometimes functions as a one man army. Further work is provided by Benjamin Bratt, Raymond Cruz, Dean Jones, Ann Magnuson, Patrick Bauchau and Hope Lange.

These two are not only great action spy films but to me represent an oasis of 90’s filmmaking that has never been replicated. Enormous casts, every dollar of the budget onscreen, timeless original scores (courtesy of James Horner here), vivid action set pieces, equal parts focus on story and action, no CGI in sight, character development and all round consistency in craft and production. I grew up with these two classics, watched them countless times with my dad and will always tune right back in whenever they’re around.

-Nate Hill

Jan De Bont’s Speed

“Pop quiz, hotshot!!” Most action films are comprised of beats, wherein there are exciting sequences and then lulls in between to catch our breath and collect ourselves, but the beauty of Jan De Bont’s Speed is that as soon as the central premise is delivered to the narrative, pretty much every beat is action, the concept airtight in terms of any breathing room creeping in, and that’s one reason why I think it’s endured as a such a classic in the genre.

Dennis Hopper plays yet another wild eyed lunatic here, and it’s scary to think that his mad bomber Howard Payne was once a decorated LAPD officer. He’s now a very pissed off ex police officer who has gone psychotic and started blowing shit up all over the city, attracting the attention of daredevil super cop Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves). Howard gets elaborate when he decides to rig a city bus with a device that will blow it the fuck to bits of the driver slows down past fifty miles per hour, and from then on in the film barely stops to grab a coffee, take a piss or collect its thoughts. Howard masterminds the whole deal from a secret surveillance lab, Jack races to board the bus and defuse the bomb and intrepid civilian Annie (Sandra Bullock) takes over the wheel after the driver has a heart attack. Reeves and Hopper play off each other like flint and steel, it’s a hero villain smackdown for the ages between a rock steady officer of the law and a probably once great detective who has lost his mind but none of his wily nerve. Keanu and Sandra also have great romantic chemistry too but it’s underplayed and sort of seems natural, which isn’t always easy to pull off. Throw in Joe Morton, Beth Grant, Glenn Plummer, Alan Ruck, Hawthorne James, Richard Schiff, Veronica Cartwright and scene stealer Jeff Daniels as Keanu’s charismatic senior partner and you’ve got one hell of an ensemble.

This was one of the first R rated action cookouts I was allowed to see (hell, I think I even saw it before Die Hard) and it still blows my mind as much today as it did back then. The stunts and set pieces are all unbelievable and so kinetically explosive its a wonder that talented cinematographer Andrej Bartkowiak could keep his lenses following them. Everything with the bus on freeways and overpasses is extraordinary (that heart-stopping bridge gap!) but don’t even get me started on the balls out underground subway crash that blows the lid off any sound system it touches. A classic.

-Nate Hill

Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

How iconic has the image become of Clint Eastwood, poncho adorned, rolled cigarette locked firmly in that drawn snarl, peering out from a wide brim, dust caked hat atop a horse? The Man With No Name is such a household name these days that he’s shown up everywhere from Stephen King lore to an animated Johnny Depp movie, but it all began with Sergio Leone’s original spaghetti western trilogy, the best of which is the fireball classic The Good, The Bad & The Ugly.

The trilogy itself not only launched an entire sub-genre in the early sixties but created a mood, a feel that no one besides Leone has ever been able to so specifically distill. Extreme closeups on eyes deep set in furrowing brows. Languid establishing shots of frontier town streets, expansive railroads and acres of dry brush-lands. The actors aren’t necessarily blocked from scene to scene with any kind of briskness but rather wade languidly through an ambient space seemingly at their own leisure and never with haste. Spaghetti westerns are never about the plot, but about the moment, the setup, the apprehension in the saloon, grotto, civil war torn graveyard or desert that these hard bitten folks find themselves in.

Eastwood’s nameless gunslinger meanders across a bitter, busted up American west that is, of course, actually Italy, engaging in war games and an obsessive treasure hunt with two other pieces of work, the sociopathic monster Angel Eyes (Lee Can Cleef) and the lecherous, untrustworthy rodent Tuco (Eli Wallach). All three are after a legendary gold stash somewhere out there in the desolation and are prepared to kill anyone who stands in their way, bonus points for each other. Eastwood is cold, calm and opaque, Cleef is cheerfully, sadistically ruthless, Wallach oozes weaselly survival instinct and together they make a captivating trio.

Three scenes in particular stand out in my mind; the first is the epic showdown between them all, stood a few hundred paces apart in a triangle, locked in a tense pre shootout stare-down as Ennio Morricone’s gorgeous and threatening score booms around the landscape and plays with expectations wonderfully. It’s a kicker of a scene and probably the showcase Western showdown in cinema. The second (and I’m assuming at this point that anyone who’s read this far has seen the film) is the final sequence where Eastwood taunts Wallach by literally leaving him hanging and riding away as Morricone yet again gives our eardrums symphonic bliss. It’s a wicked little epilogue that illustrates the character’s dry, subtle sense of humour nicely and I remember my dad (this was a favourite for him) rewinding it just to catch the beats a second or third time. The third is a moment where Eastwood comes across a soldier who is dying in the dust. He offers the man a drag off his cigarette, and the simple action suggests a beating heart and flickers of compassion in a mostly hard, stoic fellow. Nice touch.

-Nate Hill

Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)

As it limped out of the 1980’s with a notoriously ridiculous entry in which Jason somehow takes a boat adventure out of Camp Crystal Lake and winds up in Manhattan, it was sort of up in the air if Paramount’s Friday the 13th franchise would survive. After its purchase by New Line Cinema, its three additional entries and then the inevitable post-9/11 remake kind of beg the question as to whether or not it really did.

But nostalgia being what it is, Friday the 13th has gone on to become one of the most beloved franchises in the horror genre. A once taboo series of films that gave Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert the absolute vapors, there is probably a small section in your friendly neighborhood Target that is now stocked at this very minute with some Friday the 13th tchotchke,

Within the fandom of the franchise, almost every title is sacrosanct and has its hard core fans. The folks that run horror conventions can always fill space by booking obscure cast members from any one of the Friday the 13th films with the assurance that a good number of folks will show up to give them money for a picture and an autograph. Hell, even Ari Lehman, the dude who played Jason as a boy in the original film, travels all over this land, gauntlet-adorned hands grasping a machete-shaped keytar while fronting a middlebrow rock band called First Jason which makes absolutely no sense but thrives regardless.

That the Friday the 13th fandom is so hardcore should be of little surprise to anyone since one has to be a shameless apologist or in serious denial to even consider any of these films in the first place. Sean S. Cunningham’s first entry, sometimes misremembered as a good movie, was a hack rip-off of John Carpenter’s Halloween with a cheat whodunit thrown in for good measure. Part 2 wisely dispatches almost everything from the first film and uses its climax as the setup for its tale even if, in doing so, it boxes itself into a logistical trap of utter nonsense that it could give two shits about solving. And Paramount bet that audiences wouldn’t care either. And it bet correct.

Friday the 13th Part 2, as everyone who has seen Scream knows, is the first entry in the series in which the antagonist is actually Jason Voorhees, hockey-masked psychopath that has become an iconic piece of the American experience. But we’ll have to wait until the awful next installment (in 3D, because two dimensions of terribleness weren’t enough) before he acquires the mask. So, yes, there is an underrepresented Jason out there while hockey-masked Jason and showboat Ari Lehman are soaking up the glory. Who will stand up for Warrington Gillette’s backwoods Jason, clad in plaid, covered in denim, and donning a sack over his head? After all, from a horror film standpoint, he is the most effectively creepy-looking Jason.

But wait just a dang minute! How is Jason even alive? Didn’t he drown back in the 50’s, as told by his mother during the ridiculous climax of the first film? And when doubt is cast upon his fate in that film’s denouement, as he pops up out of the water to deliver one final cheap scare to the audience, isn’t he still, inexplicably, a boy in 1980? I mean, sure, it’s chalked up to a possible dream sequence but his existence as a man who somehow survived the drowning and then just lived in the woods alone is utterly absurd. In fact, so risible was this setup that Tom Savini, SFX artist for the first film, refused to even entertain lending his services to the production, packed up his gear and went down the street to work on The Burning. Of course, it mattered not since gun-shy censors bowdlerized the majority of the gore effects on this one as they had the first one.

But in stringing the logic of the pre-credit sequence out, we have to wonder just how Jason is even able to track poor Alice (Adrienne King), the weak final girl from the first entry, to her home in the first place? Do audiences even want to entertain the implausible idea that this grotesque creature likely had to sit on some kind of bus, taxi, or semi cab just to make it to civilization? Or is it that they just relieved that Alice is getting an ice pick to the temple and they’re not going to be asked to accept her shrieking at the top of her lungs in her JC Penney wardrobe and Cathy Rigby hair for the remainder of the film? Given that the film burns about 12.5% of its total runtime on this sequence and nobody seems to give a flying fuck, I like to think that folks just wanted to say “goodbye and good riddance” to Adrienne King.

And what a good stroke of luck that is for audiences because director Steve Miner (who would go on to put his head all the way up his ass helming the aforementioned third film), scored a major coup with Amy Steel whose relaxed, charming, and intelligent performance as Ginny elevates her to the greatest final girl of the entire franchise. Sure, she’s not given much to do because, after all, this is a Friday the 13th movie, but she brings a spunk where King brought a plunk. She’s sunny, warm, thoughtful, and resourceful and, as an audience, we’re with her 100% during the climax where, in the original, we merely watched it unfold while simultaneously wondering how Sean Cunningham escaped getting sued by John Carpenter.

And it’s not just Steel that brings a higher authenticity to the proceedings. John Furey’s Paul makes for a much more appealing and less stuffy male lead than Peter Brouwer’s downmarket Marlboro Man Steve Christy did in the first film. In fact, it must be said that the entire cast of the sequel at least APPEARS to be populated with actual people who are having something of a good time and all of the romantic couplings, while eye-rolling and predictable, seem pretty natural. This is most especially true for the romance between Marta Kober’s Sandra and Bill Randolph’s Jeff who are, without question, the hottest Friday the 13th couple of all and who also look like they absolutely could not keep their hands off of each other during the entire shoot.

Friday the 13th Part 2, by most metrics, isn’t a great movie but with its likeable cast, smart plot progression, creepily abrupt and open-ended finale, and some fine homages to Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood, it’s a very good Friday the 13th movie. In fact, if it weren’t for the truly hilarious and superior sixth entry, it would likely rank as the best Friday the 13th movie. And I guess that counts for something.

– Patrick Crain

Hey, speaking of Mario Bava, next week I’ll engage in some financial terrorism with John Phillip Law and Marisa Mell in Bava’s groovy, color-splashed Danger: Diabolik. Until then, if you see a ramshackle hut in the woods, don’t go in it. Or do. Whatever…

Paul Greengrass’s The Bourne Ultimatum

I’ve said before in reviews that it’s pretty much impossible to pick a favourite from the initial trilogy of Bourne films, and I stand by that. They’re somehow completely their own thing as separate entries and also a synergistic entity together as well, using Moby’s propulsive song Extreme Ways to jet into each new chapter.

Paul Greengrass’s The Bourne Ultimatum brings Matt Damon’s arc as super-spy spy to a gong show of a close in New York City after breathless jaunts through London and Madrid. By this time Bourne has had so much trauma inflicted on him and lost so much that he’s almost in devil-may-care mode, but something in him senses that despite recalling a whole bunch lost memory, there’s still a few pieces of the puzzle that need to fall into place, starting with the interrogation of an ill fated British reporter (Paddy Considine). This puts corrupt wings of the CIA onto his trail once again, with evil David Strathairn filling in for evil Brian Cox and evil Chris Cooper before him. It’s a vicious cycle of selfish, narcissistic shirt tuckers trying to cover their asses while innocent people all over the globe die needlessly, and Bourne’s mounting anger has never been more understandable than here. Joan Allen returns as stern but sympathetic Pam Landy, Scott Glenn brings leathery charm as the agency’s duplicitous director and watch for Corey Johnson, Daniel Bruhl, Albert Finney and Edgar Ramirez as a rival asset dispatched to hunt him who is the first of his kind to show a glimmer of humanity. Julia Stiles also returns as Nicky Parsons, an integral person in the saga, her work in all three films is underrated as a restless portrait of guilt over past actions and patient resolve to do better with each new decision, I wish she’d get more complex roles like this because she’s so great.

Greengrass got a lot more kinetic and hyped up (the shaky cam is a turn off for some) than Doug Liman did with Identity, the first chapter. The hectic vibe serves to illustrate Bourne’s stormy, frayed mental climate and works for me, as does Damon’s ferocious performance. The stunt work and action set pieces are flat out spectacular, especially the explosive bike derby in Spain and the tense cell phone tag sequence in London’s crowded financial district. Like I said I can’t really pick a favourite, this is as close to a completely cohesive trilogy you can get, but this one was my dad’s top pick of the three so I suppose it has that edge going for it. As far as the other two that exist outside this trilogy… that’s a story for a far less glowing review. Ultimatum, however, is solid gold.

-Nate Hill