Top Ten List for My Birthday #6

I have been writing this blog for over ten years now, and I have resisted putting up a list of my favorite films for that whole time. As the Borg say “Resistance is Futile!” 

This year I am marking another year in my sixth decade of life. I did several birthday posts in the past and enjoyed them immensely. The last two years my heart has just not been into it. This year however, I am trying to push my way back into normalcy, but I don’t have the energy to generate 63 things for a list. So what I am going to do is a ten day countdown of my favorite films.

Every year when I have posted a top ten list, I always point out that it is a combination of quality and subjective enjoyment that creates that list. Those are the guiding principles here as well. I will not claim that these are the ten greatest movies ever made, although I know several of them would be deserving of a spot on such a list. Instead, these are my ten favorite films as it stands at the moment. In a month, I could reconsider or remember something that I have tragically left off the list, but for this moment here is how they rank.

#6 Casablanca

All of us are influenced by where we come from. My parents were interesting people from the greatest generation. My Dad fought in WWII, my Mom was his High School Sweetheart, and they both had a favorite movie. They loved this movie so much, they named me after the lead character. Although with most people these days I go by Richard, when I was a kid, it was Rick. My Mom only called me Richard when I was getting middle named also, in other words when I was in trouble.

The story of the movie Casablanca is complex and surprising. It’s based on a play, was cast multiple times, started shooting without a complete script and still ended up perfect. This may be the most romantic film ever made, and the romance does not end happily ever after like most romantic comedies. This is a story of sacrifice, made by people who were in the midst of one of the greatest historical calamities ever. Rick says it in the movie,  “it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”, but of course they do. Individual actions are what make the difference. 

I think this may be the most quoted movie in history. There are so many lines that work in just the right situation, that it will inevitably come up at some point. Myself, I have been shocked to find that there is gambling going on in here, on a weekly basis. And if I gave you any thought, I would probably despise you. 

I make no secret of the fact that I am a sentimentalist. When Victor Laszlo commands the band to “Play the “Marseillaise.”… Play it!, and the whole club stands and out sings the Nazis, I get a lump in my throat that takes five minutes to subside. As Rick laments the fact that his is the gin joint she has found, my heart is breaking. When Captain Renault utters the line “round up the usual suspects” indicating he has found his spine once more, all of our characters are redeemed. Hell, I am tearing up as I write this. 

All of the cast is spot on, and every supporting player feels essential to making the movie work. The Max Steiner score, and the song “as Time Goes By” will thrill you and break your heart. I’m not one of those movie snobs who believes if you don’t agree with me that you are automatically wrong. However, if you don’t love this film, I do think there is something wrong with you and you probably need medication.

Previous Posts on Casablanca

TCM/Fathom 70th Anniversary Casablanca  

Top Ten List for My Birthday #7

I have been writing this blog for over ten years now, and I have resisted putting up a list of my favorite films for that whole time. As the Borg say “Resistance is Futile!” 

This year I am marking another year in my sixth decade of life. I did several birthday posts in the past and enjoyed them immensely. The last two years my heart has just not been into it. This year however, I am trying to push my way back into normalcy, but I don’t have the energy to generate 63 things for a list. So what I am going to do is a ten day countdown of my favorite films.

Every year when I have posted a top ten list, I always point out that it is a combination of quality and subjective enjoyment that creates that list. Those are the guiding principles here as well. I will not claim that these are the ten greatest movies ever made, although I know several of them would be deserving of a spot on such a list. Instead, these are my ten favorite films as it stands at the moment. In a month, I could reconsider or remember something that I have tragically left off the list, but for this moment here is how they rank.

#7 Amadeus

When I was a kid, I took piano lessons for two years, and classical music was at the heart of what I was learning. That endeavor has been largely wasted in the subsequent time. I can’t remember anything about playing, I can’t read music, and for a long time I was ignorantly avoiding that style of music. I college I did take a class in concert music, but I skated by with as little effort as I could put into it. In 1984 however, my love of this genre returned with the release of this film. 

I’d seen the stage play of this story earlier in the year, but it did not prepare me for the onslaught of beauty and awe that Mozart’s music is. The film wallows in it. The opening use of music from Don Giovani sets the stage for everything that happens later. It is dramatic, closely tied to the visuals and it moves the audience in the way the director intended. There are a dozen moments like this in the film, and the music is as big a co-star as any of the actors. 

Of course the actors are not too shabby either. Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham dance a duet of acting performance that may never have been matched since. Mozart is a callow self centered genius who is only appreciated to the degree he deserves by the resentful mediocrity Salieri. Every time Hulce laughs, we are amused but also indignant. Why is this master at music so awkward at life in the court? Salieri allows jealousy to spoil his pious and grateful love of God and turn him into a smooth monster, determined to stifle the greatness that he himself lacks.

No one should take this as history, it is a fiction using real characters but everyone can see how it might have been this way (it wasn’t). The production uses Prague as a substitute for  Vienna, and it works for me. The costuming is amazing and there are musical moments in the film that you might wish to have as a complete concert or opera. Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields supply the music and there were two double albums released to allow us to celebrate it. 

Anytime someone has a top twenty list of films, and this does not appear on it. I doubt their credibility or taste. I am still not an classical music connoisseur, but I am a fan, and this film brought me back to that world. I wish I could sit in the theater again, waiting for the first time to see this film.  The moment of euphoria it provided has led me to decades of pursuing the same high in movie theaters and concert halls. And that is something a film should aspire to do.

Previous Posts on Amadeus

30 Years On: Amadeus  

Movies I Want Everyone to See: Triple Scoop of Westerns

This post Originally appeared on the defunct site “Fogs Movie Reviews” in the Fall of 2014.

3 Way Poster

The western as a film genre went from being the most popular form of film making in the early days of Hollywood, to one of the least seen forms of story telling in contemporary times. Part of the reason was that television drained the western of new ideas and stories. In 1959 there were 26 western themed shows airing in prime time. Those are the days of three networks and three hours a night. Today they have been replaced by crime procedurals and reality shows. As the decade of the 1960s wore on, the western film began to collapse. Sure there were successes and and surprises but by the late seventies, only Clint Eastwood appeared interested in fashioning films centered in the traditional American Western period. Westerns rally every few years and achieve moments of greatness or nostalgia. In the year 1969, three westerns managed to make an artistic achievement, a populist surge and a satisfying trip down memory lane. From the final year of the most turbulent decade in American history, I want to share Three Movies I Want Everyone to See.

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We begin our journey with the most revolutionary of the Western films of 1969, “The Wild Bunch”. This Sam Peckinpah splatterfest begins with a robbery gone wrong. An entire small town gets shot to hell as a group of bandits make their escape from a hired posse that had set them up. Dozens are killed in the slow motion mayhem and the hired lawmen turn out to be worse scum than the bad guys. The old ways are dying and old loyalties die hard as well.

This is a mediation on masculine values. What really makes a man a good friend, when is the right time to fight, what sacrifices are you willing to make, and how reckless can you be and still thrive? The story focuses an a group of hardened men who are aging and still living life as outcasts and criminals. They have each others back for the most part, but sometimes they are capable of betrayal as well. “The Wild Bunch” is filled with macho posturing and is frequently broken up by scenes of hearty male laughter, signifying a grim but understood humor.


William Holden stars as the leader of the bunch, Pike Bishop. The rest of his gang consists of some of the great character actors of the 60s and 70s. Ben Johnson and Earnest Borgnine go back to the 50s. Warren Oates is a treasure that we should have had for a lot longer. Edmund O’Brien drops in as a mentor/passive partner of the gang. The band of mercenaries hired to get them is led by Pike’s old friend and partner “Deke Thorton” played by longtime movie vet Robert Ryan. He can barely tolerate the low lifes that he has been given for the task and would much rather be riding with his old cohorts. The two most recognizable vermin on his crew are “Coffer” and “T.C.” played by gritty western stalwarts Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones.


A big chunk of the plot of the movie was improvised after the first set piece. It was pretty amazing that the train hijacking looks like it was so well planned when it actually was designed on the day they shot it. The violence in the film is straight Peckinpah, frequent, bloody and often played back in slow motion. The inevitable conclusion of the film brings galleons of fake blood to the set and an outcome that will surprise no one given the lead up. These men are not willing to take the easy way out when it is offered to them, especially when their peculiar sense of loyalty and friendship is on the line.
Holden and Borgnine form the nucleus of the film and their mediations on the changing ways of the world hold the key to the point being made here.
Pike Bishop: What would you do in his place? He gave his word.
Dutch Engstrom: He gave his word to a railroad.
Pike Bishop: It’s his word.
Dutch Engstrom: That ain’t what counts! It’s who you give it *to*!
The final walk to the confrontation to rescue their captured friend is a moment of macho swagger that was added at the last minute but has survived for an eternity since then.  If you think the line walking, laid back attitude of the hoods in “Reservoir Dogs” is cool, take a look at this image and remember that what follows was the most bloody and controversial moment of violence ever shown in a mainstream film up to that time.

Part two of our post today is almost a mirror image of the story from “The Wild Bunch”. We still have two main outlaws who trade philosophical dialogue, they are part of a dying breed and time, and they are pursued by a relentless posse. In the reverse image however, the stars are not hardened aging men but handsome  young guys. The posse is not made up of ragged scum but rather well trained professionals who are dedicated and law abiding. Instead of masculine posing we get a light hearted bromance with a dash of clever adventure thrown in.


Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” is an Academy Award winning script by the talented and prolific William Goldman. It has the advantage of mostly being true. The lives of the real outlaws were very much as depicted in the film. The romantic interest played by Katherine Ross was a real but unidentified woman and the “Whole in the Wall Gang”  (in real life referred to as The Wild Bunch) did exist and carried out robberies of trains and banks across the west. The end of the story in real life took place in Bolivia, just as it was located in the film.
Unlike “The Wild Bunch”, most of “Butch Cassidy” is charming rather than grim. Butch appears to be able to talk himself out of having to resort to violence most of the time. His cleverness becomes a running gag because his plans often are fouled up despite how intelligent they seem to be. He literally cannot believe that the posse can keep following them after a half dozen tricks he uses to throw them off the track. The famous scene of Newman and Redford jumping off the cliff is a result of necessity when his ingenuity leaves Butch and Sundance with no alternative.


There is a lot of humor in the film. As the characters migrate to South America, they struggle with the language differences and resort to using crib notes when holding up a bank. In order to throw off pursuers, they take legitamate jobs as payroll guards but are mocked by their employer for being so alert and trigger happy before there is any payroll for them to guard. Strother Martin appears once again, as the mining engineer Percy Garris, who hires the two to watch his back in retrieving the payroll for the mining operation. His character is also based on a real life acquaintance of the two outlaws.
The chemistry between the two leads was so strong, and the work that they did with director George Roy Hill so successful, that the three of them teamed up again just a few years later for the Academy Best Picture of 1973 “The Sting”.  Hill also worked separately with each of the stars in later films (including the greatest sports movie ever “Slap Shot”). When you hear the phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts” it might be hard to believe about this movie since so many elements were there to start with. Casting was right, the chemistry of the actors was wonderful and the story is delightfully told, but small touches and luck often elevate the film above its audience pleasing front. The montage of photos showing the three principles stopping off in New York before boarding a boat to South America, was created by invention when the film makers were denied the ability to shoot on the neighboring sets of “Hello Dolly”.  So the actors posed for still shots on those sets and the photos were mixed with actual shots of New York at the end of the 19th century.
There are a lot of modern film goers who don’t seem interested in westerns. This is the western made for them. The plot is not based on a traditional showdown between the good guys and the bad guys, there are no Indian sub-plots, and the movie is funny as all get out. It is difficult to imagine a more mainstream film that will satisfy non-traditionalists as much as this movie does.


If you don’t mind the traditional or the sentimental, then the last of our 1969 treats is a good way to finish up. Western fans all need to acknowledge that the King of the genre was John Wayne. For nearly fifty years, the Duke was the star of countless classic western adventure stories. The list of his films includes the star making “Stagecoach”, the amazing and somber “The Searchers” , the deconstructionist “The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance” and the elegy “The Shootist”.  Wayne earned his long overdue and only Academy Award for this Hal Wallis production.
Most of you have probably seen the Coen Brothers version of “True Grit”. While the Coens dismiss the idea that their version is a re-make, it has the same plot line and character arc from the book it is based on as this one does. The difference is that their film is a lot less sentimental and Rooster Cogburn is not nearly as charming, although he still has grit. I love both versions of the film but being an old guy, John Wayne is going to be my favorite.


There are several wonderful scenes that have much of the same arcane dialect found in the Coen film. There are also some amazing character actors in the film that should be noticed. Robert Duvall was not a star at this point, and he plays Ned Pepper as an ornery crook without much charm. His defiance of the Marshall at the end leads to that great showdown on horseback that everyone probably knows:
Ned Pepper: What’s your intention? Do you think one on four is a dogfall?
Rooster Cogburn: I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned. Or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker’s convenience. Which’ll it be?
Ned Pepper: I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man.
Rooster Cogburn: Fill your hands, you son of a bitch!

True Grit (1969)

Jeff Corey was a familiar face playing Tom Chaney, the man that Mattie Ross is pursuing. He was a well known acting teacher in the Hollywood film community. Also present in a small role was the unlikely Dennis Hopper. He spent more than a decade playing small parts on film and television, he even worked with Wayne once before on the “Sons of Katie Elder”.  This film came out the same year he broke out with his directing and starring triumph “Easy Rider”.  Talk about a pair of opposing films. “True Grit” is a western from an old studio and a producer who was legendary since the thirties. “Easy Rider” was a rejection of almost all that was standard in film making and it’s loose narrative, freeform shooting style and heroic drug dealers were the antithesis of just about every convention that this John Wayne picture represents.
It is also fitting to note that once again, Strother Martin appears in a 1969 western. This time he is Col. Stonehill, the horse trading merchant that Mattie Ross trades barbs with as she prepares to follow the two lawmen in pursuit of Tom Chaney.

True Grit (1969)

Mattie Ross: Do you know a Marshal Rooster Cogburn?
Col. G. Stonehill: Most people around here have heard of Rooster Cogburn and some people live to regret it. I would not be surprised to learn that he’s a relative of yours.

Martin completes this triple play of western roles with a third, completely different characterization. He delivers the lines with exactly the tone required to get that Charles Portis dialogue to crackle.
Late in the picture John Fiedler shows up as Lawyer Dagget, a name Mattie has bandied about like a Colt six shooter and he is nothing that anyone would have expected. Looking at IMDB, it seems Wilfred Brimley has an uncredited role in the film as well. One of the great joys in westerns are the supporting performances that help make a story more interesting and realistic. It is not always the Sheriff facing down the bad guy in the last reel that makes the film work. All three of these films have unconventional stories, great supporting performers and completely different voices in describing the western experience. Whether you prefer the gritty violence of “The Wild Bunch”, the romantic nostalgia of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, or the sentimental traditional western take of “True Grit”, it was clear that 1969 was stocked full of western movies that everyone should see.

Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.

Top Ten List for My Birthday #8

I have been writing this blog for over ten years now, and I have resisted putting up a list of my favorite films for that whole time. As the Borg say “Resistance is Futile!” 

This year I am marking another year in my sixth decade of life. I did several birthday posts in the past and enjoyed them immensely. The last two years my heart has just not been into it. This year however, I am trying to push my way back into normalcy, but I don’t have the energy to generate 63 things for a list. So what I am going to do is a ten day countdown of my favorite films.

Every year when I have posted a top ten list, I always point out that it is a combination of quality and subjective enjoyment that creates that list. Those are the guiding principles here as well. I will not claim that these are the ten greatest movies ever made, although I know several of them would be deserving of a spot on such a list. Instead, these are my ten favorite films as it stands at the moment. In a month, I could reconsider or remember something that I have tragically left off the list, but for this moment here is how they rank.

#8   2001: A Space Odyssey

Since the first time I saw this film when I was just ten years old, it has burned brightly in my mind. The fact that I saw this with my family at a young age is surprising, since it is not the kind of film my folks would probably like. My father had a friend who was a projectionist and he worked at many of the big movie palaces in Hollywood back in the 60s. We saw this at the Pantages Theater at my father’s friends invitation, and the precocious kid that I was, thought he understood it.

Viewing the film many more times over the years, I have grown to understand how the film can be processed by the viewer in many different ways. It is speculative history, prescient science fiction, horror film and spiritual journey all wrapped up in an enigma that pleases me each time.

The most overwhelming aspect of the film is it’s visual accomplishments. Stanley Kubrick is considered by many to be the greatest film director ever, but the only Academy Award he ever received was for the visual effects in this movie. That seems appropriate because he set the standard and inspired the visual artists who have followed and everyone working in those fields today owes a debt to this groundbreaking visionary. His story telling style is not for everyone. My wife and daughter often have reservations about his films (my love loathed Clockwork Orange). His pacing and the acting styles often result in an impression of cold detachment, but that is the perfect atmosphere for this movie.

Music and sound have as much to do with the impact this movie will have on audiences as the story itself. Kubrick famously dropped the score he had commissioned for the movie by Alex North, and replaced it with carefully selected source music that today is inseparable from the films visual images. This is not a film that I make an annual event, like many of the other films on this list, but when I do watch it, it is with a degree of focus and attention that I rarely devote to other movies. This is a masterpiece that you can find in the brushstrokes of film directing and Kubrick clear is the master. 

 Previous Posts on 2001

2001 A Space Odyssey  

Top Ten List for My Birthday # 9

 I have been writing this blog for over ten years now, and I have resisted putting up a list of my favorite films for that whole time. As the Borg say “Resistance is Futile!” 

This year I am marking another year in my sixth decade of life. I did several birthday posts in the past and enjoyed them immensely. The last two years my heart has just not been into it. This year however, I am trying to push my way back into normalcy, but I don’t have the energy to generate 63 things for a list. So what I am going to do is a ten day countdown of my favorite films.

Every year when I have posted a top ten list, I always point out that it is a combination of quality and subjective enjoyment that creates that list. Those are the guiding principles here as well. I will not claim that these are the ten greatest movies ever made, although I know several of them would be deserving of a spot on such a list. Instead, these are my ten favorite films as it stands at the moment. In a month, I could reconsider or remember something that I have tragically left off the list, but for this moment here is how they rank.

#9  Once Upon a Time in the West

I love John Wayne and Clint Eastwood and Gary Cooper and a dozen other stars of the Western Genre. It just so happens however that my favorite western isn’t directed by John Ford, Don Siegal or even the accomplished western director Eastwood . It comes from Clint’s collaborator and directing mentor Sergio Leone, but it does not star Eastwood. Instead, it features another tough guy actor who has a face as iconic as Wayne’s voice or Clint’s stare, Charles Bronson. It is also a western of the Italian variety, though populated with American actors, and it is directed by Leone himself. 

To some degree Leone follows the template he set up in “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly”. We have three primary characters that we are following. Two anti-heroes and one very bad man. The most unique thing about the film cast is that this bad man is played by an actor who is famous for portraying decent men on screen, Hollywood Legend Henry Fonda. The character of Frank is an irredeemable murderer who shows a sadistic side as he kills most of his victims in this story. Jason Robards is Cheyenne, a desperado, known to lead a gang of robbers, who turns out to have some interesting and maybe noble characteristics. Bronson is the mysterious stranger known only as “Harmonica”, who is set on a path of vengeance that crosses with the other two. 

With a music score by maestro Morricone, it is amazing that the most impressive scene in the film is the opening lead up to a shootout, that features no music but rather just ambient noise to build the tension. In this ten to fifteen minute segment, film students will learn all of Leone’s tricks of the trade. There are sweaty close ups, silent stares, long pauses and lighting that makes the environment in which the scene takes place, into another character. 

Leone is widely loved for the “man with No Name” trilogy, but this is a movie that is art. It is richer in character and setting than Good,Bad,Ugly , and it is more morally ambiguous and splendidly detailed than any other film he made. 

Previous Posts on Once Upon A Time in the West
Once Upon A Time in the West

Top Ten List for My Birthday #10

 I have been writing this blog for over ten years now, and I have resisted putting up a list of my favorite films for that whole time. As the Borg say “Resistance is Futile!” 

This year I am marking another year in my sixth decade of life. I did several birthday posts in the past and enjoyed them immensely. The last two years my heart has just not been into it. This year however, I am trying to push my way back into normalcy, but I don’t have the energy to generate 63 things for a list. So what I am going to do is a ten day countdown of my favorite films.

Every year when I have posted a top ten list, I always point out that it is a combination of quality and subjective enjoyment that creates that list. Those are the guiding principles here as well. I will not claim that these are the ten greatest movies ever made, although I know several of them would be deserving of a spot on such a list. Instead, these are my ten favorite films as it stands at the moment. In a month, I could reconsider or remember something that I have tragically left off the list, but for this moment here is how they rank.

#10  Goldfinger (1964)

There may be bigger James Bond Fans out there than me, but I have yet to meet one in the flesh. Since I was six years old, the idea of 007 has been in my head. The first Bond films I saw were the first four that were made, and that was enough to imprint on me for a lifetime. 

Other Bond films may have more spectacular stunts, or complex plots, or may be speaking to our times in some way that is important, but no 007 film has had the power that Goldfinger has had, both on me and the world we live in. 

The plot of the movie is pretty simple, James Bond must stop a raid on Fort Knox. The process of discovering the plot and meeting the antagonist tales up the first third of the movie, and it introduces us to some of the most iconic elements of all the James Bond Films. The AstonMartin DB 5 is introduced in this film. The dangerous henchman became a trope as a result of Odd Job as seen in this movie. After the famous line where Bond introduces himself, the one quote that most people can recall from a Bond film is Goldfinger’s retort to Bond when asked if he expected 007 to talk, “No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.”

Shirley Eaton sprawled on the bed in gold paint, Shirley Bassey belting out the theme song and Sean Connery at the apex of his time as 007, complete the significance of this film on my list. It is the Bond film I have seen the most, and I think you will discover that most 007 fans see it as the best of the franchise. Who am I to deny this type of acclaim? Why would I want to? Goldfinger is cinematic perfection. 

Previous Posts on Goldfinger

A Double O Blast from the Past  

007 Double Feature at the Egyptian Theater  

007 Countdown: Goldfinger  

Countdown to Skyfall Part Six  

the little things

Crime procedurals are a dime a dozen on television. In forty minutes we can get a set up, surprise reveals, a fake lead, a new piece of evidence and the case wrapped up with a soul searching song over the titles. So why do we need a movie like this? There are a couple of reasons and they start with the main leads. You have three good actors who can make the story work without feeling as if you are being rushed through things. These three men bring something to the table that you will not get in episodic television.

The main star is Denzel Washington, who adds gravitas just by showing up. Of course Denzel never just shows up, he invests himself in his roles. Here he is playing a pretty conventional character, the world weary detective who is burned out by the years of exposure to the horrors of the world. Writer/director John Lee Hancock adds an ambiguous backstory to layer the morality of Officer Joe Deacon’s mission. On the same track but many years behind, hotshot homicide detective Jimmy Baxter overlooks the warnings he gets from former colleagues of Deacon’s, in order to get a handle on a case that has him stymied.  Rami Malek is all wide-eyed intensity as he starts to see the case from the old timer’s perspective. The third side of the triangle is provided by a suspect, who screams his guilt without ever providing any evidence. The way Jared Leto smirks as Albert Sparma, the suspect who denies killing anyone but acts as if he knows everything about what is happening, make you want to punch the character yourself.

Our story opens with a crime being executed but blocked along the way. That sequence is suspenseful and pulls us in, but in the big picture it has little to do with the main process. It comes up at one point, mainly as another complication for the investigators rather than a piece of the puzzle that will answer their key questions. That sort of thing is the main thrust of the story. Lots of little things point to the involvement of the subject,  but all of them leave the case short of a definitive outcome. The leads are not false, they simply stop short and that is what is driving the two investigators to the edge.

There is a turn, with the last act, that requires a huge suspension of disbelief. Up to that point, there were plenty of standard moments to draw us in, point at guilt, and start to care about the characters and their past and future selves. However, when the plot device shows up, it smacks us in the face to remind us that this is a work of fiction. Characters can be made to do something that any rational person would know is not a good thing. The trap has been set but I did not think that the need of the target had been built up enough to go for the bait that was being offered. If we decide to go along with what occurs, the movie ultimately works at fleshing out the moral struggle of the police officers. If we keep thinking about what happened and we can’t accept it, the whole thing falls apart. I was willing to accept it but it did diminish the film in my eyes and I wish the resolution could have been arrived at without resorting to the theatrics of that last plot deviceAs in all films of this type, the “criminal” is smarter than he would ever be in real life. The politics of the police department are impenetrable. The main detectives are flawed in ways that undermine their position but also makes them good cops.  Once again, my hometown of Los Angeles, provides an atmospheric background for the story, with assists from Kern county, Ventura, and one wordless shot at an Alhambra restaurant, that fills a modern story (one set in 1990) with depression era noir tones.  In the process of baking this, the cake fell and it doesn’t come out as well as it should, it is however still tasty.

Run Hide Fight

I will let others get involved if they want with the genesis of this movie. I don’t care where it came from, I only know that it is a terrifically tense thriller that seems appropriate for the times. Inevitably it will be compared to “Die Hard”, but that’s OK because the hero in the movie is a lot like John McClane. She is reluctant but resolved. She pushes herself and does so while recognizing the punishment she has to go through. There is an emotional epiphany for her that is prompted by her circumstances but needed to be arrived at regardless of the trigger. Zoe Hull may not have the wise cracking persona of Lt. McClane, but she does have the spirit of defiance and the recognition that even though the people she is trying to protect are not all her favorites, they deserve to have someone on their side. 

The scenario is simple, which is one of the reasons the story works. A school shooting has started and depressed senior Zoe is caught in the middle of the events. Isabel May plays Zoe, a girl who is in denial of how much her grief at the loss of her mother to cancer recently, is poisoning. her life. The relationship she has with her father, a gruff but loving Thomas Jane, is being tested by her recalcitrance. He has tried to teach her basic skills, including hunting, which might be appropriate for a girl growing up in a farming community in Indiana. Her best friend Lewis, has deeper feelings toward her but she puts up a defensive wall that makes warmth difficult. There are teachers concerned enough to make an effort to reach out to her, but they too are rebuffed. It is the sudden striking act of violence that begins to awaken her to what she may be losing out on. 

The movie is not for the faint of heart. It opens with a scene that features hunting and the reality of that activity is not really minimized. Some might question it’s inclusion but it is needed to show Zoe is capable of taking a violent action herself, and it also sets up a payoff that we will see coming later on. The takeover of the school cafeteria and the ensuing execution of students is even more brutal. It is not glamorized or played just for gore. The four perpetrators are shown to be  merciless and indiscriminate in their dealing out instant death. In older style movies, some measure of hesitation might be shown by the gang of misanthropes, but here it is casual without consideration of consequences or emotions.  The lack of character background for the victims is mostly a function of story efficiency rather than weak writing. This is not a disaster film where we are hanging on the edge of our seats praying for characters we have come to love. Instead we are shown more about the culture than the individuals, because these school shooters are millennial bumps with social media as their primary teacher. 

The leader of this troop of monsters is Tristan Voy, a school misfit played by Eli Brown. He certainly does not have the charisma of Hans Gruber, but in these circumstances, he does stand out as a villain worth of our hate. Ultimately, the satisfaction we derive from having a revenge fueled action picture like this, is proportionate to the degree of loathing we have for the main antagonist.  Tristan’s casual indifference to the emotions of his classmates, along with the capricious decisions about when and who to kill are probably enough to justify our eventual reactions. He is however shown to be  a sociopath in a couple of other ways, including the humiliation of the principal, the Spanish teacher and the security guard. His manipulation of the other three attackers is also going to give us some reasons to loath him. Social media fame fuels his narcistic ego, but it also makes the community of viewers accomplices to the horror that we are witnessing. 

The title of the film actually comes from the simple training that students are given in real classrooms today. Because an active shooter incident is such a noticeable event, despite it’s remote possibility, schools now require student training. My last three years in the classroom required an annual lockdown exercise, that included the paraphrase of directions, first run if you can, second hide if needed, and finally fight if you must. It is the transition from running to fighting that forms the story arc for Zoe. She has an internal monologue with her Mother, and Mom gives her the advice and encouragement she already knows she needs to follow. Zoe’s acts of heroism and resistance, undermine Tristan’s goals, not just the plan. So while he and Zoe do not share the repartee that John McClane and Hans Gruber did, we can see why she would be such an annoyance to him. 

The nature of the training and the procedures become a tool for the shooters. School administrations are tied up in policies. Teachers are reluctant to change from the established procedure, even when an alternative is called for, and of course students are responding emotionally to what is happening to them. Lewis does not become a pivotal player because of his actions, but rather his social media. Zoe rediscovers her empathy and that helps her manage a problem and turn it into a tool to her benefit. The climax of the picture does involve some of the movie make believe that all such stories require. Dad’s reemergence into the story, and Zoe’s suddenly strong peripheral vision are shortcuts to the end, but the intervening tension has been more than sufficient to forgive some of that.  

The movie does have things to say about our culture and the schools. The police do not come in for the criticism they might deserve after the incident a couple of years ago in Florida. The police chief played by veteran actor Treat Williams, is a sympathetic character who hates being forced to operate in the conditions that are presented, but he does manage to find a way to adapt. The news media also gets a bit of a shellacking for the emphasis on the sensational that drives their coverage. So this is another beat lifted from “Die Hard” which is moderated a bit but still relevant. 

In summary, this is a violent action thriller that takes pride in the difference one person can make.  It understands the ambivalence many students have to their high school experience, but also how important some of those experiences can be in building us as people. Best of all, it provides the action and emotion beats that a thriller like this needs to keep an audience glued to the seat. I really liked it. 

2020 Wrap Up/ Best Of

I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know when I say the Movie Year of 2020 was insane and disappointing. As it became clear in early March, theaters were going to be closed. Overseas markets had been cut off, and a string of dominos fell, pushing back the most anticipated films that had been scheduled for the year. Some studios thought a few weeks or months would be enough, and then they discovered the pandemic was not abating. So they pushed back again, and the holiday season looked ripe to save studio box office from the worst case scenario, sorry again. 

Most of the big films rolled back to 2021, and we are still in a wait and see formation. Disney did get Mulan on to PPV and seems to have done alright. Warner Brothers decided to dip their toe in the water with a day and date release of Wonder Woman 1984 on their Streaming Service for no extra charge, and a theatrical release. Then, Warner’s jumped in head first by planning to do the same thing with their entire 2021 schedule. Disney followed by putting Soul on Disney Plus without any extra fee. 

Plenty of films skipped their planned release and went straight to  Netflix or Prime or other streamers, confusing theatrical with television and making the distinction meaningless for the Academy Awards. Oh yeah, the Awards season got extended and who knows what is going to happen with all the other film award shows. 

This site is primarily dedicated to theatrical releases, with an occasional exception. Usually that exception is a retrospective series or a unique film that is not widely available. I have been based in the Southern California area for most of this site’s history, and Theaters in Southern California have remained closed since March. I relocated to Texas in August and theaters here are open but the pickings have been slim. As a result, my traditional Top Ten is going to be contracted and modified to reflect the times. I have four top five lists for you, and they are based on a selection of films that is a quarter of my usual annual consumption, (This is especially true for theatrical release).

So here are the lists I have for you, such as they are.

Five Favorite Theatrical Releases of 2020

5. The Personal History of David Copperfield

I thought this was a delightful re-imaging of the Dicken’s classic story. The conceit is that the movie is made with a color blind cast and contains a number of whimsical images to make the story a little more lively and modern. 
The talented Dev Patel plays David and the host of British actors who are dragooned from television and other films made by the director Armando Iannucci , is long and impressive. This was a small film that benefits from great production values and a good sense of imagination.

4.  Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in his Own Words

For some of you, this might be a controversial choice. Justice Thomas is reviled by many on the left side of the political spectrum, but this is a movie not a political ad. Clarence Thomas has a fascinating personal history and his selection for the high court produced a dramatic historical event.
His judicial philosophy is outlined in solid detail. You don’t have to agree with it but if you listen, you will understand it more completely.  The structure of this film is pretty standard, but it has the benefit of being told through his writings, interviews and historical record. It is not groundbreaking but it is intelligent.

3.  The Broken Hearts Gallery

This was a little romantic comedy that I happened upon back in October. It played in theaters and that was the main reason I saw it, because it afforded me a chance to get out and support movie theaters in their time of crisis. Imagine my surprise at how much fun it was.
I thought the casting was a little unconventional, and the story idea at the heart of the premise is one of those things that can only happen in movies set in New York, but still it caught my fancy. It delivers on the two things you wan from a rom-com, laughs and heart. Probably not an awards contender but you will be happy you saw it. 

2.  Onward

The last major film release before everything went down, “Onward” was also the subject of a Lambcast which explored the film in depth. Probably not as widely anticipated as Pixar’s other 2020 release “Soul”, but a quite respectable outing for the animation giant. The twist here is that fantasy creatures live in a world where magic has vanished and their daily existence is not too different than you would fins in a first world suburban community.
It starts off as if it is a father-son story, but it will slowly dawn on you that a different relationship is the key to the heart of the movie. Not all the story elements work but as usual, the voice cast is top notch and the visual design is stellar. A week after it opened, theaters were closing and it jumped to Disney Plus immediately. 
1. The Gentlemen

This is a typical Guy Ritchie crime film. Which is pretty much all I needed to get me into a theater in January. The fact that the cast is diverse and ultimately brilliant is a cherry on top. This convoluted plot circles around a marijuana kingpin, in the middle of a transaction to sell his business. There are plots within plots and you get a gruesome bit of comedic violence every few minutes. As has become standard for the genre, the movie is told in a non-linear format and partially through narration
Hugh Grant, who has never been nominated for an Academy Award, shows again that comedy performances are ignored by the snobs at the Academy, not because the work is sub-par. If you have liked Ritchie’s previous films, this one should be up your alley. Colin Farrell deserves to stand  next to Grant at the Awards platform this year. 

Five Favorite 2020 Releases Not in Cinemas
Plenty of critics and other bloggers will be able to fill a top ten list because they don’t exclude films from consideration when that have not been released theatrically. I however, have attempted to keep this blog focused on cinema experience. That said, I did see some films streaming that would be contenders for my own personal list, so I have created a separate category for them so that you can enjoy as well.
5.   Lost Girls

The harrowing true story of a mother fighting police incompetence in order to find her missing daughter. Along the way, a horrifying discover is made in spite of the oblivious authorities.  Amy Ryan is fierce and sad in the starring role, which has no glamour or hope attached to it.

4.   Emma

My daughter is a Jane Austen fanatic, and we would have gone to see this together except that she moved to Texas a few months before me. As it was, she saw this in a theater and I watched it with her a few weeks later on a video chat when we had the digital version to share. I don’t know that the 1996 version needed to be improved upon, except this version features Bill Nighy and that is enough justification for me. 

3.   The Trial of the Chicago 7

Aaron Sorkin directs from a script that he wrote. The fact that many of the pieces of dialogue from the courtroom scenes come from the transcript of the trial and not Sorkin’s pen is remarkable. This was a controversial moment from fifty years ago. There is an implication that it was a political moment but what really transpired is a piece of insanity, inspired by another piece of insanity, which was responding to the a first piece of insanity. A litany of great performances. 

2. Host

This was MOTM on the Lambcast in October. A Halloween Horror film for a Zoom bound world. A low budget film, put together in a short amount of time, with the stars of the film staying socially distant and recording their own parts to be assembled by the director. It sounds like a disaster, instead, it is plenty scary and very entertaining. Even better, it’s just an hour. 

1.   Soul

Knocked out of  prime real estate in June, banished to Streaming at Christmas, this was my pick in the box office draft a year ago, oh those were the days. Pixar might be accused of repeating itself because there are similarities to “Inside/Out” in this film. If you are not a fan of that movie, don’t worry, the annoying parts and sanctimonious tone are largely missing. Instead we get some great music, a different lesson and some characters that deserve to be remembered. Another Pixar Home Run.  

Because I was limited on the number of new releases to review this year, I thought I would toss in a couple of bonus lists for you. First up are some film releases from years past, that I am finally catching up with. 
Because I keep a list on Letterbxd of all the movies I watch during the year, I can provide you with a statistical breakdown of films watched by decade.

The seventies and the 2010s took up a lot of space. Many of the things I watched were not new to me but comfortable rewatches of old friends. Of the things that were new to me, here are five favorites.

Five Favorite New To Me Films this Year
5. They Live By Night

This noir style classic is a film I have heard about for years. So much so that I believed I had already seen it. While it was running I came to the realization that I had it confused with another older film and that this was brand new to me. Nicholas Ray directs this sad and taut film about a prison escapee who is overwhelmed by his circumstances but tries to find a way to stay in love with a girl who helped hi,

4.  Fighting With My Family

I have never been a fan of wrestling but I know that the world is full of people who are. This tells a true story about a woman wrestler who finds her way from a small town matches in Britain to the WWE, It stars Florence Pugh in a role entirely different from her turn in last year’s “Little Women”. I enjoyed it a lot. Oh, and it features Vince Vaughn who is in both of my next two favorites in this category. I guess I’m a fan.

3.  Dragged Across Concrete

As far as I can tell, this never had a major cinema release, so that may be why I did not see it until I was on Lockdown looking at steaming to feed my movie fix. Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn are cops with some problems that lead them into unfamiliar territory, mostly because they are good at doing their jobs, and that might include cutting corners occasionally. It ends with a bloody shootout that is an appropriate climax.

2. Brawl in Cell Block 99

Vince Vaughn again, and this is directed by the same guy who brought us “Dragged Across Concrete”, S. Craig Zahler. He made a slow but great bloody western with Kurt Russell a few years ago called “Bone Tomahawk”. I must be a fan because I really have liked all three of the movies he has directed. This one is brutal, let me repeat that BRUTAL, It is not for the faint of heart. It builds to a climax and creates a compelling character in Vaughn’s small time criminal who has lines he will not cross. 

1. The Man Who Invented Christmas

Have you seen every version of a Christmas Carol that has ever been made? Do you know the story backwards and forwards? If the answer to those questions is yes, this is a film for you. A fictionalized account of the writing process that Dickens went through in putting together this most treasured of his stories. Internal monologues mix with dramatic incidents and Christopher Plummer is a Scrooge for your imagination. This was my favorite discovery this holiday season. 

To finish up, I have five theatrical screenings of old classics that I can share with you. Normally, I would have a couple of dozen because I haunt the Fathom Events films, attend the TCM Classic Film Festival and have been a member of the American Cinematique. Closed theaters, cancelled festivals and a move to Texas have altered that this year, but here are some gems. [I excluded Jaws and Lawrence of Arabia because they are repeat pilgrimages]
Classic Screenings

Jurassic Park was special because it signified a return to theaters after the lockdown. It was the first film I saw when I got to Texas and the theaters were open under Socially Distant Guidelines. It was far too long for me and I was happy to just be sitting in a theater.

John Carpenter’s “The Thing” is one of our go to Halloween films and it’s practical effects hold up and make the movie scary as f*@k. My first Alamo Drafthouse film since becoming a Texas resident.

The “Evil Dead” experience was a Halloween Day film. We went to a special screening at a classic movie palace in downtown Austin, and we got a meet and greet picture with Bruce Campbell before the show and his fantastic talk before the movie. 

The Last of Sheila” was a presentation by the Cinematique at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, a year ago. A great movie, a great talk and one of the few things I will miss about California these days.

The last film I saw in a theater before everything closed up, was not some comic book blockbuster or animated Pixar treasure, it was an 87 year old, Black and White classic. King Kong leaves me in awe every time, in spite of some of the creaky 1933 trappings, it completely sucks me in. The day after I saw this, everything closed across the country. Fortunately this left me on a high. 

Monster Hunter

Frankly, there is not a lot to say about the film. It has no subtext, the acting is in service of the action not really the characters, and the action is from Paul W,S. Anderson, who has been making this kind of movie for a long time so he knows his way around this stuff. The only hook I have for potential fans is my own nostalgia for movies like this and I will get into that in a moment.

The story does not spend anytime explaining what is going on. It drops us into a mission, transports us to another dimension and starts throwing monsters at us pretty damn quickly. No one will be surprised that Milla Jovovitch’s character, Captain Artemis, ends up as the one real survivor of the opening half hour. The other characters are so thinly drawn that you can see it coming immediately. What does work in the movie is a long sequence where she combats and collaborates with a true resident of this world, Tony Jaa, a martial arts movie star that you will recognize if you like those kinds of films. Their initial interactions are full of hand to hand combat and the sort of action work you would find in Anderson’s other movies.

The process by which the two become allied is reminiscent of a number of other films, the first that come to mind is “Enemy Mine”. My nostalgia radar was going off very early, thinking of one of my favorite childhood movies “The Mysterious Island” from 1961, but also some cheesy 1970s films starring Doug McClure, “At the Earth’s Core” and  “The Land That Time Forgot”.  Basically a group of outsiders gets plopped down in an alien environment and gets attacked by monsters. Edgar Rice Burroughs should have received a story credit on this movie.

“Monster Hunter” is a brisk time waster that will go down well on a rainy Saturday afternoon, but it is not especially good. The design of the monsters is fun and a little confounding. Since this review is mostly name dropping of other films, I will throw in “Starship Troopers”. When you see the night crawling nest of creatures after Artemis and the Hunter, you will understand why that reference is relevant.   I’m not sure why a sailing ship crossing a desert works visually, but in the opening sequence it does, inspite of the fact that it is confusing. When you notice that the Captain of the ship is played by Ron Pearlman, yo will not at all be surprised that those images come back later in the film.

For me, the main reason to see this is that it is playing exclusively in theaters now, and dammit, I am on a personal crusade to try and sustain movie theaters until things get back to something more normal. If we don’t try, they will all give up and we will be left alone in our living rooms. That is a monster that I am hunting.