Hobbs and Shaw

Remember how much backlash there was to the last Pierce Brosnan Bond film?  You know the one with the surfing and parasailing ski sequence and let’s not forget the invisible car. People moaned so much about those elements that they dumped Pierce, rebooted the whole 007 series and went back to basics as much as possible. Now imagine that the producers had ignored fan grousing and only paid attention to the box office, after all “Die Another Day” was a huge success. The result would have been a series of films that got more outlandish and cartoon like  and the series would simply be a mechanical assembly of parts to pick our pockets every few years. That’s basically what happened with the “Fast and Furious” series. “Hobbs and Shaw” is a road runner cartoon without the plot.

Both Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson are charismatic action stars who remain able to open a movie on their own. This team up is a spin off of the “Fast and Furious” films where their characters have basically established a tenuous working relationship but a terrible personal relationship. In other words, they were ripe for a bickering buddy comedy, so hear it is. This film could have been quite successful just putting the two of them in a car, plane or locked room together and let them verbally and physically battle it out. That however would be too subtle for this series. When you are making a deep fried Twinkie, you might as well dip it in chocolate, dust it with powdered sugar, add some sprinkles and then provide some whipped cream to dip it in as you are consuming it. There is nothing that is off the table in these movies and if you are in the mood to over indulge in CGI mayhem, hokey plot twists and some scenery chewing performances, then this is a movie for you.

The chase scene through London in the early part of the film is a good example of this excess. The Maclaren that our duo are using to escape the bad guys is instantaneously able to turn without skidding, hit the perfect speed in a bit of cross traffic and generally out perform the Batmobile on city streets. It is pursed by a magic motorcycle that can levitate, defy the concept of inertia and survive collisions that would disable a military vehicle weighting a hundred times as much. Later in the movie there is a vehicle that does a 360 degree rotation in mid-air. Even though the Bond film ruined their stunt with a pipe whistle effect, you could see that it was real and impressive. In this film, it is simply one more CGI moment to stack on the pyre. By the time the climax shows up, we are already overstuffed with these visual confections and the resolution means much less. You have to suspend disbelief and common sense to enjoy this stuff. If you are willing, then go for it.

On a side note, like many other films of the last few years, there are a number of sequences that take place over the credits, mid-credits and at the end of the credits.  People, if you are holding your bladders to get through something in the middle of this film without missing anything, you are defeating your purpose when you leave your trash in the aisle and rush out of the theater with the commencement of the closing music.  You won’t be missing anything essential, but you would not have missed anything essential an hour earlier if you visited the loo then. There are some very amusing moments in those last minute appearances of our characters, why skip a good joke? To get to the parking lot five minutes earlier? It makes no sense. Maybe a dozen people out of the couple hundred in the theater stuck it out for those bits. People, you paid for this and you are leaving product on the plate uneaten. Shame on you.

You could rightly describe the first “Fast and Furious” as “Point Break” with cars. “Hobbs and Shaw” is “Lethal Weapon, 2, 3 and 4” with spies instead of cops. If it’s hot where you live and the local cinema has good air conditioning, this is perfectly satisfactory. Maybe the best part however is next winter, when you are channel surfing and this is on, you can watch it again and it will feel like a new experience because there was nothing notable about it the first time around.

Once Upon A Time in Hollywood

I came to this film with the highest of expectations. It was my most anticipated film of this year, the trailer is fantastic and it covers a period of time that I lived through and remember. The subject of the movie is Hollywood itself and it’s made by Quentin Tarantino. Through the roof were my hopes for the film. Let me preface my more in-depth comments by saying first that I loved the movie, but in total, there are issues and my expectations may have hindered some of my reaction to the movie in both positive and negative ways. As always, this is a personal reflection of how I saw the elements coming together, your mileage may vary.

The best thing you can do for yourself in seeing this film is not to read anything about it beforehand. I’m not simply talking about spoilers, I’m really referring to the impressions that people will have and the surprise that comes from the discovery of what this movie really is. I stayed away from every review and every press release about the movie. It was impossible to avoid some things but I lucked out in that no one revealed how this movie really develops. This is a warning: While I will avoid spoilers, to discuss this film requires that certain concepts be explained and that may inhibit your own reaction to the movie. Proceed with caution or come back after you have seen it.

Tarantino makes movies that are a little bit like a buffet. There are dozens of things to choose from when you want to focus on them, but if you don’t have a plan, you may miss something important, or worse, you can mix dessert choices that simply don’t pair well. From my point of view, he has lingered over some aspects of the film too long and not offered a main course that is fully satisfying. However, the side dishes are solid and the main confection that comes at the end of the story makes the whole thing worth taking in. I notice that many of the people I follow have done rankings of the Tarantino catalog as part of the process of discussing the movie and it seems fitting to offer a little bit of insight in that direction here. Without giving you a complete nine film ranking, I can say that this movie is better in my opinion than “The Hateful Eight” and “Deathproof” but it does not quite scale the heights of “Pulp Fiction” or “Inglorious Basterds”. So that may be an indicator of my tastes and a way for you to measure the film as a consequence.

The three main actors all are terrific but the standout for me is Brad Pitt. As Cliff Booth, the stunt double/gofer to DiCaprio’s Western TV Star Rick Dalton, Pitt gets to be amused, sardonic, detached and invested in a lot of different scenes. His back story is completely unnecessary to the plot but as a character point it is interesting. Which is exactly the kind of thing that Tarantino adds to his stories all of the time. The existence of the scene where he faces off against Bruce Lee only means something at the end of the movie and that may be one of those points that you can see coming and that I am hesitant to get into too much detail about. The same is true of his home life with his pit bull Brandy. There will be a payoff down the road and we can see that something is coming but we don’t know exactly what. Brad Pitt’s best scene however may be a long sequence at the Spahn Ranch, where he encounters something that makes him extremely suspicious and sets up another pay off later on. Although there is a dialogue with two central characters in the sequence, it is really just his facial expressions and general demeanor that makes Pitt sparkle in these scenes.

DiCaprio has a less flashy role here than he did in “Django Unchained“, his previous film with Tarantino. His best moments are on the set of a television show he is guesting on, with a conversation between himself and a young actor (because the word actress is meaningless) and also a conversation he has with himself. In previous films by Tarantino, there is a heavy emphasis on language and conversation. Jules and Vincent are compelling because of the way they take mundane subjects and treat them seriously. Col. Landa hoovers over the conversations he has with the French Dairy Farmer, Shoshanna in her disguise and Lt. Aldo Raine, as if he is a vulture looking for a scrap of dialogue he can rip out and feast on. In “Reservoir Dogs” the opening sequence debating tipping is magnetic. Unfortunately, there is nothing that rises to those heights in this film. The one place that Tarantino may have matched his earlier high standards is in the employment of violence in key moments of the film.

There has been some on-line criticism of the shortage of dialogue for Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate. There is an explanation for this but again, let me warn you, it’s not a spoiler but it will alter your perception of the story...she is a red herring.  Polanski and Tate are peripheral to what the ultimate outcome is. If that sounds strange because you thought this was a film about the Manson Murders, well, be ready for that Tarantino twist. This is a wish fulfillment fairy tale, in the mode of his best film in my opinion “Inglorious Basterds”.  The movie takes us down a path of detailed history about Hollywood in 1969, and at the last minute rewrites it. The details up to the climax are all presented honestly, mixed with the fictional story of the declining career of Rick Dalton, but then there is a sharp right turn. Most of his work before this could be classified as revenge film cinema, and this will neatly fit into that classification.

The last fifteen minutes of the movie made everything that was overly long and unfocused in the first two hours irrelevant. Maybe the foreplay was inelegant and slow. It does not matter when the climax is so satisfying that you want to stand up and cheer even though you are witnessing a violent fiction. We want the scum that the Manson Family was, to get the retribution that they so richly deserve and society has denied. We want the sweet Sharon Tate and her innocent friends to be spared from the gruesome history we know exists. We want Rick Dalton to emerge from the crumbling Hollywood system that is taking down his career with some dignity and the hope that things will be better. And we want all of that with the signature overkill that Tarantino employs in most of his movies. This is not a genre take off like Django or Kill Bill and DeathProof. This is an original film that uses our willingness to suspend disbelief to get a result that we dream would be the truth.

I’m going back to see this again on Friday, and I plan on posting a second version of this review in video form. In that I will get into the technical pleasures of the movie and the historical context that made it so enticing for me. For now I will simply say that the movie turns what might have been a disappointment into a triumph. It’s a great magic trick, but it does take a while to play out.

Young Sherlock Holmes

Inspired by a post from one of my on-line friends, I revisited this film today and decided to include it in the summer look back project, “films lost in time”. This really should not be a lost film but given it’s lack of box office success and the the fact that it is not yet available on blu ray, I suspect that most of today’s audience is only vaguely familiar with it.

This should have been a smashing success given it’s pedigree and release. Steve Spielberg is one of the Executive Producers and his team made up the rest of those responsible for bringing this to the screen. The Director was Barry Levinson, who had directed “The Natural” the year before and would go on to direct and win the Academy Award for “Rain Man” three years later. The script comes from Chris Columbus who had written “Gremlins” and “The Goonies” before this and who would go on to make a few films that will feel very familiar after seeing this (more on that later). This was released in the U.S. during the holiday season of 1985 and it basically tanked. The box office was mild to low and barely matched the production cost. So what went wrong, again, I’ll delay that for a few paragraphs. Let’s talk about the movie first.

The idea of retconning Sherlock Holmes into a youthful action character is not a bad one. In the original books, we learn of Holmes and Watson meeting as they take up rooms together on Baker Street, but this scenario makes them schoolmates at a posh academic institution in Victorian England. Holmes has already mastered the art of deduction as he calls it [frankly it is mostly inductive sign reasoning and a little hard to believe at times].

As the two young future archetypes are meeting, a series of deaths are taking place in London. We witness a mysterious figure using a small blow gun to shoot darts at several older gentlemen. Those men begin to have fantastic hallucinations which result in deaths that appear to be suicides. From the start of the film, it is clear that the film makers want to dazzle us with special effects as part of the excitement of the movie. Articulated puppets and stop motion animation are used early on to bring horrific images to life.

 

The most likely reason this film would be historically significant is that it contains one of the earliest CGI effects on screen to achieve the images the film makers wanted. A priest is attacked by a figure that climbs out of a stained glass window. This sequence explains why the films lone Academy Award Nomination was for Visual Effects. The Knight becomes a three dimensional image which strikes terror into the elderly man who runs into the street and is mowed down by a carriage.

Although primitive by today’s standards, it was jaw dropping at the time and I remember Siskel and Ebert talking about it and one of them picking it as their choice in their annual Oscar handicapping show.

The story centers around the two well known characters and a third one invented for this enterprise.  A confirmed bachelor like Holmes is during most of his film history, must have a woman in his past to explain his predilection. So Columbus creates Elizabeth, the niece of a character in the story and Holmes love interest. This will require that Watson and Holmes have to rescue Elizabeth on more than one occasion. That’s right, she is a damsel in distress for most of the last third of the film. The development of Holmes as a character is pretty good in the story. He is interested in unique subjects, he has an eccentric mentor, and he is admired by many and despised by a few elitists. His friendship with the new boy does not help him win the affection of either his belligerent teacher or the light blond future MP that he makes an enemy. Does any of this sound familiar to you? It should because it is likely that Harry Potter and friends grew out of this kind of stew. The fact that Chris Columbus who directed the first two Harry Potter films also wrote the screenplay here, seems like a lot more than just coincidence.

Let’s add another interesting parallel, young future Dr. Watson looks like a chubbier version of you know who.

With so many things going for it, what caused this film to fail with a broad audience? Speaking simply as a movie fan I think I can point to two things. The most criticized parts of the previous year’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” are resurrected to provide the villain and motives here. There is virtually no surprise when the antagonist is revealed, so the suspense is missing for the most part. When to secret society perpetrating the crimes is revealed, it is a moment right out of the very dark Indiana Jones movie.

 Acolytes surround a hapless victim overseen by an evil priest of an alien religious cult and a towering figure of the spirit that they worship. In a true “what the hell” moment, we discover that there are other murders connected to this story and suddenly the plot shifts to a completely different issue. Foreshadowing his future emotionally stunted growth, Holmes cries out and alerts everyone there to his presence. And none of this seems to be well connected to the logical procedural method Holmes supposedly follows. Instead, a series of chance insights leads to the discovery of an underground temple.

Holmes and Watson have to become Butch and Sundance and it is just not as credible at this point as it needs to be. The action points start driving the plot instead of the character points.

Holmes and Watson have to become the Wright Bothers at one point, and although the scene is fun, it feels tacked on rather than organic to the Holmes tradition of investigation.

One other thing that I think sabotages the film, and this is a spoiler so if you haven’y yet viewed the movie and don’t want to be ticked off before doing so, stop now and come back later.

Holmes fails.

All the build up and eventual destruction and the outcome is depressing and undermines the spirit of the film. Someone must have thought it was creatively challenging to finish on this note. Here is the way it came across to me. “Ho,ho, ho, your [character not to be identified by me] dies, Merry Christmas. Hope you and the family enjoyed this.” If you did the same thing to any of the other successful Spielbergian type movies at the time, you would get the same dismal box office result. “Goonies” would not be a beloved 80s touchstone, “Cocoon” would have stalled Ron Howard’s career, and “Raiders” would be an experiment that failed.

Despite the dramatic faults of the movie, it had a lot of other things to recommend it. The setting and sets were very nicely utilized and they look great. The costumes and the actors fit into the world that was created very effectively.

Bruce Broughton was nominated for the Academy Award for his music in “Silverado” from earlier in the year, and his work here is alo excellent. The theme tune will be a pretty simple earworm that will remind you every time you hear it of this film.

For those of you who think the Marvel Films invented the post title credit scene, stick around for the end of this movie. Clearly there were hopes of a sequel, but when a movie under-performs like this, you are not going to get Part II. Although Nicolas Rowe does reprise the character in a brief cameo in the far superior “Mr. Holmes” which I guess we can call “Old Sherlock Holmes”.

Stuber

This weekend was all back to basics at the movies. “Crawl” is a straightforward horror/thriller and “Stuber” is a honest to goodness action/comedy. Once in a while there were bits and pieces of social justice issues raised, but they are ultimately mocked or conventionally accepted and the film is about the jokes and the laughs rather than anything serious.  Kumail Nanjani did not write this screenplay, but it fits him as easily as the part he wrote for himself in the Oscar Nominated screenplay for “The Big Sick“. He plays Stu, a meek guy trying to make ends meet and get the girl of his dreams at the same time. His part time Uber gig brings him into contact with a hard as nails cop, played by Dave Bautista.

Buddy cop movies have been around for a long time and the variations are numerous. We’ve had old cop/young cop stories, goodcop/bad cop morality tales, and cops paired with dogs, Russians, Zombies, and even a T-Rex. Some of those movies were action films with a little comedy thrown in, “Stuber” is the opposite, it is a comedy with a little action added to it. The reason that the cop has to take uber is that he is recovering from lasik eye surgery and has basically become Mr. Magoo with a gun. This movie is filled with slap stick moments, some as simple as tripping or banging your head accidentally because your vision is impaired, but other moments of slap stick involve shooting people in the head or running them over with a car. The tone of the film sometimes tries to play it seriously, but we never do because there is way too much screaming.

The two main actors are solid in what are likely to become their signature character types. Nanjani is the striving outsider with difficulty expressing himself. Bautista is the bull in a china shop, ready at any moment to break something within arms reach. It may be a little unfair to pigeon hole them at this point, but let’s face it, stereotyping is  what casting is all about, and we know immediately what these characters are by who is playing them. The plot of the story is fairly standard cop movie stuff [dead partner/rogue cop/drug gang/duplicitous superiors etc.] What is creative here is the use of contemporary culture touchstones like cell phones, spin classes, and uber itself, to tell the story. Stu has movie culture to refer to in trying to cope with the circumstances he has found himself in. There are a half dozen cues picked up from other films that tell him how to behave or what to expect. Of course none of that comes out the way it is supposed to. As a straight man, Dave Bautista is solid but he has something else going for him, His charisma would allow him to play the part straight, but he has good comic timing and a voice that can make a joke work, even when it is not very good.

You will not remember the plot of the film for long after you see it. There are so many cliches involving the cop story that it will run together with dozens of other films. Heck, even the strained relationship between Bautista’s character and his daughter, is a trope that was mined in “Crawl”  . Parents and their adult children sometimes have issues, big surprise. The thing that will hold over in your head however is the comic relationship between the two leads. It’s a silly premise and there is no reality to the cop procedural stuff, but who cares about that when you are laughing.

I’m willing to endorse a film if it gives me four or five good laughs, and maybe one hysterical moment. Although I think they overdo the screaming moments of the film a bit, there were at least a dozen times that I laughed out loud. As someone who is suspicious of the range of an electric car, there is a joke waiting to happen, and it does. There were also some outright slap sticky moments with gun play in the film. And just for good measure as Henslowe advised in “Shakespeare in Love”, it’s always good to add a bit with a dog.

Crawl

I love it when a movie lives up to your expectations, no matter how low they might be. This is a horror, thriller that doesn’t pretend to have some deep comment about global warming or the place on animals in human habitats. Let people who want to argue about the right of coyotes to wander freely in suburban neighborhoods have their conversation someplace else. This movie is simple. Take some sympathetic characters, put them in jeopardy, and try to scare the crap out of the audience. Very basic and there are no supernatural elements to it, so those skeptics out there when it comes to ghost stories don’t have to worry, because this stuff is real [or at least as real as you can expect in a movie.]

There are a dozen or so people listed in the cast but in reality, this is a two person story. Haley, a college student on the swimming team travels back home looking for her father, as a massive hurricane is about to hit Florida. They end up trapped in the basement of their old house, battling alligators who have moved in with the rising flood waters. The premise sells itself, this is a high concept low budget feature. Man against nature is a recurring theme in lots of films, often with a philosophical bent to the plot line. “The Grey” and “The Edge” are two examples that come to mind. There are however lots of examples of movies that do the same thing without any metaphysics or spiritual overtone. Last summer we got “The Meg” which is simply a giant shark movie. A few years ago, there was “Bait” about a similar circumstance with people trapped in a department store after a tidal wave and sharks going after them. These movies are only interested in scaring you for ninety minutes and giving you a reason to eat popcorn in public.

Barry Pepper plays the Dad, who is a perpetual cheerleader for his daughter and pushed her as she was learning to become a champion swimmer. The relationship is a little strained because the parents broke up and Haley thinks it’s her fault because he neglected Mom to boost her career. That is just filler for the moments when we are catching our breath between gator attacks. This is a movie filled with jump scares and dramatic plot complications every five minutes.  Every time a little hope creeps in, the gators in the story manage to crush it, and if the gators don’t then the hurricane does. Admittedly, this is a movie that strains credibility in a few places. Our heroes get injured in ways that most of us would go into shock over and maybe end up in a coma. These two just strap up their limbs and keep fighting on. I turned to my own daughter right after the film and said, “Yeah, we’d be dead.”

The creativity in this story is primarily based around building up one objective after another, figuring out how to overcome it, throwing in a plot complication and then adding a visual moment of terror. It works over and over. Kaya Scodelario gamely crawls through mud, effuse, rats and body parts as Haley. She is also fine in the non-action scenes as well but she got her check from submitting to some pretty grueling physical scenes. Pepper has a few moments in the last quarter of the movie, but he is mostly immobile in the first part of the film. Credulity is also tested when he has to do some of the physical stuff and his character has been hampered by substantial injuries but he carries on anyway.

 There are a half dozen other actors in the movie, but as you can probably guess, they are grist for the gator mill and those moments are satisfying from a horror fans perspective. Let’s just say that what happens to the unfortunate soul who gets caught by a mob of zombies, is not too different from what happens here. Oh, and because the movie is pretty simple and standard in it’s story telling, there is also a dog for you to worry about throughout the ordeal. I like “B” movies that work well and are well made and “Crawl” fits the bill to a tee. So it’s not “Jaws”, instead it’s a faster paced, better version of “Jaws 2”. I just wish I’d been able to see it at a drive-in.

Charley Varrick, The Last of the Independents

I’m not sure whether to classify this as one of my “Movies I Want Everyone to See” or as a “Film Lost in Time”. It certainty fits the former category but for some film fans it may fit the later as well. It stars Walter Matthau, a guy who many modern film fans will not know well, but anyone over 40 is likely to have a dozen Matthau films on at least one of their best of lists. He appeared in in “Charade”, “Fail-Safe” ,”The Fortune Cookie” and most famously “The Odd Couple” in the 1960s. I knew him best however from his 1970s output which includes three gritty thrillers from 1973 and 74, this film plus “The Laughing Policeman” and the great “Taking of Pelham 1-2-3”.

With his hangdog face, laconic voice and middle age physique, Matthau hardly seems to be the template for a movie star. He used all of those characteristics however to play a series of recognizable human beings in circumstances that are a little bit extraordinary. As the title character in this film, he is a small time bank robber who along with his wife, eeks out an existence on the margins of society. The meticulous small town bank robbery he has planned goes off the rails within just a few moments.

Let’s start by looking at the credits and seeing the style of director Don Siegel. On on the heels of his smash Clint Eastwood film, “Dirty Harry”, the director followed his cop picture with a robbers picture. The movie opens slowly without any sense of direction, by showing us idyllic scenes of small town life in what is presumably New Mexico. People are sweeping their yards and sidewalks, kids are riding their bikes, ranchers are traversing their property checking on livestock. Nothing ominous in any of that.  Suddenly we see the plaque on the bank and our mood will change immediately. Like the long set up shot in “Dirty Harry” it’s not until one element is revealed that we get any sense of where the story might be going.

Almost immediately, Matthau is on screen, but he is wearing a mustache and a grey wig. The woman driving the car tells a police officer who has come to warn them about parking in a red zone, that her husband is infirm because of an injury. Matthau is then shown to be wearing an anle cast and the disguise seems more effective. He is playing the grumpy old man, twenty years before that became his signature role in the 1990s. As luck would have it, the cop as he is pulling away has a memory of the licence plates of the Lincoln, being on the hot sheet of auto thefts that he came across and so he starts back around to investigate. This is just one of the things that goes bad for the criminals and all hell breaks loose rapidly. Here again, you can see Siegels’s style as the robbery gone wrong will remind you of the robbery gone wrong in the Eastwood picture. Violence breaks out quickly and some die quickly while others linger. The seventies were full of car chases that were improbable, but the quick getaway here is messy and believable for the most part.

If there is one fault in the script, it is the limited reaction of Charley Varrick to what transpires with his wife. Sure he is a professional, and cold calculating behavior might be expected, but the screenplay tries to establish their relationship as being long term and deep, and It is hard to pass something like that off as casually as Varrick seems to.  There is a character fault that also we should get out of the way early. Andy Robinson’s character of Harmon, their accomplice in the robbery, is pigheadedly stupid. He barely listens to the wisdom that Charley wants him to follow and he seems to be subtly threatening Charley, a man who has just masterminded a robbery that resulted in the death of three people. It’s as if he is inviting a chance to be double crossed. There is also a little emotional whipsaw going on as Harmon goes from sympathetic exposition devise to belligerent plot development. Robinson famously portrayed the killer in “Dirty Harry” and he mines some of the same facial expressions and desperation in this movie that he used there. In the scene where he is being interrogated by the mafia enforcer, he whines in the same pitiful voice as his Scorpio character in the previous film.

Like most 70s films, this story is not in a hurry. Character gets developed by scenes that have irrelevant details in them. Background characters add a little bit of spice or humor without being essential. There are side trips that seem to lead nowhere but tell us a lot about the characters we are watching. For instance, Joe Don Baker as the hitman/enforcer Molly, stops at a location owned by the mob as he is starting his investigation. It is a brothel, and basically nothing happens there except we see what kind of man he is. He is brusque with the help and specific in his wants.  A similar scene takes place when high ranking mob guy John Vernon attempts to meet with the Bank President who is a confederate of the criminal organization. He is delayed by the police and steps over to a nearby park to push a little girl on a swing. Nothing transpires but we get the sense that this criminal is a little different from others.

Since I just mentioned both of them, let’s take a little sidetrack of our own and talk about these great character actors. The late John Vernon was the duplicitous partner to Lee Marvin in “Point Blank”.He went over the edge of the balcony naked and crashed to the ground in that movie, in other words, in his debut film he was a smash. He appeared in a couple of Clint Eastwood films and the Don Siegel film that followed this one, “Black Windmill”. He typically played a sinister antagonist, often an official like a Mayor or his most famous role as Dean Wormer in “Animal House”. His voice was distinctive and his demeanor authoritative but rarely powerful. He sometime came across as the feckless power standing by while wiser or more bold characters acted.

 

Joe Don Baker is an actor I first encountered in the film “Junior Bonner”. I next remember him for an obscure “B” movie I saw while at school called “Golden Needles”. His big breakout however was in the movie “Walking Tall” an exploitation film that achieved huge financial success and spawned several sequels that he did not appear in. His Texas drawl and pseudo avuncular personality made him a disturbing threat in this film. He comes across as a professional but it is clear that he enjoys the sadism of his vocation. As an actor he has also appeared in three James Bond movies so that automatically puts him on a list of some of my favorites.

There are a bunch of other well known character actors in the film as well. Normal Fell and Sheree North are two performers you would bump into if you turned on the TV just about any time in the 1970s. She played wild card women and he was usually the dull cop not to far from the star of the show. Albert Popwell who is in the first four “Dirty Harry” films in some capacity, is in another side road scene in this film as the guy who’s car gets repossessed by Molly. Willian Schallert is another face that was everywhere on TV over the last fifty years. In this film he is the determined sheriff seeking to bring to justice those responsible for the death of two of his deputies.

Back to our story. The thing that makes this such an effective film is that it does not draw attention to itself or try to explain too much. Except for some exposition spoken by Andy Robinson, we have to figure out what is going on by paying attention to the film. Charley seems to be plotting an escape, but it turns out that there is a hidden agenda in his machinations that only becomes clear as the story unfolds slowly in front of us. The tag like on the poster is that “When he runs out of dumb luck, he always has genius to fall back on!”  We just don’t see that genius until the plot threads start coming together and what seemed a bone-head move earlier suddenly is revealed as part of a large plan that we were not privy to.

After the bank robbery, the closest the film comes to an action scene is the climax where Varrick’s deceptive plan is revealed and we get a car chase, plane crash and some explosions. More than the fireworks however, the best thing to watch is the way little pieces of the plot play out. Varrick knows better than to trust any of the mobsters, and he has to find a way to get away clean. It’s great that he gets to use some old skills in the process. The way most of the tidbits we have been wondering about play out is very satisfying.

This is a film that I saw in theaters as a kid and probably did not appreciate as much as I do now. It was however a film I liked well enough to obtain on my favorite forgotten format.

I clearly stole this image of the two film laser disc collection. Universal had a number of secondary materials they released as double features to justify the cost of your investment. As DVDs came to the market place and the Laserdisc stopped production, I transferred a number of my discs to the DVD format and created my own packaging for the cover and the disc. This is the format I used to view the film for this post.

“Charley Varrick” is a great 70s thriller, high on style and character but low on action. If you like these kinds of movies, and why would you be reading this if you did not?, let me recommend that you either discover or re-discover the genius of Charley Varrick.

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Yesterday

“Yesterday” is a delightful little fantasy, that has little on it’s mind but everything in it’s heart. It is a love story about the music of the Beatles and the love of music in general. There is also a romantic element that weaves through the main story that dramatizes some of the same ideas that are being told in the main tale. Ultimately however, it is merely a fantasy film, designed for audiences that care both about music and the nostalgia of history.

The premise is pretty well summed up in the trailer. After an accident that results from a worldwide blackout, Jack Malik, an unsuccessful, struggling musician, is the only person who seems to know the Beatles. It’s as if Thanos snapped his fingers and just wiped out part of cultural history, rather than half the population of the planet. Like most fantasy, you have to be willing to go along with the conceit and not worry about the logic behind it, because there isn’t any. Much like a body switch comedy from the 1980s, we don’t need to know why the phenomena occurred, we just need to handle the consequences. Jack remembers the songs and lyrics of the greatest pop music ever written and starts reproducing it for himself. Himesh Patel has a face that conveys defeat and frustration at every turn. His failure to connect with an audience outside his circle of friends is sapping his spirit and draining the passion he has for music. The chance to make a success out of his life by claiming the music of the Beatles as his own offers him a conflict that we as an audience can sympathize with. He becomes the greatest plagiarist in history, but he does so in the most guileless way imaginable. He just wants to play the songs. Success is great but he knows he is riding on the work of someone else, but those people will never be able to produce the material themselves.

Jack’s school chum Ellie, has been his manager for all of the time he was not a success, and she steps aside for his career to advance because she can’t really represent him effectively, without altering her life too much. Lily James plays Ellie and she is lovely and sweet and as a secondary character asks on multiple occasions, why have the two of them never gotten together.  Much like a time travel story, “Yesterday” wants us to think about the opportunities that we missed along the line and ponder why circumstances end up as they do. Jack and Ellie seem perfect for each other but after years in the “friends” zone, they are making choices that are fall back positions. Ellie withdraws to a new relationship and Jack pursues fame and fortune with the Beatles songs.

The music is of course terrific, we can thank Lennon and McCartney for that. Patel performs the songs with passion, and although he has a good voice, it is clear why he never made it on his own. The songs he writes are not bad, they simply lack the magic that came from the musical genius of the fab four. When people hear the tunes and the lyrics, they are captivated by the music, not the musician.  Success feels hollow for Jack because he has lost his friend and the songs are not his own. There is a building plot point that concerns whether he will be revealed as a fraud, and in fact he has a nightmare about that possibility. The resolution to this plot line is a good twist and it has one of the most satisfying “what if” scenes that a film like this wants us to speculate on.

It is interesting to think about the way the world might be different if the music of the Beatles did not exist. There are references to some contemporary artists who certainly were influenced by the Beatles but they seem to be unaffected by the disappearance of  John, Paul, George and Ringo. While this might make a logical movie feel off completely, this is a fantasy, and the story gets by simply by acknowledging one influence that would be altered, instead of making it as widespread as it clearly would be. That reference was my biggest laugh in the film, it also opens up another line on music for Jack to take advantage of if he keeps going.

The music business is also lampooned a great deal. Kate McKinnon arrives to manage Jack’s career and make him rich, but mostly make the record company richer. Her greed based, heartless music executive is a stereotype that we will recognize, but she also knows how to manipulate Jack by using his own momentary short comings to guilt him into her way of thinking. Ed Sheeran plays himself, and he cheerfully goes along with sending up his own image. In fact, he may be a little too brutal on himself for comfort.

Screenwriter Richard Curtis takes a premise he created with another writer and makes some magic that will be very recognizable to fans of “Love Actually” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral”.  It is possible that he is mining the same material from his own film from 2013, “About Time“, which has many of the same fantasy elements and dilemmas. This movie is directed by Danny Boyle, who will not be doing James Bond but still can end up on an anticipated list of movies that I want to see. “Yesterday” is a good sized hit for the kind of movie that it is. I think it plays to an older audience because of the Beatles connection, but the young stars probably have added to it’s appeal for a younger audience. If the Beatles music means nothing to you, feel free to skip this movie. But if you are a part of the population with the good sense to know how important that music is, I suspect you will enjoy the film in spite of some flaws along the way.