With a low budget, SHADOW manages to tackle the realities and nightmares of war through a backwoods horror-type plot set in Italy.
Bad Day at Black Rock. 1955. Directed by John Sturges. Screenplay by Millard Kaufman; adapted by Don McGuire & based on a story from Howard Breslin.
Starring Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Dean Jagger, Walter Brennan, John Ericson, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, Russell Collins, & Walter Sande.
Not Rated. 81 minutes.
John Sturges – a fine specimen of a director. He directed films from the mid 1940s right up into the latter half of the 1970s. I love a writer-director, but something is exciting about some of the older generations of directors, the guys that just went full force at their sole job as director and did a damn good job at that. Sturges is one of those types, whose main concern was the directorial choices necessary for making a picture.
For me, the era of his greatest work begins after this film, Bad Day at Black Rock. This is the story that captured a specific current in the American public which not many movies were ready to tackle. In 1955, with the wounds of World War II, Pearl Harbor and everything in between still fresh, a story like this one couldn’t have been easy to tell, nor would it have been easy to swallow. Also considering the plot is set in later ’45. What’s best is that it isn’t just a heavy handed toss at trying to be interesting. The acting is stellar, beyond that. The screenplay is tight, the at times minimalist dialogue edges just close to exposition before keeping itself wrapped in mystery. And finally Sturges himself adds that one perfect element as director, alongside the work of D.P. William C. Mellor with his eye for gorgeous landscapes and bringing to life the vivid portrait of a tiny town on the edge of a nowhere desert. There’s not enough time to talk about how good this movie is, and believe me, I love to ramble. I love movies from any era. I know not everybody does, that’s fine. However, you’re really doing yourself a disservice as a lover of film, if you call yourself one, by not seeing Bad Day at Black Rock. Right down to the score, this is a flawless bit of cinema that cries out to be experienced.
Right off the bat you can’t help but keep your eyes glued to Spencer Tracy. He has a charm that is immediate to me. Always, in any film. It’s the mystery of John J. Macreedy which I find intriguing, and from the moment you lay eyes on him there’s a quality that draws the viewer in. He’s so nonchalant, mysterious yet confident. His demeanour is sly, but still open. He almost feels a walking contradiction, though not in any way offensive. So then once the men in Black Rock start hovering around, causing him grief and getting into his business, it’s even more interesting to watch. This seemingly nice, normal guy – aside from having a missing arm, that doesn’t appear to give him much difficulty working around – gets thrown into the mix of a town that has more going on than it looks on the surface. Tracy’s ability to make Macreedy so calm and collected serves the film well, as it isn’t just the mystery of Black Rock but the mystery of him as a character that propels us further, wanting more. OH! When he kicks the shit out of that one guy with his single hand, it is in no way cheesy or forced or Hollywood-ish to the point of ridicule. He makes it genuine and bad ass.
The whole cast is spectacular, it isn’t solely Tracy. You’ve got Ernest Borgnine playing a sassy backwoods-type; not a huge role, but he does it justice with a proper menacing streak. Robert Ryan is wonderful – in parallel to the character of Macreedy, Ryan’s Reno Smith is calm in his own right, just that he’s calm for much different reasons with different things at stake than Macreedy. I love Ryan in general. Here, he gives a nice performance in a devious role. Then filling out the cast is Lee Marvin, always a treat no matter how big or small a role he plays; he’s welcomed addition to the rest of the players. As well as Walter Brennan and Anne Francis, each doing good things with their small parts. Overall, this is a classic cast of familiar faces that all make their characters stick in your mind.
But make no mistake, it’s Tracy who sells the film. Ten times over.
There’s a great little car chase over a desert ridge that’s lots of fun, even without all the more contemporary flash and any crashes/explosions. What I dig most is the way it’s filmed. You’d almost swear that in the more stunt-like shots Tracy and Borgnine are both actually driving. Although obviously they didn’t, especially considering Tracy’s character has his hand in his pocket the entire time (something they did well on for continuity), this is still an admirably filmed sequence. All around I love the look of the movie, the cinematography is every bit the classic Hollywood style and it is pure, simple beauty. There’s something to be said for shooting on film, as opposed to now where it becomes more expensive for directors to do so, many opting for digital. And not to knock digital, I dig certain filmmakers because they can make it look as good as film. Yet these old movies, the ones shot through the 1940s and into the 1960s, they have such a nostalgic, perfect feel. There is a vibrancy that is so clear, so pristine, it makes movies look like something right out of a memory.
Bad Day at Black Rock does something I’m a fan of, in terms of its screenplay. Mixing genres is something that, when done well, can be terribly fun. What I enjoy above all other elements is that the story is full-on western while also draped in the trappings of the film noir genre. We have that staple of the western, a lone and mysterious man riding into town, then there’s the setting itself being a small town out in the middle of the mountains, in the midst of desert. Everything screams Wild West, yet we’re set in 1945. On top of that there’s the noir-like plot of Macreedy searching for a man, one we gradually find out more about. The way the story’s structured is very much like an old hardboiled fiction novel, like a slice of Raymond Chandler crossed with John Ford. Truly a treat to watch play out. Best of all, the plot contains some touchy subjects for a film made in ’55. There’s a sensitive piece of American history involved, Pearl Harbor pulled into the story, but it’s well explored in a way that doesn’t feel like the writing stands on a morally high ground, rather one of introspection via mystery-thriller. This film touches at an open American wound that was freshly pulsing at the time. Kudos to Sturges and all involved.
This is a 5 star flick, all the way down the line. From the great performance by Tracy, to a drop of Ryan and Marvin, to every last god damn minute of the film. I can’t recommend it enough. It took me 30 years to see it, and I’ve already watched it a couple times so far this year. Might have to make it a hat trick before I turn 31 in the fall.
Scorsese & Lehane together as one? That's how you get a spooky, mind-bending thriller like SHUTTER ISLAND.
Episode 2: “The Kill Floor”
Directed by Frederick O.E. Toye
Written by Quinton Peeples
* For a review of the premiere, “The Rabbit Hole” – click here
* For a review of the following episode, “Other Voices, Other Rooms” – click here
After the the big premiere, 11.22.63‘s second episode begins with a young Harry Dunning (Jack Fulton) being bullied by a group of slightly older boys, led by Randy (Percy Hynes White). They treat him terribly, calling him “Harry Fairy” and stripping him of his pants, spitting in his face. Even people on the street seem to not care, as they see a half-naked Harry making his way home.
Meanwhile, Jake Epping (James Franco) is still roaming around in 1960. His plan, as of last episode, was to start small then work up to the big changes. First, Harry Dunning (Leon Rippy) and the murder of his family.
Jake’s hanging out at the store where little Harry takes refuge. Such a sweet kind of moment where Jake watches the young version of the man he teaches in the present. He talks with the owner, having a cup of coffee, and tries to figure out a place to stay. The owner directs Jake to the Price house, of Arliss and Edna (Michael O’Neill & Annette O’Toole). At their home, Jake introduces himself as George ‘Jake’ Amberson of course, and tries to get a room for a while. The Prices are good Christians, charging him in advance, making sure there are “no girls” and other such things. Strict living, but stricter the better; raising no suspicion is Jake’s best course of action. Plus, he’s too busy trying to figure out how to go about helping the Dunning family.
At a local watering hole, Jake inquires about Frank Dunning (Josh Duhamel). Nobody’s too quick to give up any information about the man. Not too long afterwards, Frank appears with a bunch of good ole boys there to tear the place up and get drunk. Even seeing Frank is foreboding, as we know exactly where his future is headed. The bartender lets Frank know about Jake looking for him, so naturally they end up at a table together. Drinks upon drinks have Jake quoting James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men from 1941, then further make Frank think.
Jake’s in the car with Frank and his buddies a short time later. The situation starts to get tense, as Frank inquires how Jake supposedly knows him, questions are asked, and more nervousness seeps from the pores of the scene. In the dark, rainy night they pull up to a meat packing plant. The lights flicker inside; a sure sign of safe times ahead. “You like fun, don‘t you Jakey?” quips Frank. The twisted, sick side of Mr. Dunning comes out for us to see here, explaining the worst job at a meat plant involving old bloody parts, an entire universe of flies. Then he arrives at the titular killing floor, where they put cows to their end. The fellas bring one of them out for Jake to witness a kill. Apparently, it’s how they have fun. Certainly doesn’t say anything about them, now does it? Well they want Jakey to kill the cow, which doesn’t exactly sit well with him. So it’s left to Frank, who puts the cow down quick and easy, yet savage. “I guess some men just don‘t have what it takes,” exclaims Frank: “Do they boys?”
Disturbed by this event, Jake arrives at the Dunning home in the morning. He claims Doris (Joanna Douglas) and her family won a free trip. Obviously, this is part of a plan Jake is trying to enact, in order to save the Dunning family from their tragic fate, if time would have it. At the Price house, Jake hilariously claims to be a Korean War vet, using M*A*S*H as a cover because, y’know, time is on his side for that one. He and Arliss chat of “war heroes” and the atrocities of warfare, specifically World War II; the latter recounts when a friend’s scalp, or part of it, went down his own shirt during battle, fairly fucking grisly. Arliss goes on to talk about a sleeping German kid who he could’ve let live, but instead drowned; “afterwards, you always tell yourself there‘s a good reason,” he tells Jake. This whole story reflects on the earlier mention of Arliss and his Bronze Star, for bravely carrying his wounded comrade out of battle – certainly aren’t too many real heroes in any war, with all that human toll in context.
Jake: “Sometimes fate just steps in and deals you a good hand”
Out of the blue, Frank Dunning shows up at the Price residence. Edna isn’t too thrilled about unexpected callers at the door. Either way, Frank wants to “make it up to” Jake after their initial introduction, all that creepy slaughterhouse stuff.
The pair head down to Frank’s butcher shop. A nice little spot he operates. “It‘s my place, my rules,” says Frank: “It‘s rules that hold the universe together.” On and on he goes to Jake about rules, order. “A price must be paid to set things right,” Frank explains. He calls his wife out from the back with bruises on her face. So now, Frank thinks Jake is trying to have sex with Doris. Things are getting much messier than Jake ever anticipated. The Dunning situation has become incredibly complicated, now that he’s been discovered in this light.
So off Jake heads to find himself a gun. He tries to bribe his way into one at a shop. Although, the shop owner thinks he’s a bit shady. Rightfully so. Only she’s joking: “I’ll sell you five guns,” she laughs. Because it’s Texas. And Texas in 1960. How hard could it have been? And don’t you gun nuts try and sell me anything different. A great scene that adapts especially well for 2016, with all the rampant gun crime in America. Excellent writing on Stephen King’s part, as well as the translation to television in this episode by Quinton Peeples.
More flashing back to Al Templeton (Chris Cooper), frail and rundown. He keeps on explaining about the past pushing back against his travelling through time. The fact he didn’t have any cancer before discovering the rabbit hole speaks for itself, though. This is an ominous warning for Jake. Immediately after this we cut to him waking up and vomiting. Is it already affecting him? Is the past trying to make him sick to put him out of commission?
“Do you have any Gatorade?” asks Jake at a store, where he receives appropriate confusion. Kaopectate is what he gets. The stomach ailment will not stop him. Jake’s determined to change the Dunning past and future.
Appropriate time to say it – the cinematography here is so gorgeous and rich. A quick scene where Jake stands in a field, looking out onto the horizon becomes something beautiful; powerful, as well. Just the framing of Franco onscreen, the colours of the sky, everything looks so impressive. Good job on Hulu for producing this in such grand fashion. The story deserves it.
Spying on the Dunning house, Jake gets a knife pulled on him by Bill Turcotte (George MacKay) from the bar. Turns out that Bill’s siter was killed by Frank, too. He is a terrible man, as it seems. Looking out for Doris and the family, Bill appears fairly vigilant. Then Jake lets slip: “I‘m from the future.” Uh oh.
Bigger things require attention now. The horror inside has already begun. Frank slipped in the back door, as Jake squabbles with Bill outside for a moment. Heading in, Jake tries to re-route history. He fires a shot into Frank, but only catches his shoulder. Thus commences a brawl. Frank appears totally as a monster here, some Frankenstein lurching around and dominating everyone in his presence. Scary as hell, honestly. Duhamel does a good job at coming off brutal and vicious. But what follows? Sure makes a point for Jake being bad ass when he wants/needs to be. He’s able to change the future, but is it for the better? Can he tell what repercussions this event will have?
Jake makes it away, blood all over him. Even Edna Price sees him in a state, as he tries to make his case. But murder is murder, even protecting someone. Mostly, it’d be hard for Jake to explain how he ended up there, everything, being from the future and all, holding unknown knowledge to anyone in the past. Then the future is confirmed for Bill, who finds a clipping about the JFK assassination amongst Jake’s things. Ah ha! Belief. What will this bring?
Next episode, “Other Voices, Other Rooms”, ought to bring us more fun and excitement and foreboding eeriness. Great series up to this point.
Frankenstein’s Army. 2013. Directed by Richard Raaphorst. Screenplay by Miguel Tejada-Flores & Chris W. Mitchell from a story by Tejada-Flores & Raaphorst.
Starring Robert Gwilym, Hon Ping Tang, Alexander Mercury, Luke Newberry, Joshua Sasse, Mark Stevenson, Andrei Zayats, Karel Roden, Klaus Lucas, Cristina Cataline, Jan de Lukowicz, & Zdenek Barinka. MDI Media Group/Dark Sky Films/Pellicola/XYZ Films/Sirena Film/Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic/The Czech Film Industry Support Programme.
Rated R. 84 minutes.
★★★★ There are no end to people sick of the found footage sub-genre, no matter how it’s used or in what genre it gets repurposed. I’m not one of them, though. For me, if a film can find a way to use found footage that’s at least a little fresh, unique in some way, then I’m really able to get into it. Frankenstein’s Army chooses to not only mash-up the horror and war genres, it further throws in some Mary Shelley DNA with a found footage setup. Honestly, even if it’s not your cup of tea in the end, this is at the very least an idea worth giving a chance.
The film has a lot of creepy things going for it, as well as the fact so much of everything is done practically, using long takes that lend themselves to the found footage format. Director Richard Raaphorst tells an interesting story with an incredibly terrifying plot that never quits. While not everything works all of the time, Frankenstein’s Army is fairly well acted, and the monsters – oh, the monsters! Above all, the horrifying creatures are exactly one of the major reasons why this is effective. Plus, the feeling of a movie trying hard to do some unique monster work, especially through practical effects, is something we’re not often seeing these days. With a few things that could’ve been improved most of the movie is entertaining, as well as dark and definitely disturbing.
On orders from Josef Stalin himself, near the end of World War II a group of Russian soldiers are sent on a mission for the Fatherland. Stalin specifically requests they film everything, so that it might make Russia proud. The troop end up hearing of a number of other soldiers in need of help. When the come across the caretaker of a church, the Russians are led into a terrifying house of horrors; a place where strange creatures lurk in every corner. But what starts as merely an isolated incidents devolves into the soldiers pushing through a massive German factory filled with awful monsters, pieced together from living flesh and metal, pieces of machinery, even propellers. When they discover the caretaker is really Dr. Viktor Frankenstein (Karel Roden), descendant of the original Dr. Frankenstein, the group of soldiers descend into what may as well be Hell.
As the nastiness piles up, none of them are sure they’ll survive until the war is over – in fact, it’s just begun.
After 4,200+ films and counting, a good chunk of those horror, I tend to believe not a whole lot truly scares me. Although, every so often there are things that creep me out, give me a few chills. I must say, there are a couple moments here where I found a creep or two. One scene is after Dmitri (Alexander Mercury) gets tossed down a chute by his fellow soldier, then a creature comes in and grabs a dead body nearby – right after, as Dmitri turns the camera I found that, plus several moments afterwards fairly unsettling. It didn’t shock me to the core, but the way it’s filmed is unsettling. Then once Dmitri goes further and ends up in an office, finding a teddy bear with a woman’s head sewn onto it, the whole thing goes from unsettling to disturbing (check the credits; you’ll find out who that woman-teddy bear is). I love this whole section because then we start getting into the Frankenstein aspect.
And that’s another big reason why I enjoyed the screenplay. Because Frankenstein adaptations are a dime a dozen, or movies and stories that draw from Mary Shelley, such as ‘modern retellings’ and so on. Yet Frankenstein’s Army takes the legacy of the infamous doctor and extends it so that World War II, the Nazis and all they were up to, gets included. That opens up a whole new aspect to the story because the Nazis were into a lot of things experimentation-wise, from medical experiments to hopeful tries towards making ‘supermen’. The original Dr. Frankenstein may as well have gone on to be a Nazi doctor because his work was out of control as it was, attempting to essentially play God, which his supposed descendant here takes to an entirely new level of disturbed.
Many found footage films suffer from a dearth of proper acting. Here, though, we get a main cast who do a fairly good job carrying the material. In addition, Dr. Viktor Frankenstein is played by the ever fabulous Karel Roden, whose talent gives the film an extra quality in the final 20 minutes. His exuberance is terrific, as Viktor starts out subtle then moves quickly into mania, with each minute getting wilder and wilder. Watching him walk around the factory explaining his process, talking of his family history and more, it is quite a treat. In the most morbid way possible. If it weren’t for the actor playing Dmitri and Roden as Frankenstein this wouldn’t have such an interesting finale. But really, the entire cast does a decent job, aside from the old German man that ends up with the soldiers for a short time, along with a boy (the kid wasn’t so bad). It’s not award-winning acting, however, it does the job. Again, the final half hour is a ton of fun, especially the last 19 minutes or so. Dmitri has to endure watching plenty of terror, a few patches of blood and guts, too. It is a grueling end, but packs a gruesome punch.
I’ve got to give Frankenstein’s Army a 4-star rating. Yes, things could’ve been improved at certain points, perhaps some of the bits with the soldiers would do well with a tightening of the screenplay. But it is still one hell of an entertaining horror, bits and pieces of action thrown in and a heavy splash of science fiction. The genre mash-up, all captured in the found footage sub-genre, is spectacular and whereas some films try to do that then end up with too much this movie keeps its eye on the prize. Because really what it aims to be is a monster flick, a creature feature of sorts. Only the jumping-off point is WWII, Nazis, with that extra spice of Frankenstein stirred in. You can do much worse than this if looking for a weird horror to enjoy, or a found footage film. It at least employs the sub-genre in a different way than most of the ‘lost in the woods yelling’ or ‘trapped in a mental hospital yelling’ found footage efforts out there already. Give it a chance.
Fury. 2014. Directed & Written by David Ayer.
Starring Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peňa, Jon Bernthal, and Jim Parrack.
134 min. Rated R.
David Ayer’s new thriller Fury is by far one of the most brutal and honest films set during the Second World War ever made. Not only does it present the agony of war, it also works as a great character piece.
Brad Pitt leads the cast as Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier, a sergeant who rides aboard the titular tank, Fury. Alongside him are his three most trusted men. However, after one of those men dies the crew is saddled with a fresh young army recruit (Lerman) hauled from desk duty to fight in the second Battalion. The five men continue through Germany together, killing every Nazi they find, and try to hold onto their humanity in the face of war and death.The film looks beautiful and everything feels very real (this also marks the first time an actual Tiger tank has been used on a movie set). Ayer shot with film instead of digitally, which gives Fury a very bleak, grim feeling as the tanks and the troops behind them trek through miles of mud. The way it’s filmed gives an almost nostalgic feel reminiscent of other great war pictures. No doubt there will be more than a few comparisons to the blockbuster Steven Spielberg film, Saving Private Ryan. Regardless of its predecessors, however, this film holds its own as one of the best World War II films out there.
Fury is not delegated solely to bombs, bullets, and the horrific images of war. Ayer wonderfully crafts the film from its opening with a blurry shot of a figure on horseback. It moves slowly through an area where a fight has recently occurred. Bodies lay everywhere. Ashes and fire are all around. The figure, a German, comes into view riding a pale white horse: one of the Four Horsemen, symbolizing death. Wardaddy ambushes the man, killing him, and sends the horse on its way. For a moment he has driven death out. Later, we see the white horse again galloping away once more. When the film nears a close you begin to understand Ayer’s use of symbolism.
Fury is mainly about what war does to those who engage in and are surrounded by it. It is a film about men trying to hold onto their humanity under the most gruelling conditions. One of the central struggles of the characters is their justification of death as preventing worse deaths for others. How does a man keep on being human even after holding a gun to another man’s head and pulling the trigger? And what if a man is forced to do that is worse? Ayer explores these dilemmas throughout the film with help of some stellar acting on all parts.
Pitt earns his keep as a continually interesting actor. His portrayal of Wardaddy is fairly subtle and restrained. He looks and acts the part of a haunted war veteran. In solitary moments where the camera sticks on him Pitt conveys a side of war not often seen, as he fights with the emotion inside him trying to escape. The supporting cast is just as top notch. Shia LaBeouf proves capable of playing a quiet character instead of the usual loud cockiness he displays. Joe Bernthal, best known from AMC’s The Walking Dead and Michael Peňa who starred in Ayer’s earlier film End of Watch, are both in fine form playing men who have seen and done too much to simply return to normal after the war is over. However, it is Logan Lerman that really shines. Playing the rookie soldier on the tank crew alongside Pitt, he displays great acting talent, and conveys the terror of many young men drafted and thrust into battle during World War II without ever having so much as fired a gun. Overall the main cast works together to depict the weary strain of war on those who’ve fought.
I cannot recommend Fury enough. The cinematography is something to behold and really captures the grit of World War II’s muddy trenches. Honestly, for a dark look at war this movie is dripping with gorgeous shots. I love the camerawork. Certain shots here were just perfect. Ayer really set the tone with an overall atmosphere of tension. There was literal fog often rolling over the war fields, and it help to create the mood: a sense of dread hung over each scene.
There are fairly divided opinions on both Shia LaBeouf and Brad Pitt, and depending on which side you fall it could skew how the movie plays, but I believe they each put in a fantastic performance here. This is a tightly scripted film driven by the emotional force of the actors.
I’ve seen a review or two saying this movie was “so grim” and other such statements. One reviewer even claimed he felt like he “needed a hug” afterwards. I mean, there are so many things wrong with this way of thought. A movie, unless otherwise specified, is not meant to make you feel warm and fuzzy. Especially not one about the brutal nature of war, and during World War II no less. This is all about the grim picture. This is meant to make you feel unsettled and even a bit terrified, at least for the characters. I can never stand when people feel they have to like a character, or be made to feel good because of a character’s actions or by the plot – whatever. It’s all about whatever the character or plot is intended to do: final cause. This is the purpose of Fury – to unnerve you, displace your feelings and take you out of those comfort zones. Just as it must have felt for any of these men to be drafted and stuffed into a tank together. To be shoved out into the fields of some town in another country, on another continent. To be told you’re going to either live or die – there is no middle ground.
So, in essence, Fury should really make you feel conflicted in certain ways, it should absolutely leave you with a grim feeling, and looking for hugs afterwards. If so, it has absolutely served its final purpose.
There are countless war movies out there. What sets one apart from the pack is its honesty. Ayer pulls no punches about the realities of war from the script to the action sequences. Many war veterans often say that the real heroes never came home; Fury is a cinematic testament to this statement.