Tough As Nails: BRUTE FORCE (Universal-International, 1947)


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The prison movie has long been one of the most popular of the crime genre. Beginning with 1930’s THE BIG HOUSE, to THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and beyond, audiences flock to get a forbidden glimpse behind the walls. Newspaper columnist turned film producer Mark Hellinger gave us one of the starkest, most realistic looks at prison life in  BRUTE FORCE, as relevant now as it was back in 1947.

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Westgate Penitentiary is a walled island facility much like Alcatraz, ruled with an iron hand by Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn). The warden (Roman Bohenen) is weak and inefficient, and the prison doctor (Art Baker) a drunk. Inmate Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster), just back from solitary thanks to having a shiv planted on him by one of Munsey’s stoolies, is desperate enough to plan a jailbreak with his cellies in R17. They stage a fight in the machine shop and drive the rat to his death while Joe visits with the doctor…

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Found-Footage Alien Invasion Two-Fer : “Area 51”


Trash Film Guru

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In recent years, Oren Peli has gone from the promising young director of the original Paranormal Activity to a veritable “horror mogul,” with his name attached (albeit as a producer) to projects as varied as Rob Zombie’s Lords Of Salem, Barry Levinson’s The Bay,  and the blockbuster Insidious series. And yet, for all his newfound clout, his sophomore directorial effort, Area 51, has been sitting around, unreleased, since filming on it wrapped in 2009.

You’d figure there must be a good reason for that, of course (and there is), but the funny thing is that, just when everybody finally forgot about this thing, it quietly (hell, silently, even) made its way onto various “home viewing platforms” (including Netflix, which is how I caught it — perhaps worth noting is the fact that it’s not, to the best of my knowledge, available on either Blu-ray or DVD yet) just a…

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Scenes I Love: Ken Burns’ The Civil War


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I think Lisa Marie and I could spend hundreds of hours just talking about history. While I love history in general, I do admit that military history has been a particular fascination of mine. Some would say that I’m just being bloodthirsty. That I’m reveling in the worst aspects of humanity. I would strongly disagree with that opinion.

Military history is not just about rehashing the cold facts and figures of battles, wars and conflict. It’s a type of history that gives people a window to the past. A past we could learn from so as not to repeat the same mistakes in the future. It’s not even the death and destruction shown through historical writing by aficionados and academia.

With PBS re-airing Ken Burns’ The Civil War this week we get to witness one of the great triumphs in filmmaking 25 years after it first aired in 1990. It’s a documentary that gives us an everyman’s look at the cause, effect and consequence of the bloodiest war in American history. A war that would shape the American consciousness for generations to come. It was also a war that pit brother against brother, fathers against sons and lifelong friends against each other as battlefields across the states and territories of the United States flowed with the blood of Americans.

One of the great things about this documentary series is how it doesn’t just rely on the facts and figures of this historical event in American history, but the personal voices of individuals who participated in the war and it’s periphery. These voices (as narrated by stars such as Morgan Freeman, Sam Waterston, Jason Robards, Julie Harris, Arthur Miller and George Plimpton to name a few) adds an poignant and personal touch to what could’ve been a very dry and academic exercise.

One of the best scenes in the series arrives at the end of the first day of five for the series. It’s a letter from one Union officer Sullivan Ballou to his wife a week before he participates in the war’s first major engagement, the First Battle of Bull Run.

Sullivan Ballou’s Letter

July the 14th, 1861

Washington D.C.

My very dear Sarah:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.

Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure—and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine O God, be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.

But, my dear wife, when I know that with my own joys I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with cares and sorrows—when, after having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it as their only sustenance to my dear little children—is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country?

I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm summer night, when two thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying the last, perhaps, before that of death—and I, suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart, am communing with God, my country, and thee.

I have sought most closely and diligently, and often in my breast, for a wrong motive in thus hazarding the happiness of those I loved and I could not find one. A pure love of my country and of the principles have often advocated before the people and “the name of honor that I love more than I fear death” have called upon me, and I have obeyed.

Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.

The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me—perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar—that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.

Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the garish day and in the darkest night—amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours—always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.

Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.

As for my little boys, they will grow as I have done, and never know a father’s love and care. Little Willie is too young to remember me long, and my blue-eyed Edgar will keep my frolics with him among the dimmest memories of his childhood. Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care and your development of their characters. Tell my two mothers his and hers I call God’s blessing upon them. O Sarah, I wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children.

Sullivan

Song of the Day: Ashokan Farewell (by Jay Unger & Molly Mason)


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It was in the Fall of 1990 when I first heard of the latest Song of the Day. It was during Ken Burns’ excellent The Civil War documentary series on PBS where I heard Ashokan Farewell.” This haunting “Scottish Lament” by Jay Unger and Molly Mason made Burns’ documentary on the U.S. Civil War feel more alive instead of just another academic exercise on learning one of the pivotal events in U.S. history.

The song became an instant classic the moment it started playing during the series. Ken Burns’ loved the song so much that he used it several times (25 times officially) during the 11-hour running times of the series. Each time it played the song evoked strong emotions from all who heard it, but none moreso than when it was the accompanying music for a reading of a Union Major Sullivan Ballou to his wife prior to the start of the First Battle of Bull Run. Even the most critical viewer of Ken Burns’ documentary sees this sequence and the accompanying Ashokan Farewell” a major reason why this series became an instant classic and continues to be the standard bearer of how a documentary should be done and done well.

Film Review: Barquero (1970, directed by Gordon Douglas)


barquero-movie-poster-1970-1010695655Travis (Lee Van Cleef) is a former gunslinger who now makes his living taking settlers across a river on his small barge.  When we first meet him, he is telling a child to shut up and stop bothering him while he is guiding the barge.  He depends on the settlers on the other side of the river for his livelihood and they depend on him for transportation but he doesn’t like them and they don’t like him.  Travis only cares about two people, his Mexican lover, Nola (Maria Gomez) and an eccentric hunter named Mountain Phil (Forrest Tucker).

After stealing a shipment of silver, outlaw Jake Remy (Warren Oates) and his army of mercenaries need to cross the river to escape into Mexico.  To prevent anyone from following, they plan to destroy the barge afterward.  However, Travis and Phil find out that Remy is on the way and take the barge to the other side of the river.  When Jake and his gang arrive, a tense stand-off ensues, with the outlaws on one side of the river and Travis and the settlers trapped on the other.

Though Barquero was directed by the veteran American director Gordon Douglas (Douglas’s best known film is the 1950s giant ant film, Them!),  it was heavily influenced by contemporary Spaghetti Westerns and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.  This can be seen in both its graphic violence and in the casting of Lee Van Cleef and Warren Oates in the leading roles.

Travis was a perfect role for Van Cleef, a talented actor who was ignored by Hollywood until he found fame playing ruthless villains in European westerns.  Surly and unsmiling, Travis may seem like an unlikely hero but, like many of the best Spaghetti westerns, there are no traditional good guys in Barquero.  Travis is more interested in saving his boat than protecting the settlers.  He is a hero of circumstance.

As Jake, Warren Oates is a great villain.  In his very first scene, he and a prostitute watch as his gang massacre the citizens of a small town.  When the prostitute asks if she can come with them, Jake calmly replies, “I don’t think so” and shoots her dead.  Stuck on his side of the river, Jake smokes the local weed and starts to have violent hallucinations.  Soon, he is shooting bullets into the river.

Also doing good work are Forest Tucker as Mountain Phil and Kerwin Mathews.  Mathews, who is best remembered for starring in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, plays the Marquette, a disgraced French nobleman who has started a second life as Jake Remy’s right-hand man.

Barquero starts with a bang but it struggles to keep up the momentum over its entire running time.  The opening shoot out is exciting but things slow down almost too much during the stand-off at the river.  It is an interesting but flawed western that deserves to be better known than it is and worth watching to see Lee Van Cleef and Warren Oates at their best.

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