Shell Game (1975, directed by Glenn Jordan)

Max Castle (John Davidson) is a conman who gets arrested in Florida because of a shady real estate deal.  The judge releases him into the custody of his older brother, an attorney named Stephen (Robert Castle).  Though Max is technically just a paralegal, he secretly helps out his brother’s clients but running elaborate scams on the people who have cheated them.  When businessman Lyle Rafferty (Jack Kehoe) embezzles money from his own charity and then lets one of his employees take the fall, Max decides that Rafferty is going to be his next target.

Shell Game was a made-for-TV movie.  It’s pretty obvious that it was meant to be the pilot for a weekly series, where I guess Max would have pulled a con on every different evildoer every week.  Because the show is more interested in setting up who Max is and why he cons people, there’s not much dramatic tension in Shell Game.  Max tricks Rafferty into buying a worthless gold mine and Rafferty falls for every single trick that Max pulls on him.  Unfortunately, since Rafferty is such an easy target, there’s no real pay-off to seeing him get conned.  It’s not like The Sting, where there were real stakes and dangers involved in Paul Newman and Robert Redford’s pursuit of Robert Shaw’s money.  The con is just too easy.

On the plus side, Max’s old partner-in-crime is played by Tom Atkins.  Atkins is so believable as a veteran conman with a heart of gold that he probably would have been a better pick for the lead role than the likable but bland John Davidson.  The rest of the cast is forgettable.

Would Shell Game have worked as a weekly series?  Maybe, especially if Tom Atkins was a part of the regular cast. The idea of a former conman now running scams on other con artists had the potential to be intriguing and Max hints that he was framed by his partners in Florida.  I guess a weekly series would have explored that in greater detail.  However, it was not to be.  This shell game was played once and then forgotten.

Film Review: After Midnight (dir by Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella)

A man named Hank (Jeremy Gardner), who owns a pretty nice house out in the country, is holding a shotgun.  He’s just shot a hole through his front door.  Later, when the sun rises, he’ll walk around his land, carrying his gun and searching for anything that shouldn’t be there.  When an unfamiliar car drives down the road, he fires at it.

Hank has a few reasons for being paranoid.  He’s convinced that there’s something out there.  For the past two weeks, Hank claims that there’s been a monster scratching at the front door.  His friends tell him that it’s probably just a bear but Hank swears that it’s not.  It’s too big and strong and strange to be a bear.  It’s a monster, Hank swears.

Most of his friends assume that Hank is losing it.  It probably doesn’t help that Hank started talking about this monster around the same time that his girlfriend Abby (Brea Grant), left him.  Hanks claims that he has no idea why Abby left.  He assumes that she’s down in Florida with an old boyfriend but he doesn’t know for sure.  Whenever anyone suggests that he might want to think about why he and Abby are having problems, Hank steers the conversation back to the monster that he claims is trying to break into the house.

Hank spends his nights waiting for the monster and thinking about Abby.  We see flashbacks to his relationship with Abby and what we immediately notice is that they always seem to be happy.  In Hank’s memories, we never see them fighting or any hints that there was ever any trouble in their relationship.  Yet, no one seems to be surprised that Abby left Hank so, obviously, it was clear to everyone else that Abby wasn’t happy.  Are we seeing real memories of Hank and Abby or are we just seeing things the way that Hank has chosen to remember them?

After Midnight is a hybrid of a horror movie and a relationship drama.  It’s definitely not a film for everyone.  It moves at its own deliberate pace.  Some of the dialogue is a bit overwritten and I’m still not really sure how Hank managed to get away with firing a shotgun at a moving car.  (The film explains that he’s got a relative on the police force but it still seems like a bit of a stretch.)  There’s a very lengthy scene that is just made up of a largely static shot of Abby and Hank talking about their relationship.  It’s one of those scene that you’re either going to love or you’re going to hate.  Myself, I liked the fact that the film was just as concerned with Abby and Hank as a couple as it was with whatever was hiding in the darkness.  It helped that Gardner and Grant were a likable and believable couple.  That said, if you’re only watching this film for the horror elements, you’ll probably get annoyed.

However, After Midnight also features what is perhaps one of the greatest jump scares that I’ve ever seen.  It occurs towards the end of the film so yes, it does demand a little bit of patience on your part.  But that patience will be rewarded!  Seriously, I’m not going to spoil it but I will say that I literally fell off my couch in shock when it happened.  It was a perfectly executed moment and one that entirely justified that patience required to reach it.

After Midnight is on Prime.  It’s not for everyone but I liked it.

Song of the Day: Spasmodicamente by Ennio Morricone

Today’s song of the day comes to use from Ennio Morricone’s score for Umberto Lenzi’s 1974 giallo Spasmo.

As I was listening to this music, I took a few minutes to think about all of the directors with whom Morricone worked over his career.  Sergio Leone, Dario Argento, Quentin Tarantino, Roland Joffe, Sergio Corbucci, Umberto Lenzi, Terrence Malick, Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava, Don Seigel, John Carpenter, Brian DePalma, Franco Zefferelli, Barry Levinson, and so many more, all of them collaborated with Morricone.  His music brought to life the work of so many artists.  That’s certainly the case with Spasmo.

From Ennio Morricone, this is Spasmodicamente.

Previous Entries In Our Tribute To Morricone:

  1. Deborah’s Theme (Once Upon A Time In America)
  2. Violaznioe Violenza (Hitch-Hike)
  3. Come Un Madrigale (Four Flies on Grey Velvet)
  4. Il Grande Silenzio (The Great Silence)
  5. The Strength of the Righteous (The Untouchables)
  6. So Alone (What Have You Done To Solange?)
  7. The Main Theme From The Mission (The Mission)
  8. The Return (Days of Heaven)
  9. Man With A Harmonic (Once Upon A Time In The West)
  10. The Ecstasy of Gold (The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly)
  11. The Main Theme From The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly)
  12. Regan’s Theme (The Exorcist II: The Heretic)
  13. Desolation (The Thing)
  14. The Legend of the Pianist (The Legend of 1900)
  15. Theme From Frantic (Frantic)
  16. La Lucertola (Lizard in A Woman’s Skin)

Artist Profile: Darrel Greene (1917 — 2014)

Doing It by Darrel Greene

All of the paperback covers below were done by the prolific Canadian-American artist, Darrel Greene.  Greene, who was born in Canada and grew up in Utah, served as a flight instructor in the U.S. Navy but, instead of becoming a commercial pilot, he instead became a commercial artist and ended up doing the covers for a countless number of paperbacks.  For several decades, Greene’s illustrations enticed paperback readers the world over.

Here’s a small sampling of his work:

High School Pusher

The “Broken Pieces” Of David Tea’s Consciousness Coalesce in “Five Perennial Virtues” #11

Ryan C.'s Four Color Apocalypse

After spending the last couple of years mainly re-visiting old material (as opposed to merely re-printing it, given that he’s made changes ranging from the significant to the less so to pretty much all his earlier comics in their new iterations), it’s nice to see that Minneapolis cartoonist David Tea is back to producing original stuff with Five Perennial Virtues #11, the latest issue of his intermittent self-published series that’s been going for, what? Nearly two decades now?

My, how time flies — even if, in Dave’s ‘zines, it seems to either crawl or loop back in on itself. Or both. In any case, the “Broken Pieces” subtitle for this issue is entirely apropos, and while tonally and structurally it’s of a piece (or, if you prefer, of a broken piece) with previous installments, it’s also quite different and fairly unique unto itself. Spoiler alert, then : I think you’re…

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Film Review: Arkansas (dir by Clark Duke)

Oh, Arkansas.

As far as states go, Arkansas usually doesn’t get much respect.  In a country where much of the culture is dominated by city-dwelling secular liberals, Arkansas is a state the remains stubbornly rural, religious, and conservative.  If your grandparents were a state, they’d probably look a lot like Arkansas.  Arkansas is viewed as being old-fashioned and when it does make the news, it’s usually not for anything that anyone in the state particularly wants to brag about.  Democrats will always view Arkansas as being the home of Mike Huckabee.  Republicans will never forgive the state for springing the Clintons on the rest of the nation.  (Interestingly enough, Mike Huckabee and Bill Clinton both grew up in the same tiny town.)  Little Rock has gangs and government corruption.  Hot Springs has gamblers looking to hide out from the mob.  Fouke has the Boggy Creek Monster while Ft. Smith is best-known for having once been home to the hanging judge, Isaac Parker.  You get the idea.  When it comes to the way that the rest of the country views the state, it often seems as if poor Arkansas just can’t catch a break.

With all that in mind, I have to say that I really love Arkansas.  My paternal grandparents lived in Arkansas and I’ve still got relatives all over the state.  Arkansas was one of the many states where my family lived while I was growing up.  (The others were — deep breath — Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, and Louisiana.)  We would stay in Arkansas for months at a time, depending on how well my mom and dad were getting along at the time.  It’s an unpretentious state, one that’s full of friendly, no-nonsense people and beautiful countryside.  I have a lot of good memories of Arkansas.  It’s always in the back of my mind that, wherever I’m living, I can always just go back to Arkansas and spend the rest of my life living in a small town with my cousins.  Of course, I’d probably end up miserable over the lack of movie theaters.  Whenever I’m living in the city, I find myself yearning for the simplicity and decency of the country.  Whenever I’m in the country, I find myself missing the excitement of the city.

The Natural State (as Arkansas is officially nicknamed) is not only the setting for some of my most cherished memories.  It’s also the setting for a film called, appropriately enough, Arkansas.  The directorial debut of actor Clark Duke, Arkansas tells the story of four very different men.  Kyle Ribb (Liam Hemsworth) is quiet and rather stoic.  Swin Horn (Clark Duke) is talkative, eccentric, and perhaps a bit too cocky for his own good.  They both work at a national park, where their boss is a veteran ranger named Bright (John Malkovich).  Of course, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to notice that neither Kyle nor Ribb really seem to do much work at the park.  And, for that matter, Bright certainly does own a big and impressive house for someone who has spent the majority of his life as a ranger….

Kyle, Swin, and Bright are actually drug dealers.  They transport drugs all over the southern half of the United States.  Kyle and Swin are supervised by Bright.  Bright, meanwhile, reports to the mysterious Frog.  Kyle and Swin have never actually met Frog and there are rumors that he might not even exist.  Of course, the film has already revealed to us that Frog (played by Vince Vaughn) does exist and is a local pawnshop owner.

Kyle narrates the film, informing us that the difference between Southern organized crime and Northern organized crime is that, in the South, it’s not all that organized.  As Kyle explains it, the infamous Dixie Mafia is not so much an organization as it’s just a collection of undisciplined lowlifes who have no real integrity or loyalty to anyone else.  When you become a drug dealer in the South, you’re a drug dealer for life.  There’s no going back if you change your mind.  You start out at the bottom of the ladder and, whenever someone above you if either murdered or imprisoned, you get your chance to move up.  No one is ever sure who is working for who or who can be trusted.  Every order from the boss is examined and re-examined as the two dealers try to figure out whether or not they’ve won the trust of the mysterious Frog.

Unfortunately for Kyle and Swin, a misunderstanding leads to violence and several deaths.  With no way to directly communicate with Frog to let him know what exactly happened, Kyle and Swin know that their lives could be in danger.  The film follows Kyle and Swin as they prepare for their ultimate meeting with Frog while, at the same time, detailing in flashback how Frog himself eventually came to his position of power.  Throughout the entire film, we watch as history repeats itself.  As Kyle said, once you’re a drug dealer, you’re a drug dealer for life.

Arkansas is a surprisingly low-key film.  Kyle, Swin, Bright, and Frog all manage to be both very laid back and very aggressive at the same time.  (Anyone who has spent anytime with a large group of rednecks will understand what I’m talking about.)  As a director, Clark Duke is as interested in capturing the rhythms of every day life in Arkansas as he is in orchestrating the inevitable violence that results from all of the film’s betrayals and mistakes and some of the best scenes in the film just feature Kyle and Swin talking about nothing in particular while driving down the interstate.  The film’s mix of cheerful goofiness and existential horror will be familiar to anyone who has ever gotten lost on the way to Hot Springs.

Liam Hemsworth and Clark Duke are sympathetic in the lead roles, though Hemsworth’s Southern accent does slip a few times.  Swin meets a woman (Eden Brolin) in a grocery store and their subsequent romance manages to be both creepy and touching at the same time.  John Malkovich is, as usual, wonderfully eccentric.  That said, the film is pretty much dominated by Vince Vaughn, who plays Frog as being both dangerously ruthless and also as someone who understands that his eventual downfall is inevitable.  Frog came to power by betraying his boss and, as played by Vaughn, Frog is very much aware that he’s destined to eventually be betrayed as well.  Frog has made peace with both his place in the world and the reality of his situation and, in many ways, that makes him an even more dangerous character than he would be otherwise.  He has nothing to lose and he knows it.

Obviously, I liked Arkansas, both the state and the movie.  It’s an well-done work of Southern pulp.