Avenger (2006, directed by Robert Markowitz)

Calvin Dexter (Sam Elliott) is a former CIA agent who now works as a professional avenger.  No, that doesn’t mean that he knows Iron Man or that he works with John Steed and Mrs. Peel.  Instead it means that, motivated by his own feelings of hopelessness after his daughter was killed in Panama, Calvin offers his services to anyone who needs more help than the law can or will provide.  Calvin Dexter is not your typical, cynical ex-spy.  He is trying to make the world a better place by taking out its worst inhabitants.  He is such an idealist that he even has a “No Peace Without Justice” bumper sticker on his pickup truck.

When Dexter is hired to track down Rickie, the son of an old friend, he discovers that Rickie was captured while working for a charity that was trying to help refugees in Bosnia.  Rickie was tortured and murdered by men working for the Serbian warlord, Zoran Zilic (David Hayman).  Dexter sets out to avenge Rickie’s death.  Unfortunately, CIA director Paul Devereux (James Cromwell) considers Zilic to be a security asset.  He doesn’t care how many people Zilic kills as long as he’s useful to U.S. Intelligence.  Devereux sends another CIA agent, Frank McBride (Timothy Hutton), to stop Dexter by any means necessary.

Based on a novel by Fredrick Forsyth and produced for the TNT network, Avenger is one of those movies that used to show up often on late night television.  I can remember it playing in the background during more than one late night study session in college.  It’s the ideal film for late night viewing because there are enough twists and turns to hold your attention but the story is still easy to follow.  While the movie does have an important point to make about the war crimes that took place in Bosnia and America’s role in protecting some of the worst perpetrators of those crimes, its main strength is the determined performance of Sam Elliott.  Elliott is one of the few actors who has mastered the art of being both laid back and laser focused at the same time.  He plays Dexter like a modern day frontier marshal, traveling to the most dangerous parts of world to dispense simple but effective justice.

Avenger is fast-paced and it will hold your attention.  Sometimes, it feels like it could have been a pilot for a potential show and it is easy to imagine Dexter traveling to a different country each week and taking out a new international villain.  Timothy Hutton has a few good scenes as the rival CIA agent, even if he can’t match Sam Elliott’s killer charisma.  As usual, James Cromwell is well-cast as a government official who thinks that the ends can justify any means.  Whenever I see a movie like this, featuring Cromwell as the epitome of what everyone hates about the establishment, I’m reminded that it’s been a long time since he played Archie Bunker’s reliably goofy best friend, Stretch Cunningham.

Book Review: The Infernal Library: On Dictators, The Books They Wrote, And Other Catastrophes Of Literary by Daniel Kalder

The history of dictatorship is littered with failed writers.

That’s one of the lessons that I learned from reading Daniel Kalder’s 2018 book, The Infernal Library.  The Infernal Library takes a look at the literary output of some of the worst people who have ever lived.  Some of the dictators and the books examined are to be expected.  Everyone knows that Hitler wrote Mein Kampf while in prison and everyone knows that it’s a terrible book, from both a literary and a moral perspective.  Many people also know that Chairman Mao was credited as authoring several books, many of which were treated as holy texts by radicals in the west who read and quoted from them while, in Mao’s own country, intellectuals were being murdered during the Cultural Revolution.  And, of course, the works of Lenin and Stalin have recently found renewed popularity amongst the heirs of Walter Duranty.

But did you know that Benito Mussolini, long before he took over Italy, wrote florid novels that attacked the power of the Church?  Did you know that Saddam Hussein was not only Iraq’s feared leader but also it’s most popular novelist?  Did you know that Saparmurat Niyazov Turkmenbashi, leader of the nation of Turkmenistan, not only wrote his own hybrid historical-religious text but that he also sent into space so that it can be discovered and read by any intergalactic travelers who came across it?

What is up with dictators and their literary pretensions?  I suppose it does make a strange sort of sense.  The typical psychological profile of a writer is that they’re cynical, they’re comfortable working alone for long periods of time, they often feel alienated from mainstream and/or conventional society, and they feel that they not only have something to say but that they are the only ones who can say it.  If someone who fits that profile also has talent and imagination, they’re capable of creating powerful works of art.  If someone who fits that profile doesn’t have talent or imagination, then they can take over a country and force their subjects to not only read their books but to also talk about how well-written they are.  As well, a literary output allows a dictator to fashion themselves as being something more than a thug.  Being a published writer brings with it an aura of respectability.  The more gullible assume that you must have something worth saying because otherwise, why would someone have published it?

In The Infernal Library, Daniel Kalder writes that he read these book so “you wouldn’t have to” and for that, we should perhaps be thankful.  Along with often being second-rate minds, dictators are also often second-rate writers and Kalder examines their work with both a razor-sharp wit and a knowledge that the books themselves reveal much about the men who wrote them.  Hitler’s paranoia, resentment, and conspiracy-fueled world-view are present on every page of Mein Kampf and, indeed, while the rest of Europe’s leaders were trying to negotiate with and contain him, they could have just read his book and discovered that their efforts would be for naught.  The mix of ruthlessness and prejudice that led to Stalin starving his own citizens can be found in his own words while Saddam Hussein’s novels reveal a mind that was obsessed with a mix of preserving tradition and punishing those who have somehow failed.  While some of the dictators spend more time on their ideology than others, all of them share an obsession with exposing their perceived enemies, justifying their own actions, and demanding to be respected by a world that they feel has treated them unfairly.  Almost every dictator that Kadler profiles strives (often a bit too hard) to prove their literary worth while ultimately revealing the true darkness at the heart of their worldview.  Indeed, only a youngish Mussolini appears to have had even the hint of any real ability as a writer, authoring sordid novels with a satirical subtext.  But whatever literary talent he may have had disappeared once he gave his life over to fascism.  Authoritarianism and imagination do not go well together.  Indeed, imagination is perhaps the biggest enemy that the authoritarian has.  The great irony is that so many dictators demanded to known as men of imagination when imagination and freedom of thought was often the first thing that they tired to stamp out upon coming to power.

The Infernal Library is an interesting and important book.  Read it so you don’t have to read any of the people profiled within.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: Bohemian Rhapsody (dir by Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher)

Can a film be a box office hit and win the most Oscars of the year while also ending the career of the man who was credited as directing it?

If it’s Bohemian Rhapsody, it can.

The story is well-known but it is worth repeating.  From the moment that the film went into production in 2017 until it was finally released in November of 2018, the buzz was that Bohemian Rhapsody was going to be a disaster.  Despite the fact that he sometimes claimed that directing a biopic about Queen lead singer Freddy Mercury was a bit of a passion project for him, reports from the set indicated that director Bryan Singer was behaving just a little bit erratically.  He argued with lead actor Rami Malek.  He frequently disappeared from the set.  Shooting was delayed for days because no one knew where Singer was.  At the same time, with the #MeToo movement at the height of its cultural power, Singer was being accused of being one of Hollywood’s worst abusers.  Eventually, 20th Century Fox suspended the production, fired Bryan Singer, and brought in Dexter Fletcher to finish shooting the film.  By most accounts, Fletcher did a professional and exemplary job of getting the production back on track but, due to the DGA bylaws, he wasn’t credited with directing the film.  Instead, he had to settle for an executive producer credit and the opportunity to direct the Elton John biopic, Rocketman.

As such, no one was expecting much from Bohemian Rhapsody.  There were, of course, reports that Rami Malek did an unusually good job as Freddy Mercury.  If somehow the film could be saved in editing, Malek might even pick up an Oscar nomination.  But everyone knew that Bohemian Rhapsody was going to have to overcome a lot to be a successful film.  While everyone appreciated that Dexter Fletcher had finished the film after Singer flaked out, there was a lot of doubt as to whether or not Fletcher’s work would mesh with Singer’s vision.

And indeed, the initial reviews were not positive.  Malek was praised by most (but certainly not all) critics but the film itself was described as being disjointed and full of clichés.  The film’s historical accuracy was criticized, as was its reticence in seriously exploring Mercury’s sexuality.  Bohemian Rhapsody‘s editing was also heavily criticized, with the film’s sloppiness felt to be a result of the editor trying to put a coherent story together out of scenes that were filmed by two very different directors.  

Here’s the thing, though. 

The critics may have dismissed the film but what about the audiences?  What about the people who pay money to see a film in a theater on the weekend that it comes out?  What about the people who are motivated not by the opinions of film critics but instead by the recommendations of their friends and family?  Those people, they didn’t care.  They flocked to see Bohemian Rhapsody and, judging by the film’s box office, quite a few people saw it more than once.  After all the drama and bad publicity, Bohemian Rhapsody became a huge hit.

It also became an Oscar contender.  The film received five Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture of the Year.  (Among the films that were not nominated for Best Picture were Eighth Grade, First Reformed, First Man, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and If Beale Street Could Talk.)  Though the award for Best Picture went to Green Book (another film that was more popular with audiences than with critics), Bohemian Rhapsody won the other four awards for which it was nominated.  In fact, Bohemian Rhapsody won the most Oscars that year.  It won more Oscars than BlackKklansman, Black Panther, A Star is Born, The Favourite, and RomaBohemian Rhapsody even won the Oscar for Best Editing.

Even at the time that Bohemian Rhapsody was winning all of those Oscars, people seemed to be rather embarrassed by the film’s success.  (Not one winner mentioned Bryan Singer in their speech, though most did take the time to thank Dexter Fletcher.)  In the years since, Bohemian Rhapsody has developed a reputation for being one of the worst films to ever be nominated for Best Picture.

So, when I rewatched the film on Hulu, the main question on my mind was, “Is Bohemian Rhapsody as bad as everyone remembers?”

Well …. it’s not great.  At the same time, it’s not terrible.  It’s one of those films that’s very much in the middle.  All those complaints about Bohemian Rhapsody being disjointed were and are valid.  The script indulges in just about every rock star biopic cliché and the other members of Queen are portrayed as being ciphers.  Perhaps most surprisingly, Rami Malek’s acclaimed, Oscar-winning performance doesn’t hold up particularly well.  Malek has the charisma necessary to be a believable rock star but his performance is all on the surface and you never really get any ideas as to what exactly was going on inside of Mercury’s head.  This is a biopic that doesn’t seem to be sure what it wants to say about its main subject, other than “Thanks for the music.”  And really, there’s nothing wrong with saying “Thanks for the music.”  But that could have just as easily been said by re-releasing a Queen concert film.  That said, the story moves quickly, the 70s and 80s fashion is enjoyably over the top, and the concert scenes are nicely put together.  I’m not really a Queen fan but I know that I’m in the minority and there’s enough Queen music in the film to keep the majority happy.  The film, after all, was made for the fans.

So, I guess my opinion is that Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t good enough to justify all of those Oscars but it’s not quite bad enough to justify all of the hate either.  The film would probably have a better reputation if it hadn’t won all those Oscars.  Without all of those Oscars, it would be remembered as an uneven biopic with some good musical scenes and a lot of enjoyably tacky fashion choices.  Instead, it’s destined to forever be remembered as the film that won Best Editing over The Favourite.  Sometimes, it’s better to not be nominated.

It will also be remembered as the film that, along with a series of serious sexual misconduct allegations, ended Bryan Singer’s career as a major filmmaker.  Singer was briefly attached to direct a new version of Red Sonja but, after the resulting outcry, that project was canceled.  As far as I know, he hasn’t been attached to any major films since then.  With the X-Men now a part of the MCU, it’s doubtful he’ll be invited to have anything else to do with that franchise.  Much as happened with Sam Peckinpah and Convoy, Bohemian Rhapsody was a box office success that made its credited director a pariah in the industry.  Dexter Fletcher, meanwhile, was acclaimed for his work as director of Rocketman and he recently directed two of the better episodes of The Offer.  


Film Review: Speed (dir by Jan De Bont)

“Awwwww, Keanu and Sandra are so cute together!”

That was my main thought when I recently rewatched the 1994 film, Speed.  There’s a lot of reasons why Speed remains popular 28 years after it was initially released but I think a huge (if underrated) factor is that it’s just a good love story.  At this point, everyone knows that the film is about a bus that has been wired to explode if it goes under 50 miles per hour.  Most people know that Dennis Hopper plays Howard, the mad bomber, Keanu Reeves plays Jack, the cop who jumps on the bus and tries to figure out how to defuse the bomb, and Sandra Bullock plays Annie, the passenger who takes over driving the bus after the driver is incapacitated.  (If you’re fan of the work of John Hughes, you might also know that Speed was the film where Ferris Bueller‘s Alan Ruck broke free of his Cameron typecasting and established himself as a dependable character actor.)  Most people remember what the cops do in an attempt to trick Dennis Hopper and, for that matter, they also remember the one mistake that led to Hopper figuring out their ruse.

And yet, even though most viewers will know exactly what is going to happen, the film remains a fun watch because of the chemistry between Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock.  This was one of Sandra’s first major roles.  This was also one of Keanu’s earliest attempts to helm a big budget, major studio action picture.  (Director Jan de Bont insisted on casting him after seeing him in the film Point Break.  The studio preferred Tom Cruise.)  In Speed, both Keanu and Sandra are young, likable, attractive, enthusiastic, and they have smiles that light up the screen.  As soon as Sandra takes over driving and Keanu tells her that she cannot allow the bus to slow down under any circumstances, the two of them just seem to belong together.  The film’s enduring popularity is about more than just watching a bus try not to go under a certain speed.  The popularity of Speed is also about watching the characters played by Keanu and Sandra fall in love.

Who would have guessed it?  Well, certainly not whoever put together the film’s original theatrical trailer.  Check this out:

As you can see, the original trailer doesn’t feature much of Sandra Bullock.  For that matter, it’s not quite as Keanu-centric as you might expect it to be.  Instead, the trailer is dominated by things exploding and Dennis Hopper’s over-the-top performance as the bomber.  And make no doubt about it, Dennis Hopper is definitely an entertaining part of the film.  There’s not a subtle moment to be found in his performance and that makes him the perfect for the role of a man whose response to a cheap retirement present is to go on a bombing spree.  That said, the film belongs to Keanu and Sandra.

That said, it would be a mistake to ignore the other people on the bus.  One of the things that I like about Speed is that the other passengers on the bus come together to survive their ordeal.  They may start out as weary commuters but, by the end of the film, they’ve become a family.  They may get annoyed with each other but, when it comes time to climb from one bus to another, they hold on to each other and they hug one another on the other side.  The bomber, like all terrorists, thought that he could turn people against each other through his threats and his violence.  Instead, the people came together provided one another with comfort and protection.  There’s an important lesson there, one that’s even more important in 2022 than it probably was in 1994.

(On a personal note, I’m not usually a public transportation person.  However, in high school, I would occasionally catch the DART bus — that’s Dallas Area Rapid Transportation — if it was raining.  The buses were often not in particularly good shape.  One that I boarded actually had a hole in the floor and, since it was raining, the passengers would have to hold up their feet whenever the bus splashed through a puddle.  Personally, I was kind of amused by the weirdness of it all but I think I was the only one.  Would the passengers of that bus bonded together to defeat a mad bomber?  One can only hope.)

Speed may be a film about a bomb on a bus but, ultimately, it’s also a film about humanity at its best.  And that’s why, after all this time, it remains a classic.

International Film Review: Shanghai 13 (dir by Chang Cheh)

A Hong Kong-Taiwanese co-production that was first released in 1984, Shanghai 13 takes place during the early days of World War II in Asia, when the conflict was primarily viewed as being between Japan and China.  With the help of a thief named Black Hat (Jimmy Wang Yu), a low-level but patriotic Shanghai bureaucrat named Mr. Gao (Chiang Ming) steals a report that details the collaboration between Japan and a puppet regime that has been installed in Northern China.  Mr. Gao hopes to take the documents to Hong Kong, where he will be able to safely publish them and reveal just how corrupt the Chinese collaborators are.  Needless to say, the collaborators would rather this not happen and they are determined to assassinate Mr. Gao before he boards the last boat to Hong Kong.

Fortunately, Mr. Gao is not alone.  The 13 Rascals have been called in to protect Mr. Gao.  Who are the 13 Rascals?  They are a collection of talented marital artists and they are all patriots, determined to reveal the truth about what is happening in Northern China.  The 13 Rascals are played by an ensemble of Hong Kong and Taiwanese film veterans.  One appears after another, each getting their chance to show off what they can do while defending Mr. Gao.  Many of the rascals lose their lives to protect Mr. Gao but that seems to be the point of the film.  No sacrifice is too much when its done to protect the honor of one’s country.

To really understand what’s going on with Shanghai 13, it probably helps to know a bit about not only the Second Sino-Japanese War and the subsequent chain of events that led to the Republic of China relocating its central government to Taiwan.  My knowledge of these events is pretty much Wikipedia-level and I’m not going to present myself as being an expert.  That said, it’s pretty obvious that Mr. Gao, who is forced to leave his home city by a corrupt and ruthless government, is meant to serve as a stand-in for both Taiwan and Hong Kong (or, at least, Hong Kong before it was transferred to Chinese control).  Just as the Rascals will sacrifice their lives to protect Mr. Gao, they would do the same for Taiwan and Hong Kong.  The implication, of course, is that the audience should do the same.

Fortunately, if international politics are not your thing, Shanghai 13 can also be enjoyed as just a non-stop action film.  Admittedly, the film does get off to a bit of a slow start.  (If you’ve ever wanted to see every little detail of how to crack a safe, this is the film for you.)  Once the fighting begins, it’s pretty much nonstop and more than a little bloody.  Faces are kicked.  Bones are shattered.  Clawed gloves are worn.  One man carries a killer fan and laughs whenever anyone tries to remove it from his hands.  The film is full of Hong Kong and Taiwanese stars, all of whom get their chance to show off their moves and the majority of whom also get a dramatic death scene.  One man gets impaled a pole and still announces that he would rather die with honor than surrender.  (And, needless to say, he drops dead shortly afterwards.)  There’s enough slow motion to keep any slo mo of doom enthusiast happy.  The final battle takes place in a ship yard and features combatants jumping on top of shipping crates.  It’s exciting and weird.

Throughout it all, Mr. Gao stands in the background and watches.  Mr. Gao is not a fighter and he can only watch while everyone else in the movie sacrifices their lives so that Mr. Gao can reveal the truth about China’s puppet regime.  If this was an American film, I’m sure that the last-standing hero would probably get angry with Mr. Gao, much as Snake Plissken did with the President in Escape From New York.  But in Shanghai 13, all that matters is that Mr. Gao is a patriot.  He’s a man trying to protect his nation from a corrupt government and, for that reason, 13 people are willing to risk their lives to protect him.  We could use more people like the 13 Rascals.

Celebrate Dinosaur Day With The Pulps!

by Alex Schomburg

Happy Dinosaur Day!  Today is the day when we  celebrate the former rulers of our planet!  Dinosaurs were alwasy a popular subject with the pulps.  Pulp magazines were full of stories about modern-day dinosaurs and speculation about why the real ones when extinct.  Putting a dinosaur on the cover of a magazine or a paperback was a good way to catch the attention of readers all over.  Today, let’s celebrate Dinosaur Day with the help of the pulps!

Artist Unknown

Artist Unknown

by Edmund Emshwiller

by Frank R. Paul

by George Gross

by Howard V. Brown

by J. Allen St. John

by J. Allen St. John

by Lawrence Sterne Stevens

by Thomas Beecham

Happy Dinosaur Day!

by Jerome Podwil

4 Shots From 4 Films: Special Wes Craven Edition

4 Or More Shots From 4 Or More Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

83 years ago today, Wes Craven was born in Cleveland, Ohio.  Craven started his career as an academic, teaching high school English.  However, realizing that there was more money to be made in the film industry, Craven changed careers.  By his own admission, he started his career directing “hardcore, X-rated films” under a pseudonym and it has been rumored that he was a member of the crew of the first “porno chic” film, Deep Throat.  Eventually, Craven broke into the mainstream with some of the most influential and often controversial horror films ever made.  From being denounced for the original Last House On The Left to changing the face of horror with A Nightmare on Elm Street to becoming something of a revered statesman and a beloved pop cultural institution with the Scream franchise, Wes Craven had a truly fascinating career.

In honor his films and legacy, it’s time for….

4 Shots from 4 Wes Craven Films

The Hills Have Eyes (1977, dir by Wes Craven, DP: Eric Saarinen)

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, dir. by Wes Craven, DP: Jacques Haitkin)

Deadly Friend (1986, dir by Wes Craven, DP: Philip H. Lathrop)

The People Under The Stairs (1991, dir by Wes Craven, DP: Sandi Sissel)

Music Video of the Day: Bother by Stone Sour (2002, directed by Gregory Dark)

The Spider-Man ring that is visible in this video is due to leader singer Corey Taylor being both a fan of the character and this song appearing on the soundtrack of the first Tobey Maguire Spider-Man film.  Just as Peter Parker and Spider-Man are the same but different, the same can be said of Corey Taylor, who is introspective and thoughtful as Stone Sour’s lead singer and something somewhat different when he’s performing as Number 8 with Slipknot.

This video, which features Taylor singing to rapidly aging and dying version of himself, was directed by Gregory Dark.  Dark, previously known as “the Steven Spielberg of the soft-score set” and “the Martin Scorsese of the erotic thriller,” was making the transition for directing films for adults to directing music videos.  It wasn’t always a smooth transition.  There was some controversy when he directed a video for Britney Spears, for instance.  I think this is one of Dark’s better videos.