The Puppet Masters (1994)

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This flick had a lot going for it: A story by Robert Heinlein; a screenplay adapted by David S. Goyer (well, among others); a cast led by Donald Sutherland, Keith David, and Will Patton; and a bunch of slug-like, mind-controlling aliens. Unfortunately, these wonderful ingredients were thrown together so haphazardly that the result is typical Hollywood fare, complete with an overabundance of car chases, explosions, and choreographed fist fights. The film also demonstrates — yet again — that if you want to save the planet from malevolent alien invaders, you don’t hire young, flirty federal agents (Julie Warner and Eric Thai) to do it. Although the movie does, in fact, revolve around them, these two so-called protagonists mostly just get in the way of their veteran counterparts as their forced, pedantic sexual tension ratchets up, eventually culminating in one of the most awkward and unintentionally-funny shower scenes ever filmed.

The Puppet Masters is not without its charms, however. It does try, earnestly, to respect Heinlein’s thoughtful source material — and it’s chock full of gory, practical effects involving those icky, aforementioned alien slugs. It also features outdated technology from the 1990s, such as floppy disks and pagers, while managing to be entertaining in a so-bad-it’s-good kind of way.

I adore the genre (as well as the ’90s) but The Puppet Masters isn’t the most solid entry. It’s on-par with John Carpenter’s remake of Village of the Damned (1995). But it’s not as good as Phantoms (1998) or The Arrival (1996), and I really shouldn’t even mention true classics, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), in the same breath.

Even though the alien slugs were awesome and gross, I can’t, in good conscience, rate The Puppet Masters better than Klute (lol). It gets two pot leafs out of five:
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The Puppet Masters (1994)

Point Blank (1967)

Point Blank

John Boorman and a small handful of directors, including Sam Peckinpah and John Milius, seem to understand — and capture — the tortured, destructive male psyche better than most. Their films, such as Excalibur (1981), The Wild Bunch (1969), and Conan the Barbarian (1982), respectively, always seem extremely “masculine” to me, as they channel the violent desperation and impotent rage of the modern everyman with more frenetic, testosterone-fueled style than their contemporaries. But they also curse their likable antiheroes with strangely steadfast moral compasses and samurai-like commitments to honor, which makes it surprisingly fun to root for the brutish, womanizing thugs they often use as protagonists.

In 1967, Boorman made his Hollywood “debut” with Point Blank — a gritty, semi-psychedelic revenge flick with the phenomenal Lee Marvin cast in the lead role. Marvin’s tough, brooding character, known only as Walker, is betrayed by his wife and his best friend after a heist on Alcatraz Island, shot in the gut, and left to die in the opening scene. He then regains consciousness and spends the rest of the movie tracking down those who “owe” him, crashing around California’s underworld like a coked-up bull in the proverbial china shop with Terminator-like persistence. Walker is wonderfully menacing in his pursuit, though he actually doles out very little violence himself. (Insert a sly wink to readers who have already seen the film here.) After he catches up with his ex-best friend — the great John Vernon, by the way, who I immediately recognized as the villain from Ernest Goes to Camp (1987) — Walker sets his sights on the corporate fat cats higher up in his criminal organization, who are used to having others do their dirty work for them. The whole thing is kind of like The Long Goodbye (1973) mixed with Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) — except it predates both of those films by several years!

Of course, the female characters are a bit weak-willed and, generally, exploited. The fight scenes are sloppy, minimally-choreographed, and devoid of any “gentleman’s rules” (like most of the clumsy, awkward fights I’ve witnessed/been a part of). The dialogue is delightfully disorienting and esoteric while the music manages to be jarringly funky and simultaneously surreal. Yet, somehow, the resulting jumble of AV poetry whispers something very satisfying to a primordial part of the reptile-brain that most American men are stuck wrestling with on a daily basis.

I was actually planning on giving Point Blank three pot leafs out of five when I started this review, but because it’s such a smart, fresh, and early benchmark in the neo-noir genre, as I understand it — and because I’ve been enjoying the commentary track with Boorman and Steven Soderbergh that was included on the DVD I rented while I was writing this — I’m now happy to give this classic tale of crime and redemption four pot leafs out of five:
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Point Blank (1967)

The Parallax View (1974)

Parallax View

Lost and largely forgotten among a slew of political thrillers from the 1970s that involved far-reaching conspiracies and diabolical assassination plots, The Parallax View remains a solid entry in the genre. It begins with the assassination of a prominent presidential candidate inside Seattle’s famed Space Needle, followed by a white-knuckle brawl atop the structure. A congressional committee then informs journalists that the assassination was perpetrated by a lone gunman — even though the audience has been treated to a brief, frenetic scene that strongly suggests otherwise. What follows isn’t great, by any means — but it oozes so much mood and atmosphere that it becomes quite hard to look away.

A young and rather goofy-looking Warren Beatty stars in the lead role as hungry journalist, Joseph Frady, who follows a trail of breadcrumbs in the wake of the assassination and exposes a shadowy corporation that is apparently recruiting sociopaths for contract killings. There is a lot of explosive action to keep the viewer off-balance as the exceedingly dark narrative rhythmically unfolds and Frady is sucked further and further into the literal and figurative maelstrom.

It’s the second Alan J. Pakula film that I’ve reviewed on this site and, although I did enjoy it more than Klute (1971), The Parallax View suffered from some of the same technical drawbacks: The action was disorienting; the editing, amateurish; and the dialogue, ambiguous and/or misleading. Still, the film has a lot of strengths too: It’s violent and cynical climax has been reused and recycled countless times over the years, but it was probably quite shocking and off-putting at the time. (It’s actually still extremely off-putting today!) The movie’s sparse-but-eerie soundtrack also emerges at just the right times to echo and refract some of the anguish that must have been leftover from the tragic, high-profile assassinations that rocked the United States during the 1960s.

It’s a strangely compelling mess of a movie that features one of cinema’s most infamous montages, along with William Daniels — the beloved Mr. Feeny from TV’s Boy/Girl Meets World — in a prominent role. This flick also alerted me to the fact that people could simply walk on airplanes in the 1970s and pay for the ticket once they were in the air!

All things considered, I give The Parallax View three pot leafs out of five:
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The Parallax View (1974)

The Handmaid’s Tale (1990)

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I’ve decided to focus on older, more obscure movies to review here, since everyone else (and their mothers!) seem to have the blockbusters and new releases pretty well covered. My buddy, Jack Wolf, might decide to review some more popular, contemporary films on this site. But, until then, you’re probably not going to get anything but offbeat, esoteric picks from me.¬† So, with that in mind, I decided to [finally] watch The Handmaid’s Tale from 1990. I’m blatantly hoping that the recent success of the Hulu series — which I have never seen, by the way — will drive some traffic here. (Oh, and I’ve never read the Margaret Atwood novel either.) But the old film, which stars Natasha Richardson alongside Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall, is still quite disturbing in 2018.

The movie, which takes place in the fictional but terrifyingly-plausible country of “Gilead,” highlights just how poisonous the marriage of Church and State can be, depicting a conservative, patriarchal police state in which fertile “handmaids” are forced into surrogate motherhood for powerful, barren couples. This dystopian nightmare was efficiently — if a little clinically — committed to film by the German director, Volker Schl√∂ndorff, who effectively swapped the relentless, bloodthirsty Stasi with uptight, sexually-repressed nuns and got strangely chilling results: brutal brainwashing techniques, public hangings, and hysterically violent lynch mobs to keep the masses of Gilead in line. But nothing is more hauntingly bizarre than the super-awkward sex/rape scene between the fully-clothed Robert Duvall, the extremely spiteful Faye Dunaway, and their poor handmaid, sandwiched between them in the missionary position.

The dated and admittedly stilted production does an admirable job, bringing this cautionary tale of religious fascism and fanaticism to life. Most of us (with brains) have awoken, over the past few decades, to the fact that sexism is utterly rampant in the world — and that organized, orthodox religion has, generally, helped to keep the proverbial “foot,” first referenced by Sarah Grimpke, firmly on the necks of our sisters. But, since the President of the United States is currently rushing a horrifyingly-conservative Supreme Court Justice through the confirmation process, The Handmaid’s Tale is probably more relevant now than it’s ever been before.

Because it was so brutal and genuinely frightening, I award this dated movie three pot leafs out of five (as I shudder at the current state of the union):
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The Handmaid’s Tale (1990)

Klute (1971)

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This is a fine film in many ways. It held my attention, from beginning to end, with its dark, mysterious plot, while the script toyed with some extremely interesting themes and ideas. However, Klute only scratches the ugly surfaces of its taboo subjects, merely highlighting, for example, that call girls can be cultured and complex characters. (Duh.) And that darkness lurks in the hearts of some men. (Surely, we already knew that.) Ultimately, I can’t help thinking that the subject matter has been explored further — and with defter hands — in other films.

Donald Sutherland is a weird-looking dude. But he’s also a great leading man. Jane Fonda is awesome, and I do suppose she deserves the awards that she won for this role. But the scenes in which she’s talking to her psychologist — as well-acted as they are — literally ignore the “show, don’t tell” rule that I try to live by as a writer. The best thing about Klute is Roy Scheider, who plays a pseudo-intellectual, nearly-respectable pimp. But the movie is kind of like Taxi Driver (1967)… if Taxi Driver had been directed by Adrian Lyne.

Before it meanders to a climax, Klute finds time to backhandedly blame its victimized call girl for the violent assaults she endured/unleashed. But my main problems are actually related to the direction and cinematography: There’s not much action in the film, but when it does occur, it borders on disorienting. Also, many scenes are so dimly lit that it’s difficult to discern what’s going on.

I suspect that I should award Klute three pot leafs out of five, but I’m going to be harsh on the technical crew and give it only two:
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Klute (1971)

The Killing (1956)

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Long before Eyes Wide Shut (1999), The Shining (1980), or A Clockwork Orange (1971), Stanley Kubrick was featuring super-creepy masks in his films. In The Killing, an ugly clown mask hides the face of Sterling Hayden, who plays an incredibly likable rogue who plans and executes a daring heist with a group of aging criminals at a crowded horse track. The movie, which inches me closer to completing Kubrick’s entire filmography, is, unsurprisingly, above-average for the noir genre.

The Killing delves a bit deeper than most of its contemporaries into the motives and desires driving its central characters — as well as the hubris that eventually leads to their downfalls. One of the more interesting characters involved in the heist is a Russian chess master played by Kola Kwariani, who mumbles philosophical dialogue with a strong accent that is difficult to understand (but rewarding if you’re able to). Plus, Marie Windsor plays a scheming and conniving gold-digger with such unchecked greed and ambition that it makes the viewer’s skin crawl at times. There’s not much gunplay in the film but when the shooting starts, it’s both unexpected and unnerving — as it often is in real life. Plus, there are a couple of references to Pagliacci that effectively underpin some of the characters’ tragic story arcs.

Unfortunately, the moral edicts of the time period largely dictate how the movie ends — and an overly-zealous narrator makes the whole thing seem like an inverted, criminal-minded Dragnet episode. But with its tight 85-minute running time, The Killing is an effectively simple — and surprisingly relatable — story that’s told with an extremely sure hand. (Even the final shot, with the words “The End” emblazoned across it, is gorgeously symmetrical.)

I could ramble on about Kubrick’s outstanding use of lighting and space, his amazing dolly sequences, etc. But, suffice it to say, four pot leafs out of five:
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The Killing (1956)

The Hateful Eight (2015)

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When I learned that Tarantino’s 8th film was going to be called The Hateful Eight, I didn’t think that it would actually be a hateful film. But after watching it, I’m happy to award this movie our site’s lowest possible rating: a single, lowly pot leaf out of five! Not only does The Hateful Eight bore the mind and offend the senses, it’s also mean-spirited and unintelligent.

To say that I expected more from Mr. Tarantino would be an understatement. All of his other films — even the mediocre Django Unchained (2012) — are worth multiple views. The man basically created a new kind of crime sub-genre with Reservoir Dogs (1992) and filmmakers from around the world have been emulating his verbose, frenetic style ever since. He was able to keep his sword sharp for two full decades, releasing contemporary kung-fu flicks, gritty grindhouse romps, and riveting historical fiction.

But The Hateful Eight treats its audience like a customer at Dick’s Last Resort and the result is simply no fun. Even the blood-vomiting scene, which I was tempted to laugh at, was executed in predictable, pedestrian fashion. And the director’s non-linear storytelling techniques that typically shock and amaze wind up wasting everybody’s time with pointless reveals and supposedly edgy expositions. It’s just not as interesting — on any level — as the man’s previous work.

Almost gleefully, I award this movie one pot leaf out of five:
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The Hateful Eight (2015)