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You just never know what he'll review next!

Monday 31 January 2022

Burl reviews Volunteers! (1985)


Good day campers! It’s Burl here with a bit of mostly forgotten 80s comedy that features some of the great stars of that period, ha ha, including such ringers as Tom Hanks from Dragnet and The Money Pit and John Candy, well known from Armed & Dangerous and The Great Outdoors! So how could a comedy movie with this sort of pedigree have been forgotten after only thirty-seven years? Well, mainly because it’s not very funny! And nobody went to see it in the theatre except me I guess, so there you go! The picture’s called Volunteers!

I still remember the experience of going to see it! It came out near the end of the summer (which might also help explain why it didn’t do very well), and just a day or two before I was to start my first day in high school! I recall feeling exactly neutral about it: it didn’t made me laugh, but I still derived some enjoyment from it, thanks mainly to the estimable Mr. Candy; and it mitigated that mild end-of-summer depression, which was the goal!

Well, I watched it again recently and it hasn’t improved much! Candy’s still good though, and it has a few bits I probably understand better now than I did then; and it still somewhat mitigates the anxieties of today’s world, which, ha ha, is the goal! It’s set in 1962, and Hanks plays a toffee-nosed fauntleroy just graduating from Yale and with all the attendant boorish manners thereby accorded; he’s a young man of privilege, a bounder, a snob, and a heavy gambler! He owes a chunk to his bookie, Allan Arbus from Damien: Omen II and The Last Married Couple in America, and if he doesn’t pay, Arbus's henchman, Ji-Tu Cumbuka from Out of Bounds (who had previously menaced Hanks in Bachelor Party, ha ha), will put a terrific pounding on the dinner jacketed lad! His rich dad, the ideally cast George Plimpton from L.A. Story, could help him out, but won’t!

The next thing you know, thanks to his roommate Xander Berkeley from Tapeheads, Hanks, or Lawrence Bourne III I should say, is on a Peace Corps plane overseas in the company of an amiable can-do character called Tom Tuttle from Tacoma, played by Candy of course, and a non-naïve idealist played by Rita Wilson from The Day It Came To Earth! “So this is hell,” moans Bourne! Peace Corps organizer John, played by Tim Thomerson from Zone Troopers, refuses to help send Bourne back, and so off he goes to the little Thai village with Wilson and Candy, where they are to build a bridge, and where the only fellow who can speak English is Gedde Watanabe from Vamp and Gremlins 2, and where in any case they don't want a bridge!

Others do, however: the local Communist soldiers for instance, and of course a drugs warlord played by Ernest Harada from Dreamscape, and a soon-to-be-revealed-as-maniacal Thomerson! Intersecting the story here and there are various characters played by such marvelous utility Asians as Clyde Kusatsu from Gimme an ‘F’, Professor Toru Tanaka from The Running Man, and Harry Yorku from Summer Rental! You’ll notice that none of these folks, as appealing a bunch of screen presences as they are, are even faintly of Thai extraction, but that’s how this movie rolls! After all, ha ha, it was shot in Mexico!

And it’s not terribly good! What it lacks most is pep, comedy pep! Maybe it’s just that Nicholas Meyer is not really a comedy director, though he managed some appealing lightheartedness in Time After Time! (I haven’t seen his other comedy, Company Business, but, ha ha, reports are not good!) Still, Ernst Lubitsch himself would have had trouble wringing comedy out of this script, which seems to put “laffs” about third or fourth down its list of concerns!

Another complaint: the period setting was every bit as convincing as the Thai locations, which is to say not much! The styling, the dialogue, the attitudes: everything seemed slightly off from where it should have been to place us firmly in the Kennedy era! And yet there are enjoyments to be had in the picture, and these, as earlier intimated, come mainly from the gangbusters cast! It’s too bad Candy gets kidnapped and brainwashed by Communists, and therefore drops out of the movie for a large chunk! At any rate, it’s probably not the worst thing either Candy or Hanks were involved with in the 80s, and there are bits and pieces I liked, so I give Volunteers one and a half college fight songs!

Sunday 23 January 2022

Burl reviews Nobody! (2021)


Ha ha and headbutts, it’s Burl! Yes, it’s time for another review, and this time I’m reviewing more old man action for you! As if Taken 2 and Rambo: Last Blood were not enough, here we have the story of a family man who used to be a man of violence in his role as an… what was it, adjuster? accountant? actuary? Anyway, some kind of killer for the C.I.A. with a boring-job nickname for whatever reason! The picture is quite simply called Nobody!

Now what this picture is, is the “fun” version of A History of Violence! And I say “fun” despite the scenes of a downtrodden ironworks executive cowering, while at work, from his in-laws and his bosses, who are one and the same, and later lying prone on his bed at night, separated from his disinterested wife by a wall of pillows! Don’t worry, his passion for mayhem will be reawakened soon enough! (Oh, and I should say right here that his father-in-law is played by Michael Ironside from Scanners!)

The fellow’s name is Hutch, and he’s played by comedysman Bob Odenkirk, who spent 2021 playing against type in pictures like this and Halloween Kills, in which he played a miniature role! Connie Nielsen from Rushmore plays his distant, disaffected wife, who spends a good chunk of the movie cowering in the basement with the couple’s teenage son and young daughter! It all kicks off when a couple of housebreakers invade Hutch’s house and steal his watch and a handful of cash, and put a bopping on the teenage son! Hutch has a chance to bean them with a golf club, but instead sends them on their way!

Of course as a result of this soft-out, his family believe him to be nothing better than a paisley mandanfield; but little do they know the incident has given him the thirst for violence! He seeks out and retrieves his watch from the robbers, then happens into a clash with a gang of drunken Russian louts posessing little sense of either civility or bus ridership! Ha ha, Hutch pounds them all (getting well tenderized himself in the process), and thus earns the enmity of crime baron Yulian, played by Aleksey Serebryakov from Fartsa, whose brother or cousin or something was one of the beatees! In fact Hutch has not merely roughed this relation up, he’s roughed him up to death!

Yulia commands a gang of course - that brand of gangster who in movies are often seen in track suits with gold chains hanging about their necks, ha ha, and so the movie is almost as Eastern Promises as it is A History of Violence - and they find Hutch's name by inspecting his dropped bus pass! There’s a home invasion scene which ends in more victims; a car crash; a kidnapping; a car chase; and finally the big showdown at the tool and die factory! Here Hutch receives some last-act help from his old hangdog dad played by Christopher Lloyd from Buckaroo Banzai and Track 29, and his stepbrother, a sniper played by the RZA from Ghost Dog and The Dead Don’t Die; and thanks to them and the Home Alone traps Hutch has earlier set, a lot of Russian gangsters are shot, exploded, or run through with rebar!

Ha ha, that’s a throwback move, isn’t it, the rebar impalement! It seems very 80s or early 90s to me, and indeed, the whole movie has that same spirit! As a mechanism for providing a cathartic jolt to middle-aged schlubs who fantasize about violent vengeance against imaginary wrongdoers, it’s finely-honed, ha ha! As a story with any real depth or subtextual provender, I found it wanting! Of course once he becomes a hyper-violent killer his wife rediscovers her ardor for hubbo, who for his part admits that in his transformation from soulless killer to middle-class doormat, he might have overcorrected! But there’s no investigation of these human aspects, no challenging of them, no real way of excavating a theme from the thing!

It’s an enjoyable bit of melba toast and cheese for a’ that! The actors all do good work, and I was pleased to see J-Rod in the role of the bus driver! I would also add that it’s clear from watching the picture that whoever purchased the set dressing did an exemplary job! It’s a bonbon and no mistake, but I give Nobody two and a half stock shots of some other city!

Wednesday 19 January 2022

Burl reviews The Groundstar Conspiracy! (1972)


Blast, bang, boom, it’s Burl, here to review a curious item from the early 1970s! It’s a conspiracy thriller, I guess - ha ha, “conspiracy” is even in the title - but the conspiracy, it’s raison d’etre, and its perpetrators remain fairly oblique! Well, maybe it’s just me! The picture is The Groundstar Conspiracy, and if you can’t readily call it to mind, don’t be too hard on yourself! Ha ha, it never got much attention!

I’ll say it right off: I admire the picture for creating its own nearly unique tone! I say "nearly" because the movie, with its damp British Columbia locations and its halfhearted chase structure, and the note of semi-desperation it so consistently plays, reminded me quite a bit of Explosion! They're very different movies, of course, but once these connections have been made in my mind, they're very hard to sunder!

I’ll give you the particulars of the plot as I can recall them! Bang! Ha ha, that’s how the movie begins, with an secret laboratory exploding and many science types blowing up along with it! One man escapes by the skin of his bum, but not without suffering a mutilated face and brainbonk amnesia! As he recuperates, he becomes an object of suspicion to a turtleneck agent called Tuxan, played by George Peppard from Damnation Alley! Why, this escapee is almost certainly the saboteur who blew up the facility, Tuxan thinks!

Ha ha, he also suspects the woman upon whose doorstep the staggering mutilee was discovered, a lady played by a younger and less-severe-than-I’m-used-to-looking Christina Belford from Pocket Money and Christine! Tuxan is sure they’re in league, and after hassling the man to remember who he is, the bandages are finally removed to reveal that the reconstructive face surgery has left him looking like the slope-browed Michael Sarrazin from Selkirk of Red River and The Reincarnation of Peter Proud!

The heart of the picture is these three characters binging and bonging against each other! Tuxan, an unreconstructed hardass and a genuine fascist, deliberately allows Sarrazin to escape, then keeps close tabs on him and Belford as they hook up and slowly fall in love! Ha ha, Tuxan bugs the couple six ways to Sunday and films them in the act of bohankie, all the while expressing a desire to bug every bedroom in the country! He’s a real piece of work, that Tuxan, and I guess is meant to be the face of Nixonian paranoia and rights violations!

There’s some talk of double agents and deliberate amnesia, giving the picture that Total Recall feeling, but this lasts only briefly! As in Sleeper, a fellow more or less obviously from Earth - the Sarrazin character, that is - is repeatedly referred to as an alien, even though he’s probably from this planet and nobody ever seems to think otherwise, except for calling him “the alien!” In fact, I believe this picture might be based on a book called The Alien, ha ha! And I guess they cast the right guy, because Sarrazin does have an alien quality about him, and maybe this is why he never really made it big in the acting game!

In any case, The Groundstar Conspiracy is an interesting picture more than it is a good one! It has its own tone, as I say, and that qualifies as an accomplishment; and it has nice widescreen photography with good use of Simon Fraser University and the surrounding area! But for a thriller it rarely thrills, and the central mystery of who Sarrazin really is and did he do it, is curiously unengaging! It’s an early-70s curio, of that there’s little doubt, and if you decide to track it down, you’ll probably file it in your head alongside other mid-budget 70s British Columbia movies of roughly the same era, stuff like The Mad Room and Shadow of the Hawk! And you could do worse than that, ha ha! I give The Groundstar Conspiracy two and a half punches on the nose!

Friday 7 January 2022

Burl reviews Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid! (1973)


Yaw-houyyy pardners, it’s Burl with a taste of the oat for you! Yes, here’s a movie made by that most pickled of productionsmen, Mr. Sam Peckinpah! He directed plenty of outdoor horse operas, great pictures like Ride the High Country and the unstoppable glory that is The Wild Bunch, but of them all, this one, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, is probably the one that gave old Sam the most headaches and the most morning-afters! Oh, he had to fight some battles, all right, and the different versions of this picture attest to the fact that he didn’t win them all! (The version reviewed here, by the way, is the 116 minute Special Edition!)

Like The Wild Bunch, the picture starts with an instance of animal cruelty that serves as a presentiment of the situation in which the characters will find themselves! In the earlier movie it was a scorpion stinging itself to death rather than be eaten alive by ants; here, rather more gruesomely and less elegantly, it’s a bunch of unfortunate chickens buried up to their necks and having their heads blown off for target practice by Billy and his gang! Ha ha, I’ve been known to chew on a drumstick, but I could have done without seeing that!

Mr. Patman himself, James Coburn from Hard Times and Eraser, plays Pat Garrett, a lawman in the employ of the Chisum concern! He’s pals with William Bonney, the Kid; in classic homoromantic Western parlance, they used to ride together! But no more, for Pat has been ordered to get that Kid, and after an opening scene in which he gives the Kid fair warning and advises he decamp forever to Mexico, we follow the two legendary figures as this pursuit plays out! Ha ha, it’s an oft-told tale!

Kris Kristofferson, the songsmith known for appearances in such pictures as Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Trouble in Mind, is Billy, and the picture takes on an episodic quality as it bounces back and forth between the adventures of its dual protagonists! Bob Dylan, another popular recording artist, is Alias, a character seemingly inserted so Dylan could be cast to play him! Of course Zimmy also provides the excellent soundtrack material, and a great moment for me was seeing the scene for which “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” was written, and how well the song works in that moment, and for once knowing that, in considering the lyrics, I was now seeing the same images Dylan himself had when he wrote the song, since those Peckinpah visuals were the ones that inspired it!

The cast in this thing is mind boggling! Ha ha, it’s as though Peckinpah decided he wanted to cast everyone he’d ever worked with before and make sure they all died bloody gunfight deaths! Why, familiar grizzled faces are popping up around every corner: we get gemstones like Slim Pickens from Dr. Strangelove and This House Possessed, who gets an amazingly touching death scene scored to the aforementioned Dylan tune! My longstanding fave, the great R.G. Armstrong from The Car and The Beast Within, is a Bible-thumping deputy who gets blasted with his own shotgun full o’ dimes! “Ha ha, keep the change,” quips Billy!

We get Richard Jaeckel from The Dark and Starman; Luke Askew from Rolling Thunder; Matt Clark from Buckaroo Banzai and The Horror Show; Charles Martin Smith from Herbie Goes Bananas; John Beck from Paperback Hero, Sleeper, and Deadly Illusion; and of course Harry Dean Stanton from Repo Man, UFOria and Christine - and these are only the relatively young guys! Bringing the grizz are old bars like Chill Wills from Fireball 500, and who was also of course the voice of the mule in Francis, and who here has his hat pulled down over his head and is frightened into a self-befouling; growly old Jack Elam from Creature From Black Lake as Alamosa Bill; Mapache from The Wild Bunch, Emilio Fernández, as an ill-fated member of Billy’s gang, who also gets a brutal and touching send-off; plus L.Q. Jones from White Line Fever, Paul Fix from Force of Evil and Jet Pilot, Elisha Cook Jr. from ‘Salem’s Lot, Gene Evans from It Happens Every Spring and many Sam Fuller pictures, and Dub Taylor from The Best of Times! And then there’s Barry Sullivan from Earthquake playing Chisum, and a special appearance by Jason Robards from The Paper as the Governor!

Phew! And that’s just the men! There are a few ladies in the picture too, though not many! There’s songstress Rita Coolidge, plus Rutanya Alda from The Long Goodbye and The Fury, and in the role of Slim Pickins’ wife, who deals out not a little carnage herself, Katy Jurado from Under the Volcano! I can hardly state it with greater vociferousness: this picture has a hell of a cast! And, ha ha, just listing it has practically doubled the length of this review!

So I’ll try to wrap it up quickly! It’s a marvelous-looking picture, and the old character pros who populate it, the terrific script by Rudy Wurlitzer (who later wrote Alex Cox’s Walker, which I should get around to reviewing one day), and the weird mix of tender and brutal left by Peckinpah’s singular touch, give it an emotional heft that might surprise you, and anyway surprised me! Gunfights erupt out of nowhere and character actors burst open in globs of red tempera, and boy howdy, it’s a good, entertaining oater! I’m pleased to give this iteration of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid three and a half cans of dried goods!