Monday, May 29, 2017


Character actor Cameron Mitchell gave the performance of his career for co-directors Roland Kibbee and Burt Lancaster in their complicated but intriguing murder mystery "The Midnight Man," co-starring Susan Clark, Morgan Woodward, Harris Yulin, Lawrence Dobkin, Robert Quarry, Ed Lauter, and Catherine Bach. For the record, Kibbee and Lancaster had collaborated before, principally with Kibbee penning screenplays for Lancaster epics, such as "Ten Tall Men" (1951), "The Crimson Pirate" (1952), "Vera Cruz" (1954), "The Devil's Disciple" (1959), and "Valdez Is Coming" (1971). Together, Kibbee and Lancaster adapted David Anthony's novel "The Midnight Lady and the Mourning Man." Considering the abundance of talent involved in this melodrama, "The Midnight Man" (*** OUT OF ****) should have been a superior whodunit. Indeed, everything about this solidly scripted but formulaic murder mystery is done with efficiency. Kibbee received an Emmy not only for a "Columbo" episode, but he also won one for a "Barney Miller" episode. Kibbee's output ranks as above-average. The chief problem with "The Midnight Man" is the lackluster quality of their action. The events take place at a remote college in South Carolina so nothing that happens can affect the fate of West Civilization. Although the characters are as sturdy as the gifted cast that incarnates them, Kibbee and Lancaster's movie seems mundane despite its narrative strengths.

The characters in "The Midnight Man" comprise an interesting group. Burt Lancaster plays Jim Slade; he is a former Chicago cop who served three years in prison because he shot the man that he caught in bed with his wife. This makes him a flawed character searching for redemption. Slade's old friend Quartz (Cameron Mitchell of "Garden of Evil") is a former policeman who heads up the security of a small college, and he gives Slade a job as a night watchman. Susan Clark is cast as Slade's parole officer Linda Thorpe. Ms. Thorpe constantly clashes with County Sheriff Casey (Harris Yulin of "Scarface") over his treatment of her parolees. Casey wears a white cowboy hat, and at times "The Midnight Man" resembles an episode of "In the Heat of the Night." The action unfolds when Slade learns that somebody broke into his office of Psychology Professor Swanson (Quinn K. Redeker of "Ordinary People") and stole three audio cassettes. These cassettes contain monologues from troubled students who recorded them for Swanson so he could listen to them at a later date and counsel them. Slade interviews the three students. One of the three students, Natalie (Catherine Bach of "Thunderbolt & Lightfoot"), dies under mysterious circumstances, and Slade sets out to expose the murderer. Sheriff Casey arrests the most obvious candidate, Ewing (Charles Tyner of "The Longest Yard"), a fire-and-brimstone religious fanatic who has evidence that implicates him in the slaying. Naturally, our hero doesn't believe that the unsavory Ewing could have committed the crime. While Casey is constantly at his throat, Quartz and Slade's parole officer do their best to shield him from the county sheriff.

Unraveling the narrative threads of "The Midnight Man" to disclose the identities of the villains would constitute a crime. Slade encounters a number of likely suspects as he searches for the villain that killed Natalie. Meantime, he collides with three grimy, redneck dastards that do their best to kill him. The scene in the barn is terrific, especially when Slade commandeers a tractor to smash through walls and run over his adversaries. The revelations that our hero uncovers distinguishes this movie and virtually everybody is implicated in one way or another. Slade's chief opponent Sheriff Casey winds up being his strongest ally, and Harris Yulin gives a good account of himself. Lancaster was on his last legs as a leading man when he made "The Midnight Man," but he gives another of his ultra-efficient performances, and this movie is a polished affair despite its largely ordinary setting and revelations.


Hollywood must constantly reinvent old yarns to make them relevant for contemporary audiences.  “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” director Guy Ritchie embraces this strategy with his spectacular, $175-million, sword & sorcery saga “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” (**** OUT OF ****), starring “Sons of Anarchy’s” Charlie Hunnam as the title character.  Unmistakably inspired by the popular HBO series “Game of Thrones,” Ritchie and scenarists Joby Harold of “Awake” and Lionel Wigram of “Sherlock Holmes,” adapting a story by Harold and “Jack the Giant Slayer’s” David Dobkin, have appropriated the venerable legend and accentuated its far-fetched fantasy elements.  If you’re expecting either a rehash of John Boorman’s splendid “Excalibur” (1981) or Antoine Fuqua’s “King Arthur” (2004) with Clive Owen and Keira Knightley, the provocative departures Ritchie and company have taken may alienate you.  Anybody expecting Ritchie’s “King Arthur” will stick to the legends may feel disgruntled by this two-hour plus, PG-13 swashbuckler.  Since its release, “King Arthur” has proven not what most audiences either sought or expected, and the Warner Brothers release has been branded a disaster considering its miserable $15-million opening.  Nevertheless, “King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword” qualifies as a terrific tale with stupendous CGI and ranks as the best version of the myth to grace screens since “Excalibur.” Mind you, “King Arthur” concerns itself more with the eponymous hero’s revenge against his repellent uncle than a romantic escapade like the Sean Connery & Richard Gere version “First Knight” (1995) where the two fought over Guinevere.  At the same time, “King Arthur” utilizes the familiar tropes of most Arthurian epics, but deploys them in ways both unusual and refreshing.
“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” opens with a prologue which states that mage (magicians) and man no longer live in harmony.  The wicked warlock Mordred (Rob Knighton of “All Things to Men”) storms Uther Pendragon’s (Eric Bana of “Hulk”) kingdom with three gargantuan pachyderms—bigger than any you’ve seen--to destroy it.  These pachyderms have wrecking balls attached to their trunks, and they shatter the stone masonry as if it were made from papier mâché.  These rampaging beasts smash Camelot’s walls until Uther clambers aboard Mordred’s elephant and apparently decapitates the malevolent mage. Temporarily, order appears restored, until Uther’s deceitful brother, Vortigern (Jude Law of “Gattaca”), forfeits his wife Elsa (Katie McGrath) to three evil sea-witches equipped with the tentacles of an octopus.  He sacrifices Elsa so he can conjure up the Demon Knight to kill not only Uther, but also his wife in a larger-than-life clash.  The Demon Knight resembles those armor-clad behemoths that artist Frank Frazetta once created for the classic Molly Hatchet album covers in the 1970s.  Uther wields Excalibur against the enormous Demon Knight, but this monstrous fiend overwhelms him.  Before he dies, Uther orders young Arthur to flee.  Afterward, Uther hurls Excalibur aloft so that the sword turns somersaults in the air.  As he falls to his knees, Uther turns into a stone, and Excalibur impales itself to the hilt between Uther’s shoulder blades.  Vortigern sloughs off the Demon Knight form he took on in the fight and watches as his elder brother—now a huge rock--plunges into the bay with Excalibur sticking out of the rock.  Meantime, Uther’s infant son Arthur is swept down river in a boat like the infant Moses and compassionate prostitutes take him in and raise the lad as if he belonged to them. 
At this point, Vortigern has practiced enough black magic to make himself invincible until he learns that Excalibur has reappeared.  One day, the waters of the bay where Uther vanished with the sword in his back recede. Vortigern assembles young Englishman by the hundreds and ships them to the bay to see who can extract the sword from the stone.  Eventually, Vortigern’s dastardly henchmen capture Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) and he finds himself in front of Excalibur with no hope of pulling it out. Incredibly, Arthur draws the sword from the stone, but the sword delivers such a jolt to his system that our legendary hero drops it and collapses into an unconscious heap.  Later, Vortigern converses privately with Arthur, and Arthur assures him he has no wish to wear a crown.  Nevertheless, Vortigern plans to execute him in public.  Happily, a miracle appears in the form of an anonymous Mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey of “Julliette”) dispatched by Merlin.  She visits one of Uther’s former knights, Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou of “Amistad”), and explains that his men and he must intervene before Vortigern can behead Arthur.  The next time we see Arthur, he is kneeling at an altar awaiting the executioner’s pleasure.  The Mage conjures up supernatural elements that paralyze Vortigern, sends his knights scrambling to save him, while Bedivere’s men rescue Arthur.  Afterward, “King Arthur” depicts our hero’s reluctance not only to take up Excalibur, but also to wield it to avenge the cold-blooded murder of his mother and father.
Charlie Hunnam makes a charismatic Arthur.  Indeed, compared with previous Arthurs, Hunnam could be hailed as ‘the man who didn’t want to be king,’ such is his reluctance to brandish Excalibur and solidify England against its adversaries both within and without the kingdom.  Director Guy Ritchie surrounds Hunnam with a thoroughly convincing cast, among them “Game of Thrones’” own Aidan Gillen.  If you’ve seen either of Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” thrillers, you will savor his snappy editing style and the amusing way that he condenses expository dialogue sequences.  At one point, the Mage sends our hero into the Dark Lands to learn about his past.  Indeed, Arthur’s past haunts him.  Eventually, he musters enough nerve from the experience to confront his treacherous uncle.  As the diabolical Vortigern, Jude Law indulges himself with an evil gleam in his eye, and his ominous henchmen in black armor are just as unsavory.  Despite its two-hour plus running time, “King Arthur” maintains its momentum, and Ritchie orchestrates some truly impressive battle sequences with computer generated imagery that enhances the larger-than-life spectacle. 


“Slither” writer & director James Gunn’s outlandishly hysterical, but high octane science-fiction spectacle “Guardians of the Galaxy” charts an entirely different course in the Marvel Comics Universe. Unlike Marvel’s traditional lineup of superheroes, such as “Iron Man,” “Captain America,” “Thor,” and “The Incredible Hulk,” the “Guardians of the Galaxy” constitute a quintet of non-traditional, anti-heroic protagonists endowed with supernatural abilities. Traditional Marvel heroes are respectable, upstanding, productive citizens in private life when they aren’t clashing with larger-than-life adversaries.  As the son of Odin, Thor is the exception in the cinematic universe because he has no alter-ego.  Comparatively, the “Guardians” are criminals and outcasts, essentially mercenaries thrown together by the exigencies of fate.  A synthesis of Indiana Jones and Han Solo, Peter Jason Quill leads the “Guardians,” probably because they fly with him aboard his intergalactic spacecraft.  An abducted Earthling urchin turned scalawag smuggler who refers to himself as ‘Star-Lord,’ Quill makes an affable enough anti-hero. Quill’s loose cannon compatriots are Gamora, an elite, green-skinned, female warrior assassin; Rocket, a genetically-altered, foul-mouthed raccoon who searches for anybody with high bounty on them; Rocket’s ligneous partner Groot, a humanoid plant that entangles its adversaries with its tree limbs, and Drax, a vengeful, blue-skinned, hulk of a humanoid who parades around without a shirt. If earlier Marvel Comics superhero sagas required audiences to suspend their disbelief to accommodate their bizarre antics, “Guardians” requires an even greater suspension of disbelief, perhaps to the breaking point.  Any time you encounter an obnoxious raccoon that can speak in English and behave like the reckless felon, you’ve got to open your mind up to greater possibilities beyond the world of reality.  

“Guardians of the Galaxy” unfolds on a tragic note.  The setting is Earth in 1988, and young Peter Quill watches in horror as his mother Meredith (Laura Haddock of “Storage 24”) dies from cancer.  Fleeing the hospital, the grief-stricken lad scrambles outside, and an alien spacecraft promptly abducts him! Twenty-six years later, an adult Peter Quill (Chris Pratt of “Moneyball”) is plying his trade as a member of the Ravagers, pirates who “steal from everybody,” on the abandoned planet of Morag.  He tracks down a wholly sought-after Orb.  No sooner has he found this object than he finds himself surrounded by Korath (Djimon Hounsou of “Amistad”) and his subordinates.  Korath works for Ronan (Lee Pace of “Lincoln”), a tyrannical, ax-wielding super villain who wants the Orb.  Ronan plans to ingratiate himself to the ultimate villain Thanos and hand it over to him.  Quill manages to escape in his wing-shaped spaceship.  Later, the blue-skinned Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker of “Tombstone”), who abducted Quill as an adolescent on Earth, contacts Quill from Morag and inquires about the Orb.  When Quill refuses to cooperate, Yondu puts a bounty of 40-thousand units on Quill.  Yondu uses an arrow that he deploys like a dressmaker manipulates a needle for homicidal purposes.

Rocket (Bradley Cooper’s voice) and Groot (Vin Diesel’s voice) descend to Xandar and stumble onto Quill.  Meantime, Korath reports to Ronan about Quill and the Orb. Ronan dispatches Gamora to Xandar, the capital of the Nova Empire, to pick up the Orb.  When Quill arrives on Xandar, he approaches the Broker (Christopher Fairbank of “Alien 3”) about the Orb.  Quill inquires about the mysterious globe because he almost died acquiring it.  When Quill mentions Ronan’s name, the Broker sends Quill packing. Gamora snatches the Orb from Quill.  They fight. Rocket intervenes and bags Quill.  This back and forth shenanigans continue until the Nova Corps arrests them.  They ship Quill, Gamora, Rocket, and Groot to The Kyln, a corrupt, high security prison in space where they encounter loudmouthed Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista of “Riddick”) when Gamora’s life is threatened.  As it turns out, the literal-minded Drax abhors Ronan because the dastard killed his wife and daughter. During the hair-raising escape, Drax teams up with Raccoon and Groot. Eventually, this quintet sets aside their differences, and Rocket orchestrates an elaborate escape from The Kyln that involves shutting off the artificial gravity in the facility.  Our heroes recover Quill’s orange and blue spaceship the Milano and flee from the Kyln.  Before they can leave, Quill also retrieves his impregnable Walkman with a cassette of popular songs that his mother made for him.  Mind you, this constitutes only 45 minutes out of the two-hour running time! 

Eventually, our heroes land on a unique mining colony called Knowhere.  According to Gamora, Knowhere is “the severed head of an ancient celestial being.”  No regulations exist in Knowhere.  Our heroes are looking for Tivan because he knows what the Orb is.  During this interval, Gamora reveals that Thanos murdered her mother and father and tortured her until he remade her into a warrior assassin.  Gamora asks about his Walkman and its significance.  Later, Drax summons Ronan to fight him, and turmoil descends onto the colony. Initially, Ronan defeats Drax, and Yondu catches up with Peter.  Bit by bit, the Guardians begin to bond.  "Oh, boo-hoo-hoo. My wife and child are dead," grouses an angry Rocket.  Groot cannot believe Rocket's insensitivity.  "Oh, I don't care if it's mean!  Everybody's got dead people.  It's no excuse to get everybody else dead along the way."  Groot sympathesizes with Drax and they become friends.  Now, Ronan has the Orb, and he wants Thanos to destroy Xandar.

Debuting in the January 1969 issue of “Marvel Super-Heroes,” the “Guardians” were nothing like their cinematic counterparts, only the pirate Yondu Udonta, appeared in this early incarnation.  These Guardians constituted the last of their kind on Earth, Jupiter, Pluto, and a fourth planet near the star Alpha Centauri B.  Ultimately, the cinematic “Guardians of the Galaxy” imitate in their own sphere of action “The Avengers.”  They quarrel constantly with each other, and they come close to killing each other such is the instability of their alliance.  Director James Gunn and freshman scenarist Nicole Perlman furnish the “Guardians” with distinctive, often hilarious dialogue.  The characters differ enough that no one is the same, and each has characteristics that differentiate them.  For example, the tree creature Groot repeats the same three words “I am Groot” ad nauseam without change throughout the action.  Drax emerges as straight-faced comic relief because he is so literal minded. Ronan makes an intimidating villain, but Thanos (Josh Brolin’s voice) is the most powerful being in the universe.  Gunn and Perlman never let the action slow down, and our heroes find themselves hopscotching from one cliffhanger predicament after another.