Category Archives: Movies

About movies

Sherlock Holmes


Been on a Holmes kick. I’d watched a few episodes of the BBC Benedict Cumberbatch Holmes years ago, and liked it, but didn’t grasp its significance. This all started with me trying to buy a copy of the Hammer production of The Hound of the Baskervilles starring Peter Cushing as Holmes, and Christopher Lee as Henry Baskerville. They sent me one of those weird “Zone X” DVDs that won’t play on Western DVD players. I don’t know why they exist. It’s like selling vinyl LPs that won’t play on Western turntables. John Grace cued me in to a workable copy which I ordered. The disc itself was fine but the plastic package was shattered. I put it in a new box.

This Hammer production is long on atmosphere and Cushing makes a superb Holmes, though not always, as we shall see. Lurid lighting, sexual undertones, and that strict class system that marks most Hammer horrors. Class is front and center in all the Holmes movies. The clients live in twenty thousand square foot homes. The underlings bow, scrape, and tip their hats. “Yes, m’lord. No, m’lady.”

Hound is not a great movie. When the hound finally appears, it’s a mastiff in a mask.

I watched the BBC Holmes (Cumberbatch) from the beginning. It’s great. Cumberbatch nails Holmes’ personality in a way no other actor has. He claims to be a high-functioning sociopath, but he behaves as if he has Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s funny and frequently shocking. The dialogue is complex and entertaining. Reinventing Holmes for the modern era pays big dividends. Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman) is now an Afghan veteran. The first episode involves a murder mystery. The murderer is fascinating in his motivations and modus operandi. Mrs. Hudson is the widow of a drug dealer. She drives an Aston Martin. Andrew Scott is a monstrously evil Moriarty. While the plotting is sometimes baroque, it works until the fourth and final season when they jump the shark with a ridiculous episode involving Mycroft’s and Sherlock’s evil sister, overwrought and unbelievable. Nevertheless, the first three seasons are superb.

Many consider Jeremy Brett the ultimate Holmes, and he most closely resembles the character Conan Doyle created.

“In the latter part of 1986, Brett exhibited wild mood swings that alarmed his family and friends, who persuaded him to seek diagnosis and treatment for manic depression, also known as

bipolar disorder. Brett was prescribed lithium tablets to fight his manic depression. He suspected that he would never be cured, and would have to live with his condition, look for the signs of his disorder, and then deal with it. He wanted to return to work, to play Holmes again.” –Wiki

Some believe that Brett believed he was Holmes, and that this accounted for his total immersion in the character. The Brett Holmes is a must see.

I looked for Holmes online. Christopher Lee is Holmes and Patrick McNee is Watson in Incident at Victoria Falls. Ho hum. Yawnsville. But always those sharp class distinctions. Peter Cushing plays Holmes again in a BBC series. “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” A ho-hum mystery wherein the lower class villain realizes his mistake and begs for forgiveness. “I am deeply sorry!” This is the opposite of the human fiends in the Cumberbatch version.

Peter O’Toole voiced Holmes in the animated Baskerville Curse. Yawnsville.

Finally, there’s a new Holmes-related series on Netflix, The Irregulars, about the street urchins Holmes recruits. Dr. Watson is black. The Irregulars are woke. The first episode goes full Birds and grand guignol. “Her friggin’ eyes were pulled out of her face!” I wonder if the word frig was in use in 1890. One episode was enough.

The Basil Rathbone Holmes are wildly uneven, but the good ones are very good, and Rathbone made a superb Holmes.

A more thorough essay would include Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and the superb 1966 A Study In Terror, which pits Sherlock (John Neville) against Jack the Ripper. Frank Finlay plays Inspector LeStrade.

Best Crocodile Movie


Monstrous animal movies have been a staple since King Kong. Monstrous animal movies come in many flavors, from atomic mutants (Them, The Deadly Mantis,) to natural but terrifying creatures (Night of the Grizzly.) Jaws put a Saturn booster beneath the terrifying animal genre, begetting dozens of shark movies, many of which are drivel, such as the Jaws sequels, but also including small pleasures such as The Shallows or Deep Blue Sea. Who can forget Samuel L. Jackson’s rousing speech, followed immediately by his demise?

Every deadly animal has its masterpiece. For snakes, it’s Anaconda. Don’t believe the reviews. See it for yourselves. It’s a movie you can watch over and over again. For bears, it’s The Edge, which is not purely a dangerous animal movie, but contains the best human versus grizzly battles. Piranha speaks for itself. If it’s wolves you crave, watch The Grey.

For saurians, Rogue stands above all others. This small masterpiece is mesmerizing from the first frame and compares favorably with Alien. Set in Australia’s Northwest territories, it concerns a monstrous salt water crocodile which traps a group of tourists on a sand bar as the tide rises. Starring Michael Vartan as an American journalist, and Rahda Mitchell as a tour boat operator, Rogue grabs you by the throat and never lets go. The character actor who puts a fly in Vartan’s coffee when he arrives at his remote destination brilliantly personifies the unctuous but treacherous toady.

You don’t see the whole croc until the harrowing ending. I don’t know if this is CGI or what, but it’s brilliantly done, and the croc is the size of a moving van. If you love Jaws and want to see a movie of its caliber, watch Rogue.

My favorite westerns, Mike Baron


In the interest of comity, I shall not call this the Ten Greatest Westerns. This is simply a list of my favorite Westerns, in no particular order.

THE WILD BUNCH—Sam Peckinpah’s violent elegy to the closing of the West is filled with indelible images and lines, and provided career-defining roles for Ernest Borgnine, William Holden, Robert Ryan, Warren Oates, Edmund O’Brien and Ben Johnson, and launched the career of Bo Hopkins. A bittersweet drama of aging outlaws with no place to go.

THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE—my favorite Ford, with the Duke as an aging gunfighter who comes to the aid of naive lawyer Jimmy Stewart. Lee Marvin at his most despicable.

SHANE—the legend of the lone gunfighter has never been better, with Alan Ladd in his finest role, and Jack Palance, every bit as despicable as Lee Marvin.

THE PROFESSIONALS—Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan and Woody Strode saddle up to rescue kidnapped bridge Claudia Cardinale from Mexican outlaw Jack Palance but—surprise! She doesn’t want to be rescued. Filled with exciting set pieces and crackling dialogue, a Richard Brooks masterpiece. Brooks also did Bite The Bullet.

RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY—Peckinpah’s first feature is a romantic ode to the dying west, with career-capping performances from Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea. Introduced Warren Oates. Begins with a camel race.

HOMBRE—Paul Newman as a blue-eyed Indian comes to the aid of ungrateful banker Fredric March, menaced by the sinister but likable Richard Boone. Why did Richard Boone, Jack Palance, and Lee Marvin never make a Western together?

RED RIVER—the Duke as a rigid father figure intent on a cattle drive, dealing with rebellious adopted son Montgomery Clift. Colleen Grey finally straightens them out.

UNFORGIVEN—Clint Eastwood’s last Western is a sprawling revisionist epic where the West is not so glamorous, nor the heroes so heroic. His aging gunfighter, Will Munny, does what he must, leading to a showdown with brutal sheriff Gene Hackman. It always bothered me that Munny simply abandoned his children in order to provide for them.

TRUE GRIT—both versions are brilliant.

VALDEZ IS COMING—Burt Lancaster as Mexican lawman Bob Valdez fights the system to bring justice for the widow of a man wrongly killed. Based on an Elmore Leonard story, this is hortatory story telling at its finest.

ULZANA’S RAID—Burt Lancaster again as a wizened scout trying to tell a naive young Army lieutenant about the Apaches’ true nature. But will that lieutenant listen? No he won’t. He has to learn the hard way.

Boxing Movies by Mike Baron


Most boxing films follow a familiar pattern. Hubris, devastating defeat, introspection, begging the reluctant trainer to participate, inspirational training sequence, vindication and triumph. This has been the pattern for virtually every Rocky movie and Creed II is no exception. I enjoyed it, but it was all deja vu. Part of sports’ movies appeals is that we know what to expect. The underdog will triumph, even if the underdog is heavyweight champ when the movie begins. The highlights were Bianca’s unexpected introductory song prior to the climactic fight, and Brigitte Nielsen’s cameo.

Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw follows the same pattern, but it is more entertaining due to unconventional twists and Jake Gyllenhall’s ferocious performance. The exceptions are more interesting because of how they deviate from formula. Chuck, starring Liev Schreiber as Chuck Wepner, the Bayonne Bleeder, who found himself fighting Muhammad Ali almost by accident, is as unconventional as it gets, focusing not on his boxing career, but his home life as a regular guy who lucks out, and dines on his luck for the rest of his life.

Bleed For This, a biopic of Vinnie Paz, is different because of Paz’ remarkable story. He broke his neck in an auto accident, was told he would never fight again, and regained the lightweight title by beating Roberto Duran.

The Set-Up, starring Robert Ryan, is a film noir masterpiece. Ryan’s character is no champ, just a journeyman asked to take a fall in his last fight.

The Harder They Fall, Bogart’s last movie, is a cynical look at the corrupt fight racket featuring Rod Steiger as a fast-talking con man. Should be on everybody’s list.

Star Wars VS Star Trek


Years ago, I adapted Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire for Dark Horse, an easy job due to Tim’s clarity. I parlayed this into a visit to Skywalker Ranch, with my late wife. I’d visited Skywalker once before with Brent Anderson. Skywalker Ranch contains myriad beautiful buildings in a sylvan setting in Marin County. The main building is Victorian, with exquisite workmanship. The underside of the spiral staircase in the library was fitted with polished slats of Brazilian rosewood, so perfect and intricate it resembled a snake’s belly. The cafeteria food beggared most restaurants.

Lucas came out the main door and Brent cautioned us about approaching him.

Years later, I was back to meet with the Skywalker editor in charge of licensing comics, a woman whose name I forget. She bade us enter her office and we chatted.

“I have a theory,” I said. “Star Trek represents the liberal view of space, while Star Wars represents the conservative view.”

That’s as far as I got.

“I’M LIBERAL!” the editor declared. “WE’RE ALL LIBERAL!”

Our visit ended soon after.

I meant nothing sinister. The reason I said that was because Star Trek went out of its way to be inclusive and non-judgmental, while Star Wars featured a hierarchy on both sides. On the Empire’s side, you had the emperor, followed by the darths, followed by military commanders all the way down to the peons. On the rebel side, you had Princess Leia, a royal person, benevolently ruling her loyal subjects.

Dirty Cop Movies by Mike Baron


While there are dirty cops in many movies, the dirty cop movie is a genre unto itself. James Ellroy is something of a dirty cop factory, having written L.A. Confidential and the screenplay to Dark Blue, starring Kurt Russell and Ving Rhames, and Rampart, starring Woody Harrelson. In both Confidential and Dark Blue, dirty cops are laws unto themselves, using their authority to punish the wicked regardless of the law, and to enrich themselves. In Ellroy’s world, the dirty cop is the norm. Even his good cops take corruption as a given. As always, it’s a matter of degree.

Both Bad Lieutenants, the former starring Harvey Kietel, and the latter Nicolas Cage, are withering trips through hell that end in cracked redemption.

Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day is among the finest dirty cop movies, featuring a swaggering Denzel Washington that is beyond corrupt. Fuqua and Washington teamed again on the excellent The Equalizer, which could not exist without dirty cops.

Among the lesser known dirty cop movies is Boaz Yakin’s Safe, Jason Statham’s best film, which features Statham as a cashiered, corrupt cop on his last legs who finds meaning in saving the life a Chinese girl savant whom Chinese gangsters use as a numbers cruncher. Safe is also notable for James Hong’s sleaziest performance. The climax involves Statham teaming up with his dirty cop buddies to take down both the Chinese and Russian mobs.

James Mangold’s Cop Land posits a Jersey town consisting almost exclusively of corrupt cops whose efforts to hide their crimes brings local sheriff Sly Stallone in conflict with lifetime corrupt cop player Harvey Keitel.

These are just off the top of my head. You may have others.

Fight Scenes by Mike Baron


Fight scenes are important. They are the raison d’etre of the martial arts film. Prior to the kung fu invasion, the John Wayne-style slugfest was a Western staple. A John Wayne fight involves the leisurely cocking of Wayne’s humongous fist followed by an enormous round house punch that sends the recipient ass-over-teakettle, knocking down chairs and smashing tables.

Real fight scenes are messy, incoherent affairs that usually end with the protagonists rolling on the ground. John Huston understood this. The barroom brawl in Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of the most realistic fight scenes ever filmed. When Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt confront crooked jobber Barton MacLane, MacLane lulls them into a false sense of security before sucker-clobbering Holt with a liquor bottle. It’s a knock-down, drag-out fight with the protagonists rolling on the floor.

Audiences crave action, not necessarily verisimilitude. Thus, when the kung fu invasion began with Five Fingers of Death, the American audience was gobsmacked by the elegant fight choreography. It may not have been realistic but it was certainly entertaining. When Bruce Lee hit a few years later, the audience instinctively sensed that this was the real deal and a thousand dojos bloomed. Bruce Lee’s fighting technique looked brutally realistic and elegant. Of course Bruce tailored his fights for the camera and would not have used such showy techniques in real life, but people have used them, to good effect.

Steven Seagal has also developed a unique cinematic style based on aikido. A Seagal fight looks brutal, elegant, and realistic. Before Seagal became a star, he served as fight choreographer on John Frankenheimer’s overlooked masterpiece, The Challenge, starring Scott Glenn and Toshiro Mifune. The Challenge has finally been issued on DVD.

There have always been martial arts films, including a long tradition of Japanese samurai movies going back to the twenties. James Cagney was a black belt in judo which he showcases in Blood on the Sun, perhaps the first American martial arts film. But film being film, fights appeared that are impossible in real life. Look at the Matrix. Kung fu films split between the realistic fighting of Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, and fanciful “wire fu,” in which the actors hang from wires to give the illusion of flight. Nothing wrong with it. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an excellent example.

Jackie Chan developed his own style using found objects and slapstick humor. His fights are the result of hours of preparation and endless rehearsal. Don’t try this at home, folks! Of course you can always pick up a chair and brain your opponent.

Robert Clouse, who directed Enter the Dragon, got the job largely because of his work on Darker Than Amber, based on John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novel. When  Terry (William Smith) attacks Travis (Rod Taylor,) the fight is spontaneous. Clouse told the actors to make it brutal, and he filmed it. It is among the most realistic fights on film.

The audience does not want to see extreme close-ups of a hand hitting a jaw. Not in movies, not in comics. The audience wants to see the action unfold in a dynamic and realistic manner. The story-teller must hold his camera steady and let the figures move

The Films of William Peter Blatty by Mike Baron


Blatty wrote The Exorcist, which remains the greatest horror film of all time. The Exorcist lays its chilly finger on our spines by successfully conjuring belief in supernatural evil. All good supernatural horror films do this, including The Haunting, The Orphanage, and Sinister. There are hundreds of failures such as The Gate or Drag Me To Hell.

The Exorcist was such a hit, Warner Brothers sought to cash in with the vomitous Exorcist II, about which less said the better. Blatty insisted on writing and directing Exorcist III, based on his novel Legion. Exorcist III  finds DC Detective Kinderman (George C. Scott replacing Lee J. Cobb) investigating a series of grisly murders that bear the hallmark of the Gemini Killer, who died fifteen years ago (when The Exorcist took place.)

This is a genuinely creepy film with a few hair-raising minutes, that successfully recreates the atmosphere of the original. Blatty knows how to raise a hackle, and his team of players is superb. Brad Dourif executes a monologue in his padded cell that is both funny and terrifying. Dourif should have got an Oscar nod. Jason Miller returns as the tormented Father Karras, but you have to see the film to understand.

Years later, Warner’s went rooting about in their midden heap and produced two sequels, Renny Harlin’s ridiculous Exorcist: The Beginning, and Paul Schrader’s Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist. Eh! Who needs them?

The Ninth Configuration is based on Blatty’s “Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane,” and concerns a group of disturbed veterans sequestered in a Gothic castle deep in the Oregon woods. “In an experimental government center for troubled Vietnam veterans, the inmates run the asylum. One works on an adaptation of Shakespeare…for dogs. Another fancies himself a caped superhero. Still others masquerade as frogmen, nurses, nuns, pirates, doctors. Yet the psychiatrist in charge eyes all with a stoic reserve. Maybe too stoic: there’s a mystery here. And its final resolution is like a thunderclap”

One of the reasons I like it is because it most closely resembles a Badger movie (about which more anon.) Blatty’s stock group, including Jason Miller, Ed Flanders, Scott Wilson, Moses Gunn and Robert Loggia, are mesmerizing. Stacey Keach plays the new CO who threatens to explode. My friends, although I hesitate to shove my secret love into the spotlight, there it is.

Static Acting written by Mike Baron



I dig Jason Statham. I’ve seen most of his movies and consider him to be one of the foremost action actors working today. But Statham has a speech impediment. Or maybe it’s an acting impediment. No matter who he plays he makes no attempt to alter his accent. In Boaz Yakin’s Safe, one of his best movies, he plays an American cop with a Brit accent. The less said about the execrable Parker, based on Richard Stark’s novel, the better. Except he plays this thoroughly American character with a Brit accent. In Sylvester Stallone’s adaptation of Chuck Logan’s Home Front, he plays an American agent with a Brit accent.

Now I see the trailers for his new movie Spy in which he plays an American agent. With a British accent.

We watched Nashville for two seasons before learning that Sam Palladio, who plays Gunnar, and Clare Bowen who plays Scarlett are both English. You would swear they’re from Tennessee. I watched The Americans for three seasons before learning that Matthew Rhys, who plays a Russian agent with a perfect American accent is English. If you did not know who Daniel Day-Lewis was you’d swear that was Lincoln himself up on the screen.

Not Jason Statham. Like John Wayne, he only plays himself. But with less range.