Netflixable? Lucy Hale flees drug smugglers in the desert, a “Borrego” chased by lobos

The setting and set-up are reliable, if a bit desert-southwest tried and true. The acting’s tolerable, the action beats good and the finale has a nice kick to it.

Even taking into account the messy pieces of the plot, the “Stockholm Syndrome on the Salton Sea” confessions of our kidnapped heroine and the complication of the sheriff’s teenaged daughter who gets mixed up in botanist-kidnapped-by-Mexican-drug smugglers business, “Borrego” still adds up to a slow if watchable failure.

First time feature writer-director Jesse Harris gets carried away with drug trade sermonizing in the superfluous opening and closing credits, when he should have been whittling this four-point-of-view thriller down to something that hurtles by. But as debuts go, even a slow-footed tale that looks more to “No Country for Old Men” than “Evil Dead” as inspiration, almost earns a pass just on principle.

Hale plays Elly, a lone botanist looking at invasive species in the middle of nowhere in vast San Diego County.

The film’s first “Oh come on” coincidence is when hooky-playing dirt-biker Alex (Olivia Trujillo) runs up on her mid-desert. Naturally, Elly lets her hang around and “help” a bit.

The second big coincidence is when Elly stumbles across an ultra-light airplane crash in the gathering darkness. It’s a drug run, and we’ve already seen the DIY preps the receiver of those drugs (Jorge A. Jimenez) has undertaken (flares) to get the pilot (Leynar Gomez) to the right spot. We’ve also seen what that guy does to pilots who let him down.

And then there’s the third coincidence. Alex is the daughter of the widowed sheriff, Jose (Nicholas Gonzalez), the only law enforcement officer for this vast stretch of borderlands.

The pilot takes Elly hostage and wrecks her 25 year-old Jeep Cherokee. So she’s forced to help him haul the drugs, at gunpoint.

Alex worries about where Elly is, and worries her dad, too. And Guillermo, the trigger-happy goon waiting for his shipment, isn’t taking the fall for another failed delivery. So he’s also searching the desert.

There are escape attempts and random acts of violence, and all of it builds towards a climax that throws a lot of these people and more than a couple of guns together for chases, gunplay and a denouement.

In addition to the “Stockholm Syndrome” bit, there’s some attempt at justification for the villains of the “drug trade’s a trap for everybody” variety.

As you can see above, there are eye-rolling bits you have to ignore to wring a little visceral pleasure out of rooting for Elly to reason, run or fight her way out of this life-or-death fix. But it’s not all bad.

Rating:  R for violence and language

Cast: Lucy Hale, Nicholas Gonzalez, Olivia Trujillo, Leynar Gomez and Jorge A. Jimenez

Credits: Scripted and directed by Jesse Harris. A Saban Films release on Netflix.

Running time: 1:42

Rating:  R for violence and language

Cast: Lucy Hale, Nicholas Gonzalez, Olivia Trujillo, Leynar Gomez and Jorge A. Jimenez

Credits: Scripted and directed by Jesse Harris. A Saban Films release on Netflix.

Running time: 1:42

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Movie Preview: The horrors facing and caused by “The Righteous”

June 10, making religion, and black and white cinema, scary again.

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Movie Review: Nothing much happens when you’re trapped in a “Spin State”

“Spin State” is a paranoid British thriller about a disturbed private eye who finds himself investigation a scientist who might have some clues about the source of his disturbance.

But as we follow Kline (Jamie Robson) as he tails and surveils scientist Hans (Carsten Clemens) who gives lectures on Advanced Spin Statistics, and skulks around assorted vast, abandoned or little used ex-defense department facilities (radar dishes, etc.) toting a conspicuously mysterious metal briefcase, we’re left pondering just how little a thriller can get away with not showing us before we fall asleep.

Sure, there’s “explaining.” The wife of scientist Hans (Seya Sarvan), who hires PI Kline, teaches him about Fibonacci numbers and “super determinism” and time-space-multiverse stuff (not really) as she tries to keep this paranoid, medicated gumshoe engaged and on the case.

If only she and the filmmaker had shown similar concerns for the viewer.

I got a chuckle out of “inconspicuous” Kline trying to blend in while tailing his mark in a noisy, rarish 40 year old Porsche 924. Even paranoid private eyes have got to have that “car with character.”

Of course, Kline has a partner (Will Harrison-Wallace) named “Archer,” because “Marlowe” and “Sam Spade” were a tad too obvious, I suppose. Private eye partners are always getting killed and/or irked at their wayward co-worker.

“You wouldn’t know a friend if he punched you in the mouth!”

The movie has lots of striking settings — pictured above — emphasizing medicated Kline’s solitary state. And it’s loaded with “paranoid” tropes.

“I’m involved in this case for a reason,” Kline mutters, some time after we’ve seen his telltale “Beautiful Mind” wall, covered in maps, newspaper clippings, photographs and the like. Yes, he has a seriously sketchy/pushy “doctor” (Aurora Fearnley) who makes housecalls that seem more about what she can find out than what she can offer to help.

We can chew on the strange symbol tattooed on Kline’s torso, wonder about the big Conspiracy and ponder his back story and what triggered his obsessive state of mind.

Or you can skip that, as I did it for you. That’s my suggestion.

There’s just not enough to this, barely even a hint of violence, and Hans speaks in a Euro-accent that requires subtitles, just one of the ways that a cryptic but not deep indie no-name-cast indie thriller fails to invite the viewer in and makes one wonder how one can get those 94 wasted, overcast and gloomy minutes back.

Rating: PG-13

Cast: Jamie Robson, Seya Sarvan, Aurora Fernley, Will Harrison-Wallace

Credits: Scripted and directed by Ross A. Wilson. A Random Media release.

Running time: 1:34

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BOX OFFICE: “Dr. Strange” prescribed another $61, “Firestarter” flames out at $3.8

A steep falloff didn’t mean the utter collapse of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” A $61 million weekend shows just how much you can get with a whopping 67% falloff, if the opening weekend is big enough.

“Firestarter” is showing on Peacock TV and still managed to earn $3.8 million in theaters. That’s the way to spin that. Stephen King remake, on TV and 325000 patrons still showed up.

That wasn’t anywhere near the $6 “The Bad Guys” took in on its latest weekend, or the $4 million “Sonic 2” rang up.

“Everything Everywhere All At Once” is still taking it in, another $3.3 million as it climbs toward what I figure will be $70 or so when it finishes its run. It will clear the $50 million mark next week.

“Family Camp” opened wide and no one cared. $1 million.

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Movie Review: Doesn’t take much cash to film a “Ninja Badass”

“Ninja Badass” is a no-budget novelty, a midnight movie splatter comedy that kind of picks up where “The Foot Fist Way” left off.

Writer-director and star Ryan Harrison mashes up kung fu sorcery — no character in it can keep the idea that “Ninjas are from Japan” straight — and Hoosier redneck rubery with sometimes amusing results.

It’s audaciously raunchy, reaching for laughs with genital mutilation and puppies in food processors, where every explosion and effect is cheaper than the one that preceded it because it wears its cheap cheesiness like a homemade aluminum foil badge of honor.

Harrison is the guy who did the visual effects for “The Revenant” — no, not the Leo-wins-an-Oscar “Revenant,” but the cheesy horror title that preceded it into theaters. He knows intentionally obvious and stupid effects — a Matchbox car set fire, a “baby” that’s actually a doll with video of an infant’s face for a head — are damned funny to a viewer in the right (altered) frame of mind.

Harrison stars as a slacker/doofus ex-con living in his mom’s ancient single-wide, whose walls are covered in log cabin wallpaper cuz’ that’s how they roll in rural Indiana, the Mississippi of the Midwest.

Rex has no job, no notion of work. But he’s inspired by these gonzo TV ads inviting people to join the Ninja VIP Super Club run by this nut who calls himself Big Twitty (Darrell Francis).

Big Twitty promises to teach students the basics of being a ninja — “Sneakin’, spinnin’ and KILLIN’!”

Rex is hooked, and maybe he can talk his camo-clad dumbass pal Kano (Mitch Schlagel) to join up, too.

But a random visit to a pet store (even the sets look DIY) in search of python eggs shows Rex and Kano the REAL Big Twitty. He charges in with his stumblebum ninjas, trashes the place, stuffs all the puppies in a garbage sack and kidnaps the “hot babe” clerk (Lisa Schnellbacher) whom Rex crushes on in the most unrequited way imaginable.

Big Twitty and his gang beats the hell out of anybody they encounter — with the BAG OF PUPPIES, mind you — and take what they want. Because when the cops show up (in a Chevy Bolt), they just yank out a bazooka and blow up the crime scene. They’re in Big Twitty’s thrall.

There’s nothing for it but for Rex and maybe Kano to train with this “Asian” geezer in camo (Steven C. Rose) who shows up to confront Big Twitty and his “evil ninja cannibal death cult,” and gets his arm yanked off for his trouble. Haskell can teach them to be Ninja Badasses, so Rex “can save that girl, she’ll fall in love with me and we’ll have sex” and Big Twitty’s reign of Terre Haute terror can be stopped.

The sight gags rain on this picture like a plague of locusts. Haskell’s ninja super power makes his arm grow back — slowly. It’s a tentacular stalk with a doll-baby’s hand on the end, and Harrison films this arm from a shoulder’s eye view to emphasize how silly it looks slapping Rex and Kano around, reaching for doorbells and the like.

We also see fights from the knife-blade’s point of view, or in lurching slo-mo to emphasize how much time Big Twitty has to see the “camouflaged” Haskell coming so’s he can yank off the old fart’s arm.

Haskell takes a break in mid-training session (paid for in egg rolls) to sing a song with a series of green-screen backgrounds turning it into a music video.

The composer of the tune, the filmmakers want us to know, wrote ditties for Joe Exotic on that crazy tiger collector/abuser Netflix series. It’s a credit — like hoping you mistake which “Revenant” Harrison did effects for — that’s its own ignominious laugh.

But making a midnight movie and setting out to make a midnight movie are often two different enterprises. Expecting people to laugh at every intentionally obvious effect gets old, as do the wackadoodle, strained “out there” performances.

The film I kept thinking of during the long pauses between anything seriously funny was the equally cheap/hilariously cheesy “Psycho Goreman,” which was almost as mean, but broader and funnier, start to finish.

“Tucker & Dale vs. Evil” ran into a lot of the same problems as “Ninja.” The hick humor wears thin and the few almost-funny lines beg for vamping and over-the-cop camp from the performers, which they only rarely render in entertaining tones.

Harrison relies too much of his small-town-metal-band hairdo and occasional burst of energy to put Rex over, with a little Will Ferrell “let’s show me naked again” for shock value.

I’ll admit I was probably too sober watching this to appreciate its finer points — or ignore how much the picture slows down in the middle acts.

But for me, “Ninja Badass” runs out of gas at about the “half-assed” point.

Rating: unrated, gory violence, sex, nudity, profanity

Cast: Ryan Harrison, Tatiana Ortiz, Mitch Schlagel, Steven C. Rose, Lisa Schnellbacher and Darrell Francis,

Credits: Scripted, directed and produced by Ryan Harrison. A Film Movement release.

Running time: 1:43

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Movie Preview: Life After College is a test that you can “Cha Cha Real Smooth” — apparently.

A “party starter” played by a chap named Cooper Raiff finds love…Dakota Johnson?

There’s a moony swooning period piece quality to it. Leslie Mann plays the too-understanding mom waiting for sonny boy to grow up and get a real job.

“Sitting” for someone with special needs?

June 17, Apple TV it is.

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Documentary Review — “Echoes of the Empire: Beyond Genghis Khan” looks at historic and modern Mongolia

The filmmakers who gave us the Southeast Asia/Then and Now documentaries “They Call It Myanmar” and “Angkor Awakens” move north for their latest film.

“Echoes of the Empire: Beyond Genghis Khan” gives us a summary of Mongolian history and samples modern Mongolian culture as it takes us to a little-visited piece of Central Asia, a land of forest, desert and steppes surrounded by Russia to the north and China to the south, but influenced most these days by South Korea and the West.

Director Robert H. Lieberman and screenwriter/researcher Deborah C. Hoard introduce us to academics and authors, journalists and other “outside” experts, and to Mongolian politicians, academics, activists, a poet, a painter and a comedian to give us a beyond-just-a-travelogue look at the young republic and its youthful — and as suggested by the film — hopeful population where historically, the women are still much better educated than the men.

A stat not on screen — the average age of today’s Mongolian is 28 years or so. Ageing China to the south has a median age of 38, and Russia 39. No wonder we see Lakers jerseys and kids break dancing in the squares of Ulaanbataar. No self-respecting Mongol bothers to learn Russian any more.

The anchor interview here is with Jack Weatherford, author of “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.” Using his words and snippets of animation, we’re given a quick overview of the life of history’s greatest conqueror, and hear Weatherford and others speak about the Mongol Empire’s creation of global trade, not just following the long-established Silk Road from East as far West as Poland, but interconnecting markets from the Artic Circle as far South as the Indus River.

Weatherford speaks of the first Khan’s “law of religious tolerance” and “laws against the kidnapping of women,” rules put in place to keep the peace in cities and lands he conquered, as he didn’t have enough troops to form an army of occupation for the Middle East, Russia, the many lands of China and beyond.

I remember reading Weatherford’s book with curiosity about one touchy subject, one I first noticed avoided in a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit on the Art of the Mongols, nomadic people who didn’t create anything that wasn’t portable, and whose music — as explained here — is more animal-imitating plainsong than anything written down.

In “Echoes,” a biologist gives us that oft-repeated fun fact about Mongol genetic markers spread across all the lands they conquered 800 years ago. Some “20 million men” carry this “genetic marker” in the world today. Even the National Geographic tiptoes around how this happened with this insanely disingenuous headline — “Genghis Khan Was a Prolific Lover, DNA Data Implies.”

It was rape, kids. Rape. Mongols raped and pillaged. It’s what they did. If one goes to Monticello, one doesn’t hear and read about what a “prolific lover” Thomas Jefferson and other males of his family might have been. Giving the Mongol Horde a pass on this heinous part of their genocidal conquests is as hilarious as suggesting their “gifts” to civilization were anything more than an accidental byproduct.

They didn’t build or create. They conquered and took. Weatherford breaks down the tribal herding practices that Temunjin/Genghis Khan adapted to cavalry warfare, and how effective it was at destroying armies, cities and conquering much of an entire continent. But the “echoes” of the “empire” weren’t just the scattered net positives emphasized here.

China and India and the Middle East were invaded, crushed and set back 150 years, and ended up falling far behind Europe as a result, losing huge chunks of their territory to Europe later in the bargain. Passing that sort of information on may not fit the tone of “Making of the Modern World” or this light, picturesque, surface gloss/inside-the-culture documentary.

But avoiding it in the historic part of your film suggests that maybe you’d be best off avoiding the subject, if it makes you uncomfortable. De-emphasize “the greatest conqueror” and play up the “We were never taught about Temunjin in school” thanks to Soviet influence. Just show how a historically nomadic people are evolving and facing a future that will be, unlike thousands of years of their past, radically different from anything their ancestors took from the world, or brought to it.

Rating: unrated

Cast: G. Mend Ooyo, D. Goreltuv, Jack Weatherford, many others

Credits: Directed by Robert H. Lieberman, scripted by Deborah C. Hoard. A Journeyman Films release.

Running time: 1:13

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Netflixable? Rebel Wilson has her “Senior Year” moment

Sure, she’s a bit rusty. But even in her post “Cats” despair, Rebel Wilson should’ve known that 113 minutes of her going back to high school was never going to fly.

Here’s the test that will tell you whether or not you like Wilson’s comatose-for-20-years-cheerleader-goes-back for “Senior Year” to achieve ‘my dream life’ comedy. Laugh at this speech, delivered by the “woke” influencer Bri Luvs (Jade Bender).

“I don’t really think about ‘popularity.’ I’m just trying to build my most authentic, socially-conscious, body-positive, environmentally-aware and economically compassionate brand.”

Guffaws? Giggles? Titters? Anyone? Anyone?

That’s the tone of this ham-fisted three-screenwriter’d bore, lots of attempts at showing how “cool” or “cruel” things were “back then,” followed by even more slaps at how PC things are now, without the movie or any character in it actually taking a stand for either position.

And in the middle of a all is Wilson, who’s had a run of stinkers — not just “Cats” — making the sale of this to Netflix Paramount’s best play with a star far past “Pitch Perfect.”

The story they’re telling is of a picked-on Aussie immigrant — Aussie Angourie Rice does a swell job of channeling Young Rebel — who plots a strategy to make herself popular. Stephanie is on the cusp of fulfilling her final high school goal, as cheer captain elected prom queen, when a cheer stunt is sabotaged by her mean girl rival Tiffany (Ani Yi Puig) and Stephanie is left in a coma for 20 years.

Love the way Tiffany’s assault, conspiracy and near-attempted murder is brushed away, by the way.

Twenty years later, Steph wakes up confused.

“Wait, Madonna’s now called ‘Lady Gaga?'”

She lost consciousness in a world of “biatch” and “hos” and Britney and “skanks,” and woke up in a place where “We don’t use that word any more” — a whole lot of “that words.”

Tiffany (Zoe Chao, perfectly vile) has stolen Steph’s “dream life.” She married Steph’s hunky prom-king boyfriend (Justin Hartley), gave birth to the “influencer” who goes by Bri Luvs and even moved into the mansion Steph dreamed of living in.

There’s nothing for it but to get back into school — at 37 — get organized and get back the life she coveted, because Steph still “has the mind of a twelfth grader.”

As her much-abused BFF from back then Martha (Mary Holland) is now principal, and the guy who crushed on her (Sam Richardson) is now head librarian, that should be a cinch.

Except the cheerleaders now all call themselves “cheer captain,” and their cheers are rhymes calling for a cleaner planet and more just human race.

“Who are you CHEERING for?” “EVERYone!”

Nobody gets the former queen bee’s “Ally McBeal,” “Salt’n Peppa” and Mister T references. And nobody gets to be prom queen or prom king any more, and nobody at Harding High cares.

Can Stephanie compete when the stakes are world wide web-centric? Will age-shaming Bri Luvs or her mean-mom let her?

“You don’t realize how many people don’t care about you until see it on a number on your phone.”


Wilson still has solid comic timing and being more svelte than she’s been in decades doesn’t make her any less funny. Director Alex Hardcastle, screenwriters Brandon Scott Jones, Andrew Knauer and Arthur Pielli take care of that for her.

But chewing through her string of dogs that merely climaxed with “Cats” — “The Hustle,” “Isn’t it Romantic” — this much seems obvious. Wilson is a comic force best delivered in showy supporting roles that pack a comic punch. The “Pitch Perfect” franchise may have decreed — she has claimed — that she not lose weight for any of those films. But that trilogy remains a model for the best way to showcase her.

Let her be hilarious every time she’s on screen, but not on screen so much that they run out of funny things for her to say and do, and not so much that we tire of her.

The general comic ineptitude at work here muzzles killer supporting player Chris Parnell (playing her dad) and squanders fine, bubbly work by Rice (“Spider-Man: No Way Home”) in the film’s faster-paced opening act.

Everything after Rice is just a long, slogging march to a “Figure out who your REAL friends/supporters are” message that’s been delivered in a hundred comedies better than “Senior Year.”

If Wilson doesn’t see the writing on the wall after this, Hollywood’s about to read it to her.

Rating: R (Brief Teen Drinking/Drug Use|Sexual Material|Language)

Cast: Rebel Wilson, Angourie Rice, Zoe Chao, Mary Holland, Sam Richardson, Jade Bender and Chris Parnell.

Credits: Directed by Alex Hardcastle, scripted by Brandon Scott Jones, Andrew Knauer and Arthur Pielli. A Paramount release on Netflix.

Running time: 1:53

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Classic Film Review: Aerial Combat the Analog Way — “The Blue Max” (1966)

In a couple of days, I finally have a preview screening of “Top Gun: Maverick” that I can get to. And even though I expect to be dazzled by the aerial epic built around Tom Cruise, known for wanting to do enough of his own stunts and an insistence on “authenticity,” I dare say there will be digital effects involving jet fighters in it.

It seems like a good time to revisit one of the films I regard as the gold standard for “modern” recreations of air to air combat, 1966’s “The Blue Max.”

Howard Hughes’ “Hell’s Angels” (1930) went for an unheard of level of silent (then reshot/dubbed with sound) WWI authenticity and even 1976’s “Aces High” with Malcolm McDowell did a decent job of showing planes and pilots the analog way — with genuine (modified) aircraft doing actual stunt-flying.

Most recent films depicting WWI or WWII air-to-air combat have gone the way of “Red Tails” or “Flyboys” — CGI aircraft and air battles. You can always tell the difference. The new Netflix thriller “The Bombardment” is a good example of that. The “Mosquito Squadron” reality of the ’60s is sorely missed there.

Daryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox in the post-“Cleopatra” 1960s, gambled the studio’s fortunes on epics that had World War as their backdrop — “The Longest Day,” with even the musical that saved the studio, “The Sound of Music,” depicting the Nazi menace.

But an epic about an ambitious German fighter ace from the working class shooting down Brits for glory? There’s a hint of madness about greenlighting “The Blue Max,” which was epic in scale and in length, but not a winner at the box office.

Built around George Peppard, filmed in Ireland by director John Guillermin and packed with real planes and real stunts, and the usual rear-projection trickery that put Peppard, co-stars Jeremy Kemp and Karl Michael Vogler in the cockpit, forever “cocking” their synchronized machine guns, it’s still jaw-dropping to look at.

Guillmermin would

Guillermin would show such a knack for epics on this film that they came to define his later career — “The Towering Inferno,” “Death on the Nile” (no digital rivercraft for JG’s version), the remake of “King Kong” that made Jessica Lange a star.

A lot of writers had a hand in the script of Jack Hunter’s novel, which concerns the cynical striving of former infantryman and hotel clerk’s son Bruno Stachel (Peppard) to show up the noble “officer class” of pilots and the imperious, snobby German general staff that urged war, lost the war and then blamed civilian authorities for their humiliation, setting the stage for Hitler’s rise and World War II.

Bruno’s ultimate goal? He wants to shoot down enough Allied planes to earn the “Pour le Mérite,” an iron cross in blue called “The Blue Max.”

“A pretty medal, The Blue Max.”

“It’s the only one worth having. People respect it.”

“The medal or the man?”

Most World War I combat films are burdened with an after-the-fact cynicism about the pointlessness of it all, the epic slaughter and the fatalism characters carry in recognizing their needless sacrifice. That’s especially evident in “The Blue Max,” one of those hindsight epics in which almost every character sees the end (the film is set in the last two years of the war) and that they’re on the losing side.

James Mason plays the count and general who keeps the faith about his own class setting an example for their inferiors, even as he exploits Bruno for propaganda purposes. The pan-European cast includes the craggy-faced Brit Kemp as a war weary fellow pilot who “tests” Bruno even as he tries to befriend the friendless wannabe Bruce, Anton Diffring, who played German officers in what seem like scores of films, and Vogler, the handsome German leading man trotted out to play “sensitive” and noble supporting cast officers like the squadron commander here and Erwin Rommel in “Patton.”

There’s a sidebar love/sex story, with Bruno’s ultimate desecration of his “superiors” coming from his bedding of a countess and officer’s wife (Ursula Andress).

Peppard never had the big screen career he might have. But in roles like the chancer Bruno or Truman Capote’s alter ego in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” he mastered the cynic who hides his cards, keeps his secrets and judges all around him with scathing looks and stinging one-liners.

“To kill a man, then make a ritual out of saluting him – that’s hypocrisy. They kill me, I don’t want anyone to salute.”

“The Blue Max” feels as bloated as any epic of that era of “give them something grander, more star-studded and longer than TV” Hollywood. It was something of a chore to sit through for the umpteenth time to review it. Most every scene that isn’t airborne feels stodgy and bloated. But whenever I channel surf past it, with its impressive if brief scenes set in the trenches and convincing combat milieu, the aerial footage pulls me right in.

Chase planes and a glider with a camera followed modern-engined replicas of the Fokkers and Pfalzes seen here, darting under bridges and around Medieval ruins, mixing it up in the clouds. It’s still dazzling enough to be worth the effort it took, back then, to make aerial combat look realistic and cinematic.

Let’s hope Tom Cruise strong-armed director Joseph Kosinski (“Tron: Legacy”) into similar efforts, at much higher speeds, to give us an equally convincing “Maverick.”

Rating: “Approved,” violence, nudity

Cast: George Peppard, Ursula Andress, Jeremy Kemp, Karl Michael Vogler, Anton Diffring and James Mason

Credits: Directed by John Guillermin, scripted by Gerald Hanley, Jack Seddon and David Pursall, based on the Jack Hunter novel. A Twentieth Century Fox film streaming on Netflix, Tubi, Amazon and elsewhere

Running time: 2:36

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Documentary Review: A Classic from a more Graceful Era in Tennis returns — “The French” (1982)

In the years since William Klein’s intimate “all access” tennis documentary “The French” came out, it’s been somewhat displaced as the definitive statement on that glorious era in tennis — the late’70s through the mid-’80s.

“John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection” (2018) is a genre-best dissection of tennis, one player’s game and his psyche during McEnroe’s years attempting “perfection” at Roland Garros Stadium outside of Paris, a movie assembled thanks to an archivist’s obsessive examination of the hours and hours of footage that the French shot of McEnroe’s matches there.

But in 1981, photographer and filmmaker William Klein (“Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee”) was granted the sort of access sports rarely permits today. “The French” allowed him into their tourney, behind the scenes, in the alley with the ballgirls and ballboys, in the locker rooms with the players and in the various courts of the stadium complex to paint an immersive portrait of French’s premiere annual sporting event.

Fans of the game with a few years on them will see players we barely remember — the also-rans in the era of Borg, Connors, McEnroe, Navritilova and Evert — TV broadcasters whose names can’t quite reach the tip of the tongue any more, and a sport that seems more quaint — wooden rackets dominated — more graceful and a helluva lot less corporate than tennis is today.

Here’s McEnroe, bashfully brought to the lectern to praise sponsor Canon for giving every player in the tourney a Canon AE-1. That was a camera, kids. It used “film.” There are “bad boys” Ilie “Nasty” Nastase and Jimmy Connors, horsing around in a practice set just before the tourney begins, a crowd roaring with laughter at their antics.

“Nasty,” who could be a nightmare of bad sportsmanship to play against, takes his goofy act into the waiting room beneath the stadium, tickling Chris Evert and Virginia Ruzici as they’re about to face off in a women’s watch. And then we see the past-his-prime Nastase, working the crowd, joking around in French, knock off seeded American Eliot Teltscher in the first round, with Teltscher tossing a classic tennis-brat meltdown as press and others descend on him after his defeat.

Klein & Crew pay particular attention to the reigning king of men’s tennis, Bjorn Borg, on court and off — good naturedly doing promotional events, interacting with pushy fans — and one obnoxious French ballboy. He plays and he wins, insisting to one and all “I’m not a machine. I’m like everybody else.” The final images of “The French” are of Borg in victory, and of the later defeat at the hands of the star who would replace him.

And there’s a lot of coverage of the Great French Hope, Yannick Noah, battling for recognition, analyzing his game and his foot injuries at length as he lies, naked save for his jock strap, on a trainer’s table.

You’d be hard-pressed to find this kind of access to today’s athletes on film, with even footage gathered for HBO’s “Hard Knocks” subject to a lot of restrictions from the most corporate sports entity of them all — the NFL.

“The French” doesn’t so much tell a story as capture a moment from a more innocent age, with lax security, Europeans smoking in the stands and assorted sportscasters asking for “something a little stronger” to sip during the various long rallies and longer matches from an age when the rackets were made of wood and the players, even the most efficient, were never confused for “machines.”

Rating: unrated, nudity, profanity, smoking

Cast: Bjorn Borg, Chris Evert, Yannick Noah, Ilie Nastase, Virginia Ruzici,
Hana Mandlíková, Thierry Tulasne, Fred Perry, Don Budge and Arthur Ashe

Credits: Directed by William Klein. A Metrograph release.

Running time: 2:10

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