The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Four Days of Naples

All too often war movies are thrown by the wayside, and some for good reason; they're not very good. I still love them though, the good and the bad. TCM, officially the best channel ever, aired a WWII drama that I'd never come across this week called "The Four Days of Naples." When I saw some of the cast and recognized names from the spaghetti westerns, I figured I had to give it a try.

This was renegade filmmaking before anyone knew what that meant. There's no big picture here, just the story of resistance fighters going toe to toe with the German troops occupying Naples. The movie starts with a description of how the war is going, Mussolini has been overthrown and the talk of an Italian surrender is rumored all over the country. When it seems like the war may be over for Naples, German troops move into the city to prepare for the upcoming Allied advance.

At first, the Neapolitans go along with the occupation, unwillingly of course but what else is there to do? It takes one moment to push the population to resistance. Two young boys, teenagers maybe, are killed in a brief firefight. One is known, but the other is a mystery. No one recognizes him. In the chaos that results, small resistance units take to the streets with weapons left behind by the Italian army. In the narrow streets of Naples, battles erupt as these inexperienced citizens fight it out with veteran German troops.

What jumped out from the movie was the casting. There's not one main star here, no huge name, just lots of characters the movie follows as the fightings in Naples develops. There's Stimoli (Gian Maria Volonte), an Italian captain who finds himself the unlikely leader of a large group trying to rescue hostages in an abandoned stadium. There's Livornese (Jean Sorel) and Pitrella (Aldo Guiffre, the drunk captain from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), a lieutenant and his sergeant dragging an artillery piece all over the city looking for a fight. There's Gennaro, a young boy separated from his mother who sees the fighting as a bizarre sort of game, joining in with his German helmet he found. Ayello (Raffaele Barbato) is a student at a reformatory, leaving the principal (Georges Wilson) behind, only to have the older man join his band of youngsters. Frank Wolff plays Salvatore, a man looking for revenge after his friend is shot down, his widow joining him. That's just a sampling with many more characters and plot lines jumping out.

One character especially jumps out, and he doesn't even have a name. Charles Belmont plays Sailor, an Italian sailor not quite sure what's going on with a rumored surrender. He begins to move across the city with a German soldier and ends up serving as an example to the Italian people of those who rebel. It's a small part, but a memorable one.

With so many characters, the movie works because director Nanni Loy puts the camera right there in the streets and on the rooftops with the resistance fighters as they tangle with German troops. The black and white cinematography adds something to the feel of realism all the way until the final shot of Italians celebrating their victory. The battles aren't staged or too Hollywood either; people die, there's no immortal hero gunning down hundreds of Nazis.

Of course there's no VHS or DVD so hopefully TCM airs the movie again so more people can see this underappreciated WWII story. The Four Days of Naples trailer, unfortunately with some bad dubbing, the TCM version had subtitles.

Friday, February 27, 2009


When it comes to remaking a classic movie, the newer picture almost never lives up to expectations. That's one happened at first for William Friedkin's 1977 remake of The Wages of Fear, a classic French film from the 1950s. It opened the same summer as Star Wars (could you have worse timing?) and received a lukewarm response from critics. Now over 30 years later, Sorcerer has slipped through the cracks unfortunately. What makes it worse, the DVD is a major dissappointment, but that's for later.

Not much changes from the 1953 film with the same storyline. The one major addition is how the introductions are handled. The first 30 minutes introduces 4 main characters, all on the run for one reason or another. Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider) is a getaway driver on a robbery gone horrifically wrong. A mafioso is hot on his trail looking for revenge. Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer) is a French banker who discovers 15 million francs are missing from his bank. He's going to take the fall for it unless he can find the money. Nilo (Francisco Rabal) is the most mysterious character as a hitman supposedly hiding from his past, but we never find out why. Kassem (Amidou) is the last surviving member of his tight-knit terrorist cell.

So all running from their problems, the paths of these four men crosses in a desolate, rundown Nicaraguan village. They all want out but have no money or way to leave. A solution presents itself, an incredibly dangerous, almost suicidal one at that. A local oil well needs to be shut down and cleaned out, the only thing that will do the job is nitroglyercin. The catch? Two trucks with two drivers apiece will have to transport the nitro on a 218-mile trip on a bumpy, little-used, washed out road where the slightest bump might set off the explosives.

Sorcerer creates a sense of doom, a building feel of dread like few other movies have. With each bump, each turn of the wheel over a rickety bridge, your stomach drops. Filmed in the Dominican Republic, the movie has a gritty, realistic, almost documentary like feel to it whether its in the villages or winding through the thick jungle roads. The last half hour feels almost apocalyptic as the end of the trip is within reach. Tangerine Dream's electronic score just adds to that feeling of doom and dread. It all builds up to an ending that completely caught me by surprise. It's not quite the downer ending of the original, but Friedkin makes a switch that really works.

The DVD dissappoints, but I've read rumors of a special edition coming out. Don't hold your breath but at least keep it in mind before buying the current disc. The movie is in a grainy-looking fullscreen presentation which actually works, adding to the grittiness of the movie, but I'd like to see the movie in widescreen. Special features are a trailer and some always exciting cast and crew info. It's a great movie though, and should not be missed.

Sorcerer (1977): ****/****

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Netflix review #7: Yellow Sky

In the late 1940s when westerns still portrayed good guys in white taking on bad guys wearing black, William Wellman's Yellow Sky was released in theaters in 1948. It's a western that seems more fitting for the late 1960s or early 1970s with its presentation of characters and their interactions.

In 1867, a gang robs a bank in a small town and high tails it out of town with a cavalry troop hot on their trail. Their leader, Stretch Dawson (Gregory Peck), takes them out onto the salt flats, 70 miles of desolate, uninhabited land, leaving the cavalry behind. After days of riding with little water, they stumble upon a ghost town called Yellow Sky. The only residents are an old man and his granddaugther. Dawson and Co. begin to wonder why these two are out in the wilderness? They find out quickly enough, there's gold in the hills. Tensions rise immediately at the mention of gold. Who's going to turn on who?

First off, the characters look like they're straight out of the old west. Their clothes are dusty, they stink, their faces show the wear and tear of riding in the sun, and they're all sporting beards. Remember, no barbers out in the desert. Too many westerns have the star in immaculate clothes that look newly-bought, but not here.

Second, there's no good guys anywhere in sight, just varying degrees of badness. Peck ends up being the closest to the hero as the gang leader who begins to question what his men are doing. Richard Widmark is his counterpart, Dude, the biggest villain in the group who's interested in himself and little else. The gang is willing to turn on each other at the drop of hat. Supporting cast as the gang includes Robert Arthur, Harry Morgan, Charles Kemper, Robert Adler, and John Russell.

Third, a female character is introduced but she doesn't feel like an add-on, she belongs. Anne Baxter plays Constance Mae, "Mike," the young woman living with her grandpa out in the desert. She can shoot and throw a punch as good as any man. Baxter presents a strong female character when so often westerns used women as the damsel in distress.

Released late in the 40s when film noir was so popular, this western could fit in that genre. Lots of pyschological undertones, shadowy scenes, and plenty of backstabbing. Yellow Sky is almost bored with the action scenes, but it works. A finale with a three-way shootout in an abandoned saloon isn't even seen, only heard. It doesn't even matter though, you'll be wrapped up in what's going on.

The DVD has the movie in its standard presentation, looking great with the black and white cinematography in the Death Valley filming locations. Shots of riders crossing a vacant desert as blips on the sand stand out as memorable, years before David Lean did similar shots in Lawrence of Arabia. Special features include three photo galleries, a trailer, and three trailers for other Fox Flix westerns.

Yellow Sky (1948): ***/****

Friday, February 20, 2009

Body of Lies

Ever since the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the movie industry has tried to figure out how to deal with the conflicts all over the Middle East. The common link so far? No one seems to know exactly how to present the stories. That's not completely true, maybe people just aren't interested in seeing movies about U.S. involvement in Iraq and the Middle East when memories of 9/11 are still very fresh in people's minds.

Looking at the movies that take place in/around Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries, it's a shame that several strong movies have slipped through the cracks. Ridley Scott's "Body of Lies" grossed under $40 million at the box office, but if it had been released in the late 90s, we'd be talking about a huge blockbuster. It's a timely movie detailing the CIA's efforts to smoke out and ultimately take down a terror cell planning and executing attacks all over Europe and the U.S.

Showing how technology affects what CIA agents do out in the field, the story is told through the perspective of field agent Roger Ferris, an up and coming operative assigned to find Al-Saleem, the leader of a terrorist cell that's promised to take the fight to the attackers. Ferris becomes more and more disillusioned with his job as he sees the results, sometimes extremely costly results. As Ferris, Leonardo DiCaprio again proves why he's one of the best actors of his generation. Ferris knows what's he doing, but even as a young agent, there's a weariness to him that DiCaprio brings out.

Ferris' supervisor is Ed Hoffman, a middle-aged man who keeps in constant contact with his agents by cell phone. He often talks to Ferris as he does everyday things, taking the kids to school, a soccer game, that type of stuff. At the same time, Hoffman has access to unlimited technology that allows him to track Ferris and make sure he's all right. Russell Crowe seems to be really enjoying himself in a somewhat smaller role than usual, but one that gives him chances for snappy one-liners as he verbally goes toe-to-toe with Ferris. Hoffman even says at some point "10 years ago I could have kicked your ass." He's no longer a field agent, but he's got more than enough experience to lead his division.

There weren't as many twists and turns as I thought there would be in Body. The story's pretty straightforward; the CIA trying to find and eliminate a new, deadly terrorist cell. What's interesting is how they go about accomplishing this. I won't reveal it here just because I don't want to give it away. Some good action here too in short bursts, including an early attack on a safe house by Ferris and his local source.

Director Scott doesn't disappoint here in his first movie since American Gangster. With "Departed" screenwriter William Monahan, it'd be hard to miss here. Strong performances from the two leads, a timely spy thriller that slipped through the cracks in theaters last fall, Body of Lies deserves better.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Lust for Life

Certain movies can also single-handedly be carried by one performance, Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler and Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood are just two recent examples. Add Kirk Douglas as artist Vincent Van Gogh to that list for his performance in 1956's Lust for Life. It was an Oscar-nominated performance, he lost to Yul Brynner in The King and I (I really don't understand that decision), with great supporting performances from Anthony Quinn, who won a supporting Oscar for his part as Paul Gauguin, and James Donald as Theo, Vincent's older brother.

The movie starts out with a positive before a word is spoken. With red hair and sporting a beard, Douglas looks like the Dutch painter. The actual performance is one of the actor's best and was one of three Oscar-nominated roles. Douglas portrays both sides of Van Gogh. At his best, Vincent just wants to create art and paintings that will brighten people's days. Even beyond the art, he wants people to be happy. At his worst, he is like a caged animal prone to outbursts and violent attacks who late in his life developed mental illnesses that have not even now been diagnosed. An incredibly physical actor but also one who could handle the emotional scenes, Douglas makes both aspects of the character believable.

Quinn doesn't have a huge part, but it's a goodie. As Gauguin, he is both Van Gogh's best friend and worst enemy. There's a friendship between them that comes from similar experiences, as this scene shows. They have deep, intellectual conversations about art and what inspires them, but sometimes these talks devolve into screaming matches, one of them leading to Van Gogh slicing off part of his ear. Quinn was always able to pull off fiery roles, and this one doesn't disappoint. The scenes of conflict between the two actors are scary in their reality. I thought one or the other was going to throw a punch.
James Donald as Theo gets the less meaty role, but it's a part that drives the film and keeps it moving. Much of his part is reading Vincent's letters to his brother so we get a picture of what Vincent is going through but also how his brother reacts. All his life, Theo looked out for his brother, encouraging him to become the best painter he could be. Donald made a career out of key supporting roles, and this is one of his better parts.

Obviously with a bio-film of a famous artist, the paintings and sketches are on display throughout. In some of the movie's most effective scenes, Van Gogh's letters to Theo are read while his paintings are shown on screen. I've never been an art afficionado in any sense of the word other than "Hey, I like that one," but seeing the struggles Van Gogh went through during his life make me appreciate his art more. I still might not completely understand what he's going for with his paintings and their meanings, but I have some idea now, or at least I like to think so.

Don't miss this film though, it's worth watching just to see the fire and emotion Douglas brings to the role. Here's the trailer, and I agree again with the post. Douglas should have won the Oscar...

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Dam Busters

All too often, war movies try to be something bigger, something with a message instead of just focusing on the story at hand. And that's the thing, most of the stories at their most basic are interesting enough without a lot of extra junk added on. A prime example of this? The Dam Busters from 1955, a British movie about a mission undertook by British bomber pilots midway through WWII. The story is interesting, and the movie is content to tell that story.

Doctor B.N. Wallis is a very intelligent if somewhat eccentric aviation engineer living in England in 1942. He's been working for months on a plan that could severely disrupt the German war effort. To create just one ton of raw steel, the Germans must use 100 tons of water. What's the best way to slow the process up? Knock out three dams deep in Germany that supply 2/3 of the needed water. Wallis develops a bomb that when dropped from a bomber at low altitudes skips across water toward the dam much like a rock skipping across a lake.

Of course things don't go smoothy as Wallis perfects the skipping five-ton bombs. That's just part of his problems, ranging from war materiel to dealing with the government. Throw in the issues the British pilots are having, and you've got a highly entertaining story. The pilots will attack the dams at night, flying just 60 feet up, and must drop their bombs with pin-point timing so the payload is delivered at just the right time.

The actual attack on the dams is handled perfectly, including some pre-CGI special effects that look dated, but what do you expect? The movie was made in 1955 so keeping that in mind, the effects aren't that bad. Besides, I was so wrapped up in whether the bombing runs would work I didn't even notice the so-so effects. Throughout the movie, the aerial footage stands out as incredibly well-done, and it's led some people to compare it to the end of Star Wars. See for yourself.

Cast-wise, the list goes on and on but two characters are at the forefront, Michael Redgrave as Wallis, and Richard Todd, a real-life war hero, as Wing Commander Guy Gibson, the leader of the British bombers. They're about as different as two men can be, but they share a common goal and become friends because of their shared experiences. Also, keep an eye out for a young Robert Shaw in just his 2nd movie and first speaking part.

One other thing mentioning that made me rewind a couple times. Gibson's dog is named 'N*gger." Looking the movie up at IMDB, I saw I wasn't the only one surprised by the name. Apparently, the word was a way of describing a black dog in England at the time, and in no way is any sort of racial slur. Still, I had to mention it.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Day of the Dolphin

When it comes to what people like about movies, answers are across the board. Maybe it's the actors and actresses involved, or a favorite director, or maybe just a genre that appeals to viewers. But sometimes, you read a movie description that's so odd, so crazy, that you can't help but watch the movie. Read below and tell me you're not intrigued.

"After teaching dolphins to speak, a scientist tries to keep them from being used in an assassination plot."

The movie? The Day of the Dolphin starring George C. Scott. Mike Nichols directs and Buck Henry wrote the screenplay so I thought maybe this was a comedy, or at least a dark comedy. Nichols directed The Graduate and Catch-22 while Henry was the creator of Get Smart and was a writer on The Graduate. It's safe to say then that I was caught off guard when I discovered the movie's played straight, no comedy here.

To be fair, the assassination plot from the description isn't even dealt with until the last half hour or so. Much of the rest of the movie's plot is pretty thin. Scott is Dr. Jake Terrell, a man who works with dolphins and has taught his two subjects, Alpha and Beta, to speak English with a limited vocabulary. That's most of the first 75 minutes of the movie, Terrell and his team working with the dolphins. To the film's credit, that storyline works, mostly because the dolphins are so entertaining and cute, like sea otters, you just can't go wrong.

But then comes the assassination plot. There's a turn of events where the watchers of the watchers want to kill the president of the U.S. using Terrell's dolphins. I won't explain how exactly because the plan is creative, but it seems thrown together with villains and quasi-villains all trying to out-do each other. The twist and final line of the assassination plotters was funny though, laugh out loud funny, but whether it was intentional or not I don't know.

An interesting movie to say the least with a combination of nature film and conspiracy theories. I can honestly say I've never written anything like that before. Check it out for the scenes with the dolphins and an oh so crazy 70s conspiracy plot. It'll get a laugh or two out of you.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Netflix Review #6: Joe Kidd

After the huge success of Dirty Harry the year before, Clint Eastwood returned to the genre that made him a star, the western, in 1972's Joe Kidd, the story of a range war in turn of the century New Mexico. It's another Eastwood western I've always avoided some because I enjoyed the Leone spaghettis so much, but I enjoyed it even with all its flaws of which there are many.

Eastwood is Joe Kidd, a small-time rancher who's just received a 10-day jail sentence for a number of offences. He's let out when a rich land owner, Frank Harlan, wants to hire Joe to lead a hunting expedition of sorts, a hunt for a Mexican stirring up trouble when it comes to land rights by the name of Luis Chama. Kidd turns down the offer but changes his mind when he returns home to find that Chama and his gang have stolen his horses and beaten one of his hired hands. Kidd joins up with Harlan and his posse, finding out how brutal their methods can be on the trail.

For one, it's a short movie at 88 minutes. I was disappointed to read the DVD has missing scenes from previous releases or TV showings. I can't verify having never seen it, but a DVD always gets lower points for something like that. With the short running time, you lose a ton of character and plot development. John Saxon plays Chama, appearing for the first five minutes and then disappearing until the last 20 minutes. Robert Duvall has always been a good villain, and lives up to reputation here, but his character is as one-dimensional as they come. Must kill Chama!

Some of these issues most likely were caused by the lack of a finished script. Director John Sturges improvised on the fly, especially in the finale. There's a cool stunt with a train going off the rails, but a few minutes later, the movie just sort of ends. It's not one of those open-ended conclusions where you're left to interpret what happened, the movie is over and credits roll.

In spite of these flaws, it's a western I enjoyed. Eastwood is a more laid back gunslinger, and even if he is underwritten, Duvall provides a good counter to him. Composer Lalo Schifrin does his own version of a spaghetti western score that's memorable, and the California and Old Tucson locations are shot beautifully. Harlan's posse of hired guns, Lamarr Simms (Don Stroud), a hothead who would like nothing more than kill Kidd, Olin Mingo (James Wainwright), a sniper who can hit anything, and Roy Gannon (Paul Koslo), the calm, cool fast draw specialist, are also good villains, if underused. The showdown the movie builds to with Kidd and Simms has no pay-off, too bad, it would have been a goodie.

The DVD, missing scenes and all, is an average disc. Widescreen presentation is noticeably scratchy in certain scenes, but otherwise appears okay. Special features include the always boring production notes with cast and crew info, and a trailer that plays up the action in the movie. A western with flaws, sure, but still check it out.

Joe Kidd (1972): ***/****

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Eagle Eye

As far back as Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" in 1968, movies have been warning us not to become too reliant on technology, be it computers, cell phones, automated weapons systems, you get my drift. But as the movies show, we're pretty dumb overall so if technology makes things easier then we're all for it. Last year's Eagle Eye continued this trend in the form of an action thriller that I enjoyed a lot more than I thought I would going in.

Shia LaBeouf plays Jerry Shaw, your typical underachiever who has some potential to do things with his life but chooses to do otherwise. He works at the Copy Cabana after dropping out from Stanford, but one day finds $750,000 in his bank account and an apartment full of ammonium nitrate and high-tech military weapons. His cell phone rings and a woman tells him he has 30 seconds to get out of his apartment before the FBI shows up to arrest him. Of course, Jerry is suspicious, I guess I would be too, and doesn't believe her.

Across town, a similar thing is happening to Rachel Holloman, played by the very beautiful Michelle Monaghan, a single mom who has just sent her son to Washington DC with his class to play at the Kennedy Center. The woman on the phone tells Rachel she must do everything she says or else her son's train will derail. So begins a movie that doesn't slow down until the very end. Is the whole movie kinda ridiculous? You bet, but that's part of the fun. In this day and age, most people's lives are so closely tied to their phones, Blackberries, IPODS, and other technological advances, so a movie that plays on the fear that it's the technology ruling us is as timely as it will ever be.

Going into Eagle Eye, I hadn't liked either big LaBeouf movie, he was okay in Indy 4, and all-around bad/annoying in Transformers, so I had low expectations. With the right part here where his character is as much in the dark as the viewer as to what's happening, he was pretty good. However, the pessimist in me says the ending was a bit of a cop-out as to how his character is dealt with. Monaghan joins Shia as the female lead and does a reliable job with a stereotypical character. There isn't much development in either character, the basic outline is explained with their backgrounds, and vamoose, we're off! In the supporting cast, Billy Bob Thornton jumps out as one of the better parts, a wisecracking FBI agent just trying to figure out what exactly is going on.

The movie has its flaws, but it isn't enough to distract from the overall product. The story moves along too fast for you to even think about the flaws. It's an exciting movie, and a timely one, that's worth a watch if nothing else. And always remember that someone is listening, in this case, your cell phone. I always knew those things were evil.

One thing I'll never complain about, the original teaser trailer that was shown in theaters. It's one of the better teasers I've seen in quite awhile.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Netflix Review #5: Bite the Bullet

By the mid 1970s, the western genre had changed significantly and not for the better. Most were cynical, dark, and ultra-violent, and those that weren't poked fun at the stereotypes. I liked Blazing Saddles but you know what I mean. Richard Brooks' "Bite the Bullet" is a more old-fashioned western that relies on a good story and a great cast. It deals with nine contestants in a 700-mile horse race across some of the most hellish terrain in the west in 1906.
What jumped out at me when looking through lists was the cast here including Gene Hackman, Candice Bergen, James Coburn, Ian Bannen, Ben Johnson, and Jean-Michael Vincent. None dissappoint with some really stepping into their roles. Hackman and Coburn are old friends who served together in Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders. There's is a friendship that goes back years, and it shows, the two are very believable and likable as a pair of cowboys a few years past their prime as the times change in the wild, wild west.

While that duo provides strong leads, it's Ben Johnson's supporting role as one of the riders that is most memorable. The real-life cowboy plays Mister, an old cowboy who's done it all. But now in his later years, he's been questioning if he's actually ever accomplished anything. He decides that winning the race is bigger than the prize money, instead it would be something to be remembered for. His scene in which he explains it all to Hackman is one of the best scenes in the movie, explaining the changing west like few movies can or have done. SPOILERS though if you haven't seen the movie.

Very little action here, but I didn't find myself drifting at all. There's little character development after the leads, but the characters come across as real people, not just the stereotypes they could have been in a lesser movie.

The DVD is a dissappointment for a couple reasons. First, no widescreen presentation, and this is a movie that would greatly benefit from widescreen. Location shootings from the arid deserts to the tree-filled forests are beautiful. Worst of all, the credits are in widescreen but the movie immediately returns to pan-n-scan. Second, no special features, not even a trailer.

I feel safe saying if you're a fan of westerns, this won't dissappoint even if the DVD does exactly that. You might try and wait for a widescreen DVD, but I wouldn't count on it. Great ensemble cast, good old-fashioned story, and an ending that works perfectly for the movie.

Bite the Bullet (1975): ***/****

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Netflix review #4: The Man With The Golden Gun

I've seen all the Connery Bond movies, the last two obviously with Daniel Craig, and bits and pieces of the Roger Moore entries, but I never really sat down and watched one straight through. I was never a huge fan of Moore, but thought as a fan of the series I should watch all of the movies. I watched Moore's first movie, Live and Let Die, a few weeks back and got The Man With The Golden Gun in the mail yesterday.

Reading reviews, TMWTGG seems to take a lot of heat for being pretty cheesy so I was surprised by how much I liked it. Moore seems to have figured out how to play 007 more so as compared to LaLD. His one-liners are there, but they're not overdone. We get it, you're clever, stop with the cheesiness. The action scenes are well-handled, and he's more believable as it looks like he did most of his own stunts. When it comes to the ladies, Moore was never in question. Just two movies in and with the snap of a finger, he's got the Bond women waiting.

Horror movie master Christopher Lee is the villain here, the man with the golden gun, Francisco Scaramanga, the world's deadliest assassin who charges a $1 million per kill. The hit man supposedly sends a golden bullet to MI6 with "007" imprinted on it. So Bond has a master assassin on his tail, but there's a glitch, no one knows what he looks like. In an odd twist, even for this series, the only way to identify Scaramanga is that he has an extra nipple. There's a subplot here too about capturing solar energy, but it isn't as good as the two men going head to head.

In the Bond girls department, this one gets high points with Britt Ekland and Maud Adams starring. Ekland plays Mary Goodnight, a fellow agent working as Bond's liasion of sorts who plays hard to get with him. In a memorable ending, Ekland runs around the last 30 minutes or so in a bikini. In her first Bond movie, she would return as a different character in Octopussy, Adams is Andrea Anders, Scaramanga's mistress who sees a way to safety through 007. Both women are up there as two of the more beautifuly Bond women.

One more bit of interesting casting, a pre-Fantasy Island Herve Villechaise as Nick-Nack, Scaramanga's deadly little assistant who we're never quite sure what his motives are. Clifton James also returns as Sheriff JW Pepper from Live and Let Die in an unnecessary return. Convenient that a Louisiana sheriff is visiting Thailand the same time as Bond, isn't it?

When it comes to action, I thought "Golden Gun" was top-notch including an exciting boat chase and a chase through Hong Kong with a good pay-off as a car does a corkscrew over a river. The scene's marred by a cartoonish slide noise, but the stunt's impressive no matter how you look at it.

Other things worth mentioning, or maybe not mentioning, the theme by Lulu is forgettable and painfully unsubtle, even for a Bond song, and the movie at 125 minutes can be a little talky. But otherwise, it's worthwile. Not a classic Bond movie, but better than the clunkers. This was director Guy Hamilton's fourth and final 007 movie, a good end for the director of the classic Goldfinger.

The DVD has the movie in its widescreen presentation, the Hong Kong and Thailand locations look great, and two different commentary tracks.

The Man With The Golden Gun (1974): ***/****

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The China Syndrome

Within the disaster movie genre, I've noticed a enjoyable sub-genre where there's not only a disaster but it is being caused by the powers that be. I watched "The China Syndrome" the last couple of days and can include that movie in the list. It could also be included in any list of paranoid thrillers from the 1970s.

Released around the time of the Three Mile Island accident in Harrisburg, The China Syndrome begins with a news crew filming a feature at the Ventana Nuclear Power Plant in California. Of course, something goes wrong and the nuclear core is almost uncovered. The cameraman, played by a bearded Michael Douglas, turns his camera on without anyone realizing it, filming the whole accident from the control room's perspective. The problem is solved though without too much damage and soon enough the plant is back on-line.

Typically starring in comedies, Jack Lemmon steps up in a big way in this thriller as a shift supervisor in the control room. He thinks there's something more going on with the pump, and that if too much pressure is placed on the pump everything goes kaboom and nuclear clouds are released all over the state. Lemmon was nominated for his performance, and rightfully so, as a man who has worked for many years at this plant and doesn't want to see something horrific happen because the powers that be are worried about losing money and are willing to sacrifice possibly hundreds of thousands people.

Also earning a nomination is Jane Fonda as Kimberly Miller, a field reporter for a TV station who is given fluff assignments which brings in lots of viewers. Miller aspires to be an investigative reporter but is being held back because she's so successful with her light, happy stories. So when a problem arises with Lemmon's Jack Godell and the power plant, she has two reasons to seek out the story, career-wise and the obvious one of, well, you know, survival.

Labeling The China Syndrome as a disaster movie isn't really fair I guess. It's more so what could happen, the threat of what would happen if a nuclear power plant went through a meltdown. But the tension is there because I wasn't quite sure how far the movie was going to take the storyline. The ending is surprising, but it leaves the big picture to your interpretation. Highly enjoyed this 70s thriller!
Here's the first scene from the movie, sets the stage for what's to come.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Rear Window

I've always been aware of director Alfred Hitchcock with his movies and TV show. I've always known he's respected as one of the best directors of Hollywood's Golden Age and beyond. But even knowing that, I never really sought his movies out even though I've really enjoyed the ones I've seen, North By Northwest and Vertigo especially. So when Rear Window was on TCM this past weekend I thought I'd give it a try.

Through the first half hour or so, I thought maybe I was missing something. Jimmy Stewart is L.B. Jefferies, an out of work photographer who's been hobbled for weeks with a heavy cast on his left leg. In his small two-room apartment, Jefferies gazes out the window and keeps tabs on his neighbors because he's got nothing else to do. One night, unable to sleep but dozing off here and there, he sees a neighbor in the apartment across the courtyard, Lars Thorwald, leave and return three times with a large metal suitcase. After that, Jefferies doesn't see Thorwald's wife anymore.

Could he have murdered her and disposed of the body by cutting it up and hiding the body parts all over New York? The clues seem to point to that, and soon Jefferies has his girlfriend/fiance, Lisa, and nurse Stella, believing his wild theories too. The movie's pace picks up by the 30-minute mark and doesn't really slow down at any point. The pace hits breakneck speed in the last half hour as the trio decide to "go on the offensive" and find out what really happened.

Just like 12 Angry Men, Rear Window uses just one set for the whole movie, specifically Jefferies' little apartment and then the whole apartment complex around him. As a viewer, the whole movie is told from the perspective of the apartment with a hobbled Jefferies, sometimes from his exact POV whether it be a long-lens camera or a pair of binoculars.

So many Hitchcock thrillers are known and respected for their twist endings, but Rear Window goes down the opposite road. Are we supposed to believe Jefferies as the amateur detective? Did Thorwald actually kill his wife? The ending is good regardless, you should get butterflies during the Thorwald apartment showdown, and the same when Thorwald realizes he's being watched.

Besides Jimmy Stewart, the cast is strong all around, especially Raymond Burr in a pre-Perry Mason part as Thorwald. He's one of cinema's creepiest villains, and he doesn't even have a close-up until the last 10 or 15 minutes of the movie. I've never understood Grace Kelly's appeal when it comes to the acting department, her looks were never in question, but the future Princess of Monaco is excellent here. She starts off as the basic upper-class girlfriend, perfect in every way, but rises above the stereotypical part when she sides with Jefferies in his detective work. Character actor Thelma Ritter is great, providing some of the movie's funnier lines, as Stella, Jefferies' nurse.

So as I try to watch more Hitchcock movies, I'll admit Rear Window isn't quite what I thought it'd be, but it is an excellent movie, especially the finale. I will definitely be looking for more of Hitchcock's movies in the past. And just in case anyone was wondering, I didn't spot the director's cameo this time around.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Netflix review #3: Lost Command

Last year I was able to catch "Battle of Algiers" on TCM after hearing so many rave reviews about the almost-documentary film detailing a part of the Algerian War in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was one of the best movies I saw last year so when I saw there was a more Hollywood take on the war, I had to at least give it a try.

Lost Command tells the story of the Algerian fight for independence mostly from the French perspective, including Lt. Colonel Pierre Raspeguy's 10th Parachute Regiment as they tangle with a rebel group in the hills and then dealing with terrorists in Algiers. Anthony Quinn plays Raspeguy, a veteran soldier worn down by all the fighting but who still feels the need to accomplish his mission. The movie begins at the disastrous battle at Dien Bien Phu as the Vietminh capture the last of Raspeguy and his men.

After spending several months in a prison camp, Raspeguy and his men are released, but the colonel finds out his regiment has been disbanded. It isn't long before the French command offers him a new regiment, albeit with men that were rejects from other units. Raspeguy agrees, and with some men from his previous unit, including Alain Delon's Capt. Esclavier, begins to train his men.

The story is good, and by the end the characters are more than just cardboard cutouts. Delon is a good counter to Quinn, his Esclavier is an idealist who needs a reason to fight, not just for the thrill of it all. In an odd choice for casting, George Segal plays Mahidi, an Arab leading a group of rebels and an ex-paratrooper who served with Raspeguy. Michele Morgan and Claudia Cardinale are the love interests, with Cardinale getting a chance to play a more villainous role. Raspeguy's men include Maurice Ronet as Boisfeuras, Maurice Sarfati as Merle, Jean-Claude Bercq as Orsini, Syl Lamont as Verte, and Gordon Heath as Dia. Spaghetti western fans should look for small parts for Al Muloch and Aldo Sambrell. Also look for Gregoire Aslan.

The high points of the movie, besides the strong cast, are the action scenes. Three major set pieces are featured, the opening attack at Dien Bien Phu including a parachute drop gone horribly wrong, an ambush of the 10th Regiment by Algerian rebels, and a firefight on a mountain side as Raspeguy and his men attempt to stop Mahidi from acquiring an arms shipment. All three battles have an epic feel to them, especially the finale.

The DVD has a widescreen presentation of the movie that's never looked better and is a significant improvement from the pan-n-scan VHS tape. The Spanish locations benefit the most with the widescreen. Special features are two trailers, one for Lost Command and one for The Guns of Navarone. An action picture more than anything, I highly recommend this one.
Lost Command (1966): ***/****