The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Friday, October 30, 2009


Cary Grant was as cool and smooth as any Hollywood actor. Audrey Hepburn was an iconic actress known for her style and she's adorable. Do we really need a reason to put these two stars in a movie together? Not really. Any movie with the duo has an appeal right off the bat, and it doesn't hurt that their only pairing together -- 1963's Charade -- did not just settle for their charm bringing in the audiences.

A blend of comedy, romance and spy thriller, Charade has the distinct feel of a Hitchcock movie, even the opening credits have the look of a Hitchcock.. With all that genre blending going on, a movie has the potential to overload. That's not the case here as the plot weaves in and out from romance to comedy to oh so ghastly murders. But hey, it's in Paris so who cares? There's so many switches and betrayals and misdirections, it can be difficult to follow at times but it is never enough to distract from what is an otherwise highly entertaining, stylish, well-made movie.

On a ski vacation in Switzerland, Regina Palmer (Hepburn) debates whether she should leave her husband, Charles, who always seems to be away on work. She meets Peter Joshua (Grant) and strikes up a conversation with him, telling the mysterious stranger to look her up if he's ever in Paris. But returning home, Regina finds out from French police (Jacques Marin) that Charles has been murdered. At her husband's funeral, three complete strangers show up to 'pay their respects.' There's Tex (James Coburn), a drawling cowboy, Scobie (George Kennedy), a bear of a man with a hook for a right hand, and Gideon (Ned Glass) a nerdy-looking fellow.

Not sure what is going on, Regina visits a CIA agent at the American embassy, Hamilton Bartholemew (Walter Matthau), to try and figure out what is going on. Bartholemew tells Regina a story that makes her think she never really knew her husband. Late in WWII, Charles, Tex, Scobie, Gideon and a fifth man, Carson Dyle, were guarding a gold shipment -- $250,000 -- to the French resistance but they buried it and says the Nazis took it. Now, it looks like Charles was going after the gold, and the other three think Regina has it now. She turns to the only person she thinks she can trust, Peter Joshua.

Handled by director Stanley Donen with a tongue-in-cheek feel, Charade is a stylish 60s thriller that highlights the onscreen charisma of its two leads, Grant and Hepburn. Grant was 59 when the movie was made, a little older than your typical romantic lead, but it's hardly noticeable whether it's the action scenes or the love scenes with Hepburn. As the damsel in distress, Hepburn gets to show off some of her comedic chops (I was surprised by how funny she was) while also handling the chase scenes well. The movie's success hinges on the chemistry between the two, and surprise, surprise, Grant and Hepburn pull it off with some great dialogue exchanges throughout.

With the whudunnit story though, there's one pretty major flaw that is hard to avoid. As the bodies start mounting in the search for a quarter million in gold, the clues and evidence point to Grant's Joshua as the culprit. The problem is this...Cary Grant just can't be a murderer. I'm usually pretty slow when it comes to figuring twists out, but this one was easy. I might not have known the 'why' but I figured the 'who' pretty easily. That doesn't take away from the fun though as two twists in the last act don't come across as forced like some twisting storylines tend to do. The final scene is particularly good because there are no hints/clues at all that would have led to this revelation. Sometimes it is fun just to let a movie pull you along, so sit back and enjoy.

This is a movie that's fallen into the public domain so beware of those cheap, low quality DVDs that pop up. I saw one of the lesser quality prints on TV and was still able to enjoy it, but if you're looking for the most watchable version look for the Criterion Collection DVD which is a little pricey but worth it in terms of quality. Or if you're looking to save some money, Youtube has it available to watch, starting with Part 1 of 12. This is the lower quality version so be forewarned.

Charade <----trailer (1963): *** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Ballad of Cable Hogue

If director Sam Peckinpah is remembered for one thing and one thing only, I'd be hard pressed to say anything other than transforming on-screen violence. His western classic The Wild Bunch took movie violence to a whole new level after Bonnie and Clyde opened the door two years prior. Lost in the shuffle of all the blood and guts was the fact that Peckinpah was a talented director who could tell a great just so happened a lot of times it was with slow-motion violence. Movies like Junior Bonner and The Ballad of Cable Hogue show what Peckinpah was capable of when he left out the squibs.

Abandoned in the desert by his partners Taggart (L.Q. Jones) and Bowen (Strother Martin), desert drifter Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) endures five days without water as he attempts to walk to the next far-off town. As he lies down ready to give up and die, he sees a drop of water on his boot and discovers a hidden water hole deep in the sand. A stagecoach passes by (Slim Pickens riding shotgun) and tells him there's no water for 40 miles between towns for the stagecoach route. Seeing a chance for some serious cash, Cable files a claim and sets up shop out in the desert, charging 10 cents for a person to drink and 25 cents for animals.

As the money starts to roll in, so do the people. First, there's Reverend Joshua Sloane (David Warner), a minister who travels across the west preaching and generally getting in trouble with married women. Second, there's Hildy (Stella Stevens), a prostitute in a nearby town who falls for Cable but must decide whether to stay with him or continue on to San Francisco where she'll marry a rich man. Holding everything up is Cable who is content to wait at his water hole, Cable Springs, until Taggart and Bowen eventually show up and give him a chance at revenge.

With maybe two guns fired the whole movie, the attention is clearly on the story. It's the early 20th Century so like The Wild Bunch or Ride the High Country, Peckinpah's movie deals with the changing times in the wild west. While a key twist revolves around the times and the advancing technology, the story otherwise could be set anywhere in any time period. Cable's little operation out in the desert is a quaint little American dream, coming full circle when Pickens brings him an American flag to fly. It's a story that is in no rush to get its message across, letting things out here and there.

The high point of 'Cable' is star Jason Robards. Two years removed from one of his best parts -- Cheyenne in Once Upon a Time in the West -- Robards gives Cable a hard edge. Warner's Joshua deems Cable not a good man or a bad man, just a man. He's a likable character, a fella who doesn't care much for people or their cities in towns. He's content to live his life out in the desert (Arizona and New Mexico were the filming locations) and let his money pile up. In her on-screen nudity phase, Stevens plays the hooker with a heart of gold who falls in love with Cable. There's a natural chemistry between the actors although it's hard not to notice that Stevens is naked, half-naked, or undressing just about every time she's in view.

As strong as the leads are, the movie in general suffers from what I like to call the makings of a folksy western. Westerns in the 70s went away from gunfights and action, focusing more on lyrical storytelling, lots of folk songs, and some truly unnecessary comedy, and 'Cable' is no exception. A song over the credits, Tomorrow is the Song I Sing, and Butterfly Mornin's (sung by Stevens) grind the already slow-moving pace to a complete halt. With some low-brow humor, Peckinpah also speeds up the film like a bad Benny Hill episode which looks out of place and amateurish when comparing it to the director's other movies. Adding to the comedy, Warner's horny reverend feels out of place and generally comes across as painfully unfunny.

The revenge storyline is left by the wayside for much of the movie, and that's fine. Robards is appealing on-screen, and it's as enjoyable to see his watering hole station grow and his interactions with Warner, Pickens, and R.G. Armstrong as a stagecoach supervisor, and Peter Whitney as a bank officer who bankrolls Cable. But when the revenge aspect steps back to the forefront, it does not ring true. The whole ending seems a little forced. The premise is an ideal one, similar to The Wild Bunch without the epic gunbattle, but in execution it doesn't work. SPOILER Cable gets run over by a car and basically is fine, laughs at his own death, has Warner eulogize him, and then dies off-screen. He's such a strong character it is a shame he is dispatched like he is. END OF SPOILER

'Cable' is an uneven effort from Peckinpah that ranges from great -- the first hour and Robards' performance -- to below average (folk songs, comedy, forced ending). If you are a fan of Bloody Sam, I'd definitely say 'watch this one.' The volatile director only made 16 movies, and it'd be hard to recommend completely passing over one of them.

The Ballad of Cable Hogue <---trailer (1970): ** 1/2 /****

Pretty Poison

In an epically unlucky case of typecasting, Anthony Perkins made a huge impression on audiences in Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 thriller Psycho playing unhinged Norman Bates. In fact, Perkins made too big of an impression because from then on during his career, he was always looked to for the slightly crazy roles that probably prevented him from getting the more glamorous leading man roles. Perkins went through a slow period after Psycho, but in 1968 made a movie with another mentally disturbed character, Pretty Poison.

TCM Underground aired this movie last Friday and having heard absolutely nothing about it I thought I'd give it a try. Perkins does play a toned-down version of Norman Bates, another disturbed individual with his fair share of personal problems. Not being an actor, I can only guess what being typecast feels like, but Perkins is so good in these roles it's easy to understand what casting directors saw in him. He plays these parts so effortlessly, making you empathize with his characters when you know you probably shouldn't.

Released from prison after serving a sentence for arson and accidental homicide, Dennis Pitt meets his parole officer, Morton Azenauer (John Randolph), who has set him up with a job in a quiet, little Massachusetts town. Dennis goes along with the plan, but takes a different job in a different town where he takes a job working in a chemical plant. Azenauer warned him not to live out his elaborate fantasies that run through his head, but Dennis can't help himself. He meets Sue Ann Stepanek (Tuesday Weld), a high school band majorette, and tells her that he is actually a secret agent for the CIA assigned to destroy the chemical plant because of the deadly toxins it dumps into the water.

At first a little skeptical, Sue Ann starts to believe Dennis' crazy statements. So with a willing sidekick, Dennis begins to plan his mission, destroy the chemical plant before it can do anymore damage. Not surprisingly, things escalate to the point where Dennis no longer has control on the situation, especially when Azenauer shows up wondering what's happened to him. As well, Sue Ann's mother (Beverly Garland) is suspicious of this older man's interest in her 17-year old daughter.

Pretty Poison's story can be described as a slow burn. Upon meeting Sue Ann, there is a feeling that everything is not quite right with this high school girl. She's just too willing to go along with this plan that Dennis concocts about being a secret agent. In this small northeastern town, Sue Ann's bored with her life and is looking for any excitement. For about the first 45 or 50 minutes, that is what the story feels like, a somewhat offbeat but almost sweet relationship between these two people. When Dennis actually puts his plan into action, that's when the sh*t really hits the fan, sending the story down a vastly different road right up until the end.

Perkins delivers a strong performance as Dennis Pitt with one question reasonating in my head as to the make-up of his character. Does Dennis really believe he is a secret agent for the CIA or is it really an elaborate fantasy in his head? It's hard to tell at times, but for most of the movie's 89 minute running time, I've got the feeling Dennis believes he is in fact a secret agent. It's only late in the movie when his fantasy has gone horribly awry that reality dawns on him. As Sue Ann, 25-year old Weld pulls off a frightening performance, really as the villain of the story. She has the innocent look of a high school senior, but below the surface there's some scary stuff going on.

Pretty Poison has been released on DVD so if interested, check out Amazon, or check out TCM's online schedule every so often to see if it pops up again sometime soon. It's a creepy story that just keeps building and building until the final scene which reminded me of the ending The Omen would use years later. Great performances from a tyepcast Perkins as a mentally disturbed man and Weld too as the not so innocent teenage girl. The trailer below has some SPOILERS, and don't be confused, this is not a romantic comedy as much as it might try to make you think otherwise.

Pretty Poison <----trailer (1968): ***/****

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Cassandra's Dream

In an episode of Seinfield, Jerry proudly announces that he's never seen an episode of I Love Lucy. While I can't compare to that -- I've seen quite a few episodes -- I can counter with something of my own. Until this weekend, I'd never seen any of the 30-plus movies that director Woody Allen has made. From what I knew about him and his personal life (kinda creepy) and the types of movies he's made, I just never sought one out. It wasn't intentional, just happened.

Netflix recommended a Woody Allen movie for me and with an interesting premise and two actors I like in leading roles I thought I'd give Cassandra's Dream a chance. From what little I know about Allen, his directing tone has changed over the years from comedies to dramas including Match Point in 2005. So with no background in the director's filmography, I didn't have high expectations going in but ended up loving the movie.

Two English brothers, Ian (Ewan McGregor) and Terry (Colin Farrell), find themselves in deep trouble in the money department for vastly different reasons. Ian is sick of working in his father's restaurant and wants to move on to bigger and better things including a hotel venture in Los Angeles. On top of that, Ian has fallen in love with a young model, Angela (Hayley Atwell), and wants to start a new life with her. Terry is an alcoholic, pill-popping gambler who finds himself $90,000 in debt when a poker game gets out of hand. Trying to make payments on a house for his wife Kate (Sally Hawkins), Terry doesn't know where to turn. The brothers have a streak of luck though as their uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson) is visiting from China.

Uncle Howard is loaded with plastic surgery clinics dotting the globe. But he's in a desperate situation too as a former employee, Martin Burns (Philip Davis) is scheduled to testify in a case against him with a possible lifetime jail sentence on the line. With nowhere to turn, Howard offers to give Ian and Terry whatever money they need...if they kill Martin. In terms of storytelling, this is similar to Sidney Lumet's 'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead,' another crime amongst family story. It's ripe with tension as your average John Smith is forced into actions that before would have seemed improbable.

SPOILERS What works so well is the suspense and tension that Allen builds. It's almost a full hour before Howard's proposition is brought up so by then as a viewer we've gotten to see Ian and Terry and their backgrounds. Both with their own flaws, there is empathy for them and their predicaments. Ian's ambitions are boundless but he needs some $ backing, and Terry just wants to make his wife happy but his vices get the best of him. What is unique is that the murder (yes, they do murder him) is almost an afterthought. It's the build-up and the resulting guilt and inner turmoil that step to the forefront.

With a story like this, it's hard not to compare it to a movie like Dial M For Murder, and in a positive way 'Cassandra' feels like a Hitchcock movie. The brothers break into Martin's house, ready to kill him when he returns from dinner. Then, the phone rings. What do you do? By the way, the ring startled me like something out of a horror movie. Later, Martin arrives home but with a woman. Do they kill both? Just another wrench into their otherwise seamless plan. In the aftermath of the murder and getting the money, Ian is able to put their dastly deed behind them while Terry is torn up with guilt. It all builds to an ending that does work although it feels rushed a bit like Allen just wanted to wrap things up.

Considering McGregor is Scottish and Farrell is Irish, the relationship between the two English brothers is the lynch pin of the movie. A fair share of critics didn't find the dynamic between the two actors believable, but it worked for me perfectly. Ian's smooth and calm, thinking everything out, while Terry is more emotional, more spur of the moment. McGregor and Farrell physically look nothing alike, but does it matter when their interactions are so believable? Wilkinson is only in the movie for two or three scenes but makes the quick appearance instantly memorable, especially the scene where he presents the brothers with his plan. John Benfield and Clare Higgins play the brothers' long-suffering parents who want the best for their children.

Getting average reviews from critics and so-so to downright bad from fans, I'm thinking I liked the movie because I haven't seen any other Woody Allen movies. The dialogue is quick and snappy, the cinematography is beautiful for filming in dreary old England, and the cast is solid from top to bottom, especially McGregor and Farrell. Maybe it isn't up to par with other Allen classics, but I've got nothing to compare this to, and I loved it. So take that Woody Allen devotees.

Cassandra's Dream <---trailer (2007): *** 1/2 /****

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Killer is Loose

While some directors are known for their rather lengthy movies -- David Lean, Francis Ford Coppola -- others are known for keeping their flicks pretty short. Take Budd Boetticher who over a long career in Hollywood directed 22 movies, many of them westerns and cop stories. Of the 22, just three actually run longer than 90 minutes. In fact, many barely top out at 80 minutes. But Boetticher was a director who packed everything in, made those short running times full of action and suspense.

Saying someone is a good B-movie director might seem like an insult, but what's wrong with knowing the formula, sticking to it, and releasing taut, well-told stories that don't dawdle with unnecessary scenes and stories? Boetticher is mostly known for his collaborations with western star Randolph Scott as the director-actor combo teamed up for a handful of classics like Seven Men from Now and Ride Lonesome. I haven't seen many non-western Boetticher movies but caught his police thriller The Killer Is Loose this week.

Trying to solve a bank robbery, detectives Sam Wagner (Joseph Cotten) and Chris Gillespie (Michael Pate) and beat cop Denny (Alan Hale Jr) discover that the bank manager was involved with the hold-up. Heading to his house before the manager can run, they corner him, but Leon Poole (Wendell Corey) isn't going quietly. But in the standoff when the police finally burst in, Leon's wife is shot and killed by Sam when she runs into the room. Poole is sent to prison for a 10-year sentence, but not before delivering a message to Sam, "I'll settle this." Poole bides his time in prison, gets sent to an honor farm and promptly breaks out, killing several people in the process.

Wagner gets the call that Poole has escaped and knows that the convict turned murderer is going to come for his wife Lila (Rhonda Fleming). With the whole LA police force looking for him, can Poole still reach Wagner's house and even up the score? Sam certainly thinks so and sets up a dangerous trap with himself as the bait. Not a wasted moment here with a suspenseful manhunt story. Still, the police are pretty clueless at times, having Poole in their grasp several times only to let him slip through. Especially in the end, which is otherwise nicely nervewracking, the police see to not want to catch Poole. Just take him already!

Boetticher is guilty of one of my biggest pet peeves in the movies; the plot device necessary to keep the story moving because it doesn't make any sense in any other way. When cornering Poole in his apartment -- door locked, lights turned off inside -- Wagner and Gillespie smash through the door that Poole has already fired through twice. The detectives hit the ground and when someone enters the room (yes, Poole's wife), Wagner opens fire and kills her. What exactly was Poole's wife hoping to accomplish? Did she not hear the gunfire and yelling from her spot in the bedroom? Of course, Poole needs something to set him off and this episode does nicely.

Other than the rather forced twist, the story works well. Cotten does well with the world weary cop trying to protect his wife and keep her in the dark as to how much danger she's in. Fleming pulls the shrill wife off well who wants to know what is going on, but when she does find out, freaks out in a big way by threatening to leave her husband. The strongest casting is Corey as Poole, a pretty average guy with a normal life who is transformed into an eeriely calm murderer after his wife's death. He doesn't want to be pushed to violence, but when he is, watch out because he explodes in a big way. The character had to have some influence on Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Perkins for the portrayal of Norman Bates in Psycho as well. Good but not great police thriller with a few flaws.

The Killer Is Loose (1956): ** 1/2 /****

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Third Man

The IMDB Top 250 can provide a funny way of looking at movies. Any big budget new release almost automatically jumps onto the list -- only now is The Dark Knight starting to drop some -- while other above average but not classic movies, like The Shawshank Redemption reside in the No. 1 spot. Make a point some time and cruise through the list which does have it's fair share of classic movies which actually deserve their spots, like 1949's The Third Man which I'm still wavering about.

Before I start, I will say I don't know if there's a way to review this movie without giving away key plot twists and revelations. Sooooooo, if you haven't seen The Third Man and don't want the ending spoiled for you, I'd stop reading pretty soon. It is a tricky movie to review to start off with a lot in the good and a few things in the bad.

It's 1948 post-war Vienna where the city is still feeling the effects of WWII with the city cordoned off into four sections (U.S., French, Russian, British) and piles of rubbles from bombings still dotting the streets. Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), an American pulp fiction writer with a drinking problem, travels to Vienna to take a job offered by his best friend, Harry Lime, who he has not seen since 1939. Upon arriving, Holly finds out that Harry was killed in a car accident right outside his apartment. Talking to the people involved, including Harry's girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli) and several people who were at the scene, Holly starts to question the story with several inconsistencies arising.

Also involved and seemingly with a lot of information they're not willing to give out are Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) and Sergeant Paine (pre-James Bond Bernard Lee), police officers on the Lime case. Apparently Harry Lime was a low-level racketeer taking part in some shady dealings, but Holly doesn't believe that his best friend could be capable of the things being pegged on him. Could it all be true? The issue off the bat for me is with the cast listing. Orson Welles gets third billing right from the start but doesn't appear in the movie for quite a long time. So the obvious connection, Welles is Harry Lime and this good old boy sure ain't dead. Was it supposed to trick people? Who knows, but the reveal doesn't come as much of a surprise.

Welle's star-power aside, the reveal that Harry is alive is one of the coolest character entrances in movie history with Welles delivering that smart-ass smile that only he could deliver. That scene is just one example of the movie's incredible cinematography from Robert Krasker. Director Carol Reed opted to shoot the movie on location in Vienna and using black and white photography creates a shadowy underworld full of dark alleys and eeriely empty streets. Story and characters are one thing, but you could watch The Third Man on mute and still take something away from it. The ending is a highlight especially with SPOILERS Harry being chased through the sewers underneath Vienna, and then the final shot is one that lingers on and on.

Welles makes the most of his part, mostly an extended cameo because he isn't introduced until well over an hour into the story. His scene on a Ferris wheel with Cotten's Martins is one of the better scenes in the movie, full of quick, snappy dialogue that's punctuated with one of my new favorite lines. Cotten is all right as Holly, but his character doesn't come across well and I found myself disliking him more and more as the movie moved along, especially his blooming love with Valli's Anna. Howard and Lee are perfectly cast as the stiff upper lip Englishmen, both aiding and slowing down Martins' investigation.

On to my complaints, starting with the sountrack. No orchestra or band playing, just a zither providing the musical score. Sounding at times like a ukelele, it just doesn't fit in certain scenes and is overused to the point where I'd cringe every time the same tune kept playing over and over again. Here's the main theme that is used in several variations throughout. It just doesn't fit the tone and suspense of the movie, which is incredibly dark with it's subject matter especially for a movie released in 1949. Otherwise, I really enjoyed this movie after some early concerns through the first 45-60 minutes or so. Definitely watch The Third Man, even if it's just for the on-location Vienna B&W shooting.

The Third Man <----trailer (1949): ***/**** Part 1 of 12 on Youtube

Thursday, October 22, 2009


Released in 1975, Steven Spielberg's Jaws was a gigantic, huge phenomenal success that basically spawned the summer blockbuster. Naturally, it wasn't long before similar movies arrived on the scene dealing with mako sharks, orcas, piranhas, and giant squids. Notice a trend? They're all in the water. If like me, you've been looking for a Jaws ripoff on good old dry land, well, I found it, 1976's epically bad Grizzly.

What sets Grizzly apart from so many other Jaws ripoffs is that there is little to no effort whatsoever to actually distance itself from the original shark attack classic. You know, other than replacing the great white shark with a 15-foot grizzly bear. Whole scenes are completely ripped off so the writing staff probably saved a lot of time and effort just translating the story from the Atlantic Ocean to a National Park in the deep south, including my favorite, the new grizzly version of Robert Shaw's famous USS Indianapolis monologue. Sorry, couldn't find the video, but you can read it at IMDB's memorable quotes, third one down.

It's the height of the tourist season and park ranger Kelly (Christopher George) is dealing with a shortage of rangers to patrol the park's expansive grounds. Making it worse, some campers are found mangled beyond recognition out in the woods. Most think it's the work of a brown bear, but naturalist Arthur Scott (Richard Jaeckel) thinks it was a 15-foot tall grizzly bear weighing over 2,000 lbs., or twice the size of an average grizzly. With the help of local chopper pilot Don Stober (Andrew Prine), Kelly and Scott go out hunting with pressure on their back from the park supervisor who wants to keep the grounds open for all the cash that's flowing in.

Before I dive into this one, I should say I expected a clunker of epic proportions going into this B-movie. But even with those low expectations, Grizzly found a way to dig deeper. Working with a budget under $1 million, the whole movie has a cheap feel to it. Early on, the bear isn't even shown, instead we get POV shots from the mammoth grizzly with some growling and heavy breathing played on the soundtrack. Then, when the bear is shown, it's a paw or arm here. The full-on shots of the bear, a captive animal named Teddy, are impressive but it seems to be the same shot of the grizzly growling over and over again.

Thanks to that small budget, the death scenes are pretty laughable with buckets of red paint standing in for blood as hikers, hunters and assorted nameless bear meals are mauled and torn apart. Some nice Youtube user was nice enough to upload a video with all of Grizzly's kills, some worse than others, which you can see -- obvious SPOILERS -- here. My personal favorite, the young lady in bra and panties being hugged to death under a waterfall. Ah, good stuff. This all builds to the climactic helicopter vs. bear showdown that audiences were begging for with possibly the greatest use of a missile launcher in a movie EVER.

Stumbled across this gem because of the cast with three of my favorite character actors -- George, Prine and Jaeckel -- stepping into the limelight, sort of. This is clearly one of those movies where you showed up, delivered your lines and got your check for services rendered. All three seem to be enjoying themselves delivering the unintentionally funny lines, and listen closely for a few flubs of lines that were left in the final print. An awesomely bad movie if there ever was, Grizzly is 90 minutes of low-budget cheesiness that should provide some laughs if nothing else in a land version of Jaws.

Grizzly <---trailer (1976): **/****

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Passage to Marseille

My favorite TV show is Lost which used flashbacks for most of four seasons in its storytelling. I like the reasoning because it gives background without devoting whole seasons to character back stories. The same goes for movies where a 2 or 3 minute flashback can accomplish what a prequel might have been able to do. Of course, with anything good you can take it too far like 1944's Passage to Marseille, an otherwise enjoyable movie set in WWII.

Working off a novel as his source, director Michael Curtiz delivers a movie that at any number of times is juggling 4 different storylines courtesy of a flashbacks; Free French squadron in England, French ship traveling from South America to France, pre-war character stories, and a desperate prison escape from Devil's Island. The plotlines are never confusing, but at certain points I wanted to groan as the screen went fuzzy for another flashback. Reading up about the novel, it seems Curtiz stayed pretty faithful to his subject matter, but could this have been better as four different movies, a huge series? Quite possibly, but that probably would have cost significantly more cash that's not mine.

'Marseille' opens with a great framing device in the middle of WWII as a war correspondent (John Loder) visits a Free French bomber squadron in England where he meets their liasion officer, Freznet (Claude Rains). The writer is curious about one of the machine gunners on one of the bombers, a man named Matrac (Humphrey Bogart). So starts Flashback 1 with Freznet recapping how he met Matrac years before. Sailing from South America to France aboard Capt. Marlowe's (Victor Francen) ship, a little canoe is found floating at sea with five people aboard (Bogart, Peter Lorre, George Tobias, Helmut Dantine, and Phillip Dorn). Freznet figures out these five are Devil's Island escapees trying to get back to fight for their native France. But not so fast, WWII has broken out and France has signed an armistice with Germany.

A French officer, Major Duval (Sydney Greenstreet), onboard wants to deliver the ship to Marseille with its shipment of nickel ore, while Capt. Marlowe intends to head for England and join the war effort. A mutiny looks to be impossible to avoid with the five Devil's Island convicts playing a deciding factor. Sounds like a pretty decent story, doesn't it? We're not done yet with flashbacks to the Devil's Island escape and then Bogie's background as to how he ended up in prison. So here's the basic, during WWII Rains is telling a story about Bogie, who's tellling a story about Devil's Island who's telling a story about Bogie being sent to prison. I'm tired just writing about it.

Besides the mangled story structure (I'm not sure how a linear story could have been done), this was a solid movie all around. The casting is impeccable even if Bogie is an odd choice as a patriotic Frenchman. Thankfully, he makes no attempt at a French accent. Still, Bogart is as an iconic figure as Hollywood ever produced, and he's as calmly cool as he ever was. His backstory with his wife Paula (Michele Morgan) is needed to balance out the changes his character makes as he goes from a newspaperman denouncing the French government to a convict to a patriotic Frenchman. The rest of the cast is pretty nuts with Rains very solid leading a strong ensemble. Vladimir Sokoloff makes quite an impression too as a free man let out of the French penal system who aids the escape effort.

Made two years after Casablanca, 'Marseille' features a boatload of connections, starting with Bogart starring and Rains, Greenstreet and Lorre in supporting roles with Curtiz directing. It definitely has the feel of Casablanca with the war setting serving as a backdrop to an exciting story. Overdone at times -- mostly due to the choppy story courtesy of the flashbacks -- but still a solid movie. Youtube has it available to watch, starting here with Part 1 of 11. See if you can keep up.

Passage to Marseille <----trailer (1944): ***/****

Friday, October 16, 2009

Commandos Strike at Dawn

Throughout WWII in countries across Europe, Africa and Asia, groups of resistance fighters banded together in an effort to hurt the German and Japanese war efforts. Translating their stories to movies has been done many times, often with some pretty cliched results like the beautiful French girl wearing a beret and a tight black sweater as she guns down German soldiers. Several movies involving the resistance fighters were even released while the war's result was still very much up in the air, like 1942's Commandos Strike at Dawn.

About halfway through this movie, I was debating whether to review it. It's not that I wasn't enjoying it, instead I just didn't know what to say or write. But as the story progressed, it became a whole lot easier to take this one on. Instead of showing the stories of French or Filipino resistance groups, 'Commandos' documents the story of a group of Norwegian fighters and their involvement in the early years of WWII. There was no title card saying this was based on a true story, but it's the type of heroic story you know happened in one form or another during the war years.

It's 1939 and widower Erik Toresen (Paul Muni) lives in a tiny Norwegian fishing village on a fjord with his young daughter, Solveig. At a wedding in the village, the townspeople are introduced, an eclectic group of individuals who all more or less get along. Erik even meets Judith Bowen (Anna Lee), the daughter of an English admiral visiting Norway. But as their feelings for each other grow, she must leave, and it's only days before Hitler attacks Poland and WWII is on. Norway is soon overrun and under German control. The townspeople agree to go along with their occupiers, after all the Germans say they are equals and will be treated as friends.

Of course, everything is not so rosy as restrictions are placed on the people that tie down any semblance of normal life. Then, when the rules are broken and several people are lined up against a wall and shot, Erik and the townspeople realize they must fight back no matter the consequence. Organizing into a tight-knit fighting group, the Norwegian resistance ambushes German soldiers, blows up and destroys needed supplies, anything to hurt the war effort. One day hiding from a German patrol, Erik stumbles upon a secret airfield high up in the mountains. The resistance decides they must get to England and warn the high command of the Germans' secret plans.

Often enough, movies made before the mid 1960s are accused of being too bland, too sanitized. In a lot of cases, that's true, but 'Commandos' is ahead of its time in dealing with this not so well known war story. The depiction is very frank as the resistance has more and more success. Husbands and brothers are shot point blank, no superhero soldiers to drop in and save them. Erik and the resistance must deal with traitors from within, handling them in an efficient, brutal fashion. But what was most surprising was the ending following the commando assault on the airfield. Big picture, it's a happy ending, but when looking at a personal level, it's a downer for sure. Caught me off guard, especially as the government and movie studios wanted to inspire audiences, not give them a dose of reality.

As the lead, Muni gives a great performance. His Erik cares for his daughter after his wife dies in child birth. He's a quiet, peaceful man, content with his life especially when he meets Judith. Even when the Germans arrives, Erik says to try and live within their restrictions only to see soon after there's no living with the Germans brutal tactics. The rest of the cast is a reliable ensemble with many townspeople stepping to the forefront including Ray Collins and Lillian Gish as an old married couple, Rod Cameron as the village's Pastor, Barbara Everest as Mrs. Olav, an older widower looking after Erik's daughter (Ann Carter), and finally Robert Coote as Judith's brother and commando team leader helping Erik.

Movies like The Vikings took advantage of their settings and filmed in the locations where their story took place. Not so lucky here with British Columbia filling in for the Norwegian fjords. The fjords have a very distinct, awe-inspiring look, and these locations do an admirable job of making the viewer feel like you're there. Shot in black and white, there's a huge scope to certain scenes on the waterfront and on the hills surrounding the village. William C. Mellor's cinematography brings the movie up a notch or two in creating an idyllic setting of this Norwegian village.

Commandos Strike at Dawn <---trailer (1942): ***/****

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Adios, Sabata

Spaghetti westerns had any number of popular characters from Eastwood's Man With No Name to Franco Nero's Django and even Giani Garko's Sartana. Their popularity and success often led to a series of movies that tried to capitalize on the name only. Like 1971's Adios, Sabata which was originally titled Indio Black during filming. But following the big-time success of 1969's Sabata starring Lee Van Cleef, the title got changed, and we get the 2nd movie in the Sabata trilogy.

With Yul Brynner taking over the role of Sabata (Van Cleef was making Magnificent Seven Ride!), this is one of the more eccentric spaghetti westerns with any number of weird little oddities sprinkled throughout the story from director Gianfranco Parolini. Following in the footsteps of the first Sabata, there's lots of acrobatics, characters/stunt men jumping off of hidden trampolines into action. It looks ridiculous, but at the same time it's a lot of fun. Usually, I hate it when people bring up gay subtexts in movies, but this one had it's fair share too, more on that later.

It's 1867 and French emperor Maximilian is still ruling over Mexico. Near the border, one of his officers, Austrian colonel Skimmel (Gerard Herter) is trying to put down the revolution in his district, keeping his keen eye by shooting Mexican prisoners as they attempt to escape his walled fortress. Skimmel is sending a large gold shipment north across the border into the U.S., but the Mexican revolutionaries catch wind of the plan and send a team, led by the portly Escudo (Ignazio Spalla), to attack the convoy and take the shipment. Joining him is gun for hire and soldier of fortune, Sabata (Brynner). But everything with the gold shipment is not what it seems, and there's double-crossings and betrayals at work, not to mention the slippery Ballantine (Dean Reed), a good source of info who's joined up for a crack at the gold.

It's a shame the character was changed to Sabata because Brynner is a cool enough actor/presence to pull off a new western gunfighter. His outfit is a little flamboyant with leather bellbottom pants with fringes, tight shirt cut low with fringes, and a red serape hanging over his shoulder, but otherwise Brynner's Sabata is a worthy addition to the list of supremely cool spaghetti western anti-heroes. Using an odd sawed-off rifle that loads from the side, Sabata must pick off about 50 people alone. His reward? A cigar that's at the end of every cartridge magazine.

As for some other eccentricities, let's start with the cast. Reed's Ballantine is a bit of a foppish westerner with his ruffled shirts and generally out of place wardrode, his painting prowess, his ability to play the piano, and his desire to always write everything down in his journal. Maybe I'm overanalyzing the character, but if there was ever a gay caballero in a western, this is it. The only link to the first Sabata is Spalla, who plays a similar character and gets to ham it up, including one great last line 'Why you son of a....I mean, I never knew your mother.' Escudo's men include Septiembre (Sal Borgese) -- maybe the coolest sidekick to come out of a spaghetti --, a mute who dispatches enemies with tiny metal spheres he flings from his shoetops, and Gitano (Joseph Persaud), a revolutionary who dances the 'flamenco of death' before a showdown. Odd little touches like that with characters is what makes these spaghetti westerns so crazy and so fun to watch.

Thinking of Leone's Dollars trilogy, he took a lot of criticism for the amount and type of violence in his movies, but in reality, there isn't a ton of actual violence. It was always in the build-up and the tension. Not so here with Adios, Sabata racking up an impressive kill count as revolutionaries and henchmen and Austrian and French soldiers are mowed down by the dozen. This western is action-packed with barely five minutes going by without a gunfight of some sort, and good action too thanks to some strong stunt work. Helping things out is composer Bruno Nicolai's musical score which is about as good as any other spaghetti score you'll hear made by someone not named Morricone. Listen to the music in the opening credits in that link, and try not to whistle along.

About as mindless as a spaghetti western can get, Adios, Sabata is near the top of my list when it comes to the genre. It's stupid and ridiculous with more crazy touches than I could even cover here, but that's the fun of it all. Shut the 'ole brain off for 2 hours and watch Yul Brynner throw one-liners left and right and mow down waves of bad guys in the process.

Adios, Sabata <---trailer (1971): ***/****

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Prestige

Released less than two months apart in fall 2006, The Prestige and The Illusionist both dealt with similar topics, magicians, in a successful manner. Good casts, great cinematography, twisting and turning stories, everything you'd think of in a movie about magicians. Both movies had average success in theaters, nothing spectacular, but each movie has developed a bit of a following on DVD since. I saw The Illusionist in theaters and really enjoyed it, and just watched The Prestige this week, and also liked it...I think.

With a triad of connections to the revamped Batman series, director Christopher Nolan and stars Christian Bale and Michael Caine, the movie reeks (I mean that in a good way) of professionalism. From the impressive ensemble cast to the elaborate sets and costumes, The Prestige is what a movie should look like onscreen. It's clear money was spent on the right things.

Working off a novel by Christopher Priest, Nolan tells a complex story of two magicians, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), over the course of their two careers, starting out as on-stage 'volunteers' for a magician in early 20th Century London. As the magician's assistant, Robert's wife Julia (Piper Perabo) nightly puts her life in danger with a stunt where she's tied up and dropped into a huge case of water. But one night, something goes wrong and Julia is killed with Angier blaming Borden for tying the knot too tight. So starts their rivalry that lasts throughout their careers, especially as their fame rises.

The situation escalates when Borden develops a new trick, The Transported Man, that amazes audiences but lacks the showmanship to make him a huge star. Angier on the other hand is not quite the magician his rival his, instead he goes for the show, the star, the applause. That is the story at it's most basic, and I'm wary to give out too much more. The whole movie is told as a story within a story, utilizing flashbacks to detail the two magicians' stories. The opening seemingly gives away the ending (definitely caught me by surprise), but don't be thrown off, there's much more to come.

Ever since the twist ending to The Sixth Sense, there's been a need to trick or fool audiences with a twist near the finale. 'Prestige' qualifies because Nolan intentionally wants to mislead viewers with this unraveling mystery. The opening line of the movie is almost a challenge with Caine's voiceover defying you 'Are you watching closely?' with an oddly haunting shot that does have a lot to do with a twist key to the story. I'm not usually good at spotting these twists, but I caught this one about halfway through the movie. I did not exactly what it was going for, and the ending more than lives up to expectations, but Nolan adds another twist that works really well and has sparked its own fair share of debate at any number of message boards.

As with any twist ending, The Prestige definitely needs repeated viewings to piece everything together. The ending comes so quickly and I was trying to keep up and figure it all out that I wouldn't be surprised if I missed something. And by the end, Bale and Jackman's characters are nothing like the men we met at the start of their story, it is hard to root for either character by then. Their performances are incredibly strong with both actors delivering career bests. For good measure, Caine plays Jackman's ingeneur, his builder, and delivers one of those low-key supporting roles that show what a great actor he can be. If that wasn't enough, there's also David Bowie in a surprisingly good part, Scarlett Johansson, Andy Serkis and Rebecca Hall as Borden's wife.

As the credits started to roll after the final scene, I didn't quite know what to make of this movie. It blends science fiction with a period piece but at the heart is a rivalry that could have been set in any time period. The ending wants you to be confused, forced to go back and think over what you've seen over the last two hours as two different twists are revealed in spectacular fashion with a creepy final shot. And as near as I can figure, it completely works. Frustrating? Hell yes, but worthwhile at the same time.

The Prestige <----trailer (2006): *** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ski Troop Attack

Being a night owl has its benefits when it comes to stumbling across movies. Awhile back, I flipped through the channels and found that one of Chicago's two PBS channels broadcasts public domain movies every morning at 2 a.m. Now in most cases, there's a reason they are public domain, but hey, if nothing else it saves me the $6 or 7 I'd have spent on those cheap DVDs you see at any number of stores. Like 1960's Ski Troop Attack, a good bad movie if there ever was.

Directed by cheapie director and B-movie master Roger Corman, you have to know what you're getting into when you see Ski Troop Attack. At just 63 minutes, it's short even for a short movie. But filming on what had to be a miniscule budget over a two-week period, Corman churned out a pretty bad B-movie that is so bad, it's actually pretty good. In other movies, like 1964's The Secret Invasion, Corman showed he was actually capable of making a quality movie, but four years earlier, he had this not-so classic WWII story.

It's winter 1944 in the Ardennes, and Lt. Factor (Michael Forest) is leading a four-man ski patrol behind German lines. Joining him are Sgt. Potter (Frank Wolff), a tough NCO who loves nothing more than a good fight with the Krauts, Pvt. Ciccola (Wally Campo), Pvt. Herman Grammelsbacher (Richard Sinatra), a Southern yokel who went through officer's training, and Pvt. Roost (second unit director Paul Rapp getting a shot on the other side of the camera), the radio operator. Out on patrol, they're caught up in a German advance, the Battle of the Bulge, and must decide what to do; head for their own lines or continue scouting behind the advance and radioing the info back in?

The positive of all this is Corman shot the movie in South Dakota in black and white and got some great footage of snow-capped mountains. The negative is that with the lack of budget/script/story, we get a lot of footage of the patrol skiing across these mountains. There's not a real flow to the story, just the patrol wandering around trying to avoid German soldiers, who never total more than 5 or 6 men, once again with the small budget. Late in the movie, Lt. Factor and the patrol do decide to blow up a key bridge with a German squad close behind them.

If you needed to introduce someone to a B-movie, this would be a good place to start with the cheapness of it obvious at all times. The German officer following them never gets a close-up, and we only hear someone talking in German, apparently a voiceover. The action scenes are similarly bad, a character shoots, a German soldier yells and falls, all blended in with archival war footage. There is a real doozy with the guns used with the patrol firing single-action rifles, but when fired, they sound like heavy-duty automatic machine guns.

Another gem is the jazzy, completely out of place music that plays almost constantly and loudly no matter whether the scene calls for it. Wolff's Potter almost falling to his death? Cue the saxophone solo! To be fair, it's not like the script helps the actors overcome any of these deficencies. Lines here are really only meant to move the patrol along. My personal favorite; 'Go help him, I'm going to climb that tree!' No joke, someone actually says that.

As negative as it all sounds, I did enjoy this movie in spite of all its cheesiness. Roger Corman never set out to make Gone With the Wind or Lawrence of Arabia, he was making low-budget B-movies that could be shown at drive in theaters across the country and around the world. If you stumble across this one, plop yourself down and enjoy the epic badness of it all.

Ski Troop Attack <---opening 5 minutes (1960): */****

The Boys From Brazil

Depending on what movie you watch, cloning/reanimation/freezing can be handled quite differently. Think of Austin Powers and then compare it to real-life situation with baseball great Ted Williams. I realize they're different situations, but the idea is the same. What if someone from history thought far enough ahead to plan for a clone of themselves? Then think of it as one of the most hated people in history, and you've got 1978's The Boys From Brazil.

The idea of surviving Nazis trying to revive the Third Reich or even just blend in with society is nothing new in movies, with Marathon Man probably the best example. Late in WWII when it was clear the war had turned against Germany, many high-ranking officials and officers began to maneuver on how to survive in the world after the war. Some made their way to South America where support for the Nazi party still existed. Many just tried to get along and hide from the fact that they were still being hunted for their actions during WWII. But what if that wasn't all they were up to? What if they had plans to bring back Nazism into a world power?

In Paraguay in the early 1970s, inexperienced Nazi hunter and member of a young Jew organization, Barry Kohler (Steve Guttenberg) is onto something. He is convinced that retired, hiding Nazis are up to something, and even finds out their plan by bugging the villa they're staying in. Leading the group is Dr. Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck), a German doctor infamously known for his horrific, immoral actions during WWII in the concentration camps where he performed all sorts of scientific experiments on the unwilling prisoners. Convinced he is on to something huge, Barry contacts Ezra Lieberman (Laurence Olivier), a well-known Nazi hunter.

Ezra is not so easily convinced but while he's on the phone with Barry, the line suddenly goes dead and he can hear breathing at the other end. Suspicious of what might have happened, Lieberman begins to investigate the information Barry gave him even if it sounds incredibly strange. Mengele ordered that over a 2 1/2 year span, 94 men, all working in civil services, aged 65 will be murdered in locations all around the world. Confused as to how it all relates, Lieberman begins to look into the matter and does stumble upon Mengele's plan, a revival of the Nazi Party, a new Fourth Reich.

Based on a novel by Ira Levin and using real-life historical figures, The Boys From Brazil is successful as a 'what if?' in history. The true revelation of Mengele's plan is a doozy, and I won't spoil it here because part of the enjoyment from this movie is trying to figure it out as clues are slowly filtered out. The premise seems ridiculously complicated and over-the-top, but that's for after the movie. While watching the plan develop, I was too involved to think about how ridiculous it actually is. Just enjoy the movie and then rip it to pieces afterward.

With stars as huge as Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier, you would think the leads are as solid as possible, at least I did. Peck plays the villainous Mengele, a brilliant mind who is also completely devoted to Adolf Hitler and his beliefs. With skin-lightening makeup and dyed hair, Peck doesn't look quite right, and his accent is in the evil German, Sgt. Schultz vein. Lines that are supposed to be dramatic and intimidating are instead unintentionally funny. Olivier is better as Nazi hunter Lieberman, a bit of an eccentric himself, but he still seems to go for a stereotypical older Jewis man in his characterization. Maybe I was expecting too much from these two Hollywood icons, but I came away disappointed with their performances.

The supporting cast is much better, especially third-billed James Mason. Playing Siebert, the leader of the extermination squads on the Eastern front in WWII, Mason makes the most of a role that only requires him to be onscreen in a handful of scenes. He is Mengele's security officer, making sure his plan comes to fruition even as that plan becomes more and more unwieldly. Other supporting roles go to Lilli Palmer as Ezra's sister/assistant, Denholm Elliott as a not so cooperative press agent working with Lieberman, John Dehner as a man involved with Mengele's plan whether he knows it or not, Walter Gotell as one of Mengele's key men, John Rubinstein as a friend of Barry's, and surprisingly enough, Guttenberg in a strong key role.

Aided by a solid, creepy score from Jerry Goldsmith, 'Brazil' is at its best when the story keeps you guessing. Mengele's diabolical plan for a Fourth Reich is an unexpected twist that caught me by surprise, both in terms of the story but also the science it involves. Just don't overthink this one while watching, and you'll be fine.

The Boys from Brazil <---trailer (1978): ** 1/2 /****

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Face to Face

God bless, Youtube, where users can post movies broken up into 10-minute segments for fans to watch for free. I stumbled across a Youtube poster who's put up a wide variety of spaghetti westerns and kung fu movies so before somebody catches on and forces him to take them down, I thought I'd give one a shot. Face to Face is considered one of the best non-Leone spaghetti westerns, but it's only available on DVD from other countries, and I'm not plopping down a couple hundred bucks for a region free DVD player.

Directed by the other Sergio, no, not Leone or Corbucci, yes to Sergio Sollima, Face to Face was the director's follow-up to The Big Gundown which is also considered one of the best in the genre. While many spaghettis went for the lowest common denominator, lots of mindless killing, cool musical score, badass anti-hero, Sollima's westerns, like all his movies, try to deliver a message. It's nothing deep or profound, but there's always something there that adds a deeper layer to the story. Of course, it helps to have the killing, music and antihero to help things along.

A history professor at an eastern university, Brad Fletcher (Gian Maria Volonte) is told to head west by his doctors for the better climate to fight off the disease that is quickly killing him. He improves immediately, but one day a stagecoach occupied by three marshals transporting a prisoner pulls into his village. Brad offers to help the prisoner, but ends up in a hostage situation as the bandit kills his escort. Out in the desert, easterner Brad must care for the wounded bandit, Solomon 'Beau' Bennett (Tomas Milian), the leader of a decimated gang known as Bennett's Raiders.

With nothing tying him down to his home, Brad joins Beau as the bandit reassembles his gang who've been scattered all over thinking their leader is dead. He finds them one by one (spaghetti regulars Frank Brana, Jose Torres, Angel del Pozo, and Nello Pazzafini) and they go back to work. At first timid about handling and shooting a gun, Brad develops into a right hand man to Beau and possibly a threat to his leadership. That's not all that Beau must deal with as Pinkerton agent Charlie Siringo (William Berger) is on his trail, looking to bring him to justice.

Unlike a lot of spaghetti westerns where the bad guys are supremely evil and the antiheroes are really only in it for themselves and the money, Sollima's westerns play on the audience's preconceptions about the characters they're watching. From the start, it's figured that Volonte's Brad is the good guy, the one to root for, while Milian's Beau is the prototypical bad guy, a bandit who will get his due in the end. That changes by the halfway mark as both characters transform into someone different. It's great to see a spaghetti really flesh the characters out.

In doing that, it helps to have actors the caliber of Volonte and Milian. Starring in two of Leone's Dollars trilogy, Volonte is becoming one of my favorite actors. He has an intense look about him, and he wastes no time getting into character. Brad is the early favorite for the good guy role, but he undergoes a change over the course of the movie that is believable and never seems forced. The same can be said for Milian who made his fair share of high-quality spaghettis. He had a penchant for over-the-top Mexican bandit characters in the vein of Eli Wallach's Tuco, and even when his character is a little crazy, he's still appealing, likable to the viewer, or at least me for sure.

As for the checklist of must-haves in the Italian western genre, the leads are a given with Berger rounding out the top trio. His Siringo is based on a real historical figure, and Berger makes the most of a part that has him in and out of the story a lot. In the easy on the eyes department, Jolanda Modio, Carole Andre, and Linda Veras play love interests who are given little to do and have very few lines but look great doing it. So much for well-rounded strong female characters here. 'Face' was filmed in Almeria so you'll see a lot of familiar locations, and Ennio Morricone provides a typically reliable if not hugely memorable score. A botched bank robbery highlights the action late in the movie.

As is the case with Sollima's other westerns, Face to Face doesn't settle for the staus quo. It's a whole lot better than the typical spaghetti western and benefits from strong performances of stars Gian Maria Volonte and Tomas Milian. If like me you're not willing to drop a pretty penny on a region-free DVD player, cruise on over to Youtube and give this one a try. If you're new to the spaghetti western, it's also a good place to start right up there with the Leone and Corbucci entries.

Face to Face <----trailer (1967): *** 1/2 /**** Part 1 of 11 on Youtube

Friday, October 9, 2009

Play Misty for Me

In the news recently, ESPN personality Erin Andrews' stalker was arrested, a Chicago man (another proud moment for the Windy City), for photographing her through hotel room peepholes. Talk about off the scale creepy. Stalkers, both celebrity and otherwise, have often been presented through movies and TV shows solely as men, but one of the scariest presentations of a stalker was a women, 1971's Play Misty for Me.

In the vein of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, 'Misty' gets high points from female leader Jessica Walter, playing Evelyn, a terrifying role if there ever was one. What works so well for Walter's character is that no background is given, no reason for her ever-crazier actions. Instead of some stupid, forced explanation, the audience is allowed to brew about what drives this lady. What happened to her growing up that she acts like this? Was she abused or taken advantage of? Who knows for sure.

Making his directorial debut, star Clint Eastwood plays Dave Garber, a radio disc jockey who has a show during the night where he plays jazz music and reads poetry to his listeners. Typical Eastwood part, right? One of his loyal listeners always calls in with a request, 'play Misty for me.' One night following his show, Dave meets this fan, Walter's Evelyn, and takes her back to his home where they have what Dave figures is nothing more than a one-night stand. Not so fast, Mr. Eastwood. Evelyn starts showing up in all aspects of Dave's life, following him when he goes, checking in on him when he's at the bar.

At first, Dave thinks it's nothing more than a semi-crazy lady he'll be able to ditch. But soon after, her behavior escalates into something no one had planned for, and he has no idea what to do. Making things worse, Dave's old girlfriend, Tobie (Donna Mills) is back in town and looking to get back together, and a big city radio station is interested in hiring Dave. Evelyn takes a keen interest in both and starts to do everything she can to stay with him. What started off as a supposedly no strings attached fling escalates to something much worse.

Watching the movie some 40 years after its first release, it's hard not to know where this story is going so some of the surprise is gone as Evelyn's slow burn turns into fanatical love and murder. But even knowing the story's final destination, the movie's suspense keeps you interested. As a guy, I'm watching this from Dave's perspective wanting to scream at him 'Run away, run away now!' but of course that would be a short movie. It's nerve-wracking right up until the final scenes which delivers a somewhat obvious twist that still works because of a sudden reappearance of Evelyn.

Taking over the director's chair for the first time, Eastwood shows his flair already for the visual with a strong story. He filmed the movie in Carmel, California (before he became mayor) which gives the story a homey feel to it as he shoots in basically his own backyard. Issues arise in the last reel as Eastwood tries to build suspense when Evelyn has supposedly taken off. A long montage to Roberta Flack's 'The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face' seems like the first-time director showing off what he can do, but it's just too slow. The next scene, filmed at the Monterey Jazz Festival, has some great location shooting, but it too is unnecessary. As a viewer, you know Evelyn's coming back, just now how, and these scenes were excruciatingly slow for me.

Playing against type, Eastwood's Dave is unlike any character he had played prior to 'Misty.' Not surprisingly, the studio was worried that this wasn't his typical part for the actor who made his stardom in action movies like Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy. Eastwood's part is the least of the movie's concerns because regardless of what critics say or write, he is a strong actor, especially here as he begins to realize how bat-sh*t crazy Evelyn really is. At the same time, whether out of fear for his own life or genuine concern, Dave still tries to help her when he sees how far she'll take things.

Those are minor complaints though relative to a good movie otherwise. 'Misty' set the blueprint for future movies like Fatal Attraction where Glenn Close plays the unhinged stalker, and still packs in the suspense and tension. Jessica Walter is downright frightening as stalker Evelyn and generally scared the hell out of me. A solid directorial debut for Eastwood as well.

Play Misty for Me <---trailer (1971): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Stranger and the Gunfighter

What do you do when you've got a highly successful genre of movies? Combine it with another popular genre and let the cash start rolling in. As spaghetti westerns were faltering some in the mid 1970s, the Shaw Brothers put together a script that would combine everything fans loved about spaghetti westerns with Hong Kong action movies. The result was 1974's Blood Money (AKA The Stranger and the Gunfighter) as East meets West in a surprisingly funny comedic western.

Be as critical as you'd like about spaghetti westerns, but one thing they didn't lack was creativity. With titles like 'Heads You Die, Tails I Kill You' and 'A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die' and crazy gunfighters both good and bad, the genre did everything it could to put a spin on the same old, same old western formula. This combination of Italy and Hong Kong takes that even further with action, comedy and a twist on the story that allows for some gratuitous nudity. Honestly, how can you go wrong?

Robbing an intricately wired safe, saddle tramp and drifter Dakota (Lee Van Cleef) finds something surprising instead of the treasure he expected to find. There's no money or gold, just pictures of four women in various stages of undress. As he blows the safe, the owner, Wang (Al Tung) stumbles upon Dakota and is killed in the explosion. Thrown in prison and sentenced to hang, Dakota is rescued by Ho Chiang (Hong Kong martial arts star Lieh Lo), Wang's nephew sent to America to find his lost fortune.

So working together, Dakota and Ho start to look for the four women in Wang's pictures, and the clues start to come together. Apparently Wang gave each of the women a tattoo on their backside and when read together, the tattoos point to the location of the treasure. Pretty highbrow humor if you ask me. As the unlikely buddy tandem goes through the process of getting these women to undress (some easier than others), another duo is on their trail, Yancey Hobbit (Julian Ugarte), a bible-thumping, leather-clad preacher, and Indio (Goyo Peralta), a strongman Indian warrior.

With the situation as presented, the script can't help but Dakota and Ho into some perilous situations. One of the women is a prostitute so finding a way to see her tattoo is easier than say, the wife of an English aristocrat traveling through the west. But making the situation even worse, Ho isn't exactly clear on American customs and doesn't understand why he can't just ask 'May I see your ass?' to all the women concerned. It sounded kind of stupid funny when I Netflix'd the movie, but I was surprised by how funny the premise actually is.

Still a very bankable star in Europe with the huge success his spaghetti westerns were having, Lee Van Cleef gets to do a more comedic role here as Dakota, a drifter quick with a gun with an eye for an easy buck. Van Cleef became a huge star in the second half of his career and with his hawk nose, gravelly voice and let's face it, awesome mustache, was not the typical western star, but I've yet to see a movie he's in that is not worth watching, typically because of his performance. Hong Kong star Lieh Lo is a good counter to Van Cleef, playing more of the straight man who still has his fair share of good moments.

Combining spaghetti westerns with kung fu, there's obviously some very cool action scenes, including several over-the-top cheesey fights as Lieh Lo takes out large groups of nameless henchmen in slow motion with a funky musical score playing. The finale pulls out all the stops as Dakota and Ho break into Yancey's hideout in an abandoned mission and shoot it out and punch their way through all his goons as they go for the last clue.

Clearly not on the level with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or Once Upon a Time in the West, but this East meets West western/kung fu action movie was never intended to be a classic. It's just good, old-fashioned action/adventure with an odd couple buddy pairing of Lee Van Cleef and Lieh Lo. I'd also recommend 1971's Red Sun which uses a similar story to equally enjoyable results. As for Blood Money, take advantage of a high-quality DVD release and check it out.

Blood Money<----trailer (1974): ***/****

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Hornets' Nest

Not quite the star he was during his Doris Day movies and not yet a star on TV in McMillan and Wife, Rock Hudson had a bit of a dead period in the late 1960s and early 1970s. So where to go when U.S. studios aren't offering good roles? Why Europe of course! Hudson didn't turn to spaghetti westerns like so many other American actors did, instead he was the lone American star in a unique WWII story, 1970's Hornets' Nest.

When it comes to commando missions in the movies, I thought I'd seen just about every cliche and variation in the book. This Italian war movie goes down a road that I'd never thought of before. It's hard to even come up with a war movie of any nationality that bears any resemblance to this one. Hudson plays Capt. Turner, an American commando dropped into Italy with a demolition team meant to hook up with a group of Italian partisans.

But on the parachute drop, a German detachment led Major Von Hecht (Sergio Fantoni) ambushes the team with Turner the only survivor. Before Von Hecht can get his hands on Turner, a group of local Italian boys rescue the commando and drag him to safety in a cave deep in the forest. Led by 15-year old Aldo (Mark Colleano), the group of 15 boys watched the massacre of their village by a German unit. Their motives are simple; they want this American commando to teach them how to use the machine guns they've stolen so they can exact revenge on the Germans. Aldo kidnaps a German nurse (Sylva Koscina) to help bring Turner back to full health.

Once he's able to move around, Turner finds himself in a power struggle with young Aldo. The commando wants to complete his mission, blow up the monstrous Della Norte Dam, while the boys want to kill as many Germans as possible. He negotiates a deal but begins to realize the only way he'll be able to pull off his objective is with the boys' help. All the while, Von Hecht is hot on their trail looking to kill Turner before he can complete his mission.

The dimension of adding a group of young, scarred refugees to help an American commando in his mission was a great touch. Aldo, at times obnoxious and so completely driven to kill Germans, and the boys with an incredible desire to exact revenge is something that's bizarre to watch. Ranging from six or seven years old to 15, they pick up and use machine guns that are as big as them. And when the shooting starts, they treat it almost like a game, hugging and high-fiving at their victories. In the end, Aldo even goes over the edge in a surprising finale.

As the lone American in the cast, Hudson is probably a little too old for the part of a commando leader, but his presence and size compared to the younger, smaller boys works. Other than an odd-looking, out of place mustache, Hudson fills the role well, trying to encourage and keep reins on the group. Koscina's Bianca, the German nurse, is a somewhat pointless role, but her character brings up some of the moral effects Turner's involvement will have on the boys. As the equally driven Von Hecht, a bleach-blond Fantoni borders on the crazy side in his pursuit of Turner. As the leader of the Italian boys, Colleano delivers a strong performance that never makes it easy to like his character, but when thinking of where he's coming from, he does become at least understandable.

Filmed in Italy, the movie looks good. It sounds obvious, but filming on a soundstage would not have worked. And you know what Italy looks like, even 1970 Italy? It looks like Italy, whudda thunk it? It's a beautiful movie thanks to the Italian countryside the story takes place in. The action is sparse, but still effective as the young commando team helps Turner make his assault on the Della Norte Dam. Lots of use of bloody squibs when the guns do go off but not gratuitiously. The ending does deliver a bit of a surprise as some of the boys get knocked off in the attack.

It's a movie that will be hard to track down because the VHS releases are pricey, and there's no DVD in sight. I taped a widescreen version off of TCM that was as clean-looking as a 40-year old Italian war movie can be. Not well-known but still worthwhile if you stumble across it. Good casting with a good if not great score from Ennio Morricone and a unique spin on the typical commando adventure.

Hornets Nest (1970): ** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Fastest Gun Alive

There is always someone faster than you; an idea that drove a whole subgenre of westerns over the years, the fast draw. From Clint Eastwood to John Wayne to Randolph Scott, westerns have dealt with fast draw artists for as long as movies have been made. And if books, magazines, TV shows, and movies have taught us anything, it's lonely at the top. But unlike the stakes in The Hustler which is just pride on the line, the fast draw in a western is a life and death situation.

So with little work needed, the framework is there for an easy story to be told. Someone always wants to take on the best and prove that they are in fact, THE BEST. The Gregory Peck western The Gunfighter explored this idea in 1950 which was reused more than a few times, including 1956's The Fastest Gun Alive. What starts off as a near classic completely derails in the final scene though in an otherwise above average western.

Riding into a western town with the two members of his gang (John Dehner and Noah Berry Jr), hardened gunfighter Vinnie Harold (Broderick Crawford) walks up to a saloon and calls out for Clint Fallon, a man known as one of the fastest guns in the west. Unprompted with no other reason to see who is quicker, Vinnie guns down Clint and a legend begins to grow. Down the trail in a little town called Cross Creek, a quiet storekeeper, George Temple (Glenn Ford), lives with his pregnant wife (Jeanne Crain) while going day to day hearing the digs and criticisms all of the men in town. George doesn't drink and doesn't wear a gun.

But after four years living in Cross Creek, George has had enough and snaps, strapping on the gunbelt he told his wife he threw away long ago. He puts on a show in the street in front of the whole town, shooting two silver dollars in midair and blasting apart a beer mug before it can hit the ground when dropped. And so George becomes his own sort of legend among the townsfolk. But unknown to George and the town, Vinnie Harold and his gang are riding their way with a posse on their tail. Is there any way George can avoid the showdown with the unhinged Harold?

The script is a strong one that intentionally or not borrows elements from High Noon. One man can either save or destroy a town with one decision. But like in High Noon, the situation can be enfuriating as someone watching the movie. Late in the movie, George is forced to make a decision that could save the town, full of whiney weaklings who won't pick up a gun. There's at least 20 men in town who could carry a gun who are scared of three gunslingers. Team up and take them out for God's sake!

As the title character, Glenn Ford has never been better. I've seen many of Ford's westerns, and I'm going out on a limb to say this is his best career performance. The first 45 minutes or so has Ford's George in a slow burn as his place in life starts to rattle around in his head. He's as good with a gun as just about any man and feels the need to show it after years of people doubting him and laughing at him. A late twist and revelation puts a nice spin on the story. You think it's going one way, and then WHAM!, it takes a different route. This twist sets up the ending which had a chance to be one of the great endings in a western if it wanted to be.

But no, director Russell Rouse and scriptwriters Frank D. Gilroy have to add another twist on the ending. I won't spoil it here, I'll let the ending ruin the movie for you to on first viewing. Heading into this one last shootout, I'm already thinking about the very positive review I would be writing, and even at the end of the shootout, it's still in my head how great, how appropriate that ending is. But in that last scene, a completely unnecessary twist is made just so the movie can end with a happy ending. I was ready to give 'Fastest Gun Alive' a 3, maybe 3.5 stars, but that ending really disappointed me.

On the whole, everything else is nearly perfect, especially Broderick Crawford as the possibly psychotic Vinnie Harold who has a deep-seeded obsession with proving he's the fastest gun in the west. Crawford's presence is always dynamic onscreen, and his deep, booming voice was made for him to be a western villain. The rest of the cast is solid too, including Crain as George's worrying wife, and a great list of character actors including Leif Erickson, Rhys Williams, John Doucette, Russ Tamblyn (even getting an unnecessary, out of place dance sequence), Allyn Joslyn, Virginia Gregg and J.M. Kerrigan.

A good example of how a bad ending can ruin an otherwise nearly great movie, The Fastest Gun Alive could have been a classic in the vein of High Noon. Like I said, I was ready to give it at least 3 stars, minimum, but the ending was a complete disappointment especially when considering how everything has built to a certain conclusion. Too bad because Glenn Ford delivers a career-best performance in this B&W western.

The Fastest Gun Alive <---trailer (1956): **/**** Watch the movie broken down into 10-minute segments starting here (movie starts about 3 minutes in)