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, August 28, 2009

Triple Cross

The mid 1960s were a ripe time for historical movies with international casts, huge stories, and big budgets, from Roman times epics like Spartacus and The Fall of the Roman Empire to more modern stories like The Longest Day and Battle of Britain. The problem is that many relied too much on the stars to make something of the movie with nothing to back them up. One that comes through and doesn't just rest on its laurels is 1966's Triple Cross.

Behind the lines spy stories from WWII can be hard to mess up when translating stories to the big screen. There's typically going to be a strong villain, Germans or Japanese depending on the perspective, and a natural tension that livens up any story. Based on the true story of British criminal/spy Eddie Chapman, Triple Cross drags at times but ultimately comes through with a quality WWII spy story.

In the months leading up to WWII, British safecracker extraordinaire Eddie Chapman (Christopher Plummer) is stealing his way across the country, taking anything and everything he can from personal safes in houses and apartments. But vacationing on the Channel Islands, Chapman is captured and thrown into jail where months later he still resides when the Germans invade and take over. Fed up with his lot, Chapman offers his services to the German army as a spy. His English background and speaking abilities would clearly serve the Third Reich.

After some initial debates and tests, Chapman is sent to work a specialized German intelligence unit led by Baron Von Grunen (Yul Brynner), a career soldier and German colonel who doesn't necessarily agree with the Fuhrer and the Nazi party but nonetheless does his job. With the Baron's team are the Countess (Romy Schneider) who starts a relationship with Chapman, partially for herself but also for the job, and Colonel Steinhager (Gert Frobe), a former police officer suspicious of Chapman's intentions. The British turncoat goes through training and ends up as a trusted agent to Von Grunen, but what are his motivations?

Credit goes to Plummer for doing so well with this part because up until the 1:00-1:15 mark, you're not sure of his intentions. Is he a loyal Brit taking advantage of the situation to get back to England or does he intend to help the German war effort? Or is Chapman just looking out for himself and a chance at a big payday courtesy of the British and German intelligence outfits? Plummer plays the part so smoothly it's hard to figure out the character. He typically played a character like that, extremely smug, often overconfident that makes it hard to like him, and even when the intentions are revealed, you're not quite sure if you can believe them.

Directed by Terence Young and with Frobe as a supporting cast, the James Bond trio is completed with the casting of Claudine Auger (Domino in Thunderball). Kinda pointless trivia, but I thought worth pointing out. Trevor Howard also makes an appearance as the 'Distinguished Civilian,' no joke, a British higher-up working with Chapman on his possible collaboration with the British and Germans. It's the typical staunch, sophisticated British upper class role that Howard played so often and so well. Brynner too stands out in the cast as the intelligence colonel who sees the direction the war is going.

What I liked about Triple Cross was that the story doesn't settle for the spy adventure status-quo. One scene really jumped out for me when the Germans supposedly send Chapman out on his first mission, parachuting him into England. Thinking everything is legit, Chapman abandons his orders upon landing only to discover he's been dropped in Nazi-occupied France as a test. Scrambling to send the radio signal he was supposed to transmit an hour earlier, Eddie finds himself in a race for his life. And that's what is so nerve-wracking about spy movies. One slip up, even just a throwaway comment, can bring on your doom and when that dooms comes from the Nazis, you know you're in for it.

At times a little slow-moving and hard to follow, Triple Cross isn't the perfect spy thriller or even a very good one, but it is entertaining. Christopher Plummer and Yul Brynner provide memorable leads, and the based on a true story (loosely from what I've read) provide a nice backdrop for this WWII thriller. It seems the US version has been cut some so that might explain some flaws, but it's still worth checking out in its current form.

Triple Cross (1966): ***/****

Taras Bulba

Known for an ability to play both comedic roles, like Some Like it Hot, and dramatic roles, think The Defiant Ones, Tony Curtis can handle a wide variety of roles. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Curtis had key parts in three movies from a different genre, the studio epic, in The Vikings, Spartacus, and Taras Bulba. If you're a movie fan like me, you recognize the first two movies and ask 'huh?' at the third one. An epic story set in 16th Century Poland and Ukraine, Taras Bulba is an underappreciated spectacle movie.

After helping their Polish neighbors defeat a common enemy, a large force of Cossacks is betrayed by their Polish allies. What is left of the force spreads to the four corners of their territory with plans of biding their time until they are once again a power to be dealt with. Flash forward 20 years later when Cossack warrior Taras Bulba (Yul Brynner) somewhat unwillingly sends his sons, Andrei (Curtis) and Ostap (Perry Lopez), to Kiev to learn the Polish culture and way of life. Met with resistance right away by the natives, Andre and Ostap settle in, Andrei especially who falls in love with a Polish princess Natalia (Christine Kaufmann). But their love sends ripples through Kiev and Natalia's brother is killed by the brothers.

Forced to run, Andre and Ostap return home with all they've learned of their treacherous enemies, the Poles. It's not long before the Polish aristocracy calls for a Cossack army to help in an invasion of the Baltic Sea, but Andrei convinces Taras that the Poles are the enemy to be dealt with. So starts a conflict between warring nations as Andrei just hopes to be reunited with his lost love.

Based on a novel by Nikolai Gogol, Taras Bulba deals with a time in history that is rarely dealt with in movies, but with the huge successes of epic movies it was only a matter of time before a movie came along. What I know about Polish/Ukrainian history in the 1500s would take as long for me to explain as a good, long blink so I'm not sure of the accuracy of the movie in relation to that history. But with a movie like this, accuracy shouldn't be your main concern, especially with Taras Bulba, because it's so damn entertaining right from the get-go.

As the father-son relationship, Brynner and Curtis (only 5 years younger than Brynner in real life) carry the movie. Brynner's Taras is fiercely patriotic and proud of his Cossack heritage. He wants what is best for his people and his family, sometimes in that order. Brynner's sheer physical presence makes this role stand out. It's easy to see why thousands of warriors would want to follow him. Curtis is not pushed to the background though, staying at the forefront of the story. His Romeo and Juliet-like love story with Natalia comes across as real and not nearly so forced as so many other epic movie love stories. The script also doesn't go for the easy ending, but it works more because it feels more real, more authentic to the characters and their makeup.

The fun of Taras Bulba though is the spectacle of it all, the sheer monstrosity of certain scenes. Director J. Lee Thompson clearly did not skimp on money here when it came to sets, costuming, and extras. Scenes of Cossack riders joining up on the road are a sight to see with literally hundreds, and maybe thousands in certain shots, of stuntmen/riders onscreen at the same time. I've made no bones hiding my distaste for overusing CGI because of scenes like that. Nothing fake about it, just hundreds of riders moving in formation.

The same goes for the battle scenes that are mostly saved for the last hour or so of the movie. Here's the first assault as the Cossack army attacks a walled Polish city. With the cannons going off in the background, extras on foot hauling ass for the safety of the castle and the large masses of riders wearing out horses behind them, it's just a fun, adrenaline-pumping scene to watch. Aided by Franz Waxman's score, these are the scenes epic movies were made for, like the chariot race in Ben-Hur or the climactic battle in Spartacus.

Just a fun movie overall that blends strong casting, especially Tony Curtis and Yul Brynner, with all that's positive about a big screen epic story including a worthwhile love story. Buy it cheap at Amazon, or look for it again on TCM in the coming months. Fans of historical period pieces won't be disappointed.

Taras Bulba (1962): ***/****

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Killing

So after watching two Sterling Hayden movies last week on his TCM day and a third thanks to Netflix, The Killling, I've decided I need to go in a different direction with my movies for a little while. To be fair, the two on TCM were B-movies, Ten Days to Tulara and Battle Taxi, but they weren't even good B-movies. I figured The Killing sounded pretty good, but something just didn't click for me in actually watching it.

The story is gritty and realistic especially when considering it was released in 1956. With director Stanley Kubrick at the helm, the movie takes on an almost documentary like feel to it. Fresh out of prison after serving a five-year sentence, Johnny Clay (Hayden) is putting his master plan into effect. With a small crew, Clay intends to knock off a racetrack cash room (not unlike The Split would do 10 years later) on a day when hundreds and thousands of bets will go to the tickettakers. Clay figures the take will be just over $2 million dollars.

Clay has developed a complicated plan that requires split-second timing with help from a handful of people, some who know what they're doing and others who will remain in the dark, as Clay himself will actually pull off the actual robbery in the chaos they cause. But when you bring so many different people together, personality conflicts come up that you can't plan for in advance. Even the most detailed, well thought out plan can go awry with something that comes out of left field. The aftermath of the robbery and the ending provides a nice, little twist with that thought in mind.

I can't throw Hayden under the bus here for his performance because he's an ideal choice for the quiet, hardened ex-con looking to get his life back on track with his wife (Coleen Gray). The whole cast is good in roles that don't require any background or backstory. This is who they are, and Kubrick presents them as that without any unnecessary clutter. Clay's team includes Jay C. Flippen as the bankroller, Ted de Corsia as a cop who'll play an important role in the getaway, Elisha Cook Jr as an attendant with some problems at home with his wife (Marie Windsor), and Joe Sawyer as a bartender at the racetrack.

Watching The Killing some 50 years after its release, my first thought was 'I've seen this before' because it's style and story have been reused and taken into the lexicon of heist and robbery movies. It's not fair to hold that against The Killing because they couldn't account for the impact it would have on the sub-genre, but it is hard not to notice it. Kubrick tells the story in non-linear fashion, showing one character's involvement and then bouncing back 3 hours to another character. The negative to come from this is a very cheesy sounding narrative that sounds like something plunked from a Dragnet episode.

With that type of storyline, the heist is well-handled because we see things before they always know what they mean in the context of the robbery. Two parts especially stand out as Clay hires two men, Timothy Carey as a marksman, Carey's scenes with MASSIVE SPOILERS, and Kola Kwariani as a strongman, Kola's introduction, to cause diversions during the robbery. I liked both subplots and would have liked to know more about them, but maybe that's not what Kubrick was going for. Also, the subplot which becomes a major turning point in the movie, whipped Cook Jr and wife Windsor, are difficult to watch because Windsor is such a nasty character. Her plan with boyfriend Vince Edwards ends up making quite an impact on the aftermath.

I'd like to give The Killing a higher ranking, but I just couldn't get into it. Like I said though, I can't blame the movie itself for that. It set the groundwork for future heist/robbery movies with its style and frankness in dealing with thieves turning on each other and the double and triple cross. Maybe I'll give this one a try down the road because I can appreciate that it is a good movie, just not one I necessarily liked.

The Killing <----trailer (1956): ** 1/2 /****

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Is there a more polarizing personality in Hollywood than Quentin Tarantino? People hate him or love him with little middle ground. He's such an eccentric guy, both in his movies and in real life, that it's almost hard to believe he is for real. But say what you want about him, Tarantino knows, respects and loves movies. His newest, Inglourious Basterds, is one of his best with his own unique take on WWII.

Before you go and plop $10 to see this movie, there's some things you should know. Tarantino loves dialogue, lllllloves it, and with a running time of 153 minutes he really gets to delve into dialogue. The good thing to come of it? The dialogue scenes are top-notch with an intensity, a tension that would be hard to duplicate any other way. Other things, the violence can be a little extreme with several graphic, detailed scalpings, a German soldier is beaten to death with a baseball hat, that sort of thing. The other and maybe most important thing; don't go in expecting non-stop action. The movie really has very little action at all until the last 30 minutes or so.

With the story, I don't want to give too much away so here's a real brief summary of the several interweaving storylines. One, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) puts together a special team of Jewish-American soldiers who will be dropped behind enemy lines and basically kill, maim and torture any Nazi they can get their hands on. Two, Parisian cinema owner Shoshana Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) finds out the German High Command intends to screen a new propaganda movie at her theater. The catch? Shoshana was the lone survivor of her Jewish family's massacre at the hands of SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) and now she's looking for revenge by taking out the Third Reich's highest figures.

That's it in a nutshell, but anyone who has ever seen a Tarantino movie knows there's much more going on. The stories cross paths repeatedly as Aldo's Basterds become involved with the plot to take out Hitler, and Landa is always seemingly waiting in the background to strike. With some nice stylistic touches, Tarantino leaves his imprint on the movie, breaking the story into 5 chapters with title cards and everything. The opening sequence is almost 20 minutes of the most nerve-wracking dialogue you'll ever see as Landa interrogates a French dairy farmer hiding Shoshana's family in his cellar. It's the perfect game of cat and mouse as Landa toys with the farmer, and a perfect example of what Tarantino is capable of with strong dialogue.

My one disappointment is that the Basterds were underused. Aldo's hit squad is only in the movie for about 45 minutes or so as the story bounces between the Basterds, Landa and Shoshana's interaction with German war hero Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl) as she prepares for her big debut. The ensemble cast, and that's what it is, no two ways about it, carries this movie. Would I have liked some more background, more explanation? Of course, but what's there with the Basterds is quality stuff, especially an interrogation of German prisoners in the woods. You will be disappointed if you think Brad Pitt is in the movie the whole 150 minutes, but his character is so perfect you'll come away very pleased with the character, especially the ending. His scowling, squinting drawling Tennessean is just more proof that Pitt should do more comedic roles.

As good as Pitt is, and his name will certainly bring audiences in, it's Laurent's and Waltz's movie. Tarantino shoots French actress Laurent like a movie idol, and her plot for revenge sets the whole movie in motion. She's so natural in her scenes, so believable, and you're rooting for her to pull it off, and her scenes late in the movie are haunting and not easily forgettable. Waltz as SS Colonel Landa will get an Oscar nom for his supporting role. Landa is one of the best villains in recent movie history, a charming, intelligent detective labeled the Jew Hunter who crosses paths with all the characters and serves as the link among all the stories.

The rest of the casting has some interesting choices but I can't think of one that doesn't work as I write this. Of the Basterds, there's director Eli Roth as Sgt. Donny Donowitz, the Bear Jew who beats Germans with his baseball bat, Til Schweiger as Hugo Stiglitz, a German soldier who killed 13 Gestapo officers and is recruited by the Basterds, and then Gedeon Burkhard, Samm Levine, Omar Doom, and B.J. Novak. Other strong parts include Michael Fassbender as Lt. Archie Hicox, a British agent assigned to work with the Basterds, Diane Kruger looking like a 1930s/40s movie star as Bridget von Hammersmark, a German movie star and double agent working with the Allies, and even Mike Myers as a British general briefing Hicox. Classic Hollywood fans should look for Rod Taylor in a small part as Winston Churchill too.

This is a movie that at 153 minutes or so could have been much longer as odd as that sounds. Rumors abounded since its showing at Cannes that the Weinstein Company cut 40 minutes from the run time. As good as it is now, it feels like there's much more there, more background, more explanations including one deleted scene with Donny backing in Boston getting his baseball bat and having Jewish families write names of lost loved ones on the bat. Are there flaws? Sure, but nothing that takes away from the experience overall.

It all comes together so nicely here from Tarantino's direction and unique style to the casting, especially Pitt, Laurent and Waltz, the musical soundtrack choices, to the snappy dialogue and visceral violence, and even some rewriting of history. I know I was wavering some going in to see this movie so hopefully something I've written convinces you to go see this in theaters. The movie's last line may be a hint as to what Tarantino thinks of his movie, and I wholeheartedly agree, but I ain't spoiling it here.

Inglourious Basterds (2009): ****/****

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

The first time around with the classic Freaks and Geeks on TV audiences missed out on Judd Apatow's unique sense of humor. All it took to get him noticed was two highly thought of comedies, The 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, with a string of other movies to his name as a producer and now moviegoers know who he is. I'm surprised by some reactions to him because I love the sometime bizarre humor his movies have. But looking at them as a whole, most of them have a heart, something comedies too often skip by.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall is one Apatow's movies where he's the producer, and it jumps ahead of all his other movies as the funniest yet. Comedies can be difficult to judge because humor is so different from person to person. Something you find hysterical can fly right over someone else's head. But FSM had so many laugh out moments I'd find it hard to believe that it couldn't produce a couple chuckles from even the most serious moviegoer. What works is that the characters are real people placed in real-life situations with some off the wall results.

Peter Bretter (star and writer Jason Segel) just got dumped by his TV star girlfriend Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell). After three weeks of refusing to move on from the break-up, Peter goes on a vacation, going to Hawaii only to discover that Sarah is there with her new boyfriend and the guy she was cheating with, Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), an English pop star known for his prowess with women as much as his music. It seems nothing can go right for Peter, but he hits it off with a hotel employee, Rachel (Mila Kunis), and goes from there as he tries to get over his heartbreak.

That plot doesn't sound like a barrel of laughs, but it's these awkward situations that do produce some of the funniest moments. Peter just wants to move on with his life but can't seem to buy any good luck. Some of the humor comes from really quick, lightning fast moments that don't have a lot of build-up, they hit you and move on. Here's IMDB's Memorable Quotes and then some worthy break-up advice from the movie.

Since his role in Freaks and Geeks, Segel's been one of my favorites whether as a supporting player like Knocked Up or his starring roles like here and I Love You, Man. He's funny without mugging for the camera, and it's usually his delivery that sells the jokes. Russell Brand goes down the more obvious route, the over the top sexed-up pop singer, and is hysterical because he commits to being completely ridiculous. Bell has the most serious of the 4 main parts, but even she gets some really funny parts. The big surprise here is Kunis as basically the most perfect girl...ever. Most people know her from That 70s Show where she played a loud, annoying, very shrill teenager, but she shows what she can do with a well-written part. Her looks are not in question, but she's funny, very natural and makes an ideal girlfriend.

The 4 lead roles are solid, but like so many other Apatow movies, it's the little cameo parts that take the movie from funny to hysterical. Bill Hader plays Peter's stepbrother who keeps in touch via webcam, Maria Thayer and Jack McBrayer are Mormon newlyweds staying at the same hotel as Peter, Jonah Hill is an adoring waiter who loves Aldous and just wants to be around him, Paul Rudd is a pot-smoking surf instructor named Chuck or Konuu (Chuck in Hawaiian, 'You sound like you're from London!), and Kristen Wiig plays a sarcastic yoga instructor, check out her scene here. These parts go in and out of the story and aren't key to the main story between Peter, Sarah and Rachel, but they keep the momentum going.

The humor isn't as filthy here as it was in some other Apatow productions, but it isn't exactly clean, good old-fashioned humor either. Check out the gag reel from the DVD for some of the best laughs, especially the last one with Segel and Hader in the bar as much for Segel's reaction as anything else. It's a funny movie all around and should definitely have something for everyone.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall <----trailer (2009): ***/****

Friday, August 21, 2009

Duel in the Sun

After the huge success of Gone With the Wind in 1939, movie studios spent years looking for the next big epic to springboard off that epic's success. Ah, who am I kidding, they're still doing that now. GWtW producer David O. Selznick tried to duplicate the success with 1946's Duel in the Sun, a western with a feel of a Greek tragedy that has some interesting cast choices, good and bad, but never amounts to much.

Two key roles show the positive and negative in casting. Jennifer Jones, very white Jennifer Jones, plays a young woman who's father was Mexican and mother an Indian so she has to live with some prejudices against her simply because she's of mixed blood. Jones is doused in skin-darkening makeup to make her look like a Mexican/Indian which looks odd. As for her acting, this is one of those roles that critical fans can point to as being too theatrical. She's over-the-top from the start, and yes, the role requires emotion but it's too much and not believable.

The other interesting casting is rising star Gregory Peck who typically played the resolute, heroic good guy in his career. In 'Duel,' it's just the opposite as he plays the bad guy. And to be fair, Peck nails the part. He's the bad guy you love to hate who can spin a story so quickly and smoothly that you forget what a nasty guy is. This development builds from a cowboy who lives his own life and doesn't think much of what others see in him to a raging, psychopathic killer by the end of the movie. It was refreshing to see Peck in such an atypical role.

On to the story now, which begins with Pearl Chavez (Jones) moving to her distant relatives' sprawling ranch in Texas, the Spanish Bit, after her father is hung for murdering his cheating wife and the unlucky fellow she was with. Pearl, half Mexican/half Indian, finds quite the dysfunctional family at the ranch, starting with the family patriarch, Senator Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore), a racist, crippled old man who refuses to admit the times are changing. Pearl falls for Jackson's son Jesse (Joseph Cotten), a lawyer changing with those times, but ends up with loutish Lewton (Peck), a freewheeling type who lives life how he wants it.

It's the years after the Civil War and the United States are developing and moving further west. The Senator wants nothing to do with the expansion, even when Jesse tries to explain it to him. Pearl is dropped into this perilous situation as the family is torn apart and go their separate ways. Trying to hold it all together, Laura Belle McCanles (Lillian Gish) is seemingly the one good person in the house along with her son Jesse.

This movie had issues from the start, especially when it came to the director's chair, just check out the bevy of directors who were at the helm at one point or another. I couldn't help watching the whole thing is that everyone is trying too hard. Some of my friends dislike pre-1960 movies because they are too theatrical, too stiff, and this is the type of movie where I agree with them. Cotten is good as the angelic brother, Barrymore is playing Barrymore, and Gish makes the most of a smaller part. Also Walter Huston has a small but solid supporting part.  But all in all, something doesn't connect. It feels like a Greek tragedy with family rivalries and disagreements, but there's no one to root for.

By the last 30 minutes or so, decisions are made that serve no real purpose or are even vaguely believable other than to drive the movie along. Pearl loves and hates Lewt, and their ever-so normal relationship starts to turn into listening to nails on the chalkboard. I wanted to say 'just let him go! He's messing with your head!' And then the ending, which is too much on any number of levels.

All this is disappointing because money was clearly spent on this big budget western. One scene with Barrymore and Cotten riding to stop the railroad tracks being built on their land has hundreds of men on horseback. They ride over a far-off hill and approach the rail camp, and it's great to watch. It's a gorgeous movie with some shots where you could freeze the DVD and swear it was a painting. But really it tries too hard to be an epic movie but never quite gets there.

Duel in the Sun (1946): **/****

Dial M for Murder

One of my all-time favorite lines in a movie comes late in The Bridge on the River Kwai in a conversation between Jack Hawkins' Warden and William Holden's Shears character. As they prepare to blow up the bridge, Warden says 'you're taught there's always something else you can do' because much of the time it's the unexpected thing that is the most costly. As meticulous a planner as you try to be, you can't plan for everything. That idea comes into play in Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 thriller Dial M for Murder.

Former pro tennis player Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) seems to have a perfect life, a beautiful wife, Margot (Grace Kelly), a lavish London apartment, and no job to speak of because his wife comes from money. But everything's not so rosy for Tony who has discovered his wife is having an affair with Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), an American mystery/crime novelist. So cautiously and carefully, Tony sets up an elaborate plan to murder his wife and gain all her riches through her will. The main component of his plan is the most clever, blackmailing an old classmate (Anthony Dawson) to actually kill Margot.

Tony's plan seems perfect, every thing is planned down to the smallest detail as to how he plans to murder his wife. There will be no witnesses, the murderer will be paid off, and he'll have a perfect alibi. But the plan doesn't go smoothly (SPOILER here's the attempted murder plan), and Tony is forced to scramble to make everything right. Could his new plan still work? A detective (John Williams) can't quite put his finger on what's going on, but he knows something is fishy.

Director Alfred Hitchcock was always one of the best moviemakers around at toying with the audiences' perception of what was going on, the preconceived notion they bring into the theater before the movie even starts. Dial M is ripe with those sorts of things. For me, the biggest is that I was rooting for Milland's Tony to get away with it. He's so smooth, so suave in explaining his plan, you understand where he's coming from. As he explains it, you agree with him. To counter that, Hitchcock cast Grace Kelly as the cheating wife. Kelly looks about as angelic as any actress around so it's hard to believe she'd cheat on her husband, but she does just that. And lastly, Cummings' Halliday character is incredibly annoying so you hope things don't turn out well for him. It's all little touches Hitchcock adds that make the movies fun to watch.

Based on a Broadway play, Dial M is set almost exclusively in Tony and Margot's spacious London apartment. With a few exceptions of outdoor or other building scenes, the whole movie takes place in two rooms, the living room and the bedroom with an occasional glance out the window. But Hitchcock is so good filming these sequences, you hardly notice that the story never leaves the room. He shoots straight-on, from above, from below, POV shots, anything to keep it interesting.

With a play as its background, the story will obviously be dialogue-heavy. The scene where Tony explains his diabolical plan to Anthony Dawson made me think of a slow burn, a quietly building scene as more is revealed and Tony explains what he hopes to do and how they'll do it. It's so clear that when his perfect murder plan goes awry, the viewer knows precisely what's going on just as the characters onscreen do.

The casting of the major parts, as discussed before, works perfectly because so much is played against your perceptions. Some interesting posts at IMDB point out how differently the movie would play if Hitchcock had cast Jimmy Stewart as the conspiring husband. It'd certainly add a unique touch, but Milland is excellent as Tony. Nothing can rattle this guy no matter what's thrown at him. In her first of three movies with the director, Kelly is playing 2 different characters almost, the loving, doting wife and the cheating, passionate lover, and she nails both parts. Like I said, Cummings is annoying so I guess he did a good job, and Williams as Inspector Hubbard hits all the right notes.

Typically listed as one of Hitchcock's best movies, at least in his top 10, Dial M for Murder is a unique murder mystery/thriller. There's little to no action, but the story is so clearly laid out and explained with the actors doing such a fine job working that story out, you barely notice the time go by. Next thing you know, movie over!

Dial M for Murder <-----trailer (1954): ***/****

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

Now if you're judging my feelings of summer blockbusters by my review of Transformers 2, you might think I hate all those big action movies, but it's really just the opposite. I love movies like that, the review just shows how bad I thought T2 was in comparison to most similar movies. A good example of what an enjoyable summer action blockbuster is G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra which surprised me. I thought it looked good but wasn't dying to see it, but a day later I'm still glad I did.

Plots can be secondary and often third or fourth in the list of important elements to a blockbuster, but G.I. Joe takes a familiar formula, villain threatening to destroy the world city by city, and adds an interesting wrinkle with some new technology. They're called the nanomites, microscopic robots originally intended to fight cancer cells but transformed into weapons that take apart and completely dismantle whatever they're shot at, like tanks, cars, buildings, you name it. So here's the plot going from the nanomites.

With some funding from NATO, MARS Industry CEO James McCullen (Christopher Eccleston) has perfected turning the nanomites into an offensive weapon and has spent billions of dollars on manufacturing 4 warheads with his new weapon. But while being shipped, the column guarding the warheads is attacked, with Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) as part of the force. Whoever is attacking them, led by the mysterious Baroness (Sienna Miller), has advanced technology that the army is defenseless against. The column is saved by a group of fighters who rescue the warheads and Duke and Ripcord as well.

The group is transported to 'the Pit' a top secret base deep below the Egyptian desert where they're introduced to General Hawk (Dennis Quaid) who explains the layout to their organization. They are G.I. Joe, the best soldiers from all around the world working together to keep Earth safe from whoever would do it harm. Duke and Ripcord blackmail their way into Team Alpha and get to work finding out who wants the technology. Everything points to McCullen who with the Baroness, and henchmen Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee), Zartan (Arnold Vosloo) and one mysterious villian (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) look to make another grab for the nanomite warheads and it doesn't look like anything can stop them.

What I like about big movies like this is that it allows huge casts to work together and let them clearly have fun making a highly entertaining movie. Come on, Dennis Quaid is in the movie for about 15 minutes, delivers some appropriately cheesy/inspirational lines, and looks tough. He's gotta be loving that. The G.I. Joe team is an interesting list of unique actors and characters like Heavy Duty (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), the tough sergeant of the group, Snake Eyes (Ray Park) the resident badass and expert in martial arts and by far the coolest Joe, Breaker (Said Taghmaoui), the communication expert, and Scarlett (Rachel Nichols), the team's weapons expert. So as anyone who read some past reviews of mine knows, this is basically the Magnificent 7, a men-on-a-mission movie with Duke and Ripcord joining the team.

With some ridiculously cool technology available, the beneficiary is the action scenes. The coolest gadget was the accerlation suits which help you react quicker and faster, jump higher, so basically PF Flyers on steroids. The chase through Paris as Storm Shadow and the Baroness try to take out the Eiffel Tower is an exciting, well-put together sequence as the Joes frantically try to catch up with Duke and Ripcord in the suits, Scarlet on a motorcycle, and Heavy Duty and Breaker just trying to keep up. On the whole, the action is the reason to see this movie. It's cut so you can actually see what's going on and the CGI is apparent but done well.

On to the casting which ranges from very good to very wooden. I don't know Channing Tatum's appeal, check that, I do but don't get it. The guy's got the personality and delivery of a cardboard box and his so-called dramatic lines come across as comical, hopefully unintentionally so. The rest of the cast makes up for, including surprisingly enough Marlon Wayans who revels in the smartass sidekick role along with Sienna Miller who has finally made a mainstream blockbuster. For one, with dark hair and low-cut leather outfits, she looks amazing, and two, her character is a badass. Hopefully, she sticks with the more mainstream movies, or at least not completely sticking with the indies. It's a fun cast and it looks like they enjoyed themselves making GI Joe.

So is G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra a stupid summer blockbuster full of action and somewhat short on story? You bet, but it does what it's supposed to. It doesn't overdo the action sequences and CGI and keeps it exciting without trying to melt your face with its 'Michael Bay coolness.' Good cast top to bottom with one cameo I won't spoil here, and an ending that leaves the door open for a sequel which hopefully they do make in the next couple of years. Surprised by how much I enjoyed this so don't listen to the negative reviews, G.I. Joe is a lot of fun.

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra <-----trailer (2009): ***/****

Edge of the City

This has been bugging me since I finished 1957's Edge of the City yesterday, and I'm having trouble with it. I can't think of a buddy movie made before 1957, but I know there has to be examples out there. Now officially they didn't become known until the late 1960s or early 1970s with movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but EotC is if nothing else a quasi-buddy movie with some racial undertones, and one I can highly recommend.

Made a year before the much more well-known The Defiant Ones, Edge of the City tells the story of two men, one white and one black, who become close friends in a short time, but one of their pasts comes back to haunt them. Axel North (John Cassavetes) walks into a shipping yard in New York looking for a job. He gets a job and is put to work with Charlie Malik (Jack Warden) and his work gang but quickly rubs Charlie the wrong way. Instead, Axel bonds with Tommy Tyler (Sidney Poitier) and joins his crew in the train yards.

But it's no time before Axel's somewhat checkered past comes back to haunt him. He becomes fast friends with Tommy and his wife Lucy (Ruby Dee) and even starts to date a teacher in the neighborhood, Ellen (Kathleen Maguire), but everything starts to unravel when news of his past gets out to certain people. The problems build to a twist I did not see coming, and an ending that is probably really authentic for the situation, and therefore that much more heartbreaking. It's a testament to these actors and their ability because the ending hits so hard.

Usually playing supporting parts in TV shows, Cassavetes gets a shot here in one of his first starring roles. An intense actor in every sense of the world, he creates a 3-D, believable, sympathetic character you can't help but root for. His Axel has made mistakes in the past and is trying to hide from them. He's a shy guy and doesn't want to face those problems, whether it be talking to his parents (Robert F. Simon and Ruth White, both great in their two scenes) or addressing any sort of confrontation with coworkers, especially Warden's Charlie, a great villainous, heavy role. It's the type of role that made me question why Cassavetes didn't become a bigger star, a more well-known name, because he clearly has the ability to act with the best.

Matching Cassavetes, Poitier's Tommy Tyler is a family man, a young husband with a wife and 2 kids trying to get by. Tommy becomes a bit of a big brother to Axel, looking out for him and helping him find his way. They talk together about their pasts but are also able to just go out and have a good time, having a beer at the bowling alley. Poitier gets to have some fun with the part, Tommy being an extremely outgoing guy both at work and home. For such a well-respected actor, I still think of him as completely underrated, and this is a great part for him. The two men present a believable friendship, Youtube clip here with quasi-spoilers, that carries the movie.

Released in 1957, I can't know what kind of reaction it got from critics and audiences, but it's the type of basic story, a black man befriending a white man, that could still push peoples' buttons today in 2009. And because of that, a movie released over 50 years ago, it's refreshing to see a story like this. Not once do Tommy and/or Axel mention that they have different skin color. It's not an issue for either of them, only some around them, but give director Martin Ritt credit. He tells the story by letting the actors do what they do and not calling attention to himself.

The strategy pays off because the characters and their relationships and interactions come across as authentic. A friendship starts with one man standing up for another and goes from there. A relationship begins with an awkard introduction between Axel and Ellen and turns into something more. The movie has an authentic, almost documentary-like feel to the story. The camera's never invasive and just follows the story. Filmed in New York and New Jersey in black and white, Ritt presents a realistic portrayal of lower middle class folks, some with pasts they'd rather forget.

I'd never heard of this one before stumbling across it on TCM, and it only caught my eye because of the two stars. I was glad I did watch it, and hopefully it continues to climb into the lexicon of movie fans because it's that good. It's been released on DVD as part of the Sidney Poitier Collection, but if you don't want to buy the set keep your eye out for it on the TCM upcoming schedule.

Edge of the City <----trailer (1957): *** 1/2 /****

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Unforgiven

Some westerns are content to go for the lowest common denominator, an entertaining story with ridiculous amounts of action. I don't mean that as negatively as it sounds, I own a lot of movies like that. But some westerns strive for something else whether it be getting a message across or trying to make a statement about the times. These can be hit or miss because sometimes they strive to do too much, but every so often they find that balance, like John Huston's 1960 adult western The Unforgiven.

Based on a novel by author Alan Le May, who also wrote The Searchers, you have to figure you're not getting a typical shoot 'em up western. And in general, westerns were getting away from the old stereotypes, especially in the 1950s with some adult, psychological westerns like Anthony Mann's movies teaming up with Jimmy Stewart (all highly recommended). The Unforgiven doesn't settle for anything easy in it's story about a western family dealing with the revelation that their adopted daughter may be a Kiowa.

The Zacharys are a frontier family working their spread in the Texas panhandle and looking to put together a cattle herd to drive north to Wichita. The patriarch of the family since his father died years before, Ben (Burt Lancaster) is the leader, the oldest brother who keeps everyone else in check. His mother, Mattilde (Lillian Gish), runs the house and makes sure the family stays together. Helping Ben around the spread are his two younger brothers, Cash (Audie Murphy), a fiery, hot-tempered cowboy, and Andy (Doug McClure), the youngest brother who's still growing up. Then, there's Rachel (Audrey Hepburn), their adopted sister who their father supposedly found after her parents were massacred by Kiowas.

One day, a mysterious rider (Joseph Wiseman) rides into town with some revealing news. He says that Rachel has Indian blood in her, and that the story her father told was a lie. Everyone around turns on the Zacharys, and the news even tears the family itself apart with Cash refusing to live in the same house as a 'red-skinned' Indian. Even Ben's longtime partner and neighbor Zed Rawlings (Charles Bickford) refuses to deal with the family. All the while, Ben must hold the family together, even when the Kiowas come to take Rachel back.

Any movie, including a western, that deals with racism as straight forward and honest as this one is going to be polarizing. The Unforgiven can be brutally honest in that sense. We're introduced to all these characters, get to know them, and across the board they seem like good people. But the moment the possibility arises that one among them could be an Indian, they turn on each other. That could have been what the times were like, but it's a story that could be set in any decade or time in American history. It works because it doesn't try to whitewash the story.

Credit for that goes to Huston and his cast, an impressive listing of actors. It's not Lancaster's best part, but he's solid in the lead role. Hepburn is a bit of an odd choice as Rachel, but she pulls it off even if she looks little to nothing like a young Kiowa woman. This movie is known as much for the behind the scenes issues with Hepburn, but her role as Rachel works because she makes the character easy to identify with and very sympathetic.

Surprisingly enough with Lancaster and Hepburn in the leads, it's Audie Murphy that has the best part. His Cash Zachary is a deeply flawed character, a racist at the most basic who wants nothing to do with Indians of any sort, even his own adopted sister. Always known for playing the good guy in a white hat, the WWII hero plays completely against part here as the racist cowboy and comes across the best because he puts it all into the part. Of the rest of the cast, Gish and McClure round out the family, a believable representation of a frontier family, and John Saxon has a cool if small part as Johnny Portugal, an Indian horse wrangler/breaker, including this well choreographed chase scene.

Judging the movie apart from its story is a lot easier because Huston presents such a well-package western. Visually, he gets the spectacle down, the epic feel of what living in the west was like. The movie was shot in Durango, Mexico where many westerns were filmed, and it looks beautiful. The west was full of big, wide open spaces and Huston utilizes that feeling with some memorable long shots, some seemingly from miles away on a rock butte or hill. Composer Dimitri Tiomkin's score isn't as consistently strong as some of his others, but his music in those scenes fits perfectly.

A western that's dark and gloomy and doesn't pull any punches with its story dealing with racism and prejudices in the wild west. The movie benefits from some great performances, including a career-best part from Audie Murphy, and location shooting in Durango. This isn't as well known as Alan Le May's other highly respected western The Searchers, but it deserves more recognition than it's gotten in the years since.

The Unforgiven (1960): *** 1/2 /****

Saturday, August 15, 2009

To Catch a Thief

What do you think of when you hear the name 'Alfred Hitchcock'? Most movie fans go right to the thrillers, suspense and psychological thrillers he made during his well-documented career. But not all Hitchcock's movies qualified as any of those three sub-genres, like 1955's To Catch a Thief, a definite change of pace compared to movies like Psycho, Vertigo, or North by Northwest.

If anything, this is the director at his lightweight best showing he doesn't always have to be dealing with international intrigue or murderers hunting people down. With a good story, filming locations on the French Riviera, and perfect chemistry between leads Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, it's hard not to like this movie.

Former jewel thief Mark Robie (Grant) is living in his villa on the French Riviera without a concern in the world. But the newspapers start to report on the return of 'the Cat,' a famed jewel thief identified as Robie, who is starting to pull off elaborate robberies of all the rich women in the Riviera. If someone has expensive, lavish jewelry, the Cat will find them. Forced to prove his innocence and working with French police, Robie goes undercover to try and root out the actual thief before more crimes get pinned on him. It's during his investigation he meets Francie Stevens (Kelly), a rich, young American woman traveling with her mother who happens to travel with her fair share of expensive jewelry.

It's not long before Francie figures out who Robie is and with a naive sense of what's going on, wants to help him find the impersonator, the actual thief. But who knows, could Mark Robie actually be using his time away as a cover while he's actually pullling off these jobs? Hitchcock drops just enough hints to make viewers wonder if maybe Robie isn't on the straight and narrow path.

While the jewel thief is obviously the main focus of the movie, the treat is watching Grant and Kelly interact. So often movies from the 1950s just threw two actors together and forced chemistry on them. Not so here as the duo has an obvious chemistry. Cary Grant is one of the coolest, most suave actors to ever come out of Hollywood, and this is Grant at his coolest. He never looks like he's trying too hard, and it works. I know I believe it because most of the time Cary Grant is playing, well, Cary Grant. I was also impressed with Grace Kelly who I didn't care for in High Noon or Mogambo. But Hitchcock is able to get something out of her that other directors weren't because just like in Rear Window, she's dead-on here as Francie Stevens.

It's their back and forth, their interplay, like this exchange with some subtle fireworks that makes the story come to life even if Grant was 25 years older than the future Princess of Monaco. Hitchcock always had strong female characters in his movies, often thin, pale blondes like Kelly and Kim Novak among others, and Kelly's Francie is certainly no damsel in distress. With some help from the other players like Jessie Royce Landis as Francie's mother and John Williams as a straight-laced insurance agent, there's even some comedic moments as Grant's Robie continues his investigation. Charles Vanel co-stars as Bertani, an old friend of Robie's from his days in WWII in the French resistance, and Brigitte Auber as Danielle, a young French girl with a crush on Robie.

With such a respected director like Hitchcock, you can't help but notice how polished this movie is from start to finish. Filmed entirely on the French Riviera, it might as well be a vacation preview for any would-be travelers. Cinematographer Robert Burks even won the Oscar for Best Cinematography, and it's clear why, the movie's visuals are ridiculously good-looking. The colors come alive whether it be Robie and Francie walking on the beach or a mountain lane car chase. It seems like making a movie that looks good would be easy, but some directors take it for granted. Not Hitchcock, and not here.

Definitely one of my favorites from Hitchcock right up there with North by Northwest and Vertigo thanks to Cary Grant and Grace Kelly's chemistry, a script ripe with great one-liners, and a general sense of this is how a movie should be made.

To Catch a Thief <-----trailer (1955): ****/****

Friday, August 14, 2009

A Glenn Ford double feature

Glenn Ford doesn't get a lot of credit as a major western star like a John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, or Randolph Scott. Maybe it's because he was only in one western that is considered a classic, the original 3:10 To Yuma, but Ford turned out a strong list of quality westerns especially later in his career in the 1950s and 1960s. TCM did a Glenn Ford Day as part of their Summer Under the Stars recently, and I was able to catch two westerns I'd missed in the past both from the second half of his career.

1967's A Time for Killing is a good example of how American westerns tried to respond to the cynical, darker spaghetti westerns from Italy. It's the closing days of the Civil War when a group of Confederate prisoners led by Captain Dorrit Bentley (George Hamilton) escape from a Union stockade near the U.S./Mexico border. Heading south, they ambush a supply train and take a prisoner, Emily Biddle (Inger Stevens), the fiance of the Union major, Wolcott (Ford), tracking them.

Bentley's Confederate escapees are a pretty slimy bunch, not too say that Wolcott's Union patrol is any better. It's the end of a long, bloody war, and these men on both sides are exhausted and just want to go home. I was caught off guard by how far the movie went to show those depths. Even when Bentley finds out the war is over, he keeps the news from the men, and Walcott disobeys orders and follows the fugitives into Mexico. The movie was filmed in Old Tucson and Utah and looks great, appropriately gritty and dusty.

While Ford is good as Major Tom Wolcott, the officer trying to rescue his fiance, it's Hamilton who leaves the deepest impression. His Bentley is an ultra-patriot who refuses to believe the war is over and will continue to take that war to the Yankees. Before her tragic death that was ruled a suicide, Stevens made a string of quality westerns late in the 60s, and she's very good here, holding her own with both Ford and Hamilton. The background players include Kenneth Tobey, Max Baer in a role slightly different from Jethro on Beverly Hillbillies, Timothy Carey, Harry Dean Stanton, Todd Armstrong, and for all you trivia buffs out there, Harrison Ford in just his third movie.

Made two years later, Heaven With a Gun is a more traditional western, but it does make efforts to change with the times when dealing with sex and violence. How many westerns have started with a stranger riding into a town and no one knows who he is or what his motives are? It'd probably take quite a few posts just to list all those movies, but that's how 'Heaven' begins with Jim Killian (Ford) riding into Vinegaroon, a town divided between cattle ranchers and sheepherders. Looking to make up for his violent past, Killian sets up a church in town with hopes of uniting both sides.

His main opposition is Asa Beck (John Anderson), a cattle rancher who with his son, Coke (David Carradine) will have nothing to do with sheepherders and refuses to even listen to Killian's ideas. On the other hand, Killian gets help from everyone else in town including Madge (Carolyn Jones), the saloon/brothel owner, Leloopa (Barbara Hershey), a young Indian girl Jim cares for after her father is killed, and Bart Patterson (William Bryant), a local ranch owner. Also worth mentioning are two supporting parts for J.D. Cannon as a hired gun, Mace, and Noah Beery Jr as Garvey, one of Beck's most trusted hands.

The script calls for some random nudity that feels just thrown into the script for the sake of some topless saloon girls, and the violence is pretty vicious even if it's not shown. Much of it is off-screen, but it's pretty grim whether you see the results or not. The sex and violence then makes the ending seem a little off for me. Killian is trying to stop Beck and his gunhands from massacring the sheepherders and cattle ranchers who are now working together. It doesn't work overall and comes across as too forced, like the money just wasn't there to set up a shootout.

The constant through both movies is Ford's steadying influence on the story. He was usually cast as the good guy, but later in his career they added a wrinkle to that old standby, the good guy who used to be a bad guy and is looking to repent. It's hard to judge Ford as an actor because in roles like this he didn't have to show a lot of range. But like John Wayne did in his later years, Ford nails these parts. He's likable on-screen with a very natural presence. I liked both movies, Time for Killing a lot and Heaven With A Gun despite the ending.

A Time for Killing <---fan-made trailer (1967): ***/****
Heaven With a Gun (1969): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Code

Usually when I see a straight to DVD movie, I try and steer clear of it. But every so often, I see one that catches my eye with some unlikely casting or a worthwhile story. I thought The Code might qualify in both categories with Morgan Freeman and Antonio Banderas as the leads in a heist movie. After an interesting start, this one derailed in a big way about halfway through.

Looking for one last big score to settle a debt with the Russian mob, infamous art thief Keith Ripley (Freeman) recruits another master thief, Gabriel Martin (Banderas), to help him out. To settle his debt, Ripley must steal two Faberge eggs worth $20 million apiece from a well-guarded Russian jeweler's fortress of a vault. To get the job done, Ripley and Gabriel must get past obstacles that include voice and fingerprint recognition, highly sensitive motion sensors, heavily-armed guards and a vault that closes on its own if open too long. Their plan progresses smoothly until Gabriel ends up with Ripley's goddaughter, Alex (Radha Mitchell), with the mobsters finding out about their relationship. All the while, Ripley's long-time nemesis on the NYPD, Lt. Weber (Robert Forster), is hot on their trail.

If you're like me, that sounds promising but something doesn't translate in the execution. The build-up to the heist works although it is a bit rushed, and the heist itself works for the most part. There's a couple 'what the f*ck?' moments that I'm still not sure on, but those were the least of my worries. What is disappointing is that the script is conscious of past heist movies as Ripley and Gabriel discuss Rififi and Topkapi with Gabriel even mentioning he only watches heist movies. But it never delivers, and thanks to some stupid twists in the last half hour I came away with a bad taste from The Code.

With heist/robbery movies, it's pretty much assumed that some twists and surprises are part of the story. It seems the directors, producers and scriptwriters know this too because they're always trying to out-do and one-up themselves. So when the twists do come, they're usually too forced and out of left field. The Code has two such twists, the first of which is absolutely ridiculous, the second working a little bit better although it sounded like something out of the Ocean's 11 movies. I dislike twists for the sake of twists that basically make the rest of the movie pointless, and both twists here do just that.

Looking at the casting, this is the type of role Freeman can sleepwalk through. He's usually better in supporting roles but does all right here as the lead. Freeman doesn't come off as intimidating though, which the role requires some, but as the master thief with no match it works. Banderas as the younger recruit seems odd, and I'm convinced he has a clause in his contracts that a sex scene is required with his female co-stars. In general, Banderas doesn't come across well here. Really, it's the supporting cast that is pretty good.

I'd only seen Mitchell in Pitch Black, which I enjoyed, and in a few supporting roles, but along with Freeman she's the high point of the movie. She's a lawyer struggling with the recent death of her father who when she meets Banderas' Gabriel develops an immediate chemistry. The viewer's never quite sure of her intentions, and the script calls for her to look good in any number of tight/short outfits. As the detective on Ripley's trail, Forster is good as the weary officer who knows a job is coming but not the details of it. Rade Serbedzija, a face you'll recognize even if the name doesn't ring a bell, makes a brief appearance as Petrovich, the Russian mobster who wants the Faberge eggs.

Maybe it's just the straight to DVD stigma, but The Code never lives up to any expectations, and they weren't that high to begin with. Set in New York and other than a few locations where it's obviously NYC, the movie was filmed in Bulgaria, I guess for cheaper shooting costs. The script, the annoying, tries too hard musical score, and more than a fair share of ridiculous plot holes, The Code just wasn't that good despite efforts from star Morgan Freeman. Can't recommend this one at all.

The Code (2009): * 1/2 /****

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Gran Torino

To be fair off the bat, I only saw two of the roles that were nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars this year, Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler who I would have given the award and Brad Pitt who was solid in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. No disrespect to them or the other three nominees including winner Sean Penn, but how was Clint Eastwood not nominated for his part in Gran Torino?

In the second half of his career, Eastwood has become as well-respected for his work behind the camera as a director as he is for his on-screen work. He's directed a handful of classics like Unforgiven, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby and several others that are entertaining if not considered classic. Directing Gran Torino, Eastwood shows again what he is capable of from the director's chair with a moving, often heartbreaking story of a recent widower.

Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) has just lost his wife, Dorothy, and now must adjust to his new life. A Korean War veteran and a longtime worker in the Detroit automobile factories, Walt is an angry, racist old man. There's not an ethnicity or culture he doesn't have something to say about, all of it seemingly negative. The day of his wife's funeral a new family moves in next door, the Vu's, a Hmong family settling in Detroit. At first, he wants nothing to do with them, but one night members of an Asian gang come up to the house to recruit young Thao (Bee Vang) into the gang. There's a bit of a ruckus and the fight spills over to Walt's lawn. He intervenes, pointing his M1 rifle at them, growling 'Get off my lawn' to the gangbangers.

Kowalski things nothing of it, but the next day Hmong neighbors from all over the neighborhood are bringing him gifts for saving Thao from trouble. Surprisingly enough, Walt embraces two of the Vu family, Thao who has to work for him after trying to steal his prized 1972 Gran Torino, and Sue (Ahney Her), Thao's older sister who can look past some of Walt's racial feelings and starts to call him 'Wally' much to his chagrin. But even as he grows close to the young Vu's, there's still the threat of the gangbangers around.

What works so well for the Walt character is the changes he makes over the course of the movie. At first, he wouldn't help or touch the Vu family with a ten-foot stick, but he comes to like them and is able to look past some of his own memories, often painful ones, and prejudices he acquired from the Korean War. Walt becomes a bit of a guardian angel for the family. He has trouble bonding with his own two sons and their families, but for some reason Kowalski clicks right away with the Vu clan.

Starring with Eastwood, Vang and Her make their acting debuts and are very impressive. Reading some reviews, I was surprised to read the criticism of these two young actors because I thought they were great. Vang is only overmatched in one scene late in the movie that is a bit uncomfortable to watch, but otherwise he comes across very well, especially in the scenes with Walt as their unlikely friendship grows. Her's Sue is equally strong, not afraid to talk to Walt and even call him 'Wally' when he seemingly has nothing positive to say. It's more proof of Eastwood's ability, bringing the best possible out of these two actors making their debuts.

Another key performance comes from Christopher Carley as Father Janovich, a priest just out of the seminary who bonded with Walt's wife in the months leading up to her death. Janovich made a promise to her to try and help Walt, ultimately getting him to go to confession. Their exchanges as Janovich tries to convince Kowalski come across as realistically as possible with experienced Walt going up against a youngster trying to figure out what life and death really is. With a movie heavy on dialogue and the developing relationships and friendships between characters, these scenes ring true with the four main actors.

All I can think of with Eastwood not even getting a nomination is that he's playing a similar character to the one he's played his whole career. But even considering that, it's fair to judge him like that. This is crotchety, curmudgeonly Eastwood for sure, growling his way through some conversations, but there's a heart to the character. Realizing his time on Earth may be coming to end, Walt tries to make amends and right some of the wrongs he's done and seen in his time. Like his part in Million Dollar Baby, Walt Kowalski is one of Eastwood's best parts, and I say he deserved if nothing else a nomination for best actor and/or best director.

Being a huge Eastwood fan, I'm not sure why I took so long seeing this movie, but I'm glad I did. It's an authentic movie from start to finish with a story that feels true. If you let it slip by like I have these last couple months, go catch up with Gran Torino. Movie fans won't be disappointed.

Gran Torino <-----trailer (2008): ****/****

Monday, August 10, 2009

Underwater!

In the 1950s, how did movie producers get audiences to come out to the theaters when families could just stay home and watch TV in the comforts of their living rooms? They went two ways, gimmicky, like 3-D, and for the spectacle. Show the audience something they couldn't or wouldn't see on the television, and they'd come out in droves.

And who better to go for the spectacle than producer Howard Hughes, almost the definition of eccentric millionaire always trying to top himself and his movies. That's what the Hughes-produced 1955 adventure Underwater! tried to do. With a story heavily reliant on underwater shooting as stunt doubles/swimmers explore coral reefs and shipwrecks, Hughes certainly gets points for creativity and effort. But the story never rises above any other typical sunken treasure story as the movie stays firmly in the B-movie genre.

Working in the Caribbean, Johnny Gray (Richard Egan) meets his old friend Dominic (Gilbert Roland). Dom convinces Johnny to go diving with him and while searching, the duo discovers a sunken wreck with clues to its identity; a Spanish ship from the 1600s that was supposed to be carrying a gold shipment back to Spain. After a lot of convincing with Johnny's wife Theresa (Jane Russell), the trio sets out to raise the money and equipment it will take to salvage the old wreck. They recruit a rich woman, Gloria (Lori Nelson) who owns a boat and quickly falls for Dominic, and a priest with knowledge of the Caribbean's sunken treasures, Father Cannon (Robert Keith). The search doesn't go smoothly though as a shark hunter (Joseph Calleia) is suspicious of their activities.

From reading director John Sturges' biography, it seems the script was never quite finished during the shooting. All producer Hughes was sure of was that the underwater diving footage would be the key part of the movie. The diving sequences are pretty good as stunt doubles for Russell, Egan and Roland explore the Caribbean depths. But everything else suffers because of it. All of the budget must have been spent on the cast and diving scenes because the rest of the movie has Gloria's boat in a tank with a pretty obvious painted background a few feet behind the ship. The same goes for indoor scenes with low budget boat and restaurant sets. You get a long shot of a beautiful bay with a boat and people visible, but the cut goes to a clearly indoor tank set.

Since he discovered Russell in the mid 1940s with The Outlaw, Hughes clearly had a bit of a crush on the young actress. The movies where they worked together seemed to be an excuse for Hughes to dress Russell up in any number of skimpy and/or tight outfits, and Underwater! is no different. No complaints because she's gorgeous, but just felt the need to point it out. Her Theresa has a Spanish accent that goes in and out from scene to scene, but is anyone actually paying attention to the dialogue? As old friends Johnny and Dominic, Egan and Roland look to be having a good time without having to put too much effort into it. Nelson and Keith are wasted in background parts, and Calleia doesn't have much to do as the shark hunter who pops in and out of the story.

There isn't much conflict throughout the story although efforts are made. Johnny and Theresa are newlyweds with some issues, but that's resolved. Dominic gets the bends late in the movie, but it's pretty clear they're not going to kill off Gilbert Roland. The story is just sort of there. It never tries to be anything other than a thin story around all the impressive underwater sequences.

That said, I enjoyed it. Underwater! serves more as a vacation brochure than anything, and the cast does seem to be having a good time. Besides Jane Russell in a swimsuit is nothing to scoff at. A classic by no means, but definitely a movie you can shut your brain off and enjoy for 90 minutes.

Underwater! <------trailer (1955): ** 1/2 /****

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Wrong Man

So imagine this, one day you're coming home from work only to have two police detectives stop you and take you to the precinct. They've got eyewitnesses who can put you at the scene of several different hold-ups and even pick you out of a line-up. Your handwriting sample is even eerily similar to the note left at the crime scene, and your alibi doesn't hold up. Everything, and so it seems everyone, is against your innocence. What do you do?

That's the question facing Christopher Emmanuel 'Manny' Balestrero (Henry Fonda) in Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man from 1956. Manny is the typical husband who with his wife Rose (Vera Miles) has a nice little life with their two kids and house. Manny works as a bass player at a local club at nights and while he doesn't pull in a ton of money, his family is happy and well cared for even if money isn't always readily available. One day, he does to the insurance agent to see how much he can borrow so Rose can have her wisdom teeth removed.

So starts the process as the tellers at the agency think he's the man who held them up several months before. The police get involved and before you know it, Manny is looking at serious jailtime for a handful of stickups that he swears he was not a part of. But even with his supposed innocence, the evidence starts to build up making the viewer wonder if maybe he is guilty. Who better to star in that part than Henry Fonda? Other than his shocking portrayal of a villain in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, I can't think of another movie where Fonda was the bad guy. He's Joe America so how could he be responsible for all these accusations?

Director Alfred Hitchcock is dealing here with a story and circumstance that he perfected over the years; that of a man thrust into a situation where he doesn't always know what is going on and must find a way to right the ship. Think of The Man Who Knew Too Much or North by Northwest as two other examples. He excelled with stories like this and keeps the viewer guessing. Hints are dropped throughout that maybe Manny did go through with the crimes. Could he have done it? After all, we've just met the guy and at least in my case, made the assumption that Fonda, in character or not, couldn't have been a stick-up artist.

By the end of the movie though, everything is just wrapped up too nicely with a little bow on top to cap it off. I don't know what I was expecting from the ending, maybe a twist like so many of Hitchcock's other films, but it doesn't reveal itself here. I guess the enjoyment is supposed to come from the build-up as the evidence mounts against Manny, and the effect it has on his wife Rose who starts to unravel under all the pressure. Speaking of that, Miles delivers a strong performance as Rose, a sort of common housewife who just wants what is best for her family and starts to blame herself for all their problems.

Other names in the cast include Anthony Quayle as Frank O'Connor, Manny's lawyer, and Harold J. Stone and Charles Coooper as the two lead detectives on the case who want to believe Manny's claims of innocence even when nothing seems to point in that direction.

I wanted to like The Wrong Man more, and parts are very good, but the ending just doesn't do it for me. Hitchcock opens the film with some on-screen narration, saying it's a true story so that the ending is what happened in real life. But for me, I guess having seen enough other Hitchcock movies I had the wool pulled over my eyes waiting for the big reveal, the big twist that never comes. Still a strong effort from Hitchcock thanks to the performances of Fonda and Miles, but it's not top tier Hitchcock thriller.

The Wrong Man <----trailer (1956): ** 1/2 /****

Friday, August 7, 2009

The 'burbs

Before he was one of the most bankable and most well-respected stars in Hollywood, Tom Hanks was just another actor in the 1980s with a handful of comedies and a TV sitcom under his belt. Seeing what a huge star he is now, it can be interesting to look back on some of those 80s comedies, one of which never fails to make me laugh, 1989's The 'burbs.

More of a dark comedy with a fair share of silly touches, The 'burbs explores the basic idea that no one knows their neighbors too well. Who knows what's going on in their basement in the middle of the night? Then add to the setting the normal weirdness of living in the suburbs, and you've got something going there. Movies like Rear Window and Disturbia used similar storylines, but both of those movies were played seriously. 'burbs puts your average suburbanite in an odd situation and lets the story play out with sometimes hysterical results.

Taking a week off from work, Ray Peterson (Hanks) plans to sit around the house and be lazy with his wife Carol (Carrie Fisher) and 'get back to normal.' But next door, the neighbors, the Klopeks, seem to be up to something crazy, with blinding lights and odd sounds coming from their basement. Ray's neighbor Art (Rick Ducommun) is convinced that the Klopeks are part of some sort of satanic cult, killing people and burning their bodies in the basement and then burying the bones in the backyard. Ray is more than a little skeptical, but the clues continue to come up. Even then, it's only when one elderly neighbor disappears that Ray starts to believe something fishy is going on.

With some help from across the street neighbor, Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern), a Vietnam vet, Ray and Art plan to investigate the Klopeks house and see exactly what's going on. The fun and mystery of it all is that you're never quite sure what's going on at the Klopek's house. Sure, there are clues that there's something funny transpiring, but Art and Rumsfield are more than ready to jump to conclusions. The movie is set entirely on this one cul-de-sac and never leaves this stretch of houses. It's self-contained in the suburbs, and overall gives a good sense of the general weirdness of a suburban neighborhood.

What works so well when it comes to the laughs is that no one tries too hard. Most of the laugh out loud humor comes from the dialogue, little throwaway lines here and there that you almost miss. Here's IMDB's memorable quotes with some semi-SPOILERS. The story waits until the last 30 minutes to really ratchet up the craziness as Ray and Art jump over the fence to investigate while the Klopeks are away on a day trip. The comedy goes from dialogue to physical, including one bit with Art trying to knock out the Klopeks' alarm system among several other winners.

With Hanks playing straight man to all these suburban shenanigans, it's the rest of the ensemble cast that makes the movie memorable. Hanks is good as the everyman trying to lead his life, but he leaves most of the laughs to Ducommun and especially Dern. Playing a Vietnam vet, Dern is hysterical, not afraid to ask questions or do things the rest of his neighbors are not. With his trophy wife Bonnie (Wendy Schaal), Rumsfield is my favorite of the Mayfield Place neighbors. A vet of '18 months in the bush,' he still wears the uniform and is outfitted with all sorts of weapons. Setting up an observation post late in the movie, Rumsfield quietly sits on his roof, drinking some coffee and eating animal crackers. He doesn't say a word, but it's priceless regardless. Here's another of my favorites, Dern 'directing the operation' with some pitch-perfect delivery.

While Ducommun and Dern steal the show, the rest of the cast doesn't disappoint. Fisher plays the worrying wife who along with Schaal's Bonnie is convinced nothing is going on. Corey Feldman provides some good laughs as Ricky Butler, the street's resident stoner who loves nothing more than watching his neighbors' crazy antics. Then, there's the Klopeks, who I've debated revealing. So if you don't want to know who they are, skip ahead to the next paragraph. Henry Gibson is Dr. Werner Klopeck with a great entrance about halfway through the movie with Brother Theodore as his brother Reuben and Courtney Gains as Hans, the red-headed youngster with the gnarly-looking sideburns.

So is this the movie for everyone? Probably not. The humor can be kind of off the wall, but if you have a dark sense of humor The 'burbs is probably right up your alley. Great cast especially Hanks, Ducommun and Dern with some truly laugh out loud moments.

The 'burbs <----trailer (1989): *** 1/2 /****

Harry in Your Pocket

Well, it's August now so that means Turner Classic Movies is doing its annual Summer Under the Stars festival every day of the month. That can be good and bad depending on the star of the day, and even then they tend to show more mainstream, well-known star vehicles. So with James Coburn Day earlier this week, I'd seen all but one movie on the schedule, 1973's Harry in Your Pocket.

I was skeptical going in because Coburn made some classics, some above average movies, and then there's a gap until you hit rock bottom with a handful of movies I couldn't stand. I'll file this one right under the above average category. As a favor to an old friend, master thief/pickpocket Harry (Coburn) agrees to form a wire mob team, a group of pickpockets working together. Harry and his friend Casey (Walter Pidgeon) must recruit a few other members and decide on Ray (Michael Sarrazin), an inexperienced, low-level thief, and Sandy (Trish Van Devere), a young woman looking for some quick money.

A story about pickpockets might not seem like a huge thrill ride, but everything works smoothly after a somewhat slow start where everyone is introduced. The movie breaks down the techniques, the mannerisms, the planning that goes into a simple and quick theft of a man's wallet. Harry's one rule is simple, 'I don't carry the goods.' It's with his help of the team, Casey picking their mark, Sandy providing the distraction with some short skirts, and Ray taking the handoff, that Harry and Co. start to rack up some serious money.

Of course, that'd be too easy overall, wouldn't it? Harry takes a shine to Sandy who's dating Ray. Ray sees all this developing and doesn't go along easily. On top of that, Ray wants to branch off on his own but is worried he'll lose Sandy to Harry in the process.

Leading the cast, Coburn at his smooth, coolest best. In his better parts, Coburn gave effortless parts where it often seemed he wasn't even trying. As the expert pickpocket, he pulls off that kind of part here. Just by being there, Pidgeon gives 'HiYP' a ton of credibility. Whether you know him or not by name, I can guarantee you've seen him in a movie or two. An underrated actor who is excellent here as Coburn's aging sidekick. Sarrazin and Van Devere are the two youngsters, representing themselves well against two great presences in Coburn and Pidgeon.

Throw in a catchy 70s score from Lalo Schifrin, and you've got a well-rounded, well-told story. The movie doesn't appear to have been released on DVD or VHS so keep your eye out at the TCM website for another showing. Worth it for Coburn fans to see the laconic actor in one of his many silky smooth anti-heroes. You can check out the first 10 minutes here, and then another scene as Harry discusses strategy with his crew.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift

I'm a sucker for movies about or dealing with cars. It doesn't even have to be the main storyline, I just need a good chase like Bullitt or The French Connection. One of my favorite movies as a kid, and I do still like it, was The Love Bug. I know little to nothing about cars other than hitting the gas pedal makes them go, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate them. Like the Fast and the Furious series, which I can admit are not good movies but they sure are entertaining.

Since its release in 2006, I avoided The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift like the plague. None of the original cast was in it, but rapper Bow-Wow was, and it seemed like a cheap ploy to capitalize on a hugely successful franchise. Well, after hearing a couple positive reviews from people I typically agree with on movies and seeing the 4th movie in the franchise this week, I gave Tokyo Drift a shot. It's not as good as the other three movies in the series and could easily be it's own stand-alone movie but with the 'Fast and Furious' title it will always be compared to the others.

Credit is due though for not just doing the same old thing with street racing. Director Justin Lin, who also directed Fast and Furious, introduces us to a new style of driving/racing called drifting which if you've played any number of racing games you should be familiar with it. It can be odd to watch cars drift because it seems they're totally out of control, but as the special features on the DVD point out, the driver is actually more in control to get the car to move like that. Drifting is quite a visual sport for fans as drivers make crazy turns around corners and into places you'd assume they could not fit.

The racing sequences here are pretty good and not overly reliant on CGI and green-screen shooting. The special features show how the cast went through drift training so that even if they weren't required to do the actual driving in the movies, it looked realistic when they were actually filmed in the car. Here's a great example from the movie of some drifting with one big SPOILER though at the end. Another positive is that Lin doesn't cut these scenes so quickly that the images become incoherent. I've bitched and moaned about it before with the quick-cutting fight/chase scenes so I won't go over it all again, but if you want the viewer to be impressed with what's going on on the screen, show it to us. Don't cut so quickly that we can't tell what's going on. Tokyo Drift is a prime example of how good a sequence can be when done right.

With no Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, or Tyrese here, the story focuses on Sean Boswell (Lucas Black), a high school student sent to live with his Navy dad (Brian Goodman) in Tokyo after he's gotten in trouble with the police again. His options? Tokyo or juvy. Adjusting to his new life in Japan, Sean gets involved with street racing, drifting, right away. But in his first race, he destroys the car and has to work for the owner, Han (Sung Kang), a top of the line drifter/racer who's also into some seemingly shady business deals with D.K. (Brian Tee). D.K. is low-level Japanese mafia working for his uncle. Bullheaded and stubborn as always, Sean wants to learn how to drift with the tension building to the inevitable confrontation with D.K. after some shenanigans.

The only cast connection to the other movies is Kang's Han character who is in the 4th one too. Tokyo Drift is actually the 4th movie in the timeline, coming after 'Fast and Furious.' I've liked Black a lot since I saw him in Friday Night Lights, and he's a good lead, if not great, as Boswell. With his Southern drawl, Black comes across naturally onscreen and looks to handle a lot of the driving himself. Bow Wow is surprisingly good as Twinkie, another American who becomes friends with Sean. Not much is required of the part, but if done poorly it could have been really bad. Kang and Tee provide some tension as the good and bad opposites, especially Kang's Han as Sean's drift teacher. And as the requisite love interest, Nathalie Kelley plays Neela, D.K.'s girlfriend of sorts who Sean sets his targets on. Like Bow Wow, she makes the character likable/sympathetic instead of being the whiny, helpless girl in the background. And it never hurts, looks good doing it.

SPOILERS ahead. Stop reading if you don't want to know about a cameo at the end. One other connection worth mentioning to the other three movies. Sean defeats D.K. (I was surprised too *wink*) and prior to racing gets a message that an old friend of Han's wants to race him. Cue Diesel's very brief appearance as Dom Toretto. It doesn't really serve a purpose, but it is cool to see him come back since leaving after the original. The connection is made early in the 4th movie if you're dying to know.

Which brings me to hopefully the fifth movie in the series. How about Diesel, Walker, Tyrese and Black team up? I don't know how it'd work or where the story would go, but it would definitely be cool to see all four team up. Final thoughts on Tokyo Drift though, entertaining movie that while not as good as the other three, is a worthy entry into the Fast and Furious series. It doesn't deserve some of the abuse its taken since it was released in 2006.

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift <----trailer (2006): ***/****