The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Big Hand for the Little Lady

I looked this up to be sure -- thanks, Wikipedia -- but the game of poker has been around since the 15th Century in different forms.  It's always been there, but since online gambling became so popular and ESPN's World Series of Poker has been put on TV seemingly around the clock, poker (especially Texas Hold 'Em) has experienced a rebirth, a rejuvenation over the last 10 years or so.  Watching a card game wouldn't appear to be the most exciting thing, but 1966's A Big Hand for the Little Lady proves otherwise, among other movies like The Sting, The Cincinnati Kid, and Rounders.

This is a comedy western -- typically not my favorite thing -- that keeps the humor pretty low-key with almost all of the focus on one specific card game and its development.  The story is almost exclusively in one location, the back room of a saloon, with a few quick detours outside for more money or booze.  I'm not comparing it to 12 Angry Men as a whole, but in terms of storytelling it is very similar with the jury room changed to a saloon's back room.  I was really enjoying the movie for the first 80 minutes, and then it happened.  The movie phenomena known as....THE UNNECESSARY TWIST!  More on that later.

Riding into Laredo, a husband and wife, Meredith (Henry Fonda) and Mary (Joanne Woodward) with their son must stop for repairs on their wagon.  They're bound for San Antonio and the 40 acres they've purchased to live on.  Stopping at the saloon, Meredith hears about a high-stakes poker game going on in the back room.  Each year, five local businessmen lock themselves away and play until someone takes all the winnings.  Meredith asks if he can sit in and quickly changes his mind, thinking he could win the game judging by the players' abilities.  But his luck is not so good, and he has to use all the money the family's saved.  Then, his luck turns.  He gets the hand of a lifetime, but in the excitement of the hand, a heart attack incapacitates him.  Who can finish out the hand for him, even with a lack of funds?  Why his wife of course.

This western has the look and feel of a TV western that's entirely set on a western town set, like Gunsmoke or Bonanza.  The visual look of 'Big Hand' isn't very important though because the focus is on this poorly lit, smoky backroom where the annual card game is played out.  The five players are all recognizable faces if not huge stars and are clearly the highlight of the movie.  They include Henry Drummond (Jason Robards), a cantankerous land owner, Benson Trop (Charles Bickford), the woman-hating undertaker, Otto Habershaw (Kevin McCarthy), the educated lawyer, Dennis Wilcox (Robert Middleton), the ranch owner, and Jesse Buford (John Qualen), the cheapskate cattle baron.  The quintet has a history and a background that comes from 16 years of playing that comes across perfectly.  Robards' Drummond walked out on his daughter's slow-moving wedding to play, and McCarthy's Otto bailed on a court case where his defendant could hang.  Little touches make these characters work.

Later in his career, Fonda veered into playing darker characters, straight villains like Once Upon a Time in the West, or even deeply flawed people, like here or in The Rounders.  His Meredith has a gambling background -- an addiction to poker is hinted at -- and he can't ignore the allure of this high-stakes game.  Woodward is the angelic wife who trusts her husband implicitly even when he's made such a backslide into the life he promised he would avoid.  As he fights through a heart attack, he tells her to play out the hand.  Mary has never played poker in her life, but when Meredith tells her it is the hand of a lifetime, she trusts him.  The only problem? They're out of money so she turns to the town banker C.P. Ballinger (Paul Ford) while the town doctor (Burgess Meredith) tends to her husband.

And then there was the twist, revealed about 80 minutes into the movie but not about to be revealed here.  Looking back, I can't remember any hints of what's to come so I guess that's a testament to the twist working so well.  Maybe unlike so many other twist/revelation storylines, we're not supposed to have any inkling.  But it is such a departure from the humor of the story up to that point, it feels completely unnecessary and for me, wasted any goodwill the majority of the movie had racked up.  If that wasn't bad enough, there's about 15 minutes more after the twist is revealed that drags on and on.  Not only was I disappointed in the direction the story took, I've got to endure scenes that serve no real purpose.  Pass on that.

It's all too bad because with the cast and their impressive talents -- especially Robards and McCarthy -- this comedic western had a chance to do something great.  I was actually angry at the twist reveal.  Not because it didn't work, the story has no plot holes and looking back everything worked.  It is because the twist is stupid and unnecessary for a movie with a good story.  I would have ended the movie at the end of the poker game and been done with it instead of sitting through almost 20 more minutes of movie.  I couldn't find a trailer so the link below is a TCM-provided clip.

A Big Hand for the Little Lady <----clips (1966): **/****

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Running Scared

The 1980s were responsible for any number of good and bad things, especially the explosion of buddy cop movies.  On TV there was Miami Vice and in movies there was Beverly Hills Cop, 48 Hours, Lethal Weapon and any number of other ones I'm probably forgetting.  All of those mentioned have another connection, one black officer and one white officer.  But in an inspired and odd choice of casting, one of the best 80s buddy cop movies was in 1986's Running Scared.

Teamings like Danny Glover and Mel Gibson, Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy, those seem somewhat obvious and make sense.  How about pairing a comedian just off a year stint at Saturday Night Live and a song and dance man known for his Broadway performances?  Not the obvious choice for a buddy cop movie, is it?  Some mad genius knew what he was doing then when he cast Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines as two street-wise Chicago cops trying to put a Colombian drug dealer away and aren't above bending the rules a little bet to get it done.  A comedian and a Broadway actor seems like an odd choice to me, but it's an inspired decision.

After putting drug dealer Julio Gonzales (Jimmy Smits) away since he's been released on parole, Chicago detectives Ray Hughes (Hines) and Danny Costanzo (Crystal) are given a vacation.  Sick of their off-the-wall tactics, their captain (Dan Hedaya) wants them out of the way so they can't cause any trouble.  The two cops take him up on the offer, deciding once they get to the Florida Keys that they've had enough of a career that requires them to be shot at on a daily basis.  They buy a bar together, and head back to Chicago to give their 30-days notice.  Bad news though, Gonzales is out on bail and rumors of a huge inbound shipment of cocaine is all over the city.  Hughes and Costanzo have their plans for the future, but not before they get Gonzales behind bars for good.

Like so many 80s movies -- especially of the buddy cop variety -- the tone here is comical throughout with plenty of laughs.  Check out IMDB's Memorable Quotes for just some of the banter between these two smart-ass detectives.  Sure, the main focus of the story is catching a drug dealer and a cop killer, but the tone is still somehow jokey with one-liners flying left and right.  Whudda thunk it?  Hughes and Costanzo clearly know what they're doing with their work being 16-year veterans of the force, but their plans never seem to go smoothly.  Throw in some cheesy 80s montages -- like THIS or THIS -- and you have all the necessary ingredients for a very 1980s movie.

Hines and Crystal have a great chemistry together that drives their quick-paced banter in just about every scene.  They are partners, but they're also best friends so for them it's work, but they have fun doing it; getting shot at be damned.  Two guys typically not associated with action movies also look to be having a lot of fun in the shootouts and chases, especially the finale in the State of Illinois building in downtown Chicago, an action-packed ending that's the perfect ending for the story.  The rest of the cast is just as good, including Hedaya as the captain always ready to lose his mind, Smits as the villainous drug dealer who can't seem to lose these two detectives, Joe Pantoliano as Snake, one of Gonzales' pushers, and Steven Bauer and Jon Gries as two detectives ready to replace our heroic duo.

Of all the movies filmed on location in Chicago, this might be one of the best up there with The Blues Brothers.  Chicago in winter is not the most pleasant of places, but setting the story in winter gives 'Scared' all sorts of mood and an ideal backdrop for the story.  Director Peter Hyams isn't content to just shoot in the glamorous parts of downtown either, he goes to some seedier locations to show what some of Chicago's South Side really looks like.  If you watch closely, you can see some familiar locales, but in general Hyams stays away from the more obvious ones.  The State of Illinois building in the finale is a great set piece though.

One other thing I feel like I've got to mention involving a car chase midway through the movie.  Sure, they do seem to get from O'Hare to downtown Chicago awful quick, but that's a minor complaint.  Car chases have been done to death, and directors have been looking for new ways to spice them up for years.  The French Connection had Gene Hackman driving under an elevated train trying to keep up.  Running Scared has the chase on the elevated train tracks, Chicago's L.  I imagine driving on the tracks was hell on the cars, but it's a great sequence.  You can watch some of the chase HERE. Definitely one of the coolest car chases I've ever seen.

Running Scared doesn't have the name or reputation of the Beverly Hills Cop or Lethal Weapon series, but it deserves a better reputation.  It's a truly funny movie full of quotable lines with surprisingly strong work from stars Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal, a great supporting cast, and some phenomenal Chicago shooting locations.  I'm biased of course, living in Chicago, but this one won't disappoint.

Running Scared <----trailer (1986): *** 1/2 /****

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Las Vegas Story

Cities like New York, L.A., and Chicago may have inspired more stories and probably more movies, but running a close fourth is Las Vegas, the City of Lights.  Movies like the original Ocean's 11, the remake, Vegas Vacation, The Hangover, and many others are set in Sin City.  Gambling, women, entertainment and debauchery left and right just translates well I guess.  Made right in the boom as the city became the city we know today, 1952's The Las Vegas Story presents a desert town full of love triangles, robberies, fraud, embezzlement, and of course, murder.

What caught my eye with this film noirish story was the cast, but I ended up liking it as a whole and not just because of the talent involved.  Certain outdoor scenes were obviously filmed in Las Vegas for any shots of the Strip or the hotels, but other than those, it's pretty clear most scenes were shot indoors at the Hollywood studios.  It's not a big deal really, but don't expect lots of live shots of the city.  The story starts off as one thing and ends up going down a very different route.  Lots of different elements must have been thrown into the blender, and when it came out, there was The Las Vegas Story.

Taking a cross country trip, husband and wife Lloyd Rollins (Vincent Price) and Linda Rollins (Jane Russell) make a stop in Las Vegas.  Lloyd is acting suspiciously, but that is overshadowed by Linda, who worked for years in the city as a lounge singer and left under less than ideal conditions.  She left behind her fiance who is now a detective on the LVPD, Dave Andrews (Victor Mature).  They awkwardly meet up with some baggage from their past, but that's just the beginning. Lloyd has a money issue (or lack of) and is quickly in the hole.  He pawns off one of Linda's necklaces, but the casino/club owner (Robert J. Wilke) he sold it to ends up dead and the necklace goes missing.  An insurance investigator (Brad Dexter) is on the case as well, where it seems anyone could be the murderer.

The plot detour works, making this love triangle more of a driving force to the story than the focus point.  Of course because of that, the story is all over the place, and not always in a good way.  It's still well-made and entertaining as these twists and detours lead to a great ending.  SPOILERS  The actual killer is Dexter's insurance investigator.  Dexter almost always played a heavy so it's no real surprise when it is revealed he is the killer.  Mature's Det. Andrews figures it out though and goes after Linda -- the kidnapped love of his life -- who Dexter took prisoner.  Watch the showdown HERE.   The finale features some great stuntwork involving a helicopter chasing a car in and around an abandoned airfield.  Even after the chase, there's a great cat and mouse game between Dexter and Mature in the wide open, dusty and windy expanses of this airfield.  END OF SPOILERS

Looking at the casting, RKO Studios didn't always have the biggest names in their movies, but that makes these type of movies appeal to me more.  Jane Russell is drop dead gorgeous, but too often that's all her roles required of her -- and to be fair, her character is neglected in the last 20 minutes.  When given the chance, she showed a knack for playing tough femme fatale who can pull off some humor and be sexy at the same time.  As for the looks department, 'Vegas Story' does display her proudly, including one silhouette shower scene that seems tame now.  A beauty on screen, she's often stereotyped as a body with no acting ability, but she is a strong actress with the right part.

Mature and Price provide some fireworks as the love interests.  As an actor, Mature is underrated in my book the same way Russell is.  He's got quite the presence when the camera focuses on him, and maybe he doesn't have the greatest range.  But if you do what you're good at and find those appropriate roles, who cares?  As a police detective scorned by his fiance, Mature gets to do the romantic scenes and the action too so it's the best of both worlds.  Price was a versatile actor and shows it here as a character who's motivations are left in the shadows until the end.  Horror, comedy, or thriller, Price could do them all.  Dexter is Dexter, and Jay C. Flippen has a funny part as a veteran cop who thinks he knows everything.

My only other complaint about this movie is Hoagy Carmichael being cast in a supporting role.  A bandleader, singer and composer, Carmichael plays Happy, a piano player who used to work with Russell's Linda.  Russell was a singer as well as an actress, and she had a decent voice but this also means she sings in her movies.  In some situations -- like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes -- a quick song is fine because it fits with the tone of the movie.  But a murder mystery noir full of deceit and infidelity?  Not so much.  Still, we get songs with Russell and Carmichael singing, like HERE, instead of focusing on the more interesting, more entertaining storyline.  Still, with all that said, the movie is worth a watch.  It's a mess of a movie, but an entertaining one at that.

The Las Vegas Story <---trailer (1952): ** 1/2 /****

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Flame and Citron

Wars produce more stories than could ever be told in a lifetime.  There’s battles, campaigns, soldiers, generals, and that’s just the actual fighting.  Add the home front, the government, the build-up and aftermath just to name a few more.  Last year’s 2009 Flame and Citron deals with such a story that is little known and is a prime example of all the smaller stories that are on more of a personal level than a battle that could turn the tide of war.

It is a Norwegian film telling the story of two resistance fighters who became infamous for their actions and hated by the Germans, causing them to offer $20,000 for either of them dead.  Through the years, their names have been forgotten and even now with a movie released about them, details are sketchy on their involvement during the war.  Their names have become more of legend than fact, but with this movie, their stories are at the ground level; very emotional, very human story about the effect war takes on one’s psyche.

It’s early 1944 and two resistance fighters, Flame (Thure Lindhardt) and Citron (Mads Mikkelsen), have earned a reputation.  With orders from a superior, Flame and Citron kill Dutch German collaborators working with the occupying forces, and in some extreme instances, even German officers.  But as the bodies mount, the effect of killing so many people begins to wear on the two men.  Flame has little human contact with anyone other than Citron and starts to see a woman also working in the resistance.  Citron can’t sleep without taking pills while his efforts have driven his wife away.

But as rumors spread that the Allies will invade soon, the two killers receive orders to lay off on the hits.  Their superior disregards and continues to feed them names to take care of.  The more they kill though, the more they start to question what it is they are doing.  Are they actually helping the war effort?  Innocent civilians are killed as retaliation for every one of their hits.  However they feel about what they do, the walls are closing in.  The Germans have descriptions of what they look like, and the rewards continue to grow for information on them.

I enjoyed this movie on several levels, one being the actual science of performing these hits.  Flame and Citron are as good at what they do as is possible, and even then, there are glitches.  Flame is usually the killer while Citron is the getaway driver.  But even as good as they are, it rarely goes smoothly.  They discover quickly a person will say anything to save their lives, anything at all.  There are a lot of these scenes, and director (Ole Christian Madsen) handles them well, making them appealing to watch but also shows the effect their actions have on these two men.

The personal side is one of many levels that works so well here.  Flame joins the resistance because he has a hatred of the Germans dating back to an incident when he worked as a waiter at a German restaurant.  He was never close to his father and has no close friends other than Citron.  Lindhardt is incredible in the role, a savage killer who is somehow still sympathetic.  He refuses to wear a hat even though his bright, wavy red hair is an obvious giveaway to his identification.  Part of me wonders if he has a death wish from the get-go, and his refusal to cover himself is a way of daring the Germans to coming after him.  Flame is a man who struggles to trust because of his background, but also because trusting someone forces him to open up and leave himself vulnerable to being turned in.

The two men have their differences, but they fight for the same reason; because they think they’re in the right, and the Germans are vile, cruel forces.  Citron throws up uncontrollably the days the Germans march into Copenhagen and promptly joins the resistance.  He is a family man that sacrifices his love for his family for his love of country.  My only other experience with Mikkelsen is as Le Chiffre in Casino Royale so it’s great to see him in a non-villainous part.  He realizes he’s driving his wife away, but he can’t turn away from what he believes to be the right thing to do.

My knowledge of WWII in the Netherlands extends to what I’ve picked up watching Band of Brothers and A Bridge Too Far, so in other words…not much.  ‘F and C’ brings 1944 Copenhagen to life with a visual style of film noir, albeit in color.  The whole movie is full of color and a pleasure to look at.  So often war movies sacrifice visuals for effects in action sequences, but not here because if anything the action scenes are visually more interesting.  The on-location shooting is great as are the sets, locations, bad-ass older cars, and period weaponry.

SPOILERS Of course, this is a movie that can in no way have a happy ending. From the moment we meet Flame and Citron, it’s just a matter of when and how they will die.  Together they are believed to have killed around 30 German collaborators and officers, and the fact they killed that many in such a short time is remarkable in itself.  They survived in a country where their descriptions were widely distributed and known with the Gestapo and SS actively hunting them down.  This movie honors their lives and their actions.  Little may be known about them, but Flame and Citron fills in the blank spots nicely.  Norwegian movies aren’t usually in my wheelhouse, but this one is well worth it.

Flame and Citron <-----trailer (2009): ****/****

Saturday, March 27, 2010

High and Low

Watch enough movies with the same actor, and you start to look at that person in the same way.  It’s like John Wayne in westerns and war movies, Clint Eastwood playing tough cops, or Johnny Depp always playing eccentric, quirky characters.  It feels like a big set-up because eventually they will play against type from their more familiar roles.

Take Toshiro Mifune who teamed up with director Akira Kurosawa on and off for years, most of the time playing an antihero in feudal Japan.  These parts were usually samurais, soldiers, and killers, and Mifune was good at what he did in becoming one of Japan’s most famous movie stars.  So when he plays a rich CEO in modern times, there’s a bit of a transition period to get used to him playing such a unique role.  The part is in 1963’s High and Low, a police procedural drama that rises above the typical cop investigation movie.

Putting the final touches on a takeover of his company, Kingo Gondo (Mifune) receives a startling phone call. His son has been kidnapped, and the ransom totals 30 million yen which eats away at the funds he had accumulated to become the majority stockholder in his shoe company.  Gondo brings in the police without alerting the kidnappers, but soon a second call follows.  It isn’t Gondo’s son, but his chauffeur’s son instead that is being held captive.  Now Gondo faces a tough decision; pay the ransom and be ruined financially or refuse to pay and keep his position atop his company?

I can’t tell too much more about this movie without giving away some major plot twists so from here on in SPOILERS are everywhere. Stop reading if you don’t want the ending spoiled.  That plot summary is only the first 70 minutes of a 140-minute movie.  Shocker, but Mifune’s Gondo pays the ransom, but more on that later.  The second half of the movie is the police investigation to catch the kidnappers.  Nothing feels false in the smallest sense in the second half as the police, led by Det. Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai) follow up on any and all possible leads that might lead to closing the case.  It could be excruciatingly dull, but because Kurosawa’s story gave little in the way of hints in the first half, the viewer is trying to piece together the case before the police do.

Even with a movie that is well over two hours, the story never lags.  The first half, set almost entirely in the Gondo mansion, is heavy on the dialogue with long scenes of conversation with no cuts, just the camera focusing on the actors.  The cast is top notch with a lot of characters involved, the Gondos, Aoki the chauffeur, the police, the wait staff, all trying to figure out how to end the case.  The second half though has a better flow to it as the investigation develops.  I’m struggling to identify why that’s so, and all I’m coming up with is the story moves around instead of being relegated to a house, and more than that, a single, large room.  The police move all over the region looking for the kidnappers as the evidence and clues continue to come together.

Seeing Mifune as an upper class business man is a little startling (I kept looking for a samurai sword) but it works pretty well with all things considered.  Gondo is an incredibly intelligent businessman who sees that the company he loves is being torn away from him.  He develops this nearly perfect plan to gain a majority control, and not that a kidnapping is ever good, but this particular one comes around at the worst possible time.  Mifune gives this man a heart when it’d be easy to root against him.  When he realizes his son wasn’t the one kidnapped, it’s easy to see that for a split second Gondo realizes he’s in the free and clear…if he so chooses.  But as the situation dawns on him, it’s really a lose-lose situation.  No matter what he does, it won’t end well for him.

Mifune’s strong performance dominates the first half of the movie in the Gondo mansion with more of an ensemble cast taking over in the second half with the investigation.  Nakadai as Detective Tokura, the officer running the case, is good in a thankless part as a cop with no personal background, he’s just a dogged professional trying to get the job done.  Other worthwhile performances include Yutaka Sada as Aoki, Gendo’s chauffeur, Kyoko Kagawa as Gendo’s wife, Isao Kimura, Kenjiro Ishiyama and Takeshi Kato  as three fellow detectives helping Tokura’s case, and Tatsuya Mihashi as Kawanishi, Gendo's possibly treacherous right hand man.

With the movie as a whole, it’s a change of pace for Kurosawa and his fans who have only seen his samurai movies typically based in feudal Japan.  I didn’t love ‘High and Low’ like I do some of the director’s other movies, but I did like it a lot.  A classic?  Maybe not, but as far as police procedurals go, you’ll be hard-pressed to come up with one that’s better.

High and Low <---trailer (1963): ***/****

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Walking Stick

I typically like heist movies that are pretty dark, cynical, with just a bit of humor thrown in for good measure.  There have been all sorts of variations on heist movies, but one I’d never seen was a romantic heist movie…until now.  Released in 1970, it’s probably not fair to even call The Walking Stick a heist movie because the actual robbery takes about five minutes.  This is more of a falling in love story with a robbery serving as fuel to the fire.

It sounds pretty general to say I like British movies, but I do, especially those filmed in the 1960s and 1970s.  Cities in England have a great look to them that translates well to film, and more often than not directors filmed on location, on the streets of London and from a street-level.  The Walking Stick doesn’t film in the glamorous parts of London, instead shooting at some more run-down locations that fits with the tone of the story and its characters.

Contracting polio as a child, Deborah Dainton (Samantha Eggar) is now a grown woman working at a diamond/jewelry exchange in London.  She’s self-conscious of her somewhat withered leg (I thought the leg looked fine) that requires her to use a walking stick.  Because of her leg, Deborah usually keeps people at arm’s length and doesn’t open up to them or let them open up to her.  At a party hosted by her sister, Deborah meets Leigh Hartley (David Hemmings), a down on his luck painter.  She at first wants nothing to do with him or his advances, but he slowly wears her down. 

A relationship forms, and the feelings between them grow from a crush to full-blown love.  Deborah and Leigh move in together and have hopes of getting married and opening up an antiques shop.  She couldn’t be happier with her situation until Leigh asks her a question about the security in place at her job.  She’s taken aback.  Why would he want to know that information?  He says it is for a friend who asked and would be willing to pay a tidy sum to get that information.  The money would be a nice start to their new lives together, but for Deborah the questions race through her head.  For one, it’s wrong, and two, had Leigh been planning this all along?

If I hadn’t read the movie’s plot description at TCM’s website, I would have thought this was a sweet character study about two people very much in love.  The first hour is completely devoted to showing this growing relationship and feelings between Deborah and Leigh, starting with Leigh’s advances and Deborah’s denials.  There are little hints of what’s to come, but nothing obvious.  A sense of ominous things to come? Sure, but not a ‘smack you in the face, look at what is happening’ clue.  So when Leigh brings up this offer of helping in a robbery, it does come as a bit of a shock.

There’s plenty of speaking roles here, but only two really matter in the big picture, Deborah and Leigh.  Eggar is the star of the movie, and she goes through quite a transformation from beginning to end.  Of course, by the end she’s almost right back where she started.  It’s a strong performance because early on we are introduced to a character that is quiet, self-reliant and keeps her emotions bottled up.  Because of her leg, she feels unattractive so as a viewer you understand why she feels that way.  The fact that she is a beautiful woman just adds to the character to show how self-conscious she really is.

As the object of her affections, Hemmings is a bit of a mystery.  The first hour he’s the ideal boyfriend, convincing Deborah to open up and let her feelings out.  Genuine feelings develop, making the twist when it comes more effective.  I won’t say it is a twist revealed in the last 40 minutes because it’s the obvious connection to make when the robbery plan is brought up.  The heist itself is nothing special but is handled efficiently.  Deborah’s involvement is the best handled part as she struggles with the claustrophobia she’s had since being treated for her polio in an iron long.

The ending itself comes as a bit of a surprise after a long scene of dialogue.  It is not an ending you would expect from a romance story, but it works really well, and the more I thought about it the more I liked it.  Not an easy ending, but the right one for a surprisingly good movie.  I couldn't find a trailer, but TCM offers a few clips from the movie to watch, check them out HERE.

The Walking Stick (1970): ** ½ /****

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Hangover

When it comes to popular movies, TV shows, or books, I'm never one to jump on the bandwagon.  I haven't read the Harry Potter books beyond the first one, the Twilight series looks like garbage, I started watching Lost midway through the third season, and Avatar doesn't appeal to me in the least.  Some of it is intentional -- I don't like people telling me I HAVE TO see or read something -- and some of it is just not getting around to it, like 2009's The Hangover, a huge success in theaters last summer.  I wanted to see it, just never got around to it.

What Wedding Crashers started a few years back with the R-rated comedy, The Hangover continues with a raunchier brand of laughs than what PG-13 comedies get away with.  These harder comedies were everywhere in the 1980s, and then they sort of just disappeared.   Thankfully, they've popped back up on the radar, and with good examples like Wedding Crashers and The Hangover hopefully they're here to stay.  Of course, there's the bad -- cough Hot Tub Time Machine  cough -- but they can't all be perfect, can they?

It seems somewhat pointless to write a plot summary of The Hangover but here goes.  Two days before he's supposed to get married, Doug (Justin Bartha) heads to Las Vegas for his bachelor party with his best friends, Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Stu (Ed Helms) and his soon-to-be brother in law Alan (Zach Galifianakis).  Before they head out, they toast the groom to be and fade out.  Fast forward to the next morning, and they wake up in their destroyed hotel suite with massive hangovers no memory of what happened the night before.  Making it worse, Doug is nowhere to be found.  So what did happen during the bachelor party?  They've got little time to find out.

After this quick intro, the rest of the movie is the trio's effort to A. find out where Doug is and B. what the hell happened to them?  It is a search that includes a full-grown tiger in their bathroom, Stu's marriage to a stripper/escort, Jade (Heather Graham), boxer Mike Tyson tracking them down because they stole his tiger, an angry Chinese gambler (Ken Jeong) they supposedly  kidnapped, a trip to the police station and a tasing exhibition, a drug dealer (Mike Epps) with something in common with the fellas, a stolen police car, and a baby Alan names 'Carlos' that was left in a closet in their hotel room.  If that's not a recipe for success, I don't know what is.

A key to any successful comedy -- or huge, megahit in this case -- is the one-liners, or making it simpler, how quotable is the movie?  Here is IMDB's Memorable Quotes, which even out of context provide some good laughs. The ridiculously over the top situations provide some great physical humor, especially the scene in the police station, but that's just the start.  Like with his other huge success, Old School, director Todd Phillips has a movie full of quotable one-liners.   Cooper is more of the straight man to all the antics (although he does have his fair share of good lines), Helms gets to go crazy because he's missing a tooth and also gave his grandma's ring she wore through the Holocaust to his new stripper bride, and Galifianakis, well, he gets his own paragraph.

Some comedies have huge breakout characters capable of carrying a movie on their own.  For The Hangover, it's clearly Galifianakis.  Cooper and Helms are great in their own right, and the supporting cast is nearly perfect, but this is his movie.  In describing the character, think of him as someone who's not all there mentally but is still really smart, awkward beyond belief with some of his statements, and in the big of the funniest characters I've ever seen in a movie.  Well over half of those memorable quotes come from him, and it would take a much longer review to talk up how funny Alan really is.  Anyways, here's just a few, his friendship/wolfpack speech, Alan's criticism of Rain Man, and of course, the taser scene.

With a so perfectly sublime character as Alan leading the way, Phillips doesn't stop there.  Before the movie even came out, the trailer scene that people talked about was Mike Tyson going Rock Band on some classic Phil Collins.  Here's Tyson's introduction, still one of the movie's best and funniest moments.  The boxer is in the movie for about 10-15 minutes tops and makes the most of it with his fair share of lines that produced a laugh or two or seven.  He's able to poke some fun at himself and even throws a punch or two ("He's still got it") with the scene at his mansion providing some much-needed explanation for the tiger in the bathroom. 

It might seem a waste to describe the story-telling device in a comedy, but for the Hangover, the decision to not show the actual bachelor party at all made this movie. Seeing it no doubt would have been funny, but hearing about it instead and how legendary it was works so much better.  Meeting all these people they've interacted with who react like they're meeting their heroes does more to show how crazy the night was than ever seeing it.  Of course, we do get some revelation late when Alan stumbles across Stu's camera with hundreds of pictures detailing their escapades.  Using the photos over the credits is a perfect ending.

I can't remember the last time I laughed this much at a movie in a long time.  The cast is great, the story and setting is ideal, and the one-liners are flying left and right.  The Hangover 2 is supposedly in the works, and I'll be curious to see where they actually go with a sequel.  For now though, I'll just enjoy the first one.  It was more than worth the 2-month wait on Netflix.  I also included the link to Stu's song about the epic clusterf*ck they find themselves in.

The Hangover <----trailer (2009): ****/****
Stu's Song

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Dodge City

I've covered this before, but when I watch enough older movies (pre-1950s or so) it keeps coming up.  If possible, watch these movies with the mindset you're watching them in the year they were released.  New innovations come along every few years with movies starting with the jump from silent to sound and building onward with color, widescreen, 3-D, CGI, and more recently with Avatar, whole new ways of filming human acting.  It's hard sometimes though because well, it isn't 1939.  What was appealing in 1939 doesn't necessarily translate well to 2010.  That was my feeling with 1939's Dodge City.

Look at the all years in Hollywood history and 1939 is often labeled the greatest year in movie history, and for good reason.  Here's a list of the more impressive flicks.  And even though Dodge City is on that list, I'm not judging or comparing it to Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz.  But like both those movies, it is about the spectacle of what's happening on-screen.  It's filmed in Technicolor with lots of bright, vivid colors that look almost fake, huge sets filled with seemingly hundreds of extras, and a story as big as the taming of the west.

After helping the railroad reach Dodge City, Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn) returns after years away from the wild, rumbling boom town with friends Rusty (Alan Hale) and Tex (Guinn Williams).  The town they've helped build has gone to hell and any attempts at civilizing the town are stopped by a cattle man, Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot).  Townspeople he has business deals with or owes money end up shot in the back with no witnesses.  The town calls for Hatton to become sheriff and clear Surrett out, and at first he's completely unwilling.  But something changes when an action of Surrett's pushes him too far.  He takes the badge and starts to clean the town up, but Surrett is standing in his way and shows no sign of giving up.

The story is nothing new for a western, but that's not a complaint, just an observation.  The problem is that all the other little things add up to be a problem.  In the casting, Ann Sheridan gets third billing for a part that requires her to sing two or three times as a dance hall girl.  These scenes have a line of dance hall girls dancing on-stage for a saloon full of raucous cowboys and grind the already slim story to a halt.  They're cool enough to look at visually but too distracting overall.  The same goes for the exterior shots of Dodge City (with studios in California filling in for Kansas) which are content to show crowded streets with all their extras.  And even if the spectacle of the movie was more appealing, it pales in a big way compared to Gone With the Wind's spectacle.

The least of the problems is Errol Flynn as tough gunfighter with a golden heart, Wade Hatton.  He's a good example of what western heroes were before Sergio Leone got his hands on the genre in the 1960s.  Hatton is a good man, looking out for women and children first, and when pushed too far, watch out bad guys because he's coming after you.  Frequent Flynn co-star Olivia de Haviland is the love interest who hates Flynn until it's important for her to turn a page and like him.  The duo worked many times together and for good reason.  They had some great chemistry that comes naturally and never looks like they had to force things along.

As his rival, Cabot is a solid villain.  Thanks to his pairings later in his career with John Wayne, it would be easy to think Cabot usually played a variation on the trusty sidekick.  But early in his career, he played his fair share of bad guys, especially in the 30s.  His voice sounds like a deep growl, and he was a physically intimidating actor so he is a good counter to Flynn's heroic good guy.  Victor Jory is also solid as one of Surrett's gunslingers who wouldn't bat an eye at shooting a guy in the back.  Hale and Williams are the annoying, not so funny amusing sidekicks who are there to get a laugh or two.  I like both actors but their parts just aren't funny.

The movie does pick up speed once Hatton becomes sheriff in Dodge City, and the finale starts off promising as Hatton and Co. shoot it out with Surrett on a burning train.  But the ending limps to the finish, almost like director Michael Curtiz just ran out of money.  SPOILER Surrett and his cronies escape and are making their getaway only to have Hatton and Rusty pick them off as they run.  No big showdown, no worthy end for a quality bad guy.  Just a quick shot of a dead Surrett after he's been thrown from his horse.  Surprise, surprise, but Hatton also gets the girl.  I know, it surprised me too.  END OF SPOILER

This is not a bad movie in any way, and it feels wrong giving it a negative review for a movie that's main goal is to be entertaining.  But all the spectacle moments take away from a story that could have been good, if not great.  Errol Flynn is always worth a watch, Olivia de Haviland is a great actress, and Bruce Cabot's a good villain, but that's about it.  Average western worth checking out if you're looking for a decent enough way to kill two hours.  An Errol Flynn fan has posted many of his movies at Youtube, including Dodge City, starting with Part 1 of 10.

Dodge City <----trailer (1939): **/****

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Lavender Hill Mob

In the years following the end of WWII, British film company Ealing Studios became known for one thing above all else, comedies.  These were often smaller budget, smaller scale pictures that featured a long list of actors who would go on to become some of the most well-known British actors to ever work in the movies.  At the top of that list is Alec Guinness, later more well known for serious roles like Bridge on the River Kwai, the Star War series, and his teamings with super-director David Lean.  But before he made those dramatic classics, Guinness was quite the comedic actor with great parts in The Ladykillers and 1951's The Lavender Hill Mob.

This 1951 British comedy is everything that's good in a light-hearted heist movie.  It's a story of amateur crooks who take advantage of a situation presented in front of them.  Where so many heist movies have twists and turns and betrayals left and right, 'Lavender' is content to tell a story featuring the ever-present idea of honor among thieves.  At just 81 minutes, there's no worries about any downtime or even any scenes that slow the pace down.  It's a funny story that gets funnier as these amateurs go to work on a seemingly perfectly executed plan.  But if we've learned anything from other movies, there's no such thing as a perfect plan.

After 19 years of working the same post as a bank clerk supervising gold bullion shipments, Henry Holland (Guinness) decides he's had enough.  There's no hope for promotion or advancement in his job so he decides to rob his employers of a gold shipment.  How can he do it though?  Exporting a large supply of gold bars is nearly impossible.  But one day, a new tenant moves into Holland's apartment building and gives him an idea.  Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway) is an artist who owns a foundry so after some beating around the bush Holland asks if he would be interested in joining in on the caper.  He agrees and a plan is developed where the stolen gold will be melting the gold into Eiffel Tower statues and shipped out to Paris without causing the least bit of suspicion.

With some help from two petty crooks (Sid James and Alfie Bass), they lay out a plan to take out the gold shipment without harming anyone involved.  Little do they know, the actual robbery may be the easiest part of the plan.  I'm not giving anything away when I say that most movies pre-1960s tend to believe (as studios forced them to) that crime doesn't pay.  Take that for what it's worth when considering how this story will play out.  The fun though is how the Lavender Hill mob (the gang is named after the street Holland lives on) get to that point.  Holland's plan is ingenious from the start, but it's a comedy about a heist.  It's obvious this is not going to go as smoothly as hoped.

For the most part, the humor that comes out of this situation is saved for the post-robbery half of the movie.  Up until then, the laughs were chuckles here and there that put a smile on your face.  The second half produces more of the laugh out loud variety.  SPOILERS  The plan works and the golden Eiffel Towers are sent to Paris but six of them are accidentally sold to English schoolgirls on vacation.  Holland and Pendlebury must track them down so stumped Scotland Yard can't connect them in any way.  Of course, even convincing six young girls to trade their souvenirs is easier said than done.  This little twist is a great extended sequence that turns into a chaotic car chase leading up to the ending.  Some physical humor blends well with some of the more subtle laughs to cap off a great story.

As a dramatic actor, I love Guinness, but seeing him in roles like this and The Ladykillers makes me wish he had done more comedy.  It's hard to explain, but he does things with his face -- little mannerisms and quirks -- that are hilarious on their own.  His Holland is a quiet, mild-mannered middle aged man who does his job and does it well, then comes home and reads mystery novels to an old woman living in the building.  He's the butt of jokes where he works because of his cautiousness, but nothing really gets to him.  He's a lovable crook because it's easy to root for him.  I wanted him to get away with his plan.  The same for Holloway's Pendlebury, an older man cut from the same cloth as Holland.

These amateur, bumbling crooks are exceptionally intelligent in every day life, but when problems arise in their plan, they just aren't as smooth.  One great scene has them trying to get on-board a ship about to leave with detours continually slowing them down.  It's a scene that is funny because of its awkwardness and tension working together, not to mention the looks on Guinness and Holloway's faces.  The script won the Oscar that year, and Guinness was nominated for best actor (which he unfortunately did not win, losing to Gary Cooper and High Noon).  This is a comedy that isn't trying to be anything else, just a very funny, entertaining story with two great characters.  Also look for a quick appearance by Audrey Hepburn, making just her fourth movie appearance.

The Lavender Hill Mob <----trailer (1951): *** 1/2 /****

Monday, March 22, 2010


When American forces dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was the beginning of a whole new era in terms of world history.  For the next 50 years, the Cold War had the world in a chokehold thanks to the power that atomic and later nuclear weapons possessed.  So who took advantage of this situation?  Why the movie business of course.  What did people really know about these new weapons and the effects they had?  There's still a conspiracy theory that John Wayne died of cancer because he filmed several movies where atomic bombs were tested.

It's just that type of conspiracy that opens the door on 1954's Them!, a movie out of the big bug/animal subgenre that had its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s.  Out in the deserts where these bombs were tested, what really happened?  Directed by Gordon Douglas, this sci-fi classic plays on the emotions and worries of the time because right up there with the 3 C's (Chinese, Cubans, Commies), what was the biggest threat facing the United States?  Big honking bugs and animals bent on destroying civilization as we know it.

Investigating some strange calls, police Sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) drives out into the New Mexico to find out exactly what's going on.  Along with his partner, Peterson finds crime scenes with no rational explanations, and the only evidence points to an unidentifiable print in the sand.  Zoology experts (Edmund Gwenn and Joan Weldon), along with some help from FBI agent Robert Graham (James Arness), pick up where Peterson left up.  The motley quartet find that the damage is being done by gigantic ants as big as 15 feet long.  Keeping the news under wraps, they manage to destroy one nest of ants only to find out that two queen ants escaped and have headed west.  Can our motley group of heroes save the day before mankind is destroyed?

In a word...yes.  Did you really think the gigantic bugs were going to beat America?  Come on now.  This is a movie that definitely needs to be viewed with an awareness of when it was made.  The perception that Russia or Cuba could attack at any minute was all around in the 1950s, and more than that, no one was quite sure the effects of the a-bombs or how much damage they really did.  So here with the story, the a-bomb testing had a profound impact on nature, making normal desert ants into enormous killing machines.  It sounds ridiculous -- especially writing the plot synopsis -- but because it is handled seriously without even a tiny bit of a sense of humor, the movie works.

This has all the necessary makings of an enjoyable B-movie, starting with the giant ants.  Without the benefit of computerized special effects, the filmmakers had to create these giant killer ants so they'd appear frightening on-screen.  Credit for originality if not a whole lot of scares just by appearance.  Instead, they decided to have these ants make a shrill, high-pitched noise that surprisingly works a lot better than actually seeing them.  The noises provide a strong sense of foreboding, and that something mysterious and unknown is lurking out of sight (like Cubans or Russians) waiting to attack when the opportunity arises.

Because the story is handled so seriously, 'Them!' is more of a genuine enjoyment movie opposed to a campy, so bad it's good movie.  Always reliable character actors Whitmore and Arness (pre-Gunsmoke) lead the cast and make the most of an average script.  Full-fledged, 3-D characters these are not, but with pros like Whitmore and Arness you don't even notice.  They commit to their parts, and in doing so, help us commit to what could have been a ludicrous movie.  Gwenn (Santa in Miracle on 34th Street) doesn't look well but is only expected to spout off lines about the dangerous ants with his daughter Weldon not making much of an impression.  Also starring are Sean McClory as Major Kibbee, a pilot working on the project, Onslow Stevens as General O'Brien, the Army representative, and Fess Parker as Alan Crotty, a farmer who stumbles across these eastbound traveling giant ants.

If this makes any sense, the last 40 minutes plays like a chase scene you will have seen in any number of movies; cop, western, adventure.  Except instead of chasing a crook, we're chasing two queen ants capable of producing thousands of eggs.  The chase leads to the storm drains off the Los Angeles River with Douglas filming on locations used years later by Grease -- among many other movies.  It's a solid finale as Widmore, Arness, and a lot of soldiers search the storm drains for signs of two children trapped somewhere in the ants nest.  Don't expect greatness out of this one, and you'll almost certainly enjoy it.  You can watch it starting here with Part 1 of 10 at Youtube.

Them!...<-----trailer (1954): ***/****

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Hidden Fortress

It would be hard not to be influenced by other movies if you work in the business in some capacity; actor, director, writer, whatever.  In 1977, George Lucas had a huge mega-hit on his hands with Star Wars and the subsequent Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, not to mention the three more recent prequels.  I'd read enough times that with the storyline of Star Wars Lucas was influenced by a Japanese film, 1958's The Hidden Fortress, and couldn't help but think that it was an odd choice for a science fiction movie.

The Japanese film is from director Akira Kurosawa and does have a storyline similar to Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Co. trying to save Princess Leia from Darth Vader and the evil Empire...albeit in Japan of course without Jedis or Wookies (unfortunately).  It is an exciting movie that has a handful of main characters -- some more likable than others -- working together to save the life of one of their own.  There is also betrayal, a huge treasure of gold, and the ever present battle for honor and loyalty.

Returning home from a failed venture to make money in a war, two gravediggers, Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matakishi (Kamatari Fujiwara), stumble upon two pieces of gold hidden in two pieces of wood.  They begin to look around for more of what they believe to be the Akizuki clan treasure.  But as they search, a man (Toshiro Mifune) appears, telling them he knows where the gold is and he'll split it with them.  It's all a test for the two gravediggers because the man is actually General Rokurota Makabe, and he's already mined all the gold, some 200 pieces.  Makabe needs help as he's been given the task of bringing Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), the last surviving member of the Akizuki clan to safety.  The rival clans that wiped out her family want her dead too, offering a large reward of gold, making Makabe's already difficult mission even harder.

With a running time of 139 minutes, 'Fortress' covers a lot of ground.  It is almost 30 minutes before Mifune's Makabe is introduced and another 15-20 minutes before the real storyline of rescuing the Princess is laid out.  In that way, the movie is a road movie with the unique twist that it is in feudal Japan in the 1500s or so (the time period is never established for sure).  Besides the basic premise, there are scenes that clearly influenced Lucas in creating Star Wars although he clearly mainlined some of the plot and characters.  Yuki is obviously Leia, Makabe a mix between Luke and Han, and Tahei and Matakishi as R2-D2 and C-3PO with a devious streak right down their back.

Chiaki and Fujiwara are at the heart of the story as the characters first introduced.  They bicker like an old married couple, and if they didn't constantly talk about all the women they want, I would have been convinced they were gay.  At one point, they even pull straws to see who gets to "spend some alone time" with a sleeping Princess Yuki.  Clearly, they're not the most lovable characters, and they are pretty dimwitted to boot.  Not the most likable of characters -- and it seems odd that these would-be rapists are used as comic relief -- but they are interesting characters if nothing else.  The same goes for Uehara as Yuki, who comes across as high and mighty, condescending and basically a bitch on wheels.  Once again, interesting character but not easy to root for.

As when I reviewed Throne of Blood, the star of course is Mifune as the heroic General Makabe.  It is his duty to save the Princess, and he's going to get the job done no matter who he has to work with or what he has to do.  This is a more subdued part for the most famous of Japanese actors, and as much as I like verbose, theatrical Mifune, it's great to see him do a part like this.  He has to put up with the two idiotic gravediggers and a young woman who doesn't want to be saved even with her life at risk, but somehow Makabe keeps it all together.  Also, Mifune handles all his own stunts -- again -- including one amazing stunt where he's on horseback charging at full speed, sitting straight up in the saddle, holding a samurai sword above his head.  In other words, as badass as it gets.  This guy is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors.

This was Kurosawa's first venture into widescreen filming, and the movie looks great because of it.  The director fills the screen in every shot whether it be a crowded city or a lonely hillside.  Kurosawa filmed at Mt. Fuji again and with all the different locations there is a real sense that over the course of the movie these characters are in fact moving long distances.  The finale too is pretty good as Makabe's ever-growing motley group tries a dangerous border crossing with a friend/rival (Susumu Fujita) deciding to join the effort.  Also look for Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura in a great two-scene part, and Toshiko Higuchi as a slave girl Makabe rescues.

I've seen a handful of Kurosawa's movies now, and I'm definitely going to continue to look out for his films.  The director has a great eye for the visual -- typically filming in black and white -- while also being able to craft stories with 3-D characters and action that few other directors would be able to do.  Star Wars fans or just a movie fan, The Hidden Fortress is one not to pass up.  No subtitles in the trailer, my bad.

The Hidden Fortress <----trailer (1958): ***/****

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Omega Man

I've written before how Charlton Heston was made to be in historical epics, you pick the era.  I'm going to amend that very broad statement to say that Heston was made to be in BIG movies, regardless the genre.  Along with historical epics, he starred in westerns, disaster movies, and also science fiction like Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, and 1971's The Omega Man.

This 1971 sci-fi movie is the second of three incarnations of Richard Matheson's classic novel I Am Legend, coming after The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price and followed almost 40 years later by Will Smith in I Am Legend.  The novel is a classic and one of my all-time favorite books, and in one way or another the movies have put their own spin on the story.  Why they decided they needed to do that I'll never know.  The premise of being the last surviving human on Earth is a great jumping off point with all sorts of possibilities.

Germ warfare has wiped out mankind, killing millions and turning any of the few survivors into mutants who are blinded by light and only come out during the night hours.  For the two years since the plague hit, Robert Neville (Heston) has survived on his own in a fortified house in Los Angeles believing he is the last man on Earth.  He spends days looking for supplies in the abandoned city, anything that will help him survive.  Neville's searches are limited to the daytime though because a group of mutants called the Family, led by a man named Matthias (Anthony Zerbe), comes out at night with the intent to capture and kill Neville.  The doctor soon finds out he's not alone when he meets Lisa (Rosalind Cash) and Dutch (Paul Koslo) leading a small group of children. Neville discovers the cure to bringing humans back may be in his own blood, but can he figure it out before Matthias finally captures him?

Seeing a role like this must make actors happy; no rivals for screentime, long stretches of monologues, and basically a movie all to themselves.  For the first 50 minutes -- when The Omega Man is at its best -- that's what Heston gets to do.  This may be his best acting role in a career of great parts.  He brings Neville to life, showing what two years living by yourself in an empty world would do to someone's psyche.  He goes to the movies and recites them line for line, he plays chess with a Julius Caesar headpiece, and spends much of the days talking to himself.  At other times, Neville is sane, trying to figure out how to develop a serum to reverse the affects of the plague and germ warfare -- which he is already immune to.

Like 2008's I Am Legend though, The Omega Man isn't content to let the story be about the last man on Earth.  The best parts are Neville exploring the city (in some great shots of a vacant L.A.) looking for anything of value while trying to keep his sanity during the day and fighting for his life at night.  Then unfortunately, new characters are introduced.  Cash is doing her best Black Power Foxy Brown impression -- and not a good one at that.  Is a romantic subplot really needed in a story like this?  There is this great storyline with all these possibilities to deal with, but instead we get Neville schmoozing with Cash's Lisa all so we get some gratuitous 70s nudity (Cash thankfully, not Heston).

Because of the detour in the story, the last 40 minutes can't live up to the strengths of the first hour.  That's not to say it's not an interesting ending, but Heston so dominates his time that when other characters are introduced, his Neville somehow gets lost in the shuffle.  The movie is at its best when it stick to Matheson's novel and slows down when it drifts away from the source.  Too bad because Zerbe (as always) is a fine villain as he leads the Family, a small army of albino mutants wearing monk-like hoodies and sunglasses.  The movie has the look of a low budget flick but in a good, campy way.  Some of the movie was shot in L.A. while other scenes are clearly on an outdoor set.

The movie does have a lot going for it though, in spite of those already mentioned flaws.  Along with Heston and Zerbe, Koslo is strong in a supporting role as Dutch, a brilliant student of medicine now left behind to help the human race survive as the leader of a group of children.  Some exciting action scenes blend well with the story, including one escape via motorcycle through Dodger Stadium with mutants all around.  The ending sticks pretty close to the novel's ending, and although the final shot is a little heavy-handed (no subtlety here) it works in its symbolism.  Composer Ron Grainer's score is solid too (sample HERE), a nice blend of a lot of different musical types ranging from jazz to classical to a few parts that sounded like they were from a spaghetti western.

A good, not great sci-fi movie, that could have been better.  Definitely check out Matheson's novel I Am Legend, it's a cant-miss book.  The Omega Man is a good companion to the book, and even with the changes that have been made, the heart of the story and the main ideas are there.

The Omega Man <----trailer (1971): ***/****

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Ghost and the Darkness

I'm pretty sure I walked by them more than a few times without giving a second glance.  Housed in the Field Museum in downtown Chicago, the Tsavo maneaters were two lions who terrorized a stretch of railroad construction in 1898 in Kenya.  The story of these two lions has translated well into the movies, including 1952's Bwana Devil and more recently 1996's The Ghost and the Darkness

Engineer Col. John Patterson (Val Kilmer) has been assigned to a build a bridge over the Tsavo River for the Kenya-Uganda Railway in Tsavo, a region of Kenya.  A man-eating lion kills several workers, but Patterson quickly dispatches it and the work continues.  Almost two months pass and the bridge is almost completed when once again a lion starts killing workers.  As he looks to kill this second animal, Patterson discovers it is not one, but two lions causing the terror.  And unlike most male lions who hunt alone, these two travel together.  With pressure from the railway company to complete the bridge on time, Patterson gets help from famous hunter Charles Remington (Michael Douglas).  But as the bodies mount, they begin to wonder; are these lions or some sort of evil spirit -- dubbed the ghost and the darkness -- sent to drive the railway away?

Based on the true story of the maneaters, this adventure only plays fast and loose with some of the facts, the big one being that a hunter like Remington -- a fictional character -- ever showed up in Tsavo to help Patterson.  In the actual story, Patterson kills both of the lions and then completes his bridge.  That's too easy though, isn't it?  Then we couldn't get the cool twist in the story of the old, grizzled veteran (Douglas) working together with the suave, sophisticated engineer (Kilmer) to take out a common goal.  Completely factual?  No way, but what movie is?  Based on the true story, but with some artistic license.

Director Stephen Hopkins faces the challenge any director filming a story like this must handle.  Steven Spielberg doesn't show Jaws until well over halfway into the movie.  Hopkins doesn't go that far, but starts off the movie just hinting at the presence of the lions as a shadow in the tall grass or a deep growl in the distance.  And even when the lions are shown in full view, they're no more terrifying than any other animal.  These aren't freakishly large specimens.  They look pretty typical although as the natives name them, there's a sense of something deeper, something darker at play.  Maybe they could be messengers of death, who knows.

Poor Val Kilmer, he's a very likable lead in this role and for most of the first hour he carries the story.  But once Michael Douglas shows up, it's over.  Douglas' Remington is a former Confederate soldier who lost everything in the war and became a world-renowned big game hunter.  He pulls off a slight accent well and maybe more importantly looks the part of a globe-trotting, experienced hunter.  This is Douglas at his best.  Just like Gordon Gecko, he's a little crazy and over the top, but it works.  He steals the movie even with Kilmer doing fine work alongside him.  The two definitely have a good chemistry going, including one campfire scene late in the movie after a successful hunt.

Deciding on where to make the story, Hopkins or the studio, whoever really, made a wise choice in settling on Kenya and Tsavo National Park where the story actually took place.  The locations are beyond breath-taking whether it be the rail camp and the mountains as the background or the two hunting trips that take the story away the camp.  Hopkins and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond film Africa as big as it really is with huge stretches of expansive land broken up by rolling hills, rocky buttes, and grassy savannas.  Certain scenes look like paintings that you could freeze frame and use as travel posters for African vacations.  Add a phenomenal score from composer Jerry Goldsmith (sample HERE) that has a beautiful African theme to it sung by a group called The Worldbeaters, and you get a sense of the culture and place the story is set in.

The back and forth attempts to catch and kill the lions provide the movie's more nerve-wracking scenes.  Patterson comes up with an ingenious plan (watch it HERE) to trap them only to see it epically fail.  Remington is able to trap them, but a jammed rifle fouls up the plan.  Even working together, a foolproof plan is developed (HERE) only to fail, all adding to the idea that these aren't any ordinary animals.  A really exciting, enjoyable movie that also features some good performances from Tom Wilkinson as the a-hole railway owner and John Kani as Samuel, a native supervisor on the railway. Definitely worth a watch.  The trailer below is a fan-made trailer because the actual one is awful with some funny sound effects.

The Ghost and the Darkness <----trailer (1996): *** 1/2 /****

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Throne of Blood

Some things just go together naturally, like peanut butter and jelly, macaroni and cheese, and of course the most obvious one, William Shakespeare and Akira Kurosawa.  The English playwright and poet's works have inspired countless stage, film, and TV adaptations while many of the Japanese director's films are held in the highest regard, as well as being one of the most talented directors ever.  So a Kurosawa interpretation of a Shakespeare source seems like a no-brainer, right?  Pretty much, as was the case with 1957's Throne of Blood

The source material is maybe Shakespeare's most well-respected work, Macbeth, which has been a breeding ground for great stage and film actors for hundreds of years because there's two roles ideal for some showing off, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.  A story set in the English countryside in the 1500s doesn't seem like a natural setting for a Japanese movie though, does it?  Kurosawa moves the well-known story to feudal Japan without missing a beat.  Like so many of the director's movies, 'Throne' has a style all to itself, and even in the slower moments is a beautiful movie to watch.

Going to visit Lord Tsuziki, the commander of the armies, after a great victory, generals Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) and Miki (Minoru Chiaki) are visited by a spirit in the woods surrounding the lord's castle.  The spirit makes odd foretellings of what is to come in both men's lives, including predictions of great power and command.  The two old friends laugh it off and continue on, only to have the lord give them the exact promotion the spirit told them they would get.  Shaken by the news, Washizu tells his wife, Lady Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), only to have her convince him they should kill the lord and live up to the foreboding prediction.

It takes some convincing and some prime manipulation on Asaji's part, but a nervous Washizu goes along with the plan.  The murder is blamed on the lord's drunken bodyguards, and Washizu ascends to the most powerful position in the land.  Two men have escaped though with the knowledge of what actually happened, the prince and a strong general (Takashi Shimura, a Kurosawa regular).  Now the only thing standing in the way of complete power is his friend, Miki.  Asaji tries to convince Washizu that he too must die, but a rattled Washizu is not so convinced and begins to unravel mentally and emotionally.  All the while, powers are working against him to overthrow him.

Where Scorsese has De Niro and Pacino and Ford had Wayne, Kurosawa had Toshiro Mifune.  The director-star combo combined to make 16 movies together, many of them considered classics.  Mifune needed a stage as big as the screen for his ability as an actor.  A very physical actor, it's a pleasure just watching him move around, whether it be within a scene of dialogue or in a fight sequence.  He's perfectly suited for the Washizu/Macbeth role because he always seems to be one good push away from completely losing his mind.  His role in The Seven Samurai remains my favorite of his parts, but this is a worthy competitor in Mifune's filmography.

As for the directing, Kurosawa -- as were many non-U.S. directors -- was ahead of the curve.  Hollywood movies were still rather theatrical in the 1950s, but Kurosawa had a filming and storytelling style that was based in reality.  More often than not, his shots were stationary in dialogue scenes, and even scenes with movement the camera was very subtle in its depictions.  Some shots do drag on in those instances, but the style -- right there on the ground with the characters -- works wonders.  A funeral procession goes on and on entering a castle from a burned out plain.  No fancy camerawork here showing crying faces, just a medium long shot of many downtrodden soldiers following their lord.

The sets are really something else here, including the main one for the first fortress where Washizu takes command eventually.  The outdoor sets were filmed on Mt. Fuji with the volcanic setting providing an almost-apocalyptic feel to the story.  The ending especially creates a sense of the end of the world as if this castle was its own world and it is being torn apart.  Filming at a studio for the interior scenes, there's a sparseness to the sets which calls attention to the actors and their lines.  There is nothing to distract the viewer, just bare rooms with little in the way of furniture or design.  It seems a simple concept, but it works perfectly.

Good directors always have to have  a bit of crazy in them, and Kurosawa is no exception, saving his craziness for the end.  SPOILERS STOP READING SPOILERS  Washizu eventually has his army turn on him in a final twist of the spirit's prediction with his archers trying to pick him off and eventually succeeding.  Instead of using stunt doubles or stunt arrows, Kurosawa actually has choreographed archers shooting at/near Mifune.  It is a remarkable sequence (check it out HERE, just watch it on mute) because a couple inches here and there, Mifune would have been a real pincushion.  It is a great ending to a great movie with Mifune showing again why he was Kurosawa's favorite actor.  Definitely look for this Japanese version of Macbeth.

Throne of Blood <----trailer (1957): ***/****

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

X-Men Origins Wolverine

Superheroes have always been around whether it be in comic books or on TV shows.  It was only in the 1970s that superhero movies became extremely popular with the success of the Superman series.  Other series followed, especially Batman starring Michael Keaton.  But the trend of the last 10 years or so is the franchise reboot that extends beyond superheroes into franchises like James Bond.  How did these characters become the famous superheroes audiences came to love?  Series like Superman, Batman, and Spiderman (with several more coming down the road) have all gone down that route.  Joining them now is the X-Men series with 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

Growing up I was always aware of the X-Men cartoon and the action figures, but I never really got it into (I was more a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles man).  The same goes for the movies that came out in the last 15 years, aware of them but not really interested.  So heading into 'Wolverine,' I had nothing more than a very basic knowledge of the series and its characters with no notions of what the story should be like some diehard fans might have.  So take my review with a grain of salt because of that, but I loved it.  I wasn't sure what to expect, but it's the type of action movie that handles everything extremely competently, blending action and character into a highly enjoyable mix.

In 1845, young Jim Logan kills his father in a fit of rage and is forced to run away with his half-brother Viktor.  They are not normal like other kids and seem to be some sort of mutants.  They don't age and together fight in the Civil War, both world wars and Vietnam.  It's during the Vietnam War that Viktor (Liev Schreiber) kills their commanding officer so along with Logan (Hugh Jackman) they're sentenced to death.  A normal man can't kill them though and put back in their cell, they are rescued by an Army colonel, William Stryker (Danny Huston), who offers them a way out and a chance to use their freakish abilities.  Both Logan and Viktor quickly sign up.

Working for Stryker with a team of fellow mutants with superhuman abilities, they do all sorts of extremely difficult jobs that no human would be able to do.  But after years of doing someone else's dirty work, Logan walks away from the team and moves to a lonely mountaintop in the Canadian Rockies with his girlfriend, Kayla (Lynn Collins).  Six years pass before a pissed off Viktor shows up and kills Kayla, driving Logan back to Stryker for help in defeating his half-brother and enemy.  Stryker offers a dangerous procedure for him where a substance called avantium will be injected into his body, making him nearly invincible.  Logan agrees and though he barely survives the procedure, comes out on the other side as super-warrior Wolverine.  Watch out, Viktor, here he comes.

What little I knew of the X-Men, I knew Wolverine was a bad-ass with his razor sharp claws and gnarly looking mutton chops (yes, those qualify as bad-ass).  Jackman gives the character a dark edge that is needed for a story like this, and it never hurts when an actor does most of his own stunts.  The stunt coordinator on the DVD special features says that the star did 90% of his own stunts, and it looks like it.  Not having seen the first three X-Men movies, I'm only going off clips I've seen, but Jackman looks like a new person here.  This dude is ripped and looks like he would rip your head off if you messed with him.  It's still a little weird seeing such a tough guy though sing and dance on Broadway though.  Something just doesn't add up there, but as long as he makes movies like this one, I'm not one to complain.

Now every superhero needs an arch nemesis and Wolverine is no different, getting two opponents, Schreiber's Sabretooth, and Huston's Stryker.  Schreiber is another great actor in a long line that's venture into the action genre, and he doesn't disappoint, producing one of the coolest villains I've seen in awhile.  Sure, he's the bad guy, but he's not that bad really, and I found myself rooting for him to team back up with Wolverine.  Huston plays Huston, a slimy bad guy you know is a bad guy from the moment he's introduced.  It's just a matter of time before his real motivations are revealed.

If anything, this movie has too many cool characters.  Jackman, Schreiber, and Huston are very strong leads and carry the movie, but that's just the start.  Only in the movie for about 30 minutes is Stryker's team of mutant assassins, all who make a lasting impression in a very short time.  There's Wade (Ryan Reynolds), the smartass swordsman, Agent Zero (Daniel Henney), expert with any gun, Dukes (Kevin Durand), the strongman, Wraith (Will.I.Am of the Black Eyed Peas), a man able to appear and disappear at will, and Bolt (Dominic Monaghan), a powerful mind able to manipulate electricity.  There's also Gambit (Taylor Kitsch), a younger mutant able to use kinetic energy to explode objects.  All I'm saying, it's a good thing the rest of the story is good because all these characters are more or less left behind after the first 30 minutes.

But what I liked most was that with the development of all these great characters, they then dropped them into some expertly-handled action scenes that use a fair share of CGI without overdoing it.  After being betrayed by Stryker, Wolverine goes on the hunt and the movie never really slows down after that.  It's never long between fights among Wolverine and Stryker's henchmen, including Agent Zero, as well as Viktor who always seems to pop up at the worst possible time.  The movie gets started on the right note too with one of the best opening credits sequences ever, showing Logan and Viktor's fighting in a long list of wars.  These indestructible warriors make quite the team as they dispatch Confederates, Germans, more Germans, and North Vietnamese soldiers.

A perfect example of what a superhero movie can be when handled the right way.  Characters are fully developed without sacrificing anything in terms of story, style or action -- of which there is a lot.  Jackman and Schreiber are the high points in this flick, but the cast as a whole is very impressive.  At least one spin-off has been confirmed with one of the supporting characters, and as Jackman points out in the special features, "I love playing the character, and as long as there's a demand for more, I'll keep playing him."  Good news for superhero movie fans everywhere.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009): ***/****