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, November 26, 2010

They Came From Beyond Space

A movie title can say it all sometimes.  When that's a positive thing, it draws you into the movie.  When it is a negative, you don't have to even watch the movie because you know everything.  Sure, the details are sketchy, but in a movie that bad, does it matter? That's 1967's They Came From Beyond Space, a low-budget British horror/science fiction flick that at least sounded interesting, but ends up being all-around awful.

When a strange meteorite hits a farm in England, a team of scientists is called is in to examine the scene, quickly finding out that the meteorites landed in a 'V' formation.  That's only the beginning.  The meteorites have the ability to take over a person's mind, but for some reason Dr. Curtis Temple (Robert Hutton) is immune. Temple tries to figure out what's going on, especially when fellow scientist and hopeful love interest Dr. Lee Mason (Jennifer Jayne) is taken under control.  Something isn't adding up though as the crash site is suddenly closed and all visitors turned away by guards with machine guns.  And for the cherry on top, a plague pops up out of nowhere so can Temple figure out what's going on before it is too late?

I'm going to get this out of the way and be done with it so look away if you don't want the classic twist revealed.  What's causing all this "chaos"?  A species of being from a distant galaxy so intelligent they basically wiped their whole race out by becoming too smart.  They left their physical bodies behind and only their minds existed.  Long story short, they ended up on our Moon, caught a ride on some low-flying meteorites, and whoosh...they're on Earth.  When we "see" these creatures, they're dressed up in long, flowing robes (a la Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Coat) and for some reason they're all old men made up with heavy face makeup that gives the appearance they're all albino.  It's a bizarre ending, no doubt about it.

With a low-budget movie and a lack of any future CGI at their disposal, a certain amount of cheesiness is to be expected, especially from the 1960s.  This one takes it a little too far.  There is some atrociously bad uses of miniatures standing in for sets that would have been far too pricey to make, and then one of the worst and most inappropriate musical scores I've ever heard for a movie.  Sorry, composer James Stevens, I try not to single people out, but this was bad news.  Instead of an eerie, mood-setting score, we get a cool, smooth jazz soundtrack that plays over any encounter with the aliens.  It's so bad I started to question if the score -- and the whole movie for that matter -- were done tongue in cheek.  Was director Freddie Francis up to something?  I decided it was all just too bad overall to be a spoof.  It's just that bad.

So if you've discovered a possible alien invasion where your closest friends and co-workers are at danger, what would you do?  Hutton's Temple basically goes MacGuyver on those aliens' asses, sneaking onto their secret base.  He even knocks out the electric fence by picking off the power transformer with a sniper rifle, no explanation offered.  It just seems to defy everything you've come to assume about this character.  Why go for help when he can become a sniper-rifle wielding ninja?  He can apparently take out an entire alien race by himself, and then to top it off, negotiate a peace.  People Magazine Man of the Year or what?

I think my favorite part was toward the end though when Temple realizes he need some help, and turns to a previously un-introduced character who is apparently an expert in handling alien invasions.  I introduce to you, Farge (Zia Mohyeddin). Working with Temple, he figures a way to prevent the alien powers from taking over your mind.  You guessed it...silver helmets that look like salad bowls!  It gets better.  After boarding the alien ship on its way back to the moon, Farge leads the aliens on a wild goose chase in hopes of buying time for Temple to accomplish his mission (whatever that is). Wearing a tie and a cardigan sweater with silver salad bowl helmet to boot, Farge runs around the ship using his homemade laser all the way.  A truly inspired sequence that had me roaring with laughter.

An awful movie that should be used only for laughs.  It's not only boring, it's just plain bad all around.  Steer clear of this bomb.  However, if your curiosity gets the best of you, the whole movie is available to watch at Youtube.  You can watch it HERE, but remember, I warned you.

They Came From Beyond Space (1967): */****

Thursday, November 25, 2010


One of the more controversial movies to come out about the Vietnam War, Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket is a divisive movie among fans because of its makeup.  It is two radically different halves of a story, the first being boot camp for a company of Marines, the second following one main character as he's shipped overseas to fight in Vietnam.  I like both halves, but many fans/critics maintain that the boot camp first half is far and away the better half (I tend to agree).  So why not make a whole movie about the boot camp aspect of being a soldier preparing for Vietnam?  That's 2000's Tigerland.

Director Joel Schumacher is known more for his ability to make the big, booming, heartless blockbuster than a documentary-like portrayal of a true story (sort of).  But in a departure from his usual, Schumacher turns in a winner with a vastly different style.  Telling the story of an American platoon of soldiers training at Fort Polk in Louisiana, Tigerland feels like a documentary made in the 1970s.  He films with handi-cams that does produce some stomach-turning editing -- hold the camera steady for God's sake! -- but also uses a filter that gives the movie a retro, even fuzzy look at times.  The end result though is that you feel like you're there with the soldiers as they struggle with the reality that in a few short weeks they'll be fighting in Vietnam.

It's 1971 at Fort Polk in Louisiana, and a platoon of American soldiers is just eight quick weeks away from being shipped to Vietnam.  The officers and NCOs push them to their limits to prepare them for the hell they will fight with in Vietnam, but nothing can really prepare them for what awaits.  Among this platoon is Jim Paxton (Matthew Davis), a Northern college student who volunteered in the army where most were drafted, and Roland Bozz (Colin Farrell), a rebellious Texan doing everything he can to get kicked out of the army. The two very different soldiers have a completely opposite viewpoint on the war, but they share a common goal in just wanting to survive.  But as big a troublemaker as he is, Bozz is seen by his superiors as an ideal leader.  Looming ahead though is a week-long trek to Tigerland, a camp meant to simulate Vietnam and all its horrors.

First off, this is not a Vietnam movie like Platoon or Apocalypse Movie where combat and jungle fighting dominate the story.  Tigerland is about the training plain and simple.  Vietnam is only an idea, a place none of these young men have ever been yet.  It's a refreshing change of pace though because the Viet Cong and NVA aren't the enemies here.  It is the infighting that takes place among a melting pot of American soldiers from a laundry list of backgrounds and experiences.  These are 18 and 19 year old kids getting ready to fight in a very unpopular war and are very much aware of that.  By 1971, the backing of the war had taken a huge turn to the negative in public sentiment. Going to fight a lost war where chances of survival are slim? I'd be pissed too.

I was worried early on that the pretentious, cliche-filled story was going to be more than a little boring to watch...again.  I'd seen this movie before.  Thankfully, Schumacher establishes all these well-worn, known cliches and builds on them.  We see characters that we know from other movies, but he doesn't stop there, allowing us to get to know these individuals rather than resting on the audience being comfortable with what they've seen before.  Some of the supporting characters include Thomas Guiry as Pvt. Cantwell, a father of four with a schizophrenic wife, Clifton Collins Jr. as Miter, the appointed platoon guide who begins to crumble under the pressure, Shea Whigham as Pvt. Wilson, a soldier dripping with hate, and Russell Richardson as Pvt. Johnson.  The training officer and commanders include Nick Searcy, Afemo Omilami, and James MacDonald.  

Still a relative unknown in the United States when he made this movie, Colin Farrell is the hands down breakout star.  I've long been a fan of Farrell as an actor, but this might be his part overall role.  He creates a mess of a character in Roland Bozz, a soldier who you find yourself rooting for almost in spite of him at times.  A loner, a rebel, Bozz does anything he can to fight the system and push the limits.  He is an idealist who opposes the war but not for anything far-flung ideas or principles.  He just thinks it's wrong what one human being can do to another.  Doing his best to get kicked out of the army, Bozz ends up getting a leadership role.  All his objections aside, Bozz is a natural leader who gains the respect of his fellow trainees, but that doesn't mean he's still not looking for an out.  His character gets all twisted around into making decisions that obviously impact him, but all those around him.

The highlight of the movie was the last 25-30 minutes, the actual trip into Tigerland, a portion of the Louisiana swamp serving as a testing ground for what Vietnam will be like. The trainers are recent vets of Vietnam -- Cole Hauser impresses as a sergeant just days removed from a tour -- who know they're fighting a losing battle but nonetheless have a job to do in training these green soldiers. The movie's more startling moments come to the forefront here as the trainees are pushed to their limits and respond accordingly.  The ending does supply a bit of a surprise and is both appropriate and frustrating.  You'd like closure as to what happens, but it's just not in the cards.

Tigerland <---trailer (2000): *** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Die! Die! My Darling!

Horror movies are typically pretty hit or miss with me.  One thing drives me nuts more than most though, and that's the ridiculous predicaments the fodder finds themselves in.  At a summer camp where a serial killer is killing all the campers?  LEAVE.  Visiting some creepy house where demons and spirits haunt the place? Get the F out!  Yes, I realize movies would be over 15 or 20 minutes in, but it's those forced situations that drive me up the wall.  Thankfully, a fair share of horror movies force the unwilling participants to stay in some hellish situation...hurricanes, no car, a wounded friend, anything really.  Somewhere in between is 1965's Die! Die! My Darling!

A late candidate for most original title from a movie I've seen this year, 'Darling' is a Hammer films production that suffers from that problem. The premise is interesting, the execution a mixed bag, and the end result a weird movie that I'm not sure what to make of.  A big test though, none of the movie happens if star Stefanie Powers' character realizes how creepy the situation she is in really is and gets the hell out of there.  Makes for a dull movie though, don't you think?

Visiting England with her fiance, Alan (Maurice Kaufmann), Patricia Carroll (Powers) decides to take a detour by herself. Years before, a previous fiance of hers died in a car accident and Patricia wants to visit his family, having never gotten a chance to talk to them face to face.  She plans to be gone no more than a day on the visit, but finds nothing is going to go her way.  Arriving at the house, she meets her former fiance's mother, Mrs. Trefoile (Tallulah Bankhead, no first name provided) who welcomes her with open arms.  But Patricia quickly finds out what a nut Trefoile is but doesn't go along with her gut feeling.  Is she just a religious fanatic still grieving over the loss of her dead son?  Or is it something else, something darker and deeper?  Before she can figure it out and extricate herself, Patricia finds herself in too deep with nowhere to go.

Where to start her with director Silvio Narizzano's horror movie that is more Twilight Zone than a real horror movie. The setting is eerie, the mood creepy, and the sense of imminent danger floating around at all times.  Powers' Patricia should have tucked her tail away and ran like a bat out of hell right away, but a 20-minute movie probably wouldn't make too much money.  Most of the movie takes place in the Trefoile house so you get a feel of being trapped with no outlet. I guess I was just expecting more out of a screenplay from master of horror thrillers Richard Matheson

Bankhead is the runaway star of this quasi-horror flick. Her religious fanaticism is ridiculously over the top, her personal beliefs antiquated even for biblical times, and a hypocritical nature to boot.  A winning trifecta if there ever was.  The character is an epic trainwreck who is clearly loony from the word go, and things get much, much worse before they are ever going to get better.  Whatever crazy stuff's going on in her head though, Bankhead's Mrs. Trefoile clearly has some pull on those around her, including housekeeper and groundskeeper married couple Anna (Yootha Joyce) and Harry (Peter Vaughan) and a dimwitted albino orphan, Joseph (Donald Sutherland) who lives in the house. Bankhead's movie for sure.

I've always had a crush on Stefanie Powers since I saw her in the classic Herbie Rides Again.  I'll basically watch anything she's in.  An underrated actress, Powers gets to show some of her range off here, dialing it back and forth between distressed and terrified with moments of quick thinking and manipulation.  She is certainly easy on the eyes too, which doesn't hurt.

This isn't going to be a long review though simply because the movie isn't particularly bad or good.  The script is lacking something, it's never really scary, and there are just too many plotholes and unanswered questions for it to be anything better than average.  An interesting premise with a decent cast that never amounts to much.

Die! Die! My Darling! <---trailer (1965): **/****

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Ghost Writer

An incredibly gifted director, Roman Polanski is nonetheless known more for his personal life than his feature films. Convicted of the statutory rape of a 13-year old girl, Polanski fled the United States and has lived in Europe and around the world since the mid 1970s.  An obviously dividing personality, but regardless of his past actions in his personal life, Polanski is a great talent behind the camera.  I've only seen a few of his movies and know of him more through reputation than anything, but 2010's The Ghost Writer sounded like an interesting premise. 

A fair share of reviews I've read took some offense to a not so thinly veiled dig at former British prime minister Tony Blair.  I shouldn't even say 'not so thinly veiled' because besides a name change, a prominent character IS Tony Blair. It takes a lot more than political differences to chase me away from a movie, but I wanted to point it out.  Some reviewers even said Blair should sue Polanski and the moviemakers for the portrayal of a character that rings oh so familiar to the former PM.  Lost in those reviews is a solid thriller that struggles at times with its destination but is aided by several strong performances and an excellent gotcha! ending.

With several major save projects behind him, a writer known simply as the Ghost (Ewan McGregor) takes on a job that will pay him $250,000 but will also be his biggest challenge. Former British prime minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) is writing his memoirs, but the publishers are worried about how the project is going having invested $10 million in the rights to the book. The Ghost accepts the job, traveling to a small fishing island community of the east coast in the U.S. to get to work.  He meets Lang's wife (Olivia Williams) and assistant (Kim Cattrall) and quickly realizes he's stepped into quite the murky situation. That's just the start though as the Ghost finds out more about the previous ghost writer's mysterious death, all the while as Lang's name surfaces in reports of illegal actions taking during his term involving terrorism and the C.I.A.  Has he bitten off more than he can chew?

This is a cold, stark finished product.  It is always cloudy, damp and raining, the sets are minimalism at its finest, and the camera isn't invasive in the least.  Polanski puts the camera in the scene and lets his actors do the heavy lifting.  But throw all those things together, and you get a movie that will interesting is never exciting.  You're curious what McGregor's writer has stumbled into, but the reveal is such a slow burn that it loses any momentum built up getting to that spot.  There were times I was reminded of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller -- especially because of composer Alexandre Desplat's score -- but something I can't put my finger on bothered me about the movie.  I was never bored, but the 128-minute run time is a little long in the tooth.

From Sean Connery to Daniel Craig and every James Bond in between, actors who have played British superspy 007 have dealt with typecasting.  I grew up watching all of the Bond movies, especially Brosnan's ventures as he took over the reins.  Since leaving the part though, we've seen less of Brosnan unfortunately.  The man can act plain and simple if he would just be given a chance.  Acting-wise, I think he is the best thing 'Writer' has going for it.  If anything though, he is criminally underused in a part that demands you pay attention to his character.  His former Prime Minister was a celebrity more than a politician, and just watching him you can see his appeal to voters.  However, the story requires him to disappear for vast stretches of time right as things are getting interesting.  So overall, he is underused, but what's there is pitch perfect.

So while Brosnan isn't in the movie as much as I'd like and the pacing is a little off, I can recommend this movie because of the acting.  McGregor is one of my favorite current stars in Hollywood, and you can always count on him to do something interesting with his part.  Williams and Cattrall are the wild cards because you just don't know quite what they are up to or what their agenda is.  If this was a 1940s film noir, Williams would be the perfect femme fatale, and Cattrall (who I'm only aware of because of Sex and the City) gives off this sexy vibe as the assistant who clearly isn't telling us everything we need to know.  Not enough for you?  Two supporting parts in the final hour come out of nowhere but work well nonetheless.  Eli Wallach (chugging along at 95 and still cool as ever) plays a man McGregor interviews about some shady goings on, and Tom Wilkinson plays a former friend of Lang's who clearly is involved in something bigger because...well..because he's Tom Wilkinson.

So what is everyone up to? What is Brosnan's Lang really shooting for, if anything?  McGregor slowly pieces everything together as to what's really happening in a twist that I didn't see coming.  I don't know what I was expecting, but I was thinking something bigger.  We're not talking Keyser Soze or Sixth Sense level twist, but it's solid.  Better than that though is the final scene which supplies a real doozy of a shocker.  It's the one time Polanski foreshadows what is about to happen with his camerawork -- very subtle though -- in a great final uncut single shot that made me jump.  Lots of potential that doesn't live up to all of it, but still a solid thriller with a great cast.

The Ghost Writer <---trailer (2010): ** 1/2 /****

Monday, November 22, 2010

Five Guns West

I'm guessing no matter how hard I try I won't be able to see all the movies Roger Corman has made over the years.  By IMDB's count, there are 395 he produced, 56 he directed, and over 100 more that he was involved with in one way or another.  The ones I've seen I have enjoyed, mostly in a guilty pleasure sort of enjoyment. Well-made for the most part if on the cheap side, his movies would serve as a definition of what a B-movie can be.  They're not all winners, like 1955's Five Guns West which Corman directed.

I've seen horror, sci-fi, war movies, all directed/produced by Corman, but this is the first western of his I've watched.  It's pretty typical of many 1950s B-westerns that were churned out by the dozen for double features and drive-ins.  Generic story, small cast, heavy on dialogue but not enough action, and with some discrepancies that should have cost someone their jobs no matter how cheap the movie is/was.  Years ago, I saw this DVD at Amazon and almost picked it up because it looked like a mix of The Magnificent Seven, spaghetti westerns, and The Dirty Dozen.  Here's the DVD. I of course later found out that the 'Guns' DVD actually rips off the art of Guns of the Magnificent Seven.  It all comes together every once in awhile.

During the Civil War, the Confederacy is in desperate need of soldiers and recruits convicts, thieves and murderers to perform dangerous missions in exchange for pardons.  Five such recruits have been picked for a mission that is key to Confederate success going forward.  The men include Govern Sturges (John Lund), Hale Clinton (Mike Connors), J.C. Haggard (Paul Birch), and the Candy brothers, John (R. Wright Campbell) and Billy (Jonathan Haze). The group of five must ride across the frontier, tangling with Union patrols and Indian war parties, to get to a stagecoach station where a coach loaded with $30,000 in gold is due to arrive.  Waiting for them though is a woman, Shalee (Dorothy Malone), who sparks an interest in all of them, but can they stick together long enough to get the job done?

For a western released in 1955, I'll give credit when it's due.  The story is far from hard-hitting or original, but Corman presents five main characters, none of whom are particularly likable.  Even Robert Aldrich in The Dirty Dozen made a couple somewhat respectable characters.  They're at each others' throats almost from the word go, and it is only a matter of time before they do turn on each other.  Getting there is the hard part though.  The movie is only 78 minutes long, but there's about 45 minutes of story here.  For those other 33 minutes, we get lots of filler, repetitious dialogue scenes, unnecessarily long riding across the horizon shots, those sort of award winning film techniques.

Filling out the cast is a group of actors who do little to inspire confidence in what you're about to watch.  Connors was years away from playing Mannix, Malone was a B-movie star who never hit it big, Lund is as vanilla a "hero" as I've seen in awhile, and the rest are more bad than anything.  Haze as the psycho brother Billy had potential, but he's more of a child lunatic than anything.  If I counted correctly, he bitches "I'm sick of waiting/I'm sicking of sitting around!" in four straight scenes.  His brother John is supposedly more menacing, but nothing really comes of it.  Of the five, three end up getting shot, one rides away, and the, who cares.  It ends happily enough.

Now on to some discrepancies which pissed me off.  The story takes place in 1867 or if I've done my math correctly....two years AFTER the end of the Civil War.  First, how did that line placing things in 1867 even make it into the script, and two, how did any somewhat intelligent person let it through all the various stages of filming? Okay, maybe that was a dumb mistake/accident.  But then there's a stagecoach carrying $30,000 in gold with an important Confederate turncoat aboard, and it's guarded by four soldiers.  I don't care how small your budget is, put some freaking guards on that loaded stagecoach.  Then there's the western afficionado in me that is bothered by the fact all the participants are using guns that weren't designed for another 10 years, but I do my best to ignore that voice in my head whenever possible.

At 78 minutes, the story still finds a way to rush through the final twist -- not much of a surprise -- and the ending shootout.  Tension has been building the first hour as these five hold off killing each other because otherwise the movie would have been over in about 20 minutes.  Then when they finally turn on each other, all that tension and drama gets thrown out the window.  There were some great chances for some epic one-on-one showdowns that just never materialize.  Movie over, and 78 minutes I won't be getting back anytime soon.

Five Guns West <---clip (1955): */****

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger

I take it for granted sometimes when watching movies that computer generated images – yes, CGI – didn’t always exist. Before computers could crank out some ridiculously cool images, moviemakers had to improve in a lot of ways to get the necessary images to fill out their movies. Just like I pointed out in my review of 1965’s Jason and the Argonauts, one of the best ways to improvise was special effects master Ray Harryhausen who over a long career created a long line of special effects creatures. Now in 2010 they may look a little dated, but that doesn’t take away from their iconic status.

Of course, they’re not all winners that Harryhausen was a part of. But just because a movie overall is below average doesn’t mean Harryhausen’s effects aren’t worthwhile, 1975’s Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger a prime example. It was the rare movie where his effects were a part of that can’t be included somewhere in the horror/monster/sci-fi/fantasy genres.  So even with the stop motion filming technology, the effects still work and serve almost as a time capsule of a pre-CGI world. Unfortunately for this entry, Sinbad doesn’t have much else going for it. Bad acting, little to no story, and if anything, an overreliance on the effects.

Sailing into port, adventurer Sinbad (Patrick Wayne) is prepared to ask for the hand of Princess Farah (Jane Seymour) in marriage.  Instead, Sinbad and his crew find a city torn apart by an evil curse. Prince Kasim – about to be crowned prince in a week’s time – has been cursed, supposedly by his evil stepmother Zenobia (Margaret Whiting). If Kasim isn’t able to take power, her son Rafi (Kurt Christian) will step in for him. To reverse the curse, Sinbad can think of only one person to do the job, a mysterious man named Melanthius (Patrick Troughton) who may not even exist.  With time working against them, Sinbad, Farah and his crew embark on an adventure that will take them halfway around the world to a place of legend and myth, Zenobia not far behind.

Let’s get the positives out of the way first. Other Harryhausen movies I’ve seen used his effects and skills but sparingly, here and there with the tension building up to their reveals.  That’s not the case here as director Sam Wanamaker goes to town with an abundance of special effects creations.  Just some include three demon fire creatures, a primitive cave man, a giant prehistoric killer walrus, an unfrozen tiger, a Minotaur, and a couple more I might be forgetting. There is A LOT of them. If anything, there’s too many of them. It’s hard to appreciate how cool each individual creature creation is if the second they’re off the screen another is appearing.  Still, in a movie as bad as this, that is THE positive.

If the budget for this movie was $100, I feel safe saying at least $98.50 was spent on paying Harryhausen to create his effects. Everything else is lacking, starting with the script.  The premise of finding a mysterious man with special powers is nothing new and has been used in countless other mythology and fairy tale stories. That’s fine because it opens the door for all sorts of adventures, but that’s it. In between Harryhausen creations, we get long, extended scenes of Sinbad’s ship sailing across the seas or his crew walking across desert and winter landscapes. It feels like there wasn’t much of a script at all so instead of thinking something up, we see shots like that over and over again. Then there’s the whole green screen effect where the cast is shown in close-up clearly on a studio with a digitalized backdrop, then a cut to a 2nd unit crew of stuntmen walking off into the actual desert.  Cheap, cheap, cheap, this movie reeked of it.

Right up there with the lack of script is the next casualty, lack of character. I like Patrick Wayne, but he’s best suited for supporting roles where he can play off bigger stars with more acting ability. As Sinbad, he’s supposed to be courageous, honorable, and a bit of an eccentric. Playing Sinbad though, Wayne is incredibly stiff and his line deliveries always have the same inflection whether he’s in trouble or trying to woo his bride to be. As much as I like Wayne, he just wasn’t cut out for this part. Seymour hadn’t developed as an actress so early in her career, but her part is basically eye candy. She is scantily clad every time she’s on-screen and screams like a champ whenever danger arises.

None of the rest of the supporting cast registers in a positive way, ranging from neutral to bad to just awful. And that's about all I can say.  The movie on a whole is pretty awful, and even Harryhausen's special effects can't save this dreck. If you're feeling adventurous, give the movie a try via Youtube, starting here with Part 1.

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger <---trailer (1977): */****

Saturday, November 20, 2010

And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself

It is a name that is instantly recognizable when heard, even if the reason isn’t well known. He was a revolutionary and dubbed by some a murderer and a coward even in his home country where he fought for the poor and downtrodden against the powerful dictator and his government. He is even infamous for “invading” the United States however briefly before retreating across the border back into Mexico. His name was Pancho Villa, and there have been few people in the last 100 years of history to stir up as much controversy as him.

Because of the controversy that hovers over his memory and reputation, Villa has not been dealt with much through movies.  When there are movies about him, they range from comically bad like Telly Savalas playing Villa in an awful Euro-western appropriately titled “Pancho Villa” or a straight action, shoot ‘em up flick like Villa Rides!  From what I’ve read about the infamous revolutionary, there’s very little that isn’t interesting about him.  An HBO Films production, 2003’s And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (odd title, cool movie) jumps right into the historical personality, looking at both the good and the bad.

It’s 1914 and with motion pictures still in a fledgling stage, Mutual Films agrees to a contract with Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa (Antonio Banderas) who is fighting Mexican president Huerta and his army. Frank Thayer (Eion Bailey) leads the film crew that will document the revolutionary struggle, including filming real live battles.  The finished product is panned critically and is a miserable, costly failure. Frank comes up with a better idea, go back to Mexico and work with Villa on a second movie, a longer one that will explore Villa’s life that will take some liberties with the truth. But as “filming” begins, Frank begins to see that the man he’s come to respect so much isn’t everything he’s cut out to be. Amidst a bloody revolution, Thayer may pay for his errors with his life.

Just like controversial historical figures such as Che Guevarra, Adolf Hitler, and any number you care to add, you’re working on thin ice when making a feature length movie about them.  Viewers are going to have a preconceived notion about the person going into the movie.  With Villa at least, this isn’t as much of an issue. He’s been dead over a 100 years, and anyone who met him would have been a child when doing so.  For awhile in ‘Starring’ I was worried that the portrayal of Villa was too whitewashed, painting him in this adoring light that ignored all his flaws.  But as the movie moves along and we see more of Villa, we see a man who contradicts himself with his words and actions, combining the thoughtful and good with the horrific and cringe-inducing. A balanced look is always a better one, and ‘Starring’ is better for exploring the person through all the good and bad.

Besides the obvious physical resemblance, Banderas is about as perfect a choice to play Pancho Villa. No matter the role, he has an incredible physical presence on-screen. With a part like a revolutionary who leads thousands of followers with his charisma and personality, that’s a must for the actor.  Banderas sells it that he could lead a rebel army into battle, riding at the front into a wall of gunfire.  It is a role that allows him to show off his charming side while balancing it out with a side where rage and fury boils just beneath the surface waiting to explode.  You’re never sure what to expect of the man, and that makes it impossible to take your eyes off him.  The relationship that develops between Banderas’ Villa and Bailey’s Frank is our view point, our perspective as we see all of the man’s flaws and imperfections.

Title cards, prologues, and epilogues all point that the story being told is a true one.  Now as you might know, there’s no actual “The Life of General Villa” silent movie out on DVD.  Thayer’s narration states it “has been lost to posterity.” That’s the surreal part of the movie whether you believe the claim of historical accuracy or not. Thayer and his crew film during battles as bullets fly by and explosions sound in the distance. I wish this angle would have been played up more as it provides some hilariously dark humor. Citing the contract they’ve both signed, Thayer even requests Villa attack from the west in an epic charge not because of a strategic decision but because the LIGHTING from the west is better than the east. A minor complaint there because what’s there is funny without overdoing it.

The parts for Banderas and Bailey (of Band of Brothers fame) dominate the story and the screentime, but that doesn’t mean the supporting cast isn’t worth mentioning. Alan Arkin is a scene-stealer as a machine-gunning mercenary from Brooklyn fighting for Villa and $1,000 a month, Michael McKean is the director working on-location in Mexico, Kyle Chandler plays future director and then-actor Raoul Walsh (playing young Pancho in the movie), James Broadbent as the studio head pulling the strings, and Alexa Davalos in a wasted role as Thayer’s love interest.

Just like its flawed title character, the movie has its flaws sprinkled here and there.  But overall, the positives more than outweigh the negatives.  Banderas carries the movie in one of his best performances in a movie with a large scale that never overshadows the personal side in this possibly – just maybe –accurate historical epic.

And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself <--- trailer (2003): ***/****

Friday, November 19, 2010

White Heat

Certain movie one-liners just resonate with fans more than others.  The best are those that everyone knows.  Knowing the context or even seeing the movie are not requisites for knowing the line.  I'd never seen 1949's White Heat, but having seen enough movie montages and read enough about the most famous lines in movie history, I'd stumbled across this movie's most classic line. In terms of describing a character in as few words as possible, James Cagney's 'Made it, Ma! Top of the world!' is hard to beat.

I've written before that Cagney as a movie star was never one of my favorites, his acting style very theatrical and over the top.  I've come around some as I've seen in him a few of his more subdued parts.  The one movie I was told I had to give a chance was this one, White Heat.  If I didn't like it, I was in the free and clear and should probably steer clear of his lesser efforts.  Well, no problem there.  Cagney's performance is theatrical and over the top but it is a part that demands he be both of those things.  Considered his best acting job for a reason, this is a perfect introduction for anyone looking to get to know one of Hollywood's biggest stars of the 1930s and 1940s.

Running his brutal gang, Cody Jarrett (Cagney) faces a difficult decision.  After a highly successful train robbery that netted over $300,000 but also produced four dead bodies, Jarrett is feeling the heat as FBI agent Philip Evans (John Archer) leads the manhunt to bring him to justice. Cody takes a lesser rap for a heist he didn't actually take part in, but it gives him an alibi for the job that would have sent him to the electric chair.  Evans knows he's been duped with Jarrett taking a short sentence that will have him out on the streets in 2 years.  He brings in one of his best undercover agents, Vic Pardo (Edmond O'Brien), and plants him in Jarrett's cell as a convict.  Notoriously hot-tempered, Jarrett still takes to Vic and takes him under his wing almost like a little brother.  Evans' plan works as Jarrett organizes a daring escape with Vic as the newest member of his dangerous gang.

Director Raoul Walsh wastes about four minutes post-credits before showing that his main character Cody Jarrett is one of the nastiest gangsters you're ever going to come across in a movie.  In the opening heist of a train carrying a Wells Fargo shipment of cash, Jarrett callously guns down the engineer and his assistant at the very mention of his name (Henry Fonda had a similar reaction some 19 years later in Once Upon a Time in the West).  That was part of the appeal of this movie, it's not a conventional 1940s flick where you can predict everything coming 15 or 20 minutes before it happens.  The characters aren't particularly likable -- no redeeming qualities in sight for the most part -- and the attitudes toward sex and violence are far more lenient than most movies that came out of this stage in Hollywood's history.  Of course, there is that Cagney guy leading the way.

In my messed up head watching movies about the bad guys (simplistic description, but it gets the idea across), I typically find myself rooting for said bad guys.  Cagney pushes my tolerance for rooting for the bad guy because Cody Jarrett is one nasty dude.  However, the fact that I was even contemplating being in this guy's corner is a testament to not only Cagney's acting ability but the strength of the screenplay.  It digs into this character and really fleshes him out.  He's the definition of a mama's boy with Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly) doting on her son as she helps him run his gang. It is 1949 though so while certain things are hinted at (cough Oedipus complex cough) the hint is as far as things go.  Then there's Cody's slutty wife Verna (Virginia Mayo) who latches on to whoever can get her the farthest in life with as much money and worldly possessions as possible.

So throw all this together along with a gang of murderers and cutthroats, and you kinda see where Cody's coming from.  Not rationalizing here, just explaining.  He has to be the nastiest S.O.B around or else he would get taken down in minutes by the wolves nipping at his heels.  It's always refreshing to see a character fleshed out as much as this.  There are moments where you are disgusted by his actions, but then you see him looking out for O'Brien's Vic like a little brother, and you feel for him.  Of course, from the moment this character is introduced, you know what fate he's going to meet.  It's never in doubt.  Cody Jarrett is going out in a blaze of glory like no other.  The ending -- as Jarrett, Pardo and the gang knock off a payroll at a chemical plant -- is a whopper of a finish, leading to the oft-repeated line 'Top of the world.' A finale that's about as good as they get.

I'm not sure how Cagney wasn't nominated in some way for his part as homicidal Cody Jarrett, but the lead performance is just one of many rock-solid acting jobs pulled here.  Wycherly as Ma Jarrett is the picture of a devoted mother who knows her son is doomed but can't stop him, Mayo the femme fatale, Steve Cochrane as treacherous Big Ed Somers, and O'Brien especially as Pardo.  In a similar way to the viewer, Pardo has this unexplainable connection to Jarrett.  That's the movie in a nutshell.  You're drawn in by this character you should despise but just can't come around.  A must-see.

White Heat <---trailer (1949): *** 1/2 /**** 

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Dark Passage

When I think of current movie stars, I'm not typically thinking of really tough guys who are willing to shake things up a bit when they take a role.  I'm typically thinking soft, pampered, egotistical maniacs who are catered to night and day, and then if they don't get what they want, bitch and moan about it until they do.  Now to be fair, saying all this I never have met any of these movie stars and for all I know they're wonderful people. But then I think about stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood, guys like Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and one of my favorites, Humphrey Bogart.

The ultimate tough guy who shouldn't have been.  Whatever he may have lacked in stature or just pure physical intimidation, Bogie made up for it with a presence that very few actors can even come close to duplicating.  So what about a movie with Bogart starring where for 45 minutes we don't actually see his face but know it is him nonetheless?  Then for another 15 minutes, we see and hear his familiar voice but his face is covered in bandages. That's 1947's Dark Passage, an underrated film noir that relies on a gimmick, but in a good way.  If you're a fan of Mr. Bogart, this is not one to miss.

Serving a sentence after being found guilty for murdering his wife, Vincent Parry (Bogart) is on the run having escaped from San Quentin Prison outside of San Francisco. He's picked up by a young woman, Irene (Lauren Bacall), who willingly goes along and agrees to sneak him into San Fran through all the police searches and roadblocks.  With the police combing the state for him, Vince decides he needs to undergo plastic surgery because his face is too recognizable.  His plan starts to come together with Irene agreeing to help hide him, but Vince has bigger ideas.  He didn't kill his wife and is going to do everything in his power to find out who the real killer is.  He may not have to look far though because the killer could be coming for him instead.

The gimmick here is that for the first hour of the movie we don't actually see Humphrey Bogart's face.  How cool is that, how original?  I just can't see stars like George Clooney or Brad Pitt doing that, can you? The first 45 minutes anytime Bogie is in a scene, the camera is Bogie's face.  It's his point of view, his perspective.  In these pre-surgery scenes, Parry looks like someone else, a picture we even see in the newspaper.  So really, it's Bogie...but it ain't Bogie.  Then after the surgery while he recovers, his head and face are completely covered by bandages for another 15 minutes in movie time.  It's such an original idea and so ahead of its time that I enjoyed the movie that much more just because of its originality.  It's a gutsy call to hide your star for an hour in a 2-hour movie, but it is handled so well that the movie and its story doesn't miss a beat.

Using this technique of Bogie's eyes serving as the camera certainly is a roll of the dice because if that strategy doesn't work, you've lost the viewers less than halfway through the movie.  Then when we do see Bogart on-screen, the audience is either gone or bored with a movie they have decided to stick with all the way through.  In other words, it could be too late.  The pacing can be a little slow as Parry's plan comes together, but it's never too slow.  More tension could have been added, more sense of the police closing in on him, but that comes into play more the second half of the movie.  Director Delmer Daves moves the camera around as if this character was walking around in an apartment or navigating a confrontation with an overly inquisitive driver.  Original, innovative, and ahead of its time, all positives toward overshadowing the slower moving portions of the movie.

Now onscreen or offscreen, Bogart is an ideal choice to play a character like this.  Basically, we don't need to actually see him.  We know it's him just by his distinctive, deep, gravelly voice.  And even though Bogart played his fair share of shady characters, you know, you just KNOW, there's no way he could have killed his wife so of course he's telling the truth.  He brings his typically hard edge to his role of a man who knows he's been wronged and intends to fix things no matter how long it takes.  Regular Bogie co-star and current Mrs. Bogart Lauren Bacall always worked well with her husband, and this part is no different.  She was one of the few actresses who could match him for on-screen charisma and presence.  And in a completely pointless aside that has nothing to do with the movie, Bacall looks ridiculously gorgeous here.  She always looked good, but this is a step above the rest.

All good elements aside, the execution and revelation of the actual murderer doesn't completely gel.  It feels rushed at times and thrown together.  The reveal is really obvious and somewhat surprising at the same time (if that makes sense) with just too much coincidence thrown in to keep it somewhat manageable.  The final scene on the other hand is perfect, one that was repeated almost 50 years later in The Shawshank Redemption. The rest of the cast includes Agnes Moorehead (later of Bewitched fame) as noisy neighbor Madge, Bruce Bennett as Bob, a fella with an understandable interest in Irene, and Tom D'Andrea as a friendly cabby who helps Vince.  An all-around solid film noir with some great performances from Bogart and Bacall, and some filmmaking techniques that are still worth watching over 60 years later.

Dark Passage <---trailer (1947): ***/****

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Iron Man 2

The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather 2, The Dark Knight, Temple of Doom, all sequels and 2nd in a trilogy that's better than the original.  Okay, not Temple of Doom, but the others still count. Is that the expectation though or the exceptions to the rule? In the age of milking a franchise cash cow for everything it's worth, the biggest blockbusters of the last 10-15 years have been sequels, often of superhero movies.  One that surprised several years back with its popularity and success at the box office was Iron Man, but unfortunately 2010's Iron Man 2 just can't live up to the raised expectations.

When it comes to superhero movies, I fall somewhere in between.  Yes, I like them, but I didn't grow up reading comic books by the hundreds, and I especially don't know the superhero universes where everything has already been set in stone so that a franchise must follow it to the letter.  The problem with any successful franchise though is what to do after the first big success.  You can't just duplicate the first movie. You have to do everything bigger and better.  Director and supporting player Jon Favreau follows that idea by throwing everything into a script that never decides what to focus on and suffers because of it.  Too much going on, too many characters, lack of any development with those characters, and surprisingly enough for a summer blockbuster, not enough action.

Six months since revealing that he is in fact Iron Man, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has basically wiped out any sort of worldwide conflict. In doing so though he has the U.S. government and the Department of Defense on his tail to give up the Iron Man so that it can be a controlled commodity instead of one man's all-powerful weapon.  That's the least of Tony's problems though as the use of the Iron Man outfit is slowly killing him with possibly a year to live.  He turns over control of Stark Industries to secretary and girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and starts to live things up. It's hard to be the best though and rival weapons contractor Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) is using the talents of a pissed off Russian physicist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) to create his own deadlier version of the Iron Man.

Now regardless of how this cast was utilized or underutilized, I can say that without a doubt this is one of the best casts ever put together for a summer blockbuster.  Downer Jr. again cements himself as one of Hollywood's best actors here playing cocky, narcissistic, downright arrogant Tony Stark who somehow is still lovable.  Paltrow isn't used as well here as the first one and seems like more of an afterthought than anything.  Indie star Rockwell and rejuvenated Rourke are great choices to play the villains even though they're both underused, especially a scene-stealing Rourke.  Then don't forget Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D, Don Cheadle stepping in for Terrence Howard as Colonel Rhodes (an upgrade from the 1st movie), and Scarlett Johansson as Natalie Rushman (Black Widow, member of Shield).

Can you have too much of a good thing though?  That cast is downright impressive, but other than Downey Jr. none of them are given a ton to do.  They're introduced into the storyline, fade out, and then reappear later as needed.  And from someone who is definitely looking forward to The Avengers movie, that whole subplot feels like it's being shoved down our throats as viewers.  But that's the problem with the whole movie for me.  There is a ton going on, and then nothing at all at the same time.  For almost 90 minutes, nothing happens other than Tony moping around.  Favreau has all these great elements and can't peg down what he wants to do with it.  The first Iron Man certainly had some slower moving segments too, but here they're just more noticeable.  At 124 minutes, this is a movie that could have been cut by 15 or 20 minutes and been a sleeker, more compact finished product.

Now to counter 90 minutes of basically nothingness, everything is thrown in the last 30 minutes, by far the best part of the movie and one of the better finales in an action movie around.  Stark and Rhodes -- both outfitted in Iron Man outfits -- go toe-to-toe with Ivan's army of drone Iron Men in an epic showdown that never overdoes it with the CGI.  It is an action scene where everything is visible and never moves too fast, keeping you interested even knowing we're watching computerized robots beat the crap out of each other.  Add in Johansson in a skintight leather outfit (to be fair, every movie needs that) kicking ass against endless nameless security guards, and you've got quite a finale.

I can't put my finger on it, but something was missing from this sequel.  It lacks a certain energy the first one had and never truly finds it's footing.  It tries to one-up the original while sticking to its origins but can't find that all-important middle ground.  Downey Jr again is solid, Cheadle is an upgrade, Johansson is beyond gorgeous as the eye candy, Rourke and Rockwell are above average talents, and the action-packed finale is a whopper.  But for whatever reason, it doesn't add up.  Worth watching, but I was disappointed here.

Iron Man 2 <---trailer (2010): ** 1/2 /****

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Colditz Story

I started reading about history pretty early in grammar school and never really stopped.  I was introduced early to The Great Escape -- the book and the movie -- and 40 or 50 viewings later, it is still one of my two favorite movies.  The story of Allied prisoners of war during WWII has translated well to both book form and movies in the 60-plus years since the end of the war, some more well known than others.  I've seen a fair share -- Bridge on the River Kwai, Stalag 17, King Rat -- among others, but I always keep an eye out for ones I've missed, including 1955's The Colditz Story.

Like The Great Escape, this WWII P.O.W story is based on the actual escape attempts of the prisoners from their German captors.  The start of the WWII brought up the question for both sides; what to do with captured prisoners? The Geneva Convention provided for the treatment of prisoners, but there was still the matter of housing and feeding the thousands of prisoners on either side.  A prisoner's right and responsibility was to try and escape so the German Luftwaffe was forced to improvise.  One of the most infamous prison camps was in the town of Colditz in the Colditz Castle, a medieval building reserved for only those prisoners dubbed the most dangerous, those most likely to escape. A recipe for a successful POW movie if there ever was.

It's summer 1940 and two British officers, Captain Pat Reid (John Mills) and Mac McGill (Christopher Rhodes), have been captured by the Germans and sent to the prison camp at Colditz Castle deep in Germany. There they find only two other British officers, Pat Tyler (Lionel Jeffries) and Jimmy Winslow (Bryan Forbes), who they quickly hit it off with.  It's not long before truckloads of new prisoners arrive, including a senior British officer, Colonel Richmond (Eric Portman), who doesn't seem interested in escaping. In the crowded supposedly inescapable prison, the Brits go to work on their escape attempts, but coupled with the efforts of the French, Poles, and Dutch, end up stepping on each others toes.  With help from Richmond, the diverse group of prisoners begin to work together in their escape plans, all with the hopes of someone hitting a "home run" and making it all the way to Switzerland.

Mostly known and respected for some of the earliest and best James Bond movies, director Guy Hamilton makes an entertaining, somewhat atypical war movie here. For being supposedly an inescapable prison, Colditz actually had its fair share of successful escapes over the course of WWII so right off the start Hamilton is working with a story that maybe -- just maybe -- could end on a positive note.  The movie was filmed on location in Colditz (a nice touch), but I'm not sure how much and where.  Regardless, it gives the story an air of authenticity as we're seeing the actual buildings these events took place in.  Mills' character Pat Reid was an actual escapee from Colditz and wrote several books about his time in the prison so the story feels truthful and authentic in dealing with the facts.

Like other POW movies focusing on escape, the story isn't the most linear thing around.  It tends to bounce from escape attempt to escape attempt rather than focusing on one specific plan devised by the prisoners.  This could have ended with a bloated, overlong movie, but at just 97 minutes, Hamilton picked an appropriate run time.  He wastes little time early on, introducing his characters and the setting and moves on to what viewers want to see; the Allied prisoners cleverly trying to escape from their German captors.  Just the sheer audacity in which these prisoners make their attempts is impressive.  They had no fear, no worries about consequences and repercussions.  Watch one stupidly brave attempt HERE. These prisoners would try anything to escape, and that's maybe the most amazing thing about the story of this movie. These things actually happened.

Telling the story of a multinational group of Allied prisoners allows Hamilton to assemble a cast of multinational talent to fill out his ranks.  Mills leads the heavily British cast as Pat Reid, a prisoner who becomes "escape officer," basically a coordinator of escapes who by taking the position agrees not to attempt an escape on his own.  I like Mills as an actor on-screen because he has a knack for making his characters likable with little effort, and his Reid definitely is a prisoner you're rooting for.  Portman as Colonel Richmond too is a scene-stealer, the stiff upper lip British officer who'd like nothing more than to break out as many prisoners as possible.  Rhodes, Jeffries and Forbes are all solid as fellow British prisoners, especially Rhodes as a prisoner who may be too tall to escape.  Frederick Valk plays the German commandant at Colditz and Denis Shaw plays Priem, a German ferret assigned with rooting out any and all escape attempts.

Because of my love for The Great Escape, I'm a sucker for like-minded movies like this one.  It was a British production so it is not well known outside of England, but because it deals with the facts of being a WWII prisoner, it's easy to see the blueprint it laid out for prisoner of war movies yet to come.  Filmed in a stark black and white on location in Colditz, this flick doesn't do anything great and isn't as flashy as The Great Escape or epic as River Kwai.  But it is the truth in the story it tells that makes this movie worthwhile.

The Colditz Story <----opening 9 minutes (1955): ***/**** 

Sunday, November 14, 2010


One of my favorite things about the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) is the users that in researching a movie stumble across some huge plot twist and then complain about it.  What exactly did they think was going to happen when reading the message boards?  Oh no, Bruce Willis was dead the whole time?!? Charlton Heston was on Earth the whole time?!? I did not see that coming!  Well, I'm not angry at anybody but myself, but I did just that this week as I watched 1961's Homicidal. Part of my reasoning for watching a lot of movies is the cast so here I read the cast listing and had basically the whole twist ruined.  Take that as some advice, kids, don't read the cast listing before watching a movie.

The start of the movie automatically made me question why I was watching this movie.  Director William Castle introduces the movie before the credits, talking about past successes he's had with movies like The Tingler and House on Haunted Hill.  This time around we'll be watching a movie about people who are....HOMICIDAL!  It's also shown on a knitting board, maybe the most terrifying opening ever.  The whole intro comes across as very self-serving and more than a little cheesy. Castle did have success in horror and thrillers in the 1950s and 1960s, and Homicidal is a good one, even channeling Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho in several instances.

Living in a small California town with her brother Warren and their handicapped former babysitter Helga (Eugenie Leontovich), florist Miriam Webster (Patricia Breslin) has carved out a nice, little life for herself with a successful floral business and a marriage coming up to pharmacist boyfriend Karl (Glenn Corbett). Her half-brother Warren stands to inherit $10 million dollars in a few days when he turns 21, but weird occurrences start popping up, many of them related to Helga's primary caregiver, Emily (Joan Marshall). A brutal murder one town over stirs things up, especially when the description of the killer matches Emily's appearance.  That's just the start though, causing Karl to wonder if someone is targeting Miriam too.  Can they figure out what's going on before another life is put at risk?

To be fair, I didn't realize I'd blown the twist after reading the cast listing.  Early on, there are a lot of characters thrown at you, especially in the opening where Emily is rather mysteriously introduced in a side-story that is relevant to the main story but not key.  The twist is one of those where if you actually pay attention, focus in on what you're watching and what's going on instead of just flowing along with the movie, you probably will figure it out.  That said, it's a good twist that is different from the typical twist you might see in a similar thriller.

Where it doesn't work is in the execution of revealing the twist for two different reasons.  One is the same thing that plagued the ending of Hitchcock's Psycho.  Instead of just letting things stand afterward, a medical/psychological explanation has to be offered to justify what just happened.  That would be fine if it made any sense what actually happened, but the explanation is so far-fetched and ridiculous that it all comes apart.  The fun with this particular twist is the build-up to the reveal and trying to piece it together as certain subtle clues are dropped here and there.  Even somewhat knowing what was coming, the twist is still fun to try and figure out.  The reveal is what disappoints in the end.

On to part two, one of the stupidest gimmicks I've ever seen in a movie regardless of the genre.  It's called "The Fright Break." Right as Miriam returns home to piece everything together, Castle's booming, obnoxious voice interrupts the story as a digital clock pops up on the screen.  He warns the viewer that anyone too scared to see the shocking ending should take the opportunity to leave the theater now.  Really? I know it's a gimmick, and you're supposed to start wondering what could actually happen next.  But that's your plan? Tell people to leave?  It doesn't help that what comes next is actually pretty tame whether you know the twist or not.  There's some good tension at work once Miriam comes back on screen and enters the house, but just like the subsequent revelation, the huge reveal is stupidly ridiculous.

The bright spot through all the schlock is Joan Marshall (billed as Jean Arless for some reason) as mysterious homicidal caregiver Emily.  Her introduction certainly keeps you guessing and does deliver one of the movie's more shocking moments with a twist out of left field coupled with some surprisingly graphic violence for 1961.  It's this character that keeps things interesting, keeps you guessing up until the very end.  It helps that Marshall was never a huge star so there's no baggage with her as an actress or her character.  Breslin and Corbett are solid if unspectacular with their parts that have them playing straight to Emily's oddness.

Homicidal <---trailer (1961): ** 1/2 /****

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Last Escape

A Euro-war WWII movie made on a small budget with only one recognizable face working with a story that brings absolutely nothing new to the war movie genre.  A winning recipe if there ever was one, right?  So what made me want to seek this movie out.  A straightforward trailer that pushed the movie's action-packed story and little else.  I'm a real sucker for explosions a lot of the time.  Average in every way and below average in a couple more, 1970's The Last Escape.

While spaghetti westerns took over in the late 1960s thanks to the success of the Sergio Leone trilogy among other flicks, a smaller genre of European action movies started to hit screens to similar success.  They were Euro war movies, action packed stories light on story that always managed to be entertaining, sometime in how bad they were.  Imagine spaghetti westerns, but replace a six-shooter with a machine gun and you've got the idea.  'Escape' has a lot going against it, and at times it can be pretty awful.  Cheap/small budget isn't necessarily a bad thing, but when it smacks you in the face and screams out how cheap it is, we've got a problem.

The leader of an American commando team, Captain Mitchell (Stuart Whitman), is the only survivor of a German ambush when his team is betrayed. He manages to escape the ambush and hooks up with the British commandos he was supposed to work with.  When the highest ranking British officer is killed, a young, inexperienced officer, Lt. Wilcox (Martin Jarvis), steps into command.  Together, Mitchell and the British commandos must kidnap a German rocket scientist (Pinkas Braun) who holds information that could turn the tide of the war. The scientist is more than willing for a way out of Germany as long as the commandos take all the scientists' families with them.  So chased by an obsessed SS officer (Gunther Neutze) and a Russian tank patrol also looking to bring in the scientist, Mitchell and Co. make a mad dash across Germany trying to get to Allied lines. 

During a scene about midway through the movie, everything clicked for me.  I swore I'd seen this movie before.  Well, sort of.  Some 33 years later in Tears of the Sun, Bruce Willis is basically working with an identical story albeit in a later, different time and place.  That's the problem with the whole movie.  You feel like you've seen it before.  Heavy on footage from other movies (633 Squadron, Operation Crossbow, Battle of Britain), the cheapness reeks in this B-movie.  The inserted footage doesn't even match up with what's going on as bombers attack a German base.  The match up of the footage consists of the same explosions shown over and over again from different viewpoints.  Cheap is one thing, but there's a limit.

The only even somewhat recognizable face here is Stuart Whitman as steely-eyed American commando Captain Lee Mitchell.  Never a big star to being with, Whitman worked best as the sidekick in the roles I'm familiar with, especially working with John Wayne in The Comancheros or Richard Boone in Rio Conchos.  This just isn't a strong part for him, and it's not entirely his fault.  To say his character is a cardboard cutout of what a leading character should be would be an unnecessary dig at a piece of cardboard.  So to start with Whitman's not working with much, and then he growls his way through his lines. It gets to the point you start to wonder if he realized what a lousy movie he was part of  and decided to take it out on his co-stars.  Awkward, unnecessary love story with possible German traitor (Margit Saad) added for a female audience...I guess.

So it was the action that suckered me in after watching the trailer, and it's the action that will allow me to even mildly recommend this movie (which I'm going to do almost in spite of myself).  It is a movie with a smaller budget, but there's never any dead time before Mitchell and his British commandos are caught up in another running firefight with their German pursuers.  The action is never on a large scale, but it's always entertaining with plenty of gunfire and explosions.  The finale is by far the best thing the movie's got going for it as American, British, German and Russian forces all shoot it out so they can get their hands on this all-important German scientist.

I realize I'm probably overhyping the action, but there's not much more to write up.  The rest of the cast leaves little to no impression, and director Walter Grauman (typically sticking with TV shows) doesn't really know what to do to fill out a 90-minute running time. I will say the locations add something to the non-stop chase scene that is the last 60 minutes of the movie.  IMDB says it was filmed in Munich, Bavaria and Germany, and it certainly looks it.  Heavily wooded areas that look untouched by history add a sense of being alone and on your own for Mitchell and his team.  So overall, yes, I'm giving this a slightly positive recommendation.  I don't know why, and I have the right to take this back later.  I enjoyed it though.  Check it out on Netflix's Instant watch if curious.

The Last Escape <---trailer (1970): ** 1/2 /****

Friday, November 12, 2010

Infernal Affairs

After a career of films that were also deserving of Oscar status, Martin Scorcese finally won his best directing Oscar in 2006 for The Departed.  There was a sense he won the award as much as a career achievement award as opposed to just Departed on its own.  It was a great, well-made, exciting movie, but was it better than Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, or Raging Bull among others?  And for the cherry on top, this wasn't an original Scorcese flick.  I'll admit I was disappointed to find out it was a remake of a Hong Kong movie made just four years before, 2002's Infernal Affairs.

Seeing a remake first can't help but impact your reaction, your judgment when seeing the original.  Comparing the U.S. versus the Hong Kong version is easier though.  For one, the story was changed very little from original to remake, but something else caught me by surprise.  Watching The Departed, you're familiar with all these great actors, Nicholson, DiCaprio, Damon, Wahlberg, Sheen, Baldwin, and many more.  You have a preexisting movie relationship with them, but being dropped into Hong Kong Departed, there's no issue there.  Yes, I knew where the story was going, but it's so well-made, so well-handled with all its twists and turns that it is as fun to watch as the first time I watched The Departed.

Two young men are about to go down very different roads.  Yan tested so well at the police academy that he's been chosen to work deep undercover as a mole in the most infamous Hong Kong gangs.  Lau is a member of the Triad gang, maybe the most powerful in the country, and will work his way up the police force as a source for his gang.  Years pass, and the two men know the other exists, but that's it.  There's nothing else.  Yan (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) has worked for three years with crime boss Sam (Eric Tsang) and is doing his best to take the gang down piece by piece, protecting himself all the time. Lau (Andy Lau) has been tasked with finding the mole in the police force by the only man who knows Yan's identity, Inspector Wong (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang). Both men have laid their lives on the line, but can either get out alive before they're discovered?

The characters are familiar, the storyline more than recognizable, and even the stylish shooting techniques are there.  Scorcese of course put his own unique spin on his version, trademarks like certain tracking shots or even just using the Rolling Stones as part of his soundtrack.  What pulled me into 'Infernal' was that where Departed tended to drift at times, this is a streamlined version of the story.  There are no wasted scenes, no subplots that don't add much to the story.  Directors Wai-keung Lau and Alan Mak present this great back and forth story with countless scenes just dripping with tension that keep you on the edge of your seat, leaving the slower moving relationship back home scenes out to dry. All it takes is one slip up by either man, and it's game over.  The movie flows along at 101 minutes and it feels like it goes by even quicker than that.

Four main characters stand out from the rest here where Departed had a lot of supporting characters.  The acting is perfect here, especially Wai as Yan, the deep undercover cop.  He is that right mix of angst and worry, the result of his job slowly wearing him down, and confidence and guts to do what he has to.  You're rooting for this character, still somehow knowing that this will never end well for him.  The brother -- maybe even father -- relationship that develops with Inspector Wong provides one of the movie's gut-wrenching scenes too, credit to Chau-Sang for making this great character without much screentime. Lau as Lau (original choice of names) isn't as good a character only because he never comes across as particularly bad or evil.  Matt Damon was surprisingly evil in the part, and you can't help but compare.  Tsang hams it up as crime boss Sam, that bad guy you love to hate.

This was my first real exposure to a Hong Kong crime thriller, and I came away very impressed. Shooting in Hong Kong, the locations are crowded, claustrophobic and packed in tight, giving me a feeling of being closed in just like the characters are.  It's a stylish urban setting that acts almost like another character in the story.  The violence isn't overdone and could even be considered tame, leaving the gore to the viewer's imagination.  Certain scenes stand out (SPOILERS like THIS one) with this great visual eye. The continuing use of reflections and windows keeps popping up, but it's never overdone.  There are fade to blacks and some timely uses of slow motion, all aided by Kwong Wing Chan's appropriately subdued score. Just on a pure movie basis -- characters and story aside -- Infernal Affairs is a gem.

SPOILERS about the ending SPOILERS Scorcese's movie threw you for a loop by basically killing every main character in about 12 seconds flat.  Infernal Affairs goes down a different route, one I didn't like at first.  Yan gets killed trying to prove he's in fact a cop while Lau escapes untouched.  Maybe it's because Wahlberg killing Damon in The Departed was such a solid ending, but I wanted to see Lau go down.  Then I thought about it, and this ending works just as well.  It's the last line that sells it, damning Lau to a lifetime of self-hate and doubt.  The movie is still fresh in my head, but right now, I'll say I liked Infernal Affairs as much, if not more, than The Departed.  Either way, it is a great movie.

Infernal Affairs <---trailer (2002): ****/****

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Enemy Below

While a majority of WWII movies cover the campaigns on land and air in both the European and Pacific theaters, there's a cool little genre within the WWII genre, the submarine movie.  The 1950s were ripe with these flicks of submarine commanders in the Atlantic or Pacific aiding the war effort on either side.  These submarines were such a new technology that audiences ate the movies up, and there was a lot of them.  I'd seen many of them and finally watched 1957's The Enemy Below this week.

What took me so long in watching this movie was that most of the 1950s WWII movies from major studios were pretty flat, interested more in the spectacle of what was on the screen than making it interesting story-wise.  There were these great premises, loaded casts, and then that was it.  As a viewer, we were supposed to be content with just watching what was on-screen without having anything invested in it.  Director Dick Powell expands on just the visual, delivering a great cat and mouse submarine story that also wisely tells the story from both the German and American perspectives. 

It's midway through WWII, and the U.S.S. Haynes is on patrol in the south Atlantic.  A new commander, Capt. Murrell (Robert Mitchum), has taken over in recent weeks, but the crew is worried about the new officer possibly being a jinx having seen no action since he came on board. Seemingly miles away from the action, the radar picks something up, leading Murrell to think the destroyer has found a German U-boat on patrol.  Playing it coy, Murrell holds his ship back, waiting to see what the U-boat does.  A few miles ahead, German commander Von Stolberg (Curd Jurgens) is aware of what's following him but with an important mission tasked to him knows he can't play his hand too early. With help days away for either crew, the two captains prepare for a battle that could end with both ships at the bottom of the ocean.

Right off the bat, I liked this movie because of its intelligence.  This is a story interested in battle tactics and strategies where other movies would just show a destroyer chasing down a U-boat with no explanation offered.  'Enemy' tries to keep the viewer at a point where they always know what's going on, and in that way is a sign of things to come with other sub movies like Das Boot or The Hunt for Red October.  Throw out the overdone score from composer Leigh Harline because the natural sounds are more appropriate. It is the sounds of radar and sonar pinging, the ca-chung of a depth charge being fired, the silence of a crew waiting for an explosion that makes the movie almost unbearably tense to watch. You feel like you're there with Mitchum's crew waiting for an inbound torpedo to be sighted, or Jurgen's crew waiting for a depth charge to rip the submarine apart.

A title card at the end of the movie thanks the U.S. Navy and the Department of Defense for all their cooperation in making this movie, and do they ever deserve it.  Besides some obvious uses of miniatures late in the movie's finale, most of the movie looks to have been filmed on an actual U.S. destroyer at sea.  Just like the natural sounds working their magic, a movie gets a ton of credibility when you actually see star Robert Mitchum at the conning tower of a destroyer on open water.  Even better, Mitchum in frame why a few hundred yards back a whole screen of depth charges go off, jetting water several hundred feet straight up into the air, almost like you can feel the blast of the water on your face.  Other similar movies might have cut away to some stock footage, but 'Enemy' shows the process as realistically as possible with the cast involved.  Good choice, Mr. Powell.

Now if it was just 97 minutes of this footage, it would get tiresome, but the cat and mouse game that ensues works so well because Mitchum and Jurgens in the lead roles.  I will always give a war movie a try that attempts to show the war from both sides, not just one or the other.  We get to see that there were good and bad soldiers/sailors on either side.  Depending on the story, there is no need to demonize the enemy.  Here, Mitchum and Jurgens are human beings, not killing machines with a bloodlust.  Mitchum's Murrell lost his wife when a German U-boat sunk the ship they were on, and Jurgens saw both of his sons killed for the Third Reich.  Seeing these characters do their job is half the fun of the movie.  They do it because it is their job, and they want to protect their crews.  The only way to do that is to take out the enemy right in front of them.

The cat and mouse game between the two captains highlights the movie and helps it through the parts that lean toward the tedious at times.  Each man can predict what the other is doing, not because the actions are predictable or easy to figure out; they just know exactly what they would do in that situation.  The chase continues over hundreds of miles and several days as either man tries to get a hand up on the other.  The ending goes for a message of hope that is fitting considering the story that led up to the finale.  There were two ways it could go. One, both ships go down, or two, one side wins.  'Enemy' finds a nice middle ground, but I can't spoil it here.  It's a moving ending to an above average story. I'm also pretty sure the DVD cover is not Jurgens on the right, but who knows?

The Enemy Below <---trailer (1957): ***/****

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Cannon for Cordoba

What I love more and more about movies as I look harder for those hard-to find gems is that there is always another gem around the corner.  They are the movies that you read about but can't find or can't afford that pricey VHS through an Amazon vendor.  They're the ones with these great casts that have somehow escaped your grasp for years.  I love stumbling across one of these older gems more than I appreciate seeing a really good new movie at the theaters.  For me, most of these gems are westerns or war movies, including 1970's Cannon For Cordoba

I read about this American western shot in Spain a few years back and was immediately interested but just couldn't find a copy anywhere, and it never seemed to be on TV anywhere.  Well, just like I was able to watch 1965's The Glory Guys last week, I found 'Cordoba' available through Netflix's Instant watch feature.  I knew from the first time I read about the movie I'd like it because it comes from the always reliable 'men on a mission' sub-genre that stretches across countless types of movies.  It is a mix somewhere between The Guns of Navarone, The Magnificent Seven, and The Professionals so it is fair to say you won't see anything you haven't seen before.  It is a western that follows the formula closely and is the better for it, even if it isn't anything new.

It's 1916 and General Black Jack Pershing (John Russell) is on the Texas/Mexico border with the U.S. army doing his best to protect the border from bandit attacks, none of whom is worse than a rogue general named Cordoba (Raf Vallone).  In a raid, Cordoba and his own army steals six artillery pieces and transport them back to his mountaintop fortress. Pershing has no option but to send some men undercover into Mexico to destroy the guns and possibly bring Cordoba out alive.  He chooses an officer, Captain Rod Douglas (George Peppard) to the lead the raid that will have his team travel 200 dangerous miles into Mexico. On his team are three men from his unit (Don Gordon, Pete Duel, and Nico Minardos), a Mexican officer (Gabriele Tinti) and a beautiful, mysterious woman who will be used as bait looking for revenge (Giovanni Ralli).  The odds are stacked against them though, and Douglas isn't sure any of them will come back.

Director Paul Wendkos sticks close the successful men on a mission formula from beginning to end here, and turns in a finished product that will never be thought of as classic, but it's like comfort food.  Just cause you've seen it before doesn't mean it's a bad thing.  He lays things out with an evil general as the villain, establishes a suicidal mission, assembles a team of specialists to pull off the job, throws in some curveballs, and lets the action take over.  Throw in a solid if unspectacular score from composer Elmer Bernstein, beautiful location shooting in Spain, a touch of nudity here and there, and enough action to fill in all the gaps.  It's typical of cheaper but well made westerns from the late 1960s and early 1970s that weren't trying to change the world. They were content to be damn entertaining, and whoever didn't like it didn't have to watch.

After some huge success in the early 1960s, Peppard was at a bit of a crossroads in his career, taking parts wherever he could get them.  He's not slumming here, but the part and movie as a whole clearly isn't as large scale as he'd probably like.  Playing Capt. Douglas, Peppard is a nice choice to lead a small team of specialists on a suicide mission.  He was cool in just about everything he did, and his cigar chomping (hello Hannibal!), don't give a damn officer is a solid anti-hero to lead the proceedings.  His team is made up of TV actors, and the four are given just enough background to make them interesting.  Gordon is the soldier looking for revenge against Peppard, Duel is Andy, the fun-loving nut of the group ready to turn on anyone and everyone, Minardos is the Greek immigrant with a touch for explosives, and Tinti is the loyal Mexican officer also looking for some vengeance.  I was surprised by which ones of the group actually makes it through the mission, but that's always part of the fun with these men on a mission movies.

This is an action western, and Wendkos does not disappoint.  Three huge set pieces dominate the gunplay, all building up to the explosive finale that is just an orgy of gunfire, explosions and nameless henchmen getting blown away.  Cordoba's raid on the cannons starts things off on a big scale, followed by Peppard's team tangling with some of Cordoba's men in a ruined, crumbling church.  Smaller scale, but still exciting.  Then in the finale, the actual suicidal mission.  For one, Cordoba's mountaintop fortress is a very cool set so placing a battle in its midst with chaos and explosions everywhere is a great finish.  It reminded me some of the ending to another Wendkos western, Guns of the Magnificent Seven, in terms of the large scope it takes.  Exciting to the very end with some good twists.

For a story set in the Mexican Revolution, 'Cordoba' does follow a fair share of genre conventions, all the better to stick with that formula.  You've got the generic evil general, the waves of nameless men in his armies more interested in women and drinking than fighting, and the requisite European general -- Swedish, not German this time -- played by Hans Meyer.  Vallone is given little to do as the evil Cordoba, but he looks the part with that menacing glint in his eyes.  He of course gets his comeuppance in the end as the bad guy always does.  A classic this is not, but an exciting, always entertaining western that is worth tracking down. No luck finding a trailer either, my apologies.

Cannon for Cordoba (1970): ***/****