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, December 31, 2010

Task Force

This summer while visiting my sister in Norfolk I was lucky enough to get a tour of the destroyer my brother-in-law serves on, getting a look at a type of ship I'd seen countless times in countless war movies over the years.  For one thing, I found out I'm a little claustrophobic and wouldn't be a good sailor (I'd be a good 'land guy' to quote George Costanza).  But seeing the ship and its inner workings -- even in port with a skeleton crew -- certainly made a positive impression on me.  I was surprised by how small the ship seemed, and it's still pretty big all things considered.  It put in perspective how immense these Navy ships are, and relative to other ships, the destroyer is downright small.

All those things were bouncing around in my head as I watched 1949's Task Force this week. It tells the partial story of the development of carriers in the Navy and their involvement with pilots and aviation to advance the Navy's capabilities. They started off as basically sailing airfields on the oceans where rickety planes could land when necessary and developed into immense, very necessary war machines by World War II.  A character mentions early on that when trying to land on the flat top of a carrier deck it looks a lot like a tombstone with your name on it, the ship bucking and rolling with the sea.  The movie is certainly informative about the subject, but it's missing something, and I wish I could give it a higher rating.

As a young pilot in the Navy, Jonathan Scott (Gary Cooper) is among the first pilots to be trained in carrier landings.  Through all the difficulty in this extremely dangerous training, he sees the benefits of a plane being able to land on a ship as it sails across the ocean, and the Navy has a convert.  The higher-ups in the Navy don't see the benefit a carrier would have weighed against the huge costs and risks involved.  With help from his commanding officer, Capt. Pete Richard (Walter Brennan), Scott continues to work toward the development of carrier task forces in the U.S. Navy, often causing ripples when he should sit back and shut up. Aided on the home front by his wife, Mary (Jane Wyatt), Scott continues on as the Navy continues to develop, unknowingly working toward the coming conflict in WWII where carriers will play a key role in the Pacific theater.     

I'll say this first so no one accuses me of hating America or anything similar, but I do like Gary Cooper.  I don't love him though.  So many of his parts are so bland, so vanilla, that I don't consider myself a huge fan of his.  I've never avoided a movie of his because I saw his name and thought 'Hey, that guy sucks!' but at the same time I don't always seek him out.  His part here as Capt. Jonathan Scott falls somewhere in the middle of the movies I've seen with him.  It's not a particularly lively performance, and he comes across as a bit too whiny for my liking.  He has some good interactions with Brennan (solid as ever) and his marriage with Wyatt's Mary doesn't feel as out of place as so many other armed forces marriages in movies, but something's just missing overall in the movie, and that's not a criticism of Cooper or his acting.

All I can wrap my head around is that this movie is basically a documentary about the history of the Navy carrier, but instead of a voiceover provided we get actors stepping into the roles.  If anything, Cooper's part is the tour guide, navigating the viewer through this story. He does provide a voiceover of how things are changing for the Navy, but it becomes tedious.  If I wanted to watch a history of the U.S. Navy, I'd turn on the History Channel and get caught up with a better made documentary about the subject.  As is typical with these movies, a title card thanks the Navy for all their help in making the movie, and cynical guy that I am I couldn't wonder how much control the government and the armed forces had in what the story did and didn't cover.  As for Cooper's part, it's a lose-lose battle for him in a part that could have been filled by any cookie-cutter actor.

What saves the movie late is the depiction of the Navy in the days, weeks and months following the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor December 7th, 1941.  Pearl Harbor and the battle of Midway are both covered in detail in the movie's last 45 minutes.  The problem is though that no matter how good these segments are, there are whole movies devoted to these stories (1976's Midway is a personal favorite) that cover the subject better.  Still, that's not a fair criticism of Task Force because director Delmer Daves is doing what he can with what's in front of him. It's easy to forget now some 70 years later, but the course of the war changed at Midway, and if the U.S. had lost that battle WWII might have gone a very different route.  As Brennan's character explains, 'The west coast better be ready to fight on the beaches.' One of the darker times in American history, and one where the armed forces came through in a must-win situation.

This isn't a bad movie at all, it's just not a great movie either.  It certainly has some potential with an interesting story, but it focuses on trying to tell too big of a story instead of keying in on the most interesting parts of the story.  The movie on the whole lacks any real heart, any reason for us to get invested with the story and its characters.  It is informative but not very exciting in getting its info out.  Worth watching for WWII buffs probably.

Task Force <---trailer (1949): ** 1/2 /****

Monday, December 27, 2010

True Grit (2010)

My usual stance on remakes is why bother remaking a good movie? There's hundreds and thousands of bad movies made over the years that would benefit from a do-over.  So with that idea, I was both excited and skeptical when I heard the news that the Coen brothers were remaking the 1969 western True Grit.  It's a solid western best known for John Wayne's performance, one that earned him the only Oscar of his already impressive career.  I love westerns, but this was one -- even with its flaws -- that really didn't need to be remade.  Well, my curiosity got the best of me, and all suspicions aside I did want to see this 2010's True Grit.

Joel and Ethan Coen have shown a knack for making great movies out of the simplest ideas.  With the talent involved and a strong source novel to work off of by Charles Portis, it would be hard for such two talented directors to mess this up.  I read all the reviews and the on-set reports when the movie was being filmed.  The remake would stick closer to the period appropriate dialogue of the novel and not the 1969 version, it would have little of the comedy Coen fans have come to expect, and most of all it would be consistently period authentic.  I was more skeptical because the trailer looked to mimic the movie, not the book.  And what did I take away? It's a completely unnecessary remake of a movie, but an entertaining and well-made (if a little cold) remake.

After her father was murdered by a hired hand, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), 14-year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) travels to Fort Smith, Arkansas to pick up her father's body.  Of course, she has some other plans. Chaney rode out of town after the murder and disappeared into the Indian Territory, but no law intends to follow him.  Mattie hires a fat, one-eyed drunk of a U.S. Marshal with a hard-earned reputation, Ruben 'Rooster' Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), to bring Chaney to justice so he can hang for what he did.  A Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), is also on Chaney's trail and decides to tag along with Cogburn who inteds to leave the strong-willed Mattie behind. Mattie has other ideas, joining them on the trail as they head into the territory after her father's killer.

Starting with the claims that the Coens insisted on period accuracy, well, it's spot on.  The dialogue sounds like conversations someone would have had in the late 1860s and early 1870s in Arkanas and Oklahoma, a tribute to Portis' source novel.  The pitch, sound and even the give and take of the dialogue sound more authentic than just about any other western I've seen.  That's the whole movie, authentic down to the smallest details.  The west was a nasty place where men would spend days and weeks on the trail without a chance at a bath or a soft bed.  That lack of niceties reflects on how they looked as you'll see in the movie.  Everything from the clothes to the hats to the guns and firearms is real.  This is no glamorized look at what the romantic wild west was like.  This was a time where only the tough survived because if you weren't, you'd be dead in minutes.

If you're going to hire an actor to play a role that many consider to be among John Wayne's best, you had better choose someone who is up to the task.  Wisely, Jeff Bridges does not play Rooster Cogburn like Wayne did, putting his own spin on this already well-known character.  Yes, the basics are there, the ratty eye-patch, the constant drinking, the unkempt look.  Bridges still manages to make Rooster endearing through all his flaws and faults with an honesty and a code of honor that's helped him survive several years working as  a U.S. Marshal.  He isn't a particularly heroic man, but he does what's necessary to get the job done, principles be damned.  Bridges is one of my favorite actors, and I'm glad he was given a chance to play a role like this.  Immediately talk of Oscar buzz started around his performance.  I don't know if it's Oscar worthy, but with a part that could have blown up in his face, he made it his own.

One of the biggest flaws of the 1969 True Grit is the casting of the Mattie and LaBoeuf characters, but here the casting of those two integral parts is a strong point of the movie.  Young 14-year old Steinfeld is a scene-stealer as strong-willed, downright stubborn Mattie Ross.  She intends to see her father's killer brought to justice, and nothing is going to stop her.  Every so often, a glimmer of the fact that she's still a kid shines through, including one early campfire scene.  More than that though, what works so well is her ease in scenes with such accomplished actors.  She has a great chemistry with Bridges especially and shares a great scene with Damon late in the movie.  As for Damon as the Texas Ranger, he too puts his own unique spin on the part.  He's got a twang to his voice and provides a suitable counter to Cogburn's drunken antics.  Brolin's part as Tom Chaney amounts to an extended cameo, and also look for the underrated Barry Pepper as Lucky Ned Pepper, the leader of the gang Chaney signs on with.

So what's missing from the movie? I've thought about it, and just can't come up with anything.  I read Portis' novel years ago and don't remember it making much of an impression on me so I can't say if the tone is dead-on.  It's a beautiful movie, starkly filmed in Texas with Carter Burwell's period-appropriate score playing in the background. The story can be a little slow getting where it wants, but even then it's about 20 minutes shorter than the 1969 version.  There isn't much in the way of action, but when it comes around, it's startling and violent although not as graphic as other Coen brothers movies.  Some major things have changed -- including one key character's demise and another surprising twist in an epilogue -- but for the better.  The ending (like much of the movie overall) left me cold even considering it is scary in how appropriate it is for both the characters involved and the story overall.

Now no matter how good the 2010 version is it's impossible not to compare it to the 1969 version which I'm planning on reviewing in a week or so.  My biggest question is the iconic scene where Cogburn charges across a field, reins in his teeth, a six-shooter in either hand at Pepper's gang with the famous line 'Fill your hands, you son of a bitch!' Thankfully Bridges and Co. nail the scene and the following fall-out.  So how do I rate this movie? I liked it but didn't love it.  It's nothing particularly new, but it is a good old-fashioned western story, good guys vs. bad guys.  It is completely unnecessary, but I liked it in the end because of the immense talents involved in making it.

True Grit <---trailer (2010): ***/**** 

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Keys of the Kingdom

Some actors toil away for years trying to make it big in Hollywood.  All they’re looking for is that one big shot to step into the limelight. Others don’t spend much time at all on the climb up the ladder. In 1944, Gregory Peck made his debut in two movies featuring two great roles. In just his second movie overall, 1944’s The Keys of the Kingdom, he made such a positive impression that he earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. He didn’t win the award, but he surely deserved it.

The background of the movie is a sign of the times in the 1940s and early 1950s as studios made big budget stories about historical figures involved with religion, faith, and personal beliefs. Name a prominent historical figure with some involvement in religion over the years and chances are you can find a film from a major studio made about them.  As a person who doesn't have much use for organized religion, I usually try to steer clear of these movies as they shove some sort of rhetoric down your throat.  Thankfully, this one didn't do that, instead just focusing on the story of one man and his struggles and triumphs through his faith and personal beliefs.

After graduating from the Catholic college he's attending, Francis Chisolm (Peck) has no intention of continuing on to becoming a priest, but when something from his personal life changes his outlook on things, he opts for the priesthood.  From the start though, he questions if he's right for it and struggles in his first two years.  A bishop (Edmund Gwenn) who knows him well recommends him for a position in China where a Catholic priest is needed to start up a mission that has failed in the past.  Francis agrees to take the position and uproots himself to China where his work is cut out for him.  Upon arriving, he receives help from one of the few remaining converts, Joseph (Benson Fong), the young priest starts the work of building the mission and gaining converts who genuinely believe, not just because they're looking for food or shelter.

The story here is rare in that it covers over 40 years in Francis' life, but it never seems or feels rushed.  The important moments in his life and his struggles as a Catholic priest working as a missionary in China are all covered and given due course.  We see him in his ups and downs, his good and bad, the people he meets and who affect his life as much as he does theirs.  It is filmed in black and white -- I don't know how color would have worked here -- and the producers clearly spared no expense.  The mission set is ridiculously cool, and in general all the main sets are extravagant and textured.  They don't just look like wooden planks painted and propped up behind the actors.  Story and sets together, quite a combination here.  It seems obvious, but I'm always surprised how many movies take that for granted.

In just his second movie, Peck shows off an acting ability that would help catapult him to stardom.  Later in his career, he would gain a reputation as being somewhat stiff on-screen, playing the same character repeatedly with his strong, deep voice and commanding presence. I like Peck in just about everything he's done and can usually see past those criticisms, but I thought I should point them out.  Here, none of that's a problem.  His Francis is a lively, passionate man trying to do what he believes is right in an extremely difficult situation.  He's driven to do that at all costs no matter how difficult, willing to sacrifice for his converts who have come to trust him because of his actions and beliefs.  The character reminded me of a younger Atticus Finch, and that's never a bad thing.

This was Peck's movie from the start, but he is supported very capably by a cast full of studio players.  Thomas Mitchell plays Willie Tulloch, Francis' best friend back home, a doctor who is proud of his atheist beliefs. You can see why Willie and Francis are friends, they bond through their differences, neither man trying to convince the other of their convictions.  Vincent Price is Angus Mealey, Francis' childhood friend and fellow priest who is on a different road, a route where he climbs the ladder quickly in the church.  It's a good comparison to see the vast differences in the two men. Rose Stradner is a scene-stealer as Reverend Mother Maria-Veronica, a sister who struggles with her faith at times and how easily it comes to Francis.  She has a very moving, touching scene at the end of the movie that's worth watching on its own.  Also look for Roddy McDowall playing a young Francis, Cedric Hardwicke as a bishop in bookends of the movie questioning if Francis should be forcibly retired, and Leonard Strong as Mr. Chia, an opposing force of Francis' who ends up becoming fast friends with him. 

I was surprised by how much I liked this movie.  It doesn't try too hard delivering its message, a credit to the strengths of the cast who play the movie straight.  There's no hamming it up for the camera or speechifying at awkward moments.  The Chinese are not stereotyped like so many other movies do.  They're not shifty Asians capable of horrible things, and they're not ignorant peasants who must be taught how to do everything.  They're just people looking for something different in life.  Above all else though, watch this for Gregory Peck. You won't be disappointed in the 28-year old actor's secondary debut.

The Keys of the Kingdom <---trailer (1944): *** 1/2 /****

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Three Came Home

With all the World War II movies I’ve seen, some of my favorites have been prisoner of war stories. My favorite all-time movie is The Great Escape, but there’s also Bridge on the River Kwai, Stalag 17, and King Rat among others. They all share a common link though beyond just P.O.W.’s, and that’s that all the prisoners are males.  Well, not all of them, like 1950’s Three Came Home.

Time to hit all you loyal readers with a history lesson. Regardless of who was your captor during World War II, the experience was no doubt a hellish one. But it was a relative hell if that makes any sense. Germany signed the Geneva Convention which listed certain requirements for the treatment of prisoners.  The United States and many other countries also signed FYI. One country that didn’t? Good old Japan, basically giving the Japanese free reign to treat prisoners however they so chose. Add in the cultural belief that to be taken prisoner was a slight on who you were as a person, and prisoners of war in Japanese POW camps were a step far below most other experiences. And if you were a woman? God help you.

It’s 1941 in Borneo and American writer Agnes Newton Keith (Claudette Colbert) lives peacefully with her husband Harry (Patric Knowles) and 4-year old son, George (Mark Keuning). The Japanese are advancing though, and Borneo is on their path to dominance. It’s not long before they arrive, throwing all British and American civilians into prison camps throughout the countryside. Agnes and George are separated from Harry and thrown into a different camp that while unpleasant is not under the worst conditions. It’s not long before all the surviving prisoners are moved to a harsher camp where survival is that much more difficult. Through it all though, Agnes wants to survive and be reunited with her family as a whole.

Just the other day I reviewed a WWII movie heavy on the propaganda in 1943’s Air Force. What can be hard to distinguish when dealing with propaganda movies is the enemy side and their portrayal.  Now by all accounts, the Japanese and their war crimes didn’t need to be exaggerated. Whether in battle or in their treatment of prisoners, the Japanese were brutal both in victory or defeat. Prisoners captured in the heat of battle were often brutally slaughtered, and those unlucky enough to survive getting to the prison camps lived in horrific conditions with little to no medical treatment and less in the way of food and clothes. That’s not to say there weren’t war crimes committed by all sides, but the Japanese were almost certainly the worst. So translate this to movies released in 1950s, the portrayals were often toned-down, not showing what the actual experience was like.

I guess that was my issue with Three Came Home, a solid movie that never rises to anything on a special level. Yes, the experiences these men and women went through were horrific, but mostly we hear how bad all these things are without actually seeing them. Besides one incident where a Japanese guard tries to rape her, Colbert’s Agnes doesn’t experience anything worse than the mystery of whether her husband has survived. Food is limited, and living conditions are obviously leave something to be desired, but as a viewer you never get a real sense of how bad life in a prison camp as a woman really was. Is that the fault of the censors, or did the screenplay just not show the P.O.W. experience and how horrific it was?

Going into this movie, my only other experience (a good one at that) with Colbert was Drums Along the Mohawk. Well, I’ve now seen two good parts for the lovely Claudette Colbert. This isn’t the portrayal of a gung-ho mother trying to take the war back at the Japanese. In fact, the actual war is an afterthought here, seeming like a long way away from the conflict at hand. This is a woman pulled away from the life she loves, now reduced to just surviving and making sure her young son has everything he needs so that can he survive and grow up to. All the while, she goes forward with the hope and not the knowledge that her husband is somehow doing the same, surviving through all the hell in front of him.

With a link to another classic POW movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai, is Sessue Hayakawa as the regional commandant of all the prison camps. This is a very humane portrayal of a man that in many other movies would have been demonized.  In River Kwai, his Colonel Saito is a fair and balanced portrayal of a man under pressure. The same goes here, a commander in an uncompromising situation trying to make the best of it, and for everyone, not just him and his men. But overall – even considering the time it was released in – I would have made a harsher movie, one that dug deeper into the prisoner of war experience. Still, it's a good movie, and one you can watch at Youtube HERE.

Three Came Home <---TCM clips (1950):** 1/2 /****

Friday, December 24, 2010

Das Boot

About a month and a half ago, I reviewed The Enemy Below and while I enjoyed it, I liked it more as a realistic look at submarine warfare as opposed to having any real interest in the characters or the story.  Well, I thought that 1950s war movie was a realistic look at submarine warfare, but compared to the movie I’m about to review, we’re talking a whitewashed, children’s look at the wars under the waters.  Some 20 years later first made as a six-part German miniseries and later turned into a feature-length film for a U.S. release, 1981’s Das Boot.

Reviewing enough war movies, you’re going to watch some that are told from the perspective of a soldier/sailor/civilian/politician different from your own nationality.  For the most part, I’ve watched American-made war movies told from the American perspective. On a simple level, I’m rooting for the American soldier to win in the end, beating the Germans or the Japanese, whoever the enemy is in front of them. So with a story that follows a patrol of a German U-boat in 1941, am I rooting for the Germans against British troops and sailors? Surprisingly enough, it isn’t an issue with this classic film. This isn’t a movie about nationalities or who’s right and who’s wrong. It is a story and depiction of men and the horrific impact war has on everyone it touches.

It’s 1941, and Germany has been at war for two-plus years already. Hitler’s U-boat fleet is meeting defeats on a grand scale for the first time as the British Navy figures out how to not only defend themselves but hunt down the dangerous boats. A veteran captain (Jurgen Prochnow) has been given command of a new U-boat – U-96 – with a young, inexperienced crew working under him. A correspondent, Lt. Werner (NAME), has been assigned to the captain’s ship to document the lives and trials of these heroic German soldiers. So tagging along, the U-96 leaves port and heads for open water to join in on the hunt for British and Allied convoys in the North Atlantic.

If you were ever curious as to what life on a WWII-era submarine was like, this is the movie for you.  Director Wolfgang Petersen films this epic story in the cramped, extremely claustrophobic gangways of the submarine, his cameras filming right alongside the German crew, not outside like a passing onlooker.  You are THERE with this crew. We see the overcrowded living quarters of the crew, the food supplies hanging wherever there is room, the lone toilet for the whole ship, all the little things that WWII sub movies often overlook. There are asides where some of the crew leaves the ship, or the sub surfaces and skims across the water, but a majority of the movie is set within the sub. By the end of the movie, I felt uncomfortable just for having watched the movie. Actually living in a submarine for weeks and even months at a time? I’ll take a pass on that.

Some of the best war movies don’t glamorize what war is really like.  The best description I’ve ever heard about the life of a soldier is ‘long periods of extreme boredom shattered by moments of pure terror.’ That is the tone of the movie. U-96 patrols and patrols looking for targets unsuccessfully, actually almost colliding with another U-boat before even seeing an enemy ship. They hear reports of other ships finding British convoys and successfully sinking tons of ships, but meanwhile they keep on just looking for targets.

No aspect of any war ever seems really intelligent, but submarine warfare in WWII seems stupider than most other aspects of war somehow.  A ship that sails under the water sneaks up on large groups of ships, fires a handful of torpedoes hoping to sink a ship or two, and then hauls ass to get out of there before a protective escort of ships with heavier firepower hunt you down and try and blow you to hell with depth charges. What I took away from this movie is that, the pure and extreme terror that overtakes the individual as they possibly await their death. Hundreds of feet below the surface submarine crews can’t run because the ships above can make more speed than them. Those ships fire depth charges into the water that are triggered to explode at a certain depth, possibly ripping the submarine apart. The best segments of Das Boot document this, silence broken by explosions that hit like punches to your midsection. The tension is everywhere, and it’s executed so well you feel butterflies in your stomach.

So it’s realistic, incredibly unsettling, and very professionally done. What’s wrong with this movie? Originally it was a 6-hour miniseries, but the DVD version clocks in at 209 minutes. As good as the movie is, at times it is a very long 209 minutes. In illustrating the life of boredom these sailors live, Petersen pushes too far at times. I was bored watching them be bored. I would have used these scenes to give some more background on the captain (Prochnow does deliver an amazing performance) and his crew. We’re interested more in the danger of the situation than the characters and what’s happening to them. Give us a personal reason to get invested in the movie, and the quality improves. Who knows though, maybe that wasn’t Petersen’s intention. No matter his intention or my complaints, it’s still an incredible look at submarine warfare in WWII.

Das Boot <--- trailer (1981): ***/****

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Too Bad She's Bad

So I like movies with shootouts, car chases, and some sort of raunchy humor.  Okay, it's not that simple, but those three things always help.  Guys like certain movies and hate others the same way women like some types of movies and despise others.  One genre of films that stereotypically lean more toward a female audience is the romantic comedy.  It's fair to say that many of the movies I like can be pretty cookie-cutter, but I use that as a criticism here of romantic comedies which seem to churn out the same old story in new packaging every couple of weeks.  That's not to say they're all bad, but I'll admit to not seeking them out too often.

One that I came across thanks to TCM's weekly foreign imports feature (TCM Imports) was 1954's Too Bad She's Bad, an Italian romantic comedy with a bit of slapstick and screwball laughs thrown in too.  Maybe because it's a foreign comedy -- and to call it a straight comedy isn't fair -- I look at it differently, but thanks to some strong casting and a type of humor that doesn't overdo it, I enjoyed it.  If nothing else, it's different.  It isn't a cookie-cutter story of some ridiculously hot 30-year old woman who can't find a man, or an eccentric middle-aged man who finds his true love who can see past his oddness.  Although SPOILER ALERT the girl gets the guy, or is it the guy gets the girl? Eh, not important. It's a good movie.

Spending years saving up enough so he can invest in his own taxi cab, cabbie Paolo (Marcello Mastroianni) takes a far for two young men and a pretty girl, Lina (Sophia Loren), who want to drive from Rome to Anzio to spend a day at the beach. Paolo isn't aware the trio plans to steal his cab and leave him stranded but quickly finds out, foiling their plan. The two men get away and Lina slips away in the traffic when he tries to take her to the police station. Paolo can't afford the damages and starts to look for any of the three with Lina popping up repeatedly on his path. Just looking for some cash though, he gets deeper and deeper into a web of thieves with Lina's family all taking a shine to him. Worse than that? Through all the craziness, Paolo realizes he likes Lina too.

Now for starters, any movie that was filmed in Rome in the early 1950s is going to get at least a passing grade from me.  It's post-war Rome following WWII and is as beautiful and romantic a European city as I can think (okay, maybe Paris).  Director Alessandro Blasetti films much of his movie on the streets of Rome and with the exception of the Coliseum doesn't use any easily recognizable locations.  He shoots on the streets with the people, giving us a view of early 1950s Rome that only exists in pictures.  Alessandro Cicognini's musical score not surprisingly relies on Italian music to set the stage but never goes overboard.  My only complaint is that the English subtitles are in white letters, making it difficult to read at times against Blasetti's black and white camerawork. I never missed anything major but did find myself focusing more than usual on the subtitles just trying to keep up.

So you're casting a female part that requires the character to be so downright beautiful and charming that no matter how many unpleasant situations she gets you in the guy still wants to be around her.  If there was ever a part built for Sophia Loren this is it.  Just 20 years old at the time, Loren had already been in over 15 movies with parts ranging from small supporting parts to bigger roles like this.  Looks aside, she shows off some great comedic chops and impeccable timing as we get to know her Lina character.  Her thieving ways continue to get her into trouble, but there's not a situation created yet Lina can't talk her way out of.  My only complaint comes from a certain trend/style of the time...hairy armpits on a woman.  Loren is drop dead gorgeous, but there's not a woman alive that look works for.

Two male parts balance out Loren, one holding a slight edge over the other.  Mastroianni's incredibly gullible, even naive Paolo is too clueless for words at times.  Duped on repeated occasions by the lovely Lina, he continues to believe everything she tells him.  He has a knack for physical humor with some cliched mannerisms and reactions of a fiery Italian man, but he produces laughs, not groans with his actions.  The part I liked more was Lina's father, Vittorio, played by Italian director and star Vittorio De Sica. He raised a family of thieves that supports itself by selling anything valuable they steal with Lina his protege with the most talent.  Vittorio is smooth as silk, convincing you that what he's stealing means nothing, almost like he's helping you out.  It's clear from watching him where Lina got her talent for some truly underhanded things, but they're so charming and likable you don't even notice.

Where does that leave us? Ah, the ending, quite a mix of so many things with not all of them working.  A scene in a police station is played for some genuine laughs that goes on too long, leading to a bit of domestic violence leading to marriage.  It makes sense, don't you think?  An odd ending for sure to an otherwise enjoyable (whudda thunk it?) 1950s Italian romantic comedy.

Too Bad She's Bad <---low quality Youtube clip (1954): ***/****

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Blue Dahlia

Many movies made about the Vietnam War don’t focus in on the actual conflict that went on in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, but instead key in on what happens to the soldiers when they return home, how the war has affected them in ways not previously thought of.  War has an impact on the soldiers involved no matter the conflict or what century it took place, but Vietnam was the first where the public was aware of these issues.  A WWII movie, The Best Years of Our Lives, dealt with this pertaining to World War II veterans returning home.  A film noir released in 1946, The Blue Dahlia, has three main characters returning to the United States, all dealing with the return in their own way.

When I first read about this movie at Turner Classic Movie’s website, I assumed it was related to ‘The Black Dahlia,’ the Hollywood flop from five or six years ago that was forgotten almost as soon as it was released in theaters to critical panning.  Well, other than the use of ‘Dahlia’ in the title, there is no common link.  Blue Dahlia is a solid, well-made film noir about a murder mystery in the Los Angeles club scene where everyone is shady and willing to backstab anyone else for their own gain.  It isn’t held in as high regard as many other noir classics, but it is a very solid entry into a very deep genre of movies in film noir.

Returning to the States after receiving a medical discharge, former Navy pilot John Morrison (Alan Ladd) can’t wait to get home and see his wife, Helen (Doris Dowling).  He finds something else though waiting for him as his wife has adopted a new partying lifestyle, including starting a relationship with slippery club owner, Eddie Harwood (Howard Da Silva). Morrison’s wife has a dark secret she reveals to John, sending him into a fit of rage that even has him thinking about killing her.  Instead, he walks out on her, leaving his past life behind. The next morning though John hears radio reports that his wife has been murdered, and he’s wanted for questioning.  With help from his former Navy buddies (William Bendix and Hugh Beaumont), Morrison goes about proving his innocence and finding his wife’s actual murderer.

The post subplot (soldier condition) is centered around William Bendix’s Buzz character, a tail gunner on Morrison’s bomber in the Pacific.  Along with John and Beaumont’s George, Buzz received a medical discharge after sustaining a serious wound that tore away part of his skull.  He now has a metal plate on the back of his head and is struggling with his readjustment to a more normal life. He freaks out at loud noises and any sort of music playing and has a temper that’s ready to snap at the drop of a hat.  For a movie released in the years since the end of World War II, it’s refreshing to see such honesty in dealing with an issue that would have been affecting thousands of similar-minded soldiers all over the U.S.

As for the main plot with the murder mystery, director George Marshall knows what he’s doing.  First off, if you think Alan Ladd’s character is the guilty party, shame on you.  It’s Shane for goodness sake! He isn’t going to kill his wife!  Several possible suspects are presented ranging from the obvious to the dark horse that most viewers will think did it to the actual murderer.  I thought I had this one figured out, but the joke was on me.  ‘Dahlia’ certainly does its best to keep you guessing, a nice touch amidst the typical noir conventions that viewers have come to expect.

Of the few movies I’ve seen Ladd in other than Shane, I’ve always been a fan of this underrated actor.  He apparently did all sorts of things to take away attention from his lack of height (he was only 5’6), but his on-screen presence makes up for it.  Ladd has this quiet intensity in his characters that give a feel of not knowing quite what the man is capable of.  Here, he is pushed too far by his wife, and even though she is at fault for something horrific in her past, Ladd’s Morrison knows she deserved better than the fate she met.  A worthy leading part for Ladd as he carries the movie.

The supporting cast is not made up entirely of home runs, but for the most part the casting works.  Bendix especially shines as Buzz while Beaumont (later Mr. Cleaver in Leave it to Beaver) isn’t given as much to do. Da Silva is a great villain, a man with his hand in all sorts of shady dealings. Veronica Lake plays a less essential character early on who ends up playing a key role in the murder investigation as it develops.  Ladd and Lake end up in a somewhat forced romantic relationship that ends up wrapping all the separate subplots together nicely in the end.

The Blue Dahlia <---trailer (1946): ** ½ /****

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Long Good Friday

My past experience with British actor Bob Hoskins is a limited one.  I've never seen but know he's in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and then I liked him in a supporting part in Zulu Dawn which I reviewed earlier this year. So with a well-known and respected actor such as Hoskins, is it fair to say I think I've seen his best role of which there are many to choose from?  IMDB lists 113 titles to his name, and I've seen a grand total of two now.  Well, critics loved one performance in particular, and so did I, 1980's The Long Good Friday.

I've got to give the Brits credit when it comes to crime thrillers.  Plain and simple, they don't pull any punches in delivering gritty, realistic and often very stylish movies that translate well to audiences (often turning the movies into cult classics after their releases).  And no, these aren't the ultra-stylish movies of the last 10 or 15 years that come to mind like Guy Ritchie-directed crime capers or even one of my new favorite movies, Layer Cake.  These are movies in the dark, dank streets of England no matter how high up the food chain these characters are.  They work in the back alleys in a world filled with violence and betrayal.  Now let's allow Mr. Hoskins to get to work.

Having spent 10 years assembling a crime empire in London, Harold Shand (Hoskins) has finally put it all together, a plan that will put him at the top of the criminal underworld not only in England but possibly Europe too.  But right as he is about to close a huge deal with the American Mafia, things go haywire.  An attempted hit on his mother goes wrong, an old friend and right-hand man is stabbed to death, and another bomb in his casino somehow doesn't go off before being found.  Is someone gunning for Harold? Does someone resent the power he's acquired? Could this be the start of a gang war after years of peace? Or in a worse case scenario, is one of his own turning on him? With a deadline working against him, Harold goes on the warpath to figure out who or what is gunning for him.

Style-wise, this John Mackenzie-directed crime thriller reminded me in a lot of ways of the original Get Carter starring Michael Caine. It is dark, gritty and cynical with some expert touches of black humor thrown in for good measure.  We see the London underworld for what it is, seedy, violent and full of betrayal, not some romantic, idealized view of how cool and suave you might often think of.  Released in the U.S. in 1980, 'Friday' hit theaters in England in 1979 so on top of that low-down, gritty style, we also get a picture of that over the top, awful 1970s sense of style from the wardrobe to the sets.  It all adds up for the better though, like a time capsule dropping you in on the groovy 1970s.

While Hoskins had been visible on TV and in movies for almost nine years before this movie, his Harold Shand was his breakout role, the one that put him in the public eye.  It's a remarkable performance, full of rage and intensity coupled with genuine confusion and frustration at not knowing what's going on.  On appearances alone, Hoskins doesn't look like a star.  He's short, stocky and balding, but this is a man just boiling over with intensity that could explode at any moment.  One second, he's calm and controlled, and the next he's lashing out.  His Harold is incredibly intelligent and brave (with some hypocrisy too) but also stubborn and full of pride.  It's a bad combination for a man in power trying to hold his teetering empire together.  The whole performance is memorable, but Hoskins saves his best for last including the haunting final shot of the movie that you won't soon forget, all of it aided by Francis Monkman's quirky yet appropriate score. Listen HERE for the main theme.

What worked so well for me with this mystery within the crime thriller is that the twist is so simple in its execution and reveal.  I won't spoil it here, but the reason behind it all is out of Harold's control. That's what makes it work so well.  As to who is behind it, the supporting cast keeps you guessing.  Helen Mirren plays Victoria, Harold's girlfriend and assistant, Derek Thompson and P.H. Moriarty are Jeff and Razors, two of Harold's enforcers, Bryan Marshall is Harris, a lawyer with mob connections, Eddie Constantine and Stephen Davies are Charlie and Tony, Harold's American "business connections," and Dave King is Parky, Harold's source on the police force. Also look out for a 26-year old Pierce Brosnan in his film debut as a hired gun. 

There's nothing particularly new or different about this British crime thriller overall.  From top to bottom though, it is well-made and professional, ranging from the cool sets and filming locations to a winding story that always keeps you guessing to a cast that uniformly delivers great performances, especially Hoskins in his star-making role.  If you're curious about the movie and can't find a copy, check it out on Youtube starting with Part 1 of 11.

The Long Good Friday <---trailer (1980): ***/****  

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Air Force

As part of a themed day a few weeks ago, Turner Classic Movies aired a handful of World War II movies honoring the heroes of December 7, 1941 when the Japanese led a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Almost 70 years since one of the biggest, most violent on attacks ever on American soil, it's still hard to wrap your head around the immensity of the attack and how it drastically changed the course of human history.  Some movies like From Here to Eternity focus exclusively on the attack, but others use December 7th as a jumping off point, like 1943's Air Force.

Watching a movie released in 1943 in the U.S., you have to know what you're getting into.  Made with the backing of the U.S. Air Force (and most likely the U.S. government), this is a war story dripping with propaganda.  It was made to encourage the home front, make sure Americans knew what our armed forces were fighting for.  Overall, the movie doesn't overdo it with its message until an unnecessary gruesome finale, but the first 90 minutes is a perfect example of how good a movie can be even with an incredibly one-sided story.  Flag-waving in just about every scene and a can't beat the U.S. mentality end up working toward the positive here.

Taking off from a runway in San Francisco, a B-17 bomber named 'Mary Ann' piloted by 'Irish' Quincannon (John Ridgely) and Bill Williams (Gig Young) heads out over the Pacific bound for Hickam Field in Hawaii. With several new members of the nine-man crew, they have little experience working together but quickly find themselves needing to get on the same page.  They fly into Hawaii on the afternoon of Dec. 7, 1941 just hours after the sneak attack by the Japanese Navy that almost cripples the U.S. Pacific fleet.  They land and are are quickly given orders to continue flying to the west.  Reports of Japanese attacks throughout the Pacific have the High Command on a major alert, and every man, pilot, and plane is needed to hold back the advance if the U.S. has any chance of staying in the conflict.

Director Howard Hawks did a wise thing setting this story in and around the opening days of the U.S. involvement in World War II. Looking at the story as simplistically as possible, we get a tour of the Pacific in the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor.  We see Battleship Row still in flames, we see the heroic defenders of Wake Island as they await a Japanese attack, we see military bases in Manila falling back under waves of Japanese attackers.  It serves two purposes, one being a jumping off point for everything that's going on, and two, it shows these heroic efforts put forth by American soldiers, Marines, sailors, civilians and pilots throughout the Pacific against impossible odds.  And make no mistake, many of the people on Wake and throughout the Philippines were either killed or captured by the Japanese.

The propaganda is held in check for the most part with two major exceptions.  A machine gunner on the back of a small fighter plane is forced to bail and attempts to parachute to dry land.  Floating back to the ground, he is machine-gunned by a Japanese pilot.  Then as he lies dying on the ground, the pilot flies over again and finishes him off in brutal fashion.  First, there's documented cases of Japanese pilots doing this throughout the war.  Subtle it is not, but in terms of portraying the Japanese in as brutal a depiction as possible, this gets the job done.  Second exception, 2001's Pearl Harbor syndrome. Instead of just telling the story of Pearl Harbor, the 2001 movie adds on the telling of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo because us Americans, we need our happy endings. Here in Air Force, Hawks depicts a fictional, very one-sided depiction of the American Air Force destroying a Japanese invasion fleet on its way to Australia.  It's overdone and just tries too hard, reveling in the defeat of the Japanese.  I understand this might have been a necessary ending in 1943, but now in 2010 it just doesn't work.

Those complaints aside, I loved the movie starting with one of Hawks' biggest strengths as a director.  He had a knack for working perfectly with predominantly male, ensemble casts, and Air Force has a good one.  Ridgely and Young play the pilots of B-17 Mary Ann with the crew including Harry Carey as veteran crew chief Robbie White, John Garfield as new machine gunner Joe Winocki, Arthur Kennedy as bombardier Tommy McMartin, Charles Drake as navigator Monk Hauser, George Tobias as mechanic Weinberg, Ward Wood as radioman Peters, Ray Montgomery as newbie Chester, and James Brown as tag-along fighter pilot Tex Raider. With such a big ensemble, we only get tidbits of info about each man, but they cover a melting pot of the Americans fighting in WWII.  They bond through their common goal and will to survive, doing whatever they can to take the war back at the Japanese.

When propaganda works, it is typically because it hits a nerve.  I've long been a fan of war movies across the board, and you can't help but root in patriotic fashion for this B-17 crew.  For a start, they're very easy to like, all of them.  When one of the crew dies following a Japanese attack, you see the others throw caution to the wind in hopes of reassembling the plane so they can rejoin the war effort.  Carey and Garfield cradling machine guns in their arms fighting off Japanese Zeroes hits you in the gut.  It's over the top and hammy, but it's perfectly portrayed. Obviously now in 2010, we know the Allies won WWII.  But in 1943 the war was still up for grabs, and Americans could always use a positive jolt.  This certainly qualifies.

Air Force <---trailer (1943): *** 1/2 /****  

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Aguirre: The Wrath of God

Pair one of the craziest, most eccentric directors of the last 50 years -- German director Werner Herzog -- with one of the craziest, most eccentric actors of the last 50 years -- Klaus Kinski -- and what do you get? A movie that defies description, one that is equally loved and despised depending on who you ask.  Critics love it, and it has gained a reputation as one of the 100 best movies ever made, whether toward more of an arthouse crowd or movie fans in general.  The movie is 1972's Aguirre: The Wrath of God.

It is a movie that might as well come with a warning for anyone willing to sit down and actually watch it.  It is an art-house movie, one that movie aficionados can talk about in that snooty, I'm better than you tone because they "get" a movie.  It is a movie that is respected in part because of its badness, its small budget limiting the overall production but adding to a sense of realism, of verisimilitude (yeah, that's right. I can use a thesaurus too).  I don't know where to begin with a movie like this, one I've long been aware of but never watched before now.  Did I like it? Did I hate it? Honestly, Hell if I know.

Following the destruction of the Incan empire in the mid 16th Century, explorer Pizarro (Alejandro Repulles) leads an expedition into the Amazon jungle in search of the famed golden city of El Dorado. When his column meets obstacle after obstacle, he sends ahead a smaller group of 40 men headed by one of his officers, Ursua (Ruy Guerra), with Don Aguirre (Kinski) as his second in command. Heading downriver, this second column quickly faces the same problems; horrific conditions, dwindling supplies, treachery in the ranks, and an unseen hostile Indian enemy hiding in the jungle.  As the days pass and they trek further into the unknown, Aguirre's true nature comes out, a man obsessed with the glory and riches that await them in El Dorado, consequences and sacrifices be damned.

This movie doesn't have a plot so much as portraying a descent into madness.  Herzog apparently wrote the screenplay in two or three days, but even that sounds off.  There is little in the way of dialogue other than narration provided by Brother Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro), and the story doesn't develop much other than seeing this group of men slowly lose their minds as disease and fatigue take over.  I was frustrated beyond all belief watching this movie.  Random things happen that seem to have nothing to do with, well, anything, and then are thrown aside liked yesterday's trash.

One of the selling points of this movie was the incredible camera techniques, the uniqueness of it all.  I'll say this, 'Aguirre' is one of the most real movies I've ever seen.  Herzog filmed in the Peruvian rainforests and brought his cast and crew into some horrific places, filming all the time.  In scenes of the expedition floating down the Amazon, those frightened to death faces aren't faking it.  Those are real looks of terror.  Herzog built rafts, put his cameras on them, and shoved off to get his scenes.  No CGI or stuntmen here.  His camera is the fly on the wall, drifting in and among these men as they venture into madness.  We are there with them seeing this all happen.  It is a documentary posing as a feature film.  We're in the mud and muck with them seeing it all come apart bit by bit and piece by piece.

But for all the reality of the movie, it's incredibly frustrating to watch.  Dialogue is kept to an absolute minimum, and before he addresses his men about halfway through the movie I think Kinski spoke about 8 words.  Herzog sets up these epic scenes and then just leaves his camera there.  The opening scene is Pizarro's expedition making their way down an almost vertical path through the jungle.  It's a remarkable scene...for the first minute or so.  It goes on and on untouched, unedited.  That's the whole movie, static shots that are used repeatedly and feel like Herzog wants to beat you over the head to get his point across.  Whole stretches of time go by with absolutely nothing happening.  At one point, I looked up and saw there was 15 minutes left.  I was conflicted.  I was happy it was almost over, but at the same time, where had the last 75 minutes gone?

What does work here (even if it is a case of too little, too late) is the final 20-25 minutes as Aguirre's power-hungry motives come to fruition.  He pushes his men beyond all limits, killing anyone who even mentions turning back.  The remaining conquistadores float down the Amazon on this immense raft almost waiting to die in this finale that plays like an other-worldly dream, a depiction of the end of the world.  German band Popol Vuh supplies the soundtrack (listen HERE), a perfectly chosen piece of music. Watching the finale, you get the distinct feeling of some hallucinatory drug.  Is this really happening? Is Herzog insane?  The final shot of the movie is an incredible helicopter tracking shot that wraps it all up, one of the greatest final shots I've ever come across just for how well it is crafted.   

Herzog and Kinski would go on to work together several more times, and you can see why.  They're both bat-shit crazy.  No one could play the part of Don Lope de Aguirre like Kinski.  This is only the second movie of his I've seen that wasn't a spaghetti western, and it's quite a part.  It is all presence and looks with little in the way of speaking.  When he does talk, it is these incredible monologues that make the rest of the movie almost worthwhile.  This isn't a guy reciting lines.  This is an actor who believes what he's saying.  He truly is the wrath of God, the best part of a movie that I really didn't enjoy, but will most likely end up watching again at some point.  It's weird, unsettling, different, and will probably infuriate some viewers.  Give it a go though.

Aguirre: The Wrath of God <---trailer (1972): **/****

Friday, December 17, 2010

Predators

One of my favorite 80s movies is Predator with a cast that includes the Governator, Carl Weathers, Bill Duke, Jesse Ventura, and one of the coolest movie monsters ever...albeit from a different galaxy.  It was a men on a mission movie on steroids, a team of specialists working together to survive attacks from an unknown, unseen galactic killer.  How could that movie not be good? I was somewhat suspicious then when I found out a new Predator movie was being made, this past summer's Predators.

If you're going to go back to the well of a successful film franchise, you might as well do it well.  Director/producer/writer extraordinaire Robert Rodriguez steps in for this movie which is really more of a reboot than a sequel to the 1987 original. There was a certain charm about the original, a low-budget feel with some great casting and great action, different from most sci-fi action movies from the 1980s.  Rodriguez and director Nimrod Antal don't alter a successful formula too much, sticking with what works and doing just enough different to keep things interesting.

Waking up from a deep sleep (that he can't remember how he was knocked out) in a free fall, a man named Royce (Adrien Brody) has a parachute deploy right before he crashes into a thick jungle below.  He doesn't know who did this to him, or where he is, but soon finds there are seven other people just like him similarly dropped into the jungle.  What's going on? Royce begins to piece things together as the seven are introduced.  This little group include some of the world's best killers -- with one odd exception, a doctor (Topher Grace) -- and they're all packing ridiculous amounts of firepower.  It doesn't take long for them to figure things out; they're on a planet in another galaxy being hunted by a pack of predators on some sort of game preserve...and they are the game.  Can they band together to survive or will they be picked off one by one?

Let's start at the beginning, one of the best openers in an action movie I've seen in awhile.  No background, no introduction, just an opening shot of Brody's Royce in free fall trying to figure out how to open his parachute.  He manages to just in time, still landing not so lightly in the jungle below.  Other people start to pop up and figure things out as to what's happening.  Obviously as a viewer of a movie called Predators, we know what's going on (especially if you saw any of the previews), but the sense of the unknown still carries the movie in its first hour.  It follows the Jaws rule of hiding your creature/attacker/monster, waiting a full hour before we get a glimpse of these galactic hunters.  In this thick jungle, anything could be hiding, and Antal packs the story with tension to spare.

Just like the original, the story requires a group of specialists to work together in this hellish situation.  I'll be the first to say that Adrien Brody doesn't strike me as much of an action star, but boy, I was wrong.  He nails the part of the loner mercenary who doesn't care much for his fellow survivors/killers.  The rest of the hunted include Isabelle (Alice Braga), an Israeli sniper, Cuchillo (Danny Trejo), a drug cartel enforcer, Nicholai (Oleg Taktarov), a Russian special forces soldier, Mombasa (Mahershalalhasbaz Ali), a leader of a Sierra Leone death squad, Stans (Walter Goggins), a Death Row inmate, Hanzo (Louis Ozawa Changchien), a Yakuza killer, and Grace's doctor. Some are developed more than others, Isabelle Nicholai and Hanzo rising above the rest, but half the fun is figuring out who's going to survive and how the rest are going to meet their grisly end.  There are some surprises along the way that certainly kept me guessing.

Now while I liked the movie, the second half just can't keep up the momentum of the first half.  We meet Noland (Laurence Fishburne), a member of a previous hunt who somehow survived the Predators' attacks.  The pacing bogs down after moving a mile a minute early on even with Fishburne hamming it up like nobody's business.  His part amounts to a quick cameo (he's only around for two scenes), but it's a memorable part.  The pacing slows down some and goes with the tried and true formula of team running, Predators chasing, members being picked off, epic showdown to end it all.  The finale makes up the sometime slow pacing as Brody's Royce goes toe to toe with the biggest, baddest Predator. Also an especially bright spot is Hanzo's showdown with one of three Predators in an open field in the dead of night, a very stylistic, very cool action sequence in its subtlety.

What I thought was cool overall was how the 2010 version paid homage to its predecessors.  Braga's Isabelle has a great monologue that links this movie with the 1987 original, a great scene that any fans of the original will appreciate.  We also get some more background information on these Predators (more than just galactic killers) and why they do what they do.  Add on a similar score that moved the action along in 1987, and you've got some great elements that add up to an above average, well-made action movie.  And surprise, surprise, the ending leaves the door wide open for a sequel.  I'm looking forward to it.

Predators <---(2010): ***/****

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Criminal

Nothing really screams out 'movie star!' when you look at British actor Stanley Baker.  He was often a supporting player in major film productions, providing that always necessary background actor who didn't need much screentime to make an impression.  In the classic WWII adventure The Guns of Navarone, he did just that, making quite an impression as a soldier physically and emotionally drained from the toll the war has taken on him.  Making that jump to a lead actor then can be a trial, and not always a smooth one.  Baker was always up to the task though in movies like Zulu, Yesterday's Enemy, and an ahead of its time crime thriller, 1960's The Criminal, also known as Concrete Jungle.

Watching this British crime thriller, I was quickly reminded of many other similar movies released in the 1960s to theaters and not just British movies, but American, Italian and French.  That's not to say this isn't an original idea, and it is handled well, but it's hard not to notice.  The tough, quiet, hard-bitten crook is at the top of his game only to find himself at the bottom of the heap and looking to work his way up.  Yes, it is all familiar, but for a movie released in 1960, it is incredibly dark and cynical.  Everyone is a bad guy -- just depends on the shades of gray -- and in the end, you know it's just not going to be a happy ending for anyone involved.

After serving a long stint in prison, John Bannion (Baker) is released with a pardon, but not before administering one last round of extreme prison justice to a newly arrived prisoner.  Working on a tip from a fellow prisoner, Bannion goes to work on a new job that will net his whole crew a bundle of cash.  It all seems to good to be true, and it is.  The job goes off without a hitch, but someone involved with the heist is an informant, turning Bannion in.  Before he is arrested though, the recently released crook hides all off the cash they robbed and doesn't tell anyone.  As he prepares to go back to prison though, Bannion knows he has a huge target on his back because everyone wants to know the location of the hidden cash, including the informant who turned him in.

I'll get the negatives out of the way early.  I've written about this before, and it will most likely come up again.  As an American viewer, a British accent can be a hard one to understand. That's a huge problem here.  The dialogue from Alun Owen's screenplay is fast-paced and delivered quickly back and forth between characters who are already mumbling to each other.  Long story short, I wasn't always aware of exactly what was going on.  You've got a sense of the big picture, but I'm quite sure I missed a fair share of things along the way.  Also, when you can't understand the words being spoken -- much less hear them -- characters' names and important places get lost in the shuffle.  Looking through the full cast listings at IMDB, I can only identify about half the people listed, and when you're not familiar with many of the faces, that can be a major problem.

I've always thought of movies changing to a more cynical, honest look at the world as coming along in the late 1960s when violence, sex and harsher language all became more acceptable in the eyes of the audience.  Well, this Joseph Losey crime thriller didn't get the memo. The violence isn't necessarily graphic, but it certainly makes an impact.  Characters are picked off left and right as needed, and the consequences on those nearby are clearly seen.  This isn't bang, character dies, let's move on.  There's also some surprising uses of on-screen nudity, some as "tame" as the paintings of naked women in Baker's apartment, others as in your face as German beauty and Baker's love interest Margit Saad stepping out of a tub and the camera doesn't pan away.  No complaints (she looks marvelous to quote Billy Crystal), just an observation.

So it's dark, it's cynical, and no real redeeming qualities anywhere in sight.  Quite a combination of three for a movie.  As the star, Baker plays John Bannion straight down the middle.  He's a criminal without a good bone in his body, always looking out for himself.  He uses everyone around him for personal gain, except Saad's Suzanne, who he may genuinely like or maybe he just enjoys sleeping with her. It is all relative though because the characters around him are that much worse.  There are mobsters gunning for him, sadistic guards who coordinate the beatings, wardens who prefer to remain clueless, fellow prisoners who'd like nothing more than to split him open, and past girlfriends with a grudge.  This guy has his work cut out for him if he wants to make it out alive.

Reflecting the general nature of the cast, the movie is filmed in the darkness and shadows.  The prison set is cramped and claustrophobic, and things don't get better even when Bannion is released.  His apartment is poorly lit and packed with possessions, but it's cold.  That's the whole movie.  It is cold and hard to get involved with, but somehow it still does. In the supporting cast, look for Sam Wanamaker and Nigel Green as part of Bannion's crew, Patrick Magee as head guard Barrows, and Gregoire Aslan as a prisoner with mob connections who can pull some strings.

The Criminal <---trailer (1960): ** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Burn!

Considered by man to be the most talented, most gifted actor in the short history of feature films, Marlon Brando is a step above just about anyone else you can think of.  Laurence Olivier is close, and everyone has their favorites, but just on a skill level, Brando has to near the top.  However you feel about the actor though, he helps his own case with the wide variety of films he did over his career.  One of the first method actors, Brando was never pigeon-holed or cornered into one type of role.  Watch a movie of his, and you'll almost always see something new.

For all his well-known movies though, some slip through the cracks, including 1969's Burn! which aired recently as part of a TCM-themed night. Interviewed by Larry King, Brando even said he thought this was his finest performance.  Considering the movies he's been in and the quality of the parts he played, that's saying something.  It surely is an odd movie that is hard to describe.  Based ever so loosely on the real-life William Walker (really in name only), this story is even more difficult to compare to anything else because I've seen nothing even remotely similar. Is that a bad or good thing here though?

Working for the British government in the 1840s, an English mercenary, William Walker (Brando), arrives on the Caribbean island of Queimada, currently ruled by Portugal.  England would like to gain control of the island and its vast fields of sugar cane so Walker is sent in to instigate a revolution amongst the thousands of poor black villagers living on the island.  He starts by choosing a leader from the slave-like population, Jose Dolores (Evaristo Marquez), and soon the island is alive with rebellion. Walker's plan works, and Britain gains control of the island, allowing him to head home.  Years pass though, and Walker is called in again.  Dolores is at the forefront of another rebellion, and now Walker finds himself hired to take down the man he has built up.

Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, Burn uses a predominantly amateur cast alongside Brando.  There are a few exceptions (including Renato Salvatori as President Teddy Sanchez and Thomas Lyons as General Prada), but it gives the movie an odd feel.  Gorgeous to look at, it was filmed in locations around the world including Colombia, Morocco, and Italy and is aided by a memorable score from Ennio Morricone, but something is missing that I can't put my finger on. Money was clearly spent on the project -- it quickly went over-budget -- but there still remains a feel of a cheap documentary as you watch the movie that is difficult to grasp, especially as I sit here looking back on the movie.

Coming off the huge success of his Battle of Algiers (a classic everyone should try and see), Pontecorvo tackles another movie with a message here.  It is a story full of ideology, symbolism and bigger meanings than just one man fighting for his freedom.  Like anything, it is a mix of the good and bad.  'Burn!' is a product of its times as we hear countless conversations about the rebellion on Queimada that could easily be transferred to the conflict in Vietnam at the time.  Pontecorvo doesn't hit you over the head with his meaning, but it can be tedious at times.  The dialogue goes on and on without an end in sight.  Apparently after he finished the project, the Italian director had the movie taken away from him and re-edited.  What was in the missing footage?  Who knows for sure, but I'm guessing it could have helped fill out some of the holes in the story.

Defying you not to watch him whenever he is on-screen, Brando is the main reason to see this movie.  His William Walker is a mercenary who works for whoever will pay him the most.  He always wears a pistol at his side and carries a canteen full of whiskey over his shoulder, doing his job to the best ability.  Walker doesn't have the principles, beliefs, and ideologies that the men who hired him do.  In a great monologue late that explains much about his character, Walker explains he tried to do whatever was in front of him to the best of his abilities.  As always, Brando commands a ton of respect whenever he is on-screen, and in an 112-minute movie I can't remember a scene he wasn't in.  This is Brando's movie from start to finish.

Still now a few days later, I don't know how to rate this movie.  Brando's starring performance can only take Burn! so far, and it did take me several sittings to get through the whole movie which felt much longer than 112 minutes.  The storytelling had some major holes that can probably be attributed to the editing, but the final product is greatly affected by that editing.  Granted, it wasn't Pontecorvo's fault or Brando's, but I saw the movie in front of me, not one most likely intended.  Flawed overall, but certainly one worth looking into if nothing else.

Burn! <---opening credits (1969): ** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean

When people get more cynical, so do their movies.  In the 1930s, westerns portrayed good guys wearing white hats and bad guys in black duds.  By the time Clint Eastwood came along in the spaghetti westerns gunning down anything that would net him a buck, things were up for grabs.  Then in the late 1960s and 1970s, somebody decided to put a new spin on the old west, stories that were more cynical in nature that attempted to show what the west was really like.  Goodbye romantic, hello cynicism.  Say howdy to the revisionist western.

If you look at the list of westerns included in the Wikipedia entry, there are some good entries, but for the most part I don't necessarily like revisionist westerns.  They try much too hard to show you that what you've been watching all these years is garbage.  Take 1972's The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, directed by one of my favorites, John Huston.  In telling the story of real-life Roy Bean, this western blends some really awkward comedic moments, overlong sub-plots that go nowhere, some hypocritical views on just about everything (can't decide if that was intended), and in general a waste of a very strong cast.

Sometime around the turn of the century, "outlaw" Roy Bean (Paul Newman) rides into west Texas past the Pecos River, an area notorious for hiding bandits and criminals.  At one saloon, they turn on him and leave him for dead only to have the wounded man come back and gun them all down. Disgusted by what he's seen, Bean sets up shop as a judge, administering his unique brand of justice to anyone and everyone looking for trouble.  Word spreads and soon he even has deputies who help him out, all in the name of Texas and Lilly Langtry (Ava Gardner), a stage actress from the east, a woman Bean has always been in love with. But Bean's style of justice may catch up with him as civilization follows him around every corner, and his time may be running out.

I don't know where to start with this one because to be fair, Huston doesn't know where to start either.  Roy Bean was a real-life judge in west Texas who ended up becoming a legendary figure after he died.  So with this revisionist western instead of telling a story that showed what the actual man was like, Huston goes for the ridiculous legend.  At a run-time of 120 minutes (a very long 120 minutes), 'Life' is all over the place with no sense of where it's going.  The tone ranges from slapstick comedy that produces its fair share of groans -- it did from me at least -- to an oddly serious finale.  It tries to be funny while also delivering a hacked up message about the changing times and the last few years of the wild west.  Pick one or the other and go with it, but don't waver between the two.

A bright spot not surprisingly is Newman in the titular role, rising above materiel that at times is just beneath him.  Newman's parts in the 1970s typically covered a wide variety of movies, and this surely doesn't disappoint.  What works is that he commits so fully to this part.  His beliefs are ridiculously hypocritical, and he'll string anyone up at the drop of a hat if he disagrees with what's been said or done.  If you're loyal to him, he'll be loyal to you, but for heaven's sake don't turn on him.  This isn't a part on par with his best performances like Butch Cassidy or Lucas Jackson, but it's a quality one.  Even when the movie is dull to watch, it's worthwhile to check out Newman.

So with a story that is light on story and heavy on non-related vignettes, we get a chance to see a long list of actors play small parts (some being on-screen no more than a few seconds).  Gardner makes an appearance in the movie's final scene in a moving scene that comes along a little too late.  Anthony Perkins is a scene-stealer as a traveling preacher who realizes Newman's Bean may be a little off his rocker but doesn't want to get shot bringing the topic up. Ned Beatty, Matt Clark, Jim Burk, Bill McKinney, and Steve Kanaly are underused but all solid as Bean's loyal deputies. Also watch for Victoria Principal, Tab Hunter, Huston as a grizzled old mountain man, Stacy Keach as an albino gunman, Roddy McDowall, Anthony Zerbe, and Jacqueline Bisset in parts that range from bad to good, your decision on where they fall.

I will give Huston credit for trying new things.  Early on, we get narration from Perkins and Hunter, but instead of just hearing it, the camera is placed right in front of them as they ride into town. They're looking right at the audience, addressing us in a cool change of pace, a unique little technique.  But then the narration resorts to been there, done that voiceovers.  It's just an odd movie overall, one with plenty of flaws but enough positives to give it a mild recommendation.

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean <---trailer (1972): **/****

Monday, December 13, 2010

Black Gunn

In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, a genre called 'blaxploitation' hit theaters that was similar in the vein of B-movies, gory slasher flicks, spaghetti westerns, and biker movies. These were definitely not movies designed for awards season or critical favor, instead focusing on giving audiences what they wanted...violence, sex, drugs, and all set to a cool soundtrack.  Blaxploitation was generally intended for an African American audience, giving a different audience a story about black people.  Stars like Richard Roundtree, Fred Williamson and Jim Brown became huge stars as their movies hit theaters.

Now I've seen a handful of blaxploitation movies -- most notably Shaft -- and thought they were all right, ranging from enjoyable guilty pleasures to downright bad movies.  As a fan of Brown, I've seen Slaughter and decided to watch 1972's Black Gunn this week mostly because I am a fan of the former NFL star.  It's a difficult movie to review (partially because it wasn't very good) mostly because it drips with hypocrisy that made it hard to go along with the movie.  Is it meant to be an exciting action flick or a movie that tries to deliver a message?  I had trouble deciding and struggled to finish the movie.

Running a high-end club in California, Gunn (Brown) does his best to avoid any social conflict going on with militant black groups and the white mafia in Los Angeles.  His brother is a member of one of those groups, BAG (Black Action Group), and is in hot water after the group knocks off a mafia cash room, also stealing important ledgers full of bribes and payoffs.  Gunn still tries to stay out of it, but when his brother is killed for the robbery, all bets are off.  With help from the BAG (including leader Bernie Casey), Gunn goes on the hunt for the men who took out his brother. Pressure from the police and a local senator keep the heat up, but Gunn has his sites set on a low-level mafioso (Martin Landau) he believes is responsible for his brother's death.

Let's get the few positives out of the way early.  In movies like The Dirty Dozen, Dark of the Sun or Ice Station Zebra, Brown is this super-cool action star whose presence made up for his limited acting range.  As Gunn though, he seems to be sleepwalking.  Yeah, the action scenes are handled well, but he never gets into the part.  The eclectic cast is a whopper of a weird one with some odd choices made.  Landau is the ridiculously sadistic mafioso but is in maybe three total scenes, Brenda Sykes is Judith, Gunn's girlfriend, MLB pitcher Vida Blue makes an appearance, and Italian beauty Luciana Paluzzi is an Italian beauty up to no good. The script is nothing special and doesn't have a lot going on, but with the names involved it's at least fun to watch them do their thing.

The one thing I don't really understand with the blaxploitation movies I've seen is that they are one big stereotype.  All the black men are pimps, drug dealers, crooked cops, hired killers, and the women are junkies and whores.  Then there's the white folks who are typically sadistic, brutal, greedy and love nothing more than keeping minorities down.  The portrayals are so obviously over the top that it's hard to take anything seriously.  Landau maniacally laughing as he shoots at Brown and Casey (missing wildly by the way) actually had me laughing out loud.  Paluzzi is the slinky possible love interest who must be up to something who pulls a gun out of nowhere when the jig is up.  I don't know, I just don't understand the appeal with stories that are just plain awful in the portrayals of all races, cultures, ethnic backgrounds, and everything in between.

So add that all up, and we're rooting for a black militant group ranting about how bad the Mafia is.  But because they're fighting the Evil Man, that makes them good?  I guess not, but they're not as bad as the white bad guys (played to slimy perfection by Landau, Bruce Glover, and William Campbell) who torture everyone and kidnap kids.  Race aside, maybe that's my problem.  I wasn't rooting for anyone.  There's NO ONE to root for.  We are never given a reason to side with Brown's Gunn other than that he's cool and therefore must be the bad guy.  Then throw in some hit over the head message about race in America, and you've got a real winner.

What was interesting about Black Gunn was the time it was released.  The 1970s style is everywhere from the giant afros to the cool musical score to the cars the size of boats and just about everything else associated with the decade.  Is it enough to warrant a recommendation?  Not at all, but I've got to throw this one a bone.  It's pretty bad, but it's not the worst movie ever.  Now there is a ringing endorsement for you, huh?

Black Gunn (1972): * 1/2 /****