The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Operation Mad Ball

One of Jack Lemmon's most famous roles came in 1955 as the quiet, mousey, anti-confrontational Ensign Pulver in Mister Roberts starring alongside Henry Fonda and James Cagney. By the end of the movie, his character has transformed into his polar opposite; confident, sure of himself, and not worried about rustling some feathers.  This was explored some in the all-around bad and unnecessary sequel Ensign Pulver unfortunately.  So while in no way related to either 'Roberts' or 'Pulver,' 1957's Operation Mad Ball made me think of the character Pulver as he plays off a variation of that previous character.

As I'm discovering more and more with the comedies I see, I'm never quite sure how to review them. They're meant to be funny of course, but humor is one of the most subjective things about movies.  What's funny to me can fall flat with everyone else in the audience.  With an action movie, you can talk about the fight sequences or the car chase. With heavy dramatic movies, it's the performances and the actors.  What about comedies? Should I just list all the scenes and bits that made me laugh or chuckle?  Now that would be an invigorating read, wouldn't it?  Basically this is an apology to any readers. I like comedies. I like watching them. Reviewing them? Not so much.

It's September 1945 in France at an Allied hospital near Normandy. World War II has been over for several months now in the European theater, and boredom and tedium have set in for the soldiers. At this hospital is Private Hogan (Lemmon), a highly intelligent wheeler dealer who doesn't actually like work but can get just about anything done if he puts his mind to it. One of his fellow soldiers (Roger Smith) would like nothing more than to meet his girlfriend in a private setting, but only Hogan can arrange it. What starts off as a small romantic evening turns into an extravaganza, a gigantic party with seemingly everyone in camp involved. Can Hogan pull it off though? The company adjutant, gung-ho Captain Lock (Ernie Kovacs), already has Hogan on his radar, and he threatens to bring everything crashing down around the scrounging, wheeling and dealing private.

This war flick was aired recently on Turner Classic Movies as part of a one-night tribute to Ernie Kovacs, the ahead of his time comedian from the 1950s who was tragically killed in a car accident in 1962 at the age of 42.  I've seen him in a role here and there but didn't always come away impressed.  To be fair, I think this is the first movie of his I've seen where he plays a dominant role.  As a character you're not supposed to like, he hits this one out of the park.  His Capt. Lock is that guy you're supposed to hate.  He's not as bumbling as he could have been, but you know in the end Hogan will get the best of him. Kovacs shows a knack for subtle humor and more obvious humor in the form of physical comedy. Some of his facial expressions are priceless.  The best though is his final scene, a look of ultimate despair on his face as to what's happening.

As the story moves along, I was reminded of a MASH episode where Hawkeye needs a new pair of boots and starts to trade things so he can get a pair. One trade turns into another until there's a long line of trades waiting to happen, all of them contingent on the other. That's this movie. A scrounger, a wheeler-dealer, a crafty negotiator, Hogan plays his cards right and almost always gets what he wants. The story isn't the most pointed one around because it needs some detours to show the ridiculous amount of detail the enterprising private goes through to pull off the party. Lots going on overall, including a love interest, Nurse Lt. Bixby (Kathryn Grant), a clueless commanding officer (Arthur O'Connell), a worthy foe for Hogan in a quick-witted French widow, Madame LaFour (Jeanne Manet), and a great bit with a German P.O.W. (Kort Falkenberg) posing as a corpse that Lock thinks is still alive.

One of the all-time greats when it comes to acting -- drama, comedy, it doesn't matter -- Jack Lemmon is the show here.  His Private Hogan is the type of soldier who would be a great officer...if he wanted to or even applied himself. Instead, he's pleased with his low responsibility duties that allow him time for his "extracurricular activities."  Lemmon is a scene-stealer in the sense that even when he's low-key, you're drawn to him.  His crew of fellow low-ranking soldiers include Mickey Rooney, a pre-Bewitched Dick York, James Darren, Smith, an uncredited Paul Picerni, and L.Q. Jones among others.  Rooney is memorable especially as a high-strung Southerner, often rhyming all his speech with a 'Fiddle-dee-doo, fiddle-dee-daa' sing-song style of talking, and York too shines as Lock's secretary/assistant who works as a spy and inside source for Hogan's antics and plans.  Good performances at the top and strong supporting parts to back it all up.

What else to say, what else to say? I liked this easygoing post-World War II comedy. It is filmed in black and white -- always a bonus in my mind -- and never tries to be anything other than fun and entertaining.  It succeeds. At 105 minutes, it's that perfect length for a comedy of its ilk.  Good movie, great cast, and a fun movie overall.

Operation Mad Ball <---trailer (1957): ***/****

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

I'm not quite sure why I went to the midnight showing of Transformers: Dark of the Moon late last night/early this morning. It still seems ridiculous to pay $11 to see a movie regardless of how much I actually like going and seeing new movies (a lot by the way). The first Transformers movie was tolerable even if I didn't love it, and the sequel -- Revenge of the Fallen -- has to be one of the most painful experiences I've ever had in a movie theater. But here I sit having watched the third one, and who would have thought of this? I liked it.

No, I didn't love it, and I probably don't ever need to see it again, but for a one-time viewing I can admit it. Wooo, it's almost therapeutic admitting that. Each movie in this trilogy at its best is a disposable summer blockbuster and epic that is supposed to entertain, excite and dazzle.  The master of everything extravagant, over the top and needlessly ridiculous, director Michael Bay actually tightens his final movie. Yes, some of the humor is still a little much, and as cool as the finale is, it does goes on for far too long. Compared to Revenge of the Fallen though, it's a masterpiece in filmmaking.

After teaming with Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen) and the rest of the Autobots to save the world twice, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is struggling to adjust to adult life. He's living in Washington DC with his new girlfriend, Carly (Victoria Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), but he can't manage to find a decent job. He's thrust back into the battle between the Autobots and the Decepticons once again when Megatron (voice of Hugo Weaving) unleashes a plan that threatens to destroy the Earth. Dating back to the original Moon landing in 1969, the government has managed to keep a secret about this battle between factions. But now it threatens to tear the world apart. Trying to save Carly and teaming up with Bumblebee and the NEST team, Sam joins the fight in hopes of finding some way to defeat the seemingly impregnable Decepticons.

I'll say this now, and get it out of the way. This review is going to ramble some, but I'll do my best to keep it on point and somewhat focused....unlike the movie. At 157 very long minutes, this movie is just too long however you cut it. The first 90 minutes are surprisingly un-Michael Bay like with a minimum of action. To his credit, Bay pulls back the reins on the humor department, actually turning to some character development and surprise, surprise, some decent dialogue. Who would have thought of that? Still, there's too many characters, far too much going on at all times, and flaws galore, but I still found myself liking the movie in spite of its flaws.

Maybe the biggest surprise is how far LaBeouf has come from the first movie. By this second sequel, I found myself actually liking the character and rooting for him. The early parts of the movie actually humanize him a bit so you feel like rooting for him. Some of LaBeouf's acting eccentricities are still there, but they just work better here.  Whether it is his relationship with Carly or his feeling of loss not seeing Bumblebee, there is actual emotion in the script. It sounds so simple, but after the generally organized chaos of the first two movies, I'm stunned. Set the bar low enough and see what happens? Good things! He has a solid chemistry with the very beautiful, Barbie doll-like Huntington-Whiteley and manages to provide some of the movie's funnier moments as he copes with being an adult.

I can't explain it, but Bay is able to assemble some serious talent for his scripts that typically have 800 or 900 speaking parts. The best and newest additions to the trilogy were Frances McDormand as a CIA defense agent and John Malkovich as Sam's eccentric, partially crazy boss. Neither part requires either actor to do any heavy lifting, but both consumate professionals look to be having a lot of fun -- especially Malkovich. Patrick Dempsey joins the cast as Dylan, an extraordinarily rich businessman working with the Decepticons. Those are the best additions, but a majority of the cast returns too.  Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson return as Colonel Lennox -- leader of NEST -- and Epps, since retired from the unit but back to join the fight with Sam when needed. John Turturro gets to ham it up as since-retired special agent Simmons, but in a slightly more subdued way than 'Revenge.' A small part for Hangover star Ken Jeong is everything that's wrong with Bay, his sense of humor and his lowest common denominator for laughs while Alan Tudyk is a scene-stealer as Dutch, Simmon's assistant. Also a bonus, Sam's parents (Kevin Dunn and Julie White) are relegated to much smaller parts.    

Living in Chicago the last couple years, it was hard to miss Michael Bay and his production descend on the Windy City. News and media covered it extensively, and as a Chicagoan I was definitely looking forward to seeing how the city looked on the big screen.  It was worth the wait. I wasn't checking my watch, but I'm guessing at least the last hour takes place exclusively in downtown Chicago on Wacker Drive along the Chicago River. It is an orgy of action and CGI (superbly well-done by the way) that doesn't know when to quit, but it is something else to watch. Seeing the city torn to pieces was more than a little odd, but the combination of all these gigantic robots duking it out with Sam, Carly, Lennox, Epps and their teams maneuvering through the city is great. The action is top-notch that could have easily been edited/shortened, but I don't think either of those words is in Michael Bay's lexicon.

The movie certainly starts off on a high note as some history is explained, tying the first Moon landing in 1969 into the battle between the Autobots and Decepticons. It's that type of conspiracy theory that's absolutely ridiculous but is still a lot of fun to watch and just go along for the ride. 

Comparing the three movies there isn't/wasn't a huge difference among them so I'm struggling to put my finger on why I liked this movie. Some of it has to do with the on-location shooting in Chicago, some of it Bay actually toning things down, and even the cast making the most of an average script. Composer Steve Jablonsky turns in a solid, exciting and action-driven score, and Linkin Park adds their new song -- Iridescent -- to the soundtrack. The action is crazy, the CGI amazingly real, and even when I'd felt like I'd been sitting in the theaters for days watching the movie, I still enjoyed it. A classic it is not, but it is the definition of a summer blockbuster flick that goes perfect with a jug of popcorn. That's all I was looking for.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon <---trailer (2011): ***/****

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Valley of Gwangi

Just yesterday I reviewed a dinosaur movie that's one of the worst all-time movies I'd ever seen.  Now I liked it, but not for any good reasons where you'd feel safe recommending the movie.  However poorly executed it was, the premise of dinosaurs existing in modern times is an interesting one. Jurassic Park and its sequels surely speak to that.  But one that works on the same premise as Dinosaurus! is a much better movie released in 1969 that sounds ridiculous, but is nonetheless exciting, The Valley of Gwangi.

I don't really know why I like this movie so much. I saw it for the first time when I was 11 or 12 on AMC and then saw it on multiple viewings on the same channel as part of their Halloween movie marathons over the years.  It is the genre it based in which makes it interesting; a science fiction western.  Take the basic story from Dinosaurus!, subtract about 75 years, transplant the story to Mexico, and have cowboys tangling with prehistoric creatures.  It sounds as crazy as this summer's release Cowboys and Aliens.  For whatever reason though, it just works as a legitimately good movie, not a guilty pleasure.

Years after riding away from a job working with girlfriend/fiance, T.J. (Gila Golan) and her rodeo/wild west show/circus, cowboy Tuck Kirby (James Franciscus) reunites with her as the show travels through Mexico and Central America at the turn of the 20th Century. Their parting was less than ideal so Tuck is welcomed back in a half-hearted fashion. T.J.'s show has a new feature though, a miniature horse unlike anyone has ever seen. The horse escapes though into the desert with T.J., Tuck and all her cowboys following as they eventually discover a hidden valley that's gone unmolested for thousands of years. Inside they find things that no one could have planned on, a valley full of dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures. One of them is a local legend, an allosaurus given the name Gwangi. Can these cowboys capture the creature and put him on exhibit, or will the allosaurus kill them all in the process?

If the story sounds a little familiar, it should. Replace Gwangi with an immense gorilla, and you've got King Kong 2.  That is the movie at its most basic, but director Jim O'Connolly improves on the premise. In the 1950s and 1960s, creature features were a dime a dozen in theaters and drive-ins, but how many can you think of in a wild west setting?  Just on terms of originality, the movie gets points for being unique.  'Gwangi' was shot on location in Spain, using several familiar spots for any fans of spaghetti westerns, especially the bullring and the hidden valley. It's a gorgeous movie to watch, something I might normally take for granted with a movie like this.  As a topper, I'm a sucker for a good soundtrack, and there's an underrated one from composer Jerome Moross which you can listen to HERE and into Parts 2 and 3 at Youtube.

In a handful of other reviews, I've mentioned the work of special effects master Ray Harryhausen, but right up there with his work from Jason and the Argonauts is his work here in 'Gwangi.' The stop-motion filming technique for his creatures seems a little dated now in 2011, but there's a charm to watching his work in a film.  He gets to show off much of his repertoire here, especially with the title character, Gwangi, a blue allosaurus hell bent on killing everything around it. One scene especially impresses as T.J., Tuck and the cowboys try to capture Gwangi with their lassos. Watch it HERE in its entirety. That's just a taste though as Harryhausen covers the gamut from the miniature horse to an attacking pterodactyl, a freaked out elephant to a charging triceratops.

The story itself is in no rush to overwhelm you with all these dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures. Definitely a slow burn here as anything and everything is laid out.  Then about 35 minutes in, it's dinosaur time and the rest of the movie focuses on the cowboys tangling with all these creatures.  It does look dated, but these sequences are still pretty cool.  The finale is also very impressive as Gwangi goes on a rampage in the crowded Mexican village, finally cornering himself in a still-to-be built cathedral.  Harryhausen had an overload of talent, and this is the master at some of his best work.

If you were wondering, Gwangi and Harryhausen's creatures are the real stars of the movie, but the cast is nothing to sneeze at.  Franciscus was never a big star, but I've always liked him and here as heroic Tuck Kirby he is no exception. Model turned actress Golan is okay as T.J. but nothing special. There's also B-movie star Richard Carlson as Champ, Laurence Naismith as Professor Bromley, Gustavo Rojo as head cowboy Carlos, Freda Jackson as Tia Zarina, a gypsy witch, Dennis Kilbane and Mario De Barros as Rowdy and Bean, two of T.J.'s cowboys, and Curtis Arden as Lope, the requisite young Mexican boy.

There are a ton of fan videos and clips available to watch at Youtube for anyone looking to see more of Harryhausen's creatures.  I'd recommend checking the whole movie out though, and not just those specific scenes.  It is a movie that is a lot of fun and rises above just being a creature flick B-movie. Really, how can you go wrong with a sci-fi cowboy movie? Okay, don't answer that. Just watch the movie.

The Valley of Gwangi <---trailer (1969): ***/**** 

Monday, June 27, 2011


Let's get this out of the way early.  Released in 1960 most likely to drive-ins and double features, Dinosaurus! is one of the worst movies I've ever seen. Remember how I've mentioned that a bad movie can be good because it knows it is a bad movie?  Yeah, it's like that except this is a genuinely awful movie.  Truly awful.  I say this because the rating is going to throw people off.  I give a lot of movies that are much better than this flick average ratings.  Dinosaurus! on the other hand's going to get a positive rating. It's that bad. Awful, horrific, painful to watch at times. And that's why I loved it.

Made for about $25 or so, this is a low-budget B-movie that never strives to be anything else.  Actually, the budget was an estimated $450,000. Now what that money went toward, I just don't know. Your guess is as good as mine.  It has it all in terms of badness.  The premise is one that countless other bad sci-fi movies have used, but that's nothing. The script is laughable, the acting even worse, and the special effects....well, calling them special effects is an insult to other movies that try to actually use special effects. This probably won't be the most well-rounded review I've had. I'm seeing just a list of funny moments that cracked me up so enjoy.

Working to clear a harbor off a Caribbean island, construction crew workers Bart (Ward Ramsey) and Chuck (Paul Lukather) unearth two fossilized, perfectly preserved dinosaurs in the water, one a T-Rex, the other a brontosaurus. What they don't see is that the island head honcho and all-around A-hole, Hacker (Fred Engelberg), also deserves a frozen caveman and brings him ashore. The creatures are left under guard -- by the island wino at that -- overnight and the island life goes back to normal...briefly.  Supposedly dead, the creatures wake up and begin to tramp all over the island. With no way off the island and no communication available to call for help, Bart and Chuck must figure some way to save the island's inhabitants before these two dinosaurs wreak havoc.

First sign this was going to be interesting to watch?  Reading the synopsis and cast listing at TCM's website, I didn't recognize a single name.  Not one.  The acting is atrocious.  Ramsey's Bart is the stoic hero, always at the forefront of some awful attempts to save the island. Lukather's Chuck is the sidekick because all heroes need a sidekick, right?  Engelberg is hilarious as the villainous Hacker, sneering and growling throughout.  There's also the requisite love interest, Betty (Kristina Hanson), dressed like she's going to a ball, 12-year old actor Alan Roberts as Julio, one of the worst child actors I've ever seen, Dumpy (Wayne C. Treadway), the bumbling, chubby doofus around for comic relief, Luci Blaine as the sexy minority, Chica, Mousey (Howard Dayton) and Jasper (Jack Younger), the dimwitted henchmen, and of course, Gregg Martell as the Neanderthal.  More on that to come.

Acting in a bad B-movie? Let's get to the fun stuff!  If anyone ever thought Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion dinosaurs/creatures were cheesy, this would be the movie to show them that Harryhausen was a master of his craft.  The dinosaurs go two ways here.  One, miniatures shot in extreme close-up with their mouths moving occasionally and roaring dubbed in later.  Two, when required to move across the screen they look like they're walking on a fast-moving treadmill.  Even better? Little Julio and his Neanderthal friend end up riding the brontosaurus. How would you go about managing that? Put little action figures on the dinosaur model and go to town.  The best is saved for last though when Bart goes mano-a-mano against the T-Rex....wait for a steamshovel crane. The bored looking background players make it extra special.  Maybe the greatest fight in the history of movies.  I'm just saying.

The bad dinosaur models on their own wouldn't be enough to cripple a movie.  More needs to happen.  Most of this movie was shot on a studio set with a few quick field trips to the outdoors (very quick trips) before retreating indoors.  The rest the movie is a mix of green screen shots, second unit shooting, and the cast running around a set that would have made Gilligan's Island look realistic. The green screen shots are the best. The cast stands far too close to the camera, and off behind them in blurry footage are fleeing villagers.  Cut to a long shot of random extras walking around to safety, and then back to those scary dinosaurs.  You take for granted sometimes the professionalism involved in making a genuinely good movie. This flick will certainly remind you.

Now all that said, a truly bad movie has that something else, that something you just can't fake.  It's genuine badness, moments that have you roaring in laughter at a delivered line or an amateurish effect. As I'm watching the movie, I'm trying to keep a tally in my head of all Dinosaurus!'s great moments, but I quickly lost track. Here's a few goodies. Julio -- apparently a dinosaur expert because he reads cereal boxes -- quickly takes on the brontosaurus as his friend and gets quite defensive about it. When the T-Rex attacks his new friend, he throws rocks at him. Bart and Dumpy arrive on the scene as they fight, Bart observing with a chuckle 'Front row seats, huh?!?' Oh Lord, I laughed.

What else, what else? Julio also befriends the Neanderthal, teaching him how to make a snack. The little kid's dialogue is so stiff, so unnatural that the scene is even worse than it sounds.  Later, Betty tries to knock the Neanderthal out because obviously he's oggling her and up to no good.  Then in the finale, the Neanderthal -- probably the most sympathetic character in the whole movie -- ends up getting killed saving the rest of these idiots from a cave-in.  A destroyed Julio asks why he had to die.  Bart (summoning his best Mr. Brady impression) explains that the caveman's time was gone in a world he wasn't familiar with. Julio -- seconds before on the brink of suicide -- says that world sounds awesome!  Yeah, death! Then there's the ending when 'The End' pops up, followed by a question mark.  Oh, no, is it the end?!? Are there more dinosaurs out there?

Good news for those interested in seeing this amazingly bad movie.  It's available to watch on Youtube in its entirety, starting HERE with Part 1 of  9.  You most likely will be disappointed, but that is all the fun. With all the good movies out there, you've got to watch some bad ones now and again.  And don't be confused, this is one of the worst.

Dinosaurus!<---trailer (1960): ***/****

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Smokey and the Bandit

Some movies just sound good. With a movie based off Shakespeare or Tolstoy or a Jane Eyre novel, you're going to get a supremely well-written and most likely well-acted movie. Then there's the polar opposite. You know you're going to have fun watching this movie. Burt Reynolds driving a badass car through the South with every sheriff and police officer around chasing him?  That's 1977's Smokey and the Bandit.

This is a movie I'd never even seen a minute of before. Heard of it, knew what it was about, yes. Seen it? Not even a little bit.  I've always been a fan of Burt Reynolds, and this is probably his most well-known movie right up there with the original The Longest Yard. The 1970s were Reynolds' decade as he was one of if not the most popular movie stars around. Think of George Clooney and Brad Pitt rolled into one. This is him at its best, a little slice of Americana that is the definition of a popcorn movie.

A reputation for being able to pull off the impossible, a trucker named Bandit (Reynolds) has taken on an impossible dare that no one has ever pulled off. Leaving from Georgia, he has to drive to Texarkana, Texas, pick up 400 cases of Coors beer and race back to Georgia, all in 28 hours. The only problem? Transporting Coors beer east of the Mississippi is bootlegging. Driving as a blocker in a Pontiac TransAm to clear the way, Bandit recruits old buddy and fellow trucker, Snowman (country singer Jerry Reed), to drive an 18-wheeler full of the beer. Picking up the beer proves to be the easy part, but on the return trip, Bandit picks up Carrie (Sally Field), a woman on the side of the road in a wedding gown. He thinks nothing of it, but almost immediatey, a Texas sheriff, Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason) is on his tail. With time running out, can Bandit and Snowman make it back to Georgia?

On the Making Of documentary on the DVD, Reynolds says he told stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham that the script (which Needham had helped write) was the worst thing he'd ever read...and that he'd do the movie. Reynolds later states that they improvised a lot of the banter along the way. And you know what? It doesn't matter that the script is lousy because the story is nonexistent. The driving mission across the South is laid out early, and from there on in it's one big chase full of fast cars, idiotic police, and some memorable country ballads. Unpretentious and fun, this movie never aspires to be anything other than a movie that is a hell of a lot of fun to watch. Reynolds says it's the perfect rainy weekend afternoon movie, and I can't really disagree.

The best part of the movie is Reynolds. I can't say it is a performance because you get the feel that Reynolds is just playing a bootlegging version of himself. Bandit is funny, smooth, a great driver, a living legend, a ladies man, cocky in his abilities, and through it all, you like him. Reynolds just has a knack for being incredibly likable in almost every role he plays. He has some great one-liners throughout the movie, has a great banter down with Reed's Snowman over the C.B. radio, and looks to be having a ton of fun actually making the movie. Escaping from a pursuing patrol car, Bandit hides behind a building and as he crawls away, turns to the camera and smiles. It's that Burt Reynolds smile. It's completely ridiculous and out of place, but it's perfect. Breaking the fourth wall? You're having too much fun to care.

While this is obviously Reynolds' movie, the three supporting parts are just as important, and none of them disappoint. A Family Guy joke has some fun with Sally Field's casting as the "hot girl," but Fields has a good on-screen chemistry with Reynolds. That's a good thing considering most of their time together is spent in a cramped TransAm. You'd never know that Reed was a singer first and an actor second, but he's just a ball of energy as Cledus -- CB tag 'Snowman' -- Bandit's long-time partner in crime.  And then there's Hollywood legend Jackie Gleason, hamming it up like there's no tomorrow and enjoying every minute of it. He has too many quality one-liners to even repeat here and is so over the top and ridiculous that is character is the perfect fit for this flick.

But basically above all the fun the cast has and the great one-liners are the cars, the chasing and the racing. A long-time stuntman before he turned to directing, Needham has an eye for action, and the chase sequences are a definite high point of the movie featuring some truly impressive (and not always intentional) stunts. There are plenty of driving adventures, and then throw in Reed's soundtrack to make a truly enjoyable movie. They're country ballads -- with a little quicker tempo -- that should be really bad but end up working. There is Eastbound and Down (<----listen there), The Bandit, and The Legend. It's all the little things that add up to make this movie as much fun as it is. It could be judged as a guilty pleasure, but I think it is just a genuinely good, exciting, action-packed and funny movie.

Smokey and the Bandit <---trailer (1977): ***/****

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Captain Nemo and the Underwater City

First introduced to the world in Jules Verne's classic novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Captain Nemo is one of those great mysterious characters in literature.  In films and television, he's been portrayed by James Mason, Herbert Lom, Omar Sharif, Michael Caine, Patrick Stewart and in 1969's Captain Nemo and the Underwater City, he is played by Robert Ryan. The character as Verne intended it is a mysterious one to begin with, but in basically all of the castings, the character is badly (sometimes very badly) miscast.  As much as I love Robert Ryan, this is one epic case of miscasting.

One of Hollywood's more underrated actors, Ryan was a legend, starring in countless classics, able to play both good and bad alike. He specialized in torn tough guys, men with checkered pasts and fiery emotions. He's one of my favorites, but having him playing Nemo was just a bad idea.  For starters, there's that whole physical resemblance thing. Nemo is the son of an Indian Raja, and Ryan is very, very American-looking. None of this is meant to rip on Ryan as an actor. Far from it, mostly because this is an awful movie, and Ryan's casting is just one of many huge holes this movie has.

A ship sailing off the coast of England late in 1864 sinks, the passengers desperately trying to cling to wreckage in the rough waters. A handful of survivors, including a United States senator, Robert Fraser (Chuck Connors), are rescued by several scuba divers under the water. They're brought on-board the Nautilus, the submarine of the mysterious and highly intelligent, Captain Nemo (Ryan). Glad to be alive but confused as to Nemo's intentions, Fraser and Co. go along with the captain as he returns to an immense underwater city he's constructed on the ocean floor.  Nemo insists that no one ever leaves the city, no one returning to the cruel, hypocritical world that they've left behind. Is this life so bad though? Fraser struggles with the decision, going back and forth on what to do.

I was mostly drawn to this movie -- which I'd never even heard of before seeing it at TCM's schedule -- because of the cast, but it took about 10 minutes for me to figure out this wasn't going to be a very good movie.  Some money was clearly spent on the production, but director James Hill just doesn't know what he's doing here. This lavish underwater city looks ridiculous, the costumes and sets are some weird mix of futuristic and bad late 1960s style, and the script is so all over the place that the movie never gets into any rhythm.  That enough for you? It's not campy enough to be so bad it's good, and it is so dull at times that you can't just go along for the ride.

No saving grace here from the cast, but I don't think it is their fault.  It's hard to believe Ryan starred in The Wild Bunch the same year he did 'Nemo.' As great as he was in that movie, he's equally bad here, phoning in his performance. Connors too is miscast as the U.S. Senator on some highly important, secret and dangerous mission for the U.S. government. His hair is about 12 feet high, and he just doesn't work as a Senator. There's also Nanette Newman as Helena, one of the survivors and a single mother, the beautiful Luciana Paluzzi as Mala, a school teacher in Nemo's city, John Turner as Joab, Nemo's right-hand man, Bill Fraser and Kenneth Connors as the gold-hungry Swallow brothers, and Allan Cuthbertson as Lomax, a claustrophobic survivor looking for any way out of this paradise city.

What works against the cast (because there is talent here) is a story and a script that just doesn't know what it wants to do or where to go. A long 10-minute sequence has Nemo giving the survivors a scuba-tour of his city, pointing out fish and fauna in his best Jacques Cousteau impression. Nemo and Helena have a budding relationship as the mysterious captain possibly looks for a wife. The Swallow brothers spent most of their time looking for gold mined from the ocean floor, planning how to escape with as much as they can. Fraser falls for Mala and debates staying with her, also watching out for Joab who sees the senator as competition. There's both too much going on and not enough. I suppose none of these storylines are enough to carry a movie on their own so instead we get tidbits of all of these less than interesting stories.

Mostly though with this movie I was just bored. A movie can be really bad, but as long as it is somewhat entertaining I'll go along for the ride.  Not a long movie at just 105 minutes, I found myself fast-forwarding through basically every underwater sequence. The miniatures of Nemo's city and submarine are pretty poorly handled, and the submarine chase in the finale should have been so much cooler. Instead, the movie limps over the finish line.  Bad, bad and bad. Steer clear.

Captain Nemo and the Underwater City <---trailer (1969): */****

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Pirates of Blood River

Because I don't typically review a lot of horror movies here at Just Hit Play, the horror/thriller genre sometimes gets the short end of the stick, and more specifically certain actors.  Whether you know him by name, it's basically a sure thing that you've seen a movie starring British actor Christopher Lee. At almost 90 years old, Lee has been in almost 200 movies all told, many of them horror and thrillers from Hammer studios in the 1960s and 1970s.  He is synonymous with old school British horror movies, but in his Hammer films, there were some oddities, including 1962's The Pirates of Blood River.

Thanks to the Pirates of the Caribbean movies over the last decade or so, pirates in general have had a bit of rebirth in pop culture recently.  No doubt a lot of that can be attributed to Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow, a lovable scab of a pirate who even as he commits all these despicable acts still finds a way to be endearing in his greed, stupidity and general cluelessness.  Long story short? Pirates were just plain old nasty folks, killing, pillaging and raping wherever they went. 'Blood River' is certainly in that boat, portraying pirates in a negative light in an adventure story that is just a lot of fun.

It's sometime in the early 18th Century on the Isle of Devon, and in a small community of Huguenots, Jonathan Standing (Kerwin Matthews) is in trouble. Accused of having an affair with a married man's wife, Jonathan is sentenced by his own father to 15 years working in the penal colony. He goes, working several months before pulling off a dangerous escape. Fighting his way through the jungle, he's rescued by a crew of pirates led by a Frenchman, Captain LaRoche (Lee), who cuts a deal for Jonathan to lead him to the village. The pirate captain says he's looking for a resting spot for his ship and crew, but Jonathan quickly figures out otherwise. LaRoche is looking for treasure, and he's convinced there's hidden riches waiting for him. With help from an old friend, Henry (Glenn Corbett), Jonathan does everything he can to rescue his people.  

After finishing this movie, I somewhat stupidly started investigating some.  Where was this Isle of Devon? Who were these Huguenots?  Is there any truth to this pirate story, any basis in fact? Basically it was all wasted time.  As near as I can figure, there's no Isle of Devon, the Huguenots were a real people, and there was no basis at all for this premise. This island appears to be somewhere in the Caribbean, maybe somewhere off of Central or South America?  Who knows though, it's never said and it's not really that important. The point is that the movie doesn't need any of that background. It doesn't matter where this island is or who these people are. Jonathan's folks are the good guys, and Lee's pirates are the oh so bad guys.  Enough said, sit back and enjoy the flick.

There is something appealing about the films that came out of the Hammer Studios that is hard to explain. The stories have a small scale to them, but never feel like low-budget features.  A simplicity to the story is always nice as is the case here, good guys vs. bad guys with no real shade of gray.  It's never trying to deliver a message. It's a fun movie with lots of action, gunfights and sword play.  A win-win combination if there ever was one.  Director John Gilling actually never left England to film this movie which is impressive because I had the sense to think he filmed in some sort of Caribbean/jungle location. The pirates are all duded up, the Huguenot community looks like pilgrims, and there's enough action to keep everyone involved and entertained.

The casting is interesting, and in a positive way for the most part. Matthews is the heroic lead given a chance to redeem himself, but Corbett takes some of his screentime as friend and sidekick Henry.  I guess Jonathan needed some help dispatching the pirates so cue Henry, and away we go.  Lee not surprisingly steals his scenes as LaRoche, the smooth, above-it-all pirate captain who always knows how far he can push his men and still get results.  Lee's LaRoche does look ridiculous in his silk shirt, eye patch and tight black pants, but it's just one more weird oddity that adds up. Marla Landi plays Bess, Jonathan's sister, while Andrew Keir has a good part as Jason Standing, Jonathan's stubborn, strong-willed father. LaRoche's pirates include a young Oliver Reed, Peter Arne as Hench, LaRoche's right-hand man, and Michael Ripper as Mac, a possibly mutinous, back-stabbing pirate. 

Looking back over what I've written, I'm seeing that I haven't gone into much detail about the film.  I think it would be a case of over-analyzing a movie that just doesn't call for it.  Is this a great movie? No, not even close. What it is though is an exciting historical action flick from a studio that knew how to appeal to the wants and likes of an audience. From the credits to the final scene, I very much enjoyed Pirate's 87-minute running time. Underrated, exciting, and with some interesting casting. A weird one, but a good one. There are three extended clips available at Youtube, but there's no real rhyme or reason to them so I'm not going to link to them.

The Pirates of Blood River <---trailer (1962): ***/****

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Kingdom

Almost ten years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it can still be difficult to watch anything even remotely tied to the attacks. Actual footage of the planes flying into the World Trade Centers are still surreal to me because it is hard to fathom anything like that ever happened. I've mentioned before in reviews that movies in any way associated with the conflicts since in Iraq and Afghanistan have struggled, even movies based in the U.S. just involving the people involved. Maybe the wound is still too fresh, and who knows when -- if ever-- these movie will be easier to watch.

Even knowing how difficult these movies can be to watch, it is a shame that they have struggled to find audiences.  Many of them are very good to great movies.  The Hurt Locker is an obvious one, but there are countless others, including 2007's The Kingdom. I think it is a film that works better as a straight action movie than a current issues movie. Any "message movie" released since 2011 is going to sound downright preachy, and I was glad to see at IMDB's Message Boards that a fair share of viewers felt like they were watching a propaganda movie.  Up to you to decide for yourself though in that regard.

In an American compound in Saudi Arabia, over 100 people are killed and several more hundred wounded during a two-pronged terrorist attack.  Back in the U.S., FBI Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) is frustrated with the lack of forward movement being taken by the government to investigate the attacks. He pulls some strings within the Saudi government and gets an investigation team headed overseas, Fleury at the head of the group. From the start though, Fleury's four-man team is met with roadblock after roadblock. Saudi officials -- including lead officer Colonel Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom) -- can only offer token assistance, regardless of how they feel about the attacks and the loss of life. Fed up with his limited timetable and little results, Fleury starts to push back, wanting to desperately catch the men responsible for the attack.

For some reason I'm struggling to put into words, there's something wrong with this movie. I didn't dislike it, but I didn't like it as much as I thought I would either. It's more than a little formulaic in a paint-by-numbers police procedural sort of way. The message (if it was intended this way) is somewhat heavy-handed and does come across as blatant propaganda at times.  The thing that bothered me most though was the simplicity of the whole thing. These four FBI agents basically track down the most sought after terrorist in the world in the matter of a few hours once their handcuffs are removed by limitations and local police procedure. Really? That's it? Yes, I realize this is a movie and not reality, but it is all too straightforward.

Netflix thought I would love this movie, no doubt because I've highly rated other similar men/team on a mission movies. The cast was a big drawing point for me, but in its execution it was somewhat disappointing.  Foxx has come a long way from his days on The Jamie Foxx Show, proving again he's capable of leading a solid cast in a Hollywood big budget picture. Also impressing is Chris Cooper as Grant Sykes, a bomb technician and high explosives expert. He's that wily veteran who's always ready with some smart ass comment. Sykes is old school and doesn't care if he pisses you off as long as he gets the job done. Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner though I felt like they were miscast. Bateman plays Adam Leavitt, an intelligence analyst, while Garner is Janet Mayes, a forensic examiner. Neither actor is given a lot to do with their character, but they felt entirely out of place to me in this movie.

The best performance though hands down goes to Barhom as Colonel Faris Al Ghazi, the Saudi police officer working almost as the team's liaison during their investigation. Having seen what the terrorists can and will do in his country to innocent people, Al Ghazi is fed up with the system, and generally being hamstrung by policy and procedure that limit his actions.  The chemistry Bahrom has with Foxx is top-notch, these two men with completely different backgrounds working together, finding out they're not so different after all.  Their scenes together crackle, some great dialogue back and forth about their ideals, principles and motivations.  This Saudi character humanizes the movie in a way that surprised me. Other small supporting parts go to Ali Suliman as Haytham, Al Ghazi's right hand man, Jeremy Piven as the State Dept. official just trying to get the team out of country safely, Kyle Chandler as an FBI agent, Richard Jenkins as the head of the FBI, Tim McGraw, and Danny Huston

Where the first 75 minutes or so dawdles along at times, the pacing picks up to a frenetic pace in the final 35 minutes. One of the team is kidnapped in a high-speed attack on a highway, leaving the other three and the two Saudi police officers to pursue the kidnappers into the city. We're talking car chase followed by a rip-roaring shoot-out with a lot of firepower and a cool hand-to-hand combat scene.  The ending itself offers a bit of a surprise too, a happy ending with a 'P.S.'  I won't spoil it here, but it's a realistic ending. For all the victories that may be achieved in this war, there will always be another fight.  It is an eerie ending, a frustrating finale.

Director Peter Berg is one of the more underrated directors out there, and he doesn't disappoint here.  On the DVD commentary, he mentions that an ending from one of the early drafts of the script called for a whopper of a twist. As they leave, the whole team is killed in another terrorist bombing.  The ending as is now is pretty solid, one that doesn't need that extra shock value.  That's what the finale would have been; a shocker if Berg went with the alternate. This was a good movie that could have been better, and one that is saved by the power of its ending.  Better when it focuses on being an action movie than a message movie.

The Kingdom <---trailer (2007): ***/****

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

You forget your keys somewhere and are therefore a couple minutes late to wherever you were going. Driving to work, you take a different route and as a result avoid a horrific car accident. You take one road instead of another, and some how, some way, cancer is cured. Free will. Predestination. Are we supposed to do something in our lives or is it up to us? Do we control our own fate? It's a question based in personal beliefs, convictions, principles, religion, and so much more.

In an age of mindless action movies and thrillers, I'm glad to see movies like 2011's The Adjustment Bureau. It is based off a short story titled Adjustment Team that was originally published in 1954 by science fiction master Philip K. Dick. This is an atypical mainstream movie. It is a thriller, but one without gunplay, explosions and random nudity. For the most part, it is a smart thriller. It is unique and at times thought-provoking in its discussion of free will and destiny. No doubt it will divide people, and the ending certainly leaves something to be desired, but taken on the whole it is a good movie.

A politician on the rise in the state of New York, David Norris (Matt Damon) is on the fast track to bigger and better things. He has risen up from a checkered background as a kid to become the youngest Congressman ever, and now stands poised to become a U.S. Senator. For David though, he has gone off his supposed life plan when he meets Elise (Emily Blunt), a beautiful young dancer with whom he clicks with immediately. David was not supposed to meet Elise because his interactions with her will divert him from his supposed path. When he sees this going on -- mysterious men in suits and hats altering his life and those around him -- David doesn't believe what he sees. It's just too ludicrous, too out of this world. These men will stop at nothing though to get David back on his right path.

The idea behind the Adjustment Bureau -- the actual team of men altering people's lives, not the actual movie -- is one of the most original, unique concepts I can think of in any cultural form; film, television, literature.  What makes it work is that it is never spelled out exactly what's going on. The Bureau is headed by someone called the Chairman who has these agents who look after people, making sure they stay on their paths and avoiding detours. Are they guardian angels? Are they human at all?  They aren't killers or murderers, and for the most part their methods are peaceful if obviously a bit invasive.  The agents have some sort of other-worldly ability and face certain limitations. All things considered though, they get people to do what they should in life, often making them forsake (unknowingly) what they want to do or at least think they want to do.

This movie from director George Nolfi (making his directorial debut) reminded me of last summer's huge hit Inception. It is smart, well-written, and thought-provoking. Criticize it for whatever you want, but I thought at its best it shows that you can make a smart movie without resorting to lowest common denominators. Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips -- who I don't always agree with -- made a great point in his review. There are no guns, no explosions, nothing BIG in this movie. It is personal and emotional, letting the drama we're watching on-screen fill in for any loss of pyrotechnics. I'm not wording this as nicely, smoothly or efficiently as I'd like to here so hopefully I'm getting my message across.

On screen relationships can make or break a movie, simple as that. For 'Bureau,' Matt Damon and Emily Blunt are a match made in heaven. Their chemistry in every single scene is tangible. You feel this connection between these two people.  The dilemma here is that their characters are not supposed to be together in any way. Damon's David is supposed to do huge things that won't happen if he stays with Blunt's Elise who similarly will see her hopes and dreams dashed if she stays with him. Thrillers so often lack any heart, any real reason for us to support or root for characters. That's definitely not the case here.  And as it goes bringing up interesting questions, what is more important? Living up to your potential, your supposed plan? Or should you be happy with someone you love?  It is a decision so many have to make at some point in their life. Any criticism I have with this movie (the big one's coming up in the next paragraph), Damon and Blunt are immune. Together, they are about as perfect as an on-screen couple can be.

I don't remember when I started thinking like this about movies, but it hits me more and more over the last couple years. I'm sitting there enjoying a movie -- in this case thinking should I go 3.5 stars or bust out 4? -- and I begin to are they going to wrap this up? How will this movie end?  The build-up is near perfect, but the end reveal disappoints in a big way. I suspect this movie didn't have the balls to do a downer ending (I'm talking rrrrrrrrreal downer of an ending), but the route they went felt like a cop-out to me.  It is just too simplistic with the background and explanation we've been offered in the past.  It isn't a movie killer, but it does take it down a notch overall.  It is too contrite, too happy.

It is hard to judge here the members of the Adjustment Bureau because we know little to nothing about them, even in the end when everything has been resolved more or less.  Mad Men star John Slattery plays Richardson, Terence Stamp is Thompson, the long-time vet of the Bureau called in to deal with the Norris case, and Anthony Mackie is Harry, Norris' personal agent/angel/bodyguard/overseeer. Mackie is the best of the group as Harry, someone who is torn by what he's been taught to do and done for years with his beliefs of what is right and what is wrong.  Mackie is an actor destined for stardom it seems, and this is another strong part for the 33-year old actor. Also watch for Michael Kelly as Charlie, David's friend, co-worker and campaign manager.

I go back and forth with movies like this. Do I want everything explained to me? A little bit. The explanation almost always disappoints though, letting you down because it doesn't make any sense.  The other end of the spectrum can be as equally frustrating when a movie leaves it up to the viewer to figure things out for themselves.  Adjustment Bureau falls in the middle, doing a little of both. Some questions are answered, others are not. I guess that's the best we're going to get.  A really good movie that could have been great with a few tweaks, especially that ending.

The Adjustment Bureau <---trailer (2011): ***/****

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Screaming Eagles

Thanks to the Stephen Ambrose book and the Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks produced miniseries Band of Brothers, the 101st Airborne Division has become synonymous with WWII.  History buffs and casual fans alike are aware of the famous division that played such a large role in the European theater following the D-Day invasion all the way until the end of the war. The miniseries is one of the all-time greats, and one that any history fan will enjoy.  It is of course not the only story of the division out there, just the most well known.

Countless WWII stories set in the European theater of war have mentioned the division and their exploits, like Battleground, Saving Private Ryan, and The Longest Day.  Some are just glancing encounters as these paratroopers navigate through the hell of the Normandy invasion or some six months later at the siege at Bastogne.  Wherever it is set though and whatever the situation, it's hard not to appreciate their acts of bravery and courage of these men.  A little movie from 1956 was one of the first to tell their story, its title dedicated to the division's nickname, Screaming Eagles

It is early June 1944, and Privates Mason (Tom Tryon) and Corliss (Martin Milner) arrive at their new unit at a camp in England, D Company from a battalion in the 101st Airborne Division. Standoffish from the get-go, the always ready to fight Mason quickly alienates himself from his squad mates.  The rest of the squad wants him transferred, but the platoon commander, Lt. Pauling (Jan Merlin), wants to do otherwise. He knows the invasion of Europe is coming soon, and that every man will be needed. Pauling convinces the men to give Mason another chance and tells the troublesome private to get in line.  Then the orders come through, the 101st will be dropped inland of Normandy, Pauling's platoon receiving an assignment to hold a key bridge along the road to the beach. Their past personal problems aside, Mason and the platoon gear up for the coming fight.

I've mentioned before that a movie can be generally forgotten over the years. A good clue is to look at a movie's IMDB page. Click on the left where a typical movie is chock full of little tidbits about the movie, anything ranging from quotes to cast to business and trivia.  'Screaming' has little to nothing. It is a small budget, B-movie from director Charles F. Haas that clocks in at just 79 minutes. My first reaction was that it was a TV show from the 1950s edited into a movie that could have been released in theaters. Nope, just a small movie.  It certainly has the look of a TV show, but what are you going to do? There's nothing really special about the movie, but it's good enough. Ringing endorsement if there ever was one, huh?

Reading about this movie when it popped up on TCM's schedule, I was intrigued by the cast. There weren't big names, but there were a lot of recognizable names. Some of these names didn't even ring a bell, but as I look through their filmography, I recognize quite a lot of them from the other movies they starred in (if nothing else).  Tryon had a quick window in the late 1950s and early 1960s where he was in movies and TV, starring here as troublemaker Pvt. Mason.  He's somewhat wooden, and his character motivations as to why he's such an ass are never really explained. Merlin is especially good as Lt. Pauling, the officer just trying to keep his men together as the well-trained unit they are. Other members of the platoon include Mark Damon and Robert Blake (but look quick or you'll miss them), Pat Conway, Paul Burke, Alvy Moore, and Joe Di Reda.

With a movie that isn't even 90 minutes long though, an obvious problem occurs.  An introductory title card explains this is the story of 15 men and their exploits in WWII.  Okay, fair enough, a story about 15 paratroopers.  Most of them are never identified though....until after they're dead.  Another soldier states "Oh, they got Hernandez" and that's it.  I realize with a 79-minute B-movie that character development and fleshing out all the roles isn't the most important thing, but even a token effort would have been appreciated. Lt. Pauling reciting off the names of the killed members of the platoon would have registered a little bit then.

For a pretty straightforward war story, I enjoyed 'Screaming' once the paratroopers actually dropped into Normandy.  One officer is killed almost immediately, and Lt. Pauling is blinded when a gun goes off in his eyes. Mason is placed in charge of being his watchdog, guiding the officer wherever they go. The story again is not developed much there, but it gives Mason a chance to amount to something, to see that this doesn't have to be a one-man war. He can't just look out for himself. He has to watch out for the men around him too.  I liked the movie though, and if you can catch it again on TCM's schedule, it's worth a watch.

Screaming Eagles (1956): ** 1/2 /**** 

Monday, June 20, 2011


Is there anything more ridiculous that a person can do than jump out of a plane with a parachute? I say this as someone who would like to sky-dive at some point in my life, knowing the inherent and fairly obvious consequences that could result from said experience. Now let's add something to the equation. What about jumping out of a plane and landing somewhere where thousands of men with guns would like nothing more than to kill you?  Okay, so maybe not my best lead ever, but I thought it was good enough for a movie appropriately titled Paratrooper, released in 1953.

This British war flick was aired recently as part of TCM's Memorial Day programming (like many of my recent reviews), and was one I'd never heard of before stumbling across it on their website. The story sounded a lot like a book I was given as a little kid by my Dad, a book he had read as a kid about a commando raid in France trying to knock out a German radar station. As is the case with this movie, it was appropriately named 'Radar Commandos.' The story sounded interesting enough, the talent behind the camera impressive, and the cast had a couple names I'll always check out.

It's 1940 in England, and American volunteer via Canada, McKendrick (Alan Ladd) volunteers to be part of a newly formed unit of paratroopers. He doesn't tell anyone, but he has an aviation background, and more than that, experience with parachuting out of a plane. Joining the completely volunteer unit, McKendrick just wants to blend in and do his job like all the other volunteers. His superiors quickly see his talent and his ability to lead, but he wants nothing to do with a promotion. The training revs up as the paratroopers practice jumping out of planes. Their orders are coming though as the fighting intensifies against the Germans. First up on their list is a German radar station in France, but that's just the start. A heavily guarded German airfield also awaits them.

This is a lot like so many movies I've seen over the years. It's not bad mostly because the talent involved on both sides of the camera just wouldn't allow a truly bad movie.  On the other hand, it's not very good either. It is dull at times -- surprising considering the subject matter -- and so cliche-ridden in other segments that the story struggles to get off the ground. Director Terence Young would go on to direct three of the best James Bond films (Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Thunderball), but this WWII venture doesn't have the same urgency or even a fraction of the entertainment value. Cliches are one thing though -- I love cliches, just about all of them -- but Paratrooper is undone by some just bizarre moments that seem out of place, some things I may be reading too much into and others that are just bad.

In an effort to save some money (I'm assuming), some green screen shots are used so painfully obvious and out of place that they're laughable. Ladd and fellow cast members stand close to the camera while footage of paratroopers training or tanks driving by is shown behind them. Ladd's McKendrick is also given a love interest...sort of... who really wants nothing to do with him but ends up falling for him because gosh darnit, he's just a good guy. Ladd has little chemistry with 22-year old Susan Stephen who was 18 years younger than him so that's always nice. Then there's Stanley Baker, typically a sure thing, playing a jump instructor. His acting isn't in question here...just his voice. He is dubbed so bizarrely that every time he speaks it just sounds odd. Just weird little things that pepper throughout the movie.

A saving grace in even a bad movie can be the casting, and above all else that's what drew me into Paratrooper. I was disappointed then because the script doesn't allow for much in the way of actualy character development. The more I see of Alan Ladd I lean toward thinking of him as a one-note actor. He's so calm, so even-keeled that his characters could be accused of being asleep. Ladd rarely shows emotion, and here his character's internal struggles and demons come across as a minor problem as opposed to something that's tearing him up. Leo Genn is your prototypical cold British officer, calculating and good at what he does but not particulary interesting. Harry Andrews gets to yell and scream as the unit's platoon sergeant, and Baker makes a quick appearance as the jump instructor. I recognize a bunch of other faces, English actors who always dotted these movies as background players, but like the leads, they don't make much of an impression.

Through all the tedium in the story, there are some solid moments. The attack on the radar station is well-handled if a little chaotic. I can't decide if that was the intention or just a by-product of some lazy filmmaking, but it's a cool sequence. The same goes for the raid at the German airfield in North Africa. The violence isn't gratuitious, but it is pretty graphic for a movie released in 1953 including a couple uses of blood squibs.  Unfortunately by the time these action sequences come around, I was bored with the movie, its story and its characters. Average in every way, but there are worse options to kill 90 minutes.

Paratrooper (1953): **/****

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Ashes and Diamonds

It's easy enough to get wrapped up in Hollywood and all the American-made movies that saturate the market.  They're all around us, and you can't help but pay attention, but one of the best things I've come to realize as a movie fan is that there are hundreds and thousands of movies made outside the United States worth watching. It sounds so simple, but the perception among so many studios is that us slow, dumb Americans only enjoy movies with sex and violence. Therefore, we don't always see all the amazing movies out there. Over the last couple of weeks thanks to TCM's Sunday Night Imports programming, I've been able to catch up with an amazing trilogy of WWII movies from Polish director Andrzej Wajda, concluding most recently with 1958's Ashes and Diamonds.

Where America had James Dean before his tragic death at 24 years old in 1955, Poland had star Zbigniew Cybulski, a young actor who rose to fame with his starring role in Wajda's trilogy-concluding WWII story. For starters, there is a physical resemblance between the two young actors. Cybulski was slim, had a similar hairstyle, and his style had this casual cool quality to it, not to mention some seriously badass sunglasses. More than that, he played similar roles; rebels that did not go along with the societal norms, ratcheted up even more in a story set in the closing days of WWII.  Above all else though, Cybulski died at a young age (39 years old to Dean's 24 years), adding to the appeal and interest in a star who was taken well before his time. This was the first movie I've seen with him, and if it was any indication of his talent, he's got a fan in me.

A member of the Polish resistance fighting the Communist government in May 1945, Maciek (Cybulski) and fellow freedom fighter, Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski), are part of an ambush gone wrong. Their target was a Polish communist, Szczuka (Waclaw Zastrzezynski) who's returned to Poland after years in the Soviet Union. He wasn't in the car he was supposed to be though, and Maciek and Andrzej end up killing two innocent workers. Just hours later though with pressure from their superiors to finish the job, Maciek finds out that Szczuka is staying in a hotel in the city. Andrzej gives him his orders. They have to leave town by the next day, and the Communist leader is only there for a short time, giving him a small window of opportunity to get the job done. Maciek meets a waitress, Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska), as he waits and begins to question the point of all this killing. What does it accomplish? What does it say about him? Can he go through with it?

A few months ago, I had not even heard of Wajda or his movies, but am I ever glad I stumbled across his name in an anthology of must-see war movies.  The trilogy is unlike any other grouping of war movies I've ever seen.  'Ashes' is a fitting end as probably the most polished and stylized of the three.  Like the others, Wajda films in black and white, taking advantage of some incredible lighting situations, playing with darkness, light and shadow to bring his story to life.  The story, the situation, the characters, those are still the main focus. Setting his story on May 8, 1945 certainly adds a different element to the story. Germany has surrendered, but in Poland the fight is just beginning as many Poles refuse to go along with their Communist rulers.

Like the other two movies in the trilogy, 'Ashes' has an ability to drop you into these war-time situations and immediately sympathize and feel for these characters.  Cybulski's Maciek could be Dean ripped straight out of Rebel Without a Cause, physically and emotionally.  In a movie where I'm sure this wasn't the original intent, Maciek is an incredibly cool if tragic character.  A veteran and survivor of the Warsaw Uprising, he's been part of the Home Army for years, killing and fighting in a hopeless fight for Polish freedom. With no end in sight of fighting anytime soon, Maciek keeps on fighting, the killing, the death, the blood seemingly not taking an effect on him.  He takes on the tasks as they come, but each man has his limit. There's only so much he can take, and as the order comes through again, Maciek decides that maybe this is enough.

His issue comes after he met Krystyna, a beautiful young waitress.  Maciek immediately is attracted to her, but it quickly turns into something else with a genuine emotional connection.  This is where the character is taken to a higher, better level, catapulting him into the realm of the tragic character. He went along for so long fighting because he knows nothing better. Now with this girl, he sees a future, something better. What about his duty though? A confrontation with Andrzej throws his conscience into turmoil. What should he do? He did agree to kill this man, but what will one more death mean in the grand scheme of things?  Knowing this character and his beliefs and convictions, you know how it will end. In a world where there is no black or white -- just shades of gray -- there are no easy decisions, and the cost may be too much in the end. Cybulski does an incredible job with this character.

My only complaint with this final installment in Wajda's trilogy (other than the Polish setting in WWII there's no unifying link) is that it drifts a little more than the previous two films.  Both 'A Generation' and 'Kanal'  are right around 90 minutes long, incredibly streamlined movies that don't depart from their focus, that final message. Surprisingly, 'Ashes' does take little detours here and there, especially some middle scenes with Maciek and Andrzej's source in the Mayor's office (Bogumil Kobiela) and a drunken reporter (Stanislaw Milski) attending the mayor's dinner banquet. Those scenes tend to drag a little, and while they're not unnecessary, it takes the story away from Maciek and his situation which I found infinitely more interesting. Minor complaint, I can't always be positive now, can I?

As I know I mentioned in my reviews of Wajda's other two movies in the trilogy, I love his brutal honesty, his realistic portrayals of the waste and dumb luck in war. How is that one person can make it through an entire war unscathed? Another person can be in the wrong place at the wrong time and a bullet finds them, ending their life in the blink of an eye. SPOILERS STOP READING SPOILERS 'Ashes' follows suit with the previous two movies. Maciek ends up completing his mission, killing the Communist leader in one of the most stunningly gorgeous shots I've ever seen.  He's killed the next day though when freedom is within reach as he accidentally bumps into three soldiers who see he's carrying a gun. Mortally wounded, he escapes, struggling through a garbage dump, finally collapsing in a trash heap as he bleeds out. This is no glamorous death. It's just death. An incredible ending in its honesty and realism. END OF SPOILERS

If you can find Wajda's Polish WWII trilogy, I can't recommend these three movies enough. A Generation is the weakest of the three, but that's not saying much. It's better than 95% of the other war movies much more readily available on DVD.  Kanal is the best of the three, but 'Ashes' isn't far behind.  Read it however you want, but they're just good movies. Snobs who don't want to see subtitled foreign movies are missing out. Movie fans -- any movie fan at all -- needs to see these movies.

Ashes and Diamonds <---TCM clips (1958): *** 1/2 /****

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Invasion Quartet

What's funny about war? Very little. For a war movie to be funny, there has to be some sort of dark, black humor on the subject. Something that makes you chuckle or laugh at the ridiculousness of war.  I've mentioned it before but Catch 22 is one of the few examples I can think of where a war movie is legitimately funny.  It is smart funny though not physical or lowbrow humor.

A little-known comedic war movie released in 1961, Invasion Quartet was a part of Turner Classic Movie's recent Memorial Day Salute. The IMDB rating was a lowly 4.9 at the time (can't even reach a 5 overall? Ouch), and the trailer at the TCM website looked painfully unfunny.  Still, I've got to take advantage when I can. I'd never heard of it, and who knows how long it will be before the movie is shown again?  Now that I've seen it and pointed that out, it will probably be within a week or two. I didn't hate it (well, all of it), and I didn't love it. It's pretty harmless all things considered with at least a little potential wasted if nothing else.

Wasting away in an army hospital on the English coast, wounded officer Freddie Oppenheimer (Bill Travers) would like nothing more than to get to a front line position or at least be approved for active duty. Thanks to losing his leg below the knee, that's just not going to happen. Another prisoner, a Frenchman named Debrie (Gregorie Aslan), is in a similar boat having lost his right hand in combat. The duo come up with a plan when an immense German artillery piece -- dubbed Big Hermann -- across the English Channel keeps blasting away at the surrounding countryside.  What if they put together a commando unit, sailed across the channel, posed as German soldiers, and knocked out the gun? Recruiting another patient, Godfrey Pringle (Spike Milligan), by lying to him about their ultimate goal, and a Home Defense colonel (John Le Mesurier), this odd little quartet goes about planning their raid.

Mostly because 'Invasion' doesn't try to be anything other than a mindless war comedy, I can't completely rip into it.  If it tried to be a classic, epic, sprawling comedy, then I'd give it both barrels.  But as is, it is a relatively harmless WWII comedy that has some funny moments sprinkled in with some decidedly unfunny moments.  Director Jay Lewis only has six films to his name, and one of those is a documentary, another is a short film. The movie is shot in black and white so in my messed up head, there's a certain old school charm to the movie.  It starts off on a high note, an animated credits sequence reminding me of some 1960s MGM Pink Panther cartoons, and even once the characters are introduced I was enjoying the movie. It never goes anywhere though, and ends up taking quite a few steps backward.

Like so many generally forgotten movies from years past, I'm guessing we can chalk a lot of Invasion's forgotten status because of its less than inspiring cast. These are faces you would recognize, but maybe not know who they are (myself included).  Travers and Aslan have a great chemistry together, Travers' Oppenheimer the prim, proper and conniving Brit, Aslan's Debrie the lover of life Frenchman. An early bit with them posing as the other one to get medical clearance is a high point.  Le Mesurier is subtle in his humor, the WWI vet constantly referring to his past war exploits and is a welcome addition to the group.  Thorley Walters plays Cummings, a fifth member of the commando team who gets left behind by accident. Now if you're keeping up, that accounts for 1, 2, 3 and 5 members of the team. What about the fourth?

That's British comedian Milligan as the finnicky, clueless Godfrey Pringle. I have no background with Milligan other than what I read at his Wikipedia entry. He was a British comedian that shot to fame in the years following WWII, and by all accounts is a funny guy...just not in this movie. His character is the Jerry Lewis character here for lack of a better description. Around for slapstick humor and some side gags, Pringle ends up being an obnoxious character all around. How Oppenheimer and Co. get him on the mission is funny, but the recurring gag gets old because of the character's complete and total idiocy.

The potential is there in a lot of scenes for this movie to amount to something more, but it never quite gets there. The quasi-Guns of Navarone plot-line is a good jumping off point, but even the "raid" is somewhat boring.  My favorite part of the movie was British Intelligence's efforts (including John Wood, Alexander Archdale, and Bernard Hunter) to figure out what's going on. They keep receiving cryptic messages from Pringle who believes he's a legitimate commando. Intelligence of course tries to decipher the messages, none of them having any clue as to what's going on but not willing to admit it.  The ending does provide a good chuckle, but generally the movie flatlines through its 90-minute running time. Funny at times, boring at others, it's a mixed bag. What else would you expect from a war comedy?

Invasion Quartet <---TCM trailer (1961): **/**** 

Friday, June 17, 2011

127 Hours

It was the type of story you just couldn't believe the first time you heard it.  Too gruesome, too brutal, too far-fetched, but it happened.  In 2003, adventurer/climber/guide Aron Ralston went canyoneering in Utah who was forced to amputate his own arm when he fell in a canyon and had his right hand pinned by a large boulder. With no food and no water after several days of being trapped, Ralston actually amputated his own right arm below the elbow and survived. I was curious when I heard the story was being made into a feature-length movie, but I came away very impressed with 2010's 127 Hours.

Throw everything else away here; acting, story, direction, soundtrack, camerawork.  This is a movie about one of the most basic elements of living...surviving.  I guarantee when people read this story back in 2003 a majority wondered what they would have done in that situation?  Would you have had the will to live so much that you would cut off your own arm with a dull pocket knife to survive?  How far would you go to keep on living?  I think that's maybe the biggest appeal of this movie. It's a person to person thing, and no one really knows how they would respond in such a hellish situation.

Leaving in the dead of night one April 2003 weekend, canyoneer Aron Ralston (James Franco) has several days of biking, hiking and exploring ahead of him.  He leaves with a backpack full of supplies and drives out into Canyonlands National Park, a beautiful but basically desolate and vacant part of the American west.  Aron loves everything about it, the beauty, the history, the solitude. That's what he quickly realizes. In all the vast stretches of land, Aron is very alone. Descending into a canyon, he trips and falls down to the bottom, a large boulder pinning his right arm to the canyon wall.  He has a little water, a little food, and the supplies and equipment he was carrying. The hours turn into days though, and Aron begins to realize he will have to make a drastic choice if he hopes to live.

Director Danny Boyle has a personal style to his movies, and usually that's a good thing. This is a true story though that I never thought called for too much in the way of stylization.  The story of Aron's struggles to survive stands on its own, and that's basically my only complaint with the movie.  Split screens, ironic soundtrack choices, ultra-fast montages, none of them were needed.  None of these issues overpower the movie or detract from it in a major way, but like anything, it is the little details that bug you.  His eye behind the camera (with 2 cinematographers) is never in question.  Filming in Utah, the movie is stunning in its portrayals of the American west. Even when the story is tied to Aron's struggle in the canyon, there is an eerie beauty to his surroundings, both the land and rock formations to go with the nature that surrounds him.

It speaks to the strength of this year's Oscar nominees for Best Actor that James Franco didn't win (I'm gonna get around to The King's Speech one of these days) his first Academy Award.  This is that type of performance that actors must dream about. The camera's focus is on him and him alone, and Franco makes the most of it.  The emotion, the physicality, the mental strain, he brings them all to life. There's that momentary panic followed by the realization of the predicament he's in. Trying to maintain some sense of reality, Aron talks into his digital camera, telling the people he's left behind what's happened and the thoughts racing through his head. It is a sink or swim performance because if you don't believe in Franco or like the actual performance, you're going to dislike this movie.  I loved it, and hopefully it's another sign of a long, successful career to come.

What worked so well (and kind of negated the overly stylized moments) is the reflection Aron does on his life, some through just thinking, some through hallucinations and dreams.  One of my first thoughts when I heard about this movie was how would a director make it an even somewhat interesting feature film?  It's a guy trapped under a rock.  My concern or worries were unfounded. Some of the movie's most powerful moments come from those reflections. Aron's messages to his family taped on his digital camera are heartbreaking. He thinks he's going to die, and believes this will be his final hours of life. A darkly comic scene has Aron posing as a talk shot guest, talking about his faults and the stupidity of his self-confidence that he told no one where he was going and therefore no one knows where to look for him. The best though for me was one late dream/hallucination of Aron's as he draws closer to giving up. In front of him sitting on a couch and standing around it are all his friends and family. They say nothing, just sitting there, almost willing him to do what he has to do.  That of course leads to....

Yeah, the cutting of his own arm is an incredibly uncomfortable sequence to watch. It's not gratuitous, but it is graphic (how could it not be I guess). Actually thinking about what he's doing is the most amazing thing of the story right up there with the will to live and the limits we'll go to in hopes of continuing to live.  Some of the mystery is taken away because we know what Aron will do, and that he will ultimately survive. In no way though does that take away the power and the beauty of the aftermath. With Sigur Ros' Festival playing, the rescue is one of the most beautiful, moving scenes I've ever watched. The ending is beyond moving. You feel like you've been through Aron's trials with him, and seeing him rescued is a release.  The epilogue is eloquent in its simplicity, the title cards popping up telling us what became of Aron.  It's a great, simple, beyond beautiful ending.

Franco is the unquestioned star here of course, but the hallucinations/flashbacks allow for some interesting casting. Treat Williams plays his father, a key scene early explaining Aron's love of nature as father and son watch the sunrise over the desert horizon. That is a scene straight out of poetry, pure Americana there.  Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn play Kristi and Megan, two hikers Aron meets on the trail before his accident. Lizzy Caplan makes a quick appearance as Aron's sister, providing motivation for Aron because he wants to be at her wedding. Clemence Poesy plays Rana, a past girlfriend he regrets the way their relationship ended.

As I write this review, I find myself liking the movie more than I did while watching it. I enjoyed watching it, don't let me confuse you.  But thinking of the moments that work so well, I loved parts of the movie. It is a story of survival, of one individual absolutely wanting and needing to keep on living. Power of the human spirit, a will to live, call it what you want. The story is great, Franco's performance amazing, and overall one of those truly inspiring stories you come across.

127 Hours <---trailer (2010): ****/****

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Tanks Are Coming

In the midst of a directing career that saw over 30 feature films, WWII veteran Sam Fuller did his fair share or writing too, much of it is based in war stories and sometimes his own experiences. Fixed Bayonets and Merrill's Marauders are underrated classics, and The Big Red One is a direct retelling of Fuller's tour of duty in WWII with the famous division. His writing efforts aren't always remembered as well, but as was the case with 1951's The Tanks Are Coming, the talent is obviously there.

This WWII movie comes in the same year as two other Fuller flicks, Fixed Bayonets as I mentioned before and also the underrated and underappreciated The Steel Helmet.  It's tough to compare three different movies released in such quick succession, but 'Tanks' is probably the weakest of three.  That's not to say it is a bad movie. Far from it, it's pretty good overall.  The positives come from the Fuller story the screenplay is based on. It is cliched, but it never goes as far as flag-waving thankfully.  It is content to tell its story without pandering.

It is July 1944, just a month removed from the D-Day invasion. As the Allies prepare to unleash a spearhead right at the German lines, a tank battalion in the 3rd Armored Division readies itself to lead the attack. One of the advance tanks though is hit early on, the top sergeant killed.  A veteran tanker, Sgt. Sullivan (Steve Cochran), is transferred in to take over the tank and its surviving crew, picking up at the point of the column where they left off. Pushing his crew and his tank to the limit as they battle German forces, Sullivan rubs everyone the wrong way. His men believe he's a gung-ho hero seeking medals. His superiors think he's foolhardy and needlessly adventurous in combat. Is Sullivan pushing too hard, or is he just trying to make his men the best they can be?

As part of TCM's Memorial Day marathon a few weeks back, I caught this generally forgotten WWII movie for the first time. Part of the reason it gets lost in the waves of WWII pictures has to be the cast, generally a bunch of unknowns and supporting players.  Sullivan's crew includes Paul Picerni as Kolowicz, the machine gunner who clashes immediately with the sergeant, George O'Hanlon (later George Jetson's voice) as Tucker, the tank driver who can't get enough booze, Eugene Baxter as Marconi, and Robert Boon as Heinie, a German-American soldier with an agenda. Oddly enough, Baxter and Boon aren't even credited, especially odd when you consider how much they're in the movie. Among the tankers there's Ike (James Dobson), maybe the most annoying pip-squeak of a soldier ever, and Lemcheck (Harry Bellaver), the grouchy mechanic. Fuller fans will notice the director/writer's trademarks, using the names Kolowicz and Lemcheck in many of his movies.  

Looking through his filmography, I can say I've seen Cochran in several movies, but he didn't leave much of an impression obviously. This was an interesting part for him in a role that's a staple of the war movie genre.  He's that tough sergeant, damn good at what he does and dead-set on instilling everything he knows into his men.  His Sgt. Sullivan doesn't care much whether his men like him or hate his guts, as long as they do their job and stay alive, he's pleased (even if he'll never let on or show that). Other than an odd accent that sounds half Irish and half drawling Southerner, this was an interesting lead character. The story softens Sullivan up a bit by the end unfortunately, but it's not exactly a surprise. SPOILERS STOP READING SPOILERS I thought for awhile Sullivan would get killed in the end, but I guess for a B-movie in 1951 it just wasn't in the cards END OF SPOILERS

Directed by Hollywood veteran Lewis Seiler, 'Tanks' is an odd mix of elements all things considered. It isn't a patriotic flag-waving movie like so many WWII stories released in the years following the war's conclusion. On the other hand, it isn't cynical or overly dark. I think it finds a nice middle ground. 'Tanks' never glamorizes the war, the fighting, the combat. The soldiers aren't indestructible superheroes. They gripe and complain, they fight amongst each other, and mostly they just want to survive and go home. For a lower budget movie, the scale is somewhat limited, but a good mix of stock footage (edited in pretty seamlessly) and actual action scenes keep things moving.  I think the movie would have gone up a notch or two if it had the guts to kill off Sullivan, but as is, the ending is still pretty good. Look for Philip Carey and Robert Horton as two commanding officers in the battalion.

For all the positive elements, there's also the negative. Dobson's Ike character is beyond obnoxious, and for some reason the camera keeps going back to him for comic relief.  It's never actually funny, but they keep trying. Ike and Lemcheck are on another tank crew, but they're always hanging around too, probably because Sullivan's crew isn't always that interesting.  Then there's Mari Aldon as Patricia, a war correspondent who has a past with Sullivan. She's in exactly two scenes, and isn't even around long enough to be considered a love interest. Just little complaints on their own, but they do throw off the tone and pacing a bit.

Not great but far from bad either.  Good story from Fuller, and a solid lead performance from Cochran. If you can track down a copy, it's worth a watch if not a purchase. A made-to-order DVD is available through the Warner Archive if you're dying to see it. 

The Tanks Are Coming (1951): ** 1/2 /****