The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Omen (1976)

So let's go big picture here, real big picture. For everything good going on, there has to be an equal and opposite bad thing going on, right? Basically any movie ever has dealt with that concept on some level -- however big, however small -- but at its biggest there is good (God) and bad/evil (Satan). Personal beliefs, convictions, principles aside, that is the most epic struggle of all and the setting for the classic 1976 horror film The Omen

The U.S. ambassador to England, Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) and his wife, Katharine (Lee Remick), are welcoming their first child when Robert is told the newborn died soon after delivery. Another baby was born at the same time, its mother with no family dying in childbirth. The staff tells Robert he can keep the baby, and he agrees, knowing the strain might be too much for his wife to handle. He doesn't tell her, and the family is a happy one as the years go by. Now five years old, their son Damien (Harvey Stephens) seems to have weird, unexplainable things happening around him. A frazzled priest approaches Robert with horrific, life-shattering news. He believes Damien is the son of the Devil, the Antichrist, and he must be stopped. Robert can't believe it. How could this little boy be evil? Could he?

This is an exception to the rule when it comes to horror movies. Directed by Richard Donner, 'Omen' isn't interested in surprise or 'Gotcha!' moments. This is a smart, well-written and well-thought out horror-mystery-thriller. It isn't scary in the way some horror movies are. Instead, it is decidedly unsettling. It makes you uncomfortable, and that can be scarier than anything. Serial killers, murderers, rapists? All immensely creepy. But what about something you can't combat? How do you stop something or someone that is inherently evil? You can't beat evil, can't negotiate with it. You just hope to slow it down. Donner's movie is one of the all-time greats at making an audience uncomfortable, an unseen and possibly all-powerful opponent that will not be stopped.

Now usually when a musical score is really good, I try and give it a mention in a sentence or two. I'm not much for explaining how musical cues affect audiences even though I try. For this movie though, I've got to make an effort. In a long and distinguished career, composer Jerry Goldsmith won his first and only Oscar for his 'Omen' score and did he ever deserve it. The main theme -- Ave Satani which you can listen to HERE -- is a choir singing in Latin, sounding like some sort of demonic cult. It sends chills up my back just thinking about it. The other main piece of music is a quieter but equally creepy sample, one that is supposed to put a question in your head, setting the groundwork for the chilling moments to come. Goldsmith had a lot of great scores through his career, but this may be the best.

When I think horror movies, I don't think of great acting performances. And to be fair, the performances in 'Omen' aren't great. They're good at what they're supposed to do, and it's always cool to see some big name actors take parts in a genre you wouldn't often associate them with. Take Gregory Peck for example, one of Hollywood's all-time greats. Now 60 years old when 'Omen' was made, Peck delivers an underrated performance, a possibly rising politician who finds himself involved in something much bigger than he could have ever anticipated. His disbelief, his wavering over what to do, his worries about his family, Peck does a great job, as does Remick as the emotionally fragile Katharine. Clues point to their son being different, but in what way? He couldn't really be evil, could he?

With the story focusing mostly on the Thorns, only a few supporting parts are even needed. David Warner is very good as Keith Jennings, a photographer who gets involved with Robert investigating these strange occurrences. His photos taken of all those involved might reveal something darker of what's to come. Billie Whitelaw is downright terrifying as Mrs. Baylock, Damien's new nanny after the previous one....well, the Thorns just needed another one. That's all. Whitelaw has a look in her eyes that just can't be described, pure evil if you ask me. Patrick Troughton plays Father Brennan, a priest with the most checkered of pasts now trying to redeem himself, telling Robert that he believes his son is the son of the Devil.

A horror movie has to have its memorable moments, and 'Omen' has plenty of them. I won't go into detail describing them because that would ruin much of the movie's enjoyment. All of them pale to the last 10 minutes of the movie, specifically the final two scenes, shocking and surprising in a way that is hard to describe. The final shot? One of the most perfect endings to a movie ever. One of the all-time best horror movies ever. Enough said.

The Omen <---trailer (1976): ****/****

Sunday, October 30, 2011

633 Squadron

More than any other war, World War II has produced hundreds and probably thousands of movies telling the countless stories of the war from all angles. I've done my fair share of WWII reviews -- over 100 as I write this one -- and I'm quite sure I won't run out anytime soon. Among the thousands of movies are selections from most of the countries involved, especially England. Over the 1950s and 1960s, some of the best WWII movie were British, seeing similar production value, stories, and actors returning for multiple roles. An underrated one not often remembered so fondly (unfortunately so) is 1964's 633 Squadron.

The commander of 633 Squadron, Wing Commander Roy Grant (Cliff Robertson) has been given his most difficult mission. His squadron of international pilots flying for the British have their work cut out for them on this specific mission. It's spring 1944, and the coming D-Day invasion looms. Deep in the Norwegian fjords lies a factory producing rocket fuel that will be used to repel the landings while also assaulting England from across the Channel. Grant and his pilots must fly through a gauntlet of fire in the fjords, hoping to knock out the factory. The Norwegian resistance (headed by George Chakiris) will work to knock out some of the antiaircraft positions along the fjord. No matter what happens though, the mission seems like suicide. With thousands of lives at stake, can 633 Squadron pull off the job?

I've always enjoyed these British war movies, on the big scale like Battle of Britain to the smaller-scaled The Dam Busters. They don't glorify war or glamorize death, knowing that an effort to make war heroic would be foolhardy. War isn't heroic. It's a dirty, brutal business. The men fighting on the other hand are incredibly heroic, and that's what these movies go for. To save the lives of thousands, sometimes the life of the smaller group down to the individual had to be sacrificed. Given a chance to abort the mission, Robertson's Grant refuses the offer, continuing the mission knowing that the casualties will almost certainly be extreme. As for the familiar faces, look for Harry Andrews as Air Vice Marshal Davis with Michael Goodliffe and Donald Houston as two of his higher-ranking staff.  

Showing the heroic actions of the men and not necessarily the heroism of war itself, the movie separates itself from the pack in its portrayal of the final assault through the fjords. Without giving anything away, basically nothing in the hours leading up to the mission goes right. Andrews' Air Vice Marshal gives the squadron the option to abort the mission, but Robertson's Grant pushes on, weighing the sacrifices they must give with those who have already died and the thousands more who might die as a result in the future. Don't be confused. The ending mission may be successful, but at a heavy cost. The movie ends on a high, positive note, touting the heroism of the fighter crews as it should, especially considering the price paid for the mission's success.

In a recent line of Robertson reviews, add '633' to the list. One of my favorite actors, Robertson is a strong lead here as Wing Commander Grant, an American pilot leading this international squadron. It's a stock character; an officer weary of war, sick of seeing his men killed in a futile effort, just wanting it all to be over. Nothing fancy, nothing showy, just a good performance. George Chakiris is badly miscast as Erik, a Norwegian resistance fighter who's sister, Hilde (Maria Perschy), is attracted to Robertson's character. Mostly, Chakiris just doesn't look the part, but he isn't given much to do in a smaller part. As for the squadron, some of the names include John Meillon, John Bonney, Angus Lennie, Scott Finch, and Julian Sherrier, the collective group being more important than the individual.

One of the best reasons to see this movie is not surprisingly for the aerial sequences. Aviator buffs will no doubt eat this movie up, especially the impressive amounts of footage of the Mosquito aircraft. Some footage is re-used over and over again, but the shots of these aircraft zipping through narrow fjords and valleys is impressive. It puts it all into perspective how dangerous these missions were, and the little kid in all of us who's fascinated by flight and aviation can't help but be entertained. Ron Goodwin's majestic score doesn't hurt either (listen HERE) playing over the aviation sequences, a similar sounding score to his Battle of Britain and Force 10 from Navarone scores.

On a purely entertaining level, the final assault on the fjord is noteworthy for another thing; it's major impact on George Lucas and Star Wars. The ending basically lays out the blue print for Luke Skywalker's Death Star trench run at the end of Star Wars, a group of pilots flying through hellacious amounts of fire in hopes of reaching their objective at the end of the gauntlet. Watch THIS very clever mash-up of the sequences from 633 with the dialogue from Star Wars, obvious SPOILERS of course. Imitation is the best form of flattery, huh?  

This is an underrated WWII movie that deserves better. It isn't anything groundbreaking or Earth-shattering. Instead it is a story about the heroic pilots who put it all on the line when called upon to do their duties. Highly recommend seeking this one out.

633 Squadron <---trailer (1964): ***/****

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Getaway

In a too short career, director Sam Peckinpah is both rightly and wrongly remembered for one thing; on-screen violence. It's true of course, The Wild Bunch opening the door for more graphic, brutal portrayals of violence. On the other hand, Peckinpah is so much more, an extremely talented director who used violence as a way of telling his stories. 'Wild' and Straw Dogs were shockers, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia a drug-induced trip, Ride the High Country a western classic. His most mainstream movie though, just a straight action thriller with no real message, is 1972's The Getaway.

Serving a 10-year sentence for armed robbery, Carter 'Doc McCoy (Steve McQueen) is paroled when his wife, Carol (Ali MacGraw), cuts a deal with a crooked/corrupt businessman, Jack Beynon (Ben Johnson). The parole comes at a price though, Doc having to take part in a bank robbery with two other crooks, Butler (Al Lettieri) and Jackson (Bo Hopkins). The robbery nets $500,000, but in the aftermath Jackson is killed, Butler tries to turn on Doc, and Beynon is looking to double cross them all.  Now with Carol in tow, Doc is on the run, searching for a way out. With hired killers all around smelling the money, Doc and Carol -- dealing with some additional marriage issues -- must run the gauntlet to freedom, but where do they go?

Say what you want about Peckinpah as a director -- and he has his fair share of detractors -- but the man had style.  By 1972, he was an established director and ended up with one of his career's biggest successes with 'Getaway.' His movies had style, but it was a gritty, realistic, no frills style.  His trademark slow-motion violence is there (if somewhat subdued compared to other movies), and the characters are as tough as they come, everyone doing whatever it takes to survive on their own. It's a nasty little world Peckinpah presents as Doc makes his getaway across southern Texas along the Rio Grande. From his typically unique opening credit sequence through the final shootout, Peckinpah always keeps it interesting.

I love seeing teams of superstar directors and actors, especially when they're two of my favorites like here with Peckinpah and McQueen. The duo worked twice together in 1972, also making rodeo flick Junior Bonner. Their personal and individual styles just work together. McQueen's icy, business-like Doc McCoy is one of his darker characters. He's an incredible anti-hero, an ex-con who doesn't trust anybody, even his wife when he finds out what she's been up to. Where some actors made impressions with long stretches of dialogue, McQueen does a lot here -- as he often did -- with very little, using his face, a simple look, his physicality to get a message across. A man of few words to say the least. And because I mention it with every McQueen review....he's very cool. Black suit, shades and a 12-gauge shotgun blasting away at a police car? How isn't that cool?

Because of McQueen as the leading man and Peckinpah in the director's chair, I've always been able to look past some of the movie's more glaring problems. For one? There are surreal moments that just don't fit. Lettieri can and usually was an intimidating villain, but his Rudy Butler is bizarre, almost child-like. He ends up kidnapping a veterinarian, Harold (Jack Dodson), and his wife, Fran (Sally Struthers), to patch up his wounds. The scenes are so off-the-wall they're painful to watch, Rudy having sex with Fran in front of Harold. There's also a food fight, and Fran's utter dependence on Rudy with Struthers at her shrill best. I'm not for domestic abuse, but when McQueen punches a screaming, frantic, whining Struthers near the end it was like a release. Lettieri wasted, and Struthers at her annoying best.

Putting together a finished product, McQueen used his clout to get a new score for the movie, replacing Peckinpah collaborator Jerry Fielding with Quincy Jones. All in all, a bad choice. The score is awful and completely out of place. Not that kind of awful you can ignore either. Harmonica solos? Really, that's the best you've got? And God bless her, but MacGraw just was not a good actress. The future Mrs. Steve McQueen brings little personality to the part with McQueen salvaging what he can of their on-screen time together. Whatever chemistry they had in real-life rolled over to the movie at least a little bit, but that can't save 'Getaway' from her lack of acting ability.

Thankfully there's a ton of other small but well-done supporting parts. Johnson is underused, but his scene with McQueen on the Riverwalk in San Antonio is a great exchange. Hopkins too -- a Peckinpah favorite -- isn't around long, but it's always good seeing his brewing yet cool and laid back persona. Also look for Richard Bright as a conman, Dub Taylor as Laughlin, a hotel owner with connections everywhere, and Roy Jenson and John Bryson as two of Beynon's henchmen. The best part though is for Slim Pickens as an aging Cowboy who Doc and Carol meet in their getaway attempt. It's a small part -- maybe 5 minutes -- that I think should have earned Pickens a Best Supporting Actor nomination, it's that good. His dialogue is honest and refreshing, and his extended scene with McQueen and MacGraw is one of the most natural exchanges I've ever seen. Great part for one of the all-time great character actors.

For a Peckinpah movie, the action is pretty slim. If anything, 'Getaway' focuses more on the chase and the tension that gets built up. McQueen going to town on pursuing police with a shotgun is like a release for him as much as it is the viewer. The same goes for the showdown in Laughlin's hotel, an orgy of shotguns and machine guns. Peckinpah doesn't go overboard, tapping the brakes as necessary. He knows what works and what doesn't, what audiences want to see. It's a flawed movie in the end, but a good one. Since it has inspired a remake while also being sampled by countless other movies, especially impacting No Country for Old Men. Check this one out for Peckinpah behind the camera, and McQueen in front of it.

The Getaway <---trailer (1972): ***/****

Friday, October 28, 2011

Beware, My Lovely

Okay, for starters, I like both Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino a lot for their acting talents. When I see either of those names pop up in credits, I'm encouraged. That's basically why I was drawn into 1952's Beware, My Lovely. It's a film noir with a more psychological twist, but it ends up disappointing even with the considerable talent involved.

Running a boarding house, Helen Gordon (Lupino) does her best to keep her house in shape and her boarders living comfortably. It's 1918, and she is still recovering from the loss of her husband who was killed fighting in Europe in WWI. In hopes of helping her around the house, she hires a local handyman, Howard Wilton (Ryan), to do some odds and ends around the horse before Christmas, fast approaching on the calendar. Howard is a good worker if a little off, going about his business but constantly talking to himself and Helen. Is there something seriously wrong with the man though? Helen finds out the truth when she becomes a prisoner in her own house.

I've written reviews of over 30 film noirs to this point, and I imagine there will be plenty more of them coming down the road. This isn't your typical noir with gangsters and mobsters, betrayals and backstabbings, anti-hero gunmen and hookers and ladies of the night with a heart of gold.  The tension and the mystery are there to a point, but it feels more like a stage-based play flipped into a movie.  The whole story basically takes place in Gordon's boarding house as Howard's "issues" come to light. To a point, the house ends up becoming more of an interesting character than either Mrs. Gordon or the crazy Howard. That's never a good sign when an inanimate object is more interesting than...well, real people.

Chicago-born actor Robert Ryan is a personal favorite of mine. In movies like The Wild Bunch, The Professionals, The Naked Spur and so many others, he shows an innate ability to play this flawed, beaten down tough guy. Earlier in his career -- like here in 'Beware' -- he played some of his darkest roles, parts that ranged from down and out bad guys to flawed anti-heroes. Racists, killers, anything, Ryan could and did play the part. That this movie isn't very good is not Ryan's fault. He's just working with what's provided him. SPOILERS STOP READING SPOILERS Ryan's Howard is what I like to call "movie crazy." It makes little sense what happens to him, but he has to be confused as to what's going on in his head so in steps "movie crazy." I'd call it bi-polar if anything.

Just as Ryan rose to fame in so many film noirs, Ida Lupino did the same. If you needed a frail-looking, vulnerable female actor, Lupino was a great start.  And just like Ryan, it's not on her shoulders that this movie bored me to tears. She's still recovering from her husband's death two years prior, and even putting herself in a dangerous situation is trying to figure out what's wrong in Howard's head, what makes him tick. It's not the actors. It's the gimmick that holds it all together that doesn't end up working.

Floating in and out of these epically violent blackouts, Howard has his moments of clarity where he's a decent person. But with a snap of his finger though, he resorts back to the aggressive, ultra-intimidating violent individual. So why doesn't Lupino's Helen just haul ass when he's coherent? Because she wants to help him? Hey, look, it's a stupid movie gimmick! There are other elements that don't work, some revolving around Howard's possible homosexuality. There are hints he may be gay, may be impotent, but nothing is ever spelled out. It's frustrating watching that. In my head, it's like the story is hinting that gay = crazy. I could be off base -- I was on my phone playing Pacman about 45 minutes in -- but that was my initial reaction.

Bored to tears with a frustrating movie that I thought sounded like it had potential. If you're going to watch this movie, I'd recommend it for Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino, but that's about it. Their performances make something out of nothing, but I still can't say you should seek this movie out.

Beware, My Lovely <---TCM trailer (1952): */****

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Wackiest Ship in the Army

One of the great comedic actors to ever star in a movie, there is very little I won't watch Jack Lemmon in.  He's funny without having to ham it up, but he is still able to do subtle, smart or physical comedy. Along with the comedy though, Lemmon was a legitimate actor, someone who could handle both comedy and drama -- sometimes at the same time. He even starred in three war comedies (some darker than others), Mister Roberts, Operation Mad Ball, and 1960's The Wackiest Ship in the Army.

Serving in the South Pacific in 1942, Lt. Rip Crandall (Lemmon) wants nothing more than a command of his own, and he gets it...sort of.  He's blackmailed, bamboozled and tricked into taking command of the Echo, a schooner relying on its sails as much as its engine. Crandall goes along with the offer when he sees that inexperienced Ensign Tommy Hanson (Ricky Nelson) would take command if he doesn't. Trying to shape up his similarly inexperienced misfit crew, Crandall finds out the mission the Echo has been assigned; deliver an Australian coast watcher to a Japanese-held island before a major Japanese offensive is unleashed. Can he get the crew working together to get the dangerous job done?

The title is clearly misleading here. There's very little "wacky" about this ship other than an experienced boatman trying to teach his inept, inexperienced crew how to be credible sailors.  If anything, the movie is better and much more enjoyable when it focuses on the actual mission assigned to the Echo.  I watched 'Wackiest' two or three years back, and then revisited it recently. Does it have some comedy? Yeah, but it's not that ridiculous slapstick comedy that dominated 1960s big budget comedies. It's not a dark movie or one with a deep message about the lunacy of war. Think instead of a lighter toned men on a mission movie. It is funny enough with some behind the lines action. Can't go wrong.

Lemmon has something going for him that is few and far between when it comes to stars. Almost completely regardless of his part, he is likable. As a viewer, you just like him. That's all.  It sounds almost stupid in its simplicity. He's a natural in front of the camera, able to handle the physical humor while also selling a line with a slow roll of the eyes or a pained drop of his head.  Playing the besieged Lt. Randall, this isn't his best work because it doesn't have to be. All Lemmon has to do is keep the story focused and pointed where it needs to get, playing a straight man to the early comedic shenanigans before turning to the more dramatic mission at hand.

Somewhat cliched and fairly predictable, I still found myself enjoying the movie. Part of that enjoyment comes from the characters, most if not all taken from War Movies 101: Stock Characters. In one his few screen roles, Nelson is solid as the inexperienced ensign, a young officer trying to prove himself. He plays the innocent, doe-eyed ensign nicely, playing well off of Lemmon, even getting a chance to sing (watch HERE). Some of the crew include Alvy Moore, Roy Jenson, Warren Berlinger, and Mike Kellin in a funny part as Chief McCarthy, a sailor with no sailing experience. Chips Rafferty brings some world-weary drama to his part as Patterson, the Australian coast watcher assigned a near-suicide mission. Tom Tully and John Lund play two Navy superiors trying to coordinate the mission with Richard Anderson as a possible replacement for Crandall on the mission. Patricia Driscoll makes an odd appearance as Maggie, a possible love interest who disappears for good once the mission arrives.

So as mentioned before, the mission is the best part of the movie, the bumbling crew learning to work together and get the job done. In the process, the Echo sails through all sorts of hellish storms, maneuvers through mined waters, and tangles with a Japanese patrol.  There is tension in these scenes, but there is never any real sense of danger. Do you think a movie titled 'Wackiest' anything is going to kill off Jack Lemmon and Ricky Nelson? I think not.  The movie was filmed in Hawaii so if desperate for a reason to watch this movie, it's hard to mess up the Hawaiian beauty. George Duning's appropriately Navy-themed score keeps things moving as well without being overbearing. 

Not too much to say about this one. It's a good, old-fashioned adventure story with solid characters -- especially the always reliable Jack Lemmon -- and a strong supporting cast that doesn't get bogged down in being anything other than entertaining. A very pleasant, enjoyable way to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon.

The Wackiest Ship in the Army (1960): ***/****

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Hell Boats

So originality is overrated, don't you think? First released in 1962, The Guns of Navarone has a team of commandos attempting to blow up two immense German guns stationed in an impregnable fortress. It's a classic, still remembered fondly almost 50 years later. I realize not all ideas are winners, but 1970's Hell Boats takes that basic premise and runs with it. Okay, it's a little different....there are boats.

Recovering from a serious wound, Lt. Commander Jeffords (James Franciscus) has received orders for a new posting. It's 1942 as he's sent to under-siege Malta where he's place under the command of ineffectual Commander Ashurst (Ronald Allen). An American volunteer fighting for the British, Jeffords is given a possibly suicidal mission. A port in Sicily houses a warehouse loaded with radio glider bombs that are wreaking havoc on Allied shipping convoys. Given a small, ill-equipped flotilla of motor torpedo boats, Jeffords starts to plan the mission with the help of Chief Petty Officer Yacov (Reuven Bar-Yotam). The mission seems suicidal, a warehouse heavily guarded by water and impossible to reach by land. What can they even hope to accomplish?

World War II movies based in North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East are few and far between so you've got to enjoy them when you get a chance. Almost a forgotten theater of the war, there's a black market, shady feeling to the fighting, soldiers thousands of miles from the more major conflicts. Director Paul Wendkos handles his story in a workmanlike fashion. 'Boats' was filmed in Malta and is a visual stunner to watch, a city that looks much the same way it did thousands of years ago. In an unobtrusive way, I liked composer Frank Cordell's score, quieter than many war scores but appropriate and even surprisingly moving at times.

Visiting the cliched character department, 'Boats' goes back for seconds. A B-movie star through the 1960s and 1970s, Franciscus is solid if unspectacular as Jeffords, an American sailor/officer fighting for the British. He can be a tad on the wooden side at times, but Jeffords is a driven, very capable officer, helping make up for some flaws. Bar-Yotam (better known as 'Schlomo' from a classic Seinfeld episode) is underused as Yacov, the loyal and brutally efficient right hand man. Allen is good when given the chance as the commander trying to prove himself and his ability to his questioning men. Some of Jeffords' men include Barlow (Mark Hawkins), a young officer who questions Jeffords' orders, and Drewe Henley and Inigo Jackson.

Can you feel it coming? Here come the negatives! Let's start with the biggie. A story about soldiers in WWII on a near-suicidal mission sounds interesting enough to me, don't you think? Nope, apparently not enough here. Enter stage left...the love triangle! Jeffords meet Alison (Elizabeth Shepherd) and is instantly drawn to her only to discover she's the wife of his commander, Ashurst. Oh no! It's a broken, falling apart marriage, but it's still a marriage. So basically we're introduced to this potentially very cool mission, and then get a door slammed in your face. Oh, interested in commandos and behind the lines action? Nah, that's boring. Let's watch one woman choose between two men. "Yeah," can't wait for more of that.

This is a lower-budget B-movie so it has its other flaws, at least ones not based in love triangles (my favorite plot device of all time). German soldiers stand idly by while their comrades are gunned down -- Franciscus never reloading his machine gun as he fires 800 rounds -- only to be shot down themselves when flanked. As part of their plan to get into the heavily guarded harbor, the Brits "steal" a German E-boat in the most convoluted of fashions, seemingly forgetting they steal it for about 20 minutes after. The Trojan Horse technique to sneak into the harbor seems ridiculously stupid to me, but what do I know? Apparently German soldiers were semi-mentally handicapped when realizing they're being duped.

So here I sit reviewing a movie that really wasn't that good yet I found myself enjoying it. I can chalk most of that up to the action. A behind the lines mission into the harbor and the city with Jeffords, Yacov, an MI6 agent (Takis Emmanuel, one of Michael Caine's commandos in Play Dirty) and his beautiful assistant (Magda Konopka) is simple and straightforward, a small team risking death around every corner. The final assault and mission on the rock fortress in the dead of night is similarly exciting with some surprising reveals as to who survives and who doesn't.  It's an entertaining, unpretentious little WWII action flick. That's all. Nothing more, nothing less, and you can certainly do worse.

Hell Boats <---Credits/Opening sequence (1970): ** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Real Steel

My reaction when I saw the trailer for 2011's Real Steel was one similar to the one I had when I saw Cowboys vs. Aliens. In other, that looks stupid. I went along with Cowboys vs. Aliens and ended up liking it to a point. I just couldn't muster the same feeling for Real Steel, an underdog story with some heart that deserves to be hit repeatedly with the cliche stick.

Sometime in the near future, washed up boxer Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is traveling the back roads, trying to make a quick buck wherever he can with his fighting robots. The new "sport" of sorts has taken the world by storm, but Charlie finds himself in the back alleys and minor leagues. He receives the news that his estranged girlfriend has died, leaving him custody of their 11-year old son, Max (Dakota Goyo). Charlie agrees to take custody from Max's family for a few months and a price, but nothing goes easy between the long separated father and son. Helping the cause? Max is a huge fan of robot fights, even finding the mangled ruins of an old robot, a Generation 2 model named Atom. Can Charlie teach the worn robot some new moves and maybe get back on the right track in the ring?

Should I have been surprised here? The trailers did a pretty accurate job setting up the story; robots controlled by humans fighting in a ring, often times to the death. The trailer made the whole thing look comical, so ridiculously over the top that I couldn't take it seriously. I tried. I genuinely tried when I went and saw this movie, but I had way too much trouble going along for the ride. As is so often the case, there's potential. A Twilight Zone episode dealt with an almost identical topic, and basing a movie -- somewhat loosely -- off a Richard Matheson short story is never a bad jumping off point, but 'Steel' tries to be both Disney heart-warmer and futuristic, dark robots fighting story.

Turning Matheson's short story into a feature film, director Shawn Levy goes back to the well a little too often, ending with one of the most cliche-ridden movies in recent memory. Cliches can be good in small doses, but Levy wallops you repeatedly on the head with his. Now sports movies in general rely on cliches to move the story along, and that's fine. They're necessary, but use them from time to time, not to fill out every scene. There's the requisite robot training sequence, followed by the robot fighting sequence as Atom makes a "name" for himself. Then from Cliches 101, we get the estranged father and son learning to be father and son. I will wager anyone reading this review can predict the ending of the movie freakishly accurately.

What disappointed me in the execution was the Atom character. Yes, the robot. I'm not saying turn him into Herbie the Love Bug, a supposedly inanimate, heartless thing that turns into a living thing. But in a scene here and there, it is hinted that Atom is maybe something more than just a trash-heap robot. Nothing really comes of that though, the possible subplot being left by the side of the road. Is it a good sign though when the aging, fighting robot becomes the most sympathetic and most interesting character in the story? Eh, probably not. Atom is cool though, giving the sense of being more than just a robot without requiring the story to get mystical or other-worldly.

My possible saving grace going into the movie was that Hugh Jackman -- Broadway side trips aside -- is a Movie Star, one of the coolest actors around and a great presence on-screen regardless of the movie. His characterization of Charlie is nothing new, but even in the movie's cheesiest moments I found myself going along for the ride almost entirely because of Jackman. The story may be ridiculous, but if Jackman's going along with it the movie has to be sorta good, right? Playing his son Max, Goyo is hit or miss, mixing scenes where he clearly shows a legitimate acting ability with others where he looks like he's in over his head. Feel wrong criticizing an 11-year old actor? You bet, but Jackman helps carry him through the part.

Who else to look out for in the supporting cast? Lost star Evangline Lilly plays Bailey, an old "friend" of Charlie's and owner of a gym where he works out with the robots. Rising star Anthony Mackie is Finn, a gambler and promoter with his hand in everything in the robot fighting business. An underused part for Mackie, but still good to see him. Kevin Durand plays Ricky, a low-level but intimidating promoter who Charlie owes some serious money. Hope Davis appears briefly as Debra, Max's aunt fighting for custody. And because a movie needs some sort of outside force "bad guy," there's Karl Yune as Mashido, the "evil" robot designer, and Olga Fonda as Farra, the kingpin with all the money in the business.

Real Steel probably isn't as bad as I'm making it out to be, but it certainly isn't that good either. It's a tad long at 127 minutes and composer Danny Elfman's score is too generically inspirational. The interest levels pick up once Atom is discovered a little before the halfway point, but only a bit. To each his own -- reviews are surprisingly positive in general -- but I'd steer clear of this one.

Real Steel <---trailer (2011): * 1/2 /****

Monday, October 24, 2011

Bull Durham

Of all the sports out there -- and there's plenty -- my favorite is and always will be baseball.  There's something simple about America's pastime that you either appreciate or you don't. Little middle ground exists. You can watch 10,000 baseball games over the course of your life and never see the same game twice. More than that, on any given play in any stadium across the country, you can see something you will most likely never see again. Baseball is baseball, a sport and a beast unto itself.

One of the best movies to ever try and explain the beauty and lunacy of baseball was 1988's Bull Durham. With professional baseball, there are the thousands of players who want nothing more than to play in the Majors, or as 'Bull' puts it....make it to The Show.  This is a story from the minor leagues though, players who don't necessarily have a great shot at future stardom. This is a movie about long bus trips, games in front of half-filled stadiums, eccentric players left and right, and most importantly, that dream of making it at the highest level even if it's just for a game.

Recently signed for a large bonus, rookie pitcher Ebby Calvin 'Nook' LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) has been assigned to Class A ball, the Durham Bulls in the Carolina League. LaLoosh has all the talent in the world, but he struggles on focusing, keeping his mind in the game, and therefore his pitching control. Hoping to groom the star pitcher for the majors, the organization brings in career minor leaguer Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), a catcher with 12 years experience under his belt. The rookie and the vet don't exactly get along, making things worse when Annie (Susan Sarandon), a diehard "supporter" of the team takes an interest in them both. Each season Annie picks one player and hooks up with them all summer, prompting a great season. How's this mess of a situation in the middle of a baseball season going to be fixed?   

Where to start with Bull Durham? Lots of good starting points -- there's a reason it is held in high regard among baseball fans -- but the best point to start is Kevin Costner, a baseball fan and a movie star. With this movie and Field of Dreams and For the Love of the Game, Costner has shown his love and respect for the game of baseball.  Playing Crash, he looks and sounds like a baseball player. You're rooting for him with the thousands of miles he's put on his legs chasing his dream. Signed by the Bulls as a mentor, he has the dubious honor of chasing the all-time minor league home run record but wants nothing to do with it. He's a baseball player on his last legs looking to stay in the game a little while longer, and Costner nails the part.

Director Ron Shelton, the screenplay and the cast get this one right. An easy 3-for-3. There are sports stories, and there are chasing your dream sports stories. For the most part, that's what these players are doing albeit in a funny fashion. There's the superstitious Hispanic player blessing his bat and glove, the bible-thumping player who leads a prayer group, the manager (Trey Wilson) trying to hold it all together, and his assistant (Robert Wuhl) always ready with a word. 'Bull' gets the little moments right; the manager losing his mind following a bad loss (watch HERE), Crash's 'I believe' speech (watch HERE), the meeting of the minds at the mound (watch HERE), LaLoosh striking out 18 in his debut and walking 18 batters, and so many more, too many to mention.

Selling these moments along with Costner is Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins.  Sarandon's Annie is an interesting character, a baseball groupie if a highly intelligent one. Each summer she picks one player and teaches him the ways of love and baseball, always producing his best year for himself and the team in the process.  She's torn between Nook and Crash, knowing she can help the star pitcher but wanting Crash instead. Robbins is hilarious as Nook, the tall, lanky and generally clueless star prospect. He wants to do things his way, accepted ways be damned. In his cluelessness though, he's likable in a part that would have been easy to dislike. And as a topper, seeing his Fernando Valenzuela-like pitching motion is hysterical.

Where other movies don't understand the people and places they're showing, 'Bull' hits it right on the button. This is a movie and story that knows baseball, that respects baseball and all its idiosyncrasies, all its positives and negatives that can switch with the snap of a finger. It is a game that people and fans have always been drawn to, and you can see why through all the craziness. In its simplicity, it is a most beautiful game.

Bull Durham <---trailer (1988): ****/****

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Danger Route

I stumbled across a channel in the last few weeks I didn't realize was on the dial -- This TV -- and taking any chance I can to see some hard-to-find movies, I've been reviewing their website fairly regularly. They're not showing classics, focusing more on some lesser known, more mainstream movies, including some I've never heard of, including 1967's Danger Route.

Part James Bond knock-off with a darker outlook on the life of a secret agent/spy, it struggles at times to decide what's really going on. The cast was what drew me in, and for the most part no one disappoints. Certain moments ring so true you feel they just have to be accurate, dead-on in their portrayal of the espionage underworld. The other moments though? Well, they fall short. The first 45 minutes were mind-numbingly slow, the middle portions a major improvement, and the end too tidy although perfectly cynical.

A secret agent with a license to kill, Jonas Wylde (Richard Johnson) has had enough of the business and wants out.  He decides to take on one more job, a contract hit on an order he receives from his superiors. A Czechoslovakian scientist has defected to the Americans with all his secrets, and he's ready to spill them all.  Wylde must now figure a way to get to the heavily guarded defector, briefly staying in Britain as he travels to America. As his plan comes together though, the very capable and highly professional Jonas begins to suspect something else is up. His mission is one thing, but is there something more? Is he part of a mole hunt? Who exactly is gunning for him?

I'm going to get this one rant out of the way and then won't come back to it again. As I say/type it, I know I sound like an ignorant American, but here goes anyways. This movie is very British. Usually in my mind, that's a positive. Here? Mostly because there was no closed captioning on the broadcast, it's a bad thing. Johnson talks in what can only be described as a quiet mumble. I'm pretty decent deciphering accents, but this movie threw me for a loop.  Therefore, I felt more than a few times like I was behind or had missed something, jumps in logic and story going over my head.  Apparently not though, 'Danger' just relying on a twisting and turning story that doesn't always make sense.

Taking into consideration his choice to talk in a growling whisper for most of his lines, Johnson is still an interesting choice to play this well-worn, experienced secret agent.  Usually playing a key secondary role -- he specialized in the right hand man part -- he gets a chance at a starring role.  I like the edge he brings to his character, an ability to handle himself in every situation, a distrust in basically everyone around him, and a knack for figuring things out quicker than humanly possible. In the cool but odd department, he also dispatches quite a few people via a nicely placed judo chop that Austin Powers would be proud of. Johnson's Wylde snaps necks like nobody's business.

About 45 minutes into the movie after the painfully slow opening, I was very much drawn in. Wylde finds out his mission is more than he was told, and things get interesting.  Director/actor Sam Wanamaker has a scene-stealing part that in two or three brutally effective scenes almost save the movie on their own. Playing CIA agent 'Lucinda,' Wanamaker shows the potential here after capturing Wylde, telling him exactly how he caught him.  It's well-written, well thought out and executed as perfectly as possible.  Simple and straightforward, and the best scene in the movie going away.

The supporting parts on the whole -- including Wanamaker -- are key without being time-consuming in actual screentime.  Harry Andrews plays Canning, Wylde's long-time supervisor trying to look out for one of his most-trusted agents. Gordon Jackson is Brian, Wylde's partner who helps him in and out of different missions, leaving the authorities in the dust.  Call me chauvinistic, but I had trouble keeping track of the female characters in this movie, four of them if I counted right, all attractive, blonde women. There's Carol Lynley as Jocelyn, Wylde's mistress, Barbara Bouchet as Marita, a possible double agent playing both sides, Sylvia Sims as Barbara, Canning's wife, and Diana Dors as a somewhat clueless maid Wylde plays.     

I wanted to like this one, and really tried to get into it, but it never amounts to much. Decent cast wasted in a disappointing espionage story.

Danger Route <---trailer (1967): * 1/2 /****

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Eight Men Out

Growing up a sports fan in Chicago, I learned to love the White Sox from an early age, going to countless games with my Dad over the years. The 2005 team that won the World Series is still one of the coolest moments of my life to this point and is something I'll never forget. But as much as I love the Sox, they will always be responsible for one of the darkest moments in baseball history, and bigger than that, professional sports. In 1919, eight players (allegedly) took money to fix the World Series, losing to Cincinnati. Their story was immortalized in 1988's Eight Men Out, one of the all-time underrated sports movies.

Tearing through the American League and winning the pennant, the Chicago White Sox, led by five-tool player Joe Jackson (D.B. Sweeney) and 29-game winner Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn), head into the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds the heavy favorites. Gamblers from Chicago to New York City see a chance for a big payday, starting by approaching Sox first baseman Chick Gandil (Michael Rooker) to see if enough players would be interested in throwing the series for a payoff. The plan sounds awful. How could professional ballplayers on one of the best teams ever assembled throw the championship? Having been mistreated and poorly paid for years by owner Charles Comiskey (Clifton James) though, Gandil finds suitors, finally settling on eight players, some more committed than others. When the best-of-nine series starts though, will the players go through with it?

As a sports fan, there is something incredibly uncomfortable about watching this movie. As a Sox fan, there is something really unpleasant watching the story unfold. The details of the Black Sox scandal plagued the franchise for years, the 2005 World Series team finally wiping some of the embarrassment away. Just as a sports fan and a baseball fan, you feel wrong watching something like this. 'Eight' neither condemns nor makes the eight players into heroes. Some like Eddie Cicotte are looking for money as his career winds down, Gandil is looking for a quick payday, and others like Jackson and third baseman Buck Weaver (John Cusack) aren't even sure they should be involved. Director John Sayles simply tells his story, and lets the viewer come to his own conclusions.

Any fan of sports, history, or doesn't live under a rock is at least somewhat familiar with this incident. Eight players were kicked out of baseball two years later for throwing at least part of the 1919 World Series although it's a personal judgment call as to whether all eight were guilty. In other words, you know how the story will end before it starts. Sayles takes on that challenge, directing a story that never failed to keep me interested. He builds a sense of doom throughout as the series develops, the fix clearly in. Cicotte's signal that he's going along with the fix -- hitting Game 1's first batter -- is a simple but surprising and even shocking moment. It is very real from here on in, and with one pitch things changed forever for baseball. The series bounces back and forth, even the Sox questioning if they should go along when their promised pay isn't provided. Give Sayles credit. He made the known content of history interesting, keeping us guessing.

With at least 30 or 40 speaking roles, a handful of performances still manage to rise to the top. Cusack especially as 3B Buck Weaver is a scene-stealer, a hard-nosed baseball player who claimed to the day he died he had nothing to do with the fix. He sees what's going on around him but is basically helpless to do anything. Sweeney plays Jackson as the immensely talented but naive Shoeless Joe, a player caught up in something bigger than he is. He knows nothing else other than baseball, and to this day fans still say he played as hard as ever in the 1919 Series. The movie's final shot focuses on Jackson, an incredibly moving closing. Strathairn as Eddie Cicotte delivers an understated but very effective performance, a pitcher who sees the finish line in sight, a man who's been mistreated by his boss, the dirt-cheap Charles Comiskey. John Mahoney plays Kid Gleason, the Sox manager who sees what's going on but is helpless to stop it.

That's far from all though, just the best of the bunch. The other players include Rooker's Gandil, Charlie Sheen as Happy Felsch, Don Harvey as shortstop Swede Risberg, Gandil's conniving partner, James ReadPerry Lang as Lefty Williams, a southpaw and second pitcher in on the fix, and as Fred McMullin, a little-used benchwarmer. Gordon Clapp, Bill Irwin and Jace Alexander play members of the Sox playing it straight come game-time. Michael Lerner plays Arnold Rothstein, big-time gambler putting the money up for the fix, with Christopher Lloyd, Kevin Tighe and Michael Mantell as other gamblers involved. Sayles and Eight Men Out author Eliot Asinof are good playing off each other as two sports writers suspicious of what's going on with the White Sox on the field.   

Good or bad, shown in a positive or negative light, there is something to be said for a baseball movie (of which there are too few). The baseball action is handled in exciting fashion without getting bogged down. The actors look like baseball players, appearing very natural on the field. The late 1910/early 1920s look of the movie doesn't hurt either, fans coming out to the stadium wearing suits. Throw away just about anything else though, and baseball and its simple beauty make up the heart of the movie. Even in the sport's darkest days, it is great to watch. Why it isn't remembered more fondly I'll never know.

Eight Men Out <---trailer (1988): ****/****

Friday, October 21, 2011

Viva Zapata!

Fought through the 1910s, the Mexican Revolution produced several heroic, notable, and even infamous historical figures. The name most people know – or at least have heard of – is Pancho Villa, a revolutionary leader who fought the Mexican Army in Northern Mexico. A name that may not be as well known, Emiliano Zapata, did as much if not more than Villa but hasn’t been as easily remembered. In 1952, Zapata’s exploits were turned into an award-winning film, Viva Zapata!

Who better to play an infamous revolutionary leader than….Marlon Brando?  One of the all-time greats in Hollywood as an actor, Brando played an eclectic, off-the-wall variety of characters in his career. He played Southern hotheads, a German soldier, a rogue American general, a Mafia head of a family, and so many more. So does a Mexican revolutionary sound so far off base? He’s an interesting choice to play Zapata, the only negative coming from an odd make-up choice to make Brando’s eyes appear…Asian? Eh, minor detail.

A poor Mexican farmer in southern Mexico, farmer Emiliano Zapata (Brando) is one of thousands of poor peasants upset with how the government takes advantage of them whenever possible. When their land is scooped up by the government, Emiliano and his brother, Eufemo (Anthony Quinn), join the fighting that has swept the country. Zapata doesn’t fight for glory or fame or riches, just for the people’s rights so they can be treated like human beings. But with so much power on the line, Zapata finds that anyone and everyone must question their own beliefs, choosing between their wants and their needs.

You know what’s a good sign that a movie has a lasting impact? A whole subgenre is named after one person, and in the case here, one movie. After ‘Viva’ was released in 1952, revolutionary westerns started popping up in theaters more and more over the next 20 or so years. Think The Wild Bunch, The Professionals, Villa Rides! and many more. This was one of the first, and it’s a good one, setting the groundwork for the many that would follow, all the characters, story twists, and plotlines there for the taking.

Now 100 years removed from the actual incidents these movies portray, historians now question how revolutionaries like Villa and Zapata have been remembered. Were they heroes or murderers? Directed by Elia Kazan, ‘Viva’ leans toward the hero angle, going as far as building Brando’s Zapata up to almost God-like proportions. It’s never obnoxious or goes too far, but you certainly notice. Brando does a phenomenal job portraying Zapata in a way that doesn’t make the revolutionary tedious or one-note. He’s an illiterate, poor farmer who wants something else for the people and himself. He’s willing to sacrifice it all to accomplish that mission. Brando was nominated for an Academy Award for his part, losing to Gary Cooper in High Noon, but that doesn’t take away from an impressive performance.

Like any historical epic, this movie must deal with a delicate issue. How do you condense 15-20 years of history into a 2-hour movie? ‘Viva’ does a fair job of hitting all the key points of Zapata’s involvement in the revolution, his rise and fall more or less. The first half of the movie struggles some to build any momentum, the rhetoric of the revolution bogging the story down some. The subplot with Zapata marrying Josefa (Jean Peters) doesn’t serve much of a purpose either as it tries to humanize the revolutionary. The pacing picks up in the far superior second half as the revolution takes its toll on Zapata and his army, the conflict becoming fiercer, the battles bloodier, the betrayals and backstabbing more familiar with no end in sight.

Originally expected to play Zapata, Anthony Quinn had to “settle” playing the revolutionary’s brother. Call it fate, but Quinn won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor while Brando was only nominated. It’s not a great performance – Quinn had much better – but it reflects the times and who won at the Oscars. It is a big, loud part where Quinn is allowed to chew the scenery and ham it up, a passionate, driven revolutionary who starts to see that everything isn’t as it is made out to be. Another very solid supporting part comes from Joseph Wiseman as Hernando, a somewhat mysterious revolutionary who seems obsessed with winning this fight, seeing what Zapata means to the revolution, not as a person but for what he represents. Also look for an uncredited Henry Silva as Hernando, a peasant and fighter who joins Zapata late in the revolution and Frank Silvera as Victoriano Huerta.

Naturally because this is a positively reviewed movie and generally well respected by critics and fans alike, it is available in absolutely NO formats, no VHS, DVD, or Blu-Ray. It’s been a ‘Save’ option on Netflix for over a year in my queue. So if you can track a copy down, it’s well worth it. Beautiful black and white photography, strong performances from the three leads, and an interesting story about a revolution with no easy answers. Check out four clips HERE at TCM's website.

Viva Zapata ß-trailer (1953): ***/****

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Arizona Colt

With a sub-genre like spaghetti westerns that produced around 600 movies in a span of just over 10 years, you're going to see familiar faces popping up over and over again. But with the spaghettis and as many stars as the genre produced, no one was in more Italian westerns than Spanish actor Fernando Sancho. This new wave of westerns had all sorts of vicious bad guys, and Sancho specialized in just those roles, typically playing a variation on a Mexican bandit chief, like in 1966's Arizona Colt.

Leading his ruthless band of outlaws -- the Sidewinders -- bandit chief Gordo Watch (Sancho) busts out a large group of prisoners from a poorly guarded prison. He's looking to fill out the ranks of his gang, offering the released prisoners a simple offer...join or die. All except the offer except one, a gunfighter by the name of Arizona Colt (Giuliano Gemma), who escapes before he can be shot down. Arizona taunts Gordo, betting he can't exact his revenge. Gordo and his gang are planning a robbery in the nearby desert town of Blackstone Hills, but Arizona seems to have other ideas. Even when the town turns on him for being just like the bandits, he must now decide to help the town or turn his back on them.

As was pretty typical of Sancho's parts in spaghetti westerns, he plays the stereotypical over-the-top bandit chieftain. He's outfitted in a ridiculous-looking, bright red general's outfit, bandoleers strapped across his chest, and that permanent squinty eyed glare. His Gordo has his band of equally menacing bandits, always laughing at their leader's actions. He's got a bit of that maniacally evil bandit that's so familiar in spaghetti westerns, but he's never intimidating here, more comedically funny than I'd like in my villain. Gordo throws bad one-liner after another, randomly shoots his victims out of the blue, and in general is pretty nutty. It doesn't quite work though.

Those problems go more toward the movie as a whole, not just Sancho as the villain. 'Arizona' doesn't know what it is in terms of a spaghetti western. It's too light and fluffy to be truly dark and cynical, and when it does try to be darker, it's too late. Gemma's Arizona backflips out of a tree to dispatch some bad guys, and for a second I thought I was watching an acrobatic gymnastic western like Sabata (which I actually like). As for the kill count, it's significant. Watch every Gemma kill in the movie HERE with obvious spoilers of course. This movie has some of the most ridiculous-looking deaths ever, gunshot victims spinning around like crazy before falling to the ground, loud, pained screams to boot. At one point, a wave of bandits just runs without actually shooting at Arizona, almost inviting him to kill them. He obliges if you were curious.

This is the second spaghetti western I've seen starring Gemma (that I can remember at least) after Day of Anger.  Where other spaghetti stars like Eastwood, Van Cleef, even Franco Nero, had that rugged anti-hero look, Gemma leans more toward the pretty boy. I didn't dislike his Arizona Colt, but I wasn't a huge fan of his either. There are some interesting elements to the story and character -- he cheats at cards for one -- but he's too fun-loving and at times gullible. Spaghetti western anti-heroes are at their best when they're mean. Arizona might be more at home in a comedic western -- like the Trinity movies -- but in this entry that bounces back and forth between comedy and dark, he feels out of place.

What else? With 600 movies, just like recurring roles for actors, you're going to see some similar storylines popping up, but this stretches it a little bit.  'Arizona' was released in 1966, just two years removed from Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars.  Did director Michele Lupo think viewers would forget that movie? Part of the final showdown between Arizona and Gordo is a blatant rip-off of Leone's much-better movie, from the explosive, dynamite opening to Arizona's "trick" once the shooting actually starts. It was a lazy effort, only partially saved by the shootout between Arizona and Gordo in a darkened barn full of empty coffins.

There were some positives to take away. Composer Francesco De Masi's score is used a little too much with virtually no quiet moments, but at least the score is a memorable one. It switches from soft, soothing Mexican-themed samples to bigger and louder as needed. The theme song (listen HERE) is pretty awful too, so bad it is memorably good. In the supporting cast, Corinne Marchand is Jane, the saloon owner's daughter, Nello Pazzafini is Kay, Gordo's right hand man, and Roberto Camardiel is Whiskey, a dynamite-toting, whiskey-guzzling bandit who can "smell" money. Not a strong effort in the spaghetti western department, but I've seen worse. You can watch the full movie HERE at Youtube.

Arizona Colt <---trailer (1966): **/****

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Wages of Fear

I was first introduced to Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1953 classic film The Wages of Fear on late night TV, always a bad place to discover a movie. I didn't know it at the time, but I was watching a heavily cut version that was about 20 minutes short of the original 1953 release, including completely editing out the ending Clouzot intended. Sign of a good movie? I loved the edited version, but short of dropping $45 on the Criterion Collection DVD, I could never track down the longer version. Thanks Turner Classic Movies, it was worth the wait.

Might as well say this early. 'Fear' is one of the best movies ever made, an example of pure cinema, a movie that is criminally simplistic in its execution. This is a story of desperation and life and death, the extreme and foolhardy choices an individual will make to alter and hopefully better his life. If you're skeptical about watching a French movie or reading subtitles, get over yourself.  Because of its subject matter, you can't help but feel a bit uncomfortable watching Clouzot's film, but that's the goal. Sit back and let this one wash over you.

In a remote region of South America, an oil well owned by an American company, Southern Oil Company (SOC), has caught fire. The only solution to handle the blaze is to blow up the well, sealing it off. The only problem? The nitroglycerin needed is hundreds of miles away in a decrepit little village full of international tramps and vagabonds. The company offers a huge payday to any drivers willing to try and attempt to deliver the nitro, one of the most unstable elements in explosives around. Four men are accepted, Mario (Yves Montand), Jo (Charles Vanel), Luigi (Folco Lulli), and Bimba (Peter van Eyck), the four splitting up to drive two trucks packed with the nitro. With thousands of dollars at stake, the two trucks set out on a 300-mile plus trip through hell where any bump in the road, any disruption at all could set the nitro off, killing the drivers in an instant. A suicide mission if there ever was, can this quartet pull off the job?

It is hard to put into words how ridiculously tense this 1953 French film really is. An early introduction of the power of nitroglycerin sets the stage when a single drop of the liquid touches the ground, producing a deafening roar in a confined setting. If a single drop produces that effect, what would a whole truckload produce if something went wrong? Almost 90 minutes of a 131-minute movie are spent on the road with the two trucks and their respective drivers, and you're waiting at the edge of your seats, living and dying with every bump, every noise, every little pothole in the road. That's all it will take to set it off, and in an instant life is gone and death takes over. It is an amazing movie to watch, a sick beauty to it all.

To amplify this incredible tension, Clouzot makes a brilliant decision. His first 45 minutes are almost painfully slow, laying out the groundwork of this desperate group of men in an isolated South American village. The only way out is a tiny airport. They need money to buy a ticket, but there's no work or jobs and so they waste away. These are desperate men, pushed to the limit where a suicide mission delivering nitro is seen as a positive. Through this first segment, we get to meet the players, Mario, a French playboy yearning for Paris, Jo, an aging gangster not as young or tough as he once was, Luigi, a hard-working Italian who discovers he may be dying of a lung disease, and Bimba, a Dutch pilot with a tortured past. It is slow going at times, but these scenes are needed. The adrenaline of the driving scenes are incredible on their own, but knowing the characters and their motivations? It amps that adrenaline up to an almost painful level. We want these characters to succeed. Slow at times? You bet, but completely necessary and a brilliant choice.

The performances here are primal and perfect, human beings at their most basic level; survival. Montand is one of my favorite actors, and his performance rivals his equally impressive turn in Le Cercle Rouge. His Mario is the main character, and one who isn't always a likable guy, or at least someone who's easy to like. He becomes obsessed with mission, willing to risk it all even when it would be so easy to turn back. Vanel is perfectly cast as his opposite, the new arrival in town who seems to have it all figured out. Only when his back is up against the wall does he realize he's not who he thought he was. Lulli and van Eyck aren't given the same screentime, but their performances are just as impressive, putting a desperation and a human edge on these two men. The director's wife Vera Clouzot plays Linda, Mario's girl in the village with William Tubbs playing O'Brien, the brutal, cynical local American head of SOC who hires the men for their mission.

The simplicity of the mission and the story on the whole is what sets this movie apart. A handful of sequences keep the momentum going from the second the two trucks -- a few miles apart -- leave the village for the oil well.  The opener is a beat-up dirt road with two options. Floor it across the road, negating the bumps in a quick ride, or slowly go over it, taking significantly longer. Unable to communicate, what if the back truck decides to speed while the lead truck goes slowly? A second sequence is a hairpin turn on a mountainside, a rickety platform the only support the truck will have. The third is a giant boulder in the road, the four drivers using a tiny supply of nitro to blow it up. The last is a perilous drive through an oil-filled hole, the desperation weighing down on the drivers. These sequences are incredible to watch and be a part of. It's hard to express the power here of these scenes. They need to be seen to be believed and appreciated.

Now for the ending, one pretty typical of French films in the 1950s and 1960s. An epic downer, but in a way you wouldn't expect. The movie delivers its fair share of shocking moments, but Clouzot's ending is the most shocking without a doubt.  Like the best surprise endings, it leaves you feeling like you've been punched in the stomach. The movie is one of the all-time bests, an incredibly dark, cynical look at human life and what drives us. How far would you go? Would you go through what these four men did? What's your limit?

Also worth checking out the American remake, one of the few remakes to rival the original, 1977's Sorcerer, which I reviewed a couple years back. Read the review HERE. It's an early review so bear with me. TCM offers three clips which you can watch HERE of 'Fear.'

The Wages of Fear <---trailer (1953): ****/****

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Thing (2011)

John Carpenter's The Thing -- released in 1982 -- is one of the all-time great science fiction and horror mash-ups. It keeps you on the edge of your seat, mixing in visually shocking effects with surprise and gotcha! moments that have you jumping out of that seat. One of the best things going for Carpenter's film is the mystery, a pre-story we never see, something else that happened about an alien entombed in Antarctica before this story even starts. Ever wonder what happened at that Norwegian camp? Oh yes, we're talking prequel, released in theaters this weekend, 2011's The Thing.  

I've made no bones about disliking most remakes, reboots and do-overs when it comes to movies. This newly released prequel just shows how stupid people are. Anyone complaining about a remake should probably just stop watching movies at all. For one, this is actually a prequel, setting up Carpenter's 1982 film. And two, the 1982 version is....wait for this...a remake of 1951 sci-fi classic The Thing From Another World. So anyone claiming "the original" should be left alone should just shut up. Your precious original is in fact, a remake too. The 2011 version? A worthy addition to the franchise, one that pays homage while exploring new territory.

At a remote Antarctic research site, the predominantly Norwegian staff has made a huge discovery, some sort of foreign space ship entombed in the ice, possibly for hundreds of thousands of years. The doctor in charge, Dr. Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen), calls in a specialist, a paleontologist, Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), to help examine the frozen creature specimen found in the ice. Before the examination can take place though, the supposedly dead creature comes to life, putting everyone's life at risk. What is it? What is it capable of? Kate is the first to come up with an explanation as the body count rises. The alien can replicate itself as a source, posing as any living thing. Paranoia sets in with nowhere to go. The alien could be anyone and everyone. Can those uninfected individuals find out who is and isn't still human in time?

This is officially a prequel, but there is of course similarities between the movies, similar characters, story arc, that sort of thing. It would be nearly impossible for the two movies to be at least a little alike. What is good about director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.'s prequel is that it does pay homage to Carpenter's version but goes down a different route about the halfway point. It reverts back to more of a monster chase movie, survivors trying to defeat this unknown creature. That may be the biggest difference; the creature is shown clearly in a variety of incarnations, one of them creepier than the others. Other nice touches? Ennio Morricone's original theme (listen HERE) is used with composer Marco Beltrami tweaking the rest of the score, a perfect mood and tension setter. The look of the movie is right, down to a long list of continuity jumps and connections that any fan of Carpenter's film will appreciate.  

What I think any viewer will be able to appreciate is more than just the shocking and surprising scares, the ones that are meant to make you jump, to flinch while watching. At its base, the story is built around fear and paranoia of not being able to trust anyone around you.  Winstead's Lloyd pieces things together, putting clues together that should reveal if 'the Thing' has taken over any more people. Even close friends and co-workers could have turned, been infected and it is nearly impossible to tell.  That ultimate fear, that terror is magnified at this remote research site. There's nowhere to go so the problem is there waiting to be dealt with. Some of the movie's most tense moments rely on that premise. When survival is the goal, you'll turn on anyone who is standing in your way.

Like the 1982 version, the 2011 prequel has a solid ensemble cast with a few standouts.  Winstead especially is a strong lead. A female lead in a horror movie dominated by a male cast might sound like it's out of left field, but she's great in the part, a smart, clear-thinking leader in the most trying of times.  Thomsen too is impressive, the doctor blinded by his find and its possible ramifications in fame and riches even as his crew gets knocked off one by one. Eric Christian Olsen plays Adam, Halvorson's assistant who has a long working friendship/relationship with Kate. The coolest characters though belong to Joel Edgerton as Carter, the chopper pilot clearly channeling Kurt Russell's MacReady, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as his co-pilot, Jameson. Of the rest of the Norwegian crew, Jorgen Langhelle stands out the most as Lars, the non-English speaking grunt worker. The remaining cast members are exclusively Norwegian actors, most of them not around long enough to make an impression other than as Thing-food.

The monster/alien vs. human angle is played up more in the second half of the movie, much more than Carpenter's telling. As one reviewer so eloquently and appropriately put it, "The flamethrower action has been ratcheted up 10 or 12 notches." Some good surprises, some heavy creature gore and violence, and a story full of tension.

What will work the best for fans of Carpenter's film is the ending to the prequel. Anyone who has seen Carpenter's 1982 film knows and remembers the striking, startling opening sequence. So it's natural to assume this prequel has to connect the two movies, and let me say, does it ever. Even knowing it's coming, the ending of the movie is a whale of a finish, one of the great connecting transitions I can think of in a movie. As for some of the characters, it leaves it up to your imagination to decide exactly how things went down. All I can...when the credits start to roll keep your butt in the seat. Is the movie as good as 1982's The Thing? Nope, but it does it justice and then some.

The Thing <---trailer (2011): ***/****

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Conspirator

In one of the United States' biggest tragedies, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated April 14, 1865 by the actor John Wilkes Booth just a week after the Confederate surrender to Union forces at Appomattox Court House. Over the coming months, a trial was held with eight prisoners held accountable for the Lincoln assassination, but also a bigger plot, one to kill the Vice President and the Secretary of State. Among the prisoners, a lone woman, Mary Surratt, a boarding house owner who's story was told in 2010's The Conspirator.

Stunned by the assassination of President Lincoln, Civil War veteran and inexperienced lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) is assigned the impossible. Just weeks after Lincoln's death, Aiken is assigned as defense counsel to Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the owner of a Washington boarding house believed to be involved with the assassination plot. The country is still mourning the tragic and sudden loss of the President, and there are cries for revenge, for retribution, including against Surratt who claims she's innocent. Even Aiken struggles to come to a conclusion, balancing out his personal feelings to his country with his obligation as a lawyer. With Surratt's life very much on the line, Aiken must decide what to do, choosing whether he can actually defend this woman in a court that seems rigged to watch him fail.

It is the rare historical period piece that hits theaters over the recent years so you have to enjoy them when they do come along. When there's the talent involved here -- with director Robert Redford -- it's an almost must watch situation. The look of the movie is impressive from the uniforms down to the locations that give you the feeling of being in 1865 Washington. 'Conspirator' is at its best setting things up, bringing the time to life for history buffs and viewers being introduced to a new subject. Composer Mark Isham's score isn't a classic, but it is both epic and moody as needed.

What doesn't work so well is based in the pacing. It starts with an obvious but still major problem. I've always liked history -- and have been to Ford's Theatre several times -- so I'm familiar with Mary Surratt's name. Whether you are or aren't (or even just read the Wiki link above), there isn't much mystery here. You know how it's going to end so so-called "twists" don't produce that desired result. Getting to the ending though, the story gets bogged down in the repetitious, yawn-producing courtroom scenes. The story revels in the period accuracy, and it sounds like the speech patterns of the 1860s, but that doesn't mean it is always interesting. The pacing is leisurely to say the least, and in general doesn't have much urgency. When you know where the movie's going to end up, some sense of tension or question would have been nice.

For a movie called 'The Conspirator,' I came away surprised. If anything, it could be called 'The Conspirator's Lawyer.' McAvoy does a very solid job as Aiken, the real-life figure assigned to defend Mrs. Surratt.  The story focuses far more on him and his personal struggles than those of Surratt. Wright similarly is good if not great as Mary, portrayed as a martyr of sorts, an almost too angelic one. It just would have been nice to see her more, get to know her better as opposed to a one-note religious woman looking out for her kids' well-being at her own cost. McAvoy is torn apart inside, trying to figure out how to defend his client, putting his career on the line to see how far he can go. Their scenes lack a certain energy, but McAvoy makes the best impression in the courtroom as he desperately tries to do his job.

Working with a director -- and in general Hollywood legend -- with Redford's talent, I'm assuming actors are knocking down his door to get parts in his movies. McAvoy and Wright clearly have the biggest roles, but a handful of other parts rise above their smallish screentime. Tom Wilkinson (a British senator from Maryland?!?) plays Senator Reverdy Johnson, a man who believes even the guiltiest among us deserves a trial. A nearly unrecognizable Kevin Kline is Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, the movie's villain (because every movie needs one. An underrated actress, Evan Rachel Wood is memorable as Anna, Mary's suffering daughter trying to help her mother while Danny Huston plays Joseph Holt, the prosecuting attorney. Colm Meaney is wasted as General Hunter, head of the commission/trial. Among other smaller parts, Justin Long and Alexis Bledel fail to make much of an impression as Aiken's friend and a long-time girlfriend. Norman Reedus is the only other one of the conspirators to get more than a line or two.

It is the rare period piece so I always feel like I should enjoy these movies no matter the quality. I came away disappointed here with a historical story that should have been more interesting. There are aspects of the trial that shine some light on the cover-ups and whitewashing that was done to Surratt, efforts handled so a guilty verdict would come along no matter how ridiculously fixed things were. As a director, Redford is clearly in Surratt's corner, but he never actually spells it out mostly because as history, we'll never know for sure of Surratt's innocence or guilt. With a small footnote in our nation's history, I just wished the movie had been more enjoyable.

The Conspirator <---trailer (2010): **/****

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Town Without Pity

Shows like Law and Order, Boston Legal, Perry Mason, and L.A. Law explore the topic. Countless courtroom dramas show the profession for what it is, warts and all. That job? Defense counsel. Being a lawyer is one thing, but I've always questioned part of the profession. Your job is to defend someone as they go through a trial the legal system allows them. Morally, ethically, your fundamental beliefs, how do you defend someone if you know they're guilty? I've never been able to wrap my head around it.

One of the best efforts to show this premise -- a defense lawyer in a seemingly open and shut case -- is 1961's Town Without Pity, more proof you should scour TV listings. Basically completely forgotten over the last 50 years, director Gottfried Reinhardt's film questions the struggles and inner turmoils a lawyer goes through. How far do you go to help save your clients? At what cost do you do so? When is it too far, or is there a limit?

A lawyer in the U.S. Army serving as part of the occupation forces in Germany, Major Steve Garrett (Kirk Douglas) has been called in for a particularly touchy case. A 16-year old German girl, Karin (Christine Kaufmann), has been raped by four U.S. Army soldiers (Robert Blake, Richard Jaeckel, Frank Sutton and Mal Sondock). With the German people calling for a brutal response, the Army High Command wants an example to be made of these four soldiers. In other words, Garrett's work is cut out for him. Prosecuting counsel (E.G. Marshall is Douglas' courtroom rival/opponent) is seeking the death penalty, putting Garrett in a spot. He has a way to ensure long prison sentences will be the judgment, not the death penalty, but it is a morally questionable strategy, one Garrett desperately wants to avoid.

This movie surprised me in a lot of ways, most of them positive. I thought it would be one thing, and it ends up being something completely different. This isn't a movie about guilt or why the soldiers did what they did. That's all but established right off the bat. Without being pretentious or condescending, 'Town' explores mob mentality and its roots in the individual. Why do people do what they do? Why do they revel in other people's pain and discomfort? As Douglas' Garrett investigates his case, he finds a town ready and willing to turn on one of their own.  There's his opening. A case study? Maybe not, it is after all a movie. It goes deeper than I thought it would, but in a good way. The heart of the movie is Douglas though, and he doesn't disappoint.

Playing defense counsel Maj. Steve Garrett, Douglas' performance will no doubt decide if this movie sinks or swims for most viewers.  He's defending rapists of a 16-year old girl, and their guilt is never truly in question. Garrett has to decide what his limit is. The law states that if the key witness can't complete their testimony, the death penalty cannot be enact. For Garrett? That means taking apart on the witness stand a 16-year old girl a few weeks removed from a vicious, brutal rape at the hands of four men. At what point does it become too much? He clearly doesn't want to do it, but his job almost requires him to do it. Intense in a way few actors can be, Douglas hits a home run with the part, wrestling inside with what he should do. Can he live with his decision once the trial is said and done? Only he knows for sure.

Douglas holds the movie together, key supporting parts revolving around him as the case and trial develops. The four soldiers are kept in the background surprisingly enough. Blake is the possible nut, Sutton the weasel trying to convince everyone of his innocence, Jaeckel the decorated vet who's come to terms with his actions, and Sondock the possibly slow soldier. Marshall is good in a thankless role as the prosecuting attorney, doing his best to keep up with Douglas. Kauffmann too is an eye opener as the possibly not so innocent Karin. Barbara Rutting is solid as Inge Koerner, a reporter looking for all sides of the story. Hans Nielsen plays Karl, Karin's father who believes his daughter is an innocent angel capable of nothing but good.

When I saw composer Dimitri Tiomkin's name listed in the cast/crew listing, I was encouraged, but this score is a doozy, a whopper of a badly inappropriate score. An odd mix of jazz and various other genres/samples, it just isn't the right choice for this dark, cynical story. It drives the action like the story of a thriller, not a story surrounding a rape case. Out of place doesn't begin to describe it. The theme song by Gene Pitney -- listen HERE -- will get stuck in your head. Guaranteed, no doubt about it, but it only plays at the beginning and end of the movie so it isn't as noticeably bad as the musical score.

This is a movie that had me wondering about halfway through how things would be wrapped up. I assumed no happy ending -- correct with that guess -- but not in the way Reinhardt's movie goes. The trial becomes an afterthought, just what it caused sending vibrations through the community that are felt everywhere.  A moving ending to a wrongly forgotten courtroom drama.

Town Without Pity <---trailer (1961): ***/****