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, April 30, 2012

Vengeance (2009)

I'd never heard of Johnny Hallyday in the least. I read his name in a movie that sounded interesting because I was familiar with the director and wanted to give him a try. Who is he? A French singer/performer and actor who in the 1960s was dubbed the French Elvis Presley. Pretty lofty comparison, isn't it? My first introduction to him -- singing or acting -- was a good one, a Hong Kong action shoot 'em up, 2009's Vengeance.

For almost 20 years, Francis Costello (Hallyday) has tried to put his checkered past behind him, opening up a successful restaurant in Paris and working there as its chef. But in Macao, his daughter and her family are brutally attacked by a hit team; her husband and children killed. The daughter (Sylvie Testud) lives long enough to see her father one last time, dying soon after his arrival in Macao. Costello is a former hit man and returns to the life he tried to put behind him. He enlists the help of three local hired killers, Kwai (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang), Chu (Ka Tung Lam), and Fat Lok (Suet Lam), to assist him in finding the killers, but in his search for revenge, Costello isn't telling them something very important about himself.

A little over a year ago, I stumbled across the films of Hong Kong director Johnnie To, starting with The Mission, and have been hooked ever since. While carving out quite a little niche for himself, To is clearly a fan of past cinema, paying homage to directors from the 1960s and 1970s with both his style and storytelling, but also simply the ways he goes about getting his message across. His characters -- typically the definition of anti-heroes -- reflect the doomed camaraderie and loyalty of men fated to die bloody a la Sam Peckinpah in the Wild Bunch. His stories take place in a sparse, cruel world a la Jean-Pierre Melville, and the action and gunplay are reminiscent of both those directors, but he was obviously greatly influenced by John Woo's slow-motion, blood-squibbed landscapes. Most importantly, he does all this while still being unique and original.

What I love about the films of To, Peckinpah, Melville, Woo and even someone like Sergio Leone are the worlds they create in their stories. To doesn't make the criminal underworld look glamorous, but he makes it look effortlessly cool and stylish. These are all bad men with deeds that must be answered and paid for, but these are also men who live by a code and expect others to do so at the same time. When you give your word to someone, you're expected to keep it. These hired killers are the modern day gunslingers. They do their jobs for money, exploring a cutthroat world and just trying to survive. To shoots these men (with a camera, not physically shooting them) like the iconic heroes of those past directors. Four men silhouetted against a backdrop, their coats whipping around, all of them waiting for the dangerous and possible death ahead of them. Stylish, cool, and great characters to go along with.

Like many directors, To has his crew of actors he likes to work with so he's worked with them on repeated occasions. Start with Chau-Sang as Kwai, the unofficial leader of the group of three hit men. He's quiet, stoic, loyal to a fault and he's principled. Lam's Chu has similar qualities although he questions their objectives a little more while Lam's Lok goes with the group as needed. We're given little in the way of background, but there's a sense of history among the group. Chau-Sang and Lam are frequent collaborators with To, both the actors and director getting along quite well. Hallyday is an interesting choice to play Costello. Besides his eyes looking truly bizarre, he's a solid if unspectacular anti-hero. I don't know if this character -- or Hallyday as an actor -- could carry the movie alone, but as part of this killing quartet, he works well. In pre-production, the part was offered to Alain Delon who ended up deciding not to take the part. Hallyday does a good job as Costello, but I can't help but wonder what Delon would have done with the part.

Another frequent To collaborator, Simon Yam plays George Fung, the Triad mob boss who ordered the hit on Costello's family. Putting together his stories/scripts, To is always a fan of likable anti-heroes and love to hate villains. Yam isn't around a whole lot during the movie, but he tries to make the most of his appearances. Some more background would have been nice for his character, but the lack of development doesn't derail the movie. A somewhat obvious twist -- to this somewhat slow reviewer -- involves Fung's alliances, but it is telegraphed pretty early. 'Vengeance' does try to throw a couple plot twists our way, but none of them really come as an effective surprise. One uses a story point from Memento -- a forgetful main character -- but it feels forced into the script and a little hackneyed at times.

All that description and analysis of story and character seems a waste as I try to wrap things up. To doesn't have the name recognition of some of the best action directors around, but he should. Blending the bloody, slow-motion action sequences of Peckinpah and Woo, To is a phenomenal action director, able to put unique set pieces together that bring his films up a notch or two. Even the ones that feel familiar are a treat to watch develop as the body count rises. One moonlit firefight is impressive in a wooded, isolated park, but the best has Kwai, Chu and Fat Lok battling a small army of killers, all of them decked out in body length, hooded dusters. If you're anything like me, you're drawn in by the action and end up staying for the style and characters. Not To's best, but it's certainly up there.

Vengeance <---trailer (2009): ***/****

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The McKenzie Break

While there have been obvious exceptions, I usually think of WWII prisoner of war movies from the Allied P.O.W.'s perspective. Movies like The Great Escape, Stalag 17, Bridge on the River Kwai among others. The lack of Axis POW movies can be explained with the fact that many prisoners spent the war in the U.S., but I suppose there's a more obvious one. The appeal of prisoner of war movies is the escape. You're rooting for the prisoners to get out. This may just be a personal thing, but unless I'm given some sort of motivation, I ain't rooting for German/Japanese prisoners to escape, like 1970's The McKenzie Break.

It is late in World War II, but the fighting rages on, even in isolated northern Scotland at a German P.O.W. camp in McKenzie commanded by the British, including Major Perry (Ian Hendry). Perry's prisoners are almost exclusively officers -- no enlisted men here -- and thanks to their ranking officer, a U-boat commander, Captain Willi Schlueter (Helmut Griem), those prisoners have organized. While they're still prisoners, they essentially run the camp, Perry unable to enforce even the most basic rules and laws. An Irishman and former journalist working for British Intelligence, Captain Jack Connor (Brian Keith), has been assigned to the McKenzie camp to aid the situation. What exactly are these German prisoners up to? Can Connor figure out their plan before it is unleashed?

As I'm planning what to write here, I'll say this out front. If it comes across poorly or naive, I apologize. I know atrocities were committed on both sides during WWII, but I'm more familiar with those of the German/Japanese forces against Allied prisoners than the other way around. The victors write the history books and all that. So anyways, here goes. Almost all countries signed the Geneva Convention, a document protecting prisoners of war as much as possible, basically treating them like humans. As presented in 'McKenzie' and making it difficult to watch, only so much can be done. German forces always seemed ready to brutally respond to any prisoner issues, but Hendry's Major Perry seems helpless here even when German prisoners physically assault his guards. He makes the point that any action against these prisoners will be taken against Allied prisoners in Germany which is true. Maybe it's just a deeper seeded issue, a more human way of doing your job. At what cost and how far does a country and its people go? Maybe the Germans were just more comfortable in their brutality? Sorry for a somewhat off tangent. Just had to say it.

I've mentioned before, and I'll most likely mention it again, but I'm a sucker for prisoner of war movies. They're unique to war movies because they can focus on the natural tension of the conflict without getting anywhere near the battlefield. Director Lamont Johnson is at the helm of a dreary-looking film (I suppose on-location Ireland doesn't get a lot of sun) that certainly adds some dimension to the story. It is refreshing to see the Allies as the guards and the Germans as the prisoners in this tweak of a familiar story-line. The opening set-piece especially sets the tone, Perry's complete failure at "commanding" his McKenzie camp. Watch it HERE. I kept waiting for the order to fire on the prisoners -- physical assault on guards seems like reason enough -- but the opener does a great job of setting things up. This is not your typical camp where the prisoners meekly assemble and wait out the end of the war, no matter how the war effort is going for the Germans.

Amidst all the bigger picture elements in 'McKenzie' is a simple plot device that is as close to a sure-thing as you can get; a cat and mouse game between two intelligent minds, in this case Keith's Capt. Connor and Griem's Schleuter. Connor knows his German counterpart is up to something, Griem knows Connor is hot on his trail. Keith does a great job in the part, a cynical, honest quasi-soldier who isn't interested in chain of command, honor, bravery, and the so-called glory of war. He's doing his job as if he was a civilian, military protocol be damned. Griem as U-boat commander Schleuter is the villain here, not just an enemy. A devout Nazi and former member of the Hitler Youth, he is an elitist, racist, brutal officer, obsessed with helping the German and Nazi war effort. No cost is too high for this young officer. At one point, he even organizes the murder of one of his own men, a homosexual. The banter between the rival officers is pitch-perfect, neither man letting on how much he knows, both men knowing they're facing a worthy competitor.

Not many other parts really stand out, but Hendry especially does his best. It's not that his Major Perry is a bad officer, but he's at the end of his rope and limited by orders from above. Too bad his character is basically pushed to the side once Connor shows up. Patrick O'Connell does a fine job as Sgt. Major Cox, the head non-commissioned officer who works with Connor and is drawn to his more straightforward approach to handling the issue of how to handle the German prisoners. Even Jack Watson has a small but interesting part as General Kerr, Connor's commander and old friend who wants the problem to be solved quickly, efficiently and quietly. Horst Janson plays Lt. Neuchl, the gay German officer who feels the wrath of his fellow soldiers.

Having watched countless prisoner of war movies, I was a little upset with myself about the conclusion I'd come to. It sounds obvious, I'm not going to root for the Germans to escape, just like I didn't want Hardy Kruger to escape in The One That Got Away. I want Keith's Capt. Connor to get his hands on these guys before they can reach safety. The final 45 minutes pick up the pace as the story reveals more of itself, not just prisoners trying to escape but why they're doing so with orders coming from German High Command. On the other side, Connor sees potential for an impressive coup. Which one will work? The ending is especially clever in its development in this underrated P.O.W. movie.

The McKenzie Break <---trailer/clips (1970): ***/****

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Andromeda Strain (1971)

Because rocks, bows and arrows, swords, guns, bombs and nuclear devices aren't enough to kill people, human beings had to develop something darker, more sinister, more downright evil, and more effective to help off our fellow man. Germ and biological warfare come on down! Based off a novel by Michael Crichton, 1971's The Andromeda Strain uses that new age weapon (of sorts) as a jumping off point in a story that must have seemed ahead of its time on its release. Now? Not so much.

Searching for a downed satellite, the U.S. Army discovers that almost the entire population of the desert town of Piedmont is dead, the bodies lining the street. What happened to all the people to cause them to drop dead? The satellite is found, recovered and brought to a top secret government facility -- dubbed Wildfire -- where it will be examined by a team of doctors, including Dr. Stone (Arthur Hill), Dr. Dutton (David Wayne), Dr. Hall (James Olson), a medical surgeon, and Dr. Leavitt (Kate Reid). Two survivors were found in Piedmont -- a 6-month old infant and an old man -- but can the team explain how/why they survived while also containing whatever caused the mass deaths? Danger is looming, something that could not only kill the team but thousands and maybe millions around the world.

Serial killers, world-killing storms, all creepy, but what about a disease that could wipe out the world? That's scary as hell, and in that way 'Andromeda' reminded me off The Satan Bug by Alistair MacLean. It doesn't really matter what era, decade, region, country. A disease or virus that can't be stopped is a great villain. It is inhuman. So the premise is good/scary, and the story certainly has potential. Director Robert Wise assembled a set for this underground facility that resembles a spaceship -- curved hallways, sliding doors out of Star Trek, and a sanitary, ice cold feel to the proceedings. It is unsettling at times, incredibly creepy at others, and even gets the adrenaline flowing late. The only problem? Getting there.

Clocking in at 131 minutes, 'Andromeda' basically wastes most of its potential with a more-than leisurely pace. It feels like a documentary, presenting the inner workings of a government facility, like the viewer is privy to something we shouldn't be. That's all fine and dandy, but has a government lab ever been so dull? Add in an extraterrestrial virus/disease, and you would think we're talking instant classic, but.....not quite. To get down to the lab, our intrepid team of doctors must descend down five levels, going through extremely detailed procedures to basically rid themselves of as many germs and contaminants as possible. It's certainly different, but it's not exciting or interesting to watch in the least bit. Unfortunately after a great opening, this extended sequence kills all that momentum.

And that's the shame of it all. The bookends of the movie are classic, rivaling some of the best Twilight Zone episodes in terms of pure creepiness. Hill's Dr. Stone and Olson's Dr. Hall walking through the dead ghost town of Piedmont is eerie and downright chilling, the small population lying dead all around them, life gone in an instant because of some unseen, unrecognizable attacker. Decked out in hazmat suits, the doctors look other-worldly as they search for survivors and answers. The same goes for the finale, a little cliched but exciting nonetheless. The facility is equipped with a doomsday device, a nuclear bomb ready to explode if a virus -- any virus -- escapes and threatens the safety of the world. Set to blow up, Dr. Hall is given the task of disarming it, a single, middle-aged man who would be able to rationally look at the situation and perform his duty. Adrenaline-pumping with tension to spare, it's an exciting finale. Too bad then there was so much blah building up to it.

Because the focus is so much on the facility, the situation, and the doomsday scenario, all that's required of the cast are workmanlike performances. None really stand out as this small group of character actors take center stage. It was a wise choice not choosing bigger, more recognizable names because that would have taken away from some of the tension. As Dr. Hall, Olson is a bright spot, a medical surgeon who isn't wired the same way the others are, questioning where others don't. Hill's Stone is the driven -- even obsessed -- leader, Reid's Leavitt the cynical one, and Wayne's Dutton the logical thinker. No one else stands out, the story focusing almost exclusively on these four main characters. Not bad, but not great either, mostly because we're not given much of a reason to root for these folks.

Jumping off that thought, 'Andromeda' is neither very good nor very bad. The moments and scenes that work do so in grand fashion, but the ones that flop? They flop in a big way. A mixed bag in the end, a movie that's too long but has just enough potential and positive elements to recommend.

The Andromeda Strain <----trailer (1971): ** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Waterhole #3

Throw together elements of It's a Mad, Mad World, Mackenna's Gold, and The Great Race and more or less you get 1967's Waterhole # 3. It comes from my not so favorite sub-genre, the comedic western, but that isn't what bothered me the most. Two major flaws trip up this otherwise pretty decent western.

A U.S. Army gold shipment of four gold bars valued at $100,000 is stolen by a gang and buried near a waterhole by their leader, Doc Quinlen (Roy Jenson). Through a run-in that gets violent quickly, gambler Lewton Cole (James Coburn) discovers a map that will lead him to the buried gold, but he's obviously not the only one looking for it. He steals a horse from Sheriff John Copperud (Carroll O'Connor) and heads off into the desert for the gold. Copperud and his daughter, Billee (Margaret Blye), are not far behind, both with their own motivations. Not far behind them? The double-crossed members of the gang and a cavalry troop looking to get its gold shipment back.

As a fan of westerns, I'll give them all a try; epic or small scale, heavy on action or more artsy, deathly serious or straight comedy. Mostly I was intrigued by this one because of the cast despite all the mixed to negative reviews I was reading. Even Netflix didn't think I'd love it, much less like it too much. For a comedic western, it isn't grating like so many other efforts. It is genuinely funny at times. The cast is too talented for it not to be at least funny by accident, even unintentionally. So where does it go wrong? Pick your poison. There's two guesses, one annoying and one somewhat ethically questionable.

Using the term 'ethically questionable' in any review sounds a little off to me, but it's all I can come up. As Coburn's Lewton heads for the gold in the desert, he's caught in the process of stealing O'Connor's horse, meeting Blye's Billee in the process. He forces himself on her, and even though she kisses back because his kiss must be just so's a rape scene. Lewton rapes Billee. So how to follow it up? Make it a funny rape scene. In a comedic western, I object to a main character raping a woman. Check that, I object to any character doing that, but you get my point. Is that worth being funny over? I don't care if it's a goofy, stupid movie. I felt funny rooting for Coburn's character after that scene. Oh, and he basically does the same thing toward the end of the movie. It hit a sour note with me, her father more interested in the gold, Billee discovering she loves him after being raped, Lewton playing it off like it was nothing. Ah, rape, one of the lighter topics to deal with.

Now in comparison to a comedic rape, my next objection is going to sound stupid and particularly tame. Making this comedic western more folksy and goofy is country singer Roger Miller's song Waterhole #3 (Code of the West) that basically plays over all the action in the 96-minute movie. Nothing like a folk country western song to rev things up! It talks about killing and raping not being so bad, and does a fantastic job of describing everything going on on-screen, what we've seen and what we're about to see. It's like closed captioning on steroids and set to a tune. Trying to show everyone how awful the song is, I of course cannot find a link to it anywhere on the plains of the Internet. Maybe that's a good thing.

The thing preventing me from completely trashing this movie was the cast. That whole rape thing aside, Coburn brings a certain charm to Lewton, a no-account gambler who's able to manipulate and twist anyone around him. O'Connor too gets to ham it up as the not-so-honest Honest John, Sheriff of Integrity, Arizona. The more obvious physical humor aside, I enjoyed Coburn and O'Connor's back and forth more than anything. In a horrifically written character, Blye is nice eye candy as Billee. Claude Akins plays Sgt. Fugger, the inside man on the robbery, with Jenson and Timothy Carey as the imposing but slow Hilb rounding out the gang. Bruce Dern is funny in his one scene as Tippen, the deputy who disappears on a never-seen posse. James Whitmore appears for two scenes as cavalry captain Shipley, while Joan Blondell is funny as Lavinia, the owner of a whorehouse where everything comes crashing down.

Too bad overall, two bad choices crippling this movie's chances. Take the incredibly unfunny rape/revenge storyline out, replace Miller's mind-numbing score, and you've got a pretty decent comedic western. That pains me a little to say. I'm not typically a fan of comedy being thrown in with a western, but Coburn and O'Connor make this at least partially worth watching. They're very good together, very funny, but it's still a mess of a movie.

Waterhole #3 <---Youtube clip (1967): **/****

Monday, April 23, 2012

Ride Beyond Vengeance

Though he starred in over 40 films and countless TV shows as a star and guest star, I'll always think of Chuck Connors as The Rifleman, Lucas McCain, the single father who raised his son Mark on their small New Mexico ranch. I'm a huge fan of the show and not surprisingly, Connors. He parlayed his success into other shows and movies, but he always seemed quite at home in the western, like 1966's B-western Ride Beyond Vengeance.

After 11 years away from his wife trying to earn as much cash as possible, buffalo hunter Jonas Trapp (Connors) returns home to Coldiron, Texas with $17,000 in his saddlebags. As he nears the town, he's ambushed by three townspeople, Brooks Durham (Michael Rennie), the rich banker, Elwood Coates (Claude Akins), the drunken, deranged cowboy, and Johnsy Boy Hood (Bill Bixby), who scar him with a brand on his chest and steal his money, leaving him for dead. Jonas continues on, dead set on getting his money back and finding his wife, Jessie (Kathryn Hays), at the same time. Jonas finds Jessie is in love with Durham (thinking him long since dead), and the town doesn't appreciate his revenge-fueled return. Everything seems stacked against him.

An oddity among westerns, 'Vengeance' is hard to compare to any other western I've seen. I was pleasantly surprised by the opening, a modern day setting as a census taker (James MacArthur) prepares to leave Coldiron, stopping at a bar and talking to the bartender (Arthur O'Connell) about the town's history. He discovers the story of Jonas' return is the stuff of legend, living on for years to come. For a B-western shot on the cheap on a lightning-quick schedule, it seemed like a genuinely unique story opener. It sets the stage for some sort of surprise and epicness (yes, I make up words) to come. What could have happened almost 100 years before in a tiny, quiet Texas town that still resonates with its citizens? Oh, and what would a B-western be without a ballad theme? Give it a listen HERE.

And that's where the problem is. What follows is not epic, doesn't feature much in the way of surprises, and ends up being disappointingly flat in the end. I'll give credit where it's due. 'Vengeance' doesn't take the easy way out, focusing on character development instead of relying solely on shoot outs and gunfights. It is different in a way that I can't quite put my finger on, and that's not necessarily a good thing. The acting tends to be a little on the exaggerated side, the tone is incredibly dark, and there's a general feel of Gothic -- maybe Shakespearean -- undertones. On a more straightforward note, it's stupid at times. Not writing to his wife for 11 years, what did Jonas think was going to happen? She'd be waiting at the doorstep for him? It comes across as partially lazy in the storytelling department, a plot device necessary to move things along without making much sense. Aren't those the best?

Typecast to a certain point as Lucas McCain, Connors spent much of the rest of his career trying to play different roles, and this definitely qualifies. Probably a little too old for the part, this isn't his best acting job. He's rocking an unrecognizable accent, and generally is required to look pissed off at everyone around him. As for the rest of the cast, while there is some impressive name recognition, the performances don't amount to much. Rennie looks bored as Durham, Akins could have been legitimately drunk playing his part, and Bixby looks confused, but more on that later. Hays as the "love interest" just doesn't have much in the way of chemistry with Connors although to be fair, their parts consist of a handful of scenes of screaming at each other. Former Rifleman co-star Paul Fix has a small part too as Hanley, an old saddle tramp who helps Jonah in a cool connection to their successful run on TV.

Mostly with a whole lot of name recognition, the cast is wasted. Along with all those previously mentioned, there are parts for Joan Blondell as a drunken owner of a whorehouse, Gloria Grahame as a married woman cheating on her husband with Bixby, Frank Gorshin (Batman's The Riddler) as a lovelorn, drunken cowboy, and Gary Merrill as Dub Stokes, Jonah's tough-love stepfather. None of these parts are essential to the story, but even in their out of left field qualities, they disappear as quickly as they appear with no rhyme or reason. Cameos are one thing, pointlessly wasted cameos are another. As for the acting, it's laughable at times. A drunken Akins always talks to Whiskey Man, his imaginary friend he drinks with, and Bixby loses his mind when confronted by Jonas. Literally the guys goes nuts with no hints, foreshadowing or warning. He brands himself and runs into the woods laughing hysterically. It's Gothic on steroids, like nothing I've seen in a western.

It all comes to a head with that final resolution....sort of. It's a weak ending in general although a knock-down, brutal fight between Connors and Akins is surprisingly realistic with a minimum use of stunt doubles (watch it HERE). The resolution is built up as this event that made a lasting impression on this town, an event that's still talked about 75-plus years later. Really? That's what made such an impression? I was disappointed with the ending in this off-the-wall B-western that basically wastes a good cast and at least some potential.

Ride Beyond Vengeance (1966): * 1/2 /****

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Desert Rats

When I think of Richard Burton, I think Actor with a capital A. A little eccentric, maybe a little more nutty, but at his heart a true actor in the sense of the word. What I like so much about Burton was that when he could have been some crazy, pretentious Shakespearean nutcase, he didn' least on film. He did fun, entertaining movies, not just acting movies. Early in his career in 1953's The Desert Rats, we get the best of both worlds.

It's spring 1941, and German Field Marshal Edwin Rommel (James Mason) and his army are pushing the Allied forces back further with each passing day. In the Libyan port city of Tobruk, Allied forces -- predominantly English and Australian -- have been completely cut off by Rommel's army and have been given the order to hold the city until relief comes. Among those soldiers trapped in the city is Capt. MacRoberts (Burton), a Scotsman who was one of the few survivors from his unit caught in a German ambush. He's given command of an inexperienced, newly arrived company of Australian infantry. He's forced to whip them into shape quickly as the German noose around the city tightens.

If it is a WWII movie about the North African campaign, it appears the story must focus solely on Tobruk. Whether it's this flick, Raid on Rommel, the aptly named Tobruk, Play Dirty, even The Rat Patrol, a North Africa campaign has to deal with this famous port city. Not a classic movie, it's especially interesting considering the time it was released. By 1953, WWII was still fresh enough in people's minds, but director Robert Wise isn't making a propaganda movie here. This isn't evil Nazis battling infallible Brits. It's just two sides fighting it out in the desert without any notion of  a bigger picture. It certainly marked a change in trends the years passed since the end of WWII.

For a generally forgotten WWII movie from the 1950s, I came away quite impressed with the action sequences. An extended siege -- the German siege of Tobruk lasted eight months -- isn't necessarily the most exciting thing to watch, but Wise keeps things moving in his 88-minute long movie. An early tank battle in a driving sandstorm sets the tone, not a huge scale battle but harrowing nonetheless. Commando raids across the desert to German lines are handled in a brutally efficient montage, and a deep behind enemy lines raid after a German ammo dump is the high point. The action isn't just there for action's sake though. We see the wearing down of the soldiers, the toll the extended siege has on them, especially in a fitting, moving finale as the end of the siege nears.

Just 28 years old when he starred in 'Desert Rats,' Burton is the unquestioned star here. He's a commander who looks out for his men, pushing them because he knows it will benefit them when the battles begin. His MacRoberts doesn't care if his men hate him. Their hatred can be a motivator as survival hangs in the balance. He has some excellent scenes with Robert Newton's Bartlett, MacRobert's former schoolteacher who's now a drunk and questioning his own bravery (or lack of). It's a subtle shift too, but the character ends up changing for the better by the end. Reprising his role from 1951's The Desert Fox, Mason is basically making a cameo appearance as Rommel, making the most of his few short scenes. Robert Douglas and Torin Thatcher play the British commanders in Tobruk with Chips Rafferty, Charles Tingwell, an uncredited Michael Pate, Charles Davis and Ben Wright playing some of MacRobert's men.

Covering so much ground in terms of time in an 88-minute movie, the story does feel rushed at different parts. A 2-hour movie could have fleshed things out a little, but as is, the movie is pretty solid on its own. There is that problem of having German characters talk in German for entire scenes without subtitles, but most of them are early on in the film. I have this weird thing about understanding what's going on in the movies I'm watching, but maybe that's just me. Subtitles, please! Still a very enjoyable, well-made WWII story.

The Desert Rats <---trailer (1953): ***/****

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Alamo (2004)

Right from the get-go, it seemed 2004's The Alamo was doomed. Casting problems with casting and directing and especially the rating -- make it a hard R or a more family friendly PG-13 -- hung over the production.  Then once director John Lee Hancock finished the movie, an hour of his finished product was hacked away and the release date pushed back three months.  Finally released in theaters Easter weekend against Passion of the Christ, Hancock's movie bombed, barely making $20 million. Failure in theaters, yes, but that doesn't take away from one of my favorite movies on one of my favorite subjects.

It's February 1836 and less than 200 Texans and Mexicans have holed up in the Alamo, a crumbling adobe mission outside San Antonio.  Mexican dictator Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarria) leads an army numbering almost 5,000 men and means to squash this rebellion no matter the cost.  Inside the Alamo, three men lead the tiny garrison; Jim Bowie (Jason Patric), the infamous knife fighter, David Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton), a famed frontiersman and ex-Congressman, and William Travis (Patrick Wilson), a young unproven officer in the regular army.  As the siege wears on day after day, General Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) tries to assemble an army to come to the aid of the besieged Alamo.  But inside the doomed mission, the defenders see more Mexican troops arriving daily and know what awaits them if they don't surrender.

Before I dive in, I'll say that ever since I was a kid, the story of the Alamo has appealed to me. I'll read and watch anything I can find on the subject. John Wayne's The Alamo is one of my two favorite movies, and even with extremely high expectations going into this one upon its initial release, I loved this movie. It feels crazy that it's almost 10 years since it was released in theaters. It is a shame also that Hancock's believed 3-hour version will never see the light of day. As is right now at 137 minutes, it has its fair share of flaws. At times, it's far too rushed. It has Pearl Harbor Syndrome as well, insisting on a happy ending as opposed to a more appropriate ending. But when it does get right? It hits a home run.

The shame of it is, Hancock has finished the most accurate re-telling of the Alamo battle, including the build-up and actual battle. An immense set in Dripping Springs, Texas was built including the actual Alamo mission and the nearby town of San Antonio. Like Wayne's version, having a full-scale set adds to the realism of the story and battle. The characters are not the legends we remember them as, but the people they actually were. People with personalities, hopes and dreams, fears and desires. The Alamo defenders weren't frontiersman, but townspeople like bankers, lawyers, farmers, and store owners. Without making them into the mythological characters they've become, Hancock has made a very human, personal movie. It's easy to see and feel what the defenders went through; an impossible situation with no easy resolution.

The Alamo story typically presents three main characters, the Alamo trinity of Crockett, Bowie and Travis. I'll get to all three, but the best performance hands down belongs to Billy Bob Thornton as Crockett. This is not the Fess Parker Crockett, but instead a regular guy who's tied down by his own legend he had little to do with creating. Of all the Crockett performances, this is the best, one I thought Thornton deserved an Oscar nomination for. The defenders look to him for support, for answers, for a way out. A monologue mid-siege is transfixing to watch, subtle and quiet but nonetheless highly effective. Another scene has Crockett playing his fiddle atop the Alamo walls, harmonizing with the Mexican army's band playing the Deguello (a high point of Carter Burwell's unassuming but still moving score). Watch the scene HERE. Somewhat controversially, the 2004 Alamo handled Crockett's death in a way no other Alamo movie even dared touch, Thornton rising to the occasion.

The diary of a Mexican soldier -- Enrique de la Pena -- who served at the Alamo claims that Crockett was captured in the closing moments of the battle and brought before a gloating Santa Anna. He was executed with a handful of other prisoners who survived the battle. This is the way the 2004 version chooses to go with, a scene that ends up being the most memorable one in the whole movie. This is Thornton bringing this man to life. Under his breath, Crockett mumbles 'Davy Crockett' as he faces death, his legend hanging over him as the Mexican army awaits what he will do. You can watch the scene HERE. Crockett's death -- whether by surrender/execution or going down fighting -- is maybe the most controversial aspect of the battle for Alamo buffs, but as presented here I can't understand anyone objecting to it.

Onto the other 2/3 of the Alamo trinity. About as far removed from a Hollywood star as possible, Patric is ideally suited to play Jim Bowie, a man who's earned his reputation where Crockett has had his thrust upon him. He's a hard-drinking, stubborn fighter, willing to fight it out if he believes he's right. Playing Colonel Travis, Wilson too shines, showing the transformation the young Alamo commander makes in such a short time as he attempts to rally the mission. All three men make these historical figures people and not just a name. Echevarria doesn't fare so well as Santa Anna, making the Mexican dictator a villain in the vein of a James Bond movie. Quaid too struggles to bring Houston to life, but much of his part was cut when the movie was hacked at to the tune of an hour of lost footage. Jordi Molla as Juan Seguin, a Mexican messenger from the Alamo, especially represents himself well as does Leon Rippy, Marc Blucas (as messenger James Bonham) and Kevin Page as Micajah Autry, Crockett's friend.

What The Alamo does well is especially evident in the choice to stay accurate to the final assault the morning of March 6 when the defenders were overwhelmed and killed to a man. It shows the attack in the morning darkness in an extended sequence that runs almost 15 minutes. Watch most of the sequence HERE. The scale is impressive, giving a real sense of what the battle must have been like. Actually imagine the setting; an enemy closing in on four sides and you've got nowhere to run. It isn't presented as a noble, heroic fight but a gruesome hand-to-hand conflict as sheer numbers overwhelm the Alamo defenders. It starts off in a great sequence as Crockett plucks the string on his fiddle, the shot changing with each pluck as the Mexican army silently approaches the Alamo walls. The most effective moment is a quiet one. Delirious with sickness, Bowie lies in bed barely able to move. He buttons up his vest, ready to face whatever comes through the door. As Rippy's Ward says "We know what awaits us and are prepared to meet it."

Wrapping up the movie is a rushed 20-minute follow-up, Houston's victory at San Jacinto. Like the Doolittle Raid being tacked onto Pearl Harbor, it feels unnecessary. It doesn't take away from a moving story though. The cast is nearly perfect, the music fitting and not your typical historical epic score, the actual Alamo set is a sight to behold, the camerawork and the visual are stunning, and like other successful Alamo movies, it gets the message across. Facing impossible odds, these defenders stood their ground, ready to give their lives because they believed they were right.

The Alamo <---trailer (2004): ****/****

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Killer Elite (2011)

Not to be confused with Sam Peckinpah's 1975 flick The Killer Elite -- a mess of a movie but entertaining -- came 2011's Killer Elite. See, they dropped the 'The' to help us out. Throwing me for a loop even more was that the stories sounded somewhat similar. The more recent Killer Elite looked pretty generic to me, but I've been in a bit of a slump at Netflix lately so I thought I'd give it a try. Not a classic, but it was much better than I anticipated.

It's 1980 and after a mission doesn't go off quite as planned, mercenary Danny Bryce (Jason Statham) decides to leave the business and heads home to Australia. A year later, he finds out that his old partner, Hunter (Robert De Niro), is being held prisoner for not completing a high-paying but risky job. Danny takes the job on to save his friend. Working for a Middle Eastern sheikh, Danny must avenge the deaths of the deposed sheikh's three sons, the deaths coming at the hands of SAS (British Special Forces) agents. He must not only kill them, but get taped confessions in the process. With some help from his former team, Danny goes about finding them, but he isn't privy to the whole scenario. Waiting for him is a former SAS agent with a shadowy past, Spike (Clive Owen), who will do his best to protect his former partners too.

Based on the novel The Feather Men by Ranulph Fiennes, 'Elite' is supposedly based on real-life events. The Feather Men were a group of mercenary vigilantes who did all sorts of shady things, most of them helping protect others from killers and murderers. Now whether it's true or not is one thing. Take it's honesty however you want it -- it is certainly possible -- but what surprised me is how much I liked the movie. Set in 1980, it has the distinct feel of a 1980s action movie. No frills, no wasted efforts, and little to no sense of humor. All the characters aren't black and white, but shades of gray, and the world is one nasty place where everyone is in it for themselves. There are some twists toward the end that work pretty well, but as far as action movies go, it rises above the majority of those released recently.

This may sound odd concerning an action movie, but I liked the look and feel of 'Elite.' Director Gary McKendry -- in his first feature film -- does a great job of setting things up. He shot the movie on-location in Wales, England and Australia, and it doesn't have that generic look of 'been there, seen that.' With a story set in 1980, it actually feels like 1980 whether it be the clothes, the bad hair cuts, or even the throwback cars that make the chases that much more interesting. Throw in a solid score from Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek -- seemingly channeling Hans Zimmer's Inception score at times -- and you've got all the makings of a real winner.

With all those shadowy good/bad guys, McKendry certainly must have had some fun casting. All the sudden, it feels like Jason Statham is in every movie hitting theaters, but I'm a fan, and I'm okay with that. His steely-eyed, cold mercenary is what Statham does best. He glares and sneers, growls his lines, and when needed kicks/punches/shoots anyone in his way. Like some of his other movies though, it isn't mindless fight scenes repeated one after another. The fights have something to do with a...wait for it...story! As his SAS opponent, Clive Owen again shows he can be an action star. He's a great actor, but with roles like this that allow him to have some fun, he doesn't disappoint. Rocking an epic mustache, Owen's Spike is an enforcer of sorts for what the book dubbed 'the Feather Men.' We learn very little about him or his background other than that he's extremely capable and a highly dangerous man.

And then's there Robert De Niro.....freaking De Niro! It's great to see him play more mainstream, commercial roles too. Now are these especially good parts? No, not in the least. Playing Hunter, Danny's mentor and former partner, De Niro isn't exactly phoning it in, but it's close. He has some great one-liners and does have a good give-and-take with Statham. It's really more of a cameo than anything as he disappears for long stretches. Other worthwhile parts go to Dominic Purcell as Davies, the hot-headed Welshman (with handlebar mustache, epic sideburns, nasty, greasy hair), and Aden Young as Meier, the quiet killer, two former members of Danny's team now working with him once again. Star of TV's Chuck, Yvonne Strahovski plays Anne, the love interest that Danny must protect when threatened. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje has a good part too as Agent, Danny's link for jobs and missions around the world.

Struggling in theaters -- making around $25 million -- and receiving mixed to negative reviews, Killer Elite is probably doomed to the $5 bin of movies at Wal-Mart. It's too bad because while not a classic, it is very watchable and I enjoyed it. Maybe it's that throwback feel to 1980s action movies or a solid cast working so well together, but I'd recommend this one. It isn't the tongue in cheek, over the top action movie that trailers and commercials presented it as. Cool globe-trotting cast, great action, and a solid and possibly true story.

Killer Elite <---trailer (2011): ***/****

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Boy on a Dolphin

An Italian actress who came to fame in the mid 1950s, Sophia Loren finally made her debut in an American movie with 1957's Boy on a Dolphin. It's a good thing Miss Loren is around because other than her? The movie has some potential but never really amounts to much.

Diving with her boyfriend/fiance Rhif (Jorge Mistral) on the Greek island of Hydros, Phaedra (Loren) stumbles across an amazing find in reachable waters for divers; a treasure from over 2,000 years ago, a statue of a boy on a dolphin that was part of a pair. The other has been found, but this one is completely intact. Looking for a payday to support herself and her brother, Phaedra heads to Athens to look for a buyer for the statue, finding Jim Calder (Alan Ladd), an American who wants to preserve Greek history. She also meets Parmalee (Clifton Webb), a black market dealer who also wants to get his hands on the statue and to pay well for it. Now Phaedra must decide who to help guide to the long-lost statue.

What stands out the most in this otherwise pretty dull flick from 1957 is the on-location shooting in Greece and around the Greek Isles. Director Jean Negulesco shot 'Dolphin' on the island of Hydra but also filmed in and around Athens, Rhodes and Delos. Filmed in CinemaScope, this is a stunningly gorgeous film to watch. Scenes of a car driving along a scenic highway, or a way through the countryside with the rolling hills and mountains in the distance could destroy a lot of other movies as it slows down the story to a snail's pace. Sadly for 'Dolphin,' it's the best thing going here. As a viewer, you feel like you are actually getting the scope and beauty of these locations. I guess it's debatable then whether it is worth it to pursue the film. You would probably be safe finding a 'Tour the Greek Islands' DVD and skipping over the movie.

I was disappointed with the end result because between 45-60 minutes into the movie I was enjoying it. The long-lost, supposedly lost treasure, the poor village girl with a chance to make millions, her seedy partners, the idealistic American, the greedy black market dealer. Throw in the Greek locations, and you've got all the makings of a solid action thriller. Any suspense or tension is lost at about the hour-mark as Loren's Phaedra goes along with Webb's Parmalee and starts to dupe Ladd's Calder. The final 45 minutes are tedious to the point I found myself fast-forwarding through scenes of dialogue. The other scenes? How many times can you watch underwater divers swimming through coral and wreckage on the floor of the Aegean Sea before you get bored? I lost track fairly quickly, but let's say five or so.

Making her American film debut, Loren is a bright spot in this 1957 flick. For starters, her voice isn't dubbed so it's actually her talking in that heavily-accent Italian trying to sound Greek. Her Phaedra character in general comes across as more of a fiery Italian than anything, but minor details. She's funny, she's tough, and she's beautiful. Most of all, she can act though. 'Dolphin' certainly flaunts her physical talents -- like THIS diving scene -- and she always seems to be lifting her skirt up or wearing a shirt that's a size too small. Beautiful she is, but in a fun role, she doesn't let her looks take over on their own. Another bright spot is Ladd as Calder. It's a fun part for him as well, one that allows him to just goof around and be himself. A tad on the wooden side, he still has a decent chemistry with Loren in their scenes together.

That chemistry came at a price though. Ladd stood only 5-foot-6 while Loren was 5-foot-8. Makes for some interesting set-ups when the leading man has to look up to his leading lady. To even things out of sorts, Negulesco went to all sorts of different plans so it wouldn't be an issue, Loren towering over Ladd. In certain scenes together, Ladd was forced to stand on a box so the two stars would be eye to eye. In one particular scene where they're walking on the beach, a trench was dug so Loren could walk alongside of him while filming. Just some interesting trivia. Height differences aside, I thought they worked very well together.

With the rest of the cast, Webb is a villain of sorts, but a gentlemanly kind who isn't particularly interesting. He's up to no good, but he's not menacing in the least. Mistral is solid as the conniving Rhif, Phaedra's boyfriend and future husband, who seems more interested in a big payday than preserving Greek history. Also joining their motley crew is Laurence Naismith as Dr. Hawkins and Piero Giagnoni as Niko, Phaedra's little brother who forms a quick friendship with Ladd's Calder. Singing the title song is actress/singer Julie London which you can listen to HERE. A disappointing movie in the end. It has its positives, but not enough to revisit this one anytime soon.

Boy on a Dolphin <---trailer (1957): **/****

Monday, April 16, 2012

London Boulevard

A screenplay writer with movies like The Departed (where he won an Oscar), Kingdom of Heaven, Body of Lies, and Edge of Darkness, William Monahan has certainly built up a lot of credibility and respect for himself over the last six years. The writer has made the jump to a more involved role in the movie-making process, taking over the director's chair for 2010's London Boulevard.

Fresh out of prison after serving a three-year sentence, Mitchel (Colin Farrell) is readjusting to life and looking for work. He's not positive of what he wants from his new lease on life, but he certainly knows what he doesn't want. Mitchel wants to leave being a low-level hood, a gangster, behind, but it won't be so easy. He takes a job being a bodyguard, almost a consultant, for a recluse actress/model, Charlotte (Keira Knightley), who lives in a forted-up London house avoiding the paparazzi. It still isn't quite what he'd want, but he gets along with Charlotte and sees where it goes. Unfortunately, it won't be that easy. His old kind-of friend, Billy (Ben Chaplin), has a meeting set up with Gant (Ray Winstone), an unhinged gangster who wants Mitchel to work for him. What will Mitchel do?

Two movies came to mind as I watched this 2010 British crime drama; the original Get Carter starring Michael Caine and the more recent Layer Cake starring Daniel Craig. In terms of both style, story and character development, 'Boulevard' clearly is a movie influenced by its predecessors. In fact, that's why so many viewers seemed to intensely dislike this movie. They claim it borrows too much from previous crime dramas, and leaves itself without an ounce of originality. To a point, I think it is a fair criticism. It does borrow somewhat liberally from other stories/films, but it still manages to carve out its own niches. Monahan must have been influenced by working with Martin Scorsese because his soundtrack is very British retro-rock oriented, featuring everything from the Yardbirds (listen to Heart Full of Soul) to the more recent Kasabian, including a great use of The Green Fairy. Not groundbreaking in terms of style or story, but unique enough.

Much like both Get Carter and Layer Cake, I wasn't quite sure where 'Boulevard' was heading. Well, that's not true. You can predict the ending early, but the route getting there is a long and winding road. It's always enjoyable/interesting, but it does drift a bit at times. With as many characters as we meet, it serves as a who's who of the London criminal underworld. Lots of nasty, sleazy individuals, all looking out for themselves because with the snap of a finger, it could be lights out for them. There were times it reminded me of a western landscape (right down to composer Sergio Pizzorno's score, who's also an occasional lead for Kasabian), even reflecting a spaghetti western at times. Yes, I can bring everything back to the spaghetti western. So while the story may not be the most pointed, direct one, it is nonetheless a fun ride.

That can be attributed to star Colin Farrell who's long been one of my favorites. He's capable of playing a variety of roles, but here as the dark, capable and intense Mitchel, he's at his absolute best. This is a man simmering with intensity. He wants to be left alone, and given a clean slate in life intends to live up to it. Maybe more than anything, Farrell looks the part. His Mitchel has been burned in the past and answers to no one. He looks out for those around him -- at his own expense and pain -- because they can't do it themselves. It's a doomed, tragic character if there ever was one, a man trying to put his past behind him. Through Knightley's Charlotte, he can see that fresh start. Charlotte is as equally damaged as him, but they're a good fit together. Mitchel is that iconic crime figure; the bad guy, the anti-hero who we still root for knowing it can't end well for him or his hopes.

Weaving through the London criminal underworld, Monahan clearly saw the potential for a long list of characters with great potential, starting obviously with Farrell and Knightley. Winstone is an ideal villain as Gant, a gay gangster who always seems a word or two from snapping and ripping your head off quite literally. David Thewlis is a scene-stealer as Jordan, Charlotte's handler/friend/assistant, who gets along with Mitchel in all his weirdness despite being stoned/blitzed/high at all times. Chaplin is the slimy past associate, the lowest level of gangsters with Anna Friel playing Briony, Mitchel's slutty sister who he constantly has to save from herself. Also look for Eddie Marsan, Stephen Graham, Alan Williams and Sanjeev Bhaskar in key supporting roles.   

Maybe because the story and characters were more than a little familiar, I enjoyed this movie quite a bit. I'm a sucker for British crime drama/thrillers, and when they're handled correctly they can be a lot of fun (even considering a lack of originality). This is a dark, stylish crime story that is good, not great. It has style to burn. A shot of Farrell's Mitchel driving through London at night in a classic car, the Yardbirds playing as a soundtrack, it's just an effortless cool, a style that many films attain to be but never quite get there. Watch the scene HERE. Highly recommend this one. The trailer below is misleading. This is not a happy-go-lucky, quirky comedy about an ex-con, although it does have its incredibly dark humorous moments.

London Boulevard <---trailer (2010): *** 1/2 /****

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

First appearing in the public eye in the short-lived but much-loved Freaks and Geeks, Seth Rogen has perfected the role of the stoner, lazy, pretty regular guy. In doing so, he has basically split audiences right down the middle. Do you love his sarcastic, sometimes spastic delivery? Or does it drive you nuts, making you hate him for trying so hard but not getting laughs? I lean more toward the love. A different brand of humor, one on display in 2008's Zack and Miri Make a Porno.

Friends since they were in the first grade together, Miri (Elizabeth Banks) and Zack (Rogen) have fallen on some especially tough times. Sharing an apartment together, the platonic friends don't have enough money to pay for any of their bills, and the next month's rent is due right around the corner. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and Zack has a plan. What if they starred, produced and directed in their own self-made porno and sold it to all the people from their graduating class in high school? With no real other options, Miri agrees so Zack assembles a ragtag bunch of performers and crew to film their lowest of budget pornos. Could the plan actually work?

Now let's spell things out. An R-rated comedy from generally pretty filthy director Kevin Smith about the filming of an amateur porn. If you haven't figured it out by now, this movie is downright filthy. The squeamish or shy need not seek this movie out. It still manages to be low-key and on a smaller scale. Much of the humor -- with an improvised feeling -- comes from Rogen and Banks simply riffing back and forth trying to come up with a name for their porn. Their original choice is a Star Wars knock-off, the aptly titled 'Star Whores' with lots of potential for sequels, but things out of their control force them to improvise. Think about it. Take a movie, any movie, and try to come up with a play on words, dirty version of that title. It's easier than you think.

Playing the title characters, Rogen and Banks were great choices to play the longtime platonic friends who haven't done quite what they wanted to in the 10 years since high school graduation. Chemistry in a comedy can be a forgotten thing left along the roadside, but Smith made two wise choices picking this duo. Obviously for one, it helps that they're funny. Rogen as Zack has his big outbursts, his over the top antics, but I've always thought Rogen is better when he's underplaying a scene with a casual, even quiet delivery. Banks too is one of the best comedic actresses around, fully capable of holding her own with the guys, even when things get pretty filthy. The funny aspect is a given -- a true must if a comedy wants to succeed -- but even when the story gets a tad on the serious side, Rogen and Banks have that easy-going banter that speaks to a long friendship with very little in the way of secrets.

Their cast and crew provides some of the other biggest laughs, starting with Craig Robinson as Delaney, Zack's co-worker at a coffee shop who bankrolls the porn in hopes of getting to see any naked woman other than his wife. Robinson is one of the funniest actors around, and he doesn't disappoint in this supporting part. There's also Smith regulars Jeff Anderson (Randal in Clerks) as Deacon, the cameraman, and Jason Mewes (Jay) as Lester, a regular guy with a "big" talent. Actual porn star Katie Morgan plays Stacey, a strip club waitress turned porn star, infamous porn star Traci Lords plays Bubbles, a stripper specializing in bachelor parties, and Ricky Mabe as Barry, a classically trained actor who finds a niche in the cast. Stealing every scene he's in, Justin Long plays Brandon St. Randy, a gay porn star Zack meets at a high school reunion, giving them the idea for his own porn production.

The best laughs to come from the actual production of Zack and Miri's porno, a story-less sequence of sex scenes set in the coffee house Zack and Delaney work in. Zack "writes" a script with some hilariously awkward lines -- delivered awkwardly and often like they're being read aloud -- and situations developing. Mewes and Morgan have one of the most clumsy dialogue scenes ever producing some great laughs, but it's Rogen and Miri's scene that had the biggest laughs. Zack's delivery man is delivering some cream to Miri's coffee house, and let the double entendres begin! The failed Star Whores plot delivers too, the cast questioning if Luke and Leia should sleep together, if Darth Vader can be a girl, and should Obi-Wan-Kenobi get some action.

The movie is genuinely funny from the get-go, and I liked it and will be recommending it. However, the last 30 minutes taps the brakes some as Zack and Miri struggle with feelings for each other they didn't know they had. It's not exactly a surprising twist in the story, but it sure is slow-moving. More than a little predictable, it's just not as funny as the first 70 minutes. Still worth checking out, but not the ending you're looking for.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno <---trailer (2008): ** 1/2 /****

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Cruel Sea

Considering the epic scale of war, I think it's interesting that the stories that seem to resonate are the ones that are the most personal. They may focus on the bigger picture -- a battle, a mission, the home front -- but the success rides on the individual and their efforts at survival. Focusing on the personal but maintaining that picture of the bigger events at hand is a sub-genre of WWII films, the cat and mouse game of ships vs. submarines. The ships on the surface hunt while the subs sneak in for their attacks, like 1953's The Cruel Sea.

An experienced sailor in the Merchant Navy, Lt. Commander Ericson (Jack Hawkins) is called to active duty at the outbreak of WWII and given command of an escort ship assigned duty in the Atlantic. His ship -- the Compass Rose -- is given a relatively inexperienced crew with only a few veteran officers who've even been to sea. After a quick but mostly successful training period, the Compass Rose heads out for its duty, helping escort convoys all over the Atlantic, doing their best to stop the German U-boats that are wreaking havoc on Allied shipping. They find that war isn't an action-packed adventure, but instead long stretches of clear sailing broken up by the constant threat of attack from the German subs. It doesn't take long, and that fear begins to wear on even the strongest men.

Not a hugely well known WWII flick, this British-made production is nonetheless quite worthwhile. It has its flaws like any movie, but as I mentioned earlier, it works because it is an intensely personal story. This will sound obvious, but think about how big the ocean is. Actually think about it. Then place a relatively "large" ship on that water with a mission to protect other ships from raiding subs that have thousands of miles of open water to hide out in. A torpedo can tear your ship to shreds any second and from any direction. I don't even want to think about that feeling, knowing that death hangs in the air just waiting to strike. Director Charles Frend gets credit for creating that unbearable feeling of dread as the Compass Rose sails through the Atlantic.

A name synonymous with big epic films, Jack Hawkins was one of Britain's great actors. It's great to see him in a still-big film, but not quite the epics of Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai and Zulu. He had a knack for playing the stiff upper-lip Brit, a man of honor and duty who doesn't let much rattle him, but this part is different. As he takes command of the Compass Rose, he finds out -- along with every member of his crew -- that the war is nothing like he imagined. There's no glory or heroes. You kill your enemy before he kills you. That's all. It's a dirty, filthy business. He wants to aid the war effort but also to get his crew through the war unscathed, knowing that one doesn't necessarily go hand in hand with the other. A father-son/maybe brotherly relationship develops with his first officer, Sub Lieutenant Lockhart (Donald Sinden), an inexperienced officer who picks things up quickly as the war escalates. They look to each for support in the most tense of situations, knowing that they can trust the other one.

If I could do anything to improve on the story even a little, it would have been to develop the other officers and crew a little more. We get to know a handful of other officers but never learn much about them other than a fairly vague "personality." The group includes Denholm Elliott as Lt. Morrell, the officer who's wife is a famous actress. The rest of the crew envies him, but Morrell's home life isn't as idyllic as they think, along with John Stratton, John Warner and Stanley Baker in a part that forces him to leave the story far too soon. One interesting -- if somewhat cliched -- storyline has one officer, Tallow (Bruce Seton), introducing one of the crew, Chief Watts (Liam Redmond), to his almost-spinster of a sister (Megs Jenkins). The background is kept to a minimum, holding us as a viewer at arm's length.

The best parts of 'Cruel' show the horrors of war, much of it happening off-screen. Several set pieces bring the movie up a notch, the best coming when Hawkins' Ericson must make a decision to go after a possibly fleeing submarine at the expense of sacrificing Allied sailors in the water from a nearby sunken ship. Seeing what happens wouldn't have been as effective as hearing the explosions in the water and seeing the facial reactions of the men on-board the Compass Rose. Hawkins does an amazing job at that scene, weighing the lives of a few versus the lives of hundreds and maybe thousands. Frend makes a wise choice in his story; we don't see the Germans in any form -- their ships, their planes, their men -- until the end of the movie. He isn't condemning them as savage foes, just an enemy that must be beaten, and I think that took some courage, especially in 1953 when WWII was still fresh in people's minds. The hunts for the German subs highlight the movie, showing the crew come to life at a chance to get into the action.

Because a war story wouldn't have been complete without some sort of forced, hammy love story, we do get a sub-plot with Sinden's Lockhart and Virginia McKenna's 2nd Officer Julie Hallam. I don't hate any and all love stories, just ones like these that do nothing to advance the story and are there for the purpose of being there. Lt. Morrell's wife and their story helps develop that character, but this relationship doesn't work. They can't all be winners, right? Other than that and some early pacing problems, I really enjoyed this movie. There is some great footage of these ships at sea -- calm water and pitching, violent water -- as well as some impressive stock footage from WWII. Hawkins leads a decent cast, his performance carrying the movie.

The Cruel Sea <---TCM trailer (1953): ***/****

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Come and See

A movie can try all it wants, but I don't think any one film can truly show the horror, brutality and downright viciousness of war. Some obviously are better than others, like Saving Private Ryan showing the sheer terror of combat or Army of Shadows illustrating the day-to-day fears and lives of the resistance fighters. One that mixes both and does it well is a Russian film, 1985's Come and See

It's 1943 in Belorussia, 14-year old Flor (Aleksey Kravchenko) wants nothing more than to join the Russian partisans fighting the invading German forces. Among the battle carnage, he finds a serviceable rifle and leaves home -- and his mother and two little sisters -- and joins with the local partisans. As the newbie in the group, he's quickly left behind when the group leaves their forest camp to attack a nearby German force. He's thrust into a war alone that is nothing like he imagined. The glory and honor of fighting for one's country? Flor is focused solely on surviving, navigating through a maze of everything hellish that war can throw his way.

A Russian-made WWII film isn't exactly in my wheelhouse when it comes to new films so when I stumbled across it on Netflix, I was more than a little curious. From director Elem Klimov, 'Come and See' is one of the most realistic, intensely uncomfortable movies I've ever sat through. It isn't a movie to be enjoyed or be entertained with. I think you're just supposed to watch it, forming your own emotions and opinions in the process. Watching Flor's journey across a war-torn countryside is like a trip through hell itself, maybe some sort of purgatory. The story is episodic, but it has the feel of a documentary with us as a viewer the fly on the wall of this WWII-situation. This is war at its most basic, most simple. There's no heroes or glory, just survivors.

What will set this apart from almost every other war movie ever made is Klimov's camera work. It doesn't feel like a polished studio production. Instead, there is a quasi-amateur, rogue director feel to it. There isn't much in the way of editing, long, uninterrupted takes dominating the 142-minute long movie. Klimov's camera is down on the ground in the mud with Flor and the partisans. It is right there alongside them and not from above or a long shot from a distance. Some of the scenes are truly remarkable to watch. The camera follows the action without any cuts, following Flor as he runs across the country with other fighters, following a German motorcycle as it enters a Belorussian town, following a small army of partisans marching through the dense forest. It's easy to take for granted these shots, but their scale is truly impressive considering how much work had to go into choreographing them.

With a Russian movie from the 1980s, there is one problem. Only three members of the cast are even listed with their characters' names. Kravchenko as Flor delivers a very real, very human performance. Klimov clearly fell in love with the 15-year old actor's face, using countless extreme close-ups of his face, an very expressive face at that. There's almost too many shots, Flor crying, Flor stunned, Flor confused. They almost look like a silent movie star. No words, just emotions, but the close-ups do get a little repetitious. In her only film ever, Olga Mironova plays Pascha, a teenage girl who Flor meets at the partisan camp and joins him as he travels following a German artillery barrage. Liubomiras Lauciavicius plays Kosach, the steely-faced partisan leader. Another key character, Flor's partisan companion through the middle portion of the movie, isn't listed in the cast.

Now while I can appreciate the intent of the movie, I can't tout it as the classic that many claim it to be. At almost two and a half hours, it is long, and those uninterrupted takes following the "action" gets tedious quickly. A plot synopsis could be written very quickly because the episodic storytelling only has three or four main set pieces. They're impressive -- no doubt about that -- but that only goes so far. I wanted to speed the movie up a bit as Flor's descent into madness becomes clearer and clearer. I hate using this as a reason because it sounds like a cop-out, but this is one slow-moving movie.

That said, there are moments here that won't be easily forgotten. Flor and Pascha crawl and drag themselves through a bog of the thickest, nastiest mud I've ever seen. A quick, startling shot from Pascha's POV shows the aftermath of a massacre at Flor's village. The German artillery barrage of the partisans' camp made me feel like ducking for cover, and Flor's terrifying night alongside a dead cow as German machine guns fire overhead (Klimov actually fired live bullets over his head) is unsettling to say the least. The most moving scene and one of the most gut-wrenching I've ever seen is a German death squad's attack on a Belorussian village Flor has stumbled into. It is a long, drawn out sequence as the Germans pick the village and the people apart slowly, herding the villagers into a church before throwing grenades in, lighting the place on fire with kerosene and then torching it with flamethrowers. The Germans meanwhile empty their guns into the building, laughing maniacally the whole time. An incredible sequence to say the least.

The ending too is more artsy but equally effective. Flor shoots a poster of Hitler half-buried in the mud as a montage of sequences run backwards across the screen. Basically, it's how WWII, Hitler and his rise to power came to be -- paratroopers jumping back into their planes, buildings falling up instead of down -- going back to 1933 and startlingly enough, back to a final shot of Adolf Hitler as an infant. What's the message? Could the lunacy and horror of WWII been avoided or changed? No, it happened, and nothing can be changed. But it doesn't help it all make any sense as millions of lives -- soldiers and civilians alike -- were lost. A flawed almost-classic, but one that needs to be experienced, whether you love or hate it.

Come and See <---trailer (1985): ***/****

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Alamo: 13 Days to Glory

In its history, Hollywood continues to go back to the well on certain historical events. The battle of the Alamo has been the focus of major studio productions like John Wayne's The Alamo in 1960 or more recently in the accurate, well-told 2004 version that flopped in theaters. It has even been shown as a background piece in movies focusing on the Texas revolution as a whole. Split the difference in years between the two major movies, and we get a TV movie from 1987, The Alamo: 13 Days to Glory.

It's February 1836 in San Antonio, Texas, and Colonel William Travis (Alec Baldwin) and Jim Bowie (James Arness) command a little over 100 volunteers, all the while awaiting the arrival of the Mexican army under the command of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (Raul Julia). When Santa Anna's army of several thousand men arrives, Travis, Bowie, Davy Crockett (Brian Keith) and their ragtag force retreat into the Alamo, an old Spanish mission, in hopes of stalling the army as long as possible. The fort is in ruins though, and Travis' command is far too small to defend it adequately. The Texans inside wait and wait for help, hoping reinforcements can arrive in time before Santa Anna's soldiers storm the walls.

Made for NBC in 1987, this made-for-TV movie is based off the novel of the same name from author Lon Tinkle. Veteran director Burt Kennedy takes the helm, working with a small budget that limited what he could do with the story. This is not the epic that Wayne made, '13 Days' instead made on a much smaller scale. There's never any sense of an enormous, overwhelming Mexican army waiting outside the walls, just a few extras in Mexican soldiers' uniform. Drawing further comparison to Wayne's version, the miniseries was filmed on location at Alamo Village, the set Wayne built for his 1960 film. It adds some needed realism to the scaled-down story with composer Peter Bernstein's score aiding the cause, especially in the final battle and the main theme.

Watching this since I was a kid, I have a soft spot for '13 Days' but I can still appreciate some of its truly bad, awful moments. Historical accuracy is one thing, but there are some real oddities here whether it be from a lack of budget or just a bad script. We see the same shots over and over again, a cannon being fired, the Alamo defenders firing in a volley, Mexican cavalry riding in front of Santa Anna's tent, just to name a few. There's also moments of mind-blowing stupidity, like Mexican artillery firing a cannon with a ramrod still in the gun's barrel. Other winners? Capt. Dickinson (Jon Lindstrom) tells wife, Susannah (Kathleen York), he'll be back at night to bring her into the Alamo. Oh, by the way, the Mexican army is on the edge of town. Colonel Fannin's relief column consists of about 15 men, a supply wagon and a cannon. Low budget for that one. It's those little things -- like David Ogden Stier's Col. Black, a fictional English officer fighting with the Mexicans -- that strike an odd, out of left field note.My favorite though is Alamo messenger Jim Bonham (Jim Metzler) calling Sam Houston (Lorne Green in a bizarre cameo) a coward. First, no such meeting ever occurred, but it is an unintentionally funny scene.

With such recognizable names as Crockett, Bowie, Travis and Santa Anna, '13 Days' goes 2-for-4 in the casting department. Keith and Arness are just too old to play Crockett and Bowie. Keith was 66 at the time, Arness was 64 while in 1836 Crockett was 50 and Bowie just 40 years old. They give it a valiant effort -- Keith's Crockett a mix of real-life David and legendary Davy, Arness' Bowie an imposing, intimidating figure -- but it never completely clicks. On the other hand, a young Alec Baldwin is a great choice to play Travis, a young, brash officer thrust into a command position, rising to the occasion with his life on the line. His line in the sand speech is one of the best from all the Alamo movies. '13 Days' is also one of the few movies to portray Santa Anna somewhat fairly, Julia doing a great job with the part. He's both an obsessed, possibly lunatic leader and also a president trying to save his country.

Thanks to Tinkle's novel, the TV miniseries also tries to turn the spotlight on some of the other Alamo defenders including Metzler's Bonham and Lindstrom and York as the Dickensons. York especially represents herself well as Susannah Dickinson, the strongest portrayal of the real life woman yet committed to the screen in an Alamo movie. There's also Travis' slave, Joe (Hinton Battle), Juan Seguin (Michael Wren), the Alamo messenger, and Eloy Casados as Gregorio Esparza, one of the Tejanos fighting in the Alamo. Other defenders include Tom Schanley as Danny Cloud, a Tennessean engaged to a local girl (shrill Laura Fabian), Tony Becker and Ethan Wayne (the Duke's son) as the Taylor brothers, George and Edward, Buck Taylor and Stan Ivar as Colorado Smith and Doc Sutherland, two more messengers, along with Gene Evans, Grainger Hines, Tom Everett, Jerry Potter and Jay Baker. With so many characters, most aren't given much development, just enough to introduce them and be somewhat interested in them.

With a few slower segments over its almost three-hour run-time, '13 Days' picks up in the final hour as reality sets in that no help is coming for the beleaguered defenders. It sets the tone well for men awaiting their death, wind whipping around the fort, silence hanging in the air. For its small scale and reliance on re-using shots repeatedly for action sequences, the final assault on the Alamo on March 6 is a surprisingly effective battle scene. You can watch the final attack HERE at Youtube. For the "big" shots, footage from 1955's The Last Command was used, some obvious editing showing how different the Alamo looked in the two films. The battle is easily the high point of the movie, making up for some of those slower portions. The defenders finally being overwhelmed supply some surprisingly emotional moments, again aided by the music.

Faults aside -- and there's a-plenty -- '13 Days' works fairly well because like most Alamo movies, it gets the message right. Outnumbered against an army of thousands and surrounded on all sides, less than 200 men decided to stick it out and fight, knowing death awaited them with that decision. When it would have been easy to surrender, they fought on. So even through the cheesiness, the bad casting, the general low budget feel, '13 Days' is still well worth a watch, especially for Alamo buffs.

The Alamo: 13 Days to Glory (1987): ***/****

Monday, April 9, 2012

Black Narcissus

For hundreds and thousands of years, missionaries have tried to spread their beliefs and principles to the unexposed, those who are unaware and might or might not be willing to change. Film has explored the life and goals of missionaries countless times -- some better and less pretentious than others, but I've watched one that defies description and any predecessor or anything since, 1947's Black Narcissus.

An order of sisters has received an invitation from an Indian general (Esmond Knight) to come to his region and work at a convent and work with the people. Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), a young nun, has been chosen to lead the new convent and is sent to the isolated mission/convent in the Himalayas with four nuns traveling with her, all of them with special skills designed to make the transition easier. The five nuns arrive to find a world unlike anything they've experienced with Mr. Dean (David Farrar), the only white man around for miles, a sort of unofficial guide for them. Clodagh and the sisters settle in, but nothing seems to work for them. Their intentions are pure, but it seems they are doomed to failure from the start.

This is maybe the most beautifully shot movie in the history of movies. Let's get that out there early and let that sink in. Visually stunning, breathtakingly beautiful and frightening at the same time with the credit going to cinematographer and future director Jack Cardiff. Full of color -- from the whites and blues of the nuns' clothes to the vibrant colors of the Indian villagers -- almost every single shot could be freeze-framed and placed on your wall as a work of art. The mission built into the side of a cliff is almost other-worldly (even if the sets were in a studio with liberal and spot-on uses of matte paintings). The wind never stops blowing and the air is always clear at this mission that seems to float above the world. Call it over-analyzing, but it almost serves like a purgatory of sorts for these nuns where a decision must be made on which direction to take. More on the visuals to come.

What originally caught my eye when I read the description at TCM's website was actually a picture....this ONE. Besides the chill that went up my back when I saw it, I knew this wasn't going to be a typical "clean," white-washed missionary story of the 1940s. A character study of nuns and the Indian villagers, yes, but this movie is not that simply described. This movie has all the tension and scares of a Gothic horror movie. We're talking an incredibly uncomfortable movie to watch. With some major spoilers, check out the pictures at THIS review. I thought the movie was going one way, and then it goes another, turning on a dime. I started to question exactly where it was going, what it was building to and was genuinely surprised where it ended up. The last 20 minutes are a straight horror film from the choir singing (with composer Brian Easdale's score) to Cardiff's unsettling visuals.

The visuals, the uniquely dark storytelling, all of that has helped make Black Narcissus a classic over the 60-plus years. However the acting is just as worthy in bringing up even if it's somewhat overshadowed by the visuals and that sense of impending, building doom. Just 26 years old at the time, Deborah Kerr does an amazing job as Sister Clodagh, a young nun who's joined the order because of an incident from her past. Wearing her immaculate white uniform, her face wrapped up tightly, Kerr looks angelic in the part. She doesn't resent her posting, fully committing herself to making it work, but she immediately sees that basically everything in front of her is working against her. Farrar's Dean is an interesting counter, a somewhat mysterious Englishman who's drifted east to India. Why exactly? We never find out. A tortured soul just the same, he serves as a sounding board for Kerr's Clodagh.

Sister Clodagh's nuns include Sister Philippa (Flora Robson), the oldest of the nuns and one struggling with her reasoning for her faith, Sister Honey (Jenny Laird), the youngest and most naive of the group, Sister Briony (Judith Furse), the strongest physically and the healer, and Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), the most fragile one who starts to become unhinged mentally. As a group, they're uniformly solid, but it is Byron (with the creepiest, most unsettling eyes EVER) who steals the show. Star of The Jungle Book, Sabu plays the Young General, the son of the older General, a young man trying to learn as much as he can through the sisters. Eddie Whalely Jr. plays Joseph, the Indian boy working with the sisters as a translator, and May Hallatt as Ayah, the somewhat off live-in caretaker of the cliff-side mission. Also making an appearance without saying a word in a key part is the very white Jean Simmons (with heavy makeup) as Kanchi, the Indian girl with a reputation.

I very much enjoyed this movie, or at least as much as you're supposed to enjoy a creepy, moving and unsettling story of five nuns working a mission in the Himalayas. Maybe 'enjoy' isn't the right word. I think we're supposed to appreciate a movie like this more than anything. I don't know if I got the dark message 'Narcissus' worked toward or if I missed something, but it is a movie unlike any I've seen.

Black Narcissus <---TCM trailer/clips (1947): ****/****