The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Day They Robbed the Bank of England

Never a huge star, instead one finding a niche as a character actor and tough guy on-screen, Aldo Ray is one of many gems to come out of the 1950s and 1960s. Most of his roles were supporting parts -- often as part of impressive ensemble casts -- but he did get the occasional leading role, like 1960's The Day They Robbed the Bank of England. Can you figure out what it's about? Yes, puppies.

It's the turn of the century in 1900s London, and the IRA needs money, needs a lot of it and needs it quick to support the movement. In London, O'Shea (Hugh Griffith) and Mrs. Muldoon (Elizabeth Sellars), a widow of a dead IRA gunman, have assembled a small group of thieves and IRA fighters to pull off an impossible job, one that's never been done before. They have hired an American with Irish blood, Norgate (Ray), to lead the job, but where to even start in taking down the seemingly impregnable, heavily guarded bank? Norgate starts by trying to get in from the inside, befriending Capt. Fitch (Peter O'Toole), a young officer working as part of the bank guard. Can Norgate and his team find a way in?

Yes, another heist movie. Sue me, I love these movies. As far as this popular sub-genre goes though, 'Day' is an interesting one that certainly tries to distance itself from the genre conventions. From director John Guillermin, this heist movie starts off on a positive note with a story set in 1910s London, not the present. It sounds simple, but it's deceptively simple in tweaking the story. There are no huge, high-tech security features, just a securely built, heavily guarded vault with no easy way in or out. This is not Ocean's 11. It keeps you guessing though, and Guillermin has some fun with some crazy, exaggerated zooms with the camera, composer Edwin Astley likewise keeping things moving with his score. It is filmed in black and white, keeping things focused on the story and characters, and never tries to be a groundbreaking classic, just a good, old-fashioned impossible robbery.

This is a solid example of a strong part for Aldo Ray in the lead. He doesn't have to do any heavy lifting, instead focusing on being that tough guy -- even a little anti-hero -- who wants to get the job done no matter what obstacles get thrown at him. Norgate's backstory is unfortunately kept under wraps, but some past demons and struggles with the law are hinted at. It's not a flashy part, but Ray is a meat and potatoes kind of guy, and he gets the job done here. This was also just O'Toole's second film role, and even with a poorly written character, the talent is evident. Norgate's team includes Griffin's O'Shea as the bankroll and IRA big-wig, Kieron Moore as fiery Walsh, Joseph Tomelty, Wolf Frees and Albert Sharpe as scene-stealing Tosher, an old drunk who knows a secret that could make the robbery a huge success, affectionately calling Norgate 'Your worship.'

Preventing 'Day' from becoming a classic are a couple flaws that shoot the story in the foot. The early portions of the movie drag a bit as we find that Norgate has a past with Sellars' Mrs. Muldoon who now has a suitor of sorts in Moore's Walsh too. No, it's not a painfully drawn out love triangle -- thankfully -- but the scenes with Norgate trying to win her back are tedious to say the least. Again, there's no real background explained so what should we care? Oh, they used to be together?!? Eh, pass. The other is the utter stupidity in the Fitch character, a disgruntled, bored officer who is so mind-blowingly stupid he doesn't see that Norgate is pilfering him for detailed information about the bank layout. It's a necessary part of the story (how else do they find the dimensions of the vault?), but there wasn't anything better that could have been used?

It is a heist movie, and reflecting the workmanlike nature of its star, the actual robbery is a meat and potatoes kind of job. No big twists or tricks, just a devious plan that has Norgate and his team tunneling into the vault via a shut-down sewer. Meanwhile, O'Toole's Fitch begins to smell a rat in the whole situation. Can he figure it out in time, putting all the pieces together? The last 45 minutes as the heist develops and unravels are not surprisingly the best part, including a memorable ending, Ray doing a ton in his final two scenes without speaking a word. Solid, entertaining heist movie. Definitely worth checking out.

The Day They Robbed the Bank of England <---TCM clips (1960): ***/****

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Back to Bataan

One of the more horrific events in American military history, the Bataan Death March is hard to comprehend some 60-plus years later. As an event in time, it marks a low point for the U.S. military, but it often hides the rest of the Philippines involvement in WWII. While the fighting continued as the Allies island-hopped across the Pacific, guerrilla fighting raged on in the Philippines, small groups of left behind American soldiers fighting alongside Filipino natives, like 1945's propaganda-heavy but highly entertaining Back to Bataan.

Commanding a company of Filipino scouts late in the Bataan defense in spring 1942, Colonel Joe Madden (John Wayne) is called back to HQ with special orders. In an effort to ease the pressure on the front line troops, Madden will be sent behind the lines to organize guerrilla units. As he arrives though, the Allies surrender, and the Japanese are now in charge of some 70,000 prisoners. With a small ragtag group of American soldiers, Filipino natives and Filipino scouts, Madden goes to work nipping at the Japanese war effort in the face of impossible odds. With Japanese reprisals instantaneous and brutal, Madden seeks help, one of his men, Capt. Andres Bonifacio (Anthony Quinn), the grandson of a Filipino hero, now a prisoner. Together they fight on, hoping the Allies will return to the Philippines in time.

What is most appealing and interesting about this Edward Dmytryk-directed WWII story is the timing. It was released in theaters in the United States in late May 1945. The war was still very much going on, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still two-plus months away. I'll go into the propaganda angle later, but there's just something appealing about the story. It is straightforward, honest and even in its force-fed attitude, entertaining. The action is kept to small doses, but when it's there, it's loud, chaotic and doesn't have that whitewashed feel of a 1940s war movie, including several impressive stunts for the Duke. The military-themed score isn't real subtle, but it works in its obvious ways. Japanese...DUN DUN DUH! Americans....Cue the hero music!

Not one of his best roles, this is nonetheless one of my favorite John Wayne performances. The 38-year old Wayne was just heading into his prime as an actor, and it ends up being an interesting middle ground. He doesn't look like a kid anymore, but he doesn't look like the heavier Duke of the 1960s. As the main star here, Wayne's Col. Madden ends up being the face of the American involvement in the guerrilla movement. Who better to lead a warring nation against invaders? A similarly very young looking Quinn gets the showier part, the disillusioned Filipino trying to decide if the fighting and cost in lives is worth it. Knowing that both Wayne and Quinn would go on to become huge stars, it's fun seeing them in early parts as rising stars. Quinn also gets a love interest, Fely Franquelli as Dalisay Delgado, an American agent working undercover for the Japanese (think Tokyo Rose).

And then there is the propaganda. By spring 1945, the Allied forces would win the war in the Pacific, it was just a matter of time. 'Bataan' nonetheless lays it on pretty thick in the propaganda department. The Japanese officers (including Richard Loo, Philip Ahn, and Leonard Strong) are maniacally evil, sneering, conniving and diabolical whenever possible. Loo's Major Hasko actually pets a Filipino girl's hair at one point, seemingly practicing to be a Bond villain. Granted, the Japanese war effort in general was despicable, inhuman and horrifically awful, but 'Bataan' makes it cartoonish in its portrayal. There's also the opposite. A Filipino teacher (Vladimir Sokoloff) is hanged rather than pull down an American flag. Instead of ripping the Japanese, it builds up the glory of America, especially young Filipino fighter, Maximo (Ducky Louie), and his American teacher, Ms. Barnes (Beulah Bondi), arguing. Late, a mortally wounded Maximo wishes he could have learned to spell 'liberty' correctly. The weird thing? Even in its cheeseball corniness, it works somehow.

While it isn't a classic WWII film, 'Bataan' is a highly entertaining movie to watch, especially in a double-bill with 1942's Bataan. The history is interesting, the prologue showing the freeing of Allied prisoners at Cabanatuan Prison Camp (read more HERE), the real-life incident depicted in 2005's The Great Raid. An excellent story in 2005, but in 1945 it was just four months removed from the actual incident! Timely much? The real-life P.O.W. survivors even make an appearance (watch HERE). How cool is that? Talk about a time capsule. There's some humor as well, Paul Fix's displaced American hobo, Bindle, talking with Alex Havier's loyal and capable Filipino scout, Sgt. Bernessa, about the beauty of being a hobo. Also look for Lawrence Tierney as Lt. Waite, an American officer debriefing the guerrillas before the action-packed finale. Just a good, old-fashioned war movie, one that could have gotten bogged down in its propaganda message but manages to rise above it.

Back to Bataan <---trailer (1945): *** 1/2 /****

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Dirty Dozen

One of the all-time great tough guy casts -- if not the greatest -- in one of my favorite genres. A movie that stands the test of time that is action-packed, darkly funny and amazingly entertaining. It has taken abuse over the years by some because of its shocking ending, but it also has built up a diehard following by those who will defend it to the last (including me). One of my favorite movies ever, and a Memorial Day themed review, 1967's The Dirty Dozen.

An American army officer with a record a mile long, Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) has been given a mission that even he doesn't believe is real. It's late spring 1944, and as the Allies prepare for the D-Day invasion, the Allied high command (including Ernest Borgnine) delivers his impossible, suicidal mission. Reisman is to take 12 prisoners either sentenced to death or years of imprisonment and hard labor, train them, and then in the days before the D-Day landing, drop them into German-occupied France. Their mission? Attack a German chateau, killing as many high ranking German officers as possible, hopefully wreaking havoc on the high command. Can Reisman get the prisoners to work together before they kill him?

This is a movie that is a perfect storm of timing, casting and story. A story of 12 convicted criminals -- rape, murder, robbery -- turned commandos who resent any sort of authority given a mission to kill enemy officers in cold blood? Could that story even remotely fly in any time other than late 1960s America? It was a time when America was changing, a darker, more cynical time in our history. Director Robert Aldrich taps into something special there. 'Dozen' has a unique look to it, interesting camera angles, a catchy theme for the Dozen -- listen HERE -- and a general feel of giving the middle finger to any sort of power or authority figure. Could there be a more perfect movie for a 1967 audience?

I could write a whole review discussing the characters and the long list of tough guy actors who play them, but I doubt many people would read 10,000 rambling words about how the cast of The Dirty Dozen is the coolest thing ever. Let's start with Lee Marvin, an all-around bad-ass who by the mid 1960s had become a major, bankable star. His Major Reisman, a sarcastic, quick-witted, smart-mouthed and brutally effective officer, is probably his most well known role, and he owns this movie. With the cast behind and around him, that's saying something. Marvin delivers brutally funny one-liners left and right, handles the action scenes flawlessly, and is believable as the cynical leader of this group of crook commandos. With those type of men behind him, you need someone like him to lead. Richard Jaeckel is a scene-stealer as Sgt. Bowren, the MP assigned to work with Reisman in training and execution of the mission. Along with Borgnine, the High Command and other Allied officers include Robert Webber, George Kennedy and Ralph Meeker. Oh, and Robert Ryan as a stiff-collared officer from the 101st. Enough for you? No?

And then there's the Dirty Dozen. The group includes Charles Bronson as Wladislaw, the former officer sentenced to hang for killing one of his own men, a medic carrying medical supplies away from battle. There's former NFL star Jim Brown as Jefferson, an African American soldier who killed in self defense but is sentenced to hang nonetheless. John Cassavetes was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Franko, a Chicago hood who killed a London man for $10 worth of cash. Telly Savalas is Maggot, a psychopathic Southerner convinced God works through him. Clint Walker is Posey, an Apache with rage issues, Donald Sutherland is Pinkley, a dimwitted soldier, and singer Trini Lopez plays Jiminez. Rounding out the Dozen are character actors Tom Busby, Ben Carruthers, Stuart Cooper, Colin Maitland, and Al Mancini as Bravos, the smallest of the bunch but with a mean/funny streak. The focus is Bronson, Brown, Cassavetes, Walker, Savalas and Sutherland, none of them disappointing, all of them living up to the hype, all given a chance to shine.  

What has helped 'Dozen' gain its cult-like following over the years is its humor in looking at and poking some fun at war in general. Sutherland's dimwitted Pinkley is forced to inspect a crack platoon of Ryan's Col. Breed in one of the most memorable, truly funny scenes. Watch it HERE. Reisman later arranges for eight London prostitutes to visit the Dozen as their training winds down. The facial expressions exchanged back and forth are priceless. The high point comically -- however dark it is -- comes in the War Games sequence, the Dozen forced to prove their worth by capturing Col. Breed's headquarters. They resort to cheating, con jobs, stealing, and all sorts of trickery. After the extended training sequence -- which has its fair share of funny moments -- the War Games development and the eventual payoff provides some great laughs.

The portion of the movie though that tends to drive people away is the attack on the chateau. SPOILERS AHEAD SPOILERS STOP READING Here's the plan, courtesy of Reisman, which you can watch HERE. It of course, doesn't go as planned, Reisman, Bowren and the Dozen forced to improvise. Their solution is simple; throw grenades and gasoline down air chutes and burn (think napalm) the German officers to death. Heroic? No, I would say not. It's a movie though. These guys aren't portrayed as heroes. These are prototypical 1960s anti-heroes! What does work? The entire finale sequence (around 45 minutes long) is dripping with tension, and once the adrenaline starts pumping, it doesn't stop. The Dozen start to get picked off -- including two legitimate shockers -- as the bullets start flying. I've seen this movie 50 times and still root for two characters especially to make it, knowing all the while they won't. The means are brutal, but as far as an entertaining action sequence goes, it is one of the best.

I'm not sure what this says about me, but I grew up watching this movie a lot. Introduced to it via Memorial Day war movie marathons, it will be always be one of my favorites. I love its cynical, dark look at war. I love the ridiculously strong cast from top to bottom. It is funny, entertaining, action-packed, and a true example of 'They don't make them like that anymore.' A classic.

The Dirty Dozen <---trailer (1967): ****/****

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Julius Caesar (1953)

So this William Shakespeare guy....pretty talented, huh? A poet and playwright, he is basically the benchmark for everything in literature. And thanks to my upbringing in English classes through high school and college, I basically hate Shakespeare. I was forced to read his writings and resented basically every minute of it. That only partially explains my hate for 1953's Julius Caesar, but it is certainly part of it.

In ancient Rome, senator Julius Caesar (Louis Calhern) returns to an adoring public, many touting him as the future ruler of the Roman empire. Caesar's ambition is feared throughout the Senate, even leading many of his fellow Senators to plot against him, including the idealistic Brutus (James Mason) and cynical, scorned Cassius (John Gielgud). They worry that his ambition, along with close friend and fellow Senator, Mark Antony (Marlon Brando), will spell Rome's doom. They begin to form a plan, one that could change the country's future for years to come.

Now I'm going to say something early and just be done with it. I don't intend this review to sound like a whiny high school student although no doubt it will to a certain point. I can appreciate Shakespeare as an immense talent, but that doesn't mean I like anything about reading his work. I can appreciate that his talents have influenced basically every form of literature written since. But actually reading it? Some of the most difficult experiences I've ever had with the written word. Long, uninterrupted scenes of dialogue/monologues have a knack for putting me to sleep quickly. But....but.....even knowing this, I sought out this 1953 film, mostly because of the extraordinary talent assembled here. Unfortunately, I disliked it as much as I've always disliked Shakespeare's works whether it be in books and plays or film and television.

Where my objection comes from is Shakespeare's style. In writing, it is extremely difficult for me to get through the dialogue, and seeing it in a film didn't help. Well written it most certainly is, but it is stilted, awkward, forced and for me, difficult to follow. It doesn't seem to make a difference who's reciting the lines because the talent in this cast is truly impressive. And yes, I know these are stage-based stories, but seeing actors -- no matter the talent -- stand and wave and yell and recite several minutes of expressive yet still stilted dialogue doesn't scream out 'ENTERTAINING!' to me. Acting is one thing, and method acting a whole other beast, but I've never understood the appeal of loud, verbose, exaggerated stage acting, and that's what this movie is. It's 120 minutes of very talented actors talking and talking and...well, you get the idea.

With so much talent assembled for this film in the cast and director Joseph Mankiewicz behind the camera, I just assumed my issues would go by the wayside. With three movies to his name (Streetcar, The Men, Viva Zapata), Brando is a bright spot as Mark Anthony. His famous address of the Roman people following Caesar's assassination especially stands out. Then throw in Mason, Calhern, Gielgud, Edmond O'Brien, Greer Garson and Deborah Kerr? How could that not be worthwhile? I chalk it up more to Shakespeare's style than anything, but I just didn't care. I know the story, know where it will end up, and who makes it and who doesn't. Also look for Michael Ansara, Michael Pate, John Doucette, Lawrence Dobkin and Rhys Williams in smaller supporting parts.

I'm ready to take all sorts of heat for my dislike of this movie, but I hated it almost from the start. Besides the stilted, overdone stage acting, it is an incredibly dull story to watch. It was filmed in black and white on a soundstage, the camera and focus on the actors, not the huge scale or lavish sets. Bored to tears. There's just only so many ways to hear a classically trained actor speaking in the most prim and proper English ever written. So go ahead, let me have it if you so choose. I'm admitting I don't like Shakespeare. Karma is going to kick me square in the butt at some point.

Julius Caesar <---TCM trailer/clips (1953): */****

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Blockhouse

Peter Sellers was an actor first and foremost. Many say doing comedy is much more difficult than drama, and Sellers was certainly known more as a comedic actor than anything. Could he do dramatic roles? There aren't a whole lot of options to test the theory, but we can start with 1973's The Blockhouse.

It's June 6, 1944 and somewhere along the French coast a camp of forced laborers comes under fire from a naval bombardment. In the chaos that follows, seven such laborers (including Sellers as Frenchman Roquet) escape into a heavily fortified bunker. They retreat inside and down possibly hundreds of feet, a blast sealing off their only exit. The good news? The bunker deep underground was stocked to feed an army with tons of food, wine and supplies at their disposal. The bad news? They're well-supplied, but there's no way out and no real hope of rescue. The seven prepare for what could be a long stay.

This is a difficult movie to review for a couple different reasons. For one, it's based on a supposed true story and isn't exactly intended as a film you enjoy. You appreciate it more than anything...if that makes sense. From director Clive Rees, 'Blockhouse' uses WWII as a jumping off point, but it's not essential the setting. The need, fight and struggle to survive is the key. The D-Day intro grounds the story with a nice touch, but it's not a necessary one. It is a dark movie -- visually and in storytelling -- with a dread of claustrophobia and impending death hanging in the air. Everything from the drab colors to the mumbled dialogue sets things in motion. The film opens with an intro 'This is the true story of 7 men....details....only 2 would survive.' Not talking happy-go-lucky now, are we?

And now back to the intro, Sellers as a dramatic actor. Yes, the Pink Panther star can most definitely act in a dramatic roles. I'll go into more details later because all the parts are uniformly above average, but Sellers and co-star Jeremy Kemp are the unquestioned stars here. None of the parts are loud, showy roles with a minimum on theatrics and exaggerated moments. These are men slowly wasting away in this almost apocalyptic situation. Sellers is a surprise choice -- only his 2nd purely dramatic role -- but he doesn't disappoint. His Roquet is soft-spoken but highly intelligent, becoming an unofficial leader among the group and someone the others look up to. He tries his best to maintain his own sanity while preserving that of the others at the same time. His last scene is an especially moving one.

Rounding out the other six are some recognizable faces if not quite the huge names. I especially liked Kemp as Grabinski, the other intellectual in the group who finds an equal in Roquet. The others include Kramer (Nicholas Jones) and Visconti (Charles Aznavour), both reveling in stories of past conquests, Lund (Per Oscarsson), a quiet man who's the only one trying to aid their cause by breaking out some how and some way, Aufret (Peter Vaughan), the laborer who worked with the Germans as a prisoner overseer, and Khozek (Leon Lissek), the somewhat slow but genuinely good Eastern European. Because it's a very personal, even unsettling movie, it's nearly impossible not to root for these guys at least a little bit. Still, even a little personal background would have been nice. Does it detract from the very pointed survival message? Maybe, but I think it would have ultimately helped.

This is a story though not interested in the bigger picture of WWII or even keeping us as viewers up to the minute on every little detail of the ordeal. By the second or third scene, we've lost all track of time. Have these men been there for days, weeks, months? They don't know. In all its darkness though, 'Blockhouse' has some great, memorable moments. A teacher, Sellers' Roquet covers the walls with poems and quotes from literature. Roquet and Grabinski play chess in a one-sided affair, later arguing over switching to dominoes. A bike is found in the storerooms, the trapped residents reveling in having some fun. A "Christmas party" takes a turn for the worse after the saddest version of Silent Night you've ever heard. These little moments help humanize the story in ways I wouldn't have thought of, but the movie's the better for it.

So how to review this in the end? I'm not sure. Because the ordeal isn't the most exciting thing, the story itself is a tad sluggish at times. Necessary, even realistic to the real-life story? I'd assume so, but visually it isn't the most interesting movie to watch. The characters are literature archetypes more than flesh and blood human beings. Striving for survival is mankind at his most simplest though, and while it is an incredibly difficult movie to watch at times, it is worthwhile for at least one viewing.

The Blockhouse <---Opening credits/sequence (1973): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Tower Heist

I've written about this before, but I can't help but think of it every movie I watch with Eddie Murphy in it. The comedian/actor built up a huge reputation for himself in the 1980s and has basically spent the last 20-plus years tearing it apart. So when he does something positive and enjoyable, as a viewer we've got to enjoy it! Murphy is a bright spot in a solid, entertaining if unspectacular caper movie, 2011's Tower Heist.

Working as building manager for The Tower -- a swanky, classy NYC apartment for the wealthy -- Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller) runs a tip-top operation with a helpful, hard-working wait staff. He's shocked to hear some startling news when Wall Street power broker, Penthouse owner in the Tower and all-around nice guy, Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda) is arrested for counts of fraud, wasting millions and maybe billions of his investors' money, including the pensions for all the employees of The Tower. Josh wants to believe the best but finds out otherwise and comes up with a desperate plan. With several other burned employees and a low-level crook, Slide (Murphy), Josh is going to rob Shaw's penthouse apartment and find his hidden stash. Can these amateur crooks pull the job off?

As a fan of heist movies, I'll give just about any one of them a try. The premise reminded me of an ABC show a few years back -- The Knights of Prosperity -- with a ragtag crew of amateur thieves and crooks trying to be master criminals. It isn't a straight physical comedy, and it's not quite a dark, sinister heist movie either. Instead, it falls in between. Yes, it is genuinely funny; Josh's ragtag crew bumbling and fumbling through the planning and robbery. But surprisingly enough, there is a dramatic edge to the heist setting. It isn't played entirely for laughs. There's some actual drama involved, much of that chalked up to the Shaw character being a not so thinly veiled dig at Bernie Madoff. It's easy to feel for Josh and his staff, their pensions/life savings stolen by someone who thought he could get away scot-free with his plan. Comedy and drama working well together.

Playing on the comedic heist angle with a bumbling crew of crooks, I was happy to see the cast here, including some names I wouldn't normally have thought of. Stiller is a great lead as Josh, an everyman worker who busts his butt to do what he does and do it well. He does get some laughs, but he's the straight man, letting those around him get the big laughs. As the conniving, fast-talking Slide, Murphy does provide those bigger laughs, especially his "training" of his crooks and a later explanation of his protocol about the thieving business. Murphy is such a talented comedic actor it's easy to forget that when he's in so many of his recent sub-par efforts. There is an effortless quality to Murphy's talent when he's given good material to work with, and he's got it here. And rounding out the three leads, who better to play a condescending, upper class, know it all a-hole? Yeah, Alda nails his part, his Arthur Shaw a bad guy you just love to hate.

The ensemble behind these three are the real scene-stealers here, including Matthew Broderick, Casey Affleck, Michael Pena, Gabourey Sidibe, and Stephen Henderson as Josh's crew of thieves. Broderick is a highlight as Fitzhugh, a former Wall Street whiz who's fallen on epically rough times as he's evicted from The Tower. The unlikeliest of the crooks, his deadpan, straight delivery kills it in the laugh department. Sidibe too is hysterical as Odessa, the Jamaican maid with a safecracking background. Mostly though as an ensemble, they work well together. Their scenes among the group allow each individual to shine when given the chance. Solid group of dramatic actors all given a chance in the 'Yuck it up' department. Also look for Tea Leoni as FBI agent Denham, assigned to guard Shaw, and Judd Hirsch as Mr. Simon, the bossy on-site manager who keeps pushing and pushing Josh to do this and that.

So what new thing does 'Tower' bring to the heist genre? Like 2010's The Town, it takes a somewhat familiar heist and puts it in an incredibly unique, visually different setting. Where 'Town' went to Fenway Park for its heist, 'Tower' heads to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Josh and Co. attempt to rob the apartment while thousands of people line the streets below, the giant floats filling the sky. I can't say why for sure, but it works. Yes, the heist premise has all sorts of holes and premises that just don't work in a ridiculous quality, but it is a fun, exciting extended sequence. The ending though is surprisingly sweet with one character making a huge personal decision.

Nothing flashy or spectacular about this comedy-drama-heist from director Brett Ratner, but it's fun from beginning to end. It benefits greatly from a strong cast -- the major roles and the supporting ones -- and a heist premise just unique enough to set it apart from the rest. Worth a watch.

Tower Heist <---trailer (2011): ***/****

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Going Home

Not bad, and not good but leaning more toward the 'bad department,' I watched 1971's Going Home recently. Never a good sign when it takes three or four sittings to get through a 90-minute movie. So what drew me into this one? That would be the appearance of Robert Mitchum, one of my favorites, in the leading role. Damn you, Mitchum. You win this time....even though it's not your fault this one stinks.

Just six years old, Jimmy Graham sees the aftermath of his father, Harry (Mitchum), killing his mother. When Harry is sent to jail, Jimmy is sent to one foster home and summer camp after another. Thirteen years go by though, and 19-year old Jimmy (Jan-Michael Vincent) wants some answers. He goes to visit his father in prison only to discover he was paroled several months before. He manages to track him down, but where does he even start? How do you restart any sort of a father-son relationship after such a traumatic incident and so many years later? Both Jimmy and Harry are dealing with their own personal demons inside, and a reconciliation won't come easy for either of them.

I'd like to say there was some potential here, but I really can't say for sure. Director Herbert B. Leonard's film is a mess almost from the start. There are times it seems pointed in one direction, and then without warning it does a U-turn, and we're heading elsewhere on a dime. One of my biggest complaints is that it tries to be too 1970s folksy, complete with upbeat, out of place country theme and soundtrack. The story that follows is dark, depressing and even upsetting at times. I don't know what the ultimate goal was. What was Leonard trying to say? Whatever it was, it felt like he came up short or at least missed the point.

A lack of focus in storytelling is one thing, but 'Home' drags its feet basically the entire movie. We're not talking a long movie at all -- just over 90 minutes long -- but we still get repeated scenes of Vincent's Jimmy walking around, running somewhere, moping about his problems. Not one or two, but five and six times. I know it's meant to show his anguish inside, all those years of pent-up frustration, but convincing is one thing. This is just repetitive. It's downright dull. And while I like Jan-Michael Vincent, this isn't a great part for him. Mostly, he just looks pissed off and frowns or pouts. That's part of the frustration of the movie. It's clear he wants some answers from his father, but what are his intentions? Does he actually want to reunite with him, does he just want those answers, or is there an ulterior motive here? Even when the movie ended, it was hard to tell.

There were times when Vincent's character does have his moments, mostly thanks to Mitchum's part pulling him along. Whether as a youngster making his name for himself in the 1940s/1950s or here as an established star, nobody did personal demons better than Mitchum. He knows he made an epically wrong decision years before attacking and ultimately killing his wife, but he's trying to make some sort of amends and move on. His Harry is tortured, seemingly regretting what he did so many years before. In a few key scenes, he carries Vincent along, and their exchanges are both interesting and worthwhile. But most of the time, the script doesn't give him enough to do. Also worth mentioning is a very good supporting part for Brenda Vaccaro as Jenny, Harry's girlfriend caught up in the middle of the situation.

Running out of anything even somewhat worthwhile to criticize/praise here so this is going to be a shorter review. There just isn't much positive here to recommend. If an intention was clearer as to where it wanted to go, at least criticisms could be made on achieving or missing that goal. But that never comes along. The story drifts along, some despicable things are done back and forth, and some 90 minutes later, it's mercifully over. Pass on this forgotten movie.

Going Home <---Youtube clip (1971): * 1/2 /****

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


I call it Garden State Syndrome, a little known disease that afflicts certain movies. You know the type. Small-scale, well-written, ultra-personal stories with emo drama and dark comedy of people in their mid 20s adjusting to life and all its little intricacies. Oh, don't forget the indie rock soundtracks. It started with 2004's Garden State, by all means a really good movie but not the end-all, be-all classic some made it out to be. When I saw the preview for 2011's 50/50, that was my first thought. Uh-oh, here we go again, even despite my interest/curiosity. So where did it fall?

A 27-year old living in Seattle, Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has a pretty cool little life for himself. He has a good job at a Seattle public radio station, lives with his girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas-Howard), and still gets to hang out with his longtime friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen). Experiencing some back pain though, Adam visits a doctor and gets some startling news. He has a malignant tumor on his back, and his chances are about 50-50 that he'll survive it. His world thrown on its side, Adam tries to fight through his new huge problem, going to a psychiatrist while undergoing chemotherapy. The thought lingers though. No matter what he does or doesn't do, it might not make a difference. He could still die, and he can't control it in the least.

From director Jonathan Levine, '50' avoids most of the trappings of the always dangerous Garden State Syndrome. Yes, there's the indie rock soundtrack (I get're unique), but the overbearing message of how life is so tough to get through isn't an issue at all. Sure, a healthy, normal 27-year old gets a curveball thrown his way, but it never becomes condescending. Adam struggles with his situation -- who wouldn't? -- but '50' never tries to shove sympathy/apathy/emotion in general down your throat. The movie ends up being a huge success because it just does the opposite. It shows the situation as it is -- Adam struggling to adjust, his friends and family trying to help and cope however they can -- without aggressively telling you how to feel about the movie and the developing story.

Like other indie dramadies (that's comedy meets drama) that works so well, '50' does have its moments of brilliance. It goes back to the personal level Levine tells his story from. The humor is of the dark variety, never any obvious laughs which come from the real interactions -- both positive and negative -- between people who care for and love each other. Adam shaving his hair before chemo can do it before him with Kyle's....body hair trimmer? an inspired scene, Rogen making that scene with his most likely very natural reaction. Adam's scenes with his fellow chemo patients (Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall) are both funny and emotionally tough to watch, three very different individuals bonding through their similar struggle. The most effective is Adam telling his mom, Diane (Anjelica Houston), he has his cancer, a mother acting about how you'd expect. These moments don't feel forced or faked. They end up feeling very real, and the movie's that much better for it.

It seems like a long time since Joseph Gordon-Levitt was a co-star on 90s sitcom Third Rock from the Sun, but here we sit. Gordon-Levitt is fast becoming one of the most talented young actors in Hollywood, and the man's got some versatility. Big blockbuster? Inception. Thriller? The Lookout. Personal drama? Here we are. He's very natural in his characters, and seeing his transformation here as he deals with the different emotional levels of trying to survive cancer can be difficult to watch at times. It certainly helps that we see his friendship with high school buddy, Kyle, played by Rogen. That genuine relationship was what I took away from this movie. They talk, argue, debate and BS each other like long-time friends would. Understandably stunned at his friend's news, Kyle tries to help him out however he can. I loved the dynamic these two had, especially as Adam gets further and further into his chemo therapy. Two talented young actors who help carry the movie.

That's not to forget about the rest of the cast. Houston is a heartbreaker as Diane, Adam's mom. She's caring for her husband (Serge Houde) who has Alzheimer's and doesn't realize Adam is even his son. It's a quick part -- only 3 or 4 scenes -- but a very strong one too. Anna Kendrick is perfectly cute as Katherine, Adam's psychiatrist, a student still working toward her doctorate and thrown into the fire immediately. Dallas-Howard better be careful too. She's very good here, but I wonder if she's being typecast a little bit, considering this part and in Hereafter two years ago. A very talented actress, but hopefully she isn't forced to take similar roles repeatedly. Frewer and Baker Hall as fellow chemo patients Mitch and Alan are especially good too, including one scene late as they join Adam and Kyle for a medicinal marijuana session.

I really liked the whole movie, but I really loved the last half hour. I won't go into details or spoil anything, but it is a very effective ending. The drama and emotion kicks into high gear as we see these very likable, very real people we've gotten to know forced to deal with issues you'd hope you could avoid your whole life. Also, great final scene and final shot, aided by Pearl Jam's Yellow Ledbetter. Excellent movie, one you should definitely check out.

50/50 <---trailer (2011): *** 1/2 /****

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Cockleshell Heroes

Writing reviews about World War II, I've watched epics about large-scale battles, personal stories about the home front, behind the scenes stories about government/administration, but my favorite has always been the men-on-a-mission sub-genre, commandos, specialists and secret agents working together to pull off an impossible mission. One of my favorites I recently rewatched for the first time in quite awhile is 1955's The Cockleshell Heroes.

Early in 1942 with WWII's outcome still very much in question, Royal Marines Captain Stringer (Jose Ferrer) has been tasked with an improbable mission. German ships operating out of the French city of Bordeaux have been wreaking havoc on Allied shipping, and Stringer must attempt to reach the harbor city with a small group of commandos, destroying as many ships as possible. The catch? They'll be doing it by paddling up the Garonne River in two-man canoes. With help from a career Marine officer, Captain Thompson (Trevor Howard), Stringer goes about training his team of volunteers for a mission that seems suicidal to everyone involved.

From star and director Ferrer (one of 7 films he directed), 'Heroes' is based on the true story of Operation Frankton which took place in December 1942. I watched it as a kid on the History Channel and have always remembered it fondly. Released in 1955, it is more of a heroic look at the bravery these commandos showed on their mission. It doesn't yet have the darkness, cynicism or reality of so many WWII movies released a few years later in the 1960s. There is still an innocence to the story, a "nice" factor. The commandos are the heroes, their Nazi counterparts stereotypically evil. 'Heroes' is only 98 minutes long and was shot on a smaller scale (some cool English locations providing good background) with the focus on this specific mission. There's no sense of a bigger issue or the state of the war. Instead, it's about 8 commandos and the officers leading them. When handled right, who needs a bigger scale than that?

Not a hugely well known movie, 'Heroes' doesn't have the same name recognition in its cast so many other war films have. Ferrer is solid but not particularly memorable as Major Stringer, the unlikely, volunteer commander of the mission. He has several strong dialogue scenes with Howard's Thompson as a rivalry develops about how the mission should be handled, but there's little doubt who the star is. Trevor Howard is a scene-stealer, putting a spin on the stiff upper lip British officer. He's prim and proper and interested in the bottom line -- the success of the mission -- more than how the men feel about him. Thompson is the only character given any real background and Howard does not disappoint. The commandos include Victor Maddern as Sgt. Craig, Thompson's right hand man, as well as the Marine volunteers; Anthony Newley as Clarke, the smart-alec, David Lodge as Ruddock, the strongest of the Marines, Peter Arne as Stevens, the capable Corporal, Percy Herbert, Graham Stewart, John Fabian as Cooney, the Irishman, John Van Eyssen, and Robert Desmond (The Great Escape). Newly, Maddern and Lodge stand out from the group as memorable.      

At its heart, this is a men on a mission movie. It just so happens to be based on a true story, the results of the movie mission exaggerated a bit relative to the actual history. Truth or not, 'Heroes' follows a familiar formula. The story is pretty clearly divided in two parts; the training for the mission and then the execution of said-mission. I would have liked some more character background on the commandos, but the training scenes do just enough to differentiate them from each other. There are some original, unique scenes, including Stringer parachuting his commandos into England.....dressed as German soldiers. No money, no identification, they must trek some 300-plus miles back to the base without getting caught. These are some necessary scenes, giving us a rooting interest in these men as they head off to their mission.

Not surprisingly then, the best parts of the movie are the actual mission, dubbed 'Cockleshell,' as Stringer's team is dropped off by a British sub (commanded by Christopher Lee) and must paddle over 70 miles up the Garonne River to their target, ships waiting in the harbor. The final 40 minutes are tense and adrenaline-pumping as they navigate the river. It's here where I started to question. If I didn't know this was in fact a real mission, I'd say it was ridiculous. The bravery exhibited here in insane, commandos in 2-man canoes paddling exposed up a heavily guarded/defended river. HERE is a Google Map showing how far they actually traveled. The ending is downbeat with a sense of success, Howard delivering a very moving final line. Success at what cost though? Listen to some of the main theme HERE, a whistle-worthy score from composer John Addison. The link below is a documentary about the real-life mission. As for the movie, a hidden gem and one I've always enjoyed.

The Cockleshell Heroes <---documentary (1955): ***/****

Friday, May 18, 2012


For a lack of a better description or word choice, there are a lot of hack directors currently working in Hollywood. No real specialty or ability, they point the camera and let things take care of themselves. Steven Soderbergh? He ain't one of those talents. I come away more impressed with each film he directs, including one of his most recent ventures, 2011's Contagion.

After visiting Hong Kong on business, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns home to her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), and isn't feeling quite well, thinking she picked up a bug along her travels. The next morning she drops dead after going through a series of violent seizures. Mitch doesn't believe what he hears, claiming she was fine just minutes and hours before. It wasn't just Beth though. Something else is going along in various cities, regions and countries around the world. People are dropping dead with a variety of symptoms, a disease that the medical community can't quite pinpoint. The death toll grows and grows with each day. What is this new virus? Can it be stopped in time?

This is not an easy film to review, mostly because it isn't a film that's trying to entertain you. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of the wave of big budget disaster movies that hit theaters in the 1960s and 1970s. All-star cast in a perilous situation, who will survive? I guess it's appropriate that a 2010s version isn't an ocean liner overturning or a jet airliner struggling to stay in the air. Instead, we get a smart, well-written pseudo-documentary/medical thriller that seems more relevant in our time than any old disaster movie. Mostly though, it's not a movie you come away from thinking 'Man, that was great.' I finished it thinking 'Great movie, and a well-made one' but great? I don't think it wants to be great. It's content to be different from the norm, and I always give points for that effort.

That's where Soderbergh's film succeeds on so many levels. Yes, it is a feature film, but it feels very real from the start. Some of the director's touches are there -- title cards introducing locales and background -- but it is a very self conscious film for a 2011 audience. News spreads like wildfire of this new disease, Facebook, Twitter, and the Internet in general going crazy. News turns into rumors, rumors turn into chaos, and then it's the individual for himself. A condemnation of our society? Yeah, a little, but it isn't heavy-handed or forced. Instead, it's probably spot on in its portrayal of how our modern society would react in this situation. When survival is on the line, rioting, stealing, killing, everything becomes blurry. Where do you draw the line then as what's too far? Kudos to Soderbergh for handling the situation so smoothly and even effortlessly at times. Just one more sign of a very talented individual behind the camera.

His cast assembled here is an impressive one, starting with Damon as Mitch, a widowed husband trying to protect his daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron) from something he can't see. It is an ensemble cast with pretty equal screen-time divided among the group, but Damon's Mitch is the most personal of the stories. Damon as always is very likable on-screen, especially when fighting for his daughter. And you know you're in for it when a big name like Paltrow is dead 10 minutes in. Oops, "spoilers" I guess. Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet play doctors at the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Fishburne working from headquarters, Winslet in the field trying to isolate the virus. Jude Law is perfectly slimy as a blogger with quite a following and therefore, a whole lot of power at his disposal. The beautiful Marion Cotillard humanizes a small part as a World Health Organization (WHO) doctor trying to find the source of the virus in Hong Kong. Jennifer Ehle is also very good as Dr. Hextall, a scientist/doctor working diligently to try and find a vaccine. Also look for Elliott Gould, Bryan Cranston, Enrico Colantoni and John Hawkes in small but important supporting parts.

With so many characters and storylines, 'Contagion' does bounce around quite a lot, but it never loses track of where it's going. Title cards show the day and location so we get a sense of how quick the virus is moving, the cells reproducing quicker and quicker. We learn what the virus is as the characters do. The movie has a very distinct look, colors filtered and washed out, the impending doom hanging in the air. Cliff Martinez's score is a gem, part electronic, part synthesized like so many solid Tangerine Dream scores. Listen to track one HERE and follow along with the other links for a taste of it. These are the elements that are easier to critique, but the movie on the whole is well worth recommending.

Don't be confused heading into Contagion. It is an at times very disturbing, highly upsetting story. It isn't always an "easy" movie to watch. Know what you're getting into, and I imagine you'll appreciate it more than if you thought were getting some glossy, superficial medical thriller. It feels based in reality, like this could easily happen to us in our current, modern society. And I'll bet you something. If you weren't a germaphobe before, you will be now. Washing your hands, not touching anything, not touching your face, all the little things I took away and have been on my mind since. A movie well worth checking out.

Contagion <---trailer (2011): *** 1/2 /****

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Family Business

When I think of director Sidney Lumet, I think of any number of movies, many of them classics. 12 Angry Men, Network, Fail-Safe, Dog Day Afternoon. But once you get past those well-known classics, I can't say I'm too familiar with Lumet's 40-some other movies. Stumbled across one at Netflix that sounded intriguing, 1989's Family Business.

Just a few months away from getting his Masters, Adam McMullen (Matthew Broderick) decides he doesn't like where his life is heading and drops out. Instead of finishing out school, he stumbles across a plan -- a heist -- that could net him $1 million dollars. He needs help though and seeks out his grandfather, Jessie (Sean Connery), a lifelong crook, to join him in the job. Never one to go the easy route, Jessie agrees, approaching his son and Adam's father, Vito (Dustin Hoffman), to join in. Vito has done his best to make sure Adam doesn't go down this route, but with intentions of protecting his son, agrees to help out on the seemingly easy, flawless robbery.

Every director has their hits and misses, the classics, the bombs and those that fall somewhere in between. Judging solely by IMDB ratings (and those are unquestionable, right?), Lumet doesn't have any real bomb, just an awful stinker. He just has weaker efforts, and from the ratings/votes and my initial thoughts, this is one of his weaker efforts. That's not to say it is a bad movie, just not as good as some of his other movies I've seen. A lot of his touches are there, especially a character-heavy story that allows the actors to really delve into backgrounds and relationships. It is dialogue heavy -- not a bad thing with Connery, Hoffman and Broderick around -- and isn't particularly flashy. Meat and potatoes kind of camera work, the focus clearly on the actors and their talents.

In terms of comparing it to a more well-known (or at least more recent/familiar) film, all you have to do is look at Lumet's recent films, 2007's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. It is similar in its story matter, family members involved in a heist. And if heist movies have taught us anything, it's that nothing....NOTHING...will go even somewhat as planned. Seeing crooks/thieves turn on each other is one thing, but what about when your partners in crime are your family members? What would a grandfather do when his son or grandson are in trouble or vice versa? Are you more prone to risk everything because it's your flesh and blood under the gun? I love heist movies -- always have, always will -- but in 'Family' Lumet adds that family element that gives the story a unique edge. It becomes more emotional and more effective.

Most of my reasoning for checking 'Family' out was the casting. My first thought was that Connery and Hoffman were odd choices to play father and son (there's only 7 years age difference), but once you get past the fact they look nothing alike, it's not a deal-breaker. The three generation heist crew is a cool little plot device, young Adam looking up to his crook of a grandfather while holding resentment for his father for giving him everything he ever needed. The performances are uniformly good, allowing me at least to look past the names and see the characters. Connery is the flashiest, and he doesn't disappoint, a long-time crook encouraging his grandson to do what he wants, not what he's been told to do. Hoffman is the most effective, a father torn by his own past that he gave up, accepting a vastly different life than the one he figured. Broderick is solid as Adam, the least likable of the three. It's hard to get behind the character, who comes across as a spoiled brat. The dynamic among the three -- physical appearances aside -- is what works so well.

All of that laid out, I didn't love the movie. I think it struggles to find a right balance between comedy and drama. It never out and out tries to be a laugh out loud comedy, but the tone is all over the place. Some attempts at comedy -- two gags during the heist -- work well, but it does a complete 180 degree turn afterward and hits you with the heavy drama. All the dialogue does get a little much as the 113-minute movie starts to lag in the second half right when it should be picking up steam. I can't put my finger on it. 'Family' is missing that one element that would bring it all together. It is still a solid, very watchable movie, but not one I feel the need to revisit anytime soon.

Family Business <---trailer (1989): ** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


Released in 1962, Hatari! starred John Wayne, Hardy Kruger, Red Buttons and existed mostly to show off its African locations as Wayne's team of specialists capture exotic animals and sell them to zoos around the world. It's good enough, entertaining but generally forgettable. It was a big success though, and what does success mean in the movies? The same old stories shoved right down our throats, like 1963's Rampage

Working for whoever will pay him, trapper and big game tracker Harry Stanton (Robert Mitchum) is the best at what he does; finding and capturing exotic animals for zoos all around the world. Visiting Berlin, he's approached for a job that even he's not sure he can pull off. Traveling to Malaysia, Harry must capture two tigers, but that's just the start. He must also track and capture the Enchantress, a half-tiger, half-leopard, a rare animal that's been spotted several times. Along for the hunt of sorts is a big-game hunter and guide, Otto Abbot (Jack Hawkins), who immediately butts heads with the equally strong-willed Harry. The rivalry for supremacy is one thing, but it gets ratcheted up even more when Otto's girlfriend, Anna (Elsa Martinelli), accompanies them on the dangerous hunt.

Like the much-better Hatari!, 'Rampage' works at its best when it is on location. According to the recent airing on TCM, director Phil Karlson shot on location in Hawaii (filling in nicely for Malaysia). It is a beautiful movie to watch, boasting a very 1960s look and style to it. The first hour-plus serves as a nice tour of "Malaysia," Harry's crew of Sakai hunters (including guide Sabu) navigating their way through the lush, green jungles full of beautiful streams, cliffs, hills and waterfalls. It has a distinct cheese-ball quality, not quite low budget, but getting there. It is a popcorn film, one that transports you to somewhere else and lets you enjoy the adventure and the scenery for a little while. Composer Elmer Bernstein aids the cause with his score, at times jazzy and fun, other times emotionally more effective, bits of 'The Great Escape' evident at times.

When I did stumble across this late night on TCM, I was surprised I'd never seen it, much less heard of it, considering its star power at the top. Now to be fair, both Mitchum and Hawkins made much better movies with much better roles. I wouldn't calling this slumming for either actor, but neither delivers a career-defining role. Still, it's fun to see them in a more mainstream, straight entertainment part. As he always was, Mitchum is effortlessly cool. The early 1960s were transitional for Mitchum, the veteran actor finding his nice, but this is a fun, lead man type part. Hawkins too is perfect for the part, a great actor who could more than hold his own but seemed at his best as the second fiddle and/or banana to the lead. They have some great banter back and forth, that banter eventually turning into a heated rivalry (more later there). Also starring in Hatari!, Martinelli just isn't a great actress. Words that come to mind? Eye candy. One scene has her swimming naked, some "digital" rocks obscuring her.....talents?

Did it seem like the movie -- and this review -- was going too smoothly? Yeah, I thought so too. 'Rampage' couldn't have just been content with a hunting/safari trip to exotic locations, could it? No, that would far too easy. Instead, the story resorts to one of my favorite plot devices, the love triangle. The second Martinelli's Anna was introduced, I groaned as both Harry and Otto stare her down. Oh, so the movie's about this. Yeah! I thought watching Mitchum and Hawkins fight over her might be interesting, but nothing even somewhat entertaining comes of it. Is there any doubt who she will end up with in the end? If you said she ends up with Sabu, slap yourself for me. The love triangle is dull, drawn out, and predictable. The supposedly impossible hunts for the tigers and the Enchantress end up being relatively easy, the story clearly wanting to get back to the love triangle.

Making it worse is that 'Rampage' has no real idea how to wrap things up. I can't help but wonder if Michael Crichton was a fan of this movie because the end could be a forerunner for The Lost World. The Enchantress has been captured, its delivered to Berlin and what happens? SPOILERS STOP READING SPOILERS In an effort to have Anna all to himself, Otto traps Harry in the train car, lets the Enchantress out, and runs. Cue the Berlin zoo director who opens the car and unleashes the exotic animal on a sea of expectant, waiting fans. Cornball much? As if the love triangle aspect wasn't painful enough to watch, we've now got to see a homicidal, lunatic in Otto trying to kill Harry who just wants to capture his prize. What a big, old mess.

Rampage <---TCM clips (1963): **/****

Monday, May 14, 2012

Miller's Crossing

Quirky, darkly funny, extremely violent, all trademarks of the films of the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan. You basically know what you're getting yourself into when you head into a Coen brothers film. While I've liked all their movies -- some more than others -- I've noticed a recurring trend. The movies? They're entertaining and technically? Pretty much perfect. But they often keep you at arm's length, forcing you to watch a story develop without having a huge interest or personal investment in the characters. Win-lose? That was my first thought on 1990's Miller's Crossing.

It's the Prohibition and in an unnamed city, Irish gangster Leo (Albert Finney) rules with an iron fist, his right-hand man, Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), at his side. Leo's power is hanging in the balance though, Tom seeing that things can change with the snap of a finger. The hard-drinking, gambling Tom is caught in the middle and not helping matters by sleeping with Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), Leo's girl. While Leo tries to hold onto his power, an Italian gangster, Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), is moving quickly to step into what he hopes will be a power void. Able to think things through easily, Tom concocts a plan to get out cleanly, but with so much on the line, nothing is going to be easy, and it's going to come at a bloody price.

In his 1990 review, Roger Ebert pointed out that 'Crossing' is the best of two worlds; a gangster pic with a film noir setting. At its best, it succeeds because of that. Made on a relatively small budget, it wreaks of authenticity (I mean that in the positive sense by the way) from the 1920s period authentic suits and hats to the classic cars to the weaponry. It feels like we've been dropped into a 1920s city about to be torn apart by a mob war. The look of the movie is incredible, dark colors and backgrounds, shadows everywhere hiding things as needed only to reveal secrets suddenly and shockingly. The heavily Irish-themed score  (listen HERE) from Carter Burwell is hit or miss, but when it works, it really works. I get it. 'Crossing' is a great movie to watch and revel in, enjoying it for all the elements that help make a movie a classic.

Yeah, that's right. Here comes the curveball. Why then do I feel so apathetic to the movie? It was a good movie, but it is missing that special something. The cast -- more on that later -- is immensely talented, the script full of witty banter, surprising, startling violence, and a twisting, turning story that only comes together late. But many reviews I read simply said "You should like this movie if not love it." Not many actually say why so in my head? I'm thinking people like this movie simply because they're told to. Yes, I know there's more to it than that. It's a cold movie, one that I enjoyed but didn't jump into head first. I wasn't particularly interested in any of the characters so as the story threw twists and turns at me, I wasn't surprised, shocked or even that interested. I hear reviewers say "It gets better on repeated viewings." To me, that sounds like a huge cop-out.

Now just because the characters aren't likable doesn't mean the performances aren't worth mentioning. A self-identified 'son of a bitch,' Byrne's Tom is the perfect anti-hero. He's a lead character who is nearly impossible to read, much less completely figure him out. I especially liked the brotherly, even father-son relationship, between Byrne and Finney's Leo. It's the longtime partner and the veteran crime boss, both very talented in their unique fields. Polito is a surprising scene-stealer as Caspar, the Italian (eye-talian according to the Irish) gangster caught up in a developing mob war, and Harden is an out of left field but dead-on pick for Verna, the femme fatale. John Turturro is appropriately slimy as Bernie, Verna's conniving brother, J.E. Freeman as Dane, Caspar's enforcer of sorts, Steve Buscemi as the weaselly Mink, and Mike Starr and Al Mancini as Caspar's on-the-street enforcers. Frances McDormand (the Mrs. Joel Coen) also has a small part as the Mayor's secretary.

Many of the usual Coen brothers touches are there. The violence isn't graphic, but it certainly jumps off the screen. A hit attempt gone wrong on Finney's Leo is a gem, the experienced Irish gangster blazing away with a stolen tommy gun, seemingly never reloading despite firing hundreds of rounds. The sound and visual is indescribable in this extended scene. For the most part, the touches are a little off though. Attempts at that very dark, even sinister, humor felt incredibly out of place and even forced at other times. Other scenes are just plain weird, like Caspar slapping his son for telling him what he had for lunch or a schlub boxer screaming like a little girl while someone else gets beaten. The story is pointed and knows where it wants to go so these outlandish attempts at the dark humor fell short for me.

I'll give credit where it's due though. Emotionally investing? Maybe not, but 'Crossing' is definitely an interesting movie. Many parts felt like the script was trying to tell us something, deliver a profound message. Symbolism is everywhere, leading many fans/viewers to make all sorts of crazy conclusions, many of them oddly related to whether all the male characters were gay. Tom's hat comes to take on a deeper meaning, but what exactly? I can't say I even have the vaguest notion. Maybe this is a movie that would drastically improve with repeat viewings, but while I moderately enjoyed it the first time, I don't see myself revisiting it very soon. I feel like I've been writing this a lot lately, but here it is again. Lots of potential, didn't quite live up to it for me.

Miller's Crossing <---trailer (1990): ** 1/2 /****

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Zero Hour!

As a stand-alone film, 1957's Zero Hour! has no real business being remembered as anything but a pretty bad B-movie full of wooden acting and poorly-made effects. Now, it's not exactly a well-known, fan favorite some 50-plus years later, but it does have a certain claim to fame. It is the source for one of the all-time great spoofs, 1980's classic Airplane! On that tidbit of trivia alone, this is a movie worth a watch....once.

It's been ten years since the end of WWII, but former fighter pilot Ted Stryker (Dana Andrews) still struggles with a command decision that cost the lives of several members of his squadron. He's been bouncing from job to job, and his wife, Ellen (Linda Darnell), is threatening to leave him. Returning from a job interview, Ted finds that Ellen has taken their son, Joey, and has left him. He tracks them down, buys a ticket on their plane with hopes of winning her back. The odds are against him though. Something happens to both the pilot and co-pilot, forcing the air crew to ask if anyone on-board can fly a plane. With some 40-odd lives at stake, can Ted pull it together and land the plane?

It's been years since I've seen Airplane! but it's hard to watch the 1957 movie without cracking up at the very premise. Maybe back in the 1950s this was looked at as a solid, entertaining thrill-ride, but now? It plays like a spoof of itself. It's high drama on steroids! The acting is atrocious -- Darnell yelling and screaming 'MOUNTAINS!' is priceless -- and you can't help but wonder why it took 23 years to make a spoof of this flick. It was ripe for the picking, and when given the chance, the 1980 spoof classic did not disappoint in the least. Robert Hays' character is even named Ted Striker, "I" instead of "Y' in this case.

What amused me is that the situation -- a passenger forced to fly the plane -- is dripping with natural tension. Anyone who's ever gotten on a plane has at least briefly thought about the possibility. If not flying the plane, at least something out of the ordinary happening. So right off the bat, there is that tension watching the movie. You're thousands of feet up in the air, and your life depends on some schlub taken from his seat to fly an airliner? So yes, there is some excitement in the movie. But there is too much working against it. Besides the main cast, it appears they picked people off the street to read lines. At different points, you can see cast members apparently looking off screen to read cue cards. The music is blaring at you in the most obvious of fashion -- DUN DUN DUH!!!!! -- that something bad is going to happen, and we see the same effects repeatedly of the plane flying through fog, clouds and rain.

So here's the situation. You've got a former fighter pilot in a life and death situation being talked down by a airliner pilot who used to fly with him and still holds a grudge. How about we pick two of the most wooden, nondescript actors to play those parts? It's a story that literally revolves around life and death. It sounds like logical thinking, don't you think? God bless them both, but Andrews and Sterling Hayden were not good choices for these parts. Andrews was a likable enough actor on screen, but he's not one to carry a movie. Hayden as Captain Martin Treleaven, the on-the-ground link to the possibly doomed plane, is an equally poor choice. Basically no matter the part, Hayden had one pitch to his voice; deep and stilted, no real emotion. So when he's yelling at Stryker to "PULL UP! YOU'RE TOO LOW!" it isn't dramatic, it's funny. For me at least, that ruins any of the tension or drama the story naturally builds up.

It's not just the fault of the two stars in Andrews and Hayden. The whole story and execution comes across as ridiculous. The pilot (pro football player Elroy Hirsch) and co-pilot, along with many of the passengers, become deathly ill because they eat contaminated fish as opposed to the regular "meat" option for dinner. Could it happen? Sure, but it sounds nuts. Oh, no, contaminated fish! There's also the screaming hysterical woman who needs to be slapped at the slightest bit of turbulence, the passenger (Jerry Paris) who uses a hand puppet to calm down the Stryker boy, the doctor (Geoffrey Toone) who is freakishly calm and knows everything, and the stalwart stewardess (Peggy King) who is the main culprit reading her cue cards.

Everything almost from the start comes across as half-baked. And a broken marriage being saved because the husband finally faced his fears? Oh, that's sweet. I was very surprised to see the high rating (6.8 as I write this) at IMDB, mostly because I thought it was unintentionally hilarious. It could and probably should have worked as high drama, but instead it produces laughs....lots of them. Good to watch once, mostly to see all the inspirations for the much better and intentionally funny Airplane! It is worth sticking around for Hayden's final line, a classic delivery in the lack of emotion department considering what's just happened.

Zero Hour! <---TCM clips (1957): **/****

Friday, May 11, 2012


I knew the name if not his work necessarily. David Mamet has done a bit of everything in Hollywood from writing to directing to producing. Whatever he is doing though, I can say this. Even with my little knowledge or background info, I knew that Mamet is a talented if eccentric guy. Playing on some genre conventions that will no doubt seem very familiar at times, Mamet directs the simply-titled 2001 film, Heist.

While pulling off an intricate diamond exchange robbery with his team, veteran thief Joe Moore (Gene Hackman) is caught on a security camera and plans to retire from the business. His plans are brought to a halt though when his fence, Mickey Bergman (Danny DeVito), refuses to share his half of the take from the diamond robbery. He'll give him the money, provided he takes on one more job. Everything is set down to the smallest details for the job -- robbing an airplane of a heavy shipment of Swiss gold -- but Joe smells a rat. It seems too easy, especially when Mickey insists his nephew, Jimmy Silk (Sam Rockwell), "tag along" to keep an eye on things. It won't be easy getting out unscathed, but an old pro like Joe has some tricks too.

No matter the talent -- or lack of -- I'll sit down and watch a heist film. Almost always there is some attempt to throw a new wrinkle into the familiar genre, what new job/scheme can be pulled off against the odds? Mamet doesn't go for that new wrinkle, sticking with the old reliables and doing it well. We see familiar characters -- the thief on his last job, his long-time partner, the smooth-talking con man, the shady fence, the femme fatale -- and familiar situations throughout. 'Heist' isn't interested in a BIG story with a huge scale. It stays on a more personal level and has a more believable feel. A shootout is quick and violent, betrayals come left and right, and there's always a twist around the next corner. Subdued or understated isn't the right word, but it's a professionally done story that knows where it wants to get.

I'll save the flaws for later, but the positives are obvious; namely, the cast. No matter the role, I'll give Gene Hackman a chance, and he rarely disappoints. His character -- the veteran thief doing his last job -- is the definition of a stock character we've seen countless times before, but Hackman breathes some new life into that familiar part. I especially liked his partnership with Delroy Lindo's Bob Blane, another experienced, fiery thief who works with Joe like a brother. There few scenes together (just them) provide the most memorable, enjoyable scenes in the whole movie. Also on Joe's team are Rebecca Pidgeon (Mrs. Mamet) as Fran, Joe's wife, and Ricky Jay as Pinky, the chubby, fast-talking con artist who can do a little bit of everything. DeVito and Rockwell (sporting a porno-esque mustache) are solid villains, DeVito's Mickey hamming it up a bit in the sinister intensity department, Rockwell the more sly bad guy. A lot of talent here that all works well together.

So what then goes wrong here? I really can't put my finger on it for sure. I was never bored, enjoyed it all the way to the end, and would recommend it.....but. Yeah, it's missing something, something that stops it from being a great or even just a really good movie. As is, it's a good movie and nothing more. Is it too familiar? Maybe, but that can't be it. It is definitely a movie that might improve on second and multiple viewings. At times, the acting is a little over-dramatic -- almost comical in its delivery -- and Hackman's Joe could possibly be the world's smartest man the way he sees betrayals coming and dances around them. No one...could be that smart, I don't care how "experienced" you are. In being clever though, some major plotholes developed, ones that didn't quite make sense. There are times the movie knows it's smart, well-written and clever. That's the risk you play with movies like this. It knows it is all those things and wants to show how smart and clever it is.

Still, it's a heist movie and a pretty decent one at that. The opening heist in the diamond/jewelry exchange is a gem (yes, pun intended), quick and to the point in its effectiveness. The same goes for the heist of the airliner packed with gold. The build-up is intense in its quietness, as is the heist. Very little dialogue is used at all in the extended sequence which is unique in its setting. How many on-the-tarmac heists have you seen? I can honesty say 'One.' The twists and turns and betrayals get to be a little much in the last 30 minutes, but the ending -- especially the final shot -- is particularly memorable. So what to say about this one? Flawed, but in a good way.

Heist <---trailer (2001): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Key

As a movie lover, Turner Classic Movies has been invaluable to me over the years. I've been introduced to movie stars, unknown classics, American, English, French, Japanese and many more types of movies. But every so often, their website cracks me up. Take 1958's The Key for example. The plot description aptly and appropriately stated 'The key to a woman's apartment may hold bad luck for her lovers.' All true, but what did it leave out? That whole WWII backdrop thing....if that means anything.

More than just a World War II setting, this Carol Reed-directed story is a unique, different WWII setting. Little background heading into that ever-important plot description. It isn't on the battlefield or even the home front, but somewhere in between. It is early in the war (1940 and 1941) and the North Atlantic is full of ships, the German U-boats wreaking havoc on Allied shipping. Because of these attacks, many ships are unable to sail to port, often severely damaged and desperately needing assistance. Enter the basically defenseless tug boats who's job it is to bring them in, the U-boats waiting to strike again. And on with that plot thing....

An American who volunteered with the Canadian Army, Capt. David Ross (William Holden) has been reassigned and given a command in the British Navy. He will co-command a tugboat that rescues handicapped Allied ships, a dangerous task considering his boat has one ancient gun and no armor. Ross immediately meets Capt. Chris Ford (Trevor Howard), an old friend and commander of another tugboat in the outfit. They hit it off right away, the old friends reuniting. In passing though, Chris hands Ross a key to his flat, telling him that if anything happens to him, he can move into the apartment. The only issue? A young woman named Stella (Sophia Loren) lives there too. The situation strikes Ross as particularly odd. What isn't Chris telling him, if anything?

From the few Reed movies I've seen -- from his classic The Third Man to lesser known films like The Running Man -- it's easy to see the British director is so highly respected. As a filmmaker, he's a step above most other directors. Anyone can point a camera at the action and call it a day. He goes for more than that, and 'Key' is certainly an example of that. As I mentioned before, the WWII backdrop is an essential part of the story, but the TCM description is spot-on too without even mentioning the war. So in the end, this is a WWII story with a quasi-love triangle (and more) where death hovers above the characters waiting for a chance to strike. It refuses to be pigeon holed at any point, seemingly reveling in its different qualities. Hard to compare to anything else, but it's a movie I very much enjoyed.

SPOILERS STOP READING SPOILERS The "twist" of sorts is that Loren's Stella is apparently some sort of angel of death. Her husband was a tugboat captain but was killed at sea. Her apartment was up for grabs then -- exact details and background are fuzzy -- but another sailor/tugboat captain moved in. He was was the next one, and then Howard's Ford moves in. Can you see where this is going? Reed plays up this angle for all it's worth. Yes, it is a love story set in WWII England, but it is also much more than that. As I watched, I couldn't help but think this was an extended, feature length episode of The Twilight Zone. That was a compliment by the way. I love that show.

Reed builds up those creepier elements, all the little things coming together to work together perfectly. Much of composer Malcolm Arnold's score sounds exactly like his score from The Bridge on the River Kwai, but then he uses a soft, eerie score that will send shivers up your back in certain scenes. Loren plays Stella almost like an apparition, a ghost. She can sense when her lovers' time is up, asking if she can go to the dock to say goodbye to them. Because of the job of the captains and its inherent risk, death is prevalent, but she knows when it's coming. Reed uses his camera here as a mood-setting, tilting it off to one way or another, aggressively zooming in and out at the action and dialogue. They are just little things that don't drastically affect anything about the story, but at the same time, it is subtle in its effectiveness.

From his spot behind the camera, Reed almost always had impressive casts to work with, and 'Key' is no different. This was Holden at the top of his game, and he doesn't disappoint. It isn't smooth, charming William Holden. This is an underrated acting performance for him. He's scared, angry and upset at the futility of what they do, finding a friend in Chris and possibly more in Stella. Howard plays against type to a point, getting a chance to ham it up a bit. It is a dark part (his "None of us will make it out alive" line speaking volumes), but it is a character that intends to take advantage of whatever time he has left. This is also the first Loren part I've seen that didn't glam her up. She's a beautiful woman, but that's not the focus of the part. She is traumatized, depressed and confused with what the world has thrown at her. Loren does a great job with the part, showing off her dramatic ability when given a chance to be only an actress with eye candy possibility.

Also look for Kieron Moore as Kane, Chris' weary second-in-command, Oskar Homolka as Capt. Van Dam, Ross' fellow commander of the tugboat they share, switching off missions back and forth, Bernard Lee as Commander Wadlow, the officer in charge of his unlikely fleet of tugboats, and Bryan Forbes as Weaver, Ross' second-in-command trying to help out in whatever way he can.

I don't want to give the impression that I liked this movie solely because it was different although that certainly helped. It is a genuinely good story and film, aided by Reed's direction and the acting performances from a very talented cast. Different? Yes, but for all the right reasons.

The Key <---TCM trailer/clips (1958): ***/****