The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Friday, September 28, 2012

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Even re-reading my review for 2009's Sherlock Holmes, I still can't quite put my finger on it. I liked the movie, but there were parts of it that just didn't work for me. It's a little schizophrenic, a lot nutty, and was missing that special element that turns a good movie into a very good one. So what's the difference then with its recent sequel, 2011's Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows? Heck if I know, but I liked it a lot.

It's 1891, and a series of bombings across France and Germany have Europe on edge with countries teetering on the brink of war. Everyone has their theories about the reasoning for the bombings. Terrorists? Anarchists? Assassins? Quirky and eccentric London detective Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) has been feverishly investigating the bombings and has come up with his own theory. A brilliant professor, Moriarty (Jared Harris), is Holmes' main suspect, but Holmes has no proof other than his own wild theories. With the help of his soon to be married loyal sidekick, Watson (Jude Law), Holmes goes about getting that evidence in a case that will have them traveling all over Europe and in all sorts of hijinks.

What's throwing me off here is a criminally simplistic issue. There is little difference overall between the 2009 film and this 2011 sequel. Director Guy Ritchie did a very capable job with the original as he does here. The two movies are almost identical lengths (129 to 128 minutes) and have the same look, feel and tone. All I can come up with is a somewhat more pointed feel to the proceedings. The action isn't so ridiculous. It isn't trying to be hysterically funny, just funny. The scope isn't IMMENSE. Even when a war among European countries looms, the point of view is on a personal level (i.e. Sherlock and Watson) and for me at least, more effective.

It is Guy Ritchie though, and it's got a certain charm and style unto itself. The look of the movie is great, 1890s Europe with its own unique look. It has a cluttered, busy look, but it works with the semi-schizo nature here. One of the best things going is Hans Zimmer's score. As needed, it's big and booming like a historical epic/period piece should be. The most memorable sample though is the main theme, or as I always think of it...Sherlock's theme which you can listen to HERE. It is the perfect quirky, eccentric theme for a quirky, eccentric hero. Yes, overall the script and story is too smart/clever for its own good at times with countless reveals of things we didn't know need to be revealed. Much more than the first movie though, I just had more fun watching this one.

That is no doubt easily chalked up to the continued success in casting. Robert Downey Jr. is one of my favorite actors, and he does a great job bringing Holmes to life. Again, this isn't the prim and proper Englishman. Downey's Holmes is quirky, eccentric, offbeat, brilliant, obsessively observant, and always one step ahead of his rivals. Law's Watson is the perfect sidekick; intelligent, smart and wise but in a way completely different from Holmes. The duo is basically the original Odd Couple. Holmes is upset that Watson is getting married (to Kelly Reilly from the original) and doesn't hide his feelings. Their friendship is basically a perfect match, the two longtime friends arguing like an old married couple. Noomi Rapace is wasted as Sim, a gypsy along for the ride with the duo. Harris is okay as the villain with Paul Anderson as his sharpshooting henchman. Rachel McAdams and Eddie Marsan briefly reprise their roles from the original with Stephen Fry playing Holmes' classier brother.

With a story that's all over the place and never really slows down, some set pieces stand out from the rest. The running gag of Holmes seeing and analyzing what's about to happen...and then doing exactly what he saw is used just the right amount. Not too little, not too much. A running chase/fight in a London casino with a Cossack assassin is impressive as is a chase and gunfight through a Moriarty-owned factory in France with some explosive results. The finale doesn't disappoint either as Holmes and Moriarty finally confront each other. End result? 'Shadows' knows when to tap the brakes where the original was more aggressively in your face. It makes all the difference.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows <---trailer (2011): ***/****

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Shallow Grave

With Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, British director Danny Boyle has put himself on a mainstream map where his name has some pull with audiences. In 1994 though, he was making his directorial debut with none of that recognition. His 1994 film Shallow Grave is a doozy, one that changed his career and sent the British film industry down a detoured path.

Three friends, Alex (Ewan McGregor), David (Christopher Eccleston) and Juliet (Kerry Fox), share an apartment in Edinburgh, Scotland and are looking to take in a fourth roommate. They finally decide on Hugo (Keith Allen), a somewhat mysterious but interesting man about their age, and he moves in quickly. Just a few days later, the trio finds Hugo dead in his room of a drug overdose. More interesting? Alex finds a suitcase packed to the gills with cash. What to do now? The three flatmates decide to dispose of the body -- removing his hands and feet, smashing his skull to pieces -- in a grave in the woods and keep the money for themselves. What seems simple though is far from it as these three soon discover.

Setting the stage for his hit two years later in Trainspotting, Boyle's 'Shallow' is certainly different from just about any movie I've ever seen. The amateur crime aspect is nothing new, but Boyle handles it in ways you wouldn't normally think. He doesn't shy away from the brutality of what they're doing and their repercussions. Some reviews list it as a dark/black comedy, and even though I didn't laugh much, it reminded me somewhat in tone of the dark humor the Coen brothers so often use in dealing with nasty subjects.

As Fox explained it in the special features, this is a movie different from most people's perceptions of a "British movie." It isn't dark, dreary and bleak....well, in visuals at least. Boyle is a very visual conscious director. The apartment is full of bright colors, and that distinct 1990s style is prevalent all around. Alex is a hipster, David a suit-wearing accountant, Juliet a doctor and professional. The style and pacing is kinetic, all over the place, and when things hit the fan, Boyle shoots in the darkness with shadows and a minimal use of lights (flashlights, car headlights illuminating the action). The music threw me off too, from the techno-sounding opening (watch HERE) to the darker, moodier score as the "grave situation" develops. Style-wise, it's easy to see how this film changed the mood and tone of British films for years to come.

Now all that said, I didn't really care for the film much at all. I don't need to love characters -- or even like them really -- to appreciate a movie. Watching awful, despicable characters can be a selling point in a movie. Literally from the first scene here though, I hated...HATED these three main characters. We're introduced to them as they interview applicants for their fourth roommate. McGregor rips the first applicant (Colin McCredie) to pieces, and the gloves come off. They look down on applicants, ripping them to pieces with this type of yuppie-hipster pretentious attitude and within seconds I was rooting against them. To be fair, in the acting department, all three deliver solid performances. Their descent into paranoia and greed affects each of them differently, and it is cool to see that degeneration into something rather ugly.

As the story developed though, that's where I was holding out with some sort of sick hope. The second the trio decide to keep the money for themselves, you know the story won't end well for any of them. The whole tone of the movie speaks to that. But even in that regard, I was disappointed. When things come to a head late, the result is almost comical in its exaggerated depiction. There is a twist in there that works pretty well, but I was so far removed from the movie by that point it probably didn't make the expected impact. Check it out for yourself though at Youtube -- watch it HERE -- and make your own decision.

Shallow Grave <---trailer (1994): * 1/2 /****

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Cry of Battle

Made on a shoestring budget with a rogue, even amateurish feel to it, 1963's Cry of Battle is everything that a low-budget war movie should be. Unfortunately, it's also got a weird tie to history as it was the movie showing at the drive-in theater the night Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested. That minor blip on the radar aside, it's well worth a watch if you can track a copy down.

In the days following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dave McVey (James MacArthur) finds himself on his own and on the run in the Philippines. The son of a prominent American businessman who got out of the country, Dave is helped by a Filipino guerilla fighter, Careo (Leopoldo Salcedo), and goes into hiding. It is there he meets Joe Trent (Van Heflin), a land-bound sailor also on the run. Joe makes a choice that forces them to join a different Filipino guerrilla group, thrusting the duo to take an active part in the fighting as Japanese forces sweep over the island. Joe has seen the worst the world can offer, but Dave has led a shielded life, until now at least.

Shot on location in the Philippines and almost always on a small, personal scale, 'Cry' has that distinct look and feel of renegade filmmaking styles. This is not a polished, manicured Hollywood war film. It is down and dirty, right in the mud with the guerrilla fighters. All those things can be a detriment to a lot of movies when handled poorly/incorrectly, but here it serves as a bonus. Director Irving Lerner used a mostly Filipino cast and crew, and the jungle locations give an authentic feel to the jungle fighting the islands saw during WWII. The music is kept in the background and to a minimum, the focus staying on the rather nasty elements of war.

It is in those rather nasty elements that 'Cry' amounts to a surprisingly dark, surprisingly effective war story. Two years before the U.S. was officially involved in Vietnam, it takes a low-budget, small scale WWII movie to show the outright brutality of war. More than that, it's a take on survival in war. Heflin's Joe at different points rapes a Filipino girl, uses his poker winnings to buy Dave a night with a prostitute, and sets up his own men in an ambush. Rita Moreno's character, Sisa, is a young Filipino woman who attaches herself to whoever can care for her. A rather blunt conversation about her being a whore is highly effective and far ahead of its time. Mostly though, this isn't a war story interested in the glory or heroism of war. It's war, and horrific things happen. Wounded soldiers kill themselves rather than be captured, and in general, death hovers over the hell of the situation. For a 1963 war film, 'Cry' has a lot of guts to be this honest.

There isn't a weakness among the three lead performances. Heflin gets top billing as Joe Trent, the veteran sailor who is light on morals and ethics but high on survival and enjoying life (women, fighting, drinking, gambling). In Dave, he sees potential for a big reward if he can bring the young man through the war safely. A credit to Heflin's ability as an actor, Joe is a despicable human being, and through it all, there is still that tiniest sliver of likability. A Disney star growing up, MacArthur breaks free from that clean, pure, cookie-cutter role in his part as Dave, a young man forced to grow up and be a man on the fly. An odd but believable buddy relationship (father-son, brothers) develops between the two as the movie develops. Moreno too is very effective as Sisa, a young woman who saw her family and village slaughtered by Japanese troops.

In looking at the action scenes in 'Cry,' it is another case of a small budget and very few extras being a bonus. The opening scene has Dave desperately trying to escape from machete-wielding bandits. A later ambush of a Japanese supply truck is similarly effective because it is a handful of guerrilla fighters against a handful of Japanese soldiers. There is no bigger picture, just a few men on either side trying to kill each other. The last 30 minutes get away from the war story some as Joe and Dave begin to drift apart as they fight over Sisa, but it's still interesting enough and builds to a solid ending. An underrated WWII movie that deserves more of a reputation.

Cry of Battle (1963): ***/****

Monday, September 24, 2012

Doctor Zhivago

By 1965, director David Lean had already completed two of his most highly regarded and well-respected movies of his prestigious career. With 1957's The Bridge on the River Kwai and 1962's Lawrence of Arabia, Lean basically defined how a director should make a gigantic film epic. So some three years later, he followed up with 1965's Doctor Zhivago, a film I'm still digesting -- for good and bad -- some three days later.

A doctoral student who grew up with an adopted family of sorts, Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) is an aspiring poet in the early 1910s in Russia. He marries childhood friend and longtime love, Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), and starts a family. Growing up with a single mother, Lara (Julie Christie) goes through some harsh teenage years as she deals with a troubled single mother. As Russia is thrust into World War I -- the fighting eventually turning into the Russian Revolution -- Yuri (working as a doctor) and Lara (as a nurse) meet amongst the aftermath of a battle. They are instantly drawn to each other as they work side-by-side, but as the conflict escalates, this is a relationship that seems doomed to failure.

Wow, I'm not proud of that plot synopsis. It sounds like I'm reading a cheesy romance novel. Anyways, onto bigger, better and more on-point things. This is a GIGANTIC movie as one would come to expect from a David Lean epic. With locations in Spain, Canada and Finland, the scale is a pleasure to watch. Lean and cinematographer Freddie Young shoot each scene -- the snow-capped mountains, the desolate wastelands, the flower-covered plains -- like a Renaissance painting. It is a stunningly gorgeous film, one you can just sit back and experience. Composer Maurice Jarre's score won the Oscar -- rightfully so -- with Lara's Theme (listen HERE) an instantly recognizable, beautiful tune, one that you'll be humming for days. The sets are expansive, the cast numbering in the thousands with extras, and the story covers a time in history (Russia in the 1910s/1920s) that is rich with depth.

So what happens then? Why do I feel conflicted about this Lean-directed epic? In a 200-minute movie, there exists little to no story. It moves from location to location and time to time with transitions that can be jarring at times. My lack of knowledge about Russian history certainly did NOT help my enjoyment and/or appreciation of what was going on. I don't think lyrical is the right description, but it's all I'm coming up with. Story is also a word I use lightly. It isn't really a story so much as a budding relationship that develops over many years and all the people caught up and effected by it. We see snippets of a time/conflict/place, and then zip to another spot. Because of that, I never felt in tune with what was going on, feeling at times very disconnected from the plot.

And onto the cast, much easier to decipher. For one of the all-time great love stories, I didn't think much of the chemistry (or lack of) between Sharif and Christie. Omar Sharif is a very talented actor, and he does a fine job as Yuri Zhivago showing a man's flaws, imperfections and talents. Christie too as Lara is an interesting character, neither individual perfect by any means. I appreciated that. We're watching human beings, not immaculate individuals, but in terms of on-screen chemistry I was not buying Sharif and Christie as a couple that is drawn to each other in an unexplained way, not letting time or circumstances tear them apart. Christie is stunningly beautiful as Lara with Lean electing to photograph her like an angel, especially her blue, blue, BLUE eyes.

The name recognition from the supporting cast will draw in many film fans and understandably so. You don't put a cast together with the likes of Rod Steiger, Alec Guinness, Tom Courtenay, Chaplin, Klaus Kinski and Ralph Richardson together without causing a stir in the acting department. Among that group, there isn't a weak link in the bunch. Some are more impressive than others -- Steiger, Guinness, Chaplin and Kinski -- but the lack of a true, developing story hurts all of the performances. Steiger and Courtenay disappear for long stretches, only to reappear as the story requires. I just don't know how to describe this. I enjoyed the actors, enjoyed seeing their performances, but something just didn't click.

There are moments of near perfection amidst some of the rather leisurely 200-minute running time. After a sluggish first 45-60 minutes, things get flowing at a quicker, more enjoyable pace. Not surprisingly, the high points are several chaotic, impressively staged action sequences. One especially, Bolshevik cavalry charging across an ice-covered lake, stands out. An encounter between Russian replacements and Russian deserters on a wayward, desolate plain is simple in its brutality. Much of the success in these moments come from the visual that Lean and Young created. A framing device at the beginning and end with Guinness (a veteran Communist officer) interviewing a young woman (Rita Tushingham) who could be Yuri and Lara's daughter too is especially effective. The ending too goes right for the jugular, a heart-breaking ending for Yuri and Lara.

I'm torn on what to do here. I can appreciate why so many film fans adore this movie. I can also easily appreciate why some struggle to go along for the ride. Not to use a cop out, but I fall somewhere in between. I loved parts of it, liked others and struggled to go along for other portions. I love both 'River Kwai' and 'Lawrence' so Zhivago had some big shoes to fill in the expectations department, but it never quite lived up to them. Still a must-see film just for the scale and talent involved, but not the classic I was hoping it to be.

Doctor Zhivago <---trailer (1965): ** 1/2 /****

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Let's Make Love

Oh, no, here I go again doing another musical review. Okay, that's not entirely true. A comedy with musical numbers, but I'm definitely leaning more toward the musical department with this one. Drawn in by a talented cast, I nonetheless came away unimpressed with 1960's Let's Make Love. Scandalous title? I suppose people had sex in the 1950s/1960s, but do they have to rub it in our face like this?

A billionaire who has everything in the world he could ever want, Jean-Marc Clement (Yves Montand) is internationally known as quite the ladies man. He's approached by one of his PR men, Alexander Coffman (Tony Randall), with news of an off-Broadway play that's going to poke some serious fun at him. Jean-Marc wants to go check out a rehearsal, see what it's all about, but there's a hiccup. Arriving at rehearsal, two things happen. First, he is immediately struck by Amanda (Marilyn Monroe), one of the actresses, and second, he's mistaken for an impressionist of....himself. He's hired and in hopes of getting the girl, goes along with the plan to play himself. And let the hijinks and shenanigans begin!

Far more for the cast aspect than the musical, I dove headfirst into this George Cukor-directed quasi-musical. The potential early-on was certainly there, but over the course of a 119-minute movie that potential never actually left the landing pad. It has a somewhat checkered past as everyone from Gregory Peck to Yul Bynner turned down the part (find the full list HERE at Wikipedia), an uncredited Arthur Miller revised the script to give more screentime to Mrs. Arthur Miller -- Marilyn for those keeping track at home -- and oh, by the way, Monroe and Montand had on-set affair. Awkward much?

My revised stance on musicals is that if there is a worthwhile cast I should at least give it a try. Of the three names listed above though, Monroe is the only one who ends up being even remotely memorable. She sings, she dances, and once again shows that she is not just eye candy. Side note: She looks beautiful. End of side note. Monroe could act too, and not just a ditzy blonde. Montand is a little stiff for the part, and while I've liked him in everything else I've seen him in, he just isn't very likable here. Chemistry off-screen with Monroe maybe, but on-screen, I never bought their possibly budding relationship. As for Randall, it's just not his fault. He provides some laughs early on, but the script basically has his character written out in the second half. He sits and watches other people act/dance/sing. Literally. He sits there off stage and has to smile. What a waste of a very funny comedic actor.

So that potential I was talking about, huh? I thought I'd stumbled upon a hidden gem early on. The opening montage, a history of the rich but always ill-fated Clement family, is hysterical in its dark humor. Montand's face is super-imposed on images throughout the Clement history, a succession of his ancestors earning their millions and dying in some tragically funny way. The laughs sort of dry up after that opening three minutes. That's a good sign of a movie if there ever was. Also look for three cameos that make the draggy middle portions almost watchable. As Jean-Marc tries to impress Monroe's Amanda, he hires coaches in the form of Milton Berle (comedy), Bing Crosby (singing) and Gene Kelly (dancing). Playing themselves, the trio provides some much needed laughs.

Mostly though, things never click. Clocking in at just under two hours, this is a painfully slow movie. There are eight different musical numbers that aren't that bad in themselves, but when they slow up an already slow-moving story, we're in for a long ride. I'll recommend it for Monroe, Randall and the cameos -- too short though they are -- but I was bored almost from the start with this one, and it never gets better.

Let's Make Love <---trailer (1960): **/****

Friday, September 21, 2012


A singer and a performer, Elvis Presley has few rivals in terms of entertainers. He has sold millions of records and made over 30 films during his career. Of all his films though, one stands out from the rest as an oddity, and that's 1969's Charro! For starters, it's a western, Presley doesn't sing, and he even sports a beard. Oh, the horror! Not a classic, but a guilty pleasure of mine just the same.

Having separated from his gang for well over a year, Jess Wade (Presley) has struggled trying to go straight but does not want to return to his outlaw ways. His old gang, led by Vince Hackett (Victor French), isn't too pleased with his departure either and has framed Wade. Vince and the gang stole a gold-plated, silver-lined cannon from Mexico City that fired the 'victory shot' against Maximillian, but they set it up to look like Jess organized and led the robbery. Framed to look like someone else with a nasty neck wound -- courtesy of a brand in Vince's hand -- Jess must now look to clear his name and exact some revenge on Vince and the boys.

Doesn't sound much like an Elvis movie full of songs and huge dance numbers, does it? Not in the least, and that's probably why Charro! isn't remembered as one of Presley's best. For just its novelty alone in terms of the vast departure it takes from his musicals, this is a movie worth watching. Elvis does sing, but only over the opening credits, and not actually in the story. Listen to it HERE. Catchy, ain't it? By 1969, Presley was trying to mount a comeback of sorts, and this western tries to reflect the changing times. The effort was hamstrung to a point because apparently a fair share of violence and nudity were cut before it was released. Still, though it is nothing groundbreaking, I've always enjoyed this one.

According to Wikipedia (so take this for what it's worth), the role Presley took was originally offered to Clint Eastwood. With the Man with No Name playing the main character, this would have been one more late 1960s western. With Presley here, there's something oddly charming. As a dramatic actor, he will never be considered a great thespian, but as the revenge-seeking gunslinger? He's not that bad. A tad on the wooden side at times, Presley does a pretty good job with the part and handles much of his own stunts in this Charles Marquis Warren-directed western. In the tough luck department, he also has the love interest, Tracey, a well-to-do saloon and dance hall owner, played by the gorgeous Ina Balin. That must have been pretty tough.

On the whole, the movie has a lot going for it despite the average reviews and generally forgotten status. It was 1969 when it was released, and the effect of the spaghetti western was in full swing. It wasn't enough to have good guys vs. bad guys anymore. We needed anti-heroes and despicable villains who weren't concerned about innocents being killed. Composer Hugo Montenegro's score is a gem, part spaghetti western, some borrowed from his The Undefeated score the same year, and other tunes using a heavy Mexican theme. The combination covers a lot of ground, but it works well. The violence -- even if it was cut and/or edited -- is not graphic, but it's harsh, nasty stuff anyways. The look of the movie helps too from the sweat, scruff, stubble and dust on all the characters. It doesn't take much to make a western fan like me happy, and Charro! doesn't disappoint.

Other than Mr. Presley himself, the cast does not exactly jump off the screen in terms of star power. The future Mr. Edwards in Little House on the Prairie, Victor French is a particularly nasty villain. He's subtle in his evil qualities, letting the emotions fly in quick outbursts as the leader of a gang that would turn on him in a second. Balin isn't given much to do but show cleavage and look pretty unfortunately, but wouldn't you know it? She nails the part. Solomon Sturges hams it up as Billy Roy, Vince's possibly unhinged, sometimes maniacal brother while James Sikking has some fun as Gunner, a former Confederate artillery officer in Vince's gang. Tony Young has a small part as Lt. Rivera, a Mexican federale on the trail of the stolen cannon. There's some potential with Vince's gang, but they're left in the background with little to do, background players without much name recognition.

So there it is, Elvis with a beard, no guitar, and little singing in a part different from basically any other part he had. Nothing flashy, but in 1969 when westerns were all over the place, Charro! tries to keep up with the change and ends up being a fast-paced, entertaining final product. If no one else agrees, so be it. I like it. If you're a Spanish speaker, the movie is available at Youtube HERE.

Charro! <---trailer (1969): ***/****

Thursday, September 20, 2012


The timing here was interesting, two completely different types of movies, and I couldn't help but be slightly amused by it. I just recently reviewed Around the World in 80 Days, a huge scale epic that had locations around the world. Then there's this review, an entire movie set on an adrift boat at sea. I love a good epic, but an entire movie contained on one set? That's impressive. The movie is 1944's Lifeboat.

On its way to England during WWII, an Allied supply ship crewed by merchant marines is attacked by a German U-boat and sinks. Aboard a sturdy lifeboat, respected writer Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) rescues Kovac (John Hodiak), a member of the crew from the engine room. Connie tells him that the German U-boat sunk as well in all the chaos. Minutes pass and they begin to pick up other survivors until there is nine of them all told. Among them is a German sailor, Willi (Walter Slezak), who no one is sure what to make of. Should they throw him overboard or keep him as a prisoner? With food and water limited, their decision could directly affect their survival.

Do you need proof that director Alfred Hitchcock was a director far ahead of his time? First off, if you said 'yes,' shame on you. Second, this film should serve as proof....if it was some how needed. Some four years before his 1948 film Rope and 13 years before 12 Angry Men used the formula, Hitchcock films the entire movie on one set, in this case the lifeboat adrift at sea. The entire movie. There are no asides or flashbacks or anything that distracts from the very singular location. This well-made, sturdy boat ends up being a weirdly compelling additional character. By the end of the movie, you feel claustrophobic and alone. Not a lot of directors could pull this premise off successfully, but Hitchcock seems to do it with ease.

Working with an ensemble cast, Hitchcock brings together a group of actors/actresses from all walks of life with more than a few differences in background. Bankhead as Connie gets top billing and delivers a solid performance but is far from sympathetic. Hodiak brings a tough guy edge to his part as Kovac, the former slaughterhouse worker turned sailor and maybe the one thinking the clearest. Slezak ends up being Evil Incarnate as Willi, the German sailor who knows more than he is letting on. Also look for William Bendix as Gus, the lovable sailor wanting to get back to his dancing girlfriend, Mary Anderson as Alice, a young nurse nervous about reaching London, Henry Hull as Rittenhouse, a proud, self-made businessman, Hume Cronyn as Sparks, the radioman who bonds with Alice, Canada Lee as Joe, the black steward, and Heather Angel as Mrs. Higgins, a mother traveling with infant to visit her husband.

What is impressive about the film can also be a weakness depending on your point of view. Hitchcock chooses not to use any gimmicks or tricks in developing a story that clocks in at 97 minutes. There are no marauding sharks circling the boat or patrolling plane overhead. This is an ultra-personal story that is entirely contained within the confines of the boat. Because there is nothing to distract from the task at hand, this is a dialogue-heavy movie. At times, it gets to be a little much. You can only hear so many monologues about the past and how people got here, their beliefs and relationships before things get a little on the slow. When it does work though, it's great. The story gives a window into mob mentality, especially when survival is on the line. Not surprisingly, you react differently to a situation at hand when life and death hangs in the balance.

Setting the survivor story (yeah, alliteration!) during WWII was no doubt a timely one. I can't help but wonder though what the story would have been like in a more existential setting; just survivors on the open sea hoping to make it to land or rescue of some sorts. Yes, the Willi character and his sinister motives are necessary, but that could have been tweaked too. The WWII dynamic is one thing, but a solid, interesting story detours and degenerates some in the finale as a propaganda message is not to subtly blared at us as a viewing audience. Oh, Germans are bad! There was potential for a twisted, darker ending in the closing minute, but the propaganda shuts the door on that possibility. Still, it's an impressive movie, and one that's easily recommended.

Lifeboat (1944): ***/****

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Unholy Four

Have you ever met someone with amnesia? Me neither, but if we were to listen to movies and TV shows (especially 1960s sitcoms), apparently everyone and their mother has had amnesia only to snap out of it in time to wrap things up nicely. There's the serious amnesia ventures -- the Bourne movies -- and the less than serious -- a Gilligan's Island episode comes to mind -- and then there's 1970's The Unholy Four, a spaghetti western with an amnesiac main character.

As a diversion to a robbery of a stagecoach packed with gold dust, a diversion is caused across the street at the State Mental Institution. In the fiery aftermath, Chuck Mool (Leonard Mann) escapes with three other inmates. The only problem? Chuck is an amnesiac and doesn't remember a single thing about his life prior to the three years he spent in the institution. His fellow fugitives join him in looking for some answers until they find a town where Chuck is recognized. The quartet is caught in the middle now of two warring factions, the Udos, led by psychotic Tommy (Lucio Rosato), and the Caldwells, led by very skilled gunman, Joe (Helmuth Schneider). Hopefully Chuck can find the info he needs before he catches a bullet.

A little bit of a change of pace from a lot of spaghetti westerns, 'Unholy' surprised me in a lot of ways. Learned the phrase from over at the Spaghetti Western Database, but this is from a sub-genre of spaghetti westerns dubbed Autumnal Spaghettis. Instead of the scorched desert, the stories take place in gloomy, gothic-looking forests. From first-time director Enzo Barboni, it is a good mix of action and story (too much convoluted story at some points) whereas so many spaghetti westerns went down one road exclusively. Even at just 88 minutes, the story can be a tad on the slow side as revelations come to light, but I was never bored and enjoyed it until the end. Oh, and the score from Riz Ortolani is ridiculously out of place, but dammit, it sure is catchy. Listen below in the trailer link.

This was my first introduction to Mann, the young star just one year removed from his debut in 1969's The Forgotten Pistolero. He's far from your typical spaghetti lead; a little on the small side, almost pretty with his eyeliner, and a voice that doesn't sound like it has hit puberty yet. The character's background is interesting enough though to overshadow any issues I had with him. The rest of the Unholy Four are bright spots including Woody (Woody Strode, good scriptwriting, huh?), a man with immense strength and an unexplained religious background, Hondo (George Eastman), a gambler and dead shot with a rifle, and Silver (Pietro Martellanza), Woody's best friend and an expert knife thrower. None of the three are given any development so we don't know how/why they ended up in the Institution, but however you cut it, it's four pretty cool characters.

What is somewhat different here is the departure the story takes in the second half as we learn about Chuck's past, forgotten life. He is actually a Caldwell, but the Udos find him first and tell him he's an Udo. Clever, huh? Now it's just a matter of time before they can have Chuck unknowingly kill his own father (Schneider). Rosato's name -- Tom Udo -- is the same as Richard Widmark's iconic character in Kiss of Death, odd choice there. Some other key players include Sheila (Ida Galli), Chuck's former love, Giuseppe Lauricella as the elder Udo, and Alain Naya as Alan, Chuck's revenge-seeking brother. Lots going on in that second half -- more drama than action -- with the whole Prodigal son angle, the amnesia, betrayals, backstabbings and even some incest undertones. It's got it all!

I enjoyed the whole movie, but the end especially doesn't disappoint. The opening diversionary jail break, an encounter between the Four and a gang of five bounty hunters, both are small-scale but expertly put together action scenes. The finale though is the best, Chuck and Co. putting it all together for good against a waiting army of gunmen in an empty street. Nothing spectacular overall, but a highly entertaining spaghetti western that isn't ever mentioned with the best. You can watch the entire movie HERE at Youtube.

The Unholy Four <---trailer (1970): ***/****

Monday, September 17, 2012

Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

There are epics, and then there are EPICS. In the age of such immense, gigantically-scaled films of the 1950s and 1960s, studios pulled out all the stops in hopes of impressing moviegoers. Huge all-star casts with thousands of extras, lavish sets and costumes, and in general, a sight to behold on the big screen. Some movies were just made for a viewing that only a full-size movie theater can offer, like 1956's Around the World in 80 Days.

It is the 1870s and new technological advances have made travel to far-off places not only possible but quicker, more efficient, and more entertaining. A prim and proper Englishman, Phileas Fogg (David Niven), even boasts to his fellow members of the Reform Club that he can travel completely travel around the world in just 80 days. The club members laugh at the thought, but Fogg maintains his stance and a bet is born. With a significant amount of money on the line, Fogg and his assistant/valet, Passepartout (Mexican actor Cantinflas), embark on a journey around the world against the clock with no idea of what will be actually thrown their way during their adventurous travels.

If you were trying to define what an old-school Hollywood epic is to someone who didn't know, this would be a great start. Filming in locations around the world from Japan, the U.S., Thailand, Spain, England, France, Pakistan and China, '80 Days' is a true visual stunner. The screen is filled with incredible locations packed to the gills with the cast and then hundreds and thousands of extras behind them. Director Michael Anderson filmed with a Todd-AO technique, an ultra-widescreen filming process that makes certain shots look like epically wide panoramic shots. I was impressed watching the film on my 32-inch TV. I can only imagine what this film would look like on a movie screen. As well, composer Victor Young's score (which won an Oscar) is light-hearted and fun, keeping the travels moving.

It is hard to criticize this movie on its technical levels. It is far easier to criticize the movie for basically everything else. Oh, didn't see that twist coming, did you? All that epic quality comes at the expense of character, story and any sort of development involving either of those. This is a movie you appreciate, just sit back and enjoy it. The widescreen filming process is a sight to behold, but they become tedious by the 11th or 12th such long shot of a mountain vista, train running down a track, Cantinflas fighting a bull. Yes, I get it. On visuals alone, this is a stunningly beautiful movie. But at almost three-hours long, it feels like nothing more than an extended world travel guide. There never is even the slightest sense of urgency to the 80 day deadline until the final 10 minutes. Instead we get the visual, Niven's Fogg paying someone to right a wrong, then another nature shot.

I'll go into more depth about the supporting cast of thousands in a bit, but let's start with the lead performances. David Niven is one of my favorite actors, but I came away disappointed here. His Fogg is the definition of a prim and proper Englishman. He's even asked 'Why must you be so British?' at one point. At no point though does he actually look interested in bringing the part to life. To me, Niven look bored, and that's tough to say as a fan. Famed Mexican actor Cantinflas sure takes some grief for his part as Passepartout, but I thought he did a fine job with his limited grasp of English. His bit with Red Skelton is a highlight, the duo shoveling food into the others mouth in a very funny routine. Other bigger parts include Shirley MacLaine oddly cast as an Indian princess traveling with Fogg and Passepartout, and Robert Newton as Mr. Fix, a bank investigator trailing Fogg who's convinced the Englishman is an infamous bank robber.

Then there's the cameos, a long list that must put even The Greatest Story Ever Told to shame. Take a deep breath, and here goes. Look out for Finlay Currie, Robert Morley, Noel Coward, Trevor Howard, John Gielgud, Charles Boyer, Gilbert Roland, Cesar Romero, Cedric Hardwicke, Peter Lorre, George Raft, Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra, John Carradine, Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown, Andy Devine, Victor McLaglen, John Mills and Glynis Johns among others. I include those names because I recognized them in the cast, not because I necessarily saw them in the actual film. They are the 'blink and you'll miss them' type of cameos to the point many don't even register. Sinatra is shown over his shoulder three times and then turns and smiles. Mind you, he doesn't even say anything. He SMILES. That's it. Yes, it's fun seeing all these actors/actresses together but give them something to do.

This is a tough one to review in the end. It's too long, downright dull at times, a visual treat to watch, and a movie experience unlike any other. It's flaws though are crippling. '80 Days' may be three-hour longs but because of its schizo, hyper kinetic energy that bounces all over the place, it feels significantly longer and has not aged well over the years. A movie to be appreciated for its positives for what it does amount to, even if I won't be watching it again anytime soon. Okay, maybe in a movie theater.

Around the World in 80 Days <---trailer (1956): ** 1/2/****         

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Dilemma

The movie just didn't seem to go with the name. Ron Howard directing this kind of comedy? It just didn't seem up to his reputation or directing ability. This is the guy who directed Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon, Cinderella Man, and now he's behind a goofy-looking comedy? That was my mindset heading into 2011's The Dilemma.

Going back to their days in college, Ronny (Vince Vaughn) and Nick (Kevin James) have been best friends through thick and thin to the point where they're now business partners. A huge deal with Chrysler looms, transitioning electric motors into recognizable, respected muscle cars. Everything about their business hangs in the balance and both are appropriately nervous, making Ronny's discovery that much more awkward. One day Ronny sees Nick's wife, Geneva (Winona Ryder), on a date with another man. What should he do? If so, how? Should he keep it secret? Uh-oh, decisions, decisions.

As I'm noticing more and more with big budget comedies, I felt duped by this one. Whether it was commercials, trailers or even the DVD cover, 'Dilemma' was billed and advertised as a goofy -- even stupid -- comedy with some over the top slapstick humor that made light of....well, cheating on your spouse. It isn't. Plain and simple, it just isn't. The attempts at humor don't always work, and some are so far overdone that they can be painful to watch. Lame attempts at laughs aside, it's darker than advertised, significantly darker.

And that's where 'Dilemma' struggles to get any footing. As talented a director as Howard is, he goofed here in a big way. Make a stupid, goofy, light-hearted comedy that has no basis in real life or go the complete opposite direction and go so impossibly dark that you will feel bad for laughing. Instead, it stays in that messy middle ground where it can't be either. The sad thing is that early on I was at least mildly enjoying the story. I was enjoying it more as a sort of personal drama -- hold the laughs -- but it takes a detour for the highly obvious. Vaughn's Ronny having an epic showdown with Zip (Channing Tatum), the "rock star" sleeping with Geneva, is bizarre in nature, so over the top that it ceases to be funny. The same goes later for Ronny's speech at an anniversary party. No basis in reality, no sense of any chance of this actually happening.

Watching the story degenerate as it did, I was encouraged by the characters and the talent involved. The characters are dark, and no one's perfect even as we learn more about their backgrounds. No one is faultless here. For the most part Vaughn is able to tone down his motor-mouth self and ends up being a pretty decent lead. James is a good counter to him, a friendship between the two men believable. Ryder seems dead-set on playing Evil Incarnate while Jennifer Connelly is given little to do as Ronny's long-time girlfriend who's gone through some rough patches with him. Queen Latifah has some funny scenes too as Ronny and Nick's Chrysler liaison with some odd sexual metaphors for their business agreement.

Because there's not much else to rip and/or praise, I can say Howard did a great job picking Chicago as his story's location. As a resident, I can say it is a city that just looks good on the big screen. Much of 'Dilemma' was filmed on-location, and the movie is boosted by it. We get some cool shots of downtown, not to mention a couple ventures to a Blackhawks game including a funny ending. Locations aside though, the movie is tolerable at best unfortunately.

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

Friday, September 14, 2012

Morning Departure

To quote Seinfeld's George Costanza, "Can't I be a shore guy?" I watch movies about the Navy or the Coast Guard and give those gents a lot of credit. Big bodies of open water and me just don't agree, but silly me, I keep watching those movies. So as an individual who just don't like bodies of water, movies that show maritime disasters? Yeah, I'm fairly uncomfortable watching them, like the underrated 1950 movie, Morning Departure.

Several years removed from the end of WWII, Lt. Commander Armstrong (John Mills) has remained in command of the Trojan, a British sub crewed by veterans and youngsters alike. A 12-year veteran of the Navy, Armstrong is feeling pressure from his wife to leave that life behind and settle down with a not so dangerous job, but first he make take the Trojan out on an annual exercise. So with his first officer, Lt. Manson (Nigel Patrick), and crew, Armstrong takes the Trojan out only to strike disaster. The sub accidentally collides with a mine that's been drifting at sea for years and sinks to the ocean floor with 12 survivors. Armstrong holds out hope they will be found, but can he hold his crew together until then?

Based off a stage play, 'Departure' is a prime example of the quality British war movies made in the 15-20 years following the end of World War II. They typically lacked the immense scale and sheer size of many American movies, but they equaled that out with an emotional link. It isn't always impressive to the eye, but more on the personal level. We feel what these survivors are going through. Lt. Cmdr. Armstrong can send four men through one chute to the surface, four men through another, leaving four to sit on the ocean floor waiting to be salvaged in a process that could take a week. Uncomfortable much? The situation on its own is completely uncomfortable. When you're invested in the characters, it is that much worse.

Those individuals are somewhat borrowed from the War Movies Stock Characters list, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Familiar can be okay when handled right. Mills is one of my favorite actors, and his lead performance as Armstrong -- solid, resolute, a calming effect on his men -- is perfect for the role. Patrick's Lt. Manson is the ladies man, but more importantly, he's a good officer standing at Armstrong's side. A past incident from WWII lingers on his mind, making an impact on their waiting rescue. A young 27-year old Richard Attenborough is given a chance to do his thing and doesn't disappoint playing Snipe, a young seaman with a wandering wife back home. Faced with a perilous situation in the definition of a claustrophobic situation, he finds out who he really is. Also look for Bernard Lee as Commander Gates, the high-ranking officer leading the rescue effort for his possibly lost ship, Kenneth More as his adjutant, Lt. James, and James Hayter as Higgins, the veteran submariner and cook for the Trojan.

Director Roy Ward Baker does a great job here not only setting up the story but also executing it successfully. It's clear early on that this "routine afternoon exercise" will no go smoothly (thanks for making me cynical, Gilligan's Island.), but seeing it happen is no less troubling to watch. Stories of survivors waiting to be rescued can be tricky then because basically we're watching people sit around waiting. It's here though we get to know some of these characters on a more personal level, making their struggles more personal to watch. The rescue effort on the high seas with weather and tides a factor is interesting to watch, building to an ending that I certainly didn't see coming. Moving, highly effective surprise ending at that.

One other thing worth mentioning, 'Departure' was made just months prior to an accident with a British submarine -- the HMS Truculent -- that cost the lives of some 60 people. The film had been made with Navy backing but was still almost withdrawn because of its similarities to the real-life incident. The movie was released though and was the better for it. There's some great footage of the Trojan and all the rescue ships, not to mention some cool underwater footage as some survivors make it to the surface and another scene where a diver heads down to get in contact with the Trojan. Underrated, not hugely well known movie, but an above average one worth seeking out.

Morning Departure <---Movie @ Youtube (1950): ***/****

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Mechanic (2011)

Jason Statham is an action star, not an actor. That's not a dig no matter how it sounds. He plays an almost identical role from movie to movie; quiet, intense, loner anti-hero who says little but can take you out with any variety of weapons, improvised or not. As I watched one of his latest offerings, the unnecessary but mindlessly entertaining 2011's The Mechanic, that's all I could think of. He's Charles Bronson meets Chuck Norris meets any number of other action stars. No what you're watching with him, and you will normally enjoy a point.

Working for a mysterious agency with seemingly infinite funds available to them, Arthur Bishop (Statham) is the best at what he does. His job? He's a mechanic; a man who takes assignments, researches them, fixes them and gets the job done. Translation = He's a hit man, and there are none better. Finally though, he's given a task that hits him the wrong way; Bishop must kill Harry McKenna (Donald Sutherland), his longtime employer who's been accused of turning on the agency. Testing his loyalty, Bishop goes through with it only to run into Steve McKenna (Ben Foster) soon after. Through some combination of guilt, regret and confusion, Bishop takes Steve under his wing, teaching him all he knows about pulling off a successful hit.

First off, this movie -- as mentioned earlier -- is completely unnecessary. It is a remake of a cult classic from 1972 (same title) starring Charles Bronson and Jan Michael Vincent that is oddly perfect in that 1970s B-movie quality. Why touch it? Why remake it? I suppose someone said 'Why not?' So with that said, let's move on. To his credit, director Simon West commits to this movie. It is a no frills action story, brutal in its depiction of violence, not subtle in its random sex scenes, and generally has the feel of a 1970s crime thriller. New Orleans and the surrounding swamps serve as the background, a gritty down South feel permeating the story. It doesn't try to be anything profound, groundbreaking or new. That's all great, but it begs the question I so often ask when watching a remake of a movie that didn't need to be remade.....why?

If you're a fan of the original with Bronson, you will no doubt enjoy this one to a point. If you haven't seen it, who knows, maybe you will like it more. The only change in the tone of the story is the agency Bishop works for. 'Mechanic' thankfully does not try to make Bishop a hero, but at the same time, he's not just a hitman. His targets end up being the scum of the Earth, people who deserve to get killed including a pedophile rival hitman and a corrupt TV evangelical preacher. Just have him kill lots and lots of really bad dudes. Don't try and shove a message down my throat. He's a badass. Leave it at that.

Remaking the Bronson original, it is only fitting then that Statham is cast in the titular role. I'm not saying Jason Statham is Charles Bronson, but there are certain similarities in the roles they played. Neither is ever talkative on-screen, and there is a coldness and natural brutality and callousness in their performances. That translates well playing a hit man who knows the ins and outs of everything about his business. A clean kill, make it look like an accident, send a message, Statham's Bishop can do it all. Channeling some other movie hit men that have come before him, Statham makes his character stoic, almost monk-like who meticulously prepares for his next assignment. Prone to overacting at times, Foster is a good counter to Statham's quietness. He tones it down some while still managing to get a few good laughs from some dark, dark humor. Sutherland's part amounts to a cameo so it's cool to see him but little else with Tony Goldwyn playing Dean, Arthur's employer and contact for assignments.

The one thing I was genuinely looking forward to here was how the 2011 version handled the ending. The 1972 version is a classic in its shock value. Well, I have to say I think I'm losing my mind when it comes to botched endings. 'Mechanic' goes for that similar ending -- still effective even knowing what's coming -- and then taps the brakes similar to what Oliver Stone did in this summer's Savages. Why do directors feel the need to tweak nearly perfect endings? Does everything have to be wrapped up nicely in a bow? Here, it is a quick scene that throws a stupid twist our way, reversing what could have been a great ending. But no, we're forced to have it all end pleasantly. Overall, I came away entertained somewhat but mostly unimpressed. Technically, it's a good enough movie, but it never really gives us a reason to enjoy it.

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

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Words

It's September, and for a moviegoing audience, you know what that means. It's that time of the year in between the summer blockbuster and the award season. Translated? Time to dump the crappy movies in theaters that don't fit anywhere else. Thin pickings in other words, but if you're looking for a worthwhile venture, try 2012's The Words.

With several years of struggles and rejection letters to show for his work, Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) is at a career crossroads of sorts as an aspiring writer. He lives in NYC with his wife, Dora (Zoe Saldana), hoping to write the novel that will put his name on the literary map. Finally, Rory gets his chance. In a hidden panel of a briefcase he carries, Rory finds an unpublished story that is profound and perfect in its message. Wanting nothing more than to become a respected writer, Rory turns in the transcript as his own and fame and accolades follow. "His" novel opens all sorts of doors until one day, an old man (Jeremy Irons) confronts him, claiming the story is his own. What should, or can Rory do?

That's the most streamlined plot description I can come up with because for lack of a better description....this is a gimmick movie. It is actually a story within a story within a story. Confused much? Don't be, I'm making it more complicated than necessary. Rory's story though is actually that of a novel written by acclaimed novelist Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid), doing a reading of the story for a captive audience. As Clay reads the story, we see the story of Rory, Dora and the plagiarized novel. On top of that, we also get the Old Man's background, Irons explaining to Rory how his story came to be. Maybe gimmick isn't an appropriate description, but it's not enough you see a story like this. Confusing? No, not once you get in rhythm. A little odd? Yes, but acceptable as long as I kept reminding myself what was going on.

So with that gimmick, your enjoyment will come from how much you're willing to go along with that twisting story. The Quaid portion was the least interesting for me. His Hammond must deal with an adoring fan (Olivia Wilde) who knows everything about him, bordering on stalker territory. A minor issue here; Hammond's novel he reads from has the simplicity of a Dick and Jane story. 'Rory likes Dora...Rory and Dora move in together...Rory and Dora get married.' The Rory and Dora relationship is some familiar territory if predictable, but it's interesting to watch the moral dilemma develop in Rory's eyes. The highlight though in a too short late 1940s post WWII Paris is Irons' story of how he originally wrote his novel that Rory claims as his own.

Across the three stories though, the casting is solid to above average. Cooper is showing he can do a wide variety of roles -- drama, action, comedy -- and doesn't disappoint as the aspiring writer. What he does through his actions are despicable, but his head and heart start tearing away at him almost immediately. Saldana as the loving wife who wants what's best for her husband is well-cast as well. Quaid is acceptable in a workmanlike role that doesn't give him much to do while Wilde is subtle but more than a little creepy. Jeremy Irons as the unnamed Old Man is the highlight though, his deep, scratchy voice bringing the movie up a notch. Also look for J.K. Simmons as Rory's dad, Zeljko Ivanek as Rory's publisher/editor, Ben Barnes as Irons as a young man, and Nora Arnezeder as his wife, Celia.

Where 'Words' struggles some is the end. In a story about personal integrity, morals and ethics, how one bad decision can derail the lives of so many, of paying for that mistake or skating by, 'Words' doesn't how to end. It doesn't always know how to get there either. At just 96 minutes, the last 30 minutes drags as Rory decides what to do about his dilemma. There's also some twists and turns in the Quaid storyline, but it's an open-ended finale. Now all that said I enjoyed this movie, the story and the performances. It's refreshing to see a story-driven movie without a ton of sex, violence, drugs and explosions. Gotta take your chances when you can get them.

The Words <---trailer (2012): ***/****

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Having died in 2004 from a heart attack at age 50, author Stieg Larsson never saw his trilogy of novels and the success they've had unfortunately. Originally published in Swedish, the 'Girl' trilogy has become a worldwide hit, and has even been turned into a Swedish movie trilogy, and hopefully an American one. For now though, we start with the series opener, 2011's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Having been found guilty of libel, Swedish business journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is at a bit of a career crossroad. An opportunity presents itself when aging businessman Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) approaches him with a proposition. Henrik would like Mikael to write his biography, but that's really just a cover. He wants Mikael to investigate the 40-plus year mystery of the disappearance and possible death of his great-niece that's gone unsolved all these years. There's a twist to Henrik's offer, but the damaged journalist agrees to help. At the same time, an anti-social and uniquely odd investigator, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), is investigating her own case, one that will eventually hit a crossroad with that of Mikael's.

I'll get this out of the way early for fans of the book, the first of Larsson's trilogy. I read the book, loved it, and went into the American film with high expectations. They were very much met. Fans of the book will no doubt enjoy the movie. The transition from novel to film must have been a daunting one, but for the most part, all the changes that were made work out. Unnecessary supporting characters have been dropped. Some subplots among characters has been cut too. The only significant change comes in the finale, but for the sake of the movie it works in a more stream-lined fashion. Moral of the story is simple. In a time when so many adaptations struggle to channel a source novel's power and enjoyment, this one very much lives up to expectations. Now, onto the movie.

From accomplished director David Fincher, 'Dragon' is a true movie. With movies like Fight Club, Se7en, Zodiac, and The Social Network to his name, Fincher doesn't attach himself to just any movie. He doesn't just tell stories, he tries to make his films viewing experiences. In a story focusing on sexual/physical violence against women, corruption in business, cowardice in journalism, and a general disgust with human beings, that's quite a task. Filmed in Sweden, Switzerland and Norway, the visual look is dark and muted, especially gloomy in reflecting the darkness of the story. Fincher's ability with a camera is impressive; quick cuts without being frenetic in its movement. The soundtrack from Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is a gem, even getting an Oscar nomination. It's acoustic and loopy, almost an updated sound of a Vangelis or Tangerine Dream in an electronic way. Lots of style points, and all for the better.

Heading into my reading of the book, I knew who would play certain characters which isn't always a good thing, but it works here. Showing again that he's not just James Bond, Craig is an ideal choice to play beaten down but crusading journalist Mikael. He really makes the character come alive. It's the little touches. He's confident but not cocky, just aware of his abilities. When interviewing or investigating, his glasses hang from one ear, rocking below his chin. Questioning at first, Mikael too becomes obsessed with the case. Casting Mara as Lisbeth took some heat (and some changes from the book have been made), but the then-25 year old actress does a phenomenal job. I didn't always like Lisbeth in the novel, but I was always interested in her. A survivor of physical, sexual and mental abuse, she is a ward of the state in Sweden, but she in reality is a brilliant individual in her way. The two characters together -- vastly different but eerily similar in others -- is an Odd Couple match made in heaven.

The most important characters -- obviously -- make the jump from print to film, starting with Plummer as Henrik. It's just a quick appearance (Henrik is kept in the background more here), but a professional like Plummer makes it worthwhile. Steven Berkoff is a scene-stealer as Frode, Henrik's lawyer who sets up the job and investigation with Mikael. Stellan Skarsgard and Joely Richardson play members of the Vanger family, both actors memorable in smaller parts. Robin Wright plays Erika, Mikael's long-time lover and fellow publisher/editor at the magazine they own. Also look for Yorick van Wageningen, Goran Visnjic and Donald Sumpter to round out the cast.

At its heart, 'Dragon' is a murder mystery, and a really good one at that. The premise and background of Harriet's disappearance is laid out early, and Fincher allows the story to develop as at first Mikael but then Lisbeth too becomes more involved in the case. In an investigation long since trapped in a dead end, the clues and pieces start to come together. It's a mystery at its best, and enjoyable to watch from beginning to heartbreaking end. Craig and Mara are perfect, Fincher a talent behind the camera, and I'm looking forward to seeing where the trilogy hopefully goes...and the novels too.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo <---trailer (2011): ***/****   

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Reign of Fire

Usually post-apocalyptic movies like to throw some natural calamity at us. If it's not nature -- an epic tsunami, a world-ending storm -- then it is something man-made. How about something else though, something different? How about dragons? Yeah, I thought it sounded kind of silly too. I never consciously avoided 2002's Reign of Fire, but I never actively sought it out until recently. While reviews and ratings are mixed, I liked it.

It is 2020 in the countryside outside of London, and a man named Quinn (Christian Bale) is leading a small group of survivors in the ruins of a castle. For some 20 years, immense, destructive dragons have been wreaking havoc all over the Earth, and now the few remaining people have been forced to band together to survive. Hoping to defeat or at least outlast the dragons, Quinn and his group are surprised one day to see an armored convoy approach their gates. Leading this American contingent is Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey), an obsessed dragon slayer hell bent on wiping out the dragons. The two men differ on what to do. Quinn wants to survive, Van Zan wants to go on the hunt. The right answer? Somewhere in between, forcing the men to work together.

Maybe the biggest reason I never sought this flick out was that the premise just sounded too silly. Dragons wiping out mankind? Desperate, poorly-supplied survivors trying to fight back? I don't know. Maybe I was thinking of Pete the Magic Dragon from growing up, but it didn't sound too appealing. Well, I was wrong. I liked it (didn't love it) because director Rob Bowman keeps it serious. If anything, even a little humor -- dark though it may have been -- would have aided the cause. But as is, it's an end of the world story. The backstory with the dragons is actually pretty cool, the creatures periodically coming from the depths of the Earth to ravage the planet, then retire back to deep, cavernous cavities. It isn't anything ground-breaking, but it's better than what I expected.

Playing the two leads, Bale and McConaughey provide an interesting Odd Couple at the forefront of the movie. A pre-Batman Bale is the more sympathetic (if not more interesting) of the two; a grown man trying to help other survivors keep living one more day. As a boy, he saw his mother killed when the first dragon escapes from under London. He's spent the rest of his life trying to right that wrong. The scene-stealing, more showy part goes to McConaughey as Van Zan, an American military officer obsessed with defeating dragons. His look alone -- Mad Max meets Neo-Nazi -- with a shaved head, heavy native tattoos on his arms, sleeveless bomber jacket, wicked goatee, and big old biceps is enough for a badass, but I thought McConaughey does a fine job with the character. He sneers and growls, giving Van Zan quite that dramatic edge.

Also look for a pre-300 Gerard Butler as Creedy, Quinn's long-time friend and right hand man, Izabella Scorupco as Alex, Van Zan's highly trained and effective helicopter pilot, Scott Moutter as Jared, a teenager Quinn saved as a young boy, and David Kennedy, Alexander Siddig and Ned Dennehy as three of Quinn's men who help him combat the dragon attacks.   

Post-apocalyptic. That must mean the world looks pretty dreary, right? The look of the movie certainly reflects that sentiment. It's a dreary, dark, cloudy world without sun after years of fire have ravaged the Earth. 'Reign' was filmed in Ireland and down to the sets and costumes, it looks like a modern Middle Aged story developing. The musical score from composers Ed Shearmur and Brad Wagner is good in that epic Hans Zimmer vein as well.

So how do you combat fire-breathing dragons? Well, you don't really, and if you sure ain't easy. 'Reign' has some fun with that issue as Quinn and his survivors basically hide when a dragon appears, but when Van Zan's heavily armed crew arrives, we're in for a treat. His attack on a raiding dragon is a high point of the movie featuring a complicated, suicidal plan. The action overall is the best part of the movie, and the finale in a desolated, demolished London is surprisingly cool too. Does this one deserve the rating I'm going to give it? Maybe not, but I liked it just the same. Entertaining, exciting rainy day type of movie that's good with a bucket of popcorn.

Reign of Fire <---trailer (2002): ***/****

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Sting

Pairing Paul Newman and Robert Redford, the duo ended up being a match made in heaven for 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Could the pairing work again? Oh, you bet. Teaming up again for 1973's The Sting, Newman and Redford again show off an impeccable chemistry, a great back and forth, and a whole lot of talent in one of the 1970s best movies and one of my all-time favorites.

Working in 1936 Joliet just outside of Chicago, con man Johnny Hooker (Redford) pushes too far on one con when he and his partner, Luther (Robert Earl Jones), steal some $11,000 from a money runner working for big-time New York mobster Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). The mobster hears about it and in the aftermath, Luther is killed. On the run and always looking over his shoulder, Hooker seeks out Henry Gondorff (Newman), an infamous con man himself who's now on the run from the F.B.I. after a con of his went south. Hooker teams up with Gondorff, hoping to run a long con on Lonnegan to exact some revenge. With countless thieves, con men and grifters working their magic, a long list of things need to happen to pull the job off, but Gondorff and Hooker go to work knowing if the con fails, they may pay for it with their lives.

 The Newman-Redford pairing -- along with Butch and Sundance director George Roy Hill -- is clearly one that works and is a key reason for the movie's success. I don't say this often because I don't want to overdo and/or overuse it, but The Sting is one of those rare perfect movies. All the scenes work without any extra fat on the bone. Even at 129 minutes, it flows effortlessly. The script (which won an Oscar) is one of the all-time greats. On first viewing, it might be a little difficult to keep up with everything, but in the end it fits together like puzzle pieces clicking into place. Smart, funny and well-written, the script helps bring this criminal underworld to a nice way. It's the 1930s "criminal" underworld that the movies presented.

A period piece like this depends on a couple different thing. The first and usually most important? Does it look and feel authentic to the period it is set in? That's a safe answer here. The look of the movie ends up being an additional character. You genuinely feel like you're watching 1930s Chicago from the sets to the bad-ass suits to the cars zipping around the downtown streets. Much of the film was shot in California backlots, but several scenes were filmed on-location in Chicago, including LaSalle Street Station, Union Station and the Penn Central Freight Yards. What most people will remember from 'Sting' though is the music, starting with Scott Joplin's whistle-worthy theme, The Entertainer. It gives the story a light-hearted touch -- almost a goofy feel -- but it ends up working perfectly with the tone. The locations, sets, costumes, and music all contribute to a great retro style -- along with title cards introducing the scenes -- that is hard to replicate.

So Newman and Redford, pretty cool, huh? They just don't make stars like this anymore. Watching talented actors of this caliber on-screen, it's just fun. Their chemistry never feels forced. It's just two guys playing off each other like they have been doing it their entire lives. While both actors play prominent roles, more focus is given to Redford's Johnny Hooker, a talented if younger grifter looking for some revenge. He learns the ropes from Newman's more experienced, somewhat grizzled con man. Redford was even nominated for an Oscar for his performance, but both have their moments. Newman especially gets some laughs in his scene where he meet Shaw's Lonnegan, posing as a drunken but rather lucky poker player who throws the hook out there so the crew can reel in their target. Putting on a big, boisterous entrance, Newman (entering with "Sorry I was late, I was taking a crap") hits all the right notes in a part that allows Redford most of the spotlight.  

In one of his most memorable roles before his death at the age of 51, Shaw is a great villain to counter Newman and Redford's very likable crooks. His Lonnegan will kill anyone who gets in his way and isn't picky or squeamish about doing so. As for the rest of the cast, Charles Durning is appropriately double-handed as Lt. Snyder, a Joliet cop with a grudge against Hooker. Putting together a team of thieves, Gondorff assembles Kid Twist (Harold Gould), the smooth-talking organizer, J.J. Singleton (Ray Walston), the veteran con man with a knack for investigating, Eddie Niles (John Heffernan), the numbers specialist, Billie (Eileen Brennan), his madam of sorts, and Erie Kid (Jack Kehoe), Hooker's former partner who's down on his luck. Dana Elcar has a small part too as F.B.I. agent Polk, hot on Gondorff's trail.

What I love most about The Sting though is how it all comes together in the end. We're given all these clues, characters and situations early on, but we're never quite sure how it fits together. The title cards sort of help -- The Hook, The Set-Up, The Sting -- but it's great to see the con come together so smoothly. Gondorff has hinted that it's not always the job that's the toughest. It's the aftermath and getting away alive. With that in mind, the last 30 minutes throws a handful of twists our way, all of them working, some working epically well. It's a great finale full of twists, surprises and some laughs. A great movie from start to finish.

The Sting <---trailer (1973): ****/****

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The King's Speech

There the movie sat in my Netflix queue for well over a year. I wanted to see it. It had claimed several Oscars and had been nominated for that many more. I knew it was a good movie. Some people I talked to and some reviews I read said it was a great movie. I couldn't quite bring myself to put it up at the No. 1 spot, well, until now. Safe to say 2010's The King's Speech was worth the wait.

Since he was a young boy, Prince Albert, the Duke of York (Colin Firth), has had to deal with an at times crippling stammer whenever he speaks. He fears addressing more than a few people at a time, always knowing at any moment the stammer could kick in, and he will freeze up. His wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), has helped him as much as he can, going to any and all speech therapists and experts. Their latest is Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Aussie with some out-of-the-box ideas. As Albert and Logue start to work together though, England is hurtling toward World War II where Prince Albert may be thrust into a power position he wants nothing to do with.

Big action movies, raunchy comedies, and schmaltzy romance stories. And then there are historical dramas like this where the focus is.....acting. Go figure. The focus is on the actors and actresses as they develop these characters that just happen to be real-life people. All three lead performances were nominated for an Oscar -- Firth winning, with Carter losing to Melissa Leo in The Fighter, Rush to Christian Bale in the same movie -- and this will sound simple, but it's fun to watch the actors act, especially actors as talented as these. Even the supporting performances (however small) ring true. It's always a good start when the acting is as memorable as this.

How come? Because as was the case here in director Tom Hooper's film, everything else falls into place behind it. Hooper joined Firth in the Oscar-winning department for his job behind the camera, and he deserves it. At just under two hours, the story covers a lot of ground, beginning in 1925 and running all the way to the start of World War II as Albert -- now George, 'Albert' sounds so Germanic according to Churchill -- rises to the throne of England. Hooper does a subtle but effective job with his camera, turning ordinary shots into interesting shots, making so many scenes look like paintings. From the costuming to the locations, the look of the movie helps make this period piece something special. Like period pieces that work, you feel like you're in 1930s England. It's easy to mess that up -- the audience realizing they're watching a movie -- but it is handled very effectively here.

Oh, right, back to the acting. In a performance that saw him win his second straight Oscar, Firth delivers a very human part. For all his Royal upbringing, Prince Albert has struggled through life for as long as he can remember. The opening scene where he crumbles giving a speech is heartbreaking as are several others as we see him battle his stammer while speaking. He wants to speak, to be a strong leader, but his personal make-up just won't allow it. While Firth is very good, I thought the best performance was from Rush. It's not a showy part, but it could have been. This is a supporting part that in the wrong hands would have been very obvious and even annoying. Rush never lets it get there. As Lionel, he sees all of Albert's potential and through all his unique, even odd ideas, genuinely wants to help him. In the smallest of the three parts, Carter still manages to leave a positive impression. Her Elizabeth is a loving wife who tirelessly wants to help her husband.

The period piece, where movie fans get to see some always solid character actors do their damnedest to upstage the stars. Well, sort of. 'Speech' has a handful of those parts, starting with Guy Pearce as Prince Edward, Albert's older brother who causes a stir when he becomes king because of his relationship with a twice-divorced American woman, Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). Also look for Michael Gambon as King George, Albert's dying father, Derek Jacobi as the Archbishop, Jennifer Ehle as Myrtle, Lionel's wife, and Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill, the soon-to-be Prime Minister of England.

I don't know what I was expecting going into this Best Picture-winning film. I didn't love it as much as appreciate it, but I think that was the objective. The acting is great as is the visual look of the movie, but it's never anything Earth-shattering in its execution. Sit back and enjoy the natural drama and even some humor of the situation. I especially enjoyed the relationship and friendship that develops between Albert and Logue as they work together. An actor's got to act, and that's on display here.

The King's Speech <---trailer (2010): ***/****