The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Monday, April 27, 2009

Requiem for a Heavyweight

Sports movies have covered a wide variety of topics over the years. The genre's got so many stories that anything from comedy to serious drama to thriller can be handled within a sports story. A forerunner of sorts for Martin Scorcese's Raging Bull, 1962's Requiem for a Heavyweight is a sports movie that may seem like something you've seen before, but that's because it was an original, a movie that set the stage for other similar movies to come along.

In a fight with Cassius Clay, veteran boxer Luis 'Mountain' Rivera (Anthony Quinn) takes quite a beating before being knocked out late in the 7th round. It's after the fight a doctor tells Mountain that he's done. A couple more punches to the head and he may lose his eyesight completely. So what to do now? Boxing is all Rivera's known, and after 17 years in the ring he's now forced to look for something new, a completely different career. He might have found an answer in Grace Miller (a great supporting part for Julie Harris), a social worker who sees the potential Mountain has.

Released in 1962, director Ralph Nelson's movie could have been straight out of the late 40s when film noir was at the top of its game. If I hadn't seen the release date, I would have said it was film noir, maybe running in a double feature with 1949's The Set-Up with Robert Ryan. Filmed in black and white, almost every scene is full of shadows and characters sitting in the darkness.

Not a 'name' director, Nelson had a string of moderate successes in the 1960s and 1970s but never became a huge star. Too bad because of the movies I've seen, he was a talented man behind the camera. He had an eye for the visual and wasn't just content to point the camera at the actors and shoot. Nelson thinks outside the box with Requiem, making shots that could have been ordinary something memorable. The movie opens through the eyes of Mountain as he's pummeled by Clay. The scene goes on for several minutes as he wakes up and groggily walks from the ring with his manager and cut-man. The technique is repeated in the finale and is used equally as effective.

But what most movies come down to isn't how the director shoots scenes or even the storyline, it can be all about the actors. The three main leads make this movie, especially Quinn as Mountain Rivera. How he wasn't nominated for his performance here by the Academy escapes me. In a career of making countless characters come to life, this is one of his best. Rivera is a kid in a man's body that's taken years of abuse in the ring. He's still got an innocence to him, and he trusts those around him, even when everything points to doing just the opposite. Truly one of Quinn's finest performances.

Right behind him are Jackie Gleason and Mickey Rooney as Maish Remmick, Mountain's manager, and Army, his cut-man who's taken his own share of abuse in the ring. Maish at one time probably had Mountain's best interest at heart but now with his fighter's ability declining, he makes a decision that could tear them apart. Gleason makes the character both sympathetic and despicable depending on which scene you look at. After coming into the public eye as Judy Garland's boyfriend, Rooney shows how good an actor he was. Like a big brother, Army looks out for Mountain's well-being when no one else does. This trio has a history together that goes back many years, and it's a credit to the three actors for making it believable.

At under 90 minutes, this isn't a long movie, but in a short time the audience feels like you've gotten to know the characters and their history and relationships. It all builds to a heartbreaking ending for Mountain, one that shows the true colors of the character. He's a boxer who's best days have passed him by, but that doesn't mean he still can't help those around him. One of the best and underappreciated movies to come out of the sports genre with a great performance from Quinn. With a screenplay from The Twilight Zone's Rod Serling, it's about as can't miss as a movie can be.

Requiem for a Heavyweight <---trailer (1962): *** 1/2 /****

Bob Le Flambeur

After seeing enough of a director's movies, it's always fun to go back and see how their styles and techniques changed over the years as they became more familiar with what worked and what didn't. Having seen a handful of Jean-Pierre Melville's films, I watched Bob Le Flambeur this weekend, the director's first crack at the gangster movie with the element of a heist added in. Obviously not as polished as his later efforts, the 1956 heist gangster combo is worth a watch just to see how much Melville changed over the course of his short career.

Living in Paris, a middle-aged gambler and former gangster named Bob is on the bad end of a very unlucky streak. He leads an expensive life, all the while looking out for the well-being of those in trouble or need around him. So combine the two, bad luck and a generous spirit, and Bob is in trouble looking for a way to get back on the right track. It's through a friend and former gangster turned club owner, Roger (Andre Garet, apparently a real-life gangster), that Bob hears about the casino at Deauville. On the next Grand Prix race day, the casino will have over $800 million francs in its vault. Desperate to get back on a winning streak no matter the cost, Bob begins to organize a meticulously planned heist.

Style-wise the differences are huge comparing this movie to Melville's later gangster pics like Le Samourai or Le Cercle Rouge. Late in his career, the director refined a style built on the visual with little dialogue or music being used. So with that said, 'Bob' is a very talkative film but not too talky. Filmed in black and white, the visual element is still there with plenty of shadows and dark streets used to set the mood. And filmed on a small budget, there's a grittiness, a reality to the movie with many shots being filmed with a handheld camera.

Another big difference is in the make-up of the main character, Bob, the high-rolling gambler. Compared to Alain Delon or Lino Ventura, who were both extremely suave/cool but not always likable, Bob is downright friendly. His flaw is his gambling addiction, always ready to turn his winnings into bigger winnings. But other than that, he's a reformed gangster who lives on the up and up. He looks out for people in trouble, two people in particular, Anne (Isabelle Corey), a young woman just trying to get by in life, and Paolo (Daniel Cauchy), a young hood who so desperately wants to be respected as a gangster. While the performances from the two young actors are good if not great, it's Roger Duchesne as Bob that makes the movie work. Flaws aside, I liked this character and wanted him to get back on the winning track. I was rooting for him to pull off the heist.

Like his later movies, there's a cynicism to 'Bob' that works because it isn't forced. Things don't always go smoothly in life, and Bob has been on both sides of that. He wins thousands at a horse race, but loses it hours later in a backroom at a casino. That's why the ironic ending works so well. It builds and builds and even though you see it coming, you hope it doesn't head where it's going. Of course, it goes exactly that way. While it's not as dark as Melville's other films, it certainly qualifies as a downer.

The Criterion Collection DVD is a single disc, but more than worthwhile. The movie is shown in a fullscreen presentation that really makes the black and white cinematography come to life over 50 years later. Special features include a 22-minute interview done in 2002 with Cauchy that covers everything from the background of the movie to Melville as a director, another 20-minute radio interview with Melville completed in 1962, and a trailer to cap it all off. A good precursor for his later classics, Bob Le Flambeur is definitely worth checking out.

Bob Le Flambeur (1956): ***/****

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Netflix review #17: The Hired Hand

Peter Fonda will never be considered a mainstream, Hollywood kind of guy. His first big hit, 1969's Easy Rider, proved that pretty clearly about two bikers enjoying their travels across the country before they start to see what the country and people are really like. Fonda's first film as a director, 1971's The Hired Hand, has the same edge and darkness in tone to it as Easy Rider, except that instead of modern times, it takes place in the Old West.

Riding west toward the Pacific Ocean, cowboy drifters Harry Collings (Fonda) and Arch Harris (Warren Oates) hope to hit it big in California. Along for the adventure is a youngster, Danny Griffen (Robert Pratt) who's always looking for the next big thing on the horizon. But as they ride into a no-account, run down town of Del Norte, Harry decides he's had enough of the drifting life and wants to go back home. It's been years, but he had a wife and daughter at some point and wants to find them. Longtime friends, Arch tags along.

It's at home on a quaint, little farm they discover Harry's wife, Hannah (Verna Bloom), isn't going to welcome him back with open arms and understandably so. She'll tolerate him, but that's as far as things will go until Harry proves he's there to stay. Arch sees the writing on the wall and leaves his friend, knowing that Harry's found what he's looking for. Everything seems to have worked out perfectly until a rider comes along saying Arch is in trouble, and the only one that can help him is his old friend. Does Harry go and help him, or stay with the life he's rediscovered?

I'm not sure if it makes sense, but this is an artsy western that at times reminded me of Terrence Malick movies. Much of the movie was shot with an eye for the visual, riders moving across a sandy plain or through a densely wooded forest. There's a very lyrical, other worldly feel to the proceedings. One technique I thought worked really well was shots overlapping each other. One in particular has Harry and Arch talking to each other with their faces in close-up while in long shot their bodies are blurred by the setting sun. On top of each other, the two shots form a beautiful shot.

Casting is dead on, plain and simple. Fonda's Harry is similar to Captain America in many ways. He's laid back and easygoing, just looking for a good life and happiness wherever it may be. It's only when you push him too far his other side comes out. As his partner, Oates hits all the right notes as Arch. The veteran character actor was so good at turning it on and hamming it up, just one of the reasons he's the best, but here he underplays everything. Harry and Arch have ridden across the west for 7 years and there's a genuine friendship there. It's that relationship that carries the movie and sets it apart from most westerns with a similar storyline.

Verna Bloom could have easily gotten lost in the movie behind Fonda and Oates, but her performance is on equal ground with them. As Hannah, Harry's wife, she is a woman that's been burned in the past and she has trouble putting it behind her. Hannah is lonely and wants companionship, but she's worried she'll get hurt again, as much for her daughter Janey as herself. Two other supporting roles are worth mentioning, Pratt's youngster Danny and Severn Darden as McVey, the power-hungry little dictator of Del Norte who doesn't have much use for rules or laws and because of that forces a confrontation.

Besides all the casting and cinematography, The Hired Hand is what's right about westerns. Shown through the Harry and Arch relationship, the bigger idea here is loyalty and doing what's right even if the cost may be a hard one to pay. A man does something not because he's forced to do it, but because he knows it's the right thing to do. It's a great little western that I'm glad I watched.

Released through Sundance Film Festival, the DVD has the movie in a well-done widescreen presentation and trailers for a wide variety of Sundance releases. Fonda also provides a commentary track. And if you don't want to invest in the DVD, Youtube has the movie posted and broken up into segments. Here's a trailer if interested.

The Hired Hand (1971): *** 1/2/****

Monday, April 20, 2009

Pride and Glory

A movie doesn't have to be groundbreaking to be good. Sometimes its nice to see a movie that doesn't do anything new, but sticks to what the genre is known for so in a way it's like comfort food. Last year Pride and Glory hit theaters and bombed at the box office, barely making $20 million. Part of that had to be chalked up to its been-there, done-that storyline that's been done to death in cop movies. Despite having a great cast, the movie doesn't really do anything special.

Four cops are dead, and the NYPD has few leads to work with. Detective Ray Tierney (Edward Norton) has been out of the field for almost two years and is asked by his dad (Jon Voight), another cop, to lead the investigation into the four deaths. Always a good cop who had come under fire for his questionable handling of a case, Tierney begins to look into the case and doesn't like what he sees. All the evidence points to dirty cops being involved, and making it worse, his brother Francis (Noah Emmerich) and brother-in-law Jimmy (Colin Farrell) look to be involved.

What should Ray do? Stay true/loyal to his family and that bond or to the oath he took as a cop to uphold the law? People from all sides are telling him what to do as tensions in NY rise when more dead bodies keep showing up. The main problem here is that nothing is new. Pride and Glory doesn't put a new spin on the old good cop vs. bad cop routine or even try to. The story is a good one, and the actors pull off their parts well, but the whole time I felt like I was watching a movie I'd seen before.

All of that said, it's disappointing because the cast is good, especially the leads. Ed Norton is one of my favorite actors around, and his role as a tortured cop trying to right certain wrongs he did in the past is the highlight of the movie. You might not think of Norton as the typical, tough guy cop but he plays the part well. Another of my favorites, Farrell, is average as Jimmy Egan, the cop with the fiery temper who's apparently involved with some low-level drug dealers. It's not his best performance if only because we know so little about what drives him or what pushes him.

Jon Voight similarly has little to do as the Tierney family patriarch, a veteran cop just trying to hold his tight-knit family together. Noah Emmerich is right behind Norton as the movie's best part as Francis Jr., the precinct commander who has turned a blind eye to Egan and his crew's antics but only because they got the job done. Jr knew they were crossing the line, but not to what extent. It's this part of the movie that works best, whether it be Norton or Emmerich. It's hard for them to believe that someone they know so well and love could be capable of the things they see.

The movie has its issues, but if you enjoy procedural cop movies I'd give this a try. It's not great and it's not bad either. Pride and Glory just rests in that middle section that doesn't leave much of an impression on you and drifts away rather quickly. Rent it but don't buy it.

Netflix review #16: Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

For every movie with a cast of thousands, there's plenty that counter with only one or two leads and a few extras in the background. What's tricky about movies with so small a cast is that success depends almost completely on whether the audience likes those leads. Thanks to Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum, John Huston's Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison can be considered quite a success. And yes, I debated doing Borat and putting "Great success" instead.

Somewhere in the Pacific in WWII, an inflatable raft floats up on a beautiful island paradise. A marine wearily steps out and begins to explore the island only to discover the other occupant is a young, pretty Irish nun, Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr). He introduces himself as Corporal Allison (Robert Mitchum), a U.S. Marine who got separated from his recon patrol when Japanese artillery hit the sub they were being dropped from. Teaming up, the unlikely duo look to survive on an island that provides everything they need. Questions come up as to whether they should try to sail to Fiji, but an answer is provided when a Japanese infantry company shows up to set up a weather station? All Allison and Sister Angela can do is hope the Allied advance across the ocean takes them to this island.

What I really enjoyed here was the straight-forward, no frills storyline of two people on an island trying to get by and hopefully be rescued. Sure, other things are thrown in, like the Japanese soldiers arriving, but those scenes provide some of the movie's more tense moments. Very easily, this movie could have been thrown on its side and forgotten since its 1957 release if the two main leads, Kerr and Mitchum, weren't so good in their roles. I give a lot of credit to director John Houston, always able to get a good performance out of his actors, for casting the leads so well.

Riding the huge success of The King and I, Kerr gives a great performance as Sister Angela, a nun whose faith brought her to this island, and it's this faith that keeps her going. She delivers a semi-twist about 2/3 of the way in, but it never feels forced. Angela is innocent and slightly naive, but that doesn't mean her character isn't a strong one. And most importantly, she has a chemistry with Mitchum because if that wasn't there the whole movie goes bottom up. I wrote in the last couple weeks about 'cool' actors, and I forgot to include Mitchum. As a really smooth, laid back presence, Mitchum seems to be taken for granted as an actor sometimes. But here he shows what he can do, delivering one of his better parts as Allison. He grew up on his own and is tougher for it, but he's gentle with Angela and a gentleman all around in trying to help her.

Reading the synopsis of a man and a woman on a deserted island, I couldn't help but think the two would end up together, even if one was a nun, and one as classically pretty as Deborah Kerr. The movie does deal with this as the relationship changes and develops, but it's never awkward. One scene shows how much Allison looks out for Angela following the Japanese arrival. She almost gets sick eating raw fish so he sneaks into the Japanese camp to steal food. He gets in easily enough but has to hide for hours as two Japanese soldiers unknowingly corner him. Allison's just trying to help a friend, even if he has feelings for her, and Sister Angela is horribly worried something has happened to him. A good sum-up of the relationship is that scene, two individuals who become close friends in a dangerous situation.

The Fox War Classic DVD comes in at under $15 over at Amazon. Filming locations in Trinidad and Tobago look amazing in the widescreen presentation on the disc. In the special features department, there's a trailer, four MovieTone clips about WWII in the Pacific that run about 7 minutes, and a handful of trailers for other Fox War Classics. It's a very good movie carried completely by its leads, Kerr and Mitchum. Definitely give this old-fashioned, good storytelling film a try.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Grand Prix

One of my favorite things about movies is that if someone wants badly enough to make a movie on a specific topic, it's going to happen. And sometimes, more than one person likes that topic so moviegoers are hit with a wave of similar movies. Think of all the quasi-Lord of the Ring movies to come out in recent years, or the sci-fi avalanche that resulted from the original Star Wars trilogy. In the late 60s, it was racing movies as stars and directors turned their attention to fast cars. I've always liked Steve McQueen's 1971 semi-documentary Le Mans and I'd like to see Paul Newman's 1969 racing movie Winning. But the first of these late 60s and early 70s racing movies was 1966's Grand Prix.

I'd read many positive reviews of director John Frankenheimer's race epic that clocks in at just under three hours so I went into the movie really hoping to enjoy it. It tells the story of a whole season of Formula One racing in Europe and the U.S. through the eyes of four drivers. There's Pete Aron (James Garner), an American racer who's been in a two-year long slump but has a chance to climb back to the top with a Japanese racing team owned by Izo Yamura (Toshiro Mifune). Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand) is a veteran driver tiring of racing but still at the top of his game. He's married but is separated from his wife and during the season falls for an American photojournalist, Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint). A new driver, up and coming Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato) makes a splash on the circuit after becoming a champion motorcycle driver. And last, there's Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford), a British driver trying to live up to the expectations set by his racing father.

The movie starts with a bang on the opening race of the season at Monte Carlo with a great credit sequence, and here's an extended clip just so you can get an idea of the racing footage. Teammates Aron and Stoddard have a miscommunication mid-race and Aron's car is destroyed and he's shaken up while Stoddard is badly broken up and so starts the tension. Director Frankenheimer clearly pulled out all the stops when it came to the racing footage. Cameras are placed on the cars, facing forward so you get a sense of how fast these cars are going and backward where we see the drivers. Then there's the big wide shots of the racers zipping by.

Not being a Nascar fan, I thought this would get repetitive over the course of the movie. I couldn't have been more wrong. The races never get old, and I recommend watching the movie for those alone. Here's a few more samples, the F1 Spa-Francorchamps and then the finale with SPOILERS at the Italian Monza course with its high banking turns. The footage is so good the race sequences feel like a documentary. It's by far the best racing footage I've come across in movies, right up there with Le Mans.

It's a shame then that Frankenheimer couldn't just have made a racing movie that ran about 2 hours and stopped there. The movie as is drags incredibly slowly once the racers leave their cars on the tracks. It took me a handful of sittings to get through the movie because of that slow pace. Each of the drivers has their personal issues to deal with, but the only one that comes across as sympathetic is Montand's Sarti.

Of course that doesn't mean the huge international cast isn't good. Garner was and still is a cool actor, making seem like he's not even trying. As Aron, the down but not out racer, he may not be the most sympathetic character but as a sort of underdog I was rooting for him. Sabato is having a lot of fun as the rags to riches Italian driver, and Bedford is good but doesn't leave a huge impression. Mifune rises above what could be a cliched role, and Marie Saint is a good counter to Montand. Jack Watson has a small but strong part as Jeff Jordan, Stoddard's fiery race manager. Adolfo Celi makes a quick appearance too as a race team owner.

Rewatching these racing clips as I post, I can't help but feel the adrenaline rush just watching them. And that's the reason to watch Grand Prix, here's a trailer. With so many directors relying on CGI these days, it's hard to imagine better quality race movies coming out. So even though the non-race sequences can be painfully slow, I'm highly recommending this one because I loved the races more than I hated the love stories.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Netflix review #15: The Gauntlet

Thanks to a 'Statistics in Journalism' course I took at IU, I've only seen bits and pieces of 1977's The Gauntlet. And for those curious, 'statistics in journalism' is as exciting as it sounds. Working on some random project, I had it on in the background so I knew the basic storyline and liked it enough to add it to the 'ole Netflix queue.

Right at the top of his game in the late 70s and a Hollywood icon already, star and director Clint Eastwood plays Ben Shockley, a Phoenix police officer who joined the force for all the right reasons but he's been beaten down over the years as he waited for that big case to break. Then one day when it seems things can't get much worse Commissioner Blakelock (William Prince) sends Shockley to Las Vegas to extradite a prisoner named Gus Mally who's going to testify in a low-level trial, a nothing witness for a nothing case he'd told.

Nothing goes smoothly though as several surprises are thrown Shockley's way. For one, Mally is Augustina "Gus" Mally (Sondra Locke), a prostitute scheduled to testify in a mob trial. And two, the Vegas bookies have 50-1 odds she'll ever make it to Phoenix and those odds keep going up. What was a simple return flight with a low-level prisoner turns into a crosscountry chase as Shockley and Gus desperately attempt to get back to Phoenix with the mob and possibly even some crooked cops gunning for them.

With the Shockley character, Eastwood looks to be having some fun with his image, specifically Detective Harry Callahan. Shockley's introduction has him pulling up to City Hall and having an empty bottle of Jack Daniels fall from his lap. He's told he's been given the job because his superiors know "he will get the job done." It's only through Gus's help Ben realizes that he has been set up to fail and be the scapegoat.

The Gauntlet also gets points for having a strong, smart female character as a lead. Locke gives maybe her best performance as Mally, a less than typical hooker. She's not some drug-addict on a street corner looking for money for her next fix. Gus is college-educated and can put a man in his place in the blink of an eye. This character allows for some great exchanges with Shockley as the duo realizes they're not so different.

While Eastwood and Locke are the two leads and dominate much of the screen time, the supporting cast has several names worth mentioning. Pat Hingle reunites with Eastwood for the first time since Hang 'Em High as Josephson, Shockley's former partner who may be the only cop he can trust. Typically a villain, Bill McKinney plays a country sheriff who becomes an unlikely hostage. McKinney's part delivers much of the line's dirtier conversations as he questions Gus about what her job as a hooker entails. Michael Cavanaugh joins Prince as the men in charge as Feyderspiel, the crooked assistant D.A.

Slim on action other than an exciting motorcycle vs. helicopter chase, the movie is nonetheless entertaining, especially as certain twists in the storyline are revealed. The basic storyline has been used in other movies, like Midnight Run and 16 Blocks, but this one has some nice touches. It all builds to an absolutely ludicrous ending as Ben and Gus drive through a gauntlet of armed police officers set on stopping them. But it is in this craziness that makes the movie a lot of fun.

With a good but not great widescreen presentation, the DVD includes cast and crew information that's limited to an Eastwood filmography and a trailer narrated by Shaggy from Scooby Doo, Casey Kasem. Amazon has it for under $10 so buying it won't break the bank.

The Gauntlet (1977): ***/****

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Netflix review #14: A Bullet for Sandoval

Ever since I first saw Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, I was hooked to the spaghetti western. I love everything about them, the over the top, operatic shootouts, the great music scores, the filming locations in Almeria, and even something as detail-oriented as the distinctive sound of gunshots used in the movies. The problem with the spaghettis is that once you get past the more mainstream movies, like Leone's Dollars trilogy, the pickings are few and far between.

My latest Netflix movie, 1969's A Bullet for Sandoval, is one of hundreds of Italian westerns that is not hugely well known. It's a shame that the DVD has been cut from the original version of the movie by about 10 minutes. You can even see bits of the cut scenes in the trailer, link provided later. What makes it worse overall? The movie is pretty good in its cut form at 89 minutes, not 105 as Amazon says, so another 10 minutes or so could really flesh things out.

Anyhow, now to the actual movie. John Warner (George Hilton) is a Confederate soldier who on the eve of battle receives news that the mother of his son is dying. He deserts his post, only to be caught by Confederate cavalry. Because a firing squad would be too easy and quick a punishment, Warner is posted to a burial detail. Pushed to far, he escapes and heads home to hopefully see the woman he loves before she dies. He's too late though, and her father, Don Pedro Sandoval (Ernest Borgnine), a rich Mexican landowner, holds Warner responsible for killing his daughter and tearing the family apart.

Warner is sent on his way with his infant son in tow. But on the trail, no one will help them because they're coming from a town suffering through a cholera outbreak. The boy dies, and Warner has one thing on his mind; revenge on Sandoval. Picking up a gang of cutthroats and murderers along the way, Warner attacks all over the countryside hoping to bring Sandoval out to fight once and for all.

Compared to many other spaghettis, 'Bullet' doesn't stand out as doing anything particularly new. The revenge storyline had been used repeatedly and would be used many more times, but the hatred between Warner and Sandoval brings this one to life. The shootouts are strong, especially the finale as Warner and three of his gang find themselves cornered in a bullring. Gianni Ferrio's score doesn't have that memorable tune like many of Morricone's scores, but it fits well and I enjoyed it. And of course, it'd be hard to ruin this part, the filming locations in Almeria look great.

Hilton made a handful of spaghetti westerns in his career, but this was the first one I'd come across. His part as Warner is well done as a man who completes the transformation from a man trying to save his family to a hardened killer who seeks one thing and one thing only...REVENGE! Like many American actors that went to Europe for movies, Borgnine looks to be having a great time as Sandoval, a rich landowner trying to hold his family together amidst the Civil War. The supporting cast is dominated by the members of Warner's gang, led by Lucky (Alberto de Mendoza), a grave-robbing soldier who's quick with a gun, Father (Leo Anchoriz), a former monk who's good with gun or knife, Guadalupano (Gustavo Rojo), the pretty boy always looking for women and tequila, One-Eye (Jose Manuel Martin), the treacherous, convicted rapist, and Sam (Antonio Pica), an old friend of Warner's and fellow deserter. When I read a movie review and hear anything about a 'gang of cutthroats' or a 'misfit crew of specialists,' count me in.

So while nothing really sets 'Bullet' apart from other Italian westerns, I really enjoyed it even with the cuts. It's a pretty dark revenge tale that doesn't go for the typical happy ending. The DVD is a good buy at under $10 with a widescreen presentation that looks relatively clean, the trailer with cut scenes still there, and a trailer for another spaghetti, Any Gun Can Play. An unknown and underappreciated spaghetti western, give A Bullet for Sandoval a try!

A Bullet for Sandoval (1969): ***/****

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Two-Lane Blacktop

When I saw a Criterion Collection DVD called Two-Lane Blacktop with a cast that included singer James Taylor, Beach Boy Dennis Wilson and character actor extraordinaire Warren Oates leading the way, I knew I had to give it a try. It's the definition of a 70s road movie with an existential feel to it where characters are called by what they are, 'the Driver' and 'the Mechanic' are just two, and while at times the movie tries too hard to be cool or different, it is a good example of how good a road movie can be.

The storyline at its most basic, VERY BASIC, is a cross-country road race for pink slips between the Driver (Taylor) and his Mechanic (Wilson) in their stripped-down and souped up 1955 Chevy against a man called G.T.O (Oates) in his yellow Pontiac GTO. The race is almost an excuse for the movie because it's the most laid back contest you'll ever see. Both drivers don't take the easy way out. If one has car troubles, the other waits because they don't want an unfair advantage, no asterisk next to a possible win.

Taylor and Wilson are clearly not actors as the two car nuts completely obsessed with their ride. During one exchange with GTO, Taylor famously says "You can never go fast enough." The singer mumbles his way through most of his lines and glares the rest of the movie. Looking back over the movie, I'm not sure Wilson has a line that doesn't involve the state of the car of what he wants on his hamburger. Even then, as clear as it is that they're not actors, there is something appealing about two musicians taking on these roles and definitely it is one of the reasons this movie has gained cult status over the years.

Other than the great racing and car footage, the reason to see this movie is Oates as G.T.O. He's a middle-aged man driving his car across the country as his pace until he keeps seeing these car nuts through two states. One of my all-time favorite actors, Oates brings a personality and humanity to the part that Taylor and Oates aren't able to with their own. GTO constantly picks up hitchhikers, soldiers, gay cowboys, a grandma with her granddaughter, and tells a different story each time as to how he acquired the car. It's a perfect part for the veteran character actor, one I think could and should have gotten him a Supporting Actor nomination.

It's hard to pick out why I enjoyed the movie as much as I did. The first 15-minutes are ridiculously slow and almost made me quit watching. The story drifts along without a ton of purpose even after the race for pink slips has been declared. But like Easy Rider, there's a tone and style to the movie that works for some unexplained reasons. It's an enjoyable movie with a very 70s feel to it that deserves the cult status it has acquired over the years.

Of course, the Criterion Collection DVD is a pricey one at $35 or so depending on where you find it. Youtube has a fair share of videos up with movie clips. Because it is an expensive movie, I'd recommend looking into the movie before buying it blind. If you do like road movies though, this is one of the better ones you'll come across.

Here's the trailer and a great scene with Oates telling a hitchhiker all about his car.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Netflix review #13: Across 110th Street

As the times were changing in the late 60s and early 70s, one part of popular culture that took full advantage was the movie industry. Directors got to attack issues and present them to the viewers. Drugs, sex, racism, Vietnam, all ripe for the picking. I finished a cop/blaxploitation movie today called Across 110th Street which was a perfect example of what a procedural cop movie can be when it gets everything just right.

In a dreary, rundown Harlem apartment, two white mobsters and three black mobsters are counting the week's take when someone knocks at the door. It's two black cops, or so they think. It's a robbery and when one of the hoods goes for a gun it turns into a massacre as all five men are killed and during the getaway, two cops are killed. The trio of robbers, including the getaway driver, escape with over $300,000 in mob money and it doesn't sit well. The question is who will get to these men first? The cops looking for justice and to put these men behind bars or the mafiosos looking for revenge.

Made in 1972, the movie has a dark, gritty look to it similar to The French Connection, another cop movie that has a similar sinister tone about the world. 110th Street was filmed in New York, and the movie greatly benefits from it. The whole thing feels real, like you're there with the NY detectives walking the streets looking for information. With the filming locations, nothing seems forced, and the story just flows along.

The big name here is Anthony Quinn as Captain Matelli, a veteran NY detective who's seen people at their worse and always gets the job done, even if his methods aren't exactly popular. Yaphet Kotto is a strong counter to Quinn as Lt. Pope, the younger officer assigned to lead the case because of his race. Pope tries to do things by the book because he believes in doing right and to a certain extent, he doesn't know better. The escalating confrontations between Maldetti and Pope provide much of the movie's tension when it comes to racism, but it's just the start.

Joining the supporting cast is Tony Franciosa as Nick D'Salvio, the mafia enforcer given the task of bringing in the three robbers. A gray-haired Franciosa is just the right amount of driven to do his job and then the opposite, slightly crazy and a huge racist. Paul Benjamin (later of Escape from Alcatraz) plays Jim Harris, one of the robbers and the most 3-D of them. Harris is an ex-con with epilepsy trying to make ends meet with his wife when he stumbles upon this mafia bank and tries to knock it off. It's a credit to Benjamin that his character is sympathetic. He's a murderer and a robber, but at the same time you feel for him. Ed Bernard and Antonio Fargas (Starsky and Hutch's Huggy Bear) round out the trio of robbers.

With so many strong performances, the movie never slows down. Each scene has a different character on screen, and the interactions feel natural throughout. Everyone has their motivation whether it be for revenge, doing your job, or even loyalty and survival. It builds to a moving ending on several different levels, especially the final shot which is reminiscent of the ending of The Defiant Ones with Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis. You can see it here, but obviously there's MASSIVE SPOILERS if you haven't seen the movie.

The DVD is a good purchase. The movie is in widescreen presentation that is grainy but it works for the tone and theme of the film. Don't get me wrong though, it's grainy but still a very watchable movie. Special features is just a trailer that highlights the opening robbery. Don't miss this one, a cop movie tied up in a blaxploitation story that produces an underappreciated semi-classic from the early 1970s.

Across 110th Street (1972): *** 1/2 /****