The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Netflix reviews: The Big Racket and The Heroin Busters

Pretty much everyone knows who Michael Bay is by now, right? If you don't, you should probably get out from that rock you are sleeping under. And to a lesser degree, people know or at least have heard of directors like Michael Mann and Sam Peckinpah? In a sort of odd hybrid mix of all three directors, Italian director Enzo Castellari has left his mark on the action genre whether you know it or not with a nice mix of story, character, style and crazy action.

Two of those movies, The Big Racket which is rated as his best at IMDB for whatever that's worth and The Heroin Busters, were the latest in my Netflix queue. I've seen a handful of Castellari's other movies and enjoyed them across the board. The stories tend to be pretty basic like something you'd see in an old B-movie or pulp fiction novels. Nothing groundbreaking but always entertaining. An anti-hero is typically thrust into a situation where he must save the day sometimes at a high cost as he rebels against his superiors and sometimes society in general. Of the two, I liked 'Racket' more so I'll cover that more in depth.

Both movies have Italian star Fabio Testi in the lead, both parts being in law enforcement in one way or another. I've always been aware of Testi and could have picked him out of a lineup if need be, but these were the first two movies I'd actually seen of him. He comes across well as the rebellious anti-hero. It can be hard judging performances that are dubbed into English, and often not very well, but Testi is a strong physical presence with roles that require that above all else. Acting be damned!

In 'Racket,' Testi plays Inspector Nico Palmieri, an Italian police officer trying to put away some underworld characters for intimidating and blackmailing business owners for 'protection.' If the owners don't comply, they're in for it as this little gang rapes, murders and loots their way into power. But for Palmieri, the work is frustrating because no one will testify against these hoods and therefore no charges can be presented. It's as the case continues that Nico deserves there's more to this enterprise than he thought as the different factions of the underworld plan to unite.

Could it be too late though? Nico may have pushed the limits of what he can do as a police officer and is thrown over the force. With nothing or no one holding him back, the former inspector puts together a team of vigilantes, all with their own personal reasons for revenge, to help him take out the leaders of the underworld, the 'big racket' of the title. Joining Nico are Pepe (Vincent Gardenia with an odd, unnecessary dubbing), a small-time crook with a history, Luigi (Renzo Palmer), a father who's daughter was raped by the hoods, Giani (Orso Maria Guerrini), a champion skeet shooter who helped Nico in the spur of the moment and paid for later, Mazzarelli (Glauco Onorato), a mafioso with a grudge, and Doringo (Romano Puppo), a hired killer.

The story unfolds slowly as we realize what the sadistic baddies are capable of. At first, it appears they're breaking and entering and using good old-fashioned intimidation, but they do much, much worse. By that point, you're fully on the vigilantes side and rooting for them to off everyone involved. Movies where citizens take the law into their own hands sure sounds appealing sometimes. Castellari lives up to his precedent with the finale, a shootout in an empty factory as Nico and Co. attempt to ambush the underworld heads. The director always seemed to find unique locations for his shootouts, adding an eerie spectacle to the gunfight.

And like most directors, Castellari leaves his personal stamp on these movies with some actors returning for many of the director's movies including head baddie Joshua Sinclair who was in 'Heroin' and 'Racket.' His shooting style is always consistent with some unique POV shots and quick-cutting to counter some of the slow motion in the shootouts. If Peckinpah opened the door on slow-motion violence, Castellari kicked it wide open. And if there was any doubt these were movies straight out of the 1970s, the scores are always a good clue with the De Angelis brothers in 'Racket' and alt rock band Goblin in 'Heroin.' Both scores have a synthesiser sound heavy on guitars that really gets your blood going.

As for Heroin Busters, I enjoyed it but just not as much. The story has Testi playing an undercover cop trying to bust a drug ring that seems to have connections at all the corners of the world. It takes a while to develop and is somewhat confusing until then, but all is forgiven with the last half hour, a running chase/shootout with motorcycles, a construction site and a vacant subway all ending up in some Italian ruins. David Hemmings stars as an Interpol agent working with Testi with much of the supporting cast from 'Racket' here too, including Sinclair and Puppo.

In reviewing these movies, I go back to my reliable line 'a movie doesn't have to deliver a message to be good.' Castellari revels in that, making high quality B-movies with great action scenes, anti-heroes you root for and villians you love to hate, and overall just a good time. I've been watching the Blue Underground DVDs and highly recommend them if you're looking to watch and catch up.

The Big Racket (1976): *** 1/2 /****
The Heroin Busters (1977) ***/****

Breaking Away

Going to Indiana University as an undergrad, one running joke was that to get into IU you had to love basketball and watched both Hoosiers and Breaking Away, two movies that are often associated with the college. Of course, it's not a requirement, unfortunately, but that doesn't mean they're not classics.

Breaking Away is one of the best coming of age movies ever made. Too often movies like this go down one road, either really serious trying to get a message across or the completely comical look at growing up like any number of high school sex comedies. Breaking Away settles in that middle ground between the two, treading that fine line where both drama and comedy are used and effectively. Parts are genuinely funny and others can be heartbreaking, but it never feels fake and that's why the movie is so good.

A year removed from high school graduation, Dave Stohler (Dennis Christopher) has one goal in life; to be an Italian. He loves everything about the Italian culture, idolizing the Cinzano bicycle racing team, one of the top teams in the world. Of course, in the process he drives his parents, Evelyn (Barbara Barrie) and Ray (Paul Dooley), absolutely nuts including one encounter where Ray walks in on his son shaving his legs. His parents want Dave to either enroll in college at Indiana University or get a job and start to grow up. But it's all put on hold when he finds out the Cinzano team is holding a race in Indianapolis. What happens during the race has a sobering effect on Dave, forcing him to reconsider what he's devoted his life too.

Something comes up though, something new Dave can channel his efforts into, the Little 500 bike race in Bloomington. Dave, along with three friends and fellow townies called 'Cutters' (because locals cut the limestone used to build much of the IU campus), enter the race and go up against IU's fraternities. Of his friends, there's Mike (Dennis Quaid), the jock in high school now struggling to see that maybe his best days as an athlete are behind him, Cyril (Daniel Stern), the tall, lanky jokester, and Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley), the designated 'little guy' in the group who's always ready to stick up for himself or his friends.

Why this movie works so well is the dynamic among the four friends. They're all different people, but they are going through the same things. Each of them is trying to grow up, to find their way in life, but where do you even start? Dave wants to be a cyclist, Mike is pissed that as a local he's looked down upon, Cyril has always been put down by his dad, and Mooch is working on his relationship with girlfriend Nancy. All their scenes ring true, I believe each time I watch Breaking Away that these four are truly friends.

Another obvious high point is Dave and his ongoing conflict with his folks, Ray and Evelyn. Ray is convinced his son has lost his mind and lets him hear about it any chance he can. He goes about telling his son what he wants for him in odd ways, often yelling at the sometimes oblivious Dave, but all other things aside he wants what's best for his son and his happiness. Evelyn similarly wants her son to be happy and quietly supports everything he does. The only thing that doesn't ring true in 'Breaking Away' is Dave's relationship with an IU student, Katherine (Robyn Douglass) with Dave pretending to be an Italian student to woo her. Those are the only scenes that come across as forced and unrealistic.

Having attended IU for four years, part of the fun of the movie is that director Peter Yates wisely chose to film the entire movie in Bloomington. The IU campus and the surrounding areas in southern Indiana film beautifully, especially a swimming hole at an abandoned rock quarry. Yates takes full advantage of the campus, filming at any number of recognizable locations like Memorial Stadium, Assembly Hall and all over the streets that wind around the academic buildings as well as downtown Bloomington. It might not have the same affect for someone who doesn't know the campus, but the on-location filming gives an authentic feel to the story.

With a movie focusing on a character who wants to be a cyclist, the racing scenes don't disappoint. The Cinzano race is a great sequence with an Italian opera playing as the soundtrack as Dave meets and eveven keeps up with the Cinzano racers. The Little 500 segment is the high point though as 34 teams race around a quarter-mile long track for 200 laps. Christopher, Quaid, Stern and Haley did their own riding so the viewer sees the Cutters team riding along with the field. It's a great race sequence, and the two-lap finale filmed in a long shot is the perfect ending to the race.

Definitely one of my favorites, a movie that hits all the right notes. Few movies have dealt with growing up as pitch perfect as Breaking Away does. Great cast, great story, love the locations (Go Hoosiers!), and exciting race sequences.

Breaking Away<---- trailer (1979): ****/****

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Netflix review #26: The Friends of Eddie Coyle

After years of not being available in any format, The Friends of Eddie Coyle was released on DVD late this spring by the Criterion Collection. I'd never heard of it prior to a Criterion email but reading about the casting, the director, the story, I couldn't pass it up. Of course, I wasn't the only one itching to see it, the movie status on Netflix for most of 2 months was 'Very Long Wait' which never sounds too good. So after most of three months of waiting on and off, Eddie Coyle came in the mail this week.

Everything about this movie is underplayed from the characters to the shooting style to the dialogue. It is what it is. There are no huge theatrics as the story unfolds. Stuff happens sometimes, and you have to roll with the punches. A lot of the credit goes to director Peter Yates of Bullitt fame among other movies. Yates doesn't call much attention to himself and knows from the start that the attention should be on the actors. Novel concept, isn't it? 'Eddie Coyle' looks like a documentary film, just following characters around as they live their lives. It's gritty and realistic, giving you the sensation of a fly on the wall as several seemingly unrelated storylines converge on each other.

With those unrelated stories, the movie can be hard to follow because it's not always easily apparent where it's going or how all these different things will come together. Looking back, it all comes together and makes sense. While a lot is going on, the main attention is paid to Eddie 'Fingers' Coyle, maybe a career-best performance for Robert Mitchum. Eddie is a small-time crook, as low level as they get, but who still has a way of being involved in every little thing. He's a gunrunner and puts people where they need to be to pull off a job. But Eddie's in trouble, he got arrested for transporting liquor and is facing a jail sentence of at least a couple years. With nowhere to turn and a wife and three kids to look after, Eddie goes to his last resort, becoming a snitch for Foley (Richard Jordan), a cop you're never quite sure of his motives.

Also involved is Jackie Brown (Steven Keats), Eddie's supplier who sells/transports the guns out of his souped-up muscle car. He plays dumb at times but when it comes down to it, he knows how to handle himself and stay alive when trouble arises. Then, there's Dillon (Peter Boyle), an ex-con working as a bartender who is similarly in trouble and looking for a way out. And all the while as Eddie works to save himself, Jimmy Scalise (Alex Rocco) is leading a crew who have their routine down pat for pulling off bank jobs. The stories are introduced and develop without much background or anything to go on, and that's what makes it hard to follow at some points.

But there is a connection and it all comes together nicely in the last 30 minutes. What sets this apart though from other difficult movies to follow is that I barely noticed it at all. The dialogue, the exchanges between this group of people are so perfect, so natural that it's just a pleasure to watch them do it. None of the characters are even particularly likable, they're all low-level hoods and thugs, even Jordan's Foley gives off a bad vibe, but I was drawn in nonetheless.

Often playing the anti-hero who when it came down to it was a good guy, Mitchum plays Eddie differently. He's looking out for his family, but as he's told, he put himself in this predicament. He's never rose in the ranks, but Eddie's got experience. Check these scenes with Jackie Brown and a meeting with Foley about his situation and one more with Jackie negotiating for the guns. Pulling off a tough Boston accent, Mitchum portrays Eddie as worldweary man who has backed himself into a corner and must now respond. It's scenes like this that are a pleasure to watch. No big over the top acting, no calling attention to themselves, just good old fashioned acting.

It's Mitchum's movie, but the rest of the cast is just as strong. Boyle is only in a few scenes but his actions help put the final scenes into motion, including a frustrating ending that works for the story but isn't the typical easy ending. Jordan stands out, again, as Foley, the cop trying to pull off any number of cases who just as easily could have been on the other side of the law. Having seen a handful of movies with Jordan from early in his career, it's hard to believe he never became a big star. His parts are always picture perfect, and he's becoming one of my favorite character actors. Along with Joe Santos, Rocco gets the less glamorous part as Eddie's associates but both actors make the most of it.

Not a typical crime movie, it's more low-key with little action and less gunplay/violence. The movie suceeds and fails on the performances of the cast so for my money, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a huge success. It's not a movie you watch for the huge twists, the big gun fights, the exciting car chases. 'Eddie Coyle' you watch for the characters and the dialogue. It hasn't been available for years so take advantage of the Criterion Collection DVD, don't let this one slip by.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle <----trailer (1973): ***/****


That question pretty much sums up my feelings on Nicolas Cage in one quick statement. In the late 1990s and into the early part of the next century, Cage made a list of pretty good movies, some guilty pleasures and others genuinely good stories. But then he seemed to hit a road block of sorts since with such classics as The Wicker Man, which I love but can admit is a horrible, god awful movie, Ghost Rider, Bangkok Dangerous, Next, and The Weather Man. To be fair, I haven't seen The National Treasure movies, but they're on my list.

For my latest Nic Cage movie, I rented Knowing which came out in theaters this past March. The reviews were generally positive, especially Roger Ebert's review which slobbered all over the movie, and my sister and her husband (both of whom I typically agree with about most movies) really liked it. So I begin by saying I wanted to like it, I like Cage even with his recent string of bombs, and the story sounded promising, but oh how I hated this movie, especially the last hour.

The commercials and the trailer built this movie up a ton, giving just a hint of what's to come. Any apocalypse story is A-ok by me, I'll give it a shot. MIT astrophysicist Dave Koestler (Cage) is a single father trying to raise his son Caleb (a good part for 11-year old Chandler Canterbury). Caleb's school is opening a 50-year old time capsule with each student getting a drawing from a student in 1959 imagining what the future will look like. Some have spaceships, others robots, but David finds that Caleb's is a list of seemingly unrelated numbers. It's almost by accident that David figures out what the numbers mean.

The sheet predicts all sorts of disasters, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, plane crashes, with a freakish accuracy. It predicts dates, amount of people killed and even the location of the incident. But as David looks over the list, there's a handful of numbers at the end, events that haven't happened yet with astronomical casualties listed with the dates. Is there any way he can stop these events from happening, even when he finds the last number prediction could mean the end of the world?

Where to start, where to start? The first hour is as exciting and tense as a sci-fi/thriller/horror movie should be, and that's from someone who typically avoids any sort of movie that might scare me. The two disasters David figures out, a large jet crashing near a freeway and a horrific subway accident, are prime examples of how CGI can be used to enhance a movie instead of distracting from it. Two great set pieces to get the ball rolling. But then the story takes a nasty turn with its predictions of the end of the world. From here on in I'm giving away major plot points so don't read on if you don't want the rest of the movie blown.

In trying to figure out what the deal is with the numbers, David investigates into the life of the little girl who wrote them down. Unfortunately, she died years ago, but her daughter Diana (Rose Byrne) is still around and is also a single parent, raising her daughter Abby (Lara Robinson), and trying to get past all the things her mother told her as she grew up. All that's fine, their involvement does serve to explain where the numbers came from, but the explanation drove me nuts.

Some of the freakier parts of the movie has these mysterious figures appearing out of nowhere to tell Caleb and Abby things, whispering in their ear. It's from them that Diana's mother got the numbers, predicting all sorts of disasters over the years. So what are they, some sort of mysterious religious cult, fanatics looking to destroy the Earth? Nope, they're some sort of aliens from another galaxy/star system looking to protect Caleb and Abby from destruction. Scaring the bejesus out of kids is usually a good way to get them on your side I've found. So instead of Cage trying to solve the world, we get 30-40 minutes of him looking for his kid as the world goes all to hell. "Awesome."

The problem with all this is that the explanation completely negates the first hour. If these light aliens/spirits/deities just need the two kids, what was the point of predicting all the disasters? Couldn't they just have come along and taken the two kids away? Ah, who knows, I'm getting frustrated just thinking about it again. Needless to say, the ending pissed me off to no end. Not the destruction of the Earth because of a solar flare shot from the Sun, that was pretty cool, but everything leading up to it.

What could have been interesting from the storyline is the idea of fate/destiny vs. free choice. Is everything we do influence where we end up in life, or are we supposed to accomplish something in our life and no matter what we do, that one thing is going to happen? But the movie never explores that option. Is Cage's David supposed to find these numbers so that he can put Caleb on the route to safety, or is it all just a random group of events? Interesting ideas, but that's it, nothing more.

Too bad with this movie because as I wrote before, I wanted to like this movie, and after the first hour I was enjoying it. Even the prediction of the Earth being destroyed made the 2nd hour look interesting, but in the execution the story went all over the place with no set idea of the message it was trying to get across. So instead of a great ending, with a huge downer, we get a happy ending with Caleb and Abby running through some wheat field to a beautiful tree in the middle of the prairie. Could it be heaven? Who knows for sure. All I knew was that I was glad I didn't waste $11 to see this one in theaters. Avoid Knowing like the plague.

Beau Geste

How gutsy does a director have to be to start a movie by showing the ending? I give any director with the cajones to do that points right off the bat. Opening the movie by showing how the story will end up can drive viewers away in some cases, but if handled well can make viewers even more involved with the story. After all, we now know how everything will end up, but getting there can be half the fun.

Director William Wellman pulls this off with his 1939 classic Beau Geste, a story of three brothers who enlist in the French Foreign Legion. The story opens with a relief column nearing Fort Zinderneuf, a far-off post near an oasis that came under siege by Arab tribesmen. But as the relief draws closer, they find the whole garrison massacred to a man, and the commanding officer dead on the parapets with a French bayonet through his heart. With no enemy dead anywhere in sight and no legionnaires to tell the story, the question arises; what happened to these 50 legionnaires?

After the cool opening sequence at the scene of the massacre, the story flashes back to 15 years prior where three brothers, Beau, Digby and John, have been adopted by a rich English woman, Lady Patricia (Heather Thatcher) The three orphans live the life of luxury, playing war games and playing pranks on each other and their 'cousin' Gussie, the heir to quite a family fortune. But the years pass and Lady Patricia receives a note from her long lost husband saying he'll soon return for the Blue Water diamond, the last thing of any value they own. Before he can retrieve it though, the diamond is stolen by someone living in the house. But who was it?

In hopes of removing suspicions from his younger brothers, Beau (Gary Cooper) takes the blame and enlists in the French Foreign Legion to avoid embarrassment for his family. But it's not too soon before brothers Digby (Robert Preston) and John (Ray Milland) join up too with their big brother. It's in the legion they come under the command of sadistic Sergeant Markoff (Brian Donlevy), who was humiliated at his last post and now seeks to redeem himself, no matter the cost even if it is his own men's lives. It is when Markoff finds out the Geste brothers may be diamond thieves that the real conflict arises, the sergeant splitting the trio up, Beau and John to Zinderneuf as replacements and Digby to another fort for mounted infantry training.

The French Foreign Legion is often presented as this glamorous, honorable fighting unit, but in just about every movie I can think of some unlucky company is getting massacred or abandoned at some far out post with no hope of outside help or survival. In Beau Geste, it's no different. The soldiers at Zinderneuf hope to lead a mutiny against Markoff, but that plan gets put on hold when the Arab tribesmen arrive en masse. The battle scenes are exciting from the start even if we know the end result. The desert outside Yuma, Arizona fills in nicely for the Sahara desert, oasis and all, with the set of the fort a perfect setting for the drama to unfold.

As for the cast, it would be hard to ask for a better one. As the title character, Cooper does what he does best, the sort of everyman role who is noble, honorable, and always looking out for those around him, especially his younger brothers. Preston and Milland round out the trio of brothers, Milland getting slightly more screen time and the love interest, and with Cooper provide the heart, the backbone of the movie. Their scenes together ring true whether it be with the comedic introductions or later in the movie when they've enlisted in the Legion. The three actors bring the characters to life, much like the three leads in another 1939 classic with a somewhat similar story, Gunga Din.

In a role he received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for, Donlevy has a great part as Markoff, the sadistic, half crazy sergeant who will drive his men to the breaking point and then keep on pushing. He wants his good name back and all the medals and privileges that come with a promotion, and as he sees it, it's all in grasp if he wins a significant battle, casualties be damned. Unfortunately for Donlevy, 1939 was the year of Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, so he didn't get the win, but it's still one of his best parts. Also in the cast is a very young Susan Hayward as Isobel, the love interest who grew up with the Gestes but starts to fall for the youngest brother, John. Just some of the other legionnaires include J. Carrol Naish, Albert Dekker, Broderick Crawford, and Charles Barton.

Labeled as Hollywood's strongest overall year just for the sheer number of classics that were released, 1939 was quite a year for the movies. The old reliable 'they don't make 'em like that anymore' applies to any number of movies from that year, especially Beau Geste. It is good old-fashioned entertainment with an exciting story, strong and likable characters and some creativity in telling the story. With a DVD released just weeks ago, don't skip this one by. A true classic from start to finish.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Netflix review #25: The 300 Spartans

Before there was Frank Miller and Zack Snyder's ridiculously over the top, highly stylized, ultra-violent movie 300, which I really liked, and before Steven Pressfield's excellent historical novel The Gates of Fire, also highly recommended, a movie released at the height of the historical epic was released in 1962 detailing the famous last stand of Spartan king Leonidas and his 300 warriors at the pass at Thermopylae, appropriately called The 300 Spartans.

Stories of massacres and last stands, Thermopylae, the Alamo, the Little Big Horn, translate well to movies. There's something noble about men believing so strongly in what they do that they are willing to give up their lives in a hopeless battle, knowing the end before it even starts. Nowhere is that more evident than with the story of the Spartans, a culture of warriors trained from the moment they could pick up a sword so they could one day gloriously die in battle fighting for their land and people.

For those that don't know the history, here's the basic rundown of the battle of Thermopylae, which the movie sticks pretty close to in terms of storytelling. It's 480 B.C. and Persian king Xerxes (David Farrar) is sweeping across the free world with his enormous army totaling in the millions. He's nearing Greece and all her city states, looking at an easy victory because the states remain divided and refuse to unify to fend off their destruction. Pride, huh? The only way the city states will organize is if the Spartans will lead them to battle.

Promising that the Spartans will be at the front of the Greek armies, Spartan king Leonidas (Richard Egan) begins to prepare the battle plan with Athenian leader Themistocles (Ralph Richardson). Leonidas will lead the Spartan army to the pass at Thermopylae which the Persians will have to come through. With a smaller force the Spartans will hope to negate the Persian numbers because the pass is too small to let large numbers of men in. At the same time, Themistocles will lead the Greek navy against the Persian fleet. But problems arise immediately, none of the Greeks can send their armies to help, and even the Spartans refuse to send their whole force.

Going against policy that requires warriors to wait till the end of a festival to fight, Leonidas leads his personal bodyguards, a unit of 300 Spartans, to the pass at Thermopylae to hold off the millions of the Persian army. It's a suicide mission from the start as Leonidas and the 300 must buy time for the rest of Greece to organize and prepare. Filmed in Greece, 'Spartans' feels pretty authentic even if the Thermopylae pass is really just a Greek hillside that slopes down into water. Hey, it looks nice though.

The problem with massacre/last stand movies is getting to that point. Everyone knows it's coming, but the movie can't cut right to it, otherwise we'd be watching 15 minute movies. The 300 Spartans takes too long getting to the battle, too long even to when the Spartans leave for the pass. The first hour is extremely heavy on dialogue, and not in an interesting way. Persians are coming, Greek representatives waver on what to do, the Spartans sacrifice themselves. Seems basic enough to me, but it moves along at a snail's pace getting there.

Part of the struggles can be chalked up to the script which is just kind of there. It's not bad, but it never really comes to life. Maybe because Gerard Butler in 300 was so theatrical and I had that picture in my head, but these Spartans never come to life. Egan is all right as Leonidas but it's not a memorable performance. The two lines that everyone knows, 'the Persians have so many archers their arrows will blot out the sun....Then we'll fight in the shade' and 'Lay down your weapons...Come and take them!' are delivered without any flair or emotion. None of the supporting cast other than Richardson really distinguishes themselves, with Diane Baker and Barry Coe as a young Spartan couple in love, got to have a love story, Donald Houston as Xerxes' top general, Anna Synodinou as Leonidas' wife Gorgo, and John Crawford and Robert Brown as two Spartans.

What does work in the movie is the production values, the spectacle of the story. Battle scenes are well done, especially the fight with Xerxes' Immortals, with hundreds of extras playing both the Spartans and the Persian army. The last stand is handled nicely, historically accurate too, but it doesn't have the emotional punch of the ending to 300. The costuming, the sets, all those things work, but other than that, the movie never comes to life.

The DVD at under $10 at Amazon is a safe buy with a cleaned-up widescreen presentation, a trailer in English and Spanish, and trailers for Cleopatra, The Robe, and Demetrius and the Gladiators. The DVD is cheap so you won't be spending a ton to buy it, but I'd recommend renting it first or at least trying to see it before buying. For me, I'll stick with the more recent and much more enjoyable 300.

The 300 Spartans (1962): **/****

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Fires on the Plain

I wasn't able to find who first said it, but when dealing with history the line 'the winners get to write the history books' seem to get used a lot. Fair or not, it's true. In other words, you don't always get both sides of the story with the losers getting the short end of the stick. Think of WWII movies, not many have been made from the German and Japanese point of view. Of course the ones that have been made are held in high regard, most recently with Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima and a few years earlier with Sam Peckinpah's 1977 movie Cross of Iron.

When you compare those movies though, it was Americans making movies about the Japanese and Germans. It's always interesting to go right to the source as is the case with 1959's Fires on the Plain. Director Kon Ichikawa presents a story set in the closing days of WWII in the Philippines as the Allies make their final approaches to ending the war. It's a movie that doesn't even need the setting, but it certainly helps. 'Fires' could be seen and appreciated just as much as a post-apocalyptic film dealing with a remnant trying to survive so really the WWII setting just enhances the story and helps put it in perspective.

Returning to what's left of his company at the front line, Japanese Private First Class Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) is ordered by his company commander to head back to the field hospital miles away. Tamura is dealing with tuberculosis which with his physical condition makes him worthless to his fellow soldiers at the front because he can't help forage for food and isn't strong enough to fight. So starts a journey through the war-torn wastelands as Tamura simply tries to survive.

Traveling alone, Tamura must not only look out for advancing American soldiers (should he surrender to the Yanks?) but also roaming groups of Philipino guerrillas and his own Japanese forces. In his efforts, Tamura finds the remnant of a once proud army that's now been reduced to walking zombies with little to nothing to eat trying to organize for one last fight on a coastal city. There's no organization, no officers trying to assemble the men into units, instead it's every man for himself. This scene shows just how bad off the surviving Japanese soldiers really are.

Along the way, Tamura meets any number of Japanese soldiers, some looking to continue the fight and willing to shoot anyone who isn't, others just looking for their next meal and drink of water. Two soldiers in particular keep popping up, Yasura (Osamu Takizawa), a non-commissioned officer always looking to make a trade for food with the few tobacco leaves he has remaining, and Nagamatsu (Mickey Curtis), a younger soldier under Yasura's thumb. Because they go in and out of the story, it's through their changes in appearance we see their weakening conditions.

This isn't a glorious, flag waving type of war movie, not by a long shot. The story is from the Japanese perspective almost completely, the American forces are only shown once or twice, but more importantly it's the idea of the Americans that is important to the story. Are they salvation for the ragtag Japanese forces or will they slaughter any remaining Japanese soldiers? Ichikawa films in black and white and shot the whole movie in Japan. And what makes it all so easily believable? The cast's commitment to shooting it realistically.

Ichikawa apparently didn't allow any of the cast to keep up their physical appearance, like brushing teeth and cutting finger and toe nails, even limiting the food intake of the cast. Funakoshi completely starved himself to help get into character, pushing himself to the point where he actually collapsed during filming and shut down production for almost two weeks. Because of this commitment, the movie feels real like you're there walking alongside Tamura. By the end of the movie, the characters look exhausted as if they were about to keel over for good so Ichikawa's insistence on no personal hygiene paid off in a big way.

For a movie with a no-holds barred anti-war message, the ending can be key because the whole thing can unravel if it doesn't work. There are two twists in the last 15, 20 minutes that work so perfectly. One has to do with the title, the fires on the plain, which one Japanese soldier explains is local farmers burning the husks of their plants from the harvest. The final line is a haunting one with Tamura pushed to his absolute limit with no regard for what happens to him anymore. The other twist shows how far these surviving Japanese soldiers have been pushed. It's not so much a twist as a surprise, but the revelation is startling no matter how you look at it.

Can't recommend this one enough. As a movie about Japanese soldiers made by a Japanese director, it's easy to see why this movie isn't exactly mainstream. And with the anti-war message, it's obviously not a story you walk away from with a smile on your face. So don't be scared away from Fires on the Plain, a WWII movie that needs to be seen.

Kings of the Sun

When movies in the 50s and 60s were trying to figure out how to deal with the growing popularity of TV, studios tried to tell stories that TV just couldn't duplicate. Translation, big, sprawling historical epics in widescreen with big casts and big stars. Like any grouping of movies, some were better than others with classics like Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, and Spartacus. But there's something appealing about all of them, good or bad, because they're at least trying to shoot for the stars.

Directed by J. Lee Thompson, 1963's Kings of the Sun is a prime example of an average epic that has enough going for it overall to recommend. Historical setting? Mayans running from fellow tribesmen who've joined with the Spaniards. Check. Big names in the cast? Yul Brynner and George Chakiris, double check. Unnecessary love triangle because the story on its own isn't enough? Of course, what would an epic be without it?

As his father dies and he's appointed king, Mayan king Balam (Chakiris) must deal with a new threat. A large group of fellow tribesmen led by tyrannical Hunac Cel (Leo Gordon) have teamed with European invaders and are rampaging across the land, destroying everyone who doesn't join them. With a small group of survivors, Balam heads to the coast with Hunac Cel close behind. It's there they find a village of fishermen and farmers, and before they too are wiped out, they join Balam in sailing across the Gulf of Mexico to safety and hopefully freedom.

After days of sailing with no end apparently anywhere in sight, the new tribe finally sees land. They reach the beach and start to build a new life, sacrificial temple and all with a stockade to prevent any natives from attacking. It's not long before those natives show up, including Black Eagle (Yul Brynner), a chief of a tribe of hunters and wanderers. Black Eagle is taken prisoner with plans to sacrifice him to the gods in hopes of having a good harvest. Will Balam go against his beliefs to let him go or is the inevitable showdown coming?

This is another time in history that's too often ignored when it comes to movies. I'm no expert when it comes to Mayan culture and history, but KotS seems to get the basics right. One of the main issues with new king Balam is how he keeps up their religion, their beliefs. The high priest, Ah Min (Richard Baseheart), looks out for Balam and tries to guide him, but the main dispute is over sacrificing their own tribesmen. Does it work or are they just too superstitious and believe it has some effect?

Thompson went to Chicen Itza and Mazatlan to film extensively for KotS which gives the story an authenticity, a realism that would be missing if it had just been filmed in the hills around Hollywood. Shot with a Panavision camera, the cinematography is one of the best things about the movie. The main set once the tribe has set up camp is in a beautiful, sunny Mexican bay that fits perfectly.

The main set then provides a cool location for a final battle with Balam's Mayans, Black Eagle's tribe and Hunac Kel's barbarian tribesmen in the village and up the scaffolding of the temple slowly being built. It's the set piece the whole movie builds up to, and it doesn't disappoint. Hundreds of extras, Elmer Bernstein's booming and appropriately epic score, good action with fighters going toe to toe.

The casting is somewhat hit or miss, but Brynner is at his best. At the ripe "old" age of 43 when the movie was released, Brynner looks like he could handle someone half his age, the dude's ripped. Instantly recognizable with his shaved head, he presents an imposing figure as his tribe's most respected warrior. But more than that, his character has a depth missing from other parts in the movie. About to be sacrificed, Black Eagle bonds with Ixchel (Shirley Anne Fields), a young woman promised to Balam as a wife. While the action is good in other scenes, these quiet scenes work just as well and keep the movie somewhat grounded. As his rival, Chakiris doesn't leave much of an impression. Fresh off the success of West Side Story, he just doesn't have the presence needed to keep up with Brynner. Here's their first meeting.

Also worth mentioning, Kings of the Sun has more than a few connections with 1960's The Magnificent Seven. Both films were made by the Mirisch Company so that'll have something to do with it, both star Brynner and Brad Dexter, as Balam's right hand man, Bernstein did the score for both films, and even laconic gunfighter Britt, um, I mean James Coburn provides the opening narration. Just some cool trivia, or at least cool to me.

All things considered, Kings of the Sun is a worthwhile epic. It doesn't have the scope or size of some of the true classics, but it gives a good effort and if nothing else is a fun watch.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Cape Fear

In my reviews since I started the blog in January, I've covered a handful of movies with Robert Mitchum in a starring role. He's always been an actor I appreciated, but the more I watch with him the higher he climbs into the list of my all-time favorite actors. But as much as he's known for being the smooth, often laid back anti-hero, two of his most well-known roles are of villains possibly bordering on insane.

In Night of the Hunter, he plays a religious fanatic, a preacher on the trail of a stash of money in the deep South. And in the other part in 1962's Cape Fear, Mitchum stars as Max Cady, an ex-con looking for revenge. Where Mitchum stands out from many actors of his generation is his physical presence on-screen. Like Marlon Brando, he just had an animalistic quality to him, an intensity brewing that was just waiting to explode. He could handle the dramatic scenes easily, delivering dialogue in a smooth, cool manner, but it's his presence that draws the eye, or at least mine when he's onscreen.

On the Cape Fear DVD, co-star Gregory Peck admits that as casting was being done he told the director that the meatier part was the supporting role, the part that went to Mitchum. Peck seems content in the movie to sit back and let Mitchum do his thing. If it was a comedy, oh the possibililties, Peck is the straight man to Mitchum's crazy antics. The two differing styles have a nice way of balancing each other out in the movie.

Living in Savannah with his wife, Peggy (Polly Bergen), and young teenage daughter, Nancy (Lori Martin), lawyer Sam Bowden (Peck) has a good life until one day a violent man from his past arrives in town. The man is Max Cady, a convict fresh out of jail after serving an 8-year sentence for physically assaulting a woman. Bowden's testimony put Cady away, and now the ex-con is looking for some revenge. Because of his time in jail, Max's wife divorced him and took their son with so Cady intends to even things up.

But even aware of the threat that's always there, Sam has little recourse about what to do. Max has not done anything that's against the law, and as Martin Balsam's Chief Dutton says 'You can't arrest a man for something he's thought about.' So waiting for Cady to strike in one way or another, Sam and his family live with the constant fear that some sort of attack is coming their way. Finally pushed to the breaking point when he finds out Cady intends to rape his young daughter, Sam puts together a desperate plan in hopes of baiting the ex-con to attack.

Filmed in black and white and shot on location in Savannah for some nice-looking shots, Cape Fear is the definition of what a good psychological thriller can be. Max Cady is a villain not because we've seen what he'll do, instead it's what he is capable of that can be scary. And with that, Mitchum is the ideal actor for the part. One look, one evil little grin, and you know what's on his mind. He plays mind games with Sam and his family, driving them insane slowly but surely. In the B&W, there's a film noir edge to the story.

Cady is often shot in the shadows, whether it be in brush observing the Bowdens or just sitting in a bar oggling a woman nursing her drink. The character is a ticking time bomb, and it's just a matter of time before that bomb goes off. With a score from composer Bernard Herrmann and dealing with a story that seems very Hitchcock, it's easy to see why fans could think this was an Alfred Hitchcock suspense/thriller. Parts are very similar to 1960's Psycho, both in terms of storytelling and then the actual shooting with the black and white.

It's Mitchum's movie from start to finish including a satisfying ending, but the cast is superb all around. Peck has the less flashy role, but going against a nut like Cady, he's just a father trying to protect the life he has built for his family. Bergen presents a strong female character as Peck's wife, a woman terrified of what may come but who's able to put up a brave front in hopes of saving her daughter. Playing Sam's daughter, 15-year old Martin is shot in a strange way as if from Max's POV. The camera holds on her a little longer than you'd think necessary, but it gest the point across. Max is going after her and nothing's going to stop him. From the rest of the cast, Telly Savalas has a good part as a hard-edged private detective and Barrie Chase plays Diane, a young woman who is attracted to Max's pure animal edge but comes to regret it.

But overall, I thought the movie was only 'OK.' The build-up is good as Cady starts to follow the Bowdens around, but Sam's plan just seems too farfetched. I haven't read the book so I don't know if the movie stayed true to the source material, but after a while I knew how the story was going to play out and it loses some steam. The finale itself works, but I had some trouble getting there, especially the last 30 minutes or so. Still, Cape Fear is a must-see for movie fans. Robert Mitchum carries the movie in a terrifying and real performance as an ex-con with a mind for revenge.

Cape Fear <---- trailer (1962): ** 1/2 /****

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Kramer vs. Kramer

After the huge success of The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman put together a string of movies that are among the best that came out of the 1970s, movies like All the President's Men, Marathon Man, Papillon, Straw Dogs, and Little Big Man. But his best part from the decade came in 1979 in a performance that won him his first Academy Award as a single dad in Kramer vs. Kramer.

Coming home with great news from work, he's been given the biggest account the company holds, Ted Kramer (Hoffman) bursts through the door to tell his wife only to almost miss his wife's news. Joanna (Meryl Streep) has had enough of their marriage, doesn't think she's a good mother to 7-year old Billy (Justin Henry), and generally is in a bad place. She tells a completely baffled Ted that she's leaving him and Billy.

So with no way to stop her, Ted now becomes a single dad who has to raise his son, keep the apartment going, and also hold down a job where he's been given huge responsibilities. But after some early struggles, Ted and Billy get into a rhythm. They get up, eat breakfast together, and then Ted walks him to school each morning. At night, he picks him up at school and they do homework, play, read together. After almost 18 months of their new life, a problem arises, Joanna is back and wants custody of her boy. A custody battle ensues where all the dirty laundry comes out in the wash.

Should Joanna be given custody solely because she's the boy's mother even though she abandoned Billy? Or should Ted be given the benefit of the doubt since he's cared for Billy on his own for the last year and a half? The custody battle in court is a difficult section of the movie to watch because neither parent truly wants to rip the other one to shreds on the stand, but at the same time they both know it's what needs to happen if they hope to get custody of Billy. The decision the judge settles on doesn't make sense at all, but with the ending, everyone comes to their senses. And thank God for it, because I would have been pissed if the decision had stuck.

As two of their generations best actors, Hoffman and Streep both won Oscars for their performances. Streep disappears for much of the movie after she leaves her family so it's Hoffman's movie to carry. He doesn't disappoint, transforming into a father who knows every little thing about his son after only being partially involved in the boy's life for several years because of the work his job entails. Two scenes illustrate this change in a criminally simple fashion. The morning after Joanna leaves Ted scrambles to make Billy some french toast for breakfast. Without the gory details, let's say it doesn't go smoothly. Flash to 18 months later where Ted and Billy have it down to an art, the breakfast is made smooth with no incidents. It's a great way to illustrate the change the father and son have gone through.

While Hoffman and Streep were both nominated and won Oscars for their performances, 8-year old Justin Henry was only nominated for his part. Nowadays where child actors range from god awful to 'keep an eye on them in the future,' Henry is one of the most natural kids in a movie I've come across. He acts like a kid, talks like a kid, and comes across as completely believable. His interactions with Hoffman especially, Streep too though, bring the movie up a notch because I believed they were a family. Too bad he didn't win the Oscar because he fully deserved it.

As a mother torn about what to do with her life, Streep is only around for half the movie but leaves a lasting impression. She's trying to get her life in order at the cost of abandoning her son. Her decision to return shows Joanna realizes she made a mistake, but is too late for her? Here's her testimony at the custody hearing, SPOILERS. Out of the supporting cast, Jane Alexander has a good part as Margaret, a single mom who lives one floor down from the Kramers in their apartment building. She was Joanna's friend but becomes Ted's best friend after his wife leaves, the two bonding through their similar backgrounds.

Made in 1979, the movie has the look of a documentary. No crazy shots, no in your face filming, director Robert Benton just points the camera at the story and let's them go. As a viewer, you feel like a fly on the wall watching the Kramer family interact. It's a movie that almost swept its way through the Oscars, and for good reason. Kramer vs. Kramer can be a heartbreaking story but one with an ending that fits so perfectly.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


Before there was Heat, Collateral or most recently Public Enemies, even director Michael Mann had to start somewhere. Directing his first feature film, Mann was already showing a style that he's become famous for with 1981's Thief.

With some directors, it takes time for a personal style to develop, but with Mann and Thief, it wouldn't be hard to believe if someone had told me this movie was made in the late 90s when he had become a very bankable director. It has all the elements fans have become used to, and in some cases scenes that are almost completely duplicated with later efforts, but more on that later.

Working on his own as a safecracker, ex-convict Frank (James Caan) is at the top of his game and bringing in a pretty penny while doing it. With help from his partner, Barry (Jim Belushi), it seems there's not a safe or vault out there the two men can't take down. Frank has only one demand when it comes to jobs, only money or diamonds, nothing too exotic and he picks the jobs. But after one particularly successful job, Frank is approached by a fence named Leo (Robert Prosky) to work under contract exclusively for him.

Frank wavers at first, but decides to take the offer. His plan is simple; do a handful of lucrative jobs and walk away from his career as a thief with his new wife, Jessie (Tuesday Weld). Apparently, Frank's never seen a mafia movie to know that as long as you make money for organized crime, they're not going to let you go easily. So for the expert safecracker, the situation goes from bad to worse, and he must now find a way out. Story-wise, this is nothing that hasn't been dealt with before in movies, books, and TV shows. But with Mann at the helms, you barely even notice that this all sounds really familiar. He does everything so well, so smoothly, that I got so wrapped up in the movie I didn't even notice the familiar storyline.

Ranking up there with Robert Deniro's Neal McCauley and Tom Cruise's Vincent, Caan as Frank is a great anti-hero and the perfect hard-edged character to lead the movie. Caan is one of those few actors who is just cool standing there. He doesn't have to try or pretend to be somebody he's not. For God's sake the man played Sonny Corleone! As Frank, Caan gives one of his career's best performances. After serving 11 years in prison, he's making up for lost time whether it be with his career or his newlywed bride. The scene where the two really connect for the first time, check it out here, is one example of a similar scene Mann would use 14 years later in Heat. It's the perfect scene to really get to know a character, and Caan is dead-on in the scene and Weld matches him.

As Frank's wife, Weld delivers a strong performance as a woman with a similarly troubled past. At first, she doesn't know how to read Frank's advances, but comes to see him as he really is, honest, sometimes brutally so, straightforward and just looking to lead a happy life. Prosky provides a good villain who for much of the movie is just a business partner. Of course, any self-respecting moviegoer knows he's not as legit as he's made out and problems arise. Belushi in a smaller part makes the partnership between Frank and Barry completely believable with very little said between them. And surprisingly, Willie Nelson joins the cast as Okla, a convict and sort of mentor/father figure to Frank who's serving the last 10 months of his sentence. He's only in 2 scenes, but Nelson is strong in both, giving a depth to Frank's background we otherwise would have no idea about.

On to the movie's style which is evident from the opening credits and the first vault break-in, seen here. Much of the movie's tone has to be chalked up to the score from Tangerine Dream which is a moody, dark, intense, very 80s electronica score. At times it can be overbearing, maybe a little over the top, but it fits the movie so perfectly. Filmed in Chicago, Thief is shot in shadows and darkness, almost a modern film noir, with some really innovative camera shots. I'll always be in favor of on-location shooting, especially when it involves my hometown of Chicago, because it's hard to duplicate the feel of a city elsewhere, whether it be a studio or another city posing as Chicago.

Less reliant on action and shootouts than some of Mann's later movies, Thief nonetheless does not disappoint when it comes to gunplay. It's after a $4 million dollar heist that the situation goes all to hell and Frank realizes everyone he loves and everything he owns is at risk. Drawing on his prison experience, "you have to have the mindset that you're not scared of dying," Frank goes after Leo and his henchmen in one last desperate attempt. You can see the last 10 minutes here, but obviously MAJOR SPOILERS. It's a very stylish, moving ending to the movie with another great sample from Tangerine Dream playing, even if I would have altered the ending a bit.

So take what I say with a grain of salt, I'm a huge Michael Mann fan, but Thief is as good if not better than the director's most well-known and respected movies like Heat and Collateral. Featuring a great performance from James Caan as an all-around badass who won't be messed with by anyone and a worthy supporting cast, Thief is one you should not let slip by.

Thief <----- trailer (1981): *** 1/2 / ****

Friday, July 3, 2009

Buchanan Rides Alone

When many people think of classic teamings between director and star in westerns, John Ford and John Wayne come to mind and for good reason. The duo made a handful of classic westerns that make many top 10 lists of all-time best westerns. One duo though that's been overshadowed over the years and has recently become more respected and held in high regard was the teaming between Randolph Scott and director Budd Boetticher.

A veteran of Hollywood movies since the late 1920s, Scott made a decision in the last half of the 1940s to only make westerns the rest of his career. Many of the movies he would then make were average, many of them B-westerns that have long since been forgotten. But teaming with Boetticher, Scott made a string of what are now considered cult classic westerns, six movies that last year were packaged in a long overdue DVD box set. Check that, five of the movies are in the set, Seven Men from Now is available separately.

These westerns are really just B-movies when comparing them to other westerns of the time like The Searchers or Shane. None are longer than 80 minutes and all of them are content to tell a simple, straightforward story. The main character in each of them, Scott in all 6, typically has a checkered past in one way or another and has to redeem himself in some way. While Scott was one of the first anti-heroes, the bad guys walked that fine line between good and bad, often working with Scott's character all the while building to a showdown. They're good old-fashioned movies, much like John Wayne's westerns, where you can just sit back and enjoy.

Having seen five of the six Scott/Boetticher westerns, I was happy to see Buchanan Rides Alone, the one I haven't seen, on TCM's schedule last week. It took me awhile to sit down and watch it, but it was worth the wait to say I've seen all six. Scott plays Tom Buchanan, a former mercenary coming back from fighting in the Mexican Revolution. He's got a pocketful of cash and is ready to start his spread up in west Texas. On the ride home, he's stopped in a dusty California town of Agry and quickly finds himself in a mess of a situation.

The man in charge in town, Simon Agry (Tol Avery), runs everything from the shops to the newspaper to the saloon and for good measure, his brother Lew (Barry Kelley) is the sheriff. Scott is having a drink at the saloon when a vaquero, Juan de la Vegas (Manuel Rojas), enters and promptly shoots Roy Agry, Simon's hot-headed son. We learn later Roy hit and possibly abused Juan's girlfriend. The townspeople jump to conclusions and think Buchanan was tied up in the shooting. Just wanting to start his life over in Texas, Buchanan now must fight his way out of one more brewing shootout.

What's notable from many Boetticher westerns was the director's ability to cast rising stars in a supporting role. As good as Scott is in these movies, it's often these actors who steal the scenes they're in. What's missing from 'Buchanan' is that great supporting cast. L.Q. Jones definitely qualifies as Pecos, another west Texas cowboy who sides with Buchanan, a role perfectly suited to the likable, drawling character actor. But other than Jones, no one jumps out or makes much of an impression. Craig Stevens plays Carbo, apparently Simon's right-hand man but he's never really explained so I could be wrong.

I'll always prefer wide-open wilderness westerns that town-based westerns, but this one at least takes advantage of shooting in a town. Filmed in Old Tucson, maybe most recognizably known from Rio Bravo, Agry feels like a real western town instead of shooting on a backlot in Hollywood. But other things don't work, especially some attempts at humor with Amos Agry (Peter Whitney), the somewhat slow-witted Agry brother who is always frantically running around town bringing news of developments at the jail or the ranch.

The final shootout could have been a good one, but parts of it were just too ridiculous. A saddlebag holding $50,000 lies on a dusty bridge with the two opposite groups on either side. When cowboys go running after it, they do just For goodness sake, crouch down and make your way out there. Other than the showdown at the end, Boetticher doesn't have much action here, but at just 78 minutes, the movie's always moving along at a good pace so you shouldn't be bored.

So while not as good as Ride Lonesome or Seven Men From Now, Buchanan Rides Alone is still a worthy entry in the Scott/Boetticher pairing. If you're looking to see these movies, they're available as a set at Amazon or any number of vendors (I included the link earlier) or rent them through Netflix. They may not be as known or even respected as many other westerns from the 50s, but they deserve to be listed with the classics like The Searchers and Shane. Here's a trailer and a 9-minute interview with filmmaker Taylor Hackford about 'Buchanan.'

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Grand Slam

Before I get into another review, I wanted to bring up an underrated DVD company that has done a great job over the years releasing a wide variety of cult classics and exploitation films from Europe, especially Italian movies. Thanks to Blue Underground, I've been able to see many movies that I otherwise would have only been able to read about or pay a nice bundle for a region free DVD player. BU does a great job with packaging the movies in widescreen presentations and doesn't skimp on the special features. Check out their website for some great if not so well known movie selections.

My latest Netflix movie was from Blue Underground, a 1967 Italian heist film called Grand Slam. It has drawn some comparisons to Rififi which are fair, but it stands on its own with a very 60s style to it. The movie was filmed in Rio de Janeiro which provides some interesting locations as the heist develops. Grand Slam begins with a bookend, a set-up for the rest of the movie. So if nothing else, GS gets points for originality.

After 30 years teaching in Rio, Professor James Anders (Edward G. Robinson) is retiring and heads home to New York. He visits an old friend, Mark Milford (Adolfo Celi), who's now heavily involved in the underworld with a proposition, a heist that's been brewing in Anders' head for many years. From his office in Rio, Anders had a view twice a year of a diamond shipment being delivered to the bank across the street. It comes like clockwork, and the professor has everything figured out on how to get the diamonds. And why do it this year? The delivery coincides with Carnival and will leave the bank closed for business for 4 days and wide open for the heist. With help from Milford recruiting a team, Anders puts his plan into action.

Heading the team is a German mercenary (Klaus Kinski), joined by an engineer (Riccardo Cucciolla), a safecracker (George Rigaud), and interestingly enough, a playboy (Robert Hoffmann) who typically has no problems with women. Part of the heist goes to the playboy, Jean-Paul, who must seduce a woman who works in the bank, Mary Ann (Janet Leigh), and get his hands on a set of keys to the vault. The planning goes smoothy until the foursome discover the bank has installed a new security system, the Grand Slam, which utilizes extremely sensitive microphones and sets off an alarm at the slightest sound over 16 decibels.

After the opening introduction and recruiting of the team, Robinson and Celi disappear until the last 15 minutes or so. Most of the movies belongs to the heist team with the planning, execution, and getaway of the diamonds. Just wanted to point that out so don't go in expecting a Robinson-dominated movie although he is good in what amounts to an extended cameo, Celi too. The always intense Kinski leads the team, and he doesn't disappoint here, seemingly always one good shove away from snapping. Hoffmann gets to smooze Leigh, that must have been tough, and Cucciolla falls for a local girl. As the stoic safecracker, Rigaud doesn't get any love interests, but as the veteran of the group provides some needed calmness and leadership with Kinski.

Following the huge success of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, Leigh was only in a handful of other movies while guest starring on a number of TV shows in the 60s and 70s. Made to look somewhat plain with a large pair of glasses and pulled back pale blond hair, Leigh is supposed to be the unattractive secretary that no man would be interested in. All I could think at that characterization was rrrrrrrrright. It would have been hard to 'ugly up' Leigh, with one character even saying "I'm glad it wasn't me" in reference to Jean-Paul having to woo her. Leigh has a great part here as a woman being played by the playboy.

Some of the comparisons to Rififi have to come from the similarities in the actual heist sequence. It's a quiet sequence although I'd have to go back and watch to see if there was actually any words spoken between the four men. The way the team gets around the Grand Slam security system is a creative one, one I hadn't thought of, and the setting of the opening of Carnival with a huge parade going on makes for an interesting entrance and getaway. The heist is long, lasting most of a half hour in running time as the plan develops, but it's well-choreographed, especially with two security guards patrolling the building on a 30-minute loop.

Other things worth mentioning include the ending with 2 different twists, both working very well without being forced. The second twist isn't as surprising as the first, but it works perfectly and should hopefully produce a chuckle or two because if we've learned anything from heist movies over the years, crime doesn't pay. It's the type of twist ending that can make a good movie into a very good movie. I won't say it's a classic heist movie, but Grand Slam does everything well. Ennio Morricone turns in another interesting, catchy score although it's really only used in the opening and closing credits. Check out the trailer if you're wavering on whether to see it.

Grand Slam (1967): ***/****

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Netflix review #24: License to Kill

It's official, I've seen every James Bond movie from Dr. No to Quantum of Solace. I haven't watched the Pierce Brosnan entries straight through since their initial release so I won't rank them all just yet, but with 1989's License to Kill now checked off, I've seen 'em all.

What set the two Timothy Dalton Bond movies apart from the rest was that they weren't content to go with the status quo. The Moore movies started off strong but got too jokey, too satirical by the end of the run. The Living Daylights righted the ship with a great action/spy movie, and LtK expands on the James Bond character. Several posts at IMDB talk about LtK as a sort of spiritual sequel to On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and it's hard to disagree with.

Bond is on the vengeance trail here, going up against a drug dealer, not Ernst Blofeld trying to ransom off the world. On the way to old CIA buddy Felix Leiter's wedding, Bond joins Leiter (David Hedison) in an effort with the DEA to scoop up infamous drug kingpin Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) who comes into jurisdiction for a quick snatch and grab job. Watch it here if curious. But when Sanchez is caught, he offers $2 million to anyone who can help him escape. Of course, there's a treacherous agent in the midst who helps Sanchez escape. The drug dealer begins his own path of revenge, maiming Leiter and killing his new wife.

Looking to avenge his friend and wife, Bond resigns from MI6 when he's told to take no part in the case against Sanchez. With no limits on his actions, Bond can move freely and act as viciously as the men he's chasing. It's good to see Bond go out on his own here instead of being tied down by MI6's rules and regulations. To a certan point we've seen similar stories in other movies, like Quantum of Solace, but this is the first time he's completely on his own although Q (Desmond Llewelyn) does show up and offer his support with a few gadgets. It's always great to see Q, especially here where he's allowed out of his lab.

On the vengeance trail, Bond tries to infiltrate Sanchez's inner circle, pitting the dealer against his most loyal men. It's as he gets closer to him that Bond discovers a bigger plan at work, a system of organizing the drug cartels from the east and west. They've developed a new way of transporting heroin, a system that makes the drug impossible to detect. It does provide for a great closing sequence with four oil tankers transporting the heroin racing down a mountain road, Bond doing his best to slow them down.

As Sanchez, Davi is a good if not great villain. He's not a maniacal hothead, instead a businessman with a plan to make millions. Sanchez insists on loyalty from his men and pays well to get it so when Bond shows up saying his men are looking to betray him the obvious problems arise. As for his henchmen, they're some of the best. Always a reliable bad guy/sidekick, Don Stroud is Heller, a mysterious American with a past in the armed forces, and a young Benicio Del Toro makes a frightening appearance as Dario, an ex-contra who does Sanchez's dirty work. Del Toro is only in a handful of scenes, but with some crazy eyes and his maniacal laughing makes the most of his smaller part.

On to the Bond girls, one good, one not so good. A pre-Law and Order Carrie Lowell plays Pam Bouvier, a former Army pilot who worked as one of Leiter's informants. Somewhat wooden in the part, Lowell is good in the part because she's not the helpless Bond girl who constantly needs 007 to save her. She's tough, able to handle herself, although when it comes down to it, she's got the hots for Bond. As for the not so good, Talisa Soto plays Lupe, Sanchez's girlfriend who wants out. Does she look good? Of course. Does her character serve a purpose? Not really. Others in the supporting cast include Anthony Zerbe and for the must-have odd casting in a Bond movie, Wayne Newton.

Unfortunately for the Bond series, this was the last movie in the bunch for six years until 1995's Goldeneye with Pierce Brosnan taking over the title role. LtK wasn't received that well in the U.S. at the box office, but I enjoyed it as much for a change of pace as anything. I went into the two Timothy Dalton movies with somewhat low expectations, but I can say now I think he's one of the better Bonds behind Connery and Craig.

License to Kill, <----trailer (1989): ***/****