The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Raging Bull

When Martin Scorsese won the best director Oscar in 2007 for The Departed, I don't think anybody thought he did not deserve the award. But was it his best movie really? Probably not, with the Oscar serving as more of a lifetime achievement for his previous five nominations in the category which he lost. So what was his best? There's a long list to choose from that includes Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, Mean Streets, and my new personal favorite, 1980's Raging Bull.

Too often biographical movies take the easy way out and only show the positive aspects of the character so Scorsese goes down the complete opposite path. His portrayal of middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta is brutally honest that doesn't shy away from showing the man as he truly was and is, he's still chugging along at almost 90 years old. There are scenes so honest and real that it can be difficult to watch as LaMotta self-sabotages everything that is good in his life.

The story starts in 1941 as a young LaMotta (Robert De Niro) is tearing through the boxing circuit on his eventual climb to the middleweight crown. But with his brother/manager Joey (Joe Pesci) at his side through the ups and downs, Jake decides to get to the top on his own without accepting a helping hand along the way. His decision ends up both hurting and helping his effort. Along the way, he marries a young woman, Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), and starts a family. But through the years, both in the ring and in his personal life, Jake's demons -- especially his paranoid, overly aggressive personality -- start to get the best of him, throwing detour after detour on his path.

The sign of a good sports movie -- with Raging Bull certainly qualifying -- is that you don't have to be a sports fan to enjoy it. And while the boxing scenes are incredibly well-done and beautifully shot, it is the story of Jake LaMotta more than anything. His fights are quick, never dragging on, but always brutal in their execution. Like Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, there is a horrible beauty to the fight. With Scorsese's decision to film in black and white (an incredibly brave but brilliant choice), Jake's story has a feel of the time it is set in, predominantly the 1940s and 1950s and gets off on a positive note from the beautiful opening, filmed in slow motion in a smokey boxing arena.

No slouch in the Oscars department himself with two wins and four other nominations, De Niro becomes Jake LaMotta for this part. He underwent months of training to make the boxing scenes look realistic -- they do -- and then packed on 60 lbs. for the scenes of a retired, post-boxing Jake. It's an incredible performance that earned him his second Best Actor Oscar, and a role that shows LaMotta for what he was...a deeply flawed individual who had problems in his personal life that ended up taking everything good from his life. Two scenes in particular stand out, both late in the movie (so beware of SPOILERS) as Jake realizes what he's done to himself. One, Jake's been thrown into prison and realizes he has hit rock-bottom. Two, the final scene as he recites Brando's famous monologue from On the Waterfront in one of the most moving last scenes I can think of, and all handled with just one extended shot.

Working with Scorsese and De Niro for the first time, Pesci hits his first major Hollywood role out of the ballpart with his performance as Joey, Jake's brother and manager. It's a more subdued Pesci -- although he does have his outbursts -- but one that counters De Niro so perfectly that it is easy to imagine the two men being brothers. They have such a strong chemistry, especially in this classic scene, that it helps make this already great movie even better. As Jake's long-suffering wife Vickie, Moriarty gives a performance that makes you question why she didn't go on to become a bigger star, and this was just her first part! Frank Vincent and Nicholas Colasanto are also good in supporting parts, but De Niro, Pesci and Moriarty are the standouts.

Lost amidst all the shuffle of great performances is that Scorsese was a great director at not only getting those performances out of the actors, but making a story that could have blah or boring incredibly visual. The black and white filming is inspired, and with cinematographer Michael Chapman, Scorsese brings his story to life. His ability is top-notch, like this impressive tracking shot, but also this family montage that shows the heart of the story. One of those movies that makes you glad movies are around. Don't know how I let this one slip by for so many years but I'm glad I caught up with it.

Raging Bull <----trailer (1980): ****/****

Friday, January 29, 2010


Before the History Channel became more interested in reality-based programming in the last year or so, this network focused more on (and it's a novel concept) history programming. Makes sense to me. Some dubbed it 'the Hitler Channel' because so much of their schedule was devoted to WWII shows, but that was just a small portion of their schedule. For years on Sunday mornings, History would show older war movies, ranging from classics to cheap retreads, and when I could be bothered to get up early I'd tune in and see some of my favorites, one of them being 1967's Tobruk.

It's a story set in 1942 North Africa as an inexperienced American army joins British forces in trying to keep German commander Erwin Rommel from completely booting the Allies out of the continent. I don't have numbers to back this up, but it seems to me a majority of WWII movies tend to focus on post D-Day stories as the Allies trudge across Europe. Personally though, the early stages of the war are just as interesting to me with TV shows that included The Rat Patrol and movies like The Hill and Play Dirty all set in North Africa with Tobruk added to that list.

Captured by French authorities and about to be shipped off to a German prison camp, Canadian officer Major Donald Craig (Rock Hudson) is rescued by a team of commandos led by Capt. Kurt Bergman (George Peppard), a German Jew fighting with the S.I.G (Special Investigation Group) in the Allied forces. Craig, a member of the Long Range Desert Group, has been busted out to guide a dangerous mission behind enemy lines. The commando commander, Colonel Harker (Nigel Green), has two objectives, destroy the harbor guns in Tobruk to help the invasion force and to destroy Rommel's fuel depot. Harker's men will pose as P.OW.s with Bergman's German Jews posing as their German escorts as the convoy travels over 800-miles across the desert to accomplish their mission.

Threading the needle to get to Tobruk, Harker's commandos and Bergman's unit face German minefields, patrols appearing out of nowhere, even their own fighters attacking what they think is a German column. But worst of all, there seems to be a traitor among Bergman's men, and when they pick up two German sympathizers with news that Egypt will join the fight against the Allies, their mission becomes even more important. It's a large-scale story in the vein of The Guns of Navarone (harbor guns moved from the Mediterranean to Tobruk) and Where Eagles Dare, and while not on par with those WWII action/adventures, it is still an above average flick.

For a WWII adventure to be nominated for an Academy Award -- any award -- says something. Tobruk was nominated for special effects (Howard A. Anderson and Albert Whitlock) and for good reason. The effects during the action sequences were ahead of their time, especially the finale as the commandos try to pull off both aspects of their mission as an invasion force readies to hit the beach. This is one of those battle sequences that really makes you feel like you're there scrunched up behind a rock, hoping a bullet doesn't find you. Even better, with the use of many of these effects it looks like the stars, especially Peppard, did many of their own stunts.

Tobruk's action is so good in fact it was used over again 4 years later in 1971's Raid for Rommel. Whole scenes were cut from Tobruk and inserted right into the 1971 vehicle starring Richard Burton with a similar storyline. And the action is the reason to seek this movie out, and that's considering a story that is pretty decent compared to most shoot 'em up flicks. Right from the start there's a commando rescue, but that is just the beginning. Tobruk never goes too long without some suspense, some adventure of some sort. The ending is something else with tanks, flamethrowers, motorcycles and commandos descending rappel cords off a cliff all thrown into the mix.

Getting to the finale is a lot of fun too with the three leads playing off each other well, especially Peppard and Green. Peppard steals the movie as a German Jew looking for revenge, any sort of vengeance against Germany for what they're doing to his people. He's ruthless in his actions and is more than willing to sacrifice himself for the cause. Green is the stiff upper-lip commander who clashes instantly with Peppard's Bergman, even questioning his motives. Their rivalry drives the movie, both actors rising above what could have been cardboard cutouts of characters. Hudson isn't at his best -- a soldier sick of war who does his job and nothing more -- but it is a decent enough part.

Other supporting parts include one of my personal favorites Jack Watson doing what he does best, playing the tough sergeant, with a similar end result to at least two other movies of his I can think of. Guy Stockwell is Lt. Mohnfeld, one of Bergman's officers, and Norm Rossington and Percy Herbert as two commandos around for some comedic relief. Tobruk's screenwriter Leo Gordon, who usually played tough guys in supporting roles, gets a crack to play one of the good guys for a change as well as Sgt. Krug. A WWII movie that's a lot of fun, a good old-fashioned popcorn flick. Of course, there's no DVD release but who knows, maybe History Channel will put it on one Sunday morning.

Tobruk <---trailer (1967): *** 1/2 /****

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Eye of the Needle

From the moment the U.S. entered World War II following the sneak attack at Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, the Allied forces were already planning an invasion of Europe, a second front to help ease the fighting on the Russian front and ultimately lead to the end of the war. Whoo, that was a mouthful. But in 1942 and 1943, the U.S. just wasn't ready as the war developed through North Africa and Italy. But that invasion was coming, and it was only a matter of time and where.

Now in 2010 in an age of Twitter, Facebook and a 24-hour news cycle, it's nearly impossible to comprehend that for months the Allies were able to keep the location of the invasion, Normandy, under wraps from the Germans. Only a few possibilities existed for where the troops would hit the beach so obviously some higher-ups in the government and German army could guess it would be Normany but no one ever knew for sure until the morning of June 6th. But what if somebody did know the location, a German agent working in England? The only problem is this, he must get to Adolf Hitler himself to tell him because using a radio/wireless set will get him caught. So goes 1981's Eye of the Needle.

Investigating several murders that took place over a period of years in England, police investigator Goldiman (Ian Bannen) begins to suspect that the murderer is a German agent trying to protect his cover. An old roommate of the man points him out in a picture of his graduating class...from a German military school, and the chase is on to catch him. The man? Codename: Needle, Walter Faber (Donald Sutherland), who was born in Germany but is one of Admiral Canaris' best agents working in England. Faber is on the run with news of the coming invasion, Patton's 3rd Army doesn't exist across the channel from Pas de Calais so the attack will be at Normandy.

But Faber is running out of time as the gauntlet closes around him. Trying to get to the U-boat that will take him home, his boat crashes in horrific weather on a small island off the coast, Storm Island. The only people living there are a young married couple, Lucy (Kate Nelligan) and her wheelchair-bound husband David (Christopher Cazenove) and their son Joey, and a drunken old sheep herder. There's an aerial radio available on the island, but can Faber signal the U-boat before the family figures him out and the police find out where he is? The Needle's success or failure could severely impact the result of the war.

With the WWII setting, the story can be broken down into two segments, both of which work equally well. The first hour is a hunt for a fugitive with Faber first discovering a whole army has been fabricated to throw off the Germans and then his efforts to get out of England, and the second hour taking place exclusively on Storm Island with its four occupants. That second hour plays like a horror movie with Sutherland's Faber stepping in for Jason Voorhies or Michael Myers. It's odd to see a movie do a complete 180 like that, but it works surprisingly well here. The ending especially is downright creepy as Lucy takes her son and tries to run from Faber. But on an island in the middle of nowhere, where do you run?

In some of my favorite movies like Kelly's Heroes and The Dirty Dozen, Sutherland plays the lovable idiot, like this scene where he impersonates an American general. He's perfect in these parts, especially in Kelly's Heroes as hippie tanker Oddball. So basically seeing him flip a switch and turning into a steely-eyed, murdering villain is rather startling. His performance is something else and will quickly have you forgetting whatever preconceptions you might have about him as an actor. A comedic actor? Sure, but he could play a terrifying villain too when a movie called for it.

As the lonely wife so desperate for human contact she bonds with Faber, Nelligan's Lucy is a great character in her own right. Her husband refuses to touch her and barely talks to her, her son is 4-years old and the sheepherder is drunk most of the time so she's basically on her own and has been this way for years. So when a charming man like Faber shows up she can't help but be attracted to him. Nelligan delivers a great performance, the lonely young woman who never thought her life would end up like this, but at the same time can't imagine leaving her family. As the damsel in distress in the last 30 minutes, Lucy does show she won't go quietly with Faber's plan and ends up being the heroic heroine, quite a transformation for the character.

Based on a novel by Ken Follett, Eye of the Needle is an excellent book that translates well to the big screen. WWII spy thrillers are nothing new really and have been dealt with many times in movie form, but 'Needle' brings something new to the genre. You've probably seen the first hour before or at least something similar, but the second hour goes down a different road with a great result. Very entertaining, very different spy thriller well worth checking out. Found a trailer but it was from a sketchy site so I didn't put up a link, sorry.

Eye of the Needle (1981): ***/****

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Jason and the Argonauts

If there's one thing I hate in movies, it would have to be computer-generated images or as we all so affectionately call it...CGI. I don't really hate all uses of CGI because sometimes it's necessary, but instead I'm more sick of directors, producers and studios overusing it to the point where I want to smash the disc apart rather than watch another minute. Movies like The Lord of the Rings trilogy are supposed to dazzle audiences with the spectacle of what they're watching, but usually for me it's always on my mind that 'hey, a computer made that.' "Cool."

That's one huge reason movies pre-CGI appeal to me. If a director wanted to do something spectacular with a scene, here's a novel thought, he actually had to do it or in some cases find a way around it with a green-screen, miniatures, matte paintings, things like that. One always reliable solution was Ray Harryhausen, a special effects master famous for his use of stop-motion animation, who specialized in all sorts of crazy creatures and creations. So when directors couldn't turn to computers to save the day, they turned to Harryhausen.

In most of the movies Harryhausen worked on, the stories required creatures of one sort or another that could not actually be replicated in real life...most of the time because they didn't exist. Greek mythology had hordes of such creatures, half-man and half-horse, species with six heads, harpies harassing people from the sky. And in director Don Chaffey's 1963 Greek mythology epic Jason and the Argonauts, Harryhausen turned in some of his greatest work that may seem dated now over 40 years later but at the time was groundbreaking.

The story itself is one of the more well-known adventures to come out of mythology as young Jason (Todd Armstrong) is trying to revive his home Thessaly to the power that it once was. He has heard of a golden fleece at the end of the world that if recovered, Jason believes will help inspire the country to regain its power. With backing from Greek gods Zeus and Hera (Honor Blackman), Jason goes about acquiring a ship, the Argo, and a crew of the strongest and smartest men Greece has to offer, including the greatest of Greek heroes, Hercules (Nigel Green) himself. But as Jason and his crew travel to lands where no Greek has gone before, they face a long list of foes and obstacles, both human and other-worldly.

Where movies like Troy tried to do away with anything godly or mythological, 'Jason' embraces everything of the sort. The gods, like Zeus, Hera and Hermes, interact with humans all the time, appearing here and there in a cloud of smoke as needed. Zeus even gives Hera just five chances to help Jason grow up because he fears she'll interfere too much in his development. The portrayal of Mount Olympus is actually pretty funny, very 60s stylish, and it made me chuckle they show Zeus and Hera as a bit of a bickering old married couple.

The treat here is of course Harryhausen's stop-motion special effects, especially the finale as Jason and two of the Argonauts engage in a sword fight with six skeltons brandishing shield and sword, check it out HERE but SPOILERS of course. It's an inspired sequence that took Harryhausen weeks to film because each skeleton had to be moved separately just to have one frame of shooting. One second equals about 24 frames so do the math, that's a long time playing with skeletons. But all around, the scene jumps off the screen both because of the skeleton warriors and the actors mimicking fighting these non-existent enemies.

'Jason' will always be remembered for that sequence but two others are almost as impressive thanks to Harryhausen. One has a man blinded by the gods attacked by two harpies, watch HERE, and the second has an enormous statue, Talos, coming to life and attacking Jason and the Argo, check the Talos scene out HERE. Sure, all these stop-motion scenes are obviously miniatures inserted into the movie so creature and actors never actually interact, but there's something nostalgic, something very cool about these sequences. Harryhausen spent months on things that could probably be done in a few days or hours today, all of which is a testament to his talent 30 years before computers started to take over.

The scenes without the Harryhausen creations do drag at times, but it's not long before another adventure comes around. Armstrong is a capable Jason -- although as an American his voice was dubbed because let's face it all Greeks speak proper old English -- and his supporting cast is good, especially scene-stealing Green as Hercules. Nancy Kovack joins the cast late as Medea, the requisite love interest, and Gary Raymond plays Acastus, the treacherous member of the Argo's crew. A fun movie all around, available to watch on Youtube starting with Part 1 of 11.

Jason and the Argonauts <----trailer (1963): ***/****

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Depending on when a movie was made and released has a huge impact on the tone that story will take, especially when dealing with historical fact. Compare The Green Berets to Oliver Stone's Platoon and it's hard to believe they're about the same movie. But even looking at those two movies, it's Vietnam and there is only so much you can change about the history involved. What about changing a battle completely and the subsequent result as is depicted in 1936's The Charge of the Light Brigade?

Made even more famous by a poem by Alfred Tennyson (check out that poem HERE), the actual charge of the Light Brigade is one of the most disastrous military events in British history. During the Crimean War, a miscommunication in orders leads to 600 light cavalry charging the wrong enemy position, one heavily guarded by Russian artillery, and being cut to pieces in the process. A movie version released in 1968 told that story, a cynical view of the incident that showed the "battle" for what it was...a disaster. But the 1936 version takes an interesting stance, the Light Brigade knew it was riding into certain death and still did it, and then changes the end result of the battle. Patriotic? Sure. Altering history? You bet. Does it all work? Not really.

It's 1854 and British soldier and member of the 27th Lancers Geoffrey Vickers (Errol Flynn) is returning from a mission and is going to see his fiance, Elsa (Olivia de Havilland) for the first time in many months. In his absense, Vickers isn't aware that Elsa has fallen in love with his brother, Perry (Patric Knowles). As he comes to term with this revelation, Geoffrey must also join the fight against a Suristani leader at the head of a nationwide uprising, Surat Khan (C. Henry Gordon) that could destroy every British outpost in India. After Khan leads an attack and massacres one of these outposts, Vickers and the entire 27th Lancers are aching for revenge and they get that chance when war breaks out and Khan sides with the Russians, hiding out with their artillery on the Balaklava Heights.

The first 60-75 minutes of the movie feels more like a French Foreign Legion movie than the background of the 27th Lancers. It works well enough but seems incredibly forced in giving the Light Brigade a motive, a reason for exacting revenge on their biggest enemy. Changing things for the sake of patriotism is a decision director Michael Curtiz made, and that doesn't work for a long list of reasons. Gordon's Khan comes across as a stereotypically evil Asian villain with no real motivation other than to kill as many British soldiers as possible. The first hour is entertaining as Vickers and his unit fights Khan, but it feels oddly out of place.

SPOILERS for the rest of the review. My biggest issue with the movie is changing the charge from a disaster where the Light Brigade is torn apart to a battle that ultimately leads to a British victory -- which it didn't -- as the brigade knowingly undertakes a suicide charge straight into cannons pointed down their throats. Making it worse, Flynn's Vickers receives orders the brigade should withdraw several miles, disregards those orders, and rewrites them so the brigade will instead attack through a mile-long valley rimmed by artillery. It pissed me off that one man would willingly send so many to their deaths, even if the Light Brigade is itching for a fight. It's changing history for the sake of changing something and it feels false right up until the very end.

All my issues aside, the attack charge is a remarkable feat in filmmaking. Hundreds of riders on horseback filled out the ranks for this epic charge, giving it an authentic depiction that no computer of CGI could do. There's something to be said for hundreds of stuntmen actually undertaking the filming of the not-so disastrous battle. Watch it HERE courtesy of a Youtube user. The scene is tainted because of the use of trip wires strung across the valley with horses running at a full gallop into those wires. Several hundred horses were killed in the process and forced the government to guarantee the safety of animals in motion pictures. It's an incredible sequence, but it is hard not to wince during the scenes.

Playing Geoffrey Vickers, Errol Flynn plays Errol Flynn as he always did. That's not a criticism because Flynn was quite a presence, a huge movie star and impeccably cool on-screen. But at the same time, it's hard to judge if he ever acted a day in his life. Queen of the 1930s de Havilland is a woman torn by two men she both loves in a part that's not as strong as most of her performances. Henry Stephenson and Nigel Bruce play stiff upper lip British officers, and David Niven, one of my favorites, has a small but good part as Randall, one of Vickers' closest friends and fellow soldier.

A film that's remembered as one of the classics of Hollywood's Golden Age, the changes to history proved to be too much for me. Making an idiotic mistake into a heroic, intentional decision did not work for me at all. Errol Flynn is very cool, as always, and the charge in the finale is something to behold, but the flaws definitely outweigh the positives.

The Charge of the Light Brigade <----trailer (1936): **/****

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Kremlin Letter

Sometimes I get fed up with movies spoon-feeding their stories, their twists and turns with supposedly shocking revelations. They are the type of movies where you don't even have to be fully conscious to follow the story. Call it attention deficit disorder in younger viewers -- I'm 24 and resent people saying 'younger audiences' can't sit still for more than 10 minutes -- but for whatever reason movies more and more go down the road where original stories are dummied down so the average chimp can keep up.

So when I stumble across a movie that requires your attention for every second of screen time I jump at the chance. Movies with lots of information thrown your way in a short period of time can be frustrating and enjoyable at the same time. And where would this all work better because the genre framework is already established? Spy movies where betrayals, deceptions and double crosses are part of the landscape. Virtually forgotten 40 years since its release -- thanks to no DVD or VHS release -- 1970's The Kremlin Letter, directed by John Huston, is a nice little twist on the spy movie.

Released in the midst of the James Bond craze, The Kremlin Letter is basically the anti-007 in terms of action and storytelling. Huston's take is heavy on dialogue with almost no action from start to finish. Instead of action, there's tension to spare as a team of American and British agents go undercover in Moscow to accomplish a perilous mission. Countless bits of information and explanations about the setting and the characters are thrown your way without warning, forcing you to file away little bits of information in your head so a scene or a line makes sense later in the movie. With all that said, the "twist" revealed late isn't that much of a surprise -- if you're paying attention or have seen even a couple spy movie or two you'll spot it early -- but it does work because of how the twist affects the story.

In the midst of the Cold War, a single letter could tear apart the world if it falls into the wrong hands. A high-ranking American official has written a letter saying the U.S. would help the USSR in taking out China's nuclear weapons program, and the agent holding the letter turns up dead...without the letter. A new agent, Charles Rone (Patrick O'Neal), is assigned to assemble a team with the help of agents who have experience dating back to WWII. This group of American and British agents will be headed by Ward (Richard Boone) who will lead a group of specialists (Nigel Green, Dean Jagger, George Sanders, and Barbara Parkins) in hopes of getting the letter back before all-out war breaks out. Getting that letter won't be so easy though with two Russian agents, Kosnov (Max von Sydow) and Bresnavitch (Orson Welles) also involved.

Reading through that cast listing when I saw this movie on TCM's schedule, I'm not going to lie; I was a little disappointed in myself I'd never even heard of this movie...not even in passing, even a little bit. It's not a classic spy movie, but it is an above average entry. Most of that credit goes to Huston's directing and the performances he gets from this very impressive grouping of actors and actresses. With very little action, the spotlight is squarely on the cast to carry the movie. Some are in it more than others -- Jagger, Green and Sanders are criminally underused with some great eccentric characters -- but even the smaller performances leave an impression.

Never a huge star but always a reliable lead, O'Neal is the anti-007 in his portrayal of a spy. His Rone doesn't carry a gun, is a last-minute replacement for his position, and with his photographic memory and ability to remember everything told to him is a valuable member of the team. Instead of fighting his way out of a situation, Rone thinks things out before putting his life on the line, especially in a key subplot that sees him develop a relationship with von Sydow's Kosnov's wife, Erika (Bibi Andersson). As the veteran agent working with Rone, Richard Boone makes the biggest impression, and that's saying something considering the cast. His Ward is a scene-stealer, always addressing Rone as 'Nephew' with his Texan drawl, and demanding your attention every minute he's on-screen.

Their counterparts, von Sydow and Welles, have less time and development but don't waste a second. And really can you think of two better actors to play imposing, always intimidating Russian agents? Much like his role in 3 Days of the Condor, von Sydow is frightening with his steely glare, and when wasn't Welles an intimidating presence? The whole cast seems to be enjoying themselves with Green as a pimp/drug dealer, Sanders as a transvestite, and Parkins as a wet behind the ears safecracker. Raf Vallone even makes a quick appearance as an espionage teacher. They play the type of characters that could probably carry a movie on their own, but instead play supporting roles here. If I can find a copy of Noel Behn's source novel, I'll be sure to pick it up just to see if how much had to be cut for a feature film.

An interesting movie for any number of reasons, especially considering the year and time it was released in. It's hard to figure out why this little gem has been forgotten over the years (maybe it was too different from what audiences were seeing with the Bond series), but it is worth tracking down just to watch this great cast go to town with an interesting spy story. Convoluted at times but everything clears up in the end, including one last twist in the final scene.

The Kremlin Letter <----TCM clips (1970): ***/****

Friday, January 22, 2010

White Lightning

Reviewing Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds last fall, I did my fair share of slobbering over the movie but didn't go into much detail when it came to the soundtrack. An avid movie buff, Tarantino sampled a long list of scores from previous movies -- including a heavy dose of Ennio Morricone and spaghetti westerns -- that ranged from critically acclaimed French movies to lesser thought of average flicks. What was so surprising was that almost all these scores that were made for other movies worked so well in Tarantino's WWII story.

Not intentionally seeking these movies out, I've caught up with many of them and more than a few times have thought 'why does this music sound familiar?' while watching. Give the man credit, he knows how to put a sountrack together. The latest track I can cross off the list is from 1973's White Lightning with a soundtrack from composer Charles Bernstein. Listen HERE to the main theme that Tarantino used in 'Inglorious Basterds.'

Bernstein's main theme sets the tone just seconds into White Lightning in a great scene that plays along with the credits. Two men are rowing a boat out in the swamp with a second boat tied behind them. In that second boat, two teenagers are gagged and cuffed to an anchor lying on the floor. One of the men in the lead boat pulls a shotgun up and blasts a hole in the second boat, sending the two boys to their painful deaths. At a work camp/prison upstate, one prisoner, Gator McCluskey (Burt Reynolds) receives news that his brother is dead and no one knows how it happened.

A longtime whiskey runner, Gator is no fool and can figure out what happened -- of course he doesn't know that his younger brother was one of the two in the boat. He cuts a deal with the government to work as an informant and try to bring the Bogan County sheriff, J.C. Connors (Ned Beatty), down for years of corruption and overstepping his bounds of the office. Gator signs on with another moonshine runner, Roy Boone (Bo Hopkins), and starts to work for the big supplier in the county, Big Bear (R.G. Armstrong). It's not long before Connors figures out Washington has a snoop in town, but can Gator get enough information on him to take him down before he gets whacked?

Moonshine in the deep South has been handled all sorts of ways in popular culture, as comedy in TV shows like The Andy Griffith Show and seriously like in Thunder Road with Robert Mitchum. White Lightning falls somewhere in between with comedic and dramatic moments. Gator takes the job as an informant only as a means to exact some revenge, but he doesn't seem to be in any rush to take that revenge. He does some moonshining, some driving, romances Boone's girl Lou (Jennifer Billingsley) and generally enjoys himself now that he's out of prison.

A few exciting car chases make the movie worthwhile including some crazy stunts, one that almost ended disastrously when a car tried to jump a pier onto a barge floating down the river. These chases are basically the Dukes of Hazard before that show was around, so imagine fast cars gunning it across country backroads with cops hot on their tail. Not a paved road in sight as sand, dirt and dust gets kicked up all over the South. Reynolds, Hopkins and Beatty all look to have done a fair share of their own stunt driving which is always nice to see instead of an obviously inserted stuntman.

This 'rednecks and cars' movie was released a year after the huge success of Deliverance so Reynolds was becoming a huge star at the time. I'd never say he was a great actor, but he's a great movie star. His parts always had a lot of presence, and Reynolds was a more than capable comedic action star. A part that required him to be a smart-ass who's always ready with a punch or a one-liner was ideal for him, and this fits in that category. The rest of the cast is one of those typically 70s casts that just makes me happy. Hopkins and Armstrong are joined by Matt Clark as Dude Watson, Gator's source and mechanic. All great supporting actors that were never huge stars but nonetheless make a movie better just by being there. And Beatty as the villain, who would have thought a little, balding, pudgy guy could be so intimidating, but he pulls it off.

A harmless enough movie that's a good way to spend a couple hours. Fast cars, sometimes faster women, boozing and corrupt cops. That sounds like an entertaining movie to me. I liked it enough to watch the sequel that came out three years later, named appropriately enough 'Gator.' If interested in checking this one out, Hulu has it available to watch, click HERE.

White Lightning <----trailer (1973) ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, January 21, 2010


If there is one thing director Martin Scorsese knows -- and I'd say he knows a lot more than that one thing but just go with me -- it is the gangster/mobster movie, a theme he has gone back to the well for several times, starting as far back a 1973's Mean Streets and continuing through 2006's The Departed with a few ventures spread through the years in between. With other successful movies like Gangs of New York, Raging Bull, The Aviator and Taxi Driver, Scorsese is shown he is more than just a one-trick pony, but for many fans he will always be associated with gangsters and mobsters.

Is it really a bad thing to be known for success with one type of movie? Scorsese is far from being typecast, and he can make any movie he wants at any time he wants to so I wouldn't say he's been typecast. What sets all his gangster movies apart from your average mobster flick is that he brings the underworld to life in a way where the viewer can appreciate all aspects of the life. One, there's the bond, the camaraderie that develops among these crooks, making the life almost seem glamorous, Second, the not so nice end, the betrayals, double crosses, murders left and right. Nowhere are both aspects handled better than 1990's Goodfellas.

Growing up in 1955 New York, half-Italian, half-Jewish teenager Henry Hill wants nothing more than to be a mobster. Living with his family across the street from a mobster's hangout, Henry sees the life and knows he wants to be a part of it. So he gets a job working for the local boss, Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino), and starts working his way up the ladder. Fast forward seven years and a 20-something Henry (Ray Liotta) is a powerful member of Cicero's crew and showing no signs of slowing down. Working with Irish hitman Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and livewire psycho Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), Henry continues to make a name for himself.

He marries a Jewish girl, Karen (Lorraine Bracco), and starts a family with the nice suburban house. Everything seems to be in Henry's favor as the money from all his *cough* business ventures continues to roll in. But how many times have we seen this story? For every meteoric rise to the top, there's also the inevitable downfall. Based on a book called Wiseguy, Goodfellas brings you into the life of a mobster like few other movies have -- sometimes to the detriment of the story, but more later on that. Henry serves as the narrator (Karen gets a few voiceovers too), explaining and illustrating background in a few sentences that would have taken whole scenes to describe.

And working with a true story as a source, Scorsese nails the scenes with these underworld personalities. The dialogue crackles with energy, the banter between these guys is unbelievable, blunt, in your face, filthy, and generally as politically incorrect as possible. These scenes also serve to show the tight-knit bond and culture these guys share -- sometimes for good, sometimes for bad -- having chosen a "job" that will most likely end with a jail sentence or a bullet in your head.

For years, all I heard were positively glowing reviews for this movie, and I'm not disagreeing but parts are both sluggish and too fast-paced at the same time. In 145 minutes, Scorsese covers 25 years of story with some parts going by too quickly and then the whole last 30 minutes devoted to a single day. And as good as Bracco is as long-suffering wife Karen, the segments dealing with Henry's family don't have the same energy as the rest of the movie. That's not to say these scenes aren't good, but it never feels like I'm watching anything I haven't seen before.

The scenes that are on par with everything Godfather I and II offers are with Henry, Jimmy and Tommy. It's the type of role for Liotta that makes me question why he never became a bigger star. He might not have the most glamorous part here, but don't fool yourself...this is his movie, and he's the star. De Niro and Pesci (who won a best supporting Oscar) have parts that don't require them to be in every scene so their characters drift in and out of the story. But when they are on-screen, it's some of the best scenery-chewing (thank you Netflix for the description) you'll ever see. Pesci is a lunatic (watch this classic scene), ready to blow somebody away for insulting him, and De Niro isn't too far behind. Great parts here for two great actors.

Picking this movie on my Netflix queue, I wanted to love it but only ended up really liking it. All the Scorsese touches are there, the great rock soundtrack used to perfection, the amazing script, and that dark humor that works so well in stories like this, like THIS scene where all the mobsters are introduced. All the positives definitely outweigh the negatives, and I'm definitely recommending this one, but I'm a little disappointed I didn't like it more.

Goodfellas <----trailer (1990): ***/****

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Anatomy of a Murder

In the 1950s, actors like James Dean, Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando started a trend in acting that continues even to this day; method acting. Actors tried to really get into the role, often times driving everyone around them nuts in the process. What about method directing then? I couldn't help but think of that idea while watching 1959's Anatomy of a Murder from director Otto Preminger.

A producer, director and actor at different points during his career, Preminger never shied away from telling stories without that glossy finish. His movies feel real, almost like a documentary, because they don't call attention to themselves in a highly visual way. These movies are nonetheless great to look at -- the German-born director favored black and white filming -- but as a viewer you feel like you are there with the actors in the scene. Where some directors overfilm (if that's a word/concept), Preminger puts the camera in place and lets his actors go to work. This style pays off with his depiction of a genre that's been used to death in film, the courtroom drama.

Having lost his position as the county district attorney, lawyer Paul Biegler (James Stewart) has settled into an easier, slower-paced lifestyle. He spends much of his time fishing, playing his piano, listening to music and reading law with his friend Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O'Connell), and then takes an occassional case here and there. But then Paul is offered a high-profile case to defend a soldier, Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), who shot a man five times for raping his wife, Laura (Lee Remick). Paul isn't sure if he should take the case but after looking into it and interviewing those involved decides to defend Manion. What's waiting for him in court is Michigan's best prosecutor, a ringer brought in from Lansing, Claude Dancer (George C. Scott).

Having grown up watching countless repeats of Law & Order, Boston Legal, and any number of courtroom movies like 12 Angry Men, I won't say I'm jaded when it comes to that type of story, but I feel like I've seen just about everything the genre has. That doesn't mean I don't seek these movies out, it just takes a little more to impress me. Preminger succeeds on that level with his sometimes leisurely -- slow-paced isn't the right choice of description -- courtroom story that runs 160 minutes. Even at over two and a half hours, it doesn't feel long. The first hour is Biegler's personal investigation as he figures out exactly what happened in the murder. The last 90-100 minutes is the actual trial, and it's one of the best presentations of a courtroom trial I've ever seen, thanks to Stewart and Scott bantering back and forth.

What's interesting in the execution of the trial is the feel of a twist coming, the expectation that we're about to be wowed with some huge revelation. It never comes. There is no twist. Preminger doles out the story, the situation and the characters and lets the story peel like an onion. The jury's verdict is read, and that's it. So in a way, it is a twist. The story is as linear as a story like this could be. Biegler is the viewer because he knows what we know. Was Laura Manion raped, or was she having an affair that went to far? Did Lt. Manion go temporarily insane when he shot the accused rapist? Preminger doesn't give you an easy out, no nice and tidy explanation. And that's why Anatomy of a Murder works.

Working with many of Hollywood's biggest stars, Preminger had a reputation as a stickler for details, but he was always able to get an impressive performance out of his actors. I can't decide about Jimmy Stewart because I say this with every movie I see with him in it, but this is one of his finest performances. With the Manion case, he's up against the wall and must use every trick in the book to get his client acquitted. It's one of those performances where you can't take your eyes off the star, it's that captivating to watch him work. Stewart worked with all the greats in his career, Preminger, Ford, Hitchcock, Capra, and it's easy to see why. He never mails it in, always making his performances special.

To work with Stewart, Preminger assembles an impressive listing for his supporting cast. Gazzara is his typical sneering, intimidating self as Manion, and Remick sexes it up as his possibly trampy wife Laura. Neither character is particularly likable, and we're never sure who's telling the truth so Stewart's Biegler has his work laid out for him if he wants to win the case and get Manion off. This isn't Scott's best part, mostly because it is a one-note part, but he makes the most of it. O'Connell is the stereotypical country drunk who never really lived up to his own expectations but gets a 2nd chance at success with Biegler. Eve Arden has a funny part as Paul's long suffering secretary looking for a paycheck, and Kathryn Grant plays Mary Pilant, the estranged daughter of the murder victim.

Certainly a unique look at a genre that's been overdone at times. Somewhat risque for the time in its depiction of a rape and the rape victim, Preminger has a winner with this courtroom drama. Not a perfect movie, but pretty close to being one. Enjoy the very cheesey, very enjoyable overdone trailer.

Anatomy of a Murder <----trailer (1959): *** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Blind Side

If pressed for my favorite type of movie behind the western, it would be a tough decision, but one of the main contenders would have to be sports movies. In comedy and drama, real life and fictional, old and new, sports movies seem to carry on. Even being pretty cynical when it comes to movies, the sports movie is the one genre I'm always happy to see the happy Hollywood ending.

Released in late November in theaters, The Blind Side is a perfect example of a movie that has thrived because of word of mouth. It got decent enough reviews but nothing extraordinary. Now two months later, Blind Side has earned over $200 million in theaters and is even picking up steam in hopes of getting some nominations coming up in awards season. I finally got around to seeing it this weekend -- 3 movies in theaters in one week is a new record for me -- and ended up loving this sugary, sappy sweet movie based on the true story of Baltimore Ravens lineman Michael Oher.

With a drug addict mother and a father who abandoned the family a week after his son was born, Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) cares for himself, staying with friends whenever he can and just barely skating by at school. He's accepted to Wingate Christian High School, a private school in Memphis, with some help of a friend's father, but just trying to survive takes priority over schoolwork. So one day walking back to the school gym to stay the night, Michael is stopped by Leigh Ann Touhey (Sandra Bullock) and her family driving home from a volleyball game.

Married to a well to-do businessman Sean (Tim McGraw) and with two kids, high school junior Collins (Lily Collins) and precocious youngster S.J. -- for Sean Jr -- (Jae Head), Leigh Ann has the ideal life. But seeing this high school student living on his own, Leigh Ann says he can come home with them and sleep on their couch. What starts as one night turns into another and another until Michael finally just moves in with them, with Leigh Ann and Sean finally becoming his legal guardians. Michael slowly opens up to them and really hits his stride when introduced to playing football. Standing 6'4 and weighing almost 300 lbs, Michael takes to the sport right away.

This movie doesn't have a negative bone in its body, and that's a good thing. Blind Side director John Lee Hancock has worked with true stories before, like 2004's The Alamo, and also true sports stories, 2002's The Rookie, and handles Michael Oher's story perfectly without being too sentimental...although it's hard not to feel for the character. Seeing him change and develop with his surroundings then is that much more effective when it does happen. From the get-go, you're in Michael's corner. He's trying to rise above a situation in the poorer neighborhoods of Memphis where very few people get out of. With help from the Touheys, he does just that.

Last night at the Golden Globes, Sandra Bullock won the award for best actress in a motion picture, and good for her. I've always thought of her more as a comedic actress -- although she was excellent in Crash playing completely against type -- but Bullock delves into the Leigh Ann Touhy character and brings her to life. Full of personality and personal beliefs, it's hard to take your eyes away from her. Where Bullock's Touhey is out-going and downright confrontational at times, Aaron's Michael is just the opposite. He's quiet, mild-mannered and generally introverted until he's given a chance to express himself, and that's when he begins to thrive. It is a great performance by Aaron and hopefully a springboard for him in the future.

Bullock and Aaron dominate the movie's screentime, and it is their relationship that the movie succeeds with, but the supporting cast does not disappoint. If anything, McGraw is underused as Leigh Ann's husband Sean, but with what's provided makes the most of of thinly written part. Young Jae Head is that movie kid, the one who talks like no kid ever has, but is very cute, very precocious in doing it. His bonding with Michael provides some of the movie's funnier moments. Kathy Bates also makes an appearance as Miss Sue, Michael's tutor and Ray McKinnon hams it up as Coach Cotton, Wingate's football coach.

Like most serious sports movies, Hancock's Blind Side does attempt to pull the old heart-strings a bit but it doesn't try too hard. Because of that, the movie works in that middle ground, not too sappy, not too distant. Working with a true story and real people has to be tricky, but the movie handles it well. Highly enjoyable overall for a good old-fashioned well told story. It's weird how good stories turn into good movies, isn't it?

The Blind Side <----trailer (2009) *** 1/2 /*****

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Dark Blue

On April 29, 1992, three members of the Los Angeles police force were acquitted for their involvement in the Rodney King case, setting off six-days of rioting across the city that accounted for 53 deaths, thousands of injuries and over a billion dollars in damages. Using the week leading up to that acquittal as the setting for his script, James Ellroy -- who also wrote L.A. Confidential -- turns in another winner with 2001's Dark Blue, a story that deals with all the corruption and wrongdoings going on in the LAPD.

Working off Ellroy's novel for 'Confidential,' that 1997 movie earned a nomination for writing so Ellroy goes back to the well for Dark Blue, which explores some of the same topics. But setting the story around the Rodney King trial gives the movie an extremely tense feeling because as a viewer we know what's coming when the jury finally makes their decision. And with Chinatown (1930s), Confidential (1950s), and here with Dark Blue (1990s), it's like a timeline of corruption for Los Angeles.

Assigned a case usually given to homicide, detectives Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell), a veteran officer and a 3rd-generation cop, and Bobby Keogh (Scott Speedman), a new officer on the force, are investigating four murders at a Korean grocery market. But as they look into the brutal killings, the evidence doesn't add up, and they find out some of their superiors may have been involved with the case. As Perry and Keogh investigate, another higher-up officer, Arthur Holland (Ving Rhames), is trying to take the detective duo down because of what he believes is years of corruption, fabricating evidence and arresting people just to shut down cases, guilty or not. Perry's SIS supervisor, Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson), is doing his best to keep his detectives out in the field. With the jury decision looming, Perry and Keogh do whatever they can to close their own case.

Procedural cop stories are a dime a dozen in both movies and TV and because they're so popular there is probably no end in sight. The better ones tend to dig into the real nitty-gritty day to day lives of the officers and beat cops on the streets. Russell's Perry grew up wanting to be a cop and isn't above bribing, blackmailing or fabricating evidence to get a warrant. He's as politically incorrect as possible, but did he become this way because of what he sees doing his job or because that's how he always was? These questions bounced around in my head a lot while watching, mostly because Russell is such a likable character that he makes Perry sympathetic at times and easily hatable in others.

Playing a darker character than he typically plays, Russell carries the movie with his performance. He's racist, alcoholic, sometimes trigger-happy and will close his cases and catch the bad guy rules/morals/policies be damned. All of this comes to a head as the race riots start in L.A. in an ending that could have been overly theatrical but ends up working because it shows a man that's been pushed too far. As his friend and boss, Gleeson steals just about every scene he's in as Van Meter, the incredibly corrupt long-time officer who lets other do his busy work for him while he reaps the benefits. Speedman is a bit of a weak link in the story mostly because he's not up to his co-stars in ability. Rhames has a small but integral part and handles it well, but don't expect two hours of Russell and Rhames going toe to toe.

Director Ron Shelton chose to film the movie in Los Angeles, often going into the roughest neighborhoods in the cities to get shots he needed. The decision pays off, giving the story that gritty, realistic feel it needed to be successful. The riot scenes especially stand out as Perry tries to drive through the mayhem tearing the city apart, all the while trying to catch two suspects looking to make a quick getaway. Not having been old enough to realize what was going on in 1992, seeing Shelton's depiction is downright frightening with the final shot an especially haunting one as L.A. burns.

Nothing too original here, nothing you won't have seen before if you're a fan of procedural police movies, but that doesn't mean it's not worth seeing. Formulaic doesn't mean bad in my book. Kurt Russell in the lead gives a fine performance and Brendan Gleeson matches him in every scene. It's not flashy in its execution, but Shelton's movie is always solid and worth a rent.

Dark Blue <---trailer (2002): ***/****

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Book of Eli

Apocalypse movies have been all the rage of late, and why not? Maybe people like to see a picture of what the world we live in is heading for -- possibly that is -- but there's clearly a formula developing as to how to make apocalyptic movies. There's been a recent string of these movies including 2012 and The Road, and most recently The Book of Eli which opened in theaters yesterday.

A combination of Mad Max, The Road and Fahrenheit 451, The Book of Eli appeals to me in the same way many westerns do. The setting is the west in the U.S. some 30 years after 'the flash,' some cataclysmic incident where the ozone layer was torn open and the Earth began to burn. It wasn't a world destroyer though as many people survived, some forming into smaller groups and building communities and towns that dot the country. During the incident -- it's never spelled out although religion is hinted at for being a cause -- a revolution resulted where books, all books, burned. Now a quarter century later the world tries to build up again.

One of those people who survived the blast is Eli (Denzel Washington), a man in his late 30s, maybe early 40s who travels across the country, all the while heading west. In his possession is a leather-bound King James Bible, possibly the last one in existence with all the book burnings. He protects it closely, ready to dispatch anyone who tries to take it from him as he crosses the bleak, vacant stretches of land. One day, he walks into a small town run by a man known only as Carnegie (Gary Oldman) who rules the area because he controls the all-important water supply. In trying to gain as much power as possible, Carnegie has been looking for years for a copy of the Bible and through a young woman, Solara (Mila Kunis), working in his bar finds out that Eli has one. Carnegie wants it and will spare nothing or no one to get it, but Eli has no plans of giving it up easily.

Making their first movie in nine years, the Hughes brothers, Albert and Allen, turn in a strong movie in their return to the big screen. Working with cinematographer/director of photography Don Burgess, the twin brother directing combo create an intensely visual movie full of washed out colors -- almost like sepia -- that give everything a tired, beaten down by the world look. As Eli treks cross-country, it feels like the viewer is in this desert wasteland with him. The desert presents all sorts of dangers like hijackers (Eli's handling of an ambush is a great introductory sequence, one of the better recent action scenes) and an almost complete lack of water.

The action scenes are inspired as Eli equipped with a razor-sharp machete, pistol and pump-action shotgun deals with hijackers, thugs, and Carnegie's men. Unlike many action movies, these scenes are shown in one continuous shot without a cut. So instead of a flurry of quick-cut individual shots, we get one fast yet clear shot of Eli dispatching his attackers. As if those weren't cool enough, there's also a gunfight straight out of the old west as Eli turns to his pistol to get him out of a sticky situation with Carnegie and his demands.

This builds and builds to a phenomenal final 30 minutes. The first 90 are strong and highly enjoyable on their own, but the last half hour takes it to another level. There's one major twist -- think Sixth Sense -- that is hinted at throughout the movie but is handled so well it would be hard to pick up on an initial viewing. I didn't see it coming at all and am still coming around with it. But on a bigger level (no twist involved) it's a very emotional ending, surprisingly so since this movie is being marketed as an action flick, that goes back to what all apocalypse movies have...there will always be a remnant, a group to carry on where others have fallen. This ending features a great cameo from Malcolm McDowell, quite a departure from his Clockwork Orange part.

Starring as a man of few words on a mission, Denzel Washington is phenomenal as Eli. With little in the way of dialogue and even less background, Washington brings Eli to life, a character you find yourself rooting for because somehow you know he is in the right and doing something incredibly worthwhile. When Eli does speak, Washington shows off the old acting chops, especially when he explains how the book came into his possession. An actor more than a movie star, it's always nice to see Washington get to do some heavy-duty fight scenes too. Oldman gets back to his bad guy roots as Carnegie, and Kunis continues a string of movies where she's shown she is more than just shrill Jackie Burkhart. Also worth looking out for is Ray Stevenson as Redridge, Carnegie's right hand man, Jennifer Beals as Claudia, Solara's blind mother, Tom Waits as a suspicious storekeeper, and Frances de la Tour and Michael Gambon as an old married couple Eli meets on the road.

Not overly religious and not quite a straight action movie, The Book of Eli has a little bit of everything for the audience. Great casting, especially Washington and Oldman, help boost this apocalyptic story into something more than just its spare parts. As for the twist, it is one of those revelations that make you want to go back and watch the movie again, see if you can spot all the clues as they're presented. In this movie's case, I look forward to seeing it again because it certainly fooled me the first time around.

The Book of Eli <----trailer (2010): *** 1/2 /****

Friday, January 15, 2010

Dark of the Sun

Where the wild west had its gunfighters, hired gun and bounty killers, the 20th century had its mercenaries and soldiers of fortune. Action movies have certainly played that angle, men with no allegiance to country or morals, just whoever will pay them the most money. Of course, it's not like mercenaries just popped up on the radar in the 1900s, they've been around for as long as there's been fighting and war going back to ancient Egypt all the way to the American Revolution when German soldiers fought alongside the British.

But in the 20th Century conflicts all around the world allowed mercenaries to step into the limelight, and nowhere is that reflected more than in the movies. Films about soldiers of fortune that come to mind include several set in Africa where government coups, overthrows and assassinations dot the continent's history. Movies like The Wild Geese, The Dogs of War, and 1968's Dark of the Sun all follow the exploits and adventures of mercenaries working on the Dark Continent with all the political unrest giving them a chance to make heaps of cash.

Recruited by Congo president Ubi (Calvin Lockhart) and offered a large sum of money for their services, mercenary duo Capt. Curry (Rod Taylor) and Sgt. Ruffo (Jim Brown) agree to take on a dangerous mission in war-torn Congo in the early 1960s. They must travel almost 300 miles into enemy territory to a town housing a diamond mine. Their goal is to rescue some 60 refugees there and to find over $50 million dollars in uncut diamonds before Ubi's enemy General Moses and his Simba force can get them. Given just three days to accomplish the mission, Curry agrees.

The veteran mercenary begins to plan with his long-time friend and second in command, Ruffo, finding several officers to go along, Henlein (Peter Carsten), a German officer and former Nazi who's more interested in the diamonds than anything else, Surrier (Olivier Despax), a young Frenchman, and Reid (Kenneth More), a drunken doctor who's worked previously with Curry. With 40 soldiers from Henlein's Strike Force Blue along, Curry's column moves out on a heavily-armed train for the town 300 miles down the track, hoping to beat their deadline and avoid the brutal Simba forces.

This is an action movie with a message, but not one that director Jack Cardiff hits you over the head with. Curry is solely on the job for the cash payout he'll get upon delivery while Ruffo -- a native of Congo who was educated in the U.S. at USC -- takes the job because he sees it as a way to help his country out. The friendship between the two men is genuine, but there is conflict over their beliefs between them. Taylor and Brown are an excellent combo together and have some great scenes together as they discuss why they do what they do and what drives them inside. The ending brings this full circle with one character doing a 180 from where he was at in the beginning of the movie. For a change, it's nice to see some of the motivation these tough guys have instead of endless action scenes.

But all that message stuff aside, this is one of the great action movies of the 1960s that's never really gotten its due, thanks in great part to the lack of a DVD release from a major studio. It is a mercenary movie after all. The first half hour or so is used to set the story up but in an entertaining way as the characters and their dynamics among the group are established. But once the train takes off into Simba territory, it's never very long between action scenes. The tension between Curry and Henlein escalates quickly into a fight with a chainsaw, and that's even before the Simbas attack. These action scenes are highlighted by an extended segment midway through the movie as Curry must wait on a time-released vault to get the diamonds with a Simba force drawing nearer in an incredibly tense scene, and then the recovery of those diamonds later. Made in 1968, 'Dark' also takes advantage of the recent changes in on-screen violence with some very graphic scenes.

Other than Taylor and Brown, this isn't a cast of stars. Never a huge star to begin with, Taylor is excellent as Curry, the hardbitten soldier, and with the always tough, always reliable Brown form a good team. Carsten ends up being a strong villainous presence, and Yvette Mimieux has a smallish part as Claire, one of the refugees the train picks up. Filming in Jamaica instead of Africa -- understandably so considering the time -- it's a nicely-shot movie, aided in great part by Jacques Loussier's sweeping score (watch the title sequence here) which Quentin Tarantino sampled in Inglourious Basterds.

One of those movies that is not well known, but it is one of my favorites. Hopefully down the road there is a DVD release somewhere in sight, but until then I'll stick with my tape from a TCM showing. If you do stumble across it on TV, give it a try. Lots of action and excitement to get the blood and adrenaline flowing.

Dark of the Sun <----trailer (1968): *** 1/2 /****

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Escape from New York

Not having been around in the 60s and 70s when Kurt Russell was making a name for himself on TV and in Disney movies like 'The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes,' I don't know how popular the young actor was at the time. He was obviously popular enough though as he springboarded his early Disney career into feature films as an adult that typically had him playing some variation of a tough guy.

Part of that transition is thanks in great part to action/horror director John Carpenter who cast Russell in two early 80s movies, Escape from New York and The Thing (a remake of a 1950s sci-fi movie). The Thing is one of my favorite horror/sci-fi combos with Russell headlining as MacReady, a booze-swilling, tough talking helicopter pilot of a remote science station in the Arctic. Seeing the cast and reading the plot of 'Escape,' I thought I'd enjoy that one as much but came away disappointed.

In 1988, crime in the U.S. escalates over 400% and the island of Manhattan is turned into a maximum security prison. A huge wall is built all around the island, and all the bridges and exits off the island are mined so prisoners can't escape. It's a self-governed prison where there are no guards, and the prisoners rule themselves with no interference from above. The idea is simple, as a prisoner you go onto the island and never leave. But after years of success, a revolutionary group hijacks Air Force One with the President (Donald Pleasence) on board and crashes the plane onto the island.

The prison commissioner, Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) is forced to come up with a plan to get the President out of the island prison safely and is facing a deadline in doing it. The President needs to speak at a world summit -- the U.S., Russia, and China seem to be at war but it's never clearly spelled out -- and is carrying vital information. Hauk turns to his only option, a prisoner about to be sent to Manhattan, Snake Plisken (Russell), promising him a full pardon if he can get the President out in only 22 hours. Snake agrees, and gets onto the island via a glider that lands on top of the World Trade Center (a very eerie scene) only to find that the President is a prisoner of the Duke (Isaac Hayes), the self-appointed ruler of Manhattan Prison.

Carpenter's films have a reputation as cult classics, movies that aren't necessarily high quality but are nonetheless extremely entertaining. 'Escape' certainly has that popularity with its fans, but I struggled getting into the movie. It was filmed on a small budget, but that tends to work here more often than not. Carpenter uses parts of downtown St. Louis as a stand-in for a ruined, beaten down Manhattan, and the setting works beautifully. Almost all the movie takes place at night in the shadowy, vacant streets where prisoners with nothing to lose hide just out of sight ready to attack if the opportunity presents itself. Atmosphere and cinematography are the least of the movie's worries.

Clocking in at a brisk 99 minutes, the movie feels stagnant at times but could also use some fleshing out of the characters, especially Plissken. Russell growls and grimaces his way through lines, making Plissken a modern-day gunfighter you could see Clint Eastwood playing in a spaghetti western. His background is hinted at -- war hero turned criminal -- but it's never dealt with in full force. Maybe it was intended that way to keep the already very stylish, very cool character a mystery, which I understand, but even a little more background would have been good. Also, Carpenter had to cut the original beginning of the movie explaining how Plissken got caught, acts the way he does and ends up being sent to Manhattan. Check it out HERE if curious. Extremely stylish sequence which could have really helped the movie out.

But in addition to little development for Plissken, the supporting cast is given even less, a real shame when considering the talent involved. Hayes is more of a presence than an actor and pulls off the part of the Duke adequately, but how did he come to power in Manhattan? Van Cleef as always is a badass, and Pleasence is really just an idea of a president. There's also Ernest Borgnine as Cabbie, a longtime prisoner who still operates his cab, and Harry Dean Stanton as Brain, a prisoner living in the library who supplies the Duke with gasoline for his entourage, seen here. Cabbie gets some backstory but not much, and Brain has a history with Snake but that's never really revealed. Adrienne Barbeau's chest also makes an appearance as Maggie, Brain's girl. She says virtually nothing and wears a low-cut dress. That's the character, no frills attached.

The generally cheap feeling of the movie works in most cases, but basically nothing happens. Snake walks around a lot -- at a slow pace too considering time is of the essence -- meets people, runs around, snatches the President rather easily and tries to get out of the island prison fortress. Even Russell's cool presence couldn't save this one as an interesting story never rises to its potential and wastes a strong supporting cast.

Escape from New York <----trailer (1981): **/****

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Man Hunt

Plots and conspiracies to kill political figures and social activists among others have existed as long as history itself. The flaw (or strength depending on how you look at) with making a movie about those subjects is that much of the time the audience will already know the end of the story. JFK, Lincoln, Ghandi, Archbishop Romero, you know that in the end, they're going to die. The same goes for people who weren't killed, think Day of the Jackal. Charles de Gaulle was not assassinated so it's obvious the Jackal is going to fail.

The enjoyment out of stories based in historical truth is in how the assassin is going to fail. The survivor of many assassination attempts, Adolf Hitler finally took his own life in Berlin in 1945 as the Russian forces closed in all around his underground complex. But for every attempt history has documented, like Valkyrie, how many failed? That's the basic idea of 1941's Man Hunt, an attempt on Hitler's life and the subsequent fallout in the summer of 1939 before Germany invaded Poland.

A tense opening sequence introduces a lone man, Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) walking through some a densely-wooded forest area. Armed with a precision rifle, Thorndike sets up a shot and is ready to take it. Who's in his scope? Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Third Reich. But before he can shoot, he's stopped by a guard. Under intense interrogation, Thorndike won't admit he was trying to kill Hitler. Instead, he says he just wanted to know what it felt like to have Hitler in his sights, but of course no one believes him. Thorndike refuses to sign a confession and ends up escaping when his captors attempt to kill him, all the while trying to make it seem like an accident.

Running for his life, Thorndike somehow makes it to safety, stowing away on a Danish freighter meant for London. But he isn't as safe as he thinks and soon finds out that two German agents are on his trail, Maj. Quive-Smith (George Sanders) and Mr. Jones (John Carradine). Thorndike gets help from a lower class British woman, Jerry Stokes (Joan Bennett), who has no idea what's she stepped into. Thorndike knows he cannot be captured, but he also can't go to the English government for help. He's completely on his own and must figure out a way to survive.

The premise is very interesting, and the opening sequence is a great introduction to the story. Seeing Hitler in Thorndike's sights is a startling moment because even when he places a bullet in the chamber, it's obvious he won't pull the trigger, not successfully at least. But the movie goes downhill almost immediately after this extended sequence. Thorndike escapes when the Germans plan to make his death look like an accident in a truly ridiculous scene. He's pushed off a cliff -- a high one at that -- but somehow survives without as much as a broken bone. I had trouble believing that Hitler's security force would have waited till hours later to check that the man was dead. On a bigger level, more likely they would have put a bullet in his head and not thought twice about it before even heading up to that cliff.

But it doesn't stop there as Thorndike seeds aid from Bennett's Jerry. This plot device has been used countless times and usually in a much stronger fashion; an unknowing, sometimes unwilling individual gets involved in some dangerous situation and decides to go all in. But watching the character, all I could think of was how she acts like a pouting toddler most of the time. Thorndike does his best to look out for her and keep her out of danger, but she grimaces, scrunches up her face and demands to be taken along. At one point, she even demands he buy her a new pin for her hat because her favorite one fell off when they were being chased. Granted, this pin serves a purpose late in the movie, but that doesn't take away the unnecessarily obnoxious make-up of the character.

All those logistical flaws -- incompetent Nazis, really? -- and annoyances aside, this would be a good movie. Having the Gestapo hunting you down does have its fair share of worry and tension involved. Two chase scenes, one in a busy London subway station, and the other a race through the streets on a foggy night, highlight the movie's better aspects. But too often, Pidgeon acts like the proper English gentleman, shrugging off the situation with a 'tut, tut' and 'cheerio, old chap' but in these scenes it'd be hard to ruin the atmosphere. His confrontations with the German agents are surprisingly graphic, not in what they show but what's actually happening in terms of violence, especially considering it was released in 1941.

Could have been an excellent WWII thriller but the flaws are just too much to ignore. Good villainous turns for Sanders and Carradine as the German agents on the hunt (Carradine barely says 10 words and is terrifying as all hell). The premise alone might make you want to check this one out, and I won't say 'don't do it' but be forewarned about a very flawed and sometimes entertaining movie. The ending is a little much too, even for a movie with a propaganda motive. Sorry, couldn't find a trailer anywhere.

Man Hunt (1941): **/****

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Seventh Cross

Released in 1944 as WWII was still raging in Europe and the Pacific, The Seventh Cross had to be one of, if not the first, major motion picture to deal with the Holocaust. The first major camp was even liberated by the Russians just a day before The Seventh Cross was released in theaters. People joke all the time about dealing with touchy subjects with the line "Oh, too soon?" and in this case the Holocaust in Europe was still very much an issue. Of course, to say this movie is purely a Holocaust movie would be misleading because the story moves away from the concentration camps quickly.

It's 1936 deep in Germany -- so the war hasn't even started yet for all you history majors -- and seven men escape from the Westhofen concentration camp. The group splits up to travel individually with the escape leader George Heissler (Spencer Tracy) narrowly escaping being picked up just minutes after leaving the camp. The search is on for these escapees and one by one they are picked up. The camp commandant vows to hang each of the prisoners from a row of crosses standing outside his office (hence the title), but Heissler eludes capture.

With no options and always close to exhaustion, Heissler must make his way to safety somehow. The Gestapo is looking for him and offers a reward for information on him. Unbeknownst to Heissler, an old friend, Franz Marnet (Herbert Rudley) is trying to get in contact with him to help him get out of Germany safely. Down to his last resort, George turns to an acquaintance from his past, a factory worker (Hume Cronyn) with a wife (Jessica Tandy) and three children. Time seems to be running out though for Heissler as the authorities close in.

For several reasons, this was a movie ahead of its time. For starters, it deals with the Holocaust in Germany from a different perspective. Instead of telling the story from inside the concentration camps, the whole movie is a chase through Germany. No time is wasted at all in the camp with the first shot showing the seven escapees cutting through the barbed wire. For the rest of the movie, we are given a glimpse into what German citizens dealt with before and during WWII. People and families disappear without a trace and no explanation. So when Heissler shows up asking for him with no knowledge of where he was, these people are curious as to his whereabouts.

It's also interesting to see a home-front war movie where most tend to deal in front line stories about the soldiers and officers fighting the battles. Granted, 'Cross' is several years before the war started, but there's a sense of what's to come. Cronyn's Paul Roeder works in a factory that's been converted to war materiel in an epic weapons build-up, and there's already a feeling of the Gestapo being like Big Brother with an ear to the ground and an interest in goings-on all around the country. Even the German citizens fear for what the secret police could be up to.

Through the casting, the picture of the German home front comes across clearly with a variety of people as George attempts to get out of the country. Tracy is very strong in his performance as a shell of the man he used to be, now trying to regain some of the dignity he used to have. It's through his travels he comes to trust again and see that man can be a compassionate, emotional individual. Cronyn and Tandy (some 40 years before Cocoon) are at their best, a typical young married couple who put everything at risk to help their old friend. There's also a young Swedish girl Toni (Signe Hasso) and a long list of underground members trying their best to save this one man, putting their lives on the line in the process.

A very enjoyable movie overall that does drag a bit in the second half. It would have been hard for director Fred Zinnemann to keep up the energy from the 1st hour, but it is not enough to not recommend this movie. So for a different, pretty unique look at pre-WWII Germany and the concentration camps and Holocaust, give this one a try.

The Seventh Cross <---trailer (1944): ***/****