The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Informant!

Director Steven Soderbergh has been at both ends of the spectrum over the last 15 years.  With movies like Erin Brockovich and Traffic (for which he won an Oscar), he's shown he can make movies with a message, a heart, that tackle issues facing modern society.  Then with movies like the Ocean's 11 series, Soderbergh has proven he can make big budget, flashy, star-driven movies that tend to appeal to audiences.  But they can't all be winners, like 2009's The Informant!.

This is a movie I remember seeing a trailer for and really getting a chuckle out of it.  It looked like some off the wall satire with some outlandish humor.  And the poster of Matt Damon with ridiculous haircut and mustache smiling at God knows what?  That sold me on it. I can't give the movie a free pass, but the advertising, commercials, and trailers really sold this movie the wrong way.  For one thing, I was expecting a somewhat drier humor right from the start, but that's the problem.  There's little to no humor in this one, and I can't even remember laughing at this once.  Sure, there was a chuckle here and there, but for a movie billed as a comedy, I was bored to tears.

Dry humor is about as subjective as anything in movies.  You love it or hate it with little middle ground separating the camps.  Handled right it can be hilarious because it is NOT slapstick or physical humor.  With 'Informant,' I'm trying to decide if Soderbergh was going for dry, dark, satirical, or whatever and can't make up my mind.  Instead, it wavers among all three.  It's the type of movie that tries too hard to be funny, to be stylish and came across as fake to me.  A really jazzy ridiculous sounding soundtrack drives the action -- at times reminding me of 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia' -- and colorful on-screen titles tell us when and where the story has moved to.  I get it, you're trying to be cute, and you fail.

Damon plays Mark Whitacre, a high-ranking official at ADM in the early 1990s.  Whitacre is fed up with his superiors fixing prices on products sold around the world and ends up going to the FBI with his worries.  There he meets two agents (Scott Bakula and The Soup's Joel McHale) who convince him to be an informant for them.  Mark somewhat suspiciously agrees to go along with their plan, audiotaping meetings where prices are settled on among the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies from around the world.  But not everything goes smoothly -- thanks in great part to Whitacre's cluelessness -- and eventually the shit hits the fan.

Matt Damon is one of my favorite actors around, and I'm pretty sure this is the first movie I've seen him in where I didn't think he was the right choice for the role.  He gained around 40 pounds for the role and dons that ridiculous hair and mustache, but something just doesn't work.  His Whitacre is a very bright guy, but somehow he's incredibly naive and at times downright stupid about his actions.  All this keeps developing like peeling an onion until by the end I had trouble believing any of this is true (it is in fact true).  Whitacre is almost a caricature of a character, and it's too easy to root against him.

The rest of the cast is given little to do, especially Bakula and McHale as the two FBI agents trying to keep up with all Whitacre's demands, questions, and crazy behavior.  Many reviews point out how strong these two parts were which left me shaking my head.  They're required to appear here and there, look surprised and/or stunned, and then exit stage left.  It's not their fault though that the script has nothing for them to do.  Other parts include Melanie Lynskey as Ginger, Mark's wife, and Tom Papa as Mick Andreas, one of Mark's bosses.  A fair share of familiar faces -- mostly comedians -- make blink and you'll miss them appearances that are all fairly forgettable.

I don't really know what Soderbergh was going for with this one, and because of that it's a real stinker.  If it's trying to be dark, it doesn't really delve deep enough into the Whitacre character who sounds like a real nut-case by the end of the movie.  If it's satirical, I don't know who they're making fun of.  And it's dry humor, they forgot to add the humor part.  It got fair reviews and has built up some of a following since its release, but I really disliked this movie, and I don't say that often about a supposed comedy.

The Informant! <----trailer (2009): */****

Thursday, February 25, 2010


A movie released in 1973 starring Al Pacino and Gene Hackman seemed like a no-brainer to me.  Pacino was coming off the mega-success of The Godfather and his Oscar-nominated performance of Michael Corleone.  Hackman was riding high after the success of The French Connection and The Poseidon Adventure.  A teaming of two of Hollywood's biggest stars was only natural, but 1973's Scarecrow is one of the worst movies I've seen in quite awhile.

In a way that's hard to explain, movies from the 1970s have a style all to themselves.  The 70s were a transition period for Hollywood in between the big studio epics of the 1950s and 60s, but before the blockbusters and special effects took over starting with movies like Jaws and Star Wars in the late 70s.  Most of the time, that's a good thing.  You can spot a movie from the early 70s sometimes just by reading a description.  So many of these stories were folksy, quirky, different from what audiences had come to expect.  'Scarecrow' just tries too hard without really having any message.

It's a road movie -- typically one of my favorite subgenres -- about two men hitchhiking across the country, trying to get to Pittsburgh.  There's Max (Hackman), an ex-con just released from jail after doing a 6-year stint, and Francis (Pacino), a lovable loser who's been working at sea for five years and now is going to Detroit to see his child he's never met.  Max has some big plans and has worked out how he'll start a business in Pittsburgh.  He's got everything figured down to the smallest details, and even offers Francis a full partnership in the business (a car wash) as long as they keep on the up and up with each other.  Francis agrees, and the two set off making their way across the country with hopes of reaching Pittsburgh.

An easygoing road movie with no rush to get where it's going usually sounds pretty good to me, and that's primarily the reason why I added this to my Netflix queue.  But this one is too easygoing with no real urgency to get anywhere.  Maybe that's the purpose, the goal of the movie, but I was bored very quickly.  Even with some great-looking western locations, the movie lacks any sense of being visually interesting.  Long, uncut shots of Max and Francis talking or walking pepper themselves throughout the movie (like THIS SCENE in a diner).  Typically this is a good thing, forcing actors to be in the moment like an actual conversation would be like.  But it doesn't work, and it feels lazy like the director just put the camera in front of them and said 'Go.'  Too much of the movie is spent like this and slows down the sluggish pace even more.

Now all that aside, the movie still would have been interesting if the characters were even somewhat likable.  We're given little information on their backgrounds, like why did Francis bail on his pregnant girlfriend and take a job on a ship out at sea?  Where do these trust issues and fits of rage come from in Max's past?  Pacino is perfect at playing live wires always ready to blow up, like Michael Corleone, Tony Montana, Tony D'Amato, so it is different to see him in a more subdued role.  His Francis is a jokester, always trying to make people laugh.  Translated, that requires Pacino to ham it up in any number of scenes that are downright painful to watch.  He isn't a comedic actor, and there's nothing wrong with that but this performance doesn't hit the right notes.

As his counter, Hackman's Max character is a real mess, not in terms of bad acting but instead that his character is not an easy one to like or root for.  He has a very strong personality and has his fair share of quirks, but he's also very defensive and always ready to fight. Max is an intimidator, a bully who usually gets his way through brute strength or fear.  A key moment in the second half of the film shows that he can be loyal to a fault and protective of those he cares about, but by that point it seemed too late.  Like Pacino, Hackman's great at playing roles with personality to burn, and this is right in his wheelhouse.  It's not a bad performance, anything but that, but Max is so easy to dislike, it's hard to get into his corner.

After fast-forwarding through much of the movie, I'm not sure how or what could have been done to make the story any better.  There's a final revelation late in the movie that could have been heartbreaking in its execution, but it never produces any sort of real emotion.  After that reveal, the movie just sort of ends and the credits roll with no explanations.  I'm not one for an ending having to spell everything out, but even a little bit would have been nice here.  Instead, the movie just ends with all sorts of plates still spinning.  Big disappointment overall with not much at all to recommend.  Pass on this stinker of a road movie.

If interested in watching Scarecrow, you can watch it at Youtube, starting here with Part 1.  It's not a 'big movie' so you won't lose much watching it on your computer as opposed to watching it on the TV.

Scarecrow <-----trailer (1973): */****

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Touchez Pas Au Grisbi

During the Great Depression when families had very little money, going to the movies provided a cheap alternative to more expensive field trips. And above all else, some genres appealed to audiences more, especially gangster flicks with stars like James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson among fan favorites. Their popularity waned, but the damage – in a good way – was done. A generation of young directors were influenced heavily by these films, and then grew up to make their own personal gangster films.

This influence was especially noticeable in French films, more specifically French New Wave, starting in the late 1940s and continuing on into the 50s and 60s. These were usually darker stories heavy on style that tended to live in the underworld of crooks, criminals, and gangsters. Of course, these weren’t low level thugs who looked one step above a homeless person. These gangsters were well to do, wearing a suit and a fedora, dropping huge amounts of cash wherever they went with a woman always on their arms, and a cool jazz soundtrack playing as a soundtrack.

What is so surprising with so many of these movies is that the gangsters – typically villains in most American movies – end up being the sympathetic figure amidst all the violence and chaos. They’re on the wrong side of law, but somehow it’s easy to look past their profession. In Jacques Becker’s 1954 gangster flick Touchez Pas au Grisbi, Jean Gabin is Max, a slightly past his prime gangster looking to get out of the business. That’s a storyline that is as old as movies itself, but Becker’s movie is an underrated and forgotten classic.

A respected and well-liked gangster, Max is hoping to get out of the business as he sees all the young men taking over. With his long-time partner in crime, Riton (Rene Dary), Max has pulled off one last heist that netted the duo $50 million in gold bars. But in trying to impress his younger girlfriend, Josy (Jeanne Moreau), Riton spills their secret, and it’s not long before Josy tells her new boyfriend, a ruthless mobster, Angelo (Lino Ventura), who quickly forms a plan to get his hands on the gold. Now instead of looking to put his criminal past behind him, Max is forced to fend off Angelo’s deadly attacks if he wants to hang on to his gold.

These French gangster movies are heavy on style but never at the expense of the story. That’s not to say the stories are overly complicated (‘Touchez’ is based on a French novel), but there also aren’t twists and turns in the plot around every corner. Becker films in black and white, giving the Parisian night both eerie and intimidating while also creating an incredibly visual experience. There’s something appealing about the simplicity of the story. Of course, it is a product of the times, and these French New Wave gangster movies aren’t exactly known for their happy endings. This isn’t as downbeat as say Le Samourai or Breathless, but its close.

Stepping into that anti-hero role that is so familiar to the crime genre – and many others for that matter, like westerns – Gabin delivers an amazingly understated but still powerfully effective performance as Max. He’s a veteran of the underworld, and there’s little he hasn’t seen. Max is loyal to his friend and partner Riton, even when it would be more logical to cut him loose and work on his own. Everyone seems to like Max who is devoutly loyal to his friends, even rival Angelo who goes after his gold only because it’s a business, not because he’s got anything against him. I haven’t seen Gabin in other movies, but this was quite an introduction. It’s also an obvious influence on Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai with Alain Delon playing a similar character in tone and demeanor.

Max is a pretty even-keeled guy unless you push him too far. Watching Angelo’s deception provides some tense moments as Max figures things out, and when Riton is kidnapped, Max decides things have gone too far. Working with a local high-ranking gangster (Paul Frankeur) and an up and coming youngster (Michel Jourdan), Max arranges a pick-up, a trade straight up with the gold and Riton. It’s a great sequence, and the one scene with some heavy-duty action. The scene unfolds in the dead of night on a country road with a startling finish that has its fair share of irony with the idea that crime don’t pay. It’s a good kicker to the story that is heavy on style with some strong acting. Don’t be scared by the subtitles, the Frenchies know how to make a gangster movie like nobody’s business.

Touchez Pas au Grisbi <----trailer (1954): *** 1/2 /****

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Naked City

A combination of some French New Wave techniques, pseudo-documentary filmmaking and just a hint of some film noir, 1948’s The Naked City, directed by Jules Dassin, is a movie both a sign of the times it was made in and a sign of the things that were yet to come in moviemaking.  But at its most basic, Dassin’s film is enjoyable, always entertaining, and a fascinating look into what police work used to be in a pre-computer, pre-Internet time.

Shows like CSI (and all its incarnations), Law and Order, NYPD Blue, and a long list of procedural police shows on television – not to mention countless cop movies – have given viewers a window into what it must be like in solving a case.  Of course, there’s that flaw that every crime can be solved in an hour with all sorts of ridiculous technology at the police’s disposal.  But what about those police officers who had to walk the streets, knock on doors, and work the phones to follow evidence and get their man?  It seems like such a dated procedure watching it in film-form, but it worked for many years.  Damn technology, always making things easier for us.

One lazy Monday morning, a young, blonde dress model is murdered in her apartment. The Homicide squad is called to the crime scene where the young woman was seemingly drowned in her bathtub.  But evidence points out that she was knocked out with chloroform and forcibly held under water when she started to struggle.  Two detectives, Lt. Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald), a 30-plus year veteran of the force, and Lt. Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor), a WWII veteran and a relative newbie on the force, take the lead, trying to figure out the murderer.  The evidence they have is minimal, and all they have is a name to work with; Henderson.  But as the hours turn into days, their chances of closing the case get slimmer and slimmer.

Where those already mentioned TV shows tend to wrap up their cases in an hour – and seemingly in a single day and often in a few hours – Dassin’s movie has no such luxury.  With little evidence to work with, the New York homicide detectives are forced to follow each and every lead they have, no matter how inconsequential they may seem.  That’s what Dassin revels in with this 96-minute police procedural.  Those tiny leads are filtered out, and the police try to figure out what is and isn’t important.  It’s surprisingly effective because there’s no big twist, no huge revelation. This is a murder case with no frills, plain and simple.

Muldoon and Halloran – two good Irish cop names if there ever were – are the stars of the film.  Irish actor Fitzgerald plays Muldoon a cop who’s seen everything and has a knack for figuring cases out.  Whenever he’s convinced there’s an unknown suspect, he dubs him ‘J. McGillicuddy’ instead of John Doe until they can figure out who he is.  Muldoon takes the young detective in Halloran under his wing, teaching him as best he can.  Halloran is a good cop, if inexperienced, and thrives in situations where he’s forced to track down leads and work the streets for information.  They form a good team together as the case unfolds in front of them.

Made in 1948, the best part of Dassin’s movie is its realism in terms of story and style.  With the exception of scenes in the police office or in a few apartments, the movie was shot entirely on location in New York City.  Scenes of Taylor’s Halloran interviewing witnesses on the street were filmed on those streets.  The finale especially stands out as the murderer makes a run for it with the police chasing him, leading up an exciting showdown on the Brooklyn Bridge.  It’s authentic from the start, and serves as quite a time capsule for late 1940s New York City.  That on-location shooting gives the movie an authentic feel that just couldn’t have been duplicated on a Hollywood set.
This isn’t a great movie, but the no-frills storytelling pays off in the end.  It’s a straightforward look at the nitty gritty police work, the day-to-day and even hour-to-hour development of the cases they’re trying to solve.  None of the cast other than Fitzgerald and Taylor are that memorable, but overpowering acting from a supporting cast would seem out of place.  Dassin lets his two leads work things out and in the end, get the job done.  Couldn't find a trailer online, but you can watch the movie at Youtube, starting with Part 1 of 10.
The Naked City 

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Place in the Sun

Alfred Hitchcock’s influence and impact on movies is as strong as ever some 30 years since his death. Even this weekend in reviews of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island comparisons are being made in terms of directorial style. But in 2010, that’s all they are…comparisons. What about movies made when Hitchcock was still alive? I’m guilty of it too, but when you don’t know much about a movie or its background, you go to what you know.

So in my head, I see a thriller based in personal reactions and relationships, my mind goes right to Hitchcock who made classic very personal thrillers like Vertigo, Notorious, Rear Window, and many others. Yesterday, I watched 1951's A Place in the Sun which parts of distinctly reminded me of a Hitchcock-esque thriller. Sorry, George Stevens – the actual director of the movie – but isn’t it a compliment that I thought your movie was from the master of thrillers himself? Well, maybe not.

Quitting his job as a bellman at a Chicago hotel, George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) moves west and gets a job at his uncle’s clothing factory. George quickly hits it off with another employee, Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), but they have to be discreet about their relationship (dating fellow employees is a no-no). Growing up in a poor family, George loves nothing more than the decadent lifestyle his uncle and his family have, including a young family friend from another rich family, Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor).

George is smitten with Angela from the first time he sees her so when the beautiful young woman shows an interest in him he forgets anything and everything about his life. His mind goes blank, and all he can see is Angela. They quickly fall in love, but that’d be just too easy, wouldn’t it? Alice tells George she’s pregnant, and she wants him to marry her so they won’t cause a stir. If he doesn’t, she threatens to go to the elder Eastman’s house and blows George’s “cover” wide open. Seeing a future with Angela, his mind starts to race, even going as far as murder.

Stevens’ movie is easily broken down into segments, some stronger than the others. The first hour or so is George adjusting to his new life, especially his relationship with Alice. The two individuals are very similar in terms of background, but George wants something more of his life and aspires to reach the heights his uncle has. It’s not the most exciting segment, but Clift and Winters make it worth watching. The middle segment is the best as George meets Angela and begins to think about killing his pregnant girlfriend.

This middle part of the movie is what was reminiscent of a Hitchcock thriller, especially George’s plan being put into action. SPOILERS Alice dies, but we don’t see if George could have saved her. He takes her out on a row boat, and Alice – who can’t swim – actually capsizes the boat when she stands up. Stevens makes the choice not to show us the aftermath, only George swimming up to shore. END OF SPOILERS We don’t know what actually happens until the very last scene. This middle portion is Stevens’ movie at its best, full of tension and anxiety with a sense of coming doom. Is George capable of the thoughts racing through his head? 

This builds and builds, including the aftermath as Clift tries to cover things up, and then there’s a huge letdown. He’s caught by a pre-Perry Mason Raymond Burr as a district attorney and sent to trial for first-degree murder. This last 30 minutes lacks a certain energy when it should be the most exciting part of the movie, especially after all the build-up. Instead of sprinting to the finale, ‘Place’ sort of limps to its finish in the final scenes. The reveal as to George’s intentions doesn’t really come as a surprise because let’s face it…this story is not going to have a big twist ending.

Even with the problems concerning the story, the three leads make the most of it no matter how good or bad some of the story is. Clift isn’t the slimiest of guys, but the situation he puts himself into doesn’t make it easy to root for him. I'd like to think George loves both women in one way or another, but he's out of his mind, physically, mentally in love with Taylor's Angela.  As basically the ideal woman, Taylor is perfect, beautiful, smart, funny, and makes you understand what Clift sees in her. Now in her 80s, Taylor has made some news for some off-the-wall statements and relationships, but early in her career, she was a great actress and one of the most beautiful ones at that.  The two have a definite chemistry that extended offscreen where they were incredibly close as friends.

Winters is the woman just looking for happiness, only to end up with a guy who would drop her at the first sign of something better coming down the road. Definitely watch this one for the acting which makes the lapses in story less obvious.

A Place in the Sun <----trailer (1951): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Murder on the Orient Express

Different directors have different personalities, different ways audiences look at them.  Michael Bay?  Loud, explosive movies. James Cameron? Huge blockbusters. Still chugging along at 86 years old, director Sidney Lumet has had a knack for working with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars in movies with a long list of those biggest stars.  Working off an Agatha Christie source novel, 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express assembles one of the most impressive casts ever assembled.

Playing Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, Albert Finney leads this cast in an enjoyable, ridiculous murder mystery set in the 1935.  Finney is in just about every scene and dominates the movie.  I’ve never read a Christie novel or anything at all related with Poirot, but this character reminded me of Peter Falk’s TV detective Columbo.  A quirky, eccentric detective solves convoluted crimes that no person in their right mind should be able to comprehend. 

Boarding the Orient Express after receiving orders to return to London, famed detective Hercule Poirot (Finney) is given a berth on the crowded train thanks to a railroad official (Martin Balsam) and long-time friend. But on the second night out, a mysterious American passenger, Ratchett (Richard Widmark), is murdered, stabbed through the midsection 12 times.  The railroad official turns to Poirot to solve the murder before the train reaches the next station.  A snow-covered pass blocks the train’s way, giving Poirot free range to go about solving the mystery.  The detective quickly figures out that Ratchett was involved in a well-known kidnapping case.  So was it a hired killer, or was one of the many passengers onboard the murderer?

The murder mystery itself is an interesting one that unfolds quickly in the first 30 minutes or so.  The whole next hour is devoted to a series of interrogations/interviews as Finney’s Poirot and Balsam’s Bianchi assemble the evidence concerning Ratchett’s murder.  With a dialogue-heavy movie, the story sinks or swims on these scenes. In that sense, it swims long and hard.  Finney earned an Oscar nomination for his performance, and it’s a treat to watch him interact with his supporting cast.

The cast is a who’s who of Hollywood stars from the Golden Age and then a newer wave of younger stars making a name for themselves and then a few in between.  Describing all these characters would require a whole other review in itself so I’ll try and keep it shorter.  Along with Finney, Balsam, and Widmark, there’s a list of names that include Anthony Perkins, Ingrid Bergman (Oscar-nominated supporting part), Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Michael York, Jacqueline Bisset, Vanessa Redgrave, Jean-Pierre Cassel, and John Gielgud. Most of them are given a brief intro and then their interrogations with Poirot.  Basically that amounts to a cameo-like role for all of them, but it’s great just to see all those big-names working together.

SPOILERS Don’t read anymore if you want to know who the murderer is SPOILERS.  Poirot does his detective work and then confronts all the train’s passengers.  His conclusion? They all murdered Ratchett, each stabbing him once with the same knife.  Each passenger has a connection to an infamous kidnapping case that Widmark’s Ratchett masterminded, resulting in the death of five people.  So working together, the murdering dozen or so have planned this murder to a fault…they just didn’t plan on Poirot being onboard.  This twist is stupid, ridiculous, over the top, and somehow…it works.  The ending itself is a bit of a letdown, but that’s a minor complaint. 

The reveal itself is well-handled in an almost 30-minute scene where all the clues and evidence comes together.  Lumet handles it perfectly with quick flashbacks to Poirot’s questioning as Finney seemingly lose his mind only to figure everything out.  And that’s why this is a movie worth watching, the performances from Finney to the long list of A-list actors making the most of their supporting roles.  More than a little beyond the limits of believability, but still fun from beginning to end.

Murder on the Orient Express <----trailer (1974): ***/**** 

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

The story of Fletcher Christian's mutiny aboard the H.M.S Bounty against Captain William Bligh is one of the most famous historical stories that just about everyone knows in some form or another.  It is a story that translates well to film, including three well known flicks and a few other less highly regarded ones, with versions made in 1935, 1962, and 1984.  The 1935 version, appropriately titled Mutiny on the Bounty, is the one held in highest regard, even earning the Best Picture Oscar and a long list of nominations.

While I'm not doubting the movie for its entertainment value, it does suffer from a problem many movies from the 1930s have.  The movie studios were still making the transitition from silent to sound with many actors making the jump right from the stage to the big screen.  But before method acting developed in the 1950s, many roles came across as too theatrical, too over the top, as if the actors were playing to audiences who would have been sitting right in front of them.  Because of that, it can be hard to get a read on characters and what they're going through, especially in the case of 1935's Bounty.

Making his first sea voyage with an objective of writing a Tahitian dictionary, Roger Byam (Franchot Tone) boards the H.M.S. Bounty with romantic ideas of what the sea is like.  He bonds quickly with Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable), the master's mate, and the two become fast friends.  The Bounty is sailing to Tahiti where they will pick up 1,000 breadfruits and deliver them to the West Indies.  The captain of the ship, William Bligh (Charles Laughton), rules his ship with an iron fist and quickly turns the crew against him with his gung-ho mentality.  Christian especially bristles at how Bligh runs the ship, and after successly acquiring the breadfruits, leads a mutiny, putting Bligh and some of the crew on a longboat on the open seas.

Having seen the other two versions, the Marlon Brando and Mel Gibson takes, there was nothing that came as much of a surprise with the 1935 version.  The enjoyment of watching movies that deal with similar subjects is how they handle the stories differently.  History is built around facts, but it's funny how different those facts can be interpreted in the eyes of the beholder.  The actual mutiny is typically handled in the same way, but the build-up and repercussions tend to differ.

The Academy must really have loved the acting in 'Bounty' because Laughton, Gable, and Tone were all nominated for Best Actor...with none of them actually winning.  Laughton is a fine actor with a long list of impressive roles to his name, but his Bligh comes across as too cartoonishly evil.  Granted, the historical Bligh was not a pleasant character, but some human emotions would have been nice for the character.  Gable's Christian is a little better, the voice of the crew who can't understand the madness of their captain.  Tone's Byam is a smattering of many different members of the Bounty and is the wavering voter, the individual in the middle.  As an officer in the British navy, he should be loyal to his captain but what about his friendship with Fletcher?

Trying to figure out how to review 'Bounty,' the acting was a sticking point.  It isn't bad, far from it.  I've seen much worse in the way of 1930s over the top theatrical acting.  But at the same time, it's hard to say we actually get to know these characters.  They're more like cardboard cutouts spouting their lines.  Bligh is evil, Christian is good, and Byam is trying to find himself.  The hatred and friendship that develops is genuine, but it's easy to side with Christian's decision -- for me at least.  Bligh is a blatant liar who treats his men horrifically when it doesn't always call for it.  Of course, in all three versions I've sided with Christian's decision.  Guess I would have been a mutineer on Pitcairn Island.

As a historical movie, 'Bounty' is all about the spectacle of a high seas voyage.  While most of the acting on-board the Bounty was clearly done on a soundstage with an oceanic backdrop, there are actual shots of an 18th century ship sailing across the ocean, and not always in calm seas.  There are great shots of the crew preparing the ship for sailing high above in the masts as the expansive sails come flowing down.  And not really a surprise, but Tahiti sure looks nice.  Maybe not as nice as it did in Technicolor in the 1962 version, but it's hard to make paradise look bad.

So good and bad, I'm still recommending this movie.  For all its faults, 'Bounty' is still an entertaining adventure, especially if you're a fan of the history it is based in.  Maybe the acting is too much at times, but Gable is and always will be pretty cool onscreen.  There are flaws, and the ending does leave a fair share of subplots and storylines waving in the breeze, but worth a rent if nothing else.

Mutiny on the Bounty <----trailer (1935): ** 1/2 /****

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Judgment at Nuremberg

Even with Germany surrendering in May of 1945 and Japan surrendering a few months later in August, the war and conflict of WWII would continue on for years. As victors, the Allies presided over a series of tribunals meant to bring people to justice for the atrocities committed during the war, many of these trials having to do with the Holocaust and execution of POW's. These trials ended in extensive sentencing, both in terms of the death penalty and life-long prison sentences.

Less than 15 years removed from these tribunals, Stanley Kramer assembled a remarkable cast to tell the story of one of the actual Nuremberg trials in 1961's Judgment at Nuremberg. What's amazing about this movie is its honesty and frankness in dealing with the subject at hand, a touchy one at that in talking about the Holocaust. Kramer presents evidence, lets the characters tell their stories, and then makes a brave choice. He presents an option for you as a viewer to make up his/her own mind. What did these men on trial deserve? It's up to you.

Arriving in Germany, Maine district court judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy) is preparing for the biggest trial he's ever presided over. It's 3 years since the end of the war, and four German judges (including Burt Lancaster) are on trial for their actions during WWII and the years leading up to it. Leading the prosecution is Colonel Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark), a WWII veteran who's prosecuted many of the German war criminals since the close of the war. His opponent on the defense is a intelligent, fiery German lawyer, Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell), who must present an incredibly difficult case that maybe even he does not believe.

Set almost entirely in a courtroom at Germany's Palace of Justice -- with a few quick detours -- Kramer's courtroom drama works as a series of linked vignettes dealing with one topic. Whole segments could be removed from the movie as a whole and still be worth watching on their own. At over 3 hours long, 'Nuremberg' is never rushed or too fast-paced with long, lingering shots from the camera as the testimony unfolds. Kramer allows his cast to get all the attention with only a few moments of in-your-face style from behind the camera, like an extreme zoom to a close-up of someone's face. It's a remarkable movie heavy on the dialogue that won an Oscar for its writing.

These courtroom vignettes would have worked as a stand alone, but assemble them together and you've got a classic. Two witnesses are called to the stand in two of the movie's strongest segments, Montgomery Clift as a German man forced to undergo a sterilization surgery during the war and Judy Garland as a young German woman involved in a controversial court ruling that Lancaster's Emil Janning ruled on. Both were nominated for their supporting roles -- more on that later -- in what amount to one or two scene appearances. Clift is absolutely heartbreaking (check out his testimony/part HERE) and nearly brought me to tears, and Garland is equally effective. The powers that be only gave them Oscar nominations, not the win, with best supporting actor and actress going to West Side Story's George Chakiris and Rita Moreno.

It blew my mind when I read that. I realize West Side Story is a classic -- never seen it myself -- but Clift and Garland provide some of the most effective, moving parts I've ever seen, and they got snubbed. Definitely two of the biggest such snubs in Oscar history. A bigger issue is that just about everyone in 'Nuremberg' deserved an Oscar win with Schell taking home the Best Actor. Schell has an impossible task in front of him, defending four men who helped send hundreds and maybe thousands of people to their deaths in the concentration camps. It's hard to side with his defense, but it makes you think. Provoking thought concerning something as inherently evil as the Holocaust is remarkable in itself.

Where else to start with this huge cast? Each star is given their moment to shine and not a one disappoints. Clift's testimony is early on and starts the ball rolling, and the momentum just keeps on building. Lancaster is silent for much of the movie, just a stoic presence in the dock, until he has an outburst and then gets his chance on the stand (watch it HERE). Tracy's world weary judge who's been voted out of his position back home has the biggest decision of them all, how to judge these men. And with bigger things at play, his decision is even tougher. His summation is a simple, beautifully effective description of the situation. Widmark gets the flashier part as the prosecuting attorney and makes him human, a veteran who was among the troops who liberated the concentration camps and now tries to understand the horrors and atrocities he saw. If that wasn't enough, Marlene Dietrich has a supporting role as a German widow.

The tribunal is making a judgment on these four men, but Kramer's movie explores more than just that. It is brought up several times that Germany and the German people are on trial too. On a much bigger level, 'Nuremberg' explores the Holocaust, human actions, and morality. How could people do such horrible things to another? Wouldn't they have to know they were doing something wrong? The good of the country, yes, or so they believe, but at what cost? One extended segment has Widmark on the stand showing film of the liberation of the camps as a silent court watches from their seats.  It's startling in 2010 to see that footage, much less 50 years ago in 1962.

A perfect example of how powerful a movie can be with a combination of acting and story with strong direction. Performances from a long list of Hollywood heavyweights -- Tracy, Lancaster, Schell, Clift, Garland, Dietrich and Widmark -- and a story dealing with an impossible subject make this a must-see and a true classic.

Judgment at Nuremberg <----trailer (1961): ****/****

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Kiss of Death

Most actors have to pay their due before they make it as a big star. Maybe do some low-budget movies, a TV show, Broadway plays. I'm hard pressed to think of many who make the jump from complete anonymity to instant stardom. Only two really come to mind, Burt Lancaster and Richard Widmark.

A veteran of stage and radio, Widmark made the jump to movies in 1947 in a film noir classic called Kiss of Death. Making his screen debut, the 33-year old actor received fourth billing as a supporting character with three more established actors taking the lead roles. Even with a role that has him on-screen for maybe 20-25 minutes of a 98 minute movie, Widmark steals the film with a part that catapulted him to stardom and almost threatened to typecast him early in his Hollywood career.

Given a lengthy prison sentence for a jewel heist, low-level hood Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) refuses to squeal about the other men who took part on the job and accepts his sentence. Several years pass and then Bianco finds out his wife has killed herself and his two daughters have been sent to an orphanage. Cutting a deal with the assistant district attorney, Louis D'Angelo (Brian Donlevy), Bianco agrees to be a snitch for the cases D'Angelo is trying to put away. Bianco's first case? Get evidence on a suspected killer and a previous acquaintance, Tommy Udo (Widmark). Bianco gets the evidence and even testifies in court, but a jury acquits Udo and he quickly eludes his tail. Now living with his wife (Coleen Gray) and his two daughters, Bianco knows it's only a matter of time before Udo shows up looking for revenge.

With Mature and Donlevy taking the starring roles, Widmark leaves an instant impression as psychotic, cackling killer Tommy Udo. Mention 'Kiss of Death' and most people will associate Widmark with the movie, and more specifically one scene. Looking to catch a snitch, Udo infamously ties an old woman into her wheelchair and pushes her to her death down a flight of stairs, watch it HERE starting at the 2:40 mark. Widmark's Udo seems to revel and delight in administering punishment and death. His distinct giggle sends chills down your back, and hard to place accent with his low voice just add layers and personality to this character who is impossible to take your eyes off of.

In fact, Widmark was so good in the part that over the next three or four years, he was only offered similar roles, deranged psychos and villains in film noirish type movies. Granted, no actor wants to be typecast, but he's incredible in this part. The rest of the movie is entertaining enough, but when he's not onscreen it does lag in places. After the wheelchair incident, you're just not quite sure what he's capable of. Apparently audiences and critics agreed, Widmark was given his only Oscar nomination -- as best supporting actor -- for the part. On the irony meter, this one gets a 10. He lost to Edmund Gwenn who played Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. The most villainous guy around vs. the sweetest guy ever, too perfect.

The story takes a little while to develop, but the momentum picks up once Mature's Bianco cuts his deal with Donlevy's D'Angelo. Mature could be a little stiff in certain parts, but this is one of his stronger parts. Bianco has never really amounted to much and has spent several years behind bars, but when his daughters are in trouble he decides to do anything he can to make their lives better. Coleen Gray's Nettie used to babysit the girls and then marries Nick -- which has some creepy undertones as we see their marriage. Donlevy has a thankless role as the district attorney but always a professional still makes the character interesting. Also look for Karl Malden in a small part working with Donlevy.

The highlight of the movie is by the last 30 minutes following Udo's acquittal. The black and white shadows of film noir come to life and Henry Hathaway's direction creates an incredible mood, a sense of impending doom about to be unleashed. Mature sits in his home waiting for Udo to show up, only to decide he'll go on the offensive and seek out Udo instead. There's a great confrontation between Mature and Widmark in the finale although the climax does have a bit of a cop-out.

An above average, very professionally made film noir. Mature, Donlevy and Gray are decent enough with their respective leading parts, but this movie belongs to Richard Widmark in his screen debut. He'd go on to play more heroic parts, but this may be his most well-known role. Check the whole movie out at Youtube, starting with Part 1 of 10.

Kiss of Death <----trailer (1947): ***/****

Friday, February 12, 2010


Ah, the American public, always easy pickings for a roasting. Movies have done it left and right, like Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole, and why not? As an enormous power in terms of what we'll watch, won't watch, what we'll pay to see, the public is as fickle as the weather. And to be fair, it's just not the U.S. So who has to decide what we watch, read and experience in terms of movies, TV shows, books, magazines, anything really. So goes 1976's Network, a not so subtle dig at the decline of television and news journalism into pandering for whatever audiences want.

Like any movie dealing with a timely issue, it's important to look at that time it's made in. Network was released in the mid 1970s after the U.S. had left Vietnam and just a few years removed from the Watergate scandal. There were issues to say the least, especially in the minds of the American people. So Network comes along with director Sidney Lumet presenting a cynical, very dark look at TV and the business it truly is to make money and be successful. Studio execs will do ANYTHING if the ratings are good, even to the point of taking a life.

After working for the UBS broadcasting station for many years, news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is being let go. Howard's wife has left him and his job was really all he had so on-air he tells his viewers that on a show a week away he is going to kill himself...on air for millions of people to see. Instantly, the ratings shoot up, and the network has a hit on their hands. They can't possibly take him off the air, instead giving Beale a stage to rant and rave about whatever suits him. The network's programming director, Diane Christensen (Faye Dunaway), plays it up, making it such a hit that almost half of the country is watching Beale's new show. All the while, Beale's close friend and boss, Max Schumacher (William Holden), wonders what's happened to the business he grew up with, and if there's any way to get back to the good old days.

That's basically the story in a nutshell, and I don't want to tell too much more because it will take away from the appeal of the movie, especially the last half hour. As presented, the UBS network is fourth in the ratings behind CBS, NBC, and ABC so working with a fictional channel, Lumet pulls out all the stops in portraying a cutthroat, profit above all else company. Dunaway's Diane is all business, all the time and can't carry on a personal life, Holden's Max is fighting to hold on to the last traces of a business that used to be, and Finch's Beale runs with the plan presented to him, preaching to his audiences nightly.

This movie had Oscars written all over it, getting 10 nominations and winning four. And while it's hard to dispute the movie didn't deserve them, I felt like I was watching something surreal, something completely over the top as the story unfolded, especially in the ending. Lumet was going for a satire of the TV industry, and it works -- the networks are skewered over an open fire -- but at times it's too much. Am I supposed to laugh or chuckle at what's going on, or be alarmed at what we're seeing? Probably a little of both, but the turns and twists just felt like too much to me.

What I won't argue with is the phenomenal casting, especially the three leads already mentioned and then throw in Robert Duvall for good measure. Finch was the first actor to be given a posthumous Oscar for his win in Best Actor. I personally would have given it to Holden (who was also nominated), but Finch is at a scenery-chewing, scene-stealing best as Howard Beale, an overnight ratings sensation. Most of his role requires him to deliver long, raving speeches -- and his "I'm as mad as hell" speech is top notch -- and he's presented both as a tragic figure and a bit of a stooge. Holden on the other hand, is much more subdued but equally effective as Max. His scene where he SPOILERS breaks up with Diane earns him the Oscar for me. Dunaway fully deserved her Oscar for Best Actress and is quickly becoming one of my favorite actresses.

Did I like Network? Yes, parts of it I loved. But as cynical as I can be in viewing and reviewing movies at times, I wish this was a little less cynical, maybe a little more subtle in its execution. Ned Beatty has a speech late in the movie that is rightfully impressive but I feel like I've heard it before. Maybe I shouldn't fault Network because other movies since 1976 have dealt with similar subjects, but it's hard not to. I completely recommend this movie to anyone who hasn't seen it for the performances alone, but I was a little disappointed with it. Thought provoking? Sure, but not a classic in my mind.

Network <----trailer (1976): ** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Desperate Journey

Before becoming one of the U.S.'s most popular presidents, Ronald Reagan made quite a name for himself in the 1930s and 1940s as a movie star. Makes that whole 'Star Wars' idea a little funnier if you ask me. He was usually limited to B-movies, but as an actor he had an easy-going, likable way about him on the screen. Reagan often played second banana to the main star of the movie and made a career -- a movie career at least -- at playing the funny sidekick.

By 1942, Reagan had already teamed once with Errol Flynn in 1940's Santa Fe Trail when they teamed up again for a WWII adventure, 1942's Desperate Journey, that is pretty blatant propaganda watching it now over 70 years later. It's not subtle in the least, and why should it be? Released in September 1942, the U.S. was only a few months removed from entering the war in the North African campaign, and maybe the home front needed some boosting. That propaganda borders on the painfully unfunny at times, but the movie itself is interesting enough to recommend.

Flying a dangerous mission to take out a German railroad yard, Flight Lieutenant Terry Forbes (Flynn) is forced to take command when the commander is killed. Forbes' bomber is able to take out the objective, but the plane is shot down in the process, and it's not long before German forces have scooped them up. The five crew survivors are interrogated by an SS major (Raymond Massey), but they manage to escape with key information about underground Messerschmidt factories. Among the group is a Scottish veteran of WWI (Alan Hale), a cocky American navigator (Reagan), an American flight officer (Arthur Kennedy), and a young British officer (Ronald Sinclair) trying to live up to his father's reputation. Can the five somehow get back to England with their news before the Germans catch them again?

The whole premise is pretty ridiculous and far-fetched in itself but it's entertaining enough. Flynn's Forbes is pretty gung-ho as the flight lieutenant who wants to take the war right at the German war effort. He's a leader who questions himself because the actions he undertook ended up taking the lives of some of his crew, but Flynn is also Joe America (even though he was Australian), the ideal soldier to lead the fight against the Nazis. With his gung-ho attitude, Flynn isn't content with just getting the news back to England, wanting to sabotage anything he can on the way back.

A reviewer at IMDB does point out that the Germans are rather cartoonish or particularly evil with little middle ground, asking where are Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schultz? Hogan's Heroes reference there for you. Their efforts are pretty clumsy in capturing the prisoners as it seems Massey's German major is the only one actually taking part in the chase. For five prisoners with news that could cripple the Germans, wouldn't more people join in the effort? Flynn and Co. even make it across Germany and into the Dutch countryside with little issue or much in the way of danger...and in German uniforms at that, even boarding Goerring's private train at one point.

Now all that said, the movie is incredibly entertaining, a good old-fashioned popcorn movie. The action is exciting -- especially the last half hour as the Germans close in -- including a car chase across the empty Dutch countryside with some boats of cars chugging along. Credit for making it so damn entertaining is the casting, especially Flynn as a WWII version of a swashbuckler who even manages to flirt some with a comely resistance fighter (Nancy Coleman). Reagan and Hale go for the laughs, hamming it up in some scenes that are hard to watch they feel so out of place. Kennedy is the straight man trying to keep the mission on the others' minds.

As for the propaganda, there's several scenes of dialogue where the cast is talking directly to the viewer. Coleman's resistance fighter tells Flynn (and American) to tell everyone that there's people fighting back against the Axis powers and don't forget about them. Flynn's final line is almost laughable "Now for Australia and a crack at those Japs!" but at the time I'm sure it probably drew some cheers from audiences. It's all part of this ridiculously over the top, far-fetched action adventure that is entertaining almost in spite of itself.

Desperate Journey <-----trailer (1942): ***/***

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Le Trou

Taking a film history class in college, my first experience with French cinema was a less than impressive showing. Rated highly by fans and critics alike, Jean Luc Godard's Breathless bored me to tears and even produced quite a few out-loud laughs at the choices with the script. I won't say it negatively impacted me and my future opinion on French movies because I never really had more of an interest in seeing them to begin with. Sure enough, after rating enough movies at Netflix, some French movies started popping up as recommendations so I've given them a try. All I can say, I'm glad I didn't give up on those Frenchies.

Last year, Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Cercle Rouge was the best movie I saw, and this year, 1960's Le Trou is an early candidate for best movie...personally that is. Directed by Jacques Becker -- who died before the movie was even released -- this is a story that is captivating in every way, surprising considering VERY LITTLE actually happens. Based on a true story of a prison break from a French prison in 1947, this is storytelling at its finest with no wasted moments, no wasted shots. These prisoners are going to escape no matter what it takes, and Becker shows this in excruciating detail. It's a movie that may drive you nuts, but is it ever worth it.

Awaiting sentence for the attempted murder of his wife, convict Claude Gaspard (Marc Michel) is moved from his cell as it undergoes some rehabbing. Gaspard moves into another cell already occupied by four other prisoners, all lower to middle class men who are suspicious of the more upper class new guy. But he gains their trust, and they let him in on their secret. All four men are facing lengthy sentences -- at best, some face death -- and are planning a jail break. Gaspard can join in on the escape as long as he helps out in the process. Claude agrees, and they go about finding a way out. But can they pull it off before any of the five are convicted, or what seems more imminent, Claude being moved back to his original cell?

Brace yourself, I'm pulling out what little movie knowledge I have when it comes to sounding like a movie snob. Becker films 'Le Trou' like a documentary with no music and a minimalist style. His camerawork is never invasive and allows the viewer to be the fly on the wall in this cramped little cell where five men have been forced to live. Casting these five men, Becker picked four relatively unknown actors and one person who was a real-life prison escapee. Along with Michel's Gaspard, there's Geo (Michel Constantin), Roland (Jean Keraudy, the real life convict), Manu (Philippe Leroy), and Monseigneur (Raymond Meunier). We're given little to no background about these four men, but by the end you're fully rooting for them to pull off the impossible and get out for good.

This lack of backstory is essential because the story keys in exclusively on the relationship among these five men and their one, united goal of escape. Everything else would have just been fat on the bone. The techniques used in the escape are nothing new, just men putting their head down and going to work. Instead of a montage of the process, Becker uses long shots with no cuts, like when the cellmates break through the floor with a crowbar. The shot goes on and on as one by one these men tire before passing the bar off. There's nothing going on other than the bar hitting the concrete slab (we don't even see the faces, just hands and crowbar) and the tension built up is indescribable. They do seem to be making a lot of noise -- one of the few flaws in the movie, no one hears what's going on? Really? -- in the process.

Several scenes like that eat up several minutes that are oddly transfixing in their execution, but the best segment is an almost 25-minute scene (starts HERE and continues into the next two segments) as the escape process is revealed. They've broken through the floor and come out in the prison's extensive cellar that's linked by pitch black corridors. The goal? To find a sewer shaft that goes out under the wall of the prison and out to freedom. Manu and Roland walk through these corridors, very aware guards are patrolling the same shadowy, poor lit areas, trying to find the shaft. It's an incredible sequence that unfolds in real-time until they find out they'll have to tunnel their way around another concrete wall, only to realize it's almost time for a bed check. Ranks with Rififi's heist sequence as one of the most riveting ever committed to film.

Lost in the reality of the movie is the incredible job done by these actors in portraying their characters. Claude is given the most background, Geo some, Roland is an expert escapee, Monseigneur is the elder statesman, and Manu is suspicious of Claude. That's pretty much it, but by the end it feels like we've somehow gotten to know these men. No background and dialogue is kept to a minimum, but even then, the characterization still works. Keraudy was not an actor but still delivers one of the best performances I've ever seen, subtle but strong, and Leroy's Manu is just as impressive. He holds everything close to his chest, but this escape attempt allows him to open up some and trust.

This all builds and builds until it feels like we as viewers have been there with them all along finding their way to freedom. Even at over 2 hours, the storytelling is never dull and keeps you riveted until the very end. As for the ending, it's one of those finales that makes you feel like you've been punched in the stomach...repeatedly. In terms of the movie's tone and story, a happy ending probably would not have worked, but this one just hurts. It's an incredible ending though and features one of the creepiest reveals I've ever seen in a movie just in terms of catching you off-guard and sending a chill down your back.

I guess that's enough rambling about one movie, but I was blown away by this French prison drama. Very real from beginning to end without a fake moment or even a "big movie moment." It's one of the most realistic movies I've ever seen and was clearly setting the groundwork for years to come in prison movies. Watch Escape from Alcatraz or The Shawshank Redemption and tell me Le Trou didn't make an impact. Le Trou is available to watch on Youtube, starting here with Part 1 of 12. It's not a movie that will suffer watching it on the computer so feel free to give it a try.

Le Trou (1960): ****/****

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Tunes of Glory

Sometimes I can't help but think that British movies -- compared to Hollywood movies -- just get it. No over the top action, no fancy CGI or special effects, just that old reliable...acting. All it can take to pull a viewer in is a tour-de-force performance from an actor or actress, and you're hooked. Production values can be slim to none, but as long as the acting is on target chances are the movie will be a winner.

There I go again with vague, sweeping generalities, but British movies seem to rely more on acting above all else, with actors like Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton, Richard Attenborough, and of course, Alec Guinness. The English actor was a chameleon when it came to his roles, and I can't help but wonder if he'd be more well-known for his overall ability if he hadn't been in Star Wars. So many people associate him with Obi-Wan Kenobi that the rest of his movies have been somewhat forgotten. But in 1960's Tunes of Glory, Guinness once again shows how strong an actor he really was.

In command of a Highlands battalion in the years following WWII, Major Jock Sinclair (Guinness) is loved by his men. He led them through WWII in Europe and is really just one of the men...albeit with a higher rank. Sinclair is not the strictest of commanders and lets smaller things go in lieu of the bigger picture, and for that reason he's loved by his men. The battalion receives a new commander, Colonel Barrow (John Mills), an officer who spent much of the war in a German POW camp with years of desk duty prior to that. Barrow is a stickler for details, doing everything by the book. His command style clashes with Sinclair and what the battalion is used to. A division forms and the conflict comes to a rise when Sinclair strikes a corporal (John Fraser) who has been seeing his daughter (Susannah York).

Should Barrow bring his second-in-command up on charges? He's had prior issues with Sinclair so a court martial might seem like personal revenge. As well, a trial would bring disgrace to the battalion. But if he doesn't, Barrow is going up against everything he believes in. Whatever the Colonel decides to do could very well tear apart the unit from the inside out. This is a story definitely characteristic of a slow-burn, a plot that keeps on building and piling on. As a viewer, you know there will be some sort of confrontation but in what sense? I for one was completely caught off guard by the ending, a downer in every sense of the idea, but one that works and the most appropriate one too. A happy ending would seem out of place here.

This is a movie dominated by two men, Guinness and Mills, and dominated in a good way. Guinness' Sinclair is built up as the man to side with; he's loved by every one from family to fellow officers to his soldiers. There's a vibe off the character though, a little full of himself and quick-tempered. Mills is the toy soldier, the desk jockey who's never seen combat but is tortured still by his time spent in a German POW camp. He doesn't interact well with the men and gives off a sense of superiority to soldier and officer alike. What's interesting in the execution is how the story develops and how our perceptions change -- or at least mine did -- as we learn more about these two men.

With basically the whole story set in this extravagant barracks the battalion lives in and only a few venture outside the wall, the conflict drives things along thanks to the supporting cast. Some of the other battalion's officers include Dennis Price, Allan Cuthbertson, Duncan Macrae, and Paul Whitsun-Jones, some siding with Sinclair and others Barrow. Gordon Jackson especially rises above the rest as Capt. Jimmy Cairns, the battalion adjutant and a man loyal to his commander to a fault. It's one of those supporting roles that doesn't have much in the way of lines but ends up being memorable nonetheless.

No frills moviemaking at its finest. There is nothing flashy about the proceedings, but the story makes this movie special and really worth checking out. Two very different men, but both are strong-willed and even pigheaded when it comes to getting what they want. A Youtube user was kind enough to post the movie into segments, starting here with Part 1 of 10. Well worth your time if you don't mind sitting down at the computer for 105 minutes. Guinness, Mills, and a fine supporting cast don't disappoint.

Tunes of Glory <----trailer (1960): ***/****

Friday, February 5, 2010

55 Days at Peking

By 1963, Charlton Heston had already portrayed Moses, a Judean prince, William Clark (of Lewis and Clark), Andrew Jackson and was still several years away from playing Michelangelo, John the Baptist, and Marc Anthony. If there was an actor better suited to the historical epic -- and reveling in it at the same time -- I can't come up with a name. Something about his style, his acting ability, it just worked well in period pieces, like 1963's 55 Days at Peking.

I'll be the first to admit that while U.S. history is one of my favorite subjects, I know very little about Asian history whether it be China, Japan or anything in between. The subject covered in 'Peking' is the Boxer Rebellion, which I've always been aware of but couldn't have told you one thing about it. Reading some reviews and critiques of the movie, it seems history was handled fairly and mostly honestly. Looking at it that way, it serves then as both a history lesson and an entertaining epic.

Arriving in 1900 Peking with a company of U.S. Marines, Major Matt Lewis (Heston) finds a city in turmoil and on the brink of war. The Boxers, a large group of anti-imperialism/anti-catholic citizens, are ready to revolt. The world powers all have an ambassador and embassy in Peking with a token force of their military -- around 400 total men -- there for protection. British ambassador Sir Arthur Robertson (David Niven) somehow convinces the other ambassadors to stay even when a revolution seems imminent that could take all their lives. The armed forces along with all family, women and children move into the Legation Quarter, a walled city that can serve as a fortress. But with limited supplies, including food and ammunition, can the multi-national group survive until reinforcements arrive?

Based on the actual Boxer Rebellion history, 'Peking' holds many similarities with 1960's The Alamo both in history and in movies with composer Dimitri Tiomkin doing the score for both. After some background, both historical and character driven, most of the movie settles in for the extended siege of the Legation Quarter. Director Nicholas Ray -- who usually worked on smaller, more manageable movies -- has his work cut out for him. Making a siege interesting to watch is a challenge, but Ray succeeds. The almost two-month long battle is never dull with plenty of tension and action, but more on that later.

Once past the big name stars, 'Peking' doesn't have a cast of thousands of A-list stars, but the leads more than handle their own. Heston is an ideal choice for the tough U.S. Marine trying to do what's right, and Niven hits all the right notes as a former soldier turned ambassador trying to prove he belongs. Rising above just an unnecessary eye candy role, Ava Gardner nails her part as Baroness Natalie Ivanoff, a woman being kicked out of the city forced to re-enter upon the attack. She has an instant connection with Heston's Lewis, but thankfully the script calls for her to dig deeper as Natalie sees the horror of the fighting. Also starring are Flora Robson as Empress Tzu-Hsi, John Ireland as Sgt. Harry, one of Heston's Marines, and Harry Andrews as Father de Bearn, a priest with some military background. There's also a worthwhile subplot with a Chinese girl (Lynne Sue Moon) who's father is a Marine.

A good test if whether the movie you're watching is an epic has an overture, intermission, and exit music. If you answered 'yes' to the question, enjoy YOUR EPIC! 'Peking' has spectacle written all over it from the cast to the sets to the thousands of extras. Huge sets were constructed in Spain, and they're a site to behold, giving the story a real authenticity that would have been lost with models or green screens. Hundreds and thousands of extras fill the screen for the battle scenes which are some of the bigger ones ever committed to the screen. With the list of differing armed forces nationalities, there's even some humor, like Ireland's Sgt. waking up soldiers in a litany of languages.

Now for whatever reason -- probably because it's a good movie and what'd be the point of it -- this movie has not been released on DVD, not a good one at least. It's one of those epics where you can honestly say 'they don't make them like that anymore.' 'Peking' is everything that was big and grand about a roadshow version of a movie with great casting, a bigger than life historical story, memorable score, huge action, and surprisingly enough, an effective message. After all, the Boxers just want their country back...even if they go about it in an extreme fashion.

I was unable to find a trailer -- an English one anyways, if you understand German I can help you out -- but TCM has posted 4 clips you can watch through their website. The print shown on TCM was pretty near flawless if you ask me so how about those studio execs get off their butts and get this one on DVD.

55 Days at Peking (1963): *** 1/2 /****

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Rare Breed

A few months back I reviewed a western from director Burt Kennedy named 'Young Billy Young' starring Robert Mitchum. Kennedy made a career of straight-laced, been there and done that movies that still managed to be entertaining. Another director from the 1960s, Andrew V. McLaglen, could have been separated at birth from Kennedy.

Comparing the two directors' filmographies, McLaglen comes out on top with a deeper selection of worthwhile movies. Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean he was a great director. More and more, I think his success in directing was a result of a nice trio to have when making a movie. One, great casting, two, lots of action, and three, a well-written script (with some obviously better than others). But looking through McLaglen's movies, they can't all be winners, like 1966's The Rare Breed.

A long-time television director who directed almost 200 combined episodes of Gunsmoke and Have Gun Will Travel, McLaglen had finally hit the jackpot on the big screen with McClintock and Shenandoah. Both stories had their similarities, tough, family men trying to live their lives amidst a strong conflict. Most of McLaglen's movies followed a tried and true formula and were the better for it. But with his next movie, The Rare Breed, he is undone by an awful script that is about as unbalanced as they come that results in an incredibly dull finished product.

After traveling from England to the U.S. with a prize hereford bull, Martha Price (Maureen O'Hara) hopes to crossbreed her Hereford bull with the famous longhorns that roam across Texas and the west. With her daughter Hilary (Juliet Mills) along, Martha finds a buyer who pays handsomely for the animal, and then a cowboy, 'Bulldog' Sam Burnett (James Stewart) to help get the Hereford where it needs to be. Seeing a chance for some quick, easy cash, Burnett makes a deal with another rancher to "lose" the animal en route. There's another cowboy on their trail, a gun-wielding psycho, Simons (Jack Elam), who has plans of his own for the bull and the money.

Netflix only slightly recommended this late 60s western, but with the talent involved I thought it was a safe bet that I'd enjoy it. I wasn't looking for an instant classic, just a good movie. The story and the characters though are so uneven and all over the place that 'Rare Breed' never gets into any rhythm. Even at just 97 minutes, it felt incredibly long, and I found myself fast-forwarding for most of the last hour. If a movie doesn't grab you early, it probably won't later on either.

The idea of the Hereford cow moving into the west is nothing new but still presents a unique setting. The cattle drive was an integral part of the west in the 1800s and has been used many times before, handled best in Lonesome Dove and in a similar way in James Michener's Centennial. All three, including 'Rare Breed,' deal with the changing times as technology and innovations in all fields push the wild west into the history books. But this McLaglen entry never takes a stand and says anything, if anything help push the good old days out the door.

A bright spot in this dud is James Stewart who brings his character to life where it just as easily could have been a cardboard cutout of a character. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast isn't so good, and it's not necessarily their fault. O'Hara was an ideal woman to ride along with the fellas in the action/adventure genre; she was tough but endearing, hardhewn but likable, and her looks never hurt. But her Martha is dead on arrival here and not a good role at all. In the weird casting department, Brian Keith plays Bowen, a mad Scotsman living on his forted-up ranch in Texas. Typically I like Keith, especially as a character actor, but here he is every stereotype imaginable of a Scottish man. Other cast members include Ben Johnson as a crippled cowboy who is gone by the 15-minute mark, Harry Carey Jr as Elam's partner (gone by the 45 minute mark), and Perry Lopez, who you'd better look fast for in the background.

If you're going to assemble a pretty solid cast like this, give them something to do at least. Elam's villain is dispatched about 45 minutes in, and with him goes any conflict or sense of danger the story had. The second Keith's son is introduced is also the exact second you can predict the ending to the movie. It's not that this is a bad movie, it just has a lazy feel to it. The music is generic, the script plodding, and some truly awful looking greenscreen effects. Some California locations look nice, but when the filming location is the best thing about the movie you know you're in trouble.

The Rare Breed <---trailer (1966): * 1/2 /****

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Sea Hawk

A couple weeks ago I reviewed 1936's Charge of the Light Brigade and as I thought about it since realized I was probably more than a little harsh on star Errol Flynn. I wrote that "he probably didn't act a day in his life" because he seems to always play the ultra-suave, extremely cool hero that saves the day and gets the girl. It came off as more critical than I intended because one of my other favorites, John Wayne, made a career out of playing the same basic character repeatedly. Should we hold it against somebody because they found their niche and ran with it?

It's hard to be critical of Flynn as a movie star because for the most part his movies are so damn entertaining, straight popcorn flicks. But looking at the 1930s and 1940s, he is clearly one of Hollywood's biggest stars. Just look at the movies he made over a 10-year period. He made more classics or near-classics that many actors/actresses make in a career. And as I wrote, just about all those movies has him as a swash-buckling rogue of one sort or another (settings vary) who always ends up on top with a girl on his arm, like 1940's The Sea Hawk.

Flynn plays Geoffrey Thorpe, an English privateer in the late 1500s working for Queen Elizabeth as one of many 'sea hawks.' These English privateers -- or pirates to their enemies -- harass rival countries' ships and keep England flowing in money, gold and treasure. Thorpe's 'Albatross' one day attacks a Spanish galley brimming with treasure and two key passengers onboard, the new Spanish ambassador traveling to England, Don Jose Alvarez (Claude Rains) and his niece Dona Maria (Brenda Marshall). Thorpe delivers his prized catch to Queen Elizabeth (a great performance for Flora Robson) who promptly ignores Alvarez's demands he be put in chains.

Queen Elizabeth has bigger plans for Thorpe and the Albatross. Rumors are swirling that Spain's King Philip is assembling the powerful Spanish Armada with hopes of conquering England. Elizabeth does not have a navy to protect her country -- other than the Sea Hawks -- and no money with which to build a navy. She sends Thorpe on a dangerous mission to Central America; attack the gold convoy coming out of the Spanish mines at Vera Cruz and bring it back so she can assemble a navy in time. Off Thorpe goes, leaving Dona Maria behind. But the plan won't be so easy as Alvarez and the treacherous Wolfingham (Henry Daniell) are at work to make sure the plan fails.

Typecast as a swashbuckler early in his career, it's only fitting that Flynn was in fact very good at fencing having been trained in the art. The training obviously shows because in several of his movies, including The Sea Hawk, Flynn engages in several exciting, intricate-looking sword fights. At one point, Thorpe even takes on four English guards at once in the shadowy court of Queen Elizabeth. It is something so little that as an audience we take for granted sometimes with CGI and stunt doubles, but Flynn handling his own stunts helps make the movie more realistic and for me, much more enjoyable. It's cool to see one of Hollywood's biggest stars at the time going toe to toe like that.

The film opens with a bang as Thorpe's Albatross overwhelms Alvarez's Spanish galley, watch it HERE, with a pretty cool introduction for Flynn as we've heard about his character for most of 10 or 15 minutes. The action sequence does continue into Part 3 for those wanting to continue on. The attack is a great scene in itself, both epically grand as two huge ships duke it out and then on a smaller scale as the two crews engage in hand-to-hand combat to save their ships. The resolution to the fight is particularly unique as how to stop a conflict like that.

Playing Captain Geoffrey Thorpe, Flynn is at his coolest, a driven, patriotic man fighting for queen and country, and of course, the girl. Marshall made 20 movies in a short time and then left show business, and as she shows here as Dona Maria, she's not the greatest actress around but she has some potential. Rains is a worthy villain as always, and Donald Crisp makes the most of a smaller part as Sir John, one of Elizabeth's loyal court members. Often pairing with Flynn as a sidekick, the loyal right hand man, Alan Hale plays Mr. Pitt, the burly, brawling sailor. Robson is actually playing Queen Elizabeth for a second time and almost steals the movie away from Flynn and her co-stars as the outspoken ruler of England.

A movie that's a lot of fun with plenty of action, over-the-top dialogue and some cheesy romance. It's not my favorite Errol Flynn movie, but the swashbuckling actor was never one to disappoint with his action and adventure movies.

The Sea Hawk <----trailer (1940): ***/****