The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Rambo: First Blood

Unlike any war the United States had ever been in, the Vietnam War was something no one could have prepared for, both during and after the conflict.  American soldiers were welcomed home with cries of 'Baby killers' and much, much worse by an American public that probably had no idea what those soldiers went through.  And when they did get home, the soldiers began to struggle through post traumatic stress disorder on scales unlike any war had produced.  Movie studios embraced this concept, trying to show the plight of what so many soldiers were going through, including one of the best efforts, 1982's First Blood.

The more I see with Sylvester Stallone, the more I come away impressed of him as an actor, writer and director.  There is a perception with Sly that he's just a big galoot, that New Yorker who mumbles his words and doesn't know any better.  And maybe through his career, he wasn't a classic oriented filmmaker, but maybe most importantly he knows what audiences will plop down money for and go see his movies in theaters.  The guy is genuinely talented in front of the camera or behind it, but often enough that talent gets lost in a sea of bad, cheesy movies.  Co-writing the script and starring in First Blood, Stallone shows his ability on all fronts.

A small town sheriff in the Pacific Northwest, Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy) picks up a drifter traveling through his town and orders him to move along, the population doesn't approve of his kind.  The drifter, a man named John Rambo (Stallone), is just looking for a bite to eat so when he's arrested for vagrancy and booked, he freaks out.  He runs for the hills with Teasle and a crew of deputies on his trail, but they had no idea what they were getting themselves into.  Rambo is a Vietnam vet, a Special Forces soldier, a Green Beret, and a Congressional Medal of Honor winner.  He toys with the deputies, wounding them all but killing none until Teasle is forced to call in the state police (led by Bill McKinney) and the National Guard, along with Rambo's former commander in Vietnam, Colonel Samuel Trautman (Richard Crenna). But as the manhunt continues, is Rambo even willing to surrender or is this one last blaze of glory?

Through all the parodies, spoofs and criticisms of Stallone as an actor, this is one of his finest performances, both as a physical action star and a dramatic actor.  For the first 80 minutes or so, Stallone has little in the way of lines at all.  It's his presence alone that keeps the movie interesting, letting his actions speak for themselves as he somewhat humanely takes out the sheriff's posse hunting him.  When he finally gets to deliver his lines, Sly hits a grand slam in the finale.  MILD SPOILERS Watch it HERE as Rambo just falls apart emotionally and physically, his memories from Vietnam finally becoming too much to handle. What he says is probably what most Vietnam vets felt like to one degree or another and shows that if you ever thought Stallone couldn't act, you'd be wrong.

Now we've got this heroic, very easy to like main character so you need someone equally evil to counter with.  Dennehy as small town Sheriff Teasle is the ideal bad guy to Rambo's good guy.  He's the type of power figure who gets off using all his power, all his might on this little world he controls.  Then when there's the slightest disturbance, he flips out.  He and his deputies treat Rambo like dirt for no obvious reason, but they do it because they can.  This is a character you love to hate almost from the first time you meet him.  Then there's the middle man, Crenna as Colonel Trautman, Rambo's commanding officer in Vietnam.  First, his entrance (watch HERE) is as bad-ass as they come in this character you probably shouldn't like but end up feeling that way regardless.  Trautman helped create the man that Rambo has turned into but knows it was a part of war.  Now, he has to balance out responsibility with what's right for the most people.  Two great supporting roles.

Okay, enough with the acting and all that good stuff.  Rightfully so, but this was one of the first great 1980s action movies.  From the moment Rambo escapes the sheriff's office it is almost non-stop action until the end.  This is aided by Stallone doing many of his own stunts, but the action is that fine line between implausible and realistic while still being ridiculously cool. The action is big and in your face, especially toward the end when everything in sight starts getting blown up.  There's chases, hand to hand fights, and shootouts galore so anyone seeking an action-packed flick will surely get what they paid for.

Also worth mentioning is the music from composer Jerry Goldsmith with a score reminiscent of his Von Ryan's Express score that balances the quieter, softer moments like THIS with the more action-oriented, like HERE. Goldsmith did a lot of great scores in his career, but this is one of his best.  The British Columbia locations are perfect, adding that sense of gloomy, dreary, always raining feeling of being closed in with nowhere to go.  As a CSI Miami fan, I have to point out this, look for a very young David Caruso as a deputy. The sequels are entertaining enough in their own ways, but as a movie this is the best one by far.  An action classic with the acting to back it up.

First Blood <---trailer (1982): *** 1/2 /**** 

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Indian Fighter

During the heyday of the movie western in the 1940s and 1950s, directors like John Ford, Anthony Mann, and Budd Boetticher dominated the box office.  Some were bigger scale, others made on a smaller budget with less scope.  But while these directors are generally easily remembered for their work, others went about their work as a director producing quality movies that weren't classics at one end or awful bombs at the other.  They were typically solid if unspectacular movies that audiences ate up but never left a huge impression.

Hungarian director Andre De Toth made a career out of these movies, hard-hitting westerns that were usually light on the corniness factor and heavy on action and blood and guts that were often ahead of its time. He specialized in westerns and action movies and also ended up doing his fair share of television directing in the 1960s when the offers weren't there to direct movies.  I'd seen a couple De Toth movies, and liked them, especially his last movie, Play Dirty, a WWII men on a mission movie starring Michael Caine.  But a majority of his movies were westerns, including 1955's The Indian Fighter.

In the years following the Civil War, Sioux chief Red Cloud (Eduard Franz) is dealing with the increased flow of white settlers into his tribe's land. A scout for the cavalry, Johnny Hawks (Kirk Douglas), is doing his best to keep the peace between the Indians and the white settlers heading west.  Hawks is leading a wagon train to Oregon and hoping to get through without any incidents, but two saddle tramps (Walter Matthau and Lon Chaney Jr) traveling with the wagon train are looking for gold.  The delicate balance for peace is hanging in the balance, and no matter how much Hawks does to keep it together, these two gunmen are looking for trouble and no one's going to stop them.

Wagon train stories are nothing new to the western and go back about as far as the genre goes.  Growing up I played my fair share of Oregon Trail on the PC so I'm a fan, but this western was missing something.  A simple straightforward story is nothing to shake your head at because I've watched too many movies that go on and on with no real purpose.  But this is one leisurely story, seemingly more content to let Douglas romance an Indian girl (Elsa Martinelli) and let the Oregon filming locations fill in any gaps in the story. The locations are gorgeous to look at, but beautiful filming locations always work better for me when they're a key part of the story, not filling in for the story.

I don't have a lot of pet peeves when it comes to movies, but one major issue I've always had is when one actor plays two different roles.  I'm not talking twin characters either, just two different people.  'Indian' has two such parts, Harry Landers and Hank Worden playing both an Indian warrior and a cavalry soldier. How hard is it to get another actor to play a bit part that any goon off the street could play?  If the budget is that tight, I feel bad for the director.  Worse than that, Worden is dubbed with a ridiculously deep voice as a warrior almost like the moviemakers knew they were trying to get away with something with the dual roles.  It is just a pet peeve and doesn't usually ruin a movie for me, but it is certainly on my mind as I keep seeing the same actor pop up over and over again.

Besides that complaint, the cast is pretty good, starting with Douglas in the lead.  An incredibly gifted physical actor, Douglas was always at home in the westerns where he was allowed to show off, whether it was in a man-to-man fight or his ability to leap onto horses with a jump.  His Hawks character is torn between his respect for the Indians and an "obligation" to his white brethren.  The love angle is a little weird because Hawks forces himself on Martinelli's Indian girl, she pulls a knife, he backs off, and the next time around when he jumps her again, she's all for it.  Seeing Matthau in a villainous turn was cool and former Mrs. Kirk Douglas, Diana Douglas, plays a single mother. There's also supporting roles from Walter Abel, Alan Hale Jr., Ray Teal, and Elisha Cook Jr. as a cavalry photographer.

Now what some earlier westerns often forget is that the west was a pretty nasty place.  De Toth embraces that nastiness in terms of betrayals, murders and double crosses while also showing some fairly graphic violence for a movie released in 1955.  Stabbings, shootings, scalpings and explosions are never gory and the camera doesn't linger, but it's presented and that's better than a lot of westerns.  Some great stuntwork is on display here, and the action scenes are enjoyable in an otherwise average western.

The Indian Fighter <---TCM trailer (1955): **/****

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Great Raid

If there was anything that could make war more terrifying, more horrific, it would have to come from the closing days in that war.  The victorious armies march forward to victory while the losing side does whatever they can to slow down that march.  Often enough, the losing armies have nothing to lose and begin to commit atrocities against prisoners of war and civilian populations, or in some cases, trying to cover up those atrocities and war crimes.  Based on a true story, 2005's The Great Raid explores this concept of a war long since lost but both sides must fight on.

Released in late summer 2005 with absolutely no fanfare or advertising, this WWII story not surprisingly bombed in theaters, making barely $10 million dollars.  The movie had already sat on a shelf for over a year because the studio had no idea what to do with it in terms of marketing and ads.  I was one of the few lucky ones to see it in theaters, and with all the crap and below average movies in theaters, it was good to see a well-made, exciting movie that felt like a throwback to war movies of the 1940s and 1950s.  No huge stars, no groundbreaking story, just an enjoyable finished product that is well worth catching up with.

In January 1945, Allied forces led by Douglas MacArthur have landed in the Philippines and are advancing quickly.  Reports start to filter in that several Japanese P.O.W. camps still remain with Allied prisoners, many of them survivors of the Bataan death march.  With concerns the Japanese captors will execute the prisoners (including highest ranking officer Joseph Fiennes), a rescue effort is mounted. A Ranger company of 120 men commanded by Lt. Colonel Henry Mucci (Benjamin Bratt) and Capt. Robert Prince (James Franco) will march 30 miles through Japanese territory and rescue 500 prisoners at Cabanatuan prison before they can be executed. Meanwhile in Manila, an American nurse (Connie Nielsen) does her best working with the underground to supply the POWs with medical and food supplies.

After reviewing a couple of Errol Flynn WWII movies the last few days, you'd think I'd be up for a change in watching some movies.  But even though 'Raid' was released some 60-plus years later, the tone is not that much different.  Director John Dahl made an unapologetically patriotic story about the heroism of American Rangers, American POWs, and the resistance effort during WWII in the Philippines.  None of this is a bad thing in the least because it is still realistic without being sappy, exciting without any pandering, and in the end, just a good movie.  It is the type of story that sounds perfectly written for a movie, only then you find out it is based on a true story, and to his credit Dahl keeps most of the facts straight.

My one complaint is that there's too much going on with the three different storylines, all of them interweaving at different points.  The problem is that all three plot lines could easily have been their own movie.  Instead, we get a 132-minute movie with all three working together.  Because everything moves along so much, the pacing is never slow and is always on the move, but at times I wished it would slow down.  Not surprisingly, I got the most enjoyment out of the Ranger patrol portions of the story, followed by the predicament of the American prisoners of war and then Nielsen's Margaret Utinsky character. That's not to say I disliked any of the segments, I just liked some more than others.

Not having a cast full of huge stars might have been the wisest choice here.  Instead of seeing the big name stars, it feels like the actors involved are actually playing their characters instead of thinking 'Hey, look, George Clooney in a war movie."  Bratt and Franco are paired nicely as the two Ranger officers leading this dangerous mission, Franco especially standing out as the tactically minded Capt. Prince.  None of the soldiers especially stand out, but Filipino actor Cesar Montano is a scene-stealer as Capt. Pajota, a leader of Filipino guerrilla fighters. Fiennes and Nielsen have a fabricated love sub-plot (Fiennes's character is fictional) and make the most of underwritten parts.  Marton Csokas and Logan Marshall-Green represent themselves well as two POWs.

The high point of 'Raid' is the actual assault on the Cabanatuan prison camp in the movie's finale, an almost 35 minutes long segment.  The Rangers must crawl across an open field where they could be easily detected to even be in range of the camp, and then have to ambush the Japanese guards and rescue the prisoners.  In a beautifully shot night scene, the raid is chaotic and loud but never confusing.  Just minutes before, Franco's Captain Prince has laid out exactly how the attack is going to go.  When the attack comes, it goes down exactly as we've been told.  It's an excellent end to a story about courage, heroism and bravery for a mission that served no real strategic purpose, but it was for a lot more.

The Great Raid <---trailer (2005): ***/****

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Edge of Darkness

Just how involved was the war effort on the home front to help aid the cause in WWII? Major movie studios became involved, producing feature length and documentary movies as a form of positive propaganda to help convince audiences how necessary total victory would be.  It was a different time, a different era in the world because now in 2010 can you imagine movie studios releasing movies about the Iraqi/Afghanistan conflicts?  Maybe it's just that the times have changed, maybe audiences just aren't as naive, or maybe it's just a different war.

Released in 1943 as WWII was still in the balance, Edge of Darkness (not to be confused with the Mel Gibson vehicle) was one of those studio ventures released in the hopes of showing that countries around the world and their populations were fighting for their freedom and not just the armies.  Almost completely isolated from the war by land, the U.S. never first hand experienced the war like Europe or Asia did.  But studios did their best to illustrate all the far-reaching effects of the war.  Very similar to 1942's Commandos Strike at Dawn, 'Darkness' is an exciting, well-made if flawed look at the resistance effort against the Germans in Norway.

In charge of a small occupying force of just 150 soldiers, German Major Koenig (Helmut Dantine) has his work cut out for him in the small coastal Norwegian town where his men are heavily outnumbered.  Koenig is aware of who the leaders of a so-far quiet resistance movement in the town, including the unofficial leader, fisherman Gunnar Brogge (Errol Flynn) and others from the village, the doctor, the butcher, the innkeeper among others. So badly outnumbered, Koenig can't arrest any of these leaders without causing an uproar and possibly a violent revolt.  A British agent (Henry Brandon) is able to provide Brogge and his resistance members with rifles and ammunition so they sit back and anxiously wait for their chance to strike at their German occupiers.

Director Lewis Milestone makes an interesting choice in his storytelling technique with a perfect opening sequence. A German patrol arrives in this vacant fishing village, walking through the streets only to find the dead bodies of both German soldiers and many of the villagers.  It seems no one has survived this bloody confrontation, but who knows for sure?  The rest of the story is a flashback leading up this opening, everything that caused it.  It is a really cool technique that's been used to death since, but it works as a great mood and tone setter, putting you on the defensive right away.  You think you know how the movie is going to go because you believe you've just seen the ending, but there's a few tricks up Milestone's sleeve here.

Leading a large ensemble cast, Flynn plays Gunnar Brogge, the brave leader of the Norwegian resistance in the village.  Flynn was in the news at the time for a statutory rape case filed against him, and from here on his career did suffer to a point even though he was acquitted.  It's a solid part if not a particularly memorable one, but the movie suffers when he's not around.  The rest of the ensemble is more hit or miss.  Ann Sheridan plays Karen Stensgard, the daughter of the local doctor played by Walter Huston who isn't quite sure if violence is the answer. Sheridan is a great female character who rises above just being a love interest, and Huston was never one to disappoint with a supporting part.  There's some really awful supporting parts though including Nancy Coleman in a laughably bad part as a Polish refugee caught up in the violence. With Flynn and Sheridan and Huston there for support, the positives outweigh the negatives.

Released in the midst of WWII, there's no chance Milestone's movie is going to show the Germans in a positive light.  This is about as straight a propaganda movie as you're going to watch.  Dantine's Major Koenig is the prim and proper raving lunatic always shouting about duty and honor to Hitler and the Third Reich, and his soldiers are nothing more than raping, murdering machines.  The Norwegians on the other hand are angelic, perfect people oppressed by an invading army.  In reality, this isn't far from the truth, but there is no gray ground here, just black and white, good and evil.  Speeches overheard on the radio from Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt encourage listeners to salute the brave Norwegian fighters, and if you don't get the message watching the movie, you must have zoned out at a certain point.

The best is saved for last when our answers are resolved as Brogge, Karen and the whole fishing village go on the offensive.  The extended battle is about 25 minutes, starting in the village and moving up to the hotel in the hills serving as German HQ.  The scale is impressive, and the action exciting with a couple great surprise moments, one being a priest revealing a tommy gun to mow down German soldiers, and two, Karen using a sniper rifle to pick off a soldier raising the Nazi flag.  Subtle? Nowhere in sight.  But a cool action sequence gets cooler.  A message of hope for anyone who would have been watching in 1943, and still a good movie today.

Edge of Darkness <---TCM trailer (1943): ***/**** 

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Other Guys

When it comes to current comedic stars, I don't know if there's one that splits audiences so much as Will Ferrell does. Critics say he plays basically the same character in every movie, and to be fair it's not that far from the truth.  But it's a good character, typically a very funny one.  His movies have been hit or miss the last few years with some successes like Step Brothers and bombs like Land of the Lost.  I'm in the 'like' group so I'll basically see anything he's in.  Chugging along at the box office, The Other Guys is a bit of a departure for Ferrell, but in a good way.

It comes from one of the more reliable sub-genres you'll find in movies, the buddy cop movie.  Put two opposites together and let the fireworks begin.  The biggest selling point of 'Other' is that Ferrell doesn't play his typical dolt, and co-star Mark Wahlberg completely commits to being the straight man and gets a ton of laughs in the process. Is it particularly original? Not especially, but through all the cliches this buddy cop venture is funny from beginning to end.  And always important in a comedy, it's quotable with too many good lines to even mention.

In a New York Police Department precinct, unlikely detective partners Allen Gamble (Ferrell) and Terry Hoitz (Wahlberg) are in the shadow of other detectives all over the force.  Allen revels in routine and sticking around the office doing paperwork while Terry after an incident with an accidental shooting feels cooped up with nowhere to go.  Almost by accident, Allen and Terry stumble into a major case no one else seems interested in.  A mega-millionaire (Steve Coogan) is in trouble with his clients for losing billions of dollars in a shady business deal (think Madoff).  No one seems to believe these two cops no matter what they say, and it doesn't help that their bumbling technique often gets them in more trouble than necessary.  But something doesn't seem right as Gamble and Hoitz get deeper into the case.

Best starting point is Ferrell and Wahlberg who together have this great chemistry that produces some of the movie's biggest laughs.  Neither of them is hamming for the camera, just letting the lines and the delivery do all the work necessary.  Ferrell in comedies and Wahlberg typically in dramas are both talented guys and play well off each other.  Ferrell's Gamble has a "dark" past that has heavily influenced the way he acts, fearful of what might come out if he resorts to his old ways.  Wahlberg's Hoitz was involved in an accidental shooting (maybe the biggest, funniest surprise of the movie) and is still dealing with the repercussions.  So it's a good start in a comedy, the history is played for laughs as it rightfully should, but we actually get to see some of these two knuckleheads and their past.

Now on the other hand, they're just funny together.  Ferrell is clueless in a kind of adorable ignorance way as opposed to his usually oblivious moron who doesn't realize he's an oblivious moron.  Some of his line deliveries are beyond perfect, including one epic comeback to a threat from Wahlberg that goes on and on, getting better all the way.  Wahlberg was already one of my favorite actors and an ideal choice to play alongside Ferrell's toned down antics.  He's intense, on the edge, a little crazy as this great cop who made one mistake and is still paying for it.  Of course, he realizes this and lashes out -- in a funny way -- at everyone around him.  He sees things that he wishes were there (watch out! Colombian drug lords!) and ends up leaving a very positive impression by the end.

Director Adam McKay has a knack for getting the best out of his supporting cast, including a few surprises here and there. Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson are phenomenal in small parts as two super cops who are the pride of the NYPD. Michael Keaton plays Captain Gene, the captain of the precinct, a part incredibly subtle in its humor with one great running gag about him unknowingly quoting TLC songs as motivation/inspiration. Eva Mendes looking as beautiful as ever shows off her comedic chops as Sheila, Allen's smoking hot wife, and Coogan in an underused part as the slimy businessman up the creek and looking for cash.  Ray Stevenson plays the resident bad guy, necessary to look tough every so often. There's some great cameos, including one so perfect I can't ruin it, but NY Yankees fans shouldn't be disappointed.

Reviewing all sorts of movies here, it's nice every so often to just review a movie that's funny non-stop and entertaining with no higher pretensions.  The story just drifts along at times before focusing back on the important elements.  The action toward the end is ridiculous and over the top, the soundtrack sounds like a bad 1980s soundtrack, and there's just enough of a new spin on the buddy cop relationship to keep you guessing what's coming next.  Really though, check this one out for Ferrell and Wahlberg, a nearly perfect comedic team.

The Other Guys <---trailer (2010): ***/****     

Thursday, August 26, 2010


Catching up with all the Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton James Bond movies I'd never seen straight through over the years, I watched each and every one last year, reviewing many of them here.  Some were good, one or two classic Bond, and the others pretty bad.  I came to like Moore and Dalton as 007, and I've always been a fan of Pierce Brosnan and more recently Daniel Craig.  But no matter how many more Bond movies there are to be made, Sean Connery will and always will be the best James Bond around, including one of his best entries and one of my favorites, 1965's Thunderball.

This would be Connery's fourth movie in the franchise and also the first one after the hugely successful and still very popular Goldfinger, regarded by many as the best movie in the entire franchise.  So right away, the stakes are raised.  Director Terence Young does not disappoint here with that perfect mix of action and humor, exotic locations, gorgeous Bond girls, and crazy gadgets.  It is an underrated Connery Bond movie, often lost in the shadow of Goldfinger, but it is a strong example of what the Bond movies were before Moore came along and turned it into a more cartoonish series.  It is certainly better than the next two Connery entries and remains one of my favorites.

A NATO plane transporting two nuclear bombs has gone off the radar and disappeared, and it's not long before SPECTRE has delivered an ultimatum to the world; deliver $280 million dollars in a week or both bombs will be detonated, one in an American city, the other in Europe.  MI6 calls in all their 00 agents to investigate with James Bond (Connery) sent to scenic Nassau in the Bahamas.  He's following a hunch that the sister of the pilot of the missing plane may know something.  The girl's name is Domino (Claudine Auger), the mistress of a mysteriously rich man, Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi), who owns a luxurious seaside villa where the missing bombs may have been hidden.  But with time running out, can Bond find the bombs' location and save thousands of lives in the process?

Besides the obvious positive of Connery playing Bond, the earliest entries into the Bond franchise -- mainly the 1960s movies -- are just better movies overall.  They have that great retro feel to them, giving a window into a past decade that just can't be duplicated.  Of course, the Nassau locations don't hurt in the least too.  If a plan to take over the world can be feasible, these earlier movies buy into that.  The Connery movies are serious without taking themselves too seriously. There is that humor throughout with some great one-liners, but never too many of them.  Add in John Barry's phenomenal Bond theme and an all-around great soundtrack (genuinely one of the series' best) with Tom Jones' title song (listen HERE) and you've got a winner all around.

With any series where multiple actors have played the same role, you're going to get varying opinions on who was the best.  A majority seems to agree that Connery was the best Bond, myself included.  If possible, you could take bits and pieces from Lazenby, Moore, Dalton, Brosnan and Craig to make the perfect Bond.  On his own, Connery does a fine job.  He's tough as hell, able to fight his way out of any situation he gets himself into.  He's funny, able to throw one-liners whenever needed like 'I think he got the point' after killing a henchman with a harpoon.  And because he is the original ladies man, Connery is smooth with the ladies.  By Thunderball, he's got the character down to an art and knows what works and doesn't work.  And through all the craziness Bond movies offer, that lead has to be good, and Connery's the best.

For his supporting cast, it's one of the more underrated ones.  The SPECTRE villains were always great, and Celi's Largo certainly qualifies.  Unlike later Bond villains, he's not a lunatic, just a mastermind able to coordinate highly-involved plans with split second timing.  As for the Bond girls, Thunderball has quite the trio, starting with Auger as the very sexy Domino (she should just wear the black and white bikini at all times) and continuing with another Italian beauty Luciana Paluzzi as Fiona Volpe, a curvy SPECTRE assassin, and Martine Beswick as Paula, Bond's Nassau assistant.  And what would a 007 movie be without the support staff including Bernard Lee as M, Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny, Desmond Llewelyn as Q, and Rik Van Nutter as Felix Leiter, CIA agent and Bond accomplice. A typically solid supporting cast for James Bond.

Where Goldfinger started the trend of the slam-bang finish, Thunderball kicks the door wide open with its finale, an extended underwater sequence as Largo's henchmen fend off the attacks from American/MI6 agents, harpoons, knives and weapons galore available.  Watch the whole thing HERE if interested. There is some great stuntwork on display in the underwater battle, and it provides one of the better endings for a Bond movie.  Not quite Goldfinger overall, but Thunderball is still one of the best.

Thunderball <---trailer (1965): ****/****     

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Uncertain Glory

In all the Errol Flynn flicks I've reviewed, I've done my best to avoid saying the same thing repeatedly about him.  He was at his best and most popular when he was the swashbuckler, the pirate, Robin Hood saving Maid Marian.  At the height of his popularity though, Flynn did his best to avoid being typecast although in the process he still typically played pretty heroic characters, just not on the high seas. Somewhere in between is 1944's Uncertain Glory, not quite a villain and not quite a good guy...until the end that is.

Working with a director in Raoul Walsh he worked with a handful of times, Flynn doesn't play the straight as an arrow, charming hero...sort of. It is the 1940s, and Warner Brothers wasn't about to cast one of their biggest stars as a villain.  But in a departure from his typically heroic roles, Flynn gets to play a character that if nothing else is deeply flawed.  His intentions are consistently in question from beginning to end, and his criminal background is mysterious and hinted at more than anything is revealed.  So even though the ending doesn't come as much of a surprise, it is still interesting to see a deviation from the typical Errol Flynn hero character.

It's the middle of WWII, and French prisoner Jean Picard (Flynn) is about to be killed on a guillotine after being caught after years of robbery, heists, and most recently, murder (although we never find out about that).  But at the last possible second as Picard is about to be strapped down an Allied bombing raid flies over, killing everyone involved except the doomed Picard.  Funny how that works, huh?  Given a new lease on life, the crook escapes only to be caught in the days following by detective Marcel Bonet (Paul Lukas), a police officer who doggedly pursued Picard over the years. As they travel back across France to complete Jean's sentence, Picard comes up with a plan.  A saboteur has recently blown up a key bridge held by the Germans, and 100 hostages have been taken prisoner to be shot if the saboteur doesn't reveal himself.  Sentenced to death regardless, Jean wonders, what if he said he was responsible?  

For all his character background, we're never given a crystal clear version of what Flynn's character did in the past.  We hear about crimes that include bank robberies and large-scale heists, even a murder, but never anything specifically.  So in that sense, Flynn's Jean is a bad dude, but the nicest bad dude around.  What worked for the character was his motivation, or lack of in many cases.  At first when the idea of posing as the saboteur is presented, Picard seems genuine, making a noble sacrifice to save 100 hostages.  But as the story develops, you're never quite sure what he is up to.  Does he intend to go through with this honorable plan?  Or given a chance, does he intend to escape for good?  To Flynn's credit, he keeps you guessing until the end.

I'm always a fan of war movies that delve deeper into the war effort than just the front lines and the soldiers.  Besides the cartoonishly evil portrayal of Germans and the Gestapo, this is certainly one of those efforts that gives something different.  But even with this unique story, Walsh struggles with where to take it all, seemingly knowing the end result but not how to get there.  It's more than a little predictable, and at a certain point you assume Flynn is going to go through with it.  Honestly, would Warner Brothers release a movie where heroic Errol Flynn bails on saving 100 innocent people's lives for his own well-being?  I think not.  There was a chance for a great twist in the last 30 minutes involving French villagers setting Jean up for the sabotage, not knowing he's actually going to admit to the deed, but it never materializes into anything.

About midway through the movie, something that had been bothering me finally figured itself out.  This movie is basically a 1940s version of Midnight Run, the 80s comedy starring Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin.  But instead of an odd couple road movie, we get a semi-serious look at WWII France with a police detective and a slippery crook.  There are flaws here that really slow the movie down.  Instead of just turning Jean in, Lukas' Bonet agrees to let him live out the last three days of his life to their fullest.  Granted, the Nazis have set a deadline on the saboteur revealing himself, but it is a stupid decision both in terms of story and the character.  We also get to watch a painfully slow romance with a young French woman (Jean Sullivan) and Jean. Just have Bonet deliver Jean, and you've got a much quicker and better movie.

In a minor complaint, the movie is also about five minutes too long.  Instead of ending it at the logical point, two more scenes come along that needlessly beat home the point that we've been hit over the head with for the last 90 minutes.  It is still a good ending, but cut out those last two scenes and it is much more emotionally effective. This Flynn venture was recently released on DVD for the first time with four other movies -- check it out HERE -- if interested in checking it out.

Uncertain Glory <---TCM trailer (1944): **/****

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Zulu Dawn

Military victories when handled the right way -- good cast, big enough budget, halfway decent script -- can translate well to a feature length movie.  Think of D-Day, Gettysburg, Battle of Britain for examples of a battle filmed on an epic scale with the final result the better for it.  So flip the coin then and look at the opposite, military disasters.  It can be fascinating to see a skirmish, battle, or even a war turn for the worse and what made it do that.  Telling the story of one of the worst military disasters in history, 1979's Zulu Dawn does everything it should in giving an honest look at that disaster.

In theaters 15 years before 'Dawn,' 1964's Zulu told the true story of the battle of Rorke's Drift, a last stand situation where about 100 British soldiers in 1879 held off the attacks of thousands of Zulu warriors for over a day.  Before that battle, an army of thousands of Zulu warriors had almost completely destroyed a whole British battalion a few miles away.  So while there is no link other than the same setting and story, Zulu Dawn is an unofficial prequel to a movie made 15 years earlier.  1964's Zulu mentioned the previous battle in a prologue, but director Douglas Hickox delves right in to tell the story of one of history's biggest military disasters.

In the South African province of Natal in 1879, British general Lord Chelmsford (Peter O'Toole) awaits orders on what to do with the possibility of a war breaking out between the British and the Zulu nation. A representative of the British government (John Mills) has sent an ultimatum to the Zulus, disassemble your army of warriors and dissolve the nation as a whole and there will be no issue. The offer is of course refused so Chelmsford leads a small army of around 2,000 men (including 2nd in command Burt Lancaster, a real scene-stealer here) into the Zulu territory against an army estimated at 30,000 men.  But the proud, even arrogant British march into Zululand assuring themselves of an easy victory, not knowing what awaits them.

If you haven't figured by now, that easy victory never comes to fruition after Chelmsford foolishly splits up his forces and basically invites piecemeal destruction as overwhelming numbers just destroy his men. It seems through history the British have had their fair share of military disasters and never really learn from those defeats.  Marching into Zulu territory, one officer (Christopher Cazenove) remarks how noble their effort is, how heroic their actions like the campaign will be a walk in the park.  Like any story where the end result is never in doubt, Hickox creates palpable tension, a sense of doom of what is to come.

Of course with a historical movie like that, you want to see the disaster, you want to see the Titanic sink so getting there can be a little tedious at times.  Where 'Dawn' is at its absolute best is in the depiction of the battle of Isandlwana where thousands of Zulu warriors take heavy casualties as they wipe out almost all the British defenders at their camp in a ragtag defense. As near as I can figure, the battle scene was filmed on the actual location of the massacre, giving the whole sequence an eerie feeling.  On a huge scale, the battle is amazing to watch, but never overwhelming.  You're always aware of what's going on, where the lines are, if the British are holding or falling back.  Elmer Bernstein's score aids the cause, helping the battle both on an epic scale but also the smaller scale of the man-to-man fighting element of what a last stand must be like.  The movie's good, but the Isandlwana sequence at almost 40 minutes long is great.

With a large cast with a long list of characters, some get lost in the shuffle more than others.  O'Toole is the stereotypical arrogant, gentlemanly British officer while Lancaster is more an officer of the men, looking out for their best interest whenever possible.  Lancaster's Colonel Durnford is definitely the star of the movie, even in an underused part.  Simon Ward impresses as Lt. Verecker, a cavalry officer who lived in South Africa before volunteering with the Brits. Also joining the British army is Denholm Elliott as a commanding officer, Cazenove and James Faulkner as lower ranking officers who make a gallant charge in the closing moments in the massacre, Bob Hoskins as a veteran sergeant desperately trying to keep his men in order and alive, Nigel Davenport as O'Toole's aide, and many more, some making better and longer impressions than others, but those are the best of the bunch.

Filming on location in South Africa, you truly get a sense of the wide open expanses of the African frontier.  This definitely aids the battle scenes with an enormous scale of armies and strategy as the battle develops from a firefight into a bloody, fleeing massacre.  There are some great visual moments but also emotional, surprising moments, like Verecker's patrol riding over the crest of a hill and stumbling upon an immense army of Zulu warriors facing them.  In the massacre, all the soldiers we've met go out in their own blaze of glory.  This is available to watch through Youtube, start with Part 1 of 12. Overall, not as good as Zulu but a worthy prequel, and it would certainly make an entertaining double-bill.

Zulu Dawn <---Video Detective trailer (1979): ***/****

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Sins of Rachel Cade

Where many actresses get lost in the shuffle of male-dominated ensemble casts, Angie Dickinson seemed to revel in it.  Movies like Rio Bravo, Ocean's 11, Death Hunt, and many more were all examples of male-heavy casts with a female character that in the wrong hands could have been thrown by the wayside. But even looking like a typical cute blonde who probably weighed 90 or so pounds, she always handled herself well.  Given a rare chance to star in her own movie, she delivers a strong performance in an otherwise average movie, 1961's The Sins of Rachel Cade

In the Belgian Congo in 1939, American missionary and nurse Rachel Cade (Dickinson) arrives at a somewhat isolated mission only to have the doctor in charge drop dead from a heart attack.  Forced to take over the not so friendly mission, Rachel does her best to offer medical treatment to the African villagers while also trying to teach them the ways of God, Jesus and the Bible from a Christian perspective.  Nothing goes smoothly, but it gets more interesting when two different men, local commander Henri Derode (Peter Finch) and a suave doctor (Roger Moore) begin to show interest in the pretty young nurse, forcing her to decide if she can live by the lessons and teachings she gives to the local villagers.

After seeing Dickinson in mostly supporting roles or at least parts that usually relegated her to love interests, it was cool to see actually see her in a starring role.  Her Rachel Cade is an interesting character, starting off as innocent, somewhat naive, and in some ways condescending to others' beliefs.  I realize as a missionary that is her job, her mission, but she dismisses the beliefs of the villagers who have had those beliefs their whole lives.  Still, even as she struggles with some inner demons and hypocritical feelings, it is a fascinating character to watch.  Dickinson never gets too high or too low so Rachel is a little too laid back at times, but because we see her develop over several years, that's the character.  Relatively calm even when everything around her seems to be falling apart.

Finch and Moore provide some interesting counters, and not just in who they play.  Both Englishmen, Finch plays a French officer (thankfully not trying an accent) and a very young-looking Moore plays an American doctor from Boston (still sounding like a Brit).  Rachel feels something for both men and ends up getting involved in a very serious way with one -- no SPOILERS today, folks -- that makes her question the morality of what's she doing.  Of the two, Finch delivers the better performance, Moore playing his typically suave, ultra-charming character he perfected years later with the James Bond movies.  Other good parts include Errol John as Kulu, Rachel's assistant open to embracing a Christian God, Frederick O'Neal as the local chief curious to Rachel's motivations and actions, and Rafer Johnson and Charles Wood as two of Rachel's helpers in the makeshift hospital.

Dealing with conversations about personal religious beliefs and what religion works and doesn't work, I struggled at times with how preachy the story could be.  I haven't read the novel the movie was based on so I don't know what director Gordon Douglas was working with, but it is a very one-track story.  Christianity good, African beliefs bad, no middle ground.  Juano Hernandez plays a local medicine man/chief who may or may not believe in what he preaches, and Woody Strode plays an imposing medicine man who looks more like a witch doctor than anything else. The portrayal -- however true it is, I don't know -- seems very stereotypical to me and full of political incorrectness.  Because of that portrayal, it seems obvious that of course Rachel is going to have success with converts to Christianity.

Simply in the moviemaking process, I struggled to get into this movie.  It was filmed on an indoor set for this African village/mission Rachel comes to work at.  Filming in Africa would have been no doubt rather expensive, but find somewhere outdoors that could have even slightly resembled the African jungle.  You're very aware you're watching a movie that was filmed on a studio set and not anywhere on location.  Composer Max Steiner's score is all right but doesn't leave much of a lasting impression. I had a hard time really getting into this story, and I don't know why.

The story lacks a certain amount of energy as it finds a rhythm among Rachel's mission, her personal feelings, and all the conflicts going around in the village.  When issues do come up with Rachel finally caving in to some of her wants and desires, it is handled in such a PG fashion that it lacks any punch.  Were we supposed to be shocked when Rachel reveals she is pregnant?  Douglas probably couldn't get away with much by 1961 standards, but watching the movie some 50 years later, it is very noticeable.  The whole movie is fairly dated, but some good acting brings it up a notch and at least makes the movie watchable.

The Sins of Rachel Cade <---TCM clip (1961): **/****

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Last Rebel

Michael Jordan, Pele, Shaquille O'Neal, all superstar athletes who took a turn at the movie business, some with better results than others.  Kazaam comes to mind as a not so quality venture.  It's the rare athlete who has the same talent on-screen that they had playing on their court, diamond, field, whatever.  In the 1960s and 1970s one of the biggest stars both on and off the field was AFL/NFL quarterback Joe Namath, also known as Broadway Joe for his ability to dominate the spotlight.  Like so many stars, he gave movies and television a shot, including an appropriately forgotten spaghetti western, 1971's The Last Rebel.

In most variations of athlete turned movie star, the athlete plays a variation of himself/herself, if not just actually playing themselves.  MJ played MJ in Space Jam, Pele played a soccer star, Shaq was a genie (check that one), but Broadway Joe doesn't go that route, instead playing a Confederate soldier turned gunfighter in the days and months following the Civil War.  I've been watching spaghetti westerns for years, and I can almost always find something to recommend about them.  They're often enough so bad they're good.  But The Last Rebel?  Possibly the worst movie I've ever seen.  And I've seen a fair share of stinkers, but this may take the cake.

When news reaches Missouri that the Union has won the Civil War, Confederate soldiers Hollis (Namath) and Matt (Jack Elam) light out for the west rather than be thrown in some prison camp while everything cools down.  Heading west, the unlikely duo becomes a trio when Hollis rescues a black man, Duncan (Woody Strode) from a lynch mob.  Looking for a way to earn some money, the trio rides into a not so friendly town with a not so friendly sheriff (scruffy looking Ty Hardin) who doesn't take kindly to strangers in his town.  Honestly, some more stuff happens, backstabbing, betrayal, a fair share of sex, then a showdown and credits roll.  End of movie.  Good enough plot description for you?

I honestly try and keep an open mind whenever I start a new movie, no matter what I've heard going in.  That plot description isn't leaving anything out at all.  That's it.  To say this awful spaghetti western even has a plot is a stretch.  In a 90-minute movie, I'd wager half of it is long, unedited shots of two or three of our characters riding through the countryside with a truly out of place soundtrack playing over the visual.  Trying to show a passage of time is one thing, but this was just bizarre.  A 30-second uncut scene of Namath and Elam has the duo ride across a ridge or over a hill, but instead of proceeding to them riding into a town, we get another shot of them riding across a ridge or over another hill.  Truly embarrassing stuff almost right from the get-go.

At a certain point, I almost felt bad for Namath.  His part isn't so much acting as reciting lines and squinting, shrugging and generally looking uncomfortable no matter what he's doing.  But Namath was a sex symbol in his playing days so he does bed down a handful of women in the movie, including saloon girl Pearl (Victoria George, a bright spot for her appearance and general lack of clothes). There's also the bizarre scene where Hollis -- acquiring the rank 'Captain' out of nowhere -- rides onto a Spanish hacienda and sleeps with two different Mexican sisters in the same night, just a room apart.  Then, oh yeah, gotta go back to new love of your life Pearl.  It's probably not fair to call this acting to begin with, but Namath should have stuck with that football thing.  I hear he was halfway decent.

Heading into the movie, I thought a saving grace might be the trio of actors in support of Namath in the lead, Elam, Strode and Hardin.  Well, thanks to a complete lack of any sort of script or story to move things along, the three are beyond wasted.  Elam has the most screentime, but that doesn't mean much.  He growls a lot and looks at the camera with that shifty look of his.  Other than a weird monologue he has with a random black boy (honestly, the kid's credited as 'The Black Boy'), Strode has about 18 words of dialogue.  Not lines, just words.  As for Hardin, it's just bad news.  He's the bad guy I guess, but we're never told why.  He's a sheriff, of course he wants to protect his town.  But he has a gnarly looking beard so he must be the bad guy.  Hardin disappears for about 40 minutes, only to reappear when Namath needs to kill someone.

Director Denys McCoy understandably didn't get another movie to direct after this gem.  A star-driven vehicle is one thing, but at least give Namath something to do other than sleep with random women.  It is one of the most random, truly pointless movies I've ever seen.  Nothing can really save this one.  No script, no plots, no interesting characters other than the mostly nude Victoria George, and a soundtrack that features 70s rock and ballads all add up to a sorry excuse for a movie.  I'll give anything a try, but this was a painful experience, and that's from someone who loves spaghetti westerns.  Steer clear.

The Last Rebel <---TCM clip (1971): 1/2 /****  

Saturday, August 21, 2010


A bit in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" has a character exposed to the immensity of outer space, our galaxy and much further on.  The kicker is that everyone who sees how big the universe is thus feels as small as an ant and kills themselves.  It's funnier than it sounds, trust me.  But the size of space is hard to comprehend, one of many things that flashed through my head while watching 2007's Sunshine.  A sci-fi story that is a lot more at times -- and a lot less at others -- asks a lot of questions, some harder to answer than others.

The science portion of the science fiction angle has this ability to drive a lot of viewers off as they claim "Oh, that's ridiculous.  That could never happen."  Well thankfully, I've never been a science whiz and when I see something that doesn't quite make sense, it usually drifts over me and is gone as quick as it appeared.  Sunshine has its fair share of those moments, but the build-up and the tension and the character dynamics are so interesting to watch, the science of it all can be superfluous at times.  I was loving this movie, absolutely loving it, for about an hour, and then director Danny Boyle adds a twist so unnecessary and out of place that it almost ruins the whole movie.  Stew on that for a little while.

Some 50 years into the future, the sun is dying much faster than ever predicted, leaving the Earth in a state of winter at all times, the planet basically freezing to death.  Aboard an immense space ship, the Icarus II, eight astronauts navigate from Earth to the Sun carrying a bomb, a massive payload the size of Manhattan Island, that it is believed will create a star within a star by exploding the bomb within the sun.  The voyage is millions of miles away, and the Icarus II has been moving toward its goal for some 16 months.  But as the ship passes Mercury, an odd distress signal is heard, that of Icarus I, the first ship sent to accomplish the mission before mysteriously disappearing.  What happened to the first ship, and could it happen to the second before the mission  is accomplished, dooming Earth to its fate?

A great ensemble fills out Icarus II's crew, starting with Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada), the ship's captain, Harvey (Troy Garity), 2nd in command and communications officer, Searle (Cliff Curtis), ship's doctor and psych officer, Capa (Cillian Murphy), the physicist in charge of the bomb, Corazon (Michelle Yeoh), the biologist, Cassie (Rose Byrne), the pilot, Trey (Benedict Wong), the navigator, and Mace (Chris Evans), the no-nonsense engineer. On a journey with no outside world to escape to that will take years, the crew develops tendencies and routines, fighting amongst themselves while balancing out the scale of their mission. The first hour of the movie as we see these characters and get to know them is by far the best part, seeing this dynamic among eight people as they risk their lives to save millions.

Deep space provides all sorts of open doors for a movie to walk into.  It's unexplored, and anything could exist out there.  It takes years to travel the millions of miles between Earth and the Sun so rescue isn't just around the corner.  These astronauts are on their own.  That premise is what drives the story.  The future of the Earth depends on this crew and their ability.  Add in an absolutely beautiful visual movie, a very moving if underused score by John Murphy (listen HERE) and you've got all these great elements to work with. About halfway through, I thought I was watching one of the best sci-fi movies ever, only to have a curveball thrown my way.  It helped following the movie reading scathing posts on the message boards that I wasn't the only one who hated an unnecessary late twist.

SPOILERS for this paragraph SPOILERS  The disappearance and then reappearance of Icarus I is a perfect addition to the story, in theory.  It's like Christmas Eve, you're curious what those presents are, but it's almost more fun not knowing what's inside.  How did the Icarus disappear? Did they kill each other? Did the Sun destroy them? Was it an alien? It's better not knowing here.  It is that sense of mystery of what space could contain.  ANYTHING.  Then in need of repairs, the Icarus II docks with I, and over the last 30-45 minutes we see that it was the deranged captain (Mark Strong) who took out his crew and now plans to take out II, hoping to be the man who last talks to "God," or in reality the sun and all its power. What was one of the best science-fiction movies ever now devolves into a teen slasher film.  Really? That's where you wanted to go with this?  The ending still remains incredibly moving in its execution, but it's almost an afterthought. END OF SPOILERS

There are good twist, great twist, stupid twists and unnecessary ones.  This one was stupid and unnecessary in so many ways. It almost completely ruins what otherwise could have been a classic movie about space, space travel, and all the emotions and feelings that race through the human mind when faced with an impossible, nearly suicidal task.  Almost completely ruins. The first hour and the last five minutes are so good I'm still recommending this one.

Sunshine <----trailer (2007): ***/****

Friday, August 20, 2010


By 1968, James Bond himself, Sean Connery, was riding high off the success of the first five 007 movies he made, most recently with You Only Live Twice.  When he wasn't playing Bond, Connery did his damnedest to avoid being typecast, generally succeeding with a wide-ranging list of roles that continued into the 1970s and 1980s.  But in all those movies, he only did one western, and it's a good one, 1968's Shalako.

Based on a Louis L'Amour novel, this Euro-western has a lot going for it with a lot of different elements thrown together in the final product.  Start with the uniquely international cast that includes American, English, French, Scottish, German and Spanish actors and actresses, all of them with speaking roles.  While the story ends up being somewhat familiar late in the movie, the build-up to that point is different from about 99.9% of other westerns.  At times it can be a little too much with so many different elements working together and sometimes against each other, but the positives outweigh the negatives...for me at least.

Frontiersman and former U.S. cavalry officer Shalako Carlin (Connery) stumbles across an Apache ambush, saving a beautiful French woman, Countess Irina Lazaar (Brigitte Bardot), from certain death. Irina is part of a European hunting party headed by Baron Von Halstatt (Peter Van Eyck), Sir Charles Daggett (Jack Hawkins), and U.S. senator Henry Clark (Alexander Knox) who are touring the American west, killing any animals they see, their wives along for the adventure. Knowing what awaits them, Shalako tries to convince them to leave the territory as the Apaches don't take kindly to anyone riding onto their land.  The party ignores him, but when their guide, Bosky Fulton (Stephen Boyd) and his men double-cross them, they have no one to turn to other than Shalako.

Above all else, I'd say watch this movie for the cast, starting with Connery and on down the line through all the supporting parts, some much bigger than others.  If anything, there may be too many names involved because characters aren't given the attention they deserve at times.  Connery's Shalako -- an all around badass like most L'Amour heroes -- doesn't even dominate the screen, and the movie's named after him!  Those I could get into the plot review are just some of the names, there's also Honor Blackman as Hawkins' wife, Woody Strode as an Apache chief (not as bad as a Mongol bandit I guess), Valerie French as the senator's wife, and Julian Mateos and Don Barry as two gunmen along for the ride.

Seeing Connery in a western setting might seem odd -- Scottish actor dudes up in bucksins and six-shooter -- but it works.  He is typical of most L'Amour heroes in his ability to handle himself in even the hairiest situation, loyal and honest, and does the right thing over the thing that makes the most sense.  In the end, you know he'll win and get the girl.  Oops, did I just give away the ending?  My bad.  Director Edward Dmytryk had a bit of a predicament with leading lady Bardot, the definition of a 1960s sex kitten. Basically do you make her look like a woman on the frontier or like, well, Brigitte Bardot.  He goes with option B.  Hair always look perfect as does the makeup.  I'll disagree with a lot of reviews, I thought Connery and Bardot had good chemistry, and her sexy French accent goes a long way.  It just does, no other explanation needed.

Keeping it all together is the movie's biggest problem as Dmytryk juggles all these characters and subplots.  The story is at its strongest when sticking with Shalako and the motley crew of survivors he's leading.  Boyd is always a solid villain but his character could basically be erased from the storyline and it wouldn't skip a beat.  Van Eyck and Hawkins do what they can with stiff upper lip aristocratic characters.  If nothing else, there is more eye candy than usual in a typical western.  Along with Bardot -- who is given a topless scene with strategically placed hands -- there's Blackman and French, neither of whom are too bad to look at.

I wish there was more I could say about this Euro-western, but I'm drawing a blank.  The cast is solid if under utilized, the action is exciting, and the Spanish desert fills in nicely for the American southwest.  Be forewarned, there's a truly awful theme song -- give it a listen HERE -- that plays over the credits on either end of the movie.  I'll apologize in advance for the song being stuck in your head for the next few days.  It is a western that does nothing spectacularly, but instead does everything in a solid, workmanlike manner.

Shalako <---TCM clip (1968): ***/**** 

Thursday, August 19, 2010

7 Women

When I think of John Ford, I typically think of westerns, and male-dominated westerns at that.  If his movies had female characters, they were almost always in the background or as a source of conflict between two men.  Some directors worked well with actresses, but from what I've read about Ford he was much more comfortable directing men.  Certain actresses continually popped up in his movies, but almost always playing basically the same character over and over again.  It's funny then that in a career that included almost 150 movies, his last movie is a female-dominated cast in 1966's 7 Women.

Ford making some interesting decisions late in his career was nothing new.  With Cheyenne Autumn, the director admitted he owed an apology to how Native Americans had been treated in many of his movies, telling their story in this big budget if average western.  In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford explored the idea of legend versus fact and the idea of romanticism in the old west.  With '7 Women,' he has a story that could have easily been set in the wild west like so many of his movies were.  But he picks an incredibly unique setting to tell a story that is completely different from any other movie in the Ford lexicon.

In 1935 in northern China along the Mongolian border, Agatha Andrews (Margaret Leighton) is in charge of a Catholic mission that helps any Chinese refugees on the isolated frontier.  She has help from a handful of women who have sacrificed much to be there in this dangerous situation where everything from bandits to diseases threaten everyone inside.  A new doctor, Dr. Cartwright (Anne Bancroft), arrives and quickly finds out how rigid, how very strict Andrews' mission is.  Cartwright is more of a free spirit and doesn't fit in so well, but that's the least of everyone's problems. A warlord/bandit chief, Tunga Khan (Mike Mazurki), is on a rampage across the frontier with the mission right in his path. 

Along with Leighton and Cartwright, the 7 women of the title include Sue Lyon as Emma, a young innocent girl somewhat naive to what's going on, Flora Robson and Anna Lee as two survivors from a nearby mission, Mildred Dunnock as Jane, Agatha's assistant, and Betty Field as Florrie, a middle-aged woman going through her first pregnancy and one of the most shrill, annoying characters I've ever seen in a movie.  It easily could have been '8 Women' but Ford chose to leave out Jane Chang's character for some reason.  Cough RACISM Cough.  Just kidding. These women of all shapes, sizes and creeds certainly cover the gamut, giving a nice diversity as they are forced to cope in these horrific situations where no one is there to protect them other than themselves.

With so many characters, it would have been easy for all the performances to get lost among themselves, but I don't think Anne Bancroft was going to allow it.  This is hands down the reason to see this movie for her performance, rising above a script that really doesn't have much going for it early on.  Dr. Cartwright is as tough as they come, a woman who put herself through school in the 1920s when female doctors weren't exactly commonplace.  Bancroft gives her a hard edge that has enabled her to survive on her own these years, but it's in the last 30 minutes where her character's true colors come to light.  She's spent most of the movie arguing with Leighton's Agatha character, but Bancroft's Cartwright makes a noble decision, leading to a very effective and more than a little surprising ending.

Of the rest of the women, Robson stands out as a fellow missionary who respects Cartwright for all her differences when no one else does.  She is underused unfortunately, but what's there is certainly a positive addition to the movie.  Lyon too represents herself well as the young Emma, torn between her duty and what she sees in the new doctor who is unlike so many other women she's met in her life.  As Agatha, Leighton is the self-righteous, condescending she-devil who thinks she is above criticism but feels incredibly comfortable dishing it out.  Also joining the cast is Eddie Albert as Florrie's Bible-spouting husband, Charles.  Like his wife, this character comes across as easily unlikable early on but he too comes around, realizing how ridiculous his stance is.

Now it is a John Ford movie, and there has to be some element of racism or politically incorrect moments, doesn't there?  I don't mean that as negatively as it sounds, and I am a huge Ford fan, but something almost always pops up in his movies.  Here it is Mazurki and Woody Strode as Mongolian bandits. Mazuriki is laughable as bandit chief Tunga Khan, and Strode looks ridiculous with eye makeup that attempts to make him look like a Mongolian.  Close but no cigar.

It's certainly a change of pace for Ford, and being his last movie, it is an intriguing watch.  It is different from any other Ford movie I've come across and is worth a watch for that reason alone, all flaws aside.  You can watch it at Youtube starting with Part 1 of 9.  Listen to the early parts of the credit, and guess who the composer is.  It took me about two notes, and if you said Elmer Bernstein, you win a cookie.

7 Women <---trailer (1966): ** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Honeymoon Machine

In a career shortened by cancer, Steve McQueen earned himself the nickname 'the King of Cool.' Some of his best roles are those where he is the anti-establishment loner, the guy who does what he wants and isn't always popular for it, but he refuses to be tied down.  That's why I love his movies from The Great Escape to Bullitt and everything else in between and after. So imagine my surprise several years back when I was reading his filmography and found out he had done...wait for it...a zany 1960s romantic comedy!  More surprising? 1961's The Honeymoon Machine is actually pretty good. 

The humor is fairly typical of the comedies studios were producing in the 1950s and 1960s before America got all cynical.  The stories are ridiculous, the humor often pretty obvious, and they typically remind of some crazy scheme that Lucy and Ethel would have gotten into on I Love Lucy.  There is an innocence to these type of movies that just wouldn't have worked 10 years before or after their initial release, and that's part of the appeal.  They're sugary sweet and about as harmless as a comedy can be.  Starting off, a theme titled "Love Is Crazy." It's so awful, I defy you to not have it stuck in your head, and I do apologize for introducing it.

On board a Navy destroyer outfitted with a highly intelligent, analytical computer named 'Max,' Lt. Fergie Howard (McQueen) and Ensign Beau Gilliam (Jack Mullaney) have concocted a plan that could net them more riches than they ever planned with the help of Max's scientist keeper, Jason Eldridge (Jim Hutton). The Navy headed to Venice, Fergie and Co. hope to input data from a roulette wheel in a casino and let Max figure out a formula where they can deduce where the roulette ball will drop every turn. It's a plan that seems perfect, but nothing goes smoothly from the start.  Fergie meets Julie Fitch (Brigid Bazlen), the daughter of Adrmiral Fitch (Dean Jagger), and in trying to cover up their plan actually ends up explaining the whole thing.  But that's just the start as the money starts to flow in, and Admiral Fitch begins to suspect something fishy going on, including a possible martian invasion of Venice.

Ridiculous enough for you?  It sure sounds stupid.  A sucker for heist movies like I am, I was drawn in by the early premise of using a computer to analyze a roulette wheel and make millions.  Handled seriously, it could have been a doozy of a caper movie, but any element of seriousness is thrown out the window early here.  Director Richard Thorpe specialized in these type of romantic comedies and handles this one very well.  It's just 87 minutes long and doesn't waste any time getting where it wants to go.  Fergie's perfect plan deteriorates thanks to a drunken watchmen (a cringe-worthy Jack Weston), some Russian interference with the Russkies believing the U.S. is trying to bankrupt Italy, a possible martian invasion, and so much more.  But remember, it's madcap comedy so nothing ever gets to serious.  Were they really going to court martial Steve McQueen? I think not.

Frank Bullitt.  Henrie Charriere. Virgil Hilts. Pvt. Reese. Vin. I could name a lot of McQueen's characters who are some of my favorites.  Fergie Howard? Like no one he ever played.  For one thing, McQueen was a talented actor no matter the criticisms he's taken, and more than that he is an impressive physical actor.  He handles himself so well that he looks incredibly natural in his parts.  Throw all those elements into a comedic part, and you're going to have a lot of fun.  His mannerisms, his pronunciation of certain words, an inspired English accent, it all made me think McQueen should have done more comedy. It's almost like watching a different actor, but enjoy it.  Even a year or two later, I'm not sure he would have done this part.  Just sit back and watch the King of Cool in a part unlike any other he did.

McQueen is the scene-stealer in 'Honeymoon,' but that's not to say the rest of the cast disappoints.  If the story is as ridiculous as this one, every one has to commit to the badness.  Just embrace the goofiness and go along for a ride.  Hutton is the straight man to McQueen's antics, and gets a romance with Paula Prentiss, who he would team with in a handful of other MGM comedies in the early 1960s. Hutton and Prentiss have a good chemistry together, and Prentiss gets a lot of laughs as a heiress who insists on not wearing glasses even though she's blind without them.  Bazlen was just 17 years old when she made and is a good counter to McQueen.  She only made 3 movies in her career, a real shame because she's got a lot of ability.  Jagger too gets his fair share of laughs just because of the sheer lunacy of what's happening.  All in all a really solid cast.

Not much more to say about this one.  If you're wary about giving this one a try, I wouldn't be.  It's typical of a 1960s comedy that never takes itself too seriously but in the end is a polished, surprisingly funny finished product.  If nothing else, McQueen fans should see it just to see something different.  He always had great timing in his dramatic roles, and he doesn't disappoint in a comedy.  A change of pace for sure and a good one at that.

The Honeymoon Machine <---TCM trailer (1961): ***/****   

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Bridge at Remagen

One Memorial Day I don't know how many years back, I stumbled across a WWII movie on Turner Classic Movies that I'd never seen before, much less heard of.  1969's The Bridge at Remagen is based on a WWII battle, but because of a general lack of big names -- whether it be the director or the cast -- is not mentioned in discussions of other 1960s MGM war movies. It is a product of the times as America was fully involved by 1969 in Vietnam, but it is a very effective look at the closing days of the war.

Too often war movies pick a side and go from there, disregarding the other side completely.  Some of the better ones at least attempt to show both sides of the war.  It is said of war that 'the victors write the history books' but in many ways, the soldiers on either side are very similar.  They're fighting because that is what they're told to do, their superiors deciding what should or shouldn't be done.  Director John Guillermin splits time evenly between the Americans and Germans, giving an excellent look at one of the key battles late in WWII with an underrated cast and some great action.

It's March 1945 and the German armies are in full retreat.  The Allied forces are nipping at their heels, chasing them back into Germany.  The German High Command has ordered all bridges over the Rhine River destroyed to help slow down the Allied charge, but one bridge at Remagen remains. General Von Brock (Peter van Eyck) sees that 75,000 German troops will be cut off if the bridge is destroyed and instead sends a close friend and fellow officer, Major Paul Krueger (Robert Vaughn), to hold the bridge as long as possible. Just miles away, the Allies charge forward hoping to catch the German defenses napping, at their front an armored infantry unit commanded by Lt. Hartman (George Segal), who after weeks at the point is leading an exhausted unit.  But pressure from HQ and the battalion commander (Bradford Dillman) keeps the men going, hoping to end the war as quickly as possible.        

Where this reflects the times is the portrayal of a war near its end, the soldiers deteriorating with pure exhaustion.  The end of the war is near, and the Germans are turning on each other.  Vaughn's Krueger is promised a defense that doesn't exist and reinforcements that can't be moved.  The SS and Gestapo run rampant, ruling with an iron fist.  The ranks are thinned by deserters, and refilled with old men and young boys.  The Americans are always on the move, pushing themselves and the Germans to their absolute limits.  They're bone tired but they have no option but to follow orders.  The rules of war are gone to a certain point, and survival has taken priority over everything else.  It is a cynical story at times, the effects of war wearing men down on both sides.  Frightening at times to see the portrayal of the closing days of the war presented in a realistic fashion.

The portrayal of the opposing forces is seen through the eyes of two junior officers, both with different missions but driven to the same point.  Segal is perfect as Lt. Hartman, a company commander at his wit's ends when it comes to commanding.  He's trying to protect his men as best as possible, but HQ has their objectives.  Guest star E.G. Marshall as an American general callously states "100 may die, but 10,000 will be saved." An honest statement in the big picture, but when you're part of the 100, does it matter?  Across the river is Vaughn's Krueger, a career German officer -- not a Nazi -- disobeying orders but still trying to save as many men as possible.  The two actors don't share any scenes together, but there is a bond between them nonetheless.  They may be on opposite sides of the war, wearing different uniforms, but in many ways they're the same.

In the honest portrayal of a war in its closing days, both sides aren't shown as particularly heroic.  Ben Gazzara is a scene-stealer as Sgt. Angelo, one of Hartman's men who is a good soldier under fire but rubs the Lt. the wrong way by picking clean the bodies of dead German soldiers.  Gazzara is so good in the part that you forget at times how despicable his actions are.  He balances the good with the bad, the power of his actions wearing on him.  Forced to kill a Hitler Youth teenager, he almost snaps when confronted.  All of the Americans aren't shown in a positive light, including Hartman's unit which includes Bo Hopkins, Matt Clark, Robert Logan, Steve Sandor, and Tom Heaton. Dillman's Barnes is a good officer but he has no idea how to interact or treat his men. The Germans too are at each other's throats.  Look for Hans Christian Blech in a solid supporting part as one of Krueger's officers.

Bouncing back and forth between the American and German perspective could have caused a disjointed story, but that's never really a problem.  Instead, it drives the pace at a lightning speed as the Germans fall back, the Americans pushing forward.  The action scenes are well-handled and nicely choreographed starting with the filming locations in Czechoslovakia where a bridge similar in appearance to the actual Remagen bridge was used.  There is an epic scale to the battles with the end result possibly being an earlier end to the war, but on a personal level we see Hartman's men ordered across a bridge fully expecting it to blow at any moment.  Full of tension from the beginning, the battle sequences are aided by Guillermin's camerawork, right there on the ground with the foot soldiers.

A highly underrated WWII story.  Elmer Bernstein's score (Main Theme listen HERE) borrows from some of his more notable musical scores, and at times sounds more like a western theme, but for the most part it's good. You can watch the whole movie in a widescreen version via Youtube, starting with Part 1 of 11. Don't let the lack of big names scare you away from this one. An all-around solid look at the closing days of WWII and one of its key engagements.

The Bridge at Remagen <---trailer (1969): **** /****