The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Monday, January 31, 2011

The Anderson Tapes

In a little over two years writing reviews here, I've watched my fair share of heist movies (11 if I've got the tags right).  It's that perfect blend of action, suspense and drama all wrapped up into one as -- typically -- a group of specialists work together to steal something thought unattainable.  Inception had dreams, Goldfinger was Fort knox, and Heat was piles of money.  It's almost always one specific thing.  That's not the case with 1971's The Anderson Tapes where the target isn't one thing, but one apartment building and everything in it.

To say director Sidney Lumet is slumming here isn't fair, but I'll admit it was the first thing I thought when his name popped up in the opening credits.  This is the man who directed 12 Angry Men, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, and so many more classic movies, and now he's directing a good old-fashioned heist movie?  With a director of his caliber, I don't know if you can call it slumming, but it's a hell of a lot of fun to see someone like Lumet try a more mainstream movie dead set on entertaining more than delivering a message.  It is a movie that isn't particularly unique compared to most heist movies, but it is solid all around and very entertaining.

After 10 years in prison for a burglary charge, master thief Duke Anderson (Sean Connery) visits an old girlfriend, Ingrid (Dyan Cannon), who lives in a posh apartment in New York City. Duke is looking for a job to pull off -- any job at all -- and realizes it's staring him dead in the face. Ingrid's building has 12 separate apartments owned by doctors and lawyers and all of society's best (translation = richest).  Duke goes about putting together a motley crew of crooks and ex-cons to pull off the job, even going to the mob and kingpin, Angelo (Alan King) for backing. But as he goes about planning the elaborate heist of 12 apartments at one time, Duke realizes security has changed since he went into jail?  Security cameras are everywhere, and it seems someone is watching him.

Released in 1971, this is a movie that at the time must have felt like a futuristic look at security with all its high-tech equipment.  Now in 2011, it seems very dated that a team of crooks would be even slowed up by a security camera here and there.  Composer Quincy Jones' score even plays that up with a robotic, electronic sound which is more distracting than necessary. The subplot with Anderson being constantly videotaped (hence the title of the movie) is disappointing though, not really going anywhere.  It is the type of story where all these unknown elements feel like they're building to a huge, twist ending, but it never comes.  The final scene is disappointing in that way as so many different elements and unanswered questions don't gel in the end.

That complaint aside, I really enjoyed this movie.  This was one of Connery's movies in between James Bond roles, and before he returned to the part in Diamonds are Forever later in 1971.  He is one of my all-time favorite actors so seeing him in a well-made heist movie is a cinch for me.  His Duke Anderson is tough, intelligent and after 10 years in jail...desperate.  He wants and needs to pull of a job.  It's as high risk as they come, but the potential for payout at the end is huge so he puts it all on the line.  I would have liked a little more resolution late in the movie with his character, but it does make it pretty clear what happens to him.  Connery has a good chemistry too with Cannon in their few scenes together (he plays up his sexy, hairy Bond angle). If nothing else, 'Anderson' is worth seeing to get a glimpse of Connery without his toupee, just his thinning hair here.

So in the action equivalent of a men on a mission movie, Connery's Anderson must assemble a team of specialists to help him pull off the job.  This is where 'Anderson' is better than most, the supporting cast.  Martin Balsam is a scene-stealer and downright hilarious as Haskins, a gay interior decorator along to pick out what's valuable and what isn't worth stealing in the building.  Stereotypical and a little politically incorrect? You bet, but it's funny. In one of his first featured roles, a young Christopher Walken plays the Kid, a young ex-con who's an expert in safecracking and dismantling alarms. There's also Val Avery as Parelli, the mob muscle, Dick Anthony Williams as Spencer, the getaway driver, Stan Gottlieb as Pop, an ex-con struggling to adjust to life outside prison, and Paul Benjamin as Spencer's former partner in crime along to help. With smaller parts, Anderson's crew makes the most of it, helping each character leave a lasting impression even with their limited screen-time.

Prior to the heist, there is little in the way of explanation of how Duke and Co. are going to pull this off so not surprisingly, the 40-minute heist sequence to close the movie out is a high point.  Lumet films in it a unique way, showing the team get into an apartment, flash to the occupants later being interviewed by the police explaining what happened, and then bouncing back to inside the apartment during the job.  It's a cool technique that keeps you guessing because if you pay attention in the background, you see clues of how the job went and if it was successful or not.  In the heist, look for Ralph Meeker as a police commander brought in to deal with the crooks, and future SNL star Garrett Morris as a leader of a SWAT team. Nothing new, nothing flashy here, just a solid, exciting heist movie with a good cast.

The Anderson Tapes <---trailer (1971): ***/****       

Sunday, January 30, 2011

How I Won the War

Spoofs are almost a necessary evils of movies being successful in theaters.  Disaster, slashers, ridiculous action, sex comedies, they're all ripe for the picking.  But what about war movies?  There's two ways you can go.  Dark, cynical movies that barely even register as a spoof like Catch-22, basically a blueprint of how to make an anti-war movie.  Then there's the out and out ridiculous look at war, like Hot Shots.  So how about that middle ground in between?  I'll say it's not a good spot to start a movie, and because of the choice to have a story somewhere in between, 1967's How I Won the War is one of the worst movies I've ever seen.

If a director is going to make anti-war movie, more power to you, but pick what kind of anti-war movie you're going to make.  Don't bounce back and forth in tone between jovial and laughing to dark and serious.  Director Richard Lester chooses to bounce back and forth, unfortunately for him and for us as viewers.  There are moments with lots of potential and some great film-making techniques, but they're ruined by the movie's tone that relies on existential, slapstick, and subtle humor all at the same time.  It's the rare movie that I can't find something to recommend, but this was awful.  I physically wanted to hurt someone watching it, but instead watched most of it on fast-forward.  It was a good choice. This movie couldn't have ended soon enough.

Joining the army in 1939 as World War II begins, a young man named Goodbody (Michael Crawford) is deemed officer material and is given the rank of lieutenant.  He's placed in charge of a squad of misfit soldiers who hopefully will never see combat, but of course they do. It's not long before Lt. Goodbody and his men are part of the British forces sent to North Africa to fight the Germans.  But before they can even reach the beaches as part of an invasion force, they're assigned a dangerous but necessary mission.  Three days before the invasion, they will land in North Africa and travel behind enemy lines to build a...wait for pitch. Can they get the job done, or will they all get killed in the process?

Just judging this flick as something visual to watch or look at, Lester clearly pulls out all the stops.  His story is non-linear, starting the movie in 1945 as the Allies fight their way across the Rhine River into Germany, then bounces back to 1939 when Goodbody meets his squad and follows their "adventures" in the war.  Then periodically, it jumps back to 1945 to show the lieutenant's interactions with the German officer who captured him. Lester also has all his characters address the camera in first person as if they're talking right to the viewer.  He uses stock footage spliced in with his footage, and then gets artsy with dead soldiers returning as statue-like individuals painted in bright colors tagging along with the survivors as silent partners.

All those filmmaking techniques are fine and dandy though in a war movie, but not one as schizophrenic as this one.  There's all this ridiculous humor followed by moments that are supposed to shock you with its violence.  Don't combine stock footage of dead soldiers with jovial images of a squad of British soldiers literally marching into German machine guns only to have the Germans stand up and surrender.  I know it's a movie, and maybe this wasn't the intention, but it felt very disrespectful to me of those soldiers who did give their lives.  Also, piece of advice, don't compare yourself to other movies.  Soundtrack cues from Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia were both used at different points.  Used for comic relief? Maybe, but all I could think was that I should be watching those GOOD movies instead of this slop.

My all-time favorite literary character is John Yossarrian, Joseph Heller's main character in Catch-22.  He's a perfect cookie cutter for how to do a lead character in an anti-war flick.  Brash, honest, fully sane (maybe), but just fed up with the situation he's in.  In 'Won the War,' none of that exists with Crawford's Goodbody.  I've rarely come across a main character more shrill, more obnoxious, just out out and annoying than this one.  From an upper class family, he has the mindset that war is fun, even heroic giving men a chance to prove their worth. He is oblivious to everything around him and has no clue that his men despise him. Goodbody continues to preach about the glory and honor of war, but all I could think was that he deserved to be shot by his own men.  In his squad look for Beatle John Lennon in his only non-Beatles role, Roy Kinnear, Lee Montague, and several other random actors that played parts that left little impression on me.

One scene -- yes, that's it -- actually made an impression on me, when Goodbody's squad is killed by a German tank column supported by infantry.  It's shot in a hazy fog and has the look of a dream gone bad. When ripped to pieces by German mortars, Lennon looks at the camera and confusedly states 'You knew this would happen.' Kinnear tries to talk to his German captor only to be bayoneted in the stomach. It's just a small snippet that shows Lester could have made a powerful anti-war movie. As a viewer, I felt nothing for these characters, but because it is shot so well in such a dark fashion, their deaths hit me like a punch to the gut. Watch it HERE starting at about the 4-minute mark and continuing into Part 11.

Writing about that one scene, I can't completely rip this movie.  That one scene is actually that good. I can't say it's the worst movie I've ever seen, but it's up there.  I wish Lester would have picked one route and gone with it.  It is nearly impossible to deliver an anti-war message with a tone and humor as broad as the one here.  War is insane, no one can disagree with that, but by making the soldiers lunatics, cowards, straight up idiots, you're ignoring and disrespecting the people who actually fought and weren't all those things.  How I Won the War is one of the strangest movies I've ever seen, and while I can't recommend it as a movie, it's something you just have to decide for yourself how good or bad it is.  Give it a try at Youtube.

How I Won the War <---trailer (1967): */****

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Professional

Two years ago, the first Jean-Pierre Melville movie I saw was his classic Le Samourai.  Starring Alain Delon, it was a very stylish look at the life of a hit-man who meticulously went about his business as the police desperately tried to track him down.  I didn't love the movie, but I certainly liked it enough to give some other Melville crime thrillers a chance.  But then I kept seeing references to Le Samourai coming up, some major and some more minor, but it was hard to miss them.  Over 40 years later, this Melville flick is still making its impact felt on countless action movies in terms of style and story.  One of the few to even come close to measuring up is 1994's The Professional.

In past reviews, I've written about some of my favorite character actors from the era of classic Hollywood between the 1930s and 1960s (even into the decade of the character actor, the 1970s).  When I think of current actors who can pull off supporting roles perfectly in movies now being released in theaters, it's harder to think of many.  One exception is Jean Reno, a veteran of Hollywood and European movies.  He's the type of actor who legitimizes a movie just by being there.  When given a rare chance at a starring role like the one in The Professional, Reno doesn't miss, swinging for the fences and hitting a home run with this very Melville-like character.

Working for a mid-level mafioso (Danny Aiello) in New York City, a man known only as Leon (Reno) is one of the best "cleaners" around.  For a price of $5,000 a person, Leon will kill any man, but he refuses to kill a woman or a child. He leads a simple life when he isn't on the job until one day his routine is shaken.  In the apartment building he lives in, Leon's next door neighbors are gunned down by a rogue D.E.A. agent, Stansfield (Gary Oldman).  The only survivor is 12-year old daughter, Mathilda (Natalie Portman), who hides out and convinces Leon to let her live with him. Leon doesn't know what to do other than the fact that he can't just put her on the streets. Mathilda has an offer for him, teach her to be a cleaner like him.  Leon isn't so sure it is a good idea though, knowing that Stansfield is eventually going to track her down looking to finish the job he started.

Like Melville did in Le Samourai with Delon's main character, director Luc Besson builds up Leon, his main character, without much in the way of describing his background, instead just showing his daily routine and hearing a few quick snippets of his principles. A middle-aged man living by himself almost like a monk, Leon constantly drinks milk and nothing else -- especially hard liquor or beer -- while caring for his small house plant.  He sleeps sitting up in his chair for quick catnaps, never resting for too long.  Leon can't read or write well, and he watches old movies at small NYC theaters in the morning hours.  As deadly capable as he is, Leon is also a vulnerable, somewhat innocent, even naive individual.  He trusts Aiello's word to a fault, letting him hold onto the money he earns.  All these little things add up to this great character that is hard not to like, even considering his career.  Even then, he's a bit of a righteous killer, taking out the worst society has to offer.

Reno is clearly channeling Delon's Samourai character, and I mean that as a compliment.  Usually relegated to key supporting roles in movies like Ronin, Godzilla, Mission: Impossible, and quite a few other movies, Reno makes Leon into this ultra-cool, killing machine.  The visual alone of his retro glasses and black overcoat quickly became an iconic image associated with the movie and wisely used on DVD boxes.  It can be a difficult challenge making a hired killer a sympathetic character, but Reno's Leon is as human as they come.  For her sake and his, he contemplates killing Portman's Mathilda to put her out of her misery, even putting a gun to her head as she sleeps.  He has countless opportunities to leave her or kick her out, only to realize he should and will do the right thing.  Call it a father-daughter, brother-sister relationship, but he starts to look out for her like family, like a guardian angel doing his damnedest to protect her.

In the news recently for her performance in The Black Swan, Portman is as well known for her parts in the Star War movies and V for Vendetta as this performance in The Professional.  More impressive? This was her first feature film role, and it's clearly an example of the talent she's working with.  Her chemistry with Reno is flawless and instantly believable.  She should have won awards for one scene alone when she stands outside Leon's apartment crying after walking past her dead family, pleading in a whisper for him to open the door.  The 13-year old Portman is a revelation here, and any fans of hers should see this movie. And for an off his rocker, eccentric DEA agent, who better than Oldman (one of the greatest villainous actors of all-time)?  His part is hamming it up and over the top, a necessary counter to Leon's quiet, smooth demeanor.

As the viewer, our introduction to Leon is about as well-handled as possible.  His hit attempt on a well-guarded mafioso is action at its tense best, guards being picked off one-by-one by this unseen, fast moving killer.  Before we know anything about Leon, we know he's an expert at what he does with few if any rivals.  For the most part, that's all the action until the end when SPOILER ALERT Stansfield finally tracks down Mathilda with Leon holding off countless SWAT team members and DEA agents.  Big, loud and chaotic, the finale is a spectacle to behold.  The ending itself isn't necessarily a happy ending, but it's an appropriate one, and a moving one at that.  A great movie overall.

The Professional <---trailer (1994): ****/****   

Friday, January 28, 2011

Easy A

Comedies about teenagers are so hit or miss it can be hard to tell what one's are worth looking into and which ones you should just skip by on the street.  Even raunchier comedies like American Pie (or at least the original) had a heart to it.  Teen sex comedies typically go for that lowest common denominator of lots of partying, boozing, and sex. Exaggerated to such a ridiculous point that the movies don't even resemble any actual high school experience, they can be the guiltiest of pleasures.

Then there's 2010's Easy A, a comedy about teenagers and about sex but not specifically a teen sex comedy...if that makes any sense at all. The ads late last summer really did their best to shove this movie down audience's throats, and I remember thinking that if I hadn't been overloaded with ads, I might have been interested in seeing this critically well-received comedy.  This is one of those rare comedies with a heart that also tries to deliver a message to its teenage audience, and to its older audience members a look at the life of a high schooler (albeit a movie teen).  Now it is still a movie portrayal of what someone must think high school is like, but compared to most, this one is moderately realistic, and that's something.

Your typical high school student, Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone) is like a lot of the kids in her high school.  She's more than content to hang out with her friends and just blend in with the crowd as opposed to standing out.  But one day she tells her best friend Rhiannon (Aly Michalka) that she lost her virginity to a college freshman and the news spreads like wildfire. People look at Olive differently, and her reputation grows for the better.  'She's the girl who had sex!' The reputation grows to the point where a gay student (Dan Byrd) asks Olive to pretend she had sex with him to help build his own reputation as a ladies man while avoiding the beatings and mocking for being gay. Olive goes along with it trying to help a friend, but she could never imagine what happens next as a result of her choice.

A recurring problem with movies based in a high school is that some combination of writers/studios/producers/directors clearly never went to any sort of a realistic high school.  Or on the other hand, they did and decide to make a movie about what they think high school should have been like. Thankfully here director Will Gluck finds a nice middle ground in between. The cliques among the students, the ever-moving rumor mill, the cool teacher, the stiff faculty, these all feel authentic.  Add in some modern elements like Twitter, webcams, Facebook and all sorts of other technology, and you get a movie that if nothing else feels authentic.  Is it?  Not at all times, but for the most part Easy A tries to represent at least a somewhat realistic view of high school.

From the time I saw her in Superbad a few years back, I've had a crush on Emma Stone so I'll say that early and get it out of the way.  I'm a sucker for redheads so when an actress is a genuinely funny one -- and a redhead at that -- I'm dead meat.  Besides not looking like your typical high school student, Stone puts off this very cool, smart appeal.  Physical humor or just a subtle delivery of a line, she can do it both equally well.  She plays off her cast nicely, giving everyone else a chance to shine while still making sure the camera's focus is on her.  In her first part where it's truly HER movie, Stone nails it.  Hopefully this is a sign of things to come as she continues her climb to stardom.

Stone does her fair share of heavy lifting as Olive, but Gluck assembles quite a cast around her.  Penn Badgley (of Gossip Girl) is Todd, Olive's big crush since the 8th grade who seems oblivious to all the rumors that start to fly around her. Amanda Bynes is the requisite bitchy character, an all-around good student and firm believer of Catholicism, looking down on anyone and everyone around when given the chance. Michalka is also good in the smaller part as Olive's best friend, Rhi.  The real supporting stars are the more established adult actors, some playing parts that amount to extended cameos.  Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson are hilarious together as Olive's honest, intelligent parents who just want what's best for her. Thomas Haden Church steals every scene he is in as Mr. Griffith, Olive's favorite teacher, with Lisa Kudrow playing his wife, a guidance counselor at the school. Also can't forget Malcolm McDowell as the principal always worried about what all his students are up to.

You know what surprised me most about this movie? It's a comedy that's genuinely funny.  It feels real and rarely tries too hard, making the movie funnier because it isn't force feeding you the laughs.  Easy A is well-written with some biting humor and criticism of the current state of high schools and students everywhere.  Comparisons to the classic John Hughes comedies of the 1980s are not far off base in this comedy that is funny from beginning to end...and a happy one at that.

Easy A <---trailer (2010): ***/****           

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Deep Six

Before he ever became a hero from World War I, Alvin C. York was a conscientious objector, opting on his draft application to put "Yes, don't want to fight" when asked if he wanted to claim an exemption. Of course, he would go on to become an American hero during WWI for his heroic actions when he and a small squad of soldiers captured over 130 German soldiers.  Think about his stance though.  What's so wrong with it? He didn't believe in killing because of his religious beliefs.  This wasn't a man trying to get out of fighting because of any political stance or objection the fighting.  He didn't want to kill his fellow man.

The idea of a conscientious objector is a sticky one because it has to be hard to read a man's true intentions.  Combat and war are a terrifying premise, and most would do anything possible to avoid it.  But regardless of personal or religious beliefs, some men slip through the cracks and make it into combat on a front-line position. That's 1958's The Deep Six, the story of a man raised as a Quaker who outgrew his childhood beliefs as he grew into an adult.  Now when his draft summons arrives in the mail, his beliefs come up again. If it came down to it, could he kill?

A successful advertising artist in Los Angeles, Alec Austen (Alan Ladd), is riding high.  His job pays well, he owns a beautiful seaside home, and he's in love and about to be engaged to his boss, beautiful Susan Cahill (Dianne Foster). When it seems everything is lining up into place, Alec relieves a draft summons for the U.S. Navy because he took an ROTC program in college and is still part of the Naval Reserves.  Raised as a Quaker, he wavers over what to do but ultimately reports for duty where he's assigned to the USS Poe, a destroyer in the Pacific captained by Commander Meredith (James Whitmore). As the Poe sails toward the Japanese and the conflict awaits, Alec begins to question if his childhood beliefs of pacifism are really gone.  When the time comes will he be able to give the order to fire, an order that will almost certainly end in the death of a human being?

Movies about war -- especially in the 1950s -- are a dime a dozen.  Doing the norm and making a flick about combat is fine by me, I love that type of story and own a fair share of those on DVD, but it's always refreshing to see a war story with a fresh spin.  This story is effective because it's hard not to feel for Ladd's Alec character.  It's only natural to be scared about how you'll respond in a situation like he is in regardless of your beliefs or ideologies.  Alec must not only worry about his own concerns, and how he'll respond, but if the choices he makes will end up taking the lives of his crew, the men he bunks and eats with on board the Poe.  Throw in that the crew (including nasty executive officer Keenan Wynn) finds out about his Quakerism and ostracizes him, and you've got a whole bucket of worms.

In a career that was cut short because of his personal demons, Ladd still made his mark on Hollywood.  He always had an easy-going way about him that played on his character's vulnerabilities and made him a likable leading man.  His Alec is quiet and unassuming, a good man pressed into a difficult choice.  He doesn't whine or moan about his predicament, doing his best to deal with it himself.  For the most part, Alec bonds well with his men because he has their best interest at heart.  In helping us to get to know his main character, director Rudolph Mate adds in the subplot with Alec's fiance Susan. Where some movies use this technique and it fails miserably, it works here, and I can't explain why the subplot didn't send me up the wall.  It just works, and it certainly makes Alec more human.  He's worried about marrying Susan because of the very real possibility that he may die at sea, sacrificing his feelings and needs/wants for his concerns on how that event that might not even happen would affect her.

Still, The Deep Six is a war movie, and the heart of the story is Alec and the USS Poe's involvement in the war in the Pacific against the Japanese.  The combat is held to a minimum with an occasional strike by a patrolling Japanese plane and saved for the end when Alec must lead a small patrol onto a Japanese-held island where five downed fliers await rescue.  The finale -- as was the case with much of the movie -- is limited by a smaller budget, but it makes up for any epic battle with the impact the fighting makes.  Filming much of his film at sea, Mate give viewers quite a look at life on a U.S. destroyer, providing some great footage with his cast (not stock footage) on board the ship.  The supporting cast includes JHP favorite Whitmore as the veteran commander, Wynn as the bloodthirsty XO, Efram Zimbalist Jr. as on-ship physician/doctor, Lt. Blanchard, and a scene-stealing William Bendix as Frenchy Shapiro, Alec's close friend and Chief officer.

Reminding me of the somewhat out of place humor in John Ford's Mister Roberts, too much time is spent with the crazy antics of the crew, including a pre-Rat Pack Joey Bishop, Perry Lopez, and voice of Alvin and the Chipmunks Ross Bagdasarian (among other cast members). The humor is unnecessary, and if it is an attempt to lighten the mood, it fails badly.  It's just not funny and takes away from the more interesting aspects of the story.  By no means enough to detract overall from the movie, but worth mentioning.

The Deep Six (1958): ***/****

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Layer Cake

As much as I loved Casino Royale and everything Daniel Craig brought to the part of James Bond, it isn't my favorite part of this fast-rising star. It's easy now to just think of Craig as 007 and nothing else, but he's a talented actor, capable of pulling off drama, action and humor all in the same scene, much less a whole movie.  So as good as Craig is as Bond, I'd recommend any Daniel Craig fans out there to see 2004's Layer Cake, one of the best films to come out of the 2000s and a criminally underrated one at that.

This is one of those movies you stumble across almost by accident, love it, and then can't convince enough people to watch it.  I watched it based solely because I was a Daniel Craig fan, and shame on me, the DVD box looked cool.  I've seen it called all kinds of things, a Guy Ritchie knock-off especially, but it's one of those rare great movies that works almost in spite of itself.  Based off a novel by J.J. Connolly, Layer Cake has too many characters, more style than substance often enough, and twists and turns so much it took me a couple viewings to piece everything together for sure.  All that out of the way, I love this movie.  I'll explain later.

A high-end drug distributor, a man known only as XXXX (Craig) has quickly risen through the ranks of the very stylish but still cutthroat underworld.  In fact, he's done so well with his crew of chemists, bodyguards and distributors, that he's calling it quits at the age of 30 and going into early retirement.  Not so fast, his boss (Kenneth Cranham) has two more jobs for him, and then he'll let him walk away.  First, a shipment of 1 million ecstasy pills is on the market, and they're just sitting there for the taking.  Two, the daughter of an old friend of the boss is missing, and she must be found before something happens to her.  Completely backed into a corner unless he wants to risk a bullet in his head, X takes both jobs in his effort to leave the business cleanly.  But as he so well knows, nothing comes easy, and nothing here goes as planned.

The basic idea of the last job is nothing new here as X tries to pull off these last two jobs.  The novel is a great jumping off point -- even if the ending sucks in the book -- and director Matthew Vaughn runs with the idea. The movie has the action style of a Bourne movie, the look of a glossy British crime thriller, the dark humor of a Scorsese gangster flick, and the twists and turns you'd expect from a Shyamalan movie.  What's so odd is that all these vastly different pieces click together and work so smoothly.  It's stylish without overdoing it, violent without being gratuitous, funny without pandering for laughs, and keeping you on your toes without trying to straight out confuse you.  A winner on all accounts.

As I mentioned earlier, Craig is a huge bright spot here, showing a different side as an actor.  He hadn't yet done a Bond film so he's not in crazy, ridiculous physical shape here.  He's on the thin side which is important because he isn't this superhero dealer.  X explains, "He's just a business man" and a highly intelligent one at that.  Nothing about these two jobs is as simple as they seem, and he's got to figure everything out before it's too late.  X is smooth, smart and very capable of handling himself...although if the chance arises he'll hire someone who is also capable of handling themselves.  His narration is spot-on, especially in the movie's opening (watch HERE) and sets the stage perfectly for the rest of the movie.  The tone is going to be cynical with its dark look at the criminal underworld and all its shady dealings.  As a front man for this movie, Craig was a perfect choice.    

Don't get confused though and think this is just Daniel Craig's movie because the cast has so much more to offer.  Where to start, where to start? Vaughn assembles this great list of British actors to play this long list of eclectic, often rather eccentric characters.  Here's just some, starting with George Harris as Morty, X's security with a checkered past, with Tom Hardy and Tamer Hassan as X's crew. Cranham is Jimmy Price, X's shady boss who pawns off much of his work on Colm Meaney's Gene, X's link to Jimmy. Sienna Miller is Tammie, a club girl who X instantly feels a connection too.  Miller is sexy as hell, check here out HERE. Michael Gambon is Eddie Temple, Jimmy's old friend and current rival, ready to throw X for a loop in his perfect plan. Then there's Dexter Fletcher, Steve John Shepard, Stephen Walters, and Louis Emerick, all recognizable faces if you don't know their names in great supporting parts that requires barely more than a scene or two to establish who they are and what they're up to.

What's funny as I write this is that the list previously mentioned is only the key characters. Yeah, there's more characters that bounce in and out as needed.  Almost every single one of the above characters mentioned is so well-written that they could all get their own movie.  So throw all these individuals in one movie -- with surprising amounts of background -- and you've got a gem.  Harris' Morty and Meaney's Gene stand out from the rest, two quick flashbacks revealing all you need to know about them.  With X, Morty, Gene and the crew, there is a perfect chemistry, a relationship formed from men having worked together in difficult, strenuous situations and bonding through it.  A great scene between Craig, Harris and Meaney has them talking about strategy, what their next move is as the walls start closing in on them.  It reminded me of a scene that Peckinpah would have used in The Wild Bunch, Scorsese in Goodfellas, John Sturges in The Magnificent Seven.  Would it have been great to see a 4-hour version where every single character gets his chance to shine? Sure, absolutely, but Vaughn somehow finds a way to weave all these people together and make it work.  Kudos to you, Mr. Vaughn.

What else is there to say?  I love this movie, and try to watch it at least once a year.  It's one of those hidden gems you're beyond happy you stumbled upon.  Stylish, funny, entertaining with some gunplay, some sex, and a story that will keep you guessing right until the end.  Make sure to watch all the way until the credits because the ending is a whopper of a surprise.  It says it all in a movie that doesn't need to deliver a message but does anyway, a good one on the irony scale.  For all the epic moves and detailed planning, it can be the smallest detail that ends up making the biggest impact.

Layer Cake <---trailer (2004): ****/**** 

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

After the Fox

The years following World War II changed the way many countries made movies, and nowhere was that more evident than in war-torn Italy.  A whole genre of films devoted to dealing and discussing how a country moves on following such a world-shattering event emerged called Italian neorealism. If you want a cliff note's version of the genre, they're usually artsy movies that border on the existential with images, stories and characters that force the viewer to make up their own minds and interpret something. There's the part of me that avoids these movies because they sound pretentious and overbearing, all the while knowing there has to be something to these well-received films.

So what does that intro to a review have to do with anything? Well, I didn't actually watch an Italian neorealist film (not yet at least). Instead I watched an Italian comedy that spoofed the genre with star Peter Sellers impersonating a director that sounds suspiciously a lot like famous Italian director Federico Fellini, 1966's After the Fox. This isn't an obvious spoof like Airplane! or The Naked Gun series, but it certainly pokes fun at these art-house movies that are held in such high regard.  Not a hilarious movie, but still a funny one with Sellers dominating the movie like so few can.

Serving a sentence in an Italian mountaintop prison, infamous master thief Aldo Vanucci (Sellers) hears his younger sister, Gina (Britt Ekland), is in trouble and promptly breaks out of prison as easy as snapping his fingers.  When he quickly realizes there's nothing he can do to help his aspiring actress of a sister, Aldo decides to take part in a dangerous job of helping transport 300 gold bars from Egypt into Italy. Every police and detective agency in Europe knows the gold is coming so how can Aldo and his "gang" help get the gold into the country? He develops a plan where he'll pose as an Italian filmmaker filming a movie in a small coastal village about what else? A ship carrying bars of gold landing in Italy after a successful heist of course. The plan seems ludicrous, but could it somehow work?

Growing up watching movies, I was never a huge fan of Peter Sellers.  Aware of him, yes, but I never sought out his movies.  The original Pink Panther didn't hit me right, but I'd like to give it another try at some point.  One criticism I've had of Sellers is that he seems to play the same niche role.  Like Eddie Murphy has done over the last 15 or 20 years, Sellers would play two or three roles in a single movie, and something that I can't explain always bugged me about that.  We get it, you're talented. Now back off.  As I see more of him though, it's easy to see why he's got such a strong fan following.  Regardless of the role, the man is extremely funny.  His deliveries are impeccable, that perfect mix of subtle laughs and more obvious physical, slapstick humor.

Nowhere is that more evident than the second half of After the Fox when Sellers' Aldo unleashes his plan to get the gold into Italy.  He dupes an entire town, a police chief, and even an American actor (Victor Mature poking fun at himself) to star in this "film." The only problem is the timing doesn't work out quite to plan so Aldo -- renaming himself Federico Fabrizi -- has to actually stage scenes to buy himself some time.  So with no script and no real movie at all (with an entire village watching all the time), Aldo improvises and comes up with a neorealistic film about two lost loves (Mature and Ekland) finding each other in this other-worldly depiction of love.  This is Sellers at his best, big and loud, screaming and directing like a nut.  These are the inspired scenes that produce the biggest laughs.

With Sellers posing like a madman as he "directs" his movie all in hopes of actually pulling off this heist, it's Victor Mature as past his prime American actor Tony Powell who steals the movie.  Looking to legitimize his fake film, Sellers somehow convinces Mature's Powell to take part in this innovative new project.  Martin Balsam as Mature's questioning, worrying agent is priceless as well.  So hard up for work and desperately looking to get back into the limelight, Powell goes for it hook, line and sinker. Every request, every command Aldo makes, Powell goes for it, enthusiastically replying 'Beautiful!' before immediately complying.  Mature is playing a variation on himself by this point in his career and nails the part.  It's a bit of a dig without being mean or cruel, but because he commits so forcefully to this wacky movie you can't help but laugh.

All told, I liked this movie but didn't love it.  Director Vittorio De Sica takes his time getting the story where it needs to be so that first hour takes a little while to develop. Sellers helps things along and keeps them moving thankfully.  For the rest of the cast, Ekland doesn't look Italian even with brown hair instead of her usual blonde, but she makes the most of a smaller part.  Akim Tamiroff is the stupidly evil plotter of the gold heist always ready with a double-cross with the beautiful Maria Grazia Buccella as his eye candy. Paolo Stoppa, Tino Buazzelli, and Mac Ronay are very funny as Aldo's inept gang too. A funny movie in the vein of a light-hearted spoof, worthwhile for Sellers and Mature.

After the Fox <---trailer (1966): ***/****   

Monday, January 24, 2011

Max Payne

Everything from books to songs to poetry to comic books have been transformed into feature films so why not video games?  Whole series like Mortal Kombat, Lara Croft, House of the Dead have been turned from a video/arcade game into successful (depending on the series) movie franchises.  One of the more popular video game series through the early 2000s was Max Payne, the story of a NYPD cop looking for revenge after the murder of his family.  It's a popular series that didn't translate well to theaters, both critically and in the box office, but here's the counter argument because I liked 2008's Max Payne.

Complaints range all over the place, and nothing is free of scrutiny here when it comes to diehard fans of the original game.  I never played any of the Payne series so I had no preconceived notions about what the movie version should be in terms of casting, characters, and storytelling.  I went in as a fan of star Mark Wahlberg and thought the supporting cast and the premise sounded interesting. Is it a great movie? Not at all.  It doesn't really add anything to an action genre that's seen just about everything.  It feels like a mix of several different movies, everything from The Matrix to Sin City and a ton more in between. So be forewarned, I know little to nothing about Max Payne and still liked it.

It's been several years since NYPD detective Max Payne (Wahlberg) came home to find his wife and baby son killed by three gangsters.  He's been relegated to Cold Case files and is hidden away in the archives of the police department.  At night though, Payne comes to life, walking the streets looking for clues as to the killer of his family and kicking some ass in the process.  Low-level crooks watch out, Max Payne is gunning for you.  His former partner (Donal Logue) stumbles onto a clue that could help Max out, but he's gunned down before he can tell him the actual news. Max is on the hunt now, and he doesn't care much what his badge represents by now.  With some help from a mafia-connected hit woman, Mona (Mila Kunis) also looking for revenge, Max follows the lone clue he has available to him and walks into something bigger than he had planned on.

I'm always surprised when I see a movie that I enjoyed only to read reviews and message boards that spew just posts and posts of hatred for the film version of Max Payne.  It starts with Wahlberg who it seems moviegoers either love or hate.  I like him, and while I can see the criticism that he always plays variations of himself, it doesn't bother me.  His Max is that prototypical man seeking vengeance, and that's a hard character to mess up.  He's got the sympathy vote because who doesn't feel for a guy who saw his wife and infant son murdered? His Max is a man of few words, and at times (like a few other Wahlberg parts I can think of) he reminds me of Steve McQueen in his loner, antisocial anti-hero parts, especially in The Getaway as Doc McCoy.  Wahlberg is a more than capable actor, and he can handle all sorts of action scenes.  Was he the best choice to play Max? I don't know, but from someone with no background in the game or character, the casting worked for me.

In terms of style, visually this movie looks a lot like Sin City.  The whole story takes place almost completely at night so visually we're talking a modern film noir with shadows and darkness, and a little CGI thrown in for good measure and tone-setting.  It's New York City, but it has a feel of a darker, more sinister city, like Gotham before Batman did his thing.  Sometimes the style comes at the expense of the story, but most action movies lean in that direction.  With the story, there are elements of the video game thrown in, and even a little comic book style too.  Nothing is particularly new or innovative, but it's a well-made, good looking action movie and stays well within a comfort zone throughout.

With a movie that in its unrated director's cut clocks in at 103 minutes, there are certain sacrifices made.  The story is disjointed at times with too many elements bouncing around.  In an investigation -- rogue cop or not -- we're going to meet a lot of characters, but there's just too many here.  Kunis continues to show she's capable of being in action movies (check out Book of Eli too), although it's weird hearing Meg Griffin's voice so clearly at times.  She's that perfect female co-star, beautiful and badass, especially late when she's covering Max's back with a machine gun.  The rest of the cast includes rapper Ludacris again proving he's got some work to do in the acting department, Logue in a small part as Max's former partner, Beau Bridges as an old family friend, Chris O'Donnell as a former co-worker of Max's wife, an underused Olga Kurylenko as Kunis' sister, and Amaury Nolasco as Lupino, a super-soldier who can't be stopped.

So if all else, it's a video game movie, and there's plenty of quality action...right? Finally something I think most viewers can agree on.  Criticize just about anything else you want from this flick, but I think the action sequences are pretty untouchable.  Two shootouts stand out, one a running firefight in a crowded office with some nice use of slow-motion, and two, the finale as Max goes gunning for the man who pulls all the strings and was responsible for the death of his wife.  All in all, pleasantly surprised with this one.  I can't speak for anyone else, but it's a solid action flick with a good cast.

Max Payne <---trailer (2008): ***/****

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Millionairess

Each and every movie genre has its fair share of predictability, but depending on the viewer it might not be as big a deal.  For me, westerns can be easy to predict where they're going, but part of the fun is how it gets to the end result.  Yeah, the good guy usually wins, but how does he get to that point? What challenges does he face?  The journey getting there can overcome any predictability in the overall story.  How about romantic comedies though? The guy always gets the girl, but it's hard to get wrapped up in a story like that -- for me at least.

Something else has to work for a romantic comedy to be anything but average.  That's why typically I avoid rom-coms unless something secondary jumps out at me.  Interesting leads in the cast always help, and that's why I watched 1960's The Millionairess with Sophia Loren and Peter Sellers in the leads. Loren for all her beauty was an underrated comedic actress, and Sellers is one of the most accomplished comedic actors in movie history.  But the pairing just felt odd to me taking all considerations of talent aside.  Well, my worries were legitimate because even as talented as both actors are, they lack any real chemistry.  It's not entirely their fault because the script is rather lacking, but no chemistry is a deal-killer here in this romantic comedy.

After her extraordinarily rich father dies, Epifania Parerga (Loren) inherits so much money that she becomes the richest woman in the world.  But for all the money, the clothes, the glitz and glamor, Epifania just isn't happy with her life, especially when her choice for a husband ends up cheating on her.  She sets out to find a new husband -- because as comedies tell us, an unmarried woman is a failure at life -- who lives up to her recently passed father's expectations.  She can't find anyone until she meets an Indian doctor, Ahmed el Kabir (Sellers), who she quickly falls for.  The only problem?  Dr. Kabir has no interest in her whatsoever, and no matter what advances she makes, he wants nothing to do with her.

Depending on the quality of the movie and the timeliness, a movie can age well or not at all, and this one feels like a very 1960s comedy.  It's still funny that so many of these comedies were right at home with the premise that a woman might as well roll over and die if she wasn't married by a certain age.  That's Loren's character who has all the money in the world, runs a variety of successful businesses, and basically has the world at her disposal, but because she can't, and I quote "Make a man happy" she thinks her life is being wasted.  Any story that needs that kind of gimmick already has a strike against it before anything else happens.

It never helps then that an actress as beautiful as Loren plays a character so shrill, so downright annoying that you don't care how she ends up.  Her ploy to seducing Sellers is to continuously attempt to kill herself only to have the good doctor rescue her at the last second.  If that's not love, I don't know what is.  Her tactics border on stalkerish, and it's understandable why Seller's Dr. Kabir has no interest in this intensely shallow woman.  What's worse is that because the movie requires it, he eventually gets worn down and falls in love with her too.  Now it is Loren at her most drop-dead gorgeous so instead of a well-written character, we get to see her in various stages of undress that include lingerie, a *gasp* naked back, and all sorts of tight-fitting, very stylish outfits.  So the character's annoying, but she's nice to look at.

A concern I had reading the description was that Sellers -- a very British actor -- was going to play an Indian doctor.  It takes a very talented actor to play a different race, and that's just for starters.  There's nothing like a bad makeup job to make a pasty Sellers look like a middle-aged Indian man.  Well, my concerns were unfounded although at times it did sound like Sellers was doing Apu from The Simpsons.  He underplays his role so well that his Dr. Kabir is one of the more redeeming things about the movie.  His character is likable, and that's key when you hate his counterpart.  I've always liked Sellers as an actor, but he's much better when he isn't hamming it up like the Pink Panther movies. His humor is more subtle here, and the movie is better for it.

Still, as good as Sellers is, that doesn't overcome a lack of chemistry with Loren.  I assumed with two actors as immensely talented as them that an on-screen chemistry would just happen naturally, but it never develops.  I don't think it's their fault so chalk it up to the awful script or the directing or both. The script just doesn't give a lot of chances for anyone to be funny or a chance for the characters to interact in a humorous way. Alastair Sim has a funny part as Loren's lawyer Julius, and Vittorio De Sica is good as a sweatshop owner who meets Loren, but that's about it for the cast. A romantic comedy doesn't have to be hilarious to be good, but it can't be downright dull.  All other things aside, this movie was dull no matter the talent involved.

The Millionairess <---TCM clips (1960): **/****

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Sea Wolf

Based on the real life incident, the mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty has been a ripe picking ground for movies over the years with a handful of flicks released over the years.  It's a solid story of how horrifically bad living on the sea was as a sailor in the 1700s.  At a certain point though, all other mutinies at sea feel like they're borrowing liberally from any of the Bounty stories.  You start seeing repeats and do-overs, the evil, despicable captain and the crew pushed to its limits.  That's why 1941's The Sea Wolf never amounts to anything better than a decent story, we've seen it before and will see it again.

Starting a movie based off a novel by famed novelist Jack London is usually about as solid a footing as a studio can pick. I grew up reading Call of the Wild and White Fang and loved them, but I'll admit I've never read London's The Sea Wolf, one of over 20-plus novels he wrote in his short career.  Not having read the book, I can't fairly compare the novel to the movie, but with a little Wikipedia investigating it didn't take long to find out how much was changed from one medium to the next.  Hollywood studios at work turning a solid, respected story into a dumbed down version that they believe audiences will love.  Nice work all around.

In 1900 in the Pacific Ocean, there is one ship -- named The Ghost -- that no sailor willingly wants to work on.  The ship's captain, Wolf Larsen (Edward G. Robinson), is a rabid tyrant, treating his men cruelly with little regard for anything but their job at hand, hunting seal. But on this trip, Larsen doesn't have a particular objective, he's running from something.  On board are three new passengers including George Leach (John Garfield), a man similarly hiding from his past, and two passengers rescued at sea following a collision, Ruth Webster (Ida Lupino), an escaped convict from a women's prison, and Humphrey Van Weyden (Alexander Knox), a writer. All three want off the ship for one reason or another, but Larsen has no intention of changing his plans for everyone else regardless of the cost.

I will say before I rip into the movie that I liked the style of the film overall with director Michael Curtiz turning in a typically polished finished product. 'Wolf' plays like a film noir on the high seas where each character is flawed from their past and are thrown together to piece everything into place.  There are no real good guys -- although Knox's Van Weyden is pretty close -- and everyone else is in shades of gray.  For a movie from Warner Bros. in the early 1940s, it has a dark, shadowy look that ends up playing well because the Ghost is clearly a stage, a set built.  No real-life adventures on the high seas here, too pricey.  Money was spent on the film though, and it's enjoyable enough to watch.

Molding London's novel though from a book to a movie, some major changes were made, and even I didn't need to look this one up.  As a writer, London doesn't seem the type to waste a lot of pages developing a hackneyed relationship between two characters who fall madly in love with each other almost at first glance.  It's just not his style if you ask me.  Well, the studios thought that would be a good route to take with the story.  Lupino and Garfield were some of the best and most recognizable stars from the 1940s with talent to spare, but they're wasted here.  Neither character was even in the book so the script adds them to apparently bring in a wider audience.  Instead, this "relationship" falls flat and drags the movie downhill quickly.

Where the movie gets it right working off of London's novel was the odd bond that develops between Robinson's Wolf Larsen -- a smaller Capt. Bligh with more of a cruel streak -- and Knox's Van Weyden.  As individual characters, you feel you actually get to know them through this high seas cruise.  Robinson plays Larsen as a ball of contradictions, one second an intelligent, rational individual and the next, a raving lunatic pitting his men against each other.  Knox makes Humphrey the most sympathetic character, a man forcefully enlisted to work with the crew even though he knows nothing of being a sailor.  His writing talents come out, and when Larsen finds out about his honest analysis of this captain, he's not angry or disappointed.  Maybe it's his pride, his ego, but he's intrigued and encourages Van Weyden to continue writing.

Too bad more of the movie couldn't have been devoted to that portion of the story.  Robinson has that intensity in his parts that so few actors can pull off and not make it feel forced.  His performance carries the movie as he drips with anger and even a little lunacy.  Knox in the quieter part doesn't get lost along the way, managing to keep up with Robinson.  Other strong supporting parts include Gene Lockhart as Dr. Louie, a drunk doctor who yearns for his glory days of the past, and Barry Fitzgerald playing against type in a particularly nasty part as Cookie, the ship's cook and an informant for Larsen about the goings on with the crew. The movie is all right overall, but it could have been better.

The Sea Wolf <---trailer (1941): ** 1/2 /****

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Safecracker

One of England's most prolific character actors, Percy Herbert had a face that any moviegoer would recognize.  With over 100 film and television roles, it would be hard for someone not to at least stumbled across Herbert in a movie.  Now, whether you knew who he was or what his name was, that's a different story. With his steely scowl and Cockney accent, he was always a welcome addition to a movie and never disappointed in his supporting roles.  He made a career of those parts, often in WWII stories where he was the tough drill sergeant, a smart-mouthed soldier, or even just the reliable veteran in the background.  Never a star but always visible, Herbert is one of my favorites.

Like so many of his movies, 1958's The Safecracker doesn't give him much in the way of screen-time, but he makes the most of his limited appearance. That's part of the fun of so many British movies from the 1950s and 1960s.  There were always the established stars out front leading the way, but the rest of the cast was always peppered with these great character actors, instantly recognizable faces and talented individuals who have a knack for bringing a movie up a notch just by being there.  Too often they don't get enough recognition for their talents, but they always brighten up a movie for me, especially here with such a different WWII story that isn't as good as it could have been.  More on the cast later because there's a handful of worthwhile supporting roles.

An honest worker who creates safes while opening safes that banks/businesses/individuals have lost the combination for, Colly Dawson (Ray Milland) is bored with his profession.  He's the best at what he does, but what does he have to show for it?  He takes up with an unscrupulous art dealer, Bennett Carfield (Barry Jones), who puts Colly to work stealing art from otherwise unbreakable safes.  Colly pushes too far though and is thrown in jail in 1939 for a 10-year sentence. But by 1941, Great Britain is up to its neck in WWII and on a dangerous mission the army needs a safecracker to be dropped into Belgium with a commando team. The only candidate with the required skills for the job is Colly who agrees only when told that his sentence will be commuted upon return.  But can this safecracker keep up with the commandos behind enemy lines?

For a movie that I'd never heard of, I was looking forward to seeing this safecracker turned commando WWII story.  But starring and directing, Milland makes two different movies rolled into one 96-minute feature length movie. The first 50 minutes covers his exploits as a locksmith turned master thief while the remaining 45 minutes show his participation on the commando raid into Belgium.  Both segments would have been interesting movies on their own, but here they are too rushed to be any good.  The master thief segment is surprisingly boring maybe because Milland's Colly is too good at what he does.  Up until the job he is arrested on, he's never as much as questioned or spotted during a robbery.  Long scenes with no dialogue and no tension help make an easy decision to fast forward this slow-moving story.

Thankfully, Milland rights the ship in the second half with the training for and execution of the commando raid.  It's a case of too little too late, but is still head and shoulder above the rest of the movie.  Ernest Clark plays Major Adbury, commander of the raid, with Herbert as the tough sergeant with Victor Maddern and a young Bernard Fox as two of the 8-man commando team. The training portion provides some laughs as the older, out of shape Colly struggles to keep up with the younger, fitter commandos as he goes through hikes, runs, and parachute training.  The mission itself is the best part of the movie with Colly's services needed to crack a safe that holds a list of all the German agents working in England.  Performed at night, it's a tense, well-executed scene that helps the movie overcome its painfully slow first half.

A problem I've come across with movies starring Ray Milland is that Ray Milland is in them.  That's not to say he's a bad actor, far from it, he's very good.  It's that no matter the part he is playing, he comes across as a cocky, downright arrogant individual who is hard to put up with at all, much less like him.  Whether it's his upper-class British accent or his general demeanor, you can feel him glaring down his nose at you.  Watching his Colly Dawson go about his job, I actively disliked this character.  For lack of a better description, he's an asshole.  Too old to begin with for the part, he's in it for himself and doesn't care about the consequences as they affect everyone else.  Then there's the ending where his character makes a decision so epically stupid that says everything about his character.  A final scene tries to make him a hero -- and to a point, he is -- but it comes across as a whitewash, covering up something else as it really happened.  Milland is a talented actor, but it's hard to like him or his characters.

Two movies edited into one, Milland the director could have chosen one or the other and made a single movie about a safecracker or a commando.  There was certainly potential here, and it's not an awful movie.  The second half saves it from being unwatchable, but that's still only half a movie.  Just start at the 50-minute mark and imagine an hour-long TV show instead.

The Safecracker <---TCM trailer (1958): **/****    

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Lethal Weapon

When thinking of celebrities who have fallen from grace, a good place to start is with Mel Gibson.  It's hard to think of another celebrity who was as universally popular as Gibson was only to fall hard and fast under a long list of embarrassing public incidents. The criticism started with his Passion of the Christ as questions arose about his message in the movie, and it went downhill from there.  The anti-Semitic issue came full front in some of Gibson's drunken rages in the years since, and for the most part he's disappeared from the limelight.

It's just hard to believe that someone as popular as Gibson could do something so stupid.  It goes to show you that as moviegoers and fans of celebrities, we can pretend all we want that we "know" these people, but if anything we know their on-screen personality and most often, not their real personality.  With Gibson, it is easier to think of Mad Max, William Wallace, and overall one of the biggest and most bankable stars of the 1980s and 1990s.  Of all his roles though, one recurring character stands out from the rest, his crazy cop Martin Riggs in the four Lethal Weapon movies, starting first with 1987's Lethal Weapon.

Sergeant Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) is a veteran cop in Los Angeles with a wife and four kids waiting for him at home.  Just having turned 50, Murtaugh is a good cop if a cautious one.  Sergeant Martin Riggs (Gibson) is a younger narcotics officer on the force struggling to cope with the recent death of his wife. Rumors throughout the LAPD linger that Riggs is suicidal so no one wants to work with him.  Unfortunately for Murtaugh, that's just what he gets as the two cops with very different styles are partnered together on a prostitute's murder.  Murtaugh and Riggs feel each other out, figuring out how the other one operates, all the while the evidence building up and the clues pointing to an immense drug and prostitution ring that dates back to some shady dealings during the Vietnam War. Can Murtaugh and Riggs work together to take the ring down?

If you have never heard of a buddy cop movie, this is the movie to start with.  And two, if you haven't heard of a buddy cop movie, what's wrong with you? Where have you been?  The formula is simple and was used before Lethal Weapon and has been used since LW, but it's rarely been handled as perfectly as it was in this 1987 action classic.  Pair two opposites together in some dangerous situation, let them fight things out as they discover all their differences, work together to solve a crime or case, let them bond through said differences, and let the entertainment values shoot up.  When handled correctly, the buddy cop movie is that perfect mix of action, drama and humor.  The 1980s were rampant with movies like this, but few are as good as the original Lethal Weapon.

For starters, instead of focusing on an overload of pointless shootouts, director Richard Donner focuses a majority of the movie on his two main characters. Without the development that comes out in these characters over the course of the movie, we're left with two cardboard cutouts of police officers.  One, the family man cop, and two, the livewire cop with a death wish.  Instead, Donner fleshes Murtaugh and Riggs out.  Yes, Murtaugh is a family man concerned about who his daughter's dating, the boat sitting in his driveway, and he complains about his wife's cooking.  Yes, Riggs is suicidal after his wife's death in a car accident.  But there's more than just that for both men.  By the end of the movie -- and into the three sequels -- we actually get a feel for who these two police officers are.

That's what separates Lethal Weapon from just about any other buddy cop movie you're going to see.  Amidst the humor and action, it's just a good, solid, well-written and well-made movie.  Gibson -- awesome 80s mullet and all -- was rarely better than he was here.  He's crazy, but he's a damn good cop too.  Glover isn't quite the straight man because he gets his fair share of laughs (his 'I'm getting too old for this shit' line is priceless) playing off of Gibson.  As separates, they're both great characters, but working together it takes the movie to another level.  For every scene where they bitch back and forth at each other, there's another endearing scene where they talk things out, realize they're after the same thing, and end up becoming not just partners, but friends.  It's not as sappy as I've made it out to be, but you get the idea.  Gibson and Glover carry the movie.

All the touches of a buddy cop movie are there though, not just the two leads.  You obviously need some particularly nasty villains, and Mitchell Ryan and Gary Busey certainly fill those shoes nicely as a former Special Forces general turned drug dealer and his head man, now working as a mercenary. The action is top-notch throughout, especially a Mexican standoff in the desert with Riggs and Murtaugh going toe to toe with Ryan's crew.  The finale between Gibson and Busey is epic, one expert fighter against another expert fighter in hand-to-hand combat.  I loved it all, the very 80s soundtrack, the action, the characters.  It's that perfect dose of action, drama and humor, and I look forward to seeing the sequels.

Lethal Weapon <---trailer (1987): ****/****

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Fate is the Hunter

When I think of disaster movies, I think The Poseidon Adventure and other 1970s epically bad but still enjoyable movies with huge casts of stars and dated special effects.  Through the 1950s and 1960s, disaster movies were made, just not on the same scale.  Only part of 1964's Fate is the Hunter really matches up with any of the criteria for a disaster flick, but it foreshadows what was to come in the coming decades as audiences watched planes crash, earthquakes tear apart the world, towering buildings go up in flames and much, much more.

Director Ralph Nelson takes control of the helms here in this quasi-disaster flick which is both ahead of its time in storytelling but also very dated at times.  Nelson is one of those hidden gems of a director you stumble across every so often.  He was never pigeon-holed into one specific type of movie and ended up directing films across countless genres.  Action, western, drama, comedy, message movies, he tried them all and did them all well.  Never flashy but always getting the job done in above average fashion, Nelson doesn't have a true classic to his name, but his filmography is nonetheless littered with worthwhile movies.

On a flight from Los Angeles to Seattle, veteran pilot Capt. Jack Savage (Rod Taylor) and his crew run into mechanical problems and are forced to crash land on a beach, the jet airliner exploding on contact with a pier running across the beach. Everyone on board other than one stewardess (Suzanne Pleshette) is killed, and the public, the corporation, and the media want answers.  What happened that caused Savage to attempt such a difficult maneuver? All evidence points to pilot error being the cause, but airline executive, former pilot and friend of Savage's, Sam McBane (Glenn Ford), thinks something else happened. Time is running out though, and McBane must prove Savage's innocence before a board of inquiry pins the blame on the deceased pilot.

Wasting little time surprising the viewer, Nelson kills off star Rod Taylor before the credits even roll.  Just when you think Taylor's Savage has successfully landed his jet airliner carrying 49 passengers...BOOM! The plane explodes, and 'Fate is the Hunter' pops up on the screen.  Talk about a tone-setter. No worries though for Taylor fans, this is not the last we'll see of him.  His involvement in the movie from there on in besides his character being constantly talked about is through flashbacks that flesh him out as an individual.  It's those little bits of character that should help us decide if this experienced, always calm and capable pilot was really incapable of dealing with what seemed like a minor mechanical issue.  Long story short, don't miss the first 10 minutes, or you'll be lost.

The problem any movie faces when it has such a strong start is sustaining that energy over the length of the movie.  That's where 'Hunter' struggles.  The investigation is interesting enough because it's hard not to be curious about what actually caused the plane to malfunction in such a surprising way.  But Ford's questioning gets tedious quickly.  The flashbacks are beyond tedious and serve only to make Savage more of a 3-D character.  After the first flashback, it becomes too much.  We get it.  He's a good pilot who is cocky, arrogant, not always likable and quite the ladies man.  But is a movie really going to peg Taylor as a boozehound who caused the deaths of over 50 people? I think not.  It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of how Taylor didn't crash the plane because he was drunk. 

Worse than that though (as a Lost fan I can appreciate even the slowest of flashbacks) is the direction Ford's character and the story takes overall in the final half hour.  Now granted, the word 'Fate' is in the movie's title.  As the evidence comes together and Ford's McBane talks to all these possible witnesses, he begins to question if maybe, just maybe, fate played a role in that plane crashing.  An out of season bird may have flown into the engine, three other planes were all off-schedule by a few minutes, the pier was supposed to have been removed a week earlier, it just doesn't add up.  Was something else at play here? Ford's testimony is even worse when he admits all this.  I can't tell if it is just all too sappy or handled poorly, but if Nelson was trying to deliver a message with this change in direction it didn't work.  I haven't read the source novel to know one way or another, but the ending disappoints on a lot of levels.

The redeeming factor through all the negatives is the impressive cast assembled here.  Ford is never flashy but is as reliable as always with Taylor making the most of his posthumous character at least. Pleshette has a small but integral part (and looks great by the way). Also look for Nancy Kwan, Constance Towers, Jane Russell in a cameo as herself in 1945, Nehemiah Persoff, an uncredited Dorothy Malone, Max Showalter, Wally Cox and many more recognizable faces even if you don't know their name. Other than the cast and some nice-looking black and white camerawork, I struggled to get through this movie.  Potentially good but never amounts to anything much.

Fate is the Hunter <---trailer (1964): **/****

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Killer

My lone experience with director John Woo has been in his ventures into the U.S., most notably Mission: Impossible 2 and Face/Off.  Neither are classic movies, but I enjoyed both of them.  That's not to say I'm not aware of Woo's other movies, I just never sought them out.  As a fan of just about any sort of action movie, I've stumbled across his name countless times, and finally got around to actually watching one of his non-American movies.  I started at the top with most likely is most well-respected -- critically and among fans -- movie, 1989's The Killer.

Above all else, Woo is known for an ability to assemble an action sequence like few others can. As a fan of director Sam Peckinpah, I thought I had seen my fair share of epic slow-motion violence accompanied by excessive, graphic uses of blood squibs.  Well, that was until I saw this flick.  Some of the best, most interestingly choreographed gunfights I've ever seen dominate the movie.  Woo must have been impacted by Peckinpah's movies -- especially The Wild Bunch -- because not only is the effect felt on the action, but on the story too.  Here though instead of the wild west, it's Hong Kong with hired killers filling in for aging gunfighters.  Dealing with similar themes and topics, The Killer is must-see for action fans, especially anyone familiar with Peckinpah.

After years of working as a hired killer, Ah Jong (Chow Yun Fat) has grown tired with the business as the realization what he's done during his career wears him down. He has unwillingly taken on one more hit, a high-ranking mob official with ties in the government mostly out of guilt.  During a recent hit, a beautiful young singer, Jennie (Sally Yeh) was blinded, and Jong intends to use the money he earns helping her pay for a vision-repairing surgery. The hit is a set-up though by his superiors, and Jong barely survives. He manages to escape though but is now facing problems on all sides.  The mob and a hit squad is closing in, he doesn't have the necessary money for Jennie's surgery, and a persistent but similarly disillusioned cop, Inspector Ying (Danny Lee), is hot on his tail. There's only one way out for Jong, and that's doing what he does best, picking up a gun again.

My first reaction reading the plot of this movie was a little disappointed.  This was a story seen in countless other cop/crook movies like Heat, The Boondock Saints, and any number of Melville crime thrillers from the 1960s and 1970s.  And really, Woo doesn't bring anything new to the table.  The story is solid if unspectacular, but Woo is so clearly comfortable with the setting that it works in spite of the 'been there, done that' feel to it.  It deals with issues that are regularly seen in westerns, men with a code of honor and living, making the right decision regardless of the difficult consequences.  They are brothers in arms who bond through their similar beliefs, principles and actions.  The end result is a costly one often enough, but for these men sacrificing for what they believe is right is worth it when all is said and done.

Besides the action, the biggest similarity The Killer has to The Wild Bunch is the relationship between the two main characters.  Where William Holden and Robert Ryan played the roles originally, Yun Fat and Lee are channeling those two American actors.  Yun Fat is the troubled killer struggling desperately to get away from the life and profession he is so good at.  He has no equal but lives by a code that allows him to continue to kill, hopefully dispatching the bad and not the good.  Lee is the police inspector fed up with the behind the scenes politicking on the force.  In Ah Jong, his Ying sees everything that could be right with such a bizarre profession.  Ying chases and chases, but by the end these two not so different men are fighting alongside the other, not against each other.  The relationship provides some touching moments as the duo faces almost certain death, including an incredibly moving ending.

Just like Peckinpah though, Woo clearly has a fascination with violence and its depiction.  Peckinpah became synonymous with extreme, graphic, slo-mo violence, and Woo follows suit.  A 'ballet of death' indeed. The action through the first hour is solid but nothing too memorable.  The last 30-45 minutes take this movie to another level with two extended shootouts, starting HERE with Jong and Ying battling a small army of hit-men. As good as that firefight is, the scene that has become one of the more iconic shootouts in movie history is the finale in a candle-lit church with slow-motion, blood squibs and symbolic white doves flying through the scene.  Watch it HERE (SPOILERS obviously) and continue it into Part 11.

Some directors just know how to direct action, and this is Woo at his absolute best.  The action is so over the top and ridiculous that it borders on the cartoonish, but because Woo and his cast and crew commit to what's happening on-screen it avoids becoming cliched.  This style of action/violence clearly has impacted just about every action movie released in the 20-plus years since, and it's easy to see why.  Stylish in a way that somehow makes the graphic depictions of violence like a work of art, the church shootout is one of the best action sequences ever.  The ending delivers one cruel twist of fate to a key character (I'm cynical, but it even bothered me in how cruel it is), but the final shot of the movie will almost certainly hit you square in the stomach.  Surprising? No, but it's moving even knowing what's about to happen.  An action classic and a great introduction to the films of John Woo.

The Killer <---trailer (1989): *** 1/2 /****

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Last Mile

I've always believed one of the best things about movies is that they let you get away from everything, just sit back and enjoy something entertaining for a few hours if you so choose.  They let you step into the shoes of someone else, something else, anything.  You can be an astronaut, a cop, a businessman, a gunfighter, name a profession and there's most likely a movie out there about it.  But what about the movies that aren't specifically made to entertain, but instead deliver a message, an objective of some kind?  That's mostly what I thought about while watching 1959's The Last Mile.

Have you ever wondered it would be like to be a Death Row inmate awaiting your coming death, those last few days, hours and minutes both flying by and dragging at the same time?  I can't say I have, but it's an interesting premise.  People die from any number of things, some by surprise and quickly in car accidents or as innocent bystanders.  Others pass on from medical issues, diseases that ravage your body.  But what about an individual who did something so horrifically wrong that they too are sentenced to die for their actions?  All they can do is wait and wonder...what if?  That's this movie, an unsettling look at life in the death house, the prisoners awaiting their final judgment in the electric chair.

Sentenced to death for a murder he committed, Richard Walters (Clifford David) is assigned to Death Row, the aptly titled 'Death House' where all prisoners awaiting corporal punishment are held. Walters is just two weeks away from his date with the electric chair and has nothing to do but sit back and wait, pondering all the thoughts that race through his head in his final days.  It is during these days that he meets and bonds with his fellow cellmates even though he can't see them, only hear them.  He especially forms a bond with his next-door neighbor, Johnny Mears (Mickey Rooney).  As the date of his execution nears, Walters begins to fear that the stay of execution will not come in time, but in the next cell over, Mears has a plan that could save them all, or get them all killed in the process.

Director Howard Koch makes a wise decision in telling this story that's a remake of a 1932 film and loosely based on a real-life incident in a Southwestern prison. With eight cells in 'the death house,' it would have been incredibly easy to vilify these main characters.  It's safe to assume if you're awaiting your execution, you've done something horrific to get to that point.  But with a movie meant to condemn the unnecessary brutality of the prison system, you just can't delve into the crimes these men have committed if as a director you want the viewer to have any sort of sympathy for these men.  We find out Walters killed a man -- he claims he didn't mean to -- but never the circumstances or situation that prompted the act.  It's a wise choice in story-telling because when the sh*t does hit the fan, you're oddly drawn to these Death Row inmates.

Filmed in black and white with minimal sets -- the eight cells of the death house dominate the movie -- Koch's movie has the distinct feel of a stage play.  The camera rarely ventures into the cells, choosing to stay on the other side of the imposing bars of the cell.  The black and white camerawork keeps everything in the shadows, the prisoners hiding in the darkness of their cells, the guards lurking around just out of sight.  It's an incredibly uncomfortable movie to watch, seeing men waiting for their death, hopeless waiting for some sort of reprieve.  An early segment shows a prisoner (John Vari) in his final hours, finally being pulled from his chair and sent to the electric chair.  We don't see the results first hand, instead only witnessing the overhead lights flickering as the switch is pulled. It's a startling opening and does a great job of setting the mood for what's to come, especially when Walters' death sentence nears.

The opening credits of the movie list only Mickey Rooney as the star, and for good reason.  This is his movie from the beginning.  He plays Johnny Mears, a condemned killer who is typically quiet, subdued and a calming influence on the other prisoners.  Rooney's stature can throw you off.  He's not tall, and you wouldn't normally think of him as an intimidating, imposing person.  But this Mears character, when he blows, he blows in a big way.  Pushed too far, he takes matters into his own hands leading a violent, take no prisoners approach to the standoff.  It's the type of performance that you just can't take your eyes off of.  Rooney steals the movie, including one of the great final lines and shots of a movie I can remember.  The other prisoners include David, Vari, Michael Constantine, George Marcy, John McCurry, Ford Rainey, Johnny Seven, and Sully Michaels.  They're all relative unknowns, and are good enough in their parts without distracting from Rooney.  Also look for Frank Overton as Father O'Connors, the prison priest, and Clifton James, Red Barry, Leon Janney and Clifton James as the most sadistic guards.

So the story builds and builds, and all the while I'm thinking this could be the most depressing movie I've ever seen.  90 minutes of sitting around listening to a group of men talk about their fear of death?  Rooney's Mears leads a prison revolt that gets bloody very quickly with hostages taken.  It's an interesting balance because Mears and his fellow prisoners stand to lose nothing.  What are the guards and warden going to do? Kill them twice? From the warden's perspective, he can't give in to their demands without causing a domino effect in prisons across the country.  The ending keeps things on line with the whole movie's tone and demeanor, staying cynical to the end.  Stick around until the end credits though because that ending is a whopper of a good one.

The Last Mile (1959): *** 1/2 /****