The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Journey to Shiloh

Coming of age stories are universal. Every one at some point grows up so you can appreciate what someone else went through.  Well, in a perfect world I guess.  The late 1960s were a time of coming of age for the whole country as the United States went through an incredible transformation, and the movies reflected that. Cynicism and loss of faith in the government certainly didn't help, and nowhere was that problem more evident than in the US's involvement in Vietnam.  Movies took some not so subtle jabs at that involvement, thinly veiled stories that were obviously criticisms of Vietnam but based in a different time or place in history.

That was basically the last thing on my mind as I started watching 1968's Journey to Shiloh, a Civil War western that plays like a TV movie but features a very interesting cast (more on that later). At the outbreak of the war in 1861, hundreds of thousands of troops went off to fight a war they all figured would be over after one good battle, beliefs of a glorious, noble fight in front of them. They quickly found out that there's nothing glorious or noble about war, and this low-budget western/war picture reflects that. Young men go off to war, wanting to do what they believe and know is right only to be dealt a startling wake-up call. For some though, it comes to late.

It's 1862 as young Buck Burnett (James Caan) and Miller Nalls (Michael Sarrazin) lead a small company of teenagers toward the fighting in the East, hoping to join up with General Hood's Texas forces fighting with Robert E. Lee's army in Virginia. These seven riders -- they call themselves the Concho County Comanches -- from west Texas want to join the fight, not to fight for slaves or state rights but because they think it's the right thing to do.  But as they leave Texas and head into Louisiana, they quickly find that nothing is quite as it was made out to be.  Anyone and everyone is looking to get a dollar or two out of the fighting, and they're eventually shanghaied into joining a Confederate infantry unit.  The group of friends is separated and put into different units as the Confederate army prepares for the upcoming fight at Shiloh (read about the Battle of Shiloh).

Through a cornball opening via folk song, we get to know the "Comanches" as they call themselves, and I was immediately encouraged, thinking I'd stumbled across a quasi-Magnificent Seven remake.  Caan is the star of the movie regardless of how big the cast is, and other than a ridiculous-looking wig Buck is required to wear, does an admirable job as the quiet, loyal, confident and capable leader.  Sarrazin is underused (as is most of the cast) as Miller, Buck's best friend and right hand man.  Rounding out the group is Todo McClean (Don Stroud), the strong, silent type, J.C. Sutton (Paul Petersen, earlier of The Donna Reed Show), the fast draw and best gunman, Eubie Bell (Michael Burns), the jokester, Little Bit Lucket (Jan-Michael Vincent), the youngster, and Willie Bill (Harrison Ford). In one of his first movies, Ford has about 8 lines of dialogue unfortunately and is mostly a background filler.  Regardless of the quality of the movie, it's cool to see up and coming stars like Caan, Sarrazin, Vincent and Ford in some earlier roles.

Even among all the poorly delivered lines and stilted action, the movie has its appeal.  There just aren't many Civil War movies out there, and fewer that show the war behind the lines, away from the fighting. 'Shiloh' if nothing else gives a picture of the towns and villages and  travel along the roads as the war rages between North and South. The story is a tad episodic at times -- making me think it was a TV movie, even though it isn't -- as the seven riders head east, meeting people along the way and seeing that the war isn't something as simple as North vs. South. They see the war for what it really is, and start to question why there were so geared up for fighting complete strangers from the North with whom they have no prior argument.  It's not a heavy-handed attempt to show this, but more and more I kept thinking about America's involvement in Vietnam and the sentiment at the time (as the war was turning to the negative) as it got worse and worse.  Corny at times, the movie does aspire to say something so even though it might not get completely there, it's a solid attempt.

Unfortunately though, the movie is ultimately handicapped by anything resembling a respectable budget.  California is a poor stand-in for Texas, Louisiana and Tennessee no matter how you cut it. The episodic story feels rushed, and I'm betting some scenes were out of order in the storyline.  The portrayal of the battle of Shiloh is so laughably cheap I wished they would have almost ignored the whole thing.  Stock footage from previous Civil War movies -- especially 1965's Shenandoah -- stands in for actual battles, but whole shots are repeated two and three times in the matter of seconds.  Then we get the cut-ins of Caan and Sarrazin with a few extras, but the attempt is awful to try and sync it together.  On the positive, the soundtrack (other than the theme song at beginning and end) from composer David Gates is good, keeping the action flowing along.  And even with the negatives, the message is there. Stop reading if you don't want to know the ending.

SPOILERS STOP READING SPOILERS  As the movie neared its conclusion (handled rather clumsily), I was hoping director William Hale stuck to his guns and went through an appropriately downer of an ending. Caan is the only one of the group to survive, but if Hale wanted to deliver a great cynical, timely conclusion, he has Caan get killed too, and there was the chance for it.  The ending still works, just not as good as it could have been.  As for the general rushed feeling of things, two characters are killed off-screen, one gets sick and dies in the span of a day or so, and another dies conveniently when Caan arrives.  The emotional impact could have been much greater if these deaths were handled a little better. END OF SPOILERS

Mentioning the rest of the cast, Noah Beery Jr is his usual hammy self as Sgt. Mercer Barnes, the Confederate soldier who takes the youngsters under his wing, John Doucette as Confederate general Braxton Bragg, and Brenda Scott as Gabrielle, a dance hall girl Buck falls for in Vicksburg.  The movie is hard to find, odd considering what the cast would go on to do, but it's a good movie, if a flawed one. It's on Starz Play currently and is available to watch on Netflix's Instant Watch if you're curious.

Journey to Shiloh <---opening song/intro (1968): ** 1/2 /****

Friday, April 29, 2011

Reap the Wild Wind

As a fan of John Wayne and just about every one of his movies in one way or another, I can appreciate that by a certain point in his career (say 1960 or so) he was basically playing variations on the same character.  Some would say he was playing himself, but I won't go quite that far.  Early in his career even after the success of 1939's Stagecoach, Wayne had not yet been pigeon-holed into one type of role so in the early 1940s, he played some roles that are different from the norm in generally forgotten movies, like 1942's Reap the Wild Wind.

Still finding his niche as an actor, Wayne gets lost in the shuffle here some with an impressive cast.  It's an impressive movie on a lot of different levels, but that doesn't mean it's a particularly good movie though. Directed by the legendary epic moviemaker Cecil B. DeMille, 'Wild Wind' feels like his answer to the classic movie released three years before, 1939's Gone With the Wind. It's lavish and extravagant with a sweeping story full of action, intrigue and romance. It plays too much like a soap opera though ripped right off a stage somewhere. Rarely bored but never truly invested in this movie, it falls short in the end.

After his ship is wrecked on the reefs near Key West, Captain Jack Stuart (Wayne) is nursed back to health by lovely Southern belle, Loxi Claiborne (Paulette Goddard), who instantly falls for him. Stuart has come under fire though, the blame being placed on his shoulders for the wreck. He is set to go on a cruise that will eventually end up in Charleston where he'll face a ruling from the company's board of directors. Looking to help the man she loves, Loxi heads to Charleston by land, looking to woo the lawyer who will look to crucify Jack, Stephen Tolliver (Ray Milland). Stephen falls for her too, and she can't help but have feelings back toward him. The situation will come to a halt though when a salvaging pirate, King Cutler (Raymond Massey), puts them all on a course to meet on the high seas on the company's new steam ship, the Southern Cross, as it heads toward the dangerous Key West reefs.

The story ends up playing out like an average, even at times bad, soap opera. Overacting is around every corner, the love triangle is always tumultuous with all sides swearing they're right, and no one is going to give in easily. It's a big movie, living up to an epic status, with gigantic sets adorned with detail, costuming period accurate, and extras filling the screen. DeMille's film had the biggest budget of any film made since Gone with the Wind, and he spends it well.  Visually (even with some bad green screen shots), it is a great movie to watch. The story doesn't keep up though, and you're left waiting for everything to resolve itself.  I was willing the movie to move along a little quicker as the 123-minute run time dragged on endlessly.

So even if the story is too ridiculously over the top to take seriously, the cast is nothing to shake your head at.  Ray Milland is the real star here, dominating the movie with Goddard. He's painted as the upper class businessman, but that's quickly thrown out the window.  It's built up as this great rivalry with Wayne's Capt. Jack, but nothing develops there. Wayne's character is window dressing which is disappointing for me as a fan.  Massey is perfectly cast as Massey, I mean King Cutler, the villain who sneers and glares his way through line deliveries.  As if those three names weren't enough, Robert Preston is along for the ride (and given little to do) as Dan Cutler, King's little brother and business partner. Lynne Overman gets to ham it up too as Capt. Phil Pillpott, a veteran of the seas always ready with a dig or a barb. 

While the male characters aren't developed much and are probably the better for it, the female characters are not so lucky.  It's interesting that the two main female roles -- Goddard and Susan Hayward -- were both passed over for the role of Scarlett O'Hara for GwtW. I've never seen Goddard in another role (that I remember at least), but based on this part, I won't be seeking her out too much more. God bless her, she's a pretty girl, but she's an awful actress. She chews the scenery in each and every scene, pulling off both her acting faces, the sly, sweet Southern belle and the screaming terrified woman gone batty.  There's little middle ground either, it's one or the other. I felt bad for Hayward who's character has nothing to do but fall for Preston's Dan in a wasted subplot and then serve a purpose late. It's a wasted part for a talented actress.

Trying to save the best for last, 'Wild Wind' surely gets points for effort in the finale. A sizable portion of the budget was used to construct a giant squid that attacks Wayne and Milland as they go diving for the wreck of a ship. The underwater sequences -- giant squid attack included -- are impressive for 1942 considering all those things actually had to be filmed.  It is an ending that obviously left an impression as it was almost exactly reused several years later in another John Wayne flick, Wake of the Red Witch. Reap the Wild Wind also belongs to a rare club of John Wayne movies, but I can't give too much away here. I didn't like this movie much, but it does try and almost lives up to its own high expectations.

Reap the Wild Wind (1942): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Creature From the Black Lagoon

Through the 1930s, 40s and 50s, Columbia Studios had one of the most reliable, go-to genres in Hollywood at the time, one that produced great movies and typically a string of sequels.  They were the Columbia Creature features, horror and sci-fi flicks that featured memorable bad guys like Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman.  Then, there were the crossovers -- Dracula meets Frankenstein -- and spin-offs and sequels.  I'm a fan of all these cult horror classics, but my favorite has always been 1954's Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Growing up being introduced to movies, I was never a huge fan of horror or science fiction movies pretty much across the board. What drew me in though was a series of books released in the 1970s that I found stashed away at the local library. All the great horror and science fiction movies were turned into books for teens, usually about 40 or 50 pages long that were probably adjusted right from the script and featured heavy use of stills from the movie. I don't know how many times I took out these books, but 'Black Lagoon' had to be my favorite one. Then, when I actually watched the movie, I loved it even more.

On an expedition on the Amazon deep into South America, a scientist, Carl Maja (Antonio Moreno) finds an odd specimen, a fossilized hand that seems to have come from a half-man, half-amphibian creature. He seeks the help of two marine institute scientists, Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson) and Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning) and David's assistant/girlfriend, Kay (Julie Adams) who intrigued by his find join him in returning into the dense, remote jungle.  On board the 'Rita,' Capt. Lucas (Nestor Paiva) steers them toward the find, warning them of legends and rumors of the area, explorers disappearing never to be heard from again. But as they search for more evidence of this natural oddity, the group finds that the creature is still very much alive and not too pleased that his home is being invaded.

The coolest thing about this horror classic -- and its two inferior if entertaining sequels -- is of course, the actual creature.  The visual is great, the half-amphibian, half-man creature who moves through the water like a fish but is able to walk up on dry land too (if briefly, he does have gills and all). The creature ends up falling madly in love with Adams' Kay (think King Kong on a smaller level) and basically gets pissed off to the point where he tries to kill all his invaders. It is helped that every time the creature is on screen, he's supported with this booming "Dun-dun-duh!" soundtrack queue. Subtle this is not, but always entertaining. It's a different sort of creature feature, and a new way to go as opposed to known baddies like Dracula, Frankenstein, or Wolfman. On land, Ben Chapman plays him while underwater director/actor/specialist Ricou Browning handles the underwater duties. The Creature is cool, enough said.

With these old school creature features, there is a cheese factor that adds to the overall appeal of the flick. These were movies made on a smaller level with a smallish budget. I'm guessing a lot of that budget probably went to making the creature's suits. The dialogue is stilted, the sets look to be back lot type sets, and it's never actually scary. A couple surprises? Sure, but no jump out of your seat scares. The dialogue ends up being funny, the backlot sets end up being pretty cool (claustrophobic and closed in), and the creature's slow entrances could be a drinking game of sorts if viewers so chose. It all adds up to this great finished product, a cheesy movie that's better because of all those contributing factors. Epic moviemaking this is not, but fun, mindless entertainment? Hard to beat.

Completely committing to this story is a cast that looks to be having a ball, long, awkward stares, delivering lines in all seriousness when they could have (and still are to a point) laughable. B-movie star Richard Carlson is the lead, sympathetic and wooden all rolled into one. He doesn't approve of what they're doing to the creature...until he messes with his girl, the beautiful Julie Adams. Her swim scene is a classic, a predecessor to Ursula Andress in Dr. No. It was so memorable, her legs were even insured by the movie studio. Watch the scene, and you'll understand. As for the rest of the cast, Denning is Carlson's counterpart, dollar signs in his eyes and fame on the horizon. Moreno's Carl recedes into the background as the movie goes along, Paiva steals his scenes as the boisterous Capt. Lucas, and Whit Bissell is a doctor doomed to be attacked because he serves no other purpose in the movie. Even look for Perry Lopez as one of Carl's local helpers, but look quick, he gets killed right away.  

Not a ton else to say about Creature from the Black Lagoon. It's by no means a classic movie, and it fully deserves its B-movie status, albeit classic B-movie status.  Of course because it is a popular movie from the past, discussions are in the works to make a remake of the horror classic. I'll be curious to see in what direction that remake goes, but I still can't help but wonder. Why mess with something that wasn't broken in the first place? The original is about as good as it gets so stick with this one.

Creature from the Black Lagoon <---trailer (1954): *** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Way Back

The timing of this review wasn't intentional to go back-to-back on prisoner of war movies, but that's just my bad luck or planning I guess.  To call 2010's The Way Back a prisoner of war movie isn't quite fair though because that only serves as a jumping off point. More than the POW angle, this is a story about survival, about man testing his limits in the hopes of getting back home, trudging through hell and back to get there.  Appropriately enough, it is a good movie (if flawed) and was in theaters for about an hour and a half.  The DVD was released recently, and I was able to finally catch up with it.

As the special features on the DVD point out, the atrocities committed by the Germans in concentration camps during WWII have been well documented.  To the east though in Russia, similar atrocities were committed...we just don't know about it.  It is a little slice of history generally forgotten by the masses as hundreds of Russian gulags kept thousands of people imprisoned through the war.  'Way' is based on a non-fiction book by Slawomir Rawicz called The Long Walk documenting his story of escaping from one of these gulags with six companions and their desperate, even unbelievable, 4,000 mile walk to freedom. The book's accuracy and general honesty has been called into question ever since it was released in the 1950s, but true or not, the story is one worth telling.

Accused of spying and sabotage against Stalin, a young Polish man, Janusz (Jim Sturgess), is sent to a Russian gulag buried deep in Siberia. There he finds hellacious conditions where even the strongest struggle to survive. Seeing no hope, he escapes with six companions, including mysterious American, Smith (Ed Harris), and a Russian criminal from the streets, Valka (Colin Farrell). Short on supplies, food and water, their plan is desperate, but they figure what worse could happen to them back in the camp?  Knowing if they're caught they will be executed, Janusz and his group head south, even picking up a young Polish refugee, Irena (Saoirse Ronan), along the way. As they put hundreds and eventually thousands of miles behind them, they wonder, can they actually escape to some sort of freedom?

On a purely visual level, this is one of the most breathtaking movies you will ever see.  Janusz and his fellow escapees end up traveling over 4,000 miles from deep in Siberia to freedom in India.  Actually look at a map and see how far that is.  It's insane what he accomplished (or claims he accomplished).  We start in the snow-swept mountains of Siberia, wind whipping around at all times, and then move south into the green, rocky hills surrounding Lake Baikal.  Continue on into the wastelands of Mongolia and the Gobi Desert into the Himalayas, one of the biggest mountain ranges in the world.  'Way' is an incredibly beautiful movie to watch, shots composed with an eye to impress and leave that lasting impression. Consider the movie a big winner on that account.

Survival stories are movies and stories at their most basic.  No extra, unnecessary plotlines, no wasted departures, just putting one foot in front of the other and keep on moving. Keep on breathing even though you want to give up. Director Peter Weir has a bare-bones type of story here, men already pushed to their limits forced to go even deeper into their mind, heart and soul to keep going, to push on.  That's good for awhile, but at 133 minutes it isn't always the most interesting story.  By a certain point, you're either rooting for these characters or you're not. I assume it was Weir's intention to beat you over the head, to exhaust you with this survival trial the same way the characters are going through it.  Mission accomplished because at times this is an exhausting story.  I won't say tedious because things don't repeat themselves, but seeing a man plunge to his absolute lowest can only be done so many times.

Before the movie even starts, a title card says that in 1942 three men walked into India having survived a 4,000 mile trek to get there.  I thought it was a poor decision to give that much information away from the get-go, especially because seven people escape the gulag.  We now know four aren't going to make it. It's just a matter of which ones.  Character development is not high on the list of things going for this movie.  Sturgess as Janusz simply isn't given enough information to be a real human being.  He felt like an idea of a character to me.  Harris and Farrell are the scene-stealers, Harris' Smith the most mysterious but also most sympathetic while Farrell's criminal Valka is the most interesting.  SPOILERS When he departs a little over halfway through the movie, my interest level went down END OF SPOILERS  The other four are fairly interchangeable, including Dragos Bucur as Zoran, the funny man and complainer, Alexandru Potocean as Tomasz, the artist, Gustaf Skarsgard as Voss, the priest, and Sebastian Urzendowsky as Kazir. Mark Strong is also very good as Khabarov, but his character gets left behind at the gulag.

Where does this movie fall then?  Above average for sure, but not a classic or one I'd revisit anytime soon.  With on-location shooting in Bulgaria, Morocco and Australia, it would be worth it just to watch the movie as a visual travel guide.  I'm unfamiliar with his other work, but composer Burkhard von Dallwitz does a subtle score that is memorable in its simplicity, its ability to match up so well with the visual. My only suggestion would be to cut about 20 minutes from the movie.  There is so much positive here that I have to recommend it, including a beautiful ending, moving in its execution as everything comes full circle.

The Way Back <---trailer (2010): ***/**** 

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Wooden Horse

Since I was introduced to the 1963 classic WWII movie The Great Escape as a kid, I've been a sucker for prisoner of war stories.  I've read books, seen movies, and watched documentaries about the lives of P.O.W.'s -- usually Allied prisoners -- as they fought the war from the inside of prison camps.  The courage shown by these men in continuing to attempt to perform their duty of escaping never ceases to impress me.  In camps specifically built to stop them from escaping, the prisoners concocted unique, innovative, even brilliant plans at getting outside the barbed wire and trying to make their way to freedom.

One of the first movies to show these efforts was 1950's The Wooden Horse, a British film documenting the story of British prisoners in a German prisoner of war camp in 1943. Movies like The Great Escape focused on a mass escape, a whole camp working together. Von Ryan's Express was a completely fictional story of a desperate mass escape that had no basis in reality. Other movies like Bridge on the River Kwai were about more than just prisoners of war, attempting to deliver a message about the war and what it does to its soldiers, bringing up questions of honor and duty. But in the early 1950s, a handful of British movies were almost documentary looks at prisoners of war, like The Colditz Story or here with The Wooden Horse.

A prisoner at Stalag Luft III in Germany, downed British airman Peter (Leo Genn) has seen countless escape attempts fail as the German guards foil most escapes before they can even get outside the barbed wire. His friend and fellow prisoner John (Anthony Steel) comes up with a plan just desperate and idiotic enough to work.  Building a movable gymnastic vaulting platform with a hollow bottom, the prisoners will sneak someone out underneath it into the compound. Then, while other prisoners use the platform as a means of exercise, one prisoner under cover of the platform will dig straight down and then out to the other side of the barbed wire. With some help from their bunkmates, including resourceful Phil (David Tomlinson), they go to work, the slow, dangerous work of moving hundreds and thousands of pounds of sand one bag full at a time. With the slow-going work proceeding at a snail's pace, will the German guards figure out their plan before the tunnel is complete?

There is a whole sub-culture of prisoner of war movies, a culture and knowledge I might take for granted as I write this review or even just talk about the POW movies in general.  Director Jack Lee doesn't have the time, sources, or budget to spend a lot of time giving background on the camp, a few title cards quickly explaining the situation. With nothing to do but sit around, these prisoners had countless hours to come up with plans of escape, and that's what they did.  These German POW camps were built specifically to hold them, the huts built hundreds of feet from the barbed wire so tunnels would be nearly impossible. The huts were built off the ground so sand from said tunnels couldn't be dispersed there. As desperate as it sounds, the 'Wooden Horse' plan was ingenious, and in reality the tunnel under the platform wasn't found until after the escape.

Like a lot of POW movies, it could be easy to get lost in the details of these highly involved, ridiculously detailed escape attempts.  But for 'Wooden Horse,' that's the strength of the movie. One scene shows the tunnel -- moving quite along toward the wire -- collapsing, a small hole opening up in the compound above. The prisoners must frantically think of something to cause a diversion to fill the hole, save their buried bunkmate, keep the German guards away, and do it all just seconds and minutes before roll call.  Perfectly simple in its execution, the scene is a prime example of how to build tension without any gimmicks, just a good twist.  The movie is at its best while in the camp as the tunnel digging gets underway.  A few montages show the tunnel proceeding, a process that ended up taking quite a few months.

What was disappointing is the second half of the movie after the actual attempt -- yes, three prisoners successfully escape.  The trick with these stories is that even getting out of the POW camps was a victory, but a small one.  These camps were hundreds of miles behind enemy lines in Germany and all over Europe.  The escapees now had to get out of a country full of military and intelligence officials frantically searching for them.  Unfortunately, none of the tension was really here after the trio of prisoners escaped, the story following Genn's Peter and Steel's John.  As they search for some means of reaching Sweden, the story even borders on boring when the momentum should be picking up, driving the story forward.  'Horse' limps to the finish, not quite sure where it should end, finishing on a note of dry British humor that didn't hit me right. It seemed too jokey for this type of movie.

No big names here in the cast although I've seen Genn in a few movies and know Tomlinson mostly for his acting in Disney movies, especially The Love Bug and Mary Poppins.  Without any particularly fascinating characters, they still manage to be interesting mostly because you're rooting for them to pull off this impossible escape.  Along with Steel as the bullheaded John, some of the POWs helping with the escape include Michael Goodliffe, Anthony Dawson, David Greene, Patrick Waddington as the Senior British Officer, Peter Burton and Bryan Forbes. I didn't recognize him at the time, but even Peter Finch makes a quick appearance as an Australian prisoner Genn meets in the hospital. No stars in the bunch, but several recognizable faces if you've seen any British movies from the 1950s and 1960s.  A good but somewhat disappointing POW story, one that could have been better, but is still worth a watch because you have to see this escape to believe it. It is available to watch at Youtube, starting HERE.

The Wooden Horse <--- TCM clips (1950): ** 1/2 /****

Monday, April 25, 2011

Advance to the Rear

Comedies seem to go through their ups and down patches like any genre movie does.  In the last 10 years or so, R-rated comedies have seen a resurgence in popularity while in the 1990s it was romantic comedies and in the 1980s raucous, mind-numbingly stupid sex comedies.  The 1970s and even the tail end of the 1960s? I guess it depends on the movie.  Prior to that though in the age of big screen spectacles and epics, there was an innocence to comedies that was lost over the years.  Epic comedies (how weird does that sound?) like The Great Race, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad World, The Russians are Coming and many more dominated movies.

Take 1964's Advance to the Rear, a comedic spoof of one of the funniest times in American history...the Civil War. There's no way that should work, right?  America's bloodiest conflict doesn't seem like its ripe for the picking for a big-screen spoof.  Somehow it does though, even if it isn't on the level of the previously mentioned comedies.  It's no classic, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do.  It is funny in a ridiculously stupid way, full of slapstick humor, some romance, and a cast full of recognizable names, all of them playing bumbling idiots. That's a formula for success if there ever was one.

It's 1862, and lawyer turned infantry soldier Captain Jared Heath (Glenn Ford) is the aide to a veteran of West Point and all-around clueless officer, Colonel Claude Brackenbury (Melvyn Douglas). Supposed to lead an attack on a Confederate position, Brackenbury's regiment instead turns and runs from the field of battle thanks to a simple miscommunication.  The unit is made an example of for their cowardice and receives order to go west to a remote outpost, also taking along misfits and screw-ups from other units in the Union army.  Dubbed Company Q, they head west by riverboat. Confederate intelligence catches wind of the new unit and assumes they're some sort of specialized unit meant to perform a dangerous mission. A beautiful Confederate spy, Martha Lou Williams (Stella Stevens), is sent west to investigate, and see exactly what these "special soldiers" are up to.

Slapstick comedy is completely hit-or-miss with me. I grew up watching The Three Stooges and Laurel and Hardy shorts so I do like some of it.  But if it isn't handled correctly, it's going to go poorly, and do it fast.  The problem is that you have to fully commit to doing the slapstick so you open things up to look completely stupid if it isn't funny.  The physical humor here isn't bad, but it certainly isn't good either.  Director George Marshall uses all sorts of wacky techniques, almost telling us when to laugh. Sound effects seem like they were used from a Batman TV episode and are painfully out of place. A soldier skis down a hill on tree branch skis? Add the sound of a plane taking off. Someone goes flying through the air? Cue the sound barrier being broken. Sound effects and sped-up action screams out desperation to me, and there's a good amount of it here.

When I think of Glenn Ford, I typically think of an underrated dramatic actor, someone able to move across genres and be believable and successful in all types of movies.  Comedy?  Not really the first thing that comes to mind.  I was pleasantly surprised then when Ford as Capt. Jared Heath, a ladies man and the rare competent soldier in the bunch, ends up carrying the movie.  By far, he's the biggest bright spot going for this 1960s comedy.  He delivers his lines in such a deadpan fashion while also handling the more physical scenes that it seems effortless.  Ford has a great chemistry with the always beautiful Stella Stevens (who poses as a showgirl briefly) in the romantic scenes and also with Douglas' clueless Colonel Brackenbury, the experienced officer who can't stand his aide and his way of going about things.  Their exchanges of cracks back and forth help make up for some of the worst examples of slapstick, as do the scenes with Ford and Stevens.  Ford's Heath quickly figures out she's a Confederate spy, but because he wants to marry her lets it go by the wayside. I don't blame him.

There was some wasted potential with the supporting cast to develop them into some better, even funnier characters.  Jim Backus and Whit Bissell are the equally idiotic Union generals who send Company Q out west only to realize they've sent them to lead an actual dangerous mission that could turn the tide of the war. Joan Blondell plays Easy Jenny, the leader of the showgirls who take a shining to Heath and his men. Michael Pate has a small part as Charlie Thin Elk, an Indian chief who went to West Point in the 1830s. James Griffith plays Hugo Zattig, the leader of a group of Confederate renegades. As for Company Q, there's Alan Hale Jr. as Sgt. Davis, Andrew Prine as Pvt. Selous, always hiccuping, and Jesse Pearson as Cpl. Geary, a soldier who always has horses following him around because of his unique smell. There were some other interesting soldiers -- a klepto, a firebug, a boxer, a brawler -- who are introduced but never get much to do.  If the movie was longer (it's only 100 minutes) like other 60s comedies, it's safe to say there would be some more development among Company Q.

It feels funny watching a Civil War comedy no matter how much of the humor does or doesn't work.  Marshall films it in a great-looking widescreen fashion -- in black and white at that -- making it feel like an epic action/adventure flick, not a spoof.  It is funny at times, but not as funny as it could have been.  I wanted to like the movie more than I did.  It's decent enough but nothing more. Also worth watching to see John Wayne's stunt man Chuck Roberson get a speaking role as a Confederate guerrilla. It is available to watch at Youtube starting HERE.

Advance to the Rear <--- TCM trailer (1964): ** 1/2 /****

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Command

Time to take a trip in the way back machine to a simpler time, a better time, my childhood. Before TBS turned into a zombie channel that shows Family Guy and The Office exclusively, it was a channel that showed older movies, and pleasantly enough, good, harder to find older movies. Their schedule always blocked out 1 to 3 in the afternoon, often showing some old western or war movies that ran about 90 minutes and with commercials could fill out a two-hour slot. Silly me, I was typically at school until about 2:30, but when I knew a good one would be on, my Mom was always nice enough to record the movie so I could watch it later. I watched a lot of good movies thanks to TBS, but two especially stand out in my head, both of them westerns, 1953's Charge at Feather River and 1954's The Command.

Part of my interest with these two movies is that neither is readily available in any format, although The Command is now available for purchase through the Warner Archive. Are they as good as I remember them? Maybe not, but they're still worth revisiting at least 10 years later. Good news, I have an old beat-up VHS tape of 'Feather River' and TCM recently showed a pristine widescreen presentation of The Command (thank you very much).  Besides the fact that both movies are above average, pretty straightforward B-westerns, the other unifying link is that Guy Madison starred in both flicks. An actor who made a name for himself out of B-westerns like these, Madison had a short window of success in the 1950s before turning to Italian war movies and spaghetti westerns in the 1960s.  Mostly though, he's known for playing Wild Bill Hickok in a western TV show that lasted seven years from 1951-1958.  He wasn't a great actor -- a little stiff at times -- but he was what these B-westerns needed. Honest, strong-willed, and always ready to be a hero.  That's certainly the case in The Command.

Riding along as part of a cavalry patrol, Doctor/Captain Robert MacClaw (Madison) has command thrust upon him when the patrol's commanding officer is mortally wounded and tells him to lead the patrol back to the fort. With no military/cavalry experience, MacClaw has to prove himself to the men of the troop who are immediately wary of this medical officer leading them. His one saving grace may be Sergeant Elliott (James Whitmore), a veteran soldier who is similarly skeptical of the doctor but willing to work with him. The troop reaches safety but is ordered to accompany a wagon train of settlers heading west that is accompanied by two companies of green recruits. To protect the troop from getting an infantry officer as a commander, MacClaw continues to pose as the troop's commander, even as he clashes with the infantry commander, veteran Colonel Janeway (Carl Benton Reid). The troop moves out though riding escort, but a large Indian war party is moving along with them. The Indians are just one problem though as a smallpox epidemic threatens to take out the whole column before they can reach the bigger body of the army's attacking force on the Paradise River.

While many B-westerns are really bad examples of what not to do with a medium-sized budget, decent story, and good if not great casting, The Command is a prime example of how everything can fall into place when handled the correct way. Released through Warner Bros., it is a beautifully shot western and the California locations, filming in a gorgeous widescreen presentation. The story is pretty straightforward, an outnumbered, rag-tag column traveling through Indian territory, hoping to threat the needle to safety. It's never boring though, and there's an actual sense of danger, the war party always closing in, always waiting for a chance to strike.  Composer Dimitri Tiomkin keeps the action flowing with a solid soundtrack that will sound familiar to anyone familiar with his other scores. Maybe I give this movie a notch above what it actually deserves, but you know what? It's a fun story, full of action and some solid performances from the lead. The only problem of any consequence I had with the story was an insistence on adding a love interest for Madison's Capt. MacClaw.

Through all his wooden deliveries, I still find myself liking Guy Madison in the lead. His character is something new in a western, a doctor with no military training forced to learn what does and doesn't work fighting the Indians on the plains. Just by reading the cavalry tactics manual, he seems to pick it up rather quickly, but who's to complain, right? He isn't going to lose, is he?  His mentor/student relationship with Whitmore is solid, and Madison more than handles himself in the action scenes (which are surprisingly grisly for a 1954 western). The character is different so right off the bat the movie is a little more interesting than it would have been with a seasoned officer trying to lead his company to safety. Trying to draw in that female audience though (I guess), Joan Weldon plays Martha, a young single woman traveling with the wagon train who butts heads with Madison's MacClaw only to fall deeply in love with him. I didn't see it coming either. Besides the fact that their developing relationship is boring, the duo doesn't have much in the way of chemistry together. Their scenes tend to drag on at times, killing an otherwise fast-moving story and all the momentum it builds up.

As a sucker for great character actors, I'm going to recommend this one mostly on the shoulders of James Whitmore.  The movie is good enough on its own, but Whitmore definitely moves this western up a notch or two. His Sergeant Elliott character immediately reminded me of his Academy Award nominated performance from 1948's Battleground, and he plays a similar role, the part of the tough but fair sergeant. He's got years of experience and knows the Plains like few men in the troop do.  As Madison's MacClaw adjusts to the position of command, Whitmore's Elliott is a cushion of sorts, answering questions when he can, and basically doing what he can to make the transition smoother both for the Doc and the men he's commanding. In his 40s here, Whitmore looked old no matter how old he actually was, and it all rolls into the character. He's gruff and surly, short on words, letting his actions do more of the talking for him.  His chemistry is good with Madison which is essential, especially because their dialogue scenes dominate the landscape. Whitmore was a class act, always very watchable, and that's certainly the case here.

For a B-movie with a somewhat limited budget that clocks in at just 94 minutes, I was surprised by the epic quality of the finale which on its own takes almost 20 minutes. There is some impressive scope with a small army of extras standing in for the ever-growing Indian war party. The attack on the column's forted-up wagons is a great finale that reminded me a lot of a similar ending to Hondo, made the year before. The action all-around is impressive. The rest of the cast after the first two or three names is more hit or miss in smaller parts.  Benton Reid is a one-note veteran, spouting how he's willing to die on his feet but not in the saddle. Other performers of note include some unnecessary humor from Harvey Lembeck as Pvt. Gottshalk (because there were a lot of snarky Jewish cavalry troopers from NYC in the old west), Ray Teal as the crotchety unit surgeon, and Don Shelton as Major Gibbs, a desk officer with no combat experience assigned to the infantry. An underrated western that gets lost in the sea of bad westerns from the 1950s when studios were cranking them out as quick as audiences could gobble them up.  It's better than most so if you can find a copy, scoop it up.

The Command (1954): ***/****

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels

For a guy with only six feature films to his name (one among them considered an epic bomb), British director Guy Ritchie has certainly made a name for himself over the last 13 years, and a positive name for himself at that. His most recent movie, Sherlock Holmes, was a bit of a departure for Ritchie though, a period piece with his own unique vision and style.  Of the movies I've seen of his though, it's been my least far.  He is most at home with crime thrillers, and his best may have been his first, 1998's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.  

Making this movie as a relative unknown in the late 1990s on a ridiculously small budget, Ritchie nonetheless shows a knack for moviemaking that just comes easy to some people.  All his trademarks that he's perfected over the last 12 years are there, to the point you have to wonder how long he'd been planning his moves out.  The almost schizophrenic story jumps from scene to scene in milliseconds, introducing and dispatching characters as quickly as they appear, a camera shooting style that is in your face and aggressive, and a labyrinth plot that crosses and intertwines left and right with everyone and everything crossing paths at some point. A movie that would certainly require repeated viewings to make sure everything actually works out, I still feel like I have a good grasp on the movie. I loved it.

Pooling their money together to join a high-stakes card game, longtime friends Eddie (Nick Moran), Bacon (Jason Statham), Tom (Jason Flemyng), and Soap (Dexter Fletcher), plan on big winnings if Eddie -- the most skilled card player among them -- can pull off a win.  Instead, they get hustled and end up owing 500,000 pounds to Hatchet Harry (P.H. Moriarty), the local crime boss with ties in everything. The crew is given a week to get back the money for Harry or else they'll lose a finger each for each day they're late. But where would four working class bums get their hands on so much money in such a short time?  Eddie's got a plan to knock off their drug-dealing next door neighbors which sounds too good, too easy to be true.  Long story short? It is as Eddie and his friends end up in a convoluted deal with mobsters, low level thugs, black market dealers, a calm and cool collector, and a pair of 1800s shotguns that just keep popping up.

To try and actually explain Lock, Stock and all the workings of its plot would take several more, much longer reviews. That is about as mainlined a description as I'm going to be able to come up with.  As the story crisses and crosses though, it keeps you on your toes.  There are about 10 unifying links among all the convoluted mayhem, the key one being a pair of shotguns that Hatchet Harry wants to get his hands on.  You don't always see these links until the absolute last second, but that's part of the fun.  Looking back on the movie (having just finished it about 15 minutes ago), I'm positive I couldn't even begin to explain all the craziness.  In the moment though, it's convoluted without being confusing -- if that makes any sense at all.  You don't need to keep up. Just sit back and enjoy.

Last year I watched Rock N Rolla, my first real introduction to Ritchie and his ways in a British crime flick.  I loved it just like I loved this one.  The strongest aspect of the movies for me -- besides the stories -- are the characters, and there are a lot of them...too many to even keep straight without charts and graphs identifying and categorizing how everyone is connected.  The heart of these characters is the four friends, Bacon, Tom, Soap and Eddie, in their misadventures to get a crapload of money to save their lives.  Using them as an example, you get a sense of Ritchie's writing flair.  The dialogue among these old friends is quick and snappy, zingers thrown left and right, a natural give and take as they talk.  Statham has gone on to be the biggest star here, but the cast as whole (and not just these four) all fit together perfectly, just like the story does.

Trying to give you an idea of what I mean concerning the story, here's an attempt to identify all the key players.  Brace yourself, it's a doozy.  First, there's Winston (Steven Mackintosh) and his three-man crew, a bunch that grows and sells marijuana by the kilo and does it successfully. Winston works for Rory Breaker (Vas Blackwood), a black guy with an afro typically identified as a lunatic. Plank (Steve Sweeney) buys from Winston and is a low-level thug for Dog (Frank Harper), who has an idea to rob Winston's lab for all his weed and cash on-hand. Meanwhile, Harry's muscle, Barry the Baptist (Lenny McClean), is working with two of the lowest level of thieves, Gary and Dean (Victor McGuire and Jake Abraham), to get a pair of shotguns for Harry. All this time, Big Chris (Vinnie Jones) works as a collector, intimidating and bullying for Harry. Middleman Nick the Greek (Stephen Marcus) is trying to keep countless plates spinning, working deals with just about everyone else already mentioned. Oh, and Sting plays Eddie's dad, JD.

Enough for you?  Yeah, me too.  There's something I'm missing here as I try and explain why this movie works. I just can't put my finger on it.  It's funny, genuinely laugh out loud funny. It's got plenty of action, gunfights, shootouts and brawls throughout.  It's got style to spare, and more than enough story for two or three of the most convoluted Seinfield episodes ever. The soundtrack is full of Indie, punk and Brit rock (check it out HERE) It has a low-budget look to it that appeals to me because it isn't so spic and span, so perfectly polished. Directing and writing the movie, Ritchie clearly had a ton of fun putting it all together. It is painfully obvious to see why. The movie deserves the cult following it has received over the last 10-years plus.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels <---trailer (1998): *** 1/2 /****    

Friday, April 22, 2011

Along the Great Divide

Making his screen debut in John Ford's 1948 cavalry western Fort Apache, John Agar seemed to have all the makings of a star. In the next two years, he starred in two more John Wayne movies, holding his own alongside the Duke I always thought.  But after Sands of Iwo Jima in 1949, that stardom never came for Agar.  Instead, he was relegated to B-movies where he worked consistently into the 1970s and 1980s.  A good if not great actor, Agar was often cast as a second or third banana, the key supporting character, like in 1951's Along the Great Divide.

This western from director Raoul Walsh is an interesting one for several reasons. For one, it was star Kirk Douglas' first western, first of many really as he would return to the genre often during his career. Building off Douglas' strong performance in the lead role though, 'Divide' is a dark western, not like the whitewashed, bland westerns that were so often the product of the 1950s.  It had the potential to be extremely dark at that, but it is the 1950s, and we're not talking a spaghetti western here (unfortunately).  As I was watching this Walsh western though, I couldn't help but think that I'd seen this movie before.  It took me about 15 minutes in, and I had it figured, but I won't give it away yet. Read the plot summary and see if you can figure it out too.

Riding through the desert, U.S. Marshal Len Merrick (Douglas) and two deputies, Billy (Agar) and Lou (Ray Teal) stumble across a lynching. They save rancher Pop Keith (Walter Brennan) from another rancher, Roden (Morris Ankrum) who claims that Keith rustled 15 head of his cattle and murdered his oldest son in the process. Merrick can't prove either way if Keith is guilty or innocent but overpowers the lynch mob, promising to take the old rancher into the nearest town, Santa Loma, for a fair trial.  They hit the trail, picking up Keith's daughter Ann (Virginia Mayo) along the way.  But as they cut across the desert hoping to reach the next waterhole in time, Merrick sees that Roden has kept his word and is charging after them, ready to shoot them all to gain vengeance for his son's death.

This isn't a dead-on comparison where I'm saying they were identical movies, but it's pretty damn close with a few tweaks here and there.  Two years later, director Anthony Mann revamped this basic story with 1953's The Naked Spur, a classic western that is far better remembered than Along the Great Divide.  The story and characters are just too close for Mann not to have been influenced by this western.  Yes, certain things were changed. Douglas is a Marshal, not a bounty hunter like Jimmy Stewart. Brennan isn't a bad guy the way Robert Ryan was, but other things certainly ring true.  Janet Leigh is a spot-on copy of Mayo's character, and Agar and Teal were basically reworked into Ralph Meeker and Millard Mitchell.  I don't say any of this as a judgment or condemnation of The Naked Spur, a western I very much enjoyed.  Instead, I think it speaks to Along the Great Divide which jumps up a notch in my book because of how heavily it influenced 'Spur.'

By 1951, Kirk Douglas was a star, but still a rising star.  His best work was still ahead of him, but his Len Merrick character certainly shows the potential of his ability.  He was an intense actor, capable of high drama and comedy at the same time, and he always had quite a presence on-screen, especially when handling a majority of his own stunts.  So in his first western, Douglas shows a knack for playing that heroic lead who isn't so heroic.  His good guys always had a sense of being not quite so good, men with checkered pasts that rear their ugly heads at the worst possible time.  That is Len Merrick in a nutshell, a marshal trying to prove himself, partially for some sort of redemption for a past deed gone horribly wrong, one that still plagues his mind.  I liked this character though from the start as his ultra-driven motivations take over, pushing those around him to the limit as they struggle with a lack of water in the blazing desert heat.  A good first performance in a western, and a strong indication of what is to come.

More than just The Naked Spur, 'Great Divide' reminded me of several other movies, similar stories with a group of people trying to survive the hell that is the desert. At different points I thought of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Professionals, 3 Godfathers, Yellow Sky and several other westerns and quasi-westerns.  That's basically my only real complaint here with Walsh's western. The story is predictable, and if you're paying attention at all, you know the ending almost from the first scene.  Walter Brennan played his fair share of bad guys, but it's clear this old, coot of a rancher isn't a killer.  It can be a little cookie-cutter at times as the story develops, the pieces falling into place.  On the positive though, it's never boring at 88-minutes, and Walsh films enough on location in the Sierra Madres and Mojave Desert to recommend the movie on just a visual level.  Filmed in black and white, that desert has an intimidating beauty about it, daring riders to come on in and see if they can make it.

I thought Douglas stole the movie here as the tortured U.S. Marshal, but the rest of the cast led by Brennan is nothing to shake your head at.  His Pop Keith character isn't a killer, but he's got a devious streak in him that the story keeps you guessing with as to his actual background.  Mayo as his daughter Ann is the necessary love interest, an easy on the eyes love interest at that.  Agar especially represents himself well as young deputy Billy who looks up to Merrick like a big brother while Teal plays a character he played countless times in other westerns, a gunslinger willing to go on either side of the law, usually the side that pays better.  Ankrum is good as rancher Roden while James Anderson plays his surviving son. An unfortunately little known western, but one I enjoyed very much. Definitely worth watching too if you're a fan of The Naked Spur.

Along the Great Divide <---TCM clips (1951): ***/****   

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Raintree County

The conversation about the best Civil War epic will typically always begin and end with one movie, 1939's Gone With the Wind, a classic film and one of the best movies ever made in Hollywood history.  In general though, Hollywood hasn't gone to the Civil War well too often, and I've never been able to figure out why.  Movies like Gettysburg and Gods and Generals were made because Ted Turner has lots of money and is a Civil War buff. Glory is a classic true story that I think is the best depiction of the war around. Well, there's another epic, 1957's Raintree County.

The main problem with this MGM epic is that it tries to be Gone With the Wind 2 too much instead of blazing its own trail.  I was surprised though to read the hate this movie gets whether it be the cast being miscast, the story being too simple, or just overall, it's a boring movie. I think two of those three are legitimate issues to have with the movie, but there's something appealing about Raintree County that will take more than that to ruin the movie. The 1950s and early 1960s were the time of the epic in Hollywood, 3-hour movies where no expense was spared. Gigantic budgets, big-time directors, all-star casts, they just don't make them like this anymore.  It's a time capsule of a different era in Hollywood, and an interesting one at that.

It's 1859 in Freehaven, Indiana in Raintree County and young John Shawnessy (Montgomery Clift) is about to graduate from the local college. He's ready for the future with his longtime sweetheart, Nell (Eva Marie Saint), when he meets Susanna (Elizabeth Taylor), a Southern belle visiting Freehaven from Louisiana. John falls for her immediately as does she for him. It doesn't take long before Susanna tells him that she's pregnant with his child so they marry and move to the South. With a conflict brewing about states' rights and the ability to own slaves though, John insists they move back to Raintree County. As the Civil War breaks out though with the attack on Fort Sumter, he finds out that his young wife has a secret that could tear them apart. His life thrown on its side, John must now make a huge decision, all the while the North fighting the South around them.

The biggest surprise I found reading reviews here was about the casting and acting of Clift and Taylor.  Montgomery Clift was involved in a horrific car accident during filming that caused production to shut down for two months while waiting for him to heal so there is already a stigma attached to the part and the movie as unlucky, and in some circles, just plain bad.  I don't know if Clift was the right choice for the lead role, but it's the rare movie he's not very watchable in that lead role. It's not his best performance, but it's still good.  More surprising is that Elizabeth Taylor earned a nomination for her performance.  No disrespect to the recently passed Miss Taylor, but this was just too hammy of a performance. She's Scarlet O'Hara on steroids, chewing the scenery left and right, a fragile woman screaming and crying at every turn because of her past. She treads that fine line between highly dramatic and soap opera, but too often it leans toward the soap opera acting, loud, confrontational and overbearing.

Say what you will about the two leads, but one thing that's untouchable is the rest of the cast.  That's always one of the best things to come out of these Hollywood epics, casts that feature a who's who list of stars playing supporting roles.  For this particular epic we've got Marie Saint as the innocent, incredibly sweet Nell, Nigel Patrick as Professor Stiles, a fast-talking, intelligent, philanderer of a man, Lee Marvin as Orville 'Flash' Perkins, John's drinking buddy and a brawler of a man, Rod Taylor as Garwood Jones, a Northern politician who leans toward Southern rights, Agnes Morehead and Walter Abel as John's parents, and DeForest Kelley as a Confederate officer John comes across in Georgia. Of all the performances, Patrick and Marvin especially shine.  Patrick's Professor is that good sort of scenery chewing, verbose and expressive, a man who loves life and everything about it. Marvin's Flash is a similar character if from a little lower class.  He loves to fight and compete, loves women, and loves to drink.

Director Edward Dmytryk was given a $5,000,000 budget to make this movie, a huge sum at the times. While the film struggled with audiences, it wasn't for lack of effort.  It was nominated for best costumes and best art direction and deservedly so.  Raintree County is a stunningly beautiful movie with beautiful locations (Kentucky and Mississippi mostly), huge sets filled with hundreds of extras, and a screen so full of action, details, and vivid colors that you can overlook the somewhat stilted dialogue or slow-moving story (it clocks in at just under 3 hours). This is an EPIC, a type of movie they just don't make anymore. The story -- based off a novel -- tries to tackle a lot of topics because honestly, the Civil War had a lot of topics worth covering.  It's too much at different points and not enough, focusing on the same thing over and over instead of focusing on the more interesting aspects, Abolitionism, slavery, the actual fighting. Like any movie, it is good and bad. You just hope the good outweighs the bad, and for me it did.

One reason I've assumed the Civil War has never been made into many feature films is the expense of creating huge battle scenes. The actual combat of the war is the second half of the movie after a brief intermission.  The sequences are large-scale but don't linger, and were even re-used five years later in How the West Was Won.  Clift's John ends up with General Sherman's army in Georgia, and for me this was the movie at its best. Battle sequences are handled with an effective, well-done montage, and Dmytryk paints a picture of what 1864-5 Georgia must have been like, war-torn, terrifying, and a host for all sorts of evil.  Working off a novel and trying to stay true to the source, I understand you have to go with what is in front of you.  Dmytryk's epic is solid and I enjoyed it from beginning to end. It could have been better, but it's the rare movie that couldn't be better. There are only so many Hollywood epics like this so enjoy them for what they are.

Raintree County <---trailer (1957): ***/****   

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The American

It's easy for a movie trailer to trick audiences. With two and a half minutes or so to get a message across telling what this movie is about, it's easy to make any movie look like something it isn't. I can't think of a movie that was more misrepresented than 2010's The American, made to look like a thinking man's Jason Bourne with plenty of action and suspense. Yes, there is suspense. Yes, there is tension. But action? Not so much.

I don't know who that benefits when a trailer completely misrepresents what a movie is about.  In this case, the story is of a hitman in Italy preparing for one last job before he walks away from the profession he's so good at. It is leisurely paced to say the least and doesn't have much in the way of action. When there is action, it's quick and startling, not exciting and drawn out. So for starters, anyone heading into this movie thinking they're about to see 2 hours of action is now pissed, and I've read of several accounts of people leaving theaters. The people who might want to see this movie have now avoided it because they don't want to see a Hollywood shoot 'em up flick. Win win for everyone, huh?

After surviving a hit attempt on his life while on a job in Sweden, hired killer Jack (George Clooney) is sent to Italy by his handler/contact, Pavel (Johan Leysen). Instead of staying in a major city like Rome, Jack finds a small country village and goes to work. He gets information about his new job, meeting mysterious Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), who requires a specific gun to pull off her next job. Jack goes to work, assembling all the pieces he will need for the build. Away from the world and all its problems, Jack starts a relationship with a prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido). But isolated from the world he knows, he starts to freak out, paranoia taking over as he fears that someone is again gunning for him.

Depending on the viewer, the next statement is either going to drive you away or bring you into this movie. This is not Jason Bourne on vacation in Italy. This is a newer look French New Wave movie about a hired killer who leads a spartan life and in general, is a minimalist movie that will surely divide its viewers. The odd thing is, a day after watching the movie, I'm still not sure what to make of it.  I either loved it or hated it, but I can't decide for sure. It's an interesting movie, one that keeps you involved because you're just not quite sure what's going on. If I can describe this flick though in a most positive fashion, it's that it would make an interesting companion piece with Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai in terms of character, style, tone and overall, cynicism about life.

Trying to come up with the most accurate, fairest description I can for director Anton Corbijn's movie, I'll say this. It is a movie interested in life, the daily little things you do. The camera editing isn't really even editing. Corbijn places his camera and lets things develop. Long -- long -- shots have Jack walking through the cramped Italian streets. Even after he walks out of frame, the shot lingers. Other shots have Jack driving through the countryside. Long stretches go without a word said -- musical score from Herbert Gronemeyer filling in the blanks in a quiet, soothing way -- as Jack patiently assembles all the pieces needed for the gun he's working on. You can see how this style -- or lack of depending on your interpretation -- split audiences down the middle.

At times, it is a visually frustrating movie in its beauty. The Italian countryside looks incredibly beautiful, as does the village Clooney's Jack is staying in. But visually, it can be infuriating. You want to move the story along, push the pace a little bit. Because so very little happens in this 105-minute movie, you're amped up to the point where you feel Jack's growing paranoia.  Every little noise sends a shiver up your back. Every look is a suspicious look no matter who it is from because the story just doesn't give you many hints as to what is about to happen. The moments you feel like dozing off (and there are plenty) are then broken up by these moments of intense fear. That's the whole movie, equal parts boredom and fear wrapped up into one.

The main character in this basically heartless movie is a heartless son of a gun, Clooney as Jack. He doesn't have much in the way of lines at all, cracks a smile exactly once, looks intense and/or glum the whole movie, and is required to be more of a presence than a character. Jack is intense, and that's the best way to describe this mysterious character. Is it Clooney playing Clooney? I hate when performances are identified that way because this is an interesting individual. Nothing is spelled out for us as to his background other than that he may be losing his edge and is therefore a liability. Even in his glumness, he's searching for some sort of 'right' in his little word, possibly finding it with Placido's Clara. It may be too late for him though because if there was ever a damned individual, it's Jack.

The movie and its storytelling technique does have its fair share of flaws. The story makes jumps that are necessary for things to keep moving along without always making a ton of sense. Characters do things that just don't come across as rational. Like Clooney's Jack, hidden away in a remote Italian town, remaining in the town after a hit is attempted on his life. Wouldn't he figure something is up?  But that's the problem. Is this intentional, like Corbijn wanting us as a viewer to piece things together, or just an oversight in logic and general ability to stay coherent in his storytelling?  It treads that fine line.

Because this movie has me thrown for a loop, I'm writing more than I normally would here so let's wrap it up. The supporting cast is solid, with Reuten the icy cool killer working with Jack, Placido as Clara, the high-class prostitute with the heart of gold (she's stunningly beautiful), and Paolo Bonacelli as Father Benedetto, a priest Jack meets in his travels. It brings up some interesting dialogue about sin, life and death, fate, all that good stuff. That's the movie though, a look into the mind of a hired gun, the inner workings of a killer. It is a beautiful movie with an incredibly leisurely pacing and style, one you have to know what you're getting into when watching it. I wanted to like it, and I can say now that I liked it...probably...I think...maybe. Big picture, it's different. Pretentious? Maybe. I liked it though, flaws and positives both considered.

The American <---trailer (2010): ***/****

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Five Miles to Midnight

This intro isn't exactly dead-on as it pertains to the movie, but it was one of the first things I thought of while watching 1962's Five Miles to Midnight. When I watched Airport for the first time a few years ago, I was genuinely surprised to learn that passengers could buy insurance in airports before their flights. For one like in Airport, it seemed an easy way for some suicidal nut to make some quick cash.  On the other hand, it hit me wrong, and I'm pretty cynical when it comes to things like that. In 'Five Miles,' life insurance at the airport ends up being the motivating force for one character.

After having a fight with her husband, Robert (Anthony Perkins), that turns physical, Lisa Macklin (Sophia Loren) decides she's had enough and tells him that she wants a divorce. He fights it at first, but finally agrees, telling her they'll figure it all out once he returns to Paris after a quick business trip. Lisa is stunned the next day when the newspaper says that Robert's plane crashed somewhere in France with no survivors. She's even more surprised then when he turns up on her doorstep, claiming he survived when he was thrown from the wreckage in the crash. Lisa wants nothing to do with him, but he makes a deal with her. He took out an insurance policy before takeoff, and he'll leave her behind for good if she receives the $120,000 claim and gives it to him. Can she go through with it though just to rid herself of him?

Two days after watching this movie, I'm not really sure what to write about.  Like any movie, there's positives and negatives to take away, but what were they? It's that rare movie I can't come up with something to write about. So here goes, probably a review that rambles more than it should. 'Five Miles' has some odd casting choices and not necessarily for the better, knows where it wants to get but not how to get there, has some excellent on-location work in Paris (hard to mess that up), and has an ending that while not particularly surprising still provides a bit of a shock factor.  Okay, that's a good start I guess.

Four years earlier in Desire Under the Elms, Loren and Perkins worked together so while I haven't seen that movie, I feel safe saying they must have had better chemistry than they did here.  Sophia Loren is maybe the most beautiful actress to ever grace the screen, and while I don't intend this as a dig against Perkins, they just don't look good together.  Is it fair to judge a movie on whether its cast members look good together?  For me, I needed some reason to believe that at some point Loren's Lisa met Perkins' Robert and fell for him.  Instead, we get nothing.  It also seems a stretch that Loren would be scared of a skinny guy like Anthony Perkins.  A great comment at the IMDB said that one punch/slap from the Italian actress, and he'd be down for the duration.

If it makes sense, the two actors don't have a great chemistry together, but their performances on their own are interesting.  Two years removed from the success of Psycho, it's easy to see Perkins already being typecast in Norman Bates-mode.  He makes Robert this neurotic ball of energy, at one second charming and personable while the next second he's overbearing, jealous and abusive.  As is the case with Lisa, his smile has a disarming effect on people, able to diffuse the situations he so often gets himself into.  Loren too delivers a solid performance as a young wife simply pushed too far past her limits.  She's had enough with her husband but has no way to get out of the situation any quicker than it's going.  Her descent into some sort of madness is creepy to watch, making the ending that much better.

The problem with that ending is that director Anatole Litvak takes his sweet time getting there. After the plane crash, Robert does his best Lazarus impression and is back in the story by about the 20-minute mark.  Then, as Lisa goes through the process of getting the insurance check, we get another 90 minutes building to the ending, and it is slow going.  Not much happens in between, and that's where the movie struggles.  Perkins interacts with a boy (Tommy Norden) curious why he never leaves the apartment. Lisa moves on, starting to see newspaper writer Gig Young who's naturally curious about what's going on. Building tension is one thing, but it's clear Lisa is nearing her limit, and the story just keeps piling on and on.

What saves 'Five Miles' from being a really bad, pointless even boring movie is the last 20 minutes.  You see the twist coming two-fold if you're paying attention at all, but that doesn't mean it can't be enjoyable to watch it unfold.  Better than the twist is the finale then, the final nails in the coffin for one character.  I was definitely surprised with that aspect of the story, especially the movie ending on such a sour note.  The other positive is the look of the movie whether it be the vast Macklin apartment that still manages to be claustrophobic or the Parisian locations.  It's got to be impossible to make that city look bad, and 'Five Miles' doesn't go for lots of known locations either.  Still, the movie is a mixed bag, and one I struggled to get through.

Five Miles to Midnight <---trailer (1962): **/****    

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Fighter

Of all the actors currently working in movies, one of my favorites is Mark Wahlberg. The first movie I saw him in was 1999's Three Kings, and I was immediately a fan.  Over the years then, I've been surprised to read and hear all the hate directed toward him. Some of it you can chalk up to his Marky Mark days, others to his limited range as an actor. Is he Pacino or De Niro? No, few people in the world have that ability, but he's an underrated actor. Partially I'm a fan because he's likable and always consistent, but also because his choice of movies is typically very audience-friendly.

Criticize him all you want for a limited acting range, but he delivered his best performance yet in 2010's The Fighter. It is a performance that was overshadowed by two other parts in the movie, both of whom won Academy Awards for their supporting roles, but he gets a chance to show off his acting chops and doesn't disappoint.  I'm more or less making Wahlberg-hater fans' point because he does play a similar character to one he's played several times before.  But you know what? He's good at it, and in telling the true story of boxer Micky Ward, Wahlberg does a great job bringing his character to life.

A boxer in his late 20s, Micky Ward (Wahlberg) out of Lowell, Massachusetts is at a bit of a crossroads in his life.  He's a good boxer who has potential but has never really amounted to anything.  Part of the problem is his family, dragging him down at all times even though they claim to be in his corner, always ready to support him.  First, there's Dicky (Christian Bale), his half-brother and trainer who struggles with his addiction to crack. A great boxing mind and strategist, but completely unreliable. Second, there's his mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), a completely self-serving woman who says she has his best interest at heart, but that's clearly not the case. Struggling through all these family problems, Micky meets Charlene (Amy Adams), a bartender he hits it off with. But when push comes to shove, Micky is going to have to make a decision, go for what's best for him or what's best for his family?  

As a warning going in, I feel like I should warn people about this movie.  As a sports fan, I got the impression this was a heavy boxing story which it isn't.  Yes, there is boxing, but it's more a part of the story than actually being the story.  Just so there's no confusion, I'm not comparing it to Raging Bull, but in terms of storytelling it is similar.  The boxing is a way to get somewhere, but it isn't a "boxing movie."  The Fighter is more about family and the struggles you go through at times putting up with them, loving them, fighting and arguing with them.  They may be bad for you and your life, but they're your family. How do you get away or turn away from your family?  As Micky finds out, it is no easy task.

Just a few months ago at the Academy Awards, Bale and Leo made news as they won Oscars for the best supporting actor and actress awards, respectively.  Of the two, I think Bale was more deserving for the win, but they both deserved it.  If anything, I would have given Supporting Actress to Amy Adams, but that's just me.  Ever since his ridiculous outburst on the set of Terminator Salvation, I've been an iffy fan of Bale's, but all personal feelings aside, the guy can act.  This is one of those performances where you watch it and just know this is what acting is all about.  His Dicky Eklund is a mess of a person, all of it to blame on himself, who had all sorts of potential but instead derailed his life.  Leo as Alice is the same way, a hypocrite on so many levels who can't even see what she's doing to her son, Micky.  These are the flashier performances, not quite Oscar bait, but close.

The heart of the movie though is Wahlberg as Micky Ward, a boxer teetering on the brink of a has-been and a never will be.  There's that underdog element to the character and the man, the fighter from the lower middle class family rising above his surroundings to amount to something...hopefully.  He wants to make it on the big time, wants to be the best fighter he can be.  At the same time, he feels an obligation to his family even as they drag him down, holding him back from achieving all the things he wants.  His relationship with Adams' Charlene -- similarly troubled, similarly wanting something more out of life -- is key as these two individuals find some sort of happiness together through each other.  They have a great chemistry together even though going in I thought Adams was an odd, somewhat interesting choice to play the character. My bad, I was wrong.  Other supporting parts include Jack McGee as Micky's father, George, and Mickey O'Keefe playing himself as Micky's trainer/mentor as he rises through the boxing ranks.

Watching clips of the movie, reading reviews, watching the trailer repeatedly, I wasn't sure what to expect going into the movie.  It's by no means a flashy sports movie, and I debate even calling it a sports movie.  It is about the people, their relationships and interactions, the day to day struggles to get along and survive with yourself and your family.  This is an acting movie from Wahlberg to Bale to Leo to Adams.  Director David O. Russell knows what he's doing and presents a real, moving story that feels like a throwback to movies of old, something right out of the 1970s (and I mean that in a good way).

The Fighter <---trailer (2010): ***/****

Sunday, April 17, 2011

In Which We Serve

When I hear British director David Lean's name, I typically think of one thing and one thing only; epics.  Huge, monstrous movies like Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, The Bridge on the River Kwai. Basically, everything that is good and right about movies when handled correctly with the right crew, cast and story. Even one of the most respected directors of all-time has to start somewhere though, right? You don't jump right in and get an epic movie handed to you. Still, for a first movie, 1942's In Which We Serve is quite the first impression.

Making his directorial debut, Lean shares the director's chair with British writer/actor Noel Coward who also stars in the movie. I try my best to keep my reviews as different as possible without repeating topics, but I can't help it with this one. It pertains to the time the movie was released, in this case a WWII movie hitting theaters during WWII. We're not talking late in the war either when the end result had all but been decided. We're talking 1942 when the war was very much still up in the balance. We never actually see any German soldiers/sailors/pilots as the story focuses exclusively on the British armed forces, specifically the Navy. The tone though is certainly one meant to inspire although to Lean and Coward's credit, it isn't straight propaganda. Instead, it's a story of people rising up and working together in one of history's darkest chapters.

It's the middle of WWII and a British destroyer, the HMS Torrin, is sailing through the Mediterranean in support of the invasion of Crete. Commanded by Captain Kinross (Coward), the Torrin is attacked by German dive bombers and the crew is forced to abandon ship. In all the chaos, a small group of survivors manage to get off the ship -- including Kinross -- and cling together on a small life raft, hoping that a rescue effort is coming to save them. As they await their hopeful rescue, they look back on how they got to this point, reflecting on the ship being made and the coming years as WWII broke out. They think back, remembering their families, their friends, and their stories, all the while hoping time won't run out on them.

Telling the story of an HMS destroyer and her 300-man crew, 'Serve' has a cross-section of actors filling out the ranks so we get to know all sides of the story, not just the captain and the officers or the lowly sailors.  Coward's Captain is the stiff upper lip commander, unshakable in battle and a courageous leader. He addresses his men three different times, the third and final time being the most moving. Then there's Seaman Shorty Blake (John Mills), a young sailor with an expecting wife back home.  He's the lower/middle class sailor, the representative of the crew more or less. There's also Chief Petty Officer Hardy (Bernard Miles), an intelligent if somewhat clueless officer who you nonetheless come to like. Also look for Richard Attenborough in his first film, an uncredited but worthwhile role, and James Donald as the Torrin's on-board doctor.

It's best to think of this as two movies. First, the plight of the survivors which is handled briefly but fairly. How much can you show of 10 or 11 men clinging to a life raft without the proceedings getting tedious?  Second, the flashbacks of Coward, Mills, Miles, and even Attenborough briefly. While those too are tedious at times (how many times can we see sailors say goodbye to their wives and still have it mean something?), they end up being worthwhile. Stories that deal with the home front are few and far between, especially anything documenting London and England during the massive German bombings.  Getting to these scenes can be a slow-go at times, but the wait is worth it. Worthwhile parts for the women left behind include Celia Johnson as Mrs. Kinross, the captain's wife, Joyce Carey as Kath Hardy, the doting but tough wife of the petty officer, Kay Walsh as Freda, Blake's fiance and eventually his wife, and Kathleen Harrison as Mrs. Blake, Shorty's always-worrying mother.

Whether it was released in the 1940s when audiences needed a positive jolt or 30 years later in the 1970s when audiences were more cynical, a war movie has to leave some impression on you to be truly effective. Coward's last address of his men is well-handled, but two other scenes hit me. SPOILERS STOP READING SPOILERS Blake finds out that Hardy's wife and mother-in-law were killed in a bombing and has to deliver the news, a poignant scene showing two men struggling with how exactly to handle the situation. Second, after the Torrin sinks, Blake's mother receives a telegram saying her son is alive. Her genuine relief, her screaming to tell his wife hit me right in the gut in terms of emotional impact. So that's what I'll take away from this movie which does have its dry spots. A moving story that could have been better, but still worthwhile.

In Which We Serve <---full movie (1942): ***/****