The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Friday, September 30, 2011

The League of Gentlemen

One of the many positives I can take away from my Netflix membership is a feature available to me right up there with the DVD queue.  There is an option to 'Save' DVDs, those that are not available currently, the disc has been lost, or Netflix hasn't acquired said DVD yet.  Spending far too many hours cruising through available movies, I've stumbled across my fair share of hidden gems (or so I hope), just waiting for them to become available.  The most recent to make the jump from Saved to Queue was 1960's The League of Gentlemen.

As a sucker for heist films, I fell hook, line and sinker for this British heist flick. Add in the element of a team of specialists working together to pull off an impossible job, and I was officially done for. 'League' was released this summer through the Criterion Collection as part of the Basil Dearden's London Underground Collection, featuring three other movies. The cover art grabbed my attention right away, and once I read who starred in the movie, I couldn't wait to see this one. One of the earlier heist films I've seen, it's an obvious influence on countless movies since, all the while maintaining its own unique British style.

After 25 years serving in the military, Colonel Norman Hyde (Jack Hawkins) is being forcibly retired.  He's devoted his life to the army, and being separated from his wife has little to occupy his time. With nothing but time to spare, he goes about preparing a heist, a bank robbery, an intricate job that will need to be planned down to the tiniest detail.  To help him pull off the robbery, Hyde assembles a group of seven fellow ex-soldiers, including right hand man and wheeler dealer Race (Nigel Patrick). As they plan for the robbery, Hyde insists his crew live by military standards and rules, instilling a mindset in them of efficiency and effectiveness.  With a huge payday almost in their laps, he reasons that nothing can stop an organized, brutally efficient group of highly trained soldiers. But with a job like this, there's always something you can't plan for.  

There is something that's hard to explain about the appeal of a movie like this. It is easy to see its influence on future heist movies from the characters to the set-up to the actual heist to the aftermath. Dearden is calm behind the camera, and it rubs off on the movie. It runs 116 minutes and is a patient -- some critics say boring -- story that slowly builds tension. It is filmed in black and white, reflecting a general darkness and cynicism in the story. There are some odd moments of attempted humor that fall short, but some lines work because they do come out of left field. When asked if his wife is dead, Hawkins' Hyde replies "No, I regret to say the bitch is still going strong." It's 1960. How great a line is that?  An easy-going confidence is an inherent part of the story, helping out the slower parts because you know it's heading in the right direction.

That general darkness and cynicism comes across best in the casting and the characters. Would it have been nice to get some more personal development, some background on these men? Yes, but the importance is the team aspect, all of them working together, not individually.  Hawkins and Patrick just work smoothly together, their scenes together flowing with an equal give and take. The catch with Hawkins' team is that they're all ex-soldiers cashiered out of the army for one thing or another. The group includes Richard Attenborough as Levy, the radio expert, Roger Livesey as Mycroft, a con man who works as a priest, Bryan Forbes as Porthill, a possible executioner of prisoners, Kieron Moore as Stevens, a Fascist, Terence Alexander as Rupert, a money launderer, and Norman Bird as Weaver, the former alcoholic and demolitions expert. With the exception of Hawkins, none of the characters are particularly likable, but I still found myself hoping they pull off the job. Go figure.

Like so many quality heist movies before and since, 'League' succeeds because other than a few vague details we don't know how the actual robbery is going to be pulled off.  Relative to some more modern heist flicks, this one is pretty simple, although it does depend on split second timing, and a lot of things going right.  The sequence is Rififi-esque, around 15 minutes in length where little is said, just the action and build-up and musical score moving things along.  You're waiting for something to go wrong, anything at all, especially after almost 90 minutes of that slow-burning adrenaline.

Where the movie fails somewhat is the end. It is still 1960, and the whole 'crime doesn't pay' angle is one that movies often played up. It's not how something will get messed up, but when it will get messed up. If you can call it one, the twist is somewhat disappointing, partially because it was hinted at earlier, and also because it wastes a ton of potential. It could have been a classic ending, one that would have been true to the movie's dark roots.  As is now, it is still far from a happy ending, but the movie ends on a bit of a whimper if you ask me.  That said, I still very much enjoyed the movie. Little known but worth seeking out.

Also, keep your eye out for Patrick Wymark as a sugar daddy, Nigel Green as angry man on a date, David Lodge in a quick but funny supporting part, and Oliver Reed as a gay actor. Three odd, but funny parts considering the caliber of actor and the stars they would become. 

The League of Gentlemen <---trailer (1960): ***/****

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Mission: Impossible II

Not to rehash the same intros repeatedly, but one of the best and worst things that can happen to a movie is to be immensely popular.  Naturally if a movie is highly successfully, it is safe to assume there will be a sequel if the story called for it. A smart, intelligent and always entertaining spy thriller, 1996's Mission: Impossible was a huge hit worldwide. Based loosely off a 1960s TV show, the hit turned into a series, including the first sequel, 2000's Mission: Impossible II.

Why so much hate for this sequel? From the first time I saw it, I loved it and still do. It is one of the best action movies I've ever seen.  Apparently not everyone felt that way. This sequel is basically everything the original was not. It takes the series/franchise in a completely different direction.  Where the first one depended on a twisting and turning plot with deception and betrayals, the sequel is first and foremost an action movie. Story, character and plot are basically all left by the wayside. It is a polarizing movie, one fans either love or hate. Action fans should definitely check it out though.

IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has handled his fair share of crazy, even insane missions before, but he's now faced with one that has millions of lives at stake. A pharmaceutical company has accidentally created a virus -- dubbed 'Chimera' -- that potentially could wipe out the population of whole countries. The virus has been stolen by a rogue IMF agent, Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), who intends to sell the virus and its antidote to the highest bidder. The only hope Hunt has is to get someone to work from the inside, who he finds in the form of Nyah (Thandie Newton), a professional thief and former girlfriend of Ambrose. Working with a small team (including Ving Rhames' hacker Luther Stickell), Ethan heads to Sydney to stop Ambrose, but the clock is ticking.

Through the ups and downs of the last five or six years, Tom Cruise just hasn't been in the public eye as much, especially in actual movies.  Reprising his Ethan Hunt role, Cruise is at his best. The character is somewhat odd over the course of the three M:I movies in how much he changes, but he's always interesting.  For starters, Cruise does most of his own stunts. His introduction rock climbing is insane. Watch it HERE, and that's him doing all that climbing hundreds of feet up with no safety net. It sounds so simple, but an actor doing his own stunts -- some truly impressive ones at that -- gives the movie a feeling of reality, of legitimacy as we watch. Say what you want about Cruise and his personal life or off-screen stuff, but he is a legit MOVIE STAR, and there are too few of those out there.

An action legend in Hong Kong, director John Woo has only made a handful of ventures into American films with some hit or miss efforts. While many directors can be classified as 'workmanlike,' just getting through the movie, Woo has a style all to himself, and that's a good word to describe Interested in story and plot twists and character development? John Woo might not be the director for you. He is a master of creating an intricate, over the top action scene that is just pure fun to watch. All his trademarks are here; the slow motion shootouts, the hero blasting away with two pistols, the ever-present doves (and less classy pigeons) floating through his scenes. The plot may suffer at times -- apparently Woo's final cut was three and a half hours long -- but one thing you never have to worry about is the action.

The Chimera virus, the history between Ethan and Ambrose and Nyah and Ambrose, all that is just a reason to get to the action. The last 40 minutes of the movie are a sight to behold for action fans. Does any of it make sense? No, not really. Did a nameless henchman on a motorcycle need to attack Ethan? No, but how else do we get our hero in a motorcycle chase? This extended sequence has it all. We're talking martial arts and hand to hand combat, shootouts in slow motion with hundreds and thousands of rounds being fired, and that motorcycle chase that is just hard to beat. The showdown between Cruise and Scott is epically and appropriately ridiculous, including a motorcycle jousting scene. Yes, you read that right. Woo knows action, plain and simple. There is something visceral and animalistic about seeing gunfights, explosions and chases, and Woo plays to that notion time and time again, upping the ante repeatedly.

So while I could just describe how cool each and every action scene is -- appealing to the 13-year old boy in my head -- I'll hold off. The action is crazy. Tom Cruise is cool, Scott a great villain, Newton gorgeous as the eye candy, and Rhames provides some comic relief and one-liners as Luther. Richard Roxburgh plays Stamp, Ambrose's menacing right hand man, John Polson plays Billy, the crazy Aussie member of Ethan's team and Brendan Gleeson is the pharmaceutical CEO with $ for eyes. Even Anthony Hopkins makes a quick appearance as Ethan's supervisor/handler. The soundtrack features songs from Limp Bizkit, listen HERE, and Metallica, listen HERE, along with a score from Hans Zimmer reminiscent of his Gladiator score. Sydney looks beautiful, and did I mention the action?

Also excited to report that a fourth M:I movie, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, is due in theaters this December. Not gonna lie, I'm more than a little psyched for it.  For now, stick with the first three movies, all good in their own right.

Mission: Impossible II <---trailer (2000): ***/****

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

I Walk Alone

When I think of Kirk Douglas, the first movie that comes to mind is Spartacus, a historical epic where he plays the leader of a slave revolution against the Roman Empire. It is a strong hero's role, the underdog fighting an empire. To a lesser extent, I think of parts like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Seven Days in May, again Douglas in a heroic good guy role. Like so many actors though, Douglas had to put his time in, including 1948's I Walk Alone.

It was a trend early in his career, Douglas playing the villain, and not those likable rogues he would play later when he was an established star. We're talking out-and-out bad guys, backstabbing and betrayal around every corner. But relative unknown or established star, Douglas pulls it off.  Even when he was the hero, he always had that edge to him under the surface...a good guy who was capable of bad when the time came.  'Walk' is nothing special in itself, a pretty average film noir overall, but the performances from Douglas and his two co-stars make it worthwhile.

After serving a 14-year sentence in prison, Frankie Madison (Burt Lancaster) has finally received his parole. His release has been a long time coming, especially because of his deteriorating relationship with his old friend and partner, Noll 'Dink' Turner (Douglas). During his time in jail, Frankie was not visited by Dink even once, only receiving a monthly carton of cigarettes. Now an established club owner, Turner is suspicious of his old pal's motives, and rightfully so. Before Frankie was sent away, the two men made an agreement, one Frankie has been counting on to start over with his life. It is an agreement that Turner has no intention of living up to.  With money and fame on the line, what will happen when the two meet?

I should point something out before I dive too far into the review, something that will no doubt make me look not so good, but what are you going to do? When I recorded this off TCM recently, I accidentally hit 'Mute' on the remote. Our new digital recording literally tapes what's going on at that moment. In other words, it doesn't tape something and you can turn it up or put closed captioning on. It is as is. Sssssssso in other words, I had to watch this movie via closed captioning on mute. Yeah, I'm pretty much a genius. Just a word of warning.

The last half of the 1940s was a stomping ground for up and coming actors to make a name for themselves. Think of actors like Robert Mitchum, Lancaster and Douglas.  The latter two would both shoot to stardom in the years following, and obviously hit it off, working together in movies like Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Seven Days in May, and The Devil's Disciple. It's fitting that they worked so well together. Both Lancaster and Douglas were two of the most versatile actors to ever grace the screen. Intense drama, high-flying action, physical and/or smart comedy, they could do it all.  They were intensely likable as actors -- for me at least -- and seeing them play off each other is always enjoyable.

As old friends turned rivals, the duo is the biggest reason I can recommend this movie.  Playing heavy dramatic roles, these two are intense, like caged animals just waiting to attack each other. They play mind games back and forth, seeing who will blink first. A short flashback shows their history that set up the current dilemma, a promise made in a pressure situation coming back to bite them both in the butt. Lancaster is driven to do right and gets what he's owed while Douglas is the slippery baddie looking out for No. 1 and that's all.  Lizabeth Scott (<---I don't know where the 'E' went) plays Kay, a singer working in Turner's club who at first takes pity on Frankie only to genuinely fall for him while Kristine Miller plays Mrs. Richardson, a well-to-do widow and possible sugar momma to Turner. Wendell Corey has a good supporting part as Dave, Turner's beaten down, mousey accountant.

The movie itself is pretty blah overall.  The story takes place over a 24-hour time period, and a whole lot sure gets accomplished in such a quick time span.  As good as the acting and the performances are, the story lacks any real energy. The mind games back and forth are interesting, but it's extremely obvious where everything is heading; Frankie vs. Noll, man to man.  It's never boring, but it never amounts to a particularly memorable movie. Check it out for the acting, and remember to keep the volume up.

I Walk Alone <---TCM trailer (1948): ** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Planet of the Apes (2001)

So within the last few weeks I reviewed Rise of the Planet of the Apes, this summer's movie that is attempting to reboot the Planet of the Apes series/franchise.  As I reviewed, it was a surprisingly good effort, taking a concept that didn't need to be remade and finding something new and interesting about it.  What the 2011 film confirms is how truly bad 2001's Planet of the Apes was, a straight remake of the original 1968 classic.

My curiosity got the best of me on this one. The original five 'Apes' movies are some of my favorites, and the newest entry was highly enjoyable. I've avoided director Tim Burton's addition to the series for years for a couple reasons. The biggest reason? I thought it looked like a pile of awfulness. More than that though, it looked like a dumbed-down, mindless remake that didn't need to be remade. I was in the right frame of mind though to watch it, hoping my enjoyment from 'Rise' might boost the 2001 version. Long story short? It didn't. The 2001 version is everything I was afraid it would be and more...or less I guess depending on how you look at it.

An astronaut/scientist on a U.S. space station in 2029, Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) is working with a large staff, exploring all space has to offer, including studies with chimps. As the station moves through space, an electromagnetic storm is discovered in front of them, Leo following one of his test chimps into the storm which turns out to be a wormhole. His pod crash lands on a strange planet full of jungle and deserts. Just minutes after crash landing though, he makes a bizarre discovery. The planet is ruled by a war-like tribe of apes, and the humans are slaves. Leo is caught almost immediately so what can he do? An ape general, Thade (Tim Roth), is suspicious of this more intelligent human, leaving Leo to come up with a plan. Can he get free and then get off this planet? 

This next part is going to sound stupid, but I can't come up with a smart, semi-intelligent way to say it. You're watching a movie called 'Planet of the Apes,' right? It's clear at some point a human main character will discover he's on a planet ruled by intelligent apes, right? With the 1968 original, there's a sense of mystery, and when the apes are revealed in the human-hunting scene, there is a genuine shock and surprise...even knowing it's coming. That is a fundamental problem of Burton's 2001 remake. Wahlberg's Leo crash lands, runs, sees intelligent apes and never seems to question what's going on. He just goes along with it. To a point, Burton and the script seem to take that element for granted, assuming the audience just isn't going to be shocked/surprised and throwing that chance aside.

As I brought up in the 'Rise' review, there was a cheese-ball charm to the original, humans dressed up as apes. 'Rise' went the other route with computer-generated apes (<---that sounds cool). 2001's 'Planet' is somewhere in between, but the effort falls short. The apes, gorillas and chimps are both too human and too simian-based. At times, they are like skittish cats, and other times are far too much like humans. Also, monkeys apparently can leap hundreds of feet into the air from a stand-still. Who knew? Roth's Thade is too over the top as a villain, finding a way to be both unintentionally funny and not intimidating at the same time. Helena Bonham Carter is Ari, a sympathetic monkey, Michael Clarke Duncan is the angry army ape, Paul Giamatti is a finnicky slave-trading monkey, David Warner is a monkey senator, and even Charlton Heston himself -- star of the original Apes movie -- makes a quick appearance.

Now as much as I like Mark Wahlberg, I think he is not the right choice here to play the lead, U.S. astronaut Leo Davidson.  Some of it is his fault as he doesn't bring a whole lot of charisma to the part, brooding and growling through his situation. He also never seems to question anything. If it's me, and I crash land on a planet ruled by apes....I don't know...maybe I ask some questions. In the matter of hours, Leo becomes this heroic human who all the slaves are drawn to, and I'm thinking....really? That's all it took? Punch an ape and lead a poorly planned escape? The script gives him absolutely nothing to do though so it's not entirely on Wahlberg. Also wasted in human parts is Kris Kristofferson as Karubi, a chief of a fleeing tribe, and supermodel Estella Warren as Daena, a young, babely human girl. I imagine at some point the script called for a random hot girl who had to do nothing except look good. She nails the part in that sense.

There is something missing in this movie that I can't put my finger on.  The look of the movie isn't quite right, appearing like it was shot on a poorly-built studio set. The ape village/town certainly looks pretty clean as does the whole movie. Jungle, village, expansive desert, it feels faked.  The whole movie is boring though on top of that. There is a certain B-movie campiness to it, but basically nothing happens, Leo becomes a hero, leads a revolution, and then there is a brief ape vs. human fight. The original explored in some depth the idea of what was happening, animal mistreatment, fate and destiny, bigger issues. Not so much here. Dumbed-down was pretty spot on, the final product a mindless two hours that doesn't even touch its predecessors.

And how about that ending? The 1968 original was a gem, one that still is remembered for its shock value. How about this one? Shock value, yes, but it makes absolutely no FREAKING sense. Burton has said in interviews he left it up to the audience to make up their mind, and that a possible sequel would have explained things clearly. That's a weak excuse on the part of a director. It certainly goes for a surprise, and it is that...surprising. But nothing is explained, and no logical, reasonable explanation comes to mind. You've got to watch it yourself though, and revel in the badness.

Planet of the Apes <---trailer (2001): */****

Monday, September 26, 2011

Wild Rovers

With Sam Peckinpah's 1969 western The Wild Bunch, the conversation pretty much begins and ends about the best changing of the times westerns, the closing of an era. Star William Holden gives a career-best performance in this blood-splattered western, the leader of a gang of aging outlaws looking for one last score in Mexico. Holden had a long list of great performances, but one that has flown under the radar all these years is a similar changing times story in the wild west, 1971's Wild Rovers.

By the late 1800s and into the first 10 or 20 years of the 1900s, the idea of the wild west was one fading away into the background. Movie westerns have explored this era in countless ways, most revolving around the idea of a man (or men) refusing to change with the times, handcuffed to the way they know how to do things. The Wild Bunch handles it in a brutal, forthright fashion, a cynical view of outlaws going out in a blaze of glory rather than change. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid has its darker moments, but for the most part is more comedic with more humor thanks to its buddy pairing of Newman and Redford. Then there's Wild Rovers, falling somewhere in between, moments of startling violence balanced out with endearing emotional flashes. It finds a good balance in between in an underrated western.

It's almost round-up time for the R-Bar cattle ranch in Wyoming with owner Walt Buckman (Karl Malden) readying his crew of cowboys for the coming rush of work. Among them is Ross Bodine (Holden), a veteran cowboy approaching the age of 50 who's spent 30-plus years in the saddle, and Frank Post (Ryan O'Neal), a young cowboy full of piss and vinegar looking to have a good time. Frustrated with their lot in life -- working long hours with little reward -- the two cowboys come up with an idea; rob a bank and with their take head to Mexico where they can start their own ranch. The bank robbery in the dead of night goes smoothly, but Buckman sends his sons, Paul (Joe Don Baker), his father's favorite and an easy-going sort in general, and John (Tom Skerritt), the youngster desperately seeking his father's approval. Ross and Post were good cowboys, but can they be good outlaws too?

As a western fan, there is something simple and profound in westerns similar to this. A changing time, and a lifestyle gone, men refusing to change who are set in their ways. To direct a western like this, I wouldn't have thought Blake Edwards to be the right choice, but I was wrong. Known for his comedies, especially the Pink Panther movies, Edwards takes his time with this 139-minute long movie. The story drifts along in an episodic nature, introducing the characters and the situation at its leisure. Even post-robbery, the story isn't in any rush. It is a harsher west than many westerns portray, building up tension in certain scenes that can be unbearable to watch. It just works. My only real fault is that the movie has an overture, intermission and entr'acte, and finale music. It seems out of place, like something a different-toned Edwards comedy would have used. Just a minor point, nothing worth worrying about. I just fast forwarded through these segments.

Playing Pike Bishop in Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, Holden delivered a career best performance, and in my mind, there isn't a close second. This might be that second-best role, a character that is obviously more light-hearted than Bishop, but not too dissimilar. His Ross Bodine is a cowboy about to turn 50 years old who has spent much of his life working himself to the bone herding cows without much to show for it. Robbing a bank seems like an easy out so he takes the chance when presented. Just 53 years old, Holden looks much older. He is a sympathetic, tragic main character if there ever was one, and Holden brings that to life.

Two monologues -- one at the beginning, another at the end -- let him show his range, one about fate and dying, the other about an unlikely friendship that's developed with O'Neal's Post. I thought the best scene though was a quiet moment, Bodine lying in bed next to a prostitute, staring off into the distance. His eyes say a lot, a man who realizes he's made the wrong choice and now has to deal with the consequences. From that moment, you know where this character is headed if you weren't already sure.

Now as perfectly cast as Holden is as the world-weary Bodine, I think there's a bit of miscasting with O'Neal as his young counterpart, Frank Post. Regardless of the role, I've never thought too highly of O'Neal as an actor. The character is interesting here, but I don't think it is due to his acting. He's naive at times but with a devilish streak at others. He's saved by the fact that he's working with a pro like Holden. In the older mentor, younger student dynamic, the relationship works. They play off each other well, their dialogue crackling back and forth as a genuine friendship grows out of this dash for safety in Mexico. It's not a bad performance for O'Neal, but it could have been better.

The other parts while important aren't as key. Malden is the archetypal western cattle baron, ruling with a strong hand and iron will. Baker and Skerritt are nicely cast alongside each other, polar opposites in terms of personality. Baker's John is frustrated with the hunt that drags on into weeks and months while Skerritt's Paul intends to follow his father's request no matter what it takes.

 Dealing with a story that is about a closing chapter in American history, you've got to assume the ending will not be a happy one. The last 45 minutes is where this movie becomes special as Bodine and Post stop at a desert town and rest up before pushing on to Mexico. The ending packs a wallop, leaving that feeling of being punched in the stomach. It's moving for all the people involved, a tragic end to almost all the characters. I don't want to say more without taking away from the emotional impact, but it makes some of the slower parts worth sitting through. This is an underrated western that deserves far more respect than it gets. Beautifully shot all over the west in Monument Valley, Utah and Arizona and aided by a Jerry Goldsmith score that's best in its quieter moments, Wild Rovers is a hidden gem well worth catching up with.

Wild Rovers <---TCM trailer/clips (1971): ***/****

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Zombies of Mora Tau

So zombies are cool, right? Bad guys who are mindless killing machines. It's tough to beat that. Director George A. Romero has made a career of zombie movies to the point where he's able to remake his own zombie movies. There is a whole sub-genre of flicks completely devoted to the walking undead, but the Romero entries are the examples of good ones.  There are plenty of truly bad ones, like 1957's Zombies of Mora Tau.

A recent entry into Turner Classic Movie's Friday night 'TCM Underground,' Zombies has somehow earned a 4.7 rating out of 10 at the IMDB, more than a little surprising to me. I'm figuring most if not all of this has to be for camp value, horror and zombie fans watching it because it is so bad. That's what I was hoping for, an epically bad zombie movie -- and it is -- but instead it is boring and plodding. It's not bad enough to be 'so bad it's good.' Probably still watch it though for some of the not so scariest villains I've ever seen.

Visiting her grandma (Marjorie Eaton) at her coastal home somewhere in Africa, young and single Jan (Autumn Russell) refuses to believe the claims of voodoo associated with the area, stories of the undead walking the Earth. Just off-shore, a salvage boat has arrived with plans to "rescue" a safe full of diamonds sunk at the bottom of the bay, captained by a greedy businessman, Harrison (Joel Ashley), and the man doing the diving, Jeff (Gregg Palmer). They've heard all the stories too, but plod on with visions of millions of dollars worth of diamonds too much to resist.  The stories are true though, the original crew of the sunken ship turned to zombies almost a 100 years earlier. All that time they've protected their cargo, and they're not about to stop now.

This movie was bad...real bad so let's clear that up right away. It's too serious for its own good though in its ridiculousness.  As a zombie loser, I can also say its "zombie know-how" is pretty weak. Everyone knows if you shoot a zombie in the head, you kill it. Apparently that doesn't apply to 100-year old zombies in Africa who are scared of fire and fire alone. Because of this knowledge, we see the cast wave torches at the slow-moving zombies or randomly shoot flares at their feet, the undead staggering backwards momentarily before continuing their lurching movements forward. "Analyzing" a movie entitled 'Zombies of Mora Tau' sounds beyond stupid so I'm not going to as much as possible. Let's just make fun of it.

There are countless sources in that department. It's really too easy, but here goes anyways. The intro, the babely if slow Jan arriving to see her grandmother. Her chauffeur drives into a zombie on the road without as much as a second thought, but Jan only freaks out once she's out of the car some minutes later. Did it finally register what just happened? Of course, there's also the possibility we can just chalk that up to the bad acting department.  That seems to be the case in a lot of scenes.  A line is delivered and then we get a long P...A...U...S...E while waiting for someone to walk into the room.  Just tip-top directing (thank you directing powerhouse Edward L. Cahn) there in an all-around effort.

My personal favorite in the whole movie was Ashley's Harrison and his reaction after one of his men is killed by a swimming zombie. He shoots twice from the boat, hitting the zombie. Palmer's Jeff replies incredulously 'Did you miss both shots?!?' Harrison's answer?  "I'm not that drunk." That's what the movie needed more of.  Unfortunately it is too serious for it's own good.  The mausoleum where the zombies rest looks like a big, barren warehouse, lying down in their open "caskets" (cardboard boxes). The zombies walk slowly, making a rational person think you could outrun or probably outwalk them, but not these intrepid diamond thieves. They're going to stand their ground and fight it out. There's also that whole thing about the quasi-underwater scenes which look like a camera lens was blurred to give the appearance of being underwater. It almost works as being effective....almost....okay, not really.

As a whole, there's one thing no one in the movie seems aware of. Eaton's crazy old Grandma Peters repeatedly tells anyone who will listen that these walking undead, these zombies are dangerous. No one cares, much less pays attention to her. Most of the movie's 70 minute run-time they spend questioning what's going on, even with the answer staring them dead in the face, even when Harris' wife (Barbie doll Allison Hayes) goes zombie. Eh, she'll be okay with some rest, right? Yeah, good luck with that. Maybe not the dumbest or worst movie I've ever seen, but close. Some camp value saves it from being a complete waste of time, but only barely.

Zombies of Mora Tau <---trailer (1957): */****

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Flame and the Arrow

For years, I knew who Nick Cravat was without really knowing what his name was.  Growing up, I watched Disney's Davy Crockett basically on a repeating loop, especially the finale as Davy fights at the Alamo.  One of the volunteers he brings with him? A Comanche warrior with a streak of bad luck dubbed Busted Luck, played by none other than Cravat. The character in terms of historical accuracy is hogwash, but the Indian communicating via signs was always such a cool character to me.

Since watching 'Davy Crockett' so many times -- still love it by the way -- I started to see Cravat pop up in movies here and there, usually in supporting parts where the diminutive actor still found a way to make himself seen.  Nowhere was that more evident than his roles next to Burt Lancaster in 1952's The Crimson Pirate and 1950's The Flame and the Arrow. They're both similar movies, high adventures with plenty of action and acrobatics, Lancaster and Cravat playing the hero and his loyal sidekick. Similar in a lot of ways to recently reviewed His Majesty O'Keefe, but more entertaining from start to finish.

In the 12th Century in Lombardy in Italy, a peasant hunter named Dardo (Lancaster) has free reign of the woods, living with his young son, Rudy (Gordon Gebert), after the boy's mother left them some years earlier. When Dardo goes against the German ruler in the area, Count 'the Hawk' Ulrich (Frank Allenby), he's forced to take action, retreating to the woods with a band of friends and outlaws. Biding his time, Dardo goes about planning how to get his son back, now living with his estranged mother (Lynn Baggett) who now is married to Ulrich. As he plans though, the outlaw with the growing notoriety meets Anne de Hesse (Virginia Mayo), Ulrich's niece. His plans become a part of something bigger though as the Italian villagers join in the revolt against their German rulers.

So that's kind of convoluted, isn't it?  Much more than I intended it to be, and the movie isn't actually that confusing.  If the story sounds a little familiar, it should. It's called Robin Hood but this Jacques Tourneur-directed action flick jumps from England to Italy with some names changed here and there. The good guys are really good, just fun-loving outlaws rebelling against the oppressive rulers while the bad guys are really bad, enjoying keeping the peasants under their thumbs.  There is plenty of action, some humor thrown in, and a long list of very cool stunt sequences courtesy of Lancaster and Cravat.

I learned from Wikipedia -- what doesn't that site offer? -- that the duo met at the age of nine and worked together for years to come in stage shows and circus performances, even forming an acrobatic team. They would then work together in 'Flame' and 'Crimson' where they got to show off their unique talents in a variety of action scenes. What's cool is that it is almost always them doing these stunts. There's no quick cut so a stunt man can jump in. Lancaster and Cravat are the ones doing it, gymnastics, acrobatics and tumbling that looks incredibly dangerous.  They were freakishly good at what they did though. There is a flow to their stunts that could only come from years of working together and hours upon hours of practice. No computer-generated stunt men either, just two actors (yeah, actual actors, cool factor increased) handling their business.

The same way His Majesty O'Keefe wasn't as good as it could have been, 'Flame' is about as good as it could be for this type of movie. It is a light-hearted popcorn movie that intends to entertain, never really slowing down with its mix of action and romance.  Lancaster is Lancaster at his largest, a BIG movie star who borders on the cartoonishly over the top. Is there any question he's going to rescue his son and get the girl (Virginia Mayo) in the end?  If you have to think about either question, you're thinking too hard. Allenby is a solid villain, as is Robert Douglas as the treacherous Marches Alessandro, a member of Dardo's band willing to go with whoever pays him the most.

Of Dardo's band -- mostly dudes dressed up to look like the Merry Men -- it is Cravat who stands out from the rest with the showiest part.  He is a mute who communicates through sign language, never traveling far from Dardo's side (as is his role as a sidekick). They're always getting in and out of trouble, never in any real danger. It's a tribute to Cravat for bringing this character to life and having some fun with him. Some of Dardo's other Merry Men include Norman Lloyd as Apollo, Marches' troubador, spouting song and rhyme whenever possible, Francis Pierlot as Papa Pietro, the village elder, and Robin Hughes as Skinner, the outlaw with talents galore with hands or feet. Other than Cravat, none of these are major parts, but they're all fun in their limited appearances.

A movie that was a lot of fun to watch, mostly because of Lancaster, Cravat, and their crazy stunts together. Definitely worth checking out.

The Flame and the Arrow <---TCM trailer (1950): ***/**** 

Friday, September 23, 2011

His Majesty O'Keefe

Through the early part of his career, Burt Lancaster was a movie star more than an actor in many of his roles. That of course is a big blanket statement because with roles like The Killers, Brute Force, and I Walk Alone, he clearly showed he can act. I've got to write about something though so give me a break, okay? By the early 1950s, Lancaster went through a bit of typecasting where he was required to play similar roles in big movies where he got to let his big personality shine.

The most well-known of these movies -- and for good reason, it's a lot of fun -- is The Crimson Pirate.  Before Lancaster started acting in movies, he actually worked in a circus as a trapeze artist.  So for much of his career, he impressed audiences with an ability to handle most, if not all, of his own stunts.  His parts were big in these pirate/rogue/adventurer movies where he got to flash that giant smile, run and jump through the action, and be eternally smooth with the ladies who stood no chance against him. While not as well known as The Crimson Pirate, 1954's His Majesty O'Keefe certainly qualifies as one of those flicks.

A sea captain in the South Pacific in the 1870s, David O'Keefe (Lancaster) is left to drift in a small rowboat on the open seas after his crew mutinies. He washes ashore on an island ripe with coconuts, worth their weight in gold because they can be harvested into copra. O'Keefe has a problem though, the island natives only allow a certain amount to be harvested and shipped out while tons of the coconuts hang in the trees. The company agent on-island, Alfred Tetins (Andre Morell), tries to tell O'Keefe there's nothing he can do to convince the natives to allow more to be exported, but this highly-motivated (and possibly greedy) captain has other plans. No matter what it takes, he's going to make his millions.  More than the troublesome natives though, rival companies are trying to move in on the lucrative island.

This is an escapist movie if there ever was one. Made in 1954 as movie studios were still coping with how to handle the new television market, 'O'Keefe' and director Byron Haskin aren't trying to make some ground-breaking new movie that blows an audience away with a crazy new story. Part of the appeal of this South Pacific adventure comes from the Technicolor filming, making the Fiji locations look...well, like the beauty of a tropical island in Fiji. Sequences show the lifestyles, cultures and day-to-day goings on in these islands for the natives. These scenes go both ways. They're cool to see, but also have a knack for grinding the story down to a snail's pace. Just wanted to get this all out there. The movie is meant to entertain, and to a point it does, but there's potential for more and better.

What I'm going for with that statement is that the story -- while escapist, popcorn fun -- is pretty dark all things considered. Lancaster's O'Keefe is our hero and narrator, and because it is Burt Lancaster we like him. But let's face it. He's facing off against these rival, "evil" trading and shipping companies looking to exploit these natives for all their worth.  Take 'em down, Burt! Oh wait, you're doing the exact same thing. So yeah, it's Burt Lancaster, but he's exploiting them too. My idea (with all my feature film directing experience) would be to make a significantly darker story that embraces that idea; two opposing sides, neither particularly likable, battling for control of this island with no regard for what happens to the natives. To a point, that's where the story does go in the second half, but it never goes all the way there.  The story is fine enough as is, it just could have been much, much better (read: darker and more effective).

But as is the case with so many of my movie ideas, that's not what happened. This is the movie at hand so let's talk about it. Regardless of the story or its tone, Burt Lancaster is still one of the coolest and most talented actors to ever grace the movie.  His narration as Captain O'Keefe isn't the best thing going, needlessly restating things that didn't need to be restated at times.  The character though is interesting no matter how much limitations the story places on him. Lancaster -- especially early in his career -- played some pretty bad dudes, and that's what frustrated me here. As good as he is playing the roguish adventurer, it could have been so much more effective if O'Keefe was given more of a mean streak, like he did alongside Gary Cooper in Vera Cruz, released the same year. He's still having a lot of fun, bouncing across the screen with that instantly recognizable smile and strut so it's not all bad, just not what it could have been.

The rest of the movie is pretty typical of the early 1950s movies that were more interested in showing a cool-looking story rather than telling that story. Morell is good as Alfred, a veteran agent who's grown frustrated working with the island natives but who instantly gets along with O'Keefe. As the love interest, it's a good thing Joan Rice is cute because she is not a strong actress, struggling to pull off some odd quasi-island accent. Some of the natives -- hit or miss in their portrayals -- include parts for Abraham Sofaer as the medicine man and Archie Savage as the warrior chief. Philip Ahn and Benson Fong do their best to rise above their stereotypical Asian roles. So while I liked the movie, I felt disappointed in the end. It could have been better.

His Majesty O'Keefe <---TCM trailer (1954): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, September 22, 2011


There are two types of spy movies in this world, my friend. Sorry for the random The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly reference. Anyways....there is the James Bond formula; super agent who always cheats death, always gets the girl, and always wins in the end, thwarting some evil genius from taking over the world. Then there's the more realistic look at the life of a spy (okay, "realistic" in a movie sense). Betrayals, back-stabbings, back alley deals, and most likely a bullet in your head at the end of the movie. Both formulas are good, and in general it's hard to mess up a spy movie.

One that definitely leans more to the realistic side is 1973's Scorpio. Seeing this movie at the video store (yeah, I know, VHS tapes, crazy) for years growing up, I remember always confusing it with Serpico starring Al Pacino.  Who knew I had some form of dyslexia, reading what I wanted to?  Aired recently as part of Burt Lancaster Day on Turner Classic Movie's Summer Under the Stars tribute, I finally got a chance to watch this movie, separating it from the Al Pacino-NYC cop movie.  It is based in some sense of spy reality where everything doesn't always turn out perfectly. The cast is good, and the story interesting for the most part, but even then I never found myself drawn into the movie as a whole.

After pulling off a successful assassination in the Middle East, CIA operative Cross (Burt Lancaster) returns to the U.S. with the hired killer, Jean Laurier (Alain Delon), who helped him pull off the job. Years of service under his belt and top secret knowledge to boot, Cross intends to leave the CIA, but he won't get out so easy. A CIA supervisor, McLeod (John Colicos), has ordered Cross shot on sight to shut him up. Cross goes on the run, heading for Europe as he's forced to leave his wife, Sarah (Joanne Linville), behind.  He finds a surprising person trailing him. Wanting nothing more than to become a CIA agent, Laurier is blackmailed by McLeod into hunting down his mentor.  He knows him best, how he does things and is promised his position if he can take him out. In a cat and mouse game, who will come out on top?

When I saw this movie on TCM's schedule, I was psyched to finally get to see this spy flick. The cast sounded pitch perfect, the story a familiar if still interesting take on the spy genre.  Then I watched it, and something was just missing that I can't put my finger on.  The locations are good without being distracting. As he runs, Lancaster's Cross ends up in Washington, NYC, Vienna and all over Europe for quick pit stops. The story keeps you guessing, especially the biggie; why is Cross on a hit list? There is an incredibly well-made chase sequence that allows Lancaster -- still a great physical presence here at 60 years old -- and Delon to do much of their own stuntwork as they race through a high-rise construction site in Vienna.  I don't know what went wrong though. While I liked the movie, I wanted to love it. Lack of energy, too sure of itself, something. A piece is missing, and I don't know how to explain it.

The experienced veteran and the rising star newbie, a tried and true plot device that has worked countless times before and will most likely work many more times.  Director Michael Winner even used this device a year earlier in the original and underrated The Mechanic. The worry is that because the formula/device is familiar it won't be interesting, but having actors like Lancaster and Delon play the parts has a way of making anything worth watching. Lancaster is one of the coolest actors to ever grace the screen, an effortless cool that you just can't teach. The same for Delon, an actor who underplayed most of his roles. It's great to see him lash out some here. The duo is perfect in their few scenes together, men with genuine appreciation and respect for the other, both knowing one of them will almost certainly die before all is said and done.

Beyond just being cool though, the acting from the whole cast is impressive.  Lancaster makes Cross a more than capable CIA operative, one with the ability to handle himself in every situation. More than that though, he's worn down by years in the espionage business, and he wants out. Delon is the youngster who wants it all and is willing to do anything to get it. Not enough for you? A co-star from the classic The Train, Paul Scofield is quite the scene-stealer as Zharkov, a Russian agent who is both a friend and enemy to Cross. His scenes with Lancaster crackle with energy, something I found would have made it into the rest of the movie. Colicos is good as McLeod, a mystery man because we just don't know his motives. Also worth mentioning were J.D. Cannon as Filchock, a CIA agent trying to piece it all together, Gayle Hunnicutt as Susan, Laurier's serious girlfriend, Mel Stewart as Pick, a connected man working with Cross, and Shmuel Rodensky as Lang, a man Cross saved from certain death in WWII. 

In a business associated with betrayals, backstabbing and all sorts of crazy shenanigans, it stands to reason we're going to get some twists and turns in a spy movie, right? You would be right. That is where Scorpio works at its highest level. Beyond the strong performances throughout the cast, the last 20 minutes are great as one solid, rational twist is revealed one after another. We get the answers we've been waiting for, and the final shot of the movie is a shocker too.  It's been hinted at, but seeing it is quite a capper to a whirlwind finale.  The movie is good -- don't think I'm not recommending it -- but it could have been better. Stick around until the end though. You won't regret it.

Scorpio <---TCM trailer (1973): ** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


One of the biggest stars of the 1970s, Burt Reynolds was the Man, plain and simple. He was the breakout star in 1972's Deliverance, made the fan-favorite Smokey and the Bandit in 1977 and parlayed his success into the even bigger 1980s with all its bad sequels and awful flicks in general. Before he was a known star though, Reynolds worked his way up the ladder in the 1960s with some starring TV roles and a handful of leading roles in films, like 1969's Impasse.

So I've mentioned before there's nothing wrong with a B-movie, right? There really isn't.  Think of a low-budget movie made without any hopes of turning out a classic finished product.  The cast will almost certainly feature some big names, and some other names of actors you might not know but you'll certainly recognize them from other supporting roles. Throw in a mix of humor, action and sex, and there you go. You've got your B-movie.  All those elements are there with Impasse, but I didn't end up enjoying the movie anywhere near what I thought I would.

Heading his salvage business in the Philippines, Pat Morrison (Reynolds) has possibly stumbled onto the biggest find of his career. He has found out the location of a hidden cache of World War II gold on the island of Corregidor where retreating US forces in 1942 hid anything they couldn't ship out. The only problem? Pat has the general location, but four army vets all hold the clues to the exact location. He's spent months assembling the group (Lyle Bettger, Rodolfo Acosta, Clarke Gordon, and Vic Diaz) and now stands poised to get his hands on the gold if he can get just get past a ring of Filipino security on Corregidor which is easier said than done. His plan becomes murkier when Pat meets, Bobby (Anne Francis), the daughter of one of his crew.

My head kept going back to the same thing repeatedly as I watched this movie. It should have been better. It just should have. A B-movie about a heist of long-forgotten WWII gold in the Philippines sounds like the perfect schlock of a story. And Burt Reynolds is starring in it?!? Oh, count me in.  But in turning that story into a feature length movie, director Richard Benedict instead opts to add all these disparate elements that don't work together.  In a movie that isn't particularly long at just 100 minutes, but with all these wide-ranging subplots, I'm guessing maybe 30 minutes is actually spent on the gold heist.

So let's have some fun with all these pointless asides the story takes, shall we?  Let's start with Reynolds and Francis who have little chemistry together.  Francis looks confused in general, seemingly questioning how she ended up in a movie like this.  Then there's Penny (Joanne Dalsass), a young lesbian hippie who stalks Francis's Bobby. She's really nice about it though so don't worry. Bobby is a pro tennis player, and Penny follows her around spouting hippie mumbo-jumbo. Bobby's father (Gordon) is kidnapped so Reynold's Pat has to track him down from evil "journalist" (<---you read that right), Wombat (Jeff Corey). Oh, right, the gold heist. There's gold hidden in artillery shells in a maze of underground bunkers, and each of these vets knows part of the location. The heist ends up feeling like a forgotten piece of the story, and then the movie ends in about as anti-climactic fashion as is possible. Yeah, good times.

A known name if not quite a star yet, Burt Reynolds is a bright spot here.  He certainly shows off the potential he had to play a leading role, especially in an action movie with some comedy here and there. His Pat Morrison is that conniving rogue you can't help but like, doing whatever he can to make some cash. The anti-climactic ending is somewhat funny because of Reynold's reaction, but only to a point. As for the crew, all-around reliable bad guy Bettger is the racist Hansen, Acosta is the stereotypical Apache, Draco, spouting 'Ay Chihuahua' whenever possible, and Diaz is the sniveling black market dealer, Jesus, who does nothing when he finds out Pat is sleeping with his wife, Mariko (Miko Mayama). Corey I suppose qualifies as a straight bad guy, looking to be having some fun as Wombat, a shady fella who is up to no good in whatever he's doing.

While this is by no means a classic, the movie isn't all bad.  In all the departures and asides from the story at hand, the movie is set in the Philippines and thankfully was filmed there instead of a Hollywood backlot.  So the story may drift too much for my liking, but it's nice to look at. The Philippines are beautiful. That's something, right? About midway through the movie, there is a very long chase sequence -- just a foot race basically -- between Reynolds and one of Wombat's henchmen. There's nothing fancy about it, just two guys going absolutely nuts running through the back alleys and dingy Manilla streets. Reynolds also does most if not all of his own stunts the whole movie, adding to his badass quota.

The movie is a stinker, if a moderately entertaining stinker. Just don't expect a classic. Sorry, I couldn't find a trailer or clip of any kind.

Impasse (1969): **/****

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

All the King's Men

Who decides what is or isn't a classic? Attending a Catholic high school and going through four years of Honors and A.P. English classes and doing the same in college, I read my fair share of "classics." Overall, I was typically able to see something in the book -- its style, the characters, the story, the premise -- that made it a classic. Now in no way does that mean I liked the book. In a lot of ways, I absolutely hated the books. I'm looking at you House of Seven Gables, among others. So who is it that decides a book deserves classic status?

Sitting on my bookcase for the last four-plus years was Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, All the King's Men (<--- link to the novel, not the movie). I put it off, stalling after reading a chapter and wanting to kill myself. Every so often I like to torture myself as a reader though so I put my head down and barreled through it. How'd that go? I hated it. Warren's writing style is one that pisses me off, like he's patting himself on the back. "Oh, look what a good writer I am!" with his pages of description and wordiness that go nowhere. We get it. You're smart. Tell your damn story. The story and its characters -- especially the last 100 pages -- saved the book for me. Naturally, I had to check out the movies, starting with 1948's All the King's Men.  

An up and coming newspaper reporter, Jack Burden (John Ireland) is assigned to write a story about a backwoods politician, Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford), running for office. Jack is instantly drawn to the honest, genuine nature of Willie even when he loses several elections. Years down the road, Willie is nominated to run as a governor mostly as a way to split votes, but a weird thing happens. Willie starts to speak honestly to the voters, inspiring confidence from the get-go. The election for governor is a laugher, Stark taking it easily. Now working as an aide to Stark, Jack starts to see him change. The new governor has noble aspirations for what he wants to do while in office, but at what cost? How does he accomplish the things he wants? Corruption rears its head in the offices, making Jack question if Willie is in the right or going down a path he can't come back from?

I can think of two movies that are as good if not better than the novel/story they're based on.  In other words, the odds aren't with a director to improve on the source of their movie. Warren's book is interesting in that 600-plus pages not much happens while at the same time A LOT is happening. Amidst all his wordy descriptions, seemingly pointless and drifting asides, and passages that go nowhere are characters and a story of politics and its personalities that is very interesting. It just gets lost too much in Warren's "talent." Director Robert Rossen makes a noble effort to condense Warren's novel into a manageable 2-hour movie and succeeds for the most part. Some background and one key twist is dropped for sake of time, but Rossen's movie gets the heart of the story right, Willie Stark's rise to the top and his fight to stay up there.

Reading the novel, I was very aware that Broderick Crawford had played Willie in this first version of the movie. In my head as I read, I was picturing Crawford then, and it is a career best performance.  The burly actor with the deep, dark voice earned the only Oscar of his career for his performance as Willie Stark (somewhat loosely based on Louisiana governor Huey Long). A career character actor, Crawford didn't waste his chance at such a major role. I can't picture anyone else playing the part, and that's always a positive. He brings Willie Stark to life, a well-meaning backwoods guy who has his eyes opened up to the reality of politics, money and greed. His speech just hours after he discovers he's being duped to split votes is a definite high, Stark's rage and frustration at the predicament he's in boiling over. You can watch it HERE at Youtube.

With such a dividing figure at the forefront of the movie, obvious questions arise that people will obviously feel different about on a person-to-person basis. Through bullying, bribes and blackmail courtesy of Burden's notebook with all its dirt, Stark's gubernatorial terms accomplish a laundry list of things. A huge hospital is built to serve the people. Roads are improved, schools popping up all over, and a better way of life is created. There is a certain corruption you just expect with government as power individuals want to get things done and don't care how they get it done. Through all of Stark's corruption and badgering and bullying, there's still the part of me that is on his side just a little bit. He gets the job done and seems, seems to have the public's best interest at heart. Is that the case? Maybe not, but Stark here and in Warren's novel makes it an interesting question.

No doubt about it, Crawford is the reason to see this movie. The supporting cast varies from average to above average, some of the fault being attributed to 600-plus pages being condensed into a  110-minute movie. Characters aren't going to get the development, motivation or reasoning they did in the book. Ireland received a Best Supporting Actor nomination, but I thought his performance as Jack Burden was somewhat lacking without much in the way of energy. Mercedes McCambridge won the Best Supporting Actress for her role as Sadie Burke, Willie's aide/secretary who's involved with him in more ways than one. Joanne Dru plays Anne Stanton, Jack's girlfriend who's instantly drawn to Willie, John Derek is Tom Stark, Willie's adopted son, Shepperd Strudwick plays Adam Stanton, a respected doctor and Anne's brother who Willie wants to work with, and Raymond Greenleaf as Judge Stanton (Irwin in the novel), an aging but reputable public official suspicious of Willie's motives.

While Rossen's novel to film transition is a smooth one, there is still something missing. He films it in black and white, appropriate for the backwoods, dirt road setting of the story, and the movie feels real in its portrayals of the story and characters. It's interesting but without much in the way of energy.  The ending was also a little disappointing because it ends too abruptly. The novel allowed the ending to breathe, to let characters figure things out as needed. The 1949 film still is a good, interesting watch and does a worthy job of molding Warren's novel into something more easily digested.

All the King's Men <---TCM trailer/clips (1949): ***/****

Monday, September 19, 2011

Kona Coast

An underrated actor who shot to fame via a 1950s TV show and eventually settled into a career playing bad guys and heavies, Richard Boone doesn't get the credit he deserves much of the time. His role as Paladin, a traveling gunman in Have Gun Will Travel, was ahead of its time during the show's six-year run. He specialized playing some truly bad dudes in his movie roles, but even his good guys had an edge to them that screamed 'Don't mess with me!' I grew up watching him as Sam Houston in John Wayne's The Alamo and as the vicious leader of a brutal gang in Big Jake so I've always been a fan.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, Boone often got his best work as part of a bigger ensemble.  He could play both good and bad, almost always making his characters interesting to watch, keeping you guessing as to what they're really up to.  They weren't always good movies, but they can't all be winners, right? With that, I can introduce 1968's Kona Coast, a movie with Boone in the lead. This movie was awful, just plain awful. I watched it mostly for Boone's presence, but even he can't save this one.

A goods transporter and a known and respected man in Hawaii, Sam Moran (Boone) is someone who is not to be tangled with. He always gets the job done no matter the difficulty. Sam gets a call one day from a young woman clearly stoned out of her mind. She turns up dead on the shore one day, needle tracks up and down her arm.  The police (no Steve McGarrett in sight) are curious why he's so interested, Sam revealing the young woman is his estranged daughter. Who gave her the drugs? Sam intends to find out, and he doesn't have any of the limitations on him the police do. Who is responsible? A man named Kryder (Steve Ihnat), a rich, spoiled nut who organizes parties where girls are given the chance to pump their systems with as much drugs as they want. Watch out, Mr. Kryder, here comes Sam Moran.

My first thought when this showed up on TCM's schedule in August was a positive one. Richard Boone gunning for the bad guys who killed his daughter? And it is in Hawaii? Translated to me, that sounded like an early version of Death Wish with a tropical setting as opposed to dirty early 1970s New York City. I was even more encouraged when the IMDB rating came in at a low 4.4 out of 10. I love a good bad movie. Well, it is bad. But it's not even bad enough to enjoy for some laughs. I couldn't have been more wrong about this movie. I ended up fast-forwarding through huge chunks of an already short 93-minute movie.

The reasoning for that goes two ways. Made in Hawaii in 1968, the movie does serve as a very cool, very stylish look at Hawaii in a different time. As a fan of the original Hawaii Five-O TV series, I'm a sucker for that so I did enjoy seeing all kinds of cool different locations in Hawaii.  The bigger issue is that the story never really develops into anything.  I counted three different montages of Boone's Moran walking around, talking to people, "investigating," and serving as our tour guide for 1968 Hawaii.  That would be fine in most situations, but not this one. Instead, Moran ends up on one of the smaller Hawaiian Islands where he can't get back to Honolulu.  Party detour! That whole murder investigation of his daughter gets put on hold while he parties, drinks and carouses with a whole bunch of different ladies.

Now if you couldn't tell from my lead for the review here, I'm a fan of Richard Boone.  This movie would not be a great introduction to Boone's otherwise pretty solid career.  Like the movie itself, his Sam Moran character is just surreal.  For one thing, he wears a ridiculous looking yellow windbreaker the whole movie with some short shorts.  That's quite a look for anyone, much less an angry, pissed off gunning for his estranged daughter's murderers.  That isn't enough though. The "script" calls for Sam to be all that is man. It gives him this animal magnetism that attracts women left and right (ex-wife Vera Miles, young and beautiful Gina Villines) without any rhyme or reason. Surreal is all I can come up with. Then, snap your finger, he's pissed off again and looking for revenge.

Writing this review is making me realize how bad this movie really was.  Sometimes you watch a bad movie and realize, but I always think about it some, maybe realizing it wasn't as bad as I originally thought. With Kona Coast? Not so much. It's awful.  Joan Blondell, Chips Rafferty and Kent Smith all got roped into this dreck in supporting roles, making me question how bad they needed the work. This was just bad. Weird 1960s psychedelic scenes, drifting, meandering storyline, wasted cast, and basically only worthwhile to see Hawaii.  It's hard to mess that part up.

Kona Coast <---trailer (1968): */****

Sunday, September 18, 2011


Through all the enhancements and developments in acting through Hollywood's history, the Academy Awards have done their fair share of changing too.  Is there a go-to thing an actor or actress can do to ensure themselves a nomination for Best Actor or Best Supporting Actress? It obviously takes a ton of talent and some luck at that, but it's easy enough to figure out. For years, it was big, verbose, stagey performances. Through the 1960s as method acting came into play, it was moodier, darker performances. In the early 2000s, it was actors dulling themselves down to play characters you'd never expect.

A tricky ground for an actor/actress to play is that of a mentally handicapped individual.  As Robert Downey Jr. so famously said in Tropic Thunder (and while I laugh, there's an uncomfortable truth about it), "You never go full retard."  For a person to play the part of a handicapped individual, you're treading that fine line.  Are you embracing the part, truly discovering and showing what it is like to be that person? Or are you just pandering to an audience for sympathy, mimicking someone who doesn't deserve that treatment? One of the best examples came in 1968's Charly with actor Cliff Robertson -- a favorite of Just Hit Play -- winning the 1969 Best Actor's Academy Award for his performance of a man with the IQ of 59.

Living on his own in a small, poorly furnished one-room apartment and working as a janitor as a bakery, Charly Gordon (Robertson) is trying to make himself smarter. He is mentally challenge and with an IQ of just 59 struggles to adjust at times in a modern and often times unforgiving world.  Charly has spent two years attending night school, learning from his teacher, Alice (Claire Bloom) how to read and write even if the process is slow-going. Alice approaches Charly one day with an offer. A team of doctors have developed a somewhat controversial medical surgery/procedure on the brain that makes the patient exponentially more intelligent. A genuinely good person who wants to improve himself, Charly is an ideal case study, and that's exactly what he is. He undergoes the surgery and slowly but surely starts to see improvement. There's so much in fact that he develops the intelligence of a genius. Something else awaits him though as he changes, something even a superior intellect could figure out or stop.

When I first watched this movie, I was curious mostly to see Robertson's Academy Award winning performance. He's one of my favorite actors, and I thought he never quite got his due. Revisiting the movie how many years later, I had forgotten how dark the movie is, how cynical its look at the real world really is. With the naivete and innocence of a child, Charly goes through life just trying. That's all. He tries. His co-workers rip him mercilessly for kicks, but he thinks they mean well. After his surgery, Charly sees a mentally challenged man working as a waiter laughed at by the crowd in a restaurant when he drops a tray of glasses. For any number of reasons, it is a difficult movie to watch, to see man's apparently inherent ability to be cruel for no apparent reason. Post-surgery, Charly asks 'Why would the people who would never dream of laughing at a blind or crippled man laugh at a moron?' It's a valid question and one without an easy answer.

Watching other Robertson movies, I think of The Devil's Brigade, PT 109, Too Late the Hero, Three Days of the Condor, action, war and thrillers. He's a really good actor and cool in all those movies (I have a way with words, don't I?), but this is his best performance by far. He walks that fine line between cliched and stereotype of playing a retarded man. His Charly is a believable person, not a caricature of what people think a mentally challenged individual would be. Above all else, you like this character.  You're rooting for him to succeed, to better himself. He is as innocent as they come without a mean bone in his body. He brings Charly Gordon to life, and then when Charly does change as an individual, becoming "normal" (for lack of a better word, society's normal I guess), you believe that transformation too.

Where the movie succeeds most for me is the first hour where we get to know Charly before he undergoes his surgery.  We see his tiny even depressing apartment with a small fridge, two chairs, a bed and a chalkboard where he writes his next day's activities. He goes to work where he thinks the people making fun of him are his best friends because he doesn't know any better. Charly goes to night school, learning to read and write, and ultimately goes through testing with Bloom's Alice and a team of doctors. One particularly effective bit has Charly "racing" a mouse named Algernon who's undergone the surgery, seeing who can complete a maze quicker. In a weird way, they become friends, but it works and makes sense. Above all else, Charly and his interactions with those around him feel genuine, and it keeps the movie grounded throughout.

The movie has its issues though, issues that keep it from being a classic. Director Ralph Nelson is undone at times by 1960s syndrome, or whatever you'd like to call the psychedelic elements of his story. The split screen effect feels dated now and serves no real purpose. A weird acid trip toward the end of the movie is truly bizarre as Charly lashes out, trying to discover the world in a way he's never seen.  It's like the similar scene in Easy Rider where Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper trip out on acid.  A nightmare sequence near the finale is unsettling in a similar fashion, but in a positive sense that shows the struggles Charly is going through. And better or worse, the story drags some once Charly has undergone the surgery. It's not boring, but it's just not as interesting seeing the change in the character.

Rewatching the movie though, my issues are ultimately left behind because Robertson's lead performance as Charly Gordon is that good.  It is an incredibly moving story that does do its fair share of pulling at your heart strings.  You think you know where it's going, and then Nelson pulls the rug out from under you.  He saves the biggest shock for last, one of the most powerful endings I can think of. Moving doesn't do enough to describe the effectiveness of the final shot, a freeze frame that stayed with me long after watching the movie. Great performance, almost great movie. You can watch the movie at Youtube, starting HERE with Part 1 of 11.

Robertson died recently, passing away on September 10, 2011.  He was an underrated actor who didn't always get his due, and he will be missed.

Charly (1968): *** 1/2 /****

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Lost World: Jurassic Park

In a career that has spanned five decades since he shot to stardom in the 1970s, director Steven Spielberg has quite the impressive filmography under his belt with a handful of classics and a few more not quite but close classics. Easily one of his best is 1993's Jurassic Park, a great film that is as good now in 2011 as it was 18 years ago. It opened the door for all sorts of new movies with new technology.  It's exciting, action-packed, and unique.

Of course, then there's the 1997 sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park which isn't as bad as some critics out to be but at the same time is nowhere near as good as it could/should have been. It's unfair to peg this movie as the one that opened the floodgates, but it's certainly one of the first series/franchises that turned a great stand-alone movie into unnecessary sequel one after another. That's my biggest issue with so many franchises. Harry Potter? Those sequels needed to be made to finish out the story. Jurassic Park? The first film is pretty much perfect as it is, and didn't need sequels.  But you wouldn't be reading this is someone didn't want to make piles of money so here we go.

It's been four years since the disaster at Isla Nuba and mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) is still trying to put the experience behind him. He is approached by InGen head and creator of Jurassic Park John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) with a proposition. There were actually two islands where dinosaurs lived, and he wants Malcolm and a small team to go to the second island and investigate, see how the creatures are living without human interference. Malcolm refuses...briefly, until he finds out his girlfriend, Sarah (Julianne Moore), a geologist, is already on the island so he agrees to go along. Finding Sarah proves to be the easy part as a financially struggling InGen sends an expedition to the island at the same time. Their objective? Capture dinosaurs so they can be exhibited for a world-wide audience. Malcolm, Sarah and the little team are caught in the middle as T-Rex, velociraptors and more are on the hunt.

I've long been a fan of Michael Crichton's novels, but this is one of the few I haven't read, mostly because I'm not a huge fan of the movie to begin with. If I didn't like the movie much, could the book save it at all? Eh, maybe down the road I'll get to it. My main issue with the movie though is that it is basically a carbon copy of the first movie, but without the energy or excitement. It is the definition of an unnecessary sequel. The script is bad, full of laughable one-liners and equally laughable scenarios, and the action/chases don't know when to stop, an orgy of adrenaline and drama that goes overboard whenever it gets the chance. If you're trying to repeat success, add something to it, don't just settle for the status quo.

What saves this from being a complete waste of time is what else? Surprise, surprise...the dinosaurs, and more specifically the dinosaurs eating people.  You really just can't go wrong with that formula.  The surprise factor of the first movie -- seeing dinosaurs, even if they are CGI -- has worn off some, but the little kid in you can't help but smile when a dinosaur (check that, any dinosaur) comes on-screen. Then think of a T-Rex and its awesomeness, and then a pack of raptors working together...yeah, definitely can't go wrong there. There are characters around who are meant to be dino-bait, and Spielberg certainly finds some unique ways to kill the baddies.  So throw out the action scenes that drag on end into tedium, you've still got a whole lot of badass dinosaurs killing people. Good stuff. Oh, and throw in John Williams' epic, sweeping and iconic score for good measure.

The more I see of Goldblum, the more I suspect he's not acting. He's just playing himself. His Dr. Malcolm isn't an ideal choice to lead a movie, but his character is still pretty cool.  Moore plays Sarah, the girlfriend who -- no disrespect to Moore, just the character -- could have been played by anyone.  She has to run around with Malcolm and look worried.  Oh wait, that's everyone, cardboard cutouts of characters. My bad.  Vince Vaughn and Richard Schiff are good as the other member of Ian and Sarah's team while screen veteran Pete Postlethwaite is a scene-stealer as Roland Tembo, a big game hunter leading InGen's expedition, his desire to bag a T-rex driving him into danger. Look for Arliss Howard and Peter Stormare as two bad guys you just know will meet a nasty fate as well with Attenborough briefly making an appearance as Hammond, still cool and clueless as ever.

There are just elements of unexplained weirdness here that make you question 'Really? That's the best you got?' The biggie for me has always been Malcolm's daughter, Kelly (Vanessa Lee Chester), who secretly travels with dear old Dad to the island, not realizing the danger she's put herself in. You'll notice if you look at her IMDB page that she is an African American actress. Not a racist comment, just a comment because the movie never addresses this. Is she adopted? Did Malcolm steal her from a black family? Mostly though beyond just a weird race angle is that her character is annoying and doesn't serve a purpose. Malcolm's already worried about Sarah, and then you throw in another reason. That's great. She also takes out a raptor via a gymnastics act. That ranks high on the list of all-time stupidest movie scenes ever.

The movie on the whole is a mixed bag. Certain scenes are just bad, and action scenes -- like two T-rex's attacking a camper -- just go on too long, not knowing when to pull the plug. If this was any old dinosaur movie, it'd be pretty good in a 'so bad it's good' fashion. But it isn't, following one of the all-time greats, Jurassic Park. Very watchable and generally a pretty dumb movie, but you can do worse.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park <---trailer (1997): ** 1/2 /****   

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Heroes of Telemark

While troops from both the Allied and Axis powers all over Europe and the South Pacific in WWII, another battle raged in laboratories with scientists and doctors working toward another goal; the creation of the first atomic bomb.  Whichever country made the first bomb would almost assuredly win the war as just the threat of using such a weapon would force other countries to surrender.  In 1942 some three years into the war, Germany seemed to be in the lead as Adolf Hitler sought the perfect weapons.

Based on a true story, 1965's The Heroes of Telemark tells the story of the Norwegian resistance's effort to stop the atomic development.  By the mid 1960s, WWII espionage and commando stories were at the absolute height of their success as a wave of movies flooded theaters (sorry for the bad pun).  'Telemark' is one that isn't a classic, and despite some interesting casting in the two leads has been generally forgotten.  It hasn't been available to watch on DVD in the U.S. until recently so that might have something to do with it, but even though I enjoy the movie I can appreciate those who don't. More on that later.

Working at a university in Oslo in Nazi-occupied Norway in 1942, Professor Rolf Pedersen (Kirk Douglas) is trying to stay as far away from the war effort -- on either side -- as possible. One day he is approached by Knut Straud (Richard Harris), a resistance fighter from the town of Rjukan, who has information about the Germans' development and increased production of heavy water in a factory in his hometown. Rolf sees the potential for disaster and agrees to go with Knut to England -- sneaking into the country -- to consult with British Intelligence on what they want done.  The thought of Hitler having atomic weapons at his disposal is all the motivation he needs. The objective then is simple; send a commando team (including Knut and Rolf) to the Rjukan factory to sabotage the effort and slow down the developments. The means to do it? A little harder as the Germans have an intimidating security force all around the factory.   

While the names have been changed and some of the events dramatized a bit, the basic story is based off a true story of the Norwegian resistance and their efforts to slow down the Germans' advances in atomic weaponry.  That plot description is a general one too, only taking the story up to the hour mark or so in a 131-minute movie.  Director Anthony Mann certainly adds a wrinkle to the commando story with the potential of this new city-destroying weapon. Most commando/espionage movies have an objective like taking out a key bridge or an important gun emplacement. Using the history and very timely matter of atomic weapons is an interesting and fact-based twist.

My biggest surprise when I first saw this was the casting of Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris as the two leads.  I was in a Richard Harris phase -- still am I guess, he's a badass -- and thought 'Why the hell was I not aware of this movie?!?' Seeing two big stars like these two is part of the fun of stumbling across movies like this. Douglas was the more established one here, Harris the rising star, and apparently they didn't get along too well on-set.  That is very much a good thing because their on-screen rivalry is very much real. They don't like each other at all. They work together because they need each others help and are forced to do so, not because they enjoy being commandos together. Douglas gets the shinier part -- including a rekindling relationship with ex-wife Anna, played by Ulla Jacobsson -- while Harris gets pushed to the side too much. Still, it's Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris. They're cool so deal with it.

Two key sequences always stand out for me, both of them coming straight out of the history books.  The first is the raid on the Rjukan factory as Rolf and Knut lead eight Norwegian resistance fighters into the factory, avoiding security at every turn.  The real-life raid went just as smoothly as this one, but Mann shoots it so well that the scene's are packed with tension and adrenaline. All it takes is one goof, and these guys are going to be outnumbered in a big way.  The same goes for the finale as the Dynamic Duo attempts to sink a ferry carrying thousands of gallons of heavy water going across the Norwegian fjords.  In both sequences, there is little to no gunfire, the natural tension of the situation doing the heavy lifting.

So what's the problem with this movie? I can't put my finger on it, and I like the movie. It is just missing something. At 131 minutes it is a tad on the slow side.  Mann shot the movie on location in Norway, and it is stunning to watch.  Composer Malcolm Arnold's score is highly memorable, even if it borrows liberally from his Bridge on the River Kwai soundtrack. Michael Redgrave is underused as Anna's uncle also working with the resistance. I guess the best description I can give is that it isn't the most personal movie. It never sucks you in the way The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare do.  Still a good WWII commando movie, but not the best.

The Heroes of Telemark <---TCM trailer (1965): ***/****