Wednesday, 30 December 2009

The Sea Hawk

Movie Review: The Sea Hawk

Year of Release: 1940
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Errol Flynn, Brenda Marshall, Claude Rains

Plot outline: A British pirate holds the Spanish fleet at bay with the covert approval of Elizabeth I (IMDb).

The Sea Hawk finds Errol Flynn in full on swashbuckling mode. He re-teams with The Adventures of Robin Hood director Michael Curtiz and Robin Hood co-stars Alan Hale and Claude Rains. If only The Sea Hawk had spent more time on his character's adventures and less on talking this would have truly been a movie about “Robin Hood of the sea." Made during the onset of World War II, the movie does not shy from then current political issues. Hitler's Third Reich was growing in Europe and this movie comments many times on it. King Phillip of Spain obviously represents Hitler when he has this piece of dialogue as the movie opens, “The riches of the New World are limitless, and the New World is ours - with our ships carrying the Spanish flag on seven seas, our armies sweeping over Africa, the Near East, and the Far West; invincible everywhere ... but on our own doorstep. Only northern Europe holds out against us; why? Tell me, why?" The final scene in the movie has The Queen of England giving this speech, “And now, my loyal subjects, a grave duty confronts us all: To prepare our nation for a war that none of us wants, least of all your queen. We have tried by all means in our power to avert this war. We have no quarrel with the people of Spain or of any other country; but when the ruthless ambition of a man threatens to engulf the world, it becomes the solemn obligation of all free men to affirm that the earth belongs not to any one man, but to all men, and that freedom is the deed and title to the soil on which we exist. Firm in this faith, we shall now make ready to meet the great armada that Philip sends against us." Overall, The Sea Hawk is too dramatic and over done with political innuendos. There are several good action sequences but at over two hours long it drags in many places. (EN)

My judgement: **1/2 out of 4 stars

Monday, 28 December 2009

Objective, Burma!

Movie Review: Objective, Burma!

Year of Release: 1945
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Raoul Walsh
Cast: Errol Flynn, William Prince, George Tobias, Henry Hull

Plot outline: An American platoon parachutes into Burma to take out a strategic Japanese outpost (IMDb).

Made during the mayhem of World War II, Objective, Burma! remains an exciting war picture by one of Hollywood's most prolific and reliable action directors, Raoul Walsh. Assembling a superb cast, the production is further strengthened by a powerful score from Franz Waxman, one of Hollywood's top composers. The standard mono mix is layered with plenty of sound effects and music, and the ultimate fusion of sound and picture occurs early on, during an incredible parachuting sequence over Burma. Incorporating actual newsreel footage with production material, Walsh, editor George Amy, and cinematography James Wong Howe milk every tense moment as the troupe awaits their drop point, while nervous team members and an aging reporter fear the worst. As the men jump from the plane, Waxman's dissonant score barrels from the speakers, and perfectly captures the danger, the gung-ho excitement, and urgency as the men scramble into the trees, bury their chutes, and trek to the radio station for their demolition assignment. The transfer is first-rate, showing no artifacting, and preserving Howe's immaculate cinematography; anytime you see the veteran cinematographer's name in the credits, you know you're in for a visual treat. The image clarity even reveals beads of sweat on the actors' porous faces. The final title crawl reflects the nation's sentiments in 1943 - Japan and Germany weren't just global enemies, but evil to the core - and while an exciting action movie, Objective, Burma! should be watched with an awareness that's the movie was an obvious morale booster, and reflects the strong anti-Japanese sentiments of the time. (MRH)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Sunday, 27 December 2009

M

Movie Review: M

Year of Release: 1931
Country of Origin: Germany
Director: Fritz Lang
Cast: Peter Lorre Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut, Gustav Grundgens

Plot outline: When the police in a German city are unable to catch a child serial murderer, other criminals join in the manhunt (IMDb).

Fritz Lang's first sound movie was M, a crime drama that also made Peter Lorre a star. The movie was made in Germany shortly before the Nazis came to full power. Both Lang and Lorre had Jewish family connections, and would soon emigrate to America where their respective careers would continue successfully. The story has Lorre playing a pathetic, tormented murderer of little girls. As the list of his victims grow, Berlin falls into a state of panic. Citizens begin accusing each other of being the child serial murderer. In their frustrated search for the murderer, the police crack down heavily on criminal activity. Organized crime figures decide that they must find the murderer themselves, to return to business as usual. Soon, both the cops and the crooks are closing in on Lorre. Lang takes pains to show the similarities between the police captains and the crime-lords. Both meet separately to decide how to stop the murderer, and Lang switches back and forth between the two meetings. While the two groups may have different methods, the end result is the same: Lorre is to be identified, captured, tried, and executed. Lorre was well cast as the murderer. His nasal voice and unsettling manner and appearance played to stereotypes of what a child murderer would be like. Once he becomes hunted, his wide eyes and furtive behavior express fear and desperation. Once in Hollywood, he would overcome this early stereotype in a series of Mr. Moto movies, and was later best known for his supporting roles in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. (BK)

My judgement: **** out of 4 stars

Friday, 25 December 2009

In Which We Serve

Movie Review: In Which We Serve

Year of Release: 1942
Country of Origin: UK
Directors: Noel Coward, David Lean
Cast: Noel Coward, John Mills, Bernard Miles, Celia Johnson, Joyce Carey

Plot outline: This "story of a ship," the British destroyer HMS Torrin, is told in flash backs by survivors as they cling to a life raft (IMDb).

Although dated, Noel Coward's patriotic war movie captures the mood of Britain in 1942. Coward starts off with a narrative voice intoning the message: "This is the story of a ship." Luckily, it's not. It's the story of the men who served on her and the women who stayed behind. Coward has to prove that he is officer material and not some theatre johnnie with a talent to amuse. He tends to be severe, even when giving the crew a morale-boosting pep talk, and his relationship with the lady wife (Celia Johnson, in her first screen role) is textbook no-touchy-no-feely. He takes his role extremely seriously and, as a result, accumulates considerable respect. Although blatantly propagandist, the movie has good old-fashioned qualities. Coward was nervous of directing, since his experience had been entirely in the theatre, and so asked John Mills if he knew of anyone who might give him a hand. Mills suggested "the best editor in the country." He was hired. His name was David Lean. (AWM)

My judgement: **1/2 out of 4 stars

Thursday, 24 December 2009

12 Angry Men

Movie Review: 12 Angry Men

Year of Release: 1957
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Sidney Lumet
Cast: Henry Fonda, Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Lee J. Cobb, E. G. Marshall

Plot outline: A dissenting juror in a murder trial slowly manages to convince the others that the case is not as obviously clear as it seemed in court (IMDb).

The earnest 1957 jury-room drama 12 Angry Men promotes skepticism as civic duty - a lesson too often forgotten. Henry Fonda's juror No. 8 is the only one who takes the concept of reasonable doubt seriously, while his peers initially want a quick guilty verdict. Slowly, quietly Fonda convinces the others that the state's case is full of holes. The speechifying is didactic '50s liberal, and Fonda's character engages in some stunts that would get him thrown off a real jury, but screenwriter Reginald Rose is serious about the duty not to rush to judgment. Much of the message for both justice and mercy depends on our repugnance for juror No. 10 Ed Begley's obvious bigotry, although the script has been de-ethnicized to such a degree that it's not clear who the objects of his hatred are - slum dwellers in general, apparently. The movie showcases a roster of great character actors: Martin Balsam as the foreman; Lee J. Cobb as a father alienated from his own son; E.G. Marshall as the rectitudinous stock broker who "never sweats"; Jack Klugman as the token slum dweller; George Voskovec as the quiet immigrant faithful to American values; Robert Webber as the wishy-washy ad executive; and a brash young Jack Warden as a know-nothing who just wants to go to the Yankees game. Sidney Lumet, in his first directorial job, showed a sure hand at milking the claustrophobia as the arguments and animosities escalate. He was helped immensely by Boris Kaufman, a master of black-and-white cinematography. Lumet remembers that while screenwriter Rose "believed that people were good ... I don't feel that." (MSG)

My judgement: **** out of 4 stars

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Man on Wire

Movie Review: Man on Wire

Year of Release: 2008
Country of Origin: UK, USA
Director: James Marsh
Cast: Philippe Petit, Jean-Francois Heckel, Jean-Louis Blondeau, Annie Allix, Mark Lewis

Plot outline: A look at tightrope walker Philippe Petit's daring, but illegal, high-wire routine performed between New York City's World Trade Center twin towers in 1974, what some consider, "the greatest artistic crime of the century" (IMDb).

The subject of James Marsh’s engrossing documentary Man on Wire is so good that it’s a wonder no one has thought to make a movie about it before. It’s not that the story is in any way a secret (on the contrary, it made international headlines in August of 1974), but it is quite possible that enough time has passed to allow it to fall into the deeper recesses of public consciousness; those who were alive at the time murmur something along the lines of “Yeah, I seem to remember that …,” while many of those who were born after the event, which would come to be called “the greatest artistic crime of the century,” might very well have never heard of it. Which is precisely what makes Man on Wire such a treat: It mines recent history in a way that makes it seem new and invigorating, reminding us of how wonderfully, blissfully deranged human behavior can be. James Marsh, who has previously made both feature movies and documentaries, turns Man on Wire into a nail-biter of a thriller, which is all the more extraordinary given the fact that we know Philippe Petite is going to pull it off. The question becomes “How?” How are he and his associates going to sneak into then-still-under-construction World Trade Center twin towers with hundreds of pounds of equipment (including at least 200 feet of three-quarter-inch steel cable weighing 450 pounds), make it to the roof, and set up a complex tightrope apparatus that can sustain high winds more than 1,350 feet above the streets of New York City? The unfolding answers to those questions is what compels Man on Wire along as it draws you into Petite’s artfully inspired scheme that still amazes those who pulled it off. Of course, knowing that the Twin Towers are now gone gives the movie an expectedly bittersweet tone, which Marsh never explicitly milks. Petite’s antics were technically criminal, but as Petite himself noted both at the time of his arrest and today, there is no easy “why” to explain them. To do so would reduce his death-defying accomplishment to simple psychodymanics and tear it away from the high-wire art and life philosophy he so fervently pursued. (JK)

My judgement: ***1/2 out of 4 stars

Monday, 14 December 2009

Destination Tokyo

Movie Review: Destination Tokyo

Year of Release: 1943
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Delmer Daves
Cast: Cary Grant, John Garfield, Alan Hale, John Ridgely, Dane Clark

Plot outline: In order to provide information for the first air raid over Tokyo, a U.S. submarine sneaks into Tokyo Bay and places a spy team ashore (IMDb).

Despite his urbane manner being ill suited to military movies, Cary Grant does a fine job carrying the picture. Here, he’s the ideal captain, weathering storm after storm, be it Japanese bombers, depth charges, or even a crewman’s rush appendectomy, Grant’s character is unflappable, with nary a hair out of place. The supporting players are solid. John Forsythe even makes his first credited appearance in a small part. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t work as well as an ensemble movie, and drags whenever Grant isn’t on screen. Further, the script is quite preachy, with several characters delivering propaganda-laced monologues about the evils of the Japs, which only serve to further drag down the story. Ultimately, fans of war pictures, or of Grant, will find Destination Tokyo worth a look. (FML)

My judgement: **1/2 out of 4 stars

Sunday, 13 December 2009

The Petrified Forest

Movie Review: The Petrified Forest

Year of Release: 1936
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Archie Mayo
Cast: Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, Genevieve Tobin, Dick Foran, Humphrey Bogart

Plot outline: A waitress, a hobo and a bank robber get mixed up at a lonely diner in the desert (IMDb).

The Petrified Forest is a tight, well-written thriller with a knockout cast. Leslie Howard manages to mix just the right amounts of vulnerability, courage, and despair into his role as a disenchanted writer coming to terms with his own failed ambitions. On paper, the part could come off as pretentious or whiny, but Howard plays it perfectly without ever stooping to sentiment. Opposite him, Bette Davis is the very epitome of the wide-eyed dreamer. Though her role is written a bit thinner than Howard’s, Davis makes up for it with sheer charisma, winning the audience over the same way she wins over Howard’s character. Overshadowing both Davis and Howard though, is Humphrey Bogart. The Petrified Forest served as his first big break in Hollywood. While it wouldn’t be until High Sierra some five years later that he would graduate from supporting actor to star, it was this movie that made him a name. And for good reason. The script gives him a great role to work with. As Duke Mantee, Bogart is a force of nature, a chaotic whirlwind. Further, the script does a fantastic job of fleshing out Mantee with minimal dialog, creating a pair of anti-heroes in Howard and Bogart’s characters that have more in common than one would think. And that’s the movie’s strength. It’s not a hostage drama at all, but an exploration of dreams and ambitions, both gone and yet to come. That the script has the guts to follow this theme through to the end is, ultimately, what makes the movie, as a typical “Hollywood ending" would have killed it. The Petrified Forest’s only weakness lies in the sets, as the desert backdrops are so ridiculously fake they can be distracting early on, but it’s a small blemish on an excellent story. (FML)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Monday, 7 December 2009

We're No Angels

Movie Review: We're No Angels

Year of Release: 1955
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Aldo Ray, Peter Ustinov, Joan Bennett

Plot outline: After escaping Devil's Island, three convicts end up aiding a shopkeeper they initially intended to rob (IMDb).

Michael Curtiz and his all-star cast are clearly having a blast with this roguishly charming comedy, even though they never shift higher than second gear. Too dark for a farce and not wild enough to classify as screwball comedy, the movie teeters along an odd middle ground, searching for an elusive tone that never comes. The main fascination comes from seeing tough-guy Humphrey Bogart in one of his very few comedies. His wry sense of humour practically drips with sarcasm. Peter Ustinov excels at effete snobbery and gets off some of the best lines, while the gravel-voiced Aldo Ray is by turns menacing and charming and sometimes both at once. Contemporary viewers watching Ray in this picture will immediately think: Hey! That's where Michael Madsen got his shtick! Leo G. Carroll is serviceable in his trademark role as a benign and lovable fuddy-duddy, Basil Rathbone isn't given much of a stretch playing the bad guy, while Gloria Talbott, while adequate, is easily the weak link in the supporting cast. And we know that any time a deadly snake is introduced early in the movie, that serpent is going to pop up sooner or later as a key plot point. (SE, FML)

My judgement: **1/2 out f 4 stars

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Movie Review: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Year of Release: 1937
Country of Origin: USA
Director: David Hand
Cast: Roy Atwell, Stuart Buchanan, Adriana Caselotti

Plot outline: From the old fairy tale, a jealous queen attempts to get rid of her beautiful step-daughter, Snow White, who takes refuge with seven dwarfs in their forest home (IMDb).

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first feature length animated movie. It cost the studio $1.5 million to make, which was six times the cost of an average feature. More than five hundred animators contributed to the movie, which used a multiplane camera to create an effect of depth. It made $8.5 million during its first run alone, with many more millions made during subsequent re-releases. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was not merely the first, but remains the best of all animated movies. Cynics may have more room for complaint than exists in later, more 'sophisticated' movies. But it is the lack of self-consciousness that adds to the charm of Snow White. The story may be simple, and the characters may be stereotyped. But the execution is flawless. Snow White is so sweet and innocent that the forest animals assist her at every turn, even helping her to clean house. The dwarfs work in a mine strewn with gigantic diamonds that are already cut and polished, none of which seems to have increased their standard of living. No one thinks to leave a dwarf at home to help protect the hopelessly gullible Snow White from the wiles of the evil Queen. Snow White and Prince Charming are not only perfect in appearance, but are blessed with incredible voices. Complain all you want to about how unlikely the story is. All criticism of the story elements is made meaningless by the overpowering quality of the presentation. The drawings are magnificent, with their multicoloured backgrounds and shadows. The characters are strongly defined, and their motions are perfectly animated. The voices are perfect as well. Today, actor celebrities typically provide cartoon voices in Disney movies. But with Snow White, the voice talent was cast via a perfect match with the character, which is just as it should be. Some scenes are justly famous. The dwarfs return home from work singing, with each of their walks having a different cadence. Dopey dances with Snow White while atop the shoulders of another dwarf. But my favorite scenes feature the evil Queen. It is gloriously frightening when she transforms herself into an 'old hag', and her last stand is also great cinema. The suspense of the poisoned apple is extended, with the cavalry riding to the rescue as in the climax of an old D.W. Griffith silent feature. Despite all the comic relief dwarfs and friendly forest animals, Snow White is to some degree a horror movie. And not just due to the Queen's presence, as Snow White has a terrifying flight into the forest. Walt Disney was awarded a special Oscar for "significant screen achievement" by the Academy. The presenter was Shirley Temple, who also gave Disney seven little Oscars, one for each dwarf. The film was also nominated for Best Score. (BK)

My judgement: **** out of 4 stars

Monday, 30 November 2009

The Wizard of Oz

Movie Review: The Wizard of Oz

Year of Release: 1939
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Victor Fleming
Cast: Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Billie Burke

Plot outline: A Kansas farm girl dreams herself into a magical land where she must fight a wicked witch to escape (IMDb).

The Wizard of Oz is a lavish, beautiful movie. The painted backdrops are stunning. The sets are vibrant and colourful. The Emerald City is a marvelous Art Deco wonder, and the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West is a dark, forbidding place guarded by green faced, chanting halberdiers and colourfully uniformed flying monkeys. While the narrative is engaging in its own right, its appeal is greatly enhanced by the movie's visual beauty, which so captivates the viewers that they are drawn into the movie's unique world and are readily excited and fascinated by the events depicted. The movie does, however, have a number of faults. Both the script and the acting are annoyingly smarmy and falsely adorable. From the cute turns of phrase frequently employed to the affected, syrupy mannerisms adopted by the actors, the movie wallows in its own mawkishness. The Munchkins, in particular, are grating. They speak in excruciating, artificially high pitched voices and ooze saccharine from every pore on their waddling frames. Dorothy's companions are only marginally less irritating. While they are visually well conceived, their forced cuteness quickly grows tiresome. Although the movie's constant adorableness is certainly its most severe problem, the movie is further weakened by its distracting conceit that the events depicted as occurring in Oz were a dream. Even for a child, this particular element is forced, silly, and trite. To make matters worse, the director has used this device to imbue the movie's concluding scene with a false sentimentality that can leave the viewers with a foul, sugary aftertaste. Visually enthralling and narratively engaging, The Wizard of Oz could easily have been a truly great movie, but it is so self consciously sweet that it is frequently unpalatable. (KA)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Movie Review: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Year of Release: 1958
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Richard Brooks
Cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Burl Ives, Jack Carson

Plot outline: A Southern house is divided by patriarchal dominance and the marital problems between one of the sons, a heavy drinker, and his wife (IMDb).

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was originally a successful play by Tennessee Williams, who had earlier created a sensation with A Streetcar Named Desire. For the movie adaptation, some changes had to be made to get past Hollywood censors, and to prevent Paul Newman from playing a character with homosexual overtones. Williams' exaggerated characters and situations create a tumultuous soap opera plot involving latent homosexuality, suicide, terminal illness, gold-digging, and alcoholism. The movie is hard to watch yet hard to turn away from. The story provides the frame for a script loaded with impassioned speeches and vicious arguments; the final outcome amazingly creating a happy ending with Newman's personal demons apparently cured. While never boring, the intense drama is sometimes overblown. Newman constantly drinks but, except for the opening scene, is never drunk. It is also difficult to believe Taylor's faith in her embittered husband, and that she would repeatedly throw her gorgeous self at him despite his rejection. (BK)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Tora! Tora! Tora!

Movie Review: Tora! Tora! Tora!

Year of Release: 1970
Country of Origin: USA, Japan
Directors: Richard Fleischer,
Toshio Masuda, Kinji Fukasaku
Cast: Martin Balsam, Sô Yamamura, Joseph Cotten, Tatsuya Mihashi

Plot outline: A dramatization of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the series of American blunders that allowed it to happen (IMDb).

Unlike the comparatively dramatic Pearl Harbor (2001), Tora! Tora! Tora! interprets events from both the U.S. and Japanese perspectives. From a dramatic perspective, there are too many American officer characters - it's difficult to tell exactly what the responsibilities of Balsam, Cotten, Marshall, Robards, etc. are - they all seem to be doing the same thing, trying to avert a catastrophe, and all run into the same brick wall of American complacence: It can't happen here. Unfortunately, much that couldn't have happened actually did during World War II. In a way, Tora! Tora! Tora! is two (and perhaps even three) different movies. Richard Fleischer directed the American scenes. The Japanese portions were supposed to be directed by the legendary Akira Kurosawa, but the marriage with Twentieth Century Fox went poorly, and the divorce brought in two Japanese directors to replace him. Fast worker Toshio Masuda filmed the indoor scenes, while a second crew led by action specialist Kinji Fukasaku completed the scenes staged the aerial and naval sequences. The movie bravely faces a great human tragedy. If the invading Japanese planes had been stopped in 1941, perhaps there would have been no need for the U.S. to drop bombs throughout Japan in 1945, killing a half million civilians. (BK)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Patton

Movie Review: Patton

Year of Release: 1970
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Cast: George C. Scott, Karl Malden

Plot outline: The legendary general's rebellious behaviour almost costs him his command during World War II (IMDb).

As befits a soldier like few others, George C. Scott (in his Oscar-winning role) delivers a performance like few others in his lengthy and illustrious career - his interpretation of Patton is such that it's startling to watch actual newsreel footage of Patton; Scott nailed not only the physicality but also seemingly the psychology of this ageless warrior trapped in World War II but truly at home in the conflicts of ancient Rome or Greece. Working from a screenplay by then-wunderkind Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North (which was based upon "Patton: Ordeal and Triumph" by Ladislas Farago and "A Soldier's Story" by Omar N. Bradley), Franklin J. Schaffner's vivid biography of one of America's truly great generals rarely, if ever, flags - Patton pulses with a life and authenticity often missing from conventional Hollywood biopics. By tracing Patton's efforts throughout his various World War II campaigns, Schaffner manages to paint a portrait of both a man and his battles - it's a mammoth war etched in miniature as seen through the poet-warrior eyes of Patton. Scott is surrounded by a terrific, if minor-key, cast including Karl Malden as Omar Bradley, Patton's long-suffering compatriot, Karl Vogler as Patton's nemesis, German general Erwin Rommel and Frank Latimore as Lieutenant Colonel Henry Davenport, representing the British - but it's Scott's show the entire way. He doesn't so much command attention as sear the very screen with his presence. Volumes have been written about Scott's performance as Patton but it still somehow doesn't do it justice - this is world-class acting of a rare and magnificent scale. Patton the movie is every bit as enduring and compelling as the man who inspired it. (PJ)

My judgement: ***1/2 out of 4 stars

Sunday, 22 November 2009

The Anniversary

Movie Review: The Anniversary

Year of Release: 1968
Country of Origin: UK
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Cast: Bette Davis, Sheila Hancock, Jack Hedley, James Cossins, Christian Roberts, Elaine Taylor

Plot outline: A very possessive matriarch uses the excuse of a family reunion to strengthen her grip over her relatives (IMDb).

60-year-old Bette Davis is in rare form here as the hideous matriarch of Bill MacIlwraith’s darkly comedic play. With her colour-coordinated eye patches, relentless demands, and constant stream of vitriolic put-downs, she emerges as one of cinema’s true villains. The words coming out of this anti-mother’s mouth are almost beyond belief - to her daughter-in-law (Sheila Hancock) she says matter-of-factly, “I don’t think you are a good mother, but it’s not my place to say so”, and “Natural good manners told me when to put the plug in.” To her youngest son (Christian Roberts) she states, “I promise you I’ll have your skin for rags, and wipe the faces of your children with them!” McIlwraith’s play is clearly a black comedy, but one which unfortunately doesn’t offer quite enough relief to redeem its overriding negativity. The narrative trajectory is relentless - while mother Taggart’s children try their best to stand up to her, she’s constantly one-upping them, and the effect is disheartening. There are many moments of shocking, laugh-out-loud humour, but ultimately this movie is more unpleasant than enjoyable, and one keeps watching simply to see what ghastly action or statement the incomparable Davis will come up with next. (FF)

My judgement: **1/2 out of 4 stars

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Movie Review: Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Year of Release: 2008
Country of Origin: Spain, USA
Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz

Plot outline: Two young American women come to Barcelona for a summer holiday. They're then drawn into a series of unconventional romantic entanglements with a charismatic painter who is still involved with his tempestuous ex-wife (IMDb).

In this movie, Woody Allen is in a sensual mood, taking on the role of tourist in a passionate land. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is an aimless diversion, even for the notoriously unfocused Allen, but retains expected performance momentum, and positively sells the hell out of a lusty Spanish vacation. It is a sensory experience, not a dense piece of drama. Allen appears in perfect concert with the Spanish locations, graciously revealing the beauty of the land through the master shooting of cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, filling the frame with golden Euro delights. It is suffused by Spanish sunlight, a dreamy setting for what becomes something of a crooked fantasy involving inescapable infatuation and questions of emotional self-preservation. Allen doesn’t create any traditional arcs for the characters to follow, instead the movie chases passions to their logical conclusion: DISASTER. Following Vicky and Cristina around Barcelona, and later Oviedo, Allen gives the camera two women eager to learn about themselves, using Jose as transport to new experiences that quickly roll into serious questions of yearning. Allen leads with these characters, using little explosions of lovemaking and combat to keep the experience lively. As usual, the actors make the experience worthwhile, with Johansson, Bardem, and Cruz creating a believable trio of frustrated lovers. While Hall has the least showy role, she’s a great asset as the moral center, so to speak, conveying the great eroding sway of infidelity with minimal indication. Much like the vacation itself, Vicky Cristina Barcelona doesn’t hunker down with much of a climax, ending the movie the same instant the ladies leave Spain. It’s a fitting conclusion for such a whirlwind sexual adventure, leaving the characters and the audience breathless and unsure where the road will lead to next. (BO)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Movie Review: Slumdog Millionaire

Year of Release: 2008
Country of Origin: UK
Director: Danny Boyle
Cast: Dev Patel, Anil Kapoor, Irfan Khan, Madhur Mittal, Freida Pinto

Plot outline: A penniless, eighteen year-old orphan from the slums of Mumbai, Jamal Malik is one question away from winning a staggering 20 million rupees on India's ''Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" But when the show breaks for the night, suddenly, he is arrested on suspicion of cheating (IMDb).

Orphaned after his mother is killed during an anti-Muslim riot, seven-year-old Jamal Malik is left to fend for himself in a decidedly Dickensian Mumbai, where he, Salim and Latika soon find themselves working for a Fagin-ish exploitative villain. Danny Boyle’s relentless energy and kinetic style do a good job of glossing over that fact, making the movie feel much more substantial than it really is. But the good performances, brilliant editing, and pulsating soundtrack can’t cover up the movie’s crucial failure. The story revolves around Jamal and his love for Latika, a girl he meets when he’s just a boy. Before he can reach adolescence, they’re separated, and he spends the rest of his life searching for her, only to lose her yet again after one night once he does find her. From that point on, his whole life revolves around this girl, who he feels he’s meant to be with, but we, the audience, can’t understand why. She may have charmed Jamal, but she never charms us. In fact, we never find out anything about her, and so she remains just a pretty face. And thus, we reach the movie’s biggest conceit. That Latika is still the girl Jamal remembers from his youth. That they’re meant to be together despite knowing practically nothing about each other. That it’s not only okay, but even profitable, to live your life solely in pursuit of a single woman you don’t know. If you buy into this, you’ll go for it in a big way. The flash, the energy, and the feel-good nature are there in full force, capped off by a memorable closing-credits sequence. But if the conceit’s too great, then you’ll see it as a well-done fairy tale and nothing more. (FML, NS)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Secret Ceremony

Movie Review: Secret Ceremony

Year of Release: 1968
Country of Origin: UK
Director: Joseph Losey
Cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Mia Farrow, Robert Mitchum

Plot outline: A woman and a girl she insists is her long-lost daughter are caught in a web of insanity and deception in this psychological thriller (IMDb).

This psychological thriller of mistaken identities, mental disturbance, and sexual deviance - based on a prize-winning short story by an Argentine civil servant - received reasonably positive reviews upon its release, but has since been criticized by most as either campy and/or “ill-conceived”. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between: while the convoluted narrative occasionally defies belief (and completely devolves by the end), it remains bizarrely compelling until then, thanks in large part to the brave performances given by both Farrow and Taylor. From her first appearance on screen, Farrow - wearing a long, black wig and tights - is completely convincing as a 22-year-old with the mind of a child; but it’s Taylor who really cements the story: while her performance gets off to a bumpy start, we’re soon captivated by her increasingly nuanced portrayal as a self-sufficient prostitute who knows a good deal when she sees it, yet can’t help feeling genuine maternal concern for Cenci. Despite its flaws, Secret Ceremony offers enough provocative moments to make it worth checking out. (FF)

My judgement: ** out of 4 stars

Monday, 16 November 2009

Of Human Bondage

Movie Review: Of Human Bondage

Year of Release: 1934
Country of Origin: USA
Director: John Cromwell
Cast: Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, Frances Dee, Kay Johnson, Reginald Denny

Plot outline: A medical student risks his future when he falls for a low-class waitress (IMDb).

Bette Davis appears miscast in early scenes, she struggles with a cockney accent, but her enormous, predatory eyes are well suited for the role. When she rails at her now-aloof benefactor, calling him a "gimpy-legged monster", she does so with a frightening intensity. Leslie Howard's gentle character is compared with that of fellow doctor Griffiths (Reginald Denny) and salesman Miller (Alan Hale). Mildred prefers these men because they are more like her, hedonistic and fun-loving. She is bored to tears by Howard, who prefers to spend his evenings serenely reading medical texts. Davis, in turn, is compared with beautiful, selfless wallflowers Sally (Frances Dee) and Norah (Kay Johnson), who throw themselves at the feet of Howard to little avail. The moral of the story seems to be that opposites attract, perhaps because we only want what is virtually impossible to have. Try as they might, our sensitive leads lack the pluck to simply take what they want instead of begging for it. Miller may be hopelessly shallow and conceited, but he is also more successful in his career. In early Hayes Code fashion, however, things do not work out as well for bad girl Mildred. (BK)

My judgement: **1/2 out of 4 stars

Sunday, 15 November 2009

The Letter

Movie Review: The Letter

Year of Release: 1940
Country of Origin: USA
Director: William Wyler
Cast: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson, Gale Sondergaard

Plot outline: A woman claims to have killed a man in self-defense, until a blackmailer turns up with incriminating evidence (IMDb).

W. Somerset Maugham's play was translated to the big screen by Casablanca's main scribe, Howard Koch; and while the story still retains classic film noir elements of adultery, murder, and guilt, The Letter also preserves a depiction of the English that's amusingly melodramatic: in spite of the emotional turmoil and mortal danger, Bette Davis (with an affected snotty accent) and weak-willed hubby Herbert Marshall remain tightly reserved; yet these veneers of wily restraint help maintain audience suspicion that every character seems to harbor a dark secret, best kept buried. (MRH)

My judgement: **1/2 out of 4 stars

Thursday, 12 November 2009

The Nanny

Movie Review: The Nanny

Year of Release: 1965
Country of Origin: UK
Director: Seth Holt
Cast: Bette Davis, Wendy Craig, Jill Bennett, William Dix

Plot outline: A disturbed young man, Joey, tries to prove his nanny is out to kill him (IMDb).

The Nanny is a rather quiet, cautious thriller that gives Bette Davis more room for characterization than most of her later movies. She does a marvelous job of keeping her psycho nature under control for the movie's first half. As a "barmy" governess hiding several dark secrets, she starts out with a benign expression under incredibly silly beetle brows, with subtle, sinister flashes of malignancy underneath her severe composure. Director Seth Holt lights her harshly, and lingers over the interesting, very British faces of the rest of the cast, especially William Dix's Joey. Holt creates an atmosphere of gray ominousness and is content to let his measured compositions build atmosphere, but when the plot revelations start, the movie's careful psychological detail is abandoned for melodrama, and Davis is filmed like a ghoul (or "Boris Karloff in skirts," as she once laughingly described herself in this period). The last scene is perfunctory and unbelievable, but the movie is worth seeing for its tense first half, and for Davis' carefully controlled performance of joyless, sometimes sadistic servitude. (DC, DS)

My judgement: **1/2 out of 4 stars

Monday, 26 October 2009

Full Metal Jacket

Movie Review: Full Metal Jacket

Year of Release: 1987
Country of Origin: UK, USA
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Vincent D'Onofrio, R. Lee Ermey

Plot outline: Story follows a group of Marine recruits from the harrowing experience of boot camp to the horrifying battlefronts of Vietnam (IMDb).

What can be said about the Vietnam war that hasn't been said already? Full Metal Jacket answers that question, and demonstrates that there is always room for a great movie, even if the genre has already been thoroughly explored. Full Metal Jacket is really two different movies, with Matthew Modine's everyman character bridging the gap. Only three mild criticisms about the first half, which is superior to the second half. Out of the large number of marine recruits, only four (Joker, Snowball, Pyle and Cowboy) have speaking parts. Did the writers think we would get confused with too many characters, or was the producer unwilling to pay extras to speak? Also, Modine frequently does a John Wayne impersonation, which is not very good! Finally, Pyle has a weird character turn that doesn't seem likely despite all the abuse and brainwashing he has received. The second half of the movie has Modine in Vietnam, covering the war first as a journalist and then as a soldier. The early scenes of this second half are outstanding, but when Modine finally sees action the movie declines slightly, though still excellent. War is hell, but in this case not quite as interesting. One observation is that the American soldiers have great respect for the North Vietnam soldiers, but contempt and bitterness towards the people of South Vietnam. This may be due to its corruption, depicted through extended scenes of negotiations with prostitutes, or the notion that South Vietnam was not grateful for the "assistance" of Uncle Sam. Actually, given scenes of a soldier in a helicopter machine-gunning every Vietnamese he sees, of any age or gender, it is clear why the South Vietnamese weren't so grateful! Not the greatest war movie ever, but perhaps the best movie about Vietnam (Apocalypse Now was overlong and lacked necessary focus). (BK)

My judgement: ***1/2 out of 4 stars

Sunday, 25 October 2009

The Tamarind Seed

Movie Review: The Tamarind Seed

Year of Release: 1974
Country of Origin: UK, USA
Director: Blake Edwards
Cast: Julie Andrews, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quayle, Dan O'Herlihy

Plot outline: Rival Cold War diplomats fall in love in the Caribbean (IMDb).

The Tamarind Seed is an espionage thriller. The plot is quite involved but seemed a bit too full of contrivances to really be taken as seriously as it wanted to be. The pacing was a bit problematic too - it just dragged on too slowly in parts. The final plot twist was utterly predictable, though kind of in a good way (you’ll see what I mean). The music was rather repetitive and thus mildly annoying rather than atmospheric. However, there were good aspects to it, and overall I did enjoy it. It focused more on the human element than many espionage movies do, which is good. Julie Andrews and Omar Sharif played their parts well, and there was a good supporting cast including Anthony Quayle (head of MI6) and Sylvia Sims. The main characters were quite interesting, though I never felt that the movie really delved beneath the surfaces of their characters. It might have worked better if it had taken itself a little less seriously - director Blake Edwards seems less at ease with this serious style of film, though it is still a creditable attempt (perhaps he is a victim of his own success in this regard). There were some decent action scenes and some intriguing moments, just too much not-very-much-going-on situations in between. Overall it did help the movie that both Andrews and Sharif have such a screen presence, though their characters did seem to lack a certain chemistry together. Overall The Tamarind Seed is a movie worth watching, but is a bit too slow-going to be truly great. (CD)

My judgement: **1/2 out of 4 stars

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Match Point

Movie Review: Match Point

Year of Release: 2005
Country of Origin: UK, USA, Ireland, Russia
Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Emily Mortimer, Matthew Goode

Plot outline: At a turning point in his life, a former tennis pro falls for a femme-fatale who happens to be dating his friend and soon-to-be brother-in-law (IMDb).

Match Point is a surprising deviation from Woody Allen’s previous efforts. It’s more classic Hitchcock than Allen, which is in many ways refreshing. Allen’s work in recent years has left fans wanting better. If nothing else, Match Point proves that he is back on track. His screenplay flows quickly and flawlessly for the first two thirds, spoiled only by a slightly overblown, plot hole-filled ending that could leave moviegoers unsatisfied. Overall, though, his authentic dialogue and thoroughly developed characters more than make up for any shortcomings the last third may present. He does an excellent job saying what needs to be said and nothing more, crafting more of an implied back-story rather than spelling out every little detail. This helps move the story along swiftly. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers has a ton of film credits, but he has never really been able to break out as a star. Match Point is his first real chance to show what he can do on a big stage. His character is a fish out of water, forced to weigh the merits of being happy in love with the lifestyle benefits of sticking with his high-class contacts. He doesn’t want to leave his secure life, but does he really want to be miserable and bored for the rest of his life? Rhys-Meyers does an outstanding job conveying Chris’ internal struggle as he tries to figure out a resolution to the problem. This is why we relate to the character instead of just thinking he’s a lowlife. Personally, I don’t get the love for Scarlett Johansson. Yes, she’s gorgeous, but the girl has a hard time acting. It’s not that she does a horrific job; it’s just that she’s clearly the weakest link of the four main players. Yet, she seems to be getting all the awards attention. Emily Mortimer’s work as Chloe - the longing wife who has no idea about her husband’s indiscretions - is much more convincing and worthy of attention. Compared to Allen’s more recent movies, Match Point is a masterpiece. Overall, though, it’s simply a solid movie. The drama is tense and the story of obsession, fate and luck is a convincing one. (BS)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Friday, 23 October 2009

Eyes Wide Shut

Movie Review: Eyes Wide Shut

Year of Release: 1999
Country of Origin: UK, USA
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack, Todd Field

Plot outline: Consumed by betrayal and jealousy, a wealthy Manhattan doctor becomes entangled in sexual adventures when his wife admits to having sexual fantasies about another man (IMDb).

Eyes Wide Shut quickly developed a strong following, mostly from admirers of legendary director Stanley Kubrick. The movie is less popular, however, than several of Kubrick's later movies, e.g. A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket, and The Shining. Loosely based on the 1926 novel "
Traumnovelle" (Dream Story) by Arthur Schnitzler, the setting has been changed to modern-day New York City. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) is a successful doctor who learns that his beautiful wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) has been fantasizing about having sex with another man. Bill decides to get his revenge through some sexual adventures of his own, which soon get him into trouble after crashing a private party at a wealthy estate. The hotties that tempt Bill aren't offering him sex or comfort. They want more ... they want to take him away from Alice. Bill seems to know this, which is why he is unable to commit adultery. Bill and Alice are bound together by their young daughter, Helena. The oddest thing about Eyes Wide Shut is that the script is at heart a mystery, and throws many false clues at the viewer that turn out to be unrelated to the plot. This is truly unconventional film-making, a deliberate prevention of tying up the loose ends. These diversionary subplots are all sexually related. And the movie is quite forward in its depictions, retaining Kubrick's favoritism of art over commerce. (BK)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Sunday, 18 October 2009

The Verdict

Movie Review: The Verdict

Year of Release: 1982
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Sidney Lumet
Cast: Paul Newman, Charlotte Rampling, Jack Warden, James Mason

Plot outline: An alcoholic lawyer tries to redeem his reputation by taking on a difficult medical malpractice case (IMDb).

Despite being about a court case, The Verdict is really about a washed up attorney's decision to go to trial on behalf of his client, rather than taking the easy way out and accepting a cash settlement from the powerful defendant. David Mamet wrote and Sidney Lumet directed it. While the dialog has a number of good lines, the story is one that has been told many times before. However, Lumet has the insight to let Paul Newman and the supporting cast act and let his camera be an onlooker. The result is a tremendous character study of a man coming to terms with himself and ultimately redeeming himself against all odds. Sort of a new take on the tortoise and the hare fable. Newman is at his finest playing underdog Frank Galvin. One look at the battered, almost defeated alcoholic speaks volumes. Supporting actor Jack Warden also is spot on as Galvin's partner. James Mason is deliciously evil as the unscrupulous defense attorney who will do anything to win. While I can't speak to the accuracy of the legal proceedings, I can say that they were only a side issue in this story. The real question was, "Can a man long accustomed to his habits redeem himself?" Whether you believe the answer is yes or no, Lumet has made a convincing case for his view in The Verdict. (GC)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Citizen Kane

Movie Review: Citizen Kane

Year of Release: 1941
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Orson Welles
Cast: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Everett Sloane

Plot outline: Following the death of a publishing tycoon, news reporters scramble to discover the meaning of his final word (IMDb).


What does it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul?

Perhaps that is the whole point of the story. We have all felt the pangs of failure, of regret, of things that we should have done, but left undone; of opportunities lost. So we sublimate our desires in a variety of ways. It's a thing common to humans. Kidding ourselves, we project our ambitions on another, perhaps our mate or our child. Or perhaps we become a collector like Kane, trying to fill our frustrated emptiness with possessions beyond number. No matter what our personal mechanism for coping with these human inadequacies, it all amounts to the same thing; when we die, we are alone. Our personal triumphs or failures are no more or less than those of the richest tycoon or the poorest beggar. They become the winding sheet that accompanies us to our grave and are as soon forgotten.

The most auspicious debut movie ever for a director is also the most influential and discussed movie of all time, and also one that was controversial due to its stinging fictionalized representation of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst. The 25-year-old Orson Welles innovatively directs, writes and stars in Citizen Kane. The film was noted for so many innovative features that are now regularly part of a modern film, that the film itself can still be presented to film schools as 'a film on how to make a film.' The innovations include such things as stylistic camera movement, unconventional lighting - including chiaroscuro and a novel use of shadows, following in the tradition of German Expressionists, depth-focus and angle shots, over-lapping dialogue, flashbacks, non-linear narrative, frequent use of dissolves, long takes and many other marvelous technical feats. Welles assumes most of the credit, but I would think cinematographer Gregg Toland had more than some minor part in the innovations. The movie is a masterpiece that has a certain continual fascination despite its dazzling technical achievements that encourages repeated viewings and always seems to bring out something seen in a different light or something brand new. It's an enigmatic movie that invites comparisons to Welles' own character, and one that invites further questioning about such things as art, authorship, fakery and filmmaking. Citizen Kane should be required viewing by anybody interested in film. It shows the results of a prodigal life with many material benefits yet yielding very little spiritual fruit. (DS, GC)

My judgement: **** out of 4 stars

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Send Me No Flowers

Movie Review: Send Me No Flowers

Year of Release: 1964
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Norman Jewison
Cast: Rock Hudson, Doris Day, Tony Randall

Plot outline: When he mistakenly thinks he's dying, a hypochondriac tries to choose his wife's next husband (IMDb).

Send Me No Flowers, the third and final pairing of Rock Hudson and Doris Day, is unquestionably the duo's least effective and most uneven effort, as Norman Jewison - working from Julius Epstein's screenplay - has infused the proceedings with a plodding sensibility that's compounded by an egregiously overlong running time. The premise is certainly not at fault; it's the sort of wacky setup that could (and should) have resulted in a fun and frenetic romantic comedy, but his refusal to keep things moving at a brisk clip transforms the movie into a distinctly interminable experience (with the stagnant and needlessly drawn-out third act only exacerbating matters). Hudson and Day are fantastic together, of course, and Tony Randall does his usual scene-stealing thing - yet there's no doubt that Send Me No Flowers ultimately comes off as a desperate attempt at recapturing Pillow Talk's charming and effortlessly delightful atmosphere. (DN)

My judgement: *1/2 out of 4 stars

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

The Lady from Shanghai

Movie Review: The Lady from Shanghai

Year of Release: 1947
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Orson Welles
Cast: Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Everett Sloane, Glenn Anders

Plot outline: A romantic drifter gets caught between a corrupt tycoon and his voluptuous wife (IMDb).

The Lady from Shanghai is a complicated mess, but it’s a treat to watch. Even for a film noir, the plot is too full of twists, turns and triple-crosses. By the time the whole case is laid out during the movie’s climax, it’s easy not to care too much about what happened. Through it all, though, Orson Welles weaves a compelling narrative, and his distinctive visual style drives the movie. Yet where he succeeds in directorial prowess, he totally fails in accent affectation - his Irish brogue is fairly embarrassing, and its necessity to the story is dubious. Rita Hayworth’s Elsa is a fine femme fatale, but has very little to do until the very end of the movie. Some of the most fun comes from watching Elsa, Bannister and Grisby bicker aboard the yacht. As Mike looks on, the three trade verbal barbs that are some of the movie’s best dialogue, including Mike’s oddly poetic speech about sharks. The Lady from Shanghai delivers the goods during the last 10 minutes, when Elsa, Bannister and Mike chase each other through a funhouse. It’s a thrilling, disorienting sequence that makes sitting through Welles’ terrible accent totally worthwhile. (LC)

My judgement: **1/2 out of 4 stars

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

The Trial

Movie Review: The Trial (Le procès)

Year of Release: 1962
Country of Origin: France, Italy, Germany, Yugoslavia
Director: Orson Welles
Cast: Anthony Perkins, Romy Schneider, Orson Welles, Akim Tamiroff

Plot outline: In this adaptation of Franz Kafka's classic, a man in a nameless country stands trial for an unnamed crime (IMDb).

Orson Welles chose the project partly because it suited his subtly surreal directorial style, and partly because the source material was in the public domain. The adaptation is every bit as strange as expected: nosy flatfoots out of a 1940s film noir merge with outrageously promiscuous femme fatales and faceless bureaucrats, collectively powerful but individually impotent. Corruption and degradation is everywhere except in our affronted protagonist, whose refusal to play along may be the nameless crime that he has been accused of. The Trial doesn't work as a black comedy. Yet it is surprisingly watchable; the story almost mesmerizing with its legal conundrums that defy logic yet sometimes seem to reflect reality. Welles himself plays The Advocate, a dissipated lawyer who seems to be complicit with the court to turn the defendants into pathetic sheep stripped of their manhood. Perkins' Joseph K has freedom of movement, but is always under surveillance by someone belonging to the conspiracy. The sets are the real star of the movie. Cavernous rooms are used to depict a business filled with endless rows of automaton typists, and a courtroom where Joseph's show trial has become a concert-styled mass entertainment. Hallways wind everywhere but lead nowhere; rooms are stuffed to the roof with bulging folders that no one ever reads. The studio of painter Titorelli (William Chappell) is made up of cheap plywood separated widely enough for a mob of insane schoolgirls to look in on his every movement. One ceiling is a ramshackle collection of misjointed lumber planks. While the script is sometimes lacking, the visuals are always unusual enough to be of interest. Those enamored with the trappings of The Trial ignore its problems. The surreal nature of the characters doesn't always explain their motivations. The same can be said for the lack of continuity, and the unsatisfying ending. (BK)

My judgement: **1/2 out of 4 stars

Friday, 9 October 2009

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Movie Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo)

Year of Release: 1966
Country of Origin: Italy, Spain, Germany
Director: Sergio Leone
Cast: Eli Wallach, Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef

Plot outline: Three men seek hidden loot during the Civil War (IMDb).

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is an electric, surreal western that stands out as one of the best ever made. Though it’s set during the Civil War, the movie doesn’t feel like a historical epic, largely because it doesn’t look like one. Rather, watching it is like stepping into an alternate world - a nightmarish, apocalyptic vision of the American west transplanted to the deserts of Europe that mixes authenticity with fantasy to create something wholly original. This is the vision of Sergio Leone: a world without time, caught in Civil War that will never end, and facing a future that will never come. Against this backdrop, Leone follows the converging stories of the three titular characters, each elevated to near mythical status. It’s a very visceral experience, highlighted by majestic yet gritty cinematography and punctuated by Ennio Morricone’s now legendary score. This, more than anything, is why, despite it’s nearly three hour running time, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly holds up so well to repeat viewings and ranks as one of the best western movies of all time. (FML)

My judgement: ***1/2 out of 4 stars

Thursday, 8 October 2009

For a Few Dollars More

Movie Review: For a Few Dollars More (Per qualche dollaro in più)

Year of Release: 1965
Country of Origin: Italy, Spain, Germany
Director: Sergio Leone
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Gian Maria Volontè, Mara Krupp

Plot outline: Two bounty hunters join forces to bring an outlaw to justice (IMDb).

For a Few Dollars More is the second in Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy” following A Fistful of Dollars. Both the leads, Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef, manage to make every little thing they do, be it lighting a cigarette or sipping a drink, seem super-cool-badass and the movie is a joy to watch because of it. Unfortunately, Gian Maria Volontè can’t quite match the intense charisma of Eastwood and Van Cleef in his role as the lead villain. It’s a real shame, made even more frustrating by the presence of Klaus Kinski as one of the henchman. Kinski, in his all too brief scenes, easily matches Eastwood and Van Cleef in terms of screen presence and would have been a much better choice for the lead villain. (Granted, you’d have to rewrite the part as Kinski can’t really pass for a Mexican bandit, but that’s not crucial to the story.) Compounding the weak casting is the long running time. At 130 minutes, the movie simply drags whenever Eastwood or Van Cleef isn’t on the screen. Thankfully this isn’t often, but it is enough that you notice. (FML)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

A Fistful of Dollars

Movie Review: A Fistful of Dollars (Per un pugno di dollari)

Year of Release: 1964
Country of Origin: Italy, Spain, Germany
Director: Sergio Leone
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Marianne Koch, Gian Maria Volontè, Wolfgang Lukschy

Plot outline: A mysterious stranger plays dueling families against each other in a Mexican border town (IMDb).

From this tiny germ of a story was established the mythic persona of The Man With No Name who would become indelibly identified with Clint Eastwood and rocket him to stardom. As the prototype of Sergio Leone's westerns, A Fistful of Dollars shows the embryonic growth of Leone's vision, Morricone's scoring, and Eastwood's acting. Leone's widescreen compositions of the bleak and dirty West are decent and the beginnings of his claustrophobic cutting between the characters' eyes can be seen. Leone also switches viewpoints with his lens showing the death throes from the point of view of dying villain Gian Maria Volontè after being shot by Eastwood. Ennio Morricone, sounding heavily influenced by veteran composer Elmer Bernstein, scores an eclectic number of snippets of spare solo instrumentation, ranging from guitar, harmonica, piano, Jews harp, and whistles, occasionally breaking into crescendos of fully orchestrated music. Morricone's efforts resulted in very memorable musical ideas that would be more fully developed in his later works. Eastwood was the only recognizable actor in the bunch, at least from an American viewpoint. Most of the other performances ranged from fair to middlin. As the father of his success, Eastwood dedicated his 1993 masterpiece Unforgiven to Sergio Leone and Don Siegel - Dirty Harry (1971). (GC)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

A Bridge Too Far

Movie Review: A Bridge Too Far

Year of Release: 1977
Country of Origin: USA, UK
Director: Richard Attenborough
Cast: Dirk Bogarde, James Caan, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Edward Fox

Plot outline: An historic telling of the Allied forces’ failed attempt to capture several bridges in Germany near the end of World War II (IMDb).

There’s a lot of good stuff here. The all-star cast hits (James Caan, Michael Caine and Sean Connery) more often than it misses (Gene Hackman and Ryan O’Neal) and even knocks one clear out of the park (Robert Redford). The production is fantastic, with great location scenery and authentic vehicles and equipment, and the battle scenes are tense, pulse-pounding thrillers. But then there’s that last 30 minutes. For the first two hours or so, the movie is essentially a docu-drama style look at Operation Market Garden, from its initial planning stages to its execution and failure. Small dramatic arcs, like short stories, interrupt the proceedings from time to time, such as James Caan’s rescuing an injured friend, but for the most part we’re a dispassionate observer. Yet, in the final quarter, the director attempts to ground the story through the eyes of a doctor, played by Laurence Olivier and a woman, played by Liv Ullmann, who are manning a makeshift hospital. The thing is, it doesn’t work! We see dozens and dozens of wounded soldiers, but they’re nameless faces. We see the bombed out buildings, but they’re just smoldering rubble. We have no personal connection to this death and devastation so rather than feel the emotional weight it’s meant to impart, we’re just bored. In the end, the movie, like the mission, was flawed from the beginning. It told a story with no end, a mission with a great initial investment that never paid off. (FML)

My judgement: ** out of 4 stars