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


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