Monday, 26 April 2010

The Big Trail

Movie Review: The Big Trail

Year of Release: 1930
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Raoul Walsh
Cast: John Wayne, Marguerite Churchill, El Brendel, Tully Marshall, Tyrone Power Sr.

Plot outline: Breck leads a wagon train of pioneers through Indian attack, storms, deserts, swollen rivers, down cliffs and so on while looking for the murder of a trapper and falling in love with Ruth (IMDb).

The Big Trail is notable as John Wayne’s first starring role. While he radiates charisma, Wayne performance unfortunately feels wooden. His character talks too much and acts too little, a far cry from the laconic persona he would refine over the next nine years and bring to bear in the superior Stagecoach (1939). Still, Wayne’s performance in many ways mirrors the entire production, full of potential, but ultimately uneven. The Big Trail is a movie brimming with realism. The clothes, the equipment, everything is well researched. Throw in some jaw-dropping visuals, such as hundreds of settlers lowering their wagons by rope down the side of a cliff, or driving through a huge rushing river during a rain storm, and even Lawrence of Arabia (1962) can’t match its level of epic filmmaking. Unfortunately, the characters themselves seem to get lost amidst the spectacle. The cookie-cutter roles are almost universally forgettable, and the dialog comes across as awkward and stilted. While Wayne appears quite confident despite the size of the production and his relative inexperience, he’s not yet able to single-handedly carry a picture the way he could later in his career. (FML)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Wednesday, 21 April 2010


Movie Review: Summertime

Year of Release: 1955
Country of Origin: UK, USA
Director: David Lean
Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Rossano Brazzi

Plot outline: A schoolteacher is surprised to find love on a Venetian vacation (IMDb).

David Lean secured his place in movie history with such grand epics as Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, and his earlier, much more modest Brief Encounter. Nestled in between is a gem of a romantic drama, Summertime. The story of how a visit to Venice touches one woman's life, it's an intimate and sensitive portrait which Lean later declared to be his favourite movie, starring his favourite actress. Hepburn plays Jane Hudson, a confident and eager tourist on a long-awaited trip to Venice, who goes in search of a "wonderful, mystical, magical, miracle!" and incessantly captures every moment on camera. But being alone in such a romantic setting soon takes its toll as Jane finds herself surrounded by couples and begins to yearn for some passion of her own. Rossano Brazzi is Renato de Rossi, the smooth antiques dealer who sweeps the nervous Jane off her feet with all the amorous flourishes of your typical Italian lover. Initially shocked by his frank sexuality, Jane soon succumbs to Renato, who over the course of the movie makes her realise that Venice is a real place with real faults and complexities, not just the idealistic setting for her daydreams. Hepburn made a career out of playing vibrant heroines with a vulnerable side and it's her portrayal of Jane's insecurity and loneliness that give the movie its substance. Based on Arthur Laurents' play The Time of the Cuckoo, the movie is thinly plotted to give Hepburn the space to act and Lean - shooting entirely on location for the first time - the space to capture images of Venice. Summertime proved to be a critical and commercial triumph for Lean. Its success enabled Lean to leave British cinema to garner more lucrative projects in Hollywood. The sophisticated visual and contextual foundations for those later epics are evident throughout Summertime in its blend of expansive scenery mixed with subtle and often wordless interactions. Lean would cultivate other exotic stories featuring additional isolated outsiders in his later work, but with Summertime the acclaimed British filmmaker crafted a touching evocation of loneliness and an emotional realism rarely evident in similar melodramas of the period. (LB, GC)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Paris Blues

Movie Review: Paris Blues

Year of Release: 1961
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Martin Ritt
Cast: Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Sidney Poitier, Louis Armstrong, Diahann Carroll

Plot outline: Two jazz musicians deal with romantic problems in Paris (IMDb).

The jazz is hot, the romance is not so hot. The middlebrow drama never has a sense of where it's going and what it wants to say about music, racism or love relationships. Ram Bowen (Paul Newman) is a trombone player and Eddie Cook (Sidney Poitier) a tenor man in the same jazz band. Ram is studying music and aspiring to be a "serious" composer, while Eddie escapes American racism to be in a city that respects the love he has for his kind of music. American tourists Lillian Corning (Joanne Woodward) and Connie Lampson (Diahann Carroll) are on a two-week holiday in Paris and begin a casual romantic fling with the two jazz men that turns more serious as the days go by. It becomes a question if Ram will leave his music to return home to be with Lillian and will Eddie also return home because his love for Connie is so great. On the plus side there's the wonderful score by Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong's amazing rendition of "Battle Royal." Otherwise it's dross. The movie never gets around to probing America's racism that caused many blacks to seek shelter in the much friendlier confines of the City of Lights, as it instead focuses around the white Newman character's uninteresting problem if he's good enough to be a serious musician and still cut it as a jazz man. (DS)

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

Monday, 19 April 2010

The Proud Rebel

Movie Review: The Proud Rebel

Year of Release: 1958
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Alan Ladd, Olivia de Havilland

Plot outline: A young boy becomes mute after seeing his mother killed in the Civil War and his father decides to take him and their dog on a trek to find a cure for his condition, but the road ahead is full of evil sheepherders and hard-to-find money (IMDb).

Although it nominally falls into the Western or outdoor-adventure categories, The Proud Rebel, which is not without gunplay, is more concerned with exposing character than mayhem. Director Michael Curtiz, except for a few lapses, has derived fine performances from his principals. Alan Ladd, who is not noted for explosive portrayals, is restrained but exceptionally expressive as the father, whose anxiety and devotion prove more powerful than pride. Although he has but one or two lines of dialogue, Mr. Ladd's 11-year-old son, David Ladd, contributes an astonishingly professional and sympathetic stint as his son. The tow-headed youngster, who is making his movie debut, is not only extremely likable but also projects movingly and with surprising naturalness and fidelity the helplessness of the mute. Olivia de Havilland, as the farm owner whose attachment to this family ripens into love, is the picture of hardy womanhood. Although she is not a couturier's dream, the warmth, affection and sturdiness needed in the role come across to an observer with telling effect. Dean Jagger, as the dastardly, scheming sheep raiser, is, on a few occasions, a mite too blackhearted, as are Dean Stanton and Thomas Pittman, as his churlish, cowardly sons. It was filmed in Utah with enough sweep, breathtaking vistas of rolling farmland and forests and streams to make one head for the hills instantly. It is a fitting background for the honestly heartwarming drama. (AHW)

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

Sunday, 18 April 2010

There Will Be Blood

Movie Review: There Will Be Blood

Year of Release: 2007
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier

Plot outline: A story about family, greed, religion, and oil, centered around a turn-of-the-century prospector in the early days of the business (IMDb).

There Will Be Blood strives to be an epic, a masterpiece of cinema, unfortunately it falls short of that goal thanks to
its imperfections: in its unbending characters, its lack of women or any reflection of ordinary society, its ending, its relentlessness - I see its reach exceeding its grasp. There Will Be Blood could easily be called great, but it is no Citizen Kane. Daniel Plainview lacks a "Rosebud." He regrets nothing, misses nothing, pities nothing, I am not sure of its greatness. For two thirds it is a brilliantly played and structured take on ambition and capitalism. The final act turns the movie into a mano-a-mano showdown between two characters in which ambition is no longer the issue but rather one man’s god versus another man’s god. Daniel Day-Lewis is very powerful as Plainview, and while he maintains some of that power in the final act he resorts to a level of insanity that doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie or with the path his character was on. There Will Be Blood ends up a good, bordering on very good, movie that gets lost in its own desires to be a sweeping melodrama. (BME, RE)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Movie Review: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Year of Release: 1988
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Frank Oz
Cast: Steve Martin, Michael Caine, Glenne Headly

Plot outline: A French conman working the Riviera meets his match when an American cuts in on his territory (IMDb).

Steve Martin and Michael Caine are both at the top of their games here, unfortunately the script is somewhat thin and silly. Caine plays to the upper crust, monied older ladies who are looking for a little flattery and a good cause. Martin's cons are more crude, inventing a story about his dying grandmother to garner food and fancy clothes. Caine's operation has been running smoothly and he's not about to let Martin run rampant on his turf. The competition between them heats up when Glenne Headley blows into town as a rich American heiress. Most of the movie's best moments come from Martin, using his gift for physical comedy with hilarious and often embarrassing results. He'll do anything for a laugh and that helps this plot immensely. Caine and Headley are a good support staff for his wackiness, giving the proceedings a bit more class than some of Martin's other efforts. The movie seems sluggish and dated in a few areas, but overall is an amusing, mindless romp that delivers the comedy goods. (CFC)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn

Movie Review: The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn

Year of Release: 1999
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Gregg Champion
Cast: Sidney Poitier, Dianne Wiest, Mary-Louise Parker, George Newbern

Plot outline: An aging carpenter fights developers who are trying to force him to sell his land (IMDb).

The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn conveys great valors which people nearly forgot nowadays. It is an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours watching a simple story and makes you think of how far some of our values have gotten off whack. Sidney Poitier is really moving in this movie - the kind of grandfather, brother, husband, whatever, that everyone would like to have. His kindness and inner sorrows make him someone really intelligent and touching. Mary-Louise Parker also plays very well. Through her behaviour and her thoughts, the viewer starts to understand why Noah Dearborn is such a wonderful person and what life should be made of. That said, I think the movie is propaganda for self sufficient and back to the country living, but my hypothesis was tested when the lawyer quit to start a vineyard. It was also nice to see on screen techniques of woodworking that have all but vanished in the "enlightened" 20th century. (A)

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

Monday, 12 April 2010

Rooster Cogburn

Movie Review: Rooster Cogburn

Year of Release: 1975
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Stuart Millar
Cast: John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn

Plot outline: An aging U.S. Marshal and a minister's daughter join forces to catch a band of outlaws (IMDb).

A major issue with Rooster Cogburn is that the storyline is seriously uninteresting and is almost a stock storyline. Watching Rooster Cogburn and Eula Goodnight go after a bunch of cowboy criminals is not the most exciting idea in the world and it plays at such. There are various stock elements to the story: the shoot outs, the arguments and so on but it also pulls in other elements. The scene where Cogburn and Goodnight float down a river on a raft feels like a slim imitation of a scene out of Hepburn's The African Queen, just one of various scenes which seem to pull from both Wayne and Hepburn's back catalogue of movies. It has to be said that when it comes to the storyline there is little, if nothing, which you could class as original or unique. But the entertainment in Rooster Cogburn is not the storyline but the casting of two strong legendary actors opposite each other. Watching the antagonistic relationship between Cogburn and Goodnight is brilliant because the characters are both strong minded and willed. You get a sense that perhaps there was a semi antagonistic relationship between the stars as well and it shows on screen to great effect. The banter between them is first class as they battle each other over their way of life, from Cogburn's drinking to Miss Goodnight's religious fervour. But there is also the nice softer side to it as well, and you also get a sense that although Wayne and Hepburn may not have always seen eye to eye there was also a respect for each other. The pairing is great and it is what makes the movie. Elsewhere though the performances are not so good and Richard Jordan as Hawk the leader of the dangerous cowboys goes for over the top drama in every single scene. It is one of the least convincing bad guy cowboys I have ever seen and really spoils things. Maybe he realised that he would be over shadowed by Wayne and Hepburn so went for an over the top performance to try and stand out. (AW)

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

Sunday, 11 April 2010

The Greatest Story Ever Told

Movie Review: The Greatest Story Ever Told

Year of Release: 1965
Country of Origin: USA
Director: George Stevens
Cast: Max von Sydow, Carroll Baker, José Ferrer, Van Heflin, Charlton Heston, Martin Landau, Angela Lansbury, Pat Boone

Plot outline: Biography of the life of Jesus Christ (IMDb).

Based on the book by Fulton Oursler, The Greatest Story Ever Told is a lifeless and uninspiring biography of the life of Jesus Christ. This may be the greatest story ever told, but it's no where near the greatest storytelling of the story. George Stevens was no slouch director. He made Shane, The Dairy of Anne Frank, and Giant. He was a man who had a film career of 40 years. He knew what he was doing. So I'm at a loss to explain why he made this movie in the manner he did. The $20 million lavish production shot mostly in Utah (supposedly it looks like the Holy Land), and in Ultra Panavision 70 widescreen, is overlong and tedious. It's filled with inconsequential cameos that range from John Wayne as a Roman centurion at the crucifixion proclaiming "
Truly this man was the son of Gaard" and Shelley Winters as the Woman of No Name screaming "I'm cured." Most of the cameos are distracting, while the story remains lifeless and uninspiring. Swedish actor Max von Sydow is an austere blond Jesus whose fine performance, the best one in the pic, is undermined by the movie's static nature, poor pacing and too many appearances from all those unnecessary cameos. It seems almost every Hollywood actor did a set piece, making the length seem interminable. In one of the more enticing scenes Donald Pleasence as the Devil enters into a match of wits with Jesus, but von Sydow refuses to engage him and the scene fizzles like all the others. The veteran director never makes it a moving experience, which is what it's supposed to be all about. Even the music by Alfred Newman though tasteful is nevertheless only ordinary, except when it becomes too intrusive hammering out a too loud Handel's "Hallelujah" chorus from the "The Messiah." (DS, LCD)

My judgement: ** out of 4 stars

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

That Touch of Mink

Movie Review: That Touch of Mink

Year of Release: 1962
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Delbert Mann
Cast: Cary Grant, Doris Day, Gig Young

Plot outline: A rich businessman and a young woman are attracted to each other, but he only wants an affair while she wants to save her virginity for marriage (IMDb).

That Touch of Mink is a lighthearted comedy that coasts along on the charisma of its two leads. While the script won’t leave you in stitches, it’s low-key enough to stay out of the way as Grant and Day charm the audience. Director Delbert Mann subscribes to the same philosophy, framing his stars well and letting them do what they do best. His decision to film Doris Day in soft focus was overkill though, as she still looked great at 38 (and at least somewhat believable as a romantic interest for Grant, who was 58). The supporting cast doesn’t disappoint either. Gig Young is great as Grant’s would-be conscience and Audrey Meadows steals all of her scenes as Day’s overprotective roommate. (FML)

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

Saturday, 3 April 2010

The Wilby Conspiracy

Movie Review: The Wilby Conspiracy

Year of Release: 1975
Country of Origin: UK
Director: Ralph Nelson
Cast: Sidney Poitier, Michael Caine, Nicol Williamson

Plot outline: An African activist and an Englishman join forces to battle a corrupt government official in South Africa (IMDb).

Apartheid in South Africa, one of the more shameful episodes in the last half of the previous century, seemed to be mostly ignored by Hollywood until late 1980s. Before that time, American mainstream producers didn't dare to tackle the subject of the country that was nominally capitalist democracy and Western ally, yet with the regime that made Communism look good. Instead of them, that task was carried out by filmmakers in Commonwealth countries, less troubled with cheap Cold War politics. One of such projects is 1975 British production The Wilby Conspiracy, directed by Ralph Nelson and based on Peter Driscoll's novel. Like many thrillers from the 1970s, the movie has a rather complicated plot and some of today's viewers might even get lost in a quagmire of political intrigue and endless double-crossings between the protagonists. But, Ralph Nelson wraps it up as a solid piece of entertainment, using political reality of contemporary South Africa mostly as a background for conventional action thriller. So, we have a lots of humour, fistfights, car chases and even one totally gratuitous sex scene. Some might argue that the subject of racial inequality and totalitarian oppression would be inappropriate for the use in a such mainstream product. Anyway, the actors did a good job - Michael Caine brings a lot of charm to his role, unlike Sidney Poitier, whose almost solemn presence gives a rather nice contrast to Caine and establishes "buddy buddy" chemistry between the two. Other performances seems bland, except for Nicol Williamson as very convincing and intelligent villain. The end of the movie is perhaps slightly disappointing, but nevertheless the movie as a whole is worth watching, especially compared with today's politically correct movies. (DA)

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