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Bret Maverick (1981)
An underrated achievement for James Garner
On the heels of his fabulous series THE ROCKFORD FILES, James Garner took the risk of reviving the character that made him a household name. However little faith NBC placed in this series, it remains a treat for Garner fans, far superior to the previous effort, THE NEW MAVERICK (starring Charles Frank), and thoroughly enjoyable for anyone who appreciates a Western done with style and class. Fortunately the prints are in good shape, helping us to appreciate the colour photography and production design.
The main attraction, of course, is the star, who once again had a series tailored to his own unique and very likable persona. Some have dismissed this as Jim Rockford in the Old West, but I consider that an asset. As an older, slightly heavier actor - and former stuntman plagued by injuries - Garner could not simply replay the Maverick of 25 years earlier. Instead he made the attempt to gear more lighthearted plots and characters to a 1980s audience. (Perhaps the attempt was futile, considering what most of '80s television turned out to be!)
Garner is aided by a good cast, among them Richard Hamilton, as his "Lazy Ace" ranch hand; Ramon Bieri, as the snooty bank president; Darleen Carr, as the thorn-in-the-side reporter; and Stuart Margolin, his "Rockford" colleague, as a half-Indian con-man. Country singer Ed Bruce plays Maverick's taciturn partner in the Red Ox Saloon, and lends his writing and singing talents to the delightful theme song ("Maverick Didn't Come Here to Lose").
Pity that this series lasted only for one year. My thanks, however, to the Encore Westerns Channel for providing a pleasant, uninterrupted 50 minutes of television. It sure as shootin' brightens my day!
How not to do a remake!
This reworking of Anthony Shaffer's classic play did not last long in cinemas. Having recently suffered through it on cable, I still congratulate myself for not wasting money on a ticket. Director Kenneth Branagh, writer Harold Pinter, and star / producer Jude Law deluded themselves that their prestige alone could sustain this travesty through an interminable 93 minutes, without the fun or class of the longer original.
Michael Caine enhanced his reputation playing the second lead in the marvelous 1972 film. He now seems intent on destroying it by attempting the lead, played in that version by Laurence Olivier. (Both were nominated for Best Actor Oscars, but lost to Marlon Brando in THE GODFATHER.) Looking puffy and washed-out, Caine glides through the part with less depth than he displays as Batman's butler. He had already lowered himself to a guest appearance in the atrocious remake of GET CARTER. What's next -- ALFIE II, or SON OF THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING?
But then, no one benefits from this inane adaptation by Pinter, who thinks that frequent cursing and an added sexual angle can compensate for the absence of Shaffer's witty character interplay. Branagh's direction relies on bluish lighting and a soulless set design that wouldn't hold up in a second-rate nightclub. Neither the shadows nor the tight, overacted close-ups can help Law overcome his dull screen persona. The result is a failure both as straight drama and as detective thriller, almost making you forget the purpose behind the title.
Fans of the original stage production (with Anthony Quayle and Keith Baxter) and the Olivier / Caine film would do well to regard this enterprise as a bad dream. The late Mr Shaffer, who wrote the 1972 screenplay, as well as Hitchcock's FRENZY and several Agatha Christie adaptations, must be turning in his grave, wishing he could plan a real murder or two!
Rocky Balboa (2006)
Best of the Series -- A Heartwarming Final Reunion With an Old Friend!
Sylvester Stallone's training regimen for this film may have included toughening his hide against possible ridicule from critics and public alike. After all, the current crop of young filmgoers might only know him for "Spy Kids 3-D" and his short-lived reality TV series, "The Contender." And after the collapse of his men's magazine, SLY, and the failure of his fabulous exercise book, SLY MOVES, to hit the best-seller lists, he was in need of a lift.
The Sly Fox (all of 60) is back, I'm happy to say, putting his heart, soul, and every bit of his physical prowess into ROCKY BALBOA, the sixth, final, and best film of the series. Stallone has now brought his best-loved character to a graceful retirement.
Sixteen years after ROCKY V, Stallone is refusing to allow that inane, incoherent mess to serve as the last word on his very personal creation. Stallone has matured as a filmmaker, offering the most tightly-controlled, heartfelt film since the original. He also applies this maturity to his portrayal of Rocky Balboa: smooth but not smug, likable but not cute, sympathetic but not maudlin. He brings with him an excellent supporting cast. Certainly this film stands head-and-shoulders above ROCKY IV, a desperate, hastily-made homage to the dime-store patriotism of the Reagan years (complete with an ugly "Russian" opponent).
Having been fleeced of his fortune by crooked accountants (in the previous film), Rocky has returned to his roots in a rundown part of Philadelphia. He has, in the interim, lost his beloved wife Adrian to "woman's cancer" and opened a restaurant. ("Adrian's," what else?) His son (Milo Ventimiglia) clambers for a foothold in the corporate world, while his insecurities compel him to keep his father at arm's length. Burt Young returns as Paulie, Rocky's cynical brother-in-law, saddled with guilt about his late sister but always supportive of Rocky.
As Rocky struggles to make ends meet and manage his grief, the boxing world has moved on to ESPN, HBO/Pay-per-View, snottier, know-it-all commentators and, most significantly ... computer animation! The reigning heavyweight champion, the marvellously-named Mason "The Line" Dixon (real-life boxer Antonio Tarver), is not the one-dimensional villain of previous contests: neither the angry sadist of III, nor the giant Marvel Comics automaton of IV. Despite his success, he has yet to earn respect on the level of say, a Rocky Balboa. Even his managers are tired of his petulant, chip-on-the-shoulder attitude, as they make clear in a superbly played scene. Go easy on the old guy, Dixon is advised -- it still means a fatter paycheck, bigger crowds, greater prestige, and finally, respect just by being linked with the name Balboa. "You're one crazy old man!" he tells Rocky, who replies, "You'll get there."
Rocky's charm hasn't diminished with age. He develops a pleasant friendship with a young single mother -- nicely played by Irish actress Geraldine Hughes -- and reaches out to her grown son (James Francis Kelly III). He even gives new life to a scruffy, abandoned mutt -- subsequently named Punchy -- who ends up accompanying Rocky on his training runs. His restaurant is filled with boxing mementos, while the customers are regaled with anecdotes of the good old days.
My quibbles with the film are minor: firstly, the lack of a proper reunion scene with Tony Burton (veteran of the earlier films), who plays Duke, Rocky's trainer. He appears suddenly for the press conference, and then for the training montage. Perhaps some scenes were cut by the studio; regardless, Burton deserved a bigger role. Secondly, I might have done with one less flashback or photograph of Talia Shire, as Adrian. And finally, even two seconds of Mike Tyson is too much!
Clark Mathis's cinematography captures the grittier, no-frills quality of Rocky's current life, casting aside the comic book colours perfectly suited to ROCKY IV. Bill Conti's original score returns to stir the blood and quicken the pulse, especially when the well-known theme "Gonna Fly Now" flies out over the training sequence. Some of my fellow filmgoers were groaning, too, watching Stallone strain against those Olympic-sized barbells! (There's a flash of Rocky's "nutritional" preparation, inspired by the first film.) The match is tough and realistic but not overly graphic, presented as an authentic HBO/PPV event set against the glitz of Las Vegas. In fact, it is one of the best boxing sequences ever created for film, without excessive slow-motion shots and leaden 1980s sound effects being shoved down your throat. The conclusion is dignified and credible, as is the film overall, absolutely uplifting for those of us in the 50-plus range! Even the end credits are fun to watch, a fond "Thank You" from Sylvester Stallone to his fans. As Rocky takes his final bow, only the hard-of-heart could refuse to cheer along with the crowd in this sequel that can proudly stand on its own.
During this past Christmas season, ROCKY BALBOA had the warm feeling of one last reunion with an old friend.
So welcome back, old friend -- and farewell!
Batman and Robin (1949)
Pretty bad -- at least Schwarzenegger isn't in it!
Granting the budget and time constraints of serial production, BATMAN AND ROBIN nonetheless earns a place near the bottom of any "cliffhanger" list, utterly lacking the style, imagination, and atmosphere of its 1943 predecessor, BATMAN.
The producer, Sam Katzman, was known as "King of the Quickies" and, like his director, Spencer Bennett, seemed more concerned with speed and efficiency than with generating excitement. (Unfortunately, this team also produced the two Superman serials, starring Kirk Alyn, with their tacky flying animation, canned music, and dull supporting players.) The opening of each chapter offers a taste of things to come: thoroughly inane titles ("Robin Rescues Batman," "Batman vs Wizard"), mechanical music droning on, and our two heroes stumbling toward the camera looking all around, either confused or having trouble seeing through their cheap Halloween masks. Batman's cowl, with its devil's horns and eagle's beak, fits so poorly that the stuntman has to adjust it during the fight scenes. His "utility belt" is a crumpled strip of cloth with no compartments, from which he still manages to pull a blowtorch and an oxygen tube at critical moments!
In any case, the lead players are miscast. Robert Lowery displays little charm or individual flair as Bruce Wayne, and does not cut a particularly dynamic figure as Batman. He creates the impression that he'd rather be somewhere, anywhere else! John Duncan, as Robin, has considerable difficulty handling his limited dialogue. He is too old for the part, with an even older stuntman filling in for him. Out of costume, Lowery and Duncan are as exciting as tired businessmen ambling out for a drink, without one ounce of the chemistry evident between Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft in the 1943 serial.
Although serials were not known for character development, the earlier BATMAN managed to present a more energetic cast. This one offers a group going through the motions, not that the filmmakers provide much support. Not one of the hoodlums stands out, and they are led by one of the most boring villains ever, "The Wizard." (Great name!) Actually, they are led by someone sporting a curtain, a shawl, and a sack over his head, with a dubbed voice that desperately tries to sound menacing. The "prime suspects" -- an eccentric professor, a radio broadcaster -- are simply annoying.
Even the established comic book "regulars" are superfluous. It is hard to discern much romance between Vicki Vale and Bruce Wayne. Despite the perils she faces, Vicki displays virtually no emotion. Commissioner Gordon is none-too-bright. Unlike in the previous serial, Alfred the butler is a mere walk-on whose most important line is "Mr Wayne's residence." They are props for a drawn-out, gimmick-laden, incoherent plot, further saddled with uninspired, repetitive music and amateurish production design. The Wayne Manor exterior resembles a suburban middle-class home in any sitcom, the interiors those of a cheap roadside motel. The Batcave is an office desperately in need of refurbishing. (The costumes are kept rolled up in a filing cabinet!)
Pity that the filmmakers couldn't invest more effort into creating a thrilling adventure. While the availability of the two serials on DVD is a plus for any serious "Batfan," one should not be fooled by the excellent illustrations on the box. They capture more of the authentic mood of the comic book than all 15 chapters of BATMAN AND ROBIN combined.
Now for the good news -- this is not the 1997 version!
The Sea Wolves (1980)
Classy film-making -- unlike much of today's stuff!
THE SEA WOLVES is a fabulous adventure, based upon the true story of The Calcutta Light Horse, retired British veterans of the Boer War who are called upon to perform a secret mission in India during World War II. (The main historical source is the book, "Boarding Party," by James Leasor.) A witty, well-structured script by Reginald Rose and solid direction by Andrew V. McLaglen make this a good old-fashioned filmgoing experience. (Both were also responsible, along with producer Euan Lloyd, for the excellent THE WILD GEESE.)
The film moves along well, graced by a distinguished cast: Gregory Peck, Roger Moore, Trevor Howard, Patrick Macnee and, in his last major role, the ever-suave David Niven. You'll cheer for the gallery of British supporting players who, fighting age and seasickness, struggle to get in shape for this "last charge" -- patriots whose desire to serve one more time pulls them away from their comfortable world of polo, cricket, and drinks at the club. They face a worthy adversary in Barbara Kellermann.
Perhaps one may quibble with the uneven quality of Peck's British accent, but his customarily dignified presence makes up for it. Moore is rather Bondish here -- the womanizer of the group -- but ironically, more impressive than in his 007 films. (True Bondophiles will notice several 007 veterans among the crew, including editor John Glen, title artist Maurice Binder, and Matt Monro, who sings the closing theme.)
McLaglen makes excellent use of the Indian locations, mainly Goa and Delhi, as he builds his story to an exciting climax. (The perpetrators of OCTOPUSSY should have taken lessons from this film.) The result is a truly classy adventure, without the high-tech noise and hot air of so many films.
NOTE: The Sea Wolves should have shot those responsible for the dim-witted advertising campaign, reproduced on both the VHS and DVD boxes! It is a MAD Magazine-type caricature which would lead anyone to believe that the film is a slapstick comedy.
Never Say Never Again (1983)
One of the five BEST Bonds!
Let me depart from many comments I've read here, and say that this film ranks as one of the five best Bonds, along with On Her Majesty's Secret Service, From Russia With Love, Licence To Kill, and For Your Eyes Only (the ONLY time Roger Moore actually played the role of Bond, instead of futzing around). Of course, Sean Connery pulls the whole thing together -- as co-writer, co-producer, and in his best performance since From Russia With Love. He is fit, energetic, and obviously enjoying himself. His acting is mature, confident, and laced with the right amount of humour. This is in contrast to his mechanical performance in Thunderball, his sleepwalking through You Only Live Twice, and his jowly, paunchy romp through that cartoon known as Diamonds Are Forever!
This is an imaginative reworking of Thunderball, without having the sets and machines overwhelming the characters and plot. This cast is far superior, as well. Klaus Maria Brandauer brings his unique style to the role of Largo, without relying on an eyepatch, SPECTRE ring or a boring uniform. Kim Basinger is athletic and lovely, Barbara Carrera is dynamic, and for once, we have a great Felix Leiter in Bernie Casey. The depictions of M and Q are original, and the addition of the bumbling agent Small-Fawcett is fun without lapsing into slapstick.
Director Irvin Kershner makes good use of his locations (the Bahamas and the French Riviera) without losing sight of his actors. Although close inspection reveals some mediocre special effects and lapses in continuity, Kershner keeps the film moving at a good pace, unlike Thunderball (which even its director, Terence Young, did not like). Obviously fans will miss the gun-barrel trademark and the 007 theme music, but they are, after all, owned by Eon Productions.
Michel LeGrand may not have composed the most memorable score, but it captures the atmosphere of the locations without being overly intrusive. Not surprisingly, his best moments are in the south of France, with his French love song (at the health spa) being particularly attractive. And tell me, how many really remember the music for Moonraker? I personally would rather forget Man With the Golden Gun and A View To a Kill!
The Eon folks can sneer at this film if they like. (Yes, Octopussy made more money.) At least Connery's mature 007 didn't swing through the jungle emitting a Tarzan yell. He did not frolic with a Bengal tiger, nor did he fight off "Indian" snake charmers with a tennis racket. Despite Eon's desperate efforts to stop this production, Kevin McClory and the late Jack Schwartzman put together a fine film, one that I think Ian Fleming would have appreciated.
If, however, you would rather see James Bond get kicked in the shins by a dwarf, engage in another tiresome struggle with "Jaws", jump into bed with Grace Jones, or lead a slapstick firetruck chase through San Francisco, this is NOT the film for you!
Nine Hours to Rama (1963)
Fascinating film, dramatizing the murder of Mahatma Gandhi.
NINE HOURS TO RAMA distinguishes itself in the category of "historical fiction." While remaining faithful to Stanley Wolpert's novel, it perfectly captures the political tension of post-independence India which led to the murder of Mahatma Gandhi on 30 January 1948.
Nelson Gidding's screenplay eliminates some of the clutter of the novel, limits the flashbacks to the background of the assassin, Nathuram Godse, and maintains a good pace through the painful climax. Director Mark Robson (THE HARDER THEY FALL, VON RYAN'S EXPRESS), with the help of cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson, makes good use of the diverse landscape and people of India. Robson's international leads portray Indians with intelligence and sensitivity, blending expertly with many Indian supporting actors.
In making the transition from an exuberant 18-year old to an embittered fanatic of 30-plus, Horst Buchholz delivers an intense, focused performance as Godse, the real-life killer. Don Borisenko is his partner Apte, plagued by doubt and fear, and straining to reconcile his fateful mission with the tenets of his Hindu faith. The biggest liberty taken with history is the addition of a sophisticated, married woman with whom Godse falls in love, played by the lovely, elegant Valerie Gearon.
Jose Ferrer is superb as the Delhi police inspector desperately trying to prevent the inevitable, but hamstrung by the target himself. His frustration is shared by Harry Andrews, unrecognizable as a Sikh general. Robert Morley is fabulous as the parliamentarian whose hard-headed politics clashes with Gandhi's idealism. The gorgeous Diane Baker plays a prostitute who provides Godse with some much-needed refuge.
By far, the most inspired piece of casting is that of a former teacher, J. S. Casshyap, as Mahatma Gandhi. (Yes, HE is Indian!) His scenes, however brief, are the most startling. His resemblance to the great leader -- face, body, and voice -- is nothing short of remarkable, even more so than Ben Kingsley in the second half of GANDHI. It is one of the many injustices of the film world, that Casshyap was never even nominated for an Oscar for "Best Supporting Actor."
Robson and his crew deserve high praise for their fidelity to the subject matter and the professionalism of its execution, from Saul Bass's chilling opening credits (showing the inner workings of a stopwatch) and Malcolm Arnold's magnificent score, through the costume and production design, all the way to the brilliantly staged and edited assassination sequence. The result is one of the most underrated films of the 1960's.
I am furious that this is not available on VHS or DVD; in fact it should be in the widescreen format! One can only hope that 20th Century Fox will someday rectify the situation.