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The Harder They Fall (1956)
Saga of ring corruption packs a kayo wallop
Humphrey Bogart's final film pulls no punches in its indictment of boxing as it chronicles the career of an unfortunate pugilist who is duped into a series of tank jobs that get him a coveted but undeserved title shot. Bogart, an unemployed press agent, is hired to promote and build up the pretender at the request of an unscrupulous manager, played by Rod Steiger. The film notes the brutality, mob violence, insensitive owners and trainers, bookies, fixes, hopelessness and despair of fighters who take frightful punishment in the ring while managers and promoters profit. A brief segment of the picture dwells on the misfortunes of an ex fighter who wound up homeless, penniless and addle-brained after a career in the ring. The movie is grim and cynical, with a hard-edged undercurrent throughout. Bogart and Steiger have the expected showdown at the end as their differences clash but not before the dark underbelly of boxing has been exposed. Budd Schulberg's novel is the basis for this film and old pro Bogart is wonderful and gets strong support from Steiger and several others, especially Harold Stone and Nehemiah Persoff. Jersey Joe Walcott, in a few brief scenes, has a nice turn as a sympathetic trainer.
Cheyenne Autumn (1964)
Homeward bound for the Northern Cheyennes
Mari Sandoz' sympathetic account of the flight of the Northern Cheyennes from Oklahoma's Indian Territory to their historical homeland in Wyoming is the basis of John Ford's final western adventure. The usual emotional mistreatment of the Indians, with broken promises, lies, the disrespect shown to their chiefs, indifference to the tribe's well-being, lack of proper nourishment and education by their white custodians sets in motion their northward trek. The Cheyenne migration comes to the attention of the War Department in Washington with orders to stop the Indians and return them to their reservation. The film has several hit-and-run skirmishes, with the fighting prowess of the Cheyennes keeping the pursuing soldiers at bay. Richard Widmark, a cavalry officer and Carroll Baker, a Quaker who wants to educate the Cheyenne children, are sympathetic towards the Indians' plight, in stark contrast to Karl Malden's Russian martinet who imprisons the Indians at Fort Robinson and vows to send them back to the arid Oklahoma territory. The film's measured and deliberate pace is in keeping with the plodding progress of the tribe's move north. The Dodge City sequence, which features a comical poker game, is a pointless twenty minute detour from the film's narrative and adds nothing to the plot. The wide-screen cameras of William Clothier capture the beautiful scenery of Monument Valley, director Ford's favorite shooting location. Gilbert Roland, Ricardo Montalban and Dolores del Rio are excellent in various Cheyenne roles.
The Misfits (1961)
A moody, introspective drama
This story chronicles the lives of three men and a divorcée in the Nevada mountains. Clark Gable, in his final film, is a wandering, over-the-hill, middle-aged cowboy who corrals wild mustangs for slaughter with Eli Wallach, his buddy and an aviator whose plane locates and traps the horses for Gable's unerring lariats. Marilyn Monroe, always fetching, has rid herself of her husband and has come west to find meaning for her life. Montogomery Clift is a washed-up bronc and bull rider, and the four major characters come together, with each one beset by emotional traumas from their pasts. A major theme throughout the film is regret about disappointments, missed opportunities, failed family and personal relationships. The unhappy, wistful thread of the movie is mirrored by the stark black and white photography and the distant mountain vistas. The beauteous Monroe is coveted by the three men but seems partial to Gable, perhaps of his detached persona and laid-back approach to life. Wallach makes no secret of his obsession with Monroe and spares nothing in his attempt to win her for himself. Clift, along for the ride because of Gable's taunts about the disgrace of earning wages, brings his usual brooding quality to the film and seems disillusioned because he has no psychological anchor in his life. Thelma Ritter, always excellent in supporting roles, appears with Monroe early in the story but disappears midway through and is not seen again. Gable's stunt work with the wild horses is thrilling and is the film's highlight but may have cost him dearly with the wear and tear he took doing these scenes. The film is a fine coda to the careers of two of Hollywood's most storied personalities.
The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Colonial conflict has scenic grandeur and beautiful music
The French and Indian War, circa 1757, is the setting for this entertaining slice of American history, replete with bravery, sacrifice, romance and treachery. James Fenimore Cooper's novel, a difficult and ponderous work, flows on screen here with simplicity and great beauty, and is enhanced by fine direction, acting and a beautiful, sweeping music score. Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe headline a solid cast that brings to life this early American work that Cooper himself failed to do. The British, in dire straits for military support, enlist the colonial militia to fight the French and their Indian allies at the risk of leaving their families defenseless in the face of their dangerous foe. The battle scenes are violent, drawn-out affairs, especially the Fort William Henry debacle that commander Marquis de Montcalm couldn't prevent. A major underlying theme of the picture is a Huron's blood vengeance quest against a British colonel which sets in motion the ambushes and animosity that define the movie's narrative. Russell Means and Eric Schweig along with Day-Lewis are the story's heroes and essay the bravery, loyalty and courage of the noble red man.
Tupac Shakur's prophecy
This picture is a disturbing but gripping urban thriller that details the lives of four youngsters who drift aimlessly day by day in search of manhood and self-respect. The film offers a realistic slice of street life in a rough neighborhood where families struggle to keep young teens in school and out of trouble. Peer pressure, petty crime and violence mark the lives of the principals and the lure of a gun and its power result in a showdown between the reluctant Omar Epps and the psychotic Tupac Shakur. The young men are on a macho trip throughout the story, squaring off with rival gangs, the police, authority figures and each other. The movie doesn't dwell on the scourge of drug use and pushers but instead essays the coming of age of black youths in an urban war zone and the many pitfalls they encounter as they approach adulthood. Samuel L. Jackson and Queen Latifah are great in supporting roles and the movie has a nifty hip-hop soundtrack that adds pace to a solid uptown crime drama.
Good film stumbles at the finish line
Fine drama borrows its theme liberally from the classic "The Postman Always Rings Twice" but manages to establish its own identity in the style of the noir thrillers of the past. A fish seller and his wife take in a wayward drifter who learns the ropes of the business and becomes the odd note of the triad, at the market and in the home. Edward James Olmos and Maria Conchita Alonso, husband and wife team, give young hunk Arie Verveen the sense of family he never had and soon Alonso and Verveen find a way to consummate their subtle but growing passion for each other right under Olmos' unsuspecting nose. An unannounced visit by Hollywood wannabe comic son Steven Schub kicks the drama into higher gear but an unsatisfying ending ruins what was up to that point an interesting movie with its myriad and complex threads of family life. Music score is nice and the end credits are highlighted by a jazzy, moody trumpet solo.
The Battle at Apache Pass (1952)
Good western adventure forever overshadowed by "Broken Arrow"
This colorful western is a rousing yarn that is one of the best of the 1950s. The picture is based on two historical events, the shameful Bascom affair, and the fight in Apache Pass in which two mountain howitzers foiled a well-planned ambush by the Indians. Cochise's Chiricahuas and the U.S. cavalry do all they can to keep peace in the southwest but renegade Mogollons and greedy, scheming whites are just as determined to cause trouble between the Apaches and the soldiers. Jeff Chandler reprises his role as Cochise in the landmark western, "Broken Arrow", as does Jay Silverheels as the warlike Geronimo. John Lund is the major who is sympathetic to the Indians and values his friendship with Cochise. Bruce Cowling and Jack Elam are the white men who have other ideas about how to deal with the Indians. Richard Egan and Hugh O'Brian are also good as army lieutenants. Tech credits are great, especially the camera work by Charles Boyle and the music score by Hans Salter.
Good Pacific Theater war drama
One of Tony Curtis' early starring roles is this war film of a detachment of Marines sent out to locate a planter and verify a message he sent concerning the location of Japanese minefields on the island. Because of the danger surrounding their mission, tempers are frayed and old resentments surface as the platoon makes its way through the jungle while trying to avoid detection by Japanese soldiers who seem to be all around them. The film has several tense moments as the Marines find a way to slip through the tightening Japanese noose and face even more danger after locating the planter and his daughter. Curtis is the marquee name here and his Hollywood hunk appeal is displayed to good effect while trying to spark pretty Mary Murphy. Frank Lovejoy is solid as always as the Marine sergeant leader with something to prove after a disastrous result at Guadalcanal. John Doucette, a great character actor in his time, has a cameo role as a major who sends the platoon out on its mission impossible. Technicolor is lush and realistic and the music score is also very nice.
Bogart is great in this tense war drama
One of Humphrey Bogart's best films is this tough, scrappy war adventure of Allied troops banding together in the Lybian desert to outsmart and subdue an overwhelming force of German soldiers. Bogart is the picture's dominating force with snappy one-liners and biting commentary as only he could deliver them as he leads his troops in the search for water and safety from the hot sun. Soldiers from various Allied countries are represented in the movie that mirrors the plot of "The Lost Patrol" and Bogart is supported by a great cast that includes Dan Duryea, Lloyd Bridges, Bruce Bennett, Rex Ingram and J. Carrol Naish, the latter very appealing as an Italian soldier taunted by a German prisoner. Rudolph Mate filmed the picture with crisp lensing and Miklos Rosza's heroic score is a fine accompaniment to a great story.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
An American classic by John Ford and John Wayne
This film is the second entry in John Ford's "cavalry trilogy" and may be the best of the three with John Wayne's performance being one of the best of his career. The picture is an ode to the U.S. cavalry in the wake of the Custer debacle with the threat of more Indian uprisings on the frontier. Wayne's escort patrol is the film's focal point which also has an on-going romantic squabble between two young officers and a woman which explains the movie's title. The wonderful lensing captures the natural beauty of Monument Valley, and the scenes of the patrol crossing the wide expanses during a thunderstorm with lightning streaks against the dark clouds are among the picture's best moments. Ben Johnson stands out as an ex-Confederate soldier and point man and other Ford stock regulars such as Harry Carey Jr. and John Agar have supporting roles.
Up Periscope (1959)
An engrossing and suspenseful war drama
This film is a good thriller of a top secret naval operation in the South Pacific during World War II. James Garner's assignment calls for him to swim to a Japanese-controlled island and decipher a code that the Navy needs to anticipate enemy intentions. The film has a claustrophobic feel to it as most of the scenes are filmed below topside as the submarine makes its way to the destination island. There are Japanese destroyers about, dropping depth charges and making matters uncomfortable for the crew. Edmond O'Brien is the sub's by-the-book commander, still shaken by the loss of a crew member during a recent assignment, and he and Garner share a mutual dislike that sets in motion Garner's mission-impossible task. Garner's whirlwind courtship with Andra Martin is the only false note of the movie which adds nothing to the plot. The cast and tech credits are good.
Fort Dobbs (1958)
Brian Keith steals this tough, gritty western
This western follows a familiar genre theme of a loner who comes to the aid of a woman and her son and guides them to safety through Indian country. The plot is spare with a twist of mistaken identity thrown in as an innocent man on the run scrambles to escape a hanging posse hot on his trail. Clint Walker is the reformed gunfighter whose reputation places him on the sheriff's wanted poster as fate takes him to a woman's ranch in the midst of an Indian uprising. Virginia Mayo is the widow and reluctant trail companion of Walker along with her son as they make their way to Fort Dobbs. Brian Keith steals the film as an unsavory gun runner whose rifles play a large part in the Indian attack on the fort. The film is not a polished feature but is a straightforward, no-frills drama and is worth watching.
Mystic River (2003)
A profound and tragic story
This dark, brooding film is a murder mystery that unfolds against the backdrop of early trauma in the lives of three boys in a Boston suburb. The unnamed location, perhaps Chelsea, evokes the clannish, guarded nature typical of Boston neighborhoods that tolerates without welcoming outsiders. The lives of the three main characters diverge with the passage of time, then come together again during the unfolding of the tragic events in the story. Each of the principals has issues they must grapple with each day and their lives and history are woven into an unstable, tattered quilt that threatens to unravel at any time. Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon are all excellent in portraying the emotional strains and the shifting tides that bring them together in this somber character study. Lawrence Fishburne is good as a detective on the periphery of his partner's personal ups and downs and is sympathetic but professional in his pursuit of suspects in the case. Clint Eastwood piloted this film which is one of his best in a great body of work as an actor and director.
Rough-edged drama packs a wallop
This film biography is an entertaining movie of a total thug who took what he wanted at the point of a gun. Dillinger was indeed a public enemy no. 1 who turned on friend and foe alike to suit his own twisted purposes. The mastermind of assorted criminal activities, Dillinger insisted on being the boss and demanded allegiance from each gang member, using an itchy trigger finger to make his point. The feature has a film noir look, and Anne Jeffreys is just right as a typical femme-fatale of this era. Jeffreys, a perfect clone of Virginia Mayo, is pleasing to the eye but doesn't really have much to do except suffer abuse from Dillinger, but evens the score in her own good time. Tierney is dashing and tragic as Dillinger but is overshadowed by Edmund Lowe's clever underplaying of Specs. Eduardo Ciannelli and Elisha Cook Jr. are also good. Marc Lawrence's natural menacing visage is a big plus but it's Ciannelli who makes the best impression as a grumpy, suspicious gunman.
Ellen Barkin stars in an erotic thriller
This film is an interesting thriller that probes the after-hours private lives of well-to-do corporate women whose interests are unusual sex with other women. When some of the ladies turn up dead, the police step in, headed by Ellen Barkin as a jaded, shopworn and streetwise cop. Barken gets drawn in deeper into the erotic world she is discovering by a young woman and slowly pieces together the mysterious murders. There are red herrings and the plot twists and turns are more revealing in the film's home stretch. Barkin is as cool and wends her way through this erotic underground and the men portrayed in the film are shown in a poor light. Peta Wilson is sympathetic as the woman who guides Barkin through the maze of sex bars and clubs, and their chemistry on screen is sensual and suggestive. Barkin's trademark crooked grin is nearly absent in this picture owing to the subject matter but she is still a treat to watch. The music and cinematography are very good.
The Day of the Jackal (1973)
A towering, classic work by Fred Zinnemann
One of the best thrillers ever is this documentary-style film of a contract killer's preparation and stalk of President Charles de Gaulle. British actor Edward Fox is the blonde foreigner who moves from one European capital to another as he prepares to cash in on the biggest assignment of his career. The film is long but moves at a good clip and is gripping throughout and the suspense and planning are what carry the film to its climactic endgame. There is almost no musical accompaniment in the movie as the Jackal meticulously plans for the big moment. His path crosses with interesting, if not sympathetic, characters as he closes in on his quarry, and the film becomes a game of chess between the assassin and French detective Claude Lebel. Director Fred Zinnemann's picture is truly a classic work that may never be equaled for its professional look and presentation, great cast, and wonderful drama.
Will Penny (1967)
A good western that went unnoticed
This film was one of Charlton Heston's personal favorites, a change-of-pace drama dwelling on character development and self-preservation instead of the usual shoot 'em ups in western movies. The story is a spare tale, often found in pulp fiction westerns, of a stranger who happens along and sees a woman and her young son through a rough winter. Heston's character is a drifting cowpuncher and the movie has shadows of "Shane" and "Hondo" casting about here and there. There are villains, of course, with Donald Pleasence and his hard case sons on hand to supply the required outlawry. The movie was beautifully filmed in high country with a great cast and a nice music score. Heston had a great chemistry with Joan Hackett and their relationship rings true throughout the movie. For some reason, the picture was not a major box office success although it seems to be a more popular film today than when it was released.
Trooper Hook (1957)
Western focuses on tolerance more than action
Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck are well-matched in an okay western with a theme that's been done before in other films, namely "Duel at Diablo" several years later. Most of the film take place in a stagecoach as a white woman with a half-breed son journeys home to her husband after years of captivity among the Indians. The citizens are unwelcoming to mother and son and McCrea is along to serve as an escort and buffer against the bigotry shown to his charges. There are a few action scenes but the film centers on Stanwyck's hardships against frontier attitudes about her situation. McCrea is a comforting presence in Stanwyck's life and their friendship and trust deepen during the journey. Rudy Acosta is good as the Indian chief who wants to reclaim his son, as is Earl Holliman as a wandering cow puncher. John Denher is the hard case rancher who reluctantly accepts his wife but not her Indian son. Royal Dano has some colorful lines as the stagecoach driver.
The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)
Denzel Washington does it again
This urban crime drama is a diverting entry with plenty of action, tense moments and running dialogue to sustain interest for the duration of the film. The main plot is a hostage situation and a demand for an outrageous sum of money. Denzel Washington and John Travolta spar throughout the picture and play off each other very well. Denzel, as always, is great and Travolta makes a good heavy although some of his one-liners fall flat as he negotiates with Washington. There are several interesting scenes of the trains, subway stations, tunnels, track beds and elevated sequences where the action takes place. Some of the street-level scenes, involving taxi and police car stunts don't seem to be necessary. Cast and camera work are very nice.
The Deep (1977)
Undersea drama that never got is due
This film didn't quite make the splash that "Jaws" did two years earlier but remains a fine picture with tense moments and fine underwater photography. The stars, Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bisset, a vacationing couple, find a different kind of treasure in a wreck off the Bermuda shore and soon have the island thugs around to pay them a visit. Seems as though a cache of morphine could be profitable in the drug market, which a Haitian dealer desires to exploit. The latter uses intimidation and voodoo to get his point across to the couple, who later get help from a seaman and treasure expert to keep the villains at bay. Bisset is nice to look at in her wet t-shirts and shorts but Robert Shaw and Lou Gossett supply the key moments of drama in the film more than do Nolte or Bisset. The picture does drift off course in spots but Shaw and Gossett stay on a collision course that results in an exciting undersea climax. The film never received its due as an adventure worthy of critical acclaim.
Ambush at Tomahawk Gap (1953)
Dusty western has its moments and a fine cast
This western is a grim, spare adventure about four ex-cons out to recover a cache of gold hidden in a ghost town. That's the entire plot, in a nutshell. The party grabs an Indian girl along the way, perhaps for a romantic effect with young John Derek, which suits the others just fine. Gold and greed are the two main themes in the screenplay, so none of the characters engender any sympathy. Most of the film dwells on the search for the gold and the anticipated Indian attack, which comes during the film's last reel. The cast is good, with John Hodiak, Ray Teal and David Bryan in the lead roles. Maria Elena Marques, a sharpshooter with a bow and fire arrow, is pretty and stays on the periphery of the story. The color work is very good, and though not a major entry in the western genre, this film is worth watching for the cast and the flavor of a golden-age western.
The Bodyguard (1992)
A lightweight melodrama
Whitney Houston's screen debut is a lavish urban thriller that takes itself quite seriously but never gets going. The film stumbles from one scene to another and never has any semblance of a coherent, believable story. The production values are top notch all around but the plot is utterly senseless. Houston does well in her role as a temperamental diva, is talented, pretty, bitchy and vulnerable. She fares much better than star Kevin Costner, who plays the title role. Costner seems unsure of himself and comes across as tentative and hopelessly wooden, although he and Houston do seem to have a bit of chemistry between them. Ralph Waite is fine as the bodyguard's father but the rest of the cast overacts to the point of silliness.
Absolute Power (1997)
Someone's always watching
This movie is an entertaining thriller in spite of some implausible situations. Starring is Clint Eastwood who is at home as a loner who takes it upon himself to right wrongs, thwarts the activities of the rich and powerful and manages to stay just beyond the reach of the law and secret service agents. While not entirely faithful to the book, the film has its moments and moves along at a good clip but the payoff is a bit of a let down, considering all the risks Eastwood takes to protect his estranged daughter from harm. The cast, especially Gene Hackman, is great, and Ed Harris, Laura Linney, Dennis Haysbert and Scott Glenn are always good. The smooth, urbane E.G. Marshall, in his final movie, seems a bit out of character as a vengeful widower. Taken on its own level, the film delivers in fine style.
Blue Water, White Death (1971)
Be careful of what you ask for...
An interesting film and seafaring adventure of an expedition tracking a great white shark through hundreds of miles of open sea spanning three continents. The search finally bears fruit some 83 minutes into the film which has a leisurely pace throughout and captures the feeding frenzy of white tips on whale carcasses, and barracudas also manage to get screen time for several minutes. Peter Gimbel and his crew are frustrated by their failure to spot a great white but finally get lucky at Dangerous Reef on the south coast of Australia. Here, Gimbel is finally rewarded with great footage of the huge fish. Shark cages are used to film the great white that seems more intent on the cage and the divers inside than the bait dangled before it. An Australian diver relates his run-in with a great white in the ocean, detailing his injuries and his miraculous escape. The footage of the underwater sequences throughout the movie is expertly done.
Action Jackson (1988)
Tough cop cleans up the streets
This urban drama delivers thrills, non-stop action and mayhem. Carl Weathers is a Superman in street clothes and benefits from stunt work and spectacular chases and crashes and does well enough to be believable. When Jackson loses his lieutenant stripes he becomes a rogue cop with an attitude. The film lacks coherence and hurtles from explosion to gruesome killing to firebomb which exposes the film's thin plot. Craig T. Nelson is a nasty character who allows no one to interfere with his agenda, and Sharon Stone spends her brief screen time trying to stay out harm's way. Vanity, a Motown wannabe with a heroin habit, is pretty enough but is no femme fatale. She and Weathers seem to have good chemistry here, but the film's highs and lows and long stretches of silly dialogue and meandering pace give the movie an uneven feel.