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Miami Vice (2006)
New Stars, Cars, Shades & Hair Gel but Same Old Mann
Forget about crystal meth, Special K, Ecstacy and Prozac. Take a trip back to the mythical days of junk bonds and leveraged buyouts, when a Prince poured Purple Rain, Oliver North poured it on thick and Dr. Huxtable always knew best. In Miami the blowdried but fearless defenders of Right & Justice prowled the streets in a Ferrari to ward off foreign pharmacists with more advanced weaponry than Gorbachev. Miami detectives Crockett (Farrell, who was still watching "Speed Racer" when Don Johnson was The Mann)& Tubbs (Foxx) are seconded to the Feds in order to infiltrate a multi-layered Colombian mob with unlimited resources in assault rifles, planes, electro-surveillance & Bodies by Soloflex. The mob hires Our Heroes, who've had their identities carefully crafted into hardened hoods, as a new means of getting the goods into the States. Running block for CrocketTubbs is the enigmatic Lt. Castillo (Henley), who's back though Black, a rotund patrician instead of Olmos's ghostly bureaucrat, though Castillo still hasn't learned to use articles or pronouns any better since the Reagan days. There are babes, of course, tawny and naked, but they're mostly cops, which is a bore since Mann has little talent for female characters who don't simper. The exception is the mistress & negotiator of Mr. Big (Gong), delegated to supervise CrocketTubbs. There's no more point to the movie than there was to the show. Everyone just looks wistful, troubled and determined in the midst of their surf, sunshine & zillion-dollar toys. The brooding is punctuated with threats, flexing, betrayal and the ritual Pointing of The Firearms, yet there's astonishingly little action. The photography is so impressive that you'd think you were watching "National Geographic," or maybe an ad for Carnival Cruises. If Crockett is supposed to be a scruffily beautiful Dick Tracy, then Farrell portrays him better than Tom Hanks could do (oh, wait, what was Hanks doing back in the eighties?). The other actors are all suitably gorgeous, menacing, treacherous or doomed, as needed. Four outstanding actors--Foxx, Gong, Hinds and Henley--aren't enough to make a Ferrari into a Donatello, but then who could? Foxx brings a spirited fire into Tubbs that is a bit of shock to those who remember the dapper Tonto of P.M. Thomas. Gong, one of the most courageous & talented portrayers ever to grace the screen, is ghostly, sad & sexy but the script doesn't give her a chance to be mysterious. Plenty of guns, but no attempt to give Crockett a signature sidearm like his old Bren Ten or Bond's perennial Walther. In fact, there's little product placement, a technique that I thought Mann pioneered. Die-hard fans who need their Vice shouldn't be too disappointed, but others will wonder why CrocketTubbs go on about cocaine in the age of Bin Laden & the Patriot Act. In 15 or 20 years we'll have a "24" movie, no doubt. Until then, there are still "Vegas," "21 Jump Street," "Remington Steele," "TJ Hooker" and "Sledge Hammer" to bring to the big screen. And Don Johnson himself can get back into movies by resurrecting "Barnaby Jones."
No Respectable Connery is THAT Respectable
It was nearly certain that 1903's "The Great Train Robbery," popularly known as the first movie, would be remade in some form at some point. It's just fortunate that it turned out to be a clever, imaginative action/adventure rather than the dull-minded, big-budget exploitations we've had to endure in remakes & sequels in recent years. Conman and "cracksman" (bank robber) Edward Pierce aka John Sims (Connery) masquerades as a "sharp businessman" to enter a London gentleman's club and scope out a "ring-flash pull." He settles on the British Army's monthly payroll for the Crimean campaign, a shipment of solid gold sent in two special Chubb safes on a guarded railroad car. Much of the film is devoted to the collection of the four keys needed to open the two safes: two kept in a very secure railway office, one by "square-rigged" bank President Trent (Webb) and one by oversexed bank manager Fowler (Terris). To do all this & the climactic robbery, Sims assembles a colorful crew: theater actress Miriam (Down), who's also his mistress; pickpocket & "screwsman" Agar (Sutherland); driver & strong-arm Barlow (Downing); and "snakesman" Clean Willy (Sleep, in a unique & outstanding role), who can reputedly climb "a wall of glass." Sutherland has one of his best roles as the gifted safecracker who's both deft and hilariously awkward. Down combines sexiness & funniness as well as Marilyn Monroe ever did & it's an injustice that no one else has ever said so. But there's no match for Connery in a role that was made for him: a charming, polished, gentleman rogue ("No respectable gentleman is THAT respectable," he insists), as long on charisma as he is short on honor. Sims will resort to anything, even murder, to protect his interests & get what he wants, but it's impossible to hate him. Instead, Connery gives an outlet to the villain in each of us, the side that wants to stick it to the Man by robbing a bank or bamboozling the IRS, but can't be aired in real life by anything more dastardly than voting Mickey Mouse for President without fear of arrest. Prolific novelist and erstwhile doctor Crichton, in his first directorial effort, exercises firm control in bringing his own novel to the screen, seeming to know exactly what he wants to say & how to say it. Every time it seems that the film is about to lag, it somehow just picks up again--even at the very end--making it difficult to find a place to get a soda & popcorn refill or a bathroom break. Make your theater logistical arrangements carefully before setting out on this train.
In Harm's Way (1965)
The Winds of Wayne
There's not much more daunting than depicting a sea battle in a movie. Even with a big budget, warships don't come to life easily for the layman, who must also get a sound-bite run-down on the principles of naval warfare. But the popularity of WWII movies until the 1970s meant that some had to be made & it's a wonder they mostly turned out pretty well. "In Harm's Way" was as good as any except "Tora Tora Tora." Bassett's novel, based on his wartime service as an aide to Admiral Halsey, is brought to the screen faithfully by Preminger, along with a bathtub full of toy ships and a well-chosen cast. As the title, part of a quote from John Paul Jones, suggests, main character 'Rock' Torrey (Wayne) is a captain who believes he exists only to make trouble for the enemy. After his cruiser is damaged while making an unauthorized pursuit of the Japanese Pearl Harbor Striking Force, he faces a disgraceful end to his career. A new commander in the Pacific (Fonda, obviously depicting Admiral Nimitz) instead rules that Torrey's cool but unshakable aggressiveness is just the ticket, promoting him to rear admiral and giving him an amphibious force in the Southwest Pacific to destroy Japanese island garrisons. Torrey's challenges on his own side dwarf those presented by the enemy for most of the story. These include: his aide and best friend Captain Eddington (Douglas), who's as dastardly & slovenly as he is brave & brilliant; his manipulative but indecisive regional commander Admiral Broderick (Andrews, apparently depicting the much-maligned Admiral Ghormley); his awkward but persistent affair with Navy nurse Maggie (Neal); and his even more awkward relationship with his estranged son (De Wilde) by his two-timing wife (Bouchet), a particular problem since young Torrey is in his father's command and in love with a young nurse (Haworth) who's also dating Eddington. Through all this Torrey must plan offensives with scant resources against a skilled, aggressive enemy who's just as determined to wipe out his force. A convoluted story & minimal props & effects (even with US Navy support) place a lot of demands on the actors & director, all of whom proved equal to the challenge. Douglas is fine as Eddington, a character worthy of 'Le Morte d'Arthur,' a warrior of matchless skill & bravery but a reckless cad with a vicious streak. Douglas might have overshadowed the lead character but Wayne is in his element as Torrey, perfectly depicting the admiral as a quiet but indefatigable professional war leader, whose only weaknesses are his love for his troubled friend, his aloof son & the long-suffering Maggie. Preminger uses Torrey's staff to keep the show from becoming maudlin, including a fearless Marine colonel (Kennedy), an Australian coastwatcher (Holloway) and a dauntless planner (Meredith). Tryon leads a subplot about a young officer--a reluctant hero like much like Torrey--who becomes the admiral's aide despite his attempts to either remain with his former crew or get a shore assignment to placate his wife (Prentiss). O'Neal is very good as a slimy but artless commander & former congressman sent by Broderick to spy on & undermine Torrey (a character maybe based on then-President Johnson, also a commander & former congressman in the South Pacific?). War movies are typically as unkind to actresses as Westerns, but Neal does as much to bring life & relevance to Maggie as anyone could. The sea battles, especially the climax scene, were probably not very convincing even at the time, but the actors make it work, especially the excellent De Wilde as Lt. Torrey. The PT boats were likely included because President Kennedy & 'McHale's Navy' made them popular, but there's no denying that they're a welcome, gripping diversion whenever the viewer starts to lose track of the bathtub toys. Anyone looking for a history lesson with his entertainment would do better to watch 'Tora' since 'In Harm's Way' is VERY loosely based on events. But the film is a fine homage to the Navy & Marines of the early Pacific War, both reverent & believable in its characterizations, devoid of the in-your-face patriotism that marred so many later war movies, letting the viewer see for himself the humanity & heroism the story seeks to tell.
King of the Lost World (2005)
King of the Lost Premise
Sci-Fi Channel's business model must have something going for it, since it's survived for years by broadcasting and sometimes even making these cheapie, careless fantasy rip-offs. How wrong can you go with one of the most proved premises of the 20th century: civilized people stranded in uncharted jungle where prehistoric creatures and savage tribesmen challenge their wits, their ingenuity & their very concept of civilization? "Lost World" answers that question with a bland script, weak acting, lame props & effects and characters dull enough to be animal feed--which many of them inevitably wind up as. An airliner crashes on the beach near the Amazon valley. The survivors--almost totally unhurt, at least at first--try to find the lost cockpit with its radio but soon encounter giant bugs, little dinosaurs and a single monster ape. Did I already use the term "rip-off?" A mysterious military officer (Boxleitner) with a pistol and a lunchbox is strangely uninterested in working with the others even though he appears to know much he isn't telling. The best feature, by far, is the presence of several female characters, mostly flight attendants & all clad in skirts & shorts that gradually get used up for bandages--the good ol' First Aid Striptease. If the women are rarely more than eye candy, the men are compelled to wrestle with the various technological & situational challenges that the storyline tosses at them--which they do less well than my friends & I did in first grade when we played in our backyards & argued about what was supposed to happen next. Factual mistakes & great leaps in scientific laws are presented so blandly that it's apparent even the cast & crew were bored. The props & effects in Sci-Fi Channel movies are usually somewhat erratic, but not here--they're just plain awful. The big ape is drawn so badly that he actually appears two-dimensional. A stunt man in an ape suit would have been better--yes, the cheap Toho monster movies of the 1960s have better effects than this CGI boo-boo. The best that can be said about this film, like most recent works of its genre, is that it's quite inoffensive except to the intelligence of its viewers and the memories of the artists & works it's plundering. The worst is that if it had dispensed with the wasted talents of star actors Boxleitner & Railsback (neither of whom has much of a role) and been made as a porno, it wouldn't have been any worse and might even have made more sense. Of course, it couldn't have been released to theaters or TV and therefore wouldn't have made as much money. And, after all, what is sci-fi fantasy really all about? Wait--don't answer that!
Or, Democracy & Porno in America by Alexis de Toiletville
Darwin's Rule of Moviewatching #57: Anything in which an ugly hooker is the most sympathetic character should not be watched while eating. For proof, see Woody Allen's "Deconstructing Harry," South Park's "Chickenpox," and "Borat." The long, broken-English title accurately describes the premise: inept, degenerate Kazakh state TV journalist Borat (Cohen, from the character he created) and his long-suffering producer Azamat (Davitian) go to New York to conduct interviews with real Americans, to get a snapshot of American culture as well as some sex, if possible. Borat first introduces us to his village, including his hateful neighbor, his massive wife, the town rapist ("only humans!") and the mechanic/abortionist. The highlight of his New York visit is his interview of veteran feminists ("Give me smile, baby!"). After seeing "Baywatch," he dragoons Azamat into a quest to California to find & marry CJ (Anderson). There's absolutely nothing new to "Borat," since the premise follows that of Hunter Thompson's "Fear & Loathing" & Christopher Guest's "Spinal Tap," as well as French historian Alexis de Tocqueville's first-person survey of America in the 1830s. The "Kazakh" language is patterned after Charlie Chaplin's "Tomanian" lingo in "The Great Dictator" and the gags are lifted from comics from the Marx Brothers to Benny Hill to the creators of "South Park," these last noted in the credits. Cohen & director Charles nevertheless picked proved winners & their pacing is good, never letting the film get dull. Like Guest's characters, Borat skewers American traditions, presumptions & prejudices by blindsiding people with his, shall we say, very different characteristics. These include: kissing men in greeting, strict & subjective sexism, virulent anti-Semitism, a complete lack of toilet training & admiring the US for being a mighty military dictatorship. To say that "Borat" is scatological is like saying "Hoosiers" has basketball in it. Some scenes, including Borat proudly bringing his feces & a fat hooker to a genteel Southern dinner party & his protracted, nude chase & punch-up with Azamat in a hotel are probably hard to take for most people, although Cohen's sheer comic talent & timing make them really, really funny. Borat's driving lesson & his shopping for a "pussy magnet" to drive across the US are a hilarious satire of modern America's most cherished & most delusional cultural institution: the style, freedom & machismo of automobiles. It would be hard to top Leslie Nielsen's rendition of the National Anthem in "The Naked Gun," but Cohen scores, singing the "Kazakh" national anthem to the tune of the "Star Spangled Banner" at a Texas rodeo while dressed in red, white & blue ("Kazakhstan is the greatest nation in the world/All other countries are run by little girls"). "Borat" is actually rather highbrow, requiring a knowledge of American history & tradition, as well as some idea of how the rest of the world views the US, to be fully appreciated. Unfortunately, the thought required also exposes inconsistencies in Borat's background. If Borat is so utterly clueless about America, how did he learn to speak English? Since American-pattern TV shows have long been available worldwide, why would Borat assume that CJ is a real person? And if he's a neo-Stalinist stuffed shirt professional, why does Borat live in a dumpy but colorful village instead of a bland Communist high-rise? Borat's Kazakhstan evokes no sympathy or understanding, a missing-link dump populated by toothless, incestuous primates content to wallow in their own feces. Indeed, the film's biggest flaw is that Borat & Azamat are too filthy & perverted--and Borat too moronic--to evoke sympathy, even allowing for "cultural" differences. Nor does Cohen really try to humanize Borat until the second half. The closest he comes is when Borat, after hitting rock bottom, accepts "Mr. Jesus" at an evangelist service--yet another comic triumph brilliantly balanced on the edge of a knife. Luenell, as the hooker, provides the only really human touch as she has a "good time" with Borat at a honky-tonk (their scenes on the mechanical bull turn a sappy scene into a laugh riot). Anderson, appearing as herself & listed in the credits as such, never comes across as anything but a micro-shallow, self-serving sex object & inadvertent porn star, so let's not hear anything from her--ever--about how there's more to her. In the end, "Borat" winds up laughing at America and the fictional Kazakhstan, not with them, since everyone ultimately comes across as either irredeemably degenerate or inexcusably hypocritical. Still, it has to be seen in its entirety to appreciate the many funny parts--and those are very much worth it.
Point Blank (1967)
A surrealist film noir? Professional heist man Walker (Marvin) is double-crossed & left for dead in a cell at abandoned Alcatraz Prison by his friend Reese (Vernon) & Walker's wife (Acker). The enigmatic Yost (Wynn), who wants to destroy the "Organization" that Reese has joined, guides Walker in his hunt for vengeance & his quest to recover the $93,000 that was his cut of the Alcatraz heist. Walker's sister-in-law Chris (Dickinson), Reese's stooge Stegman (Strong) & moneymen Carter (Bochner) & Brewster (Carroll) are both obstacles & tools in his relentless hunt. Slow pacing, lush but dark cinematography & liberal use of flashbacks (many of them repeatedly) make "Point" seem more stylish than its contemporary, "Get Carter," which was also remade in the late 1990s. It isn't, really, though it is somewhat more complex & certainly more sophisticated. The pulpy story from prolific novelist Westlake is nothing new but is well suited to the genre, even if it is implausible & occasionally perforated. Marvin & Dickinson had played similar roles in "The Killers" a few years earlier but betray no sense of weariness or jadedness, perhaps because Lee doesn't have to threaten to throw Angie out of a window this time. The rest of the cast is rock-solid, made up of dependable, talented character actors at the height of their powers. Boorman's preference for camera work over dialogue made it unlikely that any of them would get an Oscar nomination, however. Most of the talking comes during the action sequences, which are all very well done. The ending is a typical Boorman one, dark & obscure, far more suitable to a 1960s crime drama than the flashier but shallower actioners made from the 1980s. Still, it's a fine example of the moody urban adventure films that reached their peak with the "Dirty Harry" films, which were not all as satisfying as "Point Blank" by any means.
S.S. Doomtrooper (2006)
Another bag of Brain Fritos from the maestros of Grade Z cable television. A Nazi mad scientist (Cross) uses "atomic radiation" (as opposed to chocolate radiation) to turn a SS soldier into a mindless, invulnerable killing monster. Learning of Herr Krankendocktor's lab, the Americans recruit Captain America--er, Malloy (Nemic)--to assemble a team & go on an Alistair MacLean Mission to destroy the lab. Usually, when Heroes take on Mad Scientists in their Mad Labs, there's some mixture of action, suspense, tragedy, maybe even wonder or romance. Unfortunately, but as usual in Sci-Fi Channel Originals, the monster is revealed in the VERY FIRST SCENE, guaranteeing a complete absence of surprises. Nevertheless this film is outstanding in a few ways, not all good by any means. Nemic & a few others are better actors than this turkey deserves and they occasionally get it aloft for a few minutes. The special effects are cheap but mostly well done, a fine but somewhat wasted quality of most Sci-Fi productions, considering the lame scripts. What makes "Doomtrooper" interesting is how astonishingly bad it is in so many ways, especially its unabashed--nay, determined--method of ripping off other films. The monster is an amalgamation of the Hulk, Godzilla, "Resident Evil's" Nemesis & the Predator. The team is made up of attitudinal Army convicts, a "Dirty Half-Dozen," although some of its actors had better hope that John Cassevetes never finds them in the afterlife. Cross may have the dubious distinction of being the first actor to emulate Bela Lugosi's Ed Wood period (Lugosi's accent was more convincing). Trivia buffs, watch this with friends & see who can accurately pinpoint the most ripoffs. Then watch it again & see who can point out the most factual errors--there are so many that it's pointless to even begin to list them here. I still can't believe that Sci-Fi bailed on the last season of "Farscape" yet still pushes these embarrassing "originals" that are a letdown on every level (there isn't even any sex, the one easy exploitation that has a chance of rescuing a lame science fiction story). Strange are the ways of cable television! But, if that's how it has to be, let's play along. How about some sequels called "Frankenfuhrer," or "Germanzilla," or maybe "Resident Nazi?" Or...not?
Cross of Iron (1977)
Fine Film Built Around 'a Piece of Worthless Metal'
I saw this film in 1993 at 29 Palms in the Marines. It was selected as a training film for the entire company by my platoon leader who wanted to depict the leadership qualities of the noncommissioned officer & the cohesion of small units. It got a tepid reception from Marines, then enamored of sci-fi actioners & the sardonic 'Full Metal Jacket,' who thought the scenes of male bonding were sappy, or 'gay.' Nor did the company commander seem to appreciate Peckinpah's anti-establishment tone. Anti-establishment is really the best description of 'Cross of Iron' rather than anti-war and, though it is his only real war film, holds to the dark theme of government/corporation vs. manly individualist that marked most major Peckinpah films. The story follows ace platoon NCO Steiner (Coburn) as he holds together his elite but war-weary men & deals with his officers: wise Colonel Brandt (Mason), dissolute adjutant Kiesel (Warner), heroic Lt. Meier (Galo) and weaselly Lt. Triebig (Fritz). Hardest to deal with is his company commander, the ambitious, arrogant Captain Stransky (Schell) who transferred from the comfort of France to the horrors of the East to, as Kiesel notes, achieve 'spiritual domination' of the war, symbolized by his obsession with winning the Iron Cross. Significantly, most of the experienced soldiers, including all the other officers, have already won the Iron Cross while Meier & Steiner, Stransky's subordinates, are highly decorated. Though not well known in English, Heinrich's book is a World War II counterpart to 'All Quiet on the Western Front' as it starkly depicts a German soldier's struggle to remain human through the horrors of Total War & the prospect of Total Defeat. Heinrich is a bit awkward & preachy compared to Remarque & this comes through in the film, notably in scenes with the officers. For a film with a modest budget, it's pretty long, accentuating the preachiness. The impressive multinational cast suffers from the necessity of putting English-speaking stars in the main roles. Only Coburn & Warner make even slight attempts at German accents. Coburn depicts, rather than details, Steiner, using his wicked smile & humor sparingly while bringing to life a talented, tortured individual torn between his hatred of war, love for his friends & his fear of leaving the only world he knows. Mason is, as usual, both nuanced & commanding. Schell is fine as the pompous captain but only gets a chance to show his tremendous talent when Stransky is manipulative, notably the scene in which he blackmails Triebig. The fine Senta Berger gets little chance to develop nurse Eva. The soldiers are all scruffy to the point of ugliness, a Peckinpah feature discarded in the body-by-Soloflex action films made from the 1980s onward. Peckinpah had refined his trademark touches to a fine point. There's the brotherly love the men share without being 'gay' as well as their conflicted attitude toward women, at once desiring, worshiping & fearing them. The contrast of hardened, jaded veterans with innocent youth, first explored in "The Wild Bunch," permeates 'Cross of Iron' in Steiner's interaction with the Russian boy (Prohic) & Private Dietz (Nowka), the latter playing a 'kid's game' of avoiding sunlight as the platoon is about to make an attack. Like 'The Wild Bunch,' the film has a bizarre but engrossing opening montage, featuring war & Nazi footage mixed with band music & a German child's rhyme. Above all is the theme of resistance to oppressive authority. Steiner rejects the bullying of Stransky but also the condescending sympathy of Brandt & Kiesel, which he hates just as much, and expresses disdain for all 'medal scavengers.' Two new Peckinpah features: a surrealist motif including flashbacks & fantasies, and an overt political tone driven home by photos of Vietnam & a Brecht quote in the closing montage. The action scenes, especially the slow-motion effects, are as good as any by Peckinpah. Considering the low budget, they should be the stuff of legend, featuring extraordinary photography & precise, correct detail. Peckinpah's operatic violence contrasts with the crushing, unmanning action depicted in versions of 'All Quiet in the Western Front.' To balance making a film about the most demonized military machine in history, Peckinpah is at pains to depict ALL the major German characters, even Stransky, as anti-Nazi. Stransky declares himself a Prussian aristocrat, Steiner is openly disdainful of a SS soldier & Brandt lays plans for the existence of Germany after the Nazis. The platoon soldiers wear a mishmash of uniform, civilian clothes & pilfered Soviet items, further de-Nazifying them. This is probably Peckinpah's gloomiest film except 'Alfredo Garcia'--which is pretty gloomy--but it lacks the exquisitely artful darkness of 'Apocalypse Now.' Then again, Heinrich's book isn't 'Heart of Darkness.' If you can watch 'All Quiet,' 'Cross' & 'Apocalypse' all in one day without abandoning all hope, then you're as cheerful as Pippi Longstocking. 'Cross of Iron' is a unique work, either as a war film, an action movie or even a Peckinpah work.
Valdez Is Coming (1971)
You seen one Elmore Leonard, you seen 'em all
Grizzled but crafty tough guy is minding his business but gets caught up in the nefarious pursuits of a rich bad guy who likes to get his hands dirty (but not too dirty). Some poor but noble Mexicans and/or Indians wander in the way & Tough Guy is forced to take a stand, with his inherent goodness trumping his veneer of selfishness. There's a pretty girl involved (maybe two, but usually just one), one of the minion thugs is a sadistic but wimpy bully, and there's plenty of shooting & maybe some car chases and a train wreck, if possible. This about covers 'Mr Majestyk' (Bronson), 'Joe Kidd' (Eastwood), 'Hombre' (Newman), 'Stick' (Reynolds), '52 Pick-up' (Scheider) & 'Valdez is Coming'(Lancaster). But it can't be denied that Elmore Leonard's sophisticated, dark but wry macho pulp was perfectly suited to the appetite for moody action films in the 1960s & 1970s. 'Valdez' is as good as any & much better than some, with Lancaster as enjoyable as ever as a small-town lawman forced into a one-man guerrilla war against Western mobster Tanner (Cypher), with Tanner's wife (Clark) among several people used as pawns in their scruffy chess game. Though Lancaster had played a German, an Italian & a Frenchman in the previous decade, the Hispanic Valdez was the only one he portrayed with an accent (not too badly). Clark is both more fetching & more convincing than most Leonard babes, which is saying a lot. The excellent Jordan also stands out as the stereotyped brutal worm, a surprisingly rewarding role in which Clarence Williams in '52 Pick-up' & Paul Koslo in 'Mr. Majestyk' & 'Joe Kidd' also shone. Still, the medicine for bringing an Elmore Leonard to the screen is a leading man who can be flawed & sensitive, yet no softer than rock-hard. It wasn't quite the thing for John Wayne & it's probably not the ticket for Adam Sandler, while Johnny Depp wouldn't be believable if he wasn't taking a beating from one or more girls. Some chips & a frothy mug (make mine a small beer) are all you need to add to 'Valdez' for an enjoyable couple of hours of couch potato-digging.
The Big Bus (1976)
"Sure, everyone think's it's a snap driving a bus...it's no snap..."
Is a society that laughs so hard at its own fads humble, narcissistic, or both? This forgotten spoof, four years before "Airplane!," appeared after years of "Airport" and Irwin Allen films, just as disaster movies were being replaced by the Spielberg shockers that started with "Jaws" and led to "Jurassic Park" (X-treme Discovery Channel, but that's another story). Cylops, a nuclear-powered, double-decker, articulated luxury bus (an impressive set of props & sets) finishes development despite sabotage attacks that cripple the specially trained drivers. Venerable driver Dan Torrance (Bologna) is hired as a replacement even though he's in disgrace after a disastrous run in which he was accused of eating his passengers while stranded! The bus's designer, Kitty (Channing) is his former love whom he dumped after cheating on her repeatedly. The film is a mostly unsubtle jab at all-star disaster movies in which subplots are resolved by the characters being forced to find common ground to survive the burning building, burning airship, overturned liner, earthquake, et. al. Scruffy engineer Scotty (Beatty) and a fugitive housewife (Gordon) are openly based on George Kennedy's & Helen Hayes' characters in "Airport," respectively. There are also a failed priest (Auberjonois, spoofing his "MASH" role), an oversexed, vengeful fashion maven (Redgrave), a spoiled, bickering couple celebrating their divorce (Mulligan & Kellerman) and a vet disgraced for experimenting with lapine birth control (Dishy). Shull, as a terminally ill man, parodies Lionel Barrymore in "Grand Hotel," reminding us of how uncomfortably similar that old classic is to "The Towering Inferno." The bus's nemesis is a powerful family (Ferrer & Margolin) who create disasters to destroy technical innovation & are apparently responsible for most disasters, real or fictional, filmed since the 1950s, including the "Titanic." The script is wildly erratic, ranging from comic genius to contrived stupidity. The latter include the opening press conference & the encounter with the pickup truck. But the former include most of the scenes involving the bus, including the one in which Dan deals with a bomb, which was redone dramatically in "Speed" nearly 20 years later. Cyclops has a bowling alley, swimming pool & dining room, all hilariously reduced to dollhouse-size, as well as self-changing tires, an Automatic Washing Mechanism (AWM) and soda-pumping & luggage-ejection features. Despite its contrivances, the story holds together amazingly & even provides real suspense up to the very end. Bologna is a bit hammy as the troubled Bus Captain, but Channing is brilliant, both believable & funny, as the nuclear scientist/love interest. The scene in which she drives while sitting on the lap of unconscious co-driver Shoulders (Beck) is almost enough in itself to make the whole film worthwhile. But Murphy Dunne nearly steals the show as the most offensive lounge piano player ever ("Thank yooou!"). Despite the in-your-face satire, look for some very subtle comic touches like the jab at TV news & the pictures in Iron Man's hall.
The Naked Truth (1957)
Slight but Enjoyable British Black Comedy
Most movie satires, especially British ones, seem to work best when their individual parts don't depend upon each to be funny. "The Naked Truth," unfortunately, is a story that progresses & has to hang together to the end, but doesn't. Suave blackmailer Nigel Dennis (Dennis Price, nearly as smoothly-English a blackguard as George Sanders) is targeted for termination by a conspiracy of upstanding citizens upon whom he's put the bite after discovering the skeletons in their closets. They're sort of led by jurist & philanderer Lord Mayley (Terry-Thomas) & include TV star Sonny (Sellers), socialite Melissa (Eaton) & mystery writer Flora (Mount). Of course this cabal is brilliant in their planning & hilariously inept in execution. Terry-Thomas, like his American contemporaries Phil Silvers & Don Rickles, didn't have much comic range but was the very best at what he did--in his case, parodying stuffy English aristocrats or professionals. Sellers, of course, contrives to be a man of disguises, all of them as funny as any he did in the "Pink Panther" films. In his scenes as the undisguised Sonny, he's overshadowed by his "companion," Porter (Griffith, an underrated, underused comic talent). Mount & Sims, as Flora's neurotic daughter, are funny for a while as would-be killers caught up in a perpetual comedy of errors, but the act wears thin by the end of the film. The film concentrates on the conspirators, giving the rogue Dennis very little screen time until the end, by which time he isn't funny anymore on any level. The conspiracy has to come to a conclusion somehow, and it does, but the wrapup is pretty silly. This early Sellers starring vehicle is a lesser effort compared to the similar "Wrong Arm of the Law" which appeared six years later. But it's entertaining & light in that unique, dark British way.
The Train (1964)
Fantastic, One-of-a-Kind War Movie of French Resistance vs Nazi Greed
If better known for their earlier work together in "Birdman of Alcatraz," Frankenheimer & Lancaster achieve no less in this unusual, deep yet action-packed war thriller. As the Allies close on Paris in 1944, Colonel von Waldheim (Schofield) loots France's Impressionist collection & sends it on a train to Germany. Curator Mlle Villard (Flon, as a character based on real-life art historian Rose Valland) alerts a Resistance cell led by railroad supervisor Labiche (Lancaster), who refuses on the grounds that the art isn't important enough to put lives on the line ("For certain things we take the risk"). Ironically, von Waldheim's superiors agree, repeatedly trying to take the determined colonel's train away from him. But, after one of their own dies trying to delay the train, Labiche's men set up an elaborate plan to stop it without damaging the art, dragging him willy-nilly into their scheme. A fascinating aspect of "The Train" is that most of the people on BOTH sides think the art isn't that important, including Labiche & his German counterpart, Major Herren (Preiss). But the struggle between the Resistance & the colonel takes on a life of its own, consuming more German & French lives as it unfolds--yet the war in France is only days from ending! There are a lot of characters, some of whom, especially the colonel, give the story a highbrow, even snobbish tone. But Frankenheimer is tops at keeping the viewer on the edge of his seat for every second, even in scenes set in offices (especially Jacques's frantic, surreptitious attempts to telephone Maurice). The action is unrivaled, notably the art train's dash through carpet-bombing, Labiche's evasion of a British Spitfire & the big pileup at Rive-Rene. The dark, black & white cinematography plunges us into a pitiless world of train yards & air raids in contrast to the masterworks of color we know are imprisoned within the boxcars. The characters are remarkably deep even for a war movie. Though von Waldheim is obsessed with French art that he knows the Nazis despise, he's as ruthless, greedy & arrogant as any Nazi. We're tantalized, though the movie never says so, by the idea that the colonel intends to keep the art himself. Villard speaks movingly of the art as "our special vision," yet no one quite agrees with her except fat old engineer Papa Boule (Simon). Labiche never agrees with her at all & seems to resent the art as much as he hates the Nazis, yet he has to save it or deaths of his friends will be for nothing. Who's right? You decide. As in "The Leopard" & "Judgment at Nuremberg," Lancaster makes no attempt to look or sound native, yet his energy & presence never fail. Schofield's colonel is one of the most chilling villains in film history (never hurts for the bad guy to be a Nazi). Embittered hotel owner Christine seems at first a token female, but Moreau is moving in the small role--what else to expect from one of the greatest talents of cinema? Few war films are as personal as "The Train" but there's adventure enough for any Saturday entertainment. There's no other film quite like it.
Silent Running (1972)
"One Reason Why...Nobody Cares!"
The decade between the low-budget genius of "Star Trek" and the spectacular escapism of "Star Wars" was the age of earnest, thoughtful outer-space sci-fi with cutting-edge visual effects. The highlights were the surreal wonder of "2001," the fantastic absurdity of "Space: 1999" and the breathtaking, heartbreaking "Silent Running." A world that solved poverty, disease & unemployment by turning itself into bland, synthetic socialism has placed all its national parks in orbit around Saturn in domes aboard chartered space freighters such as the Valley Forge, whose forests are watched over by embittered yet optimistic botanist Lowell (Dern, in the greatest role of his fine career). When inexplicably ordered to abandon & destroy the forests, Lowell commandeers the ship by staging an "accident" & taking the Valley Forge through Saturn's rings (one of Trumbull's matchless displays of special effects) into deep space with the last surviving forest. He's alone but for his desperate hope & the guilt of his betrayal, as well as a pair of maintenance drones that he nicknames "Huey" & "Dewey" & reprograms to become foresters & companions. Like most serious sci-fi films, "Silent Running" is plagued by some unresolved plot holes (why did Earth go to the trouble of shooting its forests into space if it didn't want them?) & ludicrous assumptions (all but the most clueless watcher will figure out why the forest is ailing long before the botanist does). But the detail flaws are insignificant compared to the unwavering theme of nature threatened by man's sublime arrogance, Dern's intense portrayal of his driven, tormented character & Trumbull's artful mix of story, science, props & effects. The drones are as imaginative as R2-D2, nearly as cute but longer on pathos & sympathy, especially the ever-dependable Dewey. Schickele's score & well-chosen songs from Baez set just the right mood for every scene. The contemporary "Soylent Green" shares the theme of one man fighting against a society unwittingly maiming itself by destroying nature. But "Silent Running" is truly unique, less dark & much more personal than "Soylent," an unabashed environmental statement made both enjoyable & credible by its artfully told story. It set a standard that "Star Trek: The Next Generation" often tried to match but never did without becoming cloying or preachy. Even if you drive a Hummer & own ten thousand shares of ExxonMobil, you'll wonder why no other film like this Hugo Award-winning masterpiece has ever been made.
The Magic Christian (1969)
"Just Wanted to See if You Had Your Price...Most of Us Do..."
No one slices comedy with an obsidian knife the way Terry Southern does. Guy Grand changes from the American zillionaire in the novel to an English gentleman tycoon (Sellers) & gains a soulmate when he adopts scruffy vagrant Youngman (Starr), but Southern's unique low-key, vicious zaniness remains. The pair's purpose in life is to skewer institutions in particular & society in general by bribing, with their unlimited wealth, professionals, experts & officials to humiliate themselves and/or their employers. Some of the novel's funniest scenes make it to the screen, including: free cash given away to those willing to wade into vats of hideous filth to get it; Big Fang, the "Congo Black Dog," wreaking havoc at Crufts; Guy's dining experience at Chez Edouard; a traffic officer (Milligan) paid to eat Guy's parking ticket; and, of course, the "Magic Christian," the cruise ship from Hell. Worthy additions include Laurence Harvey turning Hamlet's soliloquy into a striptease ("with a bare, bare bodkin!"), Attenborough helping to turn the Oxford & Cambridge crew race into a "punch-up," and Guy collecting "French noses" at Sotheby's art auction. Sellers is perfectly deadpan & dignified as the tycoon whose determination to find everyone's price is even more believable today, the age of "Fear Factor" & "Big Brother," than in the 1970s. Starr, at the height of his creativity before his solo career spun into jaded dissolution, is just right as Guy's sounding board (as in their ambition to rewrite great books, including the Bible, with the nouns left blank for the readers to fill in). Graham Chapman & John Cleese demonstrate their trademark Python casual nonsequiturs ("the crowd seems sickened by the sight of no blood!") as well as playing small parts: Chapman as the (nearly) incorruptible Oxford crew captain & Cleese a pompous art expert. But it's the "Magic Christian"--Guy's ultimate prank--with her all-star, wacky crew that puts the film over the top. Hyde-White is the clueless captain (or is he?), Welch the chief engineer, AKA "Priestess of the Whip," Frey the cloying shrink, Lee the bloodthirsty steward & Polanski the silent drinker. And don't miss that lounge singer! Like most Southern & Python films (and Marx Bros. films before that), "The Magic Christian" doesn't so much wrap up as end simply when it runs out of gags. It's best appreciated for the sum of its parts, but in that it never misses a beat. No collection of satirical films--or Python or Sellers movies--is complete without it.
Duel at Diablo (1966)
Intense Western, Not for the Squeamish
The first & more watchable of 2 intense Westerns from Ralph Nelson, "Diablo" is one of the starkest examples of the tough, realistic Westerns that became popular in the late 1950s. Professional scout Remsberg (Garner) is out for vengeance on the "civilized" men who butchered his Comanche wife. His quest is interrupted when he's tasked to accompany an Army ammo convoy led by ambitious Lt. McAllister (Travers). Along for the ride are wrangler & ex-sergeant Toller (Poitier), shopkeeper's wife Ellen (Andersson), a former captive of the Apache who's regarded with disgust by her white neighbors, and her embittered husband (Weaver). They're intercepted by a large war party of the same Apaches who once held Ellen captive. As with films of this kind from "The Last Wagon" to "Ulzana's Raid," the male lead is a white man who understands the plight of the Indians, sympathizes with them but nevertheless works for the whites. There's nary a letup in the darkness & intensity. Ellen, the tortured, exploited victim of both sides, is no love interest, while the only humor in the film comes in occasional rueful exchanges among the tough guys. But there's plenty of action in scenes as well-done as any of the period & budget. What makes "Diablo" stand out is the clever, seamless depiction of the strategy as the ambushed convoy spars with the wily, ruthless Apache. It's far more engrossing than almost any war movie, including those with budgets many times larger. Andersson doesn't have much to work with but Garner & Poitier play their tough guys with just the right balance between expression & terseness. Weaver makes the most of his limited opportunity to develop the selfish husband who feels sorrier for himself than his wife over her horrifying torment. "Diablo" delivers action & adventure that never lags, along with a strong dose of historical-social awareness, but it's not the ticket for a light evening's entertainment. Director Nelson plays the colonel commanding the relief force.
La bataille de San Sebastian (1968)
Dances With Irony
The European Western takes a couple steps back in time with the rascal-mistaken-for-clergy theme, a proved device that worked for Bogie in "The Left Hand of God" & Whoopi in "Sister Act." In colonial Mexico, bandit Leon (Quinn) takes refuge with dedicated Father Joseph (Jaffe) & escapes when the priest is transferred to a forsaken northern village. The villagers, terrified of marauding Yaquis & exploited by a frontier protection racket led by embittered half-Yaqui Teclo (Bronson), mistake Leon for the priest & implore him for miracles. Unable to escape back into colonial settlement & tempted by naive, spirited village girl Kinita (Comer), he teaches the villagers to fight back & believe in themselves rather than praying for miracles. Quinn is colorful as ever but not quite believable making the transition from Leon the selfish, godless rascal to Leon the selfless, principled hero, though he is properly scruffy all the way through. Comer is fetching but Bronson is only bulky & menacing. Two extraordinary talents--Gravet as a stuffy bishop & the legendary Silvia Pinal as Leon's conniving girlfriend--are relegated to minor, superficial roles. The time period is wrong for the film's big gunfights, since firearms were clumsy & rare in the 18th century. But the tongue-in-cheek flavor of the spaghetti Western, with a scruffy rascal confounded, puzzled & frustrated on the way to his selfish goal, holds true all the way through. The Yaquis are represented--up to a point--with the sympathy typical of Westerns of circa 1970. A subplot, Leon's pursuit of a wild white horse, is an effective, slightly surreal device. A contribution by Bunuel, Jr., the 2nd unit director? Oh, my God, this movie has Silvia Pinal & Juan Luis Bunuel! It's the closest thing to a surrealist Western!
The Da Vinci Code (2006)
An Honorably Darn'd Worthwhile Dragon
Pop culture religious heresy is a pleasure only mildly guilty as long as it's done with reverence. Spielberg nailed this formula long ago with the "Raiders" movies & Ron Howard takes a pretty good whack at it with "The Da Vinci Code," or, "Dan Brown's Big Book of Renaissance Puzzles." Harvard religious symbology professor Langdon (Hanks) is brought in to consult on the murder in the Louvre of his associate Sauniere (Marielle), which features numerous cryptic symbols & clues left by the dying man in his last minutes. Police cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Tautou), after learning that detective Captain Fache (Reno) is convinced that Langdon is the killer but knowing that the professor is not, helps Langdon escape. They can only clear their names by solving riddles deliberately left by the dead Sauniere & leading to the exposure of a secret society dedicated to preserving the hidden truth of the "Holy Grail," a revelation that would embarrass & perhaps destroy the Catholic Church hierarchy. The Quest for the Grail crosses the paths of Opus Dei official Bishop Aringarosa (Molina), his vicious, self-mortifying albino henchman Silas (Bettany), oily Swiss banker Vernet (Prochnow), wealthy, eccentric Grail expert Sir Leigh Teabing (McKellen) & an unseen, sinister mastermind whom Silas & Aringarosa know only as "The Teacher." Brown's convoluted tale is built around puzzles & selective interpretations of historical fact & legend, a challenge for a filmmaker since the viewer, unlike the reader, can't turn back the pages or put the story down until the movie comes out on video. Howard & Company get off to a strong start. Akiva Goldsman's script begins deftly, following the book closely without losing or intimidating the viewer. Howard's direction sets the tone darkly & tensely, not ponderously or somberly. Hanks is understated & terse as Langdon, much as Howard directed him in "Apollo 13," where he also played a stressed-out professional whose life depends on his skill. Tautou is strongly, heartbreakingly evocative of Audrey Hepburn, almost as if she were in "Charade" and her roles with Cary Grant were reversed. Bettany, Reno & Molina portray their heavies with even more sympathy than Brown let them have, one way in which the movie improved on the book. Howard & Goldsman do an excellent job of covering up the book's greatest flaw, which is the ludicrous ease of solving a key mystery, by keeping the action moving steadily & reducing the mystery's prominence. The film is still aloft when it gets to Teabing, whom McKellen makes his very own with a perfect mixture of self-important eccentricity, condescending intelligence and scholarly eagerness. As the clues unravel, so does the film. It goes on at least a half hour too long, passing one Oh-My-God climax after another, desperately throwing in more Western Civ puzzles like fuel on a fire. CGI special effects in the second half confuse more than illustrate, though they probably cost more than all those ever created by Ray Harryhausen. Perhaps Howard, like most other big-ticket directors, is no longer capable of telling a story without whiz-bang effects, or maybe he couldn't find another way to deal with Brown's concentration of so many difficult, confusing clues near the end of the story. For most of the movie, the action keeps the viewer's attention away from glaring holes in Brown's religious-historical background, particularly the flawed interpretation of Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" which should be apparent if you can answer "yes" when Indiana Jones asks if you ever went to Sunday School. Unfortunately, all that baggage comes crashing down as the film approaches its end. Langdon's attempt to explain it away in a short speech to Sophie falls flat, tending, if anything, to negate the whole point of the bloody adventure they share. Despite several brief attempts, Hanks & Tautou never get to fully develop their characters either individually or together, another drawback of following Brown's story closely. Those looking forward to a chemistry like Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn or Gregory Peck/Sophia Loren will be quite disappointed. Despite the global furor, the Opus Dei order is not demonized, since the story clearly indicates that Aringarosa & Silas are operating beyond official sanction. Catholic characters in fact come across with a sympathy--sometimes even nobility--when the story has time for them, which is seldom. If the "The Da Vinci Code" is open to a religious criticism, it's a depiction of Christianity as a religion only fully appreciated by brainiac puzzle-masters. To that end, this reviewer has left you an anagram in the title of this review, made up of the names of two real-life people associated with this movie plus the name of one vital plot device. Like "The Da Vinci Code," it's best enjoyed without thinking much about any historical rationales behind it.
The Green Berets (1968)
The Most Fascinating Awful Movie Ever!
It seems somehow dishonorable to give "The Green Berets" more than 1 star, because it worked so hard to slam itself into the ground. Big production values & several competent performances nevertheless keep this giant turkey aloft here & there, though in no way validating the gleeful awfulness of the whole. The film is actually two consecutive stories, the first following Col. Kirby (Wayne) as he prepares & deploys his Special Forces "teams" (as if the Army had taken to viewing war as nothing more than The Big Game) to Vietnam. Assisted by loyal secretary/medic "Doc" McGee (St. Jacques) & bouncy, muscular top sergeant Muldoon (Ray), he adds two odd characters to his crew: scowling, brooding anti-war journalist Beckworth (Janssen) who accepts Kirby's challenge to "see for himself," and wheeler-dealer Petersen (Hutton), who's shanghaied into combat after being caught stealing. Kirby is responsible for a "camp," a barbed-wire fortress in Injun territory. Outside the wire, Communists routinely slaughter the simple villagers who accept assistance from the good guys who want nothing more than to heal & grow. There's a purpose in depicting the camp as an outpost surrounded by hostiles who have a baleful affinity to the environment that Yankee Doodle Dandies can never understand, whose diabolical cleverness & hatred of Civilization is matched against Truth, Justice & American Technology. Sound like a John Ford/John Wayne movie? Certainly it does after the great battle climax in which hordes of raving Indians--er,commies--try to overwhelm the terribly outnumbered heroes. The film wouldn't have been so bad if it had stopped there, but Wayne can't resist tacking on what is essentially a sequel with new major characters. This involves a mission to capture an enemy general after luring him with a "honey trap" set by the daughter of a senior South Vietnamese officer. As he had shown with "The Alamo," Wayne is an inept director, capable of nothing more than aping his master Ford, unable to fully weave together story, theme & characters. Those who first point out technical inaccuracies or overt political themes (such standards make "Rambo" a far worse film) miss the biggest of this movie's huge flaws, which is the failure of almost all the characters to connect. Promising starts by several come to nothing because they vanish long before the end while Col. Cai (Soo) & Lin Cai (Tsu) appear much too late. Persistent characters Muldoon, Doc & MacDaniel never get a chance to gain even the slightest depth, remaining no more than background continuity despite a lot of screen time. Hutton & Jue as orphan Hamchunk (one of many "you've got to be kidding" characters) manage to keep their improbable roles & their odd relationship from sinking into absurdity, but not by much. Wayne, Cabot & Soo are far too old & decrepit to be believable even as senior officers. Nearly as bad is the film's remarkable ability to defeat the very points it wants to make. The Americans' reliance on brutal locals such as Capt. Nim (Takei) & impressive, high-tech but terribly impersonal weaponry underscores their failure to understand, co-opt or even intimidate the Vietnamese populace as the Communists are clearly able to do. The improbability of Kirby's need for Peterson to steal weapons & equipment from other Army units might have been explained by the regular Army's disdain for the Green Berets, but isn't. If official US Army backing would have been jeopardized otherwise, then that storyline should have been eliminated. "The Green Berets" is in fact a John Ford Western, but it forgets that the audience knows that the Indians ultimately were subdued by the threat of complete assimilation & extinction. Since that threat wasn't even implied in Vietnam, we're given no reason to understand why the same model is valid in this film. The movie's best points are its graphic action scenes, which are far less excessive & more effective than the belt-fed action orgies of the 1980s, and the earnestness of its portrayals, including the always commanding John Wayne. Wayne would have scored by casting himself as a retired general or diplomat on some dangerous civilian mission, perhaps for the CIA, with an elite team of spies, commandos, technocrats, et cetera. Was any such film ever contemplated during Vietnam, even though several were made about WWII? But that would have prevented the homage to the armed forces that Wayne so desperately wanted to direct as well as star in. So no one should doubt that Wayne's heart was in the right place, even though his sunset over the eastern sea wasn't.
A Bright Shining Lie (1998)
A Soldier with a Sordid Past Devoted to a Doomed War
Neil Sheehan's masterpiece tells the Vietnam War story through a single biography. John Paul Vann was an American who overcame a humble background & made a distinctive, heroic career as a soldier, adding a beautiful wife & 3 kids along the way. Preparing for promotion to high rank, he went to Vietnam in the early 1960s as an adviser, one of the select few to take the fight against Communism right into combat. But Vann was also a man with deep personal issues: haunting, shaming memories of childhood poverty, a weak father & a libertine mother, leading perhaps to his own aggressive infidelities including one with an underaged girl that nearly led to court-martial. And his "fight" in Vietnam was merely a series of bureaucratic exercises in which the Americans were bogged down by South Vietnamese intrigues, both unwilling & unable to do what was necessary to defeat the Communists. Terry George explores this theme with the steady pace, methodical yet engrossing, that was later such a triumph in the remarkably similar "Hotel Rwanda." Paxton has his work cut out as the very complicated Vann, a dedicated soldier who is not only everything an Army officer should be, but also a true warrior whose devotion to victory trumps his loyalty to the establishment & thus even his own career. Yet Sheehan's Vann has a shocking capacity for self-harm, hating the ignominious background that was not his fault, indulging himself in sexual adventures that wounded his family & threatened his career as readily as he embarked on reckless combat missions. It's all Paxton's show & he takes us on a fascinating odyssey of an officer whose slow realization that the Army would rather lose the war by the book than win it by tossing away the book (it's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game?) causes him to leave the Army but, after a short, sad foray into business, return to Vietnam as a civilian administrator who steadily accumulates unique, vast military authority. Paxton's Vann wants to understand Vietnam's people & culture--but only enough to help him in his war effort--leading him to turn his back on his tormented family & take a Vietnamese wife (Wu). But for Vann, everything in his life is devoted to victory, a personal goal, an intense obsession, that he will achieve whether America or Vietnam like it or not. Paxton is suitably restrained, uttering no war cries like Stallone or Norris, making no personal journey of self-awareness or redemption as in "Apocalypse Now" or "Uncommon Valor." The professionalism of the art of war is his mantra, the belief that the everlasting principles of the true warrior will realize the high ideals of democracy & capitalism over the despair of communism. George doesn't give Paxton the opportunity to go too deeply into Vann's personal life (the book WAS very long, after all), so Vann comes across as a complex but not quite complete antihero. The other actors are there to help paint the Vann picture rather than those of their own characters. Madigan is very fine as Vann's loyal wife driven to despair as much by Vann's obsession with the abstract concept of victory as his gross infidelities. The superb Kurtwood Smith gives the best film portrayal of Westmoreland ever on screen--decisive, firm, unapproachable, unhearing--though he has only minutes to do it. Kay Tong Lim is as restrained as Paxton in depicting the clever Colonel Cao, Vann's ARVN partner & as self-serving as Vann is idealistic, who goes from being Vann's great hope to his frustration to his nemesis. The action scenes are low-budget & unremarkable, but audiences were long ago falsely conditioned to view Vietnam as a series of either personal or spectacular cowboy-vs-Indian fights. Vann's presentations for Pentagon & White House big-shots, in which he dramatically holds up handfuls of rice to underscore the importance of winning over Vietnam's farmers, are far more poignant. If the Vann of Sheehan, George & Paxton has a valediction, it's that the war was lost in Washington, not in the field--a view that's hardly original but is still very hard to wrap one's mind around. Many viewers will find "A Bright, Shining Lie" quite unsatisfying entertainment, but that's the problem with dramatizing nonfiction, the risk of presenting a story that's trying to teach. But, if it tries to teach, it doesn't try to preach, and at least the sun doesn't set in the East.
The Ninth Gate (1999)
What's Scarier Than a Polanski Film About the Devil?
Answer: a Polanski film about the Devil starring Johnny Depp, the toughest pretty-boy in film history. In fact, the pairing of the brilliant, Francophile Depp & the exiled genius seems so natural that it's a wonder it never happened before. Clever, mercenary rare book expert Dean Corso ("a double-dealing, money-grubbing bastard" according to his best friend) is hired by zillionaire publisher & demonology collector Boris Balkan (Langella) to research Balkan's newest & most prized acquisition: one of 3 copies of the "Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows," a book written by the most flagrant Satanist of the Inquisition period, allegedly in concert with Lucifer himself. Cursory examination of the book indicates it's original, but Balkan professes to be unsure & will pay Corso a fortune to examine it with the other two: one in Spain & one in Paris. Corso can't even get out of Manhattan without realizing there's a lot more to it than that. Two women bedevil Corso's journey: French aristocrat Lianna Telfer (Olin), the widow of the book's former owner, who will do ANYTHING to get it back, and a beautiful, shabby, enigmatic blonde (Seigner) who appears whenever Corso needs a guardian angel. But why would an angel protect a scumbag like Corso? Polanski's adaptation of the cool, dark, intelligent Spanish novel "Club Dumas" is very European, with just enough violence to keep a Yank from rigor mortis but dripping with temptation, sex, intrigue & pure, Roman Catholic evil. Like the book, this film is the opposite of "The Da Vinci Code," which is about puzzles & devices. The characters, not the story, are Polanski's puzzles. They don't come off as well as they might. Corso doesn't really have any redeeming qualities, no underlying goodness, only modest reserves of courage, no end to cynicism. Yet he's neither ambitious enough nor evil enough to avoid being the tool of his betters. Olin, fine but a stereotyped femdemon, is a bit too effective as the devilish widow, leaving little to the imagination, least of all that toned body. Had the role more closely followed the book, Nicole Kidman or even Reese Witherspoon might have found it a worthy challenge. The supporting cast is above average, notably Langella as the hulking, mild-mannered intellectual who effortlessly matches limitless finance to the glories of Hell, Jefford as the crippled aristocrat with a girlish crush on the Prince of Darkness & Taylor (another American exile) as sad, shabby Portuguese nobleman Fargas. Of the three overt devices Polanski insists on using, one--the never-ending smoking of cigarettes--is annoying, confusing & contrived since most of the characters are supposed to be the quill of rare book experts. The second, the book & its drawings, contrive a puzzle just hard enough to keep our interest when Johnny needs a break. The third device, Seigner's mystery girl, is far more satisfying, never really letting us know whether she's out to save Corso's soul as well as his butt until the very end. But it's Depp's show & he overcomes the pedantry of Corso with a nuanced portrayal of cynicism, greed, fear, awe, frustration & determination, a performance that never lags, never fails to fascinate. Could any other actor still be a believable sleuth who persists despite being regularly pummeled by women? Khondji's masterful cinematography & Kilar's dark score round out Polanski's quiet but stylishly sable tale of classic, Old-World devilry. There's little blood-drinking (and that little is sexy), no flesh burned or curdled, no metamorphoses, no crosses warding off evil energy. "The Ninth Gate" cuts to the chase: the chase for our souls, for Polanski, Depp & company make this supernatural tale human enough to put us in fear of the Fallen One. It's a necessary addition to any Halloween collection or a fine, dark thrill any time.
Lost Voyage (2001)
On the Routinely Evil Ship Lollipop
It must be harder than it looks to make a movie set aboard an ocean liner. Gritty dramas ("Souls at Sea"), thrillers ("Across the Pacific") or oceanic tearjerkers ("Titanic" & its predecessors") have scored, but among ghost stories set aboard ship, the nearest to the mark have been "The Wreck of the Mary Deare" & "Pirates of the Caribbean"--and it's generous to count either one of them. "Lost Voyage" doesn't really try very hard but is simply another installment in the Bermuda Triangle genre. Florida paranormal researcher Aaron (Nelson) learns that the cruise ship Corona Queen, which vanished in 1979 with his father & new stepmother--inspiring him to become a ghosthunter--has reappeared in the Triangle. She's in the middle of a growing tropical storm, of course, which may sink her at any time. Though proclaiming his reluctance, he inevitably brings his ectospotting-gear (once again, Man bites God with Gear) on a salvage mission. They're led by veteran, no-nonsense seascrounger Shaw (Henriksen) & backed by a TV station that sends both washed-up anchor Dana (Janet Gunn) & catty star reporter Julie (Chorvat), with nervous cameraman Randall (Richard Gunn) caught between the rivals. Hard-edged, good-hearted sea mechanics Dazinger (Kober) & Fields (Sheppard) round out the fateful team with occasional but much-needed comic relief. Of course the Corona Queen is just as she was before but passengers & crew are gone--or are they? Will the team find its answers, prevail or escape before the intense storm overcomes the drifting liner? Or will their own personal demons & rivalries tear them apart? The carelessness & cheapness that plague most SciFi Channel originals are largely absent from "Lost Voyage," which features a story of unusual depth (the characters must each face personal demons as well as supernatural foes & their own rivalries) even if it is predictable. A competent cast helps, too. Nelson's Aaron is a driven, fearless nerd, not unlike Richard Dreyfuss's Hooper in "Jaws," but more suitably somber here. Henriksen, the greatest sci-fi/action character actor since Harry Dean Stanton, is as solid as ever, bringing both believability & color to the tale. Stuntwoman Gunn is capable enough as the alternately bitter & optimistic TV reporter whose devotion to her craft usually overcomes her selfish ambition. The effects are pretty good, not spectacular enough to overwhelm the story & actors, used sparingly enough to enhance rather than distract. If you've never, ever heard of the Flying Dutchman, the Marie Celeste or the Bermuda Triangle, you'll find this movie enjoyable enough as a ghost thriller. Otherwise it's crushingly predictable, offering absolutely nothing that hasn't been done many, many times before in literature & film. "Lost Voyage" teases us early on with parapsychological mumbo-jumbo but that part of the story trails off into nothing. Even the great spooky-spoof "Ghostbusters" helped us out with that ("That's a BIG Twinkie"). There's an inherent pathos to ships, especially big ones, a sense that they're irrevocably tied to the times in which they sailed. They are machines yet somehow alive, servants yet grandly awesome. "Titanic" made so much money because it captured that theme & used it well. A pity that no nautical ghost story has yet been able to do the same.
Out of Africa (1985)
Luscious, All-Day Epic That Justifies the Price of HDTV
It's hard to remember that there was a steady production of long, cerebral, romantic films in the 1980s, when quirky action-comedies ("Ghostbusters, "Beverly Hills Cop") & earnest, belt-fed shooting orgies ("Rambo," "Lethal Weapon") ruled the box office more often than not. Some, like "Chariots of Fire," "Gandhi" & "A Passage to India," were slowly forgotten, but "Out of Africa" keeps a quiet, fervent fan base. Isak Dinesen's story of out-of-sorts aristocracy making a go of it in colonial Africa is hardly a unique one, since almost all the "white hunters" and many of the farmers were European misfits who preferred rough exile to the slow death of genteel boredom at home. Of the many themes that Pollack might have explored, he chose to concentrate on Karen Blixen as a woman struggling to find a place that will accommodate both her own strong will & the pressures--including her own desire--to fit into Victorian society by marrying & making a home. A marriage of convenience to Bror Blixen (Brandauer), a pleasant, impoverished ne'er-do-well, unites her family's money with his blue-blood title & sends the restless newlyweds to seek their fortune on a farm in Kenya. Karen soon discovers that her marriage is a mixed blessing: Bror prefers the freedom of professional hunting & is no help on the farm, but doesn't interfere as she carves out her own domain. If Karen were a man, the struggle to master the wilderness might have been a man-against-the-elements gig like "The Old Man & the Sea," but comes across more believably as Xtreme Housekeeping. Karen is rewarded with the eventual orderliness of her nest & her freedom from family & marital authority. But the quiet ostracism she gets as the unsexed wife of a shameless rogue keeps her from pretending, even to herself, that she is not desperately lonely. The brief, rare appearances of Finch Hatton (Redford) at her farm lift her loneliness so completely that his quick departures bring it crashing down almost unbearably, until at last their relationship becomes discreetly, respectably steady. But if Finch Hatton is deeper & more attentive than Bror, he is also a white hunter, a man to whom the dangers & hardships of Africa are nothing compared to the burden of home & regular work in Karen's world. Streep's performance is understated compared to O'Toole's in "Lawrence of Arabia" ("Out of Africa" for the "Dirty Dozen" crowd) but just as definitive. Karen's heroic efforts on behalf of the colonists, such as her epic trek across the desert to resupply the rattletrap British African army during the Great War, are met with bewildered embarrassment, while her unshakable resolve to give her Kenyan laborers a Western education meets as much resistance from tribal leadership as colonial authorities. The contemporary audience wants Karen to scream, rave & slap just about everybody, but Streep & Pollack must vent her anger & hurt with the demureness that the film's plot calls for. Few other actresses & directors would have been up to the task. Brandauer makes the most of his brief chances to depict careless, shallow Bror, a lovable rogue whose dastardly, genial cleverness in blaming Karen for her strength & competence is uniquely fascinating. Viewers will love or hate Redford's performance. The former will marvel at the gradual revelation, from under the veneer of rugged self-sufficiency & deep, respectful knowledge of Africa, of Finch Hatton's terror at the domestic cage he perceives Karen is closing about him even as his pity for her turns first to admiration & then love. The latter will see Isak Dinesen & the Sundance Kid. No film, not even "Lawrence," can compete with "Out of Africa's" breathtaking photography which, with John Barry's music, make for a cinematic experience more fulfilling but less exhausting than a "Star Wars" film. Pollack's halting attempts to either apologize for or criticize colonialism are unsatisfying but likely would have been a real drag if he had walked more deeply into that socio-political morass. Widely panned for its slowness & length, "Out of Africa" is paced similarly to "The Godfather" but its quiet, intense tale of a willful but sensitive woman in a strange land & the two men who can't control, understand or resist her needs more patience & perspicacity than "Leave the gun. Take the canole." The rewards are worth it when you're in the mood. Don't think you need to be a Gentleman, a Scholar or an Ar-teest to enjoy "Out of Africa." All you need is a spare afternoon & the hunger for a simple yet grand, ultimately rewarding tale of a woman who once had a farm in Africa.
Explore Exotic Cultures, Meet Exciting New People & Kill Them
Frankenheimer's back in Paris, where he triumphed more than 30 years earlier with "The Train." This time he has New York Bob DeNiro, some shadowy Irishmen (that's a new one), Russian mobsters & an overlying Japanese motif. Provacateuse Deirdre (McElhone) assembles ex-Cold Warriors who are at loose ends to do a single job: retrieve a case "from several men who will be intent on preventing us." The crew includes French scrounger Vincent (Reno), American driver Larry (Sudduth), English gunman Spence (Bean), Russian computer whiz Gregor (Skarsgard) & American tough guy Sam (DeNiro). This talented crew is as trustworthy as soldiers garrisoned in a Bangkok brothel, but lurking behind them are Irish nationalist fanatic Seamus (Pryce) & Russian kingpin Mikhi (Atkine). Frankenheimer's use of the case as a "McGuffin," as Hitchcock described a material object used to cement the plot, is too ham-fisted to be effective in a full-length film, especially one as long as this. Once again, we see why Hitchcock's old thrillers hold up so well today. But Frankenheimer's combination of action, dialog & character development remains unique & as enjoyable as ever, especially since he gets fine actors & makes them deliver. The streetwise New Yorker Sam should probably not have been believable as a sophisticated but haunted ex-CIA agent, sort of a cross between "Casablanca" Rick & The Equalizer. But DeNiro's mastery of his craft is up to the considerable challenge. Most of the rest of the cast is fantastic and, with a better plot, might have been legendary. Standing out are Reno's wry Frenchman ("Everyone is your brother 'til the rent comes due"), Bean's nervous blowhard & Skarsgard as the slick, steely, ruthless Russian bookworm. McElhone is a one-of-a-kind winner as the handler of the headstrong, tough-guy crew. Deidre is strong & competent but far from cold, dedicated but not naive, mysterious but not vague, at her ease in pearls or behind the wheel of a getaway car. The tale of the 47 Ronin, an old favorite of Asian lit professors, provides the theme of out-of-work Cold Warriors who have no place in society & must remain slaves to their training & experience, no matter how tragic the consequences. The real-life proliferation of wars-on-terror & their self-described "experts" & "security specialists," even before 9/11, renders this theme ironically implausible. Scenes where the characters discuss this depressing state of affairs are almost unbearably boring, dragging down the second half. As with most thrillers of recent years, the plans realized by DeNiro & crew are too complicated & violent to work, relying heavily on advanced weaponry & electronics. They are just excuses to set up spectacular action scenes. But when has Frankenheimer ever let us down in that department? High production values permit TWO fantastic car chases in addition to several other gripping, convincing bustups. Frankenheimer has remained immune to the over-the-top bloodbaths of Tarantino, the cartoon silliness of Lucas & Spielberg & the blowdried stylishness of Michael Mann. His action draws the viewer in without trying to induce sympathy, laughter or vomiting. With a more coherent story & more convincing theme, "Ronin" might have been one of the greatest films ever. As it is, "Ronin" is an exciting, enjoyable thriller if you don't think too much.
How long IS a Chinaman's Name?
It's hard to go wrong with a story about clever criminals who must worry not only about the authorities but about the treachery of other clever criminals. Master thief Joe (Hackman) decides to call it quits after a profitable jewel store robbery in which his unmasked face is caught on camera. Trouble is, he's already committed to another, bigger job--stealing a gold shipment from a Swiss freight plane--for his fence & paymaster Mickey (Devito). Mickey won't pay off for the jewel job until Joe does the "Swiss thing." The film's first big flaw is that the animosity between Joe & Mickey, who are apparently longtime friends & associates, is never explained enough to justify why they are so willing to stick it to one another. This is a problem because Hackman's character is supposed to occupy the moral high ground (always important when everybody's a criminal) but, in the story, comes across at least as treacherous as Devito's. Fine portrayals by Hackman & Devito cover up rather than diminish this flaw. From then on it's all one twist after another, not all of which twist without leaving open holes behind. Will Joe do the job and, if so, end up doing it the way Mickey wants? Does Joe's supercool, Impossible-Mission crew (Lindo, Jay & Pigeon) trust him & stick with him all the way? Is Mickey's brash young nephew & protégé Jimmy (Rockwell), whom Mickey sends to watch Joe, really as cluelessly macho as he seems? Joe's heist plans ("cute as a pailful of kittens") are too complicated to work unless His Honor Judge Murphy is too sleepy to enforce his law. But they provide a marvellous venue for Mamet to work the lost magic of Welles & Hitchcock: developing characters through interaction & dialog. The supporting cast carries most of this task & does it very well, particularly thieves Lindo, Rockwell & Jay. Jimmy's pushy questions to the other thieves are met by cool, obfuscating questions in reply ("How long's he been with that girl?" "How long is a Chinaman's name?"). Pigeon is suitably hard-edged for this taut film, but a lone actress surrounded by so many tough actors has to bring something extra to stand out. Though he'll probably be best remember for "Hoosiers," and with respects to DeNiro in films such as "Heat" & "The Score," Hackman is the most accomplished actor in films such as this, whether as a cop ("The French Connection"), a private-eye ("Night Moves"), a technician ("The Conversation," "Enemy of the State"), a spy ("Target") or even an attorney ("Under Suspicion"). He's the top master because he rarely fails to score, even in films with plot holes, weak premises & contradictions, with his strong & convincing characterizations, the almost insane passion that lurks just beneath his plain Midwestern veneer. Fine production values, understated but effective actions scenes & an above-average music score help Hackman & Co. make "Heist" a watchable rather than forgettable thriller. Enjoy the portrayals & action but don't think too much.
A.I. Assault (2006)
With the notable exception of the excellent "Dark Kingdom," the SciFi Channel seems to have an aversion to original productions that don't insult its audience's intelligence. Self-aware combat robots decide to go into business for themselves after crashing on a tropical island that looks amazingly like Santa Barbara County. A commando team is sent in with the brainiac daughter of the scientist who created the critters, charged not with destroying but recapturing them. Complicating matters is a trio of cruise-ship robbers whose getaway helicopter happened to crash on the same island for the same reason (a sudden, unexpectedly huge tropical storm that the gods tossed in to add to the tension because it would be too much work to create it through the story). The machines resemble H.G. Wells's original fighting machines, with the embittered sociopathy of "The Terminator's" SkyNet & the opportunistic assimilation abilities shown in "South Park's" episode "Trapper Keeper." Bits & pieces of story elements that could be attributed to "Resident Evil," "Westworld" & any number of trapped-on-an-island-with-monsters movies serve to finish off any hint of originality. The CGI critter-machines are up to par, although they make annoying creaking noises like the Tin Man from "The Wizard of Oz." The other sets & props range from so-so to laughably cheap. The commandos are ludicrously incompetent, having received their patrolling, combat & weapons training from third-graders in some backyard. "Star Trek" icons George Takei (ex-Sulu) & Michael Dorn (ex-Worf) might have lent some interest but share no scenes together & have small, dispensable parts. "AI" violates one of the most basic rules in monster movies by both showing & describing the monster in the very first scene, leaving nothing more for imagination or anticipation. The same carelessness with the sets is given to the explanation of the monsters & the rationale for their misbehavior, although the word "matrix" is applied to them at least 3 times. Why does SciFi keep doing this to us? Is it because Michael Bay keeps getting away with making giant movies without plausible stories? Are we being collectively punished for our morbid fascination with Edward D. Wood, Jr.? Is there some secret proviso in Hollywood that prohibits the possession of a valid library card? I'd rather sit through a miniseries of all 39 sequels to "The Wizard of Oz" than see more of these. Uh-oh, better be careful what I wish for.