Saturday, May 31, 2014

Von Ryan's Express (1965)

Director: Mark Robson                                   Writers: Wendell Mayes & Joseph Landon
Film Score: Jerry Goldsmith                           Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Starring: Trevor Howard, Frank Sinatra, Rafaella Carrà and Wolfgang Preiss

I really hate watching Frank Sinatra, but in this World War Two thriller he’s actually tolerable, though it also doesn’t hurt to have the great Trevor Howard along for the ride. Unfortunately the results don’t match up with the potential. 20th Century Fox had recently taken a bath with the epic Cleopatra, but rather than giving up they decided to green-light Von Ryan’s Express, a prisoner of war escape adventure not unlike The Great Escape which had met with great success two years earlier. The story was based on the novel by David Westheimer, but the primary inspiration for the film was the success of The Guns of Navarone with Gregory Peck. The studio was interested in Sinatra and eventually persuaded him to star in the film. And while there were rumors of discord between director Mark Robson and Sinatra, it certainly didn’t affect the filming in Europe. Though it’s not a particularly gripping film, it remains a favorite for fans of the singer.

The film begins in Italy in 1943 before the Allied invasion, with Frank Sinatra crash landing and pulled out of the burning plane by Italian soldiers who whisk him off to a POW camp under the noses of the Germans. The Italians, having lost their taste for war, are still under the thumb of the Nazis, and so while they have no desire to punish the mostly British soldiers they have imprisoned they also can’t be seen as soft by their Nazi overlords. Trevor Howard is the commanding officer of the prisoners and Sinatra takes exception with the fact that they are still making escape attempts, and being punished for it, when the liberation by the Allies is so close. But Howard, always the Brit, sees it differently. Things don’t come to a head until the Americans in camp are caught stealing “escape rations.” It turns out Howard has been hoarding food and medicine while men in sickbay are suffering. Sinatra isn’t having any of it and as ranking officer in the camp orders Howard to distribute it to the sick men. That, in combination with ending the escape attempts, gets him concessions from the Italian major, Adolfo Celi, but once the Allies get close to the camp Howard captures Celi and intends to court-martial him and hang him. Again, Sinatra says no.

While Sinatra takes the four hundred prisoners of the camp and heads for the coast, the Nazis take a look at the deserted camp, find Celi, and are led by him right to the prisoners. The Nazis load all of them on a train heading north into Italy and away from the Allies. This, then, is Von Ryan’s express, trying to figure out a way to take over the train and where they’ll go once they do. The film was shot mostly on location in Italy and Spain, with some of the interiors done at the Fox studios in California. Director Mark Robson began his career in Hollywood at RKO in the Val Lewton horror film unit, beginning with The Seventh Victim. He already had a popular war film, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, under his belt and had been nominated for two Oscars prior to being given this film. His style is adequate, but by no means memorable. The film score by Jerry Goldsmith also suffers from a lackluster attempt at distinctiveness. The main theme strives for something like Elmer Bernstein’s in The Great Escape but falls well short. It would not be until Patton that the composer would score a memorable soundtrack for a war film, earning him an Academy Award nomination.

Sinatra, from the vantage point of fifty years later, seems like a poor choice for the lead. He was already fifty years old and it shows, and his being a newly minted officer in the air corps seems incredibly unlikely even for World War Two. Trevor Howard suffers from the same problem, and in the inevitable comparison to Alec Guinness in The Bridge on the River Kwai he comes up decidedly short. The attempts at humor in the film also seem weirdly out of place, especially with Celi being a little too reminiscent of Peter Sellers. Some memorable members of the supporting cast were Edward Mulhare as the chaplain who impersonates a Nazi, John Leyton who had been in The Great Escape, and the great Wolfgang Preiss as the ranking Nazi on the train. The name of the film comes from a taunt by the British prisoners who, because of his undermining Howard’s authority in the camp, intimate that Sinatra’s character, Ryan, is on the side of the Germans. Von Ryan’s Express is a game attempt at an epic sixties war film that ultimately falls short. It’s interesting for Sinatra fans, but not for fans of great war films.

The Wrestler (2008)

Director: Darren Aronofsky                            Writer: Robert D. Siegel
Film Score: Clint Mansell                              Cinematography: Maryse Alberti
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood and Todd Barry

It’s been a long time since Mickey Rourke has been seen as a credible actor capable of generating any kind of award nominations but, like his character in The Wrestler, that’s all he knows and he keeps on climbing back into the ring. In fact, with this film Rourke was acknowledged for his performance with an Academy Award nomination for best actor and won a Golden Globe in the same category. And it was well deserved. Sure, watching the film is like watching a traffic fatality, but that’s the point. Rourke plays an over the hill professional wrestler, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, who was once at the top of his profession, playing to sold out arenas all over the country. Twenty years later, however, he works in a small circuit playing VFW halls and high school gyms. His body and his face show the accumulated miles of physical and chemical abuse. But still he marches on, oblivious to the fact that, obviously, one day he’s going to have to quit.

The film begins with Rourke in the locker room preparing for a bout, taping himself up, getting dressed, and looking as though it can’t be possible for him to perform. He looks like an old man, pumped up and tanned to be sure, but more the illusion of a wrestler rather than the real thing. There is an undeniable camaraderie between the obviously much younger wrestlers and himself as they are given their matchups by the promoter and they discuss what routines they want to use in their “act.” Rourke tapes a razor blade on his wristband and during the match cuts his forehead so that the bleeding looks as if it comes from the fight. Afterward he is given his meager pay and finds himself locked out of his trailer when he returns home, not having enough money to pay his rent. The other kids in the trailer park taunt him out of his van in the morning and they go through a clearly time-honored routine of combating with him in the parking lot. In the evening he visits a strip club called Cheeks and chases a bunch of young men out of the private room where they are taunting stripper Marisa Tomei about her age. He and Tomei have developed a relationship of sorts and have an easy way with each other.

It’s a life of routines for Rourke, from his training in the gym that includes the purchase of numerous pharmaceuticals, to his hair dresser whom he admonishes for putting too much bleach on his long, blond hair last time, to the tanning beds were he maintains his orange glow. But at the end of his next match the unexpected happens and he wakes up later in the hospital. Only then does he learn he had open-heart surgery and that he must give up wrestling. When he seeks out Tomei to tell her and hopefully become something more than a customer she tells him she can’t and suggests he contact his estranged daughter, Evan Rachel Wood, which he does with some success, even managing to break down the barrier between him and Tomei in the process. He also gets a regular job behind the deli counter of the grocery store where he worked part time for extra money. But change at this point in his life is not going to be easy, and the forces that kept him in the business for so long are constantly working on him in spite of his physical limitations.

The obvious thing that this film immediately brings to mind is the parallel between the character and the actor. Rourke has been out of the limelight for decades, but still plugging away doing bad film after bad film until he was finally given a part in a successful film, Robert Rodriguez’s Tarrantino-inspired Sin City. The film was also an interesting move for Marisa Tomei to bare it all, but she does a good job as the stripper with kids at home and a soft spot in her heart for Rourke. Evan Rachel Wood as Rourke’s daughter is a commanding presence onscreen and was a perfect choice for the angry young woman who is torn between what her father represents and what he really is. Darren Aronofsky’s direction, hand-held cameras and an almost subjective viewpoint in following around Rourke documentary style, is as big a part of the film as the acting. It is a clichéd story that has been around since the golden age of Hollywood, but this fresh twist on the subject is absolutely compelling and nearly every aspect of the film is admirable. The Wrestler is as disturbing and thought-provoking as it is entertaining and that has always been my definition of a great film.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Dirty Harry (1971)

Director: Don Siegel                                     Writers: Harry Julian Fink & Rita Fink
Film Score: Lalo Schifrin                              Cinematography: Bruce Surtees
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Reni Santoni, John Vernon and Andrew Robinson

This is the film that launched a franchise. Dirty Harry began as a screenplay by Harry and Rita Fink. The story was originally set in New York City and in a later draft was moved to Seattle. The latter setting would appear a few years later in McQ, a similar film starring John Wayne. Because of the extreme nature of the role, the producers couldn’t find an actor to take the part, so the script was passed around to several other writers and went through a number of other revisions. When Eastwood was finally asked and agreed to do the film, he had a couple of demands. First, he wanted to go back to the original script by the Finks, and second that Don Siegel be his director. It was also Eastwood’s idea to cast Andrew Robinson as the killer. Eastwood had seen him in a play and felt he could play the crazed aspect of the character very well. Finally, Eastwood moved the action to San Francisco and that city has been associated with the franchise ever since.

The film proper opens with a woman swimming in a rooftop pool. A killer across the way on an overlooking building shoots her in the back and she dies. The next shot has Clint Eastwood coming through the door, looking up at the other building, then going across and finding the note left for him by someone calling himself Scorpio--a thinly veiled reference to the Zodiac killer. Mayor John Vernon reads the ransom note and decides to pay, in order to give the city more time to find him. Eastwood disagrees but is overruled. Next comes the most iconic scene in the film, as Eastwood leaves a lunch counter and walks across the street, his gun out, still chewing on his hotdog, to foil a bank robbery. When it’s over, Albert Popwell lies injured in front of the door. Eastwood walks over and delivers his catchphrase for the film, telling Popwell that he doesn’t remember how many shots he fired and asking him if he feels lucky. Because of his reckless manner, his partners have a habit of getting in harm’s way, which is why he’s not thrilled about breaking in Reni Santoni. But since he’s been order and there’s nothing he can do about it, Eastwood takes him along on the investigation.

Meanwhile the rooftop killer, Andrew Robinson, is foiled from making his next kill by a police helicopter. After a couple of set pieces involving Eastwood getting beaten up in an alley and rescuing a suicidal jumper, they get their first lead when they set a trap on a roof in front of a church. They exchange fire, but the killer gets away and in a rage kidnaps a girl and demands his ransom now. When Eastwood is elected to deliver the money and gets a knife in Robinson’s leg, it’s only a matter of time before he runs him to ground. While this is not the best film in the series--my personal favorite is The Enforcer with Tyne Daly--it does establish firmly the character and yet still allow for him to grow and not stagnate. That is certainly one of the reason for the continued popularity of the franchise. The other is obviously Eastwood himself. In retrospect the role seems made for him and propelled him to stardom. There’s no anger, there’s no vengeance, he’s just a cop doing what he believes is his job: protecting the good people from the bad. It’s only the bureaucracy that seems too timid to do what needs to be done.

One of the overlooked aspects of the film is the opening shot, a lingering view of a memorial to San Francisco police officers killed in the line of duty, one assumes at the hands of criminals. It’s that idea that sparked the initial popularity of the film. After the assassinations of the late sixties, the domestic unrest over the Vietnam War and the seeming powerlessness of the authorities to do anything meaningful about it, here was a character who was taking the responsibility in his own hands. He was unwilling to look the other way. He was willing to put himself on the font lines and do what needed to be done to protect citizens from criminals. Because of that, the film struck a chord. It’s actually unfortunate that this series gets lumped in with vigilante films, but it’s the farthest thing from it. Harry Callahan is a police officer. He never fires first, and has never been charged with any criminal conduct. Excessive force? Sure, but excess is in the eye of the beholder, and criminals who engage in lawless behavior have to accept the risk.

Eastwood is tough as nails in the opening salvo of the series, just coming off of his self-directorial debut in Play Misty for Me, and he’s assisted by a solid crew of supporting actors. Harry Guardino plays the police captain, while John Larch is the chief of police. John Vernon comes off as the most sensible mayor in the series, and rookie Reni Santoni holds his own with Eastwood, at least for a while. John Mitchum is Eastwood’s new/old partner and will make an appearance in the next two films, while Josef Sommer appears as the D.A. telling Eastwood he violated the killer’s rights and can’t be tried, a prelude to his greatest role a decade later in Witness. This sets up the final confrontation with Andrew Robinson, which is preceded by a wonderful sequence with Raymond Johnson beating him up so he can blame it on Eastwood. Don Siegel was also a perfect choice as director, as was composer Lalo Schifrin who wrote the distinctive jazz-influenced score. Dirty Harry, despite its beginnings as a genre police procedural has become one of the iconic films of the decade and continues to deliver on its status as a cinematic classic.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Wooden Crosses (1932)

Director: Raymond Bernard                            Writer: Raymond Bernard & André Lang
Art Direction: Jean Perrier                              Cinematography: Jules Kruger
Starring: Pierre Blanchar, Gabriel Gabrio, Charles Vanel and Raymond Aimos

In the tradition of films like All Quiet on the Western Front and Journey’s End comes Raymond Bernard’s moving tribute to those lost in World War One. Wooden Crosses (Les croix de bois) is based on the novel by Frenchman Roland Dorgelés that exposes the harsh realities of life in the trenches in a similar way as Erich Maria Remarque’s more famous work. But where the German novel dealt specifically with the idea of the young men being deceived by their elders, this is a more realistic look at the conflict. Rather than the attrition that happens to the specific group of four German soldiers fighting together, the French film is a more egalitarian look at the whole company of men and the losses they face. Bernard used many actual veterans and so there is a heightened sense of verisimilitude that pervades the picture. And it’s this realism on which the film’s reputation lies. There are no happy endings in war.

The film begins with the declaration of war and general mobilization in France. Pierre Blanchar is a new recruit who is introduced to the men of his unit by the gregarious corporal, Charles Vanel. They are the usual cross-section of society, men who have come from all over the country to serve in a war that they believe can’t last more than a few months. Gabriel Gabrio, the vocal one of the group, settles Blanchar in and gets him to buy the men wine. But their celebration is cut short at the sight of a dead soldier being carried to the cemetery. After a march to the front lines the men are installed in the trenches and the company sergeant, Marcel Delaître, keeps everyone in line. On Blanchar’s first mission, a scouting party up to enemy lines, one of the group, Raymond Cordy, is killed by their own artillery firing short, but they take it in stride. When the company returns to their billet, however, they become unnerved when Blanchar hears the Germans digging a mineshaft beneath them and the officers won’t let them move. When they fear the explosives are being planted, the men begin to remember their lives before the war.

As with the party earlier, when the men are finally relieved on the front they mercifully leave the trench to their replacements, but before they are more than a few hundred yards off the Germans blow the explosives in the mine, killing all fifteen of the new men. Once in the rear there is a celebration of relief as they get to eat real food, clean up and read letters from home. Back on the front lines for a big push by the French, the unit is finally going over the top and Blanchar gets his first real taste of the bloodbath of The Great War. The battle footage, as the company attempts to take away a small village from the Germans, is some of the most realistic I’ve ever seen in a film from that period. The hand-held camera shots combined with the stationary shots give a real documentary feel to the ten-day battle. Appropriately, the French eventually find themselves defending a cemetery, and some of the deaths there are the most harrowing I’ve seen on film.

The quality of the direction is immediately obvious. And there are distinctly French touches, such as the double-exposure parade of ghost soldiers from both sides with their wooden crosses over their shoulders. What makes the film distinct from others of the period is the de-emphasis of character. The company of actors that the audience follows is made up of types rather than specific people. This has a distancing effect, true, but that doesn’t seem to diminish the impact of the film in the slightest. I also have a feeling that it is probably a bit easier to follow the cast members in the original French than it is with English subtitles. Director Raymond Bernard worked during a very brief period when French filmmakers were confident enough to compete directly with Hollywood, and they produced some exceptional films including Bernard’s version of Les Miserables two years later. Wooden Crosses may never achieve the popularity of All Quiet on the Western Front but it is every bit its equal, is a masterful anti-war film that definitely honors all of those who lost their lives in that conflict.

The Four Feathers (1929)

Director: Ernest B. Schoedsack                      Writer: Howard Estabrook
Film Score: William F. Peters                         Cinematography: Robert Kurrie
Starring: Richard Arlen, Fay Wray, William Powell and Noah Beery Sr.

Before Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack became forever associated with RKO studios though their work on King Kong, they were at Paramount making semi-documentaries as well as this picture. The Four Feathers is generally considered to be the last silent film ever made in the twenties. One of the things I love about it is the synchronized soundtrack. Later silent films, and even some older ones that were retrofitted at the time, benefit greatly from music tailor made for the images, especially when they include sound effects. Sure, they pale in comparison to Carl Davis originals, but they are so much better than random twenties music that usually gets thrown onto these films that it’s a blessing. Another joy in watching later silents is the appearance of sound film stars who hadn’t yet become household names. This picture gives audiences the chance to see Fay Wray and William Powell without the benefit of dialogue.

The film begins with Richard Arlen’s character as a child. The son of a great British general, he is expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the army. But hearing of the exploits of his famous military family, even as a child, makes him wonder if he’ll have the courage when his time comes. In adulthood, recently promoted to lieutenant, he is set to marry Fay Wray, a daughter of another military family, but when he discovers his unit is about to be shipped to the Sudan for fighting he resigns his commission. His three best friends and fellow officers, Clive Brook, Theodore von Eltz, and William Powell then send him a box containing three white feathers, the symbol of cowardice, and when Wray finds out she adds a fourth. Then, when his humiliated father dies in front of him, Arlen makes a vow to go to Sudan and demonstrate so much courage that all of them will be forced to take their feathers back. In Africa he stays away from the soldiers, but is known as the only white man not in uniform. When he learns of an attack on the last remaining outpost in the area, and the capture of Powell, Arlen vows go infiltrate enemy territory and bring him back alive.

Of course, when Arlen goes into the prison to get Powell out he is inadvertently captured as well, and sold to slave trader Noah Beery. With the help of their young, black helper they manage to kill Berry and escape. After Powell takes back his feather, Arlen proceeds to earn back the respect of the others. Though it’s a highly contrived tale it is also very inspirational, which no doubt explains its lasting popularity and numerous remakes over the years. Richard Arlen, who had co-starred in the Oscar winning World War I drama Wings, is good here as the driven ex-officer looking to restore his honor. Fay Wray, already a veteran of silent films by this time, is radiant but has little to do other than a couple of scenes at the beginning and in the finale. William Powell is the most impressive as the captured officer who has given up all hope of surviving. Like many silent epics, the hundreds of extras in the battle scenes are impressive and would be even more so if someone were able to speed correct the film and attempt some kind of restoration.

The most obvious benefit to Cooper and Schoedsack’s involvement with the project is the African footage shot on location in the Sudan. In addition to their familiarity with the area, and an attempt to make the scenes with the natives realistic, the documentary footage that they had taken of animals that was integrated into the picture during the escape of Arlen and Powell from the slave traders is one of the most distinctive features of the film. Most of the film, however, was shot at the studio but it still looks good. The direction overall is fairly pedestrian but, again, it doesn’t necessarily detract from the overall production. The film score by William F. Peters seems a bit to jaunty most of the time, but it’s not off-putting either. In the end, The Four Feathers is a solid telling of the A.E.W. Mason novel and a unique film for the well-known personalities involved.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Crash (2004)

Director: Paul Haggis                                    Writer: Paul Haggis & Robert Moresco
Film Score: Mark Isham                                Cinematography: J. Michael Munro
Starring: Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon and Terrence Howard

There’s little doubt that Crash was the winner of the Academy Award for best picture by default. That was the year of Brokeback Mountain and Academy members were reluctant to give the award to a film that dealt so openly with homosexuality. By contrast, a film that dealt openly with racism seemed perfectly acceptable. What do you know, racism goes mainstream. Unlike my disappointing experience with Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, however, this film at least seems to have a point. And while it may not contain any more answers, at least it does address the ubiquitous nature of racism instead of one small slice. Don Cheadle delivers the title line when he says the people of Los Angeles are so removed from each other that their need to interact makes the crash into each other. It’s the first of a lot of contrived situations and dialogue that, nevertheless, are thought provoking.

The film begins with the unmarked police car of Don Cheadle and Karina Arroyave being rear ended by an Asian woman and Arroyave unloading on her in a racist way. They are actually there to investigate the death of young man. Then the scene shifts to twenty-four hours earlier. Ludacris and Larenz Tate are walking through a white business district and carjack the SUV of district attorney Brendan Fraser and his wife Sandra Bullock. Back at their house afterward she is having the locks changed by Michael Peña and believes he’s going to sell her keys, which he overhears. Looking for the SUV, police officers Matt Dillon and Ryan Phillippe pull over television director Terrence Howard and his wife Thandie Newton and the racist Dillon humiliates them both before letting them go. Meanwhile Iranian store owner Shaun Toub needs protection and takes his daughter along with him to buy a gun. Later, he needs his back door lock fixed and when Peña tells him he needs a new door he seems as though he wants to use his new gun on him.

The central idea of the film is the exposing of racism in all it’s forms and the way in which all Americans have been affected by it. But this is not unique to the U.S., as racism in many forms exists worldwide. In terms of plot, the way in which the lives of all the characters begin to intersect is interesting, and they are woven together in a clever way. Still, it’s more than just the racism, but the way the characters handle it that is so compelling to watch. Cheadle has a sick mother and is dating his partner, Arroyave, and has his own prejudices, but faces a barrage of it with the D.A. publicity man William Fichtner. Terrence Howard goes into a slow burn that explodes later when Ludacris attempts to jack his car. When Phillippe wants to transfer away from Dillon he runs into Keith David who gives him a dose of reality by telling him he’ll have to blame it on himself. But the film doesn’t reach its emotional climax until Toup does go after Peña with his gun.

The film earned six Academy Award nominations and won in three categories, best picture, original screenplay, and editing. Writer-director Paul Haggis would go on the following year to pen the Oscar-winning screenplay for Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, the only writer to win back-to-back trophies (though Alexander Payne came close), and later wrote and directed the action film The Next Three Days with Russell Crowe. His work here as a director is adequate, though hardly transcendent, and considering films like Capote and Good Night, and Good Luck were also nominated it’s a bit puzzling how the film won. The star-studded cast no doubt helped, though honestly, it’s a bit of a B-list cast in reality. Still, the film was a step forward in taking on racism, and paved the way for more exploration of the subject in other films like Eastwood’s Gran Torino. Crash may not have deserved the Oscar that year, but it’s not a bad film and delivers entertainment and introspection in equal doses.

The Inner Circle (2009)

Director: Laurent Tuel                                    Writer: Laurent Tuel & Simon Moutairou
Film Score: Alain Kremski                              Cinematography: Laurent Machuel
Starring: Jean Reno, Gaspard Ulliel, Vahina Giocante and Sami Bouajila

During the First World War, with the attention of the world elsewhere, Turkey took the opportunity to commit genocide against Armenia and many of those refugees chose to immigrate to France and assimilate into that society. As with any ethnic group immigrating anywhere, some chose criminal enterprises to accelerate their access to a more successful life. This film is about one such family, the Malakian clan, with Jean Reno at its head. The title of the film, The Inner Circle (Le premier cercle), comes from the idea inherent in any family run criminal enterprise, that the family members comprise the inner circle. They run the business and the rest of the organization forms concentric rings that extend out from there. The screenplay concerns one of that inner circle, Gaspard Ulliel, who wants to leave the family’s criminal enterprise and be on his own, with Vahina Giocante, living a small, quiet life running a bed and breakfast. As one would imagine, however, it won’t be that simple to achieve.

The credits open with Gaspard Ulliel and Isaac Sherry chasing down a Ferrari to a gas station. There Ulliel bumps into the rear end, angering the driver, and while they are arguing Sherry takes off in the car while Ulliel follows. It is a theft, and when Ulliel feels he hasn’t received enough money from his father Jean Reno, the family head tells him they are quitting cars and going into something bigger. That turns out to be a heist where Ulliel runs down a witness and, hesitating to shoot him, Reno does the job for him. Reno has been grooming Ulliel, after the death of his oldest son, to take over the family business, but Reno doesn’t know he wants to quit. Meanwhile, police detective Sami Bouajila has made it his life’s work to take down the Malakian family after his friend died in the same shootout that killed Reno’s son. His way in is through Vahina Giocante, who doesn’t know she’s being watched and bugged. She’s a nurse to Ulliel’s grandmother and no one in the family knows about his relationship with her, and she doesn’t even know what he does for a living.

It’s a little mystifying why this film isn’t more popular. The chief complaint seems to be that the clichés don’t go anywhere new. True, every single plot device has been done before countless times. Mafia films are nothing new. To me, however, the piece isn’t about the plot. It’s character driven, and it’s the actors who make the film so interesting. Of course Jean Reno is an icon. Simply his presence in a film bodes well. His role here is subdued, with the boss’s knowingness and experience he doesn’t have to do or say much to get his point across. And his point is to do everything to leave a strong organization to his son. Gaspard Ulliel is also terrific as the disenchanted son, strong in word but ambivalent in action about breaking away from Reno. Vahina Giocante is, of course, beautiful and innocent and willing to risk everything to be with Ulliel. The other family member is Isaac Sherry, who must decide between his loyalty to Ulliel or Reno. Sami Bouajila first came to my attention as one of the four leads in Jamel Debbouze’s Indigénes from three years earlier. He’s terrific here as the intense and frustrated detective who can’t manage to get a break in the case.

The visual style is quite distinctive, with director Laurent Tuel’s camera emphasizing close ups, whether people or objects, in establishing shots before sliding off to capture more of the scene. The color palate is very warm as well, with yellows and oranges predominating, even in the cool evenings where a warming green undertone is added to the blues and blacks. Rather than the bombastic nature of most American gangster films this is a quiet picture, great in every sense of the European tradition of realism. It was never intended to be a gangster film and the lame American title, The Ultimate Heist, does a gross disservice to the story. This is a story of a crime family, with stock characters and plot devices, not a caper film. It is the emotional realism that is the point, and an emphasis on the ambiguity that infuses the relationships of the characters with each other. The actors are what we are there to see, and the way that they work together within those constraints are the real draw of the film. The Inner Circle is an engaging crime drama, with emphasis on the drama and, with the right understanding going in, can be a tremendously rewarding cinematic experience.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Sling Blade (1996)

Director: Billy Bob Thornton                            Writer: Billy Bob Thornton
Film Score: Daniel Lanois                               Cinematography: Barry Markowitz
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Lucas Black, Dwight Yoakam and James Hampton

For all of the popularity that this film has engendered over the years, it’s fairly underwhelming. Based on a short film by Billy Bob Thornton, Sling Blade is the story of a mentally disabled man who has spent twenty-five years in a mental institution for killing his mother and her lover when he was twelve. The screenplay evolved from a black and white short that Thornton had directed two years earlier entitled Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade. In it he is interviewed by reporter Molly Ringwald and tells her the story of how he committed the murders. In that film he plays a much more menacing character who, ironically, has managed to elicit a good deal of sympathy from Ringwald’s character by the end. In the full-length version of the film Thornton seems a lot more benign and is released from the mental hospital once he has finished with his treatment and sentence. He goes back to his hometown and when he winds up in front of the Laundromat he helps the young Lucas Black take his family’s clothes home.

With nowhere else to go, Thornton heads back to the hospital to tell the doctor, James Hampton, that he wants to stay at the hospital. So Hampton takes Thornton home with him that night and the next day drives him back to the small Southern town he grew up in, this time getting him a job doing small engine repair at a fix-it shop. After he’s settled in for a few days Thornton goes over to Black’s house, and then the two of them go over to meet his mother, Natalie Canerday, where she works at the dollar store. There they also meet the store manager, John Ritter, a gay man who obviously has trouble fitting in. Because Black has lost his father and likes him so much, Thornton accepts the offer of his mother to live in their garage. The only problem comes in the form of Dwight Yoakam, an abusive redneck who hates Black and Ritter and now Thornton, and makes everyone’s life miserable. While Thornton’s violent episode in his childhood is well behind him, the trajectory of the film seems fairly obvious about halfway through.

In addition to starring in the film, Billy Bob Thornton also wrote and directed, and the film suffers for it. It’s an unadorned character study and the simplistic nature of the plot, while interesting in certain respects, is so objective that it never really grabs hold of the viewer the way that it had the potential to do. Thornton’s character, as written, is also wildly inconsistent. At times he appears to be unaware of anything going on around him, while at other times he seems fully engaged. In a discussion with Ritter over lunch, for example, Thornton has no other thought in his head than his French fries and mustard, though later he will have some incredibly insightful moments with Black that seem completely out of character and put there only to justify the resolution of the film. The direction is also maddening at times. The only real close ups in the film are of Thornton himself, when the scenes at Black’s house cry out for close ups of Black and Canerday as well as Yoakam. But instead there are nothing but static medium shots that keep the entire film at a distance from the viewer.

The one thing the film does have going for it is the cast. The story opens in the day room of the mental institution with the late, great J.T. Walsh as a serial killer who loves nothing better than to regale the taciturn Thornton with exploits of his murders. Lucas Black is the perfect young Southern boy, with a purity and innocence that make him the real star of the film. James Hampton, more familiar as a television actor, acquits himself well in a subdued performance, while Robert Duvall was induced to make a cameo appearance as Thornton’s father with only a couple of lines of dialogue. Dwight Yoakam’s role is well written because of the lack of overt physical violence that leaves him with a shred of humanity. Thornton plays an enigma, a mentally disengaged man who has been institutionalized most of his life and yet still has the ability to love. The performance is unquestionably a good one, but because the rest of the film is so weak it gets lost. Thornton was nominated for an Oscar for his performance and, inexplicably, won the Academy Award for his screenplay. Perhaps it simply hasn’t aged well, but I found Sling Blade to be an interesting film that lacks a lot of the power fans still give it credit for.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Director: Joel & Ethan Coen                           Writer: Joel & Ethan Coen
Music Producer: T Bone Burnett                     Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Max Casella and John Goodman

John Sebastian, in the documentary series American Roots Music, had this to say about the emergence of Bob Dylan onto the folk music scene in Greenwich Village in the early sixties. “I met Bob Dylan in the basement of Gerde’s Folk City, and he was still playing kind of jug band music, like what I liked, and so I found him quite enjoyable, didn’t take it too seriously. I just happened to be at the Gaslight a few months later when he walked in and played “The Times, They Are a-Changin’” and “Masters of War” and left. And I remember thinking, did songwriting just change, or something? Did I miss something?” The Coen Brother’s latest film is an exploration of the folk music culture in Geenwich Village in the nineteen sixties, just prior to Dylan’s transformation of songwriting. The inspiration for their main character was Dave Van Ronk and the title of his 1964 album. Inside Llewyn Davis is their homage to the singers who never made it big, and the frustration that surrounds all artistic endeavors that bubble just under the surface of success.

Oscar Isaac plays the title character, a homeless musician with a passion for singing ballads and blues. The film opens with Isaac being beaten up in an alley after singing at the Gaslight Café. The scene then shifts to him waking up in an apartment that is obviously not his. He pulls out a record album of he and his former partner and plays it while he gets ready. As he leaves, the cat escapes and he winds up taking it with him to the apartment of Carey Mulligan. She has a guest, singer and soldier Stark Sands, with her and is clearly angry with Isaac. She writes a note that says she’s pregnant and the reason is suddenly clear. Isaac moves from apartment to apartment, staying with friends, acquaintances, and his sister, but is clearly unhappy with the direction of his career. His agent, Jerry Grayson, is doing nothing to make him any money and so he records a novelty song with fellow folkie Justin Timberlake and gives up his royalties for a flat fee in order to pay for Mulligan’s abortion. Desperate for anything, he winds up going to Chicago, sings a heart-rending song in front of club owner F. Murray Abraham, and is summarily dismissed as being unmarketable before heading back home in defeat.

It’s a grim film, in typical Coen Brothers fashion. What is missing, for me, is the humor that usually leavens the darkness. There are some good bits, the cat that he carries around the city, or John Goodman’s heroine-addicted jazz musician, but they are only brief respites in the overall oppressiveness of the film. But then, perhaps that’s the point. The so-called folk revival that came in the wake of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger was based on the popularization of old blues and gospel tunes, jazz and folk songs from early America and not really original material. As Isaac says after the first song he sings in the film, “You probably heard that one before. If it was never new and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” But the real difference is between those who are having success as personalities or novelties, and Isaac who sings with great passion and yet has nothing original to say. After pouring his heart out in song to F. Murray Abraham in his Chicago nightclub, the owner makes the deadpan pronouncement, “I don’t see a lot of money here.” It wouldn’t be until Bob Dylan and others began writing their own original compositions that careers would be made, and would leave those who simply sang the older folk material kicked to the curb.

Oscar Isaac, whose most memorable role thus far in his career has been Prince John in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, does a nice job both singing and acting in this film. His exasperation at his lack of career success is cannily married to a snobbish sense of his own greatness by the Coens and it’s what gives the character a real personality. Carey Mulligan, however, spends all of her scenes being so angry that there is never a sense of a real relationship there. Most of the supporting cast, in addition to the aforementioned, do a terrific job as well. Ethan Phillips is the college professor who is enthralled by folk singers. Jeanine Serralles as Isaac’s sister is a beautiful foil for his inflated ego. And Max Casella is convincing as the manager of the Gaslight. I am decidedly not a fan of folk music, and even less so for ballads, so this film was not something I enjoyed watching. The absence of the kind of overt humor present in something like Burn After Reading also left me wanting. Still, the characterization of the title character is compelling and the evocation of the time period makes Inside Llewyn Davis worth at least one viewing, and for fans of the music even more.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Transporter 3 (2008)

Director: Oliver Megaton                               Writers: Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen
Film Score: Alexandre Azaria                        Cinematography: Geovanni Fiore Coltellacci
Starring: Jason Statham, Natalya Rudakova, François Berléand and Robert Knepper

The Transporter finds love? I suppose it was bound to happen. This is another enjoyable outing with Luc Besson and Jason Statham in Transporter 3. I was fairly disappointed in the last film being set in Miami. I felt that it really took away from the character of the original film. Thankfully, this film restores the European setting that made the first film so great. In many ways, however, this is a much more intimate story--if you can say that about an action/adventure film--than it’s predecessors. Rather than a wild chase across country, Statham and Natalya Rudakova are prisoners in Statham’s car, bound to a destination the bad guy is keeping a secret until the last possible moment. French director Oliver Fontana, who renamed himself Megaton, would go on to work with Besson again in Taken 2 with Liam Neeson and is currently working on the third film in that franchise.

The film begins on a freighter ship. Two employees, looking for liquor, stumble upon a shipping container full of highly toxic waste that kills the men instantly. From there the scene shifts to Jason Statham and police inspector François Berléand fishing in the waters off Marseille while David Atrakchi and his female passenger break through customs nearby in a black Audi and outrun the police. Next, villain Robert Knepper makes a call to environmentalist Ukrainian minister Jeroen Krabbe to coerce him into allowing the business he’s representing to import the waste though the port of Odessa and dump it in Ukraine. Things all come together that night while Statham is asleep in front of his TV set and Atrakchi smashes his car into the living room. It turns out he is a friend of Statham’s, and the first fight scene comes in a flashback as Statham remembers refusing a job that Knepper wants him to do and offers him Atrakchi instead. After putting his friend in an ambulance he discovers Natalya Rudakova in the back seat and she warns him too late about the bracelets she and Atrakchi are wearing. As the ambulance pulls away from the house, Atrakchi’s blows up.

The next thing Statham knows, he’s waking up with a bracelet on his own wrist and instructions to drive the girl where Knepper tells him. No names, no idea what’s in the trunk, just the way Statham usually likes it. And so, in lieu of a bullet in the head, he takes the job and gradually works his way east, all the while attempting to get information out of Rudakova, who clearly knows more than she’s letting on. Rudakova is another variation of Besson’s leggy blonde, a Russian that Besson discovered styling hair in a New York salon. This time she’s a freckled-faced redhead with green eyes who takes a long time to warm up to Statham, and when she finally does she won’t tell him anything unless he acts on his mutual desire for her. It’s a fascinating insight into the highly moral character of Frank Martin and one that is certainly unexpected as he breaks nearly all his rules. The fourth installment of the series has yet to go into production, but I’m curious to see how Besson will handle this relationship in the future.

As always, there is plenty of close-quarter combat, five against one, a dozen against one, and director Fontana does a nice job with the sets. The second fight is in a high-tech mechanic’s garage in Munich. Plenty of blunt instruments to grab hold of as Fontana mixes in slow motion with the live action. Throughout the film Statham uses his clothing, jacket, shirt, tie and belt, to help him in his hand-to-hand combat. The location shots are also terrific, especially Budapest, where someone jumps into his car and attempts to blow Statham up by driving away. There is also a great car chase through the Eastern European countryside. The finale, incongruously taking place on a train, is a very impressive piece of work as well. Robert Knepper makes a nice villain, and François Berléand’s role is mercifully played straight. Statham’s role is also much less the superhero that he was in the second film, which again is a major improvement. Transporter 3 is not nearly as action packed as its predecessors, which may disappoint some fans, but the emphasis on character makes it a welcome addition to the franchise.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Sea Hawk (1940)

Director: Michael Curtiz                                 Writers: Howard Koch & Seton I. Miller
Film Score: Erich Wolfgang Korngold              Cinematography: Sol Polito
Starring: Errol Flynn, Claude Rains, Henry Daniell and Brenda Marshall

This is another near-perfect swashbuckler from Warner Brothers directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Errol Flynn. The only thing that makes it less than perfect is the absence of Olivia de Havilland. Other than that, however, there is nothing to complain about in this masterful film. Though a revamping of the novel Beggars of the Sea by Seton Miller, the film was named after the 1924 hit that had been filmed of the Rafael Sabatini novel The Sea Hawk, the same author who provided the source material for Flynn’s first great success, Captain Blood. And like that masterpiece, this film also boasts a magnificent score by the great Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Add to that a stellar principal cast that includes Claude Rains, Henry Daniell, Donald Crisp, Flora Robson and Brenda Marshall, as well as character actors Alan Hale, Una O’Connor, Halliwell Hobbes, Edgar Buchanan and Whit Bissell, and it’s no wonder that this film continues to be a favorite among fans of classic film.

The film begins in 1585 with Montague Love as the king of Spain, intent on world conquest. Only England stands in his way, and so he sends Claude Rains to assure Queen Elizabeth I of his peaceful intentions while also implementing his plan to conquer the island. But before they can get to England the ship and its beautiful cargo, Brenda Marshall, are captured by Errol Flynn wherein he frees the British galley slaves and appropriates the valuables for the queen. Rains, of course, professes outrage. Flynn, of course, falls for Marshall. And, of course, once she realizes he is not a pirate but a good man trying to right the wrongs of her country, she falls for him too. Meanwhile, queen Flora Robson is reluctant to invest any money at all in her navy, much to the consternation of admiral Donald Crisp. And Henry Daniell’s continued support of the friendship of Spain makes him suspect right from the start.

Act Two begins with Robson tacitly condoning an expedition by Flynn to Panama in order to intercept the Spanish gold there. And with Flynn halfway around the world it will give Rains and Danielle an opportunity to drag Robson into a war without her best sailor. In Panama the screen changes from rich black and white to sepia, and to good effect. The great Sol Polito is the cinematographer on the picture. He had worked with Curtiz and Flynn on five previous films including Charge of the Light Brigade, The Adventures of Robin Hood and Dodge City. Curtiz himself is masterful as always, with brilliant shots like the one above the ship when Flynn captures the Spanish galleon, or his exquisite use of shadows in the climactic duel between Flynn and Daniell. The screenplay is by Howard Koch who would go on to a new adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s The Letter and Casablanca with Julius and Philip Epstein. While there aren’t as many humorous lines as in Captain Blood, it’s still a great story that manages to avoid a lot of clichés.

Errol Flynn had put on a few miles since Captain Blood, but he still had a vigorous screen presence and is ably assisted by his old cohort Alan Hale. Veteran villain Claude Rains is up to his old tricks, but in a more muted way, and Henry Daniell is his usual wonderfully supercilious character. But the most distinctive aspect of the film is undoubtedly the film score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. It would be the last swashbuckler he would write and he made it a brilliant farewell, updating elements of his previous scores for Flynn, the love theme from Captain Blood, the frenetic energy of Robin Hood, and the queen’s theme from The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, and many fans consider it his finest score. This would also be Flynn’s last swashbuckler for Warners, with the exception of the tongue in cheek The Adventures of Don Juan. The film was a success with fans and critics and The Sea Hawk remains one of the all time classics to this day.

Midnight (1934)

Director: Chester Erskine                               Writers: Paul & Claire Sifton
Music: William Spielter                                  Cinematography: William O. Steiner
Starring: Sydney Fox, O.P. Heggie, Henry Hull and Humphrey Bogart

Midnight is an independent B-movie production released by Universal in 1934. It was Humphrey Bogart’s last film before heading back to New York certain that he’d never work in films again. Two years later, on the strength of his performance in the Broadway production--and at the insistence of Leslie Howard--he came back to Hollywood for The Petrified Forest at Warner Brothers and never looked back. After Bogart became a star, and Universal let the copyright lapse, the film was re-released by Guaranteed Pictures who retitled it Call It Murder with Humphrey Bogart’s name above the title. The film is in the tradition of Hitchcock’s Murder, with a woman set to be executed, and one of the members of the jury who convicted her begins to have second thoughts. The similarity ends there, however, as this film is much more a character study of the juror rather than a search for the real killer.

The film begins in the courtroom with Helen Flint on trial for murder. Her story is a pathetic one, afraid of being left by a man she kills him in a panic. But when juror O.P. Heggie asks the defendant if she took the money, she admits she did and it seals her fate. In the courtroom is reporter Henry Hull, who is angling to get into the house to see Heggie’s reaction to the execution. Also there is small-time hood Humphrey Bogart who happens to be sitting next to Heggie’s daughter, Sydney Fox, and by the time of the execution they have become an item. The rest of the story takes place on the day Flint is to be executed, at the home of Heggie who has become an object of intense fascination for convincing the rest of the jury to convict her. Hull has bribed Heggie’s son in law to let him into the house, ostensibly to listen to the radio, and while the reports keep coming the guilt begins to wear on Heggie who suddenly begins to feel more and more responsible for the woman’s impending death the closer it gets to midnight.

As with a lot of low-budget pictures, the lack of a soundtrack is unfortunate but tolerable. The obvious weakness of the production is the script. The story is fairly banal, and while the tension grows throughout the running time, the four separate story lines tend to dilute the suspense. It has a wonderfully ironic ending, but then drags on for far too long to the conclusion. For the most part the acting is good but Fox is the worst, as her interpretation is far too broad in conveying her troubles and she tends to yell her lines as if she were on stage. Bogart is good, but since most of his scenes are opposite Fox she tends to drag him down. O.P. Heggie is best known for his small but memorable role in The Bride of Frankenstein as the blind hermit who befriends Karloff. He has a certain haunted quality to his eyes that works very well here. Henry Hull is confident as ever and is commanding when he’s on the screen. Lynne Overman, as the son in law, is the only other actor of distinction, providing a dash of comedy relief in an otherwise heavy moral picture.

Bogart has a tiny role, so the film will be of only passing interest to fans of his. And while it’s not an especially good film, it does hold interest. And there is one aspect that is incredibly impressive. This was Chester Erskine’s first film as a director and he shows some real artistic flair throughout. During the entire scene in the jury room, for instance, the camera focuses only on the hands of the jurors. The camera is also very mobile as it pans around the courtroom in the opening scene and throughout the house later. There are some nice framing devices in the jail scenes as well as at the house. The set ups are also nice, shooting from the floor on occasion, or having actors walk directly toward the camera. And to keep attention from drifting he continues to shift back and forth between Heggie’s house and Flint in her jail cell awaiting her execution, eventually paralleling Fox with Flint. Midnight focuses on a fascinating ethical point, and O.P. Heggie does a terrific job with it. Bogart fans will want to be forewarned that his role is a small one, but it’s definitely worth watching.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Viking (1928)

Director: Roy William Neill                             Writer: Jack Cunningham
Film Score: William Axt                                 Cinematography: George Cave
Starring: Donald Crisp, Pauline Starke, LeRoy Mason and Anders Randolf

Synchronized sound had been achieved in film before The Jazz Singer, but other studios were not really prepared to commit fully to sound in the late twenties. With that, however, came the understanding that the simple silent films of the past weren’t going to be quite enough to bring in crowds in this age of novelty. And while color tinting had been done prior to The Viking, this Technicolor feature was the first to combine synchronized sound effects and music with a full-color film experience. It is a beautifully filmed picture and the rich, pastel colors are quite stunning. The biggest problem for modern audiences is, ironically, the lack of sound. The film looks so good that, rather than the color being a terrific addition to a silent picture, the lack of sound seems more like a detriment. There’s no denying, however, the powerful experience of seeing something this unique, and I would say it actually rivals The Jazz Singer in that respect.

The film begins with Viking raiders invading Northumbria. The overconfident prince, LeRoy Mason, is shocked when the invaders descend on his castle and winds up being captured and taken back to Norway. There Pauline Starke, also a royal captive, is living the Viking life as a raider under the protection of Donald Crisp as Leif Ericsson. She buys Mason as a slave but when she gets back to camp warrior Harry Woods, who clearly has his eye on her, becomes very jealous of Mason because of the constant presence he will become in her life. When Mason has run away once too many times Starke tries to whip him and he takes the whip away from her, incurring the wrath of Woods who is about to execute him when Crisp intercedes. When Crisp allows the two to fight as equals, Mason wins and spares Woods’ life. Crisp is so impressed that Starke gives the slave to him, and the leader takes him and Starke on his next voyage to Greenland and beyond.

Unfortunately, part of the story deals with the gradual conversion of the Vikings from the Norse gods to Christianity. Crisp’s father, Anders Randolf as Eric the Red, hates Christians and kills them whenever he finds them. This causes a rift between the two when it is discovered, and of course the Christians come out on top and eventually give up their barbarous ways. The other theme is that of the Norse Columbus, with the Vikings discovering America almost five hundred years before Columbus. Some of the plot would show up in later films, most notably the Kirk Douglas epic The Vikings, especially the idea of the princess falling in love with the slave. Donald Crisp as a Viking, with his handlebar moustache and Roman nose, is a little incongruous but his command of the screen makes it work. Pauline Starke, however, is magnificent. While not quite the shield maiden that Katheryn Winnick is in the television series Vikings, she definitely has the attitude down. LeRoy Mason and Harry Woods, however, come off as typical silent screen actors and their subsequent careers bear this out as Mason was relegated to B westerns in the sound era while Woods had only bit parts and TV roles later on.

Director Roy William Neill is probably best known for the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films at Universal, as well as the atmospheric Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. His work here is good, though little more. It’s really the color that is the main draw. Staff composer William Axt does a good enough job with the music, even weaving bits of Wagner into his film score, but the whole thing seems a bit too light-hearted for the material, reminiscent of what Erich Wolfgang Korngold was able to do on The Adventures of Robin Hood but not quite as successful. Though the costuming leaves much to be desired, and there are tons of historical inaccuracies, that’s hardly the point. It also lacks the swashbuckling quality of Douglas Fairbanks, but that’s beside the point as well. The sets are good and the color is gorgeous, and there’s a playfulness to the film that is infectious. The Viking may not be an artistic film, but it is nevertheless an extremely entertaining one that remains a unique part of film history.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Ronin (1998)

Director: John Frankenheimer                        Writers: J.D. Zeik & David Mamet
Film Score: Elia Cmiral                                 Cinematography: Robert Fraisse
Starring: Robert DeNiro, Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgård and Natascha McElhone

Ronin is a European caper film by the great John Frankenheimer. It has an all-star international cast and is distinctive in its use of French cinematographer Robert Fraisse. In the days before digital manipulation of images, color pallets had to be adjusted in the camera. The film stock and exposures that Fraisse used were designed specifically to give the film the kind of muted colors seen in many films today. The film also has an interesting premise with a mystery woman hiring a group of mercenaries to pull a job in Paris, but gives them almost no information about who she is and what’s in the box they have to steal. The title comes from the Japanese samurai culture in which a warrior without a master is called a ronin and must wander the countryside and hire himself out as a mercenary, and the ex government agents in the film all fit that description.

The film begins with the Irish Natascha McElhone running an operation in Paris to retrieve a case from some men whom she calls, “very unpleasant.” She’s hired five professionals. Jean Reno is the Frenchman who is in charge of getting the supplies they need, guns, cars, etc. Stellan Skarsgård is the computer man, Sean Bean is the ex-military weapons expert, Skipp Sudduth is the driver, and Robert DeNiro is the mystery man. He asks all the questions but gets few answers. When they go to pick up the guns that Reno has ordered, they run into an ambush that DeNiro spots right away, and despite Bean’s braggadocio, he winds up throwing up afterward. That’s all DeNiro needs. He confronts Bean when they get back, demands more money from McElhone, and gets Bean fired. But something still isn’t right and it will bother DeNiro until the end of the film.

The biggest question is why McElhone won’t divulge who the target is and what is in the case. The only member of the team that he really bonds with is Jean Reno, who seems to go out of his way to make DeNiro feel more secure. And it works. But when the heist goes down they are betrayed, and to make matters worse it seems that someone else wants the case too. Jonathan Pryce is the mystery man who will stop at nothing to get the case. Add to that the Russians who want it too, and it gets complicated. John Frankenheimer is hit and miss as a director, and for all of the effort that went into the European local, he doesn’t really pull this one off. There’s a sterility here that you don’t see in something like a Luc Besson film. Technically, there are some fascinating shots, close-ups and deep focus that look terrific, especially in the beginning of the film. Later on the film shifts to car chases and hit men and is equally adept with some fantastic looking action sequences. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to disguise the film’s considerable weaknesses.

The biggest problem is with the script by J.D. Zeik and David Mamet. In trying to play cute with the audience, they simply end up alienating them. They take the idea of Hitchcock’s McGuffin and pervert it to the extent that instead of propelling the plot forward it leaves the audience feeling duped. As a result, what is nearly a taut political thriller becomes a little too vacuous to be satisfying. Still, the acting is solid. DeNiro and Reno are terrific together, and the supporting cast is equal to the task. Sean Bean in particular does a great job as the nervous imposter, trying to play tough but lacking the skills to go the distance. An impossibly young Stellan Skarsgård is steely and determined as the tech guy, while the vastly underrated Jonathan Pryce shows the kind of grit and determination that should have had him playing these types of parts all along. There is a lot to like about this film. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to outweigh the bad. Ronin is popular film for the car chases, but be forewarned that the ending is a big disappointment.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

She (1935)

Director: Irving Pichel                                   Writer: Ruth Rose
Film Score: Max Steiner                               Cinematography: J. Roy Hunt
Starring: Helen Gahagen, Randolph Scott, Helen Mack and Nigel Bruce

Though Ruth Rose is credited with the screenplay for the H. Rider Haggard novel She, produced by RKO, in actuality the majority of the script was heavily influenced by Universal’s original screenplay for The Mummy, written by John L. Balderston. At the same time he was working on the Karloff vehicle, he was also working on a script for RKO that eventually became this film. Because the two films shared a single beginning, there are a number of similarities between the two that are unavoidable. This time, however, it’s the woman who is immortal, and the man who is the image of her long lost love. There’s even a reflecting pool in which she shows him his past. But where the team who made King Kong is responsible for this picture as well, there is little of the adventure in the later film and the slow pace is ultimately a disappointment for fans of the genre.

The film opens with Samuel S. Hinds on his deathbed in England, awaiting the arrival of his nephew, Randolph Scott. Hinds’ scientific partner, Nigel Bruce, tells the story of Scott’s ancestor who discovered a “flame of life” that results in eternal life. As Hinds dies, he begs his nephew to go in search of it in the north of Russia, and so he and Bruce set out at once. There they meet Lumsden Hare and his daughter Helen Mack. They know of the legend but Hare only agrees to help the two because he believes there will be gold at the end. His greed overriding his sense, Hare causes an avalanche in which he dies, but accidentally opens a passage to a land beneath the glacier. Here they must first battle the cave people who threaten to kill them in their ancient ritual, but they are saved by a group of men in robes who obviously have command over them. In the battle Scott is injured and the three follow the men to a giant door that is very reminiscent of that in King Kong. Behind it lies the temple to Helen Gahagen, She who must be obeyed.

The suspense of the piece lies in whether Randolph Scott will stay with Helen Gahagen or not. Though they came with the intention of discovering the flame of youth, Nigel Bruce seems particularly perturbed that Scott intends to use it on himself to gain immortality. As would be expected, there are certain similarities to King Kong, but only in the most superficial of ways: the giant door that gains entrance to the lost land, the natives who capture them at first, and the music of the dance at the final ceremony. Helen Gahagen’s outfit for the scene where she punishes the cave people is clearly the inspiration for Disney’s villainess in Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. And there is also an element of the story that would later be coopted by Curt Siodmak in his script for Son of Dracula. It is an exotic looking picture, however, and it does have a fairly exciting finale.

Max Steiner was once again given the task of scoring the picture and it of course bears a passing resemblance to the score for King Kong. It’s definitely interesting to see Randolph Scott in a non-western, especially since his character is weak-willed and unable to stand up to Helen Gahagen. Helen Mack gives a good performance as the young girl who steals Scott’s heart, and arouses the jealousy of Gahagen. Nigel Bruce, several years before his Sherlock Holmes days, is also quite good in a serious role. For Helen Gahagen this was her only appearance on film. She was the wife of Melvyn Douglas and, as Helen Douglas, she went into politics. The film is directed by the great Irving Pichel. He does an admirable job here, but he’s unable to generate the kind of suspense that he did on The Most Dangerous Game. Still, there’s an undeniable quality to the picture and if expectations are lowered it can be a satisfying film. Though She was colorized in 2006 by Ray Harryhausen, which had been producer Merian C. Cooper’s original intention, the black and white is by far the superior way to view it.

Blood on the Sun (1945)

Director: Frank Lloyd                                    Writer: Lester Cole
Film Score: Miklós Rózsa                             Cinematography: Theodor Sparkuhl
Starring: James Cagney, Sylvia Sidney, James Bell and John Emery

By the time the war was almost over in 1945 Hollywood had no problem at all painting the Japanese as amoral demons bent on world domination. Blood on the Sun is an independent film put together by Cagney’s new production company with his brother William as producer. With Cagney’s name he was able to assemble a talented cast and crew and release through United Artists. The film concerns an actual Japanese plot to take over the world that was exposed in 1927. At the time Japan claimed it was a forgery, and unfortunately nothing else was done about it. Writer Garrett Fort came up with a fictional story surrounding the plans that included lots of intrigue and a climactic fight scene for Cagney. Audiences at the time certainly didn’t need any convincing about Japanese duplicity, especially given the carnage that was going on in the Pacific Theater for the past several years, and were no doubt more than happy to have their prejudices reinforced in the movie theater.

The film begins in the late nineteen twenties with James Cagney as a newspaper editor in Tokyo. He has just published a story saying that the Japanese premier, John Emery, has created a secret plan to attack the United States as part of an overall world strategy. Of course the Japanese are outraged and demand a retraction. But since he planted the story in the U.S. papers the day before, he can claim he took the story from them. Fellow reporter Wallace Ford and his wife are set to leave the country, but when Cagney goes to see them off he finds the wife dead. Back at his house Ford gives Cagney a copy of the plan just before he dies, and it disappears after Cagney is arrested by the Japanese police. Japanese premier John Emery wants to make sure that the plans are not made public and to get them back he hires half-Chinese Sylvia Sidney to get them from Cagney. Since Emery was unsuccessful in the raid on Cagney’s house, he sets up Sidney to make Cagney fall for her so she can discover where he has them hidden. And Cagney does fall, hard, that is until he recognizes her as the woman he saw when Ford’s wife was murdered.

It’s a convoluted tale, and one that seems a little overblown for something that will only cause the Japanese a little bad publicity. The undercurrent of the plot, however, is the real point here. It pains the Japanese as secretive, in a way that predicts the attack on Pearl Harbor and reinforces the idea that they are duplicitous and evil. None of the major Japanese figures in the film, however, are played by Asians. The villain is played by John Emery, and the screenplay even has Tojo participating, played by a completely disguised Robert Armstrong. Leonard Strong is the secret police guard, and Frank Puglia plays the Japanese prince who opposes the plan. James Bell puts in a good performance as Cagney’s assistant editor, while the ubiquitous Porter Hall plays the owner of the newspaper. And finally, toward the end of the film, Hugh Beaumont, television’s Ward Cleaver, makes an appearance as a U.S. Embassy official.

Cagney is solid in his performance, as usual, and critics at the time had generally good things to say about him. He claimed to have done all the stunts in the climactic fight scene himself, but a close inspection of the film shows that it was clearly a stunt man in a red wig doing most of the heavy lifting. Cagney apparently wanted the great Sylvia Sidney to play the Chinese woman because of her distinctive looks, and no doubt because she had done a convincing job in Madame Butterfly in 1932. Wallace Ford spends his appearance playing drunk in the beginning of the film, but has little to do after that. The film was directed by Frank Lloyd whose biggest hit had been Mutiny on the Bounty for MGM. And the fantastic composer Miklós Rózsa wrote a distinctive score that wisely eschews overt Oriental sounding themes. The picture also won an Academy Award for best black and white production design. Blood on the Sun may not be vintage Cagney, but it is enjoyable for the more mature performance he gives, and the solid supporting cast assisting him.