Friday, April 30, 2010

Epic #5: Quo Vadis (1951)

No thorough compilation of the epic is complete without Mervyn LeRoy's Quo Vadis (1951) - not because of its quality, per se, but for it sheer size and historical context. In what would be a decade defined by all things bigger and wider, Quo Vadis was the ignition.

Shot at the famed Cinecitta Studios in Rome (which would later serve as the shooting grounds for William Wyler's Ben-Hur), the film charts the turmoil brewing between the Romans and the Christians thirty years after the crucifixion of Christ, all through the eyes of a Roman commander, Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor) who falls in love with Lygia (Deborah Kerr), a Christian.

The unlikely romance - approached with trepidation by Vinicius who considers the followers of this new sect as rebels - takes them through the games of the Colosseum all the way to the extravagant emblazoning of Rome at the hands of the babyish, wretched Emperor Nero (Peter Ustinov).

The shoot was reportedly a bit hazardous from a technical standpoint, with the main obstacle being the Italians' unfamiliarity with the aspects of a Technicolor production. Nevertheless, the results are frequently stunning - all the way from the costumes to the thousands of Italian extras substituting for the mob of Rome. (And audiences were pleased, as well, making Quo Vadis the highest-grossing film of 1951).

Although not quite as beatific as The Robe (1953) or as elementary as King of Kings (1961), Quo Vadis is more or less cut from the same cloth. A bloated, eye-catching extravaganza full of faith-mongering biblical imagery and anti-tyrannical defiance, this epic pretty much encapsulates both the wonder and the exhaustiveness of excess. [B-]

Thor Sighting

Courtesy of /Film, here's the first glimpse of Chris Hemsworth (Star Trek) as the mighty Thor. For those wondering how in the hell a Thor film would work, this photo sort of gets you to sit up and go, "huh, well..."
- Thor is set to release on May 20, 2011 as one of the two upcoming Marvel Studios films attempting to ignite a bankable franchise akin to Iron Man in 2008. The other project is Joe Johnston's Captain America (July 22, 2011), culminating into Joss Whedon's The Avengers sometime in 2012.

Trailer: Jonah Hex

Apparently Warner Bros. decided to do all of their Jonah Hex marketing in the span of a week, with the first footage and an official poster debuting over the last few days until the trailer's release yesterday.

The Playlist's accute comparison in likening the mood and feel of Jonah Hex to Ghost Rider appears spot-on. Lots of revenge and Megan Fox oodling, plus a yucky makeup job on Josh Brolin. It doesn't look like an all-out disaster, but I can see why this thing was in the doghouse until a few days ago.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Classic Rewind: All the Brothers Were Valiant (1953)

Robert Taylor and Stewart Granger play dueling 19th century whaling captains (who also happen to be brothers and descendants to generations of whalers) in All the Brothers Were Valiant (1953), a seafaring MGM Technicolor action-adventure.

Joel Shore (Taylor) is the younger, inefficient captain who lives by honor and duty while Mark (Granger) is the rough, fearless elder who lives by greed and self-gain. Thought dead, the film takes a turn for the dramatic when Mark is discovered on the port of Tubuai, joining the crew of the Nathan Ross.

Once aboard, Mark shares the tale of his disappearance (a quest for a fortune of pearls, revealed through a distractingly long flashback) as he attempts to turn both the crew and the captain's fresh catch (Ann Blyth) against him, even if it means mutiny.

A critical failure upon its release but a valiant box-office performer, the film is notable for the first and only pairing between two of MGM's biggest stars, the Oscar-nominated color cinematography by George Folsey and because it contains one of famed film-composer Miklos Rosza's lesser-known (and admittedly unimpressive) compositions.

There's an early whaling scene that truly impresses and a fun brawl upon its conclusion, and although I'd recommend All the Brothers Were Valiant to any classic swashbuckling, seaward adventure fan, the optimistic redemption of Mark's selfishness isn't nearly as convincing as the whales. [B]

Jonah Hex Lives

The Playlist has been recently tracking the dearth of marketing that Warner Bros. is employing in regards to Jimmy Hayward's Jonah Hex (6.18), the comic-styled Western starring Josh Brolin and Megan Fox.

Up until a few days ago, it appeared certain that Warner Bros. would delay the film, seeing as how with a release date just two months away, no one knew anything about it. Well we finally saw our first footage a couple days ago with a quick promo clip followed by the first official poster today:

I've never seen a big-budget studio film (much less one with a summer bow), play it this close to the chest. The Playlist - going by early test reviews and script readings - is likening it to Ghost Rider in its mood and style, yeesh. Supposedly the trailer will be attached to A Nightmare of Elm Street starting this Friday.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Summer Movies

It's that time of year. Next Friday Iron Man 2 will unofficially kick off the summer movie season. Not to sound like a disenchanted cynic, but there isn't really a whole lot that I'm looking forward to.

Certainly Christopher Nolan's Inception is the highlight of the season, as are Jon Favreau's aforementioned Iron Man 2 and Nimrod Antal's Predators.

Phillip Noyce's Salt, Joe Carnahan's The A-Team and James Mangold's Knight and Day are all mild curiosities, George Nolfi's The Adjustment Bureau sounds seductive but it hardly fits the summer mold and Mike Newell's Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time looks terrible, but I'll see it anyway because I have fond memories of playing the video game in the winter months of '03.

What is everyone looking forward to?

More Robin Hood Dissers

After being extremely underwhelmed and downright pummeled by Ridley Scott's Robin Hood (Universal, 5.14) when I saw it Wednesday night, two more similarly negative reactions from some regular Joe's have popped up courtesy of Ain't It Cool News.

The first review is a foul-mouthed diatribe (an 8th grader could write more fluently), but the second review is spot-on, I can agree with or recognize just about every point that he makes.

I just can't stress enough how shockingly bland and innocuous the whole production feels and how miserably tedious the relationship between Cate Blanchett's Marian and Russell Crowe's Robin is. The second reviewer couldn't be more accurate when he calls it "second-hand." It feels like something that Mike Newell or Gore Verbinski shot. It's all kinds of bad.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Review: The Losers (2010)

With gleeful abandon, Sylvian White's The Losers announces its presence as a high-octane energy jolt with the first sound of gunfire and manages to sustain the mayhem one-notch above insane for the duration.

Bordering on complete parody with its derivative plot turns, hammy villains and both visual and vocal references, it's this enduring electricity and ultimately worthy cast that sees the film through.

Adapted by Peter Berg and James Vanderbilt from a Vertigo comic series, the film is like a traditionally-plotted 80's action-potboiler put through the 21st century comic-book freeze-frame wringer, complete with splattered, hand-drawn opening titles.

Andy Diggle's source material is hardly ingenious, following a group of U.S. operatives set-up by an evil weapons-dealer known as Max (the loony Jason Patric). The members of this particular A-Team - left for dead in the Bolivian jungle - are played well by a recognizable group of solid B-level actors like Chris Evans, Idris Elba, Columbus Short and Jeffrey Dean Morgan.

When the mysterious and similarly revenge-minded Aisha (Zoe Saldana) shows up to offer Clay (Morgan) a chance to get the boys back to the States and take Max out, this once prominent team of misfits gets together one last time in an attempt to clear their names.

Director Sylvian White (Stomp the Yard) pulls out all of the expected genre tropes, framing and manipulating his aggro-rock action scenes as if taking a snapshot from one of Mark Simpson's lovingly rendered comic panels - utilizing jump-cuts, quick-edits and slow-motion to dress-up the gunplay.

Dealing in the visual aesthetics of Zack Snyder sans the self-seriousness, or Guy Ritchie sans the convolution, The Losers is a surprisingly agreeable film despite the fact that our likeable heroes are far more accurate with their guns than with their words. [B-]

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Review: Robin Hood (2010)

It doesn't take but a few minutes for Ridley Scott to remind you of his ability to shoot a convincing sword-and-chainmail action scene. Often throwing the camera right in the the thick of the battle and accenting each pulsating arrow as if the audience were in the infield at Daytona, Robin Hood lacks no production values, it lacks distinction and a reason to exist.

Not without its indelible moments or imagery - the burlap mask of a teenage grain-thief and the repeating villainous motif in Marc Streitenfeld's otherwise tasteless musical score leave minor impressions - the overall viewing experience eventually becomes more akin to King Arthur than Gladiator.

Billed as the "story behind the outlaw," this surprisingly light and cloying Robin Hood isn't so much a folklore prequel as it is a retelling and re-ordering of the oft-finagled legend of defiance in the face of tyranny. After all, the High Sheriff of Nottingham has gone from Melville Cooper to Alan Rickman - showing the disparity in villainy between the wonderful Adventures of Robin Hood ('38) and the well-scored Prince of Thieves ('91).

Here, in the time before Sherwood Forest and his merry men, the face of injustice is Sir Godfrey (the endlessly typecast Mark Strong), who is conspiring with King Phillip of France in sneaking troops across the Channel to overthrow the loud and inexperienced King John (Oscar Isaac). If you were unsure of Sir Godfrey's intentions, his place as chief villain is all but assured when he receives a close shave at the hands and bow of a talented archer, laughably leaving a scar that will remind more than a few people of Heath Ledger's The Joker.

And that archer is none other than our titular folk hero, Robin Longstride (played all too comfortably by Russell Crowe) who returns back from the Crusades under a new identity as Robin Locksley, the deceased nobleman and former husband of the now-widowed farmhand Lady Marian (Cate Blanchett).

Robin means to drop off and deliver a sword to an aging father (Max von Sydow) in honor of his only son, a sword that is engraved with the oft-repeated phrase, "Rise and Rise Again, Until Lambs Become Lions." The phrase becomes a key cog in the revealing of Robin's past (done so rather hoarily through blurry flashbacks) and in his destined rise as deliverer from a French invasion now, a tyrannical King John later.

It is here in the comparatively sunny and green-streaked farming town of Nottingham (resembling Hobbiton of sorts with its dancing, singing, bare-footed inhabitants) that Robin Hood, mostly through its forced romance and prepared plotting, becomes the bland, nonthreatening studio-drivel that it is.

In a matter of minutes, the straining, obvious jokes and the false, wayward love stares between Robin and Lady Marian soon begin to pile up as often as the dead bodies until the climactic seaside battle scene washes ashore like any assembly-line historical action film - and with the tide go our expectations. [C-]

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Classic Rewind: Saratoga Trunk (1945)

Ingrid Bergman plays the feisty Clio Dulaine in Sam Wood's Saratoga Trunk ('45) as a woman who returns home to her native New Orleans to redeem her deceased mother's demise at the hands of a mercilessly aristocratic 19th century society.

Based on the 1941 Edna Ferber novel, Saratoga Trunk shares many traits with her other works in its depiction of a grinding, culturally divergent relationship set amidst a backdrop of Southern gentility and civil revolution.

Walking the streets of New Orleans like a tried-and-true countess, Miss Dulaine (Bergman) first catches the gaze of a Texas gambler named Clint Maroon (Gary Cooper), but despite her affection for his tacky white ties and French cuisine ignorance, she soon realizes that he has no part to play in her plot to uproot the Louisiana social order.

And as Clint, in turn, learns of her wicked intentions, he becomes both frustrated and infatuated by her beauty, vulnerability and flippancy - the kind of irresistibility that brings to mind the testy romanticism of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara.

Fortunately Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper make the comparison an easy one and an apt one in terms of quality. They glisten when they're both on screen, and it's befuddling to consider that a brave, vibrant and breakneck role like this failed to garner any awards consideration when the quiet repression of a lesser role in George Cukor's Gaslight ('44) did exactly that.

Making the neglect all the harder to swallow is the fact that co-star Flora Robson took the sole nomination for Saratoga Trunk for Best Supporting Actress by applying a nasty layer of brown make-up for her role as a mulatto caretaker named Angelique in what is easily the most discernibly tacky and misguided aspect of a generally tactful production. [B+]

(135 minutes, Warner Bros.)

Trailer: Grown Ups

There isn't one thing that's remotely funny about this trailer for the grotesque comedy Grown Ups. More shoddy parenting jokes, more Kevin James falling down on his face, David Spade playing it cool, Adam Sandler and his oversized shirts, etc, etc.

And the peeing-in-the-pool bit at the end is just the kind of putrid, gag-inducing tastelessness that you would expect. I'd almost rather see Marmaduke.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Epic #4: Cleopatra (1963)

Shrouded in historical scandal both on and off the screen, Joseph L. Mankiewicz' Cleopatra (1963) is a lengthy, bombastic first-rate production that is both ameliorated and smothered by its ceaseless excess and towering histrionics.

Infamously known as a massive monetary failure, Cleopatra was actually the highest-grossing film of 1963, pulling in approximately $26 million at the box-office. The problem is, it cost almost twice as much to make, containing enough behind the scenes drama to make even Cleopatra herself blush.

Original cast members Peter Finch and Stephen Boyd darted the production around the same time as original director Rouben Mamoulian did. And Elizabeth Taylor - apparently before her widely-reported adulterous affair with co-star Richard Burton - suffered from a serious illness, resulting in an emergency tracheotomy to be performed during shooting. (You can visibly see a scar on her neck in certain scenes.)

And although its reputation is brutal - both financially and critically - perhaps diminished expectations made the 243-minute sit relatively painless. The presentation gives the film a polished feel (I love the overture and the transitional fades to and from live-action to a chipped stone-tablet painting) and the dialogue is lively, but the biggest problem with the whole thing is a significant absence of any kind of discernible pulse.

Like a sphinx, Cleopatra is a blank, emotionless affair that - because its characters are all scheming, self-absorbed bores - becomes a parade of extravagantly and impressively designed costumes and sets, supplying proof of its monetary backing without much cause for it.

For all of the film's attempts to make tragedies out of the characters of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony or the titular Queen Cleopatra VII, the biggest discernible trait in this talky eye-popper is Elizabeth Taylor's plunging neckline. [C+]

Friday, April 16, 2010

Review: Kick-Ass (2010)

There's a certain amount of joy - elation, even - in watching the tightly-spaced, blade-wielding acrobatics of Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz), the 11-year old sub-protagonist of Matthew Vaughn's Kick-Ass, a film firmly rooted in the world of comic-strip construction and bodily deconstruction.

But Hit-Girl and her Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) don't show up much in the first hour, for this film is titled after the typically virginal Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), who dons a skin-tight green-with-yellow-trim scuba suit and calls himself Kick-Ass, fulfilling his and every other comic reader's wish of living in their own world of crime, duality and fame.

What we get is a blatantly self-aware, progressively violent and batty addition to the superhero canon that doesn't so much deconstruct the genre with its "what if" scenario of (mostly) powerless patrons taking up masks and eye-black, but serves as an ambient pop-culture commixture of everything from Tarantino to Danny Boyle to Superbad.

Shot and framed with the vibrancy and transitional approach of a comic-book, Kick-Ass was written concurrently with Mark Millar's ongoing comic series, perhaps avoiding the built-in anticipation and the compromised slavishness that it demands. Kick-Ass is simply at its best when the action is flowing and Ms. Moretz is threatening to stain her purple go-go wig and initialed utility belt, spewing mouthfuls of expletives as she goes.

When Dave Lizewski fumbles around with his awkward social life mostly spent at Atomic Comics and masturbating at his computer chair (this again?), the film sputters like a raunchy Michael Cera vehicle. (A running gag in which a cute classmate played by Lyndsy Fonseca falsely believes that Dave is gay doesn't help matters.)

As Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl team up for some cathartic vindication in the crowd-pleasing, hallway-scrolling finale that would make Neo jealous, the film turns oppressively jubilant like a bazooka to the chest. I'd imagine that it all plays out more favorably within the confines of its native strip panels. [C+]

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Criterion July Titles

Criterion has announced their July titles this morning, which is usually like waking up on Christmas, with the exception of today. Among the four titles announced are three Blu-ray releases and one 2-disc DVD Ozu box-set, and I'm really underwhelmed.

July 20th will be Powell and Pressburger day, as The Red Shoes ('48) and Black Narcissus ('47) will both get the high-def treatment. (Although both films are "catalog" Criterion titles, so to speak.)

Next is The Secret of the Grain ('07), which I remember getting a girth of accolades upon its release a few years ago and this disc continues the trend of Criterion announcing 1-2 contemporary films a month under their new deal with IFC Films.

The Yasujiro Ozu two-disc DVD consists of two of his earlier films, The Only Son ('36) and There Was a Father ('42).

Two Discs


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Epic #3: King of Kings (1961)

Like William Wyler and Anthony Mann at the end of their highly illustrious careers, Nicholas Ray, one of the most renowned Hollywood auteurs of the 1950's, heavily contributed to the popular uprising of the biblical and/or historical epics of the era, directing King of Kings (1961) and most of 55 Days of Peking (1963) before his death in 1979.

Producer Samuel Bronston, who kicked off large percentage of the epics throughout the 60's with King of Kings, sought a director to tackle a $8 million widescreen remake of the 1927 classic Cecil B. DeMille silent version. As he would later do with Anthony Mann in regards to El Cid (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1965), Bronston hired on a well-established director on the back-end of their career, bringing in the Cinemascope maestro, Nicholas Ray.

Although the film's reputation has been shaky ever since its moderate returns on opening weekend (and general priggishness from the more stuffy, cynical critics), it's a reasonably effective, albeit simplistic and elementary recreation of the story of Christ, predictably well-fashioned and staged and provides a showcase for the likes of Robert Ryan as John the Baptist, Hurd Hatfield as Pontius Pilate and Brigid Bazlen as Salome.

But what keeps King of Kings from being a tiring, burdensome thing is the way that the narration of Orson Welles and the score of Miklos Rozsa keeps the proceedings in forward-motion, serving as the glue between Ray's handsome biblical reenactments. I would imagine watching the film without them would prove to be a contrarily debilitating viewing experience.

Jeffrey Hunter (The Searchers) plays the titular character, in one of the first times that Jesus was given a face on film. (Most of the time, it was handled in the way that William Wyler's Ben-Hur avoids it.) And Hunter's casting was certainly a hotly contested topic at the time, enticing some to give the film the mock title, I Was a Teenage Jesus.

Hunter's shockingly blue eyes and matinee idol perception didn't help to aid the audiences ability to become immersed into Ray's straight-lipped retelling, but seen through the eyes of a modern viewer, Hunter appears to be relatively believable and appropriately celestial in his delicate movements and line readings. It's not a tremendous performance, but the film doesn't ask for one, it is what it is. [B-]

New Poster

Monday, April 12, 2010

Epic #2: Giant (1956)

With racial tension, greed and east-meets-west ideology, the drama erupts as often as the oil geysers in George Stevens' Giant (1956), a mega-sized epic based on the 1952 Edna Ferber novel of the same name.

A Pulitzer Prize winner, Ferber was one of the most prolific historical authors and playwrights of the first half of the 20th century, chronicling the western expansion and Southern gentility of the country in a way that certainly caught the eye of Hollywood. Written long after the film adaptations of Show Boat, Stage Door, Cimarron and Saratoga Trunk, Giant certainly wasn't the first Ferber novel adapted to the screen, and it wouldn't be the last.

Set in the Texas plains at the turn of the 20th century, Stevens' faithful adaptation chronicles the twenty-five tumultuous years of a cattle rancher's family during the Texas oil boom. The opening scene, full of rare, rolling green hills, sees Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) traveling to purchase a black stallion named "War Winds" when he comes back with more than he bargained for.

A modern, eastern woman, Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor) is an embodiment of new age feminism in direct contrast with the archaic hierarchy of Bick, or properly, Jordan. She reaches out to sick "wetbacks" working out in the outlying villages of the monstrous Reata Ranch, challenges her husband's hoary manners and upsets the overseer of the mansion, Bick's sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge), a West Texas Mrs. Danvers.

Also working on the Ranch is a drawl, baby-faced cowboy named Jett Rink (James Dean in his last performance - convincing as a detached mumbler, not so much as a cold, aging mogul) who spurns Bick after the death of Luz in an act of either jealousy or naive defiance, off to live out in the plains, gawking at Bick's fresh catch (Taylor) and pounding away at the earth looking for some of that black gold.

As the film gently progresses, with Bick and Leslie Benedict graying as their kids grow older (into a young Dennis Hopper and Carroll Baker, no less), so too do the fortunes of Mr. Rink (Dean), now a prosperous oil tycoon, leaving Bick's cattle looking antiquated as the bright red "Jetexas" oil trucks drive by.

And thus Rock Hudson's Bick Benedict becomes a stubborn, sympathetic and dated figure, still clinging to his traditional values as the world around him evolves beyond his comprehension. His children want no part of his ceaseless Reata and his daily grazing is no longer needed to oversee the mechanical monstrosities of progress clouding his fields.

It's easy to find a resemblance between Giant (1956) and a recent oil-epic, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood (2007), which were both shot on location in Marfa, Texas. While Edna Ferber is certainly more nostalgic in her view of the dusty, seeping plains of the West, it's hard to not think of Daniel Plainview when Bick Benedict is lounging around in his robe, arguing with his son under the roof of an endless, echoed mansion - the American Dream dissolving before his eyes. [B]

(201 minutes, Warner Bros.)

He's Really Most Sincerely Dead

Meinhardt Raabe, the coroner from Victor Fleming's Wizard of Oz (1939) and previously the oldest-living munchkin, passed away this past Saturday (04.10). Of the 124 munchkins of Munchkinland, only 6 are alive today.

Classic Rewind: No Time For Comedy (1940)

What starts out as a fun, spirited Broadway romantic comedy quickly turns into a grievous, soggy melodrama. William Keighley's No Time For Comedy (1940) takes brooding, ironic missteps during its second half until its paltry 93 minute running-time becomes grating and enduring.

As a piece of history, the film is irresistible, as not only is it the only on-screen pairing of Jimmy Stewart and the delightful Rosalind Russell, but fans of early studio era politics will take notice of the opening Warner Bros. logo that starts the proceedings.

Apparently, as a result of the loan of Olivia de Havilland to MGM to co-star in Gone With the Wind (1939), Warner Bros. was, in return, lent the services of Russell and Stewart (under the guise of stock director William Keighley) to star in No Time for Comedy. (Of his 81 feature films, Stewart only starred in just 6 for Warner Bros. with No Time for Comedy as the first).

In it, Stewart plays a small-town playwright named Gaylord Esterbrook whose debut is picked up as a potential starring vehicle for well-known actress Linda Paige (Rosalind Russell). Upon his arrival to New York, wide-eyed and clumsy, Gaylord's play turns out to be a success and his modesty and big city jitters a turn-on for his leading lady.

After a brief time-lapse montage (in which we see that Gaylord has written a triumvirate of follow-ups), the film becomes dour and drowsy, no longer resembling the zippy screwballer of the first forty minutes. Our once gleeful and unassuming playwright is now burdened by the limitations of his craft, a weakness prayed upon by a conniving socialite (Genevieve Tobin) who tries to pry him away from his Linda (Russell).

In one of many such discussions between husband and wife, Mrs. Russell, surprisingly dramatic for once, pleads that "people are depressed, they want to laugh!" I couldn't have said it better myself, Linda - No Time For Comedy, indeed. [B-]

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Bad

Over the last few days, I've inadvertently been on a bit of a Henry Fonda spree. It started with Fort Apache (1948) before moving to The Lady Eve (1941) and then culminating into watching Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) again.

Of course, in that superb Sergio Leone film, Fonda plays the heinous, murdering Frank in one of the most inspired bits of against-typecasting that I've ever seen, and it's absolutely a career highlight.

Here's Fonda's entrance in Once Upon a Time in the West, which would be considered the greatest scene in the film if it wasn't preceded by one of the greatest opening titles sequences of all-time. (Notice the phenomenal sound design in this scene, as well.)

And here's Fonda in a 1975 talking about getting the role of Frank:

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Epics #1: Alexander the Great (1956)

Regarded as both a major critical and financial failure for MGM at the time of its release, Robert Rossen's Alexander the Great ('56) certainly has a reputation on or below par with the overcooked historical epics of its day (becoming more negatively perceived with each year) but the result may not be so much a bad film as a negligible one.

Rossen's handsomely-mounted biographical illustration of the short and prosperous life of the titular Alexander (Richard Burton) charts his early years competing for power over the Greek city-states with his father, King Philip II (Frederic March). The angles get wider in the second act as Alexander exerts his uninhibited will out East in the Persian campaign.

Originally around three hours in length, Rossen was pressured by the studio to make cuts down to 135 minutes, and the result is an unceremoniously choppy and overly histrionic affair. Cinematographer Robert Krasker and Art Director Andre Andrejew capture the wide-angle CinemaScope landscapes of Spain to perfection (serving as the rolling, rocky hills of Greece) , but what Alexander the Great lacks is a through-current of emotional sweep and artistry to match those meticulously-rendered vistas of Macedonia and Persia.

Richard Burton, in this early stage of his career, had already dipped his toes into the large waters of the ancient sword-and-sandals epic with Henry Koster's The Robe ('53), but his Alexander is one dull bird. Rossen attempts to highlight his subjects insatiable appetite for conquest and immortality, driven by an apparent delusion of divinity.

The problem is that Burton makes him insipid and flat. When he isn't glowering at his father, King Philip II or playing the Ancient Greek version of wife-swap, he's getting lost in the widescreen compositions of Rossen's awkward, nonsensical battlefield maneuvers. [C]

(135 minutes, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Epics Are Coming, The Epics Are Coming!

With the Frank Capra Marathon very much over and done with as of today (between you and me, I feel extremely relieved), the next categorized viewing-and-reviewing schedule will revolve around epics!

The definition of an epic is something "of unusually great size or extent," and to elaborate in regards to the film medium, an epic is identified as a long, ambitiously-produced large-scale drama, usually spanning a wide period of time and set during a notable historic event or conflict.

Once again, as was the case with the Frank Capra marathon, I'm only reviewing films that I have not seen previously - in this case, my ignorance is a saving grace, as I very much look forward to watching these gargantuan films for the first time and sharing it with you.

A definitive schedule cannot be pinned down due to sketchy availability, but this is the final list of films to be covered. (Ordered chronologically):

Quo Vadis (Mervyn LeRoy, 1951) 171 mins.
The Robe (Henry Koster, 1953) 135 mins.
Alexander the Great (Robert Rossen, 1956) 135 mins.
Giant (George Stevens, 1956) 201 mins.
King of Kings (Nicholas Ray, 1961) 168 mins.
El Cid (Anthony Mann, 1961) 184 mins.
Barabbas (Richard Fleischer, 1962) 144 mins.
Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963) 243 mins.
55 Days at Peking (Nicholas Ray, 1963) 158 mins.
The Fall of the Roman Empire (Anthony Mann, 1964) 188 mins.

The Anti-Searchers

Being on a bit of a John Ford kick lately (and re-watching The Searchers again last night), I ran upon this mild anti-Searchers article by Hollywood Elsewhere's Jeff Wells and another by Slate's Stephen Metcalf.

I've never really loved The Searchers ('56) all that much and I just have to roll my eyes every time someone proclaims it as a masterpiece. I love John Wayne's racist, obsessive Ethan Edwards how Monument Valley never looked so good and it undoubtedly has one of the greatest closing shots in the history of American cinema.

Plus, it certainly has a sneaky, ballsy undercurrent of racism and miscegenation, culminating in one of the greatest anti-heroes of all-time (an influence on Travis Bickle), but there are so many hurdles and speed-bumps that I can't sit through it and remotely consider it as a masterwork of its genre - much less one of the greatest American films ever made.

I'm not even close to making a definitive statement on the merits of John Ford as one of the greatest Western directors of all-time, but I certainly found much to chew on in Fort Apache ('48) and consider Stagecoach ('39) to be just a good 'ole fun time. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance ('62) is a fucking great script and really good film, but Jimmy Stewart is just awful in it and it feels too venerable and stagey at times.

Frank Capra #15: Meet John Doe (1940)

Gary Cooper is used and abused by those conniving upper-crust aristocrats again in Frank Capra's Meet John Doe (1940). As a homeless baseball player who is thrust into the limelight by a major news publication, Capra is out once again to prove to us that morals and common decency always win out in the face of rapacity and corruption.

A blatant variation on the formula well-established in earlier works like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town ('36) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington ('39), Meet John Doe feels redundant and antiquated in comparison. Edward Arnold plays a slimy, prosperous, self-endowed politician (again) while Barbara Stanwyck plays the weepy female counterpart who falls for their saintly subject. (Apparently Jean Arthur was busy.)

Perhaps the most egregious blunder of the film is that it fails to tell its overly familiar story in under two hours, drawing out and expanding upon scenes that we've seen from the director before.

The ending (or rather the indecision) of Meet John Doe is well-documented. Supposedly Capra and Warner Bros. had five different endings attached to five different test screenings around the country. Needless to say, the most tidy and friendly of outcomes is what we're left with.

Classic Rewind: Fort Apache (1948)

Henry Fonda plays a General Custer starter-kit in John Ford's Fort Apache ('48), the first post-war western by the great American director to flip the script on Native Americans and the way they are portrayed in films. Like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance ('62) and The Searchers ('56), Fort Apache is an attempt to demythicize the west in the way that it reveals certain truths about our westward expansion throughout the 19th century.

Henry Fonda's Lt. Col. Owen Thursday is a strict, ignorant, stubborn fool. He's a symbol of the past, his naivety towards his enemy clouding his judgment, instead concerned with archaic matters like dress code and organized tactics, confusing the objection to either as cowardice and dishonor.

He is even ignorant to the wishes of his only daughter, Philadelphia (played by a teenage Shirley Temple), who is in love with a fellow Lieutenant (John Agar) and overtly pleads to become a woman - smiling and swooning at the soldiers as they pass by.

When Thursday isn't the center of attention, Ford takes us throughout the fort, expanding on quirky secondary new recruits and the wistful romanticism of Miss Thursday. It's here where Fort Apache feels quaint and frivolous, like outtakes from Wee Willie Winkie.

Nevertheless, the most objectionable officer to the ways of Lt. Col. Thursday is Capt. York, played by John Wayne. Unlike his role as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, Capt. York understands the Indians and opposes the foolhardy methods employed by Thursday both out in the battlefield (a series of beautiful wide-angle compositions of Utah's Monument Valley) and inside the confines of the fort.

In the climax, which sees a peace-seeking Capt. York adamantly objecting to the trigger-happy Thursday's attack on the Apaches, it becomes a fitting, ironic ending to the short-lived rule of the thick Lt. Colonel.

Back on the fort, with Capt. York in charge (and covering-up for the now erroneously immortalized Thursday), he delivers a reverent, inspired speech about valor and dignity in the honor of those who have died - and with them goes the truth. [A-]

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Classic Rewind: Blood on the Moon (1948)

Robert Wise was admittedly not a fan of the western genre before signing on to direct Blood on the Moon ('48) for RKO, a star vehicle for the up and coming Robert Mitchum. Perhaps that's why this border-dispute feels so steeped in film noir and psychological horror, like one of those Val Lewton-produced films that Wise made in the early 40's.

An interesting filmmaker to say the least, Wise began his career as a prestigious editor - working on Orson Welles' Citizen Kane ('41) and The Magnificent Ambersons ('42) for starters - before working his way to the director's chair at RKO. He wouldn't make his mark until later (West Side Story, The Sound of Music, The Sand Pebbles), but his work for the studio throughout the 40's was hardly inconsequential.

Blood on the Moon is the story of a hired-gun, Jim Garry (Mitchum) who finds himself in the middle of a rancher dispute between an insurgent family led by John Luftus (Tom Tully) and the cruel, conniving Tate Riling (Robert Preston). Complicating matters for the initially ambiguous Garry is the tough, deceptively smart daughter of Mr. Luftus, Amy (Barbara Bel Geddes).

It basically amounts to a lean, moderate abbreviation of William Wyler's grandiose The Big Country ('58), differing in its clear interpretation of good and evil. With its radically sparse use of lighting, noirish black & white photography and lone-gun mentality, Blood on the Moon certainly doesn't supply goofy, colorful westward diversion, but in the end, its monochromatic delivery is far more commendable than its adherent formulism. [B]

Monday, April 5, 2010

Classic Rewind: Escape From Fort Bravo (1953)

William Holden plays a detached Union captain guarding a slew of Confederate prisoners in the Arizona desert in this John Sturges directed Civil War western. Cold and extremely efficient at tracking down escapees through Mescalero Indian territory, Captain Roper (Holden) becomes distracted when the beautiful Carla Forester (Eleanor Parker) stops in for stay.

But when Carla eventually reveals herself to be in collusion with a small group of Confederate prisoners led by Capt. John Marsh (John Forsythe), he sets off to track them down and confront the woman he loves.

Escape From Fort Bravo
('53) is very similar to Sam Wood's Ambush ('50) in that both films follow the conflicts and relationships between men and women both inside and outside enemy territory (in both cases, the enemy is the misrepresented and often vilified Indians).

As it progresses, it becomes clearer that Escape From Fort Bravo is a film building towards symbolic unification and pre-Reconstruction era patriotism as our characters (both Union and Confederate civilians alike, are forced to work together to overcome the climactic Indian attack). In this respect, it most resembles a film like Michael Curtiz's Virginia City ('40).

With one last desperate maneuver, Holden's Capt. Roper attempts to break out of his selfish solitude and save the day until he's beaten to the punch by one of his previously escaped Confederate prisoners. On this day, out in the beating sun of the Arizona desert, redemption and absolution are already taking shape. [A-]

Giant Lizards

The only thing really keeping Irwin Allen's The Lost World ('60) from being an enjoyably schlocky dino-adventure film is the implementation of a special effects technique dubbed "slurpasaur".

The term (apparently coined by fans of classic creature features like The Lost World) refers to the use of lizards and small crocodiles optically enlarged into the film to pass off as giant, exotic creatures, usually dinosaurs. This process is obviously much cheaper than using models or stop-motion animation, but the effect is generally highly unconvincing and unimaginative.

It's a shame, because for the most part, The Lost World is a fun, stupid, neatly-shot and designed jungle expedition-and-escape B-movie. Claude Rains plays the lead scientist while Michael Rennie (The Day the Earth Stood Still) struts around mysteriously and stoically as Jill St. John stands in as the token hot chick.

The centerpiece action scene taking advantage of the "slurpasaur" technique is a fight between what appears to be a small crocodile and a comparatively-sized iguana, their pinned-on horns and scales flapping around as they go at it.

Among the unintentionally funny moments is the final scene in which Claude Rains' Professor Challenger drops a dinosaur egg (which is initially revealed to be empty) and pulls out a pint-sized lizard, proclaiming, "It's a Tyrannosaurus Rex!" A perfectly inane way to end this gleefully inane film.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Review: Clash of the Titans (2010)

Louis Leterrier's stiff and snappy Clash of the Titans remake certainly picks up on some of the unabashed cornball mythology of the 1981 original, but what it brings to the table in terms of digital enhancement and Kraken-sized spectacle, it concurrently flounders in the same excess, its characters reduced to vapid machismo brutes.

Our hero is Perseus (played by a grumpy Sam Worthington) who is one ticked-off demigod (the best of both worlds) and the son of Zeus (Liam Neeson) who himself is a god-in-crisis, mortally panic-stricken over the lack of faith in his human pawns who seek to declare war on their heavenly creators.

When Hades (Ralph Fiennes) rises from the underworld, he convinces his brother Zeus to unleash him upon the ungrateful humans and get them grovelling on their knees once more. Knowing that Hades has awoken - his pet Kraken waiting under the ocean floor - the humans of Argos, now in possession of their demigod, set off on a whirlwind quest to seek the knowledge they need to beat the unbeatable.

Interspersed amongst the goofily diverting scuffles against giant scorpions and an irascible Medusa are tired, huffy line readings about the queasy distinctions between man and god, destiny and faith. Perseus feels conflicted about using his naturally celestial powers, instead wanting to rely on his mortal behalf to get the job done. ("If I do this, I do it as a man," he blurts.)

Among the Argos-led traveling party are Draco (played by a squinting, fun Mads Mikkelsen), Ixas (Hans Matheson), Eusebios (Nicolous Hoult) and a robed, eternal and quite silly Io, who is played by a pretty face, Gemma Arterton. Io is a nymph, dedicated to watching over the abandoned demigod for life and on the journey, she serves as the Navi to Perseus' Link. Like a big, pretty bug that just won't go away, she flutters about the screen (her hair becoming more ideal and shiny as it progresses) like a nuisance.

The stable of screenwriters attempt to make an everlasting love story out of Io and Perseus, but the result is executed just as feebly and uncomfortably as when our Praetorian fellowship try to uncouthly crack a couple of jokes.

The saving grace of Clash of the Titans is the revolving door of mildly rendered and increasingly scaled creatures - for if nothing else, it shuts up those sullen, crabby humans and their flirty, part-divine companions. [C]

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Review: Repo Men (2010)

This latest middling blood-splotched action film is based on the novel "Repossession Mambo," which was written concurrently by Eric Garcia as he and Garrett Lerner worked on the script. I don't know who came up with the idea first, these guys or the creators of Repo! The Genetic Opera, but what I do know is that those responsible for Repo Men have seen a lot of movies.

Set in the not too distant future (where the city looks like Blade Runner but the suburbs have twenty-year old gas grills for their red oak patios), a mega corporation known smarmily as "The Union," specializes in outrageously overpriced artificial organ transplants, and when you can't pay the bills, they send in the Repo Men to take em back.

Armed with stun guns, neck tattoos and lots of imported aluminum-canned beer, the best of the Repos are Remy (Jude Law, overqualified) and his best friend from childhood, Jake (Forest Whitaker). They've brought in thousands of unpaid organs, laying them at the feet of their typical bottom-line corporate chief (Liev Schreiber), who you know is phlegmatically evil by the way he stares out of his widescreen office window.

Through Remy's queasily metaphorical narration, we know that he's a man approaching a tipping point. His wife wants him to transfer to The Union's sales department, while internally he questions his methods with Jake (Whitaker), who attempts to justify matters whenever the conversation gets too weighty - "a job's a job," he says.

But, when a defibrillator goes haywire and Remy is unknowingly supplied an ugly, chromic heart of his own, he's no longer adept at his profession - in fact, he's useless. Unable to pay for it himself (and rudely denied an employee discount), he goes rogue with a local dive singer (Alice Braga) who has more artificial organs than Roy Batty.

Helmed by first-time director Miguel Sapochnik, Repo Men is a blatantly imitative vehicle, shot and arranged with blue-filtered flair, but ultimately proven to be a timeworn, hyper-violent drag. It almost lulls you to sleep with its certainty before the final act explodes and erupts like an unchecked artery - throwing in a side-scrolling hallway fight scene straight out of Park Chan-wook's Oldboy - before finally climaxing in an absurdly composed scene of erotic self-incision.

The inanity and blood-streak belligerence of the final thirty minutes could be attributed to the admittedly sneaky and sly final twist - its pessimistic quality almost hard to resist in a film that seemed resolute - but its enjoyment is entirely predicated on the viewer having never seen Terry Gilliam's Brazil, for Repo Men, with this final act of thievery, assures itself as nothing but trifling mimicry. [C-]