REVIEWS OF RENTED DVDs I GET IN THE MAIL

Archive for the ‘I’ Category

IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934)

In Best Picture Winners, Classic, Comedy, I, Motion Pictures, Romance on June 1, 2010 at 12:49 am

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STUDIO – Columbia

CAST – Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns, Jameson Thomas, Alan Hale

DIRECTORFrank Capra

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG)

When you hear the name “Clark Gable”, you most likely would recall the dashing and cocky Rhett Butler, from Gone With the Wind. The name “Frank Capra” tends to conjure memories of Jimmy Stewart, thanks to movies like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life, and You Can’t Take It With You. And the mention of Claudette Colbert’s name may recall the original Imitation of Life, or perhaps Cleopatra, both from 1934. But this was the movie that made them all famous.

It Happened One Night is the story of an impetuous heiress named Ellen Andrews (Colbert) who’d eloped with a smooth operator named King Westley (Jameson Thomas). Her Wall Street tycoon father (Walter Connolly) opposed the marriage and Westley, so he took her to Miami to get her to clear her head. Seizing an oppourtinity, she (literally) jumps ship and takes a bus back to New York to reunite with her husband. On the bus, she meets Peter Warne (Gable), a hard-nosed, hard-drinking newspaper reporter who’s down on his luck. Right away, they don’t get along. At a stopover in Jacksonville, he learns who she really is and, seizing an opportunity of his own, offers to help her to New York in exchange for an exclusive story.

Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) employs her special hitchhiking method as Peter Warne (Clark Gable) looks on

Every romantic comedy made since 1934, from Sleepless In Seattle to The Seven-Year Itch, owes its existence to this movie. It Happened One Night may not be the first-ever romantic comedy, but it was the first to perfect the formula: Two strong-willed leads wind up in a situation where they can’t get away from each other, only to fall in love with each other in the end. It sounds simple enough, but without good chemistry between the leads or a good script, it’s just two people bickering for an hour-and-a-half. And there may be plenty of bickering here, but there are also plenty of laughs!

This movie, made on a tight budget ($350,000, or around $5.5 million in today’s money) and an even tighter schedule (multiple location shoots in four weeks), spans from Miami to New York, as Gable and Colbert’s characters try to assert their respective ways on the other. Even today, with transportation and logistics down to a science, it would still be a major accomplishment to shoot a movie like this. And when you consider that Claudette Colbert, whose salary consisted of about 15% of the movie’s total shooting budget, hated working on this movie (she even told her friends and colleagues as much when she finished), the story becomes that much more astounding. At the time, Frank Capra was a “B-movie” director and Columbia was a “B-movie” studio, so you can imagine all the fervor when It Happened One Night became the first movie to receive Academy Award nominations for Best Actor, Actress, Director, Picture, and Screenplay. Suddenly, this little movie from a little studio became a true “dark horse” at the Oscars.

But on the screen, there was magic, and plenty of it! Gable and Colbert worked off each other brilliantly. The highlight of the movie is the scene that need only be described in two words, as quoted by Mr. Gable: “Quit bawlin’!” The hitchhiking scene, which features Alan Hale, who would later be best known as Friar Tuck to Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood (and whose son was the Skipper on that infamously fateful “three-hour tour” known as “Gilligan’s Island”), is also fun to watch, especially when Claudette Colbert shows Clark Gable the best way to stop a car is by showing off a little leg.

Upon its release, It Happened One Night became an instant sensation. Here are some cool facts about this movie. Following the movie’s initial release, T-shirt sales plummeted, thanks to Mr. Gable’s choice not to wear a T-shirt for brevity’s sake during Peter’s undressing scene. It is also widely reported that elements from this movie formed the genesis of one of the most famous cartoon characters in history, Bugs Bunny; A gentleman named Shapeley (Roscoe Karns) spoke in a nasally voice and called everyone “Doc”, Peter dropped the name “Bugs” when he confronted Shapeley, and in one scene, Peter is eating carrots.

Without a doubt, It Happened One Night is funny, romantic, and a timeless classic. Okay, maybe riding the bus isn’t as fun as it used to be, and maybe today’s motels are far less prying when it comes to the affairs of their guests. But even now, few movies in this genre have dared to come close to this. Remember those Oscar nominations? Well, in the history of the Academy, only three movies won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and one for the screenplay. It Happened One Night was the first (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs were the others). Not bad for a quickly slapped-together B-movie, huh?

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IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME (1949)

In Classic, Comedy, I, Motion Pictures, Musical, Romance on May 16, 2010 at 9:15 am

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STUDIO – MGM

CAST – Judy Garland, Van Johnson, S.Z. Sakall, Spring Byington, Buster Keaton, Marcia Van Dyke, Clinton Sundberg, Lillian Bronson

DIRECTOR – Robert Z. Leonard

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: G)

When I recently opened my rented copy of The Shop Around the Corner, I popped it into my DVD player and discovered that You’ve Got Mail was the second remake of that movie. The first was redone as a musical set at turn of the 20th Century, and that it starred Judy Garland. So, I made a quick trip into my Netflix Queue and ordered In the Good Old Summertime and put it straight to the top of my list. Now, before I proceed any further, let me state that, with the notable exception of The Wizard of Oz and the occasional Andy Hardy serial, I had not seen any motion pictures starring Judy Garland until this point. Nothing against her; she just isn’t my cup of tea. Still, I pressed forward, bowl of popcorn in hand, and watched…

And I dare say I enjoyed this movie. In the Good Old Summertime is the same basic premise of The Shop Around the Corner, only instead of a contemporary department store in Budapest, it’s set in a music store in Chicago. Also, the names have been changed to protect the innocent. The head clerk of the store is Andrew Larkin (Van Johnson), the boss is Otto Oberkugen (S.Z. Sakall), and the romantic interest/fly in the ointment is named Veronica Fisher (Garland). Replace the musical cigarette boxes with 100 table harps, throw in some slapstick, courtesy of Buster Keaton, and some old-tyme songs, and you have yet another Technicolor musical churned out by the factory known as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Veronica (Judy Garland) offers to "help" Albert (Van Johnson) deomonstrate a song for a customer

The basic story is the same, in some cases nearly word-for-word, but the pacing is actually better than the original. Van Johnson tries not to impersonate Jimmy Stewart, but in some scenes it’s easy to spot that “aw-shucks” quality for which Stewart was famous. Judy Garland proves that even marriage and a child haven’t rusted her pipes. In one scene, a frustrated Veronica is asked to demonstrate a Christmas song; she does so, but only going through the motions in the process. Even in that moment, it’s hard to dismiss her vocal talent.

Speaking of talent, I made discovery with this movie: Marcia Van Dyke. She is an accomplished singer and musician in her own right, and here she shows off one of those talents. Her character, Louise Parkson, lives in the same boarding house as Andrew, and she is a violinist, a damn good one. Several scenes showcase her talent, culminating in an audition for a scholarship in Leipzig, Germany (home of one of the most prestigious orchestras in the world). Van Dyke isn’t much of an actress, but where she lacks in that department, she more than makes up for it with a violin in her hand. And she was very easy on the eyes, too.

One of the things that I noticed in this movie is that many of the musical numbers, especially in the first half, were in 3/4 time (waltz tempo). Now, I’m a sucker for the waltz, but I think even Johann Strauss himself might have cried out “Okay! Okay! Enough with the waltzes! Let’s move on, shall we?” But overall, the music fit in well with the plot, with one minor exception. Okay, maybe not so minor. The bulk of the movie is set in the fall and winter, but MGM needed an excuse to use the song “In the Good Old Summer Time”, which was still a fairly popular tune nearly 50 years after its initial release. So, they bookended it with two brief scenes set in a park during the summer. I’m not sure how, but they managed to pull it off.  Oh, there is one more thing: At the very end of the movie, Veronica and Albert are strolling through the park with a little girl; that brief scene marks the (unofficial) motion picture debut of Judy Garland’s daughter, Liza Minelli.

The DVD comes with a pair of travelogue shorts about Chicago, one for day, one for night. Both are remarkable time capsules to a time that is now all but forgotten. The daytime tour features many fixtures of the skyline, including the Tribune Tower, the Wrigley Building, and the Drake Hotel, along with a parting shot of Buckingham Fountain. The nighttime featurette highlights some of the entertainment and night life aspects of the city, including a music hall frequented by the mayor, Martin H. Kennelly, as well as a dancing horse(!).

In the Good Old Summertime is a surprisingly fun movie to watch. MGM can be considered one of the few manufacturing corporations whose work was considered art, and this musical fits nicely into that fold. Remarkably, I found it at least as charming as The Shop Around the Corner. Up next, the conclusion of my three-part review. Stay tuned…

3-1/2 (out of 5)

IN THE BEDROOM (2001)

In Crime, Drama, I, Independent, Motion Pictures on April 5, 2010 at 9:04 am

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STUDIO — Miramax

CAST — Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson, Marisa Tomei, William Mapother, Nick Stahl

DIRECTOR —  Todd Field 

MPAA Rating: R

Once in a while, a movie comes along and makes you ask yourself how you would change if the unthinkable happened to you. In the Bedroom is one those movies.

Set in coastal Maine, this movie takes its title from a lobster trapping term (which is explained early on). A typical lobster trap consists of two parts, the entrance and the parlor (or “bedroom”). The entrance has a funnel, into which a lobster crawls inside. Next, it enters another funnel leading to the bait inside the parlor. If a trap is left unattended for too long, the parlor might become overcrowded, which may lead to the trapped lobsters fighting among themselves. Therefore, it is best to avoid having more than two lobsters “in the bedroom”. Interesting, the things you can learn in movies, huh?

Anyway, the story is about a middle-aged couple, Matt and Ruth Fowler (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek); he is a physician, and she is a music teacher. They have a son, Frank (Nick Stahl), who wants to become an architect, but he is also considering staying in town at least one more year to work on a lobster boat so that he can stay with his girlfriend, Natalie (Marisa Tomei). It all seems nice and normal, except for one minor detail: Natalie has two children, is nearly twice Frank’s age, and is separated from her abusive husband, Richard (William Mapother).

Okay, kids and age difference aside, Frank and Natalie’s relationship is a perfectly normal one. But Richard, in a fit of jealousy, confronts Frank in Natalie’s kitchen and… Well, let’s say for sake of argument a gun discharges, resulting in Frank being being shot in the face at point-blank range. We, the viewers, are not witness to the shooting, but we do know that Richard had the gun and Frank is killed.

The Fowlers (Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson) in the days after their son's death

But the real story begins with how the Fowlers deal with the sudden, untimely death of their son. Matt experiences internal struggles, to the point that he seems to lose confidence in himself; he also seems to be drinking more than usual. As for Ruth, she appears to be cool and detached, when in fact she seems ready to explode with rage at any moment. These conflicting personalities simmer throughout the rest of the movie, as the Fowlers fight desperately to continue leading normal lives. But left unattended, a simmer gradually builds to a boiling point, and Matt and Ruth eventually learn things about themselves and each other that they had never known before, and they are not pretty.

Speaking from the perspective of someone whose parents have buried a child, I can tell you firsthand that this sort of tragedy is at best traumatic. Without going into detail, I had a brother whose life ended far too early, and my parents were both profoundly affected by it. I was quite young myself, but I recall my mother doing lots of artsy-craftsy things like needlepoint and painting as (I believe) a form of therapy, while my father took nearly all traces of my late brother’s existence and buried it inside a desk drawer, never to openly speak of it again.

This movie brought back some of those memories for me, and I really felt empathy for Matt and Ruth. As for Natalie, she turned into a sort of lost soul. After the shooting, she found herself with a dead boyfriend, and the father of her children accused of the crime. So, I ask you, the reader, the following question: What would you do if you were thrust into a situation like this? Even if you think you know the answer, you really don’t. And In the Bedroom makes you realize this in an introspective way. I have read that this movie is a modern-day tragedy, and I agree with that assessment. It almost plays out as a story written by Shakespeare if he were alive today. High praise, indeed.

3-1/2 out of 5

IN THE LOOP (2009)

In Comedy, I, Motion Pictures, War on March 3, 2010 at 12:05 pm

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STUDIO — BBC Films    

CAST — Peter Capaldi, Tom Hollander, Gina McGee, James Ganolfini, Mimi Kennedy, Anna Chlumsky, Chris Addison      

DIRECTOR —  Armando Iannucci      

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: R)      

A mid-level British politician named Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) unwittingly states invasion of the Middle East is “unforeseeable” on an interview program, and it’s up to the staff at 10 Downing Street to clean it up in order to preserve Britain’s alliance with the Unites States, no matter the cost. And with that note, we are suddenly thrown In the Loop.      

(Hmm… That intro sounded very Roger Ebert of me. I hope he doesn’t mind.)      

In the Loop is a political farce of the most creative kind. This movie follows the British Prime Minister’s Director of Communications, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) as he manipulates, bargains and swears his way from London to Washington and back, and then to the United Nations, in order to make sure that his boss, the Prime Minister, is on the same page as the President of the United States.      

This movie moves at breakneck speeds. The plot is so heavily interwoven and complex, it actually makes sense. One moment, Foster’s assistant (Chris Addison) unintentionally spills the beans of a secret meeting in Washington to a friend at CNN. Before you know it, half of London is on a witch hunt, looking for the source of leaked documents written by a Washington staffer (Anna Chlumsky).      

Let me take a moment to talk about Anna Chlumsky. I am very happy to see she is still acting. For those who wonder where they may have seen her before, or perhaps where they’d heard the name, she is a former child star, most notably of the two My Girl movies in the early 1990s. Well, Anna is all grown up now, and in this movie, she has the mouth to prove it!      

Gen. Miller (James Gandolfini) and Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) discuss a leaked document at the UN

In fact, the insults fly fast and furious throughout the movie. Every principal cast member (even David Rasche’s clean-mouthed Linton Barwick) throws barbs, insults, and profanities faster than a Jonathan Broxton fastball, one right after the other. And this movie is laced with so many “F-bombs”, it might give Goodfellas a run for its money!      

But the humor in this movie comes from not just the insults. Many situational bits play into the genius of this comedy, as well. There is one particularly funny scene, in which Lt. Gen. George Miller (James Gandolfini) and Diplomacy Undersecretary Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy) discuss possible troop deployment figures in a girl’s bedroom. It is juxtapositions like this that give commentary to the ridiculousness of the political arena on both sides of the Pond, and director Armando Iannucci captures them with a skilled eye that was evidently influenced by the late Robert Altman.      

While watching In the Loop, I began to draw similarities with the Kubrick classic Dr. Strangelove. Afterward, when I delved into the Special Features on the DVD, I heard the announcer in the TV spot mention the “instant comparisons” between the two (as quoted by the New York Times). And to tell the truth, I did find myself thinking this movie somewhat reminded me of the Kubrick classic while I was watching it (and before viewing the Special Features). Whether this movie will go down as one of the greatest political farces of all time remains to be seen, but In the Loop has a superb cast, deft direction, a well-played (and Oscar-nominated) script, and some very skillful editing. One word of caution: As a British film, the comedy can be quite dry. This film is not for the uninitiated, but it is obscenely fun to watch.

3-1/2 out of 5

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009)

In Action, I, Motion Pictures, War on February 15, 2010 at 3:03 am

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 STUDIO — Universal

CAST — Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Laurent, Eli Roth, Diane Kruger

DIRECTOR —  Quentin Tarantino

MPAA Rating: R

O Quentin, where art thou?

When I think of Quentin Tarantino, I think of Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and the Kill Bill saga. These are movies I could sink my teeth into (and I have). But Inglourious Basterds is a very different movie, with a very different feel to it. In fact, the only things Tarantino-esque about it are the “chapter” slates, a few select “call-back” edits, and that Samuel L. Jackson and Harvey Keitel lent their (uncredited) voices to the film. This movie features dialogue in not one, but four different languages (French, German, English, and Italian). Of all the World War II movies ever made, only a relative few don’t fall under the conventional “everybody speaks English” wisdom. While I found this delightful, I must confess I had a little difficulty keeping up with the subtitles.   

Col. Landa (Christoph Waltz) chats with Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), while "Enzo Corlomi" (Brad Pitt) looks on

Cinematically, this is a stunning movie. Tarantino’s directing style makes for a visual masterpiece nearly every time out of the gate, in both filming and editing technique. But as I said before, this doesn’t really “feel” like a typical Tarantino movie. Yes, there is plenty of blood spatter, but it doesn’t feel as over-the-top as, say, Michael Madsen gleefully disfiguring a cop while dancing to “Stuck In the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel.

Most of the cast did well in this movie. Kudos to Christoph Waltz as Nazi Colonel Hans Landa. In the opinion of this writer, Waltz single-handedly saved this movie from being a complete mess. In an interview, Quentin Tarantino said that without Waltz, this movie would not have been made. Frankly, I completely agree with this statement. As Landa, Waltz is both predator and slippery eel, dashing and cruel, friendly and suspicious. It is a masterful performance, with well-deserved accolades, including an Academy Award™ nomination. 

But what about the “Basterds” themselves? In the movie, they were a band of eight Jewish soldiers on a singular mission: kill the Nazis. Led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), they spent a significant portion of the movie succeeding in just that. But as it turns out, the movie is not centered around them; it is primarily about a young Jewish woman who had escaped death three years earlier, only to plot revenge by killing hundreds of Nazis, including Adolph Hitler himself (!), at her movie theatre. The “Basterds” just happened to catch wind of the event and planned their own Nazi-killing party there, too.  

As is typical of any Quentin Tarantino movie, you have to suspend your disbelief. But come on! Bridge On the River Kwai (1957) was more accurate than this movie! By the time the climax started, as visually striking as it was, I ended up throwing my hands up and calling BS. I’m sorry, Quentin, but I think you went too far with this one.  

EDITED 2/25 TO ADD THE FOLLOWING:  

It is rare when I revisit a review to add to it, but I have taken some time to digest this movie a little further. As a result, I am amending my review of Inglourious Basterds.  One of the things I have overlooked is the fact that Quentin Tarantino is unlike almost any other director out there. There are so few directors working today with the passion and drive to make movies the way he does. On top of that, he carries a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of cinematic history within that oddly-shaped head of his. Both of these qualities come to the forefront in every movie he makes, and Inglourious Basterds is no exception. For example, most of the movie posters (“Nation’s Pride” and the Bridget von Hammersmark films excepted) are from real movies made in the 1920s and 1930s, and that they provide a subtext to this movie which illustrates the oppression felt by the French and the Jews under Nazi Germany, and the desire to break free from it. Also, in “Nation’s Pride”, the film-within-a-film, a John Wayne-like actor playing an American colonel gives an impassioned speech about preserving the tower where the Nazi sniper (and star of the film) is holed up. That actor is Bo Svenson, who starred in a 1978 movie entitled The Inglorious Bastards (no relation), directed by Enzo Castellari (who also has a cameo, as a Nazi dignitary at the cinema).  

It is little “Easter eggs” like this which makes watching a Tarantino movie fun to watch. It’s amazing, the things you learn from watching the Special Features disc. While I still maintain it is not one of his best films, Inglourious Basterds is still a fun-to-watch romp done only the way Quentin can do it.  

3-1/2 out of 5

THE ITALIAN JOB (2003)

In Action, Crime, I, Motion Pictures on February 5, 2010 at 12:56 am

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STUDIO — Paramount

CAST — Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Mos Def, Edward Norton, Jason Statham, Seth Green, Donald Sutherland

DIRECTOR —  F. Gary Gray

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Before watching this movie, I watched the original movie from 1969, starring Michael Caine. This is an exercise I like to do to draw comparison between the original and the update in terms of quality, performance, and homage. This is something I will do often, so don’t be surprised if you see back-to-back reviews of originals and remakes like this in the future. Anyway, let’s get on with the show.

Mark Wahlberg stars as Charlie Croker, a professional thief who, in the beginning of this movie, pulls off a successful heist of over $35 million in gold buillion in Venice. But the bulk of the movie’s story takes place a year later in Los Angeles. So, unlike the original movie, The Italian Job is not centered around the gang trying to steal the gold. But it is about how one member, Steve (Edward Norton) betrayed them by taking the haul for himself, and how the others make plans to take it back from him. So, essentially, this movie isn’t about the robbery; it’s about the gold itself.

The newly-modified Minis on a test drive

So, what does this movie have in common with the original? Well, Charlie is still here, and so is Mr. (John) Britcher (Donald Sutherland). Seth Green takes over the comic relief reins as the computer whiz, only this time he obsesses about a former college roommate who stole his idea (Napster). And of course, the Minis. You can’t have this movie without Minis.

This movie was entertaining from start to finish. Wahlberg leads the ensemble cast with a casual energy, and his chemistry with the others (Green, Charlize Theron, Jason Statham, and Mos Def) is very apparent. The script was a cut above that of your average action movie, and F. Gary Gray’s direction put a fresh twist on the genre.

I guess it goes without saying that I liked this movie. I will say this: having a bus hang precariously off a ledge along Mulholland Drive probably would not have worked as an ending.

The Italian Job is a well-paced, fun action film with (mostly) likable characters (Edward Norton’s Steve is a slimeball, and he plays his character with aplomb). This is one movie I may actually consider buying.

4 out of 5

THE ITALIAN JOB (1969)

In Action, Comedy, Crime, I, Motion Pictures on February 2, 2010 at 11:53 pm

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STUDIO — Oakhurst Productions/Paramount

CAST — Michael Caine, Noel Coward, Benny Hill

DIRECTOR —  Peter Collinson

MPAA Rating: G

For years, I had heard about the now-famous cliffhanger ending in 1969’s The Italian Job, and I wondered why would the makers of this movie allow it to end this way. Now that I have seen the movie, I must say that it works. Normally, I’d consider this a spolier, but in this case, the movie is about the journey, not the destination. At the end of the movie, the bus carrying the crooks and the gold skids out of control and hangs precariously over the edge of a cliff, the crooks at one end, the gold at the other (It’s pretty easy to guess which is at which end). Then Charlie Croker (Michael Caine) says he has an idea, and… roll credits!

Frankly, it is gags like this that make this movie so irreverently 60s, so amusing, so… British. On top of Caine’s ex-con with a shot at the big time, there is Noel Coward’s incarcerated flambouyant ringleader with a just-this-side-of-creepy fascination of Queen Elizabeth II, Maggie Blye as Croker’s girlfriend, who arranges a welcome home “party” with several ladies for him (only to go into a fit of rage when he tries to bed three more girls on his own), and Benny Hill’s nutty professor with a perverse predaliction toward women who are, shall we say, plus-sized.

The Mini Coopers make their escape from Turin

Yes, this is a Rated-G movie. By today’s standards, it would likely be a PG, but it sill makes for a fun-to-watch caper movie. I, for one, find it suitable for nearly all audiences. But if you like classic exotic automobiles, you’d better prepare to weep. Fiats, Lamborghinis, Jaguars and (of course) Mini Coopers get literally tossed over cliffs throughout the film.

And who could forget those Mini Coopers? The chase scene of the three Minis escaping from the overly-congested streets of Turin, Italy, is one of the most unique ever filmed. Some indoor sequences of the chase undoubtedly were an inspiration for the infamous mall chase in The Blues Brothers 11 years later. Watching these three cars jump over roofs, crawl up the sides of sewers, and plow though a river was purely entertaining.

I would not consider The Italian Job a classic. But it is fun, energetic, and very British. If you like wry comedy, this would fit in just nicely.

3-1/2 out of 5