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Archive for the ‘Action’ Category

DR. NO (1962)

In Action, Crime, D, Motion Pictures on July 25, 2010 at 9:17 pm

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STUDIO – United Artists

CASTSean Connery, Ursula Andress, Joseph Wiseman, Jack Lord, Bernard Lee

DIRECTOR – Terence Toung

MPAA Rating: PG

In 1962, a phenomenon was born. Writer Ian Fleming had written a series of novels about a suave British spy, and Untied Artists (and later MGM) took up the mantle and delivered unto the masses a saga spanning a total of 22 movies (at least, officially, as of this writing) over the next 46 years. This ladies’ man has a penchant for baccarat, exotic locations, fast cars, and vodka martinis that are shaken (not stirred), and he always looks good no matter where he goes. These attributes, and more, are summed up in just three words:

Bond. James Bond.

In his first appearance in the role that would define him, his career, and the character he plays, Sean Connery stars as the newly-promoted 007, sent on an assignment in Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of a colleague (and his secretary), who had failed to check in at his regularly-scheduled time. Upon his arrival, he suspects that someone was alerted to his presence. Later, he discovers that rock samples collected by the missing colleague at a nearby island called Crab Key were radioactive. So, with the assistance of CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord), he makes for the mysterious island, which has a bauxite operation run by a man known only as Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman).

Honey Ryder and James Bond (Ursula Andress, Sean Connery) walk along the beach on Crab Key

As this is the first Bond movie in the official canon, it is also the most modestly-budgeted of the series, at a mere $1 million (or just over $7 million, after accounting for inflation). As a means of comparison, the last Bond movie, Quantum of Solace (2008)  had an estimated budget of $200 million. The beauty of this movie is that it doesn’t appear that way. For those who haven’t seen this movie yet, I will tell you this: There is no Q, and as a result, there are no gadgets. This is basically a tongue-in-cheek no-frills spy thriller, with Bond relying on only his training, his fighting skills, and his intellect to get the job done.

There are two things for which this movie is famous: Bond’s introduction to the world and Ursula Andress’ entrance. We first meet James Bond enjoying his favorite — okay, his second favorite — recreational activity, baccarat, only his back is turned to us. It just so happens his opponent is a lovely woman (Eunice Gayson) who loses hand after hand to him. Finally, she says to her crafty opponent “I admire your luck, Mr…”, at which time the camera cuts to our hero and he introduces himself in his signature style for the first time, in what is now one of the most famous lines in cinematic history. Later, on Dr. No’s island, Bond (and the rest of the world) watches as seashell collector Honey Ryder (Andress) walks ashore from the water with her latest acquisitions. Today, we would see it as a fairly innocent shot, but in 1962, it caused a sensation. According to one source, the shooting script noted that Honey was supposed to be in the nude (Of course, that wasn’t about to happen, but it’s a nice sentiment).

I had seen several movies in the James Bond series over the years, but this is the first time I watched the one that started it all. While some of the other movies provide great action sequences, others seem to have resorted to becoming caricatures of themselves, but I will visit those movies as I go along. Here, Dr. No is a well-paced straightforward action film, and a game-changing one at that. Throughout the movie, several sound effects and editing techniques were employed to hold the viewer’s attention, and Sean Connery’s witty and sophisticated take on the world’s favorite superspy helped to create a lot of buzz among the movie-going public.

It is also a safe assumption to say that the “action movie one-liner” was born with this movie, and it is even easier to see how another action star, who had followed a path similar to Sean Connery’s (military service, bodybuilding, then movies) was heavily influenced by him. I am, of course, talking about Arnold Schwarzenegger. Looking at Connery in his prime reminded me of some of Arnold’s more dialogue-heavy roles. The mannerisms, the deliveries, even their overall appearances are surprisingly similar. But I will get into that when I dig into the Governator’s body of work.

Dr. No makes for a worthy start to the Bond film franchise. It sets the table for what would become Bond staples (exotic locales, beautiful women, chase scenes, and a good dose of action), but its weakness is that it is a little too lean, in terms of production value. With some scenes that don’t make sense (Bond grinning maniacally as he’s being chased on a mountain road?), it is easy to see that it took a little time for this movie to find its footing. Usually, the first movie in a franchise, like the first season of a TV series, is a little “rough around the edges”, and Dr. No is no exception.

Still, Dr. No gives us a stripped-down, enjoyable movie, one that lays the foundation for the rest of the series, and it gives us the essence of Connery’s Bond, one which draws comparison to all the actors who would take on the role in the coming years.

3-1/2 (out of 5)

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AVATAR (2009)

In A, Action, Adventure, Epic, Motion Pictures, Romance, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on July 16, 2010 at 3:01 pm

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STUDIO – 20th Century Fox

CASTSam Worthington, Sigourney WeaverZoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Joel David Moore, Wes Studi

DIRECTORJames Cameron

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Following the success of Titanic, James Cameron took some time off from making movies. Oh, he produced an IMAX documentary about the doomed ocean liner, but when it came to his next dramatic film, he had an idea which he claimed would be ground-breaking. It would take place on a mysterious forest planet called Pandora, made with as-yet invented technologies in CGI and motion capture. It promised to be more expensive than Titanic, take years to complete, and it would do it all in 3-D. Finally, in December 2009, Avatar bowed. It was everything Cameron said it would be, and it eventually shattered box office records.

Sam Worthington stars as Jake Sully, a paraplegic Marine veteran recruited to replace his late twin brother Tom, a scientist, on Pandora, a lush moon orbiting a gas giant light-years from Earth. On Pandora, a major corporation has set up a mining operation for a substance called unobtanium. But the indigenous population, a ten-foot tall humanoid species called the Na’vi, are intent on protecting their home, so a paramilitary defense presence, headed by Colonel Quatrich (Stepen Lang) is required. To provide a more diplomatic solution, exobiologist Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) has developed human-Na’vi hybrid bodies called “avatars”, which are “driven” via mnemonic transfer, in order to interact with the Na’vi more easily. Despite Augustine’s protests (she wanted a PhD and not a grunt), Jake becomes part of the team.

Jake Sully and Norm Spellman (Sam Worthington, Joel David Moore) on their first expedition in their avatar bodies

Now, just in case you are among the dozen or so people left on this planet who have yet to see this movie, I will stop here. Avatar is one of those movies that, no matter what you have heard about it, needs to be seen to believed. James Cameron spent over a decade developing this movie, and it shows. Visually, this is among most striking motion pictures ever released. It was filmed in 3-D from the word “Go”, but even in 2-D, it is a visual feast for the eyes. I had seen this movie in 3-D when it was released in December 2009, and I can tell you that there are few “3-D gimmicks” in the movie. This allows for fairly easy translation into the 2-D world upon which many of us still rely in our home entertainment systems. The CGI and motion-capture effects are so photorealistic, that it’s difficult to tell the difference between a physical set and a virtual one, even when you know which one you’re looking at.

True, James Cameron makes an eye-popping movie nearly every time out of the gate. His philosophy is that visual effects should enhance the story, not drive it. Here, however, the visual effects do both, but in such a way as to not be obvious. Does this mean it’s “the perfect movie”? No. There are flaws, some obvious, some subtle. For example, for a screenwriter, James Cameron is an excellent director. While the screenplay in this movie exceeds that of Titanic by leaps and bounds, it still has a few rough spots to stumble through in the telling of this story. For example, when Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) first encounters Sully’s avatar, her first instinct is to kill him (he is, after all, the enemy), but because of a “sign” from Eywa (the Na’vi deity), she takes him to her peoples’ village, instead. Overall, it was handled all right, but I feel this could’ve been written better.

Another weak point I noticed right away in this movie is its similarities with Dances With Wolves. Both feature a military man learning the culture of the indigenous people. Both have a romantic subplot between the military man and a prominent native woman (in the case of Dances With Wolves, she was a white woman adopted by the Sioux). Both have the military questioning the central character’s loyalties. And both feature Wes Studi (He was the “angry Pawnee” in Dances With Wolves, and in Avatar, he is the Na’vi leader and Neytiri’s father). These similarities were pointed out, by the way, prior to Avatar‘s release in this “South Park” episode (Caution: NSFW).

And what about the mining operation? I’m fairly certain more than a few people let out a snicker or two when they heard that the substance in question was called “unobtanium”. Well, as it turns out, as silly the name of this stuff is, this is not the first movie which uses the term (It was also used in 2003’s The Core). And it is based on the engineering term “unobtainium“, which was first coined in the 1950s. In Avatar, it’s a metallic grey substance that fetches “20 million a kilo”, and the largest deposit of it sits underneath the Na’vi village, known as Home Tree. Again, silly name, but it fits.

There has also been a recent “3-D backlash” of sorts because of this movie. Several movies this year which were released in 3-D, including Clash of the Titans, Alice in Wonderland, and The Last Airbender, suffered from critical and popular derision, because these were originally regular (2-D) movies which were converted to 3-D in post-production. Interestingly enough, the 2-D versions of these movies fared better. These are just a few of the many cases of Hollywood trying to capitalize on a trend based on one very successful movie, and charging a higher admission for people to see it. But if too many of these “bad 3-D” movies come out, people will refuse to see all 3-D movies, even ones intended to be in 3-D, like Avatar. Are you listening, Hollywood? By changing the movie to take advantage of a trend, you are changing the director’s vision. Remember when you converted Gone With the Wind to CinemaScope in the 1960s? Yeah, that went over really well, too…

Avatar is a visual and aural feast, to be digested over and over. Even though it comes thisclose to being “Dances With Wolves in space”, it is still a ground-breaking motion picture, and one of the best science-fiction films to come along in years.

4 (out of 5)

MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935)

In Action, Adventure, Best Picture Winners, Classic, Drama, Epic, History, M, Motion Pictures on June 21, 2010 at 1:51 am

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STUDIO – MGM

CASTCharles Laughton, Clark Gable, Franchot Tone, Herbert Mundin, Eddie Quillan, Bill Bambridge, Movita

DIRECTOR – Frank Lloyd

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG)

In April 1789, the HMS Bounty set sail from Tahiti to the West Indies to transport hundreds of breadfruit tree saplings, in order to provide a cheap and readily available food supply for slave laborers there. She never arrived. The next year, the Bounty‘s commanding officer, Lt. William Bligh, returned to England to report that he had been set adrift in a mutiny led by his sailing master, Fletcher Christian. This wasn’t the first mutiny in the British Royal Navy, nor was it the last, but it is the most infamous, inspiring poems, novels, songs, and of course, movies. With that, I wish to introduce to you the Best Picture of 1935, Mutiny On the Bounty.

Based on the novel of the same name by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, Mutiny On the Bounty is a fictionalized account of the events that took place on the ship’s fateful voyage from England to Tahiti. Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton) is tasked with procuring the breadfruit trees because of his familiarity with the people and customs of Tahiti (It should be noted that, regardless of rank, all ship commanders are called “captain”). His sailing master, Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable, sans his trademark mustache), was in charge of carrying out the captain’s orders, morale, and the occasional midshipman training. One of those midshipmen was Roger Byam (Franchot Tone), whose assignment was to prepare a dictionary of the Polynesian language. It is through his eyes this story unfolds.

Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) reacts to being called a "mutinous dog" by Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton)

Right away, Byam notices that Bligh is strict disciplinarian, even to the point of carrying out his portion of a punishment known as “flogging through the fleet” upon a dead prisoner. Once at sea, the Bounty tries for Tahiti by way of South America, but turns eastward through the Indian Ocean instead. Meanwhile, Bligh oppresses the crew further by inflicting punishment at whim, including one sailor getting keel-hauled (He dies). Meanwhile, Christian tries to provide a more lenient approach toward the crew, only to have Bligh bear down even more. Finally, their conflict becomes personal, when Bligh forces Christian to sign a falsified log book in front of the crew. Once at Tahiti, things seem to relax momentarily, until Bligh bears down even more harshly, and… well, you only need to look at the title to know what happened next.

Mutiny On the Bounty is an excellent example of Hollywood starting to come of age. From the moment the movie fades in, a sweeping dramatic score sets you up for a tale of truly epic proportions: You, the viewer, are about to bear witness to one of most notorious events in maritime history. From a technical standpoint, nearly everything stands out in this movie. The settings, the cinematography, even the sound quality all hold up very well. From a performance standpoint, Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, and Franchot Tone were quite memorable. In fact, all three were nominated for Best Actor (At the time, there were no Supporting categories. If they had existed, Franchot Tone would likely have received a nomination).

Oh, there are some inaccuracies, as happens with many historical dramas. For example, the actual mutiny was really relatively uneventful in comparison with the movie, keel-hauling was nearly non-existent in the 1780s, and Bligh did not attend any of the mutineers’ courts-martial (He was at sea). But the most telling inaccuracy is Gable’s voice. I say this in mild jest, as Gable seemed incapable of producing an English accent, while Tone fared somewhat better, and Shakespearean-trained Laughton was from Yorkshire, England. I seem to recall another more recent movie, in which an American actor played a legendary English character without an English accent. Fortunately, Gable’s performance was strong enough that we can forgive this transgression.

There are a couple of special features on the DVD. First is a brief clip from the Academy Awards ceremony in 1936, in which legendary producer Irving G. Thalberg accepted the Best Picture Oscar and gave his thanks to the cast and crew of the movie. And there is also a short about Pitcairn Island, the Bounty mutineers’ final destination, which shows how their descendants live in the film’s present day of 1935.

Nominated for eight Academy Awards, Mutiny On the Bounty is the last movie to win only the Best Picture Award. It is also the third (and last) Best Picture winner produced or co-produced by Thalberg (Grand Hotel and The Broadway Melody were the others). Though not the first movie to test the waters (pun not intended) of historical dramas, Mutiny On the Bounty stands out as a defining moment when the Hollywood Dream Factory finally figured out a way to hone their product and sell it to the masses. With performances nearly as strong as the film itself, it set a new standard in motion pictures (to be eclipsed a few years later by a little-known movie called Gone with the Wind). I recommend this movie as a good place to start for those interested in pre-1940s motion pictures.

4 (out of 5)

THE STING (1973)

In Action, Best Picture Winners, Classic, Comedy, Crime, Drama, Motion Pictures, S on April 27, 2010 at 11:16 am

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STUDIO — Universal

CAST — Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Robert Shaw, Charles Durning, Ray Walston, Eileen Brennan, Harold Gould, Robert Earl Jones, Dana Elcar, Dimitra Arliss

DIRECTOR — George Roy Hill

MPAA Rating: PG

Back in 1974, I went to the Universal Studios Tour (now known as Universal Studios Hollywood), and I took from that experience a few memories that have stuck with me ever since: lifting a van like the Six Million Dollar Man (Hey, I was 9!), the street scene backlot dressed up for shooting Earthquake (which really was the most powerful memory I have of that visit), and watching audience members reenact a chase scene from The Sting. At least, I think it was The Sting. Ah, memories…

Anyway, this 1973 Best Picture Winner marked the second and final collaboration of Robert Redford, Paul Newman, and director George Roy Hill (1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was the first). It is a movie with crime, gambling, corruption, murder, revenge, the Great Depression… and it delivers plenty of laughs in the process. When a pair of Chicago grifters, Johnny Hooker (Redford) and Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones, father of James Earl Jones) pull a fast one on a money runner for a gambling operation, they discover they have stolen about $11,000 in cash. That night, Coleman tells Hooker he’s hanging it up, moving to Kansas City, and going legit. He instructs Hooker to look up a legendary con artist named Henry Gondorff (Newman). Later, when Hooker gets roughed up by a cop named Snyder (Charles Durning), he realizes his friend is in danger. He races back to Luther’s place, only to find his dead body on the street below. The next day, he meets up with Gondorff at a local merry-go-round/brothel, and they hatch a plan to pull a con on the man who had Luther killed, Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw).

Henry Gondorff and Johnny Hooker (Paul Newman, Robert Redford) observe their "mark", Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw, background)

Now, this is a movie in which the bad guys are really good guys, the cops are very corrupt, and the “mark” is a tough brute of a man whose look could kill if it wanted to. The con is on, and it’s performed admirably in what is probably the best caper film ever made. The plot moves forward with very few bumps along the way. There are even a couple of twists which, while I won’t reveal them, will surprise those who haven’t seen this movie yet. George Roy Hill seemed to demonstrate a certain efficient energy that sustains throughout. Newman and Redford are great (It’s a shame they made only two movies together), and the entire supporting cast, from Harold Gould as the dapper Kid Twist, to Dana Elcar as FBI Special Agent Polk, are all an excellent fit. This is arguably one of the best-cast movies in motion picture history. But the coup de grâce is casting Robert Shaw as Doyle Lonnegan.

I can remember Shaw in only two movies, Jaws (1975) and this one. I know, he did a lot more, and I am sure I will find him in future films I see. In Jaws, he was, of course, the crusty shark hunter who had met his demise by becoming his prey’s lunch. I had a hard time watching him in that movie, simply because he seemed to drone almost unintelligibly. It was nonetheless a good performance, but not nearly as good as the steely-eyed Lonnegan in The Sting. Here, he was a man of few words, but when he did speak, it meant something. He was tough-as-nails, with the resolve of an attack dog just waiting for the command to kill. By the way, you may notice that Lonnegan walks with a limp in this movie; that is because Robert Shaw had sprained his ankle playing handball right around the time shooting started!

Now, a word about the the now-iconic music of this movie. Composer Marvin Hamlisch decided to  incorporate several Scott Joplin rags into the musical score. While it is admittedly anachronistic with the period of the movie (by about 30 years), it turns out to be one of the few examples of musical genius in motion picture history. Joplin’s music sets the rhythm and tone of the plot so well, that “The Entertainer” is now forever engrained into the motion picture lexicon as the theme song to The Sting. Even as I write this article, I have that song playing in the background, and it just… feels right.

Thoroughly entertaining from start to finish, I could even go so far as to say that The Sting makes for a good family film, if the kids are over 10 years old. Yes, there are hookers, gambling, guns, and a couple of dead bodies, but they are balanced with (mostly) clean language, marvelous attention to detail, and a great sense of comedy. This is a solid movie from start to finish, and it will not disappoint.

4 out of 5

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930)

In A, Action, Best Picture Winners, Classic, Motion Pictures, War on April 14, 2010 at 12:33 pm

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STUDIO — Universal       

CAST — Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres, John Wray, Arnold Lucy, Ben Alexander, Slim Summerville    

DIRECTOR —  Lewis Milestone     

NOT RATED
(MPAA Equivalent: PG-13) 

Once in a while, a motion picture comes along that is ahead of its time and so artistically and socially relevant, that it stands the test of time, even 80 years after it release. All Quiet on the Western Front is such a movie.

Winner of Best Picture and Best Director (Lewis Milestone) of 1930, All Quiet on the Western Front follows a young student in Germany named Paul Bäumer (Lew Ayres), and the events which take place as he and his friends enlist to fight in The Great War (known today as World War I). The movie begins with a professor (Arnold Lucy) stirring up the collective patriotic spirit of his students, while an enthusiastic parade of soldiers marches off to war outside. Swept up in the pomp and circumstance, Bäumer and his friends enthusiastically enlist to fight for the Fatherland.

Paul Bäumer (Lew Ayres) prepares for battle

Right away, the young men realize that being a soldier is anything but glamorous, when their drill instructor turns out to be Himmelstoß (John Wray — no relation to King Kong’s Fay Wray), the friendly mail carrier from back home, except now he’s a hard-nosed sergeant hell-bent on making his charges forget everything they thought they had known about him. Once training is completed, our heroes deploy to the front lines, where they are introduced to the grizzled veterans Stanislas “Kat” Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim) and Sergeant Tjaden (Slim Summerville). They show the rookies the ropes, and prepare them for the war they have come to fight.

As this movie was made before the Hays Code went into effect, it is violent, gritty, graphic, claustrophobic, and quite realistic for its time. In one particularly graphic shot, a shell explodes in front of a soldier at a barbed-wire fence; when the dust settles, all we see are that soldier’s dismembered hands hanging on the wire. We are introduced to the maddening effects of war when rats overrun a makeshift bunker that caves in from the shelling. Watching these footsoldiers lose their cool bit by bit from the constant shelling, the dirt, the lack of food and sleep, and the rats was very effective.

Over the next few years, we see Bäumer change from an idealistic young man to a hardened veteran in his own right. When he comes home on leave, everyone expects him to be the way he used to be, but they don’t understand him anymore, not even his own family. And as for the professor who made that stirring speech so long ago, Bäumer confronts him, too. He becomes a changed man, and in the end, all he wants is peace.

All Quiet on the Western Front is a truly unforgettable movie with an undeniably long reach. A disclaimer at the start of the movie claims that it isn’t statement for or against war, but merely an observation of what it’s really like. And with that unflinching eye, Lewis Milestone drew out battle scenes so realistic, they can be easily confused with actual World War I stock footage. The DVD features a re-release trailer, as well as an introduction from film historian and Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne. In it, he sets up the movie by giving details of the making and the impact of this movie. For example, because of the impact of this film, Lew Ayres became a conscientious objector when the US joined World War II in 1941. While many people branded him a coward, he still enlisted — and served with distinction — as an army medic.

All Quiet on the Western Front is a timeless classic, and the first truly great Best Picture winner. While it shows its age in spots, it holds up magnificently by showing us the dark, grisly, horrible world of combat with frightening realism and mesmerizing performances. 

GOODFELLAS (1990)

In Action, Biography, Crime, Drama, G, Motion Pictures on April 9, 2010 at 1:49 pm

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STUDIO — Warner Bros.   

CAST — Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco  

DIRECTOR —  Martin Scorsese  

MPAA Rating: R   

There is so much I can say about this movie, except that it has most likely already been said before. Goodfellas is, of course, on my short list of favorite motion pictures and, as I did with Patton, I will recount my experience by checking out the two-disk Special Edition of this movie.  

When I received Disk One, I literally watched this movie three times. First, I had to watch the movie itself, which is something of which I will never tire. The kinetic energy throughout this masterpiece grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go until long after you’ve seen it (but more on that in a minute). Sure, there are some anachronistic gaffs here and there (A teenaged Henry Hill selling Black Market cigarettes with UPC barcodes on the cartons — in 1959!), but every performance, every characterization, gave me a sense of what life must have been like in the Mafia during its heyday. The whole first half of the movie shows the glamour, the connections, the camaraderie, and the partying, while the second half follows a steady descent into Hell, with drug addiction, greed, murder, and paranoia.  

Goodfellas recounts the story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), a half-Italian/half-Irish gangster associated with the infamous Lucchese crime family, and how he met up and partnered with two other mobsters, portrayed here as Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Academy Award winner Joe Pesci). As you may have guessed by my last statement, some of the names were changed for the purposes of making this movie. Does this diminish the quality of this movie? Not in the least. Anyway, all three performances were mesmerizing, especially Pesci’s. His performance as Tommy was cemented in the now-infamous “You’re a funny guy” scene, and it sustained all way through.  

Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) and Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) enjoy a night on the town

 Also of note (especially for you fans of  “The Sopranos”) is Lorraine Bracco as Henry’s wife, Karen, and a brief appearance by Michael Imperioli in one of his first film roles, as Spider. Another face to watch for is Samual L. Jackson in one of his quieter roles, as Stacks Edwards. Look for a few famous faces as well, including Jerry Vale, Robbie Vinton (as his father, Bobby), and comedian Henny Youngman, in one of his final film appearances.  

Okay, by now, I’m sure you’re asking “Why the subsequent screenings?” Well, there are two commentary tracks, “Crook and Cop” and “Cast and Crew”. In the “Crook and Cop” commentary, Henry Hill and U.S. District Attorney Ed McDonald (who placed Henry and his family into the Witness Protection Program — and plays himself in the movie) give their insight to the events portrayed in the film from both of their unique perspectives. Hill would fill in some gaps in the story or explain why or how something happened, while McDonald talked about how difficult it really was to pin convictions on some of these wiseguys, problems with surveillance, and how the FBI employed what became known as the “Al Capone strategy” for getting a conviction: If you can’t get them for murder, get them for something else.  

The “Cast and Crew” commentary doesn’t cover the entire length of the movie; whole sections of the movie are skipped during the “silent” parts. But, Scorsese, producer Irwin Winkler, co-writer Nicholas Pileggi, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, and cast members Liotta, Pesci, De Niro, Bracco, and Paul Sorvino, among others, all talk about their own perspectives on the making of this movie. Did you know that Ray Liotta and Henry Hill met up for a drink after the film’s release, and each was star-struck to meet the other face-to-face? Did you know that, as written, Goodfellas has no climax? And remember when I said this movie doesn’t let go? Well, did you know that Paul Sorvino, who had struggled for months to find his character, initially hated the completed film? It took a few hours afterward before he realized how great it really was.  

The second disk has a few documentaries, including a short with Henry Hill, called “The Workaday Gangster”. In it, he tells us, the audience, that the essence of what we see in Goodfellas is “99% accurate” from his perspective. Another features several directors influenced by Scorsese and/or Goodfellas, including Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption), Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), and others. As a special treat, there’s even a four-minute snippet called “Paper Is Cheaper Than Film”, which literally illustrates how Martin Scorsese visualized some of the shots by writing notes and thumbnail sketches on the shooting script. 

Many people have argued for years which of Scorsese’s movies is his best. Some say it’s Raging Bull. Others would say Taxi Driver. Another camp might even cry out, “Well, The Departed won Best Picture”. Then there’s the Casino crowd. Exciting, visceral, unflinching, and unrelenting, Goodfellas is not only a classic gangster movie, it is a film for the ages. And to me, this is the epitome of Martin Scorsese’s filmmaking career. 

PATTON (1970)

In Action, Best Picture Winners, Biography, Classic, Drama, History, Motion Pictures, P, War on March 22, 2010 at 1:47 pm

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STUDIO — 20th Century Fox 

CAST — George C. Scott, Karl Malden, Michael Strong, Karl Michael Volger, Richard Münch, Siegfried Rauch, Michael Bates, Edward Binns, Paul Stevens, James Edwards 

DIRECTOR —  Franklin J. Schaffner 

MPAA Rating: PG 

I received a request from a friend of mine shortly after I set up this blog. It read “I would like you to freshly watch what you consider your favorite film and give me a review of it.” Well, since Patton is my favorite movie, and since I already have a copy in my personal collection, I elected to rent the two-disc Special Edition and give it a fresh look. 

The two-disc DVD includes a five-minute introduction by co-writer Francis Ford Coppola (yes, that Francis Ford Coppola), as well as a commentary track by him in the movie itself. Having just viewed the movie again, I came away from it with an observation that I hadn’t noticed before, which is that General Patton (at least, as portrayed in this movie) and I seem to share a dubious trait: Neither of us seems to know when to shut up! To me, a hallmark of a great motion picture is one you can watch again and again, and still notice things you had not seen before. And to me, Patton is such a movie. 

Gen. George Patton (George C. Scott) and Gen. Omar Bradley (Karl Malden) discuss Operation: Cobra

This movie opens with one of the greatest monologues ever put to film, as General George S. Patton, Jr. (Academy Award winner George C. Scott) addresses the audience as though they were his troops, in front of a giant American flag. This sets the stage for a motion picture which paints Patton as leader and renegade, romantic and tactician, contemporary and anachronism, pious and profane. To me, this is far and away the best performance I have yet to see out of any actor in any movie. George C. Scott nailed this one, and whomever it was who had recommended him for the part deserves recognition. In my opinion, of course… 

Why Patton? Even when I first saw this movie at the age of 11, I was immediately attracted to the complexity of the character, and of the man himself. Here was a man who, in one of the movie’s most (in)famous scenes, nearly weeps as he silently pins a Purple Heart on the pillow of a severely wounded soldier one minute, then angrily smacks around another with “battle fatigue” the next. The dichotomy of General Patton is reflected throughout the movie, but it is strongest here. Very quickly, Patton became one of my favorite subjects in my spare time, and, by extension, I soon began to absorb as much as I could about World War II as well. 

The cinematography may appear a little dated by today’s standards, but it symbolizes Patton’s solitude, first as a commander, then as an outcast. Earlier, I had alluded to the fact that both Patton and I had a history of our respective mouths being our own worst enemy. I won’t divulge any details here, but I can assure you that when you say the wrong thing, either by accident or by omission, it will backfire on you. In this movie, Patton’s encounters with the press appeared to cause him more trouble and more controversy than all the casualty lists generated under his command. But that apparently did not phase the Germans (at least in the movie), who believed him to be a brilliant commander; they followed Patton’s every move, even while he was little more than a glorified tour guide in the Mediterranean (a decision by Gen. Eisenhower which did prove a successful diversionary tactic in the months prior to the invasion of Normandy, in June 1944). 

As for the supporting cast, Karl Malden is convincing as Omar Bradley, Patton’s friend and colleague who had advanced to become his superior. Michael Bates is a dead ringer for British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, widely regarded as Great Britain’s greatest commander during the war, and portrayed here as Patton’s rival. And though I’m sure this was unintentional, I became a little leery of Patton’s aide and bona fide spin doctor, Lt. Col. Charles Codman (Paul Stevens), who seemed to know exactly what to say and how to say it to his fearless leader. Still, the story is solid, the battle sequences are memorable (and well-done for 1970), and nearly all the performances are spot-on. 

Oh, there are better movies out there, but Patton remains at the top of my list of the most influential movies of my life, and (to me) the standard by which biopics should be measured. I should note that Mr. Coppola drew from several different source materials in order to provide the most authentic and balanced portrayal of both Patton the general and Patton the man. And the score by composer Jerry Goldsmith, with its haunting trumpets that echo into the distance, puts the icing on the cake for this nearly perfect movie. 

THE HURT LOCKER (2009)

In Action, Best Picture Winners, H, Independent, Motion Pictures, War on February 17, 2010 at 1:36 am

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STUDIO – Summit Entertainment 

CAST – Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes 

DIRECTOR – Katheryn Bigelow 

MPAA RATING – R 

Welcome to Iraq, the most violent and chaotic place on earth. Director and co-writer Kathryn Bigelow takes us inside the lines and shows us what war looks like today in the guerilla environment of the Middle East. In The Hurt Locker, a team from an Explosives Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit is on their final days in-country before heading back to the States. When the team leader dies in the line of duty, his replacement, SSG William James (Jeremy Renner) reports to the company to take his place. At first, SGT J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and SPC Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) think James is a loose cannon, but with hundreds of successful missions under his belt, he must be doing something right. 

SGT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie, left) and SPC Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) help SSG James (Jeremy Renner) suit up

Ever since Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, war has been largely portrayed as ugly, gritty, dirty business. The Hurt Locker takes this ball and runs with it by visually telling us that war is literally a ticking time bomb, ready to explode at any moment, and no one is ever safe. In fact, Kathryn Bigelow borrows from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho playbook more than once, in that at least two prominent actors in this movie are killed off, and one of the three stars gets wounded (I won’t say who or when, of course). 

This movie is one of those that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. Working in EOD is very intense, very stressful, and very dangerous, and to do it, you gotta have a little crazy in you. In one scene, SSG James finds so much explosives packed into the back of a car, he walks back to his team, takes off his explosives suit, and says “If I’m going to die, I’m going to die comfortable”. And I am willing to bet that nearly every EOD and police bomb squad technician agrees with that mentality (though they know they shouldn’t). 

Shot on location in Jordan, The Hurt Locker has built-in authenticity, in terms of locale and environment. In the DVD’s behind-the-scenes documentary, Jeremy Renner says that the sweat on the screen is real sweat. And in a hostile place where nights are no cooler than 90°F (32°C), there is no need for fake sweat! 

One more thing worth mentioning: Anthony Mackie’s performance as SGT Sanborn was also very exceptional. On many levels, I found myself relating to Sanborn, from how “by the book” he is, to how he somehow remains level-headed throughout most of the movie, to his desire to just get the job done. I hope I get to see more of Mr. Mackie in the future. 

Now to Kathryn Bigelow. Historically, war has been the pervue of men, and movies about war have been primarily written, directed, and produced by men. And most of the time, it was men who starred in nearly every movie about war since the beginnings of the motion picture industry. This makes The Hurt Locker a game-changer. Kathryn Bigelow did a superb job helming this movie, thus receiving a well-earned Oscar™ nomination (among the nine nominations for this movie overall, including Best Actor for Jeremy Renner) for 2009. 

Gripping, insightful, painful, reckless, and chaotic. This is an excellent movie, one that demonstrates the madness of combat in Iraq in the early years of the 21st Century. 

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

DISTRICT 9 (2009)

In Action, D, Motion Pictures, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on February 7, 2010 at 9:14 am

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STUDIO — TriStar

CAST — Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Nathalie Boltt, Sylvaine Strike

DIRECTOR —  Neill Blomkamp

MPAA Rating: R

In 2009, the science-fiction/fantasy genre made a generally strong impression upon moviegoers. Among the top-grossing films of the year were Star Trek, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Terminator: Salvation, and of course, a small little-known movie called Avatar. Maybe you’ve heard of it.

But not all sci-fi is big-budget tentpole films. Meet District 9, one of two movies in the sci-fi/fantasy genre to receive an Oscar™ nomination for Best Picture of 2009 (Avatar is the other). This movie, the cinematic directorial debut of Neill Blomkamp, made with a modest budget, and featuring a cast of unknowns, is one of the boldest and most eye-popping movies of 2009. It is also one of the most polarizing. This is one of those films that received both critical praise and derision, and sometimes both at the same time. On a personal note, I can say that more than a few of the people with whom I have spoken did not like this movie, and my brother hated the first half when I popped this movie into my DVD player (But he did love the second half). But this isn’t my brother’s review, nor my friends’, nor a recap of what the professional critics said.

HMU Manager Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) serves eviction notices in District 9.

District 9 is the story of an alien race who had been stranded in Johannesburg, South Africa, for over 20 years. Since their arrival, a series of incidents with the aliens (known derisively as “prawns”)  created tensions among the locals, leading to the formation of a designated colony in town known as District 9. Eventually, District 9 turned into little more than a shantytown under the jurisdiction of corporate giant Multi-National United (MNU). Finally, the locals demanded the aliens be dealt with once and for all, so MNU moved in to relocate them to a new settlement 200 kilometers away. Even though they are being served eviction notices, the move is mandatory. And the man placed in charge of the evictions is Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley).

Now that you know the premise, I won’t go any further into the story for the sake of spoilers, except to say that Wikus (pronounced “VEE-kus”) has an eye-opening experience which leads to his discovery that his employer is not as benevolent as he thought they were. The first half of District 9 was a chaotic mix of shooting styles to give a documentary feel, including news, corporate, file and security footage. This mix of mostly hand-held footage sets up the story in a rapid, if not unique, way. As the movie progresses, the camerawork evolves into a more cinematic feel, with some of the documentary footage mixed in to provide tension in key scenes. For example, now a wanted man, Wikus walks into a restaurant and tries to order food. A security camera shows him entering, then the cinematic storytelling takes over when the news splashes his face on the TV. It may be a gimic, but for the most part, it works with great effect.

This movie took advantage of parallels of South Africa’s own history (The title itself is a nearly direct reference to an area in Johannesburg once known as District 6 during the Apartheid era, and the alien settlement was once a real slum near Soweto). In the opinion of this writer, science-fiction is at its best when it makes social and political commentary based on either historical or current events (hence the appeal of the Star Trek franchise all these years), and the story of District 9 is both frightening and real in its examination of the human race, which fears the “prawns”. And we all know that people fear what they do not understand.

The choice to shoot this movie on location in South Africa, using a South African cast and a native South African director was both bold and visionary (I may be a little prejudiced – for lack of a better word – as my grandfather was born in Pretoria). District 9 is not for everyone, but it is gripping from start to finish.

4 out of 5