REVIEWS OF RENTED DVDs I GET IN THE MAIL

Posts Tagged ‘Crime’

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)

THE LOVELY BONES (2009)

In Crime, Drama, L, Mystery on May 27, 2010 at 8:13 pm

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STUDIO – Paramount/Dreamworks SKG 

CAST – Mark Wahlberg, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci, Michael Imperioli, Rachel Weisz, Saiorse Ronan, Rose McIver, Carolyn Dando 

DIRECTOR – Peter Jackson 

MPAA Rating: PG-13 

Peter Jackson seems to be a popular guy on my blog lately! 

I don’t mean this intentionally, yet in four short months, this is the fourth movie for which I have done a write-up with his name on it. Of the first three, he directed two of them (Heavenly Creatures, Dead-Alive), and the third (District 9) he produced. This time around, we take another imaginative step into the past to uncover a murder mystery in The Lovely Bones

Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) is a 14-year-old girl in Norristown, Pennsylvania. She’s the oldest of three children, she wants to be a photographer, and she has a crush on a boy who’d just arrived from England. In other words, she is a normal adolescent in a quiet suburban community. But one day, on her way home time from school, she encounters George Harvey (Best Supporting Actor nominee Stanley Tucci), a doll house builder who lives down the street from the Salmons. She is neither seen nor heard from again.

A self-portrait of Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan)

Peter Jackson’s eye for camera angles and visual effects makes for a visually striking movie, but I could not help noticing some similarities with his past work. What stood out for me was the metaphoric shifts between the real world, where Susie’s parents (Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz) contend with the loss of their daughter, and the “purgatory” in which Susie resides were strongly reminiscent of Heavenly Creatures. Also, some of the “blink-and-you-miss-it” shots of Susie’s realm look strangely like locations from the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (I guess it stands to reason, since Jackson filmed these scenes in his native New Zealand). Now, I’m not disparaging New Zealand at all. From what I understand, it is a lush, green country with some of the world’s most beautiful scenery. My concern is that the Kawarau Gorge may become to Peter Jackson movies what Vasquez Rocks is to Star Trek

There are some good performances in this movie, and some not-so-good. Tucci was particularly creepy as the killer, and Miss Ronan did well, too. But, as much as I like Wahlberg and Weisz, I could not get past the notion that they simply turned on their respective “grieving parent” switches for this one. And Susan Sarandon, another otherwise talented actress, was quite forgettable as the “helpful grandmother”, who just happens to have a whiskey glass and a cigarette in her hands every chance she gets. I’m sorry, but even her portrayal of Janet in Rocky Horror was better than this! To me, the best (and most understated) performance in this movie goes to newcomer Carolyn Dando, as the mysterious Ruth Connors, who seems to have the unique ability to “touch” Susie’s lost soul. It’s a fairly small role, but a meaty one, and Dando handled it well. Keep an eye on her; I think she may be going places. 

As for the script (co-written by Jackson and his wife/writing partner Fran Walsh), it seemed somewhat incomplete to me. It’s almost as if to say there is more to the story, and as an adaptation from a novel, this is usually the case. But still, I feel as if the clairvoyance angle of the story could have been better explained (at least, from the family’s point of view). Jackson’s employment of various symbolisms (nearly all of which are explained throughout the course of the movie) works for the most part, except for the icicles. I had a hard time wrapping my brain around that one; as a result, the ending left a somewhat bad taste in my mouth. 

The Lovely Bones is visually beautiful to watch, but it is far from a classic. To me, it plays out like a fictionalized version of Heavenly Creatures, only replace “repressed daughter” with “creepy single guy” and “mother” with “innocent teenager”, and place the murder at the beginning of the movie rather than at the end. I know Pater Jackson is a better filmmaker than this. I just hope his next project offers some redemption before he turns into New Zealand’s version of M. Night Shyamalan. 

GRAND HOTEL (1932)

In Best Picture Winners, Classic, Drama, G, Motion Pictures, Romance on May 25, 2010 at 5:08 am

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STUDIO — MGM

CAST — Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace, Beery, Lewis Stone, Jean Hersholt

DIRECTOR — Edmund Goulding

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG-13)

“Grand Hotel. Always the same. People come. People go. Nothing ever happens…”

This now immortalized line, spoken by Dr. Otternschlag (Lewis Stone), heralds the beginning of the Best Picture of 1932, Grand Hotel, a motion picture which holds a unique record in Academy Awards history, and also has a unique history of its own. It is the only movie to win Best Picture without so much as a nomination in any other categories. It is also one of the earliest examples of what is now known as the “ensemble cast”, which included Greta Garbo, Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford, Jean Hersholt (as in the Academy’s humanitarian award), and not one, but two Barrymores (Lionel and John, in their second of four films together).

Grand Hotel spans three nights at the eponymous hotel in Berlin, where the lives of prima ballerina Grusinskaya (Garbo), Baron von Gaigern (John Barrymore), stenographer Flaemmchen (Crawford), businessman Preysing (Beery), terminally ill bookkeeper Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore), war veteran Dr. Otternschlag (Stone), and porter – and expectant father – Senf (Hersholt) overlap, and in some cases collide. Grusinskaya is depressed, and her performances of late have reflected her mood. She is in such a funk, that she no longer wants to perform (It should be noted that this is the movie in which Garbo speaks her most famous line, “I want to be alone”). The Baron is a smooth operator, an easygoing gentleman who also happens to be a thief with a heart of gold, as well as a chaser of anything in a skirt. Flaemmchen is a stenographer and sometimes model called to the Grand Hotel to take dictation for Preysing, a business magnate with a solid reputation. Kringelein used to work for Preysing as a bookkeeper until he fell ill, so he decided to spend his final days in the lap of luxury, regardless the cost. The good doctor is a local who frequents the hotel and observes the goings-on. Finally, poor Senf the Porter, forced to work while his wife is in (very protracted) labor, cannot break free from his duties out of fear he’ll lose his job.

Baron von Gaigern, Otto Kringelein, and Dr. Otternschlag (John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone) at the baccarat table

Now that you know how everything starts, let me just say that Grand Hotel is an absolute delight to watch. I will caution that there are parts of this movie which belie its age, but in the grand scheme of things, it still shines as one of the best motion picture of the early years of the Academy Awards. Joan Crawford had already been a veteran in motion pictures by the time of Grand Hotel, but her role as the stenographer is among the first of her many meaty roles during her acting career.

Meanwhile, there was much ballyhoo about the pairing of John Barrymore and Greta Garbo, so much that the normally (and notoriously) reclusive Garbo actually allowed backstage publicity photos of her with him. This unique union of The Face and The Great Profile proves to be one of the many captivating storylines in this movie. Finally, John Barrymore’s brother, Lionel, has a memorable scene when Kringelein confronts his boss, Preysing (Beery), at the hotel’s lounge and tells him how much of a slave driver he really is.

For a place where “nothing ever happens”, a lot seems to be going on at the Grand Hotel. It is a story of star-crossed lovers, of unscrupulous businessmen, of happiness and tears, and (most important) a story that follows the Latin expression “Carpe diem” (Seize the day). It is a story of love discovered and of fortunes lost, and at the end of the movie, another busload of weary travelers step off the bus for their stay at the most famous hotel in Berlin.

The special features on the DVD include footage of the premiere of Grand Hotel at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, trailers for the movie (including a “Time is running out” trailer made for the Chinese Theatre), and a short from Warner Bros. called “Nothing Ever Happens”, a spoof of the movie. There is also a trailer for a remake released by MGM in 1945 called Week-end at the Waldorf, starring Van Johnson, Lana Turner, Walter Pidgeon, and Ginger Rogers (As of this writing, it is not available from Netflix; I will review it if and when it is released).

If there is a drawback to Grand Hotel, it’s that the character names are among the most difficult to remember, let alone pronounce. And, as I said earlier, there are a few areas which show the film’s age, but it isn’t such a bad thing because I feel it enhances the movie’s charm. In 1932, the term “ensemble cast” was a practically unknown term, but Grand Hotel showed the world that seven of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the day can indeed work together and create a masterpiece. And that masterpiece is set at the Grand Hotel, where people come, people go, and nothing ever happens…

4 (out of 5)

HEAVENLY CREATURES (1994)

In Biography, Crime, Drama, H, Motion Pictures on April 12, 2010 at 12:54 pm

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STUDIO — Miramax 

CAST — Melanie Lynskey, Kate Winslet, Sarah Pierse, Diana Kent, Clive Merrison, Simon O’Connor 

DIRECTOR — Peter Jackson 

MPAA Rating: R 

A reader from New Zealand dropped a request in my lap: Review some of Peter Jackson’s early work. So, I threw a couple of darts at the wall, and one of them landed on Heavenly Creatures, Jackson’s take on the friendship between Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme (Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet, both in their big-screen debuts), from the time they met at school in 1952, until their murder of Pauline’s mother, Honora, in June 1954. 

The movie starts as a sort of travelogue of Christchurch, New Zealand, an idyllic city which boasts friendly people, beautiful surroundings, and lots of bicycles. Suddenly, we lurch to a moment of terror: Two young ladies running through the woods, screaming in panic and covered in blood. From that moment, we are taken back in time to when these two girls first met at an all-girls preparatory school two years earlier. Right away, the dynamic between these two becomes very apparent. Pauline is very imaginative, but shy and withdrawn, while Juliet is adventurous, outgoing and worldly. But they form a bond right away because both girls had debilitating illnesses when they were young (Pauline had osteomyelitis, and Juliet had tuberculosis), and they became fast friends. 

Juliet and Pauline (Kate Winslet, Melanie Lynskey) on Easter Sunday, 1953

Prior to making this movie, Peter Jackson was best known for making low-budget horror movies. But when his wife suggested that he try his hand at a movie based on one of most infamous crimes in New Zealand history, little did she know that it would lead him to bigger and better things. But the two of them sat down and wrote the script, using writings from Pauline’s diary as a guide (The title even comes from a passage in the diary). Heavenly Creatures doesn’t focus on the murder and the trial, which were sensational in their own right, but rather it paints a portrait of the two girls’ friendship, the intensity of which brought concerns from both families that they were becoming a homosexual couple (considered a mental disorder at the time). Whether Pauline and Juliet were lovers remains under debate, that aspect of their relationship is explored in a surprisingly innocent way in this movie. 

There is a lot to talk about in Heavenly Creatures. Jackson’s skill as a director becomes apparent in this movie. He weaves a tale in both the real and imaginary worlds, and in such a way as to illustrate how Pauline and Juliet’s friendship grew stronger with each passing day. We, the viewers, are swept into this imaginary “Fourth World”, where James Mason and Mario Lanza are saints, and the girls are king and queen of the fantasy land of Borovnia. Soon, it becomes difficult to see where the real world ends and the imaginary one begins, especially when Pauline and Juliet begin to believe their parents (Pauline’s mother and Juliet’s father, specifically) are conspiring to separate them. 

For the then-newcomers Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet, this was a great debut for both of them. Lynskey’s shy and secluded Pauline was both painful and captivating, and Winslet proved she had star power from the second Juliet entered the classroom for the first time. Both of them were perfectly cast for this movie, and both of them have become well-known actresses as a result. They both displayed the youthful exhuberance necessary for girls of that age, as well as their characters’ obsession for each other, and their chemistry together was nearly perfect. 

Heavenly Creatures was shot on location in Christchurch. In fact, Peter Jackson went to great lengths to use as many actual sites of the events portrayed, including the now-demolished tea room where Honora ate her last meal. This lends a degree of authenticity to the movie and holds the viewer’s attention throughout. By the third act, Pauline and Juliet’s friendship had become so close, they began to take on each other’s behaviors, but to devastating effect. Pauline grew so confident so quickly, she overcompensated by lashing out at her mother. And when Juliet’s parents announced they were breaking up, she started suffering from separation anxiety. And this is merely the beginning of what became the two girls’ final act. 

Heavenly Creatures is a look at one of the world’s most shocking crimes of the 20th Century, one I would consider as notorious in New Zealand as Starkweather is in Nebraska, and Manson in California. I do not make this statement lightly, nor does Peter Jackson try to make light of it. Instead, we see two friends willing to do anything for each other, only in this case it went too far. 

3-1/2 out of 5

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. 

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

THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

In Action, D, Motion Pictures, Movies, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on January 23, 2010 at 1:31 am

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The Dark Knight (2008)

STUDIO — Warner Bros./DC Comics

CAST — Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman

DIRECTOR —  Christopher Nolan

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Where do I begin? As most people would say, “From the beginning, of course!” So, that is where I will start.

Our movie opens with a bank heist like no other: A carefully laid-out plan by a team of crooks in clown masks quickly turns ugly as, one by one, they systematically kill each other until one remains. And we all know who he is, don’t we?

At the end of Batman Begins, we are literally handed a hint of what is to come. There’s a new criminal on the streets of Gotham, and no one knows anything about him, except that he leaves a calling card: a joker from a deck of cards. So, we all knew The Joker would be in this movie. What we got was the creepiest, most psychotic, most manic Joker who ever put on a purple suit.

In the 1960s “Batman” movie and TV show, Cesar Romero played the Clown Prince of Crime with absolute glee; each time he appeared on the show, it was easy to see just how much fun he had in the part. In 1989, Jack Nicholson’s performance in Tim Burton’s Batman was so gloriously over-the-top, that it became a new standard in superhero movie villian performances.

Until now.

The Joker (Heath Ledger) crashes a fund-raiser

Enter Heath Ledger. His take on The Joker was so eerie, so chaotic, so fun to watch, that finding the actor behind the character was difficult, at best. When he (posthumously) won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor of 2008, I thought it was a sympathy vote more than anything else. After seeing this movie, I can say that my initial judgment was… premature.

(Is this a good time to say that I had made a promise to myself not to spend the entire review talking about Heath Ledger? Okay, then! On with the show!)

This movie needed to be at least as good as its predecessor in order to sustain the franchise, and The Dark Knight delivers. Oh, and I should note Aaron Eckart’s take on District Attorney Harvey Dent (aka Two-Face) was nearly equally as strong as that of Heath Ledger’s Joker. And, like Batman Begins, The Dark Knight was well-paced, beautifally shot, and held me from start to finish.

It is sad that Mr. Ledger passed away; he left big shoes to fill should the Powers That Be revisit The Joker in a future movie. But this “Batman” franchise still has teeth in it, and The Dark Knight has a large bite.

4 out of 5

BATMAN BEGINS (2005)

In Action, B, Motion Pictures, Movies, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on January 22, 2010 at 1:34 am

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 Batman Begins (2005) STUDIO — Warner Bros./DC Comics    

CAST — Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Katie Holmes    

DIRECTOR — Christopher Nolan    

MPAA Rating: PG-13    

For my first review, I thought I would start things off with a bang (and a POW!, a BIFF!, and an OOF!). Okay, all kidding aside, and with apologies to Adam West, let us begin our quest for the genesis of Batman, as seen through the vision of director christopher Nolan.    

This story centers around the beginnings of the crime-fighter known as the Batman, and how it nearly began with an act of revenge; a still-young Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) wanted to kill the man who shot his parents. When that didn’t work, he traveled abroad, ultimately winding up in prison for attempted theft in Asia. What follows is the now-famous training sequence, in which a man named Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) introduces Bruce to the League of Shadows. Now with his training complete, Bruce returns to Gotham to find it worse than it was when he left. In fact, it seems the only five people in town who aren’t corrupt are Bruce, his butler Alfred (Michael Caine), his one-time girlfriend (and assistant DA) Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), Wayne Enterprises employee Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), and a police lieutenant named Gordon (Gary Oldman).     

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) embraces his fear

I found this movie entertaining, with a flow to the plot that didn’t stop dead in its tracks, even though I found the Scarecrow subplot to be somewhat contrived.  Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne is a brooding badass billionaire, with a near-perfect characterization that (thankfully) doesn’t fall into the caricature of George Clooney. Michael Caine makes an excellent Alfred, who not only is Bruce Wayne’s caretaker, assistant, and confidant, but here we also see him as his center and surrogate parent. The chemistry between Christian Bale and Katie Holmes worked well. Also, Morgan Freeman is a welcome addition to nearly any movie. I think I will stop right here to say that both Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine are among my favorite actors of all time, so having both of them in this reboot of the Batman franchise was a stroke of genius. Finally, the custom-built Batmobile was the perfect cherry on top of this ice cream sundae of a movie. 

Overall, Batman Begins is well-paced, wonderfully shot, and a visual feast on the eyes. Though 1978’s Superman is still the standard of the modern superhero movie, this movie meets the challenge head-on without wavering. 

3-1/2 out of 5