27 April 2010

More Family Friendly Science Fiction and Fantasy

More Family Friendly Science Fiction and Fantasy.
By Kristin Battestella

Who wants to go out and enjoy the nice Spring weather when there’s great, fanciful film fanfare to be had indoors? Save these science fiction and fantasy tales both old and new for a rainy family friendly day together. After all, it’s cheaper than Chucky Cheese. 

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon [Blu-ray] Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – Okay, maybe this 2000 stylized kung fu drama directed by Ang Lee isn’t really fantasy per se, but it has the best fantastical flying kung fu I’ve ever seen. Yes, it can be a little slow, serious, and long winded- some youth will certainly have a tough time with the essential subtitles, too. However, there are lovely performances, fine story, exceptional scenery, and sweet choreography to awe teens. This one proves not all kung fu movies were low budget seventies clunkers where the voices don’t match the mouth movements-and its dynamite on blu-ray.

Edward Scissorhands (Widescreen Anniversary Edition)Edward Scissorhands – This 1990 tale of a lonely, incomplete man with scissors for hands is a little more mature and dark then some of my other suggestions. However, this early, spooky, and yet heartwarming collaboration from director Tim Burton and star Johnny Depp has all the whimsy and freakiness needed without getting too comical, bizarre, or just weird. Fine performances from a lovely ensemble cast including Winona Ryder, Kathy Baker, Dianne Wiest, and Vincent Price blend humor, love, and innocence into one charming little tale young and old can enjoy.

E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial (Widescreen Edition)E.T. the Extra Terrestrial – Sometimes I fear that due to some serious eighties styles, younger audiences might not tune in for this wonderfully personal 1982 film from Steven Spielberg. Reintroduce Reece’s Pieces and ‘E.T. phone home’ to the next generation ASAP. No matter how old you get, who can’t relate to this one- it’s got divorce, evil governments, and loveable aliens to rescue. Some super young viewers might be a little afraid of E.T., but the joy of sharing this one is worth the effort.

Frequency (New Line Platinum Series)Frequency – This 1999 tearjerker starring Dennis Quaid and Jim Caviezel is a little melodramatic and has us taking a considerable leap of faith, but it does have a lovely and relatable premise that will touch your heart: What if you could talk to your deceased father again thanks to ham radio and aurora borealis? What if you could change the past and have one more moment to be face to face with your dead father, hug him, and introduce your child to him? Sappy, yes, but there’s also enough mystery, action, and suspense here for your own guys night in.

HarveyHarveyMy nieces may not remember the title or the wit of this 1950 classic, but they do remember ‘that old movie about the guy with the invisible rabbit’. James Stewart is wonderful as Elwood P. Dowd, and though the black and white photography might make it tough for the youngins’ to pay attention, you can’t take your eyes off the charm and subtle tricks onscreen. Josephine Hull is delightfully fanatical as the sister trying to commit Elwood and his six-foot Pooka- it’s all just a case of misunderstanding, really, but the bemusing and somehow mellow hysteria hasn’t gotten old yet. If you don’t believe me, do believe the American Film Institute’s Top Ten Fantasy List-Harvey is number seven.

Independence Day (Single Disc Widescreen Edition)Independence Day – There was a time not so long ago when one could find this aptly named 1996 sci-fi thriller on any given channel every July 4th. In light of more recent visual effects spectacles, I think young audiences might have forgotten about this touching yet funny popcorn and kick-ass disaster movie. Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s not so little movie still looks good and makes us laugh just as much as it binds us together for the big moments from Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum. Barbecue is not required with a viewing.

Sleepy HollowSleepy Hollow – Here’s another less bizarre and family fun spookfest from Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. This 1999 period piece also starring Christina Ricci isn’t as dark and decrepit as a film about Ichabod Crane could be, but its hint of goth and turn of the century humor is perfect for a scary night in for families growing beyond Hocus Pocus. The suspense, ensemble cast, and surprisingly disturbing performance from Christopher Walken as the Headless Horsemen keep this one worthy as the successor to The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Who doesn’t love that one?

Stardust (Widescreen Edition)Stardust – I was very pleasantly surprised with this 2007 fantasy based on Neil Gaiman’s illustrated novel. Though familiar with Gaiman from his Death: The High Cost of Living comics, Stardust is not as dark or heavy. There’s plenty of mature whimsy harkening back to Victorian ideologies and fantasy for Claire Danes and Michelle Pfiefer with which to have fun. Some of the picture is a little uneven, and Robert DeNiro seems completely miscast as a latently fruity pirate, but all in all this was an exciting and enjoyable little film. Teens growing out of Potter will love this one.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Vista Series)Who Framed Roger Rabbit? – I have to confess, every time this 1988 Robert Zemeckis spectacle is on cable, I can’t help but watch. Despite all our CGI advances, this mix of live cast and animated favorites still looks wonderful. Bob Hoskins, Christopher Lloyd, and Joanna Cassidy all look great in forties fashion; and the blend of humor, music, and mystery holds up. If nothing else, it amazes me that we can see Disney and Warner toons together! There’s delightful fun for the kids and some old fashioned innuendo for the adults- what’s not to love?

23 April 2010

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

How Can You Not Love The Maltese Falcon?
By Kristin Battestella

Generally, one should always begin any form of article or essay with an introduction. Unfortunately, this may be my shortest introduction ever-for there’s film noir and then there’s Humphrey Bogart and The Maltese Falcon.

Detective Sam Spade (Bogart) finds himself in plenty of hot water after the death of his investigative partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan, Blondie, Miracle on 34th Street). Mrs. Archer (Gladys George) was hoping to leave her husband for Spade anyway, but the lovely and misunderstood Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) traps spade in a search for the legendary Maltese Falcon. Unfortunately, Kaspar Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) and Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) are also after the treasured bird. Each offers to buy the statue from Spade, but Lieutenant Dundy (Barton MacLane) and Detective Tom Polhaus (Ward Bond) are sniffing around, too. Will Spade find the Falcon, ditch the coppers, and save the dame?

The Maltese Falcon (Three-Disc Special Edition)First time director but longtime screenwriter John Huston (Sergeant York, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen) helms his own 1941 adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel with mystery, suspense, and all the staples of film noir. At face value, The Maltese Falcon should be stereotypical and obvious- not only does it have one of our most famous detectives, but also the silver screen’s original MacGuffin. However, fine performances and complex mystery twists keep this film above the imitators. The script is witty and tight-we don’t know who to trust yet we like-or love to hate- each of the players involved. The Maltese Falcon is global-with talk of the Orient and historical treasures-yet it’s a relatively talkative piece with not a lot of action. Huston keeps us tugging at our collar with claustrophobic double crossings and high priced, deadly debates. Though confusing to some and a little tough to follow thanks to some old school fast talking, The Maltese Falcon is an intelligent ride that takes every ounce of cat and mouse to tell its tale.

Of his many exceptional films, Humphrey Bogart (The Petrified Forest, Casablanca, The Desperate Hours, The African Queen) some swear by The Maltese Falcon above others. No matter how many times you’ve seen it, Bogart’s infamous Sam Spade walks the walk and talks the talk. He is fast, slick, and just as coy as all the folks meddling in his business. This is not a film to be viewed casually, thanks to Bogart’s complex dialogue, double duty deals, and shear visual presence. We think we know Spade and what he’s going to do, but Bogart keeps us guessing right up to the end. Though a little subservient and ‘in their place’, the dames in The Maltese Falcon add to the spice and mystery. Oscar winner Mary Astor (The Great Lie, The Prisoner of Zenda, Little Women) is perfection as the quintessential femme fatal who wavers between playing the helpless damsel and using her pretty face to get what she wants. Likewise, Gladys George’s (Valiant Is the Word for Carrie, Best Years of Our Lives) Widow Archer would be the typical faux grieving woman in black if it weren’t for her beautiful charm and deceptive grace. Lee Patrick (Topper, Mildred Pierce) is also great fun as the wise secretary who knows how to handle Spade.

The Maltese Falcon is a star-making vehicle there’s no doubt, but the ensemble is also masterful in the onscreen wit and deception. I swear Peter Lorre (Mr. Moto, Casablanca, The Raven) plays the same part in the same style over and over, and yet he’s always so juicy and captivating onscreen. Maybe it’s those Bette Davis eyes or that nasal little voice, but his Joel Cairo is delightful to watch. ‘The Fat Man’ says so much about Sydney Greenstreet (Casablanca, The Flamingo Road) and yet he is so much more. This debuting Supporting Actor nominee would steal the show-if every other performance in The Maltese Falcon wasn’t a scene stealer, too. Ward Bond (Wagon Train, It’s A Wonderful Life, The Searchers, My Darling Clementine, The Quiet Man-somebody stop me!) and Barton MacLane (I Dream of Jeannie) are also delightful as the cops who like Spade, but are also trying to solve two murders. Who is going to best whom-Spade, the cops, the gals, or the ‘Fat Man and Little Boy’?

I must say, The Maltese Falcon isn’t without controversy. The 1931 edition has been edited and censored over the years thanks to clashes with the uptight Hollywood Code, but comparisons between the versions could be a lot of fun. Thankfully, the 1931 version and the 1936 comedy adaptation Satan Met A Lady- are restored and packaged with the 1941 feature on its special 3 Disc Special Edition DVD. If you’re looking for some of the novel’s supposedly scandalous gay subtext, you can find it here. However, to the mature film student or young classic fan, there isn’t anything shocking. No, what’s worse is that The Maltese Falcon has the dubious distinction of a few dastardly colorizations attempts. The horror!

Oh, but for the cigarettes that are real cigarettes, clutches and pillbox hats, the fedoras and the trench coats- any fashionista of post Depression styles will be in heaven watching The Maltese Falcon. The colloquialisms and mannerisms may be dated and stereotypical, yes, but they are also a great freeze frame of the times. Some of the music is also as over the top as the acting, but other times the crescendos are perfectly timed with those moments that make you gasp. Even though we’ve had seventy years to memorize The Maltese Falcon and every other cheap film noir imitation, the clich├ęs aren’t even that bad. Even if we expect something to happen, there’s still plenty of juice in how it’s all going to play out. In this day of constant updates, reboots, and sequels, I’m surprised someone hasn’t attempted to make another big screen The Maltese Falcon. Thankfully, there is one very good reason why this tale hasn’t been done since. The 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon simply can’t be beat.

Classic fans who know the ending of The Maltese Falcon can still enjoy this timeless noir again and again due to critical suspense and fine performance. If you are lucky enough to find someone who is a completely clueless virgin about this film, God bless you as you tie him to a chair and make him watch. Trust me; he will thank you for the experience. Young folks might be deterred by the black and white, sadly, but you can’t be classic film lover or scholar of film without knowing and loving The Maltese Falcon. As the Fat Man says, ‘if you loose a son, it’s possible to get another. But there is only one Maltese Falcon!’

13 April 2010

The Last Legion

Identity Crisis and Bipolar Casting Hurts The Last Legion
By Kristin Battestella

I love Arthurian material, and I love good old Roman Sword and Sandal pictures. Honestly, I wish there were more of both genres. Yes, we have shades of Arthurian beginnings in Roman Brittany and have been presented with Artorius via Rome before. Though led by a largely stellar ensemble cast, unfortunately 2007’s The Last Legion suffers from too much of an identity crisis from mixing Rome and Camelot.

In 460 A.D. the boy Romulus Augustus (Thomas Sangster) has been crowned the last Caesar. After Goth King Odoacer (Peter Mullan) sacs Rome and captures Romulus and his teacher Ambrosinus (Ben Kingsley), the prisoners are taken to Capri under the angry and watchful eye of Odacer’s Lieutenant Wulfila (Kevin McKidd). When Roman Senator Nestor (John Hannah) and Eastern Roman Ambassador Theodorus (Alexander Siddig) ally with Odoacer, loyal General Aurelius (Colin Firth) and his men swear to protect Romulus. Along with Indian bodyguard Mira (Aishwarya Rai), they rescue Romulus and Ambrosinus and travel to their last place of loyalty- Britannia. There they search for the Rome’s last legion at Hadrian’s Wall and discover the destiny of Caesar’s prophesied sword, Excalibur.

I warn you now, this review might end up being more spoileriffic than usual, as the unbelievable turns that The Last Legion takes are a little too ridiculous not to talk about. The opening history lesson leading us up to 460 A.D. is a nice capsule clearly telling us this is going to be about Excalibur. Unfortunately, the film is just that-a juvenile Arthurian establishment that sheds as much light as it confuses. The opening is too short and kiddie, but then the film takes half its time in getting where the narration says it needs to be. Is this going to be a tale of the fall of Rome through a child’s eyes as the first hour leads us to believe or an Arthurian knockoff as the hints suggest?

Last Legion [Blu-ray]The five writers Jez and Tom Butterworth, Carlo Carlei, Peter Rader and Valerio Manfredi (The biggest credit between them is Waterworld. Oiy!) take a long time to establish who is who and what’s going on for a short 1 hour and 40 minute show. And despite all the fine opening Roman pomp and classy cast, director Doug Kelfer (Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess) never lets us gets past this destiny Sword and The Stone vibe-until its too late, of course. Halfway through The Last Legion, a seemingly triumphant rescue leads to the ‘real’ story of going to Britannia to find the final legion of Rome’s army. Huh? Though parts of the film are very entertaining and enjoyable, it’s incredibly annoying and a major buzz kill when a film is so uneven, mish mashed, and ill paced. When the viewer thinks he could have done a better job, something is amiss.

I don’t normally do a relatively bulk analysis of cast; but there are so many named, unnamed, oddly named, and similarly named folks in The Last Legion- and each is for good or ill in his own way. On one hand, the cast is exceptional-from an underutilized James Cosmo (Troy, Braveheart - why is his character named Hrothgar ala Beowulf?) and Rupert Friend (The Young Victoria) to Nonso Anozie (The Golden Compass), Owen Teale (Ballykissangel), and Alexander Siddig (Star Trek: Deep Space 9). The proper strides for multicultural range and casting are fairly accurate and appropriate, thankfully. Ben Kingsley is also great fun as the seemingly washed up old schoolmaster Ambrosinous. Clearly, he is something more-as if Gandhi could be anything less then great! Although Ambrosinous is made too much like Gandalf or Dumbledore than a Merlin like he’s supposed to be, his fantastical comes too late and is too dang dumb after you’ve spent all this time making a relatively realistic attempt albeit with some historical inaccuracies. Is this Arthur in Rome or just a Roman tale? There’s too many hints of Arthurian coincidence, but we leave Rome too late to care how Ambrosinous ties into the Merlin we know.

I’m also not a fan of Thomas Sangster (Phineas and Ferb) as Romulus. After spending a few moments with him as the film opened, I kept hoping we’d flash forward and get rid of him. I don’t even think we get his name until a half hour into The Last Legion. Despite being some sort of Roman and Arthurian composite, Romulus is set up more like Frodo than anything else. He is such a fragile but important leader and carrier of Caesar’s great sword! And I swear they used the exact same snowy mountain montage from The Fellowship of the Ring, too! “That’s for my mother, and that one’s for my old Gaffer!’ oh sorry, wrong movie. Is it more than coincidence that like Rings, this was also produced by Harvey Weinstein? I have to say there’s also some homoerotic innuendo and again it’s all too Ringsish- almost exactly like Pippin and Merry buddy buddy Roman boys.

Unfortunately, this uneven dispersion of the ensemble is a hindrance, and frankly, Colin Firth (A Single Man, Mamma Mia!, Bridget Jones) completely misses the boat as Aurelius. Though he is supposedly the star, his dialogue is weakest, and he still sounds too Hugh Grant romantic comedy to be a Roman general. On the lone lady front, Aishwarya Rai (Bride and Prejudice) looks to be enjoying herself, but again the unrealized storylines don’t give her justice. Her introductory guard in disguise is obviously a chick who’s going to get a PG but sexy reveal. Rai also looks a little too young for Firth, especially since his men are younger and cool. We don’t see Goths too often onscreen, but thankfully, Peter Mullan’s (Red Riding) Odoacer comes and goes with perfection. The Goth names and styles are great, but I imagine their shaggy looks and confusing names make it tough to discern who is who without subtitles. Again, it’s the script that fails the fine performance of Mullan and Kevin McKidd (Rome, Journeyman). They say these Goth names too casually, as if these are iconic names like those of Rome and Camelot and we’re supposed to know them when we hear them. Odacer actually has a hard c, making it sound kind of silly, too.
Though Odacer is unceremoniously dropped from The Last Legion once it finally finds its supposed Arthurian vibe, the pursuing Wulfila is big, scary, and menacing. If something could ‘make’ this movie, it would be McKidd. And on a final casting note, it’s amusing to see John Hannah in this family friend tale now that he’s so kinky in Spartacus: Blood and Sand.

Unfortunately, (That’s really how I feel about this movie, unfortunate!) this mostly quality cast has no time to do its magic because we are too busy putting Camelot in Rome. Replace Sangster and Firth, drop the Arthurian hocus pocus, and The Last Legion isn’t bad. But alas, we go a seriously pathetic Arthurian route instead. And you know what’s really sad? It isn’t even Arthur, it’s actually an Uther Pendragon origin story instead. Romulus, the boy who pulls the sword out of the stone isn’t Arthur! He sticks it in another stone so we can flash forward to find out another annoying little boy will also be schooled by Ambrosinus and save Britain. What? Okay, I’ll even admit I could be splitting hairs because Uther mythos is part of Arthurian legend, but what does this have to do with the supposedly elusive last legion, anyway? And to think, we get all this after one minute of really arduous travel time from Capri to Hadrian’s wall to find this impossible to find legion, sure. The first forty minutes should have been a fifteen-minute prologue, then the trek and pursuit, and then the final forty minutes in Britannia should have had an extra half hour. The titular legion comes into factor way too late-with 15 minutes left. This deus ex machina ending ruins the one night in England for the action on Badon Hill. And remember, all this Rome to Capri to Britain to the last legion is merely a set up for what’s going to happen twenty years after the movie ends. Whiff.

Although some of the wide and distant landscape shots are obviously effects, the internal splendor of The Last Legion works far better than its ill story. The armor is what we’d expect, getting the Roman idea across. Though not massive, the crowds and battles seem the right scale and scope. The daylight lighting and gardens are lovely, but the ambient lantern light and nighttime scenes are also handsomely lit. The score from Patrick Doyle (Hamlet, Sense and Sensibility) seems familiar. It fits but it also sounds like all the other recent adventure films and almost feels like it wasn’t made for this movie. When I settled in for my DVD viewing, I thought I had a moment or two to grab a lemonade and turn out the lights. Fifteen minutes later when I got through the trailers, previews promos, and commercials I almost forgot what movie I was going to be watching! I much prefer when similar releases or studio trailers are including in their own section. I mean, you want to see what disc you put in-and The Last Legion’s delayed debut at its own coming out party is not a good sign. The irony of it all was that none of the previews was for any movies remotely related to The Last Legion, and I wasn’t recruited to see anything promoted anyway.

I wasn’t very interested in Kelfer’s commentary, but the 20 minutes of deleted scenes add depth of adult characters and more Roman politics. But alas, in knowing how the film ends, these scenes don’t help the bipolar nature of The Last Legion. In the making of feature, Kelfer says this film is about the little known last emperor of Rome seen through the eyes of a twelve year old and then they presuppose what happened to him. You shouldn’t have. While I’m glad the story is made to be a smaller, personal idea of Rome- not a visual spectacle per say- the grasps at Arthurian fantasy make The Last Legion look like a cop out and cash in amid the recent historical fantasy craze. The behind the scenes short shows us the cast and crew didn’t set out to make such an indecisive picture, but they also look kind of dumb because they think everything they wanted to get across the screen made it to the viewer-and it didn’t.

Strangely, I don’t know whether to recommend The Last Legion or not. Fans of the cast and genres can enjoy, but this is also a very frustrating film. The Last Legion is merely adequate when it could have been so great with whichever personality it chose to run with. If anyone’s mind could be made up to go via the round table or when in Rome, I’d like to see the good of this cast in another tale. Unfortunately, I don’t know which is worse: the fact that this crossover also failed like 2004’s King Arthur or that two more similar films, Centurion and The Eagle of the Ninth, are forthcoming. Take the Roman good of The Last Legion if you want to-or don’t bother and write your own Arthurian take instead. Then again, who says you have to make up your mind? The Last Legion didn’t.


CA$H Juicy, Dark, and Fun
By Kristin Battestella

Well, I was supposed to go to Home Depot last weekend and buy plants for my garden, but I ended up at the movie theater next door instead. When I saw my local Regal was showing the limited released Sean Bean money fest CA$H, well then I just had to take a little detour on the tomatoes. 

Chicago couple Sam (Chris Hensworth) and Leslie (Victoria Profeta) Phelan think fortune has smiled upon them when a suitcase filled with over a half a million dollars literally lands on their station wagon. They pay off their mortgage, buy a Range Rover, and get new furniture-life looks like it’s on the up! Unfortunately, Reese Kubic (Sean Bean) wants his money back. He had to ditch the loot before being arrested by the police, and now the jailed Reese calls in his twin brother Pyke (also Bean) to find the Phelans. Once Pyke finds Sam and Leslie, the obsessively stylized criminal banker isn’t content with what’s in the suitcase. Pyke insists they replace the money that was spent, forcing the once kosher couple into a dangerous life of crime.

Some promotions and trailers are all fast desensitizing blurs of action and effects. CA$H’s trailer, however, actually accurately represents writer and director Stephen Milburn Anderson’s (Dead Man Can’t Dance, South Central) analysis of greed and corruption. Though it’s labeled as a gritty American thriller-which CA$H indeed is- I found the script to be very witty. I dare say this film is meant as a black comedy, satirizing America’s obsession with wealth along with our recent financial dire straights. We are a rich country that’s somehow made up of poor people just trying to make their next payment. We on one hand have the money to be okay for the most part, but we can never seem to have enough of that titular cash, either. Anderson’s script and direction style helps CA$H tell it like it is. Sometimes you can’t help but laugh at the irony of greed and the things we do for money. The script doesn’t shy away from what needs to be said. Anderson makes not only a commentary on money, but also class and race relations and corruption high and low. It’s a serious, well-handled analysis, and yet I found myself chuckling and smiling through some of the sarcasm and perfectly nailed wit. It’s a clever way to disguise such dark material with dry, memorable humor.

No, I probably wouldn’t have gone to the theater to see CA$H if Sean Bean (Sharpe, Lord of the Rings, Patriot Games) wasn’t in it. However, if this film earns a nationwide release, American audiences might finally understand why there are such massive Bean followings overseas. It is a little gimmicky that Bean is playing twins, as the imprisoned brother Reese has little to do other than bookend the film by establishing the scenario. It’s somewhat odd that they would go to so much trouble to mullet and tattoo Bean up for only three scenes, but Reese’s contribution to the way things unfold is as critical as it is bemusing. The shaggy hairstyle Bean sports as Pyke also seems a little out of place-such a seriously meticulous and well kempt guy would surely have a more cropped cut. However, the need for Pyke to slick his hair and straighten his tie after some violence is a fine character tick. The attention to Pyke’s style is a great ironic reflection on how appearances can be so deceiving. As Lord of the Rings says, Pyke does look fair and feel fouler. He does yoga, never seems to sleep, is a genius with numbers, and has a thing about drinking directly from the sink tap before roughing someone up. Pyke’s expensive suits and confident style further stress that he’s really a latent sociopath. Would a normal person who could walk away with over a half a million dollars stay and insist on the retrieval of a measly $75,000? The swanky score and suave pop tunes also add a classic edge to Pyke and CA$H itself. We know something badass is about to go down when the lyrics elude it, and likewise the brassy ensembles set the mood when something sexy is onscreen. I was surprised at several mentions of this being Sean Bean’s first lead, but in many ways CA$H is his long overdue American coming out party. His slick dominating presence drives the entire film and pushes all the right buttons onscreen and off. This may even be Sean Bean’s best performance since Lord of the Rings. CA$H proves he’s worth much more than five minutes of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief or broad baddies like National Treasure and crap like Crusoe. It’s about ^(&*%#@ time!

I have to say, at first glance to me a lot of these young blonde and buff actors look the same. I tend to confuse the upcoming Thor actor Chris Hemsworth with his Star Trek son Chris Pine and Channing Tatum from that God-awful G.I.Joe: The Rise of Cobra. After CA$H, however, I’ll probably remember Hemsworth can act. His Sam begins as a down on his luck average Joe doing the best he can in a ho-hum life and a stilted marriage. Who can’t relate? When fortune seems to smile on him with a found half a million, who wouldn’t react in the same way? When Pyke comes along however, Sam’s marriage and manhood are called into question. Is he a coward? Is Pyke deliberately pushing him to the edge and calling him out to get what he wants? The desperate changes in Sam are well done from Hemsworth. We see the range of emotion from honesty to anger and even cruelty. CA$H is a great examination of who’s in the right or where the level of crooketry begins and ends. Sam is an upstanding citizen, isn’t he? At what point does he become a criminal, and how far is the point of no return?

Not much has been said of the relatively unknown Victoria Profeta (Push) as Leslie thus far. Although she seems way too stickly and boney thin to me, she does a fine job as the fulcrum between Sam, her husband, and Pyke, their deadly houseguest. Though equality and feminine wiles are discussed between the trio, it is an unusual part-not quite equal to the men and naturally a little kinky between them. Leslie also starts as the honest good girl, but she comes to enjoy the criminal life a little too much. When robbing a convenience store to earn back Pyke’s money, she also proudly takes some Twinkies. After all, what’s a little shoplifting at this point, right? Leslie is more angry and vocal against Pyke then Sam, and he uses the whipped factor against them. Is Leslie more dominant than Sam is? In a truly healthy marriage, wouldn’t there be no dominance? There’s even a hint that Sam doesn’t eat meat because Leslie says so- and Pyke uses all these revelations against her. Though it probably could have been any pretty blonde steaming it up between the boys, Profeta does hold her own amid the sexual angst. Leslie’s eventual- if conflicted- lean towards Pyke further represents how much money can change people-and how quickly. The adrenaline and the power money brings is indeed attractive to her, and oh how green shows a person’s true colors.

There are some violent and action oriented scenes in CA$H of course, as is the nature of a heist film. However, this is not necessarily an action piece. Had this been a big blockbuster American production, we would not have spent half the movie in quiet confined scenes revealing our three characters. A mainstream version would have to have an Ocean’s Eleven culturally balanced ensemble with an elaborate scheme and repeated robberies and chase sequences. CA$H is instead refreshingly filmed in addition to its character piece pace and plot. The Chicago represented looks a little slim and shady, reiterating how easy it is to slip into a life of desperation or illegal means. The camera work is both fast and intense or claustrophobic and askew when it needs to be, but Anderson also knows when to let his cast play their parts. CA$H visually looks like the duality of greed it portrays. All the styles and dressings are deceiving. There isn’t any major great Michael Bay action sequences, but you still can’t look away from the visual clues stressing CA$H’s analysis of crime and corruption. This film does not shy away from its reinforcement about race, creed, or greed. No, it isn’t politically correct at all, and the accuracy of simply telling something like it is refreshing. Stephen Milburn Anderson should do more-and if CA$H has a modest success in its theatrical release; I dare say a follow up would be welcome.

It’s actually been some time since I’ve been to the movies, believe it or not, so I was just as observant of the CA$H theater experience as the movie itself. There were only five other people in the theater, understandable for a warm Friday matinee. However, I found it ironic that with so little people, there was still someone in the theater talking, someone was on a blackberry, and someone else had a baby with him. I don’t really know why someone would bring a baby to sleep through an R rated movie, but the infant was quieter than the talking or the phone! It was also bemusing to see the previews for Robin Hood and Season of the Witch before CA$H. Rumors and wishful thinking earlier attached Bean as being part of Robin Hood, and he is also starring in his own creepy Dark Ages picture Black Death later this year. While European audiences don’t have to wait for these independent films like us Americans often do; after having seen Sean Bean on the big screen, I hope Black Death makes it to a theater near me, too. Of course, the DVD of CA$H is already available overseas- complete with plenty of extras. When the set comes to Region 1, it will certainly be more than my $9 theater ticket. I guess I should start saving my money now!

This gritty yet witty examination of money and power is not for kids of course, thanks to the obligatory blood, sexual innuendo, and F-bombs. However, intelligent crime thriller audiences and fans of the cast will adore CA$H. If you have any preconceived notions about con artist or heist and robbery action films, leave them at the door when you see CA$H. This avant-garde piece will have you examining the way your balance your own check book in addition to some great societal analysis and fine performances. Spend some CA$H and see this one ASAP.

03 April 2010

Yellow Sky

Yellow Sky a Fine, Gritty, and Dare I Say Kinky Western
By Kristin Battestella

I’d thought I’d seen them all, but I was very pleasantly surprised to discover the 1948 western Yellow Sky late one night on cable. For those anti-western folks that think this genre is nothing but singing cowboys and warpath Indians, Yellow Sky proves them wrong with gritty suspense and desolate, desperate action.

Yellow SkyAfter stealing away from their latest bank job, Stretch Dawson (Gregory Peck) takes his gang deep into the desert. Despite their lack of water and objections from Dude (Richard Widmark) and aging Walrus (Charles Kemper), the gang reaches the abandoned settlement of Yellow Sky. Only tough girl Constance ‘Mike’ Mae (Anne Baxter) and her Grandpa (James Barton) remain in the town, and soon Lengthy (John Russell) and Bull Run (Robert Author) fight over each other’s intentions with Mike. Dude, however, has more on his mind-he suspects there’s gold in Yellow Sky and he intends to find it.

Yellow sky opens with a swift heist and director William A. Wellman (A Star is Born, The High and the Mighty, The Ox-Bow Incident) never slows down from there. The subsequent demons in the desert, mutinous gang members fighting over water, and the arduous salt plains slow things down to a torturous viewing, but we still can’t look away from the intensity. Bleak comparisons between the gang members and the harmless lizards in the desert add somber realizations and intelligent reflections, too. Yellow Sky is a great analysis of how easily we can be seduced and turned on each other for the right-or wrong- reasons. W.R. Burnett’s (Little Caesar, The Asphalt Jungle, The Great Escape) story and screenwriter Lamar Trotti’s (There’s No Business Like Show Business, Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk) examination of gold fever in the desert isolation is deep, complex, and great fun to watch. It’s the simplicity of man versus nature, man versus man, and man versus himself at its finest.

I just love Gregory Peck; he’s one of my classic leading men favorites-but he isn’t so wholesome this time around, is he? Peck totally assumes the part of whatever role he’s in-from Captain Horatio Hornblower to To Kill A Mockingbird and Moby Dick. He’s on his western form and looking great with a dirty five o’clock shadow here, but we can’t have our beloved Gregory Peck truly be a wholehearted villain, can we? Stretch is somewhat of a mystery-he has Apache issues, Civil War history, Biblical knowledge, and some bank robbing ambiguity. He threatens to get his way, but expects his men to behave at the same time. Stretch’s leadership-for good or ill- should be above question, but his alliance is uneasy, always on the verge of mutiny. Peck excels at the iffy circumstances while also keeping Stretch charming onscreen.

We know Anne Baxter (All About Eve, The Razor’s Edge, The Ten Commandments) can be a tough broad to match the boys, but she and her Mike are very young and innocent in Yellow Sky. Baxter’s tough and distinctive voice works with Mike’s attitude, but it’s odd to see such a beguiling classic dame in jeans with a holster. Mike’s rifle-though dangerous- doesn’t hold up against Stretch’s charms-but we can’t help but watch the coy cat and mouse games. Baxter’s eventual submissiveness and Peck’s forcefulness are a little reversed from the casting we’d expect, and this ups the tension ante in Yellow Sky. Likewise, Richard Widmark (The Alamo, Cheyenne Autumn, Kiss of Death) keeps things pissy. Dude has a protest for Stretch’s every move-he thinks he has all the answers and calls out Stretch’s ‘nobility’. Dude keeps his ‘leader’ in line so he can be about his own nefarious business, and the internal odds are delightfully intelligent to watch. Though also much younger than modern, casual audiences are used to seeing him, Widmark owns Dude’s stylized black hat and pinstripe suit. He looks slick and menacing against Stretch’s scruffy style. It’s a stereotypical and simplistic trick, yes, but it’s also a fine subtlety to further wrench the ambiguity of our bad boys.

Though critical to Yellow Sky’s plot, the supporting players have some goofy names, and it’s tough to tell who is who on occasion. Thankfully, James Barton (The Shepherd of the Hills, The Misfits) is perfection as the mining-hardened Grandpa who still has enough wit and heart to defend his keep. Likewise, John Russell’s (Rio Bravo, Lawman, The Outlaw Josey Wales) Lengthy is fairly kinky and juicy in his pursuit of Mike. However, Robert Arthur (Twelve O’clock High) and a very young Harry Morgan (Dragnet, M*A*S*H) are a little too similar as the young kid Bull Run and uh, young kid Half Pint. Though akin to better witty old men like Walter Brennan, Charles Kemper’s (The Shocking Miss Pilgrim) cranky Walrus adds just the right amount of snark when you need it.

Now, the titular color refers to the gold hunt at hand, but the black and white photography doesn’t do Yellow Sky justice. Not only does the name not make much sense if there’s no color, but also the lovely Death Valley location shooting would have been better served by wonderfully lit and colored vistas. The desert sequences and abandoned ghost town facades are great, too, really showcasing the isolation and dangerous territory we’re in. The Civil War brevity and Apache talk is a little stereotypical, but if you tell a tale in ‘The West, 1867’ you can’t not touch upon such topics. Thankfully, Yellow Sky is also a very quiet film. There’s not a lot of overblown, melodramatic music-its all natural western sounds and harmonicas in the echoing desert. And of course, I should mention there is one great rifle barrel camera shot that beautifully predates the trademarked Bond element. That’s not bad for this seemingly unknown and unassuming little western!

I have to say, Yellow Sky is also a little kinky for its day. The natural use of now tame but then scandalous curses like jackass is surprising to hear in an older movie. The rapacious suggestions are also a topic not usually touched in Old Hollywood. Six men ogling one nearly solitary woman in the desert can’t be good-and then we get those same six frustrated me shirtless, sweaty, and digging for gold. Instead of stunt laden distant riding action and comically obvious raids, the individual, personal violence is also a step above in Yellow Sky. The men are brutal to each other, and the lengthy, shadowy kisses are just as rough. Yowza!

Fans of Gregory Peck, serious classics, and lovers of all things westerns will adore Yellow Sky. Some sensitive scenes with dehydrated horses might be difficult for younger viewers, as is some of the heavier innuendo; but the intelligent, gripping drama wins out. Students of critical film and old school fans should rediscover and dissect this DVD tonight. While Yellow Sky doesn’t have the all-star gold fever power of The Treasure of Sierra Madre, it’s gritty, entertaining, and intense. Yellow Sky will have you feeling the need to whet your own whistle!

02 April 2010

San Francisco (1936)

Delightful San Francisco Gets Stuck in Your Head
By Kristin Battestella

Over the years, I’ve really only known one thing about the 1936 classic San Francisco, and that’s the titular song. Fortunately, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake make for more than just a catchy tune.

San FranciscoBlackie Norton (Gable) spins the lavish lifestyle at his Barbary Coast nightclub, The Paradise, much to the continued chagrin of his life long friend Tim Mullen (Tracy) - the local priest. When Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) auditions to sing at The Paradise, Blackie is charmed by her devotion, voice, and grace. However, Jack Burley (Jack Holt) of the Tivoli Opera House tries to steal Mary away from The Paradise- and she soon prefers Father Tim stalwart faith to Blackie’s ill devised political ambitions. Unfortunately, when the 1906 earthquake strikes San Francisco, romance and politics are quickly forgotten in search of something more.

It’s not a musical per se, but song and dance plays a critical part in San Francisco. Oscar nominated director Woody Van Dyke (The Thin Man series) gives San Francisco a film within a film feel. There’s stage shows and dance numbers to observe; yes, but the table conversations and Barbary Coast drama is just as important. The movie is about the great titular song and Mary’s humble rise and high vocal cords, sure, but fellow Oscar nominee Robert Hopkins (Saratoga) and writer Anita Loos (Gentleman Prefer Blondes, The Women) give us multiple layers to unveil. Though lovely, the audience becomes quickly aware that San Francisco isn’t all about the music. There’s gentle religious debate, Victorian etiquette mixing with clubs, old wealth, class and marital status, crooked government, and more-especially when the earthquake pulls everything together. Indeed San Francisco captures as much of the pre-quake city’s scope as possible. I dare say a remake or another spectacle film dealing with the 1906 earthquake is due, but I fear today’s Hollywood would miss the fine balance between emotion and personal drama and quake hysteria- like the painful melodrama but stellar effects of Pearl Harbor or Titanic. San Francisco gets the action of the quake against the personal drama right.

I’m not a die hard Clark Gable (Gone with the Wind, It Happened One Night, Mutiny on the Bounty) fan but his Blackie Norton has the charm and business edge needed for the San Francisco heyday. Norton is as witty to his friends as he is to his competitors-and just as fast with the dames. Gable’s delivery is tight and clipped, and the humorous asides are great dead pans. There are however, some great quiet looks from Gable, too, allowing the soft side of Blackie to show. We can tell he likes Mary, and we know a jealous quip when we hear it. The audience likes Blackie, but can see his imperfect mix of loving Mary and using her talents at his club. Of course, San Francisco is not above showing Gable in all his thirties beefcake in a weird boxing scene between Blackie and Father Tim. Thanks to Gable’s fine performance, however, we don’t need to see Norton throw some punches to know he is going to take the politics of San Francisco by storm.

Boy, Spencer Tracy cornered the market on playing a priest back in the day! The Best Actor winner for Boys Town and Captain Courageous and Lead Actor nominee here matches Gable with religious guidance and ideological morality. The odds are stacked against Father Mullen in his hoped reformation of Blackie, but he can see the kind soul hidden behind the hip exteriors and is willing to stand up for his faith against his friend. While both men are charming, Tracy has a touch of jealousy and as much chemistry with MacDonald as Gable does. It’s a vague and unusual love triangle of sorts, but Tracy’s pull of good against Gable’s worldly ways is a delightful seesaw-and Tracy struts his godly charm in less screen time, too.

Jeannette MacDonald’s (The Merry Widow, Rose Marie) good girl Mary with the great voice is but a charming rookie on the Barbary Coast, but Blackie’s met his match in this preacher’s daughter all right. Her contractual loyalty to Blackie against Operatic stardom is lovely devotion compared to the gambling and loose stylings of San Francisco-but Mary’s hesitancy to fall in love with Blackie is beautifully done. Her innocence in religious debates with Norton is heartfelt and understandable. We want Mary to melt Blackie’s heart, but we don’t want him to change her. It seems so strange to me that Gable and MacDonald didn’t get along, for their onscreen repertoire is great. I also think it’s sad that Jeanette MacDonald’s star is probably lost to non-classic film or opera audiences. Casual move fans might know MacDonald more for her oft-onscreen pairings and supposedly off-screen romances with Nelson Eddy, but San Francisco proves her worth against other big actress singers of the day.

I would have liked more attention on the supporting players in San Francisco, but the layered drama doesn’t quite allow room for more beyond the leading trio’s complexities. Jack Holt (The Treasure of Sierra Madre) is juicy as Blackie’s witty operatic competition, and Three Stooges orchestrater Ted Healy- who died shortly hereafter- is equally charming as The Paradise’s snarky manager Mat. Gallagher and Shean alum and Marx Brothers writer Al Shean and Jessie Ralph (Camille, Little Lord Fauntleroy) are also perfection as the Opera House Professor and the aristocratic Mrs. Burley. Both take time to show Mary that San Francisco isn’t all bad and even has a lot of heart. However, the quake drastically changes everything for these supporting players, and they in turn make the most of their critical scenes and push our leads to where they need to be. The numerous Ziegfield girls and song and dance men also keep San Francisco’s club scene light and authentic, again maintaining the balance between drama and heyday.

Though charming, San Francisco might not be for all modern viewers. The early black and white photography hinders the supposedly big and happening New Year’s Eve bits, but the fires and quake destructions do look good. Some of the action early on also isn’t action at all, but merely folks standing on stage and lots of conversations or folks looking at other people while they sing. I think there might be some soft focus up close shots of Gable, too, but weren’t all the divas filmed as such back then? Also, if you don’t like ragtime music or earlier, operatic styles- then San Francisco is definitely not for you. Young folks might not even be able to understand the titular song’s lyrics or care about Mary’s great operatic debut. Now having said that, we are talking about a 75-year-old film that does in fact hold up musically and dramatically- beat that!

Now then, there’s no sense in me not talking about it, because we all know about the 1906 big one. Despite the limits of black and white and filmmaking of the time, San Francisco gives a dynamite, dramatic recreation of the earthquake. The destruction is powerful and shattering, the screaming women and numb survivors are utterly captivating, and the climatic action here is worth just as much as today’s overblown Pearl Harbor or Titanic. You don’t need a three-hour long, effects laden opus when you can show realistic terror, chaos, and aftermath. Thankfully, the late Victorian dresses, stage costumes, hats, and men’s capes in San Francisco all look great, too. In theory, 1936 Hollywood was not so far removed from San Francisco 1906 as we are now a century on, so a level of authenticity or vintage dressing is expected. Some of these old films have such great art decoration simply because there were more gently worn vintage artifacts available. It would be a lot tougher for Victorian San Francisco to be filmed on location with original fashions today, wouldn’t it? There are a little too many thirties jazz-esque bobs perhaps, and of course, there are a few stereotypical Chinese servants and iffy quips about Chop Suey; but the onscreen feelings of San Francisco captures both time periods with grace and style.

Fans of good old time splendor and dance numbers can take San Francisco all in good fun, as will classic film lovers. Quake historians and scholars might also like to take a gander, and those of a religious classroom can also find what they’re looking for in San Francisco. Tonight, leave your heart in San Francisco without ever leaving your couch!