Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Story Of G.I. Joe (1945)

An Excellent 1940s Window Into World War II

- Some journalists write about the war but World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle (Burgess Meredith) writes about soldiers. Journeying through the North African and Italian theater inside various American G.I. units, Pyle tries honestly to convey the conditions of the brave G.I.s for American readers back home. One group of soldiers that Pyle developed a particular affection for was Captain Bill Walker's (Robert Mitchum) Company C 18th Infantry and this excellent 1945 film, The Story Of G.I. Joe, tells their story.

The Story Of G.I. Joe is a film about patriotism, friendship and sacrifice but, ultimately, it is a film about the real cost of war: human life. Some war films focus more on wartime action scenes or tell a story from a historical perspective; The Story Of G.I. Joe, however, goes out of its way to tell the story of the average American G.I. in World War II. The viewer hangs out with the G.I.'s for most of the film, getting to know them, their daily struggle and the life they are missing back home. But what separates The Story Of G.I. Joe from other soldier-centered wars films is the fact that many of the actors who are playing soldiers are not actors at all but real-life World War II veterans actually playing themselves in the film. As veterans of the World War II, these guys give the film a down-to-earth quality and an added bit of credibility that most other war films cannot begin to rival.

This group of veterans give the film credibility and emotion but the actual actors do a good job as well. As war correspondent Ernie Pyle, Burgess Meredith is the film's silent star. The short and reserved nucleus of the story, Meredith guides the viewer through the courage, heartache and camaraderie of the World War II American G.I. unit by standing back and observing. Just a no-named upstart during the film's production, future Hollywood legend Robert Mitchum is terrific in the film, giving the only Oscar-nominated performance of his career as Capt. Bill Walker. Mitchum's performance is a great one - layered and unpredictable - but his recognition for this specific film is odd within the greater scope of his career because Mitchum has given so many better performances after The Story Of G.I. Joe. Still, while this is not the definitive Robert Mitchum performance, it is undoubtedly great and was the first time that his talent was fully recognized. Through Mitchum, Walker is the heart of the film; a tough but caring leader with a perpetual weary look in his eye.

The Story Of G.I. Joe is a well-told story of World War II American G.I.s but director William A. Wellman (Wings (1927 - the first Best Picture Oscar winner), The Public Enemy (1931)) also offers some stunning visual aids. While perhaps not achieving the same kind of authenticity that other war films may have done (Saving Private Ryan (1998), for example) The Story Of G.I. Joe does look and feel very real. The art direction is flawless; one does not begin to question whether or not the film is actually taking place in the unkind desert of North Africa or a ruinous Italian town because of the fantastic-looking sets that are featured in the film. This World War II film is also not short on unforgettable action scenes, very well filmed with many footage-like battle sequences (some might actually be footage shots though). The genuine-looking and feeling visuals enhance the hardship of the characters at its center and, as a result, makes The Story Of G.I. Joe even more of a powerful and authentic war film.

Premiering in June of 1945, World War II was very much still that the forefront of American life; while the European front had already been won, Japan had yet to surrender and the war limped on. The Story Of G.I. Joe would have no doubt given audiences of that time a feeling of pride in the soldiers responsible for the victories in Europe but also a feeling of encouragement for the Pacific front that had not yet ended. But for 21st Century audiences, with enjoyable performances and a wonderful cinematic World War II setting, The Story Of G.I. Joe is a very good World War II film and a great 1940s window into the life of the American G.I.

CBC Rating: 9/10

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Informer (1935)

The Story Of A Man Named Gypo

- John Ford is one of the most influential and best remembered American filmmakers in the history of film, his name usually associated with the western film genre (Stagecoach (1939), The Searchers (1956)). However, John Ford's arguably best film is not a western at all but a seedy drama set in the Irish fight for independence in the early 1920s: 1935's The Informer.

Times are tough on many in Ireland and the burnt out Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen) is caught in a web of poverty and desperation - and the walls are closing in. Gypo is big but he is not the brightest bulb on the tree, has a warm heart but a short fuse, and never seems to really think things all the way through but he is not a criminal or a self-centered pig. Walking the streets starving with nowhere to live, the hulking Gypo Nolan finds the prime lady in his life, Katie Madden (Margot Grahame), on the streets soliciting herself because of her own desperate situation and starts to dream about taking her to the United States if he only had the 20 Pounds to pay for it. As luck would have it, his friend Frankie (Wallace Ford) is back in town with a 20 Pound price over his head and Gypo is desperate enough to inform the police of Frankie's whereabouts. Gypo, with the new 20 Pounds of blood money earned, finds this foggy night particularly foggier as guilt swells all over him and the IRA invests all their resources to find Frankie's informer.

Victor McLaglen portrays the fallen Gypo Nolan and definitely deserved the Best Actor Oscar he was awarded for this film. His brutish, stupid, and tender turns give the character dimension and McLaglen is only second to Dudley Moore's character Arthur Bach from the 1981 film Arthur as the most entertaining cinematic drunk. Margot Grahame's performance as Katie Madden is also excellent but she and McLaglen are the only members of the cast who truly impress. Preston Foster is especially miscast as an IRA head, mainly because he is most obviously not Irish, and J. M. Kerrigan borders on irritating throughout his role in the film. This disappointing supporting cast is the film's only poor point and one that does not leave much of a mark on the film in the first place, especially when this disappointing supporting cast is sharing the screen with the commanding McLaglen.

Often overshadowed by some of Ford's better known westerns like The Searchers or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), The Informer is easily one of John Ford's best films - if not his very best. Beginning what would be a long career of Oscar nominations and wins for John Ford, The Informer won four Oscars including one for him for best director in 1936. Ford and company's use of shadows and light in the film is particularly engaging and vital to telling the story. Gypo's walk through the streets is narrated by the gloomy state of the town and the glaring accusations of the street lamps, each shadow constantly reminding him of his dark deed. Ford's command of this technique was amazing to watch; if The Informer was made 10 years later (thus making the genre requirements) it would probably be considered one of the best films noir of all time but that does not hinder it from being remembered as an excellent classic film.

CBC Rating: 10/10

You Can't Take It With You (1938)

A Tale Of Two Families - And Social Classes

- Frank Capra's classic film You Can't Take It With You (1938) is a tale of two families from two different walks of life – the Vanderhof/Sycamore family and the Kirby family – that are bound together by young love. The Kirbys are a wealthy, quiet group; Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold) is one of the largest bankers in town and his son Tony Kirby (James Stewart) is set to be company president when the old man retires. On the opposite side of the spectrum is the Vanderhof/Sycamore household. Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) heads this loud and zany group who let their passions dictate their lives, rather than the promise of money. So when Tony Kirby & Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) fall in love and decide to get married, these two polar-opposite families must find a way to live together.

I found You Can't Take It With You to be kind of a mixed bag. The film is generally well put together by director Frank Capra and company but it lacks any sort of impressive visual style. The art direction is first rate but, due to the sameness in the lighting and camera work, the film looked pretty bland to me overall. The film never seems to deviate way from its constant soft lighting or mid-ranged non-expressive camera and the film is subsequently unspectacular, visually speaking.

Some of the film's themes seemed heavy-handed and shallow to me as well. It must have been really hard for Grandpa Vanderhof to use his crutches throughout the film, what with him being on a perpetual soap box the entire movie. Boy is this movie preachy - and not very substantive is the message. The entire film leans on irrational class warfare. The Vanderhof/Sycamore family, whose mantra is follow your dreams, demand to have their way of life respected but they hypocritically never seem to respect the Kirbys' way of life. Hitched onto this point is the fact that the entire movie deals out its message in flat stereotypes. From opening to end, rich people seem to have no hobbies or the ability to create and hold onto good relationships with anyone – until they relinquish their high-paying jobs, of course.

You Can't Take It With You did not strike much of a chord with me as far as visuals and themes go but the film is recommendable in other ways. You Can't Take It With You is a pretty funny show with some particularly memorable and clever scenes, colorful characters (although many of them are irritating and over-the-top), and some fast & sharp dialogue, no doubts about it. The film also has a good cast. A heavenly Jean Arthur stars as Alice and Lionel Barrymore (who, due to an accident that actually forced him out of the 1938 film adaptation of A Christmas Carol, plays the part on crutches) is the fixture of the film, giving a very strong performance of Grandpa Vanderhof. But especially great is Jimmy Stewart in the film who is a real joy to watch as Tony Kirby; very funny and full of charisma.

This 1938 Frank Capra comedy left me entertained yet underwhelmed at the same time. Overall, You Can't Take It With You is entertaining on account of the excellent leading actors and many funny scenes but it lacks the visual and thematic force to resemble anything moving or compelling.

CBC Rating: 7/10

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Rope (1948)

"Murder is - or should be - an art...."

- Rope (1948) is a perfect example of Alfred Hitchcock's brilliance behind the camera. The story, based on a British stage play which is itself loosely based on the true Leopold and Loeb murder case, is a decidedly twisted yet relatively modest story (in terms of length and scope) that creeps along to an unexpectedly poignant climax.

Two college students Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger), for the sheer sick thrill of it all, commit murder in their apartment right before they open their home up to a host of party guests. Brandon somewhat subtly flaunts the deed in the faces of his guests all night and Phillip just tries to hold himself together through it all, catching the eye of the boys' intelligent professor Rupert Cadell (James Stewart).

If there was a flaw in the film it would be the duel performances of John Dall and Farley Granger. Dall and Granger serve their characters well in many areas (especially subtly developing the hidden homosexual relationship between the two of them, helped by the actual homosexual tendencies of the two actors) but are far too over-the-top (more so Dall than Granger) to be able to be praised as great performances. Some claim James Stewart as a flaw in the casting, including Stewart himself who felt that he was miscast, but I contend that Stewart is the film's strongest acting card. One of the great things about Hitchcock was the way that he was able to get type-casted actors to play against their type and, while 1940s audiences may not have enjoyed seeing the straight-laced Stewart play such a flawed soul, watching Stewart break form so well is one of the film's finer points.

Either way, the idea that Hitchcock felt that "actors are cattle" could possibly be vindicated by this film since Hitchcock's style and storytelling function in the film far more significantly than the characters do, as rich as they are in their own right.

Telling the story in real time with as little editing between takes as possible, Rope, the first of Hitchcock's films to be shot in color, wraps the viewer in high Hitchcock style. Hitchcock tried to do something different with the visual presentation of Rope by shooting on a dismantle-ready set in as long of takes as possible while tying each sparse edit together as seamlessly as possible. The experiment was a success, in my view, and as a result, Hitchcock creates a very compelling story. Trapping the narrative within the walls of Brandon and Phillip's apartment, Hitchcock envelops every single square inch of space with atmosphere, stirring up tension in the room as the day turns to night.

Because of the relatively low box-office numbers, the lack of critical praise, or maybe because he was just trying to get a rouse out of whoever was interviewing him, Hitchcock himself apparently dismissed Rope as a stunt of an experiment - but I am not in agreement with this position. I found Rope to be a unique, quality film rich with character, theme, and style and deem it a must-see Hitchcock thriller.

CBC Rating: 9/10

Monday, August 8, 2011

Tropic Thunder (2008)

Dudes Playing Dudes Disguised As Other Dudes

- In this hysterical comedy, childish actors currently making a war film get thrown into a real life war situation. Tropic Thunder (2008) is not the first film about actors who are forced to actually be the characters they are portraying (Three Amigos! (1986), Galaxy Quest (1999)) but it may be the best - a terrific action and laugh packed comedy through and through.

This film spoofs war and action films (even taking scenes right out of Platoon (1986), Saving Private Ryan (1998), and others), the overly serious and ego-inflated method actors in Hollywood, the pretentious film industry, and the money-lusting film studio executives. Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is the action star who is starting to fall off the Hollywood A-list radar screen, Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is the drug-addicted comedian trying to do drama, Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) is the 5-time Oscar-winning method actor, Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) is the rapper turned actor, and Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) is the unknown trying to break into the industry. Together they try to make the best war film they can while they bicker, fight, and find out a lot about themselves in a truly funny way.

Tropic Thunder is a spoof film but it is also slightly grounded in its over-the-top nature. The film is has many definitely exaggerated scenarios but because it sees its characters in a more realistic war situation you will not find any scenes featuring chickens being shot out of a bow or Saddam Hussein getting his head inflated like a beach ball in this film. Tropic Thunder has a lot of shock humor, and while much of it works, some of it does not work at all: a few gags are just not funny and many others are just plain disgusting. Still, the film is mostly filled with great comedy and most of it comes directly out of each actor's delivery.

Robert Downey Jr. is where the spotlight is; and for some people, this is for no other reason than because he is portraying an African American character. Actually, he is really not portraying an African American; he is portraying an Australian who is portraying an African American. Also, let's get something straight: there is no use of "blackface" in this film as many claim.

"Blackface" is not merely making-up one's self to look like an African American - it was a style of show performed from about the mid-19th to mid-20th century exaggerating one's physical features (eyes, lips) to resemble a person of African descent and do nothing but degrade them for laughs. Downey Jr.'s character, Kirk Lazarus, is actually made up to look like a real person of African descent - he is not painted up like Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (1927). But for the purpose of conversation, let's say that Downey Jr. is performing in "blackface" - well, then the use of "blackface" here in Tropic Thunder would be quite different from that seen in the Jim Crow-and-years-prior eras. The Lazarus character is not used to demean African Americans, it is part of the character's outrageous method acting and is used as a satirical jab at other overly serious Hollywood actors: Lazarus has become so insanely into his characters that he has no idea who he really is and actually gets a highly controversial skin pigmentation operation. Plus, in films where the malicious use of blackface occurs like The Birth Of A Nation (1915), there is no African American voice. Here in Tropic Thunder however, Brandon T. Jackson's Alpa Chino character is always there to put Lazarus back in his place when he goes too far and to say how ridiculous he is ("You're Australian, be Australian!").

But on top of all this, the use of so-called "blackface" is not what is funny about Robert Downey Jr.'s performance in the first place. Robert Downey Jr. is simply giving a fantastic individual acting performance in this film, completely lost in two characters (well, three if you count the sexually confused monk) and being extremely funny in every scene. He does not even have to say a word to make you burst out laughing, his expressions are absolutely hilarious and often times you are laughing just because of the look in his eyes. Robert Downey Jr. is even the funniest part of scenes that he is not even the primary focus of; he will be in the background and still be the funniest part of that scene because of how he is reacting to whatever is going on. But Downey Jr. is also dynamite when the film calls for him to be serious. And he does do series, don't be fooled. In fact, some of the best of Downey Jr.'s comedy comes out of him playing the character and scene seriously. But even though this is a spoofing screwball action/comedy, Downey Jr. does go into some serious drama when you least expect it. For those reasons and more, Robert Downey Jr. is almost the whole show by himself.

The rest of the star-studded cast also works well in their roles, even though nobody excels quite the same way that Robert Downey Jr. does. While a bit too much when doing his character's "Simple Jack" character, Ben Stiller is very funny and a good overall lead as action hero Tugg Speedman, I have never been a fan of Jack Black at all but to my great surprise he is actually hilarious as Jeff Portnoy, Brandon T. Jackson is also very funny in his spastic and sarcastic rapper-turned-actor character and Matthew McConaughey is even funny in his actually sizable supporting role as Tugg's agent. An almost unrecognizable Tom Cruise gives a scene stealing performance as his real life feud with studio execs is brought out on screen in his portrayal of the self-centered money-grubbing Les Grossman, and as Cruise grinds his ax he also manages to be pretty funny.

To make the film even better, Tropic Thunder is also very ascetically-pleasing (action scenes and everything else) thanks to Ben Stiller's quick direction and lighting pro John Toll's cinematography. Comedies are not necessarily known (or watched) for their style and the fact that Tropic Thunder includes great cinematography makes it a cut above much of the genre.

Overall, Tropic Thunder is a well-made and outrageously funny comedy, worthwhile simply to see Robert Downey Jr. do his thing.

CBC Rating: 9/10

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Body Of Lies (2008)

Welcome Back Ridley, We've Missed You

- Originally, I was not sure if I wanted to see Body Of Lies (2008) because the trailer had made the film out to be nothing more than a big "screw you" message to America within a Hollywood starlet-lead action film. Luckily, I did see the film and I was surprised at how much I ended up liking it.

Body Of Lies gives a lot to think about regarding the War on Terror. I am sure many will either leave the theater blindly satisfied with what they think is an anti-American film or steam-coming-out-of-the-ears angry at this "blame America" flick. I, however, found the film not only entertaining, but very thoughtful.

William Monahan's adaptation of David Ignatius' novel is a smart and entertaining story filled with interesting characters, surprising ulterior motives and clever double-crossings. Sure, there is a romantic B-plot that is forced albeit "cute" or whatever and the ending is very rushed, but I do not think that it takes too much away from the film as a whole. The story also is not incredibly biased as I feared. It does not merely point fingers at the United States, though it does in parts for arguably good reasons most of the time, and the film presents many different sides and things to think about the War on Terrorism.

The acting is great - Mark Strong overdoes it in some scenes with his performance of the high-ranking Jordanian intelligence official Hani and there are a good-sized handful of stereotypical characters throughout the film (in the form of Westerners and Mid-Easterners). However, headliners DiCaprio and Crowe are operating at a very high standard and Golshifteh Farahani is a great surprise as the desert flower Aisha.

Leonardo DiCaprio steals the show, continuing his amazing A+ acting streak set in Catch Me If You Can (2002) with his performance as CIA agent Roger Ferris here in Body Of Lies. It sure helps that his character is likable, interesting, and well written/developed: Ferris has a lot of respect for the Middle East, its people, and Islam - he might even be a Muslim. He is very good at his CIA job; desiring to do good, help people, and come out of the War on Terror as the victor. But he is disgruntled and battered by the system on which the war is being fought - cooperation and understanding seems to be lacking in the strategy for victory. Russell Crowe's CIA big-wig Ed Hoffman character would very sternly but energetically tell you that, because the enemy is so difficult to find and destroy, there is no time for cooperation and understanding. When you find a terrorist, you take them out crudely and quickly. DiCaprio's Ferris and Crowe's Hoffman go together like nails and a chalkboard and their on-screen rivalry is exciting to watch.

Coming off of what I found to be the epitome of mediocrity, American Gangster (2007), Ridley Scott recovers his reputation quickly with his excellent work on Body Of Lies. As with most Ridley Scott films, there is a definite film world that we get sucked into in Body Of Lies. Scott's ability to create a unique movie setting is one of my favorite things about his work; even for films with stories taking place in modern times (like Matchstick Men (2003) or Black Hawk Down (2001)), the audience is still taken to Scott's own designed film world. Scott's direction is also just spot-on on a technical level - the action scenes look great and his attempts at suspense work like a charm.

Body Of Lies is not my favorite film from Ridley Scott; I am still seeing more and more of his films as life moves forward but a number of films are still ahead of Body Of Lies as far as my personal Ridley Scott favorites go. However, I can easily say that I really enjoyed Body Of Lies - it is very well made, has excellent performances, and provides a lot to think about. Plus, it was just a welcomed return to form for Scott after the dismal American Gangster (2007).

CBC Rating: 9/10

The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)

The Bold And The Beautiful

- We have seen many films about the Tudor period and this sub-genre has produced a great deal of fine films. Most of the time, films about the Tudors will be very epic in scope with a grand historical setting, yet very much centered on character development. However, The Other Boleyn Girl (2008) is none of these things.

While not exactly a completely bad film, The Other Boleyn Girl can be counted among the weakest of the Tudor-concerning films. Very loosely based on the novel by Philippa Gregory, The Other Boleyn Girl is about the Boleyn sisters and their battle for the affection of King Henry VIII. A story packed with sexual escapades, scandal, jealousy, betrayal, vindictiveness, and hair-pulling, there is not much to like about The Other Boleyn Girl.

While the sets and costume department deserve a hardy pat on the shoulder for a job well done, other aspects hang the film out to dry. The overall story is interesting in a historical context because of the effect it had on a nation but it is not told well in this film. This film is neither epic nor historical - for example, the film mentions and then neglects the Anglican split from the Roman Catholic Church like a Trivial Pursuit question. Instead, The Other Boleyn Girl is told in a very soap-opera way, comprised of uninspired dialogue and centering on paper thin characters and their Prom Queen-like dramas.

The performances found throughout the film do not exactly make up for the rest of the film's shortcomings. Natalie Portman is adequate but not engaging in her role as Anne Boleyn, the older and overly ambitious Boleyn sister Anne. Eric Bana is very authoritative in his portrayal of King Henry, but he lacks a personality (though he is not helped by a good script either). While two out of the three leading actors are not all that great, there are a few performances that are worthwhile. Scarlett Johansson plays Mary Boleyn and is the strongest of the leading actors, though that fact is helped by the fact that her character is one of the few found in the film with any kind of dimension. Ana Torrent is also very good in a small role as Henry's original wife Katherine and Kristin Scott Thomas gives the best performance of the film, being very subtle yet very strong in her portrayal of Lady Elizabeth Boleyn.

The look and feel to The Other Boleyn Girl is also a letdown; neither the music nor the cinematography does its part to create an emotional movie. Paul Cantelon's score for the film is ordinary, lifeless and, in the end, useless - ultimately unmemorable and adding nothing to the atmosphere of the film. The cinematography is not poorly handled by the largely television-groomed director of photography Kieran McGuigan but the film does not look particularly good either.

When you put everything together, nothing about The Other Boleyn Girl is particularly bad, just royally lackluster - less like a historical epic and more like a period daytime soap with a big budget.

CBC Rating: 5/10

Frost/Nixon (2008)

A Spectacular Sheen Vs An Overpraised Langella

- Although many internet film buffs like to berate Ron Howard, he seems to have a good standing in Hollywood and I think he has made some fantastic films. Frost/Nixon (2008) is easily one of Howard's greatest films (my favorite of his is still Cinderella Man (2005)) with great performances and atmosphere.

Michael Sheen stars in Frost/Nixon as playboy British talk-show host David Frost, who during a slump in his career risks all he has for an in-depth interview with recently resigned (and pardoned) United States President Richard Nixon, played by Frank Langella. A lot is at stake as Frost scrambles to finance the interview and his team tries to get a confession of wrongdoing from the former President.

Howard forms a thriller out of a film about an interview - which is no small feat. Certainly not historically sound (here and here), the audience easily invests themselves into the interview that screenwriter Peter Morgan and director Howard present, not because the film is successful in portraying Nixon's crime as wounding the nation (it feels like the film is a self-congratulating media love-fest, setting up a RIGHT versus LEFT battle and in which people are just trying to "get" Nixon because he is Nixon) but because the cinematic themes and ideas of justice and morality apply well in exposing Nixon's wrongdoing. The cast is also excellent and crucial to the effectiveness of the story - Michael Sheen is brilliant and the film's absolute highlight while Matthew Macfadyen, Sam Rockwell, and Oliver Platt also give great supporting performances.

Frost/Nixon has received a lot of critical acclaim overall but Frank Langella has been singled out as one of the best aspects about the film. However, I disagree - I will even go as far as saying that Langella is the film's weakest link. His performance is completely transparent, looking less like Langella is channeling Nixon and more like Langella is doing a slightly amusing Nixon impression - never was I feeling like I was actually watching Nixon in the film. Langella is nothing like the real Nixon. Seeing the real tapes makes you wonder what Langella was even thinking. One feels no empathy towards the real Nixon in the real tapes; he is completely detached and looking like he is just trying to weasel his way through the interview. Sure, Langella's portrayal is more dramatic and makes the character far more interesting and depth-filled; but, in turn, the character is now so far removed from reality that it hurts the believability factor of the film.

Still, I thought Frost/Nixon was a beautifully crafted film with an incredible Michael Sheen performance, despite the over-hyped performance from Langella.

CBC Rating: 8/10

The Happening (2008)

Night Of The Living Greenery


- I am a fan of M. Night Shyamalan - there I said it. So much of a Shyamalan fan am I in fact that I will even defend the unfairly hated Lady In The Water (2006) to the death. Simply put: I think Shyamalan is one of the better contemporary filmmakers around, making quality films that are always visually spectacular and often meaningful. I would argue that Shyamalan's 2008 film The Happening, about a husband and wife's attempt to survive a deadly environmental event, is a generally good film. However, I do have some qualms with it that make it, in my eyes, Shyamalan's weakest film to date.

The positive elements in The Happening are quite obvious in my view. For one thing, Shyamalan's direction from a visual standpoint is pretty much spot-on. Shyamalan brings back The Sixth Sense (1998) and Signs (2002) cinematographer Tak Fujimoto to work on this film and quality picture is the result. The Happening also has a definite atmosphere with many well-orchestrated and suspenseful scenes. In particular, the opening minutes of the film are chilling and the Mrs. Jones part of the film is a horror film all to itself.

The acting on a part of the main actors is also good. Mark Wahlberg has a few moments of flat line deliveries towards the second half of the film but does a good job overall. He portrays his character very well with both the emotional and humorous aspects of the character ("I'm talking to a plastic plant...."). Zooey Deschanel is also good in the film; her performance might not be of the spotlight screaming kind but she holds her own in a way that is noticeable and credible. John Leguizamo is also good in the film with a character who kind of wears his emotions on his sleeve and Betty Buckley is all-too scary as Mrs. Jones.

James Newton Howard's score is particularly fantastic - mood-setting, melodious, interesting, and makes The Happening a worthwhile film all by itself. Howard does not get enough credit for the style, feeling, and ultimate effectiveness of Shyamalan's films, but his role in The Happening is critical and obvious.

Despite the many good things about The Happening, bad points also exist in plenty. Unlike other Shyamalan stories that are interesting and meaningful, the overall story for The Happening is only mediocre. The viewer is continually interested in the story from the beginning; the main event is pretty shocking and one does care about the principle characters throughout the film's entirety. But Shyamalan also fits a well-concieved love story into this horror plot. Perhaps eclipsed by the horror aspect of the film, the love story between Wahlberg and Deschanel's characters is still included at the right places throughout the film to make it a force in the story and allows the audience to care about what is happening on screen.

However, I am not digging this story in its entirety. Obviously going for a Hitchcock/The Birds (1963) vibe, Shyamalan does not achieve the same kind of environmental fright. While I am sure Al Gore gave The Happening two green thumbs up, "When Global Warming Attacks" is not a film that can be taken 100% seriously. Hollywood is so paranoid about how other people live out their lives that one of its members has actually developed a story where the environment attacks the human race in a violent way. The film even tries to play this part down while highlighting it at the same time. Trying not to alienate viewers by tossing out a "nobody knows for sure" angle, the film still props up the "The Shrubbery Strike Back" reasoning for the event happening throughout the film by the actions of the characters.

Also, Shyamalan's environmental terror lacks any internal or external logic. The environment spreads its deadly toxin through the air and we see our main characters escaping fate by the simple closing of a door. But the funny thing about air is that it manages to get everywhere even if things look closed off to the naked eye. But even if air was easily stopped by a slamming door, it still moves around very quickly - in the film, Elliot has enough time to look scared for a while before shutting the door to try and keep the air out. The film also juggles the way that the environment picks and chooses its victims. Towards the beginning of the film, the environment targets larger groups of people allowing the main characters to remain unaffected. However, at the end of the film, the lonely house full of four (count-'em four) people in the middle of nowhere is attacked - even doing in the eco-friendly Mrs. Jones.

All of this aside, Shyamalan's writing for The Happening is a couple of notches down from his usual standard. Some areas within the film are well-written by Shyamalan but others are not. The illogical aspects of the story are a prime example of this, but there is also a good-sized helping of lame dialogue. Also, Shyamalan's technical direction fails the film too many times; especially when it comes to curbing some of the actors in smaller roles and just not constructing some scenes very well at all. A couple examples of this is the very ineffective scene with the mother on the phone with her daughter as well as the scene featuring the video of the main feeding himself to the lions, which looks like clearly doctored footage that you might find in a Super Bowl commercial. The film's supposed climactic finish is also quite different than most Shyalaman films as well in that it is very anti-climactic and mishandled. "Oh, I guess the event ended when we stepped outside," - how convenient. Most Shyamalan films are remembered for their climaxes (many including a twist ending - but not all) but The Happening finale is at best forgettable.

So for the first time ever, I was left unfulfilled by an M. Night Shyamalan film. The Happening has its good points that tip the scale over the bad in the end - it looks good most of the time, includes good performances from its main actors and is enveloped in a fantastic score. However, the film's drawbacks are plenty enough to damage the film for me. Still, I am in a state of disagreement with the vast majority of the film's critics - I found the film to be better than most suggest. The Happening worked on many levels for me and you can be sure that I will be in line for Night's future projects.

CBC Rating: 6/10

The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (2008)

Young At Heart

- Like some of David Fincher's previous works, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (2008) might give you the creeps but unlike those films (Seven (1995), Zodiac (2007)) it will not scare you. Fincher's full-out fantasy film is really good with unique perspectives on life, love, age, and death.

An old woman lies dying in her hospital bed in 2003 New Orleans. To comfort her in her final hours, she asks her accompanying daughter to read from the diary of a man she knew named Benjamin Button. Benjamin is not a normal person as one would perceive "normal" to be: 99.99% of the world is born young and grows old - Benjamin is that leftover .01% that is born old and dies young.

The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button is a really good film but it is not without some problems. The film tells an interesting story of Benjamin Button but it does so by first telling the pointless sub-story of Monsieur Gateau and his weird clock and then bouncing back and forth like a lazy game of pickleball between the interesting fantasy tale of Benjamin's life and the flat-lined story of the dying Daisy in the hospital. The film would have been much better if it had simply told the story of Benjamin Button without the cheap story-telling gimmick. Also, while The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button is not a complete rip-off of past films, there is a large amount of cinematic déjà vu (Forrest Gump (1994) and Big Fish (2003) especially).

However, plenty of admirable aspects make The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button a very good film. When the film is telling the story of Benjamin Button (which it does for a majority of the time) the story is very entertaining and engrossing. Rarely do we see a person's life shown to us this way: since Benjamin ages from old to young, we watch his life go forwards and backwards at the same time. The acting is great from the stars to the supporting actors. Brad Pitt gives one of the best performances of his career as Benjamin Button, showing great skill in performing an old child and young middle aged man, and Cate Blanchett is in top form as Daisy. What is especially astonishing about The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button is the look of the film. The cinematography is great but it is the special effects that are the most impressive, they are so amazing you watch and wonder how in the world they were achieved! This alone makes The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button one of those "gotta see" films.

CBC Rating: 8/10

Rambo (2008)

A Rockin' Rambo flick - With Some Meaning

- John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) has been living in Thailand for some time, still conflicted, still not ready to go home, and still a dangerous dude. When he gives a group of missionaries a ride into the war-torn Burma, they get captured by the mafia-like military and Rambo decides to rescue them. Rambo (2008) is a pretty good action flick, but there is also some real meaning behind it.

I will admit it right away, I was not sure that Rambo could come back to the screen well. A 20-year absence and a 62 year-old star does not really look like a good mix for a successful film - but to my surprise the fourth entry to the John Rambo series was a pretty good movie. Sylvester Stallone takes over the directing duties as well as the Rambo role here in this film and he assembles and moves the film along well. Rambo is bullet-ridden with clichés in both dialogue and film situations but it also manages to remain brutal and realistic with a few aspects added in that we have really have not seen before.

Rambo is a very graphic film - the action is very exciting but the violence is very gruesome and almost too authentic. The special effects are great as far as explosions and flying bodies go, but there are some obvious CGI work done with many of the bullet wounds and lost limbs in the film. Rambo also brings some attention to the Burma situation, bringing to the screen and the eyes of the viewers the evils of the ruling militaristic government and the real torment of the Burmese people (the film is even banned in that country). This makes Rambo a more relevant film while being an entertaining action film at the same time.

Nobody really gives a bad performance in the film. Some obviously stand out over others however - Matthew Marsden and Tim Kang play very likable mercenaries, School Boy and En-Joo respectively; Julie Benz is good as Sarah, a missionary who softens up our hero; and Sly is of course great as Rambo - at 62 he still makes the role work.

Overall, Rambo is a big-time action film with some real meaning; not wasting one minute of the hour and a half's worth of your time.

CBC Rating: 7/10

Get Smart (2008)

A Fun Spy Spoof

- The 2008 comedy Get Smart is continually gets compared to its 1960s TV show predecessor (that's right fellow ignorant Generation Yers and beyond, this film is based off of the 1960s "Get Smart" TV show), and that makes sense since it is the film adaptation of that show. However, there are many people (such as myself) who have never seen one minute of one episode of the Don Adams TV show. So for the many people like me, there will be no comparing 2008's Get Smart to the old TV show - and in taking an exclusive look at the film, I personally find it to include a large share of stupidity while being pretty funny overall.

Maxwell Smart (Steve Carell) has dreamed about becoming a secret agent for a secret U.S. government agency called Control and finally gets his chance - though it is not under the most ideal of circumstances. He is a very smart and capable guy but he is also quite inept at the same time, which, of course, leads to the largest amount of the film's comedy.

Get Smart includes many funny parts throughout its entirety that are mainly due to Steve Carell's portrayal of Maxwell Smart. Max is faced with many different challenges throughout the film and he ends up being a buffoon as he is trying to do something about them most of the time. Being a buffoon is Carell's calling in life and he naturally excels as this dumbass secret agent. I have not always been thrilled with Carell - I have never been a fan of the American version of "The Office" and few Carell-starred films outside of The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005) have made me laugh - but I really enjoyed his performance here in this film. Carell is not called upon to rely on as much shock humor or stupidity throughout the whole film as he usually is (though it is still there) and I think it helps make him a better comedic actor. In Get Smart, Carell is straight-up yet subtle in his comedic delivery and has rarely been better.

Most of the rest of the cast do a fine job but most just step aside for Carell: Anne Hathaway does her job perfectly (looking hot) as Agent 99, Dwayne Johnson is pretty funny as Control's star Agent 23, and Terence Stamp is tamely evil as the #1 guy on Control's Wanted List: Siegfried.

While the film has plenty of things that entertain, a lot of lackluster or just plain dumb aspects exist as well. Instances of déjà vu are scattered throughout the film like a four year-old with chickenpox - many scenes are taken directly from James Bond and other action films, for example. Also, some of the humor is just painfully unfunny. More than one joke dies a horrible death and adolescent pot shots at then-President Bush grew tiresome long ago.

While some of the misfired attempts at humor bog the film down, some of the actors are really bad as well. It was really difficult  to watch Alan Arkin in his role as The Chief, being wooden as can be and continuing to make people everywhere wonder even more how he managed to ever win an Oscar. Also, David Koechner continues to do what he does best (or worst, depending on how you look at it): being not funny in the least. I do not understand it.... How does this guy keep getting work? Who decided he was funny? Koechner performs his usual overweight and over-aged frat boy routine to new highs in comedic pestilence here in Get Smart - and, wow, do you ever wish he wasn't.

Still, even though it has some truly mindless moments and unbelievably unfunny bits, Get Smart is a pretty fun comedic romp with Steve Carell. I probably will not be first in line to see "Get Smarter" though, should one ever come about.

CBC Rating: 6/10

Hancock (2008)

Holy Hangovers, Hancock!

- Will Smith continues to star in his favorite genre as of late: science fiction. His latest one, Hancock (2008), is an unusual sci-fi/superhero flick - and that is one of the biggest reasons why it is also a *good* sci-fi superhero flick.

Hancock throws the audience into a world where superheroes are a nonchalant matter-of-fact.
It would not be uncommon for Angelinos living in this film world to turn on the TV to news that Los Angles' unofficial city superhero, John Hancock (Smith), has ruined a part of town again with his own version of crime fighting. Hancock is not your typical superhero. He will not be found perched on a rooftop somewhere waiting to pounce into action upon hearing a scream from a distressed damsel, the whirr of an emergency siren, or seeing a special signal in the sky. He can be found passed out at any one of the conveniently placed benches throughout the city - whiskey bottle in hand, hat over his eyes, and five' o'clock shadow ever-present. He will get up and "help out" if he feels like it - but he will play by his own rules, which usually means destroying everything in sight because he could not care less about anyone or anything. You can guess how much the city loves him. One day, Hancock saves Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), a public relations professional, who is determined to help Hancock with his image. As Hancock attempts to turn himself around, crooks get in his way and things get complicated between him and Ray's wife Mary (Charlize Theron).

Hancock is not a perfect movie. Sometimes the film does not follow its own set-up rules, is too weird for its own good, and incorporates a bit too-heavy-handed a style. But, overall, Hancock is one of the better superhero films around. The film can be very funny but it also finds time for some real sci-fi style drama through its character-centered story. Most superhero films could care less about character, as action and special effects often take center stage, but Hancock revolves around its characters more than most films in the genre. Of course, Hancock is also action-packed. A lot of the film's attempts at stunning CGI action scenes do not work out very well (sometimes you think you are watching a video game demo) and the camera shakes around a bit too much (let's leave the shaky-camera style with the boring Bourne series, thank you) - but most of the film's action is very fun and exciting.

The lead performances are also hit. Will Smith performs the lead role with his usual charm, emotion, humor (mostly dry in this case), and general likability. He is the film's nucleus - it just would not function right without him. But Smith is not the whole show: Jason Bateman is very entertaining, Charlize Theron works well in her role as well, and Eddie Marsan plays a great greasy villain. Everyone creates likable characters that really make the film watchable.

Overall, Smith and an unusual superhero tale makes this film a pretty entertaining hour and a half. Hancock is not a perfect film but it is better than most of its superhero sub-genre.

CBC Rating: 7/10

Friday, August 5, 2011

Australia (2008)

Kidman & Jackman Sitting In A Tree....

- I have never been to Australia but I hope for the sake of those who live there (and those who have visited, I suppose) that the continent is nothing like the 2008 film of the same name: a boring, predictable and pastel place full of shallow people. Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge! (2001), Romeo + Juliet (1996)) directs girlie heartthrob Hugh Jackman and the never aging Nicole Kidman in this lackluster outback adventure.

Kidman stars as Lady Sarah Ashley, an English aristocrat who is forced to live and is completely out of her element in the Australian outback. The Sarah Ashley character is stunningly similar to Kidman's character in the 1992 epic Far And Away, Shannon Christie, who is also a European aristocrat (only an Irish one) - but watch out: Kidman's Shannon and Sarah are both unpredictable and adapt quickly to their new ruffian lifestyle! Also similar to the Shannon Christie character, Sarah Ashley falls for the seemingly irresistible tough guy: in the case of Australia, this happens to be Hugh Jackman's character Drover, who is - you guessed it - a cattle drover. The two spend their time quarreling and taking passionate but fleeting glances at each other as they waste the audience's time meeting a magical Aborigine child, struggling to ward off a wealthy cattle owner who wants their land, driving cattle across the Australian wilderness, and trying to survive the Japanese bombing of the city of Darwin when World War II hits their shores.

It is hard to believe that the film could be more bland and predictable than it is in its current form. No characters can be found in the film, only cereal box cut out versions of some. Kidman is the dainty aristocrat who has to pick herself up from the bootstraps and live out in the wild, Jackman is the dreamy broad-shouldered tough guy who is strong but also tender (just how the gals love them: completely unrealistic), David Wenham is the seedy double-crossing bad guy who will stop at nothing to get his way, Brandon Walters is Nullah the Aborigine with a heart bigger than the whole of the continent - find me a genuine character in the film and I will buy you a Coke. On top of featuring this toneless cast of characters, the near three-hour film is made worse by the thick pastel coloring and boring cinematography, which makes the film look like its sets were made out of clay.

This epic is an epic failure.

CBC Rating: 4/10

The Sundowners (1960)

A Downer

- As much as it pains me to say this, as both a huge fan of Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr, how Fred Zinnemann's 1960 film The Sundowners was nominated for five Oscars (let alone more than just the one for Kerr) is beyond all understanding. Half-following around the Carmody sheep droving family around the Australian outback, The Sundowners never seems to be able to pick up the pace or begin to tell a solid story.

Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr reunite for their second film three years after the excellent John Huston film Heaven Knows Mr. Allison (1957) in The Sundowners. Mitchum plays Paddy Carmody, an Irish-Australian man who loves to be on the move from job-to-job and place-to-place; Deborah Kerr plays Paddy's wife Ida who is never afraid to speak her mind and has had enough of the Carmody's nomadic lifestyle; and Michael Anderson Jr. is Paddy & Ida's only child, Sean, who is also eager to stop moving around to settle down and manage a farm.

So there you have it: the Carmody family is divided between a father who wants to keep his adventurous life on horseback and a son and mother who want to take life easy in a home. The Sundowners does touch upon this story arc from time to time and when it does the film is interesting and engaging but unfortunately never dwells on this aspect of the story long enough to make it an interesting focal point of the film. Instead, we see the Carmodys lead sheep across the Australian outback, shack up with a loud and half-in-the-bottle sheep-shearing outfit and try to race a racing horse, putting the family tension storyline out to pasture throughout the film.

The effectiveness of the film is hoisted upon the starring shoulders of Mitchum and Kerr, who are highly entertaining in a slow-moving film with basically no cohesive story and the sun as its only source of lighting (the cinematography seen here is as boring as the art form gets). Both Mitchum and Kerr do a more than admirable job but only have the help of Peter Ustinov - who excels in a supporting role as the Carmody's loyal family friend Rupert Venneker - to make the film watchable. The three great performances are enough to make The Sundowners worthwhile but they are not enough to declare it fantastic or a "must-see" film as its five Oscar nominations might suggest.

CBC Rating: 6/10

Bird (1988)

A Noble Effort

"There are no second acts in American lives." - F. Scott Fitzgerald

- A poignant phrase to set the tone for the film, the quote above by F. Scot Fitzgerald is used to open Clint Eastwood's1988 film Bird about the life of jazz saxophonist Charlie "Yardbird" Parker. In fact, the quote captures the essence of the wasted life of Bird Parker, the brilliant trail-blazing musician cut down by the vices of substance, probably better than the entire film did. One can tell that director Clint Eastwood and company put in a lot of time, effort, and passion into Bird; unfortunately, the film suffers from a few crippling drawbacks.

The quality of the film's visual presentation is beyond question. Clint Eastwood and cinematographer Jack N. Green paint a very visually stimulating picture of Bird's life in the 40s and 50s - from the picture quality to the art direction, Bird looks terrific.

The film is also filled with excellent music - from the original music from Lennie Niehaus to the source jazz used for the film. Looking and sounding good is important for a film - and in the case of Bird, enough to carry it into the above average category - but there has to be more, and Bird does not fly high enough to achieve it.

Bird is often called a "tribute" to or "collage" of Parker's life, rather than existing as a pure biography film. Such words do describe the film's intentions well; unfortunately, Bird is a bit too collage-like for its own good. The film jumps around in time and space too much and one often wonders where they are within the film - it makes the film messier and harder to follow.

On top of this is the acting, which fails to be anything spectacular. None of the principles really shine - Samuel E. Wright gives the best performance in the film but he is in a small supporting role. Forest Whitaker gives an impassioned, sometimes powerful, portrayal of Charlie Parker but never seems to really get a hold of the character and Diane Venora gives a clear example of outlandish overacting as Chan Parker (Bird's bird) and it completely ruins scenes.

As a big fan of Clint Eastwood and jazz music, I really wanted to love this movie but because of the messy narrative and substandard acting I simply could not. Bird remains a noble effort by Eastwood and Whitaker but not a great film.

CBC Rating: 6/10

The Two Jakes (1990)

A Disappointing Yet Not Completely Bad
Sequel To Chinatown (1974)

- The natural reaction upon discovering that a sequel to the amazing neo noir classic Chinatown (1974) exists is both to immediately gasp in horror and to be a little bit interested. Since the Roman Polanski-directed, Jack Nicholson-starring Chinatown is one of the finest thrillers ever constructed, the idea of a sequel is unnerving because its unnecessary and sequels are generally not as good as their originals; but because Chinatown is such a great film, the idea of a sequel is also interesting because a sequel could, potentially, be as great as Chinatown. 1990's The Two Jakes is the sequel to Chinatown, reuniting Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne and starring actor Jack Nicholson, who also directs the film. Set in the late 1940s, Private Investigator J.J. "Jake" Gittes again gets involved with a usual case of infidelity that turns into something far more serious.

When viewing, discussing, judging, or doing anything that revolves around The Two Jakes, the comparison to its successful older brother Chinatown is inevitable. While it makes sense to make some comparisons to Chinatown, this should not be the only action towards The Two Jakes as it should be judged on its own merits. But having said that, The Two Jakes is basically incomparable to Chinatown anyhow because Chinatown is a much better movie right from the word "go": The Two Jakes is only a slightly above average film.

Actually, things start off very well, the story begins with Gittes preparing for a sting with a client  with the plot becoming quite involved quite fast. The first third of the film is shot very well, written very well, acted very well, and the film simply flows very well. Then The Two Jakes slowly develops into a slide show of bland framing and editing and begins to over-pack all sorts of plot-thickeners and "twists" into the film that creates a confusing mess. At a certain point in the film, the viewer does not know where or why or how characters are coming or going - or what is going on at all!

Jack Nicholson's performance of Jake Gittes is one of the few constant bright spots of the film, reviving his sarcastic, no-nonsense private eye character very well. The Jake Gittes in The Two Jakes lacks the same flare as the Gittes in Chinatown but that is understandable; Gittes is older now, a World War II veteran who has traded in his spying gig for a business man's life. However, old habits die hard when Gittes does one more detective job and his emotions get in the way of the case as he tries to keep stride with the enemy. It may not be one of Nicholson's finest hours but he does do a good job, putting a whole lot of strength into the role and bringing out Gittes' feelings of the past that haunts him very well. Unfortunately for Nicholson, he gets no help from his supporting cast whatsoever. Harvey Keitel is weak, Madeleine Stowe is terrible, David Keith is pathetic, and it's difficult to keep even one eye open when Rubén Blades is on screen.

The Two Jakes does have a few other positive points to it though. While much of the film's framing and editing is pretty bland, the entire film is well lit and colored as well - however, not achieving the same film noir effect of Chinatown. Also, amidst the over-convoluted story, Robert Towne manages to squeeze a few lines of good and funny dialogue into the film.

So with Jack Nicholson leading a film with a mostly poorly written story that is mostly well shot, I say that The Two Jakes is not a bad film and is mostly worth one's time. Still, by being a disappointing addition to the fabulous Chinatown, you almost want a third film to finish off the series.... Almost.

CBC Rating: 6/10

The Heiress (1949)

"Yes, I can be very cruel....
I have been taught by masters."

- Eternally blinded by the highly romanticized memory of his late wife, wealthy New York Doctor Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson) has long lost any hope that his enormously shy daughter, Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland), will ever get married. Then one day, instead of ignoring or ditching her like most men had been doing, a young Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) comes calling on Catherine with an immovable eagerness. However, instead of being overcome by joy as his daughter finds true love, Dr. Sloper is skeptical from the start. Since Morris has no money or career to speak of, Dr. Sloper suspects Morris of being interested in Catherine only for the wealth she would gain in the future and is therefore greatly opposed to the whole situation. But Catherine's world gets turned upside-down as things grow far more complicated and revealing when she and Morris decide to tie the knot.

Superbly directed, acted, scored (by American music legend Aaron Copeland), and written (adapted by Augustus and Ruth Goetz from their play and the Henry James novel Washington Square), The Heiress (1949) is a great period character drama. Rightfully winning the Academy Award for Best Actress, Olivia de Havilland gives an unforgettable performance as Catherine Sloper. Overcoming (and probably feeding off of) bad on the set vibes, courtesy of the jealousy and egos of her co-stars, de Havilland brings her quiet, sweet, and a little awkward Catherine Sloper character to life with great poise - changing along with the development of her character.

The only problem with the film as I see things - and an unfortunately significant problem with the film - is Montgomery Clift's performance as Morris Townsend. From opening to close, Clift is not bad enough to make you cringe but he teeters on the border of terrible and average, giving a performance that is as stiff as a stop sign and as weak as a sick kitten. In addition to this, he is not convincing whatsoever in all his "shalt"s, "yearn"s, and his other deliveries of the 19th century dialogue. Suddenly Errol Flynn does not sound so bad after seeing Clift in the role....

Still, Clift can only do so much to hurt the film overall. With its interesting story, great look, and fantastic performance from Olivia de Havilland, The Heiress (1949) is a must see drama.

CBC Rating:  8/10

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Double Indemnity (1944)

The Walk Of A Dead Man

"Suddenly it came over me that everything would go wrong. It sounds crazy, Keyes, but it's true, so help me. I couldn't hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man."

- One of the pioneers of the film noir genre, Double Indemnity (1944) is a contextually fascinating, visually stunning, and cinematically lovable film noir from Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler.

On a seemingly routine job, insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) becomes infatuated with his client's wife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) and helps her turn her unloving husband into "hard cash" via insurance fraud and a little thing called murder. With his insider know-how, Walter believes that he and his sweetheart can get away with murder and live happily ever after. However, the situation becomes increasingly complicated through a roller coaster of twist and turns as Walter's boss Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) unravels the plan little by little and Phyllis becomes more and more untrustworthy.

If you are looking for a classic film noir story, look no further than Double Indemnity, where good people get eaten up in the dark underworld of film noir. Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler do a wonderful job adapting James M. Cain's novel to the screen. Along with this interesting and classic Cain-inspired film noir story in Double Indemnity is the fabulous smart, funny, and even shocking dialogue that makes it up. The mark of Philip Marlowe author Raymond Chandler on the film's script is very evident and key to the strong impact that the sharp and witty dialogue has on a scene. Perfect examples of this can be found in many different places throughout the film but some of my favorite pieces of dialogue are Keyes' absolutely hilarious speech about the mathematics of suicide and Walter and Phyllis' flirtatious back-and-forths which are humorous and coy while doing much to add a whiff of danger in the air. My favorite line in the movie can be heard when Walter explains how he could not hear the sound of his own footsteps, it being like the walk of a dead man. The line sends a shiver down my spine every time.

Double Indemnity has a great cast, one of the finest principle casts ever assembled. Known primarily as a comedic actor at the time, Fred MacMurray stars as the doomed lead Walter Neff. A large number of Hollywood heavyweights passed on the role but the out-of-type MacMurray proved to be perfect for the character of Walter Neff; intense and paranoid with an unflappable front of countenance and laid-back sarcasm. Also, while Walter may catch the film noir bug and develop greedy, lustful, murderous thoughts, the character because MacMurray creates a relatively normal, stand-up guy out of the character, enabling the audience to relate.

Barbara Stanwyck is also terrific in her Academy Award-nominated role as Phyllis Dietrichson. While most Hollywood actresses would not touch the toxic role of Phyllis Dietrichson, Stanwyck jumped at the opportunity to play such a strong character and, in doing so, embodied the definitive femme fatale: conniving and adulterous, she gives the lead man the impression that he is in charge and calling the shots when the truth of the matter is that he's being played like a cheap violin to do her dark dirty work. Because of Stanwyck's subtle treachery and undeniable attractiveness, we as the audience, just like Walter, fall for her even though we know that she is no good. We want her to get away with the crime while, at the same time, we want her to bite the dust - and this love/hate relationship that both Walter and the audience has for Stanwyck's Phyllis Dietrichson is one of the film's most powerful elements.

Edward G. Robinson also delivers a mighty fine supporting performance, stealing nearly every scene as the detective-like insurance man Barton Keyes. At the time, Robinson thought himself too big a star for a supporting role like Barton Keyes - having defined the gangster genre with his performance in Little Caesar (1931) and many other gangster films. However, Robinson ended up accepting the role because his career was starting to slump - and thank goodness too because Robinson is an unstoppable force in Double Indemnity (not to mention how the performance re-invented his career). With intelligence and humor, Robinson creates a highly entertaining character in Barton Keyes, delivering a spectacular performance about as fast as a sound carries and wiser than any of his previous wise-guy gangster roles.

Director Billy Wilder could not have assembled the film any better. Instead of revealing the violence, sex, and twisted nature of the film's characters through blatancy, everything is dealt with through a very effective power of suggestion by the acting and/or simple presentation of the scene. As with most great films noir, Double Indemnity is excellently photographed. Very dark but very stylish, nearly every scene includes eye-wrangling shots and remarkable imagery. People may walk up to a sun lit house and a dressed up door way, but they soon find themselves in a dark seedy lair with the light trying its best to squeak into the room every chance it gets.

What a cinematic sight to see! Wilder's screen vision, the flawless cast and unforgettable Raymond Chandler/Wilder script make Double Indemnity a brilliant movie and a quintessential film noir. Unmistakably a timeless classic and a standout within the film noir genre, Double Indemnity is a film that simply cannot be missed.

CBC Rating: 10/10

The Big Steal (1949)

Mitchum & Greer Are Back!

- After starring together in the classic 1947 film noir thriller Out Of The Past, Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer team up again for 1949's The Big Steal. Directed by Don Siegel (Dirty Harry (1971); a virtually unknown talent at the time) The Big Steal has a great combination of romantic comedy, action-adventure, and film noir aspects that make it a very well-made and enjoyable film. Clocking in at only 71 minutes, The Big Steal is a short burst of incredible comedy noir entertainment with the delightful screen duo of Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer at the center of it all.

The story is very simple - one big steal leads a chain of people after each other in a cat-and-mouse game throughout Mexico - but is an effective enough MacGuffin to allow the viewer to be highly entertained by the characters and adventure, rather than a deep plot, without blinking an eye.

When it comes to The Big Steal, plot matters not as the showings of Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer are what puts cheeks in the seats. Mitchum exercises his signature toughness and coolness in his performance as the wronged and rambunctious Duke Halliday and Greer is as bittersweet as can be as the feisty and quick-witted Joan Graham (a.k.a. "Chiquita"). Watching two actors work perfectly together is a lot of fun and Mitchum and Greer make this film worth while by themselves.

Because many in Hollywood wanted to distance themselves from Mitchum's drug use, jail time, and tabloid drama as a result of his recent and very public marijuana bust, the filmmakers found it difficult to cast the Joan Graham part. However, it was Mitchum's friend and former co-star Jane Greer who happily stepped into the role.... well sort of happily; Greer was all-to-eager to work with Mitchum again but she was newly pregnant and had to work with ex-boyfriend producer Howard Hughes. The pairing would prove to be the best choice after all as Mitchum and Greer have excellent chemistry together, dishing out light-hearted sarcastic comments to each other like an old married couple with each one giving as good as they get.

A debate rages on as to whether or not The Big Steal is even a film noir because it is heavy on the romantic and screwball comedy elements. Had it not been for the featured handful of hardboiled sequences and shadowy final act, I might not call the film "noir" either. However, I am a bit more liberal than most in my noir categorizing and, for me, while not one of the most archetypal films noir, the featured hardboiled scenes, shadowing, cynical Robert Mitchum lead and cat-and-mouse crime angle is enough to make The Big Steal a hybrid noir in my eyes.... and a very entertaining one at that.

CBC Rating: 9/10

Pulp (1972)

Michael Caine Makes It Work

- Michael Caine and director Mike Hodges, having both worked on the great and gritty Brit gangster film Get Carter (1971) the year prior, reunite for another Brit gangster film in 1972's Pulp. The difference between both films is that Pulp does not take itself as seriously and is simply not as good as Get Carter. Still, Pulp works well and is plenty entertaining, thanks mostly to Michael Caine.

Caine stars as Mickey King, a ghostwriting author of cheap and sleazy pulp fiction novels ("famous for such books as 'My Gun is Long'"). To his credit, King knows that his writing is not exactly top-of-the-line art, but he writes because writing has been a lucrative line of work for him. He is one of those guys who does not have much to live for: his wife up and skedaddled with the children and he does not seem to care all that much. So he travels, writes, and writes as he travels. While in Malta, King is surprised by a proposition to write the life story of eccentric retired actor Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney), surprised because he is simply not the type of author you ask to write your biography. In normal film noir fashion, King becomes wrapped up in the dangerous scandal that has been following Gilbert around and leaving a blood trail.

Placing Pulp into one all-summarizing film genre is hard to do and that fact is one of the film's biggest strengths. A mixture of originality and nostalgia, Pulp is a little bit gangster and a little bit film noir, with a tuft of comedy thrown in: Italian gangsters run the show; many scenes are blanketed with voice-over narration, and Caine sneaks in a handful of laugh-out-loud quips. Not having the same flare as The Godfather (1972) or the fast-pace nature of a Martin Scorsese gangster flick, Pulp is very similar to Hodges and Caine's collaborated Get Carter in its flow and cinematography (even including a scene on a beach that makes you think you are re-watching Get Carter). Even though the plot is heavily congested and the entire film occasionally moves too slowly, Pulp is a fairly enjoyable neo noir gangster film.

Supporting actors Mickey Rooney, Lionel Stander, Al Lettieri, and Lizabeth Scott perform their roles well enough to get by, but Michael Caine is the entire film - he hardly leaves sight of the camera. The plot might get hazy here and there but Caine remains the film's rock, making the Mickey King character interesting enough on his own so that the viewer does not really need to follow the plot to be entertained. Caine does not step too far outside of his acting box with his performance in Pulp, but his cynicism with a smirk and dry wit combined with his impossible-to-duplicate screen presence makes the performance a real treat to view.

Pulp is definitely a recommendable film. It appeals to fans of film noir and the gangster genre, those who enjoy an offbeat cinematic experience can find themselves enjoying this movie, and Michael Caine makes it all worthwhile. If following the plot was not as hard as walking a mile through five feet of tar, Pulp could very well have been a great film.

CBC Rating: 7/10

Lady In The Lake (1947)

A Monotonous Marlowe Murder Mystery

- I am a big fan of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe character but I was let down by Marlowe's third on-screen film noir mystery Lady In The Lake (1947). Robert Montgomery stars in and directs this monotonous film.

Filmed in a first-person point-of-view (a technique that worked out much better in a film noir from the same year called Dark Passage), Montgomery tries to have fun and be unique with Lady In The Lake but the technique is not consistently effective and the pacing is all off. If Montgomery had made the camera - which is basically Marlowe's eyes in the film - move a little bit faster, the film would work that much better. Marlowe looks around and walks so slowly in every scene of the film that it looks like he just got back from giving blood without having any rest or a cookie. Give me a break - nobody walks that slowly, let alone a no-nonsense private eye!

Of course, it does not help the film out any that the acting is also subpar. Montgomery is a dull Philip Marlowe, he is hardly terrible in the role but he somehow manages to make the character boring (which I should maybe be giving him credit for, on second thought, because that is a really hard thing to do) and is, ultimately, the only actor that has failed to impress me as Philip Marlowe. Co-star Audrey Totter can be seen overacting her part at hilarious levels in every frame, you wonder during all the countless times she gives a shriek glance at the camera if her eyeballs are going to pop right out of her head and dangle all about. Really every other cast member is just bad, unfortunately.

But despite all of that Lady In The Lake is not a completely bad film - the lighting is fantastic, the dialogue has its witty moments, and story is intriguing enough to keep you planted in your Lay-Z-Boy for the hour and forty-five minute duration. Still, it is a pretty ho-hum noir overall.

CBC Rating: 5/10