Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Big Sleep (1946)

"Let me do the talking, angel. I don't know yet what I'm going to tell them; it'll be pretty close to the truth."

- Humphrey Bogart stars as private detective Philip Marlowe in the 1946 classic film noir adaptation of Raymond Chandler's equally classic novel The Big Sleep. In his second big screen splash, Marlowe is hired by the rich and the ailing General Sternwood to fix up his family's troubles: smooth over some pending debts and bad feelings. Now if Marlowe thinks that this will finally be the routine case that he is looking for, with no plot twists or endless trails of crazy characters, he is nuts - this job is not like running an errand and Marlowe sees the situation quickly descend into obscenity, blackmail, and death.

While first and foremost a well-made and enjoyable staple in film, The Big Sleep is certainly a dense film. This puzzle has a lot of pieces but an understanding of the film's complex plot (as well as an overall appreciation for the film) does grow after multiple viewings. However, while teetering on the brink of telling an overly-complicated tale, the story is extremely absorbing in its fluid complexity and keeps the viewer on their toes. But who really pays attention to the plot in a film noir anyway? The Big Sleep - thanks to writers William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman - is packed with really snappy dialogue and - thanks to director Howard Hawks' expert direction - is fast-paced, dark, and thick with mood. Hollywood's censoring Production Code cut some of the story and dialogue elements down to incisive innuendo but in my opinion, as is the case with many films made during the Code era, the attempts to censor only provided the filmmakers with an opportunity to say things in an intricate and subtle fashion - and the film is all-the-better for it.

An excellent Humphrey Bogart performance is at the center of this clever thriller. The sort-of James Bond of film noir, the Philip Marlowe character has been portrayed by many actors over the decades but Bogie's one-and-only portrayal of the classic Philip Marlowe character seems to be the most remembered of all of the past and future screen incarnations of the character. Bogart's performance here in The Big Sleep is in the top level of his rather lengthy list of great performances, heavy on his timeless tough guy magnetism and unique delivery of witty lines, but, unlike Dick Powell's Marlowe performance in Murder, My Sweet (1944), Bogart is less like the Marlowe of Chandler's novel and more like Bogart because, well, he is Bogart. However, while there is a small degree of separation between his Philip Marlowe character in The Big Sleep and the Sam Spade character he played in The Maltese Falcon (1941), Bogart does a particularly splendid job reflecting the literary Marlowe character in his wonderful delivery of the sarcastic quips and really bringing out Marlowe's favorite vice of getting too personally involved in his cases behind a veil of indifference.

Seemingly more iconic than its complex plot, sharp dialogue, cool atmosphere, or even the specifics of Bogart's performance is the film's on-screen acting duo by the off-screen Hollywood couple of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The funny thing is that this on-screen romance would have been in much shorter supply had the studio not demanded more romantic screen time for Bogie and Bacall in an attempt to recreate the magic of To Have And Have Not (1944) and to save Bacall from a repeat of the Confidential Agent debacle where her performance was destroyed by the critics. Bacall is quite good in the film - though arguably outshined by the short but captivating performance from co-star Martha Vickers (despite Vickers' role being cut down in post-production to avoid this) - and The Big Sleep is remembered by many as a great second act in the four great films Bogart and Bacall starred in together. While Bogart and Bacall's undoubtedly wonderful chemistry is certainly fun to watch on screen, The Big Sleep is, for me, more of a terrific film noir than a great romantic vehicle for Bogie and Bacall. Overall a dense, clever, and hard-edged final product, The Big Sleep is an unforgettable film noir.

CBC Rating: 10/10

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Unknown (2011)

A Good Mystery/Action Thriller – Until....

- When everything is said and done, I would call Unknown (2011) an entertaining and recommendable mystery/action thriller - but it also left me disappointed.

The main gist of the plot is as follows: Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson), on a business trip to France with his wife, wakes up from a coma only to find that someone has assumed his identity and no one (not even his wife) recognizes him. The film begins very well and continues on for most of its runtime as a high-speed and character-centered Hitchcockian thriller. The story gets rolling very quickly - but not too quickly to the point where we are not able to connect the characters - and an exciting, mysterious tone is set immediately.

The film also looks good with above average framing, editing, cinematography, etc. from the filmmaking team. Director Jaume Collet-Serra makes some good stylistic choices that enhance the enjoyment of the film but also makes a lot of safe choices at the same time which bogs Unknown down as a genre film. One thing I particularly liked from Collet-Serra however, was the way that he handled the long scenes (by 21st Century standards) without dialogue. Such a thing is very risky to attempt in today's film market but these scenes are also, ultimately, a very engaging section of the film.

As Dr. Martin Harris, Liam Neeson wastes little time in proving to the audience that he is quite obviously too good for the material. The presence, cool, relatability and dimension that Neeson brings to the Martin Harris character and the film as a whole is essential to the enjoyment of the picture – there is  simply no movie without him. Why Neeson continues to star in these action thrillers as of late (such as Taken (2008) or The A-Team (2010)), as entertaining as they are, instead of the intelligent dramas he could be winning awards for I will never know. The vast majority of the rest of the film's cast are forgettable with the exception of the beautiful and dynamic Diane Kruger and a scene-stealing Bruno Ganz.

Unknown has a lot of components that make it a good mystery/action thriller – until it turns on you. Now, the film is not exactly perfect even when it is operating at its highest level: the script is littered with dialogue clichés and some of the action sequences have been seen and executed far better in past films (including the one particularly boring car chase in which Neeson drives the car backwards through a crowded area) – but those are minor quibbles.

Instead, the largest let down was the film's twist finale. When we find out that Neeson was a trained assassin and not the person he was for the entire film up to that point, the film's plot twists around so fast that it breaks its own neck. Not only are there questions as to why Harris does not revert back to who he used to be once his memory is jogged but the character we had just spent an hour getting to know turns out to be a completely different character altogether in the blink of an eye. Martin Harris goes from a developed character that we enjoyed and could identify with – down to nothing, a shell of a character that is supposed to be but whom we do not know! It pulls the rug out from under you, the viewer, so fast that you fly feet-over-hair-follicles flat on your ass.

My dislike for the film's final act does not mean that I did not enjoy the film or would not recommend it to others. I would count 70% of Unknown as a great modern thriller – but the other 30% disappointed me greatly.

CBC Rating: 7/10

Monday, September 19, 2011

Blue Valentine (2010)

Until 'Fed Up' Do We Part 

-  I do not know what Def Leppard was talking about; love does not "bite." Nope, only marriage bites - at least, that is what the 2010 Indie Blue Valentine would have you believe. Taking a shallow, leering look into how love is awesome but marriage is the pits, Blue Valentine is only recommendable to those who enjoy watching pretentious Indies filled with dysfunction, sobbing and head-in-hands.

Blue Valentine is about Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), a struggling married couple trying to raise their daughter in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. It takes two to tangle in this troubled marriage: the immature Dean is frustrated with their passionless marriage and the selfish Cindy feels disinterested with life in general. Of course, things were not always this way. Dean and Cindy used to be madly in love; you know, before they got hitched. Oh what great times they had purposelessly running around town, spontaneously making love (at least once in public) and dancing to Dean's ukulele on a dark, neon-lit street. It was a regular white trash Emo dream!

But that was then; this is now. Years after getting married, Dean and Cindy have grown far apart - for.... uh.... some reason  - and as a result of a combined resentment and anger over their relationship, Dean and Cindy yell at each other a lot and are generally dissatisfied with life as they know it. Ping-ponging back-and-forth between these in-love and out-of-love dimensions of Dean and Cindy's relationship, Blue Valentine creates a pretentious, dysfunction-laden Indie drama for us to choke on.

Stars Michelle Williams, getting an Oscar nomination for her performance, and Ryan Gosling, getting accolades of his own, certainly convince but unfortunately can go so far with the unlikable characters. One can easily see that Williams and Gosling tackle their demanding roles with a focused professionalism but the characters fail to strike a chord with the audience. The problem is that Dean and Cindy are incredibly unlikable characters on paper not just because of their destructive actions in the film but just because they are selfish degenerates that only the modern age could birth.

Visually, the film looks like a commercial for Ragstock. This comes as no surprise since the film's director, Derek Cianfrance, had little outside of music videos and documentaries to his name prior to Blue Valentine. The film incorporates the same enervated visual style of the modern low budget Indie and all of the boring grainy dreariness that comes with it. I, personally, love a cheaply made dark-and-dank-looking film; but the catch is that a film has to be *stylishly* dark and innovative within the confines of its low budget. However, Blue Valentine is not stylish but vapid and barren; cut from the same conceited cloth as other Indie films that look like crap on purpose because its fashionable.

If I have not been clear already, let me reveal that I had a thorough and fundamental dislike for this awful movie. Blue Valentine is one of many films that throw nothing but dysfunction and sadness in the face of the audience, expecting us to be moved and impressed about a story featuring people that should be happy but, because of their shallowness and selfishness, are not. Well, we are not moved nor impressed. Blue Valentine contains a sexual content that originally earned the film an NC-17 rating before the filmmakers edited it down to R and features more tears than "Absolutely" (OK, that's a weak reference but hopefully you'll get it) but none of it means anything because it is all born out of the shallowness and self-centeredness of the film's detestable characters. The act has worn thin Hollywood: we need more than just sobbing, sex and dysfunction to be moved and entertained! We need relatable and interesting characters, an engaging story and striking visual style in our tragedies - none of which shows up in Blue Valentine.

"Is this you?"

A recurring visual motif throughout the film, the specifics of the phrase "is this you?" is not explored directly in the film. However, it did resonate with me and I have developed my own personal interpretation of the phrase: If "this" - Dean and Cindy's relationship - is not you, give thanks; but if "this is you," seek counseling immediately.

CBC Rating: 3/10

Hereafter (2010)

 Eastwood Explores The Afterlife 

- As legendary actor/director Clint Eastwood enters his twilight years, it makes sense that he would direct a film about death. While perhaps not one of Eastwood's finest directorial efforts, Hereafter offers much to admire and enjoy.

The film focuses around three characters whose lives are all connected by a preoccupation with death. George (Matt Damon) is an American ex-psychic, a man who has a special gift for communicating with the dead but refuses to use it because it has constantly ruined every good relationship he ever had.  Marcus (Frankie & George McLaren), a young British boy, is crushed by the death of his twin brother Jason, who was both his voice box and emotional rock of which he heavily relied upon. Marie (Cecile De France), a French journalist, had a personal brush with death that has since haunted her every step. Barely surviving the December 26, 2004 India Tsunami, Marie is both afflicted by survivor's guilt and obsessed with finding answers to what seemed to be a first-hand experience of the hereafter.

While certainly pacing the story and mishandling a couple of scenes in particular (especially a strange daydream kiss), Clint Eastwood and company assembles Hereafter very well. As is the case with most of Eastwood's filmography, there is not one bad shot in the entire film. Eastwood yet again teams up with cinematographer Tom Stern to create an exquisite visual product. With a spellbinding use of color and especially shadowing throughout, Hereafter is an excellent example of Eastwood's eye for visuals.

The acting is also good all-around. A twin tag-team duo of Frankie & George McLaren do an admirable job starring as Marcus and Jason. Child actors are not always known for giving great performances and, while they have their weaker moments throughout the film, the McLaren twins have a lot of impressive moments and certainly convince in their roles. Tragically overlooked by the Academy, Cecile De France is a major force in the film as Marie and Hereafter also sees recognizable faces Bryce Dallas Howard, Jay Mohr and Richard King giving good supporting efforts. Matt Damon is especially good in this film, giving what I believe to be his best individual performance yet. I do not say this lightly, as I have not always enjoyed Mr. Damon's acting, but his sympathetic multi-dimensional and, more importantly, subtle portrayal of George in Hereafter is acting excellence if I have ever seen it. All of the characters really propel the film forward and bring something memorable to every scene, making Hereafter a very engaging watch.

Hereafter features many good elements that make the film admirable and recommendable but its themes sound the loudest. Undoubtedly impacting each individual viewer in a very different way Hereafter does a better job than most other similarly geared Hollywood films in addressing the possibility of an afterlife but is not nearly as insightful as it could have been. Those who have not figured the whole death thing out may very well consider Hereafter and all the ways it explores the answers to the questions concerning what happens when we die to be a thoughtful film. However, the ideas on the afterlife as portrayed in Hereafter may seem wrong or even a bit silly to those who have figured the whole death thing out. Hollywood, as it writes off the possible religious explanations for life after death, just loves the idea of a religion/afterlife that can be proven correct by human science. While approaching the topic of an afterlife in a generally balanced way, Hereafter does incorporate this sort of in-search-of-science aspect to a hereafter pretty blatantly. 

Hereafter is not a perfect film but with Clint Eastwood at the helm it is an interesting and stylish film with ambition that is unrivaled in Hollywood.

CBC Rating: 7/10

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

Robert Downey Jr. Rocks
In This Clever Post-noir Gem

- Shane Black has been a part of some of the more creative action films of recent years, writing the Lethal Weapon films and Last Action Hero (1993) - even acting in Predator (1987). Black is back in 2005 writing another unique film, only this time also in the director's chair, with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang - a neo black romantic comedy noir action spoof. Um.... Yeah!

Distinctly original yet also familiar in many ways, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is dark and thrilling yet also uproariously funny - it really should be called "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang Laugh Laugh."

Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) is the perfect example of the movie man who is stuck in an unusual and difficult situation (and he will tell you as much, he is the film's narrator - he will also tell you to shut up and deal with that). Harry is a thief turned actor turned private detective - well, o.k., not officially but that's how things certainly work out - but he is not cut out for any of those professions. Naïve, completely out of his element and never finishing anything he starts, Harry is a perfect failure. Harry is also performed to perfection by Robert Downey Jr. With a quirky brand of charisma, likable disposition and absolutely hilarious line-deliveries, Downey Jr. brings his character to life - all the while lighting up the screen and stealing every scene.

Harry might be stuck in a bad situation, but luckily for him, he is not going it alone. Running into his high-school sweetheart Harmony (Michelle Monaghan), who is anything but harmonious, Harry becomes involved with her – only…. not in the way that he hoped. Monaghan is stunningly good here in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang as Harmony, giving a lively performance that is probably her best ever.

Also helping out Harry is Gay Perry (Val Kilmer), a tough professional private detective - and, if you could not figure it out, Perry is gay, and for no other reason than to fit in a bunch of gay jokes into the film. Kilmer plays Perry and, while he does have flashes of greatness here and there throughout the film, ends up in cinematic mediocre-land overall.

Filmed at a snappy pace with slick style and 4th wall-breaking charm, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang could not have been put together any better. Shane Black does an excellent job switching from funny to serious in the film; bringing in a lot of film noir elements but offering a truly unique product in the end. The tone can switch in the blink of an eye, but it works - no sweat. Like many films noir, the story in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is character-centered but convoluted and stretched out a bit thin with almost too many things going on at once. However, everything works out in the end because of how hilarious the dialogue is and how everything is cleverly presented.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a real gem with everything working for it: a hilarious yet dark script, a great visual style and an unforgettable performance by Robert Downey Jr. that holds the film together.

CBC Rating: 9/10

Made Of Honor (2008)


"Made Of Honor." Get it!?

"Made" + "Of" + "Honor." = Maid Of Honor!

One gets a clear idea of what this supposedly funny film attempts to pass off as comedy just from the title: cheap, cheesy and thoughtless bits of what is supposed to be make the audience laugh.

The 2008 film Made Of Honor boils down to a painfully unfunny remake (basically) of the painfully unfunny romcom My Best Friend's Wedding (1997) starring the dude from "Grey's Anatomy." Sure, the two films are a little bit different - in Made Of Honor it is the female friend who asks the male friend to be her maid of honor instead of the groom asking the female friend to be the best man - but there are two major similarities:

1.) Both films are not funny at all.

2.) Both films feature insufferable lead characters.

Patrick "McDreamy" Dempsey stars in Made Of Honor. Everyone of course knows him from "Grey's Anatomy" fame; personally, having previously never seen the show, I jumped to the conclusion that Dempsy was the gay co-star who got called that derogatory name by Isaiah Washington (apparently it was T.R. Knight) but my wife corrected me that Dempsey is not gay - he is, in fact, "McDreamy." Who knew?

Either way; Dempsey sucks. Who decided that this guy was talented - let alone likable enough to center an entire film around? I guess the ladies like him; otherwise he would be out of a job. Dempsey is a terrible actor; really hammy, has little presence and is, specific to this film, not very convincing as some kind of playboy as he is way too effeminate - even if he is not gay. I mean really, even if one thinks Dempsey is "dreamy," you have to admit that his character gets into food and fashion just a little too much to be a convincing playboy in this film.

Dempsey or no Dempsey, one has to be some kind of masochist to put themselves through this film more than once. Never mind that it is a structural mess as it tries desperately to stick to romcom formula like a leech - all that would be forgivable to a point if the film were funny and enjoyable - the film has nothing going for it at all since the jokes are incredibly unfunny and the characters are not likable in the least.

The characters are simply unlikable through a variety of means - who they are on paper, their actions throughout the film, characterizations by the actors, etc. - but they particularly make no sense at all. Hannah (Michelle Monaghan) is built up in the beginning of the film to be smart, not taking a lot of chances, and not exactly adventurous - however, after only six weeks of dating decides to marry someone she met in Scotland. Hmmm.... that's interesting - seems like a plunge for someone who usually plays it safe. A similar nonsensical thing occurs with McDreamy's character: are we really, honestly, supposed to believe that McDreamy suddenly snaps out of a Tomcat lifestyle and is ready to settle down with Hannah in the blink of an eye? Look, I know that some guys are "trainable" to a point, but come on!

But the fact that the characters make no sense ultimately does not matter. I have noticed a trend in the average "chick flick": nobody is a real character. Most romcom characters seem to be who the targeted audience wants people to be, which is this: flawed to a point but ready to shake off those flaws in an instant after being changed by the love interest. If you love watching that, then Made Of Honor might just be up your alley - but for me, Made Of Honor is just made up of unfunny skits and unlikable characters.

CBC Rating: 3/10

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Dark Knight (2008)

Why So Highly Acclaimed?

- The success of director Christopher Nolan's 2005 Batman reboot, Batman Begins, not only changed the superhero genre (how many times since has a superhero film franchise started over?) but spawned an even more successful sequel The Dark Knight in 2008. Breaking away from the character-centered narrative of Bruce Wayne established in Batman Begins, The Dark Knight takes a theme-centered approach to the superhero tale that is gritty and grounded in a real-world feel, a direction that makes the film look like it would be more at home with Heat (1995) or The Departed (2006) than Batman (1989) or Iron Man (2008). Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) is faced with a new kind of enemy, an enemy that cannot be bought or satisfied because he "just wants to watch the world burn." The Joker (Heath Ledger) is that enemy and Batman must work with Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Gotham's new D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) to stop this enemy that they cannot understand.

One of the greatest box office successes in United States history, The Dark Knight has also received a truckload of acclaim that movie studios only dream of - and I haven't the foggiest of ideas as to why. While including enough truly great elements to make the film good overall, The Dark Knight lacks general execution, cinematography, performances and simply memorable scenes that snatch greatness right out from under its chiropteran claws.

I have never been a fan of Heath Ledger ever since the first time I saw him shooting Red Coat caricatures in The Patriot (2000) and prancing it up in A Knight's Tale (2001). I have never hated any of his performances; but I sure as hell never liked them. Well, Ledger's performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight is a performance that I can wholeheartedly say that I enjoyed - his performance of the Joker is one of the finest things that is a part of this film. Ledger's Joker is not better or worse than Jack Nicholson's take on the character in Tim Burton's 1989 Batman film; he is a different character entirely. The Joker in The Dark Knight is out of his mind but brilliant, always one step ahead of the good guys and kills because it gets him off. Ledger employs many facets into the character, uprooting the Joker's smart, crazy, evil, subtle and even humorous sides in all sorts of excellent ways.

As good as Ledger is here in this film, I was impressed the most by Gary Oldman's performance of Lt. Jim Gordon. Overshadowed, however wrongly or justly, by Ledger's unique performance (also putting into considering the significance of Ledger's performance within the context of his life) Oldman tosses out the British accent and plays this gold-hearted workhorse cop to perfection, giving his Gordon character the most characterization in the film. Naturally, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are also up to their usual high standards as Alfred and Lucias respectively. The Dark Knight is also filled with some stimulating action scenes and James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer's score works just as incredibly well as it did in Batman Begins.

However, The Dark Knight has a big problem: it has little style, atmosphere or feeling. Where Batman Begins followed a blueprint of characters first and themes and action second, The Dark Knight flips this around to the film's disadvantage. The first hour or so is muddled, rushed, poorly edited and focused on action meanwhile throwing out any character development. Things start to pick up towards the middle where some of the film's characters are flushed out more and its themes enter the picture but then it is back to business as usual towards the end of the film. One criticism of Tim Burton's Batman films is, ironically, that they are not films "about" Batman and the villains take up most of the story. Well, guess what, The Dark Knight is not about Batman either as the action scenes, story themes and the Joker, Gordon and Dent characters have just as much screen time as our caped hero. I have no problem with that, however: where, I say, is the same outrage among Batman fans?

The cinematography is also all too ordinary - and I say that with conviction in the face of the fact that cinematographer Wally Pfister won the Oscar for his work on the film. Although I am at odds with the more influential Academy members, I thought that Pfister failed to repeat the same level of cinematic achievement that he achieved in Batman Begins. Sure, The Dark Knight is a dark, shadowy movie; but few unique shots and great cinematic coloring can be found, something that strips the film of any deep picture and real style.

While Ledger, Oldman, Caine and Freeman are all fantastic in the film, no one else is. To my surprise, and after a riveting performance in Batman Begins, Christian Bale is absolutely bland in a tux as Bruce Wayne and in a cape as Batman here in The Dark Knight. It sure does not help that he has less of a character to play than he did in Batman Begins; however, his individual performance is just about as interesting and exciting as ice water in this film.

Former Rachel Dawes Katie Holmes is absent from the film and Maggie Gyllenhaal comes in to fill the love interest shoes. Here in The Dark Knight, Gyllenhaal gives hope to mediocre actresses everywhere by giving a truly forgettable performance in a major blockbuster. But on top of that, she is just ugly. I mean, Holmes is no Meryl Streep but she is at least cute; and let us face the facts, Rachel Dawes does not have much to do in these Batman films besides being cute. Rounding out the rest of the main cast is Aaron Eckhart, also a Nolan Batman newcomer, who gives an inconsistently poor performance as the two-faced Harvey Dent. At the beginning of the film Eckhart is pretty bland, nothing special; but he gets progressively better as the film continues.... Until, that is, he goes completely ass-over-eyeballs over-the-top by the end of the movie.

The filmmaking and performances aside for a minute, one of the biggest question marks that hangs amidst the Hollywood community's praise for The Dark Knight is how the film adheres closely to the George W. Bush, Neoconservative (and, to be fair, Barack Obama and Democrat) policies and support of the War on Terrorism. As outline by conservative author Andrew Klavan, regardless of how you actually feel about Bush or the actual War on Terror, the way that The Dark Knight not only mirrors but vindicates the position of the Neocons is as clear as day - from language to visuals and the way that the Joker carries out his evil deeds to the ways that Batman decides to combat such evil. Now, I am not coming down on either side of the War debate right now, I simply find the praise for such a blatant vindication of the Bush Administration by a very anti-Bush Hollywood extremely odd!

When I was walking out of the theatre after viewing The Dark Knight in the summer of 2008, I could not help but feel gypped by the hype. This was supposed to be a brilliant film - a one in a lifetime experience; a game-changer. However, not only did I feel that Batman Begins was a more impressive film and more significant film for the entire superhero genre, the largest quadrant of my reaction to The Dark Knight was dedicated to how much of an overrated film I felt it was in general. The Dark Knight, while entertaining in many ways, suffers from some major cinematic woes - from filmmaking snafus to acting disappointments - but has a bigger problem yet. As critics hailed it in their columns and fans loved it at the box office, The Dark Knight failed to deliver anything truly memorable outside of Ledger's Joker and Oldman's Gordon for me. Yes, these are great things; however: Where were the timeless scenes? Where were the lasting images? Where was the lingering film feeling? Well, the answer seems simple to me: they are nonexistent; the only thing that The Dark Knight has to offer is Ledger's Joker, Oldman's Gordon, cool music and the short-lived excitement from the action scenes. These elements are great enough to carry The Dark Knight into cinematic superhero goodness.... but not greatness.

CBC Rating: 7/10

Batman Begins (2005)

Batman Reborn


- The Hollywood market is saturated with superhero films and, unfortunately for the viewing public, most of these films are of low quality and are an absolute chore to sit through. Most of these films are absolutely ridiculous with thin recycled plots, bloated over-extravagant action scenes, and reduced to a sleepwalk by its shabby acting. The last Batman films of the 1990s, Batman Forever (1995) and Batman And Robin (1997), embodied the ridiculousness and redundancies of the tired superhero genre. So incredibly bad was not only the film itself but the critical and public reaction to Batman And Robin that Warner Brothers had to pull the planned sequel Batman Triumphant - placing the then near decade-long Batman film series on indefinite hiatus.

However, Batman Begins (2005) is not one of these view-and-forget'em kinds of superhero films in my opinion; in fact, Batman Begins is quite a good film when measured up in any applicable genre. This film, along with the few other quality superhero films, is what a worth-while super-hero film looks like: stylish, dark-toned, well-written; containing the right amount of action and yet a very human story at the same time. Batman Begins was a game-changing film for the superhero genre. Like the Lord Of The Rings Trilogy was for the fantasy genre, Batman Begins made superhero films legitimate again, proving that a superhero movie could be entertaining and interesting at the same time.

Batman Begins brings the Batman story back to its roots in a very entertaining and artful way by showing the haunted past that plagues Bruce Wayne's mind and how and why he becomes Batman. Taking the Batman films in a new direction required a new Batman: Christian Bale. Bale is superb in the role; naturally, his performance here is not in the same league as his performances in The Machinist (2004) or Rescue Dawn (2006) but it is still great - and when comparing Bale to other majority of leading actors in superhero films, he looks like Pacino in The Godfather (1972). This film is not just "star-studded," it's "talent-studded." Liam Neeson, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Tom Wilkinson, Cillian Murphy, and Ken Watanabe are all excellent in their roles - even Katie Holmes manages to not suck!

With Batman Begins we see other high quality aspects not seen in other super-hero films. Great cinematography is one with Wally Pfister's Oscar-nominated effort with a real dark look and great picture quality. A well-written script is another, with a slightly simplistic overall story, but with great dialogue that is both entertaining and a direct route into Bruce Wayne's character. James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer's collaborated score also cannot go unnoticed, with strong blasts of musical mood as well as powerful melodic subtleties.

As much as I like the many aspects of the film, I get the most enjoyment out of Liam Neeson's individual supporting performance of Henri Duncard. Perhaps not of the same caliber of Michael Collins, Oskar Schindler, Jean Valjean and other characters he has played in the past, Ducard gives plenty for Neeson to chew on and show why he is one of the best actors of our day. Here Neeson does what Hollywood likes to use him for the best in their mainstream films: playing the mentor role - at least, that is what we are supposed to think.... In the beginning of the film, Neeson's Henri Ducard character helps Bruce discover meaning and direction for his life and gives a great performance as a very likable and strong character. However, when Ducard turns the tables on Bruce and turns out to be Ra's Al Ghul later in the film, Neeson continues to dazzle the audience with an excellent twist of character that is too deliciously evil (to quote Stewie Griffin) not to like.

Neeson has played some not-so-nice dudes in the past, but he has never played a comicbook-style villain like Ducard. But for being in a supporting villain role, Ducard is surprisingly given a lot of characterization - thanks in no small part to Neeson. The character is written well, giving Ducard a dark past and twisted sense of idealism; but it is through the subtleties of Neeson's portrayal that we get a true sense of and full enjoyment out of the character. Neeson consistently shines in his starring roles but he also shines in his supporting roles where he regularly steals the scenes away from his co-stars and he certainly does that here in Batman Begins. Bruce Wayne's quest for direction in his life is the focus of the film but it is Neeson who steals scenes with every line delivery and towering presence and not Bale: when Wayne becomes Batman and hops the train in a heroic showdown with Ducard, Neeson's performance is still powerful and draws the biggest attention. Beginning with that truly awesome stunned glare upon seeing Batman somehow catch up with him on the train and ending with the calm closing of his eyes as that train flies off the tracks, Neeson ends the film with a loud thunderclap of a bang.

As good of a movie as it is, Batman Begins does suffer a bit from the ill-advised addition of some stereotypical super-hero screen woes. There are too many clichéd lines like "time to play," "he begged - like a dog," "I wanted to save Gotham...." plus clichéd situations like that little kid surviving the toxin and saying worn-out things like "Batman will come .... I knew you'd come" and the goofy cops trying to find Batman during the highway chase for my liking. However, Batman Begins still lowers its head and powers through the rest of the films that are attached to its genre; standing out as one of the best Batman films and superhero films in general ever made

CBC Rating: 8/10

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The 39 Steps (1935)

"What are The 39 Steps?"

- Despite his household name and prestigious reputation as a brilliant filmmaker, few outside of the film buff world realize that director Alfred Hitchcock's career spanned across six decades and produced over sixty films (not to mention all the many years he carried out non-directorial duties inside the film industry). Hitch's career features diverse periods, ups and downs, not unlike renowned painters; in fact, the majority of his most-known films were made later in his career (such as Rear Window (1954), North By Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963)). Following the successful The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), his first film for the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation, The 39 Steps (1935) was one of Hitchcock's first big hits and is still one of his most acclaims works. Like many film fans, I found The 39 Steps to be an impressive and entertaining Hitchcock thriller; however, I do not regard it quite as highly as the best of the very best of Hitchcock.

Robert Donat stars as Richard Hannay, a Canadian visitor to London. While attending a performance by "Mr. Memory" - a man who seemingly knows the answer to every question because of his uncanny memory -  shots rings out and Hannay escorts a frightened woman, Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), away from the panic-stricken music hall to his flat. Annabella is not using Hannay for what you might think; Annabella claims that she is a secret agent on the run from an international group of killers who want her dead because only she knows of a secret threat to Britain's national security. In a shocking turn of events, Annabella is murdered in Hannay's home - his own knife stuck in her back. Hoping to alert the authorities to the secret she knows, Annabella gives Hannay a marked-up map of Scotland and one seemingly nonsensical phrase, "39 Steps," before she dies. Holding information of severe national importance and with the evidence in Annabella's death against him, Hannay must evade the police as well as trained killers as he attempts to clear his name and save Britain at the same time. Hannay is not in Canada anymore.... The plot contains many Hitchcock staples; including but not limited to murder, espionage, MacGuffins, wrongly accused men on the run and Hitch's seeming obsession with trains. As usual, Hitchcock tells the story of Hannay's struggle for survival very well, keeping character at the heart of the story.

Hitchcock is considered, rightly so, the "Master of Suspense." However, he is also, in my mind, the "Master of the Suspension of Disbelief." Who besides Hitchcock could make a story about an insurance salesman-turned-CIA operative, Kamikaze birds or an oedipal killer not only entertaining but interesting and meaningful as well? Most story elements that seem far-fetched and would not work effectively in other films work perfectly in an Alfred Hitchcock film because Hitch finds a way to make them relatable and believable. However - without giving anything away - some aspects of the story are a little too far-fetched in The 39 Steps, even for Hitchcock, because they simply lack any logic at all.

This failure to keep the suspension of disbelief going for the entire 86 minute runtime, for me, is the biggest flaw in The 39 Steps; however, there is one other problem I had with the film. Hitchcock is known for slow-burning suspense but The 39 Steps sometimes cannot even warm up to a light boil. The film is not short on exciting or memorable scenes but too many times The 39 Steps features, as Hitchcock himself defined with distain, "pictures of people talking."

The 39 Steps is not a perfect film but it, nonetheless, manages to be a high-quality Hitchcock thriller thanks to the good performances and Hitchcock's masterful visuals. The performances are good all around - from supporters to leads, the cast is quite convincing. Robert Donat is a classic lead; a perfect fit for the wrongly accused, fish-out-of water Hannay trying to clear him of a crime he did not commit and attempting a mission that he is not qualified to carry out. Madeleine Carroll really excels in her role as Pamela, an innocence bystander at the wrong place at the wrong time who is dragged into Hannay's dangerous predicament. A role far ahead of the times, Pamela is no damsel in distress; she can take care of herself just fine and helps Hannay along the way. The performances are compelling but Hitchcock's visuals are especially noteworthy. All of the things that Hitchcock is known for - interesting angles, atmospheric lighting, etc. - appear to great effect but The 39 Steps is also memorable in how Hitch beautifully puts the Scottish Moors on screen.

It is easy to see why The 39 Steps is considered by many as one of Alfred Hitchcock's finest films: the plot contains many elements that make Hitchcock a wonderful storyteller, Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll create compelling lead characters and the visuals are stellar. But while The 39 Steps technically impressed and entertained me, it did not contain enough for me to echo the same amount of praise as others give the film. In my view, The 39 Steps is a flawed classic 1930s Hitchcock thriller that would lay the ground work for future brilliant Hitchcock films.

CBC Rating: 8/10

Friday, September 2, 2011

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

The Definitive Raymond Chandler Screen Adaptation

- Of all the many films that make up the film noir genre, Murder My Sweet (1944) is one of the greatest. Out of his normal film milieu (comedies and musicals before this film), Dick Powell stars as Philip Marlowe, a private detective whose services are hired out for what was initially an average case. However, this seemingly normal case quickly sinks deeper into complexity and spins out of control.

Dick Powell dominates his character and every inch of Murder My Sweet. The Marlowe character is interesting right away off the pages of John Paxton's script as an unconstrained yet human private eye. He is detached, dry  and sarcastic, getting under everyone's skin as well as getting in the way of their plans. However, despite the fact that he does not look for much more than hard cash and a "soft shoulder" in life, Marlowe is not so indifferent to what is going on that he will not do a thing to two because he actually feels it is the right thing to do. Philip Marlowe is a great character from the starting gun, but he is also richly enhanced by Dick Powell's performance. Through Powell, Marlowe is a smart and resilient private eye, but he's not a typical film noir tough-guy as Powell also brings a unique presence and acting credit to the role that is unrivaled by other performances within the genre. In Murder My Sweet, Marlowe is very cool and humorous thanks to Powell's laid-back swagger; but the viewer also feels the character's fear and anger through Powell's explosive turns. If it was not for the other high-quality aspects that go into Murder My Sweet, Powell would make the film all by himself.

Powell is great in Murder My Sweet but, to make matters even better, he is surrounded by other good actors who give good supporting performances throughout the film. There is not a bad performance in the entire film but there are some performers who are particularly memorable. Alluring and sharp, Claire Trevor and Anne Shirley do an incredible job with their roles, giving Marlowe a double-dose of femme fatale mystique. Mike Mazurki is also great as the intimidating not-so-gentle giant Moose Malloy and it is hard to forget Esther Howard as the unsettling Ms. Florian.

John Paxton pens a treasure of a screenplay from Raymond Chandler's novel (Farewell My Lovely) and translates the intricate plot, character framework, and very witty dialogue wonderfully into the film. Murder My Sweet is also filmed astonishingly well with fantastic expression and fluidity. Director Edward Dmytryk forms every scene to perfection, giving Murder My Sweet exceptional energy, coming up with many innovative shots, and telling the story from a great perspective. Additionally, the film has very atmospheric cinematography with bold textures and cascading shadows that does just as much storytelling as anything else in the film. Murder My Sweet simply incorporates a wonderful set of high-quality direction, cinematography, screen writing, and performances to end up as a fantastic film noir for the ages.

CBC Rating: 10/10

Farewell, My Lovely (1975)

A Fine Technicolor Film Noir

- Author Raymond Chandler's Private Detective Philip Marlowe character sets out on his second case of the 1970s in Farewell My Lovely (1975), a fantastic adaptation to Chandler's novel of the same name. The highly entertaining mystery seen in this film begins with Marlowe being hired out to find Velma, the former girlfriend of the big and mean Moose Malloy. As if Marlowe has some kind of chronic condition for getting into trouble, he ends up getting caught up in a twisted web of danger as he sets out to find Moose's dame.

Farewell My Lovely is very similar to other Philip Marlowe films but does hold its own as an original addition to the unofficial series. Staying true to the unspoken underground sin of the 1940s, as written in Chandler's novel "Farewell My Lovely," this film is a little closer to the source material than the first film based on the novel (Murder My Sweet in 1944). Also, unlike the previous Philip Marlowe film, The Long Goodbye (1973), Farewell My Lovely does not redefine Marlowe in a 1970s setting but is a period film set in the 1940s. Director Dick Richards basically creates a dark and stylish 1940s film noir with 1970s equipment and a throw back 1940s film noir star: Robert Mitchum.

Mitchum is a great Philip Marlow and easily ranks along side other screen Marlowe greats Dick Powell from Murder My Sweet, Elliot Gould from The Long Goodbye, and Humphrey Bogart from 1946's The Big Sleep as a wonderful screen incarnation of the classic character. Mitchum does not go out of his way to give much of a "performance" that differs from his own personality, but he does not have to because the Philip Marlowe character is very similar to Mitchum's classic screen presence. It is no stretch for Mitchum but it is a great performance - for all intents and purposes his swan song, a performance that captures the essence of what made Mitchum famous and legendary: Mitchum's Marlowe is sarcastic yet professional, lethargic and passionate at the same time; he balances brutality and morality, carries a mean yet comforting swagger, and is tougher than a gorilla on steroids but has an easy-to-rupture vulnerable side.

Supporters John Ireland, Anthony Zerbe, and Harry Dean Stanton also make a decent showing with Charlotte Rampling and Sylvia Miles (in an Oscar nominated performance) really standing out among the supporting cast. Jack O'Halloran is also a great casting choice for gigantic tough-guy Moose Malloy and you cannot miss Sylvester Stallone in a non-speaking role.

The only downside to Farewell My Lovely is linked with one of its greatest strengths. Because Farewell My Lovely stays very faithful to the original Chandler novel, it also ends up looking very similar to the 1944 film that is also closely based off of the novel: Murder My Sweet. We see scenes and sets of dialogue in Farewell My Lovely that look as if they were lifted right out of Murder My Sweet, taking away some originally points. Despite this factor, Farewell My Lovely remains a, may I say, lovely film noir adaptation of Raymond Chandler - plus, if one has not seen Murder My Sweet then there will be no trouble in the first place.

CBC Rating: 9/10

Rukajärven Tie (AKA: Ambush - 1999)

See The Fighting Finns On Film

- The Soviet-Finnish conflict of the late 1930s and early 1940s seems to be forgotten, or at least overlooked, in the big picture of World War II. (Well, not by the Finns of course.) Only a few weeks after the German-Soviet invasion of Poland, The USSR decided that they wanted some Finnish lands for military purposes. Naturally, the Finns were not going to begin to allow the Soviets to march in easy as they please and take part of their country away. Thus the Winter War was; and one cannot make up a story as interesting and courageous as these events of history.

The 1999 Finish war film Rukajärven Tie (Ambush (English title)) is a solid war film set in these dark days, adding a fictional element about a young Finnish Lieutenant and his fiancé and how the war affected them.

In Rukajärven Tie, the feel of the times is conveyed very well through this character-centered story. The way the war was fought is portrayed in an interesting way, the production design takes you back to 1941, and the cast all gives solid performances that connect you to the story. However, there are a few pieces to this film that does not leave you fully satisfied. The overall script is a bit generic with a slightly underdeveloped love story and themes/scenes have been seen many times before; however it is still not a bad script, it is just not that great. Rukajärven Tie also has a handful of cool shots and strong battle sequences but the overall cinematography work really pulls the film down in quality. Most of the picture is fine; however, some scenes feature a color palette that is of a straight-to-CD-ROM value.

While perhaps a bit standard in content at times and lacking in visual fineness on occasion, with an interesting presentation of the Soviet-Finnish conflict from a Finnish perspective Rukajärven Tie is still an impressive war film by and large.

CBC Rating: 7/10

The Thin Red Line (1998)

A Lackluster Attempt At A Great
And Beautiful WWII Film

- Hollywood is not short on war films these days and I would rank The Thin Red Line (1998) among the worst. Now are there good points to the film? Yes. Cinematography pro John Toll does an incredible job with putting the actual Battle of Guadalcanal on screen with great use of color and camera work. Some of the acting in this film is also pretty good, Jim Caviezel and Elias Koteas are fantastic in the film and Sean Penn and Ben Chaplin give above average performances as well. Nick Nolte however is terrible in this film as he usually is in other films - he has to be one of the most overrated pathetic excuses for an actor ever and gives a performance in The Thin Red Line that does not fail to disappoint.

Now what does this film try to accomplish? Like most war films, it shows the horrors of war – which of course features scenes that are 100% one-sided, showing the American troops as barbaric murderers. Also, it tries to portray dissension in the US armed forces. The problem is that I am not buying it - if one is going to make a war film that includes dissension in the armed forces, do not set it during a time where dissension in the armed forces was BARELY EXISTENT!

Ultimately, The Thin Red Line tries to be a beautiful and inspiring war film but fails miserably. You can tell this by all the many interjections of random sequences featuring clichéd images and sappy dialogue clearly intended to tear up the eye and fluff up the soul. This is the biggest detractor from the film - it is very disorderly and prosaic.

The Thin Red Line is an easily skippable film.

CBC Rating: 4/10

The Last Chance (1945)

A Decent 40s World War II Film

- Set in the Second World War, The Last Chance (1945) is about two soldiers (one British and one American) who escape from a train taking them to a German prisoner of war camp and make a break for the promised land of neutral Switzerland. However, things get more complex as these soldiers run into a multi-national group of refugees and attempt to help them across the Swiss border as well - with the German army in hot pursuit.

The Last Chance is a pretty good 1940s war film with a nice depiction of the human side of the war and a very authentic feel (though not to the extent of the great 1945 war films like The Story Of G.I. Joe). Winning the International Peace Award and Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and the "Best Film Promoting International Understanding" at the Golden Globes, The Last Chance is definitely a film promoting peace and working together, showing the horrible life people were forced to live because of the Nazi's war and the many different nationalities working together (even singing a multi-lingual rendition of "Frère Jacques").

Unfortunately, outside of John Hoy the cast aspires to adequate and the film's original print has been so badly damaged and/or deteriorated that no team of highly trained DVD technicians could perfectly restore the picture - but it does not look like it would help a ton either way since it looks like hardly any money was put into making the film. But despite the C-Movie look, The Last Chance is actually a decent World War II film - and quite easily available, I might add.

CBC Rating: 6/10

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The African Queen (1951)

An Overpraised Huston Epic

- Often touted as one of the great John Huston's finest films (if not his very best movie), The African Queen (1951) charmed but ultimately disappointed me. The first of what I like to call "Huston's two-people relationship amidst war & adventure film" (like Heaven Knows Mr. Allison (1957) and The Man Who Would Be King (1975)), The African Queen tells the story of two westerners in WWI Africa – the Canadian Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) and English Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn) - who fall in love on the beat-up, rusty African Queen as they sail down river to attack a German warship.

Overall, the film is a fun and charming ride down the Ulanga River with some humorous scenes and some good stylistic choices on the part of director John Huston. It must have been a grueling shoot indeed, the jungle settings are eye catching and some of the things that Huston is able to pull off in the film are incredible. While the film has many good points, there was enough bad points to leave me a bit disappointed by the end.

One thing that disappointed me was the film's love story, which felt contrived, forced, and formulaic. Not one moment of the film convinced me that any real feelings of love existed between the two characters, I felt as if the film was banking on me blindly believing in it. A film that depends so much on the success of the romance between its two lead characters, like The African Queen, needs to make sure that its romance feels genuine – and I feel like it did not work out here.

Another negative point in the film comes from the cast, to my surprise, which is actually comprised of two of my all-time favorite actors. Katherine Hepburn is unsurprisingly perfect in her role as Rose - no problems here - but I was not enthralled by what Humphrey Bogart did in this film as Charlie. Overall, I would give Bogart a passing grade because of the presence he brings to the character but he did not really impress me the way that I am used to being impressed by his performances – I certainly would not have given him an Oscar for it. The film held the potential for Bogart to shine in a role that stood outside his comfort zone but he does not quite nail the part. First of all, if Bogie was ever to pass for a Canadian in a film he should have thought about trying to do something with that pesky New York accent! Secondly, Bogart was simply way too much in this movie way too often. Bogart is zany and unrestricted in this film – but the whole thing ends up sending out a huge Bugs Bunny vibe. Bogie squatting on top of "The African Queen" making monkey noises is not exactly his finest hour.

John Huston is one of the best directors in film history and Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn are two of the finest actors in film history – but that does not mean that The African Queen is a masterpiece. By and large, I would say that The African Queen is a well put together and enjoyable movie but its merits take it nowhere near the masterwork mantle.

CBC Rating: 7/10

The Red Badge Of Courage (1951)

A 'Red Badge Of Courage'
Is Not Necessarily A Badge Of Honor

- Sandwiched between two of John Huston's better known film efforts - The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and The African Queen (1951) - The Red Badge Of Courage (1951) is also one of Huston's better films. A mostly faithful but fast-forward version of Stephen Crane's famous novel of the same name, The Red Badge Of Courage is a quick (69 minutes long) but big and thoughtful American Civil War picture.

One of the most highly decorated American soldiers during World War II, Audie Murphy, stars as "The Youth" - a young man fighting in the American Civil War who is faced with fear and courage amidst the horrors of war. Murphy is very entertaining and fully believable in the role, whether he is scared out of his mind or roaring with passion as he takes on the entire Confederate army. Most of the other supporting actors do a fine job but Bill Mauldin is really the only other actor besides Murphy who gives a memorable performance.

Because of studio disputes and disagreements about The Red Badge Of Courage, John Huston lost control over it and left to work on The African Queen. As a result, the studio edited the film down to its current 69 minute form and added a bunch of needless and at times annoying narration. Although Huston might not have been able to make the film he originally had in mind to make, what he was able to do makes The Red Badge Of Courage a very good film. The entire film is very well shot but Huston especially puts his war footage experience to good use by creating some very grand and exciting battle scenes - The Red Badge Of Courage is definitely a contender for the most epic film with a short runtime. But the film is not all blood-and-guts, Huston takes the film down to a very human level and makes the story meaningful.

Huston may have had to walk away before finishing it, but The Red Badge Of Courage is still a very good film and is a nice piece of his filmography.

CBC Rating: 8/10

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

An Enjoyable Heist Noir

- It is an elaborate jewel heist - thought up, backed up, and carried out by the best in the criminal industry: There is the brains of the operation Doc Erwin Riedenschneider; the money Alonzo D. Emmerich; the driver Gus Minissi; the safe-cracker Louis Ciavelli; and the muscle Dix Handley. Though naturally, whenever you get a group of con men together, they start trying to con each other.

I enjoy The Asphalt Jungle; I am not exactly bowled over by it, but it is an enjoyable film to be certain. The story is good overall and the dialogue is pretty snappy; however, the film has not exactly aged well. Call me immature, but I could not help but snicker as Dix roared "You BONED me!"

The Asphalt Jungle does have a nice look though, with good picture (I especially like the way camera moves) and some big sets. John Huston is one of the best directors in cinema history and does a good job creating the look for the film.

The Asphalt Jungle also features an impressive cast. There is no sole star or main character of the film but Sterling Hayden grabs the spotlight with his performance as the broken-in criminal with high aspirations Dix Handley. Hayden is up to his usual high acting standard (and this performance was very early in his career); however, while Dix is supposed to be from the South, he is curiously minus one Southern accent throughout the film except when he says the word "Kentucky." Still, Hayden makes the role work very well. Dix is the muscle, and Hayden sure looks the part - I sure would not want to get into a rumble with him! There' is not a bad performance in the film but some members of the cast are better than others. Sam Jaffe is real good in his role though as Doc, earning an Academy Award nomination for his performance; Marc Lawerence pops up here with a memorable supporting performance; and Marilyn Monroe is of course stunning on the screen.

Overall, I like The Asphalt Jungle - good story, good look, good cast - not one of Huston's finest efforts but a good film noir nonetheless.

CBC Rating: 7/10

Annie Get Your Gun (1950)

Gunnin' Down A Dream

- Fans of musicals might get more out of Irving Berlin's 1950 musical Annie Get Your Gun than I did. Not particularly a fan of musicals, I did enjoy the film overall but the over-the-top goofiness and cheesy fluff that most (if not all) musicals include simply turned me off at times. Rarely is there a time that I do not shift in my chair or raise my eyebrow in disbelief as a character SUDDENLY breaks out into song. Come on, that just does not happen in real life - and when it does, people get thrown into the loony bin for it. But seriously: what do I know? I am simply not much of a fan of musicals. Still, I found myself generally entertained by Annie Get Your Gun.

Annie Get Your Gun is a fictitious account of female sharpshooter Annie Oakley, who after beating out #1 sharpshooter Frank Butler in a shooting match, ends up touring with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. Annie is not wired for show business, she is a down-and-dirty country gal used to taking care of her siblings and fending for herself, not catching train rides to the next place where she will have fun doing something she likes. She is a fish out of water, and it makes for some fine musical entertainment - that and the other part of the story: her feelings for seemingly unattainable Frank Butler.

Betty Hutton stars as Annie and gives a very charming performance. Hutton did not exactly have it easy in the role, stepping in for a legend of show, Judy Garland, who fell off the deep end with health and personal problems. The studio did not treat her well (not even inviting her to the premier of the film) and the cast and crew did not treat her well (even her romantic interest in the film, Howard Keel, did not get along with her). But Hutton pulls off a highly entertaining performance having a well-timed sense of comedy, contributing well to the tender scenes of the film and giving the musical scenes her all.

The most successful of songwriter Irving Berlin's Broadway musicals, Annie Get Your Gun is transferred very well on screen. I must admit that I did not care for all of the songs that were featured in the film, some were simply boring, but there are plenty of good tunes. "There's No Business Like Show Business" and "Anything You Can Do" stand out as the most recognizable tunes in the film (to me, anyway) and the best scene of the film features the latter of the two. But Annie Get Your Gun also works well on a cinematic level. While picking up an Oscar for Best Music, Annie Get Your Gun was also nominated for Best Cinematography (Color), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Color), and Best Film Editing - and rightfully so.

Here is the point in the write-up where I would probably suggest that if one does not like musicals they will not enjoy Annie Get Your Gun - but I will not say that because I did enjoy it. The film is surely not for everyone but even the most intractable stiff can have fun watching Annie Get Your Gun.

CBC Rating: 7/10

The Snake Pit (1948)

Olivia de Havilland At Her Best

- Mentally sick people used to be lowered into snake pits a long time ago, thinking that the shock of it all would cure them of their insanity....

Virginia Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland) sits on a park bench, looks around and realizes that she is in a mental hospital and has no idea how she got there. People seem to know her name and she seems to remember their voices, but she is lost in a state of confusion. "You're sick," they tell her - but she does not feel sick. "I'm you're husband," one man says - but she does not know the man....

Very much ahead of its time in many different ways, The Snake Pit (1948) is a great film about one woman's struggle to get well and put her life back together. The film's trailer exclaims Virginia Cunningham is "certainly the most challenging role - ever played by a woman."

Ah yes, 1940s sexism.... Cute.

The role is indeed challenging for any actor and Olivia de Havilland rises to this extraordinary challenge, giving one of her very best performances as Virginia. De Havilland simply excels in the role - very explosive and bringing out the confused and scared as well as the kind and caring sides of her character to out of this world levels. She does a great job portraying a very sick woman while being incredibly likable and relatable at the same time.

While de Havilland is indeed the MVP of The Snake Pit, the entire film is great. The audience is captivated from beginning to end with this well-written and mysterious story, but also the excellent picture that goes along with it (and I personally enjoyed the use of Dvorák's 9th Symphony in the film as well).

Simply put; lead by an outstanding performance from Olivia de Havilland, The Snake Pit is quite a great and interesting film.

CBC Rating: 9/10

The Racket (1951)

Robert Mitchum is The Justice Machine
- Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan have co-starred in a number of films (Crossfire (1947), The Longest Day (1962), Anzio (1968)) but they have not shared much screen time together. However, these two titans of film noir go head-to-head here in The Racket (1951).

A new large crime organization, led by the mysterious "Old Man," has moved into town and gulped up other smaller local crime outfits like gangster Nick Scanlon's (Robert Ryan) operation. Scanlon is being used by this organization to put their man into a judge position.... but he might have been the wrong man for the job. While "The Old Man" is just looking to spread influence and make money, Scanlon is cracked and old school, preferring violence over sneaky means to get the job done. One too many violent acts leads to the honest and adept police captain Thomas McQuigg (Mitchum) being brought in to take Scanlon down.

A remake of the Oscar-nominated 1928 silent film of the same name, 1951's The Racket is a very entertaining film noir(ish) crime thriller. What started with Howard Hughes' usual meddling actually ended up being a positive outcome for the film in that it added to the original nature that the film has. Hughes and Nicholas Ray's (Hughes' puppet director) added-in off-beat intro for the film sets up the conflict to come and once Mitchum enters the fray the film darts into a slick cat-and-mouse game (only the mouse is more like that Tom and Jerry episode where Jerry drinks a potion to give him super strength).

The cast is also very fun to watch - outside of Lizabeth Scott and Robert Hutton, who are almost comically weak in their roles - William Conrad and Ray Collins portray two conflicted lawmen and William Talman gives an especially good performance as shining police officer Bob Johnson. All eyes are on Mitchum and Ryan however, who deliver two great performances that showcases both of their classic screen talents. The clash between Mitchum's upstanding, sharp, and tough cop and Ryan's wicked, rash, and snarling gangster equals one entertaining cinematic mêlée.

CBC Rating: 8/10

Macao (1952)

Film Noir In The Far East

- More or less fleeing to Macao, China, Nick Cochran (Robert Mitchum) and Julie Benson (Jane Russell) are trying for a fresh start. Unfortunately for the two of them, things do not quite work out as planned when they enter into Macao's multi-national underworld.

With all the problems RKO's travelogue film noir Macao (1952) went through - including director Nicholas Ray coming in to finish the film after Josef von Sternberg was fired, Gloria Grahame being forced to do the film against her will, and Robert Mitchum having to re-write the script during filming so it made sense - one would think the film would have ended up disjointed and sloppy. However, Macao is actually a really good film with an entertaining story, great dialogue, a very stylish look within the film's Asian setting and very fun repartee between Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell (in their second film together). Mitchum delivers a cool, funny, and even sometimes intense performance as always and Jane Russell, aside from being out of this world beautiful, is great in her role as well - charming as can be in her strong and sassy character while getting a chance to show off her great voice....

Overall, with a great blending of humor, drama, and a light dose of film noir, Macao is very fun and exciting – a sit back and enjoy the ride type of film.

CBC Rating: 8/10

Decoy (1946)

Noir Potion No. 9

- Film noir meets science fiction here in the pretty bad1946 cult hit Decoy. How this film has ever attracted a fan base is a bigger and more interesting mystery than the actual plot.

The first half of the film is seething with melodrama, with enough sappy music and cheesy dialogue to choke Dr. Phil, and the other half of the film has the viewer struggling to keep interest. In addition to the film's plot not being engaging, it is completely absurd. The narrative revolves around bringing a mobster fresh from the gas chamber back to life via "Methylene Blue" (which does not bring people back from the dead) to find out where he hid a bunch of money.... Oh yeah, I'm buying that one....

But, of course, the film is not helped out by the fact that the majority of the film's actors could not act their way out of a circus tent. Edward Norris is very weak in his Vincent the gangster role, Sheldon Leonard is as wooden as a bar stool in his Joe the detective role and Herbert Rudley is frankly just terrible as the double-crossed Dr. Craig with every overdone action and line delivery - being about as believable in his role as Bill Clinton exclaiming he is a one woman man. Jean Gillie is the strongest member of the cast; although looking better than she acts, Gillie is at least believable as the seductive villainess Margot (she should have worked on her weird evil cackle, however).

Luckily, Decoy only runs for about an hour and fifteen minutes; otherwise it would be a tiresome chore to even summon up the intense physical and mental strength required to actually sit through the entire film.

CBC Rating: 4/10

Crime Wave (1954)

Cops & Robbers

- A simple but gripping story about a robbery gone haywire and the people who get caught up in the good vs. evil mess, Crime Wave (1954, AKA: The City Is Dark) is a stone-cold cool cops and robbers film noir from André De Toth. Set in a grim and menacing depiction of Los Angeles, Crime Wave is a dark, brutal, stylish, and ultimately unique film within the genre.

The entire cast is solid, Gene Nelson gives a very good performance as ex con Steve Lacey and Charles Bronson (credited as Charles Buchinsky) gives a new meaning to the word "sleazebag" with his performance as baddie Ben Hastings - but Sterling Hayden grabs the most attention throughout the film. As L.A. Detective Sims, Hayden does just as much stealing as the bad guys he is trying to track down do - stealing every scene, that is. Bringing a high-speed delivery, certain likability, and an unyielding toughness (it looks like he could leave a guy in a roughed up clutter by just looking at him) to this edgy and no-nonsense cop ("once a crook always a crook"), Hayden bursts into every scene with a commanding mammoth presence. And to think the studio wanted Humphrey Bogart....

CBC Rating: 8/10