Monday, October 31, 2011

Dracula (1931)

Every Scene Screams 'Classic'

- A coffin lies amongst stone and dirt of an aged Transylvanian Castle in the dead of night. Slowly creaking open, a pale, old hand is revealed shaking as if awake for the first time in years. Count Dracula has emerged - awaiting his prey, Renfield, the man come to finalize the Count's leasing of Carfax Abbey in Great Britain. The young Lucy and Mina live at Mina's father's home connected to the Steward Asylum for the Insane that boarders the grounds of the Count's Carfax Abbey, where the two lovely ladies quickly attract the attention of the evil Dracula. When the strange things begin to happen to both Lucy and Mina, the brilliant Dr. Van Helsing is brought in to help Dr. Seward and Mina's fiancé Jonathan Harker....

We all know the story because 1931's Dracula is a timeless classic that has seeped deep within Western culture and has stowed away in our subconsciousness whether one has actually watched the film all the way through or not. Dracula is the definitive vampire film with Bela Lugosi as the definitive Count Dracula. Other actors have given good performances as Count Dracula as well but Lugosi gives not just the best and most memorable Dracula/vampire performance of all-time but one of the memorable film performances in film history as Count Dracula, his screen presence and Eastern European accent forever shaping the way Dracula is viewed and interpreted. The way that Lugosi stands gives the film atmosphere in and of itself and the way in which the words "I am.... Dracula" or "I bid you.... welcome" slither out of Lugosi's deathly grin makes it so that the words are permanently ingrained into our minds. In most films, Dracula or whatever vampire is usually all-too-easy to hate but Lugosi captures our attention in an uncanny way that makes Dracula a cinematically likable character throughout each horrible action. We even catch ourselves rooting for him now and then! Few performances have the ability to live beyond a decade let alone the near 80 year life that Lugosi's performance has attained, having the same effect on each new generation as it did to the generation that saw it first.

Although Bela Lugosi is certainly the film's main attraction, there are other excellent pieces that make up 1931's Dracula. The word on the street is that director Tod Browning, who came from a background mostly in silent films, had a general disinterest in the film since he was unable to get Lon Chaney to play Dracula due to the actor's health and that cinematographer Karl Freund played a bigger role than he normally would have in the film's visual presentation. Whoever had the bigger role, it does not really matter - somehow the film turned out as visually spectacular as it did and, as good as Lugosi is, it is the best aspect of the film. Browning's silent film background actually gives Dracula suspense, mystery, and atmosphere and Browning and Freund's use of light and shadowing is one of the finest this side of film noir. Lugosi also does not run a monopoly on the film's acting: Edward Van Sloan gives a very entertaining and subtle portrayal of Van Helsing, Helen Chandler is perfect for her role as Mina, and Dwight Frye gives an extremely creepy performance as Renfield.

Unfortunately, while Dracula is indeed an excellent film it does include some less-than-perfect aspects. As good as Frye is overall as Renfield he does frequently overdo it and David Manners is just awful as Mina's fiancée Jonathan Harker - the expert acting from Lugosi and Van Sloan cover up some of the bad performances however. Also, as visually striking as the film is, it does include some less-than-polished moments that one can attribute to the level and quality of 1930s editing technology or just flat-out unprofessional workmanship - the choice is yours. Still, the film is plenty exquisite visually to cover up this many of these aspects as well.

A few versions of the film are also available. There is a quite inferior Spanish-language version of the film called Drácula, there is of course the original version that includes no soundtrack except for the piece from Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" played in the opening, but there is also a version of the film that includes music from brilliant composer Philip Glass. I am usually one who is against tampering with a classic film - I especially loath the whole Full Screen pan-and-scan nonsense - but Dracula is the exception because Glass's score is so incredibly good. I might be biased because I am a general fan of Glass' work but his score for the film, written and recorded in the late 1990s by Glass and the Kronos Quartet, is one of his finest scores ever - thick with attitude and mood that lends itself amazingly well to the film. I think that the original version of the film with no soundtrack may be superior since it creates a chilling vibe with silence but the version of the film with Philip Glass's score is also excellent.

When you think of horror movies or monster movies, 1931's Dracula is one of the first films that immediately come to mind. Lugosi's Dracula and the film's look and feel (with or without the help of Philip Glass) are simply unforgettable. The first of Universal's trail of "talking" horror classics (preceding Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Wolf Man (1941), etc.), Dracula is still as creepy and enjoyable today as it was when it was first released.

CBC Rating: 10/10

Drácula (1931)

Dracula: The Telemundo Cut

- Back when sound was first being introduced into motion pictures, a studio would frequently use the same sets, costumes, etc. of their English-language picture for a Spanish-language picture starring Spanish-speaking actors in hopes to make an extra buck in Spanish-speaking countries. So in 1931, it would have come as no surprise when Universal Pictures created a Spanish-language version of the Dracula film that starred Bela Lugosi. Most Spanish-language alternate films would be forever lost or destroyed by time or neglect but Drácula has survived and is actually quite accessible, available right now on many DVD versions of the Lugosi-starred film.

It is a big enough feat for a 1930s Spanish-language alternate film to survive deterioration, let alone to actually be accessible on DVD in the 21st Century. However, Drácula has gone further than simply survive, it has even come to be considered by many film fans as the superior Dracula film. Unfortunately I could not tell you why, as I found it to be quite inferior to the Lugosi-starred Dracula.

Carlos Villar plays Dracula in the Spanish-language version of the film and does not begin to hold a candle to Bela Lugosi's performance. Lugosi was chilling, one-of-a-kind, excellent, commanding - Villar has neither the acting chops nor the screen presence of Lugosi and his Dracula looks like a bad impression of the Count. But there is more than just the absence of the great Bela Lugosi performance in this film that makes the Spanish-language version inferior to the English-language version, other performances fail as well. For one thing, Eduardo Arozamena's stereotypical-looking overweight Hispanic man look does his role of Van Helsing no good and pales in comparison to Edward Van Sloan's excellent portrayal in the English-language version. And wow - I thought Dwight Frye overdid his role of Renfield in a few scenes in the English-language version - Pablo Álvarez Rubio is absolutely awful as Renfield in the Spanish-language version! Rubio's overacts his role as Renfield to levels so incredible that it is painful to watch - it is easily one of the most overacted performances I have ever seen. *Ugh*! Terrible.

The visuals in the Spanish-language version of Dracula are also not nearly as effective as the English-language version. While the Spanish-language version's cast and crew used the same sets, etc., they were unable to attain the same level of creepiness or atmosphere that the Lugosi version does. Many boast of the Spanish-language version's more mobile camera or more sound effects but it was the wide-shot and silent nature that made the Lugosi version so effective. And I do not know where the idea that Drácula has more atmospheric lighting than the Lugosi version came from. The English-language version used light far better, in my opinion.

While Drácula is, in my mind anyway, undoubtedly worse than the Bella Lugosi Dracula, it does offer some interesting features that make it worthwhile. The film's style, while not as effective as the English-language version, does make an interesting comparison piece to the original. Also, while most of the film's acting is far below the bar set by the English-language cast, Barry Norton is infinitely better in Drácula as "Juan" Harker than David Manners was as John Harker in Dracula. Finally, while I prefer the original Lugosi-starring English-language version of Dracula, the ending in the Spanish-language version is better: much more clear and including a better final shot.

Quite simply, I do not understand where those who prefer the Spanish-language version to the Bela Lugosi-starring version are coming from. Drácula has neither the atmosphere nor cast to compete with Bela Lugosi and Edward Van Sloan's acting or Browning/Freud's visuals of its classic Dracula film cousin. The Spanish-language version of Dracula does make for an interesting viewing and/or double feature with the original Lugosi-starred Dracula - but there is a reason why the original English-language film is the influential, unforgettable classic and the Spanish-language film is not.

CBC Rating: 6/10

Dracula: Dead And Loving It (1995)

A Mildly Entertaining Yet
Ultimately Poor Effort From Mel Brooks

- Perhaps intentionally or simply inevitably similar to his highly-acclaimed Young Frankenstein (1974), Mel Brook's Dracula: Dead And Loving It (1995) spoofs the classic horror genre of the 1930s and 1940s (specifically the 1931 Bella Lugosi-starring Dracula). However, very much unlike Young Frankenstein, Dracula: Dead And Loving It is not very clever and not very funny. Not only is it not very funny, the first quarter or so of the film is so unfunny it is embarrassing to watch. Brooks has never really used high-brow humor in his films but the "humor" seen Dracula: Dead And Loving It strives a bit too lowbrow and we see a lot of childish slapstick as a result.

The film slowly gets a little bit better as it goes on and a few genuinely funny moments jump in here and there but for the most part there are few real laughs to be had. Also, though perhaps it would have been a bit too much like Young Frankenstein and trying to remake success a bit too safely (though it is already close enough), I think that Dracula: Dead And Loving It should have been made in black-and-white. I know that the Hammer Horror films were made in color and that most audiences do not want to watch black-and-white films anymore but if one is going to spoof the original Dracula film almost scene-for-scene, it would be best in black-in-white.

The cast makes the most of the material: Steven Weber gives an admirable straight-man turn as Jonathan Harker, Amy Yasbeck basically does the same thing as Mina in this film that she did in Robin Hood: Men In Tights (1993) (act really helpless and half-wittedly sexy), and Harvey Korman shows up and does not screw anything up in his role as Dr. Seward. Unfortunately none of these actors are half-way memorable and Peter MacNicol is particularly miscast as a moronic Renfield. Really the only worthwhile performances in the film come from Leslie Nielsen in a (mostly) surprisingly subdued performance as Count Dracula and Mel Brooks who is the best performer in the film as Van Helsing - the scenes that feature both Nielsen and Brooks are easily the best in the film.

Growing up with Robin Hood: Men In Tights (1993) and Spaceballs (1987) and later appreciating Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles (1974), I think Mel Brooks is the king of spoofing. So it with a heavy heart that any Mel Brooks fan, let alone me, admits that the last film that Mel Brooks ever directed, Dracula: Dead And Loving It, was a dud. What a sour note to go out on; Dracula: Dead And Loving It is mildly amusing and, in the end, watchable but it lacks the cleverness and belly laughs that many other Mel Brooks films have delivered before.

CBC Rating: 5/10

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Tales From The Crypt Presents: Bordello Of Blood (1996)

"I feel like I'm in a bad episode of
Tales From The Crypt!"

 - Bordello Of Blood (1996) is not a great movie – or even just a great "horror" movie – but it is a great *bad* movie! When it comes to movies that are "so bad they're good" this "Tales From The Crypt" film about a Private Detective, Rafe Gutman, who stumbles across a vampire whore house is one of the non-genre's premiere films! If you are looking for cerebral dialogue, a mind-bending story, a positively scary thriller, deep characters, or any sort of element that makes a great film, well…. you are looking in the wrong place. But if you are looking for T&A, blood, obscenities, and jokes, Bordello Of Blood has more than any straight male could ask for! Honestly, the film is set around a vampire-controlled whore house used to lure straight men into for the purposes of killing and consuming their blood – how classy and highbrow did you think this movie was going to be? Expect a lot of poor acting, writing, and direction as well as some particularly cheap-looking sets and special effects – but if you want to get any kind enjoyment out of the film, then you have to consider all of these elements as part of the fun.

And, if you ask me, fun it surely is! Bordello Of Blood has to be one of the worst funny movies (with comedy that is both intentional and unintentional) made in the history of bad movies. Angie Everheart, Erika Eleniak, Corey Feldman, Chris Sarandon, and Aubry Morris are absolutely terrible in this movie but it could not be funnier watching them all twist in the wind (especially Everheart as head vampiress). The special effects are so cheesy that they make the Hammer Horror films look up-to-date. The levels of blood, gore, death and destruction are at maximum levels as far as quantity goes but they are not set at particularly high levels as far as quality is concerned. Still, this fits perfectly into the dumber than a doorstop nature of the movie and contributes greatly to its overall B-movie charm and unintentional laughs.

While the many unintentional laughs come from a variety of sources throughout the film, all of the successful attempts at intentional laughs can be attributed to one member of the cast, and one member only: Dennis Miller. Bordello Of Blood may be cheap, brainless, classless but it does have one clearly impressive and enjoyable element in Miller's performance of Private Eye Rafe Gutman (an in-name-only homage to the Gutman character in The Maltese Falcon (1941) no doubt). Miller is simply inspired casting: not only is his presence and humor about the only watchable aspect of the film but his built-in sarcastic wit and cynicism simply plays perfectly on-screen as Rafe Gutman. Miller is absolutely hilarious from scene to scene – even fitting in a trademark arcane reference or two from time to time – but apart from the humor aspect of his character, Miller is simply a great silver screen private detective. Amidst the absolutely ludicrous setting, inadvertently hysterical dialogue, and flavorless filmmaking Miller creates a likable, believable character for the audience to invest in (I did anyway). And when the film pleas for him to be the one actor in the film to show the few instances of featured genuine human emotion, Miller answers the call in full Dick Powellesque-Murder My Sweet (1944) tour-de-force. Dennis Miller is funny enough and all-around good enough as P.I. Rafe Gutman to make Bordello Of Blood watchable all by himself – all of the boobs, blood, bawdiness, and B-movie charm are just window dressing.

CBC Rating: 7/10

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Wolfman (2010)

A Winning Throwback

- Director Joe Johnston is not a great director but he has a specific talent for inserting and executing homages to classic film eras into his own films very well. The Rocketeer (1991) is the best example - Johnston taking special note of the setting of the story and creates an atmosphere reminiscent of the classic films of the 1930s and 1940s - but Johnston also puts this talent to use in 2010's The Wolfman. This film is not flawless but its redeeming qualities for the most part shine out its poorer qualities.

What Johnston does particularly well with The Wolfman is throwback to the horror films of the 30s and 40s. Johnston and cinematographer Shelly Johnson create a wonderful visual throwback in the film's thick and creepy shadowing, the sparse but effective lighting, and the set pieces that seem stolen from the horror films of the far away past, creating a fantastic contemporary re-mixing of a golden era in film. Even composer Danny Elfman does a good job in his throwback score that takes us allll the way back to.... uh.... 1999 and Philip Glass' score to Dracula (1931).

But where The Wolfman reminds us of the old 30s and 40s classics, it also gives us something new with the story (as all remakes should – if you are not going to feature anything new in your remake then why remake the original at all?). Firstly, the story has been tweaked to deliver something new within a throwback. We see a more tortured main character Lawrence Talbot, his mind troubled far before wearing the curse of the beast, and an interesting role for Lawrence's father in the story. Secondly, the acting, outside of simply being quite good, gives completely new dimension to their classic characters. Benicio Del Toro (who also helped produce the film), Emily Blunt, and Anthony Hopkins (with his best performance in quite some time) are all excellent in their roles while Hugo Weaving requires special recognition, making the film worth a viewing all by himself in his wonderful performance as Scotland Yard Inspector Francis Aberline (a real-life inspector in the Jack The Ripper murders).

As good as some elements of the film are, there are other areas in which the film disappoints. While some elements in the story are well structured, the romantic angel of the film is very poorly developed - simply assuming the audience will buy the romance without needing to be persuaded. Also, some of the special effects are a letdown - while the particular effects that make up the on-screen transformation of the werewolf are very good, one wonders if the filmmakers ran out of money to finish up the other special effects. Any scene which the wolfman requires CGI to run (especially running when on all fours) has a certain hokey quality to it that really takes the viewer out of the film - the wolfmen showdown is particularly hokey.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, when a scene is not grotesque for grotesque's sake or its suspense predictable, it is cheap. Is the film creepy? For the most part yes - and credit Joe Johnston for that. Is the film scary? Do you jump out of your seat while watching? Certainly, yes - but not by any quality means. All the "scares" in the film are not products of genuine creepiness or cinema-generated terror; they are of the "BOO!" brand of "scare." You know the kind: everything is all fine and dandy until - *BAM* - something will make a big noise or something will pop out of nowhere or someone will get killed or blah blah blah. That's not being scared! That's a reaction of the body; just as a clap near the face causes one to blink, no matter how harmless everything is. It does not matter what pops out on screen all-of-a-sudden; I will still jump straight out of my Urban Pipelines if a film featured the cutest of teddy bears bouncing out of a bush to a loud orchestra noise. Using this kind of scare-tactic feels like audience manipulation and a last resort to those who cannot re-create naturally scary scenes like 1931's Dracula or 1980's The Shining. This is a very crippling blow to the film; if suspense does not really work in a horror film, the overall film will not work in its entirety either. Luckily 2010's The Wolfman has good enough style and acting to make it not only watchable but entertaining.

It seems as if that a new version of one of the most classic horror films hits the market every few years or so: in recent years we have seen the Francis Ford Coppola Dracula remake in 1992, the 1994 Robert De Niro-starred Frankenstein film, a new franchise take on The Mummy that started in 1999, and now a new version of the classic The Wolf Man in 2010 from Benicio Del Toro and Joe Johnston. Unfortunately, while having many good points and some fresh elements, The Wolfman ultimately fails to be much more than a winning throwback.

CBC Rating: 7/10

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Doctor And The Devils (1985)

Is There A Doctor In The House?

- Legendary filmmaker Mel Brooks produces and renowned cinematographer Freddie Francis (Glory (1989), The Elephant Man (1980)) directs this pretty bad horror/drama film.

19th Century England has a different view of how the practice of medicine should be handled than Dr. Thomas Rock, the law stating that only the bodies of hung criminals can be studied and experimented on. But the stockpile of these bodies is a small one, and Rock needs more - and he prefers them fresher. Being a maverick within his circle, he begins to pay people to find bodies for him to study and test on. Desperate sleazebags Robert Fallon and Timothy Broom get wind of this job opportunity and begin to murder people and sell these bodies to Rock. Naturally, this kind of action has even worse consequences than practicing on the dead bodies of non-criminals, and leads to trouble for everyone. While the overall story sounds intriguing on paper, almost everything about The Doctor And The Devils (1985) is laughably bad.

After the first fifteen minutes of the film you are already beginning to question your decision of sitting down to watch the film. The entire look of the film is just ugly. Seeing as how the film takes place in the slums of England during the 19th Century, the filmmakers were probably going for an "ugly" look, but they don't do it in an artful way. Everything from the sets to the cinematography just look cheap, feeble, and disgusting. Also, just about everything scene is filled with something that you simply cannot take seriously, and most of the time this has to do with someone (both in the small and large roles) doing something that looks or sounds completely ridiculous. Francis sure did not help out his actors much.

Jonathan Pryce and Stephen Rea play the twisted buddies of the film, Fallon and Broom respectively, and are very bombastic but very bad. Their characters are by nature crazy, but Pryce and Rea overact the parts to death. They especially have trouble keeping the same accent from shot to shot - Pryce in particular goes from Cockney to Irish to Long John Silver to some kind of lagoon creature and so on and so forth.

It is also a humor riot to see Twiggy in this film at all, let alone playing an in-demand street whore, since she cannot act to save her life (though her song during the final credits is not so funny). Boy she sure came a long way: from "flower power" to "I'll take mee clothes off for a shillin'!" As bad as those three actors are in this film, Julian Sands takes home the award for the worst performance of the film. He is just as lame as it gets, giving one laugh-out-loud attempt after another at portraying anger, love, happiness, anxiety - pick an emotion, any emotion!

There is only one good thing about The Doctor And The Devils: Timothy Dalton's performance of Dr. Rock. Despite being surrounded by cinematic sewage, Dalton is quite excellent; giving an electric portrayal of an overly driven yet good natured man. Too bad no one and nothing in the rest of the film was able to perform at the same high level as Mr. Dalton....

CBC Rating: 3/10

Monday, October 24, 2011

Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

Too much "B" and not enough "Movie."

- Made on a tiny budget with no big names and no high-end production values, Night Of The Living Dead (1968) has stumbled and groaned its way into a classic status. Spawning the horror sub-genre that features a group of main characters fighting to stay alive amidst an apocalyptic barrage of zombies and continuing the classic horror tradition of combining style and scares, Night Of The Living Dead left me with mixed feelings.

I think it is easy to see that Night Of The Living Dead has a very powerful look and feel. The black-and-white picture gives a new meaning to the word "dreary;" the lighting is exquisite, highly expressive and creates mood all by itself; and Romero employs some creative camera work that is also essential in the film's creepy visual vibe.

However, the great look and atmosphere are about the only things I would say that the film does exceptionally well - the rest is all B movie bumbling. The film's biggest problem is that every frame is bubbling over with stereotypical one-dimensional idiot characters that say dumb things and make even dumber decisions. The many bad actors chosen to play these stupid characters make the film so unintentionally funny that it hurts.

Really the only worthwhile character in the film is lead Ben played by Duane Jones, who actually goes against the stereotype of African Americans that most of America was engaged in at the time (Romero insists that he cast Jones in the role because he was simply gave the best audition, not because he was trying to make a statement on race). Ben is a strong, smart character and the only character in the film who is not a complete jerk and/or moron.

But the unintentional laughs continue nonetheless and Night Of The Living Dead cannot be taken completely seriously, even though it does feature some disturbing images that have aged particularly well.

I am torn: in some ways, I can see why George A. Romero's Night Of The Living Dead is a classic horror film but I also see many flaws as well. The one thing I am sure of about my thoughts on the film is that I appreciate the place of Night Of The Living Dead in cinematic history. It was a revolutionizing film for the horror genre and it is one of those horror films that does not sacrifice style for gore and scares. I cannot, however, say that I loved the film. Night Of The Living Dead feels less like a scary film from supposed horror film expert George A. Romero and more like an unintentional laugh-filled film from Cesar J. Romero.

CBC Rating: 6/10

Friday, October 21, 2011

Crossfire (1947)

A Fiery Film Noir

- Crossfire (1947) is a fantastic film noir that is both a product of its time and a timeless classic. This film achieves this by addressing issues that have not been brought to the screen before its 1947 release, and by being a high quality film that holds up to this day with a good script, great look, and fantastic performances from its actors. The first American film to take the issue of anti-Semitism head on, Crossfire is cemented in classic standing. Set in post-World War II America, a lurid whodunit develops after a Jewish man is found murdered.

The story is great, its anti-hatred theme wrapped up in a dark multiple-character crime thriller, and alongside the anti-Semitism angle is some great post-World War II dialogue and themes as well. Unlike other mystery thrillers, the audience is alerted to who the perpetrator is almost immediately. However, the film's story is still engrossing because of the struggle of all the great characters involved are going through while trying to make sense of the situation. Outside the great overall story and themes, the entire script is simply smart, complete with meaningful messages and razor-sharp exchanges between characters.

The film's captivating story is played out wonderfully by the its excellent cast. Robert Young is fantastic as Capt. Finlay, the leading investigator of the murder case. Finlay's my favorite character of the film; Young gives the character a very cool, composed presence that makes the character simply fun to watch - dry as bone and tough as a two-by-four and stopping at nothing to bring the killer to justice. Robert Mitchum is also a great stand-out member of the film; very vivid and often funny through his soft-spoken, laid-back characterization of Keeley. Gloria Grahame gives a memorable performance in her small Oscar-nominated role; George Cooper also does a good job as the sick and distressed Corporal Mitchell; Paul Kelly gives an eerie portrayal of a bizarre character; and Steve Brodie, Sam Levene, Jacqueline White, and William Phipps also give strong supporting performances. Robert Ryan ends up being the most talked about performer of the film - and for good reason. Ryan gives the performance of his career, earning him an Oscar nomination; it is a chilling portrayal of the intense Montgomery character.

Crossfire has a great cast that sort of defines the film's legacy (especially the "Three Bobs" Young, Mitchum and Ryan) but it also has a terrific visual presentation and subsequent atmosphere. Director Edward Dmytryk does an extraordinary job with the film's execution and cinematographer J. Roy Hunt does a masterful job with its black and white picture. The picture is as dark and dank as its themes, covered in shadow with an almost glossy overtone, yet also very raw in parts. Ironically, the film's great look was not the result of hard work - or even intention. Dmytryk wanted to spend more time and money on the actors rather than the lighting - so that is what he did. Less lights and less preparation (around a 6 hour work day) on set resulted in a fantastic looking film.
Not just a well done piece of cinematic art, Crossfire is also a great example of a cheap film that ends up a rich classic.

CBC Rating: 9/10

Where Danger Lives (1950)

"If you take her, it's a long road!
There's no turning back!"

- Robert Mitchum turns in another great performance here in Where Danger Lives (1950) as Dr. Jeff Cameron, displaying a range of emotions and emitting his distinctive brand of charisma and screen presence. Dr. Jeff Cameron has everything going for him. He has a good job at a hospital (and a chance to go into private practice) doing what he loves to do: helping people. Mitchum makes the role work with considerable ease, bringing out the intelligence and good-nature of his character. On a day like any other, Cameron's life is unexpectedly changed when Margo Lannington (Faith Domergue) is wheeled into his hospital after trying to commit suicide. They fall in love, and just as quickly as things start to heat up between them, things start to turn dark and deadly. Faith Domergue is also pretty good as Margo Lannington - the very definition of a femme fatale: beautiful, deceiving, and of course taking advantage of Jeff's poor decision-making regarding women. However, she has her fair share of really weak moments - a better actress could have easily improved the character and, subsequently, the entire film. But Domergue was one of RKO Studio owner Howard Hughes' squeezes at the time so Mitchum got stuck with her.

Where Danger Lives has an excellent look with crisp direction and atmospheric cinematography. Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (Out Of The Past (1947))  sure knows how to light a film by using a lack thereof and gives Where Danger Lives a fantastic dark and atmospheric picture. The camera views and movements also give the film an eye-catching fluidity and add hugely to the film's great look. The script for Where Danger Lives (written by Charles Bennett, who worked on a number of Alfred Hitchock films) is solid with an engaging story full of mystery and suspense centered around an interesting Jeff Cameron character. The dialogue is not extremely clever or smart however, but it certainly gets the job done and is plenty entertaining.

Overall, with its captivating story and great Robert Mitchum performance, Where Danger Lives is an entertaining film noir.

CBC Rating: 7/10

The Stranger (1946)

"Murder can be a chain...."

- World War II is over and Charles Rankin has it made in the shade. A steady job at a local Connecticut university and his marriage to a trusting, beautiful, and connected sweetheart make the perfect situation for hiding his true identity: Nazi holocaust orchestrator Franz Kindler. But Rankin's world of safety suddenly shatters around him when one of his former concentration camp subordinates Konrad Meinike finds him in his suburban hideout with War Crimes Commission investigator Mr. Wilson following behind.

An interesting on-screen display of the lingering fears of Nazism in post World War II America - they can walk amongst us, they can look like us, they can talk like us, but they are dangerous murderers - Orson Welles' The Stranger (1946) is a dark trip into madness. Nominated for an Academy Award (only Victor Trivas got the nomination even though Anthony Veiller and Decla Dunning worked on it and there was also some uncredited help from John Huston and Orson Welles) the script includes both a gripping and dark overall story and great dialogue.

The principle members of the cast really excel in the film. Orson Welles stars as well as directs the film as the disturbed Charles Rankin but the most impressive performances come from Edward G. Robinson, calm but phenomenal as Mr. Wilson, and Loretta Young who is simply extraordinary as Rankin's wife Mary. As with most Orson Welles pictures, this film looks really ahead of its time in both content and visuals with its especially dark atmosphere and unique shots (there are some particularly excellent crane shots). The Stranger is a fantastic film noir thriller - I cannot for the life of me figure out why Orson Welles has named it as his least favorite directed film.

CBC Rating: 9/10

Act Of Violence (1948)

Violent Acts

- The dust has settled and the bodies have been buried, but World War II is still very alive in the hearts and minds of Frank Enley (Van Heflin) and Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan) - especially one particular incident. Frank has tried to get on with his life, with a beautiful and loving wife, young child, and successful career he has done a pretty good job of moving on. But for Joe Parkson, every limped step he takes brings him back to that dark day - and he blames Frank. Moving on is impossible for Joe, revenge is the only thing that makes sense and he is determined to satisfy his craving for retribution.

A deeply psychological story, shrouded in a dark look and driven by its equally dark characters, Act Of Violence (1948) is a great film noir. Van Heflin's name makes me laugh (doesn't it sound like he's some kind of Viking super-hero?), but his performance does not. Heflin is excellent and shocking in his portrayal of a Frank - a man who can no longer suppress his tired and tormented mental state. Robert Ryan gives a spine-tingling performance of Joe. Ryan's strong suit is being intimidating and menacing at an outstanding yet credible level and he sure does that in this film. Also, Janet Leigh is beyond terrific as Frank's wife Edith and Phyllis Thaxter is also good as Joe's "girl" Ann - both characters trying to stop acts of violence to occur between both their men. Despite being in a supporting role, from the moment she starts to do her thing you can tell that Mary Astor is the film's strongest acting card. Known most for her damsel role in The Maltese Falcon (1941), Astor shows she has range with her exceptional portrayal of Pat, an aging and worn out hooker.

But while all the people in front of the camera are all excellent, Act Of Violence sees some talented people behind it as well. Legendary director and cinematographer, Fred Zinnemann and Robert Surtees respectively, put together a terrific and memorable visual product. We have seen darkness, revenge and haunting pasts before in films noir, but Act Of Violence has many high quality and engaging aspects that set it apart.

CBC Rating: 9/10

Detour (1945)

The Worst 'Must See' Film Noir

- The 1945 B-movie Detour has a reputation for being a "must see" film noir. Detour certainly is a "must see" film noir – but that does not mean that the film is of great quality. Director Edgar G. Ulmer roughly latched this one together in a way that made a bad film pretty good.

The noir genre is especially known for being dark and rough around the edges but Detour just looks coarse, the story has some specifically exciting twists but is packed with some really bad dialogue, actors Tom Neal and Ann Savage cannot expand beyond their three key expressions but the audience is contented to go along with them anyway. However, rather than being one of those "so bad it's good" films (entertaining precisely because of a film's incredible ridiculousness and/or shoddy filmmaking) Detour is more aptly labeled as a "bad movie but good noir," an entertaining "must see" film noir because it features such an engaging film noir world. This heavy noir atmosphere is undoubtedly the film's greatest strength. Submerging shadows, creepy mood, themes of hopelessness and despair- Detour is archetypal film noir in every way: the innocent little man driven by love, propelled off course by death and blackmail, and ultimately ruled by a toxic woman and the inescapable hand of fate.

Dark in its visuals and discerning message, Detour embodies the entire genre in 67 memorable minutes. An unfiltered portrait of the film noir world; Detour is not exactly an exemplary film but it is a quintessential film noir nonetheless - perhaps the worst "must see" movie in the film noir genre.

CBC Rating: 7/10

Mystery Street (1950)

CSI Noir

- A mysterious and difficult case falls before the Cape Cod police department - a skeleton is found in the sun-drenched sands of its beach! Local police Lieutenant Peter Morales calls on Dr. McAdoo of Harvard University to help him discover through forensic means who the person who once possessed the skeleton was and how he or she was killed, then relying on his own detective skills to figure everything out. Mystery Street (1950) is a very enjoyable film noir - well written, acted, and put together.

The entire cast does a good job, with Bruce Bennett as the knowledgeable Dr. McAdoo and Elsa Lanchester as the odd old lady Mrs. Smerrling standing out among the supporting cast. Of course, the film's star, Ricardo Montalban, is great as Lieutenant Peter Morales - an interesting and cool character dedicated to his job and he is a little ruthless as well, but not so much that he becomes detached to the human element of the case.

Nominated for an Oscar for its script, Mystery Street is a sort of 1950s CSI, with its characters trying to solve much of the case through technological and scientific means as well as your more recognizable detecting methods. The story is definitely well written with a simple plot but intelligent intricacies and cleverly conceived screen conversations. A combination of director John Sturges and cinematographer John Alton also gives this film a great mood-setting look with great framing and shadowing, adding style to its substance. Mystery Street is a very good film noir - entertaining and intelligent.

CBC Rating: 8/10

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

The First Man Who Knew Too Much

- One of Hitchcock's first big hits, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) tells the story of the Lawrence family, Bob (Leslie Banks) and Jill (Edna Best), whose daughter is kidnapped when they accidentally discover a multi-national plot to assassinate a world leader. Perhaps not quite as well known as the 1956 version starring Jimmy Stewart, the original 1934 The Man Who Knew Too Much is a tough little thriller that holds up quite well in the 21st Century.

Hitchcock stated in a late-60s interview with French director Francois Truffaut that, while he considered his 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much to be the work of a professional, his 1934 version, although only the work of a talented amateur director that Hitchcock believed himself to have been at that stage of his career, was his preferable version due to its roughness. I actually disagree with both halves of Hitchcock's statement: the 1956 version is the superior film but the 1934 version is anything but amateur.

I can honestly say that I have not seen a film by Alfred Hitchcock that has appeared amateur; the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much is no exception. Hitchcock does an excellent job constructing the story in a way that holds the audience's interest and keeps them guessing. The film is, unsurprisingly, also visually well-crafted (although lacking the glob-trotting flare of the 1956 version) and Hitch serves his actors well, Peter Lorre being the main stand-out as the evil Abbott (but no one rivals the performances of James Stewart and Doris Day in the remake).

Of course, there are a lot of distinct differences between the 1934 and 1956 versions including some story points, different characters and some particularly strong visual motifs in the 1934 version where not echoed in the remake (and vice-versa). One major difference between the two is that the 1934 version contains a magnificent raid/shoot-out that was not reconstructed in the 1956 version. I found the big raid scene quite exciting, its high bullet count makes it a bit over-the-top but it ends up believable because Hitchcock makes it rough and gritty at the same time.

While there are a number of on-paper differences between the 1934 and 1956 versions of the film, I would actually say that, while I find the 1956 version of the film to be the superior movie, this 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much does a few things better than its 1956 remake. Unlike the 1956 version, the 1934 film makes sure that the audience understands the importance of the death of the targeted world leader. The 1956 version basically skips over this point but the 1934 version was old enough to remember what sparked World War I: the assassination of one Austrian Duke started a chain reaction of alliances declaring war on each other. I think that placing an importance on the consequences of the death of the targeted world leader raises the stakes of the story, drawing the viewer in much more to this part of the story than the 1956 version does by ignoring it. Another positive way that the 1934 version is different from the 1956 version is the tone that the original ends on. Without giving anything away, I feel that the final moments of the original 1934 version of the film are a bit more satisfying than the lighthearted final note of the 1956 remake.

Beyond the difference in visuals and story elements, the biggest difference between the 1934 and 1956 versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much is how each film focuses on the telling of its story. Hitchcock is, rightly, renowned for making thrillers that are more than just "thrillers." Films like Psycho (1960) and North By Northwest (1959) are much more than the mystery and the suspense through the themes, style and strength of character that Hitchcock successfully conveys to the audience; this is what makes Hitchcock a cut above the rest of cinemas filmmakers. Unlike the majority of Hitchcock's work that has substance in its suspense, the original 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much is much more of a straight-up thriller. While the 1956 version is focused much more on the characters, specifically the McKenna family, the 1934 version is focused much more on the mystery and the suspense.

This makes for a good movie and, thanks to how Hitchcock packages the story together, impressive entertainment but, because it lacks meaty elements that make other Hitchcock films great, this 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much cannot measure up to its 1956 remake and is a lesser Hitchcock picture overall. Perhaps not measuring up to its 1956 remake or many of the other films that would reside inside an Alfred Hitchcock pantheon, the original The Man Who Knew Too Much is nonetheless a quality picture and is easily recommendable to classic film lovers. Hardly the work of an amateur, at the very least.

CBC Rating: 7/10

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

"Que Sera, Sera...."

- When looking through Alfred Hitchcock's filmography, by the time one gets to the 1950s they have lost any grasp of a numeral count (and, due to the nature of his career, it is difficult to know where Hitchcock's directorial career even begins). The 1950s is considered by many as the highpoint of Hitchcock's career. Films like Strangers On A  Train (1951), Dial M For Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958) and North By Northwest (1959) are some of Hitchcock's finest films that do much to define his entire career.

Smack-dab in the middle of Hitchcock's fine 50s, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is also a very well-known and highly praised Hitchcock thriller. The Man Who Knew Too Much is a significant Hitchcock thriller because it marked the third collaboration with actor James Stewart, the second collaboration with composer Bernard Herrmann and the first and only time that Hitchcock remade one of his own movies. Of course, The Man Who Knew Too Much is also significant because it is a well-made and highly entertaining movie.

The McKennas are a successful but largely average  American family vacationing in North Africa: Ben (James Stewart) is a successful doctor and Jo[sephine] (Doris Day) is a former stage star-turned-housewife to their son Hank (.... it's short for Henry). A charming but mysterious Louis Bernard (Daniel Gelin) helps the McKennas out of a dodgy cultural faux pas, only to wind up getting murdered in the Moroccan market right before their very eyes. Before breathing his last, Louis Bernard whispers to Ben broken pieces of information about a secret plot to kill a world leader. Ben now apparently knows too much, as his son Hank has been kidnapped - the perpetrators promising to kill Hank if Ben spills the beans.

One interesting thing about The Man Who Knew Too Much is that it is a remake of a film that Hitchcock made in 1934. Hitchcock confided during his 1967 interview with French filmmaker Francois Truffaut that he considered the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much to be a good film from a talented amateur director and the 1956 version of the film to be a good film from a professional director. Hitchcock stated that he prefers the original 1934 version of the film because of its roughness but I prefer the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. In the 1956 version, Hitchcock really fleshed out his characters and made the film about more than the mystery. The 1934 version of film is a good movie but is more of a straight-up thriller without the meatier qualities of the remake.

In fact, the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much is more about the family that is at the center of the murder mystery and espionage intrigue. At the heart of Ben and Jo's struggle, what drives them to run from continent to continent, is not so much the foreign leader under the target of assassination as it is the possibility of losing their child. Hitchcock does a brilliant job of making it clear to the audience that Ben and Jo have only one stake in the mystery - their son - and makes the threat of a broken McKenna family unit the focus of the film.

Of course, the acting on the part of stars James Stewart and Doris Day also helps keep the family at the center of the film. Stewart is naturally great in this film as Ben McKenna, his traditional "everyman" aura in full swing, allowing the audience to be able to put themselves in his shoes. As Jo, Day not only convinces as a former stage star, she is very impressive on the technical levels of her performance. Day has a bright screen presence and, known for her strong singing voice, gets a chance to show off her vocal skills (with the Oscar-winning tune "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)"). However, Day also has moments of rocking intensity as the realities of the Hitchcockian thriller confront her character.

The Man Who Knew Too Much is, of course, like any other Hitchcock picture in that it is incredibly well conceived from Hitch's brain to the big screen. The Man Who Knew Too Much was made during Hitchcock's VistaVision era and is subsequently a very vibrant-looking film. In fact, from the streets of London to the markets of Marrakesh, The Man Who Knew Too Much is very similar to Hitchcock's To Catch A Thief that was released just one year earlier in 1955 through its bold, travelogue feel. Every shot choice, every color scheme in The Man Who Knew Too Much was carefully considered by Hitchcock and brought quite brilliantly to the screen; one of Hitch's most memorable scenes of his career can be found in this film: the famous 12-minute, dialogue-free Albert Hall climax.

Another interesting aspect of the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much is the prominent presence of composer Bernard Herrmann (he even makes a short cameo appearance). After scoring Hitchcock's previous film, The Trouble With Harry (1955), Herrmann and Hitchcock began a long-standing relationship in which cinema will never forget. The viewer gets a sense of just how important the music in The Man Who Knew Too Much will be by the opening credits - as the film begins with a literal crash of the symbols. Herrmann's contribution to The Man Who Knew Too Much is a tad different that the rest of his films with Hitchcock because he did not write as much original music. Herrmann was so impressed by the piece of music used in the 1934 version of the film, Arthur Benjamin's "Storm Cloud Cantata," that he only wrote a few memorable but sparsely-used musical themes that lead up to the "Cantata" climax at Albert Hall (which also made room for the important "Que Sera, Sera" tune throughout the film). The fact that music plays a huge part in the specifics of the story in The Man Who Knew Too Much is probably coincidental - but Herrmann would continue on and play a huge role in Hitchcock's films through Marnie in 1964.

The Man Who Knew Too Much certainly is a very well-made and highly entertaining movie. Its focus on the family sets it apart from other globe-trotting thrillers, Stewart and Day are excellent leads, the climactic scene at the Royal Albert Hall is unforgettable and Hitchcock's style is a cut above. While The Man Who Knew Too Much might not match up to Hitch's top tier films - caught in the prestigious Hitchcockian shadows of films like Notorious (1946) and Psycho (1960) - but, you know.... "Que Sera, Sera - Whatever Will Be, Will Be."

CBC Rating: 8/10

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Searchers (1956)

An Exceptional Western

- Weathered westerner Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) has returned to his brother's home after fighting in the Civil War and wandering the frontier for the last few years. But just as Ethan's life begins to cool down, some Comanche Indians raid his brother's house, kidnapping Ethan's niece and killing the rest. Now Ethan and his nephew Martin Pawley (who also happens to be 1/8 Native American - played by Jeffrey Hunter) begin to search for their kidnapped kin; and as time goes by, Ethan becomes more and more hateful - and untrustworthy.

1956's The Searchers is a great western; a must-see film simply for director John Ford's visuals and star John Wayne's performance.

John Ford's name is synonymous with the western genre and The Searchers is an essential piece to Ford's legacy. Taking advantage of the incredible American setting of Monument Valley, Ford creates a beautiful but imposing American frontier setting. Ford (with some considerable help from cinematographer Winton C. Hoch) forms one unforgettable shot after another and captures the truly amazing scenery absolutely perfectly. The Searchers proves to be an absolutely stunning looking film within the the film's first 60 seconds, grabbing the viewer with powerful imagery.

The visual aspects of The Searchers are astonishing but Ford also gets high marks for the way that he depicts the Native Americans in the film. Occasionally falling into some naive 1950s ideological trappings, the film portrays the Native Americans quite fairly (especially for its time). Rather than simply (and falsely, might I add) portraying Native Americans as rowdy savages, The Searchers shows the Native Americans as a struggling people just trying to get by and live in peace - while also being quite candid about the genocide committed by the US Army during the post-Civil War years. Some of the Native Americans in the film are evil but most are virtuous – just like the white Americans in the film.

One of the many John Ford/John Wayne collaborations, The Searchers sees Wayne give his finest screen performance. Wayne often times just plays John Wayne in a different film situation (for example: in 1960's The Alamo, John Wayne plays John Wayne in a coonskin cap) but he gives an excellent performance here in The Searchers as Ethan Edwards. Wayne exercises the same classic screen presence that he is known for, but his character has a dark side that we do not always see in a John Wayne character.

Ethan is a complex individual that is very much removed from Wayne's own personality: a more than capable frontier veteran but an obsessive, cynical outsider who, while often motivated by good intentions, exercises some cruel thoughts and actions as a result of his bigotry, anger and confliction. Ethan Edwards is not the typical western hero – in fact, Ethan is not much of a hero at all. An exceedingly complex loner, Ethan is neck-deep in confliction with two facets of his personality constantly battling one another: his barbarism and his humanity. His human tenderness fuels his love for his family but his savage barbarism drives an intense hatred of Native American people, which has lead him to cruel intentions and actions when his family and the Comanche become one and he same. Every event in the film builds to a sharp point, the moment where Ethan must make a decision about which side of his psyche he will follow - or he, at least, must form a balance between the two. As rightfully renowned as the film's visuals and themes are, Wayne's portrayal of the interesting Ethan Edwards character is what really makes the film powerful.

The rest of the film's performances do not quite measure up to Wayne's iconic turn. If there is a flaw in the film, it would surely be some of the supporting performances; for example, Hank Worden is nearly unwatchable as the slow county idiot Mose. However, other supporters do a fine job. Jeffrey Hunter's performance as Martin Pawley is quite good; a bit over-the-top sometimes but he is generally effectively colorful and one of the more likable and relatable characters in the film. John Ford regular Ward Bond also does a good job as the moral and amusing Reverend/Captain Samuel Clayton and Vera Miles is very endearing and also funny as Martin's love interest Laurie Jorgensen.

The Searchers has been an incredibly influential film (David Lean, for example, apparently continuously watched and looked to the film for inspiration when filming Lawrence Of Arabia (1962)) and is considered by many to be the best western film ever made. Powerful, funny, entertaining and poignant, The Searchers is one of those films that is hard to forget after the first viewing and continues to grow on the viewer after each subsequent viewing. After viewing the film and experiencing firsthand Ford's featured visual command of the American West and John Wayne's unforgettable performance of Ethan Edwards, all questions are answered as to why The Searchers is held in such high esteem.

CBC Rating: 10/10

Monday, October 3, 2011

Pillow Talk (1959)

A Delightful 50s Screwball Romcom

- Due to the rise in popularity and accessibility of the television in the 1950s, Hollywood saw a great drop in movie theatre attendance during that time. A variety of tactics were used to attempt to bring the public back into cinema seats – widescreen formats, 3-D movies – but one tactic was to simply make films more adult oriented. From this era where Hollywood was engaged in desperate competition against TV for viewers, 1959's Pillow Talk would not have wrestled me away from the black-and-white boob tube but it is a delightful enough hour and forty minutes.

The story centers around Jan (Doris Day), a single well-off interior decorator living in New York, who is forced to temporarily share a phone line (my, how the times have changed) with Brad (Rock Hudson), the playboy musician upstairs. Such a situation would not have been as infuriating for Jan - if she were able to use the phone! Brad is constantly talking to one of the many love sick girls he has his tentacles wrapped around, tying up the phone line in the process. An infuriated Jan has a couple of angry conversations with Brad over the phone but the two never see each other in person. Suddenly, after branding each other as undesirable pains in the neck, Brad suddenly finds a reason to pursue Jan: he finds out that she is pretty. Brad's employer Jonathan tells Brad that he is trying to win the beautiful Jan's heart (and can never seem to reach her over the phone). Having the advantage of never seeing her face-to-face Brad invents Rex Stetson – a Texan visiting New York. "Rex" and Jan hit it off – but how long can Brad keep up the façade…. and keep Jonathan out of the picture?

One of the film's biggest selling points during its initial release was its headlining stars. At 36 years old, Doris Day was reaching her Hollywood expiration date. Not the Hollywood starlet anymore, Day completely steals the entire show with a performance that very much deserves her 1960 Oscar nomination. Day's co-star Rock Hudson seems like a plastic Cary Grant fallback star and is often wooden and lifeless in this picture. Still, he has enough moments were he fits the bill for the Brad/Rex character well that he ends up working in the end with little harm done to the overall film. Supporting actors Thelma Ritter and Tony Randall give enjoyable performances in the film as well. Randall gives the film some of its funniest moments and Ritter was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in the film (which is strange because her character is just a shallow, drunk, and classless version of the character that she played in Rear Window (1954)).

Day and Ritter were nominated by the Academy back in 1960 but Stanley Shapiro and Maurice Richland's screenplay actually won the Academy Award for best original screenplay. I do not think that I would have given them Hollywood's highest honor; the film does undoubtedly have some witty dialogue (with sexual innuendo a-plenty) and clever situations but its characters are not particularly interesting and I found the film's final act to be implausible and dissatisfying. Previously blacklisted director Michael Gordon (interestingly the grandfather to actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt) does a capable enough job not letting the script down but what is particularly interesting about the look and feel of the film is the editing and the score. Pillow Talk was one of the first films to make use of the split screen – and the technique is used very well to help tell the story instead of simply being a visual gimmick. The film's score, by Frank De Vol, is interesting in the way that it is used in the film and not necessarily because it is an impressive stand-alone piece of music. De Vol's score serves the film better as leitmotifs for the characters or as a way of heightening a scene's comedy rather than being a great soundtrack.

Pillow Talk is an enjoyable romantic screwball comedy – amusing, well shot and acted – but I would be lying to say that I would claim it as a giant of the genre.

CBC Rating: 7/10

Saturday, October 1, 2011

I, Robot (2004)

CGI, Robot

- I am usually of the opinion that too much CGI in a movie is not a good thing. However, there are some exceptions to this if the CGI is excellent and artful: The Lord Of The Rings, Iron Man (2008), Star Trek (2009), and the John Adams (2008) miniseries are great examples of CGI working for a production rather than working against it. I would say that Will Smith's rocking and thoughtful 2004 sci-fi action flick I, Robot can be included in the list of worthy CGI-filled films. Director Alex Proyas (Dark City (1998)) obviously wanted to create a widely-appealing and entertaining Will Smith outing with I, Robot but he also manages to toss some cinematic quality and surprisingly thoughtful aspects into this big blockbuster.

Loosely based on Isaac Asimov's collection of short stories also entitled "I, Robot," Will Smith stars as Chicago detective Del Spooner (here's were the "loosely based" part already comes into play, as there is no Del Spooner in the short stories). The year is 2035, and the United States (at least) is filled with robot help. These robots walk, talk, assist, and follow three rules:

1.) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2.) A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3.) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Sounds simple enough, yes? Well, Det. Spooner does not buy it since robots have played a negative role in his past. He flat-out does not trust them and certainly is not crazy about the new NS-5 model of robot hitting the streets. His suspicions are further solidified when Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), the mastermind behind the creation of these robots, is murdered in a way that rules out any human's doing. Spooner encounters Lanning's personal NS-5 creation named "Sonny" (Alan Tudyk) and immediately suspects him. However, with the help of robot specialist Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), Spooner begins to unravel the mystery and comes across some dark and dangerous findings.

I, Robot is a very good movie, but it does have its shortcomings. The plot is character based and interesting but Spooner wakes up and understands what each clue means one scene later than the audience already has. Admittedly, the story and mystery all ends up working out in the end, but one still wonders how Spooner did not see the OBVIOUS clue right away. Some of the supporting performances could be better as well - Bridget Moynahan is a little too dry even for her character and cannot cry without making the audience laugh and Shia LaBeouf is easily the worst part of the film, squeaking and scrambling around, just being annoying every time he is on screen. The film also has a few "huh?" moments such as an embarrassing sequence with an asthmatic black woman and Spooner getting made fun of by other cops.

The film suffers here and there but nothing really hurts the film too much. Where there is some weak acting there is the great acting. Will Smith gives one of his best performances ever in I, Robot - right behind his Oscar nominated performances in Ali (2001) and The Pursuit Happiness (2006) if you ask me. Smith shows that Spooner has some ghosts of his past that continue to haunt him but also creates a very likable character - he is no slouch when it comes to the action scenes either. Bruce Greenwood also makes a very good showing as Lawrence Robertson, the mysterious head of the robotics industry, and Alan Tudyk is terrific as Sonny. One might think they are watching an entirely-CGI character but, just like Andy Serkis' Gollum in The Lord Of The Rings films, Sonny is entirely Tudyk's charming and quiet performance.

I, Robot is not perfect but it works on many levels: as a big-budget blockbuster, as a mystery thriller, and as a sci-fi film. Where there are chases, fight scenes, shoot outs there is also character development, atmosphere, and thoughtful ideas and themes. I, Robot is not the traditional blockbuster-for-big-bucks, it has brains and quality too.

CBC Rating: 8/10

Raising Arizona (1987)

The First Comedy From The Coen Brothers

- Looking back at the current state of their filmogography, Joel and Ethan Coen seem to like to follow their highly-praised thrillers with screw ball comedies. Take a look at any part of the history of the Coens and you will see that comedies tend to trail their thrillers:

- Barton Fink (1991) was followed by The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

- Fargo (1996) was followed by The Big Lebowski (1998)

- The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) was followed by Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

- No Country For Old Men (2007) was followed by Burn After Reading (2008).

Raising Arizona (1987) was the first comedy from the Coen Brothers and the first example of this trend (following the Coens' first film Blood Simple (1984), a neo noir thriller).

The Coen Brothers' first feature film, Blood Simple, had a couple of larger-than-life characters but it was a generally believable and down-to-earth crime thriller. For their second film, Raising Arizona, the Coen Brothers deliver something very different: a really zany story that has a lot of heart and relatable family elements.

Raising Arizona sees an in-and-out of jail criminal H.I. McDunnough (Nicholas Cage, giving one of his greatest performances ever) falling in love with police officer Edwina 'Ed' McDunnough (Holly Hunter, also giving one of her greatest performances ever). The two are an unlikely couple but get married and hope to start a happy little trailer home family of their own. Bad news hits the couple when they realize that they cannot have children of their own and they resort to stealing one of the recently born Arizona quintuplets - born to furniture tycoon Nathan Arizona (a hilarious and scene-stealing Trey Wilson). Bounty hunters, swingers and bank robbers get in the McDunnough's way, naturally.

Again, the differences between Blood Simple and Raising Arizona are stark. Whereas Blood Simple is a very un-Coen Brothers film in its look and feel, albeit unique in many ways, Raising Arizona is, in my opinion, the first Coen Brothers film that crystal clearly bears a trademark Coen Brothers look and feel. The charming bumble-speak of H.I., the oddball violence, an especially excellent John Goodman, the witty and individual dialogue and many of the other elements that make up Raising Arizona create a film of the uniquely-Coen Brothers style. Raising Arizona was the first Coen Brothers comedy and remains one of the funniest of the Brothers' films to this day.

CBC Ratings: 9/10

The Big Man (1990)

Neeson Soars As The Big Man

- Six years before Liam Neeson was "The Big Fella," he was "The Big Man" in this very underrated and unnoticed film: The Big Man (1990 - AKA: Crossing The Line, depending on which continent you live on).

Fans of Liam Neeson (like yours truly) simply need to see this film! Neeson gives a great performance here in his pre-Schindler's List (1993) era as Danny Scoular, a Scottish blue-collar man out on his luck who turns to illegal bare-knuckle boxing to make a buck. As if Danny did not have enough troubles coming in, this gets him involved with the mob. A man of principle, Danny is also hurting and desperate, and Liam Neeson runs the show with a great intensity and towering presence.

The Big Man is a very entertaining movie. The story of Danny is told well through a terrific showing by Liam Neeson and is well filmed by David Leland, with good particularly good tracking shots and some of the most intense, in-your-face boxing scenes that would make Rocky shiver.

Neeson is also backed up well by the supporting cast. Comedian Billy Conolly turns in a good supporting performance as Danny's lying and selfish manager Frankie. Conolly is funny of course throughout much of the film, but he also does a good job with the more dramatic scenes. Joanne Whalley does a pretty good job here too as Beth Scoular, Danny's wife, and Hugh Grant even pops up here in the film and isn't too bad generally - although he has trouble holding his Scottish accent.

Well written enough not to ruin anything, some unimaginative dialogue and illogical moves on the part of some characters are found here and there throughout The Big Man that constitute the film's biggest failings. One specific instance of "huh?" writing occurs when crime lord Matt Mason gives a mini speech that makes no sense at all. Something about "God" .... and uh, "contracts" .... and "glory" and I have no idea what he is talking about! The occasional muddy motive and line of dialogue is accompanied by an ending that's a tad too melodramatic but the rest of the story is quite engaging, following Danny around throughout his trials and successes.

You probably have never heard of it before; however, despite any problems the film may have, with Liam Neeson carrying the torch, The Big Man is a good film and certainly worth your time, especially if you are a fan of either Neeson or boxing films in general.

CBC Rating: 7/10