Thursday, November 29, 2012

My Favorite Era: The Long Good Friday (1980)

The Long Good Friday is possibly my favorite gangster film, second only to The Godfather.  A neat little British film from 1980, it stars Bob Hoskins as Harold Shand, a nasty little bulldog of a criminal who runs the London underworld.  The movie follows him as his life gradually goes to hell after a misunderstanding with the local chapter of the IRA.  Great acting, a lightning fast pace (for a 114 minute film, that's quite good) and a clever script make this one hell of a great movie.  Let's take a closer look.
  • I wrote about Handmade Films in the Water post and they are behind this one as well.  It was their third release.
  • Just a technical note, I'm fairly certain the U.S. VHS release was from Thorn EMI and later HBO Video.  Theatrical distribution was done by Embassy.
  • To the movie, the score by Francis Monkman is great with a pounding main theme.
  • I love how the plot is set up with Colin (Paul Freeman) running an errand and flirting with a guy at a pub while a series of what will out to be IRA hits go on.
  • Bob Hoskins is truly the center of the film here.  He's always been good (even in the bad films) and here he presents a ferocious, ambitious criminal who desperately wants to be seen as a big shot.  He also adds a layer of humanity (as much as one can when hanging rivals from meat hooks and stabbing people with broken wine bottles) to the man as he slowly begins to crumble.  It's a simply fantastic performance.
  • Equally good is Helen Mirren as Victoria, Harold's lover.  She acts as an anchor for him, keeping things in order and letting the audience see a more tender side (well, sort of) of him that is essential if the movie is going to work.
  • I'm also amused by the early appearance of Pierce Brosnan as a silent IRA hit man.  We first see him knifing Paul Freeman's character to death and he pops up in the last scene as well.  It's nothing you could really call a great performance but he certainly shows the presence that would net him some pretty choice roles later on.
  • The events of the film unfold while Harold is trying to court some American mobsters, namely Charlie (Eddie Constantine).  I sort of feel the movie is a bit of a dark comedy in parts with all the running around, trying to reassure Charlie everything is all right.
  • It's honestly a little hard for me to really talk a bout this one since the real pleasure of the movie is going into it blind and simply watching it unfold.  The script is constructed magnificently and John Mackenzie does a fantastic job directing it.
  • The final shot of the film is an amazing closeup of Harold as he realizes just how screwed he is.  It's a brilliant bit of silent acting from Hoskins, subtle and effective.
 The Long Good Friday is one of the unsung classics of British cinema and film in general.  Great acting, a clever script and endlessly watchable, it's one you should definitely seek out.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

My Favorite Era: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Sorry for the delay, turkey hangover.  I'll try to have a few more posts in the next few days.

 I'm not a huge fan of Star Trek, truthfully I think most of it is rather silly and poorly thought out but the one piece of Trek I do have a genuine love for is the second movie.  Star Trek II is an example of what I like to call a perfect viewing experience.  This is a movie that engages the mind as well as pressing the internal fun button with reckless abandon and works on every level it is supposed to work at.  Other films I feel this way about are Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Spy Who Loved Me and more recently, the new Bond epic Skyfall.

As for Star Trek II, it moves away from the stodgy, drawn out theatrics of the first film and gives the audience a balls to the wall adventure with good acting, a superb villain and spectacular f/x that are used properly, as opposed to the way they took over the previous outing.

The crew of the Enterprise is on a training run when they are targeted by an old enemy from the original series, Khan (Ricardo Montalban) who has lucked into information about a science experiment for creating life on barren planets that could be used as a weapon.  Khan gets control of a Federation ship (with Paul Winfield as captain and Chekov as second in command) and after putting some mind-controlling space slugs in their ears (one of the great gross-out moments in the series), Khan sets out to get revenge on Kirk.

Virtually everything about this movie works.  Acting is good all around with William Shatner and Ricardo Montalban really standing out.  Montalban has a blast hamming it up as Khan and Shatner turns in a very nice, layered performance.  Kirk is going through a bit of a mid-life crisis, feeling old on his birthday and this proves a nice emotional arc for the story.  He also does get to ham it up a bit here and there but for the most part, he gives a solid, low key performance of a man getting older who just happens to be James T. Kirk.

The rest of the cast is solid as one would expect with Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley giving Spock and McCoy their usual blends of humor and intelligence.  Kirstie Alley is also decent as Saavik, a Vulcan recruit on board.  If there is a weak link to be found, it would be with Bibi Besch and Merritt Butrick as Carol and David Marcus, the mother and son duo behind the project as well as Kirk's former lover and son respectively.  Besch is fine but Butrick is more than a little annoying.  Granted, he's supposed to be a bit of a mistrustful little turd but a little goes a long way for me,.  Still, it's not enough to hurt the film.

Nicholas Meyer directs everything with a sure hand, not letting things get too bogged down in tech stuff or blathering sentiment and speechifying.  He replaces these thing that will plague future movies with a blistering pace, fantastic space battles done up like classic naval battles and the sentiment is replaced with genuine emotion as Spock makes the ultimate sacrifice at the end to save the crew.

Star Trek II was one of the big releases in the summer of 1982 (one of my favorite summer movies seasons) and it still holds up today with good f/x, a great James Horner soundtrack, good acting and a smartly written script that works for both Trek fans and non-Trek fans alike.  Truly a great film.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Water (1985)

Water is an interesting little oddity from 1985 that stars Michael Caine as the governor of a small island in the Caribbean that is still under British rule.  The Brits are looking to relocate the populace and use the island as a nuclear waste dump; an American oil company (headed by Fred Gwynne) has discovered a fount of high-end spring water worth a fortune (turns out in addition to tasting great it also acts as a mild laxative), Caine's marriage is a mess and the scent of revolution is in the air...As long as you consider two guys looking to bring about freedom by way of music to be a revolution.  France and Cuba also get involved as does Valerie Perrine as an environmental activist looking to ensure the safety of the island's bat population.

As you can tell, Water is rather jam-packed with characters and subplots and the fact that it works at all is nothing short of a miracle.  Caine is solid as usual, providing the film with a much-needed anchor as he plays the rather lackadaisical but good-hearted governor who maintains a dry sense of humor while pretty much everybody else is running around like a bunch of manic nuts through a plot that peters out about an hour in.

Scottish comedy legend Billy Connolly is funny but woefully underused as a revolutionary who has vowed only to sing until the island is free (Connolly used to be a folk singer and he contributes a song or two to the soundtrack.

Apart from him, the rest of the cast is solid enough for what the material requires.  Fred Gwynne is amusing as usual; Jimmie Walker has a small role as the local radio DJ, Brenda Vaccaro is rather hammy as Caine's wife, Leonard Rossiter is entertainingly clueless in his final role as the British official trying to get a share of the water rights by financing Connolly's revolution and the overall feel of the movie is pleasant.

The cast isn't enough though, as the film gradually loses steam as it wears on.  There are too many plots and not enough care went into making them into a cohesive story.   The climax is an impromptu concert for the island at the UN featuring Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr and a few others while Caine tries to stop a French incursion that comes out of nowhere (they're pissed that Perrier has competition).  Not a real gut buster of a finale.

Water was made by the production company Handmade Films, co-owned by former Beatle George Harrison.  They've put out some interesting movies over the years such as this one, a couple Monty Python films and the awesome crime drama The Long Good Friday.  Water is a pleasant but uneven and jumbled comedy that has some funny bits, a typically good Michael Caine performance and is an amusing satire of British colonialism and American big business.  It's worth checking out for Caine's agreeable performance providing you're not expecting the second coming of satire.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

My Favorite Era: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a fantastic comedy starring a brilliant comedian in Steve Martin and an all-around brilliant actor in Michael Caine.  It tells the tale of a bet between small time con man Freddy Benson (Martin) and big time con artist Lawrence Jamieson (Caine) to see who will stick around and fleece the wealth of the French Riviera and who will have to get out of town.

Expertly directed by Frank Oz with a clever script and a fantastic cast, it is one of the all-time great comedies.  Let's take a closer look.
  • The film is basically a remake of a rather bad David Niven/Marlon Brando film called Bedtime Story that plays out more or less the same way.
  • The first scene (as well as the first ten minutes in general) sets up Lawrence and his style impeccably.  Caine is always good (even when the film isn't) and here he plays maybe the most likable slime ball you are ever likely to meet.
  • Steve Martin is the perfect comic foil to Caine's suave, stylish look with the rather cheesy and obvious Freddy.  Martin has always been good at playing sly but dumb guys and here he is just great.
  • Anton Rodgers and Ian MacDiarmid are also fun as Lawrence's accomplices.
  • Steve Martin is also a gifted physical comic as we see when he is in prison trying to remember Lawrence's name.
  • The key to a good comic duo is chemistry and happily, Caine and Martin have tons of it and then some.  They play off each other magnificently, my favorite instance being the setup of their partnership.
  • The team scam they pull is quite funny with Martin giving his role as Caine's rather deranged brother a manic quality that's just priceless.
  • The dissolving of the partnership leads to the main con, taking a very rich young woman (Glenne Headley) for $50,000.  Headley is quite likable in her role, playing a sympathetic character quite well.  The twist with her at the end where she turns out to be another con artist (the one Lawrence is worried Freddy is) is a nice payoff to the film.
  • The manner in which they try to take Janet (Headley) for her money is quite hilarious as Martin poses as a crippled Navy man and Caine acts as a noted German psychologist.  The sheer malice Caine brings to his scenes with Martin during this stretch are hilarious.
  • The twist at the end is great (though a little predictable) and well thought out.  I especially enjoy how Caine goes from his suave voice to his normal speaking voice in the middle of the reveal.  It just fits the man he's playing.
 Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was released in December of 1988 and was a reasonable success.  It still holds up today as a classy, funny comedy with a clever script and good acting and directing.  Definitely one to seek out.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Skyfall (2012)


9/10

This just came out so there will be no spoilers.

After four years of financial woes which caused delays, the new James Bond is here just in time for the 50th anniversary of the franchise.  Skyfall is just about as close as we are likely to get to a perfect Bond film.  In this adventure, we follow Bond as he tries to stop deranged former MI6 computer whiz Silva (Javier Bardem) before he completes a personal vendetta he has against M (Judi Dench).

Bond is assisted by fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris) as well as a new Q, played by Ben Whishaw.  First thing I want to mention is the script by Josh Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade.  Together, they have managed to craft a smart, tense, expansive spy thriller that still manages to have a rather intimate feel.  It's certainly better thought out than the previous film Quantum of Solace which fell victim to the writer's strike in 2007.

Performances are also very good with Craig his usual cool, deadly self.  Judi Dench puts in maybe her best performance as Bond's boss (it helps she actually plays a role in the story) and there are a few surprises revolving around her that are handled very well.

Even better is Javier Bardem as the deranged Silva.  he really hams it up nicely here, sinking his teeth into every line and laughing insanely every now and then.  He also has a rather alarming tendency to refer to M in a way that suggests some serious Mommy issues as well as a scene where he gets a little closer to Bond than Bond would probably prefer.  Bardem is, as anyone who has seen No Country for Old Men can attest, very good at playing creepy nut jobs and he really makes you shiver whenever he turns up.  Granted, it also helps that he has a rather gruesome physical trait that is just ghoulish.  Let's just say that if I ever need to take a cyanide pill, I really hope it works.

The rest of the cast is also solid.  Naomie Harris is sexy and funny, Ralph Fiennes is fun as a bureaucrat, Ben Whishaw is fun as the new Q and Albert Finney has a nice though underused supporting role.  To say more would veer into spoiler territory.

The action is also top notch with the highlights being a rooftop pursuit on motorcycles, an insanely over the top stunt with a train, a few nice shootouts and an extended finale that is surprisingly intimate even as it goes over the top.

If the film has anything maybe resembling a flaw, it sags just a little bit in the third act.  Apart from that, the latest Bond film is simply outstanding.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

My Favorite Era: The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

While Roger Moore's first two outings as James Bond were decent enough in terms of his acting (though neither one is anywhere near the top of my list), his third turn is where he really made the role his own.  This, along with a larger than life script pitting Bond against a Stromberg (Curt Jurgens), a deranged nut hoping to set off World War III and some great f/x (to say nothing of one iconic villain) makes the 10th 007 epic one of the very best.  Let's take a look...
  • Love the score by Marvin Hamlisch, it's very 70's but not in an obnoxious way.
  • Great pre-title sequence as Russian baddies (one of whom is the Bond Girl's lover) chase Bond in a ski chase that is capped off by one of the most amazing stunts I have ever seen.  The fact that a guy did a ski jump off a mountain for real just makes it even more impressive.
  • I also like how the general setup for the plot is also laid out, introducing us to our Bond Girl Anya (Barbara Bach) as well.
  • Bach is pretty good in the role though she only uses her Russian accent about half of the time.
  • Carly Simon's man title song "Nobody Does it Better" is another great aspect of the film.
  • Moore is fantastic here, as I said.  While he was a little too forced in the nastier scenes in his first two efforts, his third film allowed him to relax into a suave, classy yet quite lethal interpretation of Bond.  He may be a lighter Bond than Sean Connery, but that doesn't make him any less of a killer as we will see.
  • Stomberg's first scene is a nice bit of villainy, the only thing that would have is better is if the filmmakers could have used Blofeld and SPECTRE as the bad guys.  Thanks to a lawsuit, they were unable to which has an effect in one crucial moment but for the most part doesn't affect things too harshly.
  • The intro scene is also notable for the introduction of Richard Kiel sad the hulking steel-toothed henchman Jaws into the franchise,.  Kiel is quite good, using his sheer mass to intimidate and he makes for a very effective villain.
  •  I would also be an unconscionable turd if I didn't mention Caroline Munro in her small role as helicopter pilot Naomi.  She's sexy as hell (as usual) and it twill almost be a shame when she leaves the movie.
  • One of my favorite small moments in the franchise comes when Bond is in Cairo to meet with a man who can introduce Bond to the holder of a microfilm relating to the sub disappearance that kicks off the film.  He is seen in silhouette in an archway and it is simply one of the coolest shots I've ever seen, just pure Bond.
  • The ensuing fist fight with one of Stromberg's goons is equally cool, as is the wonderfully cold way Bond dispatches him after he give our hero the information he needs.
  • There is a nice eerie quality to the sequence at the pyramids, helped by the bit with Jaws showing what he's all about.  It's bad enough the guy is freaking huge, but the fact that he dispatches his victims Dracula style just makes him extra freaky.
  • Bond and Anya meeting up and bantering back and forth as they track Jaws is very entertaining as the two actors have good chemistry together.  Her briefly ditching him is also great, as is the M meeting where they are teamed up about an hour in.
  • The next awesome bit is the fight between 007 and Jaws on the train.  Bond had always has good fights on trains and this one is just great as he just barely manages to stave off the beast before tossing out of a window.  I always got a kick out of how Jaws just brushes off whatever horrific injury he suffers and keeps going.  It's funny (and overdone in the next film) and also a little creepy.
  • The coolness keeps going as Bond is given his new car, a tricked-out Lotus Esprit that can turn into a mini-submarine.  The huge car chase later on between the Lotus, a few enemy cars and Naomi in a helicopter is just stunning.
  • The meeting with Bond and Stromberg is a good one and one can only imagine how great it could have been if it was Bond vs. Blofeld instead given that in the sixth film Blofeld kills Bond's new bride on their wedding day.
  • Now is as good a time as any to mention the fantastic set design.  Stromberg's home base and super tanker are simply astounding.  I can only imagine how great they must have looked on the big screen.
  • As I said, the car chase is good and so is the underwater action that ensues to round the sequence off.
  • The reveal that Bond killed Anya's lover is a pretty damn good scene, though Moore's acting is a little more spot-on than Bach's.  It's a nice dramatic scene that give some nice insight into Moore's portrayal of the character.  He accepts murder as part of the job and makes no apologies for it.  The tension between the two for a while after this works rather well.
  • Stromberg's plan is appropriately grand, as is the rest of the movie.
  • There are few things that bring a smile to my face faster than seeing Bond spring into action and create utter havoc in the bad guy's lair.  The orgy of violence Bond kicks off to begin the last act action is a marvel as I'm pretty sure he racks up a body count here along the lines of the average Stallone movie.  My favorite bit is when he shoots two guys with one harpoon.
  • The big gun battle in the tanker is wonderfully over the top with huge explosions and some of the most enthusiastic stuntmen you are likely to find anywhere.
  • Bond's final confrontation with Stromberg is great as he ruthlessly dispatches the guy in about as nasty a manner as you could get away with in a PG movie at the time.  As with a few other moments, having the baddie be Blofeld would have made the scene ever better.  Put it this way, blowing a guy's balls out his ass and then putting two in his chest for good measure is not how one usually offs a random nut job.  But the man who killed your wife?  I rest my case.
After the massive letdown that was The Man with the Golden Gun, the franchise needed a big hit which they got.  The Spy Who Loved Me was released in August of 1977 and was one of the big hits that summer, along with a little sci-fi flick directed by some guy named George something-or-other.  It's one of the best Bond films of all time and still holds up today as an awesome action film.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Raiders of Atlantis (1983)


6/10 

Ah, you gotta love the Italian film industry in the 80's.  This gem is set in the far-flung future of 1994 where based on the cheesy theme song it would seem disco is alive and well, and concerns an invasion by a gang of cultists descended from the lost continent of Atlantis who want to kill everyone in order to reclaim their rightful place in the world after the continent surfaces in the Caribbean.  Actually, I think the idea is that the rising of Atlantis triggers the souls of the descendants in random people, which is just insanely odd.

With such a daffy yet awesome premise you would expect the movie to be 90 minutes of sheer cheesy joy.  Happily, this is exactly the case for the most part as director Ruggero Deodato of Cannibal Holocaust fame manages to create a stunningly entertaining piece of crap.

Our heroes are two mercenaries, Mike and Washington (Christopher Connelly and Tony King respectively) and Dr. Cathy Rollins (Gioia Scola) and our villains are led by a guy known only as Crystal Skull (Bruce Baron), thanks to the alleged crystal skull mask he sports.  I say alleged because to be brutally frank, it looks like plastic.

The majority of the film takes place on a small island our heroes end up on and while it takes a while to get to the good stuff, the film has plenty of hilariously bad dialogue and acting to tide a person over.  The  cheese flows think once we get to the island though with the Atlantean biker gang; some decent gore shots (as one would expect from a trashy 80's Italian movie), stunt work that probably is less than safe-I especially like the bit where a flaming arrow gets about an inch from an actor's face, made even better that he stays in character to put out the fire-and best of all, a really great decapitation.

Eventually, Cathy is captured and taken to Atlantis and Mike has to go after her, using an artifact from Atlantis she was brought in to study to lead the way.  After more mayhem, we get a baffling conclusion having to do with the souls of trapped Atlanteans being released or something.  All I know is that the bad guys lose.

Raiders of Atlantis is not a good movie.  It really isn't, but it is a hell of a lot of fun.  Cheesy, mindless entertainment with tons of action, bad acting, bad dialogue, bad set design and  general strangeness.  Love the VHS sleeve too, just great.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

My Favorite Era: For Your Eyes Only (1981)

With the Halloween stuff out of the way, now we can get back to drooling with anticipation as the U.S. release for Skyfall draws closerI'll be examining a few of my favorites from the series over the next week or so and eventually, I will end up reviewing all of the films in the series.

For now, we're starting with For Your Eyes Only, film number 12 in the series and Roger Moore's fifth.  It's a more down to earth story, much needed after the admittedly entertaining excess of Moonraker, providing a straight-up spy thriller loaded with action and cool moments as 007 tries to get to a bit of military hardware before the Russians do.
  • First off, you gotta love that poster.  It's just awesome in its simplicity.
  • Bond enters the 80's with a great gun barrel theme done by Bill Conti.  I dig the score of the film more than most seem to.  It's pretty heavy on the synth but it's still a very good bit of work.
  • Love the pretitle sequence with Bond hanging on for dear life to a remote controlled helicopter.
  • Great main title sequence with Sheena Easton doing the song.
  • After the over the top stunt sequence, the film settles nicely into a relatively dark thriller kicking off with the sinking of a British spy ship carrying our MacGuffin for the evening and the brutal murder of the Havelocks in front of their daughter Melina (Carole Bouquet).
  • The film is very well directed by John Glen who also edited and did second unit work on a few other films in the franchise.  Glen also directed the other four Bond films released in the 80's.
  • The action in the film is simply awesome with my favorite being the ski chase fifty minutes into the film.  there have been a few skiing sequences in the series but this one is the best with Bond being chased around a resort being used for Olympic training.  Naturally, he ends up on the bobsled run at one point.
  • I also enjoy the car chase about twenty five minutes in which sees Bond's usual gadget laden vehicle blown up, leaving him to escape in Melina's distinctly less flashy compact car.
  • Julian Glover makes for a fine villain, the sneaky and cold-blooded Kristatos.  I especially like how he is at first set up as an ally, pointing Bond in the direction of Colombo (Topol) who turns out to be an old rival with a grudge against the man.
  • Topol is also fun as Colombo, giving a very likable performance.
  • Roger Moore is great here as he keeps the light touch he normally has while also throwing in a few moments to remind you that 007 is a killer, first and foremost.  Best of all is his cold dispatching of the man who has already killed one of his friends as well as Colombo's girlfriend Lisl (the late Cassandra Harris who was married to Pierce Brosnan at the time of filming).  Kicking a guy's car off a cliff while he's in it?  Damn good stuff.
  • The film is paced quite well though I do feel it sags a bit in the last act.  There is a great keelhauling sequence after Bond and Melina are captured and the mountain climbing finale is visually impressive but the overall effectiveness of the film is somewhat lessened.
  • I do like Bond destroying the MacGuffin at the end rather than handing it over to the Russians.  It's a nice touch.
Overall, For Your Eyes Only is a very strong entry in the series.  It's fun, action packed with good performances and apart from a third act that sags a bit, it's  a great flick.

About Me

I've been a huge fan of action, horror and comedy for as long as I can remember.