Sunday, March 17, 2013

Jack and Oz (2013)

I saw Jack the Giant Slayer last weekend, Oz, the Great and Powerful this weekend, so it seemed only appropriate to review them together.  Oz had the better trailer, but boy, was it a disappointing film.  Not to say it didn’t have some good parts to it, but as a whole it lacked.  Jack on the other hand, didn’t have a particularly engaging trailer, but boy, was it a fun movie.  I loved just about every minute of it.

Oz looks spectacular, but it goes wrong at the most fundamental level – character development.  Nobody in this film grabbed me, particularly our trio of witches.  I was never given more than the slightest indication of who they were and what motivated them.  Not even any generic and cliché motivations, which would have been better than nothing.  One of them killed their father (why?), is apparently guarding the throne but not actually ruling (so, does she not want power then?), another seems to have some weird self-dangerous personal issues whenever she gets her feelings hurt (is this a witch thing, or just with this witch?), and the third is good and opposed to evil, but why so different from her sisters?  Was the murdered father father of all three?  Was there a mother?  Mothers?  What do these witches want anyway?  What are their powers?  There’s a prophecy about the wizard of Oz.  I’m rather fond of prophecies, especially when they’re slightly subverted, and so that part worked for me.  But overall... I simply didn’t care enough.  This movie started out so promisingly, but by midway through, I was done.  At that point, it kept dragging on and on to the inevitable conclusion.

Now, it is a beautiful movie, with great scenery and I’m glad I saw it on the big screen.  And I do love James Franco.  He had the con man wizard part down, and I really liked those moments when he realized what was going on around him, that it wasn’t all a game.  I actually liked all three witches.  The actresses themselves were great with what they had to work with.  I like a lot of disparate parts of this film.  I loved that it is the wizard who suggests the broomstick idea.  Lovely little moment when it plays out.  There was some pretty funny stuff, mostly involving a good flying monkey named Finley.  Although I’m not quite sure whether I liked him or whether I was creeped out by him.  CGI talking animals are always a bit on the creepy side.  It’s something with how their lips move or something.  He did get the funniest moments in the movie, though.  One of his lines (alas, I can’t remember which one) had us laughing for a good couple minutes at least.  I also really liked the yellow brick road, the poppy field, and all those bits and bobs that tied in with The Wizard of Oz.  I also have to add that I loved Bruce Campbell in his small role.  Bruce Campbell is always a bonus!

Jack the Giant Slayer, on the other hand, I went to see mostly because Ewan McGregor was in it.  I had no expectations.  Where Oz seemed to take itself too seriously, this movie doesn’t take itself seriously at all.  Where Oz tries too hard to be something, Jack succeeds by simply being.  It’s just a retelling of a fairy tale, and it knows it.  And consequently, it is nothing but a fun romp of a movie.  I spent most of this movie grinning in delight.  And it may be just a fairy tale, but at the same time, it had characters I cared quite a great deal about.  There's also a whole passel of giants, who turned out to be quite interesting.  Other than the cook, who belongs with those gross trolls in Hobbit, (fortunately short screen time – they couldn't have a fastidious cook for once??)  But the giants have a lot of internal strife, so there were some great dynamics going on among them, little power plays, and stuff.  They weren't just a mindless horde.  I quite loved it.  With a few broad strokes the movie painted a deeper picture of what has been going on in their realm.  And as opposed to Oz... which got boring, I was never bored in Jack

The opening, which introduces Jack and the princess, Isabelle, as children hearing the legend of Jack and the Beanstalk, is nicely done, cutting seamlessly back and forth, showing how entranced both are with the tale.  It had me hooked immediately.  And as opposed to Oz, which was predictable straight through, Jack continued to surprise me throughout.  Supporting characters died when I didn’t think they would, which made me start genuinely worrying about some of the characters.  The king (Ian McShane) makes a hard decision I thoroughly loved him for, one that gave this movie more depth that I hadn't expected it to go into. 

And then there’s Ewan McGregor, who did not remotely disappoint.  He is awesome, and his character of Elmont, captain of the guard, was thoroughly amusing.  I can't actually figure out how to describe his character.  He is a bit pompous and silly (with a haircut that just makes me laugh, in a good way), and yet so utterly self-assured and confident and also heroic and upstanding, all at the same time, and it is the funniest and coolest combo.  I think only Ewan could play such a character.  He made me very very happy in this role for all kinds of reasons.  Stanley Tucci plays the bad guy, and he is perfectly despicable and nasty and cowardly and confident... and he also plays the role, like Ewan, with such light-hearted abandon that it’s just... well... FUN!

I will probably watch Oz again when it comes on television, but I can’t wait to own Jack on DVD.  It's a shame the latter hasn't gotten the attention it deserves.  I found it to be the far superior film, with one exception.  Danny Elfman's score for Oz was amazing and wonderful.  John Ottman's score for Jack is merely serviceable.  It doesn't detract, but neither does it give us any memorable themes.  I'd sorely like to have had the composers reversed.

(yeah, I would so put this poster on my wall!)

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Man With the Golden Gun (1974)

This is not a film I’ve watched very many times.  It was always low on the totem pole, but I found I rather liked the first half this go-round.  It wasn’t nearly as corny or dated, and the score by John Barry, of course, helps step it up a notch.  Unfortunately this movie suffers from confusion over what it’s going to be about.  It starts out with a highly paid assassin (Scaramanga, our lead villain, played by Christopher lee), supposedly after Bond.  There’s a brief early mention of the energy crisis, solar power, but Bond is pulled off that to pursue his pursuer.  I think if this movie had stayed a cat and mouse between Bond and Scaramanga, it would have been quite magnificent.  But the solar thingy (solex agitator) comes back into play, almost like an after-thought.  And so Scaramanga has this crazy big solar energy playset on his island... that really has nothing to do with anything other than to give us a big set-piece and something we can blow up later.  It’s mostly a MacGuffin.  Scaramanga intends to sell it to the highest bidder, but because the solex isn’t really worked into the story very well... who cares?  The far more interesting story here is Christopher Lee and Roger Moore as adversaries.  Alas, Bond movies weren’t yet ready to break the mold and go a bit more intimate and personal with their storylines.

There’s a lot to like here, but the elements just aren’t pulled together very well.  And we’re hampered with Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland), who seems to just keep messing things up.  I mean, she’s an agent... really?  I rather like her too, or I like Britt Ekland, but this script gives her nothing but a habit of innocently lousing things up.  Even when she finally gets to act and takes out a guard at the end, her actions end up blowing up the island.  Really??  Typical of this film, though.  A lot of promise, not much follow through.

Christopher Lee is much more interesting as Scaramanga than I used to think when I was a kid.  He’s rather charming, cold, vain, and a bit bored with life until Bond comes along.  He lives on a lovely private island, gets paid a million dollars per assassination, and, of course, he carries the titular golden gun – complete with golden bullet.  The gun is a nifty little piece that he can build very quickly from ordinary-seeming objects he carries with him.  It only holds one bullet, but that’s all he needs.  The scenes with him and Bond, verbally sparring (and yet remaining gentlemen), and then finally squaring off in a duel are the best scenes in the movie.  The two actors have good chemistry.

And unfortunately, our most annoying loud-mouth sheriff from Live and Let Die is back.  Sigh.  I guess he apparently was popular enough at the time for a return appearance. 

Also back is Marc Lawrence, as a gangster hired to try to kill Scaramanga in the pre-credit sequence.  I’m not sure if he’s supposed to be the same character he played in Diamonds are Forever, but I like to think he is.  Both characters dress just about the same, talk the same... why not?

This movie has one of the most amazing, real car stunts I’ve ever seen in a film.  A crazy mid-air roll right over a river, from one curving ramp to another.  It’s flawless and apparently was done in one take.  It’s quite spectacular.

Favorite parts:  Scaramanga’s funhouse.  The end duel, particularly the start, with Bond and Scaramanga back to back.  The two nieces trained in martial arts.  The car stunt.  M telling Q to shut up twice in one conversation.

Music:  good, not great
Theme song:  I quite like the melody but not the sung rendition.
Credit sequence:  Okay
Bond girl:  Goodnight is unfortunately too inept at her job, Maud Adams as Scaramanga’s mistress who helps Bond, is much more interesting, walking a fine line between two dangerous men.
Bad guys:  Well, when can you ever go wrong with Christopher Lee??  He’s great. Herve Villechaize as Scaramanga’s servant, Nick Nack, is a perfect match for him, and together they are a great pair.
Overall personal rating:  2 out of 5 stars

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Live and Let Die (1973)

Woo.  The 70’s have well and truly arrived.  Roger Moore has arrived.  I always think I like this movie better than I do.  The sum of my memories is better than the movie itself.  In general, I’m only okay with the Moore Bond films.  They’re a little too silly and cutesy for me.  You can ask how I can rank Diamonds are Forever a 5/5, but not find that a silly movie.  I find it a funny movie.  There’s a difference.  I think it’s mostly that they start doing things specifically for humor in Moore’s Bond, which usually fails on me, whereas Diamonds is played straight, the humor more natural.  But humor is one of those tricky things that works differently for each person. 

Live and Let Die... even having just watched this movie, I can't say I really know what this one’s really about.  Drugs, sure, but I never really get much past that.  I do love Kananga, mostly because I love Yaphet Kotto.  He must have the largest network of people working for him of any Bond villain.  Just about everybody seems to be working for him!  And boy, do they get around.  Kananga would make me very paranoid because of how easily he controls so many.

I really do like Roger Moore as Bond, despite the fact that I’m not overly fond of his films.  He’s a very different Bond from Connery, and that works in his favor.  He is also my first theatrical Bond, so he gets sentimental points for that.  He also actually succeeds with the silly/cuteness factor.  I don't think any of the other Bond actors could pull off the lines that Moore makes seem natural, so more points for being able to pull off the silliness.  He’s good-looking, and also has that right physical and arrogant component that I like in my Bonds.

I might like this movie better if it had a good score, but it does not.  No John Barry this outing, and the music in this one makes me cringe.  It’s not the worst of the scores, but it’s very very low on the totem pole.  I like various parts of this movie quite a bit, but there's a lot of dead weight in this film.  And I have to admit, I love a good chase scene... but the boat chase in this one?  Goes on forever with no real purpose... and introduces one of the absolute most annoying characters not just in a Bond film but in any film anywhere -- Sheriff Pepper.  He makes me want to bang my head against a wall.  Though his final line after he finds out who Bond is, "Secret agent? On whose side?!" does make me laugh.

But I do love Jane Seymour as Solitaire, Kanaga's psychic tarot card reader.  Could she be any prettier?  I always get a bit frowny at Bond for his easy manipulation of her, just to get info on Kanaga.  (Moore's Bond always seems colder and less emotional than Connery's Bond, which I find interesting.)  But then he does come back to rescue her in the end.

I also really like Kanaga's henchmen:  Tee Hee and Whisper.  And my favorite character in the whole film has to be Baron Samedi, played by Geoffrey Holder, who used to be in the 7-Up commercials.  He has a great voice and a fabulous laugh.  He very nearly makes the whole movie in his small amount of screen time.  And I love that the movie ends on him.

Oddly, despite the fact that I love David Hedison, I am not fond of his Felix in this film.  I like him much better in his second outing as Felix.  I can't actually put my finger on why, but his acting seems really bad in this film.  Now, that's ironic coming from me, who loves Rik Nutter's Felix, and he can't act for beans.  It might be because I know Hedison from all sorts of other things, so I expect better from him?  Whereas I've never seen Mr. Nutter in anything but Thunderball.  Might be because the script gives Felix lousy dialogue here?  I don't know, but sadly, I just can't appreciate this Felix.

Favorite parts:  "Whose funeral is it?" "Yours." -- Not once, but twice.  Moneypenny covering for Bond in the beginning.  Alligators and crocodiles!  Everything from Bond rescuing Solitaire to the end credits, which is the strongest section of the movie.  Roger Moore should wear black more often.  The way Bond clenches his fists right before Kanaga cuts his arm.  End fight on train!  "Just being disarming."  Baron Samedi laughing as the train pulls away.

Music:  Lousy
Theme song:  Okay.  I've gotten used to this song over the years, and I like the middle section, but I am not particularly a fan of Paul McCartney's later work.
Credit sequence:  Meh
Bond girl:  I love Solitaire, love the way she's caught between the bad guys and good guys.
Bad guys: I like them... worthy adversaries, but I still have no idea what Kanaga's trying to do.
Overall personal rating:  3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, March 03, 2013

The Fallen Sparrow (1943)

Patti from They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To is hosting a John Garfield blogathon right now in honor of the actor's 100th birthday.  I haven't seen that many John Garfield pictures, mostly only in the famous ones, such as The Postman Always Rings Twice, but he grows on me every time I see him in a film.  I chose The Fallen Sparrow as my entry.  It was a film that I had never seen, but the cast and plot appealed greatly to me.  I was not disappointed.


The Fallen Sparrow concerns John "Kit" McKittrick (Garfield) who returns to New York to investigate the death of Louie Lepetino, his lifelong best friend.  Police say it was an accidental death, Kit is pretty sure it's murder.  And while the murder investigation is the driving motivation, there is so much more going on in this film.  Kit, a prisoner of war for two years in the Spanish Civil War who had been brutally tortured, has been convalescing in an Arizona ranch/clinic for what we would now identify as PTSD.  This is not idle character background to simply make Kit a very troubled soul.  The torture he underwent at the hands of an unknown Nazi, what he refused to tell them during that time – that’s the real plot of the film.  Murder mysteries are not really my thing, but the rest of the content of this film is right up my alley.

Because I am an absolute sucker for characters who will defend an ideal – something intangible – to the death.  In this film, it is not quite an intangible, but it might as well be.  We find out that Kit’s brigade killed a general who was very close to Adolf Hitler.  Hitler has vowed to destroy all those responsible and to hang the brigade's battle standard on his wall.  It is that battle standard’s location that Kit will die before revealing and letting the Nazis get it.

This movie moves under the guise of the murder investigation:  Kit joins the wealthy, elite crowd Louie had been running with in order to identify multiple suspects – three of them beautiful women – and meet the one witness to Louie’s plunge out a window.  That witness is played by Maureen O’Hara.  Another of his friends is murdered and the death called suicide by the police.  Kit doggedly tracks down his leads to find out who killed Louie.

But under that runs the true story.  The story of a man trying to recover from two years of torture, a man who finds nothing is quite what it seems, and that he is still being manipulated.  There is a psychological tale woven here, of one man trying to keep his head above water.  Kit has to beat his own demons to beat the bad guys.  He is haunted by memories – dripping water, the limping footsteps of the Nazi who tortured him.  He fights the reoccurrences with techniques the doctors in Arizona taught him.  He puts on records to drown out imagined sounds.  This is where John Garfield excels.  One of the things I like best about him in his portrayals is how easily he can say one thing and display something else.  When his friend, Ab, asks how he’s doing nowadays, Kit tells him he’s doing great.  But when Ab asks him if he hears any more noises, Kit’s body language as he says “No,” clearly means “Yes.”  This movie is filled with moments like that, and if I hadn’t admired Garfield’s ability as an actor previously, this movie would have won me over.  The movie continues to provide voice overs during Garfield’s episodes, which is too bad.  They are unnecessary.  Everything you need to know is right there in his face, and the voice overs themselves are so blunt and to the point, but alas, that’s the way it goes.  It doesn’t take away from the beauty of his performance under it all.

The very first shot is of Kit is pulling a gun out of his suitcase.  A moment of hesitation, and he slips it into an inner suit pocket.  Then he sees his reflection in the train window, and we hear a voice over as he airs his doubts over his readiness to face the world.  Sure, the voice over tells you directly what you need to know, but so does Garfield’s face.  This is an unnerved but very determined man.  That determination sees him through the movie, through his own problems and through those thrown at him by the antagonists of the film.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is a very disturbing scene where Kit is invited in to meet a Norweigan professor, who is in the middle of telling several people how torture works.  Kit’s reaction – one of revulsion but equally strong fascination – is brilliant.  He doesn’t want to hear any of this, and yet, he finds himself nodding his head to Dr. Skaas’s words, understanding firsthand exactly why what the professor is telling his wealthy audience is true.  John Garfield does this throughout, giving the audience a glimpse of the agony he still suffers and the willpower he uses to beat it.  I really loved him in this film.

Both story lines – the murders and Kit’s torture in Spain – are, of course, intricately connected, and I liked the way everything tied together.  I am also particularly fond of the way the movie ends.  I thought it was a perfect way to conclude the film.

Maureen O’Hara plays Toni Donne, an enigmatic, beautiful woman who is right in the middle of the suspicious crowd of “refugees.”  Kit hounds her into going out with him so he can get some information, as she is the only witness to Louie’s death, but along the way, he also falls for her, despite, or because of, her connections to the wrong side.  She’s a bit of a wounded bird, much as he is, and they’re both drawn to the other.  I liked her character, and how, like Kit, you want to believe her, but you’re never quite sure which side she’s on until the very end of the movie.  Her mystery, her sincerity, her beauty all work perfectly here to keep her a lovely inscrutable character.

Patricia Morrison plays a beautiful old flame of Kit’s, and Martha O’Driscoll plays the sister of Kit’s friend, Ab.  Both fit nicely into this film’s web of characters.  Walter Slezak plays the professor, Dr. Skaas, the wheelchair bound invalid seemingly obsessed with studying man’s cruelty to man.  He has a perpetual smirk beneath his genial veneer and seems to play his role with relish.

This wartime film isn’t a movie for everyone.  The manipulation of Kit’s character, his traumatic past, the fact that the characters are either trying to protect or trying to destroy an ideal embodied by a "dirty old rag," won’t work for everyone.  It was quite different from what I was expecting for a noir/spy/war film, but I enjoyed it immensely and would really like to own this one on DVD.