Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A ramble of thoughts

I have not been able to put Crossed Swords out of my head since I saw it. I no sooner returned the DVD to Netflix on Monday than I ordered it from Amazon. Recalling various parts of the movie and the music have been consuming most of my waking minutes. It's been a long time since a movie so grabbed me and wouldn't let go. Makes me wonder why. Why this one and not that one? Why A and not B, even when they're in the same genre? What is it that plays so strongly to our individual passions?

This particular movie speaks to me. I wouldn't expect it to speak to anyone else, not even my sister or close friends. We all have different loves, different passions, different buttons to push, and different needs. This movie meets mine, or at least the Oliver Reed portions of the film do. I know some of the reasons, but not all of them.

I know a lot of it is due to Oliver Reed himself. I remember when I saw Gladiator for the first time. I was thoroughly in love with Russell Crowe, but every time he played a scene with Oliver Reed, Crowe faded into the background. Considering how much I loved Russell Crowe, that's saying something. But Reed just has that affect, I don't care if he was 62 in Gladiator, he is still more charismatic and sexier than his younger co-star. It was Proximo's voice, his lines of dialogue, and the way he said them that stuck with me, not Maximus. I can never recall the famous Maximus lines that were plastered in the media for awhile while Gladiator was out, but I can still to this day quote most of Proximo's lines from "you sold me queer giraffes" to "I did not say I knew him, I said he touched me on the shoulder once," to "Why would I want that? He makes me rich," to lines in between. I can't even properly remember my favorite Maximus line from the end about smiling back at death... But start me with "Oh, you should see the coliseum, Spaniard..." and I'm off and running. That's the Oliver Reed touch. In a world of blandness, Reed's zest is never less than memorable. I went into Gladiator loving Russell Crowe and came out loving Oliver Reed.

I would love the Crossed Swords/Prince and the Pauper character of Miles Hendon, as written in this particular version of the story, no matter who played him, simply because he's written as the kind of hero who automatically appeals to me. But I also know Reed takes the character well beyond the ordinary, just in the delivery of his lines, in his physicality, his emotion. In simply being Oliver Reed.

I know this movie's themes (again, in the Oliver Reed portions of the plot) touch on many things I love -- betrayal, loyalty, identity, standing up for what's right, protecting the innocent, truth and honesty and honor and bravery, love.

And I know the rest of what's grabbed me so hard is the music. I don't even want to look at how many times I've played the main and end title cues in iTunes. But it's a lot. The last time I listened to a theme that many times in a row was the main title for Ride the High Country, which is a movie, not remotely coincidentally, that has many of the same themes and the same type of hero as Crossed Swords. It's just set in a different time period with guns and rifles instead of knives and swords. And that film also got in my head and stayed there for days on end.

Even exploring some of my thoughts here, it still fascinates me just why movies like Crossed Swords and Ride the High Country hold such power over me after viewing them.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Crossed Swords (1977)

While I'm in the realm of 1970's movies, I watched this film for the first time this week. This is what my sister would call a very definite "Deb Movie." It has all the sorts of things I love in my action movies, and I do believe I'll be picking it up on DVD when I can, just so I can watch the good bits whenever I want.

It's a bit of a mixed bag, but the good outweighed the bad and I found myself really enjoying this version of Mark Twain's "The Prince and the Pauper." I had no idea what to expect, honestly. I rented it because Oliver Reed was in it, and he did not disappoint. Seriously, throw Oliver Reed in a period movie with lots of sword fighting, and that'll make me happy right there. Give him excellent dialogue and an interesting plot and I'm even happier. Add in some lovely scenery and costumes. Then throw in a bunch of other great actors: Ernest Borgnine (in a nasty role as the pauper's father), and Charlton Heston (as Henry VIII!), Rex Harrison, Raquel Welch, George C. Scott... good lord, but this film is chock full of big names! And everyone of them turns in a great performance.

Crossed Swords is a familiar tale - pauper and prince look so alike, on a lark they switch places, not realizing how a simple change of costume will change everyone else's perception of them, rendering anything they try to say irrelevant. The prince is summarily tossed out of the castle, and the pauper has to pick up his place as Henry VIII's son. Soldier of fortune, Miles Hendon, helps the prince stay safe out in the tough streets of London and beyond, not believing Edward's claims of royalty, until he himself, is tossed and beaten out of his own house by his ratfink of a younger brother who has usurped his inheritance and intends to keep it by denying his brother's identity. Miles realizes the prince is indeed who he has claimed he was the entire time and sets about getting him to the coronation.

The weakest link in this film is, unfortunately, Mark Lester, the young man playing the lead dual role of Tom/Prince Edward. He's not terrible, and he doesn't derail the movie, but he's just... weak. He seems too old for the role. He's too deliberately awkward, and they could not possibly have given him more terrible wigs to wear. He's much more watchable when he's in Edward's shoes. The Tom character is far more annoying. Tom also has the added disadvantage of being in the lighter, "comedic" scenes, and comedy just doesn't appeal to me the way the more serious scenes with Edward do. The other light scenes are when George C. Scott appears as the Ruffler, a one-time monk now leading a band of outlaws and vagabonds. That scene is also played for comedy, and while Scott really does shine in his role, I just don't suffer comedy well, and that's a skippable scene for me when I rewatch this.

Back to the good...

Charlton Heston as a dying Henry VIII. I suppose it shouldn't surprise me that he can play such a famous monarch so well, but I was still surprised. He gets some great dialogue, and he delivers it so well. Color me impressed! He might be my favorite cinematic Henry VIII now.

The dialogue was very well done, smart, and with just the right sound to it. The script in general was very entertaining. It was a lot more violent movie than I expected, starting from the opening physical abuses Tom's father heaps on him, to the frequent sword fights, which were, with one exception, one man (Reed) against many. He sure got ganged up upon!! They weren't sword fights so much as brawls, but really, is there anybody who can brawl as well as Oliver Reed and be so believable about it? One thing I really loved about the fight sequences was how different each was, and how differently Miles Hendon (Oliver Reed's character) approached each set of opponents. From leery and careful with vicious Ernest Borgnine and his minions, to uncaringly recklessly angry with his brother and his minions. I was also impressed at how fairly Oliver Reed's character fought despite the continuing overwhelming odds against him every time. Dude, if an angry Ernest Borgnine character was coming at me swinging a cudgel, I sure as hell wouldn't reverse my sword simply because I wasn't facing a man with a blade. I'd run the bastard through before he beat the crap out of me, particularly with three other armed, scurvy goons jumping in the fray too! But Oliver Reed is playing a far more noble character, and so he does not do that, and, yeah, he gets the crap beaten out of him because he plays fair. I so dig it! It just makes me love his character more. I'm such a sucker for moral characters who stick by their code of honor and their word. This movie is so up my alley!

Oliver Reed... ahh, he gets to do all those Oliver Reed things he does best -- fight, deliver angry speeches in that deep, rough-'n-smooth, wonderful voice, get in trouble, get out of trouble, rescue the hero multiple times, and look good while doing it. He has a couple hilarious moments that completely busted me up. One is when he's trying to fit into his younger brother's clothes and they're too small (in a scene that reminds me of a story I once wrote...) and he rails at his brother, "Are you some kind of a midget??" Hm. Probably not funny out of context, but dang it's funny in the film. Another is when he tells the prince to stand back and let him do the fighting, as fighting is his trade. And Edward tells him very calmly, "Forgive me, Sir Miles, but I've seen you fight three times. Once, we ran away, twice you lost." The look on Oliver Reed's face is priceless. There's also a couple really awesomely done emotional moments, such as when he realizes Edward has indeed by telling him the truth about his identity, that he is the king. That's my favorite moment in the whole movie. I could watch Oliver Reed's reaction right there over and over and over. He's such a darned brilliant actor I just don't tire of watching (and learning) how he does things.

Ah, this movie really was made for someone like me!

The music is lovely. Less than thirty seconds into the main credits, I told the cat, "Maurice Jarre!" The man has the most unmistakeable and unique sound. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Jarre's film scores. This one was no exception. At first, it feels almost out of place, too distinctive, and it almost distracts from the movie, but it's still a catchy theme, and it grew on me so much that when it finally got used gently, beautifully, in an emotional moment, it just completely worked. And one thing I do love about him: his scores are never boring. There's more originality and beauty and creativity in one of his scores than in all of Hans Zimmer's scores combined. And if there's one thing I want most out of music, it's beauty. I own an LP of this score, which I wish I could play right now, instead of setting the movie to repeat the end credits over and over.

Lalla Ward plays a small role as Princess Elizabeth. I know her only as the second Romana from Doctor Who, so it was fun to see her in something different. She made a very good, strong Elizabeth, and has one silent moment with Charlton Heston that's another of my favorite parts of the film.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that this film has a bizarre epilogue of sorts, where the various characters' fates are revealed. No spoilers, but it was so out of the blue, I have to admit I laughed out loud at more than one of the characters' fates. Miles' future in particular, only because they could probably never have pulled that bit off with any other actor in the role but Oliver Reed. But because it is Oliver Reed, it works. It is very sad, and that doesn't mean I like it, but it works.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Westworld (1973)

This is the umpteenth time I've rewatched this movie, but I've never written about it before so.... I've always loved Westworld. It's both fun and frightening. For one thing, the concept is great. Westworld is one of three amusement sub-parks within Delos. The other two are Roman World and Medieval World. For $1,000 a day, guests can immerse themselves in the time period recreations, which are populated by robot characters so real you can only tell them apart by their hands. I'd jump at the chance to go to Westworld! Man, where do I sign up?

Heading on vacation to Westworld are two buddies, Peter (Richard Benjamin), a first-timer, and John (James Brolin), who's been to Westworld before. I love the opening in the hovercraft, when Peter's grinning like a goon and asking all the dumb questions most of us would probably ask if we got to go there ("can I get the holster with the strings?" he asks). The two vacationers' adventures in Westworld are juxtaposed against the behind-the-scenes shots of how the park is run. Every time the scene cuts to the workings of the park, it's a bit creepy. And each time gets creepier, particularly as you find out there appears to be a virus spreading through the robots and messing up their central controls. You know it's only a matter of time before the robots stop obeying their programming and start doing whatever they want. And then the fun really begins. Not.

And for our two particular vacationers, that means running afoul of the Gunslinger.

If I was going to rank "movie things I don't want chasing me," then Yul Brynner's Gunslinger from Westworld is right up there in the top five. I originally saw Westworld on television when I was fairly young, and Yul Brynner's Gunslinger scared the crap out of me. He still does. Like the Terminator that came years later, he has a one-track mind and he just doesn't stop coming after you not matter how you try to destroy him. But I find him scarier than the Terminator, mostly because Yul Brynner can act and Arnold can't. Brynner's got these frightening little smirky satisfied smiles that pop up when he knows he's figured out your plan that are chilling. You can see his robot mind recalculating his own counterplan. It's lots of subtle expressions that just really bring the Gunslinger to life.

Heck, just the way he walks is downright creepy, particularly towards the end when his footsteps are echoing down the underground tunnels, with no music, just those boots tapping concrete as he stalks his prey... and then he breaks into a precise jog, those echoing footsteps going to double-time. It makes me want to start running away every single time I get to that part, and I'm sitting comfortably on my couch. And his eyes! Gah! Those reflective eyes still freak me out. Even his few lines of dialogue are creepy. The fact that he dresses just like his character Chris (from The Magnificent Seven) just increases the cool factor, even if you wouldn't hire this guy for anything in the world.

And really, when it comes down to it, the main reason to watch Westworld is to watch Yul Brynner play the scariest robot ever. Oh, the two main characters are entertaining, and the supporting actors fill in the cracks, and there's some truly funny moments, along with bar brawls and jail breaks, and shoot outs, and sword fights (in Medieval world, which we get a few glimpses of). Don't think too closely about the plot or how this amusement park works (but what if someone wanted to walk around at night when the crews are cleaning up with floodlights? she asked plaintively), cuz there's a jillion holes if you start thinking. But it's not about that. It's about:

Tech: "Gunslinger... must be a model 404 or maybe a 406. If it's a 406 he's got all the sensory equipment. It's a beautiful machine."
Peter: "He's after me!"
Tech: "I don't doubt it."
Peter: "What can I do?"
Tech: "There's nothing you can do. If he's after you, he'll get'cha. You haven't got a chance."

And watching Peter trying to escape and out-think this unstoppable Old West terminator is what makes Westworld such a cool movie.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Run for the Sun (1956)

This film is right up my alley and I thoroughly enjoyed it! It's a nice, solid action film. I've been wanting to see this one since I watched The Most Dangerous Game and found out that this movie was also based on the original short story. Thanks to Netflix's streaming video, I finally got to see it. When I originally saw The Most Dangerous Game, I thought Run for the Sun would not be as good. I was wrong.

Richard Widmark, Jane Greer, Trevor Howard, and Peter van Eyck star, and everybody's in fine form, particularly Richard Widmark. I would not mind crash landing in the jungle with him!

The story is only loosely based on the original story. The only similarity really is the hunt through the jungle. This time around, it's not about a hunter bored with big game and moving on to more clever prey, aka humans. This time, we've got two men (Howard and van Eyck, as a British traitor and German officer respectively) hiding out in the jungle to escape their WWII war crimes, who go hunting for Widmark and Greer simply to keep them from escaping and spilling the beans on their hideout. The rest of the story also follows the "hunt" theme, as Greer's character, Katie, hunts down Widmark's character, Mike, for an article in her magazine. He's a world-famous writer who up and quit and disappeared in the middle of his career, no one knows why, and Katie tracks him down to a village in Mexico to get the scoop. Complications naturally ensue when they fall in love and Mike finds out who she really is.

This movie is a lot of fun. Lots of action, violence, great jungle scenery, suspense, and a satisfying climax. Greer and Widmark have good chemistry and I really like them together. She holds her own and even comes up with a couple plans on her own to aid their escape. It's nice to have a strong-willed, independent woman along, not just a damsel in distress. Our two villains work well: van Eyck's character is pretty fanatical about maintaining their secret, Howard's character is exhausted and sick of hiding out in the jungle.