Monday, July 26, 2021

A strongbox full of reviews!

THEY WERE EXPENDABLE (1945)
John Wayne and Robert Montgomery command a PT boat squadron that proves its worth in the early days of WWII.
As the war went on, Hollywood made a concerted effort to move away from the kind of rah-rah, American superman movies made specifically to drum up support for the war effort. They began to produce more serious fare that presented the grimmer side of the struggle to an audience fully aware of the costs of the conflict. Movies like OBJECTIVE BURMA and LIFEBOAT offered more realistic portrayals of the horrors, frustrations and setbacks of the global conflict.
There's simply no better example of this turn toward authenticity than THEY WERE EXPENDABLE. John Ford's tale, scripted by Navy veteran Spig Wead is a devastating story of sacrifice and loss in the first days of the war when America suffered one humiliating defeat after another the outcome of the war was very much in doubt.
John Wayne's performance is excellent and well nuanced in what might have been a one-dimensional role. You can see him being worn down as the film goes on, much of this due to Ford's frankly cruel goading of him for not enlisting. "Papa" Ford would openly berate the Duke, unfairly comparing him to co-star Montgomery who had served in combat. This is certainly the source of the cold fury that hides beneath the veneer of exhaustion that weighs on Wayne in the film's final act.
Robert Montgomery gives his usual excellent performance. An actor who's largely forgotten now, Montgomery was a major star in Hollywood with an incredible range that made him effective in dramas as well as screwball farces. Here he shows off that range in a restrained performance in which what is unsaid says so much more than the spoken dialogue.
The cinematography by Joseph H. August is nothing short of astounding. His use of natural lighting particularly in the third act is highly effective in conveying the mood of resignation and despair. The backdrop of a tropical paradise in a story of such misery and deprivation serves to heighten the gravity of each scene.
Absolutely one of John Ford's best films and, for my money, one of the ten best war movies ever made.





HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940) 

Rosalind Russell is a newspaperwoman who's anxious to leave the employ of Cary Grant, her former editor and ex-husband. But Cary is willing to do anything (and I mean ANYTHING) to keep her on the paper and in his life.

Howard Hawk's remake of the popular play and movie THE FRONT PAGE makes the ingenious change of making the principles a divorced couple instead of a pair of contentious men. What ensues is both a hilarious battle of the exes as well as a cynical comic take on journalism that is as true today as it was in 1940. 


Terrific comedy set pieces and stand out comedy performances throughout. But the movie also asks some hard questions and the laughs are built upon a solid dramatic framework. To my mind, other than pure farces of the Marx Brothers variety, every great comedy has a plot that would have been just as effective as a straight drama. 

Grant turns on his signature charm to such a degree that he makes us forget what a lowdown heel his character actually is. Russell is more than a match for him, keeping up punch-for-punch in one snappy exchange after another. In fact, Russell hired writers on the outside to arm her with comebacks to Grant's frequent off-the-cuff adlibs. Grant caught on early and caught her referencing a cheat sheet and said, "What do you have for us today?" 

And she needed the ammunition as all of her scenes were in the style Hawks created, the rapid fire ensemble scenes where everyone is talking over everyone else but we never miss anything that's being said. Those scenes required deft writing and endless rehearsals to get right. They are the dialogue equivalent of an Astaire and Rogers dance routine. 

The cast is filled with Columbia stock players with Billy Gilbert a standout as a bewildered civil servant. 

BTW, I watched this on a recent Criterion disc. At last, this movie that's been in public domain for decades gets a great restoration. It's never looked or sounded so good as it does now. 





THE YAKUZA (1974)
As a favor to a friend, Robert Mitchum returns to Japan and re-opens old wounds while stirring up trouble amongst local gangsters. 
This is a fine, maturely presented action flick scripted by Robert Towne and Paul Schrader. Sidney Pollack directs with a sure eye and lots of earnest respect for the genre he's working in. 
It's a fine mash-up of film noir sensibilities and the requirements of a good yakuza movie. Mitchum enters a world he thinks he understands only to have the tatami mat pulled out from under him again and again.  Takakura Ken, in a role he made his own in a long series of Japanese crime movies, is awesome in the role of a ronin who must bear a world of sorrow on his shoulders. 
The climactic battle delivers bigtime with lots of twists and turns. The blocking and pacing show a keen understanding of what makes yakuza and chambara movies click. And it's kind of nice to see a movie where the characters are tough but not superhuman. 

Solid performances throughout and the kind of hardboiled, unforgiving story you'd expect form the screenwriters who brought us CHINATOWN and TAXI DRIVER. 





RADIN!/ PENNY PINCHER (2016)

Dany Boon is an obsessive-compulsive cheapskate who aggravates everyone he encounters. Even love cannot overcome his manic thriftiness until his life is turned on its head with the arrival of a teenage daughter he didn’t know he had. See, years before, he insisted on using an expired condom and…

Another winner for French comic icon Danny Boon. His portrayal of a series of flawed men with fraying psyches hits comedy gold once again in this grand farce with one awkward moment after another leading to a surprise turnaround in the story that is emotional without being sentimental hogwash. These films are unabashed feel-good comedies and always crafted for laughs without forgetting the need for heart and a cohesive plotline. Not sue if this one is up on Amazon Prime but a few of Boon’s other films are and worth checking out if you’re looking for witty, bright entertainment.




RIDE A CROOKED TRAIL (1958)

Audie Murphy’s on the run from the law. When the marshal pursuing him meets with an accident, Audie takes on the lawman’s identity. The ruse works fine until he’s drafted as the next town’s new sheriff by judge Walter Matthau. That’s gonna put a crimp in Audie’s plans to rob the town’s bank.

Dandy action-suspense film with Murphy playing a heel pushed by circumstances (a needy orphan, a stray mutt and pretty Gia Scala) to turn over a new leaf. Henry Silva is his usual creepy self as the leader of a rival gang out to take down the bank before Audie can. Most remarkable about this movie is Walter Matthau as a shotgun toting judge who rules the town by his own mercurial set of laws. Matthau appears to be having a great time hamming it up as a western character. It’s shame he gave up being in cowboy movies for urban comedies. 



PATTON (1970)

A warts-and-all bio-pic of the legendary Army general of WWII. We join George Patton as he takes over command of an armored division in North Africa and follow him as he does as much fighting with the media and politicians as he does with the Nazis.

Francis Ford Coppola’s summation of Patton’s WWII years finds all of the highlights as well as the controversies of this man “born in the wrong century.” The film is, if anything, more relevant today than when released with his depiction of the power of the media to drive events and the craven politicians only too willing to bow to them.

The contradictions of Old Blood and Guts are shown here as well, the man’s love of armed conflict and his military ambitions cast against his deep devotion to the soldiers serving under him even as he pushed them to the limit in Sicily and France.

 

George C. Scott, a figure almost as rebellious and anachronistic as the man he was playing, fully inhabits his subject to a remarkable degree with an indelible performance. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is sometimes grand and sometimes haunting and provides the perfect background for this epic story of triumph and loss.

 

If I have one quibble it’s the inaccuracy of some of the armored vehicles in the film, particularly on the German side with US issue armor disguised with Wehrmacht symbols and paint jobs. How did a movie like KELLY’S HEROES (which I love) get it so right and this movie so often gets it wrong? Perhaps they should have shot the movie in Eastern Europe instead of Spain.





DEEP COVER (1992)

Lawrence Fishburne is chosen by an ambitious DEA agent to go undercover in the Los Angeles drug trade. But he is soon left to wonder which side he’s on.

A crime thriller as well as a commentary on the corruption on both sides of the law. Fishburne delivers as always, and Jeff Goldblum manages to rise above being miscast as a drug dealer with dreams of empire. Clarence Williams III is given the thankless job of playing the rather heavy-handed moral conscience the film and the scenes between him and Fishburne were better played when Patrick O’Brien and James Cagney were in the roles in another era.   

Some of the elements are dated now but it’s still an interesting time capsule of the days when crack was king. 


Ni pour, ni contre/NEITHER FOR OR AGAINST (2003)

A young woman working as a stringer for a Paris news station accepts and offer form a gang to tape one of their heists. An accessory to the crime, she must either find her place in the gang in order to prevent them eliminating her as a weak link.

A heist movie with a very different twist and take. Part thriller, part character study. No one explores the amoral world of career criminals like the French, and this is a worthy entry in the genre filled with plenty of surprises and nail-biting suspense. I enjoyed trying to “read” the main character and really enjoyed the reveals as they came.






VON RYAN’S EXPRESS (1965)

Frank Sinatra is shot down and placed in an Italian POW camp where is, upon his arrival, the highest-ranking officer. With the Italian surrender the men make a bid for escape, hi-jacking a train for a daring rush to the Swiss border.

Big budget actioner that was part of a run of WWII adventure thrillers and this one holds up as one of the better efforts. Sinatra leads a mostly British cast in a grand entertainment filled with action and suspense. The studio was so high on this flick they planned a sequel. But Old Blue Eyes suggested a new ending for the movie that quashed that idea.

Sinatra is just fine in the lead as the brash, opinionated Ryan. I’m always surprised at how physical Sinatra was willing to get in roles and this one is no exception. He was no young chicken when he made this one, but he always appears game to minor stunts and such. Trevor Howard bristles and struts as only he can and is a terrific foil for Sinatra. Look for James Brolin in a small role and comic actor Vito Scotti as the put-upon train engineer. 




DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT (1995)

Count Dracula leases an English estate and begins pestering local women with nighttime visits.

 Late entry Mel Brooks parody that’s largely ignored but is actually one of his stronger efforts. It’s not the instant classic that YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is but is every bit as earnest in its approach. The interior sets for Castle Dracula are lovingly recreated from the Bela Lugosi version. And I believe that the choice to shoot this one in color was made so that the Hammer vampire films could be included in the fun. And this one looks very much like a Hammer entry from costuming to sets to acting styles.

Leslie Nielson, fully indulging his second career as a comic actor, appears to be having fun as the count. Mel Brooks is on hand for his usual shtick-filler performance as Van Helsing. Amy Yasbeck does a good job in the kind of role Madeline Kahn usually occupied. And Peter MacNicol steals every scene he’s in as the pitiable Renfield.

Every vampire trope is sent up from crosses, to garlic to an inspired mirror sequence. 





LARCENY (1948)

 Conman John Payne poses as the buddy of a war widow’s dead husband as part of a con to steal money intended for a war memorial. But maybe this heel has a soul as he begins to have feelings for his mark.

Neat little thriller with loads of snappy, hard-boiled patter. The exchanges between Payne and goodtime gal Shelley Winters are particularly ripe. And Dan Duryea is here as the bete noire and there’s no one better. Duryea plays the heavy you feel his presence in every scenes, even the ones he’s not in!




BIG JAKE (1971)

A ruthless outlaw gang led by Richard Boone kidnaps John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara’s grandson. Not a good idea.

A late-entry action western for John Wayne and one senses an attempt to join the swing toward the more mean-spirited genre entries of the period like THE WILD BUNCH or the spaghettis. It even has a screenplay by Harry Julian Fink who penned MAJOR DUNDEE and created Dirty Harry Callahan. But old school director George Sherman is not up to the demands of the story or in tune with the mood required. The set-pieces of light comedy seem misplaced and unwelcome with no effort to make them a more organic part of the story. The action is clumsily staged and flaccid. There’s a very ho-hum approach to the movie’s violence resulting in a muted feeling of suspense in scenes that should have been nail-biters.

The movie only really comes alive in the exchanges between Boone and Wayne with both men obviously relishing their scenes together.

 All-in-all, a decent shoot ‘em up with John Wayne playing John Wayne and some interesting juxtapositions of the modern world intruding on the old west.  But I think this would have been a far better movie as Burt Lancaster vehicle shot by a Euro-western crew.



 

Polizioto Sprint/HIGHWAY RACER (1977)

 A hot shot cop sees himself as a one-man crimebuster intent on bringing to justice a gang of fast-driving bank robbers. He’s willing to risk it all, the love of his life and his partner’s safety, to take down his quarry.

 A pretty standard Italian cop action flick that’s pretty much a car chase flick.  It’s helped along bigtime with the help of the Remy Jullienne stunt team providing some spectacular car crashes and trick driving. There’s also some welcome humor (rare in Italian crime movies) at the beginning that serves to set up the tragedy that motivates the action in the last acts. The movie took a standard cop movie trope and really infused it with some emotional weight.

 Fun stuff with tough cops and tougher criminals and plenty of gear-jamming pursuits.

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