Monday, March 29, 2010

The Andromeda Strain

Taut. Tense. Thriller. When I went back to check on some other reviews for The Andromeda Strain, a lot of words like these filled the pages. The film originally debuted in 1971 and was quite a shock to much of the audience. Things from outer space that came to destroy the Earth were always large monsters not incredibly small microbes. You could fight a giant monster, but how could you fight a bacteria? Can you kill off this miniature life form from another planet? Should you?

This film is an intellectual thriller. There is very little in the way of explosions, car chases or machine gun shootouts. Instead a team of scientists must determine what has been killing people in a small New Mexico town. And, whatever that may be, is it from outer space? Veteran actors Arthur Hill, David Wayne, James Olson and Kate Reid play the group of scientists ordered to figure out what happened and how to stop it from spreading. All are veteran character actors with hundreds of appearances among them. They allow us to "listen in" on their discussions, arguments and research in a race against the clock to save humanity. Part of what makes this film tense is its very realistic premise and plot. I find myself believing that this is not only possible, but, perhaps, even probable.

The screenplay was written by Nelson Gidding and is an adaptation of the Michael Crichton best-selling novel. Crichton's books have gone on to become almost a dozen hit films, but this was the first in his empire. He also wrote 'Jurassic Park', 'Westworld','Congo',Twister' and many others, but this is one of his most detailed books. He was inspired to write The Andromeda Strain after listening to a lecture in medical school. It is obvious that he put in the time to work on the science for this book. It is intelligent with enough suspense and action to keep you interested. Crichton passed away in 2008 and will be missed.

This film was produced and directed by Robert Wise. A long-time veteran of Hollywood, Wise has won 4 Oscars and directed one of the great sci-fi films, 'The Day the Earth Stood Still' (see my earlier blog). He resists any temptation to rewrite this material and allows the script and actors to tell a suspenseful story. I commend him for that deft touch. We don't need explosions, actors on wires and hundreds of bodies for a film to be exciting. Give me a good script with a believable premise and I will be entertained.

Filmed in 1971, directed by Robert Wise, written by Nelson Gidding from the Michael Crichton novel, starring Arthur Hill, David Wayne, James Olson and Kate Reid. One note:This was remade for television in 2009. The writer and director of the remake could not avoid the desire for more bodies, more action and a giant conspiracy. It does not add to the story. Get the original film and avoid the mini-series.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

What's Up, Doc?

When they are well made, I enjoy screwball comedies. And this one is well made. Like all screwball comedies, the plot of this movie is wild and crazy. Ryan O'Neal plays a scatterbrained scientist who thinks that early humans pounded on different kinds of rocks to make music. Madelaine Khan, in her film debut, portrays his overbearing fiancee. They have just arrived in San Francisco to attend a dinner at which he may receive a large grant to continue his studies.

Most importantly, he is carry his rock samples in a red and black suitcase. Along the way we meet a thief with stolen, top secret documents. Those papers are in a matching suitcase. We also are introduced to a very wealthy socialite whose expensive jewelry is kept in another matching suitcase. Finally, we meet Barbra Streisand's character who, coincidentally, has a matching suitcase with her personal belongings. She has bounced from university to university searching for her place in the world. As I am sure you have surmised, the cases get mixed-up, the government is chasing the spy, criminals are chasing the jewels, the scientist needs his rocks and Barbra wants Ryan O'Neal.

The plot is zany and so is the film. There are enough one-liners to film two or three modern comedies. The script, written by Buck Henry, just keeps them coming. Add to that a wild chase sequence throughout the streets of San Francisco and there is much fun to be had by all. Director Peter Bogdanovich pushed to make this movie. He provided the outline to Buck Henry and wanted to model this film on the classic 'Bringing Up Baby'. Although the gender roles are reversed, you can feel the similarities. Bogdanovich does the Howard Hawks, Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn classic proud. Both of these are fantastic screwball comedies!

It is the pairing of Ryan O'Neal and Barbra Streisand that make What's Up, Doc? so terrific. O'Neal plays the semi-deadpan role to perfection while Streisand provides the comic energy. Since she has not done any movies for years, I forget how talented a comic actress Streisand is. The supporting cast is terrific. You can sense from the beginning of her career how enjoyable Madelaine Khan will be on screen. Add to them Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton, Mabel Albertson (in her last film) and many more fantastic character actors to assemble a first-rate cast.

From beginning to end this film is funny. I have seen it 5 or 6 times and each time I enjoy the zany antics and hilarious dialogue. I hope you will as well.

Filmed in 1972, Directed by Peter Bogdanovich, written by Buck Henry, starring Barbra Steisand, Ryan O'Neal, Kenneth Mars, Madelaine Khan and Austin Pendleton.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Stalag 17

Stalag 17 is one of the few films I have ever given a "perfect" 10 out of 10. Director Billy Wilder and star William Holden have crafted a movie that can not be improved upon. The script is superb, the acting award-winning and Wilder's direction is some of the best work of his illustrious career. I have seen this movie many times and each time I am committed to the characters and the storyline.

William Holden portrays J.J. Sefton, a POW in a German prison camp in the winter of 1944. He is the "scrounger" and a general self-centered malcontent. He can obtain goods that the other prisoners can not and is willing to barter with the German guards. This creates a lot of envy and suspicions amongst the other prisoners. When two escaping prisoners are killed Sefton is suspected of being a "snitch". The other prisoners ostracize him and some even wanted him killed. But is he the informer? And, if not, who is?

Holden plays Sefton to perfection. He comes across as uncaring, smug and egotistical. He is, at times, hard to like. But just because you don't like someone or don't appreciate their personality does that mean they are evil and not to be trusted. The basic questions of human understanding, equality and tolerance are raised from a very unique perspective. After reading the script Holden refused the part. He did not want to play such an unlikeable character. The studio had to require him to do the movie. He was rewarded with a Best Actor Oscar. He had previously worked with Director Wilder on Best Picture nominee 'Sunset Blvd.' to rave reviews and box-office success. The two are fantastic together. Both films are terrific and should be enjoyed by many.

There is also a terrific supporting cast. Peter Graves, Otto Preminger and Don Taylor head up this ensemble. I grow emotional, with each viewing, as Graves actions unfold. But this is definitely a William Holden film.

Stalag 17 is a taut, well written drama that should make you think as well as feel. As I said, a 10 out of 10.

Filmed in 1953, directed by Billy Wilder, written by Wilder and Edwin Blum from the play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, starring William Holden, Otto Preminger, Don Taylor and Peter Graves.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Escape from the Planet of the Apes

This is the third of the five original 'Planet of the Apes' movies. While the first, 'Planet of the Apes' starring Charlton Heston, is still the best, I think this film should receive more credit. This film stars Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter. They reprise their roles as the scientist couple who aid Heston in the first 'Apes' movie. In Escape they have arrived in present day Earth (1971) and they attempt to conceal the fact that they are quite intelligent. Once humanity discovers their talents the forces of power decide they are a threat and must be eliminated. If you have seen the first films in the series you will especially appreciate the opening sequence when everyone is expecting Charlton Heston to emerge from his space craft. When it turns out to be apes, not people, things heat up!

As I have said in other posts, science fiction films can talk about subjects that other films are afraid to touch. Escape from the Planet of the Apes was made in 1971. It sends a powerful message about prejudice and stereotypes in regards to race. The danger of racism, and to a lesser extent sexism, is the true message of the film. Apes who can talk and fly spacecraft are just a vehicle for the discussion. McDowall and Hunter do their usual fine jobs as Cornelius and Zira. It must be difficult to work covered in ape makeup. Eric Braeden (see my blog for 'Colossus:The Forbin Project') plays the bad guy. He is most concerned about the effect that intelligent, talking chimps could have on society.

The movie also focuses some on our society's attention/worship of celebrity. Once people understand that Cornelius and Zira can speak they become worldwide celebrities. Limos, tv appearance and perks abound as they conduct a whirlwind tour. But the powers in place know that their own status at the top of the pyramid will be effected by the Apes. Therefore, they must be destroyed.

Racism, sexism and celebrity worship are all covered in Escape from the Planet of the Apes. Plus you get the fun ride of talking apes, Ricardo Montalban as a circus owner, cheesy special effects, conspiracy theory and some "fish out of water" humor. What more could one want in a cheap, sci-fi flick!

Filmed in 1971, directed by Don Taylor, written by Paul Dehn, starring Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Eric Braeden and Ricardo Montalban.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Dersu Uzala

Since March 23rd is Akira Kurosawa's birthday, I decided to rerun this post. Enjoy!

This is a beautiful film. Beautiful to view with its magnificent cinematography. And beautiful in emotion. The relationship between the main characters is heartwarming. The scenery is a joy to behold.

Dersu Uzala was written and directed by Japanese master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. He is best known for 'Seven Samurai' and 'Rashomon', but many have missed this wonderful film. Set in Siberia during the early 1900's, this is the story of a Russian surveyor sent to map the wilderness. He is an army officer and has a small complement of enlisted men to assist. He, and his men, have guns and equipment and are quite confident that they can handle the job with ease. But Siberia turns out to be much tougher than they expected. While on their surveying mission they meet the title character, Dersu Uzala. He is a member of the Goldi people and is a man who has become one with the forest. The Captain of the Russians hires Dersu to be their guide. This decision comes to save him, and his men, on different occasions.

The film is a study in contrasts and our ability to overcome them. And, perhaps, cherish our differences instead of ridiculing or fearing them. Captain Arseniev, played by Yuri Solomin, is army trained, a man of the city and has a belief in science. Dersu Uzala, portrayed by Maxim Munzuk, is a man of the forest, calls everything "men", because everything has a spirit, and he has a lifetime of experience. But they each see the value in what the other brings to their relationship. They become very close and each treasures the other person. The two actors do a fine job sharing their character's affection for each other with the audience. I felt as if the Captain and Dersu truly understood and cared for each other. The film, in totality, is also a contrast. We get an intimate feeling for the characters while the scale is the large natural wonder of Russia.

The other big "actor" is the landscape itself. Filmed in Siberia, the forest, rivers, mountains, steppes, ice and animals all become the third main character in the movie. Kurosawa has always shown a wonderful eye for cinematography. He uses length to convey to the viewer a sense of awe and beauty and the massive scale of Siberia. There are long shots of the wild with no cuts, long lenses used to include many aspects of the landscape and long interactions between characters for us to get to know their inner selves.

Dersu Uzala won the academy award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1976. The writing and directing of Akira Kurosawa earned that award. This film is in Japanese and Russian with English subtitles.

Filmed in 1975, directed and written by Akira Kurosawa, starring Maxim Munzuk, Yuri Solomin and Siberia.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


Many critics and viewers have said this film should be called 'Bree' and not Klute. Since the Jane Fonda character Bree Daniels is the focal point of the story. But it is the actions of detective Klute, played by Donald Sutherland, that force the story to move forward. His persistent inquisitions make Bree discover so much about herself and how we find out who is the killer.

It is true that this film hinges upon the performance of Jane Fonda. She wins her first of two Best Actress Oscars for her amazing work in this movie. As I said in my tweet (@movieguysteve), it is amazing how she was willing to be so unglamorous. Bree Daniels is a manipulative call girl. But Fonda's portrayal shows her to be an insecure woman who is attempting to live her life to the best of her abilities. She wants more, like most of us, but her frailties and faults get in the way, again just like most of us. You should watch this film just for her acting. During the denouement the camera focuses upon her face as she listens to a tape of the murder of her friend. You can feel the growing fear and disgust that Fonda expresses with just slight movements of her facial features. She is fantastic. I sometimes forget what a fabulous career she has had. I have written earlier pieces about 'They Shoot Horses, Don't They?' and 'Barefoot in the Park'. Jane Fonda can act!

The other performers in Klute are also terrific. Donald Sutherland, in the role of the lead detective, shows little emotion. Just a drive to find the facts and solve the case. Roy Scheider is so sleazy as Bree's agent(pimp) that I squirm, just a little, while he is on screen.

The script, written by Andy and David Lewis, is straightforward. A man goes missing and his wife wants him found. The police, after finding a note to a prostitute in his desk, assume that he has run away. His employer and wife hire Klute to go to New York and locate the man and the truth. There he finds that the prostitute (Bree) has been receiving obscene phone calls and feels that she is being watched. Is this the man that Klute is looking for? His efforts lead to the discovery of multiple murders and endangers Bree's life. Private Detective Klute pushes against all those involved in an effort to solve these crimes.

Klute is an excellent piece of film making. Director Alan J. Pakula moves the film along. I do find it interesting, however, that for a film about the multiple murder of prostitutes that there is very little violence or sex. That makes this film very different from most. Many writers and/or directors would have chosen to play up the sex and violence. Not Pakula. He keeps the film intelligent and stays away from gratuitous nudity or violence.

Filmed in 1971, directed by Alan J. Pakula, written by Andy and David Lewis, starring Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Roy Scheider and Charles Cioffi.

One note: In her autobiography, Fonda says that she spent time on the streets with prostitutes before filming Klute. After this experience she felt that she was not attractive enough and that she should be replaced by Faye Dunaway. I am very glad that the producers convinced her to continue on. This film is much better for her performance.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


This is a film that is begging for a remake. The plot is true-to-life and the tension is palpable. I have seen this movie 4 times and each time I find myself emotionally attached to the outcome. I know, logically, what is going to happen, but I still root for the success of the rescue. That is verisimilitude!

Marooned follows the story of 3 astronauts who, after 5 months in orbit, attempt to return to Earth. They are in their small, tight re-entry vehicle. But the engines won't fire and they can't re-enter the Earth's atmosphere and get home. Because of a lack of fuel they can not return to the space station that has been their home in orbit. They have only a small amount of oxygen. What can they do? Can NASA bring them home safely?

This film was made in 1969 and released just a few months before the actual Apollo 13 mission that had such similar problems. You can call it manifestation or prescience, but the scenes on the screen in Marooned were real for the astronauts of Apollo 13. I think that is part of the reason why this film has been overlooked. Since the real thing happened just a few months later, why bother with a movie? But noted director Frank Capra started on this film 5 years before. He pushed to get this movie made, but could not film it within the budgetary constraints put upon him. So he eventually faded and, to much disappointment, never made another film.

This movie was directed by John Sturges. Sturges had a long and illustrious career that included 'The Magnificent Seven', 'The Great Escape' and 'Ice Station Zebra' among many successful and entertaining films. This is one of his best. The script, written by Mayo Simon is based on the novel by Martin Caidin. The script is very tight. This film has no backstory nor superfluous elements nor dialogue. I like that. Most space movies contain lots of stories about the character's lives before the space part starts. Not here. The film opens with the lift-off of the rocket. All 3 astronauts are married, so there is no need for a romantic storyline either. Just intelligent and tension-filled drama.

The special effects could use an update. Even though the effects won an Oscar in 1970, they play as slightly out-of-date. I would love to see a remake. I rarely say that about a film that I enjoy, but Marooned deserves the modern treatment. Replacing the cast, however, could be most expensive. Gregory Peck stars as the "chief" of NASA. Richard Crenna, Gene Hackman and James Franciscus portray our three marooned astronauts. Richard Janssen is the gung-ho pilot who is pushing for a rescue mission. And Lee Grant, Mariette Hartley and Nancy Kovack play the wives. That is a top-notch cast for any film. They do a terrific job of conveying to us the pressures and tensions that such a situation creates. I also appreciate the lack of a soundtrack. No music. But lots of sound effects. In space there is no singing, just lots of small noises. Too many directors feel that they must use music to tell us when we should be scared, or emotional, or excited. Sturges has the dialogue and actors tell the story, not the composer.

Filmed in 1969, directed by John Sturges, written by Mayo Simon, starring Gregory Peck, Gene Hackman, Richard Crenna, David Janssen and James Franciscus.

Spoiler Alert: Don't read on if you have not seen the film.

Even though I have viewed Marooned multiple times, I still get upset about which characters are rescued and which perish. If anyone is to die I want it to be the self-centered, wimpy guy and not the hero. I'm just saying.

Friday, March 19, 2010


This is the first film from Kazakhstan I have seen. And, no, Kazakhstan is nothing like Borat says it is. Tulpan shows life for the working-class farmer on the Steppes of Central Asia. Life is difficult for these people. There are few resources, little to do but work and a disconnection from the rest of the world. But these people are hard-working individuals who long for a better life for their children. Sounds like just about everybody?

Writer/Director Sergei Dvortsevoy got his start in documentary film. It shows here. The shots of the Steppe and the farms therein play like a National Geographic special. The region is little seen here in the west. I don't remember ever experiencing the life of a Central Asian farmer before this film. Dvortsevoy does a wonderful job of sharing the family's life with us. The 3 adults and 3 children all share the one room yurt. (I don't remember a yurt in any other film either!) They are all involved in the workings of the farm and the children have a most interesting life. The shots of the littlest boy riding his stick "horse" with such glee are playful and fun. But life on a farm, any farm, is lots of hard work. Tulpan gives us a fascinating close-up of that lifestyle.

This movie has been an enigma for audiences and critics. It won a special regard at Cannes, the Golden Peacock in India and was named best film in both Tokyo and Zurich. Others thought the film was long and lacking in structure. Both views have merit. The film is a slice-of-life. It shows the joys, endeavors and sorrows of a small family in Kazakhstan. But it is also inspiring and hardworking. A little something for everyone. Also, as this film made the circuit around the world at film festivals, it became known as the "live-sheep-birth" movie. One of the major plot points is the dying of all the newborn sheep on the farm. The lead actor, who has been struggling to find his place after returning from the Russian Navy, assists a sheep in giving birth. It is messy, but also a major moment in the story. That kind of visual image is definitely memorable. For me, the most poignant sequence is when a veterinarian comes to check on the sheep. He rides a small motorcycle with a sidecar. That sidecar contains a young, sick camel. The mother of this young camel has followed the vet for almost 100 kilometers. The callings of the baby for its mother and the determination of the mother to stay with its child is a universal response with which anyone can relate.

This is a film that requires a desire to learn more about a region and people who have not been showcased much outside of Kazakhstan. If you are intrigued and want to learn more Tulpan is definitely a film for you. There is a wonderful moment where the lead character looks out from his old tractor and says "see how beautiful". The camera then pans out to a dry, dusty wasteland. But to the people who live, love and die there, the steppes of Kazakhstan are beautiful. Just like home is to almost everyone!

Filmed in 2008, directed by Sergey Dvortsevoy, written by Dvortsevoy and Gennady Ostrovski, starring Ashkat Kuchinchirekov, Samal Yeslyamova, Ondasyn Besikbasov and Tulepbergen Baisakalov.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Ox-Bow Incident

This film is powerful. If you have not seen it, rent it or netflix it or buy it. But don't read this blog entry until after you have seen the movie.

The Ox-Bow Incident is one of the greatest commentaries on social justice I have seen. The story is strong, the acting top-notch and the film making perfect. It is crisp with no secondary stories, no Hollywood endings nor any romance "for the ladies". Just a moving script that should make every viewer question their own actions and morals. There is a saying "all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing". Edmund Burke was never shown to be so accurate as here. Viewing this movie always leaves me with questions. Questions of my own actions, questions of society's morals and questions about our collective future. Do "good men" do enough to assuage evil? Usually, eventually, yes. But, sometimes, I doubt it.

Director William Wellman had to shop The Ox-Bow Incident to every studio in Hollywood. He had been turned down by everyone except Fox. A few years earlier he had a fist fight with Mr. Zanuck, the then head of Fox. Wellman had sworn to never speak with Zanuck again. But his interest in telling this poignant story forced him to overcome that reluctance, swallow his pride and go pitch the film to Fox. Zanuck, like all the other studio execs, felt that this would be a big money loser. It was made in 1943 in the midst of World War Two. No one wanted to make a movie in which innocent people were hanged. So Zanuck required Wellman, a very profitable director, to make two other films for Fox to get the money necessary for this film. Wellman instantly agreed. And my personal thanks, as well as those of countless movie lovers, go out to both of them.

Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan play two roving cattleman who wander into town. After they arrive news is received that a very popular local rancher has been murdered. The townspeople quickly form a vigilante posse to "go after the murderers and string them up!". A local businessman attempts to talk them out of the lynching, but the group can not be stopped. They chase after the people they believe are responsible for the rustling and murder. The mob soon catches up with 3 men. Dana Andrews gives one of the performances of his career as the leader of these men. The mob is certain that these are the criminals and that they should be hanged. Immediately. A few men, lead by Harry Davenport as the shopkeeper, attempt to stop them. But to no avail. The three are eventually hanged.

Again, if you haven't seen the film, don't read further. With their blood lust satisfied, the lynch mob rides for home. They are met by the sheriff who want to know what has happened. The posse explains their "bringing to justice" the three hanged men. The sheriff explains that the local rancher was not murdered and that the men who attacked him are in jail. The people who the mob just killed weren't criminals, but innocents. As they had said all along. The posse is left to question their own actions with the threat of imminent arrest, prison or death sentences awaiting. The leader of the 3 innocent men had written a letter to his wife before his death. The reading of this letter, by Henry Fonda, is one of the more touching moments in cinema. It takes an everyman actor, like Fonda, to represent all of us on screen. Fonda's character did not want to hang the men, but he felt there was nothing he could do. He stood by. Could he have done more to save innocent lives? That question is left to the viewer. Rightfully so.

Filmed in 1943, directed by William A. Wellman, written by Lamar Trotti based upon the novel by William Van Tilburg Clark, starring Henry Fonda, Harry Morgan, Jane Darwell, Harry Davenport, Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn and Mary Beth Hughes.

One final note. The studios were right. This film was an immense failure at the box office. No one wanted to see it. But it was a critical success and lives on now almost 70 years later. At a screening Orson Welles told Harry Morgan that the audience had no idea what they had just witnessed. It was too powerful to be taken-in quickly.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Irish Movies

In celebration of St. Patrick's Day, here is a list of some of the best films set in Ireland. Enjoy!

The Quiet Man

Far and away my favorite Irish movie. John Ford does a wonderful job in his portrayal of Irish life in a small village during an earlier era. John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara star, but the Irish village and countryside are major attractions as well. Winner of an Academy Award for Cinematography. The climatic fight scene is still studied in film schools. "Just a good stretch of the legs".


Clark Gable plays Charles Stewart Parnell. Parnell was a leader in the fight for Irish independence. This film is a terrific look at Irish history and the quest for home rule. The movie does fall into the maudlin, however. After this film bombed at the box office Gable refused to do any more "period" movies. That was a major part in his reluctance to take 'Gone With the Wind'. The history and supporting cast make this worth a look. I don't think this is available on DVD. Watch for it on cable.

The Commitments

Fabulous story of "the hardest working band in the world". Group of Irish individuals decide to cash in and become famous rock stars. Terrific acting, nice script and the music is first-rate. Fantastic soul soundtrack. Plus Colm Meaney. Is it possible to make an Irish movie during the last 25 years and not cast Colm Meaney? I don't think so!

My Left Foot

Amazing story of artist Christy Brown. Brown has cerebral palsy and can only use his left foot to create his amazing art. Daniel Day-Lewis received an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of the artist. I most appreciate that the film does not attempt to get us to like Mr. Brown. Day-Lewis plays him in a very unsympathetic way. But the power of the story overcomes some dislike of the person.

Darby O'Gill and the Little People

What list of Irish movies would be complete without a leprechaun? And this film has plenty o'them. This is the film that brought Sean Connery to the attention of the world (and James Bond producer Cubby Brocoli). And if an unbelievably young Connery doesn't get your attention, the incredibly scary Banshee will. I dare any viewer to watch this movie and not be scared by the Banshee.

A few other films with connections to Ireland:

Braveheart - Not set in Ireland, but much of the filming was done there.
Crying Game - Amazing shock. Don't tell anyone!
Finian's Rainbow - Francis Ford Coppola films a musical?
The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain - Cute story of the effects a geographer can have upon a small town. Plus Colm Meaney.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Anderson Tapes

I love caper films. If you have read my earlier blogs this comes as no surprise. I have previously reviewed 'The Taking of Pelham One Two Three', 'Thunderbolt and Lightfoot', 'Charlie Varrick' and others. Director Sidney Lumet turns master crime writer Lawrence Sander's novel into a fast-paced caper film extraordinaire. Sean Connery stars as 'Duke Anderson'. Just released after 10 years in prison, Anderson decides to rob an entire upscale apartment building. He brings in a crew of specialists that is headed by Martin Balsam and Christopher Walken. Balsam is an antiques expert that scouts the apartments for paintings, jewels and other valuables. Walken, in his film debut, is a pal of Connery's from prison who works with phone lines and other electronics. Anderson uses various contacts to plan and orchestrate this robbery deluxe.

Little does he know that almost every action he takes is being taped. Either the IRS, FBI, CIA or other government agency is following many of the people with whom he meets. These are the tapes referenced in the title. Even his long-lost girlfriend, played by the very attractive Dyan Cannon, is being watched. Since there are many parties to such a robbery it is complex and time-consuming. Can the crew pull off such a mighty feat of crime? Will one or more of the agencies taping Anderson realize what is going on and prevent the robbery?

Sander's novel and the screenplay by Frank Pierson provide many unique twists and turns. I can not think of another caper film that has the feel of The Anderson Tapes. Lumet's direction, as always, is first-rate. He moves the setting of the film back and forth from pre-to-post robbery throughout. This makes it both easier and more difficult to predict the outcome. I found it to be a master stroke of direction. But it is the always attention-grabbing Sean Connery that carries the film. He is likable enough to root for the criminals, but dark enough to be believable. Balsam is also good. His slightly over-the-top portrayal of the antiques dealer is quite endearing. And Walken shows some of the brilliance that we will see later in his long career.

Whether it is for the intelligent caper, the fine script and direction or the terrific cast, The Anderson Tapes should keep you entertained. There is also the Quincy Jones soundtrack. It is an intriguing combination of early disco with electronic music. Everyone either loves it or hates it. Personally, I think it's great.

Filmed in 1971, directed by Sidney Lumet, written by Frank Pierson, starring Sean Connery, Martin Balsam, Christopher Walken, Dyan Cannon and Alan King. For all the Saturday Night Live fans, look for original cast member Garrett Morris as one of the police officers.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Three Days of the Condor

Robert Redford stars as "Condor", a C.I.A. book reader. He reads mysteries and spy stories for the C.I.A. Not too bad a job, eh? But when his entire office is murdered he becomes a man on the run. What starts as a simple spy story becomes a detailed and sophisticated mystery. Who is after Condor? Why were a bunch of people who read books killed? How can he escape his pursuers? Condor is constantly underestimated. He reads books, he is not a field agent. Perhaps he has turned to the other side? Three Days of the Condor is a solid and intelligent suspense yarn.

Director Sydney Pollack does a fine job of building suspense while keeping a detailed story moving forward. Pollack is one of the finest directors of the last 30 years. Scorsese, Coppola and Spielberg get the attention, but Pollack belongs in that conversation. He shows his skills here. The film features excellent pace, strong characters and twists that are surprises, but believable ones. Solid script was written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Rayfiel. Based on the novel 'Six Days of the Condor' by James Grady. Why the movie is only 3 days while the book is 6 days is a mystery for the ages.

Faye Dunaway gives an attention-grabbing performance as an innocent bystander that Redford uses to escape capture. Redford, Cliff Robertson, John Houseman and Max von Sydow all give fine performances as well.

Suspenseful, intelligent and well written. Enjoy!

Filmed in 1975, directed by Sydney Pollack, written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Rayfiel, starring Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson and Max von Sydow.
Artistic note: Sydney Pollack brought a lawsuit against Danish TV after screening Three Days of the Condor (1975) in pan-and-scan in 1991. The court ruled that the pan scanning conducted by Danish television was a 'mutilation' of the film and a violation of Pollack's 'Droit Moral', his legal right as an artist to maintain his reputation by protecting the integrity of his work.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Red River

This is the film that turned John Wayne from an actor into John Wayne the on-screen force. Before Red River, John Wayne was already a movie-star. Stagecoach had seen to that. And he was an academy award nominee. Sands of Iwo Jima had seen to that. But the persona that we know as John Wayne had yet to develop on screen. Red River changed everything. Wayne portrays Tom Dunson, a hardworking, no b.s. rancher who decides to lead his massive cattle herd on a long cattle drive. His ward Matt Garth (played in his first film by Montgomery Clift) is his lead assistant. When Clift feels Wayne is being dictatorial and oppressive he takes the herd away from Wayne and leads the drive himself. Wayne vows vengeance and pursues Clift and his herd along the Chisum trail.

This film is often called 'The Mutiny on the Bounty' set in the American West. The comparison is accurate, but incomplete. Except for the climactic ending the stories are very similar. But I find Red River to be about opposites. Older & grizzled John Wayne vs. young & attractive Montgomery Clift. Take no prisoners employee management vs. an inclusive management style. Follow orders vs. question authority. Risk vs. reward. Questions that still intrigue us today.

Director Howard Hawks does a fantastic job. The characters are deep and real, the photography is spellbinding and the acting he gets from Wayne and the cast are first-rate. Few critics consider John Wayne to be much of an actor, but he sure does a fantastic job in Red River. Clift, in his debut, is compelling as the heir apparent that rebels against the very man who saved him. Walter Brennan, Noah Berry, Jr. and John Ireland are also featured. The score, by Dimitri Tiomkin, adds a wonderful, western feel.

Even if you are not a fan of John Wayne you should enjoy this film. Red River is a classic American western!

Filmed in 1948, Directed by Howard Hawks, written by Borden Chase and Charles Schnee, starring John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Joanne Dru, Walter Brennan and John Ireland. After filming was finished, Red River could not be released for over two years. Legal action brought by Howard Hughes held-up the release. Hughes felt this film was too similar to his 'The Outlaw'.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Thin Man

Never before nor since have two people consumed so much alcohol so successfully. William Powell and Myrna Loy team-up as the mystery solving sleuths Nick and Nora Charles. This film is based upon a novel by Dashiell Hammett. He is also the creator of the hardboiled detective Sam Spade (best portrayed by Humphrey Bogart). But in The Thin Man his crime fighters are a wealthy socialite and her former detective husband. The only things that Nick and Nora like more than solving murders are drinking and witty banter. And there is plenty of both here.

Powell and Loy are so fabulous together that most other screen couples pale in comparison. Critics loved their on-screen chemistry. Audiences so enjoyed them together, along with their dog 'Asta', that the studio made 5 more movies in this series. The thin man in the title is the victim of a murder. Nick, who has "retired" after marrying Nora, is roped into helping solve the murder. He eventually does. But the murder plot, while interesting and clever, is just the vehicle for us to enjoy this pair. Both Powell and Loy give the performances of their careers. They are fine actors with a full and rich body of work, but I don't think they could ever escape the pressure of such successful teamwork. Their timing is exquisite, their chemistry divine and their delivery perfection. Sometimes I watch The Thin Man just to enjoy their work.

Veteran Director W.S. Van Dyke wisely lets Powell and Loy go for it. He seemingly allows two master actors who work magnificently together to run free. But unlike much of today's "improv" comedy, The Thin Man is crisp and quick. No pauses to stare into the camera nor slow deliveries here. Script writers Albert Hackett and Francis Goodrich gave them so many great lines for us to enjoy that you may miss some of them the first time through. When you enjoy this movie be sure to wait a few weeks and then try it again. I guarantee that you will then realize how much fun you missed the first time. So pull up a chair and pour yourself a stiff martini. You may not need it, but you sure are going to want one!

Filmed in 1934, directed by W.S. Van Dyke, written by Albert Hackett and Francis Goodrich, starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O'Sullivan, Nat Pendelton and Cesar Romero.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba)

I am not recommending this film. Just wanted to be clear. I think it is way over-hyped. While the camera work is amazing, especially considering it was filmed in the early 60s, I found everything else about this film to be substandard. The acting is non-existent, the "script" horrible and the narrative is nothing but propaganda. However, it is revered in the film community. The DVD was painstakingly restored after years of pressure from film makers. My copy credits both Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorcese for resurrecting this lost work. I can only assume that since the film is about the evils of capitalism and the purity of the socialist, Bolivarian revolution that these esteemed directors were influenced by the politics and not the film itself.

Soy Cuba is also heartily endorsed by almost all the major critics in the West. From the New York Times, to the Los Angeles Times and on to major European newspapers, film critics from around the world use words like "visually stunning", "intoxicating" and "masterpiece" to describe this movie. I found it to be none of those things. To me, it is just a cheap piece of propaganda that shows little film making skill.

Except for the camera work. Director Mikhail Kalatozov, who is Georgian not Russian, manifests some of the most amazing tracking shots ever filmed. This was done in an era long before the invention of the steadycam. I have no idea how he accomplished these shots. In one long shot he travels around a hotel and its pool, seemingly down the outside of the building, across stairs, streets and hundreds of obstacles. The tracking shots are amazing! But, technically, everything else in this movie is weak. I appreciate the propaganda value much more than the praised soundtrack, acting or cinematography.

To each their own. I did not enjoy this movie nor would I recommend anyone viewing Soy Cuba. But so many great film professionals consider it to be fantastic. I leave the final decision to you. Unless you are in film school. Then watch this movie and tell me how they did some of those amazing tracking shots!

Filmed in 1964, directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, written by Enrique Peneda Barnett, starring Raul Garcia, Sergio Corrieri, Mario Gonzalez and Celia Rodriguez.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The King of Kong

For the last few years friends had been telling me to watch this movie. Since it is about a couple of video gamers attempting to break the Donkey Kong world record, I didn't think it would be interesting. Boy, was I wrong! Director Seth Gordon has made a fantastic film that is entertaining and inspiring. From the subject matter I had thought this film would be all geeks and little compelling story or characters. Instead I found real human beings with hopes, loves and aspirations. Perhaps, sometimes, we quickly place people into stereotypes. This documentary helped remind me that everyone is unique and has some story to tell.

The film focuses upon the efforts to break the world records in different classic video games. Gordon edits the film to make it a classic good vs. evil storyline. Steve Wiebe, a teacher from the Seattle area, buys a Donkey Kong game and puts it in his garage. He then focuses way too much time and energy into becoming the world's greatest by breaking the longest standing video game record. That record is held by Billy Mitchell and has been in place for 25 years. When Wiebe finally breaks the record he sends in a tape of the effort to be certified by Twin Galaxies. They are the "official" guarantor that world records are real. Upon certification Wiebe becomes a bit of a local celebrity. But then the intrigue begins. Charges of "cheating" come in and his record is revoked. He then begins a quest to clear his name and recapture the world record.

Billy Mitchell, in the role of the bad guy, is terrific. Quoting every Tony Robbins cliche about success and motivation, he refuses to meet Wiebe nor face him in a live event. He lives behind his "champion" facade and puts down those who question him. The film's focus upon this "clash of the titans" is an excellent choice. While many of the people in this film have some element of geek or nerd, the story of a science teacher battling the gaming establishment is straight from mythology. Only the type of battlefield separates it from Perseus vs. Medusa. But Mitchell shows his human side as well. He helps an 80 year old woman from Florida continue her quest to become the world record holder in Q-Bert. Good for you Doris! Mitchell also appears to be a successful businessman with a line of hot sauces and a restaurant. Not bad for a game "nerd".

There are many interesting characters. Along with everyman Wiebe and establishment Mitchell, the staff at Twin Galaxies is a study in dedication. They have been certifying world records in video games for decades for no money. Just the love of gaming and the quest for perfection. When the founder gets a call from the Guinness Book of World Records asking them to be the official arbiter of video games I was excited for them.

The King of Kong is edited wonderfully and directed with an easy, flowing style. Please don't let this warm and uplifting documentary's video game subject matter keep you from enjoying this film. I did to my detriment. I am glad I finally enjoyed this terrific film.

Filmed in 2005-2007, directed by Seth Gordon. There are new events in this story since the release of the film. Drop me a line at if you want the update.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Der Tunnel (The Tunnel)

Wow! I just finished watching this outstanding movie. I am going to have to eat my words about German cinema. This makes two great German films that I have seen in just 2 weeks. As I said in my earlier blog about the wonderful 'The Lives of Others', I have had my reservations about German filmmaking. But no more. I am a convert. At least until I sit through a few incredibly slow and pointless ones! But this fantastic thriller, based upon the true story, has rocked me to the core.

The Tunnel tells the riveting, true story of an East German swimmer who escapes to the West just as the Berlin Wall is constructed in 1961. He has been in prison in East Germany earlier in his life and is a fervent anti-communist. After escaping he desperately wants to help his sister and niece reach the freedom of the West. He enlists others, some who have escaped and others who want to help, to dig a tunnel from West Berlin under the wall to East Berlin. Our rag-tag group of diggers face incredible difficulties, but, with great ingenuity, complete the tunnel. Then they have to get a group of East Germans out without getting caught.

This movie is a top-notch thriller. There is little action, at least of the traditional Hollywood kind, but I was on the edge of my seat for much of the film. Being a fervent anti-communist myself I was rooting for them from the word go! The tension builds throughout the film until you almost explode from the pressure. The fact that the movie is fairly accurate to the history just makes it more exciting.

Even though this was originally made for German television and is over two and a half hours, the script is compact and moves along. The details of building a tunnel, without getting caught, over 450 feet between countries is outstanding. The director, Roland Suso Richter, does a terrific job. I could almost feel the mud as they built the tunnel. The cast contains many of Germany's finest. Sebastian Koch, who was so good in 'The Lives of Others', is fantastic here. Leading the film is German action star Heino Ferch. He does a wonderful job. Also working their magic are German veterans Nicolette Krebitz and Alexandra Maria Lara. They may not be well-known in the U.S., but they can't go for coffee without being mobbed by fans in Germany.

Even though Der Tunnel was made for television it feels like a big budget spy/escape movie. It is well-made, intelligent and intense. I felt like I helped dig after watching this terrific film!

Filmed in 2001, directed by Roland Suso Richter, written by Johannes W. Betz, starring Sebastian Koch, Heino Ferch, Nicolette Krebitz, Alexandra Maria Lara and Mehmet Kurtulus.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Some Like it Hot

Voted the "funniest American movie" by the AFI on its "100 Years...100 Laughs". Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play two 30's era musicians that accidentally witness a gangland slaying. They go "on the lam" and pose as members of an all-girl band. Since they are both very much not girls this requires a great deal of make-up, voice changing and wardrobe enhancements. Marilyn Monroe shows off her comic talents, and her great bod, as Sugar Kane, the band's singer.

Actor Joe E. Brown does a terrific job as an international playboy who develops quite the attraction to the very confused Jack Lemmon (in his female persona). Tony Curtis becomes enamored with Ms. Monroe, but, of course, can not tell her his true gender because of the mobsters on their tail. Madcap and zany fun is had by all!

Writer/Director Billy Wilder has done many of my favorite films. Most of them are dramas, but he shows off his true comedic talents with Some Like it Hot. The script is outlandish, the actors over-the-top and the pace frenetic. Most enjoyable! This won an academy award for the costumes. Putting Curtis and Lemmon in drag was no small feat. Both were attractive leading men used to getting the ladies, not being one. But I, audiences and the AFI loved the transformation. And this movie.

Filmed in 1959, Directed by Billy Wilder, Written by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Joe E. Brown and George Raft. Upon its release this film was condemned by the Roman Catholic League of Decency and was banned in Kansas. Many actors turned down the roles because they did not want to dress in drag. Some men who later may have regretted the decision are Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye and Bob Hope. This film is based upon a German movie 'Fanfaren der Liebe'.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

All That Jazz

It's Showtime!

I love an autobiographical film where the star passes away. Just what does Bob Fosse want us to know about himself? Director/writer/choreographer Bob Fosse tells his "life story" in this film. Roy Scheider stars as Joe Gideon. Gideon is a Broadway director/choreographer, film director/editor and world class jerk. He drinks, does drugs, cheats on his wife, works too much and generally is a bother to all around him. But Gideon, like Bob Fosse, is an unbelievable talent. So everyone puts up with his faults to be around his star quality and talent. Eventually, as in all good fables, his life comes crashing down and the "piper must be paid". Jessica Lange portrays Angelique. Her character has been called both the 'Angel of Death' and the 'Angel of Life'. I guess it depends upon your perspective.

This movie is a masterpiece and should be required viewing for every film student on Earth. Fosse directs and choreographs musical numbers like no one else. He forgoes the quick cut and the close-up. Instead he allows us to view the entire number, usually from a small distance and always cutting with the music not just to make another cut. Would someone please tell MTV and every other director/editor that we can enjoy a scene without 3 cuts per second. Our attention span isn't that small! The dance numbers are vintage Fosse. The 'air-otica' sequence was "borrowed" by Paula Abdul (she would call it a tribute) and other scenes have been copied by Beyonce and others. But it is the opening sequence, with its hundreds of dancers in an open casting call, that shows the ability of Fosse. He tells the entire story of 'A Chorus Line' in 8 minutes. Beautifully set to George Benson's 'On Broadway' we can feel the tension, disappointment and exhilaration of the dancers as they attempt to get a job with a legend.

Along with the music/dance numbers is a terrific script, co-written by Fosse and Robert Alan Arthur. The story of Gideon's lack of respect, for both others and himself, is a descent into death. Gideon's constant flirting with the Angel of Death shows his desire to end his failures. Roy Scheider as Gideon is terrific. Originally Fosse had cast Richard Dreyfus, but Dreyfus couldn't handle the job. Scheider was then thrust into the film well into rehearsals. His portrayal of the addict/womanizer is compelling. Lange is also terrific as Angelique. Her constant "flirty" attitude as she attempts to lure Gideon to his death is spot-on. Sandahl Bergman, as the lead dancer in the air-otica scene, and Ann Reinking, as Gideon's love interest, are both eye catchers.

I am not a big fan of musicals. The bursting into song strikes me as odd. But in All That Jazz I find myself glued to the screen. Combine a story about a Broadway musical director and the unmatched choreography of Bob Fosse and I watch again and again. As I said in an earlier post, how this film lost the Best Picture Oscar to 'Kramer vs. Kramer' is unbelievable. That should be a plot on the X-Files it is so alien and absurd.

This movie is fantastic and should be seen by everyone! The dancing, acting, script, direction, soundtrack and impact are all amazing.

A note about Bob Fosse: Fosse holds the "trifecta" of directing awards. He is the only person to win a Best Director Oscar, for 'Cabaret', Tony, for 'Pippin', and Emmy, for 'Liza with a Z'. No other human being has won all three awards and Fosse did it in the same year! He may have been a workaholic, but at least it was good work.

Filmed in 1979, directed by Bob Fosse, written by Fosse and Robert Alan Arthur, starring Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange, Ann Reinking, Leland Palmer, Sandhal Bergman and Ben Vereen.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Grapes of Wrath

Truly magnificent film. Touching, sad and inspirational. The Grapes of Wrath is almost 70 years old, but the emotions and message are as true today as when this film debuted. Based on the classic novel by John Steinbeck, this is the story of the Joad family during the Great Depression. They have lost the family farm in the dust bowl. This story follows the Joads as they move to California in an effort to find work. Upon arriving they find conditions to be little better then where they left. Prejudice, hunger and unbearable conditions pressure the Joads at every stop.

Henry Fonda, as Tom Joad, gives one of the performances of his life. He gives us a window into the soul of someone who has been kicked around by life. He represents all those Americans who lost so much during the Great Depression. Masterfully directed by John Ford. He deserved the Oscar that he won for Best Director. Wonderful touch in what could have been a maudlin story. He got the very best out of the cast, script and crew.

While Fonda was terrific, I feel the best portrayal in the film goes to Jane Darwell. She plays Ma Joad. While Tom Joad can go off and fight the good fight, Ma Joad must stay and care for her large, ragtag family. Darwell is outstanding and received the academy award for Best Supporting Actress. Her character holds the family together and her acting holds this picture together. First-rate!

Compelling, moving and as important today as in 1940. One of the greatest ever.

Filmed in 1940, directed by John Ford, written by Nunnally Johnson, starring Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine and Russell Simpson.

Some notes on the John Steinbeck novel upon which this film is based. The novel was banned in several states and most of California upon its release. The book was so controversial that the library in Steinbeck's hometown, Salinas, CA., did not stock it until the 1990s. The novel's ending was just too provocative to be allowed in the 1940 film. In the book Rose-of-Sharon's baby is stillborn and she offers her breast milk to a dying man. Strong imagery for today let alone 1940. Also, I consider this book to be the best novel ever written. One note about the movie. Stalin banned this film in the Soviet Union. He did not want anyone in Russia knowing that even very poor Americans had a car.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Robin and Marian

The legend of Robin Hood is known throughout the world. A litany of Hollywood's leading men have "taken from the rich to give to the poor". From the classic Errol Flynn to Kevin Costner to Russell Crowe, tinsel town's biggest stars have graced us with their own Robin Hood. And this film is no exception. Casting perhaps the biggest star of his day Sean Connery. He had already done 6 Bond films as well as 'The Wind and the Lion' and 'The Man Who Would be King' (see earlier blog). In 1976 he was one of the most recognizable people on Earth. Along with Connery this movie stars Audrey Hepburn as Lady Marian, Robert Shaw (fresh off of 'Jaws') as The Sheriff of Nottingham and Richard Harris as King Richard the Lionheart. An amazing cast of huge stars. Add to the cast the veteran director of action/swashbuckling epics Richard Lester. He directed 'The Three Musketeers', 'The Four Musketeers' and 'Royal Flash'. When you consider the cast and the director I am sure audiences expected a sword fighting epic.

What they got was an intelligent look at what happens to "heroes" as they age. All the previous treatments of Robin Hood showed him as an athletic superhero fighting for good over evil. In Robin and Marian it is 20 years after Robin and his Merry Men have saved the day and returned King Richard to the throne. Instead of fighting off dozens of the Sheriff's men with ease, Robin gets winded just climbing the castle wall. The other leading characters have all suffered similar ravages of time. They are older, less athletic and more concerned with the effects of their actions upon others and the effect of time upon themselves. Their own mortality and legacy are the questions of the day.

This concern makes Robin and Marian an intelligent film not an epic. The cast plays up the fact that they are much older. Connery especially "takes the mickey" of himself. It takes great courage, as an actor, to show Robin Hood having difficulty getting out of bed in the morning. Anyone over 40 knows that moment, at least occasionally, but Robin Hood should never suffer such indignities. I appreciate the reflection upon what happens to a hero when they get old. How do those around them act and how do they feel about themselves? As we all age those are questions that become more prominent within ourselves.

The cast is deep. Connery, Hepburn, Shaw and Harris were all stars at the time. Add to that Denholm Elliott (best known for his Indiana Jones role) as Will Scarlet, Nicol Williamson as Little John and Ian Holm as King John. There are familiar faces all over the screen. The entire cast is faced with that "how to play an older legend" question. With the direction of Lester and an intriguing script by James Goldman the experience of Robin and Marian is one of thoughtfulness and introspection. The film has a deliberate pace at times, as though Lester wanted to give the audience a chance to think.

But it is not maudlin. Goldman's script and the actors provide laughs throughout. Many come at the stars' expenses. Again, it takes courage as a film superstar to allow others to make fun of you. Too many in Hollywood (I am talking to you Sean Penn!) refuse to allow this type of humor. But here the cast seems to revel in the opportunity to have some fun!

While this movie is not an action epic for the ages, it is intelligent and intriguing. Enjoy.

Filmed in 1976, directed by Richard Lester, written by James Goldman, starring Sean Connery, Audrey Hepburn, Robert Shaw, Richard Harris, Denholm Elliott and Nicol Williamson.