Saturday, September 29, 2012

(500) Days of Summer (2009)

Get ready for a little bit of everything in (500) Days of Summer.

There's split screens, characters talking straight to the camera, a story that moves back and forth in time, some black and white footage and even a voiceover.

There are many romantic comedies, a fact Matthew McGonaughey can give thanks for on a daily basis, but few worth seeing. Sorry, Matthew.

(500) Days of Summer is easy to fall in love with thanks to a smart script by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber. Some fine work by leads Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel helps a lot. Any major Hollywood release that spoofs Igmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal deserves a look.

Yes, some of the set-ups are overdone. There's the barely teenage younger sister who's the voice of wisdom when it comes to relationships. Wasn't Natalie Portman's character wise way beyond her years in Beautiful Girls (1995)?

A choreographed dance scene with our romantic male lead has also been done before, but let's give marks for the inspired choice of Hall and Oates' hit from 1981, You Make My Dreams.

Forgive those cliches and warm up to (500) Days of Summer.

Tom (Gordon-Levitt) doesn't expect he'll ever know true happiness until he meets The One. Summer (Deschanel) saw her parents break up when she was young. She doubts love exists. Summer doesn't want to be in a relationship.

"I like being on my own," she says on Day 28 of their relationship. "There's no such thing as love. It's fantasy."

With those backgrounds, Tom and Summer don't look like they'll be a good match. But there's a spark between these two greeting card workers. Tom writes card messages. Summer is the new assistant to his boss. He keeps regular updates about his feelings to friends McKenzie (Geoffrey Arend) and Paul (Matthew Gray Gabler).

Tom and Summer's relationship deepens. They start having sex. Summer starts telling Tom things she's never shared with anyone else before. He thinks he's broken through her relationship wall, that now she's ready to make a long-term commitment. Tom would be wrong. It's hard to blame Summer. She never said she was looking for a forever relationship.

(500) Days of Summer bounces around during their slightly longer than one-year relationship. Audiences see the good and the bad, but it takes some sage words of advice from a possible new romantic interest for Tom to see all the sides of his relationship with Summer.

Summer's a hard girl to figure out. Some of Tom's behaviour seems a little odd. He breaks plates over his head when things sour with Summer. Really? But, hey, this movie-goer will take characters that have a little depth to them rather than a standard romance.

RATING: 8/10

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Twelve O'Clock High (1949)

This is a must-see film.

Twelve O'Clock High ranks alongside All Quiet on the Western Front, Saving Private Ryan and The Great Escape as one of the finest films movies ever made about war. The 132-minute drama earned four Oscar nominations and won two for supporting actor (Dean Jagger) and sound.


Most of the combat we see in this fine 1949 drama from director Henry King (The Gunfighter, The Song of Bernadette) is in the minds of the American bomber crews. These men were tasked with early daylight bombing raids against German targets. Casualty rates were high. The demands to fly more missions was relentless.

Audiences only see one actual combat sequence at the film's end. The rest of the drama is at 918 Group's base in England.

918 Group is going through a tough stretch. Its men are dying. Objectives are not being hit. Leader Col. Ernie Davnport (Gary Merrill) is given the boot because he's spending more time worried about his men than reaching the air force's objectives. Discipline isn't enforced because he feels bad about what his men are enduring.


His friend, Gen. Frank Savage (Gregory Peck), takes his place and quickly clamps down on what he sees as too many lax attitudes around the base. A guard is demoted. Davenport's second-hand man is arrested and called yellow. The worst of the lot are assigned to a bomber dubbed The Leper Colony. Savage brushes away suggestions of taking it easy on his men. He drives them harder, determined to build pride in the unit through success in the air.

The pilots bristle at Savage's demands and ask for transfers. He turns to his assitant, Maj. Harvey Stovall (Jagger), to tie up the paperwork for as long as possible.

The group starts to achieve success, but Savage soon faces the same conflicts as Davenport. The inevitable deaths of his men are starting to take a toll on him too.

Peck delivers an outstanding performance which rightfully earned him an Oscar nomination. His Savage is curt and driven, determined to get the job done despite all the flack he gets from his men. He has a wonderful chemistry with Jagger, whose Stouvall was a First World War veteran who wanted to fight again against the Nazis.

Millard Mitchell is solid as Maj. Gen. Pat Pritchard. This military leader sees how problems with 918 Group could spread to other units and cripple the American war effort.

Made four years after the Second World War ended, Twelve O'Clock High doesn't dance around war's impact on combatants. Within the film's first five minutes audiences learn of a gunner losing his arm and another man losing part of his head. This ain't no rah-rah war movie.

Watch for Savage's reaction as he leads a raid into German territory. He gets a bad case of the sweats, similar to Tom Hanks' hand that won't stop shaking in Saving Private Ryan.

See this movie. That's an order.

RATING: 10/10

FUN FACTS: Gary Merrill's final two credits were for episodes of the Canadian television show The Littlest Hobo in 1980.

Millard Mitchell died in 1953 of lung cancer (Thank you Internet Movie Database). He was 50.

Dean Jagger was Maj. Gen. Thomas Waverly in White Christmas.

Robert Arthur, who appears as the often promoted and demoted Sgt. McIhenny quite acting in the 1960s. His last credit was in television's Gomer Pyle in 1966. Twelve O'Clock High was nominated for best picture, but lost to All the King's Men.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Big Knife (1955)

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

The Big Knife cuts deep in its depiction of the studio system of Hollywood's Golden Age.

There's not much happiness in these parts, as depicted by director Robert Aldrich (The Flight of the Phoenix) in this powerful 1955 effort.

Charles Castle (Jack Palance) is at a crossroads. His studio contract is up for renewal. Boss Stanley Hoft (Rod Steiger) wants him back for seven more years. Castle is disillusioned with the roles he's given. His wife, Marion (Ida Lupino), has left him. There's signs of a possible reconciliation, but only if Castle leaves Hollywood. His wife is tired of his cheating and is getting serious with another man, Hank Teagle (Wesley Addy).

TWO IDEALISTS Teagle and Castle are both idealists. Castle sold out for success. Scriptwriter Teagle stayed true, but his works never make the screen.

Castle's leverage in negotiations is limited by a nasty incident in his past that Hoft, and a floozy who he was with at the time, Dixie Evans (Shelley Winters), have in their arsenal. Evans is a potential powder keg to Castle's future. She drinks too much and starts talking too often at parties about what happened a few years back. Castle's next starring role could be as a prisoner in jail.


Smiley Coy (Wendell Corey) is the studio's fixer, just like George Clooney was for a law firm in 2007's Michael Clayton. Charles is concerned Coy's not joking when he describes what he'll do to make sure Evans stops yapping.

"Sorry to throw the meat on the floor," he offers when he explains what he'll have done.

The Big Knife offers many fine performances. Palance, known to today's audiences for his work in City Slickers, is explosive as Castle. He's shown sparring in the film's first scene, but it's him who's being beaten down at work and home.

Steiger is a powerful force as Hoft. His screen time is limited, but he dominates the screen. Corey's quiet, deadly authority is chilling.

Dixie shares Castle's disillusioment with Hollywood, but not his success. She's offered a studio contract to keep her mouth shut about Castle's indiscretion. But her roles are limited with studio bosses more interested in her shapely figure than her acting talent. "I'm a deductible item," she laments.


The Big Knife is based on a play penned by Clifford Odets. The film's stage origins are noticeable with most of the action set in the living room of Castle's swanky Bel Air home. Viewers be warned, there's a lot of talking and not much action. The musical score is often obtrusive too.

Movies offer occasional glimpses at Hollywood with efforts such as Sunset Boulevard and The Player. The Big Knife is a knockout.

RATING: 8/10

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Trekkies (1997)

Trekkies ventures just about where you'd expect a documentary about Star Trek's fans to go.

For added marks, the film's host is Denise Crosby, or Tasha Yar on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Some fans praise the landmark 1960s television series for motivating them to study in the sciences. Hurray for them.

Others thank show conventions for offering them the chance to make long-lasting friendships. That's great.

Then, there's the diehards who change their names to show characters, dress as Star Trek characters in public, want to be addressed by their rank in the workplace and are willing to pay big bucks for show props. Yikes.

Trekkies overwhelms viewers with many, many brief clips from Star Trek fans who attend conventions. Still, most of the film concentrates on a handful of fans including Gabriel Koerner, a very well-spoken 15-year-old who plans to shoot a Star Trek inspired film with other fans.

Viewers meet Dr. Denis Bourguignon, who operates Starbase Dental in Orlando, Flo. This man's office is jammed with Star Trek gear. His wife and two children appear on camera with him in their Star Trek uniforms.

There's a woman who takes lots and lots of photos of Brent Spiner, from Star Trek: The Next Generation, when he speaks at conventions. When she's feeling low she looks towards the mountain Spiner lives on the other side of (I think) and feels better.

Many of the cast members from Star Trek and Next Generation are interviewed. It's especially interesting to hear George Takei talk about the first gathering of fans in 1972 and how he was floored by the huge turnout.

There's just a wee bit of footage of William Shatner, and no mention of his famous appearance on Saturday Night Live where he exhorts the show's fans to "Get a life."

The movie notes Trekkies is the only fan term to make its way into the dictionary. This film demonstrates why the short-lived television series continues to live long and prosper.

RATING: 7/10

FUN FACTS: Gabriel Koerner is now working in the entertainment industry. He has more than two-dozen film and television credits including Shutter Island, Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek: Enterprise.

Trekkies features the last on-screen appearance of DeForest Kelley, Bones from Star Trek. He voiced a character in 1998's The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars before his death in 1999. He was 79.

Without a Clue (1988)

Without a Clue offers viewers a great title and story idea.

It's too bad the film itself is just OK.

This 1988 effort from director Thom Eberhardt (Gross Anatomy) suggests famed British detective Sherlock Holmes is really Reginald Kincaid (Michael Caine). When it comes to solving crime, he's totally clueless. Instead, the washed-up actor focused his energies on booze, women and gambling. He especially likes his liquid refreshments.


Dr. John Watson (Ben Kingsley) is the real brains behind this crime-fighting operation. He created Holmes as a ruse when he was trying to land a prestigious medical position. Watson deduced the hiring committee wouldn't think much about a doctor writing detective stories.

His creation has worked all-too-well. Everyone loves Holmes. The press eagerly await his bon mots for their stories. Pub attendees want to buy him a drink. Civic officials love the chance to shake his hand. Watson gets no love.

Frustrated by Kincaid's latest bumbling, Watson gives him the boot. But Holmes doesn't remain outcast for long.

Lord Smithwick (Nigel Davenport) is in urgent need of the great detective's help. Arch-villain Professor James Moriarty (Paul Freeman) plans to flood England with phony five-pound notes. His counterfeit spree will ruin the country's economy.

Kincaid, very well-aware of Moriarty's evil ways, is less than enthused with what's supposed to be his final case.


Without a Clue's best moments come with humour that wouldn't be out-of-place in Airplane or The Naked Gun! Doors fly open and smack people. Hooch is kept stashed in a secret hiding place in a bookshelf.

Problem is, there's just not enough really funny jokes in this film's 107 minutes. That's a crime.

RATING: 6/10

FUN FACTS: Paul Freeman appeared in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Wow. Lysette Anthony, who catches Caine's eye as Leslie Giles, appeared in Canadian rock singer Bryan Adams' video for Reckless in 1983.

Keeping with the Bryan Adams strand, Harold Mayor is Lord Mayor Gerald Fitzwalter Johnson in Without a Clue. He was Bishop of Hereford in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Adams sang that film's theme song, a tune that still grates on this movie-goer, Everything I Do (I Do for You). I'd like to thank the chap who lived above me in London, Ont., who set that song on repeat play for hours beginning in the middle of the night circa 1993.