Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Operation: Dreamland (2005)

Occupation: Dreamland opens with white credits on a black background.

Yet, there's nothing black and white about this documentary about American soldiers in Iraq. Directors Ian Olds and Garrett Scott were given full access to members of the 82nd Airborne during their deployment in Al-Falluja, city of mosques, in 2004.

We learn a lot during this film's brief 78-minute running time.

Many of the soldiers featured were misfits before they enlisted. There were brushes with the law, vain efforts to become a death metal musician, little education, low wage jobs and aimlessness about what direction their lives should take. Enlistment officers worked their magic on at least one new recruit who dropped by to ask some questions, had a two-year maximum enlistment goal in mind and signed on for four.

82nd Airborne's objectives are to maintain order and suppress resistance. Many of the soldiers question how effective they are on both counts. Some acknowledge they'd fight back if Iraqi troops showed up at the doors of their homes wanting to search the properties. It's hard to find hostiles who open fire and then slip away without being detected.

These troops also have some wise insights into the big picture. They question the role of oil in America's interest in Iraq. Soldiers note how the war turned Iraq, a country with some significant achievements in its history, into a "s---hole." Efforts to turn Iraq around will take years is another observation that discounts former President George W. Bush's stance on America's achievements. There's a brief argument about American federal politics that a leader isn't keen to have on film. "War is money," suggests one of the grunts. America, a soldier says, will always be in Iraq. "It's our country now." Maybe Dreamland doesn't just refer to the abandoned retreat where the American troops are based.

Iraqi citizens get some good digs in about their frustrations with the American troops. They don't want colonialism. "America can go to the moon," one man suggests. "We're fed up with guns," suggests another. They want jobs and dependable municipal services such as electricity. "Be careful of Falluja," is an early warning in the film.

Operation: Dreamland offers some occasional laughs too. One solider laments the death of Sonny Bono ("That was our last hope to get a f---ing hippie in office.")

The soldiers wonder what Americans would think if they had a better understanding of what was happening in Iraq. Watch Operation: Dreamland to learn more.

RATING: 8/10

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Desk Set (1957)

If only real life mirrored Desk Set's happy ending.

Research workers at a major television network fear for their jobs when they get wind of an "electronic brain" heading to their department. Why pay humans when a machine can do the work?

The four-person department is headed up by Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn), chief wunderkid of all the fact checkers.

The rumbling starts when Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy) appears. He's not keen to be called an efficiency expert, but he does look for ways to make businesses run a little leaner. Sumner boasts a brilliant mind and a sharp wit, but he's awful forgetful and seems to only own one suit.

Watson is gaga for network executive Mike Cutler (Gig Young). She wants to get married. He's keen to keep tapping her for help to advance his career without getting tangled up in any kind of long-term relationship. Watson is skeptical about Sumner's activities, but she's also attracted to him. They're both smart and have a way with words.

She keeps pressing for details on what Sumner is up to. Cutler keeps coming in and out of Bunny's life. There's plenty of booze flowing during what Watson and her crew believe will be their final Christmas party.

Desk Set is one of 12 films Hepburn and Tracy made together. Here, they get to work with a witty script from husband and wife team Henry and Phoebe Ephron that generates some real laughs. Blondell offers solid support as Bunny's close friend, and co-worker, Peg Costello. Harry Ellerbe is a treat as Smithers, a network employee who keeps an ear out for the latest gossip and is henpecked by his wife.

Desk Set suffers for its silly handling of the super computer trying to meet the challenges of the workplace.

The film's ending wasn't duplicated at my workplace 40 years later. The newspaper's librarian was let go and replaced with an electronic archive.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Joan Blondell appeared alongside another screen great, James Cagney, in the public enemy (1931). That film is reviewed on this site.

Dina Merrill, a cast member who's still alive in March 2013, made her feature film debut in Desk Set. Her last role was in Beyond a Reasonable Doubt with Michael Douglas in 2009.

Desk Set was the last film for Nicholas Joy. He was primarily a Broadway actor who appeared on the big screen between 1947 and 1957. Joy appeared in the original stage production of The Philadelphia Story. That wonderful film is also reviewed by Reel Popcorn Junkie.

Ida Moore makes several brief appearances in Desk Set as a veteran employee with a funny walk who never opens her lips.

Yes, the Ephrons are the parents of Nora, who wrote When Harry Met Sally.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Dodge City (1939)

Errol Flynn in a western?

The Hollywood legend is remembered more for his adventures on sea (Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk) than his work with a six-shooter.

But here he is in his first of about a half-dozen westerns.

Dodge City is a keeper complete with everything a fan of the genre would expect - a bumbling sidekick, a fine romance, plenty of action and some good laughs.

The American Civil War is over and the western United States is beginning to be developed. Wade Hatton (Flynn) and his buddies Rusty Hart (Alan Hale) and Tex Baird (Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams) have finished work on a rail line leading to Dodge City, Kansas.

Col. Dodge (Henry O'Neill) appeals to Haddon to stay in the town named in his honour. Hatton declines, opting instead to head further west. His departure doesn't happen before he helps with the arrest of Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot). He has hunted buffalo illegally and murdered Indians. Surrett vows revenge.

Hatton opts to return to Dodge City six years later. A young lady who's made the move to the now booming community, Abbie Irving (Olivia de Havilland), has caught his eye. He also gets fed up with the on-going violence in Dodge after youngster Harry Cole (Bobs Watson) gets caught up in a gunfight. The unruly community ("The town that knew no ethics, but cash and killing.") and is ruled by Surrett and his enforcers, especially Yancey (Victor Jory), has a new sheriff with Hatton.

He moves quickly to bring order to the community. Restrictions are put on weapons. Hours of gambling are curtailed. Taxes are introduced. A clash with his old friend Surrett is inevitable. He's now a cattle kingpin earning a $100,000 annually (wonder what that coin is worth now?). The clean-up job is so efficient Tex wants to leave. "I just don't fit in a sissy town like this."

Dodge City, directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, White Christmas) boasts some very fine Technicolor shots of the American west. There's an amazing barroom brawl between old Civil War enemies. Hart has taken a temperance pledge before coming to Dodge City. Watch for the very funny scene when he's tempted to go into Surrett's saloon, opts instead to attend a temperance meeting next door and struggles with his decision.

Flynn looks great and presents Hatton as a soft-talking enforcer who won't put up with any guff in his town. Jory is impressive as Surrett's henchman. Cabot does well too as the chief villian who tries to lure Hatton into an arrangement that can make both men happy. de Havilland is radiant and feisty as Irving, a woman who's reluctant to embrace Hatton's wooing attempts.

Dodge City is a great western with a fine cast. Watch it.

RATING: 9/10

FUN FACTS: Bruce Cabot was in the cast of the original King Kong.

Alan Hale's son, Alan Hale, Jr., was the Skipper in Gilligan's Island.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Defiant Ones (1958)

Director Stanley Kramer's drama about cons on the run still packs a punch more than 50 years later after its release.

This 1958 release, just Kramer's third feature, earned nine Academy Award nominations including best picture, director and actor for leads Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier. This black and white production scooped up a pair of Oscars for cinematography and top screenplay.

The Defiant Ones wastes little time launching its story. A truck carrying convicts is involved in a collision at night during a heavy rainfall.

No one is killed, but two cons - John 'Joker' Jackson (Tony Curtis) and Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) escape. The pair, fueled by racial tensions, hate each other. They came close to trading blows before the truck goes over an embankment. They're shackled together. "The warden has a sense of humour," offers Sheriff Max Muller (Theodore Bikel) about why the two men are linked by a chain.

Jackson and Cullen have a good headstart thanks to the weather and a delayed search. While tension between the two still simmers, Muller has his own nemesis to deal with. State police officer Capt. Frank Gibbons (Charles McGraw) has his own ideas about how the search should be done. Gibbons is eager to sign on local men eager to hunt down the criminals. He's a little more liberal with how to use the search dogs. Muller is in an election year. If he can't find the wanted men, he could pay a price at the polls. His edginess increases as the search drags on.

Jackson wants to head south. Cullen figures his best chance is to head north where a black man won't look out of place. Their hatred for each other begins to temper. They need each other to succeeed. Cullen and Jackson rely on each other to get out of several tight situations including crossing a river with a strong current and trying to escape a muddy pit.

The Defiant Ones keeps offering viewers unexpected twists in its story. When the cons are caught trying to break into a store, a cold-blooded Mack (well done, Claude Atkins) wants to lynch them. Jackson and Cullen find an ally in another con, Big Sam (Lou Chaney, Jr.). Later, the pair cross paths with a young boy, Billy (Kevin Coughlin) and his mother (Cara Williams). She and Jackson are attracted to each other, but the mother also has an agenda of her own that will draw Jackson and Cullen even closer togehter.

The manhunt closes in on the fugitives. A train to freedom is nearby. The Defiant Ones keeps audiences guessing about the pair's fate until its last moments.

Curtis and Poitier both shine as men who've experienced rough pasts and are quick to fits of rage. Bikel is a low-key law enforcement leader who wants to find the cons, but is more measured in his approach to justice than others. Williams is trapped in a life-long prison of her own.

Films like this, with minimal special effects and accompanying soundtrack, always impress me. Bigger and noisier isn't always better. The Defiant Ones is a taut film packed with very fine performances. Watch it.

RATING: 9/10

FATAL FACTS: The Defiant Ones is the final screen appearance of Carl Switzer. He was Alfalfa in The Little Rascals shorts. Switzer was murdered in 1959.

Kevin Coughlin also died tragically. Internet Movie Database reports he died when he was struck by a speeding driver in 1976. He was 30.

The very first screen appearance for Claude Atkins, although he wasn't credited, was in From Here to Eternity.