Saturday, March 22, 2014

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Once Upon A Time In The West is worth the wait.

Director Sergio Leone's western runs nearly three hours. Yes, your finger may be itching to grab your remote at various times during this 1968 feature. But, please be patient. The late Italian director does a fine job of building tension in numerous scenes.

Plus, it's a revelation to see Henry Fonda cast as Frank, a cold-hearted killer who works for hobbled railway baron Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti). Forget all those good guy roles the Nebraska native played during his 46-year career such as Juror #8 in Twelve Angry Men. Here Fonda's Frank is ruthless, even gunning down a young boy as part of his job. Leone gives us several chances to see Fonda's blue eyes up close. His stare is chilling. "People scare better when they're dying," he suggests at one point. Yikes.

Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) travels west to reunite with her new husband, Brett (Frank Wolff), and his three children. She arrives the same day as they've been gunned down by Frank and his gang. The question is, why were they murdered? They lived in the desert, far removed from the town where most folks live.

Jill just wants to get back east. But she sticks around largely due to the arrival of Harmonica (Charles Bronson) and Cheyenne (Jason Robards). Harmonica has an old score he wants to settle with Frank. That reason takes some time to become known. Cheyenne is an outlaw who is framed by Frank for the murder of McBain and his children. But he still demonstrates some kindness towards others - like Jill.

Leone repeatedly ratchets up the tension in this film. There's a long introduction where several members of Frank's gang, including Woody Strode (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) and Jack Elam (High Noon), wait at a train station for Harmonica to arrive. The director's use of sound helps build suspense about what will happen at this remote location.

Every decent western needs some well-staged shootouts. Leone delivers the goods with several solid showdowns.

Ennio Morricone's score grates at times, but that's a small quibble for what is a well-cast, suspenseful western.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Frank Wolff appeared in The Wasp Woman and Beast From Haunted Cave in 1959.

That's Lionel Stander as the barman. He was Cornelius Cobb in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town starring Gary Cooper.

Leone directed Once Upon A Time In The West after A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly with Clint Eastwood.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Elf (2003)

Oh, Elf.

This film keeps bouncing between smart and clever, plain silly and really tiresome with its special effects. How many movies have laboured under too many special effects, explosions, etc. etc. to try and entertain an audience?

The last 15 minutes of Elf are not much of a gift for audiences. Too bad, because Elf presents some very funny scenes earlier on.

Great premise in this 2003 film from director Jon Favreau, before the Iron Man trilogy came his way.

Buddy (Will Ferrell) ends up at the North Pole after he slips into Santa's sleigh at an orphanage. He's raised as an elf, with Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) his caregiver.

Buddy doesn't clue in that he's not like the other pint-sized workers toiling away on presents for all the good boys and girls who've earned Santa's stamp of approval.

Santa gives him the OK to leave the North Pole to find his human father. That'd be Walter (James Caan), a publishing boss in New York City. Walter hasn't done much to endear himself to the Jolly Old Elf. He's self-centred, focusing on his career rather than his wife Emily (Mary Steenburgen) and son Michael (Daniel Tay). Walter knows nothing about Buddy.

Naive Buddy finds plenty of excitement in the Big Apple. He congratulates the staff of a coffee shop promoted as serving the world's best coffee. Revolving door? Great fun to go around and around and around ... There's cause for concern - he spots a faux Santa at shopping mecca Gimbel's. "You sit on a throne of lies," Buddy notes in one of the movie's best lines. Jovey (Zooey Deschanel), an elf who helps out with the Santa display, catches Buddy's eye. She's got a great voice that Buddy hears and likes too.

Walter's not keen on Buddy entering his life. "Lose the tights," is an early piece of advice he passes on to his child. "You may be a little bit chemically imbalanced," Walter suggests as he starts to warm up to him.

As mentioned earlier, divide this movie into three for audiences.

There's goofy humour directed at the younger set. Long belch? Yep. Sugar-laden meals gulped down with great abandon by Buddy. Check. Buddy walking into walls, falling off Christmas trees, chewing gum found on a railing. Here too.

Older audiences get rewarded for their time too. There's bizarre story pitches to Walter. "A tribe of asparagus children..." A bystander hits on a female television reporter during a live broadcast. "Your eyes tell the story," is one of his wooing efforts. Santa offers up "The paparazzi have been trying to nail me for years."

But, boy, the film's finale at Central Park with Santa and his struggling sleigh and an evil sounding Central Park Rangers in hot pursuit drags on. Santa's sleigh flies, it struggles to gain altitude, it's grounded, zzzzz.

Audiences won't likely want to return this Christmas film to point of sale, but Elf is not the best of the season either.

RATING: 7/10

FUN FACTS: That's Claire Lautier as the television reporter at Central Park.

That extended belch from Buddy comes courtesy of voice artist Maurice LaMarche. He's Canadian. Way to burp, Maurice! What's your secret? Is this your personal best?

Zooey voiced Mary Spuckler in television's The Simpsons.

Artie Lange, the Santa who tangles with Buddy at Gimbel's, was Big Red in Mystery Men.

Hey, Michael Lerner. I just saw you in Michael Ritchie's The Candidate. That's a better film than Elf.

That's Andy Richter, from Late Night with Conan O'Brien, as one of Walter's scribes.

Cool. Special effects guru Ray Harryhausen voices a polar bear cub. Wow. He also appeared in Spies Like Us and Beverly Hills Cop III. Could someone please explain the last two screen appearances?

Just like Clint Howard? Patrick Ferrell, Will's younger brother, appears as a security guard.

Director Jon Favreau appears as a doctor who confirms Buddy is really Walter's son.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Women (1939)


Here's a film that could make an interesting double feature with Mean Girls.

The Women (Keepcase) and Mean Girls both offer a glimpse of how women treat each other. It's not pretty.

Give The Women the advantage for star power, laughs to Mean Girls.

Lindsay Lohan and Tina Fey are great, but this drama from George Cukor boasts Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell and Joan Fontaine. That's a pretty impressive lineup of major talent circa the Second World War.

Based on a play by Clare Boothe Luce, The Women centers on Mary Haines (Shearer). Turns out what appears to be her ideal marriage is not so great, with hubby Stephen fooling around with store clerk Crystal Allen (Crawford). "We've been so happy together, really happy," she says of her relationship. Friends Sylvia (Rosalind Russell) and Edith (Phyllis Povah) make certain Mary hears the news of her unfaithful husband from a manicurist. How's that for the sting of gossip? The damage loose lips cause keeps coming up through the film.

Mary's mom is pretty smart about the way women work. Mrs. Morehead (Lucille Watson) urges Mary to not confide in her plans to split up with Stephen because they'll be sure to blab the news to others. "I'm an old woman," she advises. "I know my sex."

Mary's mother encourages her to keep the marriage together for the sake of her granddaughter, Mary (Virginia Weidler). But that appeal falls on deaf ears. Mary exchanges words with Crystal in a change room at a swanky department store, but doesn't go for the throat (so to speak). Crystal refuses to end the affair. "I'm taking my marching orders from Stephen. He seems to be satisfied with this arrangement," she tells Mary.

Mary heads to Reno where she meets several other women who are also waiting for divorces. They bunk at the home of Lucy (Marjorie Main), who offers some welcome comic relief in a two-hour plus film with lots and lots of talking. Peggy isn't so sure she wants to cut ties with her hubby. Countess De Lave (Mary Boland) is ready to split from her fourth husband. Her particular knot keeps falling apart, but she's still game to walk down the aisle with another man. She hails Reno as the "American cradle of liberty." Mary's resolve to go her own way weakens, but Crystal still has a strong pull on her ex. She sees Stephen as her meal ticket, while fooling around with another guy on the side.

It's interesting, and at times depressing, to see the challenges women face in 1939 re: their hubbies. A fashion show - in colour - celebrates "the female form divine." There's workouts to keep looking sharp too. Even such efforts to look good don't mean husbands won't stray.

Crawford is deliciously bad as Crystal. Boland is a hoot as the older woman who keeps getting married, despite the relationships failing. Morehead offers wise counsel as Mary's mother. Hmmm, so many of the secondary characters stand out more than poor Shearer. Her character doesn't really come to life until the film's last 15 minutes.

RATING: 7.5/10

FUN FACTS: What a year 1939 was for George Cukor. He also worked on Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.

Marjorie Main may look familiar because she appeared as Ma Kettle in a number of films. She was also in Heaven Can Wait.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Speed (1994)

Oh, Sandra Bullock, the places you'll go after Speed.

I'll be honest, Sandra. I don't even remember, let alone buy a ticket, to your first films such as Hangmen (1987) and A Fool and His Money (1988). Religion, Inc. and Who Shot Patakango (both 1989)? Ditto. Did these releases even play in St. Catharines when I was attending Brock University? What kind of wide release did they get? Were they released?

The American remake of The Vanishing and Demolition Man (both 1993) I'm thinking, must have been definite step ups for you.

But, Sandra, do you have a special place in your Academy Award-winning heart for summer blockbuster Speed?

Sure, there are gaps in logic and common sense you could drive, well, a bus through, but Speed is still great fun. You're a big part of that enjoyment, even though I doubt you could handle a speeding bus with such dexterity.

And how about you, Keanu Reeves? Do you have good memories of this film? Surely it's a career highlight for you along with the original Matrix and Ted and Bill's Excellent Adventure.

I admit, it's kind of funny to hear you do your best Clint Eastwood impression growling your lines as Los Angeles police officer Jack Traven. You're buff in this film, Keanu. Love the close cropped hair.

Jeff Daniels and you don't make typical police buddies, but there's some neat problem solving going on when you get called to an office tower to help folks caught in an express elevator. That's when we get to meet Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper), a former police bomb expert with a huge grudge against men and women who walk the thin blue line. He wants $3 million to not kill the people in that lift, until Traven and Daniels' Harry Temple figure out a way to save the day.

Their life-saving efforts irk Payne, who bounces back a few months later with a new ploy. Give him marks for creativity. He's stashed a bomb on a city bus. It'll activate once the bus hits 50 miles an hour. If the bus odometer drops below that mark, it blows up.

Annie Porter (Bullock) is a regular commuter on that bus after her licence was suspended for speeding (nice touch). "I miss my car," notes Porter. She ends up in the driver's seat after driver Sam (Hawthorne James) is shot.

Travern wants to save everyone on the bus. Payne will kill them if he doesn't get his ransom in three hours. Temple, recovering from an injury from his first encounter with Payne, works from the office and the field to pinpoint the bomber's identity and defuse the bomb.

Screenwriter Graham Yost, in his feature-film debut, keeps throwing in wrinkles to challenge Annie and Traven. A punctured gas tank, pedestrians, a freeway not completely built and bus passengers fearing death all help keep tension high.

There's some good zingers and jokes along for the ride.

Payne to Traven: "Do not attempt to grow a brain."

Bus passenger Stephens to Traven: "Did you have any luck with the bomb?"

Traven: "Yeah, it didn't go off."

Don't think too hard when watching Speed. It'll spoil the fun.

Sandra, I like to think of Speed as an early run of Gravity. The tension is cranked up even more for that great film. Congratulations on going from films no one saw to becoming a Hollywood superstar.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Billy Idol sang the title song. Lyrics include "Speed, speed, give me what I need."

Yes, Alan Ruck was Matthew Broderick's buddy in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Jumpin'! He was 29 when he made that film in 1986.

Hey, that's Joe Morton, from The Brother From Another Planet as Capt. McMahon. Didn't recognize him at all.

Hawthorne James made his film debut in Disco Godfather.