Wednesday, August 27, 2014

THE LOST PATROL

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#1,471. The Lost Patrol (1934)

Posted: 26 Aug 2014 08:25 PM PDT


Directed By: John Ford

Starring: Victor McLaglen, Boris Karloff, Wallace Ford



Tag line: "BLISTERING SUN...BLAZING BULLETS!"

Trivia: Composer Max Steiner re-used the main title music he wrote for this film for the main title music for Casablanca







Five years before he changed the face of the American West with Stagecoach, John Ford directed this World War One-era adventure about a British patrol pinned down by snipers in the Mesopotamian desert.

The trouble starts when the patrol's commanding officer (Neville Clark) is shot dead as he rides across the barren terrain. His second-in-command, the Sergeant (Victor McLaglen), takes control, and, while leading his men to rejoin their brigade, stumbles upon a desert oasis, where they find plenty of water. With no idea where they are or how far away their brigade is, the Sergeant decides that he and the 11 men in his patrol will spend the night at the oasis, then make a fresh start of it the following day. But when the platoon awakens the next morning, the sentry is dead and their horses are missing. Thus begins a desperate stand-off as, one-by-one, the men in the Sergeant's patrol are shot by Arab snipers hiding behind the nearby dunes. With their numbers dwindling and their options limited, the Sergeant and his troops, including Sanders (Boris Karloff) and Morelli (Wallace Ford), search for a way out of what appears to be a hopeless predicament.

While Victor McLaglen makes for a strong lead, convincingly portraying a man doing his best to deal with a dangerous situation, many of the other performances in The Lost Patrol come up short. Surprisingly, one of the worst is delivered by Boris Karloff, who never seems comfortable in the role of Sanders, a religious zealot who, believing he and the others are doomed, takes it upon himself to save his comrades' souls. Still, in spite of its sub-par acting, The Lost Patrol managed to pull me in to its story, building up plenty of tension as the men attempt to outwit an enemy they can't see (but who can clearly see them, firing off shots each and every time a member of the patrol is out in the open). The fact that the Arab shooters remain concealed throughout the film only heightens the suspense, putting the audience as much on edge as the Sergeant and his patrol, who have no idea where the enemy is hiding, or even how many are out there watching them.

The year after he made The Lost Patrol, John Ford won the first of his four Academy Awards for helming 1935's The Informer (another movie starring Victor McLaglen). And while The Lost Patrol may be a "minor" john Ford picture, it's an entertaining diversion nonetheless, featuring a fair share of nail-biting moments and more than one surprise.







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Saturday, August 23, 2014

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

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#1,467. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

Posted: 22 Aug 2014 08:39 PM PDT


Directed By: George Miller, George Ogilvie

Starring: Mel Gibson, Tina Turner, Bruce Spence




Tag line: "Two men enter. One man leaves"

Trivia: The sandstorm at the end of the film was real, and a camera plane actually did fly into it for some shots"







The third entry in the Mad Max series (after Mad Max and The Road Warrior), 1985's Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome feels like two movies in one: the first good, and the second… well, not "bad", really. Just… strange!

When his camel-train is hijacked by a pilot named Jebediah (Bruce Spence, the Gyro Captain in The Road Warrior) and his son (Jebediah Jr., played by Adam Cockburn), Max (Mel Gibson) wanders through the desert, eventually arriving at the settlement of Bartertown, a community that specializes in commerce. While there, Max is approached by Auntie Entity (Tina Turner), the self-appointed ruler of Bartertown, who wants the new arrival to help her eliminate The "Master-Blaster", a highly intelligent little person ("Master", played by Angelo Rossitto) and his hulking brute of a servant ("Blaster", portrayed by Paul Larsson), both of whom have become far too cocky for their own good. But when Max has a change of heart, Auntie Entity banishes him to the desert, where, after roaming around for days, he's miraculously rescued by a group of children, the last survivors of a plane crash that occurred years earlier. Despite the fact they live in a beautiful oasis, the kids, believing Max is the "savior" they've been waiting for, want him to lead them to the fabled "Tomorrow-Morrow Land", aka civilization. Seeing as he's the only one who knows what the world outside is like, Max refuses to do so. Unfortunately, some of the kids won't take "no" for an answer.

The opening scene of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, where Max's caravan is stolen, gets the movie off to a good start. I also enjoyed the early sequences set in Bartertown, a place filled with the kind of crooks and lowlifes you'd expect to find in a dystopian society. Tina Turner is effective as Aunty Entity, but the most interesting character at this point in the film is Master, a little person who happens to be an engineering genius. Arrogant at first because he's the only one who knows how to keep the town's power flowing (he designed a system by which pig shit is converted into electricity), Master is eventually put in his place, making him a much more sympathetic character. Throw in a kick-ass fight between Max and Master's friend Blaster, which occurs in a caged arena known as the "Thunderdome", and you have a first half brimming with promise.

That promise soon fades, however, when Max finds himself surrounded by dozens of kids, all living on their own. Ignoring for a moment the obvious questions (what happened to all the adults?), this entire sequence comes across as far too "cutesy" (along with asking Max to lead them to "Tomorrow-morrow land", the children refer to their own oral history as the "Tell"). Later on, when the obligatory showdown between Max (who, while tracking some kids looking for "Tomorrow-Morrow land" on their own, ends up back at Bartertown) and Aunty Entity occurs, the children remain neatly in the background, rarely offering Max and his pals any type of assistance. So, aside from being goofy, the kids are also fairly useless, making their very existence in a film of this nature all the more inexplicable.

Even with the little urchins, this movie is worth checking out, but when compared to the series' first two films, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome finishes a distant third.







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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Streetcar Named Desire

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#1,451. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Posted: 06 Aug 2014 06:30 AM PDT


Directed By: Elia Kazan

Starring: Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter




Tag line: "THE PULITZER PRIZE PLAY of New Orleans' Latin Quarter...of a Lonely Girl...of Emotions Gone Savage!"

Trivia: Vivien Leigh, who was only 36 at the time of filming, had to be made up to look older






Marlon Brando is, hands down, my favorite actor, and the fact that he occasionally "phoned in" his performances (a la 1978's Superman) makes me cherish his great turns even more. And there were some truly incredible ones, from On the Waterfront to The Godfather and many in-between. Yet his crowning achievement came in 1951, when he played Stanley Kowalski in Elia Kazan's screen version of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. The scene where he's standing at the bottom of a staircase, dripping wet and screaming "Hey Stella!" at the top of his lungs, is one of the cinema's most recognizable images, but it's the intensity Brando brings to this sequence and every other that ranks his performance among the greatest in motion picture history.

Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh), a schoolteacher and former Southern Belle who's fallen on hard times, travels to New Orleans to move in with her estranged sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and Stella's husband, a working class stiff named Stanley Kowalski (Brando). From the moment they first meet, Stanley and Blanche don't get along. Blanche objects to Stanley's "rough" ways, while Stanley wonders aloud if Blanche is truly as bad off as she claims to be. During the course of her extended stay, Blanche tries to convince Stella that Stanley is the wrong man for her, while at the same time engaging in a romantic relationship with Mitch (Karl Malden), the nicest of Stanley's poker buddies. Yet, through it all, it becomes increasingly obvious Blanche is losing her grip on reality, and that the ghosts of her past continually haunt her, draining away what little life she has left.

Aside from the opening moments, where Blanche arrives at the train station and meets Stella at the bowling alley, A Streetcar Named Desire takes place on a single set, which, under normal circumstances, might have resulted in a film that was too "stagy" (a common critique aimed at many movies based on a play). Yet never once do you feel it's the least bit stage-bound, and the reasons why are the performances of its two stars. Occasionally lost amidst all the Brando hype is the tremendous work of Vivien Leigh as Blanche, the emotionally shattered Southern Belle whose life of privilege has been systematically stripped away from her. It's clear early on that Blanche is a wounded soul, a woman clinging to a past that, even by her own admission, was never as happy as she would have liked. Still, despite the fact she now depends on Stanley and Stella for her very survival, Blanche can't help but judge the two of them, telling Stella that Stanley is "common", and she should have remembered her upbringing and never married him. Yet, even here, where Blanche could have come across as aloof, Vivien Leigh allows a little humanity to slip through. From the moment she utters her first line, we know Blanche is a complex character, and Leigh manages to convey every aspect of her persona, bringing to life a proud individual who, due to the trials and tribulations she's been subjected to, is, on occasion, as meek as a lamb.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Stanley Kowalski, a handsome yet brutish man who's none too happy to be playing host to his wife's sister. Unlike the multi-layered Stella, Stanley is an open book, revealing every nuance of his personality in the movie's first twenty minutes; his abrasive nature; his sharp, sometimes violent temper; his love for Stella, and his mistrust of Blanche (when he hears the DuBois family estate has been "lost", he immediately thinks Blanche sold it, and is keeping the money all to herself). Every moment he's on-screen, Stanley is both the film's most repulsive and most engaging character. Our natural instinct to look away whenever he cuts loose, breaking windows and smashing dinner plates, is overtaken by Brando's sheer magnetism, keeping our eyes glued firmly to the screen. In the hands of a lesser actor, Stanley might have come across as one-dimensional; in Brando's, he's positively electrifying.

It's almost as if the term "searing drama" was coined for this film; an emotional rollercoaster set in the dingy district of New Orleans, where heat and humidity resonates from the screen, A Streetcar Named Desire has taken what was an award-winning Broadway play and transformed it into one of the all-time great movie dramas, featuring not one, but two performers at their absolute zenith.







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Monday, August 4, 2014

An American in Paris

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#1,449. An American in Paris (1951)

Posted: 04 Aug 2014 10:00 AM PDT


Directed By: Vincente Minnelli

Starring: Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant




Tag line: "What a joy! It's M-G-M's Technicolor musical!"

Trivia: No words are spoken during the last 20 minutes and 25 seconds of the film







Normally, the best scenes in any movie musical involve singing and dancing, and while 1951's An American in Paris certainly has its share of extraordinary musical numbers, it's the performance of star Gene Kelly that drives the film, making it worthy of our undivided attention even after the music dies down.

American Jerry Mulligan (Kelly) is an ex-GI who hung around Paris once the war ended to pursue his passion for painting. Alas, neither Jerry nor his good friend Adam Cook (Oscar Levant), a concert pianist who lives just next door to him, have been able to carve out a living for themselves, and must beg and borrow to survive. Jerry's luck finally changes when he meets Milo Roberts (Nina Foch), a wealthy American who takes a liking to both Jerry and his paintings, promising to feature him in an upcoming art exhibit that could put him on the fast track to fame. The situation becomes a bit more complicated, however, when Jerry falls in love with pretty French girl Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron), not realizing she, in turn, is engaged to his friend, singer Henri Baurel (Georges Guetry).

An American in Paris owes its success to a number of factors. First and foremost is the music of George and Ira Gershwin, which perfectly complements both the film's story and its Parisian setting. Looking very young, Leslie Caron is positively charming as Lise, an innocent girl trapped in a difficult situation, and Oscar Levant as the oft-depressed best friend / concert pianist has his share of funny moments. But what propels An America in Paris into the ranks of a classic is the work of Gene Kelly, who belts out a number of fantastic Gershwin songs, including "I Got Rhythm" (during which he's accompanied by a collection of French urchins), and the incredibly upbeat "S' Wonderful", performed as a duet with Georges Guetary. Aside from being the film's star, Kelly also devised the movie's excellent choreography, which is on full display in the grand finale, an extended dream sequence that guides us on a magical tour through the streets, and even the history, of Paris.

The fact that Kelly handled the film's musical routines with such ease is no great revelation, yet what truly impressed me was his overall portrayal of Jerry, who's just as charismatic in the movie's quieter moments as he is when the music swells. A vagabond traipsing through life with a smile on his face, Jerry is one of those guys you can't help but like, and when Lise abruptly has a change of heart about Jerry, finding him annoying one minute and irresistible the next, we don't question her motives for a second. To know Jerry is to like him, and it's the energy Kelly brings to the role that makes the character so damn endearing. Gene Kelly was, without question, one of Hollywood's best song and dance men, but in An American in Paris he proves to the world he was a terrific actor as well.

Winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, An American in Paris is a vivacious musical, a touching love story, and, ultimately, a showcase for its star, who pulls out all the stops to make it one of the greatest films of the 1950's.







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