Friday, April 27, 2007

A Bridge Too Far (1977).

The Scoop:
Just like the World War II battle it chronicles, this film is full of good intentions but is too ambitious for its own good. In the wake of D-Day, the Allies hatched an ambitious plan to invade Germany that involved the capture of seven bridges across the Rhine River. It was the largest single military operation in history up to that point, but the fight to secure the last bridge -- the Battle of Arnhem -- proved to be just a little too much, and the Germans prevailed. The Nazis' victory was short-lived, of course, but the preparations for the battle offer a textbook example of how even the most powerful army in the world, with a drastic tactical advantage, can easily spread itself too thin and fail. And much like the Allied commanders, the filmmakers found themselves in the same boat.

The film (directed by Richard Attenborough, who only agreed to do it in exchange for funding to make "Gandhi" next) gives an excellent look at the strategic decisions that go into any military operation. In fact, this general's-eye view of World War II makes an ideal counterpart to the grunt's-eye view in "Saving Private Ryan." But with too many plotlines and too many characters, the movie eventually collapses under its own weight. The performances by a host of familiar actors (including Sean Connery, Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, Ryan O'Neal, Elliott Gould, Anthony Hopkins, Liv Ullmann and Gene Hackman) keep the viewer from getting too lost, but the appearances by Robert Redford and James Caan are just plain extraneous. However, despite all these shortcomings, "A Bridge Too Far" is still worth viewing, particularly by those interested in military history.

Best Line:
"I've got lunatics laughing at me from the woods. My original plan has been scuppered now that the jeeps haven't arrived. My communications are completely broken down. Do you really believe any of that can be helped by a cup of tea?"

Side Note:
Received eight nominations for the British Academy Awards, but not a single Oscar nomination.

Companion Viewing:
"Saving Private Ryan" (1998).

Links:
IMDb.
British Cinema Greats.

Take a Look:
The trailer:


The first air drop:


The Germans are coming!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Carnival of Souls (1962).

The Scoop:
I suppose you could call this the "Blair Witch Project" of its time -- a low budget, independently-produced film that cranks up the spook factor. Except "Carnival of Souls" is much scarier. A young woman (Candice Hilligoss) mysteriously survives a watery car crash and begins having strange experiences. To say much more would be giving too much away.

Even with so many of the filmmaking "seams" showing (not to mention that some of the best shocks have been ripped off countless times over the years), the imagery will stay with you for a long time. Creeeeeeepy. We dare you to watch it alone!

Best Bit:
The dancing.

Side Note:
The "carnival" of the title is an abandoned amusement park located on a dried-up shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Director Herk Harvey first noticed the building on a cross-country driving trip and was so taken by the desolation that he and friend John Clifford wrote a script around it, and eventually got permission to film there.

Companion Viewing:
"The Haunting" (1963) and "Lost Highway" (1997).

Links:
IMDb.
The Dead Rabbit Movie Vault.
An interview with cinematographer Maurice Prather.

Take a Look:
The trailer:


A pretty good fan video:


And you can see the whole thing over at the Internet Moving Picture Archive.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Any Given Sunday (1999).

The Scoop:
Never let it be said that Oliver Stone is not an ambitious artist. While striving for the fulfillment of his vision, he doesn't hedge his bets. As a result, his strivings can just as often bring success as failure. This film, his exploration of the dark underbelly of professional football, has equal helpings of both. On the plus side are terrific insights into the pressures money and fame exert on the athletes, as well as a surprisingly nuanced dramatic performances by comedian Jamie Foxx and retired NFL linebacker Lawrence Taylor. The cinematography in the game sequences is also top-notch, putting the audience right inside the action, feeling every bone-rattling hit.

Among the drawbacks, though, are Cameron Diaz's thoroughly unbelievable character of the team owner (although she does a good job with it) and Al Pacino's histrionics as the head coach. But the most troubling, perhaps, is Stone's failure to get product licensing from the NFL. The upshot is that all team uniforms and properties in the film are fictional and their design needlessly gaudy, detracting from the impact of the realism Stone achieves elsewhere.

And yet, with all those shortcomings, this is still the best football film to date. Pacino plays Tony D'Amato, legendary coach of the Miami Sharks, who tries to hold his team together for one last playoff push. Along the way he must deal with an injury to his aging star quarterback (Dennis Quaid, playing a combination of Dan Marino and Brett Favre), a hotshot young upstart (Foxx, whose character is very obviously inspired by Michael Vick), the shady team doctor (James Woods), a Jim Rome-like TV host (John C. McGinley) and even the commissioner himself (given biblical authority by Charleton Heston).

The strengths of this movie are strong enough to smooth over its shortcomings, making it a must-see look at life behind the scenes in the NFL.

Best Line:
"On any given Sunday you're gonna win or you're gonna lose. The point is -- can you win or lose like a man?"

Side Note:
The scenes at the home of Cap Rooney (Quaid) were shot at the home of Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino.

Companion Viewing:
"Playmakers" (2003) and "Bull Durham" (1988).

Links:
IMDb.

Take a Look:
The trailer:


Here's Pacino giving his impassioned halftime speech:

Friday, April 13, 2007

The Big T.N.T. Show (1966).

The Scoop:
This great vintage concert film (the follow-up to the groundbreaking concert film "The T.A.M.I. Show") features live performances by the likes of the Byrds, the Lovin' Spoonful, Ike and Tina Turner, Ray Charles, and a host of other great stars.

The showstopper, though, is Bo Diddley's blistering pre-Hendrix guitar noise, which reveals him as a true garage/punk pioneer. That sound is just as fresh today as it was all those years ago, even after Hendrix's has begun to show its age. The only poor performance is the otherwise-talented Joan Baez's dour rendition of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling." Complete with go-go dancers and Beatle-esque screaming teenage girls, this is a good glimpse at the touring rock revues of the '60s. One of my favorite concert films.

Best Line:
"As some of you may know, I like to create my own music. It's not exactly rock, and it's not exactly folk. It's more of a depressive jazz." (Roger Miller, introducing his song "Engine #9.")

Side Note:
Filmed at the Moulin Rouge club in Los Angeles. The building, on Sunset Boulevard, was originally opened in 1938 as the Earl Carroll Theater (home of "the most beautiful girls in the world"), and later in the '60s became the Hullabaloo and then the Aquarius Theatre, which was the home of the Doors and the L.A. production of "Hair." By the '70s it was a televison and movie sound stage where a number of productions were shot (most notably "Star Search," some concert scenes for "What's Love Got to Do With It," and several Nickelodeon shows). It has recently been sold to a private developer and is not being used.

Companion Viewing:
"The T.A.M.I. Show" (1965) and "That Thing You Do!" (1996).

Links:
IMDb.

Take a Look:
The trailer (check out Frank Zappa in the audience!):


Here's Bo Diddley's scorching performance. Two things (besides the music) stand out about it for me -- one is the kickass group of backup singers (one of whom doubles as Bo's rhythm guitarist), and the other is the lone group of black kids in the audience who are really feeling it, unlike the white kids who look bored waiting for Donovan to show up:


One last clip -- this is Ike and Tina ripping it up to close the show:

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Alice Through the Looking Glass (1998).

The Scoop:
The makers of this British television production aimed for an adult version of the classic children's tale -- mostly, they seemed to have accomplished this by removing the charm and adding tedium. The childlike dreaminess of the original has been replaced with the quality of a feverish hallucination, which is intriguing, if not entirely successful.

A young Kate Beckinsale is the grown-up Alice, who takes a trip through the mirror while reading the bedtime story to her daughter. There are some wonderful visuals and effects on display, but the overall experiment falls flat. Furthermore, as the title suggests, the film focuses on the second of Lewis Carroll's "Alice" novels, so such familiar crowd-pleasers as the White Rabbit, the Queen of Hearts and the Mad Hatter are missing.

The end result is an interesting "serious" literary adaptation, but you'd probably still be better off just sticking with something definitive, like the Disney animated version.

Best Bit:
The stylish, music video quality of the "Walrus and the Carpenter" sequence.

Side Note:
Director John Henderson is a veteran of the British "Spitting Image" television series.

Companion Viewing:
"Alice in Wonderland" (1951).

Links:
IMDb.

Take a Look:
Two trailers are available over at IMDb.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993).

The Scoop:
One would think that this was just another hack-job horror sequel -- and one would be right, up to a point. But his film has a little something extra which makes it stand out from the crowd.

A rebellious teenager (J. Trevor Edmond) gets into a fight with his Army officer father ("Emergency's" Kent McCord) -- who works at a top-secret base studying the gas that turns corpses into the living dead -- and runs away with his girlfriend Julie (Mindy Clarke). They don't get too far before Julie gets fatally injured in a motorcycle accident. Of course, her dunderheaded boyfriend has the brilliant idea of breaking into dad's lab and using the gas to bring her back to life. The results are unique -- she appears to be okay, but slowly begins showing signs of encroaching zombie-ism. There are some great scenes in which Clarke and director Brian Yuzna communicate the poignancy of the ongoing transformation and its effect on the couple's romance. Unfortunately, these alternate with scenes filled with the purest, lamest horror sequel clich├ęs. Imagine two screenwriters -- one an Oscar winner, the other a brain-dead moron -- being asked to write scripts on the same premise, then randomly splicing the two scripts together and allowing all the seams to show. The result would be something like this movie. Still, Clarke is pretty sexy and does a decent job with the "good" material -- plus, the scene where she prepares to kick evil zombie butt by piercing herself with scrap metal has a certain S&M kick to it.

This film also manages to somehow to have three "endings" -- two scenes that would've been perfectly good resolutions to the story, and one which really is the end. If it had closed after the first "ending," the film might arguably be called a sleeper classic. Even if they had finished with the second "ending," the filmmakers could have saved some face. Unfortunately, they let the final act drag out far too long.

Best Bit:
The piercing scene.

Side Note:
Clarke was a regular on "Days of Our Lives" and has made guest appearances on "Seinfeld," "Sliders" and "Xena: Warrior Princess."

Companion Viewing:
George Romero's orginal living dead trilogy -- "Night of the Living Dead" (1968), "Dawn of the Dead" (1979) and "Day of the Dead" (1985) -- as well as the first "Return of the Living Dead" (1985).

Links:
IMDb.
The Flesh Farm.
Robert Llewellyn's Classic Films.

Take a Look:
The trailer:


A fan video cut to Guns 'n' Roses:


A slightly better fan vid with music by Queen:

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Dead Men Walk (1943).

The Scoop:
This is another of those Poverty Row quickies churned out by the dozen by PRC and other companies in the early 1940s, but this one manages to rise slightly above the crowd, thanks in no small part to some creepy Universal-style touches, and to the performance of George Zucco.

Zucco was the undisputed king of this genre, bringing a gravity and intensity that deserved better than the cheapness that surrounded him. Here, he delivers one of his better performances as twin brothers -- one, an upstanding doctor and paragon of civic virtue, and the other, a vampire intent on destroying his brother's life. These soap opera-style evil twin machinations are grafted onto a thin plot that is way too reminiscent of "Dracula" (complete with the presence of Dwight Frye as a hunchbacked assistant).

Of course, no matter how much the film tries to rise above its origins, that still doesn't make it a good movie. "Dead Men Walk" is still a turd, but at least it's a highly-polished turd and, as such, deserves some attention from b-movie fans.

Best Line:
"I don't blame you for thinking of me as a homocidal maniac, but the truth is even more unbelievable."

Side Note:
That "grizzled prospector"-looking guy with the unbilled cameo is veteran character actor Al "Fuzzy" St. John, who got his start in dozens of Mack Sennett silent shorts, then went on to practically create the grizzled prospector stereotype as a B-movie Western sidekick to the likes of Lash La Rue, Buster Crabbe and others.

Companion Viewing:
"The Mad Monster" (1942) and "The Corpse Vanishes" (1942).

Links:
IMDb.

Take a Look:
Here's a taste from the action-packed climax:


If you don't want the spoilers, the whole movie is available from Internet Moving Image Archive.