Wednesday, October 27, 2010

'The Man Who Knew Too Much' is an
exception among needless remakes

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1954)
Starring: James Stewart, Doris Day, Brenda de Banzie, Bernard Miles, and Christopher Olsen
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A vacation turns into a nightmare for Dr. Ben McKenna (Stewart) and his wife (Day) after a dying intelligence agent entrusts Ben with information to stop an assassination plot. Before they can notify the police, their son (Olsen) is kidnapped by members of the conspiracy and they are told that if they reveal anything, he will be killed. Not knowing who they can trust, the McKennas try to use the information they have to track the assassins and free their boy.

In my review of the original "The May Who Knew Too Much," (click here to read it at Shades of Gray), I commented that it wasn't Hitchcock's best, but that it was still very good. For that reason, I've avoided the remake, because, even though it was also done by Hitchcock, I assumed it would be a waste of time, because, like so many remakes, it was entirely unnecessary.

However, among the multitudes of unnecessary remakes, the 1954 version of "The Man Who Knew Too Much" is one of the few films that has a number of improvements on the original.

First and foremost of these is the fact that the protagonists in this film are just a pair of ordinary people--well, as ordinary as a successful surgeon and a retired musical star can be--who truly are in way over their heads. In the original version, the couple had a bit of "adventurer" in them and were a little better equipped to deal with the enemy agents they chose to take on, where the McKennas are just an an ordinary couple. Further, where the original film jumped straight into the suspenseful adventure plot, the remake takes time to establish the McKennas as the Everycouple that they are, even to the point where we get to see them bicker about inconsequential things the way married couples will. It's also hard to imagine more perfect casting than James Stewart and Doris Day in these roles... they are the perfect "everyday American couple" in this picture.

The remake also expands on the use of music as a plot device. In both versions of the film, an assassination is performed in time with an orchestral performance where a crash of cymbols is to cover the gunshot. In the remake, however, music is also used to show the close, loving relationship between the McKenna's and their young son, as well as serving as the key to his rescue, in the form of the famous and Academy Award-winning song "What Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera Sera)."

Unfortunately, the remake comes up a little short in the villain department. While they are every bit as insidious as they were in the original--and perhaps even more powerful, as they have the clear backing on a nation in this version--they end up having less of a presence in the film. This is partly due to the fact that they receive less screen time in the remake, but it's mostly because none of them are portrayed by an actor of Peter Lorre's caliber, nor are any of them quite as quirky or as sinister as Lorre's character in the original.

I strongly recommend this film to any fan of James Stewart, Doris Day, and Alfred Hitchcock who hasn't seen it yet--especially if you were staying away from it for the reason I was. It's some of the finest work any of those three worthies did, and it manages to be a superior version of what was already a great movie.

As a little bonus, here are a couple of versions of "What Will Be, Will Be."

First up, is Doris Day's original single recording of the song, with a fan-made video using clips from "The Man Who Knew Too Much". If you've only heard covers, the original version will let you understand why it's still being re-recorded to this day.

And here's a mildly creepy cover of the song by Pink Martini. It was first heard in the pilot episode of "Dead Like Me".

Click here for downloadable MP3 versions at

Monday, October 25, 2010

'Modesty Blaise' is fun, but not much like source

Modesty Blaise (1966)
Starring: Monica Vitti, Terence Stamp, Clive Revill, Dirk Bogarde, Harry Andrews, Michael Craig, and Rosella Falk
Director: Joseph Losey
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Adventuress Modesty Blaise (Vitti) and her sidekick Willie Garvin (Stamp) are lured out of semi-retirement by the British government with a promise of a massive payday if they stop an unknown enemy from interfering with a shipment of diamonds promised to an eccentric Middle Eastern leader (Revill) in exchange for "oil considerations." However, the mysterious opponent is Blaise's old enemy Gabriel (Bogarde)--a crime lord who secretly funds his underground empire with his mother's money--and he's not only familiar with all of Blase's tricks, but he's two steps ahead of everyone.

"Modesty Blaise" is one of those movies I wish I could like more than I do, because there is alot to like about it. First of all, it's got a timeless adventure tale at its heart with the Mid-East/West relationship and how the characters interact as relevant today as in 1966; Modesty and Willie's partnership and how they know each other so well they can predict just about everything the other is going to do is fascinating and completely free of the sexual tension that filmmakers usually insist on tossing into a male/female partnership; the villains manage to be creepy and funny at the same time--not to mention they were ripped off for the James Bond flick "Golden Eye"; and every actor featured puts on an excellent performance.

On the downside, there are many things that the filmmakers included intentionally that undermined by enjoyment of the film. The worst of these were elements of absurdity that made served no story purpose and made no sense no matter how you looked at them, such as the way Modesty Blaise would change hair color and clothes in an instant, sometimes as we watched her on screen and the ridiculous costumes they had her dressed in on a couple of occasions. I suspect the filmmakers thought this added to the lighthearted, goofy tone of the film, but it was actually just stupid and nonsensical.

An unintentional weakness is that the film features some of the absolute worst fight scenes ever put on film. Not only are they badly choreographed and lame--your average SCA members or even nine-year-olds used to playing "Cops and Robbers" in the backyard could have done better jobs--and has stunt doubles so badly matched to the main actors that I'll never mock those who appeared in some of Steven Seagal's movies ever again. There simply isn't a single melee fight that even approaches believeable or exciting in this film, and the only reason the big battle at the end works is that it's played for laughs.

I imagine that hardcore fans of the classic "Modesty Blaise" comic strip by Peter O'Donnel and Jim Holdaway were mighty upset with this goofy movie was released. I imagine many of them get upset today. I can understand that a little bit... I have fond memories of reading those strips and in compilations some 25-30 years ago. However, this is a fun movie, no matter how unserious it is. It could have been a great movie--and there are some great things about it that make it worth seeing even 40 years after its initial release--but the filmmakers went overboard on their silliness and ended up weakening their end product.

I think the film is worth seeing, but it's not necessarily one for which you should pass up for something else that looks interesting.

Friday, October 22, 2010

'After the Sunset' is too full of plot holes

After the Sunset (2004)
Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Woody Harrelson, and Salma Hayek
Director: Brett Ratner
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Jewel thief Max Burdett (Brosnan) retires to the Bahamas with long-time partner Lola (Hayek) after one last big heist. When Stan (Harrelson), an FBI agent they repeatedly humiliated during their respective careers shows up on the island supposedly to stop Max from stealing a valuable gem temporarily on display there, Max's compulsive obsession with thievery boils to the surface and he soon comes out of retirement for one more "one last heist."

After the Sunset could be better than it is. It's got a good cast, it's got a good location, and caper films are always fun. Sadly, the script is one that is so full of holes and inherently contradictory complications that the attentive viewer is left wondering "why did they have to do that when they already had achieved the objective?" and the actors mostly seem to be going through the motion of their parts. Worse, the storyline is pretty much a paint-by-number caper story, with the twists being so commonplace that I almost wish they hadn't done them. (In other words, it might have been a more satisfying film without the genre-dictated twists and double-crosses.)

I did enjoy the interplay between the Brosnan and Harrelson characters (even if I had to suspend my disbelief to a tremendous amount to buy into the way both seemed to accept each other's frendship, or assume that the other had bought into it, so quickly.

I also liked the subplot of the way Lola was revealed as the true professional while Max was a thief due to obsessive-compulsive behavior and supreme narcissism and arrogance; Lola was content to retire with her spoils and work on building the deck for their new house and take tennis lessons, while Max had to keep stealing. It was one part of the film that evoked an emotional response from me (aside from smiling at the funny parts), despite the fact that it was another of the films well-trod cliche elements.

"After the Sunset" could have been a Five or even Six Star movie if just a little more brainpower had been spent working out the problems in the script (and even the many shots of Hayek's ample assets barely contained in skimpy outfits can't make up for those).

Speaking of Salma Hayek, she was one of the "immodest women" featured in the very important, mind-opening "Tectonic Tuesdays" series at Cinema Steve.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The truth apparently lies in a boring place

Where the Truth Lies (2005)
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Colin Firth, Alison Lohman, and David Hayman
Director: Atom Egoyan
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A young journalist specializing in celebrity interviews (Lohman) sets out to uncover the mystery behind the events that broke up the successful 1950s comedy team of Collins & Morris. She discovers an underbelly of the entertainment industry that is even more filthy than she had imagined.

"Where the Truth Lies" has the makings of an excellent mystery in the film noir vein. It's got the story elements--a reporter on a quest, reclusive men of riches and power with dark secrets to hide, betrayal, sex, lust, greed... everything--and it has the shells of some very interesting characters.

But the potential here remains unrealized.

The director seems to be have been more interested in showing off the film's excellent set and costume design (the film is VERY effective at evoking the two different time periods it takes place in--the 1950s and the 1970s) and trying to get as much milage out of titilation and sleaze as possible instead of giving us reasons to care about the film's characters.

The end result is a very hollow feeling movie, and a movie that starts to feel boring and overlong when it should drawing the viewer in with suspenseful anticipation. Because we don't really care about the characters, we are barely interested in the mystery at the film's core at the end than we were at the beginning. By the time it enters into its second half, the dominating feeling is "get on with it!" instead of an anticipation of what happens next.

"Where the Truth Lies" is a very pretty film, but that's not enough to make it worth sitting through. I saw this film while sitting in a hotel room with nothing better to do but watch it, and I kept grabbing books to flip through. Even the hawt lesbian nookie (although gorgeously filmed) was not enough to stave off my growing boredom and irritation with the fact the film wasn't getting to its conclusion.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Batman Double Feature

Batman (1989)
Starring: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, and Kim Basinger
Director: Tim Burton
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Two maniacs are prowling the night of Gotham City. One is the criminal mastermind known as the Joker (Nicholson) and the other is the mysterious crusader against crime known as the Batman (Keaton). Will sexy reporter Vicky Vale (Basinger) survive getting caught in the middle when the two square off?

"Batman" has been praised repeatedly as the best Batman movie ever. While I loved the look of Gotham City, while I got a huge kick out of Nicholson's portrayal of the Joker, while I still reference the "Who are you?"/"I'm Batman" scene--my favorite moment of the movie--I simply can't get on the Great Movie Band Wagon here.

Is it a superior film? You bet. However, it's too inconsistent in both pacing and tone to be great.

Keaton's Bruce Wayne is a non-entity, and his Batman has only slightly more presence. They both have a cool and spooky air about them, but there isn't much personality in either. It's the "wonderful toys" that Batman has that makes him interesting. Adam West's Batman showed more pesonality and spirit than the one we have here... and it's a sorry state of affairs when a show that was made with tongue-in-cheek at every stage of the process has a Batman that's more engaging than a film that's presented as a "serious" attempt at bringing the character to cinematic life. (And even with his "wonderful toys", the Batmobile from the 1960s movie and TV show is still cooler looking. The plane was excellent, though!)

Nicholson's Joker is almost TOO much at some times... or maybe he comes across that way because he's most-often playing against Basinger, an actress of limited talent and range (she doesn't even make a good Scream Queen). I enjoyed his performance, but some brakes really could have been put on him here and there.

The merchandizing tie-ins also cripple the movie. Danny Elfman wrote one of his very finest scores for the film, but instead of letting his sweeping orchestral movements carry the film, we're subjected to Z-grade Prince tunes every so often. And whenever the Purple One plagues us, it's as if the film comes to a screeching halt. (The songs were there to sell one of those obnoxious "Music from and inspired by" CDs.)

"Batman" is a superior adaptation of the DC Comics character to the screen, and it's one of the best of the Batman films from the 1990s (although "Batman Returns" is better). It's entetaining and worth seeing--particularly if you're a big fan of Jack Nicholson--but it's not a Great Movie.

Batman Returns (1992)
Starring: Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Christopher Walken, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Jack Palance
Director: Tim Burton
Eight of Ten Stars

When a corrupt business magnate (Walken) and a physically deformed man who was raised by penguins (DeVito) set about carving up Gotham City, only Batman (Keaton) can stop them. But who is the demented woman in the leather cat outfit (Pfeiffer) and whose side is she on?

"Batman Returns" is a dark and surreal take on Batman that on one hand seems to be inspired by nightmares but on the other hand gets almost as funny as the 1960s film "Batman: The Movie" at times. It's a visually impressive movie with a great cast that give some very fine performances--there even seems to be a little more life in Michael Keaton's Bruce Wayne than there was in the first film where he played Batman.

There is a dream-like-, or perhaps fairy tale-, quality to the entire film, a quality that is enhanced by the origins of the Penguin and Catwoman (Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer), two characters whose appearance and natures in this film are very different than what we're used to from the comic books. Further, their natures are so grotesque that they couldn't really exist anywhere but in a dream.

Even Gotham City feels a little like a dreamscape in many scenes. The film takes place in winter, and it's staged mostly in cool colors. The overall effect is very impressive.

The only complaint I have with "Batman Returns" is the "re-imagining" of Selina Kyle. I've always liked this character the best when she was potrayed as a sneak-thief and adventuress and the mystical origin she is given here--not to mention the fact that she's a complete nutjob--doesn't sit well with me, even if I will grant that Michelle Pfeiffer puts on an excellent show.

The Penguin, on the other hand, is more impressive in this film than he's ever been in any other comic book or movie. The Burton/Devito Penguin is a character that we both feel pity and revulsion for, and, although we know that Batman had to defeat him, we can't help but feel very sad for the end he comes to.

"Batman Returns" was the last Batman movie in the 1990s to get it right. From this point on, they just get worse and worse. But, this film is as praise-worthy as either of the two recent Batman flicks.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Dirty Harry takes on celebrity worship

The Dead Pool (1988)
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Patricia Clarkson, and Liam Neeson
Director: Buddy Van Long
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When "Dirty" Harry Callahan (Eastwood)--San Francisco's most rebellious and anti-social homicide detective--is pointman in sending a major crime boss to prison, he finds himself receiving favorable media attention for once... and he hates every minute of it. He hates even more that the police commissioner wants him to spend time doing "press availabilities"... but when he is targeted first by vengeful mobsters and then by a maniac bent on claiming victory in a sick betting game called "The Dead Pool", Harry and his famous Magnum revolver are back in familiar territory, even defending a lady reporter (Clarkson) from harm.

"The Dead Pool" has all the elements that has made the Dirty Harry character so popular, particularly the way he is a conduit for the viewers disgust with police departments that are more concerned with PR than stopping crime, out-of-control and irresponsible journalists; and the way he is the sort of cop that really can only exist in urban fairy tales like the Dirty Harry movies. (Dirty Harry NEVER harms an innocent--in fact, he goes far and above the call of duty in their defense--but if anyone who even was close to the sort of nature that Harry has would have been tossed off the force long ago.)

Although "The Dead Pool" has all the great elements of a Dirty Harry story, it is weakened by several over-the-top assassination attempts on Harry by the gangsters and a main villain that's as crazy as the Scorpio Killer but whose final encounter with Harry sort of peeters out and is weakened by a gesture that is even extreme even for Harry (and a bit out of character, it seems to me the filmmakers were interested more in a final pun than a good ending to the film).

Those bad parts, however, give rise to some of the films better moments, so they can be excused. First, the way Harry gets the mob hit men off his back is the sort of approach that is at the heart of why the character was so popular. Second, a crazy assassination scheme of the film's main bad guy gives rise to one of the funkiest car chases ever put on film.

"The Dead Pool" features a great performance by Clint Eastwood as one of his signature characters. While it's not the best of the Dirty Harry films, it's still very worthwhile viewing. (One sad little part of the movie is the commentary on the out-of-control celebrity-worshipping media culture of the U.S... it's sad over 20 years later that media culture is more out of control than ever.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

'Layer Cake' is a trip through criminal chaos

Layer Cake (aka L4yer Cake) (2004)
Starring: Daniel Craig, George Harris, and Colm Meany
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A successful cocaine dealer (Craig) is about to retire when he is drawn into a power struggle between two crime lords and a race to dispose of one million high-potency Ecstasy tables stolen from eastern European mobsters.

"Layer Cake" is a humor-tinged crime drama of the variety where everything can go wrong will go wrong for our "hero." It's well acted and well-written, and whether or not Craig's nameless, affable drug dealer will successfully extricate himself from the ever-deeping troubles that are arising on his final days in the business actually remains in doubt almost to the very end of the film. The balance between suspense and humor is maintained throughout in a fabulous fashion.

The film is from some of the same behind-the-camera talent that brought us "Snatch" and "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels." The humor has been dailed back a bit, and it takes place at a level further up the criminal food chain than the other two films--so there aren't quite as many idiots running around--but if you enjoyed those other films, I think you'll like this one, too.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Jackie Chan battles for 'The Armour of God'

Operation Condor 2: The Armour of the Gods
(aka "The Armour of God") (1987)

Starring: Jackie Chan, Alan Tam, Lola Forner, Rosamund Kwan, Ken Boyle, and Bozidar Smiljanic
Director: Jackie Chan and Eric Tsang
Rating: Eight of Seven Stars

A former girlfriend of treasure hunter Jackie "Asian Hawk" Chan (Chan) is kidnapped and held for ransom by a Satanic cult who hope to force him to bring them the missing pieces of "the armor of god", so they may unleash its powers in the name of Ultimate Evil. He teams with her goofy fiancee (Tam) and the beautiful-but-deadly daughter of the owner of the artifacts (Forner) to turn the tables on the cultists and rescue their captive without giving them what they want. However, everything than can go wrong DOES go wrong.

"Operation Condor 2: The Armour of the Gods" was originally titled "The Armour of God" (and the collection of mideveal artifacts that are at the heart of this Indiana Jones-esque adventure tale is referred collectively as a singular "armor," not "armors) which is a much better title. It's an even better title when one considers that "Operation Condor" was the sequel to this movie, not the other way around, despite the order they were released in here in the United States.

Title shenanigans and weird distributor choices aside, this is a fun adventure romp that features Jackie Chan at the height of his martial arts comedy stylings and on the cusp of perfecting his "prop fu" techniques.

Featuring excellent stunts, a fantastic car chase, and a fine supporting cast of both (with the gorgeous Lola Forner serving both as foil and love interest for Chan's character), this is a movie unlike anything they make anymore... including Jackie Chan. CGI is non-existent and I don't think many wires were used for the stunts either. (Oh, and while the plot of the film might not be anything unique, the heroes background certainly is. How many action heroes started public life as a teenage popstar? :) )

If you like your action/adventure with plenty of mirth, or your Kung Fu flicks with plenty of action, then you can't go wrong with "Operation Condor 2: The Amour of the Gods".

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Your marital problems ain't nuttin'

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2006)
Starring: Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt
Director: Doug Liman
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

John and Jane (Pitt and Jolie) meet by chance while both are on business in Bogota, fall in love, and get married a few months later. However, their separate professional lives and the secrets they are keeping from each other soon take a toll on their marriage, as they are both professional assassins working for competing firms. The truth comes out when they are both assigned to take out the same target.

"Mr. and Mrs. Smith" is a fun action movie that manages to dish out quite a bit of commentary on marriage, love, and friendship in between shoot-outs and chases. The film's a bit slow in its wide-up, but once it gets going it keeps you engaged. The action's okay and the jokes are funny. (The freeway mini-van chase is particularly exciting AND amusing.)

Pitt once again shows that he's one of the funnest actors working today, and Jolie pulls off a great assassin-turned-suburban housewife routine. Both stars also manage to present characters that are both tough and vulnerable (at least as far as one another are concerned).

There's no deep messages here, and the action scenes aren't groundbreaking, but aside from a slightly sluggish start, there's nothing particularly bad about the film. It's one of those where you can just turn off your brain and laugh at the mayhem.