Month: September 2011

Better In The Dark #115

 

Episode 115: TOM AND DERRICK–AND CAPTAIN AMERICA!– VERSUS THE SMUTTY CAMERON DIAZ, THE CGI MONKEY, THE SPIDER CRICKET FROG AND DANNY McBRIDE

The temperature’s dropping, so it’s time for The Guys Outta Brooklyn to review the films they saw from the second half of Summer 2011! Join Tom and Derrick as they discuss a quartet of films, including the blockbusters Captain America and Rise of The Planet of The Apes. Plus what all the other Black Asgardians were doing during the events of Thor, a discussion of podcasting hardware, and why House is in a downward spiral. John Lithgow’s got the chessboard set-up, so get to clicking!

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The War Wagon

1967

Universal

Directed by Burt Kennedy

Produced by Marvin Schwartz

Screenplay by Clair Huffaker
Based on the novel “Badmen” by Clair Huffaker

THE WAR WAGON combines two of my favorite genres into one rip-snorting package: The Western and The Caper Film. I absolutely love a good horse opera and many of my favorite movies are westerns that I can watch over and over again. And I love a good caper. I just enjoy the hell outta seeing a bunch of expert thieves steal something that everybody says can’t be stolen. Maybe it’s because most thieves are so inept in real life and never seem to be able to pull off their heists with the aplomb and style movie thieves do.

THE WAR WAGON can be classified as the western version of an armored car heist. The title vehicle is an armored fortress on wheels that is protected by a Gatling gun and 32 heavily armed riders on horseback and the entire convoy gallops along at full speed from start to finish. Nobody has ever successfully been able to rob The War Wagon and its owner is about to transport the largest shipment of gold The War Wagon has ever carried: a half million dollars.

Taw Jackson (John Wayne) has a carefully put together plan to rob The War Wagon and the way he sees it, he’s got a right to the gold. After all, it came off his land that was stolen from him by Frank Pierce (Bruce Cabot). Pierce had Taw framed for murder and sent to prison and in the years that Taw has been incarcerated, Pierce has been stripping Taw’s land of the gold. Taw assembles a motley crew to help him take The War Wagon: Lomax (Kirk Douglas), a gunslinger for hire who once almost killed Taw. Levi Walking Bear (Howard Keel), an Indian fully assimilated into the ways of the white man who talks a Kiowa tribe into the heist. Billy Hyatt (Robert Walker) is an uncontrollable drunk until it comes time for him to handle explosives and then he’s as calm and centered as Sunday morning. Wes Fletcher (Keenan Wynn) works for Pierce.  His inside knowledge of The War Wagon’s schedule and Pierce’s organization is vital to the success of the heist.

The plan gets complicated when Pierce contacts Lomax and offers him $12,000 dollars to kill Taw once and for all. Taw has also got to keep Billy Hyatt away from not only the firewater but Wes Fletcher’s extremely pretty young wife who shows just as much of a liking for Billy as he has for her.

One thing you notice about THE WAR WAGON that is different from other roles John Wayne has played: usually in a movie like this, whenever the hero comes back looking for revenge for wrongs done to him, he can usually find a few townspeople willing to help him out. Not here. In fact, when Wayne’s character returns to town, it’s almost as if the townspeople act like Taw Jackson deserved what happened to him. Taw doesn’t have a friend to back him up and indeed, he spends a lot of this movie looking over his shoulder to make sure that Lomax doesn’t try to collect the sure $12,000 bucks as opposed to a share of the half million.

There’s really no point in reviewing John Wayne’s performance in a Western is there? No other American actor looked so comfortable sitting in a saddle as Wayne or so at home in the film genre that made him a legend. John Wayne never looks right when he acts in a contemporary movie, such as his Dirty Harry-ish cop movies “McQ” and “Brannigan” and indeed, he looks seriously out of place. Not so here. Wayne’s right at home on the range where he belongs. Kirk Douglas is equally Wayne’s match as the flamboyant gunslinger Lomax and Kirk Douglas is probably the only man who can look tough while wearing a tight leather shirt. They have some nice sarcastic dialog between them such as the scene where they simultaneously shoot two men. Douglas says: “Mine hit the ground first.” Wayne replies without missing a beat, “Mine was taller.”

If the movie has any major faults is that there’s no really memorable villain here. Bruce Cabot’s Pierce is a little more than a glorified bookkeeper with a mean streak. He’s always sneering at Wayne while hiding behind a wall of flunkies and hired guns. The movie’s all about the heisting of the gold and that’s it. But it’s an enjoyable heist with loads of action and with interesting supporting roles from some familiar faces. Look for Bruce Dern early in the movie and Gene Evans (who starred in Sam Fuller’s classic war film: “The Steel Helmet”) is in this one as well. THE WAR WAGON isn’t on the level of other Wayne westerns such as “Rio Bravo” “El Dorado” “The Shootist” or “True Grit” bu it is good watching if you’re into westerns or caper films.   But I’ll tell you what…just check out the opening credits and the absolutely kickass theme song with Ed Ames lustily belting out “The Ballad of The War Wagon” and then tell me you don’t wanna see the rest of the movie.

101 minutes

Silverado

1985

Columbia Pictures

Directed by Lawrence Kasdan
Produced by
Lawrence and Mark Kasdan
Written by Lawrence and Mark Kasdan

I absolutely love Westerns. Much as I love most genres of movies, if you gave me a choice between say, a Science Fiction and a Western or a 1940’s Murder Mystery and a Western or a Woody Allen comedy and a Western, 9 times out of ten I’ll take the Western. It’s a genre I grew up watching mainly because my parents were also in love with Westerns and one of my favorite childhood memories is when my father took me out to dinner at a fancy Chinese restaurant and then we went to see “The Wild Bunch” And my personal list of My Favorite Ten Movies Of All Time includes not only “The Wild Bunch” but also “Once Upon A Time In The West” which I think is the greatest Western ever made.

By 1985, the Western was a dead genre as far as major theatrical films were concerned. Only Clint Eastwood has the necessary clout to get a Western made back then and nobody even wanted to take a try at one except for an ambitious writer/director named Lawrence Kasdan who was riding a wave of good fortune due to his screenplays for “Raiders of The Lost Ark” “The Empire Strikes Back” “The Return of The Jedi” and a couple of box office smash hits he wrote and directed: “Body Heat” and “The Big Chill”

Lawrence Kasdan and his brother Mark were major Western fans since they were kids and really wanted to make one.   Lawrence used every bit of clout he had to get the film approved and I’m glad he did because SILVERADO is a magnificently huge Super Western that looks, feels and sounds as if it had been made back in the great heyday of Westerns when guys like John Ford and Howard Hawks were doing their thing. The story is one that I’m pretty sure has every convention and set piece you can think of in a western: gunslingers, barroom brawls, homesteaders being run off their land, sneaky gamblers with derringers up their sleeves, crooked sheriffs, saloons, cattle stampedes, wagon trains, pretty widow ladies, outlaw hideouts, evil cattle barons, gunfights on Main Street at high noon.  The only thing lacking in SILVERADO is an Indian uprising but I’m pretty sure that if Mr. Kasdan could have found a way, he’d have had that in there as well.

Emmett (Scott Glenn) is making his way home after spending five years in prison for killing a man in self-defense. After successfully fighting off an ambush by four desperados trying to kill him, he meets up with Paden (Kevin Kline) who was robbed of his horse, ivory-handled guns, stylish all-black outfit complete with beloved silver banded hat and left to die in the desert. The two men hook up and after making a pit stop at an Army fort where Paden gets back his horse and runs into a pair of old buddies, Cobb (Brian Dennehy) and the psychotic Tyree (Jeff Fahey).  From there they go onto the town of Turley where Emmett’s goofy kid brother Jake (Kevin Costner) is going to be hanged come the morning. They take time to help keep Mal (Danny Glover) out of Sheriff Langston’s (John Cleese) jail and after Emmett and Paden bust Jake out of jail Mal returns the favor by using his sharpshooting skills with a Henry rifle to chase Sheriff Langston back to town.

The four heroes then proceed to have a wild series of adventures that include rescuing a wagon train of homesteaders stranded in the wilderness and taking on a band of thieves who have stolen the life savings of the wagon train. Mind you, all this happens before we’ve even gotten to the town of Silverado, which is being controlled by the ruthless cattle baron Ethan MacKendrick (Ray Baker) who has hired Paden’s old pal Cobb to be Silverado’s Sheriff. Cobb is harassing the homesteaders to leave and if they don’t they’re burned out and killed, like Mal’s parents. It isn’t long before the four friends are pulled apart by their own separate conflicts and loyalties but soon come to realize that if there is to be any justice in Silverado, they are the ones who will have to join back together and make it.

Now that’s the bare bones of the story but there’s a helluva lot of subplots going on because this is a mollyfoggin’ huge cast Kasdan is working with and each of his four leads are just that. They’re all leading men and Kasdan treats them that way.  Danny Glover, Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn and Kevin Costner are all treated as equals in terms of skill, courage and respect. And each of the four leads have more than enough screen time to explore their motivations for having a stake in the future of Silverado.

Emmett and Jake have a sister; brother-in-law and a nephew who thinks his gunslinging uncles are just the coolest. Mal’s parents were homesteaders who were run off their land and murdered while his sister Rae (Lynn Whitfield) has willingly become a prostitute in town, hooked up with the local gambler, Slick Calvin Stanhope (Jeff Goldblum). Paden is torn between his loyalties toward his old friend Cobb and the wild life he used to lead and his new friends who are men of honor and respect.  His growing friendship for Stella The Midnight Star (Linda Hunt), Cobb’s partner in the town’s largest saloon and prostitution emporium is also a large factor in his eventual decision.

And both Paden and Emmett have a stake in what happens to the homesteaders as they’re both attracted to the extremely pretty and recently widowed Hannah (Roseanne Arquette) who likes the both of them a whole lot and is grateful to them but makes it perfectly clear that men who tell her she’s pretty come along every day. She’s looking for a man willing to help her work the land, make things grow and build a stable life.

Like I said, you would think that with this many subplots, characters and settings that SILVERADO would be a confused mess but nothing could be further from the truth.  The first half of the movie is a road trip in which we’re introduced to most of the characters so that by the time the wagon train, along with Emmett, Jake, Paden and Mal arrives in Silverado, we already feel as if we’ve been on the trail with these guys and feel comfortable with what’s going on. And once they reach the town itself, the rest of the characters are integrated smoothly into what we already know. It’s a remarkable job of writing and directing that shows that you can have a large cast and multiple storylines and not have the movie feel crowded or rushed.

The acting in this movie is top-notch. I don’t think I can remember right now a movie with this large a cast who were all so good. Scott Glenn and Kevin Kline are at the top of the list with performances that I believe they based on Gary Cooper and Errol Flynn, both of who made more than their share of notable westerns. Kevin Costner’s Jake is a goofy daredevil who is the best horseman and gunman out the four but who tends to get into trouble for kissing the wrong girls. Danny Glover’s Mal is not portrayed here as a sidekick to his three white co-stars but is a hero in his own right and I really liked his scenes with Kevin Costner’s Jake and in those few scenes they had a real rapport together that made me wish they had a few more together.

Now you all know how I love movies that have bad guys who love being bad and this movie is chock fulla them, led by Brian Dennehy’s Cobb who goes through the whole movie grinning from ear to ear behind a bristling white beard. The secret to any good bad guy is this: he doesn’t think he’s the bad guy and Brian Dennehy must understand that because Cobb is extremely likeable. Sure he burns out innocent families and kidnaps kids and murders without a second thought but he’s just such a damn nice guy while he’s doing it.

Jeff Goldblum is a real surprise. As the gambler Slick he is dashingly elegant and even though he has only a few scenes he makes ‘em work. Linda Hunt as Stella absolutely steals every scene she’s in and the relationship between her character and Kevin Kline’s is really sweet and feels genuine.  Who else is good? Joe Seneca. Earl Hindman. Pepe Serna. Brion James. James Gammon. And that beautiful musical score by Bruce Broughton is just perfect.

If you’ve seen SILVERADO then you’re probably a fan of it and if you aren’t, I urge you to go back and see it again in a new light. It’s the Western I recommend to people who claim they don’t like Westerns and after they see it most of ‘em come back to me and say that, yeah, they liked it a whole lot. Know why? Because at it’s heart SILVERADO is about four gun-slinging, hard-ridin’, two-fisted heroes riding from town to town having adventures and bringing justice to The Old West and if you can’t find it in your heart to like that then I’m sorry, amigo, you just ain’t got no heart.

127 min
Rated PG13

National Treasure

2004

Walt Disney Pictures

Directed by Jon Turtletaub
Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer
Written by Jim Kouf, Oren Aviv & Charles Segar (story)
Jim Kouf, Cormac Wibberley & Marianne Wibberley (screenplay)

I had heard a lot about NATIONAL TREASURE before I saw it. Friends of mine told me to see it because it reminded them of something that I might write. Roger Ebert just about called it an out-and-out rip off of “The DaVinci Code.”  Other people said it was boring, stupid, trite, a rip-off of this or that movie or character, mostly Indiana Jones or Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt

I saw it for myself and you know what was the most surprising thing to me about the movie was? That this was a Jerry Bruckheimer/Nicolas Cage collaboration that didn’t have any of the qualities that were evident in their other films together such as “Con Air” or “The Rock.” This is an action movie, yes. But when you compare it to what we call action movies today, it’s very modest. There is only one explosion, one car chase, one shootout and only one death and even that is due to the poor dumb bastard who gets killed making a wrong step. NATIONAL TREASURE is a movie that plays as if Cage and Bruckheimer had sat down and said: “let’s do an action movie that’s totally different from the action movies we’ve done before.” and in doing so, they’ve given today’s audience what amounts to an updated version of my beloved pulp adventure serials from the 1930’s/1940’s.

Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicholas Cage) has spent his entire life looking for a treasure that has passed from Emperors to Kings to Pharaohs and finally to The Founding Fathers of The American Government. The treasure has grown to such enormous wealth that supposedly it’s “too large for any one man or nation to own” and The Knights Templars protected it in Europe for hundreds of years until it was moved to America along with The Knights Templar who became The Freemasons. The Freemasons counted among their members such notable Founding Fathers such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Paul Revere and Benjamin Franklin who left clues scattered among the various works they left behind as to where this fabulously immense treasure could be found.

Gates has discovered that the map to where the National Treasure is located is on the back of The Declaration of Independence. What is unfortunate is that he can’t get anybody to believe him, especially The FBI or Dr. Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), who is a curator at The National Archives. When Gates tells her about the invisible map that is on the back of The Declaration of Independence and has been there for hundreds of years undetected she asks him quite seriously: “Who wrote it there? Bigfoot?”

Gates doesn’t have much time to try and change the minds of the FBI or Dr. Chase since his former partner Ian Howe has double-crossed him and intends to steal The Declaration and find the treasure. Gates decides that the only thing to do is steal The Declaration of Independence himself with the help of his brilliant tech-savvy sidekick Riley Poole and find the treasure before Ian does.

NATIONAL TREASURE has a lot going for it in the way it handles the characters and the motivations behind what they’re doing. Gates is not a treasure seeker in the conventional sense and indeed, he keeps telling people that he’s a ‘treasure protector’. He’s looking for the National Treasure to vindicate his family name since The Gates Family are looked upon as crackpots by the historical/archeological community for believing that the treasure is real. And he’s got a diverse and interesting background as shown by a scene where the FBI Agent assigned to catch Gates (played by Harvey Keitel) reads Gates’ file. Gates has degrees in a whole bunch of eclectic, eccentric academic fields, which leads Keitel to muse; “I wonder just what this guy wanted to be when he grew up.”  In fact, just seeing Harvey Keitel in a Walt Disney movie is reason enough to watch NATIONAL TREASURE.

And the relationship between Gates and his rival Ian is interesting as well. For once, the bad guy in a movie isn’t a bloodthirsty maniac out to kill everybody in his way. In fact, Ian tries to go out of his way not to kill anybody because as he sensibly explains to one of his gun happy henchmen: “The authorities tend to want to find out why dead bodies have bullets in them and who put them there.” As a matter of fact, NATIONAL TREASURE is one of the few action/adventure movies I’ve seen where the bad guy actually has good reasons for why he doesn’t kill the hero when he has a chance to, especially in a scene near the end where Ian leaves Gates and his sidekicks alive in a secret tomb underneath New York’s Wall Street. It surprised me and that’s not easy for movies nowadays to do.

I liked a lot of the performances here. Nicholas Cage looks more at home playing Benjamin Franklin Gates than any of the other characters in his other action movies he’s done with Bruckheimer and maybe that’s because Gates isn’t an Indiana Jones, despite what you may have read or heard. Gates isn’t a super martial artist or expert gunman or daredevil adventurer. He’s an historian searching for vindication of his family’s dream and he plays it that way. When he’s confronted with bad guys brandishing automatic weapons he runs like his ass is on fire and he only stops to fight when he has no other way out. What makes him dangerous is his brainpower: he sees connections and can make them faster than anybody else and he’s smart enough to know that about himself and use it to his advantage.

Sean Bean is absolutely great as Cage’s rival in the race for the treasure and you get the sense that a lot of the reasons why he doesn’t kill Gates is that he really admires and respects Gates’ knowledge and resourcefulness. Jon Voigt has a lot more to do here as Patrick Henry Gates, the father of Cage’s character than he had to do as Lara Croft’s father in “Tomb Raider” and the relationship they have here in this movie will remind you of Harrison Ford and Sean Connery in “Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade.” Justin Bartha as Riley Poole is one of the best sidekicks I’ve seen in recent moves and he has a wonderful scene where he gets to show that he knows more than Gates that proves just how much that a sidekick can enhance the hero’s character.

Now if you watch NATIONAL TREASURE, don’t expect to see an Indiana Jones type of cliffhanging-thrill a minute-claw-your-date’s-arm-type of movie. It’s more in the nature of a scavenger hunt and the fun comes from seeing Cage’s character and his sidekicks find the clues and piece them together.

Having said all that let me say that I recommend NATIONAL TREASURE wholeheartedly. I had an excellent time with the story and characters and I don’t even think you’ll miss the usual mayhem expected from a Bruckheimer/Cage action movie. Are there holes in the plot holes and flaws? Sure there are. Cage and his crew find a ship that has supposedly been buried in the Arctic ice for hundreds of years far too easily. And would gunpowder burn after being buried under the ice for that long a time? And there’s another scene later on where Cage and his crew just happen to be standing in the exact spot in the tower where The Liberty Bell is kept so that the shadow of the sun is cast at just the right moment so they can find another clue to the treasure. But by that time I had been so captivated by the performances and the sheer audacity of the story’s premise I was just watching and saying to the movie; “what the hell, let’s go.” And I suppose that’s the best way I can tell you to take your viewing of NATIONAL TREASURE: sit back in your seat with your soda, popcorn, candy and say: “what the hell, let’s go!.” We don’t have Saturday Morning Serials anymore but we do have movies like NATIONAL TREASURE to remind us of what they once were.

131 Minutes
Rated PG

Force 10 From Navarone

1978

Columbia Pictures

Directed by Guy Hamilton
Produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff
Written by Robin Chapman and Carl Foreman
Based on the novel by Alistair MacLean

FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE catches the attention right away with the rousing theme song by Ron Goodwin, which is a stirring, heart-pumping military march in the style of John Williams’s classic “Raiders of The Lost Ark” march or his theme for “1941” and when I saw the cast, I quickly grabbed some goodies and settled in to see just what this was going to be about.

First off, a lot of the cast looks like this film was an excuse to have a reunion for actors who have all at one time co-starred in James Bond films. You’ve got Robert Shaw who played the assassin Red Grant in “From Russia With Love.” Barbara Bach aka Agent Triple X from “The Spy Who Loved Me.” Richard Kiel, the steel-toothed Jaws from “The Spy Who Loved Me” and “Moonraker” and Edward Fox who played M in Sean Connery’s comeback Bond movie, “Never Say Never Again.” And the director is none other than Guy Hamilton who helmed 4 Bond movies; “Live And Let Die”, “The Man With The Golden Gun”, “Goldfinger” and my favorite James Bond movie, “Diamonds Are Forever” Hamilton also directed one of the best and least appreciated action/adventure movies of all time: “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begin”

So with a crew like that, plus Harrison Ford and Carl Weathers, I figured that the movie had to be pretty good and I was right. Oh, sure, it’s got plot holes big enough to throw a tank through and there are some slow spots where the characters stand around explaining things we already know, but on the whole, I had a great time watching this movie. If you like World War II action/adventures like “Kelly’s Heroes”, “Where Eagles Dare” and “The Dirty Dozen” then you’ll be right at home with this one.

Even though it’s supposed to be a sequel to the classic Gregory Peck/David Niven/Anthony Quinn “The Guns of Navarone”, that earlier mission is hardly referred to. Harrison Ford is an American colonel heading to Yugoslavia with his ten-man team on a top secret mission (is there any other in movies like this?) and he is ordered to take along Shaw and Fox who have their own mission to accomplish. Ford doesn’t like it a bit but orders are orders and all that.

While Ford and his team steal an airplane for transport (it’s all part of the plan, don’t worry) they pick up Carl Weathers in a convoluted bit of plot twisting to enable a black man to be part of the team since the Armed Forces were still segregated at the time of WWII. It’s an awkward scene that eats up valuable screen time and reminded me of those scenes from early Schwarzenegger and Van Damme movies where the writers felt they had to stick in a scene to explain why Schwarzenegger and Van Damme were living in the U.S. but had Austrian and Belgian accents. Which I found really pointless since I live in New York and you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting somebody with an accent.

Right from the start, the mission is screwed and Ford’s team is wiped out leaving him with Shaw, Fox and Weathers to help him complete his mission: blow up a strategically important bridge that can’t be blown. Three previous teams tried and were all wiped out. Shaw makes a deal with Ford: help me do my mission and I’ll help you do yours. Ford isn’t too sure about this since Shaw’s mission is to assassinate a traitor who nearly wrecked the Navarone mission but Shaw’s got an ace up his sleeve: Fox’s character is the top demolition man in Europe (maybe in the world) and Shaw assures him that Fox alone can do what Ford’s ten men were supposed to do. So the deal is struck and the four set off on their adventure.

And quite the adventure it is. The movie is nothing but a series of fights, chases, captures and escapes. The four-man team is constantly being captured and betrayed by various characters that are rarely what they seem at first. It’s like everybody in this movie is a double or even triple agent and everything possible that can go wrong does. They have to fight their way in and out of Nazi strongholds, sneak into munitions depots to steal explosives, bargain with Yugoslavian freedom fighters who change sides at the drop of a shell casing, all the while trying to find out who the traitor Shaw is supposed to kill is and who he’s really working for. And after all that is done they still have to blow that damn bridge.

While the acting is nowhere near Oscar caliber, the cast and the director are all old hands at this kinda stuff and they all turn in serviceable acting jobs that support the material and genre they’re working in and no more. Nobody’s trying to win any awards with this one, and they all seem to be having a great time except for Harrison Ford who reportedly hated working on location in Yugoslavia, which probably accounts for the pissed-off scowl which is his main expression throughout the film. But I liked seeing the young, energetic Ford again and this movie will remind you why at one time he was the top action star in the world and his acting inexperience (this was his first major Hollywood film after a little thing he did called “Star Wars”) actually works since his Lt. Colonel Barnsby is an inexperienced field commander who is in way over his head and doesn’t want to admit it.

Robert Shaw and Edward Fox are the real acting stars of this movie and I liked the easy rapport they had. They quickly convinced me they were two solid friends who have worked together for a while now who like and respect each other. They bark and bite at each other like an old married couple that bicker and fuss in a manner that makes everybody around them crazy but who work splendidly well together.   They have all the best lines in the movie as they calmly comment on and criticize the frantic action going on around them in their droll, reserved British manner.  Shaw in particular has a beautiful piece of creative bullshit when he convinces a Nazi general who’s captured them that the Force 10 Team are all actually deserters.  Fox picks up on what his partner’s about and effortlessly continues the line of bull. Watch Ford’s expressions during the scene as he struggles to try and keep up with the two old pros who were talking their way out of Nazi traps when he was still in basic training.

Carl Weathers is a criminally underrated actor. He’s done some splendid work in films like “Predator”, the Rocky series and the off-the-hook “Action Jackson” (and I’m still waiting on the sequel to that one, dammit!) as well as television series like In “The Heat Of The Night” and “Fortune Dane”. He primarily works here as a way for the other characters to have a way to explain things that they already know without looking stupid, since Weather’s character has no idea what he was getting into when he stowed away aboard their plane but he’s got some good scenes and a nice little knife fight with Richard Kiel near the movie’s end.

So should you see FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE?  Sure you should.  It’s a highly enjoyable WWII adventure that’s just right for a Saturday afternoon and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed at all. Don’t strain too hard trying to make sense of the many twists and turns of the plot and just enjoy the action on the screen and those wonderful Fox and Shaw performances.

118 Minutes
Rated PG-13

Tommy

1975
Columbia Pictures

Directed by Ken Russell
Produced by Ken Russell and Robert Stigwood
Screenplay by Ken Russell and Pete Townsend

TOMMY is absolutely nuts. There’s no other way to describe this movie, which might best be seen as a cultural exercise if nothing else. After all, it’s nothing more than a bunch of MTV (before there was an MTV) videos strung together in a loose story based the classic rock opera album performed by The Who. Everything in the movie serves the overwhelming theme of organized religion gone wrong and Ken Russell sacrifices everything to beat us over the head with this theme relentlessly. However the movie does have Ann-Margaret masturbating with a pillow to orgasm in a sea of baked beans and any movie that has that scene in it can’t be all bad, can it?

TOMMY tells the story of a young British lad named Tommy Walker (Barry Winch) whose father (Robert Powell) is a decorated World War II bomber pilot who is lost during a mission and presumed dead. Tommy’s mother Nora (Ann-Margret) is starved for attention and while visiting Tommy at summer camp falls in lust with Frank Hobbs (Oliver Reed) one of the camp’s supervisors. Frank returns home with Tommy and Nora. It isn’t long before Frank and Nora are spending their days boozing it up and fornicating like crazy.  Not that that’s such a bad thing. Who wouldn’t want to spend all day fornicating and boozing it up with Ann-Margret?

Things start to go really wrong when Captain Walker returns home unexpectedly. Turns out he was shot down, held prisoner and it took him all this time to get back home. He interrupts Frank and Nora while they’re having boozy sex and in the following argument, Frank accidentally kills Captain Walker just as Tommy, awakened by the yelling of the adults walks in on them. Nora and Frank sit Tommy down and repeatedly sing to him; “It never happened. You didn’t see it, you didn’t hear it, and you’ll never say a word.” Tommy takes them literally: from that moment on he’s struck deaf, dumb and blind.

Tommy grows up to become Roger Daltrey while being sexually, psychologically and physically abused by Frank’s relatives, Uncle Ernie (Keith Moon) and Cousin Kevin (Paul Nicholas).  Even Frank gets in on the fun by taking Tommy to The Acid Queen (Tina Turner) who attempts to bring Tommy out of his catatonia by means of sex and a metal sarcophagus studded with hypodermic needles.

Nora puts her trust in The Specialist (Jack Nicholson) to cure her son but it’s all to no avail as he just takes her money, flirts with her and doesn’t cure her son. And then one day Tommy wanders into a junkyard and finds a pinball machine. Which he plays with a supernatural skill that soon propels him into worldwide fame and fortune that climaxes in a showdown with The Pinball Wizard (Elton John) that snaps Tommy out of his catatonia. From then on he promotes a religion based on playing pinball while simulating being deaf, dumb and blind: (“Put in your earplugs, put on your shades….you know where to put the cork!”) Nora and Frank exploit the commercial side of Tommy, selling Tommy T-shirts, pinball playing kits, and even opening up an expensive resort where you can pay through the nose to play pinball like Tommy and find spiritual enlightenment. Eventually, the suckers realize they’re being suckered and they revolt in an apocalyptic orgy of murder and violence that changes Tommy’s fate forever.

I’m going to go on record as saying that I’m not really overwhelmed by the music of The Who or their impact on rock and roll. I remember seeing TOMMY in the theaters as I was in High School when the movie originally came out and the crowd I hung around with wanted to see the movie.  And I’ve seen bits and pieces of it over the years and most recently watched it twice on Turner Classic Movies all the way through. And I’m still not all that impressed.

It’s actually a pretty dull movie unless you happen to love Ann-Margret like I do. I can watch her in anything (“Viva Las Vegas” in which she co-starred with Elvis Presley is one of my Favorite All Time Movies) and she looks amazingly hot like no other woman can when she’s sweaty. This is the movie where she’s watching Tommy on television as he beats The Pinball Wizard and she hurls a bottle of champagne through the screen. The screen erupts in an explosion of soap bubbles that fills the room which then turns into baked beans and chocolate. Ann-Margret swims around in that mess and masturbates on top of an oversize penis-shaped pillow until she orgasms. You have to see it to believe it but I don’t think you’re gonna have much of a problem. I know I didn’t.

As for the music…quite frankly most of it I found it kinda bland. The movie is a rock opera that means that everything is sung and there’s no spoken dialog. But unlike say, “Jesus Christ, Superstar” most of the songs struck me as remarkably pretentious and boring and do nothing to further the story or the characters. However, the gorgeous Ann-Margaret is absolutely wonderful all throughout the movie. She not only can sing but she can act while she’s singing and that goes a long way. And amazingly enough both Oliver Reed and Jack Nicholson pull off their singing duties with professional respectability. They’re not singers by any stretch but they do a better job of it than you would think.

The main show piece of the movie for me was Elton John singing “Pinball Wizard” which he does was wearing these really goofy ten foot tall combat boots and sparkly glasses that look as if they were made especially for him at ‘Geeks R Us’.  Roger Daltrey makes the most of “See Me, Feel Me” “I’m Free” and “Listening To You” especially at the end of the movie where he survives the slaughter of the pinball camp and climbs to the top of a mountain in a blatantly symbolic act that had me rolling my eyes in exasperation.

So should you see TOMMY? Ah, it’s up to you. I suspect that if you’re a fan of The Who you own the multiple versions of the album and have seen the movie already so nothing I say will make a difference. If you’re a fan of Ann-Margaret it’s most definitely worth seeing as it’s a movie where she really has a chance to go nuts.   And I liked Oliver Reed in this one as well. But Oliver Reed is one of my favorite actors and I think he never got the respect he deserved. He starred in one of my favorite movies; “The Assassination Bureau” and he was outstanding as Athos in both “The Three Musketeers” and ‘The Four Musketeers” directed by Richard Lester. I think your best bet would be to wait for TOMMY to show up on Turner Classic Movies and go about your household chores and just take a break when there’s a song you like.

111 minutes
Rated PG

Contagion

2011

Warner Bros.

Directed by Stephen Soderbergh

Produced by Michael Shamberg and Stacy Sher

Written by Scott Z. Burns

I like Stephen Soderbergh as a filmmaker because of his unpredictability.  He makes films that obviously are personal projects because they’re the kind of movies that leave me scratching my head after I’ve seen them.  I’m talking about movies like “Full Frontal” “Erin Brockovich” and “The Girlfriend Experience” Then he turns around and directs first rate, sitting-on-the-edge-of-my-seat crime thrillers like “Out of Sight” and “The Limey”  Then there are movies like “Kafka” and “Bubble” which are difficult to describe or explain and really should be seen without any idea of what they’re about.  And Soderbergh proved with “Ocean’s 11” “Ocean’s 12” and “Ocean’s 13” that he could do big blockbusters with all-star ensemble casts.  Then he up jumps and directs a two-part bio pic “Che” that is nothing less than astounding.  So we’re talking about an extraordinary director of talent and range who knows what he’s doing in a variety of genres.

So why did CONTAGION feel like I was watching a newbie director desperately trying to figure out what his own movie was about?

Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns to her Minneapolis home from a business trip to Hong Kong to her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) and son Clark.  The happy reunion isn’t happy for very long as Beth dies two days after returning home and Clark dies not long after.  Both Mitch and his daughter from a previous marriage appear to be immune to whatever it was that killed Beth and Clark and a good thing for them that they are.

The new disease, MEV-1 is both frightening and lethal.  It swiftly spreads across the world and the death toll rises to a staggering level.  Nobody can figure out where the disease came from and while more and more people die, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburn) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia struggles to find a cure.  Assisted by his field agent Dr. Ellen Mears (Kate Winslet) and an independent researcher Dr. Sussman (Elliott Gould), Cheever has to juggle several explosive balls.  There’s the Department of Homeland Security who insists that this epidemic must be a bioweapon attack.  Video blogger Alan Krumweide (Jude Law) claims that there is a homeopathic cure for MEV-1 that the government is keeping secret.  His blogs only add to the breakdown of social order as panicked people flee population centers by the millions while the ones who are left turn on each other, stealing food and water.  Entire states are quarantined off by the Army and National Guard in an attempt to minimize the spread of the disease.  A disease that looks as if it’s going to wipe out humanity, no matter what.

Sounds like a really thrilling movie, don’t it?  Sorry to disappoint you but it’s not.  I found CONTAGION to be slow moving and downright impersonal in it’s handling of a truly frightening possibility that all the experts say is due to happen any day now.  But the characters in CONTAGION seem to accept the possible extinction of the human race with a shrug and an “Oh, well, nothing lasts forever.”  Only Jude Law sinks his teeth in and gives his character energy and drive.  Alan Krumweide is as low as they come but at least when he’s on the screen he’s interesting and there’s something happening.

CONTAGION is one of those movies that makes me feel smarter while watching it because even though I don’t understand a word of technospeak (but I do speak fluent technobabble) I just feel smarter listening to the big brains discuss what the virus is and how to combat it.  And that’s an aspect of the movie I wanted to see explored in greater detail but it never is.  When Dr. Cheever and the other big brains in the movie discuss MEV-1 they talk about it almost as if were an intelligent organism with a plan and purpose.  It’s a fascinating idea but it’s never followed up on and instead we get scenes of Matt Damon yelling at his daughter not to open the door for her boyfriend because he might be infected.  Never mind that if the boyfriend has survived as long as Matt Damon and his daughter then there’s just as good a chance he’s as immune as they are.

Maybe I’ve been corrupted by too many 70’s/80’s disaster movies but there just wasn’t enough running around, screaming and looting. I wanted to see entire cities burning as panicked citizens attempt to cleanse the world with fire and kill the plague.  I wanted to see truckloads of dead babies being pitchforked into giant roaring furnaces and cripples in wheelchairs and on crutches throwing themselves from the rooftops of blazing hospitals.   It’s comforting to see the various governmental agencies acting in such a cool, logical, professional manner but it doesn’t make for interesting movie watching.

So should you see CONTAGION?  Sure. It’s not that it’s a bad movie.  The performances are adequate and the movie looks good.  I just think that the possible end of the world should be told as if it really matters and not just to be taken as inevitability.

106 minutes

PG-13