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The Cardinal (1963)
One of Preminger's best works seems to have gone unnoticed
Otto Preminger's solemn, stately retelling of the rise of Stephen Fermoyle to Cardinal is an interesting albeit lengthy film that has not received its due over the decades since its release in 1963. The many trials and tribulations of Fermoyle's ascension in the Catholic church hierarchy to the College of Cardinals is dramatized by Tom Tryon in the title role. Tryon brings a brooding quality to his interpretation as a priest who has a literary gift that is frowned upon his superior, Cardinal Glennon, and a later, difficult personal decision regarding his youngest sister who is in labor and ready to give birth to her baby. A subsequent leave of absence from the church brings additional inner conflict to Fermoyle as he must choose between a woman's love for him and his devotion to the church and his calling as a priest. Further problems for Fermoyle include intervening in an explosive racial situation in Georgia and as an emissary sent to Vienna during the Nazi occupation in World War II. Tryon's humorless, if not quite wooden, acting brings a certain realism to the film's central character. John Huston and Raf Vallone are excellent in their roles of Cardinals and Romy Schneider is good as the woman who loves Fermoyle and wants to sway him forever from the pull of the priesthood. The film is wonderfully filmed by Leon Shamroy and scored by Jerome Moross, and has a solid cast of top character actors in bit parts. This film should rank as one of the best pictures of the last fifty years.
The Harder They Fall (1956)
Saga of ring corruption packs a kayo wallop
Humphrey Bogart's final film pulls no punches in its indictment of boxing as it chronicles the career of an unfortunate pugilist who is duped into a series of tank jobs that get him a coveted but undeserved title shot. Bogart, an unemployed press agent, is hired to promote and build up the pretender at the request of an unscrupulous manager, played by Rod Steiger. The film notes the brutality, mob violence, insensitive owners and trainers, bookies, fixes, hopelessness and despair of fighters who take frightful punishment in the ring while managers and promoters profit. A brief segment of the picture dwells on the misfortunes of an ex fighter who wound up homeless, penniless and addle-brained after a career in the ring. The movie is grim and cynical, with a hard-edged undercurrent throughout. Bogart and Steiger have the expected showdown at the end as their differences clash but not before the dark underbelly of boxing has been exposed. Budd Schulberg's novel is the basis for this film and old pro Bogart is wonderful and gets strong support from Steiger and several others, especially Harold Stone and Nehemiah Persoff. Jersey Joe Walcott, in a few brief scenes, has a nice turn as a sympathetic trainer.
In Harm's Way (1965)
John Wayne is the anchor is this lengthy but entertaining war film
Otto Preminger's opus of the Pearl Harbor disaster and its aftermath of the U.S. military's preparation for war with the Japanese is also a story of the lives of enlisted personnel, their families and relationships that parallel the Navy's operations in the western Pacific that kicks off World War II. John Wayne is the central figure in the story as Captain Rockwell Torrey, who is faulted for not pursuing and engaging the Japanese fleet, thereby reassigned to desk duty. Kirk Douglas, always edgy and intense, is embittered as a result of the death of his unfaithful wife, which has tragic consequences later in the film. Patricia Neal is Wayne's romantic interest and they are very appealing as middle-aged folk that have another chance at love after previous marital failures. Brandon De Wilde is Wayne's aloof Harvard-educated son who faults Wayne for abandoning him as a child. The film has many diverse emotional threads as the characters cope with the war and their own tenuous relationships, professional and personal. As with most Preminger films, this one has an excellent cast, although Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews have brief roles. Wayne redeems himself in a taught sea battle with Japanese destroyers, with very nice special effects. The film is a fine mix of military warfare, romance, tragedy, family estrangement and redemption.
Cheyenne Autumn (1964)
Homeward bound for the Northern Cheyennes
Mari Sandoz' sympathetic account of the flight of the Northern Cheyennes from Oklahoma's Indian Territory to their historical homeland in Wyoming is the basis of John Ford's final western adventure. The usual emotional mistreatment of the Indians, with broken promises, lies, the disrespect shown to their chiefs, indifference to the tribe's well-being, lack of proper nourishment and education by their white custodians sets in motion their northward trek. The Cheyenne migration comes to the attention of the War Department in Washington with orders to stop the Indians and return them to their reservation. The film has several hit-and-run skirmishes, with the fighting prowess of the Cheyennes keeping the pursuing soldiers at bay. Richard Widmark, a cavalry officer and Carroll Baker, a Quaker who wants to educate the Cheyenne children, are sympathetic towards the Indians' plight, in stark contrast to Karl Malden's Russian martinet who imprisons the Indians at Fort Robinson and vows to send them back to the arid Oklahoma territory. The film's measured and deliberate pace is in keeping with the plodding progress of the tribe's move north. The Dodge City sequence, which features a comical poker game, is a pointless twenty minute detour from the film's narrative and adds nothing to the plot. The wide-screen cameras of William Clothier capture the beautiful scenery of Monument Valley, director Ford's favorite shooting location. Gilbert Roland, Ricardo Montalban and Dolores del Rio are excellent in various Cheyenne roles.
The Misfits (1961)
A moody, introspective drama
This story chronicles the lives of three men and a divorcée in the Nevada mountains. Clark Gable, in his final film, is a wandering, over-the-hill, middle-aged cowboy who corrals wild mustangs for slaughter with Eli Wallach, his buddy and an aviator whose plane locates and traps the horses for Gable's unerring lariats. Marilyn Monroe, always fetching, has rid herself of her husband and has come west to find meaning for her life. Montogomery Clift is a washed-up bronc and bull rider, and the four major characters come together, with each one beset by emotional traumas from their pasts. A major theme throughout the film is regret about disappointments, missed opportunities, failed family and personal relationships. The unhappy, wistful thread of the movie is mirrored by the stark black and white photography and the distant mountain vistas. The beauteous Monroe is coveted by the three men but seems partial to Gable, perhaps of his detached persona and laid-back approach to life. Wallach makes no secret of his obsession with Monroe and spares nothing in his attempt to win her for himself. Clift, along for the ride because of Gable's taunts about the disgrace of earning wages, brings his usual brooding quality to the film and seems disillusioned because he has no psychological anchor in his life. Thelma Ritter, always excellent in supporting roles, appears with Monroe early in the story but disappears midway through and is not seen again. Gable's stunt work with the wild horses is thrilling and is the film's highlight but may have cost him dearly with the wear and tear he took doing these scenes. The film is a fine coda to the careers of two of Hollywood's most storied personalities.
The Command (1954)
Okay cavalry-Indian dust-up
A cavalry troop is assigned to escort a wagon train through hostile Indian territory by an inexperienced captain who is also a doctor. Guy Madison, the film's star, is directed to lead the column by the late commander, which causes resentment within the soldier ranks. In addition to having his authority and fitness for leadership questioned, Madison must also fight the spread of smallpox among members of the wagon train and protect his column as it moves westward. The movie's action sequences are essentially a series of running fights with the Indians which are enhanced by wide-sweeping CinenaScope cameras. James Whitmore is the sergeant who comes to respect Madison's unorthodox but effective battle tactics and Joan Weldon is in for the romantic angle with Madison. Ray Teal and Carl Benton Reid, two familiar old-school character actors, are among the cast members.
The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Colonial conflict has scenic grandeur and beautiful music
The French and Indian War, circa 1757, is the setting for this entertaining slice of American history, replete with bravery, sacrifice, romance and treachery. James Fenimore Cooper's novel, a difficult and ponderous work, flows on screen here with simplicity and great beauty, and is enhanced by fine direction, acting and a beautiful, sweeping music score. Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe headline a solid cast that brings to life this early American work that Cooper himself failed to do. The British, in dire straits for military support, enlist the colonial militia to fight the French and their Indian allies at the risk of leaving their families defenseless in the face of their dangerous foe. The battle scenes are violent, drawn-out affairs, especially the Fort William Henry debacle that commander Marquis de Montcalm couldn't prevent. A major underlying theme of the picture is a Huron's blood vengeance quest against a British colonel which sets in motion the ambushes and animosity that define the movie's narrative. Russell Means and Eric Schweig along with Day-Lewis are the story's heroes and essay the bravery, loyalty and courage of the noble red man.
Tupac Shakur's prophecy
This picture is a disturbing but gripping urban thriller that details the lives of four youngsters who drift aimlessly day by day in search of manhood and self-respect. The film offers a realistic slice of street life in a rough neighborhood where families struggle to keep young teens in school and out of trouble. Peer pressure, petty crime and violence mark the lives of the principals and the lure of a gun and its power result in a showdown between the reluctant Omar Epps and the psychotic Tupac Shakur. The young men are on a macho trip throughout the story, squaring off with rival gangs, the police, authority figures and each other. The movie doesn't dwell on the scourge of drug use and pushers but instead essays the coming of age of black youths in an urban war zone and the many pitfalls they encounter as they approach adulthood. Samuel L. Jackson and Queen Latifah are great in supporting roles and the movie has a nifty hip-hop soundtrack that adds pace to a solid uptown crime drama.
The Hunt for Red October (1990)
Sean Connery excels in this tense military thriller
Stripped to its bare essentials, this film is a seek-and-destroy mission involving a Soviet state-of-the-art submarine whose captain secretly intends to defect to the United States while pretending to follow orders to patrol the North Atlantic with another Soviet sub. The hero of the film is Alec Baldwin as CIA analyst Jack Ryan who somehow divines Lithuanian sub captain Sean Connery's purpose and Ryan has some narrow escapes during the film's many tense moments. Connery is very good and is supported by a solid cast. Fred Dalton Thompson always has his moments and Scott Glenn strikes a chord as the USN sub captain. Too bad that Joss Ackland, with his menacing, steely glare and duplicitous manner didn't have more screen time. A nod also goes to Sam Neill and James Earl Jones. The final underwater chase sequence is a clever, well-done coda to a tense political/military thriller and is one of author Tom Clancy's best screen adaptations.
Good film stumbles at the finish line
Fine drama borrows its theme liberally from the classic "The Postman Always Rings Twice" but manages to establish its own identity in the style of the noir thrillers of the past. A fish seller and his wife take in a wayward drifter who learns the ropes of the business and becomes the odd note of the triad, at the market and in the home. Edward James Olmos and Maria Conchita Alonso, husband and wife team, give young hunk Arie Verveen the sense of family he never had and soon Alonso and Verveen find a way to consummate their subtle but growing passion for each other right under Olmos' unsuspecting nose. An unannounced visit by Hollywood wannabe comic son Steven Schub kicks the drama into higher gear but an unsatisfying ending ruins what was up to that point an interesting movie with its myriad and complex threads of family life. Music score is nice and the end credits are highlighted by a jazzy, moody trumpet solo.
The Battle at Apache Pass (1952)
Good western adventure forever overshadowed by "Broken Arrow"
This colorful western is a rousing yarn that is one of the best of the 1950s. The picture is based on two historical events, the shameful Bascom affair, and the fight in Apache Pass in which two mountain howitzers foiled a well-planned ambush by the Indians. Cochise's Chiricahuas and the U.S. cavalry do all they can to keep peace in the southwest but renegade Mogollons and greedy, scheming whites are just as determined to cause trouble between the Apaches and the soldiers. Jeff Chandler reprises his role as Cochise in the landmark western, "Broken Arrow", as does Jay Silverheels as the warlike Geronimo. John Lund is the major who is sympathetic to the Indians and values his friendship with Cochise. Bruce Cowling and Jack Elam are the white men who have other ideas about how to deal with the Indians. Richard Egan and Hugh O'Brian are also good as army lieutenants. Tech credits are great, especially the camera work by Charles Boyle and the music score by Hans Salter.
Sugar Hill (1993)
Hell up in Harlem
This feature is a grim, violent urban saga of a dysfunctional family that plays out amid the decay and ugliness of Harlem. This storied community, long neglected and portrayed as unredeemable, takes another hit as families disintegrate and drug wars are the order of the day. The film has an odd symmetry in that it opens and closes with scenes of drug overdoses which may explain why two impressionable youngsters who should know better get swallowed up drug distribution activities and violent crime. The movie also shows black men in a very poor light as every single character is flawed beyond measure and not one of them has a single redeeming quality. Besides the self-loathing of Harlem and its residents, the film's parallel theme serves up the familiar race war shoot-outs between black hoodlums and Mafia thugs who are determined to hold on to lucrative drug markets uptown. Wesley Snipes headlines a good cast that is sadly wasted in this picture. Michael Wright is very good as the angry, bitter Raynathan but with films like "Super Fly", "New Jack City" and several other films of this type out there, who needs another one?
Good Pacific Theater war drama
One of Tony Curtis' early starring roles is this war film of a detachment of Marines sent out to locate a planter and verify a message he sent concerning the location of Japanese minefields on the island. Because of the danger surrounding their mission, tempers are frayed and old resentments surface as the platoon makes its way through the jungle while trying to avoid detection by Japanese soldiers who seem to be all around them. The film has several tense moments as the Marines find a way to slip through the tightening Japanese noose and face even more danger after locating the planter and his daughter. Curtis is the marquee name here and his Hollywood hunk appeal is displayed to good effect while trying to spark pretty Mary Murphy. Frank Lovejoy is solid as always as the Marine sergeant leader with something to prove after a disastrous result at Guadalcanal. John Doucette, a great character actor in his time, has a cameo role as a major who sends the platoon out on its mission impossible. Technicolor is lush and realistic and the music score is also very nice.
The Unforgiven (1960)
Racial intolerance in the old west
This post-Civil War western is an uneven but interesting affair that has a very good cast, beautiful cinematography and a fine music score. The film's theme is racial hatred as expressed by white pioneers in the Texas Panhandle towards Indians. A family that is thought to have raised a Kiowa child is eventually ostracized by their neighbors among whom Indian-hating is a way of life. Neither cattle drives, round-ups, vigilante posses nor courtships can hold this small community together when the Zachary family's "secret" is discovered. Rugged star Burt Lancaster is fine as the big brother and leader of his clan but his jealousy of and romantic yen for adopted sister Audrey Hepburn is not plausible. Hepburn, as great an actress as she was, just isn't believable as an Indian girl. Old pros Charles Bickford and Lillian Gish are solid, as are John Saxon and Audie Murphy. The Indian attack is well done and has a side attraction of Kiowa war flutes and piano-playing by a frontier matriarch. The film also offers a generous slice of bronco-riding and cattle-drive life on the plains.
Bogart is great in this tense war drama
One of Humphrey Bogart's best films is this tough, scrappy war adventure of Allied troops banding together in the Lybian desert to outsmart and subdue an overwhelming force of German soldiers. Bogart is the picture's dominating force with snappy one-liners and biting commentary as only he could deliver them as he leads his troops in the search for water and safety from the hot sun. Soldiers from various Allied countries are represented in the movie that mirrors the plot of "The Lost Patrol" and Bogart is supported by a great cast that includes Dan Duryea, Lloyd Bridges, Bruce Bennett, Rex Ingram and J. Carrol Naish, the latter very appealing as an Italian soldier taunted by a German prisoner. Rudolph Mate filmed the picture with crisp lensing and Miklos Rosza's heroic score is a fine accompaniment to a great story.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
An American classic by John Ford and John Wayne
This film is the second entry in John Ford's "cavalry trilogy" and may be the best of the three with John Wayne's performance being one of the best of his career. The picture is an ode to the U.S. cavalry in the wake of the Custer debacle with the threat of more Indian uprisings on the frontier. Wayne's escort patrol is the film's focal point which also has an on-going romantic squabble between two young officers and a woman which explains the movie's title. The wonderful lensing captures the natural beauty of Monument Valley, and the scenes of the patrol crossing the wide expanses during a thunderstorm with lightning streaks against the dark clouds are among the picture's best moments. Ben Johnson stands out as an ex-Confederate soldier and point man and other Ford stock regulars such as Harry Carey Jr. and John Agar have supporting roles.
A cross-country marathon of will and endurance
A 3,000 mile race across the Arabian desert between the fastest and finest horses is the story line of this beautiful picture. The hero is a spotted mustang owned and ridden by Frank T. Hopkins, as portrayed by Viggo Mortensen. The film's beginning dwells on the massacre at Wounded Knee, which Mortensen witnesses, and his Indian ancestry is never far from his thoughts. Indeed, Mortensen appeals to the red spirits to sustain him and his horse as the race heads down the home stretch. The film compares the red nomads of the American plains to the Arab raiders of the Middle East deserts, citing the excellent horsemanship of both races. Mortensen and his steed face dangers during their adventures in the desert, not the least of which are traps and ambushes from Arabs determined not to allow the American cowboy to win the race. A highlight of the film is a kidnapping and rescue mission at the midway point. Omar Sharif has a good role as a sheik who befriends Mortensen. The supporting cast also good, and James Newton Howard contributes an excellent music score.
Up Periscope (1959)
An engrossing and suspenseful war drama
This film is a good thriller of a top secret naval operation in the South Pacific during World War II. James Garner's assignment calls for him to swim to a Japanese-controlled island and decipher a code that the Navy needs to anticipate enemy intentions. The film has a claustrophobic feel to it as most of the scenes are filmed below topside as the submarine makes its way to the destination island. There are Japanese destroyers about, dropping depth charges and making matters uncomfortable for the crew. Edmond O'Brien is the sub's by-the-book commander, still shaken by the loss of a crew member during a recent assignment, and he and Garner share a mutual dislike that sets in motion Garner's mission-impossible task. Garner's whirlwind courtship with Andra Martin is the only false note of the movie which adds nothing to the plot. The cast and tech credits are good.
Fort Dobbs (1958)
Brian Keith steals this tough, gritty western
This western follows a familiar genre theme of a loner who comes to the aid of a woman and her son and guides them to safety through Indian country. The plot is spare with a twist of mistaken identity thrown in as an innocent man on the run scrambles to escape a hanging posse hot on his trail. Clint Walker is the reformed gunfighter whose reputation places him on the sheriff's wanted poster as fate takes him to a woman's ranch in the midst of an Indian uprising. Virginia Mayo is the widow and reluctant trail companion of Walker along with her son as they make their way to Fort Dobbs. Brian Keith steals the film as an unsavory gun runner whose rifles play a large part in the Indian attack on the fort. The film is not a polished feature but is a straightforward, no-frills drama and is worth watching.
Man on Fire (2004)
Denzel Washington on a rampage in a violent thriller
Revenge is the theme of this Denzel Washington thriller that offers its share of action, mayhem, murder and grisly bloodletting. The essentials are a bodyguard's search and destroy mission as his charge, young Dakota Fanning, is kidnapped from school, which is exactly what Washington was hired to prevent. The Mexico City locations are as chaotic as the storyline moves towards its predictable, violent conclusion, with plot twists along the way. Washington, a former CIA operative with a drinking problem, gets a good reference from a former fellow agent which sets in motion the plot's outline. Washington and Fanning have a great chemistry between them and after a troublesome beginning, the bodyguard and his charge become the best of friends. Christopher Walken, Rachel Ticotin, Radha Mitchell, Giancarlo Giannini and Mickey Rourke comprise the good cast in support of the two stars.
Charlize Theron as the woman from hell
Charlize Theron's performance of a Florida serial killer won an Oscar but one wonders why a movie studio would invest the time, talent and money to film the life of a dysfunctional loser like Aileen Wuornos. Her life was one of neglect, abuse and failure, certainly not a blueprint for success in life. The picture follows Theron's portrayal of Wuornos as she stumbles from one episode after another in a pitiful attempt to put her life into some kind of perspective. Wournos undoubtedly hated men but didn't seem to mind earning cash for services rendered along Florida's highways, at truck stops and in trailer trash bars. After she killed her first john, Wournos reached the point of no return and began to plot and execute her victims without conscience. Theron's portrayal of the unattractive, uneducated and unrefined murderess is exactly why she won the industry's most coveted prize.
Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987)
A violent film with an anti-drug message
Charles Bronson continues his one-man rampage against crime in this film which does have its fair share of action but is a one-dimensional feature. Bronson's character, who lost his wife and daughter to senseless violence earlier in the series, sees history repeat itself here as his girlfriend and her daughter are victimized by violent crime. Bronson's crusade against drugs and dealers is the entire plot as he manipulates one gang against the other, with no shortage of gun fights, explosions and a high body count. The action scenes are populated with cardboard street thug types and the contrived plot motivations only serve to showcase Bronson's skills with a pistol or semi-automatic weapons. The movie is an okay urban drama which offers a great deal of mayhem and murder while highlighting the dangers of drug use.
No Way Out (1950)
A good film that was ahead of its time
This fine drama details a story of racial strife and animosity in a production that presaged the civil rights movement in America by several years. The central figures are Richard Widmark, a bigoted hoodlum and hater of blacks, and Sidney Poitier, a black doctor who is accused of the murder of Widmark's brother while trying to save his life. Widmark and Poitier are excellent in the latter's first major Hollywood film. The picture's main thread is the state of affairs among blacks in American society and white attitudes towards them as mirrored in several characters in the film. Stephen McNally, Poitier's boss in the hospital, prizes the young doctor's skills and has a high opinion of him while Linda Darnell is indifferent to blacks. There is racism expressed by blacks as well in certain characters so neither side gets a moral pass in the film. The movie deserves wider popularity because of its courageous introduction of a troublesome subject to American audiences. Great acting, lensing and music make the picture a landmark film.
Blood Diamond (2006)
A treasure hunt amid war and strife
This colorful but violent drama has a basic plot of a frantic search for a large, pink diamond by a smuggler, a peaceful villager and assorted mercenary types during Sierra Leone's civil war. Leonardo di Caprio and Djimon Hounsou form an uneasy partnership in their hunt for the precious stone and struggle to keep one step ahead of pursuing rebel troops and soldiers of fortune. Journalist Jennifer Connelly plays up to di Caprio hoping to get an exclusive story about the true horrors of the diamond trade in war-torn African countries. Connelly wants to expose a complicated pipeline of diamond smuggling and laundering that finances the rebel troops and prolongs the horrors and suffering of citizens of Sierra Leone. Another plot angle is the seizure and brainwashing of Hounsou's young son by the rebels. The boy is trained to kill without hesitation or conscience, as are scores of young African boys against government soldiers. Di Caprio and Hounsou are very good, while Connelly seems to be the conscience of this picture which leaves a bittersweet taste.
Mystic River (2003)
A profound and tragic story
This dark, brooding film is a murder mystery that unfolds against the backdrop of early trauma in the lives of three boys in a Boston suburb. The unnamed location, perhaps Chelsea, evokes the clannish, guarded nature typical of Boston neighborhoods that tolerates without welcoming outsiders. The lives of the three main characters diverge with the passage of time, then come together again during the unfolding of the tragic events in the story. Each of the principals has issues they must grapple with each day and their lives and history are woven into an unstable, tattered quilt that threatens to unravel at any time. Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon are all excellent in portraying the emotional strains and the shifting tides that bring them together in this somber character study. Lawrence Fishburne is good as a detective on the periphery of his partner's personal ups and downs and is sympathetic but professional in his pursuit of suspects in the case. Clint Eastwood piloted this film which is one of his best in a great body of work as an actor and director.