August 23, 2013

Movie Review: Where Eagles Dare (1968)

Broadsword calling Danny Boy, Broadsword calling Danny Boy, come in, over? - Major John Smith (Richard Burton)

Director: Brian G. Hutton

Writer: Alistair MacLean (novel, story and screenplay)

Producer: Elliott Kastner

Studio: MGM (US)

Major Stars: Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood, Patrick Wymark, Patrick Hordern

Note: In keeping with my policy about movies 25 years old or more, I feel no compunctions about revealing what happens in the film. With that in mind, there may be SPOILERS below. If you haven’t seen the film yet, you may want to avoid this review.

I admit to a certain level of bias when it comes to Where Eagles Dare. This was one of the first WW2 films I ever watched with my dad. And it is still, after all these years, one of the best.

The plot is (supposedly) straightforward; Major Smith (Burton) leads a squad including an American Ranger (Eastwood) into the Bavarian Alps to rescue an American general that has been captured. It turns out that everything I typed after the world “Alps” isn’t true at all. Because what this film is, at heart, is a very clever intelligence operation. Alistair MacLean’s script is tight and twisty. There is a point in the film where what you thought was going on actually gets tossed on its head three times in ten minutes. And none of it is a cheat. Everything holds together and makes sense.

That said, it’s still a kick-ass war flick. You have gun battles galore and the best fight ever filmed on a cable-car (don’t bring that weak Moonraker argument in here!). The Nazis are rotten and the women are buxom as all good Bavarian women and MI6 female operatives are.

Richard Burton is perfect as Major Smith, the British soldier/operative tasked with the true goal of the mission. He has that wonderful Brit “calm under fire” attitude down pat. And his dry wit makes for some memorable lines. Eastwood plays American Ranger Lt. Morris Schaffer, the only man on the mission that Smith can trust. He a cool killer. In fact, Eastwood kills more people in this film than any other one he filmed. And if you’ve seen A Fistful of Dollars or The Outlaw Josey Wales, you know that’s a lot of dead Nazis.

August 22, 2013

My Five Favorite Films From...1983

Honorable Mention – Le Dernier Combat: With hardly any dialogue and a sparse score, Luc Besson’s first film is one to remember. This post-apocalyptic tale is unlike anything else you have ever seen.

5. The Outsiders: The Greasers and the Socs. A great adaptation of a great book. And I will admit it still gets dusty in the room when Johnny dies.

4. (Tie) Trading Places and National Lampoon’s Vacation: I couldn’t choose between the two. Both films are hilarious. If you held a gun to my head, I’d probably pick Vacation, but you cannot go wrong either way.

3. A Christmas Story: This is A Wonderful Life for my generation; always on at Christmas, but 100x more watchable and completely hilarious. Sometimes when I’m frustrated I’ll bust out the “Sons of bitches…Bumpuses!!”

2. Scarface: First time I ever saw anyone murdered (by implication) with a chainsaw. And if you want to see F. Murray Abraham hanged from a helicopter, this is the film for you. It’s hyper-violent and deserves some of the criticism it receives, but I enjoy it because at the end, justice is served with Tony’s death.

1. Wargames: A real touchstone 80s movie. Somewhat outdated today (the computer is ridiculously huge and Command Center operations were moved from Cheyenne Mountain to Peterson AFB in 2008), it's still a solid film. I don’t know if it’s because I was (and still am) a computer nerd, but I love the whole story of this one kid almost torching the planet and then saving it.

Films I Like But Didn't Make The List: Blue Thunder, The Right Stuff, Risky Business, Never Say Never Again, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, Lone Wolf McQuade, The Keep, Mr. Mom, The Fourth Man, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Sleepaway Camp, The Dead Zone, Return of the Jedi, The King of Comedy

Guilty Pleasure – Yellowbeard: This isn’t a good movie. But Graham Chapman makes me laugh. And even though I know this isn’t a “quality” film, I like it.

Insane Film That Must Be Mentioned – Videodrome: “Long live the New Flesh.” Tumor-inducing video signals that cause hallucinations and homicidal tendencies. And that doesn’t even touch the crazy visuals. I’ll admit to liking this movie, not only because it’s unlike anything else but also because the Pride of Warwick, RI is the star. I like almost anything with James Woods (Vampire$ and John Q being the exceptions).

August 20, 2013

Movie Review: Alexander Nevsky (1938)

Those who come with a sword to us will die from that sword! - Alexander Nevsky (Nikolai Cherkasov)

Directors: Sergei M. Eisenstein and Dmitri Vasilyev

Writers: Sergei M. Eisenstein and Pyotr Pavlenko

Production Manager: Igor Vakar

Studio: Mosfilm

Major Stars: Nikolai Cherkasov

Note: In keeping with my policy about movies 25 years old or more, I feel no compunctions about revealing what happens in the film. With that in mind, there may be SPOILERS below. If you haven’t seen the film yet, you may want to avoid this review.

Alexander Nevsky isn’t the best war film ever. But the story behind its creation may be the most interesting one I have ever learned.

The movie is based on the real life of Aleksandr Yaroslavich Nevski, the Grand Prince of Novgorod and Vladmir during the mid-13th Century. He is, in many ways, the father of the modern Russian nation. And this film focuses on a critical moment, the invasion of Russia by the Livonian Order, a branch of the Teutonic Order.

The Order was invading, supposedly, to convert the people to Roman Catholicism as a part of the larger event known as the Northern Crusades. More often it was simply an excuse to pillage, plunder and take land. The Order attempted to take advantage of the Novgorodians after they were mauled by the Mongols. Instead, Nevsky cut a treaty with the Mongols and rallied his people to meet the Order on the shores of Lake Peipus, which is on the border of Russia and Estonia.

The battle actually occurred on the ice of Lake Peipus. It was early April, so the ice was weakening. After hours of hand-to-hand fighting, Nevsky called in his horse archers and cavalry. The knights of the Order were so exhausted they tried to retreat across the lake. The ice gave way and they fell into the water and drowned. It was a massive victory for Nevsky and stopped German expansion into Russia.

The film itself is beautiful to watch, an amazing achievement when you realize that it was made in the late 1930s and under the watchful eye of Soviet censors. The centerpiece is the half-hour battle on the ice of Lake Peipus, a beautifully-shot sequence. Not that it needs saying here, but Eisenstein was a remarkable director.

But what really makes the film, what makes this such a superb work of art, is the score. The music is provided by Sergei Prokofiev, one of the greatest composers of all time. Imagine someone like Brahms or Verdi creating a musical score for a film today. That is the quality of music Eisenstein was provided with. The highlight of the score coincides with the battle on the lake. It’s a majestic piece that tells the story aurally and is the origin of that practice today (an oft-cited example is John Williams’ The Battle Of Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back).

The problem is that the sound on the film was mangled by Stalin (I’ll cover this later). So unless you’ve seen this with an orchestra performing the music (a joy I have yet to experience) or the re-mastered VHS (the latest DVD uses the original sound), the sound quality is abysmal.

Almost as enjoyable as the film is learning about its development. Prior to this film, Eisenstein had just avoided getting caught up in the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s. His mortal sin? Cost overruns. Instead of Eisenstein, Boris Shumyatsky (the head of the Soviet film industry in the 30s) was run through a show trial and shot. The story between those two could be a film in itself.

My Five Favorite Films From...1982

Honorable Mention – First Blood: Before he was playing goat soccer with the Afghanistan rebels, Rambo first appeared in this movie. A well-written, well-shot tale that not only had action, but explored the problems some Vietnam Vets were having reintegrating with American society.

5. 48 Hours: Remember when Eddie Murphy was funny? This, his first role, was one of his best movies. Playing off of Nick Nolte’s racist cop, it made for an instant action/comedy classic.

4. Blade Runner: It’s become stylish to hate on this movie as of late. But Ridley Scott’s vision of a dystopian future became a permanent part of science-fiction lore, and its imagery still influences the genre. The examination of what exactly makes someone human, tied into those visuals, makes for a great film.

3. Fast Times at Ridgemont High: Even now, more than 25 years later, this movie holds up. Hilarious and touching at the same time. And who can’t relate to being a teenager with a shit job? Though I never had to wear a pirate outfit…

2. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: Still the best Star Trek film ever made. Not only because of the action and the humor, but what other film in the series could compete with the emotional ending?

1. The Thing: John Carpenter’s tour de force about a parasitic alien life-form hunting and killing men in the Antarctic. He ratchets up the tension relentlessly. And with a touch of Lovecraft, it pushes the film over the top into one of the all-time great horror/sci-fi films.

Films I Like But Didn't Make The List: Airplane 2, Class of 1984, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, E.T., Gandhi, Poltergeist, An Officer and A Gentleman, The Year of Living Dangerously, Tootsie, Fanny and Alexander, Rocky III, The Verdict, The Dark Crystal, Tron, Porky’s, Missing, The World According to Garp, Conan the Barbarian, Firefox

Guilty Pleasure – The Beastmaster: I can’t defend a movie starring Marc Singer on quality grounds. It’s a complete rip of Conan the Barbarian. But for some reason I like Don Coscarelli films. Beastmaster is a grade-B popcorn movie that I have to watch when it’s on. Maybe it’s the ferrets…

Insane Film That Must Be Mentioned – Tenebrae: It’s probably Dario Argento’s best film. But you cannot deny that’s it’s also a crazy film, with enough blood to fill the banks at a Red Cross center. All the killings, and the gruesome way in which they were performed, saw Tenebrae banned in many countries. It wasn’t until 1999 that it could be legally purchased in the UK.

Reoccurring Note: As always, my list is not what I consider "the best" films of a particular year. If that was the case, The Verdict or Gandhi would be at the top of the list. These are the films I enjoyed the most. Your mileage may vary.

August 19, 2013

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified Launches Tomorrow

XCOM: Enemy Unknown was, for me, the game of 2012 and one of the best games I have ever played.

I will admit that, when they were talking about this XCOM tactical shooter? Not exactly high on my list.

But the gameplay videos have turned me around. This actually looks like a lot of fun. 1960s G-Men fighting aliens? How is that not a blast to play?

This is definitely on my list. And here's the final trailer to hold you over until tomorrow.

Movie Review: Khartoum (1966)

“Every man has a final weapon: his own life. If he's afraid to lose it he throws the weapon away.” - General Charles 'Chinese' Gordon (Burt Lancaster Charlton Heston)

Directors: Basil Dearden and Eliot Elisofon

Writer: Robert Ardrey

Producer: Julian Blaustein

Studio: MGM

Major Stars: Laurence Olivier, Burt Lancaster Charlton Heston, Ralph Richardson, Richard Johnson

Note: In keeping with my policy about movies 25 years old or more, I feel no compunctions about revealing the ending of the film. With that in mind, there are SPOILERS below. If you haven’t seen the film yet, you may want to avoid this review.

Second Note: Someone very nicely pointed out that I had Burt Lancaster listed as playing Gordon when, it was in fact, Charlton Heston. Now, I know this. If you asked me right now who played Gordon, I'd say it was Heston. But somehow I wrote Lancaster and fed it through the entire review. Which is just about a million kinds of embarrassing.

So, mea culpa on the rather-large error. And thanks to the anonymous person who pointed this out and wasn't at all snarky or rude about it.


They really made the war movie a spectacle back in the day. And Khartoum definitely is a spectacle. The dramatization/historical recounting of the British loss of the Sudan in the 1880s has a cast of thousands. Some represent the armies of the Mahdi, the Islamic mystic who claimed to be Mohammed’s voice on Earth. Others portray the soldiers of Egypt, a British satellite by this point in its history but the nominal “owners” of Sudan. And when they collide on-screen, you know there is no CGI trickery involved.

The story is an intriguing – and true – tale. Prime Minister Gladstone (Richardson) is told a British-led Egyptian army at El Obeid in Sudan has been destroyed by the armies of the Mahdi (Olivier, in blackface – more on that later). It makes the British/Egyptian presence in the major city of Khartoum shaky. Gladstone doesn’t want to commit British forces to save Khartoum and destroy the Madhi. So the British order/persuade the Egyptian ruler to evacuate Khartoum. The former Governor-General of the Sudan, General Charles “Chinese” Gordon (Lancaster Heston), is appointed to carry out the evacuation.

That alone wouldn’t make for much of a film. As it happened historically, Gordon instead reinforced Khartoum to try and force Gladstone to send a British army down the Nile from Egypt to relieve Khartoum. Gladstone eventually gave in and an army was sent, but dithered in Egypt while the army of the Mahdi surrounded Khartoum. By that time Khartoum had been under siege for almost a year and disease was laying waste to the city. The British army arrived two days after Khartoum fell to the Mahdi. His army had massacred the garrison and civilians. Gordon himself was beheaded. The British army retreated back up the Nile and the Mahdi armies controlled much of Sudan for the next decade or so, before a new Anglo-Egyptian army under Kitchener re-conquered the Sudan for the British Empire.

The film follows the history pretty well. It invents a couple of fictitious meetings between Gordon and the Mahdi, where each implores the other to quit the battle. But those meetings do well to show that the Mahdi and Gordon were two sides of the same coin; both felt compelled by their God to be in the Sudan. And since meetings between the leaders of opposing forces was not unheard of in that time, it a forgivable conceit on the part of the film.

Lancaster Heston does a good job as Chinese Gordon. He portrays the general as a man who loves the Sudan and cannot bear to abandon it to the Mahdi. He’s a hard man but one who gives his all for these people. The film doesn’t allow Lancaster to fully portray the full complexity of the man. But that would take a separate film in and of itself; Chinese Gordon was an interesting and complex man.


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