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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Cool Runnings - Underdogs go (released in 1993)

When you think of the Winter Olympics, what comes to mind ? People from the countries of US, Canada, North Europe, Japan, China, and other countries where there are regions of snow and tall mountains. If you were told that there would be contestants from countries that are more tropical, hot, and ocean going, you would be surprised; in fact, you could question whether such folks would have the ability to handle the type of sports that are part of the Winter Olympics. Sports such as skiing, ice hockey, and bob-sledding. And yet, in the 1988 Winter Olympics at Calgary, there was a team of bob-sledders from the small tropical Carribean nation of Jamaica.
Well, they did not win, but they lived upto the ideals of the Olympics, which is participating, especially when doing so with full spirits and with full conviction. From a time when they were jeered, they were actually applauded.

There are many inconsistencies in the movie and reality, especially the enthusiastic and formerly-cheating coach, Irving 'Irv' Blitzer (John Candy); the association "International Alliance of Winter Sports" does not exist, and of course, the Jamaicans did not reach the finals; so the movie was made out to be more romantic than it actually was.
The movie tells the story of Irving 'Irv' Blitzer, who was a former bobsled champion, convicted of cheating in the 1972 Winter Olympics and retired in disgrace. He settled in Jamaica, and was brought out of obscurity to coach a team from Jamaica to take part in the bobsled tournament. He finally manages to assemble a team, and as you would expect, there are many failures on the way, but they manage to reach the Olympics and slowly make their way up with improved performances. Finally, at a crucial minute, their sled breaks, and they carry the sled over the finish live to applause from the crowd.

Cool Runnings - Underdogs go (released in 1993), comedy movie

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Cube (released in 1997) - Now a cult movie

Imagine a movie in which you see a set of characters being put in a weird setting where they can get killed by sudden moves, where there is no recollection of why they are placed in that location, and where answers need to be figured out, and tested out one by one (and where figuring out the puzzle incorrectly can result in serious injury or death). It would almost seem like the viewer only knows as much as any of the characters, and even the characters keep on changing personalities through the movie. Combine that with the movie being made by a newbie director, and being made on a low budget, and you can consider such a movie to be a 'blink and miss' kind of movie. Movies like this come and go, and you won't miss much.
Well, Cube was nothing like that. The movie was a decent commercial success, including overseas (especially Japan and France) and is now considered a cult hit. The movie inspired 2 more movies - Cube 2: Hypercube (2002) and the prequel Cube Zero (2004). It was also nominated for a few awards (not the Academy awards though). The movie was a real low budget one, and had some complex mathematics involved if the viewers wanted to figure out what the logic being used inside the cube were.

Cube is the story of a group of people who find themselves inside a white room, cube shaped, with no idea of why they are there. When they compare their professions, there does not seem to be any commonality between them, with people being a police officer, a doctor, and so on. They resolve to move as a group and to try to escape, but are foundering about what to do. There are 6 doors in the room, one in each wall, one in the ceiling, and one in the wall. The doors lead to more rooms, and problematically, some of the rooms are booby trapped; entering could lead to a painful death - as happens to one of them when he enters a room and is sprayed in the face with acid that kills him.
The set of people are facing 2 main issues
- Quentin, the police officer and the one who seemed to be the most responsible is losing his head, and attacking the others in the group. On the other hand, Dr. Holloway, who seemed to be the most unstable at the beginning, begins to show a great deal of stability as the movie progresses
- The mathematics involving prime numbers to figure out which cube was a trap or not was complicated enough (until the idiot savant Kazan shows his great mathematical talent for doing these calculations), but then they learn that the cubes are also on the move, doing a complete movement before returning to their original position, and that the timeframe to escape is limited.

Cube (The Film) released in 1997, now a cult classic

The Ghost and the Darkness (released in 1996) - starring Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer

How often do you find a movie getting awards both from the Academy awards and also a Razzie award? Well, "The Ghost and the Darkness" is a movie that got both these awards, an Academy award for Sound Editing, as well as a Razzie award (for Val Kilmer for Best Supporting Actor). The movie got critical praise and was well received, although there were some differences between the book (The Man-Eaters Of Tsavo, by J. H. Patterson) and the movie, especially around the character of the hunter, Charles Remington (played by Michael Douglas). The concept is that since Douglas also stepped in to part-produce the movie, he decided to enhance the role of Remington from the original role that was supposed to be much more mysterious. In the process, this also reduced the scope of the character of Col. John Henry Patterson (the hunter who is brought into the project to bring it back to schedule, played by Val Kilmer), given that it was Patterson who killed 3 lions, including the 2 monster ones who killed a large number of workers at the site.

There is some dispute over the number of workers killed by the lions, with Patterson claiming that there were 135 workers killed, while new research claimed that there were around 35 workers killed. The actual lions who were killed by Patterson can now be seen on display at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois, and these are magnificent specimens, worthy of scaring workers.
The movie centers around a railroad project in Tsavo, Africa, where the project is running behind schedule. Col. Patterson is sent to take command of things and reaches the site. There he starts on his mission, killing a lion quickly, but then unable to prevent the lions from killing off the workers one by one. To everybody's surprise, 2 lions attack the camp, and lions never attack in a group, but are single hunters. This is seen as a bad sign. Then a famous hunter Remington is sent in to help, and in the meantime, the workers are not willing to stay. The lions are a tough hunt, especially when they don't fall for a ruse and attack a new hospital, killing all the inmates and the camp doctor. Patterson finally manages to kill one lion, but the other one manages to kill Remington. In a final stand-off, Patterson finally manages to kill the remaining lion, and the bridge gets built.

The Ghost and the Darkness (released in 1996) - starring Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (released in 2005) - starring Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was a movie released in 2005, but it was certainly not the first time that this term was used. It was used to represent James Bond (given the way he would use woman and kill people in his movies), and there were multiple movies and songs written with the same name. The movie name references the 1968 book, written by Pauline Kael, while the story of the movie is based on the novel by Brett Halliday "Bodies Are Where You Find Them". The movie is acclaimed as a black comedy, and satirizes the film noir genre. The movie did not have a large public release and started gaining in popularity based on favorable critical reviews. The movie earned most of its money outside the US, with a total earning of around $15 million in the box office as well as around $6 million in DVD rentals.
The movie earned critical praise, earning praise for its black comedy, with the performances by Robert Downey, Jr. and Val Kilmer earning praise, as well as the direction by Shane Black (who was more famous for his screenplays for action movies such as Lethal Weapon and Last Boy Scout).

The movie is about a small time crook, Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey, Jr.), who also narrates the movie and talks to the audience from time to time. Harry is running from the police after a robbery gone awry, when he stumbles into an acting audition, and so impresses the crew that he is selected and taken to Hollywood. He soon meets a private investigator named Gay" Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer), who has been deputed to help Harry prepare for his role.
And Harry also meets his long time dream girl from high school Harmony Lane (Michelle Monaghan), but soon gets involved in a very strange murder mystery. Now, he has to work along with Perry and Harmony for solving the case, which seems to go through all the various plots and subplots that you can find in a number of different movies. Fun to watch.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (released in 2005) - starring Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer

The Doors (1991) - starring Val Kilmer

The Doors was a rock band that existed for a short period, but was incredibly famous, primarily due to its lead singer and lyricist Jim Morrison. The Doors existed between 1965, and went into a major problem in 1971 after the death of Jim Morrison, and was finally disbanded in 1973, but remain famous to this day. The Doors was formed by vocalist Jim Morrison, keyboardist Ray Manzarek, drummer John Densmore, and guitarist Robby Krieger. Jim Morrison, or if you know him by his full name, James Douglas "Jim" Morrison (December 8, 1943 – July 3, 1971), had a very short life, all of 28 years, but in this short life, he became popular enough with his vocals, his persona, and his charisma to be counted at # 47 among the 100 greatest singers of all time (as enumerated by Rolling Stones magazine).
Why the name "The Doors" ? Well, it was adopted from a famous author, Aldous Huxley's book, "The Doors of Perception", and fittingly, refers to the use of psychedelic drugs getting doors open.

The movie about an iconic man was in turn directed by an iconic director, Oliver Stone. The movie starred in the lead, Val Kilmer as Morrison, Meg Ryan as Pamela Courson (Morrison's companion). The further roles of the other band members were played by, Kyle MacLachlan as Ray Manzarek, Frank Whaley as Robby Krieger, Kevin Dillon as John Densmore and Kathleen Quinlan as Patricia Kennealy. This however happened after only a decade of casting for the leading man with many being considered (such as Tom Cruise, John Travolta, etc). Travolta was rejected by the band members, they wanted somebody with a wilder look. Kilmer in fact got the part by making a video of him singing, and then getting Stone to watch it.
The movie takes the viewer through Morrison's life, from his young self onto his arrival in California, his studying at UCLA, and the formation of the group. The group in turn starts growing in popularity; and it is this popularity that leads to Morrison going down the path of alcoholism and drug abuse, something that starts to affect the band. He starts going downhill, and eventually dies of "heart failure" in Paris in 1971.

The Doors (1991) - starring Val Kilmer

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Trinity is still my name (1972), continuation of comedy

After the stupendous success of a comedy (or any other movie), what would expect next ? You would expect a sequel, and that is exactly what happened when "They call me Trinity" was released and became a huge success; after all, it was a bet that a comic turn to the spaghetti western would do well, and it was against odds that the movie did really well. And lo and behold, the next movie in the series was ready for viewers the next year. The movie had the same principal crew, with the same Director (Enzo Barboni), same principal cast (Terence Hill and Bud Spencer). And you know what, the sequel did even better, being Italy's highest grossing movie of all time. Both the cast members, Terence and Bud, could not have asked for a better jump to their movie career with this movie.

The movie is a continuation of a comedy, with several scenes, such as the one where Bambino hits a convict over the head, knocks him out, and when the guy gets up, he has become addlepated, similarly, in another scene, Trinity is able to draw his gun and slap another guy 15 times before the other person can do anything (this is how fast Trinity is). You see them trying to be bad guys, but are so good-hearted that they end up helping a family multiple times, such as helping repair a broken wheel on their wagon.
Again, when they finally manage to get some loot after tricking some more of the bad guys, they give it to the Rangers to ally their suspicion.

Trinity is still my name (1972), continuation of comedy, starring Terence Hill and Bud Spencer

They Call Me Trinity (1971) - starring Terence Hill and Bud Spencer

Italian made western spaghetti movies were all the rage during the 60's, and till the early half of the 70's, by which time there were a number of movies that had started lampooning such movies. In addition, audiences had also changed their tastes, and the culture of spaghetti movies died out, but not before making the reputations of a number of characters. Both Terence Hill and Bud Spencer gained immensely from the making of this movie, since the movie was a huge success worldwide and made them hugely successful starts. In fact, this success led to a short period of craze for comedy westerns, and also led to the inevitable sequel called 'Trinity is still my name' which was even more successful. The movie was written and directed by Enzo Barboni. Right now, the movie is in the public domain.

As you would expect from such a movie, the story is not very complicated. However, there are visual effects in the movie that are important, such as the starting scene where Trinity appears, with his horse dragging him around in a travois, perfectly content to live an easy life, dirty as his horse drags him around. What seems to contradict this view is that he is known as the fastest hand in the west with a gun, a person who can move faster than any other gunslinger.
The story starts with Trinity getting into a dwelling where the restaurant is, quite logically, unsure of Trinity's ability to pay for his meals; so Trinity eats directly from the pan, burping while doing so (and these types of eating scenes are part of the comedy elements of the Trinity series). He then proceeds to relieve 2 bounty hunters of their Mexican prisoner, and shoots them effortlessly when they try to shoot him down from inside the dwelling. This is part of the magic, how easy he handles a gun. He moves along with the Mexican, and moves to another town. There he sees an enormous sheriff being challenged by 3 roughs, and apparently the sheriff is in the same league as Trinity. However, it soon becomes clear that the make-believe Sheriff, Bambino, is actually Trinity's brother, and although they do not get along with each other, they cooperate for different reasons to support Mormons against their fight with Major Harriman (Farley Granger). How the fight goes should be clear, but is fun to watch.

They Call me Trinity (released in 1971), a spaghetti western film starring Terence Hill and Bud Spencer

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)

Westerns have been a popular theme in the history of the United States, and there have been many many movies and books on the same theme. There have been many famous figures and incidents in the history of the Westerns in the US, with the most prominent being characters such as Wyatt Earp, Doc Halliday, both of whom took part in a real life incident that took place in the town of Tombstone in Cochise County, Arizona, United States. The town of Tombstone was founded in 1879, while the actual incident took place on October 26, 1881 (read about the shootout at Wikipedia).

The movie was directed by John Sturges, and was written based on a screenplay by the famous author Leon Uris, and was released in 1957. The movie was nominated for 2 academy awards for the Sound and Editing categories, but did not win anything. It starred some of the big stars of that era such as Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp and Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday. The movie looks at the lives of these 2 pivotal characters of Marshall Wyatt Earp and his companion, the famous gun fighter Doc Holliday (who was very sickly at that point of time), and builds up to the battle they had with the rival Clanton gang. The movie details the friendship between two, starting when Earp helps Doc Holliday escape from a tricky situation.
The movie portrays Doc Holliday as a larger than life person, a person who has a strong sense of honor, and yet is driven by his own private demons, something that makes him struggle and leads a tortured life; his portrayal by Kirk Douglas threatened to steal the show out from under Lancaster's portrayal of Earp. The actual scene of course is always dramatized, and many aspects of it is inaccurate.

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, movie released in 1957, starring Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp and Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday

For a few Dollars more (1965) - Second part of the 'Man with no name' trilogy

'For a few dollars More' was a movie directed by Sergei Leone and starred Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Gian Maria Volontè. It followed the first successful movie of the spaghetti western trilogy, 'The Man with No Name'. However, what was interesting was that when Clint Eastwood was sought to be signed on for the second movie of the series (after the first, A Fistful of Dollars was not yet released), and Clint was hesitant to sign on the second movie without having even seen the movie (A Fistful of Dollars had been released in Italy, and was a success there, but not yet released in the US). For him, an urgent copy of the print was ordered, and after seeing the movie (even though the print was not in English, but in Italian), he believed enough to sign on for another movie. Another interesting bit from the movie was that the set that was built for the movie, a town called 'El Paso' in the Almeria desert, still exists. The movie is rated as one of the best in this category, with the classic portrayal of the characters in the Wild West along with the depiction of the American Southwest.
Clint Eastwood was called 'Manco' in the movie because people would see him doing any work using his left hand, his character always kept the right hand free to draw a gun and always be ready.

The movie is about the hunt for an outlaw called "El Indio (Gian Maria Volontè)" by 2 bounty hunters, one of them being the` younger 'Manco' (CLint) and the older, once highly respected Colonel Douglas Mortimer (who is no longer much respected, since he is now reduced to being a bounty hunter - one who hunts down criminals for the cash reward on offer against them). Colonel Mortimer has a personal agenda in the hunt for "El Indio", since El Indio had once raped and killed the Colonel's sister. Manco however is after the bounty money.
The 2 join hands in the hunt for El Indio, however, each has their own agenda. As a part of the hunt, it is decided that a reluctant Manco will join Indio's gang, as Indio is planning a raid on a safe in El Paso that contains almost half-a-million dollars, a huge sum of money by any standard. After the raid, Manco and Colonel Mortimer are caught in the act of stealing the money from the bandits, and are brutally thrashed, but are left free by Indio who in reality wants to have a fight between the gang members and the bounty hunters so as to ensure that the entire money belongs only to Indio. This action dutifully happens, and now there is a face off between Colonel Mortimer and Indio.

For a Few Dollars more, starring Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and directed by Sergei Leone, released in 1965

The Searchers, a movie starring John Wayne, released in 1956

The Searchers was a movie released in 1956. It was the 12th collaboration between the Western star John Wayne and the director John Ford, and is acknowledged to be one of the best westerns ever made. The movie takes the iconic image of a western hero, who stands alone, and is also seen as an anti-hero. The movie takes the violence, the conflicts between settlers and the native Indians, and most importantly, the emotions that drive a person to a relentless quest, and how this search can harden a person and make him full of hatred. The movie is similar to the story of a Cynthia Ann Parker in 1836, who was kidnapped by native Comanches, spent 24 years with them, and married an Indian chief. She had a complete family, but was taken away from her family by Texas Rangers, driven by her uncle.

The movie is the story of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne, also known as 'The Duke'), a ex-Confederate soldier returning from the American Civil war. He returns to his brother's (Aaron) home; they accept him and the money he brings, although it is hinted that Ethan had been upto no good. Soon after, a raid by the native Indian tribe, the Comanches, burns down the homestead and kills his entire set of relatives, except for 2 nieces, Lucy (Pippa Scott) and Debbie (Lana Wood), who are abducted.
A group of Texas Rangers led by Captain Clayton accompanied by Ethan set out in pursuit of the Comanches, and they have clashes with the party. It is soon clear that Ethan is willing to take risks that could get the girls killed, and Captain Clayton is unwilling to take these risks. However, Lucy's fiancee Brad and Aaron's adopted son Martin are determined to continue, and find the Comanche camp. Ethan soon reports that he found Lucy's body and buried her, at this Lucy's fiancee charges to the Comanche camp and is killed.
Ethan and Martin continue this search, a search that takes them 5 years. In this time, Debbie has crossed childhood and marries an Indian chief called Scar, a native Indian who is the same as Ethan. Just as Ethan hates native Indians, Scar hates the whites. This knowledge transforms Ethan, he is struck by hatred at the fact that Debbie is now married to a native Indian, and his mission is now converted to killing Debbie. Soon after, Martin and Ethan manage to meet Debbie, where Martin manages to save Debbie from getting killed by Ethan.
Martin and Ethan find Debbie again, and this time the hatred in Ethan cannot be controlled. In a conflict, Martin kills Scar, and then Ethan does the incredible, he scalps Ethan. It is then he realizes that this hatred has made him become what he did not want. He realizes his emotions, and brings Debbie back to her friends and safety.

The Searchers, a 1956 epic movie starring John Wayne, and directed by John Ford

The Comancheros - Starring John Wayne (1961)

The Comancheros was a Western movie starring John Wayne. The movie is reckoned as one of the better of Wayne's western movies. John Wayne also played a role in direction of the movie (although his role in direction is not credited, since he took over the direction after the Director, Michael Curtiz, cancer-stricken, was unable to complete the movie) along with action specialist Cliff Lyons. The movie is about Wayne's role as a Texas Ranger who is accompanying a convict after a duel, and how they strike a partnership to fight the bad guys.

The year is set as 1843. Dueling has been banned, and Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman) has just had a duel with the son of a Louisiana judge, and as a result of the death of the son in the duel, Regret has been sentenced to be hanged. He escapes, and Texas Ranger Jake Cutter (John Wayne) is sent after him. Jake manages to capture Regret, and is taking him to his tryst with the hangman, however, Jake has another assignment, to infiltrate and destroy a group of white outlaws called the Comancheros. The Comancheros supply a group of American Indians called the Comanches with guns and whiskey, and incite them against to commit violence. The rest of the movie is about the fights they have, and how they eventually work as partners against the gang.

The Comancheros starring John Wayne and Stuart Whitman, released in 1961

The Untouchables starring Kevin Costner (1987)

The story of Al Capone, and the mafia as such, is a popular story with dramatists. There have been numerous books and movies that deal with the story of gangsters, and many of them have been exceedingly popular. The story of Al Capone, his rise, the terror he inflicted on society, the way he fought his way to the top, his exploitation of Prohibition to smuggle alcohol, all these were part of his mystique. What was equally remembered about him was the St. Valentine's Day massacre that he committed on his rivals, first disarming 7 of them using his men in police uniform, and then using Tommy guns on them. Equally remembered about him were the efforts of the Government to bring him down (even when Chicago and neighboring towns were controlled by his men, with the police and officials on his payroll), and how we was brought down on a charge of tax evasion rather than for the numerous crimes he committed. The jail term on him was a stiff one, and effectively broke his empire.

Brian De Palma made 4 gangster movies, these 4 being Scarface, Wise guys, Carlito's way, and The Untouchables. The other 3 movies were all about the gangsters, while The Untouchables takes the action from the perspective of lawkeepers, the persons out on a mission to capture the gangster, even when they have to follow rules and laws, while the Gangster can use any kind of force, can subvert the authorities, and threaten whoever they want. The Untouchables is the real life story of the people who managed to break the power of a mob lord against all these factors, and the methods they used (who would have believed that you could send a gangster to prison for tax evasion rather than for the various crimes!).
The movie is based on a subject that has been created earlier as well, and is essentially based on the autobiography of Eliot Ness. Eliot Ness was the agent who was sent to bring Al Capone to justice, and to free Chicago from his destructive and criminal ways. The movie starred Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Robert De Niro and Andy Garcia. Sean Connery won a best supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of the Irish American cop Jim Malone. The movie does not fully present this as a good vs. evil fight, also portraying the parts where Capone showed support for the poor by running soup kitchens and other similar efforts, as also the role where Ness actually throws a hood off the roof of a building rather than bring him in for justice.
The movie is well choreographed, with the scenes bringing out the drama. The scene right at the end, where the juries are switched is gripping, especially if you don't know the story. An eminently watchable movie.

Once Upon a Time in America (1984) - Directed by Sergei Leone

Sergei Leone became famous for the spaghetti westerns that he made, and for which he was the prime creator. At the same time, some of these westerns were very acclaimed movies, ranked among the great movies. One of the great westerns he made was 'Once Upon a time in the West' made in 1968, and it was almost from that time that he read a book by a mafia insider (known by a pseudonym called Harry Grey) called 'The Hoods'. He was inspired by this book, and wanted to make a movie out of this book, but because the movie rights of the book was held by another producer, it took him a couple of decades to finally make this movie. Over this long time, a number of different actors were thought of for the key roles of Max, Noodles, and Deborah (with the number of people being thought reading like a roll call of the actors of the movie industry), in the end, the main adult roles of the characters were played by Robert De Niro, James Woods, and Elizabeth McGovern (adult female lead), Jennifer Connelly (younger female lead).

The movie itself came in for controversy because of its long length. After the shooting, the director and editor found themselves with more than 8 hours of footage. Leone, not wanting to cut down from the many scenes, initially wanted to release the movie as 2 three hour long movie parts, but had to back down after the producers insisted. He finally cut down the movie to an almost 4 hour long, 229 minute movie (which is also fairly long by most standards). This 229 minute long movie was very well received by critics; but the US release had a different story. Against Leone's wishes, the movie was cut down further, by cutting another 90 minutes from the movie, resulting in a movie that was not welcomed by the critics. However, when they saw the original 229 minute cut, they changed their opinion, and that is the version that is the popular one now, with most people pretending that the shorter version does not exist.
The movie takes 3 different timelines, with different ages for the main characters. In the early part of the movie, in the early 1910's, with the characters in their early years, struggling to survive in the ghettoised neighborhood. Noodles and Max meet up, and become the local leaders of a small gang, until they have a fight with another gang, at which Noodles kills the the other gang leader and attacks a police officer. He is now jailed for 12 years.
After Max comes out of jail in 1932, he re-joins Noodles and other gang members, and they slowly start getting involved in Mafia matters, taking part in jobs, getting involved in strikes and being on the side of the union leaders. However, Noodles is hesitant at the pace proposed by Max and tries to get them to slow down. He calls the police when the gang is at another job in order to get them to slow down, but this results in an encounter in which his gang friends, including Max, are killed. Noodles goes to get the gang money, but finds that missing. He eventually changes his identity to escape the hunt by the Syndicate for the traitor, and lives in Buffalo for decades.
In the fast forward to the future, in 1968, Noodles returns to New York City, and finds that there are some surprised. He discovers that Max had actually faked his death with help from the Syndicate, and then deceived his friends, and had stolen the money. He now wants Noodles to assassinate him, but when Noodle refuses, Max commits suicide by throwing himself into a garbage truck (an iconic scene).
However, there is a flashback, where the Noodles of 1933, in an opium den, on the run from the Syndicate is shown; he is an opium induced trance, and the supposition is that the entire future events of 1968 are actually a dream, and this is something that Sergei Leone has confirmed in an interview.

Once Upon a Time in America (1984) - Directed by Sergei Leone, and starring Robert De Niro and James Woods

My name is Nobody (1973) - a comic Western

Spaghetti westerns were all the craze starting with the 'Man with No Name' series, starring Clint Eastwood, and directed by Sergei Leone. More directors and stars got into the act, and soon, there were a number of such movies in the market. However by, the early 1970's, the whole concept of spaghetti westerns were becoming a joke, and there were a number of movies made on the concept of creating a comedy western. There had been other comedy westerns made, such as the Trinity series (They Call Me Trinity and, Trinity Is STILL My Name!). Both of the Trinity movies also starred Terence Hill (making him the star of comedy westerns, while Henry Fonda was the star of serious westerns). The movie was mostly directed by Tonino Valerii, with Sergei Leone directing a few scenes, but since there was the involvement of Sergei, the movie came to be known as a Sergei Leone movie (something that Torino was not happy about). The music by Ennio Morricone was superb as usual.

However, 'My Name Is Nobody' is the story of a famous (and old) gunslinger Jack Beauregard (Henry Fonda); since he is famous, he is constantly hunted by the younger punks who want to challenge him, and if they win, they will be the next famous ones. Jack, after a lifetime of fighting, now just wants to hang up his boots, and is in Europe, hoping for some peace and quiet.
The movie starts out with 3 men challenging Jack, and they are dispatched in a barber's shop; and there the name of the movie is born, since, when asked who can defeat Jack, the barber replies "Faster than him? Nobody!"
And Nobody is Terence Hill, who is a big fan of Jack, and wants to setup him against a finale sequence against the Wild Bunch, a bunch of bandits. Nobody keeps after Jack, finally managing to get him into the fight against the Wild Bunch. Job and fight done, Nobody thanks Jack by setting up a fake fight with Jack, which is apparently won by Nobody, letting Jack off in retirement on a boat to Europe.

My name is Nobody (1973) (partial direction by Sergei Leone and starring Henry Fonda, Terrence Hill, and Jean Martin)

A Fistful of Dollars (1964): The original spaghetti western

In the 60's, and the early 70's, Spaghetti Westerns, shot with young or ageing US leads along with Spanish / Italian stars, and using an Italian / Spanish cast caught on, and continued till the early 70's, when people started getting tired of this line of films. Two of the people who were most closely associated with these types of movies were the director, Sergei Leone, and the young upcoming star, Clint Eastwood. Clint Eastwood came to be famous for a trilogy of movies called the "The Dollars Trilogy" or "The Man With No Name Trilogy" - primarily because Clint was not given a screen name in these movies, and this was in effect used as a promotion point for these movies. A Fistful of Dollars was the movie that started this trend, and was the first movie in the trilogy, with the others being For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). Most of these movies were shot in Spain, in regions that resembled the dry, wasteland like region of the American Southwest. Another great highlight of the movie was the music by Ennio Morricone.

The Spaghetti Western culture had a touch of irony to it, since the original role was offered to Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson, but both of them refused, and a few others, after which Clint Eastwood was signed on. With the success of the genre, both of them starred in a later movie of his, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).
A Fistful of Dollars is the story of a man arriving at a small town on the Mexican Border called San Miguel, and how he gets involved in the huge rivalry in the town between 2 families who want to establish their dominance in the town. These 2 families are;
- The Rojo brothers, Don Miguel, Esteban, and Ramón.
- The other family is that of the sheriff John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy)
The Man with No Name arrives in the town, and sees a chance to make some money ('a fistful of dollars') in this rivalry between them, but gets involved in a different way, by rescuing the captive of Ramon, Ramon's mistress (Marisol).
The Rojos catch Clint Eastwood and torture him for this effrontery, but he manages to get free with the help of the coffin maker. In their search for him, the Rojos finally get up on the Baxters by burning down their home and killing them all. Now that they are the one strong family in the town, the stranger returns to a final fight, and finally kills them all, and then moves out before the authorities make their presence felt.

A fistful of Dollars (1964), released in the United States in 1967, and starring Clint Eastwood, directed by Sergei Leone

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Sergio Leone was the king of the Spaghetti Western brand of movies, with Clint Eastwood being the star in many of those. Henry Fonda was another famous star of the era, acting as the hero in many a film. However, in this film, Henry Fonda plays one of the villains, with Charles Bronson playing the lead role in the movie. The movie 'Once Upon a time in the West' was released in 1968 in Europe and was a fairly big success, running for a long time in many cities. However, this was not be in the United States, where it was released in 1969, and was a flop. Like some other movies that were well made but did not do well commercially, Once Upon a Time in the West is now regarded as a very well made movie, and among the greatest westerns. The movie starred, besides Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson, Jason Robards as the bandit Cheyenne and Claudia Cardinale as Jill (a lady who arrives at her new house to find herself a widow and her entire family killed).

The movie is about the fight for getting control of the rights for providing water (and a supply depot) to the railroad that will run past the town of Flagstone, with the farm being in the best position to supply water and other supplies to the railroad. The movie starts with a scene of a remote town in Arizona, where a train arrives, on which a stranger with a harmonica in his mouth (Bronson) gets down, hoping to find Frank (Fonda) there, but instead meets 3 men with whom he has a showdown and, he is the only survivor. At the same on a remote farm, where the McBains are waiting for a new wife Jill (Claudia Cardinale) for Brett McBain, a gang led by Frank come and kill all of them.
Soon after, Jill arrives at the station and starts to the farm. On the way, she meets the harmonica player and also the bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards). When confronted by Branson about the shoot-out, Cheyenne denies that the men killed were his men. And then Jill arrives at the farm to find that her new family is all dead, but she tells the assembled crowd that she had already married McBain a month back. On the basis of some false evidence, the crowd believe that the murders were done by Cheyenne, and form a posse to hunt him down.
And then you start to discover as to why these killing happened .. this is all related to the railroad that the tycoon Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) was building that would go upto the Pacific, and Frank works for him. The story is interesting, with the collision between these different men, all of them with their own interests, and how they all come together in the end. The movie is interesting, and with some great scenes. A must watch.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) starring Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, and directed by Sergio Leone

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966) - A great Spaghetti Western

This is a movie that will certainly not win any major awards, and was a major constituent of what were called the 'spaghetti westerns'. It was a movie directed by Sergio Leone, and starred Clint Eastwood (and Sergio Leone was the master of the art, having made a large number of such movies). What were Spaghetti Westerns ? - These were films that started coming out in the 60's, and continued till they started becoming the butt of jokes in the 70's, after which these died out. The other specialty of these movies is that they were primarily directed and produced by Italians, with a mix of young and upcoming Hollywood actors, and many other members of the cast being a mix of Italian and Spanish actors. A large number of these movies were made with a desert, wild countryside, to resemble the American Southwest (although the shooting of many of them was done in a region of Spain that was similar).

The movie has 3 characters representing each of the 3 terms:
- The Good: Clint Eastwood as Blondie. Also famously known as 'The Man with No Name'. A bounty hunter who is the best of the 3, but who can shoot first if his morals allow it as a case of self-defense. He can also swindle as part of his bounty hunter job in order to make money. Blondie knows the name of the grave stone where confederate money is hidden, but his partner knows the name of the cemetery, and hence they need to work together.
- The Bad. Lee Van Cleef as Angel Eyes. A sociopath, a mercenary also known as 'Angel Eyes', who can kill or shoot anybody in his path. He, as a Sergeant interrogates Tuco, and discovers the name of the cemetery where the gold is hidden, but is unable to get the exact grave stone.
- The Ugly. Eli Wallach as Tuco. More of a lout, wanted by the authorities (and he uses this fact as part of his partnership with Blondie to make money). He finds the name of the cemetery (Sad Hill Cemetery) where the gold is hidden, but Blondie gets to know the name of the grave stone. He is partnering with Blondie, but at some point, they are all in for themselves.

The movie is mainly about these 3, and their quest for finding hidden confederate gold. Blondie and Tuco are on/off partners, but are forced to become good partners when one of them gets to know the name of the cemetery where the gold is hidden, and the other gets to know the name of the grave stone. And then there is the third one, Angel Eyes, who also gets to know about the gold, and will not let anything stand in his way, including making a temporary partnership with Blondie to discover the gold. The movie is about their quest, mixed with scenes of treachery, bitter battles between the Union and Confederate forces (the movie is set in the Civil War timeframe). In the end, the three are standing in the cemetery, guns drawn, in a Mexican stand-off with each other. Who will win ?

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, a spaghetti western starring Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef (released in 1966)

Monday, August 31, 2009

Fugitive: A tight story of being one step ahead of the law

A fast paced action movie, with a fair amount of drama, a wrong court decision, and the need to get revenge (and clear his name) were some of the parts that made The Fugitive a very famous and commercially successful movie. The movie was nominated for a clutch of Oscars, and also earned more than $500 million worldwide. It helped that it starred 2 famous actors in the person of Harrison Ford (very famous for Star Wars and Indiana Jones), and Tommy Lee Jones. The movie also got good reviews from critics, making it really successful (it is not always seen for a movie to be both commercially successful and earn praise from critics).
The movie was released in 1993, and was based on a television series that aired on ABC between 1963 and 1967. The series ran for 4 years (interestingly, the first 3 seasons were in black and white, and the fourth season was in color). The movie has the same premise, where a doctor is charged for the murder of his wife, and escapes in order to prove his innocence.

The movie has principally 2 characters - Harrison Ford as Dr. Richard Kimble, and Tommy Lee Jones as Deputy United States Marshal Samuel Gerard. Dr. Kimble has been charged for the murder of his wife, based on the fact that his wife made a call to 911 which apparently led to Dr. Kimble being blamed for the murder. In addition, there was no evidence to back the claim of Dr. Kimble that a man with an artificial hand was responsible for the murder (there were no signs of somebody breaking into the house, there were no other fingerprints on the gun). Dr. Kimble was charged for murder, and convicted by a jury, sentenced to die.
However, on the way to prison in a bus (along with other convicts), there is a disturbance inside the bus that causes the bus to fall onto the path of an oncoming train. In the disturbance. Dr. Kimble manages to run away and is now being pursued by the United States Marshal service, led by officer Samuel Gerard. Kimble manages to change out of his prison uniform, shave, and alter his appearance, but Gerard is soon on the chase, and manages to corner him inside a storm drain inside a dam. The only option for Kimble to survive is by jumping into the flow of water falling from the dam, and he does so in a fairly spectacular shot.
Now, Kimble is on a mission to find people who have received a prosthetic arm, while striving to be hidden from the police who is chasing him. In the middle of this, while hidden in a hospital, he even saves a boy by altering the diagnosis and sending him to emergency surgery. Kimble even heads to the jail to try to find the one-armed man, but is not able to find him. He eventually gets into the home of a former police office called Frederick Sykes (Katsulas). Sykes was there in Kimble's list since he had received a prosthetic arm. It is in Sykes's home that Kimble finds evidence of what could have caused the attacks at Kimble's home, as well as the involvement of somebody close to Kimble. Can Kimble save himself from the police, and expose the involvement of others ?

The Fugitive was nominated for 7 Oscars:
Won: Best Supporting Actor - Tommy Lee Jones
Best Picture (lost to Schindler's List)
Best Cinematography (lost to Schindler's List)
Best Sound Effects Editing (lost to Jurassic Park)
Best Film Editing (lost to Schindler's List)
Best Original Music Score (lost to Schindler's List)
Best Sound (lost to Jurassic Park)

The Fugitive (1993) Oscar award winning movie starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones

Friday, August 21, 2009

Maverick (1994) - a Western comedy starring Mel Gibson

The movie is based on a Television Series that ran between 1957 and 1962, starring James Garner in the lead role (and the 1994 film was not the first movie made on this TV series, just the latest). What does Maverick actually mean ? Maverick was termed after Samuel A. Maverick (1803–70), a Texas pioneer who left his calves unbranded (as opposed to most people who put a brand on their livestock). Maverick is also a term used for somebody who takes a stand very different from colleagues, and in the case of the movie, maverick is meant to depict a person who behaves most unpredictably.
The movie was meant to be a good combination of humour (sometimes dark) along with a fast moving plot with surprises at every corner, and was a decent box office hit. It was never meant to be pitching for the Oscars, and hence must have been surprised when it got nominated for Oscar for Best Costume Design.
The movie is set in the American Wild West, with a certain disregard for the law, and where a man makes his own fortune with a gun and his own instincts. In this case, Bret Maverick (Mel Gibson) is on his way to a major five-card poker competition. Since he is a gambler, winning such a competition is a way to prove that he is the best. He however needs to collect money owed to him, and he needs this amount since there is a $25,000 entry fee for the tournament, and he is $3,000 short.

The movie is not only about the poker competition, but also about the journey that Maverick takes to reach there. He meets 3 co-passengers called Angel (Alfred Molina), a young con-artist calling herself Mrs Annabelle Bransford (Jodie Foster), and Marshal Zane Cooper, a legendary lawman of the west (this role is essayed by James Garner, who played Bret Maverick (played by Mel Gibson in the movie) in the original TV series). Maverick is going to have a running battle with Angel during the movie, as they are also rival gamblers.
They go through a series of adventures, including one in which the driver of the stage-coach dies when the coach is moving at full speed and the coach needs to be controlled, more adventures with Indians, manipulated by Maverick. In between Angel waylays Maverick, attempting to hang him from a tree. However, Maverick eventually escapes and manages to join the game. Eventually, after early rounds, the 4 finalists of the game are Bransford, Angel, Maverick, and Commodore Duvall (James Coburn), who is the organizer of the tournament, and the owner of the boat on which the tournament is being held. Cooper is responsible for security of the tournament.
Eventually, Maverick wins, and in the resultant shoot-out, Angel is killed by Cooper and Maverick. However, the movie has its twists in the end, and Cooper runs away with the money rather than give it to Maverick, and it further turns out that the Commodore was also in league with Cooper. What happens next ? Does Maverick get the money back ? What about Bransford ?

Maverick (released in 1994), starring Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, and James Garner

Sunday, August 2, 2009

300 (Released in 2007) - Historical battle and valour

The ancient world was replete with fights and wars. Armies travelled long distances to fight, and warfare was often with massive casualties. One of the most famous kings of the ancient times was Xerxes The Great (Xerxes 1 of Persia), and he was involved with one of the most famous battles of historic times. This was the Battle of Thermopylae (wikipedia), where a much smaller contingent of Greek troops led by the King Leonidas I of Sparta fought till the end to hold off a much larger contingent (in the millions) of Persian troops led by King Xerxes. This was a battle that is part of modern strategy because of the use of terrain planning to level the odds of superior armed forces. King Leonidas was also fighting a rear-guard battle with his Spartan council to get them to support him over this battle, and he wanted to shame them with his valiant sacrifice to take action. In the end, he was betrayed by a traitor (Ephialtes) from within the Greek citizenry who revealed a small path that allowed the Persians to outflank the small Greek army.

300 Historic Movie with battle between Persia and Greek, released in 2007

The movie is a copy of a graphic comic-book style novel by Frank Miller (with the novel having the same name), and is not a re-telling of the actual battle. It is a heavily dramatized telling of the story, and hence also became controversial. In Iran, the movie was heavily criticized because the movie did not portray the Persian army and its King in a very positive light. The movie was directed by Zack Snyder. The movie was also shot in a novel way, with the characters acting against the background of bluescreens in a Studio (shot in a digital backlot technique). This was seen as very innovative and got a lot of publicity. The score of the movie was also controversial because after release, it started becoming clear that the score seemed to be heavily inspired from other movies, and was eventually acknowledged by Warner Bros. Pictures in an official statement.
The movie is about the conflict between King Leonidas of Sparta and the Persian Emperor Xerxes. Xerxes wants the Greeks to acknowledge their submission to him, something the proud Spartan king refuses to accept. Leonidas now anticipates war, and wants the support of the Council of Sparta and the priesthood (Ephor), but the Ephors do not support him (they have been bought over by the Persians). Without this support, Leonidas sets out with a small force to fight at a superior terrain where we can fight and hold off the numerically many times superior Persians. And hence the battle starts at Thermopylae. where Leonidas refuses riches by Xerxes and promises to make him bleed. The Spartans used their tight formations to defeat the many thrusts by the Persians, but look set for defeat when they are betrayed and a secret path is shown to the Persians.
In Sparta, the Queen is trying to rally support, and eventually manages to get the Council united in battle against the Persians. Eventually, the Spartans are beaten by the sheer force of the Persians, but by this time, the Greeks send in a force that has a much higher number of warriors. With memories of losses against 300 Spartans, the Persian army is low on morale, and eventually lose the final battle, the Battle of Plataea (Wikipedia).

The Day After Tomorrow (2004) - Global Warming scenario accelerated

This was a movie released in 2004, at a time when the Bush Administration was steadfast in claiming that there was no global warming (or rather, that the science proving it was not confirmed), and there were sections of the scientific community and in society that were unhappy over this attitude of the administration. The fact that the admnistration was much closer to the business community which would be affected if measures needed to be taken to fight global warming compounded the response of this section of society. So keep in mind this fact while watching the movie, given that it touts that global warming can cause huge damages to our community, and that the political leadership is too blinkered to be able to take effective measures.
Global warming is a fact, and nations all over the world are talking (mostly talking) about how to address this problem, and are debating who needs to take what steps. It is a game for rich nations to worry about the effect on the economy, a huge debate between rich and poor nations about responsibility and steps to be taken, but it is coming and will keep on affecting us. This movie took the scare due to global warming to a much higher level, and keep in mind that there are almost no scientists who share the vision of a much accelerated change that is shown in the movie.

The Day After Tomorrow (2004) - apocalyptic science-fiction, Vision of Disaster

The movie was hugely successful (earning more than 650 million dollars), and brings to its viewers a vision of the full power of Mother Nature. The movie however did not earn much critical acclaim for its scientific background, and was criticized by a number of scientists working in the Global warming area; the feeling being that the movie, by showcasing a sudden onset of disaster and moving away from the decades based impact of global warming and makes the whole science seem freakish and unconvincing. One area where the movie won a lot of praise was in the area of its special effects, especially the disaster scenes.
The movie starts with scientific research on the ice shelf, Larsen Ice Shelf. Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) is drilling for ice cores in the Antartic for NOAA. Suddenly, the ice shelf separates, and Jack almost dies. Jack travels to a conference on Global Warming in New Delhi where diplomats from all over the world have gathered in order to present his theory, but of course, politicians (including the Vice-President of the United States (resembling Dick Cheney)) refuse to believe him. However, the weather has other ideas. Another scientist (Professor Terry Rapson (Ian Holm) of the Hedland Climate Research Centre in Scotland) looks at Jack's theory and does not dismiss it. When he returns to Scotland, data from 2 water buoys in the North Atlantic show sudden drops in the temperature of the water. Unknown to humanity, the deep chill caused by global warming has begun.
Professor Rapson and Jack talk about Jack's theory, but Jack's theory was over a long period of time, not supposed to happen suddenly. Jack starts to build a computer model based on his theory, and on data, and the model is horrific in terms of what will happen. And the weather systems all over go haywire. Tokyo is hurt by a huge hailstorm, Los Angeles is decimated by tornadoes, planes get caught in the weather turbulence. Eventually, air traffic is stopped. British RAF helicopters are suddenly frozen as they pass through the eye of a superstorm. The human element to the movie is the father-son relationship between Jack and his son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) who have travelled to New York City for a competition, when the weather system turns haywire. Jack heads to New York to get them back to safety.
The predictions of storms, of an ice wave are so strong that it is recommended to evacuate the Northern Unites Stated and move to the South and to Mexico. In the meantime, Sam along with friends have taken refuge in the New York Public Library. Eventually, Jack manages to make it to the Library and get help for everybody over there, after the superstorm has passed.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Last Samurai (2003) - starring Tom Cruise

The Last Samurai is set during tumultuous times in both the United States and Japan. The movie is set during the 1870's, a decade after the American Civil War, a time when the United States fought an intense internal war between the forces of the Union and the Confederates. Similarly, there were dramatic changes going on in Japanese society at that time. The 'samurai' (warrior class) that were a major elements in Japanese society were losing their position and influence, and a proper military was starting to form. This was the time of the Meiji Restoration of 1867-1868 (wikipedia).
The story of the movie is about an old warrior, named Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), who is a veteran of the Indian wars (where the United States Army fought the Native Indian tribes), and who is traumatized by his role in a massacre of Native Indians. He is wandering around pretty aimlessly, making a living by recounting his adventures in gun shows, something that earns him a living, but does nothing to enliven his life.

Movie poster - The Last Samurai (2003) - starring Tom Cruise

However, he is a perpetual drunk, and is finally fired from his job; now he has pretty much no options other than to accept an offer to train the Imperial Japanese army (part of the growing western influences in Japan post the Meiji Restoration). This offer is made to him by his former commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn). Algren pretty much blames Bagley for his transgressions during the war, and has no love lost for him. This offer from Bagley is made on behalf of a Japanese businessman who has stakes in the restoration, called Mr. Omura (Masato Harada).
Algren goes about this task, training peasants and farmers in how to handle rifles as part of this training. However, in their first conflict, they come into battle with a group of rebel samurai warriors, led by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe); the army is unequal to the battle and gets defeated by the samurai. One of Algren's colleagues is killed in this attack, and Algren himself fights valiantly, defeating and killing the brother-in-law of the samurai leader. In this fight, he uses a spear with a flag of a white tiger, and Katsumoto believes that to be an omen, and spares Algren's life and takes him prisoner.
Algren is now prisoner at a remote village, living in the house of Hirotaro, whom he had killed. In this village, Algren finally starts to become more at peace him himself, and also starts to really learn the art of wielding the samurai sword as well as learn the Japanese language. In a fight with ninja assassins who had attacked the village, Algren fights along with the samurai, and manages to give a good account of himself even though the samurai take several losses.
With spring, Algren is now back in Tokyo, but now refuses to support Omura in his battle with the samurai, and at the same time, Katsumoto is arrested even after offering advice to the emperor. Algren manages to help Katsumoto regain his freedom, even though in this effort, Katsumoto's son, Nobutada (Shin Koyamada) is killed. After regaining his freedom, Katsumoto learns that a better equipped army unit is going to attack a much smaller samurai force, and it is there that Algren recalls the Battle of Thermopylae, where a much smaller force used better technology and the advantage of terrain to defeat a much larger army.
This comes true as the samurai are able to lead the larger army into a trap, however, soon the samurai realize that the army will get backup units, and another such battle will mean defeat. They resolve to make an attack of their own. However, they face canon fire, something that proves murderous, and then a second unit of infantry. In a battle, Algren kills Bagley when Bagley attacks Katsumoto; but then the second line of Gatling guns hit the samurai as they advance. The Japanese army, then ceases fire in respect of the samurai. Katsumoto ends his life.
In the end, as the emperor prepares to sign a deal with American ambassadors that would make the US as the exclusive dealers for firearms, Algren presents Katsumoto's sword to the emperor; the emperor understands the message and refuses to sign the deal, and also reduces Omura's powers and influence when he objects. Algren returns for the peace he finally found to the small Japanese village.

Track listing:
"A Way of Life"– 8:03
"Spectres in the Fog"– 4:07
"Taken"– 3:36
"A Hard Teacher"– 5:44
"To Know My Enemy"– 4:48
"Idyll's End"– 6:40
"Safe Passage"– 4:56
"Ronin"– 1:53
"Red Warrior"– 3:56
"The Way of the Sword"– 7:59
"A Small Measure of Peace"– 7:59

Sunday, July 12, 2009

El Cid (1961) - The story of a hero

El Cid, the legendary hero of Spain was a real person named Don Rodrigo Diaz de Bivar ((c. 1040, Vivar, near Burgos – July 10, 1099, Valencia)). He lived around 1035 A.D. Although he spent much of his time fighting on the side of the Moors, he became identified as the best incarnation of the true Castilian Christian spirit. His name came from the Arabic "sayyid" meaning "lord" or "chief." He was a nobleman, who was educated in the royal court of Castile, and was one of the leading warriors of Alfonso VI against the Moors. He is considered the national hero of Spain.
As is expected, a movie made on such a hero is always made more romantic than reality, with acts of heroism and valor magnified, and when the movie has such actors such as Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren, the movie seems much more romanticized than the original. The movie was released in 1961 and earned 3 Oscar nominations, but was unable to win any Oscars.

El Cid, the 1961 Oscar nominated film starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren

The movie was directed by Anthony Mann, and was shot primarily on location in Spain (including the historic castles of Belmonte (Cuenca) and Peñíscola (Castellón)), with a smaller number of scenes being shot in Rome. The movie used real swords during the shooting, so you would expect that the action scenes needed a much better control and thorough safety measures.
El Cid was part of an aristocratic family, but not very powerful or high in the Spanish royal court. However, he became famous as a man who was a warrior at the same time as he was a peacemaker, willing to spare enemies if they swore their allegiance to his king. This was a time when there were many royals, with many of these royals fighting for power, and fighting for the throne. And this was also a time when the Moors were fighting for gaining space in Spain, in their quest to introduce the power of Islam inside Spain.
He was to fight back charges of treason, and eventually loses favor at the royal court, becoming a mercenary when his king Alfonso abandons him. He even fights on the side of the Moors, but eventually comes back to support his king when he is called back. He also came to command much more influence among the common people, earning their respect, and forming his own army composed of both Christians and Moors, forming his own fiefdom comprising the city of Valencia and its neighboring regions.
The book had some great scenes, such as the fight between two single warriors to get control of the city, which was a great fight. Shooting on location imparted some incredible majesty and splendor to the movie.

12 Angry Men (1957) - One man's fight for justice

The title above may seem like it is describing a man fighting for justice for himself, but in fact, the story is about a man fighting to get proper justice for an accused. In the United States, decisions for criminal cases are supposed to be evaluated by a jury made up of fellow citizens, who listen to the evidence, and its presentation by the prosecutors and by the defense; in the end, the jury has to reach a verdict that the judge follows. The movie hinges on the fact that for serious crimes, the verdict of the 12 member jury has to be unanimous, and if even one juror objects and does not agree to a unanimous verdict, the jury is called a hung trail, with the case being declared as a mistrial. There is pressure on the minority jury members to reach a verdict, else the jury has to sit for as long as it takes to reach a verdict; it is only if the foreman reaches a decision that a unanimous verdict cannot be reached, does the jury get dismissed.

12 Angry Men (1957), English film starring Henry Fonda

The movie is about the murder trial of a teenager from poor and disturbed circumstances, who is accused of killing his father. The presentation of evidence is over, the lawyers have made their arguments, and the jury is now deliberating on the judgment. They have been instructed by the judge that they need to reach a verdict of whether the defendant is guilty of murder or not, and if they do reach a verdict of guilty, then the defendant will be sentenced to a mandatory sentence of death.
When a quick vote is taken, it is found that 11 of the jurors (all 12 are white men) are in favor of a death sentence, only Juror # 8 (Henry Fonda) does not vote guilty. In fact, Henry Fonda is not sure about the guilty or not, but believes that some of the evidence presented is circumstantial, and that the jurors must do a fair deliberation before judging the accused to be guilty (and sending him to his death). And thus, you have an excellent movie where you can see the mood of the jury (and individual jurors), as they go through the evidence, deliberate, and review their vote. Jurors change their votes depending on the evidence they hear during the discussion, with a few of them reversing their votes, and one of them voting guilty only because he is bigoted. Eventually, all of them change their vote to Not Guilty.
The movie was based almost entirely in one room, through the deliberations by the jury members, excepting for a couple of scenes in a washroom, and beginning and closing scenes on the steps of the courtroom. The movie did not so well commercially, but has now been recognized as a classic movie, with the role of Juror # 8 being one of the top 50 heroes.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Double Indemnity (1944) - Insurance and murder

Double indemnity is a clause or provision in a life insurance or accident policy whereby the company agrees to pay the stated multiple (e.g. double) of the face amount in the contract in cases of accidental death. An accidental death is a death that is neither intentionally caused by a human being, such as homicide, nor from natural causes, such as cancer or heart disease. The probability of a death in the United Stated arising from accidental reasons has a low probability, and hence double indemnity is an insurance scenario that is sold cheaply. As you might think, for a couple where either member is thinking of separating and is willing to become a criminal, the thought of bumping off your spouse in a way that the death can be claimed as an accidental death can seem very attractive. But not all the plans in life work out, and the insurance industry has sleuths who investigate accidental death cases in order to rule out any fraud.

Double Indemnity (1944) starring  Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson and directed by Billy Wilder

Double Indemnity is a multiple Oscar nominated movie, released in 1944, and directed by Billy Wilder, based on the theme of Double Indemnity where a wife seeks to get her husband murdered, with the depiction as an accident. The movie was based on a novella by James M. Cain of the same name, that appeared over 8 issues of the 1935 edition of Liberty magazine. The story is based on the 1927 case of a lady based in Queens, Ruth Snyder, who along with her lover got her husband murdered after he took out an insurance scheme with a double indemnity clause.
The movie plays out in flashback, with Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), an insurance salesman for Pacific All-Risk dictating his story into a dictaphone for the benefit of his colleague, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), who is a claims adjuster, and investigating the same case that Neff is intimately involved in. Neff is in his death throes, being shot and badly wounded.
The story was that Neff met Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) at her house when he had gone to renew the car insurance of her husband. They flirt, and then Barbara asks Neff how to take out a new insurance policy on her husband without her husband getting to know, something that causes the suspicious antenna on Neff to start working, for a person in the insurance business, that question is very fishy, and he suspects that she wants her husband killed. He refuses, but she follows him to his house and persuades him to become part of a plan to kill her husband. They work out a plan where her husband falls from a moving train.
The insurance company sends Keyes to investigate, who after some initial hesitation, concludes that Barbara must have a hand in this murder. He has no knowledge about the involvement of Neff. Then Lola, the dead man's daughter and the step-daughter of Phyllis comes to Neff for help, especially since her mother had died when Phyllis was taking care of her as a nurse. Neff soon realizes that Phyllis is also seeing Lola's boy-friend, and soon realizes that he can get Phyllis and the boy-friend to become the main suspects.
Neff has a confrontation with Phyllis, and Phyllis shoots first, but does not shoot again, refraining from making the killing attack; accepting that her refusal to shoot again means she could now be in love with Neff. She hugs Neff, who then shoots her dead. Neff drives back to the office, for the end of the flashback, and collapses on the floor of the office after making his confession, in time for Keyes to hear everything.

Oscar nominations;
Best Actress in a Leading Role (Barbara Stanwyck)
Best Cinematography, Black-and-White
Best Director (Billy Wilder)
Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture
Best Picture
Academy Award for Best Sound, recording
Best Writing, Screenplay

Friday, May 29, 2009

West Side Story (1961)

There are many movies that have been adapted from screenplays or from books, and West Side Story is one of the most successful of the lot. The movie was adapted from a running screenplay of the same name, which was adapted from a very famous piece of work by Shakespeare called 'Romeo and Juliet'. The movie credits the direction by 2 people - Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. Jerome Robbins was the first director, and he was also the director of the stage version, as well as being responsible for planning and directing all music and dance sequences in the film, as well as all the fight scenes. However, when around 60% of the movie had been shot, the producer of the movie (Robert Wise) felt that the costs had not been in check, and Robbins was fired. In the end, when the movie earned 10 Oscars (out of a total of 11 Academy Awards nominations), Robbins got a special award.

Poster for West Side Story, movie released in 1961 that won 10 Oscars

The concept of 'Romeo and Juliet' is an extremely old concept, valid in different cultures and across geographies. The theory that a girl and boy from 2 rival clans meet, fall in love, and fall victim to the enmity between their clans (and getting killed due to this rivalry) is something that finds mention in a lot of different cultures. This movie is also based on the same concept, with the clans being modified to be 2 different gangs set in New York in the 1950's. These are 2 rival gangs called the American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks (and these are composed of members from different racial backgrounds), fighting for supremacy over the New York neighborhoods in which they operate.
The romantic duo are Tony (Richard Beymer), who is a former member of the Jets gang (and also its co-founder), and Maria (Natalie Wood), who is the sister of Bernardo (George Chakiris), the head of the rival Puerto Rican immigrants gang, the Sharks. These 2 meet at a dance, to which Tony has gone to convey a message about a challenger between the 2 gangs, something that would decide the rivalry once and for all.
The movie is a musical, so there are several song and dances about the tension in the gangs as they proceed to a final rumble (the challenge) between them, along with the excitement in the life of Tony and Maria as their love increases. The story climaxes when Maria requests Tony to stop the rumble, and Tony is subject to ridicule from the gang members when he tries to stop them. His attempts are met with scorn, and the Jets head Riff cannot stand to see this ridicule of his close friend and starts fighting with Bernardo. In this tussle, Bernardo kills Riff, and Tony kills Bernardo in revenge. At this point, the police arrive and the gang members disperse.
Maria is informed by another gang member Chino (Jose DeVega) about the fight and about Tony killing her brother. When Tony arrives, Maria is very angry, but Tony manages to convince her by detailing what happened at the fight, and by offering to surrender to the police. However, the story happens in tragedy when Tony and Maria are about to meet, Chino comes in and shoots Tony. It is in this tragedy that the gangs unite, when member of both gangs carry Tony's body.

Academy awards:


Academy Award for Best Picture – Robert Wise, producer
Academy Award for Directing – Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise
Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor – George Chakiris
Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress – Rita Moreno
Academy Award for Best Art Direction (Set Decoration, Color) – Victor A. Gangelin and Boris Leven
Academy Award for Best Cinematography (Color) – Daniel L. Fapp
Academy Award for Costume Design (Color) – Irene Sharaff
Academy Award for Film Editing – Thomas Stanford
Academy Award for Original Music Score of a Musical Picture – Saul Chaplin, Johnny Green, Irwin Kostal, and Sid Ramin
Academy Award for Sound – Fred Hynes (Todd-AO SSD), and Gordon Sawyer (Samuel Goldwyn SSD)


Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium – Ernest Lehman

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Rebel Without a Cause (1955): The James Dean classic

Rebel Without a Cause (released in 1955) is an iconic movie, and hard to believe that the movie is now more than 50 years old. The movie is part of the youth culture now, with the concept of teenager angst being a central theme of the movie, and the phrase 'Rebel without a cause' is an integral a part of normal everyday language. The interesting thing about the origin of the name of this movie was that it was based on the name of a book (Robert M. Lindner's 1944 book, Rebel Without A Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath). The name of the movie was taken from the book, but otherwise there is no relation between the storyline of the book and the movie.
James Dean had a very short movie career, only starring in 2 other movies besides this one (Giant, and East of Eden), before dying in a car crash. However, he was incredibly remembered for long, and his portrayal of a young volatile and nervous teenager who is rebellious against his parents and society was a great role.

Rebel Without a Cause (1955): The James Dean classic

The movie portrays the life of teenagers who did not fit into the normal and sugar portrayal of movies of that era, with the movie attempting to take their viewpoint and explaining what makes them rebellious (in sharp contrast to a lot of movies who would try and see how a teenager could be made to see light). The combination of Director Nicholas Ray and screen-writer Stewart Stern scripted a movie that has become 'the' portrayal of youthful angst.
James Dean portrays the role of 17 year old Jim Stark, who moves to Los Angeles along with his parents and enrolls in the local school. He is soon in trouble, brought into the police station for public drunkenness; and soon you realize what one of the motifs of the movie is. His family comes to get him out of the police station, and then you realize that part of what makes him so rebellious is that he does not have a strong father figure - his father and mother frequently quarrel, including in front of Jim. His father bows down many times in such a quarrel, leading to Jim realizing that his father does not have a strong backbone. In the police station, he also meets 2 other characters who are with him through the movie - a 15-year-old boy, John, nick-named Plato (Sal Mineo) who starts to idolize Jim, and Judy (Natalie Wood), who was in the police station for being out after dark.
Judy is a member of the gang of Buzz Gunderson (Cory Allen), somebody whom Jim has an ongoing battle with. In a 'chicken race' with Buzz, where the challenge is to see who first jumps out of a car heading towards a cliff, Buzz gets stuck to the car and goes over the cliff. This experience is unsettling to Jim, but he is unable to get any kind of understanding from his parents when he tries to explain to them. The members of Buzz's gang also start pursuing Jim and Judy (and Plato, who is along with them), and the fight takes a tragic turn when Plato is escaping from the police with a loaded pistol, and is shot by a police officer in self defense.
Originally, Jim's parents think he has been killed, but then realize that he is alive, and this causes a change whereby Jim's father decides to be a better father figure.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Rob Roy (1995)

Far more people would have seen the story of the Scot legend, William of Wallace (as depicted by Mel Gibson. Braveheart was a hugely successful film, detailing the efforts of an exceptional man to win the freedom of his country (Scotland) from the oppressive rule of the English royalty. Incidentally, there was a movie released just a month and a half before Braveheart, this one also dealing with the efforts of a Scottish hero who seeks to prove his honesty and bravery while facing incredible odds.
This was the movie Rob Roy, starring Liam Neeson in the title role of the Scottish Chieftain Rob Roy MacGregor, battling intrigue spun by feudal landowners, and how he manages to clear his name. The movie was nominated for a single Oscar (Best Supporting Actor) for the portrayal of the villain Archibald Cunningham (a psychopathic character) - played by Tim Roth.

Rob Roy (1995) starring Liam Neeson, Jessica Lange, John Hurt

MacGregor is a chieftain who wants to get into the business of trading Highland cattle, and hence borrows 1,000 pounds from the Marquess of Montrose (John Hurt). He entrusts the money to his sub-chieftain, but is however devastated when the Marquesses' factor (person tending to his grounds and collecting rents) Killearn (Brian Cox) and his sociopathic protégé Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth) murder the sub-chieftain for the money. No one knows that they have done this, but the net result is that MacGregor is now in debt to the Marquess for 1,000 pounds (a sizeable amount).
When he wants to try to make a settlement with the Marquess, the Marquess agrees, but wants MacGregor to falsely testify that the Duke of Argyll (Andrew Keir) is involved with a Jacobite plot (an attempt to bring back the Catholic King James to the throne of England and evict the Protestant kings from the throne). MacGregor is not comfortable with perjuring himself and refuses. With this, hopes of clemency from the Marquess vanish and the Marquess orders Cunnigham to take MacGregor to debtors prison. MacGregor runs away, and his house and wife bear the brunt. His house is destroyed, livestock killed, and his wife Mary raped by the psychopathic Cunnigham. This is discovered by MacGregor's brother Alasdair, but he is sworn to secrecy by Mary.
MacGregor and Mary find out the truth about the stealing of the money from Betty, who is a chambermaid at the residence of Montrose, and who had been having an affair with Cunningham and who is dismissed from service when she becomes pregnant. She however kills herself before she can testify. And so goes a constant battle by MacGregor to prove the complicity of Killearn and Cunningham in the killing and theft, with constant struggles. In the end, a duel is arranged between MacGregor and Cunningham, where MacGregor is on the edge of defeat, but just when he is going to face the final blow, he counter-attacks and kills Cunningham.