Monday, August 10, 2020

A Reel Retro Review: HAWAII (1966)

With no new films to review for the foreseeable future, Reel Speak will randomly review a classic film from the TCM library every week. Not just for the sake of filling time, but to hopefully introduce some overlooked and perhaps forgotten screen gems from the past to those of us who may be unfamiliar or unawares of their existence. 



One of the great joys of digging through films of the long past is discovering a movie packed with Hollywood legends before they were known as legends. One such example is George Roy Hill’s 1966 epic drama and Oscar nominee, HAWAII. 
The year is 1819. Newly ordained minister Reverend Abner Hale (Max von Sydow), volunteers to bring Christianity to the islands of Hawaii. After meeting the requirement of being married, he takes his new bride Jerusha (Julie Andrews), and a group of missionaries which includes his friend Dr. John Whipple (Gene Hackman). Once on the island, Abner deals with a clash of cultures and the arrival of Jerusha’s former suitor; whaling Captain Hoxworth (Richard Harris). 
Based on the 1959 novel of the same name by James A. Michener, HAWAII is centered on Abner’s cold and unrelenting faith and strict interpretations of the Bible, where even his love and affection for his own wife can be considered sinful. This creates tension between Abner and Jerusha, which makes the good Reverend’s life all the more stressful as he tries his hardest to teach, or hammer into the heads of the natives the word of God. Abner is resolute and relentless in his mission, going as far as eradicating thousands of years of Hawaiian tradition and beliefs. The arrival of Captain Hoxworth and his rowdy crew makes things even more difficult, and Abner finds himself in a battle on many fronts. HAWAII ultimately is a story of one man’s indomitable faith, one that deflects every stone cast. At the heart of it is Jerusha, who remains faithful despite many hardships. 
Directed by George Roy Hill, HAWAII films the island beautifully and in all of its glory. The sea-crossing, which includes high waves and a nearly flooded ship, is executed very well and is impressive for 1960’s standards. Elmer Bernstein’s score is excellent. 
Acting is also excellent from the ensemble cast. Max von Sydow commands the screen, and finds a balance between protagonist and villain. The great Julie Andrews is wonderful as always, and a scene where she painfully gives birth without medication shows her great range. Gene Hackman is his usual great self, and Richard Harris nearly unrecognizable as a young sea captain. Carrol O’Connor, years before he would become Archie Bunker, comes in as Jerusha’s father and is a treat. 
HAWAII ends as a tragic film, but as any good tragedy should do, offers a ray of hope. Faith, culture, and family are its explored themes and each one serves as an excellent backdrop in what finishes as an impactful story. At 189 minutes it is indeed epic, and worthy of that name. 
BOTTOM LINE: See it 
*
HAWAII would be nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Supporting Actress for Hawaiian actress Jocelyne LaGarde, who was in her first film role. She would win a Golden Globe in that category. Director George Roy Hill would go on to direct BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969), and THE STING (1973). Entertainment legend Bette Midler makes her first film appearance here. 



Wednesday, August 5, 2020

A Reel Opinion: The Top 10 Best Movie Monologues



The Monologue. Anyone who has seen more than one movie knows it when it comes. The story takes a pause, and a character or two launches into a speech that goes longer than one or two lines. The technique is used to express character thoughts, provide exposition, or to rally the story forward. It has roots in ancient Greek theatre, and has been in film for so long that is often parodied or even drawn attention to, with Pixar’s THE INCREDIBLES (2005), famously poking fun at it. 

Despite being around for so long, the monologue still works as an effective way to push the story, and over the years we’ve had many iconic examples. War movies are a perfect home for the rallying speech, with George C. Scott’s opening speech in PATTON (1970) one of the best, along with one or two memorable ones from APOCALYPSE NOW (1979). Quentin Tarantino, one of the best dialogue writers of our generation, has penned many great ones, with some of his best coming via Samuel L. Jackson in PULP FICTION (1994), and with David Carradine’s superhero-breakdown in KILL BILL VOL. 2 (2004). Those superhero movies are also a good home to the monologue (as THE INCREDIBLES told us), with some standouts coming from SUPERMAN (1978), and THE DARK KNIGHT (2008). Al Pacino had a movie full of them in THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE (1997), and the late great Robin Williams had a pair of greats from GOOD WILL HUNTING (1998), and DEAD POETS SOCIETY (1989). The best monologues are the ones that are often quoted, stand out tall in the film, stand the test of time, and are essential to the film’s functionality. And that brings us to Reel Speak’s Top 10 Best Movie Monologues. 

So let’s get…..






10. Mad as Hell
From NETWORK (1976)



This Blogger has always found NETWORK to be way too over-the-top, but there is no denying the cultural impact the film has had over the last 40 years. Peter Finch plays Howard Beale, a former news anchor whose firing leads him to on-air rants that his network looks to exploit. It’s a story of network-business ethics, and Beale’s iconic “I’m mad as hell” is a rallying cry for all the common folk to unite against a world going to heck. As relevant today as it was in 1976. 




9. There was an idea
From THE AVENGERS (2012)



Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) rallies Earth’s mightiest heroes together after a crushing defeat in Joss Whedon’s genre-breaking super-team blockbuster. AVENGERS may have been a spectacle, but Whedon’s knack for dialogue shines in Fury’s speech which provides the motivation for bringing together extraordinary people; to fight the battles the rest of us never could. This became not only the root of all the following AVENGERS movies over the next decade, but ground-zero for all superhero films. 





8. Get busy living
From THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994)



One would not expect a drama about a man going to prison for a crime he didn’t commit to have a rousing, inspirational impact…but Frank Darabont’s adaptation of the Stephen King novella does exactly that; with the exclamation point coming at the very end by way of Morgan Freeman. Freeman plays Red, an old convict finally out of prison and on his way to find his friend. His monologue, which closes the film, addresses hope and importance of capitalizing on second-chances at life. Freeman earned an Oscar nomination for this film and has since then become Hollywood’s favorite narrator…both well deserved. 




7. People will come
From FIELD OF DREAMS (1989)



The love we have for baseball is summed up beautifully in James Earl Jones’ speech near the end of one of the best baseball films ever made. Things are not looking good for Ray (Kevin Costner), and his family, as they are about to lose their farm and magical baseball field. But he is swayed to stay the course thanks to this poetic speech, which inspires hope and sums up American baseball, along with the power of nostalgia, in a nutshell. 




6. They may take our lives…
From BRAVEHEART (1995)



Mel Gibson’s rally-cry at the head of a battle has often been imitated, mocked, and parodied with and without love…and all that points towards a speech that has made an impact one way or another. Gibson directs, and stars as legendary Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace in this Best Picture winner, and his thunderous war-rally on horseback in front of starving and outnumbered fighters is enough to get anyone into battle. 




5. Men of the West
From THE LORD OF THE RINGS – THE RETURN OF THE KING (2003)



Peter Jackson’s Oscar-sweeping adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary masterpieces may have taken a page out of Gibson’s BRAVEHEART with this scene and rally-speech, but that’s perfectly fine because this one really gets the job done in an emotional wallop. Viggo Mortensen plays Aragorn, destined to be the next King of Men…facing an incoming army of orcs that has him outnumbered. Fear strikes into the heart of his army and himself, but as any great leader is supposed to do…he delivers a speech that unites. What makes it even better is that the monologue is a summation of the journey Aragorn has taken through the films; from closed-off recluse to an inspiring King. 




4. In the name of God
From TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962)



Gregory Peck plays Atticus Finch, a defense attorney tasked with defending a black man in this adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic novel. Finch’s closing argument on the surface may seem like something right out of TV’S LAW AND ORDER, but underneath is a call for justice in the name of equal rights. Finch addresses God, American ideals, and the true duty of the jurors; to put aside prejudices and judge by the evidence. 




3. You can’t handle the truth!
From A FEW GOOD MEN (1992)



Jack Nicholson plays Col. Jessup; the commander of a base in Cuba who may have taken his ideas of defending his country a bit too far; ideas that lead to the death of a young Marine. While on the witness stand, Jessup explodes into this memorable rant on his perception of what it takes to defend a country, and when prodded by the defense (Tom Cruise) for the truth, the now famous line that has been quoted endlessly was born. Everyone knows where this line came from. 




2. The U.S.S. Indianapolis
From JAWS (1975)



Robert Shaw co-wrote and delivered this quiet, yet epic speech in Steven Spielberg’s all-time great, JAWS. Shaw, in the role of Quint, the Ahab-like shark-hunter, tells the story of his time aboard the doomed battleship Indianapolis during WWII, which ended with him and his crewmates in the ocean for days surrounded by sharks. The based-on-a-true-story serves several purposes; to give the necessary backstory and motivation for Quint’s obsession with destroying sharks, and to give the movie the necessary pause, or Just Before the Battle, Mother moment before the finale. Perfectly written, shot, and acted…this is a highlight of JAWS and part of the template for blockbuster films for the next 40 years. 




1. Let us all unite
From THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940)



The most astounding thing about this masterpiece of writing is that it was composed eighty years ago and it is even more relevant today. The legendary Charlie Chaplin, in his first full-sound movie, plays a Jewish man who is mistaken for his country’s dictator in a comedy at Hitler’s expense. It was a mockery of Hitler years before Pearl Harbor would even bring America into WWII, which right away put Chaplin ahead of his time. The stirring speech is a condemnation of dictators and a praise for democracy, and it is also a call to arms which would eventually serve as a rally-cry for America. When played today, it is remarkably relevant and hasn’t aged a day. Chaplin delivers this monologue with a passion that leaps off the screen. This is one for the ages. 


 REEL SPEAK'S TOP 10 BEST MOVIE MONOLOGUES 

  1. Let us all unite - THE GREAT DICTATOR
  2. U.S.S. Indianapolis - JAWS
  3. You can't handle the truth - A FEW GOOD MEN
  4. In the name of God - TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
  5. Men of the West - THE RETURN OF THE KING
  6. They may take our lives - BRAVEHEART
  7. People will come - FIELD OF DREAMS
  8. Get busy living - THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION
  9. There was an idea - THE AVENGERS
  10. Mad as hell - NETWORK 
*

Special thanks to Dom Errico, friend of the blog, for suggesting this topic! 




Monday, August 3, 2020

A Reel Retro Review: THE THIN MAN (1933)

With no new films to review for the foreseeable future, Reel Speak will randomly review a classic film from the TCM library every week. Not just for the sake of filling time, but to hopefully introduce some overlooked and perhaps forgotten screen gems from the past to those of us who may be unfamiliar or unawares of their existence. 





In the last 20 years, the term “franchise” has been heard a lot in cinema. Any collection of related films that share the same universe or marketed as a series gets that label, with the last 5-10 years dominated by STAR WARS, MARVEL, and THE FAST & THE FURIOUS. Franchises dominate cinema these days, and most people think it’s a new thing…but the concept has been there from the start, with one of the earliest examples starting in 1933 with the whodunit film, THE THIN MAN. 

Nick (William Powell), and his wife Nora (Myrna Loy), are a famous husband-and-wife detective duo who are called out of semi-retirement to investigate the disappearance of a businessman who may be related to a string of murders…

With names like Holmes, Chan, and Marlowe…detective stories have always made for good cinema. Like any other whodunit film, THE THIN MAN has a mystery to unravel, but what separates this story from the other famous sleuths is that the couple of Nick and Nora, when we first meet them, have no interest in pursuing the case. In the early goings, Nick and Nora are enjoying their status as minor celebrities, enjoying lavish parties in high society where they both knock down martini after martini. When the case of the missing man comes knocking on their door, they are un-interested (there’s even a great line about the case getting in the way of their drinking), and even after circumstances eventually force them into the mystery they seem to take it on just to get it over with. 

It’s a layered mystery with several family members going after an inheritance and dead bodies being found everywhere…with clueless police detectives jumping to the wrong conclusion. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke and based on the novel of the same name, the film takes many twists and turns on its way to the final revelation of the mystery…which comes by way of a dinner party hosted by Nick and Nora with the intention of cornering the killer. It’s wonderfully written and a challenge for arm-chair sleuths to figure out, and it’s also a joy to see 1933 people solving mysteries with their own deductive reasoning and not relying on technology. 

William Powell and Myrna Loy are a joy on screen, with sharp banter between them and one-liners coming at us faster than a machine gun can spit out. The great Cesar Romero, thirty years before his turn as The Joker, makes an appearance as one of many suspects. 

With a strong mystery and a ton of fun to be had in the solving, THE THIN MAN is a delight and never bores. For whodunit lovers that need a break from the old names of Holmes and Chan…there is no better way than Nick and Nora. 

BOTTOM LINE: See it 

*

Reel Facts: THE THIN MAN would be nominated for Best Picture and spawn five sequels, with the first coming in 1936 and the last in 1947. It would also inspire a TV series that would run from 1957 to 1959. 




Wednesday, July 29, 2020

A Reel Opinion: STAR WARS for All.



STAR WARS fandom has been sadly divided over the last five years; not so much over the quality of product, but for the growing role of women in the franchise. Earlier this week, conservative podcast host Ben Shapiro went all cave-man when he complained about STAR WARS having too many women heroes; calling the franchise a “a little boy’s property” and being tainted by SJW’s (social justice warriors). 

Shapiro’s me-Tarzan-you-Jane attitude reflects that of a vocal minority in STAR WARS fandom that has had their knickers in a twist over the presence of women who aren’t damsels in distress. When Disney re-launched STAR WARS in 2015, new Jedi hero Rey (Daisy Ridley) was introduced, and the spin-off film ROGUE ONE (2016), brought us Jyn (Felicity Jones). These new central characters brought a freshness to STAR WARS and immediately inspired a new generation of women, and young girls…to embrace STAR WARS, and in a bigger picture, women’s role in cinema. 

While Rey, Jyn, and other supporting female characters have mostly been embraced by fans, that vocal minority, with “men” like Shapiro as their mouthpiece, have made their insecurities known. Over the last few years, STAR WARS cast members such as Ridley and Kelly Marie Tran have been driven off social media due to vicious attacks. It’s an epidemic of over-sensitive “bros” who just can’t handle girls in their treehouse. It’s ironic, as they are usually the first ones to attack others for being easily triggered. They see the growing presence of women in STAR WARS and in other action films as an attack on “guy stuff”, when the only risk to modern manliness are those hyper-panicked bros who lose their minds when a woman shows up in their movies. 

Shapiro and his cave-men are certainly entitled to their opinions, but they are forgetting what STAR WARS was all about in the first place. Since day one, the STAR WARS galaxy has been populated by diverse characters working together; humans, men, women, aliens, and robots working side-by-side towards common goals. This blogger was there in 1977 when it all started, and I recall that while every boy was a Luke, every girl was a Princess Leia. And Leia, as wonderfully played by the late, great Carrie Fisher…was never a total damsel in distress. She fired guns, spat insults at the villains, commanded the Rebel Alliance, and always maintained the beacon of hope for the galaxy. What Leia did in 1977 paved the way for Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) in the Prequel Trilogy (1999-2005), and eventually Rey and Jyn. 

This problem of the bros rebelling against characters that don’t look like themselves is not limited to STAR WARS or to women. This same gaggle of apes have staged the same attacks against Marvel characters Captain Marvel and Black Panther. They can call it too much social justice, but ask them what’s wrong with social justice for all and they’ll cower from the question for fear of their bigotry being exposed. There was a time when geeks used to celebrate the marginalized, as their favorite sci-fi properties STAR WARS, STAR TREK, and superheroes were always ahead of the curve. Today it’s sadly attacked for no good reason. When STAR WARS was first released over 40 years ago, it wasn’t meant just for white males; if it did, it would not have the presence that it has had in every household in the world for the last four decades. Over the years this Blogger has taken great joy in seeing his little sister, niece, and fiancĂ©e be inspired by STAR WARS, and that is a joy Shapiro and his apes will never take part in…because they don’t deserve to. 




Monday, July 27, 2020

A Reel Retro Review: THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940)

With no new films to review for the foreseeable future, Reel Speak will randomly review a classic film from the TCM library every week. Not just for the sake of filling time, but to hopefully introduce some overlooked and perhaps forgotten screen gems from the past to those of us who may be unfamiliar or unawares of their existence. 



In 1998, the Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks-led romantic comedy YOU’VE GOT MAIL was a hit with audiences and critics that had everyone talking. Unbeknownst to most audiences was that the film had its roots in a 1937 Hungarian play called Parfumerie by Miklos Laszio. That play was adapted for the screen in 1940 as THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER starring a few Hollywood legends…

Two employees at a store in Budapest; Alfred (James Stewart), and Klara (Margaret Sullavan), can not stand to be around each other…not realizing they are falling in love as anonymous correspondents through letters. 

Directed by German director Ernst Lubitsch, THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER spends most of its time around Alfred and Klara…as they battle each other in the workplace while not knowing that they are each other’s pen-pals. There is an early playfulness between the two that eventually turns hostile, and the passion that they both have for their pen-pals makes the feud all the more fun. Things get even more complicated when the shop-owner (Frank Morgan, fresh off his role as the Wonderful Wizard), has a personal tragedy that puts Alfred in charge of the shop. Alfred’s new role allows him to figure out that Klara is his pen-pal, which gives him a new mission; see her in a different light. 

Director Ernst Lubitsch keeps the pacing brisk and the atmosphere light, and the film is a breeze at 99 minutes. The story takes place around Christmastime which actually makes the film the potential to land on holiday watch-lists in December. The dialogue is sharp as a razor, very funny, and the war of words between Alfred and Klara a blast to listen to. Set in 1940, this is a world before WWII, and it still has the innocence of mankind at work. Despite having a cast full of American actors, the place-setting of Budapest is a bit strange, but never derails the film. 

James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are like firecrackers in their little battles, but both act with a sincerity that makes us root for them to get together. Frank Morgan feels like he just stepped out of Oz (he kinda did), but it’s quite interesting to see him and his mustache in a different setting. 

It wouldn’t be a spoiler to say that Alfred and Klara get together at the end, for a story like this of course deserves a happy ending. THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER is ground-zero for the Ryan/Hanks hit that would come nearly 60 years later, and is one of the best examples of romantic comedy. 

Bottom Line: See it 

*

Reel Facts: YOU’VE GOT MAIL uses much dialogue from the 1940 film, especially in the first date scene, and a bookstore is featured named The Shop Around the Corner. The film also spawned a remake in 1949, named IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME starring Judy Garland. 




Wednesday, July 22, 2020

A Reel Opinion: The Top 10 Best Sci-Fi Films of the Millennium - 2000-2019



It has now been 20 years since the Y2K Monster never came down from space to destroy us, which is a good thing…because the last two decades have provided us with some most-excellent films from a film-geek’s favorite genre: science fiction. And that brings us to Reel Speak’s Top 10 Best Sci-Fi Films of the Millennium, 2000-2019. 

The millennium started with science fiction films up front. George Lucas brought in two new STAR WARS films in 2002 and 2005, and Bryan Singer’s X-MEN in 2000 launched the current era of superheroes…who are always saturated in sci-fi. While X-MEN got it going, Marvel Studios took it to new heights when their time-travelling epic AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019), became the box office champion. Time travel has always provided great sci-fi stories, and Rian Johnson twisted our minds around with LOOPER in 2012. But the genre was not limited to far-out concepts, as we were treated to realistic space-travel and exploration films such as THE MARTIAN (2015), MOON (2009), and GRAVITY (2013). Even animation giant Pixar got into the fun with their robot adventure WALL-E in 2008. 

For the past two decades, sci-fi films have won Oscars, broken box office records, and have been elevated to legit cinema even in the eyes of the stuffiest film critics. The best sci-fi films are the ones that use their far-out concepts of technology, other worlds, and an Earth of the future to tell stories of humanity…because no matter how high the concept, humanity is what we all seek. 

So let’s start seeking…




10. AVATAR (2009)



James Cameron’s off-world epic about humans attempting to colonize another planet for her resources was a multi-Oscar and Golden Globe nominee and winner, and kicked off a new interest in sci-fi films that has revitalized the genre for the past decade of the millennium. An old story in new skin, its high concept paired with simple story-telling clicked with audiences so well that it took the all-time box office title and held on to it for a decade. 



9. DISTRICT 9 (2009)



Themes of humanity, xenophobia, and segregation come into play in Neill Blomkamp’s alien-arrival film which in broad strokes serves as a metaphor for South African apartheid. A landmark in visual effects, DISTRICT 9 was also an Oscar nominee; using a real-life human-rights situation to open up conversations about how we treat those who are different. 



8. ARRIVAL (2016)



Aliens have arrived on Earth and it’s up to a linguist teacher (Amy Adams), to decipher messages from the non-speaking visitors. Denis Villeneuve directed this mind-bender with much of its purpose shrouded in mystery…capped off with a whopper of a twist which changes everything we had just seen…right down to the title. Underneath that it uses the presence of the visitors to motivate humans all across the country to put aside differences and come together; a message more relevant today than it was four years ago. 



7. HER (2013)



Spike Jonze took home an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in this little tale about a lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix), who falls in love with his computer’s operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Just like any good sci-fi film should do, HER takes the path that humans are on in today’s time and takes it to its next logical steps; steps that can only go in one direction when humans and machines spend too much time together. 


6. INCEPTION (2010)



Christopher Nolan directs this multi-layered thriller where professional thieves invade the dream-space of others to either steal information or plant ideas. It’s an old-fashioned heist film in reverse, but it has a lot more going on; it’s a philosophical look at how ideas are generated and brought to life…coupled with broken families and redemption. A box office hit and a winner of four of its eight Oscar nominations.



5. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)



There has been a healthy debate over the last four decades if STAR WARS should be considered sci-fi, fantasy, or both. For the purposes of this blog, let’s simplify it; if it has spaceships, it’s sci-fi. J.J. Abrams directs this re-launch of the STAR WARS franchise that continued the stories started by creator George Lucas. THE FORCE AWAKENS was true to its title in story and in culture; by introducing new heroes to a new generation and bringing back old favorites for one last adventure…STAR WARS was awakened for several more decades to come. Its classic structure makes it easily accessible, quotable, and endlessly rewatchable. 



4. CHILDREN OF MEN (2006)



Mankind has lost the ability to reproduce in Alfonso Cuaron’s dystopian statement on not only humanity but of life itself. Clive Owen plays the reluctant hero tasked with delivering the last pregnant women on Earth to safety, while avoiding assassination attempts by a militant group and a society that is crumbling to pieces. Similar to HER, CHILDREN OF MEN takes humanity’s modern-day path and shows us where we could be headed. One of the many purposes of sci-fi is to sober us up, and Cuaron does so in breathtaking strokes. 



3. BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017)



Denis Villeneuve brings a second film into this list with a decades-later sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic, BLADE RUNNER. Rightly set 30 years after the events of the first film, Villeneuve makes a perfect sequel in taking the original film and expanding on the storylines and themes. Packed with mystery and a visual stunner, 2049 is jaw-dropping and thought-provoking…with the meaning of human life just one of many themes at work. 



2. EX MACHINA (2014)



Artificial intelligence is put under the microscope in this psychological thriller by Alex Garland. Oscar Isaac plays the tech-wizard who creates Ava (Alicia Vikander); the world’s first intelligent humanoid robot…who is put to the test in a game of wits by a hapless programmer (Domhnall Gleeson). Mesmerizing in its execution, EX MACHINA not only boasts some of the best CGI ever done to bring Ava to life, but also brings in perfect twists to reveal hidden character motivations and secrets. Nothing is quite what it seems and its mystery has audiences wondering who is the real human and who is the machine. 



1. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)



Tom Hardy steps into the role of Max and Charlize Theron brings the character of Furiosa to life in this Oscar-winning sonic and visual blast. George Miller’s high-octane, decades-later sequel to his own MAD MAX franchise that he launched in 1979 is in a post-apocalyptic world where blood and water are scarce commodities, and human beings themselves have become even more precious…especially those who are able to give birth in a statement on the human race. A message scrawled on a wall that says “we are not things” has a weight that gives the film an emotional heft and is relevant to today’s real world. And on top of the sub-text is some of the best action cinema has ever seen in a mind-blowing chase across the desert done with old-school, practical effects that makes for a thrill a minute. No matter how high the thrills or how out-there some of this future world’s characters may be…FURY ROAD never loses sight of the importance of humanity. And that’s what great sci-fi does. 

REEL SPEAK'S TOP 10 BEST SCI-FI FILMS OF THE MILLENNIUM
  1. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
  2. EX MACHINA
  3. BLADE RUNNER 2049
  4. CHILDREN OF MEN
  5. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
  6. INCEPTION
  7. HER
  8. ARRIVAL
  9. DISTRICT 9
  10. AVATAR 




Monday, July 20, 2020

A Reel Retro Review: THE LONG NIGHT (1947)

With no new films to review for the foreseeable future, Reel Speak will randomly review a classic film from the TCM library every week. Not just for the sake of filling time, but to hopefully introduce some overlooked and perhaps forgotten screen gems from the past to those of us who may be unfamiliar or unawares of their existence. 



The genre of film noir has been around for so long (it started in the 1940’s), that many of us often struggle to put a solid definition on it. For most of us, as long as it’s black-and-white, uses lights and shadows, and has an element of mystery…it classifies. The genre was at its peak in the 1940’s and 50’s, and one of the many films lost in the shuffle of time is THE LONG NIGHT; a mystery starring three future Hollywood legends. 

Maximillian the Great (Vincent Price), a magician, is apparently murdered on the top floor of an apartment building by Joe Adams (Henry Fonda). As Joe barricades himself in his room and the police surround him, a standoff that lasts the night begins…

THE LONG NIGHT starts off with a literal bang, with the body of Maximillian tumbling down the stairs after a gunshot. The mystery of the film isn’t so much who-dun-it, but why-dun-it. After it becomes clear that Joe was the one who pulled the trigger, the film moves into an extended flashback that runs up to the murder. A love triangle is revealed, with Maximillian and Joe competing for the affections of Jo Ann (Barbara Bel Geddes). It’s a battle of wits, with the successful rich magician considering himself above and better than Joe, who is just a humble factory worker wanting to get by. 

Directed by Anatole Litvak, THE LONG NIGHT not only plays with mystery but with a subtext of life after war. Joe is a WWII veteran, and is one of many characters in the film who came home from war not really knowing what to do with themselves. It’s a look at small-town American life in a period of transition, which plays a heavy factor in Joe going down a dark and bloody path. Litvak films a great looking movie, with all the shadowy characteristics of film noir present at all times. Pacing is brisk and the dialogue between Maximillian and Joe sharp as a razor as the two men battle each other. 

Acting is excellent. The film is a treat to see future legends Henry Fonda and Vincent Price share the screen. Both are young men here and they are well before the years earned them that legend status. Barbara Bel Geddes is in her first film role here, and is a joy to watch. 

True to most film noir, THE LONG NIGHT is a tragedy, and serves as a cautionary tale of what can happen in any town in America. Human frailty is the real lesson, and makes this a fine example of an old genre. 

BOTTOM LINE: See it. 

*

Reel Facts: THE LONG NIGHT is a remake of the French film LE JOUR SE LEVE (1939), and was a financial failure at the box office. The film was the big screen debut for Barbara Bel Geddes, who went on to a career that would span five decades. She would win Tony Awards on Broadway, star in Alfred Hitchcock’s VERTIGO (1958), and would win several Emmy and Golden Globe Awards for her long-standing role in television’s DALLAS (1978-1990). 


Wednesday, July 15, 2020

A Reel 20: X-MEN

“Mutation. It is the key to our evolution.”



This month marks the 20th anniversary of Bryan Singer’s X-MEN. 

Based upon Marvel Comics’ famed property of super-powered mutants, and often regarded as the film that launched our current era of superhero films, X-MEN began its mutation to cinema as far back as 1984, when Orion Pictures held an option on the rights. Development stalled when Orion hit financial problems, and by 1989 creator Stan Lee was in talks with director James Cameron (TERMINATOR), to get the project going again. The project went through several versions and personnel, and a 1996 script was close to going before cameras; a version that focused on the heroes with no plans for the villains until the second film. 

Over the next few years, directors such as Brett Ratner (RUSH HOUR), Robert Rodriguez (FROM DUSK TILL DAWN), and Paul W.S. Anderson (MORTAL KOMBAT), were considered. The job would eventually go to Bryan Singer, who had just turned in a hit with the action mystery film THE USUAL SUSPECTS. Singer brought in new writers, and a final script which added villains and added layers of depth with civil rights issues, was green-lighted. 

Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe (GLADIATOR), was first considered for the role of the self-healing, clawed hero Wolverine. Crowe turned it down, and recommended the role to his friend, then-unknown Hugh Jackman. The rest of the cast, which could be considered to be an ensemble by today’s standards, included Patrick Stewart as Prof. Xavier, Ian McKellen as Magneto, Halle Berry as Storm, Famke Janssen as Dr. Jean Grey, James Marsden as Cyclops, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos as Msytique, Tyler Maine as Sabertooth, Ray Park of THE PHANTOM MENACE fame as Toad, and Anna Paquin as Rogue. Filming began in September 1999 and wrapped in March of 2000. Michael Kamen would provide the score. 

X-MEN would have its premier on Ellis Island on July 12, 2000 (which was also the site of the climactic battle in the film), prior to its wide release a couple of days later. Reviews were positive, and a healthy box office take would make it the eighth-highest grossing film of the year. It would be nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, and would win several at the Saturn Awards, including Best Science Fiction Film. 

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With so many superhero offerings from Marvel and DC Comics these days, it’s hard to remember a time when cinemas avoided costumed heroes like the plague. In the 1990’s, the industry was reeling after two consecutive disastrous BATMAN films, and no one wanted anything to do with comic book properties. All that changed in 2000 with X-MEN, which not only provided solid entertainment, but by introducing civil rights issues into the mix, gave the film an important, adult-layer which makes it very relevant today. It wasn’t just about good-guys vs. bad-guys, but society vs. those who are different. It paved the way for what Marvel would do with their massive Cinematic Universe years later, and even DC took a page out that book with their attempt at connected films. The true legacy of X-MEN is that it reignited an interest in superhero films, an interest that continues to this day. It also brought instant fame to Hugh Jackman, who, along with Patrick Stewart…would reprise their characters over the next 17 years. Prior to 2000, fans had been waiting a long time to see their favorite superheroes on the big screen done right, and with X-MEN their prayers were answered. 

“Let’s just say God works too slowly.”



Monday, July 13, 2020

A Reel Retro Review: THE BAT (1959)

With no new films to review for the foreseeable future, Reel Speak will randomly review a classic film from the TCM library every week. Not just for the sake of filling time, but to hopefully introduce some overlooked and perhaps forgotten screen gems from the past to those of us who may be unfamiliar or unawares of their existence. 



When it comes to the late great horror icon Vincent Price, most of us immediately recall his roles in THE FLY (1958), HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959), or HOUSE OF WAX (1953). With over 100 films to his credit, he was quite the prolific actor and worked well into his eighties. With so many films, much of his smaller, less iconic roles tend to be overlooked, with one of them coming in the 1959 horror/mystery film THE BAT. 

Mystery author Cornelia Van Gorder (Agnes Moorhead), and her maid Lizzie (Lenita Lane), rent a summer home in a town that is being terrorized by a murderer known as “the Bat”; a man with no face who kills women at night with steel claws. 

Based the 1908 novel The Circular Staircase and an eventual stage adaptation, THE BAT is a film that was ahead of its time, and forgoes the usual damsel-in-distress being chased by a ghoul by introducing a complex, yet easy-to-follow mystery. The owner of the Summer home is a banker (Harvey Stevens), who has embezzled a million dollars from his bank and allegedly hid it in the house. Hot on the trail of the money is Dr. Malcolm Wells (Price), and police Lt. Anderson (Gavin Gordon). With the banker vanishing, the race is on to find the hidden money in the house…with the Bat creeping around and slashing whoever gets in his way. 

It’s a clever mashup of mystery and horror, which has a simplicity to it but enough intricacies to make it a layered who-dun-it. There are plenty of surprises scattered about, with the identity of the Bat done with a well-executed shell-game; just when we think we know who the faceless man is, a well-timed twist pulls the rug out from us armchair cinematic sleuths. 

Written and directed by Crane Wilbur, THE BAT works very well as a horror film. The Bat himself is simply a man with a black mask in a dark suit and terrifying steel claws, but by hiding him in shadow and having him appear when we least expect it, the simplicity of the character is soon forgotten. Scenes where the Bat sneaks into the house and prowls around are done very well. Shot in glorious black-and-white, the usage of lights and shadows is perfect. 

Acting is very good. Vincent Price’s role is understated as he is not really the “lead”, but he carries the role of the good doctor with an aura of mystery that keeps us guessing. Agnes Moorhead is fantastic as she carries the film; she is strong-willed and tough, and puts her mystery-novelist skills to good use. 

With the ladies taking most of the screentime and Price nearly taking a back seat, THE BAT plays today as very progressive piece for 1959, which makes it very relevant today. It’s a treat to see Price in a smaller role, and the film itself has some sharp fangs with its excellent scares and twists. 

BOTTOM LINE: See it 

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Reel Facts: The 1959 film was the fourth version of the story, following the 1908 novel, the 1920 play, and a 1926 silent film.  Director Crane Wilbur was a writer and director of 67 films from the silent era and the sound era, and found lasting recognition as an actor after his role in the serial THE PERILS OF PAULINE (1914). THE BAT was originally released as a double feature, paired with the Hammer horror film THE MUMMY with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. 



Wednesday, July 8, 2020

A Reel Retro Review: SCENT OF MYSTERY (1960)

With no new films to review for the foreseeable future, Reel Speak will randomly review a classic film from the TCM library every week. Not just for the sake of filling time, but to hopefully introduce some classic, overlooked, and perhaps forgotten screen gems to those of us who may be unfamiliar or unawares of their existence.  

In the early part of this century, studios tried to create a new sensation with 3D films; either by re-releasing old classics in the format or making movies tailored to show off the effect. It was a gimmick that died quickly (thank the Maker), leaving many of the movies of that era languishing without that extra dimension. In the 1960’s, a similar gimmick was tried, called Smell-O-Vision…which was a system that released odor during the film so that audiences could smell what was happening in the movie. The first film to give it a try was SCENT OF MYSTERY in 1960. When viewing this film at home, the Smell-O-Vision is obviously not a factor, so the question is, how does the film work without the tricks? 



While on holiday in Spain, Oliver Larker (Denholm Elliott), is a mystery novelist who stumbles upon a plot to murder an American heiress. He enlists the help of a cabbie, Smiley (Peter Lorre), to locate the woman and save her life. 

Directed by Jack Cardiff from a screenplay by Gerald Kersh, SCENT OF MYSTERY begins with a simple enough plot; find the girl, save her life, catch the bad guys. Larker and his cabbie have very little to go on in the early goings as they only catch a glimpse of her  from afar. What comes next is a cross-country trip across Spain which serves as one-part mystery-solver and one-part tour guide. 

What should be a simple plot eventually gets unnecessarily complicated. The film moves into a mistaken-identity genre when Larker and Smiley spend half the film chasing a woman who isn’t really the heiress, and cross paths with a mysterious lawyer and sniper-assassin whose actions never make much sense. The reasons behind the need to kill the heiress are revealed in a convoluted mess, and even by the time the credits roll one would still be scratching their nose trying to make sense of it all. 

Scenes where the Smell-O-Vision would have kicked in are obvious; the presence of the sniper was hinted at by the smell of tobacco, a brawl in a bedroom spills perfume, and a cart full of wine barrels smashes and spills wine everywhere. The film seems to rely on the gimmick, as the rest of its execution is quite clumsy. Larker’s status as a mystery novelist never comes into play (he could have been a plumber), and even though he is established as a British gentleman who spends most of his days behind a typewriter, he suddenly switches to action-hero capable of fist fighting his way out of a jam or two. The jokes and gags are lame even for 1960 standards, with most of them coming from awkward, voice-over one-liners from Larker. 

Denholm Elliott carries the film and is in nearly every frame. He gives it his best, and at the very least gives the film a status as a curiosity piece for anyone who would like to see the work he did before he became the sidekick to Indiana Jones in the 1980’s. Peter Lorre as Smiley the cabbie is a hoot, and Beverly Bentley, as the mistaken-identity heiress, is also very good. 

The closing of the film features an un-credited cameo by Elizabeth Taylor as the real heiress, giving the film one of the few attempted twists that actually works. Every other surprise is hard to make sense of, and it’s clear that this is one of those films that relied too much on things outside of its own script and direction to succeed. SCENT OF MYSTERY kinda stinks. 

BOTTOM LINE: Fuck it 

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Reel Facts: SCENT OF MYSTERY opened in three theatres in 1960 in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The Smell-O-Vision mechanism did not work well, and although the problems were eventually ironed-out, the film suffered from poor reviews and bad word-of-mouth and finished as a financial failure. Director Jack Cardiff was a cinematographer at heart, having been nominated by the Academy for Best Cinematography five times, winning in 1947 for BLACK NARCISSUS.