A Note on Spoilers

I decided it might be a good idea to make what’s known as a “sticky post” here on the front page for those coming in who might be concerned about spoilers. In these posts I’m going to be talking about varying aspects of movies that I’ve been watching, This may include writing about things that some would consider spoilers, including, at times, the endings of these movies. Those who are particularly spoiler averse may want to avoid reading these posts if they are planning to watch the movie in question. In certain circumstances where I will be discussing events towards the end of the movie, including the ending in at least a vague way, or when a movie contains a particular plot twist that might be considered major, I will try to post a more specific spoiler warning, because I do recognize that even though I may be writing about a movie that is decades old, it’s still going to be new to some people. Okay, with that out of the way, let’s get on with it, shall we?

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Throwback Thursday -Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)

Between this blog and my previous one, Professor Damian’s Public Domain Treasure Chest, I’ve been writing about movies for quite a while now. Because of that, there are a lot of posts that have simply gotten lost to the mists of time. So, I figured I’d use the idea of “Throwback Thursday” to spotlight some of those older posts, re-presenting them pretty much exactly as they first appeared except for updating links where necessary or possible, and doing just a bit of re-formatting to help them fit better into the style of this blog. Hope you enjoy these looks back. 

Another look back at another S&S Top 250 movie from 1968.

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Top 250 Tuesday: #078 – Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)

Continuing to wend my way through the Sight and Sound Top 250 Greatest Movies of All Time. This week, it’s #144 on the list, Sergio Leone‘s Once Upon a Time in the West. For a longer introduction and a look at the full list, just click here. And if you want a heads-up on what I’ll be watching for next week in case you want to watch along, just head on over to the Facebook page or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are in the sidebar) where I’ll be posting that info later in the day.

Once upon a time, Italy’s greatest director of spaghetti westerns teamed up with one of the all-time greatest composers of music for film scores and an all-star cast in an effort to create the best movie ever in that genre.

They succeeded.

The end.

I’m actually tempted to leave my comments on this film right there, because really Sergio Leone’s masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West is one of those movies that is hard to write about without sounding like one is simply gushing superlatives. Still, I feel like I owe you guys a bit more than that, so let’s see what I can do.

There are times when I approach these movies in the top 250 wondering what it is about them that has put them on this list. Sometimes, as the film develops it becomes fairly obvious. Other times, for instance with The Conversation, it’s not until the very end that I understand the power of the movie or the skills on display. There are even even times when I simply make no connection with the movie at all or have a negative reaction that I’m still left wondering at the end just what it is that so many people love about a film.

That’s definitely not a problem that I had with this one. From the opening moments of the film it’s obvious that we are dealing with a director who is at the top of his game and is bringing everything that he has learned in his previous outings to the film, and thereby getting the most not only out of the performers we see onscreen, but from all of his behind the camera associates as well, especially cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, with whom he had also worked on The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. The beginning also serves to put the audience on notice that they are in for a different experience with this movie than with any of the director’s previous outings.

The film begins in media res, with no explanation of who the characters are that we are seeing, or why they are there, and it is only through later flashbacks and exposition that we really gain insight into what we are seeing, and the significance of the events that follow, and this is actually a technique that Leone uses to great effect throughout the movie as characters weave in and out of the film, some of them seemingly only tangentially relating to the ongoing narrative until later they become much more significant. Indeed, instead of using the opening to explain the characters or the setting, Leone instead uses a number of long (some would probably say slow) takes to create a sense of atmosphere, of dread and foreboding, that sets the entire mood of the film.

That’s not to say that this is a dark movie. Far from it. It’s actually quite a bright film with an incredibly saturated color palate. However even the brightness, especially when it’s coming from the outdoor sun, carries with it a sense of the ever-pervasive and inescapable heat that also at times seems to be a character in this film. It also, perhaps helps to explain why the title of the movie focuses the viewer’s attention on its setting in the “west”, rather than its characters as the previous film’s title did.

So does that mean that the characters get short shrift here? No, far from it. Again, it is to Leone’s credit that he not only gives his individual characters time to develop, time to breathe and become living beings that we care about, but also to develop their own individual quirks and moments that make them more than just performers hitting their marks and saying their lines, but real characters who you know have past lives (some of which we again become aware of as the film progresses, some of which are only hinted at) that inform each performance and which the actors for the most part use to enhance their interpretations of these people.

Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that Leone is working with a pretty incredible cast here. The choice to feature Henry Fonda, for instance as lead “bad guy” Frank not only provides immediate interest for the audience, bringing as it does all of the memories and expectations that we have from seeing Fonda in the exact opposite of this role, but also gives Fonda himself extra motivation to show that he can stretch, that he can actually be as vile and nasty as the character calls for him to be, and it is something that he pulls off very well. And the rest of the cast, from Charles Bronson‘s “Harmonica” on down all seem to realize that they are truly in something that is special, and they all bring, to use the cliche, their “A game” to elevate this film from what could have been a fairly typical outing to something that is truly spectacular.

And perhaps, in the end, that really is the key here. I tried to indicate at the beginning of this post that this movie really is a truly collaborative effort, one that really does live up to that probably overly used cliche about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, but really, when the parts are individually as great as these, and when they are being brought together by a master craftsman such as Leone, it’s probably inevitable that what is going to wind up on the screen is going to be one of the best films ever.

Plus, let’s face it: don’t all of the best stories begin with the phrase “Once upon a time…”?

So what are your thoughts on Once Upon a Time in the West? Is it a movie that you’ve seen or would like to? If you have seen it, is it one that would make your own Top 10 list? Or would it not even crack your Top 250? Let me know below.


Hope you enjoyed this blast from the past.

Quickie Review – Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle (2017)

After pretty much dismissing Dwayne Jonson’s latest action flick Rampage out of hand in this weekend’s Saturday Double Feature, (and though I still haven’t seen it, from what I’ve read and heard about it so far that doesn’t seem to be an unreasonable response), I thought it only fair to give at least a little time to a recent film of his that I really did like, last year’s Jumaanji: Welcome To The Jungle.

Okay, full disclosure here, I have never actually seen the original Robin Williams-staring Jumanji. It was one of those that I missed upon its initial release and have just never gone back to check out. So I don’t have any kind of feelings of nostalgia coming into this one.

Fortunately, Welcome To The Jungle doesn’t require any knowledge of the prior film. Instead it dives right in with an update from the original’s board game to this version’s video game.

When I wrote about Rampage I talked about the fact that often someone like the rock can carry a movie through personality alone, even if the movie itself is not all that good, and there is no denying that Johnson’s charisma is at full force throughout the film. Nor is he alone, for the entire cast shines and is obviously having a great time with their roles, especially Jack Black who gets to play himself as if possessed by a self-absorbed high school girl.

The good news is that the movie is not completely reliant upon the skills of its leads, as the plot and adventure are also absorbing enough to make this an entertaining afternoon or evening viewing. Yeah, in the end it’s basically just a goofy romp, but it’s fun goofy, and that’s all it really needs to be.

OTR Tuesday – The Saint (1947-1951)

The short intro: For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, Old Time Radio is the phrase generally used to refer to the time when radio was (mostly) live, and was full of a variety of different shows, as opposed to simply being a means for record labels to use robots to promote the top records of the day. OTR  Tuesday is my chance to explore some of those old radio shows, their connections (both old and new) to movies, and hopefully to encourage some of the rest of you to take a look at a probably unfamiliar source of entertainment that I truly love. If you want more info on OTR, and some examples of the variety of shows that were made, be sure to check out this introductory post.

One more look back at Vincent Price on the radio as we revisit an earlier post concerning Mr. Pice’s appearance as The Saint in the classic radio show. This was first posted in 2013 and has been updated with new links to the episodes.

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Those who have been following this blog for any length of time will know that I have a special affinity for Mr. Vincent Price. Known today mostly as a horror film icon, Mr. Price was every bit a renaissance man who was involved in an incredible number of ventures, both on- and off- screen. One of his lesser-known ventures, I feel sure is his charming portrayal of Leslie Charteris‘s character Simon Templar, also known as “The Saint”, who Price portrayed on a weekly radio show for four years, from 1947 to 1951.

The Saint, as noted, was the creation of pulp novelist Leslie Charteris who wrote a long-running series of books starring the character beginning in 1928. The lead character in the stories, Simon Templar, is described in the opening of the radio show – and elsewhere – as “The Robin Hood of Modern Crime” as he was basically a thief who would target other crooks, evil politicians, gangsters, and other “ungodly” characters, bringing them down or retrieving stolen goods, then, after extracting a ten percent “tithe” (after all, a man like Templar did have a certain lifestyle to uphold) either returning what he got to its rightful owner, contributing it to a worthy charity, or splitting it among those who worked for him.

As far as Templar’s nickname goes, whenever he would finish a caper, he would leave a calling card or other drawing, depicting a stick figure with a halo above its head, as seen in the drawing at the right. This, combined with the character’s initials (S.T. = St = saint), led to him being known as “The Saint”.

The character had many incarnations over the years, expanding from the pulp stories to comics, films, television shows, and, of course, the radio. There were actually a number of different radio incarnations of The Saint, the first actually appearing on Ireland’s Radio Eireann division Radio Athlone in 1940. In America, the character first appeared, interestingly, on two different networks in 1945. On the NBC network, the character was portrayed by Edgar Barrier, while Brian Aherne filled the role for CBS.

The longest running radio incarnation of the character on the radio, however, was the portrayal by – yep, you guessed it -Vincent Price. As noted above, this particular series ran for five years, and was actually, over the course of those years, carried at various times over three different networks as it moved from NBC to Mutual to CBS.

As always, Price brought his unmistakable voice, charm, and charisma to the show, and no matter how lacking the plots and writing might be at times (let’s face it, in a weekly show that lasted that long, there are going to be some clunkers), he always elevated the material simply by his presence.

After Mr. Price left the show, it did carry on for awhile, with Tom Conway in the lead, but that version only lasted a few months.

There were, as noted, other radio incarnations of the character, and he was also brought to life on television in various series, most famously, of course, in the long-running series which starred Roger Moore (yes, the same Roger Moore who would go on to portray James Bond). As recently as 1997, Val Kilmer starred in a film take on the character, however, that may be a case of the less said about it, the better.

Anyway, for now, once again I invite you to sit back and travel back with me to a time when radio was the king, and enjoy listening to the adventures of The Saint.

 

 

Say “Cheese” 012 – The Train Killer (1984)

This past Christmas my son got me a Mill Creek box set called Awesomely Cheesy Movies. 100 movies on 24 disks, it’s actually a combination of two of their earlier released sets, “The Swinging Seventies”, and “The Excellent Eighties”.

For those of you who may not be familiar with these Mill Creek sets, they are generally comprised of  public domain or made-for-television movies that are reproduced without embellishment, enhancement, or extras and are sold in large collections for very low prices. This means that the quality on them can be quite variable, and they often show signs of age and wear. Nonetheless, there are often hidden gems amongst what can be large swaths of dross.

Anyway, I’ve decided to wend my way through this collection, starting with the first movie on the first disk of the 70s collection, then the first movie in the 80s set, then back to the 70s, and so on, and see just what turns up. If nothing else, it should be interesting. Come along, won’t you?

You could be forgiven if, from the title of this film you thought it was about a mysterious killer loose on a train. That’s nt the case, however. Instead, The Train Killer is the story of a Hungarian saboteur blowing up train lines and trying to sabotage the railway in the early 1930s. He was literally trying to be a train killer!

Based on the true story of Szilveszter Matuska, The Train Killer plays out less as a mystery/thriller (though there is that aspect of it) than as a psychological portrait of a man who feels compelled to carry out what he considers to be a mission from God, and yet is still willing to let himself be used by political force who want to take advantage of his disaster-creating proclivities.

Michael Sarazin portrays Matsuuka as a driven man, sure of his purpose even as other try to (pardon me) derail him, and as the police and military forces close in around him. He also does a good job of showing the madness of the saboteur which seems to grow with each passing day.

As always with this kind of “based on a true story”movie, there is quite a lot of divergence from the actual facts of the case, but when taken as a simple low-key thriller as opposed to any kind of narrative documentary, it is generally effective, and far from the worst film we’ve encountered so far in this box.

Here’s your trailer:

 

Up Next: The Swinging 70s  Disk 2 Movie 3: Wacky Taxi– Gomez Addams

Saturday Double Feature: Rampage (2018) and…

Another Saturday means another Saturday Double Feature!

Okay, let’s start with a quick recap of the “rules”, shall we? The basic idea here is to take a movie that is out in theaters now, and pair it up with another movie from the 1980s or before. Sometimes the connection will be obvious, and sometimes it’ll be a little less so, but that’s part of the fun.

Okay, I’m going to admit it up front. I’ve loved The Rock since ever since he was “just” a wrestler for the WWE. Early on he showed incredible mic skills and charisma that marked him as a future star, and that has been borne out throughout his acting career.

Unfortunately, even though I like Dwayne Johnson both as a wrestler and an actor, some of the choices he has made when it comes to films has been… well, let’s say… questionable, shall we? Still, even when the movie itself is bad, Johnson is still usually entertaining.

I really don’t have much hope for Johnson’s latest, Rampage being a particularly good movie.Based on a particularly mindless (though admittedly fun) video game, it’s obvious that this is really just an excuse to give the Rock a paycheck and highlight a lot of CGI. And, who knows, it could turn out to be a fun little waste of an afternoon.

After all, they turned the game Battleship into a movie, and we all remember what a spectacular triumph of film making that was, right?

Ummm… right?

Let’s just go to the trailer, shall we?

Okay, so let’s stick with this month’s 1968 theme to look for something to pair Rampage with, shall we?

Well of course, if you’re looking for giant critters in the late 60s, you’re obviously gonna look no further than the king of them all, Godzilla. And fortunately, it just so happens that in 1968 the big G teamed up with a whole mess of other gigantic beasties for Destroy All Monsters.

It seems that an alien race has raided monster island and released a bunch of the inhabitants to go on a mind-controlled umm… rampage… against mankind. Among the monsters are, of course, Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, Gorsaurus, and Manda. However, the humans manage to release the kaiju from the aliens control, but that just causes them to retaliate by bringing in the truly big gun, King Ghidorah. We eventually wind up with a huge battle royal between the creatures and the aliens’ secret weapon which they call the Fire Dragon.

Will mankind survive? And even if we do, what will be left of civilization?

So what do you think? What would you choose for a double feature with Rampage? Leave your thoughts in the comments, along with ideas of any other upcoming movies you’d like to see “double featured”. Consider it, if you will, your chance to challenge me to come up with an interesting pair.

Until next time, Happy Viewing!

1968 Fest – A Very Cold War – Ice Station Zebra (1968)

I really feel like I should have more to say about Ice Station Zebra than I do.

After all, we have Rock Hudson as an American submarine commander, Patrick McGoohan as a British intelligence agent, and Jim Brown as a military officer who may very well have his own nefarious aims. All in support of an adaptation of a novel by Alistair MacLean. Really, this should be a slam-dunk combination for a blockbuster film.

Unfortunately it turns out the film is more block than buster.

It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with Zebra, just that it feels like it could have eben so much more. We spend the first half of the film on the submarine as it attempts to get to the station, and there are some truly interesting visuals of the sub under the ice, and then the second half is mostly a search for a Macguffin. The final part is a rather tedious confrontation between the Americans and Russian paratroopers who are looking for the same Macguffin.

Okay, I said above that there’s nothing particularly wrong with the movie, and while that’s true, there is one negative that stands out above all others. If you’ve looked at the poster, you may have noticed one name that I left out above: Ernest Borgnine. Now, don’t get me wrong, in the right role, I truly love me some Borgnine. But in Zebra, he’s called upon to play a Russian who has supposedly defected to the American side, and trust me, there aren’t many current comedies that have made me laugh as hard as Borgie’s attempt at a Russian accent.

As for the other stars, they are, as one would expect, just fine given the material they have to work with. One major disappointment is how badly the movie under-utilizes Jim Brown, who we know from other roles can be quite charismatic but here is relegated to a very small role and then is given a rather ignoble death before he can even really play a part in the finale.

I suppose that the movie wants to make a statement about the cold war and its effects on those who merely serve at the behest of their countries,, and we’ve seen myriad examples of how these ideas can be made truly entertaining. Unfortunately, Ice Station Zebra puts far too much emphasis on the “cold”, and not enough on the “war”.