Thursday, May 19, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides *** out of Four

The first Pirates of the Caribbean struck me as having potential to be one of the worst films ever made. Jerry Bruckheimer making a movie based on a theme park attraction? In a genre that hadn't really worked since the days of Errol Flynn? Starring Johnny Depp, who was talented but had made far more bad films than good ones in his career? (in fact, pre-Pirates I think Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood were the only films I had liked. No, I haven't seen Benny & Joon. Yes, I have seen Chocolat, and I really did not care for it)  But the result was a delightful, witty adventure film, with Depp dazzling with a hilarious and completely unique performance.

The sequels were still fun on their level, but they suffered from all of the standard sequel problems. A "bigger is better" mentality that just meant throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks instead of telling a strong story. And they also had the problems inherent to shooting sequels back-to-back (much like the Back to the Future or Matrix sequels), namely that part 2 merely felt like a setup for part 3. And I personally felt it was a miss step to turn Pirates into a Lord of the Rings style epic trilogy. I thought Captain Jack Sparrow might be better suited stand alone adventures more in the vein of Indiana Jones or James Bond. That's the approach taken by the latest installment,  On Stranger Tides, and I feel that, for the most part, it works.

On Stranger Tides picks the story of Sparrow and Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) searching for the Fountain of Youth, but drops the characters of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan, and all of the increasingly convoluted mythology surrounding them. This ends up leading to a more streamlined story that is fun and exciting. Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) has toned down the bombast of the last two chapters, and applied an overall lighter touch that, to me, comes closer to capturing the silly fun of the first movie. While I have to admit the sword fights aren't up there with the best in the earlier films, there are some great action sequences, and a particular chase with Sparrow running over the tops of carriages was, for me, worth the price of admission on it's own. A sequence wherein beautiful mermaids turnout to be quite deadly is also thrilling and inventive. I credit some of the smooth flow of these sequences to legendary film editor Michael Kahn, Oscar-winning editor of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Kahn is one of three credited editors (he is credited with "Additional Editing", but I felt like I saw his hand prints all over this one).

Penelope Cruz, as an old flame, now rival of Jack Sparrow, is a more than welcome addition to the cast. Her chemistry with Depp is terrific, and she adds a fire to the movie that is very entertaining. The new beautiful young couple, a missionary and a mermaid, are a poor substitute for Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, lacking in much a story, or individual personalities (I don't especially blame actors Sam Claflin and Astrid Berges-Frisbey, who are perfectly fine. The characters, especially his, are just dull). Kevin McNally continues to be fun as Gibbs, Sparrow's first mate, and Ian McShane is an enjoyably nasty Blackbeard. For the first half Geoffrey Rush seems a bit misused, as if the filmmakers don't know what to do with him, but this improves later on. But, as always, it's Depp's movie, and Jack Sparrow is still a delightful goofy and whimsical presence.

This is definitely a movie for fans of the franchise, and I count myself among those. It's not going to win over anybody new, and it may or may not bring back your enthusiasm if you're a bit burnt out on it. I was burnt out on Pirates, and I felt On Stranger Tides helped reinvigorate the franchise and remind me why I loved this so much in the first place. It's nothing new or innovative. It's part 4 in a franchise, after all. But I had a great time, and am already looking forward to seeing it again.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Lesser Known Films From Celebrated Filmmakers, Part 1

Every noted filmmaker has certain films for which they are best remembered. But does that mean their less celebrated films aren't so great? Oftentimes, yes. But not always. The following are selections of lesser known but worthwhile films from some of the most celebrated and/or popular directors.

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Best Known For: Psycho, North By Northwest, The Birds, Vertigo, Rear Window, dozens of others

Torn Curtain is not one of Hitchcock's greatest efforts. But, Hitchcock is without a doubt one of the greatest geniuses in the history of film, and a lesser effort form him is still light-years ahead of a great deal of what's out there. and when it stars Paul Newman and Julie Andrews, it's certainly worth the time. New plays physicist Dr. Michael Armstrong, who arrives at a conference in Eastern Europe and announces his defection, much to the shock of his wife (Andrews). But it's a Hitchcock film, so of course things aren't as they seem. Newman and Andrews are good (though Hitchcock clashed repeatedly with method actor Newman, and felt his stars didn't have chemistry), and of course Hitchcock builds the suspense expertly. One sequence  in a farmhouse ranks, in my opinion, up there with Hitchcock's best.

Director: Steven Spielberg
Best Known For: E.T., Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan

Spielberg is my all-time favorite director, and he has only directed one film I consider an outright dud (1941) . Always is decidedly not up there with Spielberg's best, but, for it's flaws, it's a charming little love story, with some spectacular sequences of aerial firefighting. Richard Dreyfuss (in his third and, to date, last collaboration with Spielberg) plays pilot Pete Sandich, who, after his death, lingers to help his girlfriend Dorinda Durston (Holly Hunter) move on. Aside from the obvious weakness in choice of character names, flaws include mediocre chemistry between Dreyfuss and Hunter, the bland supporting turn by Brad Johnson (I'm not especially surprised you haven't heard of him) and the fact that the story, a remake of the World War II era A Guy Named Joe feels forced in a peacetime setting. Strengths include John Goodman's highly entertaining supporting turn (Dreyfuss and Hunter both play very well off of Goodman), Spielberg and cinematographer Mikael Salomon's great work on the firefighting scenes, and Audrey Hepburn in her final performance. There is also a very memorable sequence of the ghostly Dreyfuss dancing with Hunter (who doesn't know he's there) to Smoke gets In Your Eyes. For once, I'm not arguing that the Spielberg film is great, but it has it's charms.

Director: Martin Scorsese
Best Known For: Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, The Departed, Mean Streets

When people think of Martin Scorsese, they don't usual think of PG rated love stories set in the 1870s. But this adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel is brilliantly directed and superbly acted by Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfieffer, and Winona Ryder (the only one of the three to receive an Oscar nomination). Day-Lewis plays Newland Archer, a successful and proper lawyer engaged to May Welland (Ryder0, who begins to reconsider his respectable but passionless life when May's cousin,  Countess Olenska (Pfieffer), arrives. Scorsese's virtuosity with the camera and eye for detail in production design have never been on better display. The mannered performances (perfectly suited to a film about emotional repression) and deliberate pace may be off-putting to some, but there is a great deal to savor here.

Director: Joel & Ethan Coen (only Joel is credited as director)
Best Known For: Fargo, No Country For Old Men, Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, True Grit, O Brother, Where Art Thou?

This one certainly has a cult following, and my guess is a fair portion of those reading this have seen it, but it's certainly not as celebrated as much of the Coen's other work, and, while it's not their best film, it is my personal favorite (in no small part because it's the first film of theirs I saw). Tim Robbins is hilarious as Norville Barnes, a country-fried rube who, through a complicated series of events, is chosen by Chairman of the Board Paul Newman as the new C.E.O. of Hudsucker Industries, a mammoth corporation. But Norville was chosen to make the company fail so Newman and the other board members can buy up the stock. That plan fails miserably when Norville's silly invention "for kids" becomes an overnight sensation. Odd as can be, but hilarious and visually stunning. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

5 Things That Would Make Modern Movies Better

Pretty self explanatory.

1. Comedies With Stories -I love to laugh as much as anybody, but, with few exceptions, the comedies I enjoy the most have an engaging story, not just a series of gags. This can go as highbrow as To Be Or Not To Be or Sullivan's Travels,  or as lowbrow as Three Amigos. Once in awhile now a movie like The Other Guys comes along and entertains me, and even a little less often we have a comedy like Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World I genuinely find to be a very good film. But, for the most part, I feel better comedy is being done today on television than in feature films.

2. More Judicious Use of 3D - I actually do quite enjoy 3D in certain films, namely Avatar and the Pixar movies. But, while post-production 3D conversion is getting better than it's Clash of the Titans nadir, it's still weak and frequently distracting. we should have one or two 3D movies in a year, and they should always be shot for 3D.

3.  More Time Taken on Sequels - As hard as it is for me to wait for the next Star Trek movie, I'm so glad J.J. Abrams and company are taking their time, the way Christopher Nolan does between Batman movies. This almost always leads to better sequels. The very best case scenario for a rush job sequel is a very entertaining but flawed movie like Iron Man 2. The worst is a train wreck like X-Men: The Last Stand.

4More Thought About Whether a Movie SHOULD Have a Sequel - What possible reason beyond money could there be for The Hangover Part II? It never has been this way, and it never will be, but sequels really should be reserved for movies that really lend themselves to either another story, or a continuation of the previous story. In the past decade we've had films like The Dark Knight or the Bourne sequels (ignoring the divisive shakeycam style for a moment and just looking at the story) that made things deeper and richer. But we've also had a lot of sequels that seemed to beat a dead horse.

5. Audiences Willing to Take a Chance - I do, in fact, blame an awful lot of what's wrong with movies right now on audiences. There are films being made that are not recycled 80s properties or brainless drivel, but audiences aren't supporting them. Even if we're not looking at highbrow fare like The Conspirator, which I concede don't offer the escape most audiences want from a movie,  we're seeing smart, quality films like Source Code doing less business in their entire run than something like Fast Five does in it's opening weekend. We complain that we want Hollywood to make good, original movies instead of just remakes and sequels, but most audiences don't seem to back that up. Humorist Dave Barry wrote of a restaurant concept called "Mr. Mediocre", which was essentially a thinly veiled McDonalds. "Mr. Mediocre" was based on the idea that people are afraid to take a risk that food could be really bad or really good, and they stay with safely mediocre. That's what movie audiences are doing today, in my opinion, and it's doing more damage to movies than anything Hollywood could come up with.

Monday, May 9, 2011

"Murder by Decree" *** Out of Four

I love the original Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories, and am therefore both a sucker for film versions of the characters, and also a bit picky about them. When everyone else was singing the praises of the early trailers for the Robert Downey Jr film, I was upset at what a butchering of the character it appeared to be (because I was so prepared to hate it I actually ended up quite liking the film). I've never been able to embrace the classic Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films, partly because of Bruce's portrayal of Watson as a blustery old fool (Watson is extremely intelligent and a year younger than Holmes).

Easily the most accurate realization of the Holmes characters is the BBC/PBS series starring Jeremy Brett. If there is a definitive Holmes, this is definitely it. But there a number of other versions I quite enjoy, including director Bob Clark's 1979 film Murder by Decree, which pits the consulting detective against Jack the Ripper. If you know any of the conspiracy theories regarding the ripper, the title has a good chance of tipping you off to the solution.

As with any Holmes film, the casting of the two leads sort of makes or brakes the film. Christopher Plummer has has all the right qualities for Holmes. While I was ambivalent about the film's tendency to turn him into something of a moralistic crusader toward the end, Plummer did hit the big speech out of the park. He looks the part, and acts the part extremely well, making him probably the biggest asset the film has. Mason, a superb actor, is saddled with a bit of the Nigel Bruce take on Watson, but it's still a strong performance, and the chemistry with Plummer is certainly there.And Watson's buffoonish tendencies certainly decrease as the film goes on.

Other members of the distinguished cast are mostly strong. of course John Gielgud adds greatly to the proceedings. The great Donald Sutherland is oddly out of place (which has happened too many times over his career). Genevieve Bujold does good work as one of the women central to the investigation, and Susan Clark is a pleasant surprise as another. If you know Clark at all, you probably know her, as I did, for the TV series Webster or the Disney film The Apple Dumpling Gang. Seeign her not only doing a British accent, but also giving a haunting, disturbing performance, is not an experience i expected to have.

Bob Clark's directing career was made up mostly of critically reviled sex-comedies, and a few horror films here and there, but he has a place in cinematic history for directing the classic A Christmas Story.  Murder by Decree is certainly one of the better films of his career, and he guides it very well, from his handling of the performances and characters with a aplomb, to establishing the creepy London fog atmosphere, to engaging us in the story. It's not the best film ever made about Sherlock Holmes, but it's certainly a good one, and well worth seeing for fans of Holmes or anyone who enjoys a good mystery. 

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Movies & Mom

I considered doing a spotlight of memorable movie Moms - Baby's Mom, Dumbo's Mom, the Mom in E.T., Norman Bates' Mom - But, for me, Mother's Day is about MY Mom, instead, I've decided to talk about some of my late Mother's favorite movies, and/or films that I particularly associate with her.

1. Somewhere in Time -  This Christopher Reeve/Jane Seymour  time travel love story was probably my Mom's all-time favorite film, and I will always have a soft spot for it for that reason. The film is quite good in it's own right, if admittedly sappy in some places (to it's credit, it never claims to be anything but a sappy love story). Less than six months after my Mom's serious stroke, when she was having trouble thinking and processing a lot of what was being said to her, I told her I was interviewing Jane Seymour for my TV series Slicc Fliccs, and she smile and said "From Somewhere in Time?". I told Seymour that, and she cried, then told me about her own mother's stroke. We spent several minutes of what was supposed to be an interview to promote her latest film talking about out Moms.

2. Superman II - No, it's not at all a coincidence that the first two title feature Christopher Reeve. he was my Mom's favorite actor and all time screen crush. No small part of why Superman became pretty much casred in the Gibbs family, and this was widely accepted as the best of the series. We saw this what must have been at least five times at the Redwood Drive-In, and to this day if I go to a drive-in, I want to be seeing Superman. I'm so grateful that I got to see Superman Returns with my Mom just before her stroke, and have a hard time with the idea that I won't get to see the new one with her.

3. The Indiana Jones Series - Mom took us to see Raiders of the Lost Ark several times, and I have vivid memories of every time (including one time when she took just Patrick and me, because each kid got one "alone thing" activity with mom and we chose to combine ours and see Raiders for the umpteenth time). This movie began my movie obsession, and my Mom always support the filmmaking pursuits of Patrick and me (even going along with naming our Home School "Covenant Academy"). The Villa Theater, where we saw the first three movies, became almost a holy place for the Gibbs family (my Mom had loved going to movies there as a child). Again, I'm grateful I got to see The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull with my Mom, even though her health had declined considerably at the point and she didn't fully comprehend it. It made me cry on so many levels when, months later, she saw it again at the nursing home and, not remembering the earlier experience, she immediately called to let Patrick and me know there was a new Indiana Jones movie and we had to see it.

4. The Terminal -  This was one of the last movies i saw with my Mom, and one of the last films she called one of her favorites. It was the epitome of the kind of movie she loved. Sweet, funny, hopeful, and with a lovable, good-hearted protagonist. I love this movie, but I haven't yet been able to watch since my Mom passed away.

5.That Darn Cat/Snowball Express - My Mom had a particular fondness for live-action Disney comedies, and these were two of her favorites.They also are movies that demonstrate that these live action Disney comedies were much better and funnier then their reputation sometimes suggests.

I could go on considerably longer with this, but I think I'll end it here for now. I love and miss my Mom, and I hope everyone has a Happy Mother's Day.

Friday, May 6, 2011

"Thor" *** 1/2 Out of Four

I have been extremely ambivalent about Marvel Studios, and it's long term set-up for The Avengers: Iron Man was one of the best superhero films I've ever seen, and one of the most entertaining all around films of the 2000s.

To me, The Incredible Hulk as a colossal dud. I realize I'm in a minority for loving Ang Lee's misunderstood, underappreciated version (though not as small a minority if you look at film critics instead of internet geeks), but I found it to be a flimsy, uncompelling story with cardboard characters, mediocre (Edward Norton) to terrible (William Hurt/Tim Roth) performances, lackluster action, and bad CGI.

Iron Man 2  was a mixed bag. Highly entertaining, but seriously overcrowded to the point of almost completely failing to give the strong story and character arcs that made the first film so good. A big part of the problem was giving so much of the film over to set-up for The Avengers. I had seriously soured on the whole Avengers project, and, as much as I love Firefly, Joss Whedon's presence did not silence my fears. Whedon's last project, Dollhouse, was, to use Whedon's own vernacular, "all manner of stupid".

So, I approached Thor somewhat cautiously. I was also a little cautious about director Kenneth Branagh. I, like every other theatre person, was a big fan in his 90s Shakeespeare days. But his bigger, Hollywood projects have had a tendency to lose their way and drown in spectacle and excess. I was very much hoping for great work from him again. And, fortunately, I feel like I got it. Thor isn't perfect, but it's definitely on the upper tier of comic book movies. There is a lot of credit to go around for this, including to Marvel Studios, who I feel finally really hit their stride with combining set-up for The Avengers with making a satisfying all-around movie (it helps to really know what you're getting into this time. This definitely feels like a transitional set-up at times, but that's less jarring me to in a film that is not a direct sequel).

The cast is strong all around. Chris Hemsworth makes a terrific, convincingly and likeably portraying the character arc from selfish, spoiled brat-god to genuine hero (that's not a spoiler, the trailer tells you that). Tom Hiddleston, as Loki, is equally strong a villain. Anthony Hopkins has one of those performances that reminds me how great he can be if he is truly engaged in the material. And Natalie Portman and Stellan Skarsgaard seems to be having a lot of fun (and while both are talented, I don't know that i've ever seen either of them appear to be having fun in a film before).

For me, the lion's share of the credit goes to Branagh. It turns out this is an inspired match of director to material. Branagh gives a wonderful Sheakespearan flourish to the world of Norse mythology. How much he knew the Norse legends before the film I cannot say, but this is a man who knows mythology and storytelling very well. The story sticks very closely to the Joseph Campbell "Hero's Journey" archetype, and that's a wonderful choice in a movie about classic mythology. And the juxtaposition of the deliberate campy (think the 1980s Flash Gordon) but still epic presentation of Asgard (the world of the Norse gods), and the modern world, leads a very enjoyable fish-out-of-water story of the kind that was so popular in the 80s.

Where Thor does experience some weakness in an area that seems unlikely for both a comic book film, and for Kenneth Branagh: it's actually a little too short. I'm all for the restraint of making these sort of popcorn films under 2 hours, and more filmmakers need to learn how to do that. But with the epic scope Branagah is going for, and the extra weight of juggling the Avengers baggage, I felt the film could have used another 15 to 20 minutes to fully develop. It's not bursting at the seems like Iron Man 2 was. It just could feel a little more full rounded and nuanced with the added time. I also will have to wait until a second viewing to decided how bad the post-production conversion 3D was. The viewmaster effect was not nearly as bad as I worried, but the 3D was so overpoweringly dark that it decidedly detracted from the experience (but, in fairness, I was watching it on the worst 3D screen in town).   Thankfully, it's easily worth seeing a second time.

Thor is a rousing kickoff to blockbuster season, and a triumph for Branagh. It's well worth seeing if you enjoy mythology, comic books, Branagh, or any of the above.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Endless Summer

According to Hollywood, summer begins this Friday, May 6, with the release of Thor (unless you accept the release of Fast Five last weekend as the beginning of movie summer. I have trouble accepting April as the beginning of summer even under such a ludicrous stretch, and have trouble accepting the Fast and the Furious franchise). I've already seen Thor, but a press embargo says I can't post a review until Friday. The following is a list of the top ten summer films I most eagerly anticipate.  (And no, Transformers: Dark of the Moon doesn't make the cut):

1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2
It will be hard to see this series end, but, if the book and the first Deathly Hallows film are any indication, it will be a glorious ending.

2. Cowboys and Aliens -  If the talent behind the camera weren't enough (Iron Man director Jon Favreau, with Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard producing), if the talent in front of the camera weren't enough (Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford together would sell me on just about anything), if the delightfully odd premise and title weren't enough, well, I'd have to just rely on the most entertaining trailer I've seen in a long time to sell me on this one.

3. Super 8 -  J.J. Abrams teams with Steven Spielberg to create a tribute/throwback to Spielberg's classic 70s and 80s films. Anyone who knows instant sees that this would appeal to me, and the early trailers have been extremely promising  (the shot of the red light at the train crossing screams Close Encounters of the Third Kind loudly enough to put me in Spielberg geek heaven). I just hope Abrams pays tribute to Spielberg more effectively than Simon Pegg and Nick Frost did. But, coming off of Star Trek, I have a fair ammount of faith in Abrams.

4. Cars 2 - Okay, Cars was one of Pixar's lesser films. That's a little like being one of the less talented Marx Brothers or Bronte sisters. I still found it charming and enjoyable, and Pixar is hands down the most reliable name in film today. Plus, the added bonus of this being the first movie my 6 year-old nephew Carson is obsessively anticipating makes it likely to be one of the best moviegoing experiences of my life.

5. Winnie the Pooh -  More than another cheapie, glorified Saturday morning cartoon like the Pooh movies of the 90s and 2000s (which i admit I found mostly enjoyable on their level), this is a return to Milne's original stories, and a production from Disney's A-list talent.

6. Captain America: The First Avenger - I'm a little ambivalent about Marvel Studios, and about their "Avenger Initiative", but recent events (which I'll discuss on Friday) make me more optimistic about the direction they're taking. And the choice of director Joe Johnston, who made the delightful The Rocketeer, to helm this WWII era superhero flick, is a great one. And again, the trailer is a lot of fun, giving a sort of Batman meets Indiana Jonesand I've actually read some of the comics, so vibe (or, in essence, The Rocketeer).

7.  X-Men: First Class -  I absolutely love the first two Bryan Singer "X-Men" movies, and was profoundly disappointed in the two Singer-less followups. Even if he's not directing, Singer is producer and story writer for this prequel, and the trailer makes me hopeful for a return to form.

8.  Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides - Yes, I'm a bit skeptical. The sequels weren't nearly as much fun as the first, and I'm a little burnt out on Johnny Depp. But I still retain a considerable soft spot for this franchise, and the trailer is, again, a lot of fun. I also hold out hope that Penelope Cruz and director Rob Marshall will breathe new life into the franchise. And, for whatever reason, I like mermaids.

9. Green Lantern - In theory, I have no problem with the CGI suit. It's part of the his powers, it should look more ethereal than spandex. But, I admit it looks a little off in the trailer. I'm not entirely sold on Ryan Reynolds in the title role (it looks to me like they've molded the character a little too much to his bad boy persona), but director Martin Campbell gave us two of the best James Bond movies, and The Mask of Zorro. My biggest concern about this one is the same as the other comic book films, namely that Hollywood is laying the whole superhero thing on a bit too thick. But Green Lantern was one of the Super Friends, so the superhero fan in me wins out over the superhero weary critic.

10. Everything Must Go -  Will Ferrell's films are hit and miss. Elf was great, Stranger Than Fiction flirted with greatness, and Anchorman and The Other Guys were guilty pleasures that offered big laughs. Much of the time, I don't bother with his films. But, I truly enjoy his talent  When he's on, in the right project, he really shines. And this one not only promises a departure, it's based on a short story, Why Don't You Dance?, that inspired one of my favorite short films.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

"Northwest Frontier" (Flame Over India) ***1/2 (Out of Four)

The tile Northwest Frontier immediately conjures images of a western into my head, and I suspect that is why director J. Lee Thompson's film was later retitled Flame Over India.  That second title seems more in keeping with the actual film, a rousing, epic adventure set in 1905 India.

Set against the backdrop of a Muslim uprising, Northwest Frontier" tells the story of a British Officer, Captain Scott (Kenneth More), who is charged with transporting a young Hindu prince to the Governor's residence is Hazerabad, where he will be protected from the fighting.  This being a movie, Scott is accompanied by a eclectic mix of companions who must band together to survive the a series adventures as they cross the frontier in a a ricket old train called "The Empress of India". The group includes:

Mrs Wyatt (Lauren Bacall), the Prince's  plucky nanny/governess, who is distrustful of the military and immediately clashes with Captain Scott (the fact that a romantic interest developes between them will only be a surprise to those who have never seen a movie).

Mr. Peters (Eugene Deckers), a pragmatic arms dealer who clashes with the others because of their disdain for his profession.

Mr. Bridie (Wilfid Hyde-White), a blustery old Brit.

Lady Wyndham (Ursula Jeans), the governor's wife.

Gupta (I.S. Johar), the pleasantly goof but wise engineer.

And Mr. Van Layden ( Herbert Lom), a muckraking journalist disliked by the other passengers.

Though late in his career he descended into directing brainless Charles Bronson vehicles and the awful Richard Chamberlain version of King Solomon's Mines, J. Lee Thompson was once a skilled director of adventure films, and here he more closely recalls his classic The Guns of Navarone, with the help of veteran cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (perhaps best known for his contribution to "Superman"), Thompson creates a sweeping adventure which is sure to entertain fans of the genre (which certainly includes me).  The interplay between the characters is entertaining, and the political/social issues that both divide them and bring them together are surprising relevant today.

The performances are strong. Bacall is terrific in a rather non-glamorous role, playing a determined and strong-willed woman who is easily the most identifiable character in the film. Though More is the action hero, she feels like the true protagonist of the film. More is quite entertaining, and one of the real charms of the film is how little like a conventional action hero/soldier he seems. A film like this, made at this time, typically called for a stoic, "man's man" Gregory Peck or Charlton Heston type. More is a teddy bear, the nice guy up the street who never quite knows when to stop talking.

Johar's Gupta is a bit of a condescending stereotype (this was 1959, afterall), but the character also has a certain wisdom and dignity that makes that easier to forgive. Lom, as the enigmatic Van Layden, is both the film's most intriguing and, in some ways, least satisfying character.


Van Layden is revealed midway through the film to be a Muslim, and the moments where Scott and the audience suspect he is attempting to kill the young Prince are thrilling suspense sequences, and very well-acted by Lom. But, the 21st Century liberal in me was disappointed when Van Layden, who protests that being a Muslim doesn't make him a killer, did indeed turn out to be the villain of the film BECAUSE he is a Muslim. While the character is more multi-layered and symapthetic than most Arab terrorist characters in modern thrillers, I have to admit this left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. But, as a fan of old fashioned adventures, I'm used to having to put aside some of my modern sensibilities and keep in mind the time in which the story was first told.


As is common for the epics of it's time, Northwest Frontier is a bit overlong, but for those who enjoy old-fashioned adventure epics, it's a thrilling good time that actually provides some chances to think along the way.

"Declaration of Principles"

The purpose of this blog is to share my movie reviews, thoughts about movies, and general cinematic ramblings. Besides posting my reviews of new films here, I will be posting a lot of reviews of older films. Primarily, these will be Siskel and Ebert used to call "Buried Treasures": films that the average person has probably not seen, but a worth a look.

They may not all be films I consider great, but they will all have something that makes them worth taking the time to view. Some may actually have been very popular at the time of their release, or even considered classics (films like  Sidney Lumet's"The Verdict", Norman Jewison's "A Soldier's Story" or Alfred Hitchcock's  "Foreign Correspondent" are examples of films I may cover which certainly cannot be called obscure), but they will be films that, in my subjective perception, the average person who stumbles across this blog is not especially likely to have seen.

I may also feature the occasional review of older films that I do not consider worth seeing, but I believe these will be less frequent. It certainly can be fun to sarcastically rip apart a film, and my experience writing reviews for the "Timewasters Guide" website was that people were generally more interested in reading these. But I'm more likely to devote my energy to films I consider to have value. I simply feel better pointing people toward something good than away from something bad.

This blog will differ from most of what is currently posted on the internet about films in a few important respects. namely, it will not be written in the style of a sex-crazed, anti-social 13 year old boy, as is currently popular on most movie news websites. Nor will any rumors, gossip, or speculation about who is going to appear the nest "Batman" movie appear.  Post modern horror/slasher films will likely never be discussed, because I simply I have no interest in that particular genre.

So, assuming anyone is actually reading this, I hope you enjoy. Also, in the interest of honesty, I will freely admit that I have taken the title of this blog from the defunct newsletter from the old Utah Film and Video Center. It's a good title, and, as far as I know, it's not being used. If I find out it is, the title will change.

Paul Gibbs