Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Classic Movie Review: Beat the Devil (1953)

I still can't remember why I got my hands on Beat the Devil to review - it is an obscure movie with a very peculiar comedy to it.  It stars Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, and a supporting cast of four "desperate fellows" on an ill-fated trip to Central Africa to exploit a lead on a Uranium-rich tract of land.

The trip serves to provide the setting, first an idyllic seaside stop-over then an ocean voyage, and the intrigue. a 5-way business arrangement held together more by suspicion then trust.  The real story here is not the Uranium mine at all, but the bizarre antics of these characters as they all interact with one another.

Much like while doing my review of Bringing up Baby I was surprised at the timelessness of the comedies of the 50's.  Co-written by Truman Capote, the script was produced day-by-day and the actors tasked with performing them hot off the presses.  This plays through in the way this movie feels more like skilled improv than a traditional movie.  There are some wonderful characters at play, from the Chilean German with an Irish name who waxes poetic about the meaning of time, to the Blonde Beauty who is fickle with her affections yet liberal with her imagination.

Beat the Devil is punctuated by stunning set pieces of dialogue.  Tongue-in-cheek interchanges and occasionally insightful mini-soliloquys make quick work of your defences and will render you raptly aware of the bizarreness of each character.  For me, it is reminiscent of the distinct characters found in Charles Dickens - lively, colourful, and just a bit bent.  Although there is at most 3 settings throughout the movie it has the feeling of being a mad capering adventure in that the situations seem as improvisational as the acting.  Whether it was the dialogue or the situations, I found myself laughing out loud more than once and chuckling over the few recurrent gags that sneak in under the wire.

I've never seen Humphrey Bogart in a film before and I'm not sure this was the best introduction of him as an iconic actor, although it has the benefit of my seeing him disarmed from any affected grandeur.  Now I know him as an interesting actor, who can turn a deadpan phrase and still seem the dashing lead.  I want to note also that I had never heard of Jennifer Jones before, but after her charming, intelligent turn in this film, I can imagine she had the hearts of many young men firmly entrenched in wishful thinking.

One thing you can expect from Beat the Devil is never to hear a bland or clich├ęd statement responded to without a cupful of wit and on that topic I'll let our protagonist Billy have the last word, "The only thing standing between you and a watery grave is your wits, and that's not my idea of adequate protection."

Monday, August 9, 2010

Book Review:: World War Z

In tomorrow's generation, many of us will be known as Generation Z - the survivors of a brutal World War that nearly ended our race once and for all.  What's the Z you ask, why that's Zombies of course.

What would happen if in the next 20 years a deadly new virus were to break out in central China, one that kills and then reanimates the corpse as a deathless evisceration machine unstoppable short of brain destruction.  How would their government react, how would their people, what if it got out of their country?

Taken from the point of view of a UN sanctioned researcher investigating the cause and events of this frightening plague, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, takes us through a series of interviews with the people that were there on the front-lines fighting with ill-suited weapons, in the offices of power making the gruesome choices, and in the back rooms of the black market making a fast buck.

The book is an easy read, at only 300+ pages it engages in a conversational style and spans so many cultures and situations that you will never get bored.  You will be turning every page, eager to learn a little more about the bigger picture and you won't be disappointed.

Overall I enjoyed the book, although in a lot of ways its strength is its weakness.  The contagious element of the book keeps you reading it for extended periods and that's when the interview style wears thin.  So many of the interviewees ended up spewing out litanies of events they witnessed in too similar a style that by 2/3rds through the book you wonder how half of it would be possible for one person to do, see, and remember so much in one conflict.  From the soldier who seems to have personal knowledge of dozens of unique scenarios to the International Space Station astronaut that personally observed every major event in the war from space while simultaneously jerry-rigging satellites and space vehicles for unintended purposes it seems like everyone interviewed in the book had more things to say than they should.

Maybe it was just me, but it seemed like the author's research and brainstorming was writing this book.  Aside from the dialogue, somehow only a dozen or so years after an event that devastated the majority of the human population and had untold impact on our elemental resources, infrastructure, and culture folks are running around with cutting edge science, technologies that are only ideas now and maybe 20-30 years of dedicated R&D away.  I don't buy it and often the new tech references were so off-the-cuff and devoid of explanation that you are left simply saying to yourself, "Ok, whatever that is".  In my opinion, it was unnecessary and jarring.

That all said, if you are a zombie fan, this is a fun and clever read and will really get you thinking.  Clearly the author Max Brooks leveraged his research from The Zombie Survival Guide and if you enjoyed that book, check out how it all turned out in this one.

Movie Review:: Shutter Island

It is the 1950's, the Nazi's have been defeated and the Cold War looms and for U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner Chuck something about the Penitentiary/Hospital for the Criminally Insane on Shutter Island just doesn't add up.

Leo DiCaprio continues to refute all my claims against his acting with movies like The Departed straight through to Inception and this is no different.  In fact, this is a must see.  Ironically when I was watching Inception I thought, "Leo sure does remind me of Jack Nicholson these days, but what he really needs to be in that calibre is a The Shining or a One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest".  Well folks, this is it.

Teddy Daniels is ostensibly on the island to find an escaped prisoner, but his real purpose is much deeper, darker, and fitting.  This movie is a psychological-thriller with a wonderful 50's ambience and a lot of attention to the troubles of the time.  Just keep an eye on those shells, the ending isn't where you expected it.

The movie was directed by Martin Scorsese and this Goodfella hasn't lost a trick. The visuals and the sound are used to wonderful effect.  Driving your experience of the protagonists environment to wonderful and gut wrenching levels.  Waking dreams, nightmares, hallucinations, reality, all start to wash together and this is one rabbit hole that goes straight to hell.

Some movies pull you in, Shutter Island threatens to never let you go.

Movie Review:: The A-Team

Four Army Rangers form a crack team of special operators, running 80 successful operations over 8 years.  This is the kind of success and off-the-books team the CIA needs for a Top Secret op that involves as much money as you can print with your own private U.S. Mint and as much protection as the worst of Iraq's underworld can muster.  Too bad it blew up in their face.  Now they must get the bad guys and clear their names.

If that sounded vaguely familiar, chances are you were thinking more along the lines of this summers hit The Losers than the 80's iconic TV Show.  In fact these movies have a lot in common, maybe too much, to the detriment of this A-Team reboot.  While the movie ditches the main premise of the majority of seasons of the TV show in favour of a palatable 3-act introduction to these characters, replete with massive action set pieces, it does manage somehow to sneak in the 'feel' of these characters we know and love.  That said, this remake lacks the heart the TV show had.

In the 80's this show was a child of the times, it was after Vietnam, America was a lot of things and confused might have been one of them.  Enter four Desparados, wrongly convicted men, who travel the country and risk their lives to help the innocent, the downtrodden, and the oppressed.  Often for a pittance, fashioning what they would need for their cunning plans out of the vehicles and farm equipment so often at hand.

Fast-forward to 2010 and we have Iraq-vets trying only to help themselves in a tongue-in-cheek Bourne style war with the CIA.  Leave that to The Losers, in a lot of ways, they did it better.  Don't get me wrong The A-Team is a funny movie, and the action scenes are memorable.  The key was the casting, all the characters came out on screen and I enjoyed watching the interplay.  I was impressed to learn B.A. Baracus is actually played by a UFC fighter, I had no idea this guy was not a character actor.  All said, I would have traded in Liam Neeson for another actor, but maybe I just never got over Star Wars.

As with so many of these reboots what we got was a script written as a revisionist back-story introduction to the characters we used to know and in so doing, we rob them of the setting and actions that made us love them.  If Hollywood's plan was to cash in on yet another 80's memory with no clear understanding of what made it a phenomenon, well, I guess they must love it when a plan comes together.