Movie Review – “The Dirty Dozen” (1967)

 

 

I want to say that “The Dirty Dozen” fits in the same vein as “The Great Escape,” except where “The Great Escape” had a certain likable charm to it, where even the sour and down moments were undeniably optimistic, “The Dirty Dozen” is cynical, hardened, and fits in more with the action clichés one would expect from a war movie. “The Dirty Dozen” is the proto-typical war film that would inspire the films of today, like “Saving Private Ryan,” “Fury” and “Hacksaw Ridge,” trading in charm and wit for realism and big action sequences.

The film follows Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) being given the impossible task of penetrating an impregnable Nazi fortress with only the help of twelve prisoners condemned to either death row or life in prison, that way if anything goes wrong the military can put the blame on a bunch of criminals. The majority of the film is Reisman establishing trust and honor among these men who have been locked up for years, the prisoners learning to be productive members of society again, and the military watching over Reisman’s operation like a hawk.

 

 

The best scene in the movie is when Reisman’s commanding officer, Colonel Breed (Robert Ryan) makes a deal with Reisman to see if his men could infiltrate Breed’s command and capture him without being detected. It shows these men were always more than just hardened criminals, but intelligent soldiers who are quick on their feet. What makes this scene enjoyable is that it comes across like the dozen are truly enjoying themselves, like they take joy in messing their own army’s heads, fooling them at every turn.

Still, I only ever felt like I got to know about half of the dozen characters, with the rest filling the role of cannon fodder for the final sequence. It is the typical war movie cliché of building up a straw man character just to knock him down in a storm of bullets.

Overall, “The Dirty Dozen” is a fine war movie, if a bit predictable and cliché nowadays. There are some charming moments, but for the most part this is a cold and sterile look at World War II. Not the best WWII film out there, but certainly not the worst either.

Final Grade: C+

 

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Movie Review – “Ugetsu” (1953)

 

 

“Ugetsu” is an odd piece of work that takes two common Japanese genres, the ghost story and the jidaigeki (period drama), and combines them to produce a film that is accessible to a wide audience by giving us a uniquely human samurai tale with a supernatural edge. The film focuses on how war affects the minds of those who cannot fight and the toll it takes on them and their families, both physically and emotionally.

It starts in a small Japanese village during a time of constant civil war between rival clans. The village is populated by farmers and workers trying to make a decent living without getting involved in this conflict. These villagers include the pottery maker Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) who dreams of making it big and living a luxurious life with his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka), and Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa), who dreams of making a name for himself as a samurai. After Genjuro gets a taste of real money from selling his pottery, he becomes obsessed with getting more at whatever cost, even risking his life in the face of the evil clans.

After their village is attacked, the two families leave together and split up at the nearest town after they learn of the threat of pirates, leaving the men to head into town and make as much money as they can. But both Genjuro and Tobei get lost in their own greed and ambition, with Tobei looking for a way to make a name for himself as a samurai, while Genjuro is visited by a creepy princess who wants more than just his pottery.

 

 

There is not much else I can say about “Ugetsu” without spoiling the plot and the journey of self discovery and tragedy these two go on. But I will say that, like most Japanese period pieces, pain is a constant companion throughout their trip and the land of Japan has an odd sense of justice. While the film is slow at times, it only helps with the scenes involving Genjuro and the princess and the gnawing feeling that something is wrong with their forceful relationship.

If you are at least familiar with the genres at play in “Ugetsu” then give this film a try and see how they blend together in this sorrowful tale. And even if you do not know about the themes and atmosphere of a Japanese period piece, this is still a great tale about two small men who wish for something bigger in a harsh and brutal world.

Final Grade: B+

 

Movie Review – “THX-1138” (1971)

 

 

Unless you are a diehard movie fan, the biggest thing to come from this movie is that it gave way to that annoyingly loud introduction to DVDs in the 2000s from THX.

“THX-1138” is George Lucas’ directorial debut and is about as minimalistic of a depiction of the future as possible, with lots of empty white and blank landscapes, with every character wearing the same plain jumpsuit and shaved haircut. Set in the far off future, humans now live a robotic lifestyle underground where their given designated tasks, take pills to suppress emotions, and can no longer have sex. Everything is done automatically and mechanically, including the production of offspring, psychological treatment and even a Mecha-Jesus to act as a confessional. People don’t even have names anymore, just numbers like a bar code.

Basically, imagine “WALL-E” if we went underground instead of into outer space.

The making of “THX-1138” is the most fascinating part of the movie – George Lucas originally made this movie while he was in college but found the final product unsatisfactory. After he graduated, Lucas was taken directly under the wing of Francis Ford Coppola, the director of “The Godfather” movies and “Apocalypse Now,” where Lucas would help Coppola in pretty much every aspect of filmmaking. For one of Coppola’s bigger projects, Lucas basically acted as the “assistant to everything,” but Coppola couldn’t find the best way to pay Lucas for doing all that work. The best thing Coppola came up with was to fund Lucas’ directorial debut entirely. Lucas used this as an opportunity to redo and reshoot his final college project, and this time with a nearly $800,000 budget and A-list actors like Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasence.

 

 

Lucas made “THX-1138” as a direct response to the rise of consumerism, with television, newspapers, and magazines forcing products and advertisements down our throats, treating us like mindless drones that will buy anything that’s put in front of us if it has enough pretty colors. The film is also a slam against then-President Richard Nixon, as the villain of the film takes direct excerpts from his speeches to propagate his evil point-of-view.

And that’s about all that’s interesting with “THX-1138” – Everything else is pretty standard for a dystopian science fiction film where everything from emotions to duties to society is handled by computers. Maybe it is because of the blank voids this film uses for backgrounds, or the bland designs of the characters, but because everything looks and feels the same, nothing truly stands out. This movie just feels like one giant shade of gray.

If you’re curious how the creator of “Star Wars” got his start and the his first attempt at science fiction, then give “THX-1138” a shot. But if you’re truly interested in watching a worthwhile dystopian science fiction, look to other more visually interesting tales in the genre and save this one for a rainy day.

Final Grade: C

 

Movie Review – “Carnival of Souls” (1962)

 

 

Imagine if “Night of the Living Dead” was a ghost story instead of the first true zombie film, and you would get “Carnival of Souls.”

Except where “Night of the Living Dead” was an exciting piece of horror with startling effects and poignant piece on racism, “Carnival of Souls” is a meandering tease of a movie that only benefits from having odd cinematography. Combine this with the pacing of a David Lynch film and you get a movie that feels like a chore to get through.

“Carnival of Souls” is an independent horror film about a teenage girl who miraculously survives a car accident, and tries to find meaning in her life after said accident. All the while, this girl feels like she is being followed by people who are not there, including a man that no one else can see. She is mysteriously drawn to an old carnival just off the Great Salt Lake, where she continually sees pale people who won’t stop dancing.

 

Watching “Carnival of Souls” is like seeing someone go to a paint store, tries out different samples, literally watches that paint dry, and then leaves the store without buying anything. It comes and goes, but without anything significant or important being accomplished. The characters are dull and lifeless, especially the main female lead, and I routinely found myself checking the clock. Even though this movie is less than 90 minutes, it felt like it was nearly three hours.

Don’t bother with “Carnival of Souls,” there isn’t much to see here outside of how it influences directors like David Lynch and George A. Romero.

Final Grade: D+

 

Movie Review – “Destry Rides Again” (1939)

 

 

When I first heard that James Stewart was the lead actor in a western in the early part of his career of the 1930s, I was genuinely shocked that the wholesome every-man would play such a rough and tumble role. I was even more surprised to learn that Stewart plays a deputy sheriff who refuses to use his guns and wins the towns people over with law and order instead of barbarianism, despite everyone initially thinking he’s crazy.

In other words, Jimmy Stewart is still playing the wholesome every-man in the unlawful old west. And the strange thing is that he makes it work.

“Destry Rides Again” is set in the old west town of Bottleneck, which is run by a corrupt mayor and a power couple who run the saloon that has a vice grip on the local farmers. The attractive German dance hall queen named Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich) lures in the boys, and her boyfriend Kent (Brian Donlevy) runs a rigged poker game that makes the farmers gamble away their land and property until it all belongs to Kent. The sheriff catches on to their game and gets shot in the back for his troubles. The town elects a new sheriff jokingly, the town drunk Wash Dimsdale (Charles Winninger). But much to the shock of the townsfolk (and me), Wash sets down the bottle and gives a grand speech about how he will clean up Bottleneck and make it a town worth living in.

Wash declares that he’ll do it by bringing in the son of the famous gunslinger, Destry and make him his new deputy. But, as everyone quickly finds out, Destry Jr. (Jimmy Stewart) is not like his father. He’s quiet, reserved and wants to solve every problem peacefully instead of with more violence. He walks around town without wearing any guns on him and tells lots of stories about people he knew and the kind of trouble they got into. But he shares a massive similarity to his father – he’s damn good at his job.

 

 

The more I thought about the setup for “Destry Rides Again,” the more I realize that it has a lot in common with “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” – an official is killed in an unruly region, Jimmy Stewart is praised for being the young up-and-coming and is sent in to replace the official, but his wide-eyed innocence makes everyone see him as little more than a child wearing his dad’s boots. Just replace the Senate from “Mr. Smith” with the old west and you’ve got “Destry Rides Again.” It gets even weirder when you realize both films came out the same year, and the leading female had top billing over Jimmy Stewart in each movie, mostly because Jean Arthur and Marlene Dietrich were bigger stars than Stewart at the time.

Outside of Jimmy Stewart’s lovable performance as Destry Jr., I adore this movies’ charm and atmosphere. It takes the time to flesh out everybody in this town while having a sense of humor about everything. From the odd yet quirky Boris Callahan (Mischa Auer) to the heart-broken and homeless Claggett family, there is no shortage of colorful characters here. Yet even this its great slapstick comedy and wordplay, the film still finds time to have impactful and emotional scenes, the best one being the aforementioned fiery speech from the new sheriff to rile up the townsfolk.

Overall, I was extremely surprised by how much fun I had with “Destry Rides Again.” It is a quirky western that is loaded with outstanding performances and a great atmosphere. Jimmy Stewart is his usual lovable self that never seems to grow old or tiresome and adds a great deal of heart and strength to this movie. I think the similarities to “Mr. Smith” make this film even stronger, making this one of the most memorable westerns I’ve ever seen.

Final Grade: A-

 

Movie Review – “To Be or Not to Be” (1942)

 

 

There is a distinct charm to “To Be or Not to Be” that is unlike any other film I have seen. The main reason for this is that this is one of the few films that turned the Nazis and Hitler into a farce while we were in the middle of World War II. There were plenty of films that depicted the Nazis as evil and the worst thing that has ever happened to the world, especially during the mid-1940s, but little to no comedies. The only other that comes to mind is Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” which is interesting since both films were made by filmmakers who had direct stakes in Hitler’s march through Europe.

Director Ernst Lubitsch, originally from Poland, made a movie that not only treated Hitler like a bad joke, but also shows the strength and resolve of the Polish people. “To Be or Not to Be” is enduring because of smaller characters, like the Polish bit-player in a theater troupe who quotes “Hamlet” when he witnesses the destruction the Nazis cause. Little moments like that which show the vulnerable side while also juggling the comedic aspect makes this a movie worth seeing.

 

 

The film follows a theater troupe based in Warsaw, Poland who want to put on a play that satirizes the Nazis and Hitler but ends up getting cancelled the night the Germans invade Poland. Some time after this, a professor-turned-spy for the Nazis secretly gets his hands on a list of names associated with the Polish underground resistance movement and heads back from England to Poland to give the Gestapo the names. A young Polish pilot, Lt. Sobinski (Robert Stack), hears about the professor’s plans and heads back to Poland to stop him from reaching the Gestapo. The first person he reaches out to is the leading lady of the theater troupe, Maria Tura (Carole Lombard), which quickly involves her husband Joseph (Jack Benny) and the rest of the troupe as they masquerade as Nazis and the Gestapo to fool just about everyone else.

The star of the movie is Jack Benny, who takes absolute delight in his ability to fool everyone with his acting talents, proving to himself that he is the greatest actor alive. The best scenes are with him, pretending to be the professor, interacting with the head of the Gestapo, Col. Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman). These two have the most inflated egos and take every opportunity to pump more air into theirs just to impress the other.

Overall, I had a lot of fun with “To Be or Not to Be.” The plot is a bit confusing at times, especially once Sobinski lands back in Poland, but once Jack Benny has to go undercover as a Nazi spy, everything turns into comedic gold. Yet the film never loses its human charm with its representation of the Polish people in the face of such adversity. Without saying too much or too little, it says everything that needed to be said about Hitler and the Nazis.

Final Grade: B

 

Movie Review – “The Band Wagon” (1953)

 

Any movie that has a musical number featuring dancing triplet babies that talk about buying a gun they can shoot their other siblings is at least worth a watch in my book.

That, and it is the only movie I’ve ever seen that combines musicals and film noirs. “The Band Wagon” literally has a sequence that plays out like a hard-boiled detective story, complete with femme fatales and over-the-top cheesy narration, while it plays out like ballet with elaborate dance sequences.

I’m not sure I need to say anything else – Babies that want guns and musical film noirs. If that does not peak your interest in “The Band Wagon,” nothing will.

Or it could be that “The Band Wagon” is one of the last big musicals for Fred Astaire, as he plays a role that he was becoming more and more every day – an aging film star that had been forgotten by the Hollywood system and was looking for one last shot to remain in the limelight. Astaire goes all out on his musical numbers, especially one early on in the film where he dances around while getting his shoes shined and playing carnival games.

 

 

If my description of these events sounds odd, it’s only because this movie is odd. The musical numbers are intricate and elaborate, while fully embracing the insane situations, including the now famous “That’s Entertainment!” number that seems like a cut scene from “Singin’ In the Rain.” My personal favorite number is the aforementioned film noir musical bit, if only because I’ve never seen two genres that have nothing in common work so well together.

There are slow parts to “The Band Wagon,” but when this movie gets good, it is impossible to take your eyes off the screen.

Final Grade: B-