Archive for the ‘Epic’ Category
Tuesday, March 29th, 2011
Genre: Epic, Classic
Country: United States
Starring: Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Edward G. Robinson, Anne Baxter, Yvonne De Carlo, Debra Paget, Vincent Price, John Derek, Nina Foch, John Carradine, Martha Scott, Judith Anderson, Cedric Hardwicke, Esther Brown, Woody Strode, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn, thousands of others
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Run time: 219 minutes
DVD distributor: Paramount Home Entertainment
Today, a lot of movies in Hollywood come out of focus groups. A bunch of people who sit around wondering what kind of movie they should make to appeal to the largest number of people possible. No focus group could have done better than The Ten Commandments in 1956. It’s an epic – those were big at the time. It starred Charlton Heston – he was big at the time. And it’s religious! Religious movies do very well at the box office. Not only that – it’s religious for both Christian and Jewish people, in that it’s old-testament religious. And let’s face it – the old testament is by far the more entertaining of the two testaments.
Cecil B. DeMille, of course, knew how big a success his movie was going to be. After all, he had already made it once before, in 1926. Both movies were terrific, although the 1956 version was more…well…biblical. And we all know that works – do you have any idea how much money Kirk Cameron makes every year acting in movies that only evangelicals watch? TONS!
I suspect almost everyone has seen The Ten Commandments. It’s on TV every Easter, and it can be tough to avoid. Like Die Hard 2 at Christmas. Of course, at any time, The Ten Commandments is a commitment. At almost four hours that’s a sizeable chunk of your day. I think most of us watch it while preparing Easter dinner, and with commercials it could be a six hour chunk of television. Looking back on this movie with the benefit of all the films that have come since – in the last 55 years – that’s a LOT of overacting and silliness to sit through.
The only real question now is this – is the new restoration worth it? Paramount Home Entertainment is releasing the restored version in DVD and Blu-Ray editions on March 29th. See, a lot about the movie is dated. Today, I smirk at the ludicrous dramatic overacting, the silly dancing girls in skimpy clothes, the over-the-top pageantry, and the sheer excess that is The Ten Commandments. This movie really stands as a monument to a bygone era in Hollywood. So does it need to be updated for today’s technology?
The answer is, unequivocally, yes. See, many of the things that make The Ten Commandments so charmingly out of date are things that beg for higher definition – the costumes and the cast of thousands and the parting of the Red Sea and Yul Brynner’s shiny dome and Charlton Heston’s ridiculous beard. And because the film is such a time-consuming effort, I need a real reason to keep watching for a long time. And the restoration gave me just that. A reason to spend an entire afternoon watching this pompous tribute to the enormous ego of Cecil B. DeMille. And enjoying it. And maybe a reason to do it again, some time soon!
Monday, October 19th, 2009
Genre: War, Epic, Period Piece
Countries: South Korea, Hong Kong, China, Japan
Language: Mandarin w/ English subtitles, or English dubbing
Starring: Andy Lau, Ahn Sungki, Wang Zhi Wen, Fan Bing Bing, Wu Chi Lung, Choi Siwon
Director: Jacob C.L. Cheung
Run time: 133 minutes
DVD distributor: Alliance Films
DVD extras: Feature commentary by Bey Logan (Hong Kong cinema expert), and the making of Battle of the Warriors.
Even a halfway decent Hong Kong war epic is a pretty darn good movie. And Battle Of The Warriors is a pretty darn good movie. Even though it’s only halfway decent by Hong Kong war epic standards. Andy Lau stars as a wandering warrior from the legendary clan of Mozi warriors who helps a city defend itself against an invading army with vastly superior numbers. The movie is more about strategy than it is about bloodshed and swordplay. More people are killed with arrows than are killed in crazy action scenes, but there is enough great wartime action to satisfy those seeking that kind of thrill. Lau is fantastic, and he brings a serene, stoic screen presence to a role that requires little more than serenity and stoicness. Stoicity. Whatever that word might be.
Ge Li (Lau) arrives in Liang City as the village prepares to surrender to the invading Zhao army. The Zhaos have a massive army, hundreds of thousands strong, and the village has only a few thousand inhabitants to fight them off. When Ge Li arrives, he makes a quick calculation. Liang City is of little strategic importance to the Zhaos, and they are on their way to conquer the Yan State. So all the people of Liang have to do is hold them off for a little while, and make it clear that conquering their small village will come at too great a cost, and the Zhaos will move on and leave them alone. So with Ge Li’s help, they fortify their town and prepare for the onslaught.
The movie is called Battle of the Warriors for the American release, but its international title is more apt - the movie is really called Battle of Wits, and that’s what it is. Ge Li’s strategic planning vs. the military might and cunning of the Zhao commander. This part of the movie is far more cerebral and meticulous than it is action-packed and bloody. The bloodshed certainly arrives, but only after carefully orchestrated plans set it up. This part of the movie is very cool, and I found it riveting, exemplified by the scene where Ge Li sits down with the enemy commander to play a board game, as they feel out each others’ strategic tendencies.
Complicating things are the supporting characters, not all of whom make sense. The king of Liang City is an ineffectual, drunken buffoon, who cares more about staying in power than he does about helping his people. He’s not an unusual character in a war movie. The bumbling, clueless, mean-spirited commander is a pretty standard guy. But Lord Liang (Wang Zhiwen) is more of a cartoon character than anything else. Then there’s his general. He seems to be a cold-blooded opportunist, and he plots to destroy Ge Li when it appears he has become the most powerful and beloved man in the village. He orders the massacre of some captured soldiers, showing his and his evil tendencies. Then, at other points in the film, he appears to be sticking up for Ge Li when the king wants him destroyed. I’m not sure what he’s supposed to be.
The two most interesting characters in the film are the gorgeous Yi Yue (Fan Bingbing), the leader of Liang’s cavalry, who falls in love with Ge Li, and the prince of Liang. The prince is a complex character, who evolves throughout the film. Initially skeptical of the stranger, and resentful that some of his authority has been usurped, he eventually comes around to seeing things Ge Li’s way. Then, in a surprise ending, something…happens…I don’t want to ruin the ending. I hope you’ll watch this movie. It isn’t perfect, and it loses a lot of steam after the big betrayal toward the end, but it’s overall a solid effort. And as I said, a solid Hong Kong war epic effort is a pretty darn good movie.
Tuesday, March 10th, 2009
The first half of Brokeback Mountain is excellent. The camerawork is sensational, and is reminiscent of some of the best work done by Terrence Malick in films like Days of Heaven and Badlands. Brokeback Mountain itself actually becomes a character in the movie, and Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger are almost irrelevant. Ledger, however, gives a terrific performance as a man who is simply struggling to communicate with everyone, including his gay lover Gyllenhaal.
Then the gay sex happens. It’s rather shockingly aggressive, and that sets the tone for the second half of the movie, which is NOT very good. It’s about an hour too long, and we sort of know what will happen before it does. Jake Gyllenhall comes off as more of a sexual predator than a lover, and Heath Ledger spends the last two hours of the film just trying to escape from this man with whom he has had an ill-advised fling.
Brokeback Mountain is much like Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. It starts off great, but by the two minute mark, we get it. No need to make the song seventeen minutes long, just jump to the end and save us some time. The fact that it is being released on Blu-Ray today is excellent though. The magnificent scenery and the filming alone in the first half will make that worthwhile.
The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford is a long title that explains much of what you need to know about the movie (*********9/10)
Saturday, May 10th, 2008
It was the mother of Jesse James, in real life, who would select the words for his epitaph. “In Loving Memory of my Beloved Son, Murdered by a Traitor and Coward Whose Name is not Worthy to Appear Here”. The new movie, starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck, feels that Robert Ford’s name IS worthy to appear in their title alongside that of James. That the two men were equally important parts to the same story. It’s a story that has been told many times, in books, music, and of course movies. Jesse James has been played by Tyrone Power, Red Barry, Roy Rogers, Clayton Moore, Audie Murphy, Robert Wagner, Robert Duvall, Kris Kristofferson and Rob Lowe. Among others. The worst portrayal of James was Colin Farrell’s in American Outlaws – mostly because that movie was so very very terrible. The best may well be Brad Pitt in this film. Whose title I won’t keep typing for fear of developing carpal tunnel syndrome.
But Brad Pitt is outdone considerably in this movie by Casey Affleck. Yes, Casey Affleck, the kid brother of Ben, who has never appeared in any significant role in his life and yet all of a sudden finds himself in two of the biggest roles in two of the best movies of the year! And he is good. In both – it isn’t just his brother’s direction that makes him great, he is just legitimately an excellent actor. Robert Ford has been played by John Carradine, whose four sons became actors. Son David was later killed by Uma Thurman. He has also been played by John Ireland, and some guy on an episode of Little House on the Prairie. But the best protrayal is without a doubt Affleck’s in this movie, and he richly deserved his Academy Award nomination as best supporting actor. Although Brad Pitt is a Movie Star, and his public persona dwarfs his talent, people forget that he is an outstanding actor. Outdoing him in a movie is a considerable achievement.
Pitt at his very best reminds me a little of Paul Newman, and watching this movie reminded me of Paul Newman’s portrayal of Billy The Kid in The Left-Handed Gun (1958). He’s an outlaw on the edge of sanity, paranoid and almost childish in his outlook. He seems to be the kind of guy who has reached the end of his rope, and almost welcomes his own death. Death is his deliverance, and I think the title of the movie makes it pretty clear it happens, and as such this is not much of a spoiler. Sam Rockwell, Zooey Deschanel, Mary-Louise Parker, and Sam Shephard are all excellent in supporting roles, and James Carville makes a bizarre appearance as the governor. Nick Cave shows up as a saloon singer, and Hugh Ross lends just the right tone to keep the story moving as the narrator.
Jesse James, in his day, was about the most famous person in America, outside the president, because his exploits were followed in the papers. He was a celebrity simply because he was someone that people had heard of, and there were not many of those around at the time. Even at the time, he was considered a hero in the west, because the papers protrayed him as an anti-establishment fighter on the side of good. But of course, he was really just a bandit and a murderer who happened to get good press. Che Guevara he was not. This movie captures the tone perfectly, Robert Ford being an idol-worshipping sycophant to James and his gang at first. He has been a die-hard Jesse James fan since he was a small boy, and now that he comes face to face with the reality of the outlaw, he becomes completely torn between his hero-worship and his desire for self-preservation. And the film has a surprisingly un-dramatic conclusion, given the subject matter contained so succinctly in the title. Like the best westerns of all time (and this is among the top 200 ever made) death is just something that happens as a natural course of living, whether it be because of the elements, sickness, or at the hand of other men.
Westerns have gone through many ups and downs in movie history. John Ford’s Stagecoach, in 1939, was the first movie to suggest that westerns could be real feature films, A-list movies, rather than continuing as it was in B-movie, black-and-white serials and the like. That was the golden age of the western, when John Wayne and John Ford were kings, Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart were major stars, and films like The Searchers, High Noon, Shane, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance were among some of the best ever made. There was a big resurgence in the western genre during the 70s, when the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood breathed some life back into the genre. Then it died again, until the 90s, when Unforgiven in 1992 became one of the greatest movies of all time, and quite possibly the best western. This resurgence led mostly to B-grade fluff, like Bad Girls and The Quick And The Dead, and nothing of substance. I sincerely hope now that films like 3:10 to Yuma and The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford mark a more substantial return to significance in the history of the western, and that more movies like this one can be made. But even if not, the fact that this particular movie was made is reason enough to be happy.
Saturday, May 10th, 2008
There were certain roles in the history of movies that could be played only by Charlton Heston. Moses, Ben-Hur, Michaelangelo, and El Cid. Heston was never much of an actor when it came to emoting. He was quite the actor, however, when it came to puffing out his chest and speechifying. He was also very adept at looking heroic, twisting his face into furious and righteous anger, and talking justice with his deep, powerful voice and square, stoic chin. Very good stuff, these Heston epics. I’m going to go ahead and assume that everyone has seen The Ten Commandments, because it’s all over TV at Easter time. I will also assume that everyone is aware of Ben-Hur, because it is one of those all-time classics that is on TV so often that it is difficult to miss. Perhaps the same goes for The Agony And The Ecstasy. And I will further make the assumption that virtually no one has seen El Cid, since I have never come across this epic on television or in the video store. The reason it hasn’t been in the video store is that it was not available on DVD. Until this coming Tuesday. El Cid is being released by Alliance Films on DVD in a glorious three-disc set this coming Tuesday. And it is a must-have for any epic film buff.
This is one of those sets that comes with everything. A booklet detailing the massive preparations for shooting this massive epic. A comic book from the 60s that takes us through the entire El Cid movie, such that we don’t even have to watch the film if we would rather take ten minutes to flip through a comic book. And it also has a written introduction to the film by Martin Scorcese, and a bunch of postcard-sized movie posters that nerds like me enjoy putting up on their walls. The El Cid posters are now up beside the similar ones I got in the special editions of The Good The Bad and The Ugly and To Kill A Mockingbird. The three-disc set includes some very cool special features – interviews, behind the scenes stuff, and an endurance-testing feature-length commentary. El Cid is more than three hours long, which means the commentary involves talking for more than three hours straight. That must have been tough.
El Cid is the true story of a Spanish hero named Rodrigo Diaz de Bivar, who managed to unite Christian Spain with the Muslim Moors in order to repel an attack against Spain by an evil warlord, Ben Yussef (played wonderfully by Herbert Lom). It is the sort of role Heston was born to play, and the supporting cast is good as well. Watching a young Sophia Loren in the role of Heston’s wife, as they go through a love-hate relationship, certainly lends credence to the idea that she really didn’t start getting really hot until she hit her forties. Sure, she’s attractive in this movie, but the Sophia Loren I think of is far better looking, and also far older. I could go through the rest of the excellent cast too, but there are way too many to mention. In the 60s, you see, there was no CGI, and therefore when you see a crowd of thousands of people, or a battle involving thousands of soldiers, it is actually thousands of actors and extras, and not computer-generated! And that really makes a difference, much as some technophiles would have us believe it does not. The musical score is terrific, and the panoramic battle scenes must be seen in HD or at the very least on a large television in widescreen.
El Cid is not quite the cinematic achievement that are some of Heston’s other best works. It does not quite reach the heights of Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments. Director Anthony Mann, while he was a very capable director, never really lived up to his promise, and this may be his best film. (Also excellent were The Bend In The River and Winchester ’73.) But really, El Cid bears the imprint of Saumel Bronston, the producer, as much if not more as it does the talents of Anthony Mann. Bronston followed up the massive production of El Cid with a few great films, such as King of Kings and The Fall of the Roman Empire, and for a few years was the king of the sweeping cinematic epic. Heston will always be the number one star of the biblical epic and this kind of gigantic film, but Mann will never be considered among the greats of the genre. That title could well go to David Lean, the man behind Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Doctor Zhivago. (This run of three consecutive movies is likely unparallelled in the history of cinema. Perhaps only Francis Ford Coppola comes close, with The Godfather, The Conversation, and The Godfather Part II.)
El Cid is not an all-time classic, but it certainly bears watching. And this three-disc set would be a fantastic addition to the collection of any true movie fanatic. Don’t miss out – it gets released by Alliance Films on Tuesday.