Moonraker


In space, nobody can hear your witticisms.

In space, nobody can hear your witticisms.

(1979) Sci-Fi Spy Action (United Artists) Roger Moore, Lois Chiles, Michael Lonsdale, Richard Kiel, Corinne Cléry, Bernard Lee, Geoffrey Keen, Desmond Llewellyn, Lois Maxwell, Toshiro Suga, Emily Bolton, Blanche Ravalec, Walter Gotell, Arthur Howard, Michael Marshall, Brian Keith, Chichinou Kaeppler, Claude Carliez, Catherine Serre, Beatrice Libert.  Directed by Lewis Gilbert

Sci-Fi Spectacle 2015

Among James Bond fans, Moonraker remains even today a divisive subject. Some hail it as being among the best of the entire franchise (New York Times critic Vincent Canby thought it was even better than Goldfinger) while others look upon it as campy schlock with little redeeming value.

The plot is pure balderdash. A space shuttle, on loan to Britain from the U.S., is hijacked from a 747 on the way back to America. James Bond (Moore), MI-6 agent 007 is assigned the case by M (Lee, his last appearance in the franchise) and is sent to interview Hugo Drax (Lonsdale), the billionaire owner of Drax Industries who manufactured the shuttle. While on the French estate which the industrialist had moved stone by stone to the California desert, Bond meets Dr. Holly Goodhead (Chiles), an astronaut assigned to Drax and is nearly murdered by Chang (Suga), Drax’ bodyguard. With the assistance of Corinne Dufour (Cléry), Drax’ personal pilot, Bond discovers some blueprints to an unusual glass container.

Bond goes to Venice to find out the secret of the container and discovers that it is a vessel for a highly toxic nerve gas, accidentally killing several lab technicians in the process. Chang, however, he kills on purpose. He calls in the cavalry only to find the entire operation has disappeared. However, Bond kept a vial of the gas as proof and M keeps Bond on the case despite calls to take him off it. Under the guise of sending Bond on holiday, M sends him to Rio de Janeiro where Bond has discovered that Drax has moved his operations. There, with helpful contact Manuela (Bolton) he eventually learns that Drax has a secret base near Iguazu Falls on the Amazon.

Drax also has a new bodyguard, by the name of Jaws (Kiel) and a plan – to render Earth uninhabitable by humankind (the gas is harmless to animals and plants) and take the most beautiful specimens of humans onto a space station orbiting the Earth, kept hidden by a massive radar jamming device. Bond and Goodhead, who  turns out to be an ally, must stop Drax from wiping out all of humanity and beginning a new master race, one which he and his descendants will rule.

As Bond movies go this one is pretty ambitious. It had for its time an eyebrow-raising budget. In fact, For Your Eyes Only was supposed to follow The Spy Who Loved Me but as Star Wars had rendered the moviegoing public sci-fi crazy, producer Albert Broccoli decided to capitalize on the craze and send Bond into space. Utilizing series regular Derek Meddings on special effects (for which he was nominated for an Oscar) and Ken Adam for set design, this became one of the more visually spectacular of the Bond films, right up there with the volcano lair of You Only Live Twice.

Moore as Bond relied on witticisms more than Sean Connery ever did; here he approaches self-parody. By this time he was beginning to show his age (he was older than Connery was when he made Never Say Never Again) and becoming less believable in the role, although he would go on to make three more Bond films. This wasn’t his finest moment as Bond but he continued to make it through on charm and comic timing.

His main Bond mate, Chiles, was decidedly less successful. Many consider her the coldest Bond girl ever; she is decidedly unconvincing as a scientist and less so as a spy. She has almost no chemistry with Moore; Carole Bouquet would turn out to be a much better fit for Moore in For Your Eyes Only which wisely brought Bond back to basics when it came out in 1981.

Kiel, as Jaws, was already one of the most popular Bond villains of all time. Rather than being menacing, he became almost comic relief; his indestructibility becomes a running joke which might have been a tactical mistake by the writers. The movie desperately needed a sense of peril to Bond and you never get a sense he’s in any real danger other than a single sequence when Chang attempts to murder him in a G-force testing machine. Nonetheless Kiel is game and is one of the better elements in the film.

By this point in the series Bond films essentially wrote themselves and had become a little bit formulaic. Despite the popularity of this film, Broccoli knew that he had to break the franchise out of its rut and he would do so with the following film which would become one of the best of the Moore era; this one, while some loved it and audiences flocked to it, remains less highly thought of today. It is still impressive for its space battle sequence, it’s amazing sets and zero gravity sequences, even despite being somewhat dated. It, like nearly every Bond film, is solid entertainment by any scale.

WHY RENT THIS: Special effects were nifty for their time. Moore remains the most witty of the Bonds. Jaws.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Chilly Chiles. Lacks any sense of peril. Occasionally dull.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence and some sexual innuendo
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Would be the highest-grossing film of the series until Goldeneye broke the record in 1995.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Special Edition DVD includes a still gallery and a featurette on the Oscar-nominated special effects. The Blu-Ray edition includes these as well as some storyboards and test footage.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $210.3M on a $34M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Blu-Ray/DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu (download only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle continues!

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From Russia, With Love


Much better than a mint on your pillow.

Much better than a mint on your pillow.

(1963) Spy Thriller (United Artists) Sean Connery, Daniela Bianchi, Pedro Armendariz, Lotte Lenya, Robert Shaw, Bernard Lee, Eunice Gayson, Walter Gotell, Francis de Wolf, George Pastell, Nadja Regin, Lois Maxwell, Aliza Gur, Martine Beswick, Vladek Sheybal, Anthony Dawson, Lisa “Leila” Guiraut, Hasan Ceylan, Peter Bayliss, Desmond Llewelyn. Directed by Terence Young

While most people remember the first James Bond movie (Dr. No) and the third (Goldfinger) the casual moviegoer probably doesn’t remember the second. It was a box office smash, particularly in Britain where it set a box office record in only 82 days of release. Still, it doesn’t get a lot of the love that other Bond films over the years has attained.

James Bond (Connery), MI-6 agent 007 has irritated SPECTRE, a criminal organization set on world domination led by a mysterious Number One (Dawson) who pets a white cat constantly. Planning mastermind Kronsteen (Sheybal) has come up with a plan to steal a Lekter cryptographic device from the Soviet Union and sell it back to them, while exacting revenge on Bond for killing Dr. No in the previous movie. Number One engages Number Three, Rosa Klebb (Lenya) to run the operation. She in turn utilizes SPECTRE agent Red Grant (Shaw) as her primary field operative.

However, the way to get to Bond is to use a beautiful woman and the way to get to the Lekter is to use Tatiana Romanova (Bianchi) to lure in bond with the promise of a Lekter. Of course M (Lee) and Bond know it’s a trap but if they can get their hands on a Lekter, that would be a considerable coup. Bond goes to Istanbul where station chief Ali Kerim Bey (Armendariz) meets him. Grant follows Bond around, wreaking havoc and pitting the Soviets against the Turks and Brits. Romanova rendezvous with Bond and in keeping with – and adding to – a Bond movie tradition, falls head over heels in love with the British spy.

However, SPECTRE is dogging their every move, keeping Bond alive until he can literally deliver the Lekter into their hands. Romanova, who thought she was acting on behalf of the Soviet’s in-house SMERSH agency, is now ready to defect for real. There’ll be Murder on the Orient Express and a thrilling boat chase and of course face-to-face confrontations with both Klebb and Grant before all is said and done. And I could tell you how the movie ends but you don’t have to be a genius to figure out what it’s going to be.

Young was going for a more realistic atmosphere  this time around. While there are gadgets including a fairly useful briefcase and the Lekter itself, this is mostly straight-up action as opposed to later Bond movies. Connery cemented his stardom as it was very apparent that this was a franchise that was going to have staying power – this even before Goldfinger would make it a cultural phenomenon. He’s in so many ways the ultimate male circa 1963. He’s ruggedly handsome, tough as nails, absolute catnip to women and knowledgeable as well as cultured. We mere mortal males couldn’t possibly compete against all that and there were more than a few wives at the time who, seeing this, eyed their husbands with a critical expression. They’re still doing that today, if Da Queen is any indication.

Bianchi is one of the most physically beautiful of the Bond girls, although the former Miss Italy didn’t really have the charisma of the best of them – Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg, Ursula Andress and Halle Berry come to mind immediately. She’s usually lumped in with Lois Chiles and Olivia D’Abo as one of the less popular girls of the series. I don’t know that it’s fair but she certainly is easy on the eyes.

Llewellyn makes his first appearance as Q, although the head of Q branch is identified by his character’s real name, Major Boothroyd here. Istanbul makes a lovely and exotic backdrop for most of the movie and of course who can go wrong with the most romantic journey in the world, the Orient Express. The winning formula of exotic locations, jaw-dropping beautiful women and clever gadgets really got its start here.

The movie is extremely dated in a lot of ways, particularly in its attitudes towards women who are mostly portrayed as either besotted creatures whose place is in the bedroom and are in need of a manly slap once in awhile, or femme fatales who are out to emasculate if not outright murder any men who come across their path. Even the wise-cracking Moneypenny (Maxwell) really doesn’t get much respect.

Armendariz, who was terminally ill when he made the movie leading Young to film most of his scenes first, is one of the more charming Bond allies and sets the bar for those that would follow. Lenya, best known as the star of her husband Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera and an Oscar nominee for The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone is a shrill but deadly efficient killer whose fight with Bond is one of the biggest kicks in the movie. Shaw, who went on to greater fame as Captain Quint in Jaws shows off washboard abs and a sardonic wit. Grant is a brilliant agent provocateur that creates a good deal of havoc here and it’s fun watching him work.

Having recently re-watched the movie, I get the sense that while it often gets short shrift among all of the Bond movies, there is reason for it. The movie doesn’t jell as well as most of the Connery Bond films and while Klebb and Grant are fine antagonists, they lack the over-the-top panache of classic Bond villains Goldfinger, Blofeld and Largo.

Those things aside and despite being terribly dated in many ways the movie still remains a terrific piece of entertainment. Certainly those tired of seeing the same three or four Bond films over and over again could do worse than to use this one as a change of pace.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the more reality-based Bonds. Armendariz is charming and Lenya and Shaw both formidable foes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: One of the more dated Bond movies.
FAMILY VALUES: Some era-appropriate sensuality and era-appropriate violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Daniela Bianchi’s voice was dubbed by Barbara Jefford due to Bianchi’s heavily Italian-accented English. This was also the final Bond film that Ian Fleming got to see as he passed away shortly after it was released.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Ultimate Blu-Ray edition is loaded with a plethora of extras that should satisfy most Bond fans, including a gallery of still images, radio and TV promos, featurettes on the late Harry Saltzman, the exotic filming locations (some of which weren’t quite so exotic), a comparison between Fleming and Raymond Chandler and an interview with Fleming by the CBC.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $78.9M on a $2M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental/streaming), Amazon (streaming only), Vudu (purchase only),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Our Man Flint
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Top Five

Fiddler on the Roof


Tradition!

Tradition!

(1971) Musical (United Artists) Topol, Norma Crane, Leonard Frey, Molly Picon, Paul Mann, Rosalind Harris, Michele Marsh, Neva Small, Paul Michael Glaser, Raymond Lovelock, Elaine Edwards, Candy Bonstein, Shimen Ruskin, Zvee Scooler, Louis Zorich, Alfie Scopp, Howard Goorney, Barry Dennen, Vernon Dobtcheff, Ruth Madoc, Roger Lloyd Pack. Directed by Norman Jewison

Once upon a time movie musicals were some of the greatest entertainment you can get onscreen. They got the big production values, the big names and the big publicity pushes. They also pulled in the big box office numbers. Like the Western, the movie musical grew less important and relevant as the 70s set in.

Some say the last of the great movie musicals (Chicago and A Chorus Line notwithstanding) was Fiddler on the Roof. It was the most popular Broadway musical of all time until A Chorus Line and Cats came along and the big screen version was a big deal, so much so that when Broadway version star Zero Mostel wasn’t cast, he bore a grudge against Hollywood producers that lasted until his death.

Based on stories by the great Jewish author Sholom Aleichem, the story is set in Anatevka, a small Jewish village in Russia in 1905 on the cusp of the Russian Revolution but at this time, the Tsar still reigns and he doesn’t like Jews much. Tevye (Topol) is a dairy farmer with five daughters and no son to help him in his labors. His horse is old and often goes lame so he is obliged to deliver the milk to the village himself. He is married to Golde (Crane) who is somewhat shrewish but one can’t blame her considering all she has to put up with from Tevye.

Three of the daughters are all of marriageable age; Tzeitel (Harris) whom the rich butcher Lazar Wolf (Mann) wants to marry but only has eyes for Motel (Frey), the poor and shy tailor. Then there’s Hodel (Marsh), the free-spirited one who falls for Perchik (Glaser), a revolutionary whom Tevye hires to teach his daughters lessons from the Bible. Finally there’s Chava (Small), the gentle red-haired girl who loves to read and falls for Fyedka (Lovelock) who isn’t Jewish.

Tevye, who hangs on to the traditions of his people like a life preserver through troubled times of discrimination and pogroms, is tested by his daughters as they move into the 20th century a little bit ahead of their father.

Critics of the time gave Fiddler on the Roof a right pasting but we were just entering the era of the anti-hero and musicals like this – which was pretty dark and somber as musicals go. Frankly, the movie was kind of a throwback to the great movie musicals like West Side Story and Showboat but at the same time had that kind of ’70s non-conformist attitude. Still, the movie would go on to make an impressive profit (for the time) and was nominated for eight Oscars, winning three of them.

One of the things about Fiddler on the Roof that stands out are the songs. They aren’t just hummable ditties but are about something – cultural identity (“Tradition”), the passage of time and regret (”Sunrise, Sunset”), poverty (“If I Were a Rich Man”) and moving on (“Anatevka”). “Sunrise, Sunset” was one of my father’s favorite songs and it still has a bittersweet melancholy when I hear it. Incidentally, when you hear the fiddler play, that’s Isaac Stern you’re hearing.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was a member of the chorus for this play in my high school production of it so I may well be a little more well-disposed towards it than most. And I do like this movie. It blows like an autumn wind through my soul. I’m not Jewish myself but I know that it occupies a special place in the heart of the Jewish community and deservedly so. This movie celebrates the determination and resilience of the Jews in the face of persecution and misery.

Most musicals are uplifting, upbeat and sunny-cheeked. Fiddler on the Roof does carry a warmth to it but it is the warmth that comes from strength and love, the kind of warmth that is earned after hard work on a cold winter day. It’s a beautiful movie to look at (filmed in Serbia back in the day) but it is a beautiful movie to consider. It has a place in my soul but it isn’t for everybody – but most people will find something to like about it. It is certainly one of the best movie musicals ever made.

WHY RENT THIS: Tremendous music and a very deep subject for a musical. Some terrific performances, particularly from Topol, Crane, Glaser and Small.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Topol isn’t the greatest singer you’ll ever hear. The film might be a bit long for modern audiences.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some frightening images, some mild violence and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jewison wanted an earthy tone for the film. Cinematographer noticed a woman wearing a pair of brown nylons and knew that it was the perfect tone for the film. He asked the woman for the nylons and filmed nearly the entire film with the stockings over the camera lens; if you look closely from time to time you can see the weave of the garment.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: They don’t stock DVDs like this anymore. There is a piece on the late director Norman Jewison who also appears in a couple of interview segments. He also reads some stories from author Sholom Aleichem and there’s a featurette on the historical context of the events seen in the movie. You’ll also find production notes from the original production. The 2007 Collector’s Edition also includes additional interviews with the actresses who played Tevye’s daughters, conductor John Williams and composers of the original stage play Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (virtually all of this appears in the Blu-Ray edition).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $83.4M on a $9M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cabaret

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Winter in Wartime

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot


Jeff Bridges and Clint Eastwood share a Zen moment.

Jeff Bridges and Clint Eastwood share a Zen moment.

(1974) Crime Comedy (United Artists) Clint Eastwood, Jeff Bridges, George Kennedy, Geoffrey Lewis, Catherine Bach, Gary Busey, Jack Dodson, Gene Elman, Burton Gilliam, Roy Jenson, Claudia Lennear, Bill McKinney, Vic Tayback, Dub Taylor, Gregory Walcott, Erica Hagen, Alvin Childress, Virginia Baker, Stuart Nisbet, Irene K. Cooper, Cliff Emmich, June Fairchild, Karen Lamm. Directed by Michael Cimino

Once a mainstay of Saturday afternoon television movie programming, this Clint Eastwood action thriller is notable for being Oscar nominated back in the day. All the digital splendor of a DVD doesn’t hide just how dated this movie is, though.

Notable as the first directorial effort of Michael (Heaven’s Gate) Cimino, the film concerns the pairing of a middle-aged, jaded bank robber now in hiding (Eastwood) and a young, impetuous and, er, highly vigorous young man named Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges, who garnered a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for the role) who literally run into each other in a wheatfield while bullets whiz around them. That pretty much sets the tone for the movie.

They are being chased by Red Leary (Kennedy), a foul-tempered former member of the Thunderbolt gang (Thunderbolt is Eastwood’s character, by the way). Eventually, they all hook up and plan to duplicate the gang’s legendary heist of Montana Armored. But you just know that Lightfoot, so full of piss and vinegar, will get on stodgy old Red Leary’s nerves like stink on a two-dollar cigar, and that the fur will fly because of it.

The location in Great Falls, Montana, brings out the feeling of desolation and isolation that couldn’t be pulled off on a studio backlot. Cimino shows some decent writing skills with a few unexpected twists here and there, but mainly he borrows too heavily on a stylistic level from such movies as Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch and Easy Rider.

Eastwood is at the point of his career here where he was beginning to stretch his acting wings (Thunderbolt and Lightfoot immediately followed Play Misty For Me on Eastwood’s resume). Of course, the basics of his persona honed in so many badass Italian westerns are there, but the tough guy he plays here has a vulnerable, world-weary and dog-loyal soul beneath the veneer. Bridges was at the very start of his career which was somewhat checkered for awhile but has been awash with Oscar nominations and lately, Oscar wins. The supporting cast includes some of the era’s most solid character actors in Lewis, Tayback, Taylor and Dodson, while Bach is lustrous and Busey turns in one of his earlier performances.

Few movies age well, especially those that try to make a hipness quotient that generally eludes Hollywood movies. What’s hip in one era becomes hopelessly anachronistic in the next. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot has some meat on its bones, but generally speaking, holds up about as well as The Partridge Family does. Those who love ’70s movies or are students of the era however might find this a hoot.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Bridges and Eastwood. Very much a product of its times.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Extremely dated and doesn’t hold up well. Derivative of other, superior works.

FAMILY MATTERS: A bit of violence and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Eastwood’s son Kyle had his first movie role in this film at age 5; because he had one word of dialogue, he had to be paid union scale for actors with dialogue rather than extras, which meant he got $128 (scale at the time) for his work.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $21.7M on a $4M production budget.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Prisoners

Hotel Rwanda


Hotel Rwanda

Even all these nuns couldn't pray Don Cheadle into the Oscar he well-deserved.

(2004) True Life Drama (United Artists) Don Cheadle, Nick Nolte, Sophie Okonedo, Desmond Dube, Hakeem Kae-Kazim, Joaquin Phoenix, Antonio David Lyons, David O’Hara, Lebo Mashile, Jean Reno, Cara Seymour, Thulani Nyembe. Directed by Terry George

 

The thing about human beings, is that even when you hit us in the face with a two by four, we still don’t get it. Many of us read the history books about the Holocaust and the Nazi Final Solution, Hitler’s attempt to exterminate Jews, Gypsies and millions of other people he didn’t like. We read about how many people turned a blind eye to the horrors of the 1930s and ’40s and we comfort ourselves by saying, “I’d never do that.”

And yet we do. The same thing happened in Rwanda in 1994, and nobody seemed to notice. It’s happening now, in Darfur, but few speak up. The consequences of silence can be terrible. Ask the Tutsis of Rwanda, if you can find any. There are significantly fewer of them now.

Paul Ruesesabagina (Cheadle) lived in Rwanda in 1994. He was the assistant manager of the swank Hotel Des Milles Colline, and a good one. Calm, efficient and competent, he used bribery, flattery and an impeccable sense of style to please his guests and grease the wheels of a corrupt system in the former Belgian colony that is now Rwanda. He lived a life of quiet comfort with his family.

But there are storm clouds on the horizon. The Belgians, while they occupied their former colony, had arbitrarily divided the people into two “tribes” — the lighter skinned, smaller-nosed were dubbed Tutsis and were given the authority to help them run the country. Inexplicably, when the Belgians left, they gave power to the Hutus. Animosities over years of oppression boiled over into a genocidal hatred, whipped up by a radio announcer/importer named George Rutuganda (Kae-Kazim).

Paul, a Hutu, is unconcerned at first. When his brother-in-law comes to warn him of impending disaster, he dismisses the warnings as hysteria. Then it begins, suddenly, brutally, given the excuse of the murder of the Rwandan president, ostensibly by Tutsi rebels, with whom a peace treaty has just been signed under the good auspices of the UN and the commander of their peacekeeping forces, Colonel Oliver (Nolte).

Now, Paul is faced with friends, neighbors and employees who are at risk because they are Tutsis. Paul’s wife Tatiana (Okonedo, previously seen in Dirty Pretty Things) is also Tutsi, as are his children. His safe world crumples amidst anarchy, chaos and brutal violence. Men, women and children are slaughtered by machetes, hacked to pieces by the hundreds. Paul and his family barely escape the carnage and make it to the hotel, where white European guests are panicking, trying to get out of a country gone berserk. Refugees, orphans left by a Red Cross worker (Seymour) begin to pour into the hotel. Paul, realizing that turning them away would be tantamount to a death sentence, takes them in, confident that he can wait out the storm until the west sends help.

But help is not forthcoming. The Americans, stung by their experiences in Somalia, don’t wish to walk into another hornet’s nest. The rest of the European nations follow suit. As the foreign nationals are all evacuated, Paul realizes that they must save themselves. And in order to do that, he must maintain the illusion that the Hotel des Milles Collines is still a five-star resort, a place of style where even the generals and butchers who preside at massacres can go to feel civilized.

Hotel Rwanda is harrowing. There are many irrational men with guns committing acts of unspeakable horror, and Cheadle, as Paul, is our eyes and ears. There is a scene where he is driving down the River Road in the early morning fog on the advice of the monstrous Rutuganda, when the car begins to hit a very rough road. Paul, fearing they have gone off the road, orders the driver to stop. He gets out of the car to see if they are still on the pavement and is met with the sight of hundreds of bodies lying in the road as far as the eye can see, children whose faces are grimaces of terror and pain. After returning to the hotel, he goes to change his shirt, which has been stained with the blood of the corpses on the road in the employee locker room. Attempting to tie his tie, he at last gives in to the overwhelming emotions of what he has witnessed and breaks down. It is a powerful, powerful scene, performed by a brilliant actor.

Don Cheadle earned an Oscar nomination for his performance here, and there are a lot of compelling reasons why he should have won, instead of Jamie Foxx. Rather than making Paul a perfect hero, he humanizes him and becomes the audience’s surrogate. Like all of us, sometimes he just doesn’t know enough to get out of the rain, even when the thunder is booming in his ears. He is in nearly every scene and carries the movie. Cheadle characterizes Paul as a kind of African Oskar Schindler, which in truth, he was. Okonedo is also magnificent, for which she was duly recognized with a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

There is no denying the power of this film. You are immediately sucked into the situation, and affected by it. You may wonder, as I did, “Why the hell didn’t I know this was going on? Why didn’t my country do anything about it?” As an embittered reporter, played in a cameo by Phoenix says, “I think if people see this footage, they’ll say ‘Oh, my God, that’s horrible.’ And then they’ll go on eating their dinners.”

While I found Kinyarwanda to be a much more authentic and moving film (also about the Rwandan genocide, but more about how that country is moving towards reconciliation), this is certainly the most acclaimed film of the two and thus the easiest to locate for viewing/streaming/renting. Hotel Rwanda also boasts the performances of Cheadle and Okonedo, which are both outstanding and worth the rental fee alone.

This should be required viewing for every American and every European. We should see this powerful movie, not to feel bad about ourselves, but for us to look at the images of genocide and say “Not again. Not in my lifetime.” And, above all, to take action, to demand our leaders take action. We may feel safe and secure in our world. I’m sure the real Paul Ruesesabagina did. So did many German Jews in 1936. The storm clouds can gather anywhere – at any time.

WHY RENT THIS: Intense Oscar-nominated performances by Cheadle and Okonedo. A story that up until this movie was little seen or remembered in the West. Powerful and horrifying.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Is a bit Hollywoodized.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a good deal of violence, some foul language and some extremely disturbing images. While it got a PG-13 rating on appeal, do consider very carefully the sensitivity of those viewing it before renting it for your family, although it is certainly something teens should see.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a featurette on the real Paul Ruesesabagina returning to Rwanda almost a decade after the genocide, and to specific locations depicted in the film (including the hotel and the site of the school massacre).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33.9M on an unreported prodution budget; I’d be willing to guess that the movie broke even or made a little bit of money.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax

Valkyrie


Valkyrie

Tom Cruise wonders why he didn't get a part in the next Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

(United Artists) Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Carice van Houten, Thomas Kretschmann, Eddie Izzard, Terrence Stamp, Christian Berkel, David Bamber. Directed by Bryan Singer

When the state becomes toxic to its people and amoral in its actions, it is the responsibility of good men to rise up and resist. Those actions may take the form of protest or, in extreme instances, of action – deadly action with deadly consequences.

Perhaps no society had ever become more amoral than that of Nazi Germany, and although sometimes we forget, there were plenty of Germans who resisted the Nazis and worked to bring down their diseased regime.

Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Cruise) was one aristocratic Prussian who was becoming more and more concerned over the direction that Hitler was taking. Certainly Hitler was proving himself to be no master tactician; he was needlessly sacrificing men and material that, von Stauffenberg thought, would be needed for the defense of Germany when the Allies invaded. Von Stauffenberg, a handsome aesthetic young man, would be cruelly injured in battle, losing an eye, a hand and two fingers off the other hand.

There were others who thought as von Stauffenberg did as well, including Major General Henning von Tresckow (Branagh), General Friedrich Olbricht (Nighy) and Ludwig Beck (Stamp), a politician. In fact, these men were convinced that in order to save Germany, Hitler had to die. After an aborted attempt to kill Hitler goes wrong, the remaining conspirators decide to bring von Stauffenberg into the fold.

At first he’s reluctant to join the fold. The cabal doesn’t really have an exit plan, nor do they seem well-organized to the well-organized von Stauffenberg. However, von Stauffenberg has an idea. It involves Operation Valkyrie, a plan Hitler has in place to keep the government intact in the event that the Nazi leadership is killed or incapacitated. Von Stauffenberg can use that plan against the Nazis by assassinating Hitler with a bomb at the Wolf’s Den, his heavily armored stronghold where his military staff meets to plan the war, then claiming the SS was responsible for the deed.

It’s a bold move, but it will need a lot of moving parts, not the least of which is getting General Friedrich Fromm (Wilkinson), head of the reserves, on board and Fromm is a political opportunist who doesn’t care about ideology so much as he does about power – his own. If the plan succeeds, it will save hundreds of thousands of lives and change the face of the war forever.

Of course, most people know that Hitler wasn’t assassinated by his own people – he took his own life. Students of history familiar with the plot know that it failed due to a relatively simple factor – the briefcase bomb was moved inadvertently by an adjutant so that he could stretch his legs, putting a thick block of wood between Hitler and the bomb.

However, unless you’ve got a rabid passion for World War II, chances are you aren’t going to know many details about the plot. Director Singer, best known for his X-Men movies, has meticulously recreated wartime Germany, and has at least tried to film at actual locations whenever possible, although his star’s Scientology beliefs made that task difficult as the German government was at first reluctant to grant the crew access to these locations because they consider Scientology a cult. While I don’t necessarily disagree with them, I do think that it was a bit ludicrous of them to kick up such a fuss over the beliefs of a single actor. That’s just me though.

I did like the historical detail to the piece; it’s one of the best aspects of the movie. However, there are some problems here, some of them not the fault of the filmmakers. For one, the real von Stauffenberg was a very cultured, somewhat reserved man who held himself with military bearing. By our standards he was somewhat aloof, and that aspect of his personality seems to be the one Cruise honed in on. There’s a bit of a disconnect between the audience and the character; it makes it difficult to really get into von Stauffenberg’s head. However, Cruise looks uncannily like von Stauffenberg as shown in the comparison photo below:

Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (left), Tom Cruise (right)

Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, a long time associate of Singer, takes a more observational tactic to the script. He gives us the events and many of the facts, but little of the character behind the men who were involved. We have to take it for granted that they were more concerned with the potential destruction of Germany than they were about the Final Solution, which they may or may not have known about. We won’t get any insight that way from this movie.

The supporting cast, mainly of veteran British character actors, is sterling. Nighy as the somewhat indecisive Olbricht is particularly outstanding, although it is Wilkinson as the conniving Fromm who delivers the best performance. He is a conniving rat who follows whichever direction the wind is blowing, but even so when Wilkinson’s onscreen you can’t take your eyes off of him.

This isn’t a bad film, it’s a pretty good film as a matter of fact but unfortunately it never got much attention during the glut of releases Christmas 2008 when it hit theaters. That’s a shame, because this is a decent suspense movie with the added attraction that it actually happened, pretty much as seen in the film.

WHY RENT THIS: The historical accuracy is a bit better than is usual for Hollywood films. Singer keeps the tension palpable even though most of us know how the events are going to conclude.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cruise is a little stiff as von Stauffenberg. The script seems more concerned with the events than those who took part in them.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence, including some scenes that are sudden and shocking, and a smattering of bad language. Certainly most teens can handle this, as well as mature pre-teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Van Houten, who plays Nina von Stauffenberg, is the longtime companion of Sebastian Koch who played Claus von Stauffenberg in the TV production of “Operation Valkyrie.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A feature called “The Valkyrie Legacy” discusses the actual historical events, with interviews from descendents of the failed plotters as well as surviving co-conspirators. It also covers what happened after the events of the film. The Blu-Ray edition has the grandson of von Stauffenberg taking us on a tour of the actual Valkyrie locations.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: City of Ember

You Only Live Twice


You Only Live Twice

Did someone call for a sociopathic megalomaniac?

(United Artists) Sean Connery, Donald Pleasance, Karin Dor, Akiko Wakabayashi, Tetsuro Tanba, Mie Hama, Teru Shimada, Charles Gray, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewelyn. Directed by Lewis Gilbert

In the Bond pantheon, this movie usually doesn’t stand out among the movies considered Bond classics; Goldfinger, Dr. No and Live and Let Die, and to be sure, all of these are classic James Bond. However, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for this movie. It was the first one I saw in a movie theater – in a drive-in to be exact, where it was bloody hard to make out what was going on onscreen in the first scenes but my dad liked to smoke so we went to the drive-in where he could puff away to his hearts content.

I will be the first to admit that the plot is a bit on the ludicrous side, with SPECTRE intercepting American and Russian spacecraft with an automated unhinging missile that brings them to a rather impressive volcano lair in Japan (one which remains in many ways the quintessential villain’s lair and one which was spoofed nicely by Austin Powers). This of course brings the superpowers to the brink of mutual war and annihilation, which suited the Chinese just fine (they were funding much of the shenanigans) and more importantly, played perfectly into the megalomaniacal plans of none other than Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Pleasance), the previously faceless Number One of the SPECTRE organization.

The British, having detected the rogue craft coming down in the area around Japan (something which the American and Russian radar were unable to do because they were just, like, tracking) send their best man, James Bond (Connery) in to investigate and he runs into Osato (Shimada), a wealthy industrialist and his deadly assistant Helga (Dor), both secret operatives of SPECTRE. Bond is saved by Aki (Wakabayashi), the beautiful agent of the Japanese Secret Service, headed up by Tiger Tanaka (Tanba), with whom Bond becomes fast friends. With the help of Little Nellie, a gyrocopter, they investigate a remote island in the Sea of Japan. There they find a nearly impregnable lair built into a dormant volcano. Can Bond, the marvelous Japanese agent Kissy Suzuki (Hama) and an army of Japanese ninjas stop Blofeld from plunging the world into nuclear war?

While Auric Goldfinger remains the greatest Bond villain to date, it is Blofeld who is Bond’s nemesis, the Moriarty to Bond’s Sherlock Holmes. Pleasance gives the previously faceless villain not only a face, but a personality to match; urbane like Dr. No and vicious like Goldfinger. Dr. Evil of the Austin Powers movies is based on Pleasance’s take on the part, from the Nehru jacket to the somewhat noticeable scar to the quietly menacing speaking tone. All Dr. Evil is missing is the eurotrash accent.

I also found the Japanese locations beautiful and the insights to the Japanese culture interesting. Previously, the only Japan American audiences had seen in the movies was the one Godzilla trampled over. I have had a fascination for Japan ever since seeing this movie.

The volcano lair of Blofeld is one of the most spectacular ever built. The monorail you see scooting around the perimeter actually worked and the helipad arm that extends out was also a working helipad. Of course, the rocket launches were done with miniatures but this was one of the most expensive sets ever built at the time. It still holds up, looking sleek and menacing and exactly the kind of thing you’d see from a would-be world dictator.

The Bond girls for this movie, Hama and Wakabayashi, were cast mostly for their looks and their willingness to be filmed in a bikini, something that the Japanese were only beginning to embrace at the time. Unfortunately, the two actresses spoke little English and their performances are unconvincing.

That said, even given the implausible nature of the plot and that already by this point the Bond movies were relying more on familiar repetitive plot points rather than stretching the limits (and over-relying on gadgets) of the creativity of the writers, this still remains a film that resonates with me. Interestingly enough, the next Bond movie to be made would be On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which had perhaps the best script of all the Bond movies but Connery had left the series after You Only Live Twice, tired of the media attention and anxious not to be typecast as Bond any longer. I’ve always thought had Connery made that movie, it might have turned out to be the best in the series, even better than Goldfinger. But, that’s another review for another day.

WHY RENT THIS: An underrated Bond movie, with exotic locales and a great deal of insight into the Japanese culture. The volcano set is one of the most magnificent of the series, with a working monorail and helipad.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The kitsch and implausibility factors were beginning to become noticeable.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of sexuality and as usual with Bond films, plenty of violence and smoking. Still, it’s no worse than anything on network television these days so don’t feel that you need to restrict the kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: You Only Live Twice was the last James Bond novel published during Ian Fleming’s lifetime (there were posthumous publications). There were also two Blofelds in the cast; Pleasance who played him here, and Charles Gray who played Henderson here and Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Ultimate DVD Edition has a nice featurette on Maurice Binder, the main title designer for the Bond films up through the Timothy Dalton era. Although the Blu-Ray edition hasn’t been released yet, the Bond films released so far in the format have included the Ultimate Edition features along with a beautifully restored print, so look forward to that.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Date Night