Action Adventure movies


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   
THE IRON MISTRESS.  Warner Brothers, 1952. With Alan Ladd, Virginia Mayo, Joseph Calleia, Phyllis Kirk, Douglas Dick, Anthony Caruso, Nedrick Young, and Jay Novello. Screenplay by James R Webb, from the novel by Paul I Wellman. Directed by Gordon Douglas.

   A bit flabby, but it has its moments.

   The flabbiness is due mainly to lapses in James Webb’s script, which takes entirely too much time rolling out the action, cruising along the Upper Crust of New Orleans society, drawing rather labored parallels between the effete rich and backwoodsy Bowie, until one wonders if this is going to be a comedy of manners. Eventually though some action just can’t be avoided and here….

   Well here is Director Gordon Douglas, one of the most proficient action men in the game, with rip-snorters like TONY ROME, THE FIEND WHO WALKED THE WEST, KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE, and RIO CONCHOS on his resumé, and he makes the most of every fist-swinging, gun-smoking, sword-sticking moment in the picture.

   Producer Henry Blanke (Whose credits include THE MALTESE FALCON and TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE) also took care to populate the cast with worthy opponents for Ladd’s Jim Bowie to come up against. Joseph Calliea, Jay Novello, Nedrick Young, and Anthony Caruso all comport themselves with creditable nastiness, and we get a fair share of excitement from scenes like:

   ● A Duel that turns into a massacre when the seconds start firing on the opposing principals;

   ● A knife fight with the Ladd and Anthony Carusos’ left arms strapped together;

   ● A woodland ambush that becomes a prolonged stalk-and-kill;

   ● And best of all, a duel in a darkened room with Bowe’s knife against Nedrick Young’s saber, choreographed by the great Fred Cavens.

   Nedrick young, by the way, is best remembered as the gunman in black who faces off against Sterling Hayden and a harpoon in TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN.

   Moments like this pack real excitement, and on the balance, IRON MISTRESS is well worth your time. But keep a finger on the fast-forward button.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

OUT OF SINGAPORE. Goldsmith Productions, 1932. Noah Beery Sr, Dorothy Burgess, Mary Carroll Murray, George Walsh, Montagu Love, Leon Wong, and Jimmy Aubrey. Written by John Francis Nattleford and Frederic Chapin. Directed by Charles Hutchison.

THE LAST ALARM. Monogram, 1940.  J Farrell MacDonald, Warren Hull, Polly Ann Young, Mary Gordon, and George Pembroke. Written by Al Martin. Directed by William “One-Shot” Beaudine, as William West. (The latter added later.)

   My life was blighted at the tender age of Fourteen.

   Or if not actually blighted, at least noticeably warped when I read William K Everson’s The Bad Guys (Citadel, 1964) and was seduced by his loving descriptions of films I had little if any chance of seeing. I mean, for a kid in his mid-teens, living in a one-TV household in a three-station town, the opportunities were a bit slim, all in all, and if something interesting did make it onto the local channels, it was usually late on a School Night.

   And so I grew up feeling Life had cheated me, thinking “If only I had been around when these films, so knowingly praised and lovingly analyzed, were made…. Or if I were just a few years older, living the free and independent life of an adult….”

   Of course I had no way of knowing then that before I reached middle-age, the world would expand: Satellite TV, then VHS, then DVDs and streaming, brought all this to me in the wisdom of my advancing years. And finally I have the chance to see what the Old Sage of the Cinema was talking about, all those years ago.

   Well it ain’t much. Everson himself admitted Out of Singapore was “one of the cheapest of poverty row quickies” but even that doesn’t begin to describe the static camerawork, cardboard characters, perfunctory screenplay, and jagged editing.

   Or the rudimentary plot: Captain Carroll of the Marigold, desperate for a First Mate, signs on Woolf Barstow (Noah Beery Sr) a seaman who holds the Indian Ocean Division record for losing the most ships at sea, all full of dubious and heavily-insured “cargo.”

   Also on board is a skullduggerous Bos’n, Scar Murray (Montagu Love) The two rascals take to each other immediately, and I have to say their scenes together are a delight, chortling over their plans to do away with the Captain, sink the Marigold with all hands, and make off with the skipper’s nubile daughter (Mary Carol Murray) “A few weeks on a desert island will bring her around!”

   Of course if things went according to scheme, Out of Singapore would be a much different movie. In this case, the flies in the ointment are a doughty Second Mate (George Walsh, rather ineffectual and obviously no match for either of the nasties.) and a fiery Latina temptress (Dorothy Burgess) whom Beery is ditching for Ms Murray — and who will not go gentle into the tropical night.

   Well we’ve all had relationships like that, haven’t we? In this case, it leads to a rather predictable comeuppance for Beery and Love. A pity that, because they were the liveliest part of the whole enterprise.

   The Last Alarm is a quieter affair altogether, despite reams of fiery stock footage to pad out the plot of aging an Fire Department Captain (J Farrell MacDonald) put out to pasture just as a serial arsonist begins terrorizing the city — cue stock footage of massive conflagrations, none of which seem terribly exciting because they’re all done in grainy long-shot. From time to time we cut to cynical reporters, the Chief demanding action from the Arson Squad, and old MacDonald grumbling about being old and useless. Big whoop, as the kids say.

   (Do the kids still say that? “Big whoop?”)

   But about this time George Pembroke comes into his own as the Mad Fire-Bug, and the scenes of him peering through his thick spectacles, cackling over his latest atrocity, or going all googly-eyed when someone lights a pipe are the stuff of real old-school, full-blooded villainy, and a pleasure to behold.

   So what we’ve got here is two bad movies that I kind of enjoyed. I can’t recommend either of them to any serious film buff, but those of us who recall the works of Willian K Everson, will feel a pleasant twinge of nostalgic fun.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

CAPTAIN BLACKJACK. Alsa Films, UK. 1950, as Black Jack; Classic Pictures, US, 1952.  George Sanders, Herbert Marshall, Patricia Roc, Agnes Moorehead and Marcel Dalio. Written by Julien Duvivier, Robert Gaillard, Michael & Rolland Pertwee, and Charles Spaak. Directed by Julien Duvivier.

   A mess. It sparkles at times, with a great cast, fine locations, and haunting visuals, but it’s still a mess.

   George Sanders made one other film in 1950, All About Eve, and he complained that the producers of Captain Blackjack didn’t know how to make a movie. Certainly, they should have sprung for better film stock and decent sound recording, but their biggest mistake was hiring George Sanders.

   For purposes of the story here, Sanders is a successful smuggler operating out of Mallorca and Tangiers, on the verge of that pre-doomed enterprise, The One Big Score that will enable him to quit the business. When Captain Marcel Dalio seeks his help with the Chalcis, a slowly sinking ship full of refugees, George sails to the rescue, offers a free ride to the beautiful Patricia Roc — who refuses — then takes the six wealthiest passengers and advises Dalio to ground the ship on a nearby island before it sinks with the rest.

   Back in Mallorca, Sanders meets up with an old Doctor-buddy (Herbert Marshall) finds Dalio in town, unencumbered by the Chalcis, and spots Roc working for wealthy and eccentric dowager Agnes Moorehead. And then….

   And then everybody just kind of goofs off for an hour or so of running time. It eventually transpires that Dalio, horny and murderous, conked Roc on the cupola, tossed her in a lifeboat, then locked the other passengers below decks and sank the Chalcis before shooting his first mate and making off for Tangier with Roc.

   It also develops that the Authorities have been tipped off about an anticipated cargo of drugs, and lie in wait for whoever picks it up. Other smugglers have also tumbled to it, and are plotting to take it for themselves. Sanders, however, has been redeemed by his love for Roc, and determines to destroy the filthy stuff before it can bring more misery into the world — or get him locked up in a Spanish hoosegow.

   There are more twists yet to come, Moorhead and Marshall are in fine form, and Marcel Dalio’s greedy killer role will surprise those who remember him as the croupier in Casablanca or the hotelier of Hawks’ To Have and Have Not.

   Director Duvivier evokes some fine, even memorable visuals here: the opening shot of the dying refugee ship limping to shore, Patricia Roc silhouetted against a jagged coast, and our hero stalking a dying man through an eerie cave filled with baroque stalactites and stalagmites. But it’s all for naught, because the leading man seems indifferent to it all.

   At one point Sanders walked off the set, claiming his pay was in arrears, and this may have contributed to the general sense of malaise he projects throughout the film. He never was the most electrifying of thespians, but here he seems near comatose. Even when strangling Agnes Moorehead or drowning poor Dalio, he barely registers a heartbeat.

   And it’s George Sanders after all who’s at the heart of this thing. If we’re to get involved at all, we must believe he’s really anxious about his scheme, really falls in love with Roc, really reforms, and all the rest of it. But he never seems to care.

So why should we?

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

CHRISTOPHER LANDON – Ice Cold in Alex. Heinemann, UK, hardcover, 1957. Sloane, US, hardcover, 1957. Also published as Hot Sands of Hell (Zenith ZB-43, US, paperback, 1960).

ICE COLD IN ALEX. ABPC, UK, 1958; released in the US as Desert Attack. John Mills, Sylvia Sims, Anthony Quayle, Harry Andrews, Diane Clare, Richard Leach, Liam Redmond, Walter Gotell. Screenplay: T. J. Morrison, based on the novel by Christopher Landon. Directed by J. Lee Thompson.

   They served it ice cold in Alex …

   
   “It” is beer, they serve it ice cold in Alexandria, Egypt at the canteen, and for Captain George Anson who is stationed in Tobruk on the eve of its fall to the advancing forces of General Erwin Rommel, beer has become a beacon of hope amid the routine and routine fear of the pounding being taken as Rommel advances and there is less and less chance of survival…

   He knew that the fear had come to stay now — not coming and then draining away, as it had for the last two days.

   Anson has been drinking more heavily with the fear and now the fear is constant as is the dream of that ice cold drink in Alex. That’s why it seems like a dream when his commander sends him, and Sgt-Major Tom Pugh on a special assignment to escort two nurses across the desert avoiding the Germans to the relative safety of Alexandria.

   He can almost taste the beer. “Four Rheingolds come before any bloody war.”

   
   The two nurses are Sister Diana and Sister Denise, the latter who has nearly lost her nerve under the German bombardment. Anson has missed the convoy, but it they leave now they can rendezvous with another for escort. At least that is the plan.

   Like many classics the set-up is a simple one. It’s the complications that follow that make the tale. Complications about the German patrol that lets them go if they will take on the South African civilian Zimmerman with them, like the impossible terrain they are forced to take to avoid more Germans, like mine fields, breakdowns, missed rendezvous, unexpected romance, salt marshes, death, thirst, fear, pain, and just maybe a German spy in their midst and perhaps that he might be their only hope to survive…

   Were they very clever … or complete stupid fools? His mind dodged back to every incident … how they reacted … how his own varying moods of contempt and wariness had pulled him this way and that like a straw in the wind.

   
   Christopher Landon is better known in the UK than here, and mostly for this book, though he wrote several other well-received thrillers. Perhaps it was just his fate to come along during the Golden Age of the British thriller at the same time as Hammond Innes, Victor Canning, Alistair MacLean, Gavin Lyall, Desmond Bagley, and Elleston Trevor (whom Landon most closely resembles). Somehow Landon slipped a little between the cracks, at least with American audiences.

   It could be some of his books are a bit bleaker than the other writers on that list , that he wanders into Graham Greene country of moral ambiguity and redemption rather than high adventure, or maybe he was just too grounded to compete with the higher flying competition.

   Whatever the reason this book was a masterpiece, and it was snapped up for a film.

   Some films are better than the book.

   This one took a fine book and turned it into a legendary war film, one of the best of its era, one of the best of any era.

   John Mills, the everyman (at least every Englishman) of his acting generation, was Anson. Sylvia Sims was Diana Norton, Harry Andrews (who else) Mechanist Sgt-Major Pugh, and Anthony Quayle, the mysterious man who joins them on their adventure across the Sahara.

   J. Lee Thompson of Cape Fear and The Guns of Navarone directed with the same set of skills demonstrated in those other films.

   The plot, most of the incidents from the book are the same are but boiled down to a little over two hours, bleakly photographed in black and white, nerve-wracking foot by foot of the journey, their fear, thirst, and distrust writ tautly across the screen, and the nerves ratcheted up right down to the final minutes and the satisfying humanity reaffirming anti climax.

   Like Flight of the Phoenix, another adventure film about unlikely survival in the desert this one holds you right down to the end.

   Ice Cold In Alex is an anti-war film, it is about humanity among a small group of diverse people in danger. Films like Lost Patrol, Sahara, and Bridge on the River Kwai come to mind. This one stands beside them.

   Mills, Quayle, and Andrews steal the show, and Andrews very nearly steals it from the other two. Acting styles may be a bit different than today, some might find there are too many speeches designed to explain things, the considerable acting skills a bit more on the nose than modern audiences are used to.

   That really doesn’t matter much. This is a superb film, a classic, one of the best war films from an era when some of the finest war films ever made were being turned out. It features three of the finest actors the British film industry had to offer, and it still has something to say about men in war and where survival outweighs politics.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

DAREDEVILS OF THE RED CIRCLE. Republic, 1939.  Charles Quigley, Herman Brix, David Sharpe, Carole Landis, Miles Mander, and Charles Middleton. Written by Barry Shipman, Franklyn Adreon, Rex Taylor, Ronald Davidson, and Sol Shore. Directed by John English and William Witney.

   Watched all twelve chapters of this this without feeling like I wasted a second of my precious youth.

   “The Red Circle” sounded like a ranch to me, but despite the title, this is not a Western, but a contemporary action thriller. The eponymous Dare-devils (Played by Charles Quigley, Dave Sharpe and Herman Brix, just before he became Bruce Bennett) work in a Circus targeted for destruction by Master Villain 39013 who has devoted his life to ruining the fortunes of a millionaire named Horace Granville, played by that redoubtable and very busy English character actor Miles Mander.

   Here’s where it gets complicated: Sometime before the serial started, Granville was responsible for sending this guy to jail, where they given him that number and taken way his name, as Johnny Rivers used to say. 39013 broke jail, imprisoned Granville in his own home, and — using his mastery of disguise — assumed Granville’s identity.

   The rest of the serial deals with the efforts of the Daredevils to find 39013 or at least thwart his plans; the efforts of 39013 to destroy the Daredevils while maintaining his disguise; the efforts of Granville to smuggle messages out of his secret prison, and the efforts of a mysterious hooded figure known only as The Red Circle (Obviously one of the Cast Members… but which one?) to drop various clues and warnings to help the Daredevils along.

   The producers went all out for this one, scouting out all sorts of interesting locations, like off-shore oil rigs and gas refineries with tall ladders to swing from, sheer drops to dangle over, boilers to explode and tunnels to flood. Stars Quigley, Brix and Sharpe were natural athletes, and directors Witney and English make the most of every opportunity to jump, fight and all that other neat stuff. They also signed the talented and tragic Carole Landis just before she got “noticed” in 1,000,000 BC, and went on to I Wake Up Screaming.

   What impressed me most, though, was Charles Middleton’s tour-de-force performance as 39013 and Horace Granville. I don’t know how much was makeup and how much was acting, but when he puts on the disguise, Middleton is actually indistinguishable from Miles Mander, an actor several inches shorter, ten years younger, from a different country. Mannerism, eye color, hair line, and even the distinctive timbre of Mander’s voice. Middleton carries it off superbly. I don’t know how he could’ve missed an Oscar for a performance like that, but it’s worth seeing all by itself.
   

Miles Mander:

   

Charles Middleton:

   

Charles Middleton as Miles Mander:

   

BREAKDOWN. Paramount Pictures, 1997. Kurt Russell, J. T. Walsh, Kathleen Quinlan, M.C. Gainey, Jack Noseworthy, Rex Linn. Director: Jonathan Mostow.

   Movies have changed since this picture was made. I don’t pay much attention to new films, so if I’ve speaking from ignorance, you don’t need to tell me. What I think is happening is that new movies are either Marvel/DC/etc superhero pictures or what I’ll call agenda flicks. Yawn on both. Movies are meant to be fun to watch, ones like this one. Breakdown is its title, and there’s the short review, right there.

   Here’s a longer one, though. An attractive but rather brainless couple (when you think about it) are driving from Boston to San Diego, and once they hit the desert, they decide to take the scenic route. Two lanes of highway, one each way, straight through nothingness. You take the Interstates, and yes, it’s still nothingness, for miles on end, but you’re not alone. Your car breaks down, help is not far away. Alone in the desert, the friendly driver of an 18-wheeler (J. T. Walsh) offers you a lift, do you hop in? The wife does, the husband decides to stay with the car.

   The truck driver says he’ll take her to the next town – really only a truck stop and a bar – where he’ll leave her. When the husband gets there, no wife. No one’s seen her. A cop offers to help, but there’s no sign of her. What would you do, if this were to happen to you?

   An unfair question. The worst is yet to come. And that’s where the fun comes in. The action and the predicament the husband gets into is way over the top, ending with the 18-wheeler hanging off over a bridge, creaking precipitously with the wind. I suppose none of the story line makes any sense, if you start to think about it, but why put yourself to the effort?

   In any case, I’m glad Jon suggested we watch this after our 3000 mile ride from CA to CT together, not before.

THE F/X MOVIES
Reviewed by David Friend

   

   Just over a year ago saw the passing of American Golden Globe-winning actor Brian Dennehy, best known for his roles in Rambo: First Blood, Cocoon, Romeo + Juliet and the two fondly remembered F/X action thrillers. In a weird coincidence, I had only seen this pair a couple of weeks previously – they had passed me by for years – and this may be a good excuse as any to share the love.

   The first film, 1986’s F/X: Murder By Illusion, was a hit at the box office and went on to become the biggest-selling film in video rentals. Critics loved it too, including Roger Ebert, and it now enjoys an impressive 88% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It was followed by a sequel and a short-lived television version, while a remake has been in the offing for the last decade. So, keen to see what I’d been missing out on, I set the DVD and waited to be impressed. And colour me thus.

   Hunky Australian Roland “Rollie” Tyler (Bryan Brown) works in the American film industry as a special effects artist. You should see his flat. It’s full of alabaster heads and mannequins that look like murdered spouses. He’s so good at his job, in fact, that Department of Justice agent Martin Lipton (Cliff DeYoung) wants his help in faking the murder of a mob informant named Nicholas DeFranco (ironically, Law and Order’s Jerry Orbach), before the mafia do it for real.

   Rollie reluctantly accepts the assignment, fixes DeFranco up with fake blood packs and even gets talked into playing the killer by head honcho Edward Mason (Mason Adams). The staged hit at an expensive Italian restaurant goes as planned and Rollie believes his part is over – until Lipton tries to kill him as a “loose end”. Rollie escapes, but as more blood is spilled – the real stuff, this time – he is forced to confront a conspiracy which involves some very corrupt lawman and many millions of dollars.

   Fortunately, Rollie is resourceful, with a career’s worth of Tinseltown trickery to surprise and snare his murderous pursuers. Meanwhile, middle-aged maverick homicide detective Lt. Leo McCarthy (Dennehy) becomes suspicious of DeFranco’s supposed death, but his investigation is frustrated by senior officials who have the power to keep their secrets buried – along with anyone who gets too interested.

   Although somewhat hampered by an enigmatic title, the film has a shrewd, playful script and a convincing turn from purse-lipped Bryan Brown, here caught between his breakout role in the Australian mini-series A Town Like Alice and Tom Cruise’s bottle-juggling juggernaut Cocktail (also, somewhat less illustriously, a supporting role in the vacuous Paul McCartney vehicle Give My Regards to Broad Street).

   Early on, his ineffective flailing with a wily sniper demonstrates just how alien Rollie is in a world of cold kills and glibly indifferent corruptors, yet his ingenuity with practical illusions quickly evens the odds, and it’s then that the film goes from a conventionally Hitchcockian man-on-the-run thriller to one which is confident enough to throw some black comedy and charismatic character business among the squealing car chases.

   Rollie is an everyman, and confident in his abilities, yet the script doesn’t bother explaining the specifics of his armoury, but instead lets him deploy each trap – which is what they manifestly become, original usage be damned – to the gleeful surprise of the audience.

   Running alongside all this is the police investigation, coloured by Dennehy’s roguishly charming renegade, but anyone hoping that these two characters will meet and spar will be disappointed as the threads don’t link up until the end. As such, the narrative may risk becoming disjointed yet avoids it, more or less, by slowly explaining the mayhem which Rollie is experiencing elsewhere. This makes it different from, say, The Fugitive, which gave us lawmen searching obsessively for our hero, and North By Northwest, which omitted the chase entirely.

   The film isn’t without its flaws, however. Although there are some charming scenes between a gently flirtatious McCarthy and savvy computer geek Marisa Velez (Jossie DeGuzman), a couple of other promising characters are perfunctorily dropped, including a guileless sergeant (amusingly played by Joe Grifasi) and original antagonist Lipton.

   More awkwardness is found at the climax. At first, it’s handled well, with yet more slickly mischievous pyrotechnics, and the main bad guy is disposed of in a particularly clever way, yet we’re afforded an unnecessary postscript which robs the story of a satisfying, slam-dunk conclusion.

   The sequel, 1991’s F/X: The Deadly Art of Illusion, wasn’t as well received, but there’s still plenty to enjoy and in some ways it’s better than the first. I love sequels (it’s even my favourite word) as it means we get to spend more time with characters we like, and this time they do too, sparing together like they couldn’t before.

   The plot again sees Rollie enlisted to work his movie magic on a police sting, one involving a rapist who has served time in prison yet is too dangerous to remain free. Things go wrong, of course, and, as before, Rollie discovers it was an inside job, the bad guys want him dead and he relies on his technological know-how and smart survival tactics to stay alive.

   The recipe, then, is largely the same, but with a couple of new ingredients. There’s a scheme involving antique gold medallions crafted by Michelangelo which is very National Treasure, and a couple of truly novel action sequences, most memorably a chase around a supermarket in which baked beans prove every bit as dangerous as natural uranium, and a surreal yet surprisingly exciting fight against an imitative robot clown.

   However, in giving the hero a distinctly technological approach to combat, as opposed to letting him use his fists (perhaps he’s a pacifist, but what this man can do with an aerosol spray would impress MacGyver), the script forces him to do this every time. At one point, instead of simply bonking some henchmen over the head, we’re expected to believe he has previously infiltrated the villain’s heavily-guarded house in order to set traps which shall enable him to infiltrate it again.

   It’s a paradox worthy of Steven Moffat-era Doctor Who. Of course, that’s the nature of the beast, and writer Bill Condon (future Oscar winner of such impressively diverse films as Chicago, Mr Holmes, the last two Twilight films, Kinsey and The Greatest Showman) does all he can to keep it roaring. By the end of this sequel, the premise may seem a little tired, but it’s a solid one nonetheless, with both films playing out like an adult, city-wide Home Alone, somehow balancing psychological realism with a wry sense of humour. And, like most of Rollie’s gadgets, it makes for a neat trick.

   

   

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   
JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH. 20th Century Fox, 1959. Pat Boone, James Mason, Arlene Dahl, Diane Baker, Thayer David. Screenplay by Walter Reisch and Charles Brackett, based on the novel by Jules Verne. Director: Henry Levin.

   At the heart of Journey to the Center of the Earth is a sense of childhood wonder. It’s a film that works best for those with a passion for exploration and a ripe imagination. After all, for a movie based on a Jules Verne work to be effective, it must stimulate those parts of the brain responsible for one’s imaginative faculties. One also has to suspend disbelief. Of course, there are no giant lizard creatures lurking about in the center of the planet. But imagine if only there were!

   The plot of this 20th Century Fox live action feature is simple enough. Professor Sir Oliver Lindenbrook (James Mason) of Edinburgh is a geologist by training. Ill-mannered and more than a little sexist, Lindenbrook is seemingly more passionate about rocks than his fellow man.

   When one of his star pupils, Alec McEwan (Pat Boone) brings him a curious geological specimen, Lindenbrook becomes obsessed as to its origins. As it turns out, the rock seems to point toward something much more profound than McEwan could have imagined; namely, that there is – somewhere in Iceland – a passageway deep into the center of the earth.

   Lindenbrook and McEwan, along with the widow of Lindenbrook’s rival, an Icelandic helper, and an adorable duck named Gertrude, set course on exploring the depths of the planet. Of course, such a story could not work unless there was an antagonist who is equally determined to stop the professor.

   Here comes the Icelandic nobleman Count Saknussemm (Thayer David). He is the typical Disney villain. Ready to kill when necessary, but not overtly evil – at least not the end of the film. The conflict between these two forces provides the necessary plot tension needed to make the movie work.

   That said, what makes Journey to the Center of the Earth such an enjoyable feature is not the plot per se. It’s rather the eclectic combination of myriad factors, each of individual import, that coalesce into a coherent whole. Film scenes involving people climbing through caves can only work if there is enough clever dialogue and witty banter.

   And let me assure you, of that there is plenty. Mason, with his distinctive accent and intonation, is pitch perfect. It’s sheer joy to listen to his portrayal of an arrogant professor, one gradually begins to change his tune once he realizes that he may not be as omniscient as he thought he was.

   Adding to the mystique of the movie are three other strong factors. First, the movie has an eerie score by Bernard Herrmann which can be heard here:

   In addition, the movie has great art direction and set design. Even at the beginning of the movie – the nominally boring part – you can clearly see the attention to detail that pervades this work. Be it in Lindenbrook’s home or laboratory.

   Similarly, there are numerous great set pieces throughout the movie, including a giant subterranean mushroom forest (with shades of psychedelia) and the sunken lost city of Atlantis which the exploration party happens upon at the very end.

   But don’t mistake my high praises for a lack of clarity as to the film’s weaknesses. There are quite a few, not the least of which was the decision to kill off the duck. Such a moment must have been quite shocking for young children who went to see a fun film.

   Equally disappointing – this time for adults – is the film’s refusal to depict any sign of sadness or grief on the part of the characters. They are all a little too staid, a little too bourgeois (it’s a term used in the film for a very specific reason).

   A little more passion, a little more anger on the part of the characters would have gone a long way in heightening the proceedings. Perhaps it would have removed some of the movie’s charm. But perhaps it would have given it a little more bite.

   

BLACK SEA. Focus Features, UK, 2014; US, 2015. Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Konstantin Khabensky, Bobby Schofield. Screenwriter: Dennis Kelly. Director: Kevin Macdonald.

   I am caught between calling this a heist film, or a hunt for buried treasure one. No matter, because it includes the best elements of both. When a recently fired underwater salvage captain (a perfectly cast grizzled and determined Jude Law) learns about the possible existence of a Nazi U-Boat from World War II that was sunk off the coast of Georgia with a cargo of gold ingots, he sees a chance to get back at the company that released him, get back in touch with his estranged son, and not the least of these, if all goes well, he’ll be set financially for the rest of his life.

   The sunken ship is in contested waters, though, and the surface is constantly being patrolled by Russian ships. More, the submarine he’s able to purchase, through the aid of a mysterious benefactor, is old and decrepit, and the crew he finds is half English and half Russian, five of each.

   The reward, however, is staggering, running in the hundreds of millions of dollars, to shared equally.

   Obviously things do not go well. They never do in the movies. Only one of the Russians speaks English, for example, and tensions quickly spill over the top, violently so. But with so much money at stake, antagonisms are finally smoothed over. The underground U-Boat is found, entered, and the gold … well, there’s a small problem there. It weighs more than a few pounds.

   Lots of risky maneuvering ensues, including that of the submarine itself through a rocky trench in the ocean bed, anger between the disparate members of crew flares up again and again, a huge double cross is discovered, explosions shake the ship with water rushing in, and well, how well do either heists or treasure hunts ever go in the movies? There’s lots of fun watching this to find out. If this sounds like your kind of movie, it is. This one is a good one.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

CHAIN REACTION. 20th Century Fox, 1996. Keanu Reeves, Morgan Freeman, Rachel Weisz, Fred Ward, Kevin Dunn, Brian Cox, Joanna Cassidy. Director: Andrew Davis.

   It may not be overly memorable, but Chain Reaction is a solidly crafted 1990s thriller that benefits immensely from both a strong cast and a screenplay that never condescends to the audience. Directed by Adam Davis, who is perhaps best known for directing The Fugitive (1993) starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones, this suspense film also involves an innocent man on the run from law enforcement.

   Eddie Kasalivich (Keanu Reeves) is a scientist working on a university science project that would convert water into energy. The director of the project believes that the technology should be freely available to all countries and all peoples. In opposition to this idealism stands Paul Shannon (Morgan Freeman), a shady Washington figure who represents the interests of the defense lobby.

   When an explosion destroys the laboratory, both Eddie and his physicist partner Lily Sinclair (Rachel Weisz) are fingered as domestic terrorists. Enter FBI agent Leon Ford (Fred Ward) who begins to suspect that there is something amiss about the whole affair. As it turns out (spoiler alert), Eddie and Lily are not terrorists after all, but rather pawns in an elaborate government conspiracy headed by intelligence operative Lyman Earl Collier (Brian Cox).

   Aside from the somewhat ridiculous nature of the premise, the film overall works. It sets out what it intends to do; namely, to be a diversionary piece of entertainment. While I am not exactly convinced Reeves was the best choice for the lead role, I can say with conviction that Morgan Freeman, Brian Cox, and Fred Ward were nearly perfect choices for their respective roles. Given the fact that there are no particularly memorable lines or sequences, there’s no particular reason to watch this movie twice. But once? Certainly. You could do a lot worse.
   

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