November 19th, 2009

THE ALAMO (1960) **

The Alamo was John Wayne’s dream directing project, a sprawling big budget epic about Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie’s heroic last stand.  The fact that he had no experience behind the camera didn’t stop him from making the film.  Even the studios were unsure about the massive undertaking and wouldn’t allow him a sufficient budget, so The Duke had to reach into his own pockets and finance part of the film.  He needn’t had bothered.  This Alamo isn’t worth remembering. 


Colonel Travis (Laurence Harvey) gets orders from General Houston (Richard Boone) to defend the Alamo at all costs from the Mexican army.  Living legends Davy Crockett (John Wayne) and Jim Bowie (Richard Widmark) volunteer their services and turn the rundown mission into a fortress.  Severely outnumbered (185 to 7000), they nevertheless put up a gallant fight that lasts for thirteen days before they reach their inevitable demise.


Wayne’s overwhelming need to make this an epic ultimately works against the movie.  Wayne seems to be under the impression that Epic Length = Epic Movie, but that’s not always necessarily the case.  At 203 minutes, it’s one tough slog.  Bloated and overlong, The Alamo’s biggest crime is that it takes forever to get going.  I mean Davy Crockett doesn’t even show up until a half an hour into the movie and he’s the main character for Pete’s sake. 


Things may have went a whole lot smoother if the running time been a bit more reasonable; say two hours.  However, Wayne tosses in so many superfluous scenes of inconsequential supporting characters spouting incessant verbal diarrhea that it ruins the flow of the whole movie.  If Wayne had forgotten about the dozen or so bit players and concentrated more on the interaction between Crockett, Bowie, and Travis; it would’ve resulted in a much tighter film.


Wayne’s inexperience behind the camera further hamstrings things.  His directing style basically consists of him sitting the camera down and letting his actors recite their dialogue flatly.  In front of the camera, The Duke doesn’t fare much better.  I can’t exactly say he gives a “bad” performance but when John F’ing Wayne is playing Davy F’ing Crockett, you expect better.  Although Widmark puts in a solid turn as the hotheaded Jim Bowie, it’s Harvey that gives the best performance in the film.  At one point, Bowie calls him a “prissy jackass” and while that’s pretty accurate, Travis also has another prideful side to him that makes him interesting.  He’s the only three-dimensional character in the whole flick.


The final siege is quite exciting and features lots of mofo’s getting bayoneted, stabbed, and shot.  This 40 minute sequence shows that The Duke (or his second unit director at least) could film action.  After about 163 minutes of talk, talk, talk though; it’s the very definition of too little too late.  The stirring score by Dimitri Tiomkin helps but not much.


Wayne’s next film as director was The Green Berets. 

SHADOW NINJA (1980) **

A gruff cop gets assigned a new partner and he grudgingly shows him the ropes of being an undercover policeman.  The wet-behind-the-ears rookie is shocked to see the slightly shady cop shaking down a bunch of criminals in order to pay for his wife’s increasing gambling debts, but they still become friends.  When the town kingpin tries to have the rookie cop killed, he barely escapes with his life.  After getting healed up, he goes out for revenge. 


The opening scenes kinda play out like an Old School Kung Fu version of Training Day.  This part of the film is pretty funny, but things begin to unravel once the plot takes a serious turn.  After that, the film focuses less on the interplay between the crooked cop and the green rookie and becomes just your basic run of the mill Kung Fu flick. 


The final bloody brawl between the two cops and the killer in white pajamas is appropriately intense and there is a handful of decent fight scenes sprinkled in here and there throughout the film.  I especially dug the scene where the rookie got stabbed in the heart and BOTH calves and still kept fighting.  As good as the action is; a lot of the goofy humor is ill-fitting.  All the stuff involving the gambling wife is pretty excruciating and the less said about the henchman with an unbelievable set of buck teeth the better. 


If Shadow Ninja was either a tough as nails revenge picture or a tongue in cheek buddy cop movie; it would’ve worked.  Since it tries to be a bit of both, it fails in both departments.  Still, it’s not the worst movie with the word “Ninja” in the title I’ve ever seen.


AKA:  The Killer in White.  AKA:  The Killer Wears White.

TRICK ‘R TREAT (2008) *** ½

Anthology horror movies have been pretty scarce nowadays but director Michael (the guy who wrote X-Men 2) Dougherty tries to shake things up with Trick ‘R Treat.  Since Hollywood won’t touch anthology horror flicks (the fact that this had to go straight to DVD reinforces that), Dougherty tried to disguise it by having all the stories interlock a la Pulp Fiction.  The results are some of the best horror anthologizing you’ve seen since Night Train to Terror.


Basically what we have is a whole bunch of weirdness happening in a small town over the course of Halloween night.  One psycho principal (Dylan Baker) poisons a kid’s candy and makes a jack o’ lantern out of his decapitated head.  Later, he becomes a vampire and drinks some chick’s blood before getting turned into Lycanthrope Chow by a virgin werewolf (Anna Paquin).  Meanwhile, a bunch of surly trick or treaters get terrorized by some zombie Shortbusers and a crazy old man (Brian Cox) is attacked by a murderous pumpkin-headed munchkin named Sam (Quinn Lord).


I think what separates Trick ‘R Treat from the usual crop of horror films is it’s willingness to be nasty and mean.  More kids get mutilated and killed in this movie than any in horror history.  All of this could’ve been disastrous, but Dougherty imbues the flick with a mischievous black humor that is perfectly befitting of All Hallow’s Eve.  Dougherty effectively walks the line between horror and humor and in turn, creates one of the most original fright flicks in some time.


Trick ‘R Treat is not without it’s faults.  Since the film features interlocking characters and storylines, a couple of scenes are repeated.  This works to the flick’s disadvantage because some of the scares are telegraphed in advance.  Ultimately, this is a minor quibble because there are still enough surprises here to make it worthwhile.  In the era of pointless remakes and gratuitous sequels, Trick ‘R Treat is definitely a breath of fresh air.