Black Brigade (1970, directed by George McCowan)


During the closing days of World War II, General Clark (Paul Stewart) wants to capture a Nazi-controlled dam and he thinks he’s found just the man for the job.  Captain Beau Carter (Stephen Boyd) is a tough and good with a knife and a gun.  Carter is sent to take command of a ragtag group of soldiers who have spent the last three years waiting for combat.  The only catch is that the soldiers are all black and Captain Carter is a racist redneck.

This was an Aaron Spelling-produced television movie that was originally broadcast under the name Carter’s Army.  When it was released on video, the name was changed to Black Brigade, probably in an effort to fool viewers into thinking that it was a cool blaxploitation film instead of a simplistic TV movie.  The film has gotten some attention because of the cast, which is full of notable names.  Roosevelt Grier plays Big Jim.  Robert Hooks is Lt. Wallace while Glynn Turman is Pvt. Brightman (who keeps a journal full of the details of the imaginary battles in which he’s fought) and Moses Gunn brings his natural gravitas to the role of Pvt. Hayes.  Probably the two biggest names in the cast are Richard Pryor as the cowardly Crunk and Billy Dee Williams as Pvt. Lewis, who says that he’s from “Harlem, baby.”

Don’t let any of those big names fool you.  Most of them are lucky if they get one or two lines to establish their character before getting killed by the Germans.  The movie is mostly about Stephen Boyd blustering and complaining before eventually learning the error of his ways.  The problem is that Carter spends most of the film as such an unrepentant racist that it’s hard not to hope that one of the soldiers will shoot him in the back when he least expects it.  The other problem is that, for an action movie, there’s not much action.  Even the climatic battle at the dam is over in just a few minutes.

There is one daring-for-its-time scene where Lt. Wallace comes close to kissing a (white) member of the German Resistance, Anna Renvic (Susan Oliver).  When Carter sees him, he angrily orders Wallace to never touch a white woman.  Anna slaps Carter hard and tells him to mind his own goddamn business.  It’s the best scene in the movie.  Otherwise, Black Brigade is forgettable despite its high-powered cast.

Scenes That I Love: The Final 9 Minutes Of The Oscar


Happy Oscar Sunday!

Since the Oscars are going to be awarded on Sunday night, now seems like a good time to remember the 1966 film, The Oscar.  My friends and I have a running joke.  Whenever I invite anyone to watch a bad movie with me, I never actually say, “Let’s watch this terrible movie.”  Instead, I always say, “This is a cult classic.”  Let’s just say that The Oscar is a classic among cult classics.

Directed by Russell Rouse, The Oscar tells the story of Frankie Fane (Stephen Boyd) and his friend, Hymie Kelly (Tony Bennett ….. yes, the singer).  Frankie uses everyone in the world to become a film star and abandons them all once he becomes famous.  Frankie is determined to cement his stardom by winning an Oscar and he’s totally willing to go to all sorts of unethical lengths to win that golden statuette.  He even hires a private investigator (Ernest Borgnine, naturally) to leak private information about Frankie and his friends, in the mistaken belief that it will cause the Academy to sympathize with him.

However, Hollywood is not a place for heels!  Or, at least, that’s the case in this film.  In the scenes below, Frankie first gets told off by his old friend Hymie and then he gets the ultimate comeuppance at the Oscar ceremony itself.  Apparently, Frankie failed to consider that he wasn’t the only Frank nominated that year!

You can read my full review of The Oscar here.  For now, enjoy the final nine minutes of Frankie Fane’s Oscar campaign.

Film Review: The Fall of the Roman Empire (dir by Anthony Mann)


Why did the Roman Empire fall?

Well, historically, there were several reasons but they can all basically be boiled down to the fact that the Empire got too big to manage and that having two separate capitols certainly didn’t help matters.  The Empire got so large and overextended that the once fabled Roman army was no match for the barbarians.

Of course, if you’ve ever watched a movie about the Roman period, you know exactly why the Empire fell.  It all had to do with decadence, gladiators, human sacrifices, and crazed emperors with unfortunate names like Caligula and Commodus.  The Roman Empire fell because the imperial government descended into soap opera, complete with love triangles, betrayals, and whispered plotting inside the Senate.

Another thing that we’ve learned from the movies is that the fall of the Roman Empire was damn entertaining.  Between the orgies and the men wearing those weird helmets with the brushes on top of them, there’s nothing more fun that watching the Roman Empire fall.

Case in point: the 1964 film, The Fall of the Roman Empire.

This three and a half hour epic begins with the last of the good Roman emperors, Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guiness), battling to keep the Germanic barbarians from invading the empire.  Marcus is a wise man and a great leader but he knows that his time is coming to an end and he needs to name a successor.  His daughter, Lucilla (Sophia Loren), is an intelligent and compassionate philosopher but, on the basis of her sex, is not eligible to succeed him.  His son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer), may be a great and charismatic warrior but he’s also immature and given to instability.  Marcus’s most trusted adviser, Timonides (James Mason), would never be accepted as a successor because of his Greek birth and background as a former slave.  (Add to that, Timonides is secretly a Christian.)

That leaves Livius (Stephen Boyd).  Livius is one of Marcus’s generals, a man who is not only renowned for his honesty and integrity but one who is also close to the royal family.  Not only is he a former lover of Lucilla’s but he’s also been a longtime friend to Commodus.  Unfortunately, before Marcus can officially name Livius as his heir, the emperor is poisoned.  Commodus is named emperor and things quickly go downhill.  Whereas Marcus ruled with wisdom and compassion, Commodus is a tyrant who crushes anyone who he views as being a potential threat.  Lucilla is married off to a distant king (Omar Sharif).  Timonides is declared an enemy after he suggests that the conquered Germans should be allowed to peacefully farm on Italian land.  Rebellion starts to ferment in every corner of the Empire and Livius finds himself trapped in the middle.  Which side will he join?

Despite all the drama, Commodus is not necessarily an unpopular emperor.  One of the more interesting things about The Fall of the Roman Empire is that Commodus’s popularity grows with his insanity.  The crueler that he is, the more the people seem to love him.  Soon, Commodus is fighting as a gladiator and having people burned at the stake.  While some Romans are horrified, many more love their emperor no matter what.  People love power, regardless of what it’s used for.  Perhaps that’s the main lesson and the main warning that the final centuries of the Roman Empire have to give us.

The Fall of the Roman Empire is surprisingly intimate historical epic.  While there’s all the grandeur that one would normally expect to see in a film about the Roman Empire, the film works best when it concentrates on the characters.  While Boyd and Loren do their best with their thinly drawn roles, the film is stolen by great character actors like Alec Guinness, James Mason, and Christopher Plummer.  Plummer, in particular, seems to be having a blast playing the flamboyantly evil yet undeniably charismatic Commodus.  Even with the Empire collapsing around then, both Plummer as an actor and Commodus as a character seems to be having a blast.  Add to that, there’s all of the usual battles and ancient decadence that you would expect to find in a film about the Roman Empire and the end result is a truly enjoyable epic.

As I watched The Fall of the Roman Empire, it was hard for me not to compare the film to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator.  That’s because they’re both basically the same damn movie.  The main difference is that The Fall of the Roman Empire is far more entertaining.  The Fall of the Roman Empire, made in the days before CGI and featuring real people in the streets of Rome as opposed to animated cells, feels real in a way that Gladiator never does.  If Gladiator felt like a big-budget video game, The Fall of the Roman Empire feels like a trip in a time machine.  If I ever do go back to 180 A.D., I fully expect to discover James Mason giving a speech to the Roman Senate while Christopher Plummer struts his way through the gladiatorial arena.

Finally, to answer the question that started this review, why did the Roman Empire fall?

It was all Christopher Plummer’s fault, but at least he had a good time.

Scenes That I Love: Tony Bennett Has A Meltdown in The Oscar


Have you ever wondered what it takes to win an Oscar?  The 1966 film, The Oscar, revealed to audiences just how sleazy a world Hollywood can be.  Frankie Fane (Stephen Boyd) does everything he can to win an Oscar and he doesn’t care who he hurts!

But fear not — Hollywood may not be perfect but it has no room for someone like Frankie Fane!  At the end of the movie, a man named Frank does win the Oscar but his last name is Sinatra and Frankie Fane is left humiliated.  That’ll teach him to try to take advantage of Hollywood!

Yes, The Oscar is an incredibly silly film but it’s also a lot of fun.  In this scene that I love, Frankie’s best friend — played by Tony Bennett of all people — confronts Frankie about the type of star that he’s become.

“It’s A Shame To Get It Shot Full Of Holes.” Hannie Caulder (1971, directed by Burt Kennedy)


hannie-posterA century before Beatrix Kiddo killed Bill and The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, there was Hannie Caulder.

Hannie Caulder (played by Raquel Welch) lives at a horse station on the Texas/Mexico border.  When the outlaw Clemmons brothers — Emmett (Ernest Borgnine), Frank (Jack Elam), and Rufus (Strother Martin) — arrive at the station following a disastrous bank robbery, they brutally murder her husband and take turns raping her.  After setting the station on fire, the Clemmons Brothers leave Hannie for dead.

What they do not realize is that Hannie has managed to crawl out of the burning building.  The next day, when a bounty hunter named Thomas Luther Price (Robert Culp) approached the burned out remains of the station, Hannie begs him to teach her how to shoot a gun.

“If I taught you the gun,” Tom says, “you’d go out and get your ass shot off!”

“It’s my ass!” Hannie replies.

“It’s a shame to get it shot full of holes,” Tom says, “It’s as pretty a one as I’ve ever seen.”

Tom refuses to teacher her how to handle a gun but he does allow her to ride with him.  Before she mounts Tom’s second horse, Hannie sees that there is a body lying across the saddle.  “I hope you don’t mind riding with a dead man,” Tom says.

After Tom realizes that she was raped, he agrees to her how to shoot.  But first, he takes her into Mexico to meet a former Confederate gunsmith named Bailey so that Bailey can make her a gun.  Bailey is played by Christopher Lee.  In a career that spanned 70 years, Hannie Caulder was the only Western that Christopher Lee ever appeared in.  At first, it’s strange to see Christopher Lee in a Western, using his Winchester rifle to gun down a group of bandits who threaten his family.  But Lee is a natural and eventually, you stop seeing him as Dracula in a western and you just see him as Bailey.

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As Bailey and Tom watch Hannie practice her shooting, Bailey says, “Fine-looking woman.”

“She wants to be a man,” Tom responds.

Bailey nods.  “She’ll never make it.”

As an actress, Raquel Welch was often miscast in roles that were only meant to highlight her looks.  She was always at her best when she played tough characters who were not afraid to fight and Hannie is one of her toughest.  While the film certainly takes advantage of her appearance (she spends a good deal of it wearing nothing but a poncho), Welch also gives one of her best performances.  Even with Culp, Borgnine, Elam, and Martin acting up a storm, she more than holds her own.  She not only looks good with a gun but she knows how to use it too.

Though the film was obviously influenced by the violent Spaghetti westerns that were coming out of Italy at the time, Hannie Caulder was directed by Hollywood veteran Burt Kennedy.  Kennedy was best known for comedic westerns like Support Your Local Sheriff  and Hannie Caulder awkwardly mixes drama with comedy.  Scenes of the Clemmons Brothers bickering and grizzled old west types doing a double take whenever Hannie walks by are mixed with Peckinpah-style violence and flashbacks of Hannie being raped.  If the film had a director more suited to the material, it could have been a classic but under Kennedy’s direction, the end result is uneven but always watchable.

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Lisa Watches An Oscar Winner: Ben-Hur (dir by William Wyler)


Ben-Hur

I’m actually kind of upset with myself because, at one point, I was planning on spending all of February watching TCM’s 31 Days of Oscars and reviewing all of the best picture nominees that showed up on the channel.  Unfortunately, I ended up getting busy with other things (like Shattered Politics, for instance) and it was only tonight that I finally got a chance to sit down and watch TCM.  Oh well, maybe next year! But for now, I’m just going to watch and review as much as I can before the month ends.

With that in mind, I just spent four hours watching the 1959 best picture winner Ben-Hur.

In many ways, Ben-Hur feels like a prototypical best picture winner.  It’s a big epic film that obviously cost a lot to produce and which features a larger-than-life star surrounded by a bunch of a memorable character actors.  It features two spectacular set pieces and some human drama that’s effective without being particularly challenging.  It’s a film that deals with big themes but does so in a rather safe way.  Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s a film that, today, is often dismissed as being old-fashioned and simplistic and yet it’s still a lot of fun to watch.

Opening with no less of an event than the birth of Jesus, Ben-Hur tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a wealthy Jewish aristocrat who, as a young man, was best friends with a Roman named Messala (Stephen Boyd).  When Messala is named as the new commander of the local Roman garrison, he is upset to discover that Ben-Hur is more loyal to his religion than to the Roman Empire.  Feeling personally rejected by his best friend (and perhaps more, as there are a lot of theories about the subtext of their relationship), Massala frames Ben-Hur for the attempted assassination of Judea’s governor.

Over the next 220 minutes, we watch as Ben-Hur goes from being a prisoner to a galley slave to the adopted son of a Roman general (Jack Hawkins) and finally one of the best chariot racers in ancient Rome.  Throughout it all, he remembers a mysterious man who once attempted to give him a sip of water.  Meanwhile, Ben-Hur’s family has been imprisoned and afflicted with leprosy.  Appropriately, for a film that opened with the Nativity, it ends with the Crucifixion, during which Ben-Hur’s struggle to save his family also comes to a climax.

Ben-Hur is undoubtedly flawed film.  (Among the film that were nominated for best picture of 1959, my favorite remains Anatomy of Murder.)  The film runs about an hour too long, some of the supporting actors give performances that are a bit too over-the-top, and the entire film is so reverential that in can be difficult for modern audiences, especially in this age of nonstop irony, to take it seriously.  In the lead role, Charlton Heston is always watchable and has a strong physical presence but you never quite believe that he’s the thinker that the script insists that he is.  There’s nothing subtle about Heston’s performance but, then again, there’s nothing subtle about the film itself.

And yet, if the film struggles to connect on a human level, Ben-Hur still works as a spectacle.  The gigantic sets and the ornate costumes are still impressive to look at.  The film’s two big action sequences — a shipwreck and the chariot race — are still exciting and thrilling to watch.  Ben-Hur may be dated but you can still watch it and understand why it was so popular with audiences in 1959 and, though I may not agree with a lot of the decisions, I can see why the Academy honored Ben-Hur with a record 11 Oscars.  It’s the type of spectacle that, in 1959, could only have been found on the big screen.  By honoring Ben-Hur, the Academy was honoring the relevance of the Hollywood establishment.

In the end, Ben-Hur may not hold up as well as some best picture winners but it’s still worth watching.

Lisa Marie Reviews The Oscar Nominees: The Oscar (dir by Russel Rouse)


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I stayed up way too late last night but it was totally worth it because I was watching a film from 1966, The Oscar.

Among those of us who love bad and campy movies from the 50s and 60s, The Oscar is a legendary film.  It has a reputation for being one of best so bad-its-good-films ever made.  The Oscar is a film that I’ve read about in several books but, until last night, I had never gotten a chance to actually see it.  When I saw that the film was going to be on last night, I said “Sleep be damned!” and I stayed up and watched.  What other choice did I have?

The Oscar takes place in a world where women are “dames” and men are “fellas” and everyone acts as if they’re a character in a Rat Pack-themed fanfic.  One look at Frankie Fane (played by Stephen Boyd) and you know he’s the type of guy who snaps his fingers when he walks and probably uses pig Latin when he flirts.  He’s one cool cat and as the film begins, he’s been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor.

The film begins at the Oscars.  Frankie sits out in the audience, surrounded by Hollywood royalty and nervously waiting for the envelope to be opened.  The camera pans over to Frankie’s personal manager, Hymie Kelley.  Hymie stares bitterly at his former friend and suddenly, we hear his thoughts and do they ever let us know what type of movie we’re about to see.

As Hymie himself puts it:

“You finally made it, Frankie! Oscar night! And here you sit, on top of a glass mountain called “success.” You’re one of the chosen five, and the whole town’s holding its breath to see who won it. It’s been quite a climb, hasn’t it, Frankie? Down at the bottom, scuffling for dimes in those smokers, all the way to the top. Magic Hollywood! Ever think about it? I do, friend Frankie, I do…”

Hymie, incidentally, is played by the singer Tony Bennett.  This was Bennett’s first dramatic film role and it was also his last.  Whatever talent or magnetism Bennett may have had as a singer, it didn’t translate into screen presence.  Bennett goes through the entire film looking embarrassed but who can blame him when the script calls for him to constantly tell Frankie that, “You lie down with pigs, you stand up smelling like garbage…”

As we discover through the use of flashback, Frankie has had to lay down with a lot of pigs to get his chance at winning an Oscar.  After starting out his career working at sleazy clubs, Frankie, Hymie, and Frankie’s stripper girlfriend (Jill St. John) find themselves in New York.  Frankie dumps his girlfriend (unaware that she’s pregnant with his child) after he meets artist Elke Sommer at a “swinging party.”

“Are you a tourist or a native?” Frankie asks her.

“Take one from column A and one from column B.  You get an egg roll either way,” Sommer replies.

No wonder Frankie tells her, “You make my head hurt with all that poetry.”

Eventually, Frankie is discovered by a talent agent who takes him to see studio mogul Joseph Cotten (who went from Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Third Man to this).  Cotten is so impressed with Frankie that he says, “Once in a while, you bring me meat like this.  It all has different names: prime rib of Gloria, shoulder cut of Johnny.  MEAT!”

With the help of savvy talent agent Milton Berle, Frankie becomes a film star but he’s still a total heel who cheats on Sommer and takes advantage of Hymie’s loyalty.  When Frankie gets nominated for an Oscar, he hires a sleazy private investigator (Ernest Borgnine, of course) to leak a story about Frankie’s criminal past.  Frankie assumes that one of his fellow nominees will be blamed for the leak and that he’ll be able to ride a wave of sympathy to victory.

And who are Frankie’s fellow nominees?  We only learn the identity of three of them – Frank Sinatra, Richard Burton, and Burt Lancaster.  We never find out what movie Sinatra was nominated for but we’re told that Burton was nominated for The Grapes of Winter (which, I’m going to assume, was a film version of a Shakespeare play about Tom Joad) while Lancaster was nominated for his amazing performance in The Spanish Armada.  Doesn’t that sound like an amazing film?

Oh, how to describe the delirious experience of watching The Oscar?  In many ways, it is a truly terrible movie but it’s fun in the way that only a “racy” film from the mid-60s can be.  Nobody plays his or her role with anything resembling subtleness.  Instead, everyone spends the entire film yelling, screaming, and gritting their teeth while flaring their nostrils.  Everyone, that is, except for Tony Bennett who gives a performance that has a definite community theater feel to it.  Even better is the dialogue.  People in this film don’t just say their lines – they exclaim them.  If you’ve ever wanted to spend two hours in a world where every sentence ends with an exclamation point, watch The Oscar.

For a film that was apparently meant to be something of a love letter to the Academy, The Oscar was only nominated for two Oscars.  It received nominations for Best Art Design and Best Costume Design.  While I had a hard time seeing what was so impressive about the film’s art design (in the world of The Oscar, Hollywood has a definite Ikea feel to it), the costumes were fairly impressive in a tacky, 1966 type of way.

Finally, I think it’s time that somebody remake The Oscar.  David Fincher can direct it, Aaron Sorkin can write the script, Jessie Eisenberg can play Frankie Fane, and Justin Timberlake would make for an adorable Hymie Kelley.  For the supporting roles, I think Billy Crystal would be a natural for Milton Berle’s role and perhaps Philip Baker Hall could step into the shoes of Joseph Cotten.  Perhaps veteran film blogger and self-described very important person Sasha Stone could make her film debut in Ernest Borgnine’s role.

Seriously, I think it would be a winner.