Saturday, July 19, 2014

Movie Reviews: Devil Ship Pirates, China Moon, Gettysburg

Devil Ship Pirates
directed by Don Sharp
I purchased Devil Ship Pirates around the same time my brother sent me the package which included Bad Blonde. Although it was made in Hammer's classic era, this film is not overly reliant on oozing blood or heaving cleavage. By Hammer standards, there's little of the former and just the normal amount of the latter, mostly provided by actress Suzan Farmer, who plays the local lord's daughter, Angela. The simple story provided a modest level of suspense and tension that was gradually turned upwards as the movie progressed. It's really a hostage film. It reminded me of Key Largo or Went the Day Well? The Spanish Armada has just been beaten by the English navy. The survivors are limping home to Spain. Everyone goes home except for the people on the ship Diablo, which is commanded by the Spanish pirate Captain Robeles (Christopher Lee showing off his Ike Turner haircut). Robeles thinks his ship is too damaged to make the long trip back to Spain. When one Spanish navy commander disagrees with this assessment, questions Robeles' martial spirit and tries to take command of Robeles' ship, Robeles promptly kills him. Robeles, as he patiently explains to everyone throughout the film, is not big on people telling him no.

The other Spanish navy liaison, Don Savilla (Barry Warren) is wiser. Although he disagrees with Robeles and despises pirates he's not stupid enough to press the issue while he's outnumbered 60-1 on a pirate ship. He registers his objections and shuts up. Robeles lands in a remote English harbor to make repairs. Robeles' plan goes awry when two of his men are discovered by the villagers. Showing the value of a good bluff when your hand is crap, Don Savilla lies to the villagers and tells them that the Spanish won. 

Without twitter the English villagers don't know that England was victorious. The pirates tell the villagers that they are simply the first wave of the approaching Spanish invasion force. Submit peacefully and the villagers will be well treated. The town's young men are mostly absent.
In every conflict there are always people who will easily submit to power rather than fight for what's right. Robeles recognizes this. He quickly takes steps to establish his authority. The people at the top of the social structure, the local lord/mayor and vicar immediately become willing collaborators. The vicar talks about God's will and nonviolence while the lord tries to ensure that his daughter is not dishonored by the randy Spanish. Robeles quarantines the village so that no news of the Spanish defeat can penetrate. It's the men from the lower social classes who plan resistance. A younger man previously crippled by the Spanish is suspicious of the so-called Spanish victory. Along with his father and a few other hardheads, he organizes secret cells. These men hide their weapons. They recruit a village boy to visit a nearby town that still has a contingent of armed combat age men. If England didn't lose the battle the boy will request the neighboring village to send some men with bad intentions to help eject the Spanish.
Robeles forces the villagers to repair his ship. He must depart before any English relief force arrives. The pirates make goo goo eyes at the village women, who comprise most of the town's population. Don Savilla becomes more disgusted with the pirates, especially with their treatment of women. He might be willing to help the resistance, quietly. An English woman aware of the truth escapes from Spanish captivity and tries to return home. Robeles is starting to notice Angela. This upsets Angela and makes her beloved, the crippled and intensely anti-Spanish Harry (John Cairney) blow a gasket. There is no nudity or horribly explicit bloodshed. There are beatings, executions, fist fights, sword duels and plenty of leering. Rather humorously, given the predominantly English cast, there was an accident on set one afternoon when tea arrived. Everybody onboard the pirate ship immediately rushed to one side of the ship for tea, causing the ship to capsize. Almost everyone fell into the water. I'm sure they got their tea eventually though. The film's bright colors and detailed costumes impress. Although Lee is probably best known for his Dracula roles and as Saruman in LOTR, playing the coldly ruthless Robeles allowed him to act more than the Dracula gigs ever did. This was a good old school classic pirate film that's perfect for a lazy weekend afternoon.

China Moon
directed by John Bailey
Although this noir movie is not great it does have a solid cast. Despite some gaping plot holes it's almost worth any shortcomings just to watch good actors like Ed Harris and Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister himself) play off each other. Both men are playing characters that are tightly controlled but just this close to losing it. Dance and Harris always bring intensity to their roles and this film was no different. Harris is of average height while the lanky Dance stands 6-3. It was amusing to watch Dance's tall, extremely wealthy, self-assured and powerful character not even bother to draw himself up to his full height to dismiss the much shorter and much poorer character played by Harris. Talk about looking down on your adversary. China Moon was released in 1994 but was filmed in 1991. Similar to many neo-noir films released in the early nineties and late eighties, China Moon had a tremendous amount of truly horrible saxophone music on the soundtrack. Really, this music was so cheesy and intrusive that the film might have done well to break the Fourth Wall. A character should have held his ears, made a face and then punched out the saxophone player before looking at the camera and saying "Isn't that better"? Watching this film reminded me of how much time steals from us. Nobody gets out alive but there was a time when Dance and Harris actually weren't bald. How about that?

Ok, what is this movie about you ask? Well what is every story about? It's about a man and a woman. Kyle Bodine (Ed Harris) is a Florida area homicide detective. As we see Kyle is pretty sharp on the job or least he thinks he is. He treats his younger partner Lamar Dickey (Benicio Del Toro) with a mixture of semi-polite condescension and open arrogance. He doesn't mean anything by it. It's just the way he is. As the somewhat smug Kyle tells Lamar, sooner or later every murderer makes a mistake. In Kyle's experience, murderers generally aren't very smart people. Well at least they're not as smart as Kyle and that is a fact. One night in a bar Kyle notices a leggy sultry brunette giving him the once over. Well Kyle is not shy. He goes over to inquire as to how the young lady is doing. But she won't divulge her name or number. After a small bit of flirtatious back and forth, she leaves. But she's not mad at Kyle. She just says she has to go and may return some day. That gets Kyle's interest up. Kyle makes the bartender give him the woman's name from her credit card slips and tracks her down.
When Kyle pops up out of nowhere, Rachel Munro (Madeleine Stowe) is apparently not bothered by his persistence. One woman's stalker is another woman's sweet thang. Rachel's marriage to international banker Rupert Munro (Charles Dance) is falling apart. Though she doesn't share the details with Kyle, Rachel has visual proof that Rupert is cheating on her with one of his employees, a good looking woman who's a little younger and curvier than Rachel. Rupert also emotionally and physically abuses his wife. So Rachel is ready to let another mule kick in her stall. Kyle can do that job. He's never been married and falls hard for Rachel. Kyle starts feeling protective of Rachel. He finds reasons to watch over her and snoop around her home. Rachel and Kyle call each other at work. When Kyle and Lamar hear a 911 domestic violence call concerning Rachel's residence, Kyle insists on taking the call though that's not their job as homicide detectives. This makes Lamar suspicious. When Kyle sees that Rupert has punched Rachel and bloodied her nose, he can barely hold back from giving the languid Rupert a serious tune up. But when there's another domestic incident Rachel takes matters into her own hands. And she calls loverboy Kyle for help after the fact. People joke that true friends help each other bury bodies. Well that may be. But I don't know about becoming an accessory to a felony. Kyle slowly learns that he wasn't as smart as he thought he was. There's a very thin line between love and hate. Would you be ready to throw everything away, your life, your integrity, whatever success you had, for that thing called love? Do you think you're really the smartest person you know? China Moon features violence and murder as well as toplessness and nudity from both genders. Stowe is suitably slinky and sexy but doesn't quite have the level of competence or coldness I expected from a true femme fatale. Some other characters suffer from some motivational deficiencies. Del Toro gets some good lines though. 

directed by Ronald Mazell
This was originally supposed to be a television miniseries. Gettysburg was produced by media tycoon Ted Turner who is a Civil War enthusiast and something of a Confederate sympathizer. So this film is tarnished slightly by creative decisions which give the actors playing Confederate leaders many of the best lines. But of course I am biased, aren't I. On the Union side Sam Elliot brings his trademark high testosterone baritone gruffness; Jeff Daniels shines as a Union colonel who combines strong anti-slavery belief with leadership capacity that's based more on inspiring men than intimidating them. This movie was followed up by the prequel Gods and Generals which went completely over the top with revisionist nonsense--a slave woman giving a fond goodbye to a Confederate soldier. Yeah. Realizing that you can't really make tragic heroes out of men who were effectively fighting to ensure that slavery remained part of American life, Gettysburg adroitly sidesteps and downplays (at least on the Southern side) the fierce dedication to white supremacy and enslavement which animated the Confederacy. One Confederate general says that "We should have freed the slaves first and then fired on Fort Sumter" while a Confederate soldier claims that he "doesn't care about the darkies one way or the other and is only fighting for his rights". Splendid. Inconvenient and incorrect rationalizations aside, this is still a good war film. When I watch old war movies I always think that there must have been a better way to fight than to line up a relatively short distance from your enemy and shoot at him while he's doing the same to you or grimly march headlong into aimed artillery fire that includes solid shot, shell and cannister. However those methods hadn't yet been discovered in the 1860s.

The Confederate Army is riding high. Its leaders think that if the South can win a decisive battle on Northern soil and place its armies close to Washington D.C they can force the Union to admit defeat and accept terms. Commanding General Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen) has almost legendary status among both armies and is beloved by his troops. His best friend and most trusted general, Pete Longstreet (Tom Berenger), is more cautious than his boss. Longstreet quietly worries that General Lee may have started to believe his own legend of invincibility. Accidental skirmishing breaks out between advance elements of the Confederate and Union armies near the town of Gettysburg. The Union forces, temporarily led by General John Buford (Sam Elliot) are able to hold the high ground and drive off the Confederates. Both groups send messages for assistance. The next day everyone and his brother is there ready to throw down. General Lee is upset because his scouts under J.E.B. Stuart gave him no warning but he's not going to back down now. Lee blandly ignores Longstreet's initial subtle hints and later increasingly frantic warnings that this is not the time or place to fight. Well if the Confederates want a fight, the Union is keen to give them one. In the film's best setpiece Colonel Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) and his depleted Maine regiment desperately hold off seeming endless waves of oncoming Confederates on the hill of Little Round Top. Chamberlain finally orders a bayonet charge when his men are almost out of ammunition.
Gettysburg magnificently depicts the famous and doomed Pickett's Charge, which started out as the high point of the Confederacy and ended with victorious Union soldiers taunting the broken and retreating Confederates. My favorite film line was a real quote. General Lee peremptorily ordered General Pickett (Stephen Lang) to reform his division. General Pickett sharply responded "Sir, I have no division!" Because this film was originally made for television it's not bloody or explicit. Sheen captured Lee's regret and belated realization that he let his pride interfere with common sense. Berenger almost steals the film. There's a melodramatic subplot about a Confederate general conflicted about fighting his best friend, a Union general. This cast was huge. It also included such people as Ken Burns, Kevin Conway, Richard Jordan, C. Thomas Howell, Ted Turner, Donal Logue, and George Lazenby among others. Apparently most men back then had beards. During the end credits you see the actor next to the historical figure they depicted. The casting and costume departments really did a good job. In real life General Longstreet ended up working for the Union and briefly commanding Black troops. Life is often stranger than fiction. This film may pique your interest about the war that remains even today the bloodiest conflict the US ever fought. Its repercussions are still with us today in many ways. So this was a good movie if you like war movies. Or I suppose it was a good movie if you like male facial hair...
blog comments powered by Disqus