Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Watching horrible movies like “The Jackal” (*1/2 out of ****) is enough to make you howl in derision. This Bruce Willis & Richard Gere assassination saga ranks as a pallid remake of director Fred Zinnemann’s classic 1973 thriller “The Day of the Jackal.” Typically, Hollywood remakes are inferior when compared with the original, and “The Jackal” indisputably proves the point beyond a shadow of a doubt. Sluggishly paced, abysmally written, and hilariously performed, “The Jackal” has managed nevertheless to sucker large audiences into cinemas, based undoubtedly on its stellar cast, rather than its narrative.

“The Jackal” draws its inspiration from scenarist Kenneth Ross’s “Day of the Jackal” script. No screen reference appears in the opening film credits for novelist Frederick Forsyth who penned the international bestseller about a lone assassin gunning for French president Charles de Gaulle. Whereas the original “Jackal” took place in the 1960s, the “Jackal” remake unfolds in a contemporary setting. What made the original “Jackal” a tense, spellbinding, but imaginative actioneers was how the filmmakers got around their obvious dead end ending. Everybody knew that De Gaulle was never shot down by an assassin, so Zinnemann and his write Kenneth Ross had to dream up a plausible resolution. They did. “Memphis Belle” director Michael Caton-Jones and scenarist Chuck Pfarrer, however, come up with nothing to match the original’s clever conclusion.

That’s not to say that “The Jackal” isn’t an elegant looking epic with some interesting high-tech firearms. The moviemakers have spared no expense in rehashing the original. The story globe trots from the new Moscow to Helsinki, then London, England, and finally the United States. The problem is that director Caton-Jones and scenarist Pfarrer have eliminated the best parts of Ross’ original script and replaced them with their own brain-dead plotting. When the characters in “The Jackal” aren’t acting like imbeciles, the people who made the film are.

FBI Deputy Director Carter Preston (Sidney Poitier) storms into a Moscow disco on the heels of Russian Intelligence officer Major Valentina Koslova (Diane Venora of “Wolfen”) and her policemen to bust arrogant Russian mafioso Ghazzi Murad (Ravil Isyanov of “GoldenEye”). When he cannot bribe Koslova, Ghazzi whips out a knife. During the ensuing struggle, Koslova shoots Ghazzi at close range and kills him. Terek Murad (David Hayman of “Walker”) is furious when he learns about Ghazzi’s death. Terek is so upset that he buries an axe in the head of the mafia soldier who brought him the bad news.

The vindictive Terek hires a lethal assassin known only as “The Jackal.” Demanding bloody retribution, Terek pays the Jackal the sum of $70-million dollars, half in advance and the other half on completion of the killing. Specifically, Terek demands the head of the FBI killed in spectacular fashion. The Jackal orders Terek to hole up somewhere outside of Russia until he has iced the FBI chief. Meanwhile, Russia authorities abduct one of Terek’s bodyguards.

Under gruesome torture the bodyguard yields the word ‘jackal.’ Koslova informs an incredulous Preston that the KGB once used the Jackal’s services. Moreover, they learn that somebody is alive who can positively identify the Jackal. The catch is that the FBI doesn’t know where they can lay their hands on Isabella (Mathilda May of “Lifeforce”). The best that they can come up with is her old flame, IRA terrorist Declan Mulqueen (Richard Gere of “Internal Affairs”), who is pulling a 50-year stretch in a Massachusetts lock-up on a weapons charge.

Reluctant initially to reveal the whereabouts of his ex-girlfriend, Mulqueen decides to help the FBI. Not only does he tell Preston that he has seen the Jackal, but also that he can recognize the Jackal’s methods. Caton-Jones and Pfarrer cross-cut between the authorities tracking down the Jackal and the Jackal’s painstaking efforts to elude capture and devise a failsafe scenario so he can get away without a trace. As the tight-lipped, amoral, icy-hearted eponymous character, Bruce Willis turns in a Dr. Jackal and Mr. Hide performance. Willis’ hitman travels incognito with several identities and passports to get him through customs anywhere he goes. Talk about dressing up. Half of “The Jackal” is wasted as we try to spot Bruno in his next outlandish disguise. Willis has more fun dressing up than shooting people. None of Willis’ disguises are as ingenious or playful as the ones Val Kilmer wore in “The Saint.” Now, you “Die Hard” fans are going to be disappointed with “The Jackal.” One of Bruno’s disguises is playing a homosexual, and we get to see Bruno kiss another homosexual. No, you don’t see their lips smack! Willis and the filmmakers photograph the kissing scene tastefully so that you cannot actually see Bruce’s lips on the other fellow’s mouth.

Although Willis makes a tolerable villain, he is supposed to be the deadliest hitman in the world. Truth of the matter is that the guy cannot hit the side of a barn with his pistol. In an early shoot-out with Valentina, the Jackal misses practically every shot! Later, in a subway gunfight with Mulqueen, the Jackal incredibly cannot put a bullet in the ex-IRA gunman! Here’s the Jackal behind a pillar swapping lead with Mulqueen who is standing out in the open without a bit of cover, and the Jackal cannot hit him! Which brings me to the Jackal’s sophisticated Gatling gun weapon. Does he want to make the shoot-out a bloody one with a weapon that can empty its clip of ammunition before the first shot tears into its target? Or is it simply that the Jackal is a pathetic marksman?
Richard Gere looks hopelessly miscast as an honorable IRA gunman. His emerald accent is acceptable, largely because he doesn’t have to utter a lot of singsong dialogue. The moviemakers do everything that they can to whitewash Mulqueen’s character.

“The Jackal” could have been a great cat-and-mouse thriller, but all it manages to be is a wedge of cheese with a thousand holes in its storyline.


Director Neill Blomkamp's freshman, feature-length, dystopian sci-fi thriller "District 9" (* out of ****)qualifies as both grotesque and grungy. Worse, heavily-laden with anti-apartheid messages, it emerges nevertheless as an uneven blend of Monty Python skits with a serious polemic about alien rights. Does anybody remember director Christopher Columbus’ “Bicentennial Man” (1999) with Robin Williams and lack of concern for alien rights? Despite some visceral action sequences that attest to Blomkamp’s expertise at staging action, this nimble but numb-skulled nail-biter puts the protagonist in a thoroughly impossible position. Essentially, “District 9” exemplifies those supernatural films that occur primarily on Earth with the 'aliens among us’ theme. Mankind knows that the aliens have arrived. In fact, not only have we accepted them, we have grossly taken advantage of them! These aliens are neither as lovable as “Wall-E” lovable nor as cunning as the “Terminator.” You could call “District 9”: 'The Day the Aliens Stood Still.'

Indeed, Blomkamp and co-scenarist Terri Tatchell encapsulate the action in a fictional expose television documentary. Intermittently, Blomkamp indulges himself with adrenalin-laced dramatic footage that no documentary film could have captured without staging it. At other times, Blomkamp cross-cuts black & white footage from surveillance cameras to show our woebegone hero at work. Essentially, he is following the same scenario as “Cloverfield,” except for those few sequences that do not fit into the documentary. Indeed, “District 9” borrows from a number of science fiction films. A gigantic alien spaceship visits Earth like in "Independence Day,” but this spacecraft cannot leave. The spaceship hovers over Johannesburg, South Africa, for three months before the authorities board it. The skeletal aliens that humans find inside are malnourished, and the good folks in Johannesburg, wind up confining these aliens in what constitutes a huge slum. The humans treat the aliens like second-class citizens and allow them to sink into squalor. The aliens resort to crime to make ends meet and are often at odds with the authorities. No, "District 9" shares little in common with the conventional "Alien Nation." These aliens look like they walked off the set of a "Predator" movie and--unlike most alien invaders--they are not as intimidating as their counterparts. These aliens remain largely at our mercy, and Blomkamp renders humanity as brutal and unscrupulous in their treatment of the aliens.

“District 9” opens with several talking heads as part of a documentary about the scandal involving the protagonist. Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copely) is an ordinary field representative for Multi-National United, (MNU), a private company that has dominion over the aliens. Escalating alien crime and violence has prompted the government to move some 1.8 million of them to new District 10 camp located outside of Johannesburg. They are being served eviction notices by MNU field representatives who are backed up by armed helicopters hovering above them. Our hero’ s father-in-law, Piet Smit (Louis Minnaar) assigns him to head up the mission. During one of his visits to a domicile, Wikus discovers a suspicious cylinder among an arms cache. When he fumbles with it, a black liquid squirts into his face, contaminating him with alien DNA. As the story open, Wikus is already under investigation. The tabloids carry pictures of him mating with aliens. We are given a recap of the story and then the second half opens as Wikus grows flippers on his left hand. Suddenly, Wikus becomes the most prized human alive with the alien DNA polluting his bloodstream. Alien guns that scientists could never have fired now discharge at Wikus’ half-breed DNA touch. Mind you, Wikus refuses to fire the weapons, but his captors shock him with cattle prods until he accommodates them. Wikus goes berserk and escapes from the laboratory. He joins forces with an intelligent, inventor-type alien named Christopher. Christopher wants to rekindle the energy of his command capsule so he can get back to the spacecraft overhead and haul freight.

Basically, "District 9" appropriates the ‘what if’ sci-fi theme and employs it as a metaphor for a social consciousness sermon about racial xenophobia. Neither Blomkamp nor Tatchell regard humanity in a sentimental light. Worse, we are asked to sympathize with a hero who is a complete imbecile. The theme of man's inhumanity to aliens comes through 'loud and clear.’ Imagine a science fiction movie that takes place in a third world country and you've summed up "District 9." These aliens aren't cool. They look like big bugs and they speak in guttural language. Everybody refers to them disparagingly as ‘prawns.’ Blomkamp translates the alien lingo in white subtitles. They are as pathetic as the hero who behaves as if he were in a Woody Allen comedy. He is a naive moron, a patsy, a fall guy. The important part of the plot transpires when he undergoes a quasi-alien metamorphosis a la Franz Kafka meets "The Fly."

Blomkamp lenses "District 9" like a documentary, and its bureaucratic hero makes an ass out of himself. He couldn't be any more abject if he were John Cleese in a Monty Python skit. Eventually, after he gets contaminated, he begins his transformation into an alien with one hand turning into an alien claw. Yes, the aliens do resemble huge insects which make them appear less hostile but far from appealing. Indeed, Blomkamp creates a very convincing alternative universe in that the story is credible and as down to earth as any sci-fi you can imagine. Eventually, the alien along with the Wikus Van De Merwe bureaucratic hero launch a one-man/one-alien war against the repressive organization MNU that keeps the alien cooped up in the worse circumstances. The section between Merwe escaping and then teaming up with Christopher is action packed, but there are no surprises in this flat movie. I cannot believe that so many people are going ape about this asinine little flick.


The quote from John Donne's "Sermon III" opens the film: "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee." In 1936, Spain endured a three-year-long civil war. General Francisco Franco Bahamonde allied himself with Fascist Italian and Nazi German sympathizers and won this brutal war. Several hundred Americans fought alongside the Loyalists. For the record, Spanish citizens that opposed Franco's takeover constituted the Loyalists. In 1939, the war concluded with Franco as dictator. Author Ernest Hemingway served as a war correspondent in Spain from 1937 to 1938 and saw the action first hand. Later, Paramount shelled out $150,000 in 1940 for Hemingway's film rights to his novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” The Hemingway novel was published in 1940,became a bestseller, and sold about 750-thousand copies. Paramount made history with this deal as the highest price that a studio paid for a novel. The “New York Times” newspaper wrote that "Paramount paid Hemingway $100,000 for the property, agreeing to an additional 10 cents a copy for each volume sold up to 500,000." Originally, Paramount wanted the legendary Cecil B. DeMille to call the shots on the film, but he abandoned the project to direct “Rurales.” DeMille never produced “Rurales.”

Paramount sources said Hemingway created his main character, Robert Jordan, with Gary Cooper in mind and later suggested Ingrid Bergman as Maria. DeMille protégé Sam Wood sought Cooper, a Samuel Goldwyn contract star, for the role, too. Previously, they had worked together on the Lou Gehrig baseball movie “The Pride of the Yankees” in 1942. Paramount obtained Bergman from David O. Selznick. Bergman replaced an actress who didn’t work out as Maria. According to Turner Classic Movies Archives, the State of California loaned the bell tolling at the beginning and the end of the film. According to studio press book information, director Wood started shooting “For Whom the Bell Tolls” in November 1941 since the snow that they needed for the setting in the Sierra Mountains was falling. According to Turner Classic Movies, “Plans to film the airplane sequences on December 7, 1941 were delayed due to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which resulted in the grounding of all commercial planes. Paramount then had to register their pilots and planes with the Civil Aeronautics Administration and receive U.S. Army approval before they were allowed to shoot the airplane sequences.” Eventually, production resumed in the Sierra Mountains during the summer of 1942. The Lumsden Bridge near the Tuolumne River in Yosemite National Park served as the bridge in some scenes that Robert Jordan winds up destroying. Paramount spent $2,681,298 to make “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

While the Production Code Administration worried about the political content of “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” the censors displayed greater anxiety over the—as the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library notes--"illicit sex affair" between Jordan and Maria. According to AMPAS, the filmmakers were told to "omit entirely from the picture the sleeping bag" sequence, and to "endeavor to remove...the suggestion that Maria has been raped." The word “rape” is never uttered in “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and Jordan repeatedly dissuades Maria from confessing to him the details of her rape. Predictably, Spain banned the film. Three years after Franco died; “For Whom the Bell Tolls” received its Spanish premiere in 1978. Initially, the film opened on July 14, 1943 in New York City, and the studio donated proceeds to the National War Fund. Incidentally, American women adopted Bergman's short hair. Greek actress Katina Paxinou, in her screen debut, received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as the gutsy Pilar. The film also received nominations for other Academy Awards, including Best Picture; Best Actor (Gary Cooper); Best Supporting Actor (Akim Tamiroff); Best Actress (Ingrid Bergman); Art Direction/Interior Decoration (Color); Cinematography (Color); Film Editing, (Sherman Todd and John Link); Music (Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture).

Although Ernst Hemingway chose Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper as the leads in director Sam Wood's cinematic adaptation of "For Whom the Bell Tolls," the novelist hated the movie because the repressive Hollywood Production Code Administration made Paramount Pictures excise virtually all of the political content of "Stagecoach" scenarist Dudley Nichols' script. Indeed, what the Production Code did was to remove anything derogatory about General Franco's regime, ruling in Spain at that point, that Cooper and his Nationalist resistance compatriots sought to defeat. This was certainly not the first movie that had its plot eviscerated. The 1938 Spanish Civil War movie "Blockade" with Henry Fonda has suffered a similar fate. It was obvious which side was right and which side was wrong, but the Code prevented them from identifying them by name.

"For Whom the Bell Tolls" (**** out of ****) takes place in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War as the protagonist, American teacher-turned-Republican soldier Robert Jordan, blasts a Nationalist troop train to smithereens. Enemy soldiers swarm after Jordan (Gary Cooper of "Sergeant York") and his friend Kashkin (Feodor Fedorovich Chaliapin Jr. of "Mission to Moscow") and wound the latter. Kashkin holds Jordan to his promise to kill him because he refuses be captured. Nobody wants to fall into the savage hands of the Republicans. This form of mercy killing is a rule of thumb among the Republican. Nevertheless, Jordan hates having to kill Kaskhin and calls it "murder." Meantime, Jordan escapes to Madrid to rendezvous with Republican General Golz (Leo Bulgakov of "This Land is Mine") briefs him on a new mission to dynamite an important bridge at the same time that the Republicans launch a surprise air assault. Jordan has three days to prepare.

An older Spanish guide Anselmo (Vladimir Sokoloff of "Scarlet Street") leads our hero to the bridge spanning a gorge and then escorts him to a Nationalist outpost in a mountain cave not far from the structure. A small band of guerrilla fighters and Gypsy refugees take orders from Pablo (Akim Tamiroff of "Union Pacific") and his fire breathing wife Pilar. According to his wife, Pablo has lost his nerve and she supervises their exploits. Pilar (Katina Paxinou of "Confidential Agent") has nothing but contempt for her cowardly drunkard of a husband. Robert conceals the explosive in the cave and gets to know his new companions, among them a carefree gypsy Rafael (Mikhail Rasumny of "Comrade X"); Primitivo (Victor Varconi of "Strange Cargo"); Andres (Eric Feldary of "Cloak and Dagger"), Fernando (Fortunio Bonanova of "Citizen Kane"), and young Maria, (Ingrid Bergman of "Casablanca"), a Spanish refugee that the Nationalists raped after they shot her parents. Palo and his men rescued Maria from a prison train. Robert needs Pablo's assistance to blow up the bridge. Pablo, worried about a Nationalist reprisal, gives Jordan the cold shoulder.

Meanwhile, Pilar warns Jordan that Pablo cannot be trusted. Pablo is not happy since Pilar has assumed command of his men and behaves in a suspicious manner. Later, Fernando reveals that he left camp to be with his wife in the city. He eavesdropped on loquacious Nationalists chatting about gossip of a possible Republican attack on the bridge. Pilar, Maria and Robert climb through the mountains to meet the rebel El Sordo (Joseph Calleia of "The Gorilla"), a renegade gypsy, who agrees to steal the horses they need to escape after the bridge is destroyed. Gradually, over a three day interval, Jordan and Maria become lovers. Eventually, Maria tells him that the Nationalist soldier abused her. Mind you, Nichols could not use the word 'rape' in 1943, and Jordan doesn't want to hear about the details. A snowstorm has everybody worried that Nationalist patrols may spot the tracks of El Sordo's stolen horses and follow them to the cave. Pablo's drunken behavior prompts the others send him into exile.

After Pablo's departure, Pilar reveals that Pablo has not always yellow. When the war began, Pablo proved himself a courageous leader. Organizing the citizens against a Nationalist attack, Pablo helped save their town. He blew up the wall around the city hall where the Nationalists had been cornered and decided not to give up. Pablo forced these city officials to face the wrath of the citizens. These men brave a gauntlet before the enraged citizens hurl them off a high cliff to their deaths.

The savagery of his countrymen sickens Pablo and refuses to participate in the fighting. Later, Pablo shows up at the cave with a change of heart and agrees to support Jordan's mission to blow the bridge. The next day, Robert has to shoot a Nationalist cavalryman who rides too close to the cave. A patrol rides up and El Sordo's gang diverts them from Jordan and company. El Sordo and his men take refuge in a mountain outpost and fight until fighter planes wipe them out. Meanwhile, the treacherous Pablo sabotages Jordan's equipment. Anselmo warns Jordan that Nationalist troops are fortifying the bridge. Robert fears that the Nationalists know of the Republican surprise attack. He dispatches Andres on a hopeless mission behind enemy lines with a message for Golz to cancel the offensive. During the night, Jordan and Maria make love. Before dawn, Pilar uncovers Pablo's treachery, and Robert rigs up make-shift detonators from hand grenade. As Jordan is placing the dynamite, a Nationalist armored column trundles into view. The bridge is destroyed, but Anselmo dies in the blast. As Jordan and company escape, the soldiers open fire and a shell knocks Jordan off his horse and he breaks his leg. Jordan convinces Maria to leave with Pillar and Pablo and dies when the soldiers rush him.

Director Sam Wood paces the action so that he can tell several stories at once and he generates considerable suspense and tension in the final quarter hour of this epic. The legendary production designer William Cameron Menzies created the fake bridge over the gorge. Composer Victor Young's score is wonderfully evocative. Film critics at the prestigious magazines of the day virtually denounced the film. LIFE magazine wrote: "Althoug it has been publicized as 'one of the greatest movies of all time,' "For Whom the Bell Tolls" is hardly that. To most it will be a good picture that for various reasons missing being a great one. The chief complaint will be the length of the movie. Running for almost three hours it becomes tiring, lacks a natural humor and more than once becomes self-conscious." NEW REPUBLIC film critic Manny Farber complained about the color: "I am not sure how much of the picture's peculiar lack of effect is the result of its technicolor. I myself find it difficult to take seriously a movie made in technicolor: profundity seems out of key with the carnival spirt of the color, which is always gay and bright, masklike, without substance." Farber also griped that the censors at the Production Code "killed the theme."

According to TIME magazine, Paramount presented the film as a 'roadshow attraction' with ticket prices ranging between 75 cents to a minimum of $1.10. Meanwhile, THE SATURDAY REVIEW OF LITERATURE decried the film. "The news on Paramount's long-awainted production of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" is pretty nearly all bad. It's too late, it's too long, and it's too painfully anxious not to hurt anybody's feelings. It emphasizes all of the book's inherent weaknesses, and instead of striking a ringing blow agains the forces of reaction, dribbled off into a series of pittypats." NEWSWEEK wrote "In general, it is advisable to regard FWTBT as a poignant, ill-starred romance, played against a grimly melodramatic background. Even here, though, the film leaves a good deal to be desired. Director Sam Wood does manage to whip the action into a superb fury of excitement and suspense in his scenes of carnage--particularly in the climactic destruction of the bridge, and in El Sordo's gallant, hopeless delaying action on a vulnerable mountaintop. Yet such moments only infrequently break a series of garrulous, though artistically arranged, close-ups, in a story that lacks the variety to sustain its excessive running time." THE NATION faulted the use of technicolor as Faber had in THE NEW REPUBLIC. "The Technicolor is even unluckier. It is a good as the best experts, at his stage, can make it: which still means the rankest kind of magazine-illustration and postcard art. Color is very nice for costume pieces and musical comedies, and has a great aesthetic future in films, but it still gets fatally in the way of any serious imitation of reality." Also, THE NATION's critic James Agee noted: "Mr. Hemingway's sleeping bag, by the way, is so discreetly used that you can never at any moment be sure who is in or out nuendo." ATLANTIC MONTHLY wrote: "There is a bright side to the Paramount tour de force, however. After a three-hour orgy of mispresentation, after blinking at the false use of technicolor that resembles tearoom candles more than Spain, the beholder can leave the theatre in an exalted frame of mind, because of the performance of the great actress, Katina Paxinou. She was the Pilar of whom Hemingway wrote, whom all of us knew under one name or another--the blood and dust of a suffering Spain. Every word and movement, every silence and gesture of Paxinou, was not only convincing but unforgettable. Concerning her great contribution, ennobling an otherwise dull and harmful picture, Hollywood is unanimous and overflowing with praise."