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Seven Days in May Review (1964)

By Trey Smith

What if a high ranking and popular General planned a coup d'état to unseat the President of the United States because he believed a peace treaty being made with the enemy was detrimental to the safety of the American people? This is the question that John Frankenheimer's tense political thriller "Seven Days in May" asks. Is the general a traitor or hero, should the laws of the land and the right of the people to elect their leaders be cast aside if the President is making a decision that is unpopular with the majority and believed to be outright dangerous by the military? Of course not, it is treason. However, that is just my personal opinion and while it seems like the clear answer this film brilliantly points out that maybe, just maybe, it isn't so clear.

Frankenheimer's voice of reason who uncovers such a plot is Marine Colonel Martin "Jiggs" Casey (played by an always welcome Kirk Douglas). The plot he discovers is an attempt to unseat the President and replace him with four star Air Force General, James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster), who is also at the forefront of the conspiracy and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The plot was initiated after the President decided to sign a treaty with the Russians during the height of the Cold War for both sides to dismantle its nuclear arsenal. It's clear that Casey and Scott have a great deal of respect for each other and Casey is genuinely upset when he begins to uncover the damning evidence. However, once it is clear that such a plot may exist, Casey takes it to President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) who cautiously launches an investigation to uncover and expose it.

The film is quite plot heavy but instead of succumbing to convolution it presents the complex conspiracy clearly while never letting that simplicity get in the way of maintaining its intelligence. It's no surprise that "The Twilight Zone" mastermind Rod Serling is the man who penned the script, as he was particularly adept at taking complex plots and keeping them smart, snappy, and always entertaining. While Serling takes a staunch liberal standpoint, that doesn't mean he completely ignores the potential downsides of the treaty Lyman is trying to push. Scott is right that complete disarmament and trusting the Russian will keep up their end of deal and do the same could backfire, but it's always clear that Serling thinks it is foolish and completely against what our nation stands for to try and take over the Presidency by force because of that potential danger.

The brilliant thing about this film is that it is so willing to stand up both sides of the debate, throw them under intense scrutiny, and then have both sides heroically, and sometimes immorally, defend their side to the point of death, either literally or politically. That this debate is thrown into a film filled to the brim with intense political intrigue, suspicious deaths, illegal detaining of government officials by the military, and a steamy case of adultery makes for an incredible, thought provoking piece of entertainment that we don't see much of these days. This is beautifully illustrated in a brilliant scene between Lancaster and March on the philosophy of standing up for our country from both a military and political standpoint. Both love their country dearly, but they both have very different ideas on how they should defend and express that love. It's an incredibly powerful scene and both Lancaster and March are at the top of their game, which certainly isn't faint praise given what titans of cinema both men were.

This being a plot heavy film, that the actual characters are usually relegated to the back burner is par for the course, but because they are all carried by veteran actors like Douglas, Lancaster, March, George Macready, Edmond O'Brien, Ava Gardner and Martin Balsam, it's safe to say that none of them resemble the one sided cardboard cutouts you expect to find in Michael Bay's plot reliant yarns. All of these guys are strong in their roles, with special mention going to the three men who share top billing, who simply couldn't be any better in their roles. March is desperate to not only salvage his fading presidency, which has made him tired and possibly ill, but also stand up for the principles behind it, no matter the cost. March is completely believable as Lyman and he delivers what could have incredibly hokey speeches with just the right amount of conviction and sincerity. I can say with just as much sincerity that he plays a man I would love to have in office, he's strong even in the face of great adversary, from all branches of the government, but he's also a damn good man who wants to do what is right, even if it means putting himself at risk. It helps that he is also c-lassy as hell.

Even though Douglas' character is basically vessel for guiding the audience through the murky waters and putting the story into motion, he handles it with his typical gusto and depth, making it so much more than merely a narrative tool. As I said earlier, it is clear that he is hurt by having to take down General Scott, whom he even refers to as his hero at one point. However, that he must also drag Scott's former mistress, played by Gardner, into the mix (who he may also have feelings for), makes him all the more twisted up on the inside at the idea of having to betray his friend and superior.

Lancaster, who I personally believe to be one of, if not the, best actors of all time, is flawless in his performance as a very flawed, but strong man. It is never clear just how enthusiastic Scott is about having to take down the President and take the office over himself. The film never really answers if he is the power hungry megalomaniac, who is just using the American flag as an excuse to criminally ascend to the Presidency, Lyman thinks he is, or simply an intensely loyal military man who believes what he is doing is absolutely right. Lancaster's final line, tinged with disappointment and maybe even regret, slyly makes the case for both and in the end both he and Serling wisely leave it open for the audience to decide.

"Seven Days in May" is one of the best films on the Cold War I've ever seen. It is much more serious than my other favorite of the era, "Dr. Strangelove", but it doesn't seem as ridiculous as a story on all out, mutual accidental destruction that Stanley Kubrick thought was begging for farce. It's a forever timely tale that could easily tie in with today's chaotic political world. Even if it doesn't it still serves as a thoughtful debate on loyalty, the principles behind the Constitution, and just how far a man should go to do what he thinks is right for his country. All disguised as a tense thriller that never forgets to entertain or think less of its audience. I don't think there is any higher praise you can give a film. Watch it, take your side, discuss it, and above all, enjoy the hell out of it.

The Body Snatcher Review (1945)

By Trey Smith

For most of us, the c-lassic horror films of the 1930's and 40's just aren't very scary anymore. Some of them manage to be unsettling and many of them are still very good. However, I've never actually been scared by any of them enough to actually consider sleeping with the light on, at least not since I was a very young child. 1945's Robert Wise film "The Body Snatcher", starring perhaps the greatest horror duo of all time, Boris Karloff and Bela Legosi, isn't a film that will interrupt you sleeping habits, but I did find it to be a very effective thriller with a few genuinely chilling scenes and a great performance by the aforementioned Karloff, who was sadly underused and mostly relegated to B-horror flicks for his entire career.

The story takes place in a dank corner of Edinburgh, Scotland a short time after the infamous body snatcher murders committed by Burke and Hare. We are introduced to a cold and distant doctor and medical teacher, Wolfe "Toddy" MacFarlane (Henry Daniell), and his determined student, Donald Fettes (Russell Wade). In order to keep Fettes from leaving school, MacFarlane makes him assistant, which will both pay for his tuition and also give him board at the doctor's home/school. The new position also gives him the grisly task of dealing with the nasty Mr. Gray (Karloff), a cabman who moonlights as a body snatcher for MacFarlane.

Gray has a dark past with MacFarlane and it is from the secrets the two share that the film draws most of its suspense. The tension between the two is one of the highlights of the film, played for the full effect by Karloff and Daniell. It's clear that both men hate each other, but MacFarlane needs Gray because of how difficult it is for a teacher to come into cadavers for students to practice working on. As for Gray, well, he has his own twisted reasons for keeping MacFarlane close and Karloff does a great job at reminding him this with equal parts menace and chummy charm.

This is the key aspect of Gray that makes Karloff's performance so great and scary, at one moment he is being friendly to kids and enjoying a drink with you, while the next he can be coldly and emotionlessly "burking" you, which is slang for choking the life out of you, something he no doubt learned from his predecessors Burke and Hare, from whom the term is derived. Karloff is convincing no matter his character's temperament and thus makes a role that could have merely turned into a one note boogey man just as fascinating as it is scary. All of the other actors do a great job as well, especially Daniell, giving Karloff a lot of great emotions to play off of and disturb. Legosi has a very small role, but his character has one of the very best scenes with Karloff, which makes it much less thankless than other roles he seemed doomed to play.

When MacFarlance and Fettes take on the task of removing a paralyzing tumor from a young girl, they need a body quick to practice the operation on, but all of the cemeteries are heavily guarded after Gray's last robbery and thus the money hungry Gray has no way of providing them with one. Ordinary men may have accepted the loss, but not Gray. The devious cabman sees this as an opportunity to torture the pair further and from then on out the story takes a darker turn and leads to the film's most chilling scene, which involves a dark, foggy night and a singing street urchin girl.

"The Body Snatcher" isn't some goofy b-movie that relies on cheap thrills and shallow themes, it is thick with suspense, murder, and deals heavily with redemption and the shadow of a dark past personified in a monstrous man who wants those around him to bend to his twisted will. MacFarlance is torn between bringing Fettes down the same dark passage he long ago descended into just for the sake of fulfilling the great promise the young man shows as a doctor, or letting him escape before it's too late and Gray has his fingers firmly and permanently wrapped around his neck, as well.

The final act of the film culminates in a brutal, fateful showdown between MacFarlane and Gray that will either lead to salvation for the good doctor or damnation for the both of them. The end result is just as blurred and morbid as the film's subject matter and chillingly reminds us that though we may think we can escape the dark deeds of our past and shy away from repenting for our sins, they will always creep back from the grave to drag us back down with them. And, if we aren't careful, maybe even those we cherish the most.

"The Body Snatcher" is one of the best c-lassic horror films from the era I've seen and is well worth watching even if you don't think it will scare you. It's dark, loaded with great performances, and deals with the good and evils that are eternally bound to body snatching in a way that is both eerie as hell and thoughtful. Even if none of that catches your interest, see this film for Karloff, who was at the top of his game and gives a performance that should be ranked up there with the great ones of the period and easily near the top of creepiest ghouls to ever haunt the silver screen.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) Review

"Captain America: The First Avenger" Review

By Trey Smith

"Captain America: The First Avenger" begins with a mistake, though I would feel dishonest if I held the film itself accountable for it. Ever since a film of "The Avengers" came into fruition, pretty much every single Marvel movie in existence ceased being stand alone films and instead became preludes to it. This forced the filmmakers into including present day bookends on the film that just feel out of place and add absolutely nothing to the story at hand. However, the core of the film is mostly a good time and works surprisingly well as its own story, even though the film can't quite shake the feeling that it only exists to set up Captain America for "The Avengers."

When the proper story starts we are introduced to Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a 90 pound Brooklyn kid who passionately wants to join the army and fight off the Nazi scourge during World War II. However, because of his size and health conditions, the army keeps rejecting him. I'm not sure if this is how Captain America came to be in the comic books, but I thought this to be a great origin for the character. It's very fitting and makes what could be merely a gung-ho, hell yeah America character much more relatable, even if you aren't an American. Sure it's still handled in a hokey manner, but certain moments manage to carry just the right amount sincerity that you can't help but give the film an awe-shucks smile. There is one scene that comes to mind in which Rogers allows himself to be knocked down by a bully over and over again, simply refusing to give up, until his stronger best friend, Bucky (Sebastian Stan), saves him.

Fortunately for him, his unshakable will to serve his country catches the eye of a scientist, Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who is seeking candidates for a secret military program. Erskine explains that they need to create an army of super soldiers using an experimental serum to combat the mysterious Hydra organization, whose powerful leader Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), seeks to rule the world. Schmidt also used the serum on himself before Erskine escaped Germany, with less than desirable results to his physical appearance.

Schmidt is your standard boogey man villain who has little more motivation than to rule the world. I'm all for avoiding the weepy eyed villains that plague superhero movies when they try to give their baddies heart, but a little depth goes a long way in making enemies seem formidable. Even though Weaving looks to be having a good time and is trying his best, Schmidt just doesn't feel all that dangerous, even when he reveals his true form. I can't blame him though, the script just doesn't give him much to work with beyond evil glares and doing bad things.

Once Rogers successfully takes the serum, he garners the titular moniker Captain America and begins saving the day and winning the hearts of dames everywhere. This leads us to the standard action pieces one can expect to find in a Marvel film, but thankfully the filmmakers chose to avoid completely relying on the spectacle and let the explosions take a break to dig deeper into the characters.

It was somewhat refreshing that Captain America didn't just become a superhero as soon as he got his powers, that he was still forced to prove himself. Yes, heroes always have to prove themselves, but everyone knows Rogers is capable, they just can't grasp just how capable he actually is and go so far as to keep him from doing what he was made to do. This allows him to develop even more of a thirst to save the day, and when things get personal after a failed mission by his commanding officer (Tommy Lee Jones), we have motivation that's a bit more complex and original than "I have powers, I must save the day." Not much more complex or original, mind you, but enough to be welcomed.

Unfortunately, the movie having a bit of real heart isn't going to save it from the mind-boggling number of clichés that plague it. Let's be realistic, most movies of this sort suffer from them, but they kept happening at such a sure fire rate I honestly began to think that the filmmakers just had to be throwing them in on purpose. Skipping those that are more necessary to the story we have such things as bad guys grabbing kids to protect themselves, the hero stumbling into the lair of the villain only to not find him until he sneaks up behind him, or a girl who pulls Rogers into a kiss just in time to allow the girl of his dreams (Hayley Atwell) to catch an awkward glimpse. Hell, there is even a secret base that is hidden behind a damn bookcase! I realize that comics don't provide the best material for originality, but come on, other adaptations of the medium tried harder than this.

Still, problems aside, "Captain America" still managed to provide me with a good time without insulting me or making me smirk too much. That the film manages to actually function as a story and legitimately inspire a little warmth is something that can't be said for most big summer blockbusters. In fact, this film gets two points in that category since its sole reason for being is to pretty much set up a character for another summer blockbuster movie.