The Keith & the Movies Valhalla Induction

K&M VALHALLA

The Keith & the Movies Valhalla is a place of tribute for those movies that I hold in the highest regard. These are films that embody everything that is great about motion pictures. These are the best of the best – movies that I truly love and that stand above the rest. There are many great movies that won’t find their way into these sacred halls. But here you will find those films that I believe personify brilliance in filmmaking, storytelling, and entertainment. These glorious 5 star accomplishments are worthy of special recognition as the very best. Ok, enough of the high drama! In other words, these are my favorite movies of all time, ok?

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ONCE UPON A TIMEONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968) – I’ve always been picky when it comes to westerns. I grew up around them but I never latched onto them. That was before Sergio Leone showed me what a western could be. His monumental work “Once Upon a Time in the West” from 1968 is hands down my favorite western. Everything from Leone’s gritty signature style and brilliant camerawork to Ennio Morricone’s entrancing score works to perfection.

There are so many memorable scenes in “Once Upon a Time in the West”. From the masterfully conceived train station opening to the intense and anticipated final showdown, the film is filled with one fantastic scene after another. And of course how can I talk about this movie and not mention the cast. A young Charles Bronson plays the mysterious stranger who everybody is trying to figure out. Jason Robards gives the best performance of his career as a scruffy bandit ringleader. Then there’s the breathtakingly beautiful Claudia Cardinale who holds her own with all the tough guys. But it’s Henry Fonda who steals the movie as one of the most detestable villains you’ll find. It’s a role unlike anything Fonda had played at the time which made his performance all the more spectacular. If you haven’t seen this film you should. If you don’t like westerns, it doesn’t matter. A great movie is a great movie and this is a great movie.

“Once Upon a Time in the West”  is the fifth inductee into the Keith & the Movies Valhalla. But there are more amazing movies to come in the near future so stay tuned. What are your thoughts on this Sergio Leone classic? Is it worth the accolades it’s received or is it an overrated picture? You now know my opinion. I’d love to hear yours. Take time to share your comments below.

5 Phenomenal Movie Nicknames

There are so many cool and fun things about movies. One of those things is the cool assortment of characters that filmmakers introduce us to. I’ve been thinking about some of these great movie characters lately. As I was thinking on them, I started noticing the many nicknames that characters have had. I thought it would be fun to do a Phenomenal 5 on movie character’s nicknames. The one’s I chose range from funny to cool to down right iconic. Now as always I wouldn’t call this the definitive list. But there’s no denying that these 5 movie nicknames are simply phenomenal.

#5 – BLONDIE

Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach share some fantastic and memorable moments in Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti western “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”. The three title characters are trying to beat each other to a chest of buried Confederate gold. They scratch, fight, and shoot their way through deserts, civil war battlegrounds, and cemeteries. The movie is actually full of nicknames but none stand out more than the name Tucco (Wallach) gives Eastwood’s character. “Blondie” is funny in that it doesn’t exactly fit a tough-as-nails gunfighter. But it works so well especially in the classic final scene. How can you not love it?

#4 – SHAMPOO DOUGLAS

Before things really get serious in Jeff Nichols’ “Shotgun Stories”, we are introduced to the key characters through some genuinely fun scenes. While “Shampoo” Douglas (G. Alan Wilkins) isn’t one of the main characters, he cracked me up from the first time I saw him and in almost every scene afterwards. He’s part small town redneck, part dense-as fog airhead and you can’t help but laugh at him, the way he talks, and the interesting predicament he finds himself in. Then there’s his nickname. What’s so great about it is that he hardly looks like someone who has used much shampoo. But yet somehow the goofy nickname is a perfect match for this goofy character.

#3 – HARMONICA

Yet another Sergio Leone classic, “Once Upon a Time in the West” may be my favorite western of all time. It features some incredible direction from Leone and a fantastic cast of characters. We meet one of those characters in the brilliant opening scene at the train station. Charles Bronson plays the mysterious gunfighter who makes his presence immediately known. Aside from his quick draw, he stands out for the haunting tune he plays on his harmonica. It clearly has meaning and we see that later in the film. But it’s the on-the-run bandit played by Jason Robards who gives him the simple but perfect nickname “Harmonica”. He’s such a great character and every time someone mentions the harmonica I think of him.

#2 – WILLIAM “BILL THE BUTCHER” CUTTING

Daniel Day-Lewis’ award winning performance in Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” is memorable for many reasons. Day-Lewis gives the character the same intensity and energy that he always does. He creates a scary and brutal gang leader who also has one of the more interesting nicknames. The name William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting is both funny and intimidating. The fact that his last name is Cutting is pretty funny in itself. But it’s his fondness and skill with knives that really give the nickname it’s pop. We see that he not only knows how to butcher meat, but he’s not afraid to use his knives on his enemies. He’s a great movie character with a movie nickname that really sticks out.

#1 – INDIANA JONES

How can any other nickname top Indiana Jones? Harrison Ford’s iconic action movie character is not only one of the most entertaining movie characters but he’s also known by everyone. We first saw Indiana in 1981 with the classic “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. It was followed by two fun sequels and more recently a pretty bad one. But Indiana’s icon status will never die. It’s a strange and unusual nickname but it’s one that after all these years feels perfect. I mean can you imagine him being called anything else? He may have taken the name from the family dog, but whenever I hear the name Indiana Jones, I’ll always think of the tough and cool archeologist that I grew up wanting to be. Without a doubt, Indiana Jones is the best movie nickname.

There they are. See a movie nickname you disagree with? What are some of your favorite movie nicknames?

REVIEW: “BATTLE OF THE BULGE” (1965)

Ken Annakin’s “Battle of the Bulge” from 1965 is another solid entry into the field of War World 2 films. Over the Memorial Day weekend I had the opportunity to finally catch up with the entire film. “Battle of the Bulge” (the movie) has an interesting history. It was met with a wide range of opinions, mostly positive but plenty of negative. Some criticized the film for it’s obvious historical inaccuracies. Others griped about it’s overly talky and bloated script. There certainly is some merit to these and other criticisms, but I found the movie to be a solid war picture despite it’s overly long running time.

“Battle of the Bulge” is the telling of the German’s last-ditch offensive through the heavily forested mountain regions of Belgium in the later days of World War 2… at least the title of the film suggests that. It could be better described as loosely based on events surrounding the bloody, costly, and complicated battle. The film doesn’t depict any particular real-life figure during the war. It’s clearly intended to be a drama set during wartime. This is something some people took issue with but I don’t think the movie ever pretends to be something it’s not. Perhaps it could have chosen a different title for the film, but historical accuracy doesn’t seem to be a goal. That said, the movie does attempt to capture elements from the real 50 day battle. Some of the attempts work more than others.

The film’s centerpiece seems to be Colonel Hessler (Robert Shaw), a German officer put in charge of a large group of new King Tiger tanks. His mission is to slam into and push back the Allied lines which are slowly hemming the Germans in. The Americans believe the Germans are undermanned and out of resources and incapable of a worthwhile offensive, everyone except Lieutenant Colonel Kiley (Henry Fonda). During an overhead recon flight, Kiley noticed German tanks in hiding which leads him to believe the Germans are planning an attack. His suspicions are dismissed by General Grey (Robert Ryan) and the Americans are caught unprepared when Hessler and his tank division hit the Allied lines.

Hessler seems loosely based (there’s that description again) on the real-life Nazi Joachim Peiper. Peiper was a shrewd and brutal field officer with close personal connections with Himmler. During The Battle of the Bulge, Peiper was to lead a division of the new King Tigers. The tanks were heavily armored but they were gas guzzlers (it’s said the went about 1/2 mile per gallon of fuel). We see some of this with the movie’s Hessler character. He is a shrewd and dedicated German and we definitely see the fuel issue play a key role in how things turn out. But Peiper was a high-ranking SS Nazi and was convicted of war crimes for the brutal massacre of American prisoners and civilians who he came across during the battle. Hessler isn’t an SS officer and seems to be angered when he hears of a massacre that took place elsewhere during the offensive.

On the American side we send a lot of time with Lt. Col. Kiley as he tries to persuade the higher-ups of the upcoming attack and later as he plays a key role in trying to figure out Hessler’s ultimate strategy. We also spend time with Major Walenski (Charles Bronson) and his soldiers who find themselves face-to-face with Hessler’s forces on more than one occasion. Some of my favorite moments in the film revolved around Walenski and his men. I guess that’s why I was a little let down by the way he just drops off the map later in movie. Once he disappears, we never see him again. Telly Savalas plays Sgt. Gruffy, a tank commander who has a little business on the side. The movie tries to build a little story around him but it’s pretty flimsy. I did enjoy the short side-story about a green, by-the-books Lt. Weaver (James MacArthur) and the seasoned Sgt. Duquesne (George Montgomery). When things go bad for the two Weaver flaunts his rank while Duquesne relies on his field experience. It’s a familiar dynamic but one that I enjoyed.

But the complaints about the movie’s script are legitimate. There were instances where it felt like we were seeing the same thing over and over. The American leaders would discuss what the Allied game plan should be. Then we would switch to Hessler and his heads talking about a better course of action for them. Then we would do both all over again without making any progress in between. There were also some scenes that could have been edited better. For example, there is a cool scene where the Allies are sending guns via train to the front line to stop Hessler’s advance. The camera is put on the front of the train as it races to it’s location. But the coolness wears off as the scene just keeps on going and going. There were also several scenes features rolling tanks that seem to go on forever. A little better editing could have cut out some wasted time on scenes like these.

And while I don’t think the movie should be dismissed simply because it’s not historically accurate, I can see where some may not be as fond of it due to certain out-of-place details. For example, the location of a big tank battle close to the end almost resembled Arizona more than Belgium. It didn’t at all feel connected to the real environment in which they fought. In fact, much of the Battle of the Bulge was fought in snowy, hilly areas with thick forests. We see small bits of that here and there but it completely disappears later in the film. Now I perfectly realize that this is something that only someone interested in the history behind the battle would fuss about. And while it would add so much more to the film for someone like me, it really isn’t something that killed my enjoyment of the picture.

On the flip side, “Battle of the Bulge” is a visual delight. The film is filled with huge detailed set pieces and wide screened action sequences that feel completely authentic. The camera work is fantastic and there are times where the carefully crafted angles blew me away. Jack Hildyard, the Oscar-winning cinematographer for “Bridge on the River Kwai”, handles the same duties here and his work is fantastic. The movie is immediately set apart by it’s visuals and they only get better as the film progresses.

Yes “Battle of the Bulge” is long and sometimes talky. No it’s not a movie to watch in order to learn the real details of this historical and important battle. But in terms of cinema entertainment, the movie works. The performances are good especially from Shaw and Bronson and it’s visual presentation can stand with any other war picture. “Battle of the Bulge” may not be the best World War 2 movie, but it’s certainly a satisfying film that captures a lot of the action and spirit you want. It’s definitely worth checking out.

VERDICT – 4 STARS