The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Terminator Salvation

Completely out of the blue this week, I went and saw Terminator Salvation with a bunch of family. Actually we bought tickets for Star Trek, but that's a different story. I've seen the first 3 Terminator movies so I knew the story and the background, and maybe most importantly, I've listened to star Christian Bale's on-set rant. That will always be entertaining. I'm kind of in the middle when it comes to Bale. I think he's a really good actor, loved him in 3:10 to Yuma, The Machinist, and Rescue Dawn, but I don't necessarily like him.

And as you look at the previews, trailers, posters and commercials, this movie is presented as Bale's movie, the beginning of the next round of Terminator moves. Bale plays John Connor, the rising leader of the resistance battling Skynet in the post-apocalyptic 2018 United States. For three movies, all we heard about was how John was this great, charismatic leader who must survive to lead the resistance. I hated Edward Furlong in T2, and Nick Stahl was all right in T3 so the precedent isn't that great. We're supposed to believe this character is the savior of mankind, but been given nothing to believe why. John Connor, initials J.C., get it?

It's odd then so much of this movie is spent on other storylines. My guess? Bale's only in about half of the movie's 115 minute running time. As John, he's okay, but it's not his best part. By far, this movie belongs to scene-stealing Sam Worthington as Marcus Wright, maybe the coolest character I've seen in a movie since Tyler Durden. A brief opening scene in 2003 shows Marcus on Death Row, signing a waiver for Dr. Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter, great in a small part) to donate his body to science. Flash forward to 2018 where after a disastrous patrol where only John survives, a man, Marcus, walks out of the rubble. He has a mission, an objective, but even he himself doesn't quite know what it is.

If you've seen the trailer or any number of previews, you know Marcus' secret, but I won't blow it here. I will say his character's turmoil gives the movie some heart, even some depth. As the series looks ahead, and yes, the ending leaves a big opening for more movies, I certainly hope Marcus Wright is included somehow, even more so than John Connor. That's what surprised me about the movie in general, the supporting cast steals the movie. Also worth mentioning are Moon Bloodgood as Blair Williams, a resistance pilot who meets Marcus and believes he can help the effort, Anton Yelchin as Kyle Reese, a young man who will one day become John's father, Bryce Dallas Howard as Kate, John's pregnant wife (formerly played by Claire Danes) and Jadagrace as Star, Kyle's mute traveling partner. And just cause they're cool and generally badasses, Michael Ironside plays a resistance general and rapper Common as Barnes, one of John's men.

Now by this point maybe you're wondering why I even saw the movie. The movie is just there without a lot of reason to get involved. It's not bland, but it's close with some to all of the blame going to director McG. All other things aside, the action scenes are top-notch as John, Marcus, Kyle and Co. battle any number of Terminators. The post-apocalyptic setting in California gives the movie quite a unique look too, like a lot of westerns with the lone gunfighter trying to survive.

Maybe because this story has only been talked about in the previous three movies, with an occasional flashback or flashforward I guess, but T-Salvation didn't quite feel like a Terminator movie. It's a good action movie, but other than the names and some nods to fans of the series, it could have been a stand-alone movie. The Terminators are nameless, just metal robots trying to kill John and Kyle. The Governator himself, Arnold, makes a quasi-appearance but it's so badly done CGI that it's distracting. Other touches gone horribly wrong, the delivery midway through the movie of Arnold's famous line "I'll be back." SSsssssssssssssoooooo bad, so cheesy. I would recommend seeing the first 3 movies before Salvation though. It will definitely help you understand and clear up the storyline here. You might be lost otherwise.

Still, I liked the movie despite its flaws. As I said, the action and chase scenes are good on a big and little level, you care for most of the characters on the small level and the epicness of some of the attacks is cool to watch. Here's an official trailer for T-Salvation that hopefully convinces you to go see the movie, it's one of the more effective trailers I've watched in awhile. And one more push to get you to go see this one...Transformers 2 trailer runs in front of it. If Megan Fox sprawled across another car doesn't convince you to go, I'm out of ideas. You're on your own.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Blast of Silence

Right up there with any sort of western and war movie, I'll give just about any hit-man movie a chance. It doesn't even have to be good for me to give it a try. So when I find a really good one that has completely slipped through the cracks since its release in 1961, I'm more than pleasantly surprised.

The movie is Blast of Silence, a low-budget film noir that was ahead of its time while also honoring similar movies that had come before it. Recent releases about hit men try to make these characters likable or endearing in some way. Pierce Brosnan's quirky portrayal of a hired killer who's lost his edge in The Matador is a great example of how well a character like that can be pulled off. But most times, and especially in film noir, a hit man is a one-dimensional, warped killing machine with little to no redeeming qualities.

Star and director Allen Baron goes for the more-typical hit man, but by the end of the movie, I at least felt for his character. By nature and by the demands of his profession, Baron's Frankie Bono is a loner. He doesn't need people around him at all times, and even the simplest conversation one-on-one with another person is painful for him. So how do you make a whole movie about a character that hates interactions with people? Blast of Silence utilizes the voiceover technique as Frankie's conscious or even his stream of thought narrates through the story. With Lionel Stander providing the narration, you know the voice if not the face, it adds an element of originality to the movie. It's not just a tortured killer gunning for his last kill, it's the thought process and motives of a man struggling to find his way.

The storyline is simple, Frankie is hired for a hit of a mobster who's getting a little too big for his britches, Troiano (Peter H. Clune). He goes about getting a gun from a low-level hoodlum, Fat Ralphie (Larry Tucker), and starts to follow Troiano and get to know his habits and daily schedule, always looking for the opportune time to pick him off. A wrench is thrown in his plans when he runs into a childhood friend and his sister, Lori (Molly McCarthy). Growing up together, Frankie always had a crush on his friend's sister and those feelings start to come back to him.

But even as they grow, he knows he can't be distracted from his job. He has to kill a man and do it quickly with no distractions clouding up his plans. Even then, Frankie makes a decision he knows he'll regret. He tries to pull out of the job before finally deciding to stick with it. But for this loner, could it already be too late? If you've seen any noir movies, you probably know how it ends, but it's an appropriate ending for the character and the movie.

Baron never worked again as an actor, instead focusing on more directing, usually in TV. It's a shame because he's got an eye for the visual, check out the opening scene/narration. 'Blast' is filmed in black and white like all the classic noirs, and was shot in New York, giving the movie a dark, gritty feel to it. There's a very 60s feel to the story with gangsters wearing trenchcoats and hats, and a cool smooth jazz score as the soundtrack, but Baron puts together a great-looking movie, here's the trailer for a good preview of what to expect. Lots of tracking shots from a distance, and one stationary shot as Frankie walks down a vacant NY downtown street with the buildings towering all around. To keep you on your toes, Baron throws in action meant to throw you off your guard. A fight to the death between Frankie and Fat Ralph is particularly vicious with any old items lying around an apartment turned into a weapon.

Other than Stander as the narrator, there's not any recognizable faces or names here. Much of the cast was only in a few B-movies here or there, but I thought this helped the movie. With big names, it might be harder to get into the characters, but having never seen Baron before, it's an easy transition into seeing him as a hit man, and don't let me throw you off, Baron is the best part of the movie.

I was lucky enough to stumble across this movie on TCM's schedule, but thanks again go to the folks over at Criterion Collection for releasing this overlooked gem on DVD. At just 77 minutes, there's not a moment wasted in the 60s film noir.

A View to a Kill

Well,l it took me awhile as I rationed out the post-Connery James Bond movies, but with A View to a Kill I've now watched all the Bond movies through the Roger Moore years. I'll write a post ranking just the Moore entries in the next couple of weeks hopefully, but here goes with AVTAK.

Reading critics' reviews and the message boards at IMDB, always good for a laugh, I was caught off guard by how much hate this movie has gotten since its release. It's in that middle ground of Bond movies, not great/classic like Goldfinger but not horrible like Moonraker or Die Another Day, it's average but still entertaining. The complaints are all over the place on this one, some I couldn't help but notice while watching the movie. Here's just a few; Roger Moore at 57 is too old for the part, partially agree, Grace Jones is one of the worst Bond girls/henchmen in the series (agreed), Tanya Roberts is annoying (yeah, but did you look at her?), and the general feel of the movie is too jokey.

The Moore Bond movies wasted no time setting a different tone than the Connery ones. Sometimes they did go for the joke instead of just making a good movie. In 'A View' there's a couple examples. In the bland already seen this pre-credit sequence, Bond escapes Russian ski troops, improvising a piece of shrapnel as a snowboard. Cue a 'California Girls' cover which is too much and distracts from the impressive stuntwork. They couldn't just leave well enough alone.

In his 7th outing, Moore is probably too old for the part, but he knows the character pretty well by now so it's not distracting. Maybe he didn't do his own stunts, which does provide some very obvious back projection shots, but all the Bond actors at some point used stunt men. That's part of the fun. Does anyone really think Moore, even in his early 40s would have completed the firetruck chase through San Francisco hanging off the ladder? I lean toward 'no' on that. What is a problem with the character and not specifically Moore is that the wit and one-liners have almost completely been done away with. As much as I enjoyed the movie, it's those omissions that generally feel like this is any number of 80s action movies and not a James Bond adventure.

The diabolical plan here is a timely one as Christopher Walken's Max Zorin tries to destroy Sillicon Valley with a man-made earthquake. With Silicon Valley out of the way, Zorin Industry can monopolize the world's microchip production, making billions of dollars. Walken is the best thing about the movie. He's the perfect actor for the part of a Bond villain, a quirky actor already, his Zorin is the result of Nazi steroid testing on pregnant women. The only side effect? The babies grow up into psychotics. It's a great part for Walken, and hops right into my top 5 all-time Bond villains.

Unfortunately, the supporting cast leaves much to be desired. Grace Jones is downright scary as May Day, Zorin's trainer/bodyguard/hired killer/girlfriend. The character reminded me of Famke Janssen in Goldeneye, but Janssen had some femininity to her, a lot of it come to think of it. Jones looks like a muscular dude and really doesn't bring much to the character. Tanya Roberts, while quite the looker, was not the best actress around. It looks like Denise Richards studied this part before her role in The World Is Not Enough.

Some other positives include one of the better themes after a couple of forgettable songs, this time around with Duran Duran handling the duty. The song as is is a good one, but it's even better as an instrumental with John Barry contributing one of his best scores. Good action here too, including a Parisian car chase that ends with an unnecessary joke with the car, a good shootout in an abandoned mine, and the finale on the Golden Gate Bridge.

So like I said, not a classic and not a dud. A View to A Kill is somewhere in between, an average to above average Bond movie. Of course, if you ask me, an average Bond movie is better than most action/adventure movies. Next up? I'm looking at you Timothy Dalton.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Battle of Britain

Heading into May, I had this plan to watch and review a bunch of WWII movies in honor of Memorial Day. Well, Memorial Day is tomorrow so that's not going to happen, but I can still get a couple reviews in at least.

Battle of Britain (1969), directed by Guy Hamilton of James Bond fame, is everything that was good and bad about the epic war movies to come out of the 60s, and really epic movies in general. Growing up in the good old USA, the early parts of WWII were never taught as much as the post-Pearl Harbor years once America got involved in the war so this movie serves as a good introduction to the earlier years of the war. Immediately following the Dunkirk disaster, it appears that Hitler and the Third Reich are one good push away from winning the war. All that's needed for that final push is the invasion of England.

But before a cross-channel invasion can take place, Herman Goring and his illustrious Luftwaffe must knock out the Royal Air Force so an invasion force can go across the channel relatively unmolested. For the RAF though, they're heading into a battle with the odds heavily stacked against them with just 600 pilots to Germany's 2,500. As Laurence Olivier's Air Chief Marshal Dowding so eloquently but effectively states, "Our boys are going to have shoot down their boys at a rate of 4 to 1." So begins the battle of Britain, here's the film's opening, a good sum-up of what's happened and what's to come.

With a movie that focuses exclusively on a key moment in Britain's history, the benefits are obvious. Director Hamilton collects a who's who of British actors to fill out his cast. Olivier and Trevor Howard star as Dowding and Air Vice Marshal Park, the higher-ups in the RAF who oversee the desperate fight in the air. As the pilots, Micheal Caine, Robert Shaw and Christopher Plummer lead the fight with Ian McShane and Edward Fox as two pilots in Shaw's squadron. And then making short appearances are Curd Jurgens, Harry Andrews, Patrick Wymark, Michael Redgrave, Kenneth More, and Ralph Richardson. If that cast doesn't impress you at least a little bit, this might not be your movie.

As I've covered before though, the flaw with such a huge cast is the characterization which suffers. These characters are more outlines of historical figures than flesh and blood people. Plummer stands out mostly because he's given a love interest, the beautiful Susannah York, so we find out something about his squadron leader. You're not hoping Caine's Squadron Leader Canfield makes it, you're hoping Michael Caine makes it. The same with Shaw and Plummer. But that's a minor flaw for me, not something that should stop you from seeing the movie.

And surprise, surprise, what's the actual reason for seeing a movie built around WWII in the air? If you answered 'dogfights' and lots of aerial footage, pat yourself on the back. It's a pre-CGI movie that relies on actual footage being shot of these pilots in action, the British Spitfires tangling with the German Stukas, here's one great scene with Goring asking his officers what they need to win. The film will sink or swim for most viewers on the dogfights, which do eat up most of the movie's 132-minute running time. The best is saved for last appropriately enough as the British throw all their reserves into the battle in one last, desperate ploy to stop the Luftwaffe. It's a 4-minute scene with no dialogue, no sound at all other than Ron Goodwin's score, sampled here, a very British score indeed.

Hamilton's movie then is not so much about the characters as the battle itself. Obviously, without the pilots, WAFs and coast watchers, the battle for Britain could not have happened. But Hamilton goes for the spirit of these people. Maybe we don't know much about them, their personal backgrounds, but they're fighting for what they believe in to stop a power-hungry Adolf Hitler as he swept across Europe. If these pilots hadn't held off the Luftwaffe and ultimately won the battle, who knows how different the world would be right now? It's a frightening thought. And that's why Battle for Britain works, even with its flaws.

Still wavering? Here's a trailer, a long one at that, and a longer preview of the movie as a whole. A WWII movie not as well known as many war movies of the time, but one definitely worth checking out if you've missed it up to now.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Any Gun Can Play

Most moviegoers will agree, Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is the most well-known, and depending on how you ask, best spaghetti western around. With its huge success came a flurry of westerns with similar storylines, including one, 1967's Any Gun Can Play, that is almost an exact duplicate except played more for laughs. Lack of originality aside, director Enzo Castellari's action-heavy western is a good one.

A heavily guarded train carrying $300,000 is attacked by a group of bandits led by the infamous Monetero (Gilbert Roland). But in the aftermath of the robbery, one of Monetero's men doublecrosses him and makes off with all the money. He's tracked down, but before he is shot and killed, the bandit gives a clue to Monetero, a medallion with the location of the gold hidden somewhere in its meaning. Joining the hunt for the gold coins is Clayton (Edd Byrnes), a representative from the bank hoping to get his money back, and a mysterious bounty hunter, known simply as the Stranger (George Hilton). What follows is a series of uneasy alliances with more double-crosses than I could keep track of.

Director Castellari adds some nice touches to his take on GBU without any epic touches that Leone's classic had. For one, the opening is great, check it out here. Three gunslingers dressed as the Man With No Name, Django, and Col. Mortimer ride into a town, passing an undertaker moving three coffins with a lone man, the Stranger, walking behind. They stop to ask who died, the man answering by reading off 3 names, their names. He guns them down in a flash and collects the bounty. Call it a myth/legend, but Leone supposedly wanted to film the opening to Once Upon a Time in the West with Bronson gunning down Eastwood, Wallach, and Van Cleef, similar to the opening here. It's a nice touch by Castellari and sets the tone immediately for the rest of the movie.

Throughout his career, Castellari was the master of action, especially over-the-top action like in the original Inglorious Bastards or Franco Nero movies Street Law and Keoma. This movie never goes too long without a fistfight or a gun battle which keeps the pace going at a breakneck speed. This was also one of the first spaghettis to have acrobatic fights, like Sabata, with stunt men jumping from heights, hitting a trampoline and flipping across a street. Is it ridiculous and completely unnecessary to the movie? Of course, but it's fun to watch.

Three scenes jump out, one the finale in a rundown mission where our three anti-heroes have traced the gold to with the former members of Monetero's gang also showing up, and two and three, extended fistfights between Clayton, the Stranger, and a group of nameless henchmen there to get beaten up. Both fights almost outstay their welcome, but with the right mix of acrobatics, punches, and henchmen flying through the air, they hit the right note.

While the cast may not have the name recognition of GBU, the three leads are perfect for the jokey, over-the-top feel of the movie. With Byrnes as Clayton, you just know the character isn't exactly what he's letting on to be because, well, it's Edd Byrnes and every character he ever played seemed to have some ulterior motives. George Hilton adds a bit of a humorous edge to the Stranger, a mix of any number of Eastwood and Nero characters. When it comes down to it though, the Stranger can shoot with the best of them. And late in his career when he made a handful of spaghettis, 62-year old Gilbert Roland has the Tuco-role except with a little more extravagance. The three find a good mix and stick with it.

There's a fair share of recognizable faces in the supporting cast, including Ignazio Spalla as Pajondo, Monetero's double-crossing gangmember who was in all three Sabata movies, and Gerard Herter as Blackman, the insurance investigator trying to figure everything out as everyone tries to get their hands on $300,000 in gold. Not as polished as some of the better spaghettis, but definitely worth a watch for fans of the genre. If you're just getting into spaghetti westerns, I'd recommend starting with the Leone Dollars trilogy first.

The VCI Entertainment DVD has some issues, but nothing that should stop you from purchasing it if interested. The movie is shown in widescreen, but it seems at times to be a pan-n-scan version pushed down for the widescreen bars. It's also a grainy feature, but compared to a lot of the low-budget, cheapie DVDs released of spaghetti westerns, it's a godsend. The picture's good but not great, and the sound comes through clear at all times. Special features include a trailer, and a trailer for A Bullet for Sandoval, which I reviewed in April.

Any Gun Can Play (1967): ***/****

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

J.W. Coop

Usually when a movie star is the key force behind a movie being made, it's a good thing. They feel so strongly about the subject that the feeling is transferred to the movie. One example, John Wayne's The Alamo in which Wayne starred, directed, produced and helped fund. People say its too long, but I love it. Made early in the 1970s, J.W. Coop comes from a similar background.

Underrated Cliff Robertson wrote, produced, directed, and starred and had his company back the movie about an aging rodeo star. While Robertson is good in the title role, the movie never quite lives up to expectations. It's like so many other 1970s road movies that you've seen before and most likely will see again.

Robertson plays J.W. Coop, a rodeo star fresh out of prison after a 10-year stint for passing a bad check, a little severe if you ask me. Coop returns home to see his mother (Geraldine Page, actually a year younger than Robertson), only to find she's lost her mind. With nothing holding him down at home, JW hits the road with hopes of making up for lost time on the rodeo circuit. It's when he finds out how another cowboy is making a living, flying to countless different rodeos, that Coop decides he wants to be the champ.

Nothing too far-fetched here, but the movie bounces around so much with little explanation. First, Coop just wants to return to the rodeo. But then he meets an attractive hippie (model Cristina Ferrare) and changes his mind for no reason that's ever really explained. That's my problem with much of the movie. It tries too hard to be creative or innovative, whether it be in the storytelling or just how things are shot. Quick cutting isn't necessary in most cases, it just calls attention to itself.

As the title character, Robertson gives a quiet performance where he takes in all the action around him. Not much dialogue for Coop, but the actor/director is content to show where JW's at through long shots that remain on the aging rodeo star. He's a tired man who isn't always quite sure how much things have changed in the years he was in prison. Ferrare is the only real co-star here as Bean, the young hippie who starts a relationship with JW. Page appears in just one scene and is frighteningly effective, but that's the first 15 minutes of the movie. R.G. Armstrong makes an appearance as a fellow cowboy, but it's nothing memorable other than to say 'Hey, that's R.G. Armstrong!'

I'm just not quite sure about this movie. The middle section, about 30 minutes to 90 minutes is good, but the bookends just don't work. The opening takes much too long to build up any speed, and the ending has so much going on in the last 20 minutes that everything feels rushed. The ending works even if it's apparent about halfway through the movie how it's going to end. Still, I'm not sure how we're supposed to interpret the ending. It goes two ways, either J.W. lives or he dies, and I think it's Option No. 2, but that could just be me.

Released the same year as J.W. Coop, Sam Peckinpah's Junior Bonner is a similar movie, an aging rodeo star, Steve McQueen instead of Robertson, returns home to find that so much he knew growing up has changed. Comparing the two movies though, Junior Bonner knows what it's trying to say and doesn't waver from beginning until end. J.W. Coop has a similar message, but has it's fair share of trouble getting that message across. Worthwhile for Robertson in a strong part and some cool rodeo footage, but otherwise an average movie. Here's a cool montage done of stills from the movie, SPOILERS though, so be forewarned.

J.W. Coop (1972): **/****

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Texican

In the 1960s when your star wasn't as bright as you'd like in Hollywood, where did you go? To Europe to make spaghetti westerns where aging stars and up-and-coming newbies starred in low-budget westerns that audiences ate up. A star in countless B-westerns, WWII hero Audie Murphy only made one spaghetti western, 1966's The Texican, one of those in between movies. Not quite a full-on spaghetti, but darker/dirtier than your typical American western.

Living for over a year south of the border in Mexico after hanging up his gun, gunslinger Jess Carlin (Murphy) finds out his brother, a newspaper editor, has been shot and killed. Jess sees through the explanation because brother Roy never carried a gun, but he was found with another dead man. Taking up the gun again and risking going up bounty hunters looking to cash in on the price on his head, Jess heads north and across the border to the town of Rimrock where he meets the man, Luke Starr (Broderick Crawford), who forced him to run into Mexico.

Murphy was never considered a great actor, but like so many action/adventure stars from the 50s and 60s, he was a physical presence even if he wasn't a big man. As Jess Carlin, Murphy handles all of his own stunts including a variety of fistfights, gunfights and chases on horseback. One fistfight especially stands out with one of Starr's gunmen. It doesn't look forced or fake, but instead feels very realistic, almost like the punches are always landing.

Leading the cast, Murphy and Crawford are good as counterparts. Murphy's character could have been lifted right out of some of the American westerns he starred in. Jess is on the straight and narrow and has some of a hard edge, but nothing like Clint Eastwood in the Dollars trilogy or any number of Franco Nero westerns. Big, brooding, hulking Crawford is an imposing villain, and his deep, raspy voice adds a lot to the character. Spaghetti westerns almost always throw in a female character that serves no real purpose but is easy on the eyes. The Texican amps that up a bit with 4 different ladies, but the two important parts go to the beautiful Diana Lorys as Kit O'Neal, Luke's girlfriend who takes a liking to Jess, and Luz Marquez as Sandy Adams, Roy's ex-fiance who helps Jess out in his hunt.

As for the typical spaghetti touches, The Texican doesn't disappoint. The music is one of the better Ennio Morricone clones from the genre, here's the trailer with a sample of the main theme. The locations around Barcelona, Cataluna, Spain don't look too familiar, but it's clearly Spain and they look as good as some of the more mainstream westerns from the area. And of course, you've got to mention the supporting cast. Easily recognizable Aldo Sambrell has one of his bigger supporting parts as Gil Rio, Luke's right-hand man who tangles with Jess whenever they meet. Joining Sambrell as the evil henchmen are Antonio Molino Rojo and Juan Antonio Peral.

So really, nothing too special here, just an enjoyable spaghetti western with a good cast, good music and enough shooting to keep you involved. Definitely worth a watch for spaghetti western fans, and especially for fans of Audie Murphy even if it's just to see him in an atypical part.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Netflix review #20: Halls of Montezuma

WWII movies have been done left and right in the 64 years since the war ended, some good and some bad. But the heyday was in the 50s and 60s when memories and wounds from the war were still fresh. What these movies provided were a chance to put together a good story with a wide variety of characters. Movies like The Dirty Dozen and Kelly's Heroes stand out as just two examples, war movies with male-dominated casts full of great character actors. Not as well known but made over 15 years earlier, 1950's Halls of Montezuma fits that bill.

Following the campaigns in the Pacific at Guadalcanal and Tarawa, Lt. Carl Anderson (Richard Widmark) prepares his men for another assault on a Japanese-held island. Anderson's been going through a bit of a breakdown recently as just 7 men from his original platoon have survived. He's torn up inside at the thought of all the men he's lost and gets horrific headaches under stress. It's after the Marines hit the beach and have moved inland that the real trouble starts. The Japanese garrison unleashes hundreds of rockets at the advancing Marines. The problem, no one can spot the rocket emplacements.

Assigned to lead a patrol from his commander, Lt. Colonel Gilfillan (Richard Boone), Anderson must find the rockets and call their location in before a huge push the next day. Among the patrol are the few men Anderson genuinely cares about and wants to see make it through, the original members of the platoon. Leading that group is Pigeon Lane (Jack Palance), a former boxer suckered into the Marines, Coffman (Robert Wagner), the youngster trying to figure out who saved him at Tarawa, Doc Jones (Karl Malden), Anderson's close friend, Cpl. Conroy (Richard Hylton), a former student of Anderson's, Pretty Boy Riley (Skip Homeier), a soldier trying to rise above his past, Slattery (Bert Freed), the best soldier in the bunch and the biggest troublemaker, and Sgt. Zelenko (Neville Brand), the tough sergeant. Then for good measure there's a Japanese translator, a war correspondent (Jack Webb), and a new recruit along.

I've written before about how much I like 'men on a mission' movies, and this certainly qualifies with the cast full of recognizable character actors. But instead of just dropping the viewer into the platoon, we get an interesting technique to get to know the platoon. With a handful of flashbacks, we see their interactions in the group, some while in the unit, others as far back as their civilian days. It helps then when the platoon starts getting picked off by the Japanese. These aren't random, faceless soldiers, we know something about them and their makeup.

For a movie made just 5 years since the end of WWII, director Lewis Milestone tells it pretty straight. These aren't superhero G.I. Joe soldiers. Widmark is close to cracking up, and some of his men aren't too far behind. The more I watch of him, the more I think Widmark is one of the more underrated, underappreciated actors to come out of the late 1940s. As well, the Japanese soldiers aren't presented as stereotypical, one-dimensional soldiers. The whole movie has a clear anti-war stance. The action, while good, is understated. Characters are shot off-screen or hit by shrapnel as they head for a foxhole. And made in 1950 years before blood squibs became commonplace in war movies and westerns, the violence is fairly graphic, including one hand-to-hand encounter with a Japanese sniper.

The DVD has the movie in standard presentation, it was released about 3 years before widescreen was used, a trailer, and a handful of trailers for other Fox war movie DVDs. It's not a great WWII movie, but it's certainly a good one. Widmark leads a strong cast, and in general, Halls of Montezuma was ahead of its time when dealing with some of the deeper issues that war movies would later explore.

Halls of Montezuma (1950): ***/****

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Every so often, a casting choice just makes you shake your head. Nothing about it seems to make sense....until you see the movie. Liam Neeson as a former spy savagely going about getting his daughter back from Albanian gangsters? I was skeptical, but came away very impressed with Mr. Neeson as an action star in last year's Taken.

Neeson plays Bryan Mills, a former spy and government operative, we never do find out in what capacity, who has retired from his spy gig and moved to L.A. to spend more time with his 17-year old daughter, Kim. Having seen all the horrors the world has to offer, Bryan is understandably protective of his daughter, but in the hopes of helping her grow up through experience, he agrees to sign off on a trip to Paris with her 19-year old friend, Samantha. Of course, on arrival in Paris, a friendly, handsome young Frenchman approaches them and asks if they want to come to a party. Cue the Albanian gangsters, and the two girls get kidnapped, not for ransom but to be sold off to the highest bidder.

Now using all the skills he acquired from years of working to prevent such things, Mills begins to meticulously hunt down and kill anyone who may be involved with the kidnapping. That's the whole movie right there, Liam Neeson killing people. Imagine Death Wish with Neeson instead of Charles Bronson. What helps this movie rise above your average revenge movie is the casting of Neeson, one of the finest actors around. He's never really done an action movie before, but he fits in here as smoothly as possible. Here's a perfect example, the best scene in the movie. If I learned anything from Taken, it's this; don't mess with Neeson's family or you'll be tortured, shot, stabbed, electrocuted or hit by a bus, or all of the above.

Bryan's daughter, Kim, is played by Maggie Grace who I've only previously seen in Lost. In a part that requires her to look innocent, act naive and scream a lot, Grace makes a very easily annoying character into a likable person. Famke Janssen is Lenore not "Lennie," Bryan's ex-wife who still has an ax to her grind. In the way of villains, there's not one main bad guy Bryan's gunning for, just lots of henchmen. When told about the Albanians, he's told there's hundreds, maybe thousands of them in Paris. So translated, that means thousands of potential victims. I'd have to go back and re-watch the movie, but Bryan's kill count is rather impressive and with some creative methods. Here's basically every punch, kick, stab and kill in the movie. MASSIVE SPOILERS though, be forewarned.

One wasted part of the cast was Bryan's friends who are former operatives themselves, led by Leland Orser as Sam. I thought the movie was building to a scene where Bryan and his three friends just let loose, but it never came around, too bad.

Which brings me to a complaint I have with current action movies. Does anyone actually like the quick-cutting fight sequences that change so quickly it's hard to actually see what's happening? Movies like the Bourne trilogy, which I still love, and Quantum of Solace, use this technique to the point I'm not quite sure who's dead and how. Taken uses this technique as Bryan dispatches gangster after gangster. Maybe I'm missing something, but if I want to show how skilled a character is, I show the move or moves as he goes up against a rival. Instead, we get a blur, a quick cut, and the man's down. It's one of my bigger pet peeves with current action movies so hopefully studio execs read this, haha right, and start changing things.

As for the movie though, there's not much to talk about. After introductions to the characters and their backgrounds, it's right to the kidnapping and rescue effort. No big subplots or anything to distract from Bryan's vendetta. Plain and simple, this movie is Liam Neeson wiping out whole gangs of bad guys. Taken is worth seeing just for Neeson's performance. And I couldn't help but think, hey, how about some prequels? Let's get some more background on this badass!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Netflix review #19: Never Say Never Again

It's the red-headed stepchild of the Bond series that no one's quite sure what to make of. But it's got Sean Connery back in the role that he made famous so it's got to be worth mentioning, right? That movie is 1983's Never Say Never Again, an unofficial entry into the James Bond series released the same year as Octopussy.

Making his 7th appearance as OO7, Connery is back after a 12-year absence since Diamonds Are Forever. Roger Moore had capably filled in his shoes for six movies already, but for whatever reason, Connery returned to the role. If you're thinking you've let some new, original Bond story slip by you, don't get excited. 'Never' follows the same storyline as Thunderball, one of my personal top 5 Bond movies. There's differences from the original, it's not a scene-for-scene remake, but I wouldn't recommend watching them back to back.

That was one of my issues with the remake. If Connery's coming back as James Bond, why would you remake one of his movies? And one that didn't need to be remade at that. Maybe the creators and producers were going for the comfort food factor, audiences liked the original and they'll like this one because we tell them to. If it was a stand alone movie with no original to compare it to, it would get higher marks, but unfortunately it isn't nearly as good as Thunderball.

The movie starts with a good opening sequence (with Bond theme inserted) as Bond tries to rescue a kidnapped princess from a heavily-guarded South American compound. The OO's have been deactivated, but now M (Edward Fox) is forced to bring them back into action. Two nuclear warheads have been stolen by SPECTRE, and NATO is given one week to pay up or have two key locations wiped off the face of the Earth. Clues lead Bond to a man named Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer) where he begins his globe-trotting adventures that take him to the Bahamas, the French Riviera, and North Africa.

Connery slides back into the part nicely although he does look a little too old for the part, much like Moore did in his later efforts. But even then, I'm nitpicking, it's always fun to see the best Bond around back in action. As good as the others are, Moore, Daniel Craig, Pierce Brosnan, Timothy Dalton and George Lazenby, Connery will always be the best. In the rivals department, Barbara Carrera plays Latima Flush, a SPECTRE killer who revels in her job. Maybe a little crazy, she loves nothing more than finishing off her kill.

Brandauer as Largo is more back to the villains of the Connery movies. No supervillains here, just some royally bad dudes working for SPECTRE looking to cause mayhem and chaos around the world. Max von Sydow even has a small part as Ernest Blofeld, but it's only a scene or two. Depending on whether you count 'Never' as an official Bond movie, Kim Basinger is right at the top as one of the hottest Bond girls. Made in 1983, this movie gets away with more in the way of nudity than the 60s movies did. We're not talking gratuitous nude shots every scene, but Basinger spends most of the movie in short/sheer/see-through outfits. No complaints of course, just pointing it out.

I could stop there with the cast, but there's some other parts worth mentioning. Q is played by Alec McCowen and puts a different spin on Bond's gadget master, and Fox breathes some life into M. For a trivia question, it's Bernie Casey and not Geofrey Wright that played the first black Felix Leiter. And in one odd choice of casting, Rowan Atkinson, later Mr. Bean, plays an embassy officer working with Bond.

Where Thunderball is remembered for some great action scenes, especially the underwater finale with spear guns, the remake falls short. One no-holds barred fistfight is a good one, seen here, as a recuperating Bond takes on a much bigger, stronger SPECTRE killer. A chase late in the movie as Bond runs from Latima and her henchmen has some cool stunts s well including a fiery end. But overall, something's missing. Parts are too tongue in cheek while others just fall flat. And it does hurt when the James Bond theme can't be used. It's easily one of the most recognizable things about the series.

The DVD is somewhat overpriced at almost $15, but it's a good package. Widescreen presentation looks clean all the way through, but the only special feature is a short trailer. An average and unofficial Bond movie worth seeing for Connery's return and Kim Basinger, I'd say rent Never Say Never Again before buying it.

Never Say Never Again (1983): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Netflix review #18: The Yakuza

Finishing a Robert Mitchum bio last week, I was in a Mitchum frame of mind when I filled up my Netflix queue. Having read about all these movies I'd only heard about, I thought I'd give some a shot. First up, 1974's The Yakuza directed by Sydney Pollack.

When his daughter is kidnapped by Japanese gangsters, American businessman George Tanner (Brian Keith) turns to old friend and army buddy Harry Kilmer (Mitchum) to help bring her back. Harry has to call in a favor of a man named Tanaka Ken (Ken Takakura) to first find Tanner's daughter and then bring her back to safety. Ken is a former Yakuza, a Japanese gangster, who after 10 years is forced into the life he so willingly left. The actual rescue goes smoothly, but that's when the real problems arise. A big man in the Yakuza, gangster Tono, still has issues with both Tanner and Kilmer.

For a movie listed as an intelligent thriller, it's awfully slow-paced and laid back. The plotline unravels slowly as we get to know other characters and sub-plots. For one, Harry's long-lost love Eiko (Keiko Kishi) lives in Tokyo with her young daughter. The background? As an occupation soldier following WWII, Harry saved Eiko and her daughter's life. They fell in love, only to have Ken, Eiko's brother, show up and say she can't love an American. He owes a great debt to Harry, but at the same time he's torn because of his beliefs. With all the unraveling plot, expect a fair share of twists and turns, one big reveal in particular.

What does work here is the strained relationship between Harry and Tanaka Ken. They have little in common and have fought in the past. But because of their crossed paths, each owes the other something. It's never easy to do, but it's the right thing to do. They have an obligation to live up to their shared pasts. Watching the movie, all I could think was that this would make a great western, just like Seven Samurai inspired The Magnificent Seven. Like those movies, the characters are looking for redemption, and they're honor-bound to get the job done.

With the slowish pace, the confrontations then are that much more startling. Pollack lulls you into a comfortable state with scenes of dialogue between all these different characters, and then WHAM! gunshots and samurai swords everywhere! Here's a good example, although here's a SPOILER warning because one main character is killed. But the best thing is the final showdown and Harry, armed with pistol and double-barreled shotgun, and Ken, with his samurai sword, seek revenge against a small army of Tono's henchmen.

Now as I'm writing this, I'm liking the movie more now than I did watching it. It's not a long movie at 111 minutes, but the storytelling pace can be so slow at times it feels much longer. The ideas were all there but something doesn't translate. With too many characters and backgrounds, some get left in the background. I would have liked to know more about Keith's Tanner, but instead he vanishes for large chunks of the movie. The same for Herb Edelman as Oliver, a man who adopted Japan as his home after WWII who goes way back with Harry and George. In general, it feels like Pollack wasn't quite sure where to go with the movie, especially after the final showdown.

As the grizzled, emotionally-scarred Harry, Mitchum is dead-on. He's laid back but ready for a fight at a moment's notice and more than capable of handling himself. In his early 50s, the actor had a world-weary look to him that fits the part so well. Takakura matches Mitchum well as Ken, a warrior himself forced to do something that doesn't come easy for him. Also standing out in the cast is Richard Jordan as Dusty, George's personal bodyguard sent along to help Harry out if he can. He's young but experienced and is starting to figure things out about the world.

I'm conflicted about this one because I'm somewhere in the middle on a rating. Some parts really worked, and others didn't. It's definitely a movie that would benefit from another viewing with all that's going on. I wanted to like this one, but it didn't grab me. So for now, I'll give it a positive rating with an asterisk next to it. Enough was worth watching to recommend this one.

The Yakuza (1974): **/****

Sunday, May 3, 2009


I can't help but think that Ian Fleming giggled when he thought of the title "Octopussy" for his final Bond novel. I'd like to think the creators got a chuckle out of the name too when the movie was made. All I know is that anytime it's mentioned around guys, old and young, it gets a laugh. We're lucky then that 1983's Octopussy is a really strong entry into the Bond story.

One of Bonds' fellow agents, 009, has been murdered in East Berlin but not before leaving a clue at the British Embassy; a perfectly made faberge egg but it's a duplicate. MI6 thinks duplicates are being made and auctioned off in order to fund a terrorist attack. Following the trail of one of the buyers, Bond discovers a smuggling ring that leads to bigger things. The woman at the head of the smugglers, Octopussy, may not be completely evil but it looks like she's being played by a partner and a rogue Russian general. It's only at the last minute that Bond figures out their plan, blow up a nuclear bomb on an American Air Force base in Germany and in the world-wide chaos that follows, the Russian army sweeps across Europe.

After the god-awful Moonraker, the Bond series was back on the track with 1981's For Your Eyes Only and then this 1983 entry. I try not to compare the Bond movies, especially right after I watch one, but I can't help it. Behind The Spy Who Loved Me, this is easily the 2nd best Roger Moore Bond movie. I'm appreciating Moore a little more with each movie. A lot of Bond fans don't approve of him or even dislike him, but I started to like his movies more when I realized 'hey, this guy isn't Sean Connery.' He puts a completely different spin on the character, and by Octo, his 6th of 7, he knows the character in and out.

One of the reasons this gets a high ranking for me is that it's somewhat based in reality. The villains intend to steal millions and take over the world, but their plan at least makes sense. No huge space lasers or anything of the sort. In her second Bond movie but as a different character, the gorgeous Maud Adams is older than your typical Bond girl as Octopussy, but that's what is interesting about the character. It stretched the imagination too much that a 40-some Moore could so easily seduce so many women half his age. Adams and Moore are a more likely pair. The character Octopussy is a bad guy of sorts, but she's in that middle ground. Not evil but not good either. She is a smuggler after all.

Other villains include Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan), a smuggler always looking for an easy buck, and General Orlov (Steven Berkoff), a power hungry Russian general who wants the Soviets to show off their power and not negotiate with NATO. Khan is the real villain here with his lead henchman, Gobinda (Kabir Bedi). More than a little wooden, Kristina Wayborn plays Magda, a woman seemingly working for all sides. And what would a Bond film be without some quirky casting of a villain or henchmen like Jaws or Oddjob? Here we get two knife-wielding acrobatic twins, played by David and Tony Meyers.

One of the keys to a good Bond movie is the pre-credit action sequence. It doesn't have to be great, but it surely can derail the movie. Octopussy's goes right into my top 5, check it out here. The action across the board is top-notch here, including a car chase through the crowded streets of Delhi and the crazy finale as Bond jumps on-board a small plane before it takes off. It's such a cool stunt with the plane clearly flying several thousand feet up that you won't even care that it's a stuntman. Props to that stunt man. Of course, I can't find any video for it so I'll say just go see it.

Like the other good Moore entries, this one doesn't try too hard to be an action movie or a tongue-in cheek spoof with a ton of forced humor. Entertaining from start to finish with Moore at the top of his game at the head of a great cast of Bond girls, villains, and henchmen. Definitely check Octopussy out, and yes, I am giggling like a little boy as I type that. Here's the trailer.

Friday, May 1, 2009


By the 1950s when westerns were no longer just drive-in entertainment or B-movies, money and big stars took to the screen for all sorts of different stories. The result was good and bad. Audiences got lots of epics shot in the actual west and not a soundstage with some impressive casts. On the other hand, westerns became almost white-washed. Towns were always clean, the hookers always had a heart of gold, and everyone from the mayor to the town bum were always dressed like they'd just come from the dry cleaner.

A prime example of the good and bad that came out of 50s westerns was 1959's Warlock, a story with many plotlines crossing and recrossing. Riding with Abe McQuown and his gang, Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark) has grown tired of Abe's tactics and decides to leave the bunch. After being terrorized by McQuown's gang, the cowardly town of Warlock hires a town-tamer who's good with a gun, Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda) and his partner, Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn), to clean out the gang. But Clay is hired above the law, he's not an official peace officer and his ways start to piss off the townspeople.

Sick of no one standing up for the town, Gannon takes the job as the official deputy sheriff of Warlock. Now there's a triangle of people gunning for power and none of them are going to give it up quietly. That's the story at the most basic, but there's a lot going on behind it. There's the love interests, Dorothy Malone as Lily Dollar, a woman from Clay's past who likes Johnny, and Dolores Michaels as Jessie Marlow, a young woman who sees the good in Clay when no one else can. Then throw in a complicated partner relationship between Clay and Morgan, and McQuown's gang is almost a throwaway storyline.

Because of the long list of storylines and relationships, the movie suffers some. At 122 minutes, it never feels long, but I'm sure some of it could have been condensed. As everything comes out in the wash in the last 30-45 minutes, it's almost an overload of revelations and confrontations. But because of the cast, it's easy to overlook the flaws. Widmark is a good lead as Gannon, the gunfighter torn about what he should do. Fonda as Clay is a less-evil version of his Frank from Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. Even as he's hired, Clay knows how this is going to end but the town doesn't believe him. It's hard to peg Quinn as Tom Morgan, Clay's sidekick and business partner who has always looked out for his friend. Quinn makes quite the impression here, but too much is revealed too late.

As for the bad 50s aspect of the movie, it's mostly in the staging. Town-based westerns can be hard to do because the movie is limited to mostly indoor sets. There's only a couple instances in Warlock so it's noticeable but not distracting. My main issue is with the costumes. Every character's shirt is clean and looks like someone just ironed it. There's shiny vests and boots as far as the eye can see. It all looks too Hollywood for my liking. The west was a dirty place which the spaghetti westerns showed clearly. The west was hot so men and women sweated, their clothes got dusty and dirty, you couldn't shave every other hour as it appears the men in Warlock do.

The positives of the 50s western to counter is simple. There's no classic good guys vs. bad guys here. The leads are not perfect people and because of it the feel of the movie, especially the last half hour is dark. It's easy to see how Warlock influenced later westerns as the genre shifted tones in the 1960s, even just a year later with The Magnificent Seven.

I've never seen the DVD in stores, part of the reason it took me this long to see the movie, but it's a good buy. The movie's presented in widescreen that looks great with special features of sorts to boot. Six other western trailers, a MovieTone news reel that shows Fonda at a party (I guess that counts as a connection), and a Warlock trailer. An in-between western, not quite as light as some 1950s westerns but not as dark or realistic as the 60s, Warlock should still be on your 'watch' list.

Warlock (1959): ***/****