The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Saturday, July 31, 2010


When someone tells you a movie is a classic, what's your reaction?  I'm usually at least curious, but there's that part of me that remains leery.  Just because it's considered a classic doesn't mean I'll like it.  Maybe I'll hate it.  As much as possible though, I try to keep an open mind, especially when this classic spawned one of my favorite westerns in a remake.  So with all that said, why did I dislike 1961's Yojimbo so much?

From Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, Yojimbo was a huge success that led to a sequel and a remake three years later with 1964's Fistful of Dollars, the first of three Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone pairings. 'Fistful' is the weakest of the so-called 'Dollars trilogy,' but it's still an entertaining movie and is a good jumping off point into the spaghetti western genre.  And almost scene for scene as I found out, Fistful doesn't divert from the source movie.  But almost from the start, I was bored and struggled getting into it.  I can only chalk that up to knowing exactly where the story was heading.  Let's think this over some.

Set in Japan in the late 1800s, a samurai named Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) walks into a desolate town to find a situation ripe for the picking that could make him a very rich man. The samurai visits a restaurant run by Gonji (Eijiro Tono) who fills him in on everything he should know. The town is run by two men, an older gangster named Seibei (Seizaburo Kawazu) who runs the local brothel and Ushitora (Kyu Sazanka) who sells sake from his brewery.  Both sides have offered jobs to anyone who will work for them, each side accumulating a gang of low-lifes and thugs.  Sanjuro steps right into the middle of the situation, doing his best to have each gang wipe the other one out, all the while being paid for his services.

As I've tried to watch more movies from outside the U.S., I've yet to struggle with a movie because of subtitles -- I typically groan when people say they don't want to watch a movie because they'll have to read -- but I struggled here.  I can attribute some of that to the setting, but it's more than that.  I have no background with any of the cast other than Mifune, and everyone else is dressed in a similar fashion.  So when names start getting thrown around, I had trouble keeping things straight about who hates who and why.  Thankfully I've seen Leone's 'Fistful' because otherwise I would have been completely lost.  I don't mean to sound like that ignorant American reviewer, but I had trouble differentiating the cast and in general, keeping up.

Of the handful of Kurosawa movies I've seen, I have never been able to call the director boring in his techniques, but for Yojimbo I'm awfully close.  He films in black and white -- which is fine -- but the one-street set starts to run together.  Everything looks the same and eventually looks boring.  I don't know if shooting in color could have helped, but that's just an idea.  Kurosawa is a patient filmmaker, letting characters and scenes develop at their own pace, but that pace here is incredibly slow.  'Fistful' at 99 minutes is shorter than Yojimbo's 110 minutes, but the difference is huge in terms of pacing and any sort of energy.  Shots go on and on without an end in sight.

The bright spot for me is not surprisingly Kurosawa favorite, Mifune as Sanjuro, the wayward samurai traveling the roads of Japan with his sword and little else.  While everyone else around him acts in this over the top, very theatrical style, Mifune is calm to the point where he even looks bored in certain parts.  He's clearly an inspiration for Eastwood's laid back, laconic character in the Dollars movies.  Like few other movie stars, Mifune has that ability to force everyone watching the movie to keep their eyes on him and only him.  A huge physical, intimidating presence on-screen, the star also handles his own stunts -- a few carefully choreographed sword fights that are amazing in their realism.  I didn't really care for the movie, but I'm always going to recommend Toshiro Mifune.

Because everything I read about Yojimbo raved about the movie, I felt like I missed something on first viewing.  That many people don't call a movie a classic for nothing.  The potential is certainly there, but I struggled to get through this one.  There's always positives, especially Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai as a gun-toting samurai, but there are more least for me.  A disappointing end result for me, but maybe one I'll revisit in the future.

Yojimbo <----trailer (1961): **/****    

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Great Sinner

Where do writers get inspiration to actually write? I'd say it would depend on each individual writer, but for many it is easiest to look to those people around them, those closest to them, for a jumping off point.  Or in the case of Gregory Peck in 1949's The Great Sinner, pick up a beautiful stranger in 1860s Europe, fall for her, find out she's a gambling addict, and then try to figure out gambling's appeal.  And then wrap it all up in a nice succinct 110-minute movie.  Easy enough, huh?

Addiction stories aren't limited to gambling of course, but there's a certain ease with them.  As opposed to some other addictions, there's no drugs, drinking, sex, violence so in terms of visual it can be easier to digest and not so uncomfortable to watch.  On the positive side, gambling allows you to show this obsession that is almost entirely mental as opposed to physical.  Other movies have dealt with the good and bad sides of gambling (check out THIS site) so it can be hard to say something new or unique about the issue.  That's where 'Great Sinner' falls.  It's nothing new, but it's a good enough movie.

Traveling west to Paris from Moscow, young successful writer Fedja (Peck) shares a compartment with a beautiful young woman, Pauline Ostrovsky (Ava Gardner). Her looks have such a pull on him that he leaves the train when she does in a resort town that houses an immense casino.  Fedja hits it off right away with Pauline and falls hard for her only to realize she's addicted to gambling in any and all of its forms.  Her addiction fascinates him -- how could such a simple game have this profound effect on people? -- and forces him to find out the reason, possibly turning his personal investigation into a future book.  But in doing so could he risk his own addiction while also losing Pauline?

A story condemning the dangers of gambling is probably as old as gambling itself.  Instead of criticizing the game though, 'Sinner' chooses to go after the people so deeply affected by it.  Besides Fedja and Pauline, there's Aristide Pitard (Frank Morgan), an old man given a way to leave the casino by Fedja only to return with the money given to him to buy a train ticket. There's Pauline's father, General Ostrovsky (Walter Huston), a gentleman thief if there ever was. There's Armand de Grasse (Melvyn Douglas), the casino owner pulling strings left and right to make himself richer and everyone else suffer. With this wide range of characters, we get a look at gambling's impact across the board instead of one or two characters.  Also look for Ethel Barrymore as Pauline's grandmother who looks down her nose at any sort of betting, and Agnes Morehead as a pawn shop owner who capitalizes on the need to gamble for others.

The supporting cast surely doesn't disappoint, but Peck and Gardner as the two leads certainly work together.  They have a definite chemistry together that carries through some of the slower scenes in the middle of the movie.  Often accused of being wooden in his roles, Peck goes through quite an arc as a character, starting as a high and mighty writer and ending as an addict of epic proportions to the game he looked down upon.  One of the most classically beautiful actresses ever to appear in a movie, Gardner is an underrated performer and while this isn't her best role, it certainly makes the most of a character that could have been one big stereotype.  Of course, her looks don't hurt either so she's got that going for her.

Through the ups and downs of the story, my favorite was the turning point midway through when Peck's Fedja, desperate to get Pauline out of a bad situation and needing some cash, goes to the roulette table in hopes of winning enough money to basically buy her freedom.  It's a longer sequence that shows his curiosity getting the best of him and some beginner's luck turning into a ridiculous winning streak.  You can watch it HERE with it continuing into the next part at Youtube.  Peck's voiceover is just right -- not under or overdone -- and shows how quickly gambling and a winning streak can come together and fall apart in the matter of seconds.

At a certain point though, the 'gambling is bad' idea gets to be a little preachy.  Fedja's madness into his gambling addiction gets to be a little tedious, not in what's happening, but because it takes so long getting there.  It's never dull, just not as well-handled as the build-up to it all.  If you're looking to give this one a try, start at Youtube with Part 1 of 12.

The Great Sinner <----TCM trailer (1949): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Missing

A child actor turned huge star director, Ron Howard has directed a variety of movies that make it hard to peg him down.  The movies are all over the place in terms of time and place setting, but maybe more than anything else Howard has focused on period pieces from Cinderella Man to Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon and several more.  But as wide-ranging as his films has been, he's only done one western, 2003's The Missing.

This is a movie that struggled in theaters -- making about $30 million in the U.S. -- while receiving some lukewarm reviews from critics.  It's a difficult one to put into any sort of category because it features so many different elements from old west mysticism to an estranged family working together after years apart.  The movie was shot on location in New Mexico and is the better for it.  If we were judging on the look of a movie alone, this would have been a huge critical and box office success.  You get the sense of a journey through the wilderness, but then you keep on traveling.  A story that at times doesn't move along too fast clocks in at 137 minutes.  Potential? Sure, but it's hard to find at times.

Living in 1885 New Mexico with her daughters Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood) and younger Dot (Jenna Boyd), single mother and "healer" Maggie (Cate Blanchett) have a tough life but a good life. One day Maggie's estranged father Sam (Tommy Lee Jones) arrives on their doorstep having abandoned Maggie and her mother and siblings as a child to live with an Apache tribe. She wants nothing to do with him at all, but when Lilly is abducted by a gang of renegade Apache scouts she has no one else to turn to.  With Dot along, Maggie and Sam ride south tracking the gang, hoping to catch up before they can cross the border into Mexico where all the women/girls kidnapped along the way will be sold to the highest bidder.

At its most traditional, 'Missing' deals with a kidnapping plot that has been used fairly often within the western genre.  There are good guys and there are bad guys, the lines pretty clearly dividing them with no middle ground.  The added element of an estranged father trying to fix a rift between himself and his daughter works surprisingly well if at times unnecessary.  We've got a band of murdering Apaches selling women, and Blanchett's Maggie still shoots daggers at Jones' Sam whenever she gets a chance.  Thankfully this isn't pushed down our throats with Sam admitting he's not looking for forgiveness, he just wanted to explain himself.  Helping bring back his granddaughter though is his chance at redemption, and he's going to take it.

Where that part could have been overdone and obnoxious, the two stars just don't let it happen.  Jones doesn't push it too far, and Blanchett is able to reel it in instead of being a stark, raving lunatic.  This is Tommy Lee Jones' movie with a quiet, understated performance.  After years away from his family, he just wants to explain himself and all his actions (or lack of) over the years.  He's a very capable man on the trail and isn't going to let anything slow him down along the way.  Other than my issue with so many foreign actors starring in westerns, Blanchett's part as Maggie is very strong.  Anytime a female character in a western can be a strong woman capable of handling herself, I'm all for it.  Other supporting parts include Val Kilmer as a cavalry officer, Aaron Eckhart as Brake, a ranchhand and Maggie's live-in boyfriend, and Jay Tavare as Katiyah, an Apache working with Sam.

For a movie that is basically one long chase, the story tends to drag in certain places.  Most of that can be chalked up to the story's reliance on Indian/Apache mysticism with a hint of witchcraft thrown in.  The leader of the renegade Apaches is called El Brujo (Eric Schweig) which Sam translates as 'an Indian witch.' The character is able to put curses on people, seems to have some link to evil and the devil, and has an all-knowing feel that he's aware of everything.  His look alone is scary, and he's a more than capable villain on his own.  The story would have been just right with him as a renegade Apache looking for blood and money without the mysticism and voodoo.  Cut those segments out, and you've got a more mainlined 100-120 minute movie.

Working with this story with so many different elements, Howard never gets graphic in his depictions of wild west violence, but he always is able to paint a picture of what's happening.  Sometimes not seeing the violence is more effective than seeing it.  We know what's going on, and actually witnessing it would be overkill.  That said, the last 30 minutes is full of action that makes up for some of the movie's slower portions.  Like most of the rest of the movie, the ending doesn't preach or make any sort of judgment, it just ends.  It is an uneven movie, but with enough positive elements to recommend it.

The Missing <----trailer (2003): ** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Sergeant Rutledge

Movie credits before a film starts wouldn't seem like something that would be upsetting, but this one bothered me.  And maybe upsetting isn't the right word, but here goes.  An actor stars in a movie with the key role, the most important of all the cast, and even has the movie named after that character.  Where do you think he should be billed?  If you guessed fourth, well, you're nuts.  So goes Woody Strode and his performance in 1960's Sergeant Rutledge

Since I saw him in Spartacus as Kirk Douglas' sparring partner in the gladiator ring, I've been a fan of Woody Strode.  An imposing physical presence, the former UCLA football star turned to movies and made a career out of playing roles that typically needed him to be large and imposing while forsaking his actual acting ability.  Strode shows off that ability in a career-best performance in this John Ford directed western and somehow gets fourth billing.  Maybe it was because he wasn't the biggest star or name actor, but I think it's ridiculous that he's hidden below in the credit sequence at the beginning of the movie.  Credits be damned, the performance is a keeper.

For seven years, Lt. Tom Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter) has served as an officer with the 9th Cavalry on the American frontier, including working often with First Sergeant Braxton Rutledge (Strode), the top soldier in the outfit.  Now, Cantrell finds himself defending Rutledge in a trial with a rape and two murder charges pinned against him.  But the Lt. knows this man too well to believe what's being said about him, but now he has to prove the man's innocence against a rabid prosecutor (Carleton Young) and the presiding army judge (Willis Bouchey).  With everything stacked against him, Cantrell does his best to present the truth through a series of witnesses and flashbacks that show what really happened.

This is quite a departure for Ford that saw movies later in his career try to deliver more of a message about the old west, racism here, myth and legend in 'Liberty Valance,' and Indian mistreatment in Cheyenne Autumn. On top of that, this isn't a typical Ford cavalry western.  He takes a crack at doing a courtroom drama with some mixed results, but overall it works.  He uses a handful of lighting techniques while shooting the trial, lots of light and pitch-black dark, as the story morphs into flashbacks which split time in some studio sets and Ford's stomping ground, Monument Valley. Of course, it is a Ford movie, and he gets a couple 'Ford-isms' in, like a group of tittering, tottering old ladies led by Billie Burke and then Judson Pratt's drinking, card shark of an officer filling in not so admirably for the recently passed Victor McLaglen.  Little things like that are annoying, but not a movie killer.

In terms of story, this is one of Ford's better ventures.  He blends the flashback of Rutledge's arrest and the patrol getting him back to the fort with the actual courtroom testimony.  The patrol flashback is Ford hitting a home run, scenes where you expect John Wayne to ride in off the horizon.  Working with Ford for a third time, Hunter is excellent as Lt. Cantrell, an officer who must balance his personal beliefs with what the army is telling him.  Leading the patrol, Cantrell wavers over whether to let Rutledge just ride away rather than face a trial.  Constance Towers is along as Mary Beecher, a young woman coming back to visit her father only to find she's traveled into an Apache uprising. Cantrell's patrol includes a fair share of uncredited actors playing the black cavalry troopers -- they're not listed ANYWHERE -- with Juano Hernandez's Sgt. Skidmore the only representative, a good part as a former slave turned cavalry trooper. 

Not quite as comfortable as the outdoor patrol scenes is the courtroom drama.  For most of the movie, these quick snippets serve as nothing more than a way to get at the patrol storyline.  But every so often, we get that Ford humor which drives me nuts, the group of sophisticated older women who gasp and sigh at every other thing said, or Pratt's Lt. character hamming it up as part of the review board.  Bouchey's Colonel Fosgate does his best to remain order in a nice supporting part, and Young goes to town as Capt. Shattuck, the possibly racist prosecutor.  The last act comes together a little too quickly for my liking -- the reveal of the real killer is almost a throwaway -- as Cantrell pieces it all together.  But that's almost gravy, you're sure from the start Strode's Sgt. Rutledge DID NOT kill his commanding officer and rape a white woman.

He's Woody Strode, of course he didn't do those things.  Usually relegated to background characters, Strode hits all the right notes here with a part that allows him to show off his skills -- and not just physically.  His first introduction is of a rough but capable trooper trying to save Towers' life from two marauding Apache warriors.  When questioned in the field, he refuses to cooperate, thinking the noose is waiting for him no matter what he says.  The highlight of the performance is Rutledge on the witness stand as the sergeant explains why he comes back.  It is a quick outburst but a very moving one.  Strode was never better than he was here, his performance making up for any other issues I may have with this western. He certainly delivered higher billing, even if it was only ahead of Burke's annoying performance.

Sergeant Rutledge <----TCM trailer (1960): ***/****

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Rocky II

As long as there have been movies, there have been sequels.  Of course, the familiar formula is usually that after the original, the sequel proceed to go down the drain rather quickly.  Sure, there's exceptions where the sequel might actually be better, like Godfather II and Empire Strikes Back, but a majority usually go the other way.  The first sequel to 1976's Rocky isn't on the same ground as the original, but all things considered, 1979's Rocky II is a worthwhile sequel and a strong follow-up in a series that would produce three more sequels.

What some people seem to forget is that in the original, Rocky doesn't win, he loses by the slimmest of margins.  But in the sense of being an underdog, he did what he wanted to accomplish, going the distance against the heavyweight champion of the world. It's such a good story that a sequel isn't necessary.  Rocky went the distance, got the girl, and proved everyone wrong.  Thankfully, the sequel doesn't mess anything up, instead continuing with an equally as strong story.

After going the distance against heavyweight champ Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), Philly boxer and tough guy Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) adapts to life as a semi-celebrity. With his payday from the fight, he ends up marrying girlfriend Adrian (Talia Shire), buys a new house for them to live in, goes on a huge shopping spree, and begins to start a family with Adrian expecting a baby soon. But at a certain point, Rocky hits a wall with nowhere to go.  He can't get a job with no real skills to offer, but he has to care for his wife and family.  All he can think of is getting back into the ring, especially when Apollo comes calling for a rematch to prove that the first fight between them was nothing more than a fluke.  With trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith) in his corner, Rocky prepares again for the fight of his life on an even bigger stage with bigger expectations.   

Made three years after the original, II picks up immediately where the first one leaves off following the championship bout.  In general, the story follows the same basic formula as would the later sequels.  Home life, relationship with Adrian, personal problems, training montage, and fight. Rinse and repeat if necessary.  But just like Rocky, the characters are so engaging that it's an enjoyable ride even if you know where it's going from the start.  The whole cast is back as is the ever important Rocky theme, and like I mentioned in the other review, the story of an underdog everyone is betting against is hard to turn down.  One thing I'll complain about, the necessary montage sequence -- watch it HERE -- is a little too over the top with the crowd running sequence, even for a Rocky movie.

Seeing the second movie in the series just confirms Stallone's ability as an actor in my head.  Building on the character, we see that a little success doesn't change him or who he is.  He spends little of his winnings on himself, buying things for those closest to him.  At heart, Rocky is still the same lovable galoot he was before he become a celebrity.  His corny jokes, his aw shucks way of communicating, how much he loves Adrian, it all adds up perfectly to create this character.  In Part II, he's not worried about not being able to hang with the champ, he's worried about the life he has built for himself and how it will impact Adrian and the baby.  Stallone didn't get a nomination this time around, but the character is as solid as ever.

What appealed to me about this Rocky entry was the emergence of the supporting cast.  Meredith and Weathers were both key figures to the first movie, but they weren't always there with most of the story understandably devoted to Rocky and Adrian.  As Mickey, Meredith steals each and every scene he is in as fast-talking, gravelly-voiced trainer who will push Balboa to his limit and then some.  He has too many quotable lines to even mention, but my favorite has always been "I think we oughta knock his block off" or the always reliable "You're gonna eat lightning and crap thunder!"  Playing Apollo again, Weathers gets more screentime to develop a character that is seriously pissed off the Italian Stallion stuck with him for 15 rounds.  Also returning is Burt Young as Rocky's cantankerous friend, Paulie. 

One thing I thought was improved on was the actual fight, another brutal, knock down affair between Rocky and Apollo.  Instead of just long shots from behind of these two whaling on each other, we get some close-ups like we're there in the ring with the two fighters.  Just like the first one, you definitely get the feel and sense of what getting hit in the head repeatedly must feel like.  The ending of the first one would be hard to improve on, but this sure comes close on pure emotion and excitement. That's the whole movie summed up.  Not as good as the original, but it's awfully close.

Rocky II <----trailer (1979): *** 1/2 /****

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Cowboys

At a certain point in his career, John Wayne started taking flak for playing himself in all of his movies instead of playing a different character each time around.  This criticism typically applies to Wayne's movies from the late 1960s and early 1970s, and in a lot of cases the criticisms were valid.  But lost in the shuffle sometimes is that the huge star turned in three of his all-time best performances during this span, including his Oscar-winning turn in True Grit, his last performance in The Shootist, and in 1972's The Cowboys.

It is a western that has taken its fair share of abuse over the years, especially for the message given late in the movie.  But where so many American westerns had become so blah in the 1960s, 'Cowboys' tries for something different instead of the same old worn down story.  By now Wayne had been a star in movies for over 30 years and many moviegoers had grown up watching him on-screen.  So playing the starring roles in this Mark Rydell-directed western, why not take that notion on a bigger level?  The Duke steps into a starring role that has him as a surrogate father for a dozen cowboys, make that 'half-cowboys,' for now that is.

Looking to drive his 1,200 cattle to market, rancher Wil Andersen (Wayne) is in trouble.  A recent gold strike has brought every man in the territory and left the rancher with no cowboys to drive the cattle.  Andersen turns to the only people available, 11 boys ranging from 9 to 15 from the local schoolhouse, who get a crash course in being a cowboy.  With only one other man, black cook Jebediah Nightlinger (Roscoe Lee Browne), along for help, Andersen sets off with his herd.  The cowboys learn driving a herd of cattle isn't as glamorous as it sounds with long hours in the saddle and little chance for rest.  But slowly but surely, the cattle moves along as Andersen's crew begin to figure the job out.  When it seems nothing can stop them though, Andersen realizes a gang led by a rustler (Bruce Dern) is tracking them with eyes set on stealing the herd.

SPOILERS STOP READING SPOILERS In a career that spanned five decades, John Wayne is legendary for any number of things, but one thing more than most makes for that sort of trivia movie buffs (myself included) love.  The question is how many movies did he die in on-screen?  The answer is 8 -- if you can name more than two, kudos to you -- and The Cowboys is one of them.  Making it more shocking is not the fact that he does die, but how he dies.  Wayne's Wil Anderson beats the bejesus out of Dern's character and walks away from him like he couldn't be bothered with this excuse for a man.  Dern proceeds to shoot him in the back/arm/legs/stomach four times.  This all leads to an ending many have an objection to.  END OF SPOILERS

Along the trail, Andersen teaches these young cowboys how to do their job, for their benefit and for his.  That's the part that sets this role apart from the average Wayne movie.  He teaches these boys how to act like men, how to grow up, and how to handle yourself in situations where it would be easier to turn tail and run than stand your ground.  As the special features on the DVD discuss, Wayne both on-screen and off took a fatherly role to these kids.  It's a great performance as he acts with several young actors with experience and others with none who had a rodeo background.  They range from Robert Carradine (in his film debut) and A. Martinez as the oldest cowboys at the ripe old age of 15 all the way down to the youngest like 11-year old Clay O'Brien. All of the cowboys have a natural, easy way about them when acting, and it's a shame many of them didn't continue in the acting department because there's some talent there.

To film the movie, Rydell teams with cinematographer Robert Surtees, filming all over California, New Mexico and Colorado, the end result being a gorgeous-looking western with a wide variety of locations that help give the impression of the cattle drive actually moving south.  Also worth mentioning is John Williams' score that you will be whistling along, humming in your head for days afterward. Listen HERE if curious. There's two main tracks, the cowboys theme and Dern's theme, sounding like a rattlesnake about to strike.

Two supporting parts help anchor the movie, those being Lee Browne as Nightlinger and Dern as Asa Watts, dubbed 'Long Hair' in the credits.  Both were classically trained actors, but they fit in as smoothly as possible here (also look for Slim Pickens in a small part).  Wayne famously told Dern before they shot his death scene "Oh, people are going to hate you" and he was right.  Who shoots John Wayne in the back?  His villain is perfect because in other movies Wayne dies in, it's a nameless soldier doing it, but here we get a pure evil bad guy.  It all produces an ending many objected to; the cowboys getting revenge on Watts and his rustlers -- watch it HERE -- and in a sense becoming men.  I think it's a ridiculous notion because the ending makes sense.  They're not killing Watts because they have a bloodlust, they're doing it because there's right and wrong. But still, some audiences objected, but I'll leave it up to you to decide. The movie's a good one, and that's all that matters to me.

The Cowboys <----trailer (1972): *** 1/2 /****

Sunday, July 25, 2010


I really have no idea at all about where to even start reviewing Inception, released last weekend in theaters and the most recent movie from director Christopher Nolan.  If you choose to stop reading my review now, just know that it is everything that is good about movies, one that keeps you interested from start to finish, has a polish to it and a style all it's own, and in general is better than 99.9 % of most movies that ever make the theaters.  So if you're going to stop reading my most likely ranting review, know that I'm giving it a 4-star rating and enjoy the movie.

Working on a script for ten-plus years, Nolan does what very few writer/directors can do; he creates a unique world that is unlike anything you've ever seen.  It is intelligent in a way few movies are and it requires, it demands that you pay attention.  People walked into the theaters 4 or 5 minutes late, and all I could think was "Well, they're screwed." Coming up with the best way to recommend this movie, I'll say this.  Watching it, you get that feeling that you're watching what a movie should be; an experience.  The visuals, the acting, the writing, Hans Zimmer's pulsing score, it all comes together in a way few movies do.  Here comes the hard part, trying to explain the plot.

Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the best of the best at what he does. He's a dream thief, able to steal your deepest, darkest secrets through your subconscious while you are asleep. With a specialized team and his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he is able to insert himself into someone's dreams and find out everything and anything about them.  But this time, he's messed up and he is being blackmailed by an employer, an extremely powerful business man named Saito (Ken Watanabe). Instead of stealing an idea, Saito wants to implant an idea in someone's head, a rival businessman, Fischer (Cillian Murphy), so that he'll dissolve his huge empire.  Cobb isn't interested until he finds out the stakes, then he goes about assembling a team to perform this 'inception,' a more dangerous technique and harder to accomplish where all the risks are raised.

To say that is the whole plot is underselling the movie.  I could do reviews and reviews that really delve into what the movie is about and probably still miss something.  In creating this world of dreams and subconscious, Nolan has made his own sets of rules as to what can and can't happen.  Because of that, as a viewer we have no background with any of this and are forced to pay that much more attention to keep up.  Honestly though, I paid attention -- no talking, no texting, no bathroom breaks -- and feel I have a pretty good grasp of what's going on.  If you're worried about being confused, just go in with an open mind and do your best to keep up.  At a certain point, just go along for the ride and enjoy yourself.

As was the case with Nolan's previous big-budget movies (the two Batman movies and The Prestige), he's able to put an impressive cast together.  If you had told me 10 years ago watching Titanic that I'd like DiCaprio as an actor, I'd have said you were crazy.  But starring as Cobb, he continues a string of movies where he's not just tolerable, he's a strong actor who can stand on his own.  Joining him on his team are Ariadne (Ellen Page), the architect of the dream worlds they go into, Eames (Tom Hardy), the forger, Yusuf (Dileep Rao), the chemist, and Gordon-Levitt as Arthur.  Hardy especially stands out, but all of the team more than hold their own.  Watanabe and Murphy are more chess pieces to be played with, but their presence alone helps the story.  French beauty Marion Cotillard is perfectly scary in a supporting role, and then add in Tom Berenger, Pete Postlethwaite and Michael Caine with small parts, and you've got a can't miss cast.

One reason I enjoyed the TV show 'Lost' so much was that it played with your perception of time and space.  Where better to continue that trend than in your dreams where anything and everything from your own subconscious can make an impact?  That was an element that caught me by surprise here.  You can be in someone else's dream, but your own thoughts, fears, worries can fight their way into the dream-world.  DiCaprio's Cobb is a prime example of this, a tortured individual with a checkered past.  The best part of the movie though is the execution of the inception, a three-leveled dream as Cobb's team goes deeper into Fischer's "mind." Time is shorter in certain levels than others, what may only be seconds in one level is years in another.  There of course has to be limbo then, where there is no time and dreams float about with the minds they belong to.  Trippy ideas all of them, but certainly incredibly creative.

The Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips made an excellent point about Inception, stating that this is at its heart, a heist movie, that one last job.  That's the movie's strength.  All these crazy visual tricks play into it as cities fold in on each other, gravity goes out the window, and time doesn't mean as much.  It's basically the craziest, most involved heist ever with Cobb looking to pull off that one last job that will reunite him with his family.  At its heart, Inception has that small angle, a family man trying to right a wrong, and on a bigger angle, a huge, incredibly unique storyline that pulled me in from the get-go.  It's a movie that is nearly impossible to review without giving away far too much.  If you've made it this long, I'll say it again.  Just go see Inception and decide for yourself.

Inception <----trailer (2010): ****/****

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Five Million Years to Earth

Not as well known now as they were even 10 years ago, Hammer Film Productions ruled the horror movie scene for almost 30 years during the 1950s through the 1970s.  Horror movies were everywhere, but these British-made movies were extremely popular with their low-budget look and feel, the gothic stories, and of course, a fair share of gore.  TCM recently showed a Hammer film that went a different route, and with mixed results, 1967's Five Million Years to Earth.

As someone who doesn't usually seek out horror movies, I can say the scariest part of a movie is usually the build-up (for me at least).  Present a situation, drop a couple of hints that all hell is about to break loose, and let the imagination run wild.  This Hammer horror flick is a great example of that, leaving the viewer guessing as to what's coming.  The first hour reminded me a lot of Jaws in that sense as you wait for the shark to actually be shown on-screen.  But where seeing Jaws jump out of the water at Chief Brody is one of the greatest movie shockers of all-time, 'Five Million' falls short in the 'A-HA!' moment.

A subway station is being extended in London when workers stumble across a handful of oddly-shaped skeletons.  Two archaeologists/specialists are called in Dr. Roney (James Donald) and Professor Quatermass (Andrew Keir) to supervise the excavation of what else they can find.  A handful of skeletons are found that look like ape ancestors of a human, but slightly different from what you'd expect.  More than that though, as the excavation continues a large object that looks like a space ship is uncovered that is impermeable to anything thrown at it.  Roney and Quatermass are baffled, but the professor starts to do research and finds out that this spot where the object was found has long been a source of fear and evil-doings.  Meanwhile, an army colonel (Julian Glover) believes it is an unexploded WWII rocket that poses no threat, but he couldn't be more wrong.

The build-up is where this horror flick is at its best, the clues slowly filtering out as to what these skeletons and space ship really are.  As they do their research, Roney and Quatermass (along with Barbara Shelley's assistant character) figure out that the location dates back hundreds of years and contains many documented instances of strange occurrences with no valid explanation.  I know not revealing what the ship actually contains probably isn't feasible -- I would have been pissed -- but the story is always more interesting when you're guessing what could happen, not what does happen.  Stop reading if you don't want to know the reveal. SPOILERS for the next paragraph SPOILERS

When the ship actually reveals its cargo, it's about as low budget as possible.  They're martians from thousands of years ago (or I guess maybe five million) who traveled to Earth in hopes of finding a new location to live.  How do they get rid of the occupants already living here?  Releasing huge amounts of energy that will cause humans to turn on each other, killing anyone who is different.  That premise is perfect, and for a movie released in the midst of the Cold War and all its paranoia, it is even better.  One great scene late has a crowd of men cornering a single older man, ready to pounce on him and kill him.  They're like zombies, staring him down and moving slowly.  But it's just one scene, and the ending makes that one good scene a waste.

Here's a case of a small budget killing the momentum.  The martians look to be 3-feet tall praying mantises.  Terrifying, huh?  Worse than that, the scientists/doctors use a contraption that allows you to see into a person's subconscious, their dreams.  By touching the space ship, we can also see the subconscious of dead martians!  The "footage" is black and white with little models of hundreds of martians killing each other.  I think, it looked like they were just walking around to me.  Then when the energy does escape, it comes in the shape of a cloud that looks like a martian, or to me, Marvin Martian. Low budget limitations are one thing, but this was just awful, and the solution is even worse.

Not an awful movie because of the strength of the first hour, but this Hammer horror film goes downhill quickly.  The main set of the excavated subway station is pretty cool, very claustrophobic as it encases something evil inside, and the cast is solid if unspectacular.  The script has them scrambling around looking for answers most of the time while other characters make decisions so stupid nobody in their right mind would go along.  Kinda like the end of the movie.

Five Million Years to Earth <----trailer (1967): ** 1/2 /****

Friday, July 23, 2010

Who Was That Lady?

In the age of the 24 hours new cycle, TMZ and tabloids everywhere, a lot is made when movie star couples work together in a movie.  Think of the debacle of Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck in Gigli as a worst possible scenario.  As long as there's been movies there have been movie couples, it's just that they are in the news more than ever before.  Supply and demand I guess.  One such couple, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, worked together twice in two very different movies.

The first I can find is 1958's The Vikings, a historical epic where a Viking tribe attacks England with Kirk Douglas and Ernest Borgnine starring along with Curtis and Leigh.  Fast forward two years and we've got 1960's Who Was That Lady?, a screwball comedy if there ever was one.  With a plotline that most sitcoms would be jealous of, this is a comedy that in all honesty is a truly bad movie.  But thanks to the three stars, the quick pace and the surprisingly funny moments the story produces, it's a truly bad movie that's at least worth checking out.

One day visiting her husband, Dave (Curtis), at work, Ann (Leigh) walks in on a foreign exchange student kissing her husband in his laboratory.  She storms out, demanding he move out of the apartment and getting ready to sign divorce papers.  Claiming the student kissed him -- not the other way around -- Dave tries to come up with a plan, any plan, that will convince his wife he's telling the truth.  He turns to his best friend Mike (Dean Martin), a TV mystery writer, to come up with something. Their solution? Tell Ann that Dave is an FBI agent, and that it was all part of a mission.  Somehow, some way, she buys it, and it looks like Dave is sitting pretty.  That is, until an FBI agent (James Whitmore) and his supervisor (John McIntire) get involved with reports of a rogue agent floating around.   

More than the average comedy, the beauty of the screwball comedy is that nothing, not one thing, has to be based in reality at all.  That is the only reason they're even somewhat enjoyable to watch.  A wife actually buying that explanation that her husband is a FBI agent? Sure, it's a movie.  Actual FBI agents going along with the ploy once they figure out what's going on?  You bet.  It's the type of story (a thin one at that) that keeps getting worse and worse as a simple lie turns into something much, much worse.  Think of a 30-minute episode of I Love Lucy with a crazy story, add about 75 minutes, a bigger budget, a ridiculous story, and a good cast and you've got this movie.

Now as stupid as the proceedings really are, I laughed. I enjoyed the movie. Go figure.  The cast is what sells it for me mostly because of the quick, witty dialogue, the fast pacing, and the chemistry among the group.  Curtis and Martin together are a comedic dream, at times over the top and other times improvising golden lines left and right.  At a certain point, you feel bad for Leigh's character because really, could anyone be that gullible?  But she sells it so well as she gets wrapped up in it all that Ann is as funny as anyone.  Whitmore and McIntire steal every scene they are in as an agent and his supervisor trying to figure out what's going on while also preventing the breakup of a young married couple.  Also look for Simon Oakland and Larry Storch as two Russian agents, bumbling agents of course.

Because the cast plays so well off each other, the lines that would otherwise fall flat end up producing some honestly funny laughs.  From Curtis to McIntire and everyone in between, the cast commits to these ridiculous, darn right stupid parts.  And as dumb as it is? I laughed more than I would have expected.  On the stupidity charts, it just gets dumber and dumber as the story escalates.  My favorite bit was the finale as Curtis and Martin, believing they're in a Russian sub, try to sink the sub not realizing they're in the basement of the Empire State Building.  Singing God Bless America as they await their "deaths" while delivering a crippling blow to Russia, it's all too much and in a good way. There's an extended bit in a Chinese restaurant that keeps going and going, building to one climax after another.  That's the movie.  It keeps building and building until the end. 

That's the whole movie in a nutshell.  Absolutely nuts, over the top, not an ounce of reality, and a movie that's the better for it.  Curtis and Leigh, Martin and Curtis, Whitmore and anyone, they work together like a finely tuned machine to make a really stupid storyline entertaining to watch and interesting from start to finish. Couldn't find a trailer, but TCM does have a clip available through their website.

Who Was That Lady?<-----TCM clip (1960): ***/****

Thursday, July 22, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird

I recently reviewed the movie version of Moby Dick, based off Herman Melville's classic novel, a book that is often on all sorts of high school and college reading lists.  I had to peruse through a fair share of those reading lists in my glorious academic days, and for long stretches in high school/college I avoided reading a lot because my classes forced me to read books I had no interest in reading...classic or not.  So for better or worse, I typically just ignored the classics.  There's also the problem that if I'm told I will like something, I usually don't.  Can't decide if that's a spite thing or not.

One big I've never read and always meant to get around to is a classic in both book and movie form, 1962's To Kill a Mockingbird.  Opposed to some books I never read, this was one I never intentionally ignored. As part of Gregory Peck month on TCM, I caught the movie version of Harper Lee's famous, highly regarded novel, and I can say I wish I would have caught it sooner.  From reviews I read, it is one of the few movies ever that is good as the book it is based on.  Considering how critically popular the novel was, that's saying something.  For me, I loved the movie and am looking forward to reading the book.

In 1932 in a small Alabama town, 6-year old Scout Finch (Mary Badham) lives with her 10-year old brother Jem (Phillip Alford) and her father, Atticus (Peck), a defense lawyer held in high regard all through the town and the surrounding area.  With her brother and a little boy, Dill (John Megna) who lives next door during the summer, Scout lives the life every kid dreams of; no responsibilities and plenty of time to explore and experience the town.  One summer though, Atticus is given a defendant, black farmer Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) accused of beating and raping a white girl.  It is a case that will almost assuredly tear the town apart, but Atticus treads onward despite everything that goes on around him.  Still naive to the ways of the world, little Scout and Jem look on as they're forced to grow up when they shouldn't have to as they see how things really work.

A coming of age description doesn't seem like enough of a fair shake to this movie.  It is a coming of age story, but it's more than that.  It is an issue picture, a courtroom drama, and a story of human decency and respect.  The first hour is more light-hearted as Scout, Jem and Dill enjoy their summers and their days off.  These scenes have an easy-going way about them, but they serve a purpose as does the first 60 minutes as a whole.  It is to introduce the dynamic among Atticus and his two kids -- his wife died years before -- and more than that, with the whole town.  Then, the second half gets into the issue at hand, delivering a powerful, very moving message.

Read enough books, watch enough movies, you're going to develop opinions on your favorite characters.  Atticus Finch quickly climbed to the top of my list of favorites with Peck doing an all-time best as the soft-spoken, respectable, highly intelligent and unbiased Southern lawyer put in a lose-lose situation.  He is a father, a lawyer, a friend, and most of all, a good man.  He defends a black man accused of rape in a Southern town, knowing some people believe Robinson did his crime before they heard any evidence.  His courtroom speech alone could have won him the Best Actor Oscar (listen HERE, SPOILERS obviously) in a stirring monologue that shows a man near his wit's end. I loved everything about this character from his interactions with his children to the way he does his job no matter the repercussion.  Definitely one of the best written characters ever, and Peck takes it to another level to win his only Oscar.

One of my biggest pet peeves with movies involving kids as major characters is that too often child actors are chosen who can't act.  Well, not a problem here with Badham and Alford, both of them delivering two of the finest performances from a child actor I've ever seen.  Badham as Scout gives her that right combination of toughness as a tomboy and innocence as a girl who still looks at the world in that way; as an innocent.  Alford as Jem is a nice counter, the big brother who always stands up for his sister but isn't beneath socking her when she asks for it.  Jem is years older than his 10 or 11 years, including one of my favorite scenes where he stands down a lynch mob with Atticus.  He might not know what's going on, but he knows it's not right, and he stands with his father to the end.  It's only appropriate that with these two great performances, neither child actor stuck with movies, going on to live normal lives with jobs, friends and family.  Good for both of them.

With a story based in 1932 Alabama, you've got two huge issues to deal with; racism and the Great Depression.  It's clear from the start that Atticus has everything going against him in trying to get Robinson off from the charges against him.  He lays out a strong defense, but it might take more than that with this jury.  In one of the most moving moments in the movie, the Reverend -- a black man -- tells Scout to "Stand up, your Father's passing" as the entirely black audience in the second story viewing area watches Atticus leave the courtroom.  He defended a man who he know is innocent, but to Atticus it doesn't matter much his skin color.  But his effort was there, and that's all that matters.  He tried where others gave up, or much worse, refused to admit something was wrong.

This is Peck's movie, but the rest of the cast is phenomenal, and without a lot of huge names.  I already mentioned Badham and Alford, but also look for Robert Duvall (in his movie debut) as Boo Radley who without a word spoken brings his character to life, Frank Overton as Sheriff Tate, a man stuck in a situation with no real positive conclusion, Estelle Evans as Calpurnia, the Finch's cook who serves as a mom to the kids, Paul Fix as the town judge, and James Anderson as Bob Ewell, the father of the raped girl.  Then there's Elmer Bernstein's great score, and Russell Harlan's great black and white cinematography. A great movie overall, and one truly deserving of its classic status.

To Kill a Mockingbird <----trailer (1962): ****/****

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Last Castle

In about a year and a half or so I've written over 350 reviews while trying to cover a wide range of movies and actors from all sorts of different genres.  Some names come up more than others, but I feel really bad about missing one in particular, the always cool Robert Redford.  In 350-plus reviews, I didn't do one Redford movie. It wasn't an intentional slight, and all I can come up with is that I've tried to review movies I haven't seen in the past.  Looking at Redford's filmography, I've seen about half so that explains it to a certain point.  So anyways, here goes, a Redford review starting with 2001's The Last Castle

One of the biggest stars of the 1960s and 1970s, Redford has stepped back from the limelight over the last 15 years, content to direct more than act while also organizing the annual Sundance Film Festival.  At 74 years old, he is one of those few actors you could really call a 'movie star.' He has aged gracefully without any sort of controversy or media event to scar his career, and he is as cool as ever.  In 'Castle,' he was making his first on-screen appearance in three years, and even though Redford is typically strong in the lead, the movie just can't sustain any sort of momentum before derailing in the final act.

A decorate army general, Lt. General Gene Irwin (Redford) has been court martialled and sentenced to serve a 10-year team in a military prison.  It is a maximum security prison full of the dredges from all the armed forces with a brutal commander, Colonel Winters (James Gandolfini), in charge, doing his best to remain order while also having some fun at the prisoners' expense.  Early on as he begins to serve his sentence, Irwin is content to sit back and let the days go by.  But soon enough, he sees Winters for what he really is; a sadistic commander watching over his prison like a puppetmaster, making the prisoners do things for his entertainment.  Irwin refuses to go along with what he sees and puts a complicated plan into action for ousting Winters.

Prison or P.O.W. movies have a popularity all to themselves, and because of that there's a tried and true formula to follow.   'Castle' does deviate from the formula in one big way; the prisoners aren't trying to escape.  As military criminals, they realize to a point where are they really going to go?  So with any escape plans out the window, the story settles into a battle of wills between two type-A personalities, Redford's Irwin and Gandolfini's Winters.  While obviously not as good a movie overall, the dynamic here reminded me of The Bridge on the River Kwai with the struggle for power a key ingredient to the story.

At the age of 65 making this movie, Redford looks like he's about 45, maybe 50 if you push it.  Since he started directing movies in the early 90s, he's acted less so it's always good to see him in front of the camera.  As Lt. General Irwin, he's clearly the more sympathetic character.  We find out midway through the movie why he was court martialed and therefore why early on he just wanted to do his time and avoid any of the politics of a general being in a military prison.  Seeing Winters play his mind games with prisoners and generally manipulate the facility for his enjoyment finally pushes Irwin too far, including one incident with a marine (Clifton Collins Jr. in a great supporting part) where unnecessary violence is taken to a new level by the commandant.

Right in the middle of his huge success as part of The Sopranos, Gandolfini does his fair share of scenery-chewing as the prison commander.  He butts heads instantly with Irwin when he overhears a comment about his military antique collection and it goes downhill from there.  What works so well with this dynamic is the egos involved.  Both men want to prove they're better than the other, even when the situation is escalated to a whole new level.  I'm not a huge Gandolfini fan, but he is a really fun actor to watch.  Also in the cast is Delroy Lindo as General Wheeler, an old friend of Irwin's suspicious of what's really happening in the prison, Mark Ruffalo as Yates, a prisoner no one likes who may or may not be playing both sides, and Steve Burton as Capt. Peretz, Winters' aide.

Through the first hour of 'Castle,' I was liking where the story was building to if not loving it.  After that, the whole movie rolls over a land mine, derails, hits a wall, whatever you want to call it.  Pushed too far, Irwin -- a master of command and strategy -- leads a coup from inside the prison against the heavily outnumbered guards.  On a purely action scale, the last half hour is everything you could ask for.  But from where the story is coming, it comes out of nowhere with no warnings or explanations which would have helped fill in some holes.  It's just a weird ending that made me realize what a weird movie this was as a whole.  Take away the performances from Redford and Gandolfini, and this movie is pretty bad in a cartoonish way.  Go figure.

The Last Castle <----trailer (2001): **/****

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Moby Dick

Just the name of certain books have the ability to send chills down the spines of high school and college students.  War and Peace, The Grapes of Wrath, Moby Dick, and any number of books from authors like Hemingway, Joyce, Hawthorne, Shakespeare, and many, many more.  They're classics and are recommended for a reason, but that doesn't always mean they are good.  Honors English in high school and advanced English/Literature/Composition sure proved that to me.  Want the easy way out?  I avoided it during my high school and college career, but how about watch the movie?  I've never read Herman Melville's source novel, but I'm "halfway" caught up having seen 1956's Moby Dick.

Melville's novel is a pretty good example of a book students are afraid to even go near.  For starters, it's a long book no matter what edition you pick up.  That's not necessarily a breaking point because long books can still be good books.  More importantly though, what style is it written in?  Is it period appropriate? Is it heavy on words and vocabulary readers won't understand without looking up?  I had that problem with director John Huston's movie version of Melville's novel.  A movie with some issues, but a fair share of positives too.  Bear in mind I'm reviewing the movie, not the novel as I jump in.

It's 1841 and a young sailor Ishmael (Richard Basehart) signs up on a whaler named the Pequod with hopes of experiencing and exploring the high seas and making some good money in the process.  Even having sailed before on previous non-whaling voyages, Ishmael isn't quite sure what to expect of the journey that awaits him, but the crew seems a likable enough group.  There's second-in-command Starbuck (Leo Genn), officer Stubb (Harry Andrews) and a multi-international crew with men from all over the world.  For days though, no one sees the captain on deck, a man known only as Ahab (Gregory Peck), a veteran of the sea. When he does reveal himself, he delivers a speech about the success the Pequod's crew is about to have, but he has other plans.  Above all else, he wants to kill a white sperm whale named Moby Dick, and nothing is going to stop him.

Reading the critical reviews of this 1956 version, one aspect of the movie seems to polarize critics more than anything else; the casting of Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab.  I was surprised to read these complaints because I thought Peck's performance was one of the better things about the movie.  The criticisms state that he was too young an actor to play one of literature's most notorious characters.  Ahab was an old, grizzled veteran of the sea, his leg bitten off by Moby Dick, and now he wants revenge.  His descent into madness, his obsession in killing Moby Dick worked in terms of character and story. Peck admitted later in his career it wasn't his best performance, stating there was too much prose from the novel in the film.  For me, that was a problem throughout the film.  Peck's performance? Not so much.

My biggest complaint of Huston's film was the feeling of being talked at, of being preached to.  Many scenes drag on as characters talk in a very proper Victorian sounding conversation.  These are whalers, not exactly upper class, high end sailors so they should talk naturally.  Instead, much of the conversation feels stilted and generally a little off, and there is a lot of it.  Early on, Orson Welles makes a cameo as a priest giving a sermon about Jonah and the whale (ooooohhh, foreboding!) that moves at a pace paint drying would be jealous of.  These long-winded conversations take away from the movie's pacing which is otherwise able to move along at a good rate.  Authentic to the book in terms of being true to the source, but maybe not so much commitment would have been better.

I'll be the first to say that I know little to nothing about whaling and its history.  Seeing the movie's depiction of whaling certainly gives you an appreciation of how dangerous the job actually was.  Men in small boats leave their bigger ships and chase after whales near the ocean's surface, then hurl harpoons and spears at the beast until they're dead.  These are the scenes I enjoyed most as Huston gives us a feel of what sea life had to be like.  Because for every hunt on the waters, there's time where the crew is bored to tears waiting for some action on-deck.  I don't know if it was the quality of TCM's print or how Huston filmed the movie, but a washed-out almost sepia coloring certainly adds to the doom and gloom of this horrific hunt.

For a movie that clocks in at just under 2 hours, one thing I realize looking back is how little actually happens until the end.  I don't know about the novel, but the pacing is all over the place.  Ahab is introduced by face until 30 minutes into the film, Moby Dick doesn't make an appearance until the last 30 minutes, and in the end it all feels rushed, especially the sea battle with this giant white sperm whale.  Behind Peck, the cast is all right, Basehart wasted as Ishmael because he's given little to do while Genn solid as Starbuck.  I liked the movie, but the more I thought about it, the more problems I had.  Still, it's worth a watch, if for nothing else than for you to decide what you think of Peck's performance.

Moby Dick <----trailer (1956): ** 1/2 /**** 

Monday, July 19, 2010

Ride Lonesome

Last fall I reviewed a western from director Budd Boetticher, Buchanan Rides Alone, one of seven pairings with star Randolph Scott.  'Buchanan' was one of the two I hadn't seen prior, and I enjoyed it, if not as much as the other pairings.  Everyone has their favorites, but one always stood out from the others for me, 1959's Ride Lonesome, a western typical of the Boetticher/Scott pairings.

These were B-westerns, but in the most positive sense of what a B-movie can be when handled the right way.  Almost criminal in their simplicity, these are must-see westerns for fans of the genre.  'Ride' has all the necessary elements; a tough, veteran cast, scenic Western locations, and a solid if unspectacular story that almost always features a twist or two.  I won't say the films are a romantic portrayal of the old west, but at times it sure feels like it.  Instead they followed a trend in the 1950s of more adult westerns, including a string of Anthony Mann and James Stewart westerns that are some of the best the genre has ever produced.

A former lawman turned bounty hunter, Ben Brigade (Scott) captures young outlaw Billy Joe (James Best), wanted for murder in Santa Cruz.  Stopping over at a stagecoach station, Brigade runs into two men who tread that fine line on either side of the law, Boone (Pernell Roberts) and Whit (James Coburn). Anyone who brings Billy in earns an amnesty for past actions, and Boone and Whit intend to collect.  Along for the ride is Carrie Lane (Karen Steele), the recent widow of the stagecoach station's owner. Brigade doesn't plan on giving his prisoner over to Boone and Whit, but he knows trouble is following them and he'll need their help.  Wearing out horses behind them, Billy's brother Frank (Lee Van Cleef) and his gang are hot on their trail. 

There are typically three different variations of characters in a Boetticher western -- four if you count the damsel in distress.  There's the good, the bad and the yet to be determined.  Scott always play the good, if a somewhat tortured good.  The bad is the straight villain with no basically no chance of survival (sorry Lee).  And third and the most fun is the yet to be determined, played here by Roberts and Coburn.  These are the characters you're not quite sure which way they'll go.  Will they turn on the good guy Scott or stay on the righteous path?  It depends on the movie which way they turn, but there's always that sense of mystery.  It's also the meatier, more showy character to have, but more on that later.

As the steely-eyed, tortured good guy, Scott has about 20 lines to say in the whole movie.  The thing is? He doesn't need to say more than that.  He's a man of few words with principles and beliefs he lives by, end result be damned.  Scott is going to do the right thing no matter the cost.  His Brigade has a past incident haunting him -- as most of his characters did in the Boetticher westerns -- and he will right a wrong whether you want him to or not.  The more showy character is Roberts playing Boone, an outlaw looking for a second chance.  He has this easy way about him that you can't help but like him, even if you're curious what he's really up to.  A real scene-stealing part.  Coburn in his first movie also shows some of the talent that would make him such a big star in the coming years.

On to the other elements, this one has the good and bad.  Karen Steele plays the eye of everyone's affection, the babely widowed station owner's wife.  Her platinum blonde hair and bras that could take an eye out look out of place, but her character is a whole lot tougher than most female characters in a western. Her looks sure don't hurt though.  Best isn't given much to do other than negotiate for his release, and Van Cleef only has two scenes where he actually talks.  For filming, Boetticher chose the California deserts and mountains, and along with cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr. turns in a gorgeous looking western that rivals some of John Ford's best in Monument Valley. The score by Heinz Roemheld is nothing special, but that's a minor complaint.

At just 73 minutes, there isn't a wasted moment or unnecessary scene anywhere to be found.  Some reviews call it a dull or slow-moving story, but the time flies by.  It isn't heavy on action if that's what you're looking for, instead building up to these quick outbursts of gunfire after long scenes of quiet.  The dialogue from screenwriter Burt Kennedy is top-notch and features some quotable western lines while also giving some inspirations for Sergio Leone and the Dollars trilogy.  It is available to watch through Youtube (here's Part 1), but it's in pan-n-scan.  If you can find a widescreen version, I'd recommend watching that one. 

Ride Lonesome <----TCM trailer (1959): *** 1/2 /****

Sunday, July 18, 2010


In a sports dominated world, there's the New York Yankees, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the Dallas Cowboys, the Los Angeles Lakers, those major teams that have a polarizing effect on fans all over the country; love them or hate them.  But something just about every sports fan can get behind is the idea of the underdog.  There's no way they can win, no way they can keep up with the champs, but even as they keep on advancing people fall in love with them.  In movie form, nowhere is that more evident than one of the best sports movies of all time, 1976's Rocky

A movie that came out of nowhere thanks to the work of star/producer/writer Sylvester Stallone, Rocky is that quintessential American underdog story, one that more than ever probably resonates with sports fans today 30 years after it was in theaters for the first time.  Watching it now in 2010 after five sequels, I had to remind myself that this movie was like a breath of fresh air in 1976 as it won the Best Picture and Best Directing Oscar along with nominations for stars Stallone and three co-stars.  It most definitely still has an impact today watching it, but not so much as a large scale, epic sports story, but as a character driven drama.

Living in Philadelphia, 30-year old Rocky Balboa (Stallone) works as an enforcer for a second-rate loan shark while training and boxing when he gets the chance to make some money on the side.  He drifts along in his life to a certain point, meeting up and drinking with his childhood friend Paulie (Burt Young), trying to convince Paulie's sister Adrian (Talia Shire) to go out with him.  On a bigger level, the world's undisputed heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) has a fight commitment drop out so he needs a replacement for a fight just five weeks away in Philly.  Looking for the ultimate underdog, the best story possible, Apollo asks unknown Rocky if he'd be interested.  But as a journeyman boxer, does Rocky even stand a chance against the best boxer in the world?

Even with the somewhat weaker sequels to follow, the original still packs a wallop.  It's easy to forget thanks to his roles since Rocky, but Stallone can be a great actor with the right part.  Balboa is basically that lovable galoot that everyone knows.  He's awkward in his interactions, a little dim-witted, but basically a good guy who looks out for the people he likes, and you love him for it.  He lives in a little apartment with his turtles Cuff and Link, his fish Moby Dick. Rocky trains when he feels like it and works for the loan shark collecting cash from deadbeats.  Then he's given this opportunity to rise up, to be great, and he takes it.  As his trainer Mick (Burgess Meredith) says, he always had the talent but never the resolve to put the time in to be great.

After a handful of low-budget movies that didn't do much for his career, Stallone fully steps into the spotlight here to play journeyman boxer Rocky Balboa.  By far, this is his best acting performance, and as I write that I'm trying to decide if that's a good thing or a bad thing.  He was nominated for his part, but lost to Peter Finch in Network.  Personally I would have given it to Stallone, De Niro for Taxi Driver, or William Holden in Network over Finch, but that's just me.  As good as the fight is in the finale, the sport is secondary for much of the movie.  This is a story about one man with self-doubt and concern living his life given a chance to do something great.  What does he do with it?  He worries because really, who wouldn't?

Stallone is obviously the key to the movie, but just as importantly the rest of the cast doesn't disappoint.  In the Godfather movies, Shire drives me nuts as whiny Connie Corleone, but her Adrian is a great character and a perfect counter to Stallone's Rocky.  She's shy and quiet, but opens up when actually given a chance.  Young's Paulie is that friend everyone has who you fight with constantly, but typically it's forgotten even before the fight is over.  Meredith is a scene-stealer as tough-talking trainer Mick, frustrated by Rocky's refusal to work in the past but willing to work with him if he'll commit.  All three were nominated for their performances, and unfortunately all of them came up empty.  In terms of pure acting power, 1976 was a crazy year, here's the Oscar winners and nominations

SPOILERS from here on in SPOILERS  I feel stupid warning about the ending because I think just about everyone knows how Rocky ends, but for those that don't, stop reading.  The night before the fight Rocky tells Adrian he knows he can't hope to win, but if he goes the distance, all 15 rounds, against the heavyweight champion he'll have accomplished something.  And what's he do? Goes all 15 rounds in a brutal fight that has both fighters battered and bloody by the end.  The whole fight is an incredible sequence and one of the best presentations of a sporting event ever.  Great end to a great movie.

The biggest test for a sports movie and its ability to stay relevant are the moments, the ones you talk about for months and even years to become.  Rocky has too many iconic moments to even count, but here goes.  There's Bill Conti's amazing Rocky theme over maybe the most iconic moment of all, the training montage. There's the actual montage, Rocky running up the stairs at the Museum of Art. There's the fight, 'Cut me, Mick!' and so much more.  One of the best sports movies ever, enough said.

Rocky <---trailer (1976): ****/**** 

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Men Who Stare at Goats

A movie that starts with a title card stating "More of this is true than you would believe" sends alarms off in my head, especially when it's a comedy.  To me it seems like a warning that what you are about to see is ridiculous, pretty stupid, and a cop out that if it does feel stupid, well too bad because it happened.  But because of the talent involved in 2009's The Men Who Stare at Goats I was willing to look past any issues I might have had going in. 

Certain movies need very little to pull viewers in.  It can be a star, the story, the director, anything really that catches someone's eye.  For me it was the scene in the trailer where Clooney literally stares a goat to death.  The look on his face, the music, the ridiculously awesome mustache, how could this not be a funny movie?  And really, any dark, quirky comedy in the veins of a Cohen brothers movie certainly has an appeal.  'Goats' has all that darkness, all that quirkiness you would expect.  But at a certain point in this recent comedy, it just stops being funny.  Go figure.

Working for a paper in Ann Arbor, Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) interviews a soldier who claims to be a member of a top secret Army mission from the 1980s that turned soldiers into psychic soldiers. Bob thinks the man is crazy, and moves on, only to have his wife leave him and send him into a tailspin.  He heads to Kuwait to prove he isn't a coward and there runs into Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a man also associated with this bizarre, top-secret mission that turned soldiers into as Lyn puts it 'Jedi warriors.'  Bob doesn't know what to make of this news but tags along with Lyn in hopes of trying to figure it all out.  Could it really happen though? Could Lyn be a psychic soldier, a Jedi warrior?

What works so well in answering that question is that director Grant Heslov chooses not to answer the question.  Are all these soldiers absolutely nuts, just off the wall crazy?  Or is there the slimmest chance that maybe, just maybe, it's all real?  The humor here is a good mix of physical comedy -- Stephen Lang as an Army general running at a wall believing he'll run through it only to smash into it -- and the more subtle variety, like Clooney trying to convince McGregor that his hypnosis will help them when really he's physically attacking someone.  There are some laugh out loud moments and early on, I was loving this movie.

There is a somewhat disjointed feel to the comedy because there's almost 3 different segments to the movie.  One, Bob and Lyn meeting and driving across Kuwait and Iraq running into all sorts of problems.  Some really funny moments there.  Two, Lyn's flashbacks of the process to become a Jedi Warrior in a school run by Colonel Bill Django, played by Jeff Bridges as a hippie, Army version of the Dude. And third, there's the last half hour as past and present collide in the middle of the Iraqi desert in a finale that just doesn't work and completely derails the movie.  With some off the wall humor, a ridiculous conclusion seems almost necessary, but the ending just doesn't work here.  It's trying too hard to be funny and comes up empty.

On the other hand, if a feature length movie of Bridges' Col. Django and his teaching techniques was ever made, count me in.  A Vietnam vet, Django requests time to study alternative forms of combat and ends up becoming a hippie who believes he can get soldiers to use their minds and powers to prevent war, not fight war.  Watching Bridges teach his students his tactics and techniques are definitely the high points of the movie.  Throw in Kevin Spacey as an a-hole student trying to one-up everyone around him, and you've got a good mix.  Clooney is always good doing comedy because he commits himself so far into the material, and McGregor is a good straight man the whole.  He's basically the viewer, questioning 'Really? This is serious?'

A good half-comedy if that makes any sense.  Here's my thinking; stop watching the movie after Bob and Lyn drive over an IED in the middle of the desert.  It goes downhill from there fast.  Now trying to sum it all up, I'm realizing how stupid this movie really was.  'Goats' is a very stupid movie with moments of brilliance; Clooney 'cloud bursting,' Django's school, and basically anything with Stephen Lang.  Know what you're getting into watching this movie, and maybe you'll like it more than I did.

The Men Who Stare at Goats <----trailer (2009): **/**** 

Friday, July 16, 2010


When I read several years back that Clint Eastwood was working on a Nelson Mandela bio-pic, I was more than a little curious.  Of course, there were some worries too.  How do you tell the story of a man's life -- especially someone like Mandela -- in a 2 or 3 hour long movie?  Short answer, you can't.  Eastwood made the wise decision to focus on one chapter in the South African president's life instead of an end-all, be-all biography.  The result is 2009's Invictus.

This is the true story of the 1995 World Cup and the South African charge to win the cup with the tournament being hosted on its own turf.  On a much bigger level, it is the story of a country in turmoil as Mandela steps into the presidency as South Africa deals with the end of the long-standing apartheid.  Eastwood tries to find that delicate balance between the two and does find a solid middle ground to work with.  It has the ability to be a large scale story in telling a story about South Africa and its 40-million plus residents, but Eastwood grounds the film thanks to two key performances, both nominated for Academy Awards.

Following his release from prison after serving 27 years, Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) goes about trying to fix the problems facing South Africa, eventually winning the 1994 presidential race and becoming the first president to be elected in a democratic election.  His country is facing a long list of problems, some involving crime, the economy and violence and crime while others can be attributed to the hatred between black and white.  Mandela sees potential to bring the country together again, to unite them as one people, through the national rugby team, the Springboks, captained by Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon).  Mandela turns to Pienaar in hopes of motivating the team to do the best they can. The team captain leads his team on one of the most improbable World Cup runs ever as the country watches.

To say Invictus is a rugby movie isn't exactly accurate.  To say it's just a sports movie is limiting.  Rugby is the means to an end for Mandela, but in reality it could have been any sport.  Eastwood doesn't even focus much on the actual rugby matches.  I had little to no knowledge of the game, but that doesn't hurt in the scenes in '94's pool play and then the knockout games.  It's easy to follow and certainly keeps you interested.  I noticed the music throughout, but the soundtrack during the game action is especially strong.  The final match against New Zealand is likewise a strong sequence if a little heavy on slow-motion.

Both Freeman and Damon were nominated for their performances and rightfully so.  Neither won -- damn you Jeff Bridges and Christoph Waltz! -- but that doesn't take away from the strength of their performances.  Nothing was done to Freeman physically other than his hair to look like Mandela, but at certain moments, usually the quiet moments where the president is alone, he is the spitting image of Mandela.  The man is basically a modern day Ghandi so you're treading on thin ice, but Freeman is fantastic in the part, giving Mandela a personality, a livelihood, a charm and likability that rings true as to what he's really like.  Damon bulked up in a big way to play a rugby player and still looks a little on the small side, but his part is a really solid one in a long line.  These two actors dominate the movie and end up carrying it from start to finish.

As mentioned before, Invictus is about more than just a country trying to win the rugby World Cup.  It's about a new president trying to unite his country after years of strife and fighting, most of it racially based.  Eastwood provides a handful of moments that show this reuniting taking place, one of the high points being the Springboks visiting a poor region to teach little kids how to play rugby.  Another plot running through the movie is the relationship among Mandela's bodyguards, one black contingent and one white, forced to work together to protect their president.  Tony Kgoroge plays Jason Tshabalala, the leader of the black guards, while Julian Lewis Jones plays Etienne Feyder, the leader of the white guards.  Over the years, their relationship develops from a pure hatred to a respect to a comfort level and possibly even friends.  It is those quieter, softer moments that make the movie a little more special.

Invictus <----trailer (2009): *** 1/2 /****