The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Monday, May 31, 2010

The French Line

In a time where everyone and everything has to be politically correct, it can be funny to look back on other times and see what was then considered censurable-material.  Where better to start than the 1950s where TV shows like Leave it to Beaver and Happy Days have helped convince the world that the decade was flawless with no imperfections?  The movie is 1953's The French Line, a musical -- a logical place to censor -- that now over 50 years later seems tame.

Who knows though, those 50s censors must have been pretty fast with the old trigger finger.  The main issue here by the censors and the Catholic Legion of Decency was star Jane Russell and the outfits -- or lack of -- she wore in the movie originally released in 3-D format.  The flick's tagline even said 'Jane Russell will knock both your eyes out!'  Pretty subtle if you ask me.  From the time she was introduced in The Outlaw, studios wanted to flaunt what God gave her, especially mega-millionaire and film producer/director Howard Hughes, and her roles typically had her in the skimpiest/tightest outfits around.  But now watching this in 2010, it seems tame to say the least.

With oil fields and millions of dollars to her name, Mary Carson (Russell) can't seem to find a husband.  All the men she meets are intimidated by her piles of money, including the latest fiance who bails days before the wedding.  She goes to New York to visit a friend, Annie(Mary McCarty) and thinks up a scheme to meet a man who will like her for her, not her money.  Mary's going to pose as a model while a model will pose as May. Her protector and ranch foreman, Waco Mosby (Arthur Hunnicutt), is worried somebody will take advantage of her and hires a Spanish/French playboy Pierre DuQuesne (Gilbert Roland) to tag along and keep an eye on her. But uh-oh, that crafty plan has an impact when Pierre confuses model for millionaire.

I typically avoid musicals like the plague unless they're holiday-themed or involve Bing Crosby in some way, but I liked the cast here so I gave it a try.  It plays like any number of 1950s comedies with plots so thin yet so ridiculous that they come across like extended episodes of I Love Lucy with Mary and Annie filling in nicely for Lucy and Ethel.  The 'find me a husband' story also feels very dated, very 50s, with feminists ripping their hair out at the very thought.  There's also one sticking point.  A rich woman who looks like Jane Russell can't find a husband?  I'll believe that when I see it.

Now whether I liked the cast or not, I always have an issue with musicals.  I know they're supposed to sing and do extravagant numbers every 10 or 15 minutes, but it never fails to make me laugh how they transition from conversation to a song and dance number.  Then, what do they do afterward. "Oh, so the song's over? What should we do now? Wanna get some dinner?"  That said, the numbers here aren't bad.  Russell was a pretty decent singer and even released several songs on top of her acting career.  Roland, not so much, who is an odd choice and a little old to play Russell's romantic interest.

As for the censors who were worried about Russell revealing too much, it's just funny.  Here's the non-edited version of this offensive scene.  The TCM version moves the camera back about 20 feet, and you can barely make Russell out.  I guess the censors didn't want Russell to actually knock people's eyes out in theaters across the country, but who knows for sure?  Check out the edited cut of that scene HERE. There's also this scandalous scene where she *gasp* takes a bath with plenty of split-second timing to actually avoid seeing anything you shouldn't see.  Pretty sneaky, movie editors and censors!

Extremely tame by today's standards, The French Line is still a mess of a movie.  Watch Roland make women swoon and get them drunk at the same time -- classy, huh? -- and Hunnicutt overact and scream to the point where you just want him to shut up.  A reviewer said this movie was made so moviegoers could check out Russell's anatomy, and that's about as dead-on a description as I can think of.  Russell is beautiful and not a bad actress/singer to boot.  Other than that, this one is a bomb.

The French Line <----trailer (1953): **/****

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Run of the Arrow

On April 9, 1865, the Civil War officially ended when Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia.  For many though, there was no end to the war.  Many in the South never acknowledged that the war was over and kept on fighting, some more violently than others.  1954's Vera Cruz dealt with some of these individuals who headed south into Mexico for a chance at more fighting and riches and power.

Those men were looking for a chance to keep on fighting.  In 1957's Run of the Arrow though, the main character is a patriot to the South and the Confederate army.  When the war does end, he refuses to be positive about the country coming together because in his mind, he's a Virginian and a Southerner before an American or a Yankee.  What to do? Why head west, young man.

Fed up with a post-war life in Virginia, infantryman and sharpshooter Private O'Meara (Rod Steiger) rides west beyond almost all signs of civilization.  He doesn't know what he's looking for, but somewhere down the road hopes to find some where or some place he can be happy.  On the trail, he meets an Indian scout for the cavalry and a member of the Dakota Sioux, Walking Coyote (Jay C. Flippen), who introduces him to the way and culture of his tribe.  O'Meara is sold on the lifestyle immediately and ends up joining a tribe lead by the warrior Blue Buffalo (Charles Bronson) and taking an Indian wife, Yellow Moccasin (Sara Montiel).  But this idyllic little life O'Meara has carved out for himself is endangered by the ever-advancing U.S. army trying to settle the west.

Storyline sound familiar? It should. It's called Dances With Wolves some 30 years later.  Of course, there are differences but the basic premise is the same.  Directed by the always tough, always reliable Sam Fuller, 'Arrow' is one of many westerns from the 1950s that dealt with more adult themes and messages, much like Anthony Mann's westerns.  This isn't good vs. evil.  There are all sorts of shades of gray here.  Even working through the flaws though, this movie gets points for an attempt at being honest and not whitewashing any of the history.

Fuller was a director extremely capable of filming action, but he leaves the battles and gunplay off to the side for much of the movie -- although the ending is a doozy in terms of on-screen violence.  This is more a story about principles, ideals and personal beliefs, what's important to an individual.  Steiger's O'Meara is so distraught at the end of the war that he turns his back on his country completely and moves on looking for a new life.  He ends up finding out that personal convictions and background are harder left behind than anticipated.  Working as a scout late in the movie, O'Meara has a great scene with an army engineer (Brian Keith in a phenomenal scene-stealing part) where they find out men are not so different -- black or white, North or South.  For a movie released in 1957, I was surprised at the story's honesty.

The movie's opening scenes jump out as impressive in terms of their effect on the overall storyline.  The movie opens on Palm Sunday as Lee surrenders to Grant.  A sharpshooter, O'Meara picks off a lone Union soldier but only wounds him.  He takes him to a field hospital where the man's life is saved, the bullet missing his heart by centimeters. It's the last shot fired in the war.  Years later, who is at the head of a U.S. cavalry company ready to wipe out O'Meara's new Sioux tribe? Lt. Driscoll (Ralph Meeker), the man O'Meara shot and saved years before who is now a bloodthirsty officer who wants to wipe out the Indians.  It's a great opening and really sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

As good as this movie can be at times, it's also embarrassingly weird at other times.  Jay C. Flippen as a Sioux warrior? Really? There was no one else available who is white?  The portrayal of the Sioux also seems more applicable to the Apaches of the Southwest, not the tribes of the plains.  It gets to a point where Fuller almost fetishsizes the Indian warriors who were nothing more than some barely there loinclothes and has them glistening in the sun.  It's distracting and seems like an odd choice for a director like Fuller who typically went for realism over style.

That said, the movie was surprisingly good.  Sure, Steiger's attempt at an Irish accent -- it tunes in and out -- is pretty awful, and a story that covers many years is condensed into 90 minutes seems rushed at times.  But on the whole, Fuller and a strong cast turn in a western that is enjoyable, thought-provoking, and in an extremely positive way...different.  The movie and story put a different spin on something that is too familiar in many other movies.  Definitely check out this quasi Dances With the Wolves inspiration.

Run of the Arrow <---trailer (1957): ***/****

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Hired Gun

I've written at least two reviews of TV shows edited into feature length movies since I started the blog.  Typically they're pretty easy to spot, but that doesn't mean they have to be bad.  The pacing or editing might seem a little off, but what do you really expect from a TV show turned movie?  Usually my radar is pretty decent trying to figure out if the movie I'm watching is from some short-lived 50s or 60s TV show.  As for 1957's The Hired Gun, I never really thought it was from a TV show, but it sure felt like it.

For starters, 'Gun' clocks in at a whopping 63 minutes, many of which are just shots of the main characters riding across the desert.  Visually stunning, agreed, but giving us any reason, any reason at all to be interested?  Not really.  Even at just over an hour, director Ray Nazarro (typically a TV director, appropriately enough) has two vastly different storylines, one covered over the first 30 minutes and then wham! Story change! New story up until the end.  Too bad because with the talent involved, the movie had some potential but never amounts to much.

Waiting to be hanged in a few hours, Ellen Belden (Anne Francis) sits in her jail cell in a dusty Texas town.  She claims innocence, but a judge sentenced her to death for the murder of her husband.  When she steps up to the noose, she'll be the first woman ever hung in Texas.  But the morning of the hanging, Judd Farrow (Chuck Connors), her uncle's ranch foreman, busts her out and helps her escape to the ranch in New Mexico.  Ellen's dead husband's family, especially father Mace (John Litel) and brother Kell (Vince Edwards), want her back to answer for the murder.  With no other options, they hire gunfighter Gil McCord (Rory Calhoun) to go get her back for $5,000.

One of the big problems here is that within 30 seconds of being introduced to Francis' character, she's spilling her guts claiming innocence in the opening narration.  If it's me, I try and keep you guessing for at least a little while whether she killed her husband or not.  Second on the problem list, Francis with her angelic blond hair and innocent face clearly isn't going to lie about her actions.  From there on, it's just a matter of who did it, and looking at the supporting cast, it's a pretty easy guess.

As for the two stories, it just caught me off-guard.  The first 30 minutes or so is the prison break and McCord's pursuit of Ellen as she flees into New Mexico.  The last half is Gil and Ellen trying to prove who really killed her husband with a mysterious horse thief named Kirby (Guinn Williams) holding the key to proving her innocence. The problem isn't that the story takes a quick right turn midway through the movie, it's that the first half is pushed to the side in the blink of an eye.  Connors' Judd helps Ellen escape and then assumes some reciprocity in the feelings department.  He chases after Gil and Ellen, gets shot in the arm and disappears the rest of the story.

Of course, that's just one problem with the main characters.  Calhoun is supposed to be a badass gunfighter but he only gets one chance to prove this in the movie.  Other than people cowering when they hear his name, we're given no reason to think this guy is the ultimate bad hombre with a six-shooter.  From the minute he's introduced to Ellen, it's only a matter of time before he figures out the truth and of course, falls in love with her.  Oh, no, I certainly hope they can make it through this harrowing journey together!  Calhoun and Francis are decent enough with their parts, but they're just not given enough to do.

SPOILERS STOP READING, HERE COMES THE KILLER REVELATION SPOILER From the start, it's pretty obvious the real killer is either Chuck Connors or Vince Edwards.  And the winner for husband killer is....Vince Edwards, seeking his father's love, approval, and most importantly, his money!  Both actors are capable of being strong bad guys, and here they both get a shot at being the brooding, intimidating villains. Like the main characters though, they're not given much to do until the story needs them to be shot so Gil and Ellen can end up together.  END OF SPOILERS

That's my idea, make this into a half-hour episode of The Rifleman and you might have a halfway decent show.  But as a 63-minute feature with about 30 minutes of storyline, this western falls woefully short of being halfway decent.  The cast might make it seem more appealing, but this is just not a good movie from start to finish.  Pass in a big way.

The Hired Gun (1957): */****     

Thursday, May 27, 2010

They Rode West

Just four movies into his young career, Robert Francis tragically died at the age of 25 when a plane he was piloting lost power and crashed, killing him and another passenger.  His name hasn't bee remembered like others from the 1950s and 1960s who died long before their time, but that doesn't mean he wasn't a talented actor.  Maybe a little stiff at times, Francis still showed an ability to stand out from his co-stars in the four films he did make.

In just his second film after the success of 1954's The Caine Mutiny, Francis sticks with the army genre, albeit about 100 years before WWII.  The movie is They Rode West, a solid western that tries to put its own spin on the U.S. cavalry picture.  John Ford had already had his cavalry trilogy hit theaters and be a huge success, and in general, cavalry westerns tended to do well with audiences.  There is something iconic about a patrol riding across the horizon of the American west.  'Rode West' isn't told from the point of view of the soldiers though, instead it's the perspective of the doctor working with the soldiers.

Looking to get a chance to improve his doctoring skills and medical knowledge, young Dr. Allen Seward (Francis) enlists with the U.S. army and is sent to a frontier outpost where the cavalry is dealing with a possible Comanche and Kiowa breakout from their reservation.  The outpost's previous surgeons/medics were drunks and misfits so Seward arrives with little expectations from his fellow officers as to his ability.  One officer, Captain Blake (Philip Carey), particularly resents Seward as much for his beliefs about the Indians as his interest in Laura McKay (Donna Reed), the visiting niece of the fort's commander.  The problems escalate though when the Indians at the reservation contract malaria, and Seward is forced to make a decision; obey orders or do what he's sworn to do as a doctor.

Seeing a cavalry western from the outpost doctor/surgeon instead of the battalion commander or the veteran sergeant is a refreshing change in storytelling.  For one, Seward's naivete is appealing because he looks at things in a very black and white manner.  Someone's hurt or sick? I'd better help them. Oh, they're Comanche? I'll still help.  He isn't biased by prior judgments or preconceived notions on people just because of who they are or their culture.  This of course bites him in the ass with basically everyone in the fort because a recommendation he makes convinces a group of Comanches to leave the reservation and head for ground more suited to living.  Oops, my bad.

Francis' acting and delivery can be a little wooden, but I'm chalking some of that up to his voice.  He talks in an almost-stilted deep voice that doesn't differ much whether he's talking regularly, angry with an order, or trying to be smooth and get on Donna Reed's good side.  But even with all that, the character is likable because what he is doing is right no matter what anyone else tells him he should be doing.  Donna Reed does get to play against type here, sexing it up a bit as a bachelorette with a long list of suitors vying for her hand.  Carey plays the type of a-hole character you just hope gets shot in the face but of course...doesn't.  He argues for the sake of arguing and in general, you just hope he gets his comeuppance by the end.

Of course for all the good thing offered here, not everything works.  Seward communicates with the Indians through Manyi-Ten (May Wynn), a white woman taken captive many years ago who now lives as a squaw.  The good doctor seems genuinely perplexed that no one knows anything about her, and the duo even exchanges some glances that, uh-oh, they have feelings for each other.  But once Donna Reed comes back into the picture, it's game over for that relationship.  A fair amount of time is spent building up this possible relationship and then nothing happens.  One supporting character is a fixture in the cavalry movie, the veteran sergeant, played here by TV star Roy Roberts (I can imagine Ward Bond or Victor McLaglen playing the part).  He's a hard-drinking Irish sergeant and all the attempts at drinking humor come off as half-hearted and not funny in the least.

For a lower budget movie the action finale is surprisingly enjoyable if a little disjointed.  The fort is the same one Fort Apache was filmed at along with several other films -- you'll recognize the set.  The attack on the fort isn't on a large scale, but it isn't two or three soldiers firing at four or five Indians because a fair number of extras take part.  Violent but not graphic -- with one very cheesy squib used -- it's a fitting end to a good if not great B-western.

They Rode West (1954): ** 1/2 / ****

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Tartars

Three years after the release of The Vikings starring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis, an Italian movie with a somewhat similar storyline about Vikings was released with some interesting casting choices.  It is a story that focuses on a conflict between a Viking tribe and the Tartars, a large nation of nomadic warriors sweeping into Eastern Europe for land, riches and power.  The Tartars are clearly the villains, and for no reason other than name-repeating, we get 1961's The Tartars even though they're the secondary characters. 

The movie is a sign of the times where any, and I mean any, historical story had a shot at making it into a feature length movie. Studios were giving audiences what they wanted, and moviegoers wanted big, epic spectacle movies.  The Tartars makes an attempt at least at being an epic movie, but it's one of those movies that is not particularly good or bad.  It sits somewhere in between although thanks to two fairly odd casting choices it is very much worth watching.

Those stars are Victor Mature and Orson Welles, both logical choices to play a Viking and a Russian warrior, don't you think? Both actors are well past their starring days in Hollywood and look to be taking on whatever role they can find.  Mature, with his slicked back black hair and and dark skin, may be the weirdest choice to ever play a Viking chieftain leading a tribe full of pale, blonde-haired people.  Welles was quite the presence by 1961, and that's nothing to do with his acting ability.  He was a BIG man by this time and looks like if he fell over he might roll off the set.  Good starting point for a historical epic if you ask me.

Visiting a nearby Tartar tribe to pay homage, Viking chief Oleg (Mature) ends up in a bloody brawl and kills the Tartar chief.  Oleg, his brother Eric (Luciano Marin) and their men escape the bloody fight, kidnapping the Tartar chief's daughter Samia (Bella Cortez) in the process. The deceased chief's brother, Arundai (Welles), comes to avenge his brother and destroy the Vikings once and for all.  Arundai offers Oleg one last chance to join him in their conquest of the world but the Viking chief refuses.  Arundai has one last ace up his sleeve though as he has kidnapped Oleg's wife Helga (Liana Orfei) and wants to arrange a trade.

Clocking in at under 90 minutes, this story certainly keeps up a fast pace and never really slows down.  The setting is an Eastern European steppe, an equivalent of the American prairie but closer to a desert in terms of lack of water or landmarks.  With the setting and the warring factions, it definitely has the feel of an American western with Vikings and Tartars replacing the cowboys/settlers and the Indians.  It's a fun movie though and entertaining throughout partially because it is pretty bad.  Money was clearly spent on certain things -- extras, costumes, filming locations, sets -- while clearly not spent on others, like the script for one.  Really though, it's a minor complaint.  You don't head into an Italian made movie about a Viking tribe breaking new ground in terms of storytelling.

Even at 83 minutes, the scale of 'Tartars' can be impressive.  There are basically two sets, Arundai's palace (which looks grander because of some matte paintings) and the Viking fort which looks awfully similar to the U.S. cavalry forts that dotted trails all through the American west.  Interesting, hhmm?  Some action is thrown in here and there to keep you interested along the way with most of the fireworks saved for the finale as Arundai's enraged warriors assault Oleg's fortified garrison.  I was impressed with the scale of the battle, a pretty impressive effort considering this is a lower budget Italian movie.

This is not going to be a very long review mostly because the movie doesn't try to be anything other than entertaining.  Sure, there's some weird moments like Mature being dubbed by a different actor in certain scenes while in others it is clearly him speaking.  The whole movie is so bad that it's good.  If Mature as a Viking and Welles as a Tartar chief doesn't intrigue you, you should probably steer clear of this one.  If it does sound interesting, sit back and enjoy the badness.

The Tartars <----TCM trailer (1961): ** 1/2 /****

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Rocco and His Brothers

A long movie does not necessarily have to be a bad movie.  Some of my favorite movies -- The Great Escape, The Alamo, The Godfather, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly -- all clock in around three hours if not longer.  But these long movies tend to work better in a historical context, the big epic movie.  It's not a hard and fast rule, but it certainly helps.  The Godfather is a 3-hour movie about a mafia family, but for lack of a more educated description; stuff happens.

One of Italy's neorealist films, 1960's Rocco and His Brothers, is a movie that clocks in at just under three hours, and in a similar fashion tells the relationships and inner workings of a large family.  Sure, those relationships develop over time and problems arise, but in telling a story as realistically and personally as possible, the sometimes slow pacing kills any energy that builds up.  Add to the mix characters making decisions that no human being would ever make, and I came away disappointed in a movie that's earned a reputation of a classic.

After the family patriarch dies, the Parondi clan moves north to Milan, leaving their simpler life in the Italian countryside behind them.  The mother, Rosaria (Katina Paxinou), hopes to receive some help settling in from her oldest son, Vincenzo (Spiro Focas), who's moved to the city and is engaged to Ginetta (Claudia Cardinale). Rosaria disapproves of the engagement so now the family and her five sons must figure a way to survive on their own with no means of support.  Vincenzo ends up moving out and living with Ginetta so the other four brothers have to scramble for work.

The second oldest brother, Simone (Renato Salvatori), drifts along until he's spotted working in a gym and starts boxing, quickly rising through the ranks.  Then there's Rocco (Alain Delon), a good-natured, very kind young man who always looks out for his mother and brothers, often at his own expense.  Ciro (Max Cartier) goes to trade school so he can get a job at the Alfa Romeo factory, and the youngest, teenager Luca (Rocco Vidolazzi) makes deliveries for a pharmacy.   Everything seems like they're on the right track, but conflicts and rivalries pop up among the brothers, tearing them apart with little hope of bringing them back together.

In terms of style, 'Rocco' is can't miss with that Italian neorealism filmmaking easily seen throughout the movie.  Filmed in black and white on location in Rome and Milan, director Luchino Visconti delivers a movie that is gorgeous to look at.  The camerawork isn't aggressive but you're always aware the lens is right there in the streets or the crowded apartments with the characters.  Long shots/takes pop up throughout the movie almost as if the camera is there with the characters watching the plot develop.  In a cool little bit of personal style, each segment is introduced with a brother's name as their personal story comes to the forefront.

But as talented as Visconti is and as beautiful a movie as he creates, the visual and the realism only last for so long.  This is a llllllllllllong movie where just about every one of its 175-minute running time is noticeable.  Overall, not much happens other than long scenes of dialogue here and there, then longer segments where nothing is said at all. 

Even with five brothers, the Parondi mother, and a long list of supporting characters, the story centers on Rocco, the saintly brother, and Simone, the supremely flawed brother on a bad road.  Delon is one of my favorites, and his character is beyond likable without a dent in the armor with at least a couple allusions to him being a Christ-like figure.  Salvatori as Simone is everything Rocco isn't.  He drinks, gambles, runs around with women but truly loves one, a prostitute, Nadia (Annie Girardot) and lets his brief success and power go to his head.

The conflict between these two brothers is the key driving force in the 2nd half of the movie as Simone hits wall after wall, causing one problem after another, and driving his family away even though they're trying to help him.  Leading that charge is Rocco who is able to look past all these horrific flaws and decisions because at the core of the problem, Simone is his brother and he can look past it all.  I won't spoil how the relationship develops and climaxes, but let's say Nadia is involved and she ends up with the brother she wants nothing to do with.  Rocco makes decision after decision trying to help his brother when in real life, it feels like NO ONE would ever allow themselves to be stepped on and marched over as much as he does.

I understand making Rocco's character as likable as he is.  After his father dies, Rocco steps into the role of looking out for his family because no one else can.  But there's a limit to that.  I've always had a pet peeve about characters -- not just in movies but also books, TV -- that make a decision(s) because the story requires it.  Add to that element the issue that Simone is impossible to root for, impossible to get behind, and it just becomes more infuriating.  The ending itself is ambiguous and forces you to decide how everything is resolved.  Ideally, Rocco comes to his senses, but that's just too easy.

Knowing this movie was held in high regard by critics and fans alike, I wanted to like this movie, even more so considering the talent involved in front of and behind the camera.  But all things considered, the flaws were just too much.  The movie is far too long, incredibly slow-moving, and the characters make decisions that no sane person would ever make for the sake of the story.  I'll give it 2 stars because it's trying to be something more, and even if it fails, it was a worthy attempt.

Rocco and His Brothers <----trailer (1960): **/****

Friday, May 21, 2010

Cheyenne Autumn

A solid director early in his career, John Ford shot to stardom behind the camera thanks to success in one particular genre, the western.  Starting with Stagecoach in 1939 and continuing into the 1940s with his 'cavalry trilogy,' Ford became a go-to director westerns that he was able to put his own personal -- often romantic -- look at the American west in the latter half of the 19th century.  And in almost every one of these westerns, Native Americans were portrayed in a negative light, whether as a fearful presence or as murdering on-screen savages.

With his last western, 1964's Cheyenne Autumn, Ford did an about face in terms of the depiction with something that has since been dubbed 'white man's guilt.' Based on a true story, the movie attempts to put Native Americans in a positive light instead of the stereotypical savage so often associated with westerns.  It's a noble concept and feels like a bit of an apology on Ford's part, but too many things work against this movie from the start, ranging from the casting to the dull, slow-paced storyline.

It's 1878 and 300 members of a Cheyenne tribe on a reservation in the southwestern desert have had enough.  They don't receive supplies promised to them -- food, clothes, medicine -- and are basically being ignored by the U.S. government.  Led by two proud warriors (Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland), the Cheyenne leave the reservation in the dead of night with hopes of marching almost 1,500 miles north to their ancestral hunting grounds in South Dakota and Montana.  Pursuing them is a cavalry outfit led by the sympathetic Capt. Archer (Richard Widmark) who tries his best to bring the Cheyenne in peacefully.  Nothing comes easy though and the terror sets in of 300 Cheyenne roaming the west in towns all along their trail.

To tell this story, Ford assembles a remarkable cast but as is so often the case with huge casts of big name stars, many are lost in the shuffle.  Along with those mentioned already, there's also Karl Malden, Edward G. Robinson, Dolores Del Rio, Carroll Baker, Jimmy Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, Sal Mineo, George O'Brien, and Sean McClory, along with several others I'll mention later.  Needless to say, that's a ton of talent involved, but the odd thing is almost NOTHING happens the entire movie.  It's downright dull at many points and never really gets the viewer invested in what's going on.

First off, the story does represent the Cheyennes in a positive light as a tribe just trying to survive now that their heyday has passed.  But then Ford spends a majority of the time with the white characters as the Cheyenne tribe disappears here and there for long stretches.  There's also the issue of casting Hispanic actors as Indians which just doesn't make much sense to me.  I figure there weren't many Native American actors working in Hollywood in the 1960s, but for a story trying to be authentic and fair, it would have been worthwhile to cast one or two.  Montalban and Roland represent themselves well as the warriors leading the tribe while Mineo says two or three words and enthusiastically takes his shirt off at one point.

One criticism of Ford over his career is his bawdy, broad humor that populates his movies, and Cheyenne Autumn doesn't disappoint.  About 90 minutes in, a 20-plus minute segment takes a complete detour from the story for some incredibly out of place humor in Dodge City with Stewart playing Wyatt Earp and Kennedy playing Doc Holliday.  Besides being incredibly miscast as the famous gunfighters, the tone of this extended segment is comical and over the top.  The tone to this point has been downbeat if not entirely interesting, and we get a segment here that is ripped right from any of the cavalry trilogy.  This comedic segment is so out of place that it can be difficult to watch in its badness.

What I enjoyed most about this movie were the scenes on the trail with the Indians or with the cavalry pursuing them.  Widmark makes the most of a part that just doesn't give him much to do, but Ford seems incredibly comfortable in the cavalry scenes.  Patrick Wayne (the Duke's son) plays Lt. Scott, a young officer out for blood, Mike Mazurki plays the veteran sergeant, and in a nod to Rio Grande and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr play troopers Plumtree and Smith. A running bit between the two has Archer consistently forgetting Carey's name.  Both parts were uncredited ones for the veteran character actors. Maybe because it feels like a throwback to better westerns, but the cavalry portions of the story are infinitely more watchable than much of the rest of the movie.

For all its flaws, 'Autumn' is still worth watching just to see that huge cast work together and as is typical with a Ford western, the Monument Valley scenery.  Through all the movies ever shot there, I don't know if its ever looked better serving as a backdrop for the story.  Overall though, this is an average movie from a great director like Ford.  It's too inconsistent to call a good western, but one that fans should still see.  A disappointing but intriguing last western from one of the genre's best.

Cheyenne Autumn <----trailer (1964) **/****    

Thursday, May 20, 2010


Where to start with a movie biography about one of history's most violent people, responsible for the deaths of millions of people, many of them his own people?  Automatically a director is biting off a lot when taking on a true historical story but even more so when considering the main character is one of the most controversial individuals of all-time.  That person is Adolf Hitler, the German dictator who attempted to take over the world and ended up killing millions in the process. 

Looking at IMDB's character page of Hitler, I was absolutely blown away by how many characterizations there have been of Hitler in movies, miniseries and on TV.  Some like last year's Inglourious Basterds was more of a cartoonish look at the dictator while others like Downfall tried to tell the story of his final days.  Then there's 1962's appropriately titled Hitler which treads somewhere in between those two descriptions.  One problem though is that it tries to do far too much, telling almost 25 years of story in a 104-minute movie.  Not to say a 3-hour movie would have been better with similar subject matter, but one that clocks in at under 2 hours stands little chance of being successful.

Starring Richard Basehart as Adolf Hitler, this biography attempts to do too much.  The bio begins with Hitler in prison transcribing Mein Kampf to a secretary and moves from there with his rise to power as chancellor of Germany, appointing himself dictator of the country, and his ultimate downfall, World War II.  A miniseries with 2-hour segments documenting each of these individual chapters in his life would be better suited if a director really wanted to explore the life of Hitler.  Instead, director Stuart Heisler spends too much time on certain things -- especially an Oedipus complex for Hitler -- while glossing over other aspects, like a rushed 15-minute look at WWII and his ultimate suicide.

Certain roles sound like career assassination to me, and playing Adolf Hitler is right at the top of that list.  Basehart was never a huge star in Hollywood, often playing supporting characters and getting third or fourth billing or playing guest starring roles on TV series.  He's an interesting choice for sure and does a fine job making something out of a poorly written character.  The characterization isn't so much about his actions as a dictator but more about his psychological makeup.  Because of that, we see stark raving mad Hitler more often than not, and Basehart's talents are wasted as a cartoonish, exaggerated portrayal takes over.

The cartoonish, over the top tone though isn't just limited to one character.  The whole tone of the movie plays like a big joke, especially in the portrayals of Himmler, Goering, Goebbels, and other members of Hitler's ring of supporters.  Introduced by their flaws -- personal and otherwise -- that include pervert, sadist, murderer, clubfooted, these are nothing more than cardboard cutouts of flesh and blood people that, while despicable, are interesting to look at.  The best is saved for the man in front though as Hitler is presented as impotent, a megalomaniac, homosexual, and an Oedipus complex that basically makes him crazy.

This is shown through two relationships in his life, one with his niece Geli (Cordula Trantow) who he may or may not have a sexual relationship with, and two, his mistress Eva Braun (Maria Emo) who stands by him even in the most difficult times.  For starters, neither actress is that talented and at times it's hard to watch their scenes that come off as amateurish.  A story about one of the most controversial characters in human history is diminished to a story about a man struggling with inner demons about feelings for his mother and how he takes it out on the people around him and the world as a whole.

It's just a bizarre movie on the whole, not helped at all by a budget that makes the movie look incredibly cheap.  Extensive footage from WWII is inserted throughout the story to replace scenes of the Munich rallies or any of Hitler's speeches.  In the big picture though of a movie's success, the cheap look can be a tipping point in deciding if it's good or great.  This biography never gets to that point because it's just not very good.  Cartoonish, over-exaggerated, stereotypical and a wasted effort.

Hitler <---TCM clips (1962): * 1/2 /****

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Over the last several seasons, Mad Men has helped rejuvenate the style of the 1950s with the ongoing story of a 50s advertising agency.  It's easy to look back on the time and get nostalgic for a simpler time.  But watching old TV shows or movies, the thing that appeals to me is the style, the suits and hats, the almost constant smoking, boozing 24-7, all that cool stuff.   Sometime in the 60s, all that style went out the window and in came the hippies.

Set in 1960 London, 2007's Flawless oozes the style and coolness of that period.  The fact that it is a heist movie is just a cherry on top for me.  Filmed in London -- along with locations in France and Luxemborg --, Flawless is one of the most low-key heist movies I've ever seen to the point where you could call it boring (but I'm not going to do that).  It is an epically slow-build, even after the heist, as director Michael Radford is in absolutely no rush to get where he's going.  There's something appealing about the story in its simplicity that throws you for a curve from the first scene and keeps on going.

As the lone female employee at the London Diamond Company, Laura Quinn (Demi Moore) faces obvious problems that will never let her rise any higher in the company despite her knowledge and intelligence.  Bottom line? She's a woman, and she won't be getting that promotion anytime soon.  Laura is beyond frustrated with her career and doesn't see any way out or solution to her problem.  But one day, the night janitor, a man known only as Hobbs (Michael Caine), approaches her with information and more importantly, a plan.  Hobbs is retiring soon and has hatched a plan to rob the basement vault of a thermos full of diamonds, but he needs help in getting a vault code.  Laura refuses at first, but when she finds out she is going to be fired soon -- for doing something right that will help the company -- she agrees to become an accomplice.

For all the flaws this movie has -- pun intended -- the main reason to see this is easily summed up...Michael Caine. Now 77 years old, Caine is still chugging along turning out strong movies and better than that, strong roles.   Playing a Cockney janitor is basically a strike right over the plate for him, but what's wrong with doing what you're good at?   Like few other actors, he can play the everyman or he can take on the aristocratic, upper class characters.   Hobbs' motivations are not as simple as the one he gives to Laura, but that's part of the fun of the second half of the movie.  As viewers, we know Hobbs is up to something and not telling us everything we need to know, but what exactly is his master plan?  The reveal isn't what I was expecting, but in making the character a little more noble, the character and the movie end on a more positive note.

Back in the movies again after taking a hiatus in the late 90s and early 00s, Moore gets the starring role here.  She's always taken heat for her acting ability (some of which stems from her choice of roles), but with the right story and character she can be a really strong actress.  A female employee looking to get ahead when no one around her is going to offer her a hand is one of those characters.  She's easy to root for because you feel for her situation.  Other than the fact that her American character has an English accent, I found little faults in the part.  It was entertaining though to see the script try and dull down her appearance with bland colors, facial makeup and even a little gray through the hair.  Say what you want about her acting, but Demi Moore is nice to look at, plain and simple, and it's hard to hide that.

The mystery of the second hour keeps us guessing up until the end because we only see part of the heist, getting into and out of the vault through a 1960s "high tech" security system, cameras and all.  That middle part in the vault, that's left out until the end.  The explanation is a little disappointing and some holes start to sprout as to how exactly the job is pulled off, but for me it was almost secondary.  Hobbs' explanation for why he performed the heist is better than how he did it.  All that aside, the tension is handled well as Laura keeps on waiting for some sort of evidence that will pin the crime on her.  A detective (Lambert Wilson) leads the investigation, making Laura wonder if he knows everything that's going on or nothing at all and is fishing for info. 

The cast is very strong, the setting and style brings the movie up a notch or two, and it's hard to ruin a heist story, but the story may be a little bit too slow.  I was never close to turning it off or giving up, but at times, it is painfully slow.  Laura makes some decisions that seem mind-bogglingly stupid, and Hobbs keeps her guessing, all the while as the investigation continues.  The ending similarly works, but goes for too much of a happy ending.  It certainly is a twist from the opening scene, but not in a 'AHA!' sort of way.  Just one that makes you smile a little like you've been duped.  Still, it's a heist movie with Michael Caine, and his performance alone is worth checking this one out.

Flawless <----trailer (2007): ** 1/2 /****
Watch the whole movie starting HERE

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Hondo and the Apaches

Growing up, I watched my fair share of Saturday morning cartoons.  But over a two or three year span when I was in grammar school through junior high, TNT aired old western TV shows like Wild, Wild West and How the West Was Won along with newer shows like The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.  I remember getting up early to watch one show especially, Hondo, a TV version based off a Louis L'Amour novel.  It only lasted one season back in 1967, but I loved it and watched the episodes repeatedly.

In hopes of making it more popular, ABC even released a version in theaters, 1967's Hondo and the Apaches, two episodes combined to make a 97-minute feature length movie.  VHS tapes are getting harder to find, but thankfully I was able to tape it off of TCM last week.  The movie is the first two episodes of the series edited together into one story, serving as an introduction to all the key players and setting.  Certain changes were made to transfer the novel from a movie to a TV show, but overall, it got the right spirit of L'Amour's source novel.  It's long since forgotten, but I'll always love the old show and the movie version.

Riding through the Southwest, gunslinger Hondo Lane (Ralph Taeger) is recruited by General Crook (William Bryant) to scout for the U.S. Cavalry in the region. Lane had an Apache wife prior to the Civil War and even lived among the Apaches for years, making him an obvious choice to work as a scout.  He somewhat unwillingly takes the job and brings his orders to Fort Lowell where a new commander, Capt. Richards (Gary Clarke), is in command.  Richards is in a corner as a group of miners, led by a man named Gallagher (Robert Taylor), cries out for protection while the Apaches are on the warpath.  Hondo might have a solution though and heads out to search for Apache chief, Vittoro (Michael Pate), to see if he can arrange a peace.

First on TV in 1967, Hondo came along at the tail end of the hugely successful, very popular western TV phase American audiences clamored for.  It didn't have a ton of success -- thanks to some unfortunate competition on other networks -- and was canceled after just one season.  Indoor scenes were usually handled in studios, but for the most part, Hondo filmed on location in the deserts the story was set in.  The location shooting definitely benefited the show in its too short run.  But overall -- whether as a movie or a TV show -- it does a lot of things right in making an authentic, enjoyable western.

Stepping into John Wayne's shoes was most likely a tough task for Ralph Taeger, but he puts his own spin on the Hondo Lane character.  Taeger was only in a handful of movies and a few more TV shows which is unfortunate because he's got some talent.  He benefits obviously from L'Amour's creation of such a cool, badass western hero.  Taeger makes Hondo a little laid back while also being willing to stick up for himself or what he believes in.  Hondo Lane is very capable of taking care of himself -- with gun or fist -- and has to be living in such a dangerous situation.  Too bad Taeger never became such a big star because he comes across as incredibly likable but also a really tough, hard-edged western scout.

Taylor and Michael Rennie helped open the show as guest stars, giving the movie/show some credibility with an otherwise little known cast.  Neither actor is given a ton to do, but they look to be having fun with their supporting parts.  Also joining the show's regular cast is Kathie Browne as Angie Dowd, a married shopkeeper in an abusive marriage who Hondo saves from Apache attack, Noah Beery Jr as Buffalo Baker, a fellow scout around for some comedic relief, and 10-year old Buddy Foster as Johnny Dowd, Angie's son who idolizes Hondo.  All three characters are from L'Amour's novel with a few tweaks here and there for the sake of a TV show instead of a 90-minute movie like Wayne's 1953 version.

As for the theater version, it is a good introduction to the TV show.  It is not always the fastest-moving story, but an action scene is never too far away.  The best is saved for the end as the Apaches launch an all-out attack on Gallagher's mine.  Getting there is a lot of the fun though thanks to Taeger in the lead as all-around badass Hondo Lane and a solid supporting cast.  I'm holding out for some sort of DVD release, but I'm not counting on it.  For now, I'll keep on looking and remember how much I liked the show growing up.

Hondo and the Apaches <--- opening credits (1967): ***/****   

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Law and Jake Wade

Rising to fame in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Richard Widmark made a name for himself for one big reason. Anybody can play the angelic good guy, but what about the devilish, laughing at death bad guy? From his screen debut in Kiss of Death as a psychotic killer, Widmark was typecast to a certain point early in his career as the villain. Why not really? He was the perfect bad guy. In the late 1950s though, he started to get more offers for leading roles, the good guys instead.

One of the last true villains Widmark played -- he took on some characters that lived in that gray area between good and bad -- was in 1958's The Law and Jake Wade. In this John Sturges western, Widmark isn't required to go crazy villain on the viewer, but just enough to be both charming and intimidating at the same time. Okay, maybe a little crazy, but not too much. Sturges is right in his comfort zone with this western and makes the most of a small-scale and most likely small budget in this above average western. With Widmark and a strong cast around him, 'Jake Wade' is better than it should have been.

After years of living on the outlaw trail, Jake Wade (Robert Taylor) has become a respectable marshal in a small New Mexico town -- apparently he formed a new identity. But before he can marry his sweetheart, Peggy (Patricia Owens), Wade feels he has one thing he has to do. He rides to a town several days ride away and busts out Clint Hollister (Widmark), his old partner, who's rotting away in a jail cell awaiting sentencing. Wade gets him out and sets him free, claiming they're even now. A few days pass though and Hollister shows up with his gang. He's not done with his old partner yet, wanting Wade to lead them to the $20,000 he hid years before after a robbery. Hollister kidnaps Peggy to force Wade to go along so they set off into the wilderness to get the money back.

As far as westerns go, this is pretty typical of many 1950s entries, but it handles everything so well it's elevated above so many others. Sturges keeps the story tight at under 90 minutes and the cast comes in at just eight key characters with little else to distract from the story at hand. As a director, he specialized in 'guy movies' where large casts of tough guy actors worked together and dealt with ideas of loyalty, honor, and betrayal. Some of those ideas were used to an even better point a year later in The Magnificent Seven. It's to the point, entertaining, and improves all the way to an exciting finale.

The only part that lags a bit is the midsection as Hollinger's gang -- with kidnappees -- head out into the desert to the spot where Wade buried $20,000 in cash years before. What makes this part tolerable is Widmark's part here in several campfire dialogue scenes as he explains the history he has with Wade. It's scenes like that brimming with tension and testosterone that make the middle portions anything but boring. Of course, there are too many long shots of riders on the horizon with the California locations in the background.

Widmark is the main reason I'd recommend this western, but the rest of the cast is nothing to sneeze at. Taylor is solid if not spectacular as Jake Wade, a outlaw turned peace officer trying to put his violent past behind him. Midway through the movie it looks like Taylor realizes he's being overshadowed by Widmark's villain and saves his energy for the finale. Wise choice, Rob, wise choice. Owens looks worried and screams when needed as her character requires little else. Hollister's gang includes Rennie (Henry Silva), Wexler (DeForest Kelley), Ortero (Robert Middleton) and Burke (Eddie Firestone), Silva as the nutty gunfighter and Middleton as the wavering bandit standing out from the rest in strong parts.

Sturges saves his best for last here as the gang reaches the sand-swept, windy ghost town where the money is buried. Arriving about the same time as the gang? A Comanche war party looking for scalps. Sturges and cinematographer Robert Surtees do an incredible job of filming this ghost town as if it was in the middle of a vast empty. This feeling of being trapped in a wide open space makes the shootout a great sequence as the Comanches close in. This ending would have been good on its own, but then we've got the inevitable Wade vs. Hollister showdown which doesn't disappoint either. An empty town and two men looking for revenge is always a good combination in a western. Solid ending to an overall above average western.

The Law and Jake Wade <----TCM trailer (1959): ***/****

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Cattle King

TCM's star of the month in April was Robert Taylor if you couldn't tell from the large amount of reviews recently with him starring front and center.  I've never been a huge fan of him as an actor, but I'm coming around some.  In a long career, he was in a lot of tough guy movies, westerns, war, noir, all types of movies that I seek out whenever I can.  Some of those movies TCM aired were his classics, some the in-between average flicks, and others when he was slumming late in his career.

By the early 1960s, Taylor's popularity had begun to wane, and he was forced to do roles that weren't typical of his previous star power.  He starred in a detective show on TV, guest starred in other shows, went to Europe for a movie, and God forbid, even made a B-western, 1963's Cattle King.  It's not a particulary good western, and Taylor is certainly showing the age and effects of lung cancer.  But it does have a couple things worth mentioning in its own unpretentious way.

Running his ranch with partners Johnny Quatro (Robert Loggia) and foreman Ed Winters (Ray Teal), rancher Sam Brassfield (Taylor) finds himself going up against a large opposition as to what should be done with the grazing land.  Brassfield only fences land in he owns, but the local cattle association wants all the land to be open to cattle -- anyone's cattle -- and have even gone as far as having legislation passed on the matter.  At the head of the association, Clay Matthews (Robert Middleton) takes more extreme matters, hiring a killer from Texas, Vince Bodine (Richard Devon), to help convince the other ranchers. The two sides seem poised for a confrontation, even more so when a rumored visit from President Chester A. Arthurh looms.

That is the B-western's plot at its most basic, range wars, with two sides fighting over grazing land.  Really though, that's just the start of it all.  Brassfield is engaged to Sharleen Travers (Joan Caulfield), the sister of a land owner (William Windom) who goes along with Matthews, mostly out of fear more than anything else.  Oh no, more confrontation! There's also an old angry sheepherder who thinks Brassfield is out to get him when really his neighbor is trying to help him.  Then, the President actually does arrive in a weird series of scenes that come out of left field.  Lots going on here, and not necessarily for the better.

Certain things are working against the success of this B-western, starting with that script.  There's just too many characters, most of them being left by the side of the road.  Taylor's background has a ton of potential, but it is dealt with in one quick monologue -- he adopted his dead sister's two children, both now grown up -- but the teenage girl needs to shriek and "cry" early and then disappears to the background, while the teenage boy is more annoying than interesting.  Too many elements where humor is attempted fall short, and one death scene is so laughable I had to rewind to make sure I saw it right.

Most of the positives come from the strengths in the cast.  Taylor is solid without much to go with as the tough ranch owner trying to protect his land from outsiders.  Loggia is a welcome surprise -- if a bit unlikely -- as Quatro, Brassfield's Mexican partner and ranch hand.  Middleton isn't in the movie enough, but when he is onscreen is a worthy villain.  Teal made a boatload of westerns in his career, and just by being part of a below-average flick like this lends it some credibility.  Other than the cast, there's not much to recommend here.

Watching the movie, I kept thinking that it was reminding me of something, and it took until the last scene for it to come to me.  The end has four main characters riding away from the camera off to work the ranch again after everything has been righted.  So basically, the beginning of Bonanza, but in the opposite direction.  That's what Cattle King is closest to, an extended, not so good episode of Bonanza. Recommended only for diehard western fans.

Cattle King (1963): **/****

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Express

Ask most sports fans if they know who Jim Brown is, and you'll get a 'yes' most of the time.  He is known for any number of sports feats, starting at Syracuse University where he was a football and lacrosse star before heading to the NFL.  For nine seasons, Brown starred for the Cleveland Browns before retiring at the peak of his career to become a movie star.  He is one of the greatest personalities to ever come out of sports, but it was another Syracuse star who did something no other black athlete had ever done.

His name was Ernie Davis, and in 1961 he won the Heisman Trophy during his senior year at Syracuse.  He was a dynamic talent at running back who was also drafted by the Browns and with fellow alum Brown was projected to be part of a backfield tandem like the NFL had ever seen.  But tragically before he could ever play a down for the Browns, Davis was diagnosed with leukemia.  He died in 1963 at the young age of 23.  Two years ago, a Davis biography, The Express, was released in theaters, and for me I'd never even heard of Davis.  It took awhile but I caught up with this sports bio.

Sports movies set before the 1980s have become more and more prevalent in the last 10 years or so, probably because a majority of the audience is being introduced to the story for the first time.  Think of Remember the Titans, Glory Road, Invincible, and now The Express.  It's always tricky making a true sports story because the moviemaker has to tread that fine line between telling a truthful story and whitewashing it at the same time so it doesn't insult anyone.  Director Gary Fleder does a pretty good job handling those duties of a young black athlete on the rise in the late 1950s and early 1960s as the civil right movement was erupting all over the country. 

Growing up in Pennsylvania and New York, a young Ernie Davis faces many of the same challenges a young black kid would have faced anywhere in the country, prejudice and racism for no other reason than his skin color.  Ernie (Rob Brown) starts playing football and late in his high school career he has gained the attention of college coaches across the country, but thanks to some recruiting from Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson) he decides on playing for coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) at Syracuse University.  But even playing at a college in upstate New York, Davis faces the same challenges he's always faced; people who judge him not by his talent or skill, but by his skin color.

This biography focuses heavily on his sophomore year when Davis led Syracuse to the national title with bookends on either end showing how he grew up and then his brief post-college career.  Director Fleder filmed much of his story in and around Chicago -- including Blue Island, Evanston, Berwyn, and Aurora -- to give the proceedings an authentic feel of being dropped into 1950s Americana.  The look of the movie is key, and here Fleder succeeds in a big way.  The football scenes especially work well, edited so the action is always easy to follow while still knowing the game situation.

Since I saw his film debut in 2000's Finding Forrester, I was sold on Rob Brown as an actor.  He hasn't been in that many movies since, but he hasn't disappointed yet.  Playing Ernie Davis is another strong part for him although at times I thought he came across as a little wooden.  He handled almost all of the football scenes, showing off an impressive athletic ability.  Brown delivers one great monologue late in the movie and for the most part delivers a solid performance.  In Davis' corner for support is Omar Benson Miller as Jack Buckley, another black player on Syracuse's team and a close friend of Ernie's, Charles S. Dutton as Pops, Ernie's grandfather, Nelsan Ellis as Will, Ernie's cousin, and Nicole Beharie as Sarah, his girlfriend.  Miller and Dutton especially shine with their parts.

Of the two key roles though, Dennis Quaid I think was handled the more difficult one.  As Hall of Fame coach Ben Schwartzwalder, he has to keep us guessing to a certain point.  Are some of the decisions he makes for his benefit, for Ernie, or because he's looking out for his team?  The movie makes it clear the pressures that were on him -- from the inside and outside -- while also bringing up the idea about his motivations.  Miller's Buckley says at one point "Coach likes black athletes more than he hates a little."  But motivations or prejudices aside, this is a coach who wants to get the best out of his athletes, color be damned.

The difficulties Ernie Davis faced as a black football player in front of a nation should have been interesting enough where the story did not need to be altered to make it more interesting, or should I say more controversial?  Watching through the end credits, I read that a whole scene -- the West Virginia game -- was fabricated.  It felt unnecessary to create a game that never happened just to show what Davis faced from opposing players and fans.  The national championship game against Texas in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas does a fine job of that.

Focusing so much on Davis' sophomore year comes at an expense though for the rest of the story.  By the time the year is over, the movie's already at 90+ minutes.  The last 30-40 minutes feels rushed as Fleder packs 3-4 years into less than a half hour.  We've spent all this time learning more about Ernie, his family, his friends, and when we're supposed to feel for him and this horrific disease sapping away his life, the scenes go by in the blink of an eye instead of letting them develop.  These scenes are still effective in their simplicity, but it would have been nice for some more background, a little more development.  Still, it's a well-acted, beautifully shot sports biography, and I am a sucker for those.

The Express <----trailer (2008): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Savage Pampas

When it comes to watching westerns, I'd like to think I've seen just about anything and everything the genre can offer.  I started watching them when I was little and never really stopped.  I'll watch good and bad, classic and panned, it really doesn't matter to me.  Spaghetti westerns came along when I was introduced to Clint Eastwood and opened up all sorts of new doors for the western.  For a bigger picture, foreign westerns are almost always interesting, presenting a non-American's view of what our west was like in the 19th Century.

That's the difference though, most foreign westerns take place in the American west or south into Mexico.  That is not the case with 1966's Savage Pampas, a Eurowestern made with U.S., Spanish and Argentinian backing.  The story is set in the last quarter of the 19th Century and is set on the Argentinian pampas -- flatlands, think the American plains.  The basic premise is of cavalry vs. Indians, albeit on a different continent with different players.  For any number of reasons -- I'm struggling to pick out just one -- I really enjoyed this movie, but I don't know why.  One thing is sure though, it's different from just about any other western I've ever seen.

Commanding a remote army outpost on the Argentinian pampas, Captain Martin (Robert Taylor) is facing two major problems, one affecting the other.  A deserter from the fort and a renegade, El Padron (Ron Randell), is fighting with the indigenous Indians, encouraging them to attack the army outposts.  Making his plan more effective, Patron is offering any deserters women once they arrive in his camp.  Stationed days from any nearby town, the outpost's garrison hasn't seen a woman in years.  Martin has proposed a plan to bring women -- prostitutes called 'camp followers' -- to Fort Toro, which is approved but first he has to go get them.  With a mid-sized patrol, Martin heads out across the Pampas to pick up 'the cargo' but Padron has spies everywhere, and it's only a matter of time before he figures out Martin's plan.

Several American westerns have dealt with at least somewhat similar topics, including a Taylor western titled 'Westward the Women.'  But 'Pampas' has a style all to its own.  The Argentinian cavalry here looks to be a mix between the Foreign Legion, the U.S. Cavalry and the gauchos that work the pampas in their extravagant, stylish outfits.  Bandits are bandits, and the Indians basically want nothing to do with any development.  Change a few lines here and there and you'd never know this was set in the Argentinian flatlands instead of the American southwest.  But that's a strong part of 'Pampas' because director Hugo Fregonese films in Argentina.  Echoing many John Ford westerns, Fregonese uses many shots of troopers on the horizon on the spacious plains.  At a very basic level, Savage Pampas is a pretty movie to look at, and that's always a strong jumping off point.

After the first 30 minutes, the rest of the movie is almost exclusively dedicated to Martin's patrol picking up 10 women that will be brought back to the fort and work as prostitutes.  The story handles this well, making these women more than just something to leer at as the men on the patrol guarding them start to develop relationships with them.  I really didn't expect the story to take that sort of route, but it works surprisingly well.  Instead of just having lonely, horny soldiers trying to rape these women, we get character development.  Some of the men include Lt. Del Rio (Angel del Pozo), the new, inexperienced officer, Sgt. Barril (Marc Lawrence), a tough-talking leader, El Gato (Charles Fawcett), the veteran scout,  Pvt. Luis (Jose Jaspe), an older soldier who takes a protective eye on one of the women, among several others who step into the limelight.

That's what surprised me more than anything, the character development, especially in a Eurowestern which typically key in on action and shootouts.  Robert Taylor did what so many actors did in the late 60s and went to Europe for parts, and his Capt. Martin -- other than the non-Spanish sounding name -- is a strong lead.  He's good at what he does but fed up at the lack of help and supplies he's offered.  Taylor also has a pretty ridiculous looking goatee, but it gets lost in the shuffle.  Also along for the patrol are Camila (Felicia Roc), a political prisoner forced to become a prostitute, Rucu (Rosenda Monteros), an Indian girl Martin buys, and Carreras (Ty Hardin), an anarchist journalist sentenced to join Martin's force.  Taylor and Hardin have some great scenes together as they discuss the dangerous situation they're in, especially their last scene alone on the pampas.

The patrol storyline is nothing new or unique, but it certainly keeps the story moving along.  Padron's forces wait for their chance to attack in a large, well-staged attack in a lonely village that highlights the movie's action scenes.  There is a starkness to the pampas and seeing a huge battle play out has an almost apocalyptic feel as the two sides clash. The ending caught me off guard too, but in a good way.  It's a less than happy ending, but for how the characters and story developed, an appropriate one.

Savage Pampas definitely surprised me in just about every way possible.  The cast delivers fine performances -- especially Taylor and Hardin -- and Fregonese is able to bring something new to the cavalry picture by developing his patrol and giving us a reason to root for them.  The Argentinian locations are beautiful to look at and give a sense of how wide open the pampas really is.  DVDs and VHS tapes are difficult to find for a reasonable price so keep your eye out on TCM for another airing.  It is shown in widescreen and doesn't disappoint.

Savage Pampas <----TCM clip (1966): *** 1/2 /****

Monday, May 10, 2010

Hell's Angels '69

By the late 1960s, movie studios seemed to start catching on that the same-old movies weren't appealing to audiences so there were releases like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Easy Rider, among many more.  They reflected the changing times that were seeing a hippie/drug culture grow bigger and bigger, basically groups that were fed up with the status-quo and society's "norms."  Easy Rider specifically opened up a whole new genre of movies that had only been touched upon in the previous decade or so.

I don't know if it has an official name, but let's call it the biker genre where motorcycle gangs roamed the country causing havoc wherever they went.  I've only seen a couple, but from what I've read they were typically low-budget, drive-in type movies that cost as much to make as people spent to get into the drive-in or theater.  But I'll say it again, low budget doesn't mean bad.  It can be appealing in a lot of ways.  Last week's TCM Underground movie was called Hell's Angels '69, released in 1969 at the height of these biker movies.  Even though the IMDB rating is pretty low at 5.0/10 -- give or take a few decimal points -- the movie is pretty good, probably due to the talent involved.

Heading west on their motorcylces, brothers Chuck (Tom Stern) and Wes (Jeremy Slate) meet a gang of Hell's Angels and do their best to start off on good terms with these tough, very anti-social bikers.  The Angel's are a little skeptical of them but allow the brothers to ride along with them a little while as they all continue west.  Chuck and Wes though have a plan that unbeknownst to the Angel's involves them.  The brothers plan to break off from the group and head into Las Vegas where they'll be staying at Caesar's Palace.  Years of preparation has gone into putting this plan into action...they're going to knock off the casino for all the money they can carry using the Hell's Angels as a diversion.

Think of this as the original Ocean's 11 except instead of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack we get a gang of dirty, long-haired bikers.  It's one of the more unlikely heist movies I've come across, but at the same time, it's one of the better ones because of the story's simplicity.  The robbery itself is so simple -- even with the diversion -- that it surprised me that it didn't have a twist.  The last 30 minutes are the aftermath of the casino robbery as a Las Vegas detective (G.D. Spradlin, Senator Geary from Godfather II) tries to piece everything together while the brothers put their escape plan into effect.  Don't be disappointed though, the bikers figure out they've been duped and head out on the vengeance trail.  The movie is named after them so it's not like they'd disappear at the best part.

With B-movies, you have to expect a certain amount of cheese from the proceedings, but for the most part, 'Angel's' is free of it.  Sure, there is a lot of footage of the gang riding around, doing tricks, riding through Vegas, that does nothing to advance the story at all, but that's to be expected to a certain point.  It looks like Stern and Slate did a fair share of their own riding so that's always a positive too.  With one exception of an actor I recognized from another movie, the Angel's are played by actual members of the gang out of Oakland.  I won't post links because for most this was their only role, but it adds a sense of reality and for lack of a better word, coolness, that these bikers are authentic.

As the brothers leading the charge, Stern and Slate do double duty here, writing the script together while Stern also produced and put up a lot of his own money to get the movie made.  They had worked together the year before in The Devil's Brigade so I'd assume they met there and formed a fast friendship.  Because they both had something invested in the movie, it comes across better.  Stern was only in a handful of movies, and Slate was typically a supporting player so it's definitely cool to see them step into starring roles.  For one, they look alike, and they have a definite chemistry together so the brothers come across as very believable.  There are two twists -- one more important than the other -- in the last half hour that involve their backgrounds and their motivation for the robbery.

The story never really lags, but two key scenes stand out to me as out of the ordinary for a drive-in B-movie.  The build-up to the heist, the robbery and the aftermath are handled nicely in an exciting way that keeps you guessing as to what's going to happen.  Then, in the finale, there's a tension-filled chase on dirtbikes (SPOILERS watch it HERE) as the brothers run from the Hell's Angels.  The ending is a bit of a shocker, but it also leaves it open for your own interpretation as to their situation.  Surprisingly good low budget movie, and certainly a strong introduction to the all-powerful biker genre of the late 1960s.

Hell's Angel's '69 <----trailer (1969): ***/****

Sunday, May 9, 2010


Stylish violence can be an amazing thing to watch in a movie when handled right.  There can be almost a sense of beauty in violence, or what some reviewers have called 'the ballet of death.' Just look to Bonnie and Clyde or The Wild Bunch or more recently The Matrix for what can be achieved when violence is elevated to something more than just brute strength.  Of course, with any good thing comes the bad.

That's where I'll start with 2002's Hero, a Chinese film set in ancient China before the first emperor took power.  The reviews painted this as one of the most beautifully filmed, stylish movies to hit theaters in years.  I'm a sucker for a good-looking movie so I gave it a shot.  Well, the reviews were dead on because it is breathtaking at times with its use of color.  But that's about all I liked because the stylish violence is set to overkill and ends up turning a 98-minute movie into one that seemed much, much longer thanks to some annoying storytelling techniques and an over reliance on slow-mo action.

For years, the king of the Qin province (Daoming Chen) has lived in fear under the constant threat of assassination.  Years before, three assassins vowed to kill him in hopes of preventing his power growing, and ever since he has been unable to lead a regular life.  But a prefect from a small province and a master swordsman known only as Nameless (Jet Li) has claimed that he killed all three assassins and is seeking an audience with the king to tell him the stories of his battles.  The king agrees, wanting to meet the man who has given him his life back.  Nameless sits down and tells his story but something doesn't quite add up as his retellings unfold.

SPOILER ALERT Stop reading now for a paragraph or so SPOILER ALERT This isn't actually a huge spoiler because it's revealed about halfway through the movie, but Nameless did not in fact kill the three assassins.  Their deaths were faked in order to get Nameless an audience with the king so that he can get close enough to do what they've all sought to do for so many years.  The king figures this out rather quickly but his curiosity gets the best of him so he must know what has actually happened and what their plan actually was.  END OF SPOILERS

Some reviews compared Hero's storytelling technique to Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon where different characters tell their perspective of a story and the viewer is left to decide for themselves what really happened.  Rashomon is held in high regard, and I hated it so take that for what it's worth in the rest of this review.  Hero amps it up even more with Nameless regaling the king with his brave stories of how he took out the three assassins.  Then the king figures it out, and basically wipes away the first 45 minutes of the movie.  Everything we just watched never happened.  It sounds like an attempt to be unique and bring something new to the story, but for me it comes across as lazy.  Tell the story you want to tell and be done with it.

Besides the fact that half of the movie never happened, I was pissed off even more at the never-ending action sequences.  Watch the first showdown HERE for an example of what the whole movie is like.  In small doses, this action could be and should be great once you get past the ridiculous flying, slow-motion fighting.  Nameless fights three master assassins, Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai, a real bright spot and my favorite character) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), over and over again and then the assassins fight and bicker among themselves, argue over what to do, and then do what they'd planned to do in the first place.  Big old 360 here.  The ending is a cop-out and should have been much better.

This highly stylized action would have been much better in smaller doses because at the most basic levels these scenes are something to behold with great camera work and some impressive stunts.  But piled on top of each other one after another, it gets incredibly repetitive.  I realize with a martial arts movie you should expect lots of action scenes, but there's got to be a limit somewhere.  A gorgeous filmmaking style and visual eye alone does not make this movie worthwhile.    

Hero <----trailer (2002): */****

Friday, May 7, 2010


Preparing to make 1947's Tycoon for RKO Studios, John Wayne was supposed to co-star with Maureen O'Hara, but she was replaced at the last minute.  The joke of course was on RKO as Wayne and O'Hara would go on to work together a handful of times over the next 25 years, making a great on-screen couple with chemistry to spare.  Behind the scenes shenanigans are what Tycoon is known for above all else, and it involves a key part of the plot that drags down an otherwise interesting story.

O'Hara was replaced with Laraine Day, another RKO star, as the love interest.  At the time, Day was married to Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher who was a constant presence on the set and apparently didn't like seeing his wife in any number of romantic scenes with co-star Wayne.  His presence hung over the set like a storm and probably helped kill any chance of a believable love story this movie had.  It's that love story that cuts the movie in two and keeps Tycoon from being a pretty solid picture overall.

Hired to work in the Andes in South America, engineers and partners Johnny Munroe (Wayne) and Pop Matthews (James Gleason) have their work cut out for them.  In helping the railroad expand, Munroe proposed building a bridge over a river to help bring the two tracks together, but his proposal was overturned and his workers are forced to cut a tunnel through a mountain with the possibility always looming of a cave-in.  The owner of the railway, Frederic Alexander (Cedric Hardwicke), isn't exactly forthcoming with supplies or safety equipment.  Making the situation worse, Munroe meets Alexander's daughter, Maura (Day), and falls hard for her.  The boss doesn't approve so Munroe must juggle the job and the girl if he wants to get both.

In a Wayne biography I've read, Wayne admitted to co-star Anthony Quinn that he was thinking about leaving the business.  Since his star-making role in Stagecoach eight years earlier, Wayne hadn't had a huge hit, and he even began to wonder if he was getting too old to be a movie star.  The funny part is that within a year, Wayne made Fort Apache and Red River and was back on the climb upward to becoming Hollywood's most bankable star.  Here as Johnny Munroe, he gets a chance to play a familiar role but in a new setting.  Toward the end, he even gets a chance to show his darker side -- something we'd see in Red River and The Searchers.  It's an interesting character that helps pull the movie along when it slows down.

My main issue is that over 2 hours the movie is too long because there are two storylines instead of just one.  Munroe falling for Maura seems out of place and at times rather dull.  Much of the first hour is spent on their developing relationship, but it's just not that interesting.  In the second half after a bizarre shotgun wedding, their marriage ends up taking a backseat to the more interesting half of the story, but even then it's still hovering around, waiting to make an appearance at the end -- at least it's handled quickly when it comes up.  A lot of these problems are the same ones that 1968's Hellfighters faced 20 years later.  The story itself at its most basic is solid, but a romantic element had to be added.  On top of that, the lack of chemistry between Wayne and Day is a story-killer.

Tycoon is at its best when its focusing on the job at hand, cutting a railroad tunnel through an immense mountain of rock.  A 90-minute movie that keyed in on this aspect of the story would have been ideal if you ask me.  Along with partner Pop, Munroe's crew includes demolition expert Joe (Paul Fix) and foremen Fog Harris (Grant Withers) and Curly Matthews (Michael Harvey).  The team dynamic in this group of five is strong, mostly because they have a history together.  Throw in Anthony Quinn as Ricky Vegas, Alexander's nephew and on-site supervisor, and you've got quite a mix.  These segments of the movie are the most enjoyable and the most exciting, especially the finale as the team tries to save their work from a oncoming storm.

For fans of the Duke, this will certainly be an interesting movie to watch.  For the rest of his career following Tycoon, Wayne almost exclusively made westerns and war movies -- with a departure here and there -- where he played similar roles.  That's not a criticism, just an observation, because some of his most highly-regarded movies are included in that span.  I really enjoyed parts of Tycoon, especially Wayne's performance and anything with his supporting cast.  Flawed because of an unnecessary romantic subplot, but worth watching on the whole.

Tycoon (1947): ** 1/2 /****