The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Thursday, September 30, 2010


I grew up watching Paul Newman in classics like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, Cool Hand Luke and several other movies that I still check in with every so often. But as I've been writing these reviews over the last year-plus, I realized I just hadn't seen a lot of Newman's 60-plus feature films.  What was to blame?  The type of movies had something to do with it, otherwise I would have stumbled across some of them here and there.  But I think the biggest reason, and it hurts to say it is because a fair share of Newman's movies in the 1960s and 1970s were real stinkers.  Sorry for the harsh language.

The only other Newman flick I've reviewed here was an awful biblical epic, The Silver Chalice, so I don't want it to seem like I'm ragging on the man.  Where The Silver Chalice was just all around awful, 1966's Harper is all around bad, but it's not Newman's fault.  Anything but really because he's basically the only positive I took away from this convoluted mystery that not surprisingly receives good reviews from fans and has achieved a bit of cult status over the years.  It's the type of thing where I finish a movie, read up on it afterward and am completely thrown off by fans' love of the movie.  Did I miss something?  Maybe, but I don't see myself revisiting this one anytime soon.

Tipped off by a lawyer friend (Arthur Hill) about a possible case, private investigator Lew Harper (Newman) begins to look into the background and evidence.  A rich woman (Lauren Bacall) claims her husband has disappeared -- she doesn't really care, just curious -- under some mysterious circumstances and wants to know what happened to him. Harper somewhat unwillingly agrees to the job offer because after all, a payday is a payday, and the rich wife promises to pay handsomely.  But with an odd, eccentric cast of characters surrounding the husband in his daily life, Harper quickly figures out that there is more going on than meets the eye.  He's stumbled into something that is bigger than he ever thought.

Pretty straightforward plot review, don't you think?  It's also one of the most vague reviews I've ever written because this movie just doesn't know where it's going or how to get there.  Director Jack Smight has made one of the most convoluted stories I've ever seen. Countless characters are thrown at the screen, and Smight sees if they stick before dispatching them or keeping them involved.  Harper follows "the clues" which I never saw and inexplicably pops up in random places, no explanation provided.  At 121 minutes, the story had plenty of time to develop somewhat coherently, but that never comes to fruition.  As a topper, convoluted isn't enough.  It's also dull in its chaos, and still somehow easy to predict.  A real doozy of a story.

The saving grace is Newman as Lew Harper, a role he would play once more in a 1970s sequel.  Newman is at his best -- for me at least -- when he gets to do the anti-hero with a touch of humor and drama, that feeling of frustration with the world.  He's mainstream, but he's got a bit of a rebel streak in him, like Cool Hand Luke, Hud, Butch Cassidy, or John Russel in Hombre.  That's what Harper is, a man frustrated where his life has ended up.  He's good at the job he does, but what does he ever really accomplish?  He tracks down cheating spouses, works in seedy motels, and generally hates what he does.  This possible kidnapping/disappearance case is different and maybe could give him a shot at something bigger, something better

I can't add another saving grace (can there be two?) because what I'm about to mention is only partially positive.  Newman is the star, and the opening credits proceed to introduce a long alphabetical list of guest stars.  Count me in, I'm all for glorified, extended cameos, and this list is impressive.  Along with Bacall and Hill, there's Robert Wagner, Shelley Winters, Strother Martin, Pamela Tiffin, Julie Harris, Robert Webber, Harold Gould and Janet Leigh along for the ride.  How great is that cast in support of always reliable Newman?  Pretty can't miss, right?  Well, for the most part this impressive cast is given nothing to do.  They drift aimlessly through the story, and Newman's Harper somehow pieces all these weird events together until there's some sort of resolution that didn't really make sense to me.  Great cast, sure, but a wasted one.

So what else to say? Not much. This movie is dull, confusing, a waste of the talent involved, and almost completely worth ignoring other than Newman's title role.  It took me a handful of viewings to get through it because I struggled sticking with it for more than 15 or 20 minutes at a time.  Thank God for the fast forward button.  I'd have never made it otherwise.

Harper <---trailer (1966): */****

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Town

I don't really know what happened to Ben Affleck around 2002, 2003.  It was somewhere in there with his relationship with Jennifer Lopez and his part in Gigli that his rising star took a big tumble.  Too bad because the guy definitely had some talent as an actor.  Well in the years since he's been working his way back up, and hopefully with his latest work as both actor and director pays off for him in 2010's The Town.

The movie comes from one of my favorite genres, the heist movie, and more than that...the last job!  It's the premise that a specialist like a robber, thief, crook, hit man, mercenary has been doing what he does for years, and he's fed up with it.  For whatever reason -- favors, guilt, money -- the man agrees to take on one more job before he rides off into the sunset.  This is a story idea that goes across genres, but it works so well with heist movies.  For just his second movie as a director, Affleck does a solid if unspectacular job with a story that is always solid if unspectacular.  It doesn't rewrite the genre conventions, but it does everything well, and that's all I'm asking for when I go see a movie.

A neighborhood in Boston named Charlestown is infamous for its production of bank and armored car robberies with hundreds of such robberies taking place every year.  One native Bostonian, Doug MacRay (Affleck), leads a crew with his hot-wired childhood friend Jim 'Gem' Coughlin (Jeremy Renner), taking down banks and armored cars after weeks of meticulous planning. One robbery doesn't go exactly as planned and Jim takes a hostage, a bank manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall), who they allow to let go soon after. Doug arranges to bump into her to see if/what she knows about the robbery but finds himself quickly falling for her and vice versa.  Can this situation ever work? And with an FBI agent (Jon Hamm) and his task force hot on Doug's crew, can they continue to work without being taken out?

Previewing the movie, one ridiculously stupid ad said The Town was "Heat meets the Departed" so basically the best ever heist movie vs. the best ever undercover thriller movie.  Yeah, good luck with those comparisons.  That said, it's not fair to compare this movie to either even if there are certain similar elements.  Affleck shoots in the streets to give the movie a gritty, authentic look to the story and provides some very cool Boston locations (more on that later) as a backdrop.  The heavy Boston accents can be hard to decipher at times, but you get into a rhythm with it eventually.  The story isn't anything groundbreaking, but it deals with characters and twists that are in a way...comforting, because we have seen this before.  It's all handled so well I didn't even mind though.

With comparisons to Heat and The Departed, I was a little surprised by the lack of action.  An opening robbery goes smoothly, a heist near the middle features a great chase through the narrow, claustrophobic streets of Charlestown, and the finale is the high point, a heist attempt at Fenway freaking Park for a take of over 3 million bucks.  It's hard to do something new or unique with a heist, but setting it in one of the most iconic sports stadiums ever was a genius idea from Affleck. The robbery and the fallout following is an extended sequence that lasts maybe 20 minutes, making up for any lack of action earlier in the movie.  Baseball fans will hopefully appreciate an inside look at Fenway Park in a very cool, very stylish final robbery/shootout.

Maybe more surprising than the lack of action is that the movie doesn't beg for seven or eight more shootouts and robberies.  It would be overkill.  But Affleck gets such good performances from his cast that it's a pleasure just watching them do their thing.  An underrated actor himself, Affleck is the going away star here as Doug, a generally good guy who got caught up in doing something that he's good at.  His childhood was anything but smooth, and he still suffers from some past demons.  His budding relationship with Hall's Claire is never sugary sweet, it's just a genuine bond between two people looking for some sort of normality, some sort of happiness.  They have a definite chemistry, and their final scene together did remind me of a similar scene at the end of Heat.  As the scene-stealer, Renner is phenomenal as Jim, Doug's childhood friend who always seems one step away from exploding.  It's an intense part and an impressive one that doesn't have him on screen much, but he dominates every time he's on the camera.

The cast goes much deeper than those three with Hamm in a thankless, unforgiving role as the FBI agent hunting down Doug's crew.  There's also Gossip Girl's Blake Lively in a surprising turn as Krista, Doug's old fling and sometime hook-up, Chris Cooper in a one-scene role as Doug's jailed dad, and Pete Postlethwaite as the Florist, the local mafioso who has his hand in everything, and Titus Welliver as Hamm's right hand man. I think an ultimate test for a movie like this with "bad guys" as main characters (and I've written about this before) is do you find yourself rooting for them to pull off the job, to get away in the end?  Maybe it's just my messed up barometer of morals, who knows.  The Town hits it head on because it makes these characters sympathetic through their flaws.  This isn't a classic, and I didn't love it, but it is a stylish, well-made heist movie with a great cast.  Definitely check this one out.

The Town <---trailer (2010): ***/****

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Good, the Bad, and the Weird

Since the first time I saw Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, I was hooked.  It's easily in my top 10 favorite movies all time (along with a few other Leone movies) and no matter where it's at if I stumble across it on TV, I'm hooked and sitting down for the rest of the movie.  It's one of the best westerns ever made, and according to voters over at IMDB and their scientific voting, one of the best movies ever made.  I'm hard-pressed to disagree.  So a successful movie that's highly regarded? Seems ripe for a remake, right?

In the over 40 years since its release, GBU has been rehashed, redone, spoofed but never straight up remade...thankfully.  Well, the obvious place to expect a remake to come out of is...class, anyone?  That's right, South Korea!  No joke.  I saw the trailer two summers back, and here in 2010 it's finally available on DVD in the U.S., 2008's The Good, the Bad, the Weird.  All that said, a South Korean remake of one of my favorite all-times movies isn't the weirdest thing going here.  What's weirder?  This version is great, and I loved everything about it.  I know, I was surprised as anyone.

It's 1930s Manchuria and petty thief and train robber Yoon Tae-goo (Kang-ho Song) stumbles upon a map that could lead him to a buried treasure hidden for hundreds of years. But as he looks into the origins of the map, Yoon quickly finds out he's bit off more than he can chew.  A hired killer, Park Chang-yi (Byung-hun Lee), and his gang have caught wind of the map's existence and will stop at nothing to get their hands on it. More than that, a mysterious bounty hunter, Park Do-won (Woo-sung Jung), is on the hunt too and the three men's paths seem destined to cross. The promise of a huge payoff is too much for many and soon enough rival gangs are in on the hunt, not to mention the Japanese army's involvement in acquiring the treasure.

This isn't a straight remake obviously because as opposed to the 1860s American Southwest in the Civil War we get 1930s Manchuria.  But overall, the basic premise is the same, three men on the hunt for an epic payoff.  Director Ji-woon Kim has done nearly the impossible here with his 2008 western.  He took a Leone classic, and not only pays homage but also puts his own spin on a classic. At 130 minutes, the scale is immense, and Kim clearly has a large budget.  It's a gorgeous movie, features some great camerawork, a musical score that samples everything from spaghetti western scores to big band to soft jazz to Spanish guitars (listen to a sample HERE) and everything in between. On their own, these things might mean nothing, but together they form the ground level for a great movie.

The three stars don't have the name recognition that Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef have, but their characters stand on their own.  Not unlike Wallach stealing away GBU as bandit Tuco, Song steals the movie as Yoon (the Weird), the insignificant beggar rat of a thief.  It's a very physical part, and Song gives the look of maybe his character isn't all there in the head.  It's hard not to like the character though, and he runs away with every scene he's in.  Lee's Park (the Bad) is the ultimate pretty boy bad guy, always immaculately dressed, his hair just right, as he callously dispatches men all around him.  In the world of cool western bad guys, he's one that won't be quickly forgotten.  Jung's bounty hunter (the Good) gets lost in the shuffle at times, but this aura of an unstoppable gunman is always cool, including one suicidal ride through a gauntlet of Japanese soldiers which he of course survives.  Separately these three are all ridiculously cool characters, and together they're perfect.

Enough of all that snooty movie stuff, let's get to the action, and there is a lot of it.  I'm talking some of the best over the top, ridiculously exaggerated western shoot 'em up I've ever seen.  The opening shootout on a crashed train is just the jumping off point as Kim continues to one-up himself with each passing shootout.  Some are bigger in scale than others, but none disappoint.  There's a gunfight in a scummy motel, a running chase through the claustrophobic, cramped streets of a Manchurian village, and of course, the epic finale.  It's an almost 45 minute extended sequence that has our trio, a rival gang of bandits, and Japanese cavalry and artillery battling it out on a barren desert plain.  I don't even know how to describe it, it's just one of those pitch perfect action sequences that doesn't rely too much on CGI.  Action aficionados will not be disappointed.

Now what do people remember most about the original GBU? For most, it's the three-person shootout in a cemetery in the finale.  GBW stays close to the original while putting its own spin on the proceedings.  The actual ending -- watch through the credits -- didn't blow me away only because the downer ending that could have closed the movie would have jumped into my list for all-time most perfect endings.  But it doesn't end that way, adding an unnecessary but not movie-killing finale.  Would I have kept the ending that comes before the credits? No doubt about it, but as is it's a minor complaint in a movie that I otherwise loved.  Could you tell?

The Good, the Bad, the Weird <---trailer (2008): ****/****

Friday, September 17, 2010

Way of the Dragon

Taken long before his time, Bruce Lee died at age 32 from cerebral edema.  For a man who was only in a handful of movies in his too-short career, Lee is still remembered fondly for his ability both as a martial artist and generally as a performer.  Like any pop culture icon who died young, what is left behind can too often be heavily criticized or over-analyzed.  His movies are prime examples of the incredible skill he had and was able to perfect in such a short time.  The only other Lee movie I've seen was his classic Enter the Dragon (loved it) but thanks to DVD availability switching at Netflix, I was able to watch 1972's Way of the Dragon.

Movies from foreign markets can be completely hit or miss depending on the print of the movie you're watching and the general quality of the film itself. 'Way' is an odd mix of the two with a carefully-shot, enjoyable movie to look at, but the general quality is lacking.  There's not so much a plot as various excuses for Lee to wail on various, nameless thugs.  There's some horrific dubbing, cringe-inducing attempts at humor, and some jumps in geography that I don't think anyone in their right mind could explain.  That said, the movie is worth seeing almost solely for the quality fight scenes.

Dispatched from Hong Kong, kung fu master Ah Lung (Lee) is sent to Rome to help clear up a problem.  His employer is related to the owners of a small restaurant, young and pretty Chen (Nora Miao) and her getting older uncle Wang (Chung-Hsin Huang), that is being harassed by some local low-level mafiosos.  The business is struggling so Ah Lung intervenes, helping teach the staff some karate techniques and ways of defending themselves against the waves of nameless thugs.  Ah Lung though is the key for he has yet to fight anyone on his own level.  That is until the mafiosos decide to pull out all the stops and hire an American karate expert, Colt (Chuck Norris) to come and face off with him, winner take all.

I'll get the criticisms out of the way first before talking about the good portions of the movie.  First off, the story is basically nonexistent.  The movie is an excuse for Lee to ham it up with some out of place comedy in the first 20 or 30 minutes, and then get to business and start kicking some ass.  Characters are never really developed, the precarious situation isn't all that precarious, and it all feels like an excuse to set up more and more elaborate fight sequences.  As for the dubbing, I've seen my fair share of spaghetti westerns where English-speaking actors dubbed over the voices of Italian actors with mixed results.  This one was one of the worst.  Lee's voice just sounds odd and completely takes you out of the movie.  Making it worse, the subtitles were like a cliff note's version of what was actually being said.  The horrifically bad dubbing eventually just wears you down with its badness, making almost every scene with dialogue laughable.

But come on now, this is a Bruce Lee movie and no one signs up, talking...I guess.  The fight scenes are this movie's bread and butter.  It takes too long to get to the fights, but when they do pop up they're worth it.  Lee's ability as a fighter -- even in expertly staged, choreographed sequences -- has rarely been matched on screen.  Watching him fight, you just get that feeling that you're watching a master do what he does best.  The fights have since inspired countless other scenes in countless other movies.  They've got everything from the great stuntwork to the very distinct sound effect of a fist smashing into someone's face.  You know that sound, don't deny it.  Sure, the thugs attack one at a time, rendering their attempts useless, but what kung fu/karate movie doesn't utilize that tactic.  After all, they are just nameless thugs waiting to be punched, kicked or maimed.

The highlight of all this action is the finale with Lee's Ah Lung battling Norris' Colt in the Roman Colosseum.  The build-up to this scene is great -- including using a sample of Ennio Morricone's Once Upon a Time in the West score -- as Ah Lung and Colt circle each other through the Roman ruins waiting for the other one to strike.  The actual fight sequence was filmed on a set somewhere with a backdrop serving as the Colosseum, but even knowing they weren't really there, the sequence is a doozy.  It's just close enough to be the real thing, and the one-on-one fight is so well-handled you don't even notice.  The entire sequence from beginning to end is nearly 15 minutes long (watch some HERE) and is by far the best thing going for the movie.  As for that geographical misstep, Lee chases a bad guy into the Colosseum from an Italian villa.  Now I've never been to Rome, but I could have sworn the ruins were in downtown Rome.  Ah, no big deal, it works here even if it makes no sense at all.  And also, don't watch the ending if you're a fan of any of the many Chuck Norris-isms.  You'll be sorely disappointed.

So overall, a really eclectic mix of the good and bad that comes with lower-budget foreign movies.  At its worst, this movie is pretty bad, and I struggled getting through the early portions of the story.  The final run time is 98 minutes so we're not talking a long, epic movie, but it sure did feel like it at times.  For me, the only way I can recommend this movie is because of Bruce Lee's immense talent and some still unmatched fight sequences, especially the finale.  Know what to expect from 'Way' and you won't be disappointed. Just don't expect a classic like Enter the Dragon.

Way of the Dragon <---trailer (1972): **/****

Thursday, September 16, 2010


Bursting onto the movie scene like few other directors have, M. Night Shyamalan had a huge, surprise hit with his first movie, 1999's The Sixth Sense.  It was a movie that caught people off guard with its quality and especially the huge, twist ending that on repeated viewings seems painfully obvious, but that first viewing? About as complete a shock as a movie can produce.  But since Sixth Sense, Shyamalan's movies have gone progressively downhill for the most part.  The one exception seems to be 2002's Signs.

It's easier judging movies at the time they were made and not 8 years later because a lot can change in that time.  But with Signs, it's hard not to see how the mighty have fallen.  Shyamalan's four movies since have ranged from below average to panned and stars Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix have both hit some road blocks in their career, more on a personal level with personal choices than actual career choices. But at the time they were all near or at the top of their games in terms of fan following and a general popularity.  Since? Maybe not so much, but it's hard not to watch this movie and think about the departures from success this trio has gone through.

Living on his family farm some 45 miles outside Philadelphia, former reverend Graham Hess (Gibson) wakes up one morning to find huge crop circles in his cornfields.  What could they mean?  Are they elaborate pranks, hoaxes performed by teenagers, or just maybe, could they be something else, something other worldly?  With his brother Merrill (Phoenix) and his two kids, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin), Graham begins to question what's happening, and he's not the only one.  Similar crop circles start popping up in countries all over the world while strange, unexplained lights float over these cities. As the world questions what is going on, Graham remains focused on getting his family through whatever is about to happen.

From the moment the opening credits started and composer James Newton Howard's score kicked in, all I could think was how much the movie's style reminded me of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller. Playing on some Hitchcockian tendencies, Shyamalan makes an often unsettling thriller that for the most part keeps you guessing. He creates a very thick tension, a sense of the coming doom that is about to hit this little farm.  The story is almost entirely contained at the Hess farm with a few quick detours and a character here and there making an appearance.  But above all else, this is a story about the Hess family and their struggles and solutions for this unexplained phenomena taking place all over the world.

Through his handful of movies, Shyamalan has become typecast as the "ending twist director."  You go into his movies now thinking 'I wonder how he's going to trick us here' thanks to the con job he pulled in Sixth Sense.  Well, here's the twist...sort of.  There isn't a major, shocking slap you in the face surprise.  If anything the ending is a little weak in its execution.  Like a lot of thrillers that start off so strongly, Signs struggles to maintain that pace throughout.  It's like Christmas Eve.  You see the presents and wonder what's in them.  The wait and wonder can be half the fun.  The revelation here -- while creepy and well-handled -- falls short in a lot of ways, especially in its resolution.  This isn't a movie-derailing flaw, just one that prevented it from being a near-classic.  The ending is good, but not great.

In the news more for his anti-Semitic rants lately, Gibson shows here that as always, he was a very capable actor capable of pulling off incredibly dramatic roles.  His Graham Hess is a tortured soul, one struggling with an incident from the past that claimed his wife's life.  He tries to trudge on, to start life over again in a sense, raising his kids as best he can.  Graham struggles with the faith that carried him through even the roughest patches in the past and doesn't quite know how to handle this dilemma.  Phoenix has said he's retiring from acting -- a shame because of his epic talent -- and this is another quirky role for him.  I can't put my finger on Merrill, a middle-aged man who never quite lived up to his potential and knows it but is nonetheless a good man who moves in with his brother to help raise the children.  A very solid supporting performance.  Culkin and Breslin also impress on the child actor scale, never grating or annoying, just good actors.

The movie has its fair share of creepy moments with the sense of the unknown hovering over the world.  Shyamalan's shooting style emphasizes all this with camera work that is never invasive or over the top.  His camera isn't moving all around.  Scenes are long, unedited takes that put you on edge because you keep waiting for something huge, something shocking to come flying at the camera.  The fact that the huge surprise never comes? A complaint, but not a major one.  The build-up and tension is strong enough to carry the movie past some of its struggles in the last third.

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

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The High Commissioner

A fish out of water, one of the most reliable story ideas to use when making a movie.  It's easy to take it in any direction whether it be drama, comedy or both.  It seems movies lean more toward the comedy part, but dramatic ventures can be just as good, including 1968's The High Commissioner.  A mostly forgotten smaller budget film with a good cast, 'Commissioner' has an Australian cop from the bush out of his element in London bringing in a murder suspect who happens to be a highly ranking government official.

I stumbled across this one on Netflix a few weeks ago and was curious why I'd never heard a thing about it.  The stars are pretty good considering it is a late 1960s movie -- Rod Taylor and Christopher Plummer among others -- and the story sounded like it had a fair share of political intrigue and excitement. So what's the reasoning for its almost complete lack of popularity or even recognition?  The stars are good, the intrigue is interesting, but that's it.  'Commissioner' is a straightforward thriller/action movie with a twist and turn here and there, but it doesn't possess anything major that sets it apart from the pack.

An Australian bush cop most comfortable and familiar with the Australian Outback, Scobie Malone (Taylor) receives a mission to travel to London and bring back a murder suspect from a case almost 15 years old.  There's finally enough evidence to prosecute him, Sir James Quentin (Plummer), the High Commissioner of Australia currently living and working in London.  Malone meets Quentin who agrees to go back to Australia with him, seemingly having waited all these years to be caught.  But Quentin has one request; he's leading a commission with global trade ramifications that could unite 1st and 3rd world countries.  All he needs is a few days to put it all together.  Malone somewhat suspiciously agrees, not knowing that he's getting into a sticky situation with the powers that be not pleased with Quentin's intentions.

First off, I wasn't expecting the story to focus more on the global summit than Malone's mission to bring Quentin back.  It was a pleasant surprise as the two plots balance each other out.  A good cop no matter where he's working, Malone then devotes himself to protecting Quentin and helping him in any way he can.  There's a leak in the meetings though so the Aussie cop has to narrow down the suspects, including Quentin's secretary Lisa (Camilla Sparv), his wife (Lilli Palmer), a gorgeous woman with suspicious motives (Daliah Lavi), and an American (Calvin Lockhart) who offers to help Malone in his investigation. The solution is not so surprising, but the momentum builds to the more surprising finale after that reveal.

Rod Taylor is one of my favorites, and he doesn't disappoint here as Aussie cop Scobie Malone.  Cool name aside, the character is that fish out of water trying to figure everything out.  He travels to London and is immediately out of place in this high-class setting.  But on the other hand, he's a good cop above all else and no matter the situation he commits himself.  Taylor also handles a lot of his really physical stunts, delivers some comedic one-liners and is pretty smooth in the process.  Plummer drifts in and out of the story, but ever the professional he makes the most of it.  The wisest choice made here is leaving his guilt up in the air until the end.  Did he really kill his first wife so many years ago? If he didn't kill her, why'd he run?  It all comes together nicely in the end, all the story lines converging and wrapping up with a nice tidy bow.

For a movie that's limited by a smaller budget, director Ralph Thomas balances out the limitations with some very cool location shooting.  For every matte painting or indoor set standing in for a dark London street, there's an equally impressive on-location scene.  One highlight has Taylor's Malone chasing down a possible hitman through the London streets and ending up at...Wimbledon, currently hosting the summer tennis major. It's a cool, fast-paced sequence as Malone realizes someone's making another attempt on Quentin's life.  So for all the pretty obvious indoor set shooting, there's the good to balance it all out.

So for all the positive aspects of the movie, what's missing?  I'm not quite sure.  The story lacks a certain energy at times, relying too much on the talents of the actors to carry on through the slow patches.  The biggest issue is that the story doesn't always know where it's going.  It just drifts too much as all these characters go in and out of the story.  Thankfully, the cast is up to the task so any slow parts are still entertaining enough to watch.

The High Commissioner (1968): ***/****

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

I Was Monty's Double

World War II produced its fair share of personalities on all sides, both good and bad.  They were bigger than life people from the high-ranking generals like Patton to the more common soldier like Audie Murphy or JFK who rose to heroic levels through their actions.  The obvious charisma, machismo, whatever you want to call it, translates well to the movies so viewers get the chance to see the Pattons, the Kennedys in their war exploits.  But what about someone who impersonated one of those heroes?  That's 1958's I Was Monty's Double, AKA Hell, Heaven or Hoboken. 

Maybe one of the most famous British generals in history, Bernard Montgomery is also one of the more controversial figures from the war. For all his positives as a general, there's two or three things you could counter with in an equally negative light.  He was egotistical beyond all belief and often made decisions that would benefit him more than his army, his staff or even the war effort, in the process driving Supreme Allied commander Dwight D. Eisenhower absolutely crazy.  An interesting figure if there ever was, Monty's fame and influence play heavily into this 1958 British war picture.  Of course, it was the 1950s and Monty was still alive so this isn't exactly the most factual retelling of a true story.

Early in 1944, two British intelligence agents, Major Harvey (John Mills) and Colonel Logan (Cecil Parker) concoct a plan that could heavily influence the amount of lives saved during the coming invasion. One night at the theater, Harvey sees a General Montgomery impersonator and an idea is formed.  What if the Allies could use this impersonator and have him travel to Gibraltar and North Africa, hoping to trick the Germans into thinking the coming invasion will come from the south and not at the actual Normandy location.  Harvey and Logan work with the actor (M.E. Clifton James, playing himself) to get the mannerisms, the characteristics of the famous general down, and quickly enough, he's the spitting image of Monty.  But that's just for practice.  Can he pull off the ruse in public, even with people who've personally met the general?

Based on a true story -- James actually did impersonate Montgomery during the war in 1944 -- director John Guillermin's movie has a quasi-documentary feel to it.  For such a serious topic though, the tone is often surprisingly comical (and not in a good way).  Much of James' transformation is played for laughs with an oddly out of place musical score from composer John Addison. A story about an Aussie actor posing as one of the war's most recognizable faces leans toward a more serious subject matter if you ask me.  It's never straight slapstick or anything, and the humor is fairly subtle, but it felt grossly out of place for me in an otherwise quality movie.

Even 13 years since the end of the war, James still resembles General Montgomery and right off the bat the movie starts off on a positive note because of his casting.  The guy actually passed for this most famous of generals, convincing the German High Command to move over 60,000 and a Panzer division to the south because German agents saw James making appearances in Gibraltar and North Africa.  Playing himself, James is very natural, a man who questions if he can perform this most epic of performances.  As a viewer, you feel for him in this odd predicament.  He may not have carried a gun on the front lines like so many millions of soldiers, but his actions showed a different bravery.  He displayed a courage that saved the lives of thousands of Allied soldiers.

So when a movie's title describes your character, the movie basically sinks or swims with that person.  James is perfect playing himself, but Mills and Parker are extremely key characters to go along with the lead.  Neither part is especially flashy as the British duo tackle the more workmanlike roles that keep the story chugging along.  Mills gets more screen time as Major Harvey and doesn't disappoint.  Once James goes out as Montgomery, Mills' Harvey poses as an adjutant always by his side, always there to help him out in a pinch.  The more I see of John Mills, the more a fan I become, and this is another solid part.  Parker is given less to do but nails the part of the stiff upper lip, highly sophisticated, smooth British agent.  Barbara Hicks has a good part too as the secretary who helps arrange this ambitious spy game.

When at its best, 'Double' deals with the high-wire act James and his support team go through.  One slip-up and the whole thing goes down the drain with disastrous consequences.  The 2nd half of the movie when James steps up to the plate is the more exciting half obviously, including one fictionalized account of a possible German commando mission to kidnap "Monty."  Fictional maybe, but it's an exciting ending with a good build-up to a genuinely funny final line.  A true story and generally a forgotten one, but a good movie nonetheless.

I Was Monty's Double <---TCM clips (1958): ***/****    

Monday, September 13, 2010

Green Zone

After the highly successful The Bourne Identity, director Paul Greengrass stepped in and did something rare with the trilogy.  The three movies got better with each new movie, thanks to a frenetic shooting style and the always reliable, always cool Matt Damon as super spy and hit man Jason Bourne. The movies were so good in fact that when Greengrass teamed up with Damon for 2010's Green Zone, it looked like Bourne visting Iraq for a tour of duty. Unfair? Maybe, but at its heart it is a popcorn thriller that reeks of professionalism and style.

What worked against any possible success this movie could have had was that the story is based in 2003 Iraq just weeks after the U.S. invaded the country.  In the years since 9/11 and the subsequent events, there hasn't been a movie dealing with those topics in the Middle East that hit theaters and just dominated the box office.  The memories are still fresh, and as viewers we can still look on the evening news for reports of what's going on.  Add to that issue that many Americans don't believe we should have ever gotten involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Greengrass is really up against it with this movie.  A movie about a war we should never have been involved in has been like box office poison over the last nine-plus years.  But give this one a chance on DVD. It's more than worth it.

Leading an Army team in Baghdad assigned the mission of finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon) thinks something is up.  Intelligence reports keep coming in telling where to find these WMDs, but Miller and his team keep coming up empty.  Fed up with the failure, Miller seeks additional information.  Is everything being done that can be done, or do these weapons actually exist?  He gets more suspicious when a Dept. of Defense official (Greg Kinnear) tells him to drop it. With some help from a CIA agent (Brendan Gleeson) who knows more than he's letting on, Miller starts his own investigation and begins to think a huge cover-up is to blame for the lack of any evidence of Iraqi WMDs.

With a story about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, only people completely clueless to recent history don't know how this movie is going to end. Now in 2010, the events taking place seem like they're from a long time ago, and Greengrass doesn't shy away from showing the idiocy of U.S. involvement in Iraq.  He has some fun with President Bush's Mission Accomplished speech as the war continues in Baghdad and casualties continue to mount. There's no way to tell this story without a cynical view because we do know the end result of the search for WMDs.  The government here is trying to cover things up, the soldiers on the ground are the ones paying for it, and the truth is a sidebar that no one really seems interested in.

About halfway through the movie, I thought of what the cast reminded me of, Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  Damon is the good, Kinnear the bad, and Gleeson the ugly.  (No offense, Brendan, I meant more about motivation than appearance).  Damon is an ideal choice to play Chief Miller.  He dives into the role as always and convinces us as viewers that he knows what he's doing.  Drama or comedy, I don't know if there's a better actor out there right now.  Kinnear is that sneaky, sketchy government official you know has an ulterior motive.  Gleeson is underused but still makes a strong character, a CIA agent playing things close to his chest.  Also in the cast is Amy Ryan as a journalist duped liked everyone else, Jason Isaacs as a Special Forces soldier going up against Miller, and Khalid Abdalla as Freddy, Miller's Iraqi translator.

My biggest pet peeve about the Bourne movies was Greengrass' ultra-hyper shooting style that makes what's on screen impossible to keep up with.  Fight and chase scenes are a blur with just hints of what's going on.  I've always felt like showing everything in a manageable fashion is an obvious way to impress the viewer.  If something cool is on-screen, show us!  Don't cut it to the point of making in indecipherable mess.  Green Zone continues that trend, but it's not awful, just noticeable.  That said, the last 20 minutes are fast-paced and chaotic (in a good way) with some great action as Miller races through Baghdad at night in hopes of capturing an Iraqi general who may hold the key to the WMD problem.  The aggressive shooting style certainly does give the movie a realistic, right there with the soldier feel, but pulling back even a little couldn't hurt.

So for an exciting, well-made thriller that only grossed $35 million in theaters, what could have been changed? Basically change the setting, and you've got a hit.  It is exciting from the word go, and the pacing never slows as the mystery begins to unravel.  But it is still uncomfortable watching a movie about the conflict and fighting in Iraq when it feels like we're still so wrapped up in it all.  Maybe like so many Vietnam movies, it will just take a grace period before people can appreciate the quality of the movies.  Green Zone is definitely one worth checking out though.

Green Zone <---trailer (2010): ***/****

Sunday, September 12, 2010


Nothing personal here, but just in case, I'm sorry to any Brits reading this.  I didn't intend to do multiple reviews so closely about British military disasters, but here goes.  After reviewing Zulu Dawn a few weeks back, we jump ahead in time to the early part of WWII when those cocky Brits were up to it again.  There really needs to be a sarcasm font is all I can think of as I write this.  One part epic disaster and one part heroism to the nth degree, the battle of Dunkirk was a history changer and if it had ended differently, could have been the final straw in Adolf Hitler completely taking over Europe.  In movie form, the focus is more on the heroism in 1958's aptly titled Dunkirk.

It's late spring in 1940, and English and French forces are perched on the Belgium border across from the waiting German armies.  No one seems overly concerned at the build-up of German troops, and then the attack comes, waves of soldiers pushing the English and French back across France.  The troops in mass retreat are just trying to stay one step ahead of the Germans on their heels.  As the attack continues and the lines continue to collapse, a small sector near the port city of Dunkirk is all that remains for the Allied forces.  Their backs against the sea, hundreds of thousands of troops wait for their ultimate destruction while back in England the home front attempts to organize a rescue.  Hundreds of non-military boat and ship owners sail across the English Channel hoping to rescue as many troops as possible, but can they be rescued in time before the Germans overwhelm them?

Just on pure bravery and heroism, this is one of the most amazing stories to come out of WWII.  Thousands of Allied soldiers were on the verge of being wiped out, and the home front organized this massive effort to save those troops.  The beaches around Dunkirk were packed with troops and therefore wide open to air attacks by the German Luftwaffe.  The ships coming to save them?  Even more wide open and completely exposed to attack.  Casualties were enormous among these heroic Englishmen and over 70 years later it is a story that is hard to comprehend in the simplicity of the bravery involved.  Odds against them, these men and women risked it all to save others.  If there's a better way to put it, I can't think of it.

This disastrous WWII campaign is told from two different perspectives.  One is a British corporal, Cpl. Tubby Bins (John Mills), who finds himself in charge of a motley squad of British soldiers after the highest ranking officer around is killed.  Two is the effort from private British citizens back in England organizing the rescue effort, seen through the eyes of a British newspaper reporter (Bernard Lee) and a factory owner (Richard Attenborough) who must balance out his fears with his desire to do what's right.  It's a great balance because one or the other would have been effective, but combining the two gives a much bigger perspective of the scale involved.  Thousands of soldiers were lost in the shuffle of the retreat, but seeing one man and a handful of soldiers puts it all in a very personal light.

I grew up watching John Mills as Father Robinson in Swiss Family Robinson so I've always been a fan.  But the more I see him in dramatic roles, the more I like him as an actor, not just a great memory from growing up.  His Corporal Bins is another great character for him.  Slight in stature, Mills is no super-soldier gunning down legions of German troops.  He's a regular guy thrust into an unlikely leadership position.  Robert Urquhart plays Pvt. Mike along with Ray Jackson and Meredith Edwards as some of the soldiers under Bin's command.  The 'lost patrol' aspect of the story was my favorite part as Bins' squad makes their way back across France dodging Luftwaffe strafes and roaming German patrols.

Still strong but not quite as strong is the build-up to the sea rescue.  Lee and Attenborough balance each other out, Lee willingly to volunteer to commit his small boat to the effort, Attenborough not so sure about committing so much.  Now this is a British-made movie about a British disaster so you can figure out that in the end everyone gets a chance to redeem themselves.  That said, the performances from these two class-act actors are top notch.  Subtle in their effectiveness without any big theatrics, both characters let their actions speak louder than any words could.

What was most impressive was the depiction of the Dunkirk beaches packed to the gills with waiting British troops.  Thousands of extras were used to show just how crowded this long stretch of beach really was.  The problem is that the last 30 or 40 minutes get a little tedious in showing how hopeless the situation is.  At a certain point it's just beating us over the head.  The end is an uplifting one though, especially knowing that the heroism displayed by soldier and civilian alike ends up helping turn the tide of war.  Also worth pointing out, Malcolm Arnold's musical score seems like a rehash of his 'River Kwai' score.  Minor complaint in an above average look at a military disaster that could have been a debacle.

Dunkirk <---trailer (1958): ***/****

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Our Man in Havana

I think the best description I ever heard of British actor Alec Guinness was that he was a chameleon.  There wasn't a role he couldn't get into and really flesh it out.  Countless actors were asked to play the part that he may be most known for in The Bridge on the River Kwai, Charles Laughton even admitting "I didn't know how to play that part until I saw Guinness perform."  That's him.  Comedy, drama, sci-fi, action, he could do it all.  His comedy is often a perfect blend of physical and subtle, like 1959's Our Man in Havana

Based on a novel by the typically dark but never dull Graham Greene, 'Havana' gives Guinness a chance to show off his impressive acting chops.  You look at him and think he just doesn't look like a comedic actor.  He's too stiff upper-lip British, too gentlemanly, and then you see him do his thing.  It is a story based in the months leading up to the Fidel Castro takeover in 1959, and more interesting than that, the movie was filmed in Havana after Castro took over...with some serious restrictions of course.

Running a small vacuum cleaner store in Havana, 40-something salesman Jim Wormold (Guinness) is one day approached in his shop by another British national, Hawthorne (Noel Coward). An agent for British intelligence, Hawthorne wants Wormold to set up his own ring in Cuba, keep tabs on all the goings on.  The salesman laughs off the offer and moves on.  That is until his daughter (Jo Morrow) is growing up and needs all sorts of things. Wormold agrees to become an agent, but when he attempts to recruit his own sources he draws blanks left and right.  So instead, he starts to report he has countless agents who have stumbled upon a major Cuban military venture, possibly a missile? Apparently not thinking things through, trouble is about to hit the fan when British intelligence investigates, wanting to know more about all these things Wormold has fabricated.  In trouble much?

This is the darkest of comedies mostly because of that trouble that arises.  For the early parts of the story, Wormold's deception is played for laughs, including a great montage as he "reports" how he came to recruit his throng of agents compared with what actually happened upon meeting them.  Then his codes are broken by other rival intelligence agents -- who we never find out -- so when a support team (including secretary/assistant Maureen O'Hara) comes to help coordinate everything, the jig is up.  It's only a matter of time before everything and everyone gets figured out.  As for that dark humor, some of Wormold's "agents" start showing up dead.  Oops, didn't mean for that to happen.

Guinness might not be considered a great comedic actor, but you can chalk that up to how dry he was on screen.  He's never over-performing.  He's subtle and sells lines with a quick look or a blink and you'll miss it reflex.  The best part of this performance is when Wormold is forced to improvise, convincing O'Hara's Beatrice that he's on the up and up.  She believes him, but his actions are played so off the cuff like he's calm and suave, not bothered that his "agents" are ignoring him and in some cases upset he's anywhere near them.  I love Guinness in his dramatic parts, but he's no slouch when it comes to comedy.

Basically playing straight men/women to Guinness's predicament is a great supporting cast.  O'Hara plays a different part than usual, a career woman in an intelligence agency that has her moving around constantly.  She has a good patter with Guinness who wants to tell her the truth but never seems to be able to get around to it.  Burl Ives plays Dr. Hasselbacher, a German doctor and friend of Wormold's who thinks he's gotten too far into something he can't possibly control. Ernie Kovacs takes a stab at the slimy villain, Captain Segura, a Bautista enforcer curious as to what's going on while also showing interest in Milly, Wormold's daughter. Coward is perfectly British as agent Hawthorne, and Ralph Richardson as 'C,' the supervisor trying to piece it all together, get laughs just by playing it all straight.

Stories and impressive casting aside, the coolest part of this movie is a look into 1959 Havana, Cuba just months after Castro and his army overthrew the Bautista regime.  Director Carol Reed received permission to shoot in Havana, choosing to film in black and white. Reed's camera is right there in the street with his actors, giving the proceedings a real sense of what's going on.  The indoor scenes were filmed in studios in England, but they can't all be winners.  An interesting, often very funny movie with Guinness at his comedic best.

Our Man in Havana <---trailer (1959): ***/****

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Long Gray Line

Through all his films, a common, somewhat unexpected link bonds the movies of director John Ford.  It's not cowboys vs. Indians or John Wayne, Henry Fonda or Richard Widmark, but a sense of family and the importance of staying close to those you're related to. One of 11 children from an Irish family, Ford's beliefs filtered into his movies.  The stories, the settings, the characters, the famous John Ford stock company of supporting actors and actresses, Ford for all his aggression and belligerence was a family man.

When comparing his movies, it's easy to overlook his non-westerns.  When in front of a Congressional hearing, Ford even introduced himself saying "I'm John Ford, I make westerns."  But over a career that spanned decades and over 100 movies, it's unfair to just say he was a good director of westerns.  He was a good director for all his faults and tendencies that can drive me nuts at times.  Maybe the best example of a Ford movie -- non-western -- is 1955's The Long Gray Line, a departure from the expected Ford movie but still similar in many ways. 

An Irish immigrant fresh off the boat in New York, young Martin Maher (Tyrone Power) travels to the United States Military Academy at West Point in upstate New York. He enlists in the army and right away begins helping the cadets, some just as a mentor, others as an instructor in classes.  Marty can be a bit of a klutz, a bit of a doof at times, but when the chips are down, he's a good friend and a better man.  The years go by, and Marty continues to reenlist while also marrying Mary O'Donnell (Maureen O'Hara), a pretty redhead from Ireland. They send for Marty's family from Ireland (father Donald Crisp, brother Sean McClory) and life continues, the whole family together again.  And so the years go by, West Point unchanging as the world changes around it in the first half of the 20th Century.

When Ford gets it right, he typically hits a home run, and this qualifies in many ways.  One review described it as a "very Irish" movie.  And somehow that description is dead on more than just the main characters being Irish.  It's about family and sticking together through thick and thin.  More than that, it's the extended family you make in your life.  All those things that drive me up the wall are here, but whether he realized it or not, Ford reins it all in.  It never gets to be too much.  The story is downright sappy at  times, but I don't think Ford ever intended to do anything but that.  For the most part, it hits all the right notes, happy, sad and everything in between.

This was never an intentional slight, but this was the first Tyrone Power movie I'd ever seen from beginning to end.  I never had a negative idea of Power as an actor, but I guess it's fair to say it wasn't particularly positive either.  Above all else, Power's performance here as Sgt. Martin Maher is the reason to check this one out.  Marty is one of the most likable characters ever, willing to help whatever and whoever needs his help.  We see this over the years the impression he makes on his cadets who end up looking at him as a father figure, or at least a big brother looking out for their best interests.  Power gives Marty some funny bits, nails the emotional scenes, and handles an Irish accent that if handled poorly could have derailed the part.  A great performance to lead the movie.

Mentioned earlier, Ford's stock company of actors was a long list of actors/actresses the director worked with on repeated times.  If you've seen more than one Ford movie, you've no doubt seen these faces whether you knew it or not.  'Gray Line' is full of these folks, starting with O'Hara in a perfectly cast part as Marty's tough-minded wife Mary, an ideal match for the equally strong-willed and tough-minded Marty.  Crisp isn't in the movie for long but certainly makes quite an impression as Marty's old school Pops.  My favorite of the stock company has always been Ward Bond, and he doesn't disappoint as Major Keeler, Marty's commanding officer. Also look for Ford regulars Harry Carey Jr. and Patrick Wayne along with Robert Francis, Peter Graves, Philip Carey and William Leslie filling out some meatier supporting parts.

Only one complaint here, and I'll keep it brief.  A story that covers 50-plus years in 140 minutes can't help but feel a little episodic, a little disjointed.  Characters go in and out at will, no explanations offered, but the link through all the slower moving segments is Power as Martin Maher.  Throw the performances in with some great on-location shooting at West Point that help sell the tradition and honor of the academy, and you've got a winner if not quite a classic.

The Long Gray Line <---trailer (1955): ***/****

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Robert Stack double feature

As part of their annual Summer Under the Stars festival in August, Turner Classic Movies has again done a great job of going beyond the typically popular stars and devoting a day to them.  Sure, some of the bigger stars get their days, but for the most part lesser stars are getting their shots.  One included TV star Robert Stack who before he became Elliott Ness was in a fair number of movies in the 1950s. But I'm going to pull a bit of a cop-out here.  I taped two westerns Stack starred in, and really, neither was anything special.  So you all know what that means....a two-fer review!

The two westerns, 1956's Great Day in the Morning and 1953's Conquest of Cochise, are pretty typical of most 1950s westerns. They're hamstrung by a smallish budget and a small scale, and are basically filled out with enough good guy vs. bad guy action and romantic triangles to fill 90 minutes and give the audience what they paid for.  'Morning' has some unused potential to be a really good B-western while 'Conquest' is more content to just sit back with some odd casting and let the story do its own work.  Neither are available on DVD, probably for a reason, but I can think of worse westerns, and I've seen some doozies.

With war on the horizon in 1861, Owen Pentecost (Stack) rides west into Colorado.  A Southerner, he's used to putting up with some anti-South sentiments, even more so when he wins a saloon in a poker game from a northern businessman, Jumbo Means (Raymond Burr). With some help with a saloon girl (Ruth Roman), Owen goes about building a business as the Civil War looms and animosity grows between the North and South. A pretty new shopowner (Virginia Mayo) has arrived in town to stir up some more problems, and a rumor that a Southern-owned mine is transporting gold back to the east hovers over the town.

Watching movies, I struggle more and more with main characters who just aren't likable.  I don't need a lovey-dovey sweetheart, but give me some reason to like a character.  Stack's Pentecost (what kind of name is that?) is that condescending a-hole who comes across as too standoffish, and therefore, I don't like him.  Burr is an immense villain -- the guy looks huge -- and Roman delivers a good performance as the saloon girl with a heart of gold...sort of. The story deals with a topic most westerns steer clear of -- pre Civil War in the west -- but it's pretty run of the mill overall.  There was a chance to be something better, but I can't put my finger on exactly what's missing that director Jacques Tourneur didn't accomplish.  Look for Leo Gordon as a heavy with a grudge against Stack.

In 'Conquest,' Stack plays Major Tom Burke, a cavalry officer assigned with four companies to Tucson to help keep the hostile situation in control.  Apache chief Cochise (John Hodiak) could go either way, start a war with the ever-growing number of American settlers settling on Apache land, or arrange a peace treaty so the two sides may live in peace. That's just one problem though as a tribe of Comanches is nearby and threatening to attack everyone in sight, whites, Mexicans and Apaches alike. Major Burke and his cavalry and Cochise and his warriors may be forced to fight alongside each other if they have any chance of surviving the coming war.

What surprised me about this 70-minute western was the almost complete disregard for the cavalry perspective for a change, instead focusing on the Apache's perspective.  Once you get past the ridiculous casting of Hodiak as an Apache chief, it's a good ride.  When he's not talking in stunted, stilted "Indian talk," Hodiak is more than solid at introducing the Apache way of life.  For a B-western average in any other way, it's a refreshing look at the Indians' way of life in the 19th Century.  How authentic? I'm not sure, but effort gets points here.  Stack's portrayal of a woman-chasing cavalry officer is downright dull, and he ends up disappearing for about 20, maybe 25 minutes late in the movie only to reappear at a strategically necessary time.

Not being a huge Robert Stack fan to begin with -- he always come across as bland and wooden to me -- these two movies did nothing to change my mind either way.  The supporting casts were actually better than the star in both cases, and if nothing else the stories tried something new, a little different, where many westerns play it safe.  Average but not bad either.

Great Day in the Morning <---TCM trailer (1956): ** 1/2 /**** 
Conquest of Cochise <--- TCM trailer (1953): **/****

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Growing up, I became a reader at a young age, and I'd read just about anything having to do with the old west.  Fiction and non-fiction, novels, short stories or encyclopedias, they were all the same to me.  The master of the western story, Louis L'Amour, obviously appealed a lot to me, and I still remember the first book of his I read, The First Fast Draw.  I still read his books from time to time because above all else, they're the literary equivalent of comfort food.  You know what you're getting each time you open one of his books.

In the last few months, I've reviewed several L'Amour ventures into movies, made for TV movies and even TV shows.  Unlike bigger scale westerns where the scale was important, L'Amour's novels never had that problem.  They usually focused on a handful of main characters instead of hundreds of speaking parts and were about the problems of those individuals rather than a bigger western where a whole town or territory might be in danger.  So with that thought, maybe Louis L'Amour and his novels were cut out for made-for-TV movies where the smaller scale was a benefit, not a hindrance.  Not one of the best examples but a decent enough western, 1991's Conagher.

Traveling west with her recently married husband and his two kids from his previous marriage, Evie Teale (Katharine Ross) finds herself running the homestead by herself in unforgiving territory.  Her husband went to buy cattle and has been missing for months, leaving her to believe he died somehow because he wouldn't just abandon his family.  But Evie trudges on, living the toughest of frontier lives from day to day.  A drifting cowboy, Conn Conagher (Sam Elliott), stops by one day on the trail and helps out briefly before moving on.  There is a connection immediately between Evie and Conn, but they seem almost fated not to be together. But trying to carve out a living on their own, the two similar minded people can't help but be drawn to each other.

Some actors are cut out for certain genres, and Sam Elliott belongs in westerns, plain and simple.  He has the look and the acting style that fits in perfectly with the genre.  More than that, he's cut out to play a L'Amour hero, hard-working, tough, always willing to help, and honest/loyal to a fault.  Basically, he's a man of principle.  This was Elliott's fourth appearance in a movie based off a L'Amour novel, and he's got the part down to an art by now.  His performance is the best part of the movie, and the story tends to drag when he's not around.  It drags some even when he is around, but that's not entirely his fault.

Now I haven't read Conagher so I may be criticizing the movie more than I am the book here.  At 117 minutes, this feels too disjointed without any unifying connection through the story.  There are these little episodic sidebars that reveal more about the character but never anything surprising.  Conagher signs on with an old rancher (Ken Curtis in a solid supporting turn) who is being run out by a rival ranch.  These scenes show Conn's willingness to do what's right when it'd be easier to bail, but that's nothing we didn't know already. Then to add insult to injury, this drifter cowboy must tangle with two rustlers (James Gammon and Paul Koslo).  Streamline the story some and these segments are gone for an overall more well organized story.   

It isn't often I'm about to say this, but this is a western that could have used more of the romantic subplot that it introduces but doesn't do anything with until the end.  Married in real life, Elliott and Ross have an obvious chemistry together without much in the way of words spoken.  After a brief scene early where they meet, they spend most of the rest of the movie apart.  Maybe I was just expecting something different from the story where they meet early, fall for each other and go from there, but I was disappointed in how the relationship developed.  Basically they spend too much time apart in the slow-moving middle sections that don't do much anyways.

The rest of the cast is solid for a TV western.  Barry Corbin is the best part as McCloud, the stagecoach driver who frequents the Teale's place. Billy Green Bush appears very briefly as Jacob, Evie's husband, with Gavan O'Herlihy making a reliably evil bad guy.  Also look for recognizable western faces Buck Taylor as a rival cowboy and Dub Taylor as a stagecoach station agent.  It's a decent enough western, but other than Elliott and Ross I'm remembering little to recommend.  Average in every way and probably only for western completists.

Conagher <---trailer (1991): **/****

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Advise and Consent

Recently in the news, former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich was found guilty on one count of 24 levied against him.  A mistrial is in the works, but the news was nothing new.  Controversies and scandals in politics are as old as well, politics itself.  Are we surprised anymore when a politician, whether it be the President or down through the ranks to Senators, Representatives, Governors, and on and on, does something stupid in the news?  Sex, past indiscretions, corruption, all over the above, nothing seems to faze the American public anymore.

Let's go back almost half a century in more innocent times, I guess, the 1960s weren't exactly innocent.  But the times were certainly different without that 24-hour news cycle that keeps viewers up to date on everything going on.  Politicians could have secrets and that's just what they were, secrets.  The master of adult-themed movies, Otto Preminger explored this concept with 1962's Advise and Consent. When you accept a position in the public eye, you lose your privacy to a certain point.  You open yourself up for criticism on many fronts, but if this Preminger movie teaches us anything, we all have secrets. It's only a matter of time before they're found out.

The President of the United States (Franchot Tone) has chosen a nominee for the vacant position of the Secretary of State. The man is Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) and from the get-go, the nomination divides the Senate who will have to approve or disapprove him. The Senate majority leader (Walter Pidgeon) is all for the choice and knows he can get the necessary number of votes for Leffingwell. Opposing him is a long-time senator from South Carolina (Charles Laughton), who was burned by Leffingwell in the past and still holds a grudge. But before a vote can be counted, the nomination must go through a Senate sub-committee headed by an idealistic young senator (Don Murray) who will decide if Leffingwell is capable of doing the job. But as the committee starts, the dirt comes out and the fight begins.

As he did so often with his movies, Preminger puts together a very impressive ensemble cast to work with.  It's so good from top to bottom that Fonda -- yes, Henry Fonda -- is almost an afterthought as a supporting character.  He doesn't even make an appearance in the last 30 minutes.  Preminger was a perfectionist as a filmmaker, but actors must have liked working with him.  Along with the names mentioned above, there is also Gene Tierney, Peter Lawford, Will Geer, Burgess Meredith, Lew Ayres, and Paul Ford among others. Like any large ensemble, some in the cast get more of a chance to shine than others, but none disappoint however long they're on screen.  Murray, Pidgeon and Laughton are the ones that shine brightest though, including Ayres as a vanilla vice president.

This isn't a movie about camera techniques or in your face effects.  Preminger lets takes and scenes go on uninterrupted without the slightest editing.  Characters hold conversations like they would in real life.  He lets his cast show off their ability, letting the dialogue do all the talking the story needs.  At times, the pace can be infuriatingly slow (it is 140 minutes long) because of that, especially toward the end when the pace should be picking up, but it's all part of the story the movie revels in.  Preminger filmed in countless locations in Washington DC -- shooting in black and white -- giving a real feel for all the backroom deals and shady motives that really go on in the capital.  It doesn't intentionally call attention to itself, but the movie is a treat to watch on a purely visual level.

What was somewhat disappointing as the story develops is that by 2010, nothing really surprised me in terms of government scandals and controversies.  In the last 10 or 20 years, there has been murder, extramarital affairs, corruption, prostitution, kidnappings, and any number of other things I'm probably forgetting.  So when the scandals do pop up, including Fonda's Leffingwell and his past involvement in a different government and Murray's Senator's past coming back to haunt him, they don't have a huge affect on the viewer.  Shocking in 1962, maybe, but not in 2010.  Through no fault of Preminger's then (you can't blame him for making a move when he did), the emotional impact is lessened then just by time and how the world has changed in the almost 50 years since.

As everything does unravel in the end and the twists and secrets come out, the story thankfully picks up some steam.  One twist at the very end was a little too coincidental for me personally, the timing just too perfect, but that's movies for you. It is a movie that is as professionally done as just about any other movie you'll come across, and the cast is hard to top.  If there was a way to watch this in 1962, maybe the impact would have been greater, but in 2010, it's still pretty good.

Advise and Consent <---IMDB trailer (1962): ***/****

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Outfit

Organized crime, the mob, the Mafia, all the kingpins of the criminal underworld, and the movies reflect that.  Countless movies have been made about these different criminal organizations, but then of course there's the underdog.  What about the guys trying to take down any of the above?  A suicide mission for some revenge?  A guy with nothing to lose and because of that much more dangerous?  Makes for a good movie if you ask me, especially 1973's The Outfit.

The premise of a lone gunman going after the mob is nothing new and has been done several times since 1973, including Mel Gibson in Payback and Tom Hanks in Road to Perdition among others.  Payback is almost an exact reworking of the story here, but the original is still the best.  If you needed to explain to someone what a 1970s crime thriller was about, The Outfit could be a blueprint for everything that is good about that type of movies.  Perfect casting, exciting action, a cynical, very dark tone, a little black humor thrown in, and a gritty style that just can't be replicated.

Fresh out of prison, Earl Macklin (Robert Duvall) finds out his brother has been killed by two hit men, supposedly for a job the brothers pulled off years before on a mob bank. With a former girlfriend (Karen Black) along for the ride, Macklin survives a hit attempt on his own life and decides to go on the offensive.  He enlists the help of a former partner, Cody (Joe Don Baker), and the duo goes to work.  Macklin wants $250,000 for the trouble 'the outfit' has caused him, but when they don't pay up they start hitting backroom casinos and mob fronts, taking all the money in sight.  But as they go up the ladder, Macklin and Cody realize they'll have to go right to the top, the big-time mobster in charge, Mailer (Robert Ryan). The mobster's waiting for them though and nobody might get out alive.

This is everything that's good about a 1970s B-movie crime thriller.  No big budget, no huge scale, just two pissed off guys with nothing to lose going after the mob.  Director John Flynn shoots his movie in seedy motels, back room offices and dark alleys where a story like this would actually take place.  It was filmed in and around Los Angeles, the locations being one of the strong suits of the movie.  You feel like you're there with Macklin and Cody.  This isn't high class, high end mafiosos were talking about, just low-level thugs.  Everything from the 1970s boats of cars, the bad suits, the awful style, it all works to perfection here.

I've written before about my love of character actors, and Flynn goes all out here to round out his cast.  What was so great about 70s movies was that an actor would take a supporting role that might not require more than a scene or two.  They'd make a quick appearance and be gone, but that's just one scene.  There would be another and another until you've got all these great names filling out the story.  More on the leads later, but the support is as good as it gets.  Timothy Carey plays a mob go-between, Richard Jaeckel and Bill McKinney play mechanic brothers supplying cars for crooks with Sheree North along as McKinney's slutty wife, Felice Orlandi and Tom Reese as two hit men, film noir femme fatale Jane Greer as Macklin's sister-in-law, among many other recognizable faces you'll be watching out for.

Now there's the buddy cop movie, but here there is the buddy crook movie (mostly holding back on the humor). Duvall and Baker make this movie as Macklin and Cody.  Duvall is basically the anti-hero of all-time.  He didn't have classic good looks, he was a little pudgy, he was balding, but it all adds up nicely.  He's an all-around hardass who knows what he wants and doesn't care who gets hurt in the process as long as he gets it.  Baker's Cody is a little more laid back but equally capable of handling himself.  Like any buddy movie, there's a bond, a link between these two men who know their chances of survival are slim but go ahead anyways.  At one point, Macklin says Cody can walk out, no hard feelings.  Cody answers in typical tough guy fashion "I want to see how it turns out."  It doesn't get much cooler than that in true anti-hero form.

Making what amounts to an extended cameo, Robert Ryan's Mailer of course gets progressively pissed off at these two low-level hoods.  That leads to the equivalent of a suicide mission as Macklin and Cody go gunning for him at his heavily guarded estate.  The ending is full of tension and some great action, but there's a bit of a cop out in the last scene.  No spoilers here, and honestly, it doesn't ruin the movie but I could have thought of a better ending.  No DVD available, but if you stumble across this one, plant yourself in a seat, sit back and enjoy.

The Outfit <---TCM clip (1973): *** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Ensign Pulver

Released in 1955 in movie theaters after a successful run on Broadway, Mister Roberts is a WWII classic of a cargo supply ship thousands of miles from the fighting in the Pacific dealing with the extreme boredom of the war.  Henry Fonda plays the titular character in one of his most memorable roles, James Cagney plays the captain who might as well have a bullseye on his back, and Jack Lemmon won an Oscar for his part as Ensign Pulver, the morale and laundry officer.  It's a classic for a reason including one of the more moving endings to a movie.

Naturally with all that going for it, especially the ending wrapped up with a nice, tidy bow, a sequel was made with the same characters played by different actors.  If that's not a recipe for success, I don't know what is.  The result is 1964's Ensign Pulver, an unnecessary sequel if there ever was.  My complaints about sequels is that usually they're just money generators.  The few good ones are those that build on the original, whether it is answering unsolved questions or plot lines or finding a new direction to go.  'Ensign' falls short of either, basically continuing the story Mister Roberts started.  The only problem? There was no need to continue it.

It's in the waning months of WWII in the Pacific and far from the battle and action is a supply cargo ship off a small island with no strategic purpose at all, the ship's commander, Captain Morton (crooner Burl Ives), still insisting on doing things as if they were near the front. In the process, he drives his crew crazy with all of his punishments and strictness.  Ensign Frank Pulver (Robert Walker Jr.) is content to ride out the war without causing as much as a wave, but even he is finally pushed too far. With some help from the on-board medical officer, Doc (Walter Matthau), Pulver begins to plot against the captain, each plan more ridiculous than the next.

Fairly or unfairly when looking at a sequel with a different cast than the original, you're going to compare.  So before a word is spoken here, 'Ensign' is swimming against the current.  Jack Lemmon or Walker Jr.?  Tut-tut, that's a stupid question.  James Cagney or Burl Ives? Cagney going away.  Matthau is the one improvement I thought over William Powell's Doc, but a 33% isn't that good overall.  More than anything else though, the biggest problem here is basically a retelling of the story from Mister Roberts.  Pointless much?  Sure, there's more comedy, but that's not necessarily a good thing.  Just because a movie is popular doesn't mean it deserves a sequel, and this one's pretty bad.

In a supporting role in the original, Jack Lemmon is a scene-stealer, and overall the cast has a great dynamic.  Stepping into the Pulver role, Walker Jr. just isn't up to the task.  The character is whiny, self righteous, and shrill to boot, an unlikely trio of character traits for someone we're supposed to be rooting for.  His Pulver goes on rants that the crew don't think much of him while minutes before he was content to stay in his bunk and ride out the rest of the war with as little personal interaction as possible.  He's given the most coincidental love interest as well, a pretty nurse named Scotty (Millie Perkins), but that never amounts to much. It's hard to blame Walker Jr. for not being Jack Lemmon, but I'm going to do it anyways.  He's no Jack Lemmon, and we're moving on.

An immense man physically, Burl Ives did his fair share of movies while also recording countless songs and albums as a singer.  He could be a good actor, but this part is too cartoonish overall.  It's just one thing after another where as an audience we're pushed to the point where you just want someone to shoot him.  Ives also has a scene where his shirt is off, and let me say this, most unnecessary, uncomfortable topless scene in a movie ever.  Matthau as Doc is typically strong, the one man who the captain may listen to, and he doesn't do that too often.  His part provides some laughs in an otherwise bland attempt at humor.  Also in the cast is Larry Hagman, Tommy Sands in a good part as a sailor trying to get a leave home, and a young Jack Nicholson in one of his early movies as Yeoman Dolan.

A rehash of a popular story is one thing, and the first hour is halfway decent just because of the subject matter, but the story crashes into a brick wall about 60-plus minutes in.  Ives' Captain is washed over board in a storm, and Pulver jumps in to save him.  Unbeknownst to the rest of the crew, Pulver and the Captain are awash at sea in a small raft.  When they do find out the captain may be dead, the crew celebrates in a fashion that makes The Village People's 'In the Navy' look incredibly heterosexual.  The twists and plot points in the last hour are those of a madcap 1960s comedy, not a halfway decent service comedy.  All the stops are pulled out with some Pacific native stereotypes, and a dozen or so coincidences too many. The ending tries to do a 180 and get all serious, but that never really comes together.  So moral of the story? Steer clear of this one, stick with Henry Fonda and the original.

Ensign Pulver <---TCM trailer (1964): * 1/2 /****