The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Glory Guys

For over two years, I've been a Netflix member and have caught up with a lot of movies that were either impossible to find or I just wasn't willing to buy to actually see them.  Over the two years, Netflix has added many features but maybe none better than the ability to watch a long list of movies instantly through your computer or even by downloading through your TV.  There are some hidden gems among these many movies, but you've just got to find them.  I stumbled across a western today I've long wanted to see, 1965's The Glory Guys.

I don't know how many years back, but I caught the last 10 or 15 minutes of this on TCM when I got home from school.  Because it looked good and I was interested in seeing it again, it obviously hasn't been on TCM and of course is not available in any format.  Thank you, Netflix, for making it available.  With a screenplay by infamous director Sam Peckinpah, this western is a thinly veiled version of the massacre at the Little Big Horn when George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry were wiped out by a huge grouping of plains Indians. TV director Arnold Laven is listed as the movie's director, but rumors persist that Peckinpah handled some of the directing duties.  For a western that is long forgotten, it has too many positives to be left behind as it is.

After fighting the Apaches in the southwest, Captain Demas Harrod (Tom Tryon) is transferred to Fort Doniphan by the orders of famed Indian fighter General Frederick McCabe (Andrew Duggan).  He is assigned a company in the renowned 3rd Cavalry, but the men are a motley group of misfits with little experience with horses or firearms.  With the help of his company sergeant, Gregory (Slim Pickens), Harrod goes about whipping the men into shape for the coming campaign. Harrod also finds himself in a fight for the hand of widowed gunslinger Lisa Woodard (the always lovely Senta Berger) against Army scout Sol Rogers (Harve Presnell). All their problems aside though, the 3rd Cavalry is part of a huge campaign meant to control the plains Indians for good, and Gen. McCabe is looking for glory in the process, no matter the cost in men.

Part of the reason this western has been forgotten over the last 45 years is the casting of the leads, Tryon and Presnell.  Neither actor was a big star coming into 'Glory Guys' and neither would be afterward.  They're the type of roles you can see much bigger names taking over, but for me I thought the two did solid jobs.  Tryon can be a tad wooden at times, and Presnell's character is underwritten and underused, but they have a good chemistry together as they fight for Berger (and who'd blame them?). The unnecessary love triangle isn't as awful as it could have been thankfully, and besides a few scenes that kill momentum in the middle is left by the wayside.

More than a few things here reminded me of Peckinpah's other 1965 western, Major Dundee.  The big ones are obvious, a cavalry story fighting Indians serving as the basis for both movies' story.  But then there's the location filming in Durango, Mexico for both, and the casting of Berger, Pickens, and Michael Anderson Jr. in an eerily similar role to the one he played in Major Dundee. Whoever ended up directing more of 'Glory Guys,' there is the distinct feel of a Peckinpah movie whether it's seeing the same locations or just the dynamic among male characters.  Peckinpah had a knack for tough, hard-edged male characters who fight and fight only to side with each other when the chips are down.  There is a code among men like these, and they tend to live by it no matter the end result.  So yes, it may be an average western, but it's elements like this that help lift it up a notch or two.

What works best when the story isn't focusing on the love triangle is the training and development of Harrod's D Company as they arrive at the fort only to turn into highly competent cavalry soldiers.  Pickens is perfectly cast as tough Sgt. Gregory with Anderson Jr., a very young James Caan as brawling Irishman Anthony Duggan (the accent is must-hear), Adam Williams, and Erik Holland rounding out the recognizable faces in the company.  Peckinpah's screenplay is at its best when dealing with the training and the camaraderie that develops among these men.  The characters lean to outlines more than red-blooded characters, but Cann especially stands out, as does Anderson Jr.  Tryon's Harrod pushes his men because he's seen Gen. McCabe's dangerous battlefield tactics and knows the better prepared his men are, the more likely they'll make it through alive.  I wish more time could have been spent with D Company, but what's here is quality.

Now onto one of my self-named elements of movies I love, the sense of doom.  With a story about an eventual massacre, you know where everything's going to end up.  The last 45 minutes are dripping with tension as the 3rd Cavalry unknowingly rides to their doom.  The actual battle is a spectacle to behold, hundreds of cavalry and Indians on horseback going toe to toe.  Clearly some serious money was spent on the finale, an epic, well choreographed and constructed battle that would preview similar scenes in Major Dundee and The Wild Bunch.  If you're a Netflix member, I recommend checking this one out, and if not, keep an eye out for it.  How hard is it to find? I couldn't even find a trailer or a video clip.

The Glory Guys (1965): ***/****

Friday, October 29, 2010


Never a huge star in Hollywood circles by his own choice, Jason Patric has had an odd career over the past 25 years or so. He's been in some very successful movies, but it's rare you see him in more than a movie or two every couple of years.  Whatever his reasoning, the movies he has made have generally been of a higher quality.  They are rarely big blockbuster flicks, leaning more toward smaller, hard-hitting indie films, but I've yet to see one where Patric wasn't delivering a great performance.  So even though I didn't really like 1991's Rush, I'll recommend it for his performance and one from his female co-star alone. 

There has been a whole subculture of movies since the 1970s (and before I guess if you count gems like Reefer Madness) about drugs, junkies, and the world they live in.  Almost by nature, these movies are going to be difficult to watch, more so depending on how graphic the depiction of drug use is.  Rush is certainly uncomfortable to watch at times, and at a certain point it stops being interesting to watch because of that problem.  It's a very voyeuristic look at two people struggling with addiction.  There's very little entertaining about that because by a certain point you know where this story is going.  There will be no happy ending here.

An undercover cop in a small Texas town, Jim Raynor (Patric) needs a new partner.  He chooses Kristen Cates (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a young cop fresh out of the academy.  Working undercover, the two officers will try to take down part of the local drug culture from the users and the low-level dealers all the way up the ladder to the suppliers and local kingpins that rule things.  But to be convincing in their job, Jim and Kristen have to completely adapt the lifestyle they're trying to take down, meaning to save their own lives they often enough not only have to buy some heavy duty drugs but also use the drugs.  Their only link to the police force, Captain Dodd (Sam Elliott), knows they have to do their job, but they tread that fine line and with pressure from above, the demands become harsher and harsher, pushing the two further down a road that it will be nearly impossible to come back from. 

To the movie's credit, it feels authentic as Jim and Kristen are immersed in this seedy underworld of drug dealers and users.  It feels like a 'Dummy's Guide to the Drug World' as we see all these people caught up in drug use, but more than that, the techniques, the never-ending paranoia, the relationships that develop, a little bit of everything.  But after being introduced to all these different elements, Rush hits a roadblock.  It becomes repetitive to the point where I found myself fast-forwarding through scenes.  At least 15-20 minute probably could have been cut from the 120-minute running time because anyone with a couple of functioning brain cells can figure out how this story is going to end.  That said, the final scene does deliver a great final twist so stick with the story all the way until the end.

Why I'll still give this a modest recommendation is Patric and Leigh.  As veteran cop Jim Raynor, Patric gives his character this cool edge where he knows how tenuous his job is because if he pushes too far, he won't be  a cop anymore, just a junkie.  He of course, does push himself too far and ends up almost killing himself.  It is alarming and disturbing to watch a character completely fall apart in front of you, realizing what he is doing all the time.  It's a great part for Patric who with Leigh carry the movie.  As young Kristen, Leigh still has an innocence about her, a naivete about what she's gotten herself into.  Just on physical appearance alone, it is startling to watch both actors wither away as the drugs take over their lives and bodies.

Two supporting parts stand out including one more unique bit of casting.  Elliott as Dodd makes the most of his part as the one remaining link Jim and Kristen have with the police force.  His presence alone is a reassurance in his few scenes, especially because he used to do what Jim did and suffered through his own addictions and demons only to move on to a better life with a wife and kids.  Dodd must balance out pressure from above with concerns over what his two officers have gotten themselves into.  The other part is Max Perlich as Walker, a low-level drug dealer who is tied in with everyone and can supply anything given enough time. In the lonely world presented, Walker is just looking for a friend and finds it in Kristen, not knowing what trouble he's gotten himself into.  Also look for Gregg Allman (of the Allman Brothers Band) as Gaines, the local kingpin who runs all the booze, drugs and sex in the area.

The movie itself is well-made, well-told and gritty enough to the point where it feels like a documentary at times.  I wasn't expecting a pleasant, happy go lucky look at the drug culture in a small Texas town, but Rush passed my expectations of a dark, dreary, downright depressing look at two professionals pushing their own limits.  It's hard to root for these two characters, and then the movie as a whole.  Could have been a better finished product, but worth at least one watch for the quality acting.

Rush <---trailer (1991): ** 1/2 /**** 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

You Can't Win 'Em All

Because I'm not the laziest guy around, I'm not going to write the same exact intro for a review...even though I definitely could here.  The transition from the 1960s to the 1970s hit some actors harder than others, and talented individuals found themselves in a situation where they had to reinvent themselves.  I've covered the topic before with Rock Hudson and Audie Murphy among others, but the common denominator seemed to be to go to Europe or television to find work.  Add recently passed Tony Curtis to the list. 

Now I don't know how much Curtis' drinking and drug problems had to do with the detour his career went through in the late 1960s, but something certainly changed for the actor.  Solid, worthwhile roles don't just dry up for no reason at all.  So in the 1960s, Curtis tried both of the previously mentioned alternatives; he tried some TV work including working with Roger Moore in The Persuaders while also going to Europe for some roles, including 1970's underrated and forgotten You Can't Win 'Em All. I watched this a couple years ago and caught up with it this week as part of TCM's tribute to Curtis.  I can't quite put my finger on it, but I really like the movie.  It's a little different, a little weird, but always entertaining.

It's 1922 in Turkey and American Adam Dyer (Curtis) is rescued from his tiny, sinking fishing boat in the Mediterranean Sea by Jeff Corey (Charles Bronson), a fellow American with eyes on riches. The two like-minded individuals team up, and with Corey's crew of mercenaries (mostly WWI vets looking for $) get caught up in the Turkish Civil War. Adam and Jeff aren't picky about ideals or principles, just who's willing to pay more.  They side with the Sultan of Turkey, undertaking a mission to transport some very important people out of the country before it can destabilize any more.  The mercenaries will be well paid for their talents, but something just doesn't add up.  The odds are stacked against them, and it seems that more is going on than meets the eye.  Caught up in a bloody revolution though, can Adam, Jeff and Co. escape unscathed and with money and riches to boot?

Having watched this flick twice now, I couldn't explain why the story seemed so familiar.  Well, reading some reviews over at IMDB helped that out like a train running me over.  Directed by Peter Collinson, 'Win 'Em All' is basically a straight remake of  1954's Vera Cruz starring Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster.  Instead of post-Civil War Mexico, we're treated to post WWI Turkey with basically the same story, plot elements and characters.  No complaints from me because I'm a big fan of Vera Cruz, but just enough is handled differently to set it apart that it an exciting, action-paced comedy buddy pic.  It's not as dark as VC and knows it, reveling in the double crosses and backstabbings.

Working together for the first and only time unfortunately, Curtis and Bronson seem like an unlikely pair to cast as mercenaries ready to turn on the other at the drop of a hat.  Their acting styles don't compare much, but somehow and some way it works.  You know from the moment they're introduced that they may be partners, but they won't be very trusting partners.  Each uses the other to their benefit, and they seem to know the arrangement.  Adam and Jeff are always attempting to one-up the other right up until the very end, and thankfully 'Win 'Em All' doesn't go down the dark road Vera Cruz did in dealing with this rivalry.  Their dialogue is great with plenty of snappy back and forths with some great one-liners, and the chemistry works perfectly.  An unlikely pair, yes, but sometimes the unexpected produces the best results.

Having watched enough European-made movies, you see similar locations pop up in Italy, Spain, France and any number of other countries.  And even in the fullscreen format TCM aired the movie in, you get a great sense of the beauty of Turkey where all of the movie was filmed.  It's a funny thing, but you know what Turkey actually looks like? Turkey.  This isn't an attempt to make the American west look like 1920s Turkey.  The whole movie was filmed in country, and the locations are beyond gorgeous.  Whether it is riding through a rocky, mountainous desert area or resting in a tiny village, this was a great visual movie.  The endless scenes of a column of horsemen riding across the country could have been tedious, but there's enough to look at to keep you interested.

Now on to the fun stuff, the action, and there's plenty.  For a lower budget movie, no expense was spared when the action hits the screen.  Adam and Jeff's crew are outfitted with machine guns (always a good start) so as they traverse their way through the revolution they leave a trail of bodies in their wake.  The requisite barroom brawl kicks things off, and then you can add an assault on an armored train, an artillery barrage on a besieged town, and a doozy of a finale on a boat about to be overwhelmed by the Turkish army.  It's a good jumping off point for an action comedy that has that right tongue in cheek tone without overdoing it and with a solid cast to boot.  Very hard to find, but keep your eye out for it on TCM from time to time.  Can't wait that long?  Start with Part 1 of 11 courtesy of Youtube with a similar looking print to the one I watched. 

You Can't Win 'Em All (1970): ***/****

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Before I saw Sherlock Holmes last winter, my knowledge of Guy Ritchie was limited to knowledge of a couple cult classic British crime stories, his marriage to Madonna and subsequent disastrous movie starring Mrs. Ritchie.  I liked Sherlock Holmes but didn't love it, and looking at his short list of movies none of them really jumped out at me, especially 2008's RocknRolla.  I remember seeing the trailer and thinking it looked like an annoyingly ultra-stylish story that knows it's cool and is going to take every opportunity it gets to show you how cool it is.  But then I really looked at the cast, and thought I had to at least give it a try.  I'm glad I did.

Ritchie has taken all sorts of abuse over the years for everything from his directing style -- as a Tarantino rip-off -- to his not-so private life with Madonna.  And even in a period piece about one of literature's most famous characters, Ritchie was able to make it an ultra-stylish period piece.  Not having seen Snatch or Lock, Stock... but knowing their reputation, it seems Ritchie is most at home in the London underworld where heavy accents and dialects dominate and everyone and anyone will turn on you for a buck.  RocknRolla is at times convoluted, at times overly concerned in its style, but in the end a very enjoyable, very entertaining British crime caper.

When a business deal goes south, two members of a British gang called the Wild Bunch, One Two (Gerard Butler) and Mumbles (Idris Elba), find themselves in needs of some quick cash, turning to an icy accountant (Thandie Newton) for some inside information.  The man they owe, criminal kingpin Lenny Nelson (Tom Wilkinson), doesn't necessarily need the money, but principle is principle.  Lenny, with right hand man Archy (Mark Strong), is caught up in a real estate deal with a Russian businessman (Karel Roden), who loans Lenny a famous, lucky painting of his until the deal can be completed. The painting wastes no time disappearing, and Lenny is up the creek, even more so when he finds out his stepson, drugged out rocker Johnny Quill (Toby Kebbell), is the thief. So it goes as all these crooks work to save their own backsides, a vicious cycle as One Two and Mumbles end up stealing the money that Lenny is due from the Russian, the painting playing a key role, and in the end everyone is going to run into each other.

Screwy enough for you?  There were times as all these various storylines cross and re-cross that I wondered if I was watching a Seinfeld episode.  But like the best Seinfeld episodes, Ritchie fixes everything in the end as all these characters, storylines and predicaments come together, everything tied up nicely with a bow.  Confusing at times, surely, but never to the point where you feel lost.  Because there is so much going on, you're not always sure quite where everything is going, but it's fun to go along for the ride.  At a certain point, you just go along and enjoy some really cool characters interact in some very stylish ways.  The London criminal underworld never looked so good.

The characters I included above covers about half the actual cast.  Jeremy Piven and rapper Ludacris have two small parts as Johnny Quill's former manager roped into helping Lenny get his painting back.  Tom Hardy plays Handsome Bob, a member of the Wild Bunch and friend of One Two and Mumbles.  There's other characters that drift in and out, but those are the biggies.  Two main storylines dominate all the action, Wilkinson and Strong as the kingpin and his tough as nails assistant trying to track down a stolen painting (the ridiculousness of the premise somehow works perfectly) while Butler, Elba and Hardy keep going after piles of money just waiting to be stolen.

Going away, my favorite parts of RocknRolla was the Wild Bunch.  They have a great dynamic among all the members of a gang that isn't low-level crooks but isn't top-shelf thieves either.  They're somewhere in between, knowing their place in the underworld.  Butler has struggled finding good roles since the success of 300, but this is a very funny gem for him.  Elba is equally perfect in an underused part as Mumbles, and Hardy (another great supporting part along with this summer's Inception) has a great twist to his character that produces some very funny results.  The high point for the Wild Bunch is a robbery gone bad when two Chechnyan thugs do everything they can to protect the cash they're guarding.  A running, chaotic chase scene with some great dark humor, knock down violence runs for almost 10 minutes and is the runaway favorite for the best scene in the movie.  Watch a portion of it HERE. The end of course says the Wild Bunch will be back, and I'm looking forward to it.

As strong as the cast was, I was skeptical going into this movie and ended up really liking it.  Almost every member of the cast is given their own chance to shine and none disappoint.  Wilkinson is his smarmy, intimidating best, Strong's narration is dripping with subtle humor, Newton is a sexy femme fatale that film noir would be jealous of, Butler, Elba and Hardy have a chemistry that speaks to longtime friends, and in the big picture, the stylish elements never go overboard.  Ritchie has a real winner here.  If I can offer any advice, watch the trailer below, but don't hold it against the movie. Don't do what I did, and hold it against the movie.

RocknRolla <---trailer (2008): ***/****

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sex and the Single Girl

One of my all-time favorite actors, Hollywood legend Tony Curtis died September 29 from a heart attack in Las Vegas.  Someone I've always thought of as an underrated actor, Curtis did it all in his career, and I've reviewed a fair share of his movies in the last two years.  He could do a screwball romantic comedy while also pulling off an epic historical period piece at the same time.  Comedy, drama, action, and anything in between, Curtis was an underrated, very versatile actor who I'll always like.  But of all his movies, he may most be remembered for his comedies where his natural charm translated well.  Everyone knows about Some Like it Hot, but add 1964's Sex and the Single Girl to the list of interesting flicks to check out.

Screwball comedies are pretty hit or miss typically for me, but I give most the benefit of the doubt depending on the talent involved.  The talent here made it worthwhile and caught my eye from the start.  The premise is not surprisingly pretty ridiculous with some digs at sex, affairs and some necessary miscommunication and confusion as to who everyone is.  It is 1964 so it can be pretty tame although gasp, 'virgin' is said once but never again.  Pretty scandalous stuff, right? But despite a really stupid ending that pushed my limits, I still liked the flick almost in spite of itself, even as stupid as it is at times.

A managing editor for Dirt magazine (think TMZ but dirtier and in print), Bob Weston (Curtis) is the best at what he does; trashing celebrities with blatant lies that readers eat up.  His next target? Dr. Helen Brown (Natalie Wood), a sex and relationship therapist who has gained fame from her best-selling book about how a single woman should live her life. Unfortunately for Bob, there's no easy way to prove that the very pretty Dr. Brown is living what she preaches.  Has she even been in a serious relationship with a man?  He finds his way in though, posing as his neighbor (Henry Fonda) who after 10 years of marriage is constantly fighting with his wife (Lauren Bacall). But in looking to reveal her as a fraud (surprise, surprise), Bob falls for her hard.  Can he still win her over, admitting what he's been trying to do?

Like a lot of the 1960s screwball comedies I've seen, there's something a little off, a little disturbing with the story.  Weston is basically trying to figure out if Helen is a virgin, and he's going to lie, cheat and steal his way into finding out the truth, at one point even resorting to just getting her drunk.  The 1960s weren't as classy as I figured I guess.  Thankfully, Weston develops actual feelings for her before he drunkenly takes advantage of her.  The whole thing seems tame at times and oddly inappropriate at others.  It never goes too far though because a movie where Tony Curtis takes advantage of Natalie Wood just doesn't seem quite right.

Finding that nice middle ground, director Richard Quine allows his actors to do their thing in getting the most laughs possible out of the story. Curtis treads that fine line between being a completely disgusting chauvinist and an overly charming ladies man.  I've always thought of Wood as more cute than out of this world hot, but she really turns it on here.  Maybe its the innocence of her character, but she's great in the part and looks gorgeous.  In the 1960s, few actresses had as much comedic talent (dramatic talent too), and with Curtis you've got quite a pair together.  Their scenes together are dialogue heavy, but it's great seeing them go back and forth with some really snappy exchanges.

Now as perfect as Curtis and Wood are together, I was surprised by the names I saw in the opening credits, especially considering I was just about to watch a screwball comedy.  Henry Fonda and Lauren Bacall, really?  The joke was on me I guess because they create the perfect subplot that at times is funnier than the main plot.  Fonda is a hosiery salesman who looks at womens' legs for a living, and Bacall as his wife objects thinking he's just a pervert who likes looking at women's legs.  They fight constantly, and Curtis' Weston has a source for information that he can turn around and pose as a husband in a troubled marriage.  For two actors like Fonda and Bacall who typically stuck with drama, it's great to see them branch out.  Are they great parts?  No, not at all, but seeing talent like that work in a comedy is always worthwhile.

Because they can't all be winners, we have the third and final act of 'Sex and the Single Girl.'  With mistaken identity that I Love Lucy would have been jealous of, all these different people cross paths and start chasing each other on the expressway outside Los Angeles in a variety of different cars.  Look for Larry Storch in a laughably bad part as a motorcycle cop caught up in the craziness. The humor leading up to all this wasn't exactly high-brow, but this chase reminded me of the lowest kind of slapstick, almost like a chase you'd see in The Monkees or maybe Scooby Doo.  The movie limps into the finish line because of the ending, but I'll still give it a mild recommendation.

Sex and the Single Girl <---TCM trailer (1964): ** 1/2 /****

Monday, October 25, 2010


In maybe the greatest movie ever made, 1972's The Godfather, my two favorite characters have always been James Caan's Sonny Corleone and Robert Duvall's Tom Hagen.  I love the actors as much as the characters so even with supporting roles they end up standing out to me. Both actors were rising stars at the time having paid their dues through the 1960s with some lesser roles in lesser movies.  If I've learned anything from watching too many movies like I do, it's to pay attention to those pre-star movies.  Take 1968's Countdown, an earlier pairing of Caan and Duvall.

On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon, the first time man had ever set foot on the surface. It was a defining moment in history, but what about all the years leading up to it?  This wasn't a quick thrown together process.  Space exploration was and probably always will fascinate people -- myself included -- and what better way to explore space than through the movies?  That's the main reason I'll give 'Countdown' a slight recommendation because through all its flaws (and there's plenty) it gives you a great sense of the anxiety and pressure NASA felt in beating the Russians to getting a man on the moon.

Preparing for an Apollo mission, a crew that includes astronauts Lee Stegler (Caan) and Chiz (Duvall) is pulled from their assignment with rumors of something big swirling.  There's whispers that the Russians have made a breakthrough and are about to send a shuttle to the moon, beating the American effort by months.  Chiz is the higher ranking astronaut, but he's bumped for his a non-military astronaut in Lee for a dangerous, even suicidal mission.  In hopes of beating the Russians to the moon, NASA will send a one-man shuttle to the man so that the United States can claim the first steps taken on the moon's surface.  The only problem?  They won't be able to rescue him anytime soon so the astronaut may have to spend up to a year on the moon in a small shelter.  Very aware he could die on the mission, Lee goes about training with his friend's Chiz help.

I've reviewed other space movies here before including 1969's Marooned, a big-star vehicle that never amounted to anything other than an impressive cast listing.  There are certain limitations that any movie regardless of the budget couldn't overcome.  For one, there's no really good way to make "space travel" look real because miniatures and blue screen or any sort of animation is going to cry out in the obvious department.  For the most part, Countdown avoids that, spending more time on the emotional impact this dangerous mission will have on Lee and his family, friends and co-workers.  The "space travel" (semi-SPOILER Lee gets to the moon, but there's more to come SPOILER) is limited, and the moon set doesn't look half bad.

Focusing instead on the emotional impact isn't always a good thing though.  Director Robert Altman (still two years away from MASH) is limited by what looks to be a smallish budget that gives his finished product a definite made-for-TV appearance.  If a scene is indoors, it looks like a set that would blow over if a stiff wind got inside the studio.  Thankfully there is some very cool footage of NASA and its facilities, not to mention some great shots of the shuttles actually blasting off the pads.  In 1968 or 2010, it will always be cool to see the immense amount of force needed to physically send something into outer space.  Of course, the blaring, in your face soundtrack doesn't help anything either.  So with the balance between the two, the weak cinematography cancels itself out.

Leading the cast, Caan and Duvall make the most of a script that gets into a loop and keeps repeating itself over and over again.  There is a friendship between the two men but also a fierce rivalry over being chosen or snubbed for this dangerous mission. Duvall's Chiz is looking out for the younger Lee for his own safety/benefit, but also because he'd rather go on the mission.  Caan's Lee balances out the drive to be the first man on the moon with the fear that he might die trying to accomplish his mission.  The rest of the cast doesn't leave much of an impression other than Joanna Moore as Mickey, Lee's wife who tears herself up worrying about her husband's decision. Also look for pre-Mary Tyler Moore Ted Knight as NASA's public relations director interacting with the rabid media.

One more complaint and I'll call it quits for Countdown.  For most of an hour, I wasn't quite sure what the mission actually was.  Long conversations detailed what Lee would be doing but never specified that he'd be on the moon for possibly a year by himself.  It could have just been me, but I was confused.  The last 45 minutes are the best part of the movie when the actual mission gets underway.  The ending had a chance to go for a real downer, but everything rights itself in the end.  I would have liked the downer ending -- as I usually do -- but this one works just fine too.

Countdown <---TCM trailer (1968): ** 1/2 /****

Friday, October 22, 2010

Jackass 3D

I remember pretty clearly stumbling across Jackass when it aired its first episode on MTV in 2000. Who were these idiots consistently putting themselves into these ridiculous situations where it looked like death or serious injury was always a possibility?  Whoever they were, I loved them and watched all their episodes, all their movies, including Jackass 3D which opened this weekend.  That's right, Johnny Knoxville, Bam Margera, Steve-O, Chris Pontius, Ryan Dunn, Wee Man, Preston Lacy and all the rest of the Jackass gang, and I'm a little ashamed to admit I went and plopped down 10 bucks to go see their new movie.

From their first episode on MTV, this crew specialized in the ludicrous, the ridiculous, the off the wall humor, and a fair share of truly disgusting stunts.  It is the stupidest form of entertainment, and I feel ridiculous writing a review of this movie.  Well, it is 10 years since the original premiere and two movies later the premise is still entertaining.  The problem is that over 90-plus minutes, things tend to drag at times.  Not all the stunts/pranks work, and in the theater I saw, there was more awkward silences than I anticipated.  If you could hear what people were thinking, you'd hear a lot of "Was that funny? Should I be laughing?"  So instead of debating the social relevance of one of the stupidest movies to ever hit the big screen, I'll go through the better stunts.

The High Five: Jackass at their best.  In an office, the crew sets up a gigantic hand hidden around a corner.  When released, the hand whirls around and slams into an unsuspecting victim.  We see several incidents all which build to a bit the producers have wisely included in just about every commercial you'll see advertising the movie.  Bam gets antiqued and basically goes airborne. Just a genuine laugh that doesn't need gross out humor to be funny.

The Ram Jam: Steve-O and Ryan Dunn -- dressed up to look like members of a high school band -- get into a pen with instruments to see if some "soothing music" will prevent a ram from dropping its head and charging.  Short answer? No chance in hell.  Making it better, Steve-O gets his jeans caught on a spike and can't help Dunn as he's assaulted by a very pissed off ram.  Maybe my favorite line of the movie comes from Dunn in a truly anguished yell " me!"

The Glue Bit: The gang uses super adhesive glue to well...glue themselves to each other.  Jackass always specialized in these bits where the crew is at some personal risk that will end in bodily harm.  We're not talking death or a coma or anything, just intense physical pain, and this is a gem just to see their faces when they try and separate themselves.

The Rocky: Bam throws water on someone's head and then with a giant punching glove whales on someone's head to the tune of "Eye of the Tiger."  One of the best uses of the high-tech cameras that allowed the moviemakers to slow everything down to extremmmmmmmmmme slow motion.  Even better are some of the bloopers at the end as Bam epically fails in his attempts.

The Snake River Revenge: Ryan Dunn -- one of my favorites of the Jackass team -- tries to jump a river with a souped up scooter with some not surprisingly disastrous results.  The slow motion, Dunn's genuine confusion at being asked if he's jumped a motorcycle before, Wee Man dressed up as a leprechaun dancing around, the reactions, this was priceless.

Of course, for all the good, there's some bad.  I counted three different times I felt myself gagging like I was actually going to throw up in my seat.  No descriptions really needed, but there's a man-sweat cocktail, a bungee port-a-potty filled with Steve-O and dog crap, and a couple others I'm probably forgetting.  Jackass is at its funniest with its ridiculous stunts, not its disgusting ones.  As for the 3D, I didn't pay four more dollars to see all this stuff thrown at me because I think 3D might be the stupidest thing ever invented in terms of movies.  I doubt it made much of a difference, but I'm not curious enough to pay more to see it again.  All in all, a truly awful movie that made me laugh a lot.  The great bits outweigh the duds.  No rating here because let's face it.  It's a Jackass movie, and you already know if you're going to see this.

Jackass 3D <----trailer (2010)

Thursday, October 21, 2010


At the height of his NFL career, star running back Jim Brown decided to walk away from the sport he loved so he could get into movies.  There are few athletes who have the guts to do that, and to make it more impressive, Brown is still remembered as one of -- if not THE -- the best NFL players of all-time.  Being born some 20 years after he played his last game, I can't speak to that, but I can say I've always liked Brown as an actor.  I've seen most of his more well-known roles but came across one on TCM I'd never heard of before, 1970's tick...tick...tick  Unique title, huh?

Released in 1970 while the civil rights movement was still raging, this Ralph Nelson-directed flick reminded me in a lot of ways of 1967's In the Heat of the Night.  Of course some three years later, a somewhat similar storyline isn't going to have the same impact, and it would be nearly impossible to match the acting talents of Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger.  You've got to try though, right?  And Nelson has a go at it, handing us a story that is at times predictable in its direction but never in a bad way.  It's not as aggressive or as in your face as 'Night,' but in its own way 'tick' serves as a nice companion piece to its classic predecessor.

In Colusa county in the deep south, Sheriff John Little (George Kennedy) heads in for his last day of work after losing a recent election.  The opponent who beat him has created quite a stir as a black man, Jim Price (Brown), is prepared to take office in a county severely divided by racial ties. Little holds no grudge against his replacement, only being upsetting that he's lost a job he's held for so many years.  New on the job, Price has his work cut out for him as rumors persist that the Klan might try something.  He knows he's in a corner though and can't do much to provoke an incident as told to him by the elderly town mayor (Fredric March).  Looking for help though with a crime that could tear the town and county apart, Price turns to an unlikely ally in Little.

It feels funny writing this, but the pairing of a white and black actor seems laughable in 2010...even if racism continues to exist in some extremely odd, almost always out of place situations.  In the Heat of the Night certainly kicked the door down on the premise, and 'tick' plows right through the open door frame.  Nelson doesn't hit you over the head with anything, but it is quickly apparent that if you throw out skin color, Brown's Price and Kennedy's Little are basically the same person.  They're family men who would do anything for their wife and children.  They do what's right no matter how difficult the choice is or the repercussions that will follow.  When someone or something is in trouble, they come to help because they know it is the right thing to do.

After working together briefly in their few scenes in 1967's The Dirty Dozen, Brown and Kennedy reunite here with some very positive results.  I've read criticisms of Brown that he was a stiff actor without much range, and I'll agree to a point.  He could be stiff at times, but he always rose to the occasion.  The former NFL star was an incredible physical presence, looming over all his co-stars whether he intended it or not.  He was at his best in roles like this, and his somewhat stiff style works for the character, a stubborn but fair man who knows he's in the right.  Kennedy is just as strong as the scorned sheriff who doesn't dwell too much on this change in his life.  Both actors have a very easy-going way about them, and they play well off each other.  And besides, just as a movie fan, it's fun to see two actors like Brown and Kennedy work together.

As I mentioned earlier, the story can be at times a tad predictable.  Nelson never shoves anything down your throat, but some of the so-called twists shouldn't really surprise anyone.  As a viewer, you know where the story is going before the characters even do.  Was there ever any doubt that Brown and Kennedy would end up side by side to combat racism and prejudice?  The same goes for the supporting characters, none of whom are developed much.  March gets some laughs as the old, crotchety mayor while Lynn Carlin is very good as Julia, John's wife trying to help her husband figure out what to do with himself. Some other notable names include Don Stroud as a gun-toting, pissed off former deputy, Clifton James, Bernie Casey, Dub Taylor, Karl Swenson, and Richard Elkins as Brad Wilkes, Price's only deputy.

The one thing that worried me going in was something in the credits, a credit to the singers and writers of a handful of songs that I was disappointed to hear would be the movie's soundtrack.  I won't go through all the songs -- read the list HERE -- but I can say they are all cookie-cutter folk songs from the late 1960s that sound alike.  I'm not a fan to begin with, but the soundtrack is misused with a story dealing with racism and prejudice in the deep south.  Annoying and out of place? You bet, but I liked the movie nonetheless.

...tick...tick...tick... <---TCM trailer (1970): ***/****

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Fort Defiance

If there was ever a place where having all your physical abilities and capabilities was necessary, the American West seems cut out to be that place.  But a handful of westerns come to mind dealing with a character(s) who is deaf like The Great Silence or blind like Blindman and Eye for an Eye, or a B-western I recently watched 1951's Fort Defiance. A generally forgotten smaller budget western, 'Defiance' introduces a blind character and lets the story build around it in a surprisingly enjoyable, very easygoing western that caught me off guard.

It's been a few months since the end of the Civil War and former Union soldier Ben Shelby (Ben Johnson) is riding west.  He's looking for revenge and finds the ranch of the man he's looking to kill, but the man, infamous gunfighter Johnny Tallon, isn't there.  Instead he finds Johnny's blind brother, Ned (Peter Graves), and his uncle Charlie (George Cleveland) there.  Ben takes a job and sits back and waits only to find out Johnny was gunned down while returning home.  Having developed a brotherly relationship with Ned, Ben decides to stay on and help build up the ranch.  He sends for his wife, and everything looks to be going smoothly.  But the cavalry is having problems with a local Navajo tribe that's ready to go on the warpath, and just when everything is at its bleakest, Johnny Tallon (Dane Clark) shows up, throwing everyone for a loop.

Of the three moves mentioned before about gunfighters with disabilities, all of them had a bit of a superhuman element to them.  Honestly, how long could a blind gunfighter survive?  That's no problem here because Ned doesn't even carry a gun.  He's a good man who lost his eye sight in a bar fight, but years later he refuses to pity himself.  He knows he's up against it in terms of having any success running a large cattle ranch, but he's willing to try.  Ned needs help and gets it through the relationship that develops between himself and Ben.  With as many westerns as I've seen, I'm usually just looking for something, a change of pace, and this B-western does what few much bigger scale westerns I've seen couldn't do.  'Defiance' uses many familiar elements but adds just enough to be different, to be interesting.

Some of my favorite westerns are the of the more cynical variety, downbeat, realistic looks at the American west.  There is a darkness to 'Defiance' but it never overshadows the good that's in these characters.  Johnson's Shelby character is looking for revenge for the the death of his brother which could have been easily avoided.  He's a family man who has to right a wrong done to his family.  Hunting Johnny Tallon down, he doesn't expect anything to come of it other than a bullet in his gut or Tallon's.  The relationship that develops between him and Ned -- also looking for help and needing a big brother -- is completely genuine.  Credit to Graves and Johnson for nailing their parts.  Amidst all the revenge, Indian uprisings and pissed off gunfighters are these two men looking to build a new life for themselves.

The dynamic among the three leads is what made this B-western more enjoyable for me.  All three are flawed in some way, but they're not downright nasty people.  Even Clark's Johnny Tallon has made mistakes in his past and resorted to a life of crime when nothing else was there, but when a situation presents itself where he has a chance to think of only himself, he thinks of his scorned brother.  It was just one of many things that appealed to me about this western.  Johnson was coming off the success of his two parts in John Ford's Cavalry trilogy and shows off his natural, easygoing way on-screen.  In just his second credited part, Graves shows he's got some talent to work with, and Clark makes the most of playing a bad guy who isn't really that bad, but he has to live up to his hard-earned reputation.

With all this going on, throw in the cavalry, an Indian uprising, a runaway stagecoach with a pretty saloon girl (Tracey Roberts), a second vengeful gunman and his gang, and you've got quite a lot of plates trying to keep spinning at the same time. Some get neglected or left by the wayside, but at the heart of the movie is a bigger dynamic among men forced to work together in stressful, extremely deadly situations.  When it would be easier to ride out, these men dig their heel in and brace themselves for what's coming.  A classic by no means, but a western I really enjoyed from the start.  I can't put my finger on it, I just liked the movie and hopefully you do too.

Fort Defiance (1951): ***/****

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Big Red One: The Reconstruction

Director Sam Fuller made a career of making tough, hard-edged movies that didn't venture far from film noir, war movies, and the occasional western.  But before he ever got into movies, Fuller was an American infantry soldier in WWII.  Late in his career, he wrote and directed a movie that told the story of his time in the army in the 1st Infantry Division, a movie with the unit's nickname as its title, 1980's The Big Red One. For years, the movie was only available in a heavily edited version that cut almost 50 minutes from Fuller's intended final cut.  Now it is available as Fuller intended in a restored version that runs 163 minutes.

Where some movies ring false in their portrayal of soldiers in war, Fuller does his best to avoid that problem.  It is a semi-biographical account of his experiences in the war as his squad survives the European theater of war.  Some scenes ring true with an authenticity that only a real soldier could no, but surprisingly enough that authenticity isn't sustained through the whole movie.  In trying to be too cute or too philosophical, Fuller's storytelling and narration become too cliched in an almost embarrassing way.  So like any movie, there's the good and the bad, but I'm still wavering on how much I actually liked this movie.

It's 1942 and the American army is preparing to hit the beaches at North Africa.  In the 1st Infantry Division, 16th Regiment, a soldier known only as the Sergeant (Lee Marvin) prepares to lead his squad into battle. The fight is a success, and the Allies continue their attacks throughout Africa and Europe as the war progresses.  Four men, Zab (Robert Carradine), Griff (Mark Hamill), Johnson (Kelly Ward), and Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco), from the Sergeant's squad seem immune to getting hit or wounded, earning them the nickname 'Sergeant's Four Horsemen.' They fight across Africa and into Sicily, Italy, France and Germany, fighting in most of the ETO's major battles, including D-Day, Battle of the Bulge and many others.  As the war looks to be drawing to a close, can these four survivors and their sergeant make it all the way through?

Telling a story that covers three-plus years and a never-ending sense of moving around, Fuller doesn't so much as tell a story as show a series of vignettes that show the everyday life of these soldiers; long periods of boredom and marching/camping broken up by quick, startling instances of horrific violence.  Nothing wrong with that, but it can get a little tedious at times.  The soldiers talk like soldiers do (obviously filtered/censored some), but at times it gets to be too much.  Carradine's Zab provides the narration, and as good as it can be at times, it tries too hard to say something profound about war.  The action is handled on a smaller scale and is effective enough, but like the dialogue and storytelling, it starts repeating itself and with 162 minutes, that leaves a lot of room for repeating.

Sometimes lost in that shuffle is the four privates that become known as the Sergeant's Four Horsemen.  The only one to really distinguish himself from the rest is Hamill as Pvt. Griff, a sharpshooter who begins to freeze in combat.  Fresh off the success of the first two Star Wars movies, Hamill makes his character interesting because as a viewer you can appreciate what he's going through.  I'd be scared stiff to if I was getting shot at by complete strangers in a situation that makes little sense to the individual.  The other three aren't quite as good.  Carradine's narration is the best part about Zab who otherwise spends his time chomping on cigars.  He tries to sound tough, but it's never believable.  Ward and Di Cicco are cardboard cutouts of characters and never give us any reason to root for them.  Some sort of background other than 'Johnson had hemorrhoids and Vinci was from Brooklyn' would have been nice too.

Making The Dirty Dozen, Marvin swooped in and took over a role intended for John Wayne.  Same goes here as he steps into the shoes of the Sergeant after a version starring Wayne was brought up in the 1950s.  A Marine in WWII who fought in the Pacific, Marvin is the best thing the movie has going for it.  A little old maybe to play his character at 56, he still pulls the part off.  He's tough, a strong leader and is going to do his best to get his men through the war unscathed.  The choice to dub him solely 'the Sergeant' could have been a little pretentious on Fuller's part, but it works.  During WWII, there were thousands of soldiers like Marvin's tough Sergeant, and in a lot of ways, Marvin is representing every single one of them. A little too old, sure, but Marvin was born to play a role like this.

Watching the movie with almost 50 minutes reinserted into the final cut certainly makes a difference, but at times it felt like a wasted opportunity.  It's longer, but instead of seeing new, interesting things that develop the characters, we get tedious battle scenes that are still somehow too short.  Certain moments ring true beautifully like Marvin's Sgt. carrying a young boy who survived a concentration camp, Johnson delivering a baby in a sweaty, cramped tank, the discovery of the concentration camp, and an honesty that seems to be missing from so many war movies.  A good finished product, but it never lives up to its potential.

The Big Red One <---trailer (1980): ** 1/2 /****

Monday, October 18, 2010

This Is Spinal Tap

At what point did movie spoofs get to be so cheesy?  I'd like to think it was somewhere in between Scary Movie 18 and Meet the Spartans 4.5.  It's a rough estimate, but who knows for sure?  If you're looking for a good spoof, the safest place to go is the late 1970s and early 1980s where movies like Airplane, The Naked Gun, and just about any Mel Brooks movie dominated theaters.  These were spoofs that were still somehow smart in their stupidity.  I'd seen most of these spoofs and for the first time recently watched 1984's This is Spinal Tap.

If there was anything begging to be spoofed in the 1970s and 1980s, it was the music business and all its sex, drugs and rock and roll.  And for a movie set in the 1980s, director Rob Reiner could not have picked a better musical era to set his story in.  It was the transformation from hard rock and disco to a weird mix of hair bands and heavy metal, basically the most in your face, not so subtle form of music ever.  Some groups evolved with the times while others stuck with what they knew.  Then somewhere in between is the fictional British rock band Spinal Tap, about to release their 16th album in the last 15 years.  Smart, stupid, and just all around funny from the start.

After 15-plus years together, British rock band Spinal Tap is going on an American tour that will cross the country in hopes of boosting sales for their upcoming album.  A filmmaker (Reiner) tags along to document the tour and see all the craziness that is a rock band trying to reclaim their spot at the top.  In the group are lead singers and guitarists Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) and David St. Huffin (Michael McKean), bass guitarist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer), along with a rotating door at drums and of course, a keyboardist. Almost from the get-go, nothing goes smoothly as the tour doesn't exactly live up to expectations.  The group starts fighting, nothing goes as planned, and interest in the new album just isn't there.  So what should these aging rockers do?

The fictional group samples any number of backstories for this spoof with The Beatles obviously the first to come to mind.  Nigel and David fight like Paul and John with a nosy girlfriend (June Chadwick) trying to take over the band and in the process driving everyone apart. Then add in aging rock stars like The Rolling Stones with a touch of Led Zeppelin and every hair band ever, and you've got the makeup of Spinal Tap.  Some of the funniest moments come from the actual performances because the music is actually pretty good, but then you start to listen to the lyrics.  Subtle went out the way a long time ago, including my favorite, Sex Farm. Their songs are so ridiculous they're funny, and the on-stage performances are a scream.

For me though, the best parts were those little vignettes where you see how ludicrous, how absolutely crazy the life of a pampered rock and roll star really is.  The best of course is Guest's Nigel explaining how Tap's amplifiers go up to 11 instead of the usual 10.  For those not familiar with this iconic scene, check it out HERE. Also look out for the underrated "Don't even look at it! Don't point at it!" line.  But that's just the start.  There's Guest complaining about the sandwiches catered backstage with bread that is too small, the band getting lost backstage on their way to the actual stage (watch HERE), a running gag with the life expectancy of Tap's drummers, and the mini-Stonehenge incident (HERE). There are few scenes out there as perfectly put together as these handful of examples, and that's just the start.  It's the interviews, the on-stage performances, the rehearsals, the hotel rooms, everything is pitch perfect here.

The main trio -- McKean, Guest and Shearer -- have worked together since on movies like Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and several other movies, but this is their best.  Their chemistry together is impeccable, and it's hard to tell when they're actually acting off the script or just improvising wherever the scene takes them.  Guest steals every single scene he is in as Nigel (think Paul McCartney from The Beatles) and immediately becomes one of my favorite characters ever.  Several of those already mentioned scenes are sublime because of him alone, his line deliveries nailing the punch lines.  That's not to say McKean and Shearer aren't funny, they're just not as funny. There's also Tony Hendra as Ian Faith, Tap's much-maligned manager who can't seem to do anything right with these fading rock stars. A cast in a comedy has rarely been better, and that's just the start.

While those three band members, Hendra's Ian and Reiner's often off-screen director dominate the movie, there's a long list of small parts from actors/actresses who would go on to bigger and better things.  Start with Billy Crystal and then add Dana Carvey, Bruno Kirby, Anjelica Houston, Fran Drescher, Ed Begley Jr., future Letterman band leader Paul Shaffer, and the always reliable, always funny Fred Willard.  I haven't laughed this much in awhile, and I'm sorry it took this long to catch up with this comedy classic.

This Is Spinal Tap <---trailer (1984): *** 1/2 /****

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Stray Dog

The first Akira Kurosawa movie I was introduced to was The Seven Samurai when I rented it from the video store after finding out it was the basis for one of my all-time favorite movies, The Magnificent Seven.  Now I loved the American remake that was transported to the west, but I liked Kurosawa's original with samurai fighting it out with bandits in 16th Century Japan. Reading up about it, I found Samurai is generally accepted as Kurosawa's best, but I was still curious to see what else his movies have had to offer.

A handful of movies later, I'm pretty sure I started at the top and have been going downhill since. I haven't hated any of the movies I've watched, but I really haven't loved them either.  The Hidden Fortress was good, I enjoyed High and Low, but Yojimbo and Throne of Blood both disappointed.  Now there's a third disappointment with 1949's Stray Dog, a departure from the usual Kurosawa samurai/historical flick.  Instead of roving samurais saving villagers or pitting gangs against each other, it's a crime drama that features two of the director's biggest stars, but in the end it never completely gels together.

A young police officer, Detective Murakami (Toshiro Mifune), is heading home after a day at the shooting range when he realizes he's been pick-pocketed by a trashy thief who snares his department issued pistol.  He chases after him but is unable to catch him.  He reports the missing gun and is told to do everything possible to get his gun back.  At first, he has no luck as he explores the seedier parts of town, but when he teams up with a veteran officer, Detective Sato (Takashi Shimura), things start to come together.  But as the investigation continues and cases mount up where Murakami's gun is the involved weapon, can they track down the gun in time before more bodies start to pile up?

I've written before about Mifune who has become one of my favorite actors even when the movies he is in aren't always up to his performance.  Extremely physical but also able to nail the softer, quieter scenes, Mifune had quite a range as an actor.  I'd watch him read a telephone book if I had the chance, and even here as a young 29-year old actor he shows off the talent that would make him possibly Japan's biggest star.  His Murakami is extremely driven to fix the mistake he's made, but it's never over the top.  It is a more subdued part for the typically very verbose, even over the top actor but one I really liked even if we get to know very little about the detective.

Without any real semblance of humor, the pairing of Mifune and Shimura is one of the earliest examples I can think of with the buddy cop pairing.  The handling of the veteran cop vs. the inexperienced newbie is as tried and true as just about any relationship in a movie dealing with cops.  Shimura had this really quiet intensity about him in everything I've seen him in, and this intensity works to perfection with Mifune.  One scene especially stands out as they visit Shimura's home where his wife and kids are waiting for him. The two detectives talk about the nature of the job, of chasing society's slimiest and dirtiest and how it affects the way you look at the world.  Shimura's seen everything crime has to offer while Mifune still has just a bit of an innocent edge to him.  The pairing works well as it would several other times in Kurosawa movies, including Seven Samurai.

As much as I liked the two lead actors, they can't carry the movie through its more sluggish parts.  Reading the plot synopsis, I was intrigued about a story that followed two detectives as they ventured into the seediest parts of the criminal underworld.  But for a story that has a definite quasi-documentary feel to it, the pacing is awful.  An incredibly slow-paced montage shows Mifune's Murakami unsuccessfully looking for a black market arms dealer, dragging on and on.  That's the whole movie.  There's no urgency as the duo follows clues, talks to suspects, all in hopes of getting their hands on this one pistol.  It reminded me of a slow, extended episode of Law and Order but without any real payoff.

Now with the quasi-documentary feel, Kurosawa puts the camera right there in the filthy alleys, the poorly lit backrooms, the rank-smelling shanty towns, and gives a great feel of what detective work is like.  All his characters are always sweating, and you get a sense that everyone had to have smelled to the high heavens in this investigation.  The setting is great, but the story doesn't quite keep up.  Positives are here, especially Mifune and Shimura, but this was still a disappointment, more so because of the talent involved.

Stray Dog <---TCM clips (1949): **/****

Thursday, October 14, 2010


Pick any assassination attempt -- successful or not -- in history, and you've got a problem when it comes to turning that attempt into a movie.  If the person being gunned for is even somewhat well known, you know the end of the movie before it starts.  Your average Joe Blow doesn't mean much so a hit attempt can leave you guessing, but what's the point?  Political figures on the other hand are pretty obvious if they're going to survive or not. So goes a major problem with 1975's Hennessy.

Abe Lincoln, Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy, all major, universally well-known names that have been assassinated over the last 150 years.  Not on that list? Queen Elizabeth of England.  She's the target in this British-made movie detailing the true story of one man's suicidal mission to take out the Queen and as much of Parliament as he can.  Now I'm no genius, but some 30 years later, Queen Elizabeth is still kicking so the attempt must fail at some point.  That's not a sure thing for movie failure, but it's got to be handled the right way, keep you guessing as to HOW he'll fail, but that sense of urgency is missing here, and that ends up derailing the story.

An Irishman with some past IRA connections, Nile Hennessy (Rod Steiger), turns down an offer to join the IRA in a mission, wanting to live his life.  Soon after though, his wife and daughter are accidentally gunned down by British troops, and something inside him snaps.  Nile decides to go on a suicide mission with hopes of killing the Queen and the member of Parliament.  Two groups are working against him.  The police (including Trevor Howard and Richard Johnson) follow the clues, trying to catch up with him, while the IRA -- wary of the political backlash from a possible connection to Hennessy and an assassination attempt -- puts a hit out on him.  The odds are against Hennessy, but with nothing to lose, not much is going to slow him down.

The movie I consistently found myself thinking of while watching Hennessy was the overall much better Day of the Jackal, the story of a possibly true hit attempt on Charles De Gaulle.  You know going in that De Gaulle survives, but it's getting there that makes the movie a classic.  Tension, worry, near panic dominate the movie as it appears that maybe -- just maybe -- the Jackal actually pulls off the job.  In Hennessy, that same fear and worry just isn't there.  Steiger's Hennessy is an easy semi-bad guy to root for, but the character is pretty vanilla after his motivations are presented.  When the attempt does come, it's dullsville.  The chase after the attempt is equally weak and caps off a movie with a workable idea that never quite clicks.

Where some actors play themselves over and over again, Steiger is an actor who always played himself but in a wide variety of ways if that makes any sense.  His characters were always these ultra-intense dudes who looked seconds away from just blowing up at all times.  Hennessy is a man with nothing to lose on a mission that he HOPES and WANTS to end with him dying.  His wife and daughter were callously shot down, and he can only think of one thing; revenge on the biggest scale possible.  He doesn't have political inclinations and he doesn't hope to deliver a message.  He is pissed at the world, and he intends to make the world suffer just as much as he is.  Once Nile gets involved with the assassination, there's no more development late so the pacing can be a little off.

While Steiger is an interesting choice to play a burned Irishman -- the accent isn't as bad as you'd think -- his female co-star is interesting but not in a good way.  Lee Remick plays Kate Brooke, the widowed wife of an old friend of Nile's.  After years without seeing him, she invites him into her house while he copes with the loss of his family.  She knows something is going on but seems to choose not to push the issue.  Bad attempt at an Irish/English accent aside, Remick is given little to do in a pointless supporting part.  She's dispatched when the story requires it with one of the more unceremonious deaths I've seen in awhile. 

As for the police pursuing Hennessy, Johnson joins Steiger as the main reason to catch this movie.  He's a cop who's worked undercover in Ireland and has paid the consequences, both physically and emotionally.  He is a shell of the man he used to be, and like his counterpart, is motivated by a mix of anger and persereverance that won't let him quit, knowing if he fails the repercussions will be epic.  Howard's part is more of a cameo, but it's always cool to see him no matter the size of the part.  The acting is the lone reason to check this one out because otherwise it just doesn't have much going for it.

Hennessy <--- TCM clips (1975): **/****

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Treasure of Pancho Villa

Countless westerns set in the years following the Civil War showed gunslingers, cowboys, crooks, horse thieves, commoners and businessmen searching for riches in the American West.  But if there was ever a place where making money was easiest when it comes to movies, that place would be Mexico, the country where American gunfighters and mercenaries head south to join in on any number of revolutions and Civil War.  The Magnificent Seven, Vera Cruz, and The Wild Bunch stand out from the rest, but one forgotten gem is 1955's The Treasure of Pancho Villa.

Dealing with a story not so different from the previous year's Vera Cruz, 'Treasure' is one of those hidden gems that I'll always watch when I stumble across it on TV.  And because there's no VHS or DVD readily available, you've got to enjoy it while you can.  It's a B-western that isn't held back by flaws that brought down so many other 1950s westerns.  Again a lot like Vera Cruz, Treasure was a pretty good look into the future of what westerns would turn into in the mid to late 1960s when Sergio Leone and the spaghetti westerns put their own unique spin on what the American west was like.  Dark, cynical, double crosses, betrayals and plenty of action rule in this underrated western.

Looking to take one more big job that will allow him to retire for good, American gunman Tom Bryan (Rory Calhoun) teams up with a former alley and idealistic officer in Pancho Villa's army, Juan Castro (Gilbert Roland). With some help from Villa's revolutionaries, Tom and Juan knock off a heavily guarded and fortified train heading north with almost a million dollars in gold.  Now comes the hard part as they are forced to transport the gold by mule train to a prearranged meeting point with Villa's forces.  Mexican forces are following close behind hoping to get the gold back, but there's also a treacherous trail guide (Joseph Calleia) among their group who may pose a bigger problem. Time is running out though, and almost everyone starts looking out for themselves when the chips are down.

From the time I saw Clint Eastwood in Leone's spaghetti westerns, I was hooked.  So going back and seeing a movie made 10 years prior when so many American westerns presented this dull, whitewashed version of the west and seeing a movie as good and as enjoyable as this is a treat.  There are no real good guys, just different shades of bad, good and somewhere in between.  Calhoun's Tom is a cynical mercenary who goes wherever he can get the most money, principles or ideals thrown out the window long ago.  His weapon of choice is a Lewis gun, a light machine gun he uses to get out of trouble as quick as he gets into it.  Just one of many influences a low-budget B-western would have on one of my favorite genres, the spaghetti western.

One of the best things to come out of 'Treasure' is the pairing of star -- but not superstars -- Calhoun and Roland.  Neither actor was ever a huge star in Hollywood, but they were both solid actors who rarely disappointed on screen.  Both had a knack for playing characters not quite good and not quite bad, just somewhere floating in between.  They're introduced early as two similar men, a fighting man who is good at something that is extremely dangerous.  They fight for different reasons -- Tom for money, Juan for beliefs and Mexican freedom -- but when the time comes they can put aside their differences and fight alongside each other.  There are some great dialogue exchanges between them as each man begins to wonder if the other is trying to double cross him.

Filming in Mexico (it looks like some familiar locations in Durango), director George Sherman makes an exciting, fast-paced story that clocks in at just over 95 minutes. After the train robbery, the movie mostly settles in as a long chase movie, Tom, Juan and Co. hightailing it across the Mexican frontier chased by Mexican cavalry.  It's never long in between action scenes (surprisingly graphic and callous for 1955), including one of the more original final showdowns I've seen in awhile.  The opening scene actually partially reveals the ending only to flashback to how all the characters got to that spot.  It's a simple technique used to death in the years since on TV and in movies, but when handled right as it is here, it works in a big way.

My only real complaint from this otherwise very solid western is the addition of Shelley Winters to the cast as an American schoolteacher along for the ride after being caught up in the revolution. Her character quickly falls for the roguish mercenary, Tom, and we're "treated" to a series of scenes as they talk about personal convictions and beliefs, what drives them and what their dreams are.  The pacing slows down, and I found myself fast-forwarding through most of their scenes.  Other than that, nothing to complain about. It's a hidden gem, and a western ahead of its time in terms of storytelling, realism, and cynicism.  A 3-fer if there ever was.

The Treasure of Pancho Villa <---TCM trailer (1955): ***/****

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Out of the Fog

For over 30 years, something called the Hays Code dominated Hollywood, basically making sure that anything shown on-screen was censored within an inch of its life.  Its effect lessened over the years, but in the 1940s especially you got a sense of that censorship.  The good guys always won, and even if those decent characters did something bad, they were going to pay for it and often enough with their lives. You more or less train yourself to pick out the ending before it happens because studios just didn't get away with those things.

I'm sure there are other examples -- Gone With the Wind comes to mind as a not-so happy ending -- but I can't think of many.  Somewhere in a murky, middle ground is an early film noirish movie that pushes the limit, but only to a certain point, 1941's Out of the Fog.  Directed by Anatole Litvak, the story hovers for awhile, not quite sure where to go but ends up righting itself nicely in the end, and even with a bit of a twist.

In a quiet, little fishing village on the East coast, a small-time racketeer, Harold Goff (John Garfield), moves in when he sees a chance to make some money.  He starts intimidating all the local business owners and residents, demanding they pay him "protection money." Two old friends and fishing buddies, Jonah (Thomas Mitchell) and Olaf (John Qualen), are two of Goff's clients, and even though they object, they don't know what else to do to stop Goff from taking everything they own. Meekly, they decide to go along with the demands, but just about everybody has a limit, and Jonah meets his when Goff starts dating his daughter, Stella (Ida Lupino). Pushed too far, how far then will Jonah and Olaf go to right the situation?

For a movie released in 1941, 'Fog' felt like it got away with a lot of things that a censor should have caught.  Directors, actors and studios found ways to be very subtle and sneak things past censors, but this is pushing the limits.  SPOILERS STOP READING SPOILERS Jonah and Olaf decide to off Goff by drowning him out at sea.  Long story short, their plan doesn't work but Goff drowns in the process.  So technically, they never committed murder even if they did put a plan into action.  At this point, I'm expecting them to get caught and sent to jail.  Joke was on me, the movie ends as happy as can be with everything wrapped up nicely.  It certainly caught me off guard because even when "good" characters commit a transgression, they typically have to pay for it.  Not so here, but the ending works.  END OF SPOILERS

In a career that was cut tragically short when he died at the age of 49, Garfield made a living for doing characters like his Harold Goff.  For being an all around son of a bitch, he's the most amiable racketeer you'll ever meet.  Garfield had this way about him that drew you in as a viewer even when his actions are pretty despicable.  His Goff is a guy you'd love to punch just once in the face, but he's so charming, so friendly in his intimidation techniques you don't even mind.  Of course he does have a mean streak right up his back which comes out in a few creepy scenes so you know things aren't going to end well for his character.  Still, it's a great villainous part, and one of many strong parts in Garfield's cut-short career.

Garfield is easily the best thing 'Fog' has going for it, but I loved the rest of the cast.  Lupino wasn't a classically pretty woman, but there's just something about her in all the movies I've seen with her.  She has this innocence about her but also a hard edge, and you end up seeing why her Stella is so caught up with this new bad boy in town.  Mitchell is one of my all-time favorite character actors even if he did always play a variation on the same character.  He's so likable in his parts that it is refreshing to see a little harder mindset as his Jonah prepares to do some bad, bad things.  Qualen usually drives me nuts in most of his parts (especially his pairings with John Ford), but he's neutral enough here not to be a problem.  Eddie Albert plays George, Stella's thrown aside boyfriend, and George Tobias has an odd very out of place part as a local businessman that doesn't justify the high billing he got.   

One other thing beside some cool, mood setting use of a constant fogginess/smokiness permeating the set (a good choice) is something else that possibly slipped by the censors.  I got a very distinct gay vibe between the Mitchell and Qualen characters.  This could be me overanalzying the situation, but they acted like more than just longtime friends.  Who knows for sure, but to prove me wrong you'll have to check it out.

Out of the Fog <---trailer (1941): ***/****

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Arnelo Affair

Certain movie gimmicks bother me more than others.  Typically I can deal with just about any of them as long as they're competently handled.  But one that has to hit it out of the park for me to abide by it is the voiceover narration, a technique that's been used to death over the last 10 or 20 years.  Positive uses that jump to mind include American Beauty and Kevin Spacey, The Shawshank Redemption with Morgan Freeman, examples that are near if not perfect in their execution.

When the voiceovers are handled poorly though, it can drag a whole movie down with it, like 1947's noirish The Arnelo Affair.  Film noirs more often than not nailed the main character narrating because it got you into the head of a typically tortured main character trying to deal with some inner demons.  Without any actions or dialogue, we get to know the character without a lot of background.  Those were usually cool characters though.  'Arnelo' is certainly a departure from the tough noir anti-hero with the perspective of a lonely housewife contemplating an affair just not being interesting enough.

After years of marriage to her lawyer husband (George Murphy), Anne Parkson (Frances Gifford) is in a bit of a mid-life rut.  She has everything she could ask for, but her husband takes her for granted, basically ignoring her even though he doesn't realize it. Looking for any sort of excitement, Anne meets a client of her husband's, a club owner, Tony Arnelo (John Hodiak), and gets that excitement. But as appealing and attractive as she finds Tony, she quickly finds out there's more than meets the eye.  Tony gets involved with an actress who is found dead soon after, but the sneaky club owner turns the tables on her, possibly pinning the murder on her.  Can she get herself out of the situation before she's in too deep?

Something was missing from this movie, but I'll start with the narration supplied by Gifford's Anne.  First, it's the most banal stuff I've heard in awhile.  "I like him, but why? What's going on in my head? I'm married so I shouldn't do it...but I'll see him anyway."  The first 45 minutes of an 86-minute movie is dominated by this never-ending stream of conscious narration that drove me up the wall.  If you're going to hit the audience with a lot of voiceover while the main character sits at a table looking worried, you've got to at least attempt to make it interesting.  But because it's dull as all get out, you're basically watching a book on tape.  Nothing interesting visually to look at, and nothing interesting to listen too in terms of dialogue.

Certain names come to mind when I think of femme fatales in film noir, and no offense intended, but Frances Gifford isn't one of them.  A wife stuck in a rut at home with a husband that isn't interested in her certainly has some potential, but there's no conflict here.  Maybe the censors went to town on the finished product from director Arch Oboler (<--- cool name, huh?) and took out any scandalous revelations, but there's a hole in the middle of this movie that needed filling.  Husband ignores wife, wife visits mysterious club owner, they TALK, other woman ends up dead, and we've got a case of blackmail.  Apparently somewhere in there Hodiak falls in love with Gifford while blackmailing her and her family.  It just doesn't come together, but it is 1947 so in the end everything is wrapped up nicely with a big red bow, including happiness for the precocious pre-Quantum Leap Dean Stockwell with a reunited family.

Once everything hits the fan for Gifford's Anne, she basically shuts down as a human being.  She wasn't much of an actress through the first part of the movie, and it only gets worse as things move along.  Her character isn't that well-written, but you've got to chalk some of it up to her.  It's just not an interesting lead character.  Murphy is pretty clueless as her lawyer husband (hate to have him defending me in court) who doesn't realize he's driving his wife away with his constant ignoring her.  Hodiak -- one of my favorite character actors -- is a bright spot with a smaller part as Arnelo, the club owner with some definitely shady connections.  He keeps you guessing as to Arnelo's intentions because he's charming in his evil way.  Other worthwhile parts include Warner Anderson as Detective Leonard, the investigating officer in the murder of the actress that links all these people together.

By the time the murder occurs near the midpoint, the movie's pacing does pick up.  The second half of the movie is noticeably better than the first half, but it's not like that was hard to do.  As mentioned, everything gets wrapped up too quickly, too nicely and with a little bit too much coincidence for my liking.  Not a lot to recommend about this dull noirish flick, maybe for diehards only.

The Arnelo Affair <---TCM trailer (1947): * 1/2 /****

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Miracle Match

Americans love their football, their baseball, their basketball, even hockey has had a bit of a rebirth over the years.  But every four years with the World Cup and every so often in between on countless ESPN shows, the U.S.'s struggle to become a soccer nation comes up. Why can't Americans embrace this sport that is the most popular sport by far around the world?  I grew up watching and playing the sport so I'm an easy convert, but I've never understood the disdain and hatred certain American sports fans have for the game.

When the U.S. National team advanced to the elimination round this summer in South Africa, it brought up the inevitable "Could this be the event that propels soccer into the U.S. limelight?" discussion.  It comes up every two or three years with big wins or events like past his prime superstar David Beckham joining the L.A. Galaxy three years ago.  So can soccer every become extremely popular in the United States? Who knows for sure.  By now maybe you're guessing where I'm going with this.  Looking for a way to drive possible fans away?  Show them 2005's The Miracle Match, the true story of the U.S. at the 1950 World Cup.

The true story is of a 1-0 upset the United States team won over powerhouse England in the 1950 World Cup, a victory that still resonates because it was the ultimate underdog story, the ultimate team that shouldn't be there winning a huge game.  It's the type of story that should translate well to a movie.  Think of Rudy, Hoosiers, Miracle, The Blind Side and countless other inspirational sports movies that stick with viewers long after viewing.  Well, 'Match' follows the same basic formula that made those other entries so good, but it falls flat on its face.  It's so sticky sweet with these underdog Americans while shoving the U.S. patriotism down the viewer's throats that it never makes any impact at all.  Potential for a winner, definitely, but that's all it is; potential.

I knew when I was in trouble almost from the get-go when an opening prologue introduces a reporter (Patrick Stewart) at the 2004 MLS All-Star game, much older now but the only U.S. reporter who even covered the 1950 World Cup in Brazil.  He starts to talk adoringly about how epic the game was, how this ragtag group of amateur American players banded together, how they shocked the world.  That's the whole movie.  The 1950 team is treated like gods who changed the course of history.  Sure, the 1-0 win over England was beyond believable, but you know what the Americans did in the other two pool play games? Lost 3-1 to Spain and 5-2 to Chile.  At no point does 'Match' even mention the rest of the games or any sort of context as to what the game meant.  It didn't change much at all and is a stand-alone of what sports can do.  Goliath doesn't always win, but don't try and convince me this team was welcomed home like conquering heroes.

Playing actual people -- especially when they're still alive -- can be tricky so 'Match' plays it as safe as possible.  Every character is from the cookie-cutter school of generic sports figures.  A pre-300 Gerard Butler plays Frank Borghi, the U.S. team's very talented goalkeeper and really the only character with any sort of personality, anything of interest about him at all. Wes Bentley plays Walter Bahr, one of the greatest all-time players to play for the U.S. and a member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame. Bentley gives little personality to the part, and it's hard to believe him as a leader of a soccer team because he doesn't even convince the viewers of his ability, much less his teammates. No one else in the cast makes much of an impression except John Rhys-Davies as national team coach Bill Jeffrey, maybe the worst portrayal of a coach I've ever seen in a movie. It looks like he's sleepwalking 90% of the time.

Now on to the soccer.  Any sport can be tricky to translate to a screen because acting is one thing.  Physical confrontations in a game that is almost entirely unpredictable? Downright impossible.  The soccer scenes -- and there's plenty -- lack any energy, any drive.  The actual World Cup game is well handled although the one goal scored comes as a bit of an anticlimax.  Honestly though, the movie was lost to me long before the final 20 minutes.  Director David Anspaugh supposedly had his budget cut from $65 to $27 million so the version we see is not the one he intended.  I'm hard-pressed to think of much that could make this movie that much better.  Pass.

The Miracle Match <---(2005): * 1/2 /****