The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Friday, December 30, 2011

Christmas in Connecticut

One of if not the best and most recognizable femme fatales in film noir movies of the 1940s, Barbara Stanwyck excelled at seductive, cold, ruthless female characters early in her career like Double Indemnity. Even when she wasn't glamming it up, she was a more dramatic actress. It's change of pace time, and one of Stanwyck's best and most different roles was 1945's Christmas in Connecticut.

A highly successful and very popular syndicated writer, Elizabeth Lane (Stanwyck) has created quite the elaborate lie. She publishes a monthly column about life on her farm with her husband, baby, and assorted adorable animals. The only problem? Elizabeth lives in a small New York City apartment. Her problem gets bigger when a sailor, Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan), rescued after 18 days on the open ocean has requested he meet Elizabeth and be treated to an All-American Christmas. Her publisher (Sydney Greenstreet) has complied, putting Elizabeth in quite the spot. With Jones and her boss on the way, can she continue to pull off a ruse with some help from friend and possible suitor, John (Reginald Gardiner)?

Let the 1940s crazy shenanigans begin! The premise is funny but ridiculous from the word 'go.' How do you pull off a ruse like this? Lies, lies and more lies. It reminded me of an extended episode of I Love Lucy, a crazy scheme that in no possible way would ever work....working. There are some very funny running gags including an appearance-changing baby, a judge (Dick Elliott) constantly trying to marry Elizabeth and John, and Greenstreet's publisher consistently muscling his way into problems. It's a 1940s romantic comedy, and that's a good thing. Stupid? Yes. Ridiculous? Oh, you know it. On the other hand.....

It's a sweet, innocent story that could only work in 1940s America. Romantic comedies released recently are mind-numbing, stories of "old maids" who can't get married, girls/guys talking about their conquests, and dreamy guys who always end up with the can't find a man "I'm so unlucky" woman. Some of that is on display here, but because it was made in the 1940s as opposed to the 2010s, it just works better (in my messed up head anyways). You can probably predict the ending now without seeing the movie. But the funny story, better script, black and white camerawork, a great cast, it all rolls up together into a winner. It just does. Would a story like this work now in 2011? Nope, and that's a good thing.

For all the movies I've seen (and are trying to see), I've only seen Stanwyck in one other movie I can think of even if I was aware of her screen presence as a seductive femme fatale. She does comedy here effortlessly. Her line deliveries are perfect as she navigates her way through "her life," not knowing how to care for a baby, to keep up a house, to cook, to do all the basics a wife might be able to expect. The humor is dry, her deliveries mostly subtle, and the looks she gives are priceless. It's always nice to see someone step out of their box as a performer, and Stanwyck nails this part. Her Elizabeth Lane is a great central character, her predicament seemingly getting worse by the moment.

Other than fellow noir alum Greenstreet, 'Connecticut's' supporting cast doesn't have a lot of star power or name recognition. Morgan as Jones is somewhat dull, the all-American soldier returning home to a hero's welcome, but he does have a good chemistry with Stanwyck, and that's all that really matters. Greenstreet too has a lighter part (with a somewhat darker side) as the money-minded publisher, Alexander Yardley. Gardiner as John Sloan is the dupe, keeping a seat warm until Elizabeth realizes she likes Jefferson. Heavily-accented Hungarian actor S.Z. Sakall is a scene-stealer as Felix, Elizabeth's friend and expert on cooking, with Una O'Connor playing Sloan's Irish live-in maid, Norah.

Not a Christmas classic up there in the vein of Wonderful Life, White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street, but this is a winner. I'm disappointed I took so long actually sitting down and watching it. Definitely a movie that qualifies as one of those rare "They don't make them like they used to." Funny, charming, and sugary sweet, and a great movie overall.

Christmas in Connecticut <---TCM trailer/clips (1945): ***/****

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Peacemaker

Been in somewhat of a rut at Netflix recently so I'm revisiting the 1990s. Growing up, I either missed a lot of good movies, just wasn't aware of them, or was too young to see them. I saw part of this movie on AMC a few weeks ago, and frustrated with the crazy amount of commercials decided to stop watching. Glad I chose 1997's The Peacemaker at Netflix.

Somewhere in southern Russia, two trains collide -- one of them carrying a nuclear device that destroys the country for miles. The world is thrown for a loop with the explosion, and in the U.S., the White House nuclear expert, Dr. Julia Kelly (Nicole Kidman), leads a task force to handle the situation. Kelly is teamed with an Intelligence liaison, Lt. Colonel Tom Devoe (George Clooney), who believes the train collision was a cover-up to steal nine other nuclear warheads on board. Now the clock is ticking. Who is responsible for the hijacking, and more importantly, can they be found in time? They make no demands so how do you stop an enemy with hidden goals?

As happens surprisingly often, I was surprised by the IMDB rating for 'Peacemaker,' just around 5.9 out of 10 at the time of this review. Did I love it? No, it's not a classic suspense thriller by any means. Did I really like it? Very much so. Director Mimi Leder has put together a smart, well-told, exciting and even subtle at times thriller. Scenes and situations develop with ease, not that overly done, rushed feeling that permeates action thrillers. Violence is startling but not gratuitous, action fast-moving but perceptible, and let's face it. A chase for a terrorist extremist with a nuclear device is pretty hard to mess up in the thrills department. Maybe a little cliched, but Leder has some fun with it.

Starring together in 1997, George Clooney and Nicole Kidman are interesting choices for the leads.  Clooney was Mr. ER in '97, but he was clearly headed for bigger and better things. His Devoe is a solid lead; a driven, goal-oriented Intelligence officer who's fed up with the bureaucracy and wants results instead. His character is a little over the top at times, but it works mostly because Clooney was and is one of the more likable stars to grace the screen. As for Kidman, I think of her as more of an actress than a movie star so it's fun to see her in a more mainstream action flick. Neither character is developed much, just a duo hopping all over the globe in hopes of squashing this terrorist nuclear threat. Good performances when that's all a movie requires is not a bad thing.

To be memorable or at least positively reviewed, an action thriller has to have some worthwhile set pieces or action scenes. 'Peacemaker' has three high quality, memorable sequences like that. The opening train heist is a gem and sets the tone for the rest of the movie. The story truly finds its rhythm around the hour mark when Clooney's Devoe leads a helicopter assault across territorial lines into Russia (a no-no for those scoring at home). Ending in a shootout on a bridge over a gorge, it's a great chase sequence that is one-upped about 30 minutes later in the finale, a chase through downtown Manhattan in New York. As I think more about these scenes, maybe they are cliched, a little too familiar, but I fell for it. I went along with the action and enjoyed it right to the end.

Now onto the villains, always a nice thing to have in an action thriller. The script calls for two of the best, combining Russian Army renegades (including Aleksandr Baluev) with Serbian extremists (Marcel Iures and brother Rene Medvesek). The rogue Russian general is out for the money while the Serbians and their reasoning are at least partially explained. There is also a small but excellent part for Armin Mueller-Stahl as a Russian intelligence officer who's worked with Clooney's Devoe in the past.

Another case of ignoring the reviews. Just a good, old-fashioned and well-told action thriller. Oh, and George Clooney is cool.

The Peacemaker <---trailer (1997): ***/****

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Bishop's Wife

Ah, it's almost Christmas season. The toys and gifts, the decorations, the music, the bad sweaters. This is a holiday that's got it all. What do I love most about the Christmas season? Besides all of it I guess. Well, you're reading a movie review blog so if you guess.....movies, you win a cookie. Happy Kwanz-Hana-Solstice-Mas! Today's hopefully timely review, 1947's The Bishop's Wife.

Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) is in trouble. One of the youngest appointed bishops in the country, Henry is desperately seeking funds to build a new cathedral. His efforts are all-encompassing, taking over all aspects of life. His wife, Julia (Loretta Young), is drifting away, and Henry can do nothing about it. One night seeking guidance, he prays and what appears? An angel in his office by the name of Dudley (Cary Grant) who hopes to help him however he can, but now how Henry would have anticipated. Does the bishop truly believe Dudley is an angel? And what exactly does Dudley plan to do?

Comedies to drama, musicals to cartoons, I can find something redeeming in just about every Christmas movie out there. Coming up with a positive for 'Wife' was not difficult. The word(s) that come to mind? Sweet and charming. Definitely a qualifier for 'they don't make them like this anymore.' In terms of quality and emotion (not to mention some casting repeats), it would run as quite a double bill with It's a Wonderful Life. It has a message but doesn't hit you over the head with it. It's funny but doesn't try too hard. It's sweet but isn't sappy. Director Henry Koster keeps a nice balance among all those elements.

If you're going for charming, is there a better actor in the history of movies to pick than Cary Grant? I'm trying to come up with a name and keep on drawing a blank. Oddly enough, this part was one of Grant's least favorite. Why? Who knows because I think it's perfect casting. Playing the angel Dudley, Grant has that right mix of charm, intelligence and genuine interest in helping others. What separates the role from good and great is the tragic element in the character. Trying to bring Niven's Henry and Young's Julia together, Dudley falls for Julia but knows nothing can come of it. The ending for Dudley is far from a happy one, but a necessary one for the movie, and in a bigger sense that's more than just him; a perfect happy ending. Great part for Grant.

Now I debated diving into this at all because talking about religion never ends well. NEVER. So with that said, let's talk some religion! A movie about an angel will no doubt divide some viewers, but I loved the portrayal. Dudley explains his job and means of going about it several times, a guide along the way who helps make decisions. Once the decision is made though, he's gone, leaving it on the individual like they came to that point on their own. The supernatural aspect is played up at times with Dudley's abilities, and the script is pitch-perfect with a long list of one-liners and sight gags; Dudley saying he'll talk to God about a blessing, talking about his centuries-long life, and so much more.

This romantic comedy does not fall just on the shoulders of Grant, both Niven and Young helping carry the load. Niven is the viewer, the doubting Thomas who questions Dudley's reality while Young is the wife who wants back what she always had, a loving and attentive husband. Monty Woolley plays Prof. Wutheridge, an old friend of the Brougham's, James Gleason plays amiable cabbie Sylvester, Gladys Cooper is Mrs. Hamilton, a manipulative money donor, Elsa Lanchester is Matilda, the Brougham's maid, and Karolyn Grimes (year removed from playing Zuzu in 'Wonderful Life') is Debby, the Brougham's daughter. Just a good movie from top to bottom, and a Christmas classic.  

The Bishop's Wife <---TCM trailer/clips (1947): ****/****

Thursday, December 22, 2011


No point in wasting time with some lying in the intro. I didn't watch 1965's She because it sounded interesting or the names in the cast jumped out at me. I watched because Ursula Andress was in it, and.....well.....she's nice to look at.  So yeah, that's it. The Swiss beauty is gorgeous.

Having survived World War I, three friends, Leo (John Richardson), Holly (Peter Cushing), a former college professor, and Job (Bernard Cribbins), Holly's servant, are wondering what to do with themselves in 1918 Palestine. Leo meets a mysterious woman, Utane (Rosenda Monteros), who leads him to an exotic villa where he's introduced to a beautiful and even more mysterious woman, Ayesha (Andress), who speaks ominously of him joining her, all his dreams coming true and whatever he desired....if he can find her somewhere in the African desert in a supposed lost city. Curious of what awaits them, Leo is joined by Holly and Job, but none of them truly know what to expect, what awaits them.

A movie from Hammer Film Productions, 'She' has quite a bit of schlock value. It is in no way expected to be a classic, or even a good, average movie for that matter. What little budget existed seems to have been bookmarked for the indoor sets of a long-lost city in the desert, the rest saved for Andress' costumes. There isn't so much a story as a series of somewhat related scenes loosely tied together. In the meantime as viewers, I'm guessing we're supposed to stay involved seeing if we can see through Andress and Monteros' nearly sheer outfits. Not so fast though, it is the 1960s. No nudity here although Andress certainly is half naked much of the movie.

I guess what threw me off is that for about 30 minutes, maybe even 45 minutes, I was enjoying this movie. The post-WWI beginning in the Middle East is a unique, interesting set-up.  The relationship among the three vets -- Leo, the young, suave bachelor, Holly, the aged and intelligent professor, and Job, his ever loyal man servant -- is a good if familiar start. What to do after surviving a war? Normal, everyday life sounds dull so let's embark on another death-defying adventure! Not quite a 'Men on a Mission' story, but there are traces of that sub-genre. The appeal of possibly unearthing a lost city is just too much to pass up.

Now as bad as the movie can be at times -- real bad -- there is too much talent with certain members of the cast for it to be a complete waste. Two masters of British horror, Cushing and Christopher Lee, make sure of that. Both consummate professionals, they're going to commit to their parts and go for it. Cushing is a sidekick more than a lead character, but his scenes with Richardson and Cribbins are a high point. Lee has a somewhat smaller part as Bilali, Ayesha's high priest suspicious of Leo's arrival. Intimidating and imposing, Lee makes the most of what little screen time he has.

Then there's Andress and Richardson. Depending on the film and script, Andress could be a solid if unspectacular actress. 'She' has neither. Her part is completely about her physical appearance, an immortal goddess looking for a man to spend all of eternity with. On that note, Andress is great because she does in fact look gorgeous. I know what you're thinking. It's a stretch for her, but she pulls it off. A year before Richardson would woo Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC, he woos Andress and shares several long, even uncomfortable make-out scenes. He must have been doing something right because he couldn't act his way out of a paper bag. Not very good performances at the top.

Definitely wasn't expecting a classic, but I was expecting to enjoy the movie a bit more. A general feeling of cheapness and a story that never really goes anywhere, even Cushing, Lee and Andress' physical appearance couldn't save this one. Good start, but the momentum dies about 30 minutes in.

She <---TCM clips (1965): **/****

Monday, December 19, 2011

Mission: Impossible

Counting down the days to the fourth M:I movie, dubbed Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, and thought it was as good a time as any to look back on the movie that started this highly successful franchise, 1996's Mission: Impossible. An espionage thriller with top-notch action, it's still the best of the M:I movies....for now. Let's see how Ghost Protocol goes, but the fourth entry has its work cut out for it.

Leading an operation in Prague, MIF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) sees his team ambushed and murdered during the mission. Meeting a supervisor in the bloody aftermath, Hunt realizes he's been set up, made to look like a treacherous mole who's been working against MIF for years. Now he must find out who set him up. With the only surviving member of his team, Claire (Emmanuelle Beart), and two similarly disavowed MIF agents, Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Kreiger (Jean Reno), Hunt goes on the offensive. He seeks out the actual mole by going through his only link, a black market arms dealer, Max (Vanessa Redgrave), who wants one thing and is willing to pay heavily for it; a list of all undercover MIF agents worldwide. Now Ethan has to decide how far he wants to go to prove his innocence.

I'm not particularly proud of that plot synopsis, but I think it's the best I'm going to do. It took me two or three viewings to even understand the plot in the late 90s, and that's about all the information I can give without revealing too much. What do you need to take away from that plot? Ethan Hunt needs to do some impossible things to set up a meeting with the traitor who set him up. That's the movie in a nutshell. An actual understanding of that story would be unnecessary. It's good, old fashioned secret agent fun. Go along with it, and if you're like me, at some point the story will click into place.

This is Tom Cruise at his best. The man is a legitimately good actor, but he seems most at ease in these types of movies; popcorn movies with great characters, greater action and ludicrous action sequences that let him show off his physical ability. Like he would do four years later in M:I2, Cruise does most if not all of his stunts here. He's intense, believable and because this is a secret agent requirement....he's impeccably cool. It doesn't hurt to have some fellow bad-asses around, especially Ving Rhames as Luther Stickell, computer hacker to top all hackers, and Jean Reno as Kreiger, a livewire who is as unpredictable as the missions they're on.

A good action movie -- espionage or just straight crazy ridiculous shootouts and hand to hand combat -- needs one thing to be memorable; set pieces that rise above the movie. Mission: Impossible has three, dominating much of the movie's 110-minute running time. Let's start at the beginning. The first 30 minutes is the botched mission in Prague, setting a tone where nothing will be predictable (okay, maybe a little, more on that later). Ethan's team (including uncredited parts for Emilio Estevez and Kristin Scott Thomas) is wiped out in one of the great shocking openings ever. It's just different. You figure we're watching a team of agents we'll get to see, and then BAM! They're all dead. One of my favorite movie openings ever.

That's just for starters though. Mid-movie, Ethan and Co. infiltrate CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia in a sequence that all action directors should watch and analyze. Dropping into an impregnable vault that is virtually inaccessible with sensors for heat, sound and movement, Ethan must steal the NOC list, the names and locations of every MIF agent worldwide. An extended sequence with little dialogue, it is the definition of tension, the type of mission where the tiniest thing could ruin it all. And the ending? A chase through the subway under the English Channel with a helicopter strapped to the speeding train? Ethan battling it out on top? EPIC. One, two and three very memorable set pieces when just one would have made it worthwhile.

Some twists late in the movie aren't exactly surprising if you're paying attention, but the reveal of the treacherous mole is handled so well via flashback you shouldn't be disappointed. Rounding out the cast is Jon Voight as Phelps, Ethan's long-time mentor and team leader, and the always creepy Henry Czerny as Kittridge, the CIA agent gunning for Ethan. What else to mention? Action-driving music from Danny Elfman, including the always fun M:I theme, listen HERE. Director Brian De Palma has a real winner here, a great start to a great franchise. I don't want to spoil much, but starting HERE Youtube offers nine different key clips. Can Ghost Protocol be out now?!?

Mission: Impossible <---trailer (1996): *** 1/2 /****

Friday, December 16, 2011

Tank Force

Running for two season in the 1960s, The Rat Patrol was a fun, little show following the exploits of the real-life Long Range Desert Group. Yes, it was ridiculous, four men taking on seemingly the entire German army in North Africa without taking casualties, but it was entertaining and a lot of fun to watch. Released in 1958, British war flick Tank Force seems almost like a dry run for the short-lived TV show.

Caught up in a chaotic back and forth battle, two British tank crews, one commanded by an American, Sgt. Thatcher (Victor Mature), and the other by Sgt. Kendall (Leo Genn), are captured by German forces. They are transported to a makeshift prison camp where hundreds of other Allied prisoners are being held in the Libyan desert. Kendall goes along with the flow, joining the escape committee and joining in on the effort to pull off a successful escape. Thatcher on the other hand is looking out for himself, planning his own escape without checking in with the rest of the camp. His efforts piss off the other prisoners, but he has his reasoning. An SS officer is headed to the camp to interrogate Thatcher who has no intention of being around for that questioning.

Directed by future James Bond director Terence Young, 'Tank' is a forgettable if entertaining WWII story. I enjoyed it, but didn't love it and probably won't feel the need to revisit again anytime soon. Part tank battle, part POW escape story, it's heavy on action and short on story and any sort of reality. It is entertaining though, and a WWII story that focuses on the 1942 North Africa campaign is rarely dull. Desert warfare always makes for interesting, unique viewing, and an escape across that desert with murdering Arab tribesmen, Italian and German forces on patrol and waiting is a cool premise.

American and British, a natural and historical rivalry, so in step Mature and Genn. Their dynamic is easily the best thing going in 'Tank.' They both want the same thing but go about it in polar opposite fashion, Mature's Thatcher on his own and Genn's Kendall as part of the team. Only when their backs are against the wall do they decide to work together. Their rivalry actually consists of a handful of scenes where they argue back and forth, but seeing the brooding intimidating American -- with an interesting backstory at that -- and the stuffy shirt, prim and proper British soldier going at it certainly keeps the action going.

Filling out Tank's Rat Patrol is a small but international bunch, starting with Anthony Newley as Pvt. 'Tiger' Noakes, Kendall's driver and all-around optimist. Nothing seems to rattle him, and he's always ready with a joke like most of Newley's supporting parts were. Bonar Colleano plays Walewski, the Polish POW who teams up with Thatcher in his escape efforts. Ready and willing to kill to preserve his own well-being, it certainly adds a darker dimension to the group. Some other familiar faces include Sean Kelly, Percy Herbert, David Lodge and Alfred Burke as the other British prisoners. Future Bond-girl/villain Luciana Paluzzi has a small part to as Carola, an Italian woman aiding the escape effort.

Not surprisingly, the action is what will draw most viewers in. Escaping the prison camp, Thatcher, Kendall and crew cut a swath through North Africa a mile wide, taking out Germans and Italians wherever they go. It's a fun movie overall that isn't great and isn't bad. Entertaining and forgettable but not much else. Probably worth a watch if nothing else.

Tank Force (1958): ** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Jack Bull

Made for TV typically has a pretty negative connotation, but it doesn't have to. Made for HBO in 1999, The Jack Bull is a western with a lot of potential coming from a strong cast and clearly some production value. The story though gets tedious and repetitive, wasting away what is obviously a lot of talent in front of and behind the camera.

Running his modest but successful spread in 1880s Wyoming, horse trader Myrl Redding (John Cusack) has been wronged by local rancher Henry Ballard (L.Q. Jones). In lieu of cash, Ballard takes two of Redding's prize stallions as payment only to mistreat the animals to the point of near-death. Seeking retribution, Redding steps into a world of trouble when the crotchety Ballard refuses to even admit a wrong was done. He tries to go about it the legal way but is met by the rancher's corrupt ways.  When all else fails after his family gets involved, Redding goes down the route of vigilante with a small army of gunmen. With Wyoming seeking statehood, the conflict is magnified as the state government tries to step in.

The western at its most simple -- and often times its best -- is typically the always present and always topical good vs. bad.  Simple as that. As the west expanded in the 19th Century, individuals were often led to that choice. Stand up in the face of bad/evil, or fold and let good be defeated. That's the premise here in 'Jack.' More than anything, a man must stand up for what he believes in, even when it seems a foolhardy venture. There is right and wrong so pick your side as Cusack's Myrl does. That premise is fine and dandy, but it gets beaten to death in this story. We get it. Myrl wants justice done no matter what it takes. Repeat that for two hours.

While I've always been a fan of John Cusack, that doesn't necessarily mean I think he's a great actor. This part clearly shows his acting ability. His Myrl is the prototypical good hero. He's a family man (with wife Miranda Otto and son Drake Bell) who wants to build up a life, a successful one. Myrl is a man of principle though, a trait that gets him in more trouble than he ever imagined. Cusack brings a humanity to the part, a necessary feature of the lead character here because otherwise his intent gets lost if we don't side with him. Some of the best scenes in the movie are those quiet moments with his families or his crew, including cowboy Woody (John C. McGinley) and Crow Indian and horse wrangler, Billy (Rodney A. Grant). There is a tragic element to the character, but like so much here it gets lost in the shuffle in the movie's second half.

So I love a good old-fashioned gun fight like anybody else, but I can appreciate a more cerebral western too.  Directed by John Badham, 'Jack' tries to be more intellectual, leaving the shoot 'em up angle by the wayside. The problem is that without much in the way of action, we're left to focus on the dialogue and the drama and a story that does a lot of meandering getting anywhere. By the 30-minute mark, I was bored. The story is interesting, but the execution of that story lacks any energy at all.  It bounces around far too much, and by the last 30-45 minutes it completely comes off the rails. It was marketed in the wrong fashion to me at least (nice job there, Netflix) so maybe I was just expecting something different. Whatever the case, a slow-moving story without much of a payoff is not a positive.

Boring story maybe, but the cast is pretty solid top to bottom. It's great to see western icon L.Q. Jones playing the bad guy, and he looks to be having a lot of fun doing it. John Goodman plays Tolliver, a judge called in to deal with the quickly escalating case with Scott Wilson, Jay O. Sanders and Kurt Fuller playing other varieties of corrupt government officials. McGinley and Grant are excellent in supporting parts as Myrl's hands at his little ranch to the point where the story would have been infinitely better with more of them around. Disappointing in the end though because the potential was there. Probably best for die-hard western fans more than anyone else.

The Jack Bull <---trailer (1999): **/****

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Apache Blood

Included as part of the 44-film spaghetti western collection I bought last year, the description of 1975's Apache Blood should have sounded alarm bells in my head. I didn't recognize anyone in the cast, and it sounded like a cheap knock-off of Chato's Land and Man in the Wilderness.  I take that back. That is an insult to both those movies. This movie is awful, simply awful. One of the worst I've ever seen.

When his village is wiped out by a cavalry troop, Apache warrior Yellow Shirt (Ray Danton) goes on the warpath with a small band of braves. A small five-man patrol commanded by Lt. Hawkins (Troy Nabors) has received orders to return to the fort, but is slowed down when their scout, Sam Glass (Dewitt Lee), is attacked by a bear. Badly wounded, Sam is left for dead by the patrol and must now fend for himself. Nothing is going to stop Yellow Shirt though, and with no supplies and barely any water, Sam must race across the desert to safety before the Apaches catch up to him.

Through the good, bad and awful, spaghetti westerns almost always have their charm (however twisted and/or bizarre). The only problem? Apache Blood is not a spaghetti western. It was made by Americans with Americans for Americans....very poorly. Filmed on a shoestring budget in the Arizona desert, there is little redeeming about the effort. Lee was the writer here, but from the finished product, I'm guessing he came up with an idea more than an actual script. Dialogue? Yeah, that must have been left on the cutting room floor. Here's a quick synopsis. Scout hurt, scout left behind, scout runs, Indian chases him. That's literally the entire movie with maybe 20 lines of dialogue the whole way.

That all leads me to a somewhat out there conclusion.  Is this dreck supposed to be some sort of existential hogwash, a western story at its most simple? Survival above all else, is that all it could be trying to say?...............No, it's just an awful movie. The above questions would require some sort of pre-production planning that I'm pretty sure didn't happen in preparation for Apache Blood. It reeks of amateur, homemade movies, friends going out into the desert with a video camera and goofing around for a couple hours. Acting? Not so much. Interesting story? That neither. Let me get back to you on something worthwhile, even mildly positive.

'Apache' clocks in at an epically long 89 minutes.  Want a shortcut? With so little dialogue, I watched it on fast-forward in about 40 minutes. Whole scenes have Lee's Sam walking across the desert, the camera following him. Cut to Danton's Yellow Shirt doing the same albeit at a quicker pace. Repeat that 10 to 15 times, and you've got a movie. A chase story could/should have been interesting, but this is dull, repetitive and did I mention dull?

A saving grace out there is that this is an exploitation western. Lots of violence -- somewhat graphic -- "highlights" the Apache on cavalry action. It is bizarre in a sense concerning the violence. It can't get anything else right, but the frontier violence? Oh, they hit that one on the nose. The ending itself borrows generously from the infinitely better The Naked Prey, but it packs a surprising punch. One of the meanest, dirtiest, downright vicious endings I've ever seen, and then in a 3-minute recap of sorts, we see everything else from the movie's first 80 minutes. Bizarre doesn't begin to describe this train wreck. In a sick, weird way, the general oddness of the last 10 minutes makes the first 80 or so somehow worthwhile.

If for some reason you enjoy torturing yourself, this movie is available in its public domain glory to watch at Youtube. It starts HERE with Part 1 of 7.  Enjoy....if you can.

Apache Blood (1975) zero stars/****

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Iron Mistress

Born in 1796, Jim Bowie packed a hell of a lot of living into his 40 years. An adventurer, a frontiersman, a slave trader, land owner, and knife fighter, Bowie did it all before his death at the Alamo in 1836. Most famously, he's known for inventing a particularly nasty-looking knife that was named after him, the Bowie knife. Why then with a life as adventurous and exciting as his is the 1952 bio-pic The Iron Mistress so dull?

Traveling to New Orleans in 1825, Jim Bowie (Alan Ladd) is looking to sell lumber from his family's mill. A backwoodsman more comfortable in the bayou, Jim is more than a little uncomfortable in the big city. He meets Narcisse (Douglas Dick), a well-to-do French land owner, and is then introduced to his sister, the very pretty Judalon (Virginia Mayo). Jim is drawn to her instantly but quickly discovers trouble surrounds her wherever she goes. The young knife fighter wants bigger and better things though, wants riches of his own. Land, cotton, slaves, it doesn't matter. Young Mr. Bowie intends to take the world by storm.

To say that this 1952 biography plays fast and loose with the history is a generous statement. What's true? There was a man named Jim Bowie, he had a wicked-looking knife created for him, and he was in Louisiana and Texas in the 1820s and 1830s.  Other than that? This could be any movie about an enterprising young businessman.  I'm a fan of Bowie historically and anything remotely connected to the Alamo, but even I can find little redeeming in this story.  It drags along at 109 minutes -- but feels much, much longer -- and is bogged down in the period look from the costumes down to the sets. The story simply tries to do too much, never focusing on anything specific, or for that matter....interesting.

The movie's fatal flaw comes in the casting. I'm not a huge fan of the typically wooden Alan Ladd to begin with, but he is a poor choice to play Bowie. The real-life Bowie was a particularly nasty guy so right off the bat Ladd is backed into a corner with this 1950s whitewashing of the historical, real life person. But whitewashing or not, Ladd appears to be sleepwalking. He gives Bowie little to no personality through his adventures. Even Sterling Hayden in The Last Command was better than Ladd. Of a big cast that leaves little positive impressions, Mayo is all right as the manipulative Judalon, Joseph Calleia plays Moreno, Bowie's opposition (later starring in John Wayne's The Alamo), Anthony Caruso the treacherous Sturdivant, and George Voskovec as a Quaker friend of Bowie's.

A movie about a famous knife and its creator doesn't disappoint in that regard. Several knife fights highlight the otherwise slow-moving and dull story. One has Bowie strapped at the wrist to Caruso, fighting in a ring surrounded by a mob. Another has Bowie running from armed riders trying to kill him, and even the infamous Sandbar Fight is dealt with in surprisingly gruesome fashion. The best scene by far has Bowie -- armed with his knife -- fighting a man armed with a sword in a darkened room. A beautifully put together, tension-packed sequence, great to look at and exciting on top of it. Also a plus, the scene where blacksmith James Black (David Wolfe) creates the original Bowie knife.    

Returning to the actual history, the story picks up in the last half hour as Bowie heads to Texas where he meets future wife Ursula De Veramendi (Phyllis Kirk), the daughter of the governor. This last half hour has solid pacing and actually picks up some momentum heading into the finale. The ending itself is ridiculous, basically setting up the last few years of Bowie's life without his knife. It is a deeply flawed biography of a very interesting historical figure with just enough going for it to mildly recommend.

The Iron Mistress <---TCM trailer (1952): **/****

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Pelican Brief

Serial killers, lunatic murderers, freaky alien attacks, deranged animal assaults; all creepy and scary in their own way, all played up in all sorts of movies. What could be the creepiest thing? How about a government meant to protect and look out for its people up to all sorts of shady activities? Conspiracies left and right with millions and even billions of dollars on the line to the point where a few lives don't matter. Nothing flashy, just good entertainment, 1993's The Pelican Brief.

Two U.S. Supreme Court judges have been assassinated, and no one knows where to start. A Tulane law student, Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts), starts her own investigation and gives her findings to boyfriend/law professor, Thomas Callahan (Sam Shepard). The brief she's written seems a little far-fetched, but in the intelligence community it has hit a nerve. Anyone associated with the brief starts turning up dead, leaving Darby to assume she's next. She turns to an investigative reporter, Gray Grantham (Denzel Washington), working in Washington D.C. for help. Darby and Gray begin to look into her findings, realizing they've stumbled into something bigger than them. Can they prove the brief as accurate before they too are taken care of?

Any movie based off a John Grisham novel is off to a flying start so 'Pelican' earns points before the movie has even started. Directed by Alan J. Pakula, this government thriller is polished and professional, well-told and well-executed. It keeps you guessing, giving you that uncomfortable feel of a shady, sinister government up to no good. Would you expect anything less from the director of All the President's Men?  The movie is maybe a little long at 141 minutes, but it doesn't drag, staying true to Grisham's novel. James Horner's score is a good one, using samples from Glory and Braveheart among a few other recognizable stings.

Starring together in 1993, Roberts and Washington were two of the rising stars in Hollywood.  As so many reviews point out, no one does distressed and terrified quite like Julia Roberts.  Playing Darby Shaw, Roberts does a good job of making her character frazzled without being obnoxious. Seeing what she sees? I don't blame her being frazzled. She composes herself and turns it outward, intending to prove her theory right. As the bloodhound-like investigative reporter, Washington has the best part as Gray. He can sniff out a story and get it to print like few others can.  Once they meet about halfway through the movie, 'Pelican' picks up some, Roberts and Washington showing off an easy-going, likable chemistry. Good performances to lead the way. 

Like any good thrillers, this is a movie that unsettles you in an incredibly smart way. They aren't 'Gotcha!' moments. Instead, they're quiet moments that build up the tension. Is someone waiting around a corner to kill you? More importantly, who's behind all this killing? The idea/premise of a government agency with all its resources trying to kill one person is what so many government thrillers are based in. What's one little murder to people like that? You never know when they'll strike or where, and that's where 'Pelican' works so well.

The performances in support of Roberts and Washington are something else. With a long list of speaking roles, most are only around for two or three scenes so enjoy them, and don't blink! Robert Culp is particularly memorable as the President of the United States, Tony Goldwyn playing his shifty Chief of Staff. Stanley Tucci is startling as Khamel, an assassin with seemingly no rival. John Lithgow plays Smith, Gray's beaten-down but trusting newspaper editor. Playing the head of the FBI, James Sikking is just the right amount of ability and paranoia, balancing out someone turning on him at any time. Even Hume Cronyn makes a quick appearance as an aging Supreme Court Justice. That is by no means all of the names worth mentioning, but the list could go on for several more reviews. Lots of talent assembled here, lots of recognizable faces.

I was surprised to find a relatively modest 6.3 rating out of 10 at IMDB for this movie. It isn't anything that new, and the ending is a little too tidy, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. Well-written and with good performances from top to bottom. You can't ask for too much more in a movie.

The Pelican Brief <---trailer (1993): ***/****

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Target Zero

Cliched, familiar, flawed, been there and seen that, all things that came to mind while watching 1955's Target Zero, a Korean War story of a lost patrol trying to make it back to their own lines. I've seen this movie before with a different title, and typically I always like them. With a fun couple tweaks here, I liked this one too even if it could have been a B-movie classic.

After a day of heavy fighting, U.N. staffer/nurse Ann Galloway (Peggie Castle) finds herself behind enemy lines with no way to get back to safety. A British tank crew (commanded by Richard Wyler) stumbles upon her and picks her up, the battle-scarred tank running across the remnants of an American patrol, commanded by Lt. Flagler (Richard Conte). Working together, the ragtag group hopes to make it back to American lines, Flagler insisting they head for a strategic hill position. Can they make it through a gauntlet of North Korean soldiers? Will anyone even be at the hill if they make it?

The Lost Patrol, The Steel Helmet, Anzio, this story has been done before and will most likely be done again. The story of a small group of survivors banding together to make it through enemy-infested territory is nothing new to any war movie, Korean or not. But as is the case here, it's just familiar enough to be a fun ride to go along with. Flagler's patrol unknowingly walks into a minefield, hides out as a North Korean patrol walks by, fights among themselves. You name it. You've seen the stereotypes elsewhere if you've even seen a couple war movies. If you can get past the cliches -- or at least go along with them -- you'll most likely enjoy this movie at least a little bit.

Filling out the unit, I had trouble going along with Conte as Lt. Flagler, the idealistic officer who lives for his company and nothing else. Conte's a better villain than a leading man, and I don't see the appeal or respect his men have for him in 'Target.' His patrol includes Charles Bronson as the loyal sergeant, Chuck Connors as Moose, the radioman, L.Q. Jones as O'Hara, the fast-talking Southerner, Strother Martin, Abel Fernandez as Geronimo, an Apache, Don Oreck as Della Nueva, a Latino boxer, and an uncredited and unlisted Richard Park as Pvt. Man Koo, a South Korean soldier. The British tankers include John Alderson and Terence Marney while John Dennis and Aaron Spelling play two American soldiers picked up carrying a mortar tube and little else. Cool little group, Bronson standing out along with Connors and Jones.

Early on, I was more than pleased to see Castle's Ann introduced into the story. A female nurse along for the trip was certainly a unique addition to the story. It takes about 30 minutes before she falls madly in love with Conte's Flagler. She loves him because he's good to his men, because he's driven, because he's a good leader. Yeah, that's awesome. Their scenes together try to explain war, figure it all out, talking about death and moving on, finding a way to cope. Someone picked up War Movie Dialogue Cliches 101 and turned it into a script. Castle's performance is fine -- nothing against her -- but these scenes are painful to watch.

At times playing like an episode of Combat (that's a compliment, I love that show), 'Target' is at its best dealing with the action. It was filmed at Fort Carson, an Army base in Colorado, and it has a great look of a stark land -- in black and white at that -- where anything could happen and anyone could be hiding. Thanks to the filming location, there's also some great aerial footage of fighter jets helping the patrol. The ending certainly influenced 1962's Hell is For Heroes, the patrol stranded on a lonely hilltop ready to face an attack from the North Koreans.

The set-up and intro to that action finale is impressive, but the execution -- or lack of -- is a little disappointing. With a unit picture, usually some men in said unit get picked off, dying in battle. Not here (that page of War Movie Cliches must have fallen out). Everyone makes it. A darker ending is hinted at, including killing Castle's Ann before the North Koreans can get her, but 'Target' doesn't go that far. It's still an entertaining if flawed movie, worth a watch.

Target Zero (1955): ** 1/2 /****

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Bandit of Zhobe

Late this summer I reviewed 1956's Zarak, a quasi-historical epic that was entertaining for all the wrong reasons. Epically bad choices in casting, lack of story and character development, all lost in a search for that epic scale which was never really there to begin with.  So how do you improve on it? Well, long story short, you don't. Made three years later, 1959's The Bandit of Zhobe is almost scene-for-scene the exact same movie.

A chieftain of an Indian tribe (India, not Native American) on the frontier, Kasim Khan (Victor Mature) has his family and life torn apart from him, his tribe massacred in a brutal massacre led by Azhad Khan (Walter Gotell), a rival chief who leads the attack with his men dressed as British troops. With a small but loyal group of followers, Kasim becomes a bandit, terrorizing British interests in the area. The regional commander, Major Cowley (Norman Wooland), would like nothing more than to get his hands on the bandit, but Kasim avoids him at every turn. Cowley's daughter, Zena (Anne Aubrey), believes Kasim deserves a chance to know the truth, but can she get him to believe what actually happened?

I gave a marginally positive review for 1956's Zarak (read HERE) in July. The TCM website inexplicably listed this quasi-sequel/remake as a western, but it was apparent almost immediately that this was basically the same thing as Zarak.  Check that, it's not basically the same thing. It is the same thing. Mature plays the same character risen from the dead, Wooland the capable British officer trying to arrest him, and Aubrey the oddly out of place possible love interest. Maybe studios thought audiences were stupid enough to forget. Maybe the studios just didn't care, seeing a cheap chance to make some money. Yeah, that second one sounds more appropriate.

For whatever reason and having seen the two movies about four-five months apart, I liked 'Bandit' considerably more than its predecessor.  Go figure because I certainly can't. The same problems are there -- little story, just a running series of battles, no character development -- but I went along with it this time. Hoping to capitalize and make some easy $, the studio reuses countless shots and whole sequences.  Watch them back-to-back and you'll see at least 15-20 minutes of footage pop up in both films.  The battle scenes are ripped from Zarak in their entirety and dropped into this movie. The positive? The Zarak battles scenes were the best thing going for that movie, and not surprisingly they work here too.

Looking like he's phoning it in for a paycheck, Mature says about 18 words the whole movie. Those words are growled and muttered. He is the star of the movie with name recognition only, nothing else. The focus instead turns to his British counterparts.  Anthony Newley plays Cpl. Stokes, the somewhat goofy British soldier placed in charge of watching the major's daughter and not enjoying his duty at all. Some comedy but not too much thankfully.  Aubrey is the innocent one, sure she can figure everything out without anything bad happening, Wooland the veteran officer trying to avoid a full-scale war breaking out.

So this isn't much of a shocker, but for a 1959 British movie generally forgotten and made on the cheap, there isn't much info out there about 'Bandit.' I'd like to say where the movie was filmed, but I honestly have no idea, and I can't find that information anywhere. So what to say? In Italy or Asia or wherever 'Bandit' was filmed, it is a starkly shot but certainly visually interesting film. The TCM print was in pan-n-scan too, and it still looked good. That speaks to something. An average movie for sure, but one I enjoyed. I'd say watch Zarak too, but the pure awesomeness might blow your mind.

The Bandit of Zhobe <---Youtube scene (1959): ** 1/2 /****

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Man Inside

One of Britain's great character actors, Anthony Newley was honored on Turner Classic Movies recently with a day devoted to his films.  A familiar face who often play sidekicks and partners to the star, Newley was always a welcome face when I stumbled upon him in cast listings. While he provides some odd yet still funny comedic timing in 1958's The Man Inside, even Newley and an impressive cast can't save the movie.

Having planned the robbery for 15 years, Englishman Sam Carter (Nigel Patrick) walks into a diamond exchange in New York City and steals a diamond worth over $700,000.  The success comes from the simplicity of the job, and now no one -- including the police -- know where to start looking for Carter or the diamond. Milo March (Jack Palance), a private detective, is called in to see what he can find trying to pick up the crook's trail. March finds himself globe-trotting, following Carter to Lisbon, Madrid, Paris and London, always one step behind him. He keeps running into a mysterious Austrian woman (Anita Ekberg) who similarly has an interest in acquiring the diamond, and that's not all. Some very bad, very hard men don't care who gets hurt as they search for the rare diamond.

As I found out afterward, 'Inside' is not available on VHS or DVD so I was glad to stumble across it on TCM's schedule. It's nothing special and drifts along with its story more than a pointed, driven effort. Still, director John Gilling keeps it interesting if not always hugely entertaining. There are villains, but the type you assume will never successfully hurt a good guy. Said good guys betray each other, but you know they'll end up working together in the end. Part film noir, heist, and European tour guide, 'Inside' never really decides what it is. Drama? Comedy? Never great and never awful, decent enough way to spend 97 minutes.

Newley didn't get a mention in the plot review because like a lot of sidekicks, his part isn't essential to the story. The very British Newley plays the very Italian Ernesto, a taxi driver and guide in Madrid who meets Palance's March and ends up helping him around the city. He plays surprisingly well off the always intense Palance, providing some lighter moments with some running comedic bits that just shouldn't work, but well, they end up working. It's a good supporting part for Mr. Newley who always seems to be having fun no matter the role he plays.

It always feels like a cop-out when I write about this in a review, devoting an entire paragraph to this particular aspect, but as was the case here in 'Inside' it is really good. Yes, here I go again with on-location shooting, Gilling filming much of his movie in Lisbon, Madrid and Paris. Filmed in a very stylish black and white, this very visual movie helped me as a viewer slog through some of the slower portions. And while it sounds obvious, a movie is just better when you see the actors actually in the locations, not a poorly done green screen effect. It's always pretty clear when the actor isn't actually in those glamorous European cities. To some, maybe it's a little thing, but it's a major selling point for me, and 'Inside' doesn't disappoint on that level.

The good and bad here is that the cast assembled is a good one, but they're not always given anything to do. Lots of travel scenes, lots of pointless talking that waste an otherwise talented cast. Palance's March is a step back from his usual psychotic character he perfected over his career. Still intense, but pulled back a notch or two. Human Barbie doll Ekberg is the femme fatale, playing all sides for her own gain. Patrick is the shifty Carter, the diamond thief who we know little about. Some more background would have been nice about the character, his motivations, his reasoning, something. Also look for Donald Pleasance as a Spanish organ grinder, Sid James as March's friend and supervisor Franklin, and Bonar Colleano and Sean Kelly as two hired guns after the diamond.   

All things considered, a pretty forgettable movie. The cast is above average though, and it's a great movie to look at so there's just enough to recommend here. Barely, but still recommending it.

The Man Inside (1958): **/****

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Horrible Bosses

For the lucky ones among us, work ain't so bad. It's tolerable and even enjoyable at times. But who at some point in their adult life hasn't had one of those God awful, truly horrific bosses that make you want to rip your own ears off? If you don't qualify there, congratulations to you. Turning that fantasy of killing your boss into a feature length comedy -- this past summer's Horrible Bosses -- has never been so funny.

Friends since high school, Dale (Charlie Day), Nick (Jason Bateman) and Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) are all in some rather difficult situations at work in one way or another. With the economy in the tank though, they can't up and quit their jobs, much less tell their bosses off like they'd rather do. Drinking together one night, the three joke about killing their bosses, solving each others' problem with three nice, little murders. Okay, maybe it isn't a joke as all three decide this is their best alternative. With some help from a streetwise ex-con, Motherf**ker Jones (Jamie Foxx), who provides some "murder advice," the three friends go about planning some murders.

There's no way a comedic Strangers on a Train should work, but wouldn't you know it? It does. Murdering your boss(es) doesn't exactly sound like a bucket of laughs, but director Seth Gordon handles it in the right fashion. It isn't a drama with some comedic moments or even a dark comedy with some sinister laughs. This is down and out stupid funny movie with no pretensions of being anything else. Three long-time friends with no criminal background/experience in any way murdering their bosses? Bumbling their way through some 'recon' and 'intel'? The results are surprisingly hilarious with a very funny script from three different screenwriters (I'm too lazy to type and link all three names. Besides, do you care?)

Now onto the bosses, three roles that the actors are clearly having some fun with. The biggest part goes to Kevin Spacey as Harken, Bateman's manipulative tool of a boss with an ego the size of a blimp. Nobody does pretentious and smarmy like Spacey, having a ball playing a ridiculous over the cop comedic part. Jennifer Aniston gets to sex it up as Dale's boss, Dr. Julia, a dentist who takes every opportunity to sexually harass a recently engaged Dale. It doesn't seem so bad as his friends say. Aniston plays against type in a raunchier role than usual, and yeah, she looks phenomenal. Just saying.... And last there's an unrecognizable Colin Farrell as Pellitt, Kurt's cocaine-snorting freak of a boss. He's underused, but what's there is very funny. 

As a long-time fan of FX's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, I love Charlie Day's work as Charlie Kelly, the illiterate, generally clueless and all-around goof who can't mange to do anything right. Playing Dale here, he's by far the funniest of the three friends. Goofy at times to the point of crazy, Day shows that same talent he has in Sunny, if a little lighter and not as sinister. The same for Sudeikis who seems destined for bigger and better things than Saturday Night Live. The only misfire is Bateman who seems to be sleepwalking at times. He has some funny lines -- his exchange about street racing with a Prius is classic -- but he doesn't look too interested.

Along with Foxx in a scene-stealing part as MotherF'er Jones, the cast features a couple other small but worthwhile parts. Look for Donald Sutherland, Bob Newhart, Julie Bowen, comedian Ron White, and Ioan Gruffudd in small but extremely effective bit parts.

Something is missing from all the zaniness that I can't quite put my finger on. The movie is funny with some great one-liners coming out of a ridiculously preposterous predicament, but is it too goofy at times? They never seem to really take serious what's going on. Eh, maybe they don't need to. It's funny.

Horrible Bosses <---trailer (2011): ***/****

Monday, November 21, 2011

Hearts of the West

Who among us at some point hasn't wanted to be a movie star? Even if it was just for a second, the glamour of the big screen looks awfully inviting. So how about a young country bumpkin getting started in the movies and finding out it isn't quite as glamorous as it looks? In steps 1975's Hearts of the West.

Hoping to become a western novel writer, young Lewis Tater (Jeff Bridges) heads west to what he believes is a writing school only to find it is a correspondence school and a con job at that. Still wanting to pursue his dream, Lewis runs afoul of the con men (Anthony James and Richard B. Shull) and ends up with some of their money. On the run, Lewis stumbles onto the set of a western being filmed in the desert and quickly finds work. He wants to be a writer above all else but starts off as a background player and stuntman, meeting Howard Pike (Andy Griffith) and a handful of other vets of the business. Somewhat naive and a little idealistic though, Lewis finds out everything isn't quite what it's made out to be.

Following your dreams and coming of age stories are pretty familiar story-lines, but that's not a bad thing. Bridges at 26 years old is probably a little old for the Lewis character, but he makes it work. A tad pretentious at times because he's so assured of his writing abilities, Bridges gives Lewis that solid mix of naive youngster and over the top, energetic where you can't help but like him. He meets people both good and bad, finding out that trusting others isn't always the easiest or best thing to do to advance yourself. Bridges is one of my favorites, and his performance here -- while not one of his most well known -- is a very strong role to lead the movie.

What works so well with director Howard Zieff's movie is the portrayal of an ever-growing business, movies. Set in the early 1930s, 'Hearts' is right in that time when studios were still trying to figure out how to make the transition from silent films to sound films, the focus here on the cheap western serials made with a quick turnaround. The good guys were very good, the bad guys very bad, and the stunt guys? Well, they just want to get paid. It is the little scenes and moments that made me laugh. Alan Arkin plays Kessler, a director who can manipulate like nobody's business, "motivating" Lewis by telling him the money they'll lose if a scene doesn't work. Bridges' ridiculously theatrical "death scene" has him twisting and turning, moaning and groaning before finally falling to the ground with a thud. A little window into one of Hollywood's most interesting eras, and a good window at that.

In an impressive supporting cast, Arkin and Griffith both stand out for all the right reasons. Arkin's Kessler is a supporting player to the story and not a necessarily important one, but Arkin makes the best of it. He isn't chewing the scenery, but it's close. He gets to ham it up a bit working with his cast, stunt men, script supervisors and film crew. Kessler goes from zero to 60 like nothing, providing some truly funny outbursts. In between The Andy Griffith Show but before Matlock, Griffith gets to show off his range, a fun character who's had years of experience in the business who also has a darker side. Bridges' Lewis clearly looks up to him, something that could come back to bite him. It's a great performance, both of them are, the strong parts that can bring a movie up a notch or two overall.

That's not all though with a very deep cast assembled for this movie-making film. Blythe Danner plays Miss Trout, a script supervisor who Lewis meets on-set. She similarly feels sympathy for him while also liking him and his genuine willingness to make something of himself. Donald Pleasence makes a quick appearance as A.J. Neitz, a movie producer with lots of pull all around Hollywood. Alex Rocco is underused as Earl, one of Arkin's assistants. Matt Clark and Burton Gilliam are two of the stunt crew who work with Lewis and Howard, putting themselves in harm's way for a small payday. Good cast from top to bottom.

Not much else to say here. Just a good movie, funny, sweet and a great look into the movies from behind the camera.

Hearts of the West <---TCM clips (1975): ***/****

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The King and Four Queens

Where to start with 1956's The King and Four Queens? You know, other than "I really didn't like it." Billed as a comedy western, it never amounts to anything and had me wondering where all that comedy went. Some interesting casting and a good director, but it is a story that would have benefited from a much darker, more cynical approach. Of course I say that about a lot of movies, but here goes anyways.

Riding into a lonely western town, Dan Kehoe (Clark Gable) has possibly stumbled onto riches more than he ever imagined. A bartender tells him of $100,000 worth of gold but with an interesting backstory. The four McDade brothers pulled off a robbery of the gold, but three were killed and one escaped and has been hiding ever since. The gold is believed to be guarded at Saddle Mound, the McDade ranch run by Ma McDade (Jo Van Fleet), and the four possible widows of the brothers. Dan has $ in his eyes, and he intends to get that gold, even with the protective Ma around, guarding her daughter-in-laws and the gold with her rifle. Let the charming and seduction begin.

This movie has 1950s American western syndrome. It has all the elements of a potentially entertaining, successful western but never finds a way to gel all those elements together. Even late in his career, Gable is a worthy leading man, and director Raoul Walsh was a more than capable hand with a story like this. Shot on location in Utah, the locations are stunningly beautiful, providing a great backdrop for a lackluster story that never goes anywhere. Composer Alex North's score doesn't leave much of an impression, positive or negative.

Like so many 1950s American westerns, 'King' goes more for the psychological edge which sounds weird considering it is a comedic western. At least, it's listed as that. It isn't funny in the slightest, and the story of a saddle tramp -- even one as charming as Clark Gable -- wooing four lonely, attractive and man-happy widows and their controlling, intimidating mother-in-law just isn't funny at its most basic. If you're going to make this a comedy, just commit. Make it ridiculous. Make it stupid, but you have to try and provide some sort of laughs.

This is going to sound ridiculous after I ripped the movie the last two paragraphs, but there were times watching this western where I couldn't help but think of a well-written play, if not Shakespeare along those lines certainly. If Walsh didn't want to commit to a slapstick comedy, then go the other way. Make this western the darkest thing you've ever seen. A saddle tramp charming, seducing and manipulating four attractive young widows to gain the gold they're hiding sounds like a naturally pretty dark scenario, but that's not the case here. Disappointing end result. Maybe there's potential for a Skin-a-max movie with this story. Who knows, it couldn't be much duller than this movie.

Working with what they've got in terms of a script, the cast does their best with what's in front of them. Gable is okay as Kehoe, but it isn't the most energetic part or most interesting. Jo Van Fleet has the strongest part as Ma McDade, family matriarch who's seen her family torn apart and is desperately trying to hold on to what's left. The widows include Eleanor Parker as Sabina, smart and crafty and up to something, Jean Willes as the fiery and hot-tempered Ruby, Barbara Nichols as Birdie, the dance hall girl, and Sara Shane as Oralie, the quiet, even meek widow.  Look for Jay C. Flippen as a helpful bartender, Arthur Shields as a priest, and Roy Roberts as a curious sheriff.

Never a good sign when the best thing a movie has going for it is the location shooting. Dull western that wastes a decent cast. Thankfully it's only 84 minutes long. Still.....pass.

The King and Four Queens <---early scene (1956): */****

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Big Caper

Nothing flashy, nothing new to the genre, I still very much liked 1957's The Big Caper. Solid cast, interesting B-movie characters, and some bad guys as part of a heist crew that are just too much to believe. A classic? Nope, but it's pretty good for what it is, an entertaining heist movie that doesn't try to be anything that it isn't.

Several months removed from his last successful job, Frank Harper (Rory Calhoun) has ran out of money and has found a new job, one that he could retire on if it goes through. A poorly guarded bank with minimal security twice a month holds the payroll for the Marine base and Camp Pendleton, and to Frank, the money is begging to be taken. He approaches partner and bankroll, Flood (James Gregory), who agrees to go along with the plan. As a set-up, Frank and Flood's girl, Kay (Mary Costa), move into town, buy a gas station and a house, setting up shop as a young, married couple. Creating an alibi, they live there several months in preparation for the job, and then Flood's crew shows up. Let the trouble begin.

The one twist on the familiar noir-heist thriller was the 'what if?' concept added into the story. Setting up a nice, little life for themselves, Frank and Kay become a part of suburban life. Frank makes a profit at his gas station, Kay creates a home for the "couple" and things are looking all around pretty good for them. Kay wants nothing more than to get away from the menacing Flood while Frank's tortured past and childhood seemingly won't let him appreciate what he has.  Kay tries like crazy to convince him otherwise. We're not talking Shakespeare here, but it was nice to see at least some effort by a movie made to bring something new to the heist flick. The effort is very much appreciated.

A Just Hit Play favorite, Calhoun does what he does best here, the bad guy who maybe isn't so bad. He does the tough guy like nobody's business, treading that fine line between straight villain and flawed hero.  It's good to see him in a non-western too where he got pigeon-holed throughout the 1950s.  There's a definite chemistry with Costa, bringing some heart to their scenes together in idyllic suburban life. For you trivia fans, Costa was the voice of Princess Aurora in Disney's Sleeping Beauty so there you go. Being the more obvious sinister villain that he was born to play, Gregory is a scene-stealer, the crime kingpin who puts everything in motion. He doesn't seem like that bad of a guy until some problems arise pre-heist, and well, things go downhill from there. Not big names leading the way, but all strong performances.

This is a 1957 B-movie noirish heist story, and the bad guys have to be very bad to make Calhoun's Frank be sympathetic. Mission accomplished in that department. Let's start with some of Flood's crew, beginning with Zimmer (Robert H. Harris), an explosives expert who will create several diversions during the robbery. His flaw? He's an alcoholic pyromaniac who can never have too much gin. Next, there's Roy (Corey Allen), a fitness freak with some rapist tendencies, or at least some sexual issues that Flood plays up. There's also Harry (Paul Picerni), a ladies man and all-around dope, and Dutch (Florenz Ames), the safecracker who wants nothing to do with the crew or the take, just a flat rate for his services. Quite a crew to say the least, one of the more eccentric, eclectic heist crews I can think of.

So has any heist in a movie ever gone smoothly, including the getaway? Okay, the Ocean's 11 remake doesn't count. Of course George Clooney and Co. are going to pull off the job. It's pretty clear that this heist won't go smoothly. For starters, it's a supposed "easy" job, and we all know how that goes.  Translation = Epic fail. The heist sequence -- about 20 minutes long -- is solid, ratcheting up the tension, but it is in the aftermath where 'Caper' falls short a bit. Yes, it's Doom and Gloom time. I wanted an epically downer ending, but the story and/or script just doesn't have the guts. It is far from a happy ending, but more could have been done. Still good, but it could have been great.

This movie across the board has a lot going for it. Director Robert Stevens keeps things moving with an 84-minute movie that is aided by some California locations and a jazzy score from Albert Glasser that is good in that really obvious way, music blaring to tell you what's coming next. Basically a completely forgotten flick, well worth checking out if you stumble across it.

The Big Caper (1957): ***/****

Friday, November 18, 2011

36 Hours

Though I've written about this before, it's hard to avoid repeating it. Imagine a secret the whole world wants to know in this modern ultra-connected world and keeping that secret for months...successfully. In 1944, Allied forces kept a secret of the coming European invasion, keeping Normandy under wraps as the spot of the attack. How far would the Germans go to discovering that location? In steps 1965's 36 Hours.

It is May 31, 1944 and U.S. Army intelligence officer Major Jefferson Pike (James Garner) is sent to Lisbon to meet with a source who may have info on the German's knowledge of the coming invasion. He is one of the select few among the Allied forces who knows not only the location of the coming invasion but all its intricate details....and the Germans know it. He's drugged and kidnapped. How far will the Germans go to get that knowledge? Using a radical procedure developed by Dr. Walter Gruber (Rod Taylor) for a different result, the Germans intend to trick Pike into thinking it is 1950, and that World War II is long since over. With the invasion looming and working in a small window, can Gruber get the info out of Pike in time?

Intensely unique and original. That's the best description I can think of for director George Seaton's film, but somehow it is not enough, not appropriate enough. It is the execution of the first 75 minutes that make this movie special. In 2011, imagine a secret as big as the Normandy invasion.....exactly, you can't. This is a secret that kept the world captive for months and wasn't revealed. The D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944 was a world changer, an event that altered the course of history. Is the story true? Who knows for sure? It stands to reason though that with a coming event that could change the future of the world, one side would pull out each and every stop to see if they could influence that event.

So how does Dr. Gruber do it? Pike is kidnapped and drugged. His hair is dyed, a chemical is placed on his skin to age it, a solution dropped in his eyes to blur his vision, and he wakes up in a U.S. Army hospital in......1950?!? This is a vast conspiracy to get the information out of the Intelligence officer, Gruber telling him he has retrograde amnesia that cancels the last six years of his life. I won't go into a ton of details or reveals, but the movie and the story -- even resorting to an amnesia ploy -- works. It just works. Could Pike fall for it? Could he reveal Normandy as the location of the coming invasion? Would the German High Command even believe him if he told them? One of the most unique, well-told "gimmicks" (for lack of a better word) I've ever seen in a movie.

Three stars do the heavy lifting here in support of said-unique story. Garner is the unknowing dupe, the target. His performance isn't great because the movie doesn't require him to be great. His Pike doesn't have much to do other than look confused. Garner is still himself though, and his laid back, ultra-cool persona works....until he doesn't have to be laid back or ultra-cool anymore. Then watch out there, Germans, because you're in for it. Eva Marie Saint plays Anna, one of Gruber's "assistants," a nurse posing as Pike's future wife. Anna has been lifted from a concentration camp to help, her life used as a bargaining chip. Her character and its relevance certainly adds some gravity to the film, giving a heart to a WWII thriller.

The best part though is saved for Rod Taylor as Doctor/Major Walter Gruber. The brilliant mind behind the plan, Gruber is an American-born German, returning to Germany with his family when he was 16. His original intention with the plan of future-amnesia hypnosis (best description I can think of) was to "save" German troops returning from the Russian front, and it worked, helping them relax only to find out it's a few days later, not years. He has faith in his plan if not its intentions, and Taylor does a great job there. He balances the deception with a genuine concern for Pike, Anna and Germany as a whole as he feels pressure from the S.S. (including interrogator Werner Peters). He seems to know it but plods on anyways. Gruber is fighting a losing battle because he gets the information, he gets the Normandy location, but no one believes it. A great performance from Taylor with a tragic-tint to it.

With a story that unique and entertaining, it would be nearly impossible to keep up the momentum, and the last 30 minutes just isn't as good as the first 80 or so. It loses some of the perspective as the smart, well thought out angle heads back to the more traditional chase sequences. Still, the movie is a gem. It is beautifully shot in black and white and composer Dimitri Tiomkin's score won't disappoint. Even look for Hogan's Heroes' Sgt. Schultz, John Banner, in a small but key role late. Looking for something different in a WWII movie? Start here.

36 Hours <---TCM trailer (1965): ***/****

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Vera Cruz

When audiences saw 1954's Vera Cruz in theaters, I'm curious what their reaction was. Did they appreciate it, realizing they were seeing something new and different? Was it too much of a departure for western fans who liked their good guys very good and their bad guys very bad? It's easy to look back now and see the impact it made on countless other westerns, even heavily influencing the whole sub-genre of spaghetti westerns.

With the Civil War ended and his Louisiana plantation destroyed, former Confederate officer Ben Trane (Gary Cooper) heads south into Mexico looking to start over. He meets Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster), another American if somewhat younger, looking to prosper from the Franco-Mexican War. Joe has with him a gang of gunfighters, adventurers and saddle tramps so Trane joins them, signing on with the French forces, including Marquis Henri (Cesar Romero). They're hired to escort Countess Marie (Denise Darcel) to the port city of Vera Cruz, but something doesn't seem on the up and up. On the trail Ben and Joe figure out why. The Countess' wagon is loaded with $3 million in gold, and now all bets are off.

The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch, Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy (For a Few Dollars More specifically), those are just a few of the movies heavily influenced by director Robert Aldrich's 1954 western. Vera Cruz was one of the first westerns to take a heavily cynical look at the west and all its violence and greed. It has a mean streak painted right up its back that few other movies couldn't even think of at different points. Little kids are used as hostages by main characters (supposed good guys), brutal betrayals wait around every corner, and the violence can be a little startling in its execution; not often shown but implied. One character gets lanced through the throat, others are shot point blank in the face, one Mexican revolutionary is cornered and run through by French lancers. Startling and effective, always entertaining.

The reason I mention 'Few Dollars More' is the relationship and uneasy partnership formed between Cooper's Trane and Lancaster's Joe, an obvious influence on Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef in Leone's spaghetti western. Both fast on the draw, they form that partnership out of necessity and a certain respect, but that doesn't mean they have to trust each other. Cooper is the unquestioned hero/good guy, but even he has a darker side. Lancaster is easier to read, his Joe telling you whatever you want to here and going along with it as long as it benefits him. He'd betray you with the snap of a finger. Lancaster's devilish grin says all you need to know about his Joe Erin. They have a great back and forth consistently throughout the movie, two legends playing off each other effortlessly.

Filmed in Mexico -- similar locations to The Wrath of God -- Vera Cruz has a feeling of authenticity, of being right there in 1866 as the Mexican Juaristas fight Maximilian's French forces. Aldrich filmed in Technicolor, and the movie has a distinct look to it, somehow colorful and washed out. There are some great individual shots Aldrich does with the camera, one reveal of a plaza ringed with revolutionaries, the other a possible betrayal showing a line of gunmen waiting to turn. Hugo Friedhofer's score is probably the most mainstream thing going for the movie, a more traditional score, but that's not a bad thing. Little things definitely work here to boost up some cool, even iconic scenes like Ben and Joe showing off their abilities at a ball in Maxmilian's court.

Aldrich specialized in guy's guys movies, and his cast is impressive. Along with Romero is Henry Brandon as Capt. Danette, a smarmy French officer looking down on Erin's gang. Darcel is Lancaster's perfect female counter, a beautiful woman ready to betray anyone for her own good, with Sara Montiel playing Nina, a young Mexican woman hovering around the escort. Joe's gang of ruffians and gunslingers should please most western fans with some future stars involved, including Charles Bronson, Jack Elam and Ernest Borgnine while also including Archie Savage as Ballad, a black former Union soldier, James Seay and James McCallion. All smaller parts, but fun ones still, Bronson even getting to play a harmonica, foreshadowing Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West.

Clocking in at just over 90 minutes, Vera Cruz never really slows down, macho head games, showdowns, chases, ambushes and betrayals around every corner. Definitely stick this one through to the end. A Juarista assault on a French garrison has a ton of action, and the shootout among the gang is a doozy, especially the surprising ending. An above average, exciting and influential western, Vera Cruz is a must-see.

Vera Cruz <---TCM trailer/clips (1954): *** 1/2 /****