The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Thursday, February 24, 2011


For every actor/actress you swear you see in every other movie ever released, there are those who are a little bit more picky with the roles they take.  For today, that's Edward Burns, star of a major movie like Saving Private Ryan but typically in smaller, independent movies that barely make a dent in theaters. Limiting his roles on-screen in front of the camera, Burns also writes, produces and directs behind the camera.  So with the few movies he has done, you've got to take advantage when the opportunity presents itself, like 2003's Confidence.

The timing of watching movies just seems too spooky sometimes.  Two days ago I reviewed 1973's Charley Varrick, a story about a small-time crook who knocks off a bank holding mob money. What's Confidence about? A team of con men who pull a successful con only to find out their mark is giving them mob money. Still, that's the only huge similarity in this overlooked, very stylish, sometimes needlessly confusing con job flick.  It bombed in theaters upon its release in 2003 and has receded into that sea of box office bombs.  It isn't anything different from so many other similar movies, but with an impressive cast from top to bottom it's hard to let this one slip by.

New in Los Angeles, Jake Vig (Burns) and his team of con men, Gordo (Paul Giamatti) and Miles (Brian Van Holt), run a successful con on a mid-level businessman that nets them $150,000. Bad news though, the money is linked to a crime boss known as the King (Dustin Hoffman), and the man wants his money back.  Instead of leaving town and going on the run, Jake and his crew decide to go to work for King, pulling another con job on a target of his choosing. Their target is a crooked banker with money laundering ties who has a past with King, but now Jake must figure some way to get to the impossible target. With a beautiful pickpocket, Lily (Rachel Weisz), joining his crew, he goes to work.  But when things start to come together, Jake finds out that an old nemesis of his, government agent Gunther Butan (Andy Garcia), is closing in on the team.

Directed by James Foley, Confidence is nothing new when it comes to the last con, the last heist, the specialists working together genre. It's well-made, polished, and stylish to a point.  The problem is that it's very aware that it's polished and stylish in its execution.  It tries too hard to be a cool movie at times. The script is well-written -- even if there are some unexplained plot elements -- but relies heavily on the use of the word 'fuck' just for the sake of saying it.  None of this is to say I disliked the movie, but instead it's just something I noticed.  The best examples of successful movies like this just are cool. They don't need to try, and at times this is that movie that so desperately wants you to like it that it gets caught up in itself instead of just being a good movie.

As is so often the case with movies with some major flaws, a solid cast can be a saving grace even if the materiel isn't up to par. Burns is a surprisingly good choice to play Jake Vig, this very smooth, quick on his feet con man who can pull a job off because he's 20 steps ahead of you. He can lie, manipulate and steal like nobody's business, and you won't even know you've been had when he's done. Weisz is one of the best actresses around in Hollywood today so it's fun to see her do more of a commercial, mainstream role. Her looks never hurt either as she pulls off a great femme fatale part that film noirs would have been jealous of. Garcia is criminally underused but does his best with an underwritten part while Giamatti and Van Holt look to be having a lot of fun in parts that don't require them to do much. Also worth mentioning are Donal Logue and Luis Guzman as two LAPD cops on Jake's payroll, John Carroll Lynch as the new con's mark/target, Franky G as Lupus, King's henchman, and Morris Chestnut as a gunman looking for answers.

From the time he burst into movies in the late 1960s, Dustin Hoffman was a star. Now in 2011 or here in 2003, he's an icon, one of the great actors in the history of Hollywood.  Here as the King, he's playing a role that is mostly a glorified cameo that requires him to show up for three or four scenes all told.  He gets to ham it up playing this crime boss who we're not quite sure what he's involved in.  Hoffman plays so perfectly off of co-stars like Burns and Weisz that he raises their scenes up a level on his own.  His King is a frantic, hyper and ADHD, and a lot of fun to watch.

It is a movie about a con so you know a twist is coming in the finale. This is where the movie tries too hard attempting to pull the wool over the audience's eyes.  It's revealed so quickly all the twists and turns are wasted. The best reveals are the ones that lay out every little thing so we know what happened too.  Confidence gets so wrapped up in trying to trick us too that even after going back and watching the ending again, I'm still not sure exactly what was going on. The movie itself is entertaining and never boring.  But at just 97 minutes, there is way too much going on. Nothing is allowed to breathe and develop, meaning actors like Garcia and Giamatti are wasted in parts where they'd usually shine.  It is still a solid movie that's worth a watch, but don't expect a classic.

Confidence <---trailer (2003): ***/****

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Charley Varrick

When you think of leading men in action movies and crime thrillers, certain things come to mind.  Rough and tumble, ready to throw down at a second's notice, classically handsome, able to handle everything presented in front of them.  For a lot of those things, this one actor certainly applies, but he just doesn't seem like a natural leading man.  Seem being the operative word. Walter Matthau was a great leading man, and nowhere was that more evident than 1973's Charley Varrick.

This is a prime example of how good a crime thriller from the 1970s can be.  There is something unexplainable about the style and appeal of a movie from the 1970s that's hard to put your finger on. This Don Siegel-directed thriller has a lot of those elements that range from something as simple as the dusty western settings to the cynical nature to composer Lalo Schifrin's score and everything in between. More than that, there is nothing ground-breaking or innovative about it. This is just professionals doing what they do. It's even easy to see how directors like the Coen Brothers were influenced by the movie, especially No Country for Old Men. With Matthau in the lead and Siegel handling the directing duties, Charley Varrick is a high-quality, well-made, professionally handled movie. Nothing flashy about this one, just a solid movie.

As part of a botched but still successful bank robbery, small-time crooks Charley Varrick (Matthau) and Harman Sullivan (Andy Robinson) head into the back roads of the New Mexico desert looking to escape the police roadblocks and searches.  When they check their take though, both men are stunned at what they see. They find over $750,000 in cash, all from a little bank in the middle of nowhere. Charley quickly pieces it together, it was a mob bank holding money until it could be shipped out of the country. What should they do? It doesn't take long for mob fence, Maynard Boyle (John Vernon), to start a search for his lost money, hiring a hit-man named Molly (Joe Don Baker) to follow what little clues they have. Charley is getting backed into a corner, and it seems he's only got one way out.

With awful movies that know they're awful and movies with high expectations that try to be something they are not, it can be refreshing to see a good, old-fashioned, entertaining story like this one.  There are no major twists, no huge revelations, just a getaway story with crooks, mobsters and cops on all sides.  Based on a novel by John Reese, 'Charley' knows where it is going and how to get there.  It can be somewhat predictable, but the fun is going along for the ride.  Because of the talent both in front and behind the camera, there's never any rush to move things along needlessly fast.  Even considering the seriousness of the story and subject matter, there is a matter of fact, easygoing way about this Siegel production.

Known for his versatility across movie genres, Matthau slipped effortlessly among his movie roles, bouncing back and forth around comedies, action and drama.  He doesn't have the classic good looks of so many leading men, but for me that's always been a positive.  He looks more like the audience member watching the movie than a suave Hollywood star. His Charley is smart, a quick thinker, and seemingly always a step ahead of his pursuers.  Matthau makes this character (who could have been easy to dislike) a strong lead, and something to root for in a sea of not so likable and downright despicable characters. Joe Don Baker is a great villain, the hit-man with a condescending edge and scruples to boot about what he does.  Vernon is Vernon, the perfectly smarmy bad guy who unfortunately is underused, but he makes the most of his not so big appearance.

One of my favorite things about movies released in the 1970s are the supporting casts.  For all the actors like Eastwood, Bronson, Hoffman, Hackman and so many others that starred in these movies, there were countless character actors who filled out the typically unnecessary supporting roles that were still fun to watch. These characters were great at fleshing movies out, and Charley Varrick is packed full of them. The list includes Felicia Farr as Vernon's secretary, 70s sexpot Sheree North as a photographer with a criminal edge, Norman Fell as a district attorney's investigator, Benson Fong as Honest John, a source of Baker's, Woodrow Parfrey as a cowardly bank manager, William Schallert as a focused country sheriff, and a handful of other faces you'll recognize, all in parts that add that little touch to the movie overall.

Now if you're paying attention at all, you can predict the ending long before it arrives.  No, maybe not the specifics, but you know what Charley is up to as the noose looks to be tightening around his neck.  Now, none of that is to say that the finale isn't worthwhile.  Anything but, it's a great ending. Varrick ends up meeting Vernon and Baker at an abandoned airfield with some great aerial stunts included as a chase ensues over the airfield and into a rotted out junk yard. Like the whole movie, there's nothing surprising about the ending, but it is a satisfying one.  A hidden gem from a great decade of movies, Charley Varrick is a winner all around.

Charley Varrick <---trailer (1973): ***/****

Monday, February 21, 2011

Toy Story 3

Released in 1995 to adoring audiences, Toy Story revolutionized movie animation as we know it.  I remember clearly going to see it with my parents and my sister and instantly falling in love with it.  The same goes for the sequel which in many ways was even better than the first.  Pixar animation gave viewers something they had never seen before, and we ate it up.  It was a high-quality product that spared little expense in turning out a superior end result. Now 11 years later in 2010, Toy Story 3 was released. Did it need to be made? Not really, but it is a perfectly fitting end to one of the great animated franchises ever.

In making movies about what our toys did when we're not around, Pixar hit a nerve in just about all of its viewers.  What kid at one point or another didn't wonder that very question? When you're at school, what do you think your toys are up to? Do you think they have exciting adventures only to fall where they were the second you return?  If you can't admit to asking yourself those questions, well, shame on you because we all did it.  What makes these movies so special though is somehow the creators made these incredible toy characters and truly got into their heads.  Sure, the toys interact when we're not around, but what are they thinking about, what are their worries? What about when the toy owners get older? What happens to the toys then?

With just a few days before he has to move away to college, 18-year old Andy has to make a choice. What should he do with the few toys he has left in his room as he packs? Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack) and Co. wait to see what's going to happen to them. Andy's mom sees the toys wrapped in a trash bag though, and they accidentally end up sent to Sunnytime Day Care where they're greeted by Lotso (Ned Beatty) and a sea of welcoming toys. Woody manages to escape though, wanting to get back to Andy. He finds out though that the Day Care is a living hell for new toys with Lotso as an evil dictator of the place.  Seeing his friends left behind to die a slow toy's death, Woody goes back to help them escape, hoping he can get back to Andy in time too.

Maybe because I grew up loving these movies as a kid, but I'll always have a fond place in my heart for Woody, Buzz and the entire Toy Story world. Unlike the old Disney classics, these aren't just stories meant for kids.  The producers were smart enough to include stories that would appeal to kids on a simpler, easier to comprehend level while also adding that second layer of more adult, subtle humor in to keep the non-kids in the audience entertained. The animation doesn't seem as groundbreaking now as when it was first released in 1995, but it's still something to marvel at.  It's top notch as are the casting choices, the story, and one of the great endings to an animated movie/franchise ever, but more on that later.

These movies almost completely sink or swim on the shoulders of the actors/actresses chosen for their voice talents.  As intelligent and heroic sheriff Woody, Hanks again shows that he can be as good a comedic actor as a dramatic one.  I hear his voice now and associate him with Woody more than any other role he's done.  Allen is the same way, an inspired choice to play brave and somewhat clueless Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear.  The movie could have used some more Buzz here, but a bit late allows us to see Buzz of old, on guard and Spanish.  Most of the rest of the toys are back too including Cusack as cowgirl Jessie, Don Rickles and Estelle Harris as Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, Wallace Shawn as the cowardly Rex, and John Ratzenberger as Hamm. Star power maybe not, but just in terms of getting the right voice for the right character, Toy Story again shows why it is such a successful franchise.

With another series moving forward after a successful opener, the key has to be adding something new into the mix.  All three movies basically have the same storyline; toys out of their element in dangerous situation, other toys must help out.  Originality isn't a huge factor here, it's just fun to see the old crew back together!  The new elements are all winners though, especially Beatty as the evil Lotso (Lotso Huggin' Bear).  He just has the right voice to play a sweet-looking but ultimately evil pink teddy bear.  Michael Keaton joins the cast as Ken -- Barbie's boy-toy -- in a perfect supporting part while Timothy Dalton, Whoopi Goldberg, Jeff Garlin, Bonnie Hunt and Richard Kind all make quick appearances (just listen closely and you'll recognize them).

A credit to the producers/creators/writers of this franchises is their ability to bring just immense amounts of emotion into these stories about toys of all things.  Just about any viewer watching this movie has some personal experience with a favorite toy, buying them, playing with it, losing it, breaking it, eventually outgrowing it, any or all of the above.  So naturally a teenager dealing with the transition to adulthood is a logical issue. What do you do with the toys you once loved so much? I don't know if the greatest writers in the world could have come up with a better resolution than the one used here.  In terms of character and story, it's perfect.  You can't top it. I'm not talking a tear here and there. We're bawling here, tears flowing down your face.  What's best about it though? It stays true to the characters like Woody and Buzz we've all come to love without pandering.  Yes, it is an emotional ending, but it works because it is real. It's never forced, much like the success of these groundbreaking animated classics.

Toy Story 3 <---trailer (2010): ****/****

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Robin and the 7 Hoods

In the early 1960s, the unquestioned kings of cool were the Rat Pack. NO ONE was cooler than this group of singers, actors, entertainers, performers, whatever you want to call them. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop were to quote Bill Curtis in 'Anchorman'...."the balls." They oozed suaveness and style and pulled it off effortlessly because they just were cool. They didn't need to try to be cool. The Rat Pack toured, they put shows on in New York, Las Vegas and around the world, and expanding into all markets, guest starred on TV shows and thankfully (in my mind at least) ventured into movies too.

The movies range from good to bad, the high point being the original Ocean's 11 while others like 4 For Texas, Sergeants 3, and a few others that aren't really official Rat Pack movies but feature much or some of the group anyways, like 1959's Never So Few.  These were not movies intended to sweep the awards season. These were just fun movies that were perfect flicks to watch with a big bowl of popcorn where you could sit back and shut your brain off for a couple hours and be entertained.  It was Frank and his crew being themselves, shooting it out, wooing some ladies, and generally doing some boozing and partying.  The one I'd never seen before was 1964's Robin and the 7 Hoods. A twist on the well-known Robin Hood story sounded appealing with Robin being transported to 1920s Prohibition gangster-filled Chicago. How could you go wrong? Make it a musical.

A well-known Chicago gangster, Big Jim (an uncredited Edward G. Robinson), is knocked off by all the Chicago mafiosos at a birthday party hosted in his honor.  The power in the city is up for grabs with one gangster, Guy Gisborne (Peter Falk), swooping in and taking things over. He develops a plan with the crooked cops that not everyone agrees with, especially a gangster from the Northside of the city, Robbo (Sinatra). Robbo has no interest in pooling his interests and starts to prepare for facing the wrath of the organized gangsters. With his own crew, including transplanted Indiana gangster Little John (Martin), sharp-shooting Will (Davis Jr.) and Alan A. Dale (Bing Crosby), Robbo accidentally donates a large sum of money to charity, earning the trust and favor of Chicago. It's not so easy though because Guy is still working with Big Jim's power-hungry daughter (Barbara Rush) who has her eyes set on her recently passed father's death.

My one defense going into this Gordon Douglas directed flick was that I really didn't know going in that it was a musical.  The other Rat Pack movies were more about the cool factor, the heists, the shootouts, the partying, the camaraderie, the inside jokes, and all those things are present here. A story about rival almost warring 1920s Chicago gangsters is almost impossible to mess up on entertainment value alone. But the story's flowing along, things are being put into motion and WHAM! Frankie, Deano, Bing, and Sammy start singing.  It's not that the songs are bad, anything but with the immense talents involved, it's that there are songs at all.  This is a story that would have worked just fine as a Rat Pack takes on 1920s Chicago story.

So what carries the movie in between the detours for some singing is what else? That cast.  Call Sinatra a one-note actor, but he did that one-note perfectly. He's not the typical leading man, relying more on humor and even at times a dark cynicism to play his part. It's Sinatra though, and he's cooler than you. Get used to it. Dean Martin is my favorite member of the Rat Pack, and he's the ideal second banana to Sinatra. Davis Jr. shines in a supporting role as Will, and Crosby is a high point as Will A. Dale.  Falk was never bad, especially in parts like this that let him ham it up in every scene.  As the conniving daughter, Rush is generally wasted playing a character that could have been completely removed from the movie for the better. Victor Buono and Robert Foulk are also good as Chicago police officials with their hooks in the mob.

With all these different elements working together and against each other (depending on the scene), the movie struggles to find any sort of rhythm.  With just the natural comedic chemistry this cast has together, you're going to get some laughs almost by accident or default.  That's not fair though because there are some genuinely funny lines, and a few running gags that produce genuine laughs. But the laughs come few and far between for the most part, the scenes in between dragging along at a snail's pace.  Even fast forwarding through some of the lengthier musical numbers, the 123-minute running time felt more like three or four hours.  Stepping in as a film editor, I'd take out the music, add some more humor, a little more gunplay, and you've got a winner.  If only, if only.

Boring at times, highly entertaining at others, there is just too much talent involved in this Rat Pack production not to give it a mild recommendation. Even at their worse, Frank, Dean and Co. were very likable with an on-screen presence that few other actors/performers have ever shown.  They all have an easygoing way about them that gives the impression of watching a group of friends hanging around shooting the shit. If nothing else -- and this might not mean as much to a non-Chicagoan -- Sinatra sings 'My Kind of Town.' It's hard to mess that up.

Robin and the 7 Hoods <---trailer (1962): ** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Beverly Hills Cop

What happened to Eddie Murphy? One of the biggest stars of the 1980s with his star-making run on Saturday Night Live and iconic 80s flicks like 48 Hours, Trading Places, The Golden Child and Coming to America, Murphy was the undisputed comedic king of the decade. With the exception of the Shrek franchise, a dramatic part here and there like Dreamgirls, and an underrated performance in Bowfinger, Murphy has been in dud after dud ever since.  It's hard to explain how someone as talented as Murphy is could choose to make horrible movies one after another.

In the 1980s though, no one was flying higher than him, and he was never better than he was in 1984's Beverly Hills Cop. Originally supposed to be a Sylvester Stallone vehicle, Murphy stepped into the lead role and turned an action heavy police story into a new breed of cop movies.  It was the buddy cop movie without the buddy.  Comedy and action around every corner, it was something audiences hadn't seen previously, and they ate it up. As Murphy points out on the DVD special features, it feels like every cop movie since has been influenced by this 80s classic.

After an undercover sting goes wrong, Detroit Detective Axel Foley (Murphy) finds an old friend, Mikey (James Russo) waiting in his apartment. They go out on the town, but coming home they're attacked and Mikey gets shot in the head twice in what seems to be a professional hit. Foley has little information to work with, but knows that Mikey had a job in Beverly Hills.  Taking some vacation time, he road trips to California in his crappy blue Chevy Nova and starts poking around. With some help from childhood friend, Jenny (Lisa Eilbacher), now the owner of a high-end art gallery, Axel finds out that Mikey had been working for Victor Maitland (Steven Bergoff), an art dealer who seems to be involved with a little bit of everything. It's not long though before Axel has rubbed the LAPD the wrong way, and he's got two detectives (John Ashton and Judge Reinhold) trailing him.

Movies like Ferris Bueller, the John Hughes flicks, Lethal Weapon, Back to the Future, all of those just scream out '1980s MOVIE!' and Beverly Hills cop certainly qualifies.  It's a snapshot of the time it was made in, and even now while it does come across as a little dated, it's still a great movie.  It was one of the first movies to blend comedy and action together so seamlessly. Director Martin Brest weaves everything together with a thin story that jumps around most of the time, content to let the cast have some fun. The music is a key -- starting with The Heat is On over the opening credits -- and then of course, Axel's theme, which I guarantee you've heard before. Listen HERE. It's hard to picture the movie without that electro-rock theme playing in the background.

Lost in the badness of Norbit, Pluto Nash and Meet Dave (among several others worth mentioning) is the fact that Murphy is one of the funniest guys to ever star in a movie.  This is Murphy at his sharpest, improvising left and right, throwing one-liners all over, and making every scene watchable because you want to see what he does next.  It's his likability, that distinctive and instantly recognizable laugh (listen HERE), that huge smile, just the general entertainment value he brings to the character. His knack for delivering a line at just the right second, setting up a fellow cast member, or doing physical comedy, it's all second to none.  It is just too bad Murphy couldn't have bottled up the 1980s and preserved it.

What jumps this movie from average to above average, near-classic is the rest of the cast.  As the detectives trailing and eventually working with Foley, Reinhold and Aston are the quintessential Odd Couple cops. Asthton's Taggart is the cynical, weary cop while Reinhold's Rosewood is the wet behind the ears, still naive officer.  They play off each other so well you can imagine them having their own spin-off.  Ronny Cox doesn't disappoint either as Lt. Bogomill, their supervisor trying to maintain his sanity. Eilbacher is the sexy friend (and that's it!), Jenny, who was originally supposed to play a love interest in the Stallone version. Berkoff is Berkoff, the villain the second he steps into the movie because...well, because he's Steven Berkoff, and he always played the bad guy.

For a comedy to be a step above all the other dreck out there, certain scenes have to leave an impression that aren't easily forgettable. 'BHC' has more than I could mention, but here's a few.  Foley goes to meet Jenny and instead meets Serge (Bronson Pinchot), a foreign art salesman. Watch HERE. If his delivery after Murphy says 'Get the bleep out! doesn't crack you up, I don't know what you think is funny. There's others like Foley getting thrown out a window and his reaction, his toying with the LA cops, but most of all it's worthwhile because of Murphy.  Read through IMDB's Memorable Quotes for a sampling, which even taken out of context are still funny.  A real winner and one of the best movies to come out of the 1980s.

Beverly Hills Cop <---trailer (1984): *** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Snows of Kilimanjaro

My lone venture into author Ernest Hemingway's repertoire is A Farewell to Arms which I had to read for an English class in high school.  I don't want to under/over sell my feelings on the book, but I hated it with a passion.  It wasn't so much Hemingway's style -- simplistic and understated -- because I appreciated that after reading unnecessarily wordy classics in every class I took. It was the actual story, a lost love story so sugary, so schmaltzy that I wanted both of the main characters to die horrifically.  I got through the book thankfully, but it was a trial.

Since then, I've been wary of anything Hemingway-related.  I don't avoid him or steer clear of him intentionally, but something he is associated with truly has to catch my eye.  Released in 1952, The Snows of Kilimanjaro caught my attention mostly because of the cast while the story sounded suspiciously like A Farewell to Arms.  I trudged on though, intent on giving this movie a chance.  It was a mixed bag that made me realize Hemingway continued to go back to the same well over and over again.  His main character is a variation on himself, a romantic, an idealist and a cynic at the same time who wants to explore and see everything the world has to offer.  It sounds interesting at least. 

While on safari with girlfriend/lover/fiance, Helen (Susan Hayward), writer/journalist Harry Street (Gregory Peck) scratches his knee on a thorn, the wound quickly becoming infected. Almost certainly staring death in the face if medical attention doesn't arrive soon, Harry lies on his cot in the isolated African savanna waiting for his end. Through the heat and the hallucinations, he looks back on the lost loves of his life, including Cynthia (Ava Gardner) who he meets and falls in love with in Paris following WWI, Countess Liz (Hildegard Knef), a well-to-do member of the upper class he meets on the French Riviera, and then lastly, Helen. But seeing all the mistakes he made in life, Harry tortures himself in what could be his final moments.

During his career, Hemingway went wherever the story was and ended up taking part in the World War I, Spanish Civil War, World War II, African safaris, while also visiting everywhere from Cuba to Paris and all cities in between. He was a storyteller, looking for answers of some sort, why men/women did what they did.  That was the biggest appeal of this story. Peck -- apparently channeling a Hemingway-like character -- is always on the move, following the action in his globe-trotting ways. It does become tiresome because we see the toll it takes on Harry's life and those he loves before he ever puts two and two together.  Still, a man who will drop anything to follow what he loves to do is an appealing main character.

In my previous Peck reviews, I know I've discussed the mental picture many moviegoers have of the famous Hollywood actor. He's Atticus Finch, the stoic, even wooden main character without much in the way of fire.  He did play many roles like that, but through the first 10 years of his career, it was different.  He played characters like this. Somewhat eccentric with a fire for life, nothing will stop him.  These are the type of roles I typically bring up when someone notes they are not Gregory Peck fans.  Even when the movie overall is a disappointment, he rarely is.

Channeling Hemingway though, it's not just the character. It's the lifestyle as well.  Director Henry King works off the source novel, but not having read it I can only guess what he was forced to do. Instead of focusing more on Harry and his relationships with Cynthia, Helen and Liz, 'Snow' serves more as a travel guide for the places they visit. Yes, I realize part of the story is Harry's adventures as he explores the world.  But long, unedited shots of animals on the African savanna, bullfights in Madrid, and a bizarre ending with a curious hyena do absolutely nothing for the story.  Go watch a PBS episode of Nature or The Travel Channel for an idea of what you will get here.

As for the story told in flashback mode, the one with Gardner is given the most attention and for good reason.  Frequent on-screen partners, Peck and Gardner had an incredibly natural chemistry that always makes the movie worthwhile to a point.  The other two flashbacks are not as successful.  Countess Liz is shrill and pretentious while Hayward's Helen feels tacked on to the point we're never given much information about her other than that she falls madly in love with Peck.  Hit or miss overall, but that's the movie as a whole.  Good and bad with the negative barely outweighing the positive. The movie is available to watch in its entirety on Youtube if you're curious.

The Snows of Kilimanjaro <---trailer (1952): **/****

Monday, February 14, 2011


For better or worse, the fact that moviegoers get older only to be followed by a younger generation allows studios to make the same movie over and over again.  But because the audience is new to the movie, it seems just that…new.  My 17-year old cousin thought 2010’s The Town was the greatest movie ever made (I really liked it to be fair), but when I brought up all the movies it borrowed from or paid homage to, she looked at me like I was nuts. The same idea kept running through my head as I watched 2010’s Takers.

Over a two or three month span in spring and summer 2010, a seemingly long list of heist/men on a mission movies hit theaters ranging from really good like The Losers to average but entertaining blockbuster, The A-Team. Takers was the last of the three to hit theaters, and thanks to the saturated market and some poor reviews, it didn’t do well. No secret here, but I’m a sucker for any of these movies. A-N-Y of them. So a hip-hop, more modern take on The Italian Job and every other heist movie ever? Color me intrigued.

After pulling off a successful heist that nets over $2 million dollars, master thief Gordon (Idris Elba) and his team – Jake (Michael Ealy), A.J. (Hayden Christensen), John (Paul Walker), and Jesse (hip-hop artist Chris Brown) – split up the take and prepare to go into hiding as they always do after a job in hopes of letting things cool off. A former associate and member of the crew just paroled after serving a 5-year sentence, Ghost (rapper Tip ‘T.I.’ Harris) approaches the group with an armored vehicle job that could earn them as much as $30 million. Gordon and Co. are suspicious, but the specifics of the plan seem too legit, too good to pass up, and they prepare for a quick turnaround for a second job. But as their plan comes together, two LAPD detectives (Matt Dillon and Jay Hernandez) are closing in on this elusive crew.

This is The Italian Job, Heat, The Town, Le Cercle Rouge, and any number of other heist movies rolled together into one finished product.  That’s not an exaggeration. One scene actually has a character asking “You want to do a real-life Italian Job?” When writing a script/screenplay, I’m guessing it’s that much easier when you don’t actually have to come up with an original idea. Take successful story, add in some semi-new twists, and ta-da! You’ve got every heist movie you’ve ever seen before in a slightly new packaging.

Familiar and/or comfortable is not always a good thing. Director John Luessenhop takes all those elements and never chooses which ones he wants to use and which ones he wants to leave behind. It’s not so much a script with a developing story as a series of clichés and stereotypes. Cop with a checkered past? Yes. Scorned former member of the group? You bet. Girlfriend (a wasted appearance from Zoe Saldana) who moved on to someone else in the group? Present. The acting ranges from quality – Elba, Christensen, Walker and Ealy – to just plain bad – musicians Chris Brown and TI should stick with music. The soundtrack is dull, the editing ultra-fast and ultra-hyper, and the twists of betrayals and double-crosses are easily spotted almost from the start. If you’ve seen any heist movie ever before, you’ll feel like you’ve seen this movie before, and just a head’s up…you have seen this movie.

A saving grace from the hackneyed script that’s pilfered from other similar movies is the cast. The specialists, the thieves, the master crooks, it’s hard to mess that up. Elba is the leader, Walker his tough right hand man who seems to be former military, Christensen and Ealy are the planners, and Brown is Ealy’s younger brother and newest member of the crew. The high points of the movie are Gordon’s crew interacting away from the job, later planning their heists, and figuring out their next move. On their own, none of these are great characters, but together they make the movie that much more enjoyable. The movie and story would have been significantly better overall if more time was spent with the crew, developing these already interesting characters. Brown is the only one who is out of place, and from the director’s chair, Luessenhop seems to know it, limiting his role in terms of actual lines. His Jesse character apparently picks up parkour on a whim in a cool if ridiculous/unnecessary chase scene near the end. Still, the other four are good and make up for Brown’s lack of acting ability.

Having seen this movie in a few other forms, I was rarely bored but knowing where the story is going certainly takes away some of the enjoyment.  Helping save the movie – along with the casting – is the last half hour following the heist.  If heist movies have taught us anything it’s that the heist is the easy part. It’s the fallout afterward where the stuff hits the fan.  SPOILERS STOP READING SPOILERS I was surprised how brutal the fallout is here.  Three of the five are killed, and it’s hinted that a fourth will die after being wounded. Actually, with the exception of one main character, all of the cast gets killed. That’s the new twist here, not because it hasn’t been done before, but because for a tween audience in 2010, it’s hard to imagine these characters being killed off.  More than that, it’s hard to believe a studio approved it. For the guts to go through with it alone, the movie goes up a notch in my book.END OF SPOILERS

An opening heist at a high-tech bank guarded by heavy security shows how skilled this crew is and sets the stage for the rest of the movie. The action is fairly commonplace, and like so many modern action movies, is almost indecipherable because it’s so choppy.  The big heist of the armored vehicle is exactly the same as The Italian Job remake and has hundreds of rounds being fired without anyone actually getting shot. The best segment is when Ghost springs his double-cross, unleashing a rival crew of pissed off Russians on Gordon’s crew. The following shootout at The Roosevelt Hotel is a doozy (in a good way), full of slow motion, shrapnel, gun shots and explosions all over, and cheesy music that still manages to work. That’s Takers. A cheesy rehash of better heist movies that’s still entertaining in a guilty pleasure. Just make sure you stick around through the end.

Takers ß-trailer (2010): ** ½ /****

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Released a few years ago, Burn After Reading followed a CIA agent being pushed out the door after a long career. Angry at the world, that agent – played to perfection by John Malkovich – decides to write his memoirs of all the things he saw as a secret agent. Of course, this version was played for laughs, and a lot of them at that. So what if that similar premise was handled seriously? That’s 1980's Hopscotch.

A similar premise is one thing, but Burn After Reading wisely chose to go down one road and stick with it. Released 30 years earlier, Hopscotch tries to do that but instead wavers back and forth between comedy and drama. It still works to a point because let’s face it. Secret agents are up to some nasty, shady stuff. If they get burned or put out to pasture, think of all the available information they have at their disposal, info that a government or intelligence agency would not want released. But pick comedy or drama, not both.

After running his successful CIA station in Munich for years, Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) is called back to Langley for a meeting with his boss, Myerson (Ned Beatty). He doesn’t know what to expect and is blind-sided upon entering the office when he told he’s being forcibly transferred. A field agent all his life, Miles is now going to be in charge of running the CIA file room deep in the cavernous basements of Langley. Miles decides he’s had enough and disappears for a few days without explanation. He visits an old flame in Austria, Isobel (Glenda Jackson), and goes to work. If the CIA doesn’t want him anymore, Miles intends to take them down a notch or two…or ten. He starts to write his memoirs, all his exploits of his years as a CIA agent. Instead of just writing them down though, he sends them to CIA and foreign intelligence agencies all over the world, starting a worldwide chase with Miles as the main target.

Walter Matthau is one of the most easily watchable movie stars in Hollywood history. He switches back and forth effortlessly between hysterical comedic performances and heavy dramatic parts that allowed him to show off his ability. Above all else in Hopscotch, Matthau always keeps it watchable. All I could picture with this 1970s spy flick was that if Jason Bourne ever made it into his 50s, this is what he would be like…albeit a little more crotchety and not so willing to fight his way out of most situations. It’s just good fun seeing Matthau’s Kendig go hopping around the world, duping his pursuers at every corner with his deep pockets full of secrets. If this was a cat and mouse chase, the cat would have given up long ago. Instead, Miles keeps pulling the string and the so-called intelligence agencies struggle keeping up.

But the good and bad of the Matthau character is that he’s really good at what he does with few rivals. Instead of a chase like Jason Bourne eluding his pursuers who are equally adept, we get Matthau laughing his way through his chase. He laughs off the situation, shrugging off Beatty and his thugs like they’re a fly buzzing around his ear. There’s never any real threat of danger regardless of much Beatty wants to get Matthau’s head on a platter. You know the bait will be laid out, the CIA will bite, and Matthau will pull the ball away like Lucy does to Charlie Brown. More than that, we never know what is being written about in his manuscript. Yes, government secrets, shady dealings, black ops that no one should know about, but give us a couple details here and there. Just having the MacGuffin doesn’t work. There’s got to be some pay-off.

Joining in on the chase are some solid performances from the supporting cast.  Beatty does what he does best, play the squirrelly, obsessed villain with a glint of crazy hovering in his eye.  He plays him straight, no redeeming qualities anywhere in sight, just a despicable government representative more worried about himself than anyone else.  Jackson as Matthau’s love interest is somewhat bland mostly because it’s hard to see Matthau as a love interest. Sam Waterston as Joe Cutter, Miles’ replacement is a scene-stealer, an agent torn between his friendship with the man they’re chasing and his duty/obligation to his employers. He gets some effortless laughs with his off the cuff, casual lines delivieries. Herbert Lom is criminally underused as Yahkov, a Russian agent along for the ride.

I liked the effort here and was never bored watching Hopscotch. At the same time though, I didn’t love it. There’s humor, yes, but then the drama quickly approaches and cancels it out. Instead of being really exciting or really tense, the movie just sits there. There’s no real energy even toward the end when the chase is coming to an end. There is a weak attempt at a semi-twist in the finale, but it falls short. An average spy flick that’s good for Matthau, Waterston and Lom, but for me, I’ll stick with Jason Bourne and Burn After Reading for now.

Hopscotch ß-trailer (197?): **/****

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Night of the Lepus

One of my all-time favorite quotes from Michael Caine in an interview he did about the many movies he's made during his career. When asked what he remembered about the classic Jaws IV, he said "Not much, but I remember the house I bought because I made that movie." That says it all. An actor/actress doesn't need to make a classic every time they make a movie, and who blames them? It's the rare Laurence Olivier or Peter O'Toole that makes an above average, high quality finished product with each movie. And as a movie watcher, you're going to see your share of duds with some still deep, impressive casts. You know going in that the movie is going to be awful, but you watch anyways.

I couldn't help myself and watched 1972's Night of the Lepus, one of the worst movies ever made without a doubt, no question about it. The cast isn't full of A-list, big name stars, but there were a bunch of names I recognized -- and have enjoyed seeing in other movies -- but by the time I finished the movie all I could think was that each and every one of these stars must have been in massive amounts of debt.  To be fair, this is supposed to be a bad movie, a B-movie of epic proportions. Cheesy special effects, a ridiculous story, and overacting around every corner.  This is a flick that might have been better if it wasn't played so seriously (add a little camp value), but it is what it is. It's an awful movie that did give me a couple chuckles here and there.  Now was it intended that way? Who knows for sure.

Working his ranch in the Arizona desert, grizzled rancher Cole Hillman (Rory Calhoun) is seeing a takeover of rabbits on his range to the point where his cattle can't graze because the land has been stripped down. He seeks help from a friend working at a local university in the medical/science department, Elgin Clark (DeForest Kelly), who recommends contacting a researcher couple working in the area, Roy (Stuart Whitman) and Gerry (Janet Leigh) Bennett. They decide to start testing on the rabbits in hopes of stopping them from reproducing, using a new hormone on a small test group. But in the testing process, their daughter lets one of the rabbits go where he rejoins the thousands of rabbits already on the range. The local sheriff (Paul Fix) quickly starts getting calls about bizarre attacks by an unknown animal. Roy and Gerry's worst fears come true, the hormone had the wrong affect on the animals. Rabid, murdering rabbits the size of mountain lions are reproducing in huge numbers, and they're on the rampage. NO ONE is safe!

That was a fun plot description to write, not going to lie. Rabid, murdering rabbits on the rampage? How could that not be amazing? As long as there have been creature movies, there have been bigger than they're supposed to be creature movies. Honestly, how do you make furry, little bunny rabbits terrifying? Well, first, you can't really.  Look at them.  But if you're going to try...make them gigantic with a taste for human flesh. Another similarly awful movie, The Killer Shrews, dealt with the same "issue." Tiny, little shrews tested on and turn into creatures the size of dogs.  Equally ridiculous, and equally not scary.  It's all mindlessly stupid almost from the start, and it just gets stupider as the "story" moves along.

The technique for making gigantic rabbits is laughable and hilarious at the same time.  I only noticed two instances of green screen filming where the cast is edited into a shot of the big bunnies (from a distance of course).  I suppose it was a good thing that this technique wasn't used too much because the end result is pretty bad in the effects department. The solution on the other hand isn't much better.  Very small sets were built to match the sets that the actual human cast used, and then rabbits were released onto these sets with cameras filming. Even better, the cameras are almost underneath the animals to give the impression of their IMMENSITY!  Nothing like slow-motion, running rabbits to send a shiver up your spine.  My favorite technique though (okay, there were two) was the close-up of a pissed off rabbit with his tooth (yes, singular) dripping with blood with growling heard in the background.  Rabbits gotta eat, huh? Capping all this off is the "soundtrack" for the rabbits attacking. Imagine a low, consistent roar like the sound of a cattle drive added in with the sound of slobbering animals.  Scary it is not, but funny, very much so.

For the cast, I have seen and enjoyed watching movies with all five of the names mentioned. I go back and forth wondering what the process was like getting involved with a movie like this. At some point, they actually decided "Yes, I'm going to do this movie. I think it has potential." Okay, maybe not, but they must have been pretty hard-up for any sort of work, any sort of cash at all. What makes this movie better/worse depending on how you look at it is that the cast -- which was a talented one -- plays it all so ridiculously straight that you can't help but give them credit for it. Stick to your guns!  Whitman, Calhoun, Kelly and Fix were all known commodities for me. Solid supporting actors who were never stars but were always fun seeing them in any number of movies.  And then there's Janet Leigh. Did someone have some scandalous information on her and forced her to do this movie? Kudos to her for sticking with it though. She plays the part of the tough but loving wife as well as humanly possible.

One of my favorites with movies like this is how do you wrap it up? How do you kill hundreds and maybe thousands of giant, murdering rabbits? Whitman's plan is unique but I'm still not sure it actually makes sense.  The massing of rabbits is herded toward a stretch of electrified train tracks and then slaughtered with nowhere to go but on those tracks.  It's hysterical (I feel bad for saying that electrocuting bunnies is hysterical by the way) and ridiculous just like the rest of the movie.  If you're looking for a good laugh, this creature feature is a winner.  It's available to watch at Youtube starting HERE with Part 1 of 9. 

The Night of the Lepus <---trailer (1972): */****

Friday, February 11, 2011

Johnny Yuma

For every Clint Eastwood or Lee Van Cleef that became international stars because of the spaghetti western craze of the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were many others who never quite hit it as big.  There were over 500 spaghetti westerns made, and someone had to star in them, right? So as I mentioned in my review of 1966's The Texican (and a few others probably), has-been stars and up and coming actors often turned to Europe for film roles. One of those was American actor Mark Damon, a supporting player in Hollywood who through a dozen or so spaghetti westerns got more stardom than he ever would have back in the states.

None of Damon's ventures into the Italian westerns are considered true classics, including 1966's Johnny Yuma, an entertaining if unspectacular western. See enough westerns (or any genre for that matter), and you're going to start seeing the same stories over and over again with a few tweaks here and there.  What separates the 'been there, seen that' from the unique is being able to put a new spin on those things you have seen in the past.  Director Romolo Guerrieri does just enough different to make this spaghetti western worth watching.

Riding west after receiving a letter from his uncle with a request to run the family ranch, gunslinger Johnny Yuma (Damon) looks to have hit the jackpot.  But as he nears the ranch, he finds a wanted poster for the man who killed his uncle.  Johnny smells a rat and is convinced that something else is going on.  He's right.  His uncle's young wife, Samantha (Rosalba Neri), conspired with her brother, Pedro (Luigi Vannucchi) to murder Johnny's uncle and set someone else up in the process. Avenging his uncle's death and getting the ranch back in the process, Johnny has to tangle with a small army of gunmen Samantha sent after him in hopes of finishing him off.  The gunmen are one worry, but an infamous gunfighter, Linus Carradine (American TV actor Lawrence Dobkin), is also on his trail.

The main characters in spaghetti westerns allowed for certain extravagances in behavior and wardrobe -- Clint Eastwood's poncho, Yul Brynner's cigar-filled magazines, and many others -- but Damon is duded up to look like the ultimate gay caballero to me.  It isn't Damon's fault, but for starters Johnny Yuma isn't the greatest character.  He's not quite the steely-eyed killer and not a comedic punchline, instead he's somewhere in between. He's always wearing bright shirts (red, yellow, green), a vest with what looks like silver conches as buttons, the shirts are unbuttoned down to his stomach to show off his hairy chest, and he wears a silver dollar on a chain around his neck. I'm not saying anything, but...I'm just saying.  Still, Damon is the least of the movie's concerns.  He makes the most of the character that requires him to kill a lot of baddies, bed down a few ladies, and tear up when the little kid dies.

Criticisms of spaghetti westerns are all over the place, too violent, too stupid, too much humor, feels like an American western.  Oddly enough, all those criticisms are valid for this one movie.  It's all those complaints rolled into one movie! The violence isn't graphic, but in the finale Johnny and Carradine (differences pushed aside and teamed up) gun down wave after wave of nameless henchmen. On top of that, Johnny manages to bounce around the abandoned village like a kid on a sugar high getting the villain to empty his gun.  He also gets a cowardly Mexican sidekick (Fidel Gonzales) who is apparently around for laughs. The story does feel like an American western, but in a good way. And that's where the positive recommendation comes in.

In westerns, women are too often used as bait for the hero to save. Helpless, whiny, and all around unnecessary. There's two solutions in my mind, make them strong, heroic characters on their own, or the more fun option...make them villains.  Neri's Samantha is a great example of what a female villain in a western can be.  This is where the movie rises above the norm of what's so often in run-of-the-mill westerns.  It's Samantha pulling the strings on all the dupes around her as her plan comes together.  In the vein of a Lee Van Cleef character, Dobkin is also a bright spot as the aged gunfighter Carradine.  He's a good counter to Damon's Yuma in the same way Van Cleef was to Eastwood in For a Few Dollars More.  I still don't understand why Dobkin and Damon switch holsters midway through the story other than the story requires some general confusion, but there's too much else going on to linger there.

Now for all the fun little elements that make these spaghetti westerns -- even the bad ones -- memorable.  Composer Nora Orlandi turns in a solid score that resembles a Morricone score, but not in the obvious knock-off fashion so many other composers use. There is also a truly awful theme song (listen HERE) that is so downright bad that it ends up being great.  I defy you not to have it rattling around in your head in the days following your first watch.  It's that good kind of awful, the song where you know you shouldn't like it, but do anyways.  The Almerian locations are wide-ranging with some familiar spots around every corner.  So how do I rate it? Not a particularly good western, but an entertaining one.  Barely gets a positive rating, but barely still counts.

Johnny Yuma (1966): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Mystery Street

Since 2000 when CSI: Las Vegas premiered, the CBS police procedural/forensics has given viewers a look into the behind the scenes lives of police officers and crime scene investigators.  In this modern age of technology, the equipment available to investigators is truly amazing, able to analyze evidence seemingly in minutes.  Well, it's easy to take it for granted, especially when CSI has spinoffs, and other shows like Law and Order and Bones deal with the same topic.  It wasn't always that easy before computers made police work "easier."

Released in 1950 at the height of the film noir popularity, Mystery Street shows the life of a police investigator doing his job the only way he knows how, getting out on the streets and following up any piece of evidence or clue that could help solve the case. It reminded me a lot of All the President's Men where two reporters do the same thing trying to break a story that ends up being the Watergate scandal.  The procedures seem archaic now watching them, but the story certainly gives a look at what old-fashioned police work entailed over 60 years ago.

Driving out of Boston to meet an acquaintance and deliver some important news, call girl/escort Vivian Heldon (Jan Sterling) picks up a drunk man, Henry Shanway (Marshall Thompson) drinking his worries away after his wife lost their baby in labor. Vivian leaves Henry stranded in the middle of nowhere to go meet her mystery man who then shoots her, buries her naked on the beach and dumps the stolen car in a deep pond.  Six months pass, and the bones are found.  A local detective working for the district attorney, Peter Moralas (Ricardo Montalban), leads the investigation with help from a Boston officer (Wally Maher) to follow what little evidence they have. A Harvard medical professor (Bruce Bennett) may be their only hope as he starts to analyze the found bones, hoping it leads to something, anything that could help solve the case.

Some reviewers at IMDB asked if this was the first ever police procedural movie? I know there were others before this (Jules Dassin's The Naked City was released in 1948), but it is clear this is one of the first of many that would follow.  Think of an extended episode of Law and Order or CSI that runs about 90 minutes and this is the movie you'd get. The script isn't anything out of the ordinary, and the case itself is one you will have seen if you've watched even a few cop/lawyer TV shows.  Still, there's a grittiness to the story that keeps it interesting.  The acting is solid, director John Sturges doesn't waste time on any unnecessary subplots, and there are some very cool shots of Boston neighborhoods as the investigation moves along.

Once the investigation is laid out for Montalban's character, the story is nothing new, but the opening of the movie certainly gets points for originality.  Sturges introduces a handful of characters without explaining much as to what's going on or who they are.  Then, BAM! The cute blonde is dead, stripped and buried, and the story fast forwards 6 months to when a man walking on the beach sees bones poking out of the sand and reports them to the police.  As a viewer, we're given just enough information to make us think we know what's going on, but let's face it, we're in the dark. We're a little bit ahead of Montalban and the police but not by much. We still don't know motive or who did it, making the somewhat worn story flow along at an easier clip.

Leading the cast, this is the Ricardo Montalban I am a fan of.  We're not talking Fantasy Island here, we're talking a solid actor who was one of the first Mexican actors to hit it big in Hollywood.  The early part of his career was defined by roles like this, a Hispanic character doing a job who also has to worry about prejudices and racial undertones from the people he's working with. There is just enough of a racial edge to the story and his character to make it interesting without being overbearing. The rest of the cast is solid if unspectacular, starting with Sally Forrest as Grace Shanway, Henry's wife who is sure her husband couldn't have done what he's being accused of.  Bennett is good as the Harvard professor helping the investigation (even if his techniques are lost on everyone around him), Thompson is good at looking worried, Elsa Lanchester hams it up as Mrs. Smerling, the owner of Vivian's boarding house, Betsy Blair is a friend and neighbor of Vivian, and Edmon Ryan plays Harkley, a man Vivian ran across months before.

Watching the case and clues materialize, I couldn't help but think how police and law enforcement agencies caught anyone in a pre-computer era. All a killer would have had to do was start driving and don't look back.  By the time the police figured out what was going on, he could be in Russia. Still, it's a cool look at an era that is most definitely a thing of the past.  Now it is a movie so Montalban and Co. obviously get their guy. The finale is typical Sturges, solid action with some great camerawork, filming a chase scene in a train station and a rail yard as the murderer attempts to get away. An interesting noir overall with a mix of police procedural.

Mystery Street <---TCM trailer (1950): ***/****

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

Rags to riches stories, the American dream at its best.  Musicians, athletes, movie stars, so many seem to follow a similar career arc. Whole shows like VH1's Behind the Music followed an almost identical show about rock stars.  Meteoric rise to fame, brief period at the top, and landslide to the bottom.  Movies like Ray and Walk the Line told the true stories of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash, and as was the case with all of the above mentioned things, they were just begging to be spoofed.  It's just too easy not to.  That's where 2007's Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story steps in.

In this not so thinly veiled dig at Johnny Cash and Walk the Line (and on a bigger level anything concerning music), every one and every thing in the music business is fair game.  Starring as Dewey Cox is one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood -- drama or comedy -- John C. Reilly. Starting with Reilly, the talent involved here is downright impressive including writer Judd Apatow and a huge cast that make spot-on cameos and fill out the supporting roles.  Both equally stupid and smart, this is just a funny movie, pure and simple.

At the young age of 6, Dewey Cox accidentally slices his brother in two at the waist when a machete fight (yes, a machete fight) goes horrifically wrong.  With that trauma hanging over his head, Dewey grows up, turning to music as an outlet.  He takes to it right away, and when he's kicked out of the house at 14 by his resentful father, Dewey (O'Reilly) tries to get into the music business. He skyrockets to the top with his hit song, Walk Hard <---music video, and is on the way to the top.  But his climb to the top comes at a price, and it's only a matter of time before you reach the summit, and there's no way to go but down.  For Dewey, it's a big drop.

Playing Dewey, Reilly gives him this sort of bumpkin charm where he's beyond stupid one second but genuinely funny the next.  He borders that fine line between over the top, idiotic stereotype and a character you actually like.  Reilly is one of the funniest actors in Hollywood right now, combining really broad physical/slapstick humor (Dewey's go-to move when angry is ripping sinks out of the wall) with subtle line deliveries ("I think I'm doing okay for a 15-year old with a wife and a baby").  Helping the character and his rise and fall is that the music is genuinely good.  Sure, the lyrics are usually a joke, but they sound good, especially Walk Hard.  

Following Dewey's career, it's not just Johnny Cash that is in line for some digs.  Dewey goes through phases of country, folk, punk rock, psychedelic rock, disco, and a couple others I'm probably forgetting.  These are some of the movie's most inspired moments.  Dewey becomes a Bob Dylan knock-off (watch/listen HERE) in trying to stay relevant, doing a spot-on impression of Dylan.  We meet Elvis (The White Stripes' Jack White), Buddy Holly (Frankie Muniz), and in the movie's far and away best scene, Dewey visiting the Beatles in India in 1968 during their psychedelic phase.  The Beatles are going through some internal struggles (a rift as Dewey calls it) which produce some of the movie's best laughs.  Watch it HERE. Jack Black plays Paul, Paul Rudd is John, Justin Long is George, and Jason Schwartzman plays Ringo. 

With a story that covers over 50 years, there's a fair share of characters that Dewey comes across during his up and down career.  Just about every comedic actor around gets a scene or two in this flick.  Playing Dewey's long-suffering band are Tim Meadows (his running bit about introducing Dewey to new drugs is priceless), Chris Parnell and Matt Besser. SNL star Kristen Wiig plays Dewey's wife who he marries (at 14) when she's 12 while Jenna Fischer is the true love of his life and fellow singer/performer Darlene. David Krumholtz is his one-note manager, Raymond J. Barry his resentful father, Harold Ramis and Martin Starr as Jewish record execs, Craig Robinson as a rival club singer, and many, many more recognizable faces. Even look for musicians like Eddie Vedder, Lyle Lovett and Jewel making appearances as themselves.

Parts of the movie don't work as well as others, but that's to be expected with a comedy.  It can be hard sustaining that frenetically funny pace over 90-plus minutes. Overall, Walk Hard avoids that pretty well for about an hour.  But when the story hits 1976 and the disco era, the pacing hits a major roadblock.  It knows where it wants to end up but not quite how to get there.  That last half hour is a tad on the slow side without the laughs.  Balancing it out though, that first hour is about as funny as a comedy can be.  It works out in the end, and there's just too much talent here to pass on this movie.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story <---trailer (2007): ***/****

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Assault on a Queen

I don't know if there's an actor/performer who was so effortlessly cool as Frank Sinatra. On-stage as a performer, his cool factor is unquestionable.  As an actor, he started off in the 1950s with more serious roles that allowed him to show what a talented actor he was, and then in the 1960s starting making more fan friendly movies like his Rat Pack flicks.  It was this part of his career that reminds me of John Wayne's later career. Both men did movies that appealed to them, and screw anyone who didn't enjoy them.  Going in, you can probably figure out the ending before the movie starts.

That's exactly what 1966's Assault on a Queen felt like to me. A heist movie with a handful of other elements thrown in, this felt like a rehash of other better movies while still maintaining some level of interest and entertainment.  Sinatra would only make a handful of more movies after 1966, and this clearly isn't his best acting performance.  Some reviews complain that he's sleepwalking through the part, and it's hard to prove otherwise.  Laid back and playing a variation on many characters he played in his career, Sinatra is as always still very watchable.  The movie is average in every way with a ludicrous heist involved, but that's part of the fun.  Just how stupidly entertaining can it get?

Operating a small fishing boat with his partner and drinking buddy, Linc (Errol John), former submarine officer Mark Brittain (Sinatra) is content to take tourists out fishing so he has enough money for food and booze (not necessarily in that order). Hard up for money though, Mark signs on with a mysterious couple, Vic Rossiter (Tony Franciosa) and Rosa Lucchesi (Italian beauty Virna Lisi), who are looking for sunken treasure in the Caribbean. During a dive, Mark doesn't find buried treasure, instead stumbling across a sunken WWII German sub.  One of Vic's partners, a former U-boat commander, Eric (Alf Kjellin), comes up with a crazy idea.  What if they were able to raise the sunken ship which seems to be in good condition, and use it as a pirating vessel? Vic has the perfect target, the Queen Mary and its on-board safe that almost certainly has millions of dollars and gold bars.  It seems ridiculous, but could it somehow work?

I fancy myself a fan of heist movies, and like to think I know a few things here and there about them, but the premise here is beyond ridiculous.  A WWII German sub that's been sitting on the bottom of the ocean for 20 years is not only going to be raised to the surface, but then outfitted and rehabbed so it can be taken on the open sea and pull a con job on a huge ocean liner packed with tourists?  I couldn't help but get a chuckle out of the premise.  That's what you're going with?  Working off a Rod Serling screenplay, director Jack Donahue certainly has some guts. I'll give credit when it's due though. Donahue, Serling, and the cast commit to this ridiculous story and take it seriously.  It's never campy, never a spoof of heist movies.  If it had gone that direction, the movie would have gone downhill quickly.

The movie is limited by an obvious lack of any sort of budget.  Any of the diving scenes are clearly not Sinatra with some awful uses of a stunt double with a fuller head of hair stepping in for him.  Any scenes on the sub that contain a close-up of any of the principals is a green screen shot filmed on a set/stage somewhere, and then cut to look like they're sailing the high seas.  The whole movie has that look of being an indoors movie, like the cast and crew never saw the light of day during filming.  Any outdoor shots are second unit shots with no recognizable faces involved.  Low budget doesn't necessarily mean bad, but the effort here is severely hampered by lack of funds.

Here we are again, a motley crew of thieves and specialists working together to pull off the impossible job.  Yes, it's a men (and a woman) on a mission movie. Sinatra is Sinatra in the lead, a part that gives little background information other than his sole interest in the mission seems tied to winning Lisi's hand.  Italian beauty Virna Lisi is quite the looker and is given any number of excuses to be in slinky, tight-fitting outfits.  I've never heard a mangling of English quite as nice sounding as Lisi's attempt.  Franciosa is a bright spot, trying his best to make the most of the material.  I can't think of Franciosa as anything but a smooth, suave baddie, and he's solid here in that part.  Kjellin is the wild card, we're not always sure of his intentions, with Richard Conte playing Tony, his weaselly mechanic. John gets a couple chances to shine in a solid supporting part.

So while the heist premise is ridiculous, you can't help but wonder how they'll actually attempt to pull this job off.  The heist execution makes up for a slow-moving first hour-plus because we have a general sense of how this plan will work, but nothing in detail.  Not surprisingly, it doesn't go as planned, forcing Mark, Vic, Eric and the team to improvise.  As a movie overall, it lacks a certain energy -- thanks to a dull but still underused musical score -- and any feeling of urgency of getting somewhere interesting.  Worthwhile mostly because of the cast, for die hard heist fans only.

Assault on a Queen <--- opening titles (1966): **/****

Monday, February 7, 2011

Pulp Fiction

When I reviewed Inglorious Basterds over a year ago, I said that there isn't as divisive a director as Quentin Tarantino currently working in Hollywood.  I stand by that statement still.  Is he immensely talented, an eccentric movie lover? Or is he a hack, taking here and there from previously successful movies and making them his own?  Is it a bad thing that it seems he falls somewhere in between?  I think he's both. Of course, if you're not a fan of his, it's going to take more than that to appreciate the man's films.  To each his own.  Like anything with movies, it comes down to personal preference.

What's impressive about Tarantino and the love-hate relationship moviegoers have with him is that the man just doesn't have a lot of films to his name.  He picks projects that appeal to him, not just taking anything that comes down the road.  Of the 15 directorial claims IMDB makes, only eight are feature length projects.  In their own right, each can be called in a classic (okay, a minor classic in some cases), and fans have their own individual favorites.  For many, it's an easy decision, and the movie that always seems to come up is 1994's Pulp Fiction, Tarantino's first movie after the surprising success of 1992's Reservoir Dogs.

I don't put much stock in the IMDB's fan rating system which allows fan voting to show how good/bad a movie is.  Pulp Fiction currently sits at No. 5 all-time.  I don't think it's close to being one of the top five greatest movies of all-time, but then again, IMDB voters have The Shawshank Redemption as No. 1 so take that for what's it worth.  This is a good intro to Tarantino for fans not familiar with him.  Long scenes of uninterrupted dialogue broken up by brief but extreme moments of graphic violence, style to spare, and a cast that any movie fan should be able to appreciate.  Here goes an attempt to give some sort of plot synopsis, however muddled it may be. Interweaving storylines, characters in and out of the story, and a non-linear plot certainly keep you on your toes.

Two low-level enforcer/hit men, Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), have been dispatched on a mission from their boss, Marsellus Graham (Ving Rhames). Someone owes him money, and Vincent and Jules intend to get it back.  Vincent's also been assigned an unusual task, go on a date with Marsellus' wife, Mia (Uma Thurman) while the boss is out of town. Also going on, Marsellus has arranged for aging boxer, Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), to throw a fight for big money, but Butch has other plans that only he knows about.  On top of that, two bottom-tier thieves (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer) are planning their next job, and everyone is involved whether they know it or not.

Where to start, where to start? Tarantino uses his usual chapters storytelling device, breaking up the 153-minute movie into smaller segments that aren't told in chronological order. For example, we see someone get killed in one chapter, but they're alive in the next.  Gimmicky, yes, but when handled right, it's a home run, and Tarantino brings it full circle, ending the movie exactly where it started. The soundtrack is full of classic rock songs, and really runs the gamut across genres.  Style-wise, Tarantino tells a story with his camera, blending long unedited takes with quick in your face editing at other times.  Question if you will what the director is showing, but just in terms of pure movie-making skill, it's hard to beat this guy.

By 1994, John Travolta's career was all but mainlining when he accepted this part to play hitman Vincent Vega.  It was the part that put him back in the limelight and earned him an Oscar nomination in the process.  For me personally, Travolta (and his interactions with Jackson) are what makes this movie special.  It's the little things that make it work.  I couldn't place Vince's accent if I tried, but it adds something to the character.  He's a little off, maybe a little crazy, but at the same time perfectly sane.  His dance scene with Uma Thurman (watch it HERE) is about as iconic, as memorable as anything to hit theaters in the last 20 years and is so sublimely perfect it's not even worth trying to explain. I loved this character and wish there was more of him.

With a story that bounces around as much as Pulp Fiction does, some characters/storylines get more in-depth than others.  On top of all those names mentioned above, there's also parts for Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette, Steve Buscemi as a smarmy waiter, Tarantino stepping in front of the camera for a quick appearance, and two perfect parts for Christopher Walken and Harvey Keitel. Walken is on-screen for no more than two minutes but delivers one of the most movingly effective and equally funny monologues I've ever seen (watch it HERE).  Keitel nails his part as 'the Wolf,' a cleaner who fixes other people's messes.  Check out Keitel's entrance HERE. These are two small parts that Tarantino clearly loved writing, stylish and unnecessary but nonetheless giving a movie those little touches that can bring it up a notch.

As much as I loved certain parts of the movie, others just fell flat.  The Bruce Willis boxer subplot didn't work as well for me as the rest of the movie -- with the exception of the Walken scene -- and I found myself fast-forwarding through it.  Tarantino can be too self-indulgent at times, and the dialogue goes on too long at times.  That said, the positives make the negatives a minor problem.  Travolta, Jackson, Rhames, Walken, Keitel, Thurman, deliver amazingly memorable performances.  For all the dialogue that never stops, there's monologues (like Jackson's in the finale SPOILERS, HERE) that make you appreciate what good writing really is.  Flawed as a movie overall, yes, but one of the best flawed movies I've seen in awhile.

Pulp Fiction <---trailer (1994): *** 1/2 /****   

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The One That Got Away

Right up there with John Wayne's The Alamo, The Great Escape is my favorite movie (either A or 1-A).  I love Stalag 17, Bridge on the River Kwai, Von Ryan's Express, and I can name a handful of other prisoner of war (P.O.W.) movies that I've stumbled across and really enjoyed.  WWII prisoners of war has always been an interest of mine, but for the most part the only stories I've seen are from the perspective of Allied prisoners captured by the Germans, Japanese, or Italian.

One of the exceptions is 1957's The One That Got Away, the true story of a German flier shot down over England in 1939 and his efforts that followed to escape from British and Canadian POW camps.  A major issue I had with the story is that it was going to be hard to root for this character to succeed.  Was it going to paint the Allies as bumbling idiots who couldn't contain this one individual? He's a German prisoner, am I sure I want his character to get back to Germany?  That ended up being a minor issue compared to one plot element used seconds into the movie.  It gives away the ending before we've even met anyone or the credits rolled. Kind of a momentum killer if you ask me.

It's early in the war in 1939 when German fighter pilot Franz von Werra (Hardy Kruger) is shot down over England and quickly captured by the locals. So early in the fighting, both sides are still figuring out the best way to handle captured soldiers, and Werra intends to take advantage of the situation. Working against him is the fact that he's known as a hero back home in Germany for his actions during combat, and his captors have no intention of letting him do as he plans.  But no matter where they send him, dogged Werra keeps working to escape whether it be in Britain where all he needs to do is get across the English Channel or even into Canada where an ocean will separate him from home and freedom.

A title card opening the movie explains that Franz von Werra was the only German prisoner of war to escape from a Canadian prison camp and return to Germany successfully.  Well, that takes the mystery away a little bit, doesn't it?  It is a movie based on a true story, but it is not a widely known and accepted story.  How many viewers going into this movie would have known that little tidbit of history? Director Roy Ward Baker makes a huge mistake in telling us that information, or at least in my mind he did. Part of the entertainment value from these movies is not knowing who will successfully escape in the end. Who is going to make it? Who will get caught and how? That's not an issue here. Franz von Werra is going to escape. It's only a matter of how.

What I love about The Great Escape is following the efforts of these prisoners as they desperately attempt escapes.  It's exciting, full of tension, and with Elmer Bernstein's score playing over the action, it's some of the best and most suspenseful action sequences I've ever come across.  All that energy, all that tension is missing here for vast stretches of story.  Werra's first escape attempt is an endless stream of him running shots followed by shots of his pursuers chasing him across the same fields. A second escape as he attempts to steal a British fighter and fly it to Germany is a high point of the movie, but it gets lost in a sea of slow-moving escapes.  The finale is painfully slow, and still comes across as rushed when all is said and done.

SPOILERS well, sort of SPOILERS So yes, von Werra escapes by making it to a then-neutral United States.  The movie closes with him being rescued after crossing a frozen over St. Laurence River only to have a title card explain what happened next.  The German pilot meets with some roadblocks only to escape into Mexico, Central America and South America before returning to Germany...only to go missing a year later in a flight in the north Atlantic.  For a movie that already clocks in at 110 minutes (and is sluggish at that length), it's an odd ending.  My first thought was that a whole movie about the closing explanation would have been miles ahead of the rest of the movie in terms of excitement levels.  Instead, the story is a series of vignettes that don't add up to much overall.

With his name the only one above the title, Kruger is the going away star here.  The British cast is not impressive with roles that are necessary for the sake of the story but not particularly interesting (sorry Colin Gordon and Michael Goodliffe, among others). The problem with the von Werra character is that regardless of his cultural/ethnicity background, German, British, American, he isn't likable.  He's too cocky, too sure of himself.  Kruger excelled in these roles and does a fine job here, but at no point was I rooting for him to pull off a successful escape.  It's an average movie based on facts that could have been interesting but never gels quite like it should. Give it a try if curious at Youtube, starting with Part 1 of 10.

The One That Got Away (1957): **/****

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Grand Duel

Over the holidays, I stumbled across a collection of movies at Best Buy that caught my eye.  It was one of those public domain sets that featured 44 spaghetti westerns (some of which I'd seen) for just $14.99.  Now I've been burned by collections like this in the past.  There's a reason many of these movies are available on the public domain, starting with the actual visual quality of the movies has gone downhill quickly over the years.  Some prints are just plain bad, low-quality transfers from old VHS tapes.  But reviews were kind to this set, stating that a fair share of the flicks were in very watchable widescreen versions with solid audio.  Besides for $15, it's hard to beat 44 movies even with a few duds.

First up of the 44 movies was 1972's Grand Duel, an average spaghetti western aided by the always entertaining Lee Van Cleef as the star.  For the most part, the Italian western genre was on the decline by 1972. After the mega successful Sergio Leone Dollars trilogy, the market was flooded with rehashes, remakes and knock-offs over a several year span.  That's not to say there aren't some winners among the 600 or so spaghettis that were made.  Some were classics of the sub-genre, others were god awful examples of how not to make a movie, and I imagine there will be a few in this collection.  For Grand Duel, it falls in between the two. Solid and entertaining, but never amounts to a highly memorable finished product. Still, it's Lee Van Cleef!

Having been on the trail for several weeks, Sheriff Clayton (Van Cleef) finally catches up with wanted outlaw, Phillip Wermeer (Alberto Dentice in his only film role) at a stagecoach way-station. The only problem? A gang of bounty hunters is also waiting to bring in the infamous outlaw. Clayton helps Phillip escape the gang, but they're close on the unlikely duo's tale.  Phillip is wanted for the murder of a noted (if corrupt) family patriarch in a neighboring town even though he claims his innocence.  Clayton believes him and knows who actually killed the old man.  Forming a partnership with quite a few betrayals and backstabbings, Clayton and Phillip ride for the town of Saxon where the three Saxon brothers are looking to exact revenge.  With a hidden silver mine on the line that only Phillip knows about, the stakes just got a little bigger.

It's hard to fault anyone for trying to duplicate success, but this flick feels like a definite rehash of a handful of other spaghettis I've seen. The older gunslinger teaming up with the younger unproven gunslinger was especially nothing new to Van Cleef (see For a Few Dollars More, Face to Face, Death Rides a Horse among others). The bad guys looking to make a legit business and not caring who gets killed in the process has been done at well.  The music while good (especially the main theme, listen HERE) sounds like any number of Morricone scores, although the comedic-sounding portions are incredibly out of place.  Still, there's something to be said for being familiar with a formula and sticking with it.  Yes, if you've seen even a few spaghetti westerns, this will seem like old hat, but it's in a good way.

For Lee Van Cleef, this is Colonel Mortimer, Sabata, and several other of his notable characters rolled into one.  Down to the black outfit with the flat-brimmed hat, Van Cleef looks like he raided the wardrobe of his previous movies.  But with that evil-looking smirk and hawk nose, seeing this western veteran in even an average movie is a welcome addition.  He's cool just standing there doing nothing.  Give his character a secret about a murder everyone is curious about, and thinks just got that much better.  The reviews are mixed on Dentice as Phillip, but for a guy who never made another movie, I thought he was pretty decent.  He plays off Van Cleef well, and you know from the start he's innocent.  It's just a matter of who actually shot the old man. 

One of the best things to come out of the spaghetti western genre was villains so bad, so over the top evil that there's just no way anyone this bad ever existed.  In Grand Duel, it's three baddies, the Saxon brothers ruling this western town with an iron fist with hopes of amounting to something in both business and politics.  First, there's David (Horst Frank), the politician of the group, the unofficial leader who puts everything into motion. Second, there's Eli (Marc Mazza), the muscle and intimidation now working as sheriff of the town.  And saving the best for last, there's Adam (Klaus Grunberg), the possibly albino or at least very pale, very effeminate gunman with a face scarred by small pox. In the over the top department, there's Grunberg's Adam brazenly gunning down a wagon train full of women and children with a very historically accurate machine gun.  Looking for quality villains, this is a good place to start.

While the middle portions of the movie can be a little slow, director Giancarlo Santi bookends his movie with great openings and closings.  The opener at the desert way station is full of tension and beautifully shot even if it does use some gymnastic, acrobatic techniques in the gunfights. The finale, Clayton vs. the three Saxon brothers, is almost a shot-for-shot re-do of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly's cemetery shootout, but it's still quality.  And in a spaghetti western made on a limited budget, there's not much more you can ask for. Average but worthwhile for a watch.

Grand Duel <---trailer (1972): ** 1/2 /****