The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Match Point

For years, director Woody Allen was associated with New York City, filming countless movies there and basically making the city another character in his stories. After being one of the city's most recognizable celebrities and biggest promoters, Allen has started filming in Europe over the last eight or nine years, specifically London and more recently Paris.  The cities always are key to his story, not just being a jumping off point that could be any international city.

Sitting in my Netflix Queue for almost the last year was Allen's 2005 film Match Point, a cold, dark film where London is as cold and barren as the characters and story. The Netflix description was pretty accurate, a thriller with Hitchcockian tones (is that a word? Eh, it sounds cool).  I'd like to think that's a compliment, but the more I think about it, I'm just not sure.  Allen has a personal directing style that's all his own, but with Match Point and 2007's Cassandra's Dream, he does seem to be going down the smart, sophisticated thriller that Hitchcock is so often associated with. Good or bad, compliment or criticism, the movie is a good one.

A successful mid-level professional tennis player, Irish-born Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) is moving on with his life. Working as a tennis pro at a high-end club, Chris meets Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), a young businessman raised in a very well-to-do upper class family. Chris and Tom hit it off quickly, Chris becoming very popular with the Hewetts (parents Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton), especially their single daughter, Chloe (Emily Mortimer). Chris sees a chance at a life he never had growing up and embraces it, including starting to date Chloe, a relationship that quickly becomes serious. Everything seems to be going perfectly for Chris until he meets Nola (Scarlett Johannson), Tom's American fiance, with whom he has an instant sexual/physical attraction. Chris is going down a bad road -- and he knows it -- but can he stop himself?

There is a lot to like about this movie so I was surprised to read a fair share of hate for 'Match' at any number of message boards.  The script -- from Allen himself -- is well-written even if it does depend on coincidences and chance encounters a bit much for my liking. At just over two hours, the movie has a leisurely pace for a thriller. Scenes are in no rush to speed up to the message, enjoying the process of just getting there.  Long scenes of uncut dialogue, just two people communicating, pepper the story, giving the movie a throwback feel from the 1960s.  Allen just sets his camera up and lets his actors act.  He doesn't call attention to himself much, filming from a distance. It is a cold story (in terms of visuals but also what's going on with the characters), one that I can understand some viewers having trouble getting into.

Where I had a problem is that not one character is particularly redeeming or even remotely likable.  I don't need anyone to be a saint of angelic proportions, but someone to root for is always nice.  Some are obviously worse than others, but they all have these annoying character traits -- some on a larger scale than others -- that hamstring them. Rhys-Meyers as Chris is obviously the worst, a conniving, rat-like manipulator who betrays all those around him while cheating on his wife and possibly much, much worse. Johannson's Nola goes from the sexual, beautiful gorgeous ideal to a clingy, overly-emotional wreck. Even Mortimer -- who ends up being the most sympathetic of all these wrecks -- has this passive aggressive way of communicating, condescendingly pointing out that she's rich and you're not.  A mess of characters, all of them very interesting to watch take each other down.

The acting then can be hard to judge.  I disliked and/or hated most of the characters, wanting them to get what they deserved in the end.  I guess that's a good sign then of the actors/actresses bringing their characters to life, especially Rhys-Meyers.  There is something about him physically that makes me not like him, not as a character but as a person (and I feel bad judging him like that). Chris is a weasel, a smooth, suave sophisticated just all around bastard able to convince everyone around him he's quality people. The cast on the whole works well together, all of them with their own egotistical reasons for doing what they do.  Johannson's performance is a little too far over the top at times, but it's a quality performance. Mortimer, Goode, Cox, and Wilton are relegated to the background at times, but all carry themselves well, especially Mortimer as the ultimately pretty sweet Chloe and Goode as Tom, the charming, roguish brother-in-law.

Allen's story builds and builds, that sense of dread building as the situation gets murkier and murkier.  The story goes about the route you would expect as Chris backs himself into a corner and then has to claw his way out, lying left and right to cover his ass.  The opening scene gives you an indication of exactly where the story is going, but that being said, I hated the ending.  It needed more resolution than what's provided.  My reasoning most likely comes from my dislike of the Chris character, but a relatively open-ended finale was disappointing.  It doesn't ruin the movie, but it does take it down a notch. A different, more emotional ending would have done wonders for the movie on the whole.

Match Point <---trailer (2005): ***/****   

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Clash of the Titans (2010)

English actor Sam Worthington is at an interesting point in his career.  After toiling in relative obscurity on British TV and movies since 2000, the 35-year old actor now stands poised to become one of Hollywood's biggest stars...with the right part.  Where does he go from here? He was by far the best thing about Terminator Salvation and outdoing Christian Bale, managed to hold his own against James Cameron's CGI work in Avatar, and then followed it up with 2010's Clash of the Titans.

An updated version of a cheese-fest in the form of 1981's Clash of the Titans, this is a movie that was remade solely because there is CGI now.  That's it.  There's no other reason to remake the movie.  I haven't seen the original, never really having an interest in it.  But there was potential here if nothing else. It's Greek mythology, and it is nearly impossible to ruin that.  The gods up on Mount Olympus interact, controlling the world with an iron fist, the backstabbings, betrayals and hook-ups that a modern soap opera would be jealous of.  The movie never amounts to much though, a somewhat entertaining movie if nothing else.

The son of a mortal woman and the most powerful of all the Greek gods, Zeus (Liam Neeson), Perseus (Worthington) is saved by a Greek fisherman (Pete Postlethwaite) and raised as one of his own with his family. As he grows up though, a war develops and builds between the ego-tripping gods and the frustrated mortals.  The gods are ready to wipe out the mortals if they don't receive their due, especially lord of the Underworld, Hades (Ralph Fiennes), even threatening to release the monstrosity of a beast, the Kraken. The only option is to sacrifice an Argonaut princess, Andromeda (Alexa Davalos), but Perseus finally embraces his demi-god status to help the mortals win.  With a small group of Argonaut warriors at his side, Perseus heads out into the wilderness in hopes of finding a way to defeat the angry gods and the Kraken.

One of my concerns when I first started reading about the movie was some choices in casting.  As much as I like Worthington, I wasn't sure he was the right choice to play Perseus, son of Zeus. He basically gets to play the only character with any sort of actual development so he's got that going for him.  Like so many other characters though, it is only taken so far.  We've got to have a reason to root for him, and Worthington -- through his own fault or that of the script (more on that later) -- never really provides that reason. He handles the action sequences well enough, but I wish they could have done more with the main character in what looks like it will be a franchise with Clash of the Titans 2 scheduled for a 2012 release.

The rest of the cast -- without a ton of huge star power, not a bad thing -- is more hit or miss.  Neeson, Fiennes and Danny Huston play Zeus, Hades and Poseidon, the most powerful of the Greek gods. Neeson is the best of the three but is really around only to say 'Release the Kraken!' Fiennes glares and looks mean, and I don't believe Huston actually says a word (unless I missed it). Gemma Arterton is a bright spot as Io, Perseus' guardian angel of sorts who looks over him. Mads Mikkelsen is also a big positive as Draco, the Argonaut warrior who questions Perseus' status. A stock character, and one you've seen before, but a good one. His Argonaut squad includes Liam Cunningham, Hans Matheson, and Nicholas Hoult. There's also a CGI warrior -- a Djinn fighter -- who's pretty cool. Along for the adventure are two hunter/fighters brothers, Ozal (Ashraf Barhom) and Kucuk (Mouloud Achour), two very underused characters.

This was a summer blockbuster in 2010 so what should we expect from this flick? Action...lots of action.  Because there is no really good, detailed way to say it, the action scenes are both good and bad.  The potential is there with CGI creating all sorts of mythological characters for Perseus and Co. to battle (giant scorpions, Medusa, the Kraken, Hades' winged attackers), and the CGI looks solid for the most part.  However, the action is from the 'Let's over-edit this scene so it is indecipherable to watch and/or follow!' school of editing. Look it up, the school actually exists. Edited so quickly that the viewer can't see anything is never a good choice as a film-maker.  When the action and editing is slowed down enough where we're able to keep up, it's good stuff.  There just isn't enough of it.

Something was missing from this movie, and maybe it wasn't just one thing; maybe it was lots of little things.  For a blockbuster with all the makings of an epic, it clocks in at just 95 minutes before an extremely long 11-minute credit sequence.  That is not long for an R-rated comedy, much less a historical/mythological epic.  The look of the movie is too clean, too neat and tidy. The musical score is lacking, receding into the background too much where a good score would drive the action. Mostly though, I just never got fully into the movie. With a finished product that's barely 90 minutes long, there just is no time to take a breathe here.  Characters vanish as soon as they appear, and the ones that do stick around aren't given a chance to develop or interact at all.

A decent enough, entertaining movie, but one that is pretty forgettable in the grand scheme of summer blockbusters. Hopefully with the sequel, the cast, script and director actually get a chance to stretch out and get comfortable. The first movie certainly had the potential to be pretty good even if it ultimately wasted that potential.

Clash of the Titans <---trailer (2010): ** 1/2 /****

Monday, August 29, 2011

War Drums

When I think of portrayals of Native Americans in westerns, I think of two different ways.  One, like the John Ford movies where they are a menacing, murdering opponent, usually cold-blooded and savage.  They are the bad guy. Two, there is the complete opposite end of the spectrum. The Indians are angelic, faultless people who must fight off the white invaders as they spread across their land. The truth of the matter is that both were a point. Indians were a savage people (generalization, I know) who had to live a brutal lifestyle to survive, especially when their lands started to be scooped up.

So movie portrayals are one thing because stereotypes are an easy way to get a message across.  But what about westerns -- and movies in general -- that try to be an end-all, be-all depiction of the Native Americans?  That was what I took away from 1957's War Drums. By the 1950s, westerns were leaning toward a more favorable (at least a little more balanced) portrayal of Indians, movies like Broken Arrow starring Jimmy Stewart. 'Drums' certainly tries to go down that route, presenting the Apaches in a positive light, but that portrayal is so ripe with stereotypes and misconceptions -- not to mention some really bad casting -- that the effort is lost.

Living as a slave following a raid on her family ranch, a young Mexican woman, Riva (Joan Taylor), is rescued in a way by an Apache war party, led by chief Mangas (Lex Barker). The chief's first thought is to sell her to a white settler and make some money off her or at least make a worthwhile trade. A friend of Mangas', Luke Fargo (Ben Johnson), is a trader and horse wrangler and sees Riva's plight, instantly falling head over heels for her. Mangas has started to feel the same way and decides to take her as a wife. She is not your typical Apache wife though, learning to hunt and fight at her husband's side.  Fargo worries about her and where she will end up, but can't go against his friend's wants and wishes. The problem comes to fruition though as more and more white settlers move into the area, including many who couldn't care less they're on Apache land.

I give any western (and on a bigger level, any movie) that tries to be unique, to tell a story from a different perspective than most viewers are used to.  At its most basic -- stripping away reliance on stereotypes and a generally odd portrayal of Apaches -- War Drums tries to do that. Early on, it portrays the Apaches as...wait for it....human beings just trying to survive and live their lives. The story is set in the late 1850s and early 1860s as the United States steers toward the Civil War, providing an interesting counter to that situation in the Southwest. Another positive, an honesty about the life and the times. Apaches warred with Mexicans, whites fought with Apaches. No one was exempt, and no one group was all bad. There's always a couple rotten apples.

Who should I rip first? Well, because the movie focuses more on the Apache tribe, let's start with them.  In an effort to humanize this warring, brutal tribe, director Reginald Le Borg (<---cool name, huh?) makes an odd choice. He makes a legitimate attempt to show the Apaches weren't stereotypically evil by using...stereotypes? All of the Apaches -- warrior, wives, medicine man -- speak in a stilted, halting fashion, talking in lines full of odd animal imagery and existential thoughts. Lex Barker -- formerly Tarzan and later Old Shatterhand -- is a very white Apache chief, supposedly playing the real-life Mangas Colorado. His Mexican wife, Riva, is badly miscast, Taylor apparently around for eye candy. She goes for a stereotypically over the top and fiery Mexican woman who becomes a feared warrior after shooting a few arrows into a tree.  Mostly, she wears short dresses or tight buckskin pants.

That's not all though, just a good start. Apparently the Apache warrior as an individual had a weird war cry that the Ewoks from Return of the Jedi or 10th Century Viking warriors would have been proud of.  At every possible moment, they yell 'Ayee!' We're talking happy, sad, defeating an enemy, getting married, having a good breakfast. They yell that nonsensical war cry. Enough with the Indian ripping, let's get to the white men, either angelically faultless like Johnson's Luke Fargo or mind-blowingly evil like the bloodthirsty miners who almost start a war. In an effort to demonize them even more, the story calls for outright pandering. When Mangas is caught and whipped, one miner yells 'Carve your name into his back!' to the "whipee."  The man with the whip replies "I would if I knew how to write!" Oh, that's just too much. Is he evil because he's stupid, or stupid because he's evil?

For all the groan-inducing, roll your eyes at the badness moments, the movie isn't as bad as I've made it out to be.  To be fair, it's not that great either, but I enjoyed it for what it is. It is a 75-minute B-western with a different story and some exciting action. A classic it is not, but even if the execution didn't work out in trying to tell a balanced story about whites and Indians, the attempt (however heavy handed) was made. In the supporting cast, look for an unrecognizable John Colicos as Chino, an Apache medicine man, and an uncredited Stuart Whitman playing a worrying husband.

War Drums <---TCM trailer (1957): ** 1/2 /**** 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Wild Stallion

As long as I've been watching Turner Classic Movies, the month of August has always been 'Summer Under the Stars Month.' Instead of their usual programming, each day in August is devoted to a specific movie star -- men and women -- with a full day's worth of flicks airing.  Doing this month-long promotion enough, eventually you're going to have to go past the big names.  You can only do Humphrey Bogart Day so many times before it just gets repetitive.

That's why I was more than a little pleased to see a whole day devoted to one of my all-time favorite actors, Ben Johnson. The real-life cowboy turned movie star is known for any number of movies including his teamings with John Ford in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande and also with Sam Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch, Major Dundee and The Getaway. Some of them were bit parts or supporting roles, but in a career that lasted into the 1990s before his death in 1996, Johnson was in just under a 100 movies.  Not all of them are that well known, including 1952's Wild Stallion.

For over 10 years, 23-year old cowboy Dan Light (Johnson) has had his eyes set on one thing and one thing only. Growing up in the west, Dan came home one day to find his parents brutally killed by an Indian war party, and one of the family's horses, a beautiful white colt, escape and join a herd of wild horses.  Working with the man who found him after the massacre, Johnny Wintergreen (Edgar Buchanan), Dan has grown up into quite the cowboy, bringing in wild horses to the U.S. cavalry at a lonely, far-off fort. The horse taunts Dan with his presence, but he's never able to bring in the horse and keep him for himself.  Finally, he's able to catch him, spending several days with the animal and breaking the horse. It escapes once more though as a cavalry patrol is sent out from the fort, quickly coming under attack.

This is the definition of a western oater, a simple, straightforward story that has no allusions about being anything else than what it is. The budget is obviously pretty small, and the story and setting have no bigger scope, no aim to tell an epic story of the taming of the west. Cut away everything else, and at its most basic, this is a story about a young man and his horse.  An IMDB review (the only review for the movie) points out 'Stallion' gets caught up in the sentiment, ending up like a Disney movie more than your typical western.  It's not a bad movie by any means. At just 70 minutes, it isn't around long enough to be bad. On the other hand, it isn't very good either. A decent enough way to pass a little more than an hour, and nothing else. Probably for die-hard western fans alone.

Now if you couldn't figure out from my lead that touts Ben Johnson as one of my favorite actors, basically the only reason I watched this movie was Johnson in the lead role.  The lone review I found was mixed, the IMDB rating came in at a straight down the line 5 out of 10, and the cast did little to grab my attention other than Johnson, Buchanan and Martha Hyer. Johnson was coming off three movies that helped define his career and put him into the public eye, all with John Ford ('Ribbon,' 'Rio Grande' and Wagon Master).  Without Ford's guiding ways, Johnson was finding himself as an actor.  He was most at home in the western genre -- appropriate considering his actual cowboy roots -- and he was coming off a strong part in 1951's Fort Defiance, an average western boosted by his down to Earth performance.

Wild Stallion was his next movie, and it seems like the most natural of choices for Johnson to play a cowboy and his relationship (is that the right word?) with a hard to reach white stallion.  Before he got into the movies, Johnson was a rodeo star so that gives an added dimension to his characters. A great extended sequence has Johnson's Dan interacting with the wild stallion, a scene that is great to watch in its simplicity, just a man and animal figuring each other out. He does all his own stunts so anytime you see a rider whipping across the horizon at breakneck speed, that's him in the saddle, not a stunt double.  Don't be tricked either. There are some badass, very cool riding stunts.  On top of it all, I can add this. Rodeo star, movie cowboy, Johnson wasn't acting. He was just being himself. He was a great presence and an above average actor, and you know what? He's cooler than you.

Clocking in at just 70 minutes, there's no time to waste here. The story is told in flashback through Buchanan's character explaining Dan and the stallion -- dubbed Top Kick -- and their history.  Buchanan is as solid and watchable as ever (when wasn't he?) with Hyer playing the requisite love interest, Hayden Rorke (later of I Dream of Jeannie) playing Major Cullen, the cavalry commander, Hugh Beaumont (later of Leave it to Beaver) as another cavalry officer, and Don Haggerty as Sgt. Keach, a trooper who has a bone to pick with Light. An innocent enough little western without a negative bone in its body. Mostly worth watching for Ben Johnson.

Wild Stallion <---TCM clips (1952): ** 1/2 /****    

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Lethal Weapon 2

So a movie that easily stands on its own is a huge success in theaters, audiences coming out in droves to theaters to see what's going on.  It has a good cast, has some fun with a known genre while adding something new to it, but in reality just doesn't need to keep on going.  That first movie is good enough on its own.  So how should we proceed?  Why, that's easy. Let's make sequels!

I use that as an introduction only because I get sick of seeing more and more unnecessary sequels being released in theaters.  As I reviewed in February, I very much enjoyed 1987's Lethal Weapon, a fresh take on the buddy cop movie.  Not surprisingly, it was a movie that would have sufficed on its own.  In theaters in the late 80s, the original made over $120 million so it was only a matter of time before a sequel(s) was released. There would be three more sequels, but I shouldn't get ahead of myself.  Let's start with the first sequel, the one considered the best of the three, 1989's Lethal Weapon 2.

During a high speed car chase through Los Angeles, LAPD officers Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) stumble across a car trunk full of Krugerrands, South African gold pieces. Because of the damage caused in the chase, Riggs and Murtaugh are pulled from the case and reassigned to a witness protection job, looking after Leo Genz (Joe Pesci), a money launderer who cleaned millions of dollars for drug dealers, skimming some off the top for himself. With some help from Leo, the officers stumble into a drug case involving South African officials citing diplomatic immunity. It's obvious the diplomats are using their immunity for all sorts of illegal activities, but what can Riggs and Murtaugh do?  They put pressure on the diplomats, but with millions of dollars involved, it's only a matter of time before the South African "diplomats" push back with force.

My concern with any series that keeps going back to the well is that things will get boring, tedious, monotonous, and repetitive.  Just two years removed from the first Lethal Weapon, '2' isn't to that point yet, not by a long shot.  Director Richard Donner keeps things interesting throughout this 114-minute long buddy cop movie, leaning more on action sequences than story and character development.  Not a criticism, just an observation.  On the whole, it doesn't even touch the first one which still has something appealing about it that is hard to explain. It's a familiar angle -- two very different cops forced to partner up -- with a fresh edge. I get the feeling with '2' there was an assumption that if you're watching the sequel, you must have liked the first one so let's not waste time developing things. Instead, let's just have some fun.

The lone exception to this is Mel Gibson as Martin Riggs, the at-times off his hinges officer prone to bits of lunacy.  We do get to know Riggs a little better this time around as his backstory involving his deceased wife is explained.  Gibson's off-screen issues over the last few years have overshadowed the fact that he is a supremely talented actor, especially here with one of his most iconic, recognizable characters.  As the straight man to most of the shenanigans, Glover as Murtaugh matches Gibson scene for scene.  Some acting duos just have chemistry, and these two pros certainly have it. There is an ease to their scenes together that can't be explained. They're close friends, willing to always help the other one in need, but they'll also bullshit each other, rip each other whenever the opportunity arises, and generally make their partner's life a living hell.  A great pairing no matter the quality of the movie.

Not that the first movie was any slouch in the action department, but Donner's movie certainly takes it up a notch...or two or 10.  The opening car chase sequence is a mess, an orgy of explosions and crashes that gets the action going from 0 to 60 miles per hour in about four seconds.  There's plenty more though, including another chase on a mountain road that plays out like a Rube Goldberg device with a rather unique capper courtesy of an airborne surf board.  Also, a memorably tense scene in the bathroom ratchets up the nerves with a bomb strapped to Murtaugh's toilet. The best is saved for last though, Riggs and Murtaugh leaving their badges behind and going vigilante.  They go gunning for the conniving South African officials at a heavily guarded shipyard in a bloody, chaotic finale.  Speaking of, how many movies over the last 20 years have used a shipyard as an action set piece? I thought of maybe eight different movies just sitting through Lethal Weapon 2's credits. Still, done to death or not, the ending is a winner.

Hamming it up as the unbelievably evil baddies are Joss Ackland as Arjen Rudd and Derrick O'Connor as his enforcer, Pieter. They are the type of villains who probably laugh at the notion of a redeeming quality in a bad guy. You know from the second they're introduced that they will be dispatched in some gruesome fashion...and they are.  The best addition to the cast though is Pesci as fast-talking Leo, a welcome presence who works well with and fits in seamlessly with Gibson and Glover.  Just one more thing Donner did to keep his Lethal Weapon series fresh. Not on the same level as the original, but still an entertaining movie.

Lethal Weapon 2 <---trailer (1989): ***/****

Friday, August 26, 2011

One More Train to Rob

Thanks to Netflix's recent change in billing, I had to choose whether to pay an extra $8 bucks a month to keep my 'Instant Viewing' where I can watch movies and TV through their website. I didn't watch enough of either to make it worthwhile so I'm sticking with the DVD plan instead. My plan at first was to watch all the Instant Movies I could in the period before the new policy came into effect, but then 1971's One More Train to Rob came along.

I'm pretty much a sucker for any hard to find movie with a somewhat recognizable cast, especially movies from the 1960s and 1970s.  Hundreds and maybe thousands of movies aren't available in any format so when you stumble across them, you've got to take advantage of the situation.  Case in point here, a western available through Instant Watch with some good names -- including Just Hit Play favorite George Peppard -- and a unique, at least somewhat interesting premise. It never quite clicks into place, and a snail's pace in the first hour dooms the movie to the point where an entertaining second hour can't save it.

After a successful train robbery, well-known bank/train robber Harker Fleet (Peppard) is betrayed by several members of his gang including Timothy Xavier Nolan (John Vernon) and Jim Gant (Steve Sandor). He ends up serving a three-year jail sentence, getting out early for good behavior.  Harker finds that his girlfriend, Katy (Diana Muldaur), is engaged to Nolan now as his former partner has become a rich businessman. However, Nolan is in some financial trouble, and Harker sees a way to exact his revenge. A mine in the area owned by Chinese immigrants is producing large quantities of gold, but Nolan can't get anywhere near the place. Harker on the other hand is able to dupe the Chinese into thinking he's on their side and work from the inside. Who is working against who though? Everyone has their own intentions and means of getting over $500,000 in gold that's ready for shipment.

Depending on where/what you read, director Andrew V. McLaglen takes a lot of heat for his average to below average to God-awful movies. The son of actor Victor McLaglen, he started directing western TV shows in the 1950s and parlayed that into feature films in the 1960s, many of them working with John Wayne.  Was the younger McLaglen an auteur, a highly skilled, talented individual behind the camera? Nope, not really. He was a workmanlike director who got the job done usually without much in the way of personal style. I grew up watching many of his movies so I can overlook some of his deficiencies (Bandolero!, Shenandoah, The Devil's Brigade, The Wild Geese are some of my favorites).  However as much as I tried here I struggled with 'Train to Rob.'

A western that came along in 1971 when most westerns were pessimistic and generally trying to bust all sort of wild west myths and lore, 'Train' is an oddity.  Think John Wayne western without the Duke.  It was made on a small budget -- or at least it looks like it -- and looks to have been shot mostly in the studio and on the studio backlot.  The script can't make up its mind whether it is a darkly comedic western with slapstick or a hard-hitting, double crossing western where anyone and everyone is capable of a betrayal.  The first hour is painfully slow at times, and I struggled to even get to the 60-minute mark.  A dark western can also be funny and cynical, but McLaglen and the screenplay never makes up its mind.  The second hour is a significant improvement over the first, helping the movie redeem itself at least a little bit.

Before his turn as Hannibal Smith in The A-Team in the 1980s, Peppard had a stretch of movies in the late 60s and early 70s that didn't produce a single classic, just a lot of really enjoyable, exciting action/adventure movies like Tobruk, Cannon For Cordoba, and The Executioner among others.  So while I didn't love this movie by any means, I very much liked Peppard's Harker Fleet. As an actor, Peppard had a knack for playing the likable yet condescending a-hole.  That is Harker Fleet in a nutshell, a lovable, conniving rogue who you can't help but like. His romantic scenes with Muldaur's Kate have a great chemistry, and his back and forth banter with Vernon's Nolan (sporting an odd but funny Irish accent) are priceless.  In the midst of all the boredom and needless background, we get some great scenes of actors just looking like they're having fun.

The cast deserved more than this, and I think that's what is most disappointing. In little glimpses, this movie had some potential.  One scene with Peppard and Vernon beating the hell out of each other ends in a discussion as to how they should double-cross everyone around them, both actors laughing hysterically.  It doesn't feel forced or like acting, just a real laugh, a funny moment in a sea of nothing.  Playing up the stereotypical Chinese miners, the miners include France Nuyen as prostitute turned savior Ah Toy, Soon-Tek Oh as Yung, the unofficial leader of the group, and Richard Loo as Mr. Chang, the wise old Asian man who knows everything. If I could recommend anything here, just skip to the one-hour mark, and you'll get the best parts of the movie.

One More Train to Rob (1971): ** 1/2 /****      

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Sheepman

Watching and reading enough about the taming of the west in the second half of the 19th Century, you notice certain rivalries popping up...if rivalries is the right word.  There was cowboys vs. Indians (not aliens), outlaws and bandits against marshals, sheriffs and law enforcement, American vs. Mexican (among any number of other nationalities who didn't care for each other), and because it wasn't just beef being shipped around the country, cattle vs. sheep.

Cattle grazed on the land while sheep basically picked the land clean, ripping the grass out by the roots so it didn't grow back.  Didn't think you were going to get that sort of introduction to a western now, did you?  That's the basic problem in many cattle vs. sheep westerns, including the 1958 oater The Sheepman. I'd seen this movie a few years ago but watched it recently on Turner Classic Movies when I thought I had not seen it. I watch a fair share of westerns so they start running together at a certain bad.  A good, entertaining and relatively harmless western, typical of so many 1950s westerns.

In the western town of Powder Valley where the cattle dominates the land, a stranger, Jason Sweet (Glenn Ford), arrives one day on the train. He quickly makes his presence felt, buying a saddle, buying drinks, picking a fight with the town tough guy. What's he up to? Jason is making sure everyone knows he's not a man to be tangled with because the next day his herd of sheep are inbound on the train.  The cattle owners want nothing to do with Jason's herd, and they don't intend to go along quietly.  The big man in the area who controls everything, Colonel Bedford (Leslie Nielsen) -- who Jason knows from his opposite side of the law past -- leads the charge to stop him, but the situation gets murky when Jason meets Dell Payton (Shirley MacLaine), Bedford's fiance. Now it is more than just a cattle and sheep situation, and the solution doesn't seem like an easy one.

This is a western that is pretty typical of a 1950s genre entry.  Director George Marshall handles his straightforward, no frills story with his typical professionalism.  The movie is only 87 minutes long so there is not much in the way of wasted time here.  The story knows where it wants to get, especially that first half hour as Jason "introduces" himself around Powder Valley. That's the aspect of the comedic western that works best, an easy going, fun introduction.  From there on in, things settle in with the good guys taking on the bad guys. Until late in the movie, the bad guys -- Nielsen included -- aren't even that bad.  Finally Ford's Jason is pushed too far though, and he has to respond.

Realizing I've probably written this with all my Glenn Ford movie reviews, I think Ford is one of the most under-appreciated western stars that came out of the 1950s and 1960s.  He doesn't have the name recognition that a John Wayne would, mostly because his westerns aren't considered classics.  Ford probably belongs with Randolph Scott for his star caliber, solid, quality westerns that don't often wow you, but are always entertaining.  As sheep herder Jason Sweet, he brings his typical western persona to the part.  Ford was always very natural on-screen, showing off an ease that could give the impression he wasn't acting at all.  He is likable though from the start, and you're rooting for him.  Pointless bit of movie trivia, Ford wore the same hat in all his westerns.  Not the same hat style, the actual hat. It still looks relatively clean here.

Playing the part of the female love interest, Shirley MacLaine makes the most of her appearance.  So often this character -- the center of a pointless, needless, and unnecessary love triangle -- is forced into the story for the sake of having the character around. Not much is done to actually develop MacLaine's Dell character, but if nothing else she's trying, and that's all you're looking for at times. Anyone with an IQ over 10 or so knows from the second she is introduced she'll end up with Ford's Jason, but they've got to keep us guessing a little, right?  MacLaine isn't the damsel in distress thankfully, just a frontier woman caught in a bad situation. Her chemistry with Ford in their scenes together is easily seen, and their dialogue/conversations have an easy flow to them throughout.

Because there isn't a ton else to analyze about this one, we get more cast analysis and criticism! Yeah for people!  Before he became most well-known for The Naked Gun movies, Nielsen was a dramatic actor capable of drama, comedy, and action.  He's not the baddest of bad guys until late in the movie, but he has some good back and forths with Ford.  The rest of the cast includes some very recognizable western faces including Mickey Shaughnessy as one of Nielsen's henchmen, Edgar Buchanan as the wily, shifty stable owner who knows everything and everyone, Willis Bouchey as Dell's father, Pernell Roberts as Choctaw Neil, a gunslinger and adversary of Jason's, Slim Pickens as the town marshal who goes fishing when trouble arises, and Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez as Angelo, one of Jason's sheepherders.

Not a great western, but certainly not a bad western. Just sort of in between, a western you can watch every couple years without getting bored or worn down.

The Sheepman <---trailer (1958): ** 1/2 /****   

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


What has worked so well for animated features over the last 10-15 years -- besides the crazy advances in technology -- has to be the choice to play to both an adult and child audience. The visuals, the cute characters, the vivid colors, all things that while appealing to both an adult and a kid are more directed toward a younger demographic. Then for the adults in the crowds, there is the stories that reflect your own past and upbringing, the in-jokes that a little kid wouldn't appreciate, and an ability to pull at your heart strings like nobody's business.

No studio has embraced this concept -- playing to both audiences -- better than Pixar Studios with the Toy Story series, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, WALL-E and many more.  Of all the studio's films though, maybe no other movie has hit all the right notes like 2009's Up did. Crazy, ridiculous, awesome animation aside, this has to be one of the most unique movies to hit theaters in recent years.  The story is unlike any other animated movie I can think of, and the story goes for the emotional jugular on several different instances. All the Pixar movies are memorable in their own way, but this is right up there with Toy Story and Monsters Inc. as one of the best.

After a long happy life with his wife Ellie, crotchety old guy Carl Fredericksen (voice of Ed Asner) doesn't know what to do with himself as the world changes around him when his wife dies. He decides to complete one of Ellie's dreams, building their house on Paradise Falls in South America, attaching thousands of balloons to the house they lived in for so many years and flying it to South America. Carl isn't alone though as Russell (voice of Jordan Nagai), a young boy and Wilderness explorer looking for his final merit badge -- assisting the elderly -- was accidentally swept up with the house too.  Together, they fly south toward Paradise Falls, picking up passengers along the way including a mythical, colorful bird Russell dubs 'Kevin,' and a dog named Dug (voice of Bob Peterson), who can communicate with words thanks to a gadget in his collar. Waiting in South America though is a longtime idol of Carl's, Charles Muntz (voice of Christopher Plummer), a supposedly heroic and good person who may have some ulterior motives.

I think the best and most positive thing I can say about this Academy Award winning animated feature from directors Pete Docter and Peterson is that it is unlike anything I've seen. All the Pixar movies have some unique feature, something different that sucks an audience in. Toy Story had toys coming to life, The Incredibles a superhero family, WALL-E a friendly alien.  But what about Up? A story of a senior citizen who resents the way the world is changing after his wife's passing, a chubby, precocious and well-meaning kid looking for a friend, a dim-witted, ultra-friendly dog who can talk, and a bad guy straight out of a 1930s serial?  Whoever thought that list of ingredients was a good one for an animated feature, well good for you. Nothing about that screams 'HUGE SUCCESS!' Somehow and some way, it just works.

Up does not have the huge name recognition among its voice talents, but that's not an issue by any means.  Ed Asner providing his gravelly, scratchy voice to play Carl Fredericksen is an inspired choice.  The visual of what Carl looks like just completes it all, making one of the most unlikely main characters ever to lead an animated movie. Young 10-year old Nagai clearly has a future doing voice work, bringing Russell to life as one of many characters in Up that leaves an impossibly positive impression.  Peterson gets a ton of laughs as Dug, the talking dog (Squirrel!) while Plummer's always menacing voice is a nice touch as hero turned villain Charles Muntz.  The voices are really solid without being distracting, letting the story and its emotion and visual aspects do their thing.

What struck me most about this movie was the darkness of the thing, the gut-wrenching emotional impact this supposedly kids oriented animation movie had.  We're not talking a sniffle here and there, but instead that feeling where you want to throw up you feel so bad, the tears welling up in an instant in your eyes.  The plot description I attempted doesn't exactly seem like a story designed for a young audience, does it? I'd be careful who I actually showed this movie to depending on the age of the kid.  Up might be too dark and too much to handle for a very young audience.  All the Pixar movies have that dark edge at some point, but nothing like this.

I knew I was in trouble about 10 minutes in with a montage showing Carl and Ellie's life together, a sequence done with music and visuals but no dialogue.  I said it before, and I'll say it again. Gut-wrenching, it's the best and only way to describe the very moving montage, and nothing you'd expect from a Pixar movie (not on that emotional level at least).  Think you're in the free and clear? Not so fast. The movie is full of these moments as Carl and Russell become surprisingly fast friends, two lonely people looking for just that...a friend.  Carl misses his wife while Russell is looking for a father figure, a big brother if nothing else.  In each other, they find what they're looking for; genuine friendship. The movie's ending is an especially touching one, working mostly because of its simplicity. It doesn't go for a BIG moment, just an effective one.  The last shot especially is the perfect capper for a great animated movie.

Great voice talent, an incredibly unique storyline, beautiful visuals (what else do you expect from a Pixar/Disney movie?), and an emotional impact that most movies only dream of.  Up slipped by me these last couple of years, but am I ever glad I watched this one.  A gem of an animated movie, and overall just a great movie.      

Up <---trailer (2009): ****/****

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Formula

Following the conclusion of World War II, American movies had an easy enemy and opponent for the next 40-plus years.  Through the length of the Cold War, the Russians/Soviets/Reds were the perfect bad guy, a shadowy, dark, sinister and even evil villain to do battle with.  But let's not forget about that other villain to come out of the late 40s...the escaped Nazis in movies like The Boys from Brazil and Marathon Man, and to an extent 1980's The Formula.

From director John G. Avildsen comes a story that you think will go one way and instead goes down another path. It does involved Nazis -- including a very cool opening sequence -- but ends up being more about big business and billions of dollars on the line from international corporations that end up all but ruling the world.  Think Syriana meets Who Killed the Electric Car?, and you've got this movie.  I don't know what to think of it, liking it at times and groaning as the "twists" are revealed. Like any movie I guess, take the good and the bad.

A former government agent turned Los Angeles police officer, Lt. Barney Caine (George C. Scott) is called in to lead a murder investigation. Caine is startled to find it is the murder of an old friend and a fellow police officer. But as he examines the evidence at the scene, something doesn't add up. Something seems forced, but he follows what is presented to him and ends up traveling to Germany as the clues and evidence present themselves. His friend was apparently involved in some high-end things -- drugs, big business (including oil chairman Marlon Brando) and billions of dollars -- that few were aware of. Was Caine's friend involved in something bigger than all of that though? Something worth killing more people over? As the bodies start to pile up, Caine wonders what exactly is going on, and if he could be next.

Complicated, twisting storylines typically go two ways. One, it is a well-written, well thought out complicated plot that works if you pay attention and keep up with it. Two, it is complicated for the sake of being hard to follow. That's The Formula. I resent when reviewers say a viewer who doesn't "get it" wasn't paying attention. Here, I paid attention, but the twists are too ridiculous, too convenient to even come close to making sense.  It isn't so much a Nazi splinter group of survivors pulling the strings as big business with monetary concerns doing the work. Just too many things happen that are explained in one quick conversation. If it is going to work, some sort of clue has to be given. If not, that isn't a twist. It's just lazy on the part of the script.

In its twists and turns, 'Formula' probably tries to do to much. It was billed as the movie that "the oil companies don't want you to see." The subject matter is probably dead-on accurate as to how the oil companies actually work, but it is handled in such a heavy-handed fashion that the message gets murky and even darkly comical and over the top. The formula is a German solution and equation to create a synthetic fuel that will replace the world's need for oil. Naturally the oil companies want to cover up its existence and are willing to do just about everything possible to keep it under wraps.  The story does keep you guessing as to everyone's motives, and it ends on a pessimistic note, but the story is so far all over the place that it never gels as a finished product.

On to the positives, few that they are.  In well-written movies or schlock like this, George C. Scott is almost always a watchable movie star.  He is intense, believable, and feels like he's never acting (to me at least). His Barney Caine character keeps the movie grounded in its police procedural roots -- albeit one that has him globe-trotting and involved in multi-billion dollar deals.  He's more than a little fed up with the system, the higher-ups, and the limitations placed on him. Caine is an old school cop/investigator who is just going to get the job done, and Scott is a bright spot among the bigger mess. Another positive, the opening in spring 1945 as German stares the end of the war dead in the face. The closing days of WWII (really, any war) are Dramatic Situations 101, and the tension and mood are great in this quick but effective opener.

Okay, now back to the negatives!  Yeah, more fun!  Brando got a paycheck for this one, and I think that's all he was worried about. His extended cameo as the chairman of an oil corporation as the actor -- maybe Hollywood's all-time best actor -- hamming it up in such an over the top fashion that it is either unintentionally bad or a brilliant choice by a brilliant actor.  I lean toward unintentionally bad, but who knows? The rest of the cast is okay, including Marthe Keller as Lisa, a source for Caine in Germany, John Gielgud as a German scientist who escaped from the Russians, G.D. Spradlin as Clements, a higher-up official with his hand in everything, and a long cast listing following them, none really making much of an impression positive or negative. It was cool to see WWII movie vet Wolfgang Preiss in a small part if nothing else.

Needlessly confusing at times, boring at others, and even a memorable lead performance from George C. Scott can't save this one.

The Formula <---TCM clip (1980): **/****   

Monday, August 22, 2011

Source Code

The beauty of science fiction movies is that anything can happen. Can a real, red-blooded person do what is being portrayed in real life? No, of course not, but that is what a movie or a book or a graphic novel can do. They allow you to believe, to experience, to question, to ask, to wonder, and that's part of the reason what works so well in science fiction and across countless other genres.  That's what I thought about quite a bit as I watched 2011's Source Code.

Part science fiction, part mystery/thriller, 'Code' was a moderate success in theaters this past spring, earning over $50 million. Reviews were somewhat mixed, one claiming it was a poor man's Vantage Point because of a plot gimmick the story uses where we see the same (or at least a similar thing) on repeated viewings.  Just one more review that made me mad. It's not fair to compare movies at times, especially on something as minor as a plot device that has little to do with two completely different movies. Maybe you missed 'Code' in theaters, but don't miss it this time around. It is an above average, sometimes great science fiction thriller.

Army captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) doesn't know where he is or who he really is. He keeps waking up in the body of a complete stranger on a train outside of Chicago heading to Union Station. Across from him is Christine (Michelle Monaghan), a woman who apparently knows who he is. As Stevens tries to figure out what's going on, the train explodes as a bomb rips it to pieces, killing everyone on-board. He wakes up in some sort of hydraulic chamber, greeted on a television screen by an army officer, Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), and a scientist, Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), who in cryptic snippets of conversation explain what they expect from him. A terrorist -- domestic or foreign -- bombed the train and indications are another attack is imminent. Through a controversial but innovative technology, Stevens can be transported into the body of one of the passengers just eight minutes before his death. He now is given the unwelcome challenge of finding out if the bomber was on-board, gathering any clues he can before he is "killed" over and over again. Can he do his mission in time though?

I'm not proud of that plot synopsis, but I think that's about the best I'm going to be able to do.  Attempting to explain too much will ruin your first viewing because the fun -- or the gimmick depending your level of cynicism -- is going along for the ride. How do all the pieces fit together? Is there something more sinister going on that we're not aware of at first?  All the questions are answered though, and unless I missed something major, I felt like the pieces fit together perfectly.  The science actually makes sense -- to my naive analytical, not so science oriented mind at least -- and doesn't try too hard to WOW! you with a new concept. Director Duncan Jones lays out the premise, explains it, and either you go along for it or you don't. I went along with it, falling for it hook, line and sinker. 

What took the movie to another level for me was the last half hour.  There was a moment where I got a little worried, sure the story was going down a road it just didn't need to go down.  I was wrong in my worries.  Some criticisms of the movie were about the ending, viewers and critics upset that the story went for a so-called happy ending.  I really couldn't disagree more. This is not a happy ending by any means if you actually think things through as to what the 'source code' really is.  Instead, we get an ending that is emotionally effective, delivering a message about the simplicity of life, enjoying the little things in a big world where it can feel like one person can't make a bit of difference.  Sappy? Maybe a little bit, but with ideas of fate, predetermination and destiny thrown around, the ending worked for me.

Now for the gimmick, and again, I don't want to ruin the movie for you by trying to explain the science. Here's a cliff notes version. When a person dies, the brain stores the short term memory going back about eight minutes. Imagine a light bulb being switched off, and that light that remains for the quickest of seconds. That is the source code, an alternate reality that exists in some other plane.  That is where Gyllenhaal's Colter Stevens continually finds himself in, always being killed once his eight minutes are up. From the director's chair, Jones never overplays the angle of repeating the same thing over and over, Ben Ripley's screenplay to smart to make that choice. The script has some fun with the repeating 8-minutes, making it enjoyable and never tedious for us. A truly unique premise, and one that delivers. If it fails, the movie sinks quickly.

One of the rising stars in Hollywood, Gyllenhaal is a great choice as the lead here. An actor who can also do thrillers and action, the 31-year old actor is convincing and believable in his part at all times. He handles the action and high-intensity scenes as easily as the softer moments, giving this character a heart as we find out his background (a surprisingly moving, effective sub-plot). Monaghan is good too in a part that through no fault of her own just doesn't have much for her to do.  She looks good though so there's always that. Farmiga and Wright are the opposite sides of the spectrum, those two people with all the answers, but will they be used for good or bad?  Four all-around really solid performances.

Quick addition as I realize the review is getting a little long in the tooth, the on-location shooting in my hometown, Chicago, is a great choice for this science fiction thriller.  The ending especially utilizes the beauty of the city on a crisp, clear fall day.  That's all.  Just wanted to put that out there. Chicago is awesome.

Source Code <---trailer (2011): *** 1/2 /****

Friday, August 19, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens

When I first read that the movie was going to be made, my first thought was that it could possibly be the stupidest idea for a movie I'd ever heard.  When I heard that James Bond and Indiana Jones/Han Solo were then going to star in said movie, I was slightly curious.  Then, I saw the trailers this past spring and thought once again "Dear Lord, that looks like the biggest pile of drivel I've ever seen....should I go to the midnight show?"  You hear the title and right away you've made up your mind. Are you going to go see it?  That's 2011's Cowboys & Aliens.

As I write this review, I've written over 100-plus reviews in a little less than three years of westerns.  When I first started doing this blog, I debated doing an exclusive western movie review blog. If you haven't figure it out by now, I L-O-V-E westerns.  Even the worst ones I watch -- usually with an open mind -- so that's what ultimately pulled me into this science-fiction western.  Not surprisingly the western aspects of the story appealed to me more, and it's got a lot of them; the quiet, lone drifter, the tough as nails old man, stock characters galore, big, wide open locations, the dusty one-street western town, and a showdown in the end that will settle everything once and for all.  There just happen to be aliens around who want to wipe out mankind so yeah...that's the movie.

In the Arizona desert in 1873, a man (Daniel Craig) wakes up miles from civilization with no idea where he is or more importantly, who he is. All he knows is that he's got a weird contraption on his wrist that he can't remove. He makes it to the nearest town where he figures out who he is, an infamous bandit named Jake Lonergan.  As he's about to be put on an armored stage to Santa Fe, something weird appears in the sky. Fast-moving, powerful spaceships swarm all over, blasting the town to pieces and in the process, kidnapping countless townspeople. A posse is formed to pursue this new species by the local cattle baron, a Civil War veteran named Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), with Lonergan and his wrist cannon along for the ride. What do these alien creatures want, and more strangely, why are they kidnapping people left and right?

I don't know what to say or where to start here.  You head into this movie knowing that you will in fact be watching a movie where cowboys fight aliens, but then manage to still be surprised when you see it.  How often -- if ever -- do you see a genre-bending movie with such two different genres, science fiction and western?  What works best (and remember, this is coming from a die-hard western fan) is the western elements of the story.  The movie looks great, the California and New Mexico locations being a great scene-setter.  Harry Gregson-William's musical score works without being overbearing or obnoxious -- it is at its best in the quieter moments -- but isn't particularly memorable.  There's something unexplainable why I did like this movie, mostly because it is a western, and they are becoming few and far between, especially major studio productions.

So how can you go wrong with James Bond and Indiana Jones? Long story can't. Craig is at the point in his stardom where if he's in a movie, I'm in line to see it.  The British actor looks extremely comfortable in the western setting, an easy fit for the silent anti-hero, a drifting gunman with little ties to hold him down.  He belongs in westerns, and I'd be curious to see what the result would be if just made a straight western, hold the aliens.  Ford plays against type to a point, not quite a bad guy but not exactly a good guy either.  His Dolarhyde is the tough as dirt cattle baron who growls and grimaces and glares as forms of communicating.  It's hard to believe Ford is almost 70 years old, but whatever his age, he's still cool as hell.  That qualifies for both men; two badass leading men kicking some alien ass.  If that doesn't appeal to you, steer clear.

Watch a western, and you're going to see stock characters appear repeatedly.  Director Jon Favreau assembles a crazy (in a good way) supporting cast, making these familiar characters interesting and worth watching because of the talent involved. Olivia Wilde is Ella, a beautiful woman who seems to know more than what she's letting on, a lady with a secret. The mystery comes out late, but who am I kidding? Wilde is drop dead gorgeous so it doesn't matter. Then there's Sam Rockwell as Doc, the saloon owner, Clancy Brown as Meachem, the town preacher, Paul Dano as Percy, Dolarhyde's entitled son, Adam Beach as Nat Colorado, Dolarhyde's Indian tracker, Ana de la Reguera as Maria, Doc's Mexican wife, young Noah Ringer as Emmett, the wide-eyed kid, Keith Carradine as Sheriff Taggart, and Walton Goggins, David O'Hara and Julio Cedillo as members of Jake's former gang.  Familiar characters but fun characters too.

There is something primal comparing two genres that are so loved as the western and science fiction. There is something cool about seeing cowboys with Winchesters and six-shooters going toe to toe with aliens wanting nothing more than to wipe us out.  The action scenes are that perfect mix of CGI and actual stunts, blending nicely together. The action is on a large-scale but without overdoing it.  The ending goes on for a little too long, dragging in parts, but the final shot is an appropriate one, an ending any western fan should be able to appreciate. The movie has its flaws -- the violence is pretty grisly, there isn't much dark humor when there was the potential to have it -- and I'm probably overrating it a bit, but I did like this weird little oddity of a movie.

Cowboys & Aliens <---trailer (2011): ***/****

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Midnight Express

I honestly have no idea how to even start a review of 1978's Midnight Express, one of the more uncomfortable movies I've watched in recent memory. Now granted, it is supposed to be an uncomfortable viewing experience, but where do you even start?  A movie about a young American jailed in Turkey for attempting to smuggle drugs out of the country isn't going to be much of a gut-buster now, is it?  It is an odd movie, one that has gained a sort of cult status over the years since its first release.

Might as well start big picture here.  The movie makes me appreciate a legal system in the United States that at least gives all involved in a case the benefit of doubt, the privilege of being innocent until proven guilty.  Based on the true story of American Billy Hayes and his arrest in Turkey for drug smuggling, 'Midnight' is a brutal, downright dirty depiction of an appropriately brutal and dirty story. The screenplay takes some liberties with the actual facts of Hayes' stay in a Turkish prison, embellishing some of the incidents portrayed. I keep coming back to it above else, an unsettling story no matter what details are accurate and those exaggerated.

Traveling back to the United States with his girlfriend, Susan (Irene Miracle), a young American, Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) is attempting to transport two kilos of hashish out of Turkey. In a search at the airport just feet away from boarding his plane, Billy is caught and arrested, thrown into a brutal, corrupt Turkish prison and receiving a four-year sentence for possession as opposed to a harsher sentence for smuggling.  Nothing could prepare this 20-something for what awaits. Conditions are barbaric, guards are sadistic and revel in inflicting pain, the same for other prisoners doing whatever they can to survive, and a corrupt system that relies on greed, bribes and power. Billy wants nothing more than to survive, contemplating escaping but ultimately deciding to ride out his relatively short four-year sentence. When a new ruling comes down though -- a much longer one at that -- will a struggling Billy change his mind?

In his most well known role in a career shortened by AIDS -- he died in 1991 -- Davis delivers an incredibly emotional, physical performance as Billy Hayes. A naive kid who sees a chance to make an easy buck lives to regret it, caught with two kilos of drugs on his person in a country looking to make an example out of him.  You see the transformation he goes through as Billy survives over four years in this prison. The hell-like conditions wear on him, taking him down as a person, making him question everything he thought he knew. There are chances for Davis to lash out and really take over the role, but I came away more impressed with the quieter moments. In those scenes, Davis is able to do a lot with just a look, just a glance, his eyes expressing more than words ever could. A great talent and a great role for the young actor.

But with Davis playing Billy Hayes, a key plot point comes up. The script resorts to pandering at a certain point, and in my mind, the movie on the whole loses some credibility because of it. Yes, the conditions are horrific that Billy finds himself in. The guards are one notch short of the Devil, reveling and enjoying torturing prisoners with physical beatings, emotional torture, and sexual assaults.  But you know what? The character BROKE the law, stupidly trying to smuggle drugs out of country. Are we supposed to feel bad for him because the Turkish prison is such a God-forsaken place?  I certainly didn't, and I resent the story and script trying to convince me otherwise. At a court hearing, Billy delivers an impassioned speech ripping Turkey, its court and legal system, the Turkish people, and basically anything associated with the country. Watch it HERE. It's forced and unnecessary. Billy breaks the law, and he thinks he should just be forgiven? Give me a break. Man up. You did something mind-bogglingly stupid. Be ready to pay for the consequences.

Okay, I've stepped down off my holier than thou soap box, but I had to get it off my chest. From director Alan Parker, 'Midnight' is an incredible dose of mood-setting and atmosphere, a dark, dank look at prison life. Filmed in Malta, Greece and Turkey, it is one of the most visually depressing movies I've ever seen. You feel worn down just watching the movie, much less living it.  There is little hope in this world, and the need and want to survive takes preference over everything else. Giorgio Moroder's musical score is a key ingredient -- listen to the main theme HERE -- sets the mood immediately with its electronica base. All the little elements working together here for the greater good.

If I can say anything though about the story, it would be that more is shown as opposed to just talking about it. We hear about the corruption, the brutal guards, the horrific conditions, but we don't see all those things enough. Hearing can be enough at times, and I'm not one who needs to be bashed over the head to understand a point, but the first hour as Billy slowly loses his mind and his bearings goes by too quickly. The movie as is now is particularly hard to watch so I'm not sure, maybe it's good as is.  But that thought kept running through my head; SHOW the brutality more, don't just talk about it.

The casting is interesting behind Davis as Billy Hayes, highlighted by supporting parts from Randy Quaid, John Hurt, and Norbert Weisser as his fellow prisoners. Bo Hopkins makes a quick appearance as Tex, a shady American supposedly working with the Turkish police. Paul L. Smith plays Hamidou, a bear of a guard and the most brutal of all, one of the most genuinely scary villains a movie has ever introduced. Mike Kellin is heartbreaking in a small part as Mr. Hayes, Billy's Dad so desperately trying to save his son. These are performances that could have gotten lost in the shuffle of the power and emotion of the story, but instead all manage to find a way to shine through.

A flawed movie, but one that overall is able to rise above those flaws. Definitely know what you're getting into watching Midnight Express because otherwise you might turn it off about 12 minutes in. It's worth it though to stick things through.

Midnight Express <---trailer (1978): ***/****         

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

In the age of unnecessary remakes, I'm usually first in line opposing the new movies. If a movie in its original form was lacking something and with a remake could be significantly improved, then so be it.  Really though, how rarely does that happen?  A little less than two years ago, I reviewed the 2004 version of Flight of the Phoenix (a guilty pleasure that I love), a remake of the original, 1965's The Flight of the Phoenix. Even as I wrote that first review, I couldn't believe I was writing I enjoyed the new version more...but it's still true.

It is impossible to review a movie combination of an original and a remake without comparing the two so let's get that out of the way early.  The 1965 original is held in high regard thanks to its directing, survival story, and all-star cast.  As for the 2004 remake,'s more fun.  It is the most unnecessary of remakes, dumbing down the original with a thinner story that revolves more around action and adventure than pure survival.  I still liked it though a lot.  The problem with the original is that it just isn't as fun.  A better movie? Oh, definitely, but it does not have that re-watchable aspect that I'm always looking for in movies.

Flying a cargo plane headed to Bhengazi loaded with passengers and cargo, veteran pilot Frank Towns (James Stewart) and navigator Lew Moran (Richard Attenborough) are forced to detour when they fly into an epic sandstorm. The storm eventually knocks out both their engines, forcing them to crash land in the desert. With about a dozen survivors, survival mode kicks in with a dwindling supply of water and pressed dates as the only food around. Towns, Moran and the survivors sit back and wait, hoping a search plane or some form of rescue will save them. As the days go by though, all the men question what their fates will be. That is until a German passenger, Heinrich Dorfman (Hardy Kruger), steps forward with an idea. Why not use the wreckage from the downed plane to build a new smaller plane? Could it somehow work?

From director Robert Aldrich comes a tough, hard-edged and well-told story with no frills or distractions. This is a story about surviving in the harshest of conditions with nothing else to focus on.  These survivors of the plane crash can either sit back and die waiting to be rescued, or they can work together and try to pull off this seemingly impossible scheme. Aldrich films in the California desert (a decent stand-in for the Sahara), giving his movie a wide open, vacant feel to it.  Over the course of the movie (a sometimes long 141 minutes), we see the effects of the desert on the survivors, their skin looking like it is being torn apart by the winds and lack of water. You feel like you're there with them, going through the same things they are in a struggle to survive.

The best thing going for Aldrich's survival story is the chemistry among the cast.  Nowhere is that more evident than between James Stewart and Hardy Kruger.  Stewart's Frank Towns has been flying for decades, thousands and maybe millions of miles under his belt.  He's struggling with the guilt of knowing that some of his passengers died in the crash -- he blames himself -- and now has to deal with a primadonna in Kruger's Dorfman who wants everything done exactly as he has stated. A battle of wills ensues, both men fighting for control, their pride and vanity getting in the way of working together and surviving another day. Their scenes together bristle with tension and intensity, providing some much needed outside drama as opposed to just battling the conditions.

It is an Aldrich movie, and one of his trademarks as a director was being able to work with all-star ensemble casts.  In a career of movies with impressive casts, this might be his best.  Stewart and Kruger are great as the opposing forces with Attenborough delivering one of his all-time best performances as Moran, the second-rate navigator who's always struggled with drinking too much. The survivors of the crash include Captain Harris (Peter Finch), a long-time prim and proper, very British officer, and his not so loyal sergeant, Watson (Ronald Fraser), Dr. Renaud (Christian Marquand), Standish (Dan Duryea), a company accountant, and a group of recently relieved oil drillers including Ernest Borgnine, Ian Bannen, and George Kennedy. Star power much? Like any ensemble, all involved get a chance to shine, none disappointing here at all. Finch stands out as does Marquand, Borgnine and Bannen.

Now as a 26-year old moviegoer and film fan, I often get lumped in with a lowest common denominator crowd. I don't like reading subtitles, hate foreign movies, and only go to see new movies with nudity and/or explosions.  I resent the judgment most times, but I say that as a forewarning. It takes a lot for me to say this, but 'Phoenix' is a downright boring movie at times. The focus is on survival and the interactions among these men, but watching the survivors put together a plane out of wreckage is just not a visually stimulating thing to watch. In the night, they work. During the day, they sleep. It doesn't ruin the movie. It just slows it down at times to an incredibly slow pace.

By all means, see both movies and compare. The original is the better made, more professional and well-handled movie, but I still enjoy the dumber, more action-packed remake more.

The Flight of the Phoenix <---trailer (1965): ** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Too Late the Hero

By 1970, the United States had been involved in the Vietnam War for going on five years. The American public had grown tired of a war that was producing no results and eating up American soldiers' lives by the thousands. As a country, we grew sick of authority and power figures, losing faith in the people we were supposed to trust. This distrust and frustration with the system came out in countless outlets, especially in films and even more so in war films, like 1970's Too Late the Hero.

From director Robert Aldrich comes this war movie that has been generally forgotten over the last 40-plus years.  Is there a chance it is too cynical, too dark, too anti-war?  It certainly could be any of those reasons, and while it is not a great anti-war movie, it certainly is a good one. Just three years earlier, Aldrich had directed the classic anti-war movie The Dirty Dozen, a mix of incredibly dark humor, anti-establishment sentiment and in general a disdain for anything related to the powers that be. With 'Hero,' he takes it up a notch. Think Dirty Dozen mixed with The Guns of Navarone and Play Dirty, and you've got this war flick.

A day away from a month's leave, American Navy officer Lt. Sam Lawson (Cliff Robertson) is instead assigned a dangerous mission in the southwest Pacific in 1942. He's sent to a small, seemingly inconsequential island in the New Hebrides to join a British outfit fighting Japanese forces on an island. Lawson's services as a translator -- he speaks Japanese working for intelligence -- are needed as he joins a small patrol trekking across the island to a Japanese base. Their mission? Knock out the radio so an American naval convoy can pass by the island safely and have Lawson transmit a message to Japanese headquarters so as to no alert the enemy of the coming attack. The men on the patrol are a mixed bunch including troublemaker and medic Pvt. Tosh Hearne (Michael Caine) and is commanded by a courageous if inept officer, Lt. Hornsby (Denholm Elliott). As they approach their objective though, a wild card emerges, news of a Japanese counterattack that intelligence is unaware of.

Is there a such thing as a war movie that is too opposed to war, too anti-war in its general sentiment?  That's always my issue with movies like this.  Think Platoon, All Quiet on the Western Front, Born on the 4th of July, Full Metal Jacket. All high quality, solid movies, but because they're not necessarily entertaining it can be hard to go back and revisit the films with multiple viewings. That's my problem at least. I bought Too Late the Hero seven years ago, watched it once and even though I enjoyed it, did not watch it again until this summer.  It can be a tad on the slow side -- meandering along at 134 minutes -- and stretches go by where not much happens. It is an incredibly dark film overall, making it hard to go along for the ride. None of this is intended to steer you away from the movie, but instead serve as fair warning heading in.

Where Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen had some redeeming characters, 'Hero' has none of them.  There are few positive qualities in any of them. Robertson's Lawson is basically trying to sit out the war in a rear echelon radio post and goes along only when there are no other options. He blatantly refuses to go along with an order on the mission, using a discrepancy to hide his cowardice. Caine's Tosh is a little better, but he is truly only looking out for himself. Screw the lives of others if his life is the necessary sacrifice. It is hinted that Elliott's Hornsby is gay, but it's not important overall. He's both brutally cold and stupidly inept in his command. Harry Andrews is the British commander ready to sacrifice his men as needed, and in a cameo Henry Fonda basically blackmails Lawson into going on the mission. The patrol includes Ian Bannen, Percy Herbert, Ronald Fraser, and Lance Percival among other interchangeable characters there to be fodder for the Japanese.

Setting the movie apart from so many other anti-war films that are content in delivering their 'War is hell!' message is a script from Aldrich that revels in being unique, in going where many war films don't want to go. It is genuinely unique. As the survivors of the patrol race back through the jungle to the relative safety of their own base, the Japanese are in hot pursuit with some psychological warfare prepared. A Japanese major, Yamaguchi (Ken Takakura), uses loud speakers and an amplification system to address the men he's pursuing, offering them terms of surrender with an ever-shrinking deadline. The Japanese aren't the bloodthirsty savages here for the most part, and as is the case with Takakura's Yamaguchi, he's just a soldier trying to do his duty. The booming voice through the jungle is a nice touch though, an enemy that cannot be seen and only be heard.

The best though by far is the finale so OBVIOUS SPOILERS from here on in. SPOILERS STOP READING SPOILERS Needing to deliver the news of the coming Japanese attack, only two survivors make it back -- Tosh and Lawson.  The only problem? The only way back to the base is an open stretch of land, a veritable no man's land. The Japanese have it covered, and any attempt to cross the vast openness is basically a suicide mission. Tosh and Lawson attempt it, running like madmen in a zig-zag pattern in an attempt to make it hard to pick them off.  Aldrich shoots this adrenaline-pumping sequence from a distance, making sure we can't see which man is which. I won't spoil the ending as to who makes it -- or do both make it? Hhhmmm, interesting -- but it is a whopper of an ending and another unique touch, something I'd never seen before in a war movie. Watch it HERE with more OBVIOUS SPOILERS.

This certainly isn't a perfect war movie, but as far as anti-war movies go it's hard to beat. Maybe some of the reasoning I've come up with is because it hasn't been fondly remembered since its 1970 release. It is a bit of a hidden gem.  An appropriate if not so subtle message tries too hard at times, but the idea is there. Throw in some great performances from a deep cast -- especially Robertson and Caine -- and it is definitely worth a watch.

Too Late the Hero <---trailer (1970): ***/**** 

Monday, August 15, 2011

Lord of the Flies (1963)

As a student, I wasn't so good at math or science, but English and/or reading were right up my alley. Because of my actual like of reading, I was introduced to a lot of classics -- and generally books held in high regard -- through summer reading lists and then those books read during the school year. They weren't all good, and I truly hated/despised some of them, but for the most part I could at least see why many of the books were held in high regard. One I genuinely liked was William Golding's Lord of the Flies, turned into a film version several times including 1963's low-budget but powerful Lord of the Flies (appropriate title).

It is the rare classic book that can't be interpreted on a bigger level, looking at hidden meanings and symbolism as to what characters, plot lines and dialogue can mean. Years of  taking Honors English and AP classes ruined me for books like this. My head is now trained to look for symbolism in EVERYTHING. I can make jumps where there just aren't jumps. This is one of the few books where it is dripping with symbolism, and the same for the movie from director Peter Brook. Everything here is representative of something bigger and more sinister. 'Flies' (like its novel source) is a dark and even terrifying look at an attempt to survive turned into something much worse.

Sometime in the 1940s (possibly WWII but never directly addressed), a plane crashes somewhere in the Pacific on a deserted island. Among the survivors are Ralph (James Aubrey), a bright, intelligent boy who is quickly thinking of survival, and Piggy (Hugh Edwards), a chubby boy with glasses who quickly bonds with Ralph. The two boys find out there are many other survivors of the crash, but no adults, just 20 or 25 other boys, ranging from the ages of 7 and 8 to their own age at 12 or 13. Ralph is voted 'chief' of the group, and they go about building a signal fire, building shelters and finding food and water. Another boy, Jack (Tom Chapin), bristles at Ralph's authority though and wants to create his own group, one focused on hunting with little rules and generally? Have more fun. Ralph sees the need to stay together if they want to survive, but Jack is getting harder and harder to handle.

There is a lot to be said about this movie (almost entirely positive for me), and I'll get to a lot of it hopefully. But the easiest thing to judge is the movie itself and how good a job Brook does directing it. Filming in Puerto Rico on a smallish budget -- $250,000 -- with a cast full of child actors, Brook directs a true gem. It doesn't feel like a movie. It feels like the story is real, developing in front of us. 'Flies' has a bit of a rogue feel to it without the polish or shine of most movies you're going to see.  Not quite an amateur look, but it certainly borders on it with its grainy, black and white washed out look to it. None of this is meant as a criticism because the movie is the better for it. Realistic, natural, and at times downright terrifying.

For those who aren't familiar with Lord of the Flies, it might sound a little off to think that a story about a group of boys on a deserted island with plenty of fruit and water could be even remotely terrifying.  Well, you'd be wrong (and you should read the book by the way, it is a classic for a reason). It portrays a mob mentality in a frightening sense, Jack's cult-like, even militaristic, splinter group becoming obsessed with 'the beast,' a creature/being that lives on the island and must be paid tribute to. Ralph and Piggy and their shrinking group see Jack's tributes for what they are -- crazy -- but it's too late as anarchy reigns.  These aren't kids anymore, and that's where the symbolism comes in. Kids or adults, they're beyond it as greed, power and even murder shoot up. Is Jack the Devil and Ralph some sort of Christ figure? It is open to interpretation, but that's part of the fun.

What works so surprisingly well with Brook's film is the use of child actors, most of whom make their only acting appearance here.  Brook chose to film with amateur child actors, and the result is impressive. At times the dialogue is stilted and forced but ends up being pretty natural overall.  Aubrey as Ralph and Chapin as Jack are the two leads, both leaving memorable impressions.  Aubrey's Ralph is smart, articulate and a thinker while Chapin's Jack is impulsive, manipulative and most frightening, just as intelligent. Edwards brings the Piggy character to life just the way I imagined him while reading the book. The only other prominent roles -- the group of boys is more a collective mob than different individuals -- are Roger Elwin as Roger, Jack's sidekick, and Tom Gaman as Simon, the young boy who has visions of what the beast terrifying the island really is.

The movie has a lot going for it no matter what the budget was. Like Golding's source novel, it tries to give us a look into human nature that only survival at its most base can bring out. Faced in a life and death situation, how would the individual respond? How would the mob respond?  The novel and the film both take an incredibly cryptic and dark stance on the results, but ultimately it is probably the most realistic. This all builds to the powerful ending, the thing I was looking forward to the most having read the novel. I wasn't disappointed. It sticks to the novel's ending, one that cuts right to the point and brings you back to reality with the snap of a finger.  A great ending to a great movie.

You can watch the entire movie via Youtube, starting HERE with Part 1 of 9. 

Lord of the Flies <---trailer (1963): *** 1/2 /****