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, March 31, 2011

Red

What do action stars do when they're past their prime?  I'm not talking about actors who happen to be in some action movies either.  We're talking rough and ready action stars always willing to mix things up if needed.  Do you age gracefully and take some supporting roles in movies you used to star in?  Do you find another gig out of the action genre?  Bruce Willis is an interesting example of this situation, the 56-year old star not the box office sure thing he used to be, but still a reliable enough star that audiences will come out to see. In 2010's Red, his character is even a variation on that idea, a man slightly past his best days (no offense, Mr. Willis, I'm a big fan) who refuses to move on. 

The first time I saw the trailer for Red, I smiled.  I couldn't help it.  This is some cast for this action-heavy popcorn flick with a dose of comedic value added for good measure.  It reminds me of a lot of movies from the 1960s and 1970s that brought together casts of huge stars that maybe just didn't shine as bright as they used to.  I don't mean any of that as a dig at this cast -- just the opposite -- but it's almost like The Expendables plus 15 or 20 years.  Loosely based on a series of three graphic novels, this movie is just a lot of fun.  Seeing half the cast together would have been worth it, but all together? We're talking can't miss, no matter how much the movie might have struggled in theaters.

A recently retired CIA agent, Frank Moses (Willis) lives in his suburban house outside Cleveland, leading a quiet, orderly, lonely and generally boring life. The one enjoyment he gets out of life is his weekly calls to his pension agent/representative, Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), with whom he clicked with right away. One night though, Frank's house is attacked by a hit squad, but he manages to escape, heading to Kansas City to find Sarah because she'll eventually be tracked down too.  Of all the dangerous jobs he pulled off, why years later is someone gunning for him and all his associates? With some help from those past associates, including crazy conspiracy theorist Marvin (John Malkovich), aging ex-agent Joe (Morgan Freeman), and killer extraordinaire Victoria (Helen Mirren), Frank goes about figuring it out. One of the CIA's top agents, Cooper (Karl Urban) is on the hunt too, trying to figure out exactly what the legendary Moses is up to.

When I see that a movie is based off a graphic novel, I'm usually pretty skeptical.  For every 300, there are a lot of really awful movies to counter with that just didn't translate well to the screen.  This is one of the exceptions.  It's good, mostly because of the cast, but more on that later.  While I liked The Expendables which I watched a few weeks back, it could have been better.  It took itself too seriously.  Not the case here because director Robert Schwentke knows how far to push it and still have fun with it. The tone is both serious while still maintaining a bit of the crazy, off the wall humor that works so well.  It's not quite tongue in cheek, but Red is close without trying too hard to be the end-all classic action comedy.

Okay, I don't care who you are, but if a cast that includes Willis, Mirren, Freeman, Malkovich, Parker and others (keep reading, next paragraph) doesn't get you interested, I don't know what to tell you.  Movies just may not be for you.  Willis plays the steely-eyed former agent to perfection, a variation on many of the action heroes he played over the last 20-plus years.  The sub-plot with Parker is pretty good too, not distracting from the main story but interesting enough it doesn't detract overall. Mirren is dead sexy as Victoria, plain and simple.  She doesn't make an appearance until almost an hour in, but she makes up for lost time. Freeman too isn't in it much, but it's Morgan Freeman.  Come on, that's not a bad thing. Malkovich is hysterical, and the main reason to see Red.  His paranoid agent was dosed LSD once a day for 11 years, and he's clearly a little off his rocker.  Physical comedy, subtle facial reactions, throwaway one-liners, he does it all, his Marvin Boggs the breakout star here.

With an ensemble like that, it's hard to go wrong, but three more supporting parts jumped out at me.  They're the type of parts that could have been thrown away, but with the right actor in the parts, they bring the movie up a notch on their own.  First, Brian Cox as Ivan, a Russian adversary turned ally in Moses' battle against the CIA. He has a past with Mirren's Victoria, but he's that relic from the Cold War who misses the old days.  His one-on-one scene with Willis discussing those days is priceless.  Second, Richard Dreyfuss as Dunning, a black market arms dealer who is involved with the past mission that now has Moses in the CIA's crosshairs.  I've always been a fan, but it's great to see Dreyfuss in full-on, evil bad guy role.  Third, Hollywood legend Ernest Borgnine (still chugging along at 90-plus) as Henry, the CIA's basement records keeper.  In just two quick scenes, he shows what makes him the legend he is.

Why did this movie struggle so badly in theaters late last summer and early fall?  I can't put my finger on it.  It's nothing new when it comes to movies, but how many new movies are particularly unique? I didn't love the movie, but I did really like it.  There are some genuinely funny, laugh out loud moments, including one of my new all-time favorite lines.  Malkovich deadpans after an epic shootout, "How about we get some pancakes?" It's a really good movie that could have been great.  Still, with a cast like this, it's impossible to pass it up.

Red <---trailer (2010): ***/****

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Young Cassidy

Born in 1880 in Dublin, Ireland, Irish playwright/dramatist/memoirist Sean O'Casey would go on to become one of Ireland's most famous writers. So I've read at least, I've never heard of him.  Apparently, O'Casey thought fairly highly of himself too, publishing a 6-volume autobiography while also completing over 20 other works during his career.  Not having heard of him, I stumbled across the movie of his life, 1965's Young Cassidy, and tuned in mostly because of the star.

In his personal life, O'Casey was a noted socialist, but that's not going to work in an America-made movie about his life now, is it?  An Irish writer in the first 20 years of the 20th Century is ripe pickings for a story fraught with conflict and issues as Ireland went through violent conflict after violent conflict in the 1910s.  I was somewhat worried to read that John Ford shot part of the movie before being forced to leave the production after falling ill.  I love Ford and all of his quirks, but I didn't want to watch The Quiet Man 2.  Instead, director Jack Cardiff replaced him and probably for the better.

It's 1910 in the slums in Dublin and John Cassidy (Rod Taylor) is searching for work to care for his extended family and his aging mother (Flora Robson). Ireland is struggling with poverty and violence as the people fight back, upset with the lives they've almost been forced to live.  Cassidy among them doesn't know what to make of the situation but ends up joining the Irish revolutionary forces.  A treaty is signed with England for peace, and a young Johhny doesn't know what to do with his life.  With help from a young, pretty bookstore owner, Nora (Maggie Smith), he turns to writing, something he's always enjoyed and been good at but never saw any future in it. He begins to write about the things he knows, the life he's led, and he once again is good at it.  But in the process, he begins to drive everyone close to him further away.

So often stereotyped or pigeon-holed as a tough guy actor, Rod Taylor didn't always get a ton of chances to show off his acting ability.  While I like other Taylor movies better than 'Young,' I can't think of a better performance delivered by the Australian actor. John Cassidy (changed from Sean O'Casey for some reason) has been toned down some from the real O'Casey, but there's still some chinks in the armor that help make him a full-fledged character.  He's a family man but a fiery individual too, his temper often getting the better of him.  He gets around town a fair share, typically getting involved where he shouldn't be.  Seeing the strife and struggle around him, Cassidy just wants something better for himself and the Irish people.  He loves everything about his roots, his background, and he uses it as a source in his writings.

The darker, tragic Irish history apparently creates many dark, tragic writers (James Joyce also comes to mind).  What makes a great writer great?  If you read enough and believe what classical critics say, it's that the most successful writers write about what they know.  It's the people they meet, the streets and businesses in the cities and towns they grew up in, their relationships with friends, families, enemies and strangers.  Irish poverty then comes easy to Cassidy in his writing. It is all he knows.  The story reminded me in a lot of ways of Angela's Ashes, painting Ireland and its culture in a positive and negative light.  Through all the struggles though, Ireland still manages to get across the impression of a classically romantic country, partially due to all its struggles.  Cardiff takes advantage, filming his story in Ireland to give it that authentic feel without going down that cutesy, too sweet way that Ford did in The Quiet Man.

The supporting characters cover the gamut, all given a chance to play off of Taylor's Johnny.  The story covers years so some characters stick around longer than others, and for the most part they make the most of it.  Late in her career, Robson is a quiet scene-stealer as Johnny's mother, doting on her son who seems to always have been her favorite, the one child who has a chance to amount to something.  Philip O'Flynn plays Mick Mullen, a close friend and co-worker of Johnny's who sticks with him through the ups and downs. In one of her first film roles, Julie Christie plays Daisy Battles, a possible love interest for Johnny. Edith Evans and Michael Redgrave are also scene-stealers as Lady Gregory and W.B. Yeats, owners of the Abbey Playhouse who see the potential Johnny has in his writings.

For a movie that clocks in at 110 minutes, I'm struggling to remember a lot of what happened.  The story has an episodic feel to it as the years pass, Johnny growing and developing into a writer.  It certainly picks up the pace when the story focuses on his writing after all the struggles he's been through.  What I liked was the ending.  Irish history isn't going to have a lot of happy endings -- especially when it comes to movies -- and Cardiff picks the perfect place to end the story.  It's by no means a downer ending because that's not a fair description.  It's a real ending, one that makes sense regardless of it is qualifies as a Hollywood happy ending.  I'm not sure if I did enjoy the movie or just moderately enjoy it, but as I right this now, I'll say give it a try.

Young Cassidy <---TCM trailer (1965): ***/**** 

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Train Robbers

There is nothing particularly remarkable about 1973's The Train Robbers in any way.  As a western, it is nothing new to the genre, borrowing from other, better stories.  As an adventure, it's as straightforward as they come.  In terms of casting, it's fun to see some recognizable faces working together, their chemistry overshadowing the general average feeling of the movie. Like so many movies star John Wayne made later in his career though, it stands the test of time as the movie equivalent of comfort food.  Shut your brain off and sit back, enjoy the Duke being the Duke.

For lack of a better reason, I like this movie because of my childhood memories of The Train Robbers.  Watching it now, I still get the same enjoyment I did that I watched it when I was 10 or 11.  This was one of my Grandma's favorite westerns, one that she'd taped off of WGN at some point.  So every couple months when my sister and I would have a sleepover at her house, this was one of those movies I'd stay up until the wee hours watching.  So maybe that's why I like it so much in spite of its many flaws.  Not one of the Duke's best, but still an interesting, entertaining western.

In the isolated border town of Liberty, Texas, five gunmen, including grizzled cowboys, Grady (Rod Taylor) and Jesse (Ben Johnson), and young hotshots, Calhoun (Christopher George), Ben (Bobby Vinton) and Turner (Jerry Gatlin) wait for the inbound train. On board is an old friend, Lane (Wayne), who offers a dicey if promising deal.  With him is a widow, Mrs. Lowe (Ann-Margret), who wants to get the reward for the gold/money her since dead husband stole from a train. The gold has been stashed away in the desert some three or four days south somewhere in Mexico, but only Mrs. Lowe knows the exact spot.  With the chance to split the reward, they all join Lane and start out on the trail south, but they're not alone.  The other surviving members of the gang from the robbery years before are gunning for the gold. It's a race into the desert to see who can find it first.

Doing his typical solid if unspectacular, workmanlike job directing, Burt Kennedy has a problem with this movie which he also wrote. The movie is just 93 minutes long and at times feels like it was severely cut.  I've read nothing that confirms a longer version of The Train Robbers, but it is a surprisingly short movie.  Call it a gut reaction, but something was missing and maybe it was lost in the editing room.  What's left still manages to be full of holes.  Of the 91 minutes, I'd wager half is long/medium shots of riders on the horizon, Wayne and Co. riding south.  While tedious, it's not all bad.  Composer Dominic Frontiere's score is memorable, especially the main theme that you'll be humming for days. Two, the locations are gorgeous (Durango, Mexico for those curious) and familiar to fans of westerns.  Still, this movie feels more like a travel guide than a feature length film at times.

Somewhat predictable storyline aside (more on that later), the strength of the movie is in the casting, especially Wayne, Taylor and Johnson.  The Duke is as comfortable as ever as the western hero, and he plays well off of consummate vets like Taylor and Johnson.  As Grady, Taylor is that obnoxious friend who never shuts up, but you like him anyways.  As Jesse, Johnson plays a variation on every character he ever played, the grizzled but wise cowboy.  Their history is probably worthy of its own movie, but the trio has an ease on-screen that carries the movie through its slower portions.  George is the only one of the other three to distinguish himself as Calhoun, the fiery gunfighter along for the cash also trying to prove himself.  This is the 3rd review in a row I'll say it, but Ann-Margret God bless her is there for eye candy.  She succeeds magnificently by the way.

Writing this script, it seems pretty clear to me that Kennedy had an idea for the opening, the shootout over the gold in the middle of the desert, and then the final showdown back at the sleepy train station and town.  Anything else in between those three things? Eh, we'll figure it out.  That's where the long, uninterrupted shots of riders on the horizon come in, the repetitious campfire scenes.  Thankfully those three set pieces are worthwhile.  The dusty opening as the crew waits for the train is reminiscent of a similar opening in Once Upon a Time in the West.  The shootout in the desert around an over-turned train has an apocalyptic, other-worldly feel to it, and the finale has plenty of shooting and explosions to appease the action fan in all of us.  I just wished there was something else, something more.

Worth pointing out is a really solid surprise ending courtesy of Ricardo Montalban's mysterious hombre.  Up until this point, he's just been hovering around the story without a word said.  His twist he delivers is a classic, prompting a great exchange between Taylor and Johnson. It's a good movie overall, but I've always felt it could have been much, much better.  It's missing something that's hard to explain.  If curious, check it out at Youtube, watch the whole thing HERE.     

The Train Robbers (1973): ***/****

Monday, March 28, 2011

R.P.M.

Before I start ripping this movie, I'll say this.  I like director Stanley Kramer and most of his films. Mad, Mad World is one of my favorite comedies, Judgment at Nuremberg is a classic, On the Beach an underrated gem, and many, many others are worth watching for one reason or another.  As a director though, Kramer was sometimes guilty of trying to hard to teach, to deliver a message, to show what was wrong with the world.  Usually those issues came in the context of a well-made movie so it didn't bother me.  If anything, it aided the movie's cause.  That wasn't the case with 1970's R.P.M..

The late 1960s and early 1970s, a time of political and cultural upheaval as Americans grew more intensely frustrated with the direction our country was taking.  A sub-culture of people grew that was frustrated with the ways of the world, and maybe nowhere was that more evident than any college campuses, grounds for free thinking and free thought. Students were taught to think for themselves, not blindly go along with what older, powerful authority figures told them.  That didn't always end well with public protests ending violently, and even shootings in some cases.  A ripe picking ground for a movie if handled correctly.  If

At Hudson University, a large group of students led by two grad students, Rossiter (Gary Lockwood) and Steve (Paul Winfield) has peacefully taken over an administration building that holds key information necessary to the university. The only way they'll leave the building is if a list of their 12 demands are met, each and every one of them.  For starters, the students want popular sociology professor, Franklin 'Paco' Perez (Anthony Quinn), to take over as university president. Curious to see if all the things he's learned and taught over his years as a professor are in fact true, he takes the job.  Meeting and negotiating with the students, Perez is able to comply with nine of their 12 demands.  But the students won't budge on the three, and no matter what the acting president thinks or wants, it doesn't seem like there is a way to compromise.

One of the biggest struggles this movie goes through is finding an appropriate, consistent tone throughout.  Is it a folksy, out of the norm look at noble students trying to impact their world?  Maybe.  Singer-songwriter Melanie has a couple songs used in the soundtrack used over some montages of Perez walking around campus, painting a picture of an idyllic college with no problems. Or on the other hand, is it an indictment of the system, condemning both the students leading the charge and the board of directors trying to limit the damages done?  Yes and no, because both sides are criticized if in a somewhat unbalanced way.  For this story to work better, a stronger stance needed to be taken and not that gray area in the middle.

Instead of choosing, the tone and indictment leads more to painting the rebelling students as the heroic saviors of society.  The board of directors are portrayed as old fogies who have no knowledge of what bothers their student body.  A painfully obvious dig has Perez listening to the board, imagining them as clowns and jokers blathering on and on about the money, the stigma, the dilemma being caused.  We get it. They're old and don't understand the younger generation.  You don't need to hit us over the head with a mallet to get the idea across.  Conversely, the students are presented as somewhat heroic, but in the end they just come off as pretentious know-it-alls, not noble idealists.  They spout off all sorts of nonsense about their ideals and principles, ripping to pieces the one guy -- acting President Perez -- who's genuinely trying to help them because he sees their struggle.  Good choice, make both sides look like idiots.

So in a pretentious, very talky movie, something good has to be going on at some point, doesn't it?  Yes, and his name is Anthony Quinn.  Even in some of the lower quality movies he starred in over the years, Quinn always seemed to rise above the dreck.  The popular professor who makes his students think and question what they know is a somewhat cliched character, but it's based in the truth. I'd wager every college and maybe every department has a professor like that, one students seek out as opposed to avoiding them like the plague. Quinn's Perez comes from a modest background having had to work his way up through the ranks.  He legitimately wants to help the students but knows almost from the start he's fighting a losing battle. The character does border on being too perfect, too likable, but amongst all the annoying, downright obnoxious characters, I didn't mind.

Also worth mentioning in supporting roles are Ann-Margret as Perez's grad student girlfriend, Rhoda, and Lockwood as Rossiter, the leader of the student revolution. At the height of her sex kitten days, Margret is wasted. She has to look sexy, strip down a couple times, and wear slinky outfits, at times serving as Perez's conscience and sounding board.   A legitimately talented actress, she's just not given enough to do.  Lockwood as Lossiter is the bright spot among the students, a thinker and an idealist who genuinely wants to accomplish something.  A late scene between him and Quinn is a high point as they discuss the detours and turns the route has taken to get where they are.

The ending is what bothered me most though, one more not so subtle attempt to deliver a message.  Pushed to the breaking point, the university has the police evacuate the building with tear gas and cops armed with billy clubs.  The police chief (Graham Jarvis) expresses his concern that the plan won't go off as planned. Well, it goes off as well as expected. The takeover is riddled with slow-motion and extreme close-ups of pained students being tackled or hit by police.  Oh, great, one more attempt to dig the system.  A wasted effort from a typically very solid director.

R.P.M. <---one of many talky scenes (1970): * 1/2 /****

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Carnal Knowledge

As America went through countless changes in the late 1960s, most parts of sub-culture went and changed right along with it.  Movies are at the top of that list, and the first thing that comes to my mind was the complete 180 scripts and studios did in handling on-screen violence.  Think of Bonnie and Clyde or The Wild Bunch, and you've got violence unlike anything seen before in mainstream movies.  Right there with the portrayal of violence was an honesty about sex and adult relationships, especially in 1971's Carnal Knowledge.

One of the funniest, more bizarre things that makes me chuckle every time I read an opinion like this is how Americans portray and react to sex and violence in movies, TV, and pop culture.  Movies like the Saw series where people's bodies are hacked up into countless pieces? Sure, kid, go ahead and see it.  The slightest peek at a woman's breast? Run for the hills! Scandal! R-rating!  Call it a double standard, a backwards way of looking at things, but it's how things go.  Shown on TCM a few weeks back in the dead of the night (probably the safest time it could be shown), this movie tackles the sexual revolution head on with a brutal, forthright honesty that is missing from most similar movies.

As students at college in the 1950s, friends and roommates Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel) have one thing and one thing only on their minds; sex. It's what they talk about, what they think about, and generally it drives their lives.  Sandy meets a co-ed from a nearby girls school, Susan (Candice Bergen), and starts dating her, hopefully getting to the point where their relationship takes the next step. Jonathan gets involved in a way a close friend shouldn't, ending up messing up his head and putting him down a bad path.  He eventually ends up a New York model, Bobbie (Ann-Margret), who he hits it off with immediately, but after their relationship develops, he doesn't know where to go or what to do because he doesn't want to get married.

That is a bare-bones description of director Mike Nichols' story that is told in episodic fashion, almost three 30-minute TV shows edited into one. I don't want to say much more without giving away major plot points that would ruin the movie for someone going in with a fresh slate. The first episode is Jonathan and Sandy at college in the 1950s, the second focusing on Jonathan and Bobbie living in NYC in the 1960s, and then the third is a quick wrap-up, the two friends fully grown now and warped by where their lives have taken them.

With a talented writer/director as Nichols, it would hard for this movie not to be well done.  It is brutally honest in its portrayal of relationships between men and women and how ideas and perceptions about sex changed over a 20-year plus span.  The TCM intro said 'MA for Mature Audience and L for language' but I really had no idea what I was getting into.  If this movie was released today in 2011, you can just hear mothers' groups complaining about it, trying to get it banned from theaters.  It is refreshing in its honesty, but there's a problem I had.  I didn't like either of the main characters, and only one of the supporting players.  I'm not sure 'didn't like' is a strong enough description.  I hated them.

Now that said, Nicholson and Bergen are some of the best actors/actresses around, and they deliver great performances, but as the people they are portraying, I hated them.  SPOILERS STOP READING SPOILERS After hearing Sandy's feelings about Susan, Jonathan goes out on a dates with, eventually has sex with her, develops feelings, finally realizes he's taken it too far, and they mutually decide to end it.  Are we supposed to congratulate you for making a tough decision? You went behind your best friend's back and slept with his girlfriend. That doesn't give a pass to Bergen's Susan by any means, but Nicholson's actions bothered me more.  END OF SPOILERS  The real world ain't always that pleasant, I get it, and relationships are tough, and as shown here, relationships bring out the worst in everyone.  But man alive, something redeeming would have been nice.

So while their performances are all really well handled, I couldn't stand most of the characters.  Garfunkel just isn't a strong enough actor to share as much time as he did with Nicholson who overshadows him.  Also seeing Garfunkel with his white guy afro completely neutralizes him as any sort of love interest.  He just looks too ridiculous.  The one character I liked (and not just because she's naked or half-naked most of her time on-screen) was Margret's Bobbie.  She is a woman in her late 20s just looking for some sort of happiness, thinking she's found it in Nicholson's Jonathan.  Their confrontation is a frightful one, a screaming match that must have been a doozy to film.  I genuinely felt for her character while slamming home the final nail in Jonathan's coffin.  He pushed her to this place where she's struggling so badly, but he hates what she's become.  Pick one or the other, amigo. You can't have both ways.

Judging this solely on the movie aspects is a lot easier.  Nichols uses several techniques which were also signs of the times, directors trying to expand the movie-going experience.  He uses long, unedited takes of characters just discussing, just talking, going back and forth.  It had to put more pressure on the actors to get it right, but they rise to the occasion.  Also, he has Nicholson and Garfunkel talk directly into the camera, having the viewer step in as the other friend.  It's a simple device, but it was cool in the way it put us right into the story.  For supporting performances, look for Rita Moreno, Carol Kane, and Cynthia O'Neal as other love interests that drift in and out of the story as needed. Disregard the tone of the trailer below. This is not a comedy regardless of the big band music used.

Carnal Knowledge <---trailer (1971): **/****   

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Infernal Affairs 2

A movie hits theaters and is a huge success so naturally someone out there who stands to make a lot of money starts to think. If that movie was a success, wouldn't the same movie slightly tweaked be just as successful if not more?  Oh, yeah, we're talking unnecessary sequels!  I thought one of the most bizarre ideas for a sequel came following Martin Scorsese's The Departed.  Besides the fact that all but one main character ends up dead, what's the point? The movie stands on its own as a great flick so why water that down with a sequel or two or 10?  Thankfully, the powers that be decided to hold off on a Departed sequel...for now that is.

Now last year I reviewed 2002's Infernal Affairs, the Hong Kong original of The Departed.  I liked it as much, if not more, as the American version.  So just like I was surprised at a possible sequel of the U.S. version, I was taken aback to hear that in 2003 Infernal Affairs 2 was released.  All I could think was one simple question....WHY GOD WHY? A sequel just isn't needed. After some quick searching, I happily discovered that Part 2 was actually a prequel.  Still unnecessary, but a little less painful in my opinion. So skeptical though I was, I checked it out mostly because the original was that good.

The obvious problem though with a sequel, and it is certainly in effect here, is that if you've seen the first movie -- in this case Infernal Affairs -- you know where the story should and most likely will end up.  You know going in which characters will survive, which twists and turns will come before they actually happen.  It's not all bad though.  Seeing one character work in a different situation than the one you know is an obvious bonus.  How do they change sides? How do the manage to pull the twist off?  At its worst, that's the movie's main problem.  More or less, you know how it is going to end before it starts.  Yes, there are instances that flesh out some character background, a throwaway line in the original that ends up being a key piece of the puzzle.  But as cool as some of those things were to hear and see them fit together, my fear was realized. This is an unnecessary movie no matter how enjoyable it may be.

Here's the gist of the story. What took place in the original in the span of about 10 or 15 minutes is expanded into a feature-length film. Washed out of the police academy, Yan (Shawn Yue) is approached by a police inspector, Wong (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang), to work deep undercover with the triad gangs, specifically up and coming mobster Hau (Francis Ng), with whom Yan is half-brothers. On the police force, the triads similarly have a deep mole they're using, a rising officer named Lau (Edison Chen). From deep inside their positions, they do their best to take the other (Yan the mob, Lau the police) down.  Their predicament gets worse when Hau looks to be preparing for a mass takeover, eliminating all his opposition as the passing of power in 1997 takes place.

Setting up the premise of the two deep undercover rivals in the first one -- both aware the other exists, just not who -- the jump in time forward worked.  It showed that years passed, both men carved an important niche out for themselves, and now they're in a position to make something of it.  Even having seen the first one, I was lost in the first 40 minutes as everything was laid out.  New characters were introduced, new situations, and I felt like I'd missed something.  It didn't help that Yue and Chen bear a striking resemblance to each other.  I found myself consistently getting them confused, only then wondering "Why is the deep undercover guy walking around a police station?"  Oh, my bad I guess.

After making their brief appearance in Infernal Affairs, Yue and Chen do return here to play the younger versions of the characters as they grow over a 6-year span.  The only issue is that neither young actor makes their characters very interesting. Both men are just there as everything happens around them, occasionally looking worried or shocked.  Part of the problem is that their predecessors were so strong, making each man complicated and basically, a real human being with worries and fears that are just magnified working in such a dangerous profession.  The rest of the cast does not disappoint, especially Chau-Sang as Inspector Wong, Ng as triad leader Hau, Eric Tsang as rising mobster Sam (also in the original), Carina Lau as Mary, Sam's longtime girlfriend who also has something with Lau, and Jun Hu as Supervisor Luk, Wong's immediate supervisor on the force.

All negatives and criticisms aside, this is too good of a movie not to recommend.  The story manages to keep it interesting even knowing the general direction it is heading.  The music is memorable, the set pieces exciting, and the action startling and unsettling.  It brings you into this dog eat dog world. Scenes of characters meeting in secret to avoid being detected bristle with dialogue that shows how frazzled they've all become.  The ending is nearly perfect too, putting all the pieces in place for the original Infernal Affairs.  Scarier than all that? There's a third movie, and yeah, I'll probably check that out too.

Infernal Affairs 2 <---trailer (2003): ***/****      

Friday, March 25, 2011

Four Guns to the Border

If I hadn't seen the credits at the opening of the movie, I'm pretty sure I would have been able to figure out that 1954's Four Guns to the Border was based on a Louis L'Amour story. Now it must have been a short story because eight years after this movie the fleshed-out version was released in its novel form, called High Lonesome.  But short story or novel, the main characters come right out of L'Amour's rotation of stock characters.  None of this is meant as a criticism -- I love his western novels -- but instead as a positive, another western that's the movie equivalent of comfort food.

All the old reliable characters I've come to expect were there, and it doesn't take long to establish who everyone is.  'Border' reminded me in a lot of ways of Catlow, another L'Amour western that was later turned into a feature film.  Let's start with the lead, a sullen gunfighter at the head of a gang that isn't so bad all things considered. He's just looking for something else in life.  Two, the older, grizzled right hand man. Three, the younger gunfighter who is the wild card, and four, the minority, a gunfighter with Indian/Mexican backgrounds.  For good measure, throw in a father and daughter traveling across the desert who need help and maybe....just maybe...the daughter will fall for our sullen, glum leader. Ooops, I think I gave away the whole movie.

After robbing a saloon that nets his gang nothing when the safe is empty, outlaw gunslinger Cully (Rory Calhoun) decides to pull a bank job that has long been on his mind. The bank in nearby Cholla holds a monthly deposit from local cattle ranchers, but the bank is well-guarded and the townspeople very protective of their holdings. Cully's gang is up to the task, especially considering their past with Cholla sheriff, Dan Flaherty (Charles Drake). But a big payday seems a long way off as they plan for the job. On the trail, the gang comes across small ranch owner, Simon Bhumer (Walter Brennan) and his young daughter, Lolly (Colleen Miller). Even more trouble is the rumors that an Apache war party has jumped the reservation and is terrorizing the territory, all the while Cully's gang preparing for the dangerous job in front of them.

A B-western released at the height of western popularity in the mid 1950s, 'Border' doesn't do much to distinguish itself from so many other westerns of the time, but I found myself very much enjoying it still.  Some of that can be attributed to L'Amour's comfort and ease writing about the American west, but it's more than that.  Even when the story starts bouncing off the walls in a hundred different directions, it's still entertaining.  That's my one complaint, just too much going on. Almost 30 minutes is spent setting everything up before Sheriff Flaherty and his wife (Nina Foch) and their past with Cully are brought up. In the meantime, Simon and Lolly fade into the background right when their story was getting interesting.  All the different stories of course end up together, but the route getting there could have been smoother.

Most of my enjoyment from 'Border' comes from the casting.  Calhoun was never a huge star, but he was always a reliable lead with the right part.  Cully is a prototypical L'Amour hero, a bad guy who isn't that bad. He just needs a reason to turn to the light, in this case Miller's Lolly character. His gang includes Dutch (John McIntire), the grizzled gunslinger, Bronco (George Nader), the cocky but likable gunfighter, and Yaqui (Jay Silverheels, the Lone Ranger's Tonto), a knife-throwing, affable Indian. Like Cully, they're not so bad compared to most wild west outlaws.  Given the chance, they redeem themselves in the eyes of the audience.  Brennan is Brennan, playing the crotchety old rancher looking out for his daughter's best interests.

Discovered by a movie scout that saw a picture of her on vacation, Colleen Miller plays Lolly in one of her few film roles, and the only one I've seen of hers.  The slim brunette is gorgeous, America's girl next door, and the studio apparently wanted to make her a sexpot with this part.  Their efforts though are so incredibly not subtle that it comes across as a 1950s version of softcore porn.  Upon being introduced, here are just some of the things thrown at Lolly. She's knocked out so Brennan pours a canteen over her, strategically wetting her shirt, continuing to pour even after she's awake. Later in a storm at night, Lolly heads outdoors in a white nightie to care for the horses. White nightie and water? Oh, I get it. She also undresses several times, needlessly but entertainingly hikes up her dress, and even enjoys some candy. Cully's gang stands around while she licks a candy cane.  Are they kidding? It's so ridiculous it is actually funny at times.

B-movie actor himself turned director, Richard Carlson does a solid, workmanlike job with this B-western. Balancing all these different plates at one time, he manages to get all the characters and storylines where they need to be in the end.  The finale had a chance to go for a whopper of an ending, spaghetti western-eque in terms of who makes it and who doesn't, but unfortunately this is 1954 Hollywood, not 1966 Italy.  Still, I liked this movie.  Nothing special, but always entertaining.

Four Guns to the Border (1954): ***/****

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Harder They Fall

The beauty of sports for me has always been in the simplicity of the actions. A quarterback finding a wide receiver downfield, hitting him in stride. A shortstop and second baseman turning a flawless double play. A basketball player drilling a clutch jump shot with the game on the line. The list is endless, every sport providing its own special moments. But that is just sports at its most basic. Throw in money, ego, and greed, and something as perfect as sport can be easily corrupted. One of the best examples I’ve seen showing the corruption of sport is 1956’s The Harder They Fall.

A boxing story, this movie belongs to be mentioned in the same breath as Rocky and Raging Bull, two universally known boxing classics.  Like few other sports, boxing translates so effortlessly to the screen mostly because of its tragic element. Baseball players ruin their arms, football players risk long-term damage, hockey players lose teeth, but boxing is in a whole other league. Without swords, assorted weapons and some sort of armors, boxers are modern-day gladiators. In a small ring with people cheering them on, they pound away on each other. What isn’t tragic about that?

Out-of-work newspaper sports columnist, Eddie Willis (Humphrey Bogart) is at a crossroads looking for any sort of new profession. He accepts an offer from a boxing club owner, Nick Benko (Rod Steiger), who has long pursued him for work as a press agent. Desperately in need of money, Eddie takes the job as a press agent for a young South American boxer, Toro Moreno (professional wrestler Mike Lane), a beast of a man with all the physical attributes but none of the skill it requires to be a boxer. Nick says don’t worry about it, for Eddie just to do what he does best and build the inexperienced fighter up. It starts off as nothing, a few fights fixed here and there as Toro’s reputation builds. But going down a bad road that will end poorly for everyone involved, Eddie starts to question what he’s doing. Is the money at the end of the road worth what he’s doing?

An honest, depressing and heartbreaking look at the business of boxing, ‘Harder’ is an indictment of the sport and everything and everyone involved in it.  Director Mark Robson doesn’t pull any punches – sorry for the bad choice of words – in laying this story out.  Everyone involved has a bulls-eye squarely painted on their back. The movie is about these people, the ones looking for the easy money at the expense of the fighters who are similarly taking advantage of a small window of opportunity they have to be successful. In the process, the fighters basically throw themselves to the wolves, hoping to make enough money in a short time span to help them live the rest of their life. Not everyone is so lucky, many hanging on to boxing longer than they should have, putting their health, well-being and lives at risk.

One of Hollywood’s best actors and maybe the biggest icon, Humphrey Bogart died at 57 years old just a few weeks after this movie was released in theaters. For a swan song, it would have been hard for Bogart to pick a last role. This is Bogie at his understated best, inhabiting this character who genuinely has the best intentions at heart but ends up going down a road he never anticipated seeing. He’s desperate and makes decisions he might not have otherwise. His Eddie Willis character is the heart of the movie, the conscience who knows everything he’s seen isn’t right. He's a human element in a sea of robotic people with dollar signs for eyes, especially in his scenes with his wife, played to perfection by Jan Sterling. It is a great performance for the Hollywood legend, and a fitting end to an amazing career.

Matching Bogie’s quiet, understated performance and going in the opposite direction is Steiger, ever the brimming ball of energy ready to explode at the slightest push. During filming of the movie, Bogart apparently thought the younger Steiger was overacting, exaggerating his performance in every scene he was in.  It’s hard to tell. This was Steiger in most of his movies. He’s the villain, the shadiest of bad guys who convinces you that he’s on your side as long as you’re valuable. Then the second you have played out your string, he cuts you loose. He has two scenes that stand above the rest, both monologues that illustrates how suave Nick can be in getting you on his side. Nehemiah Persoff, Felice Orlandi, and Val Avery co-star as his yes-men and muscle. Harold J. Stone has a great supporting part as a TV sportscaster who sees through the charade while real-life boxer Jersey Joe Walcott is very memorable as Toro's trainer, George.

Right in the middle of this and being pulled on all sides is Lane as Toro, the good-hearted, na├»ve South American boxer who had no idea what he was getting into.  Lane was a bear of a man in real life – no CGI here – standing 6'5 and looking the part of the most imposing boxer you’ve ever seen. Playing up the sympathy angle, you genuinely feel for this character, the unknowing dupe of all these businessmen around him. In a rags to riches story though, the ending isn’t quite what you’d expect but in a good way. It’s a great ending if not a happy, Hollywood ending. Appropriate for the story though and the characters especially. Track this movie down. It’s a forgotten classic. Give it a try at Youtube, starting HERE.

The Harder They Fall <---TCM clips (1956): *** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Walk in the Sun

Somewhat out of necessity and somewhat because of audience demand, Hollywood studios during World War II often turned to patriotic, flag-waving war stories for their movies as opposed to more realistic, balanced looks at the war. Some examples like John Ford’s They Were Expendable peg the Americans as courageous, infallible heroes while the Japanese are the vicious, murdering enemy, but the movie still manages to be an above average entry into the WWII movie genre.

Now of course, all of them weren’t propaganda pictures meant to influence public thought and sentiment about the direction the war was taking or how despicably evil the enemy was. Released in 1945 at the tail end of the war, A Walk in the Sun could easily be pegged as one of those movies, but it rises above that stigma. It doesn’t try to portray the American soldiers in Europe as supermen who can’t be taken down by a whole army of German infantry. On the other side, the Germans are a faceless enemy, but never a demonic one. This is war, and everyone is affected. Just like my previous few of All Quiet on the Western Front, these are soldiers interested in survival, not some higher meaning or purpose in war.

Huddled in a landing craft headed for an Italian beach in the dead of night, an American infantry platoon prepares for the mission ahead of them. Problems start immediately though when the platoon commander and the second-ranking officer are both killed in the landing. Taking over, Sergeant Porter (Herbert Rudley, looking like a dead ringer for Frank Lovejoy) and Sergeant Tyne (Dana Andrews) must now figure out what to do. Their mission was described only vaguely to them; march six miles inland and knock out a key farmhouse along the main road. Little is known what awaits them along the road or the enemy strength at the farmhouse, but they head out into the unknown hoping to accomplish their mission, and hopefully make it back alive.

Any similarities or comparisons to ‘Western Front’ are fair for two reasons. One, director Lewis Milestone directed both movies. Two, they are both based on strong source novels that provide a great blueprint for the story. The reasons ‘Walk’ works is because of similar reasons. This is not an action-heavy story, instead portraying the life of a soldier as it more likely is; long stretches of boredom balanced with extreme fear/terror broken up by seconds of violent chaos. What do the soldiers do in between engagements? They talk. They talk about their worries, their lives back home, their thoughts on the patrol. You name it, it gets covered. A story that puts you right there on the dusty road with the soldiers and gives you an authentic feel for what they’re going through always gets points in my book.

This has to be one of the earlier examples of a ‘unit picture,’ a story that focuses on a specific group of soldiers, sometimes as large as a division or a brigade on down the ladder to a group like a squad or a platoon. Dana Andrews is the star here, the sergeant thrust into a position of power, leading his men on a mission where he knows little to nothing about what they’re supposed to accomplish. Along with Rudley as Porter, the NCO about to crack, the platoon includes Lloyd Bridges as Ward, a sergeant and a farmer back home with a craving for an apple, John Ireland as Windy, an intelligent soldier who is constantly writing letters back home in a unique way, Richard Conte as Rivera, the motor-mouth machine gunner, George Tyne as Friedman, Rivera’s ammunition carrier and sounding board, and Norman Lloyd as Archimbeau, a private convinced the war is destined to go on for years, among many others who make a quick appearance, but never really rise above being a sea of infantry faces. Burgess Meredith narrates.

Every so often at the IMDB, you run across a description so perfect it makes it worthwhile to continue to peruse all the other garbage people post there. One very accurate poster said this 1945 WWII story could easily have been renamed ‘A Talk in the Sun.’ It’s a fair assessment. Of a story that clocks in at 117 minutes, this is a dialogue heavy movie so if you’re looking for action packed excitement, keep looking. I’m all for dialogue in a movie (good, well-written dialogue that is), and for the most part, the conversation is good here.  Eventually though, it gets tedious.  How many times can we hear Rivera and Friedman argue like an old married couple? How many times will Archimbeau talk about the coming battle in 1955 for Tibet? Some scenes drag more than others, but late in the movie, I started to feel like I was watching the same scenes over and over again. Is that what a soldier’s life is like? Probably, but realism only takes a movie so far.

Balancing the long stretches of boredom here are those chaotic, brief moments of terror where your life can be snatched away from you in the blink of an eye. The patrol is constantly under bombardment while also dealing with patrolling German fighters overhead and tank and armored car patrols. The farmhouse (Semi SPOILERS I guess, yes, they make it to the farmhouse) is heavily guarded, and a suicidal charge across an open field feels like the only solution. Like the best parts of the movie, the battle scenes are well-executed (similar to Milestone’s action in Western Front with some great camerawork) and always keeping you on edge as to what will happen. It’s not a perfect war story, but for a movie released in 1945, the realism and honest look at the life of a soldier help make up for any shortcomings the movie might have. A public domain movie, it is available to watch at Youtube HERE in a somewhat washed out but tolerable print.

A Walk in the Sun <---TCM clips (1945): ***/****

Monday, March 21, 2011

They Call Him Cemetery

Names like Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Franco Nero, and Tomas Milian are always closely associated with the spaghetti western craze of the 1960s and 1970s.  There were countless other stars -- American, Italian, international -- that left their mark on the Italian westerns, some lucky enough to be a part of their own successful franchise.  A star of the Sartana series, Gianni Garko was one of those secondary stars without the name recognition to the average fan, partially because his movies are harder to track down. He wasn't exclusive to the Sartana series (making four official franchise entries), and I'm glad I was introduced to him starting with 1971's They Call Him Cemetery...although it's known by several other names.

The Sartana series made Garko a star, and his main character here sounds like an off-shoot of his infamous gunslinger.  It is similar to the Sabata series and even had me thinking that possibly this character was intended as a younger Lee Van Cleef. Right down to the same clothes and similar arsenal of guns and trick shots, Sartana (or here Ace) and Sabata could be son and father.  But that's just an observation and nothing more. This isn't a hard-hitting, cynical spaghetti western. It's all about the cool factor, the smooth gunfighters, the evil, backhanded villains, the goofy sidekicks, and just a touch of comedy.  This is not on the level of the classic Leone westerns -- few are really -- but it's an underrated spaghetti that deserves more of a following.

Having grown up in the east, the McIntire brothers, John (Chris Chittell) and George (John Fordyce) move west to help their crippled father run the family ranch. They are immediately struck by the violent culture that rules the west, everyone carrying guns and ready to shoot it out at the drop of a hat.  All the local ranchers are even being forced into paying protection to a gang of local bandits.  The McIntire brothers don't see the need, and immediately put themselves in danger by humiliating one of the lead bandits.  Now they must fend for themselves, or seemingly so, when a mysterious gunman, Ace (Garko), arrives in the territory and teaches them how to use a gun effectively.  No matter their ability though, the odds are stacked against them with an army of hired guns waiting to pick them off, including an infamous hired killer, Duke (William Berger), brought in to finish the job.    

One of the best things to come out of the spaghetti western success was the crazy, off the wall, eccentric gunmen in lead roles. We're talking blind, mute, crippled, you name it. There's a western with it.  Named the Ace of Hearts, Garko's gunfighter is relatively simple. He's decked out in black clothes, including a wide, flat-brimmed hat, wears his gunbelt low on his hip, and sports an epic, awesome Fu Manchu mustache.  A cool backstory about Ace is explained early on, giving the character the feeling of a guardian angel hovering over those he's trying to protect. Where many spaghetti leads are amoral, Ace is a hired gun for a reason, looking out for those who need it. It's my first introduction to Garko, and I was very impressed. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing more of his movies.

My one complaint from a movie I really enjoyed was that Garko and co-star William Berger are underused, neither making an appearance until almost 15 minutes into the movie that only runs 87 minutes (or at least the version I saw). Much of the story focuses on the McIntire brothers which isn't an awful thing because eventually they become interesting characters after a rocky start. Garko's Ace is the means to their characters becoming interesting, but I would have liked less of the brothers and more of the supremely cool Ace. A comedic element is added with the inclusion of two Mexican peons working with the McIntires, Sancho (Ugo Fangareggi) and Pedro (Raimondo Penne), who are also expert knife throwers. With Ace, it's a cool, little motley army of gunmen. They're not boring or annoying, I just liked Garko more than these four.

Balancing Garko and matching him step for step is Berger as similarly talented hired gun, Duke.  Berger was one of many American actors who made a name for themselves heading to Europe as part of the spaghetti craze.  He was rarely the star and more often the secondary character, someone you're never sure if he is a good or bad guy.  Playing the well-dressed gunfighter, Duke, he's a slightly older gunman to Garko's character.  Like Van Cleef and Eastwood in For a Few Dollars More, there's the younger vs. older element which is never boring to watch. Friendly rivals who respect each other despite being on opposite sides, you know a showdown between the two equally matched gunmen is looming.  The ending even hints at a sequel with the two men, but unfortunately it never came along. Still, it's a ton of fun to watch Garko and Berger go at it.

This is another example of being surprised with what I bought when I purchased 44 spaghetti westerns for $14.99.  Three movies in, and all three have been very watchable widescreen presentations.  The sound wasn't great, and the image is a little blurry, but that's nothing compared to some of the horrible prints I've seen with hard to find movies.  The locations are great -- especially the finale in a church's ruins on a very green hillside -- and Bruno Nicolai's score is a notch above the rest, especially the main theme which you can listen to over at Shobary's website HERE, just scroll down to the MP3 link.  A very pleasant surprise overall, and a great spaghetti western.

They Call Him Cemetery <---trailer (1971): *** 1/2 /****

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Almost Famous

One thing that always drives me nuts is when people say "They don't make them like they used to." It usually drives me nuts because I've said it enough, and I realize I sound like a pretentious dolt when saying it.  You know, that feeling you get when you say "Yeah, I saw the movie, but the book was much better." I stand by that statement still.  So anyway, that's my lead in. I grew up listening to the classic rock groups, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, any number of other bands I'm forgetting as I write this at 2 in the morning. The late 1960s and early 1970s were a heyday for these great rock groups.

In one of the best examples I can think of that captures a time and an era in history, 2000's Almost Famous could serve as a blueprint for how to make a coming of age, rock and roll movie. For some reason, this movie slipped past me over the last 10 years, and I'm only now catching up with it.  Well worth the wait.  This is a movie that is a lot of things, doing all those things well.  It is a coming of age story. It's a fictional, almost documentary look at a fictional mid-level rock band in 1973. It is about friendships, relationships, love, maturing, and without sounding too incredibly cliched, just living life.

A highly intelligent high schooler and a huge fan of rock-n-roll, 15-year old William Miller (Patrick Fugit) has landed his dream job. After writing a few stories for an underground rock magazine, William is offered a job that pays $700, requiring him to write a story about mid-level and possibly up and coming rock band, Stillwater, as they go on their summer tour, the Almost Famous tour, in the spring of 1973. He's told to just write an honest story, write what he sees and hears.  William goes along with it, quickly being welcomed onto the tour by the group with open arms, especially lead guitarist Russell Hampton (Billy Crudup) and frontman Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee). He's not quite sure how to read the group though. Are they using him so he'll write a favorable story, or do they genuinely look at him as a friend? That's just a start for the teenager, who also falls madly in love with Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), not a groupie, but a band-aid. Can he figure it all out in time?

With just 10 titles to his name, director Cameron Crowe has nonetheless carved a name for himself in Hollywood with an ability to make very personable, very relateable stories. Above all else, that's where this movie succeeds, or at least for me it did. It is a coming of age story that doesn't smash you over the head with a message. William is a really smart kid, but he's also naive, impressionable, and just looking to be accepted, to be one of the group.  Fugit does a great job keeping this main character grounded in this turbulent world he's thrown into.  He is the viewer, experiencing all the craziness and trying to handle it all in stride.  Is he getting played, or is Stillwater genuinely looking out for him? Or could it be both?

Part of the fun was this quasi-documentary movie of a 1970s rock group and all the touring, the partying, the excess that was a part of everyday life for these musicians.  For one, the look of the movie is right, the bad haircuts, the even worse facial hair, the clothes, everything is right on target.  With this fictional band, we get an inside look at the inner workings of a moderately successful rock group, the in-fighting, the bonding, the performances that bring them all together.  Think of any episode of VH1's Behind the Music, and you've got the drama levels for the fictional Stillwater. The soundtrack is solid too, using plenty of 70s rock without overdoing it.  There's also some underplayed digs at Zeppelin, Bowie, Dylan, the Stones (especially Mick Jagger) that produce some good laughs.  It never goes too cliched though or too far down the spoof road, maintaining a level of seriousness through all the craziness.

Almost Famous is a good example of how great an ensemble cast can be when it's clicking on all cylinders, and Crowe gets winning performances out of the whole group. Crudup is the high point, the scene-stealer as Russell Hammond, Stillwater's lead guitarist and possible breakout star.  He's the one William is drawn to right away, and it's easy to see why. Crudup makes a character that would have been easy to hate incredibly personable.  Hudson earned an Oscar nomination for her Penny Lane part, the mysterious non-groupie searching for some sort of reality in her life whether she realizes it or not. Always a scene stealer herself, Frances McDormand is just that as William's mother, Elaine, trying to look out for her son while also allowing him to grow up on his own.  A favorite actor of mine, Philip Seymour Hoffman nails his small part as Lester Bangs, a rock journalist who ends up becoming a mentor to William in his adventures and how to handle the job.

Those are just some of the names from this incredibly deep cast.  Here's just a few more.  Lee plays Jeff Bebe, Stillwater lead singer who wavers between the money and the message, Zooey Deschanel as William's sister trying to rebel in her own way, Noah Taylor as Stillwater's on-tour manager, Anna Paquin and Fairzua Balk as two band-aid/groupies, and Jimmy Fallon as a manager sent out to help the group from the record company. I don't know what else to say. It's one of those movies that is just hard not to like.  It is an enjoyable story with drama and comedy, a great cast, a great soundtrack, and believable, interesting characters.  Hard to beat that combination.

Almost Famous <---trailer (2000): *** 1/2 /****       

Friday, March 18, 2011

All Quiet on the Western Front

In one of the most succinct, powerfully effective lines in history, Union general William Tecumseh Sherman said 'War is hell.' Nothing else really needs to be said. There is nothing glamorous about armed conflict in any setting where one man takes the life of another, no matter what movies, TV shows, and books may try and convince you otherwise.  Anti-war movies really came to the forefront during the Vietnam War as public sentiment soured on the conflict in Asia.  But one of the most moving anti-war stories came long before that, 1930's All Quiet on the Western Front.

Based on the classic novel of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque, this is a remarkable movie for any number of reasons, starting with the year it was released. I would have never pegged this movie as being released in 1930, just a few years into the sound era of movies.  There is also a sense with early Hollywood of white-washing stories, of censoring the movies of anything that is even remotely offensive. But that's the point of a war movie like this. It is supposed to offend you, to show the real horrors of war.  Considering its 1930 release, it is one of the most violent movies of the era, but it so much more than just violence.  This is war at its dirtiest, most base fighting, the effect it has on the men doing the fighting. No glory, no glamor, just survival.

With Germany preparing for war in 1914, teenager Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres) enlists with almost 20 other teenage boys from his school, dreaming of the glory that awaits them on the battlefield as Germany battles England and France. They leave with the notion that nothing would being them greater glory than to die for their country, quickly realizing how ridiculous the notion is.  After a quick training period, Paul's company is sent to the front lines as replacements for a veteran unit already worn down and torn apart from the fighting. They find a war unlike anything told to them prior, the idea of heroism and glory quickly going out the window. They settle in to the trench warfare, charging across bomb-marked fields into walls of machine gun fire. A heroic fight for one's country? Maybe, but these soldiers could care less. They just want to survive the hell that surrounds them.

Two characters rise above the story here, starting with Ayres as young, impressionable Paul. His acting can be a little too stage-oriented, but it is through his eyes we see the horror of war.  It is a remarkable performance from the 22-year old actor as we see his transformation from a naive newbie on the front lines to a tattered veteran in the matter of days. Somehow, he survives the days, weeks and months as so many of his comrades drop around him. Playing a part that would become synonymous with war movies, Louis Wolheim plays Corporal 'Kat' Katczinsky, the wily veteran who ends up being a leader based almost solely on his ability to teach and survive where so few others can. It's these two performances that anchor the movie. Other than that, most of the cast is pretty interchangeable, faces that don't leave much of an impression before being quickly dispatched.

Working on an impressively large scale for a 1930 release, director Lewis Milestone turns in an all-time classic here. He pulls no punches with his story, staying true to Remarque's source novel and its brutal honesty in portraying the horrors of war. Hundreds of extras fill the screen, and the battle scenes are immense.  Milestone shows a knack with his camera in an ahead of its time use of tracking shots that put you in the trenches with the hand-to-hand combat, following the men across acres of open ground under bombardment and heavy fire.  Exciting or entertaining? No, not really. This is war where there were no super-soldiers. Men died by the hundreds and thousands in futile efforts to gain a few feet of dirt.  The battles are surprisingly graphic, just adding to the affect of what you're actually seeing.

When I think of an above average anti-war movie, I think of the moments that stick with you long after watching the movie.  'Western Front' has too many to even mention, but here are just a few that left the deepest impression. Visiting a wounded soldier, Paul watches him die a slow, painful death, the staff and patients around him not so much as blinking at his cries. Hiding in a trench, Paul tries to save a French soldier's life moments after stabbing him to save his own. After a sustained bombardment, a German soldier finally cracks, running out of the damp, crowded dugout screaming bloody murder. Later, a wounded soldier rises from his hospital bed and trudges across the room to the window where he feels a ray of sunlight on his face, promptly dropping dead. The best though may be Paul's return home, seeing the perception that the people left behind have of this glorious war.  He tries to tell them the truth, but to no avail. After all, what does he know having served on the front lines for years?

This is a story where a happy ending just wouldn't work, wouldn't fit with the tone or style of this anti-war message.  But even being aware of that doesn't take away from the raw power of the ending, simple in its execution but speaking volumes about the idiocy of war. SPOILERS STOP READING SPOILERS Returning from leave, Paul finds Katczinsky who is wounded scrounging for food. Paul carries him back to the aid station several miles back, unaware his friend has died. He leaves quietly, not sure or not believing what just happened. Days later sitting in a trench, he reaches out for a butterfly resting just inches away and is picked off by a French sniper. The movie ends with the haunting image of Paul's outstretched hand reaching for that one beautiful thing in nature, coming up just short. I can't think of a more appropriately down ending for a movie that had to end that way.

If interested in watching the movie, it is available to watch at Youtube in an above average print thanks to a great restoration job, especially when considering the movie was made over 80 years ago.  You can watch it HERE starting with Part 1 of  13. 

All Quiet on the Western Front <---trailer (1930): *** 1/2 /****

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Running Out of Time

If you were given less than four weeks to live with the chance you could drop dead at any second, what would you do with the time you have left?  I'd like to think I would do the things in life I've always wanted to, experience them before it was too late.  In some cases, you could even right the wrongs from your past.  Apply that idea to a movie, and you've got a formula that's been used countless times before and will most likely be used many more times in the future.  I don't know many that were better than 1999's Running Out of Time.

It had been over a month since I reviewed a Hong Kong action flick so here goes. I first saw a Johnnie To-directed movie starting with The Mission and continuing into quasi-sequel Exiled, loving both movies. From the director's chair, he's able to make these stylishly minimalistic action movies that channel directors from different decades and countries.  The cynicism, the fatalism would make French director Jean-Pierre Melville proud, and the violence and code among men would put a smile on American director Sam Peckinpah's face.  But more than just channeling what came before him, To always puts his own spin on his movies, making them his own.

Given just four weeks to live by his doctor, Peter Cheung (Andy Lau) decides to go out with a bang. He goes about robbing a finance company in Hong Kong, pulling off an elaborate heist that doesn't seem the effort he put into it for the results he gained.  Managing to escape a police gridlock, Cheung confronts police investigator and expert negotiator, Inspector Ho (Ching Wan Lau).  The Inspector is fascinated by this highly intelligent crook who seems to revel in keeping him guessing. In a rooftop hostage situation, Cheung defiantly dares Ho to see if he can keep up with him for the next 72 hours at which time everything will figure itself out.  The Inspector isn't quite sure what to make of it, but his curiosity gets the best of him. Just what exactly is this mysterious criminal up to?

Because I did like this movie (a lot), I'm going to get the negatives out of the way early.  They're not specific to this movie either, they were problems I had with both of the previous To movies I'd seen.  These clearly aren't movies made with the biggest of budgets which I'm cool with.  There are these little elements which drive me nuts though, flaws in logic that are needed to keep the story moving for the sake of moving it along. They don't always serve any other purpose.  We're at Point A and need to get to Point B. Let's do it!  There's also an odd reliance on some bizarre disguises Lau's Cheung uses that made me think of John Woo's Mission Impossible II at its worst, and some odd situations with "comedic value" as To regular Suet Lam being a clueless and possibly retarded henchman. Little things that don't derail the movie by any means, but they are annoying nonetheless.

On to the positives, and there's plenty.  In a few recent reviews, I've mentioned the idea of the doomed, tragic character.  Judging by personal background and character make-up, you know from the start there is no way they survive the movie.  Improving on that idea, Lau's Cheung also knows this and doesn't give a damn.  The plot isn't as simple as its made out above with some familial revenge on his mind involving his deceased father and an epically big diamond.  There is something oddly appealing who knows he is going to die and decides to live it up. He's got a plan in place with an end result in mind (and let's face it, the movie's going to get him to that point), but he doesn't care if something happens to him in the process.  Lau does a great job with this doomed character, and to To's credit, he doesn't pull a fast one in the end about his main character.

So there's Melville's cynicism about the main character's life expectancy, now on to Peckinpah's principles of male bonding through similarities regardless of profession, in this case a master criminal and the cop pursuing him.  Cheung is playing a game of cat-and-mouse with Ho, manipulating him to do what he wants, hoping he pursues him until he gets to the point he needs him to be at.  Across lines of law and right and wrong, these two men are not so different. Cheung never endangers anyone that doesn't deserve it, and for that reason Ho gives him a little string to play with.  The two characters have some great scenes together, simple dialogue exchanges that play up To's idea of a code of honor among men regardless of your profession. Cheung respects Ho's ability and talent, Ho similarly fascinated by what this criminal is able to do. It's a simple, not completely unique premise that carries the movie mostly because Lau and Wan Lau are so good in their respective parts.

Not as action-packed as the other To movies I've seen, there is still enough action to appease most fans.  What surprised me most was the quieter, more intimate moments.  Much of that can be chalked up to Ying-Wah Wong's musical score, an oddly appropriate combination of Celtic, African and techno themes that somehow end up working together. Listen HERE for three main samples of the score, the second one being the best starting at about the 3:00 minute mark. A few quick, subtle scenes with Lau and a young woman (YoYo Mung) he meets are hauntingly beautiful, To's camerawork and the musical scoring working seamlessly together. The ending is even better, pulling a smile on your face when you hear what one main character does without us ever seeing it. Another Johnnie To movie I can heartily recommend.

Running Out of Time <---trailer (1999): *** 1/2 /****  

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Desperadoes

One of my biggest pet peeves with westerns is female characters added to the story for the sake of having a female character.  Beyond just being eye candy and something nice to look at (I didn't intend that as sexist as it sounds), the character serves no real purpose. Yes, they might provide a secondary storyline that has them falling for one of the heroes, but generally, they are there to be saved, the damsel in distress.  One of the few actresses to make a positive impression in a western for me is Claire Trevor. She's beautiful but tough and always held her own with the guys.

Unfortunately the timing of me watching 1943's The Desperadoes wasn't that great with Trevor playing a key supporting role. The casting isn't the question, and the western itself isn't that bad.  Basically though, it just has too many similarities with 1941's Texas which I reviewed yesterday.  I felt like I was watching the same movie for a second time.  Similar cast, similar backstory, and overall a feeling of been there, done that. It's not awful by any means, but it's not that good either.

It's 1863 in Red Valley, Utah when the bank is robbed by a gang that murders three people in the process.  The bank owner, Clanton (Porter Hall) and the local mailman, Uncle Willie (Edgar Buchanan), pulled an inside job, netting almost $80,000 in the process.  The plan though was altered because the man originally hired to do it, Cheyenne Rogers (Glenn Ford), couldn't make it in time.  Now, he's arrived in town only to find that an old friend is the town sheriff, Steve Upton (Randolph Scott), is searching for the actual robbers. Worried that they will be exposed for stealing money from the townspeople, Clanton and Willie go about setting up another plan that will pit Cheyenne against Steve in hopes of covering up everything.

It is the rare western I won't be able to find something to recommend.  Some are just harder than others finding that positive aspect.  The Desperadoes is somewhere in between.  Ford and Scott working together is a pleasure to watch even if the script puts them in the stupidest, most implausible situations around.  This was Columbia Pictures' first color feature, and it looks great with the Utah locations really coming to life.  Trevor does what she does best, the somewhat scandalized woman (think a higher class Dallas from Stagecoach) caught in a tricky situation.  Her character isn't essential to the story, but she makes her presence known immediately. Her scenes with Ford and Guinn Williams are a high point, the few scenes that use both drama and comedy effectively.

As I watched this movie, I thought of another pet peeve that isn't exclusive to westerns.  It's just laziness on the part of someone involved in the production whether that be the screenwriter, the producer or the director.  A title card introduces the situation, explaining that 1863 Utah is struggling with little money available in the territory. For some reason, the setting is key, but I can't figure out why. If it's 1863, why is the Union army driving a herd of horses west away from the fighting with the Confederacy? Wouldn't it make sense to go the other way?  Then later, a character says a horse stampede will make this town feel like Custer's Last Stand.  So a throwaway line ends up predicting the future? If it is 1863, why is this town yokel aware that Custer is going to be massacred some 13 years later? Yes, these are little things, but they're all something that easily could have been fixed. Make a movie, and make sure you get the details right. Lazy when it comes to spending millions of dollars is inexcusable.

Maybe I've just been ruined by the cynicism of spaghetti westerns and American westerns from the 1960s, but westerns from the 1930s and 1940s drive me nuts more and more of late.  They walk that middle line that tries to please everyone.  Comedy, drama, and romance are all there.  Ford and Scott vie for the affections of Buchanan's daughter, Allison (Evelyn Keyes), always keeping it fair with an 'Aw, shucks, you take her!' mentality. Williams is painful to watch as dimwitted sidekick Nitro, the attempts at humor falling far short of succeeding. Then there's the story with Ford's Cheyenne wanted with a $10,000 bounty on his head.  We never find out what he did, but he's wanted nonetheless.  Scott's sheriff seems less than interested that his old friend may be a crook so I guess we're supposed to look past it in the end too.

Not much else to say here.  The story winds around a lot without ever getting anyplace interesting.  The talent of Scott, Trevor, and Ford only takes the movie so far.  I've seen much, much worse westerns, but I can't give this a positive review. It's just not good enough.

The Desperadoes (1943): **/****

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Texas (1941)

Through the late 1940s and into the 1950s and 1960s, two of the most reliable, bankable stars in Hollywood were William Holden and Glenn Ford. But everyone has got to start somewhere, right? I've seen movies with both actors, but a majority of them were from the 1950s and 1960s when they were already established stars.  As very young-looking youngsters in 1941, they worked together on an odd but entertaining western simply titled Texas.

It can be fun with movies like this seeing stars before they were stars.  For one here with Texas, both Holden and Ford look like they're fresh out of high school. Holden was just 23 years old, and Ford not too much older at 25 when the movie was made.  Through all the exaggerated comedy, rambling story and over-reliance on stock footage, that is what makes Texas bearable.  Long before either man was a household name, the young acting duo shows off the talent that audiences would come to love and expect in future roles.

The Civil War has ended and two cavalry troopers from Jeb Stuart's forces, Dan Thomas (Holden) and Tod Ramsey (Ford), are drifting west. They find themselves in Abilene on their way further south to Texas and all its riches when they see a stagecoach being robbed. They turn the tables and rob the robbers, but through a miscommunication end up being chased by a posse. With little hope of getting away, they separate and make a getaway on their own. Time passes as Dan latches on with a group of rustlers harassing every herd that heads north while Tod signs on as a foreman at a well-to-do cattle ranch. Their paths seem destined to cross again, especially when both men have an interest in a beautiful rancher's daughter, Mike (Claire Trevor). Is their friendship going to last or will it be torn apart?

Director George Marshall turns in an odd, all over the place finished product with this 1941 western. At just 93 minutes, a ton of story is packed into a relatively quick running time.  That description above doesn't quite do it justice because there is much, much more going on.  It is an odd mix of a brotherly relationship in the west, slapstick comedy that is painful to watch at times, the always excruciating love triangle, way too much stock footage, and a story that is far too choppy at times, ending up playing like an hour-long serial instead of a feature length movie.  I don't know if a longer movie would have helped to flesh things out, but it couldn't have hurt.

I've never been much for comedic westerns with the exceptions of spoofs like Blazing Saddles that pull out all the stops.  If you're going to make it funny, go all the way.  Don't make a comedic drama (if that makes any sense).  An early scene introduces us to Dan and Tod which is fine. A departure from the set-up or a jumping off point for what's to come is fine if it helps us get to know the characters. An old school boxing match has Dan getting whaled on for 50 or 60 rounds that feels like it actually goes on that long. With a short 93-minute movie like this, it's too much.  Also in the comedy department, Edgar Buchanan (usually one of my favorite character actors) hams it up as a conniving dentist who happens to be the villain too, making evil, despicable decisions one after another. He is funny with that quiet, raspy stream of conscious talking, but next thing you know he's planning to shoot everyone around him.  Separately it could have worked, but together it never fits.

While it may not seem like it, I did enjoy Texas. Holden and Ford are always watchable even in their weakest efforts, and this isn't one of them.  The brother relationship in movies is as old as westerns themselves.  They're close and have bonded through the hellacious situations they've survived together.  Eventually, something is going to tear them apart, forcing them to either fight it out or knuckle under and run. Holden especially has some fun with the Dan Thomas part, the cowboy who will turn wherever there's money available.  It's the part that Holden would make his bread and butter, the lovable rogue.  Ford's part is more vanilla, the generic good guy who always makes the right decision no matter the consequences. Still, the movie is at its best when they duo is on-screen together.

Filmed in black and white, Marshall relies too much on stock footage, especially late with an epic cattle drive heading to Abilene.  As for the love triangle, it doesn't make a ton of sense how it develops, but with Trevor working with Holden and Ford, it isn't as bad as so many other love triangles are.  For a story that rambles as much as it does from one place to another with no real end in sight, the finale comes together quite quickly.  I would have liked this story much more with a few slight changes. Add maybe 15 minutes, take out the comedy, and thin out the stock footage. The talent in the acting department and the story has potential to be something better. Even then, I still liked the movie, but I didn't love it.

Texas (1941): ** 1/2 /****