The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Tall Target

Like so many episodes of The Twilight Zone rose above its trippy sci-fi roots to tell some stories that are still around in the pop culture psyche.  One episodes -- "Back There" -- has future Professor from Gilligan's Island time traveling to April 14, 1865, realizing he can try and change history, saving President Abraham Lincoln's life but ultimately failing to do so. It's a great example of 'What if?," a question that can be applied to any and all parts of history -- some better than others. What if Lincoln had lived? What if assassin John Wilkes Booth had missed?

The tragedy of the situation of course is that Booth didn't miss, killing Lincoln with a shot to the head as he watched a play at Ford's Theater just days after the conclusion of the Civil War, the defining moment of his Presidency. Remembered as fondly as he was for helping save the United States from its most bloody conflict, it is easy to forget that Lincoln was not an extremely popular president, even among the Union states, much less the Confederate states who seceded. Were there other attempts on his life that failed? So goes the premise of 1951's The Tall Target.

A sergeant on the New York City Police Department, John Kennedy (Dick Powell) turns in a report explaining his investigation of a coming assassination attempt on the soon to be inaugurated president, Abraham Lincoln. It's 1861, and the country is tearing itself apart, both Northern and Southern opposition wanting nothing of this new Republican president. No one believes him though so he boards a train heading south to Baltimore, finding his partner -- a fellow detective -- murdered on the train. Someone has caught wind of what he is up to and intending to stop.  The train is packed as the passengers head to the inauguration in Baltimore, but can Kennedy find out who's targeting him before the assassination attempt can be made?

As a history buff, I'll watch anything associated with the Civil War, especially a little known story like this one about a failed assassination attempt on Lincoln.  A title card says the story is accurate to history, and attempts like these showed how chaotic and violent the months leading up to the Civil War actually work.  The historical backdrop is just gravy because setting the story on a fast-moving train is always a good jumping off point, especially when we're fully aware the killer is on-board somewhere. Think Murder on the Orient Express mixed with a little Strangers on a Train and a little historical what-if thrown in for good measure.

The guessing game comes from the passengers as Powell's Sgt. John Kennedy (interesting choice of name looking back on the 1951 movie now) goes about his investigation. There are a handful of characters, some obvious choices, others coming as a twist, and others serving as a red herring to the real identity of the plotters.  A mix of Northern and Southern passengers keep you guessing. Paula Raymond and Marshall Thompson play Ginny and Lance Beaufort, Southern brother and sister heading home, Lance a recent graduate of West Point. Ruby Dee is memorable as Rachel, Ginny's slave/maid, who may know something that will help Kennedy out. Adolphe Menjou plays Col. Jeffers, a Union militia officer heading to the inauguration, Florence Bates is Mrs. Alston, a well-known abolitionist writer, and Will Geer is the train conductor who finds his train caught up in a twisting, confusing murder investigation.

Having heard his name several times but never having seen in him anything, I've now seen Dick Powell in two different movies in as many weeks.  For a guy who made a name for himself on musicals and on stage, this is another part for the actor where he seems like a less than ideal choice to play a tough lead character. In Station West, he was a government agent investigating two murders, and here again he plays an officer who no one believes, albeit involved in something much, much bigger. I don't know much more about Powell than what I've been able to take away from these two roles, but I like him. He's got kind of a snobby side to him, but he's still personable and a likable lead (if that makes sense). Song and dance man, maybe, but he's good here.

The 1950s were the high point of director Anthony Mann's career, but because he had so many successes over a 10-plus year span, some get lost in the shuffle. This is one of them unfortunately which hasn't gotten the credit it deserves. It is a movie that qualifies in my 'different so it's good' category of rating a movie. Mann brings his typical strong hand directing, keeping the mystery going with a hard edge to Kennedy's investigation. Anyone and everyone is a suspect as the bodies start to mount up. A cool, little historical murder mystery....oh, and Lincoln makes it.

The Tall Target <---TCM clips (1951): ***/****

Saturday, July 30, 2011


When I think of Victor Mature, I think of a lot of different things. I think of his far from accurate but highly enjoyable performance of Doc Holliday in John Ford's My Darling Clementine. I think of an accurate who was most at home in big pictures, historical and biblical epics where his on-screen presence was given a chance to shine. His biggest successes though came in the late 1940s and early 1950s so by the second half of the decade he was taking movies that just aren't that good, including 1956's Zarak.

There I go again contradicting myself, saying Mature was most comfortable in historical epics -- The Robe, Samson and Delilah, Demetrius and the Gladiators -- which he usually was. This qualifies then as a quasi-epic...I guess.  It certainly has some impressive scale with a considerable budget spent filling out a cast of thousands (okay, maybe a couple hundred), but Zarak is such an obviously over the top attempt at an epic that it doesn't quite work. The scale is there, but at the sacrifice of story and character if that means anything to you. The best epics, the ones that stand the test of time are those that blend all three. Maybe it isn't fair to judge Zarak on that level because it doesn't aspire to be a classic, but some effort would have been appreciated.

The eldest son of an Afghan chieftain in the 1860s, Zarak (Mature) is caught kissing Salma (Anita Ekberg), his father's favorite and most beautiful wife. Instead of killing him for the betrayal, his father banishes him, forcing him to leave the tribe where he quickly becomes a notorious outlaw who becomes a huge thorn in the side of the country's British rulers.  His gang of bandits continues to grow until finally a high-ranking, highly respected British officer, Major Ingram (Michael Wilding), is called in to deal with the issue. Zarak thinks little of the new challenge, joining forces with a powerful chief, Ahmad (Peter Illing), to take the attack to the British. All the infamous bandit's plans may go for naught though as betrayal lies around every corner as the bounty on his head increases with his growing notoriety.

Because I'm a fan of Mature, let's start there. A role is a role, especially when your star isn't as bright as it once was.  A few years later in 1961, he would play a Viking, but this is one of the oddest choices I've seen. A very Italian looking Mature playing a young Afghan warrior/prince? It just doesn't work. That's the least of the problems here. The script never really decides what it wants to do with this character. Is he a wrongfully punished and banished son looking for redemption and forgiveness? Is he the notorious, murdering bandit he's made out to be? Is he both? Whoo, lots of questions, none of which are answered when they really need to be. As a viewer, I don't mind figuring things out for myself, but some help is appreciated. The movie needed to make a stance on this character and to whether we should side with him or against him. You can only chalk up so much of the blame to Mr. Mature.

Physical differences aside, Mature's acting is the least of the movie's problems. Swedish beauty Ekberg, God bless her little heart, was one beautiful woman, but she just could not act. Her character also does a two or three minute stripper's routine, even grinding on a pole and two lucky court attendants and is usually in various stages of undress.  Check out part of her dance routine HERE. Like Mature, she doesn't exactly look like a woman who lived in 1860s Afghanistan with her immaculate hair and make-up. Her scenes that require acting and not sexy dancing fall far short too. The rest of the cast is okay if underused or underutilized. Wilding is dull as Major Ingram, Eunice Gayson unnecessary as Ingram's wife, Bonar Colleano and Eddie Byrne not used enough as Zarak's treacherous brothers, and Bernard Miles making the most of a smaller part as the loyal Hassu, Zarak's right hand man. Look for a young Patrick McGoohan as a British officer in Ingram's command, making an early appearance in one of his first speaking film roles.

Director Terence Young -- later of the early James Bond films -- does not skimp on the scale of this attempted epic filmed in Morocco.  The battle sequences are just that; epic, with hundreds of riders and soldiers doing battle on the Moroccan/Afghan landscape.  For an otherwise moderately budgeted movie, the battles are well choreographed and don't disappoint. But in his zest for scale, Young goes overboard. His movie is just 99 minutes long, and I watched it in a little over an hour. Thank you fast forward button. Repeated scenes of a long column of riders making their way across the land is impressive the first two or three times before it quickly gets tedious. The actual story is so disjointed and all over the place that I wondered what had happened to put characters in these spots (I'm sure the fast forwarding had something to do with it). Young wants to 'Wow!' you with the scale of Zarak, but it comes at an expense.

For all the big, sweeping shots accompanied by composer William Alwyn's obnoxious, blaring and overbearing score, there are quick shots to clear examples of indoor studio shots. One second a stand-in is attacking a rider in a big wide open, and then the next, Mature is in a studio pulling someone off a horse. Painfully obvious, and one of my biggest pet peeves. Nowhere is it more evident than the ending, Mature's mysterious and still undecided folk hero/mythical bandit deciding whether to go through with a difficult decision. The ending doesn't come as much of a surprise -- it's been telegraphed half the movie -- but not much does surprise here. Any entertaining if not particularly well made historical epic. Decent, worth a watch, but that's it.

Zarak (1956): **/****

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Rainmaker (1997)

The name John Grisham is synonymous with courtroom dramas and legal thrillers. There is A Time to Kill, The Firm, Runaway Jury, Pelican Brief, The Rainmaker and The Client to name a few. I've only read one Grisham novel -- A Painted House, his departure from the courtroom ironically enough -- but his stories translate well to film. There is a natural drama to courtroom proceedings that just works well, especially with 1997's The Rainmaker, a drama that isn't flashy or showy, just a well-made, polished story.

The different elements that are all over the place here somehow find a way to click and gel together. Some of that can no doubt be chalked up to Grisham's familiarity and ease with his story and characters which smooth out any number of rough patches. The director here is Francis Ford Coppola, he of The Godfather series, who I wouldn't picture in a courtroom story. Rising star Matt Damon is aided by a pitch-perfect supporting cast with Elmer Bernstein providing a somewhat odd, blues/jazz mix for his soundtrack. It isn't a great movie, and maybe it isn't even a very good movie, but it is GOOD from the get-go.

Fresh out of law school in Memphis, Rudy Baylor (Damon) takes a job with ambulance chasing lawyer Bruiser Stone (Mickey Rourke) while he waits to pass the Bar exam. Working with insurance agent and attempted lawyer, Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito), Rudy sees the writing on the wall and knows Bruiser is about to get taken down by the FBI. With Deck, he starts his own small firm. Their only case comes from a lower classic family, the Blacks, including mother Dot (Mary Kay Place) and son, Donny Ray (Johnny Whitworth), who is dying of leukemia. The Blacks' insurance company is denying their claim, but Rudy takes on the case -- his first -- in hopes of bringing the suffering family some peace. He's forced to learn on the fly, especially with his opponent, Leo Drummond (Jon Voight), an experienced, smart, tricky and veteran lawyer looking to take him to pieces.

So we can all agree lawyers suck, right? Okay, that's harsh. Maybe only like 96% of them. Movies have a chance and a way of humanizing them, especially here in the eyes of young, inexperienced lawyer Rudy. You need an underdog in a story like this, and Damon's Rudy supplies it in spades. While intelligent and book smart, he doesn't necessarily know the ins and outs of being a lawyer, the courtroom basics an experienced lawyer would take for granted. Damon's narration is at its best in its simplicity, a young man questioning the system he so wants to be a part of. For all the good it is intended to do, the judicial system is flawed in countless ways, something Rudy finds out quickly. It isn't just right and wrong anymore. It's about winning and losing plain and simple with plenty of money on the line. Innocent and even a little naive, Damon does a great job with this character, a sign of the acting ability we've come to appreciate in the years since.

How good is the cast here? Danny Glover plays the judge trying the case, a civil rights supporter and opponent of big business, and the man isn't even credited. DANNY GLOVER! DeVito gets a showier part -- if a background one -- as Deck, the almost-lawyer who still has a slimy veneer to him even when you can't help but like him and his nose for getting in and out of trouble. Voight is perfect as Leo Drummond, the snake oil lawyer who knows every trick in the business. Place, Whitworth and Red West give the movies its heart as the Black family, their scenes touching and heartbreaking as the story develops. Not enough for you? There's also Rourke, Virginia Madsen as a key witness, Dean Stockwell as an old school judge, Teresa Wright as Rudy's client and landlady, Roy Scheider as a CEO who could make or break the case, and even country singer Randy Travis in a great bit part as a potential juror. Good enough for you?

I liked this movie, but as I write this review I'm struggling to come up with reasons why. Thanks to shows like Law and Order and its countless spin-offs, the courtroom drama is far from original anymore. It seems stupid to be critical of a movie released almost 15 years ago for things that have happened since, but there it is. This Coppola-directed courtroom drama is the equivalent of comfort food. You have a good sense of what's going on, the semi-twists that will eventually be revealed, and in the end...well, let's not go there.  The movie and story are in their comfort zone in the court scenes with an easygoing sense of where they want to go and what they want to accomplish. Damon and Voight play off each other nicely with Glover and DeVito making their impact known as needed. The out-of-court scenes tend to meander a bit, but the movie always rights itself when needed.

The only real complaint I have for the movie, and the one part I genuinely didn't like was a subplot with Damon's Rudy and a client of his, Kelly (Claire Danes), a young wife married to an abusive husband (Andrew Shue). Rudy instantly develops feelings for her, wanting to save her from almost certain doom at the hands of her husband. In an effort to develop Rudy more as a character (unnecessary if you ask me), I felt like the story went down an easy path that Grisham is just better than. The story doesn't dwell too long on these scenes, but the damage is done early. Not a deal breaker, but it does bring the movie down a notch or two.

I'm struggling here. I don't know what else to say. I liked this movie if I didn't love it. Not bad at all, but it never reaches that level of courtroom drama classic. Solid if not so flashy directing from Coppola, and an all-star cast that does not disappoint, but it's just missing something overall. Still worth checking out though.

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

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Desperate Search

Locked away in the vaults for years, 1953's Island in the Sky is a great example of a movie focusing on a bid for survival and those left behind trying to find said survivors before time runs out.  It's tense, it's emotional, and you're rooting for the search and rescue effort to work. This is by no means the first movie to deal with a similar story, but it is one of the best ones. Just a year earlier, 1952's Desperate Search did the same thing, albeit in a much worse movie. We're talking real bad here.

Vince Heldon (Howard Keel) is a divorced father of two children, Don (Lee Aaker) and Janet (Linda Lowell), who lost the custody battle with his ex-wife, Nora (Patricia Medina), and now only gets to see his kids six weeks out of the year. Vince has remarried, his wife, Julie (Jane Greer), bonding immediately with the kids. At the end of their six week visit, they put the kids on a plane back home only to hear that the plane crashed somewhere in the Canadian wilderness. Vince, a pilot, undertakes the rescue mission with friend and co-pilot, Brandy (Keenan Wynn) to find the crash site, hoping to find his kids if they survived. The search radius is immense though, and the search is made more difficult when Nora arrives on-site, wanting to take over. Out in the wilderness, Don and Janet struggle for survival, coping with dwindling supplies and a marauding mountain lion.

There is no way this movie should have been as bad as it actually is, but somehow and some way, it ends up being truly bad.  Let's get the few positives out of the way early because it won't take long. Keel and Greer are very good together with a genuine chemistry between them. Keel is most well-known for his singing ability in MGM musicals, but he shows he is more than capable of playing a leading role without actually singing. Above all else -- especially his past demons rooted in his marriage with Nora -- he puts everything on the line to find his kids. Greer too as the stepmother delivers a good performance, a woman in a tricky spot who does what's best for the family as opposed to what's best for her. That's about it in the positives though so let's get to the roasting!

With a movie that doesn't even reach a length of 75 minutes, one might think you're heading into an action-packed, tense, adrenaline-pumping movie that never slows down. Of course, director Joseph H. Lewis might not have gone along for that line of thinking. With just 73 minutes to work with, Lewis finds a way to make this movie boring, mostly with a fascination of planes flying around, taking off, landing, stuff like that. At least a half hour has to be long shots of planes flying over the Canadian wilderness, repeated over and over again. The scenery is gorgeous, but there's a limit as to how much you could and should show, especially in an already short movie.

Then there is the soap opera aspect of this MGM gem. The search and rescue mission for two little kids seems like a natural enough jumping off point for a highly dramatic story, doesn't it? I thought so. Even Keel's Vince and Greer's Julie seem to think so. The Nora character on the other hand....well, she forgot. Their failed marriage obviously tore both people apart, but Nora came out on top as Vince retreated into the bottle, losing custody of his kids. From the second she arrives to "help" the rescue mission, Nora seems more concerned about her ex-husband than the safety of her own two children.  Maybe this is just a poorly written character, but her motivations seem ridiculous. What mother in her right mind is more worried about putting their ex in their place than rescuing the children from certain death?

And now we come to the portion of the review where I feel bad for ripping a child actor, but as one performance here shows, it needs to be ripped. Just nine years old at the time, Lee Aaker is a strong point for the movie, the brave, resolute and protective brother who's going to do whatever he can to save his little sister. God bless little Linda Lowell, but she could be the most excruciatingly annoying child I've ever seen in a movie. It's not just that she whines, but how she whines; a high-pitched, gravelly, sobbing whine that goes right up your back. I tried to rationalize, thinking a little girl just survived a plane crash and is alone in the woods. But she screams, whines, and screams some more, never delivering a line that is not screaming. On the positive, Aaker at one point delivers a line so perfect it was almost as if the screenwriters knew his little sister would be that annoying. As she complains and whines, he mutters "Now why wasn't I born an only child." I'm glad I'm not the only one who felt this way.

Which brings us to the finale as Vince says 'Screw it all' to his ex-wife and the air official who's grounded him from flying.  That pesky mountain lion is back, chasing the two kiddies up a tree, Don holding off the advances with a tree branch. Vince arrives in time to save them, literally getting involved in a fight with the mountain lion, one of the most unintentionally hilarious scenes I've ever seen.  Oh, and the kids are rescued, Vince ends up with the family he deserved, and Nora is resigned to a life of being a complaining shrew when Wynn's Brandy puts her in her place. Bad movie that just keeps getting badder.

Desperate Search <--- TCM clips (1952): * 1/2 /****

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Station West

A singer, actor, producer, director and studio head over a cancer-shortened career, Dick Powell did it all in his short time in Hollywood.  He made a name for himself in the 1930s in musicals but made the jump to more and more genres over the 1940s and 1950s. Of all his roles though -- film, television, radio, stage -- Powell only did one western as an actor, an interesting gem from 1948 called Station West.

Interesting is a nice way of saying here that I was very skeptical going into this movie because of all the different (even weird) elements that needed to work together for it to be successful.  As is so often the case with my overthinking anything and everything, the joke was on me because my worries were unfounded. I still maintain it is a very different western -- atypical to just about any other western I can think of -- but somehow it works.  Actors not associated with the genre, a story full of twists and turns, and the feel of a film noir as opposed to a western oater.  Sounds like the makings of an interesting western now, don't it?

An undercover government investigator assigned to investigate the murder of two cavalry troopers guarding a gold shipment, Lt. Haven (Powell) arrives a remote western outpost trying to piece everything together. The nearby fort is brimming with gold shipments that need to be moved, but bandits keep hitting the shipments. Haven works his magic and gets a job with a woman who rules over everything in the area, Charlie (Jane Greer), working to rebuild her stagecoach line. He is sure she is somehow involved with the gold robberies with her right hand man, Prince (Gordon Oliver), and henchman, Mick (Guinn Williams), but he can't prove it just yet. As he investigate the case though, Haven starts to fall for Charlie so can he find the culprits before he gets too involved?

A day after watching this movie, I keep coming back to a thought that popped up time and time again as I watched it. While it has all the fixings of a western, I feel more comfortable calling it an anti-western...if that makes any sense. 'Station' more has the feel of a murder mystery that happens to be based in a western setting as opposed to a western with a murder mystery. Director Sidney Lanfield shoots his movie like a film noir, full of shadows and darkness as Powell's Haven investigates who is stealing gold and killing U.S. cavalry troopers. This is not a down and dirty western that you might expect. Everyone is immaculately dressed -- nice, pressed suits for the guys and Greer always wearing ball gowns with perfect hair -- and the saloons look like some pretty classy establishments. None of this counts against the movie. It isn't trying to be a gritty, hard-edged realistic western. It's a murder mystery film noir western, a first in my mind.

Working against the typical conventions of the western hero and the lead female character, enter Dick Powell and Jane Greer. None of this is intended as a complaint, instead it ends up being a ringing positive endorsement for the movie. Nothing about Powell screams WESTERN HERO! His Haven character drinks champagne and wine, smokes a pipe, and generally has an easygoing way about him. He's especially smooth with Greer's Charlie and puts his own spin on the typical western hero. When I think of Greer, I think film noir, the femme fatale like in 1947's Out of the Past. She would seem to be out of place in a western, but as the kingpin in the area who pulls all the strings, she's perfect in the part. Her Charlie is beautiful, intelligent and another new one in the western genre; a bad, lady. Well, sort of, she wants to go straight, but she might be too far gone. Two strong leads -- with some great chemistry -- that set the tone for the whole movie.

As for the murder mystery aspect of the story, Lanfield keeps the viewer guessing and up on their toes if they want to keep up. It's pretty clear from the start that Greer's Charlie is heavily involved with the continuing gold robberies, but as for how, that's kept in the dark for awhile. Throwing you for a loop, we get a list of possible suspects, some more inclined to shenanigans than others. Working with Greer are Oliver and Williams, two solid henchmen that immediately incriminate her just because they're clearly henchmen. There's also Agnes Moorehead as Mrs. Caslon, a rich woman working with Haven, who you immediately think is up to no good because Moorehead always played shady characters. Tom Powers plays Captain Iles, the shady commander of the post with Raymond Burr making a good impression in a smaller part as Bristow, a weasel of a lawyer trying to play all sides. Christmas crooner Burl Ives is also good as a hotel owner who sings and knows everyone in town, quite a help to Haven.

I went along for the ride on this one, enjoying it for all the little different things that make it an atypical western. Some parts drag as Powell's Haven investigates -- long scenes of a man walking around, looking through things tend to that -- and other scenes have stagecoaches or Powell on horseback riding across the rocky desert. Beautiful to look at in smaller doses, they get a little tedious at times. No movie is perfect though, right? Casting and story, this one just works because it does try to be different. Not particularly well known, but a hidden gem in the film noir western category (if there is that category).

Station West <---Youtube clip (1948): ***/****

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Creature from the Haunted Sea

For years growing up I watched Svengoolie on late night Saturday television, reveling in the badness of the movies the show broadcast each week. They would poke fun at really awful, poorly made and typically sci-fi and horror movies that look to be made for about $12.60 (give or take a couple bucks). Much of the time, these movies were intended to be awful, and that's the fun of watching them. The opening credits sequence each week showed one shot from a movie I'd never been able to find until recently, a genuinely funny and bad movie, 1961's Creature from the Haunted Sea.

The movie comes from master of schlock himself, director and producer extraordinaire Roger Corman who handles both duties this time. At a brisk 63 minutes, this is one of the most ridiculously fun movies I've watched in awhile. Corman famously titled his autobiography 'How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime,' and it is easy to see why. These were movies that were meant to be fun to watch, not ones you leave the theater or drive-in talking about how good the acting was or how strong the script was. You leave laughing about the wooden, hammy acting, the poorly made 'creature,' and as was the case here, the amazingly bad narration. A bad movie that knows it is bad, and it is better for it.

It's Cuba in 1959, and the Batista regime has collapsed (didn't think that was going to be in this review now, did you?), leaving army and government officials to flee the country. Exiled American mobster Renzo Capetto (Antony Carbone) has cut a deal with some of these officials to help transport the Cuban treasury out of the country. On board is his gang -- including babely girlfriend Mary-Belle (Betsy Jones-Moreland) -- and a FBI agent deep undercover, code name XK150 (Robert Towne), working to stop the mobster. Capetto has a plan though, start killing off the Cuban officials and the soldiers with them, blaming the killings on a mythical sea creature in the Gulf of Mexico. Everything seems to be going along swimmingly, but even Capetto couldn't have planned on this happening. The monster he made up? It's real, and it's gunning for them.

I think I should point something out before I get into anything. There are bad movies, and there are bad movies. Some have all the right intentions -- workable budget, good cast, promising story -- and just end up being awful, like Battlefield Earth. Others have none of the right intentions. Lowly budget, bad cast, and mind-numbingly stupid story. That's where this movie falls, but it rises above the schlock because it is trying to be that bad. It wants to be stupid. So because it seeks to be intentionally bad -- and therefore a lot more entertaining -- it is actually smart if you ask me. You have to work at being this bad, this stupid, without going too far and just being obnoxious. Who better to tread that fine line than Roger Corman? I can't think of a director/producer better suited to do it. He made a career of doing just that.

Let's start with the "creature" which has to be the most ridiculous movie monster ever. Cast member Beach Dickerson said it was made from a wetsuit, some moss, lots of Brillo pads, tennis balls for the eyes, ping pong balls for the pupils, and pipecleaners for the claws with black oilcloth applied to make him look slimy. You know what? It is a monster that looks like it is made of a wetsuit, moss, Brillo pads, and oil, probably all for about eight bucks. He's just a killing machine, going about randomly taking all these bad guys out. Capetto's creation is hilarious because the actual monster kills in exactly the same way the mobster dispatched the Cubans. So in the water, Capetto has a plunger and a rake, swimming after these unlucky Cuban exiles and taking them out. The best is saved for last so keep reading, I don't want to spoil it just now.

As was par for the course with the ridiculous story was the ridiculous casting, bad acting for the sake of bad acting. Carbony's Capetto is the straight man to it all, the "diabolical" mind behind it all.  Monahan gets to sex it up as Mary-Belle, the girlfriend and gun moll along for the adventure. Capetto's gang includes Mary-Belle's younger brother, a dim-wit named Happy Jack (Robert Bean), and an oddball who became unhinged at some point and communicates via animal noises, Pete (Dickerson). Towne as Agent XK150 is the stupidest secret agent I've ever seen, hiding his radio in raw hot dog pieces and a relish jar, telling his superiors they're heading to Bali when they're heading to Puerto Rico. His narration is a scream, describing in idiotic detail everything that's happening, including my favorite "I knew it was dusk because the sun was setting." There are other characters -- an island mama who likes animal Pete, her slutty daughter, and the Cuban general, appropriately named General Tostada -- but it doesn't matter. They're there to get eaten or attacked in some gruesome fashion.

There are countless priceless scenes I could mention here. XK150 falls for Mary-Belle who wants nothing to do with him, even when he tries to woo her, all but telling her he's a secret agent. Capetto killing Cubans with a plunger and rake. XK reads off a list of aliases, all of them virtually identical. That's probably the best thing in the whole movie, Towne's narration. He delivers it in straight-fashion, completely dead pan, letting the humor still hit you like a brick wall.  The final shot is spot-on perfect too, the creature having killed everyone but XK150 and his new love interest. XK's narration states "I got the girl, and the monster got the gold" at which point we see the creature chilling on the chest of gold/money/treasure at the bottom of the ocean. Sublimely perfect is you ask me. I loved this movie, and laughed at it more than I have a lot of comedies.  So awful, so mind-blowingly stupid that you can't help but like it.

Creature from the Haunted Sea <---trailer (1961): ***/****

Monday, July 25, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger

For several years now, there was talk of an Avengers movie, a team of superheroes united to help defend the world. I've seen most of the movies by now with a couple exceptions, but when I first saw the trailers for Captain America: The First Avenger -- released to huge business this past weekend -- I was especially psyched for the release. It seemed like one of those rare movies where everything came together to work perfectly; story, action, cast, anything and everything. In a rare departure though from a lot of the crap that hits theaters, this one actually lives up to expectations and then some.

What immediately caught my eye with the trailers released over the last few months was the World War II setting. Now I read comic books growing up, but never religiously, picking them up here and there.  I knew who Captain America was, knew his basic storyline, but in general I was pretty vague about him. As a relative non-fan, I can say safely that it doesn't matter how much/little you know about the character. Just go and enjoy it. 'First Avenger' plays like a good old-fashioned action movie, a throwback to movies of past where the good guys were really good and the bad guys really bad. Imagine the Indiana Jones movies (okay, Raiders and Crusade) but with a superhero. Just a fun, highly entertaining movie all around.

Weighing just 90 pounds and always under attack by constant ailments and diseases, Brooklyn youngster Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) just can't get into the army as he meets constant rejection wherever he tries to enlist while World War II rages all over Europe and the Pacific. His persistence catches the eye of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) who likes what he sees out of the young man, enlisting him in his own special outfit headed by army Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones). Undergoing a new scientific medical treatment created by Erskine, Steve is transformed into a super soldier, earning the name Captain America as he encourages Americans to support the war effort by buying war bonds. The Army wants to unleash him against the Axis, but someone is gunning for him. A splinter group of Adolf Hitler's science team/program, a fanatical officer, Col. Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), has created their own brand of super weapons with his organization Hydra, and their intention isn't just taking out the Allies, but the whole world...unless Captain America can stop them.

One of the biggest concerns reviewers/critics/fans had as the movie was being made was the casting as Chris Evans as Captain America. I've long been a fan of his and think he's one of the real rising stars in Hollywood so I can't say I was too worried. I think any worries people had with Evans being cast were unfounded. He is more than capable of carrying an action movie like this one. Seeing so many dark, cynical superhero movies, it is also rather refreshing to see a character like Steve Rogers, a physically weak but incredibly strong-willed, stubborn individual who just wants to do what's right and join the war effort. Early scenes with Evans' head digitally placed on a much smaller stand-in's body are flawless (even creepy), only to have Steve transform into a ripped, jacked up super soldier. I look forward to seeing Evans continue with the character in next summers Avengers movie, especially with this strong debut now under his belt.

A continuing trend in this recent wave of superhero movies are these ridiculously loaded supporting casts.  We're not talking action stars who can't act a lick either, we're talking reputable, hardcore, serious actors. Tommy Lee Jones takes a role he could do in his sleep and nails it, throwing one-liners left and right. Tucci is a scene-stealer in his too short appearance, a German doctor who left the Nazis behind to work with the Americans. Dominic Cooper plays Howard Stark, engineer/inventor extraordinaire and Tony Stark's father (Iron Man for those newbies around), the very beautiful Hayley Atwell is Agent Peggy Carter, a liaison and PG-13 love interest for Steve, Toby Jones is Dr. Zola, Schmidt's chemist and science specialist, and Weaving makes the most of his underused part as Colonel Schmidt, the fanatical German officer who eventually becomes Red Skull. Some parts are obviously bigger and better than others, but not a one among them disappoints.

Like I needed another reason to like this movie, but I got it as the story developed, Captain American becoming a bona-fide war hero. He liberates some 400 prisoners of war from a Schmidt camp, six of them becoming his expert, international fighting team. A team of specialists?!? Men on a mission! America's group includes his best friend growing up from Brooklyn, Freddy Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Dum Dum Duggan (Neal McDonough), the Irishman who favors a heavy shotgun, Gabe Jones (Derek Luke), a commando, Jim Morita (Kenneth Choi), a Japanese-American soldier, James Montgomery Falworth (JJ Feild), the proper Englishman, and Jacques Dernier (Bruno Ricci), the Frenchman. For the most part, they're given no development other than a quick introduction before being unleashed on the Nazis in a very cool action-heavy montage. Lack of a better description aside, I'll just say they're very cool.

With action movies more than maybe any other genre, I don't always need a lot of things to happen. I'll look past a movie's flaws as long as I'm entertained. There are good movies, and there are good action movies. Captain America? It's just a good movie with some action. Chicago Tribune movie critic Michael Phillips commended the movie for allowing characters to have actual scenes of dialogue, and he's got a point. This is a well-written script that allows all the talent involved to have some fun with the superhero in the WWII setting. A World War II movie with a superhero might seem out of place or even cheesy, but no worries here. Sit back and enjoy this one, a throwback to a different time when movies just wanted to entertain.

Characters, setting, and story? Triple check. Bring on the action! Finding that appropriate mix of action and story, director Joe Johnston never goes overboard. His action sequences are impressive and fun to watch without being mind-numbingly repetitive. He gets into the scenes and does what needs to be done, content with putting together a solid scene as opposed to going overboard. Steve's first scene post-transofrmation is a great chase scene, a pleasure to watch as Steve realizes what he's now capable of. Steve/Captain America taking on a Hydra base with Schmidt's special soldiers to free hundreds of POWs while an assault on a train snaking through the mountains works in its quickness and effectiveness.  The finale is nothing special, just entertaining and exciting like the rest of the flick.

I realize as I write this I'm not exactly doing a great job selling the movie. There is nothing particularly groundbreaking or new about this most recent superhero movie.  Is that so bad?  I loved the cast and all the characters brought to life, the story is familiar but always interesting, and the action comes in somewhat smaller doses but never disappoints. The ending is surprising too (with Samuel L. Jackson playing Nick Fury), mostly because it doesn't go for an easy, happy ending. A classic on the whole? Maybe not, but a damn entertaining movie. And stick around through the credits for a teaser trailer for next summer's Avengers movie. Well worth the wait.

Captain America: The First Avenger <---trailer (2011): *** 1/2 /****

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

Fans of director John Ford's movies will no doubt recognize the gruff, worn face if not know his name. Often playing a bit part or a supporting role as a background player, Jack Pennick wasn't an actor so much as an ever-present part of the movie as a whole. A veteran who served in the Marines (World War I) and the Navy (World War II), Pennick was one of Ford's company of character actors that fans have come to know and love. His parts were usually so quick, so small that it's cool to see him actually get to do something that is essential to the story, like 1953's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

Now for starters, I don't want to give the impression that Pennick is in every scene and dominates the movie's 80-minute running time.  His part only requires two or three scenes out of him, and he's rather unceremoniously just disappears mid-scene at one point never to return. It is a cool little bit of casting in a movie that has several several oddities. James Best has a bit part as an Army radio operator, Vera Miles and Paul Picerni apparently made appearances in a trailer at some point (I didn't spot them), and one part late in the movie couldn't help but put a smile on my face. As for the rest of the movie? Pretty good so let's do this thing.

On an expedition in the Arctic, Professor Tom Nesbitt (Swedish actor Paul Hubschmid) believes he's seen a prehistoric creature that was unleashed from the thousands of feet of ice and snow by a nuclear detonation. Everyone around him believes that Nesbitt has lost his mind and is imagining things except for Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond), the assistant of Professor Elson (Cecil Kellaway), the world's leading paleontologist. Nesbitt identifies the creature he saw in a sketch and feels even more assured what he saw was real when strange reports of a sea creature attacking ships continue to filter in. The creature looks like it is making its way down the Atlantic current along the east coast heading for New York. With help from an old friend, Army colonel Jack Evans (Kenneth Tobey), Nesbitt tries to convince anyone and everyone how much danger the city is in, but it may be too late.

From the story down to how the sci-fi flick actually looks, my first thought was that 'Beast' was a cheap American knock-off of the original Japanese flick Godzilla.  Well, yeah, that one is on me. Beast was released a year before Godzilla (released in 1954). Nuclear detonations here don't create the beast, they just free him from his icy hibernation so it's not a dead on comparison, but it's similar enough. When the beast does reach New York City, the scenes are almost a blue print for the stereotypical shots of Godzilla attacking Tokyo, mass chaos in the streets, the fleeing masses screaming bloody murder as they flee.  Where so many of these 1950s creature features are a guilty pleasure though, this is a genuinely good movie, thanks in great part to the special effects work of who else? Ray Harryhausen.

As I know I've mentioned in all my other reviews with Harryhausen in the crew, it's easy to brush this man's work aside. Watch a movie made with computer generated effects and all its polish and clarity, and you get spoiled. To create his animation effects, Harryhausen had to take 24 still frames for each second that was on-screen to create the appearance of movement. That's not the right way of wording it I'm quite sure, but I'm drawing a blank right now to make it clearer. So when you see the beast move through the water or run across the frozen Arctic tundra, Harryhausen had to do hours, days and even weeks of work for a few quick seconds of actual screentime. The scenes of the beast attacking NYC are pretty cool no matter how long the they took to construct, the city serving as a great background for the battle between the cops, the Army and our friendly beast from 20,000 fathoms.

Watch movies like this, and if you're like me, you are just looking for the cast and the acting to be not horrible. I don't need award-winning stuff, just serviceable and not downright embarrassing. Working off a story from sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury (I don't know how close the story stays to his story), the characters are pretty cookie-cutter, but that's not a bad thing. Credited as 'Paul Christian,' Hubschmid overcomes his sometimes heavy Swedish accent to play the intelligent professor no one believes with Raymond playing the love interest and pretty assistant, the only person who believes him. Kellaway as Dr. Elson has a cool part -- including an unintentionally funny death scene -- and Tobey is as solid as ever, playing a similar role to the one he played in The Thing from Another World. Any American or spaghetti westerns will appreciate future star Lee Van Cleef showing up as Cpl. Stone, an Army sharpshooter called in to make a ridiculous shot on the beast. He looks almost bored with the proceedings, but come on, it's Lee Van Cleef, and he's still cooler than you.

As I've watched far too many of these movies over the last month thanks to TCM's Thursday marathons, I've noticed the same trend. We have these creatures/monsters/beasts that can't be stopped do we stop them? The finale doesn't disappoint providing an answer that makes some sense (I guess, I'm not really scientifically inclined) and is executed well. The beast ends up cornered at Coney Island in a roller coaster where Professor Nesbitt and Van Cleef's sharpshooter have to fire a radioactive isotope at it. I'll give the movie this, it's got an interesting use of the actual roller coaster that plays into the solution. Seriously though, this is a good sci-fi movie, and one that set the stage for many more in the 1950s.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms <---TCM clips/trailer (1953): ***/****

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Every Which Way But Loose

Clint Eastwood is one of the few people around in the movie business who deserves the honor and title 'screen legend.' Starting off as a TV star in the 1950s and 1960s, he made the jump to films with Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy and then became a huge star back in America with the Dirty Harry series among many others. Not content with just starring in movies, he's made a name for himself as one of the best director/storytellers out there behind the camera. Read through his filmography, and you'll see countless classics and near-classics.  By all accounts, 1978's Every Which Way But Loose is not one of them.

As a huge Eastwood fan, I've done my best to try and view all his movies -- directing and/or starring.  This one just sounded too weird, too off the beaten track.  I'll go into more detail about this flick, but take away everything and anything else, and this movie is about one thing that can be summed up in one simple sentence...Clint Eastwood takes a road trip with an orangutan named Clyde. There you go, that's it. Yes, there is more to this movie, but that's the gist of it.  If just reading that sentence doesn't amuse you even a little bit, I'd wager you probably would not like this movie. For that reason -- among others -- I liked it as a prime example of what a quality 1970s movie can be.

A trucker and a bare-knuckle boxer, Philo Beddoe (Eastwood) is an all-around pretty easy-going guy. He works, he drinks, he hangs out with his best friend and promoter, Orville (Geoffrey Lewis), and lives at home with his aging mother (Ruth Gordon) and his orangutan, Clyde, who he won in a fight. He meets aspiring country singer Lynn Halsey-Taylor (Sondra Locke) and falls for her quickly, only to find a note one day that she's left. Packing up his things, Philo jumps in his truck and goes after her with Clyde, Orville and a woman named Echo (Beverly D'Angelo) along for the ride. He doesn't know where Lynn went, but he intends to find her. Also on his trail is a biker gang called the Black Widows and two police officers looking to exact some revenge on him.

By 1978, Eastwood had created a name for himself as quite the tough guy actor, one of the best around at the action and adventure flick. So a movie where he drives around with an orangutan seems natural, doesn't it? The script was originally intended for Burt Reynolds, but Eastwood read it, liked it and brushed aside studio concerns that it wasn't an appropriate movie for him. It was a movie that was panned critically, but audiences loved the movie as it grossed over $100 million in theaters. It is easy to see why moviegoers were drawn to this movie. It is an easy-going, fun story that as many IMDB reviewers point out is a good late night guilty pleasure or a rainy Sunday afternoon flick.

This is the type of movie that could only be made in the 1970s, and at that with the backing of one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood in Eastwood.  There isn't a plot as much as a series of bits and vignettes that keep things moving along. The soundtrack is mostly country -- with Eddie Rabbitt singing the theme 'Every Which Way But Loose,' listen HERE -- but also featuring performances from Charlie Rich, Cliff Crofford and even Locke singing a couple songs. The villains -- the Black Widows biker gang and two vengeful cops -- are there more for comedic relief than anything, and never really seem too intimidating or much of a challenge. The humor is pretty low-brow (at one point Eastwood seeks out a zoo to get Clyde some action), the boxing and fighting as brutal as they get, and through it all you can't help but enjoy it. Okay, I enjoyed it. I can't speak for you.

Playing against type, Eastwood looks to be having some fun with his part as Philo Beddoe. Yes, he's a fighter and tough guy, but this has to be one of his most human roles. He thinks he's found something with Locke's Lynn and doesn't know why she left. Philo just wants to be happy. Frequent co-star Locke has the chemistry she always had with Eastwood, delivering a solid twist at the end of the movie I didn't see coming. Lewis and D'Angelo similarly have a good chemistry together. Lewis is one of those faces you love to see in 1970s movies, a character actor who starred in countless classics, and Gordon is a scene-stealer as foul-mouthed Ma. The bikers include John Quade, Roy Jenson, Bill McKinney, Dan Vadis and William O'Connell while Gregory Walcott and James McEachin play the dimwitted cops.

Now onto the unquestioned star of the movie...Clyde the orangutan! The formula sounds so simple; throw Eastwood into a movie with a monkey and have him interact. It's criminally stupid, but somehow it works.  We're not talking intelligent humor here, but Clyde ends up being probably the most memorable character from the movie. You end up thinking of him as a person by the end of the movie. And come on, a monkey flipping off a bunch of angry bikers is hilarious however you cut it. This movie has a lot going for it when it really shouldn't, but Clyde the orangutan is maybe the best character ever. A guilty pleasure if there ever was one, but a good one...even if I'm not proud of how much I liked it.

Every Which Way But Loose <---trailer (1978): ***/****

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Bullet is Waiting

The plot description at Turner Classic Movie's website sounded promising enough for 1954's A Bullet is Waiting, aired as part of star of the month Jean Simmons' movie marathon. It read 'A plane crash strands a policeman and his prisoner in the wilderness' so I went in anticipating a film noir set in the west somewhere with a tense battle of nerves as policeman goes mano-a-mano with his prisoner. I was sorely disappointed then when I actually watched it, finding that while the description was accurate, it wasn't completely accurate.

Transporting his prisoner wanted for murder, Ed Stone (Rory Calhoun), back to Los Angeles, Sheriff Munson (Stephen McNally) is instead dealt a new problem when the plane they're flying in crashes somewhere in the mountains and hills of Utah. The pilot is killed, but both sheriff and prisoner survive and are met soon after by a young woman, Cally (Simmons), armed with a rifle who lives on an isolated sheep farm deep in the hills. With Munson's ankle possibly broken, the trio hole up at the small farm, waiting for Cally's father, David (Brian Aherne), to return from a lengthy trip to town while the ankle heals. Seeing the beautiful young Cally, Ed goes to work, wooing her in hopes of somehow escaping. Munson though is not telling the whole story, and it is only a matter of time before his secret comes out in the wash.

My first thought was that this story sounded similar to an Anthony Mann western, The Naked Spur, released a year before in 1953. The basic premise is similar; prisoner being transported to jail/trial, starts to play mind games. Even the small cast seemed alike. Instead of getting that in the form of a film noir though, this movie delves quickly into some philosophical metaphor for something bigger. Cally's father is a former Oxford professor writing a book about philosophy which at one point she reads to the two men. The characters go in depth of their own personal philosophy, beliefs and principles, at one point Calhoun's Ed alluding to the story of the Garden of Eden.

Now bear with me because I can overthink a movie like nobody's business. The Garden of Eden, you say, hhmm? We've got Adam -- that'd be Calhoun -- and Eve (Simmons, that one's easy), the devil/snake (McNally's suspicious Sheriff), and God (the father), all out in this isolated world where no outside contact is easily or readily made.  Director John Farrow uses long, slow shots of nature to set scenes up; the sun poking up over the horizon, sheep running around the farm, storm clouds unleashing torrents of rain, drops of water dripping off the roof of the house. It all seems to point -- to my mind at least -- to be some metaphor to the story of the Garden of Eden. Thrown in with far too much philosophizing and delivering of a message, and the seemingly simple story gets over complicated quickly.

None of this is aided by some casting that just doesn't work. Jean Simmons was Turner Classic Movies June star of the month with this movie aired as part of the festival. One of the most classically beautiful actresses to ever hit the silver screen, she was also one of the best actresses around in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. She will be eternally watchable with an easy-going way about her, and while it isn't her performance that cripples the movie, she is miscast. Simmons has the look of a delicate flower out in the wilderness that just doesn't belong. Hair cut short but styled nonetheless, make-up always immaculate, she looks out of place.  It doesn't help that her character has the potential to be a strong-willed, intelligent woman, only to be a defenseless, crying little girl by the end worried about the man she's fallen in love with.

As for the three male members of the cast, I'm thinking a batting average of .333 overall.  Calhoun works to a point, but McNally and Aherne are a swing and a miss.  Playing a prisoner supposedly wanted for murder, Calhoun is his typical smooth rogue who will prove validated in the end. He doesn't have the greatest chemistry with Simmons though, towering over the diminutive actress in their scenes. McNally is just a bizarre character, especially as we find out more about his Sheriff Munson and his motivations.  Aherne does not make an appearance until very late in the movie just in time to iron everything out and put all the pieces where they belong.

It is the little things that throw me off as is so often the case. Simmons hides the rifle, and McNally somehow can't find it even though it's not that well-hidden. Calhoun carries a knife in his belt at all times, but nothing comes of it, the Sheriff never even demanding he give it back. If anything, McNally's Munson just sits around moping much of the movie. The best is saved for last though in one of those really bizarre moments that I really don't want to spoil here.  I sat the movie out thinking there might be some redeeming quality in the end, but I was wrong again. The movie ends on a laugh -- okay, an attempted laugh -- as the characters literally ride off into the sunset. Pass on this one.

A Bullet is Waiting <---TCM trailer (1954): * 1/2 /****

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Mara Maru

Inevitably with movie stars, that star is going to fade a bit if your career has any sort of prolonged success. Audiences may tire of you a bit, or maybe the scripts just aren't there anymore.  How do you respond then? By 1952, Errol Flynn had his heyday in the late 1930s and throughout much of the 1940s. He continued acting up until his death in 1959 at the age of 50, but his movies through the 1950s just weren't par on with his previous work. A decent movie but not particularly memorable in any way, 1952's Mara Maru is one of those flicks.

Working with partner, Andy (Richard Webb), and former war buddy, Greg Mason (Flynn) runs and operates a successful salvaging business based out of post-WWII Manila.  Returning from a job, Mason finds Andy dead just a few hours after he was talking about a life-altering job, a treasure of over a million dollar's worth of diamonds at the bottom of the ocean. Mason is sure someone is trying to blackmail him for the murder, especially when shadowy businessman Brock Benedict (Raymond Burr) approaches him with a deal to recover the diamonds. Mason agrees to take on the job, hoping to move away with past love and Andy's recent widow, Stella (Ruth Roman), with his take from the job. With a nosy, greedy private detective, Ranier (Paul Picerni), along, the group heads out on the high seas to the location that only Mason knows for sure. 

One of those unheralded directors that never quite reached stardom, Gordon Douglas has quite a string of movies to his name from a 20-plus year career. He didn't have a personal touch that instantly alerted you to a Gordon Douglas movie, but his best efforts always had a knack for bringing a hard-edged, tough professionalism to his stories. 'Mara Maru' is listed as an adventure, but it is actually a little bit of everything. It is an adventure thrown in with some film noir and a murder mystery with a 'Who done it?' feel.  It is a little uneven because of that, the story not always sure what it wants to accomplish.

With a 98-minute run time, my biggest complaint would be an over-reliance on the script. This is a very talkative movie, but not the kind of dialogue that is that memorable. Long scenes of dialogue bring the first half of the movie to a snail's pace as all the characters and mysteries are presented.  It's not all bad though. The murder mysteries can't really be called a mystery because if you can't figure out who's pulling the strings, you should probably head back to elementary school.  Douglas does film in a shadowy black and white for that film noir feel, but it is so shadowy some scenes are difficult to follow. The same for the underwater salvage scenes which mainly consist of Flynn's stunt double walking slowly in a underwater diving suit.

Even in movies that weren't up to his standard, Flynn is always interesting to watch. I won't say he sleepwalks through this part, but the same energy just isn't there that you would have seen in his classics years before.  I don't know where you attribute that. The script? The direction? The only exception is Burr and Picerni who brings their typical flair to their parts. Burr is most remembered for his TV role as lawyer Perry Mason, but he made a name for himself in the 1950s as a menacing, intimidating bad guy. Picerni has some fun as a keeps you guessing P.I., always looking to make a quick buck. Roman too doesn't look very interested in being there for the movie, playing all sides for the best hand.

This review is going to be a short one just because there isn't much to talk about. It's not a bad movie, but I didn't like it either. Errol Flynn is cool as always, but that only takes it so far.

Mara Maru (1952): **/****

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Wet, Hot American Summer

It is either funny or it isn't, right? That is a comedy at its most simplistic. You either laugh/chuckle/cry or you don't. There's little in between. It's rare you hear someone say 'Well, it wasn't funny, but I liked it anyway.' I'm struggling to come up with a comedy that will be more divisive than 2001's Wet Hot American Summer. There is smart humor and there is stupid humor, and then there's this movie which doesn't really fall into either category. It just is. Yeah, I'm going existential on your asses.

I was introduced to this movie when I was in college, and whenever it comes up in conversation I will recommend it to anyone who listens. I'd like to think it is a really stupid movie that know it is really stupid, and is therefore....really smart. Does that make any sense? Eh, I'm probably over-analyzing this one, but I don't care. I love this spoof/satire of the 1980s summer camp movies. It takes the humor you know and know well and manages to spin it into this odd stratosphere where nothing really is what you'd think. I don't even know where to start so brace yourself.

It's the last day of summer camp at Camp Firewood in Maine in August, 1981. Camp director Beth (Janeane Garofalo) is trying to get all her campers through that one last day, and also stop her camp counselors from completely destroying the camp and themselves in the process.  She's got no idea what is in store for Camp Firewood on this day though. Beth also has started to notice Henry (David Hyde Pierce), an associate professor at a local college living near the camp, but that's the least of her problems. Nothing is going to go as planned today, and there's nothing she can do about it.

To say this movie has an actual plot in the typical sense of the word is misleading.  The movie comes from the mind of star/writer Michael Showalter and director David Wain, both members of MTV's skit show The State that ran between 1993 and 1995. Much of the cast from The State is working together here again, bringing an odd, unexplainable chemistry to this comedy that plays like a series of running gags. Title cards tell you the time as the day moves along (including one epic training montage that takes 15 minutes in real world time, watch it HERE), the antics getting creepier and weirder as the day moves along. One commenter at the above video said it is one of the stupidest, dumbest, most inane movies they'd ever seen. I'm hard-pressed to disagree, but I loved it anyways.

Because there's no way to describe the humor and the cast without some ridiculously detailed descriptions, here's a cliff notes version of what's going on. Counselor Coop (Showalter) is a bit of a nerd and has a major crush on fellow counselor, Katie (Marguerite Moreau), who has a boyfriend, Andy (Paul Rudd), who is in general an asshole. Andy is more interested in making out with Lindsay (Elizabeth Banks). Arts and crafts teacher Gail (Molly Shannon) clicks in an odd way with one of her students as she copes with her recent divorce. Gary (Zak Orth) is trying to hook up McKinley (Michael Ian Black) with any girl, but McKinley's gay and hooks up with Ben (Bradley Cooper) who is also running the talent show with Susie (Amy Poehler).

Meanwhile, Victor (Ken Marino) and Neil (Joe Lo Truglio) are leading a river-rafting trip, but Victor wants to get back to camp to hook up with the slutty Abby (Marisa Ryan). In the kitchen, counselor Gary (A.D. Miles) is dealing with cook Gene (Christopher Merloni), a Vietnam vet who's become unhinged since returning home. That's some, just some, of the chaos going on. Some bits are funnier than others, but the ones that work are amazingly funny.

The humor is of the odd, eccentric off the wall variety. It's the little things that work. Scenes end and characters don't know what to do. Kids run off into the woods, Orth's Gary walks off a pier randomly, Showalter's Coop goes and joins the other counselors standing against a wall. Merloni's Gene spouts the bizarre things he likes to do only to pretend he never said it. A trip into town ends in a crime spree with a drug trip. Rudd's Andy loses two kids to drowning (it's funnier than you'd think) and takes them to a "special pizza party," leaving them in the woods. Andy later pouts over cleaning up his breakfast on the floor...that he threw there. Lo Truglio chases Marino because...well...because he does. The talent show is horrifically awful, saved in the end by a camper (Kevin Sussman) with a special power, especially needed when part of a satellite comes crashing down on the camp. Yeah, you read that right. Satellite crashing into summer camp. Like so much of the movie, all I can say is go with it. 

I realize this is going to sound pretentious as I write this, but this is a movie you either get or you don't. You're either going to go along with the bizarre, schizophrenic nature of the movie, or you're going to question what kind of lunatic made this movie. I've recommended it to people knowing they probably won't like it, but you have to give it a try. If you hate it, I apologize, and I owe you one.

Wet Hot American Summer <---trailer (2001): ****/****

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Dawn Patrol

Just a few years after the turn of the century in 1903, the Wright Brothers were the first men to actually fly a plane -- sort of -- and over the last 100 years aviation has advanced by leaps and bounds. Think about just 10 years later though as the world was plunged into a world war. As thousands of soldiers blindly charged into enemy machine guns on the ground, planes were becoming part of war as well as pilots, fighters, and bombers all took to the skies in hopes of gaining a strategic edge on the enemy. World War I has always been vastly underrepresented in films, but there is potential for lots of good stories.

Maybe its the aviation aspect that studios assume viewers will be more interested in flying, but thankfully World War I pilots have been in several worthwhile movies. Most recently Flyboys struggled in theaters telling the story of American pilots flying with the French early in the war. George Peppard starred in The Blue Max, the story of a German infantry soldier turned national hero. One of the best though is 1938's The Dawn Patrol, an anti-war film that is both thrilling to watch and able to strike a nerve emotionally.  That's a good combination if there ever was one.

It's 1915 in France and as a leader of one of the flights in the British 59th Squadron and one of the few pilots with experience, Capt. Courtney (Errol Flynn) consistently finds himself leading rookie, inexperienced pilots on missions where they rarely return.  The war demands new pilots though and as quick as they're taught how to fly they are thrown into the fire. Courtney is constantly at odds with squadron commander Major Brand (Basil Rathbone) who realizes the idiocy of the orders he's receiving but can do nothing about it. Courtney's actions one day in destroying a rail depot actually gets Brand promoted, leaving the command post open to which Courtney is promoted. With close friend and fellow pilot, Lt. Scott (David Niven), taking over one of the flights, Courtney steps into the command position, immediately seeing that there will be no winners in this war.

I've long been aware of this movie, but just never got around to seeing it. I had a picture of gallant, heroic Errol Flynn single-handedly winning World War I from his fighter plane, dispatching hundreds of Germans at will.  Flynn does play the gallant, heroic pilot, but in terms of the rest of the movie I couldn't have been more wrong. Just a year before WWII started in a time when I think of blatant, painful propaganda movies, this is an anti-war movie screaming for someone to listen to the complete idiocy of war and armed combat. Director Edmund Goulding has a film here that doesn't pull any punches. An assembly line of pilots is sent to their deaths because the war requires it, not because it makes any sense. Someone has to fight, and these inexperienced pilots fit the bill.

The best utilization of this is when Niven's Lt. Scott sees his younger brother, Donnie (Morton Lowry), among the newest batch of replacements. Up to this point both Scott and Courtney have balked at what they're doing, but the new pilots are nameless, faceless and interchangeable individuals. Now they have a boy in front of them fresh out of flight school who with his barely 10 hours of time in a plane is expected to tangle with German aces. Niven's Scott begs, implores Courtney to ground his younger brother, giving him a few days to teach him how to survive. Courtney wants to do so, desperately wants to, but as commanding officer where can he draw the line? He can't because he would have to do this for every new pilot. It tears him up inside, sending these young men to almost certain death, but he's left no other option.

Robin Hood is Flynn's more well-known and even iconic role from 1938, but his part as Captain Courtney in The Dawn Patrol is without question the better part for him. I've always liked Flynn as an actor, but I've been critical at times because he does seem to play similar characters. It is roles like this that show he may play similar characters, but he was more than a movie star, he was an actor. Courtney is forced to go through a transformation because his duty calls for it, not because he wants to. Sending men to their death takes its toll on him, but he continues on. Flynn was just 29 years old at the time, and Niven just 28 as they filmed, both showing they were on their way to bigger and better. They have a friendship on-screen that reflects their friendship off-screen so their characters are unquestionably genuine.

With some impressive aerial footage of World War I era planes, it's impossible not to get sucked into the action.  We're watching these flimsy planes that look like a stiff wind would rip them apart as they maneuver and tear through the skies. In an age of planes that travel hundreds of miles in minutes, watching a movie like this can seem like ancient history. The best part of the movie though are the quieter moments, Scott and Courtney reminiscing before a mission that has little chance of success. It's the pilots wearily accepting their orders, hiding the disappointment and running out to their planes. It is Lt. Scott addressing his flight of the squadron, the movie beginning as it ends. There will be no victors, just survivors. These were gentleman fighting a brutish war, much of the time treating their German counterparts with respect. A great scene has Courtney drinking with a downed German pilot (Carl Esmond) just a few hours after shooting him down. There is a surreal nature to the proceedings that just couldn't be made up.

Rightfully so this is remembered as an Errol Flynn movie, and both Flynn and Niven are perfectly cast. Rathbone though is particularly memorable as Major Branch, the commander who wishes he could be up in the sky with his pilots instead of behind a desk. Donald Crisp is good in a supporting part as Phipps, the squadron adjutant while Barry Fitzgerald plays Bott, the squadron mechanic. This is a criminally underrated war movie, one that surprises in the effectiveness of its message. Well worth checking out.

The Dawn Patrol <---trailer (1938): *** 1/2 /****

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Eagle

My initial reaction when I saw a Channing Tatum movie was a less than favorable one. I believe my exact thought went something along the lines of "That guy has the acting range of a cardboard box." Maybe, I could have been more critical, but I'm not sure. I knew him as that guy in the dancing movies (Step Up) who in GI Joe: Rise of Cobra was a less than thrilling choice to lead the cast and movie. Even then, I was curious to see him in 2011's The Eagle, a historical period piece of all things.

The movie was released in theaters in February, made with a budget around $25 million. In a far too quick run in theaters, 'Eagle' made just $18 million so not exactly a rousing success for any studio. It's somewhat predictable to see why it wasn't successful. This could be off base, but you don't hear a lot of demand for a movie about the Roman Empire from a teenage audience (typically the people going to see a Tatum movie). More than that though, the story is predictable, the action incoherent to follow, and long stretches of a 114-minute movie could have been cut without the movie suffering. A bright spot though? Channing Tatum shows he can act.

In 120 A.D. in Britain, the 9th Roman Legion disappears, never to be seen again, the unit's golden Eagle -- their standard/flag in battle -- lost to the ages. Some 20 years later, Marcus Aquila (Tatum) is stationed at a remote outpost in Britain, helping his small command hold off a vicious Druid attack. Marcus is the son of the 9th's commander, and he would like nothing more than to clear his family name and bring the long missing Eagle back to Rome. Rumors persist that the standard is somewhere to the north deep in enemy territory, and Marcus intends to go after it. With help from his slave, a Briton named Esca (Jamie Bell), he heads past Hadrian's Wall in search of the Eagle, ready to do battle with anyone that presents themselves in front of him in his quest.

Playing a Roman centurion, Tatum has his work cut out for him. This part could go one of two ways. One, it is an action-oriented part so his physical presence will certainly help flesh out the performance. Two, it is a part that does require some actual acting as his Marcus is a garrison commander who must inspire faith in his men. Tatum handles the action and physical nature effortlessly, and handles himself well in the acting department (or at least as well as could be expected). Thankfully he doesn't try a stiff English accent (Roman soldiers spoke proper English, right?) so only a few lines are cringe-worthy, most of them shouts and commands to his men in the heat of battle. How many times can you yell 'Hold the circle' before it loses all meaning? I counted four. A minor criticism though for a surprisingly decent performance. Not award-winning stuff, but still good.

Aiding Tatum's cause is rising star Jamie Bell as Esca, his Briton slave.  The duo have an interesting Odd Couple/buddy relationship that has its ups and downs through the movie. At its best, it gives the story some interesting back and forth, a little cat and mouse game where one is always trying to get the upper hand on the other.  It doesn't always work, and there are some advances in the story that don't always make sense. Bell's Esca changes his mind seemingly when the wind shifts, and you're never quite sure of his intentions. Even when everything is revealed and resolved in the end, I'm still not sure it all made sense. Also joining the cast is Donald Sutherland as Aquila, Marcus' uncle living in Britain, Mark Strong as Guern, a supposed survivor of the massacre of the 9th Legion still living in Britain, with Tahar Rahim and Ned Dennehy as members of a northern tribe hunting Marcus and Aquila.  

The age of the 1960s historical epic is long since past so it's still fun to see a movie like this hit theaters. Roman soldiers lining up against masses of warring, heathen-looking barbarians is one of those iconic images from so many 60s epics.  Here though, 'Eagle' is undone by director Kevin Macdonald and a key choice he makes in his action scenes. He goes down the route of ultra-fast, ultra-quick editing that makes his battle scenes a mess of blurry swords being swung, soldiers/barbarians getting hacked up, and it's over so quick that you barely even notice it.  I've never understood the motivation of a director who films his action sequences like that. Getting the idea across of the chaos of battle is one thing, but actually show what's going on, and that might impress more.

The movie can be broken down into four mini chapters, some of which work better than others. One, Marcus arrives in Britain and helps defend his post. Two, a wounded Marcus heals at his uncle's villa. Three, Marcus and Esca search for the Eagle, eventually getting captured by a tribe. Four, they escape and race back to safety. Parts one and two are the more enjoyable parts, but by the time Marcus and Esca are captured there is a 25-minute stretch of pure boredom. It throws the pacing off so much that the rest of the movie struggles to regroup. The ending itself is nothing to brag about, and the chase never amounts to much in the way of excitement.

A sucker for historical epics and period pieces, I wanted to like this one more. Composer Atli Orvarsson turns in a memorable score that reminded me of another movie, but I couldn't place it. Still good though. The on-location shooting in Scotland was a great choice, giving the movie an authentic feel and look of wide open stretches of vast nothingness. The movie feels authentic down to the weapons and uniforms, but it just isn't always an interesting enough movie.

The Eagle <---trailer (2011): ** 1/2 /****

Saturday, July 16, 2011


I find it hard to criticize a director for sticking with what he does best. Michael Bay does huge action movies, John Ford did westerns, Billy Wilder did smart comedies. There always seem to be departures from the norm, but when you're good at doing something, why go too far? I'm finding that's more the case with British director Guy Ritchie who is quickly climbing my list of currently working film directors.

Throw out Sherlock Holmes as a fun historical/period piece, and we're not even going to mention his ill-fated flick with then-wife Madonna, Swept Away. He has only had six feature length movies with his seventh coming this winter, a Sherlock sequel. I recently reviewed his first movie -- cult hit Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels which I loved -- and last fall was introduced to Ritchie's British crime thrillers with RocknRolla. With a limited filmography, it is easy to catch up with the whole Ritchie catalog, and I'm getting there after watching 2000's Snatch., his most highly rated movie to date.

Working with his longtime partner, Tommy (Stephen Graham), underground illegal boxing promoter Turkish (Jason Statham) is in it deep with old-time gangster, Brick Top (Alan Ford). Turkish needs a fighter to take a dive in the fourth round of a fight, picking gypsy, bare-knuckle fighter, Mickey O'Neil (Brad Pitt), but even he isn't sure if the unpredictable gypsy will take a dive. At the same time, a gambler/crook named Frankie Four Fingers (Benicio del Toro) pulls off a heist with an 86-karat diamond. He's trying to unload the diamond for some quick cash, setting up a deal with New York City broker, Cousin Avi (Dennis Farina), but before he can reach London, everything is thrown up for grabs. Pawn shop owners turned crooks, greedy bookies, low-level gangsters, enforcers and thugs, everyone wants their hands on this diamond, and by the end everyone and anyone will cross paths.

The story itself is cookie-cutter in terms of Ritchie's talents and ability. RockNRolla had a painting, Lock/Stock had two shotguns, and Snatch has a big, freaking diamond. Throw this one item into a pack of wild dogs -- crooks, criminals, thugs, gangsters -- and let them go to work on each other. What sets it apart though from other similar movies (Ritchie's style has inspired countless knockoffs) is this unique style and blend of black, dark humor, surprising graphic violence, and dialogue that crackles in every scene. His camerawork is fun to watch, and the pace nears frenetic but never becomes indecipherable. Ritchie makes his movie on a small budget, but it never reflects it in the finished product.

With countless characters to work with and a positive reputation following 'Lock, Stock,' Ritchie remains true to his roots here while still adding some big names to the cast. Brad Pitt is obviously the biggest name as the heavily bearded, heavily tattooed, gypsy, bare-knuckle fighter Mickey O'Neil.  The part is a credit to Pitt for taking a smaller role that ends up being one of the movie's best. He speaks in this lightning quick, mumbling, heavy Irish accent that makes it nearly impossible to follow without subtitles, but there's a charm to this character that Pitt brings to the table. Dennis Farina gets to play straight man to all the comedic chaos around him as Cousin Avi, a NYC diamond broker totally out of his element in the London underworld. Benicio Del Toro is in the movie for about six seconds so don't go in expecting him to be around long.

That is only three characters though in a sea of memorable characters. Statham and Graham are great together as Turkish and Tommy, two low level boxing promoters maneuvering for their lives when a deal goes wrong. Ritchie favorite Vinnie Jones plays Bullet Tooth Tony, an enforcer similar to the character he played two years earlier in 'Lock, Stock.' Rade Serbedzija is foreboding, intimidating and even funny as Boris the Bullet Dodger, a guns dealer who used to be a KGB agent. Ford as Brick Top provides some of the movie's funniest lines, ones you wouldn't think would be funny but his delivery sells it. Lennie James and Robbie Gee play Sol and Vinny, two pawn shop owners turned robbers with their not-so svelte getaway driver, Tyrone (Ade). What makes all this craziness work is that with limited screentime, each and every one of these characters gets a chance to shine. Some are more memorable than others, but not a one disappoints.

Beyond all the stylish camera work, the crazy, convoluted story, and graphic violence, I think the biggest selling point for Ritchie's movies is the incredibly dark -- and therefore a whole lot funnier -- humor. Ade's Tyrone is an obese getaway driver who can barely get in and out of his car. He refuses to park in a suitable parking spot because he claims there isn't room (there's plenty) and then shows what a crappy driver he is. Ford's Brick Top explains in graphic detail how to dispose of a body at a pig farm, a story that in no way should be funny but somehow is. Avi wants Tony to kill a dog because he believes the diamond is inside him, producing a series of great one-liners and reactions that had me roaring. Tony later tries to dispatch a rival, emptying a clip into him only to hear him deliver one line after another as he refuses to die. Out of context, maybe it's not that funny. But this movie is funnier than most straight comedies out there.

With Guy Ritchie movies, I think you're either going to love them or hate them. You will either embrace the crazy antics and the lunacy of what's going on, or it's just not going to appeal to you. As good as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels was, I think this is Ritchie's best movie up to now. Twisting and turning story, great script (written by Ritchie), and more memorable characters than I care to mention.

Snatch. <---trailer (2000): *** 1/2 /****