The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Terrorists

Finishing up with the James Bond series with 1971's Diamonds Are Forever (later remaking Thunderball with Never Say Never Again), Sean Connery has spent the rest of his career moving on, showing he can play other characters and not just 007. He's done an admirable job with some great parts (The Untouchables, The Man Who Would Be King, among many others) and some awful ones. Then there's 1974's The Terrorists, falling somewhere in between. 

A radical terrorist, Shepherd (John Quentin), and his followers have kidnapped a British ambassador in hopes of releasing some of their friends from prison, but the escape plan first. Another terrorist, Petrie (Ian McShane), catches wind of the police's plan to catch Shepherd and hijacks an airliner full of people, sitting on a tarmac waiting to take off until Shepherd can get free. With the plane sitting on Scandinavian soil, the head of security, Colonel Tahlvik (Connery), is called in to handle the situation. With two different groups to handle though and hundreds of lives at stake -- not to mention a country's reputation -- something doesn't add up. Can Tahlvik figure it all out before it's too late?

I stumbled across this one at Netflix thanks to the casting of Connery and McShane, my curiosity getting the best of me despite the average to below average rankings and reviews. It's not a bad movie, but it is far from a good movie either. Director Caspar Wrede shot much of his movie on location in Oslo where the movie is set so that's a positive. It's a gloomy, dark setting that reflects the darkness of the story, and I can't say I've seen too many movies with Oslo as the main setting. Jerry Goldsmith's blaring soundtrack is overused if anything, telegraphing whatever is about to happen in terms of twists or action, but it is catchy so I'll give them that. Listen to the main theme HERE. The little things like location and music are interesting if flawed so where did the story go wrong?

That would be in the script. The version I saw was just 88 minutes long, giving the feeling that there were some significant cuts from a longer (hopefully better) movie. What's there though lacks any sort of tension or intent to get something done. Connery's Tahlvik never seems too worried or too interested in the situation at hand. There's a plane full of hostages sitting on a tarmac about to be blown up, and he's more worried about his lunch. I reviewed the original Taking of Pelham One Two Three over the last several weeks, a film dealing with a similar topic but handled much, much better. It's well thought out and more importantly, the execution of the thought comes through. Even at just 88 minutes, 'Terrorists' drifts along until enough things have happened, and an inevitable confrontation must present itself, but more on that later.

If you're interested in seeing this one, it's most worthwhile for the casting of Connery and McShane. Not his best performance by a long shot for Connery, but he's one of those few actors who is very watchable even when the movie is bad. He gets to scream and yell at times, trying to put down his first ever hijacking. McShane is a little better with the showier part, the terrorist making a sacrifice to save his fellow terrorists who've gotten in too deep. Like Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw in 'Pelham,' the best scenes -- however brief -- in Terrorists is Connery and McShane talking over a radio to each other, negotiating whenever possible. Unfortunately without another recognizable name in the rest of the cast, no one else leaves much of an impression, good or bad.

As things developed, I'm thinking 'Hhmm, this ending could be interesting.' How will they wrap this one up? The ending doesn't disappoint in that it does deliver a twist that I didn't see coming (although it is hinted at). When you first see it, the twist makes sense and is even pretty cool. But then you start thinking about it, and the whole thing falls apart. Disappointing because there is some quality in that reveal, quality in the potential for the ending. A lackluster film, one that never amounts to a whole lot despite some solid performances from the stars.

The Terrorists <---TV promo (1974): **/****

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Hunger Games

As far as popular book series go, The Hunger Games trilogy by author Suzanne Collins is the only one I've fallen for. That sounds negative, I just liked there. Harry Potter, Twilight, Percy Jackson, any number of others, I never had a whole lot of interest in them. With 'THG,' I don't know if it was the characters, the future dystopia, the unique setting, but I loved the books and raced through all three in a little over a week before the first movie was released March 23rd. Where so many other book-to-novel transitions suffer, 2012's The Hunger Games isn't one of them.

It's sometime in the near future, and North America has ceased to exist. Instead, a government and country Panem have taken over, the country divided into 12 districts ruled with an iron fist. It has been some 80-odd years since a revolution took place, the people revolting against their rulers. The government that took control in the aftermath has installed a brutal system of rule with a yearly tribute meant to keep the population in check. It is called the Hunger Games, and once a year, a boy and a girl aged 12-18 from each district is picked at random and thrown into an arena where they will fight to the death. It is a televised event, all the population forced to watch.

In one of those districts -- District 12, looks like Appalachia -- lives 16-year old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who cares for her younger sister, Prim (Willow Shields), and her mother who still struggles with the death of her husband in a mining accident. Katniss is the sole provider for her family and tries to calm Prim as they prepare for the Reaping, the yearly event where the 2 district "tributes" are picked for the Hunger Games. At the ceremony, Prim is selected but Katniss desperately volunteers to go in her place. With the male district tribute, a baker's son, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss is whisked off to the Capitol City where she is prepared and trained for the Hunger Games and all its brutality. She can be told anything she wants, but nothing can truly prepare her for what awaits in the arena where 23 will die and only one will survive.

With many book-to-film transitions, my typical goal/objective is for the film to just not ruin the book(s) I've enjoyed so much. With Collins helping write the script, director Gary Ross passes with flying colors. 'Hunger' stays true to the book, the characters and the story. Any omissions don't hurt the movie, and any creative license goes with the flow of the book and movie. As for the future society, it gets things right. We're left in the dark as to the exact details, only seeing this totalitarian society rise up in the place of what we did know. The rich population in the Capitol are lavish, extravagant and favor heavy make-up and showy clothes. The outlying districts are just trying to survive, make it to the next day. It's still a world that feels familiar, but it is tweaked just enough to keep things interesting in all its despicable brutality.

Reading the books, I knew that Jennifer Lawrence had been cast as heroine Katniss so that definitely helped. I had a picture of what the character looked like in my head. No doubt this movie will sink or swim on how the individual viewers feel about her because she's in about 98% of the movie. This is an example of perfect casting...perfect. The sign of good acting is that you don't feel like you're watching someone act. Lawrence -- just 21 years old -- is an incredibly gifted young talent. Natural doesn't begin to describe her. It seems almost effortless with her. She's fought for everything she has in her life, and now she intends to protect her family no matter what. Having hunted and navigated the woods for years, she doesn't realize it, but she's perfectly suited to survive the Games. Good for her, not so much when her rival tributes see how talented she is. Lawrence makes Katniss a human being, not a character, just a teenage girl who's naive, strong, innocent and dead-set on protecting those she loves.

As for the rest of the cast, it's just gravy that they're uniformly and equally as well-cast, both the villains and heroes. Hutcherson has a good, easy-going chemistry with Lawrence, and his Peete has a secret that could help or hurt their chances at survival. Liam Hemsworth plays Gale, Katniss' long-time friend, the two teenagers realizing how special the other is to them only when death is on the line. The Gale character is developed considerably more in books 2 and 3. Rock star and musician Lenny Kravitz is an interesting choice (but a good one) to play Cinna, Katniss' stylist meant to build up an image of her for the viewers. Stanley Tucci is a scene-stealer as Caesar Flickerman, the amiable host of the televised Hunger Games, Toby Jones as his on-air co-host. Woody Harrelson is equally good as Haymitch, the District 12 mentor, a previous winner who teaches his new tributes with each passing year. Elizabeth Banks is surprisingly funny as the clueless Effie, the District 12 representative and guide for the tributes. As for the Capitol villains, there's Donald Sutherland as sinister President Snow and Wes Bentley as Seneca Crane, the constructor of the Hunger Games arena.

The 142-minute movie is basically dived into two portions; the intro in District 12 and the Capitol, all of it building that sense of doom that leads into the second half, the actual Hunger Games (the 74th running of the event). There are no real weak or slow points in the story, but the momentum certainly picks up once Katniss is thrown into the arena with the 23 other tributes. The intro to the arena is a high-point, each tribute on a pedestal waiting for a clock to wind down. Once it runs out, it's a free for all, some running, others running toward the supplies placed in front of them. 'Hunger' earns it's PG-13 rating, but it could have been a hard R easily. The games are almost entirely shown through Katniss' eyes, a personal, adrenaline-pumping, terrifying experience of a blood-soaked sporting event. There are some secrets in store, and the tributes never know what will be thrown at them. Credit also to composer James Newton Howard's score, memorable without being overbearing. We really only get to meet two other tributes, young Rue (Amandla Stenberg), and vicious Cato (Alexander Ludwig), the others mostly known as their district number and little else.

What I came away most impressed with was that Collins' first book in the trilogy, The Hunger Games, throws a lot at the reader. A transition to the big screen seemed daunting. A mysterious and vague -- but hinted at -- past, a long list of characters who were all interesting in their own right, and a futuristic world that seems familiar to what we know, but at the same time is vastly different. The movie doesn't just pick and choose what to do, instead it does an admirable job of making that transition. A lot of that can be chalked up to Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, a star-making role if there ever was one. An incredibly worthy start to a highly successful franchise. Looking forward to what the next movies have to offer.

The Hunger Games <---trailer (2012): *** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Navajo Joe

Since Burt Reynolds began working on TV in the late 1950s, the actor has pretty much never stopped working, doing movies and television shows over the years. But of all those parts -- and there's been some stinkers -- Reynolds thinks one stands below all the rest, his worst performance and movie ever. So goes 1966's Navajo Joe.

At the head of a gang of bloodthirsty cutthroats and murdering scalphunters, a bandit named Duncan (Aldo Sambrell) leads a vicious attack on a peaceful Navajo village. Men, women and children are massacred, their scalps taken for $1 bounty each. Duncan's gang moves on, working with a corrupt town official, Dr. Lynne (Pierre Cressoy) to rob a train and his own town of over $500,000. The job seems simple enough, but a survivor of the massacre remains, one warrior named Joe (Reynolds), who appears and disappears around the gang, killing one, two and three men with each of his attacks. Duncan becomes obsessed with killing him, especially with all that money on the line.

As Reynolds has claimed, is this his worst part? No, there's much worse out there, but as a movie, this wouldn't be a great introduction to spaghetti westerns. Stick with the Sergio Leone movies first, and then move on to lesser known entries like this. From director Sergio Corbucci (the "Other Sergio"), 'Joe' is rougher, cynical, aggressively in your face, and brutal. Corbucci was a shoot from the hip kind of director, rogue-like behind the camera with touches of an amateur. His camera is always moving, the shooting angles are always a tad off, and they never have (his earlier films at least) the polish of the Leone films. None of that's a bad thing, just know what to expect from Mr. Corbucci. With Django, The Mercenary, Companeros, The Hellbenders, and The Great Silence, he's responsible for some of the best spaghetti westerns around so he's not a talent-less schlub behind the camera.

So how about Reynolds as a Navajo warrior dispatching a gang of scalphunters? It is far from his worst work, but it ain't a great performance either. It's far from his fault. The script for 'Joe' isn't exactly the most well-written thing around, with plot holes and jumps in story all over the place. The 30-year old actor does his best though, and to his credit he commits. It's more of a physical performance than real acting (although thankfully he doesn't try to pull off an Indian "accent"). He leaps all over the screen, shooting, stabbing, jumping, strangling Duncan's gang. There are some unintentionally funny lines -- not just Reynolds, the whole cast -- but above all else, Reynolds looks comfortable. Looking to avenge his wife's death amongst the massacre, Joe is not going to be slowed up, no matter the odds.

As his opponent, familiar spaghetti western face Aldo Sambrell doesn't disappoint as the vicious half-breed, Duncan. Usually relegated to supporting parts, filling out gangs or playing a sheriff or bounty hunter, Sambrell does not disappoint when he jumps into a starring role. His Duncan is a great spaghetti baddie, on the brink of lunacy with past demons threatening to tear him apart. His gang seems to fluctuate as needed -- anywhere between 20-50 guys -- all of them ending up being characters without names, mostly because of their personal, unique and eccentric looks. Some include Jeffrey (Lucio Rosato), Duncan's half-brother, Robledo (Lorenzo Robledo), the quick-draw, trick-shot specialist, Sancho (Alvaro de Luna), the knife fighter, and Monkey (Simon Arriaga), the former Confederate soldier, among many others. Also look for Fernando Rey as what else? A Mexican priest, a role he played fairly often in the spaghetti era. Nicoletta Machiavelli plays Estella, a half-breed woman (Mexican/Indian), who sides with Joe in his efforts.  

Besides Reynolds in the starring role, the thing that has helped 'Joe' live on some 40-plus years later is Ennio Morricone's musical score. It is one of the more unique, quirky scores Morricone ever did, and that's saying something considering how many unique, quirky scores he did in spaghetti westerns. The main theme especially stands out, a woman chanting (seemingly in some sort of pain) before a male choir and instruments kick in. Give it a listen HERE. One of the best things going for the movie on its own, it's received a rebirth thanks to 1999's Election. A young Reese Witherspoon is running for her high school's student body president and in the voting process, tears down all her opponent's posters. What music is playing? Morricone's chanting choir score. Spot-on use of his music too. Watch one example HERE.

So watching this movie for the first time in five years or so, I didn't like it as much as I remembered. It's still good in that guilty pleasure sense, but it's not a classic. The selling point will be the action, and it's particularly brutal. Shooting, stabbing, even a death by scalpel. Navajo Joe alone takes out 26 -- by my count, it's probably light -- of Duncan's gang, who also have over 10 guys killed attacking a heavily guarded train. We see some uses of squibs, and with Corbucci's touch, it is fairly graphic. It isn't a great movie overall, but it is a fun movie, best to watch with some friends and have some laughs.

Navajo Joe <---trailer (1966): ** 1/2 /****

Monday, March 26, 2012


I think you either get baseball or you don't. It's that simple. Somethings you just can't explain the beauty of a sport to someone who either 1. Doesn't get it or 2. Doesn't want to get it. It is a sport that has changed with the times over the last 150-plus years so when someone comes along and drastically tries to change it? The "accepted way" of succeeding is going to resent the newcomer, the new way of doing it. That's what Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane tried to do as we see in Michael Lewis' book and 2011's Moneyball.

A former first round bust, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is at a turning point in his career in 2002 as the general manager of the Oakland Athletics. In a small market with a small market budget, Beane is trying to figure out how to field a competitive team in a market where rival teams are spending three and four times as much money as he is. While trying to pull off a trade, Billy meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a 25-year old Yale grad who has developed a way to analyze baseball in a more statistics-oriented fashion, working for the Cleveland Indians. He "trades" for Peter and goes about rebuilding a team and a franchise as it loses three key players. The whole baseball world says Billy is wrong, and that he will fail on an epic scale. Can he pull it off and show that his strategy can work too?

Like I tried to say earlier, there is a beauty of baseball that translates well to film. Watch a baseball game, and you will never see the exact same thing. Getting 27 outs will provide countless opportunities to see something that you've never seen before and may never see again. The ride along the way is the fun. Say what you will about Moneyball, but it is above all else a baseball movie. You can poke holes in the story -- I will later -- or question the bigger picture and claims it makes, but it manages to personalize a story that is based in numbers and statistical analysis. The actual game action is kept at a minimum (the exception is an American League record the A's take down), and director Bennett Miller does a fine job condensing a year of action into a 133-minute long movie.

This was a film that was in the works for years, always seemingly hitting roadblock after roadblock. The only reason it kept chugging along was producer and star Brad Pitt who always kept things moving. He earned a Best Actor nomination, and while he didn't win, I think he very much deserved the nomination at least. I'm a Pitt fan -- don't really get all the hate he gets as an actor -- but I don't think he gets the credit he deserves at times. Playing a person that most sports fans will know, he humanizes him instead of playing a cliched stereotype of the man. Quick flashbacks show how he got into baseball, failed as a player, became a scout and eventually a GM. This is a man who hates losing more than he loves winning. He is blinded by his own ambition, not seeing what he's accomplished. We see him interact with his 12-year old daughter (Kerris Dorsey) and his ex-wife (Robin Wright), but this is only way to develop the individual, not the name we've all heard on ESPN. Understated but emotional, a highly effective lead performance.

Only two other performances are given a chance to breathe. A pre-weight loss Jonah Hill plays Peter Brand, the brilliant baseball mind who looks at the sport as a statistic, not a sport based solely on physical skills/talents. The character is based off Beane's top assistant, Paul DePodesta. He too was nominated for his part -- didn't win -- and shows that if there was a question, he can most certainly act in a dramatic part, not just do comedy. Hill is so sublimely underplaying his part, you don't always notice his part, but then you think back and realize what a perfect counter/foil he is to Pitt's Beane. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Art Howe, the A's manager who resents Billy for some of his out-of-the-box thinking. Because it is a movie about Beane and his Moneyball strategy, Howe's part is downplayed, the manager coming off as a whiny punk. Still, a good part for Hoffman without a ton of screentime.

I love sports movies from the great to the good to the awful. This true sports story is a self-confident sports story. Like its two stars in Pitt and Hill, it is understated. It doesn't blast away at you, insisting you understand the message. STATS ARE IMPORTANT!!!!! I loved the musical score from Mychael Danna, an almost ethereal, synthesized electronic sound. Give a listen HERE and poke around Youtube bit, the soundtrack is a real winner. The story varies between live action and archive footage from the 2002 season, and while it doesn't focus on a ton of key games, it knows when to delve into some detail. Is it a compliment to say a movie is self-assured? I hope so because I intended it that way. Now if you're not a sports fan, you can stop reading. I loved the movie, but as a baseball fan I had some issues with the movie. NERD ALERT! NERD ALERT!

In an effort to emphasize Beane's impact on the A's and MLB in 2002 and since, the story in Moneyball is streamlined. Losing key players in slugger Jason Giambi, lead-off man Johnny Damon, and closer Jason Isringhausen, Beane and Hill must improvise. The movie focuses on three key signings including journeyman Scott Hatteberg (Christ Pratt in a great part), aging star David Justice and submarine "specialist" pitcher Chad Bradford. Yes, I know a movie can't tell every little thing, but it completely disregards part of the team's success. Yes, the A's lost Giambi and Damon. They still had Miguel Tejada (34 HRs, 131 RBIs in 2002), Eric Chavez (34 HRs, 109 RBIs), and Jermaine Dye (24 HRs, 86 RBIs) offensively. Oh, and that pitching staff? How about Barry Zito (23 wins, 2.98 ERA), Mark Mulder (19 wins, 3.47 ERA), Tim Hudson (15 wins, 2.98 ERA), and Billy Koch (44 saves, 11 wins)? Yes, Beane and his staff made some crazy brilliant moves that season, but to basically ignore all those other players? It's a disservice to the story of what was a great season. That's the end of my baseball nerd alert. Back to your regular programming.

My objections to the movie are because I love baseball. That's all. As a stand-alone story without much in the way of prior baseball knowledge, it is still a highly effective, well-told and professionally done movie. Easy-going isn't fair to describe it, but Moneyball has a confidence that brings it up a notch. Pitt and Hill are a great duo together. It's a great baseball and sports movie, but mostly it's just a good movie.

Moneyball <---trailer (2011): ****/****

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Thing (1982)

In the case of good original and good remake, 1951's The Thing from Another World and 1982's The Thing have the same basic storyline but differ from there on in. And that's not a bad thing. They're similar enough to be compared, but the remake is a stand-alone film in a lot of senses. It is the rare remake that improves on the original's premise, even spawning a recent prequel.

At a remote weather station in Antarctica, gunfire erupts as a Norwegian helicopter swoops in, a man firing away at a fleeing dog. The crew is killed, leaving the American outfit at the station to figure out what happened at the Norwegian camp, an hour's trip away. They find that the Norwegians stumbled across something in the ice, something other-worldly that's been hidden away in the ice. Among the Americans is MacReady (Kurt Russell), the helicopter pilot, Garry (Donald Moffat), the station commander, and Blair (Wilford Brimley), the station doctor. MacReady and Blair begin to piece it together. The dog that was running from the helicopter is the Thing, an alien species able to imitate life, killing its source in the process. Could any of the crew have been taken over? Is it too late to stop this being before it is too late and escapes?

The 1951 original is a smart, well-written horror/sci-fi story that capitalized on the fear in the U.S. of the Russians, Communism and the Cold War. It begged viewers to watch the skies because one never knew when an attack could come! Cue dramatic music! With the 1982 version, horror master John Carpenter directs a story that is darker, scarier and more ominous. This isolated station is hundreds of miles from civilization and any sort of help, the British Columbia location providing a great backdrop for that isolated feeling. Composer Ennio Morricone's score is what a good horror/thriller score should be. Unsettling without being obvious, it foreshadows the coming doom but never blares in your face. Listen to his main theme HERE.

What works so smoothly in Carpenter's version is how intelligent and well-written it is. Yes, it's creepy as hell watching the Thing attack anything and everything in sight, ripping them apart rather graphically and then "becoming" the victim. But that's just a visual scare. What about the paranoia and fear of not knowing who you can trust? Could the person you're talking to be the Thing? Maybe he's already been attacked. The Thing is able to perfectly replicate its source victim, forcing MacReady, Blair and the others to come up with a test to reveal someone/something's true identity. That's what makes 'Thing' special. Everyone begins to turn on each other, sure they're truly themselves, but who's sure? Even better, Carpenter keeps us in the dark as to several characters. As a viewer, we're not always sure who's real and who's the Thing, much less the characters. Gory, bloody scares are one thing, but smart, paranoia thrills are even better.

As a director, Carpenter has been a great interview on several other DVDs' special features, talking about his love of 1950s war/westerns that featured a group of specialists working together (another reason Carpenter is awesome). 'Thing' allows him to assemble an all-male ensemble cast, Russell being the biggest name here in the director/star's third movie together. Russell as MacReady is the unquestioned star, the cynical, boozing helicopter pilot. It's his appearance that made him iconic though; the beard, the long hair, heavy jacket and boots, the sombrero he wears while flying. Great presence for a great character. Brimley is a scene-stealer as Blair, the doc who figures the Thing out, and along with Moffat as Garry there's also T.K. Carter as Nauls (the cook), David Clennon as Palmer, Keith David as Childs, Richard Dysart as Copper (the 2nd doctor), Charles Hallahan as Norris, Peter Maloney as Bennings, Richard Masur as Clark (the dog handler), Joel Polis as Fuchs, and Thomas G. Waites as Windows (radioman). Basically, these guys are fodder for the Thing, but they're a uniformly solid bunch.

In terms of originality, it's hard to beat the opening for 1982's The Thing. With no explanation, we're dropped into a chase; a helicopter racing over the Antarctic terrain and pursuing something. A man-on board is hanging off the chopper on a runner, blasting away at a dog running away below. We don't know what or why (for awhile at least) he's doing so, making it all that much more mysterious and sinister. The explanation comes along and it all fits together, but in terms of scene and tone-setting, that opening is one of the all-time greats, especially with Morricone's score driving the action. Watch it HERE. As quite the bookend, the finale is great too, open-ended enough for the audience to make up their mind about what they've seen. One of the great final lines in a movie too.

Also worth mentioning? The 2011 prequel was good in its own right and more than did justice to the 1982 version. Some homework was clearly done setting up the mysterious Norwegian camp, making it a spot-on version of what we saw in the 1982 version, and that movie's ending is just as good, ending where this one begins in a great little connection. All told, all three 'Thing' movies are above average, but this sci-fi/horror/thriller from John Carpenter is hands down the best. You can watch the whole movie at Youtube -- watch HERE -- in 10 parts.

The Thing <---trailer (1982): *** 1/2 /****

Saturday, March 24, 2012


One of many movies that I'm looking forward to in 2012, The Avengers will arrive in theaters on May 4. I've seen the other unofficial prequels that have all led to this movie including Iron Man (loved it), Iron Man 2 (eh), Captain America (loved it), and the Hulk movies (okay, but nothing more). Who's left? That would be 2011's Thor, a movie I really had little interest in seeing, but for the sake of The Avengers, I wanted at least to be up to date on everything. Yeah, that was a bad choice.

In the realm of Asgard, a king named Odin (Anthony Hopkins) has stopped the Frost Giants from destroying the remaining eight realms of the universe. Odin is quickly aging though and is ready to name his son, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), his heir and successor to the crown. Thor though is too arrogant, too cocky, and finds himself banished to Earth when he pushes his father too far, all his power and strength -- including his hammer -- is taken from him. He's found in the desert by Jane (Natalie Portman), an astrophysicist exploring sightings in the sky. With no powers, Thor doesn't know what to do as he explores this foreign world. Back home in Asgard, his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is up to no good though, and Thor must find a way to stop him.

I think it took me about five minutes to decide I didn't like this film, and unfortunately things didn't improve over the next 110. From the previous Marvel superhero movies, I expected a certain quality even when the movie itself isn't that great. Director Kenneth Branagh seems lost here. There is absolutely no payoff here at all. None. Things keep building and building....well, sort of. Things happen in the desert, then Asgard, then other realms, then a lackluster fight at the end. People are shot back and forth through the realms, people fight. I don't see the point of the movie other than introducing the Thor character. It's dull, the attempts at humor fall far short of actual laughs, and a good cast is wasted...a really good cast.

What was my first sign of trouble? The sweeping panoramic reveal of Asgard, a Norse-like realm straight out of Viking mythology, reeked of Lord of the Rings. The overabundance of CGI bored me to death. I maintain that the best of computer-generated imagery is barely noticeable. It just flows with the movie. The scenes that call attention to themselves are pretty clear we're watching something a computer created. But mostly, it's the ridiculous tone. An acting legend he may be, but Hopkins just looks uncomfortable here. Hiddleston as Loki is one of the weakest, most boring villains around. And the introduction of the Frost Giants in the beginning? I realize this is all a fictional mythology, but that's the best that Marvel came up with? Big monsters that freeze things? When they're fighting Thor or his allies in battle, why don't they just freeze them off the bat instead of engaging in hand-to-hand combat? Wow, that's way too much analysis for a movie this dumb.

Now not that an IMDB rating means a lot (is The Shawshank Redemption really the greatest movie ever? I think not.), but Thor is rocking a 7.0 average at the time of this review. The only real bright spot I come up with is Hemsworth as Thor. He's one of the few actors here who looks comfortable in his role. He commits to the part for lack of a better description. Thor, the god of thunder, arriving on Earth with no powers but all his Norse mannerisms and stilted, boisterous speech patterns do provide some laughs. He orders a 2nd cup of coffee, slamming the empty mug down because that's what he's always done. More importantly though, Hemsworth is quite the physical presence. This dude is ripped, and he dominates the fight scenes he's in. Now if he joins The Avengers, I don't see why anyone else is needed -- especially if he's got his Hammer -- but more over-thinking on my part. Silly me. Anyways, Hemsworth is the best thing going here.

The rest of the cast doesn't fare too well. No doubt that Portman is an above average actress, and it's great to see her in a mainstream blockbuster, but this is not a good part for her. She floats along, tries to act pissed and falls hard for Thor because something's got to happen in this movie. Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Denning play Erik and Darcy, Jane's assistants in the field who get mixed up in the whole Thor arrival. Denning at least gives it a go with her cynical humor, Skarsgard just looks bored. Thor's Asgard crew of warriors -- potentially very cool, in execution not developed and cliched -- include Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano, Josh Dallas, and Jaimie Alexander. Making an out of left field appearance, Rene Russo stands around for two or three scenes as Frigga, Thor's mother. Another bright spot in the cool character/actor department is Idris Elba as Heimdall, the Asgard gatekeeper to the portals that reach the other realms of the universe.

Because I'm struggling to put into words why I disliked this movie, let's talk connection with The Avengers. Clark Gregg is back as Agent Coulson, on-site and much-maligned field agent for S.H.I.E.L.D. who must investigate Thor's arrival, as well as his Hammer. Also look quickly for Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, another Avenger introduced for the first time here. And if the other Marvel movies have taught us anything, watch through the credits as Samuel L. Jackson makes his requisite appearance in a short scene as Nick Fury. I didn't care for Thor -- the movie, not the character -- much at all, but I'm still psyched for the Avengers movie in May.

I'm trying to put my finger on this one, and I'm drawing a complete blank. I'm not sure what Brannagh was going for at all as a director. The story is aimless, drifting along with no real purpose or set goal. It bounces around far too much, and then when its deemed we've had enough, the credits roll. Hemsworth as Thor is trying though, and he does a fine job with the character, but there's not much else to recommend.   

Thor <---trailer (2011): */****

Thursday, March 22, 2012

21 Jump Street

Running for five seasons on FOX in the late 1980s and early 1990s, 21 Jump Street is mostly and fondly remembered now for giving Johnny Depp a starring role, one he turned into a hugely successful career. I was never a fan of the show, but I'm at least familiar with it so I was naturally a little confused when I saw it was being a comedy to be released in theaters. Skeptical, but a trailer sold me on it, and 2012's 21 Jump Street does not disappoint.

Having graduated from the police academy, screw-up cops Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) are wasting away on bike patrol. When they finally do make a bust, it's for nothing, Jenko forgetting to read the suspect his Miranda rights. Instead they're given one last chance; go undercover as high school students with an undercover police outfit stationed at 21 Jump Street. A new synthetic drug has popped up at the school, and the outfit's captain, Capt. Dickson (Ice Cube), wants the duo to not only stop the mini-ring, but find out who the dealers and suppliers are. With no other option, they agree, but even in just six years, high school has changed drastically, and Jenko and Schmidt are in over their heads immediately.

Are there no original ideas out there? That's basically the point of a monologue delivered by the police captain (great one-scene part for Nick Offerman), asking why "the police" keep going through the same old things, the same old procedures. In other words, why do we keep watching the same shows and movies over and over again? It's a surprisingly funny, quick, little scene, one that helps this 2012 success poke a little fun at itself. Thankfully though, directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller don't just go through the motions here. Instead of doing a straight remake of the 1980s cult and fan favorite, Lord and Miller tweak the formula. The "drama" and "mystery" are so far gone, it's a remake in name only. This is a comedy through and through, and it executes. It is a very funny -- sometimes smart, sometimes stupid, but always producing laughs -- comedy that doesn't go for status quo.

Some of my initial surprise came from the casting of Hill and Tatum as the two leads. It just didn't sound like a match made in heaven. Go figure. I couldn't have been more wrong. Hill and Tatum as the two leads is by far the best thing going here. It's like the Odd Couple on steroids, the buddy cop like we haven't seen previously in movies. In a brief intro, we see Schmidt as a nerd, Jenko as the cool athlete. Meeting again at the police academy, they strike up a genuine friendship, both helping the other out with a weakness (Schmidt with the physical, Jenko with his studies). Yes, the movie is funny, and dirty funny much of the time, but this surprisingly believable, very genuine brother-like relationship develops. I can honestly say I didn't see that coming. Tatum shows he can do comedy effortlessly -- both physical humor or selling a line -- and Hill again shows a knack for both the more exaggerated and the more subtle. He underplays some of his lines and really jumps into others as needed. Whatever they're doing, they do it well.

Tweaking the TV show jumping off point, 'Jump Street' has some fun with the teenage sex comedy. We've all seen enough of them to know the cliques, cliches, stereotypes and genre gimmicks. A nerd in school, Schmidt becomes one of the cool kids while Jenko bonds with the nerds. It is Jenko who blames Glee for changing the high school they both knew. The laughs come at you from all sides though, some smart, some dumb. A running gag about expecting more explosions as a cop is priceless, especially the pay-off in a high-speed freeway chase. Jenko and Schmidt sampling the synthetic drug is a high point as they go through the stages of the acid-like drug. And then there's the fact that neither looks like high school students...even a bit. Tatum is 32 years old, Hill is 28. The whole premise is ridiculous. Of course they don't look like high school students, and people notice but only to a point. They notice, but not enough to do anything about it. Moral of the story? Funny stuff from beginning to end.

Joining the cast are some surprising faces, almost all of them working perfectly. Ice Cube plays the cliched character; the angry black commanding officer and veteran cop, swearing at every opportunity and cursing his "officers" out. Dave Franco (James' brother) plays Eric, the head dealer at the school who hits it off immediately with Hill's Schmidt, while Brie Larson plays Molly, Eric's girlfriend who likes Schmidt for everything that Eric isn't. Dax Flame plays Zack, the most visible of the three science geeks Jenko bonds with. Also look for Rob Riggle, Chris Parnell and Ellie Kemper as three faculty members, Riggle the overzealous gym teacher, Parnell the bored drama teacher, and Kemper the science teacher drawn to Jenko. Riggle especially stands out. And yes, the original Jump Street cast shows up for cameos including Depp, Holly Robinson Peete and Peter DeLuise. Depp and DeLuise especially don't disappoint in a very funny appearance. See if you can spot Depp before the reveal.

Poking some fun at the cliches and stereotypes, 'Jump Street' doesn't stop at the comedy. In the finale as Schmidt and Jenko go toe-to-toe with the drug dealers, the action gets ratcheted up too. Loud, bloody and surprisingly still funny. Lots of slow motion (Tatum athletically avoiding obstacles, Hill stumbling over couches) and a shootout in a bunch of prom limos. Can't say you've seen that before, can you? I haven't. And the final scene certainly leaves the door open for a sequel, one I'll most likely go see too. For now, enjoy this one. It's a surprising success.

21 Jump Street <---trailer (2012): ***/****

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Badlanders

Released in 1950 and based off a novel by writer W.R. Burnett, The Asphalt Jungle has withstood the test of time and still remains one of the best examples of a film noir ever released. It is a classic that deserves its reputation built up over the years. Just eight years later, the successful noir was back in theaters with a little twist, it was now a western, the movie 1958's The Badlanders.

Having served a majority of his sentence, Peter van Hoek (Alan Ladd), better known as 'the Dutchman,' is released early from the Yuma territorial prison. A mining engineer, Dutchman maintains that he was framed for a robbery of a gold shipment, still claiming his innocence. He's got a plan to get back at those who set him up, robbing a supposedly useless mine that never produced any gold, or so it seemed. Dutchman enlists the help of McBain (Ernest Borgnine), another recently released prisoner, and Vincente (Nehemiah Persoff), a dynamite specialist, to help in the plan which will require split second timing. The plan seems perfect, but one never knows what might come up when so much gold is involved.

I've never hidden the fact that I'm not a fan of remakes, especially remakes of movies like The Asphalt Jungle that didn't need to be touched. On the other hand, if you're going to do a remake, add something new, a unique feature or departure from the original, much like director Delmer Daves did here. Transplanting the team of crooks, robbers and specialists to the dusty desert of the wild west is an inspired choice. 'Badlanders' was filmed in Old Tucson, Arizona, a filming location western fans will be especially familiar with. The lonely western town surrounded by mountains is a great backdrop to the heist story. As a fan of both westerns and heist flicks, I couldn't help but like this one. How often do we actually see western heists? Few and far between.

The cast is streamlined some, certain characters tweaked or completely dropped from 'Asphalt.' The focus is on Ladd's Dutchman and Borgnine's McBain. Ladd's quiet, easy-going and understated acting style works here, even if a little more visible revenge-seeking would have helped. His background is never fully explained, but we know he wants some revenge, and he's had years to think about it. Playing his partner in crime, Borgnine shows a different side of his acting ability. He isn't the loud, aggressive thug he played so often in the 1950s as he built up a name for himself. His McBain was sent to prison on a manslaughter charge and then saw his land and home pulled out from under him. He too wants revenge but doesn't know where to start until the Dutchman approaches him with a plan. A subplot with McBain and Anita (Katy Jurado), a prostitute in town, helps develop the character as well.

Having two very solid leads in those roles is both good and bad. The good is obvious; it's fun to see Ladd and Borgnine working together on this heist. The bad in an 85-minute movie? The focus is on them, but little else gets dealt with. We hear about both Dutchman and McBain's predicament, their background in getting sent to the Yuma prison, but that's all. We hear, but there's little in the way of details. When Dutchman sets up the plan, are the higher-ups in town the ones who set him up? Does he intend to get them back or just earn himself some money? Not even breaking the 90-minute mark, things feel rushed, like key scenes and explanations were left in the editing room. The villains aren't developed, subplots that are there feel forced and/or pointless, and all the sudden the movie's over. It's an enjoyable ride along the way, but it could have been much better.

Throwing so many different elements into an 85-minute long movie is unfortunate because there's just too much going on. Jurado's Anita is a bright spot, making the most of her time with Borgnine's McBain as the heist plan comes together, but Persoff doesn't come across as well as the Mexican dynamite expert. As mentioned though, the villains are weak and poorly developed. Kent Smith is Lounsberry, the town hot-shot who will serve as a fence for the stolen gold, Robert Emhardt playing Sample, a partner in the coming double-cross. Claire Kelly is Ada (sexy name, huh?), Lounsberry's girlfriend literally locked away in a hotel room until she's needed, there because Ladd's Dutchman needs a love interest. Supporting player in the original 'Asphalt,' Anthony Caruso is Comanche, one of Sample's gunhands while Adam Williams does what he did best, playing a possibly unhinged, highly dangerous gunfighter, albeit a deputy named Leslie.

Like a lot of movies, this one had the potential to be an above average, pretty memorable western, but it never quite gets there. Where 'Asphalt' reveled in its darkness and cynicism, 'Badlanders' refuses to go there, especially in its ending which is just too nice and tidy when it could have been incredibly dark and surprising. It's still a good movie with some solid performances, but it isn't as good as it could have been.

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

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


If you were an outlaw/gunslinger/bank robber in the old west, a certain notoriety came along with that infamy. Dime novels, newspaper stories, and good, old-fashioned rumors put these people on the map. What about when they died -- be it violently or peacefully -- and the rumors persisted? Everyone from Davy Crockett to Billy the Kid was believed to have been seen after their rumored deaths. The list includes wild west outlaw Butch Cassidy as shown in 2011's Blackthorn.

It's 1928 in the Bolivian mountains and famed bank robber Butch Cassidy is living in peace under the name of James Blackthorn (Sam Shepard). Many believed he died in a shootout with the Bolivian army in 1908, but Cassidy survived. Now a much older man, Butch/James is planning to travel back to the United States to meet his nephew who he's never met. But coming home with the money he's earned from selling a string of prize horses, he loses the money thanks to a run-in with a man on the run, a Spaniard named Eduardo (Eduardo Noriega), who's robbed a mine of $50,000. With a promise of getting a cut of the money, James more than unwillingly helps Eduardo escape. All he wants is to get home, but James may have stepped into more than he figured.

Westerns are few and far between being released in theaters or even on straight to DVD recently, and this one from director Mateo Gil didn't exactly get a huge release. Check that, there aren't many good westerns released at all. In that familiar sub-genre of the dying and changing times in the western, Gil has made a low-key, underplayed film that has some fun with the "what if?" aspect of history. 'Blackthorn' was filmed in Bolivia, a beautiful country featuring lush, green mountains, harsh, barren deserts and apocalyptic salt flats. Even 100 years since the story actually happened, Bolivia looks like 1908, a time capsule of an era long since past. Tiny, rustic towns carved into hillsides in a brutal land. Some uses of folk songs are a little too much, even obvious and heavy-handed, but it's not a deal-killer. The visual is so gorgeous you'll be able to block out the songs. Okay, I was able to.

Most viewer's familiarity with the real-life person Butch Cassidy is through Paul Newman's performance in the classic 1969 western. It's years later though, and this is not the happy-go-lucky tone of that movie. Who better to play a weathered, world-weary outlaw than weathered, world-weary Sam Shepard? The casting is beyond perfect. Shepard looks and feels like he is right at home in a western...even 1928 Bolivia. His Butch has led a hidden life for 20 years, not quite wasting away in Bolivia but not exactly living a full-life either. The unofficial last of the outlaws, Butch has outlived the time he thrived in, and he feels some guilt over having done so. Inner demons? Not quite, but he's clearly struggling to come to terms with his life hidden away in Bolivia. It is a great performance, one Shepard really brings to life.

Fans of either the real-life exploits of Butch or of the 1969 film -- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid -- will no doubt get a ton of enjoyment from Gil's decision to tell the story with a handful of flashbacks peppered into the movie. With a handful of flashbacks, we see Butch (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), the Sundance Kid (Padraic Delaney), and Sundance's girlfriend, Etta Place (Dominique McElligott), over a 10-year span or so as they decide to leave the American west and head to South America. These scenes are both well-written, well-acted and help flesh out the 1928 version of Butch. The one I looked forward to the most was the depiction of the San Vicente shootout where Butch and Sundance were rumored to have been killed. Shot in the aftermath of the shootout, it is simple and effective. That's all the scenes, to the point and surprisingly emotional, especially Butch's last scene with Sundance in the snow-covered Bolivian mountains.

With Shepard, two roles in the 1928 storyline rise to the occasion, the first coming from Eduardo Noriega as the Spaniard on the run, Eduardo. The character is appropriately mysterious, a good counter to Shepard's Blackthorn who is holding onto some obvious secrets of his own. Noriega isn't great in the part, but next to Shepard he's just got to be good, and he is just that...fine. In another key part, Stephen Rea plays MacKinlay, a former Pinkerton agent who hunted Butch and Sundance who always believed the two outlaws survived their rumored death. Still in Bolivia years later, he believes he's found Butch. Also look for Magaly Solier as Yana, a native Bolivian woman who has a relationship with Blackthorn. 

In an odd connection to the 1969 movie, much of the 2011's movie's story has Blackthorn and Eduardo on the run from a Bolivian posse similar to Butch and Sundance running from a Pinkerton posse. The duo on the run is the movie at its best, but some parts of the final act slow down and lose the momentum that had been built up. The twist delivered in the last 30 minutes disappoints in a way, but it does allow Butch to redeem himself in a way, leading up to an ending that allows viewers to come to their own conclusions. All told, it's an above average western with gorgeous photography and a great lead performance from Sam Shepard.

Blackthorn <---trailer (2011): ***/****

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Stranger Wore a Gun

While many movies in the 1950s tried to offer something that television simply couldn't match, many westerns dug their heels in and refused to change/adjust. The result? A lot of straightforward, traditional efforts that were like most westerns released over the previous 20-plus years. If you haven't figured it out, none of this is particularly positive, like 1953's The Stranger Wore a Gun, a B-western in every regard.

After the bloody raid on Lawrence, Kansas by William Quantrill, Confederate rider Jeff Travis (Randolph Scott) leaves Quantrill's raiders and heads west. But even after the end of the Civil War, the memory persists in his head, and more importantly, so does the stigma of being one of Quantrill's guerrilla riders. Wanted for a murder he didn't commit, Travis heads to Prescott, Arizona on the advice of long-time friend, Josie (Claire Trevor). He finds a job with a former Confederate soldier who wants the Confederacy to live on, Jules Mourret (George Macready), but finds out quickly that Jules is willing to go to some dark places to accomplish his goal. For Travis though, it could be too late to make a change.

With so many 1950s westerns, I feel like my reviews lean toward cookie-cutter. They're the same thing over and over again, just changing the names and places. Like so many 1950s westerns, 'Stranger' has its good and bad, but the biggest thing is that nothing at all is particularly memorable. Director Andre De Toth goes about his job with workmanlike precision, telling a familiar story that doesn't throw anything new at the viewer. The stories are forgettable, the characters interchangeable, and if you've got more than two or three functioning brain cells, you know how it's going to end before it started. Some of the California locations look very nice here, but it does absolutely nothing to distinguish it from the thousands of other westerns you could watch. Not bad, not good, and not memorable in the least.

Starring in many of these westerns was Randolph Scott, a stout, resolute western hero in that second rung of western stars. His biggest problem? Unless he was working with directors like Budd Boetticher and Sam Peckinpah, his typically solid lead parts were lost in a sea of bad B-movies. Playing Jeff Travis, he's one of the better things going for 'Stranger.' His motivations aren't always explained -- he's running from his Confederate past by working for a Confederate trying to revive the Confederacy?....right -- but in a sea of mediocrity, his performance stands out. Trevor does what she does best, playing the damaged society woman, Macready is an average at best villain, and Joan Weldon plays a wooden requisite pretty girl (another trademark of a low budget 1950s western) that Scott's Travis must decide if he really loves, with Pierre Watkin playing her father.

Enough beating around the bush, let's get to some negatives! Anyone who's seen Treasure of the Sierra Madre is familiar with the infamous 'We don't need no stinking badges!' line delivered by bandit chief Rodolfo Bedoya. Instead of one well-handled scene, he gets a much bigger role here with a similar character, the stereotypes amped up....a lot. His "portrayal" of Degas, a Mexican bandit and gang leader, is laughable and painful to watch. He laughs hysterically for no apparent reason at least three different times, and speaks in an odd variation of Spanglish. His sidekick, Shorty (Joseph Vitale), is just as bad, speaking in halted, quasi-threatening tones. Way, way too much of a good thing here. Also worth mentioning -- I suppose -- is the 3-D filming technique. We get guns "fired at" the camera, not to mention torches, punches, vases, you name it, thrown at us. Oooohhhh, startling! There's also a bizarre technique where rocks/brush are placed in front of stock footage, apparently to make it look more realistic? I guess. I can't come up with anything else. It's bad. That's what I'm going for.

One positive -- however small -- with many of these 1950s westerns is that future stars who shot to fame in the 1960s got their start with supporting roles. Here in 'Stranger' there's Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine as Kurth and Slager, two of Jules' henchmen. Hindsight is 20-20, but it's clear the talent they're working with even in supporting roles. Not a ton to recommend overall, and maybe I'm reaching for straws, but something's got to get you through these B-movies.

The Stranger Wore a Gun <---TCM trailer (1958): **/****

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Vikings

In the age of the epic in the 1950s and 1960s, there wasn't a historical era not covered by Hollywood ranging from ancient times in Ben-Hur and Spartacus to more modern times like Around the World in 80 Days and Lawrence of the Arabia. Not quite on the scale of those movies but just as entertaining, 1958's The Vikings is an underrated epic that is as much fun now as it was over 50 years ago.

Leading a raid on an English camp, Viking warrior/chief Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine) rapes the English queen who secretly gives birth to a son nine months later. Almost 20 years pass and Ragnar is still leading his Viking warriors, his son, Einar (Kirk Douglas), at his side. Neither are aware that the son,  Erik (Tony Curtis),  has been among them for the last 20 years, living as a slave to the Vikings, unaware he is Ragnar's son and Einar's half-brother. Erik has an intense rivalry with Einar -- each one wanting to kill the other -- and it is ratcheted up even further when Ragnar's warriors kidnap the young woman, Morgana (Janet Leigh), promised to the king in marriage. Both men fall in love with her as the Vikings prepare a surprise attack on the King's castle.

The appeal of many epics is the scale. They aren't always fun movies, just big movies. From director Richard Fleischer, this is an exception. At 116 minutes, it isn't as long as so many 3-plus hour epics, but it is fun, entertaining and still manages to present an impressive scale of the time of the Vikings. It was filmed in the fjords of Norway while also visiting Germany, France and Croatia, the locations providing an accurate and stunningly beautiful backdrop for the adventure story. The music is especially memorable from composer Mario Nascimbene, including the main theme (listen HERE) that you'll be whistling for days. What's so fun about it all is Fleischer and his cast and crew committing to being accurate as possible. The sets look like actual Viking villages. Three Viking warships were built from actual blueprints of Vikings ships, and the shots of these ships, packed with warriors, making their way up the sun-lit fjords is a stunning visual. The movie shows the day-to-day lives of these people. We see some of their rituals, their beliefs, their parties, and it feels authentic from the very start.

Working together for the first time -- they'd reunite two years later in another epic, 1960s's Spartacus -- Douglas and Curtis are great leads, the half-brothers who are unaware they're related. Douglas isn't a villain, but he clearly isn't the good guy either, his Einar an anti-hero if he's anything. It's a big, showy part for Douglas, the type of role he excelled at. Curtis gets the less-interesting character, but his intense part as Erik is still worthwhile. Mrs. Tony Curtis -- Janet Leigh -- is the eye candy, the beautiful Morgana who finds herself in a love triangle and must choose who she truly loves. If you're going to do a love triangle, do it right like 'Vikings' did here. Life and death, an intense rivalry where the stakes are high, not just a happy winner and a mopey loser. Also be careful not to poke your eyes out with Janet Leigh's pointiest of bras.

My favorite character though is from Ernest Borgnine as Viking chief Ragnar. It's funny that he's cast as Douglas' father because in real-life he's actually two months younger than his movie "son." Just like Douglas is perfectly cast as Einar, so is Borgnine. Heavily bearded and spouting his love for the Viking god Odin, Ragnar is an exaggerated, scene-stealing part for Borgnine. I can't think of a better duo to play these larger-than-life ancient heroes. For a topper, Ragnar's death scene is one of the all-time greats, a man literally laughing death in the face. Also look for James Donald as Egbert, an English lord secretly working with the Vikings, and familiar epic bad guy Frank Thring as Aella, the weakly English king, and Eileen Way as Kitala, the Viking medicine woman who is in touch with all the Viking gods.

From the time I first saw this movie as a kid, it was the action sequences that stuck with me. I remembered Douglas' Einar running across the rigid oars of the Viking ships as they returned to the village, but the high point is the finale, a Viking assault on Aella's heavily guarded castle on the English coast (actually Fort-la-Latte in France). A real castle, it is a gorgeous setting for the attack in all its scale, seemingly hundreds of Vikings bursting through the gates and scaling the walls. Einar's entrance to the castle -- climbing up a ladder of thrown axes into the raised drawbridge -- stands out, Douglas doing some of his own stunts. It concludes with an epic showdown at the top of one of the castle's towers, Einar dueling with Erik. Both Douglas and Curtis handled much -- if not all -- of their stunts, making the dangerous fight scene a couple hundred feet up even more impressive. Action galore, the ending is a whopper of a climax.

Part of the appeal here is of childhood memories, but it stands the test of time. It isn't remembered as well as many other historical epics, but it's just as fun and probably more entertaining than many more. Big story, memorable theme, great cast, and can you really go wrong with those bloodthirsty, fun-loving Vikings? I submit that you cannot. The movie is available to watch at Youtube, but it's 111 minutes while the DVD runs 116 minutes so something's missing.

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

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Town That Dreaded Sundown

With TV shows like Law and Order, CSI, and their countless spinoffs and knock-offs, it seems impossible for a criminal to get away with anything. Of course, these shows are in a more modern age with all sorts of technology available to law enforcement officials and plenty of forensic evidence. It wasn't always that way though, police having to go through mind-numbing minutiae to get the crook, like the semi-true story presented in 1976's The Town That Dreaded Sundown.

It's early 1946 in the city of Texarkana along the border between Texas and Arkansas. The people and the town are recovering from recently-ended WWII, life seemingly going back to normal. But one February night, a young man and woman are brutally attacked by a hooded stranger, both surviving the vicious assault. Local police, including Deputy Sheriff Norman Ramsey (Andrew Prine), investigate but find nothing as to the attacker's identity. Three weeks later another attack occurs, but now the victims are murdered, and three weeks later the same thing happens. A respected Texas Ranger, Capt. J.D. Morales (Ben Johnson), is called in and with Ramsey's help and the whole police department try to catch the killer, dubbed The Phantom. Can they catch him before he kills anymore?

Based on the true story of the Texarkana Killer -- the Phantom Killer -- this B-movie is an oddity among police movies. It has the feel of a docu-drama, narration providing much of the background as the Phantom appears and starts to knock off victims. Instead of a stylish production of an investigation of a murder mystery, we are more so the fly on the wall watching it develop. Even with a small budget, the period quality is there of a mid-sized 1940s town completely taken aback by the stunning appearance of a serial killer in their midst. The story sticks pretty close to the truth of the facts of the case so points have to be awarded for not embellishing those facts. Police procedurals never go out of style -- in film or on television -- and even though this is far from a classic, any fans of cop shows/movies should get some enjoyment out of it.

With a cast of relative unknowns and actual Texarkana residents, 'Sundown' relies on two veterans to carry the load, Ben Johnson and Andrew Prine. One of my favorite actors, Johnson's role is similar to the one he played three years earlier in 1973's Dillinger as Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent tasked with bringing infamous bank robber John Dillinger to justice. He growls, looks tough, smokes his cigars and worries that they'll never catch the killer. Nothing flashy and far from his best performance, but without Johnson, the movie just limps to the finish. Prine too isn't doing anything new or unique, the local cop working with the out-of-towner to help protect his town. In their few scenes together, Johnson and Prine do have a good chemistry, easy-going in a way, two experienced law enforcement officials working with little in the way of leads or evidence.

The appearance of the Phantom is interesting because as a movie it isn't quite a crime story but it also isn't a horror movie. It's surprising, especially considering the hood worn by the Phantom clearly influenced horror movies in the 1980s. More surprising? The "attack" scenes are unintentionally funny. Yes, his sudden appearances of a masked head popping up in a car or house window is startling. Things quickly go downhill from there. The male victims are clueless, basically rolling over and accepting their beating and/or death. The female victims don't run for their lives. They sit still, paralyzed in fear and scream instead. The attacks are telegraphed with a really obvious musical score....slow and sinister and then BAM! ATTACK MUSIC! It is amusing how much this real-life serial killer influenced horror/slasher films. The Phantom favors slutty teenagers at first, and if slasher movies have taught us anything, it's that minorities and slutty girls always go first. Look for Dawn Wells -- Mary Ann from Gilligan's Island -- as one of the victims.

A story focusing on a series of brutal murders done by a serial killer named the Phantom is pretty dramatic stuff, right? I thought so. Director Charles B. Pierce apparently disagrees. He directs and co-stars as Sparkplug, a deputy assigned to serve as Morales' personal driver. But guess what? He's a kooky driver, always screwing up and getting Morales and Ramsey into unwanted trouble. Oh, hilarious! Did Pierce think his dark story needed an injection of humor? Did he think his serial killer story was too dark? No problem, let's liven it up with some really hammy, forced humor! The scenes are painful to watch and completely disrupt what little tone the movie had.

The beauty of Law and Order and CSI is that for the most part, the bad guys are always caught in an hour or less. With this true story, there is no resolution. I'm glad the script didn't call for a fictionalized "capture" of the Phantom, but in getting to that point, 'Sundown' has little energy. The movie even at 86 minutes drifts along in between the attacks, not sure where it wants to do. The ending -- a meeting and chase between the Phantom, Morales and Ramsey -- is exciting, but it's a case of too little, too late. Interesting movie, but not necessarily a good one. You can watch the entire movie HERE at Youtube in a choppy, pan-n-scan cut.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown <---trailer (1976): **/****

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


For almost 40 years now, Saturday Night Live has consistently produced comedic actors that have gone on to bigger and better things. John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, Chris Farley, Will Ferrell and many more. But lost amidst all the funny guy comedians have been the female comedians. They're fewer and far between though, but of the last 10 years or so the female cast members have stepped to the forefront, especially Kristen Wiig who wrote and helped produce 2011's Bridesmaids.

In her mid 30s, Annie (Wiig) has hit a low-point in her life. Her self-started bakery has closed in the recession, she lives with a creepy British brother and sister, her car is a piece of junk, and she hates herself for being a hook-up buddy with Ted (an uncredited Jon Hamm). Her best friend, Lillian (Maya Rudolph), has gotten engaged and asks Annie to be her maid of honor. Annie definitely wants to take the role, honored by the question, but the task and responsibility might be a little too much for her to handle, especially when Helen (Rose Byrne), Lil's new friend, threatens to take over. Hopefully Annie can keep it together until the wedding.

I'm going to get this out of the way early. I liked Bridesmaids, but I didn't love it. I think it was intentionally mis-marketed to look like a girls version of The Hangover, and it really isn't. Part of the humor maybe I missed because I'm a guy (not to sound sexist), but I definitely feel like I missed some of the laughs/situations. As one IMDB reviewer pointed out -- and I tend to agree -- this is a chick flick disguised as a raunchy comedy. It's still good, but not as good as I was hoping. Wiig's script with Annie Mumolo (who makes a funny cameo) is well-written, but the movie isn't quite what it was made out to be. Funny, but not the instant classic it was made out to be.

Working together like the Wolfpack of The Hangover, Wiig, Rudolph and Byrne lead a strong group of female comedians. Dating back to their days on SNL, Wiig and Rudolph have a good chemistry together that doesn't feel like acting, just two legitimate friends doing some lines together. Byrne's Helen is the late-comer to the party, a rich, snobby woman who's the wife of Lill's husband's boss (there's a mouthful for you). The rivalry does produce some solid laughs, one woman trying to out-do the other. The group also includes Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey), a mother of three who desperately wants to escape her home life, Becca (Ellie Kemper), the newlywed discovering all the "joys" of marriage, and Megan (Melissa McCarthy), Lil's off-the-wall, brutally honest future sister-in-law. Each character is different, adding a dynamic to the group, each given a chance to get their fair share of laughs.

Certain parts of the movie are truly funny, hilarious stuff that had me crying. Okay, one scene, but you get the point. What works, really works. McCarthy as Megan earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, maybe a stretch, but she's the best thing going for this one. She is the rare physical female comedian, not afraid of her weight or size and willing to commit for the laughs. The dress fitting scene post-Brazilian restaurant -- uh-oh, food poisoning! -- is bathroom humor, but it is hysterical in its execution, especially thanks to McCarthy's response. A flight to Vegas for the bachelorette party takes a turn for the worse, Wiig's Annie struggling with the situation and her fear of flying while Megan is sure the passenger (Ben Falcone) is an Air Marshal. These two extended bits rise above the rest, followed closely by Annie's freak-out session at the shower, and bring the most laughs.

It's too bad there couldn't have been more of that humor, the big laughs. Instead this rather long comedy -- at 125 minutes -- decides to go down a not so funny route in the second half. The story goes doom and gloom as Annie starts to pout and freak out about her life situation. And with it, the laughs come to a screeching halt. The story focuses more on her flirting relationship with dream Irish cop, Nate Rhodes (Chris O'Dowd), which feels like any number of romantic comedies you can see elsewhere. Oh no, chick flick alert! It feels like it's been done before, getting away from what made earlier parts of the movie truly funny. Wiig is a very funny and talented actress, but this mid-life crisis the story delves into is disappointing.

Still funny -- sometimes very funny -- but not quite what it was made out to be. And good luck to McCarthy, one of the rising stars in comedy, at the Oscars. I'm sick of hearing about The Help. Bring home a win for Plainfield! The trailer below seems to have a lot of cut scenes too FYI.

Bridesmaids <---trailer (2011): ** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Crazy, Stupid, Love.

There are romantic comedies, and there are dramas. It seems it's one or the other when it comes to stories about love, marriage, relationships, but without any real middle ground. When movies with some laughs produced from dramatic situations come along, scoop them up, like 2011's Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Married to his wife, Emily (Julianne Moore), for over 20 years with three kids and leading a supposedly happy life, Cal Weaver (Steve Carell), is dealt a shocker when Emily asks him for a divorce. Cal doesn't know what to do other than to agree, especially when Emily says she slept with a co-worker. In his mid 40s, Cal now finds himself basically starting life over, discovering everything isn't so easy as a single guy. One night in a bar he meets Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling), a successful 20-something who is quite the ladies man. Quick enough, Jacob has Cal acting like the confident guy he can and should be, but even then Cal feels like he's missing something. Jacob meanwhile has a problem of his own, he's fallen hard for Hannah (Emma Stone), and has no idea how to handle this new situation.

Finding a middle ground between raunchy sex comedy and hardcore, depressing drama, 'Crazy' in terms of quality is better than most of either of those two extremes. It finds a nice balance in between the two. It tries to take an honest look at the world of love, from Cal and Emily's 13-year old son, Robbie (Jonah Bobo), who's fallen in love with their 17-year old babysitter, Jessie (Analeigh Tipton), to the younger audience of Jacob and Hannah, and then capping it with the married couple in their 40s. In taking a fairly honest approach, the risk is that we won't like the characters, and at different points, that's true. These people are not likable in a lot of instances. There were times I wasn't rooting for anybody. But it is honest, and it shows people for what they are, human, just people looking for some sort of happiness whatever that may be.

With an ensemble cast working together in a movie that's 115 minutes long, there are times where it feels certain stories and characters get the short end of the stick. Still, it's a talented ensemble so it's not a major issue. Similar to his performance in 2007's Dan in Real Life, Carell shows he's capable again of comedy and drama. He plays that John Everyman as well as anybody, and his chemistry with Moore -- even through the trials and tribulations -- is real and believable. Gosling gets a showy performance as Jacob, a smooth ladies man (womanizer comes to mind) who effortlessly gets women, Stone's Hannah presenting a bit of a challenge and a change of pace. Also look for Marissa Tomei as Kate, one of the women Cal meets as he tries to jump-start his single life. Like What Women Want, Tomei plays slightly crazy, and I'm thinking...why can't she get better roles? Kevin Bacon plays David, the co-worker Emily sleeps with, making the character more than just a stereotype. He's got genuine feelings for Emily, it just happens to be a bad situation.

My issue with this story comes from any number of little things. Cliched comes to mind more than a few times, and some "twists" that are thrown at us don't really work. Check that, one toward the end really works. I didn't see that one coming at all. The story though has things happen for the sake of moving the story along. Sitting in a bar, Gosling's Jacob hears Carell's Cal giving a sob story about his situation and instantly steps to the plate, helping him become an older, stylish version of himself. Yes, Jacob says Cal reminds him of his father, but we're supposed to believe he's going to help a complete stranger because of that resemblance? Jacob is charming and smooth, but his character bugged me. 'Man-whore' comes to mind describing him, but oh, he's cute! Let's ignore that.

Then there's the last 30 minutes or so as the story takes a route I really wished they hadn't. Babysitter Jessie loves Cal, takes naked pictures of herself, her parents (Beth Littleford and John Carroll Lynch) find them with 'Cal' written on an envelope, and the fireworks start. Basically the whole cast comes together for a kooky, hair-brained, off the wall "fight" that is in itself, pretty funny. But it is so far removed from the tone of the rest of the movie, it ends up feeling out of place. And the ending, more characters doing things they would only do in a movie. Cal takes the microphone from Robbie at his 8th grade graduation and proceeds to tell the audience about his love life. Oh, and Jessie later gives Robbie the naked pictures of herself. Another oddity if you ask me, and kind of creepy.

This is a good movie. It is. The cast is very good, the script for the most part is well written, and on-screen chemistry helps make up for a lot of the movie's flaws. But they're there. No doubt about that. Hopefully you can look past them and enjoy the movie for what it is.

Crazy, Stupid, Love. <---trailer (2011): ** 1/2 /****

Monday, March 12, 2012

In Time

From a member of the Mickey Mouse Club on TV to the breakout star of a boy band, Justin Timberlake has certainly come a long way. One of the most successful musicians/artists around, he's also shown a knack for comedy with his hosting duties on Saturday Night Live. What about drama? I haven't seen The Social Network, but he takes another stab at the dramatic with 2011's In Time.

It is sometime in the near future, but things have drastically changed. Humans have been genetically engineered to stop aging at the age of 25. Once you hit that mark? You're given a year to work with, but time is funny in this futuristic society. Food, supplies, clothes, rent, all of it can be paid for with time, meaning many people are living from day-to-day, including Will Salas (Timberlake), a 28-year old man. Others aren't so lucky, running out of time (i.e. Life) and dropping dead in the street. Will meets a mysterious stranger one night, and wakes up the next morning with 100 years of time given to him. What to do? He doesn't sit back and waste the time, deciding to go on the offensive against the upper class and their "bought" time that has them living for years and years longer than expected. Trying to stop him is a veteran Timekeeper, Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy), who knows the power Will possesses.

Science fiction dystopia allows for all sorts of unique, eccentric, and off-the-wall situations in films and literature. From writer and director Andrew Niccol, 'Time' is one of the most incredibly unique premises I've ever seen in a movie -- science fiction or not. What if time was useful as money? Want a cup of coffee? Pay 4 minutes off your life. A high-tech bar code is on your left forearm literally counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds you have before you simply run out of time and die. Individuals can give time to each other, saving them and helping them live longer. What it comes down to though is making everything count. You work today so you can live tomorrow, your pay check coming in hours, not dollars. Want to travel if you're rich? Give months off your life. Want to gamble? How many years are you willing to spend if you lose?

This ultra-impressive and original premise opens the doors for all sorts of high tension sequences and set pieces. Because you can transfer time, we see several races to do so, the final seconds literally counting down. It's just two people sprinting toward each other, one wanting to live, the other desperately trying to get to them. Tension and adrenaline much? These sequences are aided by composer Craig Armstrong's score, part epic music, part electronica. A later scene at a high-stakes poker game has Timberlake's Salas betting his life quite literally as he goes all in on a call. Less than 10 seconds are winding down on his arm, his life depending on if his opponent was bluffing or not. Take an original premise and run with it, ratcheting up that tension until its almost unbearable. That premise is great to watch and unfold, but.....

That's all this movie is...a premise. The characters are almost uniformly dull. The story that develops is a dumbed-down Bonnie and Clyde without the violence. Salas kidnaps heiress Syliva Weis (Amanda Seyfried) and goes on the run across time zones from the rich area of New Greenwich to the poor, lower classes of Dayton (sure looks like Los Angeles). They never seem to be in any rush to get anything done. If they're causing such problems, wouldn't the powers that be send more than one Timekeeper after them? They become symbols of a resistance to the common people, a reason to fight back. Why should the rich dictate life? I just didn't buy it. There is a feel of a great starting point, a great place to jump off from, but that's it. Nothing more developed, characters doing incredibly stupid things, and no legitimate satisfaction in the end.

Playing the dramatic role, Timberlake shows he's not a natural actor. Any truly intense dramatic scenes just don't work. He is just not there yet as an actor. Cool anti-hero, man of few words? Yeah, he's more believable there. Potential, but he's still got some work to do. Seyfried's charcter, Sylvia, is awful, changing her mind with each passing wind. On a completely shallow note, she is stunningly gorgeous in the part. The other problem is that most of the last hour has Timberlake and Seyfried sprinting away from danger. Literally, that's it. That's all. They run holding hands, stop and catch a break, then run some more. Not surprisingly, Murphy as Timekeeper Leon is the best thing going here, an intimidating presence, a roguish Blade Runner sci-fi like cop hunting them down. Also look for Olivia Wilde as Will's mother (thanks to genetics looking like his sister), Johnny Galecki as Borel, Will's long-time friend, Matt Bomer in a scene-stealing part as Henry Hamilton, a man who's lived over 75 years past his 25th birthday who gives his time to Will, and Alex Pettyfer as Fortis, a Minuteman, a thuggish enforcer who leads a crew stealing people's time.

Because I very much enjoyed the unique writing and idea that sets the stage, I wanted to like this movie so much more but still came away disappointed. There was so much potential here to develop, but nothing ever comes of it. The last half hour is too familiar, too traditional, dropping the ball after the impressive first hour. I'll still recommend it, but what could have been a classic is only so-so in the end.

In Time <---trailer (2011): ** 1/2 /****