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, June 29, 2012

The Double

As a movie fan, I think one of the biggest joys you can find is stumbling across a new movie that instantly gets your attention. For a lot of us, that means movie trailers and previews. The threat of course is simple....that trailer ruins the entire movie. 'Hey, that looks good!' is quickly followed by 'Wait, did I just see the entire movie?' That's what I took away from the trailer for 2011's The Double.

Having retired from the CIA some 20 years ago, Paul Shepherdson (Richard Gere) is sought out to help solve one more crime, a murder of a U.S. Senator. The killing has links to a former case of Paul's, one that haunted him for years. It is believed the murderer is a believed dead Russian spy, Cassius, who Paul spent years hunting down. He believes he is in fact dead, but still agrees to help a young FBI agent, Ben Geary (Topher Grace), in the investigation. Geary is obsessed with Cassius, even writing a college thesis on him, so combined with Paul's experience and expertise, can they somehow track the deep undercover Russian agent down?

At some point last fall in 2011, I stumbled across the trailer for this straight-to-DVD spy flick. It started off positive enough, and I was mildly intrigued. It looked decent enough, rising above its straight to DVD roots. About halfway through though, a bombshell gets dropped, a rather revealing and key plot twist. It's not a trick or a ruse to confuse you. The trailer "twist" is actually a major turning point in the story, and it appears just as you will see it in the movie. Just a forewarning because I'll post the link below at the end of the review. Buzzkill much? Any mystery or suspense is ripped away from us. To be fair, the movie doesn't wait long to "reveal" the twist. Still, what's the point if everything is spoiled going into the movie?

So yes, the story is pretty dumb, the script not doing anyone any favors. But as is so often the case, the straight to DVD issue is in my head. Sure, some money was clearly spent on the production, but there's that special something missing. It's that one thing that screams "I'm good enough for theaters!" as a movie. The action feels forced, cliched and hokey. The musical score is ridiculous, sounding like someone just picked shuffle on ITunes and took a nap. It doesn't help either that the movie is based in Washington D.C. but not filmed there. We get lots....lots....of establishing shots (the White House, the FBI, the Jefferson Memorial among others), and then the camera clearly moves to a random city, in this case...Detroit. Beyond the predictable script, the little things end up shooting 'Double' in the foot, limiting director Michael Brandt's chances.

Ah, the old grizzled veteran and the young, perky newbie trying to prove himself. Yeah for cliches, stereotypes and stock characters! Richard Gere is an interesting character to watch, but it feels like he's phoning this performance in. He has two looks. One, bemused boredom. He coldly stares at his co-stars, possibly questioning what he's doing in this movie. Two, bemused boredom with some anger thrown in (however little). Some revelations late make the character a little interesting, but not enough. And for Topher Grace, I think That 70s Show is going to be an issue going ahead. I see him as Eric Forman. Playing a FBI agent? Totally not buying that. When scenes require genuine dramatic presence, he sounds ridiculous, screaming in a high-pitched voice that wouldn't scare a toddler. Oh, and in the random department, Martin Sheen cashes a check as Highland, the head of the CIA.

So what else to say? Not much. A second twist in the final act makes a desperate attempt at making things interesting by throwing a curveball, but I wasn't buying it. The twist comes out of left field, and like so much of the movie, it reeks of being forced and jammed into the story for sake of being "clever." I wasn't expecting much out of this spy flick, but I didn't get much out of it either. Steer clear of it. Remember now, don't watch the trailer if you want the movie spoiled for you. SPOILERS

The Double <---SPOILERS trailer (2011): */****

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Twelve O'Clock High

Right there with the stories of the soldiers on the front lines and the efforts on the home front, war movies can usually take solace in another genre staple; the trials of command. How does it wear on one individual to continually send their men into battle knowing that some -- if not many -- won't make it back? It has to be a emotionally draining, even destructive process, like it shows in 1949's Twelve O'Clock High.

It is still early in WWII in 1942, and Allied forces have turned to daylight precision bombing raids to help slow down the German war machine. The casualties are high though, and the effect on morale is easily seen, the men struggling to get from day-to-day. In the 918th Bomber Group, Colonel Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill), is being replaced by General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck), a squadron commander with plenty of flying experience. The men are weary, suspicious and not excited at the prospect of a driving commanding officer. Can Savage whip them into some sort of shape? Can the men realize he has their best interest -- survival -- at heart?

From director Henry King, 'Twelve' makes an interesting choice, one that ends up making this movie particularly memorable. This is a war story, but it isn't a front line war story. Almost the entire 132-minute movie takes place at the 918th's base in England. Even their bombing missions are kept in the background. The mission is presented, and then we see the aftermath; the surviving pilots returning to base. It is a surprisingly simple device, one that makes the final 30 minutes that much better when we actually go along with the B-17s on a daylight raid over Germany. We see the effect on the men from their commander, Savage, to his command staff, to the support crews on the ground.  What pilot and crew will return? Will any?

Nowhere is that more evident and in some cases, more powerful, than the performance delivered by Gregory Peck. I've long been a fan of Mr. Peck, but he continues to impress me. He received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor (losing to the showier, more obvious Broderick Crawford for All the King's Men), and it's easy to see why. As a commanding officer, he's forced to do things that are naturally unpleasant. He's replacing an officer who became too worried about his men, getting close to them, becoming friends and ultimately respecting them. To make them the best pilots and crews they can be, Peck's Savage has to keep pushing and pushing. Peck does a great job humanizing this part. We see what his men don't see. He's doing this for their benefit but at expense to himself.

Joining Peck in the 918th Bomber Group are familiar stock characters but tweaked to make them far from too familiar. Dean Jagger won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his part as Major Stovall, Savage's aide and a former lawyer, working hand in hand with his commander to strengthen the bomber group. Merrill is also very good as Davenport, a very capable pilot who becomes too emotionally involved to command. Some other pilots/crew include Gately (Hugh Marlowe), an effective pilot Savage is forced to call out, McIllhenny (Robert Arthur), the oft-promoted and disciplined assistant to Savage, Kaiser (Paul Stewart), the group physician, Cobb (John Kellogg), a hard-nosed pilot Savage appoints executive officer, and Bishop (Robert Patten), the youngest and best pilot in the group, one all the other pilots look to. We're given little to no information about them, but even then, these actors do a great job making them feel real. These characters resonate in a way that honestly surprised me.

Making this movie a classic as opposed to just a really good movie are a handful of scenes that strike all the right emotional chords. In bookends at the beginning and end, Jagger's Maj. Stovall walks around the deserted base some four years since the end of the war. The scenes are perfect, the soft echoes of the men singing hanging in the air. Peck's Savage has an early run-in with Marlowe's Gately, accusing him of cowardice. Gately takes it to heart, making a later scene between the two men heart-breaking in its honesty, Savage seeing Gately as he really is. Peck earns his nomination for me in that scene alone. The most moving parts are saved for the end as we see a daylight raid over Germany. The violence is startling and quick, the emotions as real as any war movie I can think of.

This doesn't feel like a 1949 WWII movie. It doesn't pull any punches, instead opting for realism and honesty. The intro to the squadron -- a bloody aftermath of a raid -- doesn't show the violence and gore. It hints at it off-screen as we hear about the debacle that took place up in the air. It's one of many moments that help make this WWII movie a classic. By the way, the above poster makes no sense. What 12 men? Eh, overthinking it. It looks cool.

Twelve O'Clock High <----trailer (1949): ****/****

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Jesse James

Thanks to films, television shows, dime novels, and with some time gone past, we can now look back at historical figures with rose-tinted glasses. Nowhere is that more evident than with wild west gunslingers, cowboys and outlaws. Some truly bad dudes have been remembered fondly, even as anti-heroes. One that always comes to mind for me is Jesse James, a Confederate guerrilla turned bank robber. He gets the whitewashed hero treatment in 1939's Jesse James.

Helping run the family farm with his mother (Jane Darwell), young Jesse James (Tyrone Power) works with his brother, Frank (Henry Fonda), to create a pleasant life for the family. Their country life is shattered as the railroad moves west, railroad agents ramrodding families off their land. An accident causes the death of the James' boys mother, forcing Jesse and Frank to seek revenge. With rewards posted for their arrest or death, Jesse and Frank are forced into a life of crime, robbing trains and banks as they're on the run. Jesse wants more revenge though, his name growing ever more well known.

Depending on the source, Jesse James is looked at as a heroic rebel, an intelligent bandit, a disturbed thief, and any number of options that fall somewhere in between. From director Henry King, this 1939 western goes an odd route. It makes Jesse a pretty straight hero, not even an anti-hero. We're not talking Butch and Sundance treatment -- it's too blase for that -- but it's approaching that territory. The history is condensed, tweaked and twisted from the start. Yes, it is based in the truth (or at least part of it), but then starts going off route quickly. Powers' Jesse isn't infallible, he's no immaculate hero. Still, it doesn't ring true. Railroad? Uber bad. Bandit? Bad....but he's fighting for his deceased mother.

A star of the 1930s and 1940s, Powers was quite the actor over a career that was cut short by his death in 1957 at the age of 44. I've never seen many of his movies, but he was always a likable enough actor. I came away less than impressed with this effort as the infamous, iconic western bandit, Jesse James. Only part of the blame can be chalked up to him. Even as Jesse's fame rises, we're still seeing him as pretty squeaky clean. Some characters flaws couldn't have hurt. Good or bad though, it just isn't that interesting of a part, and that's saying something. It's Jesse James! How could that not be interesting? It doesn't help the cause that much of the already condensed story is spent on Jesse's developing/loving relationship with Zee (Nancy Kelly), a young woman he's known since they were kids. Yeah! Love story about an outlaw!

Unfortunately for the rest of the cast, what's worth mentioning is that the cast is misused and underused. In a criminally underused part, Fonda is a huge bright spot as Jesse's older brother, Frank. This lanky, laconic, confident young man is a scene-stealer, especially his intro. Still a rising star, Randolph Scott is wasted too as Marshal Will Wright, a peace officer divided between his respect for Jesse and his call to duty. Thankfully, a love triangle isn't a focus of the story among Will, Jesse and Zee. Henry Hull hams it up like a crazy man as drunken newspaperman Rufus Cobb, Zee's uncle. Brian Donlevy has a great part as a sneering, vicious railroad agent who meets Jesse's wrath while John Carradine has a smallish part as Bob Ford, a possibly treacherous member of the James gang. Some interesting characters, just could have used more of them on-screen.

The movie is good and bad -- ridiculous history aside. It's a fondly remembered movie from one of the all-time great years in Hollywood history, 1939, so it does something right. There's some impressive scale, some great tracking shots full of hundreds of extras, one especially of Jesse (a stunt double at least) running across the top of a speeding train. It's a beautiful movie, and some scenes truly stand out, like the botched Northfield robbery and a subsequent chase. At just 106 minutes though, some 16 years of history is condensed into a rushed story. Maybe a rewatch would help, but for now, my first impression was pretty lukewarm. Some parts definitely work, but not on the whole.

Jesse James <---Youtube clip (1939): **/****

Monday, June 25, 2012

Rock of Ages

If there is a time more ripe for the picking in terms of a musical spoof extravaganza, I can't think of a better one than the late 1980s. Glam rock and hair bands ruled the world with their huge power ballads, filling arenas and venues wherever they went with their screaming, adoring fans. Over 20 years later, it's easy to see how cliched, stereotypical and easy to pick on this time was, but treading that fine line down the middle is 2012's Rock of Ages. It's struggling in theaters so if you want to see it, don't wait too long.

Having left small-town Oklahoma behind, Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) gets off a bus in Los Angeles on the Sunset Strip and gets a job as a waitress at the famous rock club, The Bourbon Room. She has dreams of hitting it big as a singer, and hits it off immediately with a bar-back at Bourbon, Drew (Diego Boneta), who has similar dreams of becoming a star. The Bourbon Room is in trouble though as a crusading mayor and his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) want to shut down the rock scene for the "sake of the kids." The club looks like it's got one shot at saving itself, and that's the first show of rock god Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) and his band Arsenal's farewell tour.

Oh, did I mention this is a musical? No? Okay, well more on that later. From director Adam Shankman comes an odd but interesting, off-beat but funny and in the end, entertaining movie. Considering the source material, 'Rock' thankfully doesn't take itself too seriously, having some fun with the general extravagances of the music industry in the late 1980s. It's all pretty ridiculous with a pretty thin script, but it's fun just the same. With so many (we're talking lots of songs) musical numbers, there just isn't enough time to actually develop much of a story other than 1. Girl falls for boy. 2. Club must save itself. 3. Huge star begins to question himself. 4. Parents' groups try to ruin rock. Nothing particularly new there in other words.

Maybe it was just the commercials (or lack of) I saw, but not all of them painted this as a musical. Thankfully before seeing it, I did figure that out, but it was clear when Hough's Sherrie bursts into song 6 seconds into the movie that....hey, I think this is a musical. Brace yourself, but here's a list of the bands featured here, the cast doing their own covers. And away we go with....Night Ranger, David Lee Roth, Poison, Foreigner, Joan Jett, Pat Benatar, Extreme, Warrant, Bon Jovi, Twisted Sister, Def Leppard, Quarterflash, Whitesnake, REO Speedwagon, Journey, Starship, Guns N' Roses, and Scorpions. Disappointed in that listing? That's just the songs that get the full treatment. There's another handful or so that are sampled at different point. Some songs fit better than others, some are more entertaining than others. Certain songs seem jammed into the sake of the story for the sake of having it there, but I guess that's what happens with a rock opera featuring that many different songs.

I'll get into the cast more in a minute, but Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx is getting his own paragraph here. Nearing his 50th birthday, Cruise has found ways to stay fresh with his film roles, and this is a prime example of that. Lead singer of Arsenal, Stacee is planning to go solo and is everything good and bad about the industry at the times. A diva who guzzles liquor, has countless groupies with him at all times, and has a baboon as a servant named 'Hey Man.' In one great scene with a Rolling Stone reporter (Malin Akerman, surprisingly funny), he goes on this rant about who and what he is, getting more out there with each passing word. A one-on-one with club owner Alec Baldwin is hysterical, neither man sure if the other one understands what's being said, symbolism and metaphors flying, Cruise questioning "Can you house a rising phoenix?" Cruise alone -- committing full force to the exaggerated portrayal -- is worth the price of admission.

The rest of the ensemble is more hit or miss unfortunately. Hough is a stunner to look at, and a very talented singer/dancer, but as an actress she's just not there yet. The same for Boneta as Drew, neither lead character producing much interest for the viewer (for me at least). Baldwin and club partner Lonny (Russell Brand, who I'm typically not a fan of) are a match made in heaven, Baldwin's Dennis Dupress desperate to keep his club open, Lonny a diehard rock fan at his side. Some of the funniest scenes -- including one priceless duet -- comes from them seemingly working on the fly. Zeta-Jones and husband Bryan Cranston are tolerable but nothing more. Paul Giamatti is an appropriately slimy manager for Stacee, and ends up being a suitable villain. The very talented Mary J. Blige is given little to do but belt out some songs as Justice, owner of a high-class strip club.

My objection here has little to do with the fact I'm reviewing a musical (brace for lightning strike) but more the actual music. Your enjoyment/hatred will no doubt come from your background with the music. Do you love big 1980s music? You'll love the movie. Using the songs though as the script though comes across as lazy to me. In certain places, it feels like a square peg into a round slot, getting a song into the story for the sake of it being there. And at a sometimes slow 123 minutes, there's a lot of singing. It gets to be like celebrity karaoke at a certain point. Good songs? Yes, you bet. Too much of a good thing? Yes, you bet. Still, the movie is genuinely funny, and some members of the cast -- Cruise, Baldwin, Brand, Giamatti -- make it worthwhile. Just know what you're getting into.

Rock of Ages <---trailer (2012): ** 1/2 /****

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

I was surprised as anyone how much I loved Seth Grahame-Smith's Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. That's right...loved. Yes, the idea of one of America's most famous presidents a vampire hunter? The horror! Go figure that the book is original, unique, creative, innovative and a damn entertaining read, one of the better books I've read in years. I tried to tell as many fellow readers as I could that you should not judge a book by its cover. If you like history, Lincoln, or just being entertained, please give the book a try. It was that good.

My obvious concern then when I saw the movie trailer was simple. All my concerns I had going into the book? Yeah, they were very much present in the movie. So there, just wanted to get this out there now at the beginning of the review. I loved the book, and even with the awful trailer, I had some high expectations going into the movie. The transition from novel to film is atrocious, and the review will reflect that. Maybe people who haven't read the book will enjoy the movie -- that's for readers/viewers to decide -- but this was an awful movie. So anyways, here goes, 2012's Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

As a young boy growing up with his family in 1820s Indiana, Abe Lincoln is traumatized and deeply affected by the death of his mother at the hands of a vampire. He grows up, swearing he will exact revenge on the vampire, but once there, Abe (Benjamin Walker) finds out it's not so easy to destroy a vampire. Barely surviving, Abe is rescued by the mysterious Henry (Dominic Cooper) who begins to teach him how to destroy vampires, become a vampire hunter. Abraham is a fast learner, and quickly enough Henry has him dispatching vampire after vampire. But as he continues to age, Abraham seems destined for bigger and better things as America changes, a Civil War looming. The future President must make a choice; continue hunting vampires or start a family. Could the right answer be both?

High expectations are one thing, but this movie is a trainwreck from the start. Director Timur Bekmambetov (of the similarly trainwreck-y Wanted) and Grahame-Smith's script has managed to strip and dumb down a source novel that seemed as close to a "Gimme" as any book I've ever read. Reading the book, it was easy to see certain scenes making the jump to the big screen, especially the ominous opening in modern times, the tweaking of history we've all read about, and the double-edged sword ending. Even if the movie sucked, I thought maybe...just maybe, those little touches could save it. Like so much else with this movie, I was very, very and completely wrong. So anyways.....

My first thought -- as mentioned above -- is that viewers who haven't read the book will enjoy it more. Other than the fact that Abe does in fact kill some vampires, there is no unifying link between the two mediums. But this isn't a book review, it's a movie review. The Wall Street Journal review says it should be fun, or at least smart. And it's neither. It's too serious for its own good. When it's not painfully overdone, it comes across as a bloody cartoon. 'Hunter' takes itself too seriously from the word 'Go' and never lets up. Things degenerate quickly, bad acting, horrifically obvious CGI, and a story that gets dumber by the minute handicapping this possible blockbuster.

Playing maybe the most famous President in U.S. history is no doubt a huge task, but Walker leaves little to no impression as Abraham Lincoln at any age. He has limited range, never giving us any reason to even be remotely interested in him. Cooper looks bored as Henry, Abe's teacher who has his own bloody secrets from his past. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is miscast as Mary Todd, Abe's wife and the love of his life, given a chance to overact in one scene that's laughable in its execution. Anthony Mackie and Jimmi Simpson are relative bright spots as Will and Speed, two of Abe's closest friends who know his deepest, darkest secrets. Rufus Sewell and Erin Wasson are Adam and Vedonna, the vampire leader and his sexy minion, wrapping up a small cast that screams for any sort of development...or additional characters. Something, anything to make it more interesting, but that's the problem. The idea/premise (poorly executed though it is) overshadows any sort of interest in the characters.

Unable to pick a tone, an ending, a goal, 'Hunter' drifts along aimlessly, sort of knowing where it wants to go....but not really. Instead in this 105-minute movie, we get repetitive shots of Abe battling vampires in slow-motion that get tedious by the second attack or so. That's never a good sign when there are 20, 25 to go. But that's the problem. The tone is undecided. The mood is cartoonish. The overabundance of CGI is painfully obvious, not the seamless blend even average CGI can be. The "epic Civil War battle scenes" are over in seconds. One vampire hunt has Abe tracking down his mother's killer (Marton Csokas) in a horse stampede, probably the most laughable scene in the whole movie. Wait, I can't say that. I can't pick just one scene as the most laughable. That's just too large a task.

Here is one example of a script and story just not thinking things through. At the battle of Gettysburg, the Confederacy uses battalions of vampire soldiers that wreak havoc on Union forces unable to kill these undead soldiers. Seeing the casualty reports, Abe figures out his soldiers need silver bullets, cannon balls, knives and bayonets. Stripping Washington D.C. of all its silver, Abe, Will and Speed smelt all those things in a few hours, put them on board a train and get all this needed materiel to Gettysburg the next morning. Oh, by the way, they fight off a huge vampire attack aboard a flaming train. Clever is one thing, moving along the story for the sake of doing so another, and just stupidly wrapping things up a whole other review. Worst of all, it doesn't know how to end, completely disregarding Lincoln's assassination (one of the more clever parts of the book) and ruining Grahame-Smith's pristine, pitch perfect final scene. What do we get instead? A lackluster finish that lands with a thud.

Here's the big picture though, and this takes out consideration for readers and non-readers. It is a mind-blowingly stupid movie. The action is one mindless Matrix sequence after another with gallons of CGI blood filling the screen. The characters are stupid, uninteresting, and cardboard cutouts. It dumbs down an extremely interesting idea to the first thought I had of this concept.....Abe Lincoln killing vampires? That just sounds awful, and it is. Horrible movie that doesn't even come close to touching the book's potential. Give this one a wide berth.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter <---trailer (2012): */****

Friday, June 22, 2012

Robinson Crusoe (1954)

Certain names rise above their source genre whether it be film, television, music, and literature. One of the most iconic names in literature is Robinson Crusoe, a character created by author Daniel Defoe. It is a character that's jumped to film and TV countless times, including 1954's Robinson Crusoe.

Sailing from South America to Africa aboard a slaver, young Englishman Robinson Crusoe (Dan O'Herlihy) sees his life thrown upside down when the ship sails into a storm and is blown thousands of miles off course. The ship is wrecked, but Crusoe is able to swim to a nearby island with a raftful of supplies. He is as isolated as possible on this tropical island and must survive as best he can. What does the island hide though? What trials await? And most importantly, can he make it back to civilization?

The 1940s, 1950s and 1960s seemed to have countless movies based in the 1600 and 1700s on the high seas in the South Pacific. Movies like this, Shipwrecked, Treasure Island and Swiss Family Robinson dotted the landscape, presenting a dangerous, exciting and at times  idyllic life of a shipwreck victim. Lucky they always landed on large islands with plenty of food and water, huh? There is something endearing about these stories because they are fun to watch. You can't help but think what life would be like being stranded on a beautiful tropical island. Building off that with Defoe's instantly recognizable character? Not a bad jumping off point at all.

This is somewhat of an odd film, one that wasn't even available in any format until the last six or seven years. It is a cheap, low-budget film that rises above its lack of money and scale to be surprisingly enjoyable. 'Crusoe' was shot on location for the most part in Manzanillo on the west coast of Mexico (with a primarily Mexican crew). It looks tropical, a great jumping off point. The colors look faded some 50-plus years later, adding to that old school charm of a film era long since passed. The cast is minimal -- only a handful of speaking parts -- and the music unobtrusive. In general, the movie has that certain roguish charm, a no frills movie that shouldn't stand out from the rest but manages to do just that.

A character actor who never became a huge star, O'Herlih does an admirable job as the shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe. An upper class Englishman with no real experience in caring for himself, much less surviving, Crusoe is forced to improvise on the fly. It's a fun viewing to see him learn and develop, becoming an experienced and capable naturalist over the years. His narration is simple and straightforward, and his interactions with his pets -- a dog, Rex, a cat, Sam, and a parrot -- provide some moving and funny moments. Jaime Fernandez is all right if unspectacular as Friday, a cannibal Crusoe rescues and takes as a servant/slave. They eventually become best friends, equals and not as master and worker.

Sticking fairly closely to Defoe's novel, 'Crusoe' has its fair share of memorable moments. The early years of being shipwrecked have Robinson hallucinating and struggling to cope as he realizes he's completely alone. His discovery of a fresh human footprint in the sand after 20-plus years alone is a great moment as are some of his interactions with Friday as he tries to teach him how not to be a cannibal. Some of the early portions in the episodic story are a tad slow, but the pacing picks up around the 40-minute mark. A hidden gem, one with flaws that ends up being surprisingly good. Well worth a watch.

Robinson Crusoe <---trailer (1954): ***/****

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Cool Hand Luke

Heroes are supposed to be noble, loyal, honor-bound and always do what's right. But in the 1960s and its increased cynicism from the audience, was that concept of a hero really going to fly? The idea of an anti-hero started popping up in the 1950s thanks to James Dean and Marlon Brando among others, but for me, the one that kicked the door open in the 1960s was Paul Newman in 1967's Cool Hand Luke.

Having taken the heads off of a long row of parking meters, a drunken Lucas Jackson (Newman) is arrested and sentenced to a two-year sentence on a chain gang in Florida. He meets the Captain (Strother Martin) and his bevy of guards who keep their prison camp roster of 50 prisoners busy on the roads six days a week, but this camp has had nothing like Luke. Easy going enough early on in his sentence, he begins to bristle at being imprisoned, at being told what he's supposed to do. He becomes a hero to his other prisoners, forming a friendship with head honcho, Dragline (George Kennedy), but Luke can only take being held down for so long, and he wants out now.

Paul Newman is one of my all-time favorites, and this is HIS iconic part. Butch Cassidy, The Hustler, The Sting, and many others, all memorable roles, but nothing quite like this one. Want a face for a 1960s audience looking for something different? In steps Lucas Jackson, a man who has little regard for what society says he should do with his life, even less regard for any sort of authority hovering over him. Newman makes Luke -- dubbed 'Cool Hand' for a bluff in poker -- a charming, likable individual, his easy-going, natural smile disarming you in a second. We learn a lot about this character with little background (a veteran, countless jobs, a drifter), finding out that no one and no thing will slow him down. He will do things on his terms, and anyone else can be damned. Newman at his best.

With Newman's Oscar-nominated part at the head, 'Cool' has become one of the seminal movies of the late 1960s, ranking up there with The Wild Bunch, The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde and several others I'm missing. This is a movie made for a late 1960s audience that isn't content with the status quo. No respect for authority or the so-called 'system'? Check. An anti-hero that wants to do things and live his life his way? Double check. The system are Martin's quiet but intense Captain, Boss Godfrey (Morgan Woodward), the silent guard who wears his ever-present aviator glasses, along with steely-eyed Luke Askew, Richard Donner and John McLiam.  The system is the villain here, imprisoning and breaking the individual down to conform. It's easy to see the appeal in 1967, and just as easy to see now 45 years later in 2012. The thinker, the free spirit, the intelligent rebel, it's an appealing character and premise to root for.

Because Newman's performance is so strong at the top, another part of the film gets lost in the shuffle, and that's the ensemble cast all around him from Martin and Kennedy to the guards to the prisoners. Martin is perfect in his few scenes, including muttering the iconic 'What we have here is failure to communicate.' Kennedy won an Oscar for his part as Dragline, an illiterate but intelligent and fast-talking prisoner who all the other prisoners look up to. Newman and Kennedy play off each other impeccably, the subtle, underplayed Luke with the showier, aggressive and funny Dragline. Other prisoners include J.D. Cannon, Lou Antonio, Robert Drivas, Harry Dean Stanton, Dennis Hopper, Wayne Rogers, Ralph Waite, Joe Don Baker, Dick Davalos and Buck Kartalian among others. Clifton James and Anthony Zerbe are good as prisoners turned associates who help the guards. 

Like any movie that lives on so many years after its release, there's got to be something to make it memorable, and director Stuart Rosenberg doesn't disappoint. The most obvious is Luke stating he can eat 50 eggs in an hour, a classic sequence in its humor, but there's so much more. Luke singing Plastic Jesus -- watch HERE -- after receiving some distressing news is an all-time great. There's Luke earning everyone's respect in a brutal, knock-down boxing match (watch HERE), refusing to go down even when he's beat. There's a teenager washing a car, driving the on-looking prisoners wild (HERE), and up there with Plastic Jesus for the most moving scene, Luke talking with his dying mother, Arletta (Jo Van Fleet). Almost scene-to-scene is aided by composer Lalo Schifrin's amazingly spot-on music, especially the main theme which you can listen to HERE.  

What struck me most in my latest viewing was the darkness of the story. The first hour is generally light-hearted, introducing characters, backgrounds and interactions, setting us up by liking Newman's Luke so much in spite of his bullheaded stubbornness. I'd forgotten then how intensely dark and at times uncomfortable the second half of the movie is. From the start, we know Luke is heading down a bad road, but that unbearable tension and impending sense of doom keeps building. The movie still has its lighter touches -- Luke's escapes provide some unlikely humor -- but there will not be a truly happy ending here. In the end though, one of the final shots shows that free spirits might not always win, but that also doesn't mean the system, authority and power positions will win either. The symbolism can be a little obvious, a little heavy-handed, but the message still strikes a chord.

A classic from beginning to end. End of story.

Cool Hand Luke <---trailer (1967): ****/****

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Grey

When the trailers for 2011's The Grey were released, I was skeptical but at least a little intrigued. It was another movie that had very talented Liam Neeson being a bad-ass again (Taken, The Dark Knight, Titans), this time fighting wolves in a survivalist story. Then, when it was released, I heard all sorts of arguments and dissension over the ending...mostly, that it was lousy. So Neeson killing wolves with an ending that did its best to divide viewers? Color me curious.

Working for an oil drilling company in Alaska, hired gun and wolf-killer Ottway (Neeson) boards a plane with 20-some oil drillers, the dregs of society as far as anyone is concerned. Flying in horrific weather, the plane crashes in the isolated, desolate wilderness with only seven survivors, including Ottway. Low on both food and water, the survivors try to band together to make it from day-to-day, but there's something else. A pack of wolves is patrolling around the wreck site, and they're not waiting long. Just hours after their arrival, the wolves start attacking the survivors. Can Ottway lead them to safety, or at least hold off the vicious animals until help arrives?

Trailers, commercials and most TV spots built this Joe Carnahan-directed movie as an action-packed thrill ride, a group of supermen doing battle with wolves. Yeah, long story short? That's not the movie this is at all. It is a story about surviving, about battling through extreme adversity, about a will to live when everything in you and around you begs you to give up. Filmed in British Columbia, it is a lonely, chilling story that isn't necessarily entertaining, but I don't think it's supposed to be. By the end of the 117-minute movie, you feel cold, tired, wiped out and just plan exhausted. Yes, the small band of survivors fight wolves, but it's survival. They do so or die. They don't attack. They defend themselves. The will to live is a powerful weapon, one that can be hard to beat.

Going in another more fan-friendly, crowd-pleasing story, Neeson is a perfect choice to play the steely-eyed, cold as ice lead, Ottway. With his sniper rifle, he hovers over the oil sites, protecting the drillers from anything nature can throw at them (in this case, wolves). As we meet Ottway, he's hit his limit and only through a mechanical glitch is he still alive after a suicide attempt. But once the plane crashes and the survivors turn to him and his expertise, he has a reason to live, a reason to keep on fighting. Neeson is a very talented actor, but there's nothing wrong with being very talented and playing roles that are a little fun too. His fellow survivors include Diaz (Frank Grillo), the pessimist, Talget (Dermot Mulroney), the scruffy single father, Hendrick (Dallas Roberts), the rational medic, Flannery (Joe Anderson), the frantic worrier, Burke (Nonso Anozie), the sick survivor, and Hernandez (Ben Bray).

In not doing two hours of continuous wolf attacks, Carnahan has a lot of time (and that's a good thing) to develop the situation. The plane wreck is harrowing without being incredibly detailed, a terrifying ordeal to survive. The aftermath in all its carnage -- including frozen corpses -- is just as gruesome, but it's the more personal, emotional moments that work better. One dying driller (James Badge Dale) is freaking out, looking for someone to tell him he'll be okay, Neeson's Ottway instead being honest with him. He quietly and assuredly explains that death will not be painful, it will be a peaceful moment in a highly memorable scene for Neeson. Later as the survivors trudge across the landscape, several scenes around fires have the men talking about their situation, about life and death, their beliefs. Subtle and moving, they're great scenes. Grillo as Diaz, the doubting (and cynical) Thomas, Mulroney as Talget and Roberts and Hendrick stand out from the group in a good way.

I also feel the need to defend the movie because so many viewers took it upon themselves to rip it, most notably its portrayal of wolves. Basically, wolves -- even packs of wolves -- don't attack humans, they're scared of them. Yes, it's a fair issue, but an unnecessary one that misses the point of the story. This isn't a nature documentary on Discovery Channel or Animal Planet. The wolves are a means to an end, a reason to drive these men to their limits. In the end, they become worthy adversaries, lurking in the shadows and waiting to strike. Carnahan gives them the Jaws-treatment, we rarely see the animals in their entirety. Their attacks are surprising and in a few cases, shocking. Great rivals for Ottway and his motley group of survivors.

And then there's the ending, a finale that did its best to divide the viewers. As the movie develops, I'm trying to figure where 'Grey' was heading. Is it all a dream? Were they all killed in the crash? I can thankfully say....NO, no dreams, hallucinations or metaphorical looks at life and death. The ending instead is ambiguous to a point (and watch through the credits for a quick follow-up scene). For me, it's a moving, appropriate ending, one that isn't ambiguous in the least. But it doesn't spell every little thing out for you, and ta-da! Viewers are pissed! How you come away from this one? Personal taste and judgment I suppose. I liked the ending a lot, even more so the more I think about it. Carnahan has carved a nice tough-guy movie niche for himself, and he continues it here. Not what it was as advertised as, but it's better because of it.

The Grey <---trailer (2011): ***/****

Monday, June 18, 2012

Take Shelter

If you're a movie fan and stay somewhat up to date with new releases, you almost assuredly know the face if not the name. His name is Michael Shannon, a Kentucky-born character actor who has carved a niche for himself in heavy dramatic roles, usually playing key supporting roles. The last few years though, his star has risen, including a large part in HBO's Boardwalk Empire and a starring role in 2011's Take Shelter, a part that should have earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

Living with his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and his deaf daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart), hard-working Curtis LaForche (Shannon) is a loving, caring father who has quite a life built up around him. He's got a solid job, a loving family and leads a good life. Curtis though has started to seeing things. He has hallucinations and wakes up in a sweat at night because of vivid, very real dreams he's had. Everything points to something major happening in the future, a storm of epic proportions unlike anything the world has seen, or so Curtis thinks. He starts acting oddly, questioning what is to come. Are Curtis' dreams visions, a predictor of the future? Or is his family bloodlines passing along the paranoid schizophrenia that his mother had?

Being a small-scale, low budget movie that did well through the Festival circuit with all sorts of critical acclaim but no major release, the only reason I was aware of 'Shelter' was a trailer preview on a DVD. The trailer immediately caught my attention, and I'm glad I sought it out at Netflix. From writer and director Jeff Nichols, this is an intimate, very personal and small scale story that hits almost all the right notes. It has a feel of small town and middle class America that feels authentic. Art house film? Indie film? Or more straightforward? I think in an odd way, it works on all three levels. It isn't a straight drama. It doesn't try to deliver a profound message. Somehow, it just works.

The biggest reason for its success is the acting, especially Shannon and Chastain. Shannon becomes the Curtis character, a husband and father in his 30s who should be happy and carefree. His mother (Kathy Baker) though was diagnosed in her mid 30s with schizophrenia, causing Curtis to question if he's going down the same road. Shannon underplays the role, a man torn up inside about what he's become but rarely showing outward emotion. Shannon does a pained, tortured look like nobody's business. He's going to solve it on his own and doesn't want anyone -- even his loving wife -- to try and help. Curtis intends it in a positive fashion, trying to protect her, but it's easy to see why she doesn't feel that way. The Queen of 2011, Chastain is similarly excellent as Samantha. Skeptical, suspicious and questioning, she wants what's best for her husband, but he won't allow her to help.

Other parts include Dewart (Shea Wigham), Curtis' best friend and co-worker, Nat (Katy Mixon), Dewart's wife and Samantha's close friend by association, Ray McKinnon as Kyle, Curtis' worried and possibly estranged brother, and young Stewart as Hannah is solid in a background but essential part.

This is a personal, dramatic story that is supposed to unsettle you to a point. The trailer does a hell of a job establishing that. The musical score from composer David Wingo goes a long way, an eerie, ethereal score that looms and hangs over the story. I can't place the sound, but moral of the story? It works in a big way. Listen to part of it HERE. Everything about the script, the acting, and the visuals points to an impending doom. The shots of raging storms -- thunder and lightning, odd natural occurrences -- are a sight to behold, majestic and beautiful in a way where something can frighten and impress at the same time. Curtis' dreams especially stand out; intense and truly frightening in a way that horror movies should and could hope to replicate. From the first scene to the last, we're questioning what it all means. Where is it heading? What's the resolution? In that sense, it has the feel of a longer episode of The Twilight Zone.

Which brings us to the ending. It's the type of movie you know the ending is going to either make or break the story. Does it all come together or does it sink like a rock? Without giving anything specific away, I can say that it is an ambiguous ending that allows for viewer interpretation. I wrapped my head around it one way, and I'm cool with it. Did I love that ending? No, I would have ended it about 5 minutes earlier at a natural and very moving conclusion. Does it work? That's probably up to you and your interpretation. However you interpret it, I think it works. Just pick your best option. No matter how it's interpreted though, it is a beautiful, startling final shot that can certainly open the door for debate.

The movie on a whole isn't perfect. It struggles to sustain momentum at some points, ending up at 121 minutes. Some scenes feel like a little work in the editing department could have been used. At the same time, that's part of the appeal of the movie. The camera work allows for long, extended shots, beautifully choreographed shots that aid that unsettling feeling that develops. Some minor issues aside with pacing, the movie is an easy one to recommend. Smart, well-made, well-acted and a visually interesting movie to watch...and smart. Yes, I pointed it out twice. It's a rare thing in movies these days. Enjoy it.

Take Shelter <---trailer (2011): ***/****

Saturday, June 16, 2012


Before Roger Moore became universally known as James Bond, the British actor put his dues in. For seven successful years, he starred in TV's The Saint, making a name for himself. But after the show's run? Several years of a more hit-or-miss nature, including 1969's Crossplot, a major swing and a miss.

As a highly successful advertising executive, Gary Fenn (Moore) has stepped in it in a big way. With a major client breathing down his neck, Gary has committed to a model he's never seen before, much less heard of her. The model's name is Marla Kugash (Claudie Lange), a beautiful young Hungarian woman about to be deported because she hasn't been working enough. Gary manages to track her down only to step in it even more. Marla is on the run, assassins hunting her down after she accidentally overheard a secret plot. Now he not only has to save his job, but his neck and the girl too.

This is the type of story that sounds appealing just hearing about the plot. Accidental spies and secret agents have provided some solid movies over the years. But in the age of the spy movies -- the 1960s and 1970s -- this one is just bizarre. There are moments of actual drama and action with intensity and adrenaline. Mostly though, there are far too many moments of half-assed laughs, pitiful, overdone attempts at those laughs involving physical humor, and a general feeling of campiness that would have been more at home in an hour-long TV show. Physical humor has to be very precise to work and executed well. Crossplot has none of that. At one point, Moore and Lange are driving an old-timey car (dressed time appropriate) by a machine-gunning helicopter. How could that not be funny? The Keystone Cops would be pissed.

Instead, we get a 96-minute movie that feels much longer and does have the distinct feel of a TV show. Translated? It's cheap, and it doesn't hide the cheapness well. The sets appear very stagey and look like they were made for about $10 or so. Almost the entire movie was shot on indoor sets, although the ventures outside -- few that they are -- into 1969 London are pretty cool. Think the real life Austin Powers. That would be tolerable, but the use of greenscreens (inserting Moore and the cast "into" the action) looks about as ridiculous as you'd expect. The late 1960s lifestyle of drugs, psychedelic clothes, and grooviness in general adds to the camp factor. 'Crossplot' just doesn't have much going for it in any department.

Despite the almost uniformly negative reviews I read prior to watching, I forged on because I'm a Roger Moore fan. Even in his truly bad Bond movies (I'm looking at you Moonraker), he's a likable, entertaining star. Unfortunately here, the source material pulls him down in a big way. Moore got laughs by being smooth, by being suave and throwing one-liner one after another. Physical humor ain't his thing, especially forced, truly awkward physical humor. As for co-star Claudie Lange.....she sure is pretty. Acting? Eh, but she sure is nice to look at, and that's what the story runs with. She appears in various stages of undress, usually something draped over her chest. Lange does have a unnecessary but pleasant surprise of a nude scene late, randomly sitting in a tub and standing up. It is clearly an essential scene for development.

None of the cast manages to stand out, but there are some other recognizable faces around. Martha Hyer is Jo, Marla's supposedly sweet aunt looking out for her niece. She ends up being the bad guy, but it's such a stupid gimmick it makes no impact. Alexis Kanner is a relative bright spot as Tarquin, a hippie protester and friend of Marla's. In a cool link to the Connery and Moore 007 flicks, also look for Bernard Lee in a few scenes. Lee would co-star with Moore in four Bond movies. A movie that falls short on basically every level imaginable. Even Moore and Lange's.....talents? couldn't save this one.

Crossplot <---trailer (1969): */****

Friday, June 15, 2012


With moves like 1979's Alien and 1982's Blade Runner, director Ridley Scott created two of the most well-known, well-respected, and popular science fiction movies of the last 30-plus years, and seemingly was on the road to becoming a sci-fi master. To be fair, with those two movies alone, he is a sci-fi master. He hadn't returned to science fiction until the recent release, 2012's Prometheus, a prequel to Alien. Worth the wait? Flawed overall, but an epic success when it does work.

It is the year 2089 and two scientists, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Dr. Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), have made a series of discoveries -- cave paintings from different places and eras in human history -- that all have a common link. They all contain a drawing of some sort of being pointing to the same galactic location. Some two years later onboard the spaceship Prometheus, Shaw and Holloway are part of an expedition traveling to the darkest corners of the universe in search of what those paintings might mean. Is there intelligent life out there? Did they create us as a race? After the two-year journey, Prometheus arrives at the moon LV-223 to continue the investigation. They find evidence of another race but something else as well. What did this race create?

Some film directors just have credibility at the very mention of their name, and Ridley Scott is one of those few. When this movie is good, it is great. I didn't see it in 3-D, but the look of the movie is incredible, especially a mysterious opening sequence...but more on that later. The musical score is kept to a minimum, but when it's used, it makes quite an impression (kudos to composer Marc Streitenfeld). Like the most effective science fiction stories and movies, it succeeds because it makes you think, makes you question. What better place to do that than the far reaches of the universe? Anything could exist out there, friendly or aggressive. Were we put on Earth for a reason? Does faith mean anything? Do your beliefs truly mean something to you? When you're in a spot, how do you react? At its best, Scott's film explores some of these issues. Oh, he also does a fair job trying to scare the hell out of you as a viewer.

It's been years since I've seen the Alien movies, but as a prequel, it has a distinctly different feel. The visual is stunning here. Yes, it's a science fiction movie that degenerates into a creature feature (unfortunately), but it can also fairly and accurately be described as an artsy, minimalist take on mankind, space travel, the future and so much more. Basically the exact opposite of a summer blockbuster. It forces you to pay attention and think for yourself. It isn't always an easy movie to follow, but for the most part you're rewarded in the end. Nothing is ever really spelled out for you. That can be both rewarding and frustrating, especially in the finale. It is different though, and Scott tries for something more than the norm.

An effective, solid ensemble cast steps to the forefront for Scott's prequel, starting with Rapace and Holloway as the archeologists searching for answers. Charlize Theron is brutally cold and efficient as Vickers, the Weyland Corporation representative in charge of making sure the mission goes off according to plan. Her looks can deceive you, but she's cold and calculated. Idris Elba has another scene-stealing part as Janek, the Prometheus captain (with co-pilots Emun Elliott and Benedict Wong), an everyman but highly intelligent and able to piece things together for his job and mission. Guy Pearce in heavy make-up plays Weyland, the aging, decrepit CEO who finances the deep space mission. Sean Harris and Rafe Spall have smaller but just as important parts as Fifield and Millburn, two members of the investigating team, each with their own hopes on the mission. Also look for Patrick Wilson in a one-scene part, Shaw's father in a dream sequence.

The part that no doubt most moviegoers will remember though is David, an android created by the Weyland Corp. to blend in as a human, possessing everything but a soul. David is played to perfection by rising star Michael Fassbender in a part that could/should earn him an Oscar nod. The obvious comparison is to Hal in Space Odyssey, but that's limiting and not a completely fair comparison. This android has human mannerisms and touches -- he moves like a man, rides bikes, plays basketball, mimics Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia -- but there's also that one thing, that one little thing that prevents him from being a man. It's hard to put my finger on it, but Fassbender does an incredible job. His David is sympathetic, menacing, brilliant, intimidating and conniving. Because he can be programmed, it's can be difficult to get a read on his intentions, but whatever they may be, Fassbender is the star of Prometheus without a doubt.

Certain moments in Prometheus have stuck with me since seeing it and no doubt will stick with me in the days and weeks to come. The opening sequence is a jaw-dropper; a supremely muscle-bound, albino humanoid being left on a desolate, isolated landscape (a pre-civilization Earth?) as a spaceship takes off. He takes a potion that kills him, his body decomposing in seconds. Is it the creation of mankind? Who knows for sure? The arrival at LV-223 is equally impressive, the Prometheus attempting to find a landing zone as it travels through the atmosphere and the terrain below. Stunning visual sequences, both of them. Once the crew detects some variation on life, the visual turns to the dark and unsettling, the feeling of Doomsday looming in the air.

While I will readily recommend the movie overall, I can also say I came away slightly disappointed in the end. I don't need everything wrapped up nicely with a bow, and open-ended endings aren't a movie killer for me. But as is here, the ending left me unsatisfied. I wanted more.....of something. It doesn't have to be answers spelled out for me, but there's got to be something. Here, it just ends. On the whole, I'll heartily recommend it. Know there are flaws, but the positives ended up being particularly memorable for this moviegoer. Definitely give this one a try! Also check out the great teaser trailer below. The full-length trailer (watch HERE) is also above average as trailers go.

Prometheus <---trailer (2012): ***/****

Thursday, June 14, 2012

A Man Escaped

When I discovered a few years back the French New Wave movies of the 1950s and 1960s, I dove in headfirst. My first impression back in school -- Breathless -- was less than impressive, but one movie after another impressed me, especially the work of Jean-Pierre Melville and Jacques Becker, especially Becker's 1960 classic Le Trou. I couldn't help but think of that film while watching an earlier French film, 1956's A Man Escaped.

In the midst of World War II, a French resistance fighter, Fontaine (Francois Leterrier), is captured by German soldiers after blowing up an important bridge. He is transported to a prison packed with resistance and guerrilla fighters run by the Gestapo. Death hangs in the air, the prisoners almost to a man waiting to find out their sentence and when they will be executed. Fontaine knows his date is coming and decides to do something about it. In a heavily guarded prison with high walls surrounding the place, can Fontaine manage an escape? He has no supplies and little in the way of tools, but locked away in his own cell, all he's got is time to hatch a plan. With the Germans waiting though, maybe it isn't too much time.

There are prison escape movies, and then there's this movie. From director Robert Bresson, 'Escaped' sets the groundwork in one way or another for basically any movie made since even remotely focusing on a prison escape. It's influences are easy to see from 1960's Le Trou to Escape from Alcatraz starring Clint Eastwood and countless other examples. Bresson films on the smallest of scales, right at the ground level on an ultra-personal level. There's only a few sets -- Fontaine's cell, the wash room, a hallway -- and only a few detours, one being Fontaine's desperate escape attempt in the opening scene that goes unseen on the streets of Paris. Filmed in black and white with dialogue held to a minimum, this is a minimalist escape story at its best. Throw in uses of Mozart for parts of the soundtrack, and you've got a winner.

I try to avoid using 'minimalist' as a description because I feel like I misuse it at times, and basically, it can sound kind of movie reviewer pretentious. But in 'Escaped,' it's a dead-on description. There is one pointed objective here. E-S-C-A-P-E. There's nothing else. We learn little about Fontaine, and what we do learn is enough. His options are simple; escape or die. Doesn't get much more nerve-wracking than that, does it? Even the WWII setting just gets the ball rolling. It could be looked at as an existential, artsy look at one man's desperate attempts at survival. This could be any country, any era, any time period as long as you've got an imprisoned man desperately seeking freedom. No wasted subplots or extraneous background. This is a meat and potatoes kind of story.

Now having said that, this admittedly won't be everyone's cup of tea. Just 99 minutes, the dialogue is truly kept to a minimum. Long scenes in Fontaine's cell have him quietly working as his escape; quietly chipping and hacking at the door frame, knowing that at any second a guard could discover his plans. Other scenes have Fontaine walking through the prison halls, cleaning himself, all the while Leterrier providing narration as to his thoughts, mindset, objectives and how his plans are progressing. Bresson's shooting style is of a fly on the wall in an almost documentary-like feel. Little editing, little to no actual spoken dialogue, and a feeling of reality and confinement. I came away somewhat disappointed with the ending, but looking back on it, I shouldn't have. The whole movie is minimalist. Why was I expecting something different in the finale?

In one of the first examples of method acting, Leterrier is in basically every single scene, but like the minimalist story, his performance is underplayed and generally authentic. Somehow he stays calm throughout his attempt so even a little emotion would have been cool to see. He's not obsessed with escape -- visibly at least, his emotions are in check -- but it becomes an end all, be all objective. Leterrier does a great job with the straightforward and at times profound narration, using his eyes the rest of the time to get his message across. Charles Le Clainche (his only film role) has the best supporting part as Jost, a German soldier jailed for desertion who is thrown in Fontaine's cell with him. Other prisoners he comes across include Maurice Beerblock as Blanchet, Roland Monod as a priest, serving as the conscience of the prisoners, Jacques Ertaud as Orsini, Fontaine's cellmate across the hall, and Roger Treherne as Terry, an older prisoner with some freedoms.

I feel like I'm not doing a great job of selling this movie, but it most definitely deserves a watch. It is a movie that I can't see being made in any other time or place. This was a movie meant to be made in France in the 1950s as film and cinema was changing in a big way. Maybe not a movie you truly enjoy, but one you have to experience.

A Man Escaped <---trailer (1956): ***/****

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


How far can charm take a movie? A story, an actor, a soundtrack, they can all have charm, but to what point? Usually it's a jumping off point to at least liking a movie, and hopefully somewhere in the process, you like something more. Thanks to a misleading trailer, I watched 2009's Duplicity, thinking I was getting a light espionage mystery relying on the charm and star power of two bankable stars. Even charm -- or lack of -- could save this one.

Two former intelligence agents, Ray (Clive Owen) from MI6 and Claire (Julia Roberts) from the CIA, have a bit of a history together...a checkered one at that. Several years ago in Dubai, Claire drugged Ray and took some valuable information he had hidden away. Now they're meeting up again but under different circumstances and different emotions. For one, they've fallen for each other, well, sort of, if they can trust each other. Wanting to retire to a life of luxury, they've decided to go into corporate espionage, working from the inside as two warring corporations (run by rivals Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson) do battle over a new product that could revolutionize the market with billions of dollars at stake.

For starters, the trailer for this flick definitely made it look like a light, even romantic comedy a la Spy vs. Spy with Owen and Roberts going toe to toe. Yeah, about that...not quite. It's not like that at all, and it's not even close. Instead, director Tony Gilroy (of the Bourne movies, Michael Clayton) has crafted a twisting, weaving and generally pretty dark story about a corporate espionage where everything is not what it seems. I'm not claiming the movie isn't any good because the trailer was misleading. I'm claiming the movie isn't any good because it's dull and drifting with characters who aren't even close to sympathetic territory and a story that wraps itself up in its own cleverness.

Not surprisingly, the message boards are divided as to the quality of the movie. Some claim it's stupid and boring because the story isn't linear. Then there's the posters who blindly defend it because it's smart. Can both sides be wrong and right at the same time? I resent it when holier-than-thou moviegoers claim someone doesn't like a movie because they "didn't get it." It's also mindblowingly dumb to claim a movie is dumb because you simply didn't understand it. The odd thing about Duplicity is that nothing really works, and both sides are in fact very right. The story is flashback heavy, bringing us up to date (as much as possible) with how the characters got into this spot. Then, there's the current story, Ray and Claire working from the inside. None of it is particularly interesting, and it doesn't change much over the course of a slow-moving 125 minutes.

As far as bankable stars go, it's hard to top Julia Roberts and Clive Owen. Their parts in Duplicity are lacking in so many ways, and neither looks that interested in the story or their characters. Like the story, they look bored with the proceedings. And charm? Chemistry? Yeah, I'm still looking for that. The two stars never click, their scenes lacking any real passion. Their relationship gets repetitive almost immediately, two intelligence agents who struggle with trust issues because their job requires it of them. Roberts questions Owen, Owen flips, Roberts reveals she's joking and trying to pull a fast one on them. Repeat to your desire three or four more times, the joke falling short over and over. As for Giamatti and Wilkinson, it's about what you'd expect. They're playing themselves in extended cameos, neither given a chance to do anything.

More than a few times during the slowly developing story I was close to bailing, but I stuck with it and was at least partially rewarded with the ending. It features a twist that works in terms of the story and characters, but also is surprisingly entertaining and unique. It is far from a happy twist either, adding a dark element to the already pretty dark proceedings. Not enough to recommend the movie, but enough to say 'stick with it' if you're struggling mightily to make it through like I did.

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

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Wrath of God

Why do some movies just reach out and grab you? You know the movie. The one most of your friends have never heard of and give you that 'What the hell are you talking about?' look. It's that hidden gem of a movie that you stumbled across at Netflix, the one you started watching at 2 in the morning when you couldn't sleep. Because you found it, and it seems to have been forgotten among a sea of movies, it's almost your movie. I've got a handful of them, one of my favorites being 1972's The Wrath of God.  

It's the 1920s in an unidentified Central American country, and three men have been brought together to pull off a suicidal, basically impossible mission. First is Emmet Keogh (Ken Hutchison), an IRA gunman on the run. Second, there's Jennings (Victor Buono), a portly, double-dealing and conniving businessman who can never turn away at a chance at some easy cash. And third, there's Father Van Horne (Robert Mitchum), a defrocked priest now working as a con man with some tricks up his sleeve. They have a simple choice in front of them; stand in front of a firing squad or work together to kill Tomas de la Plata (Frank Langella), a maniacal revolutionary who rules his region with a tyrannical fist. Can the unlikely, unholy trio pull the job off and get out alive?

A little known western from 1972 with a solid cast, a somewhat goofy tone that has some fans thinking it's a spoof (I for one, do not), and action, drama and humor. What to take away from it? According to anything written about the movie from director Ralph Nelson, it was beset with problems from the start. Co-star Hutchison severely cut his hand, almost died and was forced to miss several weeks of filming. That's kind of a problem when Hutchison is in almost every scene. Starring in her last movie, Rita Hayworth was struggling with Alzheimer's and couldn't remember her lines. Now this may just be me, but you know what? Somehow and some way, it all works for the better. Yes, it's an odd, weird, even goofy mess of a movie, but it's damn entertaining.

'Wrath' has lots of little things going for it, the things that help make a good movie great. From composer Lalo Schifrin comes a crazy, off the wall, jazzy and Mexican themed score that sounds like an offbeat spaghetti western score (listen to samples HERE). Nelson filmed on location in Mexico using some familiar, memorable spots that you'll have seen in Vera Cruz, Big Jake, The Wild Bunch, and The War Wagon. The finale at the de la Plata hacienda is especially cool, using the same location as the finale to 1954's Vera Cruz. The best thing going though is the script. The movie is based off a Jack Higgins novel (written as James Graham), and while I like the novel, it doesn't have the dark humor the movie does. The whole movie is basically one great one-liner after another, but it never feels forced. Read IMDB's Memorable Quotes HERE for a sample. Credit to Mitchum, Buono and Hutchison especially for committing to the lines because it could have felt cheesy from the get-go in lesser hands.  

Mitchum was the only big, recognizable star in the cast, but that ends up working as a positive for the film. He was often criticized for being too calm, too lackadaisical, for being downright bored in his parts. This is a showy, scene-stealing part, and Mitchum runs away with it. Having some fun with previous "religious" parts like Night of the Hunter and Five Card Stud, he plays Father Oliver Van Horne, a somewhat disheveled, former priest (backstory explained late) now working as a conman and hired gun. He carries a large case loaded with an automatic machine gun and hiding over $50,000. Mitchum clearly looks like he's having some fun here. Hutchison and Buono too stand out, Hutchison as the fiery IRA gunman who gets a love interest, Chela (model Paula Prentiss in one of her 3 career roles), a mute Indian girl, and Buono as the portly, boozing dealer who always looks out for himself first and foremost. The trio has this really easy-going, likable chemistry that carries the movie, a nice positive when they're in almost every scene together.

The other three main parts are basically extended cameos. Playing the maniacal laughing, insane Tomas de la Plata, Langella hams it up like nobody's business. He hates priests after seeing sketchy, immoral priests in his village growing up so when Mitchum's Van Horne shows up, he basically loses his mind. Langella has some great exchanges with Mitchum too, overplaying vs. underplaying. In her last film, Hayworth is clearly struggling with her part, but it's still cool to see her working with the cast. Also hamming it up is John Colicos as Colonel Santilla, the conniving officer trying to get his rival de la Plata knocked off in any way possible. His spelling out the suicide mission to his self-named 'Unholy Trinity' is a priceless scene. Gregory Sierra is solid too as Jurado, de la Plata's one-eyed henchman. Fans of The Wild Bunch should check out the cast too, where you'll see Jorge Russek, Chano Urueta, Aurora Clavel, and Enrique Lucero, all of them playing supporting parts much like in Peckinpah's film.

A quasi-revolutionary western that isn't interested in breaking any ground sure ain't a bad thing. In many of his movies, Nelson was just interested in making entertaining, well-made and exciting movies. 'Wrath' is 3-for-3 there. It's fun from beginning to end, the last 30 minutes especially standing out as Van Horne, Keogh and Jennings make their move in taking out de la Plata. A bloody shootout in a village square leads into a bloodier shootout at the de la Plata hacienda, Van Horne wrapping it up nicely with a great closing line. Is the movie great? By no means, but I love it just the same. It's different, it's funny, and whether it's laughs or action, it should keep you entertained. Now about finding a DVD copy of it.....yeah, that's another story.

The Wrath of God (1972): *** 1/2 /****

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Italian Job (2003)

In an age of sequels, prequels and remakes, all I'm usually looking for is a new tweak. It doesn't have to be a major thing, just a difference. So how about a remake of the 1969 cult favorite The Italian Job? First, Americanize it of sorts, put together a cool cast, stylish heist, and ta-da! We've got 2003's The Italian Job!

Having pulled off an intricate robbery in Venice, Charlie Croker (Mark Wahlberg), John Bridger (Donald Sutherland) and their heist team manage to escape with $35 million of gold bars. But as they escape in the Alps, one of the team, Steve (Edward Norton), turns on the group and steals the gold for himself. Bridger is shot and killed and the rest are left for dead as Steve escapes with all the gold. A year later, Charlie has managed to track down Steve who's gone into hiding. He's got the heist team back together, and they're looking for some revenge. What better way than to steal their gold back? They'll need help though so Charlie recruits Stella Bridger (Charlize Theron), John's daughter and an expert safecracker.

Basically this is a remake in name only. Oh, and a team of crooks does in fact steal things while using Mini-Coopers as part of the getaway. Other than that though, it's a whole other heist movie that stands on its own. Director F. Gary Gray has modernized the story, jumping the story from a European setting to Philadelphia and Los Angeles instead. There is something simple, straightforward and appealing about this remake. Low-key isn't the right description, but 'Italian' doesn't try to rewrite or reinvent the genre. It knows where it wants to get, and it knows how it's going to get there. Is it so wrong that it is just a solid, entertaining and fun heist movie? I say that like 'Just' is a bad thing.

That comfort level in knowing where the movie hopes to end up is most evident in the actual heists. The opening robbery of a heavily guarded home in Venice is an ideal scene-setter, capping off with a high-speed boat chase through the Venetian canals. It gets the movie going at a breakneck speed immediately, and Sutherland's appearance is a very cool addition. The finale heist is again, pretty straightforward, but just as exciting. Norton's Steve is onto Charlie's plan and tries to sneak the gold out, but with three Mini-Coopers, explosives, Russian gangsters, armored truck guards, heavily armed motorcycle guards and a patrolling helicopter 'Italian' has some tricks up its sleeve right until the end.

More than the heist aspect of 'Italian,' the thing that most appeals to me about this movie is the casting. Both the good guys, the bad guys and the yet to be determined to the end, it is a likable, appealing cast. Wahlberg especially is one of my favorites, an actor who's carved a niche out for himself, playing a variation on the tough guy everyman. If it sounds like a dig or something negative, I don't mean it, but he's incredibly likable on-screen, especially as the confident high-class thief leading his team. It's also good to see Theron do just a fun movie, not a big, message movie. She fits in well with the crew, and it's the type of part that's right in her wheelhouse. And can you go wrong with a quick appearance by Donald Sutherland? Too bad it's not a larger part. Charlie's team also includes Handsome Rob (Jason Statham), the driver and all-around ladies man, Lyle (Seth Green), the tech guy and hacker who claims Napster was his own creation, Left Ear (rapper Mos Def), specialist in explosives, and Wrench (Franky G), the mechanic who rigs the cars for added weight.

Oh, yeah, Edward Norton is awesome whether he plays a good guy or bad guy. Playing the paranoid thief with $ for eyes, he doesn't disappoint. Also look for Olek Krupa as Mashkov, a Ukrainian gangster who has an interest in how the robbery develops, but no spoilers here. Not a ton to analyze about this ready-made, entertaining heist rehash, but I think that's the point. It's got action, laughs and a good dynamic among the team, especially Green impersonating Statham. Watch it HERE, it's dead-on. Just sit back and enjoy Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron and Jason Statham try to pull off a crazy heist. Fun from the start.

The Italian Job <---trailer (2003): ***/****

Friday, June 8, 2012

Forty Guns

As many westerns as I've watched over the years, I'm drawing a complete blank as to how to describe 1957's Forty Guns. It is truly odd, weird, bizarre, unintentionally funny at times, surprisingly dark and cynical at others, and in spots, really, really entertaining. And at 79 minutes, it packs more into its short running time than movies that are much, much longer. What an odd mess of a movie.

A federal peace officer with a well-known reputation, Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) rides into Cochise County, Arizona with his two brothers, experienced gunhand, Wes (Gene Barry), and inexperienced but motivated Chico (Robert Dix). Griff is holding an arrest warrant on a cowboy accused of robbing a mail stagecoach, and then he finds out the man is working for Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), a cattle queen in the area who has money, power and the guns -- some 40 gunslingers -- to back her up. The arrest warrant is just the start of problems as Jessica's younger brother, Brockie (John Ericson), doesn't like Griff's arrival and intends to do something about it.

Nothing too out of the ordinary for a western, is it? I didn't think so reading the plot description over at Netflix. From director Sam Fuller (who also wrote and produced), 'Forty' is just a mess of a movie. The positives are great, showing that at some point there was a chance this could have been a good to great western. The negatives though are epic, bordering on movie-killers. Some of the positives? It is a beautiful black and white movie, the camera work impressive, featuring long tracking shots, plenty of interesting angles, and basically a feeling of seeing something different. It is also surprisingly brutal and in its message. As far as westerns went in the 1950s, this is far ahead of its time, especially considering the cynicism that developed in 1960s westerns.

Besides Stanwyck in the lead, I didn't recognize much of the cast by name alone, but that ends up being a good thing. The Bonnells -- a thinly veiled take on the Earp brothers -- are great leads, especially Sullivan and Barry. Griff is the sure-handed lawman, so confident in his ability that he hasn't had to fire his gun in almost 10 years. Wes is his right-hand man, always backing him up like a guardian angel hovering over the situation. Chico wants to be like his brothers having seen the "glory" and "romance" of being a gunslinger. Stanwyck too is a bright spot, playing a strong female character, something that is lacking in so many westerns. She's no damsel in distress for sure, even doing her own stunt as she's dragged by her horse. Both the Bonnells and the Drummond characters are strong characters, able to carry a movie on their own. Instead of that, we get a jam-packed, even rushed 79 minute movie.

For all the positives, there's just too much going on for 'Forty' to be truly effective. Another 30 minutes would have been perfect to flesh things out. Barry's Wes is wasted in what was potentially a very cool character, "wooing" gunsmith's daughter, Louvenia (Eve Brent), and disappearing for long stretches of a short movie. Dean Jagger appears as necessary as corrupt and bought Sheriff Ned Logan, a possibly interesting backstory kept in the shadows. Oh, and did I mention that Stanwyck and Sullivan have a tortured love affair, two strong-willed individuals falling for each other for all the wrong reasons? Yeah, that's sort of a major plot, but like anything and everything else.....yeah, you guessed it. Rushed.

Rushed is one thing because it at least implies some sort of wasted potential. It was there, just never taken advantage of. On the other hand, there's just some badness. Ericson's terribly hammy performance as Brockie is so ridiculous it comes across as laughable. Some not so subtle sexual references -- a gun "going off in a woman's face" or "caring for one's gun with care and daily attention" -- are so heavy-handed they're hilarious in their badness.

A lot of these issues I had were almost thrown by the wayside in the finale, Sullivan's Griff delivering a truly surprising, brutal surprise, especially considering this was made in 1957. It's a mess of a movie overall -- both really good and epically bad -- but there's just recommend this one.

Forty Guns <---Youtube clip (1957): ** 1/2 /****