The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Soldier in the Rain

Making the jump from television to movie star, Steve McQueen had an interesting run through the first half of the 1960s, including his star-making role in The Great Escape with other strong parts in The Magnificent Seven, Hell is For Heroes, and two or three other parts. There were more positives than negatives, but the ones that missed have been generally forgotten. Unfortunately, 1963's Soldier in the Rain is on that short list of misses.

A few weeks away from getting his discharge papers, Sgt. Eustis Clay (McQueen) is dreaming of all that civilian life can offer him, all the freedoms the army has kept him from. A wheeler-dealer who trades for anything and everything he needs, Eustis has big plans to make a fortune once he's free of the army, but it all starts with one key caveat; he wants the help of friend and fellow supply officer, Master Sgt. Maxwell Slaughter (Jackie Gleason), who is similarly up for reenlistment but hasn't made his decision yet. As normal, everyday life goes by on the army base, Eustis does his best to convince Maxwell to join him in all his post-army plans, but can he do it?

With less than 30 feature length films to his name, McQueen's star burned fast and bright through the late 1950s, then into the 60s and 70s before his death in 1980 from cancer. He's one of my all-time favorite actors -- trapped in a dead heat with John Wayne and Clint Eastwood -- and this is one of the few films of his I had not seen. With so few remaining unseen, I'm sorry to report how disappointed I was with the effort. From usually reliable director Ralph Nelson comes a mess of a story, not sure if its a light buddy comedy or a significantly darker fare, slapstick goofiness or hardcore emotional. The most damning issue? If it's trying to be funny, it produces few to no laughs. If it's going for the drama, it's completely void of it up until the last 20 minutes.

As a huge McQueen fan, this is a bizarre film to watch because of the 33-year old actor's role. With later parts in Bullitt, The Sand Pebbles, and The Thomas Crown Affair (among others), McQueen perfected the part of the quiet anti-hero, the loner who works in society but only because he has to. Biographies point to him removing whole scenes of dialogue from scripts, insisting he could do something more efficiently with a glance or a quick sentence. Wouldn't you know it? It almost always worked. And then there's his part here....basically the polar opposite. Two years prior in The Honeymoon Machine, McQueen showed he could pull off a somewhat obvious comedic part. He had impeccable delivery and was able to do any physical scenes flawlessly. It's the type of part that made you wish he did more comedy in his career. Something doesn't quite make the transition to this flick then. 

It's hard to describe why this performance doesn't work. As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, part of McQueen's appeal was this effortless cool. It never looked like he was trying too hard to impress you. His part in 'Soldier' is for lack of a better description.....obvious. It feels forced, like he's playing a stereotyped, cliched character so McQueen decided to ratchet it up a notch. His accent is supposed to be southern (I think?), but it sounds like he's got marbles in his mouth. Eustis is naive, innocent and a dreamer, but one key character ingredient is missing. It's hard to like him. Maybe I've just come to expect that much more of McQueen, but this is one of his lesser efforts although God bless him, he's certainly trying. Also in the shrill, annoying and overacting department are Tuesday Weld and Tony Bill in supporting parts. Ed Nelson and Lew Gallo have some fun with some adversarial parts, always tangling with Eustis and Maxwell.

The saving grace for 'Soldier' is Jackie Gleason. I grew up watching Gleason in some episodes of The Honeymooners where he was loud, exaggerated and all over the place. As I've found though in his best roles, Gleason was a great actor usually when he could underplay a part, like he does as Master Sgt. Slaughter. A nobody as a civilian, Slaughter enjoys all the perks of his job, but never really lets it go to his head. In Eustis, he has a friend and an adoring fan who looks at him like a hero in whatever he does. Rather than brush it aside though, Slaughter looks at country bumpkin Eustis and embraces him like a brother he's got to look out for. There is a friendly charm to Gleason here, just a good man who makes the right decisions to help others out. Don't mess with someone that's close to him, or he'll come after you.

So while I can't truly recommend this film, I can say that parts of it work extraordinarily well. Even when McQueen's performance can be a little grating, his scenes with Gleason have an easy-going natural charm (more impressive when you read about their on-set differences). A buddy film/relationship minimizes it to a point, but that's what it is. Two different people who end up being close friends. Still, the movie on the whole doesn't amount to a whole lot, especially in the final 30 minutes as it takes a turn to the extreme dark. Probably for McQueen completists and Gleason fans alike.

Soldier in the Rain <---Youtube clip (1963): **/****

Monday, July 30, 2012


With animated TV shows in Family Guy, American Dad and The Cleveland Show to his name, Seth MacFarlane has become one of the more bankable names around currently working in television. It was only a matter of time then before he made the jump to movies, right? Thankfully, he picked a very solid, very funny venture, 2012's Ted.

Growing up with his family outside of Boston, young John Bennett is far from a popular kid and struggles making friends. One Christmas he receives a teddy bear that becomes his best friend and more. One night he wishes that Teddy was real, and in the morning....ta-da! Ted is real. The talking, real-life bear becomes an international sensation for awhile at least. But some 25-plus years later, John (Mark Wahlberg) is all grown up with Ted (voice of MacFarlane) his roommate. The only problem? John's been dating Lori (Mila Kunis) for four years, and she'd like a commitment from John, and that means Ted has to move out. Choices, choices, your long-time best friend or your beautiful girlfriend?

Do you like Family Guy? If you answered 'yes,' you'll like this movie. Probably like it a lot. If you answered 'no,' this probably isn't the movie for you. Using his very dark, usually intelligent, sometimes dumb and always helter skelter sense of humor that viewers see on Family Guy, MacFarlane brings that same manic touch to 'Ted.' It helps if you have even a vague knowledge of 1980s-1990s pop culture, anything from lousy music to iconic movies and TV shows. We even get a couple dream-like sequences, a few dropped in flashbacks, and an over the top, sometimes exaggerated effort going for laughs. It's filthy, dirty, and filthier so definitely know what you're getting into here. Like Family Guy and MacFarlane's other shows, it will almost certainly divide audiences.

The movie on the whole is not great, but it is very good, even near perfect in its humor at times. What works best? Not surprising answer here. That's a CGI teddy bear voiced by MacFarlane. Check that; a foul-mouthed, pop-culture referencing, pot-smoking, sex-obsessed CGI teddy bear voiced by MacFarlane. It's criminally simplistic why this works. It's that image of a cute, fuzzy, soft teddy bear....doing what he does. We're introduced to a "grown up" Ted smoking pot with John and then driving him to work minutes later, just his ears poking up over the wheel. MacFarlane does a great job with his familiar voice talents (even poking fun at how much Ted sounds like Peter Griffin) bringing Ted to life. What's better? In this world, no one seems to question this teddy bear come to life, and it's the better for it. Ted is a great character, and one that ends up carrying the movie.

None of that is to say the rest of the cast isn't memorable. It's just that they're not as memorable in any scene Ted is in. Wahlberg does a great job acting alongside, well, nothing. His back-and-forth with Ted speaks to their long history, an easy going relationship between two guys (okay, a bear) who are genuine friends but don't mind busting each others' balls when deserved. Their Thunder Buddies song is a highlight too, both of them still terrified of thunder. Kunis (of Family Guy) isn't given a lot to do, but gets points for not being the stereotypically shrill girlfriend. Also look for Joel McHale as Lori's skeevy boss, Patrick Warburton and Matt Walsh as John's co-workers,and  a creepy Giovanni Ribisi as an obsessed fan of Ted's. Also look for Nora Jones, Tom Skerritt and Flash Gordon himself, Sam Jones, all appearing as themselves. Even keep an eye out for Ryan Reynolds in a wordless but very funny two-scene appearance.

I struggle at this point with comedy reviews. How much should I reveal in terms of laughs? IMDB's Memorable Quotes does a fair job of that so I won't go into great detail here. Without giving anything away, I can say the parts that work here are hilarious. Ted's apartment party is a highlight, quickly taking a turn for the worse. A running gag with his job at a grocery store and his boss are priceless as he tries to get fired only to earn promotions. A brutal, knock-down fight between John and Ted is unreal too. Moral of the story is simple. It's an above average comedy, with more jokes/gags working than those that failed. The ending too is surprisingly sweet. All in all, highly recommend this one.

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

Sunday, July 29, 2012


First released in 2010, author Don Winslow's novel Savages is a mostly entertaining, sometimes maddening and uniquely written story. The trailer for 2012's Savages -- the feature film version -- had me intrigued so I read the book first and was glad I did. The movie? Mostly entertaining, sometimes maddening and....yeah, that ending. Wow, what a mess. Still worth a watch, but I'll have some advice on the ending later.

Selling and distributing some of the best marijuana that southern California has ever seen, Iraq war vet Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and pacifist/botanist Ben (Aaron Johnson) are making money hand over fist and have been doing so for years. In fact, their business is too good because now they've attracted the attention of the powerful Baja Cartel in Mexico, run with an iron fist by the brutal Elena (Salma Hayek) and her enforcer, Lado (Benicio Del Toro). Seeing through the ruse of an offer, Chon and Ben turn down an offer to become "partners" with the cartel, and quickly feel the repercussions when their mutual girlfriend, O, short for Ophelia (Blake Lively), is kidnapped by the Baja cartel. What to do now? Go along with the previously offered plan, or come up with a new one that will bring O back to them?

With movies like World Trade Center, W., and his Wall Street sequel, director Oliver Stone got away from that brutal, in your face, aggressive style that shot him to stardom behind the cameras. It's safe to say that with this drug crime thriller, he's back to basics. This is a world where our heroes are drug dealers, somewhat idealistic drug dealers (well, Ben at least), but you get the point. It's a down and dirty world where lives come cheap, and the end result is accepted if there is enough money or supply to justify the means. The bad guys are bad whether they be the indie drug dealers, the sadistically evil cartel, or even the corrupt DEA agents involved. It's good to see Stone get back to that darker view of the world. Hopefully he keeps up with movies like this.

What allows the movie to be entertaining considering it deals with such a dark, nasty occupation is the style Stone brings to it. It's the type of style you're either going to go along with it and enjoy it or resent it almost immediately. The intro gets things rolling, Lively's O stating "Just because I'm telling this story doesn't mean I'm alive in the end." There are artsy retro title cards to introduce where the action takes place. Stone films with a variety of film styles; black and white, digital, good old-fashioned formatting, hyper edited in a few instances. And the Laguna Beach/Mexico location sure adds a lot of color to the proceedings. The soundtrack too is a positive boost, an eclectic mix of classical music, choirs, modern pop/rock, and an almost ethereal sound of beach music. Throwing so much at the wall and seeing what sticks shouldn't work like this -- it just shouldn't -- but the completely random collection ends up doing just that.

Opinions will vary no doubt, but the casting department did a fine job selecting its three young leads. The dynamic among O, Chon and Ben is certainly unique; two well-to-do, attractive 20-somethings sharing a girlfriend? Hayek's Elena has some fun with that, telling O they'll never love her as much as they love each other. However you interpret that odd triangle, Kitsch, Johnson and Lively are all surprisingly good. Kitsch especially stands out, his Chon a veteran of a 2-year stretch in Iraq and Afghanistan where he saw the worst the world can offer. His enforcer attitude works well alongside Johnson's Ben, his highly intelligent, idealistic business partner. Ben struggles to comprehend the violence the duo will have to undertake if they hope to succeed. My least favorite character in the book as well as the movie, O as done by Lively is the weakest link, but it's not a bad performance, especially late when the kidnapping goes down. Her narration is beyond bad at times (not her fault), that awful mix of trying to be smart and pretentiously unique. She says at one point "I have orgasms, Chon has wargasms." Oh, clever!

Then there's the fun, more over the top, and in some cases, stereotypical roles, but dammit, these actors are enjoying themselves. Start with Salma Hayek as Elena, the leader of the Baja cartel who does it with as little humanity as possible. She's cold, sinister, intimidating and seems to be channeling some Spanish soap operas at times, but it's a solid performance. Del Toro as Lado is a scene-stealer. He is callous in his brutality, less than honest in his dealings, and interested in saving his own backside first and foremost. Rounding out the bigger parts, John Travolta is also a scene-stealer right up there with Del Toro as he plays Dennis, the DEA agent working with Ben and Chon -- and seemingly everyone else -- to keep the drug wars away....and a little extra cash in his pocket. Also look for Emile Hirsch in a quick, memorable part as Spin, Ben and Chon's money launderer, and recent Oscar nominee Demian Bichir as Alex, Elena's "accountant" of sorts.

So here we are. The ending. Winslow's ending in the novel is a bloody, chaotic gem that worked on so many levels, both for the characters, the story and the general darkness of the story. The odd thing? Stone uses that ending too, and then literally rewinds back and erases that ending, O explaining 'And this is how it really happened.' It is the definition of a cop out. Not only that, you feel duped as a viewer. We see one ending -- a highly effective one -- and then are introduced to a genuinely dumb, tacked-on ending. What was Stone thinking? This new ending is single-handedly able to ruin the movie. So rather than rip the entire movie, I'm trying to think outside of the box a little. For me, the ending comes right before "O's rewind." That epilogue, explaining how everything turned out, doesn't exist in my mind. I can't believe Stone willingly changed that "alternate" ending though. It's that bad. The movie though is still very entertaining and worth a watch.

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

Saturday, July 28, 2012

5 Against the House

Here's a thinker for you to puzzle. Have you ever thought what an episode of Happy Days would have been like if Richie, the Fonz and the gang tried to take down a casino? Or how about Betty, Veronica, Jughead and the crew? Oh, you haven't thought of that premise? Yeah, me either, but if it ever came to be, that movie would certainly have the feeling of 1955's 5 Against the House, a heist flick with some solid potential that's also weighed down by a lot of dead weight.

Heading back to a new semester at Midwestern University, four college students and friends -- Al (Guy Madison), Brick (Brian Keith), Roy (Alvy Moore) and Ronnie (Kerwin Matthews) -- stop in Reno to gamble a little at Harold's Club, a famous casino. They witness a botched robbery, overhearing a police officer mumble that no one could rob the place. As the semester wears on and things get boring, Ronnie comes up with a unique plan to do just that though; rob the place. His intention? Prove he can pull it off, then return the money (smart, huh?). Al is less than interested, focusing more on fiance Kay (Kim Novak), Roy goes along with it too a point, and Brick....well, Brick has his own plan.

From director Phil Karlson, this is an odd little movie. Comparing it to a Happy Days heist movies isn't fair, but that thought certainly crossed my mind as I was watching this quick 82-minute movie. There are good and bad -- like any movie I suppose -- but the bad is real bad. As we meet this foursome of friends, we're introduced to them through a nauseating and never-ending set of one-liners, most delivered by Moore. Madison walks around a casino telling them what time it is until they leave. Billed as a late film noir entry, it just ain't that type of movie. It's too light and fluffy early. The jokes are not only forced, but more importantly, just not very funny.

There's more to poke holes at, but that's the worst offender. The others involve two subplots, one more painful than the other. It's a heist movie, right? Then why is so much time spent on Al and Kay's budding romance? In one of her early roles, Novak looks great and sings two songs (sort of, she was dubbed for one), but she doesn't have chemistry with Madison at all. They fight, they kiss, they fight, and then they're back in love. A romance subplot is fine with me as long as it adds to a movie, not detracts from it. Anytime these two are on screen, it's a slow, halting trip. The other subplot has Roy and Ronnie convincing a freshman, Francis (Jack Dimond), to work as a servant-slave. Oh, those 1950s hijinks! It's just another example of the trying too hard, very forced and very unfunny humor that's jammed into the story.

So that gets the negatives out of the way, and we're onto the positives! Madison and Keith were 33 and 34 years old respectively when this was released so how do they come off as college students? Less than believable, but a key subplot involving them helps cushion that age difference. They're both veterans of the Korean War, Keith's shell-shocked Brick suffering through some version of post-traumatic stress disorder, Madison's Al doing his best to look out for a friend who saved his life. The relationship between the two "college students" is a high point of the film. Madison wasn't a great actor, but playing alongside Keith, they have an easy-going patter back and forth that reflects their history. Now if more time was spent on this aspect of the story, now we're onto something.

And then there's the heist aspect. In 1955, this is an early example of a heist film, and judging 'House' on that alone, it's a pretty solid movie. It was clearly an influence on the original Ocean's 11, released four years later. The heist is basically one big con job, pulling the wool over the casino's eyes while they steal away with the money. As part of a western fest, the quartet dress up as cowboys -- boots, beards and hats all -- to "blend in" with the rest of the clientele. Like much of the movie, the heist is low-key, but that doesn't away any of the tension. We're not sure exactly the details of the job, but we've gotten enough hints to see what's going on. As well, the film has several very cool on-location shots of mid 1950s Reno, a window, a time capsule into a very cool time in American history.

In the end, 'House' is a flawed venture. When it works, it's slightly above average. When it doesn't work, it struggles to maintain any pacing. Too bad a more pointed, heist-driven story with less romantic subplots couldn't have been used.

5 Against the House <---trailer (1955): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Strange Wilderness

I love a good stupid movie just like everybody else. But like anything, there's dumb, dumbest, stupid, stupidest, and mind-bogglingly stupid, the kind of stupid that makes your head hurt to watch it. The jury is still out for 2008's Strange Wilderness and where that one ends up.

When his father dies, Peter (Steve Zahn) steps in and takes over his long-running, very successful nature show, 'Strange Wilderness'....and promptly drives it into the ground. The quality drops, the educational aspect plummets, and the show is on the brink of being canceled. Peter, soundman Fred (Allen Covert), and Wilderness's ragtag crew have only two weeks to turn the show around, but how can they manage that? A story falls right into their lap, but first they've got to find it. Bigfoot has been sighted in Central America! Let the road trip begin.

Should I be surprised that this 2008 stoner comedy came from the brilliant minds of Happy Madison Productions, Adam Sandler's film company? I suppose not, but it sure does help make sense of this mess of a movie. Excluding the closing credits, it doesn't even hit the 80-minute mark. The "story" is a sham of a script held together by bathroom humor, awful physical comedy, and a reliance on anything crotch-related or even close, one running gag after another. At one point, Zahn's character actually has a turkey attack him, the animal attempting to swallow his penis. Yes, the scene of Zahn running around hysterically is funny, but I can't think of a stupider, low-brow type of humor. Repeat that for 79 minutes and you've got your movie. One scene has the crew giggling away because a man's name is 'Dick.' That's all. No last name. Watch it HERE. For every funny moment, there's an excruciating one close behind.

The odd thing? The parts that do work are very funny. The disgusted TV producer (Jeff Garlin) goes through a quick succession of clips from previous shows, and the complete random quality of the clips produces some quality laughs. They include lions having sex with a sexually-themed voiceover, giraffes head-butting each other, an alligator eating a man ("We wanted to honor him"), a man at a peace rally on running around on fire, and so on. Any actual Strange Wilderness footage is hysterical from a shark episode (watch HERE) to a bear episode (watch HERE) with portions devoted to beavers, piranhas, and monkeys among other. Zahn's calming, almost monotone voice nails the voiceovers. These parts are so mind-bogglingly stupid it makes me think someone with talent wrote them. They're that stupid, but go figure, they're funny too. Their discovery of Bigfoot, their encounter with him, and the rationalization of how they handled that encounter is priceless too.

Going for the stupid and not smart laughs, the cast is hit-or-miss. Zahn is a decent lead, hamming it up like a crazy person as needed, longtime Sandler co-star Covert a worthy straight man with his long hair and floppy mustache. Rounding out the 'Wilderness' crew are Jonah Hill as Cooker, the freaky conspiracy theorist, Kevin Heffernan as Whitaker, the alcoholic mechanic turned animal handler, Justin Long as Junior, the stoner cameraman, Ashley Scott as Cheryl, the necessary babe, and Peter Dante as Danny, the idiot. That's all. He's an idiot. Hill is funny when he's subtle, not like here where he's so over-exaggerated he becomes obnoxious. Heffernan is very funny, Long leaves little impression, Scott looks good, and Dante is the worst offender of the bunch, playing the same part he does in all the Happy Madison movies. His best bit? A dark but truly funny bit where he dresses up like a sea lion and is promptly attacked by a shark.

In some bizarre casting, watch for Ernest Borgnine, Joe Don Baker and Robert Patrick in small parts. You read that right, all three names. How they took these parts I'll never know. None of them are given anything to do -- short of a disgusting sight gag Patrick gets -- but all three are professionals and do their job. It's especially cool to see Borgnine (91 years old at the time) in the movie, introducing himself to a new generation of moviegoers.

You don't go into a movie like this thinking you will be watching a masterpiece. I realize that, but this is one screwy movie. The funny part? As they made the movie, they know it was screwy. It ends with Zahn, Covert and Garlin laughing out loud at the ridiculous nature of the story....and that's the ending. No gag reel. That's the ending. Epically stupid, good for some laughs, but too stupid for its own good at other times.

Strange Wilderness <---trailer (2008): **/**** 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Stage Fright

Directing as early as the 1920s, Alfred Hitchcock continued to work through the 1930s-1970s, making over 40 films. While I've yet to find a Hitchcock film I didn't at least partially like, my favorites from the director started in the late 1940s and continued into the 1950s, films like North by Northwest, Psycho, Rear Window, Vertigo and several others. Always trying to see more of his films, I recently added 1950's Stage Fright to the list.

A struggling young actress looking to make a name for herself in post-WWII London, Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) is in love with Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd), but Mr. Cooper is currently involved in an affair with acclaimed stage actor, Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich). Now, Cooper is in trouble though, on the run for suspicion of killing Charlotte's jealous wife. Wanting to help him out, Eve agrees to hide him at her father's farm in the country, but while he's away, Eve hopes to figure out what was really going on. Blackmailing her way into the position, Eve gets a job as Charlotte's assistant, and she intends to figure out what actually happened and who really killed Charlotte's husband.

The film master of suspense and thrills, Hitchcock makes it look almost effortless at times. At the time -- and even watching it recently in 2012 -- it created an uproar over a storytelling device that infuriated audiences. I can understand that objection too because it certainly threw me off. Is it a major deal? I suppose it will depend on the viewer. I did feel slightly duped as if Hitchcock assuredly enjoyed pulling a fast one on the viewing audience. He filmed partially on-location in London, and as was his usual, kept the focus fairly pointed on a handful of key characters and situations rather than expanding to something bigger and far more unnecessary.

With some of Hitchcock's lesser works, I had some of the same issues here in 'Fright.' His stories at their best were dripping with tension, always kept the momentum heading forward, and for the most part were incredibly serious. Yet he sometimes felt the need to throw this out-of-place light side and humor into the story which I've never understood. A quick detour here has Eve's father, Commodore Gill (Alastair Sim), trying to win a prize at a carnival shooting game from carnie Joyce Grenfell. It feels forced and out of sorts as the story looks for some laughs. The same goes for Eve's plan; posing as an assistant where both sides know her as someone else. These overdone interactions should be serious, but instead they're played for laughs.

A year removed from winning an Oscar for her part in Johnny Belinda, Wyman is the right mix of precocious innocence and stupid decisions in playing Eve. She thinks she loves Todd's Jonathan but realizes he doesn't feel the same way toward her. Dietrich is Dietrich, bigger than life as always and even given a chance to sing (watch it HERE). Her performance as the mysterious and possibly murdering Charlotte is the film's best performance. Todd is all right as Jonathan, but his part requires him to disappear for long stretches. Michael Wilding is the requisite very British character, Smith, the police officer investigating the murder who gets caught up in one web after another. Sim is a big positive too as Commodore Gil, always looking for trouble and building it up to be more than it actually is.

As he was prone to do -- good most of the time, bad the rest -- Hitchcock is able to pull a few tricks from his sleeve toward the end of the movie. Thanks to that already mentioned storytelling device, you as a viewer believe you know what's going on. The last 10 minutes provide quite a good twist, making up for some of the slower portions it took to get to the end. Not a classic Hitchcock film, but one I did enjoy enough to give a mild recommendation.

Stage Fright <---TCM trailer/clips (1950): ** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


With absolutely nothing new, unique or even partially original about 2012’s Contraband, you might think this is the start of a very negative review. You would be wrong although to be fair it’s not a particularly positive review either. It’s an entertaining enough movie that drifts and drifts some more, borrowing liberally from countless other crime thrillers.

Putting his smuggler past behind him, Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg) has moved on with a clean slate and a family, including wife, Kate (Kate Beckinsale), and two boys. He’s well known for his smuggling abilities, but he’s decided to move on until his brother-in-law, Andy (Caleb Landry Jones), opts to become a smuggler for himself. Things go poorly on an operation, and now murderous, intimidating thug Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi) is threatening Andy, and even Chris and his family, demanding a debt be paid. He wanted to leave the smuggling world, but now for the safety of his family, Chris heads to Panama to pull off one last job. Time may be running out though.

I didn’t go into this movie with particularly high expectations. I went into with moderate hopes, mostly because I’m a big fan of Mark Wahlberg and little else. More on the star later, but the movie is immediately hamstrung by a complete lack of originality. It’s “borrows” the most from Gone in 60 Seconds with a dose of Heat, Fast Five, The Town and basically any other crime thriller of the last 20 years thrown in for good measure. The positive? All those movies are good so by association, ‘Contraband’ can’t be truly bad. The negative? It can’t be truly good either. You’ve seen it before so it’s hard to go along with the movie. The New Orleans locations provide a cool backdrop as well, but as far as originality, that's as far as things go.

With all those different elements working against and with each other, the story is one mess on top of each other. Forced to get back into smuggling (well, sort of, Chris actually really loves smuggling and all its adrenaline-pumping thrills), he figures a plan effortlessly and without much preparation. Apparently, the black market and smuggling world is easy to get back into after being away for years starting a family. Once Chris does get on board a ship heading to Panama (captained by a bullying but mostly clueless J.K. Simmons), things come together even quicker. The story drifts along as Chris and partner-in-crime Danny (Lukas Haas) get dragged into a Panamanian armored car robbery – random detour much? – with Diego Luna's gangster in a race against time. The goal is always the same – save the family – but getting there takes far too long.

Thanks to a Saturday Night Live skit over the last couple years, Wahlberg has taken more abuse than usual pertaining to his one-note acting range. It’s hard to argue with the criticism, but because he’s such a likable star on-screen, it’s also hard not to root for Wahlberg and enjoy his movies. I’ve read comparisons to him as a Charles Bronson for the 2000s, and that’s a pretty spot-on comparison. He is an actor and a movie star very comfortable in a certain niche with a specific part. Shakespeare might not be his ideal role, but a former smuggler turned pissed off family man? That’s about as perfect a part as possible for Mr. Wahlberg. Oh, and he’s cooler than you so don’t mess with him or his family.

Filling out the rest of the cast, certain names pop out but because of that bouncy script, but no one leaves a really positive impression. Beckinsale is given nothing to do other than to look like she loves Wahlberg in a few scenes, act terrified in a few others, and then look lovingly at Wahlberg again. Damsel in distress most definitely. Simmons is wasted as Capt. Camp unfortunately, his intentions all over the place. Ribisi hams it up as only Ribisi can, an indecipherable accent mixed with amazing facial hair and tattoos bringing this character together. Who else can ham it up like Ribisi? That would be Ben Foster as Sebastian, Chris’ former partner in crime who gets himself into some $ trouble, but is not given much to do in a predictable supporting part. Also look for as Chris’ current accomplice, and William Lucking in a quick part as his dad.

Entertaining and mindless enough, but not worth more than one watch. And I’ll just say this and be done with it. Yes, I know it’s a movie, and yes, I know we’re supposed to root for someone here. Wahlberg’s Chris is an anti-hero because the movie requires it, but he’s smuggling millions of dollars of counterfeit money into the U.S. Huh? I realize it won’t actually cripple the U.S. economy, but it did seem a weird touch. Should we actually be rooting for him? Eh, who cares? Look, more gunfire and explosions!

Contraband <---trailer (2012): ** ½ /****

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

Considering the quality of both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, was there pressure for director Christopher Nolan to deliver an epic close-out film for his Batman trilogy? Reviews were somewhat mixed as Nolan's final Batman movie hit theaters last weekend, and the tragic shootings in Colorado will almost certainly hang over the film (to a point at least). If there was ever a case of ignoring reviews (other people's that is, I assume you'd take mine as the God honest truth), this is it. Not a surprise, but 2012's The Dark Knight Rises is a great film, one that gives the trilogy the send-off it deserves.

It has been eight years since Batman (Christian Bale) has taken the fall for Harvey Dent's murderous rampage, and Gotham City is better than ever. Crime has almost completely disappeared, and the city has experienced a rebirth of sorts. Hiding away at Wayne Manor, Batman/Bruce Wayne is wasting away, a recluse who hasn't appeared publicly for years. But when things seem just right -- even perfect -- for Gotham, a new terror arises, a madman in the form of mysterious and masked Bane (Tom Hardy), a criminal who vows to rock the foundation, destroying the city to rubble. Having questioned if everything/anything he ever did as Batman accomplished anything, Bruce must now decide what's best for Gotham. Let the city save itself? Or is the only thing stopping Bane the return of Batman?

First off, I have to say how impressed I was both with this final movie, but the trilogy on the whole. I rewatched the first two movies over the last week-plus before checking out 'Rises' and can very much recommend doing the same if you can. There's a continuity, a comfort level that permeates through an extended viewing of sorts. What can I say that I haven't in the other Batman reviews? Christopher Nolan is an immense talent, and I hope he continues to direct movies of this superb quality. The best description I can come up with to describe my enjoyment is hopefully simple to understand. You watch these movies -- 'Rises' especially -- and you just have that feeling you're watching what a movie should be. Not what it could be. SHOULD. Immensely entertaining, well-acted and well-written, an epic scale but also a connection on the personal level, spot-on soundtrack/musical score. Batman Begins started the ball rolling, The Dark Knight perfected the formula, and The Dark Knight Rises continues to use that formula.

What struck me most watching this newest arrival was the quality of drama here with kudos to a script from Nolan and Jonathan Nolan. I almost took it for granted, but over three movies, you honestly come to like/hate these characters, but if nothing else you get to know them. As pure drama, this is the best of the three films. It is by far the most personal of the three. Bale delivers his finest performance as the tortured Bruce Wayne, questioning what his actions accomplished while hiding away at Wayne Manor. This is an individual with inner demons that threaten to tear him apart. Buzz started circulating in the weeks prior to its release that Batman would die in this final installment (no finale spoilers here), and the darkness of the story reflects that. Batman has become the true tragic hero; an individual who genuinely wanted to do right but through his own fault, society, greed, and so many other things is forced to change, adapt and improvise. A credit to Bale for doing such a fine job with a character that could have easily been phoned in.

Using that as a jumping off point, Bale isn't on-screen for seemingly long stretches of the 164-minute movie. While Batman is the obvious key and focal point, this is also a story about the people of Gotham City. Michael Caine returns as Alfred, Bruce's butler, and hits every single note he can in a pitch-perfect performance. Three key scenes are the heart of the movie -- two with Bruce and Alfred, one with Alfred on his own -- and they are heartbreaking to watch. Didn't think you'd hear that in a Batman review, did you? Caine is so good I hope he gets some Oscar consideration for Best Supporting Actor. Gary Oldman rises to the occasion late as Commissioner Gordon, also questioning the actions he's taken and Morgan Freeman is solid as always as Wayne Enterprises engineering genius Lucius Fox. One other smaller new addition is Matthew Modine as one of Gordon's fellow high-ranking police officers.

Then there's the rest of the cast, Nolan seemingly trying to put together Inception 2: The Reckoning. Tom Hardy has some epic shoes to fill, following Heath Ledger's performance as The Joker, and he's quite capable of that. It's not fair to compare the part to the Joker, but there is similarities. Hardy's Bane is all business, all chaos, all anarchy. He's a bear of a man, like a caged but highly intelligent animal. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a scene-stealer as John Blake, a Gotham police officer who grows increasingly frustrated with the limitations of his badge. Marion Cotillard plays Miriam Tate, a rich philanthropist trying to work with Wayne Enterprises to create a powerful sustainable energy force. Anne Hathaway holds her own as well, putting in a memorable turn as Selina Kyle, a master thief dubbed 'the Cat' but never actually dubbed Catwoman. SEMI SPOILERS ABOUT CASTING In the surprise department, look for Liam Neeson and Cillian Murphy briefly reprising their roles from the previous Batman entries. END OF SPOILERS A great cast though from top to bottom. 

Some reviews pointed to the rather twisty-turny early portions of the story as a detriment to the end result, and I go both ways here. Through the first hour, we're not always sure of what's going on or even where the story is heading. Characters and some background are introduced and dealt with, but it's all laying the groundwork. When the knock-out punch does come, all I can say...brace yourself. The final 45-60 minutes threw me for a loop, but in a good way. It is everything epic you would hope a final showdown to be; in this case, Bane turning Gotham City into a city cut off from the rest of the world and threatening to destroy it all, killing 12 million people in the process. If you struggle with the early pacing, stick with it. The pay-off in the end is incredibly worth it in so many ways.

As I mentioned, this is a movie that has it all. The finale packs the biggest action punch, but an earlier motorcycle chase through the city following a Bane robbery is also highly memorable, as is Bane's takeover of the city with an abundance of explosives taking out bridges and even a quasi-NFL game. The dialogue is spot-on too, especially the scenes with Bale and Caine. On pure drama, it's hard to beat Bane's backstory (quick though it is), but also how Batman deals with solving the identical problem the mysteriously masked villain had to figure out. And then there's the ending. Should it come as a surprise that it is basically the perfect way to close out the trilogy? Hans Zimmer's musical score is solid throughout, but it's at its best in the final montage as everything is wrapped up. Two different twists make the ending a little surprising, but mostly? It's an appropriate dramatic and emotional ending for all involved.

Well, here we are. I'm sorry to see this trilogy go. As far as superhero movies go (and I struggle limiting these to just superhero movies), they've set the bar as high as they can. All other future efforts will be compared to these films, and I can't think of a better compliment to a director, cast and crew for turning out such a quality finished product. A classic on par with The Dark Knight, if not a slightly, tiny bit better.

The Dark Knight Rises <---trailer (2012): ****/****

Saturday, July 21, 2012


There are some things you just don't make fun of, and for many people, that's religion or anything even remotely similar. Me on the other hand, I eat that stuff up. I'm not talking about mocking Jesus or the saints, or ripping something that people hold dear to them. What about just having a little fun with preconceived notions, things you to a point take for granted? That's part of the fun of 1996's Michael.

Working for the National Mirror -- a sensationalist tabloid magazine -- in Chicago, reporter Frank Quinlan (William Hurt) has fallen on some tough times after losing his job with the Chicago Tribune. Now, he finds himself tracking down one ridiculous angle after another, including his latest, a true whopper. A woman in Iowa (Jean Stapleton) claims to be housing an angel named Michael (John Travolta), wings and all. With some company from another down luckless writer, Huey (Robert Pastorelli), and a supposed company stooge, Dorothy (Andie MacDowell), Quinlan heads to Iowa to see if the woman's claim could actually be true. It couldn't, could it?

So what do you think an angel would look like should you stumble across one? I go two ways here. One, a blonde child with pale skin so a cherub basically.  Two, a full-grown man in his 20s or so, an impressive physical specimen who is strong and capable, able to fight for and represent some sort of god. And how about this 1996 movie's portrayal from director Nora Ephron? This angel is a middle-aged, overweight man with long, messy hair and stubble on his face at all times. The script certainly has some fun with that premise, playing on those notions you had coming in of what an angel is. The same goes for what an angel would/should act like. Travolta certainly doesn't go for typical here, and that ends up being the best thing about the movie.

Following his return to mainstream Hollywood with his part in Pulp Fiction, Travolta went through a stretch of some really good movies and some truly bad ones. While 'Michael' on the whole isn't a great movie, it is worth recommending because of Travolta's scene-stealing part in the lead as the archangel Michael.  It is a fun character, and one Travolta clearly has some fun developing and playing against type. Michael has an overpowering charm on women wherever he goes, some magnetic power that goes unexplained. Travolta gets to ham it up a bit, improvise a dance scene in a packed country bar (watch it HERE), and ends up being the heart of the movie. A surprising revelation comes out late about his character's revelations, providing a good twist that provides a very moving ending as well. From start to finish, it's Travolta's movie.

And then there's the rest of the cast in Hurt, MacDowell and Pastorelli. All three are talented actors/actresses, but their characters here held little interest for me other than as foils to Michael's antics. Travolta's part is obviously the showy one, and in comparison the other parts pale. Hurt and MacDowell falling for each other? Aw, that's sweet, but boring. Pastorelli caring for a little dog? Yeah, necessary for the story, but getting there isn't too interesting. Oh, and MacDowell is an aspiring country singer? Can't wait for that story to develop. Bob Hoskins has a small part as the screaming managing editor of the Mirror, yelling at his employees to break more stories, with Joey Lauren Adams and Carla Gugino having small supporting parts. As Michael's first encounter, Stapleton is a bright spot too, making the most of a quick appearance.

Movies about religion, God, angels and faith can be tricky. They can be overbearing and obnoxious in a lot of different directions or they can be too afraid to actually say anything meaningful. 'Michael' isn't trying to deliver any profound message. A story of an angel making a visit to Earth and experiencing all the little things we might take for granted on a daily basis provides some heartfelt, moving and funny moments. It is at its best when its focusing on Travolta's Michael, and for his performance alone, this is a movie worth checking out.

Michael <---Youtube clip/Michael's appearance (1996): ** 1/2 /****

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Dark Knight

Why are people so excited for this weekend's The Dark Knight Rises? Because Batman Begins was good, and 2008's The Dark Knight was great, setting the bar about as high as a movie can possibly go. The rare sequel that improves on the original, it is everything you would hope for in a superhero movie and much, much more. Just a little more timely reviewing today, and I hope to see 'Rises' Sunday so expect a review soon.

Helping clean up Gotham City and all its crime, the very mention of the name 'Batman' sends shivers up the spines of Gotham's criminal underworld. But for all Batman (Christian Bale) has done, he's never fought a criminal quite like this one, the Joker (Heath Ledger), a deranged murderer who wears faded, unkempt make-up and favors knives. The Joker has offered his services to the all the different heads of the criminal underworld, offering to kill the Batman and make their lives infinitely easier. The Caped Crusader might finally have some help though in Gotham's hierarchy as crusading district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) vows to help Batman however he can. With a nut like the Joker around, nothing happens as expected.  

It's hard -- and probably not very fair -- to compare this second Batman movie from director Christopher Nolan to its predecessor. 'Begins' is an above average, highly enjoyable movie on its own, but it is merely one that opens the door for all that Nolan had planned with this sequel. 'Begins' introduces the Batman lore, the characters, the situations, laying the groundwork. 'Knight' takes the jumping off point and sprints with it. Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard's score is again booming and epic and just right. Almost the entire film was filmed in Chicago, and the movie looks AMAZING. Talk about a director utilizing his locations, Nolan knocks that one out of the park. It's the little things that start things rolling, and the movie never looks back.

But what really sets Nolan's movies apart from even the high quality superhero movies -- The Avengers, Iron Man, Captain America -- is the inherent darkness involved with the characters and story. There is no camp quality to the proceedings, no tongue in cheek humor. This is a cutthroat world where anyone and everyone is potentially dead in a flash. The word that comes to mind watching this movie was 'brutal.' More on this later, but much of that comes from the performance of Heath Ledger. His Joker is a villain described by Michael Caine's Alfred as someone "who wants to watch the world burn." There is no rhyme or reason to the Joker's brutality. He encourages murder (and handles a couple of his own), mayhem and chaos and doesn't care who gets caught up in the maelstrom that ensues. As a fan of a darker, graphic novel look at a "comic book" world, that darkness and brutality appeals to me in movies. Nolan commits to that deep-seeded darkness and never lets up.

Now onto Heath Ledger as the Joker. This movie was in the news prior to its release (more in the news at least) because Ledger died six months before the film's release. Before it had even been seen, buzz was generated about Ledger's amazingly memorable performance as the Joker, and when audiences finally saw this movie in the summer of 2008, they weren't disappointed. In a performance that won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, Ledger delivers a performance that is terrifying, supremely dark, oddly charming and unlike any other villainous role ever. It's his voice, his speech, his peculiar mannerisms, his maniacal laughing, the distinctly iconic look with the faded, dreary make-up and purple suit, all these specific things that make this such a memorable and ultimately tragic performance.

Because Ledger's part was rightly given so much attention upon release, the rest of the cast doesn't always get the recognition they deserve. Other than developing that overly deep "I'm BATMAN!" voice since 'Begins,' Bale tweaks the character for the positive. He begins to question what he's taken upon his shoulder. He begins to doubt if he can actually win in the end, especially with a counter like the Joker. Eckhart too is a scene-stealer as Harvey Dent, the crusading district attorney who takes a no-nonsense approach to everything about his job. An idealist who wants the best, he's also a frustrated realist kept in check to a point by the system. Caine again is perfect as Alfred, Morgan Freeman returns as Wayne Enterprises resident genius Lucius Fox, and Gary Oldman gets much more to do as Lt. Gordon. Even Cillian Murphy makes a one-scene appearance as the Scarecrow. Additions include Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes (an improvement over Katie Holmes), Eric Roberts as Maroni, a powerful Gotham mobster, and Nestor Carbonell as the mayor of Gotham.

Like any classic, something has to set a movie apart from the average. The Chicago locations help that cause, especially an epic action sequence on La Salle Street and Lower Wacker Drive as Batman -- on a Bat-cycle of sorts -- does battle with the Joker who at different points has an automatic machine gun, bazooka and out of control semi trucks as weapons. There are the smaller but equally memorable moments, especially the Joker's infamous "pencil disappearing trick." The finale is the best though as the Joker's chaotic plan is revealed in all its cynical, brutal qualities. The final scene propels this 2008 movie into the trilogy wrap-up, Oldman's Lt. (now Commissioner as we all know him) Gordon delivering a monologue that is perfect in its simple, straightforward, forthrightness. Is that even a word? Eh. The movie is great, one all other superhero movies must measure themselves against. As for me, I'm counting down the hours until The Dark Knight Rises.

The Dark Knight <---trailer (2008): ****/****

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Batman Begins

Here at Just Hit Play, I try to be timely if nothing else. So with the huge-mega-ultra-gigantic-Titanic-epic summer blockbuster (<----intended seriously, not sarcasm) The Dark Knight Rises due in theaters this Friday, we're doing a little movie recapping, starting with 2005's Batman Begins, director Christopher Nolan's first venture into the Batman series. This weekend's film will no doubt be a huge success, but that's only because Nolan set the bar so high with his first two entries, and this first one? Still a goodie.

Years since his parents were murdered in a robbery, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is still searching for answers; some kind of resolution for his feelings of guilt, fear and desire for vengeance. After traveling the world and even training with a mysterious warrior, Ducard (Liam Neeson), at an isolated monastery in the Himalayas. Returning to impoverished, crime-torn Gotham City, Bruce creates a crime-fighting identity -- Batman -- to help combat the city's problems, using everything from Wayne Enterprises (his deceased father's company) to aid the cause. His impact is immediate, but other more sinister personalities await, including Dr. Crane (Cillian Murphy) who intends to cripple Gotham like nothing the city's seen before.

The superhero franchise reboot is nothing new recently. Over the last 15 years, Superman, Spiderman and Batman have gotten reboots with a long list of other superheroes getting their own chance at a franchise -- some more successful than others. What sets 'Begin' (and The Dark Knight) apart is a straightforward authentic feel. There is no tongue in cheek, campy angle to the superhero proceedings. That's not a bad thing in the least. Nolan takes what Batman fans know -- Alfred the butler, the Batmobile, the Bat cave, Detective Gordon -- and keeps it on the straight and narrow. The score from Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard is epic without being overdoing it -- listen to the main theme HERE -- and the scale of the story has that epic quality without losing focus on the personal aspect; the characters. Simple you would think, but it's always surprising how many movies forget about that aspect.

What has made these movies so popular though -- for me at least -- is they are dark, dark and DARK. Like I mentioned, many people know Batman through the campy 1960s TV show or even the 1990s franchise ventures which we won't address right now....maybe ever. Unfortunately, the Batman comics are cynical and did I mention, dark? The TV shows and movies never took advantage of that aspect until here. Gotham City has been polluted by crime, poverty and corruption throughout the government (Tom Wilkinson is great in a small part as mobster Carmine Falcone), the city literally being torn apart. In general, Nolan (who also co-wrote the script) doesn't seem interested in any obvious laughs or tongue-in-cheek quality. Bad guys and good guys in a city in squalor. This would obviously get ratcheted up a notch in The Dark Knight, but 'Begins' certainly gets the ball rolling.

Having worked in film and TV since the late 1980s, Christian Bale had been at least a somewhat recognizable name for years. Not surprisingly, this put on the A-list of movie stars. Playing instantly recognizable superheroes tends to do that, huh? I like Bale as an actor, but he makes Bruce Wayne/Batman a likable character from the start. A superhero is one thing, but a tortured superhero? That's money in the bank. He has no super powers -- just a mansion and secret cave full of badass gadgets -- and must rely on his own skills as a fighter when trouble arises. Because of his past though, Bruce blames himself for his parents' death and feels he must do something to right that wrong. Without the humor of Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man, Bale does a great job at putting a new, entertaining spin on a character that just about everyone knows.

Now on the other hand, if you're not a Bale fan, this cast almost certainly has something else to offer you. If there is a better casting job than Michael Caine as Alfred, Bruce's butler at Wayne Manor, I can't think of him. Caine is a professional, and even with his supporting part manages to dominate his scenes, making it look easy in the process. Same goes for Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, Wayne Enterprise's resident technological genius. Gary Oldman is limited by screentime as Jim Gordon, one of Gotham's few clean cops, but not surprisingly makes it worthwhile. Neeson as Ducard is a gem in the casting department, Murphy sinister and creepy as Dr. Crane/Scarecrow, and Ken Watanabe as mysterious ninja Ra's Al Ghul is only around for a little. Rutger Hauer plays Earle, the CEO of Wayne Enterprises in Bruce's absence, Katie Holmes is Rachel, Bruce's long-time but secret love and an assistant D.A., and Linus Roache plays Thomas Wayne, Bruce's brilliant, philanthropic father in a few quick flashback scenes.

It is a Batman movie though so there is some just assumed badass-ness (real word?) because of the character. The action scenes are brutal and don't feel forced, quick cut without being an indecipherable blur. Fans of Batman will no doubt get a kick out of seeing the reveal of the Bat Signal, of the Batmobile zipping through Gotham, all those little things that help make a good character great. 'Begins' sets the bar pretty high, but not quite high enough. As good as it is, it merely set the stage for The Dark Knight, an instant classic. Just the same, it's a great place to start. And don't forget about that last scene before the credits, featuring a perfect lead-in to the sequel. Superhero origin stories can be tricky, but this one knocks it out of the park.

Batman Begins <---trailer (2005): *** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Major League

Just as a sports fan, I can appreciate there's something more special about certain sports than others. I love watching basketball, football, soccer and volleyball, but baseball will always be my favorite one to watch. That opinion not surprisingly makes the jump to sports movies where baseball movies rule supreme, especially 1989's Major League.

It's been 40-plus years (in 1989 at least) since the Cleveland Indians last won an American League pennant when a new owner, Rachel Phelps (Margaret Whitton), takes over the franchise. She's got a plan though for the struggling franchise. A clause in the city contract allows the franchise to move if attendance is at a league-low, and Rachel wants to move the Indians to sunny Miami. With hopes of driving fans away from the stadium, she assembles a team of past their prime vets, unrecognizable rookies, and in general, a team of misfits. Among the group is creaky-kneed veteran catcher Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger), ex-con with a live arm Ricky Vaughn (Charlie Sheen), and speedster on the bases Willie Mays Hays (Wesley Snipes). The team starts off badly enough, but then they figure out Rachel's plan. Can they turn it around in time?

Ignoring the two sequels (entertaining but admittedly mediocre), Major League is hard to beat as far as sports -- and more specifically  baseball -- movies go. It's truly funny with countless memorable bits and running gags, but the drama also feels real. From director David S. Ward, 'Major' used Milwaukee's County Stadium as a replacement home for the Indians. The actual MLB stadium gives an authentic feel to the developing season, especially late in the movie during the climactic one-game playoff with thousands of extras packing the stadium. It's also the little things, the running bits about different fans from the never-say-die fans in the bleachers (Too high! being a classic, watch HERE), the foul-mouthed, doubting Japanese grounds-crew, and then the average fan on the street, bonding together around their team. As a baseball fan in real life, it feels authentic.

The misfit underdog is nothing new to the sports genre, but the assembled group of misfit characters help make this movie a classic (even making the sequels tolerable in their own awful uniqueness). Some 23 years later, fans typically talk about Sheen's Vaughn or Snipes' Hayes, but Berenger is the star here. His creaky veteran has in baseball purgatory, wasting away in Mexico and hoping for a chance to get back to the majors. While the other characters may be more memorable, Berenger's Jake ends up being the heart of the movie, delivering a career-best performance. Sheen and Snipes are scene-stealers as the youngsters and breakout stars on the Indians. Sheen did his own pitching and looks like a baseball player while Snipes' infectious attitude makes it impossible not to like the character who's cocky and confident without being obnoxious.

Not so fast though, there's more, starting with James Gammon as gravelly-voiced, no-nonsense, old school baseball manager Lou Brown. A long-time minor league manager, he brings his gruff manner of coaching to the Indians, not wanting to put up with any primadonnas or attitudes. Among the other players are Roger Dorn (Corbin Bernsen), the third baseman more interested in his post-baseball career than showing effort now, Pedro Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert in a scene-stealing part), the Cuban exile outfielder who can crush fastballs but not offspeed pitches and turns to his voodoo roots, and Eddie Harris (Chelcie Ross), the junkball, rag arm pitcher who uses every trick in the book to keep batters off balance. Also worth mentioning is Charles Cyphers as Charlie Donovan, the Indians GM forced to keep his mouth shut as the team crumbles.

Now as good as all of these characters are, most people think of one thing when 'Major League' comes up, and that's long-time Milwaukee Brewers radio man Bob Uecker as Indians radio play-by-play Harry Doyle. A review dedicated solely to Doyle's on-air one liners would be one of the easiest reviews ever written. He drinks Jack Daniels while on-air and lacks even the slightest censor as he describes the action ("Indians manage one hit? One goddamn hit?"). Doyle's unique spin always keeps the radio listeners involved, famously describing a pitch seven to eight feet off the plate as 'Jjjjjjust a bit outside.' His on-air banter is perfect, his asides to his silent color man even funnier. A part that makes a good sports movie a great sports movie.

This isn't a perfect sports movie though, Berenger's love story subplot with ex-wife Rene Russo grinding the movie to a halt. Far too much time is spent on their backstory, distracting from the baseball action. As a baseball movie though, it is about as perfect as it gets. It gets the baseball right though with plenty of laughs, in-game action, and a great finale as the Indians battle to get into the playoffs. One of the best sports movies around.

Major League <---trailer (1989): *** 1/2 /****

Monday, July 16, 2012

Cimarron (1960)

My typical stance on an epic film is 'Bring it on.' You can't have too many of them, especially from the age of the epics, the 1950s through the 1960s. These are big, big movies. Then, I think of my favorite genre; the western. I can't name many quality epic, classic westerns. One exception is How the West Was Won, but I'm drawing a blank as to others. One that aspires to be an epic but ultimately fails is 1960's Cimarron.

Having put his wild cowboy drifting days behind him, Yancy 'Cimarron' Cravat (Glenn Ford) hopes to settle down with his newlywed bride, Sabra (Maria Schell). Yancy's plan starts with an impossible offer from the government, one that seems too good to be true. The Oklahoma territory and its millions of acres will be open to anyone who can stake a claim (the 1889 Land Run, read HERE), and Yancy has a spot all picked out to start a family with Sabra. Things don't go quite as planned though, forcing the couple to improvise and adjust. Setting up a small newspaper in Osage, Oklahoma, Yancy and Sabra are to become part of an era in American history full of drastic and modern change.

From director Anthony Mann, this is an appropriately big epic. The scale is impressive with scenes of hundreds of extras filling the screen behind the biggest names in the cast. None is more impressive than the depiction of the Oklahoma land rush. Literally hundreds of riders and wagons fill the screen from edge to edge as all these hopeful land owners race to stake a claim to their own land. Scenes like this make you appreciate what an epic is in all of its glory on such a large scale. The look of the movie is a beauty from the open prairies of the 1880s to the settled cityscapes of the 1910s. But that is where the positives end unfortunately.

Even with a movie clocking in at 149 minutes, it feels like Cimarron tackles too much. The story covers 25-plus years, but doesn't cover any of those years adequately. The script has jumps in times that come fast and furious, jumping a few months one time and then ten years the next. An episodic, somewhat drifting story can be a necessity dealing with a film of this scale, but at some point it has to be interesting even just a little bit. The tinier episodes here lack any of that interest with an exception here and there. Mann was at his best with smaller scale stories -- The Naked Spur, The Man from Laramie -- but struggles with stories of this magnitude. There's little heart, little emotion, and little interest to see a budding America growing from the wild west to the modern world.

That lack of emotion can be chalked up to any number of things, but the most glaring mistake was the casting. From top to bottom, 'Cimarron' lacks the huge star power of other epics, but that's not a deal breaker. It is though when almost to a man the characters are miscast. Ford and Schell don't have a great chemistry; a problem when these two characters are magnetically drawn together by their unexplained love. Ford's Yancy is trying to put a somewhat checkered past behind him, but that past is never even remotely dealt with, only hinted at. His character ends up being this icon of a growing America, and I'm thinking 'Really?' He bails on his wife for five years at one point, ten years at another. Schell too is trying here, but a character that could -- and probably should -- have been sympathetic comes across as shrill and whiny. When the two leads aren't especially likable, we could be in for a long ride.

The rest of the cast is hit or miss, and as is the case with epics gone bad, it's not always their fault. The ones given more screentime include Arthur O'Connell and Mercedes McCambridge as Tom and Sarah Wyatt, parents of a brood of eight trying to start a new life, a family that befriends Yancy and Sabra. Russ Tamblyn is a scene-stealer as the Cherokee Kid, a troubled youth Yancy tries to help with Vic Morrow as part of his gang. Anne Baxter is wasted as Dixie, a former love of Yancy's who now holds a grudge against him, a businesswoman who opens a whorehouse (a classy one at least). Potential for a cool character, but she's gone halfway through the movie. Also throw in Robert Keith, Charles McGraw, Harry Morgan, Edgar Buchanan, L.Q. Jones and David Opatoshu in supporting parts, some gone in a flash so don't blink. The problem is not the actors, but the lack of any character development. They drift in as needed and disappear as quickly as they appeared. Lots of potential for some very interesting characters, but nothing comes of it as Yancy and Sabra's story develops.

Once again, this won't sound like it makes a whole lot of sense, but there's both too much and not enough going on in a 149-minute movie. It's dull. The story moves along far too fast, glazing over significant portions of the story. I can't think of an epic with characters as unsympathetic as the ones here. I didn't care for most of the characters or how things ended up, and in the end, nothing comes of it. The resolution (using that term loosely) is disappointing and seemingly hypocritical for what we've seen up to this point. An epic attempt, but ultimately a disappointing failure.

Cimarron <---TCM trailer (1960): **/****

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

Really? This is what we've come to? Between 2002 and 2007, three different Spiderman movies hit theaters -- all highly successful regardless of quality, I'm looking at you Spiderman 3 -- with Tobey Maguire as the arachnid superhero. Maguire wanted out though, but Hollywood wanted more. So just five years since the last movie and 10 since the start of the franchise, we get a reboot already? Enter 2012's The Amazing Spider-Man.

Living with his aunt and uncle for years after his parents disappeared, nerdy teenager Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) has long struggled with who he is and what he should be as he grows up. One day in search of answers about his father, Peter stumbles across some of his paperwork, some of it about cross-breeding DNA brands. He follows the information and meets Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), his father's old partner. It is at Connors' office that Peter is bit on the neck by a genetically mutated spider, and almost immediately he feels the effects. With a power that he can at first barely harness, much less believe, Peter becomes Spiderman. But as his name becomes known, some look to him as a hero, other as a cowardly masked vigilante.

I'll get part of this rant out early. A line in the recent 21 Jump Street rings truer and truer with each new movie. It goes "The people behind this lack creativity and they've run out of ideas, so what they do now is just recycle shit from the past and hope that nobody will notice." Yes, I realize that fans go out to see these movies, but seriously. Is there no original idea at all out there? We're already doing a reboot of a franchise that was started exactly 10 years ago. From director Marc Webb, 'Amazing' tweaks the Spiderman universe back toward the more accurate, but is that enough reasoning to justify starting a franchise over again? We JUST saw Spiderman in 2002 explain how Peter becomes the superhero.Strike while the iron is hot I suppose, but still. Originality is so overrated anyways I suppose.

Onto the actual movie though. The rant wouldn't have been as severe if this movie wasn't....well....dull. With a movie that runs 136 minutes, I was bored and bored quickly. The origin story of a superhero is fine. Seeing that character background is almost always interesting. But here? I never felt like I was brought into the movie. The story has the been-there, done-that quality which is unfortunate because in quick snippets, little glimpses in certain scenes, there is energy and potential for an interesting, worthwhile story. Instead we get a teen angst riddled Peter struggling with being a teenager like something out of an after school special. There are no truly memorable set pieces, nothing that stands out from the rest, and the lack of a great villain certainly handicaps the story even if Ifans is a big positive in the cast. A little on the side, 'Amazing' could have been more memorable with just a little energy.

Through four movies -- three with Maguire and one with Garfield -- I think a key issue is casting Spiderman. What's so hard about it? Christian Bale is an ideal Batman. Robert Downey Jr. the same for Iron Man. Why not Spiderman? Is it the teen aspect? A 28-year old, Garfield certainly looks the part of a somewhat nerdy but highly intelligent high school student. As an actor though, I wasn't impressed. Yes, he's Spiderman. He's cool, but I wasn't interested in the character at all. Garfield uses a series of awkward glances, twitches and flinching to develop(?) the character of Spiderman. Making it worse, when he becomes the superhero, he becomes cocky and spits out one-liners left and right, making a dull character tough to watch on-screen. He is a better choice than Maguire was (just never seemed like an ideal choice), but if there's little interest in the story or him, that's kind of a major problem.

Not surprisingly, some of the supporting parts help make the slow-moving story worthwhile at different points. I'm noticing that more and more in certain superhero movies. Emma Stone is Gwen Stacy, the smart, beautiful and funny teenager that just about every high school boy dreams of dating. Ifans is the best supporting part as Dr. Connors who eventually turns into the Lizard after a specimen reacts in an unforeseen way. A villain who's motives are pure, but how he intends to do it ends up vilifying him. Denis Leary too has some fun as Capt. Stacy, a NYPD officer and Gwen's father who butts heads with Peter. Martin Sheen and Sally Field are underused but make the most of their screentime as Uncle Ben and Aunt May, Peter's long-time guardians who've looked after him since his parents disappeared years earlier.

As 'Amazing' nears the two-hour mark, it is saved to a point by the finale; Spiderman trying to prevent the Lizard's means of creating a 'super race' of men by unleashing a toxin all over New York City. The action up to that point felt repetitious to me, but this final showdown has that energy that so much of the rest of the movie was missing. There's also a small but solid part for C. Thomas Howell in the finale, a link to an earlier scene when he meets Spiderman. As a moderate fan of the original Spiderman movies, I didn't have high expectations for this 2012 reboot. Still, I came away empty. It's not an awful movie, but it never rises above even average unfortunately.

The Amazing Spider Man <---trailer (2012): **/**** 

Friday, July 13, 2012

Bad Teacher

Being politically correct is a moving target. What offends some people will probably not offend others. That can make comedies bordering on being politically correct/incorrect very hit-or-miss. What's usually frowned upon? Well, that's a dumb lead-in....lots of things. But one you just don't seem to want to mess with is kids. Kids vs. kids is one thing, but adults making fun of kids? Ouch, and watch out. That's one of the things wrong with 2011's Bad Teacher.

Having taught for a year in middle school in suburban Chicago, Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) is bailing on the job and leaving teaching behind....until she gets dumped by her fiance. Coming back from summer break, Elizabeth heads back for another year of forming our nation's youth, or at least her equivalent. She doesn't care in the least, trying to come up with the $10,000 it would take to get breast implants and hook a new sugar daddy. As well, there's a new school teacher, Scott (Justin Timberlake), who she's got her eyes set on, but another teacher, far more chipper and happy, Amy (Lucy Punch), also has the hots for Scott.

I didn't go into this 2011 comedy with particularly high expectations but still managed to come away disappointed. I'm not easily offended so Elizabeth's complete disregard for......well, everything, didn't really bother me. She avoids helping co-workers as well as her students, showing her class a rotation of teaching movies (Stand and Deliver, School Ties, Dangerous Minds) rather than teaching anything. Then, she gets motivation in two ways, finding out that the teacher with the highest test average gets a bonus which she can apply to her implants. Yeah, not an interesting story. Diaz drilling her students with dodgeballs? A little offensive, but at least darkly funny too.

Re-reading that story description, I'd be okay with a story that wasn't involving or interesting if for nothing else it was funny. I mean truly funny. But from director Jake Kasdan, 'Teacher' forgot about the funny angle. It doesn't have to be laugh out loud hysterical every minute. It just has to have some jokes work some of the time, and unfortunately this isn't the case. Diaz is trying to go for the laughs, but the script and increasingly ridiculous story doesn't do her or her co-stars any favors. The story does get more ridiculous right to the very end, turning her into a possibly sympathetic(?) character while Punch's Amy Squirrel gets so stereotypically suspicious and evil it's hard to believe. I chuckled a couple times, but I don't remember any truly funny scenes that would make this memorable.

Starring in 'Teacher,' Diaz is the winner here. For one, she can do extremely dark humor and do it well. She plays it straight with her actions and offensive statements landing with a crash. Two, I don't know if it's her intention as a star/actress, but the whole 99-minute movie seems to scream 'Hey, everyone, I'm Cameron Diaz, and I still look great!' She looks great, so mission accomplished, Miss Diaz. Punch is annoying cliched, Timberlake truly awful in a horribly written part, and Jason Segel a wild card of sorts as Russell, the gym teacher who wants to go out with Elizabeth. He's not good and he's not bad, somewhere in between instead. The Office's Phyllis Smith is a bright spot as Miss Davies, a quiet, soft-spoken teacher who finds an unlikely friend in unfriendly Elizabeth, and the always solid John Michael Huggins has some fun as school principal fighting a losing battle.

Not much else to add. If you like Cameron Diaz as an actress or just think she's gorgeous, you'll no doubt get some enjoyment out of this one. Other than that? Give it a wide berth and steer clear.

Bad Teacher <---trailer (2011): * 1/2 /****

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Boss

And now for those readers who have made it through two reviews of sleazy B-movie Italian crime thrillers, here's a third! Wrapping up director Fernando Di Leo's loosely linked Italian crime trilogy comes 1973's The Boss, the weakest of the three but with enough positive to mildly recommend. Fans of both The Godfather and Scarface should get some enjoyment/entertainment out of it for sure.

Having worked as a trusted enforcer for Don Giuseppe (Claudio Nicastro), a powerful mob boss, stoic Nick Lanzetta (Henry Silva) has been put in a spot with no easy out. With a mob war brewing because of successful hit he pulled off, Lanzetta is caught in the middle. He's loyal to Don Giuseppe, but he also sees more of a chance for advancement if he listens to the big boss in town, Don Corrasco (Richard Conte), Giuseppe's superior. As the bodies continue to pile up, Lanzetta must make a decision. Does he stick with what he knows or try to rise up in the aftermath of the bloody mob war?

Having watched all three of Di Leo's crime trilogy in less than a week, I came away impressed with a couple things. Through all three movies, I was entertained even if there were some sluggish parts (more on that). Mostly though is the downright brutality and cynicism of these worlds. Maybe it's the European audience and market wanting a more reality-based crime story, but a bad guy. It's just shades of bad. When someone gets beaten, it looks, sounds and feels like they're actually getting beaten. Kids, women, pets? Not exempt from some rather graphic deaths. Like I mentioned in The Italian Connection review, Di Leo just don't give a damn. He doesn't care if he offends some. He just wants to entertain a lot of folks and for the most part, accomplishes that.

'Boss' does differ from the previous two movies in the Di Leo trilogy in that it isn't exclusively on the small-scale, low-level hoods. There's a bigger picture here, crime families duking it out for supremacy in the underworld. We hear a lot about 'The Family needs...' and 'The Family must...' when talking about a lot of people making a difficult decision. The Godfather was an obvious influence here -- down to the Conte casting, a role similar to his Barzini -- with 'Boss' hitting theaters just a year after the 1972 American classic. Everyone is betraying everyone, and no one is safe.

A definite bright spot in 1972's The Italian Connection, Silva one-ups himself here. He's the best thing going for 'Boss' by a long shot as Lanzetta, the steely-eyed, ice water in his veins hit man. Silva was a huge presence with a truly intimidating glare when he stared someone down. The hit man is business-like about his job and brutally efficient. To me, it seems like an obvious influence on the Skull, Tony Montana's killer in Scarface. He wears almost exclusively black clothes and rarely shows an ounce of human emotion. He's cold-blooded but highly intelligent and calculating, able to see two or three steps ahead, knowing when trouble will arise. Conte is all right, Gianni Garko is wasted in a supporting part as a police officer on the hunt, Pier Paolo Capponi hams it up as Cocchi, the mob rival, and Marino Mase plays Pignatoro, a former partner of Lanzetta's.

What's disappointing is that for lack of a better description, 'Boss' is boring. If Silva isn't on-screen, the story grinds to a halt. Garko's scenes with his condescending superior (Vittorio Caprioli) serve no purpose and drag on endlessly. Whole scenes are just characters talking back and forth, the camera stationary as if its trying to make us fall asleep. Other times, 'Boss' is just trying too hard, like Giuseppe's daughter (Antonia Santilli) being kidnapped and joining in orgies with her captors just for the movie to have an excuse to have her naked. A nympho hippie? Yeah, right, especially when she jumps into bed for a week with Lanzetta. I liked the movie, but the parts that didn't work truly flopped. Mostly worthwhile for Silva's lead performance.

The Boss <---Opening scene (1973): **/****