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, October 30, 2012

The Juggler

Born Issur Danielovitch, this actor would go on to a huge career in Hollywood as an actor under a different name; Kirk Douglas. The son of Jewish immigrants from Belarus, Douglas spent much of his life and early parts of his career fighting anti-Semitism, an interesting part of his autobiography The Ragman's Son. With his Jewish heritage, I can only imagine that 1953's The Juggler was an emotional venture for the actor.

It's 1949 and among hundreds of other Jewish refugees, Hans Mueller (Douglas) disembarks from a ship in Haifa in Israel at a refugee camp. A survivor of a WWII concentration camp, Hans was an international star before the war, gaining fame as a performer and juggler, but he was the lone survivor from his family; his wife and kids both dying in the camps. Now, Hans is struggling to adjust to a post-war life. He leaves the refugee camp, but when he is stopped by a police officer, Hans freaks out, runs and when cornered beats the officer senseless. Hans is now on the run, trekking across the Israeli countryside.

The Holocaust is one of those historical tragedies that is hard to fathom actually happened. Six million Jews killed in around six years? Millions more of Russians, minorities and various ethnicities and cultures? It boggles the mind. Many films have handled the touchy, emotional subject matter extremely well, but I can't think of another one that deals with how the survivors of the concentration camps assimilated themselves back to a "normal" life following their horrific ordeal. More impressive, 'Juggler' was made just four years after the story is set, and eight years since the end of WWII. That subject matter is still very much a fresh wound, and if for absolutely nothing else, this film gets bonus points for trying to tell a timely, emotional story.

Basically regardless of the role or the movie, if I see the name 'Kirk Douglas' in the cast listing, I'll give the film a shot. This is not a role that is mentioned with his best, but it is a hidden gem. He does an admirable job bringing Hans to life. As Hans treks across Israel, we learn more about his concentration camp past. Upon first meeting him, he mistakes another refugee family for his wife and kids. He's convinced it's them. But as we see more of his deep-seeded issues, it's easy to see that everything is not all right. Hans is claustrophobic, fears any sort of uniformed authority and is almost schizophrenic in his personal interactions. Douglas always had the ability to turn into an emotional livewire on-screen, and that's no different than here. A very effective performance, both understated and exaggerated at the same time, but just the right amount of both.

What struck me years back when I first stumbled across this movie was the photography. Made in 1953 before widescreen filming techniques were used, 'Juggler' nonetheless takes advantage of filling the fullscreen. Director Edward Dmytryk shoots the entire film in black and white on location in Israel, a choice that brings the entire movie up a notch. The California hills, the southwest desert, none of it would have sufficed here. As Hans walks across Israel, we get a sense of distance traveled, seeing Haifa, Jerusalem, Nazareth and the Hill of Galilee as a backdrop. The camera moves close in behind Douglas' Hans, but in the background we see the expansive countryside going on for seemingly endless miles. Not only is the movie timely, but because it was filmed in Israel, it feels that much more authentic.

As far as star power goes, the movie hitches its wagons to Douglas' name recognition. The rest of the cast isn't going to have much recognition at all with most viewers. Milly Vitale plays Ya'El, a Jewish woman working with refugees to relocate within Israel who begins to worry about Hans' mental mindset. Paul Stewart plays Detective Karni, the officer pursuing Hans after his attack on the police officer. Joseph Walsh plays Joshua, a Jewish teenager who joins Hans in his "travels" of sorts, the two bonding over similar backgrounds. Also look for future Sgt. Schultz John Banner as a witness to the attack who takes part in the investigation and Beverly Washburn as Susy, a young girl who becomes Hans' friend when they meet upon arriving at the camp.

This one was a pleasant surprise. At times, it borders on being a little overdone -- looking at you, George Antheil's musical score especially -- but mostly it hits all the right notes. Douglas is the biggest reason to see this ahead of its time story. Well worth seeking it out.

The Juggler <---trailer p="p">

Monday, October 29, 2012

Sharpe's Rifles

Beginning in the early 1980s, author Bernard Cornwell started writing a series of historical novels detailing the Napoleonic times from the perspective of a young British soldier, Richard Sharpe. Immensely popular historical fiction, the series has 24 novels, many of which were turned into British TV movies, starting with 1993's Sharpe's Rifles.

It's 1809 in Portugal and Sir Wellesley (David Troughton) -- later the Duke of Wellington -- is preparing an attack on Napoleon Bonaparte's forces. Among his forces is Sgt. Richard Sharpe (Sean Bean), a young soldier who saves Wellesley from a French cavalry patrol. Young Sharpe is quickly promoted for his heroic acts and is given a dangerous behind the lines mission. He is assigned as an officer to a rifle company that must travel deep into French territory to accomplish the mission. Knowing he's a common soldier promoted to an officer, his men are instantly suspicious of him, making an already dangerous mission that much worse.

The first of 16 such Sharpe novels, 'Rifles' is a great intro to the character and the historical time. From director Tom Clegg, it is a TV-movie so know that going in. It clocks in at just 101 minutes -- never overstaying its welcome. Don't go in expecting a massive historical epic. Instead, we get a smaller scale story that remains on a successful personal level. The focus is on a handful of characters in a much bigger situation -- the Battle of Corunna -- and doesn't try to be an end-all, be-all story. It was filmed in the Ukraine and Portugal and has a very unique, washed-out look, but in a good way. The only real oddity is the musical score from Dominic Muldowney and John Tams, a unique mix of period appropriate military music and an out of place use of electric guitars at times.

Whether its the Napoleonic setting or the smaller budget for the TV movie, something appealed to me about this first Sharpe movie. The closest description I can come up with is nostalgia. It feels old-fashioned, like a movie that would have been released in the 1940s in the vein of Beau Geste or Gunga Din (albeit significantly darker in tone and subject matter). There are easily identified villains you just love to hate, the roguish, tough anti-hero who you know is genuinely good, the woman with the tortured past, the brutish sidekick who starts off as a bad guy. Stock characters, stock storylines, but all for the better in a weird way. There's a reason these things are stock anything. If used correctly, it's going to be a solid, well-told story.

Working in films and on TV since the 1980s, this was Sean Bean's first real starring role, and he doesn't disappoint. His Richard Sharpe is a commoner who came from a checkered past. In other words, he ain't a gentleman, and as an officer that's exactly what he's expected to be. Mostly though, he's tough, stubborn, very capable and wants to be a good soldier even when his men below him have no respect for him. A great hero for a potential-filled series. The always mischievous, always up to something Brian Cox plays Hogan, Sharpe's superior who tags along on the mission. Assumpta Serna plays Theresa, the Spanish guerrilla fighter working with the British, with Simon Andreu playing Vivar, a similarly mysterious guerrilla with a deep-seeded hatred of the French.

Going ahead with the series, I'm most encouraged by Sharpe's motley crew of sharpshooters. Yes, the men on a mission angle. Start with Daragh O'Malley (can you tell he's an Irishman?) as Harper, the boozing, brawling Irish soldier who butts heads instantly with Sharpe. If you've seen any movie ever with a hero and a sidekick, there's no surprise that Sharpe and Harper will eventually become allies and good friends. O'Malley and Bean are the perfect casting to play off each other. The rest of Sharpe's men include Cooper (Michael Mears), Harris (Jason Salkey), Tongue (Paul Trussell), and Perkins (Lyndon Davies). None other than O'Malley's Harper are developed much, but there's potential so hopefully that develops over the coming TV movies.

And now for the fun stuff, the action. Like the scale in general, we're not talking a War and Peace epic with 10,000 extras. The battles are usually between small groups of soldiers, but the lack of scale doesn't hurt anything. The camera is there at ground level with the troops, making it a little more uncomfortable to watch. The highlight is the finale; Sharpe, his men and the Spanish guerrillas trying to take a heavily guarded chapel. Surprisingly good action in a very solid opener. Definitely looking forward to where the series goes.

Sharpe's Rifles <---trailer fan--="fan--">

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Social Network

I saw the previews and all I could think was, "Really? A Facebook movie?" Of all the things, people and stories out there that deserve a feature film -- or would at least make an interesting movie -- why would something as dumb as a social networking site get a movie? Well, I was wrong. The story of how Facebook came to be is a twisting, always interesting story, told in 2010's The Social Network.

 An undergrad at Harvard in 2003, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) wants nothing more than to be BIG, to accomplish something impressive with his life. After drawing the ire of the administration for creating a program that had students compare how "hot" other students were, Mark is approached by a Final Club and agrees to create a networking site so Harvard students can link up. Some 42 days later with financial backing from friend/roommate Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), Mark goes live with his own site, a slightly tweaked version of the one he was asked to do. Word spreads and students start to join his own social networking site, the Facebook, until it becomes an Internet juggernaut. But success, fame and an ever-growing successful site threaten to make Mark's supposedly genuine intentions something much darker.

I'm slightly embarrassed to write what I'm about to write, but here goes. I joined Facebook in fall of 2004 as an undergrad at Indiana University, and in the 8 years since, it has seemingly changed, evolved and developed into an Internet monstrosity. It's weird to get so nostalgic about something that happened so recently. Ah, the good old days when you had to have a college/university e-mail address to even create a profile on Facebook. Now, anyone from your grandparents to your little cousins can be on the damn thing. Seeing a movie about that development -- relationship statuses, the Wall, tagging, pictures -- is certainly interesting.

More than that though, throwing aside that quasi-nostalgia value, this is just a good movie. The intrigue, betrayals and backstabbing that made Facebook what it is today provides quite a backdrop for the story. Armie Hammer plays a dual role, Tyler and Cameron Vinklevoss, the Harvard crew team twins, who with their friend, Divya (Max Minghella), present Mark with their idea for the networking site. So starts the process that turns Facebook into a multi-billion dollar idea. Without giving away any details or twists, the story is far more complicated than I ever thought/knew. It's fascinating to watch in a way I never thought crazy, addicting old Facebook ever could be.

The crux and heart of the movie is the relationship between Zuckerberg and Eduardo, both Eisenberg and Garfield delivering great performances. As presented here (and supposedly what he's like in real life), Zuckerberg is an individual who is easy to HATE. Condescending, passive aggressive, pretentious, a know-it-all, and in general, an a-hole, Zuckerberg is a despicable individual. Okay, that may be harsh, but I intensely disliked him. Through it all (well, mostly), Garfield's Eduardo sticks by him as their site grows even when Mark seems to be doing his best to piss him off and drive him away. Hate or love them, the performances are great. Also look for a scene-stealing Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker, the eccentric Napster founder who works with Mark as Facebook grows. Rashida Jones has a good part as a lawyer involved in the cases that ensues while Rooney Mara makes a memorable appearance as Erica, Mark's girlfriend and then ex-girlfriend.

Director David Fincher has certainly been on a hot streak recently including this film, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Zodiac, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. He was nominated for Best Director (losing to Tom Hooper for The King's Speech), as was the film but lost there too. His shooting style is present again, dark and shadowy. He's working with a script from Aaron Sorkin -- never a bad thing -- and the style and dialogue is quick and snappy. The story is told via two separate flashbacks so we see a plan come together and then from the flashbacks know it won't go smoothly. The music comes from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the score in incredibly subtle fashion backing the story up.

Not just that Facebook movie, this was a very good movie, one I wish I hadn't been so stubborn about. Now off to see if I have any new notifications!

The Social Network <---trailer (2010): ***/****

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Price of Power

When I purchased a set of 44 spaghetti westerns for the low, low price of less than $15, I was psyched, but some selections from the group jumped out more than others. Some I'd never heard of, some I knew would be lousy, but judging from certain reviews I'd read, I was most looking forward to 1969's The Price of Power. Unfortunately, the final product just didn't live up to expectations.

A gunfighter with a reputation that hangs over him because of a 4-year jail sentence, Bill Willer (Giuliano Gemma) is in trouble. He's rumored to be a part of an assassination attempt on President James Garfield (Van Johnson), who is touring Texas with his wife. Willer's father (Antonio Casas) is gunned down investigating the matters when he stumbles upon the actual plot. Now, Bill is looking to not only clear his name but also to bring the real killers to justice while also saving the life of the President. Just all in a day's work for this anti-hero, right?

Spaghetti westerns are inherently weird, eccentric, off-the-wall and generally pretty odd. I've seen a ton of them so take anything I'm about to say with a grain of salt. From director Tonino Valerii, 'Power' is an oddity among oddities. At different points, it has conspiracy theories, long-winded speeches about politics, a not-so-subtle allusion to the JFK assassination, racist sub-plots, and is light on action compared to most. All those ingredients just didn't mix for me. On the positive, the music from composer Luis Bacalov is delightfully weird -- different from most Ennio Morricone knock-offs -- and any Sergio Leone fans will no doubt recognize countless locations from his 1968 classic, Once Upon a Time in the West. That's never a bad thing.

It's rare that a spaghetti western story has too much going on to this point. Well, that's not completely true. Usually when too much is going on, it means endless betrayals and back-stabbing, gunfights galore. That ain't the case here. There is very little gunplay at all. The Garfield addition to the story plays fast and loose with the facts -- killing him in Texas as opposed to Washington D.C. -- while also portraying it in ridiculously close fashion to the JFK assassination in Dallas. We're talking right down to the angle of the shot, and the reaction from Garfield's wife (Maria Cuadra). More than any of that, far too much time is spent in smoky backrooms as the assassination plot comes together. Head of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, Allan Pinkerton (Fernando Rey) is even involved in the plot!  It's just all too much.

The casting ranges from acceptable to lousy to odd and out of left field. I've liked Gemma in several other spaghettis I've seen, but his performance here is fairly vanilla. A revenge-seeking gunfighter is nothing new to the western, but it's dull here. The best part of the character is his friendship with Jack (Ray Saunders), a black man who fought with Bill in the Civil War. Warren Vanders is the slick aide to Garfield, McDonald, always up to something for the good of the country. It's also pretty cool and worth pointing out that Benito Stefanelli -- usually a background player; a bandit or gunman in Leone's westerns -- gets a prominent role as the treacherous Sheriff Jefferson. An uncredited/unlisted Michael Harvey plays Wallace, the obsessed leader of the assassination plot. Plenty of other characters are cycled in and out in a revolving door, none making an impression. A badly dubbed Johnson is surprisingly good as President Garfield.

I thought there was certainly potential here as the story developed, incorporating the racial overtones of a long dead Confederate movement trying to revive the Civil War. Throwing Bill's black friend, Jack, into the mix, adds quite an interesting element into the story, especially when he's believed to be the assassin. It never clicks into place though. Just far too many elements working against each other for any of those separate elements to be truly effective. A disappointing, mediocre final product. You can watch the entire movie HERE at Youtube.

The Price of Power <---trailer (1969): **/****

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Call Northside 777

This is going to sound simple, but certain movies make me think of the message. Watching old films from basically any Hollywood film is one of my favorite things to do. It can give a window into times long since past. We see towns and cities as they were, not as they are. An all-around solid quasi-documentary, film noir-ish mystery, 1948's Call Northside 777 is a gem.

A reporter for the Chicago Times newspaper, reporter P.J. McNeal (James Stewart) is given a new assignment. An 11-year old murder case from 1932 is in the news, both Frank Wiciek (Richard Conte) and Tomek Zaleska (an uncredited George Tyne) serving 99-year prison sentences for the murder of a Chicago police officer. Wiciek's mother, Tillie (Kasia Orzazewski), a blue collar worker if there ever was, has offered a $5,000 reward for finding the real murder, exonerating her son. McNeal writes the mother's story, but it grabs attention of readers who want more of this story leaving McNeal to explore the long-retired murder case. Ever the suspicious reporter, McNeal goes along but questions the case. Could Frank actually be guilty?

Based on a true story involving the murder of a Chicago police officer (read about it HERE, SPOILERS obviously), 'Call' is an interesting movie for all the right reasons. From director Henry Hathaway, it is part documentary, part investigative procedural, part film noir. The good thing? It moves among those three different genres effortlessly. Clocking in at 112 minutes, it isn't always the quickest-paced flick, but it moves around a lot so that's excusable. A story in the shadows, taking advantage of the black and white photography, it's a great movie to watch.

For me though, this movie is worthwhile for two reasons. One, Hathaway filmed on location in Chicago. This is a great window into late 1940s Chicago. Trivia question and answer for you, but this was the first Hollywood feature film to film on location in Chicago. Where so many films from the 1940s would limit themselves to Hollywood sets, 'Call' gets a whole lot of points for filming in downtown Chicago, but the suburbs as well. Curious what the Windy City looked like 60-plus years ago? This is your movie. The other reason; as a writer who's written for the Chicago Sun-Times, it's a great precursor for All the President's Men. We see how journalists and investigators worked in a pre-Internet age, doing their investigating the old-fashioned way. It's the little things, ain't it?

Already an established star by 1947, Stewart does a solid, workmanlike job as reporter P.J. McNeal. Cynical to a point because the job requires it, McNeal is skeptical of the whole case but takes it on because it's a decent story that readers are curious about it. As the real story comes out though, he starts to question even more, giving Stewart a good chance to flex a little dramatically. Go crusading journalist! Conte is solid in a supporting role as the possibly falsely-convicted Frank while Orzazewski is a scene-stealer as his mother, Tillie. Usually a tough guy actor, Lee J. Cobb plays Kelly, McNeal's editor at the Chicago Times. Joanne De Bergh has a small but essential part as Helen, Frank's wife who supports his innocence. Also look for John McIntire as a former state's attorney trying to cover his butt and an uncredited E.G. Marshall in a small part.

There are some oddities here I feel I have to point out. For a story that's built on the small details, the little pieces of evidence, the movie itself.....isn't. Several rather key questions go unanswered in the end. We find out what happens to Conte's Frank, but what about his supposed partner, Tyne's Tomek? Why is Cobb's editor so dead-set on following this story up? A backstory is hinted at, but never dealt with. The ending is effective, but with a 112-minute movie, it comes together a little quickly, almost like Hathaway ran out of time or money. Still, these are problems but not ones that can ruin a movie. Highly recommend checking this one out.

Call Northside 777 <---trailer (1948): ***/****

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Game

For better or worse, directors can get type-cast just as quickly as actors/actresses can. That's not always a bad thing. In the case of director David Fincher, he's typecast, but for a good thing. He's not been pigeon-holed into one genre or type of movie. For lack of better description, he makes good, smart, quality movies. Ready for the twist? I don't know if Fincher's 1997 movie The Game is one of those movies.

A highly successful investment banker living in San Francisco, Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) is "celebrating" his 48th birthday. While he's business successful, he is all alone other than his housekeeper and lives a quiet, lonely (it appears) life. Nicholas is visited by his younger brother, Conrad (Sean Penn), who gives him a mysterious birthday present; a card with a telephone number to a company that will get Nicholas involved in a similarly mysterious, cryptic game. Without really knowing why, Nicholas goes along with 'the game' and soon finds himself in an ever-evolving situation that he has absolutely NO control over. Can he figure out the game that threatens to take him over? Is this what Conrad intended?

When 'Game' works, it really works. Fincher shows a knack for building tension to the point it's almost unbearable. The unsettling quiet, the dark, shadowy streets, the feeling that something horrific is right around the corner. It's all there. It's so nerve-wracking that for most of the first 90 minutes, I was actually uncomfortable watching it. It's good uncomfortable, but you know what I mean. What the hell is this game Nicholas is involved in? What's the point? What's the end game? Weird things happen all around him, some that could be coincidental, others not at all, clearly examples of somethings and someone being manipulated.

The sense of not knowing is what makes much of this movie so easily recommendable. Fincher filmed in San Francisco, a city that's never looked bad on-screen. It is a great backdrop for the story. The city becomes a shadowy, sinister character, holding all sorts of terror and fear. There were times it even reminded me of a modern Hitchcock movie, and that's never a bad thing. A modern Hitchcock film noir full of shadows, secrets and all sorts of sinister mysteries, it's a great ride.

And then it isn't. Somewhere it just becomes too much. This is a movie/script/screenplay that has plot holes you could drive a semi-truck through. Even now as I write this review, I keep thinking of more instances where the story has dumb luck, coincidence or maybe Fate itself willing something to happen. It is convoluted beyond belief, and that's fine if it builds to something acceptable that makes it all worthwhile. At some point, it has to all click into place. Unfortunately, it doesn't. The twist is disappointing in so many ways including one scene that defies logic. I won't describe it here -- experience the badness for yourself -- but so many separate items need to come together for it to work that there is NO HUMAN WAY this could have worked. We're talking an inch difference, even a foot, and the movie ends completely different. Not making sense? Watch it, and see for yourself.

Keeping the movie based in some sort of enjoyment is Michael Douglas in the lead. An individual who's used to controlling every little thing about his life thrust into a situation that's the complete opposite? Oh, he isn't going to enjoy that at all, is he? I like Douglas as an actor, and he's a great choice here to play Nicholas. Even when he's pretentious and condescending and an a-hole, you can't help but like him a little. His complete unraveling is key because it's not overdone. It's believable. Penn's appearance is nothing more than a cameo, three or four quick scenes. They're effective, but short. Deborah Kerr Unger is solid as Christine, a waitress mixed up with the game who may or may not be helping Nicholas. Also look for James Rebhorn, Carroll Baker, Peter Donat, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Anna Katarina in key supporting parts.

A mixed bag in the end. Great build-up, great tension, and an imposing sense of doom hanging over the story. The execution is there for the most part, building to an almost unbearable point, but the ending falls short in a big way for me. Still worth watching though. The parts that work do just enough to overshadow the weaknesses of the finale.

The Game <---trailer (1997): ** 1/2 /****

Monday, October 22, 2012

Harry and Walter Go to New York

Some films are doomed from the start. They just are. Production problems, casting decisions, pacing/tone issues, any and all can derail a movie. There's a whole wing of Hollywood movies that are known as Epic Failures. Some overcame it, others didn't. Massively over-budget, 1976's Harry and Walter Go To New York is one that didn't despite an impressive cast.

It's 1908 and a pair of vaudeville actors, Harry (James Caan) and Walter (Elliott Gould), are struggling to make any money at all at their shows, eventually resorting to pickpocketing where they are not surprisingly caught quickly. At the same time, infamous millionaire safecracker Adam Worth (Michael Caine) is caught during a robbery and sent to prison. Working as Worth's slave-servants, Harry and Walter manage to escape and with the blueprints for the infamous bank robber's next job. Unfortunately the well-to-do Worth isn't far behind, and now it's a race against the clock to see who can pull off the job first; the bumbling performers turned con men or the experienced, expert robber?

For whatever reason, this is a movie that received generally poor reviews. On the other hand, I liked it a lot. As Roger Ebert mentions in his review, 'Harry and Walter' is clearly made in the vein of The Sting. There isn't much ink about the movie or its troubled production, but I'm guessing the massive budget problems had to do with the lavish period sets and costumes. It's turn of the century Massachusetts and New York, and everything from the ultra-detailed sets to the immaculate time-appropriate suits to the light-hearted, goofy score from David Shire works well together, especially Laszlo Kovacs' Earth-toned, dulled down color cinematography. It is a period piece, and this 1976 flick gets the period details done the right way.

I'm thinking the biggest reason for the generally negative reviews is the type of humor. Where The Sting was well-written and funny in its ability to underplay the situation, 'Harry and Walter' is not so subtle. High comedy this is not, director Mark Rydell's period-heist movie relying far more on physical humor, and bumbling humor at that. I typically don't go for that type of humor, but it worked for me here. Much of that credit goes to Caan and Gould as the buddy relationship that produces much of the laughs. I've always been a Caan fan, but this is a showier part for him, not the usual tough guy role. Case in point: he sings and dances. Caan's Harry is the confident know-it-all, Gould's Walter the quiet, nervous knows it won't work partner. They play off each other effortlessly.

If James Caan and Elliott Gould weren't enough though (and shame on you if that's the case), the supporting cast shouldn't disappoint. How often do you see Michael Caine get third billing in a movie? His Adam Worth is a scene-stealer, not quite a villain but certainly approaching that territory. Diane Keaton plays Lissa Chestnut, a crusading newspaper woman who joins the bank robbing effort and has everyone fall for her. Charles Durning is the worried bank owner trying to save his $. Also look for Lesley Ann Warren, Michael Conrad, Burt Young, Val Avery, Carol Kane, Jack Gilford, Dennis Dugan and Ted Cassidy rounding out a very deep cast.

A period piece merged with a heist flick certainly had my curiosity on high alert. The actual heist isn't anything special as Harry and Walter's "expert team" attempt to get into Durning's perfect safe. In order to create a diversion, Harry and Walter end up hijacking a stage show with their own hijinx and shenanigans. The act finally wears thin a little, but it's not enough to detract from a movie I enjoyed a lot. The cast is too talented so even if you don't go along with the physical comedy/humor, you should still get some enjoyment out of it. If nothing else, look for the prison from The Shawshank Redemption as a familiar location. Well worth checking out.

Harry and Walter Go To New York <---trailer (1976): ***/****  

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Slither (1973)

James Caan is cool. He's Santino Corleone. That's basically the only reason I checked out 1973's Slither during a recent Caan marathon on Turner Classic Movies. I should have steered clear of this one because Caan-cool factor aside, this is one bad movie.

Fresh out of prison having served part of a sentence for grand theft auto, Dick Kanipsia (Caan) is dealt a strange hand when an old friend is killed after picking him up. Before he dies though, the friend mysteriously tells him two names, and that he should seek them out. With no other options or opportunities in front of him, Dick seeks out one of the names, Barry Fenaka (Peter Boyle), who lets him in on a plan. Years prior, Barry and the since-dead friend embezzled some $312,000 and now know where they can get it. Dick signs on as Barry's partner, traveling all over California in hopes of finally getting their hands on the money. Who knows what kooky, crazy antics await them on the open road.

In previous reviews of 1970s films, I've mentioned that there is a distinct quality of watching a movie from that decade. It was a major turning point in the darkness/reality of how films were portrayed, and much of the time it was for the better. There's a different pacing to so many 1970s movies with more of a focus on the people and stories rather than the scope and scale. From director Howard Zieff, 'Slither' unfortunately tries to do just that. It aims to be a quirky, off-beat story with quirky, off-beat characters, but never ultimately gets to that point. At 97 minutes, it drifts aimlessly without even a semblance of even a drifting story. Characters come along, disappear and then return as necessary.

This flick is listed at IMDB as a comedy-crime thriller, and I'm thinking "That was a comedy?" I must have missed all those really funny parts. It is neither a comedy nor a thriller, and any drama seems to be an accident more than anything. Caan's ex-con is an amiable enough guy, sort of drifting along with a plan that could net him some easy money. He meets all sorts of eccentrics along the road, but none of them are truly funny. The twist is that Dick and Barry are being followed by a menacing black van (Alex Rocco, Len Lesser, Allen Garfield, and Alex Henteloff are the "baddies" inside) with some sinister objective. The actual twist? Incredibly disappointing, and actually, mindlessly stupid that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But then again, that's kind of the whole movie.

Even as a fan, I can admit Caan looks like he's sleepwalking. He doesn't look too interested in any of the proceedings going on, maybe realizing what a mess he got caught up in. I think there's some jokes meant with his name (13-year old's giggle), but even that is mishandled. Boyle is a little better as Barry, but his background is kept so much in the dark that he's wasted. The character even disappears midway through the movie, apparently that's the thriller aspect, but another twist there falls short. Sally Kellerman starts off as the sexy chick Dick meets on the road, Kitty Kopetzky, then degenerates into a complete nut-bag. Louise Lasser plays Mary, Barry's wife who spends much of the movie being worried in the couple's RV motorhome.

I struggle with what else to rip about this mess. The end turns into a big chase scene with the intimidating black van gunning it after a station wagon hauling an RV. I don't even know. It's bad, and the more I think about it, the badder it gets.

Slither <---TCM trailer/clips (1973): */****

Friday, October 19, 2012

John Carter

Based off a novel, A Princess of Mars, by author Edgar Rice Burroughs, 2012's John Carter made headlines for all the wrong sort of reasons. Budgeted for around $250 million, it tanked in America, making around $75. It succeeded overseas and other markets, helping regain some of its losses (barely). So what happened? I don't know for sure. I loved the first hour, and yeah, there's also a second hour....unfortunately.

A Civil War veteran from Virginia, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is searching the Arizona desert for a cave that legend states is packed with gold. Pursued by Apaches and the U.S. Cavalry, Carter finds the cave only to be transported to a different planet. He knows it as Mars, but there he finds a race/species of 12-foot tall barbarians called Tharks. Carter discovers he has the ability to physically leap hundreds of feet into the air at will, impressing the Tharks with his prowess. Trying to discover how, why and where he is though, Carter finds himself involved and fighting in another war as warring factions fight for control of this supposedly dead, far-off planet.

I didn't go into this Andrew Stanton-directed science fiction-fantasy-western-epic with high expectations, but I was certainly curious to see what the fuss (or lack of) was all about. The genre-bending premise sounded intriguing. Early on, I loved it. 'Carter' was like a blend of Star Wars, Avatar and Dances With Wolves. How's that for a deadly trio of films? The exploration of a "new" planet was great, seeing the disbelief in John's eyes as we do the same. It's somewhat like Earth, but not quite. We meet a new race/species -- the Tharks -- and see their culture and way of life. We see warring factions -- the people of Helium vs. the fighters of Zodanga -- and John must come around with how he fits into it all. Is he willing to fight again, to fight for something that doesn't impact him?

That's the first hour. I loved it. Those scenes especially reminded me of the things I liked most about James Cameron's Avatar. And then there's the rest of the movie. A visual spectacle, a treat for the eyes, a genre-bending story, and you know what? I didn't care. I was bored. I had no interest in this war for control of Mars. None. The last 70 minutes therefore tended to drag for me. I don't know how/why it all changed so quickly, but it did. While I liked Kitsch's John Carter, I didn't have a whole lot of interest in his plight, much less that of the Helium survivors vs. the Zodanga city-state. A battle for sole power of a planet? It should have been cooler, but I would have just settled for even a little interesting.

Just 31 years old, Kitsch is trying to carve out a niche for himself as an actor and movie star. This is a good part in that direction. A tad wooden at times, I liked his performance although I could have done with more in the way of flashbacks. Lynn Collins plays the love interest, Dejah, the princess of the King of Helium (Ciaran Hinds). Collins is quite the heroine -- no damsel in distress -- and looks good doing it, but she doesn't have much chemistry with Kitsch. As for the Tharks, look for Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church, and Samantha Morton lending their voice talents. Mark Strong plays Matai Shang, a space-manipulating being who leads destruction of planets one-by-one. Also look for Dominic West, James Purefoy and Bryan Cranston in supporting parts. West has some fun hamming it up as the villainous Sab Than, the puppet for Matai's intentions.

A swing and a miss here for the most part. A framing device with John's nephew, the future author Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara), is a great introduction and gets things moving well enough. The movie is gorgeous, New Mexico and Utah combining with some impressive CGI to stand in for Mars. Michael Giacchino's score is appropriately epic, and in general, the movie has the feel of an epic from the 1950s/1960s albeit with some great CGI. On the whole, the movie never connects on any sort of emotional level. The first hour though is highly enjoyable, making it worth at least a mild -- very mild -- recommendation.

John Carter <---trailer (2012): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, October 18, 2012

3 Bullets for Ringo

When I think spaghetti westerns, I usually think bandits, gunslingers, hired guns and shootouts and gunfights galore. I'm usually at least somewhat right. Then there's 1966's 3 Bullets for Ringo (although it has several other titles). The gunplay is actually the worst thing going here. Go figure, but it was certainly a change of pace...some good and some bad.

Having saved a young woman, Jane (Milla Sannoner), from a gang of Mexican bandits, hired guns and partners Ringo (Mickey Hargitay) and Frank (Gordon Mitchell) decide to part ways rather than fight over the girl. As the Civil War starts up, Ringo stays behind and marries Jane, becoming the sheriff of Stone City. Once the war has ended though, Ringo is blinded in a shootout with Confederate renegades....of whom Frank is part of. Hired by the corrupt local mine owner, Daniels (Ivano Staccioli), Frank becomes sheriff and helps him rule the town and all its valuables with a brutal hand. Pushed too far, a blinded Ringo must do something to save his family, his business and his town.

It's rare to see a spaghetti western with a story like this. Not the former partners turned against each other, or even the corrupt banker/mine owner/businessman looking to clean up in the $-department. That's pretty familiar territory. What isn't so familiar is how the story starts and then completely goes down a different path. A full 20-minutes is spent introducing Ringo and Frank, then a bizarre one-scene Civil War transition, and wham! We're back in Stone City, and the former partners are on opposite sides. That's just the start though, and a lot to start in just an 87-minute movie (or at least the public domain version I watched). We've also got betrayals, backstabbings, deeds to land, a blind hero, and lots, lots of shooting.

There's only one problem with all that shooting. It's bad. Real bad. This will sound somewhat odd, but there is an art to making a believable, somewhat well-choreographed gunfight. This western from director Emimmo Salvi just doesn't have it in it. An opening shootout with a gang of Mexican bandits has Ringo and Frank emptying pistols with unlimited ammo into bandits, then bopping them on their heads with their fists, sticks, rocks, whatever's around. Why don't the bandits shoot back? Most of the gunfights are much worse than that. Ringo shoots and shoots and shoots without reloading, standing unprotected in a street while an army of gunmen shoot back. He of course, is fine. An impressive body count, yes, but some of the most awkward, stagey gunfights I've ever seen in a movie to the point it's laughable to watch.

As I read through the descriptions of the 44 films that are part of my Spaghetti Westerns Collection, I was skeptical here because other than Gordon Mitchell, I knew no one in the cast. No name recognition here although the performances aren't that bad. Hargitay is a little wooden -- like much of the movie -- as Ringo, but he's not bad. Mitchell is a sneering bad guy (SPOILER he ain't all bad, oops!) who doesn't want to betray his old friend. Spartaco Conversi plays Tom, their dim-witted, dynamite-wielding partner. Sannoner looks good while whining and being in distress while Staccioli is the dandy-ish bad guy with Jane's father, Walcom (Amedeo Trilli), is the fellow businessman caught in the middle of the conflict. Margherita Horowitz (where did that name come from?) plays Ringo's mom, Mrs. Carson.

It is a spaghetti western though, and all its oddness and uniqueness is appealing. The score is okay, but the main theme from composer Armando Sciascia is memorable and pretty catchy, give it a listen in the credits sequence below. Ringo's blindness is actually temporary, allowing him to exact revenge at just the right time. Nice, huh? I didn't hate it, but I didn't like this one a whole lot either. The action just gets to be too much in the ridiculous department. Probably for diehard spaghetti western fans only.

3 Bullets for Ringo <---opening credits (1966): **/****

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Knights of the Round Table

King Arthur. Lancelot. Guinevere. The Round Table. One of history's most legendary stories. Everyone is aware of it in some form or another. (Right? Eh, if you haven't, I feel bad for you). This is not a story that's easy to mess up, or so you'd think. A big, flashy Cinemascope movie for MGM, 1953's Knights of the Round Table is a boring, heartless mess. Please keep reading anyways though.

As England tears itself apart with in-fighting, a knight named Lancelot (Robert Taylor) travels the land looking for the legendary knight and fighter, Arthur (Mel Ferrer). While powerful lords fight over the country, Arthur seeks to unite the regions and their people, claiming his right as King of England who pulled the sword Excalibur from the stone. Lancelot and Arthur unite, forming a one-two partnership to lead England to a reign of prosperity. Their opponents won't let anything come easy though, and true love might come between the duo as Lancelot falls in love with Guinevere (Ava Gardner), Arthur's childhood love and wife-to-be.

From director Richard Thorpe, this is a movie intended to be seen on a big, big screen. In 1953, the widescreen format was still in its infancy, but producers, studios and directors intended to blitz viewers with this new format. The screen became literally BIGGER. You could see more, appreciate more, and marvel at what took place on the screen. And looking at this movie that way, it's a success...well sort of. The screen is always full of actors, countless extras and extravagant sets and costumes. That's also the problem. The camera rarely zooms in on faces, keeping at a distance. Outdoor scenes are unnaturally transitioned to obvious, indoor sets. It's jarring sometimes, wasting some of the on-location shooting at Tintagel Castle in England.

Those problems are fixable though, or at least tolerable with the right, correctly-handled movie. Unfortunately, this ain't that movie. With such memorable, interesting characters, I can't think of a more dull story being possible. More on the casting later, but there is absolutely no personality in the story or the characters or anything for that matter. Covering many years without any sense of time passing, a 115-minute long movie feels much longer. Some scenes are meant to impress and dazzle with their scale (a battle populated by hundreds of extras, a wedding festival), and they do a little, but by 2012, I've seen better. It's a cold, heartless movie that I'm assuming was meant to impress an audience. Impress is one thing, interest is another.

With a screenplay from three writers and a story about the legendary King Arthur and the creation of his Round Table, I expected at least a little more from the cast. Maybe it's not their fault as actors, and maybe it's just the lousy script that gives them and the story nothing to do. With the right performance (Devil's Doorway, Savage Pampas), Taylor was a good actor, but he's downright dull as Lancelot. The same for Mr. Wooden, Mel Ferrer. I didn't think it was possible to make King Arthur and Lancelot this boring. Gardner is wasted, a woman torn by her two loves. Stanley Baker is the necessary conniving bad guy with his mother (apparently, I couldn't tell) played by Anne Crawford. Merlin is played by Felix Aylmer with Arthur's knights a faceless bunch that left no impression.

Not much else to rip here. It's a very clean, manicured Arthurian time with immaculately suits of armor and duded-up horses. I was bored from the start, and things don't pick up at any point along the way. Steer clear of this one.

Knights of the Round Table <---TCM trailer/clips (1953): */****

Monday, October 15, 2012

Age of Heroes

Long before he was the famous author of the James Bond series, Ian Fleming was an officer with Naval Intelligence during World War II. Kinda puts that whole 007 and its background into perspective, don't it? Telling the story (at least partially) of Fleming's involvement with a unit that would become known as No. 30 Commando comes 2011's Age of Heroes.

It's 1940 as England and the Allies tries to slow down the surging German attacks all over Europe. One key problem facing the Allies is the advanced radar capabilities the Germans have, resulting in horrific casualties for Allied fliers on missions flying over Europe. Major Jack Jones (Sean Bean) has been tasked with helping fix that problem. The veteran commando will lead a small 8-man team into Norway, trekking across the mountains to a German radar installation believed to have the newest radar available. Their mission? Recon the technology/equipment but make it look like a mission designed to destroy the installation and nothing else.

Released in theaters in England in 2011, 'Heroes' not surprisingly did not get a theatrical release in the U.S. It has the distinct feel of a straight-to-DVD movie, but never in a bad way. Filmed in Norway with a primarily Norwegian crew, it is a small scale story that doesn't feel limited by its budget or lack of stars. WWII fans will no doubt enjoy it. Think a cross-breed between The Heroes of Telemark, The Dirty Dozen, and Objective Burma!, and you've got this movie. It feels familiar from the start, playing on the genre conventions of the unit picture or the men on a mission movie. Original? Not particularly, but I enjoyed it a lot.

A star on HBO's Game of Thrones, Bean hasn't been in a whole lot of mainstream movies over the last few years, and he's the only recognizable face here. Sidenote: he looks odd, especially his eyes...end of sidenote. He's a solid choice to play the lead here, the veteran commando who must put together a team for his dangerous mission in German-held territory. His team includes Rains (Danny Dyer), a soldier brought up on charges looking to right previous wrongs, Steinar (Aksel Hennie), an American officer with a Norwegian background along as a guide, Mackenzie (scene-stealing William Houston, doing a Connery impression sounds like), the foul-mouthed, tough-as-nails sergeant, Rollright (John Dagleish), the radar specialist, and Brightling, (Stephen Walters), the small in stature commando who's worked with Jones. James D'Arcy has a small but worthwhile part as Lt. Commander Ian Fleming while Izabella Miko plays Jensen, the team's resistance contact in Norway.

Following the formula for a men on a mission movie, this WWII story doesn't deviate much from the accepted way of doing things. Show the commando team training, get to know the commandos, reveal the mission, and then let the bullets fly. The pre-credits sequence is pretty cool, introducing us to Dyer's Cpl. Bob Rains as he tries to get his men out of Dunkirk, explaining how he ends up in a military prison. Once the mission is presented, the training sequence is highly entertaining due mostly to Houston's Sgt. Mackenzie berating the men (with their best interests at heart at least). The mission itself is where the action is, an attack on the installation high up in the snow-covered mountains on a pitch black night. Not surprisingly, it doesn't go exactly to plan, forcing Jones and Co. to improvise on the run.

For no real reason other than it reminded me of so many 1960s WWII movies I love, I really liked 'Heroes.' It is a movie that would be more comfortable in the 1950s and 1960s than a 2011 release, but who cares? While it isn't a WWII commando story on a huge scale, it does what it's supposed to. The characters are cool and likable -- especially Bean, Dyer and Houston -- and the action isn't that cheesy low-budget shootouts that are laughable. Nothing flashy, but it gets the job done.

Age of Heroes <---trailer (2011): ***/****

Friday, October 12, 2012

Che: Part II

So where were we? Ah, yes, wrapping up director Steven Soderbergh's two-part historical epic about infamous revolutionary Che Guevara. My issues with 2008's Che: Part II are much the same as the ones I had with the first part. Interesting to watch, but in deciding not to take sides or pick a message, it remains a cold, even heartless movie.

It is 1965, six years since the successful Cuban Revolution overthrew the dictator and his government, and Ernesto 'Che' Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) is heading to Bolivia. After failed revolutionary ventures in Venezuela and the Congo, Guevara now hopes to lead another revolution, getting the poor lower class to depose a government that has become a military dictatorship. Driven by his ideals and beliefs from deep inside, Che starts from the ground up with a small group of like-minded fighters. Nothing comes easy though, and the walls begin to close in on Che and his followers.

Having watched Soderbergh's epic -- a total of 4 hours and 30 minutes -- I came away both impressed and disappointed. As moviegoers, we just don't see ventures like this anymore in films (in theaters at least). Soderbergh has made a true epic, one in principle at least that is reminiscent of such epics from the 1950s and 1960s. Principle and little else though unfortunately. Positives aside, I think Soderbergh made a fatal flaw in not choosing to take a side...even if it was a measured attempt. The fly-on-the-wall, quasi-documentary style is effective to a point, but not nearly as effective as it could have been. The story moves along from date to date (thanks to an abundance of title cards), but it feels like major chunks are missing.

This will sound ridiculous, but I've never seen a movie this long (Che: Part I and II) that had so little going on. It can be difficult to sit through some of these slow-moving portions, and there's plenty. Repetitious comes to mind. Countless shots of Che's followers traversing through the jungle, talking at their night camps, quick firefights with the Bolivian army. This is where a message would have been helpful. We know Che's objective; defeat the government, leading an uprising that will unite the Bolivian people. Other than a few brief asides as we meet some Bolivian peasants, the focus is on Che's efforts. I feel like I'm not doing a great job explaining myself, and my frustration is getting the best of me so I'm moving along.

What does work? The darkness. The sense of doom hovering over Che. Part I had some humorous -- if dark -- moments, but there is none of that here. Also from the word 'Go,' we see that Che's Bolivian efforts will go for naught. His men argue over food, over working rather than fighting, and that the Bolivian people will not back him. Seeing him try to counter and combat those efforts produces some of the more dramatic moments. Del Toro again is solid as Che. It's such a quiet, understated performance that it's hard to judge to harshly or too glowingly. The film is a visual stunner, contrasting the deep, vivid colors of the towns and villages with the harsh, washed-out feel of the mountains. Alberto Iglesias' score is again a winner, a bright spot in the slower moments.

Beyond Del Toro though, no one stands out in the supporting cast. Demian Bichir returns briefly as Fidel Castro as does Catalina Sandino Moreno as Alieda, Che's wife, and Rodrigo Santoro as Raul, Fidel's brother. As far as Che's followers go, the movie swings and misses. We hear countless names but learn nothing about any of them. They're the same sea of faces covered by unkempt facial hair and green uniforms and caps. They make no impact, lessening any degree of effectiveness the movie is shooting for when they are eventually killed. Franka Potente plays Tania, a loyal follower of Che's, while Joaquim de Almeida plays Bolivian president/dictator Rene Barrientos. Jordi Molla and Yul Vazquez are effective in small parts as officers leading the hunt for Che. Also look for Lou Diamond Phillips and Matt Damon in small, one-scene parts.

A ton of potential here, especially considering Soderbergh takes an honest, un-opinionated look at the life and death of such a divisive individual as Che Guevara. I came away feeling untouched though. When Che is finally captured and executed, the scene had no emotional impact on me in the least. Do I feel for him? Do I hate him? Instead, there's nothing, and that's never a good sign. I come away disappointed. I wanted to enjoy these more, but with no message or objective, we get four-plus hours of tedium. There are positives, but you have to find them amongst a sea of negatives.

Che: Part Two <---trailer (2008): ** 1/2 /****    

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Che: Part One

Few historical figures stir up as much as controversy as revolutionary Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, an Argentinian man who fought with Fidel Castro in the Cuban revolution. Some look at him as an idealist revolutionary, someone to look up to for having fought oppression. Others look to him as a murderer, an individual one step above the dirt. Any movie about Che's life is then taking on quite a mission. Here's the review of the first half of director Steven Soderbergh's two-part movie about the infamous revolutionary, 2008's Che: Part One.

Working with fellow revolutionaries in 1956 Mexico, Ernesto Guevara (Benicio Del Toro), known as Che to his friends, has become fast friends with Fidel Castro (Demian Bichir), a Cuban national hoping to overthrow the oppressive Batista regime. With a group of just 80 followers, Castro and Guevara sail for Cuba, hoping to start a revolution from the ground up. The effort is slow and plodding, but they begin to see results. The cause grows and expands as more Cubans come to fight with the revolutionaries trying to overthrow not just the actual government, but the idea of what the government has become. Months and years pass, but the cause seemingly cannot be stopped with Havana and Batista as the end-game.

How do you start an argument online? Form an opinion, publish it in some way and let people immediately say 'No, you're wrong.' No movie about a divisive individual such as Che Guevara will please everyone. I've long been fascinated by the man without knowing much about him, but an IMDB poster of all people made an interesting point of all place (go figure). Some portray Che as good, others as bad. Wouldn't it make sense then that he was somewhere in between? Soderbergh leans more toward a positive portrayal (through Part 1 at least), but more than positive or negative, I think the objective was to show Guevara as a human being. He's not scum of the Earth, nor is he a perfect individual without flaws. He is a person if a somewhat idealistic individual.

As far as actors currently working in Hollywood go, I'm hard pressed to come up with too many that are better than Benicio Del Toro. His performance -- like the film itself -- as Che is a veritable minefield. There is no way to play this man without stirring up emotions, both positive and negative, among moviegoers. Soderbergh's film (through the 1st part at least) didn't seem too interested in taking a judgmental stance one way or another so Del Toro just gets to play the man. He is intelligent, well-spoken, a quiet but highly effective leader, and a man obsessed with revolution (and it doesn't hurt that Del Toro physically is a spot-on match for Che). In the process he performs actions that even now are controversial. It's an effective part if not a great part. Again, I come back to the movie on the whole, not just his performance.

Soderbergh's intention doesn't seem to be vilifying or making Guevara a hero. That's good. On the other hand, it doesn't take much of a stance at all. It feels instead like a fly on the wall documentary. Brief snippets/asides try to illustrate the bigger picture -- Castro, Cuba, Batista, the U.S. involvement -- but it is handled so quickly that it doesn't leave an impression at all. At 136 minutes, the movie is sometimes tedious and repetitious. It is a story about the growing Cuban revolution, and what do we see? Lots of jungle scenes, lots of walking through jungle scenes, lots of Che and his fellow officers addressing revolutionaries about their effort. Maybe Soderbergh just wanted to bring to life the revolution without trying to shove a message down our throats, but having no message at all doesn't work as well as it could have been.

Now those are all issues that I had with the movie, but there were positives, including Del Toro's performance. Soderbergh is a talented director to begin with, and when I think of his movies I think of style. A real-life style, a flair. 'Che' uses a framing device of Guevara visiting New York City and delivering a speech at the United Nations in 1964, the story bouncing between the visit and the fighting in Cuba between 1956-1959. The NYC scenes are shot in a grainy black and white, the Cuban jungle in vivid colors. Title cards introduce locations and times, and Soderbergh's camera always makes it a visually interesting movie to watch if not necessarily a story-driven interesting. Composer Albeto Iglesias' score is a gem, covering multiple genres and types of music that fit the story perfectly. Stylistically, 'Che' is an unquestioned winner.

Because of the almost free-flowing, story-less plot, the characters drift in and out, limiting their effectiveness. Bichir as Castro is a high point, more fiery and outwardly emotional in his revolutionary methods (if equally driven) as Che is. Catalina Sandino Moreno plays Aleida, a young revolutionary who joins the fighting as a guide for Che as the fighting nears Cuba's major cities. Rodrigo Santoro, Edgar Ramirez, and Santiago Cabrera play some of Che's fellow officers and revolutionaries, all with the potential for cool characters, but they end up being interchangeable. Also look for Julia Ormond as an American journalist interviewing Che during his NYC visit. This is definitely Del Toro's movie though.

Certain moments are highly effective, much of them coming late as Batista's regime starts to crumble. A half-hour plus is spent on the vicious street fighting in Santa Clara, and these battle sequences are effective in their reality. Cases of handfuls of revolutionaries fighting handfuls of army soldiers in the empty streets is tense and uncomfortable. The movie on the whole though is hit or miss with its fair share of flaws that I hope Part II fixes some. Review to come in a day or so.

Che: Part One <---trailer (2008): ** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Jeff, Who Lives At Home

An indie comedy with a quirky side if there ever was, 2011's Jeff, Who Lives At Home was made for about $10 million (where that money went I can't figure out) and made a little over $4 million. This was not a movie that was meant to make a whole lot of money though. Just sit back and enjoy this one, a solid, ultra-quirky comedy that avoids being too cute.

A 30-year old without a job, Jeff (Jason Segel) lives at home with his mom, Sharon (Susan Sarandon), in her basement, rarely venturing outside. Jeff is looking for answers about life of some sort, looking for a connection between possibly very different events. On this day, all he has to do is complete a simple errand for his mom, but it ain't going to be that easy. On his way to the store, Jeff takes a detour that will take him away from his seemingly simple objective. Along the way, he'll continually run into his brother, Pat (Ed Helms), who's wondering if his wife is cheating on him, and Sharon will have to deal with a secret admirer at work. Maybe....just maybe, those three paths will cross.

I will say this and get it out of the way. I completely understand the people/viewers/critics who didn't like this flick. Jeff is a huge fan of the M. Night Shyamalan flick, Signs, a story with seemingly random events that end up meaning something in the finale. Jeff is looking for those type of answers. Why does stuff happen in life? Are we drifting along aimlessly, deciding or our own fate, or is there a deeper purpose? Because of that, the story has its fair share of coincidences along the way. Jeff runs into Pat out of the blue on several different occasions, Pat runs into his wife, Linda (Judy Greer), by dumb luck. In bringing it all together, it can get a little cutesy at times.

Go figure then because I liked it. I understand the cutesy factor, but it never goes too far for me. I tend to disagree with the basic assumption that everything is connected, or that something happens because it "should" happen. But avoiding the whole 'let's not get too philosophical' thing here -- fate, destiny, predestination -- I went along for the ride. It's entertaining/interesting seeing Jeff looking for those answers. Early in the morning -- the whole story takes place over a single day -- he receives a wrong number call, an angry man asking for "bleeping Kevin." Jeff spends much of the rest of the day trying to find an odd connection to a 'Kevin,' and wouldn't you know it? There is a connection in a surprisingly moving ending.

With three key lead performances, Segel, Helms and Sarandon don't disappoint. I'm a fan of Segel from How I Met Your Mother (among other shows), but I very much liked his titular character, Jeff. It would be easy to dislike him -- a 30-year old jobless man with no real motivation -- but Segel is so realistically endearing that I couldn't help but like him as he searches for the universe's answers. Helms does a good job early making Pat about as idiotic/moronic as possible, but the character comes around, especially in his scenes with Jeff as his predicament develops. Sarandon's performance is fine, but the story/character arc is pretty lousy on the ridiculous meter. Greer is a scene-stealer as Pat's wife and also look for Rae Dawn Chong as one of Sharon's co-workers.

Not much else to add here. I don't think there's going to be much middle ground here. Like it or hate it, and it's going to depend on whether you can go along with the story. I didn't think I would, but it's that type of quirky, but low-key, character driven story that I liked a lot. And if you don't? It's 82 minutes long and doesn't overstay its welcome.

Jeff, Who Lives At Home <---trailer (2011): ***/***

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Fighting 69th

A famous military unit -- the 69th New York --, the most decorated cleric in U.S. military history -- Father Francis Duffy -- and a movie star at the height of his game. Throw those three things together and what do you get? A sometimes overdone, mostly effective and definitely a product of its time, 1940's The Fighting 69th.

As the United States enters the fighting in 1917 in World War I, units are assembled all over the country, including the 69th New York, a regiment dating back to its fighting with the Union in the Civil War. At the head of the unit is Major Wild Bill Donovan (George Brent) who intends to shape up his regiment composed almost entirely of Irishmen from all over the state, and he does so with the help of Catholic priest Father Duffy (Pat O'Brien). Among the new recruits though is a troublemaker, Jerry Plunkett (James Cagney), a spark plug of a man with no real regard for authority who only wants to get to Europe and kill his fair share of Germans.

From director William Keighley, this 1940 war picture rises above a fair share of limitations while using the concept of a 'unit picture' as a jumping off point. It takes a group of men -- in this case the very Irish 69th New York -- and takes us through their training and/or bonding, deployment in war, and then the actual battles. Even with a 1940 release, 'Fighting' does a good job portraying the horrors of WWI. Trench warfare produced some of the nastiest fighting the world has ever seen, and it's easy to see why here. Certain shots and scenes stuck with me, including close-up shots of feet walking by the crude wooden crosses marking muddy graves, the shots of terror of artillery raining down on men in trenches, and of course the suicidal charges across no man's land into German machine guns.

Very much an established star by 1940, Cagney is both good and bad here. At times, he resorts back to stereotypical Cagney; loud and aggressive, boisterous because he can be, annoying to the point you want to rip your ears off and punch him in the face. Other times? You admire the character he's created; a blowhard of a man who really isn't all that confident but puts up a false front just the same. The antics become a little too much at times to the point it feels like the movie is just piling on. Whether or not you'll be able to enjoy this movie will no doubt revolve around being able to sift through the grating at times to get through to the real performance. In the end, it's worth it.

A solid supporting cast backs Cagney up. One thing I can say as an Irishman....don't mess with the Irish. Portraying the real-life hero Father Duffy, O'Brien delivers a saintly performance, one meant to honor the famous priest. No flaws, no mistakes, just a hero. It's an okay performance if laid on a little thick. Brent is all right as Donovan, the stiff-jawed commander of the 69th. Alan Hale is very good as Sgt. Wynn, the drill sergeant trying to toughen up his men while Jeffrey Lynn is a scene-stealer as Sgt. Joyce Kilmer, a poet/writer who should be an officer and leader, not just a little Indian. Also look for a grating comedic performance from Frank McHugh, Dennis Morgan as the selfless Lt. Ames, and Guinn Williams as Pvt. Dolan, the sort-of slow but well-meaning brute of a soldier. 

Without any real sense of subtlety, 'Fighting' tried its best to drive me nuts, and there were parts I just couldn't stand. The brawling Irishmen, the very broad humor, the antics from Plunkett, they all tried to make this a difficult movie to enjoy. But in the end, I was very moved by the finale (and that's knowing what's coming if you've got two working brain cells). Even then, the battle scenes go too far, Cagney's Plunkett sending mortars at a German position with cries of "That's for Brooklyn!" or "Take that, you Krauts!" but it still manages to be effective. There's that part of me that wants to rip this movie, but I just can't too much. I liked it almost in spite of itself. Maybe it's the Irish in me.

The Fighting 69th <---trailer (1940): ***/****

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Stone Killer

The pairing of star Charles Bronson and director Michael Winner is no doubt best remembered for their 1974 film, Death Wish. Lost in the shuffle of the endless if entertaining sequels is that it's a pretty decent movie. The duo had worked together three times prior since 1972 though, including 1973's The Stone Killer, an interesting comparison piece compared to Death Wish. 

Police Lieutenant Lou Torrey (Bronson) is interested in results and little else. He doesn't care how or why it got done. Cases need to get solved, crooks need to be put away. Torrey is bounced from his NYPD precinct and moves west, taking a job on the L.A. police department. Transporting a murder suspect from NYC to L.A., Torrey barely survives a hit attempt, the suspect killed by a drive-by shooter. Torrey thinks back on what happened. The suspect talked -- at the time nonsensically -- of a coming hit. Could the man have been onto something? Torrey begins to investigate, and the clues lead right to the top of the Mafia.

I've mentioned this before. Crime thrillers from the 1970s have a certain charm that you're either going to love or hate with very little middle ground. They can be low-brow, aggressively violent, sexually suggestive (usually pretty obviously), and in general.....just a hell of a lot of fun to watch. That's what you will be getting here with this Bronson-Winner pairing. Bouncing back and forth between NYC and L.A., the story never slows down as Bronson's Torrey gets deeper into the case. The soundtrack from Roy Budd is an odd mix of jazz and funk (listen HERE), but it works in a ridiculous way. That low-budget, gritty, dirty feel permeates the story -- for the better -- and even when it's not a "good" movie, it's still highly entertaining.

Based off a book by John Gardner (with maybe the best title ever) titled 'A Complete State of Death,' 'Stone' gets some points for originality. Released the year after the classic The Godfather, there are similar/familiar touches of that mobster story. It was hard for every mob movie made after 1972 not to have at least some hints of it. The touches are there, but 'Stone' also has a unique streak. Martin Balsam plays Al Vescari, a Sicilian mobster with quite a bit of power who intends to exact some long-awaited revenge. His plan? Recruit disillusioned Vietnam vets with clean records, and train them to lead the assault on a mob war across the country. It's a cool gimmick, and one that's fun to watch.

Oh, Mr. Bronson, you're pretty cool, aren't you? By 1973, Charles Bronson was typically playing the same character over and over again. That's far from a bad thing. He's perfect at the stoic, silent anti-hero. His Torrey is fed up with all the protocols and rules that limit his effectiveness, and basically, he just doesn't care. He will get the job done no matter how brutal his tactics are. Like many of his parts, he gets to throw a couple wisecracks here and there, and genuinely looks like he's having fun. Considering the part he would play a year later in Death Wish, it's hard not to smile at his Torrey who is basically Paul Kersey with a badge. Also look for 1970s familiar faces Jack Colvin, Stuart Margolin, Paul Koslo, Norman Fell, Ralph Waite and a young John Ritter as a beat cop on the investigation.

In his 1970s flicks, Winner had a formula, and he sticks to it here. Action, action, right, action. In a 91-minute movie, he packs it in at an almost frenetic pace. An opening chase in an NYC apartment is quick and to the point to get things going. A mid-movie chase with Torrey (in a boat of a car) chasing Paul Koslo (on a motorcycle) is priceless, a true gem in the ridiculous department with Torrey's car seemingly indestructible. Watch it HERE. A final showdown at the desert hideout of the Mafia army is a solid finish as well, an entertaining finish for an entertaining movie. I know it's far from a classic, and maybe it's just a bad movie, but I liked it a lot. Watch the entire movie HERE at Youtube.

The Stone Killer <---clip (1973): ***/****  

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Last of Sheila

Whodunit?!? Was it the suspicious relative who stands to earn millions of dollars on someone's death? Was it a hired gun? Oh, the murder mystery, where you can throw a long list of characters/suspects into  one story, and let the chaos ensue. There are comedies like Clue, dramas like Murder on the Orient Express, and somewhere in between the two genres, 1973's The Last of Sheila.

It has been a full year since the death by hit-and-run of the wife of powerful Hollywood producer Clinton Green (James Coburn), and he's got a plan. Green has invited six friends of both his and his dead wife to a week-long vacation in the Mediterranean on his expansive yacht. All of them with different motivations and reasonings, they all agree. Green has a complicated scavenger hunt for them that will take them to six different ports, all to see who can figure out the end game first. But as the clues come together, the guests begin to realize there may be something more sinister going on.

For the last couple of years, I've been aware of this 1973 murder mystery with a touch of comedy amidst a much darker undertone. I'll get into it more in a bit, but the star power is impressive so it would be hard to completely miss it. From writers Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins (yes, the actor) comes a script that is very smart, very clever and very entertaining. The game turns into a genuine mystery as a second murder comes into question. It's fast paced though, and the first hour is basically perfect as clues start to come together about what exactly Green is up to.

And what is his plan? The Hollywood producer has issued each of his guests a notecard with a single message; "I am a....." They seem like personality traits taken from the ether, but the guests begin to figure out that Green has identified very specific traits from each of his guests, one more embarrassing than the others. One clue is the worst though. "I am a hit and run killer." Does Clinton Green hope to reveal the identify of his wife's murderer? The scavenger hunt provides two great mood-setting scenes, equal parts dark humor and then just plain old darkness. It's clever without being too clever, and in tone alone, it's different from basically any other murder mystery I've ever seen. Win-win.

Now onto that cast, and no James Coburn is not the only star. This is a part that's pitch perfect for him. He's likable, he's charming, and he's an a-hole. His Clinton Green knows how to get under someone's skin like he's being paid to do it. By the 1970s, Coburn seemed to specialize in these amoral characters with questionable....well, everything. Green lures his guests in with the promise of possibly producing a movie about his wife, and he wants them all involved. There's Tom (Richard Benjamin), a screenwriter fallen on tough times, and his wife, Lee (Joan Hackett), Christine (Dyan Cannon), a talent agent who's had a relationship with Clinton in the past, Philip (James Mason), a director now forced to direct TV commercials, and Anthony (Ian McShane), an assistant/agent for his movie star wife, Alice (Raquel Welch). Not a weak performance in the bunch.

From here on in, I continue admitting that I liked this movie a lot and will give it a positive rating. But following my enjoyment from the first hour, I didn't go along as much for the second hour. The story takes a very surprising twist around the 60-70 minute mark that I didn't see coming in the least. The remainder of the story twists, turns, veers, U-turns and brakes all over the place. It all comes together in a long, detailed and fast-moving scene late as everything comes together, but all I could think was that I was missing something. Definitely an ending (and its build-up) that would probably improve on multiple viewings. I'll add it to the list, but for now, I very much enjoyed my first viewing. Above average murder mystery.

The Last of Sheila <---trailer (1973): ***/****