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, April 30, 2013

Taken 2

As far as action movies go, 2008's Taken was pretty decent. Some surprisingly effective casting, an impressive body count, and European locations provided quite the formula for success. A hit with audiences, it not surprisingly produced, what else? A sequel, an unnecessary repetitive one at that. Oh, boy, here we go with 2012's Taken 2.

Having rescued his daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), from sex traffickers and the Albanian mob in Europe, former CIA specialist Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) is back in Los Angeles working as a security official for all sorts of international types. He's grown closer to Kim since the rescue, and is even on good terms with ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen). The relationship is good enough that Kim and Lenore visit Bryan after he finishes a job in Istanbul, a hopefully relaxing trip. Not so fast. The Albanian gangsters who he dispatched saving his daughter have organized and want nothing more than exacting revenge for their fallen comrades, especially mafioso Murad Krasniqi (Rade Serbedzija). All the underworld is looking for Bryan, and Murad and his army of vengeful mobsters are closing in. Can Bryan save his family from a brutal death?

I've had this conversation with my aunt several times before, and I keep coming back to the same thing. She questions why Neeson takes these more commercial (some would say dumb) action movies as opposed to showing off his acting chops. I love Neeson in either so let's say this; Liam Neeson is cooler than you. He's cooler than me. There aren't many people who can keep up with him in terms of pure badass-ness (Yes, I'm making up words again). Seeing him as a brutally capable CIA operative has been my biggest reasoning for checking out both movies, and he doesn't disappoint. He's more than believable as Mills, trained and ready to use a very unique set of skills to get some very dangerous missions done. Above all else, it's fun to see Neeson in these more commercial parts.

Unfortunately though, having watched this unnecessary sequel, I'm forced to say that Neeson is one of the only good things about this flick. Having written and directed the first movie, Luc Besson only writes this one, passing off the directing reins to Olivier Megaton. Did he not like his script? I certainly didn't. It comes across as both lazy and rushed at the same time. Take away the closing credits, and it only runs 86 minutes. Not bad for an action movie? You'd think, but the first half hour plays like an after school special about a single dad looking out for his daughter -- who has a new boyfriend (Luke Grimes) -- while also trying to get ex-wife Lenore through some difficult times in her second marriage. Who cares?!? Let's get to Neeson killing nameless bad guys! The final scene actually has Neeson, Grace, Janssen and Grimes sitting at an ice cream parlor laughing it up over.....I don't know, something amusing.

I'm not against all sequels when handled correctly. Take the characters and situation we like, and develop something, add something new. Don't settle for the same old, same old. So it doesn't seem like I'm completely ripping this one, '2' does try something new. What is that you ask? Take what made the first one entertaining, and pack it into about 48 minutes of non-stop action. By my count, Bryan and Lenore are kidnapped, but everything is righted and back to normal within an hour or two in real-time. Escaping from the Albanians (Oh, no, quasi-spoilers!), he finds Kim and manages to re-find the place within maybe 12 minutes. He chases some Albanians, some Albanians chase him, usually meeting a graphic PG-13 ending, and then -- as mentioned -- Bryan and family go out for some well-deserved ice cream. It is fun to watch because it plays so quickly, never slowing down, but that doesn't mean it's even remotely good.

As for that action, '2' continues to use the ultra-fast, hyper-kinetic editing that makes the actual action pretty much indecipherable. What exactly is the point? Do producers/directors/editors/studios think this looks cool? It never did. Slow things down, and actually let the viewing audience see all the cool fight moves, not a blur that's gone in a second. Oh, and in the criminally underused department, Leland Orser, Jon Gries, and D.B. Sweeney play Bryan's former C.I.A. cohorts. They're introduced -- just like in the original -- but do absolutely nothing except for a horrifically stupid scene late in the movie.

Beyond all the dumb choices in storyline and over-edited action, I think this is a movie that is simply stupid. It reminded me of The Expendables I and II, movies interested in nothing other than action. Scene transitions, explanations, all those good little things that average movies take advantage of are brushed off to the side here. At one point, Bryan literally disappears from a car while cornered. There is no physical way for him to have escaped sight unseen other than he's really cool and has cool guy skills. Later, Bryan and Kim crash through the security gate at the American Embassy in Istanbul. Bryan calls Orser's Sam and tells him to call the Embassy and tell them not to shoot him and Kim. That's dumb in itself, but when we next see Bryan? He's hunting Albanians again. The movie is in too much of a rush to even show how him and Kim got out of that sticky situation in a freaking heavily guarded American Embassy. Dumb much?

Okay, I'm surprising myself here. I'm disliking this movie more and more as I write this review. Neeson is cool, but it's just not very good. And come on, are you telling me that Kim, survivor of almost being a sex slave, would be so willing to go back to international travel? Eh, that's just one apparently minor complaint I had for a pretty bad movie. Ouch, this one lands with a thud. Oh, Istanbul looks cool so there's a positive.

Taken 2 (2012): */****  

Monday, April 29, 2013

Navy Seals

The Navy Seals have gotten a lot of publicity over the last few years, most of it positive. Seal Team 6 led the assault that ultimately killed Osama bin Laden, and then saw their mission get a big screen treatment in Zero Dark Thirty. Just last year, Act of Valor was released in theaters, a great action movie starring real-life seals as themselves. Those are pretty good movies though. How about some oh so bad guilty pleasure flick? Enter stage right, 1990's Navy Seals.

Trying to rescue American pilots taken hostage by extremist terrorists, veteran Navy Seal Lt. James Curran (Michael Biehn) leads his Seal team into a heavily guarded terrorist hideout and executes the mission. During the mission though, his right hand man, Lt. Dale Hawkins (Charlie Sheen), discovers a warehouse full of Stinger missiles, accurate handheld American surface-to-air missiles. Under heavy fire though, the Seals can't destroy the missiles and must leave for their extract point. The missiles remain a high objective though, but the trail goes cold except for a link to an unknown terrorist, Ben Shaheed (Nicholas Kadi). Curran follows a lead in a Lebanese journalist (Joanne Whalley) who has ties and sources in the Middle East. Can they find Ben Shaheed, his extremist followers and their extremely dangerous missiles before they're put into use?

Released in 1990, 'Seals' barely recouped its budget, making about $25 million before finding popularity on home video. It was almost universally panned by critics and is currently rocking a sterling 5.2 IMDB rating. So why then do I like it so much? The only real response I can come up with is that it's a bad movie, and it embraces the badness. The complaints are ridiculous. Sheen and Biehn's hair doesn't fly with Navy regulation. The script is pretty lousy, relying on cliches and stereotypes with just about each passing scene. The one-liners are beyond goofy. Not one of those complaints is unfair in the least. They're all quite legit. It's a pretty stupid movie, and you know what? It's the better for it. 'Seals' tries to entertain, and it never lets us down as an audience in that way.

Part of the fun comes from the casting. An underrated star of the 1980s, Biehn is all business, no nonsense as Lt. Curran, the tough as nails Seal team leader. His second-in-command is Sheen's Lt. Hawkins, a crazy thrill seeker who pushes it too far at times in getting his "rush" on. There's a solid, enjoyable dynamic between the two as they butt heads over how to get things done. Curran's team includes Leary (Rick Rossovich, another 80s icon in Top Gun), the corpsman, Rexer (Cyril O'Reilly), explosives, Dane (Bill Paxton), the sniper, Graham (Dennis Haysbert), the team chief, and Ramos (Paul Sanchez), the interpreter. The only real development any of them are given is Graham getting a fiance story (a pre-Law and Order S. Epatha Merkerson), but that's beyond the point. This is a men-on-a-mission movie at its best (and worst I suppose).

At its heart, this is an action movie pure and simple. A movie running 113-minutes never goes too long without some shootouts and pyrotechnics. The opening raid on the terrorist port hideout is a great scene-setter for what's to come. In an episodic story that has the Seals moving from location to location, we never stay in one place more than a few minutes. Mission after mission, some quick and hard-hitting, others a little more drawn out and allowed to breathe. The finale when Curran's team tracks down the Stinger missiles is not surprisingly the best. The Seals must fight their way through the bombed-out, war-torn streets of Beirut in Lebanon in the night. It's a tense scene with a more than solid payoff as the surviving Seals (Yes, there are casualties) race through the streets with heavily armed terrorists behind them in hot pursuit. Sure, the action is a tad overdone at times, but it's fun stuff.

This is a dudes being dudes movie. You don't go into it for the dialogue scenes between Biehn's Curran and Whalley's comely journalist. You go into it for the action and ridiculousness in director Lewis Teague's shootout-heavy flick. Where else can you see a goofy 1980s-esque montage with the Seals goofing around on a golf course to an awful cover of the Boys Are Back in Town? Cheesy soundtrack in general in a movie that won't strain any brain cells. An introduction has Sheen's Hawkins jumping off a bridge out of a moving jeep to avoid going to a fellow Seal's wedding. How stupidly over the top is that? But that's the movie. Entertaining at times in spite of itself, it's a movie released in 1990 that might as well be considered as a schlocky 1980s flick. Whatever and whenever it was released, it's a good one that's oh so bad.   

Navy Seals (1990): ***/****

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Raw Edge

When I think of westerns, I think of isolated windswept towns, lonely deserts, and far-off mountain ranges. Thank the spaghetti western genre for that one. It's always nice to see a change of pace though, like 1956's Raw Edge, a quasi-western based in 1840s Oregon.

It's 1842 in the wild Oregon territory, and Tex Kirby (Rory Calhoun) is looking to meet up with his brother (John Gavin) and work his ranch together. Upon arriving though, Tex finds his brother hung by a lynch mob, his Indian wife, Paca (Mara Corday), missing, and the ranch in ruins. Who's behind it? A local ranch owner, Montgomery (Herbert Rudley), rules the territory with an iron fist including a bizarre rule concerning any single women in the area. Supposedly Tex's brother was in his way, but now he's looking for answers. Tex finds himself in a situation deeper and darker than he expected, especially with Montgomery's wife, Hannah (Yvonne De Carlo), becoming an issue too. All around the valley though, an Indian war party threatens to attack, smoke signals hanging in the air.

This is not the typical desert western, that's a good thing. Not only is it set in Oregon, it is based in 1840s Oregon long before the typical wild west movie (usually after the Civil War). It was actually filmed in the San Bernardino National Forest, a more than worthy stand-in as a location shoot. Similar to the desert westerns, there's an isolated claustrophobia to the story. One town dots the territory, then there's Montgomery's forted-up, walled ranch, and last his mountain camp. The forest and woods hide all sorts of trouble, and the San Bernardino forest is a beautiful backdrop to the 1840s story.

From director John Sherwood, 'Raw' has a surprisingly dark story. It starts with a truly odd opening monologue that claims to be historically accurate, but who knows for sure? It says that in 1840s Oregon a man -- supposedly Montgomery -- ruled the region and mandated that single women -- A-N-Y single woman -- can be scooped up by any man who wants to take her as his wife. It provides an interesting subplot with Corday's Paca, a young Indian woman who married Tex's brother. The scene where the lynch mob hangs her husband is spooky and unsettling, certain members of the lynch mob leaving the hanging and turning their attention to the beautiful Paca. It develops later with Hannah, Montgomery's wife, as some of his men plan what to do with her should Montgomery not be in the picture anymore.

I liked that darkness that 'Raw' offers. Calhoun is the heroic lead, but his Tex is gunning for revenge and little else. Again, I liked Calhoun a lot, a prime example of a worthy lead in countless B-westerns in the 1950s who never became a huge star. De Carlo is very good too as Hannah, a beautiful wife who looks out for herself when she realizes her situation is not as ideal as she would have liked. Rudley is a good if underused villain with his henchmen leaving more of an impression, including Tarp (Neville Brand), Pop (Emile Meyer), Tarp's equally sinister father, and Sile (Robert J. Wilke), who takes Paca as his own wife. There's also Randolph (Rex Reason), a gentlemanly gambler who pits everyone against each other for his own betting profit, only to have a change of heart late. There are no real heroes here, just less bad heroes, and that's pretty cool to see in a 1956 western.

Seeing all these characters working toward their own greedy/selfish motives provides plenty of fireworks, but it takes a little too long getting there. With a 75-minute movie, that's not a good thing. While I enjoyed the entire movie, the first 45 minutes are too slow with too much talking and not enough action. The last 30 minutes pick up the pace as the Indian attack looms closer and closer. Good B-western, nothing great with solid casting and a change of pace location. Check out the movie at the link below.

Raw Edge (1956): ** 1/2 /****

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Master

If this sounds pretentious, so be it, I believe it to be true. Some directors make films, not movies, and Paul Thomas Anderson certainly applies under that distinction. These aren't movies you sit back and laugh at or even simply enjoy. There's supposed to be something more. Maybe we're not supposed to enjoy them at all, just appreciate them. That's where I sit now having watched Anderson's 2012 film The Master.

A Navy veteran who served in the Pacific during World War II, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) wanders aimlessly with his life. He moves from job to job, fired by one or forced to leave by others. Running from one job to the next with no sense or purpose or future, Freddie stumbles onto the boat of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a well-to-do middle-aged man who most definitely knows his own purpose. Dodd has started The Cause, a movement that encourages its believers and followers to expand their minds and what they think they know. Freddie is instantly drawn to Lancaster, and the feeling is mutual. These two vastly different people have a common bond, a link somehow. Freddie starts to travel with Dodd's Cause movement, but those around Dodd start to question Freddie's motives, even fearing his violent outburst, and also begin to question what Dodd hopes to achieve himself?

Other film reviewers I trust and respect generally liked this movie while some even loved it. I came away.....disappointed. I say this for one, because I had extremely high expectations. Two, I thought the first hour (maybe a little longer) is a nearly perfect start. I was curious, fascinated, disgusted, and I wanted to see where it went. Then something changed in a huge way. Near the halfway point of Anderson's 144-minute film, Freddie and Dodd are arrested and put into adjacent cells. They scream at each other mercilessly, eventually getting their release. From there on in, the movie loses any purpose. I don't know what it's trying to say -- if anything -- up until the conclusion. An immaculately spelled out, hand-fed story is not necessary in my head, I like trying to figure things out in a film, but the second half of the movie felt wasted to me as if it didn't quite know where it was going or how to wrap things up.

There are very few perfect movies (if any) out there, right? It's always in the eye of the beholder. Individuals as an audience are drawn to different things. So while I didn't love Anderson's film, I can also appreciate that as a film, it is a gem. Anderson and Co. -- including cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. -- elected to shoot in 65 mm, a throwback to Hollywood days of old when everyone now prefers to shoot in digital. In the visual sense, the movie is a masterpiece. The look of the film alone is worth it no matter how you feel in the end about the story or characters. This isn't characters having to act to look like its the 1950s. This truly feels like the 1950s from the clothes to the hairstyles, cars to the sets. Anderson's shots are full of depth, characters hovering on top of each other, full of rich colors that benefit from the old school filming technique. A member of Radiohead, Jonny Greenwood did the musical score, an unsettling, moving score similar to his music from Anderson's There Will Be Blood.

Directing this film, Anderson is without question a freakishly talented director. This isn't a typical Friday release. 'Eh, what crap can we go see this weekend?' this is not. It is a self-assured confidence and talent that I'd like to think directors either have or they don't. I don't know if you can work to get to this level. Writing the script for 'Master,' Anderson is counting on you being able to follow with the story and make some decisions on your own. Freddie bumps from one job to another without a transition. He's there, now he isn't, and now he's elsewhere. Figure it out for yourself. Anderson's script never spells things out for us, and his story as a whole....well, it isn't a story. There's no real plot, no huge set pieces. It moves from one scene to another without warning. He has style though. That's evident. Beautiful long shots, extreme close-ups that linger on for seemingly endless periods, uninterrupted shots that speak to a more classical time in Hollywood, Anderson's got that innate ability.

For the recent award seasons (I'm looking at you, Academy Awards), 'Master' was in that odd category that earned acting nominations, but nothing else. There are flaws, but the characters are interesting if highly unlikable. Phoenix was nominated for Best Actor, but as good as his performance is, I got the sense it was just a continuation of the weirdness we saw on Letterman years ago. It's very good, but it's not the all-time classic performance some make it out to be. He did become Freddie though, making the character come to life, especially his awkward walking, hands on his hips. Freddie could have PTSD from WWII (although his problems seem deeper-rooted), but there's also trouble with his alcohol addiction, sex obsession, and horrifically violent outbursts. It is a character from the moment we meet him that we know it will not end well for him. Tragic isn't a spot-on description, but it sure is close.

Similarly nominated is Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd, loosely based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. I liked this performance more than Phoenix, even though both are worthy performances. Hoffman's Dodd is interesting because we see the good and bad. He presents himself as this brilliant, philosophical thinker, but it's all an act. I especially liked the dynamic between Freddie and Lancaster, the two inexplicably drawn to each other. The third nominated performance, Amy Adams as Lancaster's wife, Peggy, is all right but nothing more. Also look for Laura Dern as one of Lancaster's loyal followers, Jesse Plemons as Val, Lancaster's questioning son, and Ambyr Childers as his daughter, recently married to fellow believer, Clark (Rami Malek).

Something fell short here for me. Every little thing doesn't have to be spelled out, and a non-linear story isn't a deal breaker. The second half of the story falls short though in a big way. It never goes anywhere, ending in disappointing fashion that brings the story full circle without any resolution. An incredible visual with some worthy performances go a long way, but there is simply some missing ingredient here that prevents it from being a classic. It needs to say something.

The Master (2012): ** 1/2 /****     

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Dangerous Mission

Having produced movies since the 1930s, RKO Pictures had to try different things to keep up with movies from other studios with more money to burn. They had to try something to keep up, giving audiences a reason to come out and see their films. Take 1954's Dangerous Mission, a generally pretty normal noir-ish film that capitalizes on some cool location shooting.

Witness to a mob killing in a night club, Louise Graham (Piper Laurie) is on the run with both mobsters and the police looking for her. She's hidden out in Glacier National Park, starting a job at a souvenir stand at one of several hotels offered to tourists. As the search intensifies -- the mob wanting to kill her, the police wanting to bring her in as a witness -- several newcomers have arrived in the park, including smooth-talking New Yorker Matt Hallett (Victor Mature), an ex-Marine. What are his intentions? Is he "visiting" to protect Louise or to kill her? Looking out for Louise's safety, Park Ranger Joe Parker (William Bendix) starts to investigate the newcomer, but keeps his eye on some others, including amiable photographer Paul Adams (Vincent Price).  Just what is everyone up to?

It doesn't take a nuclear physicist to figure what the appeal for me was in the 1954 RKO movie. The best thing going for director Louis King's film is the location shooting at Glacier National Park. Yes, I know it's not the same park, but I visited Yellowstone National Park with my family, and visually stunning doesn't begin to describe the place. The same goes for Glacier, especially a time capsule-esque look we get here to 1954 Glacier. Yes, indoor sets are clearly back in Hollywood, but we get enough of Mature, Laurie and Co. actually walking around in the park, including in and around Saint Mary Lake (I think, I could be way off). So while the budget was obviously limited and the scale kept on a smaller level, this B-movie makes the attempt to lure audiences in. It's a gimmick, but one that pays off in the end.

As long as we're throwing compliments out here, we might as well continue on. Clocking in at just 75 minutes, 'Dangerous' isn't too interested in deep back stories, any history at all. Here's the story, here's the characters, now deal with it. Of course, there's more to it than that. The opening 40 minutes is a gem because of a couple of key omissions. For one, that would be that no one is properly introduced. We never actually even see Laurie's Louise, just hear her scream upon stumbling into the murder scene. The same for Mature and Price. In a mobster scene, we see a man's arm draped in a chair -- but nothing else -- with orders to find and kill the witness as quickly as possible. Cue Mature driving into the park (packing a gun) and then the hotel where Louise works. Anyone with two working brain cells can no doubt deduce who's who, but it's another cool gimmick that went a long way. It's Clue: The RKO Film Noir Version.

And even in a small scale flick that doesn't hit the 90-minute mark, there's still some solid casting. I've always been a fan of Mature, and he looks to be enjoying himself here. Throw in Price, Laurie, and Bendix, and you've got a good mix. Also look for Betta St. John as Mary, an Indian girl and friend of Louise, Harry Cheshire as Elster, the guffawing, boozing Texan who may know more than he's letting on, and Steve Darrell as Katoonai Tiller, Mary's father who's wanted for murder. Also keep an eye out for Dennis Weaver in a bit part as a Ranger clerk.

While 'Dangerous' does have some surprising positives, there's some familiar negatives to boot. It is only 75 minutes long, but my estimation, there's probably about 45 minutes of actual story (and that might be generous). To flesh things out, we see an avalanche take out a house party, Mature's Matt getting a loose livewire under control. We get lots of goofing around and drinking and smoking, even a sighting of the dreaded love triangle as Matt and Paul battle -- in the goofy sense -- for Louise. Mature, Price and Bendix later have to put out an immense, fast-moving forest fire. It's ridiculous. They laugh and laugh, but at no point does Louise really question what's going on. She's running for her life but decides to keep a very high profile position in Glacier. Maybe......just of these guys wants to kill her? I don't know, I could be way off base here.

And to counter balance the actual shooting on location in Glacier, we also some awfully cheap cutaways to indoor sets posing as Glacier. To say they stand out like a sore thumb is an understatement. It's pretty straightforward stuff, but I still liked it. The purpose seems to be entertainment -- however they get it done -- including a reliance on always dressing Piper Laurie in outfits that look like she's one sneeze away from popping out of her dress/shirt/skirt. Subtle it is not, but B-movies weren't meant to be. Not bad if you find a copy.

Dangerous Mission (1954): ** 1/2 /****  

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend

Between 1956 and 1960, star Randolph Scott and director Budd Boetticher teamed up for seven westerns that rose above their B-status to become classic, even iconic status. One of the more prolific actors of his era though, Scott was far from limited to just those seven movies. Over that span, Scott made three other westerns, including 1957's Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend.

Mustered out of the cavalry after serving for multiple years, Capt. Buck Devlin (Scott) has plans to join his brother and family at their ranch in a quickly developing area with acres and acres of available land. Along with him are two of his soldiers he's become good friends with, Sgt. John Maitland (James Garner) and Pvt. Will Clegg (Gordon Jones). The trio arrives in time to help fight off an Indian attack, finding Buck's brother killed because faulty ammunition prevented his rifle from firing. Looking for answers and revenge -- while also gaining supplies for other local farmers/ranchers similarly supplied with bad ammo -- Buck, Maitland and Clegg head to the nearby town of Medicine Bend. It doesn't take them long to figure out who's behind the ammunition, a powerful businessman with his hand in everything in town, Ep Clark (James Craig). Knowing his guilt is one thing, and proving it is another. How can the trio bring Clark to justice in a town where he controls everything?

I found this B-western on Encore Westerns and because of the cast I decided to give it a chance. Just recently I reviewed The Proud Ones, a very entertaining, well-made 1950s western that rose above some of its limitations. It was an adult 1950s western, one revolving around actual relationships, betrayals and greed. 'Shoot-Out' is basically the complete polar opposite. It has the look of a glorified television show, using several sets that any fans of 1950s TV westerns will no doubt recognize. The story starts off interestingly enough with Scott and Co. riding into an Apache attack and saving the day. They undertake a mission to help the local ranchers and farmers, and I'm thinking we're off to a good start. It goes downhill from there, and quickly.

There is an obvious potential with the story for a fairly dark western. A businessman so intent on making money he sells bullets filled mostly with coal dust instead of gunpowder? That's pretty gnarly if you ask me. His henchmen intimidate other shopkeepers into raising prices -- or just not selling at all -- so locals are forced to buy his merchandise. That's all good and nice, but even that aspect is botched here. The tone in this western from director Richard L. Bare is....wishy-washy to say the least. After Buck's brother is killed and they begin their rescue, we're treated to a scene where the very nude trio has their clothes stolen. They're left to approach a Quaker wagon train wearing whatever they find to cover themselves. Oh the hijinks! The story movies back and forth among dark, very serious and funny, goofy and stupid. I don't know if either option would have made a good (or watchable) western, but it couldn't have hurt. Instead, the mix ends up being pretty lousy.

I managed to stick with it though because of the casting. Mr. Western, Scott is decent in the lead, but he's not given much to do. Maybe it's just because his pairings with Boetticher were so significantly better than this one, but it's not one I'd really recommend for fans. Playing his bumbling partners -- and reminding me of a bad 1930s buddy serial -- Garner is the ladies man and Jones is the stupid, booze hound who always gets the group into trouble. Craig is a decent, sneering villain, obsessed with gaining more power. In the 'Hey, they're good-looking, let's keep watching department, Angie Dickinson (just 26 years old) plays Priscilla, the daughter of a rival shopkeeper of Clark, and Dani Crayne as Nell Garrison, a saloon/dance hall singer and dancer. Even the lousiest of B-westerns apparently need some forced, not believable love interests.

Not much else to say here so let's keep this one short. It's dull and has no real point. Basically, it's worthwhile because Scott is always watchable -- even in badness -- and for fans to look for early appearances from future stars James Garner and Angie Dickinson.

Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend (1957): * 1/2 /****

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


I've written about it before, and it will most likely come up again at some point. You're watching a movie, everything's going smoothly. You're liking it a lot, maybe even loving it, and then something happens. It's as quick as flipping a switch, and all that positive momentum goes right out the window. Some movies can save themselves in the end. What about 1968's Deadfall? Read on and see.

Resting and recuperating a rest clinic for alcoholism (or is he?), Henry Clarke (Michael Caine) is approached one day by a young visitor, the beautiful Fe Moreau (Giovanna Ralli), with a proposal. Her husband, Richard (Eric Portman), a significantly older man than his young wife, knows Henry's secret, that he's a master thief and he's got a job in mind for the unlikely trio. Clarke does his detective work and agrees to go along with the plan. First, though Richard wants to test Clarke's ability, but that is the least of the master thief's worries. As he gets to know the couple, Henry falls hard for the beautiful Fe, and the feeling is mutual. As the job nears, he also finds out that Richard hasn't been telling him everything he needs to know.

This film from director and screenplay writer Bryan Forbes is an interesting one. It has received pretty lukewarm reviews, and some are significantly more harsh. An actor for years, Forbes made the jump to the director's chair without a glitch. In Deadfall, he creates quite the interesting movie to watch for good and bad. Visually, it is a stunner, shot on location in Spain. Forbes rarely uses a straight-on camera angle, instead opting for off-kilter, slightly ajar shots. Many reviews point to the director trying to adapt a European New Wave look with his unconventional shooting style, and I tend to agree. You can watch it and appreciate for any number of things from the unique angles and style to the stunning Spanish locations serving as a backdrop to the story.

Ah, the story, and here we are with the problems that ultimately bring the movie down a notch (or more depending on your opinion). For a 1968 audience, it does deal with some fairly controversial topics. We learn about Richard's past in World War II and also how he came to marry the beautiful Fe. It takes Caine's Clarke only a meeting or two to figure out that the older husband is in fact, gay. So what's he up to? What is his background in World War II? That's the problem with the story. It has a lot of ideas but no real focus. It kinda sorta knows where it wants to get, but not really how to get there. Instead, Forbes' screenplay (based off a novel by Desmond Cory) bounces back and forth among a whole lot of different things from adultery, incest, Nazism, betrayals and much more. A story that doesn't spell every single little thing out isn't a deal breaker -- in some cases it can be a huge positive -- but 'Deadfall' is too vague for its own good.

The most unfortunate thing is that for the first half of this 120-minute movie, I did love this movie. That Euro New Wave style works perfectly in a tension-packed heist movie that is mysterious, intense and keeps you guessing. Richard insists Henry prove himself in one heist, robbing a high-walled villa in Tangiers under heavy guard. It is a remarkable sequence, artsy and stylish like the best heist sequences can be when handled right. The extended sequence -- running about 15 minutes -- is done with virtually no dialogue, just composer John Barry's score playing over the developing heist. The best addition? The owner of the villa is at a concert -- listen HERE -- so the music we're hearing at the concert (Barry making a cameo, Renata Tarrago playing a Spanish guitar) is edited into the heist. It develops like a stage play, a tour de force sequence that I loved.

What's the problem? The heist is completed by the hour-mark. The second hour? Not so enjoyable. It devolves into a love triangle as Clarke fights for Fe, Fe wrestles with what to do, and Richard decides how to handle his new rival. Throw in Richard's young lover, Tony (Carlos Pierre), and we've got ourselves quite the mess. A tension-packed heist flick turned into a love triangle where our three participants philosophically analyze what love is? Gag me. It gets to be too pretentious for its own good at times. The ending especially comes out of nowhere and seems forced.

It's unfortunate -- yes, I'm using that again -- because Caine, Portman and Ralli all do pretty good jobs bringing the characters to life. Maybe I'm just that much in love with the first hour that I'm equally frustrated with the second half. It's a mixed bag, but what I loved, I really loved -- especially the heist sequence -- and what I didn't like came up short in a lot of ways. Also look for Nanette Newman as the Girl, a pretty young woman who keeps popping up, Leonard Rossiter as Fillmore, a source of info for Clarke, and David Buck as Salinas, a possible target for Clarke.

Deadfall (1968): ***/****

Monday, April 22, 2013

Man of the East

By 1972, director Enzo Barboni and star Terence Hill had already teamed up for movies over back to back years that audiences ate up, 1970's My Name is Trinity and 1971's Trinity is STILL My Name. His follow-up is an unofficial sequel to those two flicks, and it's a good one. Thanks to MGM's HD TV channel, I was able to find and watch a pristine version of 1972's Man of the East.

On his father's dying wish, Thomas Moore (Hill), an Englishman from Boston, travels west to visit land owned by his father. Thomas is a gentleman who rides bicycles rather than a horse, recites poetry, and plays the violin. In other words, he isn't exactly cut out for the wilds of the wild west. En route, his stagecoach is robbed by three bandits, but he manages to hide his money and make it to his father's cabin unscathed. Who's waiting? The bandits, Bull (Gregory Walcott), Monkey (Dominic Barto), and Holdy Joe (Harry Carey Jr.), are there too, but he doesn't realize who they are. There's a catch. The trio used to be in Tom's father's gang, and in his dying wish, asks the trio to look after his son and teach him how to be a man who can survive in the west. They've got their work cut out for them, especially when Tom shows interest in Candida (Yanti Somer), the daughter of the local powerful rancher.

Stars like Clint Eastwood, Franco Nero and Lee Van Cleef helped make spaghetti western heroes into a tough guy category of their own. Then there's Terence Hill (real name Mario Girotti), a spaghetti western star who typically starred in somewhat lighter toned films. The Trinity movies aren't full-on spoofs, but they're not as dark as most other genre entries. Hill is perfect as a believable hero who's very capable but a little goofy too. It isn't always that ultra-sinister, anti-hero gunslinger. Hill was an incredible physical presence, handling most of his own stunts -- riding, fighting -- but also selling the humor without overdoing it. An out of place easterner, his morning stretching routine is sublimely perfect, the three bandits looking on in amazed confusion. Watch it HERE. As an actor, Hill has an easygoing charm that makes him incredibly likable whenever he's on-screen. It seems like a little thing, but it goes a long way.

I recorded this spaghetti western not knowing exactly what to expect, but it's difficult to find so I had to jump at the chance. I wasn't expecting Three Men and an Easterner (that's a Three Men and a Baby reference for those who are confused). It's even got some touches of 3 Godfathers, starring John Wayne, Pedro Armendariz and Carey Jr (also starring here). What's more surprising? How effective the story is. Walcott's Bull is the bullish, freakishly strong one, Barto's Monkey the fast-talking, goofy fast draw, and Carey Jr.'s Holy Joe the bible-thumping preacher who condemns drinking, smoking, gambling and visiting hookers...while doing all of those things. Extremely close with Tom's father dating back to their Army days, the trio takes a genuine interest in his son, doing their best to make sure he doesn't get himself shot up. I loved the dynamic among the group, the three rough and ready bandits hovering around like guardian angels. Funny, surprising in its effectiveness in the drama department, it came as a pleasant surprise.

Playing the love interest searching for her own one and only true love, Somer is solid as Candida, the young women who falls for Thomas as he recites poetry to her on a train trip. Her father, Frank Olsen (Enzo Fiermonte), worries for his daughter's well-being and wants her to have nothing to do with the somewhat doofy Thomas. Riccardo Pizzuti plays Morton, Olsen's right hand man and chief henchman who is Thomas' main rival when it comes to young Candida.

It's been years since I've watched the Trinity movies, but I typically avoid comedic spaghetti westerns whenever possible. This one from director Barboni goes a long way to helping turn my opinion. It's funny, very funny. The laughs aren't always the obvious, stupid, spoof-life ones, but genuine ones that come from good dialogue and acting (Crazy, isn't it?). There's some sight gags, especially Bull cradling a little furball of a dog wherever he goes, or the bandit trio demanding a crowd of on-lookers freeze in place, the crowd obliging mid-stride. There's the previously mentioned morning stretch routine, but my favorite was probably Thomas' insistence on riding a bicycle instead of a horse. The visual of him pedaling into town with the mounted trio behind him is priceless. One other running bit really delivers nicely too. A bounty hunter duo (Salvatore Borghese and Bernard Farber) keeps getting closer to capturing Bull, but the immense bandit keeps tripping them up. The immaculately dressed bounty hunters are almost identical in appearance, duded up with long black jackets and vests. They even move alike, producing some truly funny moments.

I didn't love everything here in this comedic spaghetti western. I didn't love the budding romance between Thomas and Candida, their relationship slowing things down. At 125 minutes, 'East' is also a tad bit long in the tooth, meandering along the way at different times. Mostly though, I liked it a lot. It was filmed on location in Plitvice Lakes National Park in Yugoslavia, a refreshing -- and beautiful -- change of pace from the typical sun-scored deserts. I liked the musical score from the De Angelis brothers too, a mix of lighter and more serious tunes. There isn't much in the way of gunplay, but a big, brawling barroom fight packs a serious punch (did you catch my pun there?). A very pleasant surprise, I liked this one a lot.

Man of the East (1972): *** 1/2 /****    

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Varsity Blues

So everyone loves football, right? Professional, college, high school, Pee-Wee, it doesn't matter, fans love their pigskin. How about little towns dotted across America that live and die with their high school football teams? I'm looking at you, Texas, but there are obviously others. How about a guilty pleasure look at a small Texas town like that. Yep, it's a lousy movie, but I remember it fondly, 1999's Varsity Blues.

In the Texas town of West Canaan, coach Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight) reigns above all else. In his 30-plus years on the sidelines of the West Canaan High School football team, Kilmer has won 22 district championships and two state championships to the point he is a local hero that can do no wrong. Gunning for his 23rd district title, Kilmer seems to have the perfect team to pull it off, especially with Florida State-bound quarterback Lance Harper (Paul Walker) at the helm. But with his team rolling and the end of the season in sight, Lance goes down a horrific knee injury, forcing backup quarterback Johnny 'Mox' Moxon (James Van Der Beek) to step in at QB. Mox doesn't think much of Kilmer's bullying, manipulative ways and buckles at any sort of authority. How will the season come to an end? Can coach and backup quarterback figure something out in time?

When this movie from director Brian Robbins came out in 1999, I was the ripe old age of 14. I was a freshman in high school, and although I didn't see it in theaters, I clearly remember watching it on VHS/DVD when it came out. Is it a good movie? Hell no, it's the definition of a guilty pleasure. For me, there's a bit of nostalgia in it now some 14 years later. It plays like one big cliche -- one piled on top of each other -- but it is entertaining throughout. From MTV Films, it is a sports movie aimed clearly at teenagers. We get lots of crazy high school shenanigans from football game on Friday nights to postgame drinking parties, the immaculately cool QB, the slutty head cheerleader, the misused black running back, the crazy receiver, and the general goofiness of high school. It's not a great script, resorting back to cliches, the genre conventions of the sports/underdog movie.

So go figure then.........but I like the movie just the same. The shame is there's some real potential for a legitimately good movie. I call that movie 2004's Friday Night Lights, the true story of the Odessa-Permian football team during the 1988 season. Where 'Night' delivers, 'Varsity' almost gets there. In telling the story of a small town that lives and dies each week with its football team, we get some spooky, realistic glimpses of a town bordering on crazy. Voight chews the scenery like nobody's business (and does it well), ruling West Canaan with an iron fist because...........well, because he wins football games. The town shuts down for Friday night games, the players are heroes around town, fathers who used to play for Kilmer now live vicariously through their sons, and the weight of a town rests on their shoulders. It's all a little too much in execution, lacking a little thing called subtlety, but the potential is there for the picking.

Rewatching this movie for the first time in years, I came away with a new opinion on 'Varsity.' I've never been a huge fan of Van Der Beek -- I avoided Dawson's Creek like the plague for years -- but his leading part as very intelligent but very rebellious backup QB Johnny Moxon is one of the most unlikable lead characters I can think of in a movie. I guess we're supposed to be rooting for him, but he comes across as this pseudo-intellectual, preppy doofus who wants out of West Canaan. He's overly confident to the point of being cocky, and I was never really in his corner. Thrust into the starting QB position, it seems fair that any high schooler would embrace the spotlight. Sound fair? Yep, but star QB or maligned backup, I never actually liked the it's got that going for it. His scenes with girlfriend, Jules (Amy Smart), also provides some low-quality, painful after school special-esque scenes.

Thankfully, the rest of the cast picks up the slack. They're all ultra-cliched parts that could be cardboard cutouts from other sports movies, but what are you expecting from an MTV Films football flick? Walker shows that in 2013, he has significantly improved as an actor since 1999. The other players include Billy Bob (Ron Lester), the morbidly obese but fun-loving booze machine offensive lineman with concussions, Wendell (Eliel Swinton), the talented running back who Kilmer doesn't let score because he's black, and Tweeder (Scott Caan), the boozing, sex-obsessed, goofy, crazy screw-up and star wide receiver. Also look for Ali Larter as the slutty cheerleader (and her infamous whip cream bikini), Thomas F. Duffy as Mox's football-obsessed father, and Tonie Perensky as Miss Davis, the sex ed teacher with a secret. 

If I didn't know better -- and that's highly debatable -- I'd say looking back on the review that I'm not much of a fan the classic film that is Varsity Blues. That isn't true of course. Yes, the football scenes are laughable with some awfully dumb decisions made. It's easy to look past that though. We need an excuse to have a slow-motion football scene set to Foo Fighter's My Hero. Stupid? Yes. Awesome? FOO FIGHTERS! SLOW MOTION!  It's all ridiculous, capping with an expertly well-written 'Where does everyone end up?' narration. That's sarcasm by the way. It's an awful movie, but a fun one.

Varsity Blues (1999): ** 1/2 /****

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Proud Ones

What's the more iconic figure from the wild wild west, the sheriff/marshal or the cowboy? My first thought is the cowboy, but I'm safe picking either one. Yes, I'm the judge and jury here so deal with it. Countless westerns have dealt with both figures, some better than others, but 1956's The Proud Ones is a generally forgotten gem, the story of a small-town sheriff.

The sheriff of a small Kansas town, Cass Silver (Robert Ryan) is expecting trouble. The town has managed to avoid violence and bloodshed for years, but that's about to change. A new railroad line has made the town an important cattle depot, meaning cattle drives can now use Cass' town as a destination. The first herd is due any day now, and along with them comes Honest John Barrett (Robert Middleton), a saloon owner who has quite the checkered past with Cass as a marshal. Barrett sees the town as a gold mine, the potential for money and riches just waiting at his fingertips. His problem? Cass knows how he operates and doesn't intend to be intimidated by him. The experienced lawman braces for Barrett's plan while also weighing how much a new deputy, Thad Anderson (Jeffrey Hunter), can help. Anderson too has his own secrets, one that could doom them all.

The 1950s were packed to the gills with westerns hitting theaters from bigger budget A-level movies with smaller scale, cheaper B-movies. From director Robert D. Webb, 'Proud' is a better, more enjoyable western because it falls in between the two. It's familiar stuff, the town sheriff protecting his town, his word and his honor against a power-hungry businessman. Familiar isn't bad. There's some solid casting with some A-list names, but they're not there for the sake of star power. The story is mostly relegated to the town set which looks a lot like the set from The Ox-Bow Incident (from 13 years earlier), but the crowded streets with bars, businesses and alleys ending up being a key ingredient to the escalating situation. I also really liked Lionel Newman's score, a combination of soft and subtle -- especially Cass' whistle theme, listen HERE -- with bigger, louder outbursts in tense action scenes. It's a lot of little things again, but combined together it works out nicely.

By 1956, Robert Ryan was an established star in Hollywood, a reliable tough guy know for his villainous roles but also his ability to play flawed heroes. Playing veteran marshal Cass Silver, Ryan's part definitely falls into that second category. He's good at what he goes, but his past is checkered to say the least, thanks in great part to his history with Middleton's Honest John (Get it? It's ironic!). Silver has a tenuous relationship with saloon girl turned restaurant owner Sally (always reliable Virginia Mayo) and has a definite future with her, if he can get out of town and his job alive. In a semi-interesting but still unnecessary twist, Cass also gets knocked over the head and starts experiencing headaches that render him temporarily blind. It seems like something more worthy of a spaghetti western. Isolated and all but on his own, Cass might fight for what he believes in, what's right and upholding his word. I liked the main character a lot, and behind him, things fall into place nicely.

Presenting the town marshal as a main character in a western is nothing new, but I liked what Webb did just the same. 'Proud' had to be an influence on Howard Hawks who three years later with Rio Bravo would make a western with some similar undertones (and some less subtle connections). Cass has two deputies, Jake (Walter Brennan, basically playing the same role he'd play in Rio Bravo), the old jailer trying to keep Cass on his toes, and Jim (Arthur O'Connell), the doting father worried about his expecting wife. There's also a great dynamic between Silver and Hunter's Thad Anderson, the cowboy turned deputy. He blames Silver for his father's death, but he doesn't know all the facts. It's not quite a father-son relationship that develops -- maybe more of a brotherly relationship -- but it's fun to watch Silver keep working with the young deputy, not knowing if he'll get a bullet in his back whenever he turns away.

Rounding out the leads, Middleton is smooth and slimy as Honest John, wanting to get his way no matter what or who stands in his way. In this case, his means to an end is to hire "friends," Pike (Ken Clark) and Chico (Rodolfo Acosta), gunfighters waiting to shoot Cass in the back. In a smaller role that basically has her disappear after an early intro, Mayo fits in well as Sally, Silver's girlfriend who worries about his pride costing him his life.

Released in 1956, 'Proud' is surprisingly dark for an American western of the time. It delves into greed, backstabbing, betrayal and out and out murder. Even cynicism is evident almost from the first scene on. Trying to live up to his job and his word, Cass sees the town turn to Sodom and Gomorrah once there is any sort of money on the line, in this case lots and lots of money. The gunfights are quick and hard-hitting, and the finale in a dark, claustrophobic barn features the earliest use of blood squibs I've ever seen. One character gets shot in the face, another in the head, blood shooting out on impact. It's a western I don't hear much about, but I liked it from the start. Highly recommended.

The Proud Ones (1956): ***/****  

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Man in the White Suit

There are some actors I'll watch just about anything they're in on name recognition alone. One of the few is Alec Guinness, an acting chameleon if there ever was one. He makes a movie better just by being there, and that's why I dove into 1951's The Man in the White Suit, a British comedy I'd never heard of with a story that certainly didn't jump off the page at me.

Having worked in clothing and textile manufacturing for several years and moving from one job to another, quiet research assistant Sidney Stratton (Guinness) has his goals set as high as possible. He is currently working for the Birnley Mill, owned by gentlemanly Alan Birnley (Cecil Parker), and Sidney is getting close to a breakthrough. His ultimate goal? He wants to create a fabric that is indestructible, unable to be tarnished by dirt, grime and filth. Sounds ludicrous, doesn't it? When Birnley finds out what his young technician is up to, he gives him all the support he can, and finally Sidney is able to put all his experimentation and hard work into a final product, an immaculate white suit that will never fall apart. Both the technician and the mill owner are beyond pleased, but will the rest of the industry? Not so fast.

You know what's not interesting to watch? The making of clothes. That's it. Simple as that, my biggest problem with the movie. Juvenile? Maybe, but I struggled at times to get through this Ealing Studios comedy from director Alexander Mackendrick. Some of my struggles came from the pacing, something you wouldn't think to be an issue in a movie that runs just 85 minutes. Early on, I couldn't get into the movie, its story or its characters. Those issues early come from that focus on the textile aspect, taking a little too much time to get things going. The comedy is more satirical, leaning toward downright smart, but other than a few exceptions, I didn't laugh much. It's drama, it's comedy (rather dark), and I never felt truly connected to the developing story.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Guinness is the best thing going for 'White.' Still a rising star (he made The Lavender Hill Mob the same year), he again shows a knack for making a quirky character pretty likable. His intentions are pure in creating a perfect fabric that no damage can be done to. He doesn't want any money, riches or fame for his invention. His Sidney wants to do something pure. It's the little mannerisms that Guinness brings to the part that help make the character memorable. It's the twinkle in his eye when he's stumbled onto something. It's his quick walk-run when he's trying to get something done. It's his panicked cries when someone tries to stop him from doing something. The little things go a long way, a credit to Guinness' ability as an actor. In a weird way, his Sidney reminds me of his Bridge on the River Kwai character, blinded by what he does with really seeing the repercussions of his actions.

Beyond Alec Guinness though, I didn't find much of the rest of the cast leaving a lasting impression. Parker is decent as Birnley, the mill owner who backs Sidney....until he doesn't back him when the powers that be turn on him. Joan Greenwood plays Birnley's daughter, Daphne, who meets Sidney early on his experimenting and becomes his close friend as he draws closer to his final product. Michael Gough plays Michael Corland, a rival of Sidney's and superior within the textile industry who was also previously engaged to Daphne. Ernest Thesiger is creepy as Sir John Kierlaw, the powerful head and face of the textile industry who sees the danger that Sidney's new fabric presents. I don't recognize much of the rest of the cast, and I simply didn't hear any other character names as they back up Sidney.

There were parts of this movie I really liked. I loved Sidney and his assistant, Wilson (John Rudling), forting up in the laboratory -- sandbags, air raid helmets and all -- trying to perfect his formula. I loved the sound effect his expansive, elaborate apparatus makes (a combination of tuba and bassoon). Watching Sidney defend his invention is surprisingly funny too. His immaculate white suit doesn't take any dyes and featuring some radioactive elements stands out like a sore thumb just about anywhere he goes to the point it looks like a glow-in-the-dark suit. When anyone and everyone starts chasing him to get him -- and his rights -- under contract, it results in an oddly funny madcap series of chases. Sidney becomes obsessed with defending his invention, even though everyone around him tries to convince him otherwise.

In that sense, I thought 'White' becomes a little predictable. Is a company (any company for that matter) going to allow a suit to be made that is indestructible? How did Birnley not think this through? If people only need to buy one suit, that means the clothing companies will eventually go out of business. In the end, both the manufacturers and the factory workers turn on Sidney, both sides seeing their future wiped away in a second. It just seemed dumb and far too obvious, a necessary twist but not a well-written one. At least Sidney is blinded by it and refuses to even think about it. There is a surprisingly dark scene late with a twist as to the fabric, but I did appreciate the final scene throwing a bone and ending on a positive note. A mixed bag in the end, mostly worthwhile for Alec Guinness.

The Man in the White Suit (1951): ** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


I can give credit when it's due. The overall quality might not be there, but Nicolas Cage churns out the flicks like one crazy dude. Since 2010, Cage has starred in nine movies, and according to his IMDB page, he's got six others in pre/post production and development. There's been some duds in the group, but there's some decent ones too. Take 2012's Stolen, nothing flashy but entertaining throughout.

An accomplished bank robber and thief, Will Montgomery (Cage) has created quite a reputation for himself to the point a New Orleans FBI officer, Tim Harlend (Danny Huston), has become obsessed with catching him. In the aftermath of a successful job, Montgomery is caught but refuses to give up where he hid the $10 million he made away with, also refusing to turn on the rest of his crew. He serves an eight-year sentence, and upon his release tries to reconnect with his daughter, Alison (Sami Gayle), but she is kidnapped by a member of his crew, Vincent (Josh Lucas), who has fallen on hard times and wants his share of the cut. Montgomery maintains he doesn't have the money, but now it's a matter of life and death. Can he find Alison in time before Vincent kills her? If not, can he pull off a job -- with the police and the FBI tailing him -- to steal enough to appease an insane Vincent? The clock is ticking.

Does the basic plot sound familiar? A man forced to rescue his kidnapped daughter from some rather nasty people? Yeah, it sure sounds like Taken to me too. It isn't spot-on of course with more than enough differences to make it interesting. The weird thing is how little a release it was given. IMDB reports it had a budget of around $35 million, but when it was released in September 2012, it was shown in only 141 theaters (major releases typically are shown on thousands of screens) and banked just $180,000. What happened? Were reviews that bad? Did studios have that little faith in it? I can't really find a reason. It's nothing crazy good by any means, but I liked it enough to give it a mild recommendation.

With the cast and crew assembled here, there's definitely potential for a solid action thriller, and to a point, I think 'Stolen' is very entertaining with some third act flaws. Director Simon West has shown he can do a solid action flick with films like The Mechanic, The Expendables 2, Con Air, Tomb Raiders, and this one is certainly in that vein. It barely breaks the 90-minute mark, clocking in at 95 minutes, and from the word 'Go' it never slows down. It's enjoyable because this breakneck speed never stops. Cage robs vault, goes to jail, is freed and then spends an hour-plus racing around New Orleans looking for his daughter. There are plot holes, but the pacing is so ridiculously fast that the problems are never around long enough to really be an issue. Beyond that, this movie isn't meant to rewrite the action thriller. Just sit back and enjoy it.

I don't know the exact year or the movie where Nicolas Cage went wrong, but at some point he went from an actor able to play drama, action, even dark comedy effortlessly to an actor who seems unable to do anything more than a caricature of himself. He has a scene with Lucas early on that goes down that over the top, goofy road, but thankfully it's just one scene. As an action hero, Cage handles himself quite well here. He's a good bad guy (He's a father! He can't be completely bad!) just trying to save his daughter. The over the top moments are kept to a minimum thankfully although there has to be at least six different scenes where Cage is running for all he's worth. I don't know what it is. Maybe it's because he's such a ridiculously slow runner, but couple it with his 110 percent effort at running so slowly, it's quite a visual. I got sidetracked, sorry. Moral of the story, but Cage is pretty good here.

I liked the rest of the cast too. Besides the goofy New Orleans jazz daddio hat he keeps wearing, Huston is pretty good as the FBI investigator trying to catch Montgomery while balancing out an odd admiration he has for the master thief. Mark Valley plays Fletcher, Harlend's assistant. Lucas gets to ham it up as Vincent, the thief seeking revenge. Maybe that's where Cage's caricature went, go figure. Montgomery's team includes Malin Akerman as Riley, the getaway driver, and M.C. Gainey as Hoyt, the electronics specialist.

Things do fall apart some in the final showdown between Montgomery and Vincent at an abandoned amusement park. 'Stolen' almost goes down a pretty dark road with its ending before tapping the brakes. Mostly though, it reminds me a lot of so many 1970s action crime thrillers that were packed to the gills with almost non-stop action. Credit to Mark Isham's jazzy, fast-paced score for keeping that action going. Good but not great, just a solid popcorn flick. Sit back and watch Cage race through New Orleans.

Stolen (2012): ** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Prime Cut

Some movies are just a variety of odd, weird and offbeat. That can be a good thing as long as a movie commits to being quirky. I don't really know what to make of 1972's Prime Cut having just finished it. It is all of those things, but the best part? It embraces the quirkiness and goes with it. Better because it's weird.

Working as an enforcer for the Irish mob in Chicago, Nick Devlin (Lee Marvin) has pretty much seen it all. This time around, he's got a job that even he couldn't quite plan for. With some help from three young Irish enforcers, Nick must head to Kansas City to deal with Mary Ann (Gene Hackman), a mobster himself running a crooked slaughterhouse with some secrets. Several other enforcers have been sent with lousy results. The last one? Mary Ann had him ground up and sent back to Chicago as sausage (quite literally, he's sausage links). Nick isn't one to shy away from a job -- any job -- so he travels to Kansas City and get the $500,000 that Mary Ann owes the Irish mob. The experienced enforcer doesn't quite know everything though, finding upon arrival that even Mary Ann has some tricks up his sleeve.

This is truly a flick that defies just about any description I can come up with. From director Michael Ritchie, I figured it would be a pretty straightforward, enjoyable gangster flick starring the always reliable, always tough Lee Marvin. It's an apt description to a point, but it's also so much more, and for the good. Because it covers so much ground and does it effectively, calling it a crime thriller with pulpy undertones on top of an out of left field love story with an almost existential feel to the fast-paced story that an art house film might be proud of is....very fair. It's all of that, and it does it well. Impressive considering the flick only runs 88 minutes and never really slows down. I was expecting one movie and got another instead, for the better.

Let's start with probably the most normal thing about 'Cut,' and that's Lee Marvin (a favorite here at Just Hit Play). The description of his part sounded a little bit like Point Blank, and at it's most basic, it is. He does the tough guy anti-hero part like nobody's business. A former Marine, he handles the action scenes expertly and capably, but he's not a one-trick pony. Marvin can deliver a snappy one-liner with the best. His Nick Devlin has quite the past (hinted at more than shown), but it's a great lead character. How about Gene Hackman as a villain? Sounds good, right? How about an over the top villain named Mary Ann who oozes sleaze and slime and runs a corrupt slaughterhouse where you can buy top choice meat.....and drugged up young women sold as slaves? Yep, that's a good villain if there ever was. Hackman's part isn't gigantic, but every time he is on-screen, you can't help but love to hate him.

So where to start in general? There's a lot of worthy jumping off points, but the obvious is the opening credits, a montage of the inner workings of Mary Ann's slaughterhouse. Uh-oh, is that a shoe...and then a man being ground up? Watch it HERE. It's an unsettling, realistic opening that certainly sets the tone. Not subtle by any means, things get switched up then in the next scene as Nick, three enforcers and a driver drive to KC in a montage scene reminiscent of a French art house crime thriller. It's quite the change of pace from one scene to the next. Things get ratcheted up then when we meet Mary Ann, Nick walking through his display barn only to see naked young women (heavily drugged) lying in cattle pens for buyers to purchase. The meeting between Nick and Mary Ann (again, why the woman's name?) is perfect, two sides testing the other for all they're worth. Some of these transitions could be kind of jarring if handled incorrectly, but Ritchie manages to make this mess of a story work, and work well.

It's the balance that works. I wouldn't have expected an endearing love story to develop between Marvin's Nick and a young woman he rescues from Mary Ann's sale, Poppy, played in her screen debut by Sissy Spacek. She comes from a sheltered past where she was raised to be sold as a slave, but she's managed to rise above it -- focusing on the simple positives of life -- and finds an ally in Nick, her rescuer. Having rescued her, Nick buys a handful of different dresses and takes her out for an expensive dinner. While everyone else stares at her revealing dress, Nick -- ever the gentleman -- stares them down, teaching her which silverware to use and when. It's almost surreal in its oddness. I make no bones about my dislike of force-feeding a love story into a movie that doesn't need it, but when handled correctly (like here), it's hard to make any complaints.

Then there's the more pulpy crime stuff I expected going in. That's not a negative by any means. It is a tough guy film and that means a whole lot of crazy 1970s action. Probably the most memorable scene is a confrontation at a crowded country fair, Nick running with Poppy from Mary Ann's small army of overall-wearing, shotgun-wielding country boys. The capper is a gem, the duo running in an immense open wheatfield from a thresher. Watch it HERE. The big blowout is saved for last, Nick -- using a submachine gun -- and his remaining enforcers approaching Mary Ann's farm fortress through a field of sunflowers. It's a tense, well-choreographed sequence that sets up the actual finale quite well.

As for the rest of the cast, Gregory Walcott is quite memorable as Weenie, Mary Ann's thuggish, perverted brothers, and Angel Tompkins as Clarabelle, Mary Ann's wife who has a past with Nick. William Morey (in his only role) plays Shay, Nick's driver who's worked many times in the past with him, with Clint Ellison, Howard Platt and Les Lannom as the young enforcers. This is one epically weird movie overall, but I loved just about everything it offers. It most definitely is weird so know what you're getting into, but I highly recommend this one.

Prime Cut (1972): *** 1/2 /****

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Man from the Alamo

One of the most well-known stories from the battle and siege of the Alamo is Colonel William Travis purportedly drawing a line in the sand and asking who among the defenders would stay, fight and certainly die in defense of the mission. The story -- and maybe history -- says that one man, Louis Rose, a Napoleonic War veteran, didn't cross the line and slipped away from the mission in the dead of night. Is it true? Opinions vary, but it has become part of the legend and myth of the Alamo. Having some fun with the what-if possibility that history offers, here we go with 1953's The Man from the Alamo.

Under siege by the Mexican army by General Santa Anna, the Alamo mission and garrison is in trouble. A messenger returns to the mission with the worst news possible; no reinforcements will come, leaving the defenders to fight it out themselves. He also tells of reports of raiding Mexican soldiers attacking, burning, destroying and killing Texan settlements where many defenders -- and their families -- lived. The small group decides that someone must go help protect the families, and John Stroud (Glenn Ford) draws the short stick. Leaving the garrison behind, Stroud slips out and returns home to find his family killed and house burned down. A young Mexican boy, Carlos (Marc Cavell), witnessed the attack and tells him Americans dressed as Mexicans led the attack. As he starts to track the men down though, Stroud finds out the Alamo has fallen, and a messenger from the Alamo, Lt. Lamar (Hugh O'Brian), identifies him as the coward who abandoned the mission, not knowing why he left. Can Stroud avenge his family while also clearing his name?

I like everything about the Alamo. I'll read anything, watch anything, talk about anything so for me, this 1953 B-western from director Budd Boetticher is a hidden gem. It's pretty standard stuff in terms of its western status, but instead of just telling the story of a coward who abandons his friends, it's a story of a coward from the Alamo. Using the basic premise of the famous 'Line in the Sand' speech, 'Man' runs with it. The Alamo portion of the story covers less than 20 minutes in a 79-minute movie, but it's a great bookend. The rest of the story is still interesting, playing fast and loose with the historical facts while always maintaining a high entertainment level. Stroud takes off on a journey through war-torn Texas in the Runaway Scrape, attempting to prove his innocence while taking an involvement in a wagon train trying to evade the chasing Mexican army. It's good stuff throughout, and for a sucker like me for anything even remotely Alamo-related, it's really good stuff.

Playing the titular character, Ford does a good job leading a pretty solid ensemble cast. He was always at home in the western, and he doesn't disappoint here. We don't learn a lot about him by seeing it, we simply here about it. As he leaves the Alamo, we hear from those left behind that his John "has always had bad luck." True, he won't be killed at the Alamo, but the tag of being the man that left the doomed mission will hang over him regardless of his intentions. We don't meet his family, only seeing him arrive at the charred remains of his home, Carlos having buried his own father along with John's wife and son. I liked the character a lot. He doesn't really care what others think of him because he knows the truth. Instead, he becomes obsessed with getting revenge on the men who killed his family. Not flashy for Ford, but very good, including handling many of his own stunts, including some impressive ones on horseback.

Because the story requires someone to believe Stroud is innocent -- at some point after the appropriate doubts -- Julie Adams stars as Beth, a young woman traveling with the wagon train away from the Mexican army. Oh, she's the love interest too. I know, I was stunned too. Chill Wills (who would star 7 years later in John Wayne's The Alamo) co-stars as Beth's father, a one-armed newspaper publisher, while Myra Marsh plays Beth's mother. O'Brian is a good quasi-bad guy, a Texan officer who's convinced Stroud is a coward, not knowing the entire story. Victor Jory is Jess Wade, the Texan/American working with a gang of cutthroats and killers on the Mexican's side to cause chaos, Neville Brand playing one of his thugs. Also look quickly in the opening scene for Stuart Whitman as a guard overlooking a Texan counsel.

Now for some Alamo analysis! Sure, the Alamo segment runs only about 20 minutes, but it's a worthy intro. The Alamo fortress seems to be only the fortified chapel -- nothing like the actual layout of the mission -- but it works in an odd way, giving a claustrophobic feel to the battle. Mexican cannon shells rain down on the condensed fortress, a living hell if there ever was. We meet Crockett, Bowie and Travis however briefly (even seeing Dennis Weaver as coonskin cap-wearing defender), but the focus is on the impending doom and Stroud's similarly doomed mission. I really enjoyed the intro, but I liked the whole movie a lot too. Well worth it.

Man from the Alamo (1953): ***/****

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Ocean's Eleven (1960)

One of my favorite movies from the 2000s, I love 2001's Ocean's Eleven. I'm no dummy though, and I remember stating that the 2001 remake was better than the original. Well, it took me a little while -- okay, well over a year, but who's counting? -- but I'm revisiting that statement. Was I right or wrong? Maybe somewhere in between? Let's get started with the Rat Pack original, 1960's Ocean's Eleven.

A former paratrooper with countless daring, behind the lines missions under his belt during World War II, Danny Ocean (Frank Sinatra) has moved on with his life, but some 15 years since the end of the war, he's got a plan. The catch? He needs help from his old army buddies to pull off a daring heist. Ocean gets the group together, including Sam Harmon (Dean Martin), Jimmy Foster (Peter Lawford), and Josh Howard (Sammy Davis Jr.) among others, and lays out the plan for them. Just a few days away, Ocean and Co. plan on hitting five of Las Vegas's biggest casinos on New Year's Eve when the vaults are packed to the gills with money. Could it work? The plan depends on to-the-second timing, teamwork and countless little details, maybe even a little luck. It sounds like an impossible plan, but Ocean's crew might be crazy enough to pull it off.

Starting in the mid 1950s, Sinatra, Martin, Davis Jr., Lawford and Joey Bishop teamed up to star in movies that are simply known as....Rat Pack movies. Classic cinema they are not, but they are basically the definition of a good popcorn flick. Just sit back and enjoy them. Of all the Rat Pack movies though, this one is the best by far. Lewis Milestone directs, but his job is basically to get Sinatra and the boys on the right track and let them go. In that sense, he hits it out of the park. It is a vastly different movie than the 2001 remake which is really a remake in name and basic premise alone. The script, the heist, and the Vegas setting are all a means to an end. If you like Sinatra, Martin or any of the Rat Pack, you will enjoy this movie.

Singing or performing on stage, starring in movies, the Rat Pack had an innate chemistry that most entertainers dream of having. So cutting away a lot of other things, this movie is about the Packers hanging out, drinking some liquor, smoking a lot of cigarettes and wearing impeccably cool suits. Is it self-indulgent? Yes, basically the definition of self-indulgent. If you're a fan of Sinatra, Martin or any of the guys, this is the movie for you. It's genuinely funny with plenty of quick, snappy dialogue, lots of one-liners that don't feel like a script. It feels like it is a bunch of friends hanging out busting each other. Oh, and they happen to be planning an epic casino robbery too so they've got that going for them.

One of the biggest differences between the 1960 original and the 2001 remake is the background. Made 15 years after the end of WWII, the paratroopers angle is pretty cool. Sinatra's Danny is the sergeant, Lawford the entitled officer, Martin's Sam the soldier who saved Danny's life and best friend, and so on. Along with Davis. Jr as Josh and Bishop as Mushy, Danny's crew includes Richard Conte as Tony, just out of prison and looking to provide for his son, Henry Silva as smooth, quick-talking Roger, Buddy Lester as Vince, the former club bouncer with an in, Richard Benedict as Curly, Norman Fell as Peter, the explosives specialist, and Clem Harvey as Jackson, the drawling cowboy. Like the best men-on-a-mission movies, there's something inherently cool about a group of specialists working together to pull of an impossible job. When you actually like some of the group? That's even better, like a fastball down the middle.

Not surprisingly, the focus here is on Danny's crew, but the rest of the cast is pretty solid. Angie Dickinson plays Beatrice, Danny's wife who's working through some issues with her always moving husband. Cesar Romero is Duke Santos, a well-connected former gangster who stumbles into Ocean's plan and who happens to be engaged to Jimmy's mother (Ilka Chase). Akim Tamiroff gets a lot of laughs as Spyros, the ex-con who concocted the casino heist but can't come up with the details, turning to Danny for that part. Also look for Red Skelton playing himself in a casino scene, frustrated and wanting more money, and George Raft as a casino head in a strategy session. Even look for an uncredited Shirley MacLaine as a drunken New Year's Eve partygoer who meets Martin's Sam during the heist. And lastly, listen for Richard Boone providing his voice talents in a key scene late, even if he never appears on-screen.

I loved the style from this 1960 heist movie, and that doesn't come as a surprise considering the talent involved. The credits sequence from Saul Bass gets things going nicely. Watch it HERE, composer Nelson Riddle's score playing as accompaniment. Much of the film was shot on location in Las Vegas, and who would have thought? 1960 Vegas looks amazingly fun, like a time capsule into a smooth, cool era. Even the indoor sets look cheesy, but they're cool cheesy. The heist itself is pretty cool if a little more simplistic than the 2001 remake (Damn technology!). As most heist films will tell you though, it's the post-robbery stuff that's the issue. It's Vegas in the middle of the desert. How do you escape or hide the money? The ending delivers a couple great twists, especially the final one that sets up a very cool, very stylish final scene as Ocean's Eleven walk along the Vegas strip.

There is a simple, stylish elegance to this movie. Is it a classic film, an example of great cinema? No, but in terms of pure entertainment value, it's hard to beat. The scene where the crew discuss the upcoming heist in Spyros' well-decorated man cave is epically cool, Ocean's Eleven huddled around the pool table discussing the ins and outs of the heist. It's a fun, cool and entertaining movie that's a prime example of the style of a past era in Hollywood. The Rat Pack is cool. If you agree, you'll like this movie.

Ocean's Eleven (1960): ****/****