The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Maiden Heist

Originally intended for a theatrical release, 2009's The Maiden Heist had no such luck. Its studio went bankrupt before it could actually be released and never saw the light of day in theaters. Thankfully, it eventually found an audience (however small) on DVD. The end result? An enjoyable, pretty harmless comedy caper aided by a very talented cast.

Working as a security guard for a Boston art museum, Roger (Christopher Walken) has a bit of an obsession. He loves, loves a painting titled The Lonely Maiden, a picture of a woman looking off into the distance on a sandy beach. Now though, he's got a problem. Many pieces from the museum have been sold to another museum in Denmark, including The Lonely Maiden. Roger can't bear to imagine life without it, but he's not alone. Two other security guards, Charles (Morgan Freeman) and George (William H. Macy), similarly have fallen hard for two other pieces of art and don't want to see them go. What to do then? These three men who have always lived on the straight and narrow decide there's only one thing to do....steal the paintings for themselves. Can these three amateur crooks pull off the job?

This is a movie that's best watched on a rainy weekend afternoon when there's nothing better to do. It's funny but it isn't hilarious. It's goofy but not stupid...thankfully. The story takes some odd jumps in sequence that reflect a quasi-cheap feeling, making me think 'Heist' was a straight-to-DVD flick at first. It's apparent from the start how things will go. These three middle-aged to older men are all a little nuts, all a lot obsessed with paintings that strike them right down to their cores. How could three amateur crooks pull off the job? In the real world, no chance in hell. But it's a movie! In other words, you know they'll get away with it, overcoming all sorts of goofiness, misunderstandings, and general wackiness. Just sit back and enjoy. You won't strain yourself.

There's got to be a reason to see this flick though, and that's the cast. Surprising, huh? It would be very hard to put Walken, Freeman and Macy together in a movie and for it to not be worthwhile even a little. Walken is Walken, that kinda offbeat, schizo acting style highlighted by his especially unique speech patterns. Macy hams it up as George, the former Marine and veteran of the Grenada campaign. His art obsession? A sculpture of a nude Greek warrior. George strips down naked and poses next to it. Creepy? A little, but it's oddly funny. Middle-aged guy nudity played for a laugh too with some Macy butt scenes. I know, what Hollywood has been craving all these years! The best part is Freeman as Charles, a gay (I think?) security guard who can paint/draw/scribble his favorite painting with his eyes closed. It's his mannerisms, his speech, they all add up to some really funny lines and scenes as the trio of amateur crooks work together to pull off the job.

It is a heist movie -- however tame -- and that ends up being the best part of the movie. The build-up and intro takes about 45 minutes, and then we're off to the heist. The trio decides to pull the job during the move, replacing the originals with forgeries. Naturally, not everything goes as expected or planned, one thing after another coming up to throw them off their plan. There is a good twist late, but it doesn't come as a huge surprise by any means.

The laughs are there too, especially the opening scene as Walken's Roger daydreams about defending his painting from a heavily-armed team of mercenaries. Watch it HERE. A running gag about signing off a walky-talky with 'Roger...Roger' is funny if used too much, and a hypothetical walk-through of the museum (Charles constructs a scale version with a chess set and cereal boxes) produces some laughs. There's some odd moments too, like Breckin Meyer's one-scene appearance as a starving artist (maybe 90 seconds all told), and Marcia Gay Harden as Roger's shrill wife who wants a Florida vacation and accidentally threatens the heist. Pretty forgettable but still enjoyable enough. Worth a watch if nothing else, just don't expect a classic.

The Maiden Heist (2009): ** 1/2 /****

Monday, January 28, 2013


I admitted it. I didn't "get" 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey, not by a long shot. Crazy visuals, light on story, and it didn't live up to the high expectations I went in with. But ah, there's a bright spot! A sequel! Go figure, I'm usually not a fan of sequels, but I had to give it a chance so here goes with 1984's 2010.

It's been nine years since the sudden and mysterious disappearance of the U.S. spaceship Discovery, and Dr. Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider) still struggles with what happened. In charge of the mission that went deadly awry, Floyd was blamed for the debacle, but he may have a chance to redeem himself. American efforts are being made to investigate, sending a second ship to Jupiter and its moons (where Discovery disappeared), but he is approached by Russian agencies who are ahead of schedule and will get to Jupiter first. Undertaking a risky, even suicidal mission, Floyd and two other Americans (John Lithgow and Bob Balaban) join the Russian space expedition. What secrets do the moons, Jupiter, the Discovery and maybe space itself hold for the astronauts?

Highly respected and regarded as an all-time classic, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is far from a traditional movie. In fact, it's everything non-traditional about modern films. From director and writer Peter Hyams, '2010' is similar in its story matter and characters, but other than that, it is the complete polar opposite. It is a far-more traditional science fiction thriller, and a smart one at that. For lack of a better description, it is an easy movie to "like." Compare the two; 2001 is a movie to sit back and watch, to appreciate, but not necessarily enjoy. On the other hand, 2010 is far more easily digested. It's smart, but not condescending. Sure, it's not perfect. That's the risk that happens when a sequel is made for a movie that didn't need a sequel in the first place. It's worth it though, and a film I enjoyed significantly more than its predecessor.

So I wasn't much of a fan, but I can appreciate that 2001 does not require a sequel. Its unanswered questions are oddly perfect in that decision to remain unanswered. It allows viewers to wrap their head around the story as they so choose, not as the movie dictates. That's why I both liked and disliked this sequel. In the more traditional sense, 2010 builds a story in a far more linear fashion. We learn more about the HAL-9000, its background, and why it malfunctioned the way it did. Did we need those answers? No, but it's nice to see. We learn a little more about the mysterious monoliths popping up around the world. Did we need those answers? Nope once again. But necessary or not, they come around as worthwhile. It's nice to see the effort made as goofy as it sounds. I came away eternally frustrated with 2001, but I didn't have that same sentiment here in the least. Maybe that's a pity positive vote, but so be it, I'm sticking by my guns.

With a focus more on the space, science and mystery, the characters and their background can be a secondary thing here. The actors do their best to humanize their parts, but it's more a means to an end. We see how these highly trained, highly intelligent individuals respond in a hellish, life or die situation. Scheider does a fine job (as usual) as Dr. Heywood, a man looking for answers and to right a wrong. His recorded letters to his wife (Madolyn Smith Osborne) become a little tedious in an effort to humanize him, but that's a minor complaint. Lithgow plays Dr. Curnrow, the builder/designer of the original Discovery, with Balaban playing Dr. Chandra, HAL's creator, desperately trying to prove his creation did nothing wrong, the two other Americans on-board the Russian ship. Helen Mirren -- rocking an awesome Russian accent -- plays Capt. Kirbuk, the commander of the Russian ship, with Elya Baskin very good as one of the crew who bonds with Curnrow.

The moments that do work here are home runs knocked out of the park. With 16 years of improved technology, the special effects are very cool, if a little more understated than the original. Approaching Jupiter and its moons, Europa and Io, are some stunning sequences. The mid-space transfer from the Russian ship to the Discovery is similarly impressive, especially when you think about what's actually going on. '2010' has its moments of scares too, truly frightening. I've long said this in deep space reviews. You don't know what the universe truly contains. All sorts of things -- both good and bad -- are out there. Deep space could hide anything. Is it out there to help us or hurt us? The development of the monoliths certainly opens up that door. What is their ultimate purpose?

Maybe the biggest fear comes in a chilling, highly effective reappearance by Keir Dullea who played Dr. Dave Bowman in the original 2001, mysteriously disappearing in the end. His appearance halfway through the movie is genuinely startling, and the more we see, the creepier and more chilling it gets. His final line in 2001, "My God, it's full of stars!' provides much of the jumping off point here, and the impending changes his "being" implies set the tone for a genuinely creepy final hour. What awaits the rescue crew, and on a bigger level, Earth and mankind itself? I didn't love the ending, but I liked it a lot, especially the final scene. It's easier to judge these movies on a separate level. For me though, I liked the sequel significantly more than the original, even if it was vastly different movies.

2010 (1984): ***/****

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Danger: Diabolik

Unlike any other decade, the 1960s had a style that was indescribable in its cool factor. There was an ease to the style; the clothes, the music, even the self confidence that what was going on was From the Rat Pack to James Bond and everything in between, the 1960s were full of stylish films. One of the most suave, cool, stylish and truly bizarre entries was 1968's Danger: Diabolik.

A veteran police investigator, Inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli) is at wit's end. He has long tried to catch, arrest and prosecute Diabolik (John Phillip Law), an international thief who can and will steal anything and everything. The more improbable the heist, the more closely guarded the target, Diabolik will get what he wants. After years of successful jobs, the thief has created quite a reputation for himself, drawing the ire of both police forces and organized crime, including mob boss, Valmont (Adolfo Celi), who wants nothing more than to have him killed. The ploy? Ginko, the police, Valmont and the mob will set a trap for Diabolik, an emerald necklace that is worth millions. Can Diabolik pull it off and make it out alive?

As I write this review, it's been three full days since I watched 'Danger,' and I can safely say I have no bleeping idea how to interpret this movie. None, not even a little. Is it a spoof? Is it for real? Is it both and neither where I'm completely missing something? I need answers!!!! From Italian director Mario Bava, this is a movie that basically defines what a 'cult classic' is. Those who love it will defend it to the death. And the rest? Like me, they're trying to figure out exactly what they're watching. What I do know about this movie is this; it is so ultra-stylish, stylized within an inch of its life, dripping and oozing with style. Get what I mean? It is a prime example of an oddball retro 1960s style. If that's a good or bad thing, I'll have to leave that up to you.

Not surprisingly, that style produces an incredible visual look to the story, sometimes at the cost of said story. It is a retro style on steroids, full of crazy zooms and close-ups, very 60s clothing and sets/locales, and a score from Ennio Morricone that defies description. Give the main theme a listen HERE. It should be pointed out that the character/story is based on an Italian comic book series which had to be tamed down -- apparently a lot -- for a film version. That steroid-induced style now blends Euro-Italian trends, a comic book background, and a futuristic look/feel that is unreal and difficult to describe. Like so much about this movie, it comes with the good and bad. There are moments where the style is impeccable, like the silent exploration of Diabolik's underwater lair, expansive and seemingly never-ending in its future decor. There are others that are not so lucky, the style coming at the expense of an already disjointed feel.

Who better to play ultra-cool anti-hero and all around cool dude Diabolik than....John Phillip Law????? Yeah, not my first thought either. God bless him, he could be good in certain roles (Death Rides a Horse, Attack Force Z), but he was as wooden as a board as an actor. His line deliveries are so laughably stiff that it's hard to take anything he says serious even in the least. Part of the effectiveness of the character is that inherent cool factor from his futuristic hideout, his cars, his babely girlfriend, Eva (Marisa Mell), and his basic and general disdain for anything to do with authority. All those things are fine and dandy, but Phillip Law brings basically nothing else to the character. I'm also fairly convinced he was cast in the role because of his ability to stare in a truly unsettling fashion, especially in his leather-clad outfit that conceals everything but his eyes. Check out that stare HERE, but beware! It is truly creepy.

There are really only three other parts of consequence, one more stock character on top of another. The best of the three -- acting-wise at least -- is Piccoli as Inspector Ginko. The worn-down veteran cop trying to bring down his adversary is a well-worn character, but a good one nonetheless. It's easy to see his ever-growing frustration at his ability to catch Diabolik. Playing Diabolik's girlfriend, Eva, Mell is there for one reason and one reason only; eye candy. She appears nude (but always strategically covered up) and in various degrees of undress. Not quite ahead of its time, it is just the same pretty scandalous in its depiction of on-screen quasi-nudity. Celi hams it up as expected as Valmont, but doesn't leave much of an impression. Also look for a shrill, out of place Terry Thomas as the country's (Italy) minister of finance.

So in the end, my biggest frustration comes from a complete refusal to be pegged down as one type of film. That in itself isn't a deal breaker, but is it a spoof, a hardcore violent picture, a comedy, a mix of it all? I have no idea at all what to make of it. Decide for yourself. You can watch it at Youtube starting HERE.

Danger: Diabolik (1968): **/****   

Friday, January 25, 2013

Friends With Benefits

Hollywood, you sure are innovative, unique and always looking for something new, right? Haha, nah, just kidding. In January 2011, No Strings Attached was released, the story of two friends who hook up strings attached. Six months later in July, 2011's Friends With Benefits hit theaters, the story of....friends with benefits. So yeah, we're talking basically the same movie.

Pursued by GQ Magazine to update their website, Dylan Harper (Justin Timberlake) visits New York City on an interview and is "handled" by executive recruiter Jamie Rellis (Mila Kunis). Dylan takes the job, leaving Los Angeles for the new job in NYC. He takes to the job immediately as a fast friendship starts with Jamie. Both 20-somethings are coming off bad breakups, and soon enough the conversation comes up. Why don't they just have sex? No dating, no relationship, no feelings, just sex. It seems simple enough, right? Can these two crazy kids pull off the craziest of no-dating, just sex schemes?

Is there a more unnecessary thing than typing up a plot synopsis for a movie 'Friends With Benefits'? If you have two functioning brain cells and have seen at least one other romantic comedy in your lifetime, I feel safe saying you can predict the ending of the movie. Go ahead.....try it. Playing on the notion that you know this movie before it even begins, director Will Gluck has some fun with the formula. A key ingredient of the two friends deciding to have sex sans relationship is that part of their agreement involves avoiding all the stereotypes of romantic comedies. They literally talk about avoiding all the cliches and stereotypes. It provides some fun moments, even if in the end, 'Benefits' basically throws out all those preconceptions and becomes the romantic comedy it's trying not to be. Go figure. Surprising, right?

So with all that said, I liked this movie. I liked it a lot. I think much of the enjoyment comes from the script. Yes, it's a non-romantic comedy that is just the opposite....a romantic comedy. But in getting to the point where you don't want to murder the characters, it's a lot of fun. The dialogue between Timberlake's Dylan (kinda a tool-ly name, huh?) and Kunis' Jamie feels real and smart without being too real, too smart and a tad bit condescending. It's cute without being ridiculously cute. The conversations about the sexing are funny without being filthy, and the script does a fine job creating little niches for these characters, especially Dylan. We learn plenty of little touches about him that are surprisingly funny -- his trouble with simple math, his talent for sneezing at a certain time, his love for Harry Potter (It's not gay!) -- and help 'Benefits' avoid being one big, cardboard cutout.

Now comparing 'Benefits' with 'Strings' is simple for me. I like Timberlake and Kunis. I like Natalie Portman and....yeah, Ashton Kutcher, not a fan. Your enjoyment (even a little bit) will come from how much you like or dislike these characters. I'll say again about Timberlake. When he was with NSync, I never thought I'd like the guy, but he continues to create a name for himself as a reliable, likable character. Kunis is, well, Kunis, gorgeous, pretty, attractive, and a good actress to boot. There is an easygoing chemistry between the two that carries the whole story and helps it rise above the painful and familiar trappings of a romantic comedy. If you like Timberlake and/or Kunis, you'll like this movie, simple as that.

The rest of the supporting cast ain't too shabby either. Patricia Clarkson has some fun as Jamie's quirky, goofy and kinda slutty Mom who's done her best to raise her daughter as a single mom. Richards Jenkins plays Dylan's dad suffering through the early stages of Alzheimer's with Jenna Elfman playing Dylan's brother in an interesting subplot about Dylan's past. Woody Harrelson is very funny in a less than subtle role as Tommy, Dylan's co-worker, the gay sports editor at GQ. Also look for quick appearances by Jason Segel, Rashida Jones, Emma Stone and Andy Samberg. Professional snowboarder and Flying Tomato himself, Shaun White makes a funny two-scene appearance as himself.

As far as romantic comedies go, I liked this one a lot. No matter what it tries to do, 'Benefits' is just that; a romantic comedy. It does things the right way though. It's funny without pandering, and it has Mila Kunis in various stages of undress and skimpy outfits. That's never, ever a bad thing. For the ladies in the audience, Justin Timberlake is also nude his fair share of the time so if you'd like to see his butt, this is your movie.

Friends With Benefits (2011): ***/****

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Rough Night in Jericho

Dean Martin is one of my favorite movie stars and/or entertainers. As far as his movies go, I typically think of the Rat Packer as a heroic good guy, ranging from drama in movies like Some Came Running or The Sons of Katie Elder to goofy comedies like the Matt Helm spoofs. But in a few departures from that heroic good guy, Martin switched it up, playing some bad guys, like 1967's Rough Night in Jericho.

Working with his longtime friend and former peace officer, Ben Hickman (John McIntire), former deputy and gunslinger Dolan (George Peppard) ride into the town of Jericho looking to set up a business. They've been hired by a widow, Molly (Jean Simmons), to help revive a stagecoach company that's recently gone under. What they find is something far different from what they expected. The town is run by sheriff turned town boss Alex Flood (Martin) who has his hand in every business and establishment in and around Jericho. Not surprisingly, Flood wants the new stagecoach company gone, even wounding Hickman as they arrive. Molly begs Dolan to help get rid of Flood, but ever the gambler, he doesn't like his odds. But in trying to push them out of Jericho, Flood pushes too far, and Dolan is going to push right back.

This is just another in a long list of reasons why I like westerns. Released in 1967 when westerns were very much trying to change with the times (cough more violence cough), I had never even remotely heard of 'Jericho.' From director Arnold Laven, it stars two of my favorite stars in Martin and Peppard, but it had never even crossed my radar. Always keep looking for those hidden gems because you never know when you will find one. It's somewhat limited by a smallish budget -- lots of indoor sets standing in for "outdoor" scenes -- and the score from Don Costa isn't anything out of this world. But in the end, things fall into place for an enjoyable, sometimes surprisingly violent western.

Your enjoyment will no doubt come from how big a fan you are of 1. westerns and 2. Dean Martin and George Peppard. I'm guilty on both counts so read on with a grain of salt. For starters, it's always fun to see an actor play against type like Martin is doing here. His Alex Flood is a charming, capable, intimidating bad guy; a former sheriff who cleaned up the town and basically took over in the process. Peppard does what he does best; cocky disinterest, looking like he's bored at times but being eternally cool in the process. Their scenes together are the high point of this western. Two tough guys talking over a bottle of whiskey, over a card game, both trying to intimidate the other one into leaving town. I loved the dynamic, both men knowing what the other is capable, but neither willing to blink or give up.

Playing the love interest of the not so painful love triangle, Jean Simmons wouldn't seem to be an obvious choice for a western. Go figure, but she's a worthy opponent and target for Martin and Peppard. Slight and soft with her voice, she's nonetheless one tough lady, even when Martin's Flood starts whaling on her. McIntire is in bed (wounded) much of the movie, but once he heals up, his crotchety veteran of the west fits right in with the toughness of the story. Filling out the ranks as Flood's evil henchmen who will no doubt meet nasty fates are Slim Pickens, Steve Sandor and and Brad Weston. Don Galloway has a good supporting part as Jase, the former sheriff of Jericho run out of town because he stands up to Flood over a hanging.

Two years before the groundbreaking The Wild Bunch was released, here comes 'Jericho.' Obviously not on par with that classic, this movie is nonetheless surprisingly violent. It's not as graphic, but it's certainly getting there. It is effective though because it is a surprise. At one point, we see a man get blasted in the face by a shotgun, blood flowing down his hands and arms. Realistic? No, but the point is made. Plenty of blood squibs (cheesy maybe, better than people clutching at wounds? Yes) as countless good and bad guys bite the dust. A highlight in the nastiness department comes in a fight between Slim Pickens and Peppard, Pickens' evil Yarbrough favoring a horse whip. Brutal, knockdown fight that feels real, not forced at all. Lots of positives, only a few minor negatives. Generally forgotten, well worth tracking down.

Rough Night in Jericho (1967): ***/****

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Citizen Gangster

Where America had John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, the Barker Gang, Machine Gun Kelly on a list of infamous bank robbers, Canada yeah....I don't know either. Courtesy of 2011's Citizen Gangster, I'm at least somewhat familiar now with Canada's most infamous bank robber/outlaws. His name? Edwin Alonzo Boyd.

A World War II veteran living in Canada with his wife, Doreen (Kelly Reilly), and his two kids, Eddie Boyd (Scott Speedman) is torn about the direction his life has taken. He struggles to hold down a job, and his family struggles to get by from paycheck to paycheck. A former actor, he wants to be a famous actor but can't manage to find a successful job. What to do? A desperate Eddie dons face makeup and using a German Luger, he robs a bank, escaping with several thousand dollars. One robbery was easy though, and soon Eddie is making headlines all across Canada as the Masked Bandit. As his notoriety rises though, Eddie must decide what's more important; his family or his infamy?

How much of a release did this Canadian-made movie from director Nathan Morlando (and writer) get in the United States? Apparently not a big one. It made $625. No, you didn't misread that, and it's not $625 thousand. It's slightly less than $700 dollars. To be fair, that box office was from just one theater. 'Gangster' sounded interesting. The true story of an infamous bank robber has a ton of potential. It's stylish, the cast does a decent job, especially Speedman, and the relatively unknown nature of Boyd's bank robbing career (to me at least) all should add up to a good movie. In the end, it's a decent movie but nothing more. There are too many negatives or just odd choices for it to be anything else.

A British actor who isn't a hugely recognizable name, Speedman does a solid job as Canadian bank robber Edwin Alonzo Boyd. I like the edge he brings to the character; a husband and father of two now working as a bus driver, quite a departure from his days as a soldier fighting in WWII Europe. He has to balance out his new found infamy. He genuinely likes the fame, attention and notoriety that comes from the newspaper headlines and radio reports following his robberies. On the other hand, he also wants what is best for his family. Reilly too does a good job as Eddie's wife, Doreen. The part leans a little toward the stereotypical -- constantly worried wife trying to get through to her husband -- but she does a good job making Doreen sympathetic. Also look for Brian Cox as Eddie's father and William Mapother as Detective Rhys, a former soldier now leading the manhunt for Eddie.

Beyond the interesting main character though, 'Gangster' struggles to find any sort of balance among Eddie, his family and his increasingly dangerous bank robbing career. The style is pretty cool, especially its washed out visual look. Everything is pale shades of black, gray and white seemingly. I think the decision to balance Max Richter's score with songs from rock group The Black Keys is a very poor misfire. The modern songs playing over the robberies comes across as hammy, out of place and an attempt at being far too stylized. It cries out 'Look at this! We're being cool!' Mostly though, 'Gangster' tries to tackle too much in a movie that runs just 105 minutes. Months (maybe years? The story isn't real clear...ever) pass and big stretches of time pass without warning. What's the biggest issue? Is it about Eddie's family? His career? His hopes to be famous? Pick one and run with it.

As a fan of just about any gangster-bank robber-outlaw movie/story out there, I was a sucker for anything in the story involving Eddie's actual criminal exploits. His robberies are Dillinger-esque as he leaps over bank counters and dramatically makes away with the money. People look to him as a Robin Hood outlaw of sorts. He's caught (several times actually) but manages to escape and picks up a gang in the process including Kevin Durand (very solid), Joseph Cross and Brendan Fletcher. It is in those scenes where 'Gangster' finds its most reliable rhythm. Instead of a focus just on those scenes, it bounces back and forth between Eddie and Doreen fighting about his actions tearing the family apart. It ends on a really effective ending that deserves a bit of a twist. A mixed bag in the end, with just enough positives to outweigh the negatives.

Citizen Gangster (2011): ** 1/2 /****      

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Godfather

Some movies are just better than others, plain and simple. They're the ones that even the most casual movie fans among us are aware of, films like Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia, and one of my favorite movies, and maybe the greatest movie ever made, 1972's The Godfather.

It's just a few months since the end of WWII, and Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), the head of the Corleone crime family in New York City and dubbed the Godfather, is at the height of his power. He has an epically successful business, running the unions and all the gambling in the city, and he's able to do it because he has countless politicians and judges in his back pocket. Things are changing though all around him, especially the underworld and the business he helped create.  Vito is approached about a deal he could bankroll, but it involves drugs, and he chooses to ignore it. The decision is one that drastically affects the family, one that will incorporate all his family members, especially fiery firstborn Santino (James Caan), adopted Irish son, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), and his youngest and smartest son, Michael (Al Pacino). What does the future hold? Who will rise up to help their father?

Based off a novel of the same name by author Mario Puzo, 'Godfather' is one of those rarest films; it's perfect. In that sense, director Francis Ford Coppola improves on Puzo's novel, the rare film that is better than its source novel. None of that is a dig at Puzo -- the novel is one of my favorites, a well-written gem -- but the film takes the idea, premise and characters and runs with it. Clocking in at 175 minutes, it never slows down, never feels dull. The dialogue and script provide countless engrossing talking scenes. The look of the movie with its authentic wardrobe, cars and sets is incredible, Coppola filming in an earthy fashion where things always look dark and burned-out to a point. Oh, and composer Nino Rota's score is halfway decent (that's sarcasm by the way), one of the great, classic scores in Hollywood history. You know it already, but listen to the theme HERE.  

What sets Coppola's film apart from countless other films about the Mafia, mobsters and organized crime is the impeccably written story. Puzo's novel introduces countless characters, relationships, history at the reader with all sorts of backstory, and the film assembles it into an expertly told, very coherent (sounds simple, but you'd be surprised) story that develops nicely. It covers over 10 years of time, but at no point does it feel even slightly rushed. Puzo's novel (he also worked with Coppola on the script) introduces characters and within minutes we feel like we've got a good idea of who they are as an individual. Imagine that with over 10 characters that get a fair share of screentime. There is a comfort level with the characters -- the good guys and the bad guys -- that makes the movie more enjoyable the second it begins. Does it all fall into place right away? No, it takes some time, but getting there is half the fun.

As far as true acting movies go, this 1972 classic is hard to beat. There isn't a performance that falls short or feels fake, but two rise above the rest; Brando as Vito Corleone and Pacino as his son, Michael. Playing one of the most iconic characters in film history, Brando's performance has opened the doors for all sorts of impressions, caricatures and stereotypes, but it is a career-best performance (and that's saying something considering Brando's career). It is a layered, nuanced performance, a man in the second half of his life who is highly intelligent, kind and ruthless at the same time, and a man who will stop at nothing to care for his family. Pacino's Michael goes through the film's biggest transition, a young man and WWII hero who wants nothing to do with his family's shady background but finds himself thrust into the family business when outside forces descend on the Corleones. Brando won an Oscar -- fully deserved -- and Pacino was nominated, but whatever the award nominations out there, it's two amazing performances.

Coppola's film earned plenty of acting nominations, three alone for Best Supporting Actor with Pacino, Duvall and Caan all earning a nod. The coolest part? All three deserved it for one reason or another. Caan and Duvall get less screentime, but they make the most of it. Caan is a scene-stealer as the fiery, hot-tempered Santino, known to friends and family as Sonny, the oldest Corleone son. The same for Duvall as Tom Hagen, but in a different way. Where Caan is more aggressive, Duvall underplays his part as Tom, the unofficial Irish Corleone brother, a childhood friend of Sonny's who Vito welcomed into the house. Other members of the Corleone family and operation? Richard Castellano and Abe Vigoda as Clemenza and Tessio, the Corleone caporegimes (think right-hand men, enforcers), John Cazale as Fredo, the Corleone brother and screw-up, Talia Shire as Connie, the lone Corleone sister and her similarly fiery husband, Carlo (Gianni Russo), and Diane Keaton as Kay, young Michael's love who must decide how much she's willing to put up with.

And then there's the opposition, the all-around nice individuals who are trying to take down the Corleones. For starters there's Richard Conte as Barzini, a head of another NYC crime family, Sterling Hayden as Capt. McCluskey, an NYC cop on a rival's payroll, John Marley as a film studio head who incurs the wrath of the Corleones, Al Lettieri as Sollozzo, a drug supplier looking for funding and backing, and Alex Rocco as a casino owner dealing with a buy-out of his casino.

On repeated viewings, I've noticed different features about the film, different layers that can affect how I view it. The biggest is simple; family. Yes, it's a pretty hardcore, violent story about a crime family with its hand in illegal happenings, but it's still family. If you can look past that whole criminal aspect, the biggest focus is the family and the dynamics and relationships among family members. Through the rather vicious, violent ups and downs, love and hate, they're there for each other (for this movie at least). I love how Vito dotes on his kids and grandchildren but can balance that out with a brutal mindset -- it's business, not personal -- at the same time. The relationship between Vito and Michael is the most heartfelt, including one of my all-time favorite scenes as father and son discuss what could have been, maybe what should have been. A worrying Vito wanted more for his son, but a firmly entrenched Michael (very much looking out for the family) calmly states "We'll get there, Pop." It's an endearing, heartfelt moment, one of many.

There are far too many memorable, iconic, and all-time great scenes to discuss one by one.  Big picture, that's probably what viewers will remember the most on initial viewing. The infamous horse head scene, the introduction of Vito, his loyal enforcer, Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana), and his "offer he can't refuse," the perfect simplicity and natural quality of the opening wedding, a slight detour to Sicily and its beautiful hills, a meeting among Michael, Sollozzo, and McCluskey in a traditional Italian restaurant, and maybe the most memorable, the baptism scene, almost entirely silent other than Rota's score playing over the developing scenes. Each of the above scenes could be analyzed in a review unto itself, but this review is already getting long-winded. Long story short? It's maybe the greatest movie in Hollywood history without a flaw in sight. Shame on you if you haven't seen it by the way. What are you waiting for?

The Godfather (1972): ****/****

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The White Buffalo

Gunfighter and army scout Wild Bill Hickok and Lakota warrior Crazy Horse are two of the most famous (even infamous), recognizable names in the history of the taming of the American west. At any point in their shortened lives -- they died a year apart in 1876 and 1877 -- did they meet? It's an interesting what-if and so goes 1977's The White Buffalo.

Having visited the East, Wild Bill Hickok (Charles Bronson) -- going under the alias 'James Otis' -- returns to the wild west. He has been tortured of late by a nightmare that plagues him night in and night out. It's the same nightmare each night; a vision of an immense white buffalo bearing down on him and ready to kill him in a second. Hickok doesn't know what to make of the dream, but when he hears rumors that a white buffalo has been spotted in the Black Hills, he goes on the hunt, bringing a trapper, Charlie Zane (Jack Warden), along for help. The famed gunfighter won't be alone though as they cross the path of Lakota chief Crazy Horse (Will Sampson) who similarly wants to hunt down and kill the alleged white buffalo. Which hunter will get him first?  

This was an odd western to watch. It's from director J. Lee Thompson of Cape Fear and The Guns of Navarone fame. The IMDB summary lists it as a quasi-Jaws ripoff, and it's not completely off base while also not being completely on-point either. Even three days since I've watched it, I'm still not sure exactly what I watched. It comes across as an odd, sometimes enjoyable episodic story that never quite finds a rhythm. Is it about Wild Bill making his return? Is it saying something more profound about the changing times of the west, and even the closing years of the "wild" west? Is it just a cool what-if about pairing two of the most interesting figures in American history? It's probably a little of all of them, but it is definitely hurt by not picking a route and sticking with it.

At its strongest, the focus is on the changing times of the west. Two men -- Hickok and Crazy Horse -- are very similar in personality, character and history. Their only difference? Hickok hates Indians, Crazy Horse hates the never-ending flow of white men into Indian land. As they both search for the white buffalo, they cross each others' paths, each saving the other man's life in a do-or-die situation. They put aside their hatred and differences aside in a quest to accomplish their mutual goals. I liked Bronson's performance a lot, even if it is pretty typical western anti-hero stuff. Sampson rises above a pretty stereotypically written part too as Crazy Horse. He avoids the stilted "Me white man....How" conversation and plays well off of Bronson. The high point is Hickok and Crazy Horse talking across a campfire, both men wondering what the future holds.

Of the rest of the cast, Warden is the only one actually given anything more than a cameo. He has some good scenes with Bronson's Hickok, but it's a pretty standard meat and potatoes kind of role. Beyond those three parts, 'Buffalo' consists of a handful of really random cameos. We're not talking 10-15 minutes on-screen. We're talking individual scenes, some no more than a minute or two. Kim Novak gets the meatiest cameo as Poker Jenny, a woman from Hickok's past. Clint Walker also has some fun as Whistling Jack Kileen, a bear of a man gunning for Hickok. Also keep an eye out for Slim Pickens, Stuart Whitman, John Carradine, and Ed Lauter.

One of the oddest things though for 'Buffalo' is just that.....the buffalo. It doesn't look cheap, but it certainly tries for the Jaws-effect. We never really get a pristine, clear at the buffalo. Instead, we get extreme close-ups of the raging buffalo's eyes or his horns, we get far-off shots of the buffalo charging. It doesn't look ridiculous, but it sure approaches it. The final showdown among the buffalo, Hickok and Crazy Horse is pretty cool though. Sure, there are flaws. Any night scene was clearly shot on an indoor set with fake snow, trees and rocks. It looks pretty cheesy. There's also the cool scenes, an almost iconic shot of Hickok wearing his low-brimmed hat, his darkened glasses, his buckskin coat and brace of pistols. So in the end, it's a mixed bag, both good and bad.

The White Buffalo (1977): ** 1/2 /****

Friday, January 18, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

With her 2008 film The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow created a film that was timely, moving, unsettling and in the end, especially memorable. She would have been hard-pressed to duplicate or improve on that formula, but her follow-up film tackled an even bigger topic, the decade-long hunt for terrorist Osama bin Laden, and tackled it well. Gaining the early buzz for a handful of Oscars is 2012's Zero Dark Thirty.

In the months following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the CIA takes a new mission on; tracking down and capturing Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda terrorist behind the attacks. Among the agents and operatives in the process is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young agent who while highly intelligent is rightfully a little stunned and taken aback by the hunting process. Days to weeks, weeks to months and months to years, Maya and countless other agents work toward capturing bin Laden, but it is a tedious, monotonous process that entails pursuing countless leads and rumors. The terrorist seems to have receded back into the Earth, disappeared like he never existed. Maya continues the hunt, following a lead involving a possible courier, Abu Ahmed, who may have a link to bin Laden. Will the never-ending hunt amount to anything? Will Maya be pushed beyond the brink as the hunt becomes an obsession to her?

Tackling a movie detailing the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden is a mammoth, gargantuan task that had to be at least a tad bit intimidating for Bigelow in the director's chair. Somehow, she didn't even manage an Oscar nomination for her work. I didn't love the movie -- I don't think you're supposed to love it -- but Bigelow deserves credit where it's due. 'Zero' is far from conventional, and that's most definitely a huge positive. In a story that spans 10 full years, a ridiculous amount of information, names, places and people are thrown at the viewers. The development is linear, but it's almost episodic in execution. We see the developing hunt through ups and downs, theories, doubts and conspiracy theories, clues that result in nothing, others that lead to a dead end, and that one perfect little tidbit that will produce an actual lead.

Along with Bigelow's directing, the best thing going for 'Zero' is Jessica Chastain as Maya, a role that's earned her a Best Actress nomination (one I think she'll win). We're introduced to her as she arrives at a CIA Black Site as a veteran agent/interrogator, Dan (scene-stealing Jason Clarke), as he starts the long process of breaking down a detainee. Trained and intelligent, she's nonetheless surprised at first at what she sees. As her investigation continues though, we see Maya develop as a character, a driven, frustrated, even obsessed agent who will stop at nothing to catch bin Laden, even when everything and everyone around her doubts the effort. Chastain creates a great lead character, one that comes into her own as the hunt continues and the years pass. When she finally finds a clue, she's the only one who believes it will lead anywhere. Another impressive performance from an actress who keeps climbing onward and upward.

Chastain is the constant in the movie as the story moves from year to year and location to location. Bigelow's storytelling technique is almost documentary-like in its execution. We're taken from CIA Black Sites to CIA headquarters in Langley, isolated locales to crowded markets in countless Middle Eastern cities. The story highlights further terrorist attacks following 9/11, and it all leads to an ending that we all know, but is sickeningly interesting to watch develop. Through all the clues, leads and informants, Bigelow's best decision is a complete lack of opinion. It's a perfect choice. She presents the hunt, the name and the background, and that's it, reflecting that documentary-like storytelling. 'Zero' doesn't vilify bin Laden (it doesn't need to) or try to create a bigger picture of what's going on in the world. This is the hunt. This is what we need to see, and that's all Bigelow's film is trying to do.

The documentary/episodic story allows for some solid supporting parts around Maya's ever-continuing hunt and obsession. I especially liked Clarke as Dan, the underplayed CIA agent who shows in such subtle fasion how to interrogate/torture someone, always keeping them guessing and unsettled in a horrific way. Kyle Chandler plays the U.S. station chief in Pakistan, needing to complete objectives but the odds are against him with Jennifer Ehle and Harold Perrineau as two fellow in-country agents. Along with Clarke as a field agent, Edgar Ramirez is excellent as Larry, a CIA operative working to pursue a lead Maya has found while Mark Strong is also a scene-stealer as George, a CIA supervisor who has to work down the middle, working with his agents while also appeasing his own superiors. Also look for James Gandolfini as the CIA director and Stephen Dillane as the National Security Advisor.

If there is an issue with 'Zero,' I would say that at 157 minutes it feels long at times, especially early as the groundwork is set up for the second half of the story. Not dull, not boring, but a little sluggish maybe. Things pick up in a quick way when Maya's investigations lead to a heavily fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The whole hunt is transfixing to watch, but upon the arrival of Seal Team 6 into the story (headlined by Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt) goes up a notch or two. We don't see their training, just the night of the raid on the fortified compound that supposedly hides bin Laden inside. It is an incredible extended sequence as the SEALs fly into Pakistan, land near the compound (with one major issue) and then efficiently move into the compound. Intense doesn't begin to describe this true-to-life sequence. The nighttime raid is filmed with both night vision and shadowy, foggy darkness. You know where the scene is going, and it's still almost unbearable to watch.

'Zero' has its fair share of moments like that. It is a movie to watch and appreciate more than one you love and watch once or twice a year. It has taken some flak for any number of things -- a pro-torture stance, possible help from the Obama administration on some details -- but none of the issues are enough to detour an otherwise excellent movie. We get an excellent look into the intelligence underworld that feels authentic from beginning to end. Definitely worth checking out as award season goes into full swing.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012): ***/****

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


I like nothing more than a good historical epic, especially ones from a turbulent time in world history, the Roman Empire. The stories of Roman soldiers conquering the world one battle after another lends well to the big screen, especially stories of the fighting in Britannia with films like King Arthur, The Eagle, The Last Legion, and 2010's Centurion.

Stationed at a remote Roman garrison in Britannia, Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) is the lone survivor of a vicious Picts attack and taken prisoner. Brutally beaten, Quintus manages to escape and is rescued by the nearby Ninth Legion, commanded by General Titus Virilus (Dominic West). The Ninth has been tasked with wiping out the warring Picts, but instead, they become the target. Betrayed by their mute scout, Etain (Olga Kurylenko), the Ninth is almost completely annihilated. Virilus is captured while Quintus is one of the few survivors. Trapped far into enemy territory, Quintus and a group of just six survivors must find a way to get back to safety at the nearest Roman garrison. As they race for help though, Etain is not far behind with a squad of Pict warriors ready to kill all of them.

Okay, here goes. Medieval times were all sorts of nasty, especially when it comes to violence. Swords, knives, all sorts of blades and blunt instruments, those weapons will do plenty of damage to the human body. Directing this Roman Empire epic (and writing too), Neil Marshall plays up the violence quota. The problem is that in its epic graphic quality, it comes across as cartoonish. It's in the vein of 300, but without that graphic novel quality. The blood splatter looks ridiculous, and the violence becomes tedious almost immediately. How many times can you see a knife/sword/arrow impale itself in someone's face/eye/throat before it becomes numbingly painful to watch? It took me one fight scene when a Roman soldier takes a spear to the crotch. Oh, by the way, that gimmick is used again later. Making it worse, the editing is so quick that it becomes a blur of bloody, indecipherable body parts being hacked away.

So snowballing off the violence angle, the issue comes from the pacing in an already pretty brisk 97-minutes running time. In the first 50 minutes, Quintus is caught, beaten, escapes, joins the Ninth, watches the Ninth get annihilated, and then runs for his life with the six other survivors. The frenetic pacing is insanely uninteresting as we see repetitious shots of the seven -- strung out in a single-file line -- sprinting across the Britannic landscape to composer Ilan Eshkeri's booming, dramatic score. Cut to Etain and her warriors prodding their horses on fast in pursuit. A survivalist story set in the 2nd Century Roman times should be interesting, but it isn't. Thankfully, the story slows down a bit in the second and figures out a better way to go as Quintus and his dwindling survivors meet Arianne (Imogen Poots), a young Britannic woman banished from a Pict village now living in the woods. The finale especially works, delivering some surprising twists and a worthwhile final scene that plays on Quintus' earlier narration.

I wish I liked this movie more. The basic premise of the story is ripe with potential. Think The Lost Patrol meets Gladitator meets The Magnificent Seven. Providing the narration, Fassbender delivers a fine lead performance. He's the Everyman, a common soldier thrust into an unlikely heroic position. A rising star, it's another strong part for Fassbender. Quintus' survivors include Bothos (David Morrisey), the Roman officer, Thax (J.J. Feild), the me-first troublemaker, Brick (Liam Cunningham), the veteran on his last campaign, Macros (Noel Clarke), the African fighting with the Romans, Leonidas (Dimitri Leonidas), the Greek refugee who joined the Legions, and Tarak (Riz Ahmed), the knife-wielding cook. Lots of different backgrounds, and some very cool characters, but they're not given enough to do. Surprise, surprise, when they start getting picked off by the Picts, it's far from emotionally or dramatic moments.

As for the villains, there's good and bad. Kurylenko as the mute Britannic tracker, Etain, is a gem. With war paint covering her face and hair standing on end with all sorts of flowing robes and animal furs, she's a vision of anger and violence, providing quite the counterpart to the Roman survivors. Her one-on-one fight scene with West's General Virilus is a gem too. The Pict leader, Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen), is just the opposite. He's not imposing or intimidating and basically disappears halfway through the movie. So overall, I can't completely rip the movie, but I can't completely recommend it either. Instead, it falls somewhere in between unfortunately.

Centurion (2010): ** 1/2 /****

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Wind That Shakes the Barley

Ask an Irishman to hear a sad story and plant it. You're in for a trip. A country with quite a history -- the Great Potato Famine, the oppressive British rulers, so much more -- has added up to an almost lyrical, browbeaten genre of films. These are far from uplifting films, like 2006's The Wind That Shakes the Barley.

In 1920 County Cork, Ireland, Damien O'Donovan (Cillian Murphy) is ready to head to London to start practicing medicine. As he readies to leave though, the Black and Tans surprise Damien and a group of friends, meeting staunch resistance to the point where a friend is killed. He later sees the Black and Tans try to intimidate a train conductor, bullying everyone in a train station. Already a country full of unrest as the Irish Republican Army fights the British government, Damien joins his brother, Teddy (Padraic Delaney), who is the local commander of the IRA group. The resistance fighting though intensifies with each passing week though, and the casualties begin to mount on both sides. An idealist in his beliefs, even Damien is tested.

Call it a cop out -- again -- but I struggle with what to write about this movie. I've been using that excuse more and more of late, and I can't quite figure out why. For starters, I'm not well-versed in Irish history, especially the very turbulent times in the late 1910s and early 1920s. Near the middle of the film, a turning point is 1921's Anglo-Irish Treaty which provides quite a turning point for the IRA, some good, mostly bad. 'Barley' does a good job of laying out the history without turning the movie into a history lesson. We see the big picture and thankfully don't get bogged down in the historical details.

Like many other stories focusing on a resistance fighting against a ruling army, the strongest points from 'Barley' come from Damien's growing involvement with the IRA. Outnumbered, under-supplied and under constant threat of betrayals and being turned in, the Irish Republican Army faces tremendous odds in hopefully gaining freedom from Great Britain. We only get a sense of the big picture though because the focus is on how the big picture impacts Damien and Teddy's group. Damien becomes a respected leader and all that entails, including killing people he's known since childhood because they've betrayed the movement. We see a descent into an almost obsessive pursuit of making sure Ireland's freedom is obtained. The underdog -- in sports, in war, whatever -- is almost always more interesting here, and that's the case here.

Somewhat pigeon-holed as a creepy villain thanks to the Batman series, Red Eye, and In Time, Murphy takes advantage of getting a pretty straight heroic lead performance. A motivated resistance fighter who becomes fully committed to gaining his country freedom is a fastball down the middle for a talented actor, and Murphy doesn't disappoint. As his brother, Teddy, Delaney is another solid performance, similarly driven but not as fanatically driven in a more reasonable way. Liam Cunningham plays Dan, a member of Teddy's group who is a ferocious fighter but also an intellectual while Orla Fitzgerald plays Sinead, a young woman in love with Damien who is just as devoted to the cause as he is. There are plenty of other characters in and out of the story, but none leave much of an impression, if they're even identified by name.

That was my biggest complaint with 'Barley.' While the story, time period and history on a bigger scale is interesting, I never really felt connected to any of it. Murphy's performance is solid, as is Cunningham and Delaney, but other than that I felt no real tie to the characters. When one character is killed late in the movie, I didn't even know who it was because it felt like a rotating door of supporting players surrounding the fighting. In the end, I came away disappointed.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006): **/**** 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Return to Lonesome Dove

Based off a novel by author Larry McMurtry (one of my all-time favorite books) in 1985 and turned into a wildly successful TV miniseries in 1989, Lonesome Dove is one of the all-time greats. Great characters, story, scope and scale, it has few rivals in the canon of miniseries. Some four years later in 1993 an unofficial sequel, Return to Lonesome Dove, was released, one McMurtry supposedly hated to the point he altered his official sequel like he was thumbing his nose. Oh, this should be good.

Having completed his mission for his friend, Gus, back in Texas, former Texas Ranger Woodrow Call (Jon Voight) undertakes another daring, almost impossible task. With his cattle ranch back in Montana focusing on the cattle herd, Call intends to drive a herd of mustangs north, breeding the horses with the best animal stock he can find. With help from another former Texas Ranger, Gideon Walker (William Petersen), and a veteran cowboy, Isom Pickett (Louis Gossett Jr.), Call readies a herd. Back in Montana at the Hat Creek ranch, Newt Dobbs (Rick Schroder) is doing his best to keep the ranch going. When he receives a telegram from Call, he heads south to meet with Clara Allen (Barbara Hershey) at her ranch. What awaits them all will not come easy as rustlers, outlaws, range wars and even good old-fashioned greed rear their ugly head.

First off, this 1993 sequel isn't Lonesome Dove. No miniseries could replicate the original's success on basically every single level. To be fair, the original didn't need a sequel of any sort, but here we sit. McMurtry wrote an official sequel to Lonesome Dove the same year as this TV follow-up, Streets of Laredo, that was apparently the author's less than pleased response to this miniseries. He hated it and ended up writing a book that seemed needlessly hateful, even spiteful, in wiping out characters, making some characters make ridiculous jumps that were based in no reality whatsoever. I read the book (and watched that miniseries) because I loved the characters. It was a disappointing, unnecessary follow-up. Did McMurtry think this 1993 series was just a chance for some easy money for a studio and TV? Maybe, but you know what else? It works in a big way.

Let me say it again. This isn't Lonesome Dove. What is it then? Fans of the 1989 miniseries shouldn't be disappointed. I came away very impressed and ended up loving it. It is a well-written, well-acted story that picks up logically where the story left off. My biggest concern was 'What's the point?' The characters didn't necessarily need more resolution. My worries were unfounded. Director Mike Robe and script writer John Wilder -- for lack of a better description -- do the characters right. They do the story right. It has it all; action, romance, sweep and scale to boot. While it's a personal story that succeeds because we like the characters, it's also a big, sweeping story about the taming of the west. It wasn't easy, and people died in the process (good and bad people alike). A couple different things aid the success here. 'Return' was filmed in Montana and Texas, and it is a beautiful miniseries to watch from beginning to end. The biggest thing though is composer Ken Thorne "tweaking" of the score from the original by Basil Poledouris. That music is like another character being transitioned from one miniseries to the next. Listen to a sample of the music HERE.

The actor with the biggest shoes to fill here is without question Jon Voight, replacing Tommy Lee Jones in a career-best performance as Woodrow Call. This is a tremendously layered character, one who can be infuriating to watch one second, and the next you can't help but feel for him. Strong, resolute, and living by a personal code of honor, Call expects others to do the same....and is typically disappointed by them. I was suspicious of the Voight casting, and early on, I wasn't a huge fan. But as the movie goes along, I grew to like the performance more and more. I came away vastly impressed with what Voight was able to do, making the character his own. Replacing Angelica Houston, Hershey too does an admirable job as Clara Allen, the tough as nails horse trader living near Ogallala, Nebraska who has to deal with all sorts of history with Woodrow. Two pairs of big shoes to fill, but both actors fill them admirably.

I thought the best thing going for this miniseries though was the return of Rick Schroeder to play young cowboy Newt Dobbs. A boy growing into manhood in 'LD,' he is a man now, but trying to learn and figure out what kind of man he really is. With the taming of the west, it's a great character to see these changes in as everything around him changes. We're seeing him grow up in front of us. His main subplot involves a rival cattle rancher in Montana, Gregor Dunnigan (Oliver Reed), who becomes a father figure of sorts to him. There's a Shakespearean/mythological edge to the relationship with Gregor's young wife, Ferris (Reese Witherspoon), seeing something she likes in young Newt. Also returning from the original are Chris Cooper as July Johnson, former sheriff now working at Clara's ranch, and Tim Scott as Pea Eye Parker, a former ranger who's long worked with Call and the Hat Creek outfit. Scott is given far more screentime and is a scene-stealer every minute he's in front of the camera. Other returnees include Barry Tubb, William Sanderson and David Carpenter as Jasper, Lippy and Needle, three more Hat Creek cowboys.

If there is an issue with this miniseries, it's that there are a lot of different storylines covered in four episodes. Yes, they criss-cross here and there, but there are a lot of characters and stories to be dealt with. You're going to love some more than others. I certainly did, although I liked them all. My favorite beyond Newt's story was the focus on the mustang herd being driven north from Texas. Playing a character similar to Robert Duvall's Gus, Petersen is a breath of fresh air as Gideon Walker, my favorite new character to the story. Gossett Jr. is underused but still very good as Isom with CCH Pounder as his wife, Sarah, along for the drive with their two children. The cowboys include mostly Mexican vaqueros led by Agostina Vega (Nia Peeples), a young Mexican woman looking for something from Call. Also look for Dennis Haysbert as one nasty villain, Cherokee Jackson, a half-breed outlaw who keeps crossing the herd's trail. Reginald T. Dorsey also a cool if small part as Isaac, Isom's brother leading the mustangs north.

Because the story does have so much going on, the 5 hour and 45-minute running time never really lags. That doesn't mean that some parts aren't better than others. Not surprisingly, the best is saved for the finale. It is an incredibly moving finale, including one absolutely gut-wrenching scene between Voight's Call and Schroder's Newt. It's the scene you wanted to see at the end of Lonesome Dove only to have it never come to fruition. As is though, this is a nearly perfect ending. It's a great capper to a great miniseries, a worthy addition to a great series in general.

Return to Lonesome Dove (1993): *** 1/2 /****

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Mean Streets

Even the most talented directors have to start somewhere, typically from the bottom and climb their way up. Yeah, even Martin Scorsese. After making his big screen directorial debut with 1970s Big Bertha, Scorsese followed up the effort with 1973's Mean Streets, a film typically identified as a near-classic, especially considering how influential it was in the years to come.

It's New York City in the 1970s, and it is a less than pleasant place. Among all the craziness is Charlie (Harvey Keitel), a young man in his 20s working for his uncle who has some Mafia ties. Charlie typically works as a collection agent (of sorts), picking up any tributes owed his uncle. He has a good niche, a good life carved out for himself, but Charlie wants more. He wants to start a business of his own -- preferably a restaurant -- and marry his girlfriend (sort of), Teresa (Amy Robinson). A couple things are holding him back though. One, Teresa has epilepsy, and everyone associated with Charlie looks down on the girl. Two, his longtime friend, Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), is always in trouble, usually related to his lack of success paying off debts. If Charlie ever wants to amount to something, he's going to have to figure out both issues.

From the word 'Go' here, it's obvious that Scorsese is a very talented director behind the camera. All those little touches we're used to now in 2012 with a very established Scorsese are already on display in this 1973 mobster flick. He uses the camera to give his film a style, following the action around with some impressive tracking shots. The camera isn't stationary, always on the go. Maybe Scorsese's most recognizable touch though is his soundtracks, especially using songs from The Rolling Stones. Here, he uses Jumpin' Jack Flash in De Niro's character's entrance. Watch it HERE. It's the epitome of cool. Some 30 years later, it may seem cliched, but Scorsese set the mold here. Just like that ever-moving camera, the soundtrack ends up being a key ingredient to the movie's success. Check out the soundtrack listing HERE.

With style to burn, it's easy to forget the interesting story that 'Streets' presents. Identifying as a story isn't exactly an accurate description as long as we're talking about it. If anything, I would say it's a series of vignettes held together by a handful of characters. The focus in the story is on Charlie, but it's a little trip through his life, his world, and his problems. There are no huge set pieces over even huge scenes. The bouncy, jumping story makes a 112-minute long movie a tad long in portions, but for the most part it works. Working off a script written by Scorsese and Mardik Martin, it has an easiness with its characters and surroundings. It might not always seem like it, but 'Streets' knows where it's going. If I can say anything, it's this. Stick with it. 

One of my favorite things about Scorsese's films are his ability to introduce and present characters that are far from likable, but they just the same end up being very likable, even sympathetic. This was Keitel's first major, starring role, and he's a scene-stealer. It's a subtle job he does too. You don't even realize how good he is because everyone else has showier, flashier parts, but this is Keitel's movie. As for De Niro, it's odd to see him in a goofy, almost dumbed-down role as Johnny Boy just because his parts in The Godfather 2 and Taxi Driver are the complete polar opposite. I loved Keitel and De Niro's chemistry, loved their interactions, everything about their friendship. Their group of quasi-friends include Tony (David Proval), a tough guy and restaurant owner, and (Richard Romanus), a bookie who lent Johnny Boy some serious money. Cesare Danova plays Giovanni, Charlie's Mafia-connected uncle who seemingly has a pull on everyone.

If there is any complaint I have about this movie, it is the ending. It's apparent as we get to know Keitel's Charlie -- and more importantly how stupid Johnny Boy is -- that things are not headed in a positive direction unless something drastic changes. So here we are with one of my favorite film elements; that impending sense of doom hanging over characters. 'Streets' builds and builds on that premise and even presents an ending that could (and probably should) have worked. I don't need everything spelled out for me, but a little more closure would have been good here. A little too open-ended for me. But overall, it's a minor complaint in an otherwise very good movie. Scorsese's talent is evident if a little rough at this early point in his career. Seriously though, it's Scorsese, De Niro and Keitel. That's a difficult trio to beat.

Mean Streets (1973): ***/****

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Top 10 of 2012

I admit it. I'm a movie nerd. I love 'em. I keep a list of every movie I see and even put together a NCAA tourney-like bracket at the end of the year. Cool, huh? But here we sit, and it's time to look back. These aren't simply the four-star reviews, but the ones I enjoyed the most. And for you nitpickers among us, these are films I saw in the calendar year, not just 2012 releases.

10. Rocky Mountain (1950)
Right from the start, I enjoyed this western with Errol Flynn. It was pretty standard stuff, but there was something oddly appealing about it. Flynn plays a Confederate cavalry officer leading a small squad of soldiers heading west during the Civil War in hopes of starting a second front in California. Instead, his squad ends up in a to-the-death fight with Indians, a beautiful woman's safety at stake. Liked the whole movie, loved the darkness of the last 25 minutes.

9. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011)
It seems like the first Mission: Impossible movie -- released in 1996 -- was just hitting theaters, but the franchise continues on, and it's better than ever. Tom Cruise returns in this action blockbuster that amps up the action formula to a ridiculous level. It's not just mindless action either. We're talking smart, well-written and intricately choreographed sequences. Also look for Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, Tom Wilkinson and some fun appearances from the previous M:I movies.

8. Black Narcissus (1947)
One of the most incredibly visual films I've ever seen. Whole scenes and individual shots look artistic to the point they could be paintings. Deborah Kerr stars as a nurse sent to an isolated, mountaintop mission in the Himalayas and finds out that all the personalities and charged energy seem to have an odd effect on everyone. That visual pays off in a big way in the end with a story that heads into the horror department with some truly chilling twists.

7. The Hasty Heart (1949)
Based off a stage play, this WWII story is a gem. Richard Todd plays a wounded British soldier sent to a hospital/rehab facility deep in the jungle. He's unaware his wounds are fatal and will eventually kill him, but his nurse (Patricia Neal) and fellow patients (Ronald Reagan among others) are quite aware and try to make his last few weeks memorable....if he'll allow. A little too sentimental at times, a little too sappy, but I loved this one, especially Todd in an Oscar-nominated part with Neal and Reagan providing solid support.

6. Twelve O'Clock High (1949)
Gregory Peck seemingly never disappoints, including this part that is one of his best (even if it's never mentioned in that way). He plays a general assigned to clean things up with a bomber squadron taking extreme casualties on bombing runs over Germany in the middle of WWII. For a movie released so close to the conclusion of the war, it doesn't pull any punches. More than a few scenes stuck with me long after viewing, and a supporting cast led by Dean Jagger and a relatively unknown cast doesn't disappoint. An underrated WWII classic.

5. Moneyball (2011)
When I heard that Michael Lewis' baseball story of the 2002 Oakland Athletics and forward-thinking GM Billy Beane, I was skeptical. When the seemingly never-ending production kept hitting roadblocks, I was even more skeptical. With Brad Pitt playing Beane in a great part, the movie was worth the wait. It's not your typical sports movie, Pitt's Beane not settling for the same old, same old in terms of putting a team together. Jonah Hill is a scene-stealer as well, Philip Seymour Hoffman makes the most of a small but worthwhile part, and the style and soundtrack help boost this baseball story up a notch.

4. Drive (2011)
This is a film that defies all descriptions and in a good way. It's an ultra-violent, art-house crime thriller that is unlike just about any other movie I can think of. Ryan Gosling plays Driver, an unnamed Hollywood stunt driver who doubles as a getaway driver. He gets caught up on a road that will lead nowhere but trouble. It's difficult to explain this movie in a little blurb, but it is a gem. Albert Brooks, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman, Oscar Isaac and Christina Hendricks co-star. More proof that a movie doesn't have to be "mainstream" to be epically good.

3. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
I don't know if there was a more anticipated movie released in theaters in 2012. How would director Christopher Nolan wrap up his epic superhero trilogy? Especially considering how loved The Dark Knight was, it seemed a mammoth task to one-up himself and close the trilogy on a high note. Reviews were somewhat mixed, but I loved how the series finale came together. The last hour -- especially the closing scenes -- are perfect with Christian Bale and Michael Caine both delivering their best performances in the Batman trilogy, Tom Hardy a scene-stealer as villain Bane with Joseph-Gordon Levitt, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard and some surprises from the past joining the cast. Great conclusion to a great series, the best superhero trilogy ever...and probably the darkest.  

2. Warrior (2011)
Just calling this one a great sports movie isn't enough. This is just a great movie. It's familiar, but it finds a way to rise above the cliches and the stereotypes we've all come to expect out of sports movies (any sports movie). Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton -- both rising stars -- play estranged brothers brought back together because they're both in trouble in vastly different ways. Nick Nolte delivers a great performance as well as their father with quite a few faults. It's hard to describe that emotion when you watch a movie and completely fall for it hook, line and sinker. I certainly did here.

1. Skyfall (2012)
While I was psyched to see The Dark Knight Rises in July, this is the movie I most wanted to see in 2012. I was disgustingly excited to see this film, the 23rd in the James Bond franchise, and after the struggles of Quantum of Solace, I was very curious to see where it would go. Amazingly perfect turnaround. Daniel Craig continues to catch up to Sean Connery as the best 007 around, playing the iconic secret agent in more human fashion than anyone before him. Bond isn't a cliche anymore, he's a human being, flaws and all. Loved the look of the movie (a visual treat from cinematographer Roger Deakins) with a great supporting cast including Javier Bardem, Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Albert Finney and Ben Whishaw as Q. Great action, better story, and one of the best Bond films of all-time, easily climbing into my top 3, and my favorite film from 2012.

What does 2013 hold? I'm looking forward to it for sure. Thanks again to all the readers for their support and keep on reading Just Hit Play!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Smoke Signal

If you believe everything movies show us -- and why shouldn't we? -- then the wild west was composed of one Indian uprising after another. If you stack them up one on top of another, there must have been a bloody uprising every other day. Westerns have certainly shown their fair share of such uprisings like 1955's Smoke Signal.

Leading a small patrol toward a remote outpost, Captain Harper (William Talman) and his men almost ride into a trap as the beginning of a Ute uprising. Under attack, the patrol sneaks into the fort and finds that Ute war parties have been attacking all over the region. The reason? Harper thinks it's because an Army deserter, Halliday (Dana Andrews), who supposedly conspired with the Utes, has been captured and is in the outpost that is now severely outnumbered. An attack is looming when Halliday puts forth an idea. What if the garrison tries to sail down the nearby Colorado River? The river is within reach of the fort, and now it's just a matter of if they can sneak past the Ute lookouts.

For the most part, this B-western from director Jerry Hopper is just that, a B-western. It wraps things up in a tidy 88-minute package and has a good mix of action, tension and....okay, there's a forced in love interest too. They can't all be winners, can they? Yeah, Andrew's bad boy Halliday is quite the rebel. Everyone hates him because he supposedly betrayed his unit two years earlier, a decision that cost the lives of several soldiers. Come on. Would Dana Andrews be a bad guy? I think not. But that bad boy quality appeals to Laura (Piper Laurie), the daughter of the recently killed outpost commander. She just can't help herself. Thankfully, that awful, never so subtle love story is held off until the last 30 minutes or so. Instead, the focus is on the thing that makes this movie worthwhile.

I figured I was in for a pretty typical western when the patrol arrives at the cavalry outpost. That's not a bad thing in my head. I've watched many a western like that, and I'll probably watch many more; outnumbered cavalry fighting off overwhelming Indian attacks. 'Signal' doesn't go down that route. Rather than go meekly into a massacre, the garrison takes the boats long since left at the fort and rides them down the Colorado River and hopefully to safety. It's a cool departure from the typical cavalry vs. Indians movie. As a bonus, we get some very cool footage of the troopers making their way down the Colorado. It's as imposing a physical marker as there is in the American Southwest. Granted, there's also some really cheesy inserts of Andrews and the cast "floating on the river." Yeah, we're talking very fake shots of the real-life Colorado with the cast on a very real studio set full of water. Still, it's a pretty cool addition to a well-worn formula.

One of the most solid if unspectacular movie stars around, Dana Andrews is a solid if very unsexy pick to play Halliday, the cavalry deserter now working to prove he isn't guilty of the court martial charges hanging over his head. He just isn't a flashy actor, but it's a solid enough part. Along with the vengeful Capt. Harper (seeking revenge for his brother's death because of Halliday's actions), Rex Reason plays Lt. Wayne Ford, a fellow officer full of hate. Douglas Spencer has some fun as Garode, a frontier trapper/drifter who gets caught up in the action. The cavalry troopers include Milburn Stone as Miles, a soldier on Halliday's side, William Schallert as Livingston, the blinded soldier, Gordon Jones as Cpl. Rogers, the former riverboat man, Robert J. Wilke as Sgt. Daly, the loyal NCO, and Pat Hogan as Delche, the superstitious Indian scout.

So like its star in Dana Andrews, this is a solid, entertaining and generally pretty forgettable B-western. The focus is more on the dynamic among the survivors as opposed to the constant threat of attack from the warring Utes. Talman and Reason end up being bigger villains than the attacking Indians, both men blindly writing off Halliday as a traitor and a coward. The script does feature some twists as the boat trip down the Colorado continues, and everything is wrapped up nicely in the end. Worth a watch...once.

Smoke Signal (1955): ** 1/2 /****